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Authors: Georges Simenon

Mr Hire's Engagement

BOOK: Mr Hire's Engagement
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Georges Simenon

MR. HIRE'S
ENGAGEMENT

 

(Les Fiançailles de Mr. Hire) was first published in France in 1933 and in Great Britain in 1956 Translated from the French by Daphne Woodward

 

Contents

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

IX

X

XI

 

 

 

 

MR. HIRE'S ENGAGEMENT

I

 

T
HE
concierge gave a slight cough before she knocked, and then announced, looking at the
Belle Jardiniere
catalogue in her hand:

'A letter for you, Mr. Hire.'

And she gathered her shawl over her chest. Someone was moving on the other side of the brown door. Now to left, now to right, now footsteps, then a soft rustling of cloth or a rattle of crockery, and the grey eyes of the concierge seemed to be following the invisible trail of sound, through the partition. At last the sounds came closer. The key turned in the lock. A rectangle of light appeared, a strip of yellow-flowered wallpaper, the polished marble of a washbasin. A man held out his hand, but the concierge did not see him, or scarcely saw him, paid no attention to him, in any case, for her prying eyes were fixed on something else: a bloodstained towel, lying dark-red on the pale marble.

The closing door pushed her gently backwards. The key turned once more and the concierge went down the four flights of stairs, pausing in thought from time to time. She was thin. Her clothes hung around her as though from the crossed sticks of a scarecrow's frame-work, and her nose was damp, her eyelids red, her hands chapped with the cold.

Inside the lodge, which had a glass-panelled door, a little girl in a flannel petticoat was standing in front of a chair with a basin of water on it. Her brother, already dressed, was amusing himself by splashing her with water, and the table beside them was not yet cleared.

The door clicked as it opened. The little boy looked round. The little girl held up a tearful face.

'You just wait . . .'

A slap for the boy, whom his mother then pushed outside.

'You get along to school. As for you, if you don't stop crying…'

She shook the little girl and bundled her into her frock, tugging at her arms as though she were a puppet. Then she hid the basin of soapy water in the cupboard, went across to the door, came back again.

'Are you going to stop snivelling?'

She was thinking. She was hesitating. She was frowning and her little eyes were uneasy. She nodded automatically to the second-floor tenant as he walked past the lodge, and suddenly, flinging a second shawl over her shoulders, she half-closed the front of the stove and darted out towards the street.

It was freezing. Along the main road to Fontainebleau, which runs through Villejuif, the cars were driving slowly because of the icy surface, and steam was rising from their radiators. A hundred yards to the left was the cross-roads, with its
bistro
on either side, its policeman in the middle, the bustling suburban streets leading straight to Paris, with their trams, buses and cars. But to the right, after two houses, immediately past the last garage, was the open road, the countryside with trees and hoar-frosted fields.

The concierge shivered, hesitated again. She made a slight sign to a man standing at the street corner, but he did not see her, and so she ran across, touched his arm. 'Come in for a minute.'

She went back to the house, taking no further notice of him, grabbed her daughter by one arm and hoisted her onto a chair in a corner of the room, to get her out of the way.

'Come in. Don't stay there, he might see you.' She was either out of breath or very agitated. She glanced to and fro from the outside corridor to the man, who looked about thirty years old and had not taken his hat off.

'Yesterday I still wasn't sure, but I've just seen something and now I'm dead certain it's Mr. Hire.'

'Which is he?'

'Short, rather stout, with a curly moustache, and always carries a black briefcase under his arm.'

'What's his job?'

'We don't know. He goes out every morning and comes back at night. I took him up a catalogue, and while the door was ajar I noticed a towel all covered with blood . . .'

For the last fortnight the inspector, with two colleagues, had been spending his days and sometimes his nights in the district, watching everybody, and he was beginning to know the local people by sight. 'And apart from this towel. . .' he began. The concierge was ill at ease.

'You remember. I thought of him the very first day, the Sunday. The woman had just been found on that waste ground. Your colleague questioned me along with all the other concierges. Well, Mr. Hire didn't go out that day! Which means he had nothing to eat, because on Sundays he goes to the delicatessen shop in the Rue Gambetta to get what he needs. In the afternoon he didn't stir. Careful. . .'

Steps were heard on the stairs. The passage outside the glass-panelled door was dark, but nevertheless a shortish man could be seen going past, with a briefcase under his left arm. The concierge and the inspector both bent forward, both frowned, then the policeman went out quickly, ran a few paces towards the pale daylight of the street, came back unhurriedly.

'He has a big strip of sticking-plaster on one cheek.'

'I noticed that.'

The concierge's stony eyes were gazing at something far off, something inward rather than exterior.

'So that's not it,' went on the man, making as if to leave.

But a feverish hand grasped his arm. The concierge was more and more ill at ease, perhaps through the effort of memory she was making.

'Wait! I want to be sure ... I looked chiefly at the towel, but...'

Her face contorted like that of a medium in a trance. Her voice grew slower and softer. The little girl slid off her chair.

'I could swear that when I gave him the catalogue he hadn't cut himself. I didn't look him full in the face, but all the same I could see him and I think it would have struck me . . .'

She was still frantically racking her brain. The inspector frowned.

'Aha! You mean he saw you looking at the towel and that gave him the idea of. . .'

In the lodge, standing beside the table with its brown oilcloth cover, they were each inflaming the other. They were less than two hundred yards from the waste ground where, one Sunday morning, a fortnight before, a woman's body had been found, so badly mutilated that identification was impossible.

'What time will he get home?'

'At ten past seven.'

To the right of the crossroads, near the tram terminus, was a row of barrows, and Mr. Hire, his briefcase under his arm, was moving with his waddling gait among the housewives, passing in turn a butcher's stall, then vegetables, then more meat, then a barrow with nothing but cauliflowers. The tram-conductor blew his whistle and Mr. Hire began to run, like a man unused to running, kicking his legs out sideways like a woman. As he ran he called:

'Hey! . . . Hey! . . .'

The tram-conductor hauled him aboard in the nick of time. Standing near the front of the tram was a second inspector, scrutinizing the passengers who got in, and slapping his hands on his thighs to warm himself. Seeing Mr. Hire's sticking-plaster, he first screwed up his eyes, then opened them very wide, turned for a second to stare down the street, and finally, just as the tram began to move, jumped onto the step.

Blood, and even traces of skin, had been found under the dead woman's finger-nails, and for lack of any other clue, the police report had contained the instruction: 'Keep a specially close watch on men with scratches on their face.'

Mr. Hire was sitting in his usual place at the end of the car and his briefcase lay on his knees; he was reading the newspaper. As usual, too, he had his ticket ready in his hand, and held it out to the conductor without even raising his head.

He was not big. He was fat. His bulk was no greater than an average man's, but he seemed to have neither bones nor flesh, nothing but some smooth, soft substance, so smooth and so soft that it made his movements somehow equivocal.

His round face displayed a pair of very red lips, a small moustache curled with a curling-iron, as though it had been drawn in Indian ink, and the symmetrical rosy cheeks of a doll.

He took no notice of his surroundings. He did not know that an inspector was watching him. At the Porte d'Italie he got out, as though an instinct had warned him he had reached his destination, and he slipped through the crowd again, with jaunty self-assured step, his shoulders swaying, went down the Métro steps and, arriving on the platform, plunged once more into his newspaper.

He was reading as he stepped into the train the moment it stopped, went on reading as he travelled, standing up in a corner of the carriage, changed trains at République and finally got out at Voltaire.

The inspector followed him all the way, without much conviction, but feeling he was no worse off there than at the Villejuif crossroads.

Mr. Hire went down the Rue Saint-Maur, turned to the left and dived into a courtyard cluttered with barrels, at the far end of which he disappeared.

The courtyard was old, so was the house. Enamel plates announced the presence of a cooper, a carpenter and a printer. A saw and a printing-press could be heard at work. The inspector could see no concierge and paused for a moment on the pavement. His attention was caught by a reddish glow on the cobbles. Turning round, he noticed that a light had been switched on behind some barred windows at ground-level, and at the same moment he saw Mr. Hire, taking off his overcoat and muffler, putting them away in a cupboard, and advancing towards a plain deal table.

The place was not quite a cellar, not quite a ground-floor. The courtyard sloped downwards, and the room Mr. Hire had entered was thus three feet below the level of the street. It was funny, because the pavement seemed to cut the little man short at the waist. The only light came from a weak, unshaded electric bulb hanging from the ceiling, which spread a yellowish glow, and no sounds penetrated to the street.

Mr. Hire looked calm and placid. Seated in front of a heap of letters, he was opening them, one after another, carefully, using a paper-knife. He was not reading them, merely placing the actual letters to his right, and to his left the money-order enclosed in each envelope. He was not smoking. Twice he got up to stoke a small stove.

The inspector went round the courtyard looking for a concierge, but the printer told him there wasn't one. When he came out on the pavement again, Mr. Hire, just below one of his barred windows, was doing up parcels, with precise movements. All the parcels were, indeed, identical.

Mr. Hire was taking a white wooden box from one place, a printed leaflet from another, then six post cards from six separate heaps, and wrapping the whole thing up in the twinkling of an eye, tying it with red string from a ball that hung level with his head.

The policeman went to the nearest
bistro
and drank a couple of glasses of rum. When he got back, about twenty parcels had been made up. By noon there were sixty.

And Mr. Hire slowly put on his outdoor things, emerged onto the pavement, went to a restaurant in the Boulevard Voltaire, where he settled down like a regular customer, and ate his meal reading his newspaper.

At two o'clock he was doing up parcels again. At half-past three he was writing addresses on labels, and about four o'clock he began sticking the labels on the parcels.

He then made all the little packages into one big one, and on the stroke of five o'clock he walked into the post office and joined the queue in front of the 'registered printed matter' counter.

The clerk did not even weigh the packets. He was used to them. Mr. Hire paid and went out, now carrying only his briefcase. The inspector was getting bored. Because of the cold, he had drunk nine or ten glasses of rum since morning.

But Mr. Hire had not finished. With the same automatic precision he climbed into a bus, got out at the
Matin
office, and handed a sheet of paper and thirty francs to the woman in charge of the 'classified advertisements', who did not even look at him, she had doubtless seen him so many times before.

The boulevards were less crowded than usual. People were collected round charcoal braziers. The asphalt was white with frost. Mr. Hire swayed slightly as he walked, not noticing the women who brushed past him. He turned down the Rue de Richelieu, went into the
Journal
office, and laid a ready-prepared sheet and thirty francs on the counter for 'classified advertisements'. '

The inspector had had enough of this. At the risk of losing his man, he rushed over to the counter as soon as Mr. Hire had left it, and showed his card.

'Let me see the advertisement.'

The women handed it to him as a matter of course. It was made out in fine, clear writing.

'Eighty to a hundred Francs a day for easy work without leaving present employment. Write Mr. Hire
, 67,
Rue Saint-Maur, Paris'

The two men were reunited at the entrance to the Bourse Métro station, where they went down the steps one behind the other. Still one behind the other, they came out of the subway at the Porte d'Italie. Mr. Hire was reading an evening paper. The inspector stared sourly at him.

In the tram they sat side by side. It was five past seven when Mr. Hire got out at the Villejuif terminus and began to walk home, where he went into the house with the most innocent air imaginable.

The inspector went in after him, pushed open the concierge's glass- panelled door, grunted to his colleague, who was drinking a bowl of hot coffee: 'What are you doing here?'

'And you?'

The little boy was busy with his homework on a corner of the table. The room was badly lit by one lamp. The postman had just deposited a heap of circulars on the oilcloth, beside the blue enamel coffee-pot. 'Mr. Hire?'

BOOK: Mr Hire's Engagement
9.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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