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Authors: Georges Simenon

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BOOK: The Two-Penny Bar
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But the inspector wasn't listening. He dashed over to the doctor, who was attempting to fit the spare tyre.

‘I'm sorry, the car stays put until we receive the order to release it.'

‘What? But this is
my
car! I haven't done anything …'

It was no use protesting. The car was put into a lock-up, and Maigret took away the key. The policeman awaited instructions. James smoked a cigarette. Victor was still watching the racing-cars.

‘Take him away,' said Maigret, indicating Victor, ‘and put him in a cell.'

‘What about me?' James asked.

‘Do you still have nothing to say to me?'

‘Not really. Put yourself in my shoes!'

Maigret sulkily turned his back on him.

Maigret was delighted when it began to rain on the Monday. The grey weather chimed in better with his mood and the tedious tasks of the day.

Among them, he had to write a report on the events of the day before, in which he had to justify his deployment of the officers under his command.

At eleven o'clock, two officers from Criminal Records
came to collect him from his office, and all three of them took a taxi to the racetrack, where Maigret was able to do little except watch his colleagues at work.

They knew that the doctor had clocked up only sixty kilometres since buying the car. The dial now showed 210 kilometres. They reckoned that James must have done about fifty kilometres at the racetrack.

That left about a hundred kilometres to account for. The distance between Morsang and Montlhéry was barely forty kilometres by the most direct route.

Using this information, they were able to mark a circle on a route map showing the maximum area the car could have reached.

The two experts worked meticulously. They carefully scraped the tyres, gathered up the dust and other debris and examined it under a magnifying glass, putting some of it aside for further analysis.

‘Fresh tar,' one of them said.

And the other examined a special map provided by the transport department, looking for places within their circle where there were current roadworks. There were four or five, all in different directions. The first expert said:

‘Chalk deposits.'

Now they consulted a military map. Maigret walked up and down glumly, smoking his pipe.

‘No calcareous soil in the Fontainebleau area, but between La Ferté-Allais and Arpajon …'

‘I've found some grains of wheat in the tread …'

And so the evidence accumulated. The maps became covered in blue and red lines.

At two o'clock they rang the town hall at La Ferté-Allais to find out whether any firm in the town was currently using Portland cement in such a way that some of it could have found its way on to the road. They didn't
get their answer until three o'clock:

‘There's building work going on at the Essonne mills. There's cement on the main road from La Ferté to Arpajon.'

They had pinned down one thing. The car had definitely passed through there. The experts took away a few other objects to examine more closely in the laboratory.

Maigret checked off all the towns and villages within the circle on the map, and rang round the relevant police stations and municipal offices.

At four o'clock, he left his office intending to interrogate Victor, whom he had not seen since the previous day and who was now held in the temporary cell at the foot of the stairs at the police headquarters. As he descended the stairs,
however, he had an idea. He returned to his office and telephoned the accountant of Basso's firm.

‘Hello! Police! Could you tell me the name of your bank? … The Banque du Nord, Boulevard Haussmann. Thank you.'

He had himself driven to the bank, where he asked to see the manager. Five minutes later, Maigret had another lead in his inquiry. At ten o'clock that morning, James had cashed a cheque for 300,000 francs drawn up by Marcel Basso.

The cheque was dated four days previously.

‘Boss, the guy downstairs wants to see you. Says he has something important to tell you.'

Maigret walked ponderously downstairs and entered the cell, where Victor was sitting on a bench, leaning on the table with his head in his hands.

‘I'm listening.'

The prisoner stood up briskly. He had a cunning look on his face. Shifting from one foot to the other, he said:

‘You haven't found anything yet, have you?'

‘Still pursuing our inquiries.'

‘See, you haven't found anything yet. I'm not stupid … Anyway, last night I had a bit of a think.'

‘You've decided to talk?'

‘Hold on! We need to reach an understanding. I don't know if Lenoir talked or not. If he did, he didn't tell you everything. Without me, you won't get anywhere. That's a fact. You're stuck, and you're
going to stay that way. So, this is what I've got to say. Information like that's got to be worth something. Got to be worth a lot. Let's say I went and found the murderer and told him I was going to tell the police everything. Don't you think he'd cough up
whatever I asked for?'

Victor had that triumphant look of the underdog who suddenly finds himself in a position of power. All his life the police had hassled him, and now he felt that he had the upper hand. He was strutting around looking very pleased with himself.

‘So there it is. Why would I talk? Why would I harm someone who hasn't done me any wrong? You think you can put me away for vagrancy? You're forgetting my
lung. They'll send me to a hospital, then to a
sanatorium.'

Maigret looked at him steadily, but didn't say a word.

‘How's about 30,000 francs? It's not a lot. Just enough to see me through to the end, which can't be long now. Thirty grand – what's a piddling amount like that to the government?'

He imagined he already had the money in his hands. He was exultant. He was interrupted by a coughing fit, which brought tears to his eyes, but they were like tears of triumph. Wasn't he smart? Wasn't he in the driving seat?

‘That's my final offer. Thirty thousand francs and I tell you everything. You'll get your man. There'll be a promotion in it for you. You'll have your name in the papers. Otherwise, nothing! You can do what you like
with me. Just remember, it all took place six years ago, and there were only two witnesses: Lenoir, who won't be saying any more, and yours truly …'

‘Is that it?' asked Maigret, who had remained standing the whole time.

‘You think it's too much?'

Victor felt a pang of disquiet at Maigret's calm, inscrutable reaction.

‘I'm not scared of you, you know.' He gave a forced laugh. ‘I know the score. You could rough me up a bit, but I'd tell the papers how the police beat up a poor invalid with one lung …'

‘Are you finished?'

‘Don't think you'll find the truth on your own. If you ask me, 30,000 francs is not much to pay …'

‘Are you finished?'

‘And if you think I'm stupid enough to go after the guy if you let me go, you've got another think coming. I won't write to him, I won't ring him …'

His tone had changed now. He felt the ground slipping under him, but he was still trying to put on a brave face.

‘Anyway, I want to see a lawyer. You can't keep me here more than twenty-four hours.'

Maigret blew out a little puff of smoke, thrust his hands in his pockets and left the cell. On the way out he said to the warder:

‘Lock him in.'

He was angry, and now he was on his own he could let it show in his face. He was angry because he had this idiot in his grasp, at his mercy, but he couldn't get anything out of him.

And that was because he was an idiot, because he thought he was cunning and tough!

He thought he could use his lung as a form of blackmail!

Three or four times during this interview, the inspector had almost struck him across the face, to knock some sense into him, but had managed to restrain himself.

In truth, his hand was not a strong one. Legally, he had nothing on Victor.

He had plenty of previous form, for sure; he'd led his whole life going from one petty crime to the next. But there was nothing new, except a vagrancy charge, that Maigret could get him on.

And he was right about the lung. He'd have everyone
on his side. The newspapers would devote several column inches to portraying the police as monsters.

Dying man beaten by police!

So he stood there calm as you like, demanding to be paid 30,000 francs! And he was right when he said they would soon have to release him!

‘Let him out tonight at around one o'clock. Tell Sergeant Lucas to follow him and not to let him out of his sight.'

And Maigret clenched his teeth round the stem of his pipe. Victor knew, and he only had to say one word. Now Maigret was stuck with having to concoct theories out of diverse, and sometimes contradictory, evidence.

He hailed a taxi and barked at the driver:

‘To the Taverne Royale!'

James wasn't there. Eight o'clock came and he still hadn't turned up. The doorman at the bank confirmed that he had left at five as usual.

Maigret had a meal of
choucroute
, then phoned his office around 8.30.

‘Has the prisoner asked to see me?'

‘Yes. He says he's given the matter more thought and he's willing to come down to 25,000. That's his final offer. And he wants it put on the record that a man in his condition shouldn't be fed bread without butter
and be forced to stay in a cell where the temperature never gets above sixteen degrees.'

Maigret put down the receiver. He went for a short walk in the Boulevards, then caught a taxi to Rue Championnet, where James lived. His block was enormous, like a barracks. It contained small apartments inhabited by office
workers, commercial travellers and small investors.

‘Fourth, on the left.'

There was no lift, so the inspector slowly climbed the stairs, catching a whiff of cooking or hearing children's voices from behind the doors on each landing.

James's wife answered the door. She was dressed in a pretty royal-blue dressing gown – it wasn't particularly luxurious, but it didn't look that cheap either.

‘You wish to speak to my husband?'

The entrance hall was barely wider than a dining-table. On the walls were pictures of sailing-boats, bathers, young men and women in sporting garb.

‘It's for you, James!'

She pushed open a door, ushered Maigret through and sat back down in her armchair next to the window, where she picked up her crochet.

The other apartments in the block were still decorated in the style of the last century, with their Henry II and Louis-Philippe furniture.

This apartment, however, felt more like Montparnasse than Montmartre. It owed more to the decorative arts in style, but seemed to be the work of an amateur.

Plywood partitions had been erected at odd angles, and most of the furniture had been removed to make way for shelving painted in bright colours.

The carpet was in a single colour, a rather lurid green.
The lampshades were meant to resemble parchment.

It all looked smart and fresh, but seemed to lack solidity; you felt that the walls might give way if you leaned on them and that the paintwork was not quite dry.

Above all, especially when James stood up, you felt that the apartment was too small for him, that he was boxed in and had to be careful not to bash into things when he moved around.

An open door to the right revealed the bathroom, where there was only just enough space for the bath. The kitchen was no more than a galley, with a spirit stove on a bench.

James was sitting in a small chair with a cigarette in his mouth and a book in his hands.

Maigret had the distinct impression that there was no contact at all between these two people.

They each sat in their own corner, James reading, his wife crocheting, with only the sound of the cars and trams outside the window to break the silence.

No hint of intimacy whatsoever.

He stood up, offered Maigret his hand, smiling awkwardly, as though he were embarrassed to be seen in such a place.

‘How are you, Maigret?'

But his familiar cordiality had a different ring in this doll's house of an apartment. It seemed to clash with the furnishings, the carpet, the modern ornaments arranged on the shelves, the wallpaper, the fancy lampshades …

‘I'm fine, thank you.'

‘Take a seat. I was just reading an English novel.'

And his expression was saying:

‘Don't mind all this. It's none of my doing. I don't feel at home here.'

His wife listened in, without interrupting her work.

‘Do we have anything to drink, Marthe?' he asked her.

‘You know we don't!'

Then to the inspector:

‘It's his fault. If we ever get any bottles of liquor in, they get drunk within a couple of days. He has enough to drink when he's out.'

‘Inspector, what do you say we go down to the bistro?'

But before Maigret could respond, James frowned as he looked at his wife, who must have been making urgent signals to him.

‘If you'd like to …'

He closed his book with a sigh and started fidgeting with a paperweight lying on a low table next to him.

The room was not more than four metres long, and yet it felt like two rooms, as if two people lived their lives here without ever crossing each other's path.

The wife, who had decorated the flat entirely to her own taste, spent her time sewing, embroidering, cooking, making dresses, while James would come home every evening at eight and eat his dinner without saying a word, then read until bedtime,
when that sofa covered with brightly coloured cushions was pulled out to form a bed.

It was easier now to understand James's need for his ‘little bolt-hole' on the terrace of the Taverne Royale, with his glass of Pernod in front of him.

BOOK: The Two-Penny Bar
9.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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