*** For newcomers: the best place to start is the preface/explanation, and Chapter 1, which can be read here. ***
Chapter 2: The Rival Gang
It was an ordinary Wednesday evening in August. I had spent the day visiting friends several blocks away from the flat which Poirot and I shared, and had been taking advantage of the hazy, comfortable summer evenings for lengthy strolls about the neighbourhood. The hour was late, and the sun had long since set. Stars were appearing in the darkening sky, and as I rounded the corner of the second block of my familiar route, my eye was drawn to the somewhat dilapidated warehouse that stood a little ways back from the street. It was, as usual, a lonely, forbidding-looking place; but something out of the ordinary struck me. Peering across the street into the gloom, my eyes fastened on a few narrow beams of light from electric torches. A small band of people were standing just outside the building in the side lane, and– were my ears deceiving me?– a funny, muffled sound. It suggested something like a cry for help, but I could not be sure.
Without hesitation, I strode across the lamp-lit street and made my way toward the mysterious figures. The shadows closed in again as I approached. But before I could say a word, I felt a sharp shove from behind. Stumbling and exclaiming in surprise, I looked up to see the figures coming up quickly. A heavy hand clamped onto my shoulder, preventing me from rising. When the figures came into full view, my blood froze.
I had heard of Mauta before– heard of the gang’s ties to a certain Indian family, their occasional clashes and animosities with the larger and better-organized London Syndicate, their distinctive scarlet insignia. But as the swarthy faces of four ruthless-looking men, dark scarves on their heads, glared down at me, one particular detail about the gang swam before my mind: unlike the Syndicate, they had no compunctions about murder. Also unlike the larger gang, Mauta was, as far as anyone knew, a very small and comparatively inactive band. But the incidences that had been connected with their name– mostly related to drug-smuggling– had also involved vicious incidences of murder. I’d no idea that they had operations anywhere near this neighbourhood.
Struggling against the pressure on my shoulder, I managed to get to my feet, casting a quick glance around for a possible source of that muffled cry I’d heard. But I saw no one else at all in that shadowy lane.
‘Look here–’ I said, as steadily as I could manage, but the tallest of the four shadowy men cut off my feeble protestation.
‘I know who you are,’ he said, a slightly eastern inflection in his growling voice. He shone his torch in my face. ‘You work with the detective Poirot. He is a busybody. Mauta has engagements that will not be interrupted by any interfering investigator. You tell him that.’ I forced myself to squint through the blazing light into the dark, shadowed face. His eyes were hard and black. The men on either side of me closed in. The scarlet insignia of Mauta winked out of the darkness from their scarves. In spite of the danger, their insolence galled me, and I found myself speaking.
‘Poirot doesn’t respond kindly to threats, especially from the likes of you.’
The initial blow came so swiftly that I have no recollection of feeling. There was a dizzying moment of blackness; then as the light swam back into view, so did the realization of pain. Several blows followed, then stopped suddenly. The man who had been speaking to me had presumably stayed the attack. He stooped down to where I was sprawled on the ground.
‘Do you know what we could do to that little Belgian?’ he hissed softly. ‘He would not last five minutes.’ I started and tried to raise myself up on my hands, but my limbs were like lead. The man’s tone was caustic. ‘Perhaps you think your friend is too smart for us. But there is such a thing as being caught unawares. And for those caught by Mauta… there is no escape.’
* * * * *
My head was spinning, and the torch light seemed to grow dimmer. When I felt myself fully coming to once more and could sit up, I realized that it had indeed grown dimmer; the men had retreated and vanished, leaving me alone in the dark lane. I paused and took a few deep breaths. The action of my lungs was sore inside my chest, which had been struck several times. I rose shakily to my feet, my heart pounding, and found that I could walk. As quickly as I could manage, I strode back across the street and back to my regular route home. The thought had taken hold that I must get back to the flat and find Poirot. My regular action of passing that warehouse on my walks must have spooked the gang called Mauta, and they thought Poirot and I knew something of their movements. Was that location used for their drug smuggling? Of one thing, I was certain: Poirot was not currently on a case involving Mauta, nor smuggling of any kind. He had been tracking certain movements of the London Syndicate, a gang that could only be considered a rival of Mauta. In a way, my encounter had been fortuitous. In their determination not to have Poirot on their track, they had actually given themselves away. Some crime was certainly imminent.
I paused, worried. The gang had told me to pass along their warning. Poirot himself would want me to tell him what had happened that night. But if I did? Surely he would throw himself into the case. He was so confoundedly sure of himself, but what he was up against! I knew that my friend was no coward. He had worked undercover against the Bosch in Belgium and France and had taken a bullet. In the police force, he had shot a man once who was on a murderous rampage. But nowadays, I had a difficult time reconciling that past character with my eccentric, elegantly-dressed little friend, for whom dust and tight patent leather shoes were about the most galling physical misfortunes he was likely to encounter. The dark man was right: brilliant as he undoubtably was, Poirot would not last five minutes if taken unaware by a force like Mauta. I’d had a lucky escape myself.
Feeling weary with bruises and mental exhaustion, I looked up to suddenly find myself at our block of flats. I’d reached my decision: Poirot must not be told about the events of this evening. Going after the London Syndicate was one thing, but Mauta… no, that was against all reason and common sense. I ascended to our floor and quietly unlocked the door of the flat. As I entered, Poirot’s voice rang out at once from the sitting room.
‘Hastings, my friend, you arrive! Somewhat later than usual, n’est-ce pas?’
Avoiding his line of sight, I replied something about my extended visit with friends, and fancying a bath before bed. Then I divested myself of my jacket and slipped quickly into the bathroom. Yes, I looked a dishevelled mess, all right. Insofar as anyone could hide evidence from Poirot, such was my goal. I drew the bath and spent the next twenty minutes scrubbing away all traces of grime and trying to relax my aching body, which was indeed sporting a number of dark purple discolourations. By the time I was in my pajamas and dressing gown, I judged it safe to make an appearance.
Poirot, immaculate in a rather garish dressing gown of his own, was settled serenely in a very square armchair, reading a letter. The empty cup that had held his evening hot chocolate sat on the nearby table. He looked up quickly as I entered and removed his pince-nez. I thought of the cold, dark eyes of the Indian gang leader and how different they were from Poirot’s warm, frank ones. Then I imagined what my friend might look like now if he’d been with me on my evening walk. Unable to hide a wince, I saw the small frown gathering between Poirot’s eyes in return. He had, in the past, entertained some truly ridiculous notions about what he called my ‘speaking countenance,’ but on this occasion, I realized that I had in fact let my guard down for a moment. I hastened to rearrange my features.
‘Lovely night for a stroll,’ I said in what I hoped was a light, airy voice. ‘Good visit with old Hodgkins. You’re up rather late yourself, aren’t you?’
Rising to his feet, Poirot tucked away the pince-nez and smiled. ‘I was hoping for an audience with your good self.’ He tapped the letter in his hand. ‘Japp has sent some communications about our friends the London Syndicate.’
I was suddenly struck by how very small he looked. His overweening self-confidence (not to mention his impressive and luxuriant moustaches) often managed to disguise the fact.
‘Look here, Poirot,’ I said with a sigh. ‘The odd murder case or jewel robbery are one thing. Organized crime on a large scale is rather another, don’t you think?’
My friend’s eyebrows rose. ‘Is this my friend Hastings who speaks? Who was so eager and willing to go after the Big Four? Mon Dieu, but I do not believe it!’
Irritably, I threw myself into the other armchair and said, ‘I’d rather you not get mixed up in anything of that sort again, thank you. I don’t fancy reliving your funeral.’
‘Ah, that troubles you, my friend? You have the good heart. But this organization is a local one, and though they are cunning, they are not eager to kill like the Big Four.’
‘I know you’ve been keen on this London Syndicate outfit lately, but I daresay there’s worse out there who wouldn’t stick at murder,’ I muttered morosely, picking up the evening post and tossing it aside again without a glance. ‘Japp ought to deal with crime gangs himself.’
Poirot surveyed me cautiously, his letter still in hand. ‘I don’t suppose,’ he said gently, ‘that you yourself have had any recent communications with the London Syndicate?’
That was far too close to the mark. Really, Poirot was a deuce for knowing things!
‘No,’ I said truthfully. ‘But I do think you ought to be more careful.’
Poirot picked up the newspaper I had flung away and neatly laid it on the table. He turned to me where I sat and said kindly, ‘I see you are not in l’humeur for this discussion tonight. It is well, my friend; I say no more. But I did not sign up for the profession of criminal detection to stand on the sidelines while it carries on under my nose, mon ami! Mine is not the soft job, though it rests entirely on the ingenuity of little grey cells and not on the brawn. And,’ he added grandiloquently, ‘Beware to the criminal who underestimates the skill of Hercule Poirot.’
* * * * *
I won’t elaborate on most of the following day, which was full of tedious broodings. As much as I didn’t want Poirot involved with whatever Mauta was planning, neither did I want them to have free reign in the neighbourhood. I decided that I didn’t have enough information to give to the police– not the sort that they would take seriously. And so I opted to pay another evening visit to Hodgkins, which would give me an excuse to investigate on the spot again later. Having been warned, I could be safely on my guard.
Or so I thought.
I met no one in the flats until I staggered to the door marked 56B, around midnight. I could not even fumble for my key. I just managed to press the doorbell, and as my friend opened the door and uttered a cry at the sight of me, I collapsed.
* * * * *
The first thing I noticed when I came to was the sound of dripping water and a hum of intense and agonized muttering. My eyes opened to the somewhat unfocused sight of Poirot bent over me, wringing a washcloth in an apparent frenzy of worry.
‘Do not move, mon ami,’ came his voice, low and hushed. I felt the washcloth cool against my head. ‘Sacré tonnerres! But what has happened, my poor friend? You are injured from head to foot!’
Stirring a little in spite of his command, I realized I was lying on the sitting room couch– how I got there, I know not– and Poirot was now cautiously dabbing at my forehead. The washcloth showed signs of red when he did so.
‘The doctor will be here with all speed,’ he murmured. ‘But sapristi, mon cher, what has happened?’
I took a deep breath and coughed a little. Poirot instantly produced a cup of water (seemingly out of thin air) and held it to my lips. When I had drunk a little, I found my voice.
‘Mauta,’ I croaked. Slowly and painful, I got my story told: the torch-light at the old warehouse yesterday; the sound of a cry for help; the first attack by the Indian hooligans; my decision to keep the details back for fear that Poirot would immerse himself in the case. I also recounted all that I could remember of tonight’s second and worse attack, including the hard punch to the face I’d managed to deliver to one of the gang before I was overwhelmed and pummeled, and the many new and ugly threats they made to Poirot’s person if either of us dared to show our face at that location tomorrow evening.
When I looked at Poirot again, his brow was black with rage. He began to hastily unbutton and roll up my shirt sleeves, my jacket having been discarded previously, and examined my arms. His hands were gentle despite his obvious fury. How much of that fury was directed toward me for foolish conduct, I wondered.
‘You are bruised badly… nom d’un nom d’un nom, Hastings,’ (and here his voice rose) ‘you should have told me! You cannot take on a force of this kind single-handedly!’
‘Neither can you,’ I muttered, a little annoyed. ‘And you would have done so. I daresay you will yet.’
Shaking his head sadly, Poirot reached for the basin of water again and wrung the washcloth. Taking my rather swollen and filthy right hand gingerly in his own tiny, immaculately-groomed one, he again uttered some Gallic oath at the state of it as he scrubbed at the purple and brownish marks as firmly as he dared. I winced a little.
‘The doctor will see if anything is broken or sprained,’ said Poirot in an odd sort of voice. I wondered if he was planning to keep me confined to my own rooms indefinitely until he had landed every member of Mauta in jail. His eyes were alight with that gleam I knew well, and he looked firm and resolute.
‘Tomorrow evening,’ he said, more to himself than to me. ‘Yes, in spite of themselves, they have given away their game.’
‘No,’ I cried, trying feebly to spring forward, only to be firmly pushed down again onto the cushions by Poirot. ‘You can’t. Mauta meets opposition with murder. Ten to one they meant for you to come after them, and you’re playing into their hands. You can’t…’
‘Calm yourself, cher ami,’ said Poirot soothingly, and patted my shoulder. ‘I will enlist some of Japp’s brave and clever men, and then this gang will have a strong force arrayed against them. I will phone our friend the Chief Inspector yet this evening– after all, I have yet to reply to his correspondence from yesterday.’ He shook a patronizing finger at me. ‘The grey cells, they will arrange everything! Do not fear any longer. Here you will stay and recover, and leave these heartless brutes to others.’
‘And you?’ I said, closing my eyes again and suddenly feeling very tired. ‘You’ll stay here tomorrow, too, and not go after them?’
Poirot did not answer. I opened my eyes again with suspicion, and Poirot merely carried on tending to the cuts and bruises on my arms and hands, innocently ignoring my question.
Dash it all, that man is infuriating!!
* * * * *
The next morning I woke early, aching all over and sporting a bandaged hand. On the previous night, Poirot had bound the doctor to secrecy, and I understand that after it was determined that I had miraculously avoided any broken bones, the two of them conferred while I dozed under a strong painkiller.
After I had bathed away a second night of remaining grime, I returned unsteadily to my room to discover a set of casual and comfortable clothing and a dressing gown laid out for me, folded as neatly and crisply as if they’d been cut from paper. This pointed gesture was clearly Poirot’s way of telling me that I wasn’t going anywhere today.
Poirot was seated at the table, sipping at a noxious cup of chocolate and scanning the newspaper. At my appearance, he leapt up and escorted me to the table, where he had prepared omelettes. I was relieved to see that he’d also provided a cup of tea.
‘Eat, my friend,’ he said energetically, pulling out my chair. ‘You will need to regain your strength. But today, you shall rest and cast aside worry.’ He made a characteristic gesture of supreme confidence. ‘All shall be well. I have said it, and parbleu, I am never wrong!’
I obliged him, and having eaten I returned to bed, limping a little, and slept off and on most of the day. But my waking hours were, despite Poirot’s reassurances, plagued with growing doubt and anxiety. All the facts pointed to a drug-smuggling operation taking place tonight at or near the warehouse. Poirot would surely be on the spot, and Mauta was cunning. They had caught me off-guard not once, but twice! I flushed angrily to think of it. Poirot was out of his depth this time, but his pride and stubbornness were legendary. Worse, he seemed to be taking the attacks on me as a personal insult.
‘They think they can threaten me, hein, and attack my poor friend comme ça! We shall see.’ When I tired of watching his pacing and gesticulations, punctuated with much incoherent French, I settled down in my armchair and closed my eyes, trying to decide what to do if Poirot were to leave the flat tonight.
‘You will stay, Hastings,’ he had insisted in no uncertain terms. ‘You will not play the Prodigal Son this evening. Trust Poirot.’ My little friend might be brilliant, but in view of the matter being rather personal, I was not sure I could trust his judgment in this.
And so, after dinner that evening, when Poirot made a rather elaborate pretense of going to bed early and insisted that I prepare to do the same, I obediently got myself ready. Poirot extinguished every light in the flat and practically pushed me into my bedroom, shutting the door with a click. I got into bed reluctantly, and felt a wave of tiredness overwhelm me. No, falling asleep would never do. Rising, I strode back and forth, fumbling silently in the dark for a change of clothes. I finished dressing properly, and perhaps half an hour had elapsed when I heard Poirot stirring somewhere in the flat. The sound of keys… yes, he was definitely preparing to leave. The moment I heard the front door softly open and close again, I came out into the hallway. Pausing a minute, I then stole out of the door after him.
I arrived on the ground floor as Poirot was exiting the glass doors of Whitehaven Mansions. Taking the utmost care to stay well out of sight, which did involve much stopping and ducking, I reached the front doors myself. Poirot had stopped in front of the building along the street, and was evidently trying to hail a cab. When I thought he was well distracted, I slipped outside through the door without a sound and quickly slid behind a concrete column. What the devil did he need a taxi for? The warehouse was just a few blocks away. Perhaps he was planning to meet Inspector Japp somewhere nearby first. That sort of thing should have been organized earlier, I thought. No time to dawdle at this hour, when the crime was imminent, perhaps even happening as we stood there!
In a few moments, a cab had pulled up. I leaned out as far as I could to hear Poirot say to the driver, before entering: ‘Alloway Park, East End, please, driver.’ He got in and away they went, as I stood there with my jaw dropped.
Poirot was headed clear across town! Surely he could not misunderstood the place where I had told him I was attacked. Had I mistaken his intentions tonight– had he really left Mauta to the police as I’d hoped, and was heading out now on some private outing of his own? That did not seem to agree with his secrecy this evening, nor his usual love of being on the spot to apprehend a criminal. And Alloway Park was a dingy little area on the outskirts of London with virtually nothing around, certainly nothing that would be of any social interest to my friend. I was baffled.
My plan, of course, had been to follow him. I hesitated: should I follow him or head over to the warehouse myself? I came to the edge of the sidewalk and hailed a cab of my own. Hesitating a few moments, I said, “Alloway Park, East End,” and got in.
* * * * *
My cab was several minutes behind Poirot’s, which was just as well, as I certainly didn’t want him to catch on to the fact of my proximity. The lights of London whirled by, on and on. I was completely nonplussed, but nonetheless relieved that Poirot was heading away from that dangerous Indian gang lurking in our own backyard. Then again, this was Poirot; you can never quite rule out mischief on his end.
Alloway Park covered a large, unkempt, and weedy area which looked sad and forlorn in the darkening dusk. When we stopped, I paid the taxi driver and he pulled off again. The occasional car came and went along the dirt road that featured a shabby news stand (now closed), a little tobacconist, and a few storage sheds. Trees and grassy patches completed the disorganized jumble. I cast my eyes about in the growing darkness for any sign of Poirot. I thought I noticed a few cars parked further down the street, not far from…
An old warehouse!
It could not be coincidence, surely. And, just as surely, Poirot could not have mistaken the place I told him about? But whatever he was up to, there was no doubt that I would find him in that area. I decided to forego the street and cut across a little wooded, grassy area to make more directly for the building, stumbling a little on sore limbs, my breath coming fast.
About halfway there, for the third time in three days, I looked up to see men coming out of the shadows into my path. There were only two this time. I stopped, completely confused and too weary to take the defensive, as they became visible. They were bare-headed and fair, and as I somehow expected, did not look happy to see me. The taller of the two came right up to my face, as the other gripped my arm painfully. I found myself looking into cold, hateful eyes, feeling a keen and painful déjà vu. Good Lord, was every criminal across London intent on attacking me for going about my own business?
‘You are a long way from home, Captain Hastings,’ the man before me sneered, and I started upon hearing my name.
‘I don’t know who you are. You’ve nothing to do with me,’ I stammered. There was no energy in me to fight. ‘I’m looking for a friend of mine.’
The man stiffened, and he gave an uneasy glance at his companion who was holding me. Suddenly I feared that I had given Poirot away, but then a rustle several yards away made us turn our heads, and a familiar voice said, ‘And you have found him, mon ami.’
Amazed, we stared at the little man who emerged from the trees. The man who held my arm gripped me a little tighter, and Poirot said sharply: ‘I will thank you to unhand my friend, s’il vous plaît. He has incurred sufficient damaged as of late and I would prefer that he be spared further blemish.’
The tall man with the cold eyes advanced a step, and Poirot held out his hand out arrestingly. ‘Further violence will not avail you. The area is surrounded. Your friends are, at this very moment, apprehended by the police at your base of operations. Next it will be your turn. There is no escape.’
The man stopped and turned to look at his companion and me, hesitating. More figures appeared, small in the distance, training electric torches in our direction. A thundercloud passed over the man’s face– such a familiar face, furious and desperate– as he aimed a heavy blow against the back of my head. The last thing I saw before I fell was the shocking sight of Poirot, running toward us…
* * * * *
‘Ah! My dear Hastings!’ Poirot ejaculated. ‘The imbecilities you have committed! Oh, but you are a loyal friend. You use your grey cells not at all, but what a beautiful nature you have.’ And he beamed affectionately on me.
I declined to argue the point, instead shifting the pack of ice I held to my aching head as I reclined on our sitting room couch. ‘But what happened? Why did you go across town? What about–’
‘Slowly, my friend,’ he said. ‘Did I not tell you two days ago that I had received communications from Japp about the London Syndicate? He had received a tip-off that the organization in question might be attempting, in the near future, to conduct smuggling operations near a certain warehouse on the outskirts of the East End. I simply went there with the police to apprehend our culprits.’
Confusion was writ large on my face. ‘But, Mauta– you’ve let them get away with their crime, right here in our neighbourhood?’
‘No, mon ami, you do not understand. Mauta had no crime operations in our neighbourhood. In fact, Mauta has never been here at all.’
I stared. Poirot lit one of his tiny Russian cigarettes, settled more comfortably into his armchair, and resumed his speech.
‘In light of Japp’s tip, it seemed an interesting coincidence that these thugs you’ve been encountering were so eager to draw the gaze of Poirot to a local warehouse in our own backyard. It was possible that the smuggling was indeed to happen here, and Japp’s informer was mistaken or lying. But why announce the fact with violent attacks and threats? And they could not seriously think that you were walking home along that route that evening because you suspected anything.’
‘But,’ I stammered, ‘that cry for help that I heard–’
‘–Was merely part of their plan,’ said Poirot gently. ‘To draw you across the street to the warehouse. They have studied your psychology, mon ami, and knew that you would rush to the aid of one in distress. They assumed you would tell me what had happened on that Wednesday evening, to interest me in that vicinity and perhaps to help the owner of that mysterious voice calling for help. But never had it occurred to them that you would refuse to tell me anything in order to protect me! No, they do not know your nature as I do. When they saw no trace of me the following day around the warehouse, they correctly guessed that you had not told me, but would be back yourself later that Thursday evening. It was imperative that the message be impressed upon me before Friday, in order to draw my attention as far away as possible from the real operation in the East End.’ He made a face of angry disgust. ‘They made sure that your injuries would be too serious to be hidden or overlooked this time. Ma foi, the animals. But you were quite right when you told me yesterday not to go to our local warehouse tonight, that they meant to draw me there– however, it was not to attack, but to misdirect.’
‘Do you mean,’ I cried, ‘that the gang that attacked me wasn’t Mauta, but the London Syndicate, and you knew it?’
‘Précisément. Your deduction awakens at last.’
‘It seems unbelievable,’ I mused, bewildered. ‘I was sure that those men in the alley were of an Indian family… and the way they spoke, and the insignia…’
“Bah! It is child’s play to dress up like members of a small and obscure Indian gang. Head-coverings, accents, little badges. They may fool the eye, but not the mind.’ Poirot smiled at me.
A thought struck me. ‘Yet– yes, I’m almost sure– tonight, I thought I recognized the man who found me at the Alloway warehouse. But he was fair, not dark.’
‘Ah! You come to it. I shall tell you how I came to be sure of the truth of the matter. The other night, I attended to the cuts and bruises on your arms and hands. The bruises on your arms had a distinctive appearance, but your right hand, used to strike one of the gang members in the face, had discolouration that could not be accounted for. You did not seem to have any other marks of that brownish tinge on your face or arms. I pray that you will forgive me for scrubbing those marks on your hand a little more enthusiastically than I otherwise should have done.’ The very memory made me cringe. ‘But, voilà, those brown marks came off at once! They were not traces of dirt or mud, but had more of an oily texture and a distinctive odour. I have seen it before– it was face paint! Le maquillage.’
Dumbfounded, I said: ‘That was quite a remarkable guess, at any rate, and a bit of a long shot!’
‘Not at all. For not one moment had I believed that Mauta was anywhere in the vicinity. In addition to their rare public appearances in general, there were other indications. As you have so admirably pointed out, Mauta does not leave those who threaten their interests alive. They would have almost certainly killed you. The attacks you suffered were more in line with the tactics of the London Syndicate– often violent, but seldom deadly.’
Poirot laid down his cigarette and regarded me pityingly over tented fingers.
‘Then there were the obvious warnings and threats that seemed designed to draw attention away from the East End warehouse, as I have mentioned. I deduced that the gang you met could not have been Mauta at all, but must be members of the London Syndicate, in rather obvious disguise. I was not at all surprised to find the brown smudges on your hand, my friend.
‘Ah! But they are clever. They mean to send the police and Poirot to chase the wild goose, their old rival Mauta! They both draw attention away from themselves and commit assault in the guise of their competitors. But they defeat themselves. Once I suspected their plan, I also knew that they had handed me the final piece of the puzzle first presented to Japp– the time of the smuggling operations at the East End warehouse. This Friday evening! Alors, we go and make our arrests.’
For a moment, words seemed to fail me. Then I said, ‘I wish I’d known about Japp’s message to you on Wednesday about the second warehouse. It might have put me on the right track.’
‘If you recall, I had wanted to tell you, Hastings. Indeed, you are always of the greatest assistance to me! In this matter, too, you nonetheless provided the vital clues. But you were preoccupied with your first encounter with the rogues, and intent on your own little deception. At any rate, there were other indications sufficient to awaken you to the truth if you’d had eyes to see them; though I do not blame you, what with the numerous hits on the head you have sustained. One cannot expect the brain to function at its best in such a case. Ah, if only you would trust your friend and his grey cells, cher ami!’
Sensitive to what must have been a defeated look on my face, Poirot rose and crossed the room to me. His hand rested comfortingly on my shoulder.
‘Perhaps, after all, I should have stayed in the flat this evening with you, and left all to Japp,’ mused Poirot. ‘My enjoyment of my own denouement, it has failed me this time. I did not think you would be so hot-headed as to have my taxi followed. If you went out at all, I expected you to go to our neighbourhood warehouse, where I knew nothing would happen. There, also, I failed in method! And to limp around in the dark with dangerous men about, Hastings!’ He shook his head, and his manner softened. ‘But you would not let me go out alone, hein? No, that would not be like you.’
I looked up at him, and did a double take. So fastidious was Poirot about spotlessness of appearance that at close quarters I noticed, at once, a strange and discoloured streak on his right cheek.
‘Poirot,’ I exclaimed. ‘You’re injured.’
He waved his hand airily. ‘Ce n’est rien, a scratch only. Regard my friend Hastings, who is beaten into the ground, shout indignantly about a little cut! It does not hurt. It only ruins the symmetry of the face, which is indeed far more painful to my sensibilities.’ His expression was so distraught over this detail that I was tempted to laugh.
But then something else occurred to me. ‘I saw you running,’ I said slowly, the memory returning. ‘Right before I was hit on the head. You were running toward us.’
Poirot exhaled. ‘It is true. I am not in the running habit, I think is what you mean. I am also not in the habit of brandishing my stick, with its heavy knob, at gang members and knocking them senseless. Nonetheless.’ He shrugged.
‘Poirot,’ I cried again, stupefied.
‘I lost my temper tonight. It does not happen often. There was a small scuffle. Only once before have I used my walking stick in such a fashion. A young child, a girl… a daughter… was in imminent peril from a desperate and dangerous assailant.’ A wistful, faraway look stole over his countenance.
‘Three times, mon ami,’ he said, looking down at me with sad and pained eyes. ‘Three times they dared to assault you! One does not commit such acts against one’s fellow men, but against one of such an innocent and trusting nature…’ His voice rang with steel. ‘Those are the most wicked crimes of all!’
Regaining his composure, he sighed again and added: ‘Why does the father run to reach the prodigal? The son has been in dire straits. The fear is upon the father. He loves his son and wants to bring him home again.’
And with that, he turned and left the room. Moved, I looked after his retreating and deceptively small figure. In truth, I thought, never was there such a force of nature to be reckoned with as Hercule Poirot.