Poirot's latest case had taken us into the countryside, and I enjoyed immensely the fresh air and peace; Poirot, however, enjoyed it very little, and I knew that he would be grateful when we returned to his comfortable flat. Poirot and I were seated in the station's cafe, intending to connect with a train to London when we heard someone shout Poirot's name. I saw an older gentleman, a bit bent in the back, but well-dressed, obviously an elderly Beau Brummell of sorts.
"Ah!" Poirot cried, reaching out to shake the man's hand. "Monsieur Satterthwaite! What a surprise."
"Likewise, Monsieur Poirot, likewise."
"This is my associate, Captain Hastings."
"A pleasure, sir," Satterthwaite said, shaking my hand. "I have been looking forward to meeting you."
"Indeed?" I said, surprised by his earnestness.
"Yes, I've wanted to meet Monsieur Poirot's chronicler for some time, ever since I met the man himself."
"And where did you meet?" I asked, curious.
"The French Riviera," he replied. "I go there every year."
"And what brings you so far into the country, M. Satterthwaite?" Poirot asked.
"I've been summoned," Satterthwaite replied. "Mr. Quin asked me to visit him."
"Yes, a friend of mine. He comes and goes as he wishes, but whenever he appears, he always brings an interesting drama with him. This one might be more in your line of interest, however; it's a murder mystery."
"Is it? Do you know the details of the case?" Poirot asked, and I smiled at his curiosity.
"Not many. I do know that the case is nearly two hundred years old."
Poirot nodded, obviously considering Satterthwaite's words. My own imagination was encouraged by the few clues Satterthwaite had given to us, and I hoped that Poirot would decide to look into the matter.
"Hastings and I are returning to London," Poirot said.
"Oh," Satterthwaite replied, his disappointment obvious. "I wish you could stay, at least for a couple of days. I trust Mr. Quin's judgment implicitly in these matters. I told you about my adventure in Monte Carlo, yes?"
"Oui, and that was due to Mr. Quin?"
"Indeed, it was," Satterthwaite replied.
Poirot looked at me, and said with a smile, "Well, mon ami, are you eager to return to London or shall we investigate this mystery?"
I returned his smile, pleased by his lifted mood. "I say we investigate, Poirot. If nothing else happens, at least we will have satisfied our curiosity."
He had always insisted on being present when a member of staff was to be hired. It did not matter how lowly the role, Lord George Albans wanted to know exactly who was under his roof. Usually he stepped in, thanked the newest hired, and then left; however, he entered the room and was stopped by a pair of dark brown eyes that glistened with good humor and intelligence. Both the butler and this new man stood when he entered, and for a moment he felt out of place. He tugged down his waistcoat, resisting the urge to scratch under his powdered wig, and nodded at them in turn.
"Sir," Jacobs said, "Mr. Alcide Laroche has applied for the position of footman. I think him a most ideal candidate."
"Very good. Thank you, Jacobs." Albans turned to Laroche, and said, "You are French?"
"How long have you been in England?"
"Six years, sir."
Albans was unable to say exactly how old Laroche was. He was young-looking with a stocky body that appealed greatly to Albans. Dark features were particularly fascinating to Albans, but that realization reminded him of his lover, Cuinn, and he felt ashamed of his lustful thoughts.
"I am sure you must have excellent references, if Jacobs has already selected you. You are hired."
"Thank you, sir," Laroche said, his calm voice a soothing baritone.
Albans nodded again at them both, and then left the room. Once safely in his study, he leaned against the locked door, his breath slightly rough. He was shocked by how quickly Laroche affected him, and he worried that perhaps hiring him had been a mistake.
Over the course of the week, Albans became enamored of the new footman. Laroche was precise and elegant, refined in a way that Albans could never have been, even with years of lessons. Laroche knew when he was being watched, and this had caused Albans no small amount of embarrassment.
Laroche was also watchful of him. When he was uncomfortable, Laroche would appear to ease his discomfort. He found himself discussing a point of law with Laroche, and was impressed by his breadth of knowledge. He wondered why Laroche was working as a footman when he could very easily gain employment elsewhere.
He was intrigued by Laroche and his background, but he was smart enough to know that direct questions would get him nowhere. Cuinn was much the same way, Albans mused. Cuinn would never answer a direct question either, and despite knowing the man for over three years, he had little idea where Cuinn was from or what he did for a living.
Satterthwaite, Poirot, and I stood at the manor house. It was impressive in its structure and size, but I felt a sharp foreboding as Satterthwaite knocked on the door. Poirot turned to me, and said beneath his breath, "I do not think that they will have the central heating, Hastings."
"Sorry, old thing," I replied, for a moment regretting my desire to come here.
The butler let us into the hallway, and after directing the staff to taking our luggage, he led us into the drawing room where a large fire was warding off the chill.
A slender, dark man stood up as we entered, and I was shocked by the sudden fear I felt. I did not understand my fear because when I took a closer look at him, I realized that I knew this man not at all. Satterthwaite introduced him as Mr. Harley Quin. Poirot and I shook his hand, and then we all sat down.
"Have you ever visited this manor, Mr. Poirot, Captain Hastings?" Quin asked his question to both of his, but his attention was on me alone.
"No, I have not had that pleasure," Poirot said, and I smiled at his prickly nature. Poirot did not like to be ignored.
I shook my head, and said, "I had never even heard of it before today. Mr. Satterthwaite says that there is a murder mystery attached to it."
"Yes," Quin said, his expression filling with some melancholy note. "In 1741 Lord George Albans, the owner, fell down the stairs and died. He either slipped, or he was pushed."
"Who was suspected of pushing his lordship?" Poirot asked, glancing at Satterthwaite.
"There were two men who disappeared that night, and the local magistrate suspected either one of them."
"Then were there no witnesses?" I asked.
"A butler named Jacobs and one of the maids, Joy, arrived after Lord Albans' fall. They did not see who pushed him."
"And the two gentlemen who disappeared, who were they?" Poirot asked.
"Lord Albans' dearest friend, Julius Cuinn, and the footman, Alcide Laroche, recently hired."
"How dear a friend was this Mr. Cuinn?" Poirot asked.
Quin hesitated, and then said, "Most dear. Lord Albans was wealthy but unmarried, and lived alone in his country estate. His only regular visitor was Mr. Cuinn, who stayed for several weeks at a time."
Poirot's eyebrows rose slightly, but otherwise he said nothing. I felt a bit uneasy at Quin's insinuations, and decided to ignore them. Satterthwaite looked intrigued by these personal details, and I sensed that he took great interest the minutiae of other's lives. While the butler served tea, Poirot continued his questions.
"What was Julius Cuinn's occupation?"
"He was a merchant. He held several contracts in England, France, and the American colonies."
"And Alcide Laroche? He was not English."
"No, he was from France. He had been in Lord Albans' employ for less than three months when he disappeared. A search was made for him, but he had offered false papers when he was hired, and nothing further was known about him."
"How thorough was the investigation?" Poirot asked, his voice skeptical.
Quin smiled slightly, and said, "After this house passed to a distant cousin, interest in the accident waned. I doubt Lord Albans' heir tried very hard to find Laroche."
"And communication would have been quite difficult at that time," Satterthwaite added. "Especially with France."
Poirot nodded. "As for the whereabouts of Cuinn, he was not discovered either?"
"No," Quin said, shaking his head. "His merchant business collapsed after several ships wrecked off the coast of France. He was never found."
"Who benefitted from Lord Albans' death, if there was no wife or children?" Poirot asked.
"The servants received a fair amount of money from the will, far more than was usual in those days. A few charities received money, and the rest of the estate, including the house, passed to a distant cousin. The cousin kept the house for a few years before selling it to the first person willing to buy it."
We were silent for a few minutes as Poirot thought about the facts just laid before him.
I nearly jumped when Quin broke that silence. "After we have finished our tea, I can show you the gallery. A portrait of Lord Albans resides there."
"What is your interest in this matter?" I asked Quin. He turned his attention fully onto me, and my breath caught. His eyes were dark, almost hollow in their appearance, and I felt as if he knew more about me than I knew about myself. "Do you own this manor?"
"My interest is merely academic," he replied, his gaze fixed on me. "I am here at the behest of the current owners."
"Where do you reside?" Poirot asked.
"No one place," he answered. "I go where I am needed, and then after I have offered sufficient assistance, I move on."
I almost said out loud that it seemed a lonely life, but I held my tongue just in time.
Cuinn returned a week later; he was eager for his lover, and immediately led Albans away to the bedroom once he had been found. Nearly an hour passed before either of them spoke.
"How was your business in London?" Albans asked, tracing a line down Cuinn's chest with his finger.
Cuinn sighed, and said, "Profitable, but I shall have to return to France for at least three weeks."
"Oh," Albans said, disappointed. Cuinn had been gone quite often these past several months, and he was lonely in this huge country house. He could have gone with Cuinn to London, but he disliked the city, its grim and rude inhabitants. He preferred the peace and privacy of his country estate.
Cuinn laughed at him, a slightly cruel sound. "You will fare well without me, my love." He kissed Albans lightly, his hand reaching down to squeeze Albans' rear.
"Speaking of France," Albans said, snuggling closer. "Jacobs hired a new footman."
"A Frenchie, eh? Couldn't you find an Englishman?"
Albans looked at him in irritation, and said, "Evidently not. I have every faith in Jacobs' judgment."
Cuinn's expression changed ever so slightly, and Albans was surprised by the jealousy he heard when Cuinn said, "Why do you mention this man now while we are still abed?"
"Well," Albans said, at a momentary loss, "you mentioned France, and that reminded me."
"You didn't hire him for another reason, did you?" Cuinn said, his hand tightening on Albans' backside.
"Of course not," Albans replied, sitting up. He felt a pang of guilt, but brushed it aside. Simply observing the attractiveness of another did not mean he would act upon such feelings. He had declared himself to Cuinn, and he would not go back on his word. "Jacobs hired him, and I merely agreed."
"My apologies," Cuinn replied, dropping the matter for the present. He tugged on Albans' arm, and pulled him back to his previous position. "If I am to leave for France, I shall have to ensure that you remember me."
His harsh kiss silenced whatever Albans was going to say.
After we finished our tea, Quin took us to the gallery. I was amused by the change in masculine fashions, and I was quite relieved that men no longer had to wear powdered wigs and hosiery.
"And here is Lord Albans," Quin said, pointing to one of the larger frames.
Poirot let out a sharp sound of surprise when we looked at the portrait of the murdered lord. He had playful blue eyes, a pointed chin, a long nose, almost delicate lips, and his hair was hidden under a powdered wig. For a moment I did not realize what I was seeing.
"Poirot!" I cried, scarcely able to believe my eyes.
"The resemblance is striking, is it not?" Quin asked calmly, and I could feel his attention on my face.
Poirot looked at me, his dark eyes wide with amazement. I mentally shied away from contemplating how enthralling those eyes were, and instead looked at Satterthwaite, who looked equally surprised.
"Are you related at all to the Albans family, captain?" Satterthwaite asked.
"Not that I am aware," I replied, turning back to the painting. It was as if looking into a mirror, although I thought that Lord Albans had a hint of innocence and naiveté to his aura that I was certain I did not possess.
I heard Poirot murmur something in French that caused me to blush. "C'est un sourire doux." I felt it best to ignore his words, although I could not stop the ache in my chest. I knew it was wishful thinking on my part that Poirot meant something more than just a mere observation of fact. Sometimes I felt as if he desired me in the same way, other times I could not tell, and chalked it up to my imagination or cultural differences.
In the kitchen, Laroche was polishing some cutlery. The maid Joy was scrubbing the dishes from dinner. The butler entered, and said, "Mr. Cuinn has returned, Joy. Please prepare a light supper on a tray, and I shall take it up to him."
Joy nodded, and only after Jacobs left did she let loose her giggles. Laroche looked at her, his curiosity aroused, and said, "What has given you the mirth?"
"What? Oh, Mr. Cuinn's return." She laughed again, and said, "He'll keep the master busy for the rest of the night."
"The master- Do you mean-?"
Joy nodded. "Surely Mr. Jacobs told you that the master was eccentric."
"He did," Laroche replied, his face heating a bit with emotion. "But he did not tell me that your master was a lover of men."
Joy looked at him, and Laroche was aware of a previously unseen shrewdness in her eyes. His estimation of her intelligence rose several degrees.
"If you have a problem with that," she said, waving an angry fork in his direction, "then you should leave now. We're very protective of the master. He's a kind gentleman who's never done us a turn wrong."
"No, the master's private life does not concern me," Laroche replied. He admitted to himself that what concerned him the most were his feelings of disappointment and regret. He had felt a peculiar kinship to his lordship, and he had hoped – especially when he had observed how Albans watched him – that something more intimate might develop between them. Still, he had a job to do, and he was going to do it, regardless of his disappointment.
After a tour of the house, Quin said that he would next show us to our rooms. We were ascending the stairs when I felt a curious sensation of pain and choking. For a moment I felt as if I could not feel anything and my throat refused to pass air through it. I must have stopped abruptly because Poirot took my arm.
"Hastings, what-? Hastings?"
His movements jostled me, and once I had moved from that particular spot on the stairs, I was able to breathe again.
"Hastings, what is it? You have gone pale."
"I'm not sure. I-" I stopped speaking because Quin was looking at me with an intent expression on his face, as if he were searching for something.
"I must have inhaled a speck of dust or something," I replied, and continued up the stairs.
"It is rather dusty in here," Satterthwaite said. "Do the owners live elsewhere for most of the year?"
"Yes," Quin replied. "This house is haunted."
"Haunted?" I said, stopping at the top of the stairs. I heard Poirot grunt softly as my sudden stop forced him to stop once more.
"Since Lord Albans' death, there have been reports of ghosts. No one who owns the place has ever stayed here for long."
"I am sure," Poirot said, stepping around me, "that there is an explanation most reasonable for these disturbances."
Satterthwaite laughed, and said, "Ah, M. Poirot, ever the pragmatic man. I am sure you will discover what those explanations are."
We continued to our rooms, which had been prepared by the staff. My room was grand in an understated way. The four poster bed was covered with drapes and sheets of various shades of blue. I found the entire place to be very sensual.
As I dressed for dinner, I checked my room for any hidden doors through which someone pretending to be a ghost might enter unnoticed. When I met Poirot for dinner, I told him about my search.
"This talk of ghosts is foolish, mon ami."
"I just wanted to be sure, Poirot. This seems like the perfect set up for someone who wishes to ward people away while they search for hidden loot."
Poirot shook his head in disbelief, and said, "You have been to the cinema one too many times, Hastings."
I sighed, well aware that I was being a bit foolish, but I found the house unsettling. The bedroom to which I had been assigned was pleasant, perhaps a bit too vibrant for one to sleep in alone. I could almost imagine Lord Albans and his lover enjoying such a room. I began to fidget with my hands, trying to concentrate on anything but that which I most wanted to consider.
That night I had my first dream, no doubt influenced by the story of Lord Albans' death and my own imagination. I woke up choking; the pain in my neck was so powerful that I immediately rose to see if I had been injured. A glance in the mirror revealed nothing but my pale complexion. Although I could not remember all of the details, I kept recalling the sound of Albans' neck as it broke and the cries of a witness just out of my line of vision.
I turned and jumped back in surprise when I saw someone seated on the bed. The form was hazy, but the body was clearly a man. A bit rounder and much shorter than I, it rose and floated toward me. I felt cold, and wrapped my dressing gown tighter around me. The cold became more intense as the form moved closer.
I shivered as it whispered, "Get out."
"What?" I said rather foolishly.
"Get out," it said again. "You are in danger."
"Danger? What sort of danger?" I asked, worried that the ghost was about to injure me.
"Get out," it said again.
"No," I replied firmly. "I am not afraid. I can take care of myself."
I did not realize that ghosts could sigh so fulsomely. "You are in danger," it said more slowly, as if speaking to a dim child. The air around me became colder – the sort of cold that burns as if it were fire.
I backed away from the ghost. "Go away," I said, and my thoughts turned to Poirot and whether he could help me with my guest or if he would even believe my story.
I hurried out into the hallway and then to Poirot's bedroom. I did not wish to disturb anyone or to let on that anything was out of the ordinary, so I let myself into Poirot's room without knocking.
A curious peace calmed my anxiety as I watched Poirot sleep. His breaths were soft and even, and his face perfectly composed. I wondered how he would look if I were to slide my hand under the covers and towards his body.
Lost in my erotic reverie, I did not notice at first that Poirot had woken. "Hastings?" he murmured softly, and I started at the sound.
"Poirot," I said coming closer.
"What is it?" he asked, turning to look at the bedside clock.
"I- I had a dream, and after I woke, I saw this… thing next to my bed."
"Thing?" Poirot replied.
I nodded, and sat down next to Poirot on his bed. I hoped that he would wait a few minutes before hinting that I should leave.
"You are sure it was not your vivid imagination, Hastings?"
I folded my arms, and said firmly, "I know the difference between fantasy and reality, Poirot."
Poirot's lips twitched, but he kept his thoughts to himself. "It told me to leave," I continued. "It said I was in danger."
Poirot's dark eyes sharpened at my words, and he said, "Did it give a reason why?" At my shrug, he asked, "Do you feel in danger, mon ami?"
I gathered my thoughts, hesitant to admit my fear. "Something about this place does not seem right to me. It- it is not a friendly place, Poirot."
I was grateful that Poirot did not laugh at my words, although they were highly fanciful. "I think there is truth in your words. This house has seen a great evil."
I nodded at his words, slightly distracted by my desire to pull up the covers and settle myself against Poirot's body.
"Will you be able to sleep now, mon ami, now that you have spoken of your experience?"
"Perhaps," I said, well aware that I should leave and let Poirot return to sleep. "Thank you."
" Je t'en prie," Poirot replied. I tugged my dressing gown closer, and left his room.
Soon after he began to work for Lord Albans, Laroche learned that not all was well in his lordship' household. Cuinn took great pains to hide his plans from Albans, and Laroche was convinced that Albans had little idea what Cuinn's actual occupation was. He observed several moments of cruelty that Cuinn enacted upon Albans. It seemed as if Cuinn were testing Albans' good heart and innocent nature. Laroche became enraged every time Albans was hurt by one of Cuinn's cruel tricks, but he could do nothing because it might jeopardize his position. He also suspected that Cuinn was jealous of anyone who took an interest in Albans, and he did not wish to cause further problems while Cuinn was around.
He was relieved when Cuinn finally departed for France, and he could see the effect Cuinn ultimately had upon his employer because Albans' body language became more relaxed and confident.
When he entered the study, Lord Albans was reclining on the settee. He had forgone the wig today, and his long brown hair was spread against the cushions. He was asleep, and Laroche smiled as he watched his master's peaceful repose. Laroche had seen so much pain and suffering, so much evil, that he had almost forgotten that good people still lived in this world.
Albans was unlike anyone he had ever met. It was not that Albans was good-natured, although he was, but he was also genuinely kind. He possessed a beautiful nature, and Laroche knew that if he could gain Albans' trust and love, he would find a person whom he could trust and love in return and who would help him in this world of violence and misery.
Laroche's face assumed a more neutral expression as Albans woke from his nap. He hid his smile when Alban realized his presence and started a bit.
"My apologies, sir. I did not wish to startle you. I came up to see if you required anything."
"No," Albans said, sitting up as he spoke. "I am fine."
Laroche's fingers itched to comb through Alban's hair and neaten the riotous curls. "Very good, sir. Please ring, if you need anything."
Alban looked ready to speak, but then thought better of it. "I will. Thank you, Laroche."
"You are welcome, sir." He turned and left, smiling when he felt Albans' eyes on his backside.
After breakfast I wished to post a letter. To be perfectly honest, I wished rather to remove myself from the house for a few hours. Despite its opulence and pristine façade, the atmosphere was one of anxiety and discomfort. I had been walking for about a mile when I heard steps behind me. I stopped to see who was following me, and saw that it was Mr. Quin. I had wanted to be alone, but I could not say so without appearing rude.
"I hope that you do not mind my company, Captain Hastings."
"Not at all," I replied. "I was just off to post a letter."
"Excellent," he said. "I need to check the post."
I was surprised to hear Quin mention the post because I felt that his existence was so transient that he must receive few letters. My curiosity was answered when Quin added, "Mr. Satterthwaite receives mail here, but he is a bit too old to walk to the post every day."
"Ah," I replied. "Have you known Mr. Satterthwaite long?"
"Nearly ten years," Quin replied. "Our first meeting was chance, and so have been subsequent meetings."
"So, you do not meet Mr. Satterthwaite just to talk with him."
"No," Quin said, and I would have sworn that his manner was regretful. "I travel so much that I cannot go where I please."
"You travel on business, then?" I asked, trying to discover what he did for a living.
"You might say that," Quin replied, a mysterious smile on his lips.
"What sort of business?" I asked, becoming all the more determined to discover the facts as Quin became more cryptic.
"I assist people."
"Assist them? How?"
"I solve their problems," Quin replied, and I wondered why he looked so amused.
"Are you a detective?" I asked, thinking back to his remark about being present at the behest of the current owners of the manor.
"No, not a detective," he replied, smiling at me.
Quin laughed. "Hardly."
During our conversation, we had arrived at the village's small post office. Quin excused himself and disappeared, and I only saw him again when I had just finished having an early tea at the local restaurant. He walked past the loquacious hostess without hearing one word from her. It was as if she could not see him at all.
"There you are," I said, wondering to where he had disappeared. "Did you pick up Mr. Satterthwaite's mail?"
"I did," he replied, brandishing a small packet of letters. "Are you ready to leave?"
"I am," I replied, leaving some money to settle my bill. As we left, the hostess said her goodbyes to me without even acknowledging Quin's presence. I would have considered it mere rudeness except that not even a flicker of distaste crossed her face when she looked at him.
I paid close attention to the residents of the village. While I received nods and smiles or even a few suspicious glances, Quin received no acknowledgements.
"You look tired," Quin said once we were out of the village. "Did you not sleep well last night?"
"No, I didn't," I answered, a chill running through me as I thought about the ghost.
"It must have been your dreams," Quin said, and I looked at him quickly.
"How did you know?" I asked, surprised by his knowledge.
"I know things," Quin replied.
I felt reluctant to offer any more information. "Yes, I had some disturbing dreams last night," I said cautiously.
"About Lord Albans?" Quin asked. "Albans and his fall?"
"Yes," I said. "His death was wicked."
Quin nodded. "He did not die as quickly as perhaps he should have."
This time I shivered at Quin's words, remembering the faint clicking sound and the gurgle of failed breaths.
"Yes," I said, the finality in my voice demanding an end to the topic. We continued our walk in silence.
Sattherthwaite was pointing out some roses to Poirot when we returned. Poirot gave me a curious look, but said nothing about Quin's presence. Satterthwaite smiles brilliantly for a moment at Quin, and I knew then that the old man was in love with him. When I glanced at Poirot again, his expression was sympathetic. Of course he would know of his friend's feelings.
The butler interrupted our botany lesson by announcing lunch.
Laroche had just returned from the sitting room when he heard a thump at the door. He opened the door, and discovered Lord Albans trying to knock whilst holding an angry cat. His lordship was covered with mud, he had lost his wig or perhaps never put it on in the first place, and his hose had been torn.
Laroche pinched his lips together, trying not to laugh. "Are you in need of some assistance, sir?"
"I should bloody well say so!" Albans cried, embarrassed that Laroche of all the people in the house should see him like this. "Hannah here was trapped in a bag. I don't know how she got in there, and she's very lucky I happened by, or else she might have drowned!"
Laroche decided not to tell Albans that this was probably the intent of whoever put the cat in the bag. Instead, he said, "I did not know you owned a cat, sir."
"I don't," Albans said, stepping into the foyer. "I named her as we were returning home. I had a cousin named Hannah who liked to scratch me." As Albans spoke, Laroche noticed that he was shaking slightly from the cold. Hannah hung limp in his arms, her expression one of resignation at being held. Albans' hair was plastered against his skull, making his blue eyes look even bigger and more emotive.
When Laroche thought back on his life, he surmised that this was the moment in which he fell in love with his employer.
Jacobs arrived, took one look at his master, and with a barely concealed roll of his eyes, he took the cat from Albans. "I shall have Joy give it a bath, sir."
"She," Albans corrected. "Her name is Hannah. I'm sure she must be famished as well."
"Yes, sir," Jacobs said. He gave the cat a dismayed look. He then said to Laroche, "Take care of the master, will you?"
"Of course, sir," Laroche replied.
Jacobs departed with the once more squirming cat in tow. Laroche turned to Albans, and said, "Shall I draw you a bath, sir?"
For several breaths they watched each other until finally Albans murmured, "Yes, please."
Albans insisted that he needed no help bathing himself, and he cursed his fair complexion when he blushed as he said it. He had little problem until after his bath when he was stuck with a mane of tangled curls.
"Blast it! I should just cut it all off," Albans said to Laroche as he exited the bathroom. He was wearing only a robe, which was tied tightly around his waist.
"What is that, sir?" Laroche asked.
"My hair," Albans replied. "It's tangled," he added for clarification, wincing as he tried to tug a brush through it.
"I can assist you, sir," Laroche said, and Albans could see the barest hint of desire in his dark eyes.
His first instinct was to deny that he needed help. After all, he was not a child; on the other hand, having one's hair brushed by another was quite nice. "Thank you," Albans replied, handing the brush to Laroche. He seated himself at his dressing table, and waited.
Laroche was careful not to hurt him, and his gentle fingers made Albans forget his previous concerns. Laroche was meticulous in his attack, and in no time had the brush flowing through Albans' hair with ease. Albans could not stop himself from watching Laroche and the concentration on his face. Why does he work for me, Albans asked himself, when he could use that huge brain for more important purposes.
Having Laroche's hands on him had created a light throb of energy throughout his body, and he did not want to ask Laroche to stop. Eventually Laroche put down the brush, but rather than step away, he drew his fingers through the strands. Albans nearly moaned at the intimacy.
"Please pardon my boldness, sir, but to cut this hair would be the greatest crime."
Albans looked at Laroche in the mirror, his own breath quickening with need. He could see in Laroche's eyes – and elsewhere – that his need was shared.
"Then I shall not cut it," Albans said, gazing at Laroche in the mirror.
Laroche nodded, and then tenderly tied his hair back, taking care to brush his fingers against Albans' neck. "Is there anything else you require, sir?" Laroche asked, and Albans felt himself tremble at the sound of Laroche's accent, which had become stronger due to his emotions.
"No," Albans said, his voice breathless. "I require nothing else."
"Very good, sir," Laroche said, his fingers brushing one last time against Albans' hair as he moved away. When he reached the door, he looked back at Albans.
"Thank you," Albans said, turning to watch him leave. Only the knowledge that his actions would betray Cuinn kept him from kneeling before Laroche and thanking him properly.
"You are welcome, sir," Laroche said, a slight smile on this face.
When Quin entered the drawing room, I was reading the paper, alone but for the cat sleeping in the corner. I folded the paper and stood up, uncomfortable in Quin's presence but unable to explain why.
"Are you enjoying your stay, captain?"
"Yes, thank you," I replied. "The estate is quite lovely."
"A place you could picture yourself owning?" he asked, a peculiar tone in his voice, almost teasing but also serious.
"No, not me," I said with a laugh. "I wouldn't know what to do with myself, especially alone."
"Lord Albans had the same problem," Quin said, my unease increasing at his topic. Quin seemed obsessed with Lord Albans, and had yet to offer an adequate reason why. "That is the main reason why he took a lover."
I was shocked by Quin's frank discussion of so delicate a matter. "Err… quite," I replied, looking anywhere but at Quin. The cat had woken, and was looking at Quin with suspicious eyes.
"If you haven't figured it out yet," Quin said, the sardonic tone quite unwelcome, "Albans and Cuinn were lovers."
I replied with reluctance, "I had suspected something of the sort."
"Albans liked dark gentlemen," Quin said, and I blushed at his words, disconcerted by how much I had in common with the man.
The cat growled softly in the back of his throat as Quin came closer to me, and losing its nerve, it shot around us and out into the hall.
"That's as may be," I replied, "but…"
Quin had his hand in my hair before I realized what was happening, and was kissing me with great force. His embrace was powerful and cloying, and I lost my head, kissing him back with enthusiasm. A long time had passed since I had been in anyone's embrace, and I missed the intimacy, but Quin was not the one I wanted.
I pulled away. Quin's dark eyes held my attention for a few moments, but then I thought I saw a shadow in the doorway and wrenched myself from his embrace.
"What the devil are you doing?" I said, backing away from Quin.
"You have no lover at present, do you?"
I fear I looked a bit foolish with my mouth hanging open, but I was shocked once more by his frank question. "No, but that does not mean I can be manhandled in such a fashion!"
"I have been clumsy. I beg your pardon," Quin said, his calm voice almost preternatural in its quality. "I knew that I had to try when I saw you. You look so much like him…"
"Like Lord Albans? But I am not him."
"Yes, you are," Quin replied. "You are more like him than I think you realize."
I closed my eyes, frustrated by his insistence. When I opened them, Quin had disappeared.
Dinner was an odd affair. Quin was as calm as ever, and I wondered if I had imagined that kiss. Satterthwaite looked older than usual, sad and hopeless. Poirot had that pinched, precise air about him which told me that he was upset about something. I am sure that I must have seemed at least a little more quiet than usual. The lack of sleep from the previous night was taking its toll, and I would have slept on the table if given the opportunity.
"Have you been to the lake yet?" Quin asked.
"A lake? No, I didn't know that this estate had one," I replied.
"Yes, it's quite a large lake for such a small estate. Perfect for swimming and a little fishing."
Satterthwaite chimed in on one of his favorite topics, art. "The lake used to be a place where the local artists would go to paint or draw. The owners encourage it, in fact."
I was intrigued. I could do with some bracing exercise, but it was a bit too cold to swim.
"It is also known for being a lovers' lane, of sorts, late in the evenings," Quin added, a tiny smile on his face.
"Eh, well, quite," I said, trying not to blush.
Satterthwaite fell silent. I looked over at Poirot, and was surprised to find him glaring at Quin.
I hurried up the stairs, and was relieved that I did not endure another choking fit. I dressed for bed, but when I tried to lie down, I found that I could not sleep. I was restless, and nervous as to what I would experience once I was asleep.
I was seated at the dressing table, contemplating my trip to the village, but when I heard the door open behind me, I turned to see who was entering. I worried that a ghost or Quin was coming for me, but I was relieved when Poirot entered.
"Is everything all right, Poirot?"
"I am not sure, Hastings. I wished to ask what you learned from Mr. Quin during your trip to the village."
"Not much," I said. "Mr. Quin has known Mr. Satterthwaite for about ten years. He is a businessman, as far as I can guess, but his business is to travel and assist people. He is not a doctor or a detective. I got the impression that he doesn't necessarily travel because he wants to."
Poirot nodded at my final point, and said, "I, too, have come to that conclusion, although I do not know for what reason he travels unwillingly."
"I don't know either," I replied, picking at the hem of my dressing gown. "I do not trust him."
"Why do you not trust him?" Poirot asked.
I could not say why for several reasons. "I do not know," I answered, resisting the urge to touch my lips. I knew that my expression must have revealed at least some of my guilty conscious.
Poirot sighed softly, and said, "If you do not trust Poirot, mon ami, then how can he help you?"
"I don't know how to explain. I had terrible dreams last night, and he seemed to know what was in them. He watches me constantly. When I am alone, he appears from nowhere, and he disappears just as quickly." I hesitated, wondering if it had been my imagination or a misunderstanding. "When we were in the village together, no one else could see him."
Poirot's head tilted slightly, and I could see his doubt.
"He disappeared as soon as we arrived," I said, "and then reappeared when I was done with my tea. The hostess loved to talk to others, but she didn't even acknowledge his presence. The people in town saw me but not him, and he was walking next to me."
Poirot slowly nodded, and I could see that he was considering my words. "I know you speak the truth, Hastings, but there must be a logical answer for what is occurring."
"Do you think it is connected to his obsession with Lord Albans?"
"Certainement, and that is perhaps why he has taken an interest in you, but that does not explain everything."
"I shall be jolly grateful when we have departed for London," I replied.
"Indeed, my friend, but we cannot leave with the mystery unsolved," Poirot admonished.
"Who do you think killed Lord Albans?"
"I do not know, Hastings; I am not even sure that Lord Albans was killed. I am waiting for a letter from Chief Inspector Japp, which should give me further information about the footman as well as Cuinn's merchant business. Ms. Lemon, too, is sending me some information about the same business."
"She's been busy at the library."
"Mais oui, she is a most excellent seeker of information."
"Then you should know something tomorrow?"
"I hope so."
We said our good nights, and then I decided to try to sleep.
The next morning I woke a little later than I should have. My dreams had become increasingly disturbing, and I had woken several times during the night. I hurriedly dressed, and went down to breakfast. Poirot tutted at me, and straightened both my tie and my cuffs.
"You should take more care in your dress, Hastings."
"I know, Poirot."
"How can you obtain the order of the mind if you cannot obtain the order of the clothes?"
I sighed. "I am far from an orderly mind this morning."
Poirot examined me, and then said, "You had more dreams last night?"
"Terrible dreams. I haven't suffered them this vividly since the war."
"It is your beautiful nature, Hastings. It does not tolerate such violence."
I flushed at his words, uncertain of how I should respond. He had mentioned my "beautiful nature" more than once, sometimes sarcastically, and sometimes as if he truly believed it, as he had just done.
Satterthwaite entered the dining room at that moment, and our conversation ended.
After breakfast, Poirot received a telephone call from Ms. Lemon. When I asked him what she had told him, he said, "Some interesting facts about Mr. Cuinn's business."
"What sort of facts?" I asked.
"You will learn all tomorrow," Poirot replied. At my frustrated look, he smiled. "Patience, my friend."
"Patience," I said with a sigh. Changing the topic, I asked, "Are you coming with me to visit the lake?"
Poirot wrinkled his nose, his distaste obvious. "Nature and I do not tolerate one another, Hastings."
I laughed, and said, "Well I need some exercise. I shall see you later on."
I was a bit disappointed, but not surprised, that Poirot refused to accompany me. I asked the butler for a blanket, and picking a book from the library, I set off for the lake. The temperature was cool, but not uncomfortable, and the sunshine made it a pleasant and uplifting walk.
I arrived at the lake, and could easily imagine a painter sitting behind his easel or a pair of young lovers curled up against one another, stealing a few moments of time alone. I wondered if Lord Albans had brought his lover here, and that thought made me wish once more that Poirot had come along.
I laid out the blanket, and sat down, intending to read a bit. My taste in literature has changed over the years, and I found myself enjoying the classics that as a boy I had once abhorred. However I could not concentrate, and soon put the book down.
I reflected on what little I knew about Albans. Had he and Cuinn really been lovers? How did Quin know this? Did Quin fancy himself the next Cuinn? Perhaps his fascination over Albans was due in part to their similar names. And what about the footman who disappeared? Quin said that he was French, but what was he doing in England? I wondered, too, who the ghost was who had sat on my bed two nights ago. I doubted that he was Cuinn because although I sensed that the ghost was a darker man, he was not tall but short and round.
I reclined against the blanket, wondering who the ghost was and why he was so fearful of my safety.
Albans was walking along the path to the lake; he needed time to think. He felt so guilty about his desire for Laroche. Not only had he pledged himself to another but the man was a servant, and it was bad form to seduce someone who might feel he could not refuse for fear of losing his job. He did not feel that Laroche would fear losing his job, for the man had an endless well of self-confidence which he admired greatly, but it set a bad precedent.
He reached the lake, intending to swim in peace, but he realized that he was not alone at the same time the swimmer realized that Albans was present. Albans' breath caught when he realized that the swimmer was Laroche.
Laroche smiled at him, and said, "I apologize, sir. I did not realize that you wished to swim today or else I would have chosen another time."
"No, no, that's quite all right. I didn't know myself until a few minutes ago." Albans swallowed hard, his eyes taking in the drops of water as they trailed down Laroche's neck. He admired those strong shoulders and the smooth skin revealed above the water's line, and he felt himself harden at the sight.
Laroche was well aware of Albans' response, and was deeply flattered. He was also pleased by the leanness of Albans' body, and the long brown hair usually hidden beneath a powdered wig. He cared not at all about Cuinn and his arrogance; he wanted the man before him more than anything.
"Should I leave, sir?" Laroche said playfully, swimming a bit closer to the shore.
Albans nearly coughed when he saw the outline of strong buttocks beneath the water, and he said hurriedly, "No! Er, no, you may continue if that was your intent before my arrival."
"Do you wish to join me?" Laroche asked, deciding that boldness would get him closer to what he wanted than playing coy.
"I- I did not bring suitable attire."
Laroche nearly laughed at Albans' halting words. He allowed his eyes to trail down and then back up Albans' body, and then he said, "Yes… yes, you did."
Albans backed away nervously, but something in Laroche's eyes – a gentle softness – stayed his movements. He slowly began to strip, encouraged by the pleasure he saw in Laroche's expression.
Albans slowly walked into the lake, and then swam toward him when the water became deep enough. He felt a boyish happiness when he saw Laroche smile his approval. They swam together, floated a bit, and played with mock roughness, both laughing at their exertions. When eventually they tired, they swam to shore and lay down on the blanket that Laroche had brought with him.
They gazed into each other's eyes, and when Laroche leaned forward to kiss him, Albans was not surprised. Albans wondered if he had ever been kissed so before, with a mixture of gentleness, lust, and desperation. Certainly he enjoyed Cuinn's kisses, but at this moment he could think of nothing but how much he wanted this pleasure to continue.
Laroche's broad hands stroked his skin, down his sides, his hips, his back, his rear. He arched his body against Laroche, wanting so much more, wanting to lose himself. Laroche's body was so different, so soft and unlike what he was used to, that it was both an intoxication and a reminder.
He broke their kiss, letting his head fall back against the blanket. "We can't," he said softly, tenderly pushing Laroche away from his neck where he had been engaged in some pleasurable nibbles.
Laroche gazed at him, and he was surprised to see how wild his eyes were. "Why not?" Laroche asked, panting softly.
"I made a pledge, and I mustn't break it."
Laroche sighed in frustration. "He does not deserve you," he said passionately. "He treats you so cruelly. He leaves you alone for weeks or months, and thinks not for your needs. How he can leave you at all…" Laroche heaved an even greater sigh, and shook his head.
Albans was torn between defending his lover and melting at Laroche's declaration of devotion – for it was devotion. "That is his way, I suppose," he said with a shrug. "I am fond of him just the same."
Laroche looked down for a moment, and Albans was worried that he had hurt him. However, when Laroche looked back up, his searching expression made Albans' breath catch. It was as if Laroche could see everything within him.
"Fondness," Laroche replied, and Albans was not sure of the quality in his voice.
"Yes," Albans replied. He reached up to stroke Laroche's jaw, and said tenderly, "Though I am tempted… so very tempted."
For a moment Albans could have swore he saw triumph in Laroche's eyes. "Show me," Laroche said, startling him. "Show me your temptation."
Albans was about to ask what he meant when he saw Laroche wrap a hand around his own erection and began to stroke himself. "Show me," he murmured again.
"Good lord!" Albans exclaimed, his surprise momentarily outweighing his lust.
"At night," Laroche murmured, "alone… in your cold bed… do you not warm yourself this way? Show me."
"Yes," Albans replied, taking himself in hand. He began to stroke himself, moaning softly as he observed Laroche's lusty attention. He had never done this in front of another, and he was half-frightened, half-exhilarated. Laroche brushed a hand against his cheek, and he turned into the touch.
"Oui, mon beau, you are so handsome," Laroche said, stroking himself idly. "Do you think of me?"
"Always," Albans murmured, forgetting his shyness as their pleasure and wild lust grew stronger. "Every day, every night." He began to stroke himself faster as he thought about Laroche between his legs, thrusting into him. He cried out, his movements desperate.
"So handsome," Laroche murmured, his own hand moving swiftly.
Albans cried out, arching his back as his release hit. He felt the sticky warmth against his chest, and when he opened his eyes, he realized that Laroche was close. Impulsively he murmured, "Come on me, Laroche."
Laroche moaned softly, and did as bid. When he lay down next to Albans, he murmured, "And pampered it swells with one blood made of two."
Albans hummed softly, and murmured back, "And this, alas, is more than we would do."
Laroche leaned forward, and kissed him gently. Before Albans could protest, Laroche broke the kiss, and lay back down on the blanket with him.
I woke up to find Poirot seated next to me. I felt for a moment that he had been looking at me, but when I opened my eyes, Poirot was reading the book which I had abandoned to my musings.
Fortunately I had curled up on my side, so the evidence of my dream was hidden from view.
"Poirot," I murmured, still feeling the effects of my deep sleep and vivid dream.
"Did you have a restful petit somme, Hastings?"
I hummed softly, perhaps with a little too much emotion left over from my dream. "Most restful," I replied, looking up at him.
A peculiar look came across his face, and for several moments we started at each other.
"Mon ami," he murmured, and I felt certain that he was leaning down closer to me. My breath caught, and I raised my chin ever so slightly, eager to receive him.
We heard a shuffle in the bushes behind us, and Poirot sat up quickly. I did my best to stifle my frustrated sigh, and relaxed against the blanket. Satterthwaite shuffled into view, and I sat up to greet him.
"Lovely view, is it not?" he asked cheerfully.
"Most beautiful," Poirot said, although curiously he was looking at me when he said it.
The dream came to me again, but when I woke, it was without the sense of choking and pain. I looked at the door, and saw someone tall and thin standing before the closed door. I sat up, and said softly, "What do you want?"
The ghost gestured that I should follow, and after putting on my dressing gown, I followed it out into the hallway. The shadows cast a bluish tint, and the air grew colder as I walked toward the stairwell.
When I reached the top of the stairs, the ghost had disappeared. I was freezing, and I could see my breath billow before me. I tugged the collar of my dressing gown closer in a futile attempt to shield myself from the cold. I was about to return to my bedroom when I felt two hands grab my shoulders and push hard. I reached for the banister, trying to stop my fall.
I landed on my side, my wrist aching from my attempt to break my fall. The pain in my throat was more intense than I had experienced in my bed the night before, and for a moment I feared that I had broken my neck; as I had connected with the stair-well, I heard the heart-stopping snap of bone.
Dizziness caused me to lose my bearings, and for a moment I heard the distressed cries of another from the foot of the stairs. I could neither breathe nor cry out, and felt a terrible fear that I would die here without having said the things I wished to say – without saying goodbye to my friends, and most of all, to Poirot. My vision dimmed, and I welcomed the release from the constant choking sensation.
When Cuinn returned from France, he could tell that all was not right. Albans tried to give him an innocent look when he asked.
"Don't play these games with me, Albans. You shrink from my touch."
"Really, Cuinn, you are being childish. I shrink because I am in the middle of my composition." Albans waved a hand over his papers, and said, "I am nearly done with this novel."
"There's more, Albans. I know there is," Cuinn replied, his voice calm but icy with anger.
Albans shivered at his words. He knew very well what had happened, but he refused to admit it to himself. "I am merely upset that you are nearly two weeks late. You said that you would arrive sooner. I was lonely-"
"Lonely enough to take a lover?" Cuinn asked, and at Albans' flush he cried, "I knew it! That damn Frenchman!"
Albans stood up, and whirled around to confront Cuinn. "I have done nothing of the sort! He is a servant, Cuinn, and you know very well how I feel about the potential abuse that could arise if I were to engage in such a relation."
"You thought about it," Cuinn said.
Albans looked guiltily at him, and said, "I cannot help my thoughts, Cuinn."
Cuinn grabbed him by the lapels, and said, "I think you are lying."
"I am not lying," Albans replied, trying to break Cuinn's hold. "Now unhand me!"
Cuinn let him go roughly, and turned on his heel, stalking angrily away. Albans sat down, shaking in his chair.
If anyone knew what was going on, the maid would, and Cuinn went to see her immediately after leaving Albans. He found her in the dining room, and said, "What has been going on while I was absent?"
Joy was well aware of the tension between her master and Laroche, but she also knew that her master would never break his word with Cuinn. However, she disliked Cuinn intensely, and would not have told him anything even if Lord Albans were conducting an affair while he was gone.
"I don't know what you mean, sir."
"I think you're lying," Cuinn replied, grabbing her upper arm.
"Let go of me!" she shouted, trying to tug her arm from his iron grip.
"What has Albans been doing?" he said again, pushing her against the edge of the table.
"Nothing," she replied, hitting him in the chest. Cuinn then grabbed both of her arms, trapping her completely.
"What has he been doing?" he repeated.
"The same things he always does, sir," she said, still struggling.
Jacobs entered the dining room, intent upon that night's meal, but when he saw Joy's predicament, he rushed forward to help her. He grabbed Cuinn's shoulders and swung him hard away from Joy.
Cuinn was shocked that the butler had dared to lay a hand on him, and raised his hand to stroke the man. Jacobs stood between him and Joy, preparing to take the blow.
"What the devil-?"
Cuinn turned around to see Albans standing at the door. "My god, man, what do you think you are doing?" Albans cried, coming closer.
"They know exactly what has been going on in this house," Cuinn replied. "They know you've been lying with him."
Two of the footmen ran in, Laroche and Sanders, and Cuinn turned an accusatory finger at Laroche.
"You are being an absolute fool, and I will not tolerate threats towards my staff." Albans turned to Jacobs, and asked, "Did he hit you?"
"No, sir, but he had Ms. Joy by the arms."
Albans' mouth dropped open in shock. "You attacked a lady?"
"Oh for- she's a servant, Alban!"
"You despicable man!" Albans cried, truly angered by Cuinn's callousness. "You are to stop this behavior at once, if you wish to remain in this house."
"And if I don't stop?" Cuinn said, his calm voice somehow more threatening than his angry one.
"Then you must leave now. I shall have your things packed and sent to you."
Cuinn's dark eyes flashed with anger, and he stepped toward Albans in a threatening manner. However, Jacobs and Sanders swiftly grabbed him.
Albans tried to ignore the betrayal in Cuinn's eyes, and steeled himself to issue his harsh command. "Allow Mr. Cuinn to pack what he needs, Jacobs, and then escort him from the house."
Jacobs nodded, and both he and Sanders removed him from the dining room.
Albans looked at Joy, and asked, "Are you hurt?"
"No, sir," she replied, her expression grateful. "Just a bit bruised."
Albans said softly, "I apologize for his behavior, Joy. It won't happen again."
"I know, sir," she said. "I trust your word."
"Thank you," he replied, cursing his weakness over Laroche. He left the room without looking at anyone.
I came to with Poirot seated behind me on the stairs, his arms still around me in a firm embrace as he tugged me up the stairs. He was disheveled; I had never seen him so disordered before, and I found it a fascinating sight. His hands were clutching my chest, and his eyes were wild with emotion.
"Hastings, what happened?"
"A dream, Poirot," I replied. "I had a dream – Lord Albans' death." I drew a hand to my neck, remembering the blinding pain as I felt the wood of the floor connect with my neck – but not my neck, Albans' neck.
"You were not drawing the breath," Poirot said sharply, but I knew he was not angry with me. His hand covered mine as it rested on my neck.
"Someone pushed me," I said. "I woke up from the dream, and someone lead me here. He then pushed me as I stood on the stairs."
I left his hand on my neck, and grabbed at the sleeve of his dressing gown. "I thought I was dying," I whispered.
Poirot flinched at my words, and said softly, "You are safe now, mon brave."
"I don't feel very brave," I replied.
Poirot was silent as we looked at each other. His eyes drifted to my lips, and then back up. After the experience I had just endured, I did not wish to wait any longer. He leaned forward and kissed me tenderly.
I closed my eyes as I responded, trembling with relief and fear. When Poirot finally broke the kiss, I rested my head against his shoulder.
"We should not stay on the stairs, my friend," Poirot murmured.
He helped me to rise, and then led me to his bedroom. I was relieved that I did not have to return to my own alone, but that relief turned to disappointment when Poirot said, "We should switch rooms tonight, I think."
"But that would put you in danger," I replied.
Poirot shrugged at my concern. I felt awkward as I said, "We could share."
I saw the desire in his eyes, but he shook his head. "That would be even more dangerous."
"Who is to find us, Poirot?" I asked, desperate not to be alone. "Your friend Satterthwaite is fruitier than a fruit tree. He could no more criticize us than he could himself."
"And Mr. Quin?" Poirot asked, and the tone of his voice suggested that he had been the shadow earlier, although his expression betrayed no jealousy.
My hand rose to my throat before I was fully aware of its significance. "He is obsessed with Lord Albans, and his motives are… intimate. I do not like to be alone with him."
Poirot sat next to me, and his voice soothed my concern. "Then you will not. I was unsure if you enjoyed his attention."
I shook my head, and said, "He is not the man I want." I smiled slightly, and took his hand in one of mine, overcome by a momentary shyness. I had never been very adept at declaring myself.
Poirot smiled back, and raised my hand to his lips. "You will have him, mon ami."
I laughed softly, relieved beyond measure, and leaned forward to kiss him. His hand on my chest stopped me, and he said, "But not tonight. It is much too dangerous."
I looked at him rather mournfully, and said, "I don't wish to wait. What will happen tomorrow?"
At Poirot's confused look, I continued, "Lord Albans thought that he had the rest of his life to make love to his dear Frenchman, and he did – but his life was much shorter than he had realized. I thought I was dying on those stairs, Poirot, and my regret was not telling you how I felt."
Understanding filled Poirot's eyes, and with them a wavering in his decision. "Please," I whispered, and I tried out my sourire doux on him. I felt a blissful triumph as Poirot gave in to me, and I reclined slowly on the bed, my hand on his neck encouraging him to follow until we were kissing once more.
Laroche was pleased when Cuinn was removed from the house, although it might potentially make his instructions more difficult to carry out. He was worried about Albans, and late that night he snuck into Albans' quarters.
Albans was seated in front of his dressing table. His brush was in his hand, but he was still, his eyes fixed on the middle distance.
Laroche rested a hand on Albans' shoulder, and squeezed it gently. Albans looked up, and saw Laroche's reflection in the mirror.
At Laroche's questioning look, he said softly, "I had to remove him. I cannot tolerate such behavior towards a lady, even if she is a servant."
Laroche nodded, and replied, "You behaved nobly."
Albans laughed bitterly, and said, "I feel that I wronged Cuinn."
Silence held the room for a few minutes as they stared at each other through the mirror. Eventually Laroche said, "I admired you before, sir, but now… your heart is sans égal."
Albans turned to look at Laroche fully. Laroche bent down, and kissed him.
Albans thought about refusing and pushing Laroche away, his guilt over Cuinn still great, but he wanted Laroche desperately. He let Laroche pull him to his feet and lead him to the bed.
The light was filtering slowly through the drawn curtains as I woke. My body was curled around Poirot's as we lay on our sides, and I marveled at how perfectly we fit together. I hugged him closer and kissed his neck, wanting to let him sleep but needing to touch him. He murmured softly, and did not wake.
Fortunately I had no more dreams after we returned to sleep. I hoped that Poirot and I would leave today; I merely wished to return to the privacy of our flat and continue exploring this new aspect of our friendship.
I stroked his chest gently as I thought about all I wanted to do to him, which served to take my mind off of the incident on the stairs. I still felt bruised from my fall.
I noticed that Poirot's lovely eyes were open, and I kissed his shoulder as a good morning greeting. Poirot looked over his shoulder at me, and smiled so much that his dimples appeared. For that, I had to kiss him properly.
My daydreaming had produced a marked effect on my body, and at Poirot's silent invitation I slid my erection between his legs. I traced kisses down his neck as I thrust gently, my own hand stroking his hardening member. The only sound was our harsh breaths and an occasional sigh.
Our movements were unhurried, and when we peaked, it was on a gentle wave of pleasure. I hugged him again as we calmed ourselves, and he turned in my arms to return the embrace. After a few more tender kisses, he eventually spoke.
"We shall leave after breakfast, mon ami."
I sighed in relief. "I had hoped so." After a few moments of silence, I added, "I'm only sorry that we will leave with the case unsolved."
"But the case is solved," Poirot replied simply.
"Is it? You mean you've solved it?" I said, unable to comprehend how he could have possibly solved it.
"Yes, and you will learn all after breakfast."
"Really, Poirot, can't you tell me now what you have learned?" I said, frustrated at his lack of openness.
"You know my methods, Hastings," Poirot said, his dark eyes shining with amusement. "You are enamored of Poirot, yes? So you would not begrudge me my little eccentricities."
"Well, yes," I said, laughing at his words. "I am most enamored of you," I said, my laughter slowly turning into a serious declaration. "I would even be willing to admit to love, if you haven't deduced that yet."
"I had hoped, mon amour, that my conclusions were accurate," Poirot said, and kissed me thoroughly.
We rose to begin the day, but before I left Poirot's room to dress, he took my hand and said, "Pack your things, my friend, because we shall leave soon after breakfast, and… take the servants' stairs. Do not risk that stairwell again."
I nodded, kissed him gently, and then returned to my room.
A few days after Cuinn's departure, Laroche decided that the best time had come for him to search the house freely for evidence. He began to search Cuinn's desk for the papers he knew it contained. Cuinn could not have taken all of the evidence with him with so little time to pack.
Albans came upon Laroche too quickly for Laroche to hide what he had been doing.
"What is the meaning of this?" Albans asked, confused by Laroche's behavior. "Why are you invading Cuinn's privacy?"
Laroche looked at him as if he should already know the answer to his own question. "I am looking for something," he replied.
"Looking for what? Remove yourself at once!" Albans felt the betrayal keenly; he never would have suspected Laroche of being a thief.
He was about to ring for the butler and have Laroche physically removed when Laroche cried out in triumph. "I was looking for this," he said, walking to Albans and handing him the paper.
Albans had never involved himself in Cuinn's business, and so hardly had any idea what he did when he spent so much time away. For a few moments he stared dumbly at the document, and then when he became aware of what he was reading, he whispered, "Good lord. Eighty people sold?"
Laroche nodded, and said, "Your Cuinn makes his money in selling slaves to the colonies… among other suspected crimes."
"But- but that is illegal in England."
"And in France, mon ami. It is a reprehensible business. He has purchased slaves through his contacts in France, and I have been sent to collect the evidence against him and his associates."
"Good lord," Albans said again, appalled by Cuinn's callousness and his own blindness.
"You did not know," Laroche said, his relief obvious.
"No!" Albans cried. "No, of course not. I never would have approved of this." He returned the document to Laroche, and sat down in a nearby chair.
"I have proof of my identity," Laroche said, surprised that Albans had not asked him for verification.
"I do not require proof. I believe you," Albans said, his expression sad and tragic.
"You are too trusting," Laroche replied, shaking his head.
"Yes, yes, you are right," Albans replied. He wondered if Laroche's attentions were only a way to gain entrance into his house, and he felt sickened by the thought. "You will leave, I expect, now that you have your evidence."
He was surprised when Laroche kneeled before him, taking Albans' hands between his. "I do not wish to leave you. You could come with me to France."
"Leave England? I- wait, you wish for me to come with you?"
"Yes," Laroche said, just a hint of a frustrated sigh in his voice.
"Then you are not here only for evidence against Cuinn…"
"No, mon ami," Laroche said, his expression softening with understanding. "When I first arrived, I merely sought evidence of his misdeeds, but when I met you, I knew that I wanted more."
"Oh…" Albans thought for a moment, and then said softly, "You are fond of me?"
"More than fond," Laroche replied softly.
Albans blushed slightly at his words. "It has been so long since I have left this house," he murmured. He looked up at Laroche, and said, "I do not wish to leave for long."
"No, but perhaps until I finish my business in France?"
Albans smiled. "That sounds ideal."
Quin and Satterthwaite were smiling at each other when we entered the dining room. I was uncertain if Quin had been the one to cause my fall, but I did not wish to give the game away if Poirot would reveal all later. I acted as naturally as I could during breakfast, but I was relieved when Poirot announced that he wished to speak to everyone in the drawing room.
Once the four of us were assembled, Poirot began. "You have asked me here, Mr. Satterthwaite, to settle a mystery, and I believe that I have done so, but I do not think it is the mystery which you intended."
I was startled by his words, but when I started to ask him what he meant, he raised his hand and asked for silence. "You asked, Hastings, did you not, what Mr. Quin's interest was in the manor house."
I nodded at his words, and Poirot continued, "I believe that Mr. Quin was not enlisted by the owners' of the house at all. I believe that Mr. Quin himself is the owner of this house, and that his interest is more than academic. Mr. Quin is attempting to atone for his mistakes."
Both Satterthwaite and myself stared at Poirot, but Quin seemed his usual, calm self. "And how did you come to this conclusion, M. Poirot?" Quin asked, his voice almost melancholy.
"The house has been owned by a Mr. Harley Quin for over 100 years. While you could have easily have been the son of a man also named Harley Quin, I believe that is not the case."
"Poirot," I cried. "What are you saying?"
"You said that when you arrived at the village that the residents neither saw nor acknowledged Mr. Quin's presence."
Quin looked at me; he seemed surprised that I had noticed.
"I did say that, yes, but I don't understand."
"Will you care to explain, Mr. Quin, or shall I continue?"
"Please continue," Quin replied. "It is all rather fascinating."
"Mr. Satterthwaite observed the same lack of acknowledgement of some people during an incident in which a young lady killed herself. You said, Mr. Quin, that you assisted the dead. Now, who are you?"
"My name will mean nothing to you," Quin replied. "But you are right. I assist the dead, and quite often I do so when they have wronged someone and wish to make amends."
"But in this case, I think, the person who has committed the wrong is you."
"You…" I said, wondering if I was imagining all of this. Was Poirot really discussing supernatural phenomena as if it were fact? "Are you saying that Mr. Quin here is dead?"
Quin smiled to himself. "Only my soul is dead," he said, and when he looked at me, his eyes had that same hollow appearance that I had seen before. "I am alive only for one purpose."
"What is the wrong that you have committed?"
"I killed an innocent man," Quin replied, as calm as if he were reporting the weather.
"And sold countless others," Poirot added, and I could see the fury in his dark eyes.
"Yes," Quin replied.
"You sold… I say!" I was dumbfounded.
"Mr. Quin – rather Mr. Cuinn – was a merchant who sold slaves to the American colonies. Presumably Lord Albans knew nothing about this."
"Nothing at all, until that Frenchman arrived."
"Laroche?" I said.
"Yes – my rival," Quin said, and although I could hear a hint of bitterness in his voice, his manner remained calm. His eyes trained on Poirot, and the hatred I saw told me exactly what I needed to know.
I whispered, looking at Poirot, "You were Laroche." Poirot nodded, and I said, "Then I really was Lord Albans."
"My heavens!" Satterthwaite said. "Then you wanted M. Poirot and Captain Hastings here so that you could reunite them, as it were!"
Quin nodded at Satterthwaite, and said, "Those were my instructions. I tried to circumvent them once," here he glanced at me, and I looked down, embarrassed beyond words. "When I failed, I knew that I could not change fate." Quin looked at me, and said, "I apologize."
This time I felt that he was sincere, but when I looked at Poirot, I hesitated to give my acceptance to Quin.
"Shall I tell them what happened, Mr. Quin?" Poirot asked, his voice sharp with anger.
"Please," replied Quin, and this time his voice had lost its calmness. He seemed like a man in pain.
"Mr. Cuinn was removed from the house after a jealousy fit, and this allowed M. Laroche time to discover the incriminating papers and forward them to France."
"Why would he forward them to France?" I asked.
"M. Laroche was in England – at the behest of the French government – to track down Mr. Cuinn. His false papers were to ensure his employment at wherever he found Mr. Cuinn. He was fortunate enough to find employment at the house of Lord Albans." Poirot smiled at me, and I smiled back, for a moment forgetting everyone else in the room.
"He was a detective then, like you," I said, proud of my dear friend. Poirot nodded, puffing up a bit with pride like a well-plumed bird.
"But then," and here Poirot's expression became grave, "Mr. Cuinn returned to the house."
The smack of a body against the brick of the house woke Laroche from his light doze. He listened for another sound, and detected the soft tread of feet against the ground. Laroche sat up in bed, careful not to wake Albans who was still asleep.
Having lost his enthusiastic source of heat, Albans woke enough to ask, "Where are you going?"
"I wish to see what is making the noise outside," Laroche replied softly.
"Hm… probably a squirrel," Albans murmured.
Only if the squirrel were six feet tall, Laroche thought to himself. "Nevertheless, I wish to see for myself."
"Do you want me to come with you?" Albans asked, although he moved nothing apart from his lips.
"No, mon ami. Rest yourself."
Albans hummed softly, and burrowed his head further into the soft pillow. He smiled sweetly at Laroche, and murmured, "Hurry back, love. I shall have had sufficient rest to greet you properly."
Laroche laughed, and leaned forward to kiss Albans on the lips. "I shall hurry."
Albans was dozing when he heard the door open and shut. He opened his eyes and murmured, "Back so soon?" He looked over at the door, assuming that Laroche had given up and returned, but standing in his bedroom was Cuinn, who held a gun in his hand.
Albans inhaled sharply, and sat up. "What are you doing here?"
"I came to see you, Albans," Cuinn said, his eyes taking in the slightly swollen lips and signs of teeth upon the pale neck of his former lover. Rage simmered within him for it was obvious that Laroche had recently risen from this bed. "I was going to ask if you had changed your mind, but quite clearly you have not."
"I ordered you to leave this house, Cuinn," Albans said, wondering where Laroche was and if he was safe.
"I know, but I needed to retrieve a few more things, and… I had hoped to convince you to forgive me."
"I cannot forgive you. You inflicted violence upon two innocent people, and now that I know…" Albans bit his lip, now worried that perhaps he should not have said anything.
"Know what?" At Albans' silence, Cuinn pointed the gun at him, and said, "Get up. I refuse to speak to you in here."
Albans rose reluctantly, and put on his dressing gown. He was very much aware that he was sweaty and sticky from lovemaking, and his long hair was wild from their exertions. He watched Cuinn's jaw tighten with fury, and felt a deep fear at what he might do.
Out in the hallway, Cuinn said, "You threw me over for that French tart. Why?"
"I did nothing of the sort," Albans said, his voice sharp with fear and anger. "We became lovers after you left."
"After you removed me," Cuinn corrected. "And now you refuse to forgive me. What has the Froggy been telling you?"
"You have no right to call him names. You've done much worse than him. Your merchant business sells souls!"
"Is that what he told you?" Cuinn asked, his voice low and calm.
"That is what he showed me – presumably these are the papers that you are looking for."
"Where are these papers?" Cuinn asked.
"On their way to France," Albans said, his chin rising in defiance. He was proud of Laroche, more so than he had ever been of Cuinn.
Without thinking, Cuinn struck him hard in the face. Albans stumbled back, surprised because Cuinn had never before laid a hand on him in anger. Cuinn grabbed his arm, and pulled him towards the stairs. "I am going to find him," Cuinn said, his manner as calm and icy as ever.
Albans nearly asked what he was going to do when Cuinn found him, but he already suspected that he knew. The gun was ready, but not cocked.
As they neared the stairs, Albans began to struggle against Cuinn's arm. "You can't do this!" Albans' cried. "I won't let you get away with murder!"
Albans grabbed the gun in Cuinn's hand, and having seized his wrist they both struggled to overpower the other. Cuinn may have been better trained to best someone in a fight, but Albans had the strength of fear and anxiety. When he heard Laroche's voice calling to him, he felt a surge of power, and knocked the gun from Cuinn's arms.
He stood to reach for the gun, which had fallen down a step. Cuinn's leg came up to trip him, but rather than fall to the left – as Cuinn had intended – Albans fell to the right and down the stairs.
Albans did not have time to scream or to realize exactly what had happened. He fell to the landing below, and the last thing he remembered was the pain of his own neck breaking and Laroche's cry from the bottom of the stairs.
Quin stood up while Poirot told the story, and walked to the window. Satterthwaite looked uncertain what he should do, and eventually I nodded that he should go to Quin. Satterthwaite stood, and rested a hand on Quin's arm.
"I wronged an innocent man," Quin said.
"But if it was an accident," I said, my hand reaching up to my throat. I could remember the pain from last night and the terrible despair that I would never see Poirot again.
"But Mr. Quin is not referring to the death of Lord Albans, Hastings. That was an unfortunate accident, which Mr. Quin caused, but he did not murder the Lord. No, the murder came later."
At first I did not realize what Poirot was implying, but then I realized that two men had disappeared: Cuinn and Laroche.
"Oh heavens," I murmured, slumping a bit in my chair.
Quin nodded, his eyes shying away from Satterthwaite as he spoke. "Yes, that was ultimately the reason for my current punishment: cruelty, carelessness, and finally murder."
Recovering himself quickly, Cuinn ran down the hallway and toward the servants' staircase.
"Mon dieu!" Laroche cried, running up the stairs to where Albans had fallen. He checked for a pulse, but there was none. He cradled Albans in his arms, his eyes closing as he fought back tears. He remained like that for only a few seconds, but to him it felt like an eternity.
After retrieving one of the guns in the study, Laroche tracked Cuinn through the house and back outside, intent upon finding Cuinn. He could still see Lord Albans' cloudy blue eyes – he doubted that he would ever forget – and anger heightened his senses. He knew exactly where Cuinn had gone, and he suspected that Cuinn had at least one accomplice waiting for him.
He heard a twig snap, and hid behind a tree in time to feel gunfire ricochet off of the bark. He fired once in the direction of the shot, and heard a cry. Before he could investigate, he was grabbed from behind. He struggled and almost got away, but Cuinn arrived and pointed a gun at him.
"It ends here, Laroche."
Laroche knew what was about to happen, and his last thoughts were of his country and of Lord Albans. He hoped that his family would learn what had happened to him.
"I shot him," Quin said. "We then weighted down his body and tossed it into the lake."
I felt sickened by the thought. Such a pristine beauty marred by evil. Albans and Laroche had made love there for the first time, and it saddened me that it was the final resting place of Laroche.
"Oh god," I whispered, blinking back the sudden swell of tears. I quickly wiped away the ones which fell, but it was futile because more took their place. Poirot stood at my side, and rested a hand on my shoulder, which I clung to tightly.
"How did you know?" Quin asked.
"Inspector Japp phoned the French police, and they were only too happy to assist him. Laroche had indeed sent to the government damning evidence of Mr. Cuinn's merchant business, but he never returned. His colleagues were certain that he had been murdered, but they had no proof. They could not question Mr. Cuinn because he disappeared at the same time."
"I set sail for America," Quin said, his voice calm once more. "But my ships hit a storm, and were destroyed."
"Justice," I murmured, having once more gained control of my emotions.
I had to visit the lake one last time before we departed. It was calm and as beautiful as ever. I dropped two roses onto the water, and watched them float as the wind took them.
Poirot stood next to me, and said softly, "Do not be sad, my friend. Who could ask for a more perfect burial than where he achieved his heart's desire?"
I smiled a little at his words, but then I was struck by a thought. "How do you know that?" I asked.
"Your dream, Hastings, it was most illuminating."
"Oh," I said, although my embarrassment was lessened considerably by the warm memories that the dream evoked. "I thought when I first woke that you had been looking at me."
"What gave me away, mon ami?"
"Well…" I said, teasing him. "You were holding the book upside down."
Poirot tried to maintain a serious expression, but then we both began to laugh. Our laughter ended with kisses, and the sadness from earlier melted away.
"What made you come, after you told me that you did not wish to visit the lake?"
"Loneliness, Hastings. Loneliness and jealousy. I did not wish to see you in that man's arms again."
"Poirot, I-, " I was going to apologize, but Poirot silenced me with a lingering kiss.
"Do not apologize, my friend. There is no need."
I nodded, and kissed him again, grateful for our second chance at happiness.
Satterthwaite watched Poirot and Hastings disappear in their taxi. He turned, intent upon returning to the now empty house, and was surprised to see Quin still standing in the garden. He hesitantly walked up to Quin.
"I am sorry, Mr. Quin," he said softly, unable to be angry at his friend.
"The best man won," Quin said, his expression stoic.
"Not necessarily – just the best man for him."
Quin smiled slightly, and replied, "You do me good, Mr. Satterthwaite." Quin hesitated, and for a moment the angle of the sun cast a mask-like shadow against his face. "Now that you know all, the mystery is gone."
Satterthwaite smiled, and said, "I beg to differ. The mystery will never be over."
Quin seemed to struggle with his answer, and now that Satterthwaite knew more about his friend, he could guess – as he had done many times in the past – what was on Quin's mind.
"You did some terrible things, my friend," he said softly. "But you have atoned many times over. I forgive you." Satterthwaite sighed, and added, "I forgive you because I love you."
"I had hoped that you would forgive me," Quin replied.
Satterthwaite noted the absent mention of his love, and his shoulders slumped. "I have never walked down Lovers' Lane," he said, thinking back on their last adventure together.
"You may do so soon," Quin replied, startling Satterthwaite, but when he spoke again, his voice was soft and sad, "But please, I need some time to recover."
Sattherthwaite replied sadly, "I don't have much time." When Quin looked at him questioningly, he added, "I am old, Mr. Quin, nearly 70. I'm going to die soon."
A curious light came to Quin's eyes, and he said, "Do you think I would let a little thing like death keep me from you?"
This story was inspired, in part, by the movie Dead Again with Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, and Derek Jacobi.