Chapter 7: The Battersea Scandal
Hercule Poirot was in deadly earnest. Perhaps he noticed my pallor, because he said suddenly:
‘But before I begin, mon ami, I owe you this courtesy.’
Nimbly he hopped up again and went to pour out a drink. He returned and handed me an unusually large brandy. ‘You may need this, I think.’
It was not exactly an encouraging beginning.
‘Throwing away a crumpled rose and a bit of paper has changed everything?’ I said skeptically as I took the glass. ‘You’re pulling my leg.’
‘You do not see it, Hastings? You were observed throwing the items away in the lobby of the Carlton, and that is why they were retrieved, in curiosity, by Johnston. Who else would do such a thing? He did not know that I was with you in the building at that point, so he had not yet fled. That paper is an admission of the double-crossing of Rose Whitcombe! She too could be in grave danger at this moment from the London Syndicate.’
The weight of my folly crashed down on me. Of course, Poirot was right. I couldn’t like the woman, but she had apparently tried to aid us in all good faith. Shivering, I took a gulp of my drink.
‘And you say that my life is in danger as well, for this reason? Are you supposing that the London Syndicate lifts its rule against murder when their adversaries begin conspiring with their own agents?’
‘That is not entirely what I meant, Hastings, but you are not so far from the mark. Ah, my good friend, see you, I have just suffered most grievously the belief that I had directly caused the death of a young innocent. If your death were to truly lie at my door, what then should I do? No– I shall not allow it to happen, jamais! And so I must warn you now, and take no chances.
‘I know that you are very tired from your services of the previous night.’ How very true; and I tried unsuccessfully to suppress a yawn. ‘But I beg of you to hear me out before you rest tonight. As I said, I shall recount to you the affair of the Battersea Scandal, which has been illuminated somewhat by visits to Harold Whitcombe in prison and my own inquiries at Scotland Yard. I also wish to tell you of that man himself, for his influence in the Syndicate has a direct bearing on the story and our present trouble.’
‘You’ve piqued my curiosity, old boy, I must say,’ I said, taking another fortifying swig of brandy.
Now– (continued Poirot) to the Battersea Scandal.
You, mon ami, were away in the north of England those many months ago, when the news broke from Battersea. In black and screaming headlines! Two prominent government officials of that region had been publicly disgraced. One was revealed to have been an embezzler of funds; the other had been carrying on multiple affairs at the office. How stupendously great was the public outcry!
I was just reviewing the account from the morning newspaper when a caller interrupted my quiet. She was an honest, efficient-looking type, between thirty-five and forty years of age, with a well-made black dress and a hat that tempered a mop of auburn hair.
‘Monsieur Poirot,’ she said, ‘I am in urgent need of your services.’ She glanced down at my paper and nodded in a resigned manner. ‘You have, I see, become acquainted with the news from Battersea.’
‘Indeed, madame– seat yourself, I pray you.’
The lady reposed herself in the nearest armchair and turned determined grey eyes on me. ‘My name,’ she said, ‘is Mrs. Amanda Richwood. Art Richwood is my husband– we also happen to reside in Battersea. The local scandal is not precisely what I wish to consult you about, however. My concern is for my own husband, who is being blackmailed.’
I raised my eyebrows, and the lady continued in her matter-of-fact way.
‘I came on behalf of my husband to see if you would be willing to take on the case. We were not sure if it is the sort of thing quite in your line. Possibly our trouble is no more than a silly prank by some young people who took advantage of some… slight indiscretions of my husband’s at a recent party he attended.’
The lady went on to explain. Richwood had been in conversation at the party with an acquaintance, a M. St. Vincent, and over drinks the talk had turned to the subject of the daughter of Art’s senior business colleague: Miss Seagram, a notorious flirt. She was present at the party and in quite high spirits. St. Vincent made a few smarmy comments and supplied Richwood with another glass or two of champagne. Apparently many young rogues there were egging him on. And someone had taken photographs.
‘Alas, madame, this must be most painful for you to recount,’ I said, when she had finished.
‘Nonsense,’ she said firmly, and a little to my surprise. ‘It’s not my feelings you need to be concerned about in this case. I’m well aware that my husband is not terribly bright. He’s literal-minded at all times, predictable as clockwork, and quite suggestible. As for Art, when he received the blackmail demands, he came to me straightaway to explain– perhaps the one thing his enemy didn’t count on. He’s not a secretive, conniving man, just a foolish and transparent one. And in spite of everything, Monsieur Poirot, I am fond of him. It’s the possibility of a scandal that worries me; it will do no good for either of us. ’
‘But you said, did you not, that your husband thought it was not serious, but more of une blague juvénile?’
‘That is what’s so curious about it all! Real blackmailers demand money, and lots of it, don’t they? Their threats are heavy– they will go to loved ones, to the employer, to the press. But it wasn’t quite like that in this case. The request came in the form of a crude and absurd note and copies of some photographs, and the note threatened only to tell me, his wife. And what they wanted– oh, it seemed so trivial, one could scarcely think to take it seriously. Three pounds sixpence, to be delivered himself personally at exactly 11:20 tomorrow morning, at a location in a town called Navenlies! At first, Art thought to just give them what they wanted and be done with the silly thing. But it worried me, and I thought it best to seek your advice before complying.’
‘I see, I see– it has the appearance of a prank of no importance. But today you see the headlines of the Battersea Scandal, and the possibilities frighten you, eh?’
‘Just so, M. Poirot. And although the blackmailer does not mention going to the press with the photos, the coincidence of our location in the same neighbourhood might put ideas into his mind, especially if he is eager to make a big splash with his joke. Whether we comply or not, he might decide he wants the publicity.’
I could see, Hastings, that I was dealing with a woman of intelligence. The problem intrigued me, and I procured a few more details and assured the lady that I would call on her husband within the next hour or two. M. Richwood was a store manager in Battersea, and it was of interest to me to see his place of business.
Alors, at precisely a quarter to noon I arrived at Seagram General, a neat and respectable establishment that, as I was soon to discover, reflected well the personality of the man working there. Consider, my friend– some men are like myself, with order and method that are a reflection of a robust and vivid intellect. There are other men, however, who keep their lives neat and regular because if they did not, their vague insipidity would cause them to practically disintegrate. M. Richwood was of this type.
The store was quiet and still, and indeed it bore witness to the personality of its manager. I passed through a little entrance corridor where a coat rack bore a somewhat shabby hat, a light sweater, and a few other personal belongings. Neat rows of car pictures decorated the corridor. It was a pleasant spring day, and the windows had been opened to let in the fresh air of which the English are so inordinately fond.
It was in this orderly environment I made the acquaintance of the poor, shrinking man. At the mention of my errand, he grew nervous and fidgety, but did not even seem to have enough blood in him to blush. A very different type from you! It is just as well that you were not with me, as you would have disliked the man very much. The auburn-haired Madame Richwood, on the other hand– ah, that is an unpleasant face you make at me!– I will not tease, then.
After an exchange of introductions, I said: ‘I will investigate this matter for you, monsieur. It may be, it is true, a foolish trick of the most juvenile. But I must ask your opinion straightaway– do you feel that there could be some connection between this predicament of yours and this “Battersea Scandal,” as the papers call it?’
He looked astonished. ‘I should hardly think so, sir! I may have met the men in question once or twice, but by all accounts they had serious goings-on. An embezzler and a serial adulterer! There was plenty of proof and they admitted the charges. And I don’t recall that there was any question of blackmail with them. What happened with me at that party was just– just a stupid– ’ He trailed off awkwardly, then began again. ‘It looks like a prank, sir, and a clear set-up to boot. I guess I might have complied without question– the joker’s not asking much– but somehow I didn’t like them to have it all their own way. And if I don’t do what they want, well, they can’t surprise my wife, but they might go to the press or someone else.’
‘I comprehend perfectly, monsieur. Well, we shall see. Now, since you are not busy with other customers in this establishment at the present– ’
‘You just missed the morning rush,’ he interrupted, apparently insulted that I would suggest that business was slow. I continued.
‘–I would like you to tell me all that you can remember about this party, the people you spoke to, all that occurred.’
With a great deal more fidgeting, he told me. The gathering had been a week previous, and was an informal one at the local pavilion. Several members of the community with interests in Battersea had been present, and there was a fair bit of ‘talking shop.’ Richwood had fallen into conversation with a certain Mr. St. Vincent, a curious man who clutched a file folder and presented himself to Richwood as being quite the man of the world. And when Miss Seagram, the outgoing daughter of old Mr. Seagram appeared in their midst, St. Vincent became increasingly vulgaire and pressed champagne on the other man.
‘I hardly know how it happened,’ mumbled Richwood. ‘But I’m sure now that Mr. St. Vincent was a bad lot, and instigated the whole thing as an odious hoax. The way he went on about his own personal experiences with “wooing the boss’s daughter” and what a feather in the cap it would be for me to do the same. I didn’t take it seriously. But still, things happened…’
‘And later, you receive the letter and some photographs? You still have them, I presume?’
At that, Richwood finally managed a flush of pink. He reached into his coat pocket.
‘I suppose you must see them,’ he sighed, passing over a large envelope. ‘I wasn’t about to leave this lot lying about. They’ve been on my person since I got them yesterday morning. You can see,’ he added in desperation as I extracted the envelope’s contents, ‘ how silly it all is.’
I understood his meaning. The pictures were more awkward and foolish than salacious. (Drink your brandy, mon cher Hastings; it will cure you of those unkind faces you continue to direct at me! One must at least look at the evidence.) I could see why Madame Richwood would be more concerned about the prospect of publicity than of a genuine affair on her husband’s part. Monsieur would certainly be uncomfortably placed if indiscreet photographs of that sort were to make the rounds to other individuals, perhaps accompanied by a well-spun rumour or two.
The clock struck the hour, and the highly-strung man jumped nervously. Mumbling something about lunch, he retreated to the corridor to collect his lunch satchel and brought it back to the front counter. Unabashed, he spread the contents out lavishly and began eating as I continued looking through the envelope contents.
The letter of demand was also foolish. Coarsely printed, it commanded Art Richwood to arrive alone in Navenlies the next day. At 11:20 sharp, he was to put a white envelope containing three pounds sixpence into the hollow of a certain tree behind the telegraph office. He was then to wait in that spot for a full twenty minutes. After that, his obligations were at an end. The money would be collected at a later date, and the original photographic proofs returned. He was not to go to the police. If he did not comply exactly, the photos would go to his wife.
I returned the items to the envelope and handed it back to Richwood, who hastily returned it to his pocket.
‘C’est incroyable!’ I exclaimed. ‘What a ridiculous proposition. It does indeed have the appearance of a crude hoax.’
Richwood nodded vigorously. ‘Just what I thought. And what would be the point of it?’ He scowled over his sandwich. ‘Blast that wretched St. Vincent! The two of us had even chatted about Navenlies in the course of our conversation and what a pleasant town it was– there’s a really splendid little park in it, and some top-notch motors about as well. The man is some sort of confidence trickster or maniac.’
I asked for a description of his acquaintance, but Richwood was vague. St. Vincent seemed to be of average height and build, brown-haired, perhaps around forty, with no distinguishing marks.
‘The only really noticeable thing about him, as far as I could tell, was the file he carried,’ shrugged Richwood as he tapped a boiled egg. ‘Mind you, a few gentlemen at that gathering were passing papers and discussing various issues, but St. Vincent didn’t seem interested in that sort of thing. I only managed to get a quick glance at the label once when his head was turned.’
My attention was caught. ‘Yes, monsieur? What did it say?’
Richwood looked up from his lunch placidly. ‘B-Battersea,’ he stammered.
‘Pardon? It said “Battersea”?’
And again, Richwood stammered: ‘B-Battersea.’
I stared at him. There was something in his voice that puzzled me. He had not sounded frightened or uncertain. He had turned his attention back to his food. And an idea, a peculiar and almost preposterous idea, began to form in my mind.
To Richwood I said, in more forceful tones: ‘It seems certain to me, monsieur, that this is indeed a hoax, and I shall advise you. Follow carefully the instructions that have been given to you in the note. You shall go, alone and un-followed, to the town in question at the appointed time. You shall deposit the money in the hollow tree in question and wait the twenty minutes. We shall wait the few days until you receive back the evidence photographic, for I have no doubt that it will be duly delivered. At that point, and only then, will we begin the search for the culprit. You need have no fear of your task tomorrow. It would not do for us to jeopardise your reputation for a pittance, but I do believe that I can help you nonetheless.’
Richwood looked relieved, but it seemed that a hint of suspicion lingered in his eyes.
For my part, Hastings, I had some more desultory conversation with the man before bidding him good day and promising to be in touch. At this point, I returned to the flat and placed two telephone calls: the first, to the Chief Inspector Japp, and the second to Mme. Richwood.
The small town of Navenlies is more than an hour outside of London, situated among rolling hills. I would not have found it especially remarkable, except that its park, the one commented upon by Richwood, really is a place of uncommon beauty in the springtime. It is orderly and symmetrical, with a large and vigorous old-world fountain, a spacious green lawn, much shrubbery and flora, appropriate benches and arrangements for picnickers. Quel endroit pittoresque. I know all this, bien sûr, because I was up with the bird the following morning, long before Richwood was due to arrive, to have a look about. Of course, I had been most artistically lying when I told him that he would not be followed that day, what else?
The atmosphere was quite still at that hour, but I still had no wish to be specially observed. It is not, I admit, very easy for me to go incognito as a rule. You English do not rightly uphold the venerable tradition of la belle moustache, and as a result, every really well-groomed foreigner in your midst is regarded as an extreme oddity! However, I saw what I wished to see, and then made my way to the local inn to order coffee and toast. The rest of the morning was spent avoiding my fellow men behind a large newspaper in the corner of the lounge.
It was a few minutes after eleven that I rose, exited the establishment, and made my little arrangements. Then I made my way cautiously down to the town park, now occupied by several people, and found a convenient patch of shrubs in which to conceal myself. From there I could see a few open park benches. The main road came close to this particular corner of the park.
Richwood came strolling along into the vicinity at about ten minutes to twelve. Apparently he had dropped off his envelope in a timely fashion, waited by the tree as instructed, and was now at leisure. He walked to and fro for awhile, looking about him. Occasionally he glanced at his watch. Finally he came nearer to where I was concealed, selected an empty bench, and dropped his satchel down next to him. From it he extracted a number of luncheon accoutrements, laid them out, selected a sandwich, and began to eat.
A few minutes later, I heard what I was expecting: the sound of a car pulling up a little way down the road. Then, the rapid approach of a man, entering the parkland around the hedges. I caught my first look of him as he came on: he was a well-dressed gentleman of nearly sixty, with greying hair and rather wonderful blue eyes. He stooped slightly and sounded out of breath as he came up to Richwood.
‘Pardon me, sir,’ he said to the seated man in a deep, apologetic voice, ‘you don’t know anything about cars, do you? I’ve never had the transmission on my Rolls act up before. Sounds funny to me. I don’t suppose there’s a garage nearby?’
Richwood was on his feet at once. ‘Oh no– not for some miles. I can take a quick look for you, if you like; I do know something about transmissions.’ And the two men disappeared rapidly around the hedges.
I heard the newcomer indicate the position of his car further down the road, suddenly adding: ‘You go ahead; I’ll just see if there’s someone else back here who might ring up a garage for me.’
The stranger reappeared in the park. He quickly approached the recently-vacated bench and reached for the empty lunch satchel. Only, he did not seem to think it was empty! No, he felt about and found a small side-pocket, opened it, and extracted an item. He was turning to leave again when I stepped out of my place and directly into his path.
‘Bonjour, monsieur,’ I said. ‘A beautiful day for a drive and for a picnic– but it does not do to rifle in the lunch sacks of strangers.’
He stood as though rooted to the spot. Then he found his voice.
‘I know who you are,’ he said slowly.
‘I am gratified,’ I replied. ‘Several criminals do, in fact. And I fancy, monsieur, that you are intimately acquainted with several criminals. St. Vincent is one of them, of course. But the network that you work with must be impressive indeed.’
The shock on his face! How wide his eyes opened then! His hand was going for his pocket when a voice cried out: ‘Hands up!’
It was then that the three officers who I had strategically planted nearby emerged from their places. As the stranger raised his hands, one of the officers relieved him of the object that had been taken from Richwood’s bag. I indicated that it should be given to me. It was tiny bundle of brown paper. Carefully unfolding it, I extracted a key with a large label affixed to it– and on the label was a name.
‘Monsieur Harold Whitcombe,’ I said to the astonished man, holding up the key, ‘when training your associates in the fine arts of blackmail and smuggling, it would be well to avoid some of these elementary errors. The first two scandals out of Battersea you had under control. But this little ruse was a step too far.’
He took a deep breath and gave me a long, appraising look.
‘How, M. Poirot, did you know?’
Hercule Poirot, that raconteur, looked pleased with himself as he leaned back in his chair.
‘How did I know? Alors, naturellement, it was suspicious at once that a blackmailing case from Battersea, even a minor one, should be brought to my attention directly after the eruption of the Battersea Scandal. Two publicly disgraced men, embezzlement for one, a string of affairs for another? That alone had all the appearance of men who had not complied with blackmail and had been exposed as a result. Richwood had told me that there had been no mention of blackmail from the statements of either men or in the press, and he was quite right. But that did not remove the possibility. In some cases, Hastings, if a blackmailer discovers that his threats will not work and his victim is of no use to him, he will retaliate by exposing those secrets he has been holding, and then doubling down on his threats in order to cover up his blackmailing activities. Those men of Battersea had been exposed, but they would not expose their blackmailers. Doing so would not undo their guilt or restore their reputations– and if the blackmailers, perhaps, threatened the welfare of their families? No, the men would suffer their disgrace in silence. Admission to the police would be too risky.
‘In such a scenario, the blackmailers would not gain money, but notoriety and fear, which can be quite valuable assets in themselves. You see, what I suspected, mon ami, was the possibility of a local gang, perhaps concentrated in the region of Battersea. When Mrs. Richwood first came to my office with her strange tale, I admit that it sounded too bizarre to be believed. The demands of the letter seemed nonsensical. Richwood was not a particularly wealthy man that he should be extorted for a large sum. It might, indeed, have been a boyish prank. But there was another possibility– a blackmail attempt carefully constructed to look like a boyish prank. It was a fine line to walk, as the threat must be sufficient to be taken seriously and complied with, but not seriously enough to seem to warrant private investigation or a connection with the other scandals.
‘Oui,’ said my friend dreamily, ‘Richwood’s problem took a shape in my mind as a sort of template’ (his hands gestured with dramatic eloquence)– ‘the way that one might try to go about blackmailing a common, everyday man. It had an experimental quality, an artist feeling his way…’
‘And you accuse me,’ I broke in, ‘of romantic notions!’ Poirot has the most asinine ideas of what constitutes artistry.
As usual, he paid no heed to my outburst, but carried on in his complacent and expository fashion. ‘It is not merely for money that gangs blackmail. From a bland, law-abiding man they may desire information, or for the other to be in a place at a specific time, or merely to assert dominance and authority in a vicinity. If Richwood were truly being blackmailed, it was not for that paltry three pounds sixpence in a white envelope. That, I was sure, was a mere distraction to cover true intent. Perhaps, I speculated, this was one of a series of scandals in Battersea, and I had stumbled across a minor one, even a “test run” of sorts.’
‘Through which you might hope to catch a bigger fish.’
‘Exactly, my friend, and what a fish it turned out to be, n’est-ce pas? But first, I sought additional evidence for my theory of a gang. There was the file folder, carried so closely and secretively by our unscrupulous M. St. Vincent, in a Battersea setting which was full of news of local interests. That was suggestive. Remember how guarded Richwood had been, carrying his incriminating envelope of photographs when I spoke to him! But when he told me what the label on St. Vincent’s file said– mon Dieu, that startled me!’
‘I still don’t really understand,’ I said, ‘why the man’s stammering about the file folder gave you ideas on what was happening or how to stop it. Nor, really, what this tale really has to do with our present problem.’
‘A little minute of patience, Hastings. When asked what the label said, Richwood replied B-Battersea. But this was not an accidental stammer brought on by nerves. He said it twice, quite deliberately. Then I understood that the very literal-minded Richwood– for so his wife had called him– was telling me that the label actually had the letter B, then a hyphen followed by the word Battersea. The label itself read like a stammer to Richwood’s mind. But it spoke volumes to me. The file was one of a series. Somewhere, there were other letters of the alphabet for other files of other neighbourhoods and vicinities. What was happening in Battersea, both in the news and with Richwood, was part of a much larger collection of threats, blackmail, secret documents, and the like. This was no little gang, but an organization that might conceivably cover the entire city of London!
‘A fantastic thought occurred to me like the thunderbolt. St. Vincent is being trained in the art of blackmail by his superior. Richwood is a test case. The careful timing of the demand suggests a pick-up of which Richwood will be the unknowing carrier. The victim was being sent to a place far from London, away from suspicious policemen; a place with which Richwood was familiar and would be known to behave in a certain way. Because the man is, as we know, “predictable as clockwork,” he will eat his lunch at exactly noon in that beautiful park he admires, for it will be 11:40 when the demands release him and there will not be sufficient time to return to his store. He will have his lunch satchel, which is kept in the store corridor and with which anyone might tamper with, unobserved in the chaos of the morning rush, shortly before he leaves for Navenlies.’
‘And you guessed all this?’
Poirot threw me his most withering look. ‘It is the deduction, Hastings! It is a little profession of mine.’
‘Well, if you figured that St. Vincent would tamper with the lunch satchel that morning before Richwood left, why didn’t you just stop him then?’
Poirot sighed and spread out his hands. ‘I could have done so, but I was convinced that there was, as you have said, the “bigger fish” to catch. St. Vincent could, perhaps, have been caught that morning at Seagram General planting the key, in which case he would have been charged with a tasteless prank and gotten off lightly. Or more likely, he would have sent another gang member to plant the key, and that person would have had no connection with the Battersea Scandal or any clear criminal motive at all. No, I am certain even now that my approach yielded the best results.
‘If I was correct about the gang angle, I could expect to find Richwood lunching in the park, soon to be interrupted and called away from that lunch by something that would eagerly divert his attention– like an impressive motor breaking down a little further down the street. A man would come, search the bag quickly, and extract some small item. I had a strong suspicion, also, that along with the object to be passed, the photographic evidence would have been hidden right in Richwood’s lunch satchel the morning of the pickup. Richwood would eventually find it, thus neatly rounding off all obligations and reinforcing the idea that it had all been a mere joke! That was, indeed, exactly what we found hidden in the lining of the satchel– very fortunate for Richwood, too. And fortunate for the police, as it beautifully tied Harold Whitcombe to the Battersea Scandal. It all seemed… a little too fortunate, peut-être?’
Poirot’s brows contracted, and he steepled his fingers meditatively as he stared past me. ‘It was the large label on the key, with the name of St. Vincent’s superior, that particularly interested the Chief Inspector Japp when the matter was placed before him. It was clumsy, he said, and he was quite right. The key identified Whitcombe, and that along with the hidden photographic evidence were bound to get him into enormous trouble in the event that anything went wrong.’
‘Unless St. Vincent meant for things to go wrong for Whitcombe,’ I suggested.
‘It did seem possible to me that Whitcombe might have been double-crossed. The windows of the general store where my interview with Richwood had taken place had been left open. St. Vincent could have been listening. In the event that someone was listening, I had raised my voice slightly to announce that Richwood should comply with the blackmail demands, and I mendaciously claimed that he would not be followed to Navenlies the following day. St. Vincent may have known I was on the case, may have heard the conversation, and may have had his suspicions about my truthfulness. This was all conjecture. I spoke more with the Chief Inspector Japp about the matter, and he told me with complete confidence that St. Vincent must have made his preparations with the satchel in such a way that Whitcombe would take a major fall if plans went wrong. I agreed with his analysis. Neither of us could prove anything, however, and we never suggested to Whitcombe that he had been deliberately betrayed by St. Vincent.
‘All that was left to do, then, was to question Whitcombe with Japp, and see what the two of us could learn. This took place two days later when you had just returned to London. Now Whitcombe assumed from my earlier manner that I knew a good deal about his London Syndicate already, and he let slip some important facts before his reticence took over– namely, an impression of the sheer scale of the organization. Far more extensive than we had conceived! Never did we discover the nature of the key that St. Vincent passed to Whitcombe; it was an ordinary door key and has been in the keeping of Scotland Yard ever since. It is likely that Whitcombe had no fixed address at the time and did not want the key passed openly, but was in telephonic communications with St. Vincent by which they arranged the plot. Along the way, by Whitcombe’s guidance, his protégé would learn the delicate art of blackmail that is so crucial to the power of crime syndicates and which frightens entire populations into compliance. But they did not reckon on the skill of Hercule Poirot– and they greatly underestimated Mme. Richwood’s perspicacity!
‘By the end of that fateful first interview, Whitcombe was sullen and irritable. “If you knew, Monsieur Poirot, just what my colleagues thought of you, you’d be down on your knees to thank me that they lay off murder these days. You’ve interfered with other jobs in the past, but now they’ll know you’re wise to the syndicate. I’d watch my step if I were you.” These were his words to me.’
I could not help an ironical smile. ‘That very day you came home and burst into the kitchen to express how delighted you were to be so soundly hated by this prestigious organization.’
‘Eh bien, it is gratifying to have one’s own colossal talents recognised by other skilled individuals. I was glad, too, that they at least eschewed murder. That requires explanation to you, mon ami, because of this new crisis. Permit me to recount some of the information that Japp and I ascertained from Whitcombe about himself and his methods, and various details we have gleaned since then from a number of sources. It will tell you all you need to know about the present danger.’
Poirot’s voice changed and became wistful. I had the impression of someone sifting through pictures from the past, forming a narrative from faded fragments of memory.
‘Harold Whitcombe had been a somewhat unscrupulous man all his life. He was an adventurer, and several poor investments he made started him on the path of petty crime, particularly theft. Nonetheless, he was thoroughly devoted to his wife and family and placed a high premium on loyalty. A turning point in his life was the death of his wife, the victim of a hit-and-run.
‘Les affaires tragiques, they take different people different ways. Bereft of the more stabilising influence of his wife, and in more difficult financial straits than ever before, he threw himself wholly into the criminal underground, where his influence and status steadily grew. Yet in honour of his wife who was killed, he developed a defining maxim for himself: in crime, murder was to be avoided at all costs. Cleverness, artistry, and strength were to be prized, and murder discouraged. It proved to be good business sense as well, and he drew a good many supporters to himself and his methods. This was the genesis of the organization we know today.
‘His dislike of murder led him to develop the practice among his associates of a systematic taking of trophies from victims–’
‘I had thought previously,’ I interrupted, ‘that that sort of thing was only done by the most deranged criminal psychopaths.’
Poirot looked amused. ‘Pas du tout. It is done by the greedy child of six, the spiteful girl of sixteen, the disgruntled man of middle age. These things align neatly with simple avarice or even mere habit, besides serving as symbols of power and mastery. It is universally done, I assure you.’
‘I’ll take your word for it,’ I said with a sigh. Dwelling on such sordid criminal habits was only increasing my sense of exhaustion.
‘My good Hastings– so innocent, so upright! As I was saying, Whitcombe laid stress on the taking of trophies as a replacement principle for the impulse to murder. The London Syndicate, as it came to be known, consolidated around himself as the head, and two other men: Heath Riggs and John St. Vincent. Riggs specialised in smuggling and kidnapping, quite a ruthless streak in him. But that was nothing to St. Vincent. That man was dangerous in the extreme! He had pulled off more than one major bank robbery, being unparalleled among the crooks of London for thwarting surveillance, and had no compunctions about murder. And yet, in spite of this, he found himself drawn to Whitcombe, his methods, and his many devotees… such as his daughter.’
I looked up sharply at this. ‘His daughter?’
‘Oh, yes. Rose Whitcombe, as we know her now, bien entendu. It was discovered in the weeks following the Battersea Scandal that St. Vincent had been affianced to a daughter of Harold Whitcombe’s. Recall again, if you will, the words of St. Vincent to Richwood about his own experiences in “wooing the boss’s daughter.”’ He was devoted to her, but he may have betrayed her father to further his own ascendancy in the Syndicate. I daresay she has never known the truth.’
‘This alliance was instrumental in keeping St. Vincent’s deadliest criminal instincts at bay, for she herself was loyal to her father’s own maxims. The authorities did not know who she really was even after that incident with Inspector Morett, nor that her personal interests were beginning to lay elsewhere– only we did.
‘And you see where that leaves us, mon cher.’ My friend looked at me with the utmost gravity. ‘Tonight, everything has changed. John St. Vincent of the Battersea Scandal– he is one of the highest-ranking forces of the London Syndicate, the most expert security-breaker, the thief, and the cut-throat. With the credentials he carries, and even the similarity of name, I fear that he can be no other than our late doorman, Mr. Johnston.’
I felt the blood drain from my face.
‘Johnston retrieved that note and rose from the Carlton. He knew that handwriting and took the items away as evidence. As of tonight, he knows his fiancée has betrayed him to aid Poirot. And I have no doubt whatsoever,’ said the little man carefully, as I gripped the arms of my chair, ‘that he has guessed– by that flower you held, the failure of her last mission, and perhaps her own distance from him of late– that she entertains affections for you. It had been his ties to the daughter that had reined in his murderous tendencies. But now…?’
The darkened room seemed to have become several degrees colder. In some desperation I went back to the glass of brandy, but I had finished it some time ago. Poirot leapt up and refilled my glass for me.
‘It is a dire situation,’ Poirot added sympathetically as I snatched the refilled glass from him and swallowed.
‘That’s putting it rather mildly, don’t you think?’ I sputtered.
‘But do not give up hope, cher ami. It is not the time to panic.’
‘Not the time to panic!’ I croaked out. ‘You’ve just told me that a murderous criminal, high up in a crime syndicate, may think I’ve stolen his fiancée and will be bent on seeking revenge. Is that about right?’
‘Yes, yes, that is so… but Hastings, you have at your disposal your friend, who also happens to be the greatest detective in the world. Is that not a tremendous stroke of luck?’
I wasn’t feeling so lucky. Observing my palpable distress, Poirot removed the glass from my hand and pulled me out of the chair to which I had been clinging.
‘You are exhausted. It has been a great deal to take in– you must go immediately to bed and rest as you are able. Johnston will not be back tonight. Against any other complications, not only the police but I too will be on watch. Tomorrow we will relocate temporarily, and I will employ my little grey cells. You will leave everything to me. In this I shall not fail. And, Hastings– ’
He paused. ‘That excellent revolver– which you have been carrying about with you from time to time over the past few months– I suggest we bring that with us when we leave tomorrow.’