Chapter 3: Absent Without Leave
Chapter 5: The Elusive One
Chapter 6: The Fatal Mistake
Chapter 7: The Battersea Scandal
The London Syndicate is an unofficial new novel-length Poirot story. Agatha Christie’s characters are her own and I don’t profit from them. I’ll keep making up my own little tales to share as long as the Christie people don’t mind. If you’d like to read some reviews of this series first to see what people are saying about it, they can be found here.
Chapter 11: The Execution
Before I could regain my wits, I felt Poirot’s hand on my arm in a repressive gesture.
‘Do not move,’ he whispered.
Indeed, in another moment I would have flung myself forward in wild outrage, forgetting all of Poirot’s previous warnings. But his words seemed to have a stabilising effect. Instinctively I did exactly according to his instructions.
Griffon raised his eyebrows. I heard a faint, distressed noise coming from Poirot. God only knows the thoughts and the memories that were running through his mind in that moment.
‘Isn’t this interesting,’ the man said. His voice was unusually deep and sonorous. ‘I thought I might meet you here. We have some unfinished business, we three. I wouldn’t try anything if I were you– Miss Rose here is an excellent shot.’
In dumb incredulity, I looked at the girl holding my gun. Griffon gave a hoarse chuckle.
‘I heard about that incident with the switched parcels. Really amazing that you can have forgotten so soon that the lady can employ an excellent sleight-of-hand. It’s one of your finest talents, isn’t it, Miss Rose?’
The girl’s eyes were locked on Poirot’s. She nodded slowly.
‘It’s not very comfortable, standing in a wardrobe,’ she said. ‘Why don’t you just step out now. The next room is far more amenable.’
Thus, we were ushered back into the larger room with the small table in the centre.
‘Have a seat,’ said Griffon quietly. ‘And don’t bother shouting. The walls here are very solid, and the little noise that gets through is drowned out in the shrubbery outside. A good location is everything. Also, shouting annoys me. Do yourselves a favour, and don’t annoy me.’
With dignity, Poirot seated himself at the table. I followed his example, my eyes straying constantly back to Rose Whitcombe and the revolver. She had returned to the door we had entered, drew back the little curtain, and glanced outside, as though she anticipated something. Then she turned and rejoined Griffon, who stood facing Poirot and myself. All of my hopes were focussed on the assumption that Poirot had contingency plans for precisely this sort of disaster. Had he not spoken of reflecting on the moves of the enemy? Surely, surely he was already one or two steps ahead. Perhaps… perhaps Rose Whitcombe herself was still our ally, and was play-acting for Poirot’s purposes. Clinging in desperation to this idea, I tried to suppress the growing fear inside.
Griffon’s manner was placid and unnerving. He seemed to loom over us.
‘An interesting tactic,’ he said, ‘to walk right into our headquarters and take a look around. It surprises me a good deal that you thought you could get away with it. Pride comes before a fall, Mr Poirot. Didn’t think you made those sorts of errors of judgment.’
Poirot answered feebly: ‘It is not a common occurrence, no.’
‘Mr Johnston worked out everything– and sent Miss Rose to find you. He knew you would fall for the bait, the offer to search here for secret documents. And we wanted the two of you here, seeing as this is the most convenient location for tonight’s events.’
He surveyed Poirot, who was looking ashen and more than a little sick. Not at all, I thought, like someone who had a contingency plan.
‘Well, you know about the business,’ continued Griffon. ‘It may seem a bit hard on you, but I’ve got my way to make like everyone else. The matter stands like this.’ He looked at his watch. ‘I’m heading out around midnight to meet some colleagues of mine, just come over from France.’
Another indeterminate noise came from beside me.
‘We should be back here at about half past two. Mr Poirot will go with them… and there will be no mistakes this time. They will make quite sure of that.’
I cast a glance at my friend. A fine dew was breaking out on his forehead.
‘And what about me?’ I found myself saying.
Griffon considered me. ‘That remains to be seen, doesn’t it.’
* * * * *
Rose Whitcombe was flushed but steady. This was certainly not the blush of admiration or infatuation. Was it embarrassment? Nerves? Or, more likely, the unpleasant thoughts of what was inevitably in store?
‘Miss Rose,’ asked Griffon, ‘why don’t you get Mr Poirot and his friend a drink. Looks like they could use it.’
And to my continued shock, Rose Whitcombe handed my revolver to Robert Griffon and disappeared into the kitchen area.
Keeping the gun aimed in the general direction of Poirot and me, Griffon looked carefully after her. I could hear the sound of pouring liquid.
‘Poirot,’ I said in a hoarse whisper, ‘what do we do?’
My friend was staring at the gun that Griffon held. His answer came quietly but clearly.
‘Do nothing rash, mon ami,’ he said. ‘As I told you before.’
In a bid for greater clarity, my mind raced over Poirot’s prior instructions. Don’t resist a threatening gunman. Obey my friend’s orders at once without question. Display no fits of temper to antagonise Rose Whitcombe. Well, it seemed a bit late for that last one…
I could just make out the faintest of plopping sounds from the next room. The girl was out of sight from the place where Poirot and I sat at the table, but Griffon obviously had a clear vantage point of all three of us from where he stood. He was still watching Rose as she emerged from the other room, bearing two identical glasses of a clear fluid.
‘Do you really think,’ I said with a mirthless laugh as she approached us, ‘that I would drink anything you would give me? You could have put anything in that. Set it in front of me and I’ll sweep it right off the table again.’
Poirot quickly said, ‘No, my friend, you shall not!’ at exactly the same moment that Griffon cocked the gun and pointed it directly between my eyes.
‘I don’t like it,’ said the big man quietly, ‘when my hospitality is not appreciated.’
A deep breath came from the girl standing beside me with the glasses. Poirot’s hands flew up in an eloquent gesture. He became very foreign.
‘You may place them down, mademoiselle,’ he said. ‘Tout va bien. My friend, he is much excited. It is understandable, yes? There shall be no refusal of hospitality or disturbing of the drinks.’
The glasses were set on the table before us. Rose Whitcombe backed away until she was once again beside Griffon.
‘Understand, Hastings,’ continued Poirot assuredly, as he leaned toward me, ‘that there is no poison in our glasses. You need not fear it. That is not their way.’
In spite of his confident tone, he looked pale and upset. His eyes suddenly became fixed on the window in the door across from us.
‘Indeed,’ he cried as he pointed, ‘it is the arrival of Gregory Johnston that is the real threat.’
So dramatic was the delivery of this remark that Griffon and Miss Whitcombe instantly wheeled round to the window. The girl gave a little shriek as she strained to see into the darkness. Even I half-rose from my chair and endeavoured to look.
‘Ah, mais non, mais non,’ said Poirot hurriedly, ‘I did not mean that this gentleman was here.’ The two Syndicate agents and I (all of us in rather an ill-temper) turned to see my friend leaning back in his chair, shaking his head. He indicated that I sit down again and I did so, my heart in my throat. He was taking his foreign exaggeration pose a little too far for my liking.
‘A thousand apologies– I allow the emotion to get the better of me. I merely meant to indicate, my friend, that your drink is not what you should fear. There is nothing in it. The Syndicate, they would not dare to poison us at this juncture.’
Robert Griffon came closer and raised the gun again. ‘So drink.’
Poirot nodded to me. ‘Do not be afraid, Hastings.’
He lifted his own glass and took a long draught. With a sigh, I followed suit. Was there a slightly bitter taste to the tonic water? Perhaps– I could not be sure. At this stage it may have been my imagination only. If Poirot said that there was nothing to fear, the best thing to do, I thought, was to take him at his word. Griffon may have offered us drinks merely to see if he could unnerve us further. Or perhaps he did have curious ideas about offering hospitality to his adversaries. We finished the water and the girl removed our glasses to the kitchen once more.
‘That wasn’t difficult, was it,’ he said grimly. ‘I’ve not much more to say to you now. But I’d be obliged if you’d come with me and wait somewhere out of the way.’
We stood, and Griffon quickly passed his hands over us to be sure that we had no weapons.
‘And if you’d take my advice,’ he added when he had finished, ‘you’d use the time to say your goodbyes. After tonight, you won’t be seeing each other again.’
* * * * *
Poirot and I were escorted into the third room, and the door closed behind us with an abrupt bang and the click of a bolt. We had previously made a perfunctory examination of the room when we had first arrived, and now I looked about me with a good deal more urgency. It was the largest of the three back rooms, and unusually empty. A few sparse shelves to our left held a small supply of table linens and dish cloths. There was a single window directly across from the door, and it was, of course, heavily barred. On either side of the window, a pair of dark, heavy pipes ran from floor to ceiling. The only furniture was a rickety chair reposing in the corner not far from the window. One glance around told me that escape was likely to be impossible.
I was in a thorough blue funk at this point, but Poirot appeared to have calmed down and pulled himself together somewhat– an attitude inspired, perhaps, by no longer being in the direct vicinity of Robert Griffon.
‘It is not pretty, this,’ said my friend in a quiet voice.
‘Do you mean the room, or the situation in which we find ourselves?’ I asked drily.
‘Both. You noticed, perhaps, that the room with the wardrobe was overcrowded with supplies, while this one lies almost vacant? It seems suggestive now.’
He shook his head, crestfallen. ‘It is likely that this room was cleared out, and its contents removed to the wardrobe room, in preparation for our arrival. There is precious little here that we can utilise to free ourselves.’
I realised that he was right, and soundly cursed the wretched girl in the other room. All the same, I did not see how Poirot could possibly have guessed such a thing in advance based on the state of the rooms themselves, and it seemed unreasonable for him to place undue blame upon himself.
‘We could attempt to break the window,’ I hazarded, ‘and call for help. Landsdow might be near enough to hear.’
‘It is not likely that we should succeed in breaking it. The bars have been fastened on the inside of the room, and it would be difficult to create sufficient impact upon the glass.’
‘How about wrenching apart some of that pipe?’ I strode quickly over to the window to examine one of the metal pillars. I gripped it with both hands and attempted to manipulate it, to no avail. ‘Good Lord, this is solid. I’m afraid it’s not going anywhere.’
‘You forget,’ Poirot said, ‘that even if we could do such things, there are armed guards just outside that window. They can, perhaps, see us even now.’
‘Well, what do you suggest?’ I demanded impatiently. ‘Giving up?’
Poirot gazed about him. ‘There is one thing that we can do… one thing that might yet prove fatal to the London Syndicate. We can attempt to do exactly what we came here to do.’
‘You mean, find the files? Perhaps they’re not really even hidden here now after all. And if so, would they lock us in the same room in which they are hidden? I don’t see how we can get them out of the headquarters even if we were to find them.’
‘I suggest the location of the files in this room as a possibility only. For reasons of my own, I believe they are here at headquarters. And I do not speak of removing the files from the room. At this stage, our enemies are expecting us to be preoccupied with thoughts of escape. They do not imagine that we continue to hunt for their files. And if we found them, eh bien, what of it? But if we do find them, mon ami– we can destroy them. It is still within our power to do that.’
My heart sank. It would not save our necks, but my friend had a point. However unlikely our chances, that had been what we had come here to do.
‘I take it,’ I said, as Poirot began once again to run his hands over dull, uneven walls, ‘that you are still searching for a hidden compartment of some kind in the structure of the building itself.’
‘But certainly. When the young lady told us previously that the hiding place is reputed to be impossible to find without dismantling the building brick by brick– of that I am convinced. It is in accordance with the methods of individuals like Johnston as well.’
For the next ten minutes, we analysed, prodded, and shoved segments of wall. It was a fruitless and discouraging task, and no success of any kind rewarded us.
* * * * *
Suddenly, Poirot made an abrupt halt in his searching. He extracted his large pocket watch, glanced at it, and to my surprise, removed it from his waistcoat, placing it in his jacket pocket. He proceeded to do the same with various other accoutrements on his person, including his pince-nez and the silver ring given him by Miss Whitcombe. I stared.
‘What the devil are you doing?’ I finally asked.
But asking Poirot to explain before he is ready is always useless. He merely shook his head, removed his jacket entirely, and laid it over the little chair near the window. Assuming he was simply feeling warm with anxiety, I resumed my scrutiny of the unobliging walls.
Several moments later I heard a stifled yawn. I turned to find Poirot retrieving some linens from the shelf. He proceeded to examine and compare them minutely. At last he seemed satisfied, and brought down two acceptable specimens. To my mystification, he carefully spread one out on the floor near the chair, flicking every bit of dust (real or imaged) from its surface. The other piece of linen he folded up into a neat square bundle.
‘Do you have some sort of escape plan in mind?’ I said, for his actions seemed quite unaccountable.
‘No, my friend, I am afraid not. I am preparing to lay myself down.’
‘What? On the floor? Why?’
Poirot shrugged. ‘I have the great tiredness, mon cher. There is nowhere else to lay down.’
‘Have you utterly lost your senses? This is not the time for taking a nap. We must be on alert!’
My words fell on deaf ears. The little man placed the square folds of linen neatly at one end of the flat sheet and dropped down onto this unconventional arrangement with another little yawn. He looked up at me and I saw the glassiness in his eyes.
‘It is an odd place for a nap, it is true, Hastings. However, at this point, I do not really have much of a choice.’
A bolt of fear struck me. ‘What do you mean?’ I cried. ‘You haven’t been–’
I remembered the drinks given to us by Rose Whitcombe. The way that Griffon pressed us to drink. Poirot’s moment of distraction that caused the rest of us to look the other way. His insistence that I drink, that there was nothing for me to be afraid of…
I exploded. ‘Poirot, you– you–!’
He laid down his head and stretched himself out, closing his eyes.
‘What else could I do, Hastings? They had a gun pointed at us.’
‘If you were going to take my drink, you could have tossed it away!’
‘No, I could not have, mon ami, not discreetly.’
‘Was it poison she had given me after all? Are you just laying down to–?’
Poirot opened his eyes again. ‘No, it would not be poison. Johnston did not wish for you to be killed in that fashion. This drug is undoubtedly to cause sleep, unconsciousness, immobilisation. You may recall that it was Johnston’s stated desire to shoot you with your own gun as you slept. If you had been the one to ingest the drug, you would not have stood a chance when he came.’
‘My God, Poirot, my present consciousness isn’t likely to stop him! All you’ve done is to make it easier for Griffon…’
It was not to be borne. I was furious with my friend, a sort of strangled, confused, heart-wrung fury.
‘Courage, my friend,’ came his quiet voice. ‘This was the only thing to be done. And perhaps you will do one thing for me.’
‘What is it?’ I pressed earnestly, hoping for some final word of brilliance that would provide a solution to our desperate situation.
He closed his eyes. ‘If you do see Johnston, ask him… ask him if he knows why we have come.’
‘But– but he knows why we have come, of course. He’s the one who worked out the whole plan. Griffon told us that.’
‘All the same… ask him.’
‘Poirot, I don’t understand. Not any of it. How did you know they only meant to drug me? Why wouldn’t they drug the both of us?’
His moustaches twitched in a sad little smile. ‘Still you do not understand? Ah, mon pauvre Hastings.’
I stared at Poirot in complete bafflement. His breathing slowed and he remained very still. It was a nightmare– a senseless nightmare in which the great man had completely lost his wits, and left me to face our enemies alone after making what was surely a useless sacrifice.
For several moments I stood looking down at him, too stupefied to move. But subsequently I found myself shaking my friend and shouting his name in a complete panic, so that the door soon came flying open again to admit Griffon and Miss Whitcombe. The latter still held my revolver. They stared down at the two of us.
‘What’s going on?’ Griffon thundered. In a flash, he gestured to the girl to direct the gun at Poirot.
‘Back against the wall,’ he ordered to me, ‘and do not move, unless you want her to use this’– he pointed at the figure on the floor– ‘on your little friend here.’
Unwillingly, I complied– what else could I do?
‘Bracelets,’ Griffon barked to the girl.
At first I did not comprehend. Then, with her free hand, Rose reached into the pocket of her jumper and retrieved something, which flashed brightly as she tossed it to her associate. In another moment, my back was against a length of solid pipe and my hands were immobilised behind me.
Griffon then knelt down and grabbed Poirot’s arm, lifting and dropping it. He felt the pulse on the wrist. He applied pressure to the chest. He raised the eyelids, then looked at his accomplice in astonishment.
‘He’s unconscious,’ he exclaimed. ‘Damn it all, the devil switched glasses! The old distraction ruse–’
Rose emitted a gasp of horror. Her eyes met mine, and I gave her a black look.
Griffon appeared more baffled than angry. ‘The utter fool,’ he said. ‘He’ll be out for at least three hours, and when he wakes up–’ He looked at me. ‘He’ll wish he hadn’t.’
It was a bad moment. My fighting instinct collapsed completely, and I stood sunk in black despair. Poirot was not shamming– Griffon would make no mistake of that kind. He had really allowed himself to be drugged by the enemy, to leave me in this horrible mess without the slightest idea what to do. His faith in me had been badly misplaced. Long before he regained consciousness, Johnston would arrive. And I would surely be dead.
The voice of Rose Whitcombe wafted through my whirling consciousness, but I only just made out the words. ‘Gregory won’t be pleased,’ she said uncertainly. ‘I’ve none of the drug left now– my last three tablets were in that glass. He’ll think– he’ll think–’
‘Don’t you worry about that,’ said Griffon. ‘The important thing is that they’re both here and not able to cause any trouble. And you did everything all right. I saw you add the tablets to the glass and give it to that–’ (Here he delivered some unrepeatable language as he indicated me.) ‘We weren’t to know that the other would do such a fool thing as switch glasses on us. He must have thought we meant to poison the other after all, and tried to take the fall. I’m off to telephone Mr Johnston before I leave and fill him in.’
The girl nodded. Stepping over Poirot– to my intensifying anger– she approached the window and gazed into the darkness, touching the bars gently. She was standing just a few feet away from me.
‘He means to be here in about an hour,’ she said. ‘I’m waiting until he comes.’
‘Not I,’ said Griffon. ‘Those French chaps have been terribly strung up since they came– wouldn’t set foot in London until everything was a definite go. I’m going to collect them. I reckon you’ll be gone by half past two, though.’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I’ll be gone.’
Without a glance at me, the two agents left the room together.
I hadn’t thought there was anyone on earth I could hate more than Robert Griffon. Not Ramsey, perhaps not even Johnston. But now there was.
* * * * *
A melancholy hour passed. The girl did not show her face again during that time, but the occasional muffled sounds from the other side of the door bore testimony to her presence. I tried to tune it out. Poirot, of course, still lay senseless on the floor, his face turned a little away from me. I thought, despondently, of his hopes for success in this mission. We knew the danger, naturally, but never could I have imagined events playing out in this fashion. I tried to cast my mind back to happier times, but the memories only made me sicker at heart. Nothing could save either of us now. How would Poirot react when he learned of my death, I wondered. I have sworn, above all, that you shall not be shot, he had said…
These were the thoughts upon which I dwelt when the door quietly opened once more. It was Rose Whitcombe, revolver in hand. She avoided my eyes as she entered the room. Behind her, coming toward me, was a man. His figure was horribly familiar: his drab brown hair and eyes, his exceptionally ordinary height and build, his slow and easy gait. But his manner was different than it had been as a porter in Whitehaven Mansions. There was a new glint of malice in his eyes, and I saw in his very ordinariness a man who would be easily overlooked, to the danger of anyone in his path.
‘Ah,’ said Gregory Johnston. ‘The great Hercule Poirot.’
He stood over Poirot’s tiny, motionless body and smirked.
Rose Whitcombe said anxiously: ‘He’s been out for about an hour so far. I’m sorry, Gregory, I tried–’
Johnston waved a magnanimous hand.
‘Griffon told me all about it, darling. It doesn’t matter now. I would have preferred for the other to be asleep, but maybe it’s better this way. All the little monsieur has really accomplished is to extend his friend’s life for a couple more hours. And I can wait those couple of hours.’
The comment about Johnston’s intention to wait was not clear to me. I looked down in perplexity at my friend, lying peacefully on his sheet on the floor. Had this been the true reason Poirot had switched our glasses? Did he know that by emptying my drugged glass, he was somehow buying me two more precious hours of life? I closed my eyes bitterly. It had not been worth it. If Poirot had remained conscious, I was convinced he would have managed a means to free himself. Now, I would die all the same, and Griffon and his French acquaintances would surely have no difficulties removing Poirot from the premises.
Rose Whitcombe looked at her watch as she pocketed my revolver again.
]‘It’s just before midnight,’ she said. ‘Nearly time for me to take the guards to the Chapel Street garage for the next coup. Will they all be waiting on the walkway for me?’ Leaning a little on the small chair near Poirot, she gave one more glance through the barred window.
‘All five of them should be gathered at the end of the walkway already. It’s a deuce being short on manpower– blame monsieur here for that. But we won’t need them here anymore tonight.’
I disliked the satisfaction of the smile that followed these remarks.
The girl came over to Johnston and placed a hand on his arm. ‘I shan’t be more than half an hour,’ she said. ‘I’ll see you then.’
A fresh wave of revulsion toward her swept over me. Perhaps she felt it, for she fled the room at once, closing the door behind her.
Johnston turned back to me and clasped his hands together as he surveyed me.
‘Well,’ he said. ‘And how are we feeling now?’
I just stared at him. Finally I said:
‘There’s no reason that you should have any quarrel with me.’
‘Oh, isn’t there?’ he said sharply, his eyes flashing. ‘I can think of a fair few reasons. So can Griffon, you know. If it weren’t for the fact that your foreign friend is worth his weight in francs, I’d have a bullet for both of you tonight. You’ve been annoyingly meddlesome to the last degree. And then there’s the business with Rose. It’s clear she had a bit of a pash for you at one time– which I rather think you returned.’ I hastened to argue, but he cut me off. ‘Denying it won’t get you anywhere. Anyway, she has proven herself to me tonight. But it’s as well that I put you out of commission– just to be on the safe side.’
The man was mad, mad with animus and jealousy. If only Poirot were able to give me some direction, some word of instruction.
Then I remembered that there was something Poirot wanted me to do, a question that I was to pose to Gregory Johnston. Hesitantly, I asked:
‘Do you… know… why Poirot and I have come here tonight?’
The eyebrows of the other man rose, and he suddenly burst into an incredulous laugh.
‘You’re as good as a panto, Captain Hastings,’ he gasped, slapping his hip. ‘Entertainment value– is that why Poirot kept you around? Because, you’ll forgive me, it certainly wasn’t for your sparkling intellect. Of course I know why you came here tonight, you dear idiot.’
He turned and headed to the area of the room with the linen shelves and placed his hands upon the wall. With one ear close to it, he made a careful series of taps, looking as though he were opening a safe. When this operation was completed, a small section of the wall gave way to reveal a compartment. Johnston retrieved some items, strode back to me, and waved them in my face. They were files, and I could read the labels… A– Aldwich, B– Battersea, B– Belgravia, C– Clapham, C– Croydon, D– Deptford…
‘This is why you came here tonight,’ he spat, tossing them aside. ‘And I knew you wouldn’t find them. Only Griffon and I have access. But he really thought he could manage it, didn’t he… your little friend. His pride will be the death of you.’
I was silent.
Johnston went on, staring at the man down at his feet.
‘You wouldn’t understand. You’re too great a fool. But he was clever, I admit. I had plenty of time to study the two of you in my role as a doorman. It surprised me often that a man that clever did keep you around. Finally I had to conclude that, for whatever daft reason, he was actually fond of you. It was valuable information, that. Like any game of chess, one has to study the moves of one’s opponent. I had to get rid of him. But how? How does one destroy Hercule Poirot?’
I started, but Johnston didn’t notice as he went on.
‘You know, I had thought that my idea with the Girl Guide was a terribly good one. If you want to really undo a man like Hercule Poirot, you have to go after his mind, to put the horror of the responsibility of murder, of the death of another person, upon him. He’s quite a fanatic on the subject. After the encounters we’ve had together, I’ve come to think that it is the only way to make a man of his type self-destruct. It nearly worked then. And in fact, when taken out of the realm of fantasy and into reality, I think it will work tonight.’
‘Yes, Rose is bringing it back once she finishes her errand at the garage. I wanted it to be your own gun, just for my own satisfaction, you understand. The original plan was to do the deed while you were unconscious, but that’s not really so necessary, is it?’
‘I don’t understand,’ I said slowly, ‘why you said that you intend to wait a couple more hours.’
‘Before I shoot? Good God, man, must you be spoon-fed everything? Living with you must be frustrating as all hell. I really think I might be doing your friend a favour. Very well then. Merely killing you might arouse some measure of guilt and distress in him, yes. But there is a way of utterly ruining Hercule Poirot. Doing the deed isn’t enough, as I explained to Rose. All along, I have been determined to do it before his very eyes.’
I swallowed hard and painfully.
‘Now that,’ said Johnston with satisfaction, ‘that will destroy him. His own responsibility in the affair will cut like a knife. How could he have been so foolish? How could he have made such grave errors and placed you in such needless danger? Think how he fell to pieces when he thought he had brought about the death of a wretched little Girl Guide. How much more so when his dear friend is blown away in his presence, thanks to his own incompetence? I daresay that having your death at his door was his principle fear throughout your little adventures. That’s the trouble with fondness.’
How horribly right he was.
I managed to speak: ‘And that was the meaning of the message you delivered to our flat. That is how you intended to destroy us both, with a single bullet.’
He smiled at me.
‘It is a pity for you,’ he said, ‘that you should arrive at your deductions when it is far too late.’
* * * * *
Had Poirot known the meaning of the note and the bullet? He seemed to think he did. He had spoken of a criminal’s predictability in method. He had known the reasons we were each targeted. He even seemed to realise, at the giving of the drinks, that only I would be drugged, because Johnston wanted him awake to witness my murder. Why, why couldn’t he have stopped this man?
My chin fell to my chest and I closed my eyes, no longer to bear the sight of my tormentor. He seemed to be getting bored with me as well, for I heard his footsteps pacing slowly away, and he spoke as though to the opposite wall.
‘You thought you’d gotten Griffon put away for good, didn’t you. And now the French are coming this way, just the same. If I know your friend, eluding death at that juncture will be especially disappointing to him. Perhaps, if you like, I might do what I did earlier this month, when a distraught little man mendaciously mentioned to his porter that he was having difficulty sleeping. And the innocent, obliging porter offered him his own supply of veronal. Shall I offer him some more for his journey to Paris?’
Suddenly I heard a small, sharp sound, unexpected and incomprehensibly close at hand: the cock of a gun hammer. My head snapped up and I saw an amazing sight– one I had never seen before.
Hercule Poirot was standing beside me, pale and still, with a revolver in his hand. He was pointing it steadily at Johnston, who had turned in astonishment to face us.
My friend’s eyes were now dark and blazing.
‘Do not move… monsieur,’ he said hoarsely, in a voice I hardly recognised. ‘I do not miss.’
Johnston said nothing. He merely stared in mute incomprehension. I did likewise, disbelieving my own eyes…
‘The plans that you and your friends may have had for Poirot– they have been interrupted. I am not so easy to catch as all that.’
Poirot is renowned for springing the impossible on his unsuspecting victims. Considering the events that had passed in the music studio of Alexei Dimitri some months ago, I should not have been surprised that in mere seconds, he was somehow able to disengage the cuffs on my wrists with his free hand. But I ceased to wonder at the unlikelihood of our situation when I felt the gun being pressed into my own hand. We were ourselves again. Immediately I pushed my friend aside and glowered at Johnston.
‘I ought to kill you now,’ I growled. ‘The fate you had planned for us– the things you’ve done–’
Poirot stirred behind me as if to prevent rash action on my part, but I thrust him aside again. I could hear the deep, measured breaths he was taking.
Johnston finally spoke.
‘That revolver is your own,’ he whispered. ‘And you… you should be unconscious.’
‘Yes, monsieur,’ Poirot replied mildly. ‘Also, I was able to spring the handcuffs without difficulty. You know what this means.’
The face of the man opposite us had grown very pale.
‘It means,’ said Poirot, ‘that Rose Whitcombe is not what you thought. Your foolish ambition led you to grave errors. It was a mistake for you to not break Harold Whitcombe out of jail when you had the chance. It was a mistake for you to forget about the key from the Battersea Scandal, the details of which you had, of course, neglected to mention to your fiancée. She saw your handwriting on that label, and she realised the truth. Those two simple facts were all the evidence she needed to know that you had utterly betrayed her father. Never would you have her loyalty again.
‘And now she is gone, and you are without help or recourse. I expect that the police are congregating even as we speak. No, do not take another step,’ he added sharply. ‘If you do, Hastings will fire. He follows instructions remarkably well. We will wait here until the police arrive.’
Poirot reached for his jacket, still lying on the back of the chair, and put it on again with great complacency. He began removing the objects from the pockets and setting them back into place. Finally, drew out Harold Whitcombe’s ring.
Gregory Johnston stared as Poirot positioned the silver ring carefully, meaningfully, on the smallest finger of his left hand.
Johnston’s own hand moved to his mouth. A strange smell filled the air.
All of the sudden, the man staggered and fell.
Poirot was by his side in an instant. He put his fingers to the fallen man’s neck. Shaking his head, he looked up at me.
‘He is dead. Potassium cyanide.’
Pointing to a glint of silver on Johnston’s right hand, he added:
‘He, too, had a ring crafted by Carrington, which he used tonight. I suspected it would end this way.’