The House of Anxiety
by Georges Sim
THE TEN BILLS
Maigret himself couldn't have said how the bar emptied out. Some left silently, taking advantage of the fact that Christian Gastambide was absorbed in his letter writing. Yet others came over to shake his hand before parting.
"See you later, old man!"
He didn't look at them. Jean, who finally had a moment of respite, collected the empty glasses, counted them once more. One could hear him whispering, "Twenty-four and thirty-two... added to three hundred sixty..."
Maigret had drunk without any desire to. He felt hot-headed. It was miracle that the young man hadn't seen him yet, because now there were only Lili and two other drinkers between them.
But the young man wrote. He crossed some parts out heavily. One could see the black strokes on the crumpled paper from afar.
"...a drink, Jean."
The barman sighed, looked at Maigret to take him for a witness. He took up a bottle of whisky, but poured only a few drops into a glass that he filled with soda water.
Lili contemplated Gastambide without saying a word. She was pretty. Her outfit had to have cost three or four thousand francs, but one felt that she wasn't sure how she would eat the next day.
In her look there was a kind of pity, mixed with incomprehension.
"Hey, Jean, I'm off... See you to-night..." Again a departure. Then another. Lili looked at Maigret with curiosity, asked Christian, "You have enough to last a long time?"
At the same moment the last one left. There remained but three people in front of the counter where Jean held court: Gastambide at the far end, Lili close to him, and Maigret at the other end.
The young man reread some of the lines he had just written. Then the emptiness of the room surprised him.
"Did they all leave?" he asked, with a voice in which hardly a trace of drunkenness remained.
His movements were still uncertain. His eyes were vague. But one felt that his body alone was still under the influence of the alcohol. His mind was clear.
"What a group!" he said.
"Maybe you were a little too strong..." risked Jean.
And Lili sighed, "Oh you! If you wanted..."
She spoke with something like admiration or maybe love. He looked at her attentively. A smile that no one understood floated across his lips.
"Now, you should be going to eat something..." It was the barman who spoke, paternally. There were peanuts on the floor, pieces of chips and cheese everywhere.
But Christian's look came to rest on Maigret. There was a moment of complete immobility, of absolute silence. Gastambide passed his hand across his brow.
"Let me have an old brandy, Jean..."
"Do you really think that...?"
"Give it to me, I say!"
He looked for cigarettes in his pockets. Lili offered him one.
"How much do I owe?"
"Seven hundred fifty-five... I'm not counting the brandy..."
He tossed a thousand-franc bill on the counter, looked at Lili, started to laugh.
"What is it?"
"Why are you laughing like that?"
"Are you sad?"
He had his left hand on the paper that he had covered with writing. Maigret was tensed, ready to intervene.
But had he been ten times more agile, a hundred times more farsighted, he would nevertheless have arrived too late. The shot, indeed, rang out without Christian withdrawing his hand from his pocket.
He had aimed through his clothes, at his stomach... He remained a moment without moving, his eyes white. His mouth half-opened slowly.
Lili tried to hold him up, but she was not strong enough and he fell backwards off the the stool, his skull crashing on the tiles.
Behind the bar, there was only a tiny kitchen, in which three people could hardly stand, and which was further cluttered by an enormous cask of beer.
Yet they managed to drag his body there. Jean was pale. He kept repeating to himself, "I should have known!"
Lili had remained in the front room, wide-eyed, not moving, not saying a word.
"A doctor... Quickly! Do you have a telephone?"
"No... but there is a doctor nearby..."
Jean ran out. Maigret, his features drawn, uncovered the wound. It was horrible, like all stomach wounds. And there was besides, a trickle of blood from the back of Christian's neck.
He hadn't closed his eyes, nor lost consciousness. The proof was that he whispered, just at the moment Maigret expected it least, "Funny, eh!"
At the same time a little reddish saliva wet his lips. "The p... the p... the pap..." he tried to say. He wanted to speak of the paper, that was still on the bar, in a pool of alcohol.
They were his last words. Just as Jean came back, accompanied by the physician whom he had found sitting down to eat, and who still had his napkin mechanically clutched in his hand, his body shuddered. He had died.
Physicians have some consolations ready for all occasions. "He was lucky! The intestine must be punctured in about ten places... He would have dragged on for weeks, suffering horribly... The fracture of the skull took care of everything..."
"Drink something!" he counseled Jean.
The commissioner seized the sheet of paper that was on the counter. He didn't immediately read it.
"Lock the door!"
The physician was in cutaway. "Excuse me... I have seven guests for lunch... Must I...?"
And, to Jean, "Phone the Prefecture. Have them send an ambulance or a van."
He shouted it. Lili began to cry.
The commissioner still had the note in his hand which he hadn't looked at. He closed the door of the small room, where he remained alone with the dead man.
"I was the one who killed Truffier, because I needed money. I made my sister believe she was guilty... I can't take it anymore and I want all these fools to f... off!"
That was all. An incredible incoherence. Maigret reread twice, "...I made my sister believe she was guilty..."
With a precipitate gesture, he closed Christian's eyes. Then he slipped his hand by turns into each of his pockets. He withdrew a wallet in which remained close to twelve thousand francs, a silver cigarette case, a lighter, a handkerchief.
Lili opened the door, continued to sob while leaning against the mantelpiece. She repeated mechanically, between hiccups, "Poor guy..."
At the same instant, Maigret withdrew from the bottom of a pocket a ball of paper that he unfolded.
It was another message, written in pencil. It said:
"Above all, say nothing! I said that it was me! One is enough! YOUR FATHER"
The paper was dirty. Évariste Gastambide must have tossed it that morning, just as he went by in the car with the commissioner and Ninie.
The van was at the door. Maigret noticed that it was the same one that had carried the body of Truffier to the Medico-Legal Institute. Passers-by hadn't noticed anything. The car, in spite of its unaccustomed shape, didn't attract any attention. Two men in black.
Lili's cheeks were shiny with tears. Jean didn't know what to do. One walked on peanuts. Maigret felt an emptiness in his chest.
"Don't you have anything to eat?"
There were sandwiches under a glass globe. He devoured five of them while they carried away the body.
"The poor kid!" cried Lili a last time, just as the door closed again. "It's always those who..."
Maigret looked at her, told Jean, "Put everything back in order... No fuss..."
The commissioner was already outside. The driver of the van signaled to ask if he wanted to ride with him. But he preferred to walk to the circle and take a cab.
"Quai des Orfèvres..."
The driver started off, contemptuous.