It was the first thing that Eliot Koler installed when he bought the house. The cables ran from the meter cupboard to the living room and looped through the banisters to the first floor. He had extended them to the little desk in the study at the back of the house and stuck them to the carpet with duct tape. And he’d left it like that for twelve years. Apart from replacing the router and buying a more modern laptop, the arrangement looked just as improvised as on his first night in his new home. When he bought the house, he felt an affinity with it: a ruin that had seen bad times, a derelict structure that needed to be torn down and then rebuilt, brick by brick. The house stood in a remote part of Friesland, in a forgotten village. It wasn’t even on most maps. By throwing himself into renovating the place he hoped to root out any traces left since his posting in 2003. He enthusiastically stocked up on tools and materials, intending to restore it to its former glory, but in his heart of hearts he already knew he would never finish the job. The scars it had acquired were too deep, and he would never be able to do more than camouflage them.
He couldn’t bring himself to resign, because his work for the Ministry of Defence was the only thing that gave his life meaning. It was the only thing he was good at. He stayed on for ten years, even though he knew it was the root cause of his wretchedness. With the dedication of a machine he continued to carry out his missions until he couldn’t cope any more, was flown back to the Netherlands from Mali and resolved never to return to the barracks. The house became his refuge. He struck up a relationship with a girl who worked in a lorry drivers’ café fifteen kilometres away – a nice young woman who sometimes stayed the night and didn’t expect much in return. She stuck it for a year, until one day she burst out angrily that she couldn’t get through to him and that he frightened her when he roamed around the house at night like a sleepwalker. She wanted to know what was up, but he kept his mouth shut. After she left, he never heard any more from her. Not that he’d tried to persuade her to stay. He didn’t miss her, except perhaps the warmth of her body. The house was the only tangible thing left to him, and his feeling of guilt kept him company there.
The guilty must be punished. Sometimes he toyed with the idea of suicide, but never acted on it, because living with the guilt was perhaps a more severe punishment, one that he deserved, until the time came when he would be able to atone for his mistake. How he could ever do so was a dilemma he’d been wrestling with for years. The thing that he shared responsibility for could never, never be undone. Everyone was dead, all the evidence had vanished. To whom should he be accountable? For twelve years he was weighed down by this burden until, late on the morning of 14 July, he followed the internet cable to his study and switched on his laptop. The sun beat down into the small room, the heat was stifling. The window didn’t open any more, only the little upper vent. He shut the curtains and sat down at the desk.
He mechanically checked his email, though he seldom got any messages that were worth reading. But this time there was something. A single new email had slipped down the cable into his house last night, from someone whose name wasn’t in his contacts. Or was it someone he’d known years ago? It had an attachment, a jpg file. Before opening the email he lit a cigarette and stared at the name of the sender, which struck him as familiar and yet strange: Mira van Miltem.
I’ve got proof of O. Must speak to you. 181930 A JUL 15 Felaket, Haarlem.
If anything goes wrong: last place we saw each other.
x Mira (Resn’s sister)
When he Googled the name he got no hits. There was something odd about it, and after much thought Eliot realised why: it was an anagram. He jotted the letters down on the sheet of blotting paper in front of him, and then wrote them down in different combinations. It took him half an hour to work out who had sent him the email. Mira van Miltem was really Miriam Veltman. He hadn’t forgotten her, though his impressions of her had grown vague. She’d lingered somewhere at the back of his memory, like a pleasant dream he could only half recall. In his mind’s eye he visualised her in her unsightly old Peugeot 404. He could clearly picture the car – she’d been crazy about it – but he couldn’t recall what she herself looked like. Full lips and short, dark hair, he thought. He’d forgotten the colour of her eyes. He’d liked her without being attracted to her, yet there was something about her that had fascinated him in the years they saw each other. Proof of O. The calendar flipped back to the fatal event that had led to his downfall. It was calling him back at last, and this time he had no choice but to obey. She wrote that she was ‘Resn’s sister’. Was that a typo, or had she deliberately misspelt the name Rens?
He opened the attachment, a grainy enlargement of a photo showing a car licence plate, and saved the picture to his phone. Then he searched online for Felaket café. It seemed like an ideal place to meet, lying a little way off the main road – about thirty metres back – and shielded by a row of tall trees.
On the evening of the appointment he got in the car, which was parked on the drive in front of his house, and drove north, across the Afsluitdijk – the long dam across the mouth of Lake IJssel – and then headed south again. Along the A9, past Alkmaar and Velsen, where he’d played paintball every Saturday as a child, until he finally reached Haarlem. He still had the paintball gun, it was somewhere in the shed at the back of the house, a tangible marker of the moment he decided to join the army. He was now thirty-eight – if he hadn’t decided to get out, he’d have worked for the Ministry of Defence for twenty years now. He’d resigned, much to the disapproval of the other officers and his CO. It was tantamount to desertion in their eyes. The Commando Corps was a close-knit outfit. You didn’t leave, and you didn’t let your comrades in arms down.
Haarlem had changed since he’d left. The prison had closed, a tunnel had been built under the railway line and the centre had been cleaned up. Seeing the place conjured up many happy memories, though some things had disappeared in the city’s renovation. He hadn’t really wanted to come back unless he had to, but when she suggested meeting there in her email he hadn’t hesitated for a second. She wanted to talk to him about O. She had found proof, physical proof of what had happened, and she needed him. It was exactly the spark that was required to make his feelings of anger and guilt flare up again, as if he’d been waiting for this for twelve years. It came as a relief. He would be able to atone for the guilt he carried around with him once and for all. For the first time in many years, he dreamt about the Afghan girl. Miriam hadn’t just kissed Eliot awake, but the girl too.
His watch showed that in exactly one minute’s time, Miriam Veltman’s dark-blue Peugeot would come round the bend where the Korte Zijlweg looped round Brouwerskolkpark. Veltman would then turn left into Ramplaan and drive into the carpark of Felaket Café. There she would get out, walk inside and sit down at a reserved table, on the left at the back. The man she was going to meet was nearby. The Contractor didn’t know where, but it wasn’t important. What mattered was ensuring that she never made it to Felaket. He had parked his SUV, its engine running, on the cycle path next to the Brouwersvaart. The narrow canal, which ran from the centre of Haarlem to the north-west, ended in the Brouwerskolkje, in the middle of the park. Small coloured punts were moored there, bumping softly against the quayside. A cyclist scraped the car’s side window with his handlebars and glared as he passed, trying to peer through the tinted windows. The Contractor lowered the electric window and threw out a burning cigarette end, which lay smouldering in the grass. He shut the window again and surveyed the cobbled street in front of him through the windscreen. A movers’ van came past, its engine sputtering. Then he spotted the old Peugeot approaching, a patch of blue that appeared at intervals between the trees. It was going very slowly, around 30 km an hour. He stamped on the accelerator. The SUV screeched forward. He steered sharply onto the road and accelerated again. It would only be a matter of seconds before he intercepted the Peugeot, pinning it against the stone wall on the bridge over the canal. But the Peugeot did something unexpected: it accelerated and started to drive on the wrong side of the road – directly towards him. For a moment he was confused. Why was she doing that? Had she seen him? He pulled up the handbrake and yanked on the steering wheel, causing the SUV to spin round and block the road. Now the Peugeot would have to brake. Instead, though, the car picked up speed. He saw Miriam Veltman through the windscreen, her eyes open wide, her mouth open, too, as if she was screaming at him. He saw her wrench at the wheel, causing the car to veer sharply to the right and tip onto its side, careering towards the brick wall on two wheels. The Peugeot’s bonnet split in two as it hit the stone planter in the centre of the bridge, which shattered with a bang. A woman fell off her bicycle and two men standing next to a delivery van threw themselves flat on the pavement in sheer panic. Black sand and gravel rained down on the ground and on shocked bystanders over a radius of a dozen metres. He put the car into reverse, parked it a little down the road next to a bus stop, and got out. The Peugeot’s horn continued to sound ominously, as if someone was violently pressing it. He took a deep breath and reflexively patted the left side of his chest with his right hand. He strode across the street to the spot where the Peugeot had bored through the wall. He saw how the bonnet and the front wheels – which were still turning – stuck through the hole, hanging dangerously over the waters of the canal. Miriam Veltman lay with her face against the steering wheel in a bath of glass. Blood poured out of a giant wound just below her hairline. Saliva dripped from her mouth onto the steering wheel which to his surprise she was still gripping. Looking at her lips he saw what he had feared: they were still moving. She was breathing. Sporadically and with difficulty, but she was still breathing. He looked around, but the five or six people who had just witnessed the crash had all disappeared, as if the explosion had blown them away in all directions. Would they recognise his car if they were asked what had happened? Would they say that it was an accident? The Contractor didn’t have time to give it any more thought. He’d been ordered to intercept Veltman and to immobilise her, so that she couldn’t make contact with the ex-Commando, who’d been classified as a threat to state security. Now she was lying here in the driver’s seat, her neck at a strange angle, more dead than alive, but still undeniably alive. He couldn’t take her with him in this state. He had to make a decision.
He unzipped his leather jacket, felt in his inside pocket and took out a small calibre pistol, a new LED Browning International, one of the two he had ordered the week before on the deep web. It felt incredibly light – far too light, if you asked him – and the gold trigger was tacky, but he hadn’t had much choice. The Hungarian internet dealer swore that it was all he had in stock, and that it was lucky he could send two at such short notice. He released the safety catch and walked up the wrecked car, holding the gun in front of him. He put the barrel against Miriam Veltman’s cheek and pulled the trigger. Once, twice. Then he put the gun to her temple. The third bullet entered her brain which, in a final spasm, sent a message to her fingers: he saw them contract and relax almost imperceptibly. Glancing around him, he reached into his pocket and dug out a box of matches and a bottle of nail polish remover that he had bought an hour earlier at a local supermarket in Halfweg. He emptied the bottle over the woman and threw a burning match into her lap. A burst of flame shot up through the cracked windscreen. The upholstery instantly caught fire. He sniffed in satisfaction as the acrid smell hit his nostrils. He opened the buckled rear door and bent down to grab her bag, which had been thrown to the floor by the impact of the crash. He unzipped it and examined the contents: a laptop, a purse and a phone. Then he zipped it shut again and stuck it under his arm. They’d got what they wanted. But after he’d walked back to his car, thrown the bag onto the passenger seat and got his phone out of the glovebox, his face darkened. They’d got what they wanted, but the Contractor realised he’d also have to explain to his clients why a big clean-up team would be needed.
She looked out of the window. The grand old banks and ministries that had been built in the 1920s to give the city international allure had been demolished long ago and replaced by glass towers designed by architects from Hong Kong and Doha. These days, all the European cities she visited looked the same. She couldn’t get used to it. After two years as a back-bencher in the Netherlands she’d been posted to America as a chargé d’affaires, to oversee trade missions to the US. That was followed by four gruelling years in Brussels and Strasbourg. Eventually she moved back to the States, settling in Washington. She married a businessman from Chicago – a calculating move. The marriage lasted less than a year, but provided her with connections to a great many business tycoons.
When the Dutch government had fallen earlier that year, after almost two months of doomed negotiations, she was rung by the party chairman, wanting to know if she’d be interested in standing for election. She would be number two on the party list. It was three in the morning in the Netherlands, but he sounded as energetic as ever. She didn’t hesitate, but hinted at what she’d want after the elections. She wasn’t prepared to give up the comforts of Washington unless he could offer something big in exchange. Mel took the hint. He agreed, on condition that she did the party a favour in return: take on responsibility for a very important project.
During the campaign she soon got a lot of media exposure, despite having been away for seven years. In fact her star rose faster than the Prime Minister’s. Because of her father, of course, but her looks undeniably helped: in the male-dominated world of politics, a blonde woman with full lips, expressive eyes and a good dress sense had a definite advantage. A smile in the right direction, a provocative comment, a captivating pose – whether or not staged – worked wonders. The cameras greedily zoomed in on her, and the Prime Minister was happy to take advantage of the situation. She was struck by how often they’d been photographed together, how often he had nonchalantly put his hand on her shoulder or her back. He’d grabbed the chance to bask in her reflected light.
She’d had three relationships during her time in the Netherlands: an actor, a press photographer and a freelance journalist. They were all much of a muchness – although each had something to offer, they lacked the strength to give her the counterweight she needed. Her job always ended up getting in the way. They felt upstaged. As the actor put it, ‘You keep sweeping me aside, Ava, I can’t handle this anymore. In fact, you scare me a bit.’ And she got what he meant. She had a top degree in political science and international relations, had been dubbed one of the fifty most influential women in Europe, and knew everybody who was worth knowing in Brussels. That had helped her party to a resounding victory, and had got her the most important ministerial post in the second Stahlman government. So there weren’t any men who felt able to take her on.
She pressed her index finger on the screen, re-activating the tablet. ‘Speech. Today. Final version,’ she said aloud. ‘Standard reading speed.’ Her voice started to come out of the tablet. It sounded uncannily real. She leaned back against the chair’s headrest and shut her eyes.
Sample translated by Jane Hedley-Prole