Copyright © Sebastian Fitzek, 2009
Translation copyright © John Brownjohn, 2011
‘What do you think?’
‘Hm… I’d call it, well… an acquired taste?’
‘Utterly hideous, more like.’
‘Was it a present?’
‘No, I bought it.’
‘Just a minute. You paid good money for that thing?’
‘For a baby-blue, battery-operated dolphin bedside light which you yourself think is ugly?’
‘Okay, so enlighten me. If that’s feminine logic, I don’t get it.’
‘I’m almost on top of you as it is.’
‘Come closer all the same.’
‘Don’t tell me you bought it as a sex aid?’
‘Hey, what’s the matter? Why are you looking at me like that?’
‘Promise you’ll always turn the light on?’
‘I… I don’t get it. Scared of the dark suddenly?’
‘Well, I’ve been thinking how unbearable it would be if something happened to you. No, wait, don’t pull away, I want to hold you tight.’
‘What is it? Are you crying?’
‘Look, I know it sounds a bit weird, but I’d like us to make a deal.’
‘If one of us dies – no, please hear me out – the first of us to go must give the other one a sign.’
‘By turning the light on?’
‘So we know we aren’t alone. So we know we’re thinking of each other even if we can’t see each other.’
‘Baby, I don’t know if-’
‘Is that why it’s so ugly?’
‘Right. Good choice from that angle. We’d never turn on that monstrosity by mistake.’
‘So you promise?’
‘Of course, babe.’
‘Still, what’s likely to happen to us?’
Marc Lucas hesitated. The one uninjured finger of his broken hand hovered over the brass button of the antiquated doorbell for a long time before he pulled himself together and pressed it.
He didn’t know what time it was. The horrors of the last few hours had robbed him of his sense of time as well. Out here in the middle of the forest, though, time seemed unimportant anyway.
The chill November wind and the sleet showers of the last few hours had subsided a little, and even the moon was only intermittently visible through rents in the clouds. It was the sole light source on a night that seemed as cold as it was dark. There was no indication that the ivy-covered, two-storeyed, timber-built house was occupied. Neither did the disproportionately large chimney jutting from the gabled roof appeared to be in use, nor could Marc smell the characteristic scent of burning logs that had woken him in the house that morning – shortly after eleven, when they had brought him to the professor for the first time. He’d been feeling ill even at that stage, dangerously ill, but his condition had dramatically worsened since then.
A few hours ago his outward symptoms had been scarcely detectable. Now, blood was dripping on to his dirty trainers from his mouth and nose, his fractured ribs grated together at every breath, and his right arm hung limp at his side like an ill-fitting appendage.
Marc pressed the brass button once more, again without hearing a bell, buzzer or chime. He stepped back and looked up at the balcony. Beyond it lay the bedroom, which by day afforded a breathtaking view of the little forest lake whose surface at windless moments resembled a sheet of window glass – a smooth, dark pane that would shatter into a thousand fragments as soon someone tossed a stone into it.
The bedroom remained in darkness. Even the dog, whose name he had forgotten, failed to bark, and there were none of the other sounds that usually emanate from a house whose occupants have been roused from sleep in the middle of the night. No bare feet padding down the stairs, no slippers shuffling across the floorboards while their owner nervously clears his throat and tries to smooth his tousled hair with both hands and a modicum of spit.
Yet Marc was unsurprised, even for an instant, when the door suddenly opened as if by magic. Far too many inexplicable things had happened to him in the last few days for him to waste even a moment’s thought on why the psychiatrist should be confronting him fully dressed in a suit and neatly knotted tie, as if he made a point of holding his consultations in the middle of the night. Perhaps he really had been working in the recesses of his little house – perusing old case notes or studying one of the thick tomes on neuropsychology, schizophrenia, brainwashing or multiple personalities that lay strewn around, although it was years since he had practised as anything but an occasional consultant.
Marc didn’t wonder, either, why the light from the room with the fireplace was reaching him only now. Reflected by a mirror over the chest of drawers, it seemed to adorn the professor with a momentary halo. Then the old man stepped back and the effect vanished.
Marc sighed. Wearily, he leant his uninjured shoulder against the doorpost and raised his shattered hand.
‘Please,’ he implored. ‘You’ve got to tell me.’
His tongue impinged on some loose front teeth as he spoke. He coughed, dislodging a little drop of blood from his nose.
‘I don’t know what’s been happening to me.’
The psychiatrist nodded slowly, as if he found it hard to move his head. Most people would have recoiled at the sight of Marc and slammed the door in alarm, or at least summoned medical assistance. But Professor Niclas Haberland did nothing of the kind. He merely stepped aside and said, in a low, melancholy voice: ‘I’m sorry, you’re too late. I can’t help you.’
Marc nodded. He’d expected this reply and was prepared for it.
‘I’m afraid you’ve no choice,’ he said, taking the automatic from his torn leather jacket.
The professor made his way along the passage to the living room. Marc followed close behind with the gun levelled at his back, but he was glad the old man didn’t turn round and see how close to passing out he was. He’d felt faint as soon as he entered the house. The headache, the nausea, the sweating – all the symptoms intensified by his mental ordeal of the last few hours had suddenly returned. He was almost tempted to cling to Haberland’s shoulders and let himself be towed along. He was tired, unbearably tired, and the passage seemed infinitely longer than it had on his first visit.
‘Look, I’m sorry,’ Haberland repeated as they entered the living room, whose most conspicuous feature was an open fireplace with a log fire slowly expiring on the hearth. His tone was calm, almost compassionate. ‘I really wish you’d come sooner. Time’s running out.’
Haberland’s eyes were completely expressionless. If he was frightened, he managed to conceal it as effectively as the old dog asleep in a little wicker basket by the window. The buff-coloured ball of fur hadn’t even raised its head when they came in.
Marc moved to the middle of the room and looked around irresolutely. ‘What do you mean, time’s running out?’
‘Just look at yourself. You’re in a worse state than this place of mine.’
Marc returned Haberland’s smile, and even that hurt him. The decor of the house was as odd as its location in the forest. Not one piece of furniture matched any other. A grossly overloaded Ikea bookcase rubbed shoulders with an elegant Biedermeier chest of drawers. The floor was almost entirely covered with carpets, one of them readily identifiable as a bathroom runner whose colour alone clashed with that of the hand-woven silk Chinese carpet beside it. Marc was involuntarily reminded of a box room, yet nothing in this ensemble seemed to be there by chance. Every last object, from the gramophone on the tea trolley to the leather sofa, from the wing chair to the linen curtains, suggested a souvenir of times gone by. It was as if the professor feared he would lose a reminder of some crucial phase in his existence if he rid himself of any pieces of furniture. The ubiquitous medical textbooks and journals lying not only on the shelves and desk, but also on the window sills, the floor, and even in the log basket beside the hearth, seemed to function as a link between the heterogeneous junk.
‘Do sit down,’ said Haberland. He spoke as if Marc were still the welcome visitor he’d been that morning, when they deposited his unconscious form on the comfortable sofa whose plump cushions threatened to smother him. Now, though, he would sooner have sat right in front of the fire. He was feeling cold – colder than he had ever felt in his life.
‘Shall I put some more wood on?’ asked Haberland, who seemed to have read his thoughts.
Without waiting for an answer he went over to the basket ...