Authors note: I've got two words for you: 'David Suchet'. We're in the television Poirot universe here, and it's permanently 1936. For further information, see the notes at the end.

 

*

THE REAL CAPTAIN HASTINGS

*

I

Some say that love's a little boy

And some say it's a bird

Some say it makes the world go round

And some say that's absurd

 

*

I won't pretend that it came as a surprise particularly, but nor had I really expected it. It might be more accurate to say I'd had the vaguest idea that something of the sort could happen sooner or later, although there again it just as likely would not. I thought M. Poirot was far too cautious and Captain Hastings bless the man! - too indecisive ever to make such an unusual and dramatic decision, and maybe I would not have believed it myself had I not been present at some of the events leading up to it. If I had not, then the incident in the art gallery in Torquay would probably have been as great a shock to me as it was to Chief Inspector Japp. I don't think the poor soul will ever quite recover from witnessing the moment when the Captain, with tears streaming down his face, slipped his hand into M. Poirot's and said, loudly enough for half the place to hear him, "Thank you, my dear."

As a matter of fact it could very fairly be said that I helped set in motion the train of events which brought the Captain and M. Poirot to that moment. After all, I was the one who introduced Captain Hastings to the work of my friend Eostre Hargreaves. It was the year M. Poirot turned fifty, and although he had tried to be very mysterious about his age, the Captain and I were both naturally in on the secret all along. Captain Hastings has known M. Poirot since they were both very young men and I, of course, have to deal with a great many official documents such as his passport and naturalisation papers. It goes without saying that a good secretary would never reveal personal information about her employer, so I have never let on that I knew anything of the sort.

At any rate, the Captain and I were wondering what sort of present we could give him to mark the occasion. I innocently happened to mention that my new neighbour in Battersea was a very promising young lady artist, and that was all it took. Within a week we had sounded her out, seen examples of her work, and persuaded M. Poirot to sit for her. He was truly flattered, although of course he had sat to portraitists before - and with some very mixed results, I might add. No, I think what did the trick this time was the earnestness with which Captain Hastings made the request. He has a kind of woebegone lost-puppy look in his eyes sometimes which makes it very difficult for M. Poirot to refuse him anything, although if the Captain had realised back then the extent to which my employer was prepared to indulge him I think it would have shocked him more than a little.

The week Eostre began her visits to the flat was also the week Captain Hastings had arranged to go off to Ireland with a friend of his to attend a bloodstock sale in Tipperary. That worked out remarkably well, because for the first two visits M. Poirot was rather stiff and uncomfortable and I know the result was frustrating for Eostre. I'm sure if the Captain had been there he would have found the whole business very trying and spent his time prowling around like a caged tiger, and his anxiety would have communicated itself to the sitter. Instead what happened was that Eostre was nervous and a little clumsy, and M. Poirot found that charming. He decided she was delightful; she decided he was very gallant, and by the end of the third session they were giggling merrily together like old friends.

After Eostre had left, M. Poirot came through into my little office beaming broadly.

"Ah, Miss Lemon, your friend Miss Hargreaves is as you say 'a breath of fresh air'. That one so young can be so talented! It gives me great hope for the whole of her generation!"

He tended to be excitable and extravagant in his moods; I was never in any doubt when he was feeling joy or despair, he always had it written all over his face. My father used to say that a gentleman never displays his emotions; what he would have made of M. Poirot I shudder to think, but I liked knowing where I stood with him even though from time to time I felt he needed a little calming down.

"I'm glad you're getting on so well with her, Mr Poirot. It should make for a much better portrait, if you can manage to relax while she's working."

"Quite so. But she is also the most entertaining conversationalist, as you have no doubt discovered already. She tells me that her brother is opening a gallery in Torquay this summer, and asks if I will consider exhibiting the portrait when it is completed. Are you acquainted with the brother, Miss Lemon?"

"I have met him," I admitted, "but only briefly. Not long enough to form much of an opinion, I'm afraid. I can tell you that he shares his home with another young man." I'm not sure why I mentioned it, except that it was the only thing I knew about him other than his curly fair hair, his blue eyes and his opinions about art. We had swallowed a cup of railway tea together when Eostre and I were seeing them off at Paddington, and that was the entire extent of our acquaintance. I had thought Eadweard Hargreaves charming but shallow; in fact I had liked his friend Adam much better. It's really a very good thing I'm not in the marrying business myself, or I think I might be disappointed to find that so many good looking men these days are completely uninterested in women.

He nodded approval of my caution. "Well, then, I will meet him myself when the portrait is finished and make my decision at that time." He turned away, and then turned back thoughtfully. "A young man, Miss Lemon? You mean that they are - so?" His Gallic emphasis on the word was accompanied by a slight fluttering of his hand which I think was intended to convey limp-wristedness.

"Yes, Mr Poirot. They make no secret of it. They live in a very small apartment, and there is only one bed."

"And you do not disapprove?"

I stopped what I was doing and stared at him. Until that moment it had never occurred to me that I had any right to approve or disapprove of Eadweard and Adam's living arrangements, but I could see now that some people might consider it a matter for comment.

"Actually, Mr Poirot," I said, "I don't think that I do. In fact," I continued - a little more sternly, as I did not want to be accused of gossiping - "I don't know that it's any of my business. Or anyone else's, for that matter."

"Not even Poirot's," he smiled. "Bon! My friend, I consider myself rebuked for my prurient curiosity. But they are fortunate, these young men, to have such a staunch champion; I hope, if they should ever come to know of it, they would be suitably grateful."

"I'm sure they would, Mr Poirot, but I don't see how they would ever get to hear of it. Do you?"

"No indeed, Miss Lemon, it is as you say," he replied, wandering off back into his sitting room in his very best and gentlest humour. It was always very rewarding to work with him when he was in such a mood, and it augured well for the rest of the week. Sometimes when Captain Hastings is away M. Poirot becomes rather withdrawn and morose, but it seemed as if this time the days would pass pleasantly and the working atmosphere would remain calm.

But things are never that straightforward in our business, and it was naïve of me to think that they would be. It was only half an hour later that Chief Inspector Japp telephoned to enquire if M. Poirot was at home, and if so whether he could come round and see him, and that telephone call could fairly be said to have put the cat amongst the pigeons in the most disastrous way possible. From that moment on, none of us would ever be quite the same again; not M. Poirot, not Chief Inspector Japp, not myself, and least of all our poor dear friend Captain Hastings.

*

"I'm glad to find you at home, Poirot," Japp said, when Miss Lemon ushered him into the detective's presence a short while after his telephone call. His grave manner and sepulchral tone were enough to wipe the smile of welcome from Poirot's round face, and the way in which he pitched himself into the depths of an armchair without waiting for an invitation only served to underline the unusual nature of his errand. "The fact is, this new case is a strange one - and we'll need a great deal of tact and diplomacy to get to the end of it, if you ask me."

"Indeed?" Poirot teetered around his desk and occupied the other armchair. "Tell me, Chief Inspector, what troubles you about it?"

"Well," Japp groaned, "I'd have to say it's the fact that it strikes a little close to home. Captain Hastings is away at the moment?"

"Yes. Until the day after tomorrow."

"Then between us maybe we can make some sense of the business before he gets back. The Captain's a good sort, for all that he's a bit on the vague side, and I wouldn't want to see him upset."

"Upset? Then the case is of relevance in some way to Hastings?"

"Well, that's the tricky bit, Poirot. It might be, and it might not." Japp eased the knees of his trousers and sat forward, projecting intensity from every line and curve. "A young man has been found murdered - stabbed through the heart. It seems likely from the information we have so far that he was a South American of some sort, dressed very respectably, nice manners, polite enough but not speaking a lot of English. Only very simple, anyway." He stopped and looked at Poirot.

"I follow so far," the detective confirmed. "Eh bien?"

"Yes, well, our enquiries have established that the last person to see him alive was a chap by the name of Thomas Dennis. That won't mean anything to you, Poirot, but he's the doorman at the Army and Navy Club in Piccadilly."

"Hastings is a member of that club," Poirot supplied, sensing that the connection with his friend was about to be revealed.

"So I understand. As a matter of fact, the conversation between Dennis and the victim was all about a Lieutenant or Captain Hastings. The victim was looking for someone by that name who had connections with South America."

"But Hastings, too, has been to South America!" Poirot exclaimed, then paused a moment to collect his thoughts. "Before the War, before even he and I met, he served briefly at the British Embassy in Buenos Aires; then later he returned several times for the shooting, and he once owned property in Argentina. A plantation of some sort; it did not succeed. So, Hastings is not a farmer, I think. Miss Lemon!" He raised his voice a little, and within moments the neatly-marcelled head of the secretary appeared around the edge of the door.

"Yes, Mr Poirot?"

"Have the goodness to bring me the file card on Captain Hastings, Miss Lemon, would you please? Chief Inspector Japp requires to know at what times he was in South America."

"Right away, Mr Poirot."

Within moments Miss Lemon had produced a small bundle of file cards and handed them to her employer, who shuffled through them briefly and then turned them over fully to Japp.

"You keep cards even on your friends, Poirot?" the policeman asked. "That seems very thorough." His tone implied, if anything, cautious approval. "Is there one about me?"

"Naturally, my dear Chief Inspector. There is also one concerning Miss Lemon, although she maintains it herself. It is particularly useful if one needs to remember birthdays or anniversaries. As time passes it is just possible the little grey cells may become less reliable with age - and it is also not beyond the bounds of possibility that at any time Poirot may be struck down by the proverbial London bus. Someone will then require this information in order to complete my work."

Japp had been copying down the details of Hastings' periods of sojourn in South America. When he had finished, he returned the cards to Miss Lemon who removed them - and herself - from the room.

"Admirable," he mused, thoughtfully. "You understand, Poirot, I'll talk to the Captain himself about all this when he gets home. I wouldn't ask you to sneak on him behind his back."

"I comprehend entirely, mon ami. The first day or two of a murder investigation require the utmost urgency. If you cannot speak with the man himself, you go to the nearest reliable source. You are, I hope, taking steps to assure yourself that Hastings could not have been in London when the young man died?"

"Oh yes. I've got the Garda looking into it, but they've had strict instructions not to alarm him in any way. They'll talk to the servants at Somerville Hall, make sure he was where he was supposed to be. The last thing we want is to have to consider him a suspect, Poirot, even for a minute."

Poirot's head inclined slowly, and his expression was sad. "No, no, my friend, that indeed would not do. Is there anything further I can do for you, Chief Inspector?"

Japp cleared his throat. "As a matter of fact there is," he admitted. "If you're not too busy, could you step down to the mortuary with me now and take a look at the body? We still don't have a positive identification for him, and it would be very helpful if you could tell me whether you'd ever seen him in the company of Captain Hastings. I've got a car waiting, we could be there in less than twenty minutes."

Poirot glanced at his watch. "Bien sûr, we could certainly do that. But if you will allow me a few moments, Chief Inspector, I think I will change my suit. What one wears to have one's portrait painted is not necessarily, I think, the appropriate ensemble in which to make the close acquaintance of an unknown corpse."

 

Respectably attired in sober City grey, Poirot was conducted an hour later into the chill, tiled basement at St Thomas's Hospital. A brown-coated attendant pulled out a gleaming steel drawer and twitched back the top of a thin cotton sheet, and Poirot found himself looking down into an extraordinarily handsome young face under a mop of wayward dark curls.

"This was certainly a very beautiful young man," he said, pensively. "There is something familiar about his face, but I am positive I have not seen him before. Perhaps - a resemblance to someone, n'est-ce pas?"

"That could be, Poirot," Japp nodded. "For all his dark colouring, his eyes are blue - which seems to suggest he came from mixed parentage."

"Ah. So that it is not impossible his father may have been an Englishman?"

"I didn't like to raise the subject," Japp conceded meaningfully, "but now that you've seen the boy for yourself, what's your opinion?"

Poirot walked slowly around the corpse, examining the face and the general conformation of the strong young body. At length he said; "One does not like to guess, Chief Inspector, but there are features about this young man that lead me to believe I may be acquainted with his family. His eyebrows and chin are of a very particular shape, and his height and build seem most reminiscent of someone I have known. In the absence of any further evidence I would not care to commit myself, but yes, I am inclined to agree with you."

"The age would be about right," Japp observed, thrusting in Poirot's direction the notebook page on which he had recorded details of Hastings' visits to South America. The detective merely nodded, his mind already racing off in other directions.

"One stab wound clear through the heart," he said. "Swift and decisive, no mistakes. This was an assassination carried out by someone accustomed to killing. The method is not peculiarly South American in origin, but one tends to find it less in northern latitudes. If the young man had not been long in London, perhaps he brought his enemy with him?"

"Ahead of you there, Poirot," Japp told him. "Judging by his clothing and the condition of his hands I'd say he was a working man, and the most obvious way for a South American of that class to come to London would be on board ship. I've got men checking everything in the Pool of London and all the way out to Canvey Island to discover whether any seaman has gone missing who might fit this chap's description. I expect to have an answer later this evening."

"Good. And of course you are checking also the Missions to Seamen and the hostels where such a young man may have chosen to stay?"

"Everything we can think of," Japp confirmed, "including any Catholic church with a largely Spanish or South American congregation. He carried a rosary," he added, by way of explanation.

"Ah. Then he may well have sought to establish a connection with some representative of the Church in London. Bon, you have covered the ground most effectively, Chief Inspector. I can suggest nothing you have missed."

Japp nodded his head. Working with Poirot had encouraged him to become a great deal more thorough and painstaking in his own methods, and although he could still be caught out he liked to believe that he now thought of almost everything. "Come and take a look at his clothes, Poirot. I've got them next door."

"A moment, mon ami." Poirot stood back, taking one last, deeply assessing look at the remains of the young man. "You say that he was found in an alleyway not two hundred yards from Piccadilly?"

"Half-concealed under a pile of rubbish," Japp confirmed. "The dustmen found him at five o'clock this morning."

Poirot shook his head sadly. "A miserable and lonely way for any young man to meet his death, was it not? And within forty-eight hours one may be required to break the heart of his father. There are days, my friend, when even Hercule Poirot must wonder whether he has chosen the right profession."

 

In the back room of a dark, narrow public house near Waterloo Station forty five minutes later, Chief Inspector Japp set a semi-clean thimble of brandy in front of Poirot and offered him a Senior Service out of a paper packet. Thinking regretfully of his own hand-made cigarettes reposing idly in their silver case in his sitting room at Whitehaven Mansions, Poirot surprised both himself and his host by accepting without hesitation.

Lighting Poirot's cigarette before his own, Japp eased his bulk onto a small stool and relished the first long gulp from a pint of old and mild.

"You have not yet told me why you do not consider the doorman Dennis to be a suspect," Poirot reminded him. The cigarette was foul, but no worse than a Gauloise; one had sometimes simply to make the best of a bad job.

"Ah, that." Japp inhaled thoughtfully. "Well, he's been working at that club for nineteen years," he said. "On the night of the murder, he didn't leave his post until he went off duty at 10 p.m. - witness the receptionist and a number of other club employees and regulars, some of whom previously saw him talking with the dead man. When he finished work he changed his clothes and walked up Shaftesbury Avenue to the Tube at High Holborn together with another employee. They parted on the platform, and the other chap saw Dennis getting into a train for Bethnal Green. They've had the same routine for the past six or seven years, according to him. No doubt Dennis could've doubled back on the next train and murdered our man if he'd had a mind to, but I can't think of a single good reason why he should. By all accounts their conversation was friendly enough, beyond a few language difficulties. I've got a man checking what time he got home, though, just to be on the safe side."

"Very well. So there is nothing further we can do until we have identified the victim and discovered the whereabouts of his luggage?"

"That's pretty well the way I see it, Poirot," Japp agreed, staring up at a line of pewter tankards above the bar as though for inspiration. "Bit of a facer, though. Your friend Hastings is the very last person I'd've expected to be sowing any wild oats. Something of an adventurer in his younger days, was he?"

Poirot winced at the expression, but he was fully in sympathy with the sentiment. "I could not say for certain, mon ami," he conceded. "In those days, I did not yet know him - and the War made changes to us all."

"He's never said anything to you about a girl, then?"

"No. That is to say, there is always a girl, Chief Inspector, but they rarely seem to be of any significance."

"No." Another long pull from the pint, and then Japp said; "I don't reckon Captain Hastings'll ever get married, you know, Poirot. I can't imagine any young woman being equal to the task of dragging him away from all the daft capers he gets up to with you. Confirmed bachelor, that's what I'd say he is. Far too set in his ways now to change. I think you're stuck with him for life, Poirot, I'm sorry to say."

"Quel dommage." But Poirot's attention was only superficially on the conversation. In actual fact he was reviewing in his mind every discussion he had ever had with Hastings that touched at all upon his time in South America, and coming to the conclusion that no, there had been no mention of any girl to whom he had been particularly attached who might have been of sufficient importance in his friend's life to have been the mother of his son. "I do not believe Hastings knows of this young man's existence, Japp," he said, thoughtfully. "As you suggest, this is a matter that requires to be handled most tactfully. With the kid gloves, in fact."

"Rather you than me, Poirot," Japp told him, feelingly.

"Ah. I suppose you are right, Chief Inspector," Poirot conceded with a grimace, answering the half-flippant remark with a much more serious interpretation of his own. Responsibility for breaking this news to Hastings undoubtedly rested at his own door. "Yes, you are certainly correct, mon ami. He would far rather hear this, I think, from me than from you."

 

On the following Monday morning Miss Lemon was somewhat startled to be greeted at the door by her employer, who had obviously lain in wait for her and pounced as soon as she admitted herself to the flat.

"Ah, Miss Lemon, punctual to a marvel as usual. I have a letter to dictate to you."

"Good morning, Mr Poirot." Taking off her coat and hat, Miss Lemon disposed of her handbag and gloves in her desk drawer and took up her shorthand notebook and a sharp pencil. "Isn't today the day Captain Hastings is due back?"

"His train arrives at Paddington station this afternoon at eleven minutes to four," Poirot shot over his shoulder. "Assuming that the Irish ferry has not been delayed, he should be by now in Swansea. But please sit down, Miss Lemon; I am afraid I must inform you of a most melancholy circumstance."

In a few words, Poirot sketched in the events of Saturday afternoon and the presumed parentage of the dead man.

"Enfin, Chief Inspector Japp's men have found out his identity. He was Ramon Hidalgo, a native of Buenos Aires. His mother was a Señorita Bianca Alvarez, who at one time was employed in the British Embassy there. If the photograph discovered in the young man's belongings proves to be that of his mother at that time, then certainly she was most strikingly beautiful."

"So, you've found his belongings, Mr Poirot?"

"Japp has them," Poirot told her. "Clothes, books - he was apparently trying to learn English - and a letter of introduction to Father Dermot Monaghan at St Christopher's Church in Wapping from a brother of the Dominican order in Buenos Aires. He describes Señor Hidalgo as obsessed with the idea of one day locating his father, believed to be a Lieutenant or Captain Hastings who was briefly posted to that city. This endeavour he considered to be misguided, but he did not feel he had any right to intervene. Therefore he asked Father Monaghan to assist the young man. So, now we will write, please, to Brother Francis at the Dominican convent in Buenos Aires ... "

From sheer habit Miss Lemon had her paper and pencil at the ready before her brain had had a chance to catch up.

"Wait a moment, Mr Poirot," she said, her tone unconsciously demanding. "Have you given any thought to how you're going to break this news to Captain Hastings when he gets back?"

"With great delicacy, Miss Lemon, I assure you," Poirot told her, recognising the source of her concern. "One would not wish to bruise the feelings of such a very dear friend."

"Oh no, I know you wouldn't. But I mean ... well, you'll want to set the scene, won't you? To handle it properly?"

A thoughtful expression settled on Poirot's face. "You have some idea, perhaps?" he enquired mildly.

"Well, not exactly. Except that ... well, wouldn't it be easier for you both if I wasn't here?"

"Indeed, perhaps so." The thought had not previously occurred to Poirot, and now he regarded her gravely. "I am very sorry to learn that you are suffering from un mal aux dents, Miss Lemon, and that you must go this afternoon to visit your dentist. By the morning, no doubt, you should be quite your old self again, n'est-ce pas?"

"I would hope so, Mr Poirot. I do think that's the best approach, don't you?"

"Indeed. And when you return to your home in Battersea, Miss Lemon, will you kindly ask Miss Hargreaves to cancel our sittings for the remainder of this week? I hardly think such a frivolous activity as portrait-painting will suit the mood of our friend Hastings."

"No indeed, Mr Poirot. Do you think he'll be dreadfully upset?"

Poirot grimaced. "I am afraid so. One does not take news like this in one's stride, I regret to say."

"The poor man." There was no sense trying to deny it; Miss Lemon was particularly fond of Captain Hastings. She had often pictured the two of them as twin shipwreck survivors, clinging to one another in a struggle to stay afloat. There were occasions when Poirot's leaps of logic left both of them floundering in his wake, and at times like that it was a relief to have someone as nice and reassuringly ordinary as the Captain to turn to in her bewilderment. Even together they were no match for the detective's formidable intellect; there was a certain solidarity in their shared confusion.

"You should not concern yourself, Miss Lemon. I promise I will take very good care of him."

The tone of voice in which he uttered this reassurance was new to her. Miss Lemon examined his expression carefully, seeing in his dark eyes only the very epitome of compassion.

"I know you will, Mr Poirot," she confirmed. "You always do. He's lucky to have a friend like you."

Poirot shrugged. "This evening," he said, "I do not believe he will think so."

 

Having worked out to a hair the timing of the Cork to Swansea ferry and the railway services from Swansea to Bristol, and forward from Temple Meads to Paddington, Poirot experienced a certain mild satisfaction in the accuracy of his prediction when Hastings' key turned in the lock less than ten minutes after his most optimistic estimate. He had been waiting poised at his desk for more than half an hour already, unable to concentrate on anything beyond the surprising existence and even more surprising untimely death of a young Argentinian seaman neither he nor Hastings had ever had the privilege of meeting in life.

It was apparent that Hastings had somehow induced the taxi driver to carry his cases upstairs. The sounds Poirot overheard told of him paying the man off, sending him on his way with a cheery word, shutting the door most carefully behind him. Then there was a half-anxious call of; "I say, Poirot, are you at home?"

"In here, my friend," Poirot responded, opening the door onto the somewhat flushed face of his friend. "Forgive me, I was deep in thought. Have you had a pleasant journey?"

"Yes, excellent. I was talking to a chap in the train about some new project to irrigate the Sahara Desert. He seemed very knowledgeable about it all - something to do with building a gigantic dam across the Nile."

"You did not promise him any money, I hope, mon ami?"

"No fear! Besides, I don't think he was looking for the kind of investment I could offer. My fifty guineas wouldn't go far against that kind of undertaking."

"No indeed. Well, be comfortable, Hastings; there is much for us to talk about."

Hastings had abandoned his coat and hat in the hallway, together with his newspaper and umbrella. He looked tired and his hair was awry, but he dropped back into the milieu of Poirot's flat as though he had never been away. In one extravagant movement he all but threw himself into the depths of an armchair that seemed too flimsy to hold him.

"My god, I can tell you, Poirot, I'm glad to be back. That place in Tipperary has to be just about the coldest and most wretched house I've ever stayed in. Jolly good of the Somervilles to invite me, of course, but if they ever do that again I'll have to plead a prior engagement - and then make one as soon as possible."

"It was not a rewarding experience, my friend?"

"Oh, the sale was first rate. Piers Somerville picked up four good yearlings -three colts and a filly. They look as if they'll do rather well for him, as a matter of fact. But all things considered, Poirot, I'd rather have had my home comforts."

"No doubt. Age catches up with all of us in the end, Hastings, even you. But compose yourself, mon brave, there is something of the utmost importance I must discuss with you, and I require you to give me your full attention."

"Yes, of course, old man, I'm all ears. Oh, my goodness, I've just realised - Miss Lemon! She's all right, isn't she? She wasn't in her office..."

Poirot raised a stilling hand. "Hush, my dear Hastings, calm yourself. Miss Lemon has requested an afternoon off to visit her dentist in Battersea. I believe a filling has dislocated itself. She will be at her post in the morning, I assure you. No, this is another matter - and it is one, I believe, that touches you closely. Tell me, mon cher Hastings, when you were in Buenos Aires before the late War ... was there not perhaps a young woman of whom you became deeply enamoured?"

Hastings' brow furrowed for a moment. When he looked up at Poirot, it was with the sort of thunderstruck expression usually reserved for the moment of revelation at the denouement of a murder case.

"Bianca?" he said, incredulously. "Don't say you've found Bianca? But how could you have known ... unless she found you ... ?"

Poirot leaned over, patting the back of Hastings' hand exactly as Piers Somerville had patted the frightened yearling filly - with great tenderness and almost infinite wisdom.

"My friend, attend. She was very beautiful, your Bianca?"

"Oh yes, I'd say. An absolute corker. I wanted to send for her, you know, only I didn't have a bean. I was hoping I might persuade my father or my uncle Charles to advance me the money, but by the time I got home uncle Charles had died and it turned out he'd been broke all along. Then the War started, and I pretty much lost hope. Of course I looked for her later, but nobody had any idea where she'd gone. But Poirot, this is marvellous! I'm used to being astonished by you, but how could you possibly have known about Bianca?"

"I did not," Poirot conceded, withdrawing his hand, patting once more in parting. "But I have deduced her existence. Be honest with me, my dear friend; is it likely - is it even remotely possible - that there could have been a child?"

"Oh, no, I ..."

Denial had been automatic, but realisation hit solidly between the eyes even before the words could be completed.

"My god, Poirot, the idea never entered my head, but now that you mention it - " A fierce blush suffused Hastings' normally pale features. "There were one or two occasions ... She was a good girl," he put in quickly, loyal despite his extreme confusion. "I mean, she wasn't ... I fully intended to marry her, Poirot, although I know my father would've had a fit. Did she ... Was there a baby?"

"There was, mon pauvre Hastings, a son. His name was Ramon Hidalgo. He has recently come to London searching for his father."

"A son?" The carpet on the floor suddenly became the only focus in the room. Hastings could not raise his eyes from it, following the intricate thread of what appeared to be some kind of black vine that twisted around the border in a pattern more free-flowing and uncontained than much in Poirot's obsessively ordered world. It roved and rioted at the outskirts of his vision, while inside his head he reassembled fragments and snatches of summer days a quarter century before and attempted once more to see the face of the girl he had known then. "Are you telling me I have a son?"

Poirot swallowed deeply, and once again he reached out. This time he took Hastings' trembling hand between both of his, folded it firmly, and squeezed.

"Mon très cher ami Hastings, I am at a loss to know what to say to you. That there was such a young man, that in all likelihood you were his father - these things are so. But Ramon Hidalgo is dead, my friend. He was murdered three nights ago, by a person who has not yet been identified and for a reason still unclear."

The complete falling-away of all emotion from Hastings' weary blue eyes was like the sudden collapse of a fine building. For a moment only the façade remained, bravely resisting the force of catastrophe despite the emptiness behind it, and then it too crumbled completely and a cry of inexpressible pain forced its way free. Hastings' head lowered, and Poirot loosed a hand to bring it abruptly to his friend's shoulder and squeeze him almost roughly.

"Our ... good Chief Inspector Japp," he coughed, "has cabled enquiries to the Argentinian police, and he expects his answer at any time. The possessions of the young man have been located; they contain a photograph which I am certain will prove to be that of your Bianca. It appears that your son was raised and educated by the charity of the Dominican order in Buenos Aires, and then went to sea with the intention of coming to London to search for you. He was a very handsome and strong young man, my Hastings, such as any father would be proud to acknowledge."

"You've seen him?" Hastings looked at him intently, and Poirot would have given the world to be able to look away. Instead he held Hastings' gaze, trying thereby to impart as much comfort and sympathy as he could.

"I have seen him," he confirmed softly.

"And...?"

"He resembled you strongly. If you wish to claim the body and take the responsibility for his funeral, you will find the paperwork already prepared. Poirot has done this." He ground to a halt then, his throat suddenly dry.

"Could I ... ?"

"Arrangements have been made for you to see him as soon as you wish. Chief Inspector Japp is waiting for me to telephone."

Hastings sat perfectly still for what seemed to be a very long time, his shell-shocked courage looking deeply into the anguished professionalism of Poirot's dark gaze. It was like watching machinery at work, cogs and levers aligning themselves so that the equipment could bear a strain, lift a weight, haul a load.

"I'd like to see him, if I may. Would you telephone Japp for me right away, Poirot? I think I'll just splash a little water on my face first,"

But instead of releasing his hand, Poirot gripped it more tightly still. "You are quite certain you wish to do this, cher ami?"

"Yes. Utterly resolved, old boy. Did you honestly expect anything else?" And his tone now was stronger, even holding a ghostly reminder of their banter in lighter times.

Poirot's sad smile spoke volumes as he relinquished his hold. "No, indeed, my dearest Hastings," he confessed ruefully, "most certainly I did not expect anything else."

 

After a mildly undignified scramble to find Hastings a tie of an appropriate sober hue - solved by a lightning raid on a lower drawer of Miss Lemon's desk wherein were also contained such useful items as shoe polish, handkerchiefs and Alka Seltzer - and a surreal journey in the back of a police car with its bell ringing as it cut through London's evening traffic, Poirot and Japp stood once again in the tiled cold room in Lambeth. This time, however, it was Poirot who drew forth the trolley on which the remains of Ramon Hidalgo reposed.

"This is he," he said, almost in a whisper.

Hastings had hung back, half-sheltering behind Japp, but now he took a few steps forward and stood, his felt hat clutched tightly in gloved fingers, looking down on the handsome young face and naked shoulders of the deceased.

"My ... son?" he said, trying the words cautiously.

"With all my heart I believe so, mon ami."

"Poor boy. Where was he found?"

"In an alleyway behind the Royal Academy," Japp answered, his response uncomfortably loud. "It must have been over very quickly; he dropped like a stone. Probably grabbed from behind, hand over his mouth, knife straight into the heart. Very efficient, if you know what you're doing. Professional killer, I'd say." Belatedly he recognised the signals Poirot was giving him, like an orchestra conductor ordering pianissimo and dulce. "His shipmates weren't aware of him making any enemies over here, but they only docked on Tuesday midnight. Señor Hidalgo didn't get shore leave until Friday; the day he was killed was effectively his first day in England. I'm sorry to have to ask you this, Captain, but do you recognise this lady?"

A faded black and white photograph with a deckled edge changed hands. Hastings looked at it in silence for a very long moment, blinking through the veil of time at the face he had once known.

"This is Bianca Alvarez," he said, formally. "Assuming that she was his mother then yes, it very much looks as if he was my son. I'm not sure the penny's really dropped yet, though." The tone was neutral but the expression grave. His gaze roamed manically around the room as if he was attempting to photograph every detail of the scene with the lenses of his eyes and the film of his memory.

"Oui," Poirot murmured, "je comprends précisément."

"I see what you mean about the likeness, Poirot He bears a very strong resemblance to my cousin Gerald - Uncle Charles's boy. You remember me telling you about him? He was in the Flying Corps."

"The memorial near Arras?"

"That's the one. Poor old Gerald."

One by one the Hastings family had died off, leaving to this sole survivor only their debts. Mrs Hastings, his mother, had been the last; hospital bills for her final illness had come close to ruining her son. All but penniless, he now existed only on a very small income from stocks and shares, a modest Army pension, and the generosity of his friends.

"To have had a son all this time and never to have known it," he sighed.

"It is a cruel irony, mon cher, that you should meet for the first time in this most dolorous place." Poirot bowed his head as he spoke, and he heard a grunt of assent from Japp, but Hastings made no reply. Indeed he seemed frozen, his face and body completely immobile.

"I don't know the first thing about him - who he was, what he was like. Only what I can see here."

There were few occasions when Poirot could honestly say that he felt inadequate to any task, but this was certainly one of them. The information he could supply was severely limited, but such as it was he hastened to divulge it now.

"There was a letter among his possessions addressed to the priest of a Catholic congregation in Wapping. It was from a Dominican Brother at Buenos Aires who had known Señor Hidalgo for more than fifteen years. I have already written to this man for more information, but it will probably be a matter of weeks before we can receive a reply. We know only that he had come to London to search for you."

"Shame you never had a chance to meet him properly, Hastings," Japp rumbled, sympathetically. "You'd probably have had a fair bit to talk about." But the tone was mildly doubting, as though he was not at all sure of the young man's likely reception.

"I would have welcomed him with open arms," was the response, from which Hastings had not quite succeeded in suppressing a note of wistfulness. "I've always wondered what it would be like to have a son; not that there's much I could have given him, in a material sense, but I'd have liked someone I could take to cricket matches or teach to drive a car. I think I would have been terribly proud of him." His voice trailed off into shaky uncertainty.

"Perhaps it is still not too late, my friend," Poirot suggested in his most compassionate tone. "Perhaps even now you may one day have an opportunity to experience that great happiness?"

"Oh, I don't think so, Poirot, do you? Not after this, anyway. How could I ever risk having another child, now that I know ... "

"Ah. Forgive me, my Hastings; now that you know what the pain is like when you lose a son, how could you think of it again? Of course. That was indeed most thoughtless of me." He reached out and his hand rested lightly on Hastings' upper arm, to be acknowledged with a very slight inclination of the head and a glance from eyes that were now brimming over with grief. They both remained thus for a long time, staring down at the body of Ramon Hidalgo, lost in their own thoughts, until the reverie was broken by the reassuringly familiar gruff of Chief Inspector Japp.

"I'm sorry, Captain Hastings," he said, with manifest reluctance, "but I'm afraid we'll have to be on our way in a minute. You will be able to return in the morning if you wish, but they'll be coffining the r- ... I beg your pardon, the undertakers will be coffining your son tomorrow." The sudden change of direction did not go unnoticed; although they did not acknowledge it, Japp's unaccustomed tact had touched both his hearers very deeply.

"Thank you, Japp. I'm very grateful for all your help."

"Least I can do, in the circumstances, Hastings. Wish it could be more."

"No, no, appreciate it old boy," Hastings repeated vaguely, "believe me. And that goes for you, too, Poirot."

"You are too kind, my Hastings." The unusual hoarseness in Poirot's tone was suddenly swallowed up by an awkward little cough.

"Not at all, old thing. I'd be floundering around in the dark if you weren't here to hold my hand, but at least I've got sense enough to recognise the fact. Thank goodness for Poirot, that's what I say. God knows what I'd ever have done without you."

 

Japp dropped them in Sandhurst Square, just outside Whitehaven Mansions. Both the car and the driver had to be returned to the Yard by six or there would, he hinted, be Dire Consequences.

"You'll be all right, Poirot?" he asked, shaking his hand briefly.

Touched by this unprecedented concern, Poirot nodded his head. "Le pauvre Hastings," he murmured.

"He was very quiet in the car." Hastings had wandered over and was exchanging civilities with the Mansions' doorman, who had seen service in some of the same campaigns as himself.

"This news is a lot to absorb all at once, mon ami. I will see that he is taken care of - and I will not allow him to be alone."

"That's the idea, Poirot. Keep an eye on him, eh?"

"I will keep both eyes on him," Poirot corrected. There were moments, usually when he was under severe stress, when his grasp of idiom eluded him completely and he was obliged to take refuge in literalism. Japp had learned to recognise this as a danger sign, and now added concern for Poirot's welfare to his other considerations.

"All very well," he muttered, rhetorically, as Poirot walked away, "but who'll keep an eye on you?"

A quick tip of the hat to Hastings, a brisk wave to Poirot that was almost a salute, and Japp was on his way back to Scotland Yard. Poirot detached his friend from the conversational clutches of the amiable Mr Foster and, linking arms with him, ushered him into the lift and up to the fifth floor.

 

The flat was cool, quiet and refreshing, arranged like a stage set with a theme of 'comfort'. They hung up their hats and coats, peeled off their gloves and deposited them on the hall table. Poirot went straight to the tantalus and without preliminary enquiry poured brandy for them both. He took his own neat, but added soda water to Hastings'. When he glanced back round, his companion was standing in the middle of the room looking completely bewildered.

"I should never have ... well, done what I did, Poirot. With the girl, I mean."

"The girl, mon ami?" He pressed the brandy and soda into Hastings' hand. "Drink this, my Hastings, you have had a shock, I think."

"More than one, old boy, more than one. You see, in the police car, I was thinking. I didn't want to say too much in front of Japp, but it seems to me this death is more or less my fault."

"Eh bien? But I confess I do not follow the logic of this remarkable claim. How is it your fault if a man dies of whose existence you are unaware?"

"Well, he was looking for me, wasn't he? I was the swine who abandoned his mother in her hour of need. If he hadn't come to London searching for me, he might not have been murdered."

"Certainement, my friend, your logic is impeccable as usual - but incomplete, also as usual. For if he had not come to London he might instead have had his throat slit in Valparaiso or Montevideo or in Punta Del Este. He might have fallen out of a window somewhere or slipped from a train; he might have drowned at sea or died in his own bed of a fever; he might even have taken his own life. Au contraire, it is also quite possible that he might have lived to the age of ninety seven, produced a dozen grandchildren, and experienced no curiosity whatever about the existence of his father. Does it not occur to you that the choice was his to make?"

"Well, I suppose you're right," was the reluctant concession. "But that doesn't stop me feeling guilty. And I should certainly have controlled myself where the girl was concerned."

"Ah, your Bianca? I agree that this was a foolish error, Hastings, but you were young, and she was beautiful, and you were wildly in love - were you not?"

"Was I? Do you know, Poirot, I don't know whether I've ever really been in love, wildly or otherwise. I mean, she was a glorious creature but even at the time I knew I'd done absolutely the wrong thing by her, and I think I could probably have tried a great deal harder to find her afterwards. I was happy enough to let it slide, you see. Never occurred to me that there would be a child. Frankly, well, I was a complete cad. I thought I'd got away with it all rather cheaply in the end. No fuss, no scandal, no consequences. Who could have imagined it would all come back to haunt me twenty-five years later?"

"Ah, I understand." Poirot sat back in his chair, pushing his legs out in front of him and inspecting his spats as if he had never seen them before. "To believe that you were overwhelmed by your love for this girl, that was a simple matter. To reconcile to oneself that you have in the past done something a little base, a fraction unworthy - this is not so straightforward. I know you to be a good and honest man, and now I find that you are as capable of lust and betrayal as any other human being. This seems to me most unlike the Arthur Hastings whom I have come to know so well."

"Actually, looking back, I'm pretty disappointed in myself," Hastings admitted, demolishing the brandy and soda convulsively. "The chap I am now wouldn't dream of doing a thing like that, but I was a lot more hot-blooded in those days. I sometimes wonder whether it was the real Hastings who did those things, and this one is his counterfeit, only I can't quite believe that I was ever quite so bold and carefree; it's almost as if it was some strange, exotic dream of a very different kind of world."

"It was in another country, and besides the wench is dead?" Poirot misquoted softly.

"That's rather good," Hastings mused in weary response. "I've heard that before, somewhere. Is it a line from a play?"

"It is from The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe."

"Oh. Right. Look here, Poirot, I don't suppose I could stay the night with you, could I? Only I don't think I could stand that poky little room in Bedford Place on a night like this, and there won't be a scrap of food in the house. Anyway, the mere thought of having to go out and find a taxi is just so exhausting ... "

"Taisez-vous, my Hastings, your room it is all made up. I will not hear of you returning to Bloomsbury tonight; at the very least you must stay and see Miss Lemon in the morning, n'est-ce pas? She will be most concerned about you."

"Ah, of course. She knows all about the boy, doesn't she?"

"There is not much, cher Hastings, that Miss Lemon does not know," Poirot reflected, half-wistfully. "She would make a most formidable detective, if only she would learn to apply her mind in a more scientific manner. Tiens, perhaps one day she will succeed Poirot in the family business. You can work as well with a woman as with a man, can you not?"

"No fear, Poirot," Hastings replied fervently. "Nothing against Miss Lemon, you understand, or women in general, but there's only one Hercule Poirot."

"Alas, mon ami," Poirot told him, on a deep sigh of regret, "this is very true."

*

 

II

Does it look like a pair of pyjamas

Or the ham in a temperance hotel?

Does its odour remind one of llamas,

Or has it a comforting smell?

 

On her arrival the following morning, Miss Lemon was more than a little surprised to be greeted by the sight of Poirot, in his blue silk pyjamas, red brocade dressing-down and black velvet slippers, sitting up in one of his armchairs guarding, as it seemed, the recumbent form of Captain Hastings who, in blue and grey striped cotton pyjamas and a serviceable wool dressing-gown, and with his large bare feet dangling over the end, had stretched himself lengthways on Poirot's couch and fallen asleep propped up by a single cushion. He looked long and grey, vanquished and immobile, a crusader on a tomb, his hands resting on his chest and his face turned away from Poirot, his expression utterly serene.

There had been very little sleep for Poirot that night; his mind had been running continuously on the details of the case, and he suspected from the sounds of twisting and turning on the other side of the wall that Hastings had found it difficult to settle too, despite the sleeping powder he had prevailed upon him to take. The evening had been agonising; persuading Hastings to eat even un petit peu had been extremely difficult, and the conversation over dinner - such as it was - had turned almost entirely on the meagre details of the investigation.

"I don't suppose I could retain you to sort this out for me, Poirot, could I?" Hastings asked at one point, his shoulders slumping forlornly as he stared without enthusiasm into his third brandy and soda. "But of course I couldn't possibly afford your fee, unless you let me work it off somehow."

"Hastings, this matter is immaterial," was the low-key response. "You do not need to retain the services of Hercule Poirot."

"What, open and shut case, you think? Or no chance of apprehending the killer?"

"It is, I think, a straightforward killing that will reveal itself when one has all the information," Poirot conceded, "but that is not what I meant. Sans detours, you are my dearest and oldest friend in this country; not to succour and support you in a time of trouble would be ... unconscionable! There is no question of any fee, my friend; the time, the detective services of Poirot, they are all yours to command for as long as you need them."

"Oh. Right." Somewhat taken aback, Hastings looked across nervously and discovered that Poirot's brown eyes were flaming with a sort of defiant fanaticism. "You're really pretty upset about this, aren't you Poirot?"

"Bien sûr, Hastings, what hurts you hurts me also. And how could I not extend to you the same loyalty which you have always offered to me? We are toujours 'partners in crime', are we not?"

"Partners in crime'?" Hastings mused. "Oh yes, absolutely, old man. Pals to the end, you know."

"Yes, mon ami," Poirot responded wisely. "I know."

 

But this reassurance had brought neither of them the peace that might have been expected, and a little after three in the morning Hastings' mental turmoil became painfully apparent in a roar of absolute anguish which tore the night violently asunder.

"Oh God noooooooooooo!"

Before the third word Poirot was already on his feet, not pausing even to grab his dressing gown or slippers, and in an astonishing state of deshabille he flung himself without ceremony into Hastings' room.

"Hastings!"

Hastings was sitting on the edge of the bed, his eyes wide open, struggling for breath, every limb trembling with fear.

"Oh God, Poirot," he gasped, turning away from his host in embarrassment. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to disturb you like that."

"It was a bad dream, n'est-ce pas?" Poirot sat down next to him, one silk-clad shoulder leaning against Hastings' for reassurance.

"Yes - very bad, actually. I was ... I was back in my dugout behind Vimy Ridge, trying to get some rest on my cot when a shell hit just above me and the whole ceiling started coming in. All the earth was slowly filtering down on top of me like the sands in an hour-glass, and the more I struggled to get out, the worse it got. My legs were trapped in the bedclothes, the earth was piling up on me, and I couldn't break free. I was suffocating, Poirot, and I thought what a stupid and ridiculous way it was for a soldier to die, tangled up in his bedding and smothered by his ceiling! It was pretty appalling," he added, understating in an attempt to reduce the experience to manageable proportions. "You know, if I had died like that in the War, I'm not sure there would've been anybody left to dig me out. I'd've been there to this day - Arthur Hastings, one of the forgotten dead."

"I assure you, my friend, Poirot would most certainly not allow that to happen," was the stern response. "The next time you are trapped by your bedding and the roof it closes in upon you, figure to yourself that Poirot is there too, and he will untangle you. The hand of Poirot, it will reach into your dream and lift you to safety. I have promised this, and you may be sure that it will be so."

"You really think it can be that simple?" Hastings was incredulous. 'That all it takes is one promise, and all the bad dreams will just somehow go away?"

"Mais pourquoi pas?" demanded Poirot, in a tone of sweet reasonableness. "The workings of the subconscious mind are mysterious, mon cher Hastings, but they are not totally obscure; it is the power of suggestion which brings you this dream, and the power of suggestion which can drive it away. And now always, in the future, Poirot will be there to save you from your subconscious fears. Depend upon it."

Doubtful despite this extravagant certitude, Hastings nonetheless allowed himself to be persuaded. "I must say I admire your confidence, old man," he admitted ruefully, still shivering from the impact of the experience. "I feel a complete fool about the whole business, if you want to know the truth, but just at the moment I'm willing to cling to any shred of hope you can offer me."

"Eh bien, my brave Hastings, you are wise to put your trust in Poirot. And now, my friend, you are cold and you have had a fright. You will therefore put on your dressing-gown and come with me to the kitchen," he instructed softly, "where I have the very thing for shock; it is an old recipe I learned from a dear friend. And afterwards we will talk, and perhaps you will fall asleep again and there will be no more of the night horses."

"Nightmares, Poirot," was the automatic correction.

"Ah yes," was the fond rejoinder. "Nightmares."

And Poirot returned to his room, put on his dressing-gown and slippers, and brewed up the famous old recipe - a good, strong cup of tea, which Hastings welcomed as though he were a man dying of thirst in the desert. Then, at the urging of his friend, he stretched out his long frame on the sitting room couch and they talked, as Poirot had promised; or rather, Poirot talked, at length and most soothingly, about places and people and events from long ago, from a time before they had known one another. Hastings merely listened, allowing the hypnotic effect of his friend's voice to seep through his veins and calm him, until his greying head became too heavy to raise and he let it settle a little further into the cushion Poirot had placed beneath it, and the elusive sleep returned once more to claim him.

Poirot, on the other hand, sat beside him, watching over him, stilling every little sign of alarm, soothing when it seemed necessary, from time to time placing a small, square hand on Hastings' angular shoulder and watching in satisfaction as he rested, untroubled by any further nocturnal equine activity, until the sun began to prise open the gap between the curtains and force its way into the room. And at eight-thirty on the dot, Miss Lemon arrived.

Catching his secretary's eye through the glass panel Poirot glanced once more at his friend, then stole silently to his feet and crept through into her office.

"My dear Miss Lemon, how can I ever apologise to you?" he asked, distress evident in his tone. "Indeed, this is not a fitting ensemble in which to greet any colleague and most particularly not a lady, but as you will understand I have been very concerned about Captain Hastings."

"Think nothing of it, Mr Poirot," she reassured. "These are exceptional circumstances. How is he?"

"Much distressed, I think," Poirot informed her, "although he conceals it gallantly. You will please ask the switchboard not to put through any calls before ten o'clock, in order that Hastings should not be disturbed?"

"It will be my pleasure, Mr Poirot," she confirmed. "Now, just this once, why don't you allow me to get you some breakfast? I know where everything is, and if you'll let me use your kitchen ... ?"

Poirot regarded her dumbfoundedly for a long moment. Normally he was very defensive about permitting anyone into his immaculate, ordered kitchen and breakfast could not have been further from his thoughts, but now that she had mentioned it he discovered that he was both hungry and thirsty and his soul desperately craved at the very least a thorough wash and several minutes alone with his hairbrush. He had no desire to remain for one moment longer the dishevelled and unsanitary object he felt himself to be, and now that he could hand over the care of Hastings to someone else the urge to neatness had reasserted itself.

"Oh, my invaluable Miss Lemon!" he breathed, "How kind and welcome that offer is! If you will telephone downstairs to Monsieur Foster, he will send a boy for brioche immediatement. That and a little café au lait, my dear friend, would be a repast fit for royalty. And you must have some yourself, of course."

Miss Lemon smiled down affectionately at the recumbent form of Hastings. "I'll order enough for four people," she told her employer. "I have no doubt Chief Inspector Japp will be here before long."

"Excellent, Miss Lemon, excellent. Alors, I will leave it in your most capable hands while I attend to my toilette. Et je vous remercie mille fois."

"You're very welcome I'm sure, Mr Poirot," Miss Lemon replied with a gracious inclination of her head.

 

"More coffee, Captain Hastings?" Miss Lemon said, an hour or so later.

"Thank you." He held out his cup, aware of two pairs of eyes watching closely for the slightest sign of a wobble. To his relief the hand did not quiver at all, and he managed a vague little smile as he returned the cup to its place. "I must say this is all jolly pleasant."

Indeed it had been a relaxed and informal breakfast, quite unlike the usual morning meal Chez Poirot which often seemed something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Having been most gently awakened by an immaculately brushed and dressed Poirot, Hastings had washed and thrown on his clothes in minimalist military fashion and had succeeded in presenting a creditable spectacle at the breakfast table just as the warm brioche, fresh Normandy butter and confiture d'oranges had made their appearance.

"That will be Chief Inspector Japp," Miss Lemon said, excusing herself from the table as the bell rang. "I'd better see if he'd like some tea."

"She's a gem, Poirot," Hastings muttered in her absence. "Thinks of everything. I can see why you rely on her so much."

"She is a most dependable colleague," Poirot concurred. "My dear Chief Inspector, you will join us for breakfast?"

Japp had removed his coat and hat on his way through the hall and now thumped down with obvious relief into the place set for him.

"Don't mind if I do," he confirmed, fervently. "I've been on the road since six this morning. After I left you last night there was something nagging at me that I couldn't get out of my mind, so I went back to talk to the man Dennis at the Army and Navy Club. He gave me a very vivid account of his conversation with young Hidalgo. We already knew the boy's English wasn't up to much, but I'm amazed he and Dennis managed to communicate at all - the bloke's got a Welsh accent you could cut with a knife. He tells me it was all done with a lot of hand-waving and raised voices, but they got there in the end. Anyway, something else he said got me thinking. Are you aware, Captain, that you're not the only 'Hastings' on their books?"

Hastings, in the act of reaching for more butter, barely even acknowledged the suggestion.

"Oh, good Lord yes," he said, oblivious to any significance in the words. "As it happens, I'm not even the only 'A. Hastings'. Caused no end of confusion at one time; I was always being asked to parties because they thought I was someone else. Never turned them down, of course. Free food and drink, you know - "

Something in the appalled quality of the silence in the room stopped this blithe recollection in its tracks and he stared around at his two hearers. Miss Lemon, arriving from the kitchen with tea for Japp, moved noiselessly to her place at the table.

"You are aware of another 'A. Hastings'?" Poirot prompted, delicately. "A man with whom you were often at one time confused?"

"Oh, no." A bewildered denial, and the brioche descended to Hastings' plate from fingers suddenly robbed of their sensitivity. "No, Poirot." His tone was almost agonised. "I can't believe he has anything to do with this! Besides I haven't heard anything of him for years; I assumed he must have been killed in the War."

Japp's brow furrowed as he looked across the table. It was not Hastings' bland dismissal that troubled him, so much as Poirot's startled response to the same. "It appears not," he said, bluntly. He was amazed that a little confiture d'oranges could go such a very long way, and as he looked down he realised that he had carefully spread it on his fingers instead of the brioche. Smearing it on his napkin and meeting Miss Lemon's sympathetic gaze blandly, he continued; "In total, twenty-four Hastingses of various descriptions have been members of that club since the Battle of Waterloo. I dare say you'll know something about most of them, Captain. Nine are still alive, of whom one is in Tasmania, one in the Sudan, and a third, for reasons passing my understanding, in Yugoslavia."

"He's in the Consular Service," Hastings said. "But he's a Maitland-Hastings really."

"So I understand. There's yourself, of course, and the five others are all related to one another somehow. Two are very young; one has just been commissioned in the Royal Navy and the other in the Chaplain's Corps. They're both the sons of Admiral Sir Hugh Hastings, retired ... "

" - who is the brother of General Sir George Hastings, also retired," Hastings completed briskly.

"And you know something about this General Sir George Hastings, Captain, don't you?" As Japp spoke he glanced at Poirot, his look transmitting the message plainly. Aha! Something that wasn't on your card, eh, Poirot?

"Not much," was Hastings' quiet response. "We're not related, that I've been able to discover. But Sir George's son and I are only two years apart in age and during my early career I was frequently mistaken for him simply because my initial happens to be 'A'."

"Captain The Honourable Athelstan Hastings," Japp supplied, around a mouthful of tea, "son of General Sir George, born 1886. He served in the Army, and as a matter of fact he was posted to the British Embassy in Buenos Aires shortly after the Captain here left. You have no idea how many diplomatic staff I had to drag out of bed at the crack of dawn to get that information," he added, wickedly. Although he concealed it well most of the time, he took a certain atavistic pleasure in disrupting the lives of those who considered themselves his social superiors. "He wasn't in the War; he was believed to be somewhere in South America instead. He was cashiered the service in 1913 after an incident with a young lady on a train."

"Oh, I remember that!" Miss Lemon put in, with a look of astonishment. "It was such a scandal at the time, it was in all the papers! They were alone in the carriage when the train broke down inside a tunnel, and he took advantage of the darkness to assault her. I wasn't aware his name was 'Hastings' though; the newspapers always referred to him as 'an officer'."

"The young lady accused him of attempting to rape her," Japp said, sourly, "but he was only convicted of indecent assault for removing some of her clothing - although there's no saying what might have happened if the train hadn't started moving again at that point. At any rate, I'm led to believe a sum of money changed hands before the case ever came to court. It was the end of his military career, of course, and admittedly he's kept a low profile since he got out of prison, but there are rumours that he's frequently in London, although he hasn't been seen at the club for many years. But it was the South American connection that started me wondering, Captain; I believe the fact that young Hidalgo was looking for you made somebody nervous - and that he may have been killed in the belief that he'd come over from Buenos Aires on the trail of your namesake."

"Oh, mon dieu," Poirot swore, scarcely above a whisper. "Then you suggest that the boy was murdered by mistake? That in innocently asking after his father he was believed to be searching for another man of the same name, the whereabouts of whom must be protected at all costs?"

"It's looking that way to me," Japp confirmed. "What's your opinion?"

"That if you are correct then the activities of this other Hastings are very likely to be criminal," Poirot mused, "and of such a nature as to require no possibility of witnesses. Were any club members or servants present on the day of the murder who might still be in contact with him? Has the General any idea where his son is living? Or perhaps the cousins?"

"One of the boys is away at sea, but I've spoken by telephone to Chaplain Lieutenant Peter Hastings. He's given me the details of a woman in Belsize Park his cousin used to associate with. I've got Sergeant Gower working on that angle; I'm off to Carshalton Beeches when I leave here, to interview the General. I wondered if you'd like to come with me, Poirot?"

Poirot's dark eyes darted rapidly sideways. Hastings had fallen silent again; in fact he was repetitively rolling and unrolling the hem of his damask napkin, listening to but not heeding the conversation in the room.

"Why was he in Buenos Aires?" he demanded, suddenly, and the bleakness of his tone sent a shiver down Poirot's spine. "My namesake, I mean? You said he was posted there after I left. I didn't even do a full tour of duty before they found me something else to do. I thought I'd made an idiot of myself as usual, but it wasn't my fault, was it? They just discovered I was the wrong A. Hastings."

Poirot's hand lifted, reached forward, but was beaten to its aim by Miss Lemon who stretched across the tabletop and wrapped Hastings' fingers in her own.

"You are only 'the wrong Hastings' in the sense that you have never outraged a young woman in a public place," she told him, vehemently. "To be wrong in that sense is hardly a disgrace, Captain. It sounds to me as if your namesake is a shallow pleasure-seeking wastrel who never did a hand's turn and cares for no-one but himself, whereas you have always been a gentleman and done your best to bring credit to your regiment. I know Mr Poirot agrees with me; don't you, Mr Poirot?"

"But naturally," Poirot concurred. "Miss Lemon is entirely correct, Hastings; to be discarded in favour of such a man has no reflection on you. It is a measure of the extreme stupidity of the military mind, that decisions of pith and moment are made on the basis of a man's social credentials and his ability to play tennis. Pah!"

"I'm rather good at tennis, actually," Hastings said, pathetically.

"I do not doubt it, mon ami. I merely say that you have many other fine qualities which make you suitable for any manner of responsible position, and yet you have constantly found yourself passed over in favour of one who has a poor character but possesses a General for a father. The English and their class system; a good man can gain advantage only if he has the fortune to select parents who are socially acceptable! Enfin, sometimes I despair of this country!"

Japp harrumphed. "I won't argue with you, Poirot," he said, "especially when it comes to Captain Hastings here, but time's running out and I can't afford to stay and talk to you if I want to see the General myself. Are you coming along?"

Poirot recollected himself, and dabbed at his mouth with the corner of his napkin to cover a momentary confusion.

"Thank you, mon ami," he said, "but I think perhaps not. I have enquiries to attend to in London today. But no doubt you can escort Miss Lemon to her dentist on your way?"

"Her - uh?"

"Oh yes, my dentist." A brisk movement under the table indicated that Japp had just received a sharp kick on the ankle, and for a moment he glared at Miss Lemon before accepting his fate. "Thank you for reminding me, Mr Poirot, I really should be going."

"All right, then, Miss Lemon, you put your coat on and I'll wait for you in the car," Japp confirmed, a mutinous glower aiming itself in Poirot's direction. He, however, was oblivious, his full attention centred on the bowed head and restless fingers of his best friend. Japp, seeing this, pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Special favour only, Poirot," he grumbled, unable to keep concern out of his tone. "I'm not running a taxi service, you know."

"My dear Chief Inspector, you are too amiable," Poirot told him, with a distracted wave of his hand, and that was the moment when Chief Inspector Japp decided that it would be far and away his best course of action to quit while he was still ahead.

 

Long after the door had closed behind them and Japp's car had pulled away from the kerb, Hastings still fiddled with the napkin. Eventually Poirot reached out and took it from his hands, smoothing and folding it, putting it back into the sideboard drawer.

"Miss Lemon and her fictional teeth again," Hastings murmured, on an accusatory note.

"Her teeth are real enough, mon ami," Poirot told him. "So indeed is her dentist. The pain, I am pleased to say, is the fiction."

"Thank you, old man. I don't know many people who'd go to this much trouble on my account."

"Perhaps you do not," Poirot conceded, "but that, I think, would be their loss, not yours."

Hastings shrugged. "You say such reassuring things, Poirot," he said, "but people tend not to see it that way, on the whole. I know I don't cut a lot of ice in the world. I must admit I was happy enough to ride on Athelstan Hastings' coat-tails for a while, until - well, now, I'm probably riding on yours. Basking in your reflected glory. Being known as the friend of the great detective gives me a sort of - cachet, if you like - that I wouldn't otherwise have."

There was a long pause while Poirot considered this statement. Eventually he said, thoughtfully; "You are too hard on yourself, mon ami. Socially, you are an asset to any occasion. You know always what is right to wear, where it is good to stay, where one can obtain a decent meal. You are well-travelled, adaptable, most amiable company and the loyalest of friends. This is a word, yes? 'Loyalest'?"

"It is now, I suppose," Hastings agreed, wryly.

"Bon. And yet you should have married, my Hastings, and the loyalty and devotion you give to Poirot you could instead have given to your wife. And then perhaps there would have been a son to console you in your old age."

Hastings shifted uncomfortably in his seat and watched as Poirot, apparently in a state of some agitation, walked over to look out of the window.

"I could have, I suppose," he admitted at length, "but there never really was anyone. I think I'd have married Bianca all right, but it would have been a disaster. Probably I knew that all along. She was too much woman for me, Poirot, I'd never have held on to her. Some handsome young buck with pots of money would have stolen her from me in no time flat - and then we'd all have been miserable. I always knew she didn't love me, but we would have managed well enough for a little while. Apart from her - I've never even considered it. Girls are jolly good company, but I don't really see myself as the settling down type, do you?"

"Perhaps not," was the gentle assent.

"And what about you, anyway, Poirot? I mean, you're in a good profession, you obviously like women, you're not exactly hideous - There must be a reason why you've never married."

Poirot sat down opposite him, his back to the window, his face in shadow.

"It is not that I have never thought of it," he began, "but there are in my case certain insuperable difficulties. Many years ago I was greatly enamoured of a young lady named Virginie Mesnard, but alas I was too diffident about expressing to her my feelings and she married my very good friend Ferraud instead. All things considered, I believe he was a far better choice in the end." He fell silent for a long time, as though lost in painful recollections of the past, then resumed speaking in an even quieter tone. "Do you recall the circumstances of our first meeting, Hastings? At a certain convalescent home near Fishbourne, where you were visiting your friend Captain Logan?"

"Do I?" Hastings asked, rhetorically. "I think the poor old Padre was quite desperate. Would I please come out to the garden and play chess with one of the Belgian gentlemen who was so bored he was driving everybody up the wall. I told him I was a terrible chess player but he said it didn't matter, you just needed company."

"And you came to me and introduced yourself and for thirteen games in a row you sat there and played appalling chess simply in order that a guest in your country would not feel lonely," Poirot recollected.

"Oh, that wasn't deliberate," Hastings assured him. "I really am that bad."

"I know, my friend," Poirot chuckled. "I have had twenty-two further years in which to assure myself of this fact. But my point is that you stayed, and you endured the humiliation of repeatedly being defeated, and you remained cheerful and talked to me throughout with great charm, and you did not once think of yourself. And when, at length, it grew too cold to remain outside, you pushed my wheelchair back into the house - and you did not then ask me, and nor have you at any time since, about my injuries."

Embarrassed, Hastings glanced away. "I didn't think it was any of my business, Poirot," he admitted, awkwardly. "Besides, I had an idea they might be rather - intimate."

"They were," was the quiet response. "To have married after that would have been a great injustice to my wife. One could hardly hope to fulfil the duties of a husband in such a condition. There was still, you understand, shrapnel embedded in my thighs, and the scarring was most severe."

"My god," Hastings groaned. "Are you telling me you can't - " He left the sentence uncompleted but the implication was obvious.

"Only - with difficulty."

"How awful. Are you still in any pain?"

"A little, now and then. And as you know I find walking rather difficult, especially on uneven ground."

"Yes, I'd noticed that," was the sympathetic reply. "I'm sorry, Poirot, I had absolutely no idea. That damned War damaged so many good men, I don't know if the world will ever recover!"

"You are thinking of your friend Logan, n'est-ce pas?"

Hastings nodded. "I thought he was on the mend, you know. Then one day, quite out of the blue, he just took his service revolver out to the shrubbery and blew his own bloody head off. Couldn't stand the thought of being so badly disfigured, I suppose."

"We are not all as strong as you, mon pauvre Hastings," Poirot told him gently. "And it was my great good fortune that, after he died, you were willing to continue visiting me. How I looked forward to your visits I cannot begin to describe. Without you, perhaps, I too should have taken a revolver into the shrubbery."

"Not you, Poirot. Never. You would have seen it as a personal defeat."

"Ah, but you are forgetting I had only just learned that it would be many years and a dozen operations before I would again be able to function as a man. Perhaps we cling to the smallest scrap of wood to save ourselves from drowning, mon cher, but in your visits I had found a reason to go on living. Each week I would tell myself that no, it is not possible to die just yet, because Lieutenant Hastings will be here on Saturday. I know what grief is, Hastings, and I know that you must grab hold of anything you can find that will give you a little consolation. Any small service that Poirot can offer, you must demand it and it will be yours."

"Thank you, Poirot," Hastings said, apparently a little uncomfortable with his vehemence. "You're such a comfortable fellow to be around. I think - " He hesitated awkwardly, then plunged on. "I think it's a good thing you're not contemplating getting married, if you see what I mean. That is to say, you're not going anywhere, and I'm not going anywhere, and we get along well enough together, so why should we want to change anything? From a purely selfish point of view, Poirot, I'm rather glad we'll be sticking with the status quo."

"As am I, my friend," Poirot told him, with a strange little attempt at a smile. "As you say, it is a very good thing."

After that a silence fell that was neither wholly comfortable nor particularly uncomfortable. Outside in the Square a squeal of brakes and a fluent barrage of cursing told the lurid story of a rather too close encounter between a delivery van and an errand boy on a bicycle, but inside neither man saw fit to comment on it; each was locked away in his own thoughts, although in the circumstances it was perhaps not surprising that they ran on remarkably similar lines.

Hastings, for his part, was trying to imagine the woman that Poirot would have married if he had been fit to do so, and failing in the attempt; he could only think that she would have needed to be quite exceptional, a woman of almost saintly tolerance, and utterly devoted to this maddening little man and his bizarre ways. He could picture how the mythical Madame Poirot would have smiled fondly every time her husband embarrassed her, if only because on many other occasions she would have been the recipient of his own charming smile. Hastings knew how that felt; it had been a shock to him to realise how important it sometimes was to him to please Poirot, or at least to amuse him with some unintentionally clumsy antic. That gentle chuckle of his had become a very necessary part of Hastings' existence, and although he had other friends and interests that Poirot did not share and never would, still he found himself constantly and without conscious decision gravitating again and again to this smart living-room five storeys above London and to the Belgian gentleman he had rescued from boredom so many years before.

Across the room from him Poirot, his hands steepled together as though he was wrestling with some complex riddle for a distinguished client, was thinking about Bianca Alvarez and the young man whose heart she had so comprehensively ensnared. The Arthur Hastings he had met back in 1914 had already been so altered by War and adversity, by foul tinned meats and rats in the trenches and overflowing latrines and blood and death on every side that Poirot believed his Bianca would not have recognised in him her suitor of less than two years earlier. Had she loved him? It seemed unlikely that they would ever know, but he certainly hoped so. Truly, he wished that there had been real happiness for Hastings in that love, no matter how short-lived or ill-founded it may have been.

To know that you have once in your life been without care, truly happy, in love with life and with your Bianca; moi, j'espère que c'etait vraiment ça, mon cher. But to see darkness fall around you again now that your son is gone; no, that would not be pleasant. I, Hercule Poirot, will make it my life's purpose from this moment forward to ensure that you are always as happy as you can aspire to be. I will not allow myself to be deprived of your company, my Hastings, if there is anything within my power that will prevent it.

"You return to the mortuary this morning?" he asked, softly, at length.

"What?" Hastings' thoughts had run so far ahead of him that for a moment he could not reconnect to the conscious world. "Well, yes, I suppose so. I'm afraid I rather took it for granted you'd be going with me, though. After all, in an odd way - well, you knew him better than I did."

An elegant little shrug of Poirot's shoulders disillusioned him. "Alas, mon ami, je le regrette," he confided, so kindly that it did not seem at all like a rejection. "As I mentioned to the Chief Inspector, there are matters of business I must undertake today. And you would prefer to say your farewells alone, I think."

Hastings grimaced. "That's jolly kind, Poirot, I rather think I would like that," he acknowledged. "I'm liable to blub, you know, and it could be embarrassing. For both of us, I mean."

Politely Poirot shrugged away the comment. "You will be yourself, my Hastings," he said. "One could never be embarrassed." Then he seemed to realise precisely what he was saying and cleared his throat, a little awkwardly. "It might also be an appropriate moment to return your luggage to your flat and collect your post," he went on, "although of course the room here is yours as long as you want it. You will join me for dinner, I hope?"

A somewhat wan smile passed across Hastings' thin features. "Your cooking?" he asked hopefully.

"I thought perhaps grilled chicken?" was the interrogative response. "At seven thirty?"

"Just try and keep me away," Hastings told him fervently. "All right, I'll have lunch out somewhere." He looked at his watch. "Lord, I'd better get moving or they'll have poor Ramon all boxed up and shipped out before I get there."

"Calm yourself, mon ami, Poirot will telephone and make sure they await your arrival. Mais allez vite, mon cher," he added, with a schoolmistressy intonation, "they will not wait forever!"

"Ah, right. Tout de suite, eh Poirot?"

"Tout de suite, my Hastings, as you say."

And after Hastings had gone, typically disorganised and out of breath and apparently all long limbs like some ungainly overgrown puppy, Poirot calmed himself with a massive effort of will, dialled the telephone number he had been given for Eostre Hargreaves, and in as businesslike and reassuring a manner as he could summon, proposed that she allow him to buy her lunch.

 

Hastings let himself into the flat a little after seven that evening, to be greeted by the sight of Poirot emerging from the kitchen shirt-sleeved and attired in a massive apron like the sommelier of some smart French restaurant.

"Bon soir my friend," he greeted, warmly, "your timing is perfection as usual."

"Hallo, Poirot, dinner smells good." Tired as Hastings obviously was, the light words seemed only a little forced. "I'm absolutely starved, lunch was such a long time ago. Oh, I brought an overnight bag, since you said - "

"Of course." Poirot watched Hastings as removed his coat, hat and gloves and deposited his umbrella in the stand; the evening had turned unseasonably wet and blustery, although Hastings seemed to have avoided the worst of the downpour which was even now building to a crescendo outside. "Dinner will be ready in fifteen minutes. You will pour the wine, perhaps, and tell me how your day went?"

Hastings glanced into the hall mirror, rearranged his greying hair with careless fingers, and braced himself for the task. "Right-ho," he agreed, cheerfully enough, sauntering into the sitting room. "Although there isn't a lot to tell. Sorted out my laundry, you know, paid my bills, had a chat with my landlady. Her lumbago's playing her up again; she says that means a wet spell."

Poirot's gaze turned briefly towards the curtained window, against which even now a northerly gale was howling for admittance. "That is remarkably prescient of her, do you not think?" he teased.

Hastings matched his smile. "I thought so," he concurred.

"And you have been to the mortuary."

"Yes." For a moment Hastings' long face contorted with pain, and then he said slowly; "Do you mind if we leave that until after we've eaten, Poirot? I need a glass or two of this first." Even as he spoke, he was twisting the corkscrew into the neck of a plain everyday chardonnay, and a moment later had withdrawn the cork with a resounding 'pop'.

"You would like something stronger, mon cher? Brandy?" Ever the conscientious host, Poirot was immediately concerned that he might not have made sufficient provision for this most favoured of guests.

"No thanks, old man, this'll do nicely." Hastings handed over one glass and raised his own to Poirot, engaging him in full eye contact for the first time since his return. "Just the thing; not too heavy. And I'd like to keep a clear head if I can. But how about a toast, Poirot, to that poor murdered young chap, and to all his lost hopes and dreams?"

The expression in Hastings' blue eyes was almost indescribably tragic, as though he was only by a miraculous effort of will managing to hold back a damburst of grief. Mesmerised, Poirot lifted his glass.

"A notre pauvre cher Ramon," he said, very softly, and drank deeply. At that moment he would not have known if every pot and pan in his normally immaculate kitchen was boiling its wretched head off, and he could not have cared less if the chicken was grilled to a crisp, the vegetables simmered away to vapour, nor even if next door's cat had broken in and stolen the crème brulée; he was far too much in sympathy with the look of unspeakable distress on his friend's face, and filled with the desire somehow to alleviate his suffering, if only by a fraction.

"I'll never forget him, you know," Hastings confided.

"I know, mon ami. Nor indeed will I; from such a short acquaintance he seemed like a very fine young man, of whom his friends speak most fondly. But his dreams were surely not all lost, Hastings, for in the end, when it mattered most, he found you, his father, did he not?"

"But only when it was too late!" was the anguished response. "Only when all I can do is bury him! What kind of a God lets things like that happen, Poirot?"

"The kind who wishes us to learn something from the experience," Poirot told him, gravely.

"Well, I don't think I want to learn this particular lesson, thank you." Abruptly Hastings put down his glass. "I'm sorry, Poirot, I think I'd better just wash my hands before dinner," he said, roughly. "Will you excuse me?"

"Naturellement." Poirot's voice had dropped to a husky whisper. "Take all the time you need, mon cher. I will sautée the mushrooms, and then the meal it will be ready to serve."

"All right." For a brief moment Hastings' hand landed firmly on Poirot's shoulder and squeezed for all he was worth, and then with obvious reluctance he tore himself away, slipped past him, and retreated in some confusion in the direction of the bathroom.

 

Poirot made no further attempt during dinner to discuss the business of the day, but when they had pushed away the remnant of their dessert and retired to the armchairs with coffee, liqueur, and - in his own case - a cigar, he reintroduced it with the minimum of circumspection.

"This afternoon I received a telephone call from the Captain of your son's ship," he said, calmly. "Captain Lopez. He tells me that he has orders to complete coaling and be ready to sail on Saturday, on the noon tide. As the crew are all accounted for at the time of the murder, Chief Inspector Japp tells me he does not object to the vessel's departure. However there remains one small difficulty, and it is with this that Captain Lopez believed I could help him."

"Oh?" Mildly disinterested, Hastings toyed with his coffee spoon.

"Oui, mon ami. He very much wishes to be able to attend the funeral of his shipmate before resuming his voyage."

"Ah." Hastings looked up, his eyes wide. "I should have done something about that, shouldn't I?" he asked, almost panicked. "I haven't arranged anything yet, and we won't have a lot of time now. And wasn't Ramon a Catholic? I wouldn't know where to start organising a Catholic funeral, though Heaven knows I've done enough of them in the C of E! Oh God, Poirot, what do I need I do?"

Poirot lifted a soothing hand. "Taisez-vous, Hastings," he admonished, kindly. "By far the simplest option is to ask a Catholic to organise everything for you. I have already spoken on your behalf to Father Monaghan in Wapping who will gladly make all the arrangements and conduct the Mass himself. He suggests Friday morning at ten, at which time there is a regular service which is always well-attended. A coffin has been chosen, a burial plot is available, and flowers can be obtained with very little notice. If you wish, tomorrow morning we can telephone to the newspapers with an appropriate announcement."

Hastings' brow furrowed. "I can't believe anyone would go to this much trouble for someone they didn't even know," he confessed, unsteadily. "I'm his father, I should be doing it - if I wasn't in such a funk about it all," he added, helplessly. "If I could only work out what I had to do."

"You need do nothing," was the simple response. "Poirot has the details at his fingertips. Miss Lemon would be proud of me, Hastings."

"But - "

"It is because you are his father that I wish to spare you the minutiae of the funeral arrangements," Poirot told him, plainly. "The role of a father at such a time is not to count the cost of things and bargain over shillings. Instead, allow yourself to mourn, mon cher, whether you knew him or not. It is all you can do for your son, and it is perhaps all he has ever needed from you."

"Just as well," Hastings told him sourly. "Over the years, I've begun to wonder if mourning's the only thing I'm any good at - that and sorting out wills and memorials, burning letters, disposing of property. It's a miserable business, going through somebody's life and throwing things away. I don't suppose poor Ramon had very much to leave, though."

"Japp will bring to you his personal possessions in the morning," Poirot soothed. "As you suspect he had very little, although according to Captain Lopez there is a small sum due to him in pay - in English money, less than nine pounds."

"It had better go to the Church, Poirot. I couldn't take the poor boy's wages."

"D'accord. I will see to it." A contemplative silence fell then, with Hastings staring down dully at his own hands. "You would like to hear of the progress made today by Chief Inspector Japp?" Poirot asked at last, in a more matter-of-fact tone.

"Oh. Yes, I suppose I would, Poirot. How did he get on?"

Pleased by the effort Hastings had made to rally his spirits, Poirot smiled benignly across at him. "It appears," he began, "that the woman in Belsize Park, to whom Athelstan Hastings makes regular visits when he is in London, is known by the name of Mrs Ethel Crosbie. She has not been seen since early on Saturday morning and the house is empty at present, and so naturally they are presumed to be together somewhere. Although superficially this woman appears to be a most ordinary respectable bourgeoise, enquiries reveal that in actuality she is kept by Captain Hastings at a level of expenditure totalling almost fourteen hundred pounds per year."

"Fourteen hundred! Good God, Poirot, I keep myself and run a car on less than half that!"

"It is not his only extravagance, mon ami. Mrs Crosbie is known to have two sons, thought to be the product of this liaison. These boys are currently away at a school the fees for which are in excess of fifty pounds per term. Further, there is no trace of Captain Hastings ever having been employed in any capacity, and his father the General emphatically denies making him an allowance. In fact, he states categorically that he has instructed his bank to refuse any application for money his son may make. As far as he is concerned, Athelstan is dead to him since the trial; the General paid his legal fees and settled his debts, and then cut him off without a penny. This is a very stern old man, Hastings; I believe that if he saw his son starving in the gutter he would step over him and proceed on his way without a backward glance."

"So where's he getting the money?" Hastings asked, interest piqued despite his own worries. "If he doesn't work, it isn't from family, and he didn't have a penny after the trial? Does he gamble, or something?"

"Extensively, but Japp has been able to trace no win of more than eighty pounds and a considerable number of severe losses; as a gambler, he seems to be more successful at losing money than winning it."

Hastings shrugged. "That's ironic," he laughed, without humour. "It must go with the name. Misfortune, that is," he explained.

"Perhaps so. At any rate, as there is no legitimate source of income that can be traced, one is forced to conclude that your namesake makes his living in some less creditable manner."

"Blackmail, d'you think? He's got the right sort of character to be a blackmailer."

Poirot nodded. "I agree," he said, "but it is the connection with South America which seems to be of greatest significance. He travels backwards and forwards at frequent intervals between London and Buenos Aires, which leads me to the suspicion that he is in fact engaged in smuggling some article small enough to be portable and yet of great value. Great enough, in fact, that a man could be killed merely because it appeared that he was searching for Athelstan Hastings."

Hastings digested the information sombrely. "You mean drugs, don't you?"

"That is certainly one possibility," acknowledged Poirot, "but there is also from that region a considerable trade in precious stones - emeralds from Columbia, topaz from Brazil, turquoises from the United States. Given the sums of money our friend seems have at his disposal, Hastings, I consider it more likely that this is his line of business. Chief Inspector Japp concurs," he added, his moustache twitching a little at the memory of Japp's response to the suggestion, "and his men are making enquiries among jewellers and known receivers of stolen property."

"I should think Japp's learned better than to disagree with you about anything by now," Hastings yawned wearily. "Oh lord, sorry, Poirot. It's all starting to catch up with me a bit, you know - all that travelling yesterday, the rough night, and the whole Ramon business. I'm feeling pretty drained. Would you mind very much if I sloped off to bed?"

"Not at all." Poirot extinguished the stump of his cigar in the little silver ashtray he carried everywhere, and rose to his feet just as Hastings did likewise.

"Well, I'll help you clear up first, if you like," Hastings volunteered gallantly.

Firmly Poirot shook his head. "I will hear of no such thing," he told him, in a tone not to be ignored. "If you would like a bath before you retire, there are towels in your room."

"I think I'll wait till the morning," Hastings said, "but thank you for the thought." He paused, wrestling with some nebulous concept that would not quite form itself into words. "Poirot, I can't tell you how grateful I am for the way you've looked after me through all this. I wish I knew what I'd done to deserve a friend like you."

"Ah," Poirot responded, allowing his smile to spread a little further until it reached his eyes. "Perhaps you should ask that question not of me but of a certain young lieutenant who plays chess very, very badly. I shall never forget your kindness to me, Hastings, though it takes a lifetime to repay."

"But you don't have to - "

"No, and neither do you." Poirot's look blazed defiance at him; he was suddenly not a man to be trifled with. "Whatever I do for you, Hastings, I do from choice, not out of duty. I could be a hundred times indebted, yet if you were not the man you are I should feel no obligation towards you. Enfin, you are the dear friend of Hercule Poirot, and thus there is no debt on either part. In times of difficulty, we help one another. This is what friendship means. Is it not the same for you, also?"

"Oh, yes! Yes, it is! It's just that - I'd never really understood how far it went before. It was all so easy, you see, I didn't have to think about it."

"Ah, je comprends. Then be reassured, Hastings, that I am not in the habit of deserting those whom I consider to be my friends. As far as you, and Japp, and Miss Lemon are concerned, you may all of you continue to rely on me whenever it is necessary. I am completely at your service for as long as you need me."

Stunned by this speech, Hastings had to bite his lip to try and prevent it quivering. In the end, he managed to stammer out; "B-but what if I don't stop needing you, Poirot?"

The smile he received in exchange could hardly have been gentler or more affectionate.

"Then in that case," Poirot told him, in the softest of tones, "I am completely at your service."

*

 

III

Does it howl like a hungry Alsatian,

Or boom like a military band?

Could one give a first-rate imitation

On a saw or a Steinway Grand?

 

During the night, the suffocation dream returned. Poirot had been half-expecting it, fully aware from his own mercifully short exposure to the trenches that the barrage of thunder and lightning raging around Whitehaven Mansions would have burrowed into Hastings' subconscious and been recreated as one or other of the vicious bombardments under which he'd suffered. He was out of his bed almost before his friend's first cry of alarm had faded, and as before he did not waste time with slippers or dressing-gown but ran just as he was to Hastings' room. This time, however, Hastings was not sitting up staring-eyed as he had been the previous night; instead he lay on his back with one arm thrown up across his face, as though for protection.

"Poirot?" he said, in a tone that was definitely anxious but had none of the wild distress of the earlier occasion. "Where are you?"

"Tais-toi, Hastings, I am here." Yet his words produced no apparent response, and when Poirot crossed to the bed he understood why. Hastings was obviously still fast asleep, and from the depths of his bewildered dreaming had called out to him for help. He sat down on the bedside chair and rested a soothing hand on his friend's shoulder.

"Did I not promise that I would rescue you from your nightmare, mon ami?" he asked, without expectation of a reply. "Nothing will hurt you while I am here. You may safely return to sleep, mon cher; Poirot will protect you from anything that threatens."

Even as he spoke, it seemed to him that Hastings' breathing had become a little easier and the beating of his heart a little less frantic, and so he continued to repeat these and other similar reassurances over the next few minutes as he watched his friend slide further and further into the deep blue waters of a tranquil sleep.

 

Poirot remained at Hastings' bedside for half an hour, not moving, hardly speaking, merely watching over him and from time to time repeating quiet promises of protection and security. Eventually he got up and went to the kitchen and drank a glass of warm milk, to which he added sugar and a pinch of nutmeg, and when no further sounds came from the direction of Hastings' room he retired again to his own bed and passed the rest of the night peacefully, undisturbed by any bad dreams - either his own, or his friend's.

Over breakfast, Hastings said; "It's the damnedest thing, Poirot, but I had that dream again. You know, the one where the roof caves in on me and I can't get out?"

"Indeed?" Feigning ignorance of the night's proceedings, Poirot smiled encouragingly at him across the table.

"Well, yes." Suddenly awkward, only too aware of Miss Lemon refilling her coffee cup at the sideboard across the room, Hastings ploughed on nevertheless. "It was pretty much the same as the first time," he said, "except that I remembered what you'd said about how you'd reach in and help me. So I called your name and all at once there you were, in the dream. I heard you say 'Tais-toi, Hastings, I am here'. After that," he went on, "everything changed, and I just wasn't afraid any more. I'll be honest, I didn't think there was any way that sort of thing could work, but it was quite marvellous. It was almost as if you were right there beside me. I say, you weren't, were you?" he finished, suddenly suspicious.

"Calm yourself, mon ami," Poirot admonished mendaciously. "Last night I did not leave my bed for any purpose. It is, as I promised, the power of suggestion which has helped you to sleep. Enfin, perhaps I shall set up in business as a society hypnotist and influence foolish wealthy people to pay me large sums of money. What do you say to that, Miss Lemon?"

Returning to the table, his secretary glanced quickly at Hastings before replying. "I think, Mr Poirot," she said, "that you would find show-business very tiresome, and some of the people in it extremely unreliable. And I'm sure you'd get bored very quickly if you didn't have some problem or other to challenge your 'little grey cells'."

"How well you understand me," Poirot acknowledged, delighted. "Alas, Hastings, it seems fame and fortune on the stage do not beckon after all, and I will have to continue to make my meagre living in the old way. At what time do we expect Chief Inspector Japp this morning, Miss Lemon?"

"At ten thirty, Mr Poirot."

"Good. Then we shall have time to deal with correspondence before he arrives. Hastings, you will excuse us?"

"Of course, old man, don't mind me," Hastings replied amiably, perfectly satisfied to linger over his coffee and newspaper half the morning if left to his own devices. He grinned up in Poirot's direction, and received from him in return a smile of such benevolent warmth that he was immediately aware of having done something right for once, and although he could not for the life of him imagine what it might have been he knew that he was jolly grateful for it, whatever it was.

 

Later that morning Japp arrived precisely at the appointed time, bearing under one arm a small brown leather suitcase with a broken handle.

"This is the lot, I'm afraid, Captain," he said, solemnly, handing it to Hastings, "apart from his clothes. He was wearing his best suit when he was killed, so I'll need to retain that as evidence, and I've given the rest of the young man's clothing to Captain Lopez to be distributed among his shipmates as Poirot suggested."

Hastings threw a glance of gratitude in the direction of his friend, who shrugged apologetically.

"Of course," he said. "Thank you, Japp."

"Otherwise there's a Bible and a few other books, all in Spanish, his shaving kit and so forth, a pocket watch, and a framed photograph of the lady we now know to be his mother. I'm sorry to say," Japp added, dropping down to sit on the couch next to Hastings, "we've received confirmation this morning that she died when he was only four years old."

"Ah."

Hastings had flipped open the suitcase and now extracted from it the photograph of Bianca. It was in every way identical to the snapshot Japp had shown him at the mortuary, except that it was several times larger and manifestly a treasured possession. Hastings fingered its elegant tortoiseshell frame reverently.

"The poor lad obviously adored his mother," he mused. "This must have cost him a week's wages."

"She tried very hard to keep him, apparently," Japp said, by way of explanation. "Working all hours in a cotton mill, I'm informed. Then she got tuberculosis, and she put Ramon into the Dominican orphanage in Buenos Aires thinking she could take him back when she got better. She was able to see him once a week at first, but in the end she got too ill to travel. After that - " He let the sentence fall, unfinished. After that was only too easy for them all to imagine.

"Yes. Thank you." Hastings got to his feet, holding the photograph in his hand. "I think I'll put this in my room," he said, his tone unnervingly calm. "Excuse me a moment, Japp, Poirot."

Barging blindly into the hall, searching for a place to hide - if only for a moment - from the too-open sympathy of his friends, Hastings ran full tilt into Miss Lemon who, pad and pencil in hand, was preparing to take notes of Poirot's meeting with Japp. The photograph went flying from Hastings' grasp to land on to the floor with an ominous crash, but miraculously the glass did not appear to have broken. Miss Lemon snatched it up quickly and returned it to him almost before his numbed senses had registered its loss.

"Oh, dear, Captain Hastings, I'm so sorry! Are you all right?"

"My fault entirely, Miss Lemon," he told her. "I wasn't looking where I was going. You're not hurt, are you?"

"No, Captain. I hope your photograph wasn't damaged? Is that Ramon's mother?"

Disarmed by the entirely compassionate tone of this friendly enquiry, Hastings found a moment later that against his better judgement he had been persuaded to show her the picture.

"Yes. Bianca Alvarez. No, it's quite all right, it's not even scratched - see?"

"So I see," Miss Lemon nodded. "But what a pretty girl! She was quite a beauty, wasn't she, with those dark, exotic looks and all those lovely waves of black hair?"

A fondly wistful look crossed Hastings' features as he looked into the face of the portrait.

"You know you're absolutely right, Miss Lemon," he agreed avidly, "she was a complete stunner! Why she wanted to waste herself on an ass like me I can't for the life of me imagine, but I was lost from the first time I saw her. I've always been a complete fool for brown eyes," he added, apologetically. "Show me a pair of pretty brown eyes and I lose all common sense. It's not much of an excuse for behaving like an utter cad, I'm afraid, but it's the best I can do."

Miss Lemon was not prepared to let this remark pass unchallenged. "Now, Captain," she admonished, "speaking as the only woman present," with a sideways look at Japp and Poirot, "I can assure you that Bianca forgave you a very long time ago. Isn't it time you learned to forgive yourself?"

Hastings' shoulders sank a little. "You know that's exactly what Poirot says," he informed her. "But it's not going to be as easy as the pair of you seem to think."

"I'm sure it isn't, Captain," Miss Lemon informed him sternly, "but that doesn't mean that you needn't at least try."

 

From the vignette in the hall, Japp returned his attention to Poirot.

"Well," he said, "our enquiries among jewellers have turned up something very interesting." He extracted a small notebook from an inner pocket, stolidly turned its pages, and looked up shrewdly into Poirot's intent expression. "Specifically a firm in Denmark Hill, The Nonpareil Jewellery Company, which appears to do a roaring trade in South American emeralds. Owner's name is Windibank, and on investigation it turns out he served in the same regiment as Captain Athelstan Hastings. Nothing discreditable known about Windibank himself, but his partner in the firm is reported to be a certain Harold Crosbie."

"The husband of the missing Mrs Crosbie of Belsize Park?" Poirot surmised, intrigued.

"One and the same," replied Japp, with relish. "And more than that, unless I'm mistaken. The description of Crosbie coincides exactly with the last recorded description of the other Captain Hastings - tall, fair hair, blue eyes, moustache. It's my belief, Poirot, that Hastings and Crosbie are also one and the same."

Poirot's dark eyebrows rose. "So that in London he lives the respectable married life as Crosbie, the owner of a jewellery business, yet when he travels abroad he resumes the identity of the disgraced Hastings? Ingenious," he mused, "yet perfectly logical."

"There's more," Japp went on, with the pleased air of one who pulls a rabbit from a hat. "The Crosbie boys were removed from school in a hurry on Saturday afternoon when their parents collected them in a car, and none of them have been seen since. Crosbie, or Hastings, or whoever he is, has obviously got the wind up about something; he's done a runner, Poirot, and taken the wife and kiddies with him."

"And naturally you have a warrant out for his arrest, mon ami Japp?" Poirot prompted amiably.

"You bet your life we have. There's nothing yet to tie him directly to the murder of Ramon Hidalgo, but there's certainly something fraudulent about his dealings in emeralds and the Customs and Excise people are very keen to have a word with him. I'm having the ports watched; a family of four shouldn't be too difficult to spot."

"Assuming that they have not left the country already," Poirot reminded him. "They have had four days' start on us, Chief Inspector."

"Yes, well, I thought of that," Japp told him smugly. "I've alerted police forces on the Continent and in Ireland, but I wouldn't be surprised if he's trying to take them back to South America with him. The way this chap operates I'd expect him to have another life all set up over there, just ready to move into. I've got my opposite number in Buenos Aires looking into that. Meanwhile, Poirot," the police officer continued, with the air of one who has saved the best for last, "it may interest you to know that Lieutenant Windibank is a member of the Army and Navy Club in Piccadilly and that he was seen there, by Dennis among others, last Friday evening."

"C'est vrai?" Poirot's exclamation of astonishment brought Hastings and Miss Lemon back into the room, expressions of enquiry on both their faces. "Alors, my dear Japp, you excel yourself! You demonstrate to me that this Windibank, he is the missing link, for whom we have been searching, between Ramon Hidalgo and Athelstan Hastings - a person who may have overheard the conversation between Ramon and Monsieur Dennis and feared that it would threaten the illegal business in which he and Crosbie were engaged!"

"That's what I thought." Japp did not trouble to hide his inordinate pride at the reaction he had provoked in the normally staid and serious Poirot. "Needless to say, Windibank's nowhere to be found, either, but I've got a warrant out for him on suspicion of murder. Don't know a lot about him yet; he's a single man, weaselly-looking, the nervous type by all accounts, the sort of chap who'd disappear in a crowd. Looks to me as if Hastings-alias-Crosbie does the buying and importing and this chap Windibank does the setting and selling on - all perfectly respectable and above board, until you happen to take a closer look."

"Enfin!" Poirot's hands lifted in a gesture eloquent of homage. "This is without question your finest hour, my friend, and I have no hesitation in congratulating you and your men; I am impressed beyond description by what you have achieved! Certainement you are correct in pursuing both Windibank and Crosbie, and that it was their illicit dealings in precious stones which provided the motive for the murder of Ramon - whichever of them is shown to have been instrumental in carrying it out. The conclusion to this painful case is now most clearly within your grasp, and I look forward to hearing that you have apprehended both Windibank and the Crosbie family. Mais écoutez-moi, mes amis," he went on, his mood darkening even as he spoke. "That the murder of Ramon Hidalgo was a straightforward killing I have never doubted, nor that it was a mistaken and useless waste of a fine young life - but that the son of one man should be killed so that the sons of another can continue to enjoy the benefits of an English education, this is irony so far beyond tragedy that it becomes farce!"

It was Hastings who eventually broke the silence following this peroration, edging forward a little uncertainly as though the abrupt change in his friend's tone had taken him considerably by surprise.

"Thank you for everything you've done, Poirot," he said, mildly. "And you, Japp. I'm sure you'll pick them all up sooner or later. I never knew my son, but I have an idea what he'd want me to say to you; 'Don't let these people get away with it!' Anyone who can kill a boy like that in cold blood deserves to hang, whatever his reasons, and if I was a vengeful man I can assure you I'd be queueing up to pull the lever myself."

"So would I, Captain Hastings," Miss Lemon put in fiercely, her unaccustomed display of vehemence earning her new admiration from her three hearers.

Japp and Poirot glanced wearily at one another, exchanging a look of perfect understanding, and forebore from further comment; in the world they inhabited it was often necessary to make the decision that would send a man or woman to be hanged, and it was not a responsibility either of them took lightly. Vengeance might be quick and instant and very satisfying in the short term, but justice was another matter; slow, laborious, sure and eternal, real justice could afford to wait for its own good and sufficient time.

 

The funeral of Ramon Hidalgo took place two days later. Hastings had wandered aimlessly through the intervening period, leaving it entirely to Poirot and Miss Lemon to make such arrangements as were required, castigating himself for spineless indolence but at the same time unable to rouse himself sufficiently to take much part in the proceedings when everything seemed to be in far more competent hands than his own. Interruptions to his sleep had taken a toll of his level of energy; the suffocation dream had continued to trouble him, although its effects were much blunted by Poirot's promise of protection so that now when it woke him up he simply lay reading Wisden for an hour or so in order to soothe himself back to sleep. Whether or not Poirot was aware of this he could not tell, but there had never been any sound from his room at these times.

Hastings' sole contribution to the organisation of the funeral had been to help Miss Lemon draft a notice for the newspapers. He had been doubtful whether any of them would accept it, for to have printed a funeral notice for an illegitimate person might in some circles have been seen as condoning immorality. However, while The Times had politely declined, the Telegraph and the Mail had registered no objections. In the end a discreet announcement had appeared in each, informing friends that a funeral Mass for Ramon Hidalgo, beloved only son of Captain A J M Hastings, OBE, of Whitehaven Mansions, Sandhurst Square, and the late Bianca Alvarez, of Buenos Aires, Argentina, would take place at St Christopher's, Cinnamon Street, Wapping, on Friday at 10 a.m.

Miss Lemon had gone on to make some entirely appropriate arrangements about flowers and prayer cards, and Hastings had paused long enough to wonder how she knew all these things; perhaps, like his own, her life had been one long round of funerals and dealing with the cantankerous elderly. He didn't know the first thing about her, except that like so many of their generation she had lost someone dear to her during the War. Perhaps he should have thought about settling down with her while he had the chance, but it was too late for that now. He was far too set in his ways with Poirot; coming back after a particularly bloody day to Poirot's cooking and the gentle hospitality of what often felt like their shared home seemed to offer him all he had ever known or needed of family life. Miss Lemon fitted easily into that pattern, but he had never wanted any more from her than friendship and he doubted he could have made himself into the sort of chap who would have been a suitable escort for her.

When he reflected on it, perhaps that had been a lucky escape for both of them.

 

On the morning of the funeral he and Poirot travelled together, silent, in the back of a hired Rolls-Royce with leather seats and a whisky flask attached to the inside of each rear door. Poirot seemed tired, too, leaning heavily on his cane as he walked out to the car; he had dressed with his usual immaculate care, his customary dandyish apparel discarded in favour of something far more sober but retaining the excellence of cut which so distinguished the handiwork of his tailor. For the first part of the journey theirs was the only vehicle in solemn procession behind the hearse, although a police car containing Japp and his sergeant formed up behind them as they passed the Tower and began to thread their way through morning traffic in Ratcliffe Highway. It was only when they eventually drew to a halt on the cobbles outside a soot-blackened Wren church squeezed between overhanging redbrick warehouses that Hastings began a slow return to what might have passed for reality; it suddenly occurred to him that he recognised a very large proportion of the crowd milling about, and he found himself jolted out of his fugue state.

"Good God, Poirot, who are all these people?"

Poirot's mouth tightened briefly, as though suppressing a gasp of pain, but he said calmly; "I believe, mon ami, they are the friends of your son."

"Oh? But that's Miss Lemon's sister," he protested, "and that's Foster, from Whitehaven Mansions."

"And Dennis, from the Army and Navy Club, who was the last to see Ramon alive, and Captain Lopez and his crew," Poirot enumerated. "I think you will find, Hastings, that Ramon had more friends than you or he could ever have imagined. Some of these people are friends of yours, mon cher, and some are friends of mine, and some of the Chief inspector and of Miss Lemon; none of them would be satisfied to know that this poor young man had embarked on his last voyage without at least the comfort of their prayers."

"And you, Poirot?" Hastings asked, although the driver was already holding the door open for him to descend. "You're not a religious man by any stretch of the imagination. Is that how you feel, too?"

"It is how I feel, mon cher Hastings," was the firm but quiet confirmation.

 

Father Monaghan was tall, thin, craggy and impressive, with a sonorous voice that soared overhead into even the darkest recess of the dark church. As his eyes swept the assembled ranks of his motley congregation he seemed at once both approachable and remote, which in Hastings' opinion was just the way a man of any cloth ought to be. He should be ordinary enough for a person to feel they could lay their problems at his door, yet he should also have the air of being constantly within reach of a Higher Authority. Just the sort of chap you'd bring in if you wanted to encourage a young man in the search for his natural father; the kind who'd enquire into his motives carefully first and, having satisfied himself of their validity, steer the lad in the right direction.

It would be Father Monaghan who had suggested asking for him at the Army and Navy Club, he realised, and as seemed always to have been the case Ramon had been fortunate in his choice of friend; not one of these people had ever let him down or turned their back on him. Hastings himself had been the only broken reed, walking away when Bianca needed him most, effectively abandoning her and her son to poverty, illness and lonely death. As a young man he'd always told himself that if ever he had a family he would treat them with the utmost love and respect, cherishing every moment in their company, but when it really counted he'd been found wanting. Admittedly the business of Windibank and the Crosbie family wasn't something any sane man could have taken into his calculations at any stage, least of all twenty-odd years ahead, but if Hastings had only been a little more persistent in his search for Bianca, a little less ready to give up and settle for the life he had, Ramon would have grown up in Buenos Aires with a family of sorts and would never have needed to journey halfway across the world to learn about his father.

He let Poirot guide him through the ceremony; he had no idea what to do and there was no possibility of concentrating on what was happening. His thoughts had turned inward, to the flaws in his own nature, to the life extinguished for so trivial a reason, to his lovely Bianca dying in pain and misery so far removed from those who loved her. In the end there was nothing he could do to stop the fall of the first slow tear, and there was nothing he wanted to do; if he could not cry for the death of a son, for the extermination of a hope he had never known existed, then when could he cry? Everything suddenly came together and rolled down on him like thunder; Ramon, Bianca, his mother, Uncle Charles, Gerald, the chaps he'd lost in the War, Poirot's terrible injuries, the mangled, flayed and tortured daydreams, the years of just scraping by and managing on the charity of friends and keeping a stiff upper lip and surviving by the skin of his teeth had worn away at him like water on old stone, had cut through him and pared him down until there was almost nothing left, and the silent rain fell unchecked.

Hastings did not make a fuss about crying. He did not sob or shake, he did not even take out a handkerchief to dab his face; he had never understood those who turned mourning into a pantomime, like one of his mother's silly friends who had thrown herself onto her coffin and howled like a banshee and had to be escorted away by a verger. He had been horrified by that display; his grief was personal to him and he did not see why he should share it with the world. If the world thought him heartless, that only demonstrated how little of him it really knew. Admittedly he was glad of a chance to sit down; his knees might very well have wobbled, and he would not have wanted to show weakness in front of Japp and his men, but otherwise he contained himself as he had been brought up to do.

He could almost have succeeded in pretending that nobody had noticed his plight had not a strong hand unobtrusively folded around his and squeezed it so tightly that he was afraid his fingers would break. The movement was so small, so surreptitious, and he was so sure no-one else could have detected it, that he let his hand relax and accept the grip, even squeezing back when the hold slackened and being reassured when it was resumed, tighter than before. He risked a slight movement of his head, pretending that he was looking around him, but Poirot was staring into the distance, utterly stone-faced, nothing about him betraying by even the slightest flicker of a muscle or flutter of an eyelash that in a concealed space between them their hands were firmly clasped together in a way that was not really considered suitable for those who were - or at any rate aspired to be - English gentlemen of their generation.

It could not last; next time they stood or knelt Poirot would have to relinquish his hold and Hastings knew he would suffer that as a major loss. If there was one good thing that had come out of this whole Ramon Hidalgo business, he realised, it was the certainty that Poirot could be relied on for reassurance and support at all hours of the day or night; that his friendship, apparently, knew no boundaries; that he was the one and only constant in Hastings' universe, around which he made his endless revolutions.

An ever-fixèd mark, he thought, that looks on - something - and is never shaken.

He had no idea where it came from, but it was Poirot to the life. Fixed, purposeful, reliable, always generous and always understanding, he could be tried to the limit and was never found wanting. Whatever Hastings did, however big a mess he got into out there in the wider world, he could come home to Poirot in the certain knowledge that he would be forgiven every single time. He would have married years ago if he could have had the remotest expectation of the same level of tolerance from a wife, but he doubted there were many women who could show the same strength of character as Hercule Poirot.

I am a lucky man, he realised, as Poirot's fingers slipped from his and he understood that he was required to stand up again for some reason. I am luckier than I have a right to be, because whatever happens Poirot is taking care of me. Just as well, really; I'd've made a pretty poor job of it left to myself.

Somehow Hastings blundered through the service without making too big a fool of himself. Afterwards he talked to all sorts of people who spoke in hushed tones about his 'loss' and seem surprised when he was relatively philosophical about it. Miss Lemon's sister Mrs Hubbard, a charming woman, hugged him, although he barely knew her and Miss Lemon herself seemed mildly shocked. Dennis, the doorman from the Army and Navy Club, deferentially tendered his condolences and received an invitation to tea at the flat in return. A couple of Poirot's elderly French friends from the chess club expressed polite sorrow in flawless English. Japp and Gower sidled over, unmistakeable as police officers in any company, looking solid and miserable and plainly longing to be virtually anywhere else.

"There's news of the Crosbie family," Japp said, without preamble. "Seems they're on their way across the Atlantic. They sailed from Cobh on Tuesday, having spent Sunday and Monday lodging in a little place called Skibbereen, in County Cork. They're due to dock later this morning, and they'll be apprehended immediately. As far as I can see there's no real reason to hold the wife and boys, but Crosbie himself will be on his way back to England almost before his feet have touched the ground."

"Oh, really?" Hastings asked. "Any word of Windibank yet?"

"Not a thing. We'll see if the New York Police can get anything out of Crosbie or the missus, but he must know we're after him by now. He'll be laying low somewhere and it might take us a while to locate him. You can rely on us, though, Captain; if he's there to be found, we'll find him, mark my words."

"I have every faith in you, Chief Inspector," Hastings told him, wondering whether he actually meant it, and decided that he did. If Poirot trusted Japp, and he did, then that was good enough for him.

 

Japp and Miss Lemon joined them in the Rolls-Royce for the return to Whitehaven Mansions, which was accomplished rather more swiftly than the outward journey. Sergeant Gower had earlier taken the police car back to the Yard, and it was Japp's intention to telephone him from Poirot's flat to be informed of the latest progress vis-à-vis the search for Windibank.

In the lift on the way up Hastings remembered the line about the ever-fixèd mark; Miss Lemon would surely be able to identify it for him. As soon as they were inside the flat, with Poirot and Japp making for the sitting room and the telephone on Poirot's desk, he cornered her in her office and asked her if she recognised it.

Miss Lemon showed not a flicker of surprise; she was perfectly accustomed to requests for all sorts of odd information from both Poirot and Hastings, and she took it completely in her stride.

"Oh yes," she said readily, "I think that's one of Shakespeare's sonnets." She removed her coat and hat, deposited her handbag on the desk, settled her spectacles on her nose and hooked a book from the shelf whilst Hastings lounged in the doorway toying with the fingers of his gloves. "I believe," she went on, "it's the one that starts 'Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment'."

"Oh?" He knew those words from somewhere, too, he was sure, but had no earthly idea where he might have heard them. Prep school, he imagined. One of those foul occasions when they'd all had to sit still as statues and listen to the Headmaster's wife reciting something agonising by Mrs Hemans or Christina Rosetti or even Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It baffled him why women had to write so much about love and sacrifice; couldn't they enjoy nice robust poetry about ancient battles and courageous deeds instead? Although he supposed that kind of thing was considered rather passé these days.

"Would you like me to read it to you?" Miss Lemon was asking, smoothing the opened pages and inserting a narrow strip of card to mark the place.

He gave her one of his rather wan, inattentive smiles. On the other side of the glass partition Poirot was deep in conversation with Japp, and he wondered what they were talking about. Their voices were soft and respectful, so he supposed it must be something to do either with Ramon or with himself. No doubt Poirot would tell him if he felt he needed to know, but he was experiencing no sense of urgency or concern about it. On the whole it was much more comfortable to let Poirot make the decisions; he would know soon enough if it was anything he needed to worry about.

"Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments," Miss Lemon began, almost impatiently, responding to his air of detachment. "Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove."

Very true, Hastings thought, not concentrating on her voice but letting it wash through him. There was something soothing, almost healing, about the words; he would ask her to type them out for him and then he could study them when he had peace and quiet and the letters would stay still on the page and not try to jump into his face like the performers in a flea circus.

"O no; it is an ever-fixèd mark," Miss Lemon continued, her tone mellowing almost to sweetness as she noticed the direction of his gaze. "That looks on tempests, and is never shaken; It is the star to every wandering bark, Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken."

"That looks on tempests and is never shaken! That's the one!" The phrase seemed to have sunk beneath his skin somehow, spreading out through his veins, touching his nerve endings with the reassuring warmth of a friend's hand gripping his in time of need.

"Yes." Miss Lemon paused, sympathetically, looking over her glasses at Hastings' pale face and the rapt look of total absorption in his half-averted eyes. He had no idea he was being observed; he was totally caught up in whatever thoughts were running one after another through his exhausted mind, but it looked at least as if they were benign ones. That was exactly the expression of the Mona Lisa, she realised; not smug, but completely content. She had seen him in the past overflowing with vivid excitement, caught up in some grandiose scheme or other, dazed with delight at some piece of gratuitous good fortune, but she had never seen him looking as thoroughly happy as he did at this moment.

"Love's not Time's fool," she continued, cautiously, "though rosy lips and cheeks Within his bending sickle's compass come; Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, But bears it out even to the edge of doom."

His lips were moving. She could almost have believed she heard him repeating the last words under his breath.

"If this be error, and upon me prov'd," she finished, her tone hushed almost to a whisper, "I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd."

"Yes," he said, what seemed an infinitely long time afterwards. "I know I've heard that before. I wonder why it came to me when it did?"

But he did not really need to ask, because he already had the answer. Whilst she had been speaking he had looked properly into the empty place in his life where a wife ought to have been, and instead of some conjectural feminine form dispensing love and consolation and strength and reassurance what he had found there had been Poirot, endlessly resourceful and irritating and loyal beyond any hope of understanding. He had never seen it in those terms before, but it was pretty damned obvious to him now that Poirot loved him.

And I suppose I love him, he thought, for the first time. I suppose that's what love really is. Wonder why the hell I didn't realise it sooner? Nothing strange about it; neither of us is the limp-wristed type, thank God. But you can see why chaps settle down together and how they make a go of it, if one of them's somebody like Poirot. Infuriating, of course, but I could happily make my life with him if that was the way things turned out. Actually, come to think of it, I probably already have, without ever even noticing.

Poirot was listening intently to Japp's end of the telephone conversation, but when briefly the police officer fell silent he took the opportunity of glancing through the panel to check up on Hastings. Thus their eyes met, and if Hastings felt at all sheepish or clumsy as a result of his epiphany that feeling was dispelled immediately by the warmth in Poirot's regard. He did not smile, precisely, but the corners of his mouth lifted a little beneath his moustache and his eyes crinkled, and somewhere in them was the element of mischief that was not always successfully disguised by his feigned pomposity. Hastings had always suspected that there was a joker hidden deep within Poirot's nature, a defier of convention who would one day burst free in outrageous fashion and laugh pitiless scorn at all those who had once seen fit to laugh at him - except that he could not imagine Poirot being quite so ungenerous. No, he would just go on absorbing all the ridicule and responding to it with immaculate courtesy, looking on the tempest and remaining unshaken.

"Hastings? A thousand apologies, mon ami, I have neglected you shamefully."

Despite the circumstances Hastings caught himself smiling.

"Oh, not at all," he demurred. "Miss Lemon has been reading to me from Shakespeare. Thank you, Miss Lemon," he remembered to add, turning to nod gratitude he could not have expressed in words.

"You're quite welcome, Captain Hastings," she said, and sounded as though she meant it.

As Hastings and Miss Lemon entered the room Japp concluded his telephone conversation and put the receiver down with a flourish, a look of quiet satisfaction on his face.

"Crosbie has been detained in custody in New York," he told them all. "His wife and the boys are in the hands of the authorities there. I'm sending Gower over to bring them all back, as soon as we can get the paperwork sorted out. I should imagine he'll travel on Monday," he added, chewing his moustache thoughtfully. "No word on Windibank yet, though, except that he may have been seen boarding a train at Euston. We're making enquiries, but I'm not expecting any immediate developments on that front."

Poirot nodded. "I also have good news," he said, "although of a different nature. Mes amis, through the kindness of Mademoiselle Eostre Hargreaves and her brother Monsieur Eadweard, we are all invited to the opening of the Macy Hargreaves Gallery in Torquay next Tuesday. I have accepted," he added, "on behalf of myself, Hastings and Miss Lemon, but Chief Inspector I hope you will also find it convenient to visit - as the guest of Poirot, naturally - for the unveiling of a most remarkable portrait."

"Modest as always, Poirot?" Japp teased, gruffly sarcastic.

"My dear Japp," was the bland response, "one may admire the artistry whatever one thinks of the subject. In this case Mademoiselle Eostre has surpassed herself to produce an image that defies mere paint and canvas. Truly, it seems almost ready to speak."

"Oh, does it, indeed?" Japp's eyebrows rose. "And if it could speak I have no doubt it would go on and on about everything under the sun, just like the original. Heaven help us if there were two of them, eh, Hastings?"

Hastings was still reeling from the moment when, resistance lowered by his grief over Ramon, he had understood that he would never again be alone or friendless as long as he had Poirot to turn to. The revelation was so recent that he was not in the mood to be ungracious just yet, even to amuse Japp.

"It's - difficult to imagine, certainly," he mumbled, as diplomatically as he could. "But if the painting's as good as you say, Poirot, I'd very much like to see it. Thank you."

Poirot's smile became established now; it crept from beneath his moustache and joined the light in his eyes to illuminate his whole round face with affectionate humour.

"Eh bien, and so you shall, cher Hastings. And you will bring with you also, I think, the golf clubs, because Monsieur Adam Macy has most particularly invited you to play at the links where he is a member, and he is anxious that you should accept."

A smile of amiable silliness settled on Hastings' pleasant features.

"Ah," he said, as if no other consideration carried the slightest weight with him, "a golfing holiday. When you put it like that, Poirot," he teased, gently, "how could a chap possibly refuse you?"

"Indeed, Captain Hastings," Miss Lemon put in, her eyebrows arching alarmingly at a possibility no-one but herself seemed to have detected, "it seems far too good an opportunity to miss."

 

That evening was so mellow, so filled with the quiet details of the life they had unknowingly made for one another, that it became a struggle for Hastings to remember that there had ever been a time when things were otherwise. Poirot cooked again - lamb, this time, and for dessert something sinful with mounds of cream and chocolate sauce which danced on his tongue like celebrating angels. Afterwards, music on the gramophone; Bach, not to his taste, nor precisely to Poirot's either, but it was pretty and undemanding and caught the mood of calm domesticity perfectly.

Hastings stood by window, hands in his pockets, watching as the sky turned to peach and lilac above Sandhurst Square. He had done more grieving over Ramon than over anyone else in his life, he realised. His father and mother, Bianca, Uncle Charles, Gerald, Logan - even Nicholson, the chap at school who'd been his idol - they'd all left their mark on him in different ways and moved on, but he'd taken their losses stoically. There was something so wasteful about Ramon's death, however, that the feelings he was experiencing were founded on anger as much as grief. Or maybe it was that somehow, at some point during the service, he had realised how it might one day feel to lose Poirot, and he knew that he honestly couldn't bear that. He would rage and howl then all right, make an exhibition of himself like his mother's silly friend, make other people ashamed to be in his company.

Well, perhaps that was where love took you. He should have been a lot more sympathetic at the time. He should have understood that Ada loved his mother, and that grief was not a fit subject for rivalry. Certainly when it came to Poirot he would want to rend his garments and weep; his life had been reduced to a very small compass and it was clear to him now that Poirot was all that would ever matter. This being the case, perhaps it was time to officially retire the stiff upper lip he had cultivated all his life and let emotion reign unchecked.

There were far worse crimes than loving Poirot, and at least nobody could accuse them of being a pair of women-haters sordidly fumbling with one another for relief. He'd had the uncomfortable sense in the past that this was precisely what some people believed they were, but this was the first time he'd attempted to examine that prospect in any detail; he'd shied away from it before, almost afraid that he could somehow be tainted by contact with the very notion. But touching Poirot wasn't difficult any more and although kissing him would certainly be strange it was no longer an idea that horrified him - if it ever really had. Perhaps he'd just allowed other people's perceptions to dictate his responses, the way he had with Ada.

Love is not love, he reminded himself, which alters when it alteration finds. Either it's love or it isn't, and if it is then I should be accepting it at face value without trying to impose limitations on it.

If he considered his feelings for Poirot against the background of the adolescent crushes he'd had on chaps at school he couldn't see much difference between them, except that his emotions towards the others had melted away whereas those he felt for Poirot had remained and become stronger with time. Poirot had always returned his affection, and had never once let him down.

And I imagine that pretty well settles it, he concluded silently. Everything seems to point to the fact that I love him; do love, have loved, will love. Would love, I suppose, even; I wonder if that would work?

Bemused by the thought, he heard himself chuckling softly. Such unexpected mirth was bound to attract Poirot's attention, and he lifted his eyes from the book he had been studying and removed his pince-nez.

"What are you thinking, mon ami?" he asked, and his tone was so astonishingly gentle that for a moment, before his innate moral cowardice reasserted itself, Hastings was almost tempted into telling him.

If only you knew! he thought, aware that he was blushing a little but surprised not to have experienced the least twinge of guilt.

"Nothing much," he prevaricated. "Actually I was wondering about the travelling arrangements to Torquay. We'll be going down by train, I imagine?"

Nobly eschewing any comment on this as a subject for merriment, Poirot set aside his book to concentrate on the conversation.

"Hastings," he said, "I have, over the years of our acquaintance, shared far too many railway journeys already with your golf clubs. This is not a prospect, you understand, which fills me with any enthusiasm. Your automobile is perhaps available to be used instead?"

Startled by the suggestion, Hastings took a moment to respond.

"The Lagonda? I say, rather!" His brain turned immediately to practicalities. "I wouldn't want to take her on a run like that without having her serviced first, though. The garage could do it first thing in the morning, but I can't see us setting off much before lunchtime I'm afraid."

"Calm yourself, my friend," Poirot advised. "Tomorrow morning I have business which must be attended to, and Miss Lemon will be here most of the day. Sunday would be a more agreeable day for such a journey, would it not?"

"Absolutely!" Hastings agreed. "If that's what you want. The roads should be nice and quiet, and I should think we'd get up a good head of steam on some of the straighter stretches. Have to plan the route carefully, though; petrol's not quite so easy to find on Sundays unless you stick to the main roads. We can either go through Marlborough or strike a little further south through Guildford and along the Hog's Back, depending on where you want to stop for lunch. The Angel in Newbury does a jolly good cold spread, but if you'd prefer something more substantial we can try the Black Goose in Farnham. And they keep a much better beer," he added, as though by way of inducement, although it was difficult to imagine Poirot and English beer in any kind of shared context. "If we want a hot meal anywhere we'll have to telephone ahead to book it."

Poirot shrugged. "The details I leave entirely in your hands, mon cher," he said. "I am merely the passenger."

Hastings paused then, and regarded him somewhat more quizzically. "You don't often choose to be driven such long distances when you can go by train instead, Poirot," he mused, "and my old bus is wide open to the elements. Are you sure you won't be uncomfortable?"

Poirot's moustache twitched almost mischievously. "But the English countryside at this time of year, my Hastings," he reminded him. "To experience this is worth any discomfort. And you promise me that it will not rain, do you not?"

"Well, I can't exactly - "

Poirot dismissed the protest with a wave of his hand. "This once," he said, "I am prepared to take the risk. But I am certain it will be a most delightful day," he predicted. "The weather it will be perfection, the fields green, and the roads clear. Whichever route you decide upon will be charming, the food of the highest quality and even, for you I think, the beer also."

"You're quite sure of all this, are you?" Hastings teased. "Did you make some arrangements of your own whilst we were on our knees earlier?"

"It was not necessary," Poirot shrugged. "We embark on the golfing holiday, mon cher; naturally everything will be precisely as we require. But perhaps," he added, slyly, "for me, you could place in the seat a cushion?"

One? Hastings thought, feeling the world spinning around as Poirot smiled at him. Ten thousand, if you want them!

"Oh, very well," he agreed, pretending reluctance. "If you think it's absolutely necessary."

 

Later that night, when the suffocation dream returned, it was different. Hastings watched a succession of cracks forming in the roof above his bed, ripping across it as flaws unzip a frozen lake, and when soil began to sift down on top of him he called out for Poirot. Exactly as he had before, Poirot came to him in the dream, into a place which in reality he could never have seen. This time, however, when his hand reached in, it did so not to rescue Hastings but to caress him. Their fingers twined together as they had in the church, unobtrusively, secretly, something that nobody but themselves would ever know about, and once again he was inexpressibly grateful for it.

In the dream he felt himself turning towards Poirot, opening his arms to him, and Poirot somehow slipping in beside him and being in that space with him, his head tucked against Hastings' neck and shoulder, his arms very close around Hastings' body. That was almost familiar, too; sometimes after long absences Poirot had embraced him and kissed him on both cheeks and although he'd always been mildly embarrassed to be kissed by a man in public he'd also felt obscurely honoured and dignified by such open displays of affection. It was as if those were the times when he could say to the world Here I am, Arthur Hastings, failure, but there is someone who loves me.

And in the dream the someone who loved him was beside him in a narrow Army cot, stroking his face gently while the ceiling wound itself around them and held them tight, and it didn't matter now that their bodies might never be found because there was something very satisfactory about the idea of being bundled up against Poirot for the rest of eternity. Ice ages could come and go over their unconscious heads; he and Poirot would have one another, and that was enough.

Is it this way for him, too? Hastings wondered, drifting in and out of the dream, never quite surfacing. Does he feel like this about me?

He liked the sensation of Poirot's arms around him very much, even if it was only a dream, and so he experimented further with a conjectural mental image of Poirot, naked and sweating, involved in some slightly dubious sexual practice.

Good God, I can't see that happening, somehow!

Poirot kept his dignity under even the most trying of circumstances; he would never allow himself to be caught at such a disadvantage. No, Hastings was sure he could be relied on to find a way of making even that experience civilised and gentle and something neither party need be ashamed of. It would be interesting to follow the idea through and see where it led; Hastings could pay the bill for such fevered imaginings with a cold shower in the morning, and there was a hard day's driving and good long day on the links in prospect which should burn off all this misdirected sexual energy. For now, though, he was damned if he was going to feel guilty for the tricks his subconscious chose to play on him in his vulnerable hours of sleep!

He gave way to the extraordinary. He let lust rule him, but it did not wake him enough to bring about full arousal and he just laid a comforting hand on himself and fell more deeply asleep, feeling warm and protected just as if Poirot was with him.

Hastings slept soundly and well, woke refreshed in the morning, and remembered nothing about the night's perambulations until a very much later stage.

 

It was business as usual Chez Poirot the following morning. Miss Lemon had already arrived by the time Hastings emerged from his room, and he breakfasted alone in the kitchen and even managed to wash up his own coffee cup without any interference from the management. When he put his head around the sitting-room door a little later Poirot was in full flood dictating letters, and Miss Lemon's pencil flew in elaborate Pitman squiggles across her note pad. He was about to duck out again, unwilling to interrupt, when Poirot's voice arrested him in his flight.

"Hastings!"

"Oh, good morning, Poirot, Miss Lemon. I didn't mean to disturb you." He sidled in, uncomfortably aware of having done just that.

"Pas du tout," Poirot muttered. "You slept well, my friend, and you have had breakfast I hope?"

Amused at the massively indulgent tone of voice, Hastings grinned at him. "Yes, thank you, old man, both. Just wanted to let you know I'm going out in a moment; thought I'd better saunter over to Bloomsbury to sort out the car and pick up my clubs. I'll be back some time this afternoon. Don't bother about lunch, I'll nip into Lyons or somewhere on the way."

"Bien sûr, Hastings. Until this afternoon, then."

And more or less with that Hastings had let himself out of the flat and returned across London to deal with his own business, leaving Poirot and Miss Lemon to catch up on a mound of paperwork and other postponed minutiae while he made his preparations for the journey to Torquay. When he got back to the flat in mid-afternoon it was to find Miss Lemon alone in her office, pounding stolidly at her Remington.

"He's gone out, has he?" he asked, unnecessarily.

"Mr Poirot had to see Eostre Hargreaves about the portrait," Miss Lemon replied as he flopped unceremoniously into the chair beside her desk. "How are the plans for the journey going?"

"Splendidly," he enthused. "Car's running like a bird, and I've picked up a set of strip maps from the Automobile Association. My bag's all packed, golf clubs at the ready ... I take it you've got the details of this place we're supposed to be staying?" he asked, belatedly. "Poirot didn't think to tell me."

"La Terrasse," Miss Lemon supplied, sliding a printed brochure across the desk. A neat little sketch map on the back showed a location on the Babbacombe side of Torquay, away from the main cluster of hotels in the seaside town.

"'Discreet accommodation for a discriminating clientèle'," Hastings read aloud. "That certainly sounds like Poirot! What's the restaurant like?"

"Well up to his standards, from what I've been told," was the reply.

Hastings was regarding with interest the engraving of the building on the front of the brochure; it showed a substantial Palladian-pastiche residence with a terraced garden teetering on the top of a pine-shrouded cliff.

"I've reserved the Olivier Suite for you and Mr Poirot," Miss Lemon went on. "He insisted; it's the one with the best view." She indicated three windows giving on to a bow-fronted balcony. "There are two bedrooms, a sitting-room and a bathroom."

"That sounds all right," he told her. "Will you be in the same hotel?"

"I'll be staying in the town," she told him brightly. "Eostre and her flatmate have taken a cottage for the summer, and they've offered me their spare room. It sounds completely charming, very informal. I'm hoping Chief Inspector Japp will have made his own arrangements. The Station Hotel, perhaps."

"If he turns up," Hastings amended. "He didn't look too thrilled at the prospect. It's not like Poirot to insist on including Japp, is it? I wonder what he's got in mind?"

"He is being quite mysterious at the moment, isn't he?" she agreed. "I think it's something to do with the painting. Eostre isn't allowed to show it to anyone but him. Not even Betty." She fell silent for a moment, and then, cautiously, resumed. "Captain Hastings, are you aware that La Terrasse is run largely for the benefit of a very particular type of client?"

"Oh, is it?"

"Yes." Uncertain whether or not she had his full attention - he was industriously dog-earing the corners of the brochure - Miss Lemon tried again. "Particular," she repeated, "in the sense that they tend to be of the same persuasion as Eadweard Hargreaves and his friend Adam Macy."

Hastings looked at her blankly, his brow furrowed. "You mean - ?"

"Most of them are that way inclined, Captain," she said, with heavy innuendo. "The women, as well as the men." There was not the least hint of any emotion, either positive or negative, in her tone.

"Ah." He sat back in his chair then, looking at the brochure as though it had just delivered some personal insult. "Poirot knows, of course?"

"Yes. I think he's inclined to take the pragmatic view. Good accommodation isn't easy to find in Torquay at this time of year."

Hastings thought frantically for a moment. "So he's not worried that people will jump to any unwarranted conclusions about him?"

"Apparently not."

He slapped the brochure down on her desk with a decisive movement. "Well, if it's good enough for Poirot, Miss Lemon, it's good enough for me," he told her, but his smile was all bravado and did not quite reach into his eyes. "If he doesn't object, I don't see how I can. He's footing the bill, after all. You think it'll be a bit of an eye-opener, do you?"

She responded to his attempt at a smile with a more genuine one of her own. Obviously the poor man had no idea that there were two spots of embarrassed crimson staining his high cheekbones.

"I believe Eadweard Hargreaves can be a little uninhibited at times," she conceded, "but his friend Adam is usually a lot more sensible - and as the manager of the hotel I should imagine he sets the tone."

"That sounds rather more reassuring," Hastings confessed.

"That was Mr Poirot's opinion."

"All right, Miss Lemon," he told her cheerfully, "you needn't worry about me. I'll cope somehow. I always do in the end."

"I have every confidence in you, Captain," was the calm response. "I'm sure everything will go very well indeed. In fact, I think it's going to be a marvellous change for all of us. Just what the doctor ordered, don't you think?"

"Oh yes," he lied through his teeth, wishing he shared her unaccustomed optimism. "Abso-jolly-lutely."

*

 

IV

Can it pull extraordinary faces?

Is it usually sick on a swing?

Does it spend all its time at the races,

Or fiddling with pieces of string?

 

That night, for the first time since before he had set off for Ireland, Hastings slept in his own airless little room under the eaves in Bedford Place; it was closer than Poirot's flat to the garage where he kept his car and would make life a lot easier in the morning.

He had the three small rooms which comprised whole top storey of the building, with its four flights of narrow Georgian stairs, its crazily uneven floors and its independently-minded plumbing - accommodation he had been lucky to secure, given the budget he was existing on. Paying off Uncle Charles's debts had depleted the family coffers and the War had hit their remaining investments to the extent that every brick and stone and almost every stick of furniture had been sold off long ago, and although Hastings himself had drifted in and out of various jobs over the years he'd never really stuck at anything long enough to make a decent income. In general all it had ever taken was one telephone call from Poirot and, like the faithful Watson he was, he had been ready to abandon his own concerns and fly off on some adventure or other. Employers tended to be less than impressed by that, and he'd pretty well given up the idea of earning much of a living. Now he concentrated on maintaining himself in genteel poverty, a project in which he was considerably assisted by the vast quantities of hospitality regularly bestowed on him by Poirot. He really was the most generous fellow, and being away from him for any length of time would not be an easy habit for Hastings to develop.

Fortunately he was not visited by the suffocation dream during the night, or if he was he did not remember it in the morning. Instead he collected Poirot at the appointed hour, loaded enough luggage for an American heiress into the limited capacity of the Lagonda, thanked heaven loudly that Miss Lemon had elected to travel by train, and set off in jaunty mood for the West Country.

 

Lunchtime that day saw them tucked into an intimate chimney corner of the Commercial Room of the Black Goose at Farnham, a room with the darkest and heaviest oak panelling imaginable embellished with a random collection of old Rockingham china. Their fellow-travellers comprised one very young couple in motoring clothes who looked quite out of their depth, and a morose man with a newspaper who seemed to care for nothing but his meal. As travelling in an open tourer did not offer many suitable opportunities for conversation, this was virtually the first chance they had had to exchange more than the civilities of the occasion.

"Miss Lemon tells me the hotel's a little unconventional," Hastings observed, depositing a glass of half-decent Chablis in front of Poirot.

"Peut-être." The reply was maddeningly uninformative.

Hastings considered a moment before delivering his next remark. "Well," he said, "I've slept on station benches and under billiard tables in my time, and once on a train in France I fell asleep on top of a pile of ammunition boxes. I've even shared a bed with Japp," he groaned, "thanks to one of your schemes, Poirot. I shouldn't think the Olivier Suite at La Terrasse could be any worse than that."

Poirot was watching him closely. "If the bed is comfortable, the food good and the company acceptable, my Hastings," he reproved gently, "what can be the cause for complaint?"

"Oh, quite," Hastings nodded. "But those are three unknown quantities at this stage. Tell me something about this chap Macy; Miss Lemon says he's the manager of the place? Any idea what he's like as a golfer?"

"Ah, yes, for you, Hastings, I have made the enquiries. Mademoiselle Eostre informs me that he plays with an itch."

"An itch?" More than twenty years of improvements to Poirot's use of the English language had still left gaps in his vocabulary, although there were times when Hastings privately accused him of feigning incomprehension merely for comic effect. A sideways glance on this occasion, however, did not enlighten him; Poirot's expression was completely bland. "You mean he plays off scratch, don't you?"

"Yes."

Hastings' jaw dropped. "Well, that'll make it a bit of a one-sided contest," he observed. "I play off four. That's my handicap," he said, into Poirot's mystified look. "It means Macy's four shots better than me per round. It'll be rather like being run over by a steam roller, I should imagine."

"Ah, je comprends!" Poirot told him, as if light had just dawned. "But Mademoiselle Eostre tells me also that Monsieur Macy is out of practice as a result of his duties at the hotel, and he has already apologised that he may not be much of an opponent for you. Perhaps you will be more evenly matched than you believe."

"Really? Well, that sounds more hopeful I must admit," Hastings agreed. "At any rate it'll be a day out in the fresh air. What will you do, Poirot? While we're playing, I mean?"

"Very little, I suspect, mon ami," was the contented response. "I have received an invitation to lunch with Miss Lemon, Mademoiselle Eostre and her friend Mademoiselle Betty Hillyer at the cottage, and I shall see also the preparations for the new gallery. Other than that, I think I will reserve my energies for the evening; I am told there will be an orchestra and dancing after dinner."

"Good Lord, really? I hope Japp arrives in time for that! I'd rather like to see him hoofing it around a dance floor."

"It should certainly be interesting," Poirot agreed. "And you will also 'hoof', I hope?"

"I might," Hastings conceded. "Assuming I can find some poor girl willing to have her toes stepped on, that is."

"I am sure there will be no shortage of candidates, Hastings. You make the most presentable of escorts; how could any discerning young lady not accept you?"

"You'd be surprised, Poirot," he said wryly. "They usually seem to find a way somehow."

"Indeed," Poirot mused. "Then one must assume, Hastings, that you are in the habit of asking the wrong girls," he concluded, with a smile.

 

The suite at La Terrasse was wide and airy, with a tall pair of French doors leading from the sitting-room onto a bow-fronted marble balcony overlooking the terrace which gave the establishment its name. Poirot, naturally, commandeered the larger of the two bedrooms, furnished with an ornate mahogany bed covered in luxurious green velvet, while to Hastings fell more modest accommodation next to the bathroom usually reserved for the child or resident servant of the main occupant. Steps at either end of the balcony led down, through discreet white-painted wrought iron gates at each side, to the terrace itself; this way hotel staff could come and go to serve intimate meals on the shaded balcony when required. It was apparent that occupants of the Olivier Suite sometimes preferred not to mingle with their fellow-guests, relishing the privacy the rooms afforded, but even so there was only the very mildest of sensations when Poirot and Hastings emerged into the dining-room at the appointed hour that evening and had placed before them a more than acceptable repast of entrecôtes de veau.

Hastings glanced around himself nervously. Although at some of the tables there were pairs of men, and at others pairs of women, there were also several mixed parties amongst whom it was impossible to draw any conclusions as to whether they contained couples of any variety. If he had expected anything in the way of extreme or overtly pansified behaviour from the other guests he was reassured not to find it, although some of the young men were inclined to be a little shrill and at least one of the young women seemed to have a penchant for rather severe tailoring. However there was no conduct visible that would not have passed muster in the most select London establishment, and his brow furrowed a little in bewilderment.

"I must say, Poirot, they all look completely normal," he observed, in mystified tones.

"Mon cher Hastings," was the sage reply, "it is because they all are completely normal."

"Oh, really?" Relief was evident in Hastings' expression. "Somehow I'd formed the impression, from what you and Miss Lemon said - " Unable to finish, he dug miserably into his haricots verts and gesticulated with his loaded fork. "Well, you know."

Poirot wagged an admonishing finger at him, tut-tutting as if in disappointment. "Mon pauvre Hastings," he said, sadly, "you do not see what is so plainly in front of your face. The English are such a race for accepting what they are told and never enquiring beneath the surface! You say to yourself 'I am told these people are all queer and yet they look to me normal, therefore my information is incorrect'. You trust to your own fallible judgment over facts which cannot be altered. I will never make a detective of you, mon cher!"

"Would you want to, Poirot?" Hastings asked, despite himself.

"Perhaps not. It is possible your talents lie in other directions," Poirot conceded, magnanimously. "Well, then; figure to yourself instead 'I am told these people are all queer and yet they look to me normal, therefore it is possible that there is nothing abnormal about being queer'. Can you do this?"

Hastings glanced around him again. "It might take me a little while," he concluded at last. "Rome wasn't built in a day, Poirot. But they all seem utterly charming. Macy's a nice young chap, isn't he? I'm looking forward to our golf game tomorrow."

"Ah yes. At what time do you - tee off?"

The search for the correct expression had been so obvious and Poirot's delight in his success so great that Hastings acknowledged it with a tip of his wine glass.

"I say, well done! Ten o'clock. Macy tells me it's only a nine hole course, but they've got two sets of tees. The custom is to play the Guests' Tees in the morning, have lunch, and then play the course again in the afternoon using the Members' Tees. I shouldn't think we'd be finished much before five."

"Then you should be in good time to collect Chief Inspector Japp from the railway station," suggested Poirot. "I have received a telephone message from him; his train arrives at ten minutes past six. He tells to me that in the morning he will accompany Sergeant Gower to Tilbury before coming on here; Gower and a constable have taken passage on a fast cargo vessel to New York, and they will bring the Crosbies back on the Normannia next week. He says also that Windibank is believed to be in Birmingham, where the Nonpareil Company has a second office. He has withdrawn a large sum of money from its bank account, and absconded with the greater proportion of its stock-in-trade. It is apparent he has no intention of returning to his business."

"It sounds as if the swine had his escape route all ready," Hastings said, thoughtfully, earning himself a nod of approval from Poirot. "But he can't have expected Ramon's arrival, surely?"

"No indeed. But it would seem that he was expecting the arrival of someone from South America, from whom he would have to make his escape, and that therefore he had made plans for that contingency. This is a subtle and fearful man, I think, Hastings; your poor son was doubly unfortunate to cross his path and accidentally give to him the impression that he was in some danger. He reacted like a wild animal, destroying Ramon to save his own life. It did not occur to him that there could be some other explanation for his presence in London."

Hastings nodded. "You think Japp'll catch up with him in the end, Poirot? I'm amazed that he'd consider taking time off from his enquiries at this stage to come down here."

"The matter is out of his hands for the time being," Poirot reminded him. "The police forces of New York and Birmingham must now play their part. And truly, Japp has worked most diligently every day since the murder. In a case of this nature, my Hastings, the resources of the Chief Inspector are more than adequate to the task; truly I am most impressed with the efficiency of his investigation."

"I hope you'll tell him that, Poirot. It would cheer him up no end."

"I have told him already," was the reassurance, "and I will do so again. And the cheering up of Chief Inspector Japp is not my first priority at the moment." He smiled encouragingly, and Hastings found himself smiling back, unaccountably shy, wondering about all the strange thoughts that had coursed through his mind in connection with this man and being uncomfortably torn between hoping that they would go away and hoping that they wouldn't.

"Thank you," was all he said.

"Pas du tout," came the dismissive reply, as Poirot poured him another glass of wine. "And this is not the end of the Earth, mon cher Hastings, whatever you or I may believe. If he is required urgently, the Chief Inspector can return to London by express from Plymouth or Exeter and be at his desk in a little more than four hours. In six, he can be in Birmingham. As long as the telephone can find him, he can receive his instructions and travel wherever he is required. As, indeed, can we. But for the time being, there is no reason why we should not enjoy the hospitality of our very good friends Monsieur Hargreaves and Monsieur Macy, is there?"

"None at all, I suppose," Hastings heard himself say, surrendering to the inevitable and determining to enjoy it while he had the chance. "I must say, a bit of fresh air and sunshine is just what I need at the moment. Maybe it's the same for Japp, too."

"Ah, so you concede that perhaps he is human after all?"

"Well, that's going a little far, Poirot," Hastings told him, with a lifted eyebrow. "But I'm prepared to allow that possibly Japp may be almost human, in a decent light. You, however, I'm not quite so sure about."

 

At the end of the following afternoon Hastings found Poirot in a shady corner of the hotel's extensive garden, at a little table on which rested a jug of lemonade and several glasses. It was apparent that he had been spending his time catching up on his reading, as three books with bookmarks in various positions were also piled on the table. However he was now sitting back in his chair with his hat over his brow and his eyes were closed, so Hastings came to the not unnatural conclusion that he had fallen asleep. Cautiously, striving to do so without noise, he poured himself a glass of lemonade and sat down in the chair next to his friend, and was startled into almost dropping his drink when a soft voice asked him if he had enjoyed his golf game.

"Good lord, Poirot, I thought you were asleep. You might warn a chap!"

Poirot's eyes opened slowly. "Not at all. I was merely lost in thought. I have so few opportunities to indulge in thinking for its own sake, to contemplate problems other than those of a practical nature which are presented to me by clients and friends, that I have been toying idly with ideas of another realm entirely."

"So I see." Curious, Hastings examined the books. "Destiny, Purpose and Faith," he read from one spine. "Arguments for Freedom. Ethics and Human Concern. These sound as if they might be a bit heavy for a day like today."

Graciously Poirot conceded the point. "They are 'heavy' for any day, mon cher, but one must take one's opportunities where one finds them. Besides, they have given me a great deal of pleasure; they have allowed me to speculate on matters I would not normally enjoy the time to consider. But I have passed my afternoon quietly, Hastings. Tell me how you fared with Monsieur Macy."

Hastings sat back in his chair and regarded Poirot evenly. "What a sterling young chap," he said, in a tone of complete approbation. "Not the least effeminate - you wouldn't know he was a queer at all except when he talks about Hargreaves. And he's a rowing blue, of all things - Macy, I mean, not Hargreaves. Strikes me Hargreaves is the arty type, but Macy's a sportsman through and through."

"Eh bien?" It pleased Poirot to act as if this was new information, whereas in fact it was nothing of the sort. "And the game itself? Did you succeed in losing the little ball into the hole in the ground?"

Hastings grimaced slightly. "Actually we were both absolutely terrible," he admitted, with a laugh. "Before we'd gone three holes we were sending the whole thing up. You know, making a mockery of it?"

"Ah oui, je sais. Then it was a failure, your circle of golf?"

"Round, Poirot, as you know perfectly well," Hastings corrected him, tolerantly. "No, it wasn't a failure. We tore up our score cards very early on, and after that we just strolled round and chatted and belted the ball out of the nettles from time to time. I have no idea who won, or even what I hit; it really wasn't worth keeping track of it after the Third. But I'd like to play the course again some time; Macy says their Pro's really good and I could book a lesson with him for only ten bob. I think that would be worth doing, if we had the time."

"Perhaps not on this occasion, mon ami," Poirot told him sadly. "But if you find the food, the bed and the company at La Terrasse to match up to your most exacting standard, perhaps it will be possible to visit here again in due course."

"Yes," Hastings acknowledged. "I think I'd like to do that, Poirot, some time - if we can."

 

An hour later saw them collecting a rather red-faced Chief Inspector Japp from the railway station and escorting him out to the parked Lagonda.

"Never been in such a flippin' hot train," he grumbled ominously, relinquishing his bag to Captain Hastings. "Like a ruddy mobile blast furnace it was, kids crying and women nattering and all the luggage racks overflowing. I haven't been so squashed in since that wretched little narrow-gauge at Bray-sur-Somme." He shuddered at the recollection. "You know, Hastings, what we used to call a 'homforty'. Like a cattle car, Poirot," he added for elucidation.

"Ah yes, the ones on which are painted 'hommes quarante'. I recollect," Poirot told him. "But tell me, Chief Inspector, were there any new developments in this matter of ours before you left London?"

"I'll say there were. The minute I get to my hotel I'll have to ring up the Yard and find out the latest situation, and then I'll be able to put you in the picture properly. I don't want to say anything yet, until I've checked with my superiors. I've been travelling all day, and a lot could've changed in that time."

"D'accord," was the calm response. "But allow yourself time to recover from your journey, mon ami. Tonight at La Terrasse there is a celebration for Monsieur Eadweard Hargreaves' birthday; dinner is at eight thirty and later there will be dancing and fireworks. If you will join us for that, Miss Lemon will also be present, and you can relay to us your information before we eat. You will be the guest of Messieurs Hargreaves and Macy," he added, seeing Japp's look of suspicion. "It has all been arranged in advance."

"I say, Poirot, you have been busy," Hastings commended, cheekily. "Solving the mysteries of the universe and wangling a dinner invitation for Japp all on the same day? What do you do for an encore, old man?"

Poirot's expression was utterly deadpan as he replied, in a most serious tone of voice, "But naturally, my dear Hastings, surely you have noticed that for an encore I play Rule Britannia on the teaspoons?"

The astounded silence that followed this flippant remark dissolved suddenly with a snort of laughter from Japp. "That's a good one," he said. "I'd pay money to see that, I would!" Then the thought occurred to him that, if challenged, Poirot was quite capable of attempting it, and in actual fact it was not a spectacle he thought he would relish. "No," he amended, "no, maybe I wouldn't, so don't go getting any funny ideas."

"Funny?" Poirot asked him innocently, but with a demonic twinkle lurking somewhere in his dark gaze. "My dear Chief inspector, you should know by now that Hercule Poirot is never funny. Indeed, I am most grievously wounded that you could ever even suggest such a thing."

 

"Well," Japp said, later, fingering his black bow tie self-consciously and looking around at his eager audience, "I must say this is a peculiar notion, me having most of the answers and having to explain them to Poirot." The situation was made more surreal than ever by the fact that here he was, on his feet, while the three of them sat patiently on the chaise-longue and watched him. It was for all the world like one of Poirot's staged denouements, only with the positions reversed, and he didn't know whether to enjoy the moment or be concerned by the responsibility. "Not that the matter's been concluded, by any means," he added, caution prevailing. "The Birmingham police still haven't set eyes on Windibank, although it's apparent he's fencing off the jewels to some of his crooked friends up there. I would imagine one or other of them's got him hidden away until they can spirit him out of the country. At any rate, let's see if you've managed to put this together as well, Poirot, shall we? Suppose I told you that the authorities in New York were holding Ethel Crosbie on at least three charges, one of which concerns her knowingly entering into a marriage under false pretences? What would you say to that?"

More than willing to allow Japp his measure of pardonable pride in the moment, Poirot lifted his eyebrows a little and pursed his lips in deliberation before responding. "I would ask you, mon ami, whether, despite the elaborate preparations made by this refugee family, there had been some small omission concerning the lady's passport?"

"Quite right!" Japp cheered. "Her passport gives her maiden name, and also shows details of her next of kin; her brother, it appears, one Osbert Windibank."

"You're saying that Mrs Crosbie is Windibank's sister?" Hastings echoed, mystified.

"That's right. It was enough to make the New York police suspicious, so they cabled me to make enquiries around the Grays Inn Road, and in due course I discovered - well, you tell me what I discovered, Mr Detective Poirot!" Japp challenged, triumphantly.

Poirot had got to his feet now and was pacing, displaying considerable animation. "Is it possible," he began, "that the young lady on the train, whose honour was traduced by the villainous Athelstan Hastings and whose name was so scrupulously kept out of the newspapers, was none other than Miss Ethel Windibank?"

"Got it in one!" was the jubilant response.

"Ah, my dear Chief Inspector, but this is magnificent! And a scheme so audacious, was it not, that it almost deserved to succeed?"

"They're a cheeky pair all right," Japp conceded. "Just imagine the brass neck needed to pull off a plan like that. And Ethel was only seventeen at the time." For a long moment he and Poirot, fired with enthusiasm for their shared profession, completely excluded Hastings and Miss Lemon from their colloquy.

"I'm afraid I don't understand," Hastings put in. "Ethel is the girl on the train, and she married the swine who attacked her? How could any woman contemplate doing such a thing? Didn't she recognise Crosbie as Hastings? Or did he somehow trap her into consenting? Was it blackmail, Poirot?"

"Wait a moment, Captain." Miss Lemon sounded almost excited, quite unlike her usual placid demeanour. "The New York police believed she had falsely entered into the marriage, so presumably she knew all along that he was the same man who had assaulted her on the train. She could only have married him after that if - "

"If there was never any assault at all," Japp continued, smoothly finishing the thought for her. "If it was all, as the Americans say, 'a put up job'."

"No assault?" Hastings was unable to comprehend such duplicity. "But that would mean - "

"That the poor girl everyone felt so sorry for was lying through her teeth all the time!" Miss Lemon growled. "Did you know that the readers of the Daily Scratch raised over two hundred pounds for her? I suppose she pocketed that with an artful sob and spent it on luxuries!" The words were uttered with the true vindictiveness of one who had contributed to the fund.

"Worse than that, I suspect, my dear Miss Lemon," Poirot told her, suavely. "The money which changed hands during the court case and which is suspected of having been instrumental in reducing the charge from one of rape to one of indecent assault - this was paid to her from the resources of General Sir George Hastings, was it not? And it was a substantial sum, I think?"

"Three thousand pounds," Japp said, gravely. "In those days, for a girl of that class, an absolute fortune."

"But Athelstan went to prison, didn't he?" Hastings asked, not at all sure he was following the logic of this argument. "Surely he wouldn't voluntarily go in for any scheme which could have ended up like that?"

"Mais pourquoi pas, mon cher?" Poirot asked him, his eyes gleaming with barely-suppressed excitement. "He has already lost his reputation and incurred debts which he cannot possibly repay, and he is disinclined to do anything honest to remedy the situation, do you not agree?"

"Well, yes, but - "

"Attend, Hastings. With this scheme, at the cost to himself of a small measure of further disgrace - which matters to him not in the least - he secures a mechanism by which his debts are paid by his father, who would not help him voluntarily but is now placed in a situation where he has no choice unless he wishes to see the name of his family dishonoured even further. More than this, Athelstan also ensures that he will never again be required for military service. If he is sharp enough to detect that a War will be forthcoming - as indeed a great many people at that time were - then he has found a most effective means of making certain that he will not be required to place himself in any danger thereby."

Hastings was mortally shocked, and did not trouble to conceal the fact. "Good God, Poirot, that's despicable! All those poor chaps marching off to do their duty, and he's sitting snug and warm in some prison cell somewhere eating and drinking at the country's expense and chuckling because he's saved his own bacon!"

"His bit of the War involved eighteen months sewing Army uniforms in Pentonville," Japp said, in disgust. "I don't suppose the rations were all that special, but at least he didn't have anybody shooting at him." Japp, like them all, had made his own small contribution to the War effort; one of the Poor Bloody Infantry, he'd had his share of foot-slogging through ankle-deep mud and scraping his comrades off the barbed wire. His opinion of anyone who'd secured a cushy billet like prison rather than square up to the grim realities of the Western Front was written all over his face.

"The General had made it plain that his son was dead to him henceforward," Poirot went on, after a suitable pause for reflection. "There was no reason then why he should not move immediately into another life as Crosbie. I suspect that when he was released from prison he travelled to Buenos Aires as Hastings and remained there until the War in Europe was over. Then he returned in his new identity, entered into The Nonpareil Jewellery Company with Windibank, and in due course married his partner's sister. She had, I imagine, safeguarded the money for him throughout the hostilities?"

"More than that," Japp responded. "Looks like she turned a profit on it somehow, too. I reckon she probably bought into some concern supplying tinned goods or powdered milk to the forces, and made them both a nice little dividend. She's not the least culpable part of this operation, Poirot, I can assure you, although I doubt very much she was concerned in the murder itself."

"You're still saying that was Windibank? The brother?" Hastings asked, struggling manfully to assimilate all the details of the scheme.

"Oh yes, there's no doubt of that," Japp told him, a grim set to his jaw. "I sent a man to talk to his old regiment, and they showed him their War diary. It seems that on one occasion Lieutenant Windibank was manning a Lewis gun position which was over-run by the Boche. His oppo was badly wounded, but Windibank just kept on fighting. Grabbed a bayonet from somewhere and ripped three of the enemy to shreds with it before they managed to subdue him. The regiment got him back in an exchange of wounded the following day and he spent the rest of the War with 'nervous prostration'. That's a fancy way of saying he went clean round the bend, Miss Lemon," he added, bluntly.

"Thank you, Chief Inspector," was the graceful response, although she had known it perfectly well all along. "Do you know yet what the charges against the Crosbies will be?"

Japp looked at her with respect. She seemed hardly discomposed at all by his raw recounting of Windibank's savage experience.

"Accessory after the fact of murder," he supplied, blithely. "Conspiracy to conceal a crime. False pretences in respect of their so-called marriage. And for him, as well, a fraud charge connected to the illicit trading of emeralds and evading Customs duty on them."

"Then both parents will be sent to prison? And the uncle, too? What will become of the boys, do you think? None of this is their fault, after all."

"I hadn't thought," Japp admitted. "Why?"

"I was just wondering," she told him, "whether it might be possible to prevail upon their grandfather to take the responsibility? They are his flesh and blood, when all's said and done."

"They're the wrong side of the blanket and the offspring of two criminals who've been concerned in fraud and murder," was the firm response. "I doubt if he'll be falling over himself to take them in. But I dare say I can talk to Peter Hastings about them; maybe he'll put in a word with the old boy. I must say if Athelstan hadn't been quite so keen to keep track of his father's health - waiting for him to die so he could challenge the Will, I should imagine - he would have dropped out of sight completely and the Chaplain wouldn't have been able to point us towards Ethel Crosbie. I think there were a few holes here and there in the other Captain Hastings' grand scheme. What do you say, Poirot?"

But Poirot had fallen completely silent, his attention directed towards the bowed head of his friend.

"Cher ami?" he began, softly, easing towards Hastings. "Are you unwell? You have fatigued yourself today on the golf course, perhaps?"

Hastings coughed uneasily, looked up, and tried to pretend that he had not been almost on the verge of tears.

"Actually, Poirot," he said, in a corncrake rasp, "I was thinking what a foul way that was for a chap to treat his father. Our side of the family didn't have much money to start with, and what we did have my Uncle Charles seemed to fritter away somehow, but I honestly can't imagine ever being so desperate that I'd have to cook up a scheme like that. Apart from anything else, think of the risks they took! The court case had to go in their favour, Ethel had to be convincing at every stage and not lose her nerve, and Athelstan had to back himself to survive a prison term or the whole thing would be for nothing. But the worst of it was, he was completely banking on his father coughing up the money to clear his debts and pay off the girl - and on her not to run off with it while he was away. They had the devil's luck, the three of them, right up until Ramon appeared on the scene. Then they must have panicked. Or at least, I suppose, Windibank did."

"There is no evidence that the Crosbies knew about the murder in advance," Poirot consoled. "Nor, indeed, did Windibank himself. He reacted to what he perceived to be a threat, killed Ramon, and then put into operation his carefully-prepared scheme to liquidate the assets of the Nonpareil Company and make his way out of London - pausing only to advise his sister and her husband to remove their boys from school and pursue their own plans for escape. No doubt they had a rendezvous arranged somewhere on the other side of the world, where the assets of the company would have helped them to start in business again with new names and new identities."

"It's fiendish, Poirot," Hastings said, in a small, helpless voice. "It's evil."

"Indeed, my good friend, it is exactly that," Poirot told him, using the most conciliatory of tones. "But it has not wholly succeeded. We have the Crosbies most securely in our grasp, and Windibank will surely soon be apprehended. Is this not so, Chief Inspector?"

"Oh yes," Japp confirmed. "The telephone call could come at any time, in fact. Probably during dinner," he added, "knowing my luck."

"So, the conclusion to this melancholy business is imminent, mon ami," resumed Poirot, in lighter mood. "In fact, we may well consider that a celebration would be appropriate. My dear Miss Lemon, my most valued Chief Inspector, what would you say to champagne with dinner?"

Japp's expression was comically acquisitive. "That sounds - " he began enthusiastically, and was then stuck for a word.

"Ideal," Miss Lemon finished for him. "Doesn't it, Chief Inspector? And I must confess, I'm feeling a little hungry too. It seems an age since lunch."

"Oh yes, and me," Hastings agreed, diverted from his unhappy reflections by the comforting thought of food.

"Then let us go downstairs and eat, mes amis," Poirot told them, opening the door to escort them all from the suite. "We will celebrate our great success, and drink also to the memory of the poor young man who is at the heart of this most tragic affair."

"I like that, Poirot," Hastings told him, as they passed side by side into the corridor. "Absent friends, eh, old thing?"

"Absent friends," Poirot reiterated, "my very dear Hastings."

 

Champagne at dinner turned out to have been an inspiration. Even Japp, relieved of the burden of duty for the time being, seemed to become considerably brighter and more convivial as the evening wore on, and his conversation was never less than entertaining. Like Hastings, he took very readily to Adam Macy whilst retaining a certain suspicious distance from Eadweard Hargreaves; the artistic temperament was not one he readily understood. However he seemed to get on well enough with Eostre Hargreaves - he was seated between her and Miss Lemon - but then she was a vivacious blonde with Hollywood-starlet looks and a personality to match. No man in his right senses would have found her difficult to talk to, whether or not he knew the first thing about art.

After the meal they all wandered out onto the terrace where a small dinner orchestra had already started playing. Their singer was a willow-slim dark-skinned girl in a gown of shimmering midnight blue with a voice that sounded as if it was dusted with sugar and cinnamon. One or two of the more energetic couples started dancing almost as soon as they emerged from the dining room, falling into each others arms and twirling away like graceful automata, with no other prospect in view than tiring the moon with their carefree festivity.

Poirot and Hastings retreated to a quiet, neglected corner to sit side by side on a wrought iron bench and smoke - Poirot a cigar, Hastings a rare cigarette - and drink yet more champagne. Japp was dancing with Eostre - surprisingly well, in fact, provoking in at least two of the spectators the notion that Mrs Japp must have been a very thorough teacher - whilst Miss Lemon chatted animatedly with Eostre's flatmate, Betty Hillyer. It was astonishing how seamlessly the four of them, normally of quite a serious turn of mind, had fitted in with the light-hearted atmosphere of La Terrasse - almost as if simply making the journey from London had liberated them from society's constraints and enabled them to see that life could be lived in ways other than their own. Indeed, as the evening wore on, it seemed that a great many inhibitions were being shed altogether, and when two of Eadweard's young male friends quite unobtrusively stepped out onto the dance floor together there was not an individual present who seemed to take even a moment's notice of them - although it had to be acknowledged that Japp's step faltered a little and he had to apologise to his partner.

At the end of the tune another one commenced immediately, and this time other unconventional couples dared to try their luck on the floor. Japp was seen to ask Miss Lemon to dance, and to be talking to her quite intently as they moved with ease amongst their fellow revellers. One glance over in the direction of Poirot and Hastings was all the acknowledgement they received, and then Japp whirled her away again into the melée, still deep in their enthralling conversation.

After a while Hastings groaned, eased the knees of his trousers, and got to his feet cautiously.

"Better go for some more supplies while I can still see to find the bar," he joked, his tongue semi-paralysed from alcohol. "More champers, Poirot, or would you like brandy this time?"

"Brandy," Poirot elected. "And I think I, too, will stretch my legs; this bench was certainly not designed for long-term occupation." For a moment he struggled to rise to his feet, wishing that he had not left his cane in the suite, and then a strong but unobtrusive hand beneath his elbow raised him firmly. "Thank you, my Hastings," he breathed, leaning for just a moment into the touch.

"Welcome, I'm sure." Hastings was looking into his eyes, thinking that there was something he ought to have been doing but he couldn't quite recollect what it was, and the voice of the singer was floating past them on the evening breeze.

Without your love, it's a honky-tonk parade

Without your love, it's a melody played in a penny arcade

It's a Barnum and Bailey world, just as phoney as it can be

But it wouldn't be make believe if you believed in me.

Poirot was smiling, and it was one of those rare smiles that would make anybody who knew him want to go through hell and back to make him smile like that again. It seemed almost as if he was about to say something, and Hastings thought that perhaps it was something he wanted very much to hear - but at the same time he thought that he was afraid of it. It was just too soon. He was not quite ready.

"Brandy," he whispered weakly, and Poirot nodded acknowledgement and let him go without demur.

"Brandy," he concurred, "would be very welcome."

 

Hastings returned a few minutes later, weaving his way through the throng to where Poirot had propped himself against the balustrade and was watching the proceedings with benign fascination.

"It's all rather bohemian, isn't it?" he asked, handing him a glass. Eadweard and Adam might be living a Spartan life on their own account, but it was readily apparent that they were prepared to deny their guests absolutely nothing in the way of hospitality. "Chaps with chaps, girls with girls. I thought I'd be shocked at first, but I'm not. It seems perfectly all right, somehow. I don't think even Japp's particularly bothered, if it comes to that."

"What is shocking is war and death, mon ami. These young people - they celebrate life. We are fortunate that, for a few days, they are willing to welcome into their midst two old 'war horses' such as ourselves. We are the same age as their parents, tu comprends, and this is not always a recipe for a happy association."

"They've been very generous all along," Hastings acknowledged. "Especially considering we're not exactly of their ilk. Or perhaps they believe we are?"

Poirot shrugged his shoulders. "Who can say?" he asked. "The subject has not been discussed with me. But perhaps when one has a friendship such as ours - well, it may not be so far from what they understand it to be, sais-toi?"

Hastings fell silent, digesting this information, listening to his own heart racing. Eventually, he said; "Well, I wouldn't be offended, if that was what they thought. I can imagine you'd be quite a catch for any man, Poirot."

The smile he received in response was mischievous in the extreme, Poirot's dark eyes sparkling in the lamplight.

"I am flattered you think so, mon vieux. But with a man, as well as with a woman, the problem for me would still be the same. If ever I wished to contemplate becoming intimate with a man, I would need to be sure that he first understood the difficulty in which I find myself. He would need to accept me as I am, and with no guarantee that I could ever - "

" - rise to the occasion?" Hastings suggested, easing his collar a little, discovering the night to have become extremely warm and close all of a sudden.

"C'est ça."

"But you don't say that you wouldn't consider a man," Hastings went on, dizzily. "Does that mean you've ever - ?"

"No, it does not. It means that I do not choose to limit my options for happiness. The right man, the right circumstances - I would not reject him. Have you noticed Monsieur Eadweard and Monsieur Adam?"

"No, I ... " Hastings struggled to focus. On the far side of the terrace Eadweard had pulled Adam to him and they were moving slowly together in time to the music, rapt expressions on both their faces as they looked deeply into one another’s eyes. He sighed. It should seem strange, but somehow it didn’t, to see two very attractive young men locked in an embrace, and when Eadweard kissed Adam he should certainly have felt like a voyeur or at the very least averted his eyes, but most assuredly he did not.

"Oh I say," he drawled instead, deeply appreciative of the spectacle. "Aren't they sweet?"

"É-pat-ant," Poirot breathed, every syllable elongated almost beyond endurance. "It is a delightful thing to see two charming young people so happy together."

Hastings nudged him confidentially. "I do believe you’ve gone all misty-eyed, Poirot," he teased, gently.

"And indeed, why not, my Hastings? Do you not also believe in the power of true love to conquer overwhelming odds? And here, among their friends as perhaps nowhere else, they are free to dance together without fear of ridicule. Eh bien, Mademoiselle Eostre and Mademoiselle Betty are also dancing, do you see?"

"Yes, I see." Puzzled, Hastings followed their movements for a few moments. "I didn’t realise they were ... well, you know. Or are they, Poirot? How does one tell?"

"Why would one wish to, mon cher? As long as they are happy, what business is it of yours or mine?"

"None," Hastings agreed with immediate conviction. "Absolutely none in the world."

"I am pleased to hear you say it," Poirot smiled.

"Hmmm." Hastings leaned across the balustrade as if it was the railing of a ship at sea, his glass clutched in front of him, contemplating the infinite - in this case a dark, rolling vista of conifers with the silver ocean behind. Down below, in the lower gardens, Chinese lanterns had been set among the trees, and colourful figures flitted in and out of them like characters from the enchanted forest in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. "Can't say I've ever really thought about it before," he said contemplatively, "but I had the most fearful crush on my cricket captain at school. Chap called Nicholson. I used to dream about him rescuing me from impossible situations like a schoolboy hero in a storybook. Never did, worse luck, though for a while I carried on like 'The Perils of Pauline' trying to wheedle him into it. I don't suppose he even noticed I existed."

"Ah yes, and you believe now that this 'fearful crush' you describe - ?"

"Perhaps I didn't just want him to rescue me, Poirot. Although I didn't realise it at the time, perhaps I secretly hoped he'd take it a little further. I'd never worked out, you see, what heroes did with all the girls they rescued. I didn't have a lot of use for girls at that age, and the thought of actually kissing one would have made me feel sick, but I always wanted Nicholson to be so utterly enthralled by me he wouldn't want to let me out of his sight ever again. I wanted him to feel towards me the same kind of slavish devotion I felt towards him, I suppose. Stupid, really."

"To love and wish to be loved in return? No, it is far from stupid," Poirot told him. "Misplaced, perhaps, and misunderstood, certainly. But love itself, Hastings, this ennobles every man, whether it is returned or not. That you cared for him, however briefly, made him for a short time better than he was. One day, my friend, you will love someone with all your heart and soul, and that 'someone', whoever he or she may be, will be the most fortunate of individuals and will become so much the greater and stronger for being esteemed by you. This is a person much to be envied, I think."

Hastings turned to him, bewildered by the tone of voice in which he had uttered these words.

"I say, Poirot, it almost sounds as if - "

But there was something stopping him completing the sentence. The flickering of the candles had caught amber hints in Poirot's eyes, setting them aflame like tiger's-eye jewellery, giving them a depth and mysteriousness he would never have noticed in ordinary daylight, and in his mind he heard his own voice speaking only a few days earlier.

I've always been a complete fool for brown eyes, he'd said then.

Only I'd never really noticed before that yours are brown too.

Why hadn't somebody mentioned it sooner, before he opened his stupid mouth? Why hadn't Miss Lemon warned him? Mr Poirot has brown eyes, that would have been all she needed to say. Nicholson's eyes had been a lovely clear china blue like forget-me-nots, but he had never seen himself reflected in them the way he did in Poirot's. To Nicholson he had only ever been 'Which one is Hastings again?'; to Poirot he was the loyal friend but for whom he would have been just one more tragic statistic of that cruellest of wars.

The right man, the right circumstances - I would not reject him, Poirot had said.

Could I be the right man for him? he wondered, deliriously. Could this be the one thing in my life that's mine, and not second-hand or already rejected by someone else? Could he be the only person in the whole world who completely understands that I'm plain, boring, clumsy old Arthur Hastings, with an appalling chess game and no social cachet whatever, but cares for me anyway? I knew he loved me, but is this how he loves me - the way Eadweard loves Adam and Eostre loves Betty? Can it really be that simple? Can it really be Poirot?

Oh God, please please let it be Poirot!

The thought was well beyond intoxicating, and a wide, idiotic grin spread slowly across his face, to be answered by a matching smile of perfect happiness on the familiar features of his friend. "Oh, Poirot, this is all just too wonderful for words," he whispered avidly.

"Indeed it is, cher ami, indeed it is." Poirot half-turned, offering him some respite from the stunning intensity of his gaze. "You would like to dance, perhaps, Hastings?"

Casting a wistful eye over the entwined couples on the dance floor, Hastings heaved a deep sigh. "I would, quite," he confessed. "I wonder if Miss Lemon would do me the honour? Although she does rather seem to have been monopolised by Japp this evening."

"I am sure she would, my friend," Poirot acknowledged, with a wry smile, "but that was not exactly what I had in mind."

"It wasn’t? Oh. Oh!" There was a lot of alcohol involved, both in the slow response and in the eventual sudden burst of realisation. "You mean with you, don’t you?" Hastings understood at length.

"Oui, mon cher. I mean with me."

Hastings looked down at him then, looking into a landscape of fear and joy, exploration and familiarity, looking into what could - if he only had the courage to accept it - be the blissful remainder of his life.

"My goodness," he breathed. "Yes, yes, actually I would. Only I’m not awfully sure I’d know where to start."

"Ah." A hand settled confidently on his shirt front and suddenly Hastings could not take his eyes off the way Poirot’s fingers splayed out to take possession of him. It was one of those terrifying moments that could so easily get out of hand, and he had very little intention of trying to stop it. "If you wish, my friend," Poirot conceded graciously, "you may lead."

"Yes." But Hastings covered Poirot’s hand with his own, not at all sure what he was doing except that he didn’t want to let this opportunity get away from him. "I think I’d have to, if you don’t mind. But I don’t think I can, Poirot ... not in front of people, I mean. I’d feel such a fool."

A momentary look of bewildered disappointment, and then the usual decisive Poirot returned in full force.

"I have it," he said, softly. "We will withdraw to our suite. We will be able to hear the orchestra quite clearly from there, and we will have all the privacy one could possibly wish for. I should very much like to dance with you, Hastings."

"Oh yes. I want to dance with you, too, Poirot. Very much." It surprised him quite how much, in fact, and how much also he really would have liked it all to be public and open and something to be shared and valued by this group of kind, supportive friends. Most of them would not turn a hair, he knew, if he suddenly swept Poirot into his arms and steered him around the terrace, and he would have been proud to do so had this not been the first time, but his mother had always ridiculed his modest attempts at dancing and the last thing he wanted to be with Poirot was clumsy.

"Then we will go upstairs," was the murmured response, "and there we will dance together."

Poirot took Hastings by the wrist and hauled him along for the first few paces, crossing the terrace in three or four large strides, ignoring their fellow revellers. In the lift they could not look at one another, furiously aware of their closeness and the smallness of the space, and Poirot's breathing had become distinctly uneven. Hastings was sure that he was blushing every time the man's eyes turned in his direction and he found that fact distinctly unnerving.

 

Unsteadily Hastings unlocked the door to the suite, but when Poirot reached inside for the light switch he stopped him. It would have ruined the mood; neither of them needed to have this moment exposed to the harsh scrutiny of an electric bulb. With the door closed and locked behind them the room became filled with secretive shadows and whispers, with the scents of the evening and the sweet distant strains of the music, so that anything at all seemed possible in such an enchanted place - even the odd thing which was apparently about to happen.

Quite formally he took Poirot’s arm and led him across to the space in front of the open balcony doors, not speaking, drawing him into a pyramid of moonlight where the sounds of the orchestra and the perfume of the bougainvillea mingled. He knew how to hold a dance partner, that wasn’t awkward at all, and Poirot was short enough to make it feel almost right as they moved into one another’s arms. Hastings had absolutely no idea what tune was being played but the tempo was clear enough; he might have been able to pick out notes and even the words of the girl singer if it hadn’t been for the insistent buzzing like a swarm of bees inside his head.

After some time he became vaguely aware of a shower of loose creamy petals descending like languid snowflakes to the floor.

"I'm afraid I've - crushed your gardenia," he said, helplessly apologetic.

He hadn't been conscious of holding Poirot quite that tightly, but his hand was firm in the middle of Poirot's back and an incredible heat was rising between them. Their feet moved slowly, automatically, little steps because the world was only the two of them.

"Ça ce n'est pas rien," a husky whisper told the side of his neck.

Somehow his cheek came into contact with Poirot's and instead of withdrawing or adjusting position he let it stay there, hearing the music change and recognising, with a distant sensation of triumph, "Love Is The Sweetest Thing". He made some feeble attempt to hum along, knowing himself to be about as tuneful as a rusty gate hinge but feeling that tonight even this could be forgiven. He felt he could do anything. He felt like Sir Galahad, the bravest and purest knight, the most gallant and heroic of them all, claiming his prize at last. Not that he'd been aware before this evening of any long-held yearning to do this, but now he recognised that it was a quite desperate need and that it had always been there, and that was why he cared so much about this little man and had stayed with him through thick and thin; he had wanted this always always, and now Poirot was crushed tightly against him and he seemed to want it too. And whatever Eadweard and Adam and their friends thought, or the rest of the world for that matter, it was just damn’ well going to go on happening if Arthur Hastings had anything to say about it.

The chaps at his club, the fellows with whom he'd shared a Mess in a jumble of British and Canadian entrenchments, they'd all taken him for a bit of a fool. He wondered what they'd say if they could see him now.

Dancing.

In a hotel bedroom.

With Hercule Poirot.

"Heard about old Hastings?" they'd ask each other in gruff voices. "Got caught in a queer bordello in some watering-place or other snuggling up to that strange French feller he used to hang around with." They wouldn't get it right even then, he thought, wryly. "All perfume and patent leather shoes, not exactly a chap's chap. Very clever of course, but then so many of them are you know. Queers."

And they would say that of course they did know, if only by reputation, because it wasn't above thirty years since the bugger Wilde had died and their fathers had all warned them about buggers.

Hastings had always been a bit of an odd sock but dammit he'd done his bit in the War and wasn't his father some sort of General? Difficult to imagine a chap like that - more or less one's own sort, what? But it would've been all the Frenchie's fault, of course, and Hastings was probably too innocent to know what he was getting himself involved in. It was a shame, but there it was.

And meanwhile he, Arthur Hastings, was dancing cheek-to-cheek with the perfumed Frenchie - who was Belgian, of course - and was fully in possession of his wits and coming to the conclusion that maybe he did understand how it felt to be wildly in love after all.

"I wish someone had warned me that you had brown eyes," he heard himself say idiotically, as if they could ever have been anything else. "It was quite a shock when I realised."

"But they have always been the same colour." Poirot sounded genuinely puzzled. "Do you mean to tell me that you have only just noticed?"

"I can be incredibly dense at times," Hastings allowed, past caring how much of a fool Poirot would think him. "But they're not just 'brown', you see, they're also - " He ground to a halt, floundering, faced with a barrage of adjectives and wondering which he could use without embarrassing both of them even more horribly.

"They are - ?" Poirot prompted, his voice almost a purr and his soft breath a caress that brushed lightly over Hastings' cheek. "Tell me."

Metaphorically Hastings grabbed himself by the scruff of the neck. He had started this, so he supposed he had dashed well better go through with it.

"Well, they're rather - " he paused, considering again all the things they were. Eventually he made what seemed a relatively harmless selection. "Gentle," he said, but it was nothing like enough.

A hand, which had previously seemed perfectly content to rest on his shoulder, now crept a little higher so that the side of one stubby finger could flirt with the skin just below his ear.

Hastings shivered at the touch, leaning into it. "Deep," he added, after further consideration, but again it fell short of what he had wanted to say. "Actually they're really quite beautiful."

"Indeed? My eyes are beautiful? You are sure of this, mon ami?" Just the merest edge of teasing, a long way from mockery.

"Completely sure," he replied, masterfully, in a tone that brooked no argument whatever. "As a matter of fact they're utterly enchanting."

And that was the first time he kissed Poirot, just like that, with no prior planning and without much forethought but driven to it by sheer necessity, finding his mouth with a perfect aim, and it was not frightening or shameful or any of the horrifying things he had feared, although it was certainly a little odd. But Poirot’s mouth tasted of brandy and cigars and plum compote and Poirot’s hands were gentle on him, and Poirot did not sigh or wriggle or try to pull away like a girl might have done; he simply accepted that it was happening, and he was generous and warm in response and there was no reason in the world why Hastings would ever, ever want to break away from him.

"Oh, Poirot," he heard himself say, unaware until he did that the kiss had ended.

"My brave Hastings. My very brave Hastings." A breathless whisper somewhere close to his throat, and his arms were full of something strong and compact and scented and his mouth ached with loneliness, so he bent his head again to repeat the experiment only Poirot came to him, too, and somewhere deep inside the kiss a laugh began so that when they parted this time they were both chuckling like idiots as he pressed Poirot’s head against his shoulder and rubbed his cheek against the other man’s.

"So now we will be lovers, cher ami?" Poirot asked, although the answer was contained in the certainty of the tone.

"Oh yes, Poirot. Please."

"My Hastings. Sometimes it seems I must wait a very long time for you to see the light, but when you do ... mon dieu!"

"Oh my goodness, you’ve been waiting ... ? How long?"

"Many years, mon ami. Ever since a certain convalescent hospital and a most amiable young Lieutenant who very kindly allowed me to beat him at chess."

"Twenty two bloody years? My God, Poirot, how many silly, empty-headed little girls have I wasted my time and energy on in the last twenty two years?"

"Alas, too many to count. But you are here now, n’est-ce pas? You are with Poirot and this is all that matters, is it not?"

"I am with Poirot," Hastings confirmed, affectionately. "And thank heavens for it!"

"D’accord, d’accord. And together we will learn to do the things that lovers do, will we not? We will share intimate dinners, we will hold hands, we will kiss again like lovers, and when we are safely back in our own home, we will also learn how to sleep together in the same bed. That is what you would like, yes?"

"Only if you would, Poirot," was the loyal response. "If it wouldn't make you uncomfortable, I think it would be very interesting to try."

"Then we will certainly try. And in time perhaps we will even learn to call one another by our first names, is that not so, my Arthur?"

"Steady on," Hastings demurred, suddenly unaccountably skittish as though he had already gone much further than he had ever dared imagine. "I don't know about that. I’m sure I’d feel a complete idiot saying ‘Hercule’."

Poirot chuckled indulgently. "So," he said, "we make the experiment and it does not succeed. You will dance with me, you will kiss me, you will promise to sleep with me, but you will not say my name."

"I suppose that makes me fearfully shallow, doesn’t it?" Hastings kissed his temple almost absent-mindedly.

"I make the allowances, my love. You are a cold-blooded Englishman and I a passionate Continental. Alors, we are completely incompatible and our liaison is doomed to failure. Therefore we should not pursue this so-foolish affair."

"Poirot?" The tone was puzzled, disturbed.

"What is it, mon ange?"

"Has anyone ever mentioned that you talk far too bloody much?"

"I, Hastings? No, I do not believe..."

"There are much, much better uses for a clever mouth like yours," Hastings told him, very firmly.

"Ah." Poirot smiled up into his eyes. "Loosely translated, I think this is ‘shut up and kiss me’, c’est vrai?"

"Bien sûr, mon ami," Hastings told him, in a perfectly creditable accent. "And maintenant would be a very good time."

*

 

V

When it comes, will it come without warning

Just as I'm picking my nose?

Will it knock on my door in the morning,

Or tread in the bus on my toes?

 

The sound of a door closing somewhere nearby woke Hastings from a confused but blissful tangle of sleep. He had dreamed all sorts of things - dancing with Poirot, kissing him, being unable to tear himself away from the man's arms even when they were both dropping with exhaustion, and something very convoluted and possibly prophetic about being in bed with Poirot and discovering him to be scarred and hairy and indisputably masculine but wanting him anyway. Some of it had very possibly happened, too, although he could not now remember whether it was in the dream or the reality that he had allowed his hand to wander below the line of Poirot's jacket, cupping his firm rear and pressing the man against his own awakening desire. Poirot had allowed it, and the look in his eyes had been infinitely seductive, and there had been an unspoken promise that yes, there would certainly be more, but it could not be tonight - and in a way he had been unbelievably grateful for that, because this was all so new and he felt hopelessly under-qualified to be a lover of men. Of this man, specifically.

"But do you still feel desire?" he remembered asking, at one point. "Do you still feel - lust? If you see a lovely girl or an erotic picture, does it make you feel - aroused?"

"Bien sûr, the feeling is there," Poirot acknowledged. "But the performance - pah! But how can I know that what I experience as desire is the same feeling you recognise, eh, my Arthur?" Hastings was sitting on the floor, his head resting against Poirot's knee as he sat on the chaise-longue. They had turned it towards the window so that they could watch the fireworks without having to leave the sanctuary of their suite. When fingers stole intimately through the hair at the back of his neck and round above his ear to his temple, then dipped to stroke him under the chin like a cat, Hastings responded only with helpless compliance. Poirot could do whatever he chose; he would allow absolutely anything tonight. "Just as I can never know if the colour you perceive as 'green' is the same one I see," the hypnotic voice went on, "or whether we recognise the sound of E flat, the smell of coffee or the taste of a fine wine in exactly the same way. Each of us is in his own little prison, and although we can reach to one another we can never really touch. Our senses will not allow it."

"Do you really believe that?" Hastings yawned, leaning into his hand a little more. "It sounds awfully bleak and lonely, Poirot. I wouldn't like to think of you being lonely."

"Perhaps. But we are all lonely, are we not? You, I, Chief Inspector Japp, Miss Lemon, Mademoiselle Eostre and all her so delightful friends. At night we close our eyes and we are each alone with our thoughts. If what emerges then is desire then yes, I know the feeling well. I know how it is to long for something one expects never to receive - and then one day, suddenly, voilà! Desire may be anything, mon ami; it may be a desperate longing for a cigarette, for a decent meal or shelter from the rain. It may be the urgent need to possess an object of extreme beauty - a painting, a clock, a tapestry, perhaps. It may be any need that takes control of one's life and excludes all other considerations until it is satisfied. It may simply be this." This was the rhythmic touch of his fingers as they stroked back and forth across Hastings' cheek.

They continued watching the fireworks in silence for a short time while Hastings digested the words, carefully considering what Poirot had said and applying it to his own situation.

"I do desire you, Poirot," he said at length, not turning, just letting the words float over his shoulder. "Although I've been trying to pretend for a very long time that I didn't."

"It is not an easy thing to learn about oneself," was the gentle reply. "And to the extent that I can, I desire you, too. I am jealous of those who steal from me your company. When you are not with me I feel that I am less than half alive. After all these years I still count the hours towards the visits of my dear Lieutenant Hastings."

"You love me," Hastings concluded. "I deduced that all by myself, believe it or not; you left me enough clues. But I don't think I ever realised you could actually be in love with me. That took longer to sink in. There's a difference, isn't there?"

The fingers on his cheek stilled as though in contemplation, and the reply was a long time coming, yet he felt no anxiety about what it would be.

"As you say, there is a great difference. One may love more than one person at a time, but to be in love - it excludes everything and everyone else from consideration. And yes, Hastings, you are perfectly correct; it is how I feel for you, and it is also how you feel for me. When we know that about one another, we know everything it is important to know, n'est-ce pas - chéri?"

"C'est vrai, Poirot," Hastings heard himself murmuring, turning his face towards his friend's. Poirot kissed him again then, and they watched the end of the firework display in silence, and when darkness had once more fallen and the only sounds from below were of their young friends packing up and retreating to a variety of beds in a variety of permutations, Poirot said very softly; "You will join me for breakfast on the balcony, my Hastings?"

"Of course. What time?"

"I have ordered it for eight thirty, but it can be changed if you wish."

"No. Eight thirty." They were smiling at one another through the darkness, smiles of triumph, longing, excitement and utter confusion. "Will we still feel this way in the morning, Poirot?"

"I cannot say for certain," was the cautious response, "but I believe we will."

They kissed again, even more intensely than before, Hastings drinking deep from Poirot's mouth as a hummingbird drinks from a flower, only too aware that this parting passion must sustain them both throughout the rest of the night.

"Good night, my love," Poirot told him, pulling away with very obvious reluctance.

"Good night, darling. Sleep well." It was some considerable time before Hastings realised exactly what he had said, but he was in no mood to retreat from it either then or later. Dazed, he crossed to his room, watching Poirot walk away from him across the patch of moonlight where they had danced. Scattered gardenia petals still lay crushed on the carpet, and he fought down an urge to scoop them up and cram them into his pocket.

At his door he turned.

"Poirot?"

"Hastings?"

"These - " he faltered, then regained his courage. "These are the right circumstances, aren't they? I am the right man?"

A short pause, and then from the near total shadow of the opposite doorway: "With all my heart I believe so."

Hastings thought about that for a moment. It was a more satisfactory state of affairs than he could possibly have imagined, and his whole body was thrumming with the electricity of pure exultation.

"Good," he said. "I wouldn't have wanted there to be anyone else. I have an idea I might get frightfully jealous."

"There is no-one else, my Arthur. There never could be."

"All right." Hastings digested the information only slowly, feeling that he had been handed a blank cheque for every morsel of happiness he had ever previously been denied. It was a dizzying prospect, one that frightened him a little in its vista of limitless possibilities. He wasn't equipped to cope with pleasure on that kind of scale, and he needed time to think about its many implications.

"Good night," he repeated, in a state of almost-total panic, and passed quickly into his room.

But Poirot had been in every thought before sleeping, and in every dream throughout the night, and had been in his mind when he awoke, and there had been extreme confusion between romantic longing and sexual desire and a consciousness of the world's hostility towards men who loved one another. They would be discreet, of course they would, but still people would know or guess what they were to each other. He could not imagine hiding anything from Miss Lemon, or from Japp, and he suspected the young people had fathomed the secret long before he had known of its existence himself. And in the back of his mind there was his father's voice, expostulating at length about the ridiculous spectacle of his only son, the last of their particular line, kissing not merely a man but some wretched foreigner with a preposterous waxed moustache into the bargain!

In God's name, Arthur, have you no self-respect?

Apparently not, father, he conceded, with a shrug of utter unconcern.

And he wondered whether he should kiss Poirot this morning or shake his hand instead, and what he should say to him when they met over the breakfast table. He came to the conclusion that it would very much depend who else was present at the time, because being with Poirot had never been difficult in the past and there was no earthly reason why it should start to be now. He knew that the sight of Poirot would calm all his fears - it always did - and he was darned well going to kiss him if there was the least possible chance of getting away with it unobserved.

 

This was the frame of mind in which he washed, dressed, and presented himself on the balcony exactly at eight-thirty, knowing that with Poirot punctuality was not merely a courtesy but amounted almost to a fetish.

"Oh, my Hastings." Poirot half-rose, his voice a little hoarse, "you have slept well?" And it seemed that his hands were less steady than they might have been, and his face a shade paler.

"Good morning." Without a second thought Hastings bent his head and kissed Poirot on the cheek, just a half absent-minded family kiss in passing. He sat down facing Poirot across the small wrought-iron table; strong sunlight shone through the pitcher of orange juice that sat between them and turned it into a ball of dazzling golden fire. "You're looking - quite magnificent this morning," he said appreciatively. "Is that a new tie?"

Poirot fingered the red brocade extravagance. "A gift," he said, "last Christmas, from the Chief Inspector and Madame Japp. There has not been a suitable occasion to wear it until now, but perhaps today I am feeling - a little frivolous."

"Light-headed?"

"D'accord."

A hotel maid hovered at Hastings' elbow and he wondered where she had come from and how much she had seen.

"Half a grapefruit, bacon, two eggs, tomato, fried bread," he said. "And tea and toast, of course. Poirot, dear, aren't you eating?"

"A little toast, perhaps, some of that most excellent blackcurrant preserve, and café au lait, if you would be so kind," Poirot ordered, delicately, as though afraid his stomach might register some strong objection to Hastings' choice of breakfast. "Indeed," he said, as the maid departed to relay their order to the kitchen, "only one who was already insanely in love with you could tolerate to be in your company during such a meal, chéri."

Hastings looked at him through the slanting morning light and thought about the sacrifices they would both need to make, and the rewards they could both hope to gain.

"Not going to be a bed of roses, is it?" he asked, gently. "This - affair thing of ours, I mean."

"No," Poirot conceded, "it will not. It will be awkward and uncomfortable and we will make many mistakes, but we owe it to ourselves at least to make the attempt. Do you not agree?"

"Yes. I mean, absolutely, Poirot. Definitely, we ought to give it a try. And not only that - ," he blundered on, reddening. "Actually I've been thinking about you rather a lot overnight, and I've come to the conclusion we ought to try the other business, too."

Poirot glanced around him carefully, making sure that there was nobody else within earshot. He leaned forward, his tone as low and tender as any Hastings had ever heard.

"If by 'the other business' you mean that we should attempt to make love, mon coeur, then I agree with you. If it is truly your desire to become intimate with me in this manner, you should know that there is nothing I would like better."

Impulsively Hastings reached across the table and took his hand, smoothing a thumb across the back of Poirot's square, competent fingers and imagining, as he had during the night, those fingers dancing across his body and his own hands reciprocating. He had wondered how Poirot would look naked; not every man's dream of perfection, admittedly, nor even every woman's, but someone who was uniquely his. Someone to whom he could devote the rest of his life in the certain knowledge that his devotion would be equally returned.

"You've never actually - done anything with anyone before, have you?" he asked, shakily. It had been a shock when he first realised this, but it made perfect sense; before the War Poirot had been a virgin out of choice, and since his injuries he had never had the opportunity to become anything else.

"You will be the first," was the serene response. There seemed to be not the least hint of doubt or fear in his manner, only illimitable faith in his beloved Hastings.

Dazzled, Hastings squeezed the hand he held, almost ruthlessly. "I hope you won't have cause to regret that, darling."

And then there was a long, long pause while they looked into one another's eyes and Hastings' calf brushed against Poirot's shin under the table and rested there, and there was nothing at all strange about touching like lovers even here, where they ran the risk of being seen.

"I say, Poirot, let's go home, shall we? Let's pack up and leave now; we'll say something's happened and you're needed, and you can tell Miss Lemon to take the rest of the week off. We'll drive like idiots all the way, and when we get back we'll lock the door behind us and just be together. How would you like that?"

"I should adore it almost as much as you would," was the mildly teasing response. "To elope with you, in such dramatic fashion? Yes, it would be quite perfect. But the gallery opening is at eleven, and we can scarcely be ready to go before then. If you will stay for that, dearest Arthur, I promise that we will leave immediately afterwards - and we can still be at home, in our own bed, by midnight."

At home, in our own bed! Hastings knew he was smiling one of his stupid smiles, but he couldn't drag his eyes away from Poirot's; there was mischief and mayhem in the brown depths, and something which held a much deeper promise of adventure.

"Elopement - would seem to suggest a marriage of some sort," he murmured. "Are you by any chance proposing to me, Poirot?"

And then, thunderstruck, he realised that Poirot was just as capable of fluttering his eyelashes seductively as any girl of his acquaintance and he wondered how the hell he had ever learned that trick and upon whom he might he have used it in the past.

"Not at all, chéri, but I accept with alacrity the proposal which you have made to me. And we will be happy, I think?"

"I should jolly well say we will, Poirot," Hastings grinned back at him across the breakfast table. "I should jolly well say we will."

 

With the romantic idea of an elopement as motivation, it seemed to take very little time indeed to pack their belongings in readiness for the return to London. Tiring as the journey would undoubtedly be, the prospect at the end of it was one to be relished by both Hastings and Poirot; whether or not they succeeded in their ultimate aim of becoming lovers seemed less than wholly relevant when considered against the pleasant expectation of enjoying one another's company and reconciling themselves to an understanding of their new affinity.

It would be necessary for them to develop new ways to describe their relationship, Hastings realised, pushing his washing kit all anyhow into a corner of his suitcase. He had not cared half as much about neatness in packing this time, although he suspected that on the other side of the suite Poirot was devoting his usual detailed attention to the careful disposition of his clothes. The vocabulary had altered already - little endearments had crept in almost without being noticed and had become familiar as soon as they were uttered - but they would require a whole new structure and grammar, too. It would no longer be sufficient for Poirot to describe him as 'my associate', although he doubted whether 'my fiancé' would win them many new friends in society circles - and that was odd, because he had no difficulty in thinking of himself as engaged to Poirot.

A long engagement, he mused, with an ironic quirk to his mouth. And I wouldn't be surprised if we end up 'anticipating' the wedding!

But the whole concept was quite thrilling; until now he had had no idea exactly how much he longed for the intimate details which always seemed to signify that two people belonged to one another - like joined monograms on household items, invitations addressed to both of them, and Christmas cards sent out over their two signatures. He looked forward to little gallantries such as opening doors for Poirot; to sharing the newspaper over breakfast; to waking some blissful morning with Poirot's head on his shoulder and the sensation that something momentous had been achieved.

I can be so proud of him, he realised. I can be proud of what we are together.

It did not seem to matter that their association was of a kind which would be frowned on by most of their acquaintance. Some people had obviously thought it of them already, but had done business with them anyway. As far as he was aware no-one had cut them as a result of the suspicion that they were homosexuals; as long as one didn't flaunt it, therefore, it seemed unlikely to be much of a social disadvantage. People would always need Poirot to step in and sort out their muddles; that gave him a cachet of his own. If they wanted his detective services, they would have to understand that acceptance of Hastings formed part of the price. Not that Poirot ever needed to work again; financially he was secure for the rest of his life, even if he did choose to take on an extra dependant.

Well, father, I hope you're satisfied, he told the disapproving voice in his head. You always hoped I'd marry money, although I don't suppose this is quite what you had in mind.

 

Predictably he was finished long before Poirot, leaving his bags corded and stacked neatly, golf clubs on the top, waiting for the porter to take them down and load them into the Lagonda. They had resolved to walk as far as The Esplanade this morning, returning either by taxi or by tram as he doubted very much that Poirot would be game for the long hot climb back up the hill. With that in mind they'd both dressed as coolly as possible, he in creamy flannels and his Eton blazer, Poirot in the pale linen suit he normally reserved for his overseas travels. It had been searingly hot the previous day, and it looked like being the same today, and as Hastings lounged against the marble balustrade of the balcony he toyed idly with the brim of his soft hat and thought the most tranquil thoughts of his entire life.

Eventually Poirot joined him, looking a little pink of face and mildly flustered, carrying his cane and the jauntily informal hat which went with the rest of the outfit.

"I say," Hastings enthused. "Quite the flâneur, old boy."

"An idler? A boulevardier?" Poirot tried on the identification. "Well, perhaps."

"Maurice Chevalier to the life, in fact."

Poirot chose to accept this as flattery. "C'est ça? But he is a little taller, I think."

"Perhaps a little," Hastings conceded. "So, are you ready?"

"To be seen with you in public places? Yes, I am ready."

"We'll have to be careful, you know."

"D'accord. But when we are out of sight of the hotel and it is not quite so obvious you will give me your arm, will you not, and we will stroll together as gentlemen do on the Continent?"

In the free and easy atmosphere of this seaside haven this seemed a much more reasonable request than it would have done in the strait-jacketed atmosphere of Town. Delighted, Hastings acceded without hesitation.

"Rather!" he said. "Let's make the most of it while we have the chance, shall we? When we get home we'll be hiding and denying and covering-up as if we'd done something criminal, when all we've really done is fall in love."

"Alas, mon cher, the world will not take such a tolerant attitude. But here, for the time being, we are among people who understand our affection for one another - and when we are a little more certain of ourselves, and of our feelings, and of the life we are making - I think we will return here and learn how not to hide, n'est-ce pas?"

"That would be wonderful, Poirot," Hastings agreed. Then, after a moment's thought; "I can bring my golf clubs again, can't I?"

Poirot rolled his eyes in mock exasperation, then grinned up at him as if to say he could refuse this man absolutely nothing, now or at any future time.

"Yes, mon ange," he said, heavily tolerant and teasing all at the same time, "I am prepared to permit it, if that is what you wish."

 

They made a long, slow progress of their walk into town, stopping at a shady little pavement café for cups of milky coffee served with a plate of iron-hard ginger-snap biscuits. Neither was hungry but they ate one each to be polite, and discussed in desultory fashion how much Torquay, with its palm trees and its sugar-white and raspberry-pink villas, resembled the resorts of the French Riviera. The sight of a large number of sunburned young people in skimpy outfits reinforced the impression that one was somewhere within easy reach of Cap d'Antibes; only the Devonian accents of the local residents and the fact that most vehicles tended to be driven on the left-hand side of the road served to dispel the illusion.

They did not link arms again when they left the café, both feeling that their privacy had temporarily come to an end, and indeed a few moments later they bumped almost literally into Miss Lemon. She was wearing a very becoming summer frock and a cheeky saucer-shaped straw hat, and emerging from a tea-room that was all done up with bamboo furniture and willow-pattern plates.

"Oh, Mr Poirot!" she greeted him, almost with relief. "Good morning, Captain. Chief Inspector Japp has been trying to telephone you at the hotel but they said you'd already left. He said if I saw you I was to ask you to step around to the Police Station and ask either for him or for Sergeant Roberts. He's heard something from the Birmingham police, but he didn't say what. I'm sure Eadweard would be willing to postpone the opening until you arrive," she added.

Poirot's dark eyebrows lifted and he turned to Hastings. "You will come with me, mon cher?" he asked, urgently. "This concerns you most of all."

"Of course." Hastings was mystified that he had even troubled to ask.

"I'll go to the gallery and warn them you might be late," Miss Lemon volunteered. "I was just on my way there anyway."

"Thank you, Miss Lemon." Poirot tilted the brim of his hat in acknowledgement, and then listened calmly while she gave him directions to a building down by the harbour. They parted from her politely, and resumed their journey at a rather less leisurely pace.

 

Japp was ensconced in a dark, narrow office on the cool side of the building where it rested close under a cliff of red sandstone. There was a telephone on the desk and he had a large pad of lined paper, a set of pencils and a pencil sharpener in front of him. He was industriously doodling fantastical castles, rabbits with big ears, curving piano keyboards and flowers with entwined stems. It looked as if he was almost going mad with boredom.

"Poirot, Hastings, thank goodness." He greeted them warmly as they were ushered in. "I've been here two hours, I've read the paper and the railway timetable and the magistrates' duty rota. I'm waiting for this blasted telephone to ring." Like the pair of them Japp was attired for the climate; immaculate canvas trousers, a blue blazer and a striped tie made him look as if he had just come from Henley or Cowes.

Hastings propped himself decoratively against the dark windowsill whilst Poirot sat down carefully on a creaking wooden chair.

"Miss Lemon says that you have heard something from Birmingham, mon ami?"

"Yes." The thrill of the chase, even at such a remove, was written eloquently across Japp's features. "They've found Windibank. One of their constables spotted him first thing this morning making for Snow Hill railway station, blew his whistle, and the next thing you know there's a hue and cry all through the streets." Japp shuddered. Old-fashioned policing was all very well and as a rule he was quite an advocate of simple methods, but the whole business sounded rather untidy to him. Perhaps some of Poirot's fastidiousness was beginning to rub off.

"Top and bottom of it is," he went on, "they've got him cornered in an empty warehouse and he's taking pot shots at them from the window. Nobody ever suggested he'd be armed," he added resentfully, "but I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. Strikes me far too many criminals these days get their ideas from the movies."

"Oh." Hastings' attention perked up, despite himself. Weapons were, unfortunately, a subject he knew something about. "Do we know what kind of gun, Chief Inspector?"

"Handgun of some sort," Japp said, dismissively. "They're not getting close enough to find out, at the moment. They've got his exits covered, though; when he comes out, they've got him."

"But he will not come out, mon ami Japp, will he?" Poirot asked him, sadly. "If he comes out, what has he to look forward to but imprisonment, trial - and hanging? Such situations all end in the same way, do they not?"

"He could be found guilty but insane," Japp reminded him.

"Then he passes forty or fifty years in an asylum," retorted Poirot. "Me, I think I should prefer to hang. Or to dispose of myself quickly with the last bullet, so." His graphic gesture, mimicking a pistol to the temple, was rather too reminiscent of his conversation with Hastings about suicide to be entirely comfortable to one member of his audience.

"I say, Poirot, don't do that," he had said, before he realised he intended to speak at all.

Poirot inclined his head. "I apologise," he said, in the half-whispered tone of their more intimate moments. "And you wait, do you not, Chief Inspector, for the telephone to ring, so that you can be informed of the outcome?"

"Yes. They're bringing in a sharp-shooter to see if they can pick him off from the roof of the next building. Do you want a cup of tea or something while we're waiting? Although I should warn you, it tastes like paint stripper."

With a little wave of the hand Poirot demurred. "We have just had coffee," he said, "but thank you."

"Hmmm. Well, I think I will, if you'll excuse me," Japp told them, getting up and reaching for the door. "It's all that's keeping me awake at the moment. Sarn't Roberts! Another cup of char in here, lad, if you please."

 

"What did Miss Lemon mean?" Hastings asked, half an hour or so later. He had finally lost interest in the cricket and golf scores as reported in Japp's newspaper, had glanced at the skeleton crossword and decided it was beyond him, and was seriously contemplating the literary merits of the railway timetable. Japp and Poirot had been talking, but the subject was not of much direct relevance to Hastings and he had allowed his attention to drift away from it.

Poirot turned an enquiring glance in his direction. "Mon ami?"

"About the gallery opening waiting for you? Only we're already late," he added, when Poirot did not seem to comprehend the question.

"Ah! But you see, my Hastings," Poirot told him indulgently, "there is no show without Punch."

"I beg your pardon?" A look of complete mystification had settled on Hastings' features, but he had very firmly decided the previous evening that he had no hope whatever of understanding his own life and it would be safest in future to leave the thinking to Poirot.

"This is an English expression, is it not?" he turned to Japp for confirmation. "'No show without Punch'?"

"Oh, I dare say," Japp agreed, listlessly. "I suppose you mean you're making a speech at this gallery opening?"

The resolutely unimpressed note in Japp's voice would have quelled any lesser mortal, but the nature of Poirot was irrepressible. "I have," he conceded, "been requested to offer a few introductory remarks when the portrait by Mademoiselle Hargreaves is unveiled."

"I knew it!" Japp's tone implied that only a personage of monumentally inflated ego could consider both making a speech and unveiling a portrait of himself. "I've got a good mind to develop a migraine."

"Mon cher Japp," Poirot goaded, gently, "if you plead illness now it will be said of you that you have no head for champagne, and your reputation will always be that of a weakling. Can you live with the notoriety of such disgrace?"

Japp harrumphed, regarding Poirot with the utmost suspicion. "I thought you'd pretty much cornered the market on notoriety, Poirot," he responded, without a flicker of humour. "But I won't have it said that a Scotland Yard officer couldn't hold his drink, so I'll be there all right. Assuming this bally phone ever rings." He looked at it hopefully, as if somehow it might have taken its cue and presented him with a release from his sentence in this little cell, but it did not oblige. Indeed, a further twenty stultifying minutes elapsed before its brassy tone shocked all three of them from three separate, semi-contemplative dozes.

"Japp," the police officer said, brandishing the instrument roughly and speaking before it was decently close to his ear. "Inspector Cornwallis? Yes." And then a long silence, and a glance up under beetling brows to Poirot and Hastings. "How?" He listened, and the voice at the other end of the line buzzed frantically like a fly trapped behind a window-shade battering itself against the unyielding walls of its prison. "I see. And what did you recover? Oh yes? Very well. Thank you, Inspector. You'll make sure I get copies of all the paperwork? Yes. Yes. Yes, very efficient, thank you." And then after another long pause, which was obviously part of a pattern of closing compliments, Japp uttered a final brisk; "Yes, all right, thank you. Goodbye." He put the telephone back on its cradle, chewed his moustache briefly, then raised his eyes to meet Poirot's and Hastings' again.

"The operation was successful," he said, "but the patient died. God knows how they managed it but somehow they let Windibank get away from them and he's only gone and thrown himself down a bloody lift-shaft! Apparently he wasn't killed right away but he was pretty much strawberry jam. They scraped him up, stuck him in an ambulance, and carted him as far as the hospital - but they couldn't do anything for him. Cornwallis was ordered not to phone me until it was all over, so he's been sitting around at the hospital waiting for Windibank to die. They've recovered quite a lot of the jewellery, as well as cash, a gun and a knife. No way of telling yet whether it's the knife," he added, sourly. "Bloody Keystone Kops. I'm not in favour of killers passing sentence on themselves; I like them to have their day in court. It's always a damn sight easier to hang 'em if everybody can see they're guilty as sin. I'm afraid it's not looking, Hastings," he concluded, in a more conciliatory tone, "as if we'll ever be able to charge anybody with your son's murder. The most we have on the Crosbies is accessory after the fact."

Hastings nodded. "I understand," he said. "I suppose there's a certain poetic justice about it, though. A life for a life and all that."

Japp looked from one of them to the other. "Well," he said, "between you and me and these four walls, I can't help feeling we've let you down one way or another. Wouldn't've happened if Poirot was in charge, I dare say."

But Poirot shook his head. "Console yourself, mon ami," he soothed. "You have done all that could be done; sometimes there is no neat ending to be obtained. And the arrest of the Crosbies is a very notable success in itself, although I should not like to be the one who tells the General that he has been the victim of a fraud."

"No," Japp conceded. "I suppose that'll be me. A treat I've got to look forward to when I get home, no doubt. That and Emily's toad-in-the-hole." He blanched, contemplating the injustices of his own life. "Well, I suppose I'd better go and give the locals the news," he said eventually, pulling himself up by his own bootstraps. "Come on out when you're ready and we'll walk across and see this Old Master unveiled. That's you, Poirot," he added, waspishly, "not the portrait."

 

Japp's unprecedented courtesy in allowing them a moment for private reflection could not have come at a better time. As the door closed behind him, Hastings turned and braced both hands on the windowsill, leaning forward so that his forehead rested on the cool shadowed glass. He had barely begun to calm his teeming thoughts when he felt the comfort of a familiar hand in the small of his back and tasted Poirot's scent as he moved in reassuringly close.

"Arthur?"

But Hastings could not yet turn towards him.

"I suppose it would be better if I could cry properly," he said, quite analytically. "It all seems so unfair, I feel as if I want to stamp my feet and hurl crockery at the walls. I can be angry all right, but I can't seem to cry more than a few drops at a time."

"But you will, mon ami," Poirot counselled. "Perhaps when you least expect it. Suddenly something will remind you of Ramon, and then at last you will find it easy to cry. It is a good thing to feel so deeply, mon cher; take it from one who knows."

"Oh I do," Hastings acknowledged. "Believe me. I don't know where I'd ever have been without you, Poirot. You're always rescuing me from things, aren�t you, just like I wanted Nicholson to do, all those years ago? Logan too, probably, although I didn't let myself think about it at the time. And the strange thing is, you rescued me so completely that I didn't even know you'd done it until much later."

"Ah." The hand on Hastings' back shifted position a little, and the angle of tilt of Poirot's head became just a fraction more intimate. "But you, in your turn, have rescued me, my dear Lieutenant. I could not have been such a friend to you had you not been so generous with your time in those dreadful days. Alors, we have passed through the fire together and it has made us both stronger, yes?"

"Yes." Poirot's' voice had dropped to little more than an anguished whisper, and its cadence was now matched exactly by that of his loyal companion. "But I've been incredibly thoughtless, Poirot. I've only just realised that I haven't yet told you I love you."

"You have told me," was the soft response. "In words that only I can hear, you have told me so every day of your life."

But Hastings was determined not to let himself off the hook so easily. "I think I should have said it before this, though. I've been a selfish brute, darling; can you forgive me?"

"Almost anything," was the indulgent reply.

Hastings lowered his head then, the sweet taste of Poirot's breath filling his senses, the desire to kiss the man into total insensibility regardless of surroundings completely overwhelming any enjoinders to caution. For a long moment it almost happened, the most dangerous of gestures in this most dangerous of places, and then Poirot's fingertip on his lower lip stopped him.

"Arrête-toi, chéri," Poirot told him, just in time. "Recollect where we are. Even the reputation of Chief Inspector Japp cannot protect us if we are so foolish at this time. Wait only a few hours, my Arthur, and we can tell each other all that is in our hearts."

Hastings stopped abruptly, blinked, pulled away. "Sorry," he said, shuddering as though under the emotional equivalent of a cold shower.

"Pas du tout," was the automatic response. "When the time is right you will be in no doubt of my feelings, I promise."

"Yes. Well." Sheepishly, Hastings buried his hands deep in his pockets as though it was the only way he could prevent them reaching for Poirot again. "The time had better hurry up and be right, then. Shouldn't we be getting on over to this gallery thing?"

"Ah yes." Poirot picked up his hat and ran a careful fingertip around the crown. "It is something very special, this portrait," he remarked, lightly, "and it says to you, particularly, what words cannot. It will, I hope, give you some comfort. Eh bien, let us first collect the good Chief Inspector, and then I will show you."

 

The humble building in The Esplanade which for twenty years or more had been the Electric Cinema had become redundant with the construction of a shiny new picture palace furnished with the latest equipment and a luxurious interior capable of holding six hundred people. Like La Terrasse, it was owned by an elderly relative of Adam Macy's who had always relied on having a man around to make business decisions for her. She had not hesitated to turn it over to him and Eadweard for use as a gallery, although she still liked to cling to the comfortable illusion that Eadweard lived in the tiny flat above the gallery and Adam in the room assigned to him at the hotel. The fact that as often as not it was the other way around was something of which she preferred to remain ignorant. At any rate they had refurbished the old property, smartened it with a lick of paint, treated the outside to a coat of delicate duck-egg blue render, and given the whole place a quite cosmopolitan ambience.

Poirot bustled through Eadweard's flustered greeting, apologising, hearing Hastings offer a few words of explanation to Adam and Japp to Miss Lemon as they entered through the foyer to the wide, cool space beyond. He heard Hastings say "We really couldn't help it," and Japp "It was my fault." Then he became aware of the interested gazes of the young people who had been at the hotel the previous night, the charming arty crowd Eadweard and Adam had collected around themselves, the young people of indeterminate sexuality among whom he and Hastings had found themselves to be so much at home. It was like suddenly discovering that he had any number of unsuspected nieces and nephews all of whom shared with him a perception of the world which did not accord with that of the general population. He felt very warm towards every one of them - and to Japp, Miss Lemon, and to his beloved Hastings above them all.

When he was ushered to the central pillar upon which the shrouded portrait hung, he began to speak in a tone only a little above his normal conversational pitch. "Alors, mes amis, I am desolated to arrive among you so late. An important police matter has diverted my attention from this most auspicious of occasions. But I have more than one apology to offer, as you will shortly see that I have not kept a promise which some weeks ago I made to Monsieur Eadweard Hargreaves." He nodded to Eadweard, who was regarding him evenly and without any emotion save curiosity on his pleasant features.

"When my dear friends Captain Arthur Hastings, Miss Felicity Lemon, and the inestimable Chief Inspector James Japp," Poirot went on, indicating each one as he enumerated them for the benefit of the other guests, "wished to give to me a special gift to celebrate a certain anniversary of my birth, they introduced me to Mademoiselle Eostre Hargreaves and suggested that I should allow her to make my portrait. This idea was a charming one, and you will understand that Poirot is as susceptible to compliments as any man. I freely admit, mes amis, that I was most flattered, and that I was more than willing to consent."

"I'll bet," Japp muttered, not quite under his breath. Fond as he was of Poirot, in his own rather rigid way, there were times when the words 'posturing jackanapes' were not far from his thoughts.

"Eh bien," Poirot continued, affecting not to have noticed. "Then there occurred in the life of Captain Hastings the most melancholy circumstance which has been the cause of considerable grief and anguish to him, and as his friend it became clear to me then that it was no longer as important to augment the vanity of one who had already attained a modest celebrity as to commemorate the short existence of one who lived and died without coming to the notice of the world."

It is something very special, this portrait, Hastings thought, shock stealing the remaining colour from his pale face. It says to you what words cannot.

It says to you that I love you. His mind made the translation without his conscious assistance. All that was in Poirot's heart lay open to him, now that the time was right, precisely as he had been promised only a few minutes before.

"It's my boy, isn't it?" he breathed, overwhelmed by the size, the openness, the very public nature of such a gesture. Poirot must have been very sure of him, he realised. Poirot must have realised a long time ago that they had fallen in love. "It's my poor boy."

"Indeed, my Hastings, it is. Monsieur Eadweard and friends I apologise that I have, with the connivance and dedication of the excellent Mademoiselle Eostre, changed the commission. I present to you all now, mes amis, the most beloved only son of my friend Hastings - Señor Ramon Hidalgo."

Poirot was never sure afterwards who had pulled the cord to part the curtains. He had intended to do so himself, but Hastings' hand was clutching so firmly at his sleeve that he could not have moved if his life depended on it, and he had no desire to do any such thing. Instead he let his eyes dwell on Hastings' elegant profile which was turned as though hypnotised in the direction of the narrow canvas revealed when a pair of flimsy white silk drapes slid asunder.

"Oh Poirot," came the shakiest of whispers, a tender thread of sound which nonetheless reverberated around the room. "He's absolutely beautiful."

The portrait of Ramon was, indeed, absolutely beautiful; working from a very unpromising set of police evidence photographs and a copy of the picture of Bianca, and with only a limited amount of time at her disposal, the skills of Eostre Hargreaves had enhanced the olivine good looks of a rather ordinary young Argentinian seaman, endowing him with the dramatic allure of a Rudolf Valentino. Attired in the sleek perfection of black and a shirt that frothed with crisp white lace, he looked as if he was about to take the floor in some extravagant flamenco or tango. His blue eyes flashed with an overt but enigmatic sexuality, giving him a brooding aura of contained menace which seemed to reach into the most secret conscience of everyone present. There was not an individual in the room who was not touched by it; Poirot himself, fully aware of the boy's strong resemblance to his father, was as moved as any of them.

"Bien sûr, my very dear Hastings, undoubtedly he is," was his gentle response.

There was something from the direction of Japp that might have been a swear word, quickly suppressed. Miss Lemon had slipped a small handkerchief from her handbag and was discreetly dabbing her eyes with it, and the young man with the light laugh was apparently also struggling against tears until the hard young woman in the flannel slacks and starched shirt rested a wisely consoling hand upon his shoulder.

Hastings, however, had no intention of making any attempt to control his emotions. Silent tears poured from his eyes like water from the fountains in Trafalgar Square; rivulets formed in the creases of his cheeks and drips reached the corners of his mouth only to fall from his chin. He had no desire to break contact with Poirot even long enough to dry his eyes so he simply stood there, paralysed, overwhelmed by his feelings, until Poirot turned to face him as if seeking approval or reassurance that he had done the right thing. It was so utterly unlike him to be uncertain of himself even for a fraction of a second that abruptly Poirot's insecurity became Hastings' most urgent priority. Surely there must be something discreet that he could say to his friend, something that would make him comfortable with this very open declaration of affection, something that would restore the balance between them. He opened his mouth, shook his head slowly, numbly, tried once to speak and failed.

He couldn't do it, he realised. He couldn't keep on pretending. He had no deception left in him anywhere. When it came to his feelings for Poirot the cat had been let out of the bag a very long time ago, and he didn't imagine there was a single person either in this room or in the whole of London for that matter who had experienced a second's doubt that he was in love with the man and had been since the moment they met. He had reached rock bottom, he realised; he didn't have a thing of importance left in the world to lose, except the one thing that mattered most.

Slowly, knowing that all eyes were upon them both and not giving a tinker's damn, Hastings' hand slid down over the fine cloth of Poirot's sleeve, over the flesh of his wrist, over his square fingers, gathering them in and pressing them tightly, unthinkingly intimate, unquestioningly possessive. It was as if for Hastings a key had been turned in a lock and his heart had leaped from his chest; there was only freedom ahead for him now, and the name of that freedom was Hercule Poirot.

"Thank you, my dear," he said, softly but distinctly. And although there was somewhere in the room a sigh of pleasure and somewhere else a half-choked gasp of pure annoyance, there was from Poirot no reaction whatever save the endless and imperturbable light of affection in his eyes.

That was all.

But it was more than enough.

*

Chief Inspector Japp was still an odd shade of purple when, a few minutes later, he grabbed me by the wrist and hustled me somewhat brusquely in the direction of what turned out to be a kitchen. Someone had been setting out glasses of wine in there, and the bottle was still on the table. He paused long enough to help himself to a glassful, and then for the first time he looked me squarely in the eye.

"You knew, didn't you?" he accused, hoarsely. I didn't answer immediately; it was very apparent that he had been shocked by what he saw and I was not at all certain he wasn't disgusted into the bargain. "Poirot and Hastings? You knew."

"I didn't know," I told him, appeasingly. "I had begun to suspect something, I must admit, but I'm a confidential secretary, Chief Inspector. I couldn't talk about anything so personal except under the most extreme circumstances."

"You could've warned me," he complained, sitting down on the edge of the table with an air of resignation. "Just a hint. Just a word to the wise, stop me putting my foot in it. God knows what stupid things I've said to the pair of them over the years."

"I'm sure this is a very recent development," I hastened to reassure him. "I hadn't any inkling of it before Captain Hastings returned from Ireland. I think the business of his poor son has ... " I stopped myself just in time. I had been about to say 'driven them into each other's arms', and I refuse to sound like a Hollywood cliché. " - has changed things between them," I completed weakly, but I could see that the Chief Inspector had heard the words I had not used.

"So where does that leave us?" he asked, unexpectedly. "You and me?"

Astounded, I looked at him over my glasses. "I'm not sure I follow you," I said, in some bewilderment.

He harrumphed, obviously finding this topic of conversation more than a little uncomfortable.

"Will - you - be - looking - for - another - situation?" he spelled out, laboriously. "Or can you stay with the pair of them, knowing what you know?"

"I shall stay, of course," I said, smartly. Indeed, it had never occurred to me not to. "I have no objection whatever to their being ... a couple. Lovers, I suppose." That did it; I knew I was blushing a frantic colour, and Chief Inspector Japp would not took at me at all.

"Oh. You'll forgive me, Miss Lemon, but I thought that you and Captain Hastings had some sort of understanding. You were always very chummy."

I bit my lower lip. I could well understand where he had got that idea; I've admitted that I'm fond of the Captain, but what I like best about him is the calming effect he has on M. Poirot. When I understood why that was, it seemed clear to me that there was no room for anyone else in either of their lives.

"We are good friends," I acknowledged, "and sometimes companions in adversity, but I can assure you that there has never been anything more than that."

"All right," he said, gruffly. "But I would still rather not've found out the way I did. Never thought I'd see the day when Hastings looked at Poirot, of all people, the way he looks at a pretty girl, and as for the pair of them holding hands in a public place - if you don't mind! - well, if my superiors ever got to hear I was present at such goings-on it'd be my job and my pension without a shadow of a doubt. Thank goodness most of the young people seem to be of a queerish nature themselves, or I'd've been expecting my cards at the end of the week."

Now that he mentioned it, I could understand that he'd been placed in a very difficult position. It was unlike either one of them to be quite so careless of a friend's feelings, but then love is widely reputed to be oblivious to anything but itself.

"I believe Mr Macy asked Mr Poirot if they were on their honeymoon," I said, in an effort to lighten his mood. His eyebrows rose until they had almost vanished beneath the lock of hair that fell over his brow.

"Did he, though? And what was the reply, do you know?"

"He smiled and said; 'Yes, Monsieur Adam, indeed we are.' The young people are all very discreet," I added, soothingly. "I suppose they're more adaptable than our generation, Chief Inspector; they seem to take it all completely in their stride. I don't think we need be afraid of any breath of scandal escaping from them, somehow. Mr Poirot and Captain Hastings, on the other hand, may need a word or two of warning in case they're tempted to be quite so open on a less suitable occasion. One of us will have to say something."

The prospect seemed to terrify him, yet he pulled something from his pocket and looked at me with challenge in his eyes. "Toss a coin for it," he said. "You call."

I made him show me the threepenny bit before he spun it into the air. When I was reassured that it had the requisite number of faces, I called 'tails'.

"Heads," he said, showing me where it rested on the back of his hand.

"Very well. I'll speak to them when we all return to London." I did not particularly relish the prospect, but it was a responsibility that could not be shirked and I could hardly imagine the Chief Inspector making his way through such a speech without causing even greater embarrassment. It was just as well Fate had assigned the duty to me.

"You're not at all scared, are you?" he asked me, quaffing back another long draught of the wine. "Of telling your boss and his boyfriend they have to 'cool it' in public, I mean?"

"Not in the least, Chief Inspector," I assured him. "They're both perfect gentlemen and I'm quite sure they'll appreciate the warning."

"Jim," he said, suddenly.

"What?" I was surprised into an unladylike utterance.

"Jim," he repeated. "We've known each other a long time - ah - Felicity. Time we were on first-name terms, I think. Don't you?"

I looked at him then, thinking that although there was something rather unpolished about him he was certainly a nice enough looking man. A bit of a diamond in the rough, my mother would have said. Not exactly a gentleman, but a very long way from being a peasant - and I knew that he had a kind heart. Besides, he does dance rather well, for a big man.

"Do you know, Jim," I said thoughtfully, "I had to explain to Captain Hastings that Mr Poirot had started to 'tutoyer' him? To call him 'tu' instead of 'vous', I mean? The significance of that had escaped him completely."

"Way over my head, too, Felicity," he confirmed, offering me his arm. "Perhaps you'd give me the kindergarten version?"

I threaded my arm carefully through his. He was strong and tall, and he smelled a little of cigarette smoke, and his manners were very good considering; I always think these are the most necessary attributes in a male companion. What was more, he knew how to keep his mouth shut.

"Why," I said, "between adults, it usually signifies a considerable degree of closeness and affection, that's all. I believe that was when I realised that Mr Poirot had actually fallen in love with the Captain." I did not think he needed to know at this stage precisely how recent that realisation had been.

"I'm always the last to know," he mumbled. He had abandoned his glass on the table and reached for the door-knob to escort me back towards the party. "You do understand that I'm a married man, Felicity?" he asked, easily.

I looked up at him. Intelligent, I thought. Not in Mr Poirot's league by a long way, but who wants to have to try and keep up with his frantic intellectual pace all the time? Besides which, my employer was by now most emphatically spoken for.

"That's all right, Jim," I smiled, beginning to enjoy his company immensely. "So, I believe, is Captain Hastings."

I had been expecting to have the last word on the subject, but although his voice was muffled as we left the room I'm almost sure I heard him muttering something about being very happy for them and all but hoping just the same that he wouldn't be expected to put his hand in his pocket to buy them a bloody wedding present.

*

Will it come like a change in the weather?

Will its greeting be friendly or rough?

Will it alter my life altogether?

O tell me the truth about love.

O tell me the truth about love

W H Auden

*

Notes:

Dating evidence is confusing at best; Christie's Poirot is reliably supposed to have been born between 1849 and 1854 but quite obviously the television Poirot is a good deal younger, and so in the absence of more reliable information I initially decided to use as my starting point the date of birth of David Suchet and therefore his age when playing Poirot. Having arrived at this decision, I was subsequently heartened to find the following in Anne Hart's authoritative 'biography' of Poirot:

A charming but suspect foreword to Hercule Poirot: Master Detective, an omnibus collection published in 1936, has Poirot stating: 'I began work as a member of the detective force in Brussels on the Abercrombie Forgery Case in 1904'. As we know Poirot joined the Belgian police force as a young man, this red herring would have us believe he was born about 1884 and arrived in England at about the age of thirty-two.

This is so close to my original calculation which had Poirot born in 1886 that I have decided to stick to my guns, but instead of having an eighteen year old Poirot meet a sixteen year old Hastings in 1904 I have arbitrarily decided that they met in 1914 during the early months of the War. There is good evidence that Christie regretted having started out with Poirot so old - he, Hastings and Miss Lemon must all have been over a hundred by the end of their careers - and later tried to retreat from that position.

Sharp-eyed and even sharper-eared readers may recognise the name of Adam Macy from somewhere else. I plead absolutely guilty, having stolen him outright, but I make no apology for it whatsoever!

* * *