At last, the story is completely finished!!! It’s been a year and a half, and it reached novel length. I’ll be printing out a copy for my own personal use, with cover art and everything. So exciting! I can’t sell it of course, but who cares??? It’s a new Poirot novel! 😀
There have been lots of edits in the final document, so my apologies if/when you run into those little errors or spelling/punctuation inconsistencies on this blog or the other places my initial chapter drafts were posted. Soon, a link to the perfectly polished and much easier to read PDF will go up on my website, and you can read the whole thing in one place. 🙂
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 12: The Aftermath
Standing bewildered, my mind spinning with these revelations about Rose Whitcombe and the sudden demise of our rival, I was unable to fathom even the first explanation of the events of the evening. Poirot noticed my dazed expression.
‘Come, Hastings,’ he said. ‘Observe here.’
I approached the prostrate figure on the floor and bent down to examine the ring that Poirot indicated. It looked very much like the one Poirot wore now, the ring of Harold Whitcombe. But in the centre there was a tiny cavity, and a silver-backed faceted garnet fell away from the opening on a small hinge.
‘A poison ring,’ I exclaimed. ‘Good Lord, like something out of a novel. You knew?’
Poirot nodded, and raised his own hand to show me the ring he wore.
‘Novels sometimes have a basis in reality, my friend.’ With a carefully-executed bit of manipulation, the amethyst swung aside to reveal an empty space inside.
‘But– but– hang on,’ I stammered.
‘Un moment,’ said Poirot, struggling to rise to his feet again. He was gasping a little, and I leapt up to assist him. ‘Let us first remove ourselves from this evil room. Collect the files, if you please, and we will return to the area adjoining the kitchens. I must sit down– I have the maux de tête of the most abominable. The police should be here shortly.’
Several of the files still lay strewn on the floor where Johnston had tossed them carelessly aside. Gathering them up and emptying the recess in the wall of the remaining documents, I followed Poirot out the door as though in a dream.
We fell side by side into the chairs in the next room. After a moment or two, I was mindful enough to ask Poirot what in the blazes was going on.
‘The ring, yes,’ he said, rubbing his temples. ‘It is not unheard of for the, how do you say, bosses of crime to carry a dose of a lethal drug in such a manner. As soon as I heard that Matthew Carrington had custom-made these rings for certain agents of the London Syndicate, I suspected their true purpose. I myself used one of those rings tonight, Hastings– though not for the poison.’
‘You worked this out with Miss Whitcombe?’ I sputtered. ‘But how? When?’
‘The “when” should not be difficult to guess. When we settled at the residence of Sgt. Landsdow, I figured to myself that there might come a time in our interview with mademoiselle when I would need to plan with her in private. I prepared accordingly. There was a reason that the writing implements I sent you to fetch the other night were in strange locations and difficult to access. Likewise, you could not find my tweezers in the bathroom. Have you ever known me to be so utterly without method? Obviously I wanted to keep you occupied for a good while so that I could work out the details with mademoiselle alone. This is why Creeney was instructed to lock you in the bathroom.’
‘Good gracious, Poirot!’ I said indignantly.
Poirot cast a piteous look at me that was clearly meant to convey the most blameless of intentions.
‘It was true, cher ami, when I said that sending you upstairs was for your own good. Our enemies could only be fooled if you were not in on the crux of the deception. You have never learned how to dissemble, you comprehend, and this was a matter of life and death– the young lady knew that, also. But I realised that, when Rose Whitcombe arrived to see us, you would not voluntarily leave me alone for any amount of time with her. A perceived snub was an ideal opportunity to send you upstairs. The reason I asked you to go very quietly was so that, once the door was locked, you would not immediately bang and shout out, for then someone would have to release you. Parbleu, we could not all pretend to be deaf!’
Fortunately for my friend, I was at this moment so relieved that we were presently alive and safe that any natural desire to fly off the handle at him was abated. Also, my mind was still full of unanswered questions.
‘Forget all that,’ I said. ‘I want to know why you felt so certain that Rose was really on our side! Before she met with us that night in the study, I thought that you were genuinely undecided whether she really meant to help us or not.’
‘But I was undecided on that point, Hastings! Of certain other facts, I had no doubt whatsoever. I was sure that Johnston had found her after the failed robbery attempt. I was sure that she had managed to explain away the note she had sent to us, but that Johnston remained possessively jealous and suspicious of you, as his threatening note to us indicated. Therefore, it seemed reasonable that he would find a way to test mademoiselle’s loyalty to himself by using her to entrap us.’
Poirot paused to retrieve a handkerchief from his pocket and dab at his forehead before continuing.
‘As it happened, Johnston suspected that the lady may have known our whereabouts, and could draw us to the headquarters by giving us information and letting us search the premises. The chance would be irresistible to us. She was to insist that we not contact the police before searching– indeed, it is true enough that there would be armed guards around the building, and arousing police attention would be fatal to our mission. His plan was to leave the door of the headquarters unlocked, allow the lady to lead us into the building, and send Robert Griffon in soon afterwards. When we heard him enter, Rose Whitcombe would steal from your pocket the revolver, hide us in a cupboard, and lead Griffon right to us.
‘But– as Johnston’s plan ran– the final proof of mademoiselle’s fidelity to the cause will be her drugging of you, my friend, with a strong barbiturate. Johnston would arrive at headquarters during your unconsciousness, and then… and then, my friend, he would do what he had threatened– to shoot you in your sleep with your own revolver. But this alone would not satisfy his cruelty. Last night in the drawing room, mademoiselle confirmed that he was determined above all to make me a witness to the murder.’
I winced at the reminder.
Poirot shook his head. ‘I knew his psychology in a way that you cannot possibly fathom, with your so innocent and unsuspecting nature. Once I saw the note and bullet he left us, I knew what was in his mind. The Syndicate would not shoot me as long as there was a good deal of money to be made with the French. Money is always the first and most important motive. Therefore the bullet was meant for you. And a bullet to you meant destruction to me. Oh yes, Johnston knew it too.’
‘When Rose Whitcombe came to visit us last night,’ I said slowly, trying to work things through, ‘she laid out Johnston’s story. Was she unsure even then what she would finally do?’
‘She had two possible plans in mind– the one proposed by Johnston, and an idea by which she could aid us instead. I believe that the latter plan was foremost in her mind, but she was astute enough to realise that for it to succeed, you needed to remain in the dark about it and to believe her to be an enemy. On her way to Landsdow’s house, she was careful to shake off the man that Johnston had sent to spy on her. For she had reservations about her fiancé, indeed. She knew of his near-fatal attack on the prison guards– that he was slipping away from her father’s principles. Japp had said that it was fortunate for us that Harold Whitcombe was not also freed from prison at the same time as Griffon, and I agreed. Neither of you understood that it was fortunate because Johnston could have released his father-in-law, but did not.’
‘So this also raised doubts in Rose’s mind about her fiancé and his commitment to her family.’
‘Indeed, and there was the additional fact that she clearly admired and pitied you, and had in the past shown kindness to me as well. I was sure that if she had any reservations left about aiding us, one more fact would clinch her wholehearted support. And so I made the critical move upon which all depended. I showed her the key.’
‘Yes– in fact, it seemed rather foolish to me at the time– to remind her of your part in her father’s arrest.’
‘But now you see. Even our friend Japp, though not gifted with an intellect to match that of Hercule Poirot, had seen the significance of that key. Just as Johnston had recognised his fiancée’s writing on the note she sent to us in the nursing home, so she recognised his scrawl of “Harold Whitcombe” on that key’s label. Of course, Johnston had failed to mention that label when he had relayed the account of the Battersea Scandal to the girl! But now– she puts two and two together, and she knows! And she is angry and deeply hurt. She waits for a chance to speak with me alone and lay out her alternate plan. But first, she offers me the ring of her father as “security,” the ring containing the necessary drug.’
‘But,’ I interjected, ‘I still don’t quite see how the drugging actually happened. Griffon saw her put three tablets of the drug into my glass.’
Poirot smiled kindly at me.
‘I recall to your memory, Hastings, what Griffon himself mentioned to us– mademoiselle’s little deception with you in the park with the switched parcel. What you see in the lady’s hand is not necessarily what is delivered! She had agreed previously with Johnston to administer three tablets to you. It was enough to cause unconsciousness for at least three hours. I had, in the little poison ring, a single tablet of the same drug. Of course, my dear friend, I never switched the glasses at all.’
‘Mademoiselle handed us both plain glasses of tonic water. I created a ruse so that all three of you would momentarily look away– thus protecting the lady from any later suspicion on Griffon’s part that she had intentionally drugged the wrong person– but also ingesting the tablet from the ring I was wearing. Our enemies would be convinced that the drug had truly been in your glass, therefore confirming a belief in mademoiselle’s willingness to do away with you. This was the lynchpin of the entire plan: to convince Griffon and Johnston that Rose Whitcombe was indeed committed to their objectives and was prepared to fall in with their plans. From that point onward, their belief in her was absolute. Griffon was able to relay to Johnston that the girl was “all right,” and upon receiving that assurance, Johnston would arrive and the guards could (so he thought) be safely sent away.’
‘Well,’ I mused, ‘she could also have put the single tablet in my glass, I suppose, and then you could have switched the glasses after we got them.’
‘But what an idea, my friend!’ Poirot looked horrified. ‘I would not have risked you actually drinking it. Suppose that you, instead of I, had ingested some of the drug, and it had taken effect? And suppose that Johnston decided to arrive earlier than he had planned, before the guards needed to be dismissed? He could have shot you at any time. No, no. And for another reason, I would not have risked truly exchanging glasses. There would have been a very good chance that you or Griffon would have observed such an action. If either eventuality had happened, all would be lost.’
‘For all your concern about my well-being,’ I rejoined, ‘you nearly gave me a heart attack when you laid down on that sheet, you know. And all the rest of it was pure agony!’
‘Oui,’ said my friend sympathetically. ‘For myself as well, it was not pleasant. To once more face a man like Robert Griffon with no defence–’ He shuddered violently and passed the handkerchief across his forehead again. ‘And to awake from unconsciousness only to hear Johnston’s malicious words and threats, unable to react. But it had to be done. It was necessary for me to drug myself for the first hour to further the illusion to Griffon. He was a kidnapper par excellence, and would not have been fooled by a man merely pretending the unconsciousness. I knew it would be difficult for you, Hastings, but I told you no lies about what was happening to me. I merely allowed you to assume, for a short while, that I had transferred the glasses.
‘As I said– Johnston hears from Griffon, whom he trusts implicitly, that Rose definitely attempted to drug you. I am “out of commission,” as you say, so there seems to be no doubt. Johnston is satisfied with the girl’s fidelity, and allows her to remove the armed guards– and before she leaves, she repeats her petite déception. Did I not tell you that criminals are predictable in method? She slips your revolver into my jacket pocket, while promising her fiancé that when she returns, she will give it to him to use. She also leaves the key to the handcuffs on the window ledge for me to obtain later. Johnston learns from Griffon that I would be unconscious for some three hours. In actuality, I will recover consciousness after about one hour, and then wait until an opportune moment of weakness on Johnston’s part presents itself. I lie still until I know that his back is turned for some moments, and I quietly leap up and grab the nearby revolver and key. As long as I was unconscious, or appeared to be so, you, Hastings, would be safe. Johnston was determined to wait for me to wake before shooting you.’
‘And supposing,’ I exclaimed, ‘that this “moment of weakness” didn’t appear? Or supposing he restrained you somehow while you were unconscious?’
‘I do take the precautions,’ he said matter-of-factly. ‘Once Rose Whitcombe led the armed guards away– and into the hands of the police, au fait– Sgt. Landsdow took up his position outside of our window to keep an eye on things in the event of anything going wrong. He, too, was armed. Had I been restrained, Landsdow would have stopped Johnston easily enough. But I did not think that the man would disturb me at least until Rose Whitcombe returned to aid him– which, of course, she never did.’
I ran my hands through my hair, still feeling we’d had a narrow escape. ‘It’s almost impossible to believe,’ I said, ‘that you could have worked all this out with Rose in the short time I was out of the room!’
‘Ah, mon ami,’ Poirot said indulgently, ‘the explanations I give to you now are long– it was not so when I spoke with the lady about them. She had her ideas well worked out, and I myself had deduced most of Johnston’s intentions and had one or two little ideas of my own. Mere minutes sufficed, and you were away for at least ten. There were one or two fine points of clarification which I asked her to send to me the following day, which she did. The sketch of the building was one of them. The idea that she should draw back the little curtain on that window in the door there so I could pretend to see Johnston, to make my ruse that much more believable– this, too, she noted down to me as a suggestion. Épatant! A very clever girl, and a brave one too.’
* * * * *
At that moment we were interrupted by a thunder of footsteps approaching the door. The face of Chief Inspector Japp appeared in the same small window Poirot had just indicated. A loud pounding reverberated through the room. Poirot and I rose as the door was thrown open without ceremony and several officers burst in.
Japp appeared slightly disshevelled, as though he had been rushed off his feet. His fawn overcoat was undone and flapping, and his tie was askew. He stopped when he saw us.
‘Poirot,’ he snapped, ‘are you going to tell me what in Hades is going on?’
Poirot nodded. ‘It is the headquarters of the London Syndicate in which we stand, my friend.’ He indicated the files on the table. ‘This is the material they have been using for blackmail.’
Sgt. Landsdow appeared from behind the officers and came up to us as well, sounding out of breath.
‘You have Johnston here, then?’ he gasped to Poirot. ‘When I saw that you and Hastings had him at bay, I hurried off for the police, just like you told me to. Where is he?’
‘He is dead,’ said Poirot solemnly. ‘He chose to end it himself rather than be apprehended by the police. Cyanide poisoning. Chief Inspector, you will find the body in the room through these doors and to the left. Do not make me return there, I pray of you. Hastings and I will wait outside to get some air, and you may join us at your leisure.’
Without another word, Japp took up the files and directed his men to follow him to the room in question.
Poirot and I wrapped up in our coats and mufflers once more and stepped outside. Landsdow joined us. The darkness was now punctuated with dim streams of light from electric torches where additional policemen were searching among the trees outside the establishment.
Landsdow spoke first, with urgency: ‘And Griffon– what’s become of him?’
So preoccupied had I been with the death of Johnston that it had not quite registered to me that Griffon was still out there, fraternizing with dangerous French agents.
‘You haven’t let him escape!’ I cried, turning to Poirot.
He was rubbing his hands together and blowing out wisps of condensed breath from beneath his moustaches. ‘Calm yourself, Hastings, he will not escape. It is not yet one o’clock, and–’
At that moment Japp opened the door and joined us outside. He was clearly more interested in explanations than in scrutiny of the body.
‘What’s this all about, Poirot? When you said last week that you had a plan to meet with this Miss Whitcombe, you didn’t happen to mention sneaking into a crime headquarters and tangling with John St. Vincent! I got your message this evening to let me know that your lady friend would be bringing a number of armed agents to a certain garage not far from here a little after midnight. Then right after we’d nabbed them, Landsdow here comes running in all out of breath to tell us to get to the West Lodge Café as soon as possible, as you and Hastings were fending off St. Vincent himself– or Johnston, I should say. Answers would be helpful, if you don’t mind!’
Poirot and I gave a brief summary of the events of the last twenty-four hours. Japp’s eyebrows climbed steadily upward.
‘You always did like a thing to be difficult! Crikey, why on earth go through such an elaborate charade? This girl– she’s being taken to the station, if you want to know– surely if she wanted to help, she could have done so in some simpler way. Why didn’t you put this into the hands of the police immediately?’
Poirot sighed. ‘For various reasons, but most importantly, I did not want to risk the lives of your men. Mademoiselle Whitcombe did not know how many gunmen were on guard or where they were located. I wanted to get the guards well away before summoning police to this café. This plan was the only way we could apprehend Johnston, Griffon, the guards, and the files all together. To make Johnston certain of her, mademoiselle had to make a pretense of going through with his own plan. When Griffon thought he had abundantly clear evidence that she was against us– that is, when the drug had been administered to create unconsciousness– only then would he contact Johnston to call him to headquarters. And only then would mademoiselle be permitted to send the guards away.’
‘I don’t say the lady wasn’t helpful,’ said Japp, ‘but all the same, you put a lot of trust in a known criminal. Especially in taking an unknown drug.’
‘It was not all blind faith, my friend. It was not even all pure psychology, although that is where it began. After our interview with Mademoiselle Whitcombe and the procuring of the ring last night, I took additional precautions. I broke the tablet apart and sent a tiny sample to our chemist friend, Dr. Lansing-Hayes, asking him to analyse it immediately. The post I received in the afternoon confirmed that the drug was exactly what she said it was– a powerful and fast-acting barbiturate.’
Japp glanced at the stack of files still in his hands. ‘And how’d you get Johnston to show you where the files were hidden? Saves us a bit of work, I must say.’
‘Ah, that was accomplished by Hastings here.’ Poirot turned to me with a smile. ‘He asked Johnston if he knew why the two of us had come to the headquarters. Johnston could not resist taunting a man he thought would not live to tell anything of the files. A neat little trick. It might not have worked, but this time it did. The criminal is a most conceited animal. He likes to say: “See how clever I have been!”’
It struck me that if criminality depended on conceit, Hercule Poirot would have made an excellent criminal.
Japp looked at Poirot appreciatively. ‘I must say, you’re the goods. One can’t argue with results. Still,’ he said, peering closer, ‘you do look a right mess, Moosior.’
‘You are a fine one to speak,’ retorted Poirot, reaching out to straighten Japp’s crooked tie. ‘Permit me– it does not look professional, that. But yes, my friend, I admit that I feel a “right mess,” as you call it. Lying on the hard ground is not amusant at my age. And the drug I had to take, cent tonnerres, it kicks like the mule! A tisane would be a piece of heaven at this moment.’
‘Looks like you could use something stronger than that,’ replied Japp. ‘You’re pale as a ghost. I might be able to get Dixon to find you a spot of brandy.’
‘No, I thank you. I have had to turn down several excellent liqueurs this evening already because of the reaction the alcohol could have with the barbiturate. I will wait, and rest. Perhaps I might be permitted to sit for a time in one of your cars? The thought of returning to the café does not please me.’
‘Sure thing. I’ve got some things to see to now, if you’ll excuse me.’ The Scotland Yard man moved off.
I looked at Poirot. ‘But, Griffon–’ I began again.
He held up a hand to stop me. ‘As you know, Robert Griffon is scheduled to return to the headquarters with his friends from France at a half past two. I have advised the police to surround the area within a certain diameter of our location, but to remain undercover and to let them pass through until he approaches the café. Have no fear, my friend. But join me as we await developments. I should like to be on the scene.’
* * * * *
Leaving Landsdow with the rest of the police searchers, my friend and I found Japp’s patrol car and climbed inside to wait. It was far more comfortable than the chairs inside had been.
‘Poirot,’ I said, turning to him, ‘there’s something else you haven’t explained. What did my personal dislike of Sgt. Landsdow have to do with all of this?’
Poirot effected a broad grin.
‘Do you know why you have disliked Landsdow, mon ami?’
‘Well, his whole manner has been off-putting. Constantly saying “By Jove” and hanging onto every word of yours like some sort of toady. Jumping into the action as though it were all a game. He annoyed me more than I can say.’
Poirot looked up innocently and said: ‘You dislike Sgt. Landsdow because he is so very much like you, my friend.’
I gaped. ‘Surely not,’ I protested. ‘I’m not a bit like that!’
‘I think, perhaps, that you are somewhat unflattering in your description of the man. He is loyal and upright. He is a former military man. He is willing to be the man of action in spite of great personal risk. Perhaps, you had felt a trifle displaced due to his participation in our affairs with the London Syndicate, yes?’
‘Rubbish,’ I retorted, feeling rather red in the face.
‘I have noticed, also, that he has an obvious admiration for Rose Whitcombe. All has turned out satisfactorily. I have the great hope that in light of her invaluable assistance, mademoiselle will be cleared from wrongdoing by the police, and she and Landsdow will someday be able to begin anew together.’
‘She and Landsdow!’ I spluttered. ‘Do you take her to be as changeable in her moods towards men as all that?’
‘You are offended, mon ami?’ said my infuriating little friend, with a twinkle. ‘You have not the romantic interest in the girl.’
‘Of course not,’ I huffed. ‘But don’t tell me you intended to foment a romance between those two all along!’
‘Why not? I had told you, had I not, that there were three reasons for our staying with Landsdow while we awaited developments. First, because we knew we could trust him. Second, because in light of my previous introduction of the two, I was confident that mademoiselle would make contact with him to get to us. And third,’ he said with his most Gallic shrug, ‘I was eager to make the introductions between them yet again, preparatory for the future.’
‘Poirot– you nosy, interfering little–’
‘Ah, do not enrage yourself. Rose Whitcombe had begun to care for you, and therefore, for similar reasons, I believe she can come to love him. It is a good match. Landsdow, he is a worthy man, enthusiastic about criminal matters and the thwarting of crime. The young lady has discovered, these past months, that she too is capable of using her knowledge of crime for more noble ends.
‘There is another consideration. Do you remember the previous night, when you believed an intruder to be upstairs, and Landsdow went to search? You said that there was someone upstairs who didn’t belong there. I agreed with you. I was speaking of Landsdow himself. He had once been stationed out in India and longed for the life he has left behind. It seems likely that he shall retire and go back to a faraway land of sun and warmth. It would be ideal for mademoiselle to go with him and to get well away from the ties to crime she has made in London. All of this would be most beneficial to all parties. Hercule Poirot, you see, thinks of everything.’
I shook my head in disbelief. Poirot smiled and patted my shoulder in a paternalistic manner.
‘There is no cause for distress. Things have worked out so far as well as could be expected. And you, my friend? Well, there is plenty of time. I shall find a suitable match for you yet.’
Of all the infernal cheek!
* * * * *
It was a quarter past two in the morning. We had waited in the car for some time, noticing little or no movement around the café itself. I was just beginning to doze. But suddenly, a police constable ran up the car and rapped on the window, scaring me half to death.
‘What is it?’ I exclaimed as I opened the door.
‘They found Robert Griffon, not a hundred yards from the headquarters. He’s been stabbed to death.’
I uttered an exclamation of surprise. Poirot looked thoughtful.
‘Yes… a most likely outcome,’ he said sententiously.
‘You yourself mentioned that the appearance of the French agents was “another threat of death.” And you were correct– but not my death! I knew perfectly well that as long as Robert Griffon had the chance to make money, the Syndicate would not simply kill me. Do you not remember my words about Griffon after the Bexhill kidnapping? I said that he would be in prison for a long time, and that when he came out, the French, they would not forget. He had disappointed them and had imperiled their own operations when you caught him at Newhaven. Remember the valuable information on the French criminal underground that the police had found on him when he was arrested. And so when the French hear of Griffon’s escape from prison, they immediately deploy agents to London to find him.
‘Both to save his own skin and to make good this time, he offers once more to deliver the little Belgian into their hands. And when he brings them close to the hideout, what do they see? Policemen everywhere! It is clear that something has gone badly wrong with Johnston’s plan, or (as Griffon’s comrades see it) he may have intentionally betrayed them. Either way, they are enraged. It is the last straw. Griffon has again failed as well as endangering their own position. He is eliminated.’
I gave a shudder.
Suddenly I was glad, extremely glad, not to be an enemy of Hercule Poirot.
* * * * *
The following afternoon was a quiet one in our flat. As I was venturing from my bedchamber to get a glass of water from the kitchen, I caught sight of Poirot in the sitting room. He was situated in an armchair facing the fireplace, and I detoured to join him. When I drew nearer, I was surprised to see the expression on his face. He appeared to be in a state of deep contemplation, concern etched on his brows.
‘Penny for your thoughts?’ I said, lowering myself onto the couch.
Starting a little, he looked over at me and smiled.
‘I was thinking of the words of Gregory Johnston,’ he said. ‘He spoke of how there was only one way to destroy a man like myself.’
‘I wouldn’t put too much stock in the words of a man like Johnston,’ I reassured.
‘But no, Hastings, it was profound statement he made. It has lingered in my mind, and I believe he may be right. A perfect storm of the right (or wrong) conditions and the unthinkable happens. To begin by setting out to protect the innocent, the vulnerable, those guileless souls with no conception whatever of the malignancy which sets itself against them. And in the course of time, to have upon my shoulders the responsibility of murder.’
‘You do not take the blame for the deaths of Johnston or Griffon, I hope.’
‘It is not my meaning, that. It was your murder for which they wished me to be responsible. The agents of the Syndicate, that is quite a different matter. There was clear evidence against those scoundrels, and we were prepared to hand them over to the police. Defending the innocent is the chief end; catching the criminal is merely the means. Me, I had no qualms whatsoever about using that revolver if Johnston had attacked. No, their fates they have brought on their own heads.’
He stopped to light one of his tiny cigarettes before continuing on.
‘I know that you are ready and eager for peril, my friend. You have the impulsive temperament. Never should I have involved you in this final encounter, but for your own insistence to defeat the Syndicate at all costs and no matter the risk. But if anything had happened to you, I would not forgive myself. Nothing that Griffon nor his business associates could have done to me afterwards would have been worse than that burden. Murder– even when it seems justified, or when it comes about by indirect causes– has a most terrible effect on the perpetrator. It would be the end.’
My little friend seemed unnecessarily overwrought and unhappy on the subject. I had expected him to be in a more celebratory frame of mind in light of our recent triumph.
‘But Poirot,’ I said warmly, ‘you’re not a murderer. You’re not a thing like Johnston. Dash it all, the man announced that he meant murder, and then planned to drug and shoot me while unconscious. Completely unsporting. That’s not the sort of thing you would do.’
‘In a desperate cause, to save the innocent– perhaps even you, mon ami? I wonder. It may be that the London Syndicate has indeed found my heel of Achilles. But for that, Hercule Poirot would be immortal.’
‘Oh, really,’ I said with a laugh. ‘Don’t go mashing up classical mythologies in your morbid mood. The London Syndicate is dead and gone, and Hercule Poirot carries on with his moustache and his radiators and his patent leather shoes. And for a good many years yet, no doubt. Anyway, you must look at the advantages. You had said yourself that if the Syndicate were brought down, England’s ruffians would give a serious second thought before ever resorting to violence with us again. That’s a feather in the cap for your immortal reputation, isn’t it?’
Poirot leaned back in his armchair and stroked his moustache. Finally he smiled.
‘You cheer me, Hastings. I must not brood. After a year of dealing with this organization, it is time to lay it down and move on.’
‘Absolutely,’ I said.
* * * * *
The last time I ever saw Rose Whitcombe was in late March, some weeks after our final brush with the London Syndicate. We received a call from Japp one afternoon, summoning us to Scotland Yard. The lady had requested an interview with Poirot, and he had insisted that I accompany him. I hailed a taxi and we set off.
Japp was waiting for us in the corridor outside one of the main floor offices.
‘All is well, my friend?’ asked Poirot as we greeted each other.
‘Very well, I should say. The Syndicate is well and truly no more. Those files were the end of them– all their secrets, lost. People have been jumping ship left and right. They’ve got nothing left. Now as for the young lady, she’s waiting inside. For security reasons, we didn’t send her over to your flat–’
‘Security reasons?’ I asked, puzzled.
‘For her sake, not yours, Captain Hastings. There was an option for police escort, but she thought it would be better to keep the connection between you three as much under wraps as possible. The less known on the street, the better, at least for now. I can’t say as I disagree. Anyhow, I’ll leave you to it– she said it wouldn’t take long.’
Poirot seemed unsurprised that Japp was not accompanying us. He opened the door and the two of us entered.
Rose Whitcombe stood by a sunny window at the opposite end of the office. She wore a china blue frock and wrapped her arms about her, as if she were cold. Her face bore a pensive expression. But after a moment she noticed our arrival and came quickly over to us.
Poirot bowed gallantly over her hand.
‘Mademoiselle, once more I salute you. With great fortitude you have carried your burdens, and you have come out into the sun.’
A faint smile played over her lips.
‘It’s funny you should say that,’ she said, ‘at a time when I’ve been hiding myself away.’
‘What are your plans for the future, ma petite? Do you mean to depart from here?’
‘There are too many ties to the underground here. I think I shall go abroad– out East, perhaps.’
‘Ah!’ said Poirot with satisfaction. ‘Out East, yes? That is an idea most sensible.’
‘Have you seen your father?’ I asked her.
She turned her very blue eyes in my direction.
‘Yes, I have,’ she said, her voice lowering. The sadness in her words was evident. ‘I have visited with him for the first time in– so very long. He knows everything now, of course. I thought he would be more angry than he was. Well, he was very upset about Gregory, which is only natural, isn’t it? But news of the collapse of the Syndicate seemed to hardly affect him. He accepted it. And he also thinks that I should go away, somewhere I don’t need to be afraid of retribution. Somewhere to start over.’
The girl studied my face. Suddenly she said: ‘Captain Hastings, you must think me an absolute beast.’
This took me rather aback. I stammered something in the negative, but she flowed on. ‘When I met you, I betrayed your trust and caused all manner of difficulties. So much of the damage that has been done is entirely my fault.’
‘Oh, no,’ I said earnestly, my awkwardness leaving me, ‘it isn’t, really. It is through your help that innocent people have been spared a great deal of pain– perhaps their lives saved, even. And although you stood to lose a good deal, you held your ground and did what was right. That shows strong character.’
I hadn’t realised until that very moment that I had quite forgiven Rose Whitcombe for her part in the events of the last several months.
She flushed and held out her hand.
‘You have helped me,’ she said simply. ‘Don’t ask how– you helped me by being who you are. By showing me a road I wished to take, right from the start. That’s all.’
Poirot drew a silver ring out of his pocket and presented it to Rose. ‘It is yours, ma chère.’
She shook her head.
‘It was mine,’ she said, ‘but I can’t have it anymore. It will remind me of… of everything. Crime, and Gregory’s death, and everything it stood for. I would like for you to keep it, monsieur.’
My friend paused, and then his hand closed over the ring. He looked very moved.
She smiled again, a little ironical smile.
‘Consider it a trophy,’ she said, ‘from the London Syndicate.’
Poirot bowed again.
‘I do not call it a trophy, mademoiselle. I will call it a gift.’
* * * * *
March gave way to a drizzling and overcast April. I proposed to take Poirot to dinner at the Château Dentremont for the occasion of his birthday. He acceded to the plan.
‘It is most kind of you,’ he said as we prepared to leave the flat. ‘I do not very much care to be reminded of my age at this stage of life, but an occasion for fine dining is never to be despised.’
(Poirot, of course, was getting on in years, but I confess that I did not know his age, nor did I propose to broach the subject with him. Some things, I have found, are best left unasked.)
Twenty minutes later we were seated at a small corner table and examining the menu.
‘The place, it is very chic,’ admitted Poirot, running his eye over the wine list. ‘And it has gastronomic promise. As long as no secret societies of an unlawful type have pitched their camp in the kitchen storage, it shall be a pleasant evening.’
‘Speaking of that late lamented society,’ I said, ‘there’s something that I wanted to give to you.’
Reaching into my pocket, I extracted a small, thin box and passed it to my friend. He looked surprised.
‘Eh? What is this, then?’
He opened it and lifted out a slender, silver paper knife. It was shaped like a two-edged sword.
‘There,’ I said with satisfaction. ‘You didn’t need two paper knives, anyway. But since they got pitched, some sort of replacement seemed indicated. This one should remind you that you are none the worse for wear after crossing swords with the London Syndicate.’
Poirot twinkled at me and laid the miniature sword back in the box.
‘Merci beaucoup,’ he said.
* * * * *
* * * * *
* * * * *
Participants in literary fandom who wish to create “continuation” stories featuring their favourite characters fall into various categories. From casual fan fics to more serious and in-depth works, different projects have different raisons d’être.
For my part, I wanted to create Poirot stories that would read very much like Christie originals. I was not really interested in personalising the characters according to my own tastes or placing them in scenarios that Christie herself never could have imagined or written. Poirot himself would certainly have demanded careful treatment!
Some fandom writers enjoy finding plot holes, or other little unexplained details casually referenced in the authors’ original stories, and creating new stories to explain these points. The London Syndicate was born from a speculation of mine: considering Poirot’s many successes and his uncanny lack of failure, why don’t local criminals try a little harder to get him out of the way? With the exception of the outrageously bold Big Four, a minor incident with a train in another novel, and a clumsy little bid in Egypt, criminals don’t even dare when it comes to Poirot. I was struck by the following quote in one of Christie’s best-known novels:
‘It would be most unwise on your part to attempt to silence me as you silenced ———. That kind of business does not succeed against Hercule Poirot, you understand.’
At which point, the culprit meekly replies, ‘My dear Poirot, whatever else I may be, I am not a fool.’ How remarkable, I thought!
Christie has different ways of working around the problem. When it is convenient for her plot, she either makes Poirot unrecognised and ‘unknown in this great London of yours’ (‘The Kidnapped Prime Minister’) or else very famous and instantly recognisable. But certainly at the beginning of his star’s ascendancy in England, it is clear that he is at least a well-known figure among criminals, as well as a good portion of the London general public (‘The Veiled Lady,’ ‘Hunter’s Lodge’). So why do criminals seem so certain that they cannot succeed in outright silencing their rival?
I began to wonder: if some ambitious and intelligent London criminals took it upon themselves to get rid of Poirot, how would they go about it? How might they even– almost– succeed? I envisioned an extensive crime ring with many different irons in the fire. I wanted to explore different ideas– ones more subtle than just killing him off in the street– so I created criminals that sought to evade outright murder. Instead, they would go after his property, his friends, his reputation, and so on. In bringing down this local crime ring and its activities, Poirot would prove to English society that he is impossible to thwart directly by such means. Henceforth, criminals would seek only to evade detection rather than to personally attack, thus explaining the lack of such attempts in Christie’s own stories. I also contemplated the series of events that did essentially destroy Poirot at the end of his life, as related in Christie’s canon, and how some foreshadowing might be employed in this much earlier tale.
Ever since I began reading Poirot, I’ve enjoyed the outlandish and uniquely death-defying (if somewhat incredible) escapades chronicled in The Big Four. The London Syndicate owes a great deal to that book. But instead of an international conspiracy of immense proportions, I wanted to create something perhaps a little more understated and organized. The Big Four is an anomaly in Christie’s Poirot canon. It’s almost as though she were writing her own fan fiction– Poirot and Hastings dropped into the middle of a James Bond plot! Why not, I thought, thrill Hastings with a little more adventure? I also thought it might be fun (and sporting?) to let Hastings solve just one crime himself, and to work out the singular circumstances in which his detecting might prove to be successful.
Charles Osborne, when novelising Christie’s play Black Coffee in the late 1990s, inserted an original little detail of his own into Chapter 1:
‘Meticulously tidy as always, [Poirot] had placed the discarded envelopes in one neat pile. They had been opened very carefully, with the paper-knife in the form of a miniature sword which his old friend Hastings had given him for a birthday many years ago.’
My story offers a friendly nod to his own ‘fan fiction’ by showing how and why this new paper knife makes its appearance.
Poirot’s silver-and-amethyst ring, which is ubiquitous in the long-running ITV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot, is also given a back story in The London Syndicate. The series is such a beautiful tribute to the original stories that I have endeavoured to make my own story, as far as possible, remain consistent with its character as well as with the books.
Many, many thanks to all of you who have been reading along over the progress of this story– your enthusiasm has helped me carry on with it and not give up!