‘Not exactly a wild idea,’ said Poirot. ‘It is true that writers are prone to wild ideas. Ideas, perhaps, which are on the far side of probability. But this was simply something that she heard the girl say.’
‘What, the child Joyce?’
Spence leant forward and looked at Poirot inquiringly.
‘I will tell you,’ said Poirot.
Quietly and succinctly he recounted the story as Mrs Oliver had told it to him.
‘I see,’ said Spence. He rubbed his moustache. ‘The girl said that, did she? Said she’d seen a murder committed. Did she say when or how?’
‘No,’ said Poirot.
‘What led up to it?’
‘Some remark, I think, about the murders in Mrs Oliver’s books. Somebody said something about it to Mrs Oliver. One of the children, I think, to the effect that there wasn’t enough blood in her books or enough bodies. And then Joyce spoke up and said she’d seen a murder once.’
‘Boasted of it? That’s the impression you’re giving me.’
‘That’s the impression Mrs Oliver got. Yes, she boasted of it.’
‘It mightn’t have been true.’
‘No, it might not have been true at all,’ said Poirot.
‘Children often make these extravagant statements when they wish to call attention to themselves or to make an effect. On the other hand, it might have been true. Is that what you think?’
‘I do not know,’ said Poirot. ‘A child boasts of having witnessed a murder. Only a few hours later, that child is dead. You must admit that there are grounds for believing that it might—it’s a far-fetched idea perhaps—but it might have been cause and effect. If so, somebody lost no time.’
‘Definitely,’ said Spence. ‘How many were present at the time the girl made her statement re murder, do you know exactly?’
‘All that Mrs Oliver said was that she thought there were about fourteen or fifteen people, perhaps more. Five or six children, five or six grown-ups who were running the show. But for exact information I must rely on you.’
‘Well, that will be easy enough,’ said Spence. ‘I don’t say I know off-hand at the moment, but it’s easily obtained from the locals. As to the party itself, I know pretty well already. A preponderance of women, on the whole. Fathers don’t turn up much at children’s parties. But they look in, sometimes, or come to take their children home. Dr Ferguson was there, the vicar was there. Otherwise, mothers, aunts, social workers, two teachers from the school. Oh, I can give you a list—and roughly about fourteen children. The youngest not more than ten—running on into teenagers.’
‘And I suppose you would know the list of probables amongst them?’ said Poirot.
‘Well, it won’t be so easy now if what you think is true.’
‘You mean you are no longer looking for a sexually disturbed personality. You are looking instead for somebody who has committed a murder and got away with it, someone who never expected it to be found out and who suddenly got a nasty shock.’
‘Blest if I can think who it could have been, all the same,’ said Spence. ‘I shouldn’t have said we had any likely murderers round here. And certainly nothing spectacular in the way of murders.’
‘One can have likely murderers anywhere,’ said Poirot, ‘or shall I say unlikely murderers, but nevertheless murderers. Because unlikely murderers are not so prone to be suspected. There is probably not very much evidence against them, and it would be a rude shock to such a murderer to find that there had actually been an eye-witness to his or her crime.’
‘Why didn’t Joyce say anything at the time? That’s what I’d like to know. Was she bribed to silence by someone, do you think? Too risky surely.’
‘No,’ said Poirot. ‘I gather from what Mrs Oliver mentioned that she didn’t recognize that it was a murder she was looking at at the time.’
‘Oh, surely that’s most unlikely,’ said Spence.
‘Not necessarily,’ said Poirot. ‘A child of thirteen was speaking. She was remembering something she’d seen in the past. We don’t know exactly when. It might have been three or even four years previously. She saw something but she didn’t realize its true significance. That might apply to a lot of things you know, mon cher. Some rather peculiar car accident. A car where it appeared that the driver drove straight at the person who was injured or perhaps killed. A child might not realize it was deliberate at the time. But something someone said, or something she saw or heard a year or two later might awaken her memory and she’d think perhaps: “A or B or X did it on purpose.” “Perhaps it was really a murder, not just an accident.” And there are plenty of other possibilities. Some of them I will admit suggested by my friend, Mrs Oliver, who can easily come up with about twelve different solutions to everything, most of them not very probable but all of them faintly possible. Tablets added to a cup of tea administered to someone. Roughly that sort of thing. A push perhaps on a dangerous spot. You have no cliffs here, which is rather a pity from the point of view of likely theories. Yes, I think there could be plenty of possibilities. Perhaps it is some murder story that the girl reads which recalls to her an incident. It may have been an incident that puzzled her at the time, and she might, when she reads the story, say: “Well, that might have been so-and-so and so-and-so. I wonder if he or she did it on purpose?” Yes, there are a lot of possibilities.’
‘And you have come here to inquire into them?’
‘It would be in the public interest, I think, don’t you?’ said Poirot.
‘Ah, we’re to be public spirited, are we, you and I?’
‘You can at least give me information,’ said Poirot. ‘You know the people here.’
‘I’ll do what I can,’ said Spence. ‘And I’ll rope in Elspeth. There’s not much about people she doesn’t know.’
CHAPTER 6 (#u7e53bd08-a18a-5977-a9af-7d44e346540a)
Satisfied with what he had achieved, Poirot took leave of his friend.
The information he wanted would be forthcoming—he had no doubt as to that. He had got Spence interested. And Spence, once set upon a trail, was not one to relinquish it. His reputation as a retired high-ranking officer of the C.I.D. would have won him friends in the local police departments concerned.
And next—Poirot consulted his watch—he was to meet Mrs Oliver in exactly ten minutes’ time outside a house called Apple Trees. Really, the name seemed uncannily appropriate.
Really, thought Poirot, one didn’t seem able to get away from apples. Nothing could be more agreeable than a juicy English apple—And yet here were apples mixed up with broomsticks, and witches, and old-fashioned folklore, and a murdered child.
Following the route indicated to him, Poirot arrived to the minute outside a red brick Georgian style house with a neat beech hedge enclosing it, and a pleasant garden showing beyond.
He put his hand out, raised the latch and entered through the wrought iron gate which bore a painted board labelled ‘Apple Trees’. A path led up to the front door. Looking rather like one of those Swiss clocks where figures come out automatically of a door above the clock face, the front door opened and Mrs Oliver emerged on the steps.
‘You’re absolutely punctual,’ she said breathlessly. ‘I was watching for you from the window.’
Poirot turned and closed the gate carefully behind him. Practically on every occasion that he had met Mrs Oliver, whether by appointment or by accident, a motif of apples seemed to be introduced almost immediately. She was either eating an apple or had been eating an apple—witness an apple core nestling on her broad chest—or was carrying a bag of apples. But today there was no apple in evidence at all. Very correct, Poirot thought approvingly. It would have been in very bad taste to be gnawing an apple here, on the scene of what had been not only a crime but a tragedy. For what else can it be but that? thought Poirot. The sudden death of a child of only thirteen years old. He did not like to think of it, and because he did not like to think of it he was all the more decided in his mind that that was exactly what he was going to think of until by some means or other, light should shine out of the darkness and he should see clearly what he had come here to see.
‘I can’t think why you wouldn’t come and stay with Judith Butler,’ said Mrs Oliver. ‘Instead of going to a fifth-class guest house.’
‘Because it is better that I should survey things with a certain degree of aloofness,’ said Poirot. ‘One must not get involved, you comprehend.’
‘I don’t see how you can avoid getting involved,’ said Mrs Oliver. ‘You’ve got to see everyone and talk to them, haven’t you?’
‘That most decidedly,’ said Poirot.
‘Who have you seen so far?’
‘My friend, Superintendent Spence.’
‘What’s he like nowadays?’ said Mrs Oliver.
‘A good deal older than he was,’ said Poirot.