The House of Anxiety
by Georges Sim
"I KILLED A MAN!"
The event in itself hardly surprised Commissioner Maigret. If there are places in the world which truly receive the most unexpected visits, the craziest, the most outrageous, they are the editorial offices of newspapers and the precincts of the police.
Few days passed without some madman, visionary, persecuted inventor, new world prophet, Antichrist or reborn Napoléon presenting himself, and who, most of the time, they let speak to his heart's content while taking care of something else.
The police, like newspaper reporters, know them well. And Superintendent Maigret, as is customary, had been attached to various departments before being assigned to Criminal Investigation.
That night, he was pretty much alone in the offices of the Quai des Orfèvres. The guard was napping. An inspector who had worked late had just left. Saturday, the eighth of November had already passed into Sunday. Outside, the fog was so thick you couldn't see your hand in front of your face.
The door of Maigret's office was the last in a long hall where the odd lamps in the distance hardly threw any light.
The superintendent was jacketless, without his false collar, as usual. Empty beer glasses stood on the table. At two o'clock in the morning, he was occupied with writing a report on an investigation he had carried out during the eight days previous and which had led to the arrest of some drug dealers. With every stroke his heavy hands seemed about to crush his pen.
Abruptly, the door opened, and the guard showed in a young woman.
As Maigret reclosed his door, he regarded her with curiosity. He noticed at first glance her fine silk stockings, the black suit impeccably cut, but of a cloth rather too light for such a night. Her ungloved hands were blue from the cold. Her lips were tight, possibly also an effect of the temperature.
"Well," she said with some effort, "I have just killed a man."
Once again, the superintendent was not too astonished. There was something in the girl's eyes, in her attitude, in the convulsive way her fingers clutched, something indefinable that classified her in the large family of those who come to make such disturbing declarations to the police.
"Please have a seat..."
But she didn't seem to hear him. She stared fixedly in front of her. Her eyes were a faded gray and her hair of a fairness that one doesn't often see except in very young children.
"Did he attack you? Were you defending yourself?"
"No! I killed him. That's all."
Maigret stuffed a pipe with the slow gestures of his thick fingers. He knew that it was important not to rush his visitor, that too sharp a question risked startling her.
"What did you do with the gun?"
"It wasn't a gun."
A ringing at the other end of the hall. The superintendent didn't pay attention at first. But, as it became insistent, he remembered that the man was on duty outside. He half-opened his door, listened. The ringing continued. No one picked up the receiver.
"Would you excuse me for a moment?" he said. "Please have a seat."
He left. For a second, he considered locking the door, but it was only an impulse, and he ignored it. Usually, when he was alone, he connected his phone to the switchboard. He'd forgotten to do so, which obliged him to pass through several offices before reaching the central.
"Hello! Yes, the Prefecture. What? No, madam, that's not for us. Call your local district police office. Good night."
Decidedly, it was a night of inconveniences. A foreigner in a hotel on Avenue Friedland, complaining that someone had stolen her ring. At three o'clock in the morning!
Maigret retraced the long passageway, opened his door and cursed. "Gone!"
The girl in the black suit had disappeared. On the floor, where she'd stood a little while before, was a plain handkerchief, with no monogram.
Maigret ran toward the staircase, descended to the quay, where he plunged out into the fog. He fell literally on top of a couple snuggled up in a corner, sent the lovers to a hundred devils, ran a few steps in all directions and then, resigning himself, finished by returning to his office.
A madwoman? He had that impression, but he wasn't sure. He saw in his mind the small pallid face, the drawn features, and especially those strange eyes...
Why had she run away?
He returned to his work. His report was not yet finished and he tried to get himself back into it, but his mind was elsewhere.
"We'll know by tomorrow morning," he grumbled, while thinking about the crime that possibly existed only in the unknown girl's imagination.
He felt morose, flustered. A little before four o'clock he went back to the switchboard, where he connected a line to his office. When he returned, he called the Paris police stations one after another.
"Anything unusual? No major crime?"
There'd been a knifing in the Rue de Lappe, but it was during a fight and they had the killer. In Montmartre, a discussion between some Negroes had ended with revolver shots that had only managed to reach a passer-by.
That somewhat relaxed the superintendent who, toward five-thirty, was being lulled to sleep by the heat. A colleague, due to replace him at eight o'clock that morning, called in at eight-fifteen. "Say, old friend, would you mind very much staying till eleven? My father-in-law has just arrived from Nantes and he has to leave by noon..."
Maigret cursed him, as he had the lovers in the fog. He was happily grouchy, as is common with heavy people. He reread the beginning of his report, added some lines, deleted some others, put his hat on his head and, after having awakened the guard, who was sleeping in an armchair, headed toward a small bar, where he swallowed a coffee laced with rum.
He didn't stay there but a quarter of an hour. When he returned to the Prefecture, someone shouted to him, "Quickly! Montreuil is on the line..."
"Montreuil be damned!"
At the other end of the line was a simple policeman, terribly upset that a drama had occurred while the Montreuil Superintendent was on vacation and the Secretary had gone to spend Sunday in Dijon.
"A man's been killed! No trace of the murderer. Impossible to guess how he came in and how he left... Are you coming?"
Maigret, thinking of his visitor, asked, "Revolver?"
"No... Seems to have been a knife or a dagger."
"Crime of passion?"
"Not too likely. It's an old man. 111, Avenue de Paris. Should I wait for you?"
It took a quarter of hour for Maigret to find a cab. It was nine-thirty when the car stopped in front of a large, four-story brick building.
No crowd on the sidewalk. In the hall, a uniformed policeman.
"Have you come from the Prefecture? They're waiting for you up on the third floor."
There was no elevator, though the house was modern enough.
As Maigret passed in front of a door on the first floor, he noticed that it moved. He had merely to push it slightly to see who was spying on him, but for some reason, he didn't.
It was the second repressed impulse that night, as he noted a little later. The first time, he'd been tempted to shut the girl in his office and he'd regretted not having done so. Why hadn't he pushed open that door?
Someone was leaning on the railing, higher up. "Who's there? Police?"
On the second floor landing, a woman in a night dress, hair in curlers, hurriedly reentered her apartment.
On the third, a fairly compact group of people, more or less dressed. It was Sunday. They looked like they'd promised themselves to laze around that morning, to stay at home without troubling about what to wear.
Only the concierge was in everyday clothes; a small, dry, nervous woman, with quick brown eyes. She was repeating her story... "At eight o'clock, I went up, as usual. I lit the burner to prepare coffee. Then I wanted to straighten up the office, while the water was boiling. That's when I saw the Captain who..."
Maigret entered the foyer, lit by an electric bulb. A policeman in plain clothes greeted him. "A funny sort of crime..."
Those were his first words. He had a worried brow, nervous with his responsibility. No one had thought to shut off the gas burner, in the kitchen that opened off to the left of the serving hall of the foyer. The water was bubbling furiously in an enamel pot.
Farther, an open door. "This way, Superintendent. The doctor is examining the body. Of course, I didn't have a police physician handy, but I promise you that nothing has been touched..."
The room was a large enough office, papered in leatherette. The man's body was stretched out on the carpet, next to a mahogany desk. The doctor was kneeling, examining the body.
"Well?" Maigret asked.
"The blade reached the heart. Death must have been almost instantaneous."
"Can you establish the time?"
"Close enough. The autopsy will confirm it. It had to be a little after midnight. In any case, it's certainly not more than ten hours since this man died. Calculate..."
The superintendent looked for the weapon. The officer noticed, "No, we didn't find anything... And what's most disturbing was the concierge's statement."
"What'd she say?"
"That she hadn't opened the door since ten o'clock in the evening. She swears that no one could have entered, nor left, because she has a nasty yellow dog that barks at the least noise. I've been able to confirm it."
"And no one left the house this morning?"
"Not before she discovered the body."
"Did the killer take anything?"
"No one knows. I've had the dead man's nephew called apparently he's the only one who ever came to visit."
"Did he come yesterday?"
"At eight o'clock in the evening. He only stayed a few minutes."
While surveying the room, Maigret had gone back to the doorway. From there, he contemplated the small group of tenants on the landing.
Suddenly, he stopped, his eyes fixed on a young, blond-haired man with clear eyes and a long, thin face feature for feature the very image of the unknown girl!