It was not a part of Ryszard Malik's normal routine to drink two large whiskeys before dinner, but he had a good reason to do so today.
Two reasons, in fact. The contract he had long been negotiating with Winklers had collapsed, despite two hours of intensive telephone discussions during the afternoon, and when he finally left the office he discovered that a sudden cold snap had transformed the streets, soaking wet after all the rain, into an ice rink. If it had been exclusively up to him, there would, of course, have been no problem-not for nothing did he have thirty years of blameless driving behind him, and he had often driven on slippery roads. But he wasn't the only one out. The rush-hour traffic from the center of town to the residential districts and garden suburbs was still in evidence. It happened just before the roundabout in Hagmaar All'e: a white, Swiss-registered Mercedes going much too fast slid into the back of his Renault. He swore under his breath, unfastened his safety belt, and got out of the car to survey the damage and argue about what to do next. Right taillight smashed, rather a large dent in the fender, and two deep scratches in the paintwork. Various unlikely excuses, some forced politeness, an exchange of business cards and insurance-company details-it all took a considerable time, and it was over forty minutes later when he was able to continue his journey home.
Malik didn't like coming home late. Admittedly his wife rarely had dinner ready before seven, but an hour, preferably an hour and a half, with the newspaper and a whiskey and water in his study was something he was reluctant to miss.
Over the years it had become a habit, and a necessary one at that. A sort of buffer between work and a wife growing increasingly conscious of her importance.
Today there was time for only a quarter of an hour. And it was to go some way toward compensating for the loss-of both the precious minutes and his taillight-that he skipped the newspaper and devoted all his attention to the whiskey instead.
Well, not quite all. There were those telephone calls as well. What the devil was it all about? “The Rise and Fall of Flingel Bunt.” What the hell was the point of phoning somebody and then playing an old sixties hit? Over and over again.
Or once a day, at any rate. Ilse had answered twice, and he had taken one of the calls. It had started the day before yesterday. He hadn't mentioned to her that whoever it was had called again yesterday evening… No need to worry her unnecessarily. No need to tell her that he recognized the tune, either.
Quite early in the sixties, if he remembered rightly. The Shadows. 'Sixty-four or 'sixty-five, presumably. Irrelevant anyway: the question was what the hell it signified, if it signified anything at all. And who was behind it? Perhaps it was just a loony. Some out-of-work screwball who had nothing better to do than to phone decent citizens and stir up a bit of trouble.
It was probably no more than that. Obviously, one could consider bringing in the police if it continued, but so far at least it was no more than a minor irritation. Which was bad enough on a day like today.
A pain in the ass, as Wolff would have put it. A scratch in the paintwork or a shattered taillight.
There came his wife's call. The food was on the table, it seemed. He sighed. Downed the rest of the whiskey and left his study.
“It's nothing to get worked up about.”
“I'm not getting worked up.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“You always think I'm getting worked up. That's typical of the way you regard women.”
“All right. Let's talk about something else. This sauce is not bad at all. What have you put in it?”
“A drop of Madeira. You've had it fifty times before. I listened for longer today.”
“A minute, at least. There was nothing else.”
“What else did you expect there to be?”
“What else did I expect there to be? A voice, of course. Most people who make a phone call have something to say.”
“I expect there's a natural explanation.”
“Oh yes? What, for example? Why ring somebody and just play a piece of music?”
Malik took a large sip of wine and thought that one over.
“Well,” he said. “A new radio station, or something of the sort.”
“That's the silliest thing I've ever heard.”
“Are you sure it was the same song both times?”
She hesitated. Stroked her brow with her index finger, the way she did when a migraine attack was in the offing.
“I think so. The first time, I put the phone down after only a few seconds. Like I said.”
“Don't worry about it. It's bound to be just a mistake.”
“A mistake? How could that be a mistake?”
Hold your tongue, he thought. Stop nagging, or I'll throw this glass of wine in your face!
“I don't know,” he said. “Let's drop the subject. I had a little accident today.”
“Nothing serious. Somebody skidded into me from behind.”
“Good Lord! Why didn't you say something?”
“It was a minor thing. Nothing to speak of.”
“Nothing to speak of? You always say that. What shall we speak about then? You tell me. We receive some mysterious telephone calls, but we should just ignore them. You have a car accident, and you don't think it's even worth mentioning to your wife. That's so typical. What you mean, of course, is that we should just sit here every evening without saying a word. That's the way you want it. Quiet and peaceful. I'm not even worth talking to anymore.”
“Rubbish. Don't be silly.”
“Maybe there's a connection.”
“Connection? What the hell do you mean?”
“The telephone calls and the car crash, of course. I hope you took his number?”
My God, Malik thought, and gulped down the rest of the wine. There's something wrong with her. Pure paranoia. No wonder the hotel wanted to sack her.
“Have you heard anything from Jacob?” He tried to change the subject, but realized his error the moment the words left his mouth.
“Not for two weeks. He's too much like you, it would never occur to him to phone us. Unless he needed some money, of course.”
The hell he would, Malik thought, and hoped that his grim inner smile wouldn't shine through to the outside. He had spoken to their son a couple of times in the last few days, without having to shell out a single guilder. And although he would never admit it, he regarded his son's passive distancing of himself from his mother as a healthy development, and a perfectly natural one.
“Ah well,” he said, wiping his lips with a napkin. “That's the way young people are nowadays. Is there anything worth watching on the box tonight?”
When the fifth call came, he was lucky enough to be able to answer it himself. Ilse was still watching the Hungarian feature movie on Channel 4, and when he answered it on the bedroom extension he was able to tell the anonymous disturber of the peace to go to hell in no uncertain terms, without a risk of her hearing him and guessing what it was about. First he established that it really was “The Rise and Fall of Flingel Bunt;” then he listened to it for half a minute before delivering a series of threats that could hardly be misunderstood before replacing the receiver.
However, he had no way of knowing if there really was somebody listening at the other end.
Maybe there was somebody there. Maybe there wasn't.
But that tune? he thought. Was there something?… But it was just a faint shadow of a suspicion, and no clear memories at all cropped up in his somewhat overexcited brain.
“Who was that?” asked his wife as he settled down again on the sofa in the television room.
“Jacob,” he lied. “He said to say hello to you, and didn't want to borrow a single nickel.”