Never A Cross Word

Never A Cross Word – 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 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!

Never A Cross Word – 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.

Never A Cross Word – Seven

The small and dreary 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!”