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6

Although it was a year and a half since Ilse Malik had resigned from her job at Konger's Palace, she still hadn't managed to develop much of a social life. She played tennis with an old girlfriend once a week-on Tuesday afternoons. She went to visit her sister in Linzhuisen when her husband was away on business, which was at least once a month. She was a member of the association Save Our Rain Forests, and every spring and fall she used to sign on for one of the evening study circles but she always left after the first meeting.

And that was all-apart from the season ticket for the theater that all the hotel employees were given and which she still made use of even though she was, strictly speaking, no longer entitled to it.

But nobody wanted to be strict, and this particular Friday (they always went on the Friday after the premiere) she was going to see A Doll's House. She didn't know how many times she'd seen it already, but it was one of her favorites, and it would have taken a lot to keep her from going.

Perhaps there might be a glass of wine and a bite of cheese afterward, and a chat with Bernadette, the only one of her former colleagues with whom she had had and still had any kind of close contact.

As it turned out, she had more than just one glass of wine. The part of Nora had been played exceedingly well by a young and very promising actress on loan from the Burgtheater in Aarlach, and a new managing director had taken over at the hotel less than a month before. There was much to talk about. When Ilse Malik clambered into a taxi outside Kraus a few minutes after half past eleven (Bernadette lived close by and preferred a short walk and a breath of night air), she felt unusually contented with the evening and with her existence in general, and promptly started a conversation with the cabbie about movies and plays. Unfortunately it ebbed out after a minute or so, when it transpired that he hadn't set foot inside a theater since having been forced to attend a play by an overzealous drama teacher at college more than thirty-five years before. Of all the movies he had lapped up in recent years, he hadn't come across a single one that could measure up to The Creature from, the Black Lagoon.

In any case, shortly after twenty minutes to twelve he pulled up outside the Maliks' house in Leufwens All'e-the temperature had risen by some five degrees, thank goodness, and the roads were good. Ilse paid, and added a generous tip, rounding it up to fifteen guilders despite the cabbie's distressing lack of culture, and got out of the car.

The house was in darkness, which surprised her somewhat. Malik seldom went to bed before midnight, especially on a Friday night when he had free run of the place. There wasn't even a light on in his study upstairs; but of course, it was possible he was sitting in the darkened TV room, which was at the back facing the garden.

But the fact that he'd switched the light off in the hall when he knew that she hadn't come home yet was sheer stupidity. She made a mental note to tell him so as she fumbled in her purse for her keys. He didn't normally lock the outside door when she was out, but something told her he'd done so this evening.

At least, that's the way she told herself she had been thinking. Later.

Afterward. When she was trying to relive what had happened, and when everything was in chaos and one big black hole.

She inserted her key into the lock. Turned it and found to her surprise that the door wasn't in fact locked. Opened it. Reached out her hand and switched on the light in the hall.

He was lying just inside the door. On his back with his feet almost on the doormat. His white shirt was dark red, as was the normally light-colored pine floor. His mouth was wide open, and his eyes were staring intently at a point somewhere on the ceiling. His left arm was propped against the little mahogany chest of drawers used to store gloves and scarves, looking as if he had put his hand up in school to answer a question. One of the legs, the right one, of his gray gabardine trousers had slid up almost as far as his knee and exposed that ugly birthmark that looked like a little crocodile-she had been so fascinated by it when they were engaged. By the side of his right hand, half-clenched, next to the shoe rack, was the Telegraaf, folded to reveal a half-solved crossword puzzle. A fly was buzzing around his head, evidently unaware that it was January and that instead of being there, it ought to have been hidden away in some dark crack, asleep for at least three more months.

She registered all this while standing with her keys dangling between her thumb and index finger. Then she closed the door behind her. She suddenly felt dizzy and automatically opened her mouth to gasp for more air, but it wasn't enough. It was too late. Without a sound she fell headfirst, diagonally over her husband, hitting her eyebrow against the sharp edge of the shoe rack. Her own warm, light-colored blood started trickling down to mingle with his, cold and congealed.

Sometime later she came around. Tried in vain to shake some life into her husband, and eventually managed to crawl five more meters into the house, staining the floor, carpets, and walls with blood, and phoned for an ambulance.

It was only after it had arrived and the crew established what had happened that the police were called. By then it was six minutes past one, and it was half an hour after that before the real police work got under way, when Detective Inspector Reinhart and his assistant Jung arrived at the crime scene with forensic technicians and a police doctor. By then Ilse Malik had lost consciousness again, this time as the result of an injection administered by the older and more experienced of the two ambulance men, with a modicum of necessary force.

By this time Ryszard Malik had been dead for more than five hours, and when Inspector Reinhart announced in some irritation that “we're not going to solve this shitty mess before dawn, gentlemen,” nobody even raised an eyebrow in protest.


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