Stella's house was on the outskirts of town. Travelling north alongside a dried-up riverbed with a rusted, disused electric pylon standing nearby, he went down the road right next to the used book store that had closed only the previous month, and there it was right in front of him.
It was a residential area with rows of detached, middle class family homes, the layout of the buildings making the land look as if it had been sold off as part of one big package by some real estate agent.
A two-storey house painted white. A garage and a modest garden. All of this and a lawn on which to hold barbecues must have been the selling point, he knew instantly.
"Which is her house?" Vincent asked, looking around in envy. It must be his dream to live in a house like this with a family of his own.
It wasn't Freddie's, however. All he needed was enough of a house for himself to live alone. Unwanted space would simply bring along unwanted people with it.
"The one at the end of this block."
He walked briskly along the dark road. No one was around, what with it being a residential area, but it was certainly convenient not to have people to think the men suspicious and question them.
"Here we are."
They arrived at Stella's house. Freddie climbed the mere three stone steps, standing in front of the chocolate-coloured front door that faced onto the road. He pressed the doorbell beside it.
There was no response. He waited for a moment, then pressed it again. Then a third time. Nothing changed.
He looked up at the second floor window. The shutters were down on the window of what was, if he remembered correctly, her bedroom, and he couldn't see inside. There was no sign of any light spilling out from within, either.
"You don't think she got sick all of a sudden or anything, do ya?" Toby whispered from the back of the line. He clung to Jonny's back, peering at his surroundings like a puppy.
"It's a possibility," Jonny acknowledged.
Stella, sick? He'd heard nothing of her having a chronic illness, but what if she really had collapsed inside the house?
"You got a key?" Vincent questioned, to which Freddie shook his head. He'd been there two or three times before, but had never even thought for a second about getting a key. He couldn't comprehend the mindset of a man who would want to set foot inside a woman's den. To him, they seemed no different from flies lured into spiders' webs simply to be helplessly devoured.
"How about trying her phone one more time?"
He went along with Jonny's suggestion, but only got her voice mail.
"God, this is a hassle. Could you move for a sec?"
Orlando brushed past Freddie and began to rap roughly on the door.
"Hellooo? Anybody hooome? It's the postman. Hellooo?"
He chattered at random as he knocked but soon shrugged, as if his hand was sore.
"Ughhh. This is pointless."
Apparently satisfied with having accomplished what he wanted to do, Orlando withdrew to the back with a silent it's up to you guys, now. Freddie was glad that they had tagged along, but he was no better off than if he had been alone.
"Is there a back door or something?" Vincent asked. He pictured the house inside his head, and then remembered.
"There's a door that leads straight from the garage into the house."
The garage was built as if a part of the building had been scooped out to accommodate it, and on the other side from where Freddie and the others were standing - that is, around back of the house - you could get inside.
"Let's go check it out," Vincent proposed.
"But you don't have the key, right?"
He simply nodded in response to Toby's question, but thought he needed to check whether or not her car was there. Stella's car was a red Citroën. If it wasn't parked in the garage, that would be proof that she was out.
A narrow lane led between the houses' gardens, and they used it to access the back entrance, which felt even more deserted. The streetlights became more distant, even the moon concealed behind the clouds.
Her car had been left in the garage. The curved front end of it jutted out, unable to fit inside.
They passed between the car and the garage wall, coming upon a stainless steel door. He turned the knob almost with a prayer but, as he had suspected, it was locked. Freddie tutted, realising that it was never going to have been that easy.
"How about we just go ahead and bust it in?"
"Don't be stupid," Jonny chided Orlando for his crazy comment that couldn't even be called a plan.
Just as he thought they were at a dead end, Vincent crouched down in the corner of the garage. Over there were items such as a toolbox and a can of kerosene, making him think that Vincent was searching for something they could use, but apparently this was not the case.
Vincent began upturning the empty planters and flowerpots that lined the wall one by one.
"The hell are you doing?"
Ignoring Orlando's look of amazement, he continued fixating on his work, then suddenly let out a small whistle.
"Hey, is this it?"
From inside an empty flowerpot, Vincent had fished out a steel key that glinted silver. Freddie, practically snatching the key from his hand, tried it, and it slid easily into the keyhole.
This time, the door that led to the main house opened without a hint of resistance.
"How'd you know, Vincent?" Jonny asked, and Vincent gave a strained smile.
"I kinda have experience with this sorta thing."
"What kind of experience?"
"There was this one time when I dropped my keys while I was out and couldn't get back in. Ever since then, I've made sure to keep a spare handy. When I was wondering where I should hide it, my girl told me to just shove it inside a flowerpot or something. I decided to give it a go, and hit the jackpot."
"So you mean it's just a coincidence," Orlando said, cutting down the boastful Vincent. Poor guy. But he was grateful to Vincent's girlfriend. He hoped to meet her someday so he could thank her properly.
Freddie went through the door and left the garage behind him, exiting into the first floor hallway. Orange lights shone down on him. Clutching at strands of his memories, he came up with a floor plan. If he turned left here and went straight, he would be at the front entrance, and if he went the other way he would find himself at the stairs to the second floor. Stella's bedroom was on the second floor, so without hesitation he began climbing.
Perhaps cheaper than they looked, the wooden stairs creaked faintly underfoot each time he took a step. It summoned a horrible memory. He felt strongly as if he had experienced the same thing before. He couldn't recall where, but he felt like it was something dangerous enough to threaten his life. As proof, each time he climbed a step, a faint sweat broke out on his forehead.
There couldn't have been more than ten steps, and yet the stairs seemed to go on for an eternity. He imagined that he was walking infinitely in the same spot. No matter how long he went, he would never make it to the top.
This is a trap, Freddie knew instinctively. This is a trap Stella set for me.
He would turn tail and run as fast as he could to the bottom of the stairs, flying straight out of the front door - the moment he decided this, he felt a tap on his back.
He let out a shriek. Turning timidly around, he saw Vincent standing a step below with a perplexed look on his face.
"Stop standing still and get a move on, would you?"
"It's a squeeze, and we're all stuck behind you. We can't get to the second floor if you don't climb."
That was when he finally realised that he had come to a complete standstill midway up the stairs. The reason he'd felt as if he would continue climbing forever and still never reach the top was because he had been stepping on the same stair over and over. Was such a hallucination possible?
Freddie absentmindedly touched his leg. At his suspicious behaviour, Vincent grew ever more bewildered.
"Are you okay? You look really pale."
"Yeah, it's nothing."
"How about you go and rest at the bottom?"
"I said I'm fine."/p>
In reality he wasn't fine at all, but hid it behind a humourless joke. He dragged himself along on unsteady legs, finally making it to the second floor.
The lights on the second floor were off, but he managed to turn them on by feeling around for the switch. A dim hallway came into view, though it felt darker than the first floor had been.
The hallway was empty. The bedroom was the door inside to the left. Freddie naturally began to creep along, feeling that something was somehow off. Not knowing what that something was, he touched a portrait hanging in the hall. It was photograph-sized and sat in a small frame, depicting a young girl cradling a wreath and smiling.
It wasn't Stella; just some commonplace decoration bought from a store. Yet for some reason it caught his interest, and so he took the portrait down from the wall and scrutinised it.
"What're you up to?" Orlando asked, nudging him in the back.
Freddie returned the portrait to the wall. Orlando was right - looking for Stella was more important right now than snooping around her furniture. For some reason, though, the portrait's position and angle bothered him. Concealing his mysterious feeling of unease, he knocked on Stella's bedroom door.
"Stella? You in there?"
There was no reply. He pressed his ear to the door, but couldn't hear a sound.
"I'm coming in."
The door was unlocked. Using his memories as a guide, he ran his hand along the wall and felt for the switch.
"What the hell?"
Even before Freddie had time to groan, Orlando, peering in from behind, gave a peculiar cry.
He didn't blame him. Newspapers and magazines lay scattered across the entire bedroom floor. Some were piled up into a small mountain, enough to render the carpet below invisible. Stella had never been very good at keeping things tidy, but even for her this was awful.
Some of the papers and magazines were torn up, pages missing here and there, with scraps piled in the corner of the room like a blizzard of paper.
"She thinking of starting a school play or something?"
Freddie stood completely still in front of the room, unable to take a step, and Orlando went inside instead. He took a look around the room and shrugged.
The words finally gave him the determination to move his feet and go in. The bedroom was as he remembered it. Her bed was to the right of the door, with a closet alongside it. In front of him was the window with the slatted shutter that faced the street, which was tightly locked from the inside.
Against the wall opposite the bed were a desk and bookcase. Atop the wide, wooden desk sat a notebook PC and several documents that seemed to be work-related.
The sheets showed no traces of the bed having been slept in. He steeled himself and opened the closet, but all that hung inside were several dressing gowns.
"Where the hell has she gotten to?"
He still couldn't shake the fear that she was collapsed in some other room.
"Shouldn't we check the first floor, too?"
Vincent apologetically raised his hand at Toby's words. "Sorry, but could I use the restroom before we do that? It looks like things have cooled off a bit, so..."
He stood pigeon-toed, clutching his groin.
"Bathroom's on the first floor. Go down the stairs, and it's the door next to the kitchen," Freddie answered calmly, and then stopped.
He couldn't hear Jonny's voice. He had definitely said the location of the bathroom - he had used it a few times when Stella had brought him here - but how did he know that the kitchen was next to it? He had no memory of ever having opened the door, or of Stella telling him about it.
How do I know the layout of Stella's house?
Feeling eyes on him, Freddie reflexively turned around. The girl in the portrait that hung in the hall on the other side of the open door was staring straight at him.
He let out a voiceless scream. The moment his eyes met with those of the girl in the photo, Freddie understood everything.
"A sketch of the house of the character who gets peeped on. How about something like this?" he remembered Catherine say. The location of the hidden camera as detailed in the proposal was right where the portrait was.
The diagram Catherine had brought him - it was this house. That was how he had remembered where the dining room was. Of course he had - he'd only seen it a mere two hours or so earlier at the office. Now he knew the source of the strange feeling that had been tailing him since he'd entered the house. It made Freddie feel even more anxious. How had Catherine known the layout of the house?
No, wait. Freddie desperately racked his brain. It wasn't inexplicable. Catherine had said that she trawled through estate agents' sites and had chosen a blueprint at random. It had just happened to be this house. It was a built-for-sale home, after all, and the contractor would have built many just like it. It could all be explained away as a coincidence. He decided not to think about what the chances were that it was one. Whatever the case, there was no connection between Catherine and Stella.
"There's no way there would be."
"Hm? What's up?"
It appeared as though he had unthinkingly uttered those final words. Freddie, flustered, shook his head at the quizzical Jonny.
"It's nothing. Don't worry about it."
"Wh... Take a look at this."
Toby, who was checking out the desk, waved them over. Opening the notebook PC, it seemed as though a note scrap had been slipped inside. Scribbled on it in what was clearly Stella's hand was simply I wish for death.
"That doesn't sound great..."
Toby didn't have to tell him that. It almost seemed to embody Stella's unstable mental state, shakily written and at times with the pen pressed hard enough for it to bleed through to the other side.
He tried to boot up the notebook PC itself, but it asked for a password and refused to start. He tried entering any words he could come up with, but it was futile.
He gave up and fished around in the desk drawers. The topmost drawer contained a photo that sat face down in its frame, which Freddie casually flipped over. Instantly, he regretted doing so. It showed Stella and Georg standing side by side. It looked like a park somewhere, and seemed to have been taken quite some time ago - Stella's hair only reached her shoulders. Her arm was wrapped around Georg's, and she wore an expression of contentment that Freddie couldn't ever remember having seen on her. Georg, too, didn't look unhappy, with a clumsy smile on his face.
So Stella had been with Georg. He felt like he'd been whacked with a crowbar. The world was warping and changing. Freddie clung to the edge of the desk, somehow fighting the urge to collapse, surprised by his own emotion. Was your woman simply dating another guy really as shocking as this? From Freddie's perspective, it was unthinktable. Up until now, he was sure he would simply have tossed her aside without a care - if anything, it would have been convenient for him. He had planned to break up with Stella soon. Why, then, was she the only one who could make this much of an impact on him?
And he had fallen for Catherine, too, so it wasn't as though he could condemn Stella. It made no sense, but he couldn't stem the pain that welled up within his chest.
"Is something wrong?"
He felt Jonny approaching and tossed the photo frame back into the drawer, closing it. He didn't want anyone else to see that picture.
"Huh? What's this?"
Toby, who had been investigating the waste basket beside the desk, looked up. In his hand, he held a pregnancy test box.
"Dumbass. Throw that away," Jonny scolded, and Toby hurriedly threw it back into the bin. Freddie watched absentmindedly, losing more and more of his grip on his emotions.
Stella was having a kid? No way. The father... it had to be Georg, didn't it? It was unthinkable. He didn't want to think about it.
Nothing makes sense anymore. What's going on? Someone, please, tell me.
"Take a look at this."
Vincent and Orlando, who had been looking around the first floor on their way to the bathroom, returned. The enthused Vincent held out a notebook.
"I found it in the study downstairs. This is pretty weird."
Opening the notebook, he found the pages to be smothered with clippings from newspapers and magazines. All of them were articles related to the deaths from weakness that he had heard of recently. The scraps that covered the floor of the room, too, seemed to have been collected inside the notebook.
"What the hell was Stella doing with something like this?"
Taking the notebook from Vincent, Freddie quickly scanned through it. The collection encompassed even some rather detailed articles, as well as handwritten notes that appeared to have been quoted from internet message boards.
His hand stilled on the final page and began to tremble slightly. Upon it were several clippings of articles announcing Georg's death.
Programmer Mysteriously Dies From Weakness
Are the deaths from weakness a witch's curse? Exclusive emergency interview with a popular fortune-teller
The Tragic Bachelors: Infected with a New Type of Virus?
Amidst the series of sensationalist yet credible headlines, at the bottom of the page was a comment in red in Stella's handwriting: The nightmare's revenge.