Poirot – Never A Cross Word

Never A Cross Word

A Poirot parody for Captain Hastings fans everywhere

One

One balmy afternoon in Plymouth, two gentlemen sat quietly on the terrace, both obscured by voluminous broadsheet newspapers. Bees and a cluster of seagulls were the only interruptions to the gentle lilt of the cricket commentary on the wireless. The man in the pinstripe jacket with a delicate pink silk handkerchief in the top pocket folded his newspaper and addressed his companion, a striking fellow clad head to toe in Hartwist striped tweed.

“You know, Artie, I think it’s dreadfully bad luck for you and your wife. A most inexplicable set of circumstances.”

“A dashed conundrum,” replied Artie. Major Smart was the only person who had ever called him ‘Artie’. Most people knew him as Captain Hastings. “Who would have thought that we could find the only village in Argentina to be populated entirely by beguiling auburn-haired ladies with friendly temperaments and a weakness for a British accent.”

Major Smart shook his head.

“You didn’t stand a chance, old boy.”

“Mrs Hastings is still very angry,” the Captain sighed. “I hope she will calm down soon.”

The benign murmurs on the wireless conferring the sedate pace of action at Lords were abruptly interrupted by the clipped and urgent tones of a solemn-sounding newsreader.

“The body of actor Maurice Kelly was discovered at his London home earlier this morning, apparently murdered. He is the third actor to have been found dead in as many weeks and this latest incident is widely believed to be another in the notorious Marble Murders series that has shocked the stage community in London’s West End. The police are being ably assisted by detective extraordinaire Hercule Poirot, although no official comment has been made about the investigation so far…”

“I say!” exclaimed Hastings. “Not Maurice Kelly!”

“I don’t think I know the fellow,” grumbled Major Smart, a man uninterested by arts of any kind.

“Oh, he’s been in all sorts,” Hastings replied. “Never a lead, mind – but he’s been in all the big ones. Goodness knows why anyone would want to kill him.”

“Looks like your man is a bit stuck on this one, old boy” remarked Major Smart. “Perhaps he has finally met his match with this Marble Murderer fellow!”

Captain Hastings furrowed his perfect brow, tapping his lips with his fore finger.

“I say. I can’t believe that for a second,” Hastings replied. “Something must be dreadfully amiss. I think perhaps I should head up to town and find out what’s going on.”

“Do you suppose you can help him solve the case?”

Hastings smiled modestly.

“Well, I do feel that I have always been a vital element in the success of our previous cases. I am sure I can be of service.”

“You don’t think he might not thank you for sticking your nose in, old boy?” asked Major Smart. 

“Nonsense, Major,” Hastings snorted. “The old chap will be delighted to see me.”

Meanwhile, in London, the discovery of the most recent brutal slaying was sitting particularly heavily with Inspector Edward Catchpool, the man charged by Chief Inspector Japp with investigating the so-called Marble Murders. It really wasn’t going so very well. Despite having previously worked with the legendary Hercule Poirot with some success, Catchpool was starting to worry that the great detective didn’t like him very much. It was true that Catchpool was not a terribly jolly type of chap and would rather spend his time in the company of crosswords than people. It was also fair to say that Catchpool could only be described at best as barely competent in his role as a detective. This was due partly to his propensity to faint at the first sight of blood but was mainly due to him being a bit slow on the uptake. Catchpool reflected with glum realisation that he had been of no help to Poirot whatsoever and worse – the Belgian sleuth’s almost paranormal powers of deduction seemed to be failing him. How many more actors must die before the killer is brought to justice?

Making his way to his office at Scotland Yard, Catchpool passed Chief Inspector Japp’s door, which had been left ajar. An excitable feminine giggle escaped from within. No doubt it belonged to Japp’s secretary, Miss Wandsworth, a woman who seemed to spend an unusual amount of time and dedication on Japp’s dictations. Catchpool did not approve of giggling in the workplace and he had made his feelings on the subject quite clear to the Chief Inspector, but it made little difference. If anything, the giggling had intensified in recent weeks.

Catchpool unlocked the door to his office and made himself as comfortable as was possible at his desk, which was crowded with papers and notes and crime scene photographs tucked away in manilla folders. He knew he should be with Poirot at the home of the unfortunate Maurice Kelly, investigating the scene first hand. The problem was that these Marble Murders were all incredibly messy. Of the now three murders, Catchpool had spent precisely thirty four seconds present at crime scenes during the entire investigation. These illustrious moments had occurred during the period it took him to walk from the front door to the study of American actor and socialite, Randy Beavis – the first victim of what have become known as the Marble Murders. What remained of Beavis had been artfully divided into many pieces and scattered across the floor of said study, the whole bloody scene decorated with a seemingly randomly-placed assortment of rare and unusual marbles – all glass, and all filled with flakes of precious metals.  

Catchpool knew nothing further of this crime scene, nor any of that of another star of the London stage – Margot Askwith. The ageing musical hall star had been performing the lead role in a low-budget farce – Oh, Crikey! – when she was found in her drawing room, resembling a kind of meaty jigsaw and surrounded by spangly marbles. When he was passed the initial details, Catchpool dare not even attend the scene and Poirot had found him plenty of inconsequential tasks away from the action to convince him that he was best put to use in having a bit of a think and not getting in the way of all the real work.

Even so, these were interesting murders and there were many points of note to consider. Grabbing a notebook and pen, Catchpool sat down to consider the facts.

Two

“I am very sorry but you have to understand – I just don’t trust the police!”

A fresh wave of sobbing preceded this querulous outburst from the rather plain young woman who sprawled in an armchair, dabbing ineffectually at her eyes with an already sodden handkerchief.

“Please calm yourself, mademoiselle, I can assure you that I am very much not the police.”

Hercule Poirot leant towards the woman, offering her his own embroidered silk handkerchief with a flourish of a gloved hand, a kindly smile glinting beneath his immaculately presented moustache. The portly Belgian had the most disarming manner about him that rendered displays of hysteria useless in his presence – but the particular thing that the woman would always remember about the time she met the famous Hercule Poirot, was how utterly wonderful he smelt. 

The woman was the assistant of the recently butchered stage actor, Maurice Kelly. Her name was Philomena Chase, but everyone called her Miss Pip. It was Miss Pip who discovered the grim scene in Kelly’s study and she had been engaged in turbulent weeping ever since. Poirot had brought her down to the drawing room in an effort to aid her composure. Mopping the hot tears from her puffy little cheeks, Miss Pip arranged herself somewhat more delicately in the armchair.

“I’m sorry, Mr Poirot,” she said between sniffs. “It’s all just been such a shock, you see.”

Oui, mademoiselle, murder is rarely an expectation.”

“These Marble Murders have been so horrific!” Miss Pip continued, the hysteria sufficiently subdued, for now. “Why would anyone want to kill our very best actors, why? I just don’t understand…”

Poirot braced himself for further effusions of woe, but thankfully they were not forthcoming. Miss Pip appeared to have regained her poise and replaced her thick-rimmed spectacles on her nose before returning the detective’s handkerchief to him with a grateful look. Taking the handkerchief, Poirot could not help but find a niggle with her last statement. Whilst the first two victims of the Marble Murders – Randy Beavis and Margot Askwith – were indeed celebrated actors, Maurice Kelly was more likely to be referred to as a ‘ham’. Whilst he had appeared in some of the larger stage productions, it was only ever in small roles and speaking parts were kept to an absolute minimum. But he did not wish to upset the young lady once more, so Poirot retained the thought as the preserve of his little grey cells.

“Tell me, mademoiselle, Monsieur Kelly – was he acquainted with Monsieur Beavis and Madame Askwith?”

Miss Pip appeared to consider her response.

“Of course, he knew them in passing, they moved in very similar circles,” she replied. “But he was not close to either of them. I would have known if he was.”

“You would, mademoiselle?”

“Of course!” Miss Pip sniffed. “I know all of his business. I was much more than just an assistant to him, you know…”

These words were conduits to a further influx of grief and Poirot waited politely for the young woman to compose herself once more. He stood silently awaiting the sobs to subside, thinking about a great many things. These murders were all excessively brutal and the rare and unusual marbles a most unnecessary complication. But what vexed Poirot most particularly at this moment was the disappointing performance of the dratted Catchpool – quite possibly Scotland Yard’s most ridiculous detective. He had done his best to keep the reluctant Inspector away from the gorier aspects of the investigation, but it was a gesture that seemed greatly unappreciated – whenever Poirot went to him to inquire as to his progress, the irksome fellow was always to be found with his nose in a crossword. But perhaps his presence was best placed elsewhere, after all. Mademoiselle Pip had made clear her distrust of the police – engaging with Catchpool was unlikely to improve her opinion much.

Speaking of Catchpool, the crime-averse policeman had done a marvellous job of barricading himself in his office, surrounded by great piles of papers and notes pertaining to the Marble Murders case. He had a freshly brewed cup of tea before him, too – three sugars. Unfortunately, Catchpool had made the mistake of perusing some of the photographs from the Askwith crime scene and he was feeling quite unwell, now. All in all, the wretched chap was finding the whole concept of murder rather distressing and he thought it best to calm his fraught mind by turning his attentions to four down in today’s Times crossword. As he mused over the significance of ‘a letter for Socrates (5)’, he was almost able to forget that there was something dreadfully familiar about the latest murder victim. Almost.

Meanwhile Poirot was beginning to understand Miss Pip’s apprehension when it came to dealings with officers of the law. Whilst questions about Maurice Kelly’s recent activities resulted in little more than anguished laments, he found that he was able to pick at useful threads from the actor’s past without causing too much calamity. And even the smallest of threads can find their roots in the most curious of knots.

“Poirot! I say!”

Miss Pip turned in her chair with a start, but Poirot made no move except for the slightest bristle of delight from his moustache. It was a voice he had not heard in far too long and he did not need to move a muscle to know that it could only belong to one man.

“Oh, come on, old chap, don’t be like that,” Captain Hastings strode into the room, hands in pockets and beaming furiously. He tipped his hat to a curious Miss Pip, before approaching his old friend. “I say. Unsolved murders, damsels in distress – it looks like I got here just in time!”

Three

“Inspector Catchpool, if you don’t start doing something useful sometime very soon, you’ll be out on your ear, d’you hear me?”

Chief Inspector Japp glowered across the desk at Catchpool, who had only a copy of the Times to employ as means of defence. Catchpool was very much wishing that he had the stomach for dead people, as alive ones certainly didn’t seem dreadfully keen on him. But like a rat caught in a trap, his mind started scrabbling for a way out.

“If you sack me, I shall tell your wife about your affair with Miss Wandsworth!” 

In truth, Catchpool would like nothing more than to be sacked, but he had rent and bills to consider and little in the way of competence to offer an alternative employer. Japp was caught off-guard by this unexpected gumption but remained resolute. He hardened his gaze and gave a great deal of consideration to his position. The Chief Inspector had never been known for his patience but to make a misstep at this juncture would be folly. Japp withdrew his splayed hands from the desk and adopted a more fatherly tone towards Catchpool.

“Listen here, I’m trying to do you a good turn,” began Japp. “Don’t think our friend Hercule Poirot hasn’t noticed you’ve not been pulling your weight. You don’t want to make an enemy of him, I can tell you that.”

“Poirot is always very encouraging of my work!” retorted Catchpool, jutting his chin most unconvincingly. But, in truth, he knew that the great detective was becoming irritated by him. Poirot did his very best to mentor and inspire the dour Inspector, but to no avail. Catchpool was a little disappointed in himself, in fact; although the tussle with the intrigues of four down in today’s Times crossword was of equal concern.

“Come on, Catchpool,” said Japp, with a sigh. “Poirot is expecting us at Whitehaven Mansions at eight – hopefully to do one of his famous big announcements about the Marble Murders. Let’s hope so, anyway, because you’ve been getting nowhere!”

The apartment at Whitehaven Mansions complimented its meticulous occupant completely. Although the pervading notion was of order and efficiency, a flair for the aesthetic and an almost obsessive attention to detail were plainly evident in the furnishings. The clean, straight lines of the bookcases were reflected in their resident folios, who stood awaiting their orders like lines of snug little soldiers. Poirot had quite the eye for the more understated varieties of modish decor, which was demonstrated by a number of scrupulously placed table lamps. But none of the fastidious fixtures and fittings could quite compare with the man himself, resplendent as he was in demurely exquisite tailoring and with every hair and extremity diligently preened to perfection. It was Poirot’s earnest belief that when men failed to starch their collars, the downfall of society would be imminent.

Poirot sipped thoughtfully from his small glass of sirop de cassis, taking great care not to wet his magnificent moustache. Whilst a weak tisane would perhaps be better for the little grey cells, a beverage of considerable fortitude was required to tackle these dastardly Marble Murders.

“I say, Poirot, it’s a dashed nuisance that you’ve been landed with that awful Catchpool fellow to help with the investigation,” said Captain Hastings, inspecting his sherry glass which had now been empty for several minutes. “They tell me the man is something of an idiot. And a bounder and a cad, by all accounts – I heard he was thrown out of the bowls club for upsetting the ladies.”

Hastings, although undoubtedly dashing, managed to appear unkempt in the presence of his immaculate host.

“That, Hastings, I do not know to be true in one way or the other,” Poirot’s reply was as measured as the careful sips from his glass. “But if only he would listen to Poirot! Apply his mind in the ways I have shown him – perhaps he could promote himself from idiot to dullard.”

“You’re far too generous about him, old chap,” said Hastings, discretely furnishing himself with a further sherry. “In any case, that fellow gives me the pip.”

A sharp rap from the door to the hallway briefly preceded the arrival of Chief Inspector Japp with a glum-looking Catchpool trailing behind him. 

“Well, well! There’s a sight for sore eyes if ever I saw one!” Japp’s face lit up and he brightened his step on seeing his old friend Captain Hastings. Given the illustrious history between the two, one might have expected a warm display of affectionate bonhomie, but the occasion was marked instead by a firm handshake. 

Whilst Inspector Japp was very keen to hear all about Hastings’ adventures in Argentina, Poirot preferred to proceed at once to matters of business. They had three grisly murders before them, with three victims all linked by the London stage – and three scenes tied by the presence of rare and unusual marbles. Poirot cleared his throat and the room fell silent.

“Gentlemen, it is to my very great plaisir that I have in my salon not only my fondest friends but also the finest minds in criminal detection!” Poirot turned to the morose figure slumped in the armchair. “It is nice to see you also, Catchpool. Now! We must gather together the facts as we know them and Poirot will machinate them all with his magnificent mind and the killer will be ever nearer our grasp.”

“If you say so, Poirot,” replied Japp, well-used to the great detective’s florid turn of phrase. “What say we start with the victims?”

“Always, when faced with a murder, it is the natural place to begin,” said Poirot, nodding. He placed himself lightly in a high backed chair and closed his eyes, sharpening his wits in anticipation. “Chief Inspector, please tell to me what it is we know about the victims.”

Four

“The first of the Marble Murder victims is a name and face we all know well,” began Chief Inspector Japp, consulting a dishevelled collection of notes written in a spidery hand. “Not that there was much left of his face, to be honest.”

This was in fact true. American actor and socialite Randy Beavis had been discovered in various pieces at his London address some three weeks ago. At the time he was playing Algernon in the Aldwych theatre’s production of The Importance Of Being Earnest, but he was better known on both sides of the Atlantic for his rambunctious antics in the public eye, and yet even more salacious ones in private. He was a man with many enemies; the theatrical community regarded him as an abomination, his wild behaviours bringing shame upon their number – a treachery to the thespian tribe. Yet the public adored him for his exotic good looks, his fine moustache and for being just as entertaining on the stage as he was off of it. Although reviled by his peers, he was favoured by theatre management for his incomparable ability to draw the crowds and so found himself abundantly availed of work of his choosing. Quite aside from Beavis’ contemporaries, there was also many an angry husband who might bear bloody inclinations towards him, not to mention the fury of dozens of discarded damsels. 

“Monsieur Beavis was certainly a man of some character,” said Poirot.

“He’s a little too fond of baring his chest in public for my liking,” muttered Hastings. “If you ask me, a fellow like that is asking for trouble.”

“Perhaps Monsieur Catchpool has an observation he would like to share?” Poirot turned with imploring eyes and an encouraging smile towards the armchair. As silence mounted, Catchpool became uncomfortably aware that he was the focus of interest. 

“I say!” exclaimed Hastings “The rascal is reading a newspaper! Good lord!”

“I’m not!” retorted Catchpool. “Really, I’m not. It’s just that… four down…”

“He’s doing the ruddy crossword,” Hastings was furious. “I say, I have a mind to bop him on the nose.”

“Chief Inspector, I think it better that you proceed with haste to our next victim,” Poirot said quickly, motioning for Hastings to help himself to another sherry.

“Actually, Hastings, I think this one might be of some interest to you,” began Japp, shuffling his notes. “A Margot Askwith, the leading lady in the Novello’s Oh, Crikey – a play with which I believe you are familiar?”

“Oh, yes!” replied Hastings. “A wonderful show. What could be better than a good British farce? But I am afraid I haven’t seen this particular production as I’ve been out of the country, as you know.”

“Tell me Hastings, what is this ‘farce’ you speak of?” asked Poirot, polishing his spectacles as he spoke. “If it is something that entices you to seek out some culture then I wish to know all about it.”

“A farce is a sort of comical play,” explained Hastings. “Lots of slapstick, trousers falling down, people saying ‘I say!’ and ‘Oh, crikey!’ all the time, you know.”

Poirot sighed. It was clearly not the soul-enriching experience that he had come to expect from a theatre. But the name of Margot Askwith was somewhat familiar to him. She had been a celebrated star of the musical hall style in her youth and was, by all accounts, a great beauty. Much of that glamour had been retained into her later years, until the point she was found on the floor of her drawing room.

“You notice gentlemen, do you not, the connections between our first two victims?” Poirot believed the question to be a straightforward one, but when no response was forthcoming, he gladly took it upon himself to explain. “Both are actors, currently starring in lead roles. And the theatres in which they were until so recently performing? They are both on the same street in West London. But this is where our third victim is indeed a mystere – please, Chief Inspector, for you to continue.”

“Well, our third chap is a different prospect entirely,” agreed Japp. “Maurice Kelly – he’s an actor, there is that, but he hadn’t worked properly in months. His last role of note was as the third brother in a touring production of The Fishmonger’s Daughter. They were last seen being booed off stage by an angry mob in St Albans.” 

“I can’t say I’ve ever heard of that one,” said Hastings, visibly searching his mind for reference. 

“No, nobody has,” Japp concurred. “And no one seems to really know who he is. At least, if they do they aren’t letting on to us.”

Mais non!” exclaimed Poirot. “Ce n’est pas vrai! Catchpool – you know of Monsieur Kelly, do you not?”

Catchpool looked up sharply from his seat, once again in the position of trying to find his place in the conversation.

“I say, I SAY!” Captain Hastings fumed, cheeks flushing at his rising anger. “The wretch has got his nose back in that newspaper. I told you I should bop him. You utter philistine!”

“What have I told you about those blasted crosswords?” boomed Japp, his moustache wild with contempt.

“You should be careful how you speak to me, Chief Inspector…” mumbled Catchpool, bowing his head.

“Don’t you talk back to him, you hear?” raged Hastings. “You’re nothing but a good-for-nothing ingrate!”

Hastings bounded in great strides towards Catchpool, ripping the newspaper from his grasp and tearing it to pieces with the same ferocity deployed by the Marble Murderer, no doubt. 

“You’re lucky I don’t jam the ruddy thing down your throat!”

“My dear Captain Hastings, please!” protested Poirot, rising at once to his feet. “It appears to Poirot that we should adjourn our endeavours until the morning. Catchpool, you will meet with me in Chief Inspector Japp’s office at nine o’clock precisely tomorrow morning.”

“I’m coming too, I can’t leave you with this fool at your right hand, Poirot,” said Hastings, eyeing the shredded newspaper and knowing that his host would be irritated by the mess.

Non, Captain Hastings,” Poirot replied. “The detection of the criminal requires both the calmness of the mind and the most precise of the temperaments. At this moment you possess neither one!”

Hasting’s anger was bested by a creeping sense of chagrin and he cast his gaze towards the toes of his shoes. With much remorse, he made a polite but bilious egress.  

Five

Hercule Poirot fixed his considerable gaze upon the only thing in Chief Inspector Japp’s office that was currently making any sound at all. It was a round-faced wall clock encased in a mahogany octagonal surround, with a heavy brass pendulum swinging morosely beneath. He had watched as the minute hand juddered first to one minute passed the hour, then two and now – heaven forbid – three minutes after nine o’clock. Poirot despised tardiness in all its forms, but none so much as when it left him waiting to proceed with his work. To a lesser extent, the great detective maligned the time wasted of his professional associates; not only Chief Inspector Japp, but also two experts Japp had invited along to assist with the case. 

The Chief Inspector had assured Poirot that they were experts, although the immaculate Belgian was having several doubts about such an affirmation. The two persons sat across the desk from him appeared both flamboyant and untidy. In ordinary circumstances one or the other would be somewhat acceptable, but to Poirot’s mind finding both traits together in a singular soul was cause for great concern. And Japp had succeeded in finding two such souls to present to him. Thestart to the day’s endeavours was anything but auspicious, it seemed. Tapping the silver capped handle of his walking cane, Poirot uttered a curt sigh before turning to Chief Inspector Japp. 

“Chief Inspector, we can wait no longer, please to begin our meeting before we find ourselves availed with yet more of the dead actors.”

“You don’t want to give Catchpool another couple of minutes?” replied Japp, glancing up at the clock. “He’s only a few minutes late.”

“It seems that our friend perhaps has found more urgent matters with which to occupy his time,” said Poirot, with surprising lenience. “Now that I think of it, it occurs to Poirot that he may well have paid a visit to Miss Pip in order that he might take a statement from her, now she has recovered from the terrible shock of Monsieur Kelly’s untimely demise.”

“But Poirot, I distinctly remember you saying to him last night to meet us at nine o’clock sharp, here in my office,” Japp retorted, eyebrows bunched in confusion. “I really don’t know why you are so forgiving of that fellow, he’s a bloody nuisance, I tell you. I’ve a good mind to send him off with a flea in his ear.”

“Please, Chief Inspector – you must have some of the – how you say? – charity towards Catchpool. You know how nervous he is of the serious crime. Let us try to think the best of him for now.”

Japp shook his head in disbelief at Poirot, but as he appeared inexplicably adamant about the matter, saw nothing for it but to press on regardless. 

“If you say so, Poirot,” Japp grumbled, turning to his neatly typed notes, no doubt prepared for him by the ever efficient Miss Wandsworth. “Right then. As you know, I have invited along these two good people to help us with the Marble Murders case. Now the pleasantries are out of the way, I say we get straight down to business.”

Introductions had been made, although Poirot felt they had lacked the usual formality he might have expected from a professional circumstance. Even so, both were acclaimed practitioners in their respective fields, although murder investigations were certainly not their habitual familiarity. Sadie Darling was a pinched-faced middle-aged woman with a most interesting and somewhat alternative approach to her personal presentation, although she lacked a flair for co-ordination. Her chosen outfit of red jacket and green skirt was almost offensive to the delicate sensibilities of Hercule Poirot and he saw no reason for the garish decorative feathers stitched to her lapel. Her mousey hair had been reluctantly persuaded into an erratic bun and a pair of fine wire spectacles sat neatly upon her upturned nose. Darling was one of the leading professors of Astronomy at Cambridge University and her knowledge of the night skies was unsurpassed.

Next to her sat a ruddy and corpulent gentleman, whose clothes appeared to be losing the battle of containing his enormous bulk. All present were fervently hoping against an early surrender. Wild and woolly white hair cascaded about reddened cheeks and swept across the sparkling little dots of eyes that had been partially consumed by a face that seemed far too big for itself. Although Poirot wished that the fellow had seen fit to attire himself in a suit of correct size, he was at least heartened to note that the gentleman was wearing a very fine bow tie indeed. This was Angus Atkinson, a leading astrologer of nowhere in particular and considered beyond compare by no-one but himself. Nonetheless, this seemed adequate for Chief Inspector Japp. 

“I am very curious to know why you have brought me here, Mr Japp,” began Darling, adjusting her glasses at infinitesimal increments along the bridge of her nose. “I do not believe my expertise has ever been required in criminal matters.”

“I myself have been involved in several mysterious events and investigations,” countered Atkinson. “Tell us what it’s all about, then, Mr Poirot.”

“You are both most kind for coming at such short notice,” Poirot smiled, flicking his eyes between the two. “Let me explain to you what it is that Poirot is thinking. You know of the Marble Murders, oui? So named because the most beautiful and rare marbles have been scattered at every scene. Within the glass of these marbles are the tiniest flakes of the precious metals and they glitter and shine in ways most wonderful. And it struck Poirot, as he was observing them among the mutilated corpses, that they look to him just as the stars in the sky. And then the little grey cells, they tell Poirot something more. They tell him that the victims themselves – are they not stars also? It is perhaps that our murderer is familiar with the heavens and maybe the marbles have not been placed randomly after all. Perhaps they are sitting as the constellations would sit in the sky, and it might be that these marbles are giving to us a message, oui?”

Darling and Atkinson stared back with the customary countenance of those not accustomed to working alongside Hercule Poirot. Sensing the growing ambiguity, Chief Inspector Japp stepped in. 

“We think that the position of the marbles might represent positioning of stars, perhaps in constellations or,” Japp turned to Atkinson “Perhaps something of a more mystical nature. We’d like you to take a look at the crime scene photographs and see what you think.”

“While you are engaged in this most important of tasks, I will look into things of my own,” said Poirot, rising from his chair and removing his gloves from his pocket. “First, I shall hasten to the address of Monsieur Kelly and offer my assistance to Catchpool in the interview of Miss Pip.”

“Oh, Poirot, this really is too much!” groaned Japp. “He doesn’t need his hand holding if all he’s doing is taking a statement.”

Au contraire, Chief Inspector,” Poirot replied. “Miss Pip is very mistrusting of the police and there is great reason for her to mistrust Catchpool especially. My assistance is very much required, I think.”

With Japp at a loss for words, Hercule Poirot offered his apologies to all assembled and made his way with some haste out of the office. 

Six

The night sky has held the fascination of mankind for as long as time itself. Ever since there have been eyes to gaze upwards, there have been hearts and minds that both revere and fear the heavens. For millennia, the stars themselves have been regarded not only as the great mysteries of the universe, but also as those that hold an esoteric truth to life itself. These ethereal conundrums had been the cause of great preoccupation to Poirot and understandably so. Their twinkling brilliance had robbed him of sleep for several nights, but none more so than that very evening, when he found himself swathed in their embrace as he made his way through the velvet night towards the scene of Maurice Kelly’s recent murder.

Whilst the remains of what the police generously called the body (although it would more accurately be described as a kind of scattered pulp) had been mostly removed, the marbles and other paraphernalia of the scene had been left in situ in the actor’s study, with the intention of further examination, perhaps by Chief Inspector Japp’s experts, should they have the stomach for it. As Poirot approached the door of the address, he noticed a vaguely familiar face employed as a scene guard by the front step. Despite the mildness of the night, the young constable was wrapped in his weighty black cloak and wore the travails of the nightshift heavily beneath his eyes. Poirot had seen him many times at Scotland Yard when he had been paying one of his numerous visits to Chief Inspector Japp and believed that he remembered his name to be Somersby.

Bon soir, Constable Somersby!” Poirot announced, his bright and cordial tones at odds with the solemnity of the night.

Somersby jolted into life with quite a start, as if he had been sleeping upright upon the doorstep. 

“Oh! Mr Poirot!” his voice certainly sounded as if it was filtered by somnambulism. “A pleasure to see you, sir. I wasn’t expecting to see you this time of night, sir – is everything alright?”

Mais oui, Constable, everything is very much – as you say – alright! Poirot, he has been thinking – thinking, thinking all through the evening. And the ideas – they will not let him sleep! So I come here now to see if the ideas, they are correct, non?”

Recognition spread across his face and Somersby grinned and tapped the side of his nose with a gloved finger. 

“Don’t tell, me sir – those little grey wassnames have finally come up with an answer!”

Poirot smiled politely at the constable, whilst wondering what the exact translation of ‘wassnames’ might be.

“We must hope that that is the case, monsieur,” replied Poirot. “It is alright that I once more observe scene?”

“Help yourself, Mr Poirot!” exclaimed Somersby. “You’ll find Constable Morse on the door to the study, of course. The Chief Inspector was very clear about securing the scene, you know. But Morse won’t give you any gip. He’s probably more interested in his crosswords, anyhow.”

“Ah! What is it with these young policemen and their crosswords?” Poirot lamented, but with humour. “Inspector Catchpool is also much enamoured with such things.”

“Yes, but, you see – Morse is actually pretty good at them,” said Somersby, once again tapping the side of his nose, perhaps not entirely certain of what this action is intended to portray.

Poirot smiled once more, touching the brim of his hat, before passing Somersby and making his way through the door and towards the study. 

As so ably predicted by Somersby, Constable Morse looked up only briefly from his crossword before waving through the renowned detective. Night shift on scene guard was a notoriously monotonous affair and occasionally the most mundane of observations caused unusual conclusions in the mind of a policeman so disposed to erratic cognitive movements. Constable Morse was one such policeman and the thought that struck him was that Hercule Poirot moved very graciously for a man the shape of an egg. He paid him only scant attention as the famed sleuth proceeded with precise delicacy about the crime scene. It wasn’t for a humble street copper such as himself to wonder what incredible machinations were occurring in such a celebrated mind, but it seemed to him that Poirot was paying inordinate attention to the very periphery of the crime scene. 

Whatever it was that interested Poirot was soon concluded, as Morse had barely finished dealing with the ‘across’ clues before his visitor was once again at his side.

“I thank you, Monsieur Morse, for your time,” said Poirot, performing the briefest of bows before heading towards the front door and back out into the night.

As he hurried back to Whitehaven Mansions, Poirot was breathing a little heavier than was normal for his good self. This was somewhat in part to relief, but there was also a touch of excitement to be credited, as well. A part of the puzzle had now fallen into place, albeit not the puzzle upon which his Scotland Yard friends were currently focused. Arriving at the door to his apartment, Poirot was faced with a further puzzle. Standing between him and the threshold was yet another constable, and this one appeared to be in a mood not quite as affable as Somersby and Morse. His face grim, the policeman spoke at once to him.

“Mr Poirot, I am sorry to say that Chief Inspector Japp requires your presence urgently at the residence of Inspector Catchpool.”

“But of course,” replied Poirot. “Can you tell me why it is that Poirot is needed at such an hour?”

“I’m afraid to tell you that Inspector Catchpool is dead, sir. It appears that he has been murdered, sir.”

Seven

The small and dingy flat of Inspector Catchpool was made none the more inviting by the lateness of the hour and the presence of its occupant’s corpse, sprawled upon the floor near the writing bureau. A nonchalant Chief Inspector Japp loitered in the doorway, flanked by an equally blasé Captain Hastings. Neither had been especially fond of Catchpool and both had good reason to feel some relief at his unexpected passing. Japp had concerns that his ineffectual colleague would reveal details of his affair with Miss Wandsworth, whilst Hastings viewed Catchpool as an imposter who had taken his own rightful place at Poirot’s side. Although neither seemed to much mourn the deceased, it was surely beyond the realms of possibility that either could have had a hand in his fate.

When Hercule Poirot first arrived at the scene his manner was one of district sorrow, an attitude considered inexplicable by Japp and Hastings. Whilst they found Catchpool dour, rude and incompetent, in truth Poirot viewed him as a parent might their least favourite child. He was always harbouring hope that the boy might one day redeem himself. And now it would seem that that day would never come. 

“I say,” said Hastings, as Poirot went about his meticulous business of examining the body. “For such a dull fellow, Catchpool certainly had a most interesting death!”

This was true. The unfortunate Inspector appeared to have died from asphyxiation, having had the crossword section of The Times inserted with considerable force so far down his throat that breathing would have been impossible. On the writing desk were further crosswords, from every publication imaginable and even some that he had been constructing himself. A chaotic notepad had tumbled to the floor – perhaps during a scuffle with his assailant – and among the frantic jottings was one word which stood out. Written in a heavy hand, as if the writer had gone over the letters several times, was the word ‘SIGMA’. 

Poirot picked up the notepad and replaced it on the desk, before returning to the floor and busying himself with some unseen thing of interest near the toppled chair upon which Catchpool must have been sitting shortly before his demise.

“Where have you been anyway, Poirot?” asked Inspector Japp when it became clear that the detective would not respond to Hastings’ comment. “I’ve had my men looking all over for you.”

“They were looking in the wrong places, my dear Chief Inspector,” Poirot replied, removing himself from beneath the desk and returning his attentions once more to the corpse. “All evening the little grey cells have been taunting Poirot, so I returned to the scene of Monsieur Kelly’s murder, to see if they were correct.”

“And were they?” asked Hastings, eyes agog. Poirot smiled.

Mais oui, Captain Hastings! The little grey cells, they never lie.” Poirot moved his gaze to the Chief Inspector. “Tell me, Chief Inspector, it was you that discovered our friend, non?”

“That’s right Poirot,” Japp replied. “I came round here after I finished my shift. I intended to give him a proper ear-bashing, I don’t mind telling you. I hadn’t heard a peep from him all day, much less got a sniff of the statement he should have taken from Miss Pip.”

Poirot gazed for a moment at his shoes, so highly polished that one could observe infinity in the toecaps.

Malheureusement, it seems that Monsieur Catchpool did not visit Miss Pip after all,” said Poirot. “This was to her great relief as, you see, there is some history between the two of them. Or, more correctly, between Catchpool and her late employer, Monsieur Kelly.”

“Really, Poirot?” exclaimed Hastings, unable to contain his surprise. “Good lord. What possible connection could there be between them?”

“When both our friend Catchpool and Monsieur Kelly were young men, there was la lutte – a duel for the affections of a young lady,” explained Poirot. “It seems that Catchpool was the victor and Monsieur Kelly, he was never the same again. Miss Pip considers this event to be la raison for Monsieur Kelly losing his confidence and never reaching his potential as a great actor, the one that she believes he could have been. Her love for the late Monsieur Kelly meant that she has never forgiven Monsieur Catchpool and has never trusted the police since.”

“I say, that seems a bit extreme, don’t you think?” Hastings remarked.

“Well, you know what ladies are like,” sighed Japp. “A woman scorned and whatnot.”

Exactement, Chief Inspector. A woman scorned.”

“Surely you can’t think that Miss Pip killed Catchpool?” said Hastings. “Dainty little thing like that. Doesn’t look like she has it in her.”

“I think it’s fairly obvious who killed Catchpool, don’t you Poirot?” said Japp, somewhat unexpectedly. The remark caught Poirot off-guard and in his surprise was able to return a quizzical look only. “Well – look at him, for goodness sake. Newspaper shoved down his neck like that – I distinctly remember someone threatening to do the very thing to him just last night…”

Silence fell about the room as collective recollection was soon followed by horrified realisation.

“Good lord…” muttered Captain Hastings. “But.. I didn’t mean… oh my.”

“This gives me no pleasure, I assure you,” said Japp, turning to the Captain. “But I don’t see that I have any other option. Captain Arthur Hastings – I am arresting you for the murder of Inspector Edward Catchpool!”

Eight

“I tell you, Poirot, I didn’t do it!”

An agitated Captain Hastings paced the scrubbed floor of his spartan cell, whilst his friend sat patiently on the low mantle that served as a sleeping place for those wretched enough to find themselves in the bowels of Scotland Yard. Poirot looked most out of place in this criminal chamber and sat with an austere rigidity that ensured the absolute minimum of his surface area was in contact with his surroundings. 

“Calm yourself, my dear Hastings,” soothed Poirot, his gloved hands gripping his walking cane ever so slightly too tightly. “It is your temper that has caused the trouble in the first place, non?”

“No! I mean yes! But no… oh, Poirot, it really is too much…”

Hastings placed himself heavily next to Poirot and sank his head into his hands, his ordinarily immaculate hair unfurling in sorrowful locks across his forehead. Poirot was thoughtful for a moment, before the anguished sighs of Captain Hastings became too much to bear and he felt compelled to intervene.

“Hastings, I know that it was not you who killed Inspector Catchpool,” he said.

Hastings sat up and when he turned to face Poirot, his drawn features had the suggestion of hope upon them.

“It has not escaped the notice of Poirot that Inspector Catchpool, he was not a man with the many friends,” Poirot continued. “Not even among his colleagues at Scotland Yard. Tell me Hastings, did you notice the notes of Chief Inspector Japp, that he brought with him the other night to my apartment?”

Confusion crept across the face of Captain Hastings, as he tried to recall the events of the evening.

“I can’t say I did, Poirot. What about them?”

“The notes were hand written in a most disorderly fashion and were almost illegible,” Poirot paused to give his companion the opportunity to comment, but no opinion was forthcoming. “Yet his notes are always typed with the greatest precision by the magnificent Miss Wandsworth, non? This was the case when I met with him and his experts yesterday morning. And why is it that Miss Wandsworth was not able to find the time to type the notes of the Chief Inspector? It is because he is keeping her occupied with engagements of another kind…”

The blank look returned to him by Captain Hastings dismayed Poirot and he was forced to persist in his explanation.

“Engagements of which Mrs Japp would no doubt disapprove and, I am certain, that Catchpool found most unsavoury also!”

“Good lord!” exclaimed Hastings. “Don’t tell me Japp’s been having it away with Miss Wandsworth! And Catchpool found out! Do you think he was going to tell his wife and Japp killed him to keep him quiet?”

Wincing at the florid turn of phrase, Poirot was at least comforted that Captain Hastings was at last beginning to grasp the concept of his thinking. Hastings leapt to his feet, the turning cogs in his handsome head bringing him renewed vigour.

“And then there’s Miss Pip – she had it in for the bounder as well,” Hastings resumed his pacing, a thoughtful finger tapping his chin.

Mais oui, it is true to say that Inspector Catchpool had the knack for making himself unpopular, non?”

“Now I think about it, I don’t know anyone who had a good word to say about the chap at all,” said Hastings, beaming from ear to ear. “In fact – I bet there are scores of fellows who would cheerfully do him a mischief!”

Exactement! Do not worry, my dear Hastings. Poirot, he has a plan and he will not rest until the crime, it is solved.”

Hastings felt that he might hug his friend – who had never felt dearer to him than at that very moment – but thought better of it. The immaculate Belgian was uncomfortable with displays of affection and less fond still of physical contact. Besides, it had been some time since Hastings had been able to shave and the less said about his neglected personal hygiene the better. But no matter. With Hercule Poirot on his side, no doubt his good name would be cleared by teatime and the two of them would resume their fine partnership, causing wrong-doers of London and beyond to tremble in their boots once more.

The gentlemen parted with a firm handshake and elevated mood, with Poirot returning to Whitehaven Mansions resolved to bending his considerable skills to the aid of his great friend Captain Hastings.

Nine

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 an 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 North.”

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 utter 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!

Ten

As the exhilaratingly jaunty crescendos of Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue filled every corner of the salon, resplendent in its understated splendour, Hercule Poirot closed his eyes for the briefest of moments and allowed his racing thoughts to be swept away in the swirl of orchestral opulence. Although the rhythmical scratching and scuffling from the phonograph would catch his ear intermittently, Poirot found that immersing himself in the mesmerism of the music helped him to make some sense of the tangled and contrived case before him, which was every bit as complex and nuanced as any melodic composition. 

Poirot felt something of an affinity with George Gershwin, both of them as they were foreign virtuosos making their names in strange and far away lands. He reflected with only the slightest of bitterness that it was difficult to prove one’s genius when people were intent only at laughing at one’s accent. Poirot was unaware of the door from the hallway opening and he was quite startled to realise that he had company, his visitor being almost upon him by the time he noticed him.

“Ah! My dear Hastings! But you are early!”

“The early bird catches the worm, Poirot!” replied Hastings, once more returned to his usual state of the preened and dashing English gentleman. His spell under lock and key at Scotland Yard had tainted neither his chiseled good looks nor his indomitable enthusiasm. 

Oui, and it is quite the worm that we must catch,” Poirot sighed. “It is a worm most vicious and one that is sure to strike again.”

“Do you really think so?” Hastings creased his perfect brow and placed a hand in his pocket. “What makes you so sure?”

“The Marble Murders, they are demonstrations of the most unusual Chinese astrology,” replied Poirot, reaching into his desk for the collected materials pertaining to the case. “There is much for you to learn – and you must do so quickly, dear Hastings, before we find ourselves staring at the gruesome remains of another dead actor!”

Taking the hefty wedge of files, Hastings sat himself on the opposite side of the desk and threw Poirot a steady smile that he hoped would convey his absolute delight at taking once again his rightful place as the great detective’s right hand man. Hastings knew that he could never match the intellect and brilliance of Hercule Poirot, that his talents lay elsewhere in the realms of heroics and charm, but he wanted to offer him every assurance that he would never fail in his steadfast support of the famed Belgian sleuth. And surely Poirot would know this; he never once doubted him about Catchpool’s murder, after all.

As Hastings poured over statements, photographs and notes, Poirot interrupted with ever increasing zeal at pertinent points, encouraging his friend always to use his ‘little grey cells’. Poirot had come to realise that the naive and often idiotic questions and observations of the diligent Captain were the very spurs that sparked his own propensity for detection and without this innocuous input, his convoluted cogitations would more often than not trip over themselves in a riot of rumination. Fortified by the finest tisane served in delicate china and plate after plate of cucumber sandwiches – made by the fair hand of Miss Lemon – Poirot and Hastings were soon making great headway in the investigation of the Marble Murders. The actors, their plays and the theatres in which they had been performing all had spurious and previously unforeseen connections that began to reveal themselves in glorious clarity and paths of enquiries opened up through the rabid mire that enveloped the seemingly impenetrable murders. But in their excitement, they had almost overlooked a most important thing.

“I say, Poirot, we mustn’t forget that bugger Catchpool in all of this,” remarked Hastings. ‘After all, the Marble Murderer left his calling card under his desk. Perhaps there is some clue in all of that we might find useful.”

“It is good that you are thinking of such things, Hastings,” Poirot replied, nodding sagely. “But you must remember that Catchpool’s demise was merely a device for removing you from the scene, as it were – la espièglerie! Such distractions will only delay in the capture of the killer, mon amie.”

“Yes, but surely a quick peek at the marbles he left couldn’t hurt…” Hastings shuffled through the scattered specifics until he found the small clear pouch that contained the three marbles found at Catchpool’s residence. “Ah, here they are!”

Hastings held the pouch up to the light so that he could better observe the contents. Despite their grim connotations, the marbles were certainly things of great beauty. The glass had been expertly hand-blown, and the flecks of precious metals encased within glittered in the morning sunlight. Squinting his eyes, Hastings turned the pouch over and over, shaking the marbles in order that he might view them in their entirety. 

“I say, Poirot!” exclaimed Hastings, his voice pitched with excitement. “See what I’ve noticed, here! Why, these marbles have spots of blood on them!”

“Blood, Hastings?” Poirot raised an immaculate eyebrow.

“Yes, Poirot! But there was no blood at Catchpool’s murder, he was choked to death…” the slowly ticking cogs of Hastings’ mind were almost evident on his face. Poirot held his breath, waiting for the Captain’s eventual conclusion. “That must mean… that these marbles must’ve come from one of the other murder scenes!”

“Bravo, Hastings!” said Poirot, stiffly.

“Well, that can only mean one thing…” the air was still once more as Hastings’ laboured thinking ploughed ever forward. “The Marble Murderer must have… run out of marbles?”

He turned to Poirot, who was caught in a moment of deep contemplation. There was a flashing in his eyes that signified a cacophony of intellectual machinations whirring behind them and his moustache twitched with an electrified intellect that seemed to be coursing through every inch of him.

“This is it, isn’t it Poirot?” Hastings gushed “This is the clue that is going to solve the Marble Murders! And I found it! We must fetch Japp at once!”

When he made his reply, Poirot’s voice was measured and a good deal quieter than Hastings had been expecting.

Oui, my dear Hastings, you are indeed correct. Now, Poirot knows exactly what he must do. At least one of the murders, it is solved beyond all doubt.”

“Good lord! Hurrah!” Hastings leapt to his feet and clapped his hands together, a broad smile splitting his face in the most delightful fashion. “You see, I knew we would get to the bottom of this together. You and me, Poirot – there is no case that can out-fox us!”

“Calm yourself, Hastings. There are still one or two things that Poirot must first attend to before we alert the Chief Inspector.” Poirot stood up smartly and straightened his waistcoat before checking his pocket watch. He turned to Hastings, smiling benignly. “I have just enough time. Please, for you to leave me now, Hastings, and return here tonight at eight o’clock with the Chief Inspector. It is then that I shall reveal all to you both.”

Finale 

Chief Inspector Japp and Captain Hastings arrived at Whitehaven Mansions at eight o’clock precisely, as instructed by Hercule Poirot. When they reached the door of his apartment, they found it invitingly ajar. Nudging the door open, Hastings led the way through to the hallway, followed by an impatient Japp. When they reached the hallway, an unusual and troublesome sight awaited them. 

“What do you make of that, Hastings?” asked Japp.

Hastings scanned the scene but was able to reply only with a shrug. All alongside the far wall were stacked trunks and cases and it appeared that many of Poirot’s personal effects were wrapped and prepared for storage. 

“Perhaps the old chap is off on his holidays,” said Hastings, eventually. But his words were made hollow by the growing feeling of ominous dread in the pit of his stomach. 

They exchanged worried glances, before heading through to the living room, where they hoped to find their Belgian friend. Poirot was, indeed, awaiting their arrival, pocket watch in hand and a tray of sweet sherries arranged on the occasional table before him. Their punctuality evidently delighted him, as he greeted them with a cheery countenance as he replaced his pocket watch and motioned for his guests to help themselves to the refreshments on offer. Japp and Hastings duly obliged, but their concerned expressions drew a quizzical response from Poirot. 

“Is the sherry not to your liking, messieurs?

“I’m sure the sherry is very good, Poirot, but what’s all this business with the cases in the hallway?” asked Hastings.

“Ah, bien sûr, the cases. Poirot, he is going away imminently, mon amie…”

Hastings and Japp simultaneously cried out in protest, but were hushed into silence by Poirot before either could remonstrate further.

“Poirot will resolve this all in good time, I promise. Mais d’abord, I have much to explain to you both.”

“Right, yes,” said Japp, taking a seat and another sherry, feeling that he would have great need of both. “Hastings told me that you have solved the Marble Murders.”

“Hastings, he is always getting carried away with himself,” replied Poirot, eyeing the Captain in mock admonishment. “I told him that I had solved one of the murders.”

“But surely if you have solved one, you’ve solved them all?” said Hastings. 

Poirot sipped at his sherry, before replacing the glass on the platter and removing a small hand mirror from his jacket pocket. He made fastidious adjustments to his eyebrows and moustache, before removing imaginary specks from his gleaming bald head. His personal preparations complete, Poirot composed himself in the time honoured fashion with which he delivered his legendary conclusions of criminal cases of all descriptions. 

“Chief Inspector, you remember the morning when I first met with yourself and your experts, the morning when Inspector Catchpool, he failed to arrive in your office?”

“Of course, Poirot,” Japp replied.

“I told you that perhaps he was struggling with the statement of Miss Pip, non? And so I took my leave to go and assist him. Mais, I knew I would not find him with Miss Pip, as I had given him no such instructions. Of course, Miss Pip had already told to Poirot the story of Catchpool stealing the girlfriend of her late employer, the unfortunate Maurice Kelly – to send Catchpool to take her statement would have been folly. Instead, I went straight to the place where I expected to find him.”

“And where was that?” asked Hastings, agog at the unfolding tale. He had always enjoyed Poirot’s theatrical explanations immensely.

“Why, I went to his residence,” Poirot continued. “On numerous occasions previously I have found him there, nose-deep in his crosswords, when he was supposed to be working. It is a most infuriating thing, non? And so it was that Poirot found him there, still wrestling with the wretched four down – ‘A letter for Socrates’. Zut alors! But it made Poirot so very angry. Especially as it was not a particularly difficult clue.”

“Aha!” exclaimed Japp, realisation dawning upon him. “‘SIGMA’ – the Greek letter ’S’. It was written in large letters on the notepad found by Catchpool’s desk!”

Exacte! But even when Poirot told this to him, still he would not think about the case of the Marble Murders. Still he insisted on thinking only of his crosswords. The rage within me, it was too much. Before I knew what I was doing, I had taken the pages from The Times and I had forced them into the throat of Inspector Catchpool, with such violence that I never knew I possessed. Such violence, that, I am sad to say, killed him.”

The stunned silence from Hastings and Japp hung heavily in the air, just as their mouths hung open in unequivocal disbelief.

“Good lord,” muttered Hastings. Then, unable to think of anything else, “I say.”

“But I don’t understand it, Poirot,” remarked Japp. “You were always so protective of Catchpool. I mean, there was never a cross word between you two the entire time. How could you find it in yourself to kill him?”

“I think I know,” said Hastings, slowly nodding. “Yes, I see it all, now. Inspector Catchpool was never up to being a decent assistant to the great Hercule Poirot. And with these diabolical Marble Murders to contend with, no doubt the chap was a positive hinderance. I bet Poirot needed him out of his way – and no doubt hearing about my… difficulties in Argentina, he wanted to recruit me again and do us both a favour! I bet that’s it, isn’t it, old friend?”

Poirot smiled once more and considered his response. It would not harm the situation further for his great friend to believe that this was the truth, nor would it impair his own reputation for the facts of his furious temper to be concealed. With Hastings now looking at him with such warmth that might usually be reserved for auburn haired ladies, Poirot nodded ardently in response.

“But what about these marbles we found at Catchpool’s, then?” continued Japp. “I expect you put them there yourself, did you?”

Oui, Chief Inspector, I did. I wanted it to appear as if the Marble Murderer had claimed him also as a victim. It became très difficle when you arrested Captain Hastings, but luckily the marbles I placed under the desk were found before too long.”

“Oh, don’t you worry about that, Poirot,” said Hastings, getting quite swept up in events. “All part of the grand plan, I’ll wager! Very clever of you, I must say.”

Mais, not clever enough,” sighed Poirot. “When I took the marbles from the scene of Monsieur Kelly’s murder, it was very late at night and so dark. I did not notice that they had tiny flecks of blood on them. I selected those marbles furthest from the body, but even Hercule Poirot cannot commit the perfect crime, it seems.”

“But why are you confessing to us now, Poirot?” asked Japp. “You probably could have got away with it. I would never have suspected you, you know.”

“This is true, Chief Inspector. But when Hastings noticed the blood on them – something Poirot had not himself noticed – I felt great shame that in my attempt to perform the perfect murder, I had failed to fool even him. My only recourse – confession.”

“So I suppose the packed bags are for your midnight flit, then?” said Hastings. “Don’t worry old chap, Japp and I will see you on your way under the cover of night. I’ll not let them lock you up.”

Poirot shook his head, which was now heavy with remorse.

Mais non, Hastings. Poirot is prepared to accept his fate and will take his bags to prison with him. The remainings of my possessions must pass to you, mon amie, for whatever use you see fit.”

“Now steady on a minute, Poirot,” Japp interrupted. “I’m not sure that sending you to prison is the best idea. There’s still the Marble Murder case to solve for one thing. And no one really liked old Catchpool anyway, I can’t see as it would hurt to let everyone believe that his murder was a foil to implicate Hastings.”

Japp got to his feet and searched around casually for the sherry. He could have sworn that Poirot’s eyes were filled with tears.

“You will not send me to prison, Chief Inspector?”

“Bugger that for a game of soldiers, Poirot!” exclaimed Japp. “No, no. We’ll say no more about it. Both of you report to my office first thing tomorrow. We’ve got a murderer to catch!”

Unable to find where Poirot kept the sherry, Chief Inspector Japp took his leave and disappeared out into the night. Poirot and Hastings – reunited as the greatest crime fighting force in all of London – thought briefly that they might indulge in a celebratory manly embrace. But that would never do. A firm handshake would more than suffice.

The End

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