McGroder woke to muffled thuds and rattles from the corridor. Still in pyjamas, he opened the door of his “Blenheim” suite and peered out, expecting to see Brenda Berger or one of her remaining staff.
Instead he saw a fully dressed Maigret fiddling near the door of the Berger family apartments at the end of the corridor.
“Ah, bonjour, mon petit. I knew you had already looked in the victim‘s rooms, but, one never knows...fresh eyes…”
McGroder advanced down the corridor, embarrassed not just by his pyjamas.
“Commissioner, there’s no point trying to force it. And I already tried the master key on that door last night, just to check. It can’t be opened. I’m assuming the Berger rooms are off limits in any case. I admit I don’t know the exact laws on admission to private quarters after consent to inspect the general premises, and I hope you don’t find me too…too Anglo, too British about this…”
“But the lady told us to feel free to investigate…” Maigret continued to fiddle with the door.
“Commissioner! Please! It can’t be opened. And I’d have trouble justifying an intrusion like this if we could open it. We’ve already gone over Naomi’s rooms and belongings, with her sister’s consent. Brenda showed us everything, gave us full access…”
“But since this is where the victim lived…and since I am here…”
“In any case, it’s locked, the master key won’t work, so if you want to take a look we’ll have to wait for Miss Berger to get back from Sydney. Of course, it would be useful if we had your perspective on anything to do with…”
The door to the Berger apartments swung open.
“Commissioner, how on earth…?”
With one hand Maigret pocketed something small which jangled. He raised the other hand and tapped his straightened index finger against a nostril, making a French gesture made familiar to non-French by the likes of Maurice Chevalier, perhaps. A gesture of conspiracy, of say-nothing, of self-congratulation?
“Really, commissioner, if Miss Berger comes back early from Sydney and finds us…”
“Then we should be quick, non?”
Maigret stepped in.
“Let me…let me put on my dressing gown, or something…”
“Oh, don’t bother, Clive. We will be here just a minute or two. Time enough to breathe in the lives of these people. Not to know, just to breathe in.”
Flustered, McGroder followed, tightening the cord of his pale purple-striped pyjamas, a dubious gift from his mother.
“I suppose if we’re quick…and if we can avoid touching anything…”
“But of course we will be quick! There is breakfast to think about…Ah, what an interesting apartment. So fresh!”
The large living room was not what they expected. Unlike the rest of Sans Souci, here everything was new. The open plan apartment had the look of a modern London flat of the most expensive sort, though without the affectations of pop art or psychedelia: abstract-patterned rugs and curtains, low seating with lower coffee tables, the whole decor in shades of tan reaching to yellow and orange. Yet there was a quality, a solidity, which still said “Berger”.
“Commissioner, where are you going?”
Maigret had walked up a step and through a broad archway into a space which looked like an office, judging from the polished timber shelving and cabinets visible from the main room. By the time McGroder had joined him, he was idly flipping through the pages of a record book left on the massive partner’s desk which occupied the centre of the office.
“Oh, don’t worry. I will not leave a smudge or displace anything.”
“But what are you looking for?”
Maigret continued to flip through the pages of the book, pausing on what looked to be a final entry. At last:
“Looking for? How should I know what to look for? But show me the victim’s room, then we can be thinking of some breakfast. I would settle for even le Nescafé…”
They crossed the living room and went to the end of a hall.
“Here on the west side, the valley side…this is – or was – Naomi’s apartment within the family apartment. The facing door there on the road side is Brenda’s, but I hope you’re not going to…”
“Mais non. To enter a lady’s office is one thing, to enter her sleeping place is another…No, Clive, we will spend a few seconds looking at the late sister’s room, then – then le Nescafé!”
Naomi’s room was not locked. What they saw on entering was something far more like the Sans Souci surrounding them, though here the heritage had not faded. The mahogany of furnishings, skirting and window frames still had its polish; traditional drapes and Wilton rugs were mysteriously without a hint of wear or even use; the deep, contrasting colours on ceiling rose and cornices fairly gleamed when McGroder turned on the light.
“She’d only been back home a fortnight, but I’m told this is how she had it always: perfect order and maintenance.”
“And what one might call love for the old, for the original?”
“I reckon so. That’s how the lady was. In the time after getting back here she’d planned and sketched like mad for the renovation – or whatever it was they were planning. She’s left a whole portfolio on that desk over there. It’s all to do with matching old colours and fabrics. Would you like to take a look?”
“In fact, I would like breakfast. This has been enough breathing-in, I think. But this renovation or restoring…would this have affected the…what word am I seeking?…Ah, yes, would this have affected the proprietorship of the painting, or of other such things?”
“I think the easier word is ownership. You mean the painting you found? I suppose a major restoration project involving insurance and partners and so on would effect everything here.”
“So someone would be in a hurry, with so much change pressing?”
“In a hurry to steal a painting?”
“That. Or other things.”
“I reckon there’s a chance. Hard to know for sure. You think…?”
“I think some toast, some coffee…maybe even a little rum or brandy for the coffee if the morning is cold…”
They had found some frozen sliced bread, butter and a selection of French jams in quaint pots. Huddled near an electric radiator at the lounge bar where Maigret had first met Brenda Berger, the two were able to toast their bread and boil up water for instant coffee. The threat to add alcohol to the coffee was suspended for the time being. McGroder was beginning to suspect that Maigret’s constant tippling was a mask or deflection more than a craving. By drinking he geared down his thinking and convinced others that he had stopped thinking.
But Maigret did not stop thinking, or masking, or deflecting.
“Commissioner, have you a plan for the day? You said there were people you’d like to meet.”
“Indeed, indeed. But first we should wait for Miss Berger to return, non?”
“I’m not sure when that will be. She has a comfortable flat near the middle of Sydney, in Elizabeth Bay.”
“No, she will be back quickly.”
“But when she gets here she will be able to give me the good news that the airport strike is over and I will be able to return to France.”
“The strike is over?”
“Yes. There is a radio in my room. It seems that all parties reached agreement last night.”
“Well, I suppose you’ll be wanting to arrange your flight immediately…”
A maddening pause was followed by:
“Eh bien, maybe just a little cognac in the next cup of coffee dust. Just to take away the dust taste. Not for you, mon petit? And when Miss Berger does arrive I see no reason to mention the finding of the painting. We will keep that to ourselves. The painting is now secure since we have the police lock on the gallery. Why not keep our discovery a secret for a while, hein? A secret not just to Miss Berger but to everybody. Leave it for a little coup-de-théatre, but later, when we know more.”
McGroder was burning to know how much Maigret knew already. As if he would say!
The growl of a motor and skittling of gravel from outside.
“Why don’t we go and greet the lady?”
“How do you know it’s her, commissioner? It could be Roland Cassin…”
“He starts work after his children are in school. He told me so. And that is not the sound of a workman’s truck. Come, quickly.”
“But…can’t we wait here?”
“I like cars.”
Maigret was already heading toward the main entrance. McGroder could only follow, surprised by the other’s haste.
As they stepped out they saw Brenda Berger, emerging from a new Jaguar, briefcase in hand.
“Oh, good morning, gentlemen. Started early to beat the Sydney traffic. I hope you’ve been comfortable.”
“I’m so sorry I was called away, but life doesn’t stop. Work helps a tiny bit when nothing else does. Have you been able to make progress?”
“Ah, much as I wish to help in this matter of your sister, I am afraid, ah, well…” His voice trailed into a mutter as he gave his customary shrugs.
“We really do appreciate your interest, commissaire. And I know Naomi would have adored meeting you…”
Her voice choked as she covered her face with her free hand.
“No, I’m all right. Crying is not my way. It wasn’t Naomi’s way, even when things were at their worst…Commissioner, I have some good news for you. The airport strike is over.”
“As you say, that is very good news. May we help you with any parcels?”
“Oh no. I have just the briefcase. I keep clothes in Sydney for overnight.”
“Madame, may I ask a little courtesy of you?”
“Why, of course.”
“It is just that I am very fond of cars, especially cars such as this. I was only just saying to Clive…Madame, would you permit me just to sit…”
“More than that! Take it for a spin! Keep it for the day!”
“Oh no. This driving on the left…I never did that and never will. I was in great confusion in London just crossing the road. No, no. If you will just permit me to sit in those marvellous leather seats and inspect the controls…”
“Of course. Please do. You don’t mind if I go in? I have calls to make.”
As Brenda made her way inside, Maigret sat in the driver’s seat of the Jaguar 420G , caressing the dashboard and upholstery with admiration.
“A fine car. A very fine car. And that aroma of the leather! You like this sort of British car, Clive?”
McGroder, tired of not knowing what was conversation and what was teasing, leaned down to answer, with just the faintest accusation in his tone:
“Well, you might be surprised to learn that our family car was a Peugeot 403. And I’d really like to own a 404.”
“Very flattering. And surprising. The general and Mr Pompidou would be pleased. Well, enough of all this…”
With an old man’s sighed groan, Maigret heaved himself out of the bucket seat .
“I’d like to ask you if there is anything about this car which interests you. I mean, with regard to the case.”
“With regard to the case?”
“Yes. But I’m afraid that if I do ask you that question you will just change the subject.”
“Yes. I’m afraid you will change the subject.”
Maigret looked skyward.
“Will this strong wind from the inland pick up again, do you think? You know, Clive, at my age, cold and wind…”