While Miss Lemon boiled the kettle, I went to the dining-room window and looked out over the streets in front of Whitehaven Mansions. They still bore eloquent testimony to the wholesale destruction of a year or two previously. From my vantage point, I could see St Paul’s Cathedral in the distance, still intact: a magnificent and heartening sight amongst so many ruins.
I returned to the living room. It felt peculiarly tense in there, as though something significant was about to begin. I have always had a good feeling for atmosphere. I could almost hear Poirot, urging me to keep my wits sharpened. Miss Lemon returned with the re-filled teapot.
“This room feels like it’s waiting for something to happen,” I suggested.
“It’s been waiting for a while now,” Miss Lemon replied. We sat down.
I had told her that I was going to explain my presence, and I considered how best to begin. Miss Lemon waited patiently. I decided to start at the very beginning.
“For some years I shared rooms with Poirot and we worked together on many of his cases. For the past twenty years, however, I have been living in the Argentine, returning every so often to London – ”
Miss Lemon interrupted me.
“In 1927, 1930, 1932, 1933, 1935, 1937 and now. You married Bella Duveen and bought a ranch. You have four children. Your trips to London were supposed to be on business, but on each occasion you stayed with Hercule Poirot and ended up becoming involved in yet more of his cases.” She named some. I was staggered.
“Good Lord, how on earth do you know all this?”
“You forget, Captain Hastings – I put all your cases on file. When I knew you were coming, I pulled out some of your cards and looked at them. There is one for Bella Hastings née Duveen, for example, because she had been a suspect in one of those cases.”
My thoughts flew back to those heady days when I had first met my Cinderella. For a moment I could not speak. Miss Lemon looked at me sympathetically.
“I understand that she has died, ” she said quietly. I nodded. “M. Poirot was devastated when he heard the news. He ordered me to make a reservation to visit you in South America, but he was seriously ill at the time, so I refused. The journey would have killed him.”
Good old Poirot, I thought. Always the truest of friends
“Anyway, Captain Hastings, you can assume that I know your background rather well. What I don’t know is what happened at Styles recently, nor why you really wanted to come here today.”
I was beginning to sense that I was in the presence of quite a forbidding personality: one that was logical, balanced; totally unsentimental and not someone inclined to tolerate any nonsense. I took the introductory letter from Entwhistles and handed it to her.
“My credentials,” I said. “Poirot did not have any close family, but had left a message for the executors of his will suggesting that they contact me if there were any problems in dealing with his affairs. Which they did. There is also the matter of Poirot’s memoirs, and a funeral to arrange.”
Miss Lemon put the letter back inside its envelope. I then told her briefly about the affair at Styles in the days leading up to Poirot’s death.
Miss Lemon looked towards her office, and then returned a steady gaze to me.
“One thing is for sure,” she smiled. “That would be a real test of my filing system… Are you planning on writing it all down?”
I told her that I had made some notes, but did not really have an ending. She went into the office and returned with some of her cards – blank ones. I continued.
“I have to admit that I am in two minds. There is Poirot’s reputation to consider: the case was not solved! Also, it might look as if I were trying to cash in on his death.”
“Of course you should write your account,” Miss Lemon said firmly. “M Poirot would have expected no less.”
“Entwhistles didn’t agree. They asked me to sit on it while the case enquiry continued, and I agreed.
“Then they made an extraordinary request. As executors of M Poirot’s (substantial) estate, they have to put all his affairs in order and were finding it difficult to get started. In particular, there were large sums owing to the estate from unpaid fees. Entwhistles had been given access to this flat and realised that most of the important information they required was in your filing system… and they could make neither hide nor hair of it.”
I had been walking around the room as I held forth, and suddenly realised that, unbeknownst to me, Miss Lemon had started taking notes. She put them down for a minute and poured herself another cup of tea.
“Habit”, she said, nodding at the notepad.
“Anyway,” I continued, “to cut a long story short, they asked if I could help them. Amongst Poirot’s testamentary disposition was this statement:
‘I trust that you will have no difficulties disentangling mes affaires, but if this is not so please contact Captain Hastings. My trust in him is unreserved. Hercule Poirot ‘”
I handed Miss Lemon the note.
“It did occur to me to wonder why they had not gone straight to you, his confidential secretary, for help, rather than trying to sort it out themselves,” I commented.
“Oh, but they did,” she said. “When they came, the first thing they asked me to do was to explain my system and codes. Of course I refused. As I have already mentioned, there is a huge amount of extremely confidential information held on those cards and I could not let anyone just rummage amongst them at will. ‘Tell me what you want and I will find it for you‘, I told them. They replied to the effect that they didn’t know what they didn’t know, and it might take a while to find out. Would I reconsider? They also hinted that the retainer I am receiving for dealing with M Poirot’s correspondence would be stopped if I did not comply.
“Now, M, Poirot was suspicious of everyone, and did not trust lawyers in particular; not even his own. Nor did he have much respect for some aspects of the criminal justice system that might be invoked if some of his secrets came to light. So I sent them away with fleas in their ears. Yesterday, I received notification that you would be coming here on their behalf.”
I looked at this strange woman thoughtfully. She clearly had a huge loyalty to the memory of her employer. It occurred to me to wonder what might happen to her, now that her long-term employer was no longer with us. It was not the easiest time to be looking for secretarial work in London.
“Well, that at least explains why they called me in,” I said. “To butter you up, I suppose. Anyway, I agreed to call in on you.”
I did not add that they had also called on me at just the right time. I was at that time at something of a loose end, unwilling to return to the Argentine but with no plans for staying in London.
I swallowed the last of my tea. “So here I am.”
Miss Lemon was silent. She was gazing at me, almost expectantly. I considered for a moment.
“What will you do when the lawyers terminate your contract?” I asked. “How will you live?”
“I’d have to give up my flat. I’d probably go to stay with my sister while I look for work. She runs a boarding house in Hickory Road.”
She continued to look at me. It was as if she had given me a cue upon which to act. I gave my little grey cells furiously to work. I could feel Poirot there again in spirit, urging me on. Finally, the penny dropped. Miss Lemon would make as formidable an ally for me as she would an opponent for Entwhistles.
“Miss Lemon,” I began, ” Entwhistles have asked for my assistance in sorting out Poirot’s affairs. I shall send them a formal letter accepting their (generous) terms, but on one condition: that they release you from your contract and that you work directly for me. That is, if you would care to. ”
Miss Lemon nodded approvingly.
“Yes, indeed I would. I can get you the information you need, and also help put his memoirs in order. But you well find there is more to this than sorting out M Poirot’s business affairs”. Poirot had for some years been working on his memoirs, with a particular emphasis on what he called ‘the criminal psychology’.
“There is also all this,” Miss Lemon added, as she walked into her office and returned with a pile of correspondence.
“I have received hundreds of letters since M Poirot died. Many were condolence letters of course, and I replied to all of those. Then there were notifications from his Bank and insurers which I have passed on. But there are also some from people and organisations around the world requesting his services, unaware when they sent them that he was dead. I wasn’t sure what to do with them. I didn’t know whether to pass those on or not. I kept having this strong feeling that M Poirot would not have wished me to do so.”
“I should like to read those letters,” I said. “Maybe I can help. But, first things first. We shall need an office if we are to work together, and this seems the obvious place. Who owns the flat?”
“Messrs Baxter, Payne and Lepper,” Miss Lemon replied. “It was leased to M Poirot on an annual basis. That lease expires soon. Here is a letter here from them asking whether the rooms are likely to become free earlier. Apparently some organisation or other wants to move in here.”
I read the letter.
“This is becoming a very popular building, Captain Hastings, ” Miss Lemon added. “Until recently, many of the flats in it had been lying empty, especially after the Blitz. But it is filling up again – mainly with Americans. ”
I nodded. At that time, many hundreds of US forces personnel were arriving in London as the vanguard of the million or so US forces that would be shipped over here during the ensuing months.
“In that case,” I said, ” we should tell them that we wish to remain for the duration of the existing contract. A couple of months should do it. Please call them and explain the situation. Ask if we can come and see them. I will probably need to sign something. The lease will have to be in my name, as Poirot’s named executor. I will take up residence here and this will be where we work.”
Miss Lemon nodded. She moved to the end of the office, opening a drawer in the top right hand corner. She extracted a card and picked up the telephone.
I decided to re-acquaint myself with the flat. Apart from the kitchen and living area, there was a bathroom, a WC and what had been Poirot’s bedroom. I was a trifle dismayed to see that his personal effects were still very much in evidence. How on earth could I sleep in there?