There is only so much loneliness a human being can bear.
In his Munich apartment, in the dying days of September 2001, Karl Dresner waited. His hands were shaking. Salt from beads of sweat stung his eyes. A gun rested on the left side of the table... two bottles on the right, one of whisky, one of barbiturates. A coin glinted. The telephone across the room rang: once, twice, three times, and then the answer machine cut in.
'Leave a message and I'll get back to you,' said a version of Dresner's voice. 'Maybe.'
'Are you there, Karl? It's Lucia.' Dresner picked up the coin. 'I'm going to keep calling. I know you must be there. If you don't want to see me again, it's OK. But I want to know. I want to know you're OK. I need to talk to you, Karl. Please call me when you get this message. Let me know you're all right. Please.'
The tape spindles continued to rotate. The mechanism hummed. Dresner remained seated, turning the coin between his fingers: heads, tails, heads, tails...
'I'm sure you're there. I'm sure you're listening to this.'
A click, like a safety catch being released, signalled the end of the call. A red light blinked, two heartbeats per second. One last time, thought Dresner, standing. His finger hovered over the answerphone controls. He pressed DELETE and the device bleated in protest, the indicator continuing a pattern: dot-dot-dash, dot-dot-dash, dot-dot-dash. A Mayday, of kinds.
Fucking obstinate machine. He flicked open the tape cover, held a spring clip back, prised the microcassette free and held it up towards the centre of the room. Why are you making this difficult for me? The lounge light shone through the gaps in the spindles. He clipped the tape back into place and pressed PLAY.
'You have... one... new message.'
'Are you there, Karl...?'
Three seconds of pressure on DELETE would erase every word; no bleating this time. His finger stroked the button. He brushed a speck of dust and it floated into the air.
'Are you there...?'
The outside world no longer existed; at least, not a world that mattered. All that remained was a woman's voice preserved on magnetic tape. Where have you come from? We're strangers - you have no right.
He was seated at the table again, the microcassette on the right; the gun, the barbiturates and the whisky lay to the left, forming a triangle. In the centre, between the two poles, the coin marked the borderline.
It seemed like a lifetime's journey had brought him to this place, yet it was only five years. Five years since the event that started it all, less than a month since the attack in New York that had brought the memories back. He remembered a voice, a woman's voice, calling out his name, and water whipped into flecks of white.