فصل 03

مجموعه: کارآگاه هرکول پوآرو / کتاب: قاتل های الفبا / فصل 3

فصل 03

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CHAPTER THREE

Questions and Answers

The murder had taken place on a street which was a turning off the main street. Mrs Ascher’s shop was about half-way down it on the right-hand side. A large crowd of people was standing outside the shop. A young constable was trying to make the crowd move away.

Poirot stopped at a little distance from them. From there we could see the sign over the shop door. Poirot repeated it softly.

‘A. Ascher. Come, let us go inside, Hastings.’

We made our way through the crowd Poirot showed the young constable a letter from Inspector Glen, explaining who we were. He nodded, and unlocked the door to let us pass inside.

The shop was very dark. The constable found and switched on the electric light. There were a few cheap magazines lying about, and newspapers from the day before - all dusty. Behind the counter there were shelves reaching to the tailing, packed with tobacco and packets of cigarettes. There were also jars of sweets. It was an ordinary little shop, like thousands of others.

‘She was down behind the counter,’ the constable explained in a slow voice. ‘The doctor says she never knew what hit her. She was probably reaching up to one of the shelves.’

‘There was nothing in her hand?’ asked Poirot.

‘No, sir, but there was a packet of cigarettes down beside her.’

Poirot nodded. His eyes moved round the small shop, noting everything.

‘And the railway guide was - where?’

‘Here, sir.’ The constable pointed out the place on the counter. ‘It was open at the right page for Andover and lying face down.’

‘Were there any fingerprints?’ I asked.

‘There were none on the railway guide, sir. There were lots on the counter itself.’

‘Were there any of Ascher’s among them?’ asked Poirot.

‘Too soon to say, sir.’

Poirot nodded again, then asked if the dead woman lived over the shop, ‘Yes, sir, you go through that door at the back, sir.’

Poirot passed through the door and I followed him. Behind the shop there was a small room which was both a kitchen and living-room. It was tidy and clean but without much furniture. There were a few photographs on a shelf over the fire. One was of Mary Drawer, Mrs Ascher’s niece. Another was of a young couple in old-fashioned clothes. The girl looked beautiful and the young man was handsome.

‘Probably a wedding picture,’ said Poirot.

I looked closely at the couple in the photograph. It was almost impossible to recognise the well-dressed young man as Ascher.

Upstairs there were two more small rooms. One had been the dead woman’s bedroom. There were a couple of old blankets on the bed; a small pile of underwear in one drawer and cookery books in another; a magazine; a pair of shiny new stockings, and a few clothes hanging up.

‘Come, Hastings,’ said Poirot quietly. ‘There is nothing for us here.’

When we were out in the street again, Poirot crossed the road. Almost exactly opposite Mrs Ascher’s shop, there was a shop selling fruit and vegetables. In a quiet voice, Poirot told me what I had to do. Then he entered the shop. After waiting a minute or two, I followed him in. He was buying some green beans. I chose some apples.

Poirot talked excitedly to the fat lady who was serving him.

‘It was just opposite you, was it not, that the murder happened? Perhaps you even saw the murderer go into the shop - a tall, fair man with a beard, was he not? A Russian, I have heard.’

‘What’s that?’ The woman looked up in surprise. ‘A Russian did it?

‘Mais, oui. I thought perhaps you noticed him last night?’

‘Well, I don’t get much chance to look,’ said the woman. ‘The evening’s our busy time and there are always a lot of people passing after they finish work. A tall fair man with a beard - no, I can’t say I saw him.’

I interrupted the conversation as Poirot had told me to.

‘Excuse me, sir,’ I said to Poirot. ‘I think you have the wrong information. A short dark man, I was told.

A discussion started between the fat woman, her husband and a young assistant. They had seen four short dark men, and the assistant had seen a tall fair one.

Poirot and I left the shop with our beans and apples.

‘And why did you do that, Poirot?’ I asked.

‘I wanted to find out if it was possible for a stranger to enter Mrs Ascher’s shop without being noticed.’

‘Couldn’t you simply ask those people if they saw anyone?’

‘No, mon ami. If I asked those people for information, they would not tell me anything. But when I made a statement, they started to talk. We now know that this time is a “busy time” - there are a lot of people on the streets. Our murderer chose his time well, Hastings.’

We gave our beans and apples to a very surprised small boy in the street. Then Poirot paused and looked at the houses on each de of Mrs Ascher’s house. One was a house with curtains that had been white but were now grey. Poirot knocked at the door. It was opened by a very dirty child.

‘Good evening’ said Poirot. ‘Is your mother in?’

The child stared at us for a long time. Then he shouted up the stairs.

‘Mum, you’re wanted.’

A sharp-faced woman came down the stairs.

‘You’re wasting your time here -‘ she began, but Poirot interrupted her.

‘Good evening, madam,’ he said. I am a newspaper reporter, working for the Evening Star. I would like to offer you five pounds for some information about your neighbour, Mrs Ascher.’

As soon as Poirot talked about money, the woman became more pleasant.

‘I’m sorry I spoke so crossly just now,’ she said, ‘but a lot of men come along and try to sell me things - cleaning products, stockings, bags and other silly things. They all seem to know my name, too - Mrs Fowler.’

‘Well, Mrs Fowler,’ said Poirot, ‘you only have to give me some information. Then I’ll write a report of the interview.’

Mrs Fowler began to talk about Mrs Ascher. She had had a lot of trouble with Franz Ascher. Everyone knew that. But she hadn’t been afraid of him.

Had Mrs Ascher ever received any strange letters, Poirot asked - letters without a signature? Mrs Fowler didn’t think so. Had Mrs Fowler seen a railway guide - an ABC - in Mrs Ascher’s home? Mrs Fowler replied that she hadn’t. Had anyone seen Ascher go into the shop the evening before? Again, Mrs Fowler said no.

Poirot paid her the five pounds and we went out into the street again.

‘That was rather an expensive interview, Poirot,’ I said. ‘Do you think she knows more than she told us?’

‘My friend, we are in the strange position of not knowing what questions to ask,’ replied Poirot. ‘Mrs Fowler has told us all that she thinks she knows. In the future, that information may be useful for us.’

I didn’t understand what Poirot meant, but at that moment we met Inspector Glen. He was looking rather unhappy. He had spent the afternoon trying to get a list of people who had been seen entering the tobacco shop.

‘And nobody has seen anyone?’ asked Poirot.

‘Oh, yes, they have. Three tall men, four short men with black moustaches, two beards, three fat men - all strangers, and all looking like criminals!’

Poirot smiled.

‘Does anyone say that they have seen the man Ascher?’

‘No, they don’t. And that’s another reason why he might be innocent. I’ve just told the Chief Constable that I think this is a job for Scotland Yard. I don’t believe it’s a local crime.’

Poirot said seriously, ‘I agree with you.’

The Inspector said, ‘You know, Monsieur Poirot, it’s a nasty business - I don’t like it…’

We had two more interviews before returning to London.

The first was with Mr James Partridge, who had bought something from Mrs Ascher at 5.30.

Mr Partridge was a tidy little man. He worked in a bank and wore glasses on the end of his nose. He was very exact in everything he said.

‘Mr - er - Poirot,’ he said, looking at the card my friend had handed to him. ‘From Inspector Glen? What can I do for you, Mr Poirot?’

‘I understand that you were the last person to see Mrs Ascher alive?’

Mr Partridge placed the ends of his fingers together and stared at Poirot.

‘That is not certain, Mr Poirot,’ he said. ‘It’s possible that there were other customers after me.’

‘If there were, they have not reported it’ said Poirot. ‘But you, I understand, went to the police without waiting to be asked?’

‘Certainly I did. As soon as I heard about the shocking event, I realised that my statement might be helpful.’

‘You have an excellent sense of duty,’ said Poirot. ‘Perhaps you could kindly repeat your story to me.’

‘Certainly. I was returning to this house and at 5.30 exactly I entered Mrs Ascher’s shop. I often bought things there. It was on my way home.’

‘Did you know that Mrs Ascher had a drunken husband who was in the habit of threatening her life?’

‘No. I knew nothing about her.’

‘Did you think there was anything unusual about her appearance yesterday evening? Did she seem different from usual?’

Mr Partridge thought for a time.

‘She seemed exactly as usual,’ he said at last.

Poirot got up.

‘Thank you, Mr Partridge, for answering these questions. Have you an ABC in the house? I want to look up my return train to London.’

‘On the shelf behind you,’ said Mr Partridge.

Poirot took down the ABC and pretended to look up a train. Then he thanked Mr Partridge and we left.

Our next interview was with Mr Albert Riddell. Mr Riddell was an enormous man with a large face and small suspicious eyes.

He looked at us angrily.

‘I’ve told everything once already,’ he said. ‘I’ve told the police, and now I’ve got to tell it again to two foreigners.’

Poirot gave me a quick, amused look, and then said, ‘I am sorry, but it is a case of murder. One has to be very, very careful. You did not, I think, go to the police?’

‘Why should I? It wasn’t my business. I’ve got my work to do.’

‘People saw you going into the shop and gave your name to the police. But the police had to come to you first. Were they happy with your information?’

‘Why shouldn’t they be?’ said Mr Riddell angrily. ‘Everyone knows who killed the old woman - that husband of hers.’

‘But he was not in the street that evening and you were.’

‘You’re trying to say that I did it, are you? Well, you won’t succeed. What reason did I have to do a thing like that?’

He got up from his chair in a threatening way.

‘Calm yourself, monsieur,’ said Poirot. ‘I only want you to tell me about your visit. It was six o’clock when you entered the shop?’

‘That’s right - a minute or two after six. I wanted a packet of tobacco. I pushed open the door and went in. There wasn’t anyone there. I waited, but nobody came so I went out again.’

‘You didn’t see the body behind the counter?’

‘No.’

‘Was there a railway guide lying about?’

‘Yes, there was - face down. I thought perhaps the old woman had to go somewhere by train and forgot to lock the shop.’

‘Perhaps you picked up the railway guide and moved it along the counter?’

‘I didn’t touch it. I did just what I said,’ said Mr Riddell angrily.

‘And you did not see anyone leaving the shop before you got there?’

‘No. Why are you trying to fix this murder on me?’

Poirot got up.

‘Nobody is fixing anything on you - yet. Bon soir, monsieur.’

Poirot went out into the street and I followed him. He looked at his watch.

‘If we are quick, my friend, we might catch the 7.02 train to London.’

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