Dusk was beginning to set in as he drove into Wahrhejm. He turned right at the village's only crossroads, passed the inn, where they had already lit the red lanterns in the windows-the same lanterns, he thought, that had been hanging there ever since he was a child.
He continued past the chapel, Heine's house, and the pond, whose still water looked blacker than ever in the failing light. Passed Van Klauster's house, Kotke's dilapidated old mansion, and then turned left into the little road between the post boxes and the tall pine trees.
He drove in through the opening in the stone wall and parked at the back, as usual. Hid the car from the gaze of the street-an expression his mother used to use that he had never been able to shake off. But today, of course, it was appropriate. The kitchen door was at the back as well, but he didn't unload his food supplies yet. He got out of the car and examined the house first. Outside and inside. The kitchen and the three rooms. The loft. The outbuilding. The cellar.
No sign. She was not here, and hadn't been here. Not yet. He applied the safety catch on his pistol and put it into his jacket pocket.
But she would come. He started unloading the provisions. Switched on the electricity. Started the pump. Allowed the taps to run for a while and flushed the lavatory. Nobody had set foot in the place since October, when he had invited a business acquaintance to spend the weekend there, but everything seemed to be in order. Nothing had given up the ghost during the winter. The refrigerator was humming away. The radiators soon felt warm. The television and radio were working.
For a second or two the pleasure he felt at returning home succeeded in ousting the reason for his visit from his mind. Most of the furniture-as well as the pictures and the tapestries, the hundreds of other little things-were still there and in the same state as when he had been a young boy and the moment of arrival, the first sight of the place again, always brought with it a feeling of leaping back in time. Vertigo-inspiring, instantaneous. And it happened again now. But then, needless to say, the circumstances caught up with him.
He switched off the lights. He felt at home in the darkness inside the house, and he knew that no matter what happened, he would not need a flashlight in order to find his way around. Neither indoors nor out of doors. He knew every nook and cranny. Every door and creaking stair. Every path, every bush, and every root. Every stone. Everything was in its place, had always been there, and that gave him a feeling of confidence and security-something he might have hoped for during the planning stage, but had hardly dared count on.
Anyway, the outbuilding.
He unhasped the door. Dragged the mattress up the stairs as best he could. Placed it carefully by the window. Not much headroom up there. He had to crawl, crouch down. He went back to collect pillows and blankets. It was colder in the outbuilding, there was no source of heat at all, and it was clear that he would have to wrap himself up well.
He adjusted the mattress to an optimal position under the sloping roof. Lay down, and checked it was all as he'd foreseen.
Perfect, more or less. He could look out through the slightly rippled, old-fashioned glass pane and see the gable end of the house, with both the front door and the kitchen door in his field of view. The distance was no more than six or eight meters.
He opened the window slightly. Took out the gun and stuck it out through the opening, moved it back and forth, testing. Took aim.
Would he hit her at this distance?
He thought so. Perhaps not accurately enough to kill her outright, but he would probably have time for three or four shots.
That should be sufficient. He was not a bad marksman, even though it had been several years since he'd been out with the hunting club up here.
He returned to the house. Ferried over a few more blankets and some of the provisions. The idea was that he would spend his time lying here. Spend as much time as possible in the correct position in the outbuilding loft.
He would be lying here when she came.
He would ambush her and give her the coup de gr^ace.
He would finish off the mad bitch once and for all through this open window.
Pure luck, he would tell the police afterward. It could just as easily have been she who got me instead… Good thing I was on my guard.
Self-defense. Of course it was self-defense, for God's sake-he didn't even need to lie.
But he would not reveal the real reason. The root of the evil. The reason he knew he was next on the list.
He had done all he could. Went back to the house and listened.
It's strange how quiet it is, he thought, and remembered that this was what he always felt here. The silence that came rolling in from the forest and obliterated every slight sound. Wiped out everything with its enormous, silent soughing.
The armies of silence, he thought. The Day of Judgment…
He checked his watch and decided to pay a visit to the inn. A short walk there and back, along the familiar road.
Just for a beer. And, maybe, the answer to a question.
Any strangers around lately?
Any new faces?
When he got back, the darkness lay thick over the house and its environs. The buildings and the scraggy fruit trees could just about be made out against the background of the forest-rather better here and there against the somewhat lighter sky over the treetops. He had drunk two beers and a whiskey. Spoken to Lippmann and Korhonen, who had charge of the bar nowadays. Not a lot of customers, of course: a normal weekday at the beginning of March. And not many strangers, not recently, either. The occasional one who had passed through and called in, but nobody who had been there more than once. Women? No, no, not as far as they could remember. Neither Lippmann nor Korhonen. Why was he asking? Oh, business reasons. Nudge, nudge. Did he really think they would swallow that? Pull the other one. Tee hee. And cheers! Good to see you back here in the village.
He tiptoed over the wet grass. It hadn't rained at all this evening, but damp mists had drifted in from the coast and settled down over the open countryside bordering the forests like an unseen presence. He kept stopping and listening, but all he could hear was the same impenetrable silence as before. Nothing else. He withdrew behind the outbuilding in order to rid his body of the remnants of the beer. Carefully opened the door, which usually squeaked a bit but didn't on this occasion. He would oil it tomorrow, just in case.
Crouched down in order to negotiate the cramped staircase again, and crawled over to his bed. Fiddled around with the blankets. Wriggled in and snuggled down. Turned over on his side and peered out. The house was dark and inert down below. Not a sound. Not a movement. He slid the pistol under his pillow, and placed his hand over it. He would have to sleep lightly, of course-but then, he usually did.
Always woke up at the slightest sound or movement.
Would no doubt do that now as well.
Blankets wrapped around his body. Face close to the window-pane. Hand over the gun.
So. Bring her on.