'At first sight it was a baffling mystery,’ said Hercule Poirot, looking round at the gathered company. ’Tout à fait incroyable. A man drives into a motorway service area to get some petrol. He fills the car with petrol but he does not pay. Instead he shoots himself at the wheel. The cashier gets worried after ten minutes when the car is still parked by the petrol pump. With a man apparently asleep at the wheel. She goes and has a look. He is dead. But there is no gun in the car.’
There was dead silence. This was indeed how Simon Garfunkle had died. All alone in his red saloon car, at the petrol pump. Nobody now present was sorry. They had all wanted him dead for one reason or another.
‘So the police are sent for. They arrive. They are puzzled. Murder is not their normal diet on the motorway. Oh, to be sure many people would like to kill each other on the motorway, but they so seldom get the chance – am I right? So, the police are not sure what to do. Luckily, who should pull in for petrol a few minutes later than M. Hercule Poirot, the well-known sleuth? So, after a little persuasion I am agreeable to help investigate.’
Poirot looked at the faces again. They were all tight with attention. He had asked all the suspects to gather in the magnificent library of Badgers Hall motorway service area to hear his conclusions regarding the crime, and they had all come. Some had come unwillingly, but they had all come…
‘Bon. Now, there’s one thing that strikes me straightaway. There is no gun in the car, so Monsieur Garfunkle has not shot himself. Perhaps he has shot himself on the motorway, thrown the gun away, driven to the petrol station and then died? No, I think not. Therefore he was shot, yes, but by someone else. By someone who was in the car with him. By someone who wanted him dead.’
‘But surely...’ the silence was broken by Joyce, the dead man’s widow, ‘ but surely if Simon had had a companion, someone would have seen him!’
‘Not at all, Madame Garfunkle,’ said Poirot. ‘People come and people go in a petrol station. To be precise, several hundred every hour. Not even I could remember half those faces. No, no, I think we can assume the dead man drove into the petrol station, and that his companion got out to fill the car with petrol. We know this to be true because the car was, indeed, full of petrol.’
‘So, to sum up for slower readers,’ said Major Hastings with care, ‘The late Simon Garfunkle was found dead at this service area. He couldn’t have committed suicide. He must have been murdered. The murderer must have driven in with him, shot him, then gone off, leaving no clue behind.’
‘Hold on a moment,’ said the Bishop of Warwick, the dead man’s uncle. ‘Why on earth do you think I might have killed him?’
‘Did I say so, Bishop?’ said Poirot sharply, turning his unblinking gaze on him. ‘We have not come to the motive, yet, Bishop! We have only got as far as weapon and opportunity. Motive comes later. Please wait your turn! There is a certain protocol in these affairs.’
‘I’m sorry,’ mumbled the Bishop.
‘One would think that you had never gathered in the library after a murder with the other suspects before,’ said Poirot drily.
‘I never have,’ said the Bishop apologetically.
‘Ciel…’said Poirot. ‘Then kindly leave things to those who have. Now, are there any questions so far?’
‘Yes,’ said Lady Rowena Garfunkle, whose title Simon would have inherited had he lived and had four others died. ‘You said it was the murderer who bought the petrol. Might there not be some clue in a cheque or credit card voucher which he left behind?’
‘Très bon,’ said Poirot. ‘You think better than these others, madame. Well done! Yes, we did think of that, and we investigated names of people who had recently bought petrol there. I wonder if you can guess what we discovered? We discovered that everyone of you here in this room had been in that filling station in the previous ten minutes! Everyone! Buying varying amounts of petrol!
There was a communal gasp that could only be called audible. And communal as well, of course.
‘All of you had been there,’ said Poirot. ‘Lady Rowena, Joyce Garfunkle. The Bishop of Warwick. Nigel Messenger. Hugh Ingot-Smith. Lady Semolina Tempest. And last, but not least, Lord Rupert Dunkerly. Quite a nice coincidence, don’t you think? You were all there and you all wished for Simon’s death!’
‘I thought we hadn’t come on to the motive yet, Poirot, old bean,’ said the cheery voice of young Lord Rupert Dunkerly.
‘Touché,’ said Poirot. ‘But the big question for me, is this. How did the murderer leave the petrol station, the scene of his murder? It is difficult for him, you see. He arrives in Simon’s car. He shoots Simon. He leaves. But the car is still there. So how did he leave?'
‘Are you suggesting,’ said Lady Rowena stiffly, ‘that the murderer was driven away by one of us, all of whom had apparently been there in the previous ten minutes and therefore had ample opportunity to spirit him away?’
‘Again, very logical, madame, but this time, quite wrong. I am suggesting something quite different. I am suggesting that the murderer never left the service area at all.’
‘Never left at all?’ said Major Ernest Garfunkle, whom we don’t seem to have mentioned so far. ‘But that would mean he is still here!’
‘But that’s baloney!’
‘Why?’ purred Poirot.
‘Because the murder took place five days ago and if a chap hung round a service station for five days, people would start to notice.’
‘Not if he worked there,’ said Poirot.
The puzzled silence was broken by a knock at the library door. At Poirot’s command to enter, the door opened and a handsome man in RAC recruiting uniform came in.
‘ You wanted to see me, sir?’
‘My God – it’s Geoffrey!’
It was the Bishop of Warwick who spoke. And everyone else in the room, except Poirot and Hastings, echoed his gasp of recognition. It was Geoffrey Garfunkle, Simon’s ne’er–do-well younger brother who hadn’t been heard of for over two years. Geoffrey looked round the table and slowly grinned.
‘Well, I’ll be…if this isn’t the rummest family reunion I ever saw. Aunt Rowena… Joyce… Bishop… Rupe… welcome to my little service area…’
‘Do you know why we are all here?’ asked Poirot.
‘Not the faintest. Is it my birthday?’
‘It would be easy for the murderer to avoid detection if he worked here,’ went on Poirot, not looking at Geoffrey ‘If he was, let us say, an RAC officer in charge of recruiting. It is not a rewarding job trying to get people to join up. Many, many people say no, I do not wish to join the RAC. Many people do not even make eye contact as they go inside. This must be humiliating in the long run. Especially if the person is your brother. Especially if your brother repeatedly refuses to join the RAC just to make your day. You must come to hate him.’
‘Yes!’ burst in Geoffrey, his RAC badge shining in the gloom of the library, with the rays from the open fire glinting off it. ‘I hated Simon! He knew I worked here as an RAC man and it delighted him to stop for petrol or a break as often as possible and laugh in my face when I asked him to join. It was cruel! But the cruellest thing of all was when Simon joined the AA, right in front of me, two weeks ago!’
‘So you killed him?’ said the Bishop quietly. ‘Just because he would not join the RAC?’
Geoffrey laughed. ‘Kill Simon? Never! I would not soil my hands on him!’
‘Then who…’ asked Lady Rowena.
‘It surprises me,’ said Poirot. ‘It surprises me very much. It surprises me very much that none of you is surprised. Après tout, I tell you that all of you here turn up at the same petrol station within ten minutes and nobody seems at all astounded by this. Nobody says, mon Dieu, quelle coincidence! What an amazing chain of chance! You take it all like lambs. And shall I tell you why?’
There was silence.
‘Because you planned it. Because you all met here for a purpose. Because you all planned to get together to kill Simon Garfunkle. And because you carried out that murder perfectly and then fled. However, there was one fatal flaw in your plan. A witness.’
There was more silence.
‘None of you here knew that Geoffrey was working here as an RAC man. None of you recognised him.’
‘It’s true, said Geoffrey, nodding. ‘One after the other I saw my whole family trooping in and out of the main building, all separately. Rupert… the Bish… Lady Semolina… all of them. None of them recognised me as they are all snobs and do not look at RAC men. I didn’t say hello to them because I didn’t want anyone to know what I was doing. Having Simon know was bad enough…’
There was the same silence, but more of it.
‘Just one thing, Monsieur Poirot.’ It was Lady Semolina Tempest, who had not yet spoken. Poirot had not been sure if she was awake. He was not entirely sure if she were alive. She was very old, but, as it now turned out, she still had her wits about her.
‘There is one thing that puzzles me. I we had all met in one place to murder Simon, why on earth did we all pay by credit card and thus give away our identity and our presence? It was like signing a death warrant.’
‘The very same thing occurred to me,’ said Poirot. ‘ It is the very thing which has been exercising my grey cells. Why should people who have gathered for a murder establish their presence instead of concealing it? This is not the way Simon’s murderers would have behaved.’
‘So what did your little grey cells tell you, O Wise Belgian?’ murmured Hugh Ingot- Smith.
Poirot glanced at him sharply before replying.
‘My little grey cells told me that you all gathered in that service area for a reason. But it was not for the purpose of murdering Simon Garfunkle! Ah, no! It was for the purpose of establishing an alibi.’
‘An alibi?’ said Geoffrey Garfunkle the RAC officer, sinking into a vacant chair. ‘What did they all want an alibi for?’
‘For the murder of Lady Ingot-Smith.’
‘WHAT? My mother?’ Hugh Ingot-Smith sat up.
‘Oh, yes,’ said Poirot. ‘There was never any intention to murder Simon Garfunkle. They all wanted to murder you mother, for reasons too complex to explain now. But while the deed was being carried out, they decided to establish an alibi at the Badgers Castle service area. So they could prove their innocence.’
‘Look, you’ve got it all wrong,’ said Hugh Ingot-Smith. ‘My mother is alive! I spoke to her this morning!’
‘Yes,’ said Poirot. ‘The murder never took place. Although it was planned in detail, the murderer’s courage failed at the last moment and he came back to report failure.’
‘And who was he?’
‘Simon Garfunkle, of course,’ said Poirot. ‘He came back to the service station to report failure and you were all so incensed that you did away with him there and then.’
There was another silence, even more silent than the other silences.
‘And who pulled the trigger?’ said Geoffrey, taking off his RAC cap and putting it on the table.
‘You did,’ said Poirot.
‘Me?’ said Geoffrey. ‘That’s impossible! I’m the only innocent person here! Why would I want to kill Simon under the eyes of all his family?’
‘Partly to impress them and partly,’ said Poirot, ‘because you are not Geoffrey Garfunkle at all. You are, in truth, the elder brother of Hugh Ingot-Smith who has been missing for ten years after your father, the late Lord Ingot-Smith…’
But this was too much to take, or even too much to follow, and, enraged by Poirot’s increasingly complicated theories, the gathered relations rose as one person, advanced on Poirot and did away with him. Fearful that his friend, Major Hastings might report this, they did away with him as well.
Luckily, they had all thought beforehand that something like this might happen, so they had all fixed very good alibis at a Happy Eater on the A303 near Warminster and none of them was ever suspected of the great detective’s death.