JUST STORIES

[THIS IS A STICKY POST DATED EARLY 2012. IF YOU LOOK AT THE POSTS BELOW YOU’LL SEE THE BLOG IS UPDATED REGULARLY WITH NEW STORIES.]

A collection of short fiction by me, some of it published elsewhere, nothing under anyone else’s copyright, except for one or two pieces (uncertain).

This is an amateur’s shot at reviving short fiction as pure yarn. Some of the stories are a touch serious or reflective, not so plot-heavy. But much of what you get here is just bedside popcorn, so be warned. Expect some all-artificial product with heavy plotting, twists, unmaskings and the like. In some cases, a story is just a rambling account; even then, I may try to incorporate a twist, through sheer stubbornness or bad taste.

I try not to treat characters as furniture or mere plot pivots, but they are sketched, rather than painted. I’m not afraid of using the now unfashionable adverb or other descriptive flourish – but let’s move that story along!

Lit-fic and creative writing may be fine things, but there is none of that to be had here. My prose will rarely be sinewy, luminous, supple, lucid, muscular, spare or taut. I won’t use the word “arc” at all, unless the topic is geometry. Things will merely drop, fall or tumble, they will not arc. I’ve got it in for “arc”.

In most of my gloomy stories, I contrive happy or uplifting endings, even when such seem impossible. That’s just to cheer everybody up, myself included. In accounts of villainy, bad guys won’t always get their comeuppance, but if if you wait till that last paragraph…maybe!

For those who find this undertaking to be dated and lacking a worthy purpose, you are probably right. If you find some of the stories downright pulpy, you are certainly right.

As a mercy to those who prefer more substance, even in their lighter reading, my intention is to stop after fifty entries, though that is an intention, not, as they say in Australian politics, a core commitment. [Note: began publishing more stories August 2013. See? Told you it was just an intention.]

***

In the historical category, two views of the French Revolution, by two if its shapers. Meet the Great Survivors…

THE PEACE OF CAREME

THE VERY DEVIL

A chain letter down the centuries…

HELOISE TO UNKNOWN

Overlapping our fantasy category, a venerable Jewish doctor admits his age…

WANDERER

A sleepy queen entertains…

THE PLAY

An unlikely encounter in post-war Rome, over bad carbonara.

THE GOLDWYN CODE

Romane memento!

ALTOGETHER ELSEWHERE

The Middle East, and all that.

WATER

Rocky life of a saint. Ouch.

LOCUSTA 1

LOCUSTA 2

LOCUSTA 3

LOCUSTA 4

LOCUSTA 5

LOCUSTA 6

LOCUSTA 7

LOCUSTA 8

LOCUSTA 9

LOCUSTA 10

LOCUSTA 11

LOCUSTA 12

It’s never over till…

THE LONG GAME

Speaking of the game…

BLOOD, IRON AND PHRASING

Thinking of redecorating…

A ROOM TOO LARGE AND COLD

***

In the category of crime and detection, an insurance expert has trouble unwinding on holidays, relates some favourite cases…

A LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY

AN ADEQUATE MURDER

CHILD’S PLAY

A master criminal roams the bush, visits the city. We don’t approve of him at all, however…

QUINLIVIN I

QUINLIVIN II

QUINLIVIN III

QUINLIVIN IV

QUINLIVIN V

QUINLIVIN VI

QUINLIVIN VII

Maigret comes to Australia. Really!

MAIGRET’S LONG REACH

MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 1

MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 2

MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 3

MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 4

MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 5

MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 6

Evil is not an Ikea purchase. My best opening sentence?

BITS OF BAD

Are you insured?

PURGATORY HILL

You will pay if you skip this one:

EVERYBODY PAYS

A twisty track:

THE GORGE

***

In the category of fantasy and the improbable, some ghosts…

QUO VADIS

THE MOTHER

CEMETERY LOOP

THE WEEPER

Strange entities…

DON’T SAY YOWIES

THE OLD F-S SCALE

FOAM OF THE SEA

Bent fairy tales…

LITTLE CLAUS AND BIG CLAUS, FAKE I

LITTLE CLAUS AND BIG CLAUS, FAKE II

THE LOST CITY

TARQUIN’S TRAVELS

Guardian angels: not the glamour job you’d think.

THE SECRET OF 63

AN INTRUSION

That little opinion of yours…

QUALITY OPINION SUPPLIES

There’s even a time travel yarn. An easy, pulpy read. You won’t know where the minutes went…

SHE SLIPPED

God knows what this is about…

ME

Or what this is about…

SURE SCIENCE

My answer to Mr Chips…

PAST RUINED ILION

In the end, you just have to fight…

REXIE (Part 1 of 3)

REXIE (Part 2 of 3)

REXIE (Part 3 of 3)

***

Australian interest, bush first…

A BUSH ANSWER

DRAGON

CHASE

THE .22 CLUB

WOY WOY

TRIVIAL TALE

THE NAME OF THE BEAST

Some Sydney stories, some names changed, of necessity…

UNIQUE

EVEN IN ARCADY

ANGELS RUSH IN

EAST SYDNEY: A MEMOIR

STRESSING MOLLIE

Sydney in that Decade of Greed, and whatever you call the nineties…

DECADE OF GREED I

DECADE OF GREED II

MADE IN FRANCE

AUSTRALIA’S GREATEST SALESPERSON

Sports fans!

AUSTRALIAN PIETAS

Getting that perfect balance between no-life and no-work…

ESCAPE FROM KRYPTON

***

Stories modern and medieval, from the pilgrim ways…

THE COCK AND HEN

ANOTHER PILGRIM TALE

THE CATS OF LA ROMIEU

GLOBAL INGRATITUDE

NOT IN MY CONTRADA

DEVIL’S BRIDGE

TRUFFLES AND DEMONS

Novella length.  Come on, they can’t all be short…

THE THIEF OF SAINT FAITH

***

A miscellany of pulp: a bit silly, most with strong final twists, what you want…

THE WAY THESE PEOPLE THINK

THE RETURN OF THE SON OF REHASH

A GOOD JUDGE OF CHARACTER

REMNANT

FOR THE BIG ROUND THING

THE MEDIOCRE SAMARITAN

MEETING IN FRANCE

LONG TIME LISTENER, FIRST TIME CALLER

FAUX-PAS

***

Uh-oh. He writes poetry…

WRITERS BLOCK

CIRCULAR QUAY AT SIX

LOBSTERMAN’S PRAYER

POWER

DITTY ON THE SHORE

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF TEMPLES

***

The serial, Life of Saint Locusta, is now available as a read-through novel. It is the same text as published on this short fiction site in episodes, but arranged as ordinary chapters in chronological order. It looks like a single post with a single date on it, but if you scroll down you are likely to find new chapters from time to time.

Life of Saint Locusta: a serial.

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MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 10

McGroder woke to muffled thuds and rattles from the corridor. Still in pyjamas, he opened the door of his “Blenheim” suite and peered out, expecting to see Brenda Berger or one of her remaining staff.

Instead he saw a fully dressed Maigret fiddling near the door of the Berger family apartments at the end of the corridor.

“Commissioner!”

Ah, bonjour, mon petit. I knew you had already looked in the victim‘s rooms, but, one never knows...fresh eyes

McGroder advanced down the corridor, embarrassed not just by his pyjamas.

“Commissioner, there’s no point trying to force it. And I already tried the master key on that door last night, just to check. It can’t be opened. I’m assuming the Berger rooms are off limits in any case. I admit I don’t know the exact laws on admission to private quarters after consent to inspect the general premises, and I hope you don’t find me too…too Anglo, too British about this…”

“But the lady told us to feel free to investigate…” Maigret continued to fiddle with the door.

“Commissioner! Please! It can’t be opened. And I’d have trouble justifying an intrusion like this if we could open it. We’ve already gone over Naomi’s rooms and belongings, with her sister’s consent. Brenda showed us everything,  gave us full access…”

“But since this is where the victim lived…and since I am here…”

“In any case, it’s locked, the master key won’t work, so if you want to take a look we’ll have to wait for Miss Berger to get back from Sydney. Of course, it would be useful if we had your perspective on anything to do with…”

The door to the Berger apartments swung open.

“Commissioner, how on earth…?”

With one hand Maigret pocketed something small which jangled. He raised the other hand and tapped his straightened index finger against a nostril, making a French gesture made familiar to non-French by the likes of Maurice Chevalier, perhaps. A gesture of conspiracy, of say-nothing, of self-congratulation?

“Really, commissioner, if Miss Berger comes back early from Sydney and finds us…”

“Then we should be quick, non?”

Maigret stepped in.

“Let me…let me put on my dressing gown, or something…”

“Oh, don’t bother, Clive. We will be here just a minute or two. Time enough to breathe in the lives of these people. Not to know, just to breathe in.”

Flustered, McGroder followed, tightening the cord of his pale purple-striped pyjamas, a dubious gift from his mother.

“I suppose if we’re quick…and if we can avoid touching anything…”

“But of course we will be quick! There is breakfast to think about…Ah, what an interesting apartment. So fresh!”

The large living room was not what they expected. Unlike the rest of Sans Souci, here everything was new. The open plan apartment had the look of a modern London flat of the most expensive sort, though without the affectations of pop art or psychedelia: abstract-patterned rugs and curtains, low seating with lower coffee tables, the whole decor in shades of tan reaching to yellow and orange. Yet there was a quality, a solidity, which still said “Berger”.

“Commissioner, where are you going?”

Maigret had walked up a step and through a broad archway into a space which looked like an office, judging from the polished timber shelving and cabinets visible from the main room. By the time McGroder had joined him, he was idly flipping through the pages of a record book left on the massive partner’s desk which occupied the centre of the office.

“Commissioner!”

“Oh, don’t worry. I will not leave a smudge or displace anything.”

“But what are you looking for?”

Maigret continued to flip through the pages of the book, pausing on what looked to be a final entry. At last:

“Looking for? How should I know what to look for? But show me the victim’s room, then we can be thinking of some breakfast. I would settle for even le Nescafé…

They crossed the living room and went to the end of a hall.

“Here on the west side, the valley side…this is – or was – Naomi’s apartment within the family apartment. The facing door there on the road side is Brenda’s, but I hope you’re not going to…”

Mais non. To enter a lady’s office is one thing, to enter her sleeping place is another…No, Clive, we will spend a few seconds looking at the late sister’s room, then – then le Nescafé!”

Naomi’s room was not locked. What they saw on entering was something far more like the Sans Souci surrounding them, though here the heritage had not faded. The mahogany of furnishings, skirting and window frames still had its polish; traditional drapes and Wilton rugs were mysteriously without a hint of wear or even use; the deep, contrasting colours on ceiling rose and cornices fairly gleamed when McGroder turned on the light.

“She’d only been back home a fortnight, but I’m told this is how she had it always: perfect order and maintenance.”

“And what one might call love for the old, for the original?”

“I reckon so. That’s how the lady was. In the time after getting back here she’d planned and sketched like mad for the renovation – or whatever it was they were planning. She’s left a whole portfolio on that desk over there. It’s all to do with matching old colours and fabrics. Would you like to take a look?”

“In fact, I would like breakfast. This has been enough breathing-in, I think. But this renovation or restoring…would this have effected the…what word am I seeking?…Ah, yes, would this have effected the proprietorship of the painting, or of other such things?”

“I think the word is ownership. You mean the painting you found? I suppose a major restoration project involving insurance and partnerships and so on would effect everything here.”

“So someone would be in a hurry, with so much change pressing?”

“In a hurry to steal a painting?”

“That. Or other things.”

“I reckon there’s a chance. Hard to know for sure. You think…?”

“I think some toast, some coffee…maybe even a little rum or brandy for the coffee if the morning is cold…”

*

They had found some frozen sliced bread, butter and a selection of French jams in quaint pots. Huddled near an electric radiator at the lounge bar where Maigret had first met Brenda Berger, the two were able to toast their bread and boil up water for instant coffee. The threat to add alcohol to the coffee was suspended for the time being. McGroder was beginning to suspect that Maigret’s constant tippling was a mask or deflection more than a craving. By drinking he geared down his thinking and convinced others that he had stopped thinking.

But Maigret did not stop thinking, or masking, or deflecting.

“Commissioner, have you a plan for the day? You said there were people you’d like to meet.”

“Indeed, indeed. But first we should wait for Miss Berger to return, non?”

“I’m not sure when that will be. She has a comfortable flat near the middle of Sydney, in Elizabeth Bay.”

“No, she will be back quickly.”

“You’re sure?”

“No.”

“I see.”

“But when she gets here she will be able to give me the good news that the airport strike is over and I will be able to return to France.”

“The strike is over?”

“Yes. There is a radio in my room. It seems that all parties reached agreement last night.”

“Well, I suppose you’ll be wanting to arrange your flight immediately…”

“No.”

“No?”

A maddening pause was followed by:

Eh bien, maybe just a little cognac in the next cup of coffee dust. Just to take away the dust taste. Not for you, mon petit? And when Miss Berger does arrive I see no reason to mention the finding of the painting. We will keep that to ourselves. The painting is now secure since we have the police lock on the gallery. Why not keep our discovery a secret for a while, hein? A secret not just to Miss Berger but to everybody. Leave it for a little coup-de-théatre, but later, when we know more.”

McGroder was burning to know how much Maigret knew already. As if he would say!

*

The growl of a motor and skittling of gravel from outside.

“Why don’t we go and greet the lady?”

“How do you know it’s her, commissioner? It could be Roland Cassin…”

“He starts work after his children are in school. He told me so. And that is not the sound of a workman’s truck. Come, quickly.”

“But…can’t we wait here?”

“I like cars.”

Maigret was already heading toward the main entrance. McGroder could only follow, surprised by the other’s haste.

As they stepped out they saw Brenda Berger, emerging from a new Jaguar, briefcase in hand.

“Oh, good morning, gentlemen. Started early to beat the Sydney traffic. I hope you’ve been comfortable.”

“Very, madame.”

“I’m so sorry I was called away, but life doesn’t stop. Work helps a tiny bit when nothing else does. Have you been able to make progress?”

“Ah, much as I wish to help in this matter of your sister, I am afraid, ah, well…” His voice trailed into a mutter as he gave his customary shrugs.

“We really do appreciate your interest, commissaire. And I know Naomi would have adored meeting you…”

Her voice choked as she covered her face with her free hand.

“Ah, madame…”

“No, I’m all right. Crying is not my way. It wasn’t Naomi’s way, even when things were at their worst…Commissioner, I have some good news for you. The airport strike is over.”

“As you say, that is very good news. May we help you with any parcels?”

“Oh no. I have just the briefcase. I keep clothes in Sydney for overnight.”

Madame, may I ask a little courtesy of you?”

“Why, of course.”

“It is just that I am very fond of cars, especially cars such as this. I was only just saying to Clive…Madame, would you permit me just to sit…”

“More than that! Take it for a spin! Keep it for the day!”

“Oh no. This driving on the left…I never did that and never will. I was in great confusion in London just crossing the road. No, no. If you will just permit me to sit in those marvellous leather seats and inspect the controls…”

“Of course. Please do. You don’t mind if I go in? I have calls to make.”

As Brenda made her way inside, Maigret sat in the driver’s seat of the Jaguar 420G , caressing the dashboard and upholstery with admiration.

“A fine car. A very fine car. And that aroma of the leather! You like this sort of British car, Clive?”

McGroder, tired of not knowing what was conversation and what was teasing, leaned down to answer, with just the faintest accusation in his tone:

“Well, you might be surprised to learn that our family car was a Peugeot 403. And I’d really like to own a 404.”

“Very flattering. And surprising. The general and Mr Pompidou would be pleased. Well, enough of all this…”

With an old man’s sighed groan, Maigret heaved himself out of the bucket seat .

“Um, commissioner.”

“Yes?”

“I’d like to ask you if there is anything about this car which interests you. I mean, with regard to the case.”

“With regard to the case?”

“Yes. But I’m afraid that if I do ask you that question you will just change the subject.”

“The subject?”

“Yes. I’m afraid you will change the subject.”

Ah, bon.”

Maigret looked skyward.

“Will this strong wind from the inland pick up again, do you think? You know, Clive, at my age, cold and wind…”

Maddening.

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MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 9

They walked back along the corridor and through the main lounge to reach the accommodation building. From there they ascended to the Melba and Prince of Wales Wings, once a high tariff precinct for the famous and wealthy, with several rooms qualifying as “royal”, “vice-regal” or “ministerial” by some long forgotten standard. The future Edward VIII and Dame Nellie had been guests there, as photos and portraits along the walls testified; and the Bergers had their own lavish quarters at the very end of the north corridor.

“Commissioner, Miss Berger has left me with a master key, so we can take our pick of rooms for the night. Only the rooms at the end of the Melba Wing here, near the Bergers’ own rooms, have their central heating going, so I suppose we should choose from them.”

“I hope I can call on you to help me with my suitcase, Clive. I am good when the walking is flat, but since leaving our immeuble near Bastille I have lost the habit of stairs.”

“I’ll fetch both our cases while you take a breather. So…which room?”

“Any room. If the windows are strong against this wind and do not shake and make ghost noises I would enjoy a view over the valley.”

“Oh, the wind will likely drop later. And you’ll find everything is perfectly made and fitted, probably by some specialist craftsman imported from Spain or Italy. We’ll put you on the west side. Here…let’s try Palmerston, if the name isn’t too British for you.”

“Not at all. The British and I have fought together when…Well, I am not to say too much about that time, especially to Simenon, but I remember them fondly, my years in London.”

*

When McGroder returned with the luggage Maigret was puffing away, his big frame merged into a throne-sized armchair of mahogany and velvet, specially ordered furniture which had quite possibly accommodated some royal Bertie or George decades before. He had one foot posted on a long, low sill as he stared down on the Megalong Valley, framed perfectly by the vista window.

“Quite a view, isn’t it, commissioner?”

No response.

“Commissioner, would you like me to help you…?”

“Tell me of any little thing, young Clive.”

“Of…what?”

“Tell me of the little thing, the thing so trivial you would not wish to mention it. Something that comes to mind, without force…if I am making myself understood.”

“You mean…anything at all?”

“Perhaps, if that suits you. But I was thinking about our matter, our case. That would make more sense, non? There is often some small thing about a case which means little, but which stays in the mind. I was thinking of this.”

McGroder sat down on the edge of the elaborate poster bed and said nothing for a while. Then:

“There’s nothing, really…although…”

“Although?”

“This is almost nothing, but…”

“If it has stayed in your mind, it is something perhaps. Please tell, mon petit.”

“Well, we found a note of sorts stuffed in Naomi Berger’s clothes. But it didn’t really mean anything.”

“It was in a pocket?”

“No. As I mentioned, the lady was dressed like a jazz dancer or…sort of what we call a beatnik. I’m sure you have that style in Paris. You probably invented it.”

Bohémien style, perhaps. But we too say the word beatnik.”

“Anyway, she was dressed only in black tights and top, like a modern jazz dancer. Seems she’d been in that scene for a while: coffee-lounges, bongo drums, all that. I often had to chase around those places for marijuana and other drugs when I was stationed in the city. Naomi had decided to dress in the style of her youth, just for the evening because she was leading the games. Usually she was a stickler for formality. Didn’t like anything common. Her beatnik clothes probably came from Paris and cost more than most people’s best suits. I’m not criticising, just going by what her friends said.”

“Ah yes, the game called Body in the Library. Perhaps she needed to be free in her movements. To sacrifice formality only for games and sport: now that is very British! So this note or piece of paper, it was somehow in her clothes?”

“Stuck down her top. We assumed she’d just found it lying around somewhere and picked it up. She was fanatically tidy, and especially fussy about any mess in Sans Souci. It wasn’t really a note. Someone had likely put a drink on a piece of paper, maybe to avoid marking furniture. There was a circular red stain, like from a glass. May have been her own piece of paper she was cleaning up, since her favourite drink was red vermouth.”

“No words?”

“Just the two words ‘FOR AFTER’. They were printed in capitals.”

Maigret was silent, puffed away. Then:

“You have this piece of paper still?”

“I do, in fact. It wasn’t really evidence but for some reason I just stuffed it in my briefcase rather than let it go to Parramatta with the body. I don’t know why, but I wanted it here, not there. A small, irrelevant thing…Maybe I wanted it as some sort of contact, something to remind. Did I do wrong?”

No response again, for far too long. At last:

“You can show me this piece of paper?”

*

When McGroder returned Maigret was puffing just a little harder, all his attention still on the stupendous view, as shadows lengthened across the valley and the low winter sun was beginning to shine obliquely through the vista window.

McGroder handed the piece of paper to Maigret, who grunted a faint “merci”. He looked it over for a few seconds only before turning about and handing it back.

Eh bien, we must be off for dinner soon, don’t you think? You know the way to this restaurant where the steak is local and good? No doubt I will have to beg the cook to keep mine very rare…”

“Commissioner, do you make anything of that piece of paper?”

But there was only a shrug by way of answer.

Maddening.

*

Apart from some barely amused face-pulls at the lumps of tinned pineapple in his prawn cocktail and the overdone state of his “very rare” steak, Maigret had been an excellent and easy dinner companion. A young woman at another table had recognised the old detective and asked for his autograph; he had been downright charming in signing a menu for her.

When he settled back with a pipe and liqueur glass he commented as if continuing the conversation from hours ago:

“I think it was good that you kept the piece of paper.”

“You mean the paper I found in Naomi’s clothing?”

“Just so. It was good to keep it.”

“You think it means anything? The stain or the words? Or just the fact that she had it on her?”

McGroder was sure there would be another maddening shrug followed by silence. However…

“We will be meeting some people tomorrow, as I think. People caught up in this case. What little habits do they have? Are they neat? Do they have pockets in their tights? Do they ever wear such clothes? Do they drink red vermouth? So many things to think about, all from a piece of paper. I kept a feather, you kept a piece of paper. No logic, no clue. Just something one wishes to put in one’s pocket…something that whispers to us…”

“But is there anything about the bit of paper, beyond general things…Do you think?”

This time there was a maddening silence.

Dinner finished.

Maigret working.

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MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 8

McGroder opened the door and stepped into the gallery.

Maigret followed, but sluggishly.

In the middle of the floor to their right was a chalk outline of the body’s final position. Extending out from the marking, a broad stain.

“As you can see, Commissioner, we…”

But Maigret had wandered to the side, and was now inspecting the paintings on the walls.

Tiens, this is a very elaborate gallery. Much cost, no doubt…And this family made their money cultivating wool?”

“No, not exactly…Commissioner, the body, if you’d like to take a look was…”

“Yes, yes. I see where the body lay. But satisfy my curiosity: all this wealth was from wool?”

“Well, indirectly. Most of our wealth depended on wool in the old days. But the Bergers were in music publishing. A few of Australia’s great fortunes came from music publishing…I don’t know why exactly…My grandfather said even poor families would starve for a piano…”

“So this family…it saw itself as bringing much culture, much rapport with England or with Europe?”

“I suppose.”

“And for all its wealth, the family remained – the word, now? – remained connected with these premises? Even when it was no longer chic?”

“Yes, I suppose. All the generations lived here, ran the place themselves. But when the fashion for deluxe guest houses in the mountains faded they couldn’t just keep pouring their investment and business wealth into the old heap. Not even the Bergers could run that big a loss for decades. That’s why Sans Souci is just a huge shell now, a shell with a few comforts.”

“Yet the place was never altered, it seems? It decayed, became cheaper for guests, was used as a war hospital…but no question of alteration…”

“Not to my knowledge. Until now, that is. As I mentioned to you, there are at last solid plans to restore the old place. Both sisters were excited about that, Naomi Berger’s improvement might have been helped by the good news. She spoke about great things to come for Sans Souci just before she was killed…”

A silence, frustrating for McGroder, as Maigret continued to patrol the gallery walls and ignore the crime scene.

At last Maigret reached the window which had no bars and inspected it, tapping on glass and frame. Then he peered out with no particular focus.

“As you can see, commissioner, no signs of the window being opened or shut after it was nailed up.”

“Mmm.”

“Would you agree?”

“Oh, entirely. That window was nailed up by our friend Roland, and it has not been opened since…Ah, some very interesting landscapes down this side of the room. And very large. Impressionant…”

“Best watch the floor where it’s lifting in parts. Someone could trip. The parquetry is very worn.”

“Mmm, so it is.”

The Frenchman continued to stroll, glancing at the other windows, still solidly barred, but interested more in the paintings – if he was interested in anything at all.

“Music publication, hein? Tiens, tiens…Oh, and that blanched – is that a word? that blanched space on the wall near the other end of the room…that is the place where the stolen picture was hanging?”

“Yes. They kept it in a low light position to preserve it better. As you can see, it was pretty small…but not so small that it could have been taken out of the gallery without being noticed.”

“Indeed not.”

McGroder had wondered at times if his companion were not a touch senile, then resisted the thought. Now the thought was harder to resist, as Maigret lost himself in contemplation of one large and time-darkened seascape which hung on the wall opposite the entry.

For no apparent reason, Maigret then strolled – at last! – to the middle of the room and looked down on the wide blood stain. Not without groans and winces, he managed to crouch down and then began to pick at some lifting parquetry which was on the fringe of the stain. A slab came away, making it easier to lift one next to it, then another. He moved to several other spots near the stain and lifted parquetry where it was loose. McGroder approached.

“Notice anything, sir?”

“Oh, nothing much, mon petit. Under this piece of floor there is a small dip in the cement or whatever the hard material is. Would that be a place for some sort of plate to support a big light, a chandelier, on the ceiling below us?”

“Why…yes. That would make sense. It would be right over the dance floor and reception below. Do you think it indicates something?”

“The space is not big enough for anything  larger than a soup bowl, any holes were filled long ago…and, as you say, the ceiling of the floor below is solid, not disturbed.”

“Exactly. But that goes for the whole area outside the gallery. Not the slightest mark anywhere, above, below or to the side. The windows with bars were also locked, and we could tell by the dust marks that the locks had not been touched since the gallery was aired last summer. We simply can’t find any way a painting let alone its thief could leave this gallery.”

“Ah, the painting! That is a different matter from a person. Two very different shapes, non?”

“You have some idea…?”

“Oh, just an idea. Come with me, mon petit.”

They walked over to the large picture of stormy seas which had drawn Maigret’s attention before.

“This heavy frame has been moved recently.”

“Commissioner, we checked behind this picture. We moved it a little so I could tap the wall and beam a flashlight on it.”

“Ah, but were you in such a hurry that you might have made this fresh scratch in the paintwork and even in the plaster of the wall? See here.” Maigret pointed to a scrape where a bottom corner of the painting met the wall.

“N…no. I see what you mean. We actually checked from the other side as we went round the room clockwise looking behind every painting and bookcase. But I doubt we swung it back in position hard enough to scrape the plaster. Constable Dougherty held the painting outward so I could look behind, then he put it gently back in place, I’m sure. I suppose I should have noticed…”

“Ah, but you were looking for exits from the gallery. I, however, am looking for something else. Would you hold the painting out for me, the way your constable did? There is a small chance we may find something of interest. Only a small chance…That’s right, hold it out so I can reach a hand in behind…Ah, not yet!”

He drew his arm back and removed his coat, dropping it to the floor.

“Now, if you could hold the painting further back and very steady…”

“I…think I can. But best be quick. It’s heavy.”

Again Maigret reached his arm behind the massive painting.

“Ah, we have some bag material to protect the back of the picture from dust…some light wood to hold it in place…Now, if I remove the little tacks, and pull the bag cloth away…I hope no damage is done…Ah! I have it. Now I just need you to hold another moment till I extract it out…”

Maigret drew out a briefcase-sized picture in slim frame. As McGroder lowered the large picture back into place, Maigret propped the small one against the wall below it.

The missing Von Guerard.

*

“Commissioner, the more I think about this…I have to suspect that someone with later access to the gallery, someone in a position to retrieve the painting…Logically, it could only be a person who…”

“Ah, logique! Clues and logic! People who read or hear about what we police do think we find clues and draw conclusions…But is that is what veritable inspectors do, or should do?”

“I…always thought we were supposed to…But I don’t really understand what you are saying.”

“We are inspectors, non? We inspect! We live with the matter, with its people. We taste, we smell. We wander, if that is the word, all through the case. We are like the housewife who walks into one of these big new shops pushing the big thing on wheels. She is buying in the end, but for a long time she is looking, gathering. Or we are like hunters for mushrooms when the mushrooms are scarce. We walk many miles to fill our basket. You see?”

“I suppose…Well, no, not really. Surely you, more than most, find clues and follow logic…”

“You think I am knowing things now? I am trying to not know. Do you realise what is confining you, my young friend? My very excellent and very capable young friend?”

“Lack of…of inspecting? Of experience? Or…”

Maigret grinned and patted the younger man’s shoulder.

“Lack of calvados! I saw a bottle on the shelf outside. Brandy made from apples. But no ordinary calvados for these music publishing people – ah, non – but calvados of the marque Michel Huard…So, after we place this picture back where it was hidden…

“Calvados! Du véritable…from the Pays d’Auge! Ça, alors!

“That will help us to not think.”

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MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 7

They walked along a generously arched and vaulted corridor lined with artworks and curiosities, including photos of visiting dignitaries and past events at Sans Souci. The right, or west-side, wall of the corridor was interrupted by alcoves and vista windows with views over the valley; to the left were lounges, amusement rooms and, finally, a huge dining area.

The corridor ended on a spacious timber landing, with sweeping staircases leading up and down. Around the edge of the open space were portable seats and coffee tables. McGroder led Maigret forward across the landing.

“This is a reception area which was also used for dancing. Like the big dining room we just past it was easily served from the kitchens below…”

“So much space, mon petit. Could all of this complex ever have been fully used?”

“You’d be surprised, commissioner. Australians flock to fun, if you know what I mean, and this place was the last word in fun at the turn of the century when we were briefly the richest place on earth. Wool was a pound a pound back then. Not the sort of situation which lasts, of course.”

Tiens…tiens…And this gallery?”

“We’re standing under it.”

Maigret looked up.

“As you can see, commissioner, there’s no way through all that intact plaster.”

“Indeed, non.”

“Would you like to go upstairs now?”

Maigret shrugged, which was an answer of sorts, as McGroder was learning. Maigret unresponsive was Maigret working, if not willing.

At the top of the stairs, which had challenged the old Frenchman, they came to what looked like yet another huge lounge area served by a bar at its edge.  To their left, a door with yellow tape across it, and a typed note dangling from the tape.

“This is where it all happened, commissioner. We’re standing in the Vice-Regal Lounge, where the group had their party and conducted their games. The gallery has been sealed off. I’ve had my men install a padlock, with the owner’s – Miss Berger’s – consent. I’m the only one with a key.”

Maigret looked about, showing little interest in any one thing. Then he pointed to an iron staircase at the eastern, or road-side, wall.

“And this escalier, or ladder way, or whatever one calls it?”

“It leads up to an attic with some bric-a-brac. Bit of a fire hazard, really. It’s above the gallery, so I checked it out pretty well. Would you like to see?”

A shrug. Maigret would see the attic, like it or not.

*

At the top of the iron stairs McGroder flicked a switch and opened a narrow door. The two stepped in to a cramped space beneath the roof of the building. Many old picture frames lay about, as well as things like archery sets and bicycle parts from long ago.

“It’s all solid timber flooring up here, with plaster under. No sign of any disturbance to anything. The dust and webs were intact when I first looked the place over. Want to see more?”

Maigret sneezed. No, he did not want to see more.

*

On descending, Maigret directed his attention not to the locked gallery door but to the small bar at the edge of the Vice-Regal Lounge.

“Commissioner, I have the key and we can take a look inside the gallery if…”

“First, some refreshments, non? And maybe a pipe…”

Maigret made his way to the bar and hummed as he inspected the rows of liqueur and spirits. At last he drew down a particular bottle and rubbed it almost with affection.

“Ah, a bottle of Izarra! Amazing! This family have been true collectors. Not even in Paris can I always find some. You know, though Izarra is Basque, they soak good prunes of my home region with walnut shells…all sorts of things…ah, étonnant…Will you not have a taste, mon petit? It’s quite sweet…”

“Oh, not right now…”

“No? Dommage. For me, a little drop…”

“Commissioner, it’s just that the light should be strong in the gallery right now…for our inspection…”

“But you have strong electric lights in this gallery?”

“Well, yes, but I thought…”

“So, time for a glass and a pipe, non?”

Maigret was conversational for a while, glancing about the room and scanning the bar shelves as he spoke of trivialities. At last he fell silent, smoked with more tension, fixing his eyes for long periods on the sealed door of the gallery. He finished his drink, then:

“You say the light is still good?”

“Yes, commissioner, it’s only mid-afternoon, so if you’d like to check out the gallery…”

“Yes, yes…very soon. But I was thinking of taking a little air. And we could inspect the ground below the gallery. You know, a little mountain air, at my age…”

McGroder could barely hide his frustration, but did so.

“Of course. There’s plenty of time, and it will be a lot colder later. I have a key to the bottom door, so we can just walk directly down to the kitchens.”

“Excellent. Allons-y.”

*

From a kitchen dock, McGroder opened a door to the outside. The westerly wind attacked their faces, racked through their unbuttoned coats. Over to the right they saw Roland emptying more leaves and rubbish into the incinerator. The smoke was driven almost laterally toward the east and the road, along with leaves which had escaped the pile. Waves were exchanged with the handyman. Then Maigret, after a struggle, re-lit his pipe and began to gaze out over the Megalong Valley, seemingly indifferent to the ground below the gallery.

“Commissioner, the ladder has been removed again for security reasons. We’ve been over the ground but seen little of interest, but if you have any observations…”

Non , non, I’m sure you have been very thorough. Really, I just needed a little air…Ah, what’s this?”

Maigret, in turning about, had noticed a blue feather on the ground and picked it up.

“Is this from one of your local espieces…or do I say…how to say it?…species?”

“N…no. It’s nothing I know, and I used to bird-watch. But you never know what flies in with the changes of weather we get these days. The last decade was very wet, now everthing is cold and a bit dry, except for those bloody heatwaves…some people blame atom bombs or Sputnik…”

“Or the Beatles?”

Laughing a little, Maigret inspected the feather.

Ah, les fauves.”

“Sorry, commissioner?”

“I spoke of wild animals, of fauves. So many and so different, all changing just like us. Improvisateurs...”

He slipped the feather absently into his coat pocket.

“This has been enough fresh air for me, mon petit. Shall we go back upstairs?”

*

On their arrival back in the the Vice-Regal Lounge Clive McGroder went immediately toward the sealed door of the gallery, assuming it must be time for the inspection. He winced when he heard Maigret behind him…

“Ah, no rush. The air has chilled me a little too much, I am afraid. I noticed a Creme de Cassis on the shelf…a veritable – is that the word? – from Dijon! Now you must try this, my young friend, at least a tiny amount, non?”

“All right. A tiny one. But very tiny.” He could not refrain from sighing his frustration.

*

For some minutes Maigret sipped and puffed, only speaking to extract a positive opinion on the liqueur from his companion.

Then, his drink finished, Maigret again fixed the door of the gallery and began to draw on his pipe in short, violent puffs.

“Ah, les fauves…les fauves…

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MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 6

“Ah, que c’est beau…que c’est beau…”

“I think I understand that French…and I think I agree, commissioner. The Megalong Valley has an effect of, well, making people feel small in a good way.”

“Small in a good way? Yes, I think that is how I feel right now.”

Maigret had all but ignored the pompous, decaying buildings and found the way to the view without being guided by McGroder. Both were now standing on the fringe of Sans Souci’s croquet lawn and looking out over the vast green dish of the Megalong, with its ruddy-coloured cliffs and dark mountain vegetation on the sides. Under the cloudless midday sky, so typical of mid-winter in the Blue Mountains, not a detail of the valley bottom was lost.

The westerly wind bit at their faces.

“This air is giving me certain appetites, mon petit. I assume it will be possible to find a drink of something strong in this old…complex? Is that what one calls it?”

“Yes, a good word. It’s big, isn’t it? Once it was a place where hundreds came on weekends. Australia was rich at the turn of the century, the Berger family was one of the richest. The best builders and tradesmen, sometimes imported from Europe, were used to build and then extend. Then we had depressions, wars, wool slumps and so on; tastes changed, perfect upkeep was impossible…But you’ll be pleased to know that it is still a licensed hotel. And even if there were no license Brenda Berger would be happy to pour us a drink, I’m sure. Hospitality dies hard at Sans Souci. Maybe because it’s always been a family business. I used to come here as a kid when it was cheap and well past its heyday, but it still had something special about it, even when falling apart after it had served as some kind of military respite home during the war.”

“You saw these Berger ladies back then?”

“No, but their parents were very much in charge, though I suppose they were a rich enough family to leave managing to others. Their girls were probably in finishing schools or travelling.”

“I see…Perhaps I should now take myself and my eighty years out of this wind.”

“By all means. I suppose you’d like to look over the crime scene, and the adjacent areas.”

“Ehhh, perhaps later. First a little something to drink, non? Let me invite you, young Clive.”

“Maybe something soft…”

Maigret snorted.

*

They were walking up a gravel alley into the main building topped with its exotic dome when they caught sight of smoke rising from round the side. No doubt it was incinerator smoke. Then a man stepped into view, wheeling an empty barrow. He was large, fleshy, middle-aged …and very black, which was no small surprise to Maigret, who imagined Australia to be a place of whites only.

The man exchanged friendly nods with the visitors and proceeded toward the front garden, which, unlike the rest of Sans Souci, showed immaculate care.

“Commissioner, I think I mentioned him. That’s Roland, the maintenance man, the one who nailed up the window. Would you like to have a word with him? Actually, he’s French…or from Reunion Island, which I think makes him French.”

A compatriote! And now is as good a time as any to interview him, if he has a moment.”

Maigret waved and called out:

Excusez-nous. Vous avez un moment?

The man seemed surprised then pleased to hear his native tongue. He put down his barrow and came toward them down the alley. Maigret spoke low to McGroder:

“Perhaps if I take a stroll with this gentleman? Just to hear some French after weeks of English? You will not mind? And sometimes…a little intimacy, freedom…between compatriots…one never knows…”

“By all means, commissioner. I’ll wait inside at the bar.”

*

When Maigret came through the foyer he looked about for the bar. He was struck by the size of the main lounge and its enormous feature window looking out to the valley. A closer look revealed peeling paint and plaster, the worn condition of the many armchairs and tables, though nothing looked cheap or flimsy.

The cavernous fireplace to the side of the feature window was cold, though there was an aroma of burnt wood.

“Commissioner, we’re here!”

Hard over to the left, across a wide expanse of carpet, Clive McGroder was standing at a compact bar. There was a woman behind the counter. Maigret approached; the woman smiled broadly and seemed very intent on him.

“Commissioner, this is Brenda Berger.”

“A pleasure, madame.”

“Not mademoiselle?”

The woman was almost flirting, it seemed to Maigret. She looked to be in her thirties, and was dressed with more calculation than he was used to seeing since he left Paris. She was wearing a pantsdress, an odd fashion only younger women were adopting in France, but this was navy blue matched with jacket and  stockings of the same colour, so the effect was not too girlish. Brenda Berger’s face was almost pretty, though it was somehow marred by a theatrical expression. Too much tooth in the smile, Maigret was thinking.

Madame, in my circle a proprietor is always madame. Otherwise, in your case…”

Her laugh was too eager, and her eyes continued to gobble him up.

“Now, what will you have to drink, commissioner? See, we have a lot of choice. Liqueurs are a bit of a tradition here.”

Maigret scanned the bar shelf with surprise.

“Ah, I see Verveine from my home region…even an Armagnac…I might have a little of that.”

Verveine du Velay it is.”

“Ah no, that can be a little too green for me at times. I mean the Armagnac. Nothing warms like Armagnac, non?”

As the woman poured the liquor for Maigret and orange soft drink for McGroder:

“I know your region, commissioner. Or should I not say commissaire? They’re two different ranks, I believe. You see, I too have read one or two of those Simenon books.”

“They are different ranks, as you say. But the English word is a promotion for me, so I’m happy enough with it. You have been to the Auvergne, then?”

“To France, often. Once to the Auvergne, to buy some of that marvellous lace. I try buy all my clothes in France. Don’t go for the Carnaby Street look.”

“Ah, permit me to say that your shopping is, as we say, réussi.”

“Why, thank you, commissaire.”

Her chuckle showed those teeth again, the sound was too resonant, as if for the stage. But perhaps the woman was straining to cover grief over a sister’s death.

“Do you want to interview me? Or anybody else? I have a smidgin of time, but not much today, considering the circumstances. We do appreciate that you’ve come from so far. I hardly expected…”

“Indeed, but the sad circumstances of your sister’s passing present us with no small mystery…and I do find myself with the time, since I cannot leave your country…”

“We’re so pleased you’re here. But let me apologise for that airport strike. It’s making fools of us before the world’s eyes.”

“Oh, who knows? Perhaps these people have a reason to strike.”

The short grunt she gave indicated that “these people” were not hers.

“But don’t let us hold you up. My interviewing days are over. I just chat now. And I am sure you have told Mr McGroder all you can. Proceed with your day, madame.”

“I do have rather a lot to do. But please feel free to roam the premises if you want to investigate anything. Mr McGroder is the only one who can unlock the gallery now…And there is, of course, a room for you here, as our guest. You too, inspector. Unfortunately I need to be in Sydney tonight for a committee meeting of the Blind Society – work is the only thing that helps me when things get tough – but the kitchen is at your disposal, of course, like everything else. We only have casual staff these days, and they’re only here on certain weekends and for occasional functions. Blue Mountains Security will be patrolling the premises through the night, but there’ll be nobody else here. So if you don’t mind locking up…”

“Very kind, madame. But perhaps there is a restaurant or hotel where we can dine.”

“I can recommend the Carlton Room in Katoomba, but only if you order plain grilled steak. The meat is local.”

“Steak it will be then, eh, young Clive?”

“Now if you gentlemen will excuse me, I have quite a lot to do before I go to Sydney. Our family solicitor is looking after arrangements for the funeral but, as you can imagine…”

At this moment the woman hunched, dropped her head, and sobbed.

“Ah, madame…”

“No, please, we’re not usually like this, we Bergers. I’m all right. I have to be…Please excuse me. Much to do. I’m determined to keep functioning. Anything I can do to help…and the bar is yours…Excuse me, gentlemen.”

*

Maigret was savouring his Armagnac, saying nothing. At last McGroder:

“Commissioner, I suppose you’d like to see the gallery…where it happened.”

“Of course…of course…Tell me: your opinion of the lady?”

“Of Miss Berger? Sort of a high class type, I suppose. Educated, obviously. A controller. Plenty of confidence. Type who stays strong, keeps a stiff upper lip.”

“Upper lip? Ah yes, I heard that expression often in England during the war, though I’ve never understood how one makes a lip stiff…Tell me, do you find her attractive for what you might consider an older woman?”

“Well, not my type…but I suppose so. What about you?”

McGroder knew Maigret well enough not to expect an answer to any question. And he gave no answer now. Instead Maigret asked:

“This Roland, with whom I just spoke…how did he impress you when interviewed?”

“Good sort of a bloke. Did you learn anything just now?”

A long pause, which McGroder feared would be indefinite. Then:

“Interesting man. His parents were connected to the Vichy government on Réunion, informers, or suspected informers. When the Free French took back the island they were executed, perhaps with justification, perhaps not. A local bishop had the son out-adopted – is that an expression? – in Australia, for his safety. Usually only an honest man admits that his family were collaborators. The number of former Resistance heroes increases by the year in France…Yes, I find him a reliable type, this Roland. He tells me he nailed the window shut because he was aware that leaving the grill off the window left the gallery insecure over the weekend. It was the sort of sage – is that the word? – no, sensible thing he usually did without asking. The ladies were not  – how to say it? – were not always prudent or practical in such matters. You inspected the outside of the window?”

“Yes. The nails had been put in very neatly. There was no question of anybody tampering with them. Roland was the only one who knew that the window was nailed, and at the time of the attack he was at home with his family in Katoomba down the road.”

“Verified?”

“Yes.”

“And no question of entry or exit by any of the windows with grills in place?”

“None.”

“I see, Perhaps it is time to inspect this gallery. Ah, another question! Do you know of a politician called Macken? Sorry for pronunciation. I have trouble with your way of saying ‘a’. I mean Macken with an ‘a’ as in ‘cat’.”

“Maybe…maybe Pat Macken?”

“That’s it! Pat Macken. Two hard sounds for a Frenchman. This man is well known?”

“Not especially. He’s in NSW parliament, but his party is out of government. His father Frank was a trade union boss. Why? Did Roland say Macken is behind the airport strike or something like that?”

“No, no. It’s just that Roland mentioned to me that the last important visitors to this place all came together in big black cars, and one of them was this Mr Macken, the politician. You know, migrants often know a lot about people of influence in their new countries. Especially about politicians of the left, whom they see as sympathetic, maybe. In any case, Roland recognised this Mr Macken, in a group of other important looking people. They walked around the place for a while with Miss Berger.”

“With this Miss Berger?

“Yes. Her sister was in hospital or elsewhere, so Roland said. Perhaps the visit had to do with plans for the renovation of the establishment?”

“A huge project like Sans Souci…would certainly involve big wigs, a lot of approvals and financing…but I don’t think this is part of Macken’s electorate.”

“Elec…?”

“The part of the state he represents.”

“Ah. Never mind. Now, why do we not go and take a look at this gallery, the scene of our locked room mystery?”

“Commissioner, I thought you’d never ask.”

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