The light was fading when I pulled the VW Golf – that most ubiquitous and therefore most anonymous set of wheels – off the Bundestrasse into the secondary road that snaked down into the village of Guntering. The rain had eased off in favour of a fine drizzle through which I glimpsed ragged clouds clinging to the hillsides like grey cotton candy. A Porsche swished past, throwing arcs of spray from its wide wheels. I held piously to my fifty kph. Confrontation with the police, notorious in Germany for enforcement of urban speed limits with instant fines, was to be avoided. For today, I was a model motorist.
The radio was on. A female singer belted out a rendering of the old Dietrich number, “Falling in Love Again”. In German, naturally. I chanted along with her. In English, naturally. Cool and relaxed as any nine-to- five commuter on his way to work. Cooler, even. No rush hour traffic to stress me out.
I was through Guntering, the houses and other buildings just houses and buildings. The next hamlet, Wasach, was more of the same. From there it was open road, a grade above dirt track. No other vehicles shared it in either direction.
The turnoff was a couple of kilometres beyond Wasach, announced by a shiny metal signpost: Schloss Thomashoff – Thomashoff Castle –3km. The pretentiousness of it had amused me yesterday, seeing it for the first time. Admittedly the place occupied an elevated site with views over the Ammersee, a large lake shaped like a prawn. It was made of stone: a grey, granite-like stone, coarse-textured, but the resemblance to a castle went no further. It was mostly a single-story building, with a dormer window in the steep roof, a portico entrance, and a cupola at one corner. Nothing to inspire awe.
Rain had made the dirt surface of the track treacherous. It forced me to go easy on the gas pedal. Among the trees the light was poor, and I flicked the headlights to full beam, sending white shafts through the gloom. A pair of yellow eyes sparkled; a fox probably. Then they were gone and I was slithering onward, holding the car in third, the trees seeming to press in on me, looming in the headlights then whipping past.
The road was climbing now, a succession of increasingly acute bends. Raindrops dripped from overhanging branches, making little explosions on the windscreen. I slowed and dropped down into second gear. An accident on this no-exit road would be as disastrous as a brush with the law.
The dashboard clock showed 15:26 and night was already draping its mantle across the land. Darkness was always welcome – the best natural protection going. Unless I was planning to use a rifle, and thus at a distance from my victim, I avoided making hits in daylight. Nosy neighbours and inconvenient passers-by posed less of a threat after nightfall. I had other codes of conduct, other axioms, whose observance had helped me stay in business. Enabling me to cross borders anywhere in the world without let or hindrance, like it says on my red British EU passport and my navy-blue Canadian one. Not so much as an unpaid parking fine besmirched my real name.
Lake Ammersee came into sight on my right, a dull gunmetal glint below the cliffs. No wind, eddies or currents ruffled its glossy surface. The car skated on a patch of mud and the front end slewed toward the verge, which was only spitting distance from a sheer hundred-foot drop. My grip on the wheel tightened as I lifted my foot off the gas pedal, slowing to a walking pace. At this point I dispensed with the headlights.
A hundred metres or so farther on, a rectangle of light glimmered between the trees at ground-floor level. Above it, a smaller rectangle. The exterior lamp, mounted above the front entrance, cast a yellow pool over a gravelled parking area. An expensive-looking hunk of Milan-built iron squatted there on fat tyres.
I rolled to a standstill short of the house, reversing into a space between the trees, and killed the parking lights. It was a spot I had pre-selected for this purpose. With its dark green paintwork the Golf would be virtually invisible from the track. As an extra precaution I draped an olive green groundsheet over the windscreen, the hood, and the indiscreet, reflective license plate, weighting it with a dead branch. The car now merged into its surroundings. Someone would have to walk into it to know it was there.
It was a few minutes to four. Under the trees, it was dark as midnight. The Ammersee was a flat monochrome through the pencil-straight trunks. No moon to reflect, only charcoal-grey clouds, their bellies bulging with more unshed rain.
I zipped my waterproof jacket up to my chin and pulled the hood over my head, listening to the intermittent beat of raindrops on the car and foliage. It was the only sound in that cathedral stillness, except –faintly – music from the house. So muffled and indistinct, I couldn’t even identify the tune. I was still straining my ears when the dormer light was extinguished and the darkness became Stygian.
For a while I stood there, the dampness climbing my legs and permeating my body. I stomped my feet, but the bed of pine needles offered no resistance. It was like stomping on jell-o. The minutes crawled by. Waiting was the worst part of a contract kill. But wait I must. My arrival had been timed to ensure I was off the road during the evening rush when the country dwellers streamed out of Munich to their neat, synthetic, dormitory towns. The getaway was subject to similar criteria. By then, the job done, all but the tail-end workaholics would be settled in front of their TV sets. Every motorist had to be considered a potential witness. It takes more than just a killer instinct and ability to shoot straight to make a successful assassin. Blending in with the law-abiding majority is no less important.
The drizzle was petering out, which was a relieft. I strolled across the track to stand on the bare cliff top and gaze out over the Ammersee. The far shore was black and shapeless, only relieved by a constellation of lights round the towns of Diessen and Lifting. In the daytime it was a million-euro panorama, and explained why Thomashoff had built his self-styled castle here.
In deadly boredom I whiled away the next two hours. My sauntering about left plenty of footprints to excite the police forensic team. So much the better; let them go chasing will-o- the-wisps. I bought my shoes from a market trader in Dar es Salaam, where I was hunting down a Portuguese drug trafficker. They were untraceable. Along with the waterproof jacket and gun they would be disposed of when I left. Just as I had already discarded the brown hairpiece, the matching stick-on moustache, and the brown contact lenses. I had no more need to hide my yellow-blond hair and my – some say piercing – blue eyes. In the Master Plan (revised), the hit and his mistress didn’t survive to assist the police making up photo-fit pictures after the event. From now on, Roger Townsend ceased to exist; just one of a succession of dead-end false identities. I would leave Germany under my real name of André Warner, Anglo-Québecois, respectable citizen and businessman.
At half-past six I got ready to move. I pulled on a pair of thin kidskin driving gloves and loaded six .357 magnum rounds into the Colt Python, stowing the gun in my coat’s side pocket. The six unwanted inches of barrel made it too long for the pocket, but I had cut a hole in the lining to accommodate them, binding insulating tape round the shallow triangular sight to smooth the profile and stop it snagging on the material. A small detail, but no less significant than all the other details.
Here at Schloss Thomashoff, it would be no use my going up to the front door and thumbing the bell push. The hefty door chain was bolt-cutter proof, and I expected it to be in place. I would therefore enter via the back door, the same as yesterday when I broke in to carry out my final reconnaissance of the empty building. The lock was of the deadbolt type and I had a skeleton key that fit. The only complication had been the surface-mounted bolt, thick as a man’s finger, at the top of the door. I had neutralized it by sawing three-quarters of the way through it, masking the cut with dirt, and clearing up the few metal filings. Now, all it would take to snap it was a nudge against the door.
Silent as a drifting snowflake, I crossed the open ground between the wood and the knee-high hedge that bordered the yard, past the cupola. The drapes of the lighted rectangular window of the living room were open, necessitating a wide detour. The TV set, a Bang & Olufson in a rosewood cabinet, flickered in a corner of the room. A dark head was visible over the back of an armchair. It could only be him; she was a blonde. No sign of her at all. The dormer window above was lit up, meaning she was back in her natural environment – the bedroom. Suiting up for more erotic games, I bet. The stuff I’d come across up there told its own tale: crotchless panties galore, leather corsets, thigh boots with twelve-centimetre heels, dildoes of many shapes and sizes, you get the picture.
The kitchen was in darkness. The door was locked as expected and the key had been left in the lock on the inside. Keys left in locks were a commonplace, and I had the means to deal with them. With the aid of my pencil flashlight and some long-nosed pliers of a pattern not generally found in any tool store, that obstacle was soon removed. The key made no sound when it hit the doormat.
I was putting the flashlight and pliers away when the kitchen light came on.
The vast window, with its outlook over the lake, was fitted with Venetian blinds. They were lowered, but the slats were open. The light bathed the lush lawn in white stripes, picking out drops of moisture on the grass. Pressed flat against the wall and in shadow, I would be invisible from inside. The only small worry was the key lying on the doormat. If spotted, it might arouse suspicion. Then again, it might be assumed it had fallen out of the lock. Then again…
The person in the kitchen was whistling out of tune. Cupboard doors were slammed and something fell with a metallic clatter, followed by a muttered ‘Merde!’ – it was the Frenchman, Fabrice Tillou himself. More doors banged, then a triumphant, ‘Ah … vous voila.’ Seconds later, the pop of a cork. Footsteps approached the door.
I stepped away from the wall, ready to blend with it if he came outside.
A clatter of metal to metal. The footsteps receded and the light went out.
My breathing resumed.
It was raining again with renewed enthusiasm. I glowered at the heavens to no effect. I gave the Frenchman a minute or so to settle down with his bottle of plonk, then leaned my shoulder against the door while depressing the handle slowly. It opened without effort on my part, meaning it was not bolted, and my sabotage had been unnecessary. I stepped inside the palatial kitchen, all black tiles and stainless steel, with mechanical aids in abundance. A mutter of voices filtered through the open door between the kitchen and the inner hall. Did they have company? I remained motionless, my head cocked toward the doorway. A police siren sounded, overlaid by a yelp of brakes and a ripple of gunfire. I remembered the flickering TV screen and grinned at nothing in my relief.
The Python was in my hand now, hammer cocked, ready to deliver its cargo. I crossed the kitchen, detouring round an island counter, and wedged myself into the corner behind the door. A spoor of wet footprints gave away my presence. No matter. Nobody would see them until it was too late.
‘Liebling?’ the Frenchman called in his accented German. He was in the hall, just a few feet away. ‘Bist du noch nicht fertig?’ Aren’t you ready yet? He sounded impatient.
The answer was inaudible; I guessed she was still upstairs. The verbal exchange ended and the yammer of the TV took over again.
Water dripped from my hair, coursing down my face in rivulets.
Presently, I took a cautious peep around the edge of the door. All was clear. I emerged from the kitchen into the carpeted hall. The carpet pile was thick, and I waded through it soundlessly, the TV noise removing any need for caution. The living room door stood ajar. I widened the gap with my toe and went in.
The room was as plush as a super-rich politician’s fortune could make it: a cornfield-deep cream carpet, the furniture all in rosewood to match the TV, the walls panelled in contrasting pale pine with knots galore. Not forgetting the hi-fi with its library of CDs I could have played nonstop for a month without hearing the same one twice. Shelves behind the mini-bar sagged under a profusion of designer label booze.
The drapes, tasteful brown velvet, were now drawn; one less precaution for me to take.
Tillou was back in his armchair, which was positioned sideways to the doorway. He didn’t notice me right away.
Raising my voice above the grating cops-and- robbers dialogue, I announced myself. ‘Bonsoir, Monsieur Tillou.’
His self-control was impressive. The glass of white wine that was halfway to his mouth slowed only momentarily before resuming its journey. He drank in generous gulps that I could see travelling down his throat, and then his head slowly turned toward me.
He was just past his thirtieth birthday, according to the dossier provided by Bonhomme. Pretty boy looks, with dark hair, not too long, dark hooded eyes, and full lips that a lipstick advertiser could have put to good use. Well groomed, dark blue pants and vest, shirt whiter than white. I knew him to be tall, an inch over six feet, about my own height. He was married, no children.
‘Qui êtes vous?’ he asked finally, reverting to his native tongue. He was still composed, disdainful even.
It’s funny how they always want to know who I am. As if it made any difference to the outcome.
‘Aucune importance,’ I said. Thanks to my Québecois mother my French was fluent, and I proceeded to tell him, as instructed, who had sent me.
His control slipped, face darkening, lips contorting. ‘So, he finally declares himself,’ he snarled. ‘And you? You are English? American?’
‘Neither, if it matters.’
He continued to smile, still more angry than afraid. ‘Have you come to kill me?’
I answered with a nod.
‘How much is he paying?’
I waved the question away as an irrelevancy. In this business, you don’t negotiate with your victims.
‘He just asked me to wish you a pleasant stay in Hell.’
He went white. His jaw tightened and his eyes flashed. For sure, he wouldn’t just sit there and let me finish him off. He knew he was confronting his quietus, so he had nothing to lose by trying to save himself.
For me, the squeezing of the trigger, while representing a perverse form of thrill, had always been a psychological fence, a hurdle to be cleared before the irrevocable ending of life. I was bracing myself for the leap when I heard the tattoo of high heels on wooden stairs.