BENGALURU: It is not midnight when this tale begins, but ten minutes before two on the afternoon of 22nd February 1931. That was when the strangeness started, as M. Hercule Poirot and Inspector Edward Catchpool (his friend, and the teller of this story) stood with thirty strangers in a dispersed huddle—no one too close to anyone else, but all of us easily identifiable as an assembly—on London’s Buckingham Palace Road.
Our group of men and women and one child (an infant carried by his mother in a bundle arrangement that presented a rather mummified appearance) were soon to be travellers on a journey that felt peculiar and puzzling to me long before I knew quite how extraordinary it would become.We were congregated by the side of the motor-coach that was to take us from London to the famed Kingfisher Hill country estate near Haslemere in Surrey, a place according to many of outstanding natural beauty.
Despite being present well in advance of the coach’s scheduled departure time, no passengers had yet been permitted to board. Instead we shivered in the damp February chill, stamped our feet and blew on our gloved hands to warm ourselves as best we could.It was not midnight, but it was the sort of winter day that is light-starved at dawn and remains so deprived for its duration.
There were seats for thirty passengers on the coach, and thirty-two of us in all who would be travelling: the driver, the swaddled infant in his mother’s firm grip, and the rest of us occupying the passenger seats on either side of the central aisle, including a representative of the coach company.It struck me, as I shivered by Poirot’s side, that I had more in common with the babe in arms than with any other members of our group. Thirty of our band of thirty-two knew why they were going wherever they were going on that day. Poirot was one in that lucky position. The coach’s driver, also, knew his reason for being there: it put food on his table—a compelling motive if ever there was one.
The baby and I were the only people present who had not the faintest notion of why we were about to board the garishly-painted motor-coach, and of the two of us, only one perceived his ignorant state as a problem. All I knew was the coach’s destination: Kingfisher Hill, a private country estate of some nine hundred acres, with a golf club, two tennis courts and a swimming pool designed and built by celebrated architect Sir Victor Marklew that boasted warm water all year round.
A country home within the quiet and leafy confines of the Kingfisher Hill Estate was out of the reach of all but the wealthiest of people, but that did not prevent Londoners of all denominations from talking about it endlessly. I might have been eager to enter those blessed gates for the first time had Poirot not been so determined to withhold from me the reason for our visit. As it was, the sense that I was being kept even more in the dark than usual proved too great an irritant. Was I, perhaps, on my way to meet a future Queen? It was sometimes said at Scotland Yard that the inhabitants of Kingfisher Hill were mostly royal personages and aristocrats, and anything seemed possible on a journey of Poirot’s devising.
The coach departed promptly at two o’clock, and I cannot think that the events which took place before the driver called out his cheery ‘Away we sally, ladies and gents!’ occupied as much as a quarter of an hour. I can therefore confidently locate at ten minutes before two the moment that I noticed her: the unhappy woman with the unfinished face.Excerpted from The Killings at Kingfisher Hill by Sophie Hannah, with permission from HarperCollins Publishers India.