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

MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 7

MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 8

MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 9

MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 10

MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 11

MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 12

MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 13 (Final)

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

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

IT’S JUST THE FALL

***

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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THE PINK AND PURPLE PEOPLE – Or, How It’s Done.

From the Cumberland Gazette, Jan 28 2021…

We finally have to do it. You’ve heard about it, we’ve all heard about it. But report on it? Till now, not the Gaz. Careers and Walkley Awards come first around here. A non-tabloid journo has to eat (at least a bit, between drinks) just like the other sort, but panda-attacks-shark-to-save-child stories are not what we do. Aliens we definitely don’t do. No way a Gaz correspondent was going to put his/her name to the beached alien story…till now.

But now!

No less a personage than retired Israeli defense boss, Benny Getz, has declared that the pink and purple sort-of people spotted on beaches after the mysterious crash and explosion are real. According to Getz, they are aliens and they are real. He will say no more than that, so we will say no more at this time, except that a certain holidaying super-couple claim to be eye-witnesses to the new alien presence on an exclusive Mediterranean beach.

In other alien related news, Brisbane and Queensland bench forward…

***

From the Cumberland Gazette, July 2 2021…

While denial and skepticism have been rife, it keeps getting harder to ignore the many credible confirmations of the new alien presence. Now science has chimed in.

Dr Mona Wayling of the Utech Centre of Excellence has researched reports of the strange skin coloration which initially attracted so much scoffing. Her work, after close collaboration with NASA experts, has found that the overall bright pink coloration with the purple dotting could well be an adaptation to the radiation and unfiltered photons of deep space. While it is too early to tell, it may transpire that the visitors, if such they be, are inveterate space travelers, rather than inhabitants of a particular planet.

Tom Hanks continues to insist that he and his wife had a clear and close view of the so-called aliens. While Hanks relates the encounter with his customary levity, it is worth remembering that he has recently met several times with military and security heads of the Five Eyes. (There is still no explanation for Hanks’ apparent disappearance from Denver International Airport and reappearance a week later at Mawson Station in the Australian Antarctic Territories.)

Pope Francis has remarked that a world gripped by a terrifying virus and equally terrifying climate change could do worse than look upward to the heavens…

***

From the Cumberland Gazette, Dec 21 2021…

While the Christmas spirit of most Australians has embraced the Visitors (we can lose that “alien” word now, surely) discredited anti-vaxxer and Donald Trump booster Dr Barry Corcoran has chosen the time of joy to lash out at the great majority who have shown such an open and inclusive spirit. Corcoran, recently dismissed from his academic post and regular television engagements after inappropriately pressing against a network weather presenter, has claimed that science is wrong and hundreds of eyewitnesses are caught up in a bizarre conspiracy to promote the existence of aliens who do not exist. The disgraced former professor and failed Celebrity Survivor contestant even has a theory that a measure of absurdity, such as the pink and purple skin color of the Visitors, is “built in” to what he calls “these globalist hoaxes” as a kind of “threshold test”. His words, not ours.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Sub-Commissioner Dr Andrea Saunders has called for a ban on the old 1950s hit, Purple People Eater. “While the song was once an amusing novelty and nothing more, it is rapidly becoming a tool of the far right in attacking not only the Visitors but also those who wish to show inclusiveness towards all who come from outside.” Dr Saunders drew particular attention to the verse of the song which imputes, without the slightest justification, malice, racism and even cannibalism to the Visitors:

“Well he came down to earth and he lit in a tree
I said Mr. Purple People Eater, don’t eat me
I heard him say in a voice so gruff
I wouldn’t eat you cuz you’re so tough.”

***

From the Cumberland Gazette, Aug 25 2022…

There have been a number of arrests after a group of mainly middle-aged Caucasian males performed a version of Purple People Eater as a flash mob in the Miranda Fair shopping centre. Initial charges involve use of the old Ray Stevens hit without permission of Warner Entertainment. It is thought that prosecutions for public nuisance and racial incitement will follow.

Such behaviour should soon become less common. Legislation is before Parliament which will make it a crime to deny the existence and/or presence of the Visitors. Ridiculing the appearance of the Visitors is already an offense under bullying laws; soon boycotting businesses which display the international Visitor-ready logo or Visitor-friendly signs will be punishable by heavy fines or even imprisonment.

Meanwhile controversy rages over TIME Magazine naming the Visitors its Person of the Year. Since there has been no direct contact with the Visitors there has been no way to get their consent to the description “Person”. Human rights groups, while being careful not to represent the issue as a “human” issue, have called for a full review of TIME’s insensitive gaffe. Some have proposed that an apology to the Visitors followed by the joint nomination of Dr Mona Wayling and Dr Andrew (formerly Andrea) Saunders would be an appropriate solution.

As Visitor denialism by a small but determined fringe becomes a public threat, a number of eminent scientists and ethicists are suggesting that the spread of such toxic opinions be treated as “mental pandemics”. Dr Warren Singer of Our Rights Now! has stated: “We ask that people with a virus be isolated and that health passports be carried and constantly updated. Should we not insist that those who deny the very existence of the Visitors be subjected to rigorous re-education before being permitted travel and free movement?”

***

From the Cumberland Gazette, March 2 2023…

The tragic deaths of Visitor 339 and the popular social media influencer known as Shauna Sheep (real name Kylie Grubb) highlight the need to stiffen the UN’s Protective Mutuality measures. Grubb, diagnosed with COVID-19NS3 after recovery from the original strain of the virus, had been in accidental contact with Visitor 339 on a Cyprus beach shortly after the crash of Space Craft V-alpha.

In what may be a bizarre and terrifying exchange of pathogens, Visitor 339 has passed away with one or both strains of COVID (though actual cause of death may have been delayed shock from the crash), while Kylie Grubb’s death has been attributed to a mystery pathogen which caused purple speckling on the skin. This reported symptom has given rise to racist outbursts from the small fringe hostile to Visitor presence.

Isolation has now become total for all Visitors. Dr Julius Szabo of the Centre of Excellence for Visitor Studies has stated that any degree of Visitor-human interchange may now be several years away. Professor Doreen Golightly of Wollongong’s Thunberg Environment Emergency Unit has warned that the rapid pace of climate change may mean that full Visitor adaptation may not be achievable, even long term. “Unless all nations immediately come on board with UN Climate Resolutions 36, 39 and 63, the much regretted protective isolation of our Visitor population will be indefinite.”

In other news, Warren Diklas, disbarred solicitor and leader of far right group SMJOA (Show Me Just One Alien), was found dead in custodial isolation…

***

So. Pink and purple aliens.

See how it’s done?

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

TRULY, A FICTION

Feeling thirsty, I popped in to the local shop for a soft drink.

It’s an old fashioned establishment, where you still ask for the product you want rather than just pick it up and take it to the counter. So I asked old Costas for a Coca Cola.

Costas ran outside after excusing himself.

Through the back door of the shop I could see he was doing the usual: filling an exquisite porcelain jug with water from a clear spring which trickled out of the rocks, plucking and mincing numerous herbs, both sweet and bitter, then mixing them into the spring water along with wild honey from a nearby hive. After adding juice and minced rind from a freshly picked lime, a cinnamon stick and ice made from the same spring water he came back to the shop and placed my drink on the counter.

It was, needless to say, delicious and refreshing beyond description.

I offered to pay, as usual, and, as usual, Costas said that there would be no charge since I had not requested premium ingredients, such as thyme honey or freshly plucked saffron from the crocuses about the yard.

As I stepped out of the shop it occurred to me that I did not know much of what was going on in the world at that time. So I returned to the counter and asked Costas if he could sell me something for that particular need.

Costas produced something called a newspaper. He told me that, not only did it contain all I needed to know of what was going on about the world, but it even graded the importance of everything both by the ordering of the reports and the size of the titles above them.

He sold me the newspaper for what I can only describe as a pittance, even indicating that one could read the same at a local library or cafe for free.

What a wonder! In my hand were all the important events and people and ideas of the day. There were even prominent guides on what opinions might be held and what conclusions might be drawn from the reportage.

I held not just a bundle of folded paper. It was the world I was holding. And all for a pittance.

I know there are many people inclined to doubt that such a boon can be had for such a tiny price and without conditions.

But those would be the same people who doubt that Costas sold me that marvelous and healthful jug of Coca Cola. They might claim that all I would be likely to get in those circumstances would be a can of pernicious muck not worth a fraction of the price paid.

In fact, one unpleasant fellow I sat next to on the bus tried to tell me that everything in my newspaper is either a deception, a manipulation, a conditioning, a provocation, a distraction or an advertisement. Everything!

This unfortunate soul was living without belief. Sure enough, when I told him about Costas and the Coca Cola he did not believe that either.

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IT’S JUST THE FALL

IT’S JUST THE FALL

In butch agogai, stifling howls,
The Spartans flick-fight with wet towels.
After Thebes their ranks are thin,
Still they dump their babes in bins.
Nor can Darby marry Joan –
Well, not till they reduce that loan.
Steve and Adam tie the bow
(Incomes 2 and children O).
Just Tartars breed…They’ve jumped our wall!
Ah, never mind, it’s just the Fall,
Just that crazy, crumbly Fall.
It’s just the Fall.

Trimalchio’s lunch is lite, no toxin
(Gone vegan since he spewed those oxen).
Prince Charles’ Aston runs on wine…
The waste so pious, who’s to mind?
Gaia gobbles peasants’ tithes;
Blacksmiths starve, green Tetzel thrives.
(Can’t hate local grime enough:
The Middle Kingdom makes our stuff.)
You might think Tartars have such gall –
But really, people, that’s the Fall,
Just that funny, fractious Fall.
It’s just the Fall.

Barras and the Directoire
Think fashion mustn’t go too far;
A simple revolution-chic
And I.T. edge make great the Geek.
T-shirts and a Mac with cheese
Confer a certain regal ease.
Austerity’s the latest romp…
Till Bonaparte brings back full pomp!
(Égalité, alas, soon palls.)
To be expected, that’s the Fall,
Just that gaudy, glistening Fall,
It’s just the Fall.

The Berber and those Ba’athist louts
No longer serve, and so they’re out.
“More lebensraum!” is now the plan
For Israel and and for Kurdistan.
(Along with sheikhs of Araby
They’ll bar, in theory, Muscovy.)
Thrift and borders? Turn that page!
Debt and Empire have the stage.
Intruding Tartars may appall,
It’s hardly odd, it’s just the Fall,
Just that teetering, tottering Fall.
It’s just the Fall.

As all borders melt away,
So heroes must be trans or gay.
We heap awards on Travesty
And giggle at plain he-or-she.
Ajax squats him down to piddle;
Helen stands…It’s all a riddle!
The Year is Zero, history numb;
Christendom is Christendumb.
Though Tartar gods look mean and small,
They shall prevail – it’s just the Fall!
Just that swaying, wavering Fall.
It’s just the Fall.

Gore and splatter may seem retro,
But to keep his dollars petro
Bomber Barry sends in drones –
Or those dollars might be stones.
For money isn’t really there,
It’s just a thing you make appear.
No moth fart now more airy-fay
Than currencies that used to weigh.
Those Lombard lenders have a ball!
Believe it, punters: it’s the Fall,
Just that strangling, stifling Fall.
It’s just the Fall.

Where observation can’t distract
Statistics get the best of fact;
So bug-eyed scholars toil indoors
To prove the seas will swamp the shores.
Computerised disaster porn!
(Reality’s a total yawn).
Let Aristotle close his school –
Now non-Kardashian models rule!
Techno-sophists book out halls,
Inquiry’s mute…it’s just the Fall,
Just that fudging, fiddling Fall.
It’s just the Fall.

Soft students seek safe space from words,
Rape gangs prowl the western ‘burbs.
Caesar’s pouring beers for votes;
Tartar voters swarm on boats:
Stern Cato doesn’t like their savour…
Still, he doesn’t mind cheap labour.
Cincinnatus works till sore?
That suits us – we’ll tax him raw!
You might thinks it’s mad ‘n all…
People, chill! It’s just the Fall,
Just that wacky, wobbly Fall.

It’s just…

…the Fall.

Posted in POETRY | 16 Comments

MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 13 (Final)

McGroder, standing, surveyed the faces along the the line of portable chairs in the gallery. Most were just curious, expectant; but Brenda Berger, seated furthest from the dark stains on the floor and next to the family lawyer, Mr Marley, was squinting back tears, head downcast. Winston Pereira had approached with comforting gestures but she had rebuffed him. Mr Marley had then shaken his head at Pereira, as if to indicate that there was no point in trying. Pereira was now seated at the other end of the row, closest to the stains.

Standing well behind the young detective, Maigret was hunched and sucking on his pipe, eyes down.

“Firstly, I’d like to thank you all for coming at short notice.”

“We’d really like to know why this is necessary, Detective McGroder. I can’t see the point in assembling right where the events occurred. It’s certainly not helping my client’s state of mind.”

“I quite understand, Mr Marley. It’s just that it’s been hard to collate everything that’s been noted so far…And I hope all appreciate that we police are confronted with some real puzzles…”

“Is that a reason to be so theatrical? And are we now to be treated to a scene where some arch-detective expounds on the case, pointing fingers at different parties before finally offering his resolution?”

Now Maigret stepped forward.

Messieurs et mesdames, this little gathering, which will be very short, was in fact the result of my urging. I will soon be gone from your country, and my time is short. I thought I might perhaps – how shall I say? – put what theories I have before you; and also hear your theories or ideas, just in case the combination of minds might produce something. Excuse my clumsy English. But, you see, faced with such a puzzle, who can know if there is a purpose served till something is tried? And to justify the inconvenience, I at least can offer a small measure of comfort, of good news.”

His audience sat forward a little, Brenda Berger raised her head.

“My friends, two crimes constitute what occurred in this gallery a few nights ago. Or four crimes, if one separates each theft from each murder…”

Alderman Collins stood up amid the shocked murmurs.

“Well, I’m no sleuth, but I can count…Meanwhile, I’ve got a hot dinner waiting for me…it might not be hoit cuisine, as they say, but it’s my dinner…though I’d be lucky if it’s still hot. And I’d advise Mr Marley to escort his client away from here…McGroder, I might seem like a country dill to you but I can count. I can count one murder here, not two. And I can count to eighty, which is about the age of our French visitor. Eighty in the shade, more likely. I’d say it’s time for you to give it away, mon ah-mi. Two murders now! You might think I’m just good for shelling out pills, but I’ve got a friend or two in higher places, higher etch-elons, you might call them in your parlance, and they’ll be hearing about this…”

“Ah, please forgive me, Mr Collins. Perhaps I have been – the word? – cryptical, yes, too cryptical…And this may well be a sign of the advance of years…far too many years. But stay for a little good news at least. Can you not delay just a moment? In fact, let us have no delay. Clive, the picture. Would you assist me?”

McGroder followed him to the large seascape and lifted it from the bottom. Maigret reached in, fiddled about, then drew out the stolen von Guerard. Amid gasps, he held it up to show.

“As you can see, the picture has never left the gallery. It was concealed here for a purpose, and by some person or persons with easy access to the gallery. This was the first theft, fruit of the first murder, as I shall explain…”

There were no protests now. Maigret’s audience froze.

“Let me now explain that first murder.

“The thief is interrupted in the gallery by the owner of the painting. With no other recourse, our thief, well known to the owner, attacks and kills her. Now, because our thief has access to the gallery at any time, it is not necessary to remove the painting, merely to hide it. For the escape, as for the entry, there is a high ladder at the window, which is no longer barred. What is of further interest: a feather, matching that used in a sort of hunting hat often worn by the guilty, is found at the base of the ladder…”

“Tally!” screamed Brenda Berger. But Mr Marley placed a calming hand on her shoulder. Tally was also a client.

“These aren’t theories! They sound like claims, accusations even! And very odd ones! Tread carefully, sir.”

“Excuse me, Mr Marley. But it will do no harm if you all hear me out…”

Cynthia Hobbes-Talbot rose in her place.

“You can continue this farce with my lawyers, just one of whom is Mr Marley. And he is the nicest one. Yes, I wear hunting hats, and, yes, I have access to this gallery. But unless you can explain how I can climb through plate glass and be in two places at one time…”

“Ah, madame, no need, no need. Once again, I am being too cryptical…My age, no doubt…Your crimes were, in any case, as light as the feather of a blue jay…But first let me put down this picture before I drop it…Yes, madame, there was no harm in the theft or even in the murder you committed.”

Heads were shaking in bewilderment; Tally stood stiff and glared.

“You all perhaps forgot – understandable in the circumstances – that you were among a large gathering of friends who were here to play a very British parlour game. You were here to play at solving a crime involving a body in a library – though in this case a gallery was to serve.

“Miss Naomi Berger was, of course, the pretend victim. How quickly one forgets, hein? And who was the pretend perpetrator? Why, a person who desired to own the painting by von Guerard, non? A person able to come back later to retrieve the painting. Was the old plaster at the edge of the frame worth damaging deliberately for the sake of adding a clue to the game? Some damage to the already damaged premises did not matter. Soon the whole complex would be changed, renewed, non? Outside the gallery, the blue jay feather caught my attention not because it was on the ground but because it had been lodged there, with a pebble to keep it in place. A deliberate and purely theatrical clue!

“Miss Tally, you were only guilty in the night’s game, a game which was never concluded and which all forgot.

“Now we come to the second murder, and to the events which made you all forget that game…

“When you entered the gallery together, you found an unmoving body, a body you thought to be alive, in what you thought was a pool of theatrical blood. Eh bien…

“That body was alive. And the blood was indeed fake!”

“But how…?”

“Please attend, Miss Tally. After Miss Brenda Berger showed alarm about her sister, who confirmed that the lady was in fact dead?”

Eyes shifted to Winston Pereira, who immediately confirmed:

“I, and then Mr Collins, a pharmacist, the other person in the room most qualified to judge. And Naomi was dead, I can assure you!”

“Ah, yes. One other person, a person known to be nervous, excitable – forgive me Mr Collins – and whose poor sight was made worse by his lack of close vision spectacles – again, forgive me, Mr Collins. A person who was not prompted to inspect the wound, but rather distracted from it…”

“I can’t spend my life taking specs on and off…As to excitable, that depends on your definition of…”

“Mr Collins, we do not wish you to be any other way, but sometimes there are those who know to exploit our…our little ways. Returning to the subject…

“All were commanded by Dr Winston Pereira to leave the gallery. All co-operated. He remained there alone, already drenched in what seemed to be blood. Now, when he knew himself and the still unmoving Miss Berger to be out of sight…

“That was when he was able to cut her throat with a very sharp and precise instrument, such as doctors own and know to use well!

“A matter of seconds!

“Now the lady really was dead – and bleeding much! And Dr Pereira had no need to explain all the blood. How many who kill with a knife have such fortune? But you should be aware, Dr Pereira, that theatrical blood, known as Kensington Gore, has a very different appearance to real blood when dry. When I examined the floor I observed dried real blood and dried theatrical blood. I still see both on the floor: the fake blood which Miss Berger smeared on herself and dripped on the floor, as part of the game, and the real blood which you caused to flow when it was assumed that the lady had already been murdered. The simplest test will show the difference between the two stains.”

Now McGroder:

“But for the sealing of the window by the handyman, of which only the handyman was aware, all would have gone well with your plan. Even we police would have assumed that a thief had been interrupted while trying to steal a painting. Since the window was unbarred and the ladder was against it, it was easy to believe that the presumed killer and the painting had both gone out and down that way, the culprit closing the window behind him to slow down any pursuit. There would have been no suspicion of any of the guests, and no locked room mystery…

“But, unfortunately for the actual killer, the window had been nailed shut by Roland Cassin. As in everything, Mr Cassin was thorough and careful…There was no budging that window. Nobody had come or gone that way.

“Which meant that instead of a violent burglary of an obvious sort we now had a locked room mystery on our hands, a seemingly impossible crime. And that led me to seek out Commissioner Maigret, on the remote off-chance that he would consent to help in the investigation. And the long shots came home. The long shots against you, doctor, and against your clever plan.”

Pereira rose from his chair, puffing out his chest and placing hands on hips.

“Look here, that lady was dead when we all found her. Do you really think someone would lie for so long and just allow me to butcher her? For the sake of a game? And I would want my good friend Naomi dead for what reason? I also know a lawyer or two…and a minister in Colombo, for that matter. This nonsense has gone far enough!”

Pereira strode toward the door.

“Winston!”

“Someone stop him!”

Maigret and McGroder ignored the pleas, and Winston Pereira was able to make a fast exit from the gallery. Brenda Berger began to shriek:

“He got her drunk! I knew it! You were right, Tally. He’s had his eye on Naomi for years. Jealousy! He couldn’t have her, so…so this!…Can’t you stop him, arrest him? Mr McGroder!”

“No need for me to stop him. There’s a policeman on the other side of that door, a detective called Don Dibble. He could stop a Bondi tram just by looking at it.”

*

The group, without Pereira, had calmed; Brenda’s sobs had subsided. Cynthia Hobbes-Talbot had taken command of the conversation:

“Certain things, commissioner, still don’t make sense.”

“No, Miss Tally. They do not.”

“I understand that Winston was in on the game with Naomi, would have known about the fake blood…It doesn’t surprise that Naomi – since she liked some drama and did things to extremes – would go to the trouble of using fake blood to make herself the best corpse possible. But she would have have gestured to us all that she was okay, so the game could continue. She wouldn’t just lie there in a pool of fake blood. Pereira made her unconscious somehow, but only after she had applied the fake blood perfectly and taken the perfect position on the floor…It’s too neat!”

“I told you, Tally. He got her drunk! He got my sister drunk!”

“Naomi wasn’t drunk, Brenda. A drunk just falls down. We’ve both seen Naomi drunk. How could Winston get her to lie so still for so long, after she had set herself up perfectly as a corpse? How do you do that with such…such precision?…And where was the booze? She didn’t walk into that gallery drunk. Then there’s motive. Jealousy as motive…I don’t know…Commissioner?”

Hélas, mesdames, I cannot know all these things so quickly or so easily. Perhaps the interrogation of Dr Pereira will render more. I have only hours left in Australia, a day at most, so I must now leave the matter in the hands of Mr McGroder and his friend Don Dibble. Those are capable men. I have little inklings – is that the word? – about the doctor and his motives, but they are uncertain, too uncertain…and my mind moves to other things now…”

“What other things?”

“Oh, firstly to your splendid liqueurs, madame. Is it permissible? Can I propose a round of drinks before I take my leave of your beautiful mountains for the last time?”

“You certainly may.”

Mes amis, will you all stay a few minutes longer, to share a last little celebration with an old man? You can always re-heat your dinner a little, non, Mr Collins?”

The remaining guests all nodded. McGroder:

“I’ll help Miss Berger get the drinks.”

“Oh, no need, detective.”

“Well, in the circumstances, miss. Safety, security and all that…”

“Of course. But call me Brenda. I’m a lone woman in these mountains now, and I need friends.”

She gave one of her confident chuckles as she wiped her eyes. She was again the resilient Berger, the flirtatious Brenda.

“The only thing is…he won’t be out there…Will he?”

“No, Miss…Brenda, I mean…Don Dibble has taken him somewhere else. Pereira will be isolated for quite a while.”

*

When Brenda and McGroder returned with trays of drinks, Maigret, in apparent off-duty mood, had the group well entertained. The chairs had been placed in a circle. Some quiet laughter after the shocks of the last half-hour was what they all needed.

Drinks were served, with Maigret choosing the armagnac, which he was content to merely watch and swirl about in the glass.

“Drink up, commissioner! Don’t wait for us.”

“Oh, give me a little moment.”

“Not like you!”

“Ah, the advance of years…Even one’s drinking is slowed…”

Finally, all were seated with their drinks, though McGroder had only a glass of water with which to celebrate. Brenda Berger seemed revived:

“I’d like to give thanks and propose a toast…I think we all know to whom. Commissioner Maigret, to your health and long life! And I’d add that if I was twenty years older…or if a certain gentleman was twenty younger…Well, if there is anything more attractive than a Frenchman with brains…You all know what I mean…”

“Ah, madame, you flatter me…”

“No, I don’t flatter. Bergers don’t flatter. I don’t know how you do it, commissioner. You appear to be thinking nothing when you are thinking the most. You lull, you lure…It’s just extraordinary. Even your biographer has no idea your English is fluent. Nothing is more attractive to a woman than a man with a real brain. So many men these days just have adding machines between their ears and call it intelligence…”

Madame…you flatter me…”

“Not at all, commissioner.”

“Ah, but I must insist you not flatter me.”

“Commissioner, you must understand that we women are not like you men. The way to our hearts…”

At that moment, Maigret hurled his full glass of armagnac over his shoulder. It shattered on the floor somewhere behind him. The others fell silent, gaped.

Now he stood up. His face was petrified fury.

Madame, as I said, you flatter me.”

“What…?”

Ah, les fauves…les fauves...”

“Commissioner, I have to protest this treatment of my clients…”

Taisez-vous!

Mr Marley reared up.

Asseyez-vous!

The Maigret glared them all to silence. Suddenly, he was larger, a force. The lawyer eased back down on to his chair.

“We have successfully isolated your lover, madame. I assure you that you will have no more chances to reconcile your stories.”

“My lover!”

“Your lover, Dr Pereira!”

“Me? Me with…with that blackamoor!”

“You, madame. With him. And your rehearsed rejections of Dr Pereira have made it only more obvious.”

Mr Marley: “Look here, you’d better have proof of this or…”

“The proof will be in many places. Once one knows what to look for, proof of such things is easy. The first proof for me, madame, was a record of vehicle use, left on your desk, in your handwriting. Your handwriting, by the way, will also be of interest…”

“You were in my rooms? The Berger private rooms? That can’t be legal…”

“Such fine points of law can be for later. The crime was committed in this complex, the police were entitled to search the complex. You agreed to that. You invited me, a person with no authority here, to inspect all. So I did.”

“My door was locked!”

“Indeed? I found it open. Mr McGroder is of another opinion, perhaps. Who can know when a door is locked or merely stuck? But I found it open. Madame, your record of vehicle use is very precise. It does you credit. Of special interest are all those visits to a certain address, not far from here, itemised perfectly. And when Mr McGroder was so kind as to drive me to the address of Dr Pereira, our trip was not wasted. My interest was not in talking to Pereira, but merely in distances. The distance was precisely the same as the distance you so often recorded. It was the distance you travelled only last night, when you said you were to be in Sydney.”

“I…I didn’t write anything in my book for yesterday…”

“You no doubt were mindful to avoid that. But the only miles you made since your last trip – which was recorded – were to that address! The – what is the word? – the odomètre, the counter on your vehicle, which I so much admired, showed you did not travel to Sydney at all. Some calls to your charitable society friends have confirmed this. And when your car arrived here this morning, it arrived from the other direction to Sydney. The direction of Dr Pereira’s home! Even my poor ears could tell. A little alarmed by my presence here, you felt the need for a conference with your lover? Certainly, on your return, you were eager to inform me of the end to the airport strike! We are still waiting on your phone records, and those of Dr Pereira. They will reveal much more.”

Brenda Berger burst into sobs. In between those sobs:

“It’s true…You may as well all know…about me and Winston. But it’s not what you think…I was a fool…knew I was being used…but…You all have to believe me!…I thought I loved him!…We had to be so discreet…He was black and Catholic…I suppose he knew Naomi would be on to him…come between us. Maybe that was why…why he did what he did to her. If only Naomi had been with me these last few years she would have…I’m sorry, Tally. I know you would have intervened for my good if you’d known…But I thought I loved him! How does one stop being a woman?”

Mr Marley placed an arm around Brenda’s shoulders.

“Maigret, I think it would be best if…”

Assez! Enough comedy, madame! My time is short!”

“Maigret, you can’t just…”

Taisez-vous, maître! You can decide soon enough which member of the Berger family deserves your loyalty! For now, I give you a tale – the impressions by an outsider, a foreigner – of two sisters.

“One sister is extremely…conservatrice, shall we say. I do not know all the English words…But she is a lover of héritage, of heritage, of traditions; she is obsessed by a dream of restoring her family’s heritage. But she is ill, mentally ill or sick of spirit, confined to hospitals. She trusts to her sister, to whom she grants delegation – what is the expression? – ah yes, power of attorney, over her fifty-one percent share of the family business. Yes, we were able to ascertain that number today.

“The other sister is younger, more practical, more attached to common things. She is also a calculator, like many whose vision is narrow. She tells her sick sister of plans to restore Sans Souci, knowing that there will be rumours in any case. She signs many papers to enable this restoration, signs on her own behalf and on behalf of her sister…You can see that Detective McGroder and his friends have been very busy today…

“And all is well, until something very improbable occurs. Just a short time before final negotiations on the future of Sans Souci, the sister of fifty-one percent recovers dramatically, returns home, and, as Mr Marley would be aware, annuls her sister’s power of attorney. She waits in excitement for the renovation of her beloved family heritage – not knowing that the renovation is actually a conversion to one of the world’s biggest casinos! Approval is so certain that the entire project has been organised in great detail.

“Yes. Sans Souci will be a vast hall of machines à sous, of poker machines. After the interior is destroyed there will, of course, be places for gambling tables and rooms for prostitutes, no doubt. The bandstand and conservatory will be demolished for parking. One of the principal partners in the project has the adorable name of New Jersey Slot. Another partner is called…let me think…I must consult my piece of paper…Bugliosi Laundry and Hospitality Services! An enchantment, non? And I am told that a very powerful Australian publisher has a large stake in some of the partner organisations. He is a man who might easily dictate to an old or new government how it must endow Australia with its first great casino. They say he feels more inclined to a new government. More eager, perhaps, this future minister, this Mr Macken? Make-Happen Macken…is that not what they call him?

“And another partner will be a person by the name of Brenda Berger. I do not know what Consulting Executive means, but Miss Berger will also be one of those.

“Sans Souci’s future. Not a corrupt and cheerful Pigalle of the old days, but a cheerless – is that a word? – factory of gambling. It will be known as the Blue Mountains Grand, and it will even have a big flashing sign out the front…Yes, Mr Marley, you were not aware, were you? That is to your credit. I have nothing against such enterprises, but as the friend and representative of the late Naomi Berger…Try to imagine, Mr Marley…

“A marché aux putains, a gambling palace with rows of poker machines…and a sign of many colours that goes blink-blink, flash-flash, all through the night…

“Blink-blink…

“Flash-flash…

“Now, what are the chances that Miss Naomi Berger, with control of the family fortunes, would ever sign the papers to permit such a thing? And that signature was due within days!”

Brenda Berger turned to her lawyer.

“Walter! He can prove nothing, except that Sans Souci was due to become a legal casino. And that I was having an affair with Winston. Do you really think…?”

“I…Brenda…I…don’t know what to think…I need time…”

“There is no time, but there is indeed proof, maître! Proof of the worst. Proof that Winston Pereira was doing the bidding of Brenda Berger when he cut her sister’s throat.”

“Liar!”

Madame, I have been known to share a drink with many criminals, murderers even. But the reason I threw away my precious armagnac is that there are some with whom I will not drink. I call them les fauves! They are those who have ceased to be human.”

“No proof, old man! Now leave my home. Pack quickly and go. And anyone who believes a word of his lies can leave here forever. Even you, Tally.”

But Cynthia Hobbes-Talbot was unmoved.

“I’ve been known to shoot a few fauves in my time. Proceed with your proof, commissioner. Make it good. Naomi was my closest friend, and I preferred Naomi drunk and crazy to most people sane and sober. There was a woman for you! So I want to hear all. If I have to enforce silence from anyone here present I will. Does anyone doubt that? No, I thought not. Go on, commissioner, but make it a very good shot or take no shots at all.”

Merci, madame. I elect to take the shot. And it would be best if Miss Berger attended to me here and now, because otherwise she will be attending in a less comfortable place this very night…

“Mr Collins, what are the most common complaints of those obliged to take salts of lithium? I mean, what side effect do they dislike most often?”

“Well, depending on definitions, if I had to single out one…”

“You do have single out one, Mr Collins.”

“Well, the thirst, the dry mouth…”

“Exactly. Remember that Brenda Berger was very insistent on her sister taking her lithium salts. In fact, that is all she took before entering the gallery, apart from one drink of red vermouth. So the lady was neither drunk nor drugged upon entering the gallery. She was excited, and she was soon to experience the effects of dry mouth. Now, as Mr Collins can confirm, those who take lithium are inclined to drink even before thirst and dryness of mouth take effect, so unpleasant is this common side-effect. A small measure, but well conceived by those intending the lady’s death.

“Picture in your minds what proceeds inside…

“The painting has already been hidden, the ladder and feather are in place. Those clues and possibly others will lead to Miss Tally as the criminal in the parlour game. It only remains for Naomi to smear herself in fake blood and take up a position as a convincing corpse. As arranged, she lifts a few of the wooden tiles of the old parqueterie to take out the flask of fake blood. When she does so, she sees a very full glass of red vermouth next to the flask. It is placed on a note which reads ‘FOR AFTER’. It is a very characteristic note from her sister, encouraging her to take a drink when her parlour game preparations are done – because her sister has been participating with her in preparations for the game! The affectionate note – just the most minuscule of risks – gives a sister’s approval to the taking of the drink, making it more certain. For the killers need to be certain that the drink is ingested.”

“Lies!”

“We shall see, madame. But I warn you to beware of Miss Tally. She grows impatient of interruption…

“So, a glass of vermouth. Nothing more than a nice surprise. Of course, Naomi, with the thirst from her lithium salts and love of red vermouth, does not hesitate. Whether she drinks before or after dribbling the blood on her neck and the floor…she drinks!

“She places the flask and glass back in the hiding place and replaces the tiles. She does everything neatly, as always, with care not to spread the blood to where it should not be.

“But, perhaps because of these habits of neatness, she compresses the piece of paper and pushes it into her tight clothing. By instinct? Or is it for her a sentimental memento?

“Now, this glass has contained no old style of cocktail for sleeping. No. It is my guess that some very recent drugs, perhaps a mix of kétamine, or one of the benzodiazépines – I am sure the English words are close – were selected by Dr Pereira. It is important that the victim not vomit or collapse but merely fall into a deep sleep, close to anaesthesia, after adopting a desired position on the floor. The new drugs, which I have studied a little, can be manipulated far better than such clumsy old substances as chloral hydrate, though a little pinch of that too might have gone into the potion which was given to Naomi.

“After Dr Pereira has despatched his victim he only needs to retrieve the glass and flask, then replace the tiles. He walks out of the gallery later, drenched in fake blood and real blood, carrying the instruments of the crime in his pockets, and nobody is entitled to suspect. The chance of anyone guessing or finding these very modern drugs in Naomi’s body was tiny. And if they did, it could all be put down to the lady’s old drug manie.

“Except for the nails in the window, all would have gone as planned. Who can doubt it? There are no perfect murders – but this was good!”

“All lies, no proof. Don’t listen to him, Tally. Walter…”

“Ah, but you forget that little piece of paper, in your handwriting, madame. And the message written with one of your distinctive pens, perhaps? No cheap implements in your office! There were three items to retrieve from under the wooden tiles, but Pereira got only two. Perhaps you both forgot about it, and, in fact, who would make anything of a tiny piece of used paper with a meaningless message? We were lucky that Detective McGroder kept it only by impulse, since it seemed to have no relevance. Or perhaps we are lucky that he has…le nez, the nose!

“The red glass stain on the paper…it will show the chemicals present in the drink you left for your sister. Even if no laboratory in Australia is equipped to detect these new substances, there are laboratories in Germany. And we have not yet begun to trace Dr Pereira’s activities with the ordering or theft of drugs. Who knows what has been left on his clothing, about his house? No doubt other sorts of evidence are trailing about Sans Souci, now we know what to look for. As to motive, you stood to gain millions or lose millions within days…

“As a bonus, you now stood to gain not forty-nine but one hundred percent!

“In every case where the stakes are so high, the possible penalty so severe, there is this thing that the guilty does which goes too far, in order to win. You filled the glass too much so your sister would drink more and notice less of the flavour of the drugs. The glass spilled a little. You added a personal, affectionate note in case your sister hesitated to drink…you did not think that a note is not like a flask or a glass, that it may not be put back in place…You were too obvious in your rejection and blaming of Dr Pereira…

“The task of the investigator is to find that…that petit truc…that little thing which is the product of excess of calculation, of nerves, of anxieté. It is the thing which people look back on and question “why?”…”why did they complicate?” Ah, but evil is a maker of tangles. Evil fears what is straight and simple.

“Madame, now it begins, the flood of evidence…The dam wall has leaked and will soon burst…This is how it always happens.”

“Lies! It was Winston! Obviously!”

“Ah, madame, you must remember that there may be honour or love or loyalty among some thieves, but never among les fauves, those who depart humanity. Your lover Winston is at this moment saying much the same things concerning you.

“But I advise you to go quietly along with Mr McGroder. I don’t like the expression of Miss Tally.”

Cynthia Hobbes-Talbot’s glare and nod were indeed those of a hangman.

“Sage advice, Commissaire Maigret. Take her out of here. Lead her out of my friend’s home.”

*

“There, you are, commissioner: two huge valleys and the sandstone neck between them. I just couldn’t let you leave without seeing all this under a full moon.”

“And I am very glad, mon petit. Very glad…”

In the strong moonlight, the pallid Megalong bottom land, the gleaming sandstone of Narrowneck, the murk of the Jamison stretching beyond it: all could be seen clearly from the deserted lookout.

“Commissioner…you understand that the casino deal may collapse…that a new NSW government may not happen…all because of the work you’ve done this last day. It seems strange that a single mind, reasoning well, can…I don’t know what I’m saying, but you understand, don’t you?”

Maigret, after a shrug:

“There will be places for people to gamble, there will be government of some complexion, non? As for my mind, as for reason…remember to inhabit before you reason. Do I express that well?”

“I think I’m getting it. Do you think…just maybe…that this Simenon got you right, at least in some ways? That your method is not to have a method?”

“You know I do not comment on that Belgian gentleman. Or read his books. But a time will come, perhaps, when you are faced with a very great intelligence, someone or something you cannot defeat by reason because your reason is by far the weaker. If you remember to live, to inhabit, to absorb…no reason or calculation can withstand – what is the word? – the sympathy – yes! – the persistence in sympathy. But that is enough said about all that…Cloud coming from over there!”

Above the Jamison, the dark bulk of a front was moving toward them, nudging a faint gust before it.

“That could be the snow they forecast…So much for the full moon. I suppose you’ll be wanting to get going. Still time for a drink…”

“Oh, I do not need that right now.”

“You don’t want a drink? You?”

Maigret breathed in deep. “No. Not now. I don’t know why. It is good to be with you here, Clive. Let us wait for the snow…”

After some minutes spent in silence, the first flakes came drifting down. Maigret extended both hands and opened his upturned mouth, like a child would do. He moved in a slow dance, gaping up and around, shedding his age, so much like a child, one seeing snow for the first time. Then he noticed something.

“Clive, that white thing over to the right…is that not Sans Souci? Up there, to the right, on the top of the cliff…”

“That? Yes, that’s the old place. Looks pretty small from here, doesn’t it?”

Maigret said nothing for a while, then:

“Yes. It is a very small thing now…”

Posted in CRIME/DETECTION | 4 Comments

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!”

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