Chapter 4: A Close Shave
The London Syndicate is an unofficial series of new Poirot stories. Christie’s characters are her own and I don’t profit from them. I’ll make up my own little tales to share, as long as the Christie people don’t mind. 🙂
Chapter 5: The Elusive One
A light snowfall was just visible through the curtains of our flat. Poirot and I were situated around a comfortable fire in the sitting room. My friend was contentedly passing the time by carefully attending to his patent leather boots with a rag and a jar of petroleum jelly– I suspected that this was his own particular act of defiance in the face of the oncoming winter. That evening, we were waiting for Inspector Japp to drop by, as he was wintering in the far south and meant to bid us farewell before catching his train.
I hazarded a thought that had been on my mind lately.
‘What are we going to do, Poirot, about this whole London Syndicate business?’
Poirot looked up at me in surprise. ‘What do you mean? We have had much to do with them. As a result, some of them are behind bars.’
‘But there doesn’t seem to be any letting up,’ I said in exasperation. ‘These aren’t ordinary crimes. It is a full criminal outfit, and one that seems uniquely determined to get you out of their way!’
My friend gave me a knowing glance. ‘I comprehend. It is hard on the nerves for you, is it not?’
‘Well, frankly, it is! And yours, too, I should think. Threats, attacks– I don’t know how much more of this I can take. Shouldn’t we be doing something?’
‘Ah, Hastings, always the man of action! I perceive the thought in your mind. You want to take the whole organization down from the top, is it not so? Preferably through some elaborate and melodramatic espionage scheme. Well, my friend, such attempts are both difficult and dangerous, the sort of thing to be attempted only in the rare, fortuitous moment. Meanwhile, we have successfully averted a number of crimes already. We learn more about our adversary along the way. And in the Syndicate’s attempts to get me out of the way, they have consistently made little blunders that have upset their plans.’
‘One of these times,’ I pointed out, ‘they’re not going to make a blunder.’
‘Crime always leaves traces, chaque fois,’ returned Poirot sagaciously, wiping his fingers daintily on the rag.
‘And say what you like in praise of the fact that they frown upon personally murdering their victims– they don’t seem to mind if you cop it in the course of things, as long as they’re not the ones actually pulling the trigger!’
My little friend made an expressive (and dismissive) gesture. ‘Well, what recourse do I have? Do I then go about with the bodyguard?’ And he twinkled at me.
It frustrates me to no end when Poirot refuses to take important matters seriously– while lavishing unwarranted care on objects such as patent leather! At any rate, I had always accompanied my friend everywhere on his cases, and realistically, there was little (I thought) that another could do in the realm of protection that I didn’t mean to manage already. If Poirot was aware that I occasionally brought my revolver with me while accompanying him on some of our outings, he had never mentioned it to me.
‘All I mean,’ I said, lighting my pipe and pocketing the brass lighter, ‘is that rather than sit around and wait to be attacked so that you can avert a new crime, it would be as well to go on the offensive.’
‘You think, do you not, that I have been idle in all this? Oh, là là, it is not so! I do not suffer such personal indignities without my own further investigations, believe me. It is not necessary for me to lay out all that I have discovered at this juncture, but there are possibilities there, links in a chain that might be weakened or broken. Alas, crime carries on, mon ami, despite all the police and detectives in the world. Human nature remains the same. Yet perhaps, yes, something can be done. With Japp going away on his holiday, I expect to hear something quite soon from our criminal friends.’
‘You think they’re that afraid of Japp? Surely not.’
Poirot sighed. ‘For all your imagination, Hastings, you have yet to mentally tap into the depths of the creativity of the London Syndicate. There is much that they have not yet tried.’
I judged it best to remain silent, studying the fire in the deepening darkness. Before too long, we heard a familiar knock at the door and rose to admit our friend.
‘Ah, it so good of you, my dear Japp,’ said Poirot, beaming and wringing his hand. ‘You will be away for some time, is it not so?’
‘Three months,’ grinned Japp, ‘in the southern climes. And completely out of touch with civilization! Still, not a bad exchange for winter in England, eh, Poirot?’ He accepted a small glass of whisky.
‘Indeed! I envy you the experience, though not the sea-journey. A most generous offer by Sir Edwin in light of ten years of service at Scotland Yard.’
‘That porter of yours, Mr. Johnston, wished me a good journey as I was coming in here. Nice chap– but I have noticed that everyone and his auntie seems to know I’m off on holiday.’ Japp made a wry face. ‘Mind you, the whole safari end of things hardly suits my taste. Spend enough time in London chasing wild creatures with firearms, I should think! Hunting down exotic and elusive flowers is more in my line. I don’t mind telling you I nearly refused until I heard tell that Dr. Arthur Stevenson, the famous botanist, would be in our little party. Well, I couldn’t pass it up then.’
‘They’ll manage to get along without you at the Yard, all right?’ I queried amiably, pouring out a drink of my own.
Japp paused, casting an awkward glance at Poirot.
‘Inspector Morett,’ said Japp at last, ‘will be at the helm in the interim.’
I choked into my whisky and soda. Morett was the single most obnoxious officer I had ever encountered at the Yard, with a face like a rat and an intolerable smugness of attitude. Whereas Poirot was conceited and charming, Morett was conceited and abominably rude. He didn’t seem to mind me too much for some reason, though he had a most unflattering estimation of my mental capacities (quite unfairly). But he clearly loathed Poirot and had insulted him personally on more than one occasion.
‘I say,’ I gasped, and Poirot clapped me on the back several times.
Japp gave an understanding nod. ‘Years of service in espionage,’ he said by means of explanation, ‘have given him a bee in his bonnet about foreigners. Mind you, the hard line he’s taken has sometimes paid off, especially in the political climate these days. But he’s not what you’d call well-mannered.’
‘No indeed,’ said Poirot impassively. ‘Well, let us hope that our interactions may be civil…’ He turned away from Japp and murmured, just loud enough for me to hear: ‘…and minimal.’
The following week, Poirot received a private invitation to dine with his friend, Harley Street specialist Dr. Hawker. On my own for the evening, I betook myself to a favourite pub, not far from our street, for an early supper, followed by a stroll before it became wholly dark. The air had turned unusually warm for December– not that this had deterred Poirot from his two mufflers when he had left our flat for his visit this evening!
There was a little wooded parkland not far from the pub, and I decided to take a turn in it along a well-lit path. Apparently, the idea had occurred to another.
I saw, seated on a low park bench amid the trees, a young woman of about twenty-five. She had the appearance of one who was endeavouring to bear up under a stressful state of mind, and not quite managing. On her lap were a large envelope and a stack of papers, and she was wringing her hands and frowning perplexedly.
Hesitating, I slowly approached, wondering if I should offer any assistance. Suddenly she looked up with a start. She was extremely attractive, with chestnut hair and fair, blue eyes– which seemed, at the moment, to be tearing up.
‘Oh,’ I stammered, ‘Hello. Can I–?’
She rose to her feet with a sharp intake of breath, clutching her papers. She stared and stared at me, her pretty mouth trembling a little as though she knew not what to say. Finally, with a sudden flush of red, she managed to speak.
‘I beg your pardon sir, but I… well… it’s just…’ A slender hand just touched the corner of her eye. Hastily I produced a handkerchief and offered it to her, which she accepted gratefully.
‘I do apologize. I’m in a spot of trouble, and I don’t know who can help me. You see, my father had entrusted me to hand-deliver some of his business papers to a residence around here tonight… a little bungalow… and, well, I’m afraid, that’s all. It’s terribly awkward to explain… I’m worried, sir, that the bungalow might house people with some connection to a criminal organization.’
She sat down on her bench again and looked up at me, blushing again and trembling a little in the cool of the evening. I took a seat beside her, intrigued, and encouraged her to go on.
‘Oh, I have no proof. It’s not a matter for the police at this point, nor any kind of investigator. And I know,’ she added firmly, ‘that my father is not conducting any illegal operations of any kind. He would never do so. This is all he gave me to deliver.’ Impulsively, she thrust the stack of papers at me, and I looked at them closely. They were, in fact, ordinary-looking, if somewhat dull, papers and receipts of business. I handed them back, and she placed them in the envelope and sealed it carefully.
‘You’ll think I’m terribly silly,’ she said ruefully, her eyes downcast, ‘but I’m terrified of going out to that house. But I promised faithfully that father’s papers would be sent. Perhaps a note… could I trouble you for a piece of plain paper?’
I extracted my pocket notebook and detached a sheet from it, handing it to her. She thanked me and retrieved a pen of her own from her bag. No sooner had she done so than her face flushed even more, and she seemed to abandon the idea of writing.
‘No, this will never do– he was most particular, and they must go this evening– I do apologize, sir; I suppose I’m not making a great deal of sense.’ She dabbed at her lovely eyes again. They were like forget-me-nots, the pupils ringed with gold amidst the blue.
Pulling myself together, I endeavoured to clarify matters. ‘You say you’re concerned that the location you’ve been directed to tonight has criminal connections? What makes you think so?’
‘Well… I’ve been hearing rumours about it lately. Queer things! I work for a typing firm in the neighbourhood, Colgem’s, and all the girls have been talking lately about it– funny stories attached to the place. And something about goings-on that even Scotland Yard won’t be able to manage.’
My mind lingered over Japp’s recent departure, and I wondered eagerly if this might be the sort of thing Poirot was thinking of when he said he expected to hear from the Syndicate once Japp left.
‘Listen,’ I said, ‘If there’s a chance that this residence is a centre for criminal activity, you really mustn’t go there tonight. If these papers really need to be given to someone, I will take them. I’ll be able to get a look at the place.’
She hesitated, looking worried, as she extracted a cigarette. I lighted it for her and she sat in silence for a moment, her eyes flickering over me uncertainly, as if she did not know whether to trust me. Finally, she gave me a little smile.
‘I’ve been terribly rude,’ she said. ‘You’ve been kind enough to try to help me, and I haven’t even introduced myself. My name is Rose Whittaker.’
‘Arthur Hastings,’ I said, offering my hand.
She took it, her eyes widening. ‘Not… Captain Hastings, the associate of the detective, Hercule Poirot?’
‘Yes, the very same.’
Miss Whittaker blushed even more, and her voice shook. ‘And… and you will help me? But I do not want the police involved yet, nor any detective, really… my father… he might not realize who he’s dealing with, if there are criminals there. And it’s all just hearsay at this point!’ The troubled voice of a daughter, seeking to protect her father’s good name.
‘Oh, you needn’t worry,’ I insisted. ‘My friend is quite discreet, but this isn’t a matter for Poirot, at least not yet.’
She nodded. She seemed to be thinking hard.
‘I was instructed,’ she said, ‘to just deposit these papers through the mail slot at Fallston Cottage. I daresay someone will be looking out for my arrival. If you are really willing to go there in my stead, I’d be no end grateful. Mail deliveries in the dark, to that strange place!’ She shivered again. ‘But perhaps you should write a note to leave with it, just so they would know that I’ve given you leave to make the delivery for me. After all, your name would carry weight. Something like…’
Rose Whittaker handed me back the little piece of paper from my notebook, and I prepared to write on it. “‘…I, Captain Hastings, associate of Hercule Poirot, have been empowered to deliver this parcel by my contact.”’ She nodded firmly. ‘This way, if there are any criminals there, they will know that my father is not to be trifled with!’
I smiled a little at her simple confidence. She handed me the sealed package with her father’s receipts, and I took it with the note and prepared to depart. It was already dark, and I wished to hurry on my errand.
‘Captain Hastings,’ she said, rising. She hesitated, and said softly, ‘Thank you. And please… will you wait, until I have spoken to my father tomorrow, before making this known? You can call on me at Colgem’s in the evening around six– I’m working late. We can decide which steps to take then, perhaps, if I think that this is a matter to lay before an investigator– or the police?’
I was fully halfway to the cottage before I seriously began to have second thoughts about the strange, suspicious delivery I was making. Of one thing I was absolutely certain– Miss Whittaker was truly upset and conflicted. She had turned to me in genuine difficulty. For my part, I was less concerned with her genuineness than I was with the prospect of the nature of my delivery. How did she know that her father was not actually a criminal? Or perhaps he was involved with some criminal matter, but unknowingly. What if I was, in fact, aiding the London Syndicate by this delivery? I had looked over the papers thoroughly, and they were innocent enough. But could they be in code, containing secret information? That seemed rather farfetched. Or was the whole crime angle a mare’s nest, just local rumours, compounded by a young woman’s fear of delivering mail in the dark? Was that not far likelier?
Anyway, it was too late to do anything other than what I had promised. I reached the cottage’s gravel drive and hesitated. Although it was dark, the lane was well-lit, and a portly domestic lingered outside, collecting stray branches, a final task before bed. Striding directly up the path, I slipped the package with the note through the mail slot, and turned quickly to leave again.
We would sort out matters later tomorrow. After all, until then, I thought, what was the worst that could happen?
What with one thing and another, I did not encounter Poirot again until lunchtime the following day, as we had our own respective errands on this morning. We had agreed previously to meet for lunch at the West Lodge Café in Soho, a newer place we had not yet tried. After soup and sandwiches, my eyes came to rest on my little friend, now attacking a brioche with obvious enjoyment. It bothered me slightly to have kept news of my nightly errand from Poirot for even this long, and the lady had not precisely asked me not to tell Poirot. She had merely preferred to speak with her father first, before troubling any authorities with what might be a trivial matter. I cleared my throat conspicuously.
‘Poirot,’ I began, ‘I had a rather interesting night yesterday.’
‘Indeed?’ He looked up at me, his egg-shaped head a little on one side, as he dabbed at his moustache.
‘You see, old boy, there’s just the slightest chance that I… well… I may have possibly ended up delivering some papers to members of the London Syndicate.’
Poirot’s brioche dropped to his plate, forgotten. He stared at me incredulously. ‘Comment?’
Feeling slightly foolish, I relayed to Poirot every detail of what had passed the previous evening between myself and Rose Whittaker.
Poirot nodded his head slowly. Several expressions had passed over his face in rapid succession; I could see the brain working away furiously behind the eyes.
‘That is odd, decidedly odd,’ he muttered. ‘Hastings, were you not afraid to comply with such a request? From a complete stranger?’
‘Oh, you weren’t there, Poirot. I tell you, there could be no mistaking the anxiety in that girl’s manner. I’d swear to it.’
Hastily, he replied, ‘No, I agree absolutely. I see in my mind’s eye all that you have described to me so thoroughly. She had turned to you in great distress; of that I have not the slightest doubt. Decidedly, she is in need of assistance. Tell me, Hastings– did you happen to loan a pen, or light a cigarette, while you were out on your stroll last evening?’
‘What? Well, yes, I lit a cigarette for Miss Whittaker, as a matter of fact. I didn’t loan a pen, but used my own pen to write the note. What on earth are you getting at? What could that have to do with anything?’
When Poirot showed no indication of a reply, I went on stubbornly: ‘I took a good look at those papers and would swear they were harmless.’
‘Again, I agree with you, mon ami– they probably were.’
‘And I couldn’t just let her go off on a night delivery to a suspicious house by herself. She was very upset.’
Poirot didn’t answer. After a moment’s further pause, he suddenly became brisk and businesslike. He glanced quickly around us, and he then lowered his voice and leaned forward.
‘Eh bien, my friend, we must be on our way. You are to return to our flat, immédiatement. I have other matters to attend to at the present.’
I looked at him uncertainly. ‘Something’s up. If so, I’d rather not leave you alone. Come back to the flat with me.’
‘I cannot. You shall understand presently. But you must go, Hastings. And you must remember not to concern yourself about me. I take the precautions and I shall be perfectly all right… but only if we go our separate ways now.’
This alarmed me greatly, but I obeyed. We rose from our seats and proceeded to our respective destinations.
As I neared Whitehaven Mansions, I noticed three police cars out front. My mind whirled with speculation. Had someone broken into the flat? Was there a lunatic on the loose? I hurried upstairs without delay. Sure enough, the door to the flat was open, and I hurried inside. Several officers were swarming over the place, along with Mr. Johnston, the porter, looking terribly distressed.
‘What on earth’s happened?’ I exclaimed.
None other than the odious Inspector Morett strode forward briskly with a kind of solemn triumph. He held up something in his hand.
‘This is a warrant,’ he announced, ‘for the arrest of Hercule Poirot.’
Time stood still as I gaped stupidly. He had known. Somehow, Poirot had expected this!
‘Where is he?’ Morett pressed.
Finding my voice again, I said (honestly enough): ‘I don’t know. But what is all this? What is your charge?’
‘He is wanted for counterfeiting,’ Morett replied loftily.
‘Counterfeiting? I’ve never heard such rot,’ I exclaimed, my anger and indignation surging. Morett was looking at me with all the smugness his rat-like face could muster. I remembered his extreme disdain for Poirot, and an awful thought passed through my mind… suppose the Syndicate had infiltrated even the police? The other officers had stopped to stare at us, looking uncomfortably bewildered.
‘We have all the evidence we need to convict,’ Morett went on. ‘And once we’ve cornered your little friend, he’ll be deported before you can say Vive les Belges. Belgium’s not in the best way at the moment. Mark my words, the Germans will be flooding back in any day now. Rather dreadful for M. Poirot, a former head of police and famous investigator, to be caught there in those circumstances, don’t you think?’
I stared at him. Memories of war with Germany interrupted my thoughts with the force of shrapnel. The Somme. Ypres. The brutal treatment of the Germans to Belgian resistance. The execution of Gabrielle Petit. And the waves of Belgian refugees, landing in England, beginning new lives…
The horrible confidence on Morett’s face snapped me back to the present. ‘Counterfeiting, did you say? Counterfeiting! You accuse one of the greatest detective agents in England of such a thing?’ Control yourself, I told myself severely. You can’t lash out against the police… it will make things worse…
‘Evidently, he has pulled the wool over many eyes,’ returned Morett, striding back and forth. ‘I always knew that interfering little foreigner was a mountebank, a charlatan! I believe he’s even taken you in.’ He turned shrewd eyes in my direction.
This proved too much for our porter, Mr. Johnston. ‘By all that’s decent,’ he exclaimed, ‘you can’t think that Captain Hastings himself has been planning crime?’
‘No, I don’t,’ snapped Morett. ‘It’s obvious that he’s just as shocked as anyone. Nonetheless, I believe that Poirot has been using him, taking advantage of his ignorance to–’
I cut him off in mid-insult. ‘What, may I ask, is your evidence that Hercule Poirot has been involved with counterfeiting operations?’
‘I’ll humour you. Do you deny delivering this envelope to Fallston Cottage last night, at about nine o’clock?’ He held up a bulky envelope, cut neatly at the top.
‘Obviously you don’t deny it. Which is just as well, since you were seen delivering it.’ Morett strode over to the dining room table and inverted the package casually. To my shock, out of it poured a river of notes… monetary notes… and a few other pieces of typed correspondence.
‘That,’ I exclaimed hotly, ‘is not what I delivered. This is a frame-up.’
‘Oh? We have evidence from a domestic, a most reliable witness, who collected the parcel moments after you were seen delivering it. She believed the deliverer, and her master (who has since disappeared), to be acting most suspiciously, and felt compelled to come to us with it. We opened it at the station this morning. And this additional note was with it. I suppose you don’t deny that you wrote it?’ He extended it in my direction.
I, Captain Hastings, associate of Hercule Poirot, have been empowered to deliver this parcel by my contact.
‘You have as good as left a written confession, Captain Hastings, that you delivered these forged notes by Poirot’s orders.’
My mouth had gone dry. I stammered, ‘No– no– you have this wrong, from start to finish!’
I would amend this. I would appeal to Japp immediately. I would–
Japp was on another continent and completely out of touch.
Good God, what had I done?
Morett’s repellent voice droned on, but I was tuning him out. That note I had written had been dictated by Rose Whittaker. The entire scene had been set by her. The Syndicate, they would seize the chance offered by Japp’s absence to… Rose Whittaker must have… but no. Poirot himself had said that her anxiety and conflict was real, and that her papers for delivery were quite innocent. Certainly, she was a pawn in this game as well. Perhaps her father, working in concert with the Syndicate, put her up to something. Perhaps, when she spoke to him earlier today as she said she would about our meeting, he saw the possibilities and arranged for the packages to be switched. The domestic would, naturally, be an accomplice. Or… even the police themselves…
Trembling, I lowered myself into a chair, and heard Morett say: ‘I understand this would come as rather a shock for you. This was a man that you trusted, after all–’
I glared at him malevolently.
‘–and I know that you will see the sense of cooperating with the police. We intend to have officers stationed in this flat until Poirot returns, assuming he will in fact try to do so, and I would be obliged if you would remain here for the time being, as well.’
There was nothing I could do but to endure what seemed like endless, senseless questioning. Hours seemed to pass. Desperately, I hoped that Poirot would continue to foresee the moves of the police and would not return to the flat, though how he had done so thus far was a great mystery to me. I said nothing of meeting Poirot for lunch or the conversation we had shared, lest I somehow betray his position. Haltingly, I attempted to explain the full events of last night and described Miss Whittaker, who worked at Colgem’s, but my story sounded weak and contrived, even to my own ears. My great hope was that they would contact Miss Whittaker immediately so that she could confirm my story, Poirot would be cleared, and we could begin to get to the truth of this matter.
Morett did indeed phone to Colgem’s, exchanged a few words, and rang off again. He turned to me with an unpleasant smile.
‘Even now, you try to protect your friend, who has abandoned you to the police? Relaying false information to us is a serious offense, Captain Hastings. Colgem’s has no record of ever having employed a Rose Whittaker.’
Hope died in me. So she was in it, after all. Poirot had been wrong, and if he was wrong, he was likely to be in terrible danger at this moment. Or perhaps he wasn’t wrong… perhaps she had innocently given me a false name to remain anonymous in her trouble? I was dreadfully confused.
Just then, the telephone suddenly rang. My heart gave a jolt and I reached for it, but Morett was before me.
‘Hercule Poirot’s residence. Oh, it’s you, Officer Bailey. Any news?… What? Are you certain?’ He listened attentively, his face steadily growing redder and redder. After several minutes, he hung up the receiver, appearing utterly astonished. He gave me a quick glance, and with a single gesture, every remaining officer came to him. To my surprise, he filed them all out immediately, and shut the door behind them with a bang, leaving me alone.
I was sure that they had found Poirot and were off to apprehend him. And I had not been given leave to go. But they had no right to keep me here! Several agonized minutes passed as I paced, uncertain of a course of action. My thoughts were interrupted by the unexpected turning of the doorknob. I rushed forward angrily.
But through the door walked… Hercule Poirot.
‘Ah, my good Has–’ he began pleasantly, unaware of my stricken face. The next moment I had grabbed him by the shoulders and hauled him forward into the flat, slamming and locking the door. Amid protests, I pulled him into the sitting room and said breathlessly, ‘They’re looking for you! You can’t stay here, Morett and the rest might be back any time, and if the porter noticed you–’
‘Hastings! Calm yourself, I pray you!’ My little friend detached himself and removed his hat, coat, and mufflers carefully. ‘I am not going anywhere now. All is well, and even that loathsome Inspector Morett has accepted the truth. I have had a little chat with your mendacious friend, Miss Rose Whittaker, and her ruse has failed.’
‘You found her?’ I gasped.
‘No, my friend, I allowed her to find me,’ said Poirot with an enigmatic smile.
‘I thought you believed her to be innocent.’
‘En vérité? I do not think I said so. I said that she had turned to you in great distress, and agreed that she was in a true state of anxiety. I also said that the papers she showed you were innocent, and they were. But you did not notice when she exchanged those innocent papers for a duplicate parcel, extracted from her bag, which she then handed to you.’
I breathed heavily, feeling an utter fool. ‘Did you really think something like this would happen, Poirot? You were terribly quick on the uptake.’
‘You speak as though such celerity of mind were unusual for me, Hastings! I am very nearly offended. No matter. Yes, when I first heard that the good Japp would be incommunicado for some months, and the unsympathetic Inspector Morett would be in his place, it crossed my mind that the Syndicate might try to use this state of affairs to their own benefit. There are others at Scotland Yard who would speak in my defense, but they do not rank so highly. Morett had the power to make life difficult for me. If the Syndicate could get a serious accusation of crime against me, perhaps! Morett would work quickly to deport me and– imbecile that he is– would not ask too many questions. The political situation is tense now, my friend, and the system can be unyielding to les étrangers. It is just possible he might have succeeded, an unwitting tool of the London Syndicate, and long before Japp would have ever found out to intervene.’
The words ‘unwitting tool’ struck a painful chord as I remembered my own role in the scheme. ‘He never– he wouldn’t have– succeeded, surely!’
Poirot looked at me and clasped his hands behind his back. ‘It is difficult to say,’ he said at last. ‘It offends the grey cells to think that Inspector Morett could be so infernally stupid, but alas, c’est comme ça. Had he applied enough pressure, even slight evidence might have been deemed sufficient. But the note written in your own hand, hein, that carried weight. A stroke of genius by our adversaries. No, do not blame yourself unduly, mon cher. You fell into their trap, but you also, without realizing it, aided in the resolution of our problem.
‘Au fait, before I left the lady, I retrieved this from her.’
Poirot held out a little white bundle, which I unfolded. It was my lighter, wrapped in my white handkerchief. I looked at them forlornly, and it struck me: the trophy.
‘It was why I asked you, Hastings, if you had lit a cigarette or loaned a pen while you were out. You comprehend, I did not think you were carrying much of value, but if it were the Syndicate, they would have been looking for something, anything, to collect from you.’
‘How did you know it was her?’ I asked. ‘I only suspected as much after Inspector Morett showed me that note she dictated to me. Even then I wasn’t absolutely sure. You seemed to know ever since my description of our meeting.’
‘Ah, she made a mistake at once, but at once! I am surprised that you did not notice. Mademoiselle gave the impression that she did not know who you were. Yet before you revealed your identity, she asked for a sheet of paper on which to write a note. Not every gentleman carries a notebook about with him, Hastings! You picked the habit up from me because we work in criminal detection. Yet she assumed, without question, that you had such a thing on your person. That struck me as a little suspicious.’
‘And also, it seemed too much of a coincidence to me that she mentioned the fact that she did not want an investigator, or the police, brought into the matter, before she knew that you yourself were a colleague of an investigator très célèbre. Furthermore, she seemed usually quick to trust you to handle and examine her father’s private business papers. The smell of the fish was all over the account you relayed.’
‘So you made her give these back when you apprehended her,’ I said, clutching my handkerchief and lighter– implements of kind courtesy and gentility– with disgust.
‘No, my friend, I did not make her. I did not mention anything of the sort. She surrendered these things herself. You do not understand?’ He looked serious, but kindly. I could not comprehend the way that he was regarding me.
‘She used me to try to ruin you,’ I said testily. ‘She nearly succeeded. No, I can’t say why she would return her “trophy,” unless she just thinks she didn’t earn it because she failed.’
‘Mon cher ami,’ said Poirot, ‘she is in love with you.’
I had not heard him correctly. Surely, I could not have. But he looked perfectly in earnest.
At last, I replied woodenly: ‘Did she tell you that?’
‘No. I knew even before I met her. It was confirmed when I spoke with her, but no, she did not tell me.’
I didn’t ask. ‘Anyone who loves me,’ I said stiffly, ‘would not try to destroy your life and send you out of the country.’
There was a twitch of Poirot’s moustache. ‘She did not quite see it that way– at least, not at first. Her original goal had been simple. She plants herself in the park she sees you enter. She did not know you. If she had succeeded in her operation, Poirot would be exiled from England, which would benefit the Syndicate– and they would not even receive the blame. But when the plan was formulated, she did not know what awaited her. She met you and, c’est vrai, fell in love. Undoubtedly an additional benefit appeared before her. By sending me away, you would be shaken, perhaps disillusioned with criminal detection altogether… not to mention completely unattached. You would turn to her. She would find some way to clear her name from the crime, and to convince you of my true guilt.’
‘Really, Poirot, I…’ Suddenly I felt myself blushing to the ears, scandalized. I wouldn’t have, never. Or… would I have? Unknowingly turned to the woman responsible for framing and exiling my dearest friend? It was a heinous thought.
‘Ah, mon ami, that was how I knew,’ said Poirot with affection, gesturing to my burning face. ‘When you spoke of the way she blushed, I was sure even then. She was a criminal, I realized, with the Syndicate, seeking to frame me in Japp’s absence. Only they have ever tried to exile me from England. She must have been high-ranking, too, for such an important mission. Such a one does not fluster in such a way when carrying out the role like that. The way you described her, and her manner of speech, convinced me– as you too were convinced– that she was labouring under a genuine conflict of mind. Now, what could account for it, the blushing Rose? She was conflicted about you, yes! Your account of the exchange left me no doubt.’
‘Good Lord, Poirot, you’re being completely fanciful. All that doesn’t mean–’
‘There is more, my friend. Allow me to recount my actions from the time we parted earlier. After our lunch, I sent you back to our flat so that you would not get into trouble. Had you stayed out, they would be hunting us both down and would have viewed you with greater suspicion– and two are more difficult to hide. As it is, they had little suspicion of you as a willing, informed accomplice. Parbleu, I could not come with you and face the annoying farce of an arrest and any subsequent unpleasantness. It was my job to find this girl and, if possible, persuade her to lay the truth before the authorities. I knew she would be shadowing us, and that she would be alarmed to see you return to the flat, and the police, without me. This would not suit her! Such an action was unexpected, and she had no contingency plan. Miss Whittaker expected you to keep your night delivery a secret from me until that evening, by which time the police would have found me. And so, her plans upset at lunch, she was forced to follow me, lest I escape altogether.
‘But as I promised you, I took the precautions. Before I left the area, I spotted a friend of mine, Sgt. Landsdow, finishing his coffee at a nearby table. I approached him and exchanged what would have looked to anyone like a simple, friendly greeting, but in reality, I told him I was being shadowed and asked for his assistance. He was to also follow me, remaining at a fair distance, in case this young woman had an accomplice or attempted violence. He agreed without question. Like you, mon ami, he is the man of action!
‘I concealed the moustaches, and most of my face, in my mufflers, and walked several blocks until I reached a secluded street. She stood there, at the far end, and buried herself behind a newspaper. I approached her briskly and greeted her, which caused her to jump. But she did not run as I explained to her that I knew what she had done.
‘I told her more, mon ami… I spoke of our meeting in Belgium, and my arrival at Styles St. Mary, and of our first investigations together. I told her of your unfailing loyalty to myself, how you have risked your life on my behalf. She listened as if turned to stone.
‘I could have added more, but time was pressing. That same hour, the two of us were walking toward the nearest police station. I introduced her to Sgt. Landsdow and asked him to kindly escort her to the door (lest some imbecile of a policeman apprehend me instead), at which point he was free to leave us both. As it happened, things progressed much as I assumed they would. She went in, laid out her confession, and before they could take it in properly, gave them the slip again. But it was enough.’
‘You permitted her to escape,’ I said slowly.
‘Oui. She has righted her wrong.’
I turned all this over in my mind. It did not seem entirely satisfactory to me. ‘Did she think that Landsdow was a plain clothes officer? Is that why she went to the station to confess?’
Poirot threw his hands into the air. ‘Mille tonnerres! I told you why she confessed! She had been in a great state of anxiety and confusion since your meeting with her the other day. She wished to succeed, but already felt the guilt of betraying you. Truly, there was something cold-blooded in the plan of using you as an innocent instrument to destroy my reputation and send me away. By the time I found her in the street, I was well exercised as to her state of mind, and decided to try to appeal to her better nature. It is why I spoke to her of you and of our friendship. Never, never will you pay heed to the psychology, Hastings! Ah, if you could have seen her eyes then. You would be left in no doubt.’
He twinkled at me even more. ‘A simple way to avert a crime, n’est-ce pas? If only we could introduce you to all the ladies of the criminal underground; they could fall in love with you and turn from their devious paths.’
I was not amused. Indeed, Poirot’s attempt at humor seemed to me to be in the poorest taste. The whole affair was deeply unsettling, and the solution to the mystery was (to me) unsatisfying.
‘Not much of a crime for you to resolve,’ I shot back, a little sulkily. ‘An emotional hiccup on the part of the criminal and she falls to pieces.’
Poirot raised his eyebrows. ‘Pas du tout,’ he said with dignity. ‘Suppose I had not realized the nature of the danger. What then? You would still have an admirer, but I would have gone straight back to our flat and into the lion’s den. I would have had no chance to speak with her, and she most likely would not have had the resolve to confess. I am quite satisfied with what I accomplished, merci beaucoup.’
Guiltily, I recalled again my part in this affair and what might have been, and held my peace. Poirot went on.
‘My friend, listen– this affair has not gone without tremendous benefit to us. One part of it, you know now. A highly-ranking member of the London Syndicate has, shall we say, a certain sympathetic disposition towards you. No one knows this but we three! The Syndicate does not know the precise circumstances under which her confession took place. She will probably tell them that I compelled her to come to the station with the help of a plain-clothes officer, and that she escaped against our will. I suspect that she will lay low for a little while, having botched this particular job, but this is not the last we have heard of her– no, I think not.
‘And she is conflicted, mon ami, mais oui. For her ties to the Syndicate run deep.’ His voice grew warmer as he uttered a most unexpected phrase: ‘Do you recall her eyes?’
Her eyes. Beautiful, blue forget-me-not eyes, flecked with gold. Poirot nodded. ‘I have seen those eyes before, I believe… in the face of Harold Whitcombe.’
‘Whitcombe? Of the Battersea Scandal? What do you mean?’
‘Yes indeed, the very same gentleman who was double-crossed by certain players in the Syndicate and gave us the first information we received about the organization. I have no doubt that Rose Whittaker is, in fact, a Whitcombe. I would stake my reputation on it– she is a near relation of his. The resemblance was unmistakable. Perhaps, my friend, when she spoke of her father with such feeling, she was indeed thinking of him. A man who is now in jail because of trouble within the London Syndicate.’
Poirot’s eyes were shining green. ‘And there we see a chance. A great chance for us, against this organization. A weakness in the chain. This development may prove most interesting.’
I thought sadly, and with a great deal of bewilderment, of the lovely girl with the chestnut hair, arrayed on the side of our enemies. As if reading my mind, Poirot added: ‘No, we shall leave her be, mon cher. Ours is not to hunt down the elusive one, the flower, as the good Japp does in his expeditions abroad. No, these chances, the wild ones of the jungle– they come to us, to the London doorstep. Let us stand at the ready to meet them!’