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38

He felt cold.

For the fifth morning in succession, he was woken up by feeling freezing cold.

For the fifth morning in succession, it took him less than one second to remember where he was.

For the fifth morning in succession, he felt for his pistol and looked out the window.

The house was still there in the hesitant light of dawn. Just as untouched, just as unvisited and unaware as when he had fallen asleep at some point during the night.

Unmolested. She wasn't coming. She hadn't come last night, either. The cold made his body ache all over. It was inconceivable how impossible it was to keep warm up here, despite the abundance of quilts and blankets. Every morning he had woken up in the early stages of dawn, frozen stiff. Checked the state of everything by looking out the window, then gone downstairs and into the house and the warmth created by the stove. He always made a big fire in the evenings when he came back from the inn. A really roaring fire in the iron stove in the kitchen, making sure that it would retain its heat until well into the following morning.

He followed the same routine this morning. Carefully scrutinized the whole area, outside in the raw morning air and inside the house. Gun in hand. With the safety catch off.

Then he sat down at the kitchen table for coffee. Took a couple of drams of whiskey as well, to drive the cold out of his body. Listened to the seven o'clock news on the radio while he made plans for the coming day. Pistol close at hand on the worn, fifty-year-old waxed tablecloth. Back against the wall. Invisible from the window.

Getting through the day was becoming harder and harder. He couldn't endure more than three or four hours at a time in the forest, and when he came back in the early afternoon, on the alert as ever, he generally sat down on the sofa again. Or lay down in the loft for an hour or two, waiting.

He would sit or lie there and glance through something from his father's library, which was not exactly voluminous and not particularly varied. Adventure stories. Brash, cheap literature bought by the meter at auctions or at sales time. He would quite like to read the occasional one, to be honest, but found it hard to concentrate.

Other things nagged and disturbed him. Other things.

Then he would go out for another walk, for an hour or so. As dusk drew in he would come back home in the dark. It felt like something he was waiting for, this darkness: a confidant and an ally. He knew that he had the upper hand as soon as night fell. If they were to confront each other while it was dark, he was at an advantage. He might need it.

Then he would have dinner in the dark kitchen. He never switched on a light-the worst-case scenario would be if she came across him in a lit-up window.

He had been into the village only once, to do some shopping. He tried to avoid it, during daylight hours at any rate. Nor did he go there during the evenings those first few days, but he soon realized that the isolation would be intolerable if he couldn't at least spend an hour at the inn with a beer.

He went there on the third evening. He made a risk assessment before setting out, and realized that the dangerous part would be returning home. On the way in, he could make sure he was walking behind hedges, through private gardens, or along the village street, which had no lighting. Inside the inn, lots of the drinkers had a clear view of the door. That fact would hardly present her with an opportunity, even if she found out where he was.

But walking back home was a different matter. Dangerous. If she knew he'd been at the inn, she had every opportunity of setting up an ambush, and so he took every possible precaution on his walk back to the house. Avoided the road. Dashed out of the inn and around the corner of the building, staying in the shadows there for quite a while. Then he would head for home cross-country, over terrain he had known in detail since he was a boy-changing direction, zigzagging irrationally, and approaching the house from a different direction every night. Extremely carefully, and gun in hand. Every sense on red alert.

But nothing happened.

Night after night, and absolutely nothing happened.

Not a single dodgy incident. Not the slightest indication. Nothing suspicious at all.

Two things nagged at him when he went to bed.

The first was a headache, caused by a whole day of tension and strain. To cope with that, every night he would take two tablets, washed down with a swig of whiskey in the dark kitchen.

That helped to some extent, but it didn't cure it.

The other thing was a thought. The thought that she might not come at all. The possibility that while he was spending these days in isolation and on red alert, she was actually somewhere else. Somewhere a long way away.

In an apartment in Maardam. In a house in Hamburg. Anywhere at all.

The possibility that this was the punishment she had decided to give him. Simply to let him wait. Wait for the murderer who never came. Wait for death, whose visit had been postponed.

And as one evening followed another, both these things grew in stature. The headache and the thought. A little bigger every evening, it seemed.

And neither tablets nor whiskey could do anything to help.

She pulled up beside an elderly man walking along the side of the road. Leaned over the empty passenger seat, wound down the window, and attracted his attention.

“I'm looking for Mr. Biedersen. Do you know where his house is?”

This was the second time she'd driven through the village. Dark outside. Quite dark inside the car as well, hat pulled down over her eyes, and a minimum of eye contact. A calculated risk, that's all. As they say.

“Yes, of course.”

He pointed out the house and explained where it was. It wasn't far away. Nothing in the village was far away. She memorized what he had said, thanked him, and continued on her way.

It's all so easy, she thought. Still just as easy.

She knew that the car gave her all the camouflage she needed; and it was indeed from inside the car-the hired Fiat that had been another expense but also a necessity-that she discovered him. That same evening. Parked in the darkness and drizzle opposite the inn. It was still a calculated risk, but there wasn't much of an alternative. In a place like this a stranger couldn't turn up many times before questions started to be asked. Who? Why?

Unnecessary and dangerous. There was no point in driving around, looking for him. But it was important to find him even so. Before he found her.

This time she had an opponent, not merely prey. There was a difference.

She watched him go in. Didn't see him come out.

The next evening, the same thing. While he was in there, she paid a visit to the house. Scrutinized it from the road for several minutes before driving back.

Thought about how to go about it.

He must know.

He had gone out of his way to entice her here; she had realized that from the start.

The third evening she went a step further. Drove into the village and parked the car behind the church. Walked down to the inn. Went in without hesitation and bought some cigarettes at the bar. She could see him sitting right at the back, out of the corner of her eye. A beer and a whiskey. He seemed alert and tense, but paid her no attention. There were more people in there than she'd expected, in fact. Twenty or so, half of them in the bar, the rest in the restaurant.

Three evenings out of three, she thought.

That meant that in all probability, it would be the same on day four and day five.

It was obvious what to do next. She had the upper hand again.

It was about time. All the waiting and the passage of time had been to her advantage, that was clear. But now things were coming to a head. The money she had left was committed, down to almost the last guilder. Every day cost money, and she no longer had the option of holding back, for the sake of it.

Just one opportunity She wouldn't get another. Making a mistake was no longer a possibility either. It was clear that she would have no second chance of putting things right, if she made a mess of it.

So: what she must do was arrange things the best way she could. In line with the others, and making this a worthy conclusion.

It was quite a long time since she had started out on this mission. There was only one of them left. Just one of them still alive, she thought as she returned to the little cottage by the lake.

And in the flickering light of the paraffin lamp she arranged his death.

Later, at first light, she woke up and was unable to fall asleep again. So she got up and dressed. Went down to the lake and walked out onto the jetty. Stood there for quite a while, gazing out over the dark water and the mists, and trying to recall the almost ecstatic rapture she had felt in the beginning. Trying to weigh that against the calm she felt now.

The superior feeling of perfection and control.

She could find no real balance-but nor could she find any objections. Everything was falling into place. Soon it would be over. Everything.

Two more days, she decided. In two more days. That might be a good time, bearing in mind the date as well.

Then she went back indoors, and sat down at the table. Started writing.

At my mother's interment…


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