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Before dawn he started his transformation.
He had planned everything meticulously so that nothing could go wrong. It would take him all day, and he didn't want to risk running out of time. He grasped the first paintbrush and held it in front of him. From the cassette player on the floor he could hear the tape of drum music that he had prepared. He looked at his face in the mirror. Then he drew the first black lines across his forehead. He noticed that his hand was steady. So he wasn't nervous, at least. Even though this was the first time he had actually put on his war paint. Until this moment it had been merely an escape, his way of defending himself against all the injustices he was continually subjected to. He now went through the great transformation in earnest. With each stroke he painted on his face, he seemed to be leaving his old life behind. There was no more turning back. On this very evening the game would be over for good, and he would go out into the war, where people would actually have to die.
The light in the room was very bright. He set up the mirrors in front of him precisely, so that the light didn't glare in his eyes. When he had come into the room and locked the door behind him, he started by checking one last time that he hadn't forgotten anything. But everything was where it was supposed to be. The well-cleaned brushes, the little porcelain cups of paint, the towels and water. Next to the little lathe, his weapons lay in rows on a black cloth: the three axes, the knives of various lengths, and the spray cans. This was the only decision he stillhadn't made. Before sundown he would have to choose which of these weapons to take with him. He couldn't take them all. But he knew that the decision would resolve itself once he had begun his transformation.
Before he sat down on the bench and started to paint his face, he touched the edges of his axes and knives with his fingertips. They couldn't have been sharper. He couldn't resist the temptation to press a little harder on one of the knives with his fingertip. At once he started to bleed. He wiped his finger and the knife edge with a towel. Then he sat down in front of the mirrors.
The first strokes on his forehead had to be black. It was as if he were slicing two deep cuts, opening his brain, and emptying out all the memories and thoughts that had followed him all his life, tormenting him and humiliating him. Afterwards he would continue with the red and white stripes, the circles, the squares, and at last the snakelike designs on his cheeks. Not a bit of his white skin should be visible. And then the transformation would be complete. What was inside him would be gone. He would be resurrected in the guise of an animal, and he would never speak like a human being again. He would even cut out his own tongue if he had to.
The transformation took him all day. Just after six in the evening he was done. By then he had also decided to take along the largest of the three axes. He stuck the shaft into the thick leather belt he had fastened around his waist. The two knives were already there in their sheaths. He looked around the room. He had forgotten nothing. He stuffed the spray cans into the inside pockets of his jacket.
One last time he looked at his face in the mirror. He shuddered. Then he carefully pulled his motorcycle helmet over his head, turned off the light, and left the room barefoot, just as he had come in.
At five minutes past nine Gustaf Wetterstedt turned down the sound on is TV and phoned his mother. It was a ritual he always followed. Ever since he had retired as the minister of justice more than twenty-five years earlier and left behind all his political dealings, he had watched the news on TV with repugnance and distaste. He couldn't come to terms with the fact that he was no longer involved. During his many years as minister, a man in the absolute center of the public eye, he had appeared on TV at least once a week. He had seen to it that each appearance was meticulously copied from film to video by a secretary. Now the tapes stood in his study, and they covered a whole wall. Once in a while he watched them again. For him it was a source of continual satisfaction to see that never once in all those years as minister of justice had he lost his composure in the face of an unexpected or trick question from a malicious reporter. With a feeling of unbounded contempt he could still recall how many of his colleagues had lived in fear of TV reporters. Far too often they would start stammering and get entangled in contradictions that they never could manage to straighten out. But that had never happened to him. He was a man no one could trap. The reporters had never managed to beat him. Nor had they ever discovered his secret.
He turned on his TV at nine to see the top stories. Then he turned down the sound. He pulled over the telephone and called his mother. She had given birth to him when she was still very young. Now she was ninety-four years old, with a clear mind and full of untapped energy. She lived alone in a big apartment in Stockholm's Old Town. Each time he lifted the receiver and dialed the number he hoped she wouldn't answer. Since he was over seventy years old himself he had begun to fear that she would outlive him. There was nothing he wanted more than for her to die. Then he'd be left alone. He wouldn't have to call her anymore, and soon he'd forget what she even looked like.
The telephone rang on the other end. He watched the silent anchorman. After the fourth ring he began to hope that she had finally died. Then he heard her voice. He softened his voice when he talked to her. He asked how she was feeling, how her day had been. Now that he had to accept that she was still alive, he wanted to make the conversation as brief as possible.
He hung up the phone and sat with his hand resting on the receiver. She's never going to die, he thought. She'll never die unless I kill her.
He remained sitting in the silent room. All he could hear was the roar of the sea and a lone moped driving past nearby. He got up from the sofa and walked over to the big balcony window facing the sea. The twilight was beautiful and rather moving. The beach below his huge estate was deserted. Everyone's sitting in front of their TVs, he thought. Once they sat there and watched me throttle the news reporters. I was minister of justice back then. I should have been made foreign minister. But I never was.
He shut the heavy curtains and checked carefully to see that there were no gaps. Even though he tried to live as anonymously as possible in this house located just east of Ystad, sometimes curiosity-seekers spied on him. Although it had been twenty-five years since he left office, he had not yet been entirely forgotten. He went out to the kitchen and poured a cup of coffee from a thermos he had bought during an official visit to Italy in the late sixties. He vaguely recalled that he had been there to discuss increased efforts to prevent the spread of terrorism in Europe. All over his house there were reminders of the life he had once lived. He often thought he should throw them all away. But finally the mere effort seemed meaningless to him.
He went back to the sofa with his coffee cup. With the remote he clicked off the TV. He sat in the dark and thought about the day that had passed. In the morning he'd had a visit from a journalist from one of the big monthly magazines. She was working on a series about famous people and their lives in retirement. Why she had decided to visit him he never quite managed to figure out. She brought a photographer with her and they took pictures on the beach and inside the house. He had decided in advance that he would present the image of an elderly man marked by kindness and reconciliation. He described his present life as very happy. He lived in great seclusion so that he could meditate, and he let drop with feigned embarrassment that he was considering whether he ought to write his memoirs. The journalist, who was in her forties, had been impressed and full of humble respect. Afterwards he escorted her and the photographer to their car and waved as they drove off.
With satisfaction he thought that he had avoided saying a single thing that was true during the entire interview. This was one of the few things that still held any interest for him. To deceive without being discovered. To spread pretense and illusion. After all his years as a politician he realized all that was left was the lie. The truth disguised as a lie or the lie veiled as truth.
He slowly drank the rest of his coffee. His feeling of well-being grew. The evenings and nights were his best time. That's when his thoughts sank beneath the surface, his thoughts about all that once had been and all that had been lost. But no one could rob him of the most important thing. The utmost secret, the one no one knew about but himself.
Sometimes he imagined himself as an image in a mirror that was both concave and convex at the same time. As a person he had the same ambiguity. No one had ever seen anything but the surface, the capable jurist, the respected minister of justice, the kind retiree strolling along the beach in Skåne. No one would have guessed that he was his own double. He had greeted kings and presidents, he had bowed with a smile, but in his head he was thinking, if you only knew who I really am and what I think of you. When he stood in front of the TV cameras he always held that thoughtif you only knew who I really am and what I think of youforemost in his mind. But no one had ever understood it. His secret: that he hated and despised the party he represented, the opinions he defended, and most of the people he met. His secret would stay hidden until he died. He had seen through the world, identified all its frailties, observed the meaninglessness of existence. But no one knew about his insight, and that's the way it would stay. He had never felt any need to share what he had seen and understood.
He felt a growing pleasure about what was to come. The next evening his friends would come to the house just after nine in the black Mercedes with the tinted windows. They would drive straight into his garage and he would wait for their visit in the living room with the curtains drawn, just as they were now. He could feel his anticipation rise at once when he started to fantasize about what the girl they were delivering to him this time would look like. He had told them there had been far too many blondes lately. Some of them had also been much too old, over twenty. This time he wanted a younger one, preferably of mixed race. His friends would wait in the basement where he had installed a TV; he would take the girl with him to his bedroom. Before dawn they would be gone, and he would already be fantasizing about the girl they would bring the following week.
The thought of the next day made him so excited that he got up from the sofa and went into his study. Before he turned on the light he drew the curtains. For a brief moment he thought he glimpsed the shadow of someone down on the beach. He took off his glasses and squinted. Sometimes late-night strollers would stop just below his property. In some cases it had even been necessary to call the police in Ystad and complain about the young people lighting bonfires on the beach and making noise.
He had a good relationship with the Ystad police. They always came right away and drove off anyone who was disturbing him. He often thought that he never would have imagined the knowledge and contacts he would gain by being minister of justice. Not only had he learned to understand the special mentality that prevails inside the Swedish police corps, but he had methodically acquired friends at strategic points in the Swedish machinery of justice. Just as important were all the contacts he had made in the criminal world. There were intelligent criminals, individuals who worked alone as well as leaders of great crime syndicates, whom he had made his friends. Even though much had changed in the twenty-five years since he left office, he still enjoyed his old contacts. Especially the friends who saw to it that each week he had a visit from a girl of a suitable age.
The shadow on the beach had been just his imagination. He straightened the curtains and unlocked one of the cabinets in the desk he had inherited from his father, an imposing professor of jurisprudence. He took out an expensive and beautifully decorated portfolio and opened it before him on the desk. Slowly, reverently, he paged through his collection of pornographic pictures from the earliest days of the art of photography. His oldest picture was a rarity, a daguerreotype from 1855 that he had bought in Paris. The picture showed a naked woman embracing a dog. His collection was renowned in the exclusive circle of men, unknown to the outside world, who shared his interest. His collection of pictures from the 1890s by Lecadre was surpassed only by the collection owned by an elderly steel magnate in the Ruhr. Slowly he leafed through the plastic-encased pages of the album. He lingered longest over the pages where the models were very young and one could see by their eyes that they were under the influence of drugs. He had often regretted that he himself had not begun to devote himself to photography earlier. Had he done so, he would today be in the possession of a unique collection.
After he had gone through the album he locked it in the desk again. From his friends he had extracted a promise that upon his death they would offer the pictures to an antiquities dealer in Paris who specialized in the sale of such items. The money would be donated to a scholarship fund for young law students he had already established, one which would not be announced until after his death.
He switched off the desk lamp and remained sitting in the dark room. The sound of the surf was very faint. Once again he thought he heard a moped passing nearby. He still had a hard time imagining his own death, even though he was already over seventy years old. On two occasions, during trips to the United States, he had managed to be present anonymously at executions, the first by electric chair, the second in the gas chamber, which was already rather rare back then. It had been a curiously pleasurable experience to watch people being killed. But his own death he could not imagine. He left the study and poured a little glass of liqueur from the bar cabinet in the living room. The hour was already approaching midnight. A short walk down to the sea was all that remained before he went to bed. He put on a jacket in the entryway, slipped his feet into a pair of worn clogs, and left the house.
Outside it was dead calm. His house was so isolated that he could not see the lights from any of his neighbors' homes. The cars on the road to Kåseberga roared by in the distance. He followed the path that led through the garden and down to the locked gate that let him out onto the beach. To his annoyance he discovered that the lamp that sat on a pole next to the gate was burned out. The beach awaited him. He fished out his keys and unlocked the gate. He walked the short distance to the beach and stopped at the water line. The sea was still. Far out on the horizon he saw the lights of a vessel heading west. He unbuttoned his fly and pissed in the water as he continued to fantasize about the visit he would have the next day.
Although he heard nothing, he suddenly knew that someone was standing behind him. He stiffened, and terror seized hold of him. Then he spun around.
The man standing there looked like an animal. Apart from a pair of shorts he was naked. With an instantaneous, hysterical dread the old man looked into the other man's face. He couldn't tell if it was deformed or hidden behind a mask. In one hand the man held an axe. In his confusion he thought that the hand around the shaft of the axe was very small, that the man reminded him of a dwarf.
He screamed and started to run, back up toward the garden gate.
He died the instant the edge of the axe severed his spine, right below the shoulders. And he never felt how the man who was perhaps an animal knelt down and slit an opening in his forehead and then with one violent wrench ripped most of the hair and skin from the top of his skull.
The time was just past midnight.
It was Tuesday, the 21st of June.
A lone moped started up somewhere nearby. A moment later the sound of the motor died away.
Everything was once again very still.