“Looks like the party just got more interesting,” Howard Stark said softly.
“That’s one way to put it,” Steve Rogers agreed. One’s host finding his hidden safe open and empty tended to liven things up. The remaining members of the house party had gathered in the study. “What were you doing down here anyway?”
Howard said nothing, but glanced over at a stunning blonde in a somewhat rumpled looking dress. She flashed back a smile, and Steve had to sigh. Howard was brilliant but rather easily distracted. “What, did you ask her to fondue?”
“I wouldn’t rule it out,” he replied. “At least I know she isn’t the culprit.”
They both looked up as the door opened, admitting a pair of newcomers. One was a tall man with an open, friendly face. The other was a short man, with impeccable clothes and luxuriant moustaches, his green eyes rather like those of a cat.
“What a funny little man!” Peggy Carter said softly, from her seat next to Steve.
“He does look something like a woman’s hairdresser,” Howard agreed.
Steve said nothing. There was something about the man that seemed almost dangerous.
“Good evening, mesdames et messieurs,” the little man said expansively. “Permit me to introduce myself. I am M. Hercule Poirot.”
He paused, and Steve wondered if he was going to continue. However, he seemed to consider the introduction complete.
“M. Poirot has agreed to assist us with our very delicate problem,” Sir Hector Mainwaring, their host, told the group.
“You mean the plans that were in your safe?” drawled Howard’s blonde. There was a dismayed intake of breath from several in the group.
“Amethyst,” Sir Hector stammered, “those plans were supposed to be a secret.”
“Well, they clearly were not,” she shot back. “I suppose one of us must have stolen them.”
“Ah, the good Captain America,” Poirot said, gesturing him to a seat. “My good friend, Captain Hastings, likes to read about your exploits in the newspaper.”
Steve flushed slightly.
“May I ask, mon capitaine, why you are attending this house party?”
“I was invited to accompany Howard Stark,” Steve replied. He knew why he had been invited, and he hated it. He hated being on display, being kept away from where the fighting was, just so that people could gawk at the super-soldier. But Howard had insisted that it would be helpful, that the British were interested in possibly duplicating the super-soldier project. The fact that Peggy Carter had agreed to come on the trip had not hurt.
“And you were alone in your room after dinner this evening?” Poirot continued.
“Yes.” It was pretty sad to admit, especially since Howard had no trouble finding female companionship. Before Steve Rogers became Captain America, Steve had hardly been the type women fell for; now, he simply didn’t know how to respond to them, not even the woman whose picture he carried inside his compass.
“Had you any knowledge of the plans in the safe?”
“I did not.” He suspected now that they had something to do with the super-soldier project, although most of that had been in Erskine’s head, lost forever.
“Thank you, Captain Rogers. You will permit me to perhaps ask your assistance, this evening?” Poirot’s eyes twinkled slightly. “I believe you might be the only person here who is capable of doing so. The little grey cells are all that is necessary to know who a criminal is, but sometimes to catch the criminal requires skills that Poirot, he no longer possesses.”
The whole of the next day rather dragged on. Sir Hector was attempting to maintain his role as genial host, but the knowledge that one of his guests had stolen important Government secrets, combined with the steady rain that began falling, was enough to kill the mood of any party. Poirot kept turning up in various places, and Steve wondered how the famous detective – Peggy had told him and Howard who he was, not without some embarrassment at her earlier reaction – felt Captain America could be of use to him.
After dinner, Poirot requested that all of the guests gather in the study again. Steve did not join them, but took up a station outside the house, near the study’s French windows. They were slightly ajar, so that he could hear what was being said. M. Poirot had briefed him earlier on his role, and Steve was prepared.
There was another newcomer to the party, a neat and tidy woman who sat besides Captain Hastings.
“Mesdames et messieurs, permit me to take up a few minutes of your evening,” Poirot said expansively, when everyone was seated with drinks. “Your gracious host, Sir Hector Mainwaring, asked me to assist him with a rather delicate problem.”
“The plans in the safe, you mean,” Amethyst Mainwaring – Steve had discovered she was Sir Hector’s cousin – said with a laugh.
“Yes, Mademoiselle Mainwaring, the plans in the safe.” Poirot did not betray any annoyance. “The plans that Sir Hector keeps insisting were quite secret, were in fact, not a secret at all. That became quite clear to me after talking with several of you today. My associates also assisted me with a discreet search of the premises.”
“Then you know who took the plans?” Howard Stark asked.
“Oh, yes, Monsieur Stark. More than that, I know where they are.”
“Don’t waste time, then,” Amethyst Mainwaring said with a laugh. “Do tell us where they are.”
“The plans are where they have been the whole time,” Poirot replied with a flourish. “In Sir Hector Mainwaring’s pocket.”
Steve Rogers jerked to attention. Surely the little detective had not just accused their host, the person who had called him in, of stealing the plans from his own safe?
But it was Sir Hector who came charging through the French windows, with Captain Hastings in close pursuit. Steve took off after them. Steve passed Hastings rather easily, but it took him a few minutes longer to catch his quarry – Sir Hector was much faster than he had appeared. He had almost reached the far end of the lawn when Steve tackled him, and the two of them went rolling across the ground. Steve could hear footsteps coming towards them, and pinned Sir Hector to the ground with a knee.
“What were you going to do with those plans?” Steve Rogers gritted out.
Sir Hector spat in his face, and then moved his jaw in a peculiar motion, one Steve had seen before - on the day Erskine was killed. A false tooth popped off, and Sir Hector crunched his jaw down. “What do you think I was going to do with them? Hail Hydra.” His body went rigid from the poison, and Steve stepped back in revulsion.
The next day, Steve Rogers, Howard Stark and Peggy Carter found themselves seated in Poirot’s neat flat in Whitehaven Mansions, being served tea. Steve had never quite got used to the whole tea thing, but he admitted that Poirot had a nice spread of snacks.
“I wanted to thank you for your assistance,” Poirot said as the neat and tidy woman – who had been introduced as Miss Lemon, Poirot’s secretary – served the tea.
“How did you figure out that it was Sir Hector?” Peggy asked, accepting a cup from Miss Lemon.
“Unfortunately, Mademoiselle Carter, I cannot take too much credit. Certain…agencies have suspected his involvement with Hydra for some time. Alas, Sir Hector thought he would attempt to play the trick on Hercule Poirot with his little ‘robbery’. But he gave himself away through his too-convenient discovery of the open safe.” Poirot sipped his tea. “I fear he learned that his decisions were quite unwise.”