“Chief Inspector, it is très important that we speak to the maid Maggie,” Poirot whispered to Japp. “She is, after all, the reason we find ourselves at Somersby Hall.”
“D’you think the maid has something to do with the murder, Poirot?” asked Japp, seemingly unconvinced.
“I know not, mon amie, but she is proving to be a lady most elusive. We have been asking to speak to her since our arrival yesterday, but Lord and Lady Bottomclutch find a reason to frustrate us at every turn.”
Poirot, Hastings and Japp stood in silence for a moment, taking in the quiet of the pantry and re-examining the body of poor Clara, who had been left untouched on the flagstones. Still and cold upon the floor, there was a sense of unrest about her body, her pooling blood now congealed into a dark, sticky oasis beneath her bludgeoned head. Japp agreed that the cause of death was likely a blow to the back of the skull with a heavy, blunt object and would soon arrange for the body to be taken away. He was taking a final few moments to satisfy his curiosity about certain matters.
“So, the murderer could have entered the room by either the steps from the main house, or those leading to the courtyard,” said Japp, casting his eyes about the room. “No sign of the murder weapon, the killer must have taken it with them. Do we know the whereabouts of the household at the time the body was discovered?”
“Malheureusement, non,” replied Poirot. “You see, Chief Inspector, we were all engaged in a game of hide and seek at the time of the murder.”
“Aha, hide and seek, eh?” Japp stroked his chin. “Could that have been a ploy by the murderer, do you think? Who suggested the game?”
“It was Clara herself, actually,” said Hastings. “She was a dear, simple girl. Very fond of games and whatnot, so it seems. We were passing the time waiting for her brother, Harold, to come home.”
“She doesn’t sound like the sort of girl to have made herself many enemies,” mused Japp, his eyes flitting across the body, the juxtaposition of such a brutal crime on such a delicate frame unusually disturbing.
“C’est vrai, it is impossible to think of a reason why any person would do such a thing,” Poirot nodded. “Mais, that is exactly what Poirot must do.”
“Well, quite, Poirot. What about our suspects, any murderous types among them, d’you think?”
“Well! I don’t much like those Bowley sisters!” spluttered Hastings, before Poirot was able to consider his reply to the Chief Inspector. “They would kill you soon as look at you, I’d imagine. In fact, if it was either of them battered to death on the floor I wouldn’t be at all surprised.”
“Oui, they are indeed unusually unpleasant, Hastings,” Poirot replied. “Certainly, they are the masters of what you might say – the ‘tittle-tattle’. They must be questioned most carefully. It is clear to Poirot that they delight in knowing a great many things that they should not, c’est vrai.”
Hastings shifted uneasily from foot to foot. Now talk turned to matters of interrogations, his usefulness raised questions of its own. He had never been in his element during questioning, he could never think of anything sensible to say. He was good at listening, that much is true, but with both Poirot and Japp present to orchestrate proceedings, Hastings felt like something of a spare part. And speaking of spare parts, there was the other, far more pressing, matter to consider.
“I say chaps, I’m frightfully distracted by this problem with the car, you know,” said Hastings. “While you fellows are taking statements, perhaps I should trot along into the village and see if I can’t find someone to fix it?”
“What’s all this?” asked Japp, pulling a pipe from his jacket pocket.
“There has been a case of vandalism most vicious visited upon our vehicle, Chief Inspector,” replied Poirot. “The tyres, they have been slashed.”
“Hmm!” Japp furrowed his brow, either in consternation at the news about the car or in an effort to light the tightly packed tobacco in the bowl of his pipe, it was impossible to tell. “That puts a slant on things. A threat, you think? Are we dealing with a maniac, given to wanton acts of violence?”
The air filled with a cloying, woody aroma and masked for a moment the chill of death that filled every corner of the room.
“It seems to Poirot that the car was vandalised for one particular reason,” said Poirot, his eyes bright with deduction. “And that, mes amies, was to prevent the egress of myself and Captain Hastings. There are persons here who do not want us to leave. Mais, is it to ensure that we remain at Somersby Hall and solve this crime most wicked, or is it to delay escape from our own fates, no doubt also most wicked?”
“If it was someone who wanted you to solve the crime, it was unlikely to be the murderer,” Japp concluded.
“Exactement, Chief Inspector!” Poirot exclaimed, delighted to have put his colleague on the correct train of thought. “Which means that there is someone present who knows more than they might be prepared to say, non?”
“Or someone present who wants to finish us off,” Hastings pointed out. “I say. That’s enough to give a fellow the pip.”
“Right, well, we’d better get on with it, then,” Japp concluded, huffing on his pipe and taking a determined stance. “What say we start with this maid of yours, then, Poirot?”
Poirot felt that this was indeed the logical course of action, but was interrupted by the unannounced arrival of stealth-like butler Derbyshire, whose usual excitable countenance had deserted him. His bustling eyebrows cast dark shadows across his sockets and his long, cratered nose pointed solemnly towards the flagstones.
“I am sorry to disturb you, gentlemen, but you must come at once,” Derbyshire cleared his cracking voice with a delicate cough. “There has been another tragic passing.”