Preface/Chapter 1: The Trophy
Chapter 2: The Rival Gang
Chapter 3: Absent Without Leave
Chapter 4: A Close Shave
Chapter 5: The Elusive One
Chapter 6: The Fatal Mistake
Chapter 7: The Battersea Scandal
Chapter 8: Sergeant Landsdow
The London Syndicate is an unofficial series (in progress) of new Poirot stories. They’re merging to create one unified work. Christie’s characters are her own and I don’t profit from them. I’ll keep making up my own little tales to share as long as the Christie people don’t mind. If you’d like to read some reviews of this series first to see what people are saying about it, they can be found here.
Chapter 9: The Plan
As Poirot and Landsdow assisted the heavily-muffled figure to rise, I hastily pocketed my revolver again. It was not likely to aid us in the pursuit of friendly negotiations. At any rate, Landsdow and I would be more than a match for our visitor in the event of mischief.
‘I haven’t been followed,’ Rose Whitcombe said. ‘Someone certainly tried, but I’ve shaken them off.’
The young lady was already shedding layers of dripping wet outerwear onto Landsdow’s Turkish carpet. For his part, he still seemed too stunned by the sudden arrival to notice. Stammered apologies were all he could manage.
At last the familiar figure emerged, shivering and breathing heavily. She was wearing a dark cardigan and woolen skirt. Her chestnut hair was pinned back, but strands were escaping around the face in a windswept confusion. I watched her closely, curious as to the manner she would adopt, but she did not meet my eye. An unpleasant apprehension stole over me, mingling with already shot nerves. Our last meeting had been one of profound deception and much subsequent embarrassment. I hoped feverishly that Poirot would refrain from bringing up any of his notions about the lady’s romantic interest. It seemed unlikely that she would know of his suspicions.
Poirot returned to the window, leaned out of it, and peered into the darkness. Then he carefully closed and locked it again.
‘We do not want the draughts of cold air,’ he said serenely. ‘Asseyez-vous, s’il vous plaît, mademoiselle.’
We returned to the seats by the fire with Miss Whitcombe. In the dimness of the firelight and shadow, my companions looked curiously obscure and colourless. It occurred to me that I had never yet seen Miss Whitcombe by the clear light of day. The drawing room was darker than the well-lit park in which we had met on that warm December evening. She was, I had to admit, still very lovely.
We seated ourselves somewhat uncertainly, except for Poirot, who remained standing. He took it upon himself to switch on a small table lamp with a stained glass shade. The atmosphere brightened just a little.
‘I wish you good evening,’ he said with his usual politeness.
‘You’ve been waiting for me,’ she replied. ‘And you know my name. Do call me Rose, won’t you?’
The previous affectation of the lady, of which I had been familiar, was now considerably altered. She sounded younger, more confident, and potentially mischievous. The voice also carried a manner that I had noticed in many an interview conducted over the course of Poirot’s various investigations. It was the tone of a woman determined not to give herself away.
‘Yes, I have been waiting for you, Mademoiselle Rose.’ With a gesture, he added, ‘You have met my friends, Captain Hastings… Sgt. Landsdow.’
At this her eyes met mine at last, but only for a moment. If her face flushed, I could not quite make it out. The only noteworthy colours in the figures opposite me were in Rose’s remarkable blue eyes and Poirot’s watchful green ones.
‘Oh no, mademoiselle– the trifles of the past are behind us. Pray, do not derange yourself.’
The young lady’s amusement at my friend’s turn of phrase was interrupted by another figure who emerged suddenly from the shadows. We all jumped, badly startled. But it was only Creeney again, bearing a tray with a flagon and cups.
‘A hot chocolate for you, monsieur, and perhaps for the young miss?’ he inquired with imperturbable placidity, as if the sudden appearance of a strange young woman in the drawing room in the middle of the night was a perfectly ordinary occurrence.
Poirot beamed and accepted the offer.
‘And shall I hang up the articles on the floor, sir, to dry?’
Landsdow, who was seated beside me, still seemed rather slow on the uptake. But he made an affirming gesture. ‘Oh, yes– please do.’
‘Very good, sir.’
As these operations proceeded, Landsdow suddenly rose again and excused himself, looking uncomfortable. My friend murmured a few words to him that I did not catch, and the taller man strode to the other side of the room. He appeared to be busying himself with refilling his pipe. I fancied that the idea was to give his three unconventional house guests some measure of privacy.
Poirot helped himself to Landsdow’s vacated seat by the fire and laid his cup of chocolate on the table beside him.
‘Oh, là là,’ he said pleasantly. ‘What service! The good manservant– how difficult to find in these grey and latter days!’
Placing the tips of his fingers together in a familiar gesture, he gazed at Rose Whitcombe, seated opposite us.
‘Forgive my forwardness, I beg you, but time is of the essence and we must waste it not.’
‘It’s frightfully important to get down to business, yes,’ she concurred, venturing a sip of her hot chocolate. ‘Not a standard social call, this. What will the neighbours think?’
I disliked the flippancy she was bringing to a most serious business. Poirot displayed no annoyance, however.
‘We must be on the same page. To this end, I shall recount some facts. You came to understand, did you not, that your fiancé’s robbery attempt at the exhibition had failed, and your communications with us had somehow become known.’
Rose Whitcombe looked genuinely astonished. Even her air of confidence wavered. But she regained her aplomb after the briefest of moments.
‘I’d no idea that our engagement had become public knowledge,’ she said. ‘Or maybe that was your own sleuthing? But yes, monsieur, you’re right. My note to you seemed to have gone astray.’
I felt the heat rising in my own face and was suddenly glad of the dimness of the room. Poirot went on.
‘And now he is on the run, and certain evidence suggests that his rage has consequently reached murderous proportions. The two men bludgeoned at the prison break-in are still in critical condition, I believe. It even seems,’ added Poirot offhandedly, ‘that Johnston bears a particular grudge against my good friend Hastings, whom he may be seeking out specially.’
She did not dare to look at me. But she winced a little. ‘Yes.’
Her gaze fastened on my friend, whom she seemed to regard as a sort of conjuror. Indeed, in the faintly-coloured light of the lampshade, a slightly fantastical air of carnival unreality seemed to play over my friend’s already exotic features.
‘And you are willing to aid us again, mademoiselle? This is why you have come?’
Miss Whitcombe’s voice came sharply.
‘Why, exactly, should I aid you, M. Poirot? You sent my father to prison.’
‘Why indeed? Tout de même, here you are. Perhaps you are not very comfortable with cruelty.’
She suddenly became very stiff, as though trying to resume her more guarded air. Poirot continued.
‘You found out about the scheme with the Girl Guide and sent me a note. Have you attempted to explain your actions to the rest of the Syndicate in any way? It is evident that they have not detained you.’
‘Yes, I have,’ said Miss Whitcombe in measured– almost rehearsed– tones. ‘The news travelled quickly that you had escaped the nursing home and foiled the robbery. Gregory was on the run, but at the first opportunity he reached me on the telephone. When I realised he had seen the note, I felt the best thing to do was to admit that I had sent it to you, but only to keep you from– from serious harm. I explained that I was sure that the robbery would have successfully taken place already by the time you received the note, and that Gregory would have gotten well away with the goods. Obviously he had no intention of remaining employed as a doorman after that night. The note was delivered earlier than I expected. In any event, I believed that no matter what reasons you may have given, the staff at that nursing home would not have permitted you to leave the premises. The disruption of the robbery itself was not my intention, but an unfortunate consequence.’
‘And perhaps, mademoiselle, that was not a mere excuse, but the simple truth.’
She gazed at him coolly. ‘Yes, perhaps it was.’
‘He believed you? No suspicion of any kind attaches itself to you in his mind?’
‘Of course he believes me.’ She looked uncomfortable.
I shifted in my chair skeptically. If Johnston were truly convinced of the lady’s fidelity to him, it did not seem likely that he would retain a deadly vendetta against me, which he clearly had. She’s lying, I thought.
Poirot looked grave. ‘Mademoiselle, you know that M. Johnston is a dangerous man. Additionally, he may wish to mobilise the entire Syndicate to a course diametrically opposed to your father’s wishes. We cannot afford to wait much longer. We must know whatever you can tell us about the files kept by this organization.’
She stared at him. Finally she laughed.
‘You don’t ask for much, do you!’
‘For the sake of all of our safety, it would be most useful if we could indeed locate Messieurs Johnston and Griffon. But I will settle for information about the files at present.’
It was my turn to stare.
My friend reached into his pocket and withdrew a key.
‘Do you know what this is, mademoiselle?’
Her face was blank.
‘This is the key that your fiancé was to deliver to your father in the events surrounding the Battersea Scandal.’
Rose Whitcombe reached out her hand, and Poirot relinquished the key to her. As she turned it over, her eyes grew wide and fearful. There were several moments of silence.
* * * * *
Poirot finally spoke again: ‘I believe, mademoiselle, that this key may help us in some way to discover what we want. The London Syndicate lives and breathes on blackmail. I have reason to suspect that there is a series of files– files which, if found and destroyed, would remove the best part of the power of this organization.’
The lady’s imperturbable calm had once more been shaken. She looked up at Poirot with eyes that were bright, tearful, and– yes, angry. I could not help but think that my friend had made a grave error in laying stress on the Battersea Scandal and the events that had let to her father’s arrest. And he was concerned that I would antagonise her!
At last she spoke, directing her words to the object in her hands.
‘This is a key to the headquarters of the London Syndicate. Only a few have been made. But– oh, how very difficult. I must have your word– your solemn word– that you will not involve the police in any way until after you make your search. It is too dangerous.’
I was infuriated. Don’t go to the police yet indeed– yes, those had been her very words to me when I had delivered that parcel for her. She must have thought we were utter fools. I had opened my mouth to protest when Poirot cut me off in haste.
‘No, Hastings. Let the lady explain what she means.’
Rose became businesslike.
‘I can give you the location of headquarters. A meeting was held there earlier this afternoon– that is why I have waited until now to come to you. You are quite right about the files, though how you knew… Several prominent members of the syndicate carry their own file representing a different area of London. The updated files are brought to the monthly meeting and remain at the premises for review for some forty-eight hours, at which point they are re-distributed.’
‘And what happens in those forty-eight hours?’
She paused. ‘Gregory runs an analysis of the files. And at the present, he and Robert Griffon are the only two people who know where on the premises the files are stored. That information is absolutely confidential– and will not be offered to me, for any reason. But,’ she added as she leaned forward, ‘I can get you into headquarters where you can make a search.’
‘Eh bien, and supposing M. Johnston is waiting there to greet us?’
‘I thought that you wanted to know where he was,’ she said with a little smirk. ‘But he won’t be there at the time when I take you. If anyone happens to show up later, we’ll hear them coming and I can make sure you’re well-hidden. Although I don’t actually have a key of my own at present, I am given free access to the premises. If I approach with a borrowed key, those on guard outside won’t stop me or any travelling with me. The files in question are only together at headquarters for a short space of time, and when they are there, there is heavy surveillance of the area. Any police attention will be noticed and dealt with swiftly. And if it is suspected at all that our position is known, headquarters will be moved elsewhere at once and the key will be useless.’
‘You could, perhaps, search the premises yourself unsuspected.’
She looked at Poirot shrewdly. ‘I am not sure that your friends at Scotland Yard would appreciate me disappearing into the night on my own with this key of yours.’
He spread out his hands and smiled. ‘Alors, perhaps not.’
‘Also, the documents are very cleverly hidden at headquarters. There is said to be a secret chamber that is impossible for anyone to find without demolishing the entire building brick by brick. As I said, any suspicious activity around the building in these crucial hours is exceedingly dangerous. Police are no good. But I’ve heard of your skills in searching for missing documents, monsieur. The Lavington affair, and the Violet Marsh case– I believe that, given the chance, you can find these files as well.’
I was utterly unconvinced. To me, it seemed altogether safer to surround the area with all the police force we could muster. If the whole building had to come down, so be it!
Poirot’s hands were still templed before him, and he appeared to be thinking deeply. Finally he said:
‘On those conditions, I will give you my word, mademoiselle, that we shall not involve the police until we search the premises.’
‘What?’ I cried, taken out of myself. ‘You cannot be serious. Walk blindly into the headquarters of the London Syndicate without backup?’
‘It would seem that this is our best chance, mon cher,’ he answered. ‘Even with an army of policemen, what could be done? We can hardly destroy a building merely because evidence may be there. If the police come with a warrant to the proprietor and make a search, mademoiselle tells us they are likely to find nothing, and all our advantage disappears.’
I could not suppress a scornful laugh. ‘Well, let’s have it. Where is this headquarters, then?’
Rose Whitcombe looked at me coolly.
‘The West Lodge Café,’ she replied.
I blinked. Poirot emitted a despondent moan.
‘Ah, it is too terrible,’ he said sadly. ‘And they had the most excellent brioche…’
* * * * *
‘But–’ I sputtered, ‘the West Lodge Café is where– er–’
‘Yes,’ interrupted Poirot with the air of someone attempting to avoid an embarrassing faux pas, ‘it is the place where we unexpectedly came together some months ago.’
Landsdow, who was standing at the far end of the room by the staircase, had evidently been listening to the conversation and now stood gaping in surprise.
‘By Jove,’ he cried suddenly, ‘do you mean that all three of us had been sitting about and having our lunch inside the crime headquarters that day?’
Rose Whitcombe said (with some exasperation): ‘Not in the headquarters. The owners of the restaurant know very little about the doings of the syndicate. We use their back rooms and facilities. I was the only agent there on that day we met. It was rather a frightful surprise to us, really,’ she added to Poirot, ‘that you ended up going there at all– but it later became clear that no one suspected the establishment as headquarters, and so headquarters it remained. If we go to search when the files are at present, tomorrow night is our only chance. By the time another month is past, they may have gotten the wind up.’
‘Now, look here,’ I said. ‘This is a dangerous proposition. There are people out there who are looking to kill us. What sort of guarantee can you give us of your good faith?’
Her vivid eyes met mine once more. Then, reaching into a pocket, she withdrew a small, shining object and held it up for us to see. It was a smooth, silver ring, bright and unadorned save for a solitaire amethyst in its centre.
She passed it to Poirot.
‘That ring,’ she said, ‘belonged to my father. He gave it to me some time ago. A few of them were made for heads of the syndicate by Matthew Carrington– the same man who copied your paper knife. Each one is unique. Take it if you like as collateral and a sign of good faith.’
A curious look passed over Poirot’s face as he rolled the ring between his fingers. Meanwhile, I studied Rose Whitcombe’s face intently. It soon took on a faint smile.
‘Speaking of those silly knives,’ she added, ‘I’m afraid to tell you that they’re at the bottom of the sea. I daresay you know about Gregory breaking into your office. He was in a mad temper and was determined that you should never retrieve either of them. A damn fool thing to do, but there it is.’
Poirot told her about the message left at his desk and the spent bullet that was found there.
‘So you see,’ I interjected, ‘Johnston wants both me and my friend dead. It’s not just this file business. He’s got to be stopped.’
‘That,’ said Poirot to Rose, ‘is Hastings’ own theory. I do not expect that the London Syndicate plans to murder me.’
I was puzzled. When news of Griffon’s escape had first reached us, I assumed that Poirot had panicked and feared a repeat of the kidnapping episode. But surely Johnston’s clear death threat overrode that idea. If Poirot was merely meaning to heighten Rose’s sympathies for me at his own expense, it seemed a useless sort of tactic. The fact that Johnston had threatened to shoot both of us surely made our case stronger.
Poirot carried on: ‘And concerning this latest development, I may take it that Robert Griffon has not forgotten nor forgiven. He has no love for my friend, who secured his imprisonment, nor me for evading his clutches.’
Rose said: ‘A few of the syndicate’s French contacts arrived in London two days ago. I cannot think that it is a coincidence.’
‘My God!’ I exploded, remembering that some of those French criminals colluding with Griffon had had murderous intentions toward my friend. ‘Another threat of death?’
‘Yes, mon ami… it is another threat of death.’
I rose swiftly. ‘Enemies everywhere,’ I muttered. ‘Roving through London, escaping from prison, coming from France! No one can be trusted, Poirot– no one at all. This fool plan of searching the headquarters is a blasted death trap.’
A noise from Poirot’s direction made me look back to the seated figures. Rose Whitcombe was staring at me.
* * * * *
There was reproach in Poirot’s eyes. At last he said:
‘Hastings, go upstairs to my room and retrieve my fountain pen and my little agenda book. They are there somewhere. Then, enter my bathroom and locate my tweezers, and bring them also.’
There was no mistaking it– I was being got out of the way. Poirot was going to attempt to smooth ruffled feathers while I was sent upstairs like a wayward child. Resentment and shame strove against caution within me. Surely, it would be madness to leave Poirot downstairs with an agent of the London Syndicate…
‘Tout de suite,’ he ordered. ‘And be sure to conduct yourself very quietly as you go.’
Abashed, I turned away. Landsdow stood lounging between the doorway and the staircase. He would be a lookout, at least. Silently I strode passed him and up the stairs, feeling distraught with the universe in general.
* * * * *
The particular guest room I wanted was about as far from the stairs leading to the drawing room as could well be imagined. It took me several minutes to locate my friend’s pen and book. These were, inexplicably, perched on the very top of the wardrobe in Poirot’s room. It seemed quite uncharacteristic of my friend, the great master of order and method, to keep his writing implements in such an inconvenient location. He could have told me exactly where they were– I had no doubt that he knew. I tried to temper my annoyance. There was a great deal at stake, and I knew I should have held my tongue. All the same, it had been an ignominious episode, made worse with a real nagging worry that I had made a dangerous situation worse.
But there was no time to brood. I had to find his cursed tweezers. That ridiculous man!
The bathroom in question was next door to Poirot’s room. I closed the heavy door behind me and laid down the book and pen on the edge of the sink. There was no mistaking the imprint of my friend’s personality upon this particular room. On the shelves above the sink, all of the bottles had been arranged by height into a neat, graduated row. The twin towels hanging upon the bar to the right of the sink had been arranged with perfectly accurate symmetry. I shook my head and could not help but smile.
A quick glance at the tidy row of familiar grooming implements laid out on the bottom shelf did not reward me with the item I wanted. I tried the cabinet drawers and peered into the recesses. Nothing. With rising impatience, I strode over to the closet that stood between the door and the toilet and wrenched it open. Prim stacks of linens and towels reposed there.
Suddenly, I thought I heard a noise outside in the hall– a small, creaking sound. Distracted, I moved to the door with a mind to see what it was. I placed my hand on the knob.
The door would not budge.
What next? I thought in disgust. I fought with the doorknob, to no avail. It seemed to be stuck fast. One might even suspect it was locked.
A fresh wave of horror passed over me. If someone else was in the house…! Quickly I stooped and applied my eye to the keyhole. It might have been my fancy, but a dark shadow seemed to pass in the hall outside. I rose and prepared to hammer on the door with a shout, but my fist froze before it struck. Poirot had instructed me to conduct myself very quietly. Now that I thought of it, the instruction seemed odd and meaningful. Had he suspected an intruder? Or was there some other need for quiet?
I was torn between obeying orders and an increasing panic to get out of the room. Dashing over to the window opposite the door, I flung aside the curtains and tried it. To my surprise, it was not locked. That seemed suggestive– surely Poirot, with his perennial distrust of draughts, would not leave his bathroom window open. I pulled it up and looked out into the night. There seemed to be no convenient way for an intruder to gain entry here, nor a promising way to escape the room. I closed the window again quickly and returned to the door.
Minutes seemed to fly by with maddening speed. My search for the tweezers, I need hardly say, was completely abandoned. Instead, I engaged in soft, persistent rapping with the assumption that Creeney was bound to pass by this way eventually. I had nearly given up, and was contemplating the quickest way to break down the door, when it suddenly opened again.
‘Is everything all right, sir?’ came Creeney’s voice in polite astonishment, but I hardly heard him. Grabbing Poirot’s agenda book and pen, I flew past him down the hallway and made for the stairs to the drawing room.
* * * * *
Poirot and our visitor were still where I had left them by the fireplace, the former utilising his best conciliatory manner. Landsdow, to my renewed anger, was nowhere to be seen! Poirot had been alone with a dangerous criminal agent and God knows who else possibly lurking about the place.
Poirot looked up in mild surprise as I approached, flushed and out of breath.
‘Hastings, my dear friend! You are a long time in coming. No,’ he held up his hand as I opened my mouth to pour out all that had happened upstairs, ‘not at this moment. We are finishing up here first. The lady must be on her way.’
With a great effort, I subdued my emotion and handed him his book and pen. ‘I couldn’t find the tweezers,’ I said. It was just as well, I thought, to not speak of the episode before Rose Whitcombe. She was looking at me now with great keenness, and something else– a hint, perhaps, of melancholy.
‘It is of no great importance. Merci, mon ami.’ Poirot opened the book and made a little note before sliding both items into his breast pocket. ‘The date is set.’ He rose, and Rose jumped up as well, looking eager to be gone.
At that moment, Landsdow entered from the next room, bearing the visitor’s coat and her other sundry winter items.
‘Here you are, miss,’ he said. Retrieving them, she bundled herself up quickly and returned to the window.
‘Are you sure you don’t want the door this time?’ Landsdow asked uncertainly. Rose smiled a little.
‘I think I prefer the window,’ she said. ‘A much more fitting portal for the disreputable visitor.’
Poirot gave a little bow. ‘Until tomorrow, then.’
And with a sudden waft of chilled air, Rose Whitcombe disappeared into the night.
The three of us stood for a moment looking out of the window. Then I snapped back to my senses.
‘Poirot,’ I said urgently, ‘there might be an intruder upstairs. I believe I was locked in the bathroom.’
My friend’s eyebrows rose, and I was extremely annoyed to see the humour evident on his face.
‘That is why you took your time, eh, my friend? I myself have noticed that bathroom door to stick somewhat. Well, we must be sure. Sgt. Landsdow, would you be so kind as to make the search upstairs with Creeney while I converse with Hastings here?’
Landsdow removed himself hastily, and I turned to my friend (now drawing the curtains on the window vacated by our visitor) and relayed my experiences. He seemed interested, and his amused manner subsided.
‘Could someone have followed Rose here after all, as she suspected?’ I said.
‘It is, of course, possible.’
‘I’m sure,’ I said doggedly, ‘quite sure, that someone was in the house who didn’t belong here– someone upstairs.’
Poirot looked thoughtful. ‘You know, I am inclined to agree with you. On occasion you manage to hit on the truth exactly, and this may be one of those times. But I do not think they will find any intruder upstairs now. It is not tonight, I am sure, that will pose the danger for us. All the danger is concentrated in our visit to The West Lodge Café tomorrow night.’
‘So you believe that whoever it was has escaped, and this doesn’t worry you?’
‘It should not worry you. Leave the worry with me, my friend.’
It was no use trying to drag further information about it from him. ‘Was it quite necessary to send me upstairs?’ I added irritably. ‘You didn’t really need your book and all that.’
Poirot gave me one of his patented looks of paternalism. ‘It was for your own good, Hastings. I told you not to antagonise her.’
‘Well,’ I pressed on, ‘what else did Rose Whitcombe have to say?’
‘After you left, I soothed her feelings as best as I could and we made arrangements to meet together tomorrow evening in Soho. From thence we will proceed to the café. Then begins the search.’
We had returned to the fireplace, and the two of us sank into our chairs again. I was exhausted.
My little friend, I noticed, had placed the silver ring Rose had offered upon the smallest finger of his left hand and was twisting it about absently. ‘Mon ami, I must impress upon you once more the danger to yourself in tomorrow’s mission. Perhaps, even, I should not bring you with me at all. Landsdow–’
‘You’re not leaving me behind while you go off with Landsdow,’ I shot back heatedly. ‘I’m going, and that’s final.’
‘You see, the young lady spoke to me of a specific threat from Johnston; she was, I believe, not willing to mention it in your presence. The man knows you are armed. He told her that he wished to shoot you in your sleep with your own pistol.’
I drew in my breath rather sharply. ‘Charming fellow,’ I muttered. ‘But, Poirot– whatever you had previously thought about the nature of the danger, it’s clear now that Johnston means murder for both of us. He addressed his threatening note to P and H.’
Poirot leaned back and closed his eyes. ‘You will recall that I had asked the police for a detailed description of the items on my desk. Now, answer these questions for me, Hastings. Why, in the note that Johnston left at our flat for the two of us, did he say that he meant to destroy us? Second: since he means to destroy us both, where is the second bullet?’
Bewildered, I shook my head. ‘Well, for the first– I suppose that destroy is a stronger word than kill.’
‘Your command of the English language is always inspiring, Hastings.’
‘And for the second– well. Isn’t it splitting hairs to say that he left only one bullet instead of two? Surely the intention is clear.’
‘I wonder. Two bullets would have made for a stronger gesture to correspond to the strong language. It is not easy, you comprehend, to kill two men with a single bullet. There is no guarantee of success.’
In spite of the rather gruesome nature of the conversation, I burst out laughing. ‘You are the limit, Poirot. There is such a thing as reading too much into a simple death threat. Next you’ll suggest that one of the two bullets he left was stolen by someone.’
Poirot scowled at me. ‘Sometimes, I fear that your sheer stupidity will be more deadly to us both than anything the London Syndicate might pull from their sleeve, Hastings.’
This halted my laughter in a hurry.
‘Well, how do you explain Johnston’s note, then? Even if you’re not worried about being killed by him, you did acknowledge the threat of death from the French enemies that Rose Whitcombe mentioned to us.’
Poirot merely shook his head. ‘If you do not understand, I do not know that I can explain it to you. Your level of obtuseness is at an all-time low, I fear.’
I set my jaw and said nothing.
Poirot studied me with a strange expression on his face. Finally he said:
‘Very well. You shall come with me tomorrow night, on one condition– on this you must swear.’
‘That you follow precisely any instructions I give you, quickly and without question.’
I sighed. That had always gone without saying. ‘Yes, yes.’
‘And you will display no more rash fits of temper in the presence of Rose Whitcombe.’
‘You needn’t treat me like a child. Yes, very well.’
‘Bon. It is a dark danger for which we brace ourselves, my friend. We cannot let ourselves be carried away by the emotions. We must be orderly and methodical. Landsdow, he too will have his part to play.’
‘I don’t like the man,’ I said bluntly.
To my surprise, Poirot smiled. ‘This I have seen, mon cher. Yes, it stands to reason that you ought to like him. But I had a little idea that you would not.’
My friend became suddenly animated, waving his hands about excitedly.
‘But lift your spirits, mon ami! We are close, very close, to an opportunity– to strike a mighty blow to our adversaries. Does that not please you? Because, my dear Hastings, if we can bring down the London Syndicate once and for all, what a message that will send to the criminals of England! Dismantling a local, an aggressive crime ring, that will be something to publicise at once. Think of all the harmful tricks they have tried. If the syndicate is undone, then all will know, beyond question, that tactics of that sort do not succeed against Hercule Poirot. Only a fool would attempt them. You will be able to rest easy once more, and leave that splendid revolver of yours at home.’
* * * * *
As Poirot had suspected, the search of the house yielded no results. If there had been a break-in, the culprit had made a clean getaway. Creeney was instructed to lock all doors and windows before retiring for the night.
I prepared myself for bed, but could not bring myself to relax in spite of my great tiredness. Poirot poked his head around the door to see me pacing nervously about my room.
‘You must rest, my friend,’ he said, entering and closing the door carefully behind him. ‘It is a big affair for which we prepare.’
‘Poirot,’ I said, exasperated, ‘this plan cannot possibly work. You’re hanging all your hopes on this idea that Rose Whitcombe still has– well–’
‘The tendresse? It is true that you did not quite distinguish yourself as I should have hoped–’
‘This isn’t one of your games,’ I huffed. ‘There is no way you can know that she won’t merely lead us into a trap. Indeed, that seems far likelier. I daresay she never had these flighty feelings for me to begin with, and it was all a fancy or invention of your own.’
‘You think I was imagining things, hein? No, I was not imagining, and neither was Johnston. Perhaps you have asked yourself: “What did she see, this Rose Whitcombe, that evening in the park?” The notion of love at first sight– I admit that it is often the nonsense. Certainly it is not worth staking our lives upon. But there was more than that, as I have expressed before, had you been using your ears. Shall I tell you what she saw in the park that day?’
My glance strayed at once to the glass on the wall. I am not, I hope, ill-looking, but nothing particularly out of the ordinary.
‘I have no idea,’ I said shortly.
‘Well, my friend, here is what I think.’ He crossed his hands behind his back and drew closer. ‘Superficially, she sees a tall man, and not an old one, of military bearing; by no means a Greek god, but–’
‘I know that, for heaven’s sake,’ I said, annoyed.
‘The first impression is a sympathetic gentleman– and a targeted victim. But sympathetic gentlemen have been her victims before and have not aroused such strong feeling in her. Why is it different now?
‘You must consider the psychology of la femme. In that moment, I believe that she sees in you the embodiment of that trait that she values above all others: loyalty. She has heard something of you before, but now she meets you in the flesh. And the weight of horror at what she is doing suddenly falls upon her. She is trying to send Poirot out of the country, where he might possibly be a sitting duck for elimination. She is trying to separate him from his most faithful companion– to arrange for you to betray your friend unknowingly. Can you not understand what that does to her mind?’
‘If she felt that way,’ I said with indignance, ‘she should have given up on the plan then and there.’
Poirot shook his head. ‘Part of her very much wished to do just that. But this ran up against her own strong loyalty to her father and his syndicate. And as I told you before, another part of her was attracted to the loyalty and sympathy you represented, and in that moment she saw the syndicate’s plan as an opportunity to draw closer to you.’
‘Ridiculous,’ I said darkly. ‘The young woman is a mass of foolish contradictions!’
‘I suspect that she has been very lonely, mon cher. She has lost her mother to crime. She has, in a deeper sense, lost her father to crime. Her companions are those of the criminal underground, where loyalty and trust look very different than they do in stable, law-abiding relationships. She has clung with love and fidelity to her father for a very long time. Perhaps she had never really loved Johnston, but remained with him out of duty, for his own sake. (Ever will a woman believe that she can reform a scoundrel of a man!) The thought of being with a man without ties to crime, a man of the most conscientious and upright, has undoubtedly been for her a great longing. Her own moral acumen in accomplishing this goal has been, shall we say, blunted from her long exposure to crime. Yet she had pitied you, that you would lose someone to whom you had been so faithful; that you would be a cause of his shame.’
I shook my head. I knew Poirot was seeking to arouse my own pity, but after what the London Syndicate had put us through, sympathy was too much to ask of me.
‘So you suppose that all this means that we can trust her?’
‘It is perilous to place one’s life in the hands of a person with a blunted conscience. I cannot guarantee that these initial feelings she had for you have remained. Our young lady was careful to give nothing away this evening. But nonetheless, I believe that this is the chance we must take.’
He arose and moved to the door.
‘Tomorrow, my friend,’ he said, ‘means success or failure. It is you and I against the London Syndicate. Pray God that we find what we are seeking.’
I finally drifted off to sleep that night, trying not to think about the fact that I could not even find a pair of tweezers in a locked bathroom…