The London Syndicate is an unofficial series (in progress) of new Poirot stories. They’re merging to create one unified work. 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 10: Our Arrival
The morrow came, bright and cold and forbidding. I awoke late in the morning. Landsdow was out as usual.
During the course of the afternoon I repeatedly begged Poirot to disregard the plan proposed by Rose Whitcombe and to relay everything to the police at once, but he refused.
‘I have given my word, Hastings,’ he said, straightening his tie meticulously in the hall mirror. ‘And the word of Hercule Poirot is a sacred trust. The young lady only informed us of the location of headquarters because of that promise. To tell the police everything now would not be le sport, do you not agree?’
‘But we have nothing to go on,’ I argued. ‘No hint as to what we’re getting into– no facts to consider!’
‘Ma foi, Hastings, you surprise me! There are plenty of useful facts that you would do well to consider.’
‘The fact that criminals are notoriously predictable in method. The fact of your dislike of Sgt. Landsdow. The fact that Johnston wishes to destroy us and sent us a bullet to say so. The fact that Matthew Carrington is an expert jewellery craftsman. The fact that we are lucky to have Harold Whitcombe safely in prison and not on our track. The fact that French criminals have suddenly decided to come to London. And, the fact that my tweezers were missing from my upstairs bathroom.’
‘Poirot, I know that you like to be maddening, but is this the time?’
‘Reflection is key, my friend– the exercising of the little grey cells. But over these past few days, reflection has been very dark, very difficult.’ He sighed and stroked his moustaches pensively. His face was grave.
‘It has been my part to consider the psychology of our enemies– to decide which courses of action they are likely to take. In order to do so, one delves into the past. Our rencontres with the London Syndicate have been of a most distinctive and unique character. They are both defensive and increasingly aggressive. First, an attempted snub and minor robbery. Then greater threats and assault. More extreme measures again in Bexhill, and attempted retribution for the failure of that plan. Finally, along comes Gregory Johnston.
‘He is the chief danger, mon cher. But we know something of him, his thoughts and his methods. He is cruel, and patient. He can bide his time. His goal is what the Syndicate have been slowly advancing toward all along– the destruction of Hercule Poirot.’
On this (somewhat overly) dramatic note, my friend reached out his hand to trace the edge of a leaf of a potted cyclamen that was perched on the shelf before the mirror, his brow knitted in thought.
‘And he came close,’ he murmured. ‘So very close to success. The ultimate question is: how does one destroy Hercule Poirot?’
‘A prodigious undertaking,’ I said solemnly.
But my jocular manner was lost on my friend. He replied: ‘Mais oui. How would you undertake such a project, mon ami?’
‘Too ambitious a goal for me, old son,’ I demurred. ‘How does a chap go about bringing down any opponent? Remove natural advantages and exploit natural disadvantages, I suppose.’
Poirot nodded. He appeared to be lost in his own thoughts.
At this juncture, Landsdow entered the hall, holding a bundle of mail.
‘Plenty for you today, monsieur,’ he said, handing some envelopes to Poirot.
‘Ah.’ My friend opened the top envelope carefully and skimmed the enclosure. ‘Bon. It is a missive from Dr. Lansing-Hayes, and accords with my little idea.’
Next, he opened a larger manila envelope. He studied the contents with care, nodded again, and replaced the papers.
‘Hastings, I need to speak with you and Sgt. Landsdow at once. It is most important that we are as prepared as we can be for this evening.’
He drew us down the hall and into the dining room, where we sat together at one end of the long, polished table. Poirot laid his mail on the table in front of him, folded his hands, and looked at us solemnly.
‘Eh bien, mes amis,’ began Poirot, as though commencing a lecture, ‘tonight we face a dark danger. It grieves me to admit that I– I, Hercule Poirot!– cannot guarantee success. It is a state of affairs nearly without precedent–’
(Here I murmured to myself as a mental check to Poirot’s egotism, but did not dare actually interrupt him.)
‘–and for this reason, I am loth to expose you to these risks.’
‘Nonsense,’ said Landsdow heartily.
‘Damn the risk,’ I added, not to be outdone. ‘We need to have done with these scoundrels. If it will bring them down, I’m in.’
‘We are entering an area,’ continued Poirot as he absently smoothed an unsightly wrinkle in the tablecloth, ‘that is currently being watched most carefully by armed agents. As you know, the London Syndicate has eschewed murder in the past, but that may be changing– we do not yet know the full extent of Johnston’s present influence. And there is a great deal of damage that may be done to a person without actually killing them. Therefore I must insist that if either of you unexpectedly encounter a threatening gunman, you must not run the risk of attacking. You must comply immediately.’
I protested. ‘But–’
Poirot swung round on me. ‘But yes– especially you, Hastings! We shall use all possible stealth to avoid revealing our identities, bien sûr. But if there is a gun in your face, no, you shall not resist. Not unless it is Gregory Johnston himself! The greatest threat of being shot is directed to you. I have sworn, above all, that you shall not be shot, and that is that. If you cannot acquiesce to this, you are not coming with me.’
‘All right, all right,’ I grumbled. ‘But I still think–’
‘At this point,’ interrupted Poirot, ‘perhaps you should leave the thinking to me. I have cause to be concerned about gunmen.’
He removed a sheet of paper from one of his envelopes. It contained a rough sketch that resembled a blueprint.
‘In light of the new information we received last night,’ he said, drawing his finger across the paper, ‘I took it upon myself to procure a little more information about our destination tonight– the headquarters of the London Syndicate. This is the building which now houses the West Lodge Café. The establishment has only been in operation since last autumn, and our key was procured in the spring, so it is safe to assume that this location has been their hideout since at least that time. The building sat derelict for some time before the new business obtained it for their premises. Mademoiselle tells us that the café owners have little or no knowledge of the doings of the Syndicate, so it is unlikely to be profitable to look for assistance in those quarters. And time is against us. We must meet Mademoiselle Whitcombe at the corner of Paston and Vine, six blocks northeast of Regent Street, and journey from there on foot to arrive at our destination.’
‘At ten o’clock,’ murmured Landsdow. ‘The area will be sufficiently deserted by then?’
‘It will be well after dark,’ I said, leaning forward to peer at the sketch. ‘And we will need the time to search, if it’s true that the documents will be difficult to find.’
The drawing before us, made out in a slightly wobbly pencil, portrayed the long walkway from the road to the building we sought to enter. The café faced the street, but the back rooms appeared to be accessible by a side door in the back corner on the right. Poirot extracted a pen of his own and drew a neat ‘X’ to mark the spot as our point of entry.
‘We shall not, I think, need to scour the entire building,’ my friend said optimistically, gesturing with his pen, ‘nor take it apart “brick by brick” as mademoiselle indicated. That which we seek is bound to be in one of these three rooms– those used for headquarters.’
‘What is that?’ I queried, pointing to a complicated tangle of lines about the perimeter of the building.
Landsdow broke in: ‘I reckon it’s to indicate the foliage. You remember, there are some pretty big pines going all round the grounds here. It provides a bit of cover, once we get down the walkway. And over here–’ he pointed to the paper’s edges– ‘are some jolly tall buildings. Anyone watching out from up there will have a clear view of our entry.’
‘But of course, mon ami. Hastings and I will not be attempting to conceal our entry. Mademoiselle is leading us straight in, within clear view of those on guard, and will identify herself and give the signal to let her and her companions through. You see my concern about the gunmen. She does not know their exact location. They have cover in which to hide on the grounds, as well as from above. If they are especially suspicious, we could be fired down upon from there. I impress once more upon you not to do anything foolish if taken by surprise by an armed agent.’
‘Monsieur Poirot,’ said Landsdow doubtfully, ‘are you quite sure you’d rather I remain outside rather than coming in with the rest of you?’
‘Oui. It is enough that Mademoiselle Rose brings two guests with her into the headquarters. Three, I fear, would rouse too much suspicion. You are to remain outside of the area that she indicates and keep an eye on things. It will be dangerous for all three of us here, and yet, I do have hope of success. As I have told to Hastings– crime leaves traces. To know what your enemy will do, to comprehend the psychology of the criminal, is a great advantage. Me, I have been giving a great deal of thought to this Gregory Johnston, alias John St. Vincent.’
Our evening meal was a quiet one. We ate lightly, and I accepted Creeney’s offer of a glass of port afterwards. My nerves were on edge. Landsdow, in his turn, received a very small serving of brandy, but although the assiduous Creeney offered several varieties of sweet liqueurs, Poirot refused any kind of digestif.
‘I am as a cat upon the jumps,’ he murmured as we returned to our rooms upstairs to get changed. ‘But I must maintain my full concentration. These files for which we seek represent misery and bondage for a good many people. We must not fail.’
When the three of us came down the stairs, through the study, and into the hall again, we surveyed each other. Landsdow’s apparel was dark and somewhat shabby, and he wore black hobnail boots. Poirot and I both wore dark suits, but the little detective was, I noted with a mixture of amusement and exasperation, otherwise dressed exactly the same as ever. His wine-coloured waistcoat, natty bow tie, and shining patent leather shoes looked highly impractical for our mission.
‘And you’re not going to wear that, are you?’ I said, pointing to the elegant silver ring that was our collateral from Rose Whitcombe. ‘You certainly seem to have taken a fancy to it–’
Poirot ignored my negative aspect and beamed, admiring his left hand. ‘C’est très jolie, n’est-ce pas?’ he said happily. ‘Regard, Hastings, how well it matches my cufflinks. And this waistcoat, I think–’
I interrupted this flow of speech to hand him his overcoat. No one knew better than I the extent of Poirot’s eloquence when started upon the subject of his wardrobe.
‘You don’t want to borrow a pair of galoshes, monsieur?’ asked Landsdow as we donned coats, hats, and mufflers. ‘Those shoes of yours are bound to get rather wet and muddy, and they’re pretty distinctive too.’
‘They can be seen a mile away,’ I muttered.
Poirot remained firm, however, and Creeney held the door for us as we departed from the house and bundled into Landsdow’s car.
The drive seemed to go on and on for hours. The darkness grew steadily blacker, and we toiled on through the melted snow on our fateful journey to London, my revolver reposing safely in my pocket.
* * * * *
We arrived at our appointed street corner without incident at a quarter to ten. Rose Whitcombe was there, her dark, slender figure emerging from the shadows to meet us. Without a word, the four of us set off down the street in the direction of the café, the white vapour of our breath floating away into the chilled night.
Several minutes later, the girl stopped and murmured something to Poirot. He nodded and turned to Landsdow, lowing his muffler slightly.
‘This is where you must remain behind,’ he said in a low voice. ‘God guard you, my friend.’
The rest of us continued on, our pace quickening slightly. We rounded the corner and found ourselves on the street we wanted. I could see the beginning of the path leading to the café straight ahead of us, illuminated in a bright circle of lamplight. Instinctively, I huddled down further into my muffler and tipped my hat down slightly.
Steadily, we approached that bright island of light. In a minute, we were standing in it together.
‘All right,’ she whispered. ‘It’s now or never. Come with me– look straight ahead– I will give the signal to let us pass.’
She threw back her hood and raised her arm in a kind of salute. Then, in the dark stillness of the night, Rose Whitcombe walked straight towards the West Lodge Café. Poirot and I walked side by side behind her.
I confess that I held my breath the entire way. The dark pine trees on either side of us seemed to close in, and I knew that somewhere among them, the vigilant eyes of guards were following us. If only they did not suspect…
At last, we found ourselves at the side door at the far end of the building, and I exhaled quietly. The door had an inset window that appeared to be covered with a small curtain; all appeared dark inside. Poirot had presumably given the girl the key as we walked along the street, for she now stood with her back to us, manipulating the door. Her movements were entirely silent, and in a moment the door was open.
As we entered, Rose switched on the light, revealing a drab, colourless room with a sparse interior. A single table stood in the centre. Several chairs had been pushed back against the wall, and boxes were stacked here and there. It was not the most inviting of spaces, but I supposed that it was in the best interests of the London Syndicate for their headquarters to resemble nothing more than a storage area.
We removed our coats, gloves, and hats, and deposited them up in the small alcove by the door. Poirot’s eyes swept the surroundings.
‘Yes,’ he said slowly, ‘we begin. The door to the left, mademoiselle– I believe it leads to the kitchens?’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Rose, stepping forward. ‘You can go straight through to the café from there.’
‘Good. We will not trouble about that for now, but confine ourselves to these back rooms.’ Striding forward, he reached out and touched a wall. ‘It is a challenge,’ he admitted, ‘but with method, we shall see what can be done.’
For the next ten minutes, we acquainted ourselves with the rooms– dismal rooms, all of them. There were only one or two windows in the entire vicinity, and they were fitted with heavy bars. Poirot began his searching with the first room we had entered, continuing to run his fingers lightly over the walls and frowning. Uncertainly, I poked through the contents of several boxes. It seemed unlikely that the Syndicate’s precious files would be there, but I was determined that we must make a thorough job of searching the entire place.
It was only about twenty past ten, and Poirot and I were examining the area around the alcove together, when we heard the noise we were dreading– the sound of footsteps outside the side door.
‘Quickly,’ hissed Rose. She grabbed my arm and almost pushed me into the next room. Poirot hurried after us. This room, which was the only one of the three crammed full of supplies and utilities for the café, contained a large wardrobe in the corner. We rushed over to it and swung the doors open to reveal an empty recess. Poirot and I slipped inside and Rose shut us in.
I am not claustrophobic as a rule, but I find it difficult to convey the terror of that moment. All was inky blackness, the close smell of musty wood, the distant muffled voices of Miss Whitcombe and the unknown newcomer, the hammering of my own heart, and the deep breaths of Poirot beside me. Supposing one of the guards had come into the building and wished to have a better look at the visitors who had entered?
It would be well, I thought, to be prepared with my revolver. If we were discovered by some unlucky accident, we needed to have the upper hand. Gingerly (for there was hardly room to move) I felt my coat pockets. Blast, where had I stowed the thing? It was there somewhere…
I did not hear the footsteps returning. But suddenly, the doors of the wardobe flew wide open!
A man stared back at us. He was tall and burly, with an aggressive chin, wide grey eyes, and russet hair. In a flash I took in his expensive navy suit, the surprisingly calm demeanour… and something else. The man was definitely familiar.
It took only a moment for the truth to register. I had seen him once before– hunched over, disguised. I had torn off his coat and discovered my friend unconscious there. The man standing before me was one I had kicked, cursed, and handed over to the police and prison.
This was Robert Griffon.
My shock was terrific, but it was not that shock alone that left me frozen where I stood. It was the sight of Rose Whitcombe standing beside Griffon, pointing my own revolver at me.