Murder in the Mews by Agatha Christie



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One

I

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Penny for the guy, sir?”

A small boy with a grimy face grinned ingratiatingly.

“Certainly not!” said Chief Inspector Japp. “And, look here, my lad—”

A short homily followed. The dismayed urchin beat a precipitate retreat, remarking briefly and succinctly to his youthful friends:

“Blimey, if it ain’t a cop all togged up!”

The band took to its heels, chanting the incantation:

Remember, remember

The fifth of November

Gunpowder treason and plot.

We see no reason

Why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot.

The chief inspector’s companion, a small, elderly man with an egg­shaped head and large, military-looking moustaches, was smiling to himself.

“Tres bien, Japp,” he observed. “You preach the sermon very well! I congratulate you!”

“Rank excuse for begging, that’s what Guy Fawkes’ Day is!” said Japp.

“An interesting survival,” mused Hercule Poirot. “The fireworks go up— crack—crack—long after the man they commemorate and his deed are forgotten.”

The Scotland Yard man agreed.

“Don’t suppose many of those kids really know who Guy Fawkes was.”

“And soon, doubtless, there will be confusion of thought. Is it in honour or in execration that on the fifth of November the feu d’artifice are sent up? To blow up an English Parliament, was it a sin or a noble deed?”

Japp chuckled.

“Some people would say undoubtedly the latter.”

Turning off the main road, the two men passed into the comparative quiet of a mews. They had been dining together and were now taking a short cut to Hercule Poirot’s flat.

As they walked along the sound of squibs was still heard periodically. An occasional shower of golden rain illuminated the sky.

“Good night for a murder,” remarked Japp with professional interest. “Nobody would hear a shot, for instance, on a night like this.”

“It has always seemed odd to me that more criminals do not take advantage of the fact,” said Hercule Poirot.

“Do you know, Poirot, I almost wish sometimes that you would commit a murder.”

“Mon cher! ”

“Yes, I’d like to see just how you’d set about it.”

“My dear Japp, if I committed a murder you would not have the least chance of seeing—how I set about it! You would not even be aware, probably, that a murder had been committed.”

Japp laughed good-humouredly and affectionately.

“Cocky little devil, aren’t you?” he said indulgently.

II

At half past eleven the following morning, Hercule Poirot’s telephone rang.

“ ‘Allo? ‘Allo?”

“Hallo, that you, Poirot?”

“Oui, c ‘est moi. ”

“Japp speaking here. Remember we came home last night through Bardsley Gardens Mews?”

“Yes?”

“And that we talked about how easy it would be to shoot a person with all those squibs and crackers and the rest of it going off?”

“Certainly.”

“Well, there was a suicide in that mews. No. 14. A young widow— Mrs. Allen. I’m going round there now. Like to come?”

“Excuse me, but does someone of your eminence, my dear friend, usually get sent to a case of suicide?”

“Sharp fellow. No—he doesn’t. As a matter of fact our doctor seems to think there’s something funny about this. Will you come? I kind of feel you ought to be in on it.”

“Certainly I will come. No. 14, you say?”

“That’s right.”

III

Poirot arrived at No. 14 Bardsley Gardens Mews almost at the same moment as a car drew up containing Japp and three other men.

No. 14 was clearly marked out as the centre of interest. A big circle of people, chauffeurs, their wives, errand boys, loafers, well-dressed passersby and innumerable children were drawn up all staring at No. 14 with open mouths and a fascinated stare.

A police constable in uniform stood on the step and did his best to keep back the curious. Alert-looking young men with cameras were busy and surged forward as Japp alighted.

“Nothing for you now,” said Japp, brushing them aside. He nodded to Poirot. “So here you are. Let’s get inside.”

They passed in quickly, the door shut behind them and they found themselves squeezed together at the foot of a ladderlike flight of stairs.

A man came to the top of the staircase, recognized Japp and said:

“Up here, sir.”

Japp and Poirot mounted the stairs.

The man at the stairhead opened a door on the left and they found themselves in a small bedroom.

“Thought you’d like me to run over the chief points, sir.”

“Quite right, Jameson,” said Japp. “What about it?”

Divisional Inspector Jameson took up the tale.

“Deceased’s a Mrs. Allen, sir. Lived here with a friend—a

Miss Plenderleith. Miss Plenderleith was away staying in the country and returned this morning. She let herself in with her key, was surprised to find no one about. A woman usually comes in at nine o’clock to do for them. She went upstairs first into her own room (that’s this room) then across the landing to her friend’s room. Door was locked on the inside. She rattled the handle, knocked and called, but couldn’t get any answer. In the end getting alarmed she rang up the police station. That was at ten forty-five. We came along at once and forced the door open. Mrs. Allen was lying in a heap on the ground shot through the head. There was an automatic in her hand—a Webley .25—and it looked a clear case of suicide.”

“Where is Miss Plenderleith now?”

“She’s downstairs in the sitting room, sir. A very cool, efficient young lady, I should say. Got a head on her.”

“I’ll talk to her presently. I’d better see Brett now.”

Accompanied by Poirot he crossed the landing and entered the opposite room. A tall, elderly man looked up and nodded.

“Hallo, Japp, glad you’ve got here. Funny business, this.”

Japp advanced towards him. Hercule Poirot sent a quick searching glance round the room.

It was much larger than the room they had just quitted. It had a built-out bay window, and whereas the other room had been a bedroom pure and simple, this was emphatically a bedroom disguised as a sitting room.

The walls were silver and the ceiling emerald green. There were curtains of a modernistic pattern in silver and green. There was a divan covered with a shimmering emerald green silk quilt and numbers of gold and silver cushions. There was a tall antique walnut bureau, a walnut tallboy, and several modern chairs of gleaming chromium. On a low glass table there was a big ashtray full of cigarette stubs.

Delicately Hercule Poirot sniffed the air. Then he joined Japp where the latter stood looking down at the body.

In a heap on the floor, lying as she had fallen from one of the chromium chairs, was the body of a young woman of perhaps twenty-seven. She had fair hair and delicate features. There was very little makeup on the face. It was a pretty, wistful, perhaps slightly stupid face. On the left side of the head was a mass of congealed blood. The fingers of the right hand were clasped round a small pistol. The woman was dressed in a simple frock of dark green high to the neck.

“Well, Brett, what’s the trouble?”

Japp was looking down also at the huddled figure.

“Position’s all right,” said the doctor. “If she shot herself she’d probably have slipped from the chair into just that position. The door was locked and the window was fastened on the inside.”

“That’s all right, you say. Then what’s wrong?”

“Take a look at the pistol. I haven’t handled it—waiting for the fingerprint men. But you can see quite well what I mean.”

Together Poirot and Japp knelt down and examined the pistol closely.

“I see what you mean,” said Japp rising. “It’s in the curve of her hand. It looks as though she’s holding it—but as a matter of fact she isn’t holding it. Anything else?”

“Plenty. She’s got the pistol in her right hand. Now take a look at the wound. The pistol was held close to the head just above the left ear—the left ear, mark you.”

“H’m,” said Japp. “That does seem to settle it. She couldn’t hold a pistol and fire it in that position with her right hand?”

“Plumb impossible, I should say. You might get your arm round but I

doubt if you could fire the shot.”

“That seems pretty obvious then. Someone else shot her and tried to make it look like suicide. What about the locked door and window, though?”

Inspector Jameson answered this.

“Window was closed and bolted, sir, but although the door was locked we haven’t been able to find the key.”

Japp nodded.

“Yes, that was a bad break. Whoever did it locked the door when he left and hoped the absence of the key wouldn’t be noticed.”

Poirot murmured:

“C ’est bete, qa! ”

“Oh, come now, Poirot, old man, you mustn’t judge everybody else by the light of your shining intellect! As a matter of fact that’s the sort of little detail that’s quite apt to be overlooked. Door’s locked. People break in. Woman found dead—pistol in her hand—clear case of suicide—she locked herself in to do it. They don’t go hunting about for keys. As a matter of fact, Miss Plenderleith’s sending for the police was lucky. She might have got one or two of the chauffeurs to come and burst in the door—and then the key question would have been overlooked altogether.”

“Yes, I suppose that is true,” said Hercule Poirot. “It would have been many people’s natural reaction. The police, they are the last resource, are they not?”

He was still staring down at the body.

“Anything strike you?” Japp asked.

The question was careless but his eyes were keen and attentive.

Hercule Poirot shook his head slowly.

“I was looking at her wristwatch.”

He bent over and just touched it with a fingertip. It was a dainty jewelled affair on a black moire strap on the wrist of the hand that held the pistol.

“Rather a swell piece that,” observed Japp. “Must have cost money!” He cocked his head inquiringly at Poirot. “Something in that maybe?”

“It is possible—yes.”

Poirot strayed across to the writing bureau. It was the kind that has a front flap that lets down. This was daintily set out to match the general colour scheme.

There was a somewhat massive silver inkstand in the centre, in front of it a handsome green lacquer blotter. To the left of the blotter was an emerald glass pen tray containing a silver penholder—a stick of green sealing wax, a pencil and two stamps. On the right of the blotter was a movable calendar giving the day of the week, date and month. There was also a little glass jar of shot and standing in it a flamboyant green quill pen. Poirot seemed interested in the pen. He took it out and looked at it but the quill was innocent of ink. It was clearly a decoration—nothing more. The silver pen-holder with the ink- stained nib was the one in use. His eyes strayed to the calendar.

“Tuesday, November fifth,” said Japp. “Yesterday. That’s all correct.”

He turned to Brett.

“How long has she been dead?”

“She was killed at eleven thirty-three yesterday evening,” said Brett promptly.

Then he grinned as he saw Japp’s surprised face.

“Sorry, old boy,” he said. “Had to do the super doctor of fiction! As a matter of fact eleven is about as near as I can put it—with a margin of about an hour either way.”

“Oh, I thought the wristwatch might have stopped—or something.”

“It’s stopped all right, but it’s stopped at a quarter past four.”

“And I suppose she couldn’t have been killed possibly at a quarter past four.”

“You can put that right out of your mind.”

Poirot had turned back the cover of the blotter.

“Good idea,” said Japp. “But no luck.”

The blotter showed an innocent white sheet of blotting paper. Poirot turned over the leaves but they were all the same.

He turned his attention to the wastepaper basket.

It contained two or three torn-up letters and circulars. They were only torn once and were easily reconstructed. An appeal for money from some society for assisting ex-servicemen, an invitation to a cocktail party on November 3rd, an appointment with a dressmaker. The circulars were an announcement of a furrier’s sale and a catalogue from a department store.

“Nothing there,” said Japp.

“No, it is odd ..said Poirot.

“You mean they usually leave a letter when it’s suicide?”

“Exactly.”

“In fact, one more proof that it isn’t suicide.”

He moved away.

“I’ll have my men get to work now. We’d better go down and interview this Miss Plenderleith. Coming, Poirot?”

Poirot still seemed fascinated by the writing bureau and its appointments.

He left the room, but at the door his eyes went back once more to the flaunting emerald quill pen.

 

Two

At the foot of the narrow flight of stairs a door gave admission to a large­sized living room—actually the converted stable. In this room, the walls of which were finished in a roughened plaster effect and on which hung etchings and woodcuts, two people were sitting.

One, in a chair near the fireplace, her hand stretched out to the blaze, was a dark efficient-looking young woman of twenty-seven or eight. The other, an elderly woman of ample proportions who carried a string bag, was panting and talking when the two men entered the room.

“—and as I said, Miss, such a turn it gave me I nearly dropped down where I stood. And to think that this morning of all mornings—”

The other cut her short.

“That will do, Mrs. Pierce. These gentlemen are police officers, I think.”

“Miss Plenderleith?” asked Japp, advancing.

The girl nodded.

“That is my name. This is Mrs. Pierce who comes in to work for us every day.”

The irrepressible Mrs. Pierce broke out again.

“And as I was saying to Miss Plenderleith, to think that this morning of all mornings, my sister’s Louisa Maud should have been took with a fit and me the only one handy and as I say flesh and blood is flesh and blood, and I didn’t think Mrs. Allen would mind, though I never likes to disappoint my ladies—”

Japp broke in with some dexterity.

“Quite so, Mrs. Pierce. Now perhaps you would take Inspector Jameson into the kitchen and give him a brief statement.”

Having then got rid of the voluble Mrs. Pierce, who departed with Jameson talking thirteen to the dozen, Japp turned his attention once more to the girl.

“I am Chief Inspector Japp. Now, Miss Plenderleith, I should like to know all you can tell me about this business.”

“Certainly. Where shall I begin?”

Her self-possession was admirable. There were no signs of grief or shock save for an almost unnatural rigidity of manner.

“You arrived this morning at what time?”

“I think it was just before half past ten. Mrs. Pierce, the old liar, wasn’t here, I found—”

“Is that a frequent occurrence?”

Jane Plenderleith shrugged her shoulders.

“About twice a week she turns up at twelve—or not at all. She’s supposed to come at nine. Actually, as I say, twice a week she either ‘comes over queer,’ or else some member of her family is overtaken by sickness. All these daily women are like that—fail you now and again. She’s not bad as they go.”

“You’ve had her long?”

“Just over a month. Our last one pinched things.”

“Please go on, Miss Plenderleith.”

“I paid off the taxi, carried in my suitcase, looked round for Mrs. P., couldn’t see her and went upstairs to my room. I tidied up a bit then I went across to Barbara—Mrs. Allen—and found the door locked. I rattled the handle and knocked but could get no reply. I came downstairs and rang up the police station.”

“Pardon!” Poirot interposed a quick, deft question. “It did not occur to you to try and break down the door—with the help of one of the chauffeurs in the mews, say?”

Her eyes turned to him—cool, grey-green eyes. Her glance seemed to sweep over him quickly and appraisingly.

“No, I don’t think I thought of that. If anything was wrong, it seemed to me that the police were the people to send for.”

“Then you thought—pardon, mademoiselle—that there was something wrong?”

“Naturally.”

“Because you could not get a reply to your knocks? But possibly your friend might have taken a sleeping draught or something of that kind—”

“She didn’t take sleeping draughts.”

The reply came sharply.

“Or she might have gone away and locked her door before going?”

“Why should she lock it? In any case she would have left a note for me.” “And she did not—leave a note for you? You are quite sure of that?” “Of course I am sure of it. I should have seen it at once.”

The sharpness of her tone was accentuated.

Japp said:

“You didn’t try and look through the keyhole, Miss Plenderleith?”

“No,” said Jane Plenderleith thoughtfully. “I never thought of that. But I couldn’t have seen anything, could I? Because the key would have been in it?”

Her inquiring gaze, innocent, wide-eyed, met Japp’s. Poirot smiled suddenly to himself.

“You did quite right, of course, Miss Plenderleith,” said Japp. “I suppose you’d no reason to believe that your friend was likely to commit suicide?”

“Oh, no.”

“She hadn’t seemed worried—or distressed in any way?”

There was a pause—an appreciable pause before the girl answered.

“No.”

“Did you know she had a pistol?”

Jane Plenderleith nodded.

“Yes, she had it out in India. She always kept it in a drawer in her room.”

“H’m. Got a licence for it?”

“I imagine so. I don’t know for certain.”

“Now, Miss Plenderleith, will you tell me all you can about Mrs. Allen, how long you’ve known her, where her relations are—everything in fact.”

Jane Plenderleith nodded.

“I’ve known Barbara about five years. I met her first travelling abroad— in Egypt to be exact. She was on her way home from India. I’d been at the British School in Athens for a bit and was having a few weeks in Egypt before going home. We were on a Nile cruise together. We made friends, decided we liked each other. I was looking at the time for someone to share a flat or a tiny house with me. Barbara was alone in the world. We thought we’d get on well together.”

“And you did get on well together?” asked Poirot.

“Very well. We each had our own friends—Barbara was more social in her likings—my friends were more of the artistic kind. It probably worked better that way.”

Poirot nodded. Japp went on:

“What do you know about Mrs. Allen’s family and her life before she met you?”

Jane Plenderleith shrugged her shoulders.

“Not very much really. Her maiden name was Armitage, I believe.”

“Her husband?”

“I don’t fancy that he was anything to write home about. He drank, I think. I gather he died a year or two after the marriage. There was one child, a little girl, which died when it was three years old. Barbara didn’t talk much about her husband. I believe she married him in India when she was about seventeen. Then they went off to Borneo or one of the godforsaken spots you send ne’er-do-wells to—but as it was obviously a painful subject I didn’t refer to it.”

“Do you know if Mrs. Allen was in any financial difficulties?”

“No, I’m sure she wasn’t.”

“Not in debt—anything of that kind?”

“Oh, no! I’m sure she wasn’t in that kind of a jam.”

“Now there’s another question I must ask—and I hope you won’t be upset about it, Miss Plenderleith. Had Mrs. Allen any particular man friend or men friends?”

Jane Plenderleith answered coolly:

“Well, she was engaged to be married if that answers your question.”

“What is the name of the man she was engaged to?”

“Charles Laverton-West. He’s M.P. for some place in Hampshire.”

“Had she known him long?”

“A little over a year.”

“And she has been engaged to him—how long?”

“Two—no—nearer three months.”

“As far as you know there has not been any quarrel?”

Miss Plenderleith shook her head.

“No. I should have been surprised if there had been anything of that sort. Barbara wasn’t the quarrelling kind.”

“How long is it since you last saw Mrs. Allen?”

“Friday last, just before I went away for the weekend.”

“Mrs. Allen was remaining in town?”

“Yes. She was going out with her fiance on the Sunday, I believe.”

“And you yourself, where did you spend the weekend?”

“At Laidells Hall, Laidells, Essex.”

“And the name of the people with whom you were staying?”

“Mr. and Mrs. Bentinck.”

“You only left them this morning?”

“Yes.”

“You must have left very early?”

“Mr. Bentinck motored me up. He starts early because he has to get to the city by ten.”

“I see.”

Japp nodded comprehendingly. Miss Plenderleith’s replies had all been crisp and convincing.

Poirot in his turn put a question.

“What is your own opinion of Mr. Laverton-West?”

The girl shrugged her shoulders.

“Does that matter?”

“No, it does not matter, perhaps, but I should like to have your opinion.”

“I don’t know that I’ve thought about him one way or the other. He’s young—not more than thirty-one or two—ambitious—a good public speaker —means to get on in the world.”

“That is on the credit side—and on the debit?”

“Well,” Miss Plenderleith considered for a moment or two. “In my opinion he’s commonplace—his ideas are not particularly original—and he’s slightly pompous.”

“Those are not very serious faults, mademoiselle,” said Poirot, smiling.

“Don’t you think so?”

Her tone was slightly ironic.

“They might be to you.”

He was watching her, saw her look a little disconcerted. He pursued his advantage.

“But to Mrs. Allen—no, she would not notice them.”

“You’re perfectly right. Barbara thought he was wonderful—took him entirely at his own valuation.”

Poirot said gently:

“You were fond of your friend?”

He saw the hand clench on her knee, the tightening of the line of the jaw, yet the answer came in a matter-of-fact voice free from emotion.

“You are quite right. I was.”

Japp said:

“Just one other thing, Miss Plenderleith. You and she didn’t have a quarrel? There was no upset between you?”

“None whatever.”

“Not over this engagement business?”

“Certainly not. I was glad she was able to be so happy about it.”

There was a momentary pause, then Japp said:

“As far as you know, did Mrs. Allen have any enemies?”

This time there was a definite interval before Jane Plenderleith replied. When she did so, her tone had altered very slightly.

“I don’t know quite what you mean by enemies?”

“Anyone, for instance, who would profit by her death?”

“Oh, no, that would be ridiculous. She had a very small income anyway.”

“And who inherits that income?”

Jame Plenderleith’s voice sounded mildly surprised as she said:

“Do you know, I really don’t know. I shouldn’t be surprised if I did. That is, if she ever made a will.”

“And no enemies in any other sense?” Japp slid off to another aspect quickly. “People with a grudge against her?”

“I don’t think anyone had a grudge against her. She was a very gentle creature, always anxious to please. She had a really sweet, lovable nature.”

For the first time that hard, matter-of-fact voice broke a little. Poirot nodded gently.

Japp said:

“So it amounts to this—Mrs. Allen has been in good spirits lately, she wasn’t in any financial difficulty, she was engaged to be married and was happy in her engagement. There was nothing in the world to make her commit suicide. That’s right, isn’t it?”

There was a momentary silence before Jane said:

“Yes.”

Japp rose.

“Excuse me, I must have a word with Inspector Jameson.”

He left the room.

Hercule Poirot remained tete a tete with Jane Plenderleith.

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Three

For a few minutes there was silence.

Jane Plenderleith shot a swift appraising glance at the little man, but after that she stared in front of her and did not speak. Yet a consciousness of his presence showed itself in a certain nervous tension. Her body was still but not relaxed. When at last Poirot did break the silence the mere sound of his voice seemed to give her a certain relief. In an agreeable everyday voice he asked a question.

“When did you light the fire, mademoiselle?”

“The fire?” Her voice sounded vague and rather absentminded. “Oh, as soon as I arrived this morning.”

“Before you went upstairs or afterwards?”

“Before.”

“I see. Yes, naturally … And it was already laid—or did you have to lay it?”

“It was laid. I only had to put a match to it.”

There was a slight impatience in her voice. Clearly she suspected him of making conversation. Possibly that was what he was doing. At any rate he went on in quiet conversational tones.

“But your friend—in her room I noticed there was a gas fire only?”

Jane Plenderleith answered mechanically.

“This is the only coal fire we have—the others are all gas fires.”

“And you cook with gas, too?”

“I think everyone does nowadays.”

“True. It is much labour saving.”

The little interchange died down. Jane Plenderleith tapped on the ground with her shoe. Then she said abruptly:

“That man—Chief Inspector Japp—is he considered clever?”

“He is very sound. Yes, he is well thought of. He works hard and painstakingly and very little escapes him.”

“I wonder—” muttered the girl.

Poirot watched her. His eyes looked very green in the firelight. He asked quietly:

“It was a great shock to you, your friend’s death?”

“Terrible.”

She spoke with abrupt sincerity.

“You did not expect it—no?”

“Of course not.”

“So that it seemed to you at first, perhaps, that it was impossible—that it could not be?”

The quiet sympathy of his tone seemed to break down Jane Plenderleith’s defences. She replied eagerly, naturally, without stiffness.

“That’s just it. Even if Barbara did kill herself, I can’t imagine her killing herself that way.

“Yet she had a pistol?”

Jane Plenderleith made an impatient gesture.

“Yes, but that pistol was a—oh! a hang over. She’d been in out-of-the- way places. She kept it out of habit—not with any other idea. I’m sure of that.”

“Ah! and why are you sure of that?”

“Oh, because of the things she said.”

“Such as—?”

His voice was very gentle and friendly. It led her on subtly.

“Well, for instance, we were discussing suicide once and she said much the easiest way would be to turn the gas on and stuff up all the cracks and just go to bed. I said I thought that would be impossible—to lie there waiting. I said I’d far rather shoot myself. And she said no, she could never shoot herself. She’d be too frightened in case it didn’t come off and anyway she said she’d hate the bang.”

“I see,” said Poirot. “As you say, it is odd … Because, as you have just told me, there was a gas fire in her room.

Jane Plenderleith looked at him, slightly startled.

“Yes, there was . I can’t understand—no, I can’t understand why she didn’t do it that way.”

Poirot shook his head.

“Yes, it seems—odd—not natural somehow.”

“The whole thing doesn’t seem natural. I still can’t believe she killed herself. I suppose it must be suicide?”

“Well, there is one other possibility.”

“What do you mean?”

Poirot looked straight at her.

“It might be—murder.”

“Oh, no?” Jane Plenderleith shrank back. “Oh no! What a horrible suggestion.”

“Horrible, perhaps, but does it strike you as an impossible one?”

“But the door was locked on the inside. So was the window.”

“The door was locked—yes. But there is nothing to show if it were locked from the inside or the outside. You see, the key was missing.

“But then—if it is missing .” She took a minute or two. “Then it must have been locked from the outside. Otherwise it would be somewhere in the room.”

“Ah, but it may be. The room has not been thoroughly searched yet, remember. Or it may have been thrown out of the window and somebody may have picked it up.”

“Murder!” said Jane Plenderleith. She turned over the possibility, her dark clever face eager on the scent. “I believe you’re right.”

“But if it were murder there would have been a motive. Do you know of a motive, mademoiselle?”

Slowly she shook her head. And yet, in spite of the denial, Poirot again got the impression that Jane Plenderleith was deliberately keeping something back. The door opened and Japp came in.

Poirot rose.

“I have been suggesting to Miss Plenderleith,” he said, “that her friend’s death was not suicide.”

Japp looked momentarily put out. He cast a glance of reproach at Poirot.

“It’s a bit early to say anything definite,” he remarked. “We’ve always got to take all possibilities into account, you understand. That’s all there is to it at the moment.”

Jane Plenderleith replied quietly.

“I see.”

Japp came towards her.

“Now then, Miss Plenderleith, have you ever seen this before?”

On the palm of his hand he held out a small oval of dark blue enamel.

Jane Plenderleith shook her head.

“No, never.”

“It’s not yours nor Mrs. Allen’s?”

“No. It’s not the kind of thing usually worn by our sex, is it?”

“Oh! so you recognize it.”

“Well, it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? That’s half of a man’s cuff link.”

Four

That young woman’s too cocky by half,” Japp complained.

The two men were once more in Mrs. Allen’s bedroom. The body had been photographed and removed and the fingerprint man had done his work and departed.

“It would be unadvisable to treat her as a fool,” agreed Poirot. “She most emphatically is not a fool. She is, in fact, a particularly clever and competent young woman.”

“Think she did it?” asked Japp with a momentary ray of hope. “She might have, you know. We’ll have to get her alibi looked into. Some quarrel over this young man—this budding M.P. She’s rather too scathing about him, I think! Sounds fishy. Rather as though she were sweet on him herself and he’d turned her down. She’s the kind that would bump anyone off if she felt like it, and keep her head while she was doing it, too. Yes, we’ll have to look into that alibi. She had it very pat and after all Essex isn’t very far away. Plenty of trains. Or a fast car. It’s worthwhile finding out if she went to bed with a headache for instance last night.”

“You are right,” agreed Poirot.

“In any case,” continued Japp, “she’s holding out on us. Eh? Didn’t you feel that too? That young woman knows something.”

Poirot nodded thoughtfully.

“Yes, that could be clearly seen.”

“That’s always a difficulty in these cases,” Japp complained. “People will hold their tongues—sometimes out of the most honourable motives.”

“For which one can hardly blame them, my friend.”

“No, but it makes it much harder for us,” Japp grumbled.

“It merely displays to its full advantage your ingenuity,” Poirot consoled him. “What about fingerprints, by the way?”

“Well, it’s murder all right. No prints whatever on the pistol. Wiped clean before being placed in her hand. Even if she managed to wind her arm round her head in some marvellous acrobatic fashion she could hardly fire off a pistol without hanging on to it and she couldn’t wipe it after she was dead.”

“No, no, an outside agency is clearly indicated.”

“Otherwise the prints are disappointing. None on the door-handle. None on the window. Suggestive, eh? Plenty of Mrs. Allen’s all over the place.”

“Did Jameson get anything?”

“Out of the daily woman? No. She talked a lot but she didn’t really know much. Confirmed the fact that Allen and Plenderleith were on good terms. I’ve sent Jameson out to make inquiries in the mews. We’ll have to have a word with Mr. Laverton-West too. Find out where he was and what he was doing last night. In the meantime we’ll have a look through her papers.”

He set to without more ado. Occasionally he grunted and tossed something over to Poirot. The search did not take long. There were not many papers in the desk and what there were were neatly arranged and docketed.

Finally Japp leant back and uttered a sigh.

“Not very much, is there?”

“As you say.”

“Most of it quite straightforward—receipted bills, a few bills as yet unpaid—nothing particularly outstanding. Social stuff—invitations. Notes from friends. These—” he laid his hand on a pile of seven or eight letters —“and her cheque book and passbook. Anything strike you there?”

“Yes, she was overdrawn.”

“Anything else?”

Poirot smiled.

“Is it an examination that you put me through? But yes, I noticed what you are thinking of. Two hundred pounds drawn to self three months ago— and two hundred pounds drawn out yesterday—”

“And nothing on the counterfoil of the cheque book. No other cheques to self except small sums—fifteen pounds the highest. And I’ll tell you this— there’s no such sum of money in the house. Four pounds ten in a handbag and an odd shilling or two in another bag. That’s pretty clear, I think.”

“Meaning that she paid that sum away yesterday.”

“Yes. Now who did she pay it to?”

The door opened and Inspector Jameson entered.

“Well, Jameson, get anything?”

“Yes, sir, several things. To begin with, nobody actually heard the shot. Two or three women say they did because they want to think they did—but that’s all there is to it. With all those fireworks going off there isn’t a dog’s chance.”

Japp grunted.

“Don’t suppose there is. Go on.”

“Mrs. Allen was at home most of yesterday afternoon and evening. Came in about five o’clock. Then she went out again about six but only to the postbox at the end of the mews. At about nine-thirty a car drove up— Standard Swallow saloon—and a man got out. Description about forty-five, well set up military-looking gent, dark blue overcoat, bowler hat, toothbrush moustache. James Hogg, chauffeur from No. 18 says he’s seen him calling on Mrs. Allen before.”

“Forty-five,” said Japp. “Can’t very well be Laverton-West.”

“This man, whoever he was, stayed here for just under an hour. Left at about ten-twenty. Stopped in the doorway to speak to Mrs. Allen. Small boy, Frederick Hogg, was hanging about quite near and heard what he said.”

“And what did he say?”

“ ‘ Well, think it over and let me know.‘ And then she said something and he answered: ‘All right. So long.‘ After that he got in his car and drove away.”

“That was at ten-twenty,” said Poirot thoughtfully.

Japp rubbed his nose.

“Then at ten-twenty Mrs. Allen was still alive,” he said. “What next?”

“Nothing more, sir, as far as I can learn. The chauffeur at No. 22 got in at half-past ten and he’d promised his kids to let off some fireworks for them. They’d been waiting for him—and all the other kids in the mews too. He let ’em off and everybody around about was busy watching them. After that everyone went to bed.”

“And nobody else was seen to enter No. 14?”

“No—but that’s not to say they didn’t. Nobody would have noticed.” “H’m,” said Japp. “That’s true. Well, we’ll have to get hold of this

‘military gentleman with the toothbrush moustache.’ It’s pretty clear that he was the last person to see her alive. I wonder who he was?”

“Miss Plenderleith might tell us,” suggested Poirot.

“She might,” said Japp gloomily. “On the other hand she might not. I’ve no doubt she could tell us a good deal if she liked. What about you, Poirot, old boy? You were alone with her for a bit. Didn’t you trot out that Father Confessor manner of yours that sometimes makes such a hit?”

Poirot spread out his hands.

“Alas, we talked only of gas fires.”

“Gas fires—gas fires.” Japp sounded disgusted. “What’s the matter with you, old cock? Ever since you’ve been here the only things you’ve taken an interest in are quill pens and wastepaper baskets. Oh, yes, I saw you having a quiet look into the one downstairs. Anything in it?”

Poirot sighed.

“A catalogue of bulbs and an old magazine.”

“What’s the idea, anyway? If anyone wants to throw away an incriminating document or whatever it is you have in mind they’re not likely just to pitch it into a wastepaper basket.”

“That is very true what you say there. Only something quite unimportant would be thrown away like that.”

Poirot spoke meekly. Nevertheless Japp looked at him suspiciously.

“Well,” he said. “I know what I’m going to do next. What about you?”

“Eh bien, ” said Poirot. “I shall complete my search for the unimportant. There is still the dustbin.”

He skipped nimbly out of the room. Japp looked after him with an air of disgust.

“Potty,” he said. “Absolutely potty.”

Inspector Jameson preserved a respectful silence. His face said with British superiority: “Foreigners!”

Aloud he said:

“So that’s Mr. Hercule Poirot! I’ve heard of him.”

“Old friend of mine,” explained Japp. “Not half as balmy as he looks, mind you. All the same he’s getting on now.”

“Gone a bit gaga as they say, sir,” suggested Inspector Jameson. “Ah well, age will tell.”

“All the same,” said Japp, “I wish I knew what he was up to.”

He walked over to the writing table and stared uneasily at an emerald green quill pen.

[sociallocker]

Five

Japp was just engaging his third chauffeur’s wife in conversation when Poirot, walking noiselessly as a cat, suddenly appeared at his elbow.

“Whew, you made me jump,” said Japp. “Got anything?”

“Not what I was looking for.”

Japp turned back to Mrs. James Hogg.

“And you say you’ve seen this gentleman before?”

“Oh, yes sir. And my husband too. We knew him at once.”

“Now look here, Mrs. Hogg, you’re a shrewd woman, I can see. I’ve no doubt that you know all about everyone in the mews. And you’re a woman of judgment—unusually good judgment, I can tell that—” Unblushingly he repeated this remark for the third time. Mrs. Hogg bridled slightly and assumed an expression of superhuman intelligence. “Give me a line on those two young women—Mrs. Allen and Miss Plenderleith. What were they like? Gay? Lots of parties? That sort of thing?”

“Oh, no sir, nothing of the kind. They went out a good bit—Mrs. Allen especially—but they’re class, if you know what I mean. Not like some as I could name down the other end. I’m sure the way that Mrs. Stevens goes on —if she is a Mrs. at all which I doubt—well I shouldn’t like to tell you what goes on there—I…

“Quite so,” said Japp, dexterously stopping the flow. “Now that’s very important what you’ve told me. Mrs. Allen and Miss Plenderleith were well liked, then?”

“Oh yes, sir, very nice ladies, both of them—especially Mrs. Allen. Always spoke a nice word to the children, she did. Lost her own little girl, I believe, poor dear. Ah well, I’ve buried three myself. And what I say is .”

“Yes, yes, very sad. And Miss Plenderleith?”

“Well, of course she was a nice lady too, but much more abrupt if you know what I mean. Just go by with a nod, she would, and not stop to pass the time of day. But I’ve nothing against her—nothing at all.”

“She and Mrs. Allen got on well together?”

“Oh, yes sir. No quarrelling—nothing like that. Very happy and contented they were—I’m sure Mrs. Pierce will bear me out.”

“Yes, we’ve talked to her. Do you know Mrs. Allen’s fiance by sight?”

“The gentleman she’s going to marry? Oh, yes. He’s been here quite a bit off and on. Member of Parliament, they do say.”

“It wasn’t he who came last night?”

“No, sir, it was not.” Mrs. Hogg drew herself up. A note of excitement disguised beneath intense primness came into her voice. “And if you ask me, sir, what you are thinking is all wrong. Mrs. Allen wasn’t that kind of lady, I’m sure. It’s true there was no one in the house, but I do not believe anything of the kind—I said so to Hogg only this morning. ‘No, Hogg,’ I said, ‘Mrs. Allen was a lady—a real lady—so don’t go suggesting things’— knowing what a man’s mind is, if you’ll excuse my mentioning it. Always coarse in their ideas.”

Passing this insult by, Japp proceeded:

“You saw him arrive and you saw him leave—that’s so, isn’t it?”

“That’s so, sir.”

“And you didn’t hear anything else? Any sounds of a quarrel?”

“No, sir, nor likely to. Not, that is to say, that such things couldn’t be heard—because the contrary to that is well-known—and down the other end the way Mrs. Stevens goes for that poor frightened maid of hers is common talk—and one and all we’ve advised her not to stand it, but there, the wages is good—temper of the devil she may have but pays for it—thirty shillings a week… .”

Japp said quickly:

“But you didn’t hear anything of the kind at No. 14?”

“No, sir. Nor likely to with fireworks popping off here, there and everywhere and my Eddie with his eyebrows singed off as near as nothing.”

“This man left at ten-twenty—that’s right, is it?”

“It might be, sir. I couldn’t say myself. But Hogg says so and he’s a very reliable, steady man.”

“You actually saw him leave. Did you hear what he said?”

“No, sir. I wasn’t near enough for that. Just saw him from my windows, standing in the doorway talking to Mrs. Allen.”

“See her too?”

“Yes, sir, she was standing just inside the doorway.”

“Notice what she was wearing?”

“Now really, sir, I couldn’t say. Not noticing particularly as it were.”

Poirot said:

“You did not even notice if she was wearing day dress or evening dress?”

“No, sir, I can’t say I did.”

Poirot looked thoughtfully up at the window above and then across to No. 14. He smiled and for a moment his eye caught Japp’s.

“And the gentleman?”

“He was in a dark-blue overcoat and a bowler hat. Very smart and well set up.”

Japp asked a few more questions and then proceeded to his next interview. This was with Master Frederick Hogg, an impish-faced, bright­eyed lad, considerably swollen with self-importance.

“Yes, sir. I heard them talking. ‘Think it over and let me know,’ the gent said. Pleasant like, you know. And then she said something and he answered, ‘All right. So long.’ And he got into the car—I was holding the door open but he didn’t give me nothing,” said Master Hogg with a slight tinge of depression in his tone. “And he drove away.”

“You didn’t hear what Mrs. Allen said?”

“No, sir, can’t say I did.”

“Can you tell me what she was wearing? What colour, for instance?”

“Couldn’t say, sir. You see, I didn’t really see her. She must have been round behind the door.”

“Just so,” said Japp. “Now look here, my boy, I want you to think and answer my next question very carefully. If you don’t know and can’t remember, say so. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

Master Hogg looked at him eagerly.

“Which of ’em closed the door, Mrs. Allen or the gentleman?”

“The front door?”

“The front door, naturally.”

The child reflected. His eyes screwed themselves up in an effort of remembrance.

“Think the lady probably did—No, she didn’t. He did. Pulled it to with a bit of a bang and jumped into the car quick. Looked as though he had a date somewhere.”

“Right. Well, young man, you seem a bright kind of shaver. Here’s sixpence for you.”

Dismissing Master Hogg, Japp turned to his friend. Slowly with one accord they nodded.

“Could be!” said Japp.

“There are possibilities,” agreed Poirot.

His eyes shone with a green light. They looked like a cat’s.

 

Six

On reentering the sitting room of No. 14, Japp wasted no time in beating about the bush. He came straight to the point.

“Now look here, Miss Plenderleith, don’t you think it’s better to spill the beans here and now. It’s going to come to that in the end.”

Jane Plenderleith raised her eyebrows. She was standing by the mantelpiece, gently warming one foot at the fire.

“I really don’t know what you mean.”

“Is that quite true, Miss Plenderleith?”

She shrugged her shoulders.

“I’ve answered all your questions. I don’t see what more I can do.”

“Well, it’s my opinion you could do a lot more—if you chose.”

“That’s only an opinion, though, isn’t it, Chief Inspector?”

Japp grew rather red in the face.

“I think,” said Poirot, “that mademoiselle would appreciate better the reason for your questions if you told her just how the case stands.”

“That’s very simple. Now then, Miss Plenderleith, the facts are as follows. Your friend was found shot through the head with a pistol in her hand and the door and the window fastened. That looked like a plain case of suicide. But it wasn ’t suicide. The medical evidence alone proves that.”

“How?”

All her ironic coolness had disappeared. She leaned forward—intent— watching his face.

“The pistol was in her hand—but the fingers weren ’t grasping it. Moreover there were no fingerprints at all on the pistol. And the angle of the wound makes it impossible that the wound should have been self-inflicted.

Then again, she left no letter—rather an unusual thing for a suicide. And though the door was locked the key has not been found.”

Jane Plenderleith turned slowly and sat down in a chair facing them.

“So that’s it!” she said. “All along I’ve felt it was impossible that she should have killed herself! I was right! She didn’t kill herself. Someone else killed her.”

For a moment or two she remained lost in thought. Then she raised her head brusquely.

“Ask me any questions you like,” she said. “I will answer them to the best of my ability.”

Japp began:

“Last night Mrs. Allen had a visitor. He is described as a man of forty- five, military bearing, toothbrush moustache, smartly dressed and driving a Standard Swallow saloon car. Do you know who that is?”

“I can’t be sure, of course, but it sounds like Major Eustace.”

“Who is Major Eustace? Tell me all you can about him?”

“He was a man Barbara had known abroad—in India. He turned up about a year ago, and we’ve seen him on and off since.”

“He was a friend of Mrs. Allen’s?”

“He behaved like one,” said Jane dryly.

“What was her attitude to him?”

“I don’t think she really liked him—in fact, I’m sure she didn’t.”

“But she treated him with outward friendliness?”

“Yes.”

“Did she ever seem—think carefully, Miss Plenderleith—afraid of him?”

Jane Plenderleith considered this thoughtfully for a minute or two. Then she said:

“Yes—I think she was. She was always nervous when he was about.”

“Did he and Mr. Laverton-West meet at all?”

“Only once, I think. They didn’t take to each other much. That is to say, Major Eustace made himself as agreeable as he could to Charles, but Charles wasn’t having any. Charles has got a very good nose for anybody who isn’t well—quite—quite.”

“And Major Eustace was not—what you call—quite—quite?” asked Poirot.

The girl said dryly:

“No, he wasn’t. Bit hairy at the heel. Definitely not out of the top drawer.”

“Alas—I do not know those two expressions. You mean to say he was not the pukka sahib?”

A fleeting smile passed across Jane Plenderleith’s face, but she replied gravely, “No.”

“Would it come as a great surprise to you, Miss Plenderleith, if I suggested that this man was blackmailing Mrs. Allen?”

Japp sat forward to observe the result of his suggestion.

He was well satisfied. The girl started forward, the colour rose in her cheeks, she brought down her hand sharply on the arm of her chair.

“So that was it! What a fool I was not to have guessed. Of course!”

“You think the suggestion feasible, mademoiselle?” asked Poirot.

“I was a fool not to have thought of it! Barbara’s borrowed small sums off me several times during the last six months. And I’ve seen her sitting poring over her passbook. I knew she was living well within her income, so I didn’t bother, but, of course, if she was paying out sums of money—”

“And it would accord with her general demeanour—yes?” asked Poirot.

“Absolutely. She was nervous. Quite jumpy sometimes. Altogether different from what she used to be.”

Poirot said gently:

“Excuse me, but that is not just what you told us before.”

“That was different,” Jane Plenderleith waved an impatient hand. “She wasn’t depressed. I mean she wasn’t feeling suicidal or anything like that. But blackmail—yes. I wish she’d told me. I’d have sent him to the devil.”

“But he might have gone—not to the devil, but to Mr. Charles Laverton- West?” observed Poirot.

“Yes,” said Jane Plenderleith slowly. “Yes … that’s true… .”

“You’ve no idea of what this man’s hold over her may have been?” asked Japp.

The girl shook her head.

“I haven’t the faintest idea. I can’t believe, knowing Barbara, that it could have been anything really serious. On the other hand—” she paused, then went on. “What I mean is, Barbara was a bit of a simpleton in some ways. She’d be very easily frightened. In fact, she was the kind of girl who would be a positive gift to a blackmailer! The nasty brute!”

She snapped out the last three words with real venom.

“Unfortunately,” said Poirot, “the crime seems to have taken place the wrong way round. It is the victim who should kill the blackmailer, not the blackmailer his victim.”

Jane Plenderleith frowned a little.

“No—that is true—but I can imagine circumstances—”

“Such as?”

“Supposing Barbara got desperate. She may have threatened him with that silly little pistol of hers. He tries to wrench it away from her and in the struggle he fires it and kills her. Then he’s horrified at what he’s done and tries to pretend it was suicide.”

“Might be,” said Japp. “But there’s a difficulty.”

She looked at him inquiringly.

“Major Eustace (if it was him) left here last night at ten-twenty and said goodbye to Mrs. Allen on the doorstep.”

“Oh,” the girl’s face fell. “I see.” She paused a minute or two. “But he might have come back later,” she said slowly.

“Yes, that is possible,” said Poirot.

Japp continued:

“Tell me, Miss Plenderleith, where was Mrs. Allen in the habit of receiving guests, here or in the room upstairs?”

“Both. But this room was used for more communal parties or for my own special friends. You see, the arrangement was that Barbara had the big bedroom and used it as a sitting room as well, and I had the little bedroom and used this room.”

“If Major Eustace came by appointment last night, in which room do you think Mrs. Allen would have received him?”

“I think she would probably bring him in here.” The girl sounded a little doubtful. “It would be less intimate. On the other hand, if she wanted to write a cheque or anything of that kind, she would probably take him upstairs. There are no writing materials down here.”

Japp shook his head.

“There was no question of a cheque. Mrs. Allen drew out two hundred pounds in cash yesterday. And so far we’ve not been able to find any trace of it in the house.”

“And she gave it to that brute? Oh, poor Barbara! Poor, poor Barbara!”

Poirot coughed.

“Unless, as you suggest, it was more or less an accident, it still seems a remarkable fact that he should kill an apparently regular source of income.”

“Accident? It wasn’t an accident. He lost his temper and saw red and shot her.”

“That is how you think it happened?”

“Yes.” She added vehemently, “It was murder—murder!

Poirot said gravely:

“I will not say that you are wrong, mademoiselle.”

Japp said:

“What cigarettes did Mrs. Allen smoke?”

“Gaspers. There are some in that box.”

Japp opened the box, took out a cigarette and nodded. He slipped the cigarette into his pocket.

“And you, mademoiselle?” asked Poirot.

“The same.”

“You do not smoke Turkish?”

“Never.”

“Nor Mrs. Allen?”

“No. She didn’t like them.”

Poirot asked:

“And Mr. Laverton-West. What did he smoke?”

She stared hard at him.

“Charles? What does it matter what he smoked? You’re not going to pretend that he killed her?”

Poirot shrugged his shoulders.

“A man has killed the woman he loved before now, mademoiselle.” Jane shook her head impatiently.

“Charles wouldn’t kill anybody. He’s a very careful man.”

“All the same, mademoiselle, it is the careful men who commit the cleverest murders.”

She stared at him.

“But not for the motive you have just advanced, M. Poirot.”

He bowed his head.

“No, that is true.”

Japp rose.

“Well, I don’t think that there’s much more I can do here. I’d like to have one more look round.”

“In case that money should be tucked away somewhere? Certainly. Look anywhere you like. And in my room too—although it isn’t likely Barbara

would hide it there.”

Japp’s search was quick but efficient. The living room had given up all its secrets in a very few minutes. Then he went upstairs. Jane Plenderleith sat on the arm of a chair, smoking a cigarette and frowning at the fire. Poirot watched her.

After some minutes, he said quietly:

“Do you know if Mr. Laverton-West is in London at present?”

“I don’t know at all. I rather fancy he’s in Hampshire with his people. I suppose I ought to have wired him. How dreadful. I forgot.”

“It is not easy to remember everything, mademoiselle, when a catastrophe occurs. And after all, the bad news, it will keep. One hears it only too soon.”

“Yes, that’s true,” the girl said absently.

Japp’s footsteps were heard descending the stairs. Jane went out to meet him.

“Well?”

Japp shook his head.

“Nothing helpful, I’m afraid, Miss Plenderleith. I’ve been over the whole house now. Oh, I suppose I’d better just have a look in this cupboard under the stairs.”

He caught hold of the handle as he spoke, and pulled.

Jane Plenderleith said:

“It’s locked.”

Something in her voice made both men look at her sharply.

“Yes,” said Japp pleasantly. “I can see it’s locked. Perhaps you’ll get the key.”

The girl was standing as though carved in stone.

“I—I’m not sure where it is.”

Japp shot a quick glance at her. His voice continued resolutely pleasant and offhand.

“Dear me, that’s too bad. Don’t want to splinter the wood, opening it by force. I’ll send Jameson out to get an assortment of keys.”

She moved forward stiffly.

“Oh,” she said. “One minute. It might be—”

She went back into the living room and reappeared a moment later holding a fair-sized key in her hand.

“We keep it locked,” she explained, “because one’s umbrellas and things have a habit of getting pinched.”

“Very wise precaution,” said Japp, cheerfully accepting the key.

He turned it in the lock and threw the door open. It was dark inside the cupboard. Japp took out his pocket flashlight and let it play round the inside.

Poirot felt the girl at his side stiffen and stop breathing for a second. His eyes followed the sweep of Japp’s torch.

There was not very much in the cupboard. Three umbrellas—one broken, four walking sticks, a set of golf clubs, two tennis racquets, a neatly-folded rug and several sofa cushions in various stages of dilapidation. On the top of these last reposed a small, smart-looking attache case.

As Japp stretched out a hand towards it, Jane Plenderleith said quickly:

“That’s mine. I—it came back with me this morning. So there can’t be anything there.”

“Just as well to make quite sure,” said Japp, his cheery friendliness increasing slightly.

The case was unlocked. Inside it was fitted with shagreen brushes and toilet bottles. There were two magazines in it but nothing else.

Japp examined the whole outfit with meticulous attention. When at last he shut the lid and began a cursory examination of the cushions, the girl gave an audible sigh of relief.

There was nothing else in the cupboard beyond what was plainly to be seen. Japp’s examination was soon finished.

He relocked the door and handed the key to Jane Plenderleith.

“Well,” he said, “that concludes matters. Can you give me Mr. Laverton- West’s address?”

“Farlescombe Hall, Little Ledbury, Hampshire.”

“Thank you, Miss Plenderleith. That’s all for the present. I may be round again later. By the way, mum’s the word. Leave it at suicide as far as the general public’s concerned.”

“Of course, I quite understand.”

She shook hands with them both.

As they walked away down the mews, Japp exploded:

“What the—the hell was there in that cupboard? There was something.

“Yes, there was something.”

“And I’ll bet ten to one it was something to do with the attache case! But like the double-dyed mutt I must be, I couldn’t find anything. Looked in all the bottles—felt the lining—what the devil could it be?”

Poirot shook his head thoughtfully.

“That girl’s in it somehow,” Japp went on. “Brought that case back this morning? Not on your life, she didn’t! Notice that there were two magazines in it?”

“Yes.”

“Well, one of them was for last July!”

[/sociallocker]
[sociallocker]

Seven

I

It was the following day when Japp walked into Poirot’s flat, flung his hat on the table in deep disgust and dropped into a chair.

“Well,” he growled. “She’s out of it!”

“Who is out of it?”

“Plenderleith. Was playing bridge up to midnight. Host, hostess, naval commander guest and two servants can all swear to that. No doubt about it, we’ve got to give up any idea of her being concerned in the business. All the same, I’d like to know why she went all hot and bothered about that little attache case under the stairs. That’s something in your line, Poirot. You like solving the kind of triviality that leads nowhere. The Mystery of the Small Attache Case. Sounds quite promising!”

“I will give you yet another suggestion for a title. The Mystery of the Smell of Cigarette Smoke.”

“A bit clumsy for a title. Smell—eh? Was that why you were sniffing so when we first examined the body? I saw you—and heard you! Sniff—sniff— sniff. Thought you had a cold in your head.”

“You were entirely in error.”

Japp sighed.

“I always thought it was the little grey cells of the brain. Don’t tell me the cells of your nose are equally superior to anyone else’s.”

“No, no, calm yourself.”

I didn’t smell any cigarette smoke,” went on Japp suspiciously.

“No more did I, my friend.”

 

Japp looked at him doubtfully. Then he extracted a cigarette from his pocket.

“That’s the kind Mrs. Allen smoked—gaspers. Six of those stubs were hers. The other three were Turkish.”

“Exactly.”

“Your wonderful nose knew that without looking at them, I suppose!”

“I assure you my nose does not enter into the matter. My nose registered nothing.”

“But the brain cells registered a lot?”

“Well—there were certain indications—do you not think so?”

Japp looked at him sideways.

“Such as?”

““Eh bien, there was very definitely something missing from the room. Also something added, I think … And then, on the writing bureau ..

“I knew it! We’re coming to that damned quill pen!”

““Du tout. The quill pen plays a purely negative role.”

Japp retreated to safer ground.

“I’ve got Charles Laverton-West coming to see me at Scotland Yard in half an hour. I thought you might like to be there.”

“I should very much.”

“And you’ll be glad to hear we’ve tracked down Major Eustace. Got a service flat in the Cromwell Road.”

“Excellent.”

“And we’ve got a little to go on there. Not at all a nice person, Major

Eustace. After I’ve seen Laverton-West, we’ll go and see him. That suit you?” “Perfectly.”

“Well, come along then.”

 

At half past eleven, Charles Laverton-West was ushered into Chief Inspector Japp’s room. Japp rose and shook hands.

The M.P. was a man of medium height with a very definite personality. He was clean-shaven, with the mobile mouth of an actor, and the slightly prominent eyes that so often go with the gift of oratory. He was good-looking in a quiet, well-bred way.

Though looking pale and somewhat distressed, his manner was perfectly formal and composed.

He took a seat, laid his gloves and hat on the table and looked towards Japp.

“I’d like to say, first of all, Mr. Laverton-West, that I fully appreciate how distressing this must be to you.”

Laverton-West waved this aside.

“Do not let us discuss my feelings. Tell me, Chief Inspector, have you any idea what caused my—Mrs. Allen to take her own life?”

“You yourself cannot help us in any way?”

“No, indeed.”

“There was no quarrel? No estrangement of any kind between you?”

“Nothing of the kind. It has been the greatest shock to me.”

“Perhaps it will be more understandable, sir, if I tell you that it was not suicide—but murder!”

“Murder?” Charles Laverton-West’s eyes popped nearly out of his head. “You say murder?

“Quite correct. Now, Mr. Laverton-West, have you any idea who might be likely to make away with Mrs. Allen?”

Laverton-West fairly spluttered out his answer.

“No—no, indeed—nothing of the sort! The mere idea is—is unimaginable!

“She never mentioned any enemies? Anyone who might have a grudge against her?”

“Never.”

“Did you know that she had a pistol?”

“I was not aware of the fact.”

He looked a little startled.

“Miss Plenderleith says that Mrs. Allen brought this pistol back from abroad with her some years ago.”

“Really?”

“Of course, we have only Miss Plenderleith’s word for that. It is quite possible that Mrs. Allen felt herself to be in danger from some source and kept the pistol handy for reasons of her own.”

Charles Laverton-West shook his head doubtfully. He seemed quite bewildered and dazed.

“What is your opinion of Miss Plenderleith, Mr. Laverton-West? I mean, does she strike you as a reliable, truthful person?”

The other pondered a minute.

“I think so—yes, I should say so.”

“You don’t like her?” suggested Japp, who had been watching him closely.

“I wouldn’t say that. She is not the type of young woman I admire. That sarcastic, independent type is not attractive to me, but I should say she was quite truthful.”

“H’m,” said Japp. “Do you know a Major Eustace?”

“Eustace? Eustace? Ah, yes, I remember the name. I met him once at Barbara’s—Mrs. Allen’s. Rather a doubtful customer in my opinion. I said as much to my—to Mrs. Allen. He wasn’t the type of man I should have encouraged to come to the house after we were married.”

“And what did Mrs. Allen say?”

“Oh! she quite agreed. She trusted my judgment implicitly. A man knows other men better than a woman can do. She explained that she couldn’t very well be rude to a man whom she had not seen for some time—I think she felt especially a horror of being snobbish! Naturally, as my wife, she would find a good many of her old associates well—unsuitable, shall we say?”

“Meaning that in marrying you she was bettering her position?” Japp asked bluntly.

Laverton-West held up a well-manicured hand.

“No, no, not quite that. As a matter of fact, Mrs. Allen’s mother was a distant relation of my own family. She was fully my equal in birth. But of course, in my position, I have to be especially careful in choosing my friends —and my wife in choosing hers. One is to a certain extent in the limelight.”

“Oh, quite,” said Japp dryly. He went on, “So you can’t help us in any way?”

“No indeed. I am utterly at sea. Barbara! Murdered! It seems incredible.”

“Now, Mr. Laverton-West, can you tell me what your own movements were on the night of November fifth?”

“My movements? My movements?”

Laverton-West’s voice rose in shrill protest.

“Purely a matter of routine,” explained Japp. “We—er—have to ask everybody.”

Charles Laverton-West looked at him with dignity.

“I should hope that a man in my position might be exempt.”

Japp merely waited.

“I was—now let me see … Ah, yes. I was at the House. Left at half past ten. Went for a walk along the Embankment. Watched some of the fireworks.”

“Nice to think there aren’t any plots of that kind nowadays,” said Japp cheerily.

Laverton-West gave him a fish-like stare.

“Then I—er—walked home.”

“Reaching home—your London address is Onslow Square, I think—at what time?”

“I hardly know exactly.”

“Eleven? Half past?”

“Somewhere about then.”

“Perhaps someone let you in.”

“No, I have my key.”

“Meet anybody whilst you were walking?”

“No—er—really, Chief Inspector, I resent these questions very much!”

“I assure you, it’s just a matter of routine, Mr. Laverton-West. They aren’t personal, you know.”

The reply seemed to soothe the irate M.P.

“If that is all—”

“That is all for the present, Mr. Laverton-West.”

“You will keep me informed—”

“Naturally, sir. By the way, let me introduce M. Hercule Poirot. You may have heard of him.”

Mr. Laverton-West’s eye fastened itself interestedly on the little Belgian.

“Yes—yes—I have heard the name.”

“Monsieur,” said Poirot, his manner suddenly very foreign. “Believe me, my heart bleeds for you. Such a loss! Such agony as you must be enduring! Ah, but I will say no more. How magnificently the English hide their emotions.” He whipped out his cigarette case. “Permit me—Ah, it is empty. Japp?”

Japp slapped his pockets and shook his head.

Laverton-West produced his own cigarette case, murmured, “Er—have one of mine, M. Poirot.”

“Thank you—thank you.” The little man helped himself.

“As you say, M. Poirot,” resumed the other, “we English do not parade our emotions. A stiff upper lip—that is our motto.”

He bowed to the two men and went out.

“Bit of a stuffed fish,” said Japp disgustedly. “And a boiled owl! The Plenderleith girl was quite right about him. Yet he’s a good-looking sort of chap—might go down well with some woman who had no sense of humour.

What about that cigarette?”

Poirot handed it over, shaking his head.

“Egyptian. An expensive variety.”

“No, that’s no good. A pity, for I’ve never heard a weaker alibi! In fact, it wasn’t an alibi at all … You know, Poirot, it’s a pity the boot wasn’t on the other leg. If she ‘d been blackmailing him … He’s a lovely type for blackmail —would pay out like a lamb! Anything to avoid a scandal.”

“My friend, it is very pretty to reconstruct the case as you would like it to be, but that is not strictly our affair.”

“No, Eustace is our affair. I’ve got a few lines on him. Definitely a nasty fellow.”

“By the way, did you do as I suggested about Miss Plenderleith?”

“Yes. Wait a sec, I’ll ring through and get the latest.”

He picked up the telephone receiver and spoke through it.

After a brief interchange he replaced it and looked up at Poirot.

“Pretty heartless piece of goods. Gone off to play golf. That’s a nice thing to do when your friend’s been murdered only the day before.”

Poirot uttered an exclamation.

“What’s the matter now?” asked Japp.

But Poirot was murmuring to himself.

“Of course . of course . but naturally . What an imbecile I am—why, it leapt to the eye!”

Japp said rudely:

“Stop jabbering to yourself and let’s go and tackle Eustace.”

He was amazed to see the radiant smile that spread over Poirot’s face.

“But—yes—most certainly let us tackle him. For now, see you, I know everything—but everything!”

Eight

^Major Eustace received the two men with the easy assurance of a man of the world.

His flat was small, a mere pied a terre, as he explained. He offered the two men a drink and when that was refused he took out his cigarette case.

Both Japp and Poirot accepted a cigarette. A quick glance passed between them.

“You smoke Turkish, I see,” said Japp as he twirled the cigarette between his fingers.

“Yes. I’m sorry, do you prefer a gasper? I’ve got one somewhere about.”

“No, no, this will do me very well.” Then he leaned forward—his tone changed. “Perhaps you can guess, Major Eustace, what it was I came to see you about?”

The other shook his head. His manner was nonchalant. Major Eustace was a tall man, good-looking in a somewhat coarse fashion. There was a puffiness round the eyes—small, crafty eyes that belied the good-humoured geniality of his manner.

He said:

“No—I’ve no idea what brings such a big gun as a chief inspector to see me. Anything to do with my car?”

“No, it is not your car. I think you knew a Mrs. Barbara Allen, Major Eustace?”

The major leant back, puffed out a cloud of smoke, and said in an enlightened voice:

“Oh, so that’s it! Of course, I might have guessed. Very sad business.”

“You know about it?”

“Saw it in the paper last night. Too bad.”

“You knew Mrs. Allen out in India, I think.”

“Yes, that’s some years ago now.”

“Did you also know her husband?”

There was a pause—a mere fraction of a second—but during that fraction the little pig eyes flashed a quick look at the faces of the two men. Then he answered:

“No, as a matter of fact, I never came across Allen.”

“But you know something about him?”

“Heard he was by way of being a bad hat. Of course, that was only rumour.”

“Mrs. Allen did not say anything?”

“Never talked about him.”

“You were on intimate terms with her?”

Major Eustace shrugged his shoulders.

“We were old friends, you know, old friends. But we didn’t see each other very often.”

“But you did see her that last evening? The evening of November fifth?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I did.”

“You called at her house, I think.”

Major Eustace nodded. His voice took on a gentle, regretful note.

“Yes, she asked me to advise her about some investments. Of course, I can see what you’re driving at—her state of mind—all that sort of thing. Well, really, it’s very difficult to say. Her manner seemed normal enough and yet she was a bit jumpy, come to think of it.”

“But she gave you no hint as to what she contemplated doing?”

“Not the least in the world. As a matter of fact, when I said goodbye I said I’d ring her up soon and we’d do a show together.”

“You said you’d ring her up. Those were your last words?”

“Yes.”

“Curious. I have information that you said something quite different.”

Eustace changed colour.

“Well, of course, I can’t remember the exact words.”

“My information is that what you actually said was, ‘ ‘Well, think it over and let me know.”

“Let me see, yes I believe you’re right. Not exactly that. I think I was suggesting she should let me know when she was free.”

“Not quite the same thing, is it?” said Japp.

Major Eustace shrugged his shoulders.

“My dear fellow, you can’t expect a man to remember word for word what he said on any given occasion.”

“And what did Mrs. Allen reply?”

“She said she’d give me a ring. That is, as near as I can remember.”

“And then you said, ‘All right. So long. ‘ ”

“Probably. Something of the kind anyway.”

Japp said quietly:

“You say that Mrs. Allen asked you to advise her about her investments. Did she, by any chance, entrust you with the sum of two hundred pounds in cash to invest for her?

Eustace’s face flushed a dark purple. He leaned forward and growled out:

“What the devil do you mean by that?”

“Did she or did she not?”

“That’s my business, Mr. Chief Inspector.”

Japp said quietly:

“Mrs. Allen drew out the sum of two hundred pounds in cash from her bank. Some of the money was in five-pound notes. The numbers of these can, of course, be traced.”

“What if she did?”

“Was the money for investment—or was it—blackmail, Major Eustace?”

“That’s a preposterous idea. What next will you suggest?”

Japp said in his most official manner:

“I think, Major Eustace, that at this point I must ask you if you are willing to come to Scotland Yard and make a statement. There is, of course, no compulsion and you can, if you prefer it, have your solicitor present.”

“Solicitor? What the devil should I want with a solicitor? And what are you cautioning me for?”

“I am inquiring into the circumstances of the death of Mrs. Allen.”

“Good God, man, you don’t suppose—Why, that’s nonsense! Look here, what happened was this. I called round to see Barbara by appointment…

“That was at what time?”

“At about half past nine, I should say. We sat and talked. .”

“And smoked?”

“Yes, and smoked. Anything damaging in that?” demanded the major belligerently.

“Where did this conversation take place?”

“In the sitting room. Left of the door as you go in. We talked together quite amicably, as I say. I left a little before half past ten. I stayed for a minute on the doorstep for a few last words. .”

“Last words—precisely,” murmured Poirot.

“Who are you, I’d like to know?” Eustace turned and spart the words at him. “Some kind of damned dago! What are you butting in for?”

“I am Hercule Poirot,” said the little man with dignity.

“I don’t care if you are the Achilles statue. As I say, Barbara and I parted quite amicably. I drove straight to the Far East Club. Got there at five and twenty to eleven and went straight up to the card-room. Stayed there playing bridge until one-thirty. Now then, put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

“I do not smoke the pipe,” said Poirot. “It is a pretty alibi you have there.”

“It should be a pretty cast iron one anyway! Now then, sir,” he looked at Japp. “Are you satisfied?”

“You remained in the sitting room throughout your visit?”

“Yes.”

“You did not go upstairs to Mrs. Allen’s own boudoir?”

“No, I tell you. We stayed in the one room and didn’t leave it.”

Japp looked at him thoughtfully for a minute or two. Then he said:

“How many sets of cuff links have you?”

“Cuff links? Cuff links? What’s that got to do with it?”

“You are not bound to answer the question, of course.”

“Answer it? I don’t mind answering it. I’ve got nothing to hide. And I shall demand an apology. There are these …” he stretched out his arms.

Japp noted the gold and platinum with a nod.

“And I’ve got these.”

He rose, opened a drawer and taking out a case, he opened it and shoved it rudely almost under Japp’s nose.

“Very nice design,” said the chief inspector. “I see one is broken—bit of enamel chipped off.”

“What of it?”

“You don’t remember when that happened, I suppose?”

“A day or two ago, not longer.”

“Would you be surprised to hear that it happened when you were visiting Mrs. Allen?”

“Why shouldn’t it? I’ve not denied that I was there.” The major spoke haughtily. He continued to bluster, to act the part of the justly indignant man, but his hands were trembling.

Japp leaned forward and said with emphasis:

“Yes, but that bit of cuff link wasn’t found in the sitting room. It was found upstairs in Mrs. Allen’s boudoir—there in the room where she was killed, and where a man sat smoking the same kind of cigarettes as you smoke.

The shot told. Eustace fell back into his chair. His eyes went from side to side. The collapse of the bully and the appearance of the craven was not a pretty sight.

“You’ve got nothing on me.” His voice was almost a whine. “You’re trying to frame me … But you can’t do it. I’ve got an alibi … I never came near the house again that night.

Poirot in his turn, spoke.

“No, you did not come near the house again ... You did not need to …

For perhaps Mrs. Allen was already dead when you left it.

“That’s impossible—impossible—She was just inside the door—she spoke to me—People must have heard her—seen her. .”

Poirot said softly:

“They heard you speaking to her . and pretending to wait for her answer and then speaking again . It is an old trick that . People may have assumed she was there, but they did not see her, because they could not even say whether she was wearing evening dress or not—not even mention what colour she was wearing. .”

“My God—it isn’t true—it isn’t true—”

He was shaking now—collapsed. .

Japp looked at him with disgust. He spoke crisply.

“I’ll have to ask you, sir, to come with me.”

“You’re arresting me?”

“Detained for inquiry—we’ll put it that way.”

The silence was broken with a long, shuddering sigh. The despairing voice of the erstwhile blustering Major Eustace said:

“I’m sunk. .”

Hercule Poirot rubbed his hands together and smiled cheerfully. He seemed to be enjoying himself.

[/sociallocker]
[sociallocker]

Nine

P retty the way he went all to pieces,” said Japp with professional appreciation, later that day.

He and Poirot were driving in a car along the Brompton Road.

“He knew the game was up,” said Poirot absently.

“We’ve got plenty on him,” said Japp. “Two or three different aliases, a tricky business over a cheque, and a very nice affair when he stayed at the Ritz and called himself Colonel de Bathe. Swindled half a dozen Piccadilly tradesmen. We’re holding him on that charge for the moment—until we get this affair finally squared up. What’s the idea of this rush to the country, old man?”

“My friend, an affair must be rounded off properly. Everything must be explained. I am on the quest of the mystery you suggested. The Mystery of the Missing Attache Case.”

“The Mystery of the Small Attache Case—that’s what I called it—It isn’t missing that I know of.”

“Wait, mon ami.”

The car turned into the mews. At the door of No. 14, Jane Plenderleith was just alighting from a small Austin Seven. She was in golfing clothes.

She looked from one to the other of the two men, then produced a key and opened the door.

“Come in, won’t you?”

She led the way. Japp followed her into the sitting room. Poirot remained for a minute or two in the hall, muttering something about:

“C’est embetant—how difficult to get out of these sleeves.”

In a moment or two he also entered the sitting room minus his overcoat but Japp’s lips twitched under his moustache. He had heard the very faint squeak of an opening cupboard door.

Japp threw Poirot an inquiring glance and the other gave a hardly perceptible nod.

“We won’t detain you, Miss Plenderleith,” said Japp briskly.

“Only came to ask if you could tell us the name of Mrs. Allen’s solicitor.”

“Her solicitor?” The girl shook her head. “I don’t even know that she had one.”

“Well, when she rented this house with you, someone must have drawn up the agreement?”

“No, I don’t think so. You see, I took the house, the lease is in my name. Barbara paid me half the rent. It was quite informal.”

“I see. Oh! well, I suppose there’s nothing doing then.”

“I’m sorry I can’t help you,” said Jane politely.

“It doesn’t really matter very much.” Japp turned towards the door. “Been playing golf?”

“Yes.” She flushed. “I suppose it seems rather heartless to you. But as a matter of fact it got me down rather, being here in this house. I felt I must go out and do something—tire myself—or I’d choke!”

She spoke with intensity.

Poirot said quickly:

“I comprehend, mademoiselle. It is most understandable—most natural. To sit in this house and think—no, it would not be pleasant.”

“So long as you understand,” said Jane shortly.

“You belong to a club?”

“Yes, I play at Wentworth.”

“It has been a pleasant day,” said Poirot.

“Alas, there are few leaves left on the trees now! A week ago the woods were magnificent.”

“It was quite lovely today.”

“Good afternoon, Miss Plenderleith,” said Japp formally. “I’ll let you know when there’s anything definite. As a matter of fact we have got a man detained on suspicion.”

“What man?”

She looked at them eagerly.

“Major Eustace.”

She nodded and turned away, stooping down to put a match to the fire.

“Well?” said Japp as the car turned the corner of the mews.

Poirot grinned.

“It was quite simple. The key was in the door this time.”

“And—?”

Poirot smiled.

“Eh, bien, the golf clubs had gone—”

“Naturally. The girl isn’t a fool, whatever else she is. Anything else gone?

Poirot nodded his head.

“Yes, my friend—the little attache case!”

The accelerator leaped under Japp’s foot.

“Damnation!” he said. “I knew there was something. But what the devil is it? I searched that case pretty thoroughly.”

“My poor Japp—but it is—how do you say, ‘obvious, my dear Watson?’ ”

Japp threw him an exasperated look.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

Poirot consulted his watch.

“It is not yet four o’clock. We could get to Wentworth, I think, before it is dark.”

“Do you think she really went there?”

“I think so—yes. She would know that we might make inquiries. Oh, yes,

I think we will find that she has been there.”

Japp grunted.

“Oh well, come on.” He threaded his way dexterously through the traffic. “Though what this attache case business has to do with the crime I can’t imagine. I can’t see that it’s got anything at all to do with it.”

“Precisely, my friend, I agree with you—it has nothing to do with it.”

“Then why—No, don’t tell me! Order and method and everything nicely rounded off! Oh, well, it’s a fine day.”

The car was a fast one. They arrived at Wentworth Golf Club a little after half past four. There was no great congestion there on a week day.

Poirot went straight to the caddie-master and asked for

Miss Plenderleith’s clubs. She would be playing on a different course tomorrow, he explained.

The caddie master raised his voice and a boy sorted through some golf clubs standing in a corner. He finally produced a bag bearing the initials, J.P.

“Thank you,” said Poirot. He moved away, then turned carelessly and asked, “She did not leave with you a small attache case also, did she?”

“Not today, sir. May have left it in the clubhouse.”

“She was down here today?”

“Oh, yes, I saw her.”

“Which caddie did she have, do you know? She’s mislaid an attache case and can’t remember where she had it last.”

“She didn’t take a caddie. She came in here and bought a couple of balls. Just took out a couple of irons. I rather fancy she had a little case in her hand then.”

Poirot turned away with a word of thanks. The two men walked round the clubhouse. Poirot stood a moment admiring the view.

“It is beautiful, is it not, the dark pine trees—and then the lake. Yes, the lake—”

Japp gave him a quick glance.

“That’s the idea, is it?”

Poirot smiled.

“I think it possible that someone may have seen something. I should set the inquiries in motion if I were you.”

 

Ten

I

P oirot stepped back, his head a little on one side as he surveyed the arrangement of the room. A chair here—another chair there. Yes, that was very nice. And now a ring at the bell—that would be Japp.

The Scotland Yard man came in alertly.

“Quite right, old cock! Straight from the horse’s mouth. A young woman was seen to throw something into the lake at Wentworth yesterday. Description of her answers to Jane Plenderleith. We managed to fish it up without much difficulty. A lot of reeds just there.”

“And it was?”

“It was the attache case all right! But why, in heaven’s name? Well, it beats me! Nothing inside it—not even the magazines.

Why a presumably sane young woman should want to fling an expensively- fitted dressing case into a lake—d’you know, I worried all night because I couldn’t get the hang of it.”

“Mon pauvre Japp! But you need worry no longer. Here is the answer coming. The bell has just rung.”

George, Poirot’s immaculate manservant, opened the door and announced:

“Miss Plenderleith.”

The girl came into the room with her usual air of complete self-assurance. She greeted the two men.

“I asked you to come here—” explained Poirot. “Sit here, will you not, and you here, Japp—because I have certain news to give you.”

The girl sat down. She looked from one to the other, pushing aside her hat. She took it off and laid it aside impatiently.

“Well,” she said. “Major Eustace has been arrested.”

“You saw that, I expect, in the morning paper?”

“Yes.”

“He is at the moment charged with a minor offence,” went on Poirot. “In the meantime we are gathering evidence in connection with the murder.”

“It was murder, then?”

The girl asked it eagerly.

Poirot nodded his head.

“Yes,” he said. “It was murder. The wilful destruction of one human being by another human being.”

She shivered a little.

“Don’t,” she murmured. “It sounds horrible when you say it like that.”

“Yes—but it is horrible!”

He paused—then he said:

“Now, Miss Plenderleith, I am going to tell you just how I arrived at the truth in this matter.”

She looked from Poirot to Japp. The latter was smiling.

“He has his methods, Miss Plenderleith,” he said. “I humour him, you know. I think we’ll listen to what he has to say.”

Poirot began:

“As you know, mademoiselle, I arrived with my friend at the scene of the crime on the morning of November the sixth. We went into the room where the body of Mrs. Allen had been found and I was struck at once by several significant details. There were things, you see, in that room that were decidedly odd.”

“Go on,” said the girl.

“To begin with,” said Poirot, “there was the smell of cigarette smoke.”

“I think you’re exaggerating there, Poirot,” said Japp. “I didn’t smell

anything.”

Poirot turned on him in a flash.

“Precisely. You did not smell any stale smoke. No more did I. And that was very, very strange—for the door and the window were both closed and on an ashtray there were the stubs of no fewer than ten cigarettes. It was odd, very odd, that the room should smell—as it did, perfectly fresh.”

“So that’s what you were getting at!” Japp sighed. “Always have to get at things in such a tortuous way.”

“Your Sherlock Holmes did the same. He drew attention, remember, to the curious incident of the dog in the night-time—and the answer to that was there was no curious incident. The dog did nothing in the nighttime. To proceed:

“The next thing that attracted my attention was a wristwatch worn by the dead woman.”

“What about it?”

“Nothing particular about it, but it was worn on the right wrist. Now in my experience it is more usual for a watch to be worn on the left wrist.”

Japp shrugged his shoulders. Before he could speak, Poirot hurried on:

“But as you say, there is nothing very definite about that. Some people prefer to wear one on the right hand. And now I come to something really interesting—I come, my friends, to the writing bureau.”

“Yes, I guessed that,” said Japp.

“That was really very odd—very remarkable! For two reasons. The first reason was that something was missing from that writing table.”

Jane Plenderleith spoke.

“What was missing?”

Poirot turned to her.

A sheet of blotting paper, mademoiselle. The blotting book had on top a clean, untouched piece of blotting paper.”

Jane shrugged her shoulders.

“Really, M. Poirot. People do occasionally tear off a very much used sheet!”

“Yes, but what do they do with it? Throw it into the waste-paper basket, do they not? But it was not in the wastepaper basket. I looked.”

Jane Plenderleith seemed impatient.

“Because it had probably been already thrown away the day before. The sheet was clean because Barbara hadn’t written any letters that day.”

“That could hardly be the case, mademoiselle. For Mrs. Allen was seen going to the postbox that evening. Therefore she must have been writing letters. She could not write downstairs—there were no writing materials. She would be hardly likely to go to your room to write. So, then, what had happened to the sheet of paper on which she had blotted her letters? It is true that people sometimes throw things in the fire instead of the wastepaper basket, but there was only a gas fire in the room. And the fire downstairs had not been alight the previous day, since you told me it was all laid ready when you put a match to it.

He paused.

“A curious little problem. I looked everywhere, in the wastepaper baskets, in the dustbin, but I could not find a sheet of used blotting paper—and that seemed to me very important. It looked as though someone had deliberately taken that sheet of blotting paper away. Why? Because there was writing on it that could easily have been read by holding it up to a mirror.

“But there was a second curious point about the writing table. Perhaps, Japp, you remember roughly the arrangement of it? Blotter and inkstand in the centre, pen tray to the left, calendar and quill pen to the right. Eh bien? You do not see? The quill pen, remember, I examined, it was for show only— it had not been used. Ah! still you do not see? I will say it again. Blotter in the centre, pen tray to the left—to the left, Japp. But is it not usual to find a pen tray on the right, convenient to the right hand?

“Ah, now it comes to you, does it not? The pen tray on the left—the wristwatch on the right wrist—the blotting paper removed—and something else brought into the room—the ashtray with the cigarette ends!

“That room was fresh and pure smelling, Japp, a room in which the window had been open, not closed all night … And I made myself a picture.”

He spun round and faced Jane.

“A picture of you, mademoiselle, driving up in your taxi, paying it off, running up the stairs, calling perhaps, ‘Barbara’—and you open the door and you find your friend there lying dead with the pistol clasped in her hand—the left hand, naturally, since she is left-handed and therefore, too, the bullet has entered on the left side of the head. There is a note there addressed to you. It tells you what it is that has driven her to take her own life. It was, I fancy, a very moving letter . A young, gentle, unhappy woman driven by blackmail to take her life. .

“I think that, almost at once, the idea flashed into your head. This was a certain man’s doing. Let him be punished—fully and adequately punished! You take the pistol, wipe it and place it in the right hand. You take the note and you tear off the top sheet of the blotting paper on which the note has been blotted. You go down, light the fire and put them both on the flames. Then you carry up the ashtray—to further the illusion that two people sat there talking—and you also take up a fragment of enamel cuff link that is on the floor. That is a lucky find and you expect it to clinch matters. Then you close the window and lock the door. There must be no suspicion that you have tampered with the room. The police must see it exactly as it is—so you do not seek help in the mews but ring up the police straightaway.

“And so it goes on. You play your chosen role with judgment and coolness. You refuse at first to say anything but cleverly you suggest doubts of suicide. Later you are quite ready to set us on the trail of Major Eustace. .

“Yes, mademoiselle, it was clever—a very clever murder—for that is what it is. The attempted murder of Major Eustace.”

Jane Plenderleith sprang to her feet.

“It wasn’t murder—it was justice. That man hounded poor Barbara to her death! She was so sweet and helpless. You see, poor kid, she got involved with a man in India when she first went out. She was only seventeen and he was a married man years older than her. Then she had a baby. She could have put it in a home but she wouldn’t hear of that. She went off to some out of the way spot and came back calling herself Mrs. Allen. Later the child died. She came back here and she fell in love with Charles—that pompous, stuffed owl; she adored him—and he took her adoration very complacently. If he had been a different kind of man I’d have advised her to tell him everything. But as it was, I urged her to hold her tongue. After all, nobody knew anything about that business except me.

“And then that devil Eustace turned up! You know the rest. He began to bleed her systematically, but it wasn’t till that last evening that she realised that she was exposing Charles too, to the risk of scandal. Once married to Charles, Eustace had got her where he wanted her—married to a rich man with a horror of any scandal! When Eustace had gone with the money she had got for him she sat thinking it over. Then she came up and wrote a letter to me. She said she loved Charles and couldn’t live without him, but that for his own sake she mustn’t marry him. She was taking the best way out, she said.”

Jane flung her head back.

“Do you wonder I did what I did? And you stand there calling it murder!

“Because it is murder,” Poirot’s voice was stern. “Murder can sometimes seem justified, but it is murder all the same. You are truthful and clear- minded—face the truth, mademoiselle! Your friend died, in the last resort, because she had not the courage to live. We may sympathize with her. We may pity her. But the fact remains—the act was hers—not another.”

He paused.

“And you? That man is now in prison, he will serve a long sentence for other matters. Do you really wish, of your own volition, to destroy the life— the life, mind—of any human being?”

She stared at him. Her eyes darkened. Suddenly she muttered:

“No. You’re right. I don’t.”

Then, turning on her heel, she went swiftly from the room. The outer door banged… .

II

Japp gave a long—a very prolonged—whistle.

“Well, I’m damned!” he said.

Poirot sat down and smiled at him amiably. It was quite a long time

before the silence was broken. Then Japp said:

“Not murder disguised as suicide, but suicide made to look like murder!”

“Yes, and very cleverly done, too. Nothing overemphasized.”

Japp said suddenly:

“But the attache case? Where did that come in?”

“But, my dear, my very dear friend, I have already told you that it did not come in”

“Then why—”

“The golf clubs. The golf clubs, Japp. They were the golf clubs of a left­handed person. Jane Plenderleith kept her clubs at Wentworth. Those were Barbara Allen’s clubs. No wonder the girl got, as you say, the wind up when we opened that cupboard. Her whole plan might have been ruined. But she is quick, she realized that she had, for one short moment, given herself away. She saw that we saw. So she does the best thing she can think of on the spur of the moment. She tries to focus our attention on the wrong object. She says of the attache case ‘That’s mine. I—it came back with me this morning. So there can’t be anything there.’ And, as she hoped, away you go on the false trail. For the same reason, when she sets out the following day to get rid of the golf clubs, she continues to use the attache case as a—what is it—kippered herring?”

“Red herring. Do you mean that her real object was—?”

“Consider, my friend. Where is the best place to get rid of a bag of golf clubs? One cannot burn them or put them in a dustbin. If one leaves them somewhere they may be returned to you. Miss Plenderleith took them to a golf course. She leaves them in the clubhouse while she gets a couple of irons from her own bag, and then she goes round without a caddy. Doubtless at judicious intervals she breaks a club in half and throws it into some deep undergrowth, and ends by throwing the empty bag away. If anyone should find a broken golf club here and there it will not create surprise. People have been known to break and throw away all their clubs in a mood of intense exasperation over the game! It is, in fact, that kind of game!

“But since she realizes that her actions may still be a matter of interest, she throws that useful red herring—the attache case—in a somewhat spectacular manner into the lake—and that, my friend, is the truth of ‘The Mystery of the Attache Case.’ ”

Japp looked at his friend for some moments in silence. Then he rose, clapped him on the shoulder, and burst out laughing.

“Not so bad for an old dog! Upon my word, you take the cake! Come out and have a spot of lunch?”

“With pleasure, my friend, but we will not have the cake. Indeed, an Omelette aux Champignons, Blanquette de Veau, Petits pois a la Francaise, and—to follow—a Baba au Rhum.”

“Lead me to it,” said Japp.

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10 thoughts on “Murder in the Mews by Agatha Christie

  1. Sam Richards says:

    Listening here in Napier, New Zealand and thoroughly enjoying another brilliant audio book, well read and presented. I applaud you and thank you for the many hours of enjoyment and bliss 👏👏👏💜💜💜

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