The House of Anxiety
by Georges Sim
Maigret hadn't had time to decide on a course of action, when the young man suddenly fell right off his stool. Strictly speaking he didn't quite wind up sprawled on the floor. By some miracle he'd managed to cling to the bar for support, but his chin hit the counter with enough force that one could hear the blow.
Even so, he burst into laughter, avoided raising his hand to his face and tried to maintain a casual air. "Well, my old friend, my old friend..."
His look was haggard. He was totally drunk, caught up in his laughter, his staggering and it wasn't feigned! One felt underneath it all something throbbing, a vague, underlying fear, that Maigret found himself calling "the anguish of the Gastambides."
Because, with slightly different expressions, it was the same anguish that froze Hélène at the Quai des Orfèvres, that raised itself against the commissioner at the time of their first interview, and consumed her still. And wasn't it the same virus that gave Évariste Gastambide his bearing of a dignified and desperate puppet?
Christian followed the movement started by his fall, bringing him closer to the door. He continued, face pale, offering the barman a floating hand, "... evening, Jean!"
He looked at Maigret with a laborious, clownish smile, pretended to catch something funny though no one had said anything and left.
Through the window one could see him take a few steps on the sidewalk, stop, hesitate, and finally walk straight ahead at full speed. He looked like he'd fall flat on his face if he ran into anything in his path.
"A character!" said the barman while clearing his counter of the empty glass.
"Do you know him?"
"For a long time. He used to work in the Avenue Montaigne, in autos..."
"Doesn't he work there any more?"
"You'd best believe he doesn't, since he's here from nine o'clock in the morning! Sometimes even earlier. Not every day as black as today, of course. Still, not a lot less... Most the time, he holds forth there in the corner, like someone of the house. He munches chips and knocks back whiskeys, waiting for a partner for poker dice. In the beginning, I even played with him myself... but it was game after game, and that's how he'd pass the day. A glass with one, a glass with another. When the bar stays empty too long, he goes to Pickwick's in the Rue Beauvau, to see if he won't find someone there."
"In the afternoon, he starts up again, the only difference being that until three o'clock he's occupied with reading the Intran... Sometimes he plays the horses, but I can't say he's a regular customer of the bookies."
"When does he work?"
"As I told you he doesn't. He's been this way for a week. Used to be, I only saw him at noon, and at seven for an aperitif. Sometimes he came by in the evening, with some young thing or another. Even so, he was already funny..."
"What do you mean?"
"Because, when it took him, there was nothing he could do about it. Do you understand? No? We know about it, in the trade! There are people who drink regularly. I know some who are half-crocked or even totally wasted every day at the same hour. For others, it's something of the moment. A chance to have some fun. But not for him! I knew, as soon as he'd downed his first glass, that all hell was going to break loose. And then, he never cares about the money. He treats anyone. He pays... If he doesn't have enough, he'll make me a sign and I know that he'll come back with it the next day. Oh wait! He forgot to pay again. I have to mark him up for six more whiskeys."
"He must tell some funny stories..."
"I can see you don't know him. There are some like that, I know. Some who, when they've had one too many, speak to you of a woman, of an old love that didn't work out... But he doesn't pay any attention to women at all simply takes them for whatever they're worth. Like Lili, yesterday, a cute little thing who's the kind to try to make up to someone who's feeling down. He looked at her kind of funny... and in the end, he asked her with the utmost seriousness, 'How much do want you to leave me the f... alone?' A character, isn't he!"
Maigret ordered a second drink, for appearances. "He worked at the Auto Hall, didn't he? I think I must have seen him there..."
"That's it. On the corner of the Avenue Montaigne and the Champs-Elysées. There are still some employees from over there that come in here."
Maigret paid his tab, left the bar. Ten minutes later, he walked into the Auto Hall, and asked to speak to the manager. He was a small bustling man, with blinking eyes behind a thick-framed pince-nez.
"What's that? Christian Gastambide? No, he's not here. Ah! I see... It's his references that you want. I don't have much to tell you, except that he stuck it to me last Tuesday without warning. Outside of that, I've no complaints."
"So his quitting was completely his own idea?"
"Like I said, he didn't even tell me that he wasn't coming back. Let me see... the last time I saw him was the day the police phoned to ask if one of our cars had been in an accident. I told them the truth nothing like that had happened. Gastambide had brought his Chrysler into the garage. Since then, no news. Do I regret it? My God, yes! He wasn't a model of punctuality, but he had a certain style. He knew how to amuse customers... especially women customers. And in this district, that's what counts!"
Maigret had long given up expecting the Montreuil crime to be one of those dazzlinging investigations that earn a policeman the enthusiastic praise of the press. He went his own sweet way, a step at a time, not fearing anything as much as making an error that would lose him the little that he'd already gained. He sometimes had the impression of maneuvering among fragile china, or tiptoeing through the middle of a flock of shy birds, which would take flight at the slightest imprudent gesture.
That was why, although he wanted to, he no longer went to the Gastambides. Nevertheless he had an experiment to make. He had just seen Christian in a manifestly drunken state, sufficient to attract the attention of any passer-by. Would the young man still go home? And in the same condition?
Maigret had time. He took the bus, arrived at the Avenue de Paris a few minutes before noon, and settled himself into the Copains d'Auvergne. He first saw the Maréchals arrive, father and son, prompt and dignified. Then, a few minutes later, Évariste Gastambide, who dragged his pelisse behind him like a mantle.
At a quarter past noon, a taxicab stopped at the corner of the Rue Michelet. Christian got out, paid the driver, came the rest of the way on foot.
He was walking straight! His gait certainly had a slight jerkiness, but it wouldn't attract any attention. And in the same way, his face was his own again, frozen into an expression of obstinate boredom. Up to this moment Maigret had never observed him so acutely.
The first few times that he'd seen him, Christian had spoken, laughed, gestured... giving the overall impression of a good-looking, if slightly effeminate young man. Now, every feature was exaggerated. His complexion was waxy. The bandage made everything at once stranger, but at the same time more expressive.
It was certainly the anguish of the Gastambides, to use the phrase the commissioner had coined a little earlier, this muted fear that permeated the atmosphere of the house. Something disjointed, profoundly desperate, a despair resting on unstable ground...
As much as Maigret wanted to wait to see the two men leave after their lunch, he was hungry himself. And besides, he was impatient to hear the news of the inspectors tracking Henry Demassis.
He returned home. At two o'clock, he arrived back at the Quai des Orfèvres, where the office boy stopped him in the hall: "I left a note for you on your desk..."
"What is it?"
"A telephone message..."
He hurried to his office, where he read, "Inspector Torrence phoned once at 11:00 in the morning, from a café in the Place Clichy. He had just found Demassis, who had gone into a furnished hotel. He phoned a second time at 1:30, from a restaurant in the Rue du Havre, and then once more, to say that if there was still time, the commissioner should try to reach him there at the restaurant, at Gutenberg 67-11."
Maigret picked up the receiver. "Hello! Get me Torrence immediately. It's urgent!"
"Understood, M. Maigret..."
Less than two minutes later, he had the inspector on the line.
"Is that are you, boss? We've got to make this quick. He's capable of making a run for it while I'm in the booth. I've got my hands full watching this one, because he's spotted me, for sure. Twice in less than an hour, he's left me in front of a building with a back exit, but luckily both times I knew about it."
"He's about ready to fly the coop. You understand? He's really champing at the bit. Do you want to follow him yourself? Okay. Come by car. If you miss us, I'll phone the office again as soon as it's possible. I'm afraid he might head out to the provinces or leave the country, as I don't have more than a hundred fifty francs on me... All right. See you soon!"
An instant later, the commissioner, his overcoat under his arm, jumped into a taxi that started off in the direction of the Grand Boulevards. Once on the road, Maigret assured himself that he had enough cash in his pocket to cover any possibility.
Arriving at the restaurant, he made no attempt to conceal himself. He entered quickly, glanced at all the tables, saw Torrence peeling a pear, and went over to sit down next to him.
"Where is he?"
"In the bathroom. Don't worry. There's only one exit."
"How'd you find him?"
"I happened to run across a fellow I knew in the hotels squad. He'd read your note and was going to send you a report, that someone who looked like Demassis had put up at the Hôtel Beauséjour, Boulevard des Batignolles, under a false name. I went over there and got settled in front of the hotel. At eleven o'clock, our man entered, came out again soon after. Since then, it's been a race, madness... taxicabs, the bus... cafés and bars. Look!"
Henry had just appeared. While walking, he lit a cigarette, but not without his hands shaking a little. He ignored the two policemen, though by his attitude they felt he'd seen them, that he was playing a part.
Back at his table, he called the waiter, paid, counted his change carefully, as if to prove to himself that he was calm. He put on a black coat, stopped a moment very close to the sidewalk, as if looking for a cab, then started walking at full speed toward the station.
Maigret was on his heels. He saw him go up to the window for one of the main lines and buy a ticket. But there was no time to find out his destination, as instead of heading toward the platforms, Demassis left as quickly as he'd entered, and jumped into a cab.
Maigret hadn't lost any ground. His taxicab followed the first the length of the Rue Saint-Lazare, then onto the Boulevard Haussmann. He noted, with professional admiration, "A point for him! He has a ticket but I don't know where to..."
At the Porte Saint-Martin, Demassis abandoned the car, ran across the crowded intersection, leaving the commissioner unsure what to do.
"Boulevard de Strasbourg! Gare de l'Est!"
"Should I stop him? Should I let him run?"
Henry jumped into a new taxicab and this time it was a race toward Montparnasse. There, Demassis entered an apartment building, while the policeman went rapidly to the concierge's.
"Does this house have more than one exit?"
"No, just one. But what...?"
The young man had taken the elevator. Maigret, at the bottom, heard the machine stop at the sixth. Then steps brought him down again two floors. A ringing...
The commissioner invaded the loge once more. "Who lives on fourth floor?"
"No other tenant?"
"Professor of what?"
"He's a specialist in nervous disorders. He teaches at the School of Medicine."
It was the only moment of respite. Ten minutes later, Demassis, who had kept his cab, crossed the sidewalk rapidly, shouting to the driver, "Saint-Lazare!"
It wasn't a ruse. He didn't stop in the waiting room. After squinting at the clock, he ran to Platform 16.
The Havre Express started off. He jumped aboard, entered a first-class compartment. And Maigret, who had his free pass, went into the neighboring one.
II. 3. The Prisoner