“To make the evening perfect we should have invited that old French detective.”
“Can’t. He’s back in France by now.”
“No he isn’t. He’s stuck in Sydney because of the airport strike. Along with Shirley Bassey.”
“If only we’d known!”
“Not sure he’d have come. Pretty old.”
“I didn’t know he was a real person. I thought he was invented by that author, Simone.”
“Simenon, you mean. That’s what a lot of people thought. I read where they asked him – Maigret, that is – how he felt about being mistaken for a character in novels. He just said: ‘I’m real. But are you sure Simenon exists?'”
“That’s so French.”
“How is it French?”
“Oh, you know…Exist…Existentialism…”
“They don’t all sit around in cafes smoking Gauloise cigarettes having discussions about existing…”
“So what was he doing in Australia?”
“Investigating Harold Holt’s death, they say. At least, he went to Portsea and Cheviot Beach…So putting one and one together…”
“Nah, just a publicity stunt. You find those Maigret books all over Europe but they don’t seem to sell as much here and in the US. You’ll see. Angus & Robertson and Dymocks will have whole racks of Maigret mysteries on show in the next few weeks. It’s the system.”
“Oh, no! Not the system! Duck, hippies!”
For this one night, Sans Souci was its old self – provided the lights were kept dim and imaginations sharp. A fire of mountain ash and stringy bark logs had been roaring then glowing in the gargantuan fireplace with its Deco sculpturing; through the panorama window, guests had once again watched the winter sun set over a cloudless Megalong Valley; and again the huge lounge was filled with aromas of eucalyptus smoke, tobacco smoke, brilliantine, cologne and perfume. The guests were small in number, but by their formal attire and excited mood the date might not be 1968 but 1928: the year regarded as the peak of the Sans Souci heyday, the year of the two duchesses, the year a reduced D’Oyly Carte company performed the Mikado in front of both the Governor-General and Governor…
“Look, shouldn’t we get the evening underway before Sans Souci crumbles and falls around our ears?”
There was an awkward silence after this last remark from one of the tipsier guests. Eyes did a quick shift to check the reaction of Naomi Berger.
The lady, fortunately, was in one of her elevated moods. While the middle-aged features were etched and strained by the years of sanatoriums, drugs and experimental treatments, not even a careless reference to her greatest love – decrepit Sans Souci – could darken Naomi’s expression on this special evening.
“Don’t worry, Sans Souci will be standing when the Harbour Bridge is scrap…Now, shall we get on with Body in the Gallery?”
“Naomi, it’s going to be great fun…but medication first, okay?”
Lowering her voice with the reference to medication, Brenda Berger caressed her sister’s lank hair and gave her an entreating stare.
“Oh, not tonight. Those tablets make my mouth dry. What I really need is a brisk Cinzano.”
“Naomi, it might be okay…just the one Cinzano…but you have to…you know…”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Bren, later…just not tonight!”
“But it’s not like aspirin. It’s like…a mineral salt or vitamin. You know…you have to keep up a certain serum level. It’s been such a great party, and about to get better. Don’t let’s argue about it in front of everybody, because I really do have to insist…”
“All right, all right…but only if I can still have my Cinzano!”
“Maybe…What does Doctor Pereira think?”
The man addressed, a very dark Ceylonese with tweed jacket, Dunhill pipe and David Niven moustache, moved closer to the two women.
“What do I think about what?”
“If Naomi takes her medication can she have maybe one Cinzano?”
“I wouldn’t inflict red vermouth on any living creature. Maybe a Pimms…”
“No, seriously, Winston! If I can’t have one, then no tablets either!”
“Ladies, I’m not Naomi’s physician. I’m just a friend, here for an evening of Body in the Library…or Gallery, in this case.”
“You can give an opinion off the record. You have…some idea, I think, of Naomi’s condition. You know most of the tablets she has to take…”
“Well, look here, there are members of my profession who are starting to condemn even good pipe tobacco. It’s hard to know what’s in another doctor’s mind…But if you ask me, one drink now won’t hurt. And maybe even one more much later. Why not? Just don’t quote me.”
The two women excused themselves from the rest of the company and went into a kitchenette off the disused bar. Soon they came back and Naomi Berger eagerly poured herself a Cinzano, over ice which had been brought up in a bucket from the still functioning lower kitchens.
“Now, while you have your drink, give us a few clues about your impending murder.”
“Out of the question, Winston. Listen to me, everybody! The clues will all be physical, starting in the gallery. Secret till then. I’m giving the well-respected Doctor Winston Pereira the key to lock me in for a full ten minutes…”
“Isn’t that a bit risky…after drinking…”
“Oh, ease up Brenda. I’m alone when I sleep at night, aren’t I? Ten minutes to get the clues ready and make myself a corpse is hardly going to kill me. Well, I intend to be dead…but you know what I mean.”
Naomi finished her drink with relish, then clapped loudly.
“Everybody! Your attention please! Come closer for a moment…
“Thank you all for coming, all you friends of the Berger family and Berger-Kent Music Publishing, friends of Sans Souci. And thank you for being attired in the way…well, let me just say…the only way people should be attired of an evening.
“The clock has been turned back for tonight, but, rest assured, Sans Souci has a future as well as a past. Plans are underway with government, financial institutions and private investors to secure that future, which will be a future like our past, one of elegance, refined leisure and civilised entertainment.
“I have been missing from the helm due to private difficulties some of you know about. But I am back.”
Light applause and cheers, with some glasses raised.
“Tonight, the southern winter solstice, we are staging one of our favourite events. Tonight we again play Body in the Library, though we long ago renamed it Body in the Gallery because, as most of you know, our gallery is right over there to my right, behind that one large door, while our library requires a bit of a wander through corridors.
“The game is much the same as that played annually at the northern winter solstice in the famed St Albans guest house in Wiltshire, whom we thank for the inspiration and whom we have long regarded as a sister institution in what I am not ashamed to call the Mother Country.
“The rules of the game are simple and time-honoured. One member of the assembled company is to lie dead in the library after leaving numerous clues, not all straightforward, as to the identity of the killer. In the local tradition, you keep your own identities, since Sans Souci guests have tended to know each other well and new guests of the right sort are quickly and warmly included. In the age of the Beatles there may be rush and anonymity beyond these grounds, but within these grounds…never!
“You will notice that I alone am dressed without proper tone this evening. That’s because I am to be tonight’s body and being a body can be a messy affair. Hence my slacks and skivvy. Mind you, I make a good bohemian, as the old denizens of Sydney now defunct Bongo Lounge will attest. However, the rumour that I once voted Labor in those early wandering years are exaggerated. What are you laughing at, Alderman Collins?
“Now, please be aware – especially you ladies in heels – that the magnificent oak parquetry of the gallery has been erupting and is awaiting restoration, like much else in Sans Souci. So watch your step, please!
“If you have any further questions…I refuse to answer them! You must find the clues and use them to find the murderer and motive. I am about to step inside that door, the door will be locked by our family solicitor, Mr Walter Marley, who will then pass the key to Doctor Winston Pereira, who will be in charge of unlocking. Both are responsible for the only iron rules of the game: no peeking, and no leaving the lounge for any reason! I will be given exactly ten minutes, timed by Miss Cynthia Hobbes-Talbot, to arrange the crime scene and my demise.
“In former times we had an orchestra to dramatise things as little. Till we again have a weekend orchestra for Sans Souci, it will be helpful if you use your imaginations. Oh, and an extra rule for tonight…
“Nobody is allowed to ring Sydney and the Menzies Hotel to consult with any visiting French detectives! C’est entendu?
“Walter, I now present you with the only other key to the gallery beside the one retained by my sister as gallery curator…
“Please lock the door behind me.”
As Naomi stepped toward the closed door her sister rushed to her side, squeezed an arm, and whispered:
“You were magnificent. So confident. You really are back with us.”
“Only the beginning, Bren. I am back. And Sans Souci will be back.”
Naomi Berger entered the gallery, which was immediately locked behind her by old Mr Walter Marley, of Marley, Marley and Crabbe Solicitors.