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A Deception at Darracott Place

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Captain Arthur Hastings stretched his legs in the train carriage and studied Hercule Poirot.

He had arrived back in England two days ago, intending to take care of some business and visit friends, as well as carry out a few commissions for his wife. Naturally he had stopped first to see Poirot, who had insisted on Hastings staying at his flat. They had been enjoying a pleasant tea with Miss Lemon when the pair of telegrams arrived. Poirot had read them, then instructed Georges to pack for a brief trip to Yorkshire. Hastings was used to traveling light and quick, especially where Poirot was concerned, and within the hour the two of them had been at Victoria Station.

“It is the good fortune that you are here, my dear Captain Hastings,” Poirot said to him as the train pulled from the station. “This is the sort of case that you may enjoy. The potential for the physical clues- the fingerprints left behind and such.” His green eyes were merry. “It will also be good to have a man of action such as yourself close to hand.”

“What is the case?” Poirot liked to tease him about preferring clues that he could see, while Poirot preferred to concentrate on people. It was true that Hastings was not always the most observant man in England, but he contented himself with knowing that there had been several times where he had been able to help Poirot connect all the clues.

“Madame Cecily Darracott of Darracott Place has been the victim of a jewel theft.”

Hastings whistled. Even in Argentina he had heard about Cecily Darracott, the American novelist who had married Yorkshire’s most successful wool merchant. Her books were light and entertaining mysteries, and Dulcie Hastings enjoyed reading them. “What was taken?”

“An emerald and pearl choker that has been in her husband’s family since the eighteenth century has stolen during a house party the Darracotts are hosting. The good Inspector Japp has been called in because the crime has some similarities to another series of jewel thefts he was investigating.”

“So Japp suggested she call you in?”

“Not quite,” Poirot happened. “You will recall my trip to Egypt?”

“I recall the series of murders you wrote me about quite well,” Hastings replied. Of course, even Hercule Poirot took a vacation, mystery followed. The murders of Linnet Doyle and Salome Otterbourne had been quite newsworthy on their own, and the end of the case had been even more shocking.

“The murders were not the only crimes occurring on that cruise,” Poirot told him. “My good friend Colonel Race – I do not believe the two of you have met – was tracking a dangerous agent provocateur who happened to be on the boat. I fear he nearly lost his patience with my method of solving the mysteries.”

Hastings had never met Race, but he had sympathy for other mere mortals trying to deal with Poirot. Although he was brilliant and a great friend, sometimes he could be frustrating – especially when he was at the end of a case.

“There was also a third crime. Madame Doyle had a marvelous string of pearls, which came up missing after her body was discovered. When Race and I announced we would be conducting a search for the pearls, one of the passengers came forward with the pearls.”

“The third criminal?” Hastings asked.

“Not precisely. One of the passengers suffered from the kleptomania, and her young cousin had been engaged to keep watch for such an occurrence. But the pearls that were returned were fake.”

“It sounds like an eventful trip,” Hastings said. “I think I would have had to take a vacation just to recover from it.”

“Madame Doyle was to have been the victim of a crime most ingenious. The jewel thefts were the work of two people. One would familiarize themselves with the piece of jewelry and have a most precise copy made by some unscrupulous jeweler. The other would swap the copy with the genuine item, and eventually the owner would learn that they had been robbed. But by that time, it would be too late to discover when they had actually been robbed.”

“Is this what’s happened at Darracott Place?”

“It would seem so. Madame Darracott was preparing to sit for a portrait when she dropped the choker and a paste jewel cracked. The choker had had just been returned the day prior after being cleaned by a reputable jeweler and was known to be genuine. Japp believes he has caught his criminals.”

“So why are we going?”

Poirot looked directly at Hastings. “To prove Japp wrong, mon ami. I do not believe that he has caught the right criminal this time. In Egypt, I opted to turn a blind eye to the theft of the pearls on the condition that they were returned. There was a young woman, you see, who loved the thief. I thought it would be for the best for both of them. Of course,” Poirot said with a twinkle in his eyes,” she is not a redheaded beauty, so you might not understand.”

Hastings grinned, as he generally did when Poirot teased him about his preference for red-haired women. “Did she write to you?”

“Ah, my good Hastings, you begin to understand. Madame Rosalie Allerton wrote me, and we are going to help her.”

“What if he really did steal the choker?” Hastings asked after a moment.

“Then Hercule Poirot, he will not turn the blind eye this time.” Poirot sat back, closing his eyes, and Hastings wondered just what they would find at Darracott Place.

***

“Why, it’s Mr. Poirot!” As they were ushered into the drawing room at Darracott Place, the only occupant stood up and came toward them. “So Rosalie did send you a telegram.”

“Madame Bessner,” Poirot greeted her, lifting her hand to his lips. “Married life clearly agrees with you. Have you been in England long?”

Cornelia Bessner – nee Robson – looked quite different than when he had last seen her, at her wedding. She still had a very womanly shape, but instead of the somewhat dowdy clothes she had worn before, she wore a dark blue dress that made the most of her figure, and her tawny curls were styled to flatter her face. More than that, her air of cheerful excitement had been replaced by one of true happiness.

“Not so very long,” she replied. “A few months. We’ve been establishing the clinic in London.”

“I am sure it will be a success. Are you and the good doctor here for professional reasons?”

She shook her head. “No, I went to school with Cecily. We were quite enjoying the house party until she discovered the necklace was fake. It was a huge to-do. It’s a Darracott family heirloom, and he’d engaged Mr. Woodbridge to paint Cecily’s portrait. And the police are accusing Tim Allerton of being the thief!”

The door to the drawing room opened again, and Rosalie Allerton entered. “M. Poirot! You came!”

Poirot bowed, and lifted her hand to his lips. “But of course! After all, was it not I who arranged your marriage? How could I resist your call for assistance? This is my good friend, Captain Hastings. He has been of help to me on previous cases.”

Rosalie greeted Hastings, but in an abstracted sort of way. “We should have left when we arrived, I supposed, and discovered that Joanna Southwood was one of the guests. She has not been very pleasant to me. But Cecily so wanted us to stay, and I could hardly explain why Joanna dislikes me.”

Poirot imagined this was true. After all, Tim Allerton had helped her carry off a long series of jewel thefts, until he had crossed the path of Hercule Poirot on the Nile. It would appear, however, that she had found herself a new partner in crime.

It would also seem that Mademoiselle Southwood was getting desperate – one of the hallmarks of her scheme was that she was rarely anywhere near the scene of the crime when the substitution was made. Yet here she was – most likely because the substitution had been discovered early. The Darracott choker was not like Linnet Doyle’s pearls, where they were frequently worn, but instead reposed in a vault. The fact that they had recently been authenticated should have bought the criminals more time.

“M. Poirot, I swear to you Tim had nothing to do with the choker being stolen!” Rosalie clung to his hand, and Cornelia lay a hand on her shoulder.

“Of course he didn’t have a thing to do with it,” Cornelia said warmly. “Mr. Poirot will prove that, I’m sure.”

“Madame Allerton, Madame Bessner, perhaps you can tell us about the people who are here?” Poirot asked.

“Myself and Karl,” Cornelia said as she counted on her fingers. “Rosalie and Tim, Hugo and Cecily of course. That rather catty Joanna Southwood. Galen Woodbridge, the painter. Jane Helier, the actress. Raymond West, one of Cecily’s writer friends – I believe he and Miss Helier know each other. Claude Darracott, one of Hugo’s cousins.”

“And Miss Ames, Cecily’s companion and secretary,” Rosalie added.

The door to the drawing room opened. “Mr. Poirot,” Inspector Japp said darkly. “I see you have arrived.”

***

After a very tense dinner, Cornelia Bessner retired to their room. Karl was still downstairs with the men, but she needed a few quiet moments after letting Rosalie and Cecily lean on her shoulders. She had wide enough shoulders to carry a number of problems, but even she was beginning to feel crushed. Cornelia had rather naively hoped that Mr. Poirot would be able to find the criminal right away – because of course Tim Allerton was innocent! She had been shocked to learn from Rosalie that there was a reason for him to be a suspect. It was all terribly exciting, until it began to hurt someone she was so very fond of.

Especially now, when Rosalie and Tim had so much to look forward in six months or so. Cornelia was beginning to cherish some hope in that direction as well, although she had told no one yet, not even Karl.

She and Rosalie had formed a bond in the aftermath of their very fateful trip along the Nile, and had kept in touch despite living in separate countries. At least when they had been forced to leave Czechoslovakia, both she and Karl had friends in England. Both she and Rosalie had been forced to deal with mothers who always tried to be the center of attention, although it had been much worse in Rosalie’s case, of course. Her own mother had merely been the sort of invalid who wanted to be cossetted and fussed over. Karl had explained that was one of the reasons for Cornelia’s helpful nature. It was true she had never really minded dealing with all of Mama’s little complaints, and even Cousin Marie’s issue had not been too stressful. She liked to help people when she could, and Karl had given her so many opportunities to help people. Cornelia had so enjoyed their work in the clinic, especially with the children. She had always liked children, even if the idea of having her own had seemed very far off.

The memory of their clinic was a bit sad now. Cornelia had loved pretty much everything about their married life – the clinic, their pretty quaint little house in a picturesque square, and her time alone with Karl. Perhaps he was not so handsome as the other man who had asked her to marry him, but he had a good heart which was far more important to Cornelia.

She had never dreamed that they would have to leave their home, but Karl had told her he did not like the direction that world events were taking. The German occupation of part of Czechoslovakia had been the last straw, especially when some of their patients were being harassed. They had been able to leave under the cover of escorting a child patient back to their home in Vienna – and at least, thankfully they had been to help the Steindler family escape with them. Hopefully one day they would be able to return to Prague.

Until then, however, she tried not to dwell on the things she could not change.

Cornelia had just picked up her hairbrush when the door opened, and Karl came into their room. Her eyes met his in the mirror, and the way he smiled at her – the way he always smiled at her when they were alone – made her heart race, still. There was an open admiration for her, a look in his eyes that told her he found her beautiful, more than any words he might use to express it. She had told him on their wedding night that no one had ever told her she was lovely, that no one had ever made her feel lovely, that next to many of the slender women in her family she had felt clumsy and outsized.

Karl had resolved to make up for all of that time, and he had done so. Not just with words – although she loved the words as well, once she had learned more German – but with the way he touched her, kissed her, cherished her. He had recommended her to a Frau Muller to give her wardrobe a much-needed update, but his attraction to her did not depend on fashionable clothes. He preferred her best in nothing at all, a thought which made Cornelia blush a little.

And he listened to her. She had never realized how often people had only heard her, but not listened, until Karl had started doing so. He valued her opinion, even when he was educating her on his work, and he was quick to acknowledge when she had a good idea.

He came up behind her, resting one hand on her shoulder, using the other to sweep her curls aside so that he might kiss the back of her neck. Cornelia closed her eyes and almost purred, like the great black Persian cat that lounged about Cecily’s writing room.

“You are upstairs early,” he murmured against her skin. “Is everything all right?”

“Just a little tired,” she said softly. “Rosalie is quite distressed.” Cornelia wondered if he had noticed that she often seemed tired these last two weeks.

“I fear she has reason to be worried,” Karl said, massaging at the base of her neck. Cornelia leaned her head back. “Inspector Japp seems most certain that he is the criminal. I admit he does not seem the type.”

Cornelia felt she could not divulge Rosalie’s confession that Tim had been the type, before they were married. “Surely now that Mr. Poirot is here, he will be able to clear the situation up and find the actual criminal.”

“Hopefully, and without anyone being murdered this time,” Karl said, kissing her neck and sliding his hands lower in a way that made her shiver. “But perhaps we do not talk about everyone else for a while?”

Cornelia turned so that she could run her hand along his neck, to pull him down to her for a long kiss.

She was in complete agreement.

***

The three of them had been left alone in the drawing room after the other men had gone upstairs, and Hastings prepared himself for a less than friendly encounter.

“You have been helpful in solving cases before,” Japp told Poirot. “But I don’t care to have you interfering in my work.”

“My good Japp, I have no wish to interfere in your work. It is quite the opposite. I wish to stop you from making a mistake. Arresting Monsieur Allerton would be a mistake most grievous.” Poirot had the inscrutable look on his face that Hasting knew could drive Japp to distraction.

“It would be a mistake to arrest the man after we found an emerald belonging to the choker in his personal belongings? It would be a mistake to arrest the man who we know has received packages from Joanna Southwood shortly before jewels have been discovered to be fake? Please, do tell me what you would do instead, Poirot.” Japp was clearly not amused by Poirot’s suggestion.

“Perhaps you will recall the mysterious affair at Styles, my good Japp, where the wrong person was arrested as part of their plan?” Poirot folded his hands.

Hastings had to stifle a bit of a smile, remembering the first case that he and Poirot had ever worked together on. That murder had been carried out by a pair of cunning criminals who had sought to use the English legal system against itself until Poirot threw a wrench into their plans.

“Or perhaps some time I will tell you of my trip on the Orient Express, when a criminal was so impertinent as to plant evidence in the bags of Hercule Poirot. Of course, the criminal plants the emerald most distinctive and easiest to identify as part of the stolen choker in someone else’s luggage. Have you found any of the other jewels?”

Japp had the grace to look slightly embarrassed. “We have not. But Poirot, you can hardly deny that Joanna Southwood is guilty.”

“I do not seek to deny Mademoiselle Southwood’s probable guilt. I simply submit that you have identified the wrong man as her partner. I would also submit that there is a man in this house who would have a better motive to steal the jewels. Have you looked into the financial affairs of Monsieur Claude Darracott?”

Hastings fancied Japp was gritting his teeth. “I have not.”

“Perhaps you should.”

***

The next morning, Cornelia made her way down to the breakfast room in a good mood. Karl preferred a pastry and coffee, but she was rather fond of the full breakfast spread laid out at Darracott Place. Generally, there was a full crowd for breakfast, but this morning she only found Mr. Poirot and Captain Hastings.

“Good morning, Madame Bessner,” Poirot greeted her. “Perhaps when you have finished your breakfast, we might take a stroll in the garden?”

Cornelia assented, and half an hour later she and Mr. Poirot were standing in the rose garden, studying the exterior of the house. It was an old rambling one, clearly built over the course of generations.

“Houses like Darracott Place are going out of style, you know,” Poirot said. “The cost to keep them up is so dear, and they are quite inconvenient. Yet it is magnificent, is it not?”

“The rooms that are in use are grand,” Cornelia agreed. “But there’s barely any hot water and no central heating. And the drafts! I can only imagine how much it must cost to heat the place.” At least she had Karl to help keep her quite warm at night, Cornelia thought with a small smile. “Cecily and Hugo have a tidy little townhouse in London, but he wanted to have her portrait painted in the library here.”

“Interesting,” Poirot said. “Madame Bessner, you and Madame Darracott are friends. Do you know whose idea it was to have a party down here?”

Cornelia shook her head. “I think it was Hugo, but I’m not sure. I know he liked the idea, since they would have to be down here for some time to have Mr. Woodbridge paint Cecily and he didn’t want to be bored.”

Poirot nodded. “Perhaps you can tell me about the discovery of the substitution. I understand from Inspector Japp that you were there?”

“Yes, Cecily had asked me to help her decide what dress she was going to wear for her portrait. We had just arrived the night before. Hugo and Cecily had come down a few days before. I believe Claude Darracott came with them. She was trying on gowns with the choker, and dropped it when she went to take it off.” Cornelia could clearly see it in her mind’s eye, could still see the cracked emerald. She’d never had any jewelry that fine – even as a married woman, she only had her wedding ring and a tasteful string of pearls – but she had been relatively certain that gems should not break when dropped on a carpeted floor.

“Did the rest of the party discuss the necklace?”

Cornelia bit her lip, trying to remember. “We were discussing the necklace the night before, and how many Darracott wives had been painted in the emeralds.”

Poirot studied the exterior of the house once more, wondering how the search was going. He had convinced Japp to enlist the help of Hugo Darracott and the servants to conduct an intensive search of the house. No one had left since the substitution was discovered, and Poirot believed the jewels has to be here. His interview with Hugo Darracott last night had disclosed an important fact, as he was thinking of selling off or modernizing the choker – and that Claude Darracott had been unhappy about the plan.

In fact, if it were not for Tim Allerton’s presence on the scene, Poirot mused, Monsieur Claude Darracott would have been the primary suspect. “One last question, Madame Bessner. Do you know how Mademoiselle Southwood came to be here?”

“I believe she is friends with the Darracotts. Not with Cecily, but Hugo and Claude. Her family is from this general area.”

Poirot nodded. He imagined that Joanna Southwood could have had an opportunity to sketch the necklace after handling it, but that it would not have been necessary. Unlike the other pieces of jewelry Japp believed she had been involved in stealing, there were any number of portraits that showed the Darracott choker in some detail, and its description was well known, especially the central emerald. He also wondered if perhaps she had not intended to revenge herself on Tim Allerton for abandoning their criminal enterprise.

“You are going to solve this crime, aren’t you, Mr. Poirot?” Cornelia asked as they continued walking. “It would be so dreadfully sad to have them arrest Tim, especially now that he and Rosalie -” She broke off suddenly, not feeling comfortable sharing her friends’ news just now. “Now that they are so happy.”

“Believe me, Madame Bessner, I do not intend to have anything harm Monsieur and Madame Allerton’s happiness.”

When they reached the house, he strode off confidently. Cornelia only wished she felt as confident.

***

Hastings watched along with Japp as the smallest policeman, Hemingway, emerged from the dark passage under the house. He’d wager that at one time this tunnel had been used for smuggling before it had been blocked up. They had been overseeing a search of the house from top to bottom and had been losing hope until they found the start of the blocked passage. Hastings was rather proud of being the one who had spotted the suspiciously new-looking mortar.

Hemingway carried a small metal box with a shiny new lock, careful to touch it as little as possible. Japp instructed him to set it on a table and produced a ring of skeleton keys. After he found the key that opened the lock, he gingerly lifted the lid.

Even in the dimness of the badly-lit passage, the Darracott emeralds gleamed. There was one small stone missing, and Japp had already found it in Tim Allerton’s baggage.

“It looks like Poirot was right,” Hastings said as Hemingway took the emeralds and the box to have them finger-printed.

Japp sighed. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Mr. Poirot was right again.”

***

At the end of a dinner which relatively few people had enjoyed, Hugo Darracott stood and addressed his guests. “Inspector Japp has requested that instead of separating after dinner that we all gather in the drawing room. He has some important news to share with us.”

Cornelia took her husband’s arm, and allowed him to steer her to a cozy loveseat near the fireplace. She wondered if they were going to watch Mr. Poirot at work again. That had been one of the most exciting parts of the previous crime, when the great detective had explained what had actually happened. Until she had watched Jacqueline de Bellefort shoot Simon Doyle and herself, Cornelia had been imagining how fun it would be to share the story with her friends back home.

This time, at least, she was fairly certain that no one would die.

She watched as everyone else took their seats – Hugo and Cecily at the middle of the room, with Claude Darracott lounging negligently against the mantel. Joanna Southwood sat stiffly on a prim little chair, carefully not looking the direction of the Allertons, who sat on a long ornate sofa with Captain Hastings and Raymond West. Cornelia had not seen much of him during the party, but she understood he was working on a novel set in a brooding Gothic estate and gathering local color at Darracott Place. Jane Helier had arranged herself on a chaise longue to best show off her slinky green evening dress. Cecily had invited the actress up to liven up the gathering – Jane Helier was certainly decorative but no one had ever claimed she was overburdened with brains. Cornelia had found her quite nice, however, and had enjoyed talking about shows she had been in. Galen Woodbridge, the painter, had taken a seat well outside the circle and had his sketchbook out, his pencil moving furiously. Inspector Japp had taken a seat near the door, with a uniformed policeman standing behind him.

It occurred to her that they were blocking the door.

Mr. Poirot, of course, stood in front of the fireplace, where everyone could see him.

Mesdames et messieurs, good evening. Inspector Japp has most kindly offered me the opportunity to address the group. As you all know, the emerald and pearl choker necklace – a most valuable Darracott heirloom – was discovered to have been counterfeit. A genuine emerald belonging to the necklace was discovered in the personal belongings of Monsieur Allerton. The crime was similar to a series of other robberies, which involved the clever substitution of an excellent fake.”

He paused, and surveyed the room. “However,” he continued, “none of the pieces of jewelry involved have had the history behind this one. Also, in those cases, the substitution was not discovered until some time after it had been accomplished. But in this case, the substitution was discovered very quickly, and it was clear to Hercule Poirot that not only did the wrong man stand accused, but that there was a good chance to recover the jewels. There was another man here who had a much better motive for stealing the necklace.”

Poirot stepped to Hastings, who handed him the black velvet box he had been keeping for him. In turn, Poirot offered the box to Hugo Darracott. “Inside, Monsieur Darracott, you will find the genuine emeralds, including the one that was in Monsieur Allerton’s belongings.”

Hugo opened the box, and lifted the choker out to examine. “Mr. Poirot, we cannot thank you enough.”

Claude Darracott spoke from his post by the fireplace. “Indeed, Mr. Poirot, we are most grateful. Where did you find them?”

Poirot turned in his direction, and spoke mildly. “Surely you, Monsieur Claude Darracott, do not have to ask. After all, only you and your cousin were likely to know about the passage underneath the house. And we have your fingerprints.”

“That’s impossible!” Claude burst out. “I wore glov-“ He stopped suddenly, as if realizing he had said too much.

“You wore gloves when you handled the metal box,” Poirot agreed. “But you did not wear gloves when you handled the necklace itself. Neither did Mademoiselle Southwood when she handled the precise sketch of the choker that we found secreted in your room.”

Luckily Japp was quick on his feet when Claude Darracott tried to attack Poirot.

***

The group that gathered at breakfast the next morning was quite cheerful. Inspector Japp had left the evening before with Joanna Southwood and Claude Darracott in custody. The choker had been safely locked in the safe.

“We cannot thank you enough, Mr. Poirot,” Tim Allerton said. Rosalie Allerton smiled at Poirot a little weakly, looking as if her husband’s loaded breakfast plate did not quite agree with her.

“When Hercule Poirot arranges a marriage, it stays arranged,” the detective said expansively. “I do not permit anyone to steal your happiness.” He had spoken with Inspector Japp, and ensured that the true reason Japp had suspected Tim Allerton was not disclosed. Claude Darracott and Joanna Southwood were quite busy trying to throw dirt on each other, enough to entertain the press.

“It was quite interesting,” Raymond West said from the end of the table. “I don’t know if I can work it into my book, but I’m sure my aunt Jane will find it most interesting.”

Cornelia sipped her tea and nibbled at a croissant. Normally she preferred a full English, but this morning her stomach was not prepared for anything heavier.

Cecily Darracott was effusive in her thanks as well. “We’re going to begin the portrait today. The sooner it’s done, the sooner the choker can go back to the jeweler to be redesigned.”

Jane Helier looked up from her eggs. “So you still plan to modernize it?” Claude Darracott had been dragged from the room last night, spitting invective at his cousin over disrespecting their family heritage. Poirot had explained that Claude Darracott was also rather deeply in debt, and that he had likely planned to sell the stones piece by piece.

Cecily nodded. “It’s simply the sort of thing that one only wears on special occasions. I’d like to make it something a little simpler, and perhaps sell off some of the stones.”

After breakfast, Cornelia headed upstairs to pack. They were headed back to London that evening, along with the Allertons, Mr. Poirot and Captain Hastings. She noticed Karl watching her carefully.

“Are you feeling quite well, my love? I noticed you didn’t have much of an appetite this morning.”

She smiled at him. “I expect I will feel better in about seven months.”

His answering smile was brilliant as he pulled her into an embrace.

Perhaps their future was not quite as she had envisioned, Cornelia thought. But she would not trade it for anything. She looked forward to seeing what the future had in store for them.

Whatever it was, they would face it together.