The House of Anxiety
by Georges Sim
THE COPAINS D'AUVERGNE
Maigret got Évariste Gastambide and Ninie into the car without casting a single glance at the small bar across the street. The girl, surprised by the cold weather, shivered, her lips turning blue. Her father was quiet, indifferent, his pelisse still unbuttoned.
Behind the door of the loge, the net-covered window, one could imagine the troubled face of Mme Foucrier.
It wasn't until the Porte de Montreuil that the commissioner stopped the car, found a policeman with a white baton.
"Do you know the Copains d'Auvergne?"
"The bistro about five hundred yards from here?"
"That's it. Post yourself in view of the bar. Stand guard to see that a man with a bandage on his cheek doesn't leave..."
The agent indicated with his baton the stream of cars that he was commissioned to direct.
"For once, the cars will direct themselves!" cut in Maigret. If the young man leaves, follow him, trying not to be noticed. And, as soon as possible, phone me at the Prefecture..."
"Do you really think...?"
The agent had a hard time taking to heart the idea that the vehicles were going to be able to circulate on their own. He resigned himself nevertheless. Maigret got back in his taxicab.
"Quai des Orfèvres!"
He traversed the corridors with his two companions, had them enter his office.
"Is Torrence here? Have him come in..."
A glance to the inspector was sufficient. Maigret left him alone with Gastambide and Ninie, went to rejoin the office boy.
"Nothing for me?"
"Not even a phone call?"
"No. No one asked for you..."
He entered the Chief's office, talked with him briefly, had the exchange get his own office on the line.
"Is that you, Torrence? Are they behaving? Listen... I'm going to dash off. I've just spoken to the Chief. In an hour, a physician will arrive. It's Chauveau, the psychiatrist. Be careful not to mention his name, and don't call him 'doctor.' He'll sit down close to you as if he's one of us. He'll probably ask the fellow some questions."
"Take care of the girl! See that she's not too jostled. She's a good kid..."
"And if I don't get back by noon, which is likely, have some sandwiches and beer brought up."
"He's unarmed. But nevertheless, you'd better keep your eye on him. If he starts talking, note everything that he says, but don't be obvious about it..."
"Is it him...? Hmmph!"
"Don't know yet. Oh, another thing... If a M. Henry calls, have him phone me at the Copains d'Auvergne, in Montreuil. If I'm no longer there, have him come here."
"Got it. Is that all? By the way, could you have some tobacco sent in? I'm all out..."
Maigret hung up, went back to check again with the office boy. "Still nothing?"
"Get some tobacco for Torrence..."
He left, opened the door of the taxi that he'd kept waiting. "To Montreuil..."
"The house we came from?"
"No, I'll tell you where..."
He had the car stop just at the corner of the Rue Michelet, paid, saw the agent using his white baton in a location where traffic had never been directed before. It was in vain that he signaled to him. Faithful to his orders, the policeman never took his eyes off the door of the bar.
Maigret recalled his cab. "When you pass by that officer, tell him to come to speak to me..."
Some minutes later, he asked, "Still there?"
"Are you sure?"
Not for long! Christian, who'd seen the empty cab passing, came out suddenly, and called to the driver.
Five minutes later, two cars rolled toward the 8th arrondissement, stopping some distance from each other at the Rond-Point des Champs-Élysées.
From his manner, as the young man headed toward the American bar which Maigret was already familiar with, the commissioner knew that he was drunk. Christian didn't turn around. He didn't seem to be worried about being followed.
It was precisely noon. Girls left the big fashion houses in droves. Young people were waiting in front of every door. Buses were besieged.
The commissioner started by pacing up and down the Avenue Montaigne. In a little while, employees of the Auto Hall entered the bar.
Maigret was irritable. He'd suddenly noticed that he'd left his pipe on his desk, and it didn't take more than that to put him in a loathsome mood.
He shrugged his shoulders, pushed open the door of the bar, and was enveloped in the hot atmosphere of blasting human voices.
The room couldn't have been more than ten feet wide. The stools were all taken. Some drinkers were standing. The barman agitated his shaker without taking his eyes off a game of poker dice. He saw Maigret over some heads, acknowledged him with a small sign. With his eyes, he designated the end of the bar. Christian Gastambide was so surrounded that one could hardly make him out. From his group, laughter gushed out in continuous jets. They spoke noisily.
Maigret heard someone murmur close to him, "All the same, it's disgusting to be looped at this hour..."
And an answer from someone the commissioner couldn't see, "And if you could get away with it, you'd do the same thing!"
"A rosé!" he ordered. He couldn't reach the counter with his hand. Customers passed him his glass. Christian hadn't seen him.
One heard his voice that shouted, "A round on me, Jean! For everyone! Ask them what they want to drink..."
It provoked bravos, laughter, a vague murmuring centered in the back of the room.
"Rosés for everybody!" he proposed.
"No! A Manhattan!"
"Whisky for me! Straight!"
"Needless to say, he's a lucky devil..."
"Say there, Gastamb... You come into an inheritance?"
"No way! He must've knocked off some old biddy..."
Two or three times, Maigret saw a piece of the young man's face, between the heads. Once, he saw a feverish eye among the others. The uproar intensified.
"Can I have another, Christian?"
"Have as much as you want! I'm paying..."
He had a funny laugh, from the bottom of his throat. Jean asked the commissioner, "And for you?"
"You must! It's his round..."
"All right then, another rosé..."
A quarter of hour earlier, the bar must have been empty, the atmosphere stagnant. Now, all was vibrating, alive. Smoke hovered above the heads. Glasses and saucers collided. Voices crossed each other.
"Some olives, Jean!"
"Peanuts, please... Fill it up!"
"Without a doubt, he's a cool guy... What would you do, if you inherited a hundred thousand francs? Would you think about your buddies?"
"Did he inherit?"
"I don't say that... But you have to admit, he's cool..."
And the center of this activity remained invisible to Maigret.
He could picture him. A big nervous kid, with a bandage on his cheek, flushed by the alcohol.
"There's no drinking!" cried Gastambide.
"Fine, my friend, what would you like to do?"
"Another round, Jean! And why aren't there any chicks here today?
A big burst of laughter.
"Is that what you want for your money? Was it a chick then, who redid your face?"
New laughter, sparser. One owed a certain respect all the same to the one who paid so generously for the drinks.
Jean was swimming. He was trying not to lose track of his accounts.
While agitating his shaker and juggling bottles, he calculated in a low voice, marked glasses, added. "A hundred-fifty and sixty-two... Was that a whisky that you had? The same thing? Hold on! Serve yourself... Take it easy, hey!"
The door opened. A small woman entered, stopped, taken aback by the turmoil.
"Lili has arrived! Just when we were talking about chicks..."
"Thanks a lot!"
"Don't get annoyed! Gastamb is treating... What'll you have? Wait! First you ought go over to kiss him for everyone..."
But as she approached him, he shouted, "F... off!"
A weak attempt at laughter.
"Go on, Lili... don't be afraid..."
"Didn't you hear? I told her to f... off!"
There was silence. Then constrained laughter.
"He's priceless! Holy Christian!"
But a chill had fallen. Someone, in a show of pride, asked Jean, "How much do I owe you?"
The barman designated Gastambide.
"Hey, I said I was paying for everyone!" he shouted. "Just shut your trap!"
"You're not funny, you know, when you drink..." said Lili.
"You are funnier, yourself! Oh! yes, I swear that you are funny..."
This time, it was a stampede. The first young man got to the door without even finishing his drink, slipped outside.
"Are you coming?" another wondered to his buddy.
"That spoiled it, what!"
"It's nearly one o'clock! We're not going to have time to eat lunch."
"Shouldn't we tell him goodbye?"
They hesitated. They ended up leaving, they too, without saying anything. All at once, in the clearing, Maigret could see Christian, who leaned on a stool with his two elbows on the table. Lili brushed his hair back the wrong way. She tried to laugh. He grumbled.
"Go on! You're a nice guy. You know well that you're okay... And you pretend you're not!"
He seized a glass at random, swallowed the contents with a grimace.
"Enough! Don't drink anymore... In a little while, you'll do something foolish..."
"What is it?"
"Bring me some writing paper..."
Others tried to laugh once again. "A love letter?"
"Screw yourself! Jean, serve them something to keep them quiet!"
"You could be pleasant..."
"Serve them, I tell you!"
Contrary to Maigret's expectation, and in spite of all the liquid he'd swallowed since the morning, he looked sickly. He seized the sheet of paper with so clumsy a gesture that it fell on the floor. It was Lili who picked it up, dirtied.
"Who has a pen or a pencil?"
Three pens were offered. He chose one.
"But give them something to drink, Jean! And me too..."
While waiting, he emptied the dregs of two glasses, bent to write. His stool started to slide away.
"Do you want some help?"
He pushed away his nearer neighbors. "Get farther away... You too, Lili... You need something?... Wait..."
He searched his wallet with a feverish gesture, pulled out a thousand franc note. She hesitated. He needed to retain a certain amount of human respect. But she wanted to accept.
"Leave it..." someone whispered.
Jean put new glasses on the counter. Maigret was served along with others. And, indeed, like the others, he drank. His ears were crimson.
Christian wrote, in big thick downstrokes, squashed letters. He made a blot of ink, but didn't pay any attention to it. The tip of his tongue passed between his lips. He mopped his brow:
"You could die of the heat here!"
He looked at the group that stayed less than a yard away.
"But drink, why don't you! Laugh!"
He swallowed two glasses again, stroke for stroke.
"Hey, you drank my Martini."
"Give him a Martini, Jean!"
And he continued to write. Three tiptoed out. But this time, Christian noticed them, gave a small sneering laugh without any brightness.
III. 5. The Ten Bills