hide and seek

Hide & Seek – Chapter Twenty One

A crimson late summer sunset bled through the bay windows and the drawing room of Somersby Hall once again played host to the eclectic Bottomclutch household and their friends. Although, the occasion was somewhat more tense than the welcome home party that preceded the wicked murders of Clara Bottomclutch and the unfortunate maid, Maggie. Lady Bottomclutch was attired in a high-necked mourning gown, which swept from her chin downwards to the floor, covering every inch of her slender frame on its way to her feet. A black, wide-brimmed hat with a silk tulle veil hid her silent features, but leaked grief through its soft mesh fabric. Lord Bottomclutch wore his tweeds like a suit of armour, although they did little to protect him from the horror of events. His son Harold stood by his side, rigid, arrogance for once respectfully subdued.

By contrast, Enid had abandoned the twin set and pearls of her previous life and was resplendent in a shimmering fringed flapper dress, a golden band about her head with a large, almost obscene, feather bobbing gayly atop her chestnut mane. Of greater concern was the manner in which she perched upon the knee of Major Bernard Walker*, although the fellow showed no signs of objection, perhaps because his gaudy complexion suggested an afternoon spent at the bar. Mr Philpott, the vicar, wrinkled his nose several times, but to no avail. His son James, however, looked on with great approval and privately hoped that whatever Poirot had planned would not take too long. He had a mind to invite the Major and the revitalised Enid to continue their merriment with him in his snug.

Barton and Derbyshire were also present, but kept a professional distance from their masters and betters. Barton in particular was most put out to be summoned and even Derbyshire was a little peeved, very much hoping that the traditional theme of ‘the butler did it’ would not come in to play this evening. The only persons displaying anything of a cheerful demeanour were Captain Hastings and Chief Inspector Japp, positioned tactically by the door, should the guilty party make an attempt at escape when their identity was inevitably revealed by Hercule Poirot.

“This is my absolute favourite bit,” Hastings whispered to Japp, rocking on his heels in a bid to contain his excitement.

“Yes, it’s always something of an event when the old boy shows his hand,” replied Japp, allowing himself the smallest of smiles. “Who do you think is our killer?”

“I haven’t a bally clue!” said Hastings, shaking his head.

“A crown says it’s Barton,” Japp replied, tapping his nose. “See, I’ve got a theory about Clara’s murder. I reckon he didn’t mean to kill her at all…”

“Thank you for joining me, mesdames et messieurs!

Poirot, who was standing looking out the windows, his back to the room, finally turned to address his expectant audience.

“Captain Hastings and I came to Somersby Hall in order that we might speak with Mademoiselle Maggie, mais, it is to my great regret, that we stayed in order to investigate her murder. And, also the murder of Mademoiselle Clara – a young lady who was most fond of hide and seek, oui? A game most appropriate. For it seems to Poirot that in Somersby Hall, there is much that is hidden and Poirot, he likes nothing more than to seek. To seek the truth, to seek… the murderer.”

“And have you found either, Mister Poirot?” asked James, playing along with the spectacle.

Oui, Monsieur Philpott,” Poirot replied, a broad smile ruffling his moustache. “Hercule Poirot, he finds them both. Always.”

“Then spit it out, man!” roared Lord Bottomclutch. “Tell me who killed my daughter! I’ll wring their bloody neck!”

“They will be subject to the full force of the law, sir,” said Japp, a note of caution heavy in his voice.

“No one wanted to kill your daughter, Lord Bottomclutch,” Poirot continued. “The death of Clara it was an error, a case of mistaken identity.”

“I knew it!” exclaimed Japp. “She was wearing a maid’s uniform when she was murdered. From behind, in the poorly lit pantry, the killer thought she was Maggie!”

Très bien, Chief Inspector!” Poirot clapped his hands together and spun on his heels to offer a congratulatory grin to Japp. “So it seems that, enfin, Scotland Yard has solved the crime before Poirot, oui?

“Well, Poirot, you mustn’t feel too bad about it,” replied Japp, drawing himself up to his full height, a hint of smugness in his eyes. “We are the professionals, after all.”

Japp winked at Hastings and mouthed ‘You owe me a crown.’

“Then, please, Chief Inspector, do not keep us waiting,” Poirot twinkled from the top of his smooth head to the tips of his shiny-shoed toes. “Share with us all your conclusions.”

Japp tucked his hands into his waistcoat pockets and took to the centre of the floor, unable to suppress a triumphant swagger. He cleared his throat and cast a confident gaze around the room.

“There is only one motive behind the murder of Maggie,” he began. “And that was her illegitimate pregnancy. Therefore, there can be only one person with the motive to kill her – the father of her unborn child.”

Japp paused. As the suspects looked from one to the other, there was nothing in their faces to give any one of them away. He noticed, however, that eventually all eyes fell to Lord Bottomclutch and Barton. Now was the time to strike.

“With that in mind, I place you, Mister Barton, under arrest for the murders of Miss Clara Bottomclutch and the maid, Maggie.”

As gasps of disbelief swelled around the room, Poirot held up his hand, shaking his head furiously.

“Ah, Chief Inspector, it seems that perhaps Poirot, he was mistaken.”

“But the baby was the only reason to do away with her!” cried Japp. “And the bloody mallet that killed Clara was found in the copse!”

Oui, c’est vrai, the father of Maggie’s baby is without doubt the murderer! Mais, Barton, he is not the father. Is that not right, Lord Bottomclutch?”

Next week – the case is solved!

 

*I admit, I completely forgot about this character.

Hide & Seek – Part Nineteen

In Lord Bottomclutch’s private study, Hercule Poirot was in a state of great excitement, albeit artfully restrained. Captain Hastings recognised the signs immediately; the gently pulsating moustache, the lively fire in his eyes and a distracted irritability that all pointed to the inevitable conclusion that the great detective was close to solving a case. Although he would never say as much, Hastings was flabbergasted at this sharp turn of events, as he himself was as baffled by the murders as he had ever been.

Even as Chief Inspector Japp was explaining the results of the investigation by his men into the cause of Maggie’s death, Poirot was unable to tear his brilliant mind from the emerging facts, urgently jostling themselves into perfect positions.

“…So you see, gentlemen, that were it not for the fingermarks on her throat, the broken neck and placing of the body in the noose would have certainly led us to believe that Maggie hanged herself,” explained Japp, unaware he was talking largely to himself (Hastings could hardly be expected to follow such technicalities). “As it is, we can be certain that she was strangled.”

“And what of Clara’s death?” asked Hastings, keen to give the impression of keeping up with proceedings. “Can we be sure of that?”

“Indeed we can, Captain,” replied Japp. “She was definitely killed by the enormous wound to the back of her head. A bloodied mallet has been discovered by one of my lads, up in the copse near the gamekeeper’s hut. We can safely say that it is the murder weapon.”

“That rather puts Barton in a rum position, wouldn’t you say?” Hastings remarked. “But then, he had no reason to kill Clara. He was quite fond of her, from what I gather.”

“He might have had a reason to kill Maggie,” said Japp. “In a jealous rage, perhaps.”

Hastings tapped his lips with his forefinger and knotted his brow.

“It just doesn’t line up,” he said. “Either there is someone with a motive to kill both Clara and Maggie, or we are looking for two killers!”

“And a vandal,” added Japp. “A vicious one at that, after what he did to your car.”

Monsieurs, it is one killer and one, as you say, vandal, that we look for,” said Poirot, sounding somewhat distracted. “And, I can assure you, that the two are quite different.”

“You seem very sure about that, Poirot,” said Japp. “I don’t suppose you’d care to enlighten us, would you?”

“Chief Inspector, Poirot is always certain about the things that he says. And, if it is enlightenment you seek, then, you need only to look at the facts!”

“Facts? But we don’t even know what the facts are, Poirot!” cried Hastings.

But Poirot did not reply. He simply smiled and stood, straightening his waistcoat as he did so. As if on cue, Lord Bottomclutch entered the room. His noble shoulders were weighted with the heavy burdens of grief and exhaustion, but he retained the kind of cool dignity that only centuries of the proper kind of breeding can produce.

“Ah! Lord Bottomclutch. Poirot is most grateful that you find the time to speak with him.”

“Could we make this swift, Mister Poirot?” Lord Bottomclutch asked, his voice weary. “I’ve got police officers crawling all over the place, not to mention some rather unpleasant mess to be attended to. I’m sure you can appreciate this is a difficult time for me.”

“But of course, Lord Bottomclutch,” Poirot nodded. “I promise not to keep you any longer than necessity requires.”

Lord Bottomclutch settled himself into the armchair by the bookcase, poured himself a very large whisky and picked up the half smoked cigar, abandoned in a fit of pique by his son Harold. Once the cigar was alight, Lord Bottomclutch gestured with his hand, indicating he was ready for Poirot to do his worst. Japp lit his own pungent pipe and leant back against the sideboard next to Captain Hastings, both anticipating an entertaining interlude.

“I am afraid that the questions Poirot must ask are of a nature most delicate, Lord Bottomclutch,” said Poirot, gravely. The reclining gentleman did not speak, but nodded in acquiescence. “The maid Maggie, she was with child, oui? And there has been much talk of the identity of the father. It is true, is it not, that you treated the girl with unusual kindness for a member of your staff? Her quarters are lavishly furnished and it is no secret that your actions were preferable towards her, non?

“I see what you’re driving at, Poirot,” replied Lord Bottomclutch, spewing thick smoke towards the ceiling. “I can assure you – I am not… was not… the father. Yes, I was perhaps more generous towards her than other members of my staff. I cannot deny that. I suppose, in a way, I felt somewhat… responsible for her.”

“In what way responsible, Lord Bottomclutch?”

Lord Bottomclutch paused to refill his glass. Poirot noticed that his hands shook just slightly.

“It was very likely that the father was Barton,” Lord Bottomclutch replied, at length. “A long-standing member of my household. Maggie was unmarried and I felt a responsibility as her employer to do the best for her.”

“But, monsieur, if Barton was the father, why was Maggie engaged to be married to James Philpott?”

A long, heavy sigh escaped the lips of Lord Bottomclutch, seemingly involuntarily.

“You might as well know the truth about that, Poirot. The vicar is a dear friend of the family and I will not deny that it is an embarrassment that his only son is not the marrying kind. Mister Philpott was keen that James provided him with an heir to continue the family line and for the two to marry seemed a dignified solution to both problems.”
“But did not Barton want an heir also?” Poirot asked. “Has there not always been a Barton at Somersby Hall?”

“Barton will get his chance again, no doubt,” snapped Lord Bottomclutch, sucking furiously on his cigar. “For James, such a thing is not so certain.”

Bien.” Poirot curled his mouth into a smile that did not reach his eyes. “It is clear to Poirot that you are a man of a generous nature, wanting always to help those around you. Mais, when the time came for President Venn to be of service to you, it was not to be, c’est vrai?

Lord Bottomclutch narrowed his eyes, beady pupils darting between his inquisitor and the watching faces of Japp and Hastings. He licked his lips and at once looked hunted and afraid. Poirot stepped forward, fixing his gaze and mentally arranging his words with great care and precision.

A bone-crunching THUD! followed by a piercing scream tore through the window and the air in the study froze. Something quite terrible had occurred in the driveway.

 

 

 

In loving memory of Eric James

Musician, Entertainer, Friend

Hide & Seek – Part Seven

“I say, Poirot, I’m not sure this is the best of hiding places, you know,” remarked Captain Hastings, rubbing his neck where an unfortunate crick was swiftly developing. “It’s been a while since I hid in a wardrobe, but from my recollection it’s always the first place they look.”

Au contraire, my dear Hastings, this is precisely why it is the very best of hiding places,” replied Poirot, delicately dabbing at the slick of moisture collecting on his brow. “The sooner we are found and can return to the more civilised endeavours of polite society, the better. Mais, c’est vrai that mademoiselle Clara she is the great lover of games, Hercule Poirot is not so enamoured and wishes to return to the idle chatter and cucumber sandwiches rapidement.”

Whilst not entirely comfortable hiding in a wardrobe, Captain Hastings certainly had no desire to rush back to the idle chatter of Lord and Lady Bottomclutch’s party guests. He had been bombarded by the ferocious Captain Walker and his less than gallant remarks, the Bowley sisters were positively frightful and Lady Bottomclutch herself was getting very close to living up to her name. In fact, she had suggested to him that he should join her in a secluded nook where they were sure to remain undiscovered for quite some time and Hastings had never in his life been so keen to retreat to close quarters with another gentleman. He was hiding from Lady Bottomclutch as much as Clara, the chief ‘seeker’ in this impromptu game of hide and seek.

Poirot had been a far more fortunate participant in the evening’s social intercourse thus far, having enjoyed the relative delights of local vicar Mr Philpott, his floppy-haired son James and Lord Bottomclutch himself. The conversation had just started to become interesting and was far more productive than loitering in a wardrobe with Captain Hastings.

“I’m sure we won’t be in here too long,” Hastings reassured his old friend. “But please, Poirot, I must ask you not to leave me unattended with Lady Bottomclutch again. I fear she has unsavoury designs upon my person.”

“Ah! Oui, the lady of the house has certainly taken a liking to you, Hastings.”

“Well, I imagine it is because her husband doesn’t show her much attention. From what I gather, he seems more interested in the staff.”

“It is true that Lord Bottomclutch does have much affection for his staff,” replied Poirot, nodding slowly. “Notamment, mademoiselle Maggie, to whom we must speak the moment this game is over. My dear Hastings, I believe there is a connection between our gracious host and the young maid that has been kept from us.”

“Yes, I think Lady Bottomclutch is of the same mind,” agreed Hastings, raising a suggestive eyebrow.

Non, Hastings, it is not as you imply,” said Poirot quickly. “Rather, the connection is none other than Cambridge. The much beloved son Harold, whose arrival we all so eagerly await, was a student at the same college where we were made most welcome by President Venn so very recently, c’est vrai! Monsieur Philpott mentioned in passing but the conversation, it was quickly redirected to matters of Harold’s military service.”

“I say, that’s a coincidence,” remarked Hastings.

“Whether by coincidence or design, mademoiselle Maggie has found her way to Somersby Hall and is kept most hidden by Lord and Lady Bottomclutch. The grey cells, Hastings, they wonder why.”

The grey cells of Captain Hastings were up to this moment more troubled with the intentions of Lady Bottomclutch, but it did occur to him that their persistent requests to speak with Maggie had been met with a curious series of excuses. It would appear that the Bottomclutches would rather allow their simple yet spirited daughter Clara to play her make believe dressing up game and serve their guests, rather than insist upon the maid assuming what should be her usual duties. Hastings knew only to well the queer quirks of the British aristocracy but even the onslaught of small, powerful drinks could not prevent the slowly turning cogs of his mind moving into the realms of suspicion.

“I say, Poirot do you think…”

But Captain Hasting’s thoughts remained unexplored as a burst of primordial howling erupted from somewhere within the house, sharply followed by thumping and banging and commotion of all kind.  There was barely time for Poirot and Hastings to exchange troubled glances before the Captain flung back the door of the wardrobe and sprinted towards the source of the calamity, followed some way behind by the diminutive Belgian. Emerging from the bedroom and onto the first floor landing by the principle staircase, Hastings spied Derbyshire hurrying across the hall below. He followed the elderly butler, leaving a panting Poirot in his wake, and soon determined the direction of the disturbance, chasing the anguished cries down a small back staircase and arriving finally in the basement scullery.

Catching his breath was made all the more arduous by the scene before him and Hastings took a moment of stunned horror to make sense of what he saw. Lady Bottomclutch was gasping for breath between violent sobs, supported by her ashen faced husband. The vicar stuttered urgent adjurations to the good Lord while his son looked as if he might faint. A tall, stout young woman in a maid’s uniform continued to scream and wail as she stood over the prone figure of another maid, sprawled across the flagstone floor, the back of her head resembling a raspberry compote.

But it was not a maid. It was Clara. And she was very dead indeed.