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?”
“Commissioner, would you like me to help you…?”
“Tell me of any little thing, young Clive.”
“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…”
“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.”
“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.
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.