“That is all very satisfactory,” Hercule Poirot remarked. “The murderer has been apprehended and it is not yet lunch-time on Christmas Eve. No-one’s plans have been disrupted after all.”
“I don’t know about that, Poirot,” Captain Hastings said. “Miss Lemon, will you still have time to reach your aunt before the trains cease running?”
“Well, I suppose so,” Miss Lemon replied. “But I’ve already telegraphed her to say I will not be able to come until December 27th. And to be honest, I’m not that disappointed. This way I need only stay for two nights, rather than five, which I wasn’t really looking forward to. But what about you, Captain Hastings? Won’t your friends be expecting you?”
“I’m not going until Boxing Day, by which time I shall have avoided the worst of the family party, with several of the children leaving to visit other relatives. It was the perfect excuse.”
“In which case, Miss Lemon,” Poirot said, “why don’t you come and stay here for Christmas? We have sufficient food, and it would be a pleasure to have you with us.”
“Thank you very much, Mr Poirot. If you’re sure you don’t mind, I’ll go home and pack a bag and will be back later this afternoon.”
“We shall be delighted,” Poirot replied. “And you, Inspector, you will have time to join Mrs Japp now, won’t you?”
“Sadly, there is still a fair bit of paperwork to complete, and the last train to Mrs Japp’s sister leaves at half past two. I rather doubt I can make it.”
“But, surely, Japp,” Hastings began, but stopped as the inspector shook his head.
“I suspect the good inspector’s paperwork will take him until approximately fifteen minutes after the train has left,” Poirot said.
“Sadly, yes,” Japp agreed.
“In which case, although I cannot offer you a bed, you would be most welcome to spend the evening with us and then return for Christmas dinner tomorrow.”
“That’s very kind of you, Poirot. I’ll take you up on your offer. Now, I must get back to Scotland Yard. Can I give you a lift on the way, Miss Lemon?”
Japp and Miss Lemon departed together, Poirot went to his desk to deal with some correspondence, and Hastings picked up the newspaper.
As promised, Miss Lemon returned in the afternoon, and shortly afterwards Japp arrived, looking very happy; although whether it was because he had completed his paperwork, or was not about to catch the train to his wife’s sister, no-one was too sure.
“We should be having our Christmas meal this evening,” Poirot said. “But, alas, I have been too busy and have not had time to complete all the preparations. And Hastings tells me it is more traditional for you to partake tomorrow, so for once I will change my custom. We will therefore simply enjoy a selection of cheese and meats, including, Inspector, you will be glad to know, some ‘mousetrap’.”
“Can I give you any assistance in the kitchen, Mr Poirot?” Miss Lemon asked.
“No, thank you. I have everything organised to my own satisfaction, so please just take a seat.”
They sat and chatted about the recent case and other cases they had dealt with that year before reminiscing on some of the more extraordinary cases from earlier years. After which, Hastings opened a bottle of wine, and they enjoyed the cold buffet. Japp even tried one or two of the more exotic cheeses and conceded they were all right, he supposed, if you like that sort of thing.
It was getting quite late when Miss Lemon said, “I would quite like to go to the midnight service. It would seem strange not to go.”
“That’s all right, Miss Lemon,” Hastings said. “I’ll escort you.”
“Maybe I’ll come too,” Japp said, “and then I’ll be off home. Poirot, what about you?”
“I shall remain here. I have one or two preparations yet to make. After which, I shall go to bed.”
Leaving Poirot to his own devices, the three headed for the nearby church. There had been a sprinkling of snow sufficient to cover the pavement, but it had stopped again. A few footprints were clearly visible in the snow.
Suddenly, Miss Lemon said, “Oh look. Someone was in a hurry.”
She pointed to where one set of footprints showed clearly someone running from the pavement into the road.
“Probably late home!” Japp laughed.
They joined the group of people who were gathered by the church door and heard the vicar saying, “Well, that’s most strange. The door seems to be locked and yet the church warden should be already here.”
He tried the door again, but nothing happened.
“Is there another way in?” Japp asked.
“Yes, we can get in through the clergy vestry,” the vicar replied.
“I’ll come with you and we can go in that way while everyone else waits here,” Japp said.
“And you are?”
“Chief Inspector Japp, Metropolitan police.”
“You don’t think anything’s wrong, do you?”
“Probably not, but it’s always a good idea to be sure.”
As Japp and the vicar walked round the church together, Japp said, “You say the church warden should be here already.”
“Oh yes, he’ll be setting out all the plate ready for the service. We have some quite nice plate, and we always use it on high days.”
They walked through the church, and then the vicar said, “Oh, dear!”
The church warden was lying on the floor, bound and gagged. Japp knelt down to release him.
The church warden groaned and sat up. “The plate,” he said. “Someone’s taken the plate.”
The vicar looked round and nodded in confirmation, unable to speak.
“Right, I’ll need to take a statement from you,” Japp said, “but in the meantime we’ll have to deal with the congregation outside.”
“What about the service?” the vicar asked.
“I’m afraid we need to have a look round the church and make sure it hasn’t been hidden somewhere for collection later. We’ll also need to see if there are any clues as to who’s done it.”
“That new verger would be high on my list,” the church warden said.
“We shouldn’t judge before we have the facts,” the vicar replied.
“Well, where is he?”
“Yes, I see what you mean.”
“I’ll take his details in a minute. In the meantime, I’ll go and tell your congregation that the service is cancelled.”
“Could you invite them back for the eight o’clock service tomorrow morning, Inspector? That’s if I’m allowed to hold it.”
Japp opened the main door and told the waiting congregation the news. They disbursed with a certain amount of reluctance, some saying if they hurried they’d just be in time for St Saviour’s service, others blaming the verger. There was little enthusiasm for the early morning service.
When they had left, a young man approached Japp. “Inspector Japp?” he asked. “I’m Constable Hopkins.”
“I know they’re all blaming the verger, Richard Jenkins, but he was picked up drunk and disorderly this afternoon about two o’clock, and he’s been in our cells until just before ten tonight, when we let him out. He’d have had to walk home - he’d spent all his money - so I don’t see how he could have got here in time to steal the plate.”
Japp sighed. “I might have known it wouldn’t be as straightforward as all that. It would be nice to get it sorted quickly. Captain Hastings, do you think Poirot will have gone to bed yet?”
“No, despite what he said, I rather imagine he was planning on waiting up for us,” Hastings replied.
“In which case, would you mind going to fetch him? And perhaps take Miss Lemon back at the same time.”
“Thank you, Inspector,” Miss Lemon said, “but I’d rather like to stay here.”
“In which case, perhaps you and Constable Hopkins could start looking round the church and see if the plate has been hidden away.”
While they were doing that Japp spoke to the church warden, who confirmed that the plate had been present that lunchtime, when it had all been cleaned, but that when he returned to set it out before the service, it was no longer there.
“I thought there were normally two church wardens,” Japp remarked.
“Oh, there are,” the vicar agreed, “but poor Mr Weston has been laid up with a heavy cold the last couple of days. It’s gone to his chest, and he’s been very poorly. He was gassed, you see, so something like that always knocks him out.”
“Quite,” Japp agreed.
At that point Poirot and Hastings arrived.
“Ah, Chief Inspector, your Christmas present for Poirot is to be a small mystery then,” Poirot said.
“That wasn’t my intention,” Japp muttered.
“I told Poirot about the footprints Miss Lemon saw on the way here,” Hastings said.
“Yes, I think they can be taken as clear evidence of your assailant,” Poirot said, addressing the church warden. “Now, if the good inspector has no further questions for you, perhaps you would like to go home?”
Japp shrugged and the church warden departed gratefully.
“I am sorry, vicar,” Poirot continued, “I do have a few questions I would like to address to you.”
“Of course, anything I can do to help,” the vicar replied. “I still can’t believe that it was Jenkins even though everything seems to point to him.”
“That may not be the case,” Japp began, but Poirot shook his head to silence him.
“Now, the church, it is open during the day?” Poirot asked.
“Yes, we like to keep it open,” the vicar said. “We close it at dusk, on the advice of the police. Otherwise we have found some of the homeless sleeping in there. In some ways, it seems appropriate that the church shelters them, but I can see it isn’t really a good idea.”
“And the plate is kept locked up?”
“Oh yes, in the main vestry, which is why the church warden had to come back to put it out before the service.”
“Jenkins had a key to the vestry?” The vicar nodded and Poirot continued, “So why would he wait until the last minute before coming to steal the plate? Why not do it in the afternoon? And surely, anyone carrying the plate away at this time of night would risk being noticed. You haven’t found it hidden anywhere?”
“No,” Japp replied. “Miss Lemon and Constable Hopkins have had a good look round, and they can’t find it.”
“So we can conclude it was taken earlier in the day, at the point when Jenkins has the perfect alibi.”
The vicar looked surprised, since he wasn’t aware of what Hopkins had told Japp.
“But Poirot,” Hastings said, “in that case, why attack the church warden?”
“To make it look as if it was Jenkins, of course!” Poirot paused, then said, “Would it be possible to speak to the unfortunate Jenkins?”
“Yes, he doesn’t live far away,” Japp said.
“Then let us go.”
Poirot, Japp, Hastings and Miss Lemon walked to the small house where Jenkins lived. His wife let them in when Japp knocked.
“I suppose you’ve come to arrest me,” Jenkins said. “But I didn’t do it.”
“No, mon brave, we have not come to arrest you, but I do have one or two questions I would like to know the answers to,” Poirot said.
“Fire away then,” Jenkins said. He seemed resigned to whatever was going to happen.
“You went for a drink this lunchtime?”
“Yes. I’d taken enough money so I could have a couple of pints and get the bus home. To be honest, I didn’t trust myself, and I knew I had to help at the church this evening, so I had to be sober. And if the worst happened and I drank my bus fare, I still had time to walk home.”
“So what went wrong?”
“I had just ordered a final half, yes, that was my bus fare, when Mr Winbow offered to buy me a drink. And then he bought me another, after which, well, I’d clearly had too much, and it all went downhill. But I never stole the church plate.”
“This Mr Winbow, is he any relation of the church warden?”
“Yes, his brother.”
“I had suspected as much. Thank you, that is all I wished to know.”
“And you’ll be glad to know you’ve got the perfect alibi, so we won’t be arresting you for the theft,” Japp said.
“I’ll still lose my job as verger though,” Jenkins said sadly. “I really did want to prove to the vicar I was worth employing.”
“Do not worry about that,” Poirot said, “I shall make sure the vicar knows it was not your fault. And I am sure he will be very grateful for your help tomorrow for his eight o’clock service.”
“Oh, I’ll be there,” Jenkins said with a smile.
“So the church warden and his brother were in it together, with the brother tying the church warden up,” Japp said, once they had left the house.
“Oh, yes. You will arrest them both tonight?”
“Yes, and with any luck we’ll find one of them is still hiding the plate although the vicar won’t be able to have it back yet,” Japp replied.
“I will tell him. I wish to relieve his mind about the involvement of Jenkins.”
They parted company, Japp to collect some more constables before arresting the Winbow brothers, Poirot, Hastings and Miss Lemon to call on the vicar, who had returned to the vicarage.
Poirot gave the vicar a brief explanation and then said, “And I am afraid you will not be able to have your church plate for tomorrow’s services.”
“Never mind,” the vicar said. “If anyone complains the church is a bit plain, I shall remind them that our Lord spent his first days lying in a manger in a stable and not in a magnificent palace.”
They walked back to Poirot’s apartment together, and, as they went through the door, Miss Lemon said, “Well, Mr Poirot, this has been another Christmas Eve we shall add to our collection of memorable stories next time we are reminiscing about Christmases past.”
“Indeed, Miss Lemon. And now, may I wish you both a very happy Christmas!”