Sparks flew from the wheels of the train, as they did from two men in the station. Soon enough, though, its brakes added a shriek that put an end to their exchange. They parted.
A peacock feather wilted on its perch atop a smartly canted – or was it sliding? – hat. In the heat, its owner looked to follow suit.
The patter of footsteps echoed to and fro in the station, halting in hasty queues. Fingers fumbled and danced nervously among papers and tickets.
Then there was a man so still he seemed but another travel case.
His mustache twitched.
His eyes widened slightly as he took in the peacock feather and the woman beneath it. She, the man thought, was used to being comfortable. But perhaps in her younger days she had bristled with the tyrant's vigor. She does seem to regard me like I am the eccentric. Well, perhaps I am…
Indeed the matron was examining his hat with a critical eye; then her gaze drifted down to the tips of an extravagant mustache. Halfway through her sniff of disgust she realized with a start that there was only one man with such a feature.
“Well, if it isn’t Monsieur Poirot, the famous Belgian detective.”
Hercule Poirot bounded to his feet. “Ah! Madame Albright, the strong-minded beauty. I must give to you my apologies! It has been so long I did not know you.”
Lady Albright laughed. “I only noticed that mustache of yours. As I have told you many a time –“
Poirot broke in, “‘– It is positively ridiculous.’ Madame, you wound me with your ill taste.”
The lady brushed this aside. “Humph. May I enquire as to your destination?”
“Ah, yes. It was all so sudden, but I received an invitation from an old friend – I believe you know him – the good Captain Hastings, to go on holiday with him in a house he inherited on the coast, near Penzance. I accepted –“
Now it was Lady Albright who interrupted. “So you are the other guest! Old Hastings wouldn’t breathe a word in his letter – just that I would be rather pleased. I am!”
“The coincidence, madame, is extraordinary. Such excellent company – and the sea air will be marvelous, I think.”
A whistle pierced their colloquy as steam began to gush from their train. With a tip of his hat, Poirot handed Lady Albright aboard and bustled to his own compartment. He primly secured his ticket and let himself relax into his seat.
What a modern marvel, the trains…
Hercule Poirot, the noted detective, was immobilized by sleep, lulled by the rocking of the train.
This trip was a happy state of affairs for him. Poirot looked very much forward to reacquainting himself with two old friends; and the sea air, the sands, the sun…
Mon Dieu! The alarm clock! If only it would just leave him in peace. After all, he, Poirot, was a peaceful man, but something about that ruckus inclined him to violence.
But how, he mused, does one murder a clock? Does one decapitate its hands or smother its sound under a pillow? And, of course, in what sort of court would one be tried for murdering an alarm clock?
Now Poirot saw himself before a scowling judge, arrayed in a train conductor's uniform, who proclaimed from a rhythmically rocking bench that the offender’s mustache be shaved by way of penance. All around, a sea of clocks wearing peacock feathers applauded the verdict.
Poirot jerked awake. The alarm clock was very much alive and well. He flung the bedclothes to the four winds and gave the clock a good smack. It was oddly satisfying.
As he viewed the rest of the room he began to recall the previous evening – greeting Hastings and sitting down to a vivacious dinner and brandy with him and Lady Albright, unpacking his clothes, setting his alarm clock, and stumbling into bed. What a day!
Alarm clock. He’d dreamt about it. Hadn’t he? Something about murdering them.
Poirot ventured a chuckle. His subconscious must have been playing games with him. How untrustworthy the little gray cells were getting!
Now nearly fully awake, he mused over his clothing options. Neither the black suit (too much like a funeral) nor the white linen (too wrinkled!) passed his inspection.
The brown would do well. And the derby hat, which would disguise his cowardly hairline.
Poirot mulled over his plans for the day as he dressed. The cook was good, Hastings had said. As was Hasting’s own library. The weather, too, had been perfect for taking brisk walks on the sand.
He said the words aloud and drew them out quite a bit. Lately he had not been in the habit of embarking on such a thing – after all, his trip to Cairo had hardly turned out to be the holiday he intended.
Now dressed, he combed his mustache (that dream again – something about removing it? Awful!), opened a protesting door, and meandered down sun-splashed stairs to breakfast. There was no rush.
He murmured it again.
Captain Hastings may have born an unfortunate physical resemblance to an egg, but he had an excellent capacity for facts and gentlemanly behavior. And, as Poirot ruefully remembered, a talent for outlandish hypotheses.
Poirot was also irked by Hastings’ mustache, a measly affair. Well, for all his faults, Hastings was a most diligent and loyal colleague. Poirot gazed fondly as he strolled into the breakfast room.
Captain Hastings folded his newspaper and set down his coffee. “Poirot! How marvelous to see you. I trust you slept well?”
“Most excellently. The little gray cells are refreshed. Now, however, they need nourishment.”
Hastings chuckled. “You and your gray cells.” He signaled the maid, who soon appeared balancing two platters heaped with delectables. Steam peeled off poached eggs, black pudding, bacon, and fried bread in puffs.
Poirot raised his fork. “Bon appetit.”
Two hours later found them on the veranda, discussing the morning paper’s articles with Lady Albright. This soon devolved into argument over the merits of a candidate for Parliament that everyone secretly found to be highly enjoyable.
This mode of conversation halted when Hastings, who had been scanning the paper for further ammunition, exclaimed, “Goodness! Quite a week for local news. In the comical department, we have an overturned truck, carrying, of all things, 'ducks for local food connoisseurs.' A duck truck, eh? Several ducks are on the lam, as is the driver. No one can seem to find him. More seriously, though, there’s been a string of jewel thefts across Cornwall. One just in Penzance. Police are at a dead-end.”
Poirot cocked his head to one side.
Lady Albright chimed in, “Ah! There’s another mystery, too – this one quite local. Your neighbor, a Mr. Brooke (quite a charming fellow, I met him over your garden wall), was mystified due to a certain white duck, deceased, that appeared in his chicken yard. He thought fox – except that there were no marks and none of his chickens are missing. Furthermore, how did it get there?”
“The little gray cells,” Poirot declared, “shall look into both. They will start with the jewels. If I am allowed to take my leave of you, I believe I shall pay a visit to the police superintendent. I would rather like to examine the scene of the most recent theft.”
Lady Albright rolled her eyes. “You and your crimes. If you must, though, I believe the police station is on Penalverne Drive, off the Alverton Road in town.” She fixed Poirot with an expression of mock severity.
Poirot stood up and bowed. “My most heartfelt apologies, madam. However, my services may be required. I shall return by afternoon.”
Chief Constable Pitt of the Penzance Police was an unusually small man. It was his goal to make sure no one knew it. He had purchased a large, stately desk and a large, stately chair in hopes that they would make him large and stately too.
In fact, his office furniture had the reverse effect – Poirot first wondered if the good colonel had left the room. Then his eyes traveled over that fortress of a desk and made out the small man with a triangular head behind it.
“Mr. Poirot! We are most delighted to have you. Come, have a seat!” The voice was much larger than its owner.
“Chief Constable Pitt, how good to meet you. I was wondering if you might do me a favor.”
“I have heard about the unfortunate jewel thefts – as I am a detective, albeit one on holiday, I wished to take a look myself. As I heard of one just yesterday, I wondered if I might be able to access the scene. Just to investigate a bit. I am, after all, usually employed in catching murderers and so was a bit curious.”
Pitt did not like this idea at all. But he was determined to be a hospitable host and managed to choke out a reply. “Of course, of course, it would be most… considerate.” He scribbled a note and handed it to Poirot. “Show this if anyone questions you. The address is 405 Williams Street, the house of the Sanders family.”
“I thank you very much. I hope that I can be of some use.”
‘Manicured’ was the word that popped into Poirot’s head to describe the Sanders residence. Everything was trim and just so, from the front gardens to the residents themselves. This mostly pleased Poirot, as he was a rather precise sort of fellow.
Mr. Roger Sanders, the patriarch, was attending a business conference in London. Mrs. Sanders, ten years his junior, had been out the previous night dining with friends. Her boudoir was in the opposite wing of the nursery where her sons were sleeping, and the nanny heard nothing. The thief had played it well – no evidence could be found.
This Poirot had heard from the police lieutenant in charge of the investigation. The detective merely nodded, pursed his lips, and strolled upstairs to the crime scene.
The boudoir had been ransacked – everything was in disarray. But despite the disorder, nothing by way of a clue was mixed in. Or, as Poirot noted, so the police believed.
Poirot picked his way among the debris. The small dresser that contained the jewels and trinkets had been tipped over, though only the choicest items were missing – two nearly flawless diamonds, well over a carat each and awaiting a new setting, according to Mrs. Sanders.
A second corner of the boudoir was a pile of feathers and ripped fabric from down pillows and a coverlet. Another was a mess of hurled clothing, but it was the fourth that intrigued Poirot.
It was relatively empty. A few shards from perfume bottles were all except for a feather, which Poirot picked up an inspected with an expert eye.
“Just more down from the pillows, sir,” offered the police sergeant on duty.
“Perhaps, perhaps,” mused Poirot. “Or, it might mean something entirely different.”
Poirot dismissed the query. “All in good time. For now, I shall see where this takes me.”
Hercule Poirot was most glad to walk the rest of the way to Mr. Brooke’s residence, home of the mysterious duck appearance. The cab had lacked much suspension – a most unfortunate thing, Poirot noted, on a rutted country road.
Now he stepped up the walk and rapped on the door. An ancient maid opened the door and quavered that the excellent Mr. Brooke was in his study. Once again Poirot knocked, but this time a much younger personage answered.
“Why, Mr. Poirot! I heard you were in town. What an honor! Do come in.”
Poirot perched on the tip of a damask-covered chair.
“Mr. Brooke, I am very pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“As am I. How may I help you?”
“I have a most strange request. I heard from a friend, Lady Albright – I believe you met her? – that quite a strange event has occurred in your chicken yard.”
“Yes. I profess that I am quite mystified. Beside the fact that no one in the village keeps ducks, how did it end up dead in my coop?”
“It is possible that I have an answer.”
“You do? What?”
“We shall see. In the meantime, though, I would like to examine it.”
“Of course. Right this way.”
The two men made their way downstairs and out the back door. After bending under some fruit trees they arrived near the henhouse.
“Right here, sir. I left the duck where it lay. I found it less than three hours ago. It looked freshly killed, yet there are no marks, you see?”
“Yes, yes, excellent.”
Poirot stooped over and grasped the duck. It was rather fat and heavy. The detective turned it around a bit and set it down once more.
The detective replaced the duck.
“That will do for now. Thank you, Mr. Brooke, for your time.”
“May I ask what this is all about?”
“The little gray cells know. Soon, they shall reveal.”
Mr. Brooke was too mystified to reply.
Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective, had come to Penzance and solved not one but two mysteries. This was the speculation traveling through the town's grapevine that evening. Poirot had invited Mr. Brooke, Mrs. Sanders, Chief Constable Pitt, Captain Hastings, and Lady Albright to his customary show of revealing the solution. But now it appeared that half the town would join them.
Poirot did have a bit of a weakness for these performances of his. Here he was the circus ringmaster, the artist, the director. Here he would reveal bits and pieces of knowledge and put them together in such a way that every last one fit. He cleared his throat.
“Ladies and gentlemen, let us begin.”
The hubbub died down.
Poirot continued, “Life has not been quiet as quiet as you are accustomed to, no? This, I seek to remedy. I shall start by bringing out what we will call Exhibits A, B, and C.
“This first is Mr. Brooke’s duck. We also have two feathers, both from the home of Madam Sanders, and finally some sketches of the jewels stolen. First we will examine Exhibit A.”
Poirot hefted the duck and strolled through the group, displaying his prize. He halted in front of a middle-aged man in overalls.
“This duck of the Rouen breed, a traditional French meat duck. A rather average animal, really, just overly heavy.”
Exhibit B was now in Poirot’s hands.
“I would like you all to take a hard look at these two feathers. Tell me what you notice.”
Lady Albright was first to answer. “They’re different – but I really don’t see where this matters.”
Poirot smiled indulgently. “Soon, soon. But you are exactly right. These feathers are different. One is from a goose-down pillow. The other –“
The detective held the feather next to the duck.
“From the duck!” This was Hastings.
Chief Constable Pitt was not pleased. “This is all some cock-and-bull coincidence. That feather could have come from any duck!”
Poirot refuted this suggestion. “No one in the village, my dear chief constable, keeps ducks.”
Pitt couldn’t say anything but, “Oh.”
“Now,” Poirot said, “For Exhibit C. We examined the differences in the last exhibit. This time, however, I would like you all to examine the similarities in these jewels.”
He held up sketches of the array of jewels taken in the string of thefts.
“They’re small,” observed Mr. Brooke.
“Furthermore,” said Mrs. Sanders, “none of them are mounted.”
Poirot nodded. “Precisely. Yet each is distinctive, so would be difficult for a thief to sell, no? And thus, such jewels would have remain well hidden until a suitable buyer was found?”
He let his audience absorb this.
A young man in the back of the room jumped up.
“I know! It’s like ‘The Blue Carbuncle’, Sherlock Holmes’ case! The thief force-fed the duck the jewels!”
Poirot grimaced and, in his most prim tone, expressed his belief that this was the modern era and nothing so barbarous happened these days. Then he turned to the duck once more. He flipped up one wing, then the other.
A great craning of necks and gasping ensued as the group took in the unfortunate duck and its payload – the stolen jewels, glued to the inside of the wings.
Poirot faced the crowd once more and bowed.
“But who did it?” roared Pitt.
Poirot took a much calmer tone. “Why don’t you ask the duck-truck driver?”
“With all due respect, sir, he is missing – gone – disappeared.”
“No,” said Poirot, “He is not. He is standing right here.”
Poirot plucked a duck feather off the middle-aged man's overalls, pivoted to stand between him and the door, and addressed his next remarks to him. “One jewel is missing. The duck pulled it off and choked on it, correct? And the henhouse was only supposed to be temporary, wasn’t it? You were going to go back for the duck. But when you heard that someone new was on the case, you got a bit nervous, didn’t you?”
The driver, rooted to the spot, gave a slow, dejected nod.
Then Poirot added, “But next time you commit a crime and attempt to hide, do get a better fake mustache. Yours is positively appalling.”
After his men had taken the thief away, Pitt approached Poirot to express his grudging thanks.
“Your methods are most unusual, but your results – unparalleled, sir. Well done.”
Poirot put a modest look on his face.
“But one problem remains – what to do with the duck.”
“That can be fixed with some sauce of orange, Chief Constable…”
Poirot smacked his lips.