Sapphington, Llangollen County, is a quiet little town; indeed, anyone accustomed to urban chaos and cacophony might, perhaps, describe it as a village. To an unassuming eye, it is a rather dreary arrangement of simple brick houses surrounded by oak trees that cast pleasant shadows over the spacious alleys with the languid dignity of the old. No scandalous occurrences had ever disturbed the tranquil flow of our life until Benedetta Huntley was murdered.
Gladys Benson, my butler, was the one who told me the dreadful news when she brought the customary cup of weak Assam with two teaspoons of fresh milk into my bedroom at exactly quarter past seven in the morning.
“Frightfully sorry, Ma’am,” she said, bending over my bed, her face expressing pain and ill-concealed fear at once. “Something truly terrible happened. I don’t know how to tell you, Ma’am. It’s –” She was unable to proceed and merely stood there, still holding the tray in her rosy, plump hands.
“First of all, do put the tray down, my dear,” I said sternly. “There is no need to forget one’s manners, regardless of any predicament.”
She acquiesced, and I saw that her hands were shaking and her eyes darted uneasily from one object to another. Finally, she composed herself and proceeded:
“Ma’am, it’s Miss Huntley. She was ... murdered, Ma’am. They found ‘er in the bed just an hour ago ... strangled.”
“Who told you that?” I inquired, tasting the tea and frowning. It was too cold and clearly contained more milk than necessary.
Ethel was our gardener, a rather tall and unpleasant woman of irritatingly swarthy complexion. I did not in the least approve of the quick, furtive glances she kept throwing at Gladys whenever I allowed her to step into the house. Butchering Dykes, the mansion I inherited from my mother, has been the pride of the Addams family for two generations, and would not turn into a hideous den of lust and depravity as long as I am alive.
I rose quickly and ordered Gladys to bring me my Friday tweed jacket and skirt. The sight of familiar colours soothed me somewhat. I decided it was more prudent to pay a direct visit to the Chief Constable instead of wasting my time questioning the servants. I walked faster than usual, and my heart started racing. Gladys’ words haven’t fully registered in my mind – only a tiny, squeaky voice inside my head kept repeating: “She is dead, Jane. She is dead. Your life is over.”
Chief Constable Spencer Roosevelt was a handsome young woman, lean and athletic in her uniform, her short black hair neatly combed, a perpetual light frown on her lovely face that reflected stubbornness and vulnerability at once. When I approached her house she was having tea with our local physician, Dr. Penthesilea Woolf, a ruddy, stout, kindly lady of about my age. The moment I set my foot on the porch, they both rose and Spencer went out to greet me.
“Aunt Jane,” she said, smiling uneasily. “Have you –”
“My dear,” I interrupted, briskly walking past her and nodding to the Doctor. “Let us skip unnecessary pleasantries, shall we? I dare say there has been enough vile gossip within those few hours to tarnish the good name of the Addams family forever. I came here to ask you what happened – as Benedetta’s friend. I repeat, friend; and I shall not tolerate those detestable insinuations from anyone, least of all from you, whose mother – my poor little sister – has married that ghastly little woman –”
“Aunt Jane,” said Spencer softly, taking both my hands into hers. “Please, do sit down. I have not the slightest intention of upsetting you ... I know that you were fond of Miss Huntley. We were all fond of her, and we are all deeply distressed. Dr. Woolf, I beg you –”
She looked at the doctor imploringly. I had not seen her in such a state of mind since she’d broken her favorite toy tank over twenty years ago. I acquiesced and sat down with her. Dr. Woolf was still standing in the centre of the room, clutching her plain handkerchief as though it were her most priceless possession.
“Well, Lady Addams,” she uttered eventually, for some reason unable to meet my gaze. “Miss Huntley was strangled ... in her bed. No fingerprints, but marks on her neck indicate that someone of considerable force applied the pressure – probably wearing gloves. Seeing as Miss Huntley herself was anything but physically weak ... There are, indeed, signs of struggle. She probably tried striking her assailant on the head with the table lamp. We have also found a strange metallic object lying beside the bed – it is shaped very much like a regular gun, but lacks any mechanism that would explain its usage as a weapon. As far as we know, it did not belong to Miss Huntley...”
“Is there anything else?” I asked tersely, annoyed by the doctor’s inexplicable avoidance of eye contact.
She suddenly reddened and wiped her forehead with a visibly trembling hand. She and Spencer exchanged a quick, barely noticeable glance.
“No,” replied Dr. Woolf eventually. “Nothing else, Lady Addams.”
It was all very strange, and I did not like it in the least. They were hiding something from me – something connected to Benedetta, perhaps something they thought was connected to me. Sapphington has been a peaceful town ever since it was founded by my parents, Virginia Addams and Florence Roosevelt. A murder was something so unusual, so extraordinary, that the mind refused to accept it. It occurred to me that both Spencer and the doctor were suspecting me. Gossip and rumours are particularly tenacious in our small community, and a few visits to Benedetta made by myself sufficed for some people to start spreading them relentlessly.
I was still trying to collect my thoughts when I noticed someone standing right outside the glass door. It was certainly not someone I knew – or someone anyone in Sapphington could have possibly known. It was, in fact, a man.
“Goodness gracious!” exclaimed Dr. Woolf. Spencer quickly rose and went to open the door. A fairly small man with a curiously shaped head and ridiculously large black moustache entered the house, looking quite confident and not in the least confused or ashamed.
“Ah, the ceremony of tea,” he spoke with a strange, irksome accent. “Mais oui, comme toujours! The people here – how should I say this correctly – think customs sustain life, but in reality ... it is quite the opposite, indeed! Quite the opposite!”
I’m afraid I cannot adequately express the feeling of deep mistrust (bordering on almost physical revulsion) this foreigner evoked in me. I couldn’t quite decide what bothered me more – his bad manners or the particularities of his appearance. Meanwhile, he bowed to Spencer and immediately proceeded:
“Crime, my dear ladies, has many elements! C’est difficile à expliquer, ça ... One is always assuming things based on superficial observation. For example, this poor miss ... Untlee, isn’t she? She was – alas! – brutally murdered. But us, what do we do? We do not try to understand what might have caused that, but no! We refuse to notice the details. A very strange object is right there, right under our noses – but we keep thinking: ‘Oh no, this poor miss Untlee, who could have done such a thing in this calm settlement... ‘ Ah, tant pis!”
The three of us were silent. This extraordinary entrance, exacerbated by a fussy speech that made less and less sense the more he spoke, was so out of place that any reaction would appear inadequate. Spencer was the first to collect herself.
“Pardon me,” she spoke politely, yet the icy tone was unmistakable. “Who are you?”
The foreigner looked almost amused for a second, but then made a serious face and cried out:
“Unforgivable! I have not introduced myself to these ladies... Sans doute, it’s the age, the accursed old age! Mesdames ... Mademoiselle ... I am called Hercule Poirot.”
“Glad to meet you, Mr. Porrow,” said Dr. Woolf amicably, attempting a broad smile that did not quite suit her. “You must be from ... the hospital, is that so?”
Poirot looked offended. He stuck out his chest in a comical manner, which made him resemble a large black bird.
“The hospital, Madame? No. Not from the hospital. Not from any hospital, indeed! I am Hercule Poirot, do you hear – Hercule Poirot, the detective! My fame, alas, has vanished in these places ... That is the coup of fate, that!”
Spencer and I looked at each other. My niece is normally a rather timid person, but there is one thing she does not like, and that is uncertainty.
“Look, Mr. Poirot,” she said, approaching the self-proclaimed detective. “I’m Spencer Roosevelt, the Chief Constable of this town. As you must know, our communication with the outside is confined to strictly regulated visits to the hospital, where we acquire the essential ... hmm ... materials needed for ... biological procreation.” Her lovely face blushed when she had to pronounce all those words. “There are young girls in Sapphington who have never seen a person of your ... gender in their lives. Myself, I have forgotten –” she reddened again, then continued: “In short, I do not quite understand which police force on Earth could have sent you, Mr. Poirot. Our agreement with the outside states quite clearly that all internal matters – even murder – are resolved by our own authorities.”
Poirot was listening very carefully, or at least it seemed that way to me. He slightly tilted his hand and began to speak slowly and rather ponderously, his manner visibly changed:
“Madame Chief Inspector, it is not important who sent me. Hercule Poirot is not accustomed to being sent by anyone. I arrived here to solve a crime, and that I shall do! It is not a matter of authority, this – it is a matter of justice! And I, Hercule Poirot, am here to serve it to the best of my ability!”
My niece and I exchanged glances again, and this time the doctor joined us. Quite simply, we did not know what to say and how to act under those extraordinary circumstances. If someone told me yesterday that a tacky foreigner would have the gall to intrude a private gathering and take the law into his own hands, I’d reply that I would rather believe that a horde of mind-reading creatures from outer space had infiltrated Butchering Dykes.
Meanwhile, Poirot continued:
“And there is nothing my mind would not solve, indeed! Little grey cells, mes amies, little grey cells – alas, they are used all too seldom! I shall now reveal to you the solution of this crime. At first, let me speak in the same fashion ... the one you would expect, n’est-ce pas? If I shall conform to that fashion, I would say first that this dignified lady” – he pointed at me with what I perceived as a vulgar gesture unworthy of gentlemanly conduct – “is somewhat of a mystery. She is in charge, she is ... Is that not so? Everything revolves around her, that famed Lady Jane Addams ... Even, unfortunately, some rumours that she and Miss Untlee had a... liaison romantique, oui?”
I rose and looked at him. If my gaze had the ability to turn people into ashes, I would keep staring until that happened.
“How... dare ... you,” I said slowly, deep rage boiling in me – and yes, shame and pain as well, if I should be completely honest with myself. But Poirot didn’t seem to have noticed me and carried on:
“Yes, this Lady Addams, the proud one – is she not, so to say, the narrator of this story? But haven’t we heard of unreliable narrators? This, it is a simple crime – clearly, a crime of passion, je dirais! Eh bien, who else would be involved in a passionate affair but the strictest and most puritan of this town, the one everyone are looking up to, the one who is most afraid of losing everything else she cares about – respect, position in this society, honour of her family ... all that is threatened by something that was out of control, yes? Something that was like a madness, and – mais c’est facile à deviner, je pense! – a short struggle, and then it is done ... with the force sustained by your nervous energy, Madame, you could have eliminated an even stronger adversary!”
My hands were shaking badly. I made every effort to keep them steady, but tears started flowing down my cheeks, and there was nothing I could do to stop that from happening.
“Yes, I loved her!” I cried out, and if I were any less cynical and detached I would have described this as the cry of a wounded animal. “There was something about her ... something I have never felt ... Never could imagine ... It was stronger than me ... Stronger than anything...”
Spencer and the doctor were both looking at me without saying a word. And then the strangest thing happened. Poirot suddenly sat down, and his expression changed completely. For a second I thought he was smiling. When he spoke again, his voice sounded perfectly different, and his accent had disappeared without a trace:
“Right. Unreliable narrator. We’ve heard of those. But what about an unreliable detective?”