A Falling Body

by Art Kavanagh

List of chapters | Fiction
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Chapter 4 — Nearly vanishing

My first thought was that my long-expected Vanishing nightmare had finally caught up with me, all these years later. I was lying on my back in a wooden box, the top of which was maybe 30 to 40 centimetres above my face. Fighting to keep my panic down, I mentally marked off the differences between my situation and that of Sluizer’s protagonist. There was a light, presumably battery-operated, which was just as well, as I don’t carry a cigarette lighter. The box was much too wide and a little too deep to be a coffin. There wasn’t enough room for me to sit up, but I could turn on my side and roll onto my stomach. The big difference was that we — the box and I and, presumably, a driver at least — were moving. I wasn’t buried, and I didn’t think that I was underground though I couldn’t say what gave me that impression. It was probably as a result of the movement that I didn’t at first notice a pair of headphones in the furthest corner of the box. They had presumably been placed beside me before the box had been closed but the vibrations had shaken them into the corner. I turned onto my tummy and began to wriggle towards them. The difficulty of this manoeuvre brought home to me how narrowly I was constrained and my panic began to rise again. Again, I fought it back down. When I got to the headphones, I saw that there was a tiny portable audio player attached. I grabbed the headphones by the band and, not wishing to remain in the corner, worked my way back to the approximate centre of the box before putting them on and pressing the button on the player.

“Andrea, there’s no need to panic, you’re perfectly safe,” Jacob’s voice was far too loud so I fumbled with the volume control. “We put you in the box so you won’t know where you are or how you got there, and therefore neither will Legrand. I’m sorry we had to do it that way, but I’m sure you can understand the reasoning. We don’t know exactly how the feed is being transmitted to Legrand but Émile says it’s almost certainly using radio waves, so we’ve rigged up a makeshift Faraday cage in the back of a van. That’s where you are at the moment, assuming that you can feel movement when you’re listening to this. We’re taking you somewhere safe. Émile is with me. We don’t know whether the cage will be effective to block the transmission of signals, so you should assume that he still knows what you’re thinking and perceiving. For that reason, I’m not going to say anything more, like how long you can expect the journey to take. We’ll get you out of there as soon as we can. Don’t worry.”

So, can you hear me or is the signal being blocked? Well, if you can, I hope you’re enjoying the experience. You’re paying me a lot of money to look at the plain top of a wooden box. I hope you think it’s worth it. Of course, you know I suffer from claustrophobia, as well as from vertigo. A killer combination, isn’t it? My vertigo is bad enough, yours is a lot worse. I wonder if it’s the same with claustrophobia? How did you feel when I wormed my way into the corner? I bet you didn’t like that. Maybe I’ll find a monk’s cloister or a stove like Descartes’s, and spend the rest of your days contemplating the futility of existence. Would you consider that a good return on your investment?

What was the plan, anyway? Were you going to let me run around for the full six months, doing this and that, providing voyeuristic stimulation, and only kill me at the end? Or was that night in Bordeaux meant to be my last? Did you want to feel what it was like to die, degraded and defeated, a victim of rape? You are a very sick — and very sickening — man, Legrand. You know, maybe a life of contemplative self-restraint isn’t for me after all. Maybe I should come and find you, and let you feel what it’s like to murder yourself, painfully and, to the extent that I’ll be able to hold myself back, slowly. Surely that would appeal to your perverted imagination? But no. What’s left of your life is already too short. What I want to do for you is to give you as much time as possible to appreciate its shortness. I want to prolong, if I can, the time available to you to think about how little time you have left.

How would I compel you to think about that? By taking away your “distractions”, by removing your money, your assets, your influence and everything that makes it easier for you to bear your excuse for an existence. I’ll isolate you, so that the only companionship you have is my voice, this voice coming to you over your stupid feed. And don’t expect a lot of intellectual or erotic stimulation from that quarter. Do you know much about data structures, XML and that kind of thing? Because I’m going to be reading a lot on those and related topics. The first step will be to deprive you of your distractions. How am I going to do that? Well, if you can hear this, you’ll already know that I haven’t, as yet, got a clue. You’ll also know that I’m perfectly serious. You’ll be fully aware of my intentions for you as they take shape, but you won’t be able to do anything about them. You believe me, don’t you? I know you do.

I unclenched my fists. The truth was that I was not at all confident that I could defeat Legrand, particularly when he knew what I was thinking, often before I knew it myself. The point of my tirade was partly to let off steam. It was also partly a test. Legrand had told me that I’d been giving him more access than he’d expected and than I needed to. I was hoping that, by playing up my confidence that I could carry out my threats, I’d hide my doubts from him. Act as if you believe something and soon you will believe it. Did I believe that? Not a word of it — but I couldn’t see what I had to lose by acting as if I did. After all, I might be wrong.

Exhausted by the excitement, lulled by the movement of the van and having nothing better to do, I closed my eyes. I didn’t try to turn out the light: I’d prefer not to wake in darkness, momentarily not remembering where I was. I trusted Jacob and Émile to have put in a new battery, one which would last at least the length of the journey. I wish I trusted them as much not to crash the van, killing themselves and leaving me trapped in the box until the police investigating the accident got around to prying it open. Now there was something worth worrying about. I tried and failed to remember what the statistics were on road accidents. I didn’t think they’d be terribly reassuring but I decided to make sure I had up-to-date figures before I next got in a vehicle with either of those two. I wondered which of them was driving. I hoped it was Jacob and tried to persuade myself that the relative smoothness of the journey — which was most likely, after all, to be over small, badly maintained departmental roads — was evidence that he was indeed the driver. No point in worrying about it, it was outside my control. I again closed my eyes, which I’d opened while trying to judge how smoothly the van was moving. I really needed some rest. Legrand was welcome to my dreams.

And, as a result of those dreams which, as usual, I didn’t remember, he probably knew what my plan was before I did. As so often, it was there, the outline almost complete, as soon as I woke. I was still in the box and it was still in a moving vehicle. The light was still on. I was bursting for a piss. It was the pressure on my bladder that brought to my attention something that had escaped it up to now: there was no food or drink in the box. If there had been, I might have drunk the water and hoped that the emptied bottle would be big enough to contain the small reservoir in the lower part of my torso. The absence of food and water surely meant that my transporters hadn’t expected the drive to take longer than, say, four or five hours.

Now that I knew what my next step was going to be, the trip couldn’t end soon enough. While waiting, and to keep my mind off the increasing urgency of my need to piss, I tried to work out how I came to be here. As soon I’d realized that Georges had unknowingly hit on Legrand’s motives, I made an excuse to the couple and dressed hurriedly without even having a shower. I didn’t mind if they put the abruptness of my departure down to post-coital guilt or some Anglo-Saxon hangup about threesomes. I drove back to the apartment, where I had a very quick, lukewarm shower and changed my clothes. I quickly packed as much as I could, including my computer and other gadgets and got back in the car. There was no point in trying to hide from Legrand or to mask my intentions, so I simply headed for home. Would Legrand have me killed as soon as possible, now that I knew what he was up to, or would my own consciousness of my status as prey (and his sharing of that consciousness) add some spice to the chase and make him want to let it run its full course? I suspected the latter, but how well did I really know him? He, in contrast, knew me very well. He had done even before our first meeting — I’d been chosen very carefully with this end in mind. And, since the implantation of the feed, he’s come to know me a lot better. He’d know what I was thinking, seeing and planning at every moment. So why cut short his sport when there was no possibility of my escape? He could always find me.

One factor which might make a difference was the actual or assumed imminence of his own death. What was his state of health? When we’d met, he’d seemed alert, quick and (within the confines of the wheelchair) energetic. If he had a choice, he wouldn’t have postponed an adventure like this till he was at death’s door. For what it was worth, the available evidence suggested that I could discount for the time being the probability that his looming death would be a factor leading him to hasten mine.

I was exhausted and, beyond a general sense that I’d be better off somewhere in the neighbourhood of home, I had no idea what my immediate plan was. I’d left Bordeaux around 4.30 in the afternoon. With normal traffic, I’d expect to reach Saint Nazaire a little after 9. There was no chance that either Jacob or Émile would still be at work then. I didn’t know exactly where Émile lived and a home visit to Jacob would certainly be a last resort. I didn’t feel that my ability to drive was impaired by sleepiness but I also knew that many drivers have an astonishing capacity for self-deception when it comes to their own safety behind the wheel. If it hadn’t been for Legrand, I’d have stopped and found a hotel but there was no doubt that his people could easily locate me in the time I was sleeping. Of course, if that was true, then his people also had time to get themselves in place in Saint Nazaire while I was still on the road. I had to disabuse myself of the idea that, because (as regards me) he was omniscient, that also meant that Legrand was omnipresent (or anything else beginning with “omni-“). If I couldn’t get over that assumption, I might as well surrender at once.

I decided to wait till it was dark, then get off the autoroute, find a quiet spot the location of which was a complete mystery to me, and get a couple of hours sleep in the car. It was an excellent idea, with just one flaw. By the time it was completely dark, I was within 80 Km of Saint Nazaire, so I stayed on the autoroute. When I got to Saint Nazaire, I drove around the city without purpose but not, it turned out, without aim. As I found a place to park, it struck me for the first time that I was near the bar where, just after my arrangement with Legrand had begun, I’d uncharacteristically allowed Amber to pick me up. So that’s where I was going.

Where Amber was concerned, I seemed to have a disturbing lack of compunction. At our first encounter, I’d exposed her, all unknowing, to the concealed, voyeuristic gaze — and not only the gaze — of an octogenarian, male pervert, and it hadn’t even crossed my mind till afterwards that there was anything wrong with that. Now, if I was lucky enough to find her there, I was going to put her life at risk from that same pervert. The first time, my hostility, combined with resentment at Legrand’s fascination, had blinded me to her status as an autonomous being with the same rights as anyone else. What was my excuse this time? Whatever it might be, my luck held, at least in part.

Amber was there, but neither she nor her companion, a dark-haired mirror-image of herself, seemed at all pleased to see me. Nevertheless, not having much choice, I walked straight over to her. It wasn’t obviously a lesbian bar — while there was a preponderance of female couples and groups, many of them looked as if they might be friends having an extended after-work drink. It also wasn’t crowded, so I easily made my way to where Amber and her companion were sitting. It seemed best to come straight to the point.

“I’m running away from someone. I’m going to get smashed and then I’d like you to take me somewhere I don’t recognize — your place, maybe — if possible without letting me see too much detail about how we get there.” I spoke English, as we had to each other since our first encounter when, waking up naked beside each other in my apartment, each of us had belatedly realized that it was the other’s first language. It had been obvious that neither of us was French, of course, but she had apparently taken me for Dutch or Polish, while I, recognizing that she must be North American, had assumed that she was from French-speaking Canada, although her vocabulary and pronunciation seemed a little too French for that.

“I have other plans for this evening,” Amber said curtly.

“Can I get you — both of you — a drink?”

Amber nodded, barely perceptibly and Dark-Amber shot me a furious glare. I went to the bar.

“What’s that bullshit intrigue about running away from someone. If you want to have sex with me — again — why don’t you just say so? Can’t admit that you fancy a woman?” Amber asked, when I’d come back with the drinks.

“Of course I want to have sex with you,” I lied, then paused on the realization that it wasn’t actually a lie. As for admitting that I was sexually attracted to a woman, I genuinely didn’t believe that I had any problem with that. The thing was, I didn’t think of Amber as a woman, but rather as the ideal example of an entirely different, perhaps hermaphroditic and certainly exotic species. She had broadly the same physiology as a female human, but with a bald crotch, preposterously thin, spindly legs, impossibly narrow hips and a long, lean masculine face. Between waist and neck she’d have been a normal woman if it hadn’t been for those (almost literally) eye-catching breast implants. In fact, she looked like a Photoshopped collage consisting of a handsome boy’s face, cheerleader’s hair, doll’s pubis, fawn’s legs and female athlete’s torso, with some unfathomable alien technology attached to her chest, under the skin. And for some reason I couldn’t quite grasp, I wanted to have inter-species sexual congress with this being. Before I’d even had a drink. I smiled at it. It didn’t exactly smile back but I thought I felt it warming towards me.

“Of course I want to have sex with you,” I repeated. “But that part about not knowing where I am is important too, in fact it’s vital. It’s not because I’m in denial about my sexuality. I’ll try to explain later, if I’m sober enough.”

I swallowed about a third of my drink. Throughout the evening, Dark-Amber generally ignored me, though she accepted the drinks I bought, without buying me any in return. The real Amber spoke to her companion most of the time, while turning an occasional warm smile on me, as if to apologize for the attention she was obliged to pay to her date. I attempted to give the impression that I was getting rat-arsed, without actually drinking very much or very quickly. This is something I’ve never been very good at — if there’s a drink in front of me, I’m generally inclined to knock it back, or at least sip at it at very short intervals. This time, I didn’t want to get properly drunk, just have a plausible reason for keeping my head down and, so far as possible, eyes shut between the bar and wherever it might be that Amber was taking me. If I were actually drunk, Legrand would still be able to see and hear what I could see and hear, but without my befuddlement. In the end, I drank rather more than I meant to, but spread over nearly three hours. Not even I could have mistaken my condition for sobriety but I felt just about alert enough to deal with Legrand and his “people”.

“Are we going to get a taxi?” I asked Amber as the three of us left the bar.

“It’s not too far to walk,” she answered. “The fresh air might help you to feel better in the morning.”

“I’m a bit more sober than I seem. It’s important that I shouldn’t know where we’re going. Get your friend to call a taxi and don’t let me hear her give the driver the address. Please, I’ll explain later.”

From that point, I behaved as if I were dead drunk. I suspect that acting drunk — notoriously a challenge even for the best actors — is easier if you’re a bit drunk to start with. I just relaxed and stopped making the effort I normally would to stand steady, walk straight and articulate properly. I actually fell asleep in the taxi. I woke when we pulled up but pretended I was still asleep and allowed myself to be carried upstairs and put down on a bed. Then I fell asleep again. Towards dawn, I woke, naked and covered with a sheet, with my head resting on a bag of inert fluid covered with human skin. It felt a lot better than I’d have expected. I raised my head and smiled at its owner, who smiled back. I was reminded of something I’d already noticed at our first encounter: without her clothes, she was clearly more than the Photoshopped collage I’d mentally pictured when I’d seen her dressed. An organic being (for the most part), if not an unmistakably human one. I rested my head again on her augmented breast and put my hand between her thighs. I liked her, I decided.

Amber tensed.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

“There’s someone outside.”

“You’re sure? Silly question. They must be here looking for me.”

“Then hide. There’s a tiny pantry off the kitchen, more like a walk-in — ”

“No point. They’ll know where I am. This is going to sound paranoid — ”

“It looks as if someone is really after you. If that doesn’t give you the right to sound paranoid, what does?”

“There’s no point in trying to hide from them because the man they’re working for can read my mind. It’s not ESP or something paranormal — it’s technology. Not that that makes it sound any less paranoid. I thought I’d taken adequate precautions. I’m really sorry I got you in the middle of all this.”

“Don’t be silly. OK, so there’s no point in hiding physically. But he can read your mind only while you’re conscious, right?”

“Not exactly. But he won’t know any more about my surroundings than I do. Possibly not as much.”

Amber got out of bed and went to the bathroom. A moment later, she was back with a pill and a glass of water.

“What’s this?”

“Something which, on top of all that booze, is going to give you very strange dreams indeed. I hope you both enjoy them.”

I took the pill.

“Now,” Amber continued, “tell me as much about what’s going on as you can fit in before that pill starts to work. But first, I need to call the police and tell them that someone’s trying to break in.”

I’ve no memory of what I told her. When consciousness returned, an indeterminate number of hours later, I was closed in a box in the back of a van.

Obviously, Amber had managed to get in touch with Émile or Jacob, who in turn had involved the other. Equally obviously, she’d persuaded at least one of them that my paranoia was well founded. They’d taken steps which would most likely be effective to keep me out of the hands of Legrand’s people. Good for them. Unfortunately, while I’d been dozing, my mental processes had concluded that the best protection from Legrand was to be out in the open, where anything bad that happened to me would immediately be laid at his door. My greatest vulnerability was his ability to see inside my head; unless I could turn that against him, or at least reduce the advantage it gave him, I stood virtually no chance. Although our agreement had been for an initial period of six months, I gravely doubted that the feed would automatically turn itself off at the end of that time. Was I going to have to cope with the awareness of Legrand’s presence inside my head so long as we both should live? That wasn’t something I could contemplate.

On the other hand, as a result of Legrand’s deception, I no longer felt bound by the obligation of confidentiality in our contract. Even from a legal point of view, since the whole arrangement was just a ruse to enable him to commit a serious crime — my murder — and he’d most likely committed a number of crimes already, such as conspiracy to rape, I couldn’t see a court enforcing any part of the agreement, including the confidentiality provisions. This was not a factor I could afford to ignore: the penalty for breach of confidentiality included the forfeiture of all sums payable to me under the agreement and the repayment of anything I’d already received. I’d talk to a lawyer, if I ever got the chance, but in the meantime it seemed safe to proceed on the assumption that I didn’t need to worry about the confidentiality clause.

A bigger worry was the inherent difficulty of making my story sound convincing and the likelihood of my appearing delusional, not to say barking mad. My present circumstances, which showed that Amber, Émile and Jacob at least had been open to the possibility that I might be right, was encouraging. Then again, they were clearly not the most difficult audience I was going to come up against.

And in the meantime, I was speeding in what was more than likely the wrong direction, and unable to communicate with Jacob to get him to turn around. As a consequence, once I’d told him and Émile my plans, assuming that Legrand didn’t already know them, he’d have that much more time to intercept me or to make other arrangements to deflect my attack. And I still badly needed a piss. I decided to count slowly to 1,200 and, if we still hadn’t stopped, I’d struggle out of my jeans, crawl into a corner of the box and relieve myself there, then make my way to the other end of the box and put my jeansback on. I got to 1,200 and decided to give it another 800. That, too, passed with no sign of the van stopping. I decided to wait a little longer.

I’m sure you’ll have noticed that when you’re going somewhere for the first time it always seems to take longer, because you don’t know when to expect the end of the journey. I’ve often been surprised to find the journey home much shorter than I’d allowed for. Jacob had probably not considered the fact that, though I’d be in the box for just a few hours, the trip would seem interminable to someone who didn’t know how much of it was left. I was astonished to discover that, once I’d been restored to liberty, the urgency of my need to get to the bathroom was no greater than it typically is at the end of a long afternoon of meetings.

Shortly after I felt the vehicle come to a halt, Émile opened the box, only to tell me that we had arrived at our destination and he was going to close me in again until he and Jacob had carried me “inside”, to avoid giving me information about where we were. I agreed. Some minutes later, the box was opened again and I stepped out of into a bedroom. I avoided looking too closely at my surroundings but I couldn’t help noticing that the room had certainly not been redecorated for at least 20 years. It was, however, clean and brightly lit, though naturally the shutters were closed. Having established that it was safe to go to the bathroom, I did so, then went back to the room.

“My rescuers! Thank you. You took very decisive action,” I hugged them both, Jacob first.

I thought about asking them to carry me back out to the Faraday cage, so I could tell them about the change of plan. There was surely no point: it was at the forefront of my mind, so Legrand already knew about it — if only in the last few minutes, assuming that the Faraday cage had done its job. Our only possible strategy now was speed. So, barely had I finished thanking Jacob and Émile for taking so much trouble to get me out of danger — finding a suitable box, rigging up the Faraday cage, arranging a safe house and driving several hours to get me there, to list but the most obvious — when I had to tell them that much of their effort had become redundant. I didn’t expect it to be easy: they had a lot invested in believing that the steps they had taken were essential to my safety and, if not exactly the only ones possible in the circumstances, at least the best option. I had one advantage, in that they clearly weren’t going to hold me against my will and, short of that, there was nothing they could do to stop me from going back to Bordeaux, with their agreement or without it. I didn’t want to look like an ungrateful bitch but I was willing to stretch a point to make my murder less likely.

As quickly as I could, I outlined my assessment of the situation. Luckily, I could count on both of them being quick on the uptake. Jacob was all too aware that the cause of our falling out had been my reluctance to tell him about Legrand. I’d felt obliged to keep the secret because of the provisions of my contract. Now, I was proposing to throw that contract out the window and Jacob was bound to feel miffed. So, it was up to me to persuade him that circumstances had changed fundamentally. The other thing which had stopped me from speaking to third parties about my relationship with Legrand had been the fear that my story would sound ridiculous. To be frank, this was still a consideration and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to persuade anybody who knew me less well than Jacob or Émile that I was sane and rational. My amazement at Amber’s speed on the uptake was leading me to forget that I’d met her just twice. All the same, it was obviously in my interest to get my account out there, however embarrassing I might find the expected incredulity. If Legrand subsequently appeared to be able to anticipate my actions, that would at least corroborate my tale.

The next question was who should I tell? The press and media? I’d dismissed that possibility at once. Even if they believed me, they’d want to carry out their own investigation, which could take months or longer; and if, finally, they published the story, all I’d have gained would be notoriety not just for Legrand but for myself, for taking his money. I wanted to be able to hold the threat of exposure over Legrand, which wouldn’t be possible if I involved the media, who would publish, if at all, in their own good time, without taking their cue from me. The police would be a better bet. Without evidence that Legrand had as yet committed any crime, they wouldn’t take any immediate action but any subsequent serious attack on me would at once excite their suspicions. With Legrand aware of that fact, we’d have arrived at a stalemate, which would at least give me something to negotiate with. It wasn’t a perfect solution to my predicament but during my enforced meditation in the box, I’d satisfied myself that it was the best option open to me. Once I’d decided that the police were my best hope, it seemed clear that the gendarmes in Bordeaux, to whom I’d already reported an attack presumably instigated by Legrand, were the obvious choice. Legrand’s best move would be to intercept me before I could get to them. It followed that we needed to get back to Bordeaux as soon as we could.

Émile at once saw the force of this argument. Jacob nodded agreement but it was clear that he was unhappy about some aspect of the plan. I had as yet no idea where we were. That was bound to change as soon as we started to move (unless they put me back in the box, which would have required that they kill or heavily sedate me first), it made sense to postpone my awareness of our exact position for as long as possible. I sent the two men out of the room to work out the quickest way we could get to Bordeaux, while I phoned the gendarmerie in Bordeaux so I could ask them to expect us. The male agent who’d previously dealt with me came on the line.

“I believe that my life is in danger, and that I’m the victim of a conspiracy,” I told him. “I’d like to come to see you and make a statement. It’s very urgent.”

“We, too, would like to see you, and we also think it’s urgent,” he answered. “When can we expect you?”

“A friend of mine is making the arrangements. He’ll contact you within the next three-quarters of an hour. The caller will most likely be Émile Delbecq. If not, it will be Jacob Kiever. Would you like me to spell that?”

I ended the call and knocked on the door to indicate that I was finished. Jacob came in and told me that Émile was still working out the quickest way for us to get to Bordeaux. We sat for a while in a silence that seemed to have elements of both comfortable familiarity and awkward reticence. I was about to say something, probably to thank him again and ask what had convinced him of the urgency of my predicament when, totally unexpectedly and for the first time in what seemed like days, Legrand’s voice sounded inside my head.

He’s a bit like me, at a different stage.

What? Who?

Jacob. Maybe I should say he’s like me on a smaller scale. He knows more about you — about what drives you — than you’d like anyone who wasn’t entirely well disposed towards you to know. But he still doesn’t know as much as I do. And, of course, he isn’t totally well disposed towards you. Naturally, he resents the fact that you wouldn’t tell him why you wanted time away from the company, but now you want to tell the world.

You only “know” that because it’s what I think. Neither of us can be sure what’s going on in his head.

Ah, but I trust your intuition, on that at least. Besides, he’s an ex-lover. There’s inevitably some ill feeling there. Whereas I bear you no animosity whatsoever, yet have every intention of putting an end to your life. It’s true. This silly attempt to evade my plans for you doesn’t irritate or disappoint me. It’s no more than I would have expected and, from my point of view, a highly enjoyable experience. The adrenaline rushing through your system is doing me a power of good.

You admit you’ve planned to kill me?

Of course. You haven’t been in any doubt of that since your afternoon with Georges and Édith, have you? Which, incidentally, was just two days ago. I can feel you’re a bit uncertain as to how long you spent in that somewhat expansive coffin. My guess would be a little less than 5 hours, but I’m as much in the dark as you were. The Faraday cage worked very well.

Then how do you know it was a Faraday cage?

Because you’ve referred to it several times since you came out of the box. But naturally, you’re right not to trust me.

Feeling a bit more shaken by my brief dialogue with Legrand than I’d have liked to admit — not that Legrand needed any overt admission on my part — I walked over to where Jacob was sitting and was about to put my arms around his neck from behind when Émile came in.

“I think we’ve got to go by road,” he announced. “If we fly, it would have to be from Dijon, which has a flight at 17.30 today. The next one after that isn’t till 16.30 tomorrow. By train, we’d have to go through Paris, so we’d actually save time driving the whole way.

“I might have a better idea,” Jacob interjected, turning to me. “How did you get on with the gendarmes?”

I told him what they’d said.

“Good. They want to see you and they know it’s urgent. So why not hand yourself over to the nearest gendarmerie here? Let them take responsibility for getting you to Bordeaux in safety?”

“No,” I made an effort to sound decisive. “I don’t want to have to explain what this is about to anyone who hasn’t already had some dealings with me — ”

“Some opportunity to assess your levelheadedness,” Jacob interrupted, and I wasn’t sure what to make of his tone.

“Yes, if you like. Come on, this story is almost the best imaginable illustration of the distinction I’m always making between probability and plausibility. Given the resources that have been put into research, there’s nothing all that unlikely about the idea that my thoughts and perceptions are being shared remotely. Not if you can look at it objectively. But it’s wildly implausible and therefore people will be instinctively inclined to disbelieve it. So at least one of us is driving to Bordeaux, leaving in the next ten minutes.”

“At least two of us,” Émile said, bravely, considering that Jacob was his boss.

“Of course, I’m coming too. I just wanted to make sure you’d considered some alternatives.”

There was no longer any point in trying to keep our location hidden from me, as Émile had already indicated that we were somewhere in the vicinity of Dijon airport (to the North-East of it, at a guess). For now, I couldn’t say where we were any more precisely than that, but once we were on the road I’d be transmitting our whereabouts to Legrand. It was now a little after 3.30 in the afternoon and the drive would take around 7 hours, so it would be late when we got to Bordeaux if we left now. The officer had said he’d be on duty from 8 am. It would probably be better, then, if instead of leaving immediately, we were to try to get a few hours’ sleep, gambling that Legrand wouldn’t be able to find us in the meantime. If we left a little before midnight, we could go straight to the gendarmerie and wait there for my officer to come on duty. However we decided to do it, Legrand would have at least seven hours to arrange for his people to intercept us. Maybe I’d been wrong to veto the suggestion that I go to the local gendarmes, but I didn’t think there was anything I could say to them that would persuade them that I really needed protection.

Jacob and Émile were both pleased to be able to get some rest after the drive from Saint Nazaire. While I don’t find driving at night more difficult than during the day, it makes me uncomfortable: I’m always afraid that speculation about all the things I can’t see in the darkness will distract me from what I ought to be looking at in the beam of my headlights. That was one reason, apart from the wish to give Jacob and Émile a break, why I wanted to take the first few hours. The darkness at 2 or 4 am wouldn’t be any deeper but it would feel as if it were — holding less of the familiar and everyday and so leaving more space for other things. I lay on the bed in the shuttered room, slightly worried that I might not be able to rest after having lain on my back for such a long time on the way here.

If it puts your mind at ease, I’m not going to try to prevent you from getting to Bordeaux. You have my word.

I didn’t bother to answer. Legrand would know how much I trusted his word, without my having to consciously formulate a reply. I slept.

Jacob came to wake me just after 11 pm. After a moment’s disorientation, I realized that I felt rested and alert, better than I do most mornings. I put my arms around Jacob’s neck and pulled him down on top of me.

“I haven’t thanked you properly for all the trouble you’ve gone to. You and Émile.”

“You’ll have plenty of opportunity. Now you need to eat something before we get on the road. It would probably be a good idea to take a shower, too. You don’t know when you’ll next get a chance.”

He’d had the foresight to bring some of my clothes — I’d kept a change in the office — so I was able to put on fresh ones after my shower. Then I found my way to the kitchen. Jacob or Émile had bought some sliced Gouda, saucisson and tomatoes, as well as pain de mie and (it must have been Jacob) salted butter. Émile was already making sandwiches. I took a few slices of bread and began to help him, while Jacob filled a Moka maker with water and coffee.

I hadn’t noticed how hungry I was but it was an effort not to devour the sandwiches almost without chewing. I forced myself to eat slowly. We finished the bread and the cheese, took what was left of the saucisson and tomatoes and left the butter in the fridge.

I walked outside to the van, seeing the exterior of the house for the first time. I had no better idea where we were than I’d had when inside the house. It was a small, single-storey dwelling, surrounded by trees. There were other houses in the neighbourhood, none nearer than 300 metres. I got into the van on the driver’s side. The two men also got into the front, with Émile between Jacob and me.

“I’ll give you directions till we get to the outskirts of Dijon, then follow the autoroute,” Jacob said.

“Right.” I started the engine.

On the way to Dijon, we agreed that the person who was going to drive the next stage should sleep in the box (which was still in the back of the van) with the lid off. So we took a toilet break at the first services area after Dijon and Jacob got in the back, leaving Émile in the front beside me. We drove in silence for nearly fifteen minutes, then I asked him to fill in some of the gaps.

“How did Amber manage to convince you that I was really in danger? And that the notion that my mind is being read wasn’t just a loopy fantasy?”

“You have some pretty surprising friends, do you know?”

“Amber? She isn’t exactly a friend.”

“Yes she is, whatever else she might be. She took extraordinary precautions to make sure that she didn’t give away your whereabouts to Legrand. And to get us involved without our leading him to you. She knows a lot more about encrypted communication than you’d guess just by … What does she do? Some kind of spy?”

“I think she said she was a graduate student.”


My recollection, such as it was, was something like Media Studies. But that wasn’t quite right. “Communications.”

“It figures.”

OK, so maybe I hadn’t quite been doing Amber justice. It wasn’t wholly my fault: she seemed to go out of her way to give a misleading impression.

“Do you know if she’s … um, exclusively lesbian?”

“My guess would be …” I paused. My guess would be “yes”, but what the hell did I know? “I haven’t a clue.”

“Then I’ll have to find out for myself.”

I took my eyes off the motorway for a little too long and regarded Émile with mild bemusement. Surely he’d have learned from experience that someone like Amber was a long way out of his class? The thought caught me by surprise — it seemed that, without my noticing, Amber had suddenly shot up in my estimation. And, even at that, it wasn’t so much that Émile was in a different class from Amber, more that they were to be evaluated according to different, incompatible scales. I turned my eyes back to the road.

“You still haven’t told me how she persuaded you.”

“Jacob was ready to be persuaded. He was obsessed — maybe that’s too strong a word, but anyway — he was determined to find out what could possibly have made you break with the company so suddenly and so completely. Obviously, you’d had some kind of interview just before you left, so it wasn’t a huge leap to conclude that you’d been headhunted. But if you’d gone to work for anybody in the tech sector, you hadn’t left any trace that he could find. One obvious possibility was that you’d gone to the States, but Jacob was sure that you’d never shown any inclination to work there. And the secrecy was something else. NDAs are everywhere in this business, of course, but things still leak. Nothing leaked about your new job, whatever it might be. That was enough to make him doubt that your new employer was in IT. Then Georges Rohan got in touch: apparently, you’d run off unexpectedly and he wondered if Jacob would know whether you were all right. That placed you in Bordeaux. Jacob asked him if anything in particular had prompted your sudden disappearance and he seemed quite agitated by the answer. A day later, Amber gave him the name Legrand and, for good measure, told him you were back in Saint Nazaire. That was all it took, as far as Jacob was concerned.

“There had been rumours going back years that Entreprises Legrand were researching something pretty nefarious to do with mind control. They’d been steadily recruiting researchers in a strange combination of fields, including consciousness and nanotech. At first, Amber merely said that your life was in danger from an industrial kingpin named Legrand. It was only when Jacob asked if the threat involved mind control or invasion of consciousness that Amber told us the whole story. Naturally, Jacob believed every word and, with the evidence he already had, I didn’t need much convincing. And here we all are.”

Many hours later, we parked in a car-park near the Gendarmerie in Bordeaux. The journey had been without incident. I was stiff and had a throbbing headache and a dry mouth. Neither Jacob nor Émile looked as if he felt any better. It would be another 20 minutes before our friendly agent was due to come on duty but we decided to go into the gendarmerie to wait. To my surprise, he was already there. Asking Jacob and Émile to take a seat in the waiting area, he brought me into an office, where he introduced a woman whom I’d never seen before as inspector Nathalie du Moulin of the Police Judiciaire. Inspector du Moulin confirmed my identity and formally advised me that I was being placed in garde à vue on suspicion of the murder of a certain Jean-Christophe Goldfisch.

Who the fuck was Jean-Christophe Goldfisch?