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…



A chain letter down the centuries…


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


A sleepy queen entertains…


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


Romane memento!


The Middle East, and all that.


Rocky life of a saint. Ouch.













It’s never over till…


Speaking of the game…


Thinking of redecorating…



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




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








Maigret comes to Australia. Really!








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


Are you insured?


You will pay if you skip this one:


A twisty track:



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





Strange entities…




Bent fairy tales…





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



That little opinion of yours…


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


God knows what this is about…


Or what this is about…


My answer to Mr Chips…


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…








Some Sydney stories, some names changed, of necessity…






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





Sports fans!


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



Stories modern and medieval, from the pilgrim ways…








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



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











Uh-oh. He writes poetry…








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

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

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

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

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

Tiens…tiens…And this gallery?”

“We’re standing under it.”

Maigret looked up.

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

“Indeed, non.”

“Would you like to go upstairs now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, not right now…”

“No? Dommage. For me, a little drop…”

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

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

“Well, yes, but I thought…”

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

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

“You say the light is still good?”

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

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

McGroder could barely hide his frustration, but did so.

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

“Excellent. Allons-y.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Or the Beatles?”

Laughing a little, Maigret inspected the feather.

Ah, les fauves.”

“Sorry, commissioner?”

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

He slipped the feather absently into his coat pocket.

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


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

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

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


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

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

“Ah, les fauves…les fauves…

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“Ah, que c’est beau…que c’est beau…”

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

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

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

The westerly wind bit at their faces.

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

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

“You saw these Berger ladies back then?”

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

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

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

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

“Maybe something soft…”

Maigret snorted.


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

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

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

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

Maigret waved and called out:

Excusez-nous. Vous avez un moment?

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

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

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


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

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

“Commissioner, we’re here!”

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

“Commissioner, this is Brenda Berger.”

“A pleasure, madame.”

“Not mademoiselle?”

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

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

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

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

Maigret scanned the bar shelf with surprise.

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

Verveine du Velay it is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why, thank you, commissaire.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, madame…”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

“Maybe…maybe Pat Macken?”

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

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

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

“With this Miss Berger?

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

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


“The part of the state he represents.”

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

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

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During the drive west up the mountains Clive McGroder found his guest changed from the quaint foreign gent of the night before. Maigret was sullen, seeming uninterested for long periods of the drive. McGroder wondered if the old Frenchman was regretting his decision to help.

Sometimes Maigret asked a question a tourist might…

“Are these all gum trees?”

“No…no…there are other species mixed in. Wattles, shrubs we call Mountain Devils, European trees in the towns of course…But million of gums, for sure. Billions, actually.”

Then there would be questions about the case, but asked without apparent curiosity, as if Maigret was merely seeking distraction between pipes…

“This locked room, this gallery, has been searched well?”

“Pretty well, and we can keep searching. I’ve had a seal put on the door so nobody can get access. The owners don’t mind. Or rather, just the one owner now, the sister, Brenda Berger. She’s been helpful since getting over the initial shock. My men have checked above, below…re-checked walls, windows, all externals. I rang them this morning. Nothing new has turned up.”

“Tests on the body?”

“Not much. I can’t really justify to my higher-ups…”

“Your what?”

“Sorry, commissioner. I mean my superiors. I can’t get my superiors to do much in that regard, since the cause of death was obvious. There’ll be inspection by the coroner in Parramatta, of course. It’s probably happening now. Do you think I should…?”

“No…non, non…”

They stopped in a town for morning tea. As he climbed out of the car the morning air of the mountains surprised Maigret.

“But this is colder than France!”

“Can be, commissioner, when the wind comes from the west in June like this. Mind you, if it comes from the west in warmer months the whole ridge is a tinder box…I mean, it burns very easily.”

“Interesting…I don’t suppose we can have a little of something warming with our refreshments?”

“Er, not really. You know…”

“Yes…your liquor laws.”

The tea rooms with their open fire and plush seating surprised Maigret.

“Ah, very agreeable. I remember such places in England. I’ve seen nothing like this in Sydney.”

“Well, this sort of place is part of why people come to the mountains, though not quite so much now. And you’ll be pleased to know they brew fresh coffee here.”

“Black for me!”

During morning tea Maigret’s mood changed a little. He began to question more, and with greater interest.

“This missing painting…worth a lot? I hardly thought in such a small population, on this side of the world…I mean no offence, but…”

“There’s quite a strong market for early Australian art. We have rich people interested in that sort of acquisition now, though there are moderns worth much more. The missing picture is by an artist called von Guerard – hope I pronounced that right – who came out from Austria. He was a landscape painting pioneer, an early professional, which makes his work more valuable.”

“You’ve seen his work?”

“In Victoria, when I visited a couple of years back. Most of his painting was done there. He doesn’t capture the real bush so much…but maybe the openness, and the colours…There’s plenty to like, for sure.”

“Art interests you?”

“Most things interest me, commissioner. My problem is that nothing comes to me naturally. I wish I had more of a brain. But I’m like my father, who was a chief inspector. He just kept at things. And I just have to keep at things.”

“Keeping at things…keeping at things…That might serve you well. It reminds me of someone…Tell me, do you know much about this painting? Could it sell for a lot? Easy to dispose of in such a small market as Australia’s?”

“Well, I made a couple of calls to our relevant people, and they say that there would be some ready to pay a few thousand pounds – I mean dollars. Sorry. This new currency…Anyway, they say that you’d need inside knowledge of who to sell to, a very limited list of collectors who would not need to ask questions or try to resell.”

“Hmm. And what was the size? What sort of frame?”

“Oh, a small piece in a rustic frame which was supposed to be part of its charm.”

“Bulging frame?…What is the word I am looking for?…”

“You mean bulky? No, quite the opposite. It’s a very slim frame from the photos, crafted locally. Seems it was a temporary arrangement but then the frame took on historical interest as well as the canvas. You see, the painting is of the Megalong Valley, which is what you see from the guest house. Some early graziers who settled the Megalong and who were quite well off acquired the piece from the artist. Through marriage it made its way into the Berger family. It’s never left these mountains – at least till last weekend.”

“So worth stealing, but only just?”

“And maybe less protected than many paintings of similar value.”

The coffee and cakes were served, and Maigret sank back into earlier silent mood. Then, after a pipe:

“And these sisters were about to revive or somehow make new this old guest house? You say there was excitement over its future?”

“Yes, the place was a wreck, but a grand wreck. It seems the sisters had found some sort of partner with the huge sums needed.”

“And both sisters were in agreement.”

“I interviewed all the party guests after the crime, and they said that the deceased lady, Naomi, was ecstatic about their future plans for Sans Souci. Their solicitor – that’s a general lawyer here in Australia – he was at the event, so he was one of those I questioned. He told me that the surviving sister had signed off on behalf of both using power of attorney…”

“Power of what?”

“Attorney. That means she was able to handle Naomi’s legal affairs while she was in hospital and incapacitated by her…nervous problems.”

“Ah, yes, délégation de pouvoir. And when the lady came out of hospital?”

“Both sisters were very happy with the plans for the future of their property, no doubt. And something in the solicitor’s manner told me that the project, which he was not willing to disclose for commercial reasons, was not a small matter at all.”

“Perhaps for police reasons you can make him willing to disclose, non?”

“Unfortunately, commissioner…”

“Unfortunately you have a very British system in your country?”

“Just so.”

“Never mind. This picture…it interests me. Not only does a killer evaporate, but a picture evaporates. That is a lot of évaporation, don’t you think?”

Maigret did nothing but suck absently on his pipe the next few minutes. Then:

“This gallery was usually secured? Always secured?”

“Yes, always. It had to be, in view of the value of the paintings, especially the stolen one.”

“And only the two sisters could get admission?”

“Well, now you mention it, there was a friend, one who’d been at the event and first noticed that the window was nailed or screwed shut and the painting was missing. Her name is…let me see…I had to write it down…Miss Cynthia Hobbes-Talbot, who was something of a voluntary curator for the collection. She had a key. Nobody else.”

“Interesting. And what sort of lady is…forgive me if I do not try to say her name.”

“She’s what we call a member of the squattocracy, commissioner.”

“Something else I won’t try to say!”

“The word describes people descended from early settlers. People who still live on the land their ancestors might not have been very polite about grabbing. It’s a hard thing to explain, but in Australia if your ancestor was a convict who settled illegally on Crown land it gives you a certain…well, status.”

“And this lady is married?”

“No. She lives most of the time in a mansion near a place called Leura, which looks out on an adjacent valley to the Megalong, called the Jamieson, just as breathtaking. I get the impression the lady’s what some would call a sportswoman. She dresses in tweed, breeds dogs, spends every Christmas with family in England. I guess you could say she is an English type of Australian. When I was interviewing her she managed to make me feel she was in charge and I was the help…”

“And I am guessing that you are not any sort of English type, mon petit?”

“No, I reckon not.”

The conversation ended and Maigret retreated into complete silence. This time his young companion was not made so uneasy by the shift in mood.

Clive McGroder was beginning to grasp something which Maigret’s biographer, Simenon, had implied constantly about his subject: Maigret, at work, was always silent for a reason, always spoke for a reason.

And Maigret was now at work.

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“Your shout next, Jules.”



“You wish me to shout? Like…make a big noise?”

“She means it’s your turn to buy the drinks next, mon-sur.”

“Ah, I see…It will be my pleasure, mesdames.”

The three women cackled, went on shelling their peas; Maigret returned to his pipe and the beer glass he had learned to call a middie. From his seat in the Ladies Lounge he could see across to the main bar where men were drinking and smoking in standing positions, strung along the counter or clustered around pillars. It still struck him as odd that there was no food in sight, except some dusty packets of nuts and crisps, and that the look and even the smell of many Australian pubs had more in common with a large urinal than with any bar or cafe he knew in France.

It was stranger still that he had come to enjoy the heedless atmosphere of these places and the blunt jokiness of the regulars. The Captain Tench, on the promontory below the bridge and above Circular Quay and called simply The Rocks, had become his preferred haunt over the last days. Stranded in Sydney by the airport strike he had taken to coming here in preference to hanging about the Menzies Hotel where he would be a prey to any journalist or enthusiast of the Simenon books.

The walk from the Menzies to The Rocks was level and not so far as to be a problem for his eighty year old legs. And while the ladies of the Captain Tench, the pea-shellers, had assured him that The Rocks had once been a violent area of gangs and fugitives, it was now a quiet appendage to a city which went eerily quiet after work hours. The compact little suburb with its ancient houses on a harbour of irresistible glamour would likely end up a tourist hub; but for now it was a place suited to the dawdling and reflection which were all that the famed Paris commissaire had by way of method.

The case which had drawn him to Australia had been resolved, with dramatic though secret consequences. Yet where there should have been satisfied repose for an over-eighty retiree there was just this vacancy and the old restlessness. It seemed there would never be another case for Maigret, unless his fiction-prone biographer, Georges Simenon, invented one.

A scrawny woman in military greatcoat, tight yellow slacks and hair-rollers entered the bar carrying a plate covered with a tea towel.

“Where’s the Frenchie? Ah, there you are, mon-sur.”

“Madame…you will drink something?”

“Not now, pet. I’ve got to get home and feed the greyhounds. Then the hound I married. But here’s the lamb rissoles I promised you last night. You can give the plate and cutlery to Dorrie when you’re finished. And I did the peas the way I was telling you about, boiled with bi-carb. Make sure you tell Mrs Jules to use bi-carb if she wants them nice and soft but to stay bright green. I can’t believe they don’t know to do that in France.”

“Madame, you are very kind…But the proprietor will not mind if I eat a meal here?”

“No-one gives a bugger what he thinks. You just wrap your laughing gear round those rissoles.”


The woman tapped on her brilliant though obviously false teeth.

“That’s your laughing gear, pet. Now go for it while they’re hot. We don’t want your wife back in France thinking we let you starve. I saw your photo in PIX, by the way…”


Maigret, the meal finished, the round of drinks bought, was fiddling with his pipe, an action which he feared would soon be his main occupation, now he was tiring of gardening and fixing his house in Meung.

“Commissioner? Mr Maigret.”

A young man in a plain suit had approached. He seemed not to belong in the place, but he had the unhesitant manner of someone who is used to going where he does not belong. And the suit…It was just the kind of plain suit worn by…


“Why, yes…But how did you know?”

“Who knows how we know one another? Or how criminals seem to know us on sight. They know. We know…But is something bad? Have I broken one of the many liquor laws of this nation?”

“Oh, no, nothing like that. I’m not here officially at all. Some people back at your hotel, at the Menzies, told me where I might find you.”

“I see. I hope there are no more requests for interviews or lectures. It is fatiguing, all this…this publicity and meeting. I am old, my young friend, and waiting for a plane to take me on a very tiring journey home.”

“No. I wanted to talk to you about something else: a difficulty with a case.”

“Well, sit then…Mr…?”

“Please, call me Clive.”

“Clive. Very good. Will you have something to drink, Clive?”

“Oh, no…I may have to drive again tonight.”

“I was not inviting you to get drunk, mon petit, just to take a drink.”

“Well, maybe something soft. Will you have another middie?”

Maigret grinned a little as he swept a hand toward the table where the three women were chattering and shelling peas.

“In this bar, we buy together.”

The young man was perplexed for a moment, then understood.

“Oh, right. It’s my shout.”

“Exactly, mon petit, since I have just had mine.”

“And what will you ladies have?”

“Barman knows, pet.”

The two men were finally seated together with their drinks.

“Well, my young friend…”

“I must say, your English is excellent, commissioner. I had thought of bringing an interpreter friend…”

“Ah, you read one of those books about me, by Simenon.”

“A few actually. They were very good, seemed very real.”

“What seems more real than fiction? And that Belgian, I admit, is good at his work. I once read one of his books, not about me, but about a man hiding his guilt for an automobile death in a town where his family had influence. It was believable…But my English is better than Simenon has been told. I spent most of the war years in England. That is something he appears not to know much about. Best we keep it that way. I had my war, Simenon had his. Do you understand? If asked, best to say my English is poor.”

“I…think I understand.”

“But this case you mentioned…I hope you don’t think I have special ways or powers. I have no doubt that Australian police have good sense. In fact, good sense is something I note in many Australians…though eating while standing and drinking on an empty stomach are not examples of it…”

“Commissioner, it’s just that something extraordinary, the stuff of fiction, and not realistic fiction but of the more concocted sort…”

“Please keep your language plain for me, Clive. My English is not that good, and my hearing is a little feeble these days.”

“Sorry. I should first explain that I’m with the branch of detectives which services the mountains to Sydney’s west, among other areas.”

“Are they really mountains? Or just big hills. One does not think of Australian mountains.”

“I suppose the best description is medium mountains or very high country but over a huge area in a long chain which runs thousands of miles. West of Sydney it gets spectacular, with huge gorges and valleys.”

“And snow?”

“Yes, but most often in the spring or late winter, and not every year near Sydney. Further south there is Alpine country, and some in the north.”

“Interesting. And what do people do in these mountains near Sydney?”

“We call them the Blue Mountains. The colour comes from the eucalyptus oil in the atmosphere, or so they say. For a long time the Blue Mountains have been used as a holiday or weekend resort for city people. There are many guest houses and things like that. It’s poor country otherwise, I suppose.”

“I am from the Auvergne, and know about such country. So you have crime up there, in your mountains?”

“Not much, though Sydney criminals have been known to use the landscape to hide. And there are always drunks…But something has happened at one of the guest houses. It happened at a famous old place called Sans Souci…though I’m sure that’s not the French pronunciation.”

“Well, this is not France. So, what has happened at this guest house?…But no, first tell me about the place before you tell me what happened there.”

“Sans Souci…well, it’s like a monument. A huge establishment which used to be the last word in luxury accommodation but now it’s more or less a shell.”

“A shell? Ah, I see what you mean. Empty.”

“It still takes some guests and hold functions, but on a very small scale compared to the past. It’s so famous that nobody quite knows what to do with it. The present owners, one of whom died yesterday, have talked recently of plans to restore Sans Souci.”

“One died, you say?”

Clive McGroder moved his head down and closer, spoke more softly.

“Commissioner, have you read a French story called The Mystery of the Yellow Room?”

“The Mystery…Ah! Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune. Yes, everyone’s read that. And imitated it. It was a story about…about an impossible crime in a sealed room. Clive, surely you are not going to tell me…”

“Commissioner, please don’t think of me as someone given to fantasy. If you ask around about me, or about my father, who was a chief inspector, you’ll learn that we are hard heads. By which I mean we are practical people.

“But, yes, I have to tell you that I have been confronted with a puzzle which I can only describe as…well, as…”

“As a yellow room mystery, mon petit?”

“Commissioner, I don’t know about the colour of the room, but…”

“But the crime was impossible by appearances?”

“Exactly. And the room was locked.”

Maigret stopped fiddling with his pipe and popped it between his teeth, with purpose.

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“So, what do we do while waiting?”

“One more round of drinks, but just one.”

“Brenda, your sister is sounding her old self.”

“I was just about to say the same thing, Brenda. A real transformation. The old Naomi is back.”

“And very much in charge, it would seem.”

“Thanks, everyone. Things really are looking up. The treatments seem to be working as hoped. But I know she’d hate to be talked about this way…you know…as a patient this way. Let’s just get those drinks…”

“Is it permitted to listen at the door. Well, Winston?”

“Strictly forbidden by Wiltshire rules for Body in the Library. Naomi is allowed ten minutes of full privacy to arrange the crime. She’s had all day to prepare clues outside the room, but she only gets the ten minutes within…”

“How do we know she hasn’t been in the gallery already today, fixing things up?”

“Proprietor’s privilege, nothing to do with me. I am only a humble and dusky physician, and my office is to hold on to this key and watch that nobody approaches that door till the ten minutes are up…Brenda, why are you looking so grave?”

“Winston, did you have to encourage her to drink? And even take another later?”

“Would I have got far by arguing? Any further than I can get by arguing with you now? We all know even these mountains bow low to the Berger ladies.”

“I just wish…Oh, never mind. Let’s get drinks. Everybody! We have Great Western, Reschs, Pimms at the bar. No spirits till after the game. And, before you ask, that is also a Wiltshire rule. It seems an old vicar at St Albans broke his leg on a staircase following clues once. Sounds like a story, but there really was a vicar playing Body in the Library. And please do watch the parquetry in the gallery, especially if you have heels.”


The angular and athletic Miss Cynthia Hobbes-Talbot – Tally to friends – had done nothing but peer at the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms watch which she was a bit too smug about owning.

At last she raised a fist in the air and, still with her eyes on the dial, began to count down, raising one finger after another. The crowd chanted along.

“Five…four…three…two…One! Open! Open up! Winston!”

With a smirk and an air of mock authority, Winston Pereira approached the gallery as he jangled a hefty key ring. The others milled behind him.

He unlocked and opened the door.

The first thing they all saw was Naomi Berger, sprawled face down on the floor, a puddle of dark liquid near her head. Immediately, her half-sister pushed past Winston Pereira.

“This has gone far enough. Naomi, so please get up! Tell her, Winston! You’re a doctor, aren’t you? This can’t be healthy. Naomi, the point’s made, the joke’s been had. But please, this is too much…for me, in any case. The rest of you please stay back. Don’t encourage her…

“Naomi, we can have our game without all this…disturbing stuff. Tell her, Winston…Naomi, please get up…”

The obvious fury of Brenda caused the others to stay back and silent.

“Please, for me, Naomi…just get up and clean up.”

Her half-sister did not move.

“Naomi, I’m not criticising…But do this for me. You know I worry about you. It’s all I’ve done lately. This is no joke for me…It might be a joke for you and the others…Naomi…”

As her voice trailed off she moved closer to her sister.


Being careful of any fake blood, she crouched and inspected her still unmoving sister. Next she took hold of a wrist, as if to feel for a pulse.

“Winston! Winston! What’s wrong with her? Why isn’t she…?”

The doctor moved forward, waving at the others to stay back.

He crouched down and felt the wrist then the bloodied neck of the woman who still had not moved.

“I…I’m afraid…I don’t see how, but…Mr Marley, could you please assist Brenda away from here?”

“No! I’m not leaving my sister! What is it? Why is she not moving? Did something or someone cut…No! She can’t be…You have to look harder, Winston!”

“I will, Brenda, I will…but I need you to move away…Everyone back, please, except Mr Marley.”

The elderly lawyer moved forward and looked in bewilderment at his client’s unmoving body in the puddle of what they had all assumed was fake blood. Then he drew Brenda up by an arm and led her gently toward the door.

The doctor placed a hand below Naomi’s jaw without changing her position. The hand and sleeve he raised were soaked in red. He turned to the others and shook his head.

“I’m afraid…I’m afraid she’s gone. There a deep cut across…across the throat. Somehow…her throat’s been cut!”

“But how?”

“I don’t know, Brenda…Surely she wouldn’t…She seemed so well…”

Winston Pereira beckoned to the local alderman, who was also the local pharmacist.

“Mr Collins, there must be a knife or blade. There’s nothing in her hands. Best we look under the body without changing its position. As I lift, I need you to look. Don’t stain yourself. I’ll handle the side where there’s blood.”

The two men performed the operation with great care, lifting one end of the body, then the other.

“There’s nothing, doctor. No blade.”

“Then how…or who…Unless…Quick, check the windows, Mr Collins…Could you help him, Tally? But touch nothing!”

Alderman Collins and Miss Hobbes-Talbot began to patrol all the windows in the gallery.

“These are locked, and the bars are all in place…”

“No, this one has no bars and the window isn’t locked.”

“What? Are you sure, Tally?”

Miss Hobbes Talbot was standing by a window which looked east into the valley.

“Yes, and there’s a high ladder right up against it. Shall I check…?”

“No, touch nothing. But someone has obviously taken the trouble to close it again from outside so as not to draw our attention to it. Brenda, did you know there were no bars on that window?”

Still slumped against the family lawyer, she managed to reflect between sobs:

“The bars were unbolted and removed, just for a few days…We’ve had to fix the lintel…it was rotten. The ladder is ours. Roland must have left it there overnight…But why did you let her take the drink, Winston?”

“Brenda, one Cinzano had nothing to do with it. You sister has been…well, obviously she’s been murdered. Murdered by someone who must have entered and escaped through that window…”

“The Guerard! It’s missing!”

Miss Hobbes-Talbot was pointing to a small rectangular area on the wall where a painting had obviously hung for a long time.

“That’s what they were after: the Guerard. Somehow they knew the gallery was unsecured at this window, noticed the ladder and bars missing. Naomi must have surprised them…But why didn’t she scream?”

Brenda Berger whined as Mr Marley was trying to draw her out of the room.

“If she hadn’t drunk the Cinzano she might have been able to scream, defend herself…something…”

Winston Pereira raised himself up, blood on his knees, blood all over his hands and arms. He was trembling in his helplessness.

“Just ring the police…I’ll wait by her…But get the police.”

“Who are you to give orders here? You’re not in Ceylon with your servants now. If you had just been responsible enough to give one sensible order to Naomi…”

“But, Brenda, how could I control her? She could have been drinking all day for all we know.”

“She might have listened to you, if not to me. Instead you let her walk in here alone and half drunk…”

“All right, all right. But please go with Mr Marley for now…Nobody touch anything. Everybody out. Mr Collins, could you arrange to get me some towels?…Please, take everyone away, Mr Marley. Nobody needs to look at this, nobody must touch anything. I’ll wait here till the police come, but please fetch me towels for all this…this blood. It’s on my shoes as well…Perhaps if you could close the door behind you…or just leave it ajar…Nobody should have to see this.”


Minutes later, it was Mr Marley returned with the towels, having left his client in the care of the pharmacist. He found Winston Pereira still standing by the body, hands outstretched to keep from smearing more blood on his clothing. The normally confident, even cocky, Ceylonese had the expression of a baffled child.

“I…I could do nothing for her. She was my friend, both sisters were good friends to me. I couldn’t argue with Brenda in her state…but there was nothing I could do to control her sister. I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m simply caught in the middle, Mr Marley.”

“I think we all understand. So will Brenda when she’s over the shock. We need to put the blame on whoever did this, nobody else. If the criminal was surprised he’s probably left a trail behind him in his panic. The painting won’t be easy to dispose of profitably. We’ll track down whoever did this…Dr Pereira, when you’ve got your hands and legs wiped down, would you like me to stay by the body so you can clean up?”

“Do you mind? I feel awful standing here with Naomi’s blood all over me.”

“No, I don’t mind. Go and freshen up. The police will be here soon.”

Pereira threw a bloodied towel flat on the floor and wiped his shoes hard on it till it stopped transferring.

“Thank you, Mr Marley. So much blood…I shouldn’t be surprised, as a doctor…but there’s just so much of it.”

“Was it at least quick for her?”

“Yes, I’d say instantaneous. That’s one good thing. The only good thing.”


Brenda, Mr Marley and Winston Pereira sat facing the young man who looked both too young and too small to be a policeman, let alone a detective.

“As I think I mentioned on arriving, my name is Clive McGroder. I’m from the Western District detectives. I’m sorry I was so late in coming after the local police, but I live some distance away…”

“McGroder? Son of the late Arch McGroder?”

“Yes, Mr Marley, my father was Chief Inspector McGroder. I’m sure you would have known him.”

“Knew him well. Fine man.”

“Thank you, Mr Marley. I’m the runt of his litter, so the physical resemblance isn’t strong…Now, there are a few matters I’d like to raise with the three of you while my men interview the other guests and the one or two staff who were around today. Well, it’s just the one matter for the moment, since it’s such a puzzling one.

“Dr Pereira, you say there was no weapon, no blade, near the body?”

“As far as I could tell.”

“Well, we’ve now been able to inspect more closely and there was, in fact, no cutting implement of any sort on or near the lady’s body. There was no sort of ring or key or piece of jewelry which could have inflicted the wound…”

“Well, obviously the thief took the blade with him.”

“In fact, we don’t see how.”

“But it’s obvious…”

“Miss Berger, you mentioned to the local police that your handyman, Roland Cassin, had been working on a new lintel for the window, and that was why the bars and mesh had been removed? The work required him to get access to the outside of the window by means of a very high ladder?”

Brenda nodded weakly.

“The reason for the sturdy bars and mesh, as well as the heavy entry door to the gallery, is the value of the paintings and books kept there?”

“Yes. Especially the von Guerard, the work that was stolen. I don’t see why it’s a puzzle…”

“Miss Berger, would you describe your handyman, Roland Cassin, as a careful, conscientious type?”

“Till now I would.”


“Till now…I would have said so.”

“From my brief contact with him by telephone tonight I got the same impression…”

Pereira cut in:

“Where is this taking us? Nobody has accused Roland or anybody…”

“Dr Pereira, the thief, the killer…if there was such a person…”

“Of course there was!”

“Let me finish please, Mr Marley. I was saying that, if there was such a person, he could not have entered or left the gallery through that window.

“You see, on Friday afternoon, before knocking off work, the careful and thorough Mr Cassin, aware of the need for security and without having to be asked, neatly drilled into the window frame at two inconspicuous points and screwed it shut. He then took the ladder back to the workshed. There is no sign of interference with the screws, and anybody wanting to screw them back in place, even roughly, after removing them would need tools, time, and a powerful light…and would not be escaping the scene of a murder in darkness and in panic.

“Which means nobody could have entered or left the gallery by that window, despite the fact that the ladder had been put back below it. We inspected the other windows and their grids were all bolted into the brick and undisturbed.

“Now, since nobody could have entered through the locked door by which you were all standing and waiting, and since the completely open floor plan of the gallery would have made it impossible for someone to conceal himself there; since a first inspection reveals no hidden panels or openings in the solid walls of the gallery, no crawlspaces of any useful sort on, in or behind the pictures, cabinets and shelves; and since it seems that Miss Berger could not have inflicted such a wound on herself…

“You see, we really do have a puzzle on our hands.”

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