The solemn tick-tock of the mahogany wall clock once again dominated the pinched atmosphere of Chief Inspector Japp’s office, which felt decidedly cramped when it was so copiously replete with such an array of eclectic characters. Extraneous astrologer Angus Atkinson could fill a room all by himself, his corpulent frame bested only by his exuberant personality. He was joined once more by the slight and spiky Sadie Darling, an erratic yet brilliant professor of Astronomy, who was adorned in an array of further superfluous feathers and raiments that could put a sensitive person’s teeth quite on edge. In the presence of them both Hercule Poirot appeared positively cheerless, although Japp accorded this to the recent murder of Inspector Catchpool and the subsequent arrest of friend and colleague Captain Hastings.
Photographs from the scenes of the now notorious Marble Murders were laid meticulously upon Japp’s desk. Sadie Darling made great effort to ensure her eyes never rested on them for more than mere moments at a time, whilst Angus Atkinson seemed to devour them with macabre relish. Thankfully for Japp and Poirot, the eccentric experts had been able to make some sense of all this needless and mindless violence. While Sadie sipped tea and hid behind her wiry nest of hair, it fell to Angus to elaborate upon their investigations.
“Well, these photos are certainly something!” he began with an eager joviality that was politely tolerated by Poirot and Japp. “Things like this could give a chap nightmares, what?”
“They are pictures of scenes most grim, monsieur,” replied Poirot, nodding. “Tell me, are the positioning of the marbles of any significance?”
“That’s the interesting thing,” continued Angus. “At first they had us scratching our heads and no mistake. Couldn’t make a blind bit of sense out of any of it. But then Miss Darling here noticed something, didn’t you dear?”
Sadie recoiled at this address, unsure whether he was simply being over-familiar or was afflicted with a pompous deference towards the fairer sex. Either way, she placed it to one side – as she did her teacup – and addressed Poirot directly.
“At first sighting, I thought perhaps that the marbles were scattered by a random hand,” she said. “But upon closer inspection, it occurred to me that they were perhaps indicative of The 28 Mansions of Chinese astronomy. Are you familiar with such terminology Mr Poirot?”
Evidently, Sadie saw no merit in directing her question to the Chief Inspector and her supposition was well-judged; his brows were already so well knotted that it would take an experienced sailor to release them.
“Mademoiselle, you must forgive Poirot, but he is not.”
Poirot’s gentle inflections brought a smile to the lips of the nervous astronomer, but before she could continue with her account, the blustering Angus interjected with misplaced enthusiasm.
“The Chinese constellations are known as ‘asterisms’ and there are 283 of them,” his booming voice sent Sadie once more cowering behind her teacup. “They are divided into four groups, which represent the direction of the compass, each containing seven Mansions each. Now, what’s interesting is that the marbles in this picture here…” shuffling through the photographs with his fat palms, he selected the scene of Randy Beavis’ murder. “These here appear to represent the Azure Dragon of the East.”
Japp twisted his head to get a better look.
“Doesn’t look much like a dragon to me,” he huffed. “Still, it’s all Greek to me.”
“Chinese, Chief Inspector,” reiterated Angus. “No matter. When we look at the marbles around the old lady’s body, we can see clearly the Black Tortoise of the North.”
Poirot had no doubt that the late Margot Askwith would have been horrified at being referenced as on old lady, but he felt now was not the time to remark upon such things. Angus shuffled the photos further until he found the final scene, the tragic end of Maurice Kelly.
“The little chappy here, his marbles look to me like the White Tiger of the West.”
A considered hush once more handed dominance of the room to the tick-tock of the mahogany wall clock.
“Well then, Poirot,” said Japp, eventually. “What do you think?”
Poirot smiled at Sadie and addressed his question to her, hoping to tease her out from behind the teacup once more.
“It is so that there are four groups of these – as you say – asterisms?” he asked. Sadie nodded in response. “But we have only three of them here, non?”
“That is correct, Mr Poirot,” Sadie replied, her confidence renewed by the Belgian’s kindness. “The remaining symbol is the Vermillion Bird of the South.”
“Then Poirot can come to only one conclusion!” he said, to Japp. “That our Marble Murderer is not yet finished in his work. There is to be another victim, malheureusement!”
The Chief Inspector was about to divulge a phrase that should never be shared in the presence of a lady, but before he could utter the foul words, the door to his office flew open and the agitated apparition of Constable Morse appeared in the doorway.
“Excuse my intrusion, gentlemen, madam,” he said, breathing heavily. “But there has been a development at the scene of Inspector Catchpool’s murder.”
“Development?” exclaimed Japp. “Come on then, lad, let’s have it.”
“Three marbles have been discovered underneath his writing desk, sir,” Morse replied. “They are of the same type used by the Marble Murderer, sir.”
Poirot said nothing, but his eyes widened and his moustache bristled in a most peculiar fashion. Japp was aghast.
“But Catchpool’s murder couldn’t have been the work of the Marble Murderer,” muttered Japp. “It isn’t the same thing at all. I don’t understand it.”
“Chief Inspector, perhaps this is what the Marble Murderer wants us to think, non?” Poirot rose to his feet and gesticulated with his cane, his excitement evident. “Perhaps it is that he has framed our dear Captain Hastings so that our investigation might be hindered! Chief Inspector, you must release Hastings immediatement!”