The Mystery of Three Quarters: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery Agatha Christie Sophie Hannah The world’s most beloved detective, Hercule Poirot – the legendary star of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and most recently The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket—returns in a stylish, diabolically clever mystery set in 1930’s London.Returning home after lunch one day, Hercule Poirot finds an angry woman waiting outside his front door. She demands to know why Poirot has sent her a letter accusing her of the murder of Barnabas Pandy, a man she has neither heard of nor ever met.Poirot has also never heard of a Barnabas Pandy, and has accused nobody of murder. Shaken, he goes inside, only to find that he has a visitor waiting for him — a man who also claims also to have received a letter from Poirot that morning, accusing him of the murder of Barnabas Pandy…Poirot wonders how many more letters of this sort have been sent in his name. Who sent them, and why? More importantly, who is Barnabas Pandy, is he dead, and, if so, was he murdered? And can Poirot find out the answers without putting more lives in danger? The Mystery of Three Quarters THE NEW HERCULE POIROT MYSTERY SOPHIE HANNAH Copyright (#ucdf2df14-580f-5e2e-a523-a4951138fd47) HarperCollinsPublishers 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF www.harpercollins.co.uk (http://www.harpercollins.co.uk) First published by HarperCollinsPublishers 2018 The Mystery of Three Quarters™ is a trade mark of Agatha Christie Limited, the Agatha Christie Monogram Logo and the Poirot Icon are trade marks and Agatha Christie®, Poirot® and the Agatha Christie Signature are registered trade marks of Agatha Christie Limited in the UK and elsewhere. Copyright © Agatha Christie Limited 2018 All rights reserved. www.agathachristie.com (http://www.agathachristie.com) Sophie Hannah asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work. Cover design by Holly Macdonald © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2018 Cover illustrations © Shutterstock.com A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library. This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins. Source ISBN: 9780008264451 Ebook Edition © August 2018 ISBN: 9780008264475 Version: 2018-09-21 Dedication (#ucdf2df14-580f-5e2e-a523-a4951138fd47) For Faith Tilleray, who has gone above and beyond, and taught me so much Table of Contents Cover (#uaab7741a-c2ec-5a27-ad1e-243fca75eba4) Title Page (#u5e90aa45-2d8e-58a2-a7f5-7b23cab361d9) Copyright (#u9cd8629b-072e-5502-a39d-972a074d089f) Dedication (#u1bcf5ac3-96cb-5495-be83-c0c3057588f2) The First Quarter (#u03d715af-4c9c-51db-8de8-9a6ebda2df17) Chapter 1: Poirot is Accused (#u38900c4c-1f5a-57c3-a97a-3fe6ef3054df) Chapter 2: Intolerable Provocation (#u8997ba4a-6f35-5ba3-89c0-36f199e6d60f) Chapter 3: The Third Person (#u138da9f4-b672-5daf-ad43-5f2f3b7a8beb) Chapter 4: The Odd One Out? (#u2333038e-38a6-58ce-ab5c-6087c51d9ebc) Chapter 5: A Letter with a Hole in it (#u28871c9d-81f8-5bfe-af2e-0c0f057333b1) Chapter 6: Rowland Rope (#ufffa86fa-4b3d-5cbc-aa34-f54d882dc210) Chapter 7: An Old Enemy (#u538828c3-65ac-5f9d-afa8-6318fe805774) Chapter 8: Poirot Issues Some Instructions (#u27a7b685-d9c2-589d-8c47-1d1a033adc27) Chapter 9: Four Alibis (#u5cf16cd0-5826-5a46-822e-8bd08d56f74e) The Second Quarter (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 10: Some Important Questions (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 11: Emerald Green (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 12: Many Ruined Alibis (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 13: The Hooks (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 14: At Combingham Hall (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 15: The Scene of the Possible Crime (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 16: The Opportunity Man (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 17: Poirot’s Trick (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 18: Mrs Dockerill’s Discovery (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 19: Four More Letters (#litres_trial_promo) The Third Quarter (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 20: The Letters Arrive (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 21: The Day of the Typewriters (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 22: The Solitary Yellow Square of Cake (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 23: Meaning Harm (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 24: Ancient Enmities (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 25: Poirot Returns to Combingham Hall (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 26: The Typewriter Experiment (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 27: The Bracelet and the Fan (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 28: An Unconvincing Confession (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 29: An Unexpected Eel (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 30: The Mystery of Three Quarters (#litres_trial_promo) The Fourth Quarter (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 31: A Note for Mr Porrott (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 32: Where Is Kingsbury? (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 33: The Marks on the Towel (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 34: Rebecca Grace (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 35: Family Loyalty (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 36: The True Culprit (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 37: The Will (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 38: Rowland Without a Rope (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 39: A New Typewriter (#litres_trial_promo) Acknowledgements (#litres_trial_promo) Keep Reading … (#litres_trial_promo) About the Authors (#litres_trial_promo) Also by Sophie Hannah (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) THE FIRST QUARTER (#ucdf2df14-580f-5e2e-a523-a4951138fd47) CHAPTER 1 (#ucdf2df14-580f-5e2e-a523-a4951138fd47) Poirot is Accused (#ucdf2df14-580f-5e2e-a523-a4951138fd47) Hercule Poirot smiled to himself as his driver brought the motorcar to a stop with satisfying symmetry. As a lover of neatness and order, Poirot appreciated such perfect alignment with the entrance doors of Whitehaven Mansions where he lived. One could draw a straight line from the middle of the vehicle to the exact point where the doors met. The luncheon from which he was returning had been très bon divertissement: the most excellent of food and company. He alighted, bestowed a warm thank-you upon his driver, and was about to go inside when he had a peculiar feeling that (this was how he put it to himself) something behind him was in need of his attention. He expected, on turning, to observe nothing out of the ordinary. It was a mild day for February, but perhaps a light breeze had put a tremor in the air around him. Poirot soon saw that the disturbance had not been caused by the weather, though the well-turned-out woman approaching at a great pace did, in spite of her fashionable pale blue coat and hat, resemble a force of nature. ‘She is the whirlwind most fierce,’ Poirot murmured to himself. He disliked the hat. He had seen women in town wearing similar ones: minimal, without ornament, fitted close to the scalp like bathing caps made of cloth. A hat ought to have a brim or some manner of embellishment, thought Poirot. At least, it should do something more than cover the head. No doubt he would soon get used to these modern hats—and then, once he had, the fashion would change as it always did. The blue-clad woman’s lips twitched and curled, though no sound came from her. It was as if she was rehearsing what she would say when she finally reached Poirot’s side. There was no doubt that he was her target. She looked determined to do something unpleasant to him as soon as she was close enough. He took a step back as she marched towards him in what he could only think of as a stampede—one consisting of nothing and nobody but herself. Her hair was dark brown and lustrous. When she came to an abrupt halt directly in front of him, Poirot saw that she was not as young as she had looked from a distance. No, this woman was more than fifty years old. She was perhaps sixty. A lady in her middle age, expert at concealing the lines on her face. Her eyes were a striking blue, neither light nor dark. ‘You are Hercule Poirot, are you not?’ she said in the loudest of whispers. Poirot noted that she wished to convey anger but without being overheard, though there was nobody nearby. ‘Oui, madame. I am he.’ ‘How dare you? How dare you send me such a letter?’ ‘Madame, pardon me, but I do not believe we know one another.’ ‘Don’t act the part of the innocent with me! I am Sylvia Rule. As you know perfectly well.’ ‘Now I know, because you have told me. A moment ago, I did not know. You referred to a letter—’ ‘Will you force me to repeat your slander of me in a public place? Very well, then, I shall. I received a letter this morning—a most disgusting and objectionable letter, signed by you.’ She stabbed the air with a forefinger that would have poked Poirot in the chest had he not hopped to one side to avoid it. ‘Non, madame—’ he tried to protest, but his attempt at denial was swiftly demolished. ‘In this travesty of a letter, you accused me of murder. Murder! Me! Sylvia Rule! You claimed that you could prove my guilt, and you advised me to go at once to the police and confess to my crime. How dare you? You cannot prove anything against me, for the simple reason that I am innocent. I have not killed anybody. I am the least violently inclined person I have ever met. And I have never heard of a Barnabas Pandy!’ ‘A Barnabas—’ ‘It is monstrous that you accuse me, of all people! Simply monstrous. I shall not stand for it. I have a good mind to go to my solicitor about this, except I don’t want him to know I have been so defamed. Perhaps I shall go to the police. The slur I have suffered! The insult! A woman of my standing in the world!’ Sylvia Rule went on in this manner for some time. There was a lot of hiss and fizz in her agitated whispering. She made Poirot think of the loud, turbulent waterfalls he had encountered on his travels: impressive to watch, but mainly alarming on account of their relentlessness. The flow never stopped. As soon as he could make himself heard, he said, ‘Madame, please accept my assurance that I have written no such letter. If you have received one, it was not sent by me. I too have never heard of Barnabas Pandy. That is the name of the man you are accused of murdering, by whoever wrote the letter?’ ‘You wrote it, and do not provoke me further by pretending you didn’t. Eustace put you up to it, didn’t he? You both know that I have killed nobody, that I am as blameless as it is possible for a person to be! You and Eustace have hatched a plan together to send me out of my wits! This is exactly the sort of thing he would do, and no doubt he will claim later that it was all a joke.’ ‘I know of no Eustace, madame.’ Poirot continued to make his best effort, though it was plain that nothing he said made the slightest bit of difference to Sylvia Rule. ‘He thinks he’s so clever—quite the cleverest man in England!—with that disgusting smirk that never leaves his appalling face. How much did he pay you? I know it must have been his idea. And you did his dirty work. You, the famed Hercule Poirot, who are trusted by our loyal and hardworking police. You are a fraud! How could you? Slandering a woman of my good character! Eustace would do anything to defeat me. Anything! Whatever he has told you about me, it’s a lie!’ If she had been willing to listen, Poirot might have told her that he would be unlikely to cooperate with any man who considered himself to be the cleverest man in England for as long as he, Hercule Poirot, resided in London. ‘Please show me this letter you received, madame.’ ‘Do you think I kept it? It made me ill to hold it in my hand! I tore it into a dozen pieces and tossed it on the fire. I should like to toss Eustace on a fire! What a pity such actions are against the law. All I can say is that whoever made that particular law must never have met Eustace. If you ever traduce me in this way again, I shall go straight to Scotland Yard—not to confess to anything, for I am entirely innocent, but to accuse you, M. Poirot!’ Before Poirot could formulate a suitable response, Sylvia Rule had turned and marched away. He did not call her back. He stood for a few seconds, shaking his head slowly. As he mounted the steps to his building, he muttered to himself, ‘If she is the least violently inclined person, then I do not wish to meet the most.’ Inside his spacious and well-appointed flat, his valet awaited him. George’s rather wooden smile turned to an expression of consternation when he saw Poirot’s face. ‘Are you quite well, sir?’ ‘Non. I am perplexed, Georges. Tell me, as one who knows much about the upper echelons of English society … do you know a Sylvia Rule?’ ‘By reputation only, sir. She is the widow of the late Clarence Rule. Extremely well connected. I believe she sits on the boards of various charities.’ ‘What about Barnabas Pandy?’ George shook his head. ‘That name is not familiar to me. London society is my area of special knowledge, sir. If Mr Pandy lives elsewhere—’ ‘I do not know where he lives. I do not know if he lives, or if he was, perhaps, murdered. Vraiment, I could not know less about Barnabas Pandy than I do presently—that would be an impossibility! But do not try, Georges, to tell this to Sylvia Rule, who imagines that I know all about him! She believes I wrote a letter accusing her of his murder, a letter I now deny having written. I did not write the letter. I have sent no communication of any kind to Mrs Sylvia Rule.’ Poirot removed his hat and coat with less care than he usually took, and handed both to George. ‘It is not a pleasant thing, to be accused of something one has not done. One ought to be able to brush the untruths aside, but somehow they take hold of the mind and cause a spectral form of guilt—like a ghost in the head, or in the conscience! Someone is certain that you have done this terrible thing, and so you start to feel as if you have, even though you know you have not. I begin to understand, Georges, why people confess to crimes of which they are innocent.’ George looked doubtful, as he frequently did. English discretion, Poirot had observed, had an outward appearance that suggested doubt. Many of the politest English men and women he had met over the years looked as if they had been ordered to disbelieve everything that was said to them. ‘Would you like a drink, sir? A sirop de menthe, if I might be permitted to make a suggestion?’ ‘Oui. That is an excellent idea.’ ‘I should also mention, sir, that you have a visitor waiting to see you. Am I to bring your drink immediately, and ask him to wait a little longer?’ ‘A visitor?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘What is his name? Is it Eustace?’ ‘No, sir. It’s a Mr John McCrodden.’ ‘Ah! That is a relief. No Eustace. I can cherish the hope that the nightmare of Madame Rule and her Eustace has departed and will not return to Hercule Poirot! Did Monsieur McCrodden state the nature of his business?’ ‘No, sir. Though I should warn you, he seemed … displeased.’ Poirot allowed a small sigh to escape his lips. After his more than satisfactory luncheon, the afternoon was taking a disappointing turn. Still, John McCrodden was unlikely to be as vexatious as Sylvia Rule. ‘I shall postpone the pleasure of sirop de menthe and see Monsieur McCrodden first,’ Poirot told George. ‘His name is familiar.’ ‘You might be thinking of the solicitor Rowland McCrodden, sir?’ ‘Mais oui, bien sûr. Rowland Rope, that dear friend of the hangman—though you are too polite, Georges, to call him by the soubriquet that suits him so well. The gallows, they are not allowed by Rowland Rope to have a moment’s rest.’ ‘He has been instrumental in bringing several criminals to justice, sir,’ agreed George, with his customary tact. ‘Perhaps John McCrodden is a relation,’ said Poirot. ‘Allow me to settle myself and then you may bring him in.’ As it transpired, George was prevented from bringing in John McCrodden by McCrodden’s determination to stride into the room without help or introduction. He overtook the valet and positioned himself in the middle of the carpet where he stopped as if frozen in the manner of one sent to play the part of a statue. ‘Please, monsieur, you may sit down,’ Poirot said with a smile. ‘No, thank you,’ said McCrodden. His tone was one of contemptuous detachment. He was forty years old or thereabouts, Poirot guessed. He had the kind of handsome face that one rarely encountered apart from in works of art. His features might have been chiselled by a master craftsman. Poirot found it difficult to reconcile the face with the clothes, which were shabby and showed patches of dirt. Was he in the habit of sleeping on park benches? Did he have recourse to the usual domestic amenities? Poirot wondered if McCrodden had sought to cancel out the advantages that nature had bestowed upon him—the large green eyes and the golden hair—by making himself look as repellent as possible. McCrodden glared down at Poirot. ‘I received your letter,’ he said. ‘It arrived this morning.’ ‘I’m afraid I must contradict you, monsieur. I have sent you no letter.’ There was a long, uneasy silence. Poirot did not wish to leap to any hasty conclusions, but he feared he knew the direction the conversation was about to take. But it could not be! How could it be? Only in his dreams had he encountered this sensation before: the doom-laden knowledge that one is trapped in a predicament that makes no sense and will never make sense, no matter what one does. ‘What did it say, this letter that you received?’ he asked. ‘You ought to know, since you wrote it,’ said John McCrodden. ‘You accused me of murdering a man named Barnabas Pandy.’ CHAPTER 2 (#ucdf2df14-580f-5e2e-a523-a4951138fd47) Intolerable Provocation (#ucdf2df14-580f-5e2e-a523-a4951138fd47) ‘I must say, I was rather disappointed,’ McCrodden went on. ‘The famous Hercule Poirot, allowing himself to be used for such frivolities.’ Poirot waited a few moments before answering. Was it his particular choice of words that had proved so ineffective in persuading Sylvia Rule to listen to him? Then, for John McCrodden, he would make an effort to be clearer and more persuasive. ‘Monsieur, s’il vous plait. I believe that somebody sent you a letter and that, in it, you were accused of murder. The murder of Barnabas Pandy. This part of your story I do not dispute. But—’ ‘You are in no position to dispute it,’ said McCrodden. ‘Monsieur, please believe me when I tell you that I was not the writer of the letter you received. To Hercule Poirot, there is nothing frivolous about murder. I would—’ ‘Oh, there won’t have been any murder,’ McCrodden interrupted again with a bitter laugh. ‘Or, if there has, the police will already have caught the person responsible. This is one of my father’s childish games.’ He frowned, as if something disturbing had occurred to him. ‘Unless the old gargoyle is more sadistic than I thought and would actually risk my neck in a real and unsolved case of murder. I suppose it’s possible. With his ruthless determination …’ McCrodden broke off, then muttered, ‘Yes. It is possible. I should have thought of that.’ ‘Your father is the solicitor Rowland McCrodden?’ asked Poirot. ‘You know he is.’ John McCrodden had already declared himself disappointed, and that was how he sounded—as if Poirot was sinking lower in his estimation with each word he spoke. ‘I know your father by reputation only. I have not personally made his acquaintance, nor have I ever spoken to him.’ ‘You have to maintain the pretence, of course,’ said John McCrodden. ‘I’m sure he’s paid you a handsome sum to keep his name out of it.’ He looked around the room he was standing in, seeming to notice it for the first time. Then he nodded as if confirming something to himself, and said, ‘The rich who need money least—like you, like my father—will stop at nothing to get their hands on more of it. That’s why I’ve never trusted it. I was right not to. Money is corrosive to character once you’re accustomed to it, and you, M. Poirot, are the living proof.’ Poirot could not recall when someone had last said something so unpleasant to him, so unfair or so personally wounding. He said quietly, ‘I have spent my life working for the greater good and the protection of the innocent and—yes!—the wrongly accused. That group includes you, monsieur. Also, today, it includes Hercule Poirot. I too am wrongly accused. I am as innocent of writing and sending the letter you received as you are of murder. I too know no Barnabas Pandy. Not a dead Barnabas Pandy and not an alive Barnabas Pandy do I know! But here—ah! Here is where the similarities between us end, for when you insist you are innocent, I listen. I think, “This man might be telling the truth.” Whereas when I—’ ‘Spare me the fancy words,’ McCrodden cut in again. ‘If you imagine I’m likely to trust dazzling rhetoric any more than I trust money, reputation or any of the other things my father holds in high regard, you’re grievously mistaken. Now, since Rowland Rope will doubtless require you to relay to him my response to his sordid little scheme, please tell him this: I’m not playing. I have never heard of a Barnabas Pandy, I have killed nobody, therefore I have nothing to fear. I have enough confidence in the law of the land to trust that I won’t hang for a crime I didn’t commit.’ ‘Do you believe your father wants that to happen?’ ‘I don’t know. It’s possible. I have always thought that if Father ever runs out of guilty people to send to the gallows, he’ll turn his attentions to the innocent and pretend they’re guilty—both in court and in his own mind. Anything to feed his lust for the blood of his fellow human beings.’ ‘That is a remarkable accusation, monsieur, and not the first one you have made since you arrived.’ McCrodden’s brisk, business-as-usual way of speaking chilled Poirot. It lent an air of objectivity to his words, as if he was merely conveying the plain and uncontroversial facts. The Rowland Rope about whom Poirot had heard so much over the years was not the man his son was describing. He was a strong advocate of death as a punishment for the guilty—a little too strong for Poirot’s taste, for there were circumstances that called for discretion—but Poirot suspected McCrodden Senior would be as horrified as he himself would be at the prospect of an innocent man or woman being sent to the gallows. And if the man in question was his own son … ‘Monsieur, I have not, in all my years, met a father who sought to have his son condemned to death for a murder he did not commit.’ ‘Ah, but you have,’ John McCrodden responded swiftly. ‘Despite your protests to the contrary, I know you must have met my father, or at least you have conversed with him, and the two of you have conspired to accuse me. Well, you can tell Dear Father that I no longer hate him. Now that I see how low he is willing to stoop, I pity him. He’s no better than a murderer. Neither are you, M. Poirot. The same is true of anyone in favour of choking wrongdoers at the end of a rope, the way our brutal system does.’ ‘Is that your opinion, monsieur?’ ‘All my life I’ve been a source of embarrassment and frustration to Father: refusing to bow down, to do what he wants, think what he thinks, work in his chosen profession. He wants me to take up the law. He’s never forgiven me for not wanting to be him.’ ‘May I ask what is your profession?’ ‘Profession?’ McCrodden sneered. ‘I work for a living. Nothing fancy. Nothing grand that involves playing with other people’s lives. I’ve worked in a mine, on farms, in factories. I’ve made trinkets for ladies and sold them. I’m good at selling. At the moment I’ve got a market stall. It keeps a roof over my head, but none of that’s good enough for my father. And, being Rowland McCrodden, he won’t admit defeat. Never.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘I hoped he had given up on me. Now I see that he never will. He knows a man accused of murder will need to defend himself. It’s rather clever of him, actually. He’s trying to provoke me, and harbouring all sorts of fantasies, I imagine, of me insisting on defending myself against the charge of murder at the Old Bailey. To do that, I would have to take an interest in the law, wouldn’t I?’ It was evident that Rowland McCrodden was to John McCrodden what Eustace was to Sylvia Rule. ‘You can tell him from me that his plan has failed. I will never be the person my father wants me to be. And I would rather he didn’t attempt to communicate with me again—directly, or using you or any of his other toadies as a conduit.’ Poirot rose from his chair. ‘Please wait here for a few moments,’ he said. He left the room, taking care to leave the door wide open. When Poirot returned to the room, he was accompanied by his valet. He smiled at John McCrodden and said, ‘You have already met Georges. You will, I hope, have heard me explain to him that I would like him to join us for a short while. I raised my voice so that you would hear everything I said to him.’ ‘Yes, I heard,’ said McCrodden in a bored voice. ‘If I had said anything else to Georges, you would have heard it too. I did not. Therefore, what he is about to tell you will, I hope, convince you that I am not your enemy. Please, Georges—speak!’ George looked astonished. He was not accustomed to receiving such vague instructions. ‘About what, sir?’ Poirot turned to John McCrodden. ‘You see? He does not know. I have not prepared him for this. Georges, when I returned from luncheon today, I told you about something that had just happened to me, did I not?’ ‘You did, sir.’ ‘Please repeat the story that I told you.’ ‘Very well, sir. You were accosted by a lady who introduced herself as Mrs Sylvia Rule. Mrs Rule mistakenly believed that you had written a letter to her in which you had accused her of murder.’ ‘Merci, Georges. Tell me, who was the supposed victim of this murder?’ ‘A Mr Barnabas Pandy, sir.’ ‘And what else did I tell you?’ ‘That you were not acquainted with a man of that name, sir. If there is such a gentleman, you do not know if he is alive or dead, or if he has been murdered. When you tried to explain this to Mrs Rule, she refused to listen.’ Poirot turned to John McCrodden in triumph. ‘Monsieur, perhaps your father wishes also for Sylvia Rule to defend herself at the Old Bailey? Or are you finally willing to concede that you have misjudged and most unfairly maligned Hercule Poirot? It might interest to you to know that Madame Rule also accused me of conspiring with one of her enemies to cause her distress—a man named Eustace.’ ‘I still say my father is behind it all,’ John McCrodden said after a short interval. He sounded markedly less certain than he had before. ‘He enjoys nothing more than the challenge of an elaborate puzzle. I’m supposed to work out why Mrs Rule received the same letter I did.’ ‘When one has a driving preoccupation—yours with your father, or Sylvia Rule’s obsession with her Eustace—it colours the way one sees the world,’ said Poirot with a sigh. ‘I don’t suppose you have brought the letter with you?’ ‘No. I tore it up and sent the pieces to my father with a note telling him what I think of him, and now I’m telling you, M. Poirot. I won’t stand for it. Even the great Hercule Poirot cannot accuse innocent people of murder and expect to get away with it.’ It was a considerable relief when John McCrodden finally removed himself from the room. Poirot stood by the window in order to watch his visitor’s departure from the building. ‘Are you ready for your sirop de menthe now, sir?’ George asked. ‘Mon ami, I am ready for all the sirop de menthe in the world.’ Seeing that he might have caused confusion, he clarified. ‘One glass please, Georges. Only one.’ Poirot returned to his chair in a state of agitation. What hope was there for justice or peace to prevail in the world when three people who might have made common cause—three wrongly accused people: Sylvia Rule, John McCrodden and Hercule Poirot—could not sit together and have a calm, rational discussion that might have helped them all to understand what had happened? Instead there had been anger, an almost fanatical refusal to entertain a point of view other than one’s own, and the ceaseless hurling of insults. Not from Hercule Poirot, however; he had behaved impeccably in the face of intolerable provocation. When George brought him his sirop, he said, ‘Tell me—is there anybody else waiting to see me?’ ‘No, sir.’ ‘Nobody has telephoned to request an appointment?’ ‘No, sir. Are you expecting someone?’ ‘Oui. I am expecting an angry stranger, or perhaps several.’ ‘I’m not sure what you mean, sir.’ Just then the telephone started to ring. Poirot nodded and permitted himself a small smile. When there was no other pleasure to be taken from a situation, one might as well enjoy being correct, he thought. ‘There he is, Georges—or there she is. The third person. Third of who knows how many? Three, four, five? It could be any number.’ ‘Number of what, sir?’ ‘People who have received a letter accusing them of the murder of Barnabas Pandy—signed, fraudulently, in the name of Hercule Poirot!’ CHAPTER 3 (#ulink_147c2a00-588b-53e3-a7b2-d487c43452ac) The Third Person (#ulink_147c2a00-588b-53e3-a7b2-d487c43452ac) At three o’clock the next day, Poirot was visited at Whitehaven Mansions by a Miss Annabel Treadway. As he waited for George to show her in, he found himself looking forward to the encounter. For those of a different temperament, it might have been tedious to field the same accusation time after time from a succession of strangers united in their determination not to listen to a word that was said to them; not so for Hercule Poirot. This third time, he resolved, he would succeed in making his point. He would convince Miss Annabel Treadway that he was telling the truth. Perhaps then progress might be made and some more interesting questions asked. The puzzle of why most people, even intelligent people, were so illogical and pig-headed was one to which Poirot had devoted quite enough consideration while lying awake the previous night; he was eager to turn his attention to Barnabas Pandy himself. Of course, that was assuming that Barnabas Pandy had a self. It was possible that he did not exist, had never existed, and was no more than a figment of the letter-writer’s imagination. The door opened and George ushered in a thin woman of average height, with fair hair and dark eyes and clothes. Poirot was alarmed by his reaction to the sight of her. He felt as if he ought to bow his head and say, ‘My condolences, mademoiselle.’ Having no reason to believe that she had suffered a loss, he restrained himself. A letter accusing her of murder might provoke anger or fear, but it could hardly be considered a tragedy; it would not, Poirot thought, make a person sad. As surely as John McCrodden had filled Poirot’s room with cold contempt, Annabel Treadway had brought sorrow in with her. ‘The aching heart,’ Poirot thought. He felt it as keenly as if it were his own. ‘Thank you, Georges,’ he said. ‘Please, sit down, mademoiselle.’ She hurried to the nearest chair and sat in a manner that cannot have been comfortable for her. Poirot observed that her most striking facial feature was a deep vertical groove that started between her eyebrows: a pronounced crease that seemed to divide her forehead into two neat halves. Poirot resolved not to look at it again, lest she should notice. ‘Thank you for allowing me to come here today,’ she said quietly. ‘I expected you to refuse.’ She looked at Poirot five or six times as she spoke, turning away quickly on each occasion as if she didn’t want him to catch her in the act of observing him. ‘From where have you come, mademoiselle?’ ‘Oh, you won’t have heard of it. Nobody has. It’s in the country.’ ‘Why did you expect me to refuse to see you?’ ‘Most people would go to any lengths to prevent someone they believed to be a murderer from entering their home,’ she said. ‘M. Poirot, what I came here to tell you is … Well, you might not believe me, but I am innocent. I could not murder another living soul. Never! You cannot know …’ She broke off with a ragged gasp. ‘Please continue,’ said Poirot gently. ‘What is it that I cannot know?’ ‘I have never caused pain or injury to anybody, and nor could I. I have saved lives!’ ‘Mademoiselle—’ Annabel Treadway had produced a handkerchief from her pocket and was dabbing at her eyes. ‘Please forgive me if I sounded boastful. I did not mean to exaggerate my own goodness or my achievements, but it is true that I have saved a life. Many years ago.’ ‘A life? You said “lives”.’ ‘I only meant that if I had the opportunity to do so again, I should save every life that I could save, even if I had to place myself in danger to do so.’ Her voice trembled. ‘Is that because you are especially heroic or because you think other people matter more than you do?’ Poirot asked her. ‘I … I’m not sure what you mean. We must all put others before ourselves. I don’t pretend to be more selfless than most, and I’m far from brave. I’m a terrible coward, in fact. Coming here to talk to you took all my courage. My sister Lenore—she’s the brave one. I’m sure you are brave, M. Poirot. Wouldn’t you save every life that you could, every single one?’ Poirot frowned. It was a peculiar question. The conversation so far had been unusual—even for what Poirot was calling in his mind ‘the new age of Barnabas Pandy’. ‘I have heard of your work and I admire you greatly,’ said Annabel Treadway. ‘That is why your letter pained me so. M. Poirot, you are quite wrong in your suspicions. You say you have proof against me, but I don’t see how that is possible. I have committed no crime.’ ‘And I have sent you no letter,’ Poirot told her. ‘I did not accuse you—I do not accuse you—of the murder of Barnabas Pandy.’ Annabel Treadway blinked at Poirot in astonishment. ‘But … I don’t understand.’ ‘The letter you received was not written by the true Hercule Poirot. I too am innocent! An impersonator has sent these accusations, each one with my name signed at the bottom.’ ‘Each … each one? Do you mean—?’ ‘Oui. You are the third person in two days to say this very thing to me: that I have written to you and accused you of murdering a Barnabas Pandy. Yesterday it was Madame Sylvia Rule and Monsieur John McCrodden. Today it is you.’ Poirot watched her closely to see if the names of her fellow accusees had any noticeable effect. There was none that he could see. ‘So you didn’t …’ Her mouth moved for a while after she stopped speaking. Eventually she said, ‘So you don’t think I’m a killer?’ ‘That is correct. At the present moment, I have no reason to believe you have murdered anybody. Now, if you were the only person to come to me as you have and talk about this letter of accusation, I might wonder …’ Deciding against sharing any more of his thoughts, Poirot smiled and said, ‘It is a cruel joke that this trickster, whomever he is, has played upon us both, mademoiselle. The names Sylvia Rule and John McCrodden are not known to you?’ ‘I have never heard of either of them,’ said Annabel Treadway. ‘And jokes are supposed to be funny. This is not funny. It’s appalling. Who would do it? I’m not important, but to do such a thing to a person of your reputation is shocking, M. Poirot.’ ‘To me you are extremely important,’ he told her. ‘You alone, of the three people to receive this letter, have listened. You alone believe Hercule Poirot when he says that he wrote and sent no such accusation. You do not make me feel I must be going mad, as the other two did. For that I am profoundly grateful.’ An oppressive air of sorrow still lingered in the room. If Poirot could only bring a smile to Annabel Treadway’s face … Ah, but that was a dangerous way to think. Allow a person to affect your emotions and your judgement suffered, always. Reminding himself that Miss Treadway might, despite seeming forlorn, nevertheless have murdered a man named Barnabas Pandy, Poirot continued with less effusiveness: ‘Madame Rule and Monsieur McCrodden, they did not believe Poirot. They did not listen.’ ‘They surely didn’t accuse you of lying?’ ‘Unfortunately, they did.’ ‘But you’re Hercule Poirot!’ ‘An undeniable truth,’ Poirot agreed. ‘May I ask, have you brought the letter with you?’ ‘No. I destroyed it at once, I’m afraid. I … I couldn’t bear for it to exist.’ ‘Dommage. I should have liked to see it. Eh bien, mademoiselle, let us take the next step in our investigation. Who should want to make mischief in this particular way—for you, for me, and for Madame Rule and Monsieur McCrodden? Four people who do not know this Barnabas Pandy, if he exists at all, which, for all we know—’ ‘Oh!’ Annabel Treadway gasped. ‘What is the matter?’ Poirot asked her. ‘Tell me. Do not be afraid.’ She looked terrified. ‘It’s not true,’ she whispered. ‘What is not true?’ ‘He does exist.’ ‘Monsieur Pandy? Barnabas Pandy?’ ‘Yes. Well, he did exist. He’s dead, you see. Not murdered, though. He fell asleep and … I thought … it was not my intention to deceive you, M. Poirot. I should have made it clear straight away … I simply thought …’ Her eyes moved quickly from one part of the room to another. There was, Poirot sensed, great chaos in her mind at that moment. ‘You have not deceived me,’ he assured her. ‘Madame Rule and Monsieur McCrodden were adamant that they knew no one by the name of Barnabas Pandy, and neither do I. I made the assumption that the same must be true of you. Now, please tell me all that you know about Monsieur Pandy. He is dead, you say?’ ‘Yes. He died in December of last year. Three months ago.’ ‘And you say it was not murder—which means you know how he died?’ ‘Of course I do. I was there. We lived together in the same house.’ ‘You … you lived together?’ This Poirot had not been expecting. ‘Yes, since I was seven years old,’ she said. ‘Barnabas Pandy was my grandfather.’ ‘He was more like a parent to me than a grandparent,’ Annabel Treadway told Poirot, once he had succeeded in convincing her that he was not angry with her for misleading him. ‘My mother and father died when I was seven, and Grandy—that’s what I called him—took us in, Lenore and me. Lenore has also been like a parent to me, in a way. I don’t know what I’d do without her. Grandy was terribly old. It’s sad when they leave us, of course, but old people do die, don’t they? Naturally, when it’s their time.’ The contrast between her matter-of-fact tone and the air of sadness that seemed to cling to her led Poirot to conclude that, whatever was making her unhappy, it was not her grandfather’s death. Then her manner changed. There was a flash of something in her eyes as she said fiercely, ‘People mind so much less when old people die, which is dreadfully unfair! “He had a good innings,” they say, as if that makes it tolerable, whereas when a child dies everyone knows it’s the worst kind of tragedy. I believe every death is a tragedy! Don’t you think it’s unfair, M. Poirot?’ The word ‘tragedy’ seemed to echo in the air. If Poirot had been ordered to pick one word to describe the essence of the woman before him, he would have chosen that one. It was almost a relief to hear it spoken aloud. When he didn’t immediately answer her question, Annabel Treadway blushed and said, ‘When I spoke of old people dying and nobody caring as much as … well, I didn’t mean … I was talking about really very old people. Grandy was ninety-four, which I’m sure is much older than … I hope I have caused no offence.’ Thus, reflected Poirot, did some reassurances cause greater alarm than the original remark upon which they sought to improve. Somewhat dishonestly, he told Annabel Treadway that he was not offended. ‘How did you destroy the letter?’ he asked her. She looked down at her knees. ‘You would prefer not to tell me?’ ‘Being accused of murder—not by you, but definitely by somebody—makes one a little nervous of revealing anything.’ ‘I understand. All the same, I should like to know how you disposed of it.’ She frowned. ‘Alors!’ thought Poirot to himself as the crease between her eyebrows deepened. That was one mystery solved at least. Frowning was a habit of hers and had been for many years. The groove in her forehead was the proof. ‘You’ll think me silly and superstitious if I tell you,’ she said, raising her handkerchief to just below her nose. She was not crying, but perhaps expected to be soon. ‘I took a pen and scored thick black lines through every word, so that nothing of what was written remained visible. I did it to your name too, M. Poirot. Every single word! Then I tore it up and burned the pieces.’ ‘Three distinct methods of obliteration.’ Poirot smiled. ‘I am impressed. Madame Rule and Monsieur McCrodden, they were less thorough than you, mademoiselle. There is something else I should like to ask you. I sense you are unhappy, and perhaps afraid?’ ‘I have nothing to be afraid of,’ she said quickly. ‘I’ve told you, I’m innocent. Oh, if only it were Lenore or Ivy accusing me, I would know how to convince them. I would simply say, “I swear on Hoppy’s life,” and they would know I was telling the truth. They already know, of course, that I did not kill Grandy.’ ‘Who is Hoppy?’ asked Poirot. ‘Hopscotch. My dog. He’s the most darling creature. I would never swear on his life and then lie. You would love him, M. Poirot. It’s impossible not to love him.’ For the first time since arriving, Annabel Treadway smiled, and the thick layer of sadness in the room’s atmosphere lifted a little. ‘I must get back to him. You’ll think me foolish, but I miss him dreadfully. And I’m not afraid—truly. If the person who sent the letter wasn’t willing to put his name to it, then it’s not a serious accusation, is it? It’s a silly trick, that’s all it is, and I’m very glad to be able to see you and straighten it out. Now, I must go.’ ‘Please, mademoiselle, do not leave yet. I would like to ask you more questions.’ ‘But I must get back to Hoppy,’ Annabel Treadway insisted, rising to her feet. ‘He needs … and none of them can … When I’m not there, he … I’m so sorry. I hope whoever sent those letters causes you no further trouble. Thank you for seeing me. Good day, M. Poirot.’ ‘Good day, mademoiselle,’ Poirot said to a room that was suddenly empty apart from himself and a lingering feeling of desolation. CHAPTER 4 (#ulink_d3f7c7a9-2dbf-59b3-8bbe-3362725deb41) The Odd One Out? (#ulink_d3f7c7a9-2dbf-59b3-8bbe-3362725deb41) The next morning felt peculiar to Hercule Poirot. By ten o’clock, no stranger had telephoned. Nobody had appeared at Whitehaven Mansions to accuse him of accusing them of the murder of Barnabas Pandy. He waited in until forty minutes after eleven (one never knew when a faulty alarm clock might cause an accusee to oversleep), then set off across town to Pleasant’s Coffee House. Unofficially in charge at Pleasant’s was a young waitress by the name of Euphemia Spring. Everyone called her Fee for short. Poirot liked her enormously. She said the most unexpected things. Her flyaway hair defied gravity by refusing to lie flat against her head, though there was nothing floaty or flighty about her mind, which was always sharply in focus. She made the finest coffee in London, then did all she could to discourage customers from drinking it. Tea, she was fond of proclaiming, was a far superior beverage and beneficial to health, whereas coffee apparently led to sleepless nights and ruination of every sort. Poirot continued to drink Fee’s excellent coffee in spite of her warnings and entreaties, and had noticed that on many subjects (other than the aforementioned) she had much wisdom to impart. One of her areas of expertise was Poirot’s friend and occasional helper Inspector Edward Catchpool—which was why he was here. The coffee house was starting to fill with people. Moisture dripped down the insides of the windows. Fee was serving a gentleman on the other side of the room when Poirot walked in, but she waved at him with her left hand: an eloquent gesture that told him precisely where to sit and wait for her. Poirot sat. He straightened the cutlery on the table in front of him as he always did, and tried not to look at the teapot collection that filled the high shelves on the walls. He found the sight of them unbearable: all angled differently and apparently at random. There was no logic to it. To be someone who cared about teapots, enough to collect so many, and yet not to see the need to point all the spouts in the same direction … Poirot had long suspected Fee of creating a deliberately haphazard arrangement solely to cause him distress. He had once, when the teapots were lined up in a more conventional fashion, remarked that one was positioned incorrectly. Each time he had come to Pleasant’s since that day, there had been no pattern at all. Fee Spring did not respond well to criticism. She appeared by his side and slammed a plate down between his knife and fork. There was a slice of cake on it, one Poirot had not ordered. ‘I’ll be needing your help,’ she said, before he could ask her about Catchpool, ‘but you’ll have to eat up first.’ It was her famous Church Window Cake, so called because each slice comprised two yellow and two pink squares that were supposed to resemble the stained glass of a church window. Poirot found the name bothersome. Church windows were coloured, yes, but they were also transparent and made of glass. One might as well call it ‘Chess Board Cake’—that was what it brought to Poirot’s mind when he saw it: a chess board, albeit too small and in the wrong colours. ‘I telephoned to Scotland Yard this morning,’ he told Fee. ‘They say that Catchpool is at the seaside on holiday, with his mother. This did not sound to me likely.’ ‘Eat,’ said Fee. ‘Oui, mais—’ ‘But you want to know where Edward is. Why? Has something happened?’ She had started, in recent months, to refer to Catchpool as ‘Edward’, though never when he was present, Poirot noticed. ‘Do you know where he is?’ Poirot asked her. ‘Might do.’ Fee grinned. ‘I’ll gladly tell all’s I know, once you’ve said you’ll help me. Now, eat.’ Poirot sighed. ‘How will it help you if I eat a slice of your cake?’ Fee sat down beside him and rested both her elbows on the table. ‘It’s not my cake,’ she whispered, as if talking about something shameful. ‘Looks the same, tastes the same, but it isn’t mine. That’s the problem.’ ‘I do not understand.’ ‘Were you ever served by a girl here, name of Philippa—all bones, teeth like a horse?’ ‘Non. She does not sound familiar.’ ‘She wasn’t here long. I caught her pilfering food and had to have words. Not that she didn’t need feeding up, but I wasn’t having her taking food from plates of those who’d paid fair and square. I told her she was welcome to leftovers, but that weren’t good enough for her. Didn’t like being spoken to like a thief—thieves never do—and so she never came back after. Well, now she’s at the new coffee house, Kemble’s, near the wine merchants’ place on Oxford Street. They can keep her and good luck to ’em—but then customers start telling me she’s making my cake. I didn’t believe ’em at first. How could she know the recipe? Passed down from my great-granny, it were, to my granny, then my ma, then to me. I’d cut out my own tongue before I’d tell it to anyone outside the family, and I haven’t, to no one—certainly not to her. I’ve not written it down. Only way she could know’s if she’s secretly watched me making it … and when I thought carefully, I thought, yes, she might’ve. She’d have only needed to do it once if she’d paid attention, and I can’t swear she didn’t. All that time, the two of us together in a tiny kitchen …’ Fee pointed an accusatory finger, as if the kitchen of Pleasant’s were to blame. ‘Easy enough to look like she’s busy with somethin’ else. And she was a proper little sneak-about. Anyhow, I had to go and try it, didn’t I? And I think they’re right, those who’ve told me she’s making my cake. I think they’re dead right!’ Her eyes blazed with indignation. ‘What would you like me to do, mademoiselle?’ ‘Haven’t I said? Haven’t I been saying? Eat that and tell me if I’m right or wrong. That’s hers, not mine. I shoved it in a coat pocket when she wasn’t looking. She never even knew I was in her coffee house, that’s how careful I was. I went in disguise—wore a proper costume!’ Poirot did not wish to eat a slice of cake that had been in anybody’s pocket. ‘I have not sampled your Church Window Cake for many months,’ he told Fee. ‘My memory of it is not strong enough to judge. Besides, one does not remember taste accurately—it is impossible.’ ‘D’you think I don’t know that?’ said Fee impatiently. ‘I’ll give you a slice of mine next, won’t I? I’ll get it right now.’ She stood up. ‘Have a little bite of one, then the other. Then do it again, a little bite from each. Tell me if they couldn’t all come from the same slice.’ ‘If I do this, you will tell me where is Catchpool?’ ‘No.’ ‘No?’ ‘I said I’d tell you where Edward is if you’ll help me.’ ‘And I have agreed to taste—’ ‘The tasting’s not the helping,’ Fee said firmly. ‘That’ll come after.’ Hercule Poirot rarely allowed himself to be bent to the will of others, but to resist Fee Spring was a fool’s enterprise. He waited until she returned with another slice of Church Window Cake that looked identical to the first and then, obediently, sampled both. To be certain, he tasted three pieces from each one. Fee watched him closely. Finally she could control herself no longer and demanded, ‘Well? Is it the same or not?’ ‘I can taste no difference,’ Poirot told her. ‘None at all. But, mademoiselle, I am afraid that there is no statute that prevents one person from making the same cake as another, if she has observed with her own eyes—’ ‘Oh, I’m not after using the law against her. All’s I want to know is if she thinks she’s stolen from me or not.’ ‘I see,’ said Poirot. ‘You are interested not in the legal offence but in the moral one.’ ‘I want you to go to her coffee house, order her cake, and then ask her about it. Ask where she got the recipe.’ ‘What if she says, “It is the one used by Fee Spring of Pleasant’s”?’ ‘Then I’ll go see her myself, and tell her what she doesn’t know: that the Spring family recipe’s not to be used by anyone else. If it’s an honest mistake, that’s how I’ll treat it.’ ‘And what will you do if she answers more evasively?’ Poirot asked. ‘Or if she says boldly that she got the recipe for her cake from somewhere else, and you do not believe her?’ Fee smiled and narrowed her eyes. ‘Oh, I’ll soon have her regretting it,’ she said, then quickly added, ‘Not in a way as’d make you wish you hadn’t helped me, mind.’ ‘I am glad to hear that, mademoiselle. If you will allow Poirot to offer you a piece of wise advice: the pursuit of revenge is rarely a good idea.’ ‘Neither’s sitting around twiddling your thumbs when folks have made off with what’s rightfully yours,’ said Fee decisively. ‘What I want from you’s the help I’ve asked for, not advice I didn’t asked for.’ ‘Je comprends,’ said Poirot. ‘Good.’ ‘Please. Where is Catchpool?’ Fee grinned. ‘At the seaside with his ma, just like Scotland Yard said.’ Poirot’s face assumed a stern look. ‘I see that I have been tricked,’ he said. ‘Hardly! You didn’t believe it when they told you. Now I’m telling you it’s true, so’s you know. That’s where he is. Great Yarmouth, out east.’ ‘As I said before … this does not sound likely.’ ‘He didn’t want to go but he had to, to get the old girl to leave him be. She’d found another perfect wife for him.’ ‘Ah!’ Poirot was familiar with Catchpool’s mother’s ambition to see her son settled with a nice young lady. ‘And this one had so much going in her favour—a right looker, Edward said she was, and from a respectable family. Kind, too, and cultivated. He found it harder than usual to say no.’ ‘To his mother? Or did the jolie femme make to him the proposal of marriage?’ Fee laughed. ‘No—it was his ma’s notion and that was all. It knocked the stuffing out of the old girl when he said he wasn’t interested. She must’ve thought, “If he won’t be persuaded, even for this one …” Edward decided he had to do something to lift her spirits, and she loves Great Yarmouth, so that’s where they are.’ ‘It is February,’ said Poirot crossly. ‘To go to an English seaside resort in February is to invite misery, is it not?’ What a dismal time Catchpool must be having, he thought. He ought to return to London at once so that Poirot could discuss with him the matter of Barnabas Pandy. ‘Excuse me, M. Poirot? M. Hercule Poirot?’ A tentative voice interrupted his thoughts. He turned to find a smartly attired man beaming at him as if suffused with the greatest joy. ‘Hercule Poirot, c’est moi,’ he confirmed. The man extended his hand. ‘How delightful to meet you,’ he said. ‘Your reputation is formidable. It’s hard to judge what one ought to say to such a great man. I’m Dockerill—Hugo Dockerill.’ Fee eyed the new arrival suspiciously. ‘I’ll leave you to it, then,’ she said. ‘Don’t forget you’ve promised to help me,’ she warned Poirot before leaving the table. He assured her that he would not forget, then invited the smiling man to sit. Hugo Dockerill was almost completely bald, though not yet fifty, Poirot guessed. ‘I’m terribly sorry to accost you in this manner,’ Dockerill said, sounding jolly and not at all regretful. ‘Your valet told me I might find you here. He encouraged me to make an appointment for later this afternoon, but I’m awfully anxious to clear up the misunderstanding. So I told him I’d rather seek you out sooner, and when I explained to him what it was all about, he seemed to think that you might want to see me rather urgently—so here I am!’ He guffawed loudly, as if he’d told a hilarious anecdote. ‘Misunderstanding?’ Poirot said. He was starting to wonder if perhaps a fourth letter … but no, how could that be? Would any person, even the most enthusiastic and optimistic, beam with delight in such circumstances? ‘Yes. I received your letter two days ago, and … well, I’m sure the fault is entirely mine and I’d hate you to think I’m levelling any sort of criticism at you—I’m absolutely not,’ Hugo Dockerill chattered on. ‘In fact, I’m a keen admirer of your work, from what I’ve heard of it, but … well, I must have unwittingly done something that’s given you the wrong idea. For that, I apologize. I do sometimes get into a bit of a muddle. You’d only need to ask my wife Jane—she’d tell you. I planned to track you down at once, after I got your letter, but I misplaced it almost immediately—’ ‘Monsieur,’ said Poirot sternly. ‘To which letter are you referring?’ ‘The one about … well, about old Barnabas Pandy,’ said Hugo Dockerill, beaming with renewed vitality now that the crucial name had been uttered. ‘I wouldn’t normally dare to suggest that the amazing Hercule Poirot might be wrong about something, but on this occasion … I’m afraid it wasn’t me. I thought that … well, if you could tell me what has led you to believe it was, maybe between us we could get this funny mess ironed out. As I say, I’m sure the misunderstanding is entirely my fault.’ ‘You say it was not you, monsieur. What was not you?’ ‘The person who murdered Barnabas Pandy,’ said Hugo Dockerill. Having declared himself innocent of murder, Hugo Dockerill picked up an unused fork from the place setting opposite Poirot and helped himself to a chunk of Fee Spring’s Church Window Cake. Or perhaps it was Philippa the pilferer’s slice; Poirot could no longer remember which was which. ‘You don’t mind, do you?’ Dockerill said. ‘Shame for it to go to waste. Don’t tell my wife! She’s always complaining I’ve got the table manners of a guttersnipe. But we boys are a bit more robust when it comes to filling our bellies, eh?’ Poirot, aghast that anyone would find a half-eaten slice of cake tempting, made a tactfully non-specific noise. He permitted himself to reflect, briefly, upon similarity and difference. When many people do or say precisely the same thing, the effect is the opposite of what one might expect. Now two women and two men had come forward to communicate the same message: that they had received a letter signed in the name of Hercule Poirot and accusing them of the murder of Barnabas Pandy. Instead of pondering the similarities between these four encounters, Poirot found himself intrigued by the differences. He was now firmly of the view that if you wanted to see clearly how one person’s character diverged from that of another, the most efficient method was to place both in identical situations. Sylvia Rule was egotistical and full of proud rage. Like John McCrodden, she was in the grip of a powerful obsession with a particular person. Both believed Poirot must have done the bidding of that person in writing the letters, be it Rowland ‘Rope’ McCrodden or the mysterious Eustace. John McCrodden’s anger, Poirot thought, was equal to Sylvia Rule’s but different: less explosive, more enduring. He would not forget, whereas she might if a new and more pressing drama occurred. Of the four, Annabel Treadway was the hardest to fathom. She had not been angry at all, but she was withholding something. And afflicted, somehow. Hugo Dockerill was the first and only letter-recipient to remain cheerful in the face of his predicament, and certainly the first to demonstrate a belief that all the world’s problems could be solved if only decent people sat down at a table together and set things straight. If he objected to being accused of murder, he concealed it well. He was still doing his best to split his face across the middle with a radiant smile, and muttering, between mouthfuls of Church Window Cake, about how sorry he was if anything he’d done had created the impression that he might be a killer. ‘Do not keep apologizing,’ Poirot told him. ‘You spoke of “old Barnabas Pandy” a moment ago. Why did you refer to him in that way?’ ‘Well, he was on his way to being a hundred years old when he died, wasn’t he?’ ‘So you knew Monsieur Pandy?’ ‘I had never met him, but I knew about him, of course—because of Timothy.’ ‘Who is Timothy?’ asked Poirot. ‘I should explain, monsieur, that the letter you received did not come from me. I knew nothing of a Barnabas Pandy until I was visited by three people who were all sent the same letter. And now a fourth: you. These letters were signed “Hercule Poirot” by a deceiver. A fraud! They did not come from me. I have accused nobody of the murder of Monsieur Pandy—who, I believe, died of natural causes.’ ‘Golly!’ Hugo Dockerill’s broad smile dipped a little as his eyes filled with confusion. ‘What a rum do. Silly prank, was it?’ ‘Who is Timothy?’ Poirot asked again. ‘Timothy Lavington—he’s old Pandy’s great-grandson. I’m his housemaster at school. Turville. Pandy himself was a pupil there, as was Timothy’s father—both Old Turvillians. As am I. Only difference is, I never left the place!’ Dockerill chortled. ‘I see. So you are acquainted with Timothy Lavington’s family?’ ‘Yes. But, as I say, I never met old Pandy.’ ‘When did Barnabas Pandy die?’ ‘I couldn’t tell you the exact date. It was late last year, I think. November or December.’ This matched what Annabel Treadway had said. ‘In your capacity as housemaster, you were told, I assume, that the great-grandfather of one of your charges was deceased?’ ‘Yes, I was. We were all a bit glum about it. Still, the old boy lived to a ripe old age. We should all be so lucky!’ The joyous smile was back in place. ‘And if one has to go, I suppose there are worse ways than drowning.’ ‘Drowning?’ ‘Yes. Poor old Pandy fell asleep in his bath and sank down under the water. Drowned. Horrible accident. There was never any talk of it being anything else.’ Annabel Treadway had spoken of her grandfather falling asleep. Poirot had assumed this meant he had died naturally in the night. She had said nothing about a bath or drowning. Had she deliberately withheld that part of the story? ‘This was what you believed until you received a letter signed in the name of Hercule Poirot—that Monsieur Pandy drowned in his bathtub, accidentally?’ ‘It’s what everybody believes,’ said Hugo Dockerill. ‘There was an inquest that returned a verdict of accidental death. I remember hearing Jane, my wife, commiserating with young Timothy. I suppose the inquest must have got it wrong, what?’ ‘Do you have the letter with you?’ Poirot asked him. ‘No, I’m sorry, I don’t. As I said, I mislaid it. I lost it twice, in fact. I found it the first time—that’s how I had your address—but then it went astray again. I looked for the blasted thing before I set off for London, but couldn’t lay my hands on it. I do hope one of our boys hasn’t got his grubby mitts on it. I should hate for anybody to think I stand accused of murder—especially when, as it turns out, you have accused me of no such thing!’ ‘Do you and your wife have children?’ ‘Not yet. We’re hoping to. Oh—I’m speaking as a housemaster when I say “our boys”. We’ve got seventy-five of the little blighters! My wife is a saint to put up with them, I always say, and she always says that they’re no trouble at all, and if she’s a saint then it’s for putting up with me.’ A predictable guffaw followed. ‘Perhaps you could ask your wife to help you search the house?’ said Poirot. ‘So far, not one person has brought me their letter. It would be very helpful if I could see at least one.’ ‘Of course. I should have thought of that. Jane’ll find it, I have no doubt. She’s tremendous! She has a talent for finding things, though she denies it. She says to me, “You’d find all the same things I find, Hugo, if you’d only open your eyes and engage your brain.” She’s marvellous!’ ‘Do you know a woman by the name of Annabel Treadway, monsieur?’ Hugo’s smile widened. ‘Annabel! Of course. She’s Timothy’s aunt, and old Pandy’s—what would it be? Let me think. Timothy’s mother Lenore is Pandy’s granddaughter, so … yes, Annabel was his … erm … She’s Lenore’s sister, so … she was also Pandy’s grand-daughter.’ Poirot suspected that Hugo Dockerill was one of the stupidest people he had ever met. ‘Lenore is usually accompanied by both Annabel and her daughter Ivy—Timothy’s sister—when she comes to Turville, so I’ve got to know Annabel rather well over the years. I’m afraid, M. Poirot, that therein lies a tale, as they say. I proposed to Annabel some years ago. Marriage, you know. Quite head over heels, I was. Oh—I wasn’t married to my wife at the time,’ Dockerill clarified. ‘I am glad to hear, monsieur, that you did not make a bigamous proposal.’ ‘What? Golly, no. I was a bachelor then. It was peculiar, actually. To this day I can’t make sense of it. Annabel seemed thrilled when I asked her, and then, almost immediately, she burst into tears and refused me. Women are nothing if not changeable, as every man knows—apart from Jane. She’s tremendously reliable. But still … saying no seemed to upset Annabel dreadfully—so much so, I suggested to her that changing her “no” to a “yes” might make her feel more chipper.’ ‘What was her reaction?’ ‘A firm “no”, I’m afraid. Ah, well, these things have a way of working out for the best, don’t they? Jane’s so wonderful with our boys. Annabel assured me when she rejected me that she would have been hopeless with them. I don’t know why she thought that, devoted to Timothy and Ivy as she is. And she truly is—like a second mother to them. I’ve wondered more than once if she was secretly afraid of having her own children—in case it weakened her motherly bond with her niece and nephew. Or maybe it was the sheer number of boys in my house that discouraged her. They are rather like a herd of beasts sometimes, and Annabel’s a quiet creature. But then, as I say, she dotes on young Timothy, who’s hardly the easiest of boys. He’s given us a spot of trouble over the years.’ ‘What kind of trouble?’ asked Poirot. ‘Oh, nothing serious. I’m sure he’ll shake out all right. Like a lot of Turville boys, he can be rather self-congratulatory when no such congratulations are in order. Sometimes carries on as if school rules don’t apply to him. As if he’s above them. Jane blames it on …’ Hugo Dockerill broke off. ‘Whoops!’ he laughed. ‘Mustn’t be indiscreet.’ ‘Nothing you tell me will go any further,’ Poirot assured him. ‘I was only going to say that as far as his mother is concerned, nothing is ever Timothy’s fault. Once when I felt I absolutely had to punish him for insubordination—Jane insisted—I got punished myself by Lenore Lavington. She didn’t speak to me for nearly six months. Not one word!’ ‘Do you know a John McCrodden?’ Poirot asked. ‘No, I’m afraid not. Should I?’ ‘What about Sylvia Rule?’ ‘Yes, I know Sylvia.’ Hugo beamed, happy to be able to answer in the affirmative. Poirot was surprised. He had been wrong again. There was nothing he found more disconcerting. He had assumed that there were two pairs of two, he mused, like the two yellow squares and two pink squares in a slice of Church Window Cake: Sylvia Rule and John McCrodden, who did not know Barnabas Pandy and had never heard his name; and the other pair, the pair who had known Pandy or at least known of him, Annabel Treadway and Hugo Dockerill. Incorrectly, Poirot had assumed these pairs would remain neatly separate, as distinct as the yellow squares and the pink squares of the cake. Now, however, things were messy: Hugo Dockerill knew Sylvia Rule. ‘How do you know her?’ ‘Her son Freddie is a pupil at Turville. He’s in the same year as Timothy Lavington.’ ‘How old are these two boys?’ ‘Twelve, I think. Both in the Second Form, at any rate, and both in my house. Very different boys. Goodness me, they couldn’t be more different! Timothy’s a popular, gregarious young fellow, always surrounded by a crowd of admirers. Poor Freddie is a loner. He doesn’t seem to have any friends. Spends a lot of time helping Jane, in fact. She’s tremendous. “No boy here will be lonely if I’ve got anything to do with it,” she often says. Means it, too!’ Had Sylvia Rule lied about not knowing Pandy? Poirot wondered. Would a person necessarily know the name of their son’s school acquaintance’s great-grandfather, particularly when the surnames were different? Timothy’s last name was Lavington, not Pandy. ‘So Madame Rule has a son who is in the same house at school as the great-grandson of Barnabas Pandy,’ Poirot muttered, more to himself than to Hugo Dockerill. ‘Golly. Does she?’ ‘That is what we have established, monsieur.’ Perhaps it was only family relationships that Hugo Dockerill struggled with. That and knowing where things were—things like important letters. Dockerill’s smile dimmed as he struggled to make sense of Poirot’s announcement. ‘A son who … the great-grandson of … Of course! Yes, she does. She does indeed!’ This meant, thought Poirot, that it was not so simple as two pink squares and two yellow; it was not a case of pairs. Three recipients of the letter could be linked to Barnabas Pandy most definitively, and one could not—at least, not yet. Two questions interested Poirot: had Barnabas Pandy been murdered? And was John McCrodden the odd one out? Or was he also connected to the deceased Pandy in a manner that was not yet clear? CHAPTER 5 (#ulink_bb7eac0e-b45f-50ad-8886-47cbe029a1c5) A Letter with a Hole in it (#ulink_bb7eac0e-b45f-50ad-8886-47cbe029a1c5) I am producing this account of what Poirot later decided to call ‘The Mystery of Three Quarters’ on a typewriter that has a faulty letter ‘e’. I don’t know if anyone will publish it, but if you are reading a printed version, all of the ‘e’s will be flawless. It is nevertheless significant that in the original typescript there is (or should I say for the benefit of future readers, was?) a small white gap in the middle of the horizontal bar of each letter ‘e’—an extraordinarily tiny hole in the black ink. Why is this important? To answer that question immediately would be to rush ahead of my own narrative. Let me explain. My name is Edward Catchpool and I’m an inspector with Scotland Yard. I’m also the person telling this story—not only now, but from the beginning, though I have been helped by several people to fill in those parts of the drama for which I was absent. I am especially grateful to the sharp eyes and the loquaciousness of Hercule Poirot, who, when it comes to detail, misses nothing. Thanks to him, I do not feel that I, in any meaningful sense, missed the events I have so far recounted, all of which occurred before I returned from Great Yarmouth. The less said about my infuriatingly tedious stay at the seaside, the better. The only relevant point is that I was compelled to return to London sooner than planned (you can imagine my relief) by the arrival of two telegrams. One was from Hercule Poirot, who said he urgently needed my help, and could I come back at once? The other, impossible to ignore, was from my superintendent at Scotland Yard, Nathaniel Bewes. This second telegram, though not from Poirot, was about him. Apparently he was ‘making life difficult’, and Bewes wanted me to stop him. I was touched by the Super’s quite unjustifiable confidence in my ability to alter the behaviour of my Belgian friend, and so, once back in Bewes’s office, I sat quietly and nodded sympathetically as he gave vent to his dismay. The essence of what was at stake seemed clear enough. Poirot believed the son of Rowland ‘Rope’ McCrodden to be guilty of murder, and had said so, and claimed to be able to prove it. The Super didn’t like this one bit because Rowland Rope was a chum of his, and he wanted me to persuade Poirot to think otherwise. Instead of paying attention to the Super’s loud and varied expressions of disgust, I was busy rehearsing my answer. Should I say, ‘There’s no point in my talking to Poirot about this—if he’s sure he’s right then he won’t listen to me’? No, that would make me sound both truculent and defeatist. And, since Poirot wanted to talk to me as a matter of urgency, presumably about this very same business, I decided to promise the Super that I would do my best to make him see sense. Then, from Poirot, I would find out why he believed Rowland Rope’s son was a murderer when apparently no one else did, and convey his thoughts back to the Super. All of this seemed manageable. I saw no need to upset the apple cart at work by pointing out that ‘He’s my friend’s son’ is neither proof of innocence nor a viable defence. Nathaniel Bewes is a mild, even-tempered and fair-minded man—apart from in the immediate aftermath of something that has especially upset him. In those rare moments he is incapable of realizing that he is greatly distressed and that his emotional state might have skewed his perspective. Because his judgement is so often sound, he assumes it will always be, and is therefore liable to make the most absurd pronouncements—things which, in his usual calm frame of mind, he would be the first to call idiotic. Once restored to sanity after one of his episodes, he never refers to the period during which he emitted a series of ridiculous statements and directives, and, as far as I know, no one else ever refers to them either. I certainly don’t. Though it sounds fanciful, I am not convinced that the normal Super is aware of the existence of his deranged counterpart who occasionally understudies for him. I nodded judiciously as the understudy ranted and growled, striding up and down his small office, pushing his spectacles back up to the bridge of his nose as they slid down with disconcerting frequency. ‘Rowly’s son, a murderer? Preposterous! He’s the son of Rowland McCrodden! If you were the son of a man like that, Catchpool, would you take up murder as a way of passing the time? Of course you wouldn’t! Only a fool would! Besides, the death of Barnabas Pandy was an accident—I’ve availed myself of the official record of his passing and it’s all there in black and white, plain as day: accident! The man drowned in his bath. Ninety-four, he was. I mean, I ask you—ninety-four! How much longer was he likely to live? Would you risk your neck to murder a ninety-four-year-old man, Catchpool? It beggars belief. No one would. Why would they?’ ‘Well—’ ‘There could be no reason,’ Bewes concluded. ‘Now, I don’t know what your Belgian chum thinks he’s up to, but you’d better make it clear to him in no uncertain terms that he is to write to Rowly McCrodden at once and convey his most profuse apologies.’ Bewes had clearly forgotten that he too was on friendly terms with Poirot. There were, of course, many reasons why someone might murder a nonagenarian: if he had threatened to expose their shameful secret to the world the very next day, for instance. And Bewes—the real Bewes, not his unbalanced doppelgänger—knew as well as I did that some murders are initially mistaken for accidents. To grow up as the son of a man famous for helping to dispatch miscreants to the gallows could, arguably, warp a person’s psyche to the point where he might decide to kill. I knew there was no point saying any of this to the Super today, though in a different mood he would have made the same good points himself. I decided to risk only a minor challenge. ‘Didn’t you say Poirot sent this letter of accusation to Rowland Rope’s son, not to Rowland Rope himself?’ ‘Well, what if he did?’ Bewes rounded on me angrily. ‘What difference does that make?’ ‘How old is John McCrodden?’ ‘How old? What the devil are you talking about? Does his age matter?’ ‘Is he a man or a young boy?’ I continued patiently. ‘Have you taken leave of your senses, Catchpool? John McCrodden is a grown man.’ ‘Then wouldn’t it make more sense for me to ask Poirot to apologize to John McCrodden, not his father? Assuming he’s mistaken and John McCrodden is innocent. I mean, if John is not a minor—’ ‘He used to be a miner, but not any more,’ said Bewes. ‘He worked in a mine somewhere up in the north-east.’ ‘Ah,’ I said, knowing that my boss’s ability to understand context would return sooner if I said as little as possible. ‘But that, Catchpool, is beside the point. Poor Rowly’s the one we need to worry about. John is blaming him for the whole mess. Poirot must write to Rowly immediately and grovel for all he’s worth. This is a monstrous accusation—an outrageous slur! Please see to it that this happens, Catchpool.’ ‘I’ll do my best, sir.’ ‘Good.’ ‘Can you tell me any more about the particulars of the case, sir? I don’t suppose Rowland Rope mentioned why Poirot has got hold of this idea that—’ ‘How the devil should I know why, Catchpool? Man must have lost his grip on his faculties—that’s the only explanation I can think of. You can read the letter for yourself, if you like!’ ‘Do you have it?’ ‘John tore it into pieces, which he sent to Rowly with a note of accusation of his own. Rowly taped the pieces together and passed the letter on to me. I don’t know why John thinks Rowly’s behind it. Rowly plays a straight bat. Always has. His son, of all people, should know that. If Rowly had something to say to John, he’d say it himself.’ ‘I’d like to see the letter if I may, sir.’ Bewes walked over to his desk, opened one of the drawers and grimaced as he pulled out the offending item. He handed it to me. ‘It’s the purest nonsense!’ he said, in case I was unsure of his opinion of the matter. ‘Malicious rubbish!’ ‘But Poirot is never malicious,’ I nearly said; I stopped myself just in time. I read the letter. It was brief: only one paragraph. Nevertheless, given what it sought to communicate, it could have been half the length. In a muddled and artless way, it accused John McCrodden of the murder of Barnabas Pandy and claimed that there was proof to vindicate the accusation. If McCrodden did not immediately confess to this murder, then this proof would be turned over to the police. My gaze settled upon the signature at the bottom of the letter. In a sloping hand was written the name ‘Hercule Poirot’. It would have been useful if I could have recalled my friend’s signature, but I could not, despite having seen it once or twice. Perhaps whoever had sent the letter had meticulously copied Poirot’s handwriting. What they had not done was manage to sound at all like the man they hoped to impersonate, nor to write the sort of letter he might have written. If Poirot believed that John McCrodden had murdered this Barnabas Pandy fellow and successfully passed his death off as an accident, he would have visited McCrodden accompanied by the police. He wouldn’t have sent this letter and allowed McCrodden the chance to escape or to take his own life before Hercule Poirot had looked him in the eye and explained to him the chain of errors that had led to his unmasking. And the nasty, insinuating tone … No, it was impossible. There was no doubt in my mind. I had not had time to work out what effect my revelation would have upon the Super, but I felt I must tell him at once: ‘Sir, the situation seems not to be exactly what I … or what you … That is to say, I’m not sure that an apology from Poirot …’ I was making a hash of it. ‘What are you trying to say, Catchpool?’ ‘The letter is a fake, sir,’ I said. ‘I don’t know who wrote it, but I can tell you for certain that it was not Hercule Poirot.’ CHAPTER 6 (#ulink_4a4abaa9-0952-57f4-94a3-81eeb150ae58) Rowland Rope (#ulink_4a4abaa9-0952-57f4-94a3-81eeb150ae58) The Super’s instructions were clear: I was to find Poirot at once and ask him to accompany me to the offices of Rowland Rope’s firm of solicitors, Donaldson & McCrodden. Once there, we were to explain that the letter sent to John McCrodden had not been written by Poirot, and to apologize fulsomely for the distress caused by neither one of us. Having already wasted too many days in Great Yarmouth, I had urgent work to catch up with and was displeased to have this task assigned to me. Surely a telephone call from Bewes to Rowland Rope would have sufficed? The two were great friends, after all. But no, the Super had insisted that McCrodden Senior was a more than usually cautious man who would require an assurance from Poirot that he had not written the offending letter. Bewes wanted me to be present so that I could report back to him that the matter had been satisfactorily dealt with. ‘This should all be straightened out within an hour or two,’ I thought to myself as I set off for Whitehaven Mansions. Alas, Poirot was not at home. His valet told me he was likely to be en route to Scotland Yard. He was apparently as keen to locate me as I was to find him. I made my way back to Scotland Yard and discovered that Poirot had been there, asking for me, and even waited a short while, but was now gone. There was no sign of Superintendent Bewes either, so I could not ask him how I ought to proceed. I tried Pleasant’s Coffee House, but Poirot was not there either. In the end, exasperated, I decided to visit Rowland McCrodden’s offices alone. I reasoned that he would prefer to know as soon as possible that his son did not stand accused of murder by Hercule Poirot; the word of a Scotland Yard inspector ought to be enough even for Rowland Rope. Donaldson & McCrodden Solicitors occupied the top two floors of a tall stucco-fronted terrace on Henrietta Street, next to the Covent Garden Hotel. I was greeted by a smiling young woman with a pink face and dark brown hair cut into a short and severely geometrical style. She wore a white blouse and checked skirt that brought to mind a picnic blanket. She introduced herself as Miss Mason before asking me a series of questions that prevented me from stating the nature of my business as easily as I might have if I had simply been asked ‘How may I help you?’ Instead, an absurd amount of time was wasted by her ‘And if I might enquire as to your name, sir?’, ‘And if I might ask to whom you wish to speak, sir?’, ‘And might I enquire as to whether you have an appointment, sir?’, ‘And are you able to divulge the purpose of your visit?’ Her method of enquiry ensured that I was only able to utter two words at a time, and all the while she stared with undisguised prurience at the envelope in my hand, which was the letter sent by somebody to John McCrodden, accusing him of murder. By the time Miss Mason led me along a narrow corridor lined on both sides with leather-bound books about the law, I was tempted to run in the opposite direction rather than follow her anywhere. I noticed—no one could fail to—that she did not so much walk as forward-bounce, on two of the tiniest feet I have ever observed. We reached a black-painted door with the name ‘Rowland McCrodden’ painted on it in white. Miss Mason knocked and a deep voice said, ‘Come!’ We entered, and were met by a man with curly grey hair, a vast expanse of forehead that seemed to occupy an unreasonable amount of his face, and small beady black eyes that were closer to his chin than eyes should be. Since McCrodden had agreed to see me, I was expecting to be able to commence our conversation at once, but I had not accounted for Miss Mason’s capability to hinder progress. There ensued a frustrating attempt to persuade McCrodden to allow her to enter my name in his appointments diary. ‘What would be the point of that?’ asked McCrodden with obvious impatience. He had a thin, reedy voice that brought to mind a woodwind instrument. ‘Inspector Catchpool is already here.’ ‘But, sir, the rule is that no one can be admitted without an appointment.’ ‘Inspector Catchpool has already been admitted, Miss Mason. There he is—you admitted him!’ ‘Sir, if you’re meeting Inspector Catchpool, shouldn’t I make an appointment for, well, now, and record it in—?’ ‘No,’ Rowland McCrodden cut her off mid-question. ‘Thank you, Miss Mason, that will be all. Please be seated, Inspector—’ He broke off, blinked several times, then said, ‘What is it, Miss Mason?’ ‘I was only going to ask, sir, if Inspector Catchpool might wish to partake of some tea. Or coffee. Or perhaps a glass of water? Or if, indeed, you might wish to—’ ‘Not for me,’ said McCrodden. ‘Inspector?’ I could not immediately produce an answer. A cup of tea was exactly what I wanted, but it would necessitate the return of Miss Mason. ‘Why don’t you have a little think, Inspector Catchpool, and I’ll come back in a few moments and—’ ‘I’m sure the inspector can make up his mind,’ said McCrodden briskly. ‘Nothing for me, thank you,’ I said with a smile. Finally, mercifully, Miss Mason withdrew. I was determined to waste no more time, so I pulled the letter out of the envelope, laid it on McCrodden’s desk and told him that there was no question of it having come from Hercule Poirot. McCrodden asked how I could be sure of this, and I explained that both the tone and the message left me in no doubt. ‘So, if Poirot did not write the letter, who did?’ asked McCrodden. ‘I’m afraid I don’t know.’ ‘Does Poirot know?’ ‘I have not yet had the chance to speak to him.’ ‘And why did they pretend to be Hercule Poirot?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Then your general bearing, if I may say so, is erroneous.’ ‘I’m not sure I understand what you mean,’ I confessed. ‘You said you were here to clear something up, and your manner suggests that you now believe it to be cleared up: Hercule Poirot has not accused my son of murder, therefore I have nothing to worry about. Is that your opinion?’ ‘Well …’ I cast about for the correct answer. ‘I can see that it’s an upsetting thing to happen, but if the accusation was some sort of prank, then I wouldn’t concern myself unduly, if I were you.’ ‘I disagree. I am, if anything, more disturbed now.’ McCrodden stood up and walked over to the window. He looked down at the street below for a moment before moving two steps to the right and staring at the wall. ‘When I thought it was Poirot, I was confident of a proper resolution. He would eventually admit his error, I thought. I have heard that he is proud, but also honourable and, most importantly of all, amenable to reason. He treats character as if it were a concrete fact, I’m told. Is this true?’ ‘He certainly believes knowledge of character is essential to the solving of crime,’ I said. ‘Without knowing the motive, you can’t solve anything, and without understanding character, motive is unknowable. I have also heard him say that no man can act in a way that is contrary to his own nature.’ ‘Then I would have been able to convince him that John could never commit a murder—to do so would be at odds with his principles. The idea is laughable. Now, however, I learn that Hercule Poirot is not the one I need to convince, for he did not write the letter. Furthermore, I am able to draw the inescapable conclusion that the letter’s true author is a liar and a fraudster. That sort of person might stop at nothing in his quest to destroy my son.’ McCrodden returned quickly to his chair as if the wall at which he had been staring had silently instructed him to do so. ‘I must know who wrote and sent the letter,’ he said. ‘It is imperative, if I’m to ensure John’s safety. I should like to engage the services of Hercule Poirot. Do you think he would agree to investigate for me?’ ‘He might, but … it’s not at all certain that the letter-writer believes what he claims to believe. What if it’s no more than a horribly misjudged joke? This might be the end of it. If your son receives no further communi-cations—’ ‘You are naïve in the extreme if you think that,’ said McCrodden. He picked up the letter and threw it at me. It landed on the floor at my feet. ‘When someone sends something like that, they mean you harm. You ignore them at your peril.’ ‘My superintendent tells me the death of Barnabas Pandy was an accident,’ I said. ‘He drowned while taking a bath.’ ‘That is the story, yes. Officially, there is no suspicion that the death was a murder.’ ‘You sound as if you think it could have been,’ I said. ‘Once the possibility is raised, one has a duty to consider it,’ said McCrodden. ‘But the likelihood is that Pandy was not murdered, and you say your son could never commit a murder, so …’ ‘I see,’ said McCrodden. ‘You think I am guilty of wilful paternal blindness? No, it’s not that. No one knows John better than I do. He has many faults, but he would not kill.’ He had misunderstood me; I had simply wanted to say that since no one was looking for a murderer in connection with Pandy’s death, and since he knew his son was innocent, McCrodden really had nothing to worry about. ‘You will have heard that I am a strong advocate of the death penalty. “Rowland Rope”, they call me. I do not care for the name, and no one would dare say it in my presence. Now, if they were to call me “Rowland Just and Civilized Society For the Protection of the Innocent” … Unfortunately, that does not trip so easily off the tongue. I’m sure you agree, Inspector, that we must all be accountable for our actions. I don’t need to tell you about Plato’s Ring of Gyges. I discussed it with John many times. I did everything I could to instil proper values in him, but I failed. He is so passionately against the taking of human life that he doesn’t support the death penalty even for the most depraved monsters. He contends that I am as much a murderer as the bloodthirsty reprobate who slits a throat in an alleyway for the sake of a few shillings. Murder is murder, he says. So you see, he would never allow himself to kill another person. It would make him look ludicrous in his own eyes, which would be intolerable to him.’ I nodded, though I was not convinced. My experience as a police inspector has taught me that many people are able to regard themselves with inordinate fondness, no matter what heinous crimes they have committed. They care only about how they look to others, and whether they can get away with it. ‘And, as you say, no one apart from our nefarious letter-writer seems to think Pandy’s death was unlawful,’ McCrodden went on. ‘He was an extremely wealthy man—owner of the Combingham Hall Estate and former owner of several slate mines in Wales. That’s how he made his fortune.’ ‘Mines?’ I recalled my conversation with the Super, and the minor/miner misunderstanding. ‘Did your son John used to work in a mine?’ ‘Yes. In the north, near Guisborough.’ ‘Not in Wales, then?’ ‘Never in Wales. You can abandon that idea.’ I did my best to look as if I had abandoned it. ‘Pandy was ninety-four when he drowned in his bath,’ said McCrodden. ‘He had been a widower for sixty-five years. He and his wife had one child, a daughter, who married and had two daughters of her own before dying, along with her husband, in a house fire. Pandy took in his two orphaned grandchildren, Lenore and Annabel, who have both lived at Combingham Hall ever since. Annabel, the youngest, is not married. The older sister, Lenore, married a man by the name of Cecil Lavington. They had two children, Ivy and Timothy, in that order. Cecil died of an infection four years ago. That’s all I’ve managed to find out, and none of it is interesting or suggestive of what steps to take next. I hope Poirot can do better.’ ‘There might be nothing to find out,’ I said. ‘They might be a quite ordinary family, in which no murder has been committed.’ ‘There is plenty to find out,’ McCrodden corrected me. ‘Who is the letter-writer, and why did he or she fix upon my son? Until we know these things, those of us who have been accused remain implicated.’ ‘You have been accused of nothing,’ I said. ‘You would not say that if you saw the note John enclosed with the letter!’ He pointed at the floor, where the letter still lay by my feet. ‘He accused me of putting Poirot up to it, so that John would have no choice but to take up the law in order to defend himself.’ ‘Why would he think you might do that?’ ‘John believes I hate him. It could not be further from the truth. I have been critical of the way he conducts his affairs in the past, but only because I want him to prosper. He seems to wish the opposite for himself. He has squandered every opportunity I’ve created for him. One of the reasons I know he cannot have killed Barnabas Pandy is that he does not have the animus to spare. All of his ill will is directed towards me—erroneously.’ I made a polite noise that I hoped was expressive of sympathy. ‘The sooner I can speak to Hercule Poirot, the better,’ said McCrodden. ‘I hope he will be able to get to the bottom of this unsavoury business. I long ago gave up hope of changing my son’s mind about me, but I should like to prove, if I can, that I had nothing do to with that letter.’ CHAPTER 7 (#ulink_9f7ee489-45b6-50e7-9a6c-19d0dc40b1bc) An Old Enemy (#ulink_9f7ee489-45b6-50e7-9a6c-19d0dc40b1bc) While I was in the offices of Donaldson & McCrodden on Henrietta Street, Poirot was also in the offices of a firm of solicitors: Fuller, Fuller & Vout, only a short distance away on Drury Lane. Needless to say, I did not know this at the time. Frustrated by his inability to find me, my Belgian friend had set about discovering all he could about Barnabas Pandy and almost the first thing he found out was that Pandy had been represented in all matters of a legal nature by Peter Vout, the firm’s senior partner. Poirot, unlike me, had made an appointment—or rather his valet, George, had made one for him. He arrived punctually and was shown into Vout’s office by a girl far less obtrusive than Rowland McCrodden’s Miss Mason. He tried to conceal his shock when he saw the room in which the solicitor worked. ‘Welcome, welcome,’ said Vout, rising from his chair to shake his visitor’s hand. He had an engaging smile and snow-white hair that peaked and curled in random tufts. ‘You must be Herc-ule Poir-ot—is that correct?’ ‘C’est parfait,’ said Poirot approvingly. Rare indeed was the Englishman who could pronounce both the Christian name and the family name correctly. Was it appropriate, however, to feel admiration for any man who could work in conditions such as these? The room was an extraordinary sight. It was large, about twenty feet by fifteen, with a high ceiling. Pushed up against the wall on the right were Vout’s large mahogany desk and green leather chair. In front of those stood two straight-backed armchairs in brown leather. In the right-hand third of the room there was also a bookcase, a lamp and a fireplace. On the mantelpiece above the fire there was an invitation to a dinner of the Law Society. The other two thirds of the available space were occupied by scruffy cardboard boxes, piled high, one atop another, to form an enormous and uneven edifice that was breathtaking in its grotesqueness. It would have been impossible to walk around or through the boxes. Effectively, their presence reduced the size of the room to a degree that any sane person would have found intolerable. Many of the boxes were open, with things spilling out of them: yellowing papers, broken picture frames, old cloths with dirt stains on them. Beyond the gargantuan box-structure was a window at which hung strips of pale yellow material that could not hope to cover the glass in front of which they dangled. ‘C’est le cauchemar,’ Poirot murmured. ‘I see you’ve spotted the curtains.’ Vout sounded apologetic. ‘One could make this room more appealing to the eye if one replaced them. They’re terribly old. I’d have one of the office girls pull them down, but, as you can see, no one can reach them.’ ‘Because of the boxes?’ ‘Well, my mother died three years ago. There’s much to be sorted out, and I’ve yet to make inroads, I’m afraid. Not all the boxes are Mama’s possessions, mind you. A lot of it is my own … paraphernalia.’ He sounded quite happy with the situation. ‘Please, do be seated, M. Poirot. How may I be of assistance?’ Poirot lowered himself into one of the available armchairs. ‘You do not mind working in here, with … the paraphernalia?’ he persisted. ‘I see you’re fascinated by it, M. Poirot. I expect you’re one of those chaps who likes everything to be ship-shape at all times, are you?’ ‘Most assuredly I am, monsieur. I am inordinately fond of the shape of the ship. It is necessary for me to be in a tidy environment if I am to think clearly and productively. It is not so for you?’ ‘I’m not going to let a few old boxes bother me.’ Vout chuckled. ‘I don’t notice them from one day to the next. I’ll tackle them at some point. Until then … why let them worry me?’ With a small twitch of the eyebrows, Poirot moved on to the subject he had come to discuss. Vout expressed regret at the death of his dear old friend Barnabas Pandy, and regaled Poirot with all the same facts that Rowland McCrodden was (perhaps at that very moment) relating to me: Welsh slate mines; Combingham Hall Estate; two granddaughters, Lenore and Annabel; two great-grandchildren, Ivy and Timothy. Vout also offered a detail about Barnabas Pandy that was absent from Rowland Rope’s account: he mentioned the faithful and long-serving Kingsbury. ‘More like a younger brother to Barnabas, was Kingsbury. He felt like a member of the family more than a servant—though he was always most conscientious when it came to performing his tasks. Naturally, Barnabas made arrangements for him to be looked after. A bequest …’ ‘Ah yes, the will,’ said Poirot. ‘I would like to hear about it.’ ‘Well, I don’t see what harm it would do to tell you. Barnabas wouldn’t have minded, and his testamentary affairs were very simple—just what one would expect, in fact. But … might I ask why you’re interested?’ ‘It has been suggested to me—indirectly—that Monsieur Pandy was murdered.’ ‘Oh, I see.’ Vout laughed and rolled his eyes. ‘Murder, eh? No, not a bit of it. Barnabas drowned. Fell asleep while in the tub, sank under the water and, sadly …’ He left the obvious conclusion unstated. ‘That is the official story. However, the possibility has been raised that the death was made to look like an accident, when in fact it was deliberate.’ Vout was shaking his head emphatically. ‘Tommyrot! Goodness me, someone’s been rumour-mongering for all he’s worth, eh? Or she—it’s usually the ladies who like to gossip. We chaps are much too sensible to waste our time stirring up trouble.’ ‘You are certain, then, that Monsieur Pandy’s death was accidental?’ asked Poirot. ‘Couldn’t be more so.’ ‘How are you able to state this with such conviction? Were you present in the bathroom when he died?’ Vout looked affronted. ‘Of course I wasn’t in the bathroom with him! Wasn’t there at all! Seventh of December, wasn’t it? My wife and I were at my nephew’s wedding that day, as it happens. In Coventry.’ Poirot smiled politely. ‘I simply wished to suggest that if you were not in the room when he died, and not at Combingham Hall, then you are not in a position to say definitively that the death of Monsieur Pandy was accidental. If someone had crept into the bathroom and pushed him under the water … How would you know this had happened, or had not happened, if you were at a wedding in Coventry?’ ‘It’s only that I know the family,’ Vout said eventually, with a concerned frown. ‘I’m a dear friend to them all, as they are to me. I know who was at the Hall when the tragedy occurred: Lenore, Annabel, Ivy and Kingsbury, and I can assure you that none of them would have raised a finger against Barnabas. The idea is unthinkable! I have witnessed their grief first-hand, M. Poirot.’ Poirot mouthed to himself the words ‘C’est ca.’ His suspicion had been correct. Vout was one of those people who believed in things like murder, and evil, and all forms of serious unpleasantness only when they did not affect him personally. Were he to read in a newspaper that a maniac had chopped five members of the same family into small pieces, he would not question it. Suggest to him, though, that a man he regarded as a friend might have been murdered, and you would never succeed in persuading him that it was possible. ‘Please tell me about Monsieur Pandy’s will,’ said Poirot. ‘As I say, Kingsbury was left a tidy sum: enough to be comfortable for the remainder of his days. The house and estate are left in trust for Ivy and Timothy, on the understanding that Lenore and Annabel may continue to live there for the rest of their lives. All the money and other assets, of which there are plenty, go to Lenore and Annabel. Each is now, in her own right, an extremely wealthy woman.’ ‘So an inheritance might provide a motive,’ said Poirot. Vout sighed impatiently. ‘M. Poirot, please hear what I’m trying to tell you. There is simply no circumstance—’ ‘Yes, yes, I hear. Most people would assume that a man of ninety-four will die reasonably soon. But if someone needed money immediately … if to wait a year would have dire consequences for that person …’ ‘I tell you, you’re barking up the wrong tree, man!’ There was alarm in Vout’s eyes and in his voice. ‘They are a delightful family.’ ‘You are their good friend, monsieur,’ Poirot reminded him gently. ‘Quite! I am! Do you think I would continue a friendship with a family that contained a murderer? Barnabas was not murdered. I can prove it. He …’ Vout stopped. A new pinkness suffused his cheeks. ‘Anything you are able to tell me will be most helpful,’ said Poirot. Vout looked glum. Having said something he hadn’t intended to say, he now lacked the gumption to find an ingenious way out of it. ‘Well, I suppose it won’t do any harm if I tell you.’ He sighed. ‘I can’t help thinking Barnabas knew he was going to die. I saw him shortly before his death and … well, he seemed to know that his time was coming to an end.’ ‘What gave you this impression?’ ‘The last time I saw him, he struck me as a man from whose shoulders a great weight had been lifted. It was as if he was at peace. He smiled in a particular way, made certain oblique remarks about the need to set certain matters straight now before it was too late. I had the sense that he thought death was imminent, and it turned out to be so, sadly.’ ‘Dommage,’ Poirot agreed. ‘Still, it is better to meet the inevitable end with a peaceful spirit, is it not? Which matters did Monsieur Pandy wish to set straight?’ ‘Hmmph? Oh, there was a man who had been his … well, his enemy really, if the word doesn’t sound fanciful. Vincent Lobb, the chap’s name was. At our last meeting, Barnabas announced that he wished to send a letter to this fellow and suggest that the two of them might perhaps be reconciled.’ ‘A sudden urge to forgive an old enemy,’ muttered Poirot. ‘That is interesting. If someone wanted this making of peace not to take place … Was this letter to Monsieur Lobb ever sent?’ ‘It was,’ said Vout. ‘I told Barnabas I thought it was an excellent initiative, and he sent it off that very day. I don’t know if he received a reply. It was really only a few days later that he … passed on. Very sad. Though he’d had a good innings at ninety-four! I suppose an answering letter might have arrived after his death, but I think Annabel or Lenore would have told me if it had.’ ‘What was the cause of the ill will between Messieurs Pandy and Lobb?’ Poirot asked. ‘I’m afraid I can’t help you there. Barnabas never told me.’ ‘I should be grateful if you could tell me about the family,’ said Poirot. ‘Was it—is it—a happy household at Combingham Hall?’ ‘Oh, very happy. Very happy indeed. Lenore is a tower of strength. Both Annabel and Ivy admire her enormously. Annabel adores Lenore’s children—and her beloved dog, of course. Hopscotch. He’s a character! A big beast. Likes to leap up and lick you! Stubborn, mind you, but very affectionate. And as for young Timothy—that boy will go far. He is possessed of a shrewd mind and heaps of determination. I can see him being Prime Minister one day. Barnabas often said so. “That boy could be anything he set out to be,” he often said. “Anything at all.” Barnabas was devoted to them all, and they to him.’ ‘Truly you describe the perfect family,’ said Poirot. ‘Yet no family is without its troubles. There must have been something that was less than perfect.’ ‘Well … I wouldn’t say … I mean, obviously life is never without its infelicities, but for the most part … As I said before, M. Poirot: it is ladies who enjoy scurrilous gossip. Barnabas loved his family—and Kingsbury—and they loved him back. That is all I shall say. As there is no question of the death being anything but an accident, I see no reason to delve into a good man’s private life and that of his family in search of unsavoury morsels.’ Seeing that Vout had resolved to disclose no more, Poirot thanked him for his help and left. ‘But there is more to be disclosed,’ he said to nobody in particular as he stood on the pavement of Drury Lane. ‘Most certainly, there is more, and I shall find out what it is. Not one unsavoury morsel will escape from Hercule Poirot!’ CHAPTER 8 (#ulink_d0513579-8de8-52d8-bccc-3632902e2ead) Poirot Issues Some Instructions (#ulink_d0513579-8de8-52d8-bccc-3632902e2ead) I found Poirot waiting for me in my office when I returned to Scotland Yard. He appeared to be lost in thought, muttering soundlessly to himself as I entered the room. He looked as dandified as ever, his remarkable moustaches appearing particularly well tended. ‘Poirot! At last!’ Startled out of his reverie, he rose to his feet. ‘Mon ami Catchpool! Where have you been? There is a matter I wish to discuss with you that is causing me much conster-nation.’ ‘Let me guess,’ I said. ‘A letter, signed in your name although not written or sent by you, accusing Rowland McCrodden’s son John of the murder of Barnabas Pandy.’ Poirot looked dumbfounded. ‘Mon cher … Somehow, you know. You will tell me how, I’m sure. Ah, but you say “letter”, not “letters”! Does that mean you are unaware of the others?’ ‘Others?’ ‘Oui, mon ami. To Mrs Sylvia Rule, Miss Annabel Treadway and Mr Hugo Dockerill.’ Annabel? I knew that I had heard the name recently, but could not think where. Then I remembered: Rowland McCrodden had told me that one of Pandy’s granddaughters was called Annabel. ‘Quite correct,’ said Poirot, when I asked. ‘Miss Treadway is indeed the granddaughter of Monsieur Pandy.’ ‘Then who are the other two? What were their names again?’ ‘Sylvia Rule and Hugo Dockerill. They are two people—and Annabel Treadway is a third, and John McCrodden a fourth—who received letters signed in my name, accusing them of the murder of Barnabas Pandy. Most of these people have presented themselves at my home to berate me for having sent these letters that I did not send, and failed to pay attention when I explained that I did not send them! It has been enervating and discouraging, mon ami. And not one of them has been able to show me the letter they received.’ ‘I might be able to help on that front,’ I told him. His eyes widened. ‘Do you have one of the letters? You do! You must, then, have the one sent to John McCrodden, since his was the name you mentioned. Ah! It is a pleasure to be in your office, Catchpool. There is no unsightly mountain of boxes!’ ‘Boxes? Why should there be?’ ‘There should not, my friend. But tell me, how can you have the letter that John McCrodden received? He told me he tore it into pieces and sent those pieces to his father.’ I explained about the Super’s telegram and my meeting with Rowland Rope, trying to omit nothing that might be important. He nodded eagerly as I spoke. When I had finished, he said, ‘This is most fortuitous. Without realizing it, we have been highly efficient and—how do you say it?—in concert with one another! While you were speaking to Rowland McCrodden, I was speaking to the solicitor of Barnabas Pandy.’ He then told me what he had found out and what he had failed to find out. ‘There is something more, perhaps a great deal more, that Peter Vout did not wish to tell me about the family of Barnabas Pandy. And, since he is absolutely certain that Pandy was not murdered, he feels no obligation to divulge what he knows. Still, I have an idea—one that Rowland Rope might be able to assist with, if he is willing. I must speak with him at the earliest opportunity. But first, show me John McCrodden’s letter.’ I handed it over. Poirot’s eyes blazed with anger as he read it. ‘It is inconceivable that Hercule Poirot should write and send such a thing as this, Catchpool. It is so poorly formulated and inelegantly written! I am insulted to think that anyone could believe it came from me.’ I tried to cheer him: ‘None of the recipients knows you. If they did, they would have known, as I did the moment I saw it, that it was not your handiwork.’ ‘There is much to consider. I will make a list. We must get to work, Catchpool.’ ‘I’m afraid I must get to work, Poirot. By all means, speak to Rowland Rope—he is eager to speak to you—but I’m afraid you will have to count me out if you’re planning to take any further action with regard to Barnabas Pandy.’ ‘How can I not act, mon ami? Why do you think the four letters were sent? Someone wishes to put in my head the idea that Barnabas Pandy was murdered. Is it not understandable that I am curious? Now, there is something I need you to do for me.’ ‘Poirot—’ ‘Yes, yes, you need to do your work. Je comprends. This I will allow you to do, once you have helped me. It is only a small task, and one that can be accomplished far more easily by you than by me. Find out where all four were on the day that Barnabas Pandy died: Sylvia Rule, Hugo Dockerill, Annabel Treadway and John McCrodden. The solicitor, Vout, told me that Mademoiselle Treadway was at home when her grandfather died, at Combingham Hall. Find out if she says the same thing. Now, it is of vital importance that you ask each of them in precisely the same way: the same questions, in the same order. Is that clear? I have realized that this is the way to distinguish most effectively one person’s character from another’s. Also, I am interested in this Eustace with whom Madame Rule is so obsessed. If you could—’ I waved at him to stop, like a railway signalman in the face of an out-of-control train hurtling towards him. ‘Poirot, please! Who is Eustace? No—don’t answer that. I have work to do. Barnabas Pandy’s death has been officially recorded as an accident. I’m afraid that means I can’t very well go around demanding that people furnish me with alibis.’ ‘Not straightforwardly, of course,’ Poirot agreed. He stood up and started to smooth imaginary creases from his clothing. ‘I am sure you will find an ingenious way around the problem. Good day, mon ami. Come and see me when you are able to give me the information I require. And—yes, yes!—then you will do your work assigned to you by Scotland Yard.’ CHAPTER 9 (#ulink_420d5e23-cc4b-54fa-a7f2-d874f99bc850) Four Alibis (#ulink_420d5e23-cc4b-54fa-a7f2-d874f99bc850) Later that same evening, John McCrodden received a telephone call at the house where he lived. His landlady answered. ‘It’s John McCrodden you’re after, is it? Not John Webber? McCrodden, yes? All right, I’ll get him. Saw him a minute ago. He’s probably upstairs in his room. You need to talk to him, do you? Then I’ll get him. You wait there. I’ll get him.’ The caller waited nearly five minutes, imagining a startlingly inefficacious woman who could well fail to find a person in the same house as herself. Eventually a male voice came on the line: ‘McCrodden here. Who is this?’ ‘I’m telephoning on behalf of Inspector Edward Catchpool,’ said the caller. ‘From Scotland Yard.’ There was a pause. Then John McCrodden said, ‘Are you now?’ He sounded as if he might be amused by the notion if he were not so weary. ‘Yes. Yes, I am.’ ‘And who might you be? His wife?’ he asked sarcastically. The caller would not have minded telling McCrodden who she was, but she had been given explicit instructions not to do so. She had in front of her, on small cards, the precise words she was supposed to say and she intended to stick to them. ‘I’ve got a few questions I’d like to ask you, questions to which Inspector Catchpool would like to know the answers. If you—’ ‘Then why doesn’t he ask me himself? What is your name? Tell me at once, or this conversation is at an end.’ ‘If you provide me with satisfactory answers, then Inspector Catchpool hopes it won’t be necessary for him to interview you at the police station. All I want to know is this: where were you on the day that Barnabas Pandy died?’ McCrodden laughed. ‘Kindly tell my father that I’m not willing to put up with his campaign of harassment for one second longer. If he will not cease his devious persecution of me, then he is strongly advised to take precautions to ensure his own safety. Tell him I haven’t the slightest clue when Barnabas Pandy died because I know no Barnabas Pandy. I don’t know that he lived, died or joined the circus as a trapeze artist, and I don’t know when he did those things, if he did them at all.’ The caller had been warned that John McCrodden might respond uncooperatively. She listened patiently as he continued to address her with icy disgust. ‘Additionally, you may tell him I’m not as stupid as he thinks I am, and that I’m quite certain that if Scotland Yard employs an inspector by the name of “Edward Catchpool”—which I very much doubt—then that man knows nothing about this telephone call, and that you are in no way authorized to make it. Which is why you refuse to tell me your name.’ ‘Barnabas Pandy died on the seventh of December last year.’ ‘Did he? I’m delighted to hear it.’ ‘Where were you on that date, sir? Inspector Catchpool believes that Mr Pandy died at his home in the country, Combingham Hall—’ ‘Never heard of it.’ ‘—so if you can tell me your whereabouts on that date, and if anyone can vouch for you, then Inspector Catchpool might not need—’ ‘My whereabouts? Why, of course! Seconds before Barnabas Pandy breathed his last, I was standing over his prone body with a carving knife in my hand, ready to plunge it into his heart. Is that what my father would like me to say?’ There was a loud banging sound, and then the line went dead. On the back of one of her question cards, the caller made a note of what she felt were the essential points: that John McCrodden believed his father to be behind the telephone call, that he had questioned the existence of Edward Catchpool and—most importantly, the caller thought—that he had not known, or had claimed not to know, the date of Barnabas Pandy’s death. ‘No alibi given,’ she wrote. ‘Said he was standing over Pandy with a knife just before Pandy died, but he said it like I was not supposed to believe it.’ After twice reading through what she had written, and after thinking for a few minutes, the caller picked up her pencil again and added, ‘But maybe it was true, and the lie was the way he made his voice sound when he said it.’ ‘Is that Mrs Rule? Mrs Sylvia Rule?’ ‘Yes it is. To whom am I speaking?’ ‘Good evening, Mrs Rule. I’m telephoning on behalf of Inspector Edward Catchpool. From Scotland Yard.’ ‘Scotland Yard?’ Sylvia Rule sounded instantly frightened. ‘Has something happened? Is it Mildred? Is Mildred all right?’ ‘This isn’t about anything to do with any Mildred, ma’am.’ ‘She was supposed to be home by now. I was starting to worry, and then … Scotland Yard? Oh, dear!’ ‘This is about something different. There’s no reason to think anything’s happened to Mildred.’ ‘Wait!’ Sylvia Rule barked, causing the caller to jerk her head away from the telephone mouthpiece. ‘I think that’s her. Oh, thank the heavens! Let me …’ A few grunts and panted breaths later, Mrs Rule said, ‘Yes, it’s Mildred. She’s safely home. Do you have children, Inspector Catchpool?’ ‘I said I was telephoning on behalf of Inspector Catchpool. I am not, myself, Inspector Catchpool.’ Damned fool! Did Mrs Rule not know that women could not be police inspectors, no matter how much they might want to be or how talented they were? The caller resented being compelled to reflect upon this unwelcome fact and how unfair it was. She harboured a secret belief that she would make a better police inspector than anyone she knew. ‘Oh, yes. Yes, quite,’ said Sylvia Rule, who sounded as if she was not fully listening. ‘Well, if you have children, then you’ll know as well as I do that whatever age they are, one frets about them constantly. They might be anywhere, and how would one know? And with the most despicable degenerates! Do you have children?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, I’m sure you will one day. I hope and pray you never suffer what I’m suffering now! My Mildred is engaged to be married to the most detestable man …’ The caller looked down at the notes she had been given. She guessed that, imminently, she was about to hear the name Eustace. ‘… and now they’ve set a wedding date! Next June, or so they say. Eustace is more than capable of persuading Mildred to marry him in secret before that date. Oh, he knows I’m going to spend every waking moment from now until next June trying to make the wretched girl see sense—not that she will! Who ever listens to their mother? I think he’s taken the opportunity to play a cruel trick on me.’ ‘Mrs Rule, I have a question—’ ‘He wants me to believe I have a full sixteen months to talk Mildred out of marrying him, so that I won’t set about it in a hurry. Oh, I know the way his disgusting mind works! It wouldn’t surprise me if he and Mildred were to turn up already married in a month’s time and say, “Surprise! We’ve tied the knot!” That’s why I’m a bag of nerves whenever she leaves the house. Eustace could make her do anything. I don’t know why the silly girl is so comprehensively unable to stand up for herself.’ The caller had some ideas about why this might be. ‘Mrs Rule, I need to ask you a question. It’s about the death of Barnabas Pandy. If you can give me a satisfactory answer then it might not be necessary for Inspector Catchpool to interview you at the police station.’ ‘Barnabas Pandy? Who is he? Oh, I remember! The letter Eustace induced that dreadful continental detective to send to me—what a reprehensible little toad he is! I used to hold Hercule Poirot in high esteem, but anyone who would allow himself to be bent to Eustace’s will in that way … I refuse even to think about him!’ ‘If you can give me a satisfactory answer then it might not be necessary for Inspector Catchpool to interview you at the police station,’ said the caller patiently. ‘Where were you on the day that Barnabas Pandy died?’ A gasp came down the telephone line. ‘Where was I? You are asking me where I was?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And you say that Inspector—what name did you say?’ ‘Edward Catchpool.’ It sounded as if Sylvia Rule was making a note of the name: ‘And Inspector Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard wishes to know this?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Why? Doesn’t he know that Eustace and that foreigner have cooked up this nonsense between them?’ ‘If you could just tell me where you were on the day in question?’ ‘What day? The day a man named Barnabas Pandy was murdered—a man I don’t know, whose name was unknown to me until I received that odious letter? How should I know where I was when someone killed him? I have no idea when he died.’ The caller made a note of three things: first, Sylvia Rule seemed to accept that Pandy was murdered; second, this was understandable if she believed this telephone call to have hailed from Scotland Yard; third, she professed not to know when Pandy died, which might indicate that she had not killed him. ‘Mr Pandy died on the seventh of December,’ said the caller. ‘Wait a moment and I shall go and look at last year’s diary,’ said Mrs Rule. ‘Incidentally, whether or not Inspector …’ There was a pause. The caller pictured Mrs Rule glancing down at a piece of paper. ‘Whether or not Inspector Catchpool judges it necessary to interview me, I should very much like to speak to him. I wish to make it clear that I have murdered nobody and am not the kind of person who would do such a thing. Once I’ve explained to him about Eustace, I’m sure he will see this unsavoury business for what it is: an attempt to frame me for a crime of which I am innocent. He will find it as shocking as I do, I have no doubt—a woman of my reputation and distinction! I’m rather pleased that this has happened, for I expect it to be Eustace’s downfall. Obstructing the proper investigation of a murder with slanderous accusations is a crime, is it not?’ ‘I would have thought so,’ said the caller. ‘Well, then! I shall check my diary. The seventh of December last year, you say?’ ‘Yes.’ The caller waited, listening to the sounds of Sylvia Rule’s house. There was much stomping, doors opening and closing, footsteps on stairs. When Mrs Rule returned, she said triumphantly: ‘I was at Turville College on the seventh of December, from ten in the morning until supper time. My son Freddie is a pupil there, and it was the day of the Christmas Fair. I didn’t leave until well past eight o’clock. What is more, there were hundreds present—parents, teachers and pupils—and all of them will confirm what I have told you. Oh, how delightful!’ Sylvia Rule sighed. ‘Eustace’s plan is doomed to fail. Wouldn’t it be simply marvellous if he were to hang for his lies and calumnies against me—the very fate he had in mind for me?’ After John McCrodden and Sylvia Rule, Annabel Treadway was a positive pleasure to interrogate. She had no obvious grudges, no Eustace equivalent, and did not speak venomously and at length about any person in whom the caller had no interest. Furthermore, she had relevant information to impart. ‘I was at home on the seventh of December,’ she said. ‘We all were—all of us who live at Combingham Hall. Kingsbury had just returned from a few days away. He drew the bath, as he always did, and he was the one who … who found Grandy under the water a while later. It was upsetting for all of us, but it must have been especially awful for Kingsbury. To be the person who discovers such a tragedy … By the time Lenore, Ivy and I reached the bathroom we knew something was wrong. I won’t say we were prepared—how can one ever be, for something so terrible?—but we’d had warning. The way Kingsbury cried out when he saw … Oh, poor Kingsbury! I shall never forget the way his voice cracked as he called out to us.’ Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». 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