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Two for Tea

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"The tea, it is still to your liking, Hastings?"

Captain Arthur Hastings sipped the cup in question with a contented sigh. "By Jove, yes, Poirot. I'm jolly grateful to Lieutenant Franks for putting us on to this place. New Yorkers--" (Hastings lowered his voice discreetly although there was no one near their table) "just can't seem to make a decent cup of tea."

"Quite so, mon ami. It is bad enough I drag you across the Atlantic so close to Christmas. To ensure that you do not miss your afternoon tea is the least I can do." The detective looked up from his eclair and scanned the elegant room. Waiters glided among the tables refilling cups, and music from a string quartet formed a pleasant counterpoint to the tinkle of spoons and low hum of conversation. "Tea at the Plaza Hotel, it is an institution, as the good Lieutenant told us. After a week, we become regular patrons, is not so? And it is a pleasant refuge from the crowds on the street. That lady in the crimson hat beside the palm tree, see how burdened she is with packages. Two--no, three children, and she has also purchased gifts for her husband, a sister, and at least one elderly aunt or female cousin. To wait till Christmas Eve to do the shopping, it is not very prudent, that!"

"Oh well, some people like to wait till the last moment, I suppose. I'm afraid the Megatharium shareholders won't be doing too much shopping this year." Hastings shook his head. "So many of the people who bought shares were just plain folks--office clerks and secretaries and the like. And now that Frederick Balcombe has absconded and Megatherium has collapsed, they're left with nothing."

"It is very true what you say, Hastings. I have hunted murderers less despicable than a man like Balcombe, a swindler who has caused so much misery. Alas that of him, so far we have found no trace. I begin to wonder if our friends at the Foreign Office were misled? Did Balcombe indeed ever arrive in New York, as their informant told them?" Poirot laid his fork at a precise angle on the plate and continued his perusal of the tea drinkers in the Palm Court.

"Oh, I say, do you really think so?" Hastings sighed. "After we've traipsed to every book dealer in New York, too! It was clever of you to spot the rogue's collection of first editions in his library at Balcombe Manor, but if he's in the city he doesn't seem to be looking for new acquisitions."

"It would appear not, mon ami. We can assume that he will be disguised, but an Englishman like Balcombe, he does not find it so easy to conceal his native tongue. And none of the book dealers remembered anyone with--what was the turn of phrase so picturesque?--a 'Limey accent'. They are intelligent in that profession, they would have noticed such a one."

"Oh well, the New York police haven't found any leads either so far." Hastings looked up as Poirot stiffened--only fractionally, but his friend saw that the detective's eyes were gleaming bright green. "What is it, old chap?"

Poirot leaned forward and murmured softly: "To your left, the gentleman with white hair and a short beard, with a cane propped against the table. I believe we have spotted our quarry."

"Are you sure, Poirot?" Under the pretext of retrieving a dropped napkin, the Captain examined the suspect. "It doesn't look a bit like Balcombe, I must say."

"The shape of the ears, Hastings--impossible to disguise them. Criminals rarely think of that. The ears may grow larger with age but they do not change shape. It is fortunate that Balcombe's picture appeared so often in the newspapers, and I was able to study his features so closely." Poirot rose. "If you would be so obliging as to remain on guard here, I will go to telephone to Lieutenant Franks."

After the Lieutenant and his men had caused a minor sensation by arresting the swindler in the middle of the Palm Court, Poirot and Hastings hailed a taxicab outside the Plaza. Darkness had fallen and the windows of the stores on Fifth Avenue sparkled like a thousand jewels. Hastings shook his head as they rode downtown.

"Poirot, old chap, do you think it was quite right to let Franks think we were so ruddy clever in tracking Balcombe down? After all, it was a pure coincidence he happened to be in the hotel when we were there--sort of thing that usually happens in shilling shockers, not in real life!"

The detective coughed. "Eh bien, Hastings, I must confess the excellence of the tea was not the sole reason for our visits so faithful this week. I noticed that in his collection Balcombe had not one but three first editions of The Great Gatsby, a novel most famous by one Mr Scott Fitzgerald. Clearly a favourite of his. There is a scene in the novel where two of the characters converse in the tea court at the Plaza Hotel. It occurred to me that if Balcombe was indeed in New York he might be tempted to do the literary pilgrimage and visit the hotel at teatime. It was, as you say, worth the try!"

"I say, Poirot, that really was a pretty deft piece of work!" As always, Hastings was unstinting in his admiration of his friend, and Poirot smiled contentedly. After all, it was pleasant to have one's talents appreciated.

"A pity it took us so far from London. Alas that we will miss the Christmas crackers and plum pudding so dear to your heart this year. We will not be able to secure passages on any steamer until Boxing Day at the earliest, I fear. It will have been worth it, however, if the shareholders of the Megatherium are compensated from some of the millions Balcombe took with him when he fled the country. And tomorrow, Hastings, we shall return to the Plaza and sample for ourselves an American turkey dinner. How does that sound to you?"

"it sounds like a good plan, I must say." Hastings sighed contentedly. "New York is a great city and all that, but dash it all, I do miss a cocktail about this time of the day." Poirot produced a silver flask from his pocket. "Ah well, as to that. The good Lieutenant Franks, he made to me the parting gift. He assured me it was, how do you say it, the good stuff. Merry Christmas, Hastings!"

"Really? How jolly decent of him, I must say." Hastings glanced at the taxicab driver, who was honking his horn at imprudent pedestrians, and took a discreet swig. "Merry Christmas, Poirot!"