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Chapter 3: Absent Without Leave
The unprecedented events which I lay down here are of such a unique nature that Chief Inspector Japp himself (in moments of characteristic offensiveness) will swear to anyone he tells about it that he’d never believe it if he hadn’t been there to see it. For certain personal reasons of my own, I’ve always hesitated to chronicle this extraordinary incident with the London Syndicate, which fortunately was largely kept out of the papers. But by the encouragement of my friend, Hercule Poirot, I shall do so now.
Early July in the town of Bexhill was splendidly warm, with a delicious breeze off the sea. I had come down with Poirot for a holiday, eager to escape the stifling hive of London for a week or two. What we had not anticipated was the overwhelming masses of trippers descending upon our solitude.
‘Good Lord, I can’t remember it ever being quite this bad,’ I remarked over my newspaper, as Poirot and I sat on the patio of the Bluebell Café, watching the mobs shuffle by. A cup of coffee sat before me; Poirot sipped delicately at an aromatic tisane. He looked as impeccable as ever in a smart grey suit, garnished with an unusual crimson-and-white orchid in the buttonhole, and panama hat. At my comment, he raised his eyes to the crowds jostling before us, with more coming in on motor-coaches all the time.
‘Americans, I believe,’ he said complacently, as a Portsmouth coach emptied itself of two dozen teenage boys, perhaps a sports team of some sort.
We had seen the signs and advertisements all over Bexhill about this month’s excursions. Tourists were spending July swarming round of all the major English sea resorts from Dover to the Isle of Wight, with the promise of Channel ferries to the continent by the end of the month.
‘The coast, it is agreeable,’ Poirot went on good-humouredly, ‘but for the crowds, the incommodious sand, and the actual travelling about on the water. Never shall I retire to the seaside, my friend. The brief visit is all I require.’
‘You’re not likely to retire at all,’ I laughed. ‘You know you’d only come back again and again for one more case! People for years to come will still see you detecting the great mysteries of the day.’
Poirot caressed his moustaches thoughtfully and looked about him at the crowds. A group of school-age children passed us, sporting identical hats of an unbecoming floppiness and chattering loudly about their recent adventures in Brighton. ‘The younger generation, hein, they are decidedly lacking in education. They know not even of Poirot! And the officers of the law are no better. They think that I am past the prime– in my “second childhood”!’
‘I’ve a suspicion that you’re correct– as to their perceptions,’ I grinned. ‘But I know better. You’re at the height of your abilities.’
‘Mon ami, I am honoured by your confidence in me,’ said Poirot. ‘It will serve you well. Ah, it is another busload of Americans.’ We could hear the boisterous conversation of a somewhat unattractive bunch of trippers, these ones having recently arrived from Hastings. More schoolchildren followed them, chased by stern-looking, middle-aged ladies in sunshades. A grey-bearded gent, big and burly but now stooped and leaning on a cane, was escorting a thin, white-haired matron. Finally, a few sour-faced businessmen with expensive valises exited the coach, shading their eyes and complaining about the rates in Dover.
‘I can’t take much more of this,’ I sighed, dropping my paper and feeling rather as though the light of the sun had been blotted out by a swarm of locusts. ‘What do you say to going back to the hotel and lunching in an hour?’
‘A plan of the most sensible,’ said my friend cheerfully, and we rose. Poirot pulled out a turnip pocket watch and consulted it. ‘A little moment, if you please. I would like to send a few telegrams before returning to the hotel. I shall meet you at exactly quarter after twelve in the hotel lobby.’
Our plans made, we parted ways. Poirot touched his hat to me with a smile, then turned and disappeared amidst the crowd.
At ten past twelve, I descended the stairs into the lobby of our hotel, looking around for Poirot. I knew better than to be so much as a minute late and thus upset his timetable. Having no sight of him, I strolled over to the windows, gazing out at the fine day. So lost in thought was I, that when I thought to check my watch again, I was surprised to see that it was twenty past. Hurriedly, I glanced up and swept my eyes across the lobby, but he was nowhere to be seen.
What on earth could have detained him? It certainly wasn’t like him to be late, even by five minutes. My brow furrowed as I walked idly around the lobby, glancing through every door. Suddenly, a splotch of bright colour on the floor near the coatroom arrested my attention. I bent down to look at it, then quickly picked it up.
It was a red-and-white orchid, slightly crushed. A little scrap of paper was curled around it. Unfurling it, I read the brief, printed text:
With compliments, from the LS.
A thrill of horror came over me, and immediately I dreaded the worst. The London Syndicate. Poirot dead. Then I rallied myself and called for the manager, laying out my concerns. He seemed to think me to be in a ridiculous state on the basis of such evidence.
‘Your friend’s a few minutes late, what of it?’ he said with maddening coolness. ‘Maybe he just dropped his flower. Maybe he meant to give it to some young lady with the initials of LS. Why don’t you just calm down and wait a bit.’
Nothing he said accorded with Poirot’s likely behaviour. Angrily, I left him and returned to our hotel room. Poirot was not there. I hastened back to the lobby and waited for another hour. Nothing.
When Poirot had not shown himself by the end of the day, I frantically rang Scotland Yard and demanded to be put through to the Chief Inspector Japp. He was slightly more sympathetic than the hotel manager, having known of our past run-ins with the London Syndicate, and soothed me with a promise to be on the lookout, particularly if Poirot had not been found by the following day.
He was not, nor was there any trace of him in London. I returned to our flat in Whitehaven Mansions two days later, out of my mind with worry. The local police had no leads, no ideas. My friend seemed to have vanished into thin air.
The following day, I was lunching moodily at a little place in Westminster when a stranger in black slipped into the chair opposite me at my patio table. I regarded him quizzically, noting his serious blue eyes and square jaw, and then I suddenly knew who he must be…
‘Understand, Captain Hastings,’ he warned, ‘If you move or call out now, your friend’s life will pay. You will let me state my piece and leave unmolested.’
I was silent, fuming inside. ‘Where is he?’ I demanded quietly.
‘For the time being, he is safe in a hiding place of our own devising. He is restrained, and being… kept quiet. In other words, he is in no fit state to stage an escape. We are preparing to move him to France. He has been sufficiently meddlesome to warrant a banishment by our organization.’
Several more moments of pure shock came and went. Was this man serious? Poirot, incapacitated and in the hands of the London Syndicate… prepared to be shipped off to France? It was incredible… impossible…
‘If what you say is true, why tell me?’ I retorted disbelievingly. My memory flashed back to Poirot’s discovery of the kidnapped Prime Minister, supposed to have been taken to France when he was still in fact in England.
The man laughed. ‘You are suspicious. I don’t mind telling you this because, frankly, there is nothing you can do to thwart our plans. And some of us think it only fair to extend to you an olive branch of sorts. I come to you now to offer a proposition. It would be a terrible shame for us to kill such an adversary; he is a clever little man. But all the same, his life may hang in the balance.’
‘What the devil do you mean by that?’ I demanded.
‘I mean that M. Poirot has his fair share of enemies in France. Primarily, it is they who are willing to pay a tidy sum for his delivery into their hands, dead or alive. I imagine they prefer him alive, but might not leave him that way for long.’
‘You… you…’ I sputtered wrathfully, leaping up. The man held up a warning hand, and with an effort I relented.
‘But they are not the only ones willing to pay,’ continued the man placidly. ‘We have had some offers from a few contacts of the criminal underground who are willing to keep him alive in order to use his brains and expertise to their benefit– against the Sûreté, with whom he is well-acquainted. And other wealthy patrons in France are actually interested in acquiring him solely for sport. It is astonishing,’ he went on conversationally, as my face went white, ‘the secrets that the rich hide behind locked doors. They have the most absurd trifles kicking about. Your famous friend is of such a singular appearance–’
‘Five seconds to get to your point, before I reach over this table and throttle you,’ I growled hoarsely, the red mist coming over me again.
‘I am willing to offer you greater odds for his life to be spared,’ said the hateful man, ‘if you can make up the difference to us in payment. People do not kill one whose genius can be of valuable assistance to them in their line of work. Nor do they kill the expensive novelty that amuses them. I am not keen that his life should be taken– indeed, only one prominent member of our organization insists on the plan of trafficking at all, against several opposing voices– but business is business, and that member has leverage in this matter. Make up any difference in price there may be between the best offer of his bitter enemies and the best offer of admirers who want to make use of him, and I can at least secure a place for him with the latter.’
I was sick with grief. Even if I could do what he asked, would this subjugation of my friend, with wicked people doing God knows what to him, be so preferable to death?
‘What exactly are you asking for?’ I deigned to ask, dropping into the chair again and fighting to control my temper.
The man’s voice held something strangely approaching sympathy. ‘Various representatives are attending to our hiding place in the coming weeks,’ he said. ‘They want to take stock of the prisoner and meet with syndicate associates before committing to pay in France. Their appraisal will determine their final offers. We do not expect a difference of more than two thousand pounds.’
Angrily, I spat out: ‘You’re asking me to pay for the privilege of my friend being treated like chattel! You… who hope to profit from his humiliation! I refuse categorically. What’s more, you’ve offered no proof at all that you have him.’
‘Ah.’ The man pulled an envelope from his pocket and held it out to me. ‘This was written to you by M. Poirot at our request. We permitted him to compose it himself as a sign of good faith, including a detail or two from your private conversations as proof of its veracity. The letter confirms such information as we allowed him to convey.’
I tore the envelope away from him and opened it with shaking hands. The handwriting was unmistakably Poirot’s.
Mon cher Hastings,
When you read this, you will have heard of my abduction. It is quite true, and I have been shown sufficient proofs to convince me that my captors indeed have specific plans to take me to France, and will do so once they have decided my fate. I am to relate some of our recent conversation here to prove this letter’s authenticity. When we last spoke together at the café in Bexhill, I mentioned to you that some younger officers think me to be in my ‘second childhood,’ and you said that you had a strong hunch that I was correct as to their perceptions.
Pray do not act rashly in this matter, nor fail to employ the little gray cells. I am regularly drugged and am sustained on low rations as I wait in my captivity, with neither the wits nor the strength to flee. All depends on you.
The beginning of my name was smudged with a spot of water that might conceivably have been a tear. The letter fell to the table and I buried my head in my hands in agony. It was true; there was no reason to doubt any longer. My friend was helpless in the hands of his enemies– sedated with drugs, possibly starving– and I could do nothing. If I was hoping for hints as to his whereabouts, those hopes were now dashed to pieces.
I looked up to see the man watching me closely. He seemed satisfied. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘Do you still reject our offer?’
Numbly, I replied, ‘I would not treat with you for all the world. Poirot has given no indication that he would even prefer that I do so.’ I could not move, but managed to force out a few more words.
‘Get away from here. Out of my sight. I will find my friend in spite of all your cowardice and cruelty. Get away, as you value your own life.’
When the man had departed and I found that I could rouse myself once more, I set off directly to Scotland Yard and recounted, breathlessly, my interview with the unknown member of the London Syndicate to Japp. The dumbfounded look on his face spoke volumes.
‘But why,’ I exclaimed, ‘why actually tell us their plans? They know we’ll be watching every port of exit. It is a blind? A trick?’
Japp shook his head grumpily. ‘Just the sort of joke this outfit deals in. It’s a challenge to us, and one they seem to be pretty comfortable with taking. This fellow mentioned the Syndicate’s plans to you to get a few more quid out of this abduction, if you were willing to pay. Poirot’s a natural target, of course, what with his success rate. But pulling this kind of stunt with someone who’s an old friend of the Yard– to say nothing of the little man’s own personal skill– would normally be the height of lunacy. They must be very, very confident of their chances of getting away with it. Not a good sign.’
‘Don’t you think the authorities will be able to spot someone taking a man across the border?’ I pressed anxiously.
‘There are countless ways that they could go about it,’ sighed Japp, who was now scribbling rapidly on a pad of paper. ‘They could take him to Scotland or Ireland first, and go round about to France. With a few well-placed threats, they could coerce him to pretend to come willingly; use his cleverness against him. They could tranquillize him, pack him into a trunk, and have it shipped over. They could sneak out on a small, private boat and go round through Belgium. No, Captain Hastings, there’s a reason that kidnapping and human trafficking are such big business. Under certain conditions, it’s almost too easy. They’ll probably be expecting us to think that since they nabbed him in Bexhill, they’ll take him straight along to Newhaven and across the Channel. But they seem to be taking their time, and that route would be almost too obvious, anyway. He might be anywhere in England by now.’
Despair writhed within me. ‘But Poirot,’ I said. ‘Surely he’ll be able to outwit them.’
Japp did not look hopeful. ‘By all accounts, the Syndicate is relying heavily on drugs to manage our Monsieur Poirot. His advantage is in nothing but those “little grey cells” of his. If they take that away, what then?’
‘But,’ I argued, still clinging desperately to the hope of my friend’s ingenuity, ‘He can’t be drugged twenty-four hours a day. He did manage to write that letter. And if they threaten him and make him accompany them on his own two feet, well, he wouldn’t be drugged then.’
‘Precisely why I doubt the Syndicate will take that route,’ Japp said glumly. ‘No, he’ll be drugged all right. Poirot’s got a face and build that can be recognized miles away– that fellow you spoke to was right about his “singular appearance.” Practically impossible to disguise. Unless, of course, they cut off his moustache…’ We both shuddered a little (on our friend’s behalf) at this idea.
‘Would they risk sending him over in a trunk?’ I wondered dubiously. ‘Suppose there’s a shipping delay, and the drug wears off and he wakes, shouting for help? Or… he might asphyxiate.’ More cold fear washed over me.
‘I wouldn’t worry about that,’ said Japp with a mirthless smile. ‘They wouldn’t let their golden goose suffocate and die on them. First thing we’ll be looking for at the border are trunks and bags, over a certain weight, that have some unaccountable method of ventilation.’
Japp was marvellous, directing a number of officers this way and that with rapid efficiency, even as we spoke together. I gave a sad little smile as I remembered my friend’s scoffing at a detective who runs to and fro, rather than sitting still and employing the power of the mind.
‘Hastings,’ said Japp, pulling me out of my distraction, ‘I’d like to get Inspector Sims in on this.’ Sims was a longstanding acquaintance of Poirot’s, one who (I recalled with some comfort) was inclined to respect my friend’s methods and talents. Japp reached for the phone and barked some orders into it. Hanging up again, he said, ‘Right. We’ll follow up on what we have so far and meet back here next Monday, unless any major developments have gone down before then.’
Japp had sent me home, rather insistently, when I showed no signs of leaving the police alone. Seeing my chagrin, he added with real sympathy: ‘You’ll do right by the little man by getting home and resting up a bit. Anyway, the Syndicate may try to contact you again, and we need you to be in touch.’
This was too much common sense for me to ignore, so sadly I made my way back to the flat I shared with my friend. It was very quiet, and no message awaited me. Knowing that sleep would be impossible, I sank into an armchair and pulled out Poirot’s letter again. It had taken up residence in my pocket, having been copied by the police, analysed, and returned.
Japp had been hesitant to expect much from this letter. With Poirot in a state of chemically-induced lethargy, and possibly threatened to deceive, what assurances could it provide? But I had to trust my friend. There was nothing else for me to go on.
Poirot had encouraged me to not be rash, but rather methodical– to use my brain. The statement gave me a sudden glimmer of hope. Surely, my friend believed that all was not lost, that there was something to be deduced. I pulled out my pocket notebook and a pen, spread the envelope and letter out on my lap, and read it through twice.
In my mind’s eye, I saw my friend… tired and unkempt, fighting to clear his sluggish mind from the drugs… pen in hand, perhaps an agent of the Syndicate at his shoulder, watching his every move.
A point struck me. I decided to write it down:
Poirot writes clearly and coherently; therefore, if this letter is an original composition, he would have had the wits to convey some useful info in it. Any clues would have to be obscure enough not to arouse suspicion.
Thus encouraged a little, I looked up and saw my friend’s desk. I imagined him composing his note at a desk like this… he begins, carefully: Mon cher Hastings… dotted with a smudgy tear.
I stared at the mark. The more I thought about it, the less I could visualize Poirot smudging his neat writing with a fallen tear. I could almost hear him over my shoulder, railing at me with gestures of frustration. ‘Hastings, you are incurably sentimental! Ma foi, a tear-stained letter indeed! You read too much of the silly, romantic fictions. Abandon your stupidity, I pray, and arrange your ideas with order and method, mon ami!’
If Poirot really were overcome with emotion, he would turn away, if only to keep the handwriting neat. I frowned at the little watery smudge on the paper, and wrote in my notebook:
In the letter’s address, my name is smudged unaccountably. Tear?
I continued on, a little worried that I was reading all manner of nonexistent subtleties into the letter. Oh well; I had to carry on. Suddenly, I halted again. He says they have specific plans to take him to France. Perhaps this means that he knows the plan, and is therefore able to hint accordingly. Noted.
I stopped once more at one of Poirot’s favourite phrases: ‘little gray cells.’ Gray cells he writes. Gray. Not grey. Uncommon spelling. I made a note.
What else stands out? I thought, reading and rereading.
He mentions that his food rations are low in captivity. Is there any good reason he would mention that? Drugs alone would incapacitate him. I was certain that since this note was briefly written, every added detail must be of significance. Noted.
Finally, I took a long, hard look at that bit of private conversation that Poirot recorded. He could have chosen any piece of any of our conversations, but he chose that one. It must mean something, and something critical. Certainly I remembered this conversation, and I recalled his use of the term ‘second childhood.’ My overall impression from our exchange that day was the general idea that certain police officers misunderstood or underestimated Poirot, but I didn’t– I ‘knew better.’ It was not much to go on; I noted it only with a question mark and a sigh.
Weariness stole over me. I don’t recall when I fell asleep, but I spent the night sitting in the same armchair, pen in hand. Steel bars and empty corridors drifted through my dreams. I was looking for my keys, and thought I had found them at the water’s edge. But as I stood looking out at the sea, the waters rushed up and surrounded me, confusing me, pulling me under. A voice echoed through the crushing waters: ‘All depends on you.’
It was one of the worst nights of my life.
The following Monday, I duly returned to the Yard to compare notes with Japp and Sims. I was beside myself– it had been a week and a half since the disappearance, and I feared we were already too late, despite the man’s words about ‘weeks’ before Poirot would be transported. As I entered Japp’s office, I noticed a fourth man, tall and of military bearing, who Japp introduced as Chief Inspector Stanton of the Home Office. We took our seats around Japp’s desk. Inspector Sims, a big man and usually jovial, was solemn and quiet. Japp himself appeared to have hardly slept since I’d last seen him. An absurd thought crossed my mind: Poirot lamenting at the sight of his crooked tie and insisting on straightening it, followed by a lecture on not letting personal anxiety over a friend’s kidnapping impede one’s dress sense.
‘Any news?’ I asked fretfully.
‘Well, Captain Hastings,’ said Japp, thumbing through a file on his desk, ‘you could say that… but it doesn’t necessarily help us. There are almost too many leads. We’ve had whispers of the Syndicate from the Merseyside to Cornwall and across to Dover. The police in France and Belgium have been informed as well– the Sûreté, of course, has a vested interest in the case for several reasons. And the Belgian police are unleashing an unholy furor over this; by the Lord, they’ve been hounding me for days, like demons out of hell. Sending a few men over soon, by the sound of it. They’ll be all over their own coast with a tooth-comb until this is sorted out, rest assured.’
Sims leaned forward. ‘Do we know that they haven’t already left England with him?’
‘As I understand,’ broke in Stanton, ‘the man who spoke to Captain Hastings mentioned keeping M. Poirot in their hiding place in England for some weeks, until it was determined who would get him. He could have been lying, of course, but all the same, it’s our belief that if they had him safely in France, they would communicate that fact immediately. It would be in their own interests to draw our eyes abroad.’
For the benefit of the newcomers, I recounted again all that I’d told Japp about our visit to Bexhill, Poirot’s disappearance, and my encounter with that terrible man who gave me the letter.
Sims looked incredulous. ‘It seems impossible,’ he exclaimed. ‘Is there any precedence for these French criminals that were spoken of?’
Japp whipped open another folder and extracted some papers. ‘Rather,’ he said dryly. ‘The revenge business, I hardly need to go into; that’s a given. As to passing him off to agents who would use his expertise against the police, I’ve got two examples of events of this precise nature, one in England and one in France, in the past year alone. In France, it was a secret agent who was believed to have been nabbed in Paris for what he knew of the Deuxième Bureau– never found the bloke.’ My stomach gave a frightened lurch. ‘In England, it was a private investigator, name of Johnson, up in the Lake District. A comparatively minor affair, but he wasn’t found for five months, all the same.
‘As for these wealthy French patrons were we told of,’ Japp continued with distaste, ‘that’s also not unheard of. Kidnapping a person who’s famous– or interesting to them in some other way– and keeping them penned up in their own house as some sort of blinking curio or what have you. People with barrels of money and no moral sense at all– world’s full of them. You’ll have heard of the cases of Anita Ledger and Lesley Morton. Dozens more out there, most not so famous, who are never found.’
If Japp used the phrase never found one more time, I was going to completely lose my head!
The three police inspectors launched into technicalities about border patrol and likely gang hideouts on the English coast. I pulled out my little notebook and the letter from Poirot. In a lull in the conversation, I laid out my observations and thoughts before Japp. He was interested, but cautious.
‘I’ll grant you,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘that Poirot was conscious enough to write normally and coherently. We’ve no definite proof that most of this letter is quite original, on the other hand. But if he was able to convey any clue, then I daresay it would be in his style to do it in the sort of tortuous, roundabout way you’re suggesting.’ I took the observation as a kind of backhanded compliment.
But Japp went on: ‘The name being smudged with a possible tear says nothing conclusive. If he didn’t do it himself, anyone else who handled the letter might have made that mark by accident. They might have even done it on purpose to make you think it was a tear, to give more emotional weight to the letter.’
I conceded ruefully that this was possible.
‘You think the spelling of the word gray means something?’ said Sims with interest, peering at the letter. ‘Funny little detail. More common as an American spelling, of course–’
‘American!’ I exclaimed, and the others stared at me. I hastened on: ‘That day in Bexhill, when Poirot and I had that conversation that he noted, just before he disappeared… We were observing the huge number of American tourists coming off the coaches. They were in the process of travelling all over the southern coast, and were planning on ferrying across the Channel by the month’s end!’
‘Swipe me,’ said Japp slowly, ‘but that is an idea. If our little friend means for us to be looking out for people posing as American tourists, that puts paid to any idea of sending him to France via trunk, or some roundabout way. It’s the regular ferry crossings we’ll be after: Dover, Newhaven, Portsmouth, and the like. There will be many crossings of the American tour groups on different times and days, of course, and unfortunately hundreds of people– but it is a slightly narrower field of search. And if he’s going across on the ferry, there’s a good chance that they’re hoping to coerce him to go on board disguised, after all.’ He made a note of his own. ‘Still a long shot, I’m afraid, but we have to search out the possibility.’
‘It seems to me,’ said Stanton with a frown, ‘that anything definite that Poirot would wish to communicate in hints would be found in his choice of private conversation he relays.’ I agreed readily. ‘His enemies would not be able to confirm the statements or understand any underlying meanings known only to you. What’s all this about police officers believing him to be in his “second childhood”?’
Japp (an officer who had himself used similar phrases in the past to describe our friend’s quirky behaviour) pushed his chair back and laced his fingers together. ‘Second childhood… that’s interesting,’ he murmured. ‘Very interesting indeed.’
A full fortnight came and went. I was in Japp’s office once more, and it was evening. We’d obtained the requisite information about the different tourist groups– their schedules, arrivals, departures. Tomorrow, the first of the ferries would be sending the Americans to France via Portsmouth and Newhaven. Japp was still debating which town to personally visit. And he had a theory of his own.
‘Mark my words,’ he said confidently, ‘if he’s on one of these ferries, there’s only one disguise they’ll have for him. What do you think? They can’t exactly make him much taller, and they’ll have to do away with that moustache. He mentioned a “second childhood” in that letter to you. You can bet that he’ll be in one of those herds of kids you’ve mentioned. He’ll have been coerced to go along and keep quiet on the way.’
Ah! Thinking back to those crowds of children in Bexhill– youths comprising sports teams; youths with floppy hats to shade the face; youths shuffled along by severe matrons– I had to admit that his idea made a lot of sense, and told him so. His satisfied grin gave way to a little grimace, however.
‘It would help immensely,’ he muttered, ‘if we knew which gaggle he’s likely to be in. You don’t remember anything particularly unusual about those young tourists you saw with M. Poirot in Bexhill, do you?’
I closed my eyes, casting my mind back desperately. I saw the mobs of people, young and old, chirpy and sour, hats and valises, souvenirs and canes. Then the last lot of tourists emerged from my memory, a motley bunch including many children, a group pouring out of the motor-coach arriving from…
My eyes flew open and I gasped, ‘Get the tourist bureau– now! The group that arrived in Bexhill, coming from Hastings, the day that Poirot disappeared– we need to know when their Channel ferry is scheduled!’
Japp seemed to understand instantly, and was on the phone while I gathered my wits together.
Poirot had told me, after all! That smudged mark on his letter by my name… Hastings… it was among that particular busload of tourists we’d seen that we must find him.
Several minutes later, Japp rung off and turned to me, satisfied. ‘That lot have their ferry scheduled for tomorrow… at Newhaven, headed to Dieppe. Newhaven it is for us, then.’
Tomorrow afternoon found us at the town in question. Japp and I stood a little apart from the massive crowd, inconspicuously, and I peered among them, trying to remember which ones had been on the Hastings motor-coach. Various Scotland Yard men, discreet in plain clothes, were carefully noting the crowds of children, trying to determine if any of them could possibly be our quarry. In spite of our recent triumph, something, I thought, was wrong. Terribly wrong. Poirot’s words to me, in that last conversation we’d had, floated back once more.
The younger officers thought him to be in his ‘second childhood.’ This was taken, by Japp, as a clue to seek him out among the children.
But in our conversation, those officers had been wrong! I, Hastings, had known better, and had said so myself. What if Poirot knew that Japp would suspect him to be among the children, and wanted to make sure that I realized that this assumption was wrong?
Indeed, it did seem wrong to me. What was it? And then, I had it.
‘Look here,’ I hissed at Japp urgently. ‘I don’t believe they’d do it. They wouldn’t disguise him as a child by removing his moustache. It’s impossible.’
Japp looked at me blankly. ‘Well, I admit that I can hardly imagine our friend without his famous whiskers, and no doubt Poirot will never forgive them for such a cold-blooded deed… but I don’t see why it’s so impossible an idea.’
‘Because,’ I pressed, ‘the Syndicate bargained with the French criminals for his head. He was actually seen and scrutinized for approval. No matter who they turn him over to, those people are going to want him intact. Imagine you were paying a huge sum to acquire the famous Hercule Poirot. Would you accept a Poirot without that famous moustache?’
Two thoughts seemed to be struggling for ascendancy in Japp’s mind: the realization that I’d made a considerable point, and the suspicion that I had, in fact, gone quite barmy.
‘If you don’t think he’s to be found as one of these children,’ he said at last, ‘where on earth do you propose that we find him? I thought you were pretty keen on the idea that he’d be among these American tourists.’
I looked around helplessly at the throng of bustling travellers: the ugly faces… ladies with packs of children… elderly men and women, trying to stay out of their way… businessmen with valises.
That little detail which Poirot had recounted in his letter to me. How he had mentioned his ‘second childhood’ and how I’d replied that I’d a suspicion…
Only– stay– that wasn’t what he wrote!
I’d said, ‘I’ve a suspicion that you’re correct…’ But he’d written, ‘…and you said that you had a strong hunch that I was correct…’
I stopped as if turned to stone, turning this over rapidly in my mind. It was unbelievable that I should have missed it. Surely, surely, there must be a reason for his change of wording. I’d had a strong hunch…
Poirot kept in captivity on low rations…
Once in a lifetime, a blinding bolt of inspiration knocks a person off his feet and, God be thanked, mine came then. I motioned to Japp, and trembling, I quickly pushed through the crowds and approached the burly, stooping grandfather, who was standing by the pier and leaning on his cane.
‘You have something, sir,’ I said, ‘that doesn’t belong to you.’
He gave a startled little jump and peered up at me. Then his whole countenance changed, and with surprising swiftness he bolted. Japp, who was watching, was after him in a flash, and in moments we had apprehended him.
‘What’s this about?’ he demanded.
‘Unbutton your overcoat,’ I said forcefully to the no-longer-infirm-looking man.
He didn’t bother to protest. When he had finally unbuttoned it, I pushed him to his knees, wrenched at the sleeves of the coat, and whirled it off. Japp swore liberally.
The man we had apprehended was not one man, but two. He wore a tight-fitting harness against his body, and onto his back was securely strapped the small, unconscious figure of Hercule Poirot.
As Japp shouted for his reinforcements and moved the gathering crowd back, I bent over the kneeling man and disengaged the harness as quickly as I possibly could, tearing vigorously. Finally, I was able to free him from the last restraints, and I caught and lifted him carefully. Clad in shirtsleeves, dishevelled, and flushed from the heat, he seemed thinner than I’d remembered. His very moustaches were as limp as the rest of him. My heart smote me to see him in such a state.
I glowered with severity down at the man who was still kneeling at my feet, now attended by two constables. ‘You have no idea how fortunate you are,’ I said venomously, ‘that my hands are now unable to fasten themselves around your worthless neck!’
Japp was at my elbow, looking down at Poirot in amazement and relief. ‘Poor chap’s not in a good way,’ he said, checking his pulse. ‘I’ve sent for medics, but I’m sure he’ll be all right. How in the blazes did you know where to find him?’
‘It was the wording of his letter,’ I replied, a little dazed. ‘He mentioned the phrase a strong hunch, but I remembered suddenly that in our conversation, I’d actually said a suspicion. There must have been a reason for the misquote in his letter. We had both seen this crowd of American trippers those weeks ago when we visited Bexhill, including this idiot’ (I aimed a savage kick at him which Japp pretended not to see) ‘disguised as an elderly man with a hunched back. It was a disguise he adopted from the start. He planned to replace the padding he wore with Poirot’s body when it was time for their touring group to cross the Channel to Dieppe at the end of the month.
‘That choice of disguise was one reason that the Syndicate kept Poirot in England for those few weeks instead of setting out with him immediately. They also used the extra time to slim him down a little, on small rations, to make him easier and less conspicuous to carry under the coat. Poirot managed to learn that information… and hint at it in his letter to me.’ I stopped, startled, and looked down at the still figure in my arms, feeling rather as though he had spoken one of his denoument solutions through me vicariously.
Japp regarded me with an expression of awe and newfound respect. ‘Blimey,’ he exclaimed, suddenly laughing and shaking his head, ‘you’ll be giving this one a run for his money, like as not! I wouldn’t have believed it. Not in a million years…!’
At long last, Japp, Inspector Sims, and a doctor emerged from Poirot’s hospital room. My friend had been revived and questioned at some length, and I was allowed in to see him.
He was sitting up, supported by several cushions and garbed in a light hospital gown. He looked sore and exhausted, but at the sight of me he brightened and afforded a weak smile.
‘Mon ami,’ he said, reaching out as I rushed to his side. He took my hand. ‘You have succeeded, succeeded to a marvel. Japp has told me all. You read every clue I offered aright– but every last one! Today, you are a detective.’
Blushing, I said quickly: ‘How are you feeling, Poirot? You must have been through hell!’
He closed his eyes and shuddered a little. ‘It was not my idea of the perfect seaside visit, c’est vrai. The ignominy, the impudence! The horrid food– which, at least, there was little of. And no means to properly attend to the moustaches. I was locked into a small room and was assaulted with the hypodermic needle daily. Escape would be impossible. My grey cells, the great weapon which all criminals must fear, were slow… very slow… and I was afraid. It was chance magnifique that they allowed me some time of sanity for writing that letter to you. And now, I recover. I survive. That is the great thing.’
‘Did they…’ I hesitated. ‘Did they tell you what exactly they had decided to do with you?’
‘Oui,’ he said softly, his expression quite inscrutable. ‘As you know, they had many ideas, each more sordid and dishonourable than the last. People came to see me in my abasement… they spoke of money, of revenge, of all manner of things unutterable… ah, the gloating eyes, the relish, l’horreur! They had indeed chosen my fate before bringing me to Newhaven. Let us not speak of it. Never shall I forget what I might have suffered, but for the astuteness of Hastings.’
‘It was your own clues that saved you,’ I deflected, pleased but quite unused to this high praise. ‘How you managed to find out the information you did while you were captive and frequently drugged flatly astounds me.’
Poirot might have attempted an expression of vanity, but seemed too tired to manage it. He contented himself with a little smile. He knew, none better, the extent of his talent for coaxing, tricking, wheedling, or charming information out of unsuspecting people.
‘Do you know,’ he said reflectively, ‘the man that posed as the elderly American fellow we first saw at Bexhill, who conveyed me about like a rucksack. His name is Robert Griffon. Japp has interrogated him briefly already, and he informs me that it was this very same man who, alone in the Syndicate, insisted upon the plan to send me off to France, awarded to the highest bidder. It was his little mania from the beginning. He is caught, and they will not try a stunt of this kind again. It was not only Poirot he carried on him– the papers he was carrying contain a mine of information, and now Scotland Yard has leads on multiple French gangs, including a human trafficking ring. Le bon Dieu, you see, brings good from this great evil. That man will stay in prison for a long time, and when he comes out? The French, they will not forget, croyez-vous.
‘I wonder,’ he continued, ‘if my captors– not Griffon, perhaps, but others– allowed me to compose that letter to you in the spirit of le sport. I was careful with my hints to you, and made them obscure enough so that you would not give away any recognition in your first read-through. They would have been watching you most carefully to see if I had relayed any clues. Tout de même, they did take a risk of personal failure in letting me write it myself. Perhaps failure in this case did not even much matter to some of them. It is interesting, is it not?’ he said, with a hint of a twinkle. ‘This London Syndicate, I do believe they have developed a tendresse for Poirot. We annoy each other much, it is true, but I daresay they would miss me if I were gone.’
‘Really, Poirot,’ I cried heatedly, being disagreeably reminded of a certain Russian countess. ‘The sympathetic tone you take toward criminals who might have gotten you tortured or killed! They were conspirators with Griffon. They would have gladly taken money in exchange for your head, and dispatched you to France to– to–’
‘Yes, my friend,’ he said hastily, reaching for my hand again. ‘I comprehend. Do not enrage yourself, je t’en prie. I am not myself at the moment. You must forgive my little follies. En vérité, I know who are my friends.’ He closed his eyes for a few moments, leaning wearily back on the pillow.
Mollified (and a little ashamed), I said meekly: ‘Solving a case like this, without you there, was a bit of a shocker. It made me wonder– well, if you’ve felt that isolated when solving all of your major cases, when so much had depended on you alone. I know I’m not the cleverest chap. Often, when we’re on a case, I don’t notice the signs you see, and can’t make sense of the clues you unravel. I hardly know how I managed it this time around. It seems extraordinary.’
‘Cher ami,’ said Poirot with feeling. ‘I know I tease you about these things at times. But, as I have told you in the past, I do not wish for you to be another and lesser Poirot, but to remain the matchless Hastings that you are. To me you are inestimable. Not only because you can run after criminals, or state the beautifully obvious which might be overlooked, or entertain me with your fanciful imagination– although you do these things also. Perhaps, it is true, you do not have the best working knowledge of crime or the criminal temperament; it does not accord with your honest and beautiful nature. But there is something important that you understand very well, my friend, better than anyone– better even, perhaps, than Hercule Poirot! For that reason, I had every confidence in you. It is with that unique and superior understanding of yours that you have succeeded today.’
‘Really?’ I said, extremely surprised. ‘And what is that?’
He smiled again. ‘For the solving of a crime, it is crucial to have not merely the knowledge of the criminal, but most importantly, of the victim. It is evident why you succeeded. For, mon ami, you understand… Hercule Poirot.’