“De Vos, who is this Arthur Hastings?” Poirot inquired, his hand resting on one of several pages in the dossier placed on his desk that afternoon.
“Mm?” his fellow Brussels police officer responded, glancing up from his own pile. “Oh, the Englishman. He was a suspect for merely a few days. His gun, you see; it was of a similar type to the murder weapon.”
“Oh, vrai? ” Poirot mused, scanning the information. “There is not much here.” He flipped the single page back and forth in illustration.
“The inspector stopped the inquiry once the gun was cleared of being the gun that fired the mortal bullets, Poirot. If I recall, oh yes, Mademoiselle Maes!” De Vos waved into the outer office and the secretary in question poked her head around the half-wall that separated them. “Do you remember, the Englishman. You were much impressed with him.”
“Inspector De Vos!” the young lady laughed, cheeks blushing. “You cannot blame me. Quel ange!”
Hercule Poirot lifted an eyebrow.
“You see,” his colleague said with a grin. “He was an angel. Case closed on that one.”
Poirot was only a little intrigued.
“He is tall and long-legged, with very blue eyes, and so handsome.”
Poirot kept this description in mind, albeit skeptically, as he entered the small public park, his dark eyes studiously observing the several people there, sitting on benches or strolling along the path among the trees and gardens. His gaze passed over couples walking arm and arm, au pairs pushing strollers, and lingered on single men in the area. Several were not tall, or clearly Gallic in coloring, and then he landed on a figure with long crossed legs sitting on a bench, mostly obscured by the daily paper. A mere moment of observation rewarded him with a lowering of the paper in order to turn the page and Poirot felt his heart crash against his ribs and his breath leave him.
“ Quel ange ,” he murmured, swallowing.
Mademoiselle Maes had not exaggerated. If this was Arthur Hastings, he was young, and tall with long limbs and high cheekbones, with searing blue eyes and an earnest, friendly face carved in the long lines that Poirot recognized as distinctly as English of the Saxon descent. All he was missing was blond hair.
The man under observation paused and looked up from his reading, gazing straight at him and Poirot realized how his stare must be interpreted. The blue eyes took him in, dropping down the length of his uniform and back up again before lowering the paper entirely, folding it, and standing up.
“ Mon dieu ,” Poirot muttered to himself, but squared his shoulders and strode forward towards the tall Englishman. “Monsieur Hastings?” He took in the tailored gentleman’s suit, not particularly on the edge of fashion, but clean and pressed, the fabric a subtle brown tweed that flattered the man’s fair complexion and cerulean eyes.
“Yes,” the angel said in crisp, educated English. “You are Inspector Poirot?”
“Hercule Poirot, at your service, Monsieur,” Poirot replied with a polite smile and nod of the head. “I hope you have not been waiting long?” He peered up, and up. Mon dieu . Tellement grand!
“Oh, not long at all, thank you,” Arthur Hastings replied with a easy and open smile. “I quite enjoy this little patch of park. One of the reasons I let an apartment nearby.”
“Shall we walk? Then I can explain my purpose.”
“Oh, rather,” the man exclaimed, face brightening. “I am so relieved to hear your English. I’ve made rather a hash at French, I’m sorry to say. Can read it with some small understanding, but can barely order a coffee.”
“A tragedy, certainement , monsieur,” Hercule rallied, attempting to reacquire his charm, which had been laid low by the shock of Hastings’s beauty.
Hastings chuckled. “Oh, some days it feels like the most tragic circumstance,” he drawled good-humoredly.
“I have been given the details of the case of the poor murdered Lord Donning,” Poirot explained after an appropriate pause. “I have been reviewing the files.”
Hastings’s face fell. “Poor old man,” he said sorrowfully, shaking his head.
“He was not so old, was he?”
“Oh, pardon me. An English expression. No, he was barely 30, the older brother of a friend from school, which is how I knew him. Ghastly business, upon my word.”
Poirot’s English was poor on idiom, but he pieced together much of Hastings’s meaning. “It is a prominent family, n’est pas ?”
“The Donnings? Rather!”
“Forgive me, but there would be many who benefited from Lord Donning, as his beneficiaries?”
“O, the will? Well, mostly my friend Eddie.... Edward Donning, who is now the lord, but also several of the family servants, and a few of the other siblings got small livings. I shouldn’t say “small.” One could eek out a comfortable living from them.” The young man paused, then gave Poirot a startled look. “Say, you’re not implying his heirs killed him?”
“Forgive me, but that is a common motive.”
“Motive?” The cher Hastings puzzled that out in his head. Already, Poirot could see his charm was his strongest suit; a sharp thinker he was not. But then, it was an English failing was it not? All their best detectives were fictional, after all. “Oh, I suppose so … the root of all evil, and all that.”
“But tell to me your story, Monsieur Hastings. How did you come to be living in Brussels, and how were you involved in this … circumstance?”
“Well,” the young man began, clearly ordering his thoughts. “I had finished up a spot of training at Plymouth and was at loose ends.”
“Pardon, what is this ‘loose ends’?”
“Oh! Didn’t have anything to do, you see. I was part of defense training, but they didn’t need us yet, so the regiment broke up and I was stuck without duties, you see. I then got a letter from my friend Eddie, who among other things, was concerned for a cousin of mine, rather a nitwit of the family, that is to say, someone who is often in some sort of trouble. He’d got himself into a bit of bother with a girl, and Eddie had pulled him out in time, but was thinking there needed to be a better solution, and wouldn’t I come down.. So, I did.”
Poirot took apart this story and revisited the salient points.”You have military training?"
“Oh, yes. I’m rather a good shot, if I do say so myself, which is what got me into trouble with you Brussels police chappies, don't you know.”
“Yes, I see. Do go on.”
“Oh, well, so I came to Belgium, and I find my cousin Barry living in some dire digs… er, some awful apartments, really, and almost out of money. His landlord, good god, don’t let me go on about the scoundrel. I wound up punching the man in the throat for his deplorable behavior!”
“ C’est horrible , Monsieur! I am sure he deserved it.” Poirot found himself smiling at Hastings’s effusive tones.
“More than, I can tell you. The man was joking about the most awful things about how to "earn” our rent. I suppose it is a good thing I don’t have much of a temper, and Barry’s French is even worse than mine, else you might be investigating a different murder altogether, what?”
Poirot bit his lip. He could well imagine how a disreputable man might well think to put Hastings to work; if his cousin was a fraction as attractive, the whole scheme would make some sense.
“I applaud your sangfroid,” he said instead, fighting off another smile. “And then what happened?”
“Uh, well, we found some better place to live, not far from here, and I managed to get Barry some small employment, mostly to keep him busy. Eddie, that is, Edward Donning, was such a help in that regard. The Hastings don’t have much, but there’s enough land in the family to support one, if he lives cheaply. I was invited up to the Donning estate for the weekend, mostly for the hunting, and well, you know what happened more than any of us.”
“How did the police find your gun?”
Hastings blinked at him. “I… I say, I think I volunteered the information.”
Poirot sighed to himself. If it wasn’t for Hastings’s tale of rescuing his cousin, he might have thought this man needed a keeper. He was certainly very naive about the darker aspects of human nature.
“Shall we have coffee?” Poirot inquired as they passed a sidewalk cafe. “You can practice your French, oui ?”
Arthur Hastings shook his head in exasperation. “That thing the English most fear is embarrassment, don't you know?”
That explained many things about the English, true, Poirot thought. “ Mon ami , I will teach you.”
“That’s jolly decent of you, Inspector,” Hastings exclaimed, thankfully a pace ahead and missing Poirot’s startled reaction. Yes, of course. He was the inspector, and Hastings was a witness to a murder. He shook his head. It was insupportable, that he, Hercule Poirot, should lose himself so completely over a pretty face.
“How do you like your coffee, Monsieur?” he asked, attempting to recover his professionalism.
“I do like it with milk, but they do this thing with cream…”
“Ah, with milk you would say…?”
“ Café avec le lait ?”
“Close. Cafe au lait. ”
“I say, that makes no sense,” Hastings responded in charmingly enraged tones. Heads turned around in response to his strident British voice, but the young man continued unabated, oblivious. “Coffee of the milk? No wonder I was such a fool in French class as a boy.” He recovered his good humor almost instantly. “Ah! Right! Merci beaucoup ... is that how to say it?”
“Try not pronouncing the ‘p’ at the end,” Poirot responded, distracted only slightly by a few patrons of the cafe whose gazes seemed to linger on his companion’s tall form. He cleared his throat and they proceeded to order coffee and find a small table.
“Tell me about this gun of yours,” Poirot began as they waited.
Hastings’s face immediately brightened. “Oh, yes, of course. It’s a Webley pistol, service model. An elegant enough gun, serviceable in a fight, and right for the price… that is, free. The problem is, there are so many models of the Webley out there, and all of them rather similar at first glance. It takes a bit of experience to know the difference.”
“You would know the difference, then?”
“Oh, certainly! I like guns very much, almost as much as I like the new automobiles. Mechanical things are…” Hastings paused for their coffee and offered a sweet smile to the server, who walked off with a dazed look. “... well, simpler. They work or they don’t, and if they don’t work, you take them apart and figure it out until they do.”
“I can see the appeal, Monsieur.”
“Oh? Ah, yes.”
There followed a long silence of appreciated coffee drinking. Hastings’s posture relaxed a little as he gazed at the park from their vantage. He had an elegant profile, made better by his long, English nose. Poirot berated himself and pulled out his notebook and small pencil to write down those things he felt were pertinent.
It all came back to the gun. “Monsieur Hastings, do you still have the Webley?”
“Oh, indeed I do, although it’s rather more locked up since the whole misunderstanding.”
“I would like to see it myself, if it’s isn’t an imposition.”
The young man set down his cup, eyes thoughtful. “Not so much an imposition, really, but I’m embarrassed to say Barry and I, being bachelors, don’t keep an elegant home. However, if you can ignore the mess, mostly Barry’s, and the gear, mostly mine, you are more than welcome to walk up with me a take a look.”
It wasn’t until they’d finished their coffees and were strolling together to the other side of the park, that Poirot began to feel the inadvisability of being in the man’s personal space, private. It had been far too long since Poirot had been interested in someone so quickly and dramatically, man or woman. It should be harmless; after all, Hastings showed no sign of reciprocal interest which would make such a situation fraught with personal danger. The thought lingered, though, that each minute that Poirot spent in the man’s company only increased his fascination.
The flat was on a top floor, thankfully serviced by a newer elevator, which Hastings operated with an off-hand and entirely unselfconscious skill. “Barry’s off to work, I think,” he said, opening a carved door off of a clean hallway. “Barry?” he called into the place, and there was no answer. “Do come in,” he said to Poirot.
It was a pleasant little flat, if cluttered. The cousins had clearly marked off their territories. A table to one side displayed parts of some machine, most likely an engine. A desk on the opposite wall lay covered in papers and bits of everyday trash. Poirot deduced fairly quickly which side belonged to whom. “If you would wait here,” Hastings suggested, gesturing to the small couch. “The gun is under my bed.” He strode off, leaving Poirot to avoid imagining his room, his bed, Hastings stretched out on the bed. Oh, he was in such danger!
Only a minute later the Englishman returned with a box and set it on the one surface not covered in detritus, the coffee table. He folded himself down next to Poirot on the couch and produced a key from his pocket; he unlocked the latches, revealing a sleek pistol. “This is a revolver, is it not?” Poirot inquired, noting the design.
“It is. Six shot.” Hastings waved at it, to indicate Poirot could pick it up. “It’s not loaded. I keep the ammunition separate.”
“How would one know if it is loaded?” the inspector inquired, gingerly picking up the metal weapon and examining it.
“Easily enough, see the revolver itself protrudes.” Here, Hastings pointed to the cylinder in question. “You can see most of the casings from the back, which are usually brass and easy to see from the darker metal of the gun itself.” He leant forward. “Also, it has a quick break. If you push this here, the gun will open up entirely. It’s a fast reloader.”
Poirot took a slow breath. Hastings’s head bent before his; he could smell the starch used in his collar. “Ah, oui ?” he managed. “Will you show me?”
“Certainly!” Hastings straightened, safely out of range of Poirot’s quickly diminishing self control, and took the pistol from him. Poirot marveled at his utter unselfconsciousness, sitting closely to a strange man, alone in the apartment. Was it truly all naivete? The man was young and perhaps inexperienced, but surely…
Or perhaps it didn’t occur to him that another man might find him attractive? The English were a bit priggish about such things.
With long fingers, Hastings pressed down on a latch on the left side of the hammer and the whole assemblage folded back and open, exposing the revolver cartridge and the six empty chambers. “It’s an amazing piece of work, actually. If this was loaded, and I did this, the spent casings would unload straight out, ready to be loaded again within a moment.”
Poirot watched the Englishman click the gun back into one piece and smile at him. Poirot stared blindly down at his notebook. “And how is this gun similar to others?”
Hastings’s smile dimmed for some mysterious reason. “Oh, right. Hm. There have been at least four versions of the gun, you see, all of them with the same profile and similar materials. This is, obviously, not a newer model. The British army isn’t that generous. In the older ones, like this one, they’ve filed down the back of the revolver section to allow for newer bullets. The newer guns will have accommodations for the more modern ammunition. The older ones often misfire because of clumsy filing of the back. Sometimes so badly, only the third pull of the trigger will finally fire the thing.”
“Are you saying,” Poirot exclaimed in amazement, “that it takes several times to fire?”
“Sometimes, yes,” the young man replied, with a shrug. “This one is pretty awful at that, actually, but it saved me from jail so I shouldn’t complain. We all heard the shots that morning, you see. Six consecutive shots, no pauses.”
“Ah, I see, Monsieur Hastings! It therefore couldn’t not be your gun.”
“Exactly. This Webley has never, in all my experience of it, fired six shots one right after the other. There is usually at least two misfires per round.” Hastings placed the gun back into the box. “The police tested this one on their own range to make sure.”
“Of course.” Poirot allowed himself some pride in the matter, even though the test never made it into the files. “You are very knowledgeable, Monsieur.”
A flash of color across Hastings’s cheeks startled Poirot to the point of breathlessness. Arthur bent his head to put the gun back into the box. “I - thank you, Inspector. That’s very kind.”
“ Pas du tout, ” Poirot replied, automatically. “Not at all. You are indeed skilled at the mechanical things, n’est pas ?”
“I’d like to think so,” the young man said, still not looking at him. Was he embarrassed to be praised? Feeling exposed?
“I beg your pardon, I have overstayed,” Poirot apologized, rising from the couch. After all, there were no legitimate reasons to linger; many reprehensible ones, of course, but none legitimate for a police officer desperate to maintain his honor. “I thank you, Monsieur Hastings.”
Hastings rose as well, his expression curiously blank. “It was nothing. I am glad to help in any way with this sad business.”
Poirot bowed his head in a quick motion and turned back to the door.
“P- Inspector Poirot,” the young man said as he was reaching for the doorknob.
Poirot paused and turned, relieved to not have to exit quick so abruptly and awkwardly. “ Oui ?”
“Would you be- that is, could you…” Flustered, Hastings stopped altogether, then started again. “Would it be a bother if I asked … perhaps, coffee? Some time? I know my French is deplorable, and I don’t have much conversation, even in English, and I’d rather not be a nuisance if you’d rather not at all, but --” He he floundered altogether, his face flushed pink.
Poirot had never been so charmed in all his life as with this stumbling young man. Reaching into his pocket, he extracted his card and when Hastings did not react, he took his hand and placed the piece of paper into his palm, closing his fingers slowly and carefully over it. For a brief moment, he held his hand over Arthur’s, then smiling into his eyes, released and stepped back. “I would be delighted, mon ami ,” he replied fondly. “If I do not hear from you in the week, I will be sure to find you and teach you another coffee order. Until then.”
As he took the stairs, his memory fixed on the delighted, angelic face of Arthur Hastings, left standing, clutching the card in his hand. Mademoiselle Maes would be very jealous, he decided.
It wasn’t until the next day that he realized he had taken no notes, and asked Hasting not a single question about his own motives, or his relationship with or feelings about the former Lord Donning. Ah, well, he was not a suspect; that had been established even before Poirot had taken up the case.
And really, who could suspect such an angel?