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Excerpt: 'Dirty Snow'

It was years since he had been here, but it was impossible for his feet not to follow in his old footsteps. The watchmaker Vilmos and his watches, and his famous garden, these were perhaps his most vivid childhood memories.

Even before reaching the door, he seemed to recognize the smell of the house, which had always had old people in it, since as far as he was concerned the watchmaker Vilmos and his sister had never been young.

Frank took a dark handkerchief out of his pocket and tied it around his face below his eyes. Stan was about to protest.

"You don't need one. They don't know you. But if you like . . ."

He handed him a similar handkerchief; he had thought of everything.

He still remembered Mademoiselle Vilmos's cakes, like nothing else that he had ever eaten, tasteless, thick, decorated with pink-and-blue sugar. She always kept them in a box with pictures from the adventures of Robinson Crusoe on it.

And she insisted on calling him "my little angel."

Vilmos must be over eighty now, his sister around seventy-five. It was hard to tell exactly, since children have a different way of judging age. For him they had always been old, and Vilmos had been the first person he had ever seen who could remove all his teeth at once, since he wore dentures.

They were misers, brother and sister, each as bad as the other.

"Should I ring the bell?" asked Stan, who was uneasy standing there in the deserted square under the moonlight.

Frank rang, surprised to find the bell rope so low, when once he had had to stand on tiptoe to reach it. He held his automatic in his right hand. His foot was ready to keep the door from closing, like the first time he had gone to Sissy's. Footsteps could be heard inside, a sound like in a church. He remembered that, too. The hall, long and wide, with dark walls and mysterious doors like those of a sacristy, was paved with gray tiles, and two or three were always loose.

"Who is it?"

It was the voice of old Mademoiselle Vilmos, who was afraid of nothing.

"The priest sent me," he replied.

He heard the chain being pulled back. He pushed his foot against the door as it opened, his pistol at his waist. He said to Stan, who suddenly seemed awkward, "Go on!" Then to the old woman, "Where's Vilmos?"

God, how tiny and gray she was! She clasped her hands and stammered in her cracked voice, "But, my good sir, you know very well he's been dead for a year."

"Give me the watches."

He remembered the hallway, the dark-brown wallpaper that was supposed to imitate Cordova leather and where traces of gold were still visible. The shop was to the left, with the workbench where Vilmos used to sit, bent over his watches, the little jeweler's glass with the black rim screwed in his eye.

"Where are the watches?" He added, nervously, "The collection." Then, raising the automatic, "Get it now!"

Could it all go wrong? He hadn't foreseen that Vilmos might be dead. With him it would have been easy. The watchmaker was such a coward that he would have given up his watches without a word.

The old bag was made of different stuff. She had seen the automatic, all right, but you felt that she was still looking for a way out, that she wouldn't give in, that she would fight to the end, taking her last chance.

Then he heard a voice, Stan's—Frank had forgotten about him. From deep in his throat, he drawled, "Maybe we could help her remember."

He must have done this before. Kromer obviously hadn't chosen a novice. Maybe he hadn't been entirely sure about Frank.

The old woman had flattened herself against the wall. A pitiful yellowish-gray lock of hair hung over her face. She had held out both arms, her hands flat against the imitation-leather walls.

He repeated almost mechanically, "The watches . . ."

He hadn't had much to drink and yet things seemed to be happening as if he were drunk. Everything was blurred, confused, with only certain details standing out, exaggeratedly clear: the lock of yellowish-gray hair, the hands flat against the wall, the old hands with their big blue veins . . .

Usually so deliberate, he must have moved too quickly turning to say something to Stan, and the handkerchief slipped down. Before he could pull it up over his face, she exclaimed, "Frank!" Adding immediately—it was really too ridiculous—"Little Frank!"

He repeated, his voice hard, "The watches!"

"You'll find them. You always got what you wanted. But don't hurt me—I'll tell you . . . Oh God! Frank! Little Frank!"

She seemed reassured, but at the same time even more frightened. She had lost her immobility. Her mind was beginning to work again. She trotted off down the hall, toward the kitchen, where Frank noticed a wicker armchair with an orange cat curled up in a ball on a red cushion.

She seemed to be talking to herself, or praying, her bony limbs rattling about in her baggy old clothes.

Was she just stalling? She cast a furtive glance at Stan, probably wondering if it wouldn't be easier to rouse his pity.

"What do you need them for? When I think about my poor brother, he used to be so happy to show them to you, he used to hold them up to your ear and make them strike one after the other, and I always had candy for you . . . There's no candy to be found anymore . . . You can't find anything . . . I'd be better off dead . . ."

She began to cry, the way she always did, but it could be just a trick.

"The watches!"

"He moved them from place to place, with all the things going on. He's been dead a year and you never knew! If he were here, I'm sure . . ."

What was she so sure of? It was too absurd. It was time to put an end to it. Adler must be getting impatient and would be likely to leave without them.

"Where are the watches?"

She still found time to poke at a log in the fireplace and turn her back on him, intentionally he was sure, before spitting out, "Under the tile . . ."

"Which tile?"

"You know perfectly well. The cracked one. The third."

From Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

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Georges Simenon