The House of Anxiety
by Georges Sim
During the early hours of the morning, Henry Demassis came back to life, going so far as to confide slightly in Maigret.
He himself proposed searching for his car, still in the Saint-Cloud garage, in order to facilitate their comings and goings. He took the wheel. The commissioner settled in next to him.
Hospitals followed police stations. The information could have been checked by telephone. But all too often, in such cases, less-than-conscientious orderlies or interns answered too casually, simply to rid themselves of the intrusion.
It was better to see for oneself. The two men went as far as the Place Mazas, browsed the premises of the new Morgue.
"My entire fortune is at your disposition! Spare no expense!" Demassis had disclaimed, not without naiveté.
And, at a certain moment, while he was driving his car along the Boulevard Saint-Michel, he murmured, "You're not still angry at me for the Le Havre incident? It was necessary at any cost to prevent the police from coming to the Boulevard des Batignolles room, you understand. I was sure that Hélène was still there. I would have done anything..."
"You even broke my pipe..."
The young man stopped the auto, disappeared into a shop, came out a few moments later with a prestigious English pipe. As Maigret hesitated, he insisted, nearly imploring, "Please accept it, allow me this pleasure..."
He was halfway between exhaustion and hope. These travels across Paris gave him the illusion of action. He wanted to be optimistic. He was especially relieved after the visit to the Morgue. "All bodies are brought to these offices, aren't they?"
The commissioner didn't have the courage to add that some remain for months underwater, hung up on a piling of a bridge, on a jetty of the Bateaux Parisiens.
The police stations didn't have anything. At the Dépôt they saw about a hundred women. To leave no stone unturned, they went as far as the Saint-Lazare prison, examining a group that had been brought in that same morning.
And every time they came out of one of those gloomy shelters, it was for Henry a further relief.
The problem could be posed with an eloquent simplicity: "What can a girl do, alone in Paris with little more than twenty francs to her name?"
The worst hotel room costs ten francs. It is necessary to eat. It had already been more than twenty-four hours since Hélène Gastambide had been left to her own devices.
To walk endlessly, sometimes nibbling a croissant? To sit down on a bench and get back up again?
At eleven o'clock in the evening, the car began a new tour of the police stations, because there could have been some news since their first passage. Demassis had lost confidence again, no longer spoke.
When, at one o'clock in the morning, Maigret proposed that they call it a night, Henry was unable to give it up. Notwithstanding that he hadn't slept the previous night. And, for an entire week, had led an exhausting life at the Boulevard des Batignolles.
"I'll drop you at home. For my part, if you allow me, I'll continue..."
The commissioner didn't have the courage to refuse. He gave Henry a business card on which he wrote a few words, so that the young man would be well-received by the police.
At the moment of getting out of the car at the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, in front of his house, he had a moment of hesitation. "Good luck! Pick me up tomorrow, around eight o'clock..."
"Whenever you want."
Demassis offered his hand, sighed, took off straight ahead.
It's one of these versatile sentences that never wears out and that every physician uses ten times a day. "Seeing that he's held up this far, one mustn't lose hope. It's a good sign..."
The one dying is in the neighboring room. They whisper...
And Maigret said to Henry, in the morning white with snow, while buttoning his overcoat against the cold and getting settled in the car, "There's every reason to be optimistic. Since the police haven't heard anything..."
Demassis had a three-day beard, and his eyelids were drooping, ringed with red. He drove slowly, unaware of his movement. He'd made his rounds throughout the night. He knew all the police stations of Paris. In the 11th arrondissement they'd presented him a batch of women collected in a roundup, who'd attacked him with gibes while he'd gloomily looked them over.
"To Montreuil!" directed Maigret.
"You want to...?"
"I want to breathe the air over there, yes! We mustn't forget that that's the starting point of this whole drama..."
They passed through the Porte a little before eight-thirty. Some two hundred yards from the house, the commissioner had him stop the car.
"Go into the café and get yourself something hot to drink. This may take me a while..."
Mme Foucrier was washing the hallway with a brush.
"Nothing new?" he asked while passing.
But he was already on the staircase, knocking at the door of the Gastambides, a little more agitated than he wanted to be. For a long time there was no answer. But Maigret heard steps coming and going in the apartment.
Finally the door half-opened. Évariste Gastambide showed half of his face. The commissioner didn't give him time to speak, pushed open the door.
"I realize it's a little early..." he said. "But please don't let me interrupt your getting dressed..."
Because Gastambide, in his shirt-sleeves, was putting on his false collar.
"What do you want now?"
"Nothing to worry yourself about! Merely some information to ask of your daughter..."
Gastambide looked at him sideways, suspicious. The door of the dining room was open. One could see on the tablecloth some dirty cups, bread, butter, knives. The young girl was removing the coffee pot.
A detail hit Maigret, amused him somewhat. Her legs were bare. She dragged her slippers in a way that signaled Montmartre a mile off. Her light hair hadn't been combed, and she wore a bathrobe over her slip that half-opened with every step.
Gastambide went back to his room grumbling. His door was also open. Maigret saw his unmade bed, his razor covered with soap foam.
The girl shuddered on seeing the commissioner, hurried toward the kitchen without letting go of the coffee pot, changed her mind, crossed the dining room and entered quickly into Christian's room, as if she had feared to be stopped on the way.
Was this because he had discovered the secret of the Rue Tholozé? As always, it seemed to Maigret that the atmosphere in the house resembled a state of collapse.
He hadn't seen the apartment this early before. He had nevertheless the certainty that at other times it was not the same. He was sure that the true Hélène didn't drag her slippers, that she didn't remain half naked under a seersucker bathrobe.
In Christian's room, there was whispering. When the door opened, it was he that appeared, freshly shaven, his complexion lightened by a trace of powder. He finished putting on his jacket.
"Isn't your investigation finished yet?" he asked, avoiding looking Maigret in the face.
The commissioner insisted on this word.
"Indeed? Is it... Is it me that you want to see?"
"Not exactly... I think you have to get to work at this hour, don't you?"
"Oh! That's all right, there's nothing pressing..."
"No, I insist..."
The young man avoided letting anything pierce his bad mood. But he was ill at ease.
"Hélène!" he called.
The girl appeared, hesitant, nervous.
"Bring a cup of coffee for the commissioner."
"No, thank you! I've just had breakfast."
"But yes! Please!"
At that moment Évariste Gastambide stuck his head through the opening of the door.
"There's no need to insist!" he pronounced.
"Will you be quiet?"
His tone was raised, angered, in disproportion to the incident. The young man shrugged his shoulders, looked at Maigret as if to say, "I warned you!"
Everyone was nervous, but without any clear-cut reason for their jumpiness.
Some women, on stormy days, have an exaggerated touchiness. A word puts them in fury, a gesture triggers their tears. Now, already the girl was crying, silently, while clearing the table. She diverted her head to hide her face, but she could be heard to sniff at regular intervals.
Gastambide took his jacket. Immediately afterwards, he entered the dining room, looked down his nose at each of them.
"Again?" he scolded, as he arrived at Ninie. And he gave such a blow to the table that a cup broke. It must have calmed him, because he sneered, turned toward Maigret, "You see! It continues..."
He smiled. He had nearly recovered his appearance of the first day.
"Did you sell a lot of encyclopedias?"
"Three in one week..."
He had gone to pick up his pelisse in the foyer. In passing, his look fell on the bare legs of the young girl. He opened his mouth, kept quiet, walked toward the table and removed a blonde hair lying conspicuously on the tablecloth.
Christian had gone to his room, where he finished getting ready.
"You're staying, apparently!" noted the father.
"If you permit it..."
Once already, Gastambide had failed to speak, had held himself in. It happened again. He was about to say something. Instead, he closed the collar of his pelisse, raised his napkin, sighed, opened the door, and slammed it as hard as he was able to. It was a signal for his son, who reappeared automatically.
He offered a chair to Maigret. "What would you like?"
"Nothing. Please, act as if I weren't here, really..."
The commissioner looked at his watch. "It's almost nine o'clock... You just have time to get to the Auto Hall.
The girl stacked cups in a galvanized iron basin, under the faucet.
"You really have nothing to say to me?"
"In that case..."
He dragged himself toward his room, came out wearing his coat. He entered the kitchen, called to his sister behind the door, spoke to her softly.
"You'll be late! cried Maigret.
He left, indeed. He even whistled, on his way. As for the girl, she continued to clear the table, going from the dining room to the kitchen. She attempted to put on a good face. Twice, she tried to launch a smile at Maigret.
"You really don't want any coffee?"
He shook his head no, let her pursue her task. The table cleared, she had nothing else to do in the room. To keep busy, she started collecting some bread crumbs on the carpet.
'Tell me, Ninie..."
She started, almost shouted her anguish.
"Come on... Come sit down near me... like a good friend!"
He walked toward the window, spotted Christian's face, deformed by the steamy glass, in the small bar across the street.
III. 2. The father