“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.”
“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.