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33

The Pawlewski Hotel had seen better days, but then, so had Mr. Pawlewski.

And better guests.

More specifically, he had seen them sixty years ago and more, when he had to stand on a blue-painted and scratched stool in order to be able to see over the edge of the reception desk. When it was still Pawlewski senior and Pawlewski grand-senior running the show. And his mother and grandmother ruled the roost in the restaurant and linen store, and kept the cooks and pomaded bellboys in good order. While the century was somewhat younger.

A lot of water had flowed under the bridge since then. An awful lot of water. Nowadays the stool stood under a tired palm tree in his own den, the former so-called bridal suite on the fifth floor of the hotel.

Everything has its day.

Biedersen spent the first three evenings in the bar in the company of numerous whiskeys and the assortment of doubtful characters that comprised the clientele, roughly half of them one-night guests and the rest introverted regulars. All of them were men. All had thinning hair and almost all had drooping shoulders, some kind of beard or mustache, and vacant expressions. He didn't waste a minute on any of them, and from Monday night onward he drank from the bottle he had in his room instead.

This made the days monotonous and indistinguishable. He got up about noon. Left his room an hour later and spent the afternoon wandering around the town, so that the chambermaid had an opportunity to come in and mark the commencement of a new day. He would drink black coffee in some caf'e or other, preferably G"unther's near the town center, try to read a newspaper or perhaps several, go for a long walk, and buy some cigarettes plus the evening's bottle, which he would choose with a degree of care that struck him as unjustified but nevertheless essential. As if it were one of the basic rules in a game-he was not sure if he was playing it or if he was one of the pieces, but for the moment it was the only thing taking place. There was nothing else at all.

He returned by devious routes to the Pawlewski the moment he noticed that the dirt-gray dusk was beginning to fall. It happened early in a town like this, accompanied by acid rain and the smog from coal fires.

Stretched out on his newly made bed, with sick-looking pigeons cooing outside on the roof, he drank his first whiskey of the day before taking a bath, with number two within easy reach on the floor. Went down to the restaurant for dinner, usually as one of the first diners, occasionally completely alone in the oversized, mouse-brown room with uninspiring crystal glass chandeliers and tablecloths that had once been white. Drank beer with the food, coffee and cognac afterward, and each night he remained sitting there a little longer.

He tried to last out for a few extra minutes; to shrink and cut back as much as possible the accursed boredom of what remained of the waking day. And it was as he returned from these meals-on his way to the bar or up to his room-that Mr. Pawlewski saw him. Pawlewski spent virtually all his waking hours more or less invisible behind the reception desk; from there he could observe and pass judgment and as usual ascertain that most things had seen better days.

Who this particular guest was, and what the hell he was doing in this lugubrious town in a month like February were the kind of questions that, in his capacity of observer and man of the world, he had ceased to ask forty or more years ago.

At first the intoxication and numbing of the senses was an aim in itself. Simply to get away, to run away and put distance between himself and what was happening, had been the primary, not to say the only, goal he had had when he left home. The idea that eventually he would have to adopt a different strategy, would have to work out practical new tactics and courses of action, was as yet merely a thought dormant in the back of his mind; or at least was not something hanging over him, demanding that he should do something. Even so, these days were filled with the complicated actions and routines necessary to enable him to enjoy the blessing of sleeping in a state of unconscious intoxication.

Dreamless sleep for eight hours. Dead to the world. Beyond reach of everything and everyone. In the morning he would wake up sweating profusely, and with a headache strong enough to keep all other sensations miles away. Then, simply by taking a couple of tablets and preparing himself yet again for the afternoon hours spent on the streets and in caf'es, he had set the warped wheels of time turning once more. Gained another day.

By the seventh night it was over, this purifying, cauterizing alcohol bath. The desired distance had been achieved, his fear was in check, and he needed to apply himself to the strategies once more.

Scrutinized and filtered through a week of turbid, soothing whiskey, the proportions of his opponent had become possible to assess accurately. He could envisage her again. His faux pas and the fiasco in Berkinshaam, followed by the shocking murder of Innings, had elevated her out of the real world-the murderer was a phantom that couldn't be stopped, a superwoman; the only thing he could possibly do was go into hiding and wait. Vanish. Go underground, and hope.

That is why he had run away. Made himself invisible. Not just stuck his head in the sand, but dug down and concealed all of him. Away from everything and everyone. Away from her.

But on the tenth day he weighed his gun in his hand and began to look ahead again.

First of all, it was necessary to reject two possibilities.

The first was the police. To abandon his self-defense. Give himself up and tell them the whole story. Allow the bitch to win.

It took him two drams of whiskey to dismiss that thought.

The other was to remain in hiding. For as long as was necessary.

That took him a bit longer. Four drams, maybe six. But he managed it.

So what should he do?

He drank more. A lot more.

Days. All the rest of the days he stayed at the Pawlewski Hotel, to be precise. Needless to say this had been his original thought, the one that had been lying dormant in the back of his mind-to find a place like this, and to stay there. To stay in this damned, filthy, bad-smelling hotel until he was ready and knew what he was going to do next.

Stay here and wait for the strength, the determination, and the ideas.

There must be a way.

A way of killing this damned bitch. And the more he thought about it, the clearer it became that this wasn't just about himself. Not just his own skin. That strengthened his resolve. All the others… the friends she had murdered, the widows and children, and the lives she had destroyed in the course of her blood-stained campaign, just in order to…

All the people who had suffered. Just in order to…

His duty. His duty for God's sake, was to kill her. Challenge her on her own terms, then outwit her and obliterate her from the surface of the earth once and for all.

Eliminate this accursed bitch.

The anger inside him grew into hatred. Powerful, incandescent hatred coupled with the feeling of having a mission to accomplish, a duty to perform-he was filled with the strength he needed to carry it out.

Courage. Strength. Determination.

And the method?

Was there more than one?

Two drams. Let it circulate in the mouth, as if it were cognac. The same question over and over again. One evening after the other. More whiskey? The method? Was there more than one?

No. Only one.

Lower his guard. Leave himself open.

Give her the chance to strike first.

Then parry and kill her.

That was the way.

Yes, the Pawlewski Hotel had seen better guests.

How and where?

Where? That was the most important thing. Where the hell could he find a corner into which he could entice her without giving her too much of an advantage? He still didn't know what she really looked like-naturally, he had studied the pictures of her printed in the newspapers, but the only sure thing was that she was never going to approach him with an expression like the remarkably peaceful one she had there.

Another woman this time. No matter what she looked like. Unexpected and completely unknown. But where? Where the hell would he be able to set the trap?

And how?

It took a whole night to sketch out the plan, and when he eventually fell asleep in the gray light of dawn, he didn't believe it would still hold water in the cold light of day.

But it did. On Tuesday, he had lunch in the restaurant for the first time, and when he checked through the plan with the aid of two cups of extra-strong black coffee, he found the occasional crack, but nothing that couldn't be papered over, and nothing wide enough for him to fall through.

It was watertight.



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