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Had Ernst Simmel known he was to be the Axman's second victim, he would no doubt have downed a few more drinks at The Blue Ship.
As it was, he settled for a brandy with his coffee and a whiskey on the rocks in the bar, while trying unsuccessfully to make eye contact with the bleached-blond woman in the far corner; but anyway, his heart wasn't in it. Presumably, she was one of the new employees at the canning factory. He had never seen her before, and he had a fair idea about the available talent.
To his right was Herman Schalke, a reporter on de Journaal, trying to interest him in a cheap weekend trip to Kaliningrad or somewhere of the sort, and when they eventually got round to pinning down his last evening, it seemed probable that Schalke must have been the last person in this life to speak to Simmel.
Always assuming that the Axman didn't have some message to impart before finishing him off, that is. Which wasn't all that likely since the blow, as in the previous case, had come diagonally from behind and from slightly below, so a little chat seemed improbable.
"Ah, well!" Simmel had said after draining the last drops from his glass. "I'd better be getting back to the old lady."
If Schalke remembered rightly, that is. In any case, he'd tried to talk him out of it. Pointed out that it was barely eleven and the night was yet young. But Simmel had been adamant.
That was the right word. Adamant. Just eased himself off his bar stool. Adjusted his glasses and stroked that pathetic wisp of hair over his bald head like he always did--as if that would fool anybody--muttered a few words, then left. The last Schalke had seen of him was the white outline of his back as he paused in the doorway and seemed to be hesitating about which direction to take.
Looking back, that was distinctly odd. For Christ's sake, surely Simmel knew his way home?
But maybe he just stood there for a few seconds to fill his lungs with the fresh night air. It had been a hot day; summer was not over yet and the evenings had started to exude a mellowness enriched by many months of summer sun. Enriched and refined.
As if made for drinking in deep draughts, somebody had said. These nights.
In fact, it wasn't a bad night for a journey to the other side, if one might be allowed such a thought. Schalke's section of de Journaal was mainly concerned with matters sporting and a dash of folklore, but in his capacity as the last person to have seen Simmel alive, he had presumed to write an obituary of the property developer who had been so suddenly plucked from our midst . . . a pillar of our society, one might say, who had just returned to his native town after a sojourn of several years abroad (on the Costa del Sol along with other like-minded citizens with a bent for effective tax planning, but perhaps this was not the occasion to refer to that), survived by a wife and two grown-up children, having reached the age of fifty but still in the prime of his life, no doubt about that.
The scent of evening seemed full of promise; he paused in the doorway, hesitating.
Would it be a good idea to take a stroll over to Fisherman's Square and down by the harbor?
What was the point of going home as early as this? The sweetish smell of the bedroom and Grete's overweight body shot through his mind, and he decided to take a little walk. Only a short one. Even if there was nothing to pick up, the warm night air would make it worth the effort.
He crossed over Langvej and turned off toward Bungeskirke. At the same time, the murderer emerged from the shadows under the lime trees in Leisner Park and started following him. Quietly and carefully, a safe distance behind, not a sound from his rubber soles. Tonight was his third attempt, but even so, there was no trace of impatience. He knew what he had to do, and the last thing on his mind was to rush things.
Simmel continued along Hoistraat and took the steps down toward the harbor. He slowed down when he came to Fisherman's Square and sauntered across the deserted cobbles toward the covered market. Two women were busy talking at the corner of Dooms Alley, but he didn't appear to pay them any attention. Perhaps he wasn't sure about their status, or perhaps he had something else in mind.
Or maybe he just didn't feel like it. When he came to the quay he paused for a few minutes to smoke a cigarette, watching the boats bobbing in the marina. The murderer took the opportunity of enjoying a cigarette himself in the shadow of the warehouse on the other side of the Esplanade. Held it well hidden inside his cupped hand so that the glow wouldn't give him away, and didn't take his eyes off his victim for a single second.
When Simmel flicked his cigarette end into the water and set off in the direction of the municipal woods, the murderer knew that tonight was the night.
True, there were only about three hundred yards of trees here between the Esplanade and Rikken, the yuppie part of the town where Simmel lived, and there were plenty of lights along the paths; but not all were working and three hundred yards could prove to be rather a long way. In any case, when Simmel heard a faint footstep behind him, he was barely fifty yards into the woods and the darkness was dense on all sides.
Warm and full of promise, as already noted, but dense.
He probably didn't have time to feel scared. If so, it could only have been in the last fraction of a second. The razor-sharp edge entered from behind, between the second and fourth vertebrae, slicing diagonally through the third, straight through the spinal column, the esophagus and the carotid artery. Half an inch deeper and in all probability his head would have been separated completely from his body.
Which would have been spectacular, but was of minor significance for the outcome.
In accordance with all imaginable criteria, Ernst Simmel must have been dead even before he hit the ground. His face landed on the well-trodden gravel path with full force, smashing his glasses and causing any number of secondary injuries. Blood was pouring out of his throat, from above and below, and when the murderer carefully dragged him into the bushes, he could still hear a faint bubbling sound. He squatted there in silence while a group of four or five youths passed by, then wiped his weapon clean in the grass and set off back in the direction of the harbor.
Twenty minutes later he was sitting at his kitchen table with a steaming cup of tea, listening to the bath slowly filling up. If his wife had still been with him, she would doubtless have asked if he'd had a hard day, and if he was very tired.
Not especially, he might have replied. It's taking a bit of time, but everything is going according to plan.
Glad to hear it, darling, she might have said, putting a hand on his shoulder. Glad to hear it . . .
He nodded, and raised his cup to his mouth.
The sands went on forever.
Went on forever, the same as ever. A calm, gray sea under a pale sky. A strip of firm, damp sand next to the water where he could maintain a reasonable pace. Alongside a drier, grayish-white expanse where beach grass and windswept bushes took over. Deep inside the salt marshes birds were wheeling in broad, lazy circles, filling the air with their melancholy cries.
Van Veeteren checked his watch and paused. Hesitated for a moment. In the hazy distance he could just make out the church steeple in s'Greijvin, but it was a long way away. If he kept on walking, it would certainly be another hour before he could sit down with a beer in the cafe on the square.
It might have been worth the effort, but now that he had paused, it was hard to convince himself of that. It was three o'clock. He had set out after lunch--or brunch, depending on how you looked at it. In any case, at about one o'clock, after yet another night when he had gone to bed early but failed to drop off to sleep until well into the small hours. It was hard to tell what was the root cause of his worries and restlessness as he lay there, tossing and turning in the sagging double bed, as the gray light of dawn crept ever closer . . . hard to tell.
He had been on vacation for three weeks now, quite a long time by his standards, but not exceptional, and as the days passed, during the last week at least, his daily routine had been delayed just a little. Four more days and it would be time for him to return to his office, and he had the distinct impression that when he did so, there would not be much of a spring in his stride. Even though he hadn't really done much apart from resting. Lain back on the beach, reading. Sat in the cafe at s'Greijvin, or nearer at hand in Hellensraut. Strolled up and down these never-ending sands.
The first week out here with Erich had been a mistake. They had both realized that after the first day, but the arrangement couldn't easily be changed. Erich had been allowed out on parole on condition that he stay with his father on this remote stretch of coast. He still had ten months of his sentence left to serve, and the last time he had been out on parole the outcome had left much to be desired.
He gazed out to sea. It was just as calm and unfathomable as it had been for the whole of this last week. As if nothing could really make an impression, not even the wind. The waves dying a natural death on the beach seemed to have traveled vast distances bearing neither life nor hope.
This is not my sea, Van Veeteren thought to himself.
In July, as his vacation had approached, he had been looking forward to these days with Erich. When they finally arrived, he could hardly wait for them to end, so that he could be left in peace; and now, after a dozen days and nights of solitude, he wanted nothing more than to get back to work again.
Or was it quite as straightforward as that? Was that perhaps just a convenient way of describing what it was really all about--did there come a point, he had started to wonder, beyond which we no longer look forward to something coming, but only to getting away from what has passed? Getting away. Closing down and moving on, but not looking forward to starting again. Like a journey whose delights decrease in direct proportion to the distance traveled from the starting point, whose sweetness becomes more and more bitter as the goal comes closer . . .
Get away, he thought. Put an end to it. Bury it.
This is what they call going downhill. There's always another sea ahead.
He sighed and removed his sweater. Tied it around his shoulders and started retracing his steps. He was walking into the wind now, and he realized that it would take him longer to get back home . . . just as well to have a few extra hours this evening, come to that. The house needed tidying up, the fridge emptying, the telephone unplugging. He wanted to set off early tomorrow. No point in hanging around unnecessarily.
He kicked an abandoned plastic bottle over the sands.
It will be fall tomorrow, he thought.
He could hear the telephone ringing when he came to the gate. Automatically he started moving more slowly, shortening his strides, fiddling with his keys, in the hope that it would stop ringing by the time he entered the house. In vain. The sound was still carving stubbornly through the gloomy silence. He picked up the receiver.
"Ha ha . . . Hiller here. How are things?"
Van Veeteren suppressed an urge to slam the receiver down.
"Splendid, thank you. It's just that I was under the impression that my vacation wasn't over until Monday."
"Precisely! I thought you maybe fancied a few more days?"
Van Veeteren said nothing.
"I'll bet you'd love to stay a bit longer by the coast if you had the chance, wouldn't you."
". . ."
"Another week, perhaps? Hello?"
"I'd be grateful if you would come to the point, sir," said Van Veeteren.
The chief of police seemed to have a coughing fit, and Van Veeteren sighed.
"Yes, well, a little something has turned up in Kaalbringen. That's only about twenty or thirty miles away from the cottage you're staying in; I don't know if you're familiar with the place. We've been asked to help out, in any case."
"What's it all about?"
"Murder. Two of them. Some madman running around and cutting people's heads off with an ax or something. It's all in the papers today, but maybe you haven't--"
"I haven't seen a paper for three weeks," said Van Veeteren.
"The latest one--the second, that is--happened yesterday, or rather, the day before. Anyway, we have to send them some reinforcements, and I thought that as you were in the area already, well . . ."
"Thank you very much."
"I'll leave it up to you for the time being. I'll send up Munster or Reinhart next week. Assuming you haven't solved it by then, of course."
"Who's chief of police? In Kaalbringen, I mean."
Hiller coughed again.
"His name's Bausen. I don't think you know him. Anyway, he only has another month to go before he retires, and he doesn't seem all that thrilled to have been handed this on his plate just now."
"How very odd," said Van Veeteren.
"You'll go straight there tomorrow, I take it?" Hiller was starting to wind up the conversation. "That will mean you don't have to double the journey unnecessarily. Is the water still warm enough for swimming, by the way?"
"I spend all of every day splashing around."
"Really . . . really. Well, I'll phone them and say you'll be turning up tomorrow afternoon. OK?"
"I want Munster," said Van Veeteren.
"I'll see what I can do," said Hiller.
Van Veeteren put down the receiver and stood for a while staring at the telephone before pulling out the plug.
From the Hardcover edition.