1 From the Hardcover edition.
Something was forcing its way through the winter.
He couldn’t put his ﬁnger on it, but there was something. Maybe a warming breeze, a ﬂicker of light smack in the middle of the mass of gray clouds, or possibly just the fact that he heard a splash rather than a crunch when he stepped in the puddle that all winter long had encircled his personal parking space—the one that still bore his name.
He paused for a moment and squinted up at the morning cloud cover. It looked the same as usual, hovering there like a virtual ceiling of security above the bank, bidding him welcome.
The same silence as always.
A short distance away was the little town, undisturbed, sending up only one sign of life: ﬁne tendrils of smoke from chimneys. He heard the repetitive cheeping of the marsh tit and saw it peek from its nest just under the eaves. Then he locked the car and strode the few yards to the small, modest door of the employees’ entrance. He took out his even more modest key ring and one by one opened the three deadbolts.
Inside the bank ofﬁce it smelled like an ordinary Monday, a bit stuffy from the weekend, but Lisbet would soon air it out when she arrived second, as usual, bringing her ﬂood of cheerful chatter.
He himself was always the ﬁrst to arrive; that was the routine.
Everything was exactly the same as always.
That was what he told himself several times: Everything is exactly the same as always.
He may have said it once too often.
He stood at his teller’s window and pulled out the drawer. He took out an oblong gilded case and cautiously weighed one of the long, bristled darts in his hand. His special weapon.
Not many people, even among the initiated, really knew how a dart was supposed to look. His darts were long—specially designed to four and three-quarters inches, almost two and three quarters of which were a long point that always surprised his opponents, and very short, bristly ﬂights.
He picked up the three darts and slipped around the dividing wall into the ofﬁce interior. There was the board. Without looking down, he took up position with the tips of his toes on the little black throw line exactly seven feet nine and one-quarter inches from the dartboard and rhythmically ﬂung the three darts. All three stuck in the large bed of the 1. He was just warming up.
Everything landed where it should.
Everything was as it should be.
He clasped his hands and stretched them outward until they made a light cracking sound, then let his ﬁ ngers ﬂutter freely in the air for several seconds. Again he took the key ring out of his jacket pocket, swung back around the dividing wall to the public area of the bank, went over to the vault, and unlocked it. The vault door opened slowly, ponderously, with a muted groan.
It sounded the way it always did.
He carried a box containing thick bundles of banknotes to his teller’s station and spread them out over the work surface. He studied them for a moment, just as he always did.
Soon Lisbet would come drifting in through the employees’ entrance and start babbling on about her family; then Albert would arrive, clearing his throat in a slightly superior way and nodding stifﬂy; and last would be Mia, dark, silent, and reserved, peering out from under her bangs. Soon the smell of Lisbet’s coffee would waft away any remaining stufﬁness and ﬁ ll the ofﬁce with an air of quiet humanity.
Then the scattered knots of customers would appear: the farmers fumbling with ancient bankbooks, housewives meticulously recording their meager withdrawals, pensioners struggling to avoid resorting to cat food.
This was where he had been happy for so long. But the town was getting smaller and smaller, the customers fewer and fewer.
Everything is exactly the same as always, he thought.
He went back around the dividing wall to play a quick round of 501. From 501 down to zero. A couple of triple-20s and some single bulls sped up the countdown. Exactly as always. The darts landed where they were supposed to. The slightly unusual wavering ﬂight, which was the trademark of his darts, made them hit the mark every time. He had 87 points to go when the alarm clock rang.
Still engrossed in the strategy for the last round, he went over to the front door and unlocked it.
Everything was exactly the same as always.
Let’s make it simple, he thought, a simple 15 and a simple 20 and then the one double bull of the morning for 50 points, as the perfect combination: 85. Then only the checkout left, the double ring of the 1. Eighty-seven. No problem. The hard part was putting the third dart in the little black center of the bull’s-eye. A good start to the day.
A good start to a completely ordinary day.
He hit 15 in the outer bed and 20 in the inner, just to make things interesting. The dart teetered at the wire next to the irksome 1, but it held. The wire trembled a bit from the contact. Then the bull’s-eye was left, right in the center. He focused his attention, raised the dart, lined up the ring with the long point, and drew the dart back four inches, exactly at eye level.
The door slammed.
That couldn’t be. It wasn’t right. It was too early. Damn.
He lowered the dart and walked out to the bank ofﬁce.
An enormous, ox-like man was pointing a big, long pistol at him.
He stood there petriﬁed. Everything fell apart. This was wrong, this was so wrong. Not now. Not now, please. The ﬂoor seemed to fall away from under him.
The man came up to the teller’s window and held out an empty suitcase.
He put down the dart, opened the hatch; stunned, he took the bag.
“Fill it up,” the ox-like man said in heavily accented English.
Quietly and methodically he placed one bundle of banknotes after another into the suitcase. Next to the bag lay the dart with the long point. Thoughts were surging through his mind, helter skelter. Only the bull’s-eye left, he thought. He thought about Lisbet and about nine-thirty, and about a bank door he had unlocked out of old habit. He thought about checking out in the double ring.
The ox-like man lowered the pistol for a moment and looked around nervously.
He thought about his ability to perform his best under extreme pressure.
“Hurry up!” snarled the ox, casting nervous glances out the window. His eyes were very black inside reddish rings.
Bull’s-eye, he thought and grabbed the dart.
Then all that remained was the checkout.