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Hide & Seek – Part Nine

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!”

No Sex Please, We’re British

The world of PorterGirl is famous for its stiff upper lip but there is a distinct lack of stiffness of a more salubrious nature and one would be forgiven for thinking that everyone at Old College is dead from the waist down. That’s not to say that there aren’t amorous stirrings among the academic elite and their contemporaries, so let us take a moment to learn a little more about the Lotharios of The City’s most notorious seat of learning…

Head Porter

An unlikely romantic lead, certainly, but our own dear Head Porter occasionally finds himself the object of the affections of tourists and visitors to Old College. In First Lady of the Keys we learn that he has an estranged daughter from a previous failed marriage, the details of which remain a mystery. In the forthcoming adventure, Sinister Dexter, Head Porter explores the potential of his improbable appeal to the opposite sex, landing him in perilous circumstances with some very unsavoury characters.

Professor Horatio Fox

The dashing American is the twinkly-eyed charmer who catches the eye of Deputy Head Porter the moment he sets foot in Old College. His wit is almost as sharp as his suit and his fedora and irrepressible sense of adventure make him irresistible to our bowler-hatted heroine. Although no physical manifestation of desire is ever realised, it’s clear he is quite taken with her also and Deputy Head Porter finally reveals the extent of her devotion by asking him to call her by her actual name. Such a flagrant diversion from convention says more than the removal of clothing ever can.

The Dean

When one thinks of The Dean, flirtations are not the first thing that springs to mind. However, in The Vanishing Lord, he declares himself the undisputed Best Looking Chap In College – a fact that remains undisputed, but perhaps because dispute with The Dean is generally believed to be bad for the health of all concerned. He embarked upon a fake affair with Deputy Head Porter and there is also a question mark over one night spent drinking in his rooms with her. She was too drunk to remember the details and he is too much of a gentleman to elaborate, but there is suggestion that perhaps an ill-advised liaison took place. The chances are, we will never know for sure – and perhaps that is for the best.

Hugh from The Unlikely Law Association

Hugh is the mild-mannered rake in The Vanishing Lord, what he lacks in brains he more than makes up for in charm. Although Deputy Head Porter has no untoward intentions towards him, she is very admiring of several of his physical attributes – including a very sturdy set of thighs that are occasionally revealed by small blue running shorts, and a fine pair of forearms that particularly catch her eye. His golden good looks do not go unnoticed by other members of College, with both Head Porter and The Dean expressing thinly-veiled jealousy of the dim-witted Adonis.

Porter

You would think that a greying, grumpy old man with an obstreperous moustache would be the last person to embark upon passionate endeavours, but to the great surprise of everyone he is the most successful of the Old College Romeos. A blossoming romance with Detective Sergeant Kirby emerged during the case of the missing painting in The Vanishing Lord and shows no signs of abating. No doubt The Dean disapproves of this fraternisation, but Head Porter and Deputy Head Porter are quietly pleased for their curmudgeony colleague.

Humphrey Babthorp

The original Old College Porter, whose handwritten diary is discovered by Deputy Head Porter in The Vanishing Lord. It seems that in 1448, Old College was a veritable hotbed of romantic interludes and Humphrey describes in some detail the illicit romps he enjoyed in the kitchens with a very obliging maid. Deputy Head Porter will never look at bacon in quite the same way again.

And there’s more…

Third PorterGirl novel Sinister Dexter brings further opportunities for repressed hanky-panky and with it some new academic playboys…

Hershel

The wayward student from First Lady of the Keys returns for the new term with a heart swollen with desire for his fellow student, the prim and proper Penelope. He finds an eager confidante in Deputy Head Porter, who does her best to smooth the path of true love. The mood is somewhat dampened by a spate of unusual deaths, but I doubt that will stand in the way of a red-blooded young man with one thing on his mind.

Professor Palmer

A new academic year brings a new arrival – the internationally renowned economist and notorious ladies’ man Professor Palmer. Tall, suave and self-assured, the Professor has his eye set firmly on The Dean’s job… and anything vaguely female with a pulse. Even the unassailable Head of Housekeeping finds herself weakening at the knees, but will he add Deputy Head Porter to his ever-growing list of conquests?

Detective Chief Inspector Thompson

Not a Lothario, exactly, rather an unimpressed observer. With even members of his own staff under the influence of Cupid’s arrow, he is horrified that the mounting body count at both Old College and fierce rivals Hawkins is secondary to the complex personal scenarios of the academic elite. Which, as a University man himself, really shouldn’t come as so much of a surprise.

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Hide & Seek – Part Eight

Maggie fell to her knees and reached out a trembling hand to the stricken Clara, whose face was silently drowning in a sanguine tide. Her wild howls had given way to dry-mouthed whimpering and as she knelt, the hem of her apron drank deeply of the gory pool slowly spreading across the flagstones. In the half-light of the late evening, it appeared almost black.

“Leave her be, mademoiselle, there is nothing that can be done for her now,” said Poirot, his voice soft yet adamant. “To find the truth of this terrible act, all must be left exactly as it is.”

“I can’t… I can’t bear it..!” wailed James, his face sallow and haunted. He crossed the pantry, heading for the steps that would take him up and out into the courtyard, while his father the vicar continued his prayers, much good they would do poor Clara now.

Lady Bottomclutch hid her face in her husband’s chest, unable to abide the horror, while he seemed incapable of tearing his eyes from their daughter’s body. To his immense distaste, Poirot noted that the obnoxious Bowley sisters were surveying the scene, eyes agog, revelling in the drama and no doubt making mental notes of each terrible detail to reiterate to the chattering types of the village just as soon as they were able. Poirot turned to Captain Hastings.

Mon amie, I think it wise that we remove the audience to less traumatic surroundings,” he said. “Particulièrement Lady Bottomclutch. She will need a drink, Hastings, even stiffer than usual.”

“Right,” nodded Hastings. “I’ll get everyone gathered in the drawing room, then get a hold of the local constabulary, I expect.”

Poirot nodded.

Oui, Hastings, that would be most helpful. Et maintenant, I will examine the scene of the crime. I will, of course, wish to speak to everyone present in the house while events, they are still fresh in the minds.”

“I’d like to remain here, if you don’t mind, mister Poirot,” said Lord Bottomclutch, his voice barely more than a breath. “I won’t impede you, I promise, I just… don’t want to leave her here on that floor without… without one of her own to watch over her.”

Once more, Poirot nodded. He could not refuse the behest of a grieving father. Hastings ushered those gathered up the steps that led back into the main part of the house, leaving Poirot and Lord Bottomclutch to consider the pantry. Poirot noted that there were two points of access – that of the steps to the main house taken by himself and the other guests, and also those taken by young James when he fled in dismay, leading to the courtyard. Poirot hoped that he had not gone too far and that some fresh air had returned some semblance of calm to the delicate young man. Clara had quite clearly been attacked from behind, the messy wound at the back of her skull suggesting a blunt, heavy instrument. A cursory glance about the room revealed nothing that appeared to have been recently employed in the art of murder, so he would have to assume that the killer had taken the weapon with them. Looking carefully at the floor, Poirot could see no footprints or distinguishing marks, but then the day had been hot and dry and the ground not conducive to giving up such tell-tale signs. Returning once more to the body, Poirot looked closely at the hands. The milky, tapering fingers were developing the hue of death but were clean and unblemished, giving no indication of a struggle or plaintive attempt at self-defence. Either Clara had known her attacker, or she didn’t see them coming.

“Who could have done such a thing?” Lord Bottomclutch sighed, his composure remarkable. “Our darling Clara. She was no threat to anyone.”

“It is difficult to imagine that such a girl could have made many enemies,” replied Poirot. “If you will pardon Poirot, monsieur, but Clara was a… most unusual young lady, oui?

“She suffered from a mental deficiency, if that’s what you mean,” Lord Bottomclutch was quite matter-of-fact. “We realised there was something not right when she was growing up. The doctors tried all sorts of things to rectify matters… some of their methods were quite barbaric, truth be told… so we decided to bring her home and simply let her be as she was. She was happy, despite it all.”

Poirot held science and modern medicine in the highest of regards, but privately felt that the professionals had some way to go in their understanding and treatments of those afflicted with diseases of the brain and temperament.

Footsteps thundered down the steps from the hall and Hastings appeared in the doorway.

“Everyone is waiting for you in the drawing room, Poirot,” he said. “All except the vicar’s son. I haven’t been to look for him but Mr Philpott is of the mind that he will return when his nerves have settled. He is dreadfully sensitive, you know.”

Bien, Hastings,” replied Poirot. “And the local police? Have you informed them?”

“Lady Bottomclutch was kind enough to give me a number and direct me to the telephone but I’m afraid to say that there was no reply when I called.”

“Ah! Of course…” Lord Bottomclutch tutted. “How remiss of me. Tunkle-on-Wyme has need of only one policeman – and even then that seems excessive – with so little to do the poor fellow retires most evenings to the local hostelry. It is said he drinks to forget the futility of his existence or some such nonsense. Either way, you will find him propping up the bar in the Cat & Compass on the High Street.”

“We’ll take the car,” Hasting exclaimed at once. “I’ll have us there in a thrice.”

But on returning to the grand driveway, Poirot and Hastings at once realised that the beloved Delage D6-11 belonging to President Archibald Venn of Queens’ College would be of no service to them. Each of the four tyres bore gaping wounds and the machine had been rendered useless.