“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…”
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.”
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.
“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.”