The mood in the drawing room of Somersby Hall was solemn and tinged with suspicion. Lady Bottomclutch was draped across the chaise longue, her tear-streaked face drawn and silent, an empty decanter on the occasional table next to her and a heavy bottomed glass discarded on the floor by a carelessly pendulous hand. Major Walker and Mr Philpott the vicar stood by the fireplace, alternately muttering disbelief and shaking their heads. The Bowley sisters huddled together, spitting poison quietly between them and eyeing a platter of sandwiches that had been forgotten in the melee of events. Family butler Derbyshire loitered stoically by the door, attempting to maintain an air of normalcy whilst acting as a sentry, under strict instructions from Captain Hastings that no one was to leave the premises except with the express permission of Hercule Poirot.
“Will you harridans not refrain from your infernal muttering?” Major Walker snapped at the sisters. Tact was never normally his strong point, but this evening even less so.
The sisters were identical in appearance and dress, the only thing to separate them was that one spoke vile things, the other merely thought them. They were barely in their forties, but spite had prematurely aged their pinched faces, cold beady eyes of icy blue glared out from sunken sockets and turned up little noses sat above thin, mirthless lips. Both were dressed smartly in navy twin sets and pearls, pleated skirts to match and at a respectable length, shoes flat and sensible. Faded brunette locks were forced into tight buns at the base of the skull and, unsurprisingly, left hands were bereft of jewellery of any kind. Only Ethel spoke, while Enid kept guard by her sister’s side.
“We couldn’t help but notice that the girl called you to account good and proper, mister Walker. How galling that must have been for you.”
“How… how dare you, you mischief making witches!” Major Walker spluttered his words as if they were bile in his mouth. “What are you suggesting? If you have something to say… I suggest you say it right now!”
“Calm yourself, Major, calm yourself – this is no time to be fighting among ourselves,” said Mr Philpott, placing a firm hand on Walker’s arm, which was by now trembling with rage.
“And come to think of it, where’s your lovely boy, vicar?” Ethel continued, her toxic tirade now untapped. “He made himself scarce pretty quickly, didn’t he? His face was a picture.”
“My James is completely incapable of such a vile act!” It was the vicar’s turn to battle outrage.
“Some say he is incapable of a great deal of things,” smirked Ethel. “And lord knows, he isn’t especially fond of women, is he?”
Mr Philpott was speechless, which was just as well, as the words that were forming in his mind were most unbecoming of a man of the cloth. Before they could stain his lips, the sound of wood on wood announced an arrival and Derbyshire stretched to attention as the aforementioned James Philpott appeared at the doorway.
“I’ll thank you not to take the lord’s name in vain in front of my father,” trilled James, his dainty nose in the air and hands on hips. This defiant display was hampered somewhat by his reddened eyes, damp cheeks and an unusual air that suggested that the contents of his stomach had been recently evacuated.
“Oh, here he is,” said Ethel, her mouth a cruel gash across her face. “Evidence disposed of, is it?”
James grew pink, but the evening’s events had already drained his resolve and he had not the stomach to make further riposte. Instead, he threw himself into an armchair and, removing the delicate pocket knife from his velvet waistcoat, began cleaning his fingernails in earnest.
Revelling in the young man’s defeat, Ethel stalked the room and settled by the platter of dry, curling sandwiches, Enid shadowing her steps one by one. The Major refilled his glass and offered Mr Philpott and James the same, keeping one eye on the sisters, as if he thought they might attack at any moment.
“Of course, poor Clara wasn’t exactly the apple of her parents’ eye,” continued Ethel, indicating the unconscious Lady Bottomclutch with a deftly brandished sandwich. “She was an embarrassment to polite society. Even more so than their dreadful son…”
Derbyshire cleared his throat in the most deliberate fashion, halting the monstrous monologue not a moment too soon. At his side was Hercule Poirot, flanked by a stoney-faced Lord Bottomclutch and Captain Hastings, who bore a most fearsome expression.
“Excusez-moi, mademoiselle,” huffed Poirot, uncharacteristically stern and moustache especially rigid. “Poirot wishes to speak with you all. This evening’s events have taken a turn most unfortunate, vraiment. There is, perhaps, a killer among us and Poirot intends to find out who it is. In the morning, we will be joined by the formidable Inspector Japp from Scotland Yard. He will be on the first train from London. Until then, Poirot insists that everyone returns to their rooms, locks their doors and awaits further instruction at breakfast. No one is to leave the house. Mes amies, there is evil in this place and Poirot will pluck it out like a rotted feather!”