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 12

“It’s…it’s so odd. I mean…things like this are tragic, of course…principally tragic…But it’s also odd, though not in a funny sense, that you are sitting here with us, Mr Maigret…or Monsieur Maigret, I should say. Is it Mister or…? Doesn’t matter? No, I say it’s odd because we were joking about you – not in any pejorative way! – on the evening of the murder…Well, we have to assume it was murder…Though such a mystery! An actual locked room type of mystery…and now you, this famous detective we were mentioning just before the…the misfortune – must admit I thought you were fictional…all those Inspector Maigret books…”

Alderman Bert Collins had escorted his two visitors to the rear of his small Katoomba pharmacy. The cramped store room was all but bare of stock, so the three had been able to find space for their three stools.

He was bald, pale, wispy, the only bulk and colour about him being the heavy black-rimmed specs with especially deep bifocal sections. His speech and movements were nervous – and frequent! Judging by the modest scale of his business and the exasperated manner of the one shop girl, Alderman Collins may have been better suited to the endless discussions and delays of municipal politics than to pharmacy.

Maigret profited from a break in the stream of chatter:

“Mr Collins, do you have any thoughts which have come to you since the unfortunate event?”

“Thoughts?”

“Oh…anything at all. Details, and such like. About what happened that night.”

“Details? Only had my driving specs on…not intending to read…Can’t wear this tonnage of eyewear everywhere I go…Well…It depends what you mean by details. What clothes people were wearing…how people reacted…”

“Yes. Call to mind how people reacted. That would be excellent.”

“Well…people and their reactions…that’s all subjective, isn’t it? I mean…”

“Anything at all!” Even Maigret was showing an edge of impatience.

“Anything, you say? Well…Most people were upset, obviously…Although Tally…Miss Hobbes-Talbot…she kept a cool head. First to notice about the painting…Most people would be too shocked, but not Tally.”

“Consistent with the lady’s character?”

“Consistent? It depends on what you mean by…”

“Was she normally cold, practical?”

“Well…cold is strong. I’d say cool…cool and practical. Yes, those are the words…those are the mots justes, if I remember my French well…Only did French to Intermediate, but…”

“I understand you are some sort of elected official? You were aware of certain developments to do with this great hotel, the Sans Souci?”

“Well, you might say I was something of a help there. You see, the Berger family…not very good with politics away from the higher conservative circles. I was able to smooth the way with Council…Not that Council would have been against saving a heritage gem like Sans Souci – did I pronounce that correctly? – still, there are always stumbling blocks, objections. The Bergers thought my connections to the Labor Party were something of a scandal…till I was able to smooth the way for them with certain Labor people. I was able to say to So-and-so: ‘So-and-so, you have a son or a daughter who might be wanting a weekend  job, or maybe a good deal on a wedding reception’ and suddenly So-and-so sees the whole thing from a new perspective…”

“There was no real controversy about restoring or renovating the complex?”

“Oh, God no! For years we’ve feared the place would be pulled down before it fell down. No, no…it was just some details… Councillor So-and-so worrying about construction dust or wear on the roads, and me saying to Councillor So-and-so: ‘Do you want to save our eggs till they rot or break them and make an omelette now?’ That’s what you have to do in politics…And when someone was needed to show some money people and a Labor luminary around the place, I was there to do that, smoothe any ruffles, plus cross the t’s, dot the i’s…what I do…”

Now McGroder interrupted:

“Pat Macken. I understand he was here on a visit.”

“Yes, yes…He rang me, said he’d got wind of the development, wanted to come out and look the place over. Everyone knows he could be the next Works Minister. The government was on side, why not put the opposition on side? Especially Macken’s faction of the opposition. Let me tell you: this new Labor lot want to move the state along. Forget commos, union bruisers and all that. Keep your eye on Paul Furst. Furst means “premier”, you know. Speed reader, three books a week. Book a day when he’s on holiday. Anyway, I fixed it up…and no apologies for that. Brenda Berger was there – her sister was indisposed, as you know. It all went well, no small thanks to the ability of some to reach across the aisle, as it were. It’s all very well to say you don’t approve of such-and-such a party, but – this is entre nous, if I pronounce correctly – Macken’s got more between his ears than half the Liberals who run the state now…Not saying I’m pro-Labor…I’m just there to oil the machinery, grease the cables, to say to So-and-so that such-and-such might be in So-and-so’s own interest…Of course, the whole thing was moving ahead much faster than I liked, but with big finance the way it is now…all electronic…These supermarkets owned by investors who punt squeezy little profit margins on overnight money markets anywhere in the world…That’s why Franklins are cheap, you know. It’s not brotherly love. They want volume. It’s the volume, not the margin, for those big finance boys…Special computers or adders that plug into phones…You have to appreciate the scale, the speed, the hairline margins…It’s up to us toilers at the coal face to fit in, adapt or die…”

*

Outside the pharmacy, each turned to the other to say something – then merely grinned. At last Maigret:

“Mr Collins has a very active mind. I am so pleased he could speak to us…I wish we could have spoken to Mr Collins…Now, you say that the lawyer also has an office near here?”

“Just down the road, on the other side of the pub there.”

“Good, good…And is this pub open yet?”

“Commissioner, it’s not even half past nine…”

*

Mr Marley was almost a fantasy lawyer: elderly, pin stripe-suited, silver-haired, not pompous, but with measure in every word and movement. Any more measured and he would have been sly, perhaps. He had seated his two visitors at a small but ornate table in what he called, ambitiously, his conference room.

“I don’t have a lot of time this morning, but what I have is yours. Can I offer either of you gents a cup of tea or coffee? Even a small glass of sherry or port, in view of the cold, might be in order…”

McGroder was quick to refuse for both of them.

Marley continued: “There’s not a lot more I can tell you about the events of the night. Nobody acted in a suspicious way, nobody was in a position to leave the assembled company of guests let alone enter the gallery. I don’t wish to pre-empt your responsibilities or decisions…but whoever committed the crime was clearly not one of the guests. Since the window was nailed up and there were no other entry or exit points…I suppose we are looking at one almighty puzzle. If I read the likes of Agatha Christie – which I don’t – I might have some theories. As it stands…just an impossible puzzle! ”

“So it would seem, maître…But you understand the need to find a thread, any thread, to grasp, when there is so little of substance…Is there a detail, something which remains in the mind, though not connected to anything else? Sometimes Nature deposits these little things into our minds…”

“I understand and agree. My work is nothing but detail, commissioner. But nothing has come to mind since the events. Nothing. I remain bewildered.”

“And you are, I believe, the representative of the family for this matter of the restoration of Sans Souci?”

“Not the representative. I am one representative.”

“There were other lawyers engaged?”

“More like an army of lawyers, most in Sydney, one in Melbourne, one in London. Another in America, in New Jersey, for some reason…It was a very large matter, involving a huge amount of finance and planning…More than that, I don’t feel at liberty to say. Or rather…I can’t say gentlemen. Understood? My role was limited, you may as well know. Mostly intimate family matters, probate, powers-of-attorney. I held Berger family documents, still hold them…For this matter of the renovation I liaise with Blue Mountains Council, State Planning Authority, National Parks even…things close to home…Now the estate of Naomi Berger, of course…But, in globo, this project is a very large affair, well beyond the  scope of Marley Crabbe Solicitors.”

“And pressing?”

“Yes. You may as well know that things had come to a head quickly. Co-operation had been sought from all quarters, Labor dignitaries were courted even, in case there were union hurdles, a new government, that sort of thing. These things can dawdle on for decades, and the people involved in this ambitious restoration are not the types to dawdle. It will soon be no secret – though I’d still appreciate much discretion from you both – that two of the names involved are Sir Andrew Adele and Rosefields Pty Ltd. Mr McGroder will understand and explain.”

Maître, it seems to me that there is one good thing in all this. At least the late Miss Berger had recovered her health in time to enjoy the prospect of this…this renaissance.

“As you say, commissioner, that was an unexpected blessing. While it lasted.”

*

When they stepped out of the solicitor’s offices, the north-westerly wind was thrashing the bleak main street from out of two valleys. The squat Victorian shop fronts with their fading paint and worn signage expressed only indifference to the scant numbers of shoppers.

“Not too fancy these days, old Katoomba. And not much business on a winter weekday.”

“It would seem to be a little…Decrepit is the word?”

“Yes, commissioner, there used to be mining in the valley and tourists up the top. Now there’s little of either. People come to live here now for the cheap houses and grand views. I suppose if they’re not working they’re at home now looking at the view and saving money. Except for the ones at the pub. Would you like to see the view of the Jamison Valley? It’s the most famous of all, and it’s just down the end of the street.”

“Oh, perhaps something liquid to warm the body before we do more things today. You mentioned the pub…These old bones…The pub, it is open now, non?”

“Well…just, I suppose. It’s gone ten o’clock.”

Alors…And you say we do not have far to go to where the lady lives?”

“No, her home is in Leura. It’s not far from here, almost a suburb of Katoomba – though it’s kept its tone for some reason. It’s the money end of the mountains: mansions, gardens, flowering cherries everywhere, lots of trees that change colour in the autumn. We can be there in minutes…”

“I have been told to ask for a taste of proper pot still rum before I leave Australia. What do you know about proper pot still rum, mon petit?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all, commissioner.”

*

They had driven down a broad street flanked by healthy carpets of lawn, well-maintained picket fences, winter-bare trees and walls of conifers. All was tended but profuse, in the way of old wealth everywhere. A turn then short drive down an overgrown lane brought them to Wellbelove, one of the homes of the Hobbes-Talbot grazier dynasty. Here, as McGroder had explained, not without prickliness, lived the happily unmarried Cynthia Hobbes-Talbot, eldest daughter of the wealthiest branch of the family.

To Maigret’s amusement, McGroder drove his Holden along the drive beyond the entry as if in fear of scattering the crunching gravel.

A two storey home, all white, with eaves, veranda and portico of the plain but generous sort which balance without pomp, was hugged on the cold south side by ancient evergreens. Lawns and gardens undulated, rambled in a way they never did in France – which Maigret recognised as a better, and altogether English, way.

In front of the house a woman dressed in riding clothes and tweed hat was playing with three large dogs, lean with hairy coats. Curiously, they were not barking. When she saw the car approach she waved absently and continued to play with her animals. After McGroder had halted the car in the middle of the gravel drive and the two men got out, the lady paid them no further heed at all. Cynthia Hobbes-Talbot was not annoyed by interruption. She did not recognise interruption. At last, as they approached her:

“Sit!”

McGroder, to Maigret’s continued amusement, halted, as if the order was somehow for him. The dogs immediately sat, content to pant and cast their eyes toward the visitors.

“Borzois. Interesting breed. Coursers. Quiet, but not easy to train. Don’t know if that’s because they’re too smart or too stupid…What can I do for you gentlemen?”

“Miss Hob…Hobbes-Talbot, I…”

“Oh, call me Tally. I’m sick of people trying to vault over that double name. So, how is your locked room mystery going, Detective McGroder?”

“Well, slowly. Still covering all angles. I’d like you to meet Commissioner Maigret. He’s from France…”

“I know who the gentleman is. Was told he was in the mountains. Hello. Should I call you commissioner? I understand commissaire is a different rank to commissioner.”

“It is indeed, madame. That has already been pointed out to me in the last day. I feel that since I win on the exchange I should accept the title of commissioner.”

A snappy chuckle from the woman, shot out almost too quickly. She was someone who hated to hesitate, who needed to stay even in any game.

“Well, do you have any news or updates for me? Or do you have more questions? Lucky you caught me in. Hound Breeders West had to cancel a meeting because the secretary was unwell. I hope you haven’t come to see how heart-broken I’m looking – or not looking. Naomi was my friend and I’m furious that this has happened. But don’t expect me to go blubbering or putting life on hold. That’s not my way, and it wasn’t Naomi’s way. Nor Brenda’s. Now, what can I do to help you catch whoever did this? Is it about the painting, detective?”

“Well, since you are someone with expertise in Australian art…”

“Let’s say rural art, shall we? Most of my collection is from the British Isles. With some African and Australian.”

“Well, since you were the only person outside the Berger family with personal access to the gallery, and you know the contents well…”

“I hope you’re not forgetting that I was outside the gallery, in full view, doing a very audible countdown with the very watch you see on my wrist. So if anybody was able to dart away and somehow appear inside the gallery, it wasn’t me.”

Madame – I hope Mr McGroder will allow me to take up the conversation – of course we do not think any such thing about you. But if you could give us some idea of the value or desirability of the von Guerard…whether it could be disposed of with ease if it were stolen…”

“Let’s clear that up now. The piece was of great interest and of considerable value, what with all the interest in early colonial work. I offered to buy it, if that’s what you wanted to hear…”

“We didn’t know that, actually.”

“Well now you do, Detective McGroder. And let me tell you the circumstances. Firstly, I like that painting. Secondly, the two Berger girls were not cash-rich in recent times and I thought it would be wise to sell the painting off rather than merge it into some vast restoration or renovation project where they would no longer have sole ownership. I told them straight out.”

“Both sisters?”

“I visited Naomi in her last funny farm and put it to her. She said she wanted to keep everything together, regardless of ownership. You know, it was the prospect of restoring Sans Souci to former glory which kick-started her whole recovery. The prospect of  work and a challenge, that’s what cured her. Far more than any witch doctors or potions, I can assure you.”

“And the other Miss Berger?”

“She was happy if Naomi was happy. Brenda would do nothing to upset her sister or the restoration plans.”

“Well, thank you for your time, Miss…Tally.”

“One other thing, gentlemen. You will hear rumours about a…about a Sapphic, as they say, relationship between me and the Berger girls. Especially between me and Naomi. Let me say right now that the rumours were always false. We three, ever since childhood, were aware that there would be a lot of eager men in our futures. So we formed a sort of unofficial society – against eager men! We each decided not to marry anyone who owned less than we owned. Simple, don’t you think? We helped one another hold out till maturity – not easy when Naomi was off the rails – then, in maturity, we found we needed hard-working accountants and lawyers who could be readily dismissed, not lazy husbands who stuck about. Does that horrify you? I know the other two have had their adventures with men, may have almost tumbled…but our society against eager men still stands!”

Madame, one appreciates such frankness…And this Dr Pereira? Was he merely a mutual friend?”

“I should hope so. That type can play all he likes at English chumminess and manly decency and all that. Pleasant enough, but he’s a foreigner, an Asian, no money, with his head still in the village…and probably a wife or two back in the village. Never the twain! I told ’em as much. Never the twain!”

“And this sudden coldness between the doctor and Miss Berger?”

“Unreasonable. Brenda seems to be blaming him in some vague way. Maybe he’d been encouraging Naomi to drink, not being as strict as a doctor should be. Most likely, Brenda is just striking out. She’d rather do that than grieve passively. But if it puts some distance between her and Pereira, I say it’s a good thing.”

“Another eager man, madame?”

“Just so, commissaire.”

*

As they drove away…

“Commissioner, any more visits?”

Maigret was staring at something in the cup of his hand.

“Eh? No. I think we have interviewed enough. Is it time for lunch, you think?”

“Still early.”

“Well, an early lunch then. Your afternoon will be strenuous, mon petit. While I take some necessary rest and possibly some sleep, I will ask you to make a number of calls, dig for certain information. Are you willing?”

“Of course. I can work out of the Katoomba police rooms.”

“You have a friend in the police, in Sydney, the type who can…transiger…How do I say?…The type who can cut through, if you know what I mean?”

“I know what you mean. I have a friend called Don Dibble, just turned detective, same age as me. He looks like a high pile of used bricks, talks like a bear with a headache. But those are just appearances. If we ask him to drop everything and dig for information he’ll be willing and he’ll know what to do. He’s got grit.”

“Grit?”

“He’s got what you’ve got, commissioner.”

Ah bon.”

There was silence. Then Maigret lifted the feather he had been inspecting, the same one he had picked up on the ground beneath the gallery window.

Geais bleu…I think the English words are blue jay. It’s a blue jay feather. Common decoration. A Canadian bird, I think…”

“I’ve heard of blue jays…”

“Did you notice the feathers in Miss Tally’s hat?”

McGroder braked and pulled over to the side of the road.

“Commissioner! You mean…”

But Maigret merely lifted an index finger to side of his nostril, grinned just a little.

“The other thing you must do for me is to assemble all these people in the gallery, this very night. The doctor, Miss Tally, the lawyer, the pharmacist, Miss Berger…all of them. Tell them the purpose is to clarify certain details, at the request of an old man about to depart Australia, now that the airport strike is ended. But tell them they must come. Get your very large friend from Sydney to drag them if necessary. Say it is merely for a summation or conference, nothing more. If you like, hint that you are indulging me.

“But assemble them tonight in the gallery!”

Posted in CRIME/DETECTION | 2 Comments

MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 11

After locking and leaving the Jaguar, they paused to confer near McGroder’s much humbler Holden. Maigret leaned his aged bulk against its bonnet and gratefully caught some early sun full on.

“As we age we begin to understand lizards and other such creatures with cold blood…reptiles, I think is the English word?”

“Well, at least our winters are sunny here. May explain the size and numbers of our reptiles.”

“Ah, yes, this sun is good…”

“So, commissioner, you said you’d like to meet some of the people…”

“The doctor to begin with, I think. He was first to inspect the body, non?

“Well, it was Brenda who first approached the body…but, yes, I suppose it was Winston Pereira who confirmed that Naomi was actually dead, that the blood was real, not part of a game.”

“And you say there is now some anger against this man? From the sister?”

“It seems Brenda blamed him a bit for not discouraging her sister from drinking. She felt – she still feels – Naomi might have stood a better chance if completely sober. Not that she was drunk at all, but, as you know, emotion, sudden bereavement…Brenda just wants to lash out, I suppose.”

“And we cannot say, in any case, what the victim might have defended herself against in that locked room, non? What or who or how?”

“That’s right. A drink or two could hardly make a difference. I suppose it’s just emotion on Brenda’s part, someone to blame. Not as if anyone had control over Naomi. She was strong-minded. Whatever she did to get into a mess, she’d taken charge of her own cure, like everyone has to do in the end, I suppose. Pereira was their mutual friend, not Naomi’s psychiatrist. Anyway, after all her drug and mental problems she was making an effort to drink less, and it seems she hadn’t been drinking at all before she took just the one, immediately before the parlour game.”

“And you say she took medication also?”

“Yes, but not anything which could affect her behaviour quickly. Just lithium salts. She was in a good frame of mind and quite sober when she entered the room.”

“Lit…Lis..?…Ah, yes. It is the same word in French and English. Carbonate de lithium. One maintains a certain level in the body for a continued effect. It helps the mood of some. Modest amount of alcohol is permitted. I believe patients do not like the parching effect…”

“You study these things, commissioner?”

“I have much spare time now and some very large volumes on things which might have a rapport with the study of crime. Otherwise one might be driven to reading fiction. Simenon, even!”

McGroder could only force a laugh. He was impatient to know, and catching Maigret’s true thoughts was just an added strain on his patience. Why these swings between secrecy and flippancy? Was it a French thing?

“So, you’d like to see Pereira first? He’s unlikely to be home. His work is mostly at Lithgow Hospital, down the other side of the mountains. Of course, we could always drive to Lithgow…”

“Ah, no. To his home, Clive. And directly!”

“Shouldn’t we ring first? I mean, if he’s not home…”

“Well then, we can breathe in a little more mountain air. And breathe in a little more of the lives of these people. The doctor lives out that way, does he not?”

Maigret pointed away from the Sydney side of the mountains, toward the north-west.

“Why, yes. He lives at Blackheath, a few miles from here. How did you know?”

A shrug, then:

“You mentioned he works down the other side of the mountains. So I perhaps assumed he might live a little closer to his place of work.”

“Perhaps?”

A shrug.

Maddening.

*

On the way to Blackheath Maigret was silent and McGroder made no attempts to draw him out. The young man was even allowing himself a sulk, perhaps. At last Maigret:

“We are taking the most direct way to this man’s house? The normal way?”

“Yes. We drive along this main ridge then, at Blackheath shops, make a right turn and a left turn…Does it matter?”

“Oh, it might, mon petit. You never know. We may catch the doctor at home. Will there be anyone else there?”

“I doubt it.”

“A single man? No family here?”

“No, he came out from Ceylon under some special government plan for doctors.”

“And he works here and not in Sydney for a reason?”

“I think it’s a way for someone ambitious to get a start in Australia. Certain professional people from Asia accept positions in less fancy places – Lithgow is coal mining – either because there is plenty of work for them, or because they are sent there.”

“And this does not violate your laws against…against darker people?”

“Those laws don’t exist, commissioner. Never have.”

Again, a tone of sulk.

“I see. And what is your impression of this doctor?”

“Well…A big, good-looking bloke. Very social, they tell me. Lower grade cricketer. Still young enough to play in the local Rugby side. A bit posh, like a lot of Rugby Union types.”

“Posh?”

“You know, talks a bit English, David Niven mo, smokes a pipe, leather patches on his coat…”

“But you yourself played Rugby…”

“Rugby League. League is for my…my type.”

“Ah, la Ligue…the Rugby League is the game of thirteen, non?”

“That’s right. Rugby Union is for fifteen players. Being French I suppose you’d know how all that works.”

“Our national thirteen, our rugby-à-treize side, les Chanteclairs, is very strong, just not well known in the north. It recently beat Australia twice, did it not? But it seems odd that the two types of rugby belong to different classes in the same place.”

“Well, it’s not as definite as that. The footy you play shouldn’t matter socially, but here it sort of does. Hard to explain. We mostly descend from bloody convicts or nobodies in this country, but we have to make our social distinctions somehow.”

Maigret laughed, ignoring the other’s faintly sour mood.

“I understand a little, being from the Auvergne. In France, Rugby means you are too much from the south. And what is here called Rugby League, jeu-à-treize, means you are worse than that. The Vichy government had the game banned, its grounds and possessions confiscated, and after the war it was still…Those words you used…convicts and…”

“Convicts and nobodies?”

“Just so. It was a game of convicts and nobodies.”

Maigret chuckled away quietly, then:

“Are you a convict or a nobody, young Clive?”

“Me? No convicts in my family tree. We’d shoot them if we had any. I’m a nobody, for sure…What about you, commissioner?”

“Hmm. Voyons, voyons…Alas, I fear I am more convict.”

By the time the car drew into a driveway in the back streets of Blackheath the two men were almost at ease again. Or Maigret had used his charm to make it so for a while! The ease would pass, McGroder could be sure.

*

“No cars here. I’d say he’s gone to work for sure.”

“Perhaps you could knock.”

McGroder opened his door to get out.

“Since you insist…”

“I hope you don’t mind if I stay here in the car. The morning is cold and my bones are slow.”

“I’ll be back in a minute.”

Sure enough, McGroder walked to the front door of the modest timber home, knocked, waited, then came back.

“Nobody there. Seems we’ve wasted a trip, commissioner.”

“It does seem so.”

“Who else would you like to talk with? I’ve got the schedules for most of the people who were witnesses. The family lawyer, the local politician who’s also a pharmacist, the lady with the double surname…”

“Those three will be enough.”

“Enough? Then you already have some idea…”

“Oh, who can say? I think I now know some things…but if I tell you what those things are that will make two of us who think they know, and know the same things. Better to shop, to gather…non? Like the housewife with the big thing on wheels, or the mushroom hunter, non?”

“If you say so.”

Patience, mon petit. But I think I need to move my limbs or I will be stuck in this seat till the summer comes. Is there a place we can walk in the sun a little?”

“As a matter of fact there is. Just down on the edge of this town. And it’s quite a place.”

*

The forest slopes dressed the sides of sandstone cliffs like half-fallen robes. The base of the valley was still a winding lake of mist, that looked like it could stretch to the Pacific through fold after fold of valley wall.

Impressionant! It is…almost too much space, too much for the eye!”

“You’re not the first traveller from Europe to say something like that. Charles Darwin came here last century, saw this, and was bowled over. Maybe he stood right where we’re standing. It’s called the Grose Valley, commissioner. We’re on the Sydney side of the ridge here. Up high the soil is thin, the gums are straggly. But down there are rivers, gorges, streams, waterfalls…and blue gums the size of city buildings.”

Maigret was silent, stared out. At last:

“So strange that someone would kill to own a small representation of all this…while the thing itself is here for free, and many just pass it by…”

“You think…the painting…?”

“Oh, who can say? I was being…métaphorique, perhaps. I mean merely that we ignore the greater in order to own the lesser…that we…Ah, even in French it would be hard to say what I mean…I think…I think the morning will be well spent interviewing our three witnesses. And then…”

“And then?”

“Lunch, of course!”

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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.

Posted in CRIME/DETECTION | 4 Comments

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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