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, appearing 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 painting was missing. She observed that the window was unlocked, unbarred and had the ladder against it. She did not know that it had been nailed shut from the outside. That surprise came later. 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 a valley adjacent to the Megalong, the Jamison Valley, even more breathtaking. I get the impression the lady is what some would call a sportswoman. She dresses in tweed, breeds dogs, spends every Christmas with relatives in England. I guess you could say she is an English type of Australian. A type you get up here. 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.

About mosomoso

Growing moso bamboo on the mid-coast of NSW, Australia.
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2 Responses to MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 5

  1. beththeserf says:

    Well its gettin’ there.

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