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The Mystery of Johnny Elkins

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In my years with Poirot, I have shared many accounts of our work. We’ve solved many a murder together, and prevented many more. With the help of our trusty Miss Lemon, Poirot and I have cracked countless fiendish cases and brought a vast assortment of criminals to justice.

There are a few cases, however, in which I keep my notes to myself. I still write them up like usual; I like having a complete record of our association. For various reasons, however, these cases stay locked up in my desk, inaccessible to even the doughty Miss Lemon.

This is one of those cases.

I

I was looking idly through Miss Lemon’s files, she being out of town visiting an aged aunt for the weekend, when the doorbell rang.

The woman I showed into Poirot’s office was tall, plump, and distracted. She’d done her buttons up wrong in the back, and her face showed that she’d been crying. I patted my pocket to assure myself my handkerchief was handy if necessary.

“It’s my boy, Monsieur Poirot,” she was saying as I found my own seat. “I know the police try their best, but I don’t think they’re right. And my friend Mrs. Pitts, she was reading about you in the paper the other day, and she said that you were the best and I should come to you about it.”

She was controlling herself with a strong effort. I was impressed, and I could see from the gentleness in Poirot’s face that he was too. Poirot is often professionally effusive, if it will help him with a witness or a suspect, but the real trick is watching the way he holds his mouth. I’ve been with him a long time, and I pride myself that I can read him like a book.

“Your son is in trouble?”

“Oh,” she said, and that little word seemed to overwhelm her. “Oh. He won’t be in any trouble ever again. He’s – he’s dead.”

“My sincere condolences, madame.”

I murmured something similar, and we waited for a moment as she struggled with whitened lips. Poirot doesn’t generally like crying women in his office, although it’s somewhat of a professional hazard, and he can come up to snuff in a crisis.

But in this case she mastered herself and went on. “The police say it’s a suicide. I tried to tell them that Johnny would never do that, but it’s no use. They’re that sure.”

Poirot’s eyes were thoughtful, but I could tell that his interest wasn’t piqued. We ran into these cases often. Dashed unfair of suicides not to leave proper notes, in my opinion; leaves their relatives seeing murderers behind every bush. “What is it that you wish Poirot to do?”

Her fingers tightened on her bag. “Johnny was murdered.”

“You wish me to prove that?”

“I know he was. I want you to find out who did it.”

“My dear lady – ”

“Ann Elkins.”

“My dear Madame Elkins, if the police are convinced that it was suicide, what is it that you think Poirot will be able to find? The police do not always see everything, but in cases where there is the slightest suspicion of murder, they are quite thorough.”

I hid my smile out of deference to Mrs. Elkins’ grief. We had encountered the police on many an occasion, and Poirot’s exasperation with their stolidly thorough but uninspired spadework had been frequently expressed. No little grey cells among the police! Still, even Poirot had to admit that they were usually conscientious about tangible evidence, if often blind to its implications.

Ann Elkins was shaking her head. “I’m not saying they didn’t try, but you see, they think my Johnny was a criminal. I know Tom Watkins at least thinks I should be relieved that Johnny’s gone. And since it looks like suicide, I’m not saying it doesn’t, they were happy to close the case and move on.”

“And you are sure that they are wrong.”

“I know they are,” Mrs. Elkins said, simply, then leaned forward in her chair. “Monsieur Poirot, I know Johnny wasn’t a very nice boy, but that doesn’t mean someone should have murdered him. I want to find out who took him away from me.”

So it was either suicide, or one of Johnny Elkins’ criminal friends had decided to rid the world of him. Neither looked like a case for us.

Mrs. Elkins was opening her handbag. “I can pay. I’m not asking for charity. If you can’t find anything, then at least I’ll know that I did everything I could for Johnny.”

We had a free afternoon, and our luncheon had been particularly good. On a less auspicious day, Poirot might have politely advised Mrs. Elkins that her case looked hopeless, and we would never have known what happened to Johnny.

Instead, he steepled his fingers. “Tell it to Poirot, madam.”

The story, as it tumbled out in rather disjointed fashion, was a simple one. Johnny Elkins, aged twenty-three and an all-around rotter (not that his mother said as much in as many words), had never held a job. He’d spent his time with a rough group, and the police thought he’d been mixed up in shady business, which probably meant drugs. When he was sixteen his mother had tried to reform him, which had included a short stay in a mental hospital, but he’d been expelled after two weeks and had broken his mother’s arm upon his return to thank her for the experience. She hadn’t tried again.

About a year ago Mrs. Elkins had thought he might change. He’d found a girlfriend, Daisy, a quiet, shy girl who was much sweeter than his earlier girlfriends. For a while he’d stopped drinking and even talked about fixing things up around the flat, which he’d never done before. But recently the violence had returned, and the month before he died Daisy had been covered in bruises.

Like any red-blooded Englishman, I hate that sort of man. My fists were clenched in my lap, and Poirot’s face was pensive as he asked Mrs. Elkins to continue.

The night of his death, Johnny had come home looking ill. Mrs. Elkins had asked what was wrong, and been shouted at for her pains. Johnny had slammed out of the house again, muttering something about seeing a friend, and a few hours later the police had knocked at her door. Johnny had gone down to the railroad tracks and walked in front of an express train. Two vagrants, who had been sleeping at the side of the tracks, had seen him do it. There was no suggestion that they had been bribed or coerced into lying, and the train driver had seen it too. He’d simply walked out to his death.

Poirot sighed. “Madame,” he said, kindly, “there are three witnesses to the fact that your son, he committed suicide. There is nothing here to investigate. I grieve for your loss.”

“Johnny would never commit suicide,” Mrs. Elkins insisted. She swallowed. She was bearing up better, now that she had someone to argue against. “His father killed himself when Johnny was six. Johnny never forgave him. He hated suicides.”

“Sometimes life becomes unbearable. We must try not to judge.”

She shook her head. “If Johnny felt he couldn’t bear living, he would have started a knife fight with someone in a pub. That would have been his way. But he wasn’t tired of living. He could be … unpleasant, but he loved his life.”

I watched Poirot watch her. I couldn’t see how we could help – the facts were against her, and even if they hadn’t been, the trail had gone cold in the week since Johnny’s suicide – but her dignified grief and urgent plea might touch Poirot. Some people only see the elegance of his moustaches and the height of his epicurean sensibilities, but over the years I have known him I have come to see beyond that. Poirot is a complex man, and his heart is deep.

“Madame,” he said. “You seek my advice – I give it to you. I fear the possibility of proving your convictions, it is slight. We may conclude that the mind of your son was temporarily deranged, that he did not intend to take his own life. But murder? I do not think so.”

Mrs. Elkins’ shoulders slumped forward a little. “Then his murderer will go free,” she said, her voice colourless, before drawing herself up straight again. “Thank you for your time, Monsieur Poirot.”

It’s a funny thing, pity. Afterwards I thought about it and there wasn’t a good reason I should have stepped in when I did. Poirot has always liked to needle me about my susceptibility to auburn hair, but if Mrs. Elkins’ hair had been auburn, it had been twenty years ago. If she had cried, perhaps my masculine protectiveness might have been roused; if I had been bored, perhaps I might have jumped at the chance to see a little action. But she hadn’t cried, and I had been looking forward to a quiet afternoon in with Poirot.

“You said Johnny had a girlfriend?”

Mrs. Elkins turned to me. “Yes. Daisy.”

Poirot’s eyebrow was raised, just slightly. He sometimes underestimates my deductive ability, I think. Although he is the unquestioned master, and I do not always appear at my best in his company, I fancy that I too have some skill at our trade. Whenever he raises that eyebrow, or I catch the glimmer of a twinkle in his eye, I feel the burning desire to rise to the occasion.

“I can’t promise anything,” I said, belatedly cautious, “but if it will make you rest easier, I can come with you and ask Daisy a few questions. If Johnny was in trouble, if he had any enemies, she might know.”

As we left, Poirot murmured, “Bonne chance, mon ami.”

II

Daisy Meredith was just as Ann Elkins had described her: shy and quiet. I hadn’t seen the sweetness yet, but I’d met a lot of women in the course of my association with Poirot, and she had the soft edges and laugh-lines of a sweet woman. That afternoon, however, the most striking part of her appearance was her fading black eye, the blood under the skin still an angry dark blot extending down onto her cheekbone. If that was Johnny Elkins’ work, I agreed with the local police – the women in Johnny’s life might find their grief mixed with relief.

“Enemies?” she said, staring into her teacup. “I don’t know. Johnny had a hot temper. When people crossed him, he fought them. That’s what you do, he said, if you want any respect.”

“Did anyone he fought with hold a grudge?”

Daisy thought about it, her head perched a little on one side. “I don’t think so. Not everyone liked Johnny, but I don’t know anyone who hated him enough to kill him. Killing is so – horrible.” There were tears standing in her eyes, which she blinked away.

“Mrs. Elkins says that Johnny’s friends were a rough crowd. Do you know them?”

“Some of them. Not all. I only moved here a year ago, from Plymouth. Johnny’s friends grew up here in London – he said he could only trust people he knew as a boy, people who had proved their loyalty to him.”

I almost instinctively replied “And you,” but caught myself. From the look of her face, Johnny hadn’t been the type of man who trusted the woman he was with.

I cleared my throat and asked instead, “Do you know if Johnny and his friends were involved in anything illegal? Perhaps something you didn’t tell the police?” I knew this area, and I knew Johnny’s type. Drugs or prostitution would have been my guess. Johnny hadn’t been rich, but the money to maintain this flat had come from somewhere.

Daisy’s eyes cut away from mine. “I never helped him. I’m a good girl. I don’t break any laws – I go to Mass every week.”

Sweet, shy, and perhaps a little simple. “I’m not trying to get you in trouble,” I said, patting her hand. “If Johnny was doing something illegal, then he might have had rivals, enemies, disgruntled partners. The criminal world can be a bloody one.”

I thought at first that she still wasn’t going to answer me, but my trustworthy air won her over. I’ve always found that women in particular confide in me – I suppose I’m a strong shoulder to cry on.

“You could ask Eddie Bailey,” she said, in a whisper. “He’s Johnny’s best friend. If Johnny was doing anything he shouldn’t, he would know.”

“Eddie Bailey,” I repeated, memorizing it. “Where can I find him?”

She named an address a few streets over. “But don’t tell him I told you. People around here stick together, and if he finds out I snitched on him…”

“He wouldn’t hurt his best friend’s girl,” I said, smiling reassuringly.

Daisy shook her head. “He and Johnny had a fight a few weeks back. He said they were through, and that if he ever saw Johnny around Moira again, he’d make sure Johnny never snuck ‘round no one’s girl ever again.” Belatedly, her hands flew to her mouth. “I didn’t mean – Eddie wouldn’t hurt Johnny. That was just talk. It wasn’t Eddie.”

“I’m sure,” I said, to calm her down, although I had my own suspicions.

Eddie Bailey turned out to be a mountain of a man, one of those big young men who grow into their full height early and spend the next few years determinedly filling it out. He was easily twice the size of his diminutive girlfriend, Moira O’Kelley. Perhaps even three times her size, if she hadn’t been showing signs of adding to the world’s population.

“Sure I knew Johnny,” he said, his eyes wary. “What’s it to you?”

I spread my hands placatingly, a gesture I’d learned from Poirot. “His mother asked me to look into it. She thinks he was murdered, and that the police might be covering it up.” That was overstating Mrs. Elkins’ position, but Eddie looked like someone who distrusted the police. Establishing a common interest with the person you’re questioning can be helpful.

“I’d like to believe it,” he said, thawing a little. He didn’t invite me in, but he sat down on the stoop. Moira hovered in the garden nearby, looking jittery. “I sure would. Johnny was my best mate since we were kids together. If someone did him in, I’d slit the bastard’s throat myself.”

“I heard you were no longer friends,” I ventured, delicately.

“Who told you that?” He looked suspicious. “That Daisy, probably. She jumps whenever anybody raises their voice more’n a whisper. Johnny and I had a little disagreement, but that’s nothing when you’re as close as we were. I said some shite, he said some shite. It woulda blown over.”

I tabled that line of inquiry for the time being. “Do you know who his enemies were?”

“I told you, I’d like to believe he was murdered. I can’t believe that Johnny killed himself. He hated people who killed themselves, said it was a coward’s way out. Cause of his old man. He said anybody who tried and failed, the government should give ‘em the noose.”

That seemed counterproductive to me. “So you agree with Mrs. Elkins that he was murdered?”

Eddie spat. “Nah. Can’t see how. You tell me how someone murders somebody by having them walk in front of a train. Mind control? Maybe the Commies have come up with it, but I dunno any reason the Commies would go after Johnny.”

“There’s some doubt that the witnesses were telling the truth,” I said.

“They were paid off, huh? Well.” He considered. “Johnny wasn’t a bad lot, but he didn’t always stay the right side of the law. Could be he made someone angry.”

“Do you know any names?”

But Eddie didn’t, or wouldn’t tell me. I strongly suspected it was the latter. Their fight had probably been a falling-out about some job they had done together – maybe Johnny, who’d no doubt been the brains of the operation, had tried to claim more than half of the profits. I doubted Eddie was the murderer (if he had been, Johnny would’ve had his neck snapped, not gone under a train), but Eddie might well know who the murderer was, and be playing dumb to protect himself. If so, this would take careful investigation.

I walked halfway down the street before doubling back. If Eddie was still out front, I’d claim I’d lost my way and came back for directions. My luck was in, however, and he’d vanished, leaving Moira alone in the front garden, watering her roses.

“I can’t tell you anything,” she said, the Irish strong in her voice.

I leaned on their fence, doing my best to look trustworthy. “I wanted to warn you. I’ve investigated many murder cases. If you’re protecting Johnny’s murderer, be careful. Murderers usually try to cover their tracks.”

She was staring at me, her face white, her watering can hanging from her slack hand.

I kept my own face friendly. “If you ever want to talk to someone, here’s my card.”

I’d turned to go again when I heard her voice behind me, much hoarser than it had been. “It’s not his.”

I turned, confused.

Moira wet her lips. “Daisy must have told you. But it’s not his. Eddie – he’s that jealous, and Johnny is – was – so bad with girls, and he was always saying nice things to me, and Daisy standing there all burning up. But I never. I only – it’s Eddie’s, it really is, and Eddie believes me now.”

“Eddie thought your baby was Johnny’s?” I asked, putting the pieces together.

She nodded, unhappily. “You think Eddie killed Johnny for it. But Johnny and me, we didn’t do that, and Eddie didn’t kill them! Eddie was with me, all night. I know because he snores. If he stopped snoring, I’d wake up right off, I know I would. Whatever Daisy says, she’s lying. Eddie would never have killed Johnny. Not Johnny.”

Eddie stuck his head out of the upstairs window. “You shut your fool mouth, Moira,” he hissed, then transferred his gaze to me. “You. She don’t know nothin’. You get out of here.”

I prudently withdrew.

Having failed to acquire any new names to investigate, my only choice was to return to Mrs. Elkins’ flat, which had previously been home to Mrs. Elkins, Johnny, and Daisy, and now held only the two women.

There was nothing to tell the client yet – I thought disclosing the disputed parentage of Moira’s impending baby was not indicated at present – so I asked to search Johnny and Daisy’s room. I knew a note had not been found, but often suicides leave behind other traces of their intentions. Should that be true in this case, Mrs. Elkins would have her closure and I would be back to Poirot in time for some afternoon leisure before our supper. There was a crossword I had been working on, and when he deigns to participate things move more quickly.

Perhaps I should have started my investigation with the search, but I had wanted to get a sense of Johnny’s world before I turned my focus to his belongings. Now Mrs. Elkins let me in, Daisy having gone out to the shop. There were two heavy-duty locks on the bedroom door, which confirmed my suspicions that Johnny had been on the wrong side of the law. No one needs high security on a door inside a house, unless they need multiple levels of delay. I knew even before I checked the window that there would be a drainpipe to provide a quick egress.

Beyond the high security, there was little of interest in the room. Mrs. Elkins hovered in the doorway, watching me as I made a cursory, delicate search of the chest of drawers. When I went to lift the mattress, however, she excused herself to the kitchen to make tea. Searches can be upsetting, and it was her dead son’s room. I understood.

There was nothing under the mattress, nothing in the drawers besides nondescript clothes. The shabby bric-a-brac held no clues either; there was a Virgin Mary over the bed, a shepherdess and her sheep on the chest of drawers, a half-eaten box of sweetmeats and a music box that played “Fur Elise” on the bedside table, and a Bible on the sole bookshelf, along with two magazines that would not be sold in any reputable store. I replaced the latter thoughtfully. A man who taunted a religious girlfriend in such a flagrant manner was unpleasant indeed.

There was a sound from the doorway and I turned, expecting Mrs. Elkins with the tea, but it was Daisy, returned from the shop. Her cheeks were a flood of color – she must have seen me holding the magazines.

She didn’t comment on them, however. “Have you found anything?”

I shook my head. “Was there anywhere else Johnny might have kept any important papers?”

Daisy hesitated. “Johnny wasn’t a big reader or writer. He said it was a waste of time.”

“Not books,” I said, kindly. “Papers. Perhaps something to do with business?”

The color returned to her face. “I think Johnny’s business didn’t do papers.”

I believed her. There might still be a logbook with coded references to transactions, but it would be unlikely to get us anywhere, even if I found it. I was convinced as I had been from the start, despite my pity for his mother, that Johnny Elkins had taken his own life. His petty thievery or drug-dealing might have been a trigger – perhaps he had fallen on hard times, or angered someone more powerful and feared punishment, or known the police were closing in – or it might have been something else entirely. Moira’s pregnancy was unlikely to have anything to do with it, whether or not she was telling the truth and Johnny wasn’t the father. Sometimes criminals offed themselves. It happened.

“Johnny did say there was a false bottom in the music box,” Daisy said. “I don’t know how to open it, though.”

I turned the music box over in my hands. It wasn’t large, and there was no obvious catch.

“He might have been joking. He liked to joke,” Daisy said, her face bleak with some past memory. Her black eye was stark.

I, however, had come to possess some familiarity with puzzle boxes and hidden springs of all kinds over the course of my association with Poirot. A few experimental forays, and I smiled. It was the same trick as a cedarwood box an Italian prince had brought Poirot three years before. That box had held uncut diamonds and their discovery had averted the fall of a government.

The music box opened in my hands, disclosing a small, shallow compartment. Daisy made a small sound.

Inside were four ancient-looking coins and three photographs. I left the coins – they looked valuable but I would need an expert to verify that – and looked at the photographs in my hand. Daisy came forward to look too, but I shook my head to ward her off.

After a moment, I replaced the photos and closed the compartment. “I need to speak with Poirot,” I told Daisy and Mrs. Elkins, who had just then appeared behind her. “May I take this with me?” It was a courtesy request. I was taking it.

Daisy nodded, her eyes wide at the sudden change in my demeanour.

“We’re coming with you,” Mrs. Elkins said quietly.

But I told her no. If I was going to enlist Poirot into this investigation, I didn’t want Mrs. Elkins and Daisy tagging along. I was going to have to persuade him to give up his afternoon, and that was a delicate operation.

III

“You have returned, mon ami,” Poirot said, when I let myself in to our flat. “Mrs. Elkins, she faces the truth?”

Little did he know. Despite the circumstances, I felt a small thrill of satisfaction as I crossed to his desk and put the music box on it. He was not the only one who could sniff out a case.

Poirot set down his pen and began to work on the box, tapping his fingers gently on the pressure points. Watching the skill with which he uncovered the trick to it, I drifted into other thoughts.

When it opened, he too set aside the coins to consider later. We would have to visit one of our numismatist friends to find out whether they were worth committing murder, or a worthless red herring.

The photographs, on the other hand, consumed Poirot’s attention for some minutes. He turned them this way and that, studying the myriad of tiny details. I looked away. My pleasing thoughts of a minute before no longer appealed to me. The photographs were not pretty.

“The box was shut when you found it, n’est ce pas?” Poirot asked at last.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s a complex mechanism, but I remembered the trick of it from Prince M-‘s cedarwood. You have everything that was in it.”

His eyes were half shut. “Did anyone see you open it?”

“Daisy. I didn’t let her see the photographs, but she must have seen the coins. I don’t think Mrs. Elkins had come back from the kitchen before I closed it, but she could have been lurking.”

“It may mean nothing,” Poirot said, as if to himself.

I shrugged. “We know we was a violent man. Maybe he just liked to look at those charnel houses. I can name half a dozen men who enjoy collecting murder souvenirs – Mary Nichols’ bonnet, William Palmer’s medical license, Sweeney Todd’s razors.” It reminded me sometimes of the ghoulish fetish for saints’ relics.

The photographs lay on the desk between us. The blood in them was dark, splashed over the walls. To imagine them in their full bright color was to turn one’s stomach. The corpse looked like a doll who had been violently destroyed by a dog. I turned my eyes away again.

“Perhaps,” Poirot said, and replaced the photographs in the music box. I breathed more easily once it was shut, and knew he would have noticed.

“This doesn’t change the fact that he walked in front of a train with three witnesses. I haven’t talked to any of them, but it seems unlikely that they’re lying. Particularly the train driver. Unless he was in on it.”

Poirot seemed lost in thought. When he looked up, there was a half-smile on his face. “Miss Lemon, she returns not tomorrow, but the following day?”

“Yes.”

Bon. Tell me everything, my dear Hastings, and let us see if we cannot solve the mystery of this murdered rogue before she returns.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “You think he was murdered?”

“I have as yet no proof,” Poirot said, his fingers resting on the music box. “Then again there are curious points to this affair, very curious indeed.”

He didn’t elaborate. He seldom does, not until he’s sure. It used to bother me, but now I find it endearing. Doubtless there are many mental hypotheses he makes that never come to fruition, and if he shared them with me as they occurred to him he would a witness to his fallibility. I would not mind, but he would. He likes to pull the rabbit out of the hat.

I told him about my conversations with Daisy, Eddie, and Moira, and he listened thoughtfully, running his finger over the design of the music box.

“Come, Hastings,” he said, when I had finished.

We took the music box with us.

IV

By the time we reached Eddie and Moira’s flat, it had been some four hours since I had been there, and two since we had left our own. In the interim, we had visited a numismatist, who told us the coins were worth a small fortune, and a history professor at King’s who was an amateur criminologist in his spare time, who told us the photographs were not of a famous crime scene, at least none that he had ever seen.

That news had sombered me. As we walked down Eddie and Moira’s street, I asked Poirot in an undertone if we shouldn’t be going to the police. If the photographs had been evidence of a fascination with the macabre or with famous murderers, I would have expected the professor to recognize them. Just because they looked like the work of a police photographer didn’t necessarily mean that they were. We could have an unsolved murder on our hands.

“Do not worry, mon ami,” Poirot said. “I have invited Inspector Japp to dine with us this evening.”

Reassured, I led Poirot to Eddie and Moira’s garden, and rapped politely on their door. We had time for a short interview before returning to prepare for Japp. If anyone could coax Eddie to disgorge the names of Johnny’s enemies, it would be Poirot.

(Unless, of course, Johnny and Eddie were serial killers in on it together, and Eddie had murdered him out of fear of exposure. My spine prickled at the thought.)

“They won’t answer,” a voice came from behind us.

It was a young fellow, probably no more than seventeen, with a brash, offensive look in his eye and holes in his trousers. He had the overly skinny look of those who have made an acquaintance with drugs.

“Are they out?” I asked, courteously.

“Nah, not them. They cleared out after you left the first time. He was shouting at her somethin’ fierce, sayin’ as she shoulda kept her fool mouth shut.”

“We aren’t the police,” I said. “They had nothing to fear from us.” If they hadn’t killed him.

He grinned. “I know who you are. You’re Captain Hastings, and this here is Hercule Poirot. I’m Billy. I know things around here.”

“And do you know where they have gone?” Poirot asked, surveying the little garden. Moira had done her best, and the flowers were in bloom. It was a pity to think they’d be dead soon without their gardener.

Billy shrugged. “Dunno. Really dunno. I didn’t come to talk about them. I came to hire you.”

“Hire us?” I asked, disbelieving.

“Yeah,” he said, with a jut of his chin. “Word is you think Johnny Elkins was murdered. Well, if he is, I want to catch the fellow who done it.”

“You were a friend of Johnny’s?”

“Maybe. And maybe not.”

Poirot turned away from the flowers. “I already have a client. But this you can tell me – why is it that you think Johnny Elkins was murdered?”

“I didn’t say I did,” Billy said, cagey. “I said I know you do.”

Poirot made a sound of impatience. “My time is precious. If you have nothing to contribute, leave us and let us return to our work.”

He’d played it well. Billy was looking for an audience – this made him bristle up immediately. “You can’t get rid of me that easy! Johnny got in fights, see? Not just with his mum and his girl, but with proper tough sorts, big mean fellows in the pub and in – our line of work. And he was good. Nobody could’ve made Johnny do nothin’ he didn’t want to do.”

“We still have to talk to the witnesses,” I said. “Maybe there was someone holding a gun on him.” Though this wasn’t America, there were still enough service revolvers around to make it possible.

“Or perhaps he was being threatened with something other than a gun,” Poirot said, quietly.

I hadn’t thought of this before, but now that I considered it, I was surprised I hadn’t. “Perhaps someone threatened his mother or Daisy’s life.”

It would be an unorthodox way of committing murder – forcing someone to commit suicide to save someone they loved – but it could work, depending on the mark. Poirot met my eyes, and I knew it would work on me. As a last resort, of course, if I had exhausted all other avenues.

But Billy was scoffing. “Johnny? Didn’t Old Elkins tell you about the time he threw her down the stairs and broke her back? He never would’ve done it for them.”

“Broke her back?” She must have been very lucky to walk again. That explained why she held herself so stiffly and upright.

“Yeah. That’s when she sent him to the loony bin. She thought they might make him better. He was only sixteen. But it just made him badder. Nah, mister, Johnny would’ve killed his mum to save his own skin, not the other way around.”

I wasn’t surprised that Ann Elkins hadn’t told us about her son spending time in a mental institution. Whether or not he was mentally troubled or just ‘bad’, that experience, along with the witness testimony, explained why the police were so unwilling to look beyond suicide.

But if Johnny Elkins wouldn’t have sacrificed himself to save the women in his life, and if he had an antipathy for the idea of suicide, and if he had possession of coins worth a small fortune – why do himself in? Was it a choice between a train and a gun after all?

Or was this a particularly cunning murder?

We didn’t have time to interview Ann Elkins and Daisy again and still make it back for our supper engagement with Japp, so we walked by their flat on our way back to the main road to catch a taxi. Both of them were in, and Ann readily agreed to a ten’o’clock appointment the following morning. Poirot told her to bring any papers she possessed that pertained to her son, including his records from his committal at sixteen. She looked more unhappy about this, but he was her only hope, and she promised.

Supper with Japp was a pleasant affair. Of the policeman I know, I find him the most agreeable, and I daresay Poirot does as well. We do not always agree on everything, but Japp is a common interest.

“Nasty business,” he said, when Poirot showed him the photographs after supper. “Very nasty. I don’t suppose you know who she is?”

Poirot and I exchanged glances. “But this is what I was hoping you would be able to tell me.”

Japp shook his head. “Sorry, Poirot. If I could help I would. It’s police photography, or an amateur that wants the scene to look like a police operation. Some murderers get their kicks in odd ways, I suppose. Where did you find these?”

“In this box,” Poirot said, offering the music box.

Japp’s gaze sharpened when he saw the coins. “Valuable?”

“Very. Enough to live on comfortably for some time, if one was frugal.”

Japp laughed. “Doesn’t sound like this fellow Elkins was the frugal type. I looked him up in the records before I came. Nearly ended up in quod when he was sixteen after throwing his mother down the stairs, but she wouldn’t prosecute, said she tripped. Nothing we can do in those cases, if the victims are willing to lie. The local bobby says he’s transferred his violence these days to his girl, Rose or Daisy or summat. Suspected of being involved in the local drug scene, but never been proved. Sharp and slippery.”

“And Eddie Bailey?”

“The same, except not as smart. The girl, Moira O’Kelley, now there’s a thing. Before coming to London she worked as a gardener up in Newcastle. Her employer, an old lady, died, and there was some talk as she did it. Nothing came of it – no sign of foul play – but half the neighborhood was convinced she’d poisoned her with something from the garden.”

“If Johnny Elkins had been poisoned, we would turn our eyes to Mademoiselle O’Kelley at once,” Poirot said, a smile pulling at the corners of his mouth.

“As you say, Poirot, as you say. Still, when you start poking around a case, even if it’s the plainest case of suicide anyone’s ever seen, if there’s a suspected murderer in the vicinity we all perk up. You’ve stolen a march on us enough times already.”

Poirot’s vanity loves little tributes like that. He looked like a cat who got the cream.

“I am not yet sure that it was murder,” he said. “Perhaps it is only a grieving mother and a criminal son who took his own life. If it is otherwise, I will let you know.”

Japp had to be content with that, and with the delicious supper we had given him.

With little else to do until our morning interview with Ann Elkins and Daisy, and a subsequent lunch appointment with the train driver, we spent the remainder of the evening after Japp’s departure making up for our lost afternoon.

Even in these unpublished notes, I will draw a curtain. There are some things that a man likes to keep for himself.

V

The papers that Ann Elkins brought were a pitifully small pile to represent a life. Johnny hadn’t left a will – unsurprising – so the coins, if they were not stolen property, would go to Ann. The likelihood of that was slim, I thought.

There were notes from teachers and Heads. A school essay that had been flagged as concerning and required Ann to come in for a meeting – a violent fantasy about killing hundreds of Commies single-handed, with far too much gruesome detail to qualify as simple enthusiastic patriotism.

The records from his admission to the mental hospital were illuminating. He had been there only two weeks, before his continual abuse of staff and patients, along with his doctor’s convinction that there was nothing medically wrong with him, had caused him to be sent home. There was a reference to an incident with “Patient C” which seemed to have been the final straw.

“What happened to Patient C, madame?” Poirot asked Mrs. Elkins.

Mrs. Elkins bit her lip. “I think her name was Camille, Camilla, something like that. She was a suicidal patient, twelve or thirteen, just a little girl really.”

Tears were already welling up in her eyes. Daisy leaned forward, her face full of concern, offering a handkerchief.

Mrs. Elkins soldiered on. “Johnny – I told you that Johnny hated suicide, because of his father. I suppose that must be why – or maybe he went after her and she told him no. He always did go after girls.”

“What happened, madame?” Poirot said, very gently. “Once you have told it, you will not have to tell it again.”

“I was in hospital. I never met her. But the institution told me that he – he taunted her, and told her that no one loved her and that she couldn’t even end her life properly, and so many more horrible things.” She was crying in earnest now, not loudly, but with tears streaming down her cheeks. Daisy’s handkerchief was followed by mine. “One day she – she jumped off the balcony.”

“I see,” Poirot said. “And they sent Johnny home.”

“Yes.” She scrubbed at her face, her eyes red. “I know it wasn’t only Johnny’s fault – her mother wrote to me, and said she forgave him, that he was only a boy too and that the institution should never have left that door unlocked when they had suicidal patients. I wanted to write back, but I felt so guilty and so alone, and what can you say to someone when your boy has done – that?”

“Were there any other times that Johnny hurt someone, or caused someone to be hurt?”

“Me,” Daisy said, then looked startled by her own bravery. “But I don’t count.”

“You count, mademoiselle,” Poirot said, his voice firm. “You must remember that always.”

“That was the only time like that,” Mrs. Elkins said. “He was always getting in fights, and I know one time he was in a brawl and someone died. But he said that was Eddie, that time – though I don’t know.”

“Was your son involved in drug-running?” I asked, covering for Poirot, who had suddenly began to page through the papers, a frown developing between his brows.

She shook her head. “Not that I know of. He got money from somewhere, but he said he was lucky with the horses. I paid the rent – I have a job cleaning solicitors’ offices.”

It was my turn to frown. I had taken it for granted that Johnny had at least been paying the expenses on the flat. Every turn we took, I was more glad that the bastard was gone. Not that he had been murdered – I dislike murder as much as the next man – but there are some people whom the world is better without.

Mrs. Elkins misinterpreted my frown, and hastened to reassure me. “I can pay for your help,” she said, reaching for her handbag. “I’ve been saving for Daisy and Johnny’s wedding and to help them get started in a new place.”

“You were getting married?” I asked Daisy. This was a new development, though I wasn’t sure it was important.

She shook her head. “He’d never asked.”

“I was hoping –” Mrs. Elkins clarified.

Poirot interrupted, which is not something he generally does. “Madame, where is the letter?”

We turned back to him.

“Which letter?” Mrs. Elkins asked, her fingers still on the clasp of her handbag.

Poirot had fanned out all the papers in front of him. “The letter from the unfortunate girl’s mother.”

“It’s there,” she said. “I’ve always kept it with the hospital records.”

They looked for it together, but the letter had vanished.

“It doesn’t matter,” Mrs. Elkins said, after the search had finished. “I know it by heart.”

“Then please tell it, madame.”

Her memory was pretty good. It matched nearly word to word with the actual letter, which we found later.

Dear Mrs. Elkins,

We have never met, but it was my daughter Camilla who died at St. Matthew’s two years ago. I am dying now too, cancer, and Father Michael says I should make my peace with the world. When he said that, I knew I had to write to you. I am weak and I cannot write to your son, as much as I pray for the strength, but tell him that I forgive him. He was only a boy, and it was St. Matthew’s who should have locked the balcony door. I pray that God has changed your boy’s heart and that he is a blessing to you, as my little lamb was to me. I beg you to cherish every moment you have with him.

Sincerely,
Beth Thornton

When Mrs. Elkins had finished her recitation, Daisy was crying into Poirot’s handkerchief, and even I was a bit blurry. Just because we encounter tragedy on a near-daily basis in our line of work doesn’t mean it becomes less affecting.

There was not much else to be divined from Mrs. Elkins’ papers, but Poirot retained them for the time being, and sent her and Daisy back to their flat to search for the missing letter. I showed them out, and then returned to his side.

“I say, was it necessary to send them all the way back across town, Poirot? She parroted it off very confidently, and it’s not the sort of letter she’d forget. Do we need to spend time searching for the original?”

“I do not need the original, mon ami. I need Mrs. Elkins and Daisy to look for the original.”

“This is going to be one of those times that you start putting together a grand show,” I said, resigned. “I know that gleam in your eye.”

“Ah! My gleam is my own business.”

For that I tipped his face up and – but again, a man’s privacy is his own.

VI

Over the next two hours, our flat played host to no less than four visitors. One was the train driver, who was a solid, laconic sort and gave the expected testimony as to how Johnny went under the train. The gun theory was out – there were no bushes or other handy screeners. The man had been sitting calmly on a large boulder near the tracks, and had suddenly got up and walked to his death.

The other three visitors were acquaintances. Like the professor, they were amateur criminologists and historians of crime, and they had been called to look at the pictures. I was not there to observe any conclusions they drew, because I had been sent to collect the coins from the numismatist, who had been safeguarding them for us.

At the appointed time, Poirot surveyed his audience. I had been surprised to arrive and see no Japp, or any other representative of the long hand of justice; generally these summations of Poirot’s end in someone being carted away by the law.

Only Mrs. Elkins and Daisy sat in Poirot’s parlor, however. As I couldn’t believe it was Mrs. Elkins, and I could see no reason why Daisy should have suddenly snapped and murdered Johnny, I began to wonder if it was perhaps suicide after all. Well, if it was suicide, and Johnny hadn’t been murdered by confederates in a crime involving those coins, perhaps Mrs. Elkins could have a comfortable retirement after all.

I settled into my favorite chair and waited for Poirot to begin.

“Mesdames,” he said. “You have found the letter?”

They shook their heads.

“I can’t think what can have happened to it,” Mrs. Elkins said fretfully.

“No matter. I know what happened to it.”

“You do?”

“I know everything, madame. I know who killed your son.”

Mrs. Elkins made a soft cry and pressed her hands to her face. Evidently hearing those words from Poirot had made it real to her, even though she had been saying Johnny had been murdered ever since he died.

“Johnny Elkins hated suicide. He resented his father for taking what he saw as the coward’s way out. He hounded a suicidal girl to death because she had attempted it. You came to me with these facts, and said, why would Johnny Elkins have done it? Why would he have chosen this way, instead of brawling himself to death or, one might surmise, using the drugs he had access to? With drugs, one can maintain the illusion, even to oneself, that it has been an accident, and not a choice.

“To you, madame, this proved that your son had not committed suicide. That he had been the victim of a cunning murder, despite all the facts that proved he had not. You were prepared to hand over your small savings to clear your son’s name, even though he abused you and the girl you hoped would be your daughter-in-law.

“I asked myself, why? Why were you so determined to prove a murder? The police were satisfied. There was no one in your life who would judge him, no one who would judge you for your natural feeling of relief. You would no longer live in fear.”

“He was my son,” Mrs. Elkins whispered.

“Yes,” Poirot said. “He was your son.”

His face might be carved of granite during his dramatic denouements. There is no pity. He has a murderer in his sights. It gives me chills, every time I see it. I could not do what Poirot does.

“I made a call today, to a man I have spoken to before. I asked him a question.”

I watched their faces. Often I know who Poirot is targeting, but that night I did not.

“When your son returned from St. Matthew’s, you took out a life insurance policy,” Poirot said, and I straightened. This was an unforeseen wrinkle. If Poirot wanted to play fair, he should’ve mentioned that. “If Johnny died, you would become a wealthy woman.”

“I –” She stared at him, then her shoulders slumped, painfully. “When he broke my back, I knew how violent he was. I had hoped that he would support me in my old age, but when I knew that wouldn’t happen, I took steps to safeguard myself, if he was killed in a turf war or in one of his brawls.” She straightened again, then leaned forward. “But if you think I killed my son for insurance money, you are obscene.”

“Not obscene. There have been many such murders. A suicide would void your policy – so when he began to abuse the girl you had come to love, the girl you looked on as a daughter, you protected both her and yourself, and you killed him.”

“I did not,” she said, her teeth clenched. “Why would I come to you? There are a thousand other private detectives. Why wouldn’t I choose one more easily led?”

Poirot smiled, a thin, hard smile. “Any of them would have discovered your insurance too, madame, and you would have had hard questions to answer. Next time you engage Poirot, do not hide anything.”

“I thought you would judge me,” she said, small.

He made a gesture of dismissal.

“From the beginning of this case, even before I became convinced that it was murder, I framed your question in a different light. You asked, why would Johnny commit suicide? It must be murder. I asked, why would a murderer choose that method of murder?”

He had his audience’s rapt attention.

“If we posit that Johnny Elkins was murdered, we must ask ourselves two questions. First, how did the murderer force Johnny to commit suicide? There are three witnesses to the fact that it was Johnny who put himself under that train. And second, why did the murderer force Johnny to commit suicide? There are countless easier methods.”

“Thus it was that Inspector Japp gave me the key to this puzzle. There is a girl who Johnny paid improper attentions to, a girl named Moira O’Kelley. She is a murderess, though she has not been convicted. She murders with poisons. Finding herself with child by Johnny, and facing the loss of the man she loves, she took matters into her own hands. With Johnny gone, Eddie will accept the child as his own.”

“Moira killed Johnny?” Mrs. Elkins looked genuinely bewildered.

“I will speak to the Inspector in the morning,” Poirot said, with a one-shouldered shrug. “She is already suspected of murder. She has fled the scene, but the police are thorough. They will catch her. And when her child is born, she may hang.”

Mrs. Elkins cried out.

Poirot said nothing, and the silence lengthened, with only the sound of Mrs. Elkins’ sobbing breath to fill it.

I fidgeted. Shouldn’t we be alerting Japp right away? Even now, Moira might be fleeing the country. Although perhaps that was the point – perhaps Poirot had decided to let her go. Sometimes, rarely, he did that. And Johnny Elkins could be argued to have deserved his fate.

“Damn you,” Daisy said.

She stood up, her head thrown back. Looking at her, I blinked. Her black eye was still uncompromisingly dark, but standing straight and tall she seemed a different woman.

“Damn you, Poirot,” Daisy repeated.

VI

“Daisy!” Mrs. Elkins said, aghast. “I’m sorry for Moira too, but if she killed Johnny, and if she’s a murderess already - ”

“Moira didn’t kill Johnny,” Daisy said.

“No,” Poirot said, his eyes never leaving hers. “You did.”

Daisy’s mouth twisted. “If you know so much, you tell it. I thought I’d got away with it. It was the letter, wasn’t it?”

“That was the final proof,” Poirot agreed. “But let us begin from the beginning.”

Mrs. Elkins was sitting as if frozen. I folded my fingers against my lips and settled in.

“You told us you moved to London recently,” Poirot began. “Before their deaths, you lived with your mother and your younger sister – Beth and Camilla Thornton. When Johnny Elkins caused your sister’s death at St. Matthew’s, both you and your mother were devastated. She, facing her mortality, found her way to forgiveness. You did not.

“When your mother died from cancer, you set off to London. You had Mrs. Elkins’ address from your mother, who had written to her. Perhaps even then you had the idea to make Johnny’s murder look like suicide – a fitting extra punishment for what you saw as the murder of your sister. Perhaps that came later.

“You entered into a relationship with Johnny. You suffered his abuse while plotting his murder. And then, at the moment of your choosing, you struck.”

“How?” Mrs. Elkins whispered.

I wanted to know the same thing.

“The photographs were yours,” Poirot said. “Earlier today they were identified by Dr. Stanley Wilkinson, from Australia. They are photos from a crime scene twenty years ago, the death of Grace Shelley. It took only one call to the police to find that Grace Shelley’s daughter lives in Plymouth. You knew her, and you stole her photographs, or you used your knowledge of her mother’s gruesome death to procure the photographs some other way. This is surmise, but the proof can be easily found.

“Why? Why did you need those horrible pictures? I will tell you, mademoiselle: you needed them to drive Johnny Elkins to his doom.”

“I showed them to him,” Daisy said, her face blazing with defiance and with a certain sick pride. “I told him I’d done it. I said I’d murdered her for crossing my gang in a drug deal.

The agonized triumph of her face was hard to watch. I looked away. “I told him if he didn’t walk in front of the train, I and my gang would kidnap him and torture him. I told him all the things I’d do to him. I said I was giving him the option to make it quick, but he only had one night or we’d take him.”

“And he believed you,” Poirot said, quietly.

“I killed a dog,” Daisy said. “It was a stray dog, down by the river. I had a knife when I was telling Johnny - I was waving it at him – and I caught the dog and slit its throat. He would’ve done anything I asked after that. He was a coward. He couldn’t deal with pain.”

She paused. “I’m sorry about the dog,” she said. “It was just a stray. It didn’t deserve that. But I’m not sorry about Johnny. He did.”

VII

We couldn’t prove it. There was no evidence.

“I wish we could always catch the murderers,” I said that night to Poirot. “She’s walking free.”

Poirot was quieter than his usual self. We sat by the fire, and he had put his feet in my lap, for I was nearer the hearth. "Is she free, mon chéri?"

I thought about the fierce burning in Daisy's eyes. I thought about the way Mrs. Elkins had looked at her, as if she had lost a daughter. I thought about the people Daisy had lost, and how she had perhaps lost part of herself, in her long cold search for revenge.

"Sometimes the law cannot touch the guilty," Poirot said. "Yet we have given Mrs. Elkins the answers she sought, and that is something, n'est–ce pas?"

"She would have been happier if she'd never come. If she'd believed the police and accepted it as suicide."

"Perhaps," Poirot said. "But if, say, I was to commit the suicide, would it be better to believe it of Poirot, or to know the truth? Even if it was Miss Lemon or the good Inspector Japp who had done the murder, and you could find no proof?"

"I would murder them myself," I said, and raised our joined fingers to my lips.

I cannot keep eliding the nature of our relationship, not in these personal notes. One's private feelings are of course private - but no one shall ever read these, unless Poirot asks, for he has whatever he wishes of me, now and forever. So I should say that Poirot is my world, as sure as all the stars in the sky. I am a plain solid Englishman, there is little poetry in me. But that I know.

Poirot smiled, that little smile under his moustaches that is mine alone. "I know you would, Hastings. So I will take care that I am not murdered, for without me how would you be sure that you took your revenge on the correct villain?"

I had no answer to that. I could not imagine an investigation without him at my side - maddeningly opaque, with that exasperating twinkle in his eye.

So I kissed him, there by the fireside, kneeling by his chair.

When Poirot had caught his breath again and rearranged his moustaches, he suggested a holiday in the Riviera. I countered with a golfing holiday at the house of a friend of mine, a tip-top fellow. His cook is only passable, however, so the Riviera won. Now Poirot dozes in his chair in the afternoon breeze, and I take the opportunity to finish these notes. Tomorrow we go to visit an American multimillionaire at his villa in Cannes, continuing to investigate a case I will no doubt share with the public in due course.

Today I watch Poirot sleep in the sun, and my heart is content.

~//~