the hall, noticing as he did so that a large pair of black boots had been placed neatly to one side of the front door, as if their owner had not wanted to trail in mud or disturb the occupants. The boots were not Hoffmann’s and they were certainly not Gabrielle’s. He was also sure they had not been there when he arrived home almost six hours earlier.

His gaze transfixed by the boots, he fumbled for his mobile, almost dropped it, started dialling 911, remembered he was in Switzerland and tried again: 117.

The number rang just once – at 3.59 a.m., according to the Geneva Police Department, which records all emergency calls, and which subsequently issued a transcript. A woman answered sharply: ‘ Oui, police? ’

Her voice seemed to Hoffmann very loud in the stillness. It made him realise how visible he must be, standing exposed under the floodlights. He stepped quickly to his left, out of the line of sight of anyone watching from the hallway, and at the same time forward, into the lee of the house. He had the phone pressed very close to his mouth. He whispered: ‘ J’ai un intrus sur ma propriete.’ On the tape his voice sounds calm, thin, almost robotic. It is the voice of a man whose cerebral cortex – without his even being aware of it – is concentrating all its power entirely on survival. It is the voice of pure fear.

‘ Quelle est votre adresse, monsieur? ’

He told her. He was still moving along the facade of the house. He could hear her fingers typing.

‘ Et votre nom? ’

He whispered, ‘Alexander Hoffmann.’

The security lights cut out.

‘ Okay, Monsieur Hoffmann. Restez la. Une voiture est en route.’

She hung up. Alone in the darkness, Hoffmann stood at the corner of the house. It was unseasonably cold for Switzerland in the first week of May. The wind was from the north-east, blowing straight off Lac Leman. He could hear the water lapping rapidly against the nearby jetties, rattling the halliards against the metal masts of the yachts. He pulled his dressing gown tighter around his shoulders. He was shaking violently. He had to clench his teeth to stop them chattering. And yet, oddly, he felt no panic. Panic was quite different to fear, he was discovering. Panic was moral and nervous collapse, a waste of precious energy, whereas fear was all sinew and instinct: an animal that stood up on its hind legs and filled you completely, that took control of your brain and your muscles. He sniffed the air and glanced along the side of the mansion towards the lake. Somewhere near the rear of the house there was a light on downstairs. Its gleam lit the surrounding bushes very prettily, like a fairy grotto.

He waited for half a minute, then began to move towards it stealthily, working his way through the wide herbaceous border that ran along this side of the house. He was not sure at first from which room it was emanating: he had not ventured down here since the estate agent showed them round. But as he drew closer he realised it was the kitchen, and when he came level with it, and edged his head around the window frame, he saw inside the figure of a man. He had his back to the window. He was standing at the granite-topped island in the centre of the room. His movements were unhurried. He was taking knives from their sockets in a butcher’s block and sharpening them on an electric grinder.

Hoffmann’s heart was pumping so fast he could hear the rush of his own pulse. His immediate thought was Gabrielle: he must get her out of the house while the intruder was preoccupied in the kitchen. Get her out of the house, or at the very least get her to lock herself in the bathroom until the police arrived.

He still had his mobile in his hand. Without taking his eyes from the intruder, he dialled her number. Seconds later he heard her phone start to ring – too loud and too near for it to be with her upstairs. At once the stranger looked up from his sharpening. Gabrielle’s phone was lying where she had left it before she went to bed, on the big pine table in the kitchen, its screen glowing, its pink plastic case buzzing along the wood like some tropical beetle turned on its back. The intruder cocked his head and looked at it. For several long seconds he stayed where he was. Then, with the same infuriating calmness, he laid down the knife – Hoffmann’s favourite knife, the one with the long thin blade that was particularly useful for boning – and moved around the island towards the table. As he did so, his body half turned towards the window, and Hoffmann got his first proper glimpse of him – a bald pate with long, thin grey hair at the sides pulled back behind the ears into a greasy ponytail, hollow cheeks, unshaven. He was wearing a scuffed brown leather coat. He looked like a traveller, the sort of man who might work in a circus or on a ride in a fair. He stared in puzzlement at the phone as if he had never seen one before, picked it up, hesitated, then pressed answer and held it to his ear.

Hoffmann was convulsed by a wave of murderous anger. It flooded him like a light. He said quietly, ‘You cocksucker, get out of my house,’ and was gratified to see the intruder jerk in alarm, as if tugged from above by an invisible wire. He rapidly twisted his head – left, right, left, right – and then his gaze settled on the window. For an instant his darting eyes met Hoffmann’s, but blindly, for he was staring into dark glass. It would have been hard to say who was the more frightened. Suddenly he threw the phone on to the table and with surprising agility darted for the door.

Hoffmann swore, turned and started back the way he had come, sliding and stumbling through the flower bed, along the side of the big house, towards the front – hard going in his slippers, his ankle was twisted, each breath a sob. He had reached the corner when he heard the front door slam. He assumed the intruder was making a dash for the road. But no: the seconds passed and the man did not appear. He must have shut himself in.

Oh God, Hoffmann whispered. God, God.

He flailed on towards the porch. The boots were still there – tongues lolling, old, squat, malevolent. His hands were shaking as he keyed in the security code. By this time he was yelling out Gabrielle’s name, even though the master bedroom was on the opposite side of the house and there was little chance she could hear him. The bolts clicked back. He flung open the door on to darkness. The hall lamp had been switched off.

For a moment he stood panting on the step, imagining the distance he had to cross, calculating his chances, then he lunged towards the staircase, screaming, ‘Gabrielle! Gabrielle!’ and was halfway across the marble floor when the house seemed to explode around him, the stairs tumbling, the floor tiles rising, the walls shooting away from him into the night.


A grain in the balance will determine which individual shall live and which shall die…

CHARLES DARWIN, On the Origin of Species (1859)

Hoffmann had no memory of anything after that – no thoughts or dreams disturbed his normally restless mind – until at last, from out of the fog, like a low spit of land emerging at the end of a long voyage, he became aware of a gradual reawakening of sensations – freezing water trickling down the side of his neck and across his back, a cold pressure on his scalp, a sharp pain in his head, a mechanical jabbering in his ears, the familiar sickly-sharp floral smell of his wife’s perfume – and he realised that he was lying on his side, with something soft against his cheek. There was a pressure on his hand.

He opened his eyes and saw a white plastic bowl, inches from his face, into which he immediately vomited, the taste of last night’s fish pie sour in his mouth. He gagged and spewed again. The bowl was removed. A bright light was shone into each of his eyes in turn. His nose and mouth were wiped. A glass of water was pressed against his lips. Babyishly, he pushed it away at first, then took it and gulped it down. When he had finished, he opened his eyes again and squinted around his new world.

He was on the floor of the hall, laid out in the recovery position, his back resting against the wall. A blue police light flashed at the window like a continuous electrical storm; unintelligible chatter leaked from a radio. Gabrielle was kneeling next to him, holding his hand. She smiled and squeezed his fingers. ‘Thank God,’ she said. She was dressed in jeans and a jersey. He pushed himself up and looked around, bewildered. Without his spectacles, everything was slightly blurred: two paramedics, bent over a case of gleaming equipment; two uniformed gendarmes, one by the door with the noisy radio on his belt and another just coming down the stairs; and a third man, tired-looking, in his fifties, wearing a dark blue windcheater and a white shirt with a dark tie, who was studying Hoffmann with detached sympathy. Everyone was dressed except Hoffmann, and it suddenly seemed

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