queens college

Hide & Seek – Part Five

The heat of the afternoon sun was unrelenting, broken only by the occasional zephyr of coastal breeze gasping across the terrace as Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings politely sipped tea with Lady Bottomclutch. Poirot noted that the tea set at Somersby Hall was very different to that of the tasteful Wedgwood found at Queens’ College in Cambridge; this was a gaudy gilded affair, probably originating from China and purchased, no doubt, by the family in order to portray an air of exotic stylistic leaning. Hastings, meanwhile, noted that, although the tea was very good, a small gin or similar would be more preferable at this juncture. Lady Bottomclutch had received them both with good grace and had turned her attentions directly to the dashing Captain in a most unexpectedly warm manner. Whilst Hastings was initially delighted to be the focus of proceedings for once, the Lady’s familiarity was becoming unseemly at an alarming rate and he didn’t quite know where to put himself.

Pardon, Lady Bottomclutch,” began Poirot, hoping to deflect another attempt at the pawing of Hastings’ knee. “But did your butler Derbyshire not mention the purpose of our visit?”

“Hmm?” Lady Bottomclutch retracted her wandering hand and hid her blushes behind a tea cup. She was an elegant woman of a certain age, clearly past her best and rather like an old oil painting in need of refurbishment. “About the maid, wasn’t it? She’s very busy at the moment, I’m afraid.”

Oui, madame, so I am given to understand,” Poirot retained his usual charm but his moustache had an edge to it. “We do not wish to intrude on your formalities, merely to pass on the message most important from Cambridge, oui?

“Oh, I say, the good Captain can intrude on my formalities any time he pleases!” Lady Bottomclutch  descended into ribald giggling that caused the sharp rise of Poirot’s eyebrow and a mild terror in poor Hastings.

Just as Poirot began to think that the afternoon was lost entirely to farce, onto the terrace burst a tall and gangling young woman, dancing and spinning and throwing her tapering limbs in every direction. She was a curious sight, dressed as she was in an over-sized tweed jacket that had seen better days and a battered flat cap upon her chestnut curls. She looked to be about twenty-two or so, but she sang and capered like a small child, her guileless eyes limpid pools of pure innocence and joy.

“Clara! My dear girl, can’t you see we have guests?”

Clara ceased her windmilling and hopped into position before Poirot and Hastings, hands clutched before her, bobbing her knees in what she expected was a formal greeting.

“Hello, gentlemans!”

“Good afternoon, mademoiselle,” replied Poirot, raising a tea cup in salute.

“You have a peculiar voice!” retorted Clara, suppressing an embarrassed chuckle.

“Clara, this is the famous detective, Hercule Poirot,” Lady Bottomclutch said gently. “And his assistant, the ravishing Captain Hastings!”

“Oh!” Clara gasped. “Have they come for the party? I do hope you will stay for the party – it’s fancy dress! You can borrow one of my costumes, if you like. I have a great many.”

“I’m sure they would love that, my dear,” soothed Lady Bottomclutch, patting her daughter’s hand. “Why don’t you run along now and see to Pippin? I’m sure that he must be missing you.”

Clara nodded and, offering a little wave to her guests, skipped away back towards the house.

“Pippin is her little dog,” explained Lady Bottomclutch. “She won’t have children of her own, poor thing, but she is a very affectionate girl and don’t we all deserve a little love in one way or another?”

C’est vrai, madame. She is a charming young woman.”

“And she is right, you know, you must come to the party this evening,” Lady Bottomclutch said, with quite some enthusiasm. “My youngest son is returning from the army for a few days and I do like to make a fuss. He will arrive on the train from London this evening. Perhaps you will be able to offer him some career advice, Captain? And I know my guests will be delighted to meet the famous Captain Hastings and Hercule Poirot!”

Poirot shifted a little in his chair, repressing a mutter and reaching for his tea cup.

“I’m not sure we’re properly prepared for fancy dress,” replied Hastings, warily.

“Oh, don’t mind that,” Lady Bottomclutch waved a hand. “That’s just Clara’s way. She has a predilection for dressing up, I see no reason to suppress it.”

“And we will have an opportunity to speak to your maid Maggie, when she is perhaps not so engaged with the preparations?” asked Poirot.

“I dare say,” replied Lady Bottomclutch, her lips stretched into a tight line of vermillion. “But if you want to know anything about the maid, I suggest you speak to my husband. Lord Bottomclutch is very attentive to certain members of the staff.”

Hide & Seek – Part Two

Another Poirot parody for Captain Hastings fans everywhere

On the sweeping private driveway at the rear of one of Cambridge University’s most illustrious establishments, the President of Queens’ College – John Archibald Venn – was showing a very enthusiastic Captain Hastings three of his most prized motor vehicles. Eyes like saucers, Hastings was twitching with unconfined glee, his child-like excitement pitching his voice a good octave above its natural inclination. Something else had also heightened the Captain’s spirits and that was the brief but telling conversation in which he and Venn engaged on the way to see the cars. Hastings learned that Venn, like himself, had served in the Great War. But not only was the eminent Venn of lowlier rank than Captain Hastings (Venn being a mere lieutenant) but he also spent most of the war as a statistician for the Food Production Department, therefore being far less heroic and certainly not as alluring to the ladies.

All that being said, the fellow certainly did have an impressive collection of automobiles. The Bentley 8 Litre stood out at once – a behemoth of a vehicle, black as night and with headlights the size of a man’s head. It was a luxury carriage, out of reach for all but the very wealthy and impeccably connected. Hastings thought to himself that he would be quite nervous to be behind the wheel of such a thing and, indeed, the tires looked as if they had barely seen the road.

Brand new and resplendent in cherry red with gleaming black mudguards was a stunning Delage D6-11. Reeking of the finest French design and innovation, it was a vehicle sure to set the heart of any fair maiden racing – it certainly gave the Captain a flutter, that’s for certain.

Finally, there stood the Humber Pullman, almost humble compared to its contemporaries, being of smaller stature and of a less-dazzling matt finish. Even so, it was not a vehicle that was seen very often among the common folk and Hastings would have hopped in the driver’s seat in a heartbeat.

“I say! This is quite the fleet you have here, Venn,” squeaked Hastings, barely able to contain himself. “You must spend your weekends tearing around the countryside in style!”

Venn laughed and shook his head, waving away such an absurd suggestion.

“Hardly, my dear chap. Such vehicles must be treated with the utmost of respect! Besides, if I were to go too quickly it wouldn’t give people the chance to see what handsome devil was driving!”

“Haha! Good point!”

“Isn’t it a shame dear Poirot doesn’t share our passion?” Venn remarked. “I had hoped to convince him to take a spin. Oh look, isn’t that him now?”

Hastings turned to look towards the end of the driveway, as indicated by Venn. The distinctive outline and regal waddle were unmistakeable. But Poirot did not approach, preferring rather to keep his distance and, it appeared, converse with his companion, a plump and harassed-looking woman. Hastings waved at his friend, who replied with a deferential tip of his hat but made no further attempt to attract attention. Returning to the far more engaging subject of the automobiles, Hastings began bombarding Venn with all number of questions and observations.

Watching the scene from the far end of the driveway, Poirot smiled at his friend’s fervour.

“It is nice to see them enjoying themselves, non, madame?”

“Yes, Mr Poirot,” replied the maid. “The President has been in a right two-and-eight not long since, I’m pleased to see him smiling again.”

“What was it that troubled Monsieur Venn?” asked Poirot.

“Well… it’s ‘ard to say,” said the maid, thoughtfully. “There ‘as been dreadful trouble from a couple of the students. Mind, that’s settled down now the main troublemaker got given the elbow, as it were. I expect running a College is a very trying business, Mr Poirot.”

Mais oui, madame, that it certainly must be,” Poirot nodded. “And you, missing your Maggie, you must also be in – how you say – the two and the eight?”

“Oh, I gets by, Mr Poirot, I gets by…” the maid sighed and her tone did not reflect the words she spoke.

“Madame, if something troubles you, you must tell Poirot. He may be able to assist.”

“It’s not for myself I’m worried, you see,” she replied. “It’s my Maggie. She’s such a little slip of thing, just a girl really. Quite simple in the ways of the world and I used to keep an eye out for her. There was mention of a young man in her letters, for a time, but then when I asked further she made no reply about ‘im. Then, she made no reply at all.”

“You told Poirot that your… waters… tell you something has happened to mademoiselle Maggie? Do you know what it could be?”

“I don’t know, Mr Poirot! But something isn’t right, I’ll tell you that much. Look…” reaching within the folds of her apron, the old maid retrieved a single sheet of paper that looked as if it had been folded and unfolded a thousand times. “‘Ere’s the last letter she sent me. The address is on the top there.”

Poirot removed his shiny gold rimmed spectacles from the upper pocket of his jacket and inspected the letter with his usual diligence. Only the briefest twitch of his moustache and a curt nod offered any indication of his thoughts.

“I may keep this, madame?”

“Yes, Mr Poirot – are you going to find out what happened to her?”

Before the great detective could make his reply, his attention was drawn to the other end of the driveway by a most uncharacteristic whooping from Captain Hastings. Evidently in an ostentatiously celebratory mood, Hastings began gesturing in a most unbecoming fashion for Poirot to join him. Tucking Maggie’s letter into his jacket, he made his excuses to the maid and toddled as swiftly as dignity would allow to join his friend among the motor vehicles.

“My dear Hastings!” Poirot blustered, on the verge of admonishing the Captain for his flagrant display. “Whatever is all the excitement?”

“I say, Poirot! You’ll never guess! President Venn has offered us the use of one of his cars for the journey back to London!”

“I’ll be in the city myself in a week or so, I’ll collect it then,” said Venn, by way of explanation. “I know you much prefer to travel by train, Poirot, but the Captain here is so dreadfully keen on driving.”

“Oh, go on old bean, do be a sport,” pleaded Hastings, expecting a protest from the diminutive Belgian. “I’ll take it steady, I promise.”

“If you give me a moment I’ll arrange for the porters to have your bags brought along to the car,” Venn said quickly, keen to avoid an altercation. “Wait here, it won’t take long.”

Venn strode off up the driveway to leave Poirot and Hastings to whatever negotiations might be required to facilitate the former getting into a motorised vehicle with the latter.

“Come on Poirot, it’ll be such larks,” Hastings was almost on the point of begging.

Au contraire, my dear Hastings,” replied Poirot, after only the briefest of indulgence of the Captain’s supplication. “An automobile is exactly what we require. Mais, we will not be going London.”

“Not London? Then where?”

“Captain Hastings, you and I are going to Norfolk.”

Hide & Seek – Part One

Another Poirot parody for Captain Hastings fans everywhere 

It is something of a rarity that Hercule Poirot felt quite so at home anywhere outside of his recherché London residence of Whitehaven Mansions, but here, sipping tea in the long gallery of the President’s lodge at Queens’ College Cambridge, he felt quite the affinity with his stately surroundings. The freshly polished oak panelling was the epitome of precision geometry and the deep lacquer of the sixteenth century furniture gave a pleasing sheen in which he could admire his equally well-attended moustache. Having spent the last two days as the guest of College President and noted British economist, John Archibald Venn, Poirot felt now almost as if he had taken a small holiday; here, his little grey cells were admired and revered, rather than forced into the employ of the dim-witted and their violent circumstances.

Tiring of the sombre leisure of academia was Poirot’s great friend and trusted colleague, the plucky Captain Hastings. He had been tempted to join the jaunt to East Anglia by the promise of fast cars and the winsome glances of eligible young women, but as yet he had seen little of either. Thus far, the trip had consisted of a grovelling obeisance towards the great detective and his endless ventures that was becoming almost embarrassing. Poirot himself, of course, was enjoying the experience immensely and his already considerable ego was being stroked and cajoled to magnificent proportions.

The dashing Captain sighed and sank a little lower in his chair as Poirot once again regaled Venn with the daring escapades upon the Orient Express, a notable endeavour for which Hastings himself was not present, but knew every detail as if he had lived the experience ten times over. In fact, the details became progressively aurelian with each re-telling and he wondered to himself if the tale could possibly become any more dramatic? Evidently, it could.

Hastings smiled stiffly as Poirot explained for the umpteenth time the great benefits of a superior aptitude for observation.

Par exemple, mon amie, we look closely at my tea cup,” Poirot raised the dainty china cup and saucer with surprising delicacy in his large, rounded hands. “The saucer, it is in the style of the Wedgwood ‘Willow’ pattern, matching so beautifully the tea pot and milk jug and also the cups and saucers of you, Monsieur Venn and also you, Captain Hastings. Mais, the tea cup of Poirot, it is certainly a design of the blue and the white – yet it is not of the ‘Willow’ pattern, vrai? It is the design of the ‘Fallow Deer’, is it not?”

Hastings hauled himself up in his chair, curiosity piqued, and reached for his cup and saucer which, he noted with some disdain, had been empty for quite sometime. Never once had he doubted his great friend’s keen eye, a keeness that was matched only by that of his mind, and this occasion was to be no exception. The colouring and shape of the tea cup were remarkably similar, but the patterning subtly different.

“And here I was, thinking that I would never get to see for myself the powers of the great Hercule Poirot in action – and then there we go!” Venn slapped his knee in delight and let loose a contented chuckle. “Well spotted, sir, well spotted. Unfortunately, one of the cups was broken by a maid. As penance, I sent her into town to find a replacement but the blasted girl picked up that one instead. I’ve been meaning to arrange for a correct one to be delivered, but you’re the first person to notice!”

“It would be a simple mistake,” Poirot smiled, draining the cup in a series of delicate sips. “C’est vrai, they are très similar.”

“I suppose you can’t expect maids to know the difference,” Hastings agreed. “I do hope you are not still angry with her about it?”
“Oh, no,” replied Venn. “Besides, she doesn’t work here anymore.”

“Oh?” said Poirot, raising a thick and perfectly groomed eyebrow. “Surely you did not dismiss her for the breaking of one single cup?”

“Of course not,” Venn snapped back. He fidgeted in his seat, perturbed by some unknown thing, before turning to Captain Hastings. “Now then, Captain – didn’t I promise you a peek at my automobile collection?”

Hastings brightened immediately, his eyes shining in anticipation.

“I rather think you did, old bean!”

“Come on, then,” replied Venn, clambering hastily to his feet. “Poirot, I don’t suppose you share our enthusiasm for machines of speed?”

Certainement pas!” Poirot looked a little nervous for a moment, before regaining his immaculate composure and reaching for the tea pot. “There is a little tea left. It shall be the perfect accompaniment to the peace and quiet.”

Alone in the long gallery, Poirot’s only companion in the hush of the late afternoon was an apologetic grandfather clock, stoically counting seconds in the corner. The intoxicating essence of newly polished, antiquated wood and the reserved notations of the passage of time put Poirot in the mind that he might find himself some small position in College life when the time came to think of his eventual retirement. But the notion quickly passed; retirement was impossible when there was always a new mystery to be solved.

“Oh! Mr Poirot!” A shrill voice broke the detective’s reverie. “You must excuse me, I thought you ‘ad all left.”

A plump and flustered woman appeared in the doorway, wispy grey hair escaping from beneath a crumpled white bonnet and stout hands, red raw from scrubbing, smoothed down her white apron. Her demure black frock showed signs of fraying and the elbows looked in need of repair.

“Poirot, he is lingering over your delicious tea,” he replied with a gracious smile. “Mais, you look as though you are a very busy woman and I will not delay you, ne t’en fais pas.”

“You are so kind, Mr Poirot,” said the maid, approaching the tea things and aiming a grubby-toothed smile at her spotless guest. “It’s been such a struggle to keep up with me duties now there’s just me on me own, you know.”

“Ah, oui. The maid who broke the cup – she has not been replaced, non?”

“Maggie? That’s right. Six months she’s been gone, now, and not a word about getting me another maid. They didn’t even have the good grace to tell me she was going!”

Rough hands snatched at the crockery in a manner which made Poirot quite fitful, but he remained mute on the matter as the maid continued in her chattering.

“She was a good girl, was our Maggie. Went to work for a proper hoity-toity family in Norfolk, she did. She wrote to me for a while afterwards, but I’ve not had a letter from her in a couple of months, now.”

“You miss your friend Maggie, madame?”

“Indeed I do, Mr Poirot!” The maid paused to stand upright and place her hands upon the hearty girth of her hips. “Truth be told, I’m a bit worried about her. She seemed happy enough at first, but then…”

“Please to continue, madame!” urged Poirot.

“Well… the letters became much more brief and… she seemed… distant,” the maid muttered, her rosy cheeks loosing a little of their glow. “Then, they stopped all together. You know, Mr Poirot, there’s something in me waters tells me… something’s ‘appened to ‘er.”



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Available 10th June 2017!

(Yes, it was a surprise to me too – nothing like waking up find out you’ve got a book out next week…)