The House of Anxiety
by Georges Sim
The atmosphere of this building was more familiar to Maigret than that of luxury hotels or the Parc Monceau area it wasn't for nothing that he had spent almost three years of his life in the morals squad, and nearly as long in hotels.
He followed the concierge's instructions, shouted the name 'Lolo,' and eventually heard a vague murmuring on the other side of the door. He turned the handle automatically. It wasn't locked.
Lolo, who'd been lying down when he knocked, was sitting on her bed, her brown hair shiny with brilliantine, her limp stockings around her ankles. To be a little warmer, she'd been sleeping with her stockings on.
She was small and plump. Her face looked sixteen, her body twenty-five.
"What is it?" she asked, rubbing her face and yawning. She couldn't see her visitor very well.
"Nothing. Don't upset yourself..." he said, sitting down unaffectedly on a chair that he first cleared of a slip and a belt. "Just some information from you."
Like the concierge, Lolo sighed, resigned, "Ah yes, the police..."
"Do you know Big Irma?"
"The one who lived here? What do you think!"
"What does she do?"
"As of now, nothing, seeing as she rolling in dough..."
"She danced at the Moulin."
"Sometimes, maybe. On occasion. But it was rare. And only with someone she liked."
"Ninie? She was a salesgirl in a clothing shop on the Rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette."
"And, on occasion also?"
"I don't think so."
Lolo didn't take any pains to hide her half-nudity. While speaking, she had started contemplating a bruise on her thigh, and she muttered to herself, "Who's the pig who could have done that to me?"
The room was shabby. It wasn't even a fourth-class furnished room. On the table, there was an alcohol burner, a frying pan and a comb. On the floor, two dirty plates and some greasy paper. In a corner, a washbasin.
"What's happened to them?"
"I can't say for sure. I knew them, but we weren't friends. With Irma, a little... Anyway, for some time, Ninie had been seeing a chic young man. There didn't appear to be anything between them. That's how it looked. Then, he came looking for her one day. That must have been when he gave the dough to Irma..."
"Now, if you want my opinion, here's what was going on. The guy wanted to marry Ninie. But he really didn't want anyone to know where she came from. Do you understand? Maybe Irma would be quiet, but still... So, to keep her from talking, he slipped her some cash..."
"All at once, she doesn't want to dance any more and she hangs out in high class clubs!"
"Did you find anything that belonged to them, when you got here?"
"Nothing! Except for some dirty plates, but those are the concierge's."
"Ninie's a small blonde, isn't she?"
"With gray eyes, yes. And as thin as a rail."
"You haven't seen her again, since you've occupied the room?"
"No. I ran into Irma, but she didn't give me the time of day..."
"You can go back to sleep..." concluded the commissioner.
He left, after a last look at the room. The staircase was dark. There were many households in the building. A child was sitting on the floor, playing in front of a door.
Maigret had to go all the way to the Place Blanche before finding a taxicab. He thought about going to the Cyrano. But to what good? He wouldn't learn anything he didn't already know.
Henry Demassis was sitting in a corner of the office, his head in his hands, elbows on his knees. He shuddered when he heard the door open.
Torrence, who'd been reading a newspaper in Maigret's chair, got up.
"Anything?" quizzed the commissioner.
"Nothing! He hasn't opened his mouth."
"I'll take over, my friend."
Maigret was solemn. He removed his overcoat slowly, hung it in a closet, and went to stand behind his stove, in a pose that was nearly ritual. He stuffed his pipe, and the bowl, too small, reminded him of the old one he'd lost in Le Havre.
Demassis waited, tense. Maigret avoided looking at him.
It was hot, but the commissioner felt the need to stir up the fire. After which he headed toward the door, shouted to the office boy, "Have two demis sent up!"
Silence prevailed until the arrival of a boy from the Brasserie des Orfèvres. The tobacco sizzled for a few moments. Maigret hadn't sat down yet. He drank half of his glass at a gulp, wiped his lips.
"If you want some..." he sighed, designating the other beer to his prisoner.
He raised his shoulders, grabbed a chair by its back, pulled it over to the stove, and sat down astride it.
"I've just come from the Rue Tholozé," he said finally, with a heavy slowness, after having withdrawn his pipe from his mouth.
There wasn't a sound, except for the buzzing of the stove.
"I stopped first at the Boulevard des Batignolles..."
Demassis bit his lip so as not to ask the question. Maigret knew it, felt his companion's heart beat more quickly. And, knowingly, he kept quiet. His pipe, too small, was already out. He emptied it, tapping with small strokes on the stove, rose to get the tobacco pouch on his desk.
All that was accomplished heavily. When the match flamed, no word had been spoken for five long minutes. Maigret hadn't looked at Demassis again. He'd turned his back on him.
Finally, a voice rose, hardly recognizable. "Where... where is she?"
The commissioner decided to turn around. There was no expression of joy on his face, nor of triumph. He was so serious that Henry, afraid, didn't dare say anything more.
"I'd give a lot to know where she is!"
An affirmative nod of the head. And once more it was all silence. Puffs of smoke rose up along the pipe of the stove. Some glowing coals fell onto the sheet metal plate. One of them would have reached Maigret's shoe, and he had to withdraw his foot.
"She didn't have more than twenty-five francs on her!" he began again.
The words resonated deeply in the hearts of the two men. They weighed the importance of them.
"Had Doctor Chauveau already examined her?"
Demassis swallowed his saliva, his voice unsure, "I had a long talk with him three days ago."
"What did he say?"
"He couldn't say anything without seeing her."
"Did you tell him about her father?"
A nod. Maigret's voice grew warmer as he asked, "She made the same confession to you that she did to me, didn't she?"
The answer was slow in coming. Henry's joined fingers were clenched to the point of bloodlessness. He stared straight ahead, his mouth open.. Finally, his head fell forward, and he exploded in sobs.
"She isn't responsible, is she?" Henry wasn't crying anymore. Long minutes had passed. An inspector, who'd had the audacity to knock on the door, was welcomed by a broadside of oaths.
The atmosphere had taken on a confidential heaviness. Behind the windows, flakes of snow, the first of the year, darted in the air, undecided. One could hear somewhere in the offices the ringing of a telephone, rapid steps along a corridor.
"I'm sure that she isn't responsible, you see! That's why..."
Because the young man had started walking and Maigret, as that was also his habit when he proceeded with a cross-examination, couldn't stand seeing him moving around.
"What day, precisely, did Hélène speak to you?"
"I couldn't see her on Sunday. On Monday, a little after six in the morning, I went to Montreuil, to investigate something. I had a suspicion that I'd felt when you interrogated me... and I wanted to find out for myself."
"And so you attempted to climb the garage wall."
"Yes... and I found that it was impossible."
"I had to go to Faubourg Saint-Honoré on business, and so I wasn't free again until that afternoon. I was pacing up and down in the Avenue de Paris, hoping that Hélène would come out. And she did, but with her brother, who had a car at the door. I followed them.
"To the Rue Tholozé..."
"Yes. Together they went into a filthy house. Christian came out alone. I don't know why I followed him instead of going into the house in turn.. He had long scratches on his face, was holding a handkerchief to his nose..."
"He went to the Cyrano..."
"You know everything..."
"Tell me anyway."
"That's where I saw... But what's the point of telling you, since..."
"Another Hélène. Absolutely similar, except that she was wearing a vulgar fur coat. She was waiting. She got up as soon as she saw the car. They returned by car to the Rue Tholozé, where once more Christian entered the house with the girl. I didn't understand yet... I was upset. Less than a quarter of an hour later, a couple left. One Hélène! Wearing a black suit. But something told me that it was the second one. My car was in the Rue Lepic, a few steps away. I had no problem following them. They went to Montreuil. I thought I understood. I rushed back to Paris..."
"At the Rue Tholozé, on the fourth floor, I found Hélène in the company of another woman, whose name, I learned later, was Irma."
"I recall that Irma was saying when I came in, '...since it's for your own good, my pet!'"
"But Hélène wasn't convinced, she wanted to leave. She threw herself into my arms, in tears. She didn't have her suit anymore, but a light-colored silk dress, too tight..."
"Take me away, Henry," she cried.
The other, annoyed, tried to convince her, "Your brother knows better than you what..."
"I was afraid of a scene. I guessed that this girl had orders to prevent Hélène from leaving. I took out my wallet and gave her a number bills... I don't know how much."
"She said something like, 'Since you put it that way...'"
"It looked like a flight. I didn't know what I was going to do. Hardly in the car, Hélène started mumbling, 'Now, you must leave me, Henry... I was the one who killed him... You hear me, I killed him! Go away!'"
"I was crazy. I felt that there was so much I didn't understand."
"'You have to calm down!' I said."
"Because she was on the verge of breaking down. It was because of that, not being able to take her to my home, that I spotted a hotel, Boulevard des Batignolles. I got a room..."
"I wanted to be alone with Hélène, to take care of her. I needed to know..."
"But she just kept repeating, 'I killed him! It wasn't my fault! I didn't even know it.'"
"She was at the end of her strength. Around seven o'clock, after some terrifying moments, she wound up falling asleep."
"I was worried about what was happening in Montreuil. I wondered if the substitution I'd witnessed would be discovered."
"I went there, wandered around for nearly an hour in front of the house. I returned to the Boulevard des Batignolles, even more upset, because I'd seen you leaving the Gastambides' apartment."
"I was convinced that you were on the right track. It was necessary to gain some time."
"I drove my car to Saint-Cloud, after having stopped at home to get some money and pick up a few things; I came back by train."
"For eight days..."
Maigret finally spoke. "Is she mad?" he wondered.
"I don't know! There are moments... No! In all conscience, I don't know."
"Do you believe that she killed him?"
The young man's shoulders fell again. He remained silent an instant. His throat had to have been dry, because he emptied the full beer glass in one shot.
"She's all alone now, somewhere..." he said with a distracted look.
"...with all of twenty francs to her name!" ended Maigret like an echo, with a voice just as serious, just as moved.
Their eyes met. There was no enmity between them, no spite. The same exhaustion on both sides.
"Well, we start over!" sighed the commissioner.
And, after a slight hesitation, he added, while putting on his overcoat, "Aren't you coming?"
III. 1. Ninie