‘Nothing. Money in the till quite undisturbed. No signs of robbery.’
‘You think that this man Ascher came into the shop drunk, started abusing his wife and finally struck her down?’
‘It seems the most likely solution. But I must confess, sir, I’d like to have another look at that very odd letter you received. I was wondering if it was just possible that it came from this man Ascher.’
Poirot handed over the letter and the inspector read it with a frown.
‘It doesn’t read like Ascher,’ he said at last. ‘I doubt if Ascher would use the term “our” British police—not unless he was trying to be extra cunning—and I doubt if he’s got the wits for that. Then the man’s a wreck—all to pieces. His hand’s too shaky to print letters clearly like this. It’s good quality notepaper and ink, too. It’s odd that the letter should mention the 21st of the month. Of course it might be coincidence.’
‘That is possible—yes.’
‘But I don’t like this kind of coincidence, Mr Poirot. It’s a bit too pat.’
He was silent for a minute or two—a frown creasing his forehead.
‘A B C. Who the devil could A B C be? We’ll see if Mary Drower (that’s the niece) can give us any help. It’s an odd business. But for this letter I’d have put my money on Franz Ascher for a certainty.’
‘Do you know anything of Mrs Ascher’s past?’
‘She’s a Hampshire woman. Went into service as a girl up in London—that’s where she met Ascher and married him. Things must have been difficult for them during the war. She actually left him for good in 1922. They were in London then. She came back here to get away from him, but he got wind of where she was and followed her down here, pestering her for money—’ A constable came in. ‘Yes, Briggs, what is it?’
‘It’s the man Ascher, sir. We’ve brought him in.’
‘Right. Bring him in here. Where was he?’
‘Hiding in a truck on the railway siding.’
‘He was, was he? Bring him along.’
Franz Ascher was indeed a miserable and unprepossessing specimen. He was blubbering and cringing and blustering alternately. His bleary eyes moved shiftily from one face to another.
‘What do you want with me? I have not done nothing. It is a shame and a scandal to bring me here! You are swine, how dare you?’ His manner changed suddenly. ‘No, no, I do not mean that—you would not hurt a poor old man—not be hard on him. Everyone is hard on poor old Franz. Poor old Franz.’
Mr Ascher started to weep.
‘That’ll do, Ascher,’ said the inspector. ‘Pull yourself together. I’m not charging you with anything—yet. And you’re not bound to make a statement unless you like. On the other hand, if you’re not concerned in the murder of your wife—’
Ascher interrupted him—his voice rising to a scream.
‘I did not kill her! I did not kill her! It is all lies! You are goddamned English pigs—all against me. I never kill her—never.’
‘You threatened to often enough, Ascher.’
‘No, no. You do not understand. That was just a joke—a good joke between me and Alice. She understood.’
‘Funny kind of joke! Do you care to say where you were yesterday evening, Ascher?’
‘Yes, yes—I tell you everything. I did not go near Alice. I am with friends—good friends. We are at the Seven Stars—and then we are at the Red Dog—’
He hurried on, his words stumbling over each other.
‘Dick Willows—he was with me—and old Curdie—and George—and Platt and lots of the boys. I tell you I do not never go near Alice. Ach Gott, it is the truth I am telling you.’
His voice rose to a scream. The inspector nodded to his underling.
‘Take him away. Detained on suspicion.’
‘I don’t know what to think,’ he said as the unpleasant, shaking old man with the malevolent, mouthing jaw was removed. ‘If it wasn’t for the letter, I’d say he did it.’
‘What about the men he mentions?’
‘A bad crowd—not one of them would stick at perjury. I’ve no doubt he was with them the greater part of the evening. A lot depends on whether any one saw him near the shop between half-past five and six.’
Poirot shook his head thoughtfully.
‘You are sure nothing was taken from the shop?’
The inspector shrugged his shoulders.
‘That depends. A packet or two of cigarettes might have been taken—but you’d hardly commit murder for that.’
‘And there was nothing—how shall I put it—introduced into the shop? Nothing that was odd there—incongruous?’
‘There was a railway guide,’ said the inspector.
‘A railway guide?’
‘Yes. It was open and turned face downward on the counter. Looked as though someone had been looking up the trains from Andover. Either the old woman or a customer.’
‘Did she sell that type of thing?’
The inspector shook his head.
‘She sold penny time-tables. This was a big one—kind of thing only Smith’s or a big stationer would keep.’
A light came into Poirot’s eyes. He leant forward.
A light came into the inspector’s eye also.
‘A railway guide, you say. A Bradshaw—or an ABC?’
‘By the lord,’ he said. ‘It was an A B C.’
Chapter 5 (#ulink_17a2886e-f15a-500c-b65f-ba11a3da8752)
Mary Drower (#ulink_17a2886e-f15a-500c-b65f-ba11a3da8752)
I think that I can date my interest in the case from that first mention of the A B C railway guide. Up till then I had not been able to raise much enthusiasm. This sordid murder of an old woman in a back-street shop was so like the usual type of crime reported in the newspapers that it failed to strike a significant note. In my own mind I had put down the anonymous letter with its mention of the 21st as a mere coincidence. Mrs Ascher, I felt reasonably sure, had been the victim of her drunken brute of a husband. But now the mention of the railway guide (so familiarly known by its abbreviation of A B C, listing as it did all railway stations in their alphabetical order) sent a quiver of excitement through me. Surely—surely this could not be a second coincidence?