The London Syndicate, Chapter 1

Preface / Fair Warning

I have a confession to make: I write new Poirot stories. Don’t hate me. I know that such a move is regarded by many readers as everything from laziness to blasphemy. If it’s not your thing, feel free to utterly disregard.  🙂  For others of us, we’ve seen that the more a good author gives, the more fans seem to want and demand (see: Tolkien). Poor Agatha worked herself into the ground with 50-some years worth of Poirot stories for her fans, and even took it upon herself to definitely close the canon, and yet we find we want more. My consolation is that Sophie Hannah’s recent efforts at least prove that the Christie estate does not regard a sort of re-opening of canon to be utterly heretical. My goal has been to try to keep as closely as possible to the “voice” of Christie, and also to try my hand at her style of mystery-writing. I don’t own Poirot, Hastings, Japp, and any other Christie characters that might pop up, nor do I profit in any way from these stories.

This particular series of stories, still in progress, exists under the title The London Syndicate. The LS is a criminal organization and the stories follow various exploits connected with them. It seemed to me that after Poirot had proven his mettle in London, it behooved the local criminal world to start taking him seriously enough to acknowledge the threat he posed to their operations. In this sense, the stories are somewhat in the spirit of The Big Four, though perhaps with a bit less– shall we say– exaggerated global drama?

I’m in the habit of deliberately conflating the books and the TV series when discussing Christie’s Poirot, and these stories are no different– I always attempt to be as consistent with both as possible, bringing them into unity. Close readers (and viewers) will notice that some details of the stories come exclusively from the books: aspects of the narrator’s internal monologue, Poirot’s green eyes, Miss Lemon missing in action when Hastings is on hand, and so on. Some details derive exclusively from the series: the setting in the 1930s at Whitehaven Mansions while Hastings is yet a bachelor, and aspects of the flat, for example. My series has one or two necessary anomalies; for instance, the events of The Big Four have already transpired despite the fact that Hastings is not yet married. But I’ve tried to keep these discrepancies to an absolute minimum.  🙂

Well, here goes…

* * * * *

The London Syndicate

Chapter 1: The Trophy

I was in the kitchen, brewing a late morning cup of tea, when the door opened with a bang.

‘Hastings!’ came the high, energetic voice, followed by the shuffling sound of a hat and coat hung up in the hall. Into the kitchen bustled Hercule Poirot, delight radiating from his face.

‘I have wonderful news, my friend,’ he cried, and before I could step aside he clasped me in a continental embrace. ‘They hate me, Hastings!’

Although completely unable to account for why being hated was a cause for such mirth, I was used to my little friend’s eccentricities. ‘Splendid, old boy,’ I said ironically as I extracted myself and added milk to my cup. ‘Who hates you now? You were meeting with Japp this morning, I know. Have you gotten on his nerves one time too many?’

Poirot did not seem to perceive my jest. He had obtained a tin of chamomile tea and was preparing a beverage of his own, humming jovially. ‘I have spent the morning at the police station, cross-examining a man by the name of Whitcombe, a major player in the Battersea Scandal.’ I nodded at the reference to Poirot’s latest successful case. ‘Japp informed me that Whitcombe had been double-crossed by his associates, and in the course of careful questioning, we have determined that he was working in league with a crime syndicate on a scale we had not dreamed of. Mon ami, I am disliked and feared by a most notorious criminal organization!’

And preening rapturously, he seated himself opposite me with his tea. I was torn between amusement at his incorrigible vanity, and a fair bit of alarm at the notion of dangerous criminals with a vendetta against my friend. Only Poirot would take this kind of announcement as nothing more than a supreme compliment to his stellar reputation!

‘For goodness’ sake, tell me about it,’ I pressed. ‘What did you learn from Whitcombe?’

Poirot carefully dabbed at his moustache and set down his cup. ‘The group is commonly known as the London Syndicate. It seems as though a number of crimes we had previously thought disconnected and isolated were, in fact, organized by this group. They deal in all manner of robbery, smuggling, fraud, kidnapping, tout imaginable. With one exception– they are not notorious murderers. While certain actors in their midst can be vicious in the extreme, they seem to frown upon murder as being insufficiently creative and subtle in achieving their ends. And, of course, it is bad for business. No, they are not fools.’ He stared dreamily into space.

It seemed prudent to interrupt his transports with a dose of reality. ‘All the same, Poirot, any dog will bite if sufficiently provoked. You can’t count on endless gentlemanly behaviour from that sort of outfit.’

‘No, my friend, you are right. We are not dealing with the bastion of human kindness. There is brutality. There are those in the Syndicate who collect symbols of conquest from their victims. And Whitcombe had the kindness to relay a few of their threats for my information.’ My eyebrows rose, and he went on: ‘Any gang will threaten, mon ami. That is simply par for the course, as you English with the golf mania would say. Me,’ he shrugged dismissively, ‘I have received threats before, and will again. It is part of the job. All the same, the notion of dealing with criminals who are artistes, who, in the name of le sport, do not wantonly murder… it is a most pleasing thought.’

I hardly shared Poirot’s views on sportsmanlike conduct, but I could see that my friend was in no state to be reasoned with. We retreated to the sitting room, Poirot to his desk and I to the sofa, and he began to sort through the morning post. Setting down three bills, he regarded a fourth envelope with some interest. He carefully slit it open with a silver paper knife set with a large, deep blue lapis cabochon.

‘Ah,’ he said with disappointment upon reading it. ‘It is another elderly lady who has mislaid her brooch. It has been missing for some time, and she decides at last to do something; quel dommage. Yet I very much fear,’ he said ruefully, casting a glance at his stack of bills, ‘that I must take this job.’

‘Well,’ I said laughing, ‘You may yet cross swords with your notorious criminals. In the meantime, there’s the daily grind to deal with– rich old ladies.’

After slitting open the rest of his mail and considering it indifferently, Poirot placed it in a neat stack on the desk and carefully repositioned his paper knife, with parallel accuracy, a little above the stack. He noted again the address of his lady correspondent, then rose immediately and headed toward the door.

‘I shall return forthwith, Hastings. This will not take long.’ And collecting his personal effects, he swept out again.

* * * * *

Several minutes later, I received some unexpected callers to the flat– two well-dressed young men, perhaps in their late twenties. They introduced themselves as Mr. Brian Westhelm and Mr. Matthew Carrington. I explained that Poirot was out, but that I could hear their concern on his behalf.

‘Pleased to meet you, Captain Hastings,’ said Westhelm, shaking my hand firmly. He was of medium height and weedy, with ash-blonde hair and freckles. He exhaled confidence and warmth, and I immediately took a liking to him.

‘Carrington and I are cousins. We’ve discussed our problem, and he recommended that we seek advice from M. Poirot.’ Matthew Carrington shook my hand in his turn. I could see the definite family resemblance: they had the same hair, freckles, and steel-grey eyes; but Carrington was stockier, and his eyes held a pronounced touch of far-off sadness.

I gestured them into the sitting room and asked about their trouble. Neither man sat, but Westhelm began at once.

‘It’s our aunt, you see. She had misplaced a rather valuable item of jewellery recently…’

‘Oh!’ I interrupted, striding over to Poirot’s desk and taking a seat. This sounded familiar. ‘And is the name of your aunt–’ (I picked up the stack of mail and scrutinized the lady’s name on the top envelope) ‘–Mrs. Adelaine Brooks?’

Both men, who had followed me to the desk, stared at me. For a moment I fancied that I had impressed them, but Carrington said, ‘No, not at all. Her name is Lady Margaret Westhelm.’

‘I see,’ I said, deflated. Tossing the stack of mail onto the desk again, I added, ‘Please continue.’

Mr. Westhelm cast a curious glance at the envelopes before resuming his discourse. ‘Lady Margaret was married to my father’s oldest brother. My cousin and I were calling on our aunt at Rathene Hall two weeks ago when she told us that she couldn’t seem to find her turquoise necklace. It was a valuable piece, set in gold, and one that I’ve seen countless times. Well, a few days ago I spoke to her on the phone, and she mentioned that she’d found it again– seems it was in her armoire the whole time. We went back for another visit and saw the necklace. Captain Hastings, I was sure that something was wrong with it. Auntie doesn’t have the best eyesight, but the necklace didn’t look quite right to me.’

‘I agreed,’ added Carrington, ‘and the two of us talked it over. I have an acquaintance in the neighbourhood who knows a thing or two about jewellery, and we brought him round to tea at Auntie’s that afternoon. Sure enough, as he was leaving, he confided to Brian and myself that the necklace was certainly not genuine.’ Now Carrington was staring at Poirot’s stack of mail, but with a more abstracted manner. He seemed to have fallen into a brown study. The more energetic Brian Westhelm resumed the narrative.

‘We’ve kept the matter quiet so far. Matthew suggested bringing in M. Poirot, in the hope that it could be dealt with discreetly.’

‘Yes; Poirot has had wide experience in matters of this sort,’ I said, removing the envelope of Mrs. Adelaine Brooks from under Carrington’s glazed expression, and frowning at him a little suspiciously. He didn’t seem to notice, though, and continued to look down at Poirot’s bills. Finally he looked up again, as though remembering his purpose in coming.

‘Captain Hastings, would it be possible for you and M. Poirot to come round to our aunt’s house this afternoon? We have not yet told her about her necklace, and I daresay the truth of the matter would come better from the two of you. It will comfort her to speak to someone she knows is on the case.’

* * * * *

When Poirot returned, I met him in the hall. ‘You missed some visitors,’ I said straightaway, as he doffed his hat and coat. ‘Two men. Apparently their aunt, a Lady Westhelm, had missed a piece of jewellery herself, like your Mrs. Brooks, and– ’

Now it was Poirot’s turn to interrupt. “And she found it again some time later, and it was discovered to be a forgery.’ Seeing the stricken expression on my face, he added, ‘I found the brooch of Mrs. Brooks; or rather, I did not find it. I located for her, in her house, a brooch of identical description, set with pearls and rubies. It was paste. The first thing I do, you comprehend, when discovering missing jewels is to check their authenticity. You do remember, mon ami, the case of Mrs. Opalsen’s pearls at the Grand Metropolitan?’ I nodded, bewildered at this development.

‘And also,’ he continued with a twinkle, ‘Mrs. Brooks is acquainted with Lady Westhelm, and they had already commiserated on their missing jewels. I was told about Lady Westhelm’s missing necklace and deduced a second forgery.’ Steering me into the sitting room, Poirot said, ‘Now tell me everything, my dear Hastings, everything about the visitors who came to call– with method, if you please!’

I related the conversation we had shared as thoroughly as I could. Poirot nodded occasionally, then walked over to his desk to sit. Suddenly I heard an exclamation.

‘Sacré! You have been sitting at my desk again, Hastings!’

Shamefacedly, I admitted the fact. Poirot picked up his stack of mail, which I had shuffled untidily, and proceeded to make the stack perfectly neat again alongside the paper knife.

‘Westhelm seemed awfully curious about that letter from Mrs. Brooks of yours,’ I said. ‘And so did Carrington, come to think of it. Spacey sort of chap. Even when I moved the letter, he just kept on staring down at your bills as though they puzzled him.’

‘Is that so?’ murmured Poirot. ‘That is most interesting.’ He picked up the envelope containing Mrs. Brooks’ letter and examined it. Then, he slowly picked up the envelopes with the bills and examined them, one at a time. I could not see the point of this little exercise in the slightest, but when he got to the final bill (from his tailor), I heard a faint ‘Ah!’

Poirot was standing very still, looking at the papers in his hands, his eyes gleaming like a cat’s. ‘I wonder.’

‘What is it?’ I asked, devoured by curiosity.

‘A little idea, mon ami, that is all. C’est curieux.’

‘Do you think that Carrington knew about Mrs. Brooks’ robbery– that he in fact planned it, as well as the theft from his aunt?’ I wondered, though what this had to do with Poirot’s bills I could not begin to guess.

‘As usual, you misapprehend my train of thought, Hastings. And I could not possibly know anything of the sort at this moment. But clearly, these two women’s cases are connected; of that there is no doubt. I believe we shall have to pay a visit to this Lady Westhelm, tout de suite. But first, we replenish the grey cells with le déjeuner.’

He rose from the desk, and we prepared to leave together.

* * * * *

After a bite of lunch, I drove the two of us to Rathene Hall, home of Lady Westhelm. A surly butler opened the door to us, Poirot presented his card with a flourish, and we were shown in. Westhelm and Carrington descended the stairs to meet us. They greeted Poirot with enthusiasm, and led us into a parlour where the lady sat in state.

Lady Westhelm had that quality, possessed by any number of aristocratic women, of appearing both gracious and slightly forbidding, with tightly-bound, greying hair and an imperious expression. Nearby, a young lady’s maid stood, pretty and efficient-looking, arranging a vase of flowers on a nearby table. She started visibly when the four of us appeared, and I followed a penetrating and questioning gaze from her to Mr. Westhelm. I could not make out the expression he returned, but the girl’s hand suddenly stole to her apron pocket, which she touched quickly before resuming her task. Poirot seemed to notice, too, but he glanced away again as though disinterested and approached the older woman.

‘Madame,’ said Poirot to Lady Westhelm with a little bow, ‘I am pleased to make your acquaintance. Earlier today, I have been to see a friend of yours, Mrs. Adelaine Brooks, in my professional capacity.’

Lady Westhelm nodded, unsurprised. ‘Adelaine told me some weeks ago that she was unable to find her brooch. She mentioned several times that she thought of consulting you.’ The lady eyed Poirot skeptically, taking in his dandified and distinctly foreign appearance. ‘But one should not jump to conclusions. Getting outsiders involved in domestic affairs should be a last resort, I feel. I advised her to continue looking for it herself. These things turn up after some time. Why, even I have misplaced some jewels, and rather recently, but they have been found again. Is that why my nephews have bidden you to come see me?’

‘These gentlemen,’ said Poirot, ‘were concerned that the necklace you recovered might be a forgery. The brooch of Mrs. Brooks, which I located in her house today, was itself a cleverly-executed paste copy. If you would be so amiable as to perhaps let me see this necklace, I can confirm how things stand.’

The words certainly had a ruffling effect on Lady Westhelm. She turned to her young maid and said sharply: ‘Fetch the turquoise necklace, Parker.’ The maid cast an alarmed look at all of us, and another fleeting glance at Mr. Westhelm, before hurrying out of the room.

She returned in a moment with a small black jewel case, and at a sign from her mistress, handed it to Poirot. He opened the case and lifted out a gold necklace dripping with turquoise. Retrieving his pince-nez, he proceeded to make a careful examination of the piece, then put it down with a sigh, turning to Westhelm and Carrington.

‘Your fears are confirmed,’ he said, adding to Lady Westhelm: ‘It is true. This piece is a worthless forgery.’

I pass over the extent of the great lady’s subsequent litany of disbelief, acceptance, shrieks, and general commotion, which Poirot pacified somewhat by promising to do all that he could for her. He proposed to question the members of the household in turn to glean any information that each could remember, insisting that the memories could be best recovered by questioning each person individually.

Carrington willingly accompanied Poirot into a little alcove in the hall, while Westhelm and the maid waited in a study opposite. The door was open, and I could see them clearly from our position. Their heads were together and they conversed in low tones that seemed most uncommon for a maid to adopt with a nephew of her mistress. A little bewildered, I turned back to Poirot, who was asking Carrington about the family and household in general; was it a harmonious one?

‘Oh, Auntie’s not a bad sort, once you get used to her,’ said Carrington, with feeling. ‘She’s rather old-fashioned in her ideas about people, of course, but I suppose that’s to be expected. Brian– Mr. Westhelm, that is– and I get on wonderfully with each other, but I’ve gotten the feeling lately that he and Auntie have done a bit of quarrelling. Poor devil’s had some trouble with some investments, and his creditors are starting to come round. I’m not too badly off and have offered some assistance, but he won’t hear of it.’

‘This falling out– was it because he asked Lady Westhelm for assistance?’

‘No, it’s not that,’ Carrington said, hesitating. His eyes flickered into the room across the hall where his cousin stood. Then he crossed his arms, his sad eyes looked into Poirot’s, and he said enigmatically: ‘Auntie can be damned unfair about people sometimes.’

‘I comprehend, Monsieur.’ I wondered what Poirot had comprehended, because the statement communicated very little to me. ‘Now, what can you tell me of the lady’s maid, Mademoiselle Parker? She was in the habit of handling her mistress’s jewels, yes?’

‘Miss Nettie Parker took the job of lady’s maid here about a month and a half ago, I understand. She’s done jobs as companion or maid for several of the matrons in the neighbourhood. I suppose she frequently handled Auntie’s jewellery. But if you’re asking whether she’s likely to be a thief, I’d call that nonsense. A nice girl, perhaps a little simple sometimes. Brian’s here visiting more often than I am, and I know he thinks she’s a brick.’

‘Thank you. If you would have the kindness to wait in the parlour with your aunt while I speak to your cousin, I would be much obliged.’ Poirot bowed, and Carrington departed. My friend turned to me. ‘Retrieve M. Westhelm for me, please, Hastings.’

I ducked out of the alcove and made for the open study door, but what I saw brought me to an abrupt halt. It happened so quickly, but the gesture was unmistakable. It was Miss Parker, one moment with an opened envelope in her hand, whipped from her apron pocket… the next moment, she had thrown it into the fire in the grate.

I turned back to Poirot, aghast. ‘Did you see that?’ I whispered.

His eyes narrowed. ‘Oui, mon ami,’ he replied, ‘and so did Westhelm. Yes, I should like to speak with him next.’

When Westhelm had been brought to our alcove, leaving Miss Parker alone in the study, Poirot dropped his voice to address him. ‘Monsieur, I want you to think very carefully before you answer my question. The necklace of Lady Westhelm, when she thought it to have been found. You saw it a few days ago, and you were of the opinion that something was wrong. Recall– what about that necklace did not look quite right to you?’

Westhelm appeared to be concentrating deeply. ‘I’m sure I couldn’t say. I’d no idea at the time, only the impression that something was wrong. But–’ he said suddenly, with a snap of his fingers, ‘I think it might have been the stones themselves. Yes, it was. The pattern on them looked quite different.’

‘I see,’ said Poirot. He looked satisfied, but grave. ‘It would be in your best interests to keep that information to yourself for the present, Monsieur. I, Poirot, advise this most firmly. And perhaps, you would also now be good enough to tell me what your relationship is with the lady’s maid, Mademoiselle Parker.’

Westhelm froze. Clearly he was not expecting the question.

‘I see you are not interested in answering. Eh bien, perhaps I can try a different tack: what was in the envelope Miss Parker burned in the grate just now, in the study?’

‘That,’ the young man said stiffly, ‘is none of your business. You’ve been asked here to investigate this business with my aunt’s necklace, not pry into other matters.’

‘Pardon, I am most maladroit. I ask you, then, what I asked your cousin: your family in this place, they are harmonious? And your aunt, you get along?’

Westhelm’s underlying frustration was more evident than ever. ‘I have been quite harmonious with all my relations… but Auntie… she can be unreasonable sometimes.’

‘Thank you, Monsieur,’ Poirot repeated with a bow, and again requested that he join his aunt and cousin in the parlour while he concluded his interviews with Miss Parker. Westhelm left, looking discomfited, and Poirot surprised me by asking me to join them as well.

‘I shall not be long with Mademoiselle,’ he said firmly. I took my leave reluctantly, wholly baffled by Poirot’s abrupt lines of inquiry. From my point of view, we did not seem to have gained any useful information at all!

* * * * *

When we bade farewell to the household of Lady Westhelm shortly thereafter, Poirot announced that he had some further investigations to conduct that would take him a full week. He did not want to trouble Lady Westhelm, but would the two cousins and Miss Parker please call on us at Whitehaven Mansions one week from today, at which point he was sure to have more information to share? They agreed: Westhelm a little sullenly; Carrington, with visible relief; and Miss Parker, with bemused hesitation.

I was eager to see how Poirot meant to proceed with his investigations in the following week; figure to yourself my intense annoyance when he seemed to do absolutely nothing at all! He did not even deign to discuss the case with me. ‘But I have done my work, mon ami,’ he insisted as he sat at his desk, trimming his moustache complacently. ‘I placed a call to the Chief Inspector Japp. He will be of great assistance.’

I was incensed at the notion of Poirot just handing this over to Scotland Yard without further legwork– two different jewel robbery cases, no less– but I learned long ago that doing battle with Poirot at his most inscrutable was a losing game.

Our visitors arrived together the following week, and Poirot greeted them graciously. He steered everyone straight into the kitchen, where he had prepared sandwiches and tea.

‘Permit me, Hastings,’ he said quietly, and he opened again the front door I had just shut, leaving it slightly ajar. A single look from him enjoined me to leave it so and say nothing. I obeyed, mystified.

We all settled down to our refreshment. Poirot regretfully informed our guests that there had not been many developments yet, but shared some thoughts and speculations about elderly ladies as victims of jewel robberies in the abstract, relating a few of his past cases. Suddenly, Poirot gave a sharp cry and reached toward his mouth.

‘Mon Dieu, it is the toothache! It has troubled me for some days, has it not, Hastings?’ This was a clear sham; the first I’d heard of a toothache. I managed to return a sympathetic expression. ‘A little brandy would be of great relief,’ he added. Carrington hopped up to fetch the brandy from the sitting room, and Poirot received it with many thanks.

At length, Westhelm said, ‘Well, I suppose we must be going.’ The party rose from the table and prepared to depart.

‘Bien sûr, my friend, although, perhaps first…’ he paused. Our three visitors looked up. Poirot beckoned us into the sitting room, and as we entered, he strode over to his desk, standing behind it and facing us. He bent down to make some observation, then gave a sharp nod and looked up at us again.

‘And now perhaps, M. Carrington,’ he said pleasantly, ‘you will be so good as to replace that which you removed from my desk just now.’

The accusation took my breath away! I looked between Poirot and the astonished Carrington, then down at Poirot’s desk. Nothing at all seemed to be missing from it; every implement was in its usual perfect order. What on earth did he mean?

Slowly, Carrington approached the desk, staring at Poirot.

‘I know everything,’ my little friend said quietly. ‘It would be wiser not to play the farce with Hercule Poirot.’

Still staring at Poirot (and, I noticed, with increasing disfavour), Carrington reached into his pocket and drew out a shining, silver knife. Instinctively, I rushed forward in alarm, but Poirot quelled me with a gesture of his hand. ‘It is all right, Hastings,’ he said calmly. ‘He knows better than to attack, particularly in a room full of witnesses.’

Carrington, looking steadily at Poirot, carefully laid the knife down in front of him. It was then that I noticed: the knife was identical to the paper knife already on Poirot’s desk! Carrington made to reach for the other knife, but Poirot said, ‘No, Monsieur, I am afraid you must leave it. It is evidence. And the Chief Inspector Japp might not wish for you to carry even a comparatively dull knife with you into the police car. Is it not so?’

Poirot nodded pointedly across the room and down the hall, and to our ever-mounting amazement, there stood Japp behind us in the entrance hall!

‘Afternoon, Poirot. I got your invitation, and I think you mentioned there was a person here I might like to have a little chat with.’

* * * * *

‘So it was Carrington after all,’ I breathed, as Japp led him out of the flat. Poirot was escorting the shocked Brian Westhelm and Nettie Parker to the door, along with another constable, where they would be taken to the police station for further questioning. My friend promised to join them shortly to explain, and when the others had left, he turned to me with a satisfied air.

‘They weren’t all in on it, were they?’ I said in disbelief.

‘Oh, no, mon ami. Westhelm and the maid are quite innocent. You were wondering about the burned envelope and the suspicious behaviour of the two during our visit to Lady Westhelm, hein? Mademoiselle Parker had not been informed that I was visiting, and at the sudden sight of me, she was bouleversée. From the eyes the two were giving each other (how do you not notice such things, my poor friend; and with your flair for the obvious!) it was unmistakable that she and Westhelm had formed an attachment which would certainly have been regarded scornfully by Lady Westhelm, who was beginning to suspect. The girl had a private letter in her pocket, perhaps with terms of affection from Westhelm. Then, this Belgian gentleman shows up, prying and asking questions! She panicked, afraid that I would discover all and divulge the truth to her mistress. The letter was burned in a brief moment of panic, and quite unnecessarily. I guessed as much and asked her about it when I interviewed her privately. She admitted it, and I assured her of my discretion. C’est tout.’

‘It was Carrington after all,’ I repeated, trying (and failing) to bring myself au courant of the situation.

‘Yes, my friend, and your acute powers of observation, as well as a chance remark, gave me just the little idea I needed to make a test.’ He clapped me on the arm fondly, which caused him to notice and then brush off a speck of some foreign matter from my jacket front.

‘Let us start earlier.’ He gestured back to his desk, and we returned to it. ‘When you mentioned Carrington concentrating on the mail on my desk during his first visit, I could not think of a reasonable explanation for his behaviour, other than simple vagueness of manner. But what if it were not the mere vagueness? I could find no logique in the matter, but when I examined the cut edges of the envelopes, a little idea, as you know, came into my mind.

‘Perhaps, the man had not been staring down at my mail at all. Perhaps he had been staring at this.’ And Poirot held out his silver paper knife, set with the exquisite blue lapis lazuli. ‘And studying it intently with a plan to make a duplicate, mon ami, with the practiced eye of the professional thief. After all, we were at that moment tracking a thief who left jewellery replicas behind him… it was an interesting line of speculation, that.’

‘But why take such a risk? Stealing and duplicating an item from a celebrated detective! And suggesting to his cousin that they call you in to start with.’

‘Exactly, Hastings, c’est ça! That is why he did it! It was a chance he took, indeed, and it was his downfall. He did not expect me to notice the substitution, at least not immediately, and meanwhile he took steps to assign guilt of the other thefts to the maid, and perhaps also his cousin by association. Think of how he drew my attention to the maid’s recent employment and her previous employment with other elderly ladies, Westhelm’s need for funds and his quarreling with the aunt! Carrington would have escaped the law and scored a major coup against Hercule Poirot for the London Syndicate!’

‘Why do you assume he works for the Syndicate?’ I asked, puzzled.

‘Ah, parbleu, is it that you still do not understand? Did I not tell you last week that it was discovered that members of this gang seek to obtain trophies from their adversaries? This was to be Carrington’s trophy, mon ami.’ He gesticulated with his paper knife, causing me to flinch slightly as it flew past my nose. ‘It is not a piece of staggering value, true, but it would represent a victorious feat of cunning and daring to that unscrupulous man. He had skill, to be sure; an excellent memory, and a string of successes behind him. Peut-être, one of the chief players the Syndicate has for this line of jewel fraud. I have no doubt that he has organized many such thefts of this kind– jewels from old ladies and other harmless folk. Ha, but he made a fatal mistake, in his arrogance and pride, to take on Poirot!’

As he puffed out his chest and drew himself up to his full five feet and four inches, I wondered if Poirot sensed any irony in accusing Carrington of exaggerated pride.

‘Why call in his friend the jewel expert to determine his aunt’s necklace was faked? Was that, as well as his consultation of you, meant to be a cover of sorts?’

‘Oui, there is that,’ replied Poirot, straightening his pen tray which I had nudged a little askew. ‘Recall, if you will, the fact that Lady Westhelm was acquainted with Mrs. Brooks, who had mentioned to her the missing brooch. Nothing would be more natural than also mentioning that she was thinking of consulting me. Carrington had spoken with his aunt; he knew that I would soon be on the track of the robberies. By suggesting to M. Westhelm that I be consulted, he appears less suspicious. Also, by bringing in his friend the “jewel expert” (did it not strike you, Hastings, that he happened to have a jewel expert friend?) he attempted to conceal the fact that he regularly dealt in jewels himself.’

Taking the paper knife from Poirot and lifting its replica from its place on the desk, I said, ‘It’s remarkable that you could tell so easily that this knife was a replica at all. They look tremendously alike. Carrington went into the sitting room for the brandy, of course, and I see that you arranged that– but you couldn’t have seen him make the switch. You were still just guessing at that point, surely.’

‘But if my guess was right, Hastings, I knew I would find a replica on my desk. And I did. How did I know?’ He pointed to the two knives in my hands. ‘Use the eyes that the good God gave you, mon ami! The lapis gem. See you not that the matrix and inclusions of these two stones are completely different? Lapis is a very commonly-faked stone, but it is not so easy to try to duplicate any one particular stone of its kind. Each stone has its own unique inclusions and a distinctive appearance that would not be as immediately obvious in, par exemple, a transparent gem.

‘Our thief made the same mistake with his aunt’s turquoise necklace. Do you remember what Westhelm said alerted him, at a glance, to the fact that the necklace was not genuine? He said that the stones looked different! The dark veins of turquoise stones are very striking and distinctive– a fingerprint of sorts. An observant person who had seen that necklace several times would notice straightaway that a duplicate looked wrong; other turquoises, either real or fake, would stand out. However, an unobservant person, or one with poor eyesight, might not notice at all.

‘I did not want Westhelm to alert his cousin to his observation of the stones, which was the precise nature of the thief’s failure. For a substitution that might possibly have been brought home to himself, he should have chosen the sort of jewels that were not so individually distinctive. I saw that there was a chance that, having studied my silver knife, Carrington was hoping to effect a substitution there, and I could get him to repeat that error and thereby incriminate himself. If Westhelm had been the guilty party, he would never have pointed out to me the glaring difference in the necklace’s stones, and having thus warned me of his mistake, then tried to abscond with my paper knife while making the same mistake again!

‘Eh bien, I make it clear to Carrington that he would be invited back to our flat in a week’s time. How relieved he looked! Tout à fait, but how easy it would be! Plenty of time to create his replica, and there would be no need even to break into our flat to substitute the knife. He’d walk out the flat with my knife in his pocket, in full view of Poirot, pretty as you please!’

Poirot laughed, perhaps a little maliciously, and took the matching knives from me.

‘And now, what have we? It is not they who have a trophy of their adversary, but I, Poirot, have taken one instead!’

Unable to resist a smile at his giddy self-satisfaction, I said, ‘One more thing… you said earlier that a chance remark I made helped put you on the right track. It wasn’t the observation about Carrington staring at your desk, but something else?’

‘Oui, mon ami,’ beamed Poirot. He held up the paper knives. ‘When I first received Mrs. Brooks’ letter (with disappointment), you comforted me with the notion that I might yet cross swords with the London Syndicate. Your good Chesterton, he has written, has he not, that the knife– which you might find in your pocket– is simply a short sword?’

Poirot crossed the paper knives before him and grinned up at me from beneath his splendid moustache. ‘We have crossed swords indeed… and Poirot… he has triumphed.’

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11 thoughts on “The London Syndicate, Chapter 1

  1. Pingback: The London Syndicate, Chapter 2 | Seven Storeys High

  2. Pingback: The London Syndicate, Chapter 3 | Seven Storeys High

  3. Pingback: The London Syndicate, Chapter 4 | Seven Storeys High

  4. Pingback: The London Syndicate, Chapter 5 | Seven Storeys High

  5. Pingback: The London Syndicate, Chapter 6 | Seven Storeys High

  6. Pingback: The London Syndicate, Chapter 7 | Seven Storeys High

  7. Pingback: The London Syndicate, Chapter 8 | Seven Storeys High

  8. Pingback: The London Syndicate, Chapter 9 | Seven Storeys High

  9. Pingback: The London Syndicate, Chapter 10 | Seven Storeys High

  10. Pingback: The London Syndicate, Chapter 11 | Seven Storeys High

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