“It’s…it’s so odd. I mean…things like this are tragic, of course…principally tragic…But it’s also odd, though not in a funny sense, that you are sitting here with us, Mr Maigret…or Monsieur Maigret, I should say. Is it Mister or…? Doesn’t matter? No, I say it’s odd because we were joking about you – not in any pejorative way! – on the evening of the murder…Well, we have to assume it was murder…Though such a mystery! An actual locked room type of mystery…and now you, this famous detective we were mentioning just before the…the misfortune – must admit I thought you were fictional…all those Inspector Maigret books…”
Alderman Bert Collins had escorted his two visitors to the rear of his small Katoomba pharmacy. The cramped store room was all but bare of stock, so the three had been able to find space for their three stools.
He was bald, pale, wispy, the only bulk and colour about him being the heavy black-rimmed specs with especially deep bifocal sections. His speech and movements were nervous – and frequent! Judging by the modest scale of his business and the exasperated manner of the one shop girl, Alderman Collins may have been better suited to the endless discussions and delays of municipal politics than to pharmacy.
Maigret profited from a break in the stream of chatter:
“Mr Collins, do you have any thoughts which have come to you since the unfortunate event?”
“Oh…anything at all. Details, and such like. About what happened that night.”
“Details? Only had my driving specs on…not intending to read…Can’t wear this tonnage of eyewear everywhere I go…Well…It depends what you mean by details. What clothes people were wearing…how people reacted…”
“Yes. Call to mind how people reacted. That would be excellent.”
“Well…people and their reactions…that’s all subjective, isn’t it? I mean…”
“Anything at all!” Even Maigret was showing an edge of impatience.
“Anything, you say? Well…Most people were upset, obviously…Although Tally…Miss Hobbes-Talbot…she kept a cool head. First to notice about the painting…Most people would be too shocked, but not Tally.”
“Consistent with the lady’s character?”
“Consistent? It depends on what you mean by…”
“Was she normally cold, practical?”
“Well…cold is strong. I’d say cool…cool and practical. Yes, those are the words…those are the mots justes, if I remember my French well…Only did French to Intermediate, but…”
“I understand you are some sort of elected official? You were aware of certain developments to do with this great hotel, the Sans Souci?”
“Well, you might say I was something of a help there. You see, the Berger family…not very good with politics away from the higher conservative circles. I was able to smooth the way with Council…Not that Council would have been against saving a heritage gem like Sans Souci – did I pronounce that correctly? – still, there are always stumbling blocks, objections. The Bergers thought my connections to the Labor Party were something of a scandal…till I was able to smooth the way for them with certain Labor people. I was able to say to So-and-so: ‘So-and-so, you have a son or a daughter who might be wanting a weekend job, or maybe a good deal on a wedding reception’ and suddenly So-and-so sees the whole thing from a new perspective…”
“There was no real controversy about restoring or renovating the complex?”
“Oh, God no! For years we’ve feared the place would be pulled down before it fell down. No, no…it was just some details… Councillor So-and-so worrying about construction dust or wear on the roads, and me saying to Councillor So-and-so: ‘Do you want to save our eggs till they rot or break them and make an omelette now?’ That’s what you have to do in politics…And when someone was needed to show some money people and a Labor luminary around the place, I was there to do that, smoothe any ruffles, plus cross the t’s, dot the i’s…what I do…”
Now McGroder interrupted:
“Pat Macken. I understand he was here on a visit.”
“Yes, yes…He rang me, said he’d got wind of the development, wanted to come out and look the place over. Everyone knows he could be the next Works Minister. The government was on side, why not put the opposition on side? Especially Macken’s faction of the opposition. Let me tell you: this new Labor lot want to move the state along. Forget commos, union bruisers and all that. Keep your eye on Paul Furst. Furst means “premier”, you know. Speed reader, three books a week. Book a day when he’s on holiday. Anyway, I fixed it up…and no apologies for that. Brenda Berger was there – her sister was indisposed, as you know. It all went well, no small thanks to the ability of some to reach across the aisle, as it were. It’s all very well to say you don’t approve of such-and-such a party, but – this is entre nous, if I pronounce correctly – Macken’s got more between his ears than half the Liberals who run the state now…Not saying I’m pro-Labor…I’m just there to oil the machinery, grease the cables, to say to So-and-so that such-and-such might be in So-and-so’s own interest…Of course, the whole thing was moving ahead much faster than I liked, but with big finance the way it is now…all electronic…These supermarkets owned by investors who punt squeezy little profit margins on overnight money markets anywhere in the world…That’s why Franklins are cheap, you know. It’s not brotherly love. They want volume. It’s the volume, not the margin, for those big finance boys…Special computers or adders that plug into phones…You have to appreciate the scale, the speed, the hairline margins…It’s up to us toilers at the coal face to fit in, adapt or die…”
Outside the pharmacy, each turned to the other to say something – then merely grinned. At last Maigret:
“Mr Collins has a very active mind. I am so pleased he could speak to us…I wish we could have spoken to Mr Collins…Now, you say that the lawyer also has an office near here?”
“Just down the road, on the other side of the pub there.”
“Good, good…And is this pub open yet?”
“Commissioner, it’s not even half past nine…”
Mr Marley was almost a fantasy lawyer: elderly, pin stripe-suited, silver-haired, not pompous, but with measure in every word and movement. Any more measured and he would have been sly, perhaps. He had seated his two visitors at a small but ornate table in what he called, ambitiously, his conference room.
“I don’t have a lot of time this morning, but what I have is yours. Can I offer either of you gents a cup of tea or coffee? Even a small glass of sherry or port, in view of the cold, might be in order…”
McGroder was quick to refuse for both of them.
Marley continued: “There’s not a lot more I can tell you about the events of the night. Nobody acted in a suspicious way, nobody was in a position to leave the assembled company of guests let alone enter the gallery. I don’t wish to pre-empt your responsibilities or decisions…but whoever committed the crime was clearly not one of the guests. Since the window was nailed up and there were no other entry or exit points…I suppose we are looking at one almighty puzzle. If I read the likes of Agatha Christie – which I don’t – I might have some theories. As it stands…just an impossible puzzle! ”
“So it would seem, maître…But you understand the need to find a thread, any thread, to grasp, when there is so little of substance…Is there a detail, something which remains in the mind, though not connected to anything else? Sometimes Nature deposits these little things into our minds…”
“I understand and agree. My work is nothing but detail, commissioner. But nothing has come to mind since the events. Nothing. I remain bewildered.”
“And you are, I believe, the representative of the family for this matter of the restoration of Sans Souci?”
“Not the representative. I am one representative.”
“There were other lawyers engaged?”
“More like an army of lawyers, most in Sydney, one in Melbourne, one in London. Another in America, in New Jersey, for some reason…It was a very large matter, involving a huge amount of finance and planning…More than that, I don’t feel at liberty to say. Or rather…I can’t say gentlemen. Understood? My role was limited, you may as well know. Mostly intimate family matters, probate, powers-of-attorney. I held Berger family documents, still hold them…For this matter of the renovation I liaise with Blue Mountains Council, State Planning Authority, National Parks even…things close to home…Now the estate of Naomi Berger, of course…But, in globo, this project is a very large affair, well beyond the scope of Marley Crabbe Solicitors.”
“Yes. You may as well know that things had come to a head quickly. Co-operation had been sought from all quarters, Labor dignitaries were courted even, in case there were union hurdles, a new government, that sort of thing. These things can dawdle on for decades, and the people involved in this ambitious restoration are not the types to dawdle. It will soon be no secret – though I’d still appreciate much discretion from you both – that two of the names involved are Sir Andrew Adele and Rosefields Pty Ltd. Mr McGroder will understand and explain.”
“Maître, it seems to me that there is one good thing in all this. At least the late Miss Berger had recovered her health in time to enjoy the prospect of this…this renaissance.”
“As you say, commissioner, that was an unexpected blessing. While it lasted.”
When they stepped out of the solicitor’s offices, the north-westerly wind was thrashing the bleak main street from out of two valleys. The squat Victorian shop fronts with their fading paint and worn signage expressed only indifference to the scant numbers of shoppers.
“Not too fancy these days, old Katoomba. And not much business on a winter weekday.”
“It would seem to be a little…Decrepit is the word?”
“Yes, commissioner, there used to be mining in the valley and tourists up the top. Now there’s little of either. People come to live here now for the cheap houses and grand views. I suppose if they’re not working they’re at home now looking at the view and saving money. Except for the ones at the pub. Would you like to see the view of the Jamison Valley? It’s the most famous of all, and it’s just down the end of the street.”
“Oh, perhaps something liquid to warm the body before we do more things today. You mentioned the pub…These old bones…The pub, it is open now, non?”
“Well…just, I suppose. It’s gone ten o’clock.”
“Alors…And you say we do not have far to go to where the lady lives?”
“No, her home is in Leura. It’s not far from here, almost a suburb of Katoomba – though it’s kept its tone for some reason. It’s the money end of the mountains: mansions, gardens, flowering cherries everywhere, lots of trees that change colour in the autumn. We can be there in minutes…”
“I have been told to ask for a taste of proper pot still rum before I leave Australia. What do you know about proper pot still rum, mon petit?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all, commissioner.”
They had driven down a broad street flanked by healthy carpets of lawn, well-maintained picket fences, winter-bare trees and walls of conifers. All was tended but profuse, in the way of old wealth everywhere. A turn then short drive down an overgrown lane brought them to Wellbelove, one of the homes of the Hobbes-Talbot grazier dynasty. Here, as McGroder had explained, not without prickliness, lived the happily unmarried Cynthia Hobbes-Talbot, eldest daughter of the wealthiest branch of the family.
To Maigret’s amusement, McGroder drove his Holden along the drive beyond the entry as if in fear of scattering the crunching gravel.
A two storey home, all white, with eaves, veranda and portico of the plain but generous sort which balance without pomp, was hugged on the cold south side by ancient evergreens. Lawns and gardens undulated, rambled in a way they never did in France – which Maigret recognised as a better, and altogether English, way.
In front of the house a woman dressed in riding clothes and tweed hat was playing with three large dogs, lean with hairy coats. Curiously, they were not barking. When she saw the car approach she waved absently and continued to play with her animals. After McGroder had halted the car in the middle of the gravel drive and the two men got out, the lady paid them no further heed at all. Cynthia Hobbes-Talbot was not annoyed by interruption. She did not recognise interruption. At last, as they approached her:
McGroder, to Maigret’s continued amusement, halted, as if the order was somehow for him. The dogs immediately sat, content to pant and cast their eyes toward the visitors.
“Borzois. Interesting breed. Coursers. Quiet, but not easy to train. Don’t know if that’s because they’re too smart or too stupid…What can I do for you gentlemen?”
“Miss Hob…Hobbes-Talbot, I…”
“Oh, call me Tally. I’m sick of people trying to vault over that double name. So, how is your locked room mystery going, Detective McGroder?”
“Well, slowly. Still covering all angles. I’d like you to meet Commissioner Maigret. He’s from France…”
“I know who the gentleman is. Was told he was in the mountains. Hello. Should I call you commissioner? I understand commissaire is a different rank to commissioner.”
“It is indeed, madame. That has already been pointed out to me in the last day. I feel that since I win on the exchange I should accept the title of commissioner.”
A snappy chuckle from the woman, shot out almost too quickly. She was someone who hated to hesitate, who needed to stay even in any game.
“Well, do you have any news or updates for me? Or do you have more questions? Lucky you caught me in. Hound Breeders West had to cancel a meeting because the secretary was unwell. I hope you haven’t come to see how heart-broken I’m looking – or not looking. Naomi was my friend and I’m furious that this has happened. But don’t expect me to go blubbering or putting life on hold. That’s not my way, and it wasn’t Naomi’s way. Nor Brenda’s. Now, what can I do to help you catch whoever did this? Is it about the painting, detective?”
“Well, since you are someone with expertise in Australian art…”
“Let’s say rural art, shall we? Most of my collection is from the British Isles. With some African and Australian.”
“Well, since you were the only person outside the Berger family with personal access to the gallery, and you know the contents well…”
“I hope you’re not forgetting that I was outside the gallery, in full view, doing a very audible countdown with the very watch you see on my wrist. So if anybody was able to dart away and somehow appear inside the gallery, it wasn’t me.”
“Madame – I hope Mr McGroder will allow me to take up the conversation – of course we do not think any such thing about you. But if you could give us some idea of the value or desirability of the von Guerard…whether it could be disposed of with ease if it were stolen…”
“Let’s clear that up now. The piece was of great interest and of considerable value, what with all the interest in early colonial work. I offered to buy it, if that’s what you wanted to hear…”
“We didn’t know that, actually.”
“Well now you do, Detective McGroder. And let me tell you the circumstances. Firstly, I like that painting. Secondly, the two Berger girls were not cash-rich in recent times and I thought it would be wise to sell the painting off rather than merge it into some vast restoration or renovation project where they would no longer have sole ownership. I told them straight out.”
“I visited Naomi in her last funny farm and put it to her. She said she wanted to keep everything together, regardless of ownership. You know, it was the prospect of restoring Sans Souci to former glory which kick-started her whole recovery. The prospect of work and a challenge, that’s what cured her. Far more than any witch doctors or potions, I can assure you.”
“And the other Miss Berger?”
“She was happy if Naomi was happy. Brenda would do nothing to upset her sister or the restoration plans.”
“Well, thank you for your time, Miss…Tally.”
“One other thing, gentlemen. You will hear rumours about a…about a Sapphic, as they say, relationship between me and the Berger girls. Especially between me and Naomi. Let me say right now that the rumours were always false. We three, ever since childhood, were aware that there would be a lot of eager men in our futures. So we formed a sort of unofficial society – against eager men! We each decided not to marry anyone who owned less than we owned. Simple, don’t you think? We helped one another hold out till maturity – not easy when Naomi was off the rails – then, in maturity, we found we needed hard-working accountants and lawyers who could be readily dismissed, not lazy husbands who stuck about. Does that horrify you? I know the other two have had their adventures with men, may have almost tumbled…but our society against eager men still stands!”
“Madame, one appreciates such frankness…And this Dr Pereira? Was he merely a mutual friend?”
“I should hope so. That type can play all he likes at English chumminess and manly decency and all that. Pleasant enough, but he’s a foreigner, an Asian, no money, with his head still in the village…and probably a wife or two back in the village. Never the twain! I told ’em as much. Never the twain!”
“And this sudden coldness between the doctor and Miss Berger?”
“Unreasonable. Brenda seems to be blaming him in some vague way. Maybe he’d been encouraging Naomi to drink, not being as strict as a doctor should be. Most likely, Brenda is just striking out. She’d rather do that than grieve passively. But if it puts some distance between her and Pereira, I say it’s a good thing.”
“Another eager man, madame?”
“Just so, commissaire.”
As they drove away…
“Commissioner, any more visits?”
Maigret was staring at something in the cup of his hand.
“Eh? No. I think we have interviewed enough. Is it time for lunch, you think?”
“Well, an early lunch then. Your afternoon will be strenuous, mon petit. While I take some necessary rest and possibly some sleep, I will ask you to make a number of calls, dig for certain information. Are you willing?”
“Of course. I can work out of the Katoomba police rooms.”
“You have a friend in the police, in Sydney, the type who can…transiger…How do I say?…The type who can cut through, if you know what I mean?”
“I know what you mean. I have a friend called Don Dibble, just turned detective, same age as me. He looks like a high pile of used bricks, talks like a bear with a headache. But those are just appearances. If we ask him to drop everything and dig for information he’ll be willing and he’ll know what to do. He’s got grit.”
“He’s got what you’ve got, commissioner.”
There was silence. Then Maigret lifted the feather he had been inspecting, the same one he had picked up on the ground beneath the gallery window.
“Geais bleu…I think the English words are blue jay. It’s a blue jay feather. Common decoration. A Canadian bird, I think…”
“I’ve heard of blue jays…”
“Did you notice the feathers in Miss Tally’s hat?”
McGroder braked and pulled over to the side of the road.
“Commissioner! You mean…”
But Maigret merely lifted an index finger to side of his nostril, grinned just a little.
“The other thing you must do for me is to assemble all these people in the gallery, this very night. The doctor, Miss Tally, the lawyer, the pharmacist, Miss Berger…all of them. Tell them the purpose is to clarify certain details, at the request of an old man about to depart Australia, now that the airport strike is ended. But tell them they must come. Get your very large friend from Sydney to drag them if necessary. Say it is merely for a summation or conference, nothing more. If you like, hint that you are indulging me.
“But assemble them tonight in the gallery!”