On Friday he made a detour past Willie's garage to discuss repairs to his car. Having been guaranteed absolutely that it would be ready for collection by that evening, he left it there and went the rest of the way to his office on foot. He arrived fifteen minutes late, and Wolff had already gone out-to negotiate a contract with a newly opened hamburger restaurant, he gathered. He sat down at his desk and began to work his way through the day's mail, which had just been brought in by Miss deWiijs. As usual, most of it was complaints about one thing or another, and confirmation of contracts and agreements that had already been fixed on the telephone or by fax, and after ten minutes he realized that he was sitting there humming that confounded tune.
He broke off in annoyance. Went out to fetch some coffee from Miss deWiijs's office instead, and became involved in a conversation about the weather, which soon came around to focus on four-footed friends. Cats in general, and Miss deWiijs's Siamese, Melisande de laCroix, in particular. Despite the regular ingestion of contraceptive pills and despite the fact that the frail creature hardly ever dared to stick her nose outside the door, for the last couple of weeks she had been displaying more and more obvious signs of being pregnant.
There was only one other cat in the whole of the block where Miss deWiijs lived-a thin, arthritic old tom that as far as she knew was being taken care of by a family of Kurdish immigrants, although he preferred to spend the waking hours of day and night outdoors. At least when the weather was decent. How he had managed to get wind of the shy little Madame Melisande de laCroix was a mystery, to say the least.
A mystery and an absurdity. To be sure, Miss deWiijs had not yet been to the vet's and had the pregnancy confirmed. But all the signs pointed very clearly in that direction. As already indicated, and unfortunately.
Malik liked cats. Once upon a time they had owned two, but Ilse hadn't really been able to put up with them, especially the female, and when they discovered that Jacob was apparently allergic to furry animals, they had disposed of them by means of two rational and guaranteed painless injections.
He liked Miss deWiijs as well. She radiated a sort of languid feminine warmth that he had learned to prize highly over the years. The only thing that never ceased to surprise him was that men had left her unmarried and untouched. Or rather, there was nothing to suggest that this was not the case; and the indications were that she would stay that way. She would be celebrating her fortieth birthday next May, and Malik and Wolff had already begun discussing how best that occasion should be celebrated. Needless to say, it was not a day that could be allowed to pass unnoticed. Miss deWiijs had been working for them for more than ten years, and both Malik and Wolff knew that she was probably more vital to the survival of the firm than they were.
“What are you thinking of doing if you're right about the state of your cat?” he asked.
Miss deWiijs shrugged, setting her heavy breasts a-bobbing under her sweater.
“Doing?” she said. “There's not much else one can do but let nature take its course. And hope there won't be too many of them. Besides, Siamese cats are easy to find homes for, even if they are only half-breeds.”
Malik nodded and finished off his cup of coffee. Clasped his hands behind his neck and thought about what else needed to be done today.
“I'll drive out to Schaaltze,” he decided. “Tell Wolff I'll be back after lunch.”
It was only when he was in the elevator on his way down that he remembered he didn't have a car. He recited an elaborate curse under his breath, wondering how he could be so absentminded, and considered briefly going back up. Then he recalled that it was possible to get there by bus. It was unusual for him to travel by public transportation nowadays, but he knew that Nielsen and Vermeer sometimes used to travel in on the Number 23 from Schaaltze, and if the bus goes one way, surely it must go the other way as well?
The bus stop was on the other side of the shopping center and post office, and he was about halfway there when he had the feeling that somebody was following him.
Or observing him, at the very least. He stopped dead and looked around. The sidewalk wasn't exactly teeming with pedestrians, but nevertheless, there were enough of them to prevent him from detecting anybody behaving oddly. He thought for a second or two, then continued toward the bus stop. Perhaps he was just imagining things, and in any case, it was probably best not to make it too obvious that he suspected something. He quickly convinced himself of this, lengthening his stride and trying to keep all his senses on the alert.
He was amazed by his reaction, and how quickly and almost naturally he'd accepted the feeling and the suspicion. As if it were an everyday occurrence, almost.
Why on earth should anybody be following him? Ryszard Malik! Who the hell could be interested in such an everyday and insignificant person?
He shook his head and thrust his hands into his overcoat pockets.
What kind of stupid imagining was this? Ilse must have infected him with her silly nonsense, that must be it!
And yet… he knew it was true. Sensed it, rather. There was somebody behind him. Not far away. Somebody dogging his steps. Perhaps it was somebody who'd walked past him, he thought, and then turned around and started following him, some ten meters or so behind. You would be bound to notice such a maneuver in some vague, intuitive way… Or had there been somebody standing in the foyer when he went out into the street? Somebody who'd been waiting for him? Good God, that would be worrying.
He came to the bus stop and paused. The bus had evidently just left, as there was nobody waiting. He backed into the little shelter and began surreptitiously watching passing pedestrians. Some were walking fast and purposefully, others more slowly. Occasionally somebody would stop and step into the shelter beside him to wait for the bus, shielded to some extent from the wind. Stand there with that half-friendly half-distant air that strangers on the same mission usually adopt. A young man with a black-and-yellow-striped scarf that was almost brushing the ground. Two old women in threadbare coats, carrying shopping bags. A slightly younger woman in a blue beret, with a slim leather briefcase. A boy in his early teens with some kind of facial tic, scratching his groin continually without taking his hands out of his pockets.
Not especially likely candidates, he had to admit, none of them. When the bus came, everybody got on apart from the two old women. He let the others go first, paid somewhat awkwardly, and managed to find an empty seat right at the back.
So that he wouldn't have anybody behind him, he told himself.
During the journey, which took barely twenty minutes-more or less the same as by car, he noted with a degree of surprise-his mind indulged in an unequal struggle with refractory and importunate questions.
What the hell am I doing? asked his thoughts, soberly. This is utter lunacy! Madness!
But there is something, insisted his emotions. Don't try to convince yourself otherwise.
I'm going crazy, maintained his thoughts. My life is so damned monotonous that I'll clutch at anything that might introduce a bit of excitement.
You are in danger, countered his emotions. You know you are, but you daren't admit it.
He looked out the filthy window. The Richter Stadium with its pompous clock tower was just passing by.
Why do my thoughts say “I” and my emotions “you”? he asked himself, confused. No doubt it has something to do with my macho syndrome, or so Ilse would…
Then he suddenly realized that he was sitting there humming that tune again under his breath.
“The Rise and Fall of Flingel Bunt.” There was something about it. About that as well. Something quite specific. A memory of something he'd taken part in that was now drifting under the dark surface of the well of forgetfulness, without his being able to pin it down.
Until he got off the bus and was on his way across the street to the factory. Then it struck him, and as it did so he realized that he would do well not to dismiss suspicions and threats out of hand in the near future.
That was as far as Ryszard Malik's imagination and powers of insight stretched; but as his son would say afterward, the less he knew and suspected, the better, no doubt.
And what happened to Melisande de laCroix's presumed pregnancy and Miss deWiijs's fortieth birthday were questions that, as far as Ryszard Malik was concerned, also disappeared rapidly into the dark void of the future.