MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 9

They walked back along the corridor and through the main lounge to reach the accommodation building. From there they ascended to the Melba and Prince of Wales Wings, once a high tariff precinct for the famous and wealthy, with several rooms qualifying as “royal”, “vice-regal” or “ministerial” by some long forgotten standard. The future Edward VIII and Dame Nellie had been guests there, as photos and portraits along the walls testified; and the Bergers had their own lavish quarters at the very end of the north corridor.

“Commissioner, Miss Berger has left me with a master key, so we can take our pick of rooms for the night. Only the rooms at the end of the Melba Wing here, near the Bergers’ own rooms, have their central heating going, so I suppose we should choose from them.”

“I hope I can call on you to help me with my suitcase, Clive. I am good when the walking is flat, but since leaving our immeuble near Bastille I have lost the habit of stairs.”

“I’ll fetch both our cases while you take a breather. So…which room?”

“Any room. If the windows are strong against this wind and do not shake and make ghost noises I would enjoy a view over the valley.”

“Oh, the wind will likely drop later. And you’ll find everything is perfectly made and fitted, probably by some specialist craftsman imported from Spain or Italy. We’ll put you on the west side. Here…let’s try Palmerston, if the name isn’t too British for you.”

“Not at all. The British and I have fought together when…Well, I am not to say too much about that time, especially to Simenon, but I remember them fondly, my years in London.”

*

When McGroder returned with the luggage Maigret was puffing away, his big frame merged into a throne-sized armchair of mahogany and velvet, specially ordered furniture which had quite possibly accommodated some royal Bertie or George decades before. He had one foot posted on a long, low sill as he stared down on the Megalong Valley, framed perfectly by the vista window.

“Quite a view, isn’t it, commissioner?”

No response.

“Commissioner, would you like me to help you…?”

“Tell me of any little thing, young Clive.”

“Of…what?”

“Tell me of the little thing, the thing so trivial you would not wish to mention it. Something that comes to mind, without force…if I am making myself understood.”

“You mean…anything at all?”

“Perhaps, if that suits you. But I was thinking about our matter, our case. That would make more sense, non? There is often some small thing about a case which means little, but which stays in the mind. I was thinking of this.”

McGroder sat down on the edge of the elaborate poster bed and said nothing for a while. Then:

“There’s nothing, really…although…”

“Although?”

“This is almost nothing, but…”

“If it has stayed in your mind, it is something perhaps. Please tell, mon petit.”

“Well, we found a note of sorts stuffed in Naomi Berger’s clothes. But it didn’t really mean anything.”

“It was in a pocket?”

“No. As I mentioned, the lady was dressed like a jazz dancer or…sort of what we call a beatnik. I’m sure you have that style in Paris. You probably invented it.”

Bohémien style, perhaps. But we too say the word beatnik.”

“Anyway, she was dressed only in black tights and top, like a modern jazz dancer. Seems she’d been in that scene for a while: coffee-lounges, bongo drums, all that. I often had to chase around those places for marijuana and other drugs when I was stationed in the city. Naomi had decided to dress in the style of her youth, just for the evening because she was leading the games. Usually she was a stickler for formality. Didn’t like anything common. Her beatnik clothes probably came from Paris and cost more than most people’s best suits. I’m not criticising, just going by what her friends said.”

“Ah yes, the game called Body in the Library. Perhaps she needed to be free in her movements. To sacrifice formality only for games and sport: now that is very British! So this note or piece of paper, it was somehow in her clothes?”

“Stuck down her top. We assumed she’d just found it lying around somewhere and picked it up. She was fanatically tidy, and especially fussy about any mess in Sans Souci. It wasn’t really a note. Someone had likely put a drink on a piece of paper, maybe to avoid marking furniture. There was a circular red stain, like from a glass. May have been her own piece of paper she was cleaning up, since her favourite drink was red vermouth.”

“No words?”

“Just the two words ‘FOR AFTER’. They were written in capitals, but in a special decorative way. Maybe that was why I held on to it. There was a certain style to it. Like somebody cared…But, really, it’s just the sort of scrap anyone might have stuck down in their clothes, or forgotten in a pocket. You couldn’t seriously call it evidence.”

Maigret was silent, puffed away. Then:

“You have this piece of paper still?”

“I do, in fact. It wasn’t really evidence but for some reason I just stuffed it in my briefcase rather than let it go to Parramatta with the body. I don’t know why, but I wanted it here, not there. A small, irrelevant thing…Maybe I wanted it as some sort of contact, something to remind. Did I do wrong?”

No response again, for far too long. At last:

“You can show me this piece of paper?”

*

When McGroder returned Maigret was puffing just a little harder, all his attention still on the stupendous view, as shadows lengthened across the valley and the low winter sun was beginning to shine obliquely through the vista window.

McGroder handed the piece of paper to Maigret, who grunted a faint “merci”. He looked it over for a few seconds only before turning about and handing it back.

Eh bien, we must be off for dinner soon, don’t you think? You know the way to this restaurant where the steak is local and good? No doubt I will have to beg the cook to keep mine very rare…”

“Commissioner, do you make anything of that piece of paper?”

But there was only a shrug by way of answer.

Maddening.

*

Apart from some barely amused face-pulls at the lumps of tinned pineapple in his prawn cocktail and the overdone state of his “very rare” steak, Maigret had been an excellent and easy dinner companion. A young woman at another table had recognised the old detective and asked for his autograph; he had been downright charming in signing a menu for her.

When he settled back with a pipe and liqueur glass he commented as if continuing the conversation from hours ago:

“I think it was good that you kept the piece of paper.”

“You mean the paper I found in Naomi’s clothing?”

“Just so. It was good to keep it.”

“You think it means anything? The stain or the words? Or just the fact that she had it on her?”

McGroder was sure there would be another maddening shrug followed by silence. However…

“We will be meeting some people tomorrow, as I think. People caught up in this case. What little habits do they have? Are they neat? Do they have pockets in their tights? Do they ever wear such clothes? Do they drink red vermouth? So many things to think about, all from a piece of paper. I kept a feather, you kept a piece of paper. No logic, no clue. Just something one wishes to put in one’s pocket…something that whispers to us…”

“But is there anything about the bit of paper, beyond general things…Do you think?”

This time there was a maddening silence.

Dinner finished.

Maigret working.

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MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 8

McGroder opened the door and stepped into the gallery.

Maigret followed, but sluggishly.

In the middle of the floor to their right was a chalk outline of the body’s final position. Extending out from the marking, a broad stain.

“As you can see, Commissioner, we…”

But Maigret had wandered to the side, and was now inspecting the paintings on the walls.

Tiens, this is a very elaborate gallery. Much cost, no doubt…And this family made their money cultivating wool?”

“No, not exactly…Commissioner, the body, if you’d like to take a look was…”

“Yes, yes. I see where the body lay. But satisfy my curiosity: all this wealth was from wool?”

“Well, indirectly. Most of our wealth depended on wool in the old days. But the Bergers were in music publishing. A few of Australia’s great fortunes came from music publishing…I don’t know why exactly…My grandfather said even poor families would starve for a piano…”

“So this family…it saw itself as bringing much culture, much rapport with England or with Europe?”

“I suppose.”

“And for all its wealth, the family remained – the word, now? – remained connected with these premises? Even when it was no longer chic?”

“Yes, I suppose. All the generations lived here, ran the place themselves. But when the fashion for deluxe guest houses in the mountains faded they couldn’t just keep pouring their investment and business wealth into the old heap. Not even the Bergers could run that big a loss for decades. That’s why Sans Souci is just a huge shell now, a shell with a few comforts.”

“Yet the place was never altered, it seems? It decayed, became cheaper for guests, was used as a war hospital…but no question of alteration…”

“Not to my knowledge. Until now, that is. As I mentioned to you, there are at last solid plans to restore the old place. Both sisters were excited about that, Naomi Berger’s improvement might have been helped by the good news. She spoke about great things to come for Sans Souci just before she was killed…”

A silence, frustrating for McGroder, as Maigret continued to patrol the gallery walls and ignore the crime scene.

At last Maigret reached the window which had no bars and inspected it, tapping on glass and frame. Then he peered out with no particular focus.

“As you can see, commissioner, no signs of the window being opened or shut after it was nailed up.”

“Mmm.”

“Would you agree?”

“Oh, entirely. That window was nailed up by our friend Roland, and it has not been opened since…Ah, some very interesting landscapes down this side of the room. And very large. Impressionant…”

“Best watch the floor where it’s lifting in parts. Someone could trip. The parquetry is very worn.”

“Mmm, so it is.”

The Frenchman continued to stroll, glancing at the other windows, still solidly barred, but interested more in the paintings – if he was interested in anything at all.

“Music publication, hein? Tiens, tiens…Oh, and that blanched – is that a word? that blanched space on the wall near the other end of the room…that is the place where the stolen picture was hanging?”

“Yes. They kept it in a low light position to preserve it better. As you can see, it was pretty small…but not so small that it could have been taken out of the gallery without being noticed.”

“Indeed not.”

McGroder had wondered at times if his companion were not a touch senile, then resisted the thought. Now the thought was harder to resist, as Maigret lost himself in contemplation of one large and time-darkened seascape which hung on the wall opposite the entry.

For no apparent reason, Maigret then strolled – at last! – to the middle of the room and looked down on the wide blood stain. Not without groans and winces, he managed to crouch down and then began to pick at some lifting parquetry which was on the fringe of the stain. A slab came away, making it easier to lift one next to it, then another. He moved to several other spots near the stain and lifted parquetry where it was loose. McGroder approached.

“Notice anything, sir?”

“Oh, nothing much, mon petit. Under this piece of floor there is a small dip in the cement or whatever the hard material is. Would that be a place for some sort of plate to support a big light, a chandelier, on the ceiling below us?”

“Why…yes. That would make sense. It would be right over the dance floor and reception below. Do you think it indicates something?”

“The space is not big enough for anything  larger than a soup bowl, any holes were filled long ago…and, as you say, the ceiling of the floor below is solid, not disturbed.”

“Exactly. But that goes for the whole area outside the gallery. Not the slightest mark anywhere, above, below or to the side. The windows with bars were also locked, and we could tell by the dust marks that the locks had not been touched since the gallery was aired last summer. We simply can’t find any way a painting let alone its thief could leave this gallery.”

“Ah, the painting! That is a different matter from a person. Two very different shapes, non?”

“You have some idea…?”

“Oh, just an idea. Come with me, mon petit.”

They walked over to the large picture of stormy seas which had drawn Maigret’s attention before.

“This heavy frame has been moved recently.”

“Commissioner, we checked behind this picture. We moved it a little so I could tap the wall and beam a flashlight on it.”

“Ah, but were you in such a hurry that you might have made this fresh scratch in the paintwork and even in the plaster of the wall? See here.” Maigret pointed to a scrape where a bottom corner of the painting met the wall.

“N…no. I see what you mean. We actually checked from the other side as we went round the room clockwise looking behind every painting and bookcase. But I doubt we swung it back in position hard enough to scrape the plaster. Constable Dougherty held the painting outward so I could look behind, then he put it gently back in place, I’m sure. I suppose I should have noticed…”

“Ah, but you were looking for exits from the gallery. I, however, am looking for something else. Would you hold the painting out for me, the way your constable did? There is a small chance we may find something of interest. Only a small chance…That’s right, hold it out so I can reach a hand in behind…Ah, not yet!”

He drew his arm back and removed his coat, dropping it to the floor.

“Now, if you could hold the painting further back and very steady…”

“I…think I can. But best be quick. It’s heavy.”

Again Maigret reached his arm behind the massive painting.

“Ah, we have some bag material to protect the back of the picture from dust…some light wood to hold it in place…Now, if I remove the little tacks, and pull the bag cloth away…I hope no damage is done…Ah! I have it. Now I just need you to hold another moment till I extract it out…”

Maigret drew out a briefcase-sized picture in slim frame. As McGroder lowered the large picture back into place, Maigret propped the small one against the wall below it.

The missing Von Guerard.

*

“Commissioner, the more I think about this…I have to suspect that someone with later access to the gallery, someone in a position to retrieve the painting…Logically, it could only be a person who…”

“Ah, logique! Clues and logic! People who read or hear about what we police do think we find clues and draw conclusions…But is that is what veritable inspectors do, or should do?”

“I…always thought we were supposed to…But I don’t really understand what you are saying.”

“We are inspectors, non? We inspect! We live with the matter, with its people. We taste, we smell. We wander, if that is the word, all through the case. We are like the housewife who walks into one of these big new shops pushing the big thing on wheels. She is buying in the end, but for a long time she is looking, gathering. Or we are like hunters for mushrooms when the mushrooms are scarce. We walk many miles to fill our basket. You see?”

“I suppose…Well, no, not really. Surely you, more than most, find clues and follow logic…”

“You think I am knowing things now? I am trying to not know. Do you realise what is confining you, my young friend? My very excellent and very capable young friend?”

“Lack of…of inspecting? Of experience? Or…”

Maigret grinned and patted the younger man’s shoulder.

“Lack of calvados! I saw a bottle on the shelf outside. Brandy made from apples. But no ordinary calvados for these music publishing people – ah, non – but calvados of the marque Michel Huard…So, after we place this picture back where it was hidden…

“Calvados! Du véritable…from the Pays d’Auge! Ça, alors!

“That will help us to not think.”

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MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 7

They walked along a generously arched and vaulted corridor lined with artworks and curiosities, including photos of visiting dignitaries and past events at Sans Souci. The right, or west-side, wall of the corridor was interrupted by alcoves and vista windows with views over the valley; to the left were lounges, amusement rooms and, finally, a huge dining area.

The corridor ended on a spacious timber landing, with sweeping staircases leading up and down. Around the edge of the open space were portable seats and coffee tables. McGroder led Maigret forward across the landing.

“This is a reception area which was also used for dancing. Like the big dining room we just past it was easily served from the kitchens below…”

“So much space, mon petit. Could all of this complex ever have been fully used?”

“You’d be surprised, commissioner. Australians flock to fun, if you know what I mean, and this place was the last word in fun at the turn of the century when we were briefly the richest place on earth. Wool was a pound a pound back then. Not the sort of situation which lasts, of course.”

Tiens…tiens…And this gallery?”

“We’re standing under it.”

Maigret looked up.

“As you can see, commissioner, there’s no way through all that intact plaster.”

“Indeed, non.”

“Would you like to go upstairs now?”

Maigret shrugged, which was an answer of sorts, as McGroder was learning. Maigret unresponsive was Maigret working, if not willing.

At the top of the stairs, which had challenged the old Frenchman, they came to what looked like yet another huge lounge area served by a bar at its edge.  To their left, a door with yellow tape across it, and a typed note dangling from the tape.

“This is where it all happened, commissioner. We’re standing in the Vice-Regal Lounge, where the group had their party and conducted their games. The gallery has been sealed off. I’ve had my men install a padlock, with the owner’s – Miss Berger’s – consent. I’m the only one with a key.”

Maigret looked about, showing little interest in any one thing. Then he pointed to an iron staircase at the eastern, or road-side, wall.

“And this escalier, or ladder way, or whatever one calls it?”

“It leads up to an attic with some bric-a-brac. Bit of a fire hazard, really. It’s above the gallery, so I checked it out pretty well. Would you like to see?”

A shrug. Maigret would see the attic, like it or not.

*

At the top of the iron stairs McGroder flicked a switch and opened a narrow door. The two stepped in to a cramped space beneath the roof of the building. Many old picture frames lay about, as well as things like archery sets and bicycle parts from long ago.

“It’s all solid timber flooring up here, with plaster under. No sign of any disturbance to anything. The dust and webs were intact when I first looked the place over. Want to see more?”

Maigret sneezed. No, he did not want to see more.

*

On descending, Maigret directed his attention not to the locked gallery door but to the small bar at the edge of the Vice-Regal Lounge.

“Commissioner, I have the key and we can take a look inside the gallery if…”

“First, some refreshments, non? And maybe a pipe…”

Maigret made his way to the bar and hummed as he inspected the rows of liqueur and spirits. At last he drew down a particular bottle and rubbed it almost with affection.

“Ah, a bottle of Izarra! Amazing! This family have been true collectors. Not even in Paris can I always find some. You know, though Izarra is Basque, they soak good prunes of my home region with walnut shells…all sorts of things…ah, étonnant…Will you not have a taste, mon petit? It’s quite sweet…”

“Oh, not right now…”

“No? Dommage. For me, a little drop…”

“Commissioner, it’s just that the light should be strong in the gallery right now…for our inspection…”

“But you have strong electric lights in this gallery?”

“Well, yes, but I thought…”

“So, time for a glass and a pipe, non?”

Maigret was conversational for a while, glancing about the room and scanning the bar shelves as he spoke of trivialities. At last he fell silent, smoked with more tension, fixing his eyes for long periods on the sealed door of the gallery. He finished his drink, then:

“You say the light is still good?”

“Yes, commissioner, it’s only mid-afternoon, so if you’d like to check out the gallery…”

“Yes, yes…very soon. But I was thinking of taking a little air. And we could inspect the ground below the gallery. You know, a little mountain air, at my age…”

McGroder could barely hide his frustration, but did so.

“Of course. There’s plenty of time, and it will be a lot colder later. I have a key to the bottom door, so we can just walk directly down to the kitchens.”

“Excellent. Allons-y.”

*

From a kitchen dock, McGroder opened a door to the outside. The westerly wind attacked their faces, racked through their unbuttoned coats. Over to the right they saw Roland emptying more leaves and rubbish into the incinerator. The smoke was driven almost laterally toward the east and the road, along with leaves which had escaped the pile. Waves were exchanged with the handyman. Then Maigret, after a struggle, re-lit his pipe and began to gaze out over the Megalong Valley, seemingly indifferent to the ground below the gallery.

“Commissioner, the ladder has been removed again for security reasons. We’ve been over the ground but seen little of interest, but if you have any observations…”

Non , non, I’m sure you have been very thorough. Really, I just needed a little air…Ah, what’s this?”

Maigret, in turning about, had noticed a blue feather on the ground and picked it up.

“Is this from one of your local espieces…or do I say…how to say it?…species?”

“N…no. It’s nothing I know, and I used to bird-watch. But you never know what flies in with the changes of weather we get these days. The last decade was very wet, now everthing is cold and a bit dry, except for those bloody heatwaves…some people blame atom bombs or Sputnik…”

“Or the Beatles?”

Laughing a little, Maigret inspected the feather.

Ah, les fauves.”

“Sorry, commissioner?”

“I spoke of wild animals, of fauves. So many and so different, all changing just like us. Improvisateurs...”

He slipped the feather absently into his coat pocket.

“This has been enough fresh air for me, mon petit. Shall we go back upstairs?”

*

On their arrival back in the the Vice-Regal Lounge Clive McGroder went immediately toward the sealed door of the gallery, assuming it must be time for the inspection. He winced when he heard Maigret behind him…

“Ah, no rush. The air has chilled me a little too much, I am afraid. I noticed a Creme de Cassis on the shelf…a veritable – is that the word? – from Dijon! Now you must try this, my young friend, at least a tiny amount, non?”

“All right. A tiny one. But very tiny.” He could not refrain from sighing his frustration.

*

For some minutes Maigret sipped and puffed, only speaking to extract a positive opinion on the liqueur from his companion.

Then, his drink finished, Maigret again fixed the door of the gallery and began to draw on his pipe in short, violent puffs.

“Ah, les fauves…les fauves…

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MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 6

“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…”

Maigret snorted.

*

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.”

“Not mademoiselle?”

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.

“Ah, madame…”

“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.”

“Verified?”

“Yes.”

“And no question of entry or exit by any of the windows with grills in place?”

“None.”

“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.”

“Elec…?”

“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.”

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MAIGRET’S LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: Chapter 5

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.

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