Book 13 of 52: "Hickory Dickory Death", by Agatha Christie

I’ve read a lot of Agatha Christie this year!  This is what, the fifth book by her to appear on this list?  But contributing to my reason for going back to her over and over are several strong points:
  1. Her books are widely available, and always easy to pick up (no hunting for rare copies!);
  2. They’re fast to read;
  3. They always have that perfect “strong upper lip” sense of British sensibility, even when the topic is murder;
  4. And finally, I still am absolutely terrible at guessing the murderer in the end.
Take this book, for instance.  Once again, M. Hercule Poirot is dragged into a case that, although it starts off as a simple and puzzling series of thefts, soon escalates into murder.  The suspects are a group of students and young professionals living together in a boarding house, and Poirot must dig through the web of tangled connections to figure out everyone’s real story.
One complaint, however minor, that I can make against some of Agatha Christie’s stories is that they would fare much better with a cast of characters at the beginning.  Although it’s important for the reader to have a good list of suspects, the names and faces and quirks often seem to meld together – especially at the beginning of the tale.
In addition, in this story (which takes its name from the fact that this residence where the crimes occur is at 26 Hickory St) barely seems to feature Poirot at all, despite his involvement as the head detective!  Instead, most of the questioning seems to come from Inspector Sharpe.  And while the Inspector is perfectly adequate at his job, we see very little of his actual investigative work.
Overall, I’m not sure I’d dub this the strongest of Christie’s works, but it’s still an entertaining afternoon read.

Time to read: 3-4 hours, as is typical with Christie’s books.

"With enough thrust, pigs fly just fine."

I took a moment to collect myself as I stepped around to the wooden gate that lead into my neighbor Jeff’s backyard.  I didn’t know what I was going to find – but my sixth sense was tingling already, telling me that it was going to be trouble.

I should have known that an engineer takes everything far too literally.

And sure enough, as I came around the corner of his house, I could already smell the acrid scent of melted plastic, the tang of gunpowder.  My concerns weren’t lessened when I saw the wooden structure pointed up at a forty-five degree angle, a set of rails that angled up over his back fence.

“Jeff?” I called out, a hint of concern in my voice.  What was he building?

The man himself popped up a second later from below a metal contraption of some sort, grinning broadly.  His face had even more smudges of dirt and grease on it than usual, and he wore a pair of safety goggles, conveniently protecting his forehead.

“Bill!” he shouted back, sounding as if he hadn’t seen me just yesterday.  “Check it out!  Totally gonna prove you wrong this time, buddy!”

I stepped forward, doing my best to get some idea of what the man had constructed, while at the same time trying not to set him off with any sudden movements.  “And what are you proving me wrong on, exactly?” I ventured, trying to figure out what he had cobbled together.

It looked like a long ramp, two parallel rails aimed up and over the back fence.  At the base of the ramp, several wooden struts supported and cradled a sled, made out of a sheet of hammered metal with a couple small wheels bolted to the bottom.  Attached to that homemade sled were two very suspicious tubes that smelled strongly of dangerous explosives.

As I stepped in closer, I heard a faint squeal from the other side of the ramp, and I felt my stomach drop.  “Oh, no,” I said out loud.

“Oh, yes!” Jeff retorted, popping back up from whatever he had been adjusting on his sled.  “And you said that they couldn’t fly!”

I stepped gingerly around the launch platform (and that had to be what it was, I figured out), staring down at the creature in the cage on the other side.  A pair of beady little eyes stared back at me, not recognizing me but already blaming me for being trapped in this little metal box.

Things weren’t going to get much better for the fellow, I knew.

“Surely, you can’t be serious!” I tried, staring back and forth between the man, the pig, and the machine that the man had constructed for the pig.

“I am serious!” he fired back.  “And don’t call me Shirley!  Look, it’s totally going to work – and Sir Porksalot is going to be fine!”

“Jeff, it’s just an expression!” I insisted.  “It just means that something isn’t going to happen!  You don’t have to prove the idiom wrong!”

“But it isn’t that they can’t fly!” he said, reaching down and, with a grunt, lifting the cage, and the angrily protesting Sir Porksalot with it, up onto the sled.  Even despite my horror, I couldn’t help noticing that there were small pegs on the sled that perfectly held the cage in place.

He might be insane, I had to concede, but at least my neighbor was a hell of an engineer.  And for all I knew, this crazy contraption might actually work.

“See, I worked out the calculations,” Jeff continued, overrunning my protests with sheer determination.  “It’s just a problem of propulsion!  With enough thrust, pigs fly just fine!”

And before I could say anything more, Jeff had tugged me back a dozen feet from the gantry, sled, and angrily protesting passenger.  He lifted up something that looked suspiciously like a garage door remote and pressed the button.

My next comment was totally lost in the roar of explosive combustion.

As my ringing ears slowly cleared, I stared at the long, arcing trail of smoke that led up and out of Jeff’s back yard.  “Hey, Jeff,” I shouted, trying to make myself heard above the persistent sounds of encroaching tinnitus.


“How’s it going to land?  And where?”

“There’s the field back there behind our houses!  He should come down just fine in that!  I put a parachute-“

A very loud boom cut off the rest of his sentence.

We hurried out of the fenced-in back yard and around the house – where we both stopped short, staring in shared horror at the large column of smoke rising up from the field behind the house.  Even at this distance, we could already catch the whiff of burned Porksalot on the breeze.

I reached out and patted Jeff on the shoulder.  “Sure, they fly with enough thrust, but you still need to work on that landing,” I told him.

For once, the engineer didn’t have a retort.

Danni California: Part 6

Continued from Part 5, here.
Start the story here.

* * *

The next Monday, Danni wasn’t at the construction site.
Most of the workers didn’t even notice the absence of the young, slim girl who had counted herself among their number.  The foreman noticed, but only in the vaguely annoyed sense that he would have to go round up another worker to replace her.  It wouldn’t be hard to find someone else desperate for money, but it still took effort, and it still annoyed the foreman.
James noticed, however…
He bobbed up and down through the breakfast line, trying to see if he had somehow missed her, had passed her.  After a few passes, however, he concluded that she was nowhere to be found.  There was no way that he could miss her big shock of flame-red hair.
Should he hope that she would turn up, or should he go looking for her?  James decided that the paycheck was more important than why his friend had decided to play hookey, but he kept his eyes peeled all day.  
Yet still, there was no sign of Danni.
As soon as the day was over, he dashed back down to the makeshift barracks that the workers called home.  Where in the world could she be?
When he entered, however, he spotted movement over by her bunk.  Someone was digging through her things, someone wearing a cloak and cowl to conceal their identity!  
“Hey!” James shouted, running over towards the hooded figure even as he was uncomfortably aware of the fact that he didn’t have a weapon of any sort.  “What the hell do you think you’re doing?  Get away from that stuff!”
“James?” came the voice from under the hood – and as the figure stood up and turned to face him, he saw Danni’s face staring back at him in surprise!
He skidded to a stop, barely keeping from colliding with the girl.  “Danni!  Where’ve you been?  You missed work!  You’re gonna get fired!”
“Let them!” the girl shot back, reaching down for a small canvas bag at her feet.  She pulled it up, undid the latch holding it closed, and flipped it around so that James could see the contents.
He stared.
The bag was stuffed with cash, more cash than he had ever seen in his life!  There were stacks upon stacks of bills, wrinkled but bound together with paper bands.  The denominations printed on the faces of the bills varied, but there were ones, fives, tens, and James was fairly certain that he saw at least one stack of hundreds!
Hundred dollar bills!  The young man couldn’t even imagine a hundred dollars.
“Wh-wha?” he managed, trying to find the words to express his incredulity.
Danni grinned at him, the cheeky, irrepressible grin that he recognized.  She reached down into the bag, carelessly shoving some of the bills aside as her fingers quested for something heavier, something towards the bottom.
She pulled out the piece of heavy metal, the muscles in her slim arms tensing as they held it up.  “Remember how you said that all the money’s tied up in banks?” she asked, as James stared at the object in her hands with a mixture of awe and horror.  “Well, I robbed one!”
James couldn’t even speak.  He just shook his head back and forth, staring at the huge, glinting metal weapon in Danni’s hands.
“Like it?  I stole it off the foreman,” she commented, taking his silence as admiration.  “A forty five, I think.  It’s huge!  I just waved it at the bankers, and they all shut up and did what I told them!”
After another moment, the young man licked his dry lips.  “Danni, you’re gonna get killed,” he whispered.
But the girl shook her head fiercely, errant strands of her red hair escaping from beneath the hood.  “No!  Come on, you and me – we can finally get out of here, can go actually do real things, live real lives!” she insisted.  She shoved the gun back into the bag amid the stacks of cash, and reached out to put her hand on James’s shoulder.  
“And I want you to come with me,” she finished.  “But we gotta go now!  Come on!”
Even if he had wanted to resist, the young man never stood a chance against Danni’s reckless, youthful determination.  But he did manage to ask a question as he was tugged out the door.
“Where are we goin’?” he managed to ask, before all his breath had to be devoted to running to keep up with the girl.
“North,” came the answer.  “That’s where all them folks with money are, right?  Well, we’re gonna go change that!”
An hour later, the local constabulary came bursting into the barracks, guns drawn.  But by that point, Danni and her friend were long gone.