A Falling Body

by Art Kavanagh

List of chapters | Fiction
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Chapter 7 — Document review

I left a note for Stefi in the bar she sometimes went to after work. That wasn’t usual practice but I didn’t think it was so out of the ordinary as to excite any suspicions. The note simply said that I’d still got the key to her apartment, and suggested another bar, less likely to be frequented by police, where we could meet so I could give it back. As I didn’t know which duty cycle she was on, and more often than not she went straight home from work without going to the bar first, I couldn’t predict when she’d get my note. I therefore suggested several alternative dates, five days apart and the first being two days later. The first day I went there, Stefi was already at the rendezvous point.

“So — you could have posted the keys. Why didn’t you?”

“I wanted to speak to you,” I said, handing them over. “Besides, suppose they’d gone astray. The keys to your home in a neat package with the address handily on the outside? A gift for even the dimmest of would-be thieves. I thought the note in the bar would be less likely to implicate you than a phone call.”

“You were right. Thanks. So what did you want to speak to me about?”

“Just your take on this whole thing. You’re the experienced criminal investigator. What should I do next? More importantly, what do I need to avoid that I haven’t thought of? It’s good to see you.”

“Thanks. You too. Have you still got a copy of your statement?”

I told her that Legrand had had it wiped from my computer.

“That’s probably good. I still have the copy I was supposed to send to the lawyer. I was going to destroy it — ”

“In case it made it look as if you’d been coaching me on how to deflect suspicion.”

“That kind of thing, yes. Then I thought that I wouldn’t be much good if I couldn’t hide it where they wouldn’t find it, even if they got a search warrant for my place, which I didn’t really expect them to do.”

“And did they?”

“No. And now, here you are, free and clear of all suspicion.”

“The guy from the PJ said I wasn’t entirely in the clear.”

“He might say that anyway. Tell me what happened. I know most of the details but I couldn’t afford to seem too interested.”

I told her the whole story. When I’d finished, she simply said “Sorry about Jacob,” and sank into silence for several minutes, leaving me to think. Had the policeman who’d interviewed me been right? Was I insufficiently upset about what had been done to my former lover? Was I failing to react with outrage to Legrand’s actions because I felt — irrationally — that I had to accommodate myself to this monster who appeared to be inside my own head? In fact, of course, he was a couple of hundred kilometres away, feasting remotely on my experiences. On my existence. Stefi’s thoughts seemed to have been following a parallel course to mine.

“And Legrand is responsible for all this?” she asked. “You’re sure of that?”

“I’m sure. He doesn’t even deny it,” I answered, offering him yet another opportunity to do just that.

“It’s very strange behaviour for a respected industrialist with a reputation to protect.”

“I suppose he has other priorities now.”

“Because he’s very near death, and won’t be around to face the consequences. That makes him very dangerous. To you above all but also to the people you’re close to, like you were to Jacob.”

“Like you.”

“Yes. Luckily, I know how to protect myself better than most people and, if you’re listening M. Legrand, I won’t be delicate about doing so. Tell me, Andrea, is there anyone else whose safety you’re concerned about? Let me have their names. I might be able to see that they have some protection, too.”

“Really? What could you do?”

“The less you — and your fellow-traveller — know about that the better. And you understand that I can’t promise anything. Except that I’ll do my best. I can and do promise that much.”

I told her that Legrand had already threatened both Amber and Émile and she took their details. I emphasized, partly as a way of reminding him of the fact, that Legrand had said he’d leave them alone if I didn’t try to contact them, and that I was keeping well away from them for just that reason.

“So what next? Legrand clearly can’t count on having a lot of time left. If he wants to experience your death, he can’t afford to wait too much longer. Have you got a strategy?

I told her about my half-assed scheme to take Legrand for an extreme hike in the mountains and try to induce a heart attack, and about the abortive attempt at hang-gliding which had inspired it. She laughed.

“Half-assed it may be but, if his vertigo is as extreme as you say, it might be just the way to keep him occupied and distract him from more nefarious activities. So long as you can tolerate his screams.”

The screams were just one of the flaws I could see in my plan. Suppose he really did tune out, so as not to experience my sensations too vividly. In that case, I’d be inflicting on myself the vertigo intended for him, but to no good purpose. Worse, I’d have manoeuvred Legrand into allowing me a greater degree of privacy and autonomy than I’d enjoyed for months but I wouldn’t be able to use it because I’d be stuck in the mountains. Any attempt to leave and go back to the city would mean that my brain would again become a hospitable environment for Legrand who’d immediately resume his right of occupation. I drummed my fists on my knees in frustration. Stefi looked at me with concern.

“You’ll beat him, don’t worry.”

“Even if I have to do it by outliving the old bastard. I might eventually get to like heights and enjoy living in snow-capped isolation, as he approaches his century. Will you come and visit me?”

“I’d love to. I actually like high, unpopulated places.”

“Come with me.”

“Not immediately. You know my outfit is a quasi-military body? One doesn’t just not turn up for work. But we’ll keep in touch.”

“How? I’m not sure what phone coverage is like in the mountains. My guess would be patchy at best.”

“We’ll find out. Make arrangements.”

“Are we all right?”

“Yes, I think we are, now.”

“I’m not a suspect; you have no reason to avoid my company.”

“That’s right. I don’t.”

“So there’s nothing to stop you taking me home right now.”


“Do you want to?”

I stayed with Stefi for two nights and most of the second day, which she had off. I told myself that her company was a luxury I couldn’t afford, if I were to stay even half a step ahead of Legrand, but it felt more like a necessity than a luxury. She seemed to be taking my tale of Legrand and his mind-reading technology at face value now and, apart from anything else, I wanted to show her that I appreciated her trust.

Over lunch on the second day, Stefi asked me to go over my plan for the next few weeks in detail.

“Is that a good idea? Won’t I just be giving Legrand a preview?”

“I want to try to figure out what he knows already. Assumptions that you’ve been making that you’ve shared with him but not with me or anybody else. What are you planning to do once you leave here?”

“Drive to the cabin.”

“With which he’s almost as familiar as you are. You’ve already spent a week there since he took up residence in your head. Suppose he has a reception committee waiting for you.”

“That’s going to be a problem whatever I do, unless I can figure out a way to surprise myself.”

“That’s one of the things you have me for. Leave it with me for a day or two; let me work out how to surprise you.”

“Then he and I will be on equal footing, at best. Both of us on unknown territory. How does that give me an advantage?”

“You’re joking, aren’t you? You’re younger, fresher, smarter, faster to react. You have a clear advantage in an unfamiliar environment. On the other hand, familiarity could make you feel dangerously comfortable. The very fact that you were planning to go to the cabin just illustrates that.”

Did Stefi have as much confidence in my advantages as this suggested? If she did, it wasn’t something I shared. When it came to any kind of physical contact — in which speed of reaction and the degree of familiarity with the environment would be most likely to make a difference — I’d be dealing, not with Legrand in the flesh, but with his “people”. I’d keep my doubts to myself.

“So — ”

So, let me think about it for a day or two. In the meantime, don’t go anywhere near the cabin. Or the mountains.”

“So what should I be doing in the meantime?”

“When Amber told Jacob and Émile that you were in trouble and that Legrand was the cause of your difficulties, Jacob was already familiar with the name. He knew enough about his activities to be receptive to the idea that your problems had to do with the invasion of consciousness. While you were being held in connection with the death of Goldfisch, Jacob used the time to do more research into Legrand and his companies. I’ve got copies of his computer’s hard drive and of his handwritten notes. The best use of your time over the next few days would be to go over them thoroughly.”

“How come you have them?”

“It’s better if you don’t know that. And, before you ask, it’s also better if you don’t know why you shouldn’t know.”

Better in what way? Don’t speculate, I instructed myself, but it was futile. Had Stefi got the computer files and the notes from Émile and, if so, did that mean that his life was threatened by Legrand, even though I wasn’t the one who had asked for his help? Or had she got the material somehow unofficially from the police investigating Jacob’s murder, and was it better I didn’t know because she was implicated in a leak of evidence? I had to admit that the first alternative seemed more likely.

You can’t blame Émile for responding to a request to help me, I admonished Legrand. He couldn’t have known he was putting his life in danger.

That’s true. But it’s your responsibility to ensure that he doesn’t do it again.

“You mustn’t ask Amber or Émile for any more help,” I said to Stefi. “Legrand is perfectly capable of killing them, even though I didn’t make the request and wasn’t aware of it.”

“Let’s assume that the files came from Émile. And I stress, that’s an assumption, not an admission. That would make him a source of evidence in a criminal investigation. Also, a potential witness. In short, that would make him eligible for protection. Once again, I’m not saying that’s what happened. But you don’t need to worry about Émile’s safety, one way or the other.”

We agreed that I should stay away from Stefi’s apartment for the next few days, leaving her free to make whatever arrangements she needed to without having to concern herself with the state of my (and therefore Legrand’s) knowledge. I considered booking into a hotel but in the end we decided that I should stay in the company’s apartment which, Stefi reminded me, exhibited the opposite of the problem of dangerously deceptive familiarity: I knew the apartment inside out, yet it still felt like an alien environment.

I again asked Stefi what I was looking for in Jacob’s research.

“Anything that might be evidence of a crime, for a start. For example, you told me that he knew details of your life assurance proposal.”

“He also said that he’d been careful to leave no evidence of that behind.”

“I’m quite sure he’s been extremely careful. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if there’s absolutely nothing to be found. But, believe me, it’s not easy to cover up every little detail. Or, to be honest, to spot the significance of those details which have been left behind. I’m the first to admit that you mightn’t find anything. But it’s something you really ought to try.”

“What, in particular, will I be looking for?”

“It could be one of a number of things. Evidence of a crime, as I said. In the light of what we know about his respect for privacy, a breach of data protection might be a possibility. Something that would make the independent directors nervous. If you could get him dismissed from the board or disqualified as a director, he’d be much less of a threat to you.”

Jacob’s handwritten notes were, typically of him, neat, legible and well organized. Also typically of him, he’d scanned and OCRd them, so there was a complete copy on his hard drive. I started with the electronic version, because it might include annotations he’d added after scanning. On Stefi’s advice, I was trying to keep an open mind and remain alert to whatever the files might suggest as a way of attacking Legrand. At the same time, I had the germ of an idea that there was something in particular that I should be looking for. Knowing that Legrand had in fact instigated Jacob’s murder, I thought it possible that Jacob’s researches might reveal a motive which could incriminate the old man. Of course, I knew that the actual motive had been to isolate and threaten me, but if if Jacob had discovered something damaging to Legrand’s interests, his enquiries might be presented as a credible alternative reason for the killing. Would it be ethical to impute a plausible yet false motive to Legrand, in order to implicate him in a murder for which he was actually responsible? I found that I had no problem with the morality of such a tactic, though I thought a lawyer might take the opposite view.

Accordingly, on my first read-through, my focus was on finding something that Jacob could have unearthed which might in itself have threatened his life. I didn’t find a smoking gun, but that was no surprise, considering that Jacob had had no more than a couple of weeks to investigate. What did emerge, and this was no more of a surprise, was that Legrand was clearly an autocrat who had treated the companies as his own personal resource, to be used as he pleased. It was almost certain that there would be something in the history of the business which could be used to force the non-executive directors to assert their independence, if I could only recognize it. Unfortunately, Jacob had not had time to identify clearly what it was. If I was going to pursue that line — and it was clearly the most promising approach open to me — I’d need to do some more digging on my own.

Thinking that the handwritten notes might contain some hints that had been lost in the scanning, I minimized the open file and was reaching for the notes when something caught my eye. Most of Jacob’s folders had meaningful names and were listed alphabetically in the file manager. The top folder in the list, however, had a name consisting entirely of numbers: “980219”. I have a tendency to overlook numeric filenames or folder names, on the assumption that they are system files or perhaps automatically generated, and therefore unlikely to be immediately intelligible to a human reader. This particular folder attracted my interest, no doubt partly because it stood out at the top of, and in contrast to, the list of intelligible folder names. I was already moving the pointer over the folder to open it when it hit me that its name was meaningful too, in perhaps a more important sense. It was a date: 19 February 1998. The first time I had gone out with Jacob. He’d wanted to ask me out for several weeks but decided to wait until after St Valentine’s day to avoid, as he put it, “giving the wrong impression”. I opened the folder.

It contained 5 Word documents and 23 scanned image files. I sorted them by modification date and opened the most recent. It was an image, showing a dense doodle, apparently in black ballpoint. Most of it was impossible to make out, but at the centre, unmistakably, was the name “Andrea”, with a flower whose stem curled around the bar of the “A”. I reflexively hit the key combination to quit the application and took a very deep breath.

I shouldn’t be seeing this. I shouldn’t even have a copy of Jacob’s computer files, particularly if they might contain something about me, and how he felt about the end of our relationship. I sat unmoving for several seconds, unable to resolve the conflict between my warring desires — to know and not to know. The only conceivable resolution would require that I somehow arrive at a state of knowledge without having to go through the process of finding out: if I could be aware of the contents of Jacob’s “Date” folder without having to read or look at them. And, in a sense, I was. It was precisely because I could intuit what they contained, that I knew that I couldn’t bear to read them. Well no, not precisely precisely. I didn’t know exactly how our breakup had made Jacob feel; I just knew that it must have been, in some general sense, painful for him, as it had certainly been for me.

Could I bear to read what he’d written about it, some of it as recently (to judge by file modification dates) as my departure from the company? Did I have the strength to stay away from his writings, now that I knew they existed? The answer to both questions was clearly “No”, but I couldn’t for the life of me see how these answers could be reconciled. I needed to go for a walk, to try to calm my emotions. But first, I needed a coffee, so that the effort of trying to calm my emotions wouldn’t completely wipe me out.

I left the apartment and headed for a café I like just north of the place de la Victoire. In my agitated state I’d even forgotten to bring something to read. I bought a copy of Libération for the first time in several years. I sat scanning it dully, without taking much in, for as long as it took me to drink two cups of coffee. Then, leaving the paper on the café table, I walked roughly northwards along the cours Pasteur.

I’d told Legrand that I had done my mourning for our relationship while Jacob was still alive; and I’d believed it. But, as I was now beginning to see, it would have been closer to the truth to say that I’d mourned the relationship as I’d known it. If, as the files on Jacob’s hard drive suggested, there was a lot more to it than I’d been aware of, then it was capable of insisting on its right to be mourned all over again. In that case, there was nothing much I could do about it; the sooner I accepted the fact, the sooner I could get on with things.

I was going to have to read my way through the folder. The failure to respect Jacob’s privacy made me uncomfortable but I told myself that that’s almost inevitable when someone dies. A lot of us don’t have either the foresight or the determination to clean up before we go, so that task falls to one of the living, who is liable to learn more than she or he would like to know. If Jacob’s unresolved feelings about me were going to be exposed to the regard of somebody who had never been meant to see them, perhaps it was better that the person in question should be me, not a stranger.

But was it really necessary that they should be seen at all? Was there really any reason why I shouldn’t delete my copy of the folder and leave the original to be overlooked by the police or Émile, whoever had custody of it? I immediately saw that that wouldn’t do. It was because of Jacob’s connection with me that Legrand had had him murdered. The material in the folder would most likely change my perception of that connection, so I couldn’t afford to overlook it, however unlikely it might be that it would reveal any direct proof of Legrand’s culpability. More important, from my point of view, was the sense that, because his death arose from his connection with me, I was to some degree responsible and therefore had a duty to face up to any additional hurt that might ensue. I was definitely going to have to read my way through the folder.

I turned and started to walk back to the apartment. I’d left my computer open on the desk when I went for coffee. It had gone to sleep in the meantime and, when I tried to wake it, I found that the battery was flat, so I reached for the cord to plug it in. Because I’d been travelling so much recently, the cord was still in my case, so I went to fetch it. Some things in the bedroom, including the case, were slightly out of place.

What were your goons looking for this time, Legrand?

Nothing much. Just doing a bit of housekeeping, and reminding you that they’re there.

I found the cord and went back into the main room to plug in the notebook and rouse it from sleep. The first thing I noticed was that there was no longer a folder named “980219”. Had it been renamed, or had I inadvertently dragged it into a different folder? Sometimes the trackpad acts up, so that you find you’ve been dragging a file or a folder when all you meant to do was move the pointer. I checked the Edit menu in the file explorer, but the last action capable of being undone wasn’t either the moving or renaming of a folder. I scanned the list of folders but couldn’t see anything unexpected. As far as I could tell, the folder had been deleted. Next, I checked the rest of the files which had come from Jacob’s disk, and found that there were noticeably fewer of them than there had been earlier.

What have you been up to? I asked Legrand.

Attempting to concentrate your attention. I don’t want you either depressed or distracted, and the documents in what you called the “date folder” threatened to make you both, so I’ve taken it out of your way. Be grateful: why would you want to depress yourself?

And the rest? There’s a lot more missing than just the “date” folder.

I thought it would be mutually beneficial if your investigations were directed into one particular avenue among several possibilities.

Which particular avenue?

It’s all there in the material. Why don’t you have a look?

There was no point in telling Legrand that I neither wanted nor trusted his “direction”, that whether going through Jacob’s files made me depressed or not was my business, not his, and that I was fed up with his games. He was already perfectly aware of all that, and I was too tired to argue. I was also too tired to concentrate on the files of Jacob’s that Legrand’s thugs had left me with, so I put it off till the following day. While Jacob’s handwritten notes didn’t interest me as much as the Word documents, I checked and made sure that Legrand’s people had taken them. Then, although it wasn’t yet dinnertime, I went to bed.

In spite of my early night, it was nearly 9 when I woke the next morning. I spent much longer preparing breakfast than was necessary and even ate it in a desultory manner. When I eventually sat in front of the computer, it was only because I forced myself. There was a lot less material to be dealt with now but the task of coming to terms with it suddenly threatened to be insurmountable. I read for maybe 20 minutes and found that I had no sense of the shape or import of the material. That didn’t matter, I told myself sternly: I simply had to read myself into it. The important details, the patterns, would become clear only in retrospect. I couldn’t expect everything to be evident from the outset. I read for another 20 minutes. By now, I was ready to scream.

Instead, I turned the computer off, put it in its bag and took it out for coffee. I was the only one to consume the coffee, of course, but it seemed to me that it improved both our moods, mine and the computer’s. I reviewed the files I’d already read. To be honest, the volume of the material should not in itself have been daunting. Jacob had had a very limited amount of time in which to accumulate it. If I was put off, it was largely because I found it hard to stop my attention drifting into speculation about what Legrand had had removed, what more exciting and useful discoveries I might have made if I’d still had access to it. What was left was anything but exciting. It was predominantly financial, dealing with investment decisions, funding of projects, drawn-out discussions as to which assets to offer as security for borrowings and nit-picking enquiries from lawyers. Much of it was internal material which should not have been on the public record. How had Jacob got access to it? I ordered a second coffee.

Some ninety minutes later, I’d read through everything at least once and been several times through the handful of documents that seemed to me of more than passing interest. There really hadn’t been that much of it after all. I’m no accountant, but I thought that Stefi’s intuition had been right: many of Legrand’s activities would have given the independent directors some sleepless nights, if they’d been paying attention to them. It was obvious that, by restricting my access to Jacob’s researches, Legrand wanted to steer me towards questions of poor corporate governance and financial control, and away from my preferred approach, which was to try to find a colourable motive for his murder of Jacob.

Of course, if Jacob had been on the point of discovering that Legrand had been, say, threatening the future of the company by clandestinely diverting its resources into unauthorized and commercially risky areas of research, that would still support the hypothesis that Legrand had had Jacob killed to prevent damaging information from coming out. It was just that the case would most likely have been stronger if I’d been able to point to the full range of Jacob’s research. And apart from that, corporate wrongdoing makes an uninteresting, unsatisfactory motive for murder. I had to accept, at least for now, that a murder charge would not be the way I’d defeat Legrand.

If I was going to find adequate weapons in the company’s finances and governance, I’d need professional help. I could see, in general terms, that Legrand had been breaking the rules, but the mechanisms he’d been using were not at all clear to me: they would, after all, have been designed to pass the scrutiny of auditors and compliance officers. A further problem was that I had no way of knowing the relative importance of any rules he might have broken. Some rules, one assumes, get broken almost as a matter of necessity, as the cost of doing business, and their breach neither deserves nor attracts any meaningful punishment. Others may have more serious consequences, for the business itself and perhaps also for a wider section of the market. It would have been presumptuous of me to imagine that I was able to distinguish between the two. But who could I approach for help? It would have to be done through Stefi, at least in the first instance.

But even before that, I’d work my way through the files again, attempting to piece together as much of the story as I could manage before asking for outside assistance. I shut down the notebook, took it back to the apartment, fixed myself some cheese and olives and started up the computer again. Legrand had been right about one thing: what Jacob had written about me and our relationship would have been a distraction. I was still distracted by it from the work I should have been getting on with, even though it was no longer on my computer. And it was no longer on my computer. Legrand’s men would have been thorough and competent. They wouldn’t have left any recoverable traces of the deleted files. But maybe I should check, just to make sure?

Of course, I could always go back to Stefi and ask for another copy. Even if she’d deleted her copy of the disk, to get rid of any evidence incriminating her in the mishandling of potential evidence, she wouldn’t have done it as thoroughly or professionally as Legrand’s people had deleted mine. Or would she? She was a cop after all. Maybe I’d been making unjustified assumptions about her. But, if I’d been giving her too little credit, wasn’t it possible that I’d been giving Legrand’s thugs too much? Perhaps they hadn’t been as thorough as I’d assumed. I ought to check, really.

But how? I was no expert on undeleting computer files. This was the kind of problem that ordinarily I’d have referred to Émile. In the present case, that was out of the question, so obviously the next best thing was Google. The top hit was a support forum on which some poor unfortunate had posed almost exactly my question — and been advised for his trouble that he should try Google. Big help. There were quite a few more like that but after 35 minutes of frustration, I thought I understood the basics of how to restore to view anything which the goons had left behind.

I hadn’t written anything new or saved any changes since I’d started work on Jacob’s material, so there was a very good chance that I hadn’t overwritten anything that might otherwise be recoverable. A couple of hours later, I’d got back (by my own inexpert estimate) at least 60% of the “date” folder, including 3 complete Word documents and a dozen viewable images. I was afraid that the effort of recovering the material might have drained me of the energy I’d need in order to look at it but the momentum I’d built up carried me right through into the files themselves.

I started with the Word documents, of course. I’ve always been more at home with text than with pictures. Text is at once more direct and less immediate, if that’s not a statement which cancels itself out. Text says what it means, is relatively easy to interpret (at least, usually, on one level) and its emotional impact is mediated by language. None of these is necessarily true of images, which I think is the reason I’ve never trusted them. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I’ve never trusted myself with them. My immediate reaction to seeing my name in Jacob’s doodle had been to shut down the application, to remove the picture from my sight before it had time to evoke any, or any further, emotional response in me. I did not expect that reading what Jacob had written would be easy but it would be manageable.

It was indeed hard to keep reading. Several times I had to insist to myself that what was written in the documents already existed and would continue to exist (just as Jacob himself didn’t and wouldn’t) whether I looked at them or not. My awareness of them in no way changed their content. They would be exactly the same whatever I did. There was no point in worrying about what dispiriting thing might come next because what came next was already there. And, this being so, it was surely better that I knew what was in the documents than that I remained in ignorance. This auto-pep-talk was completely persuasive at the intellectual level and of no help at all with the practical problem of reading to the end of the documents.

Not that they were long. Three files, none longer than 1,500 words and full of repetitions that I could skip over, having already got the gist. If I were capable of doing it at all, I could offer a complete and accurate summary in a little less than a thousand words — but it would be torture to do so.

The kernel was this: my departure from the company had come at the worst possible time for Jacob and had felt to him like a “second” betrayal. (I hadn’t known there’d been a first.) He’d been starting to believe that he’d finally (!) come to terms with the end of our relationship, finally accepted that we wouldn’t be getting back together, and finally persuaded himself that, if he could just see and speak to me every day, he could cope with the realization that we weren’t a couple and were never going to be, when I’d suddenly, brutally and all unknowing, removed even that prospect.

When we’d belatedly (as it had seemed to me) agreed that our relationship had run its course, Jacob had at first felt relief, but this had very quickly been overrun by a sense of guilt. Guilt that we hadn’t tried longer and harder, that we hadn’t done things differently, that we hadn’t made the best of the precious opportunity we had been offered by the cosmos. That guilt, I concluded, had combined itself with his sense of loss, loneliness and fear of the future (all of which I had felt as well) and made them immeasurably harder to cope with. And now, because Jacob would never have the chance to cope with them, his overwhelming guilt was, by some incomprehensible process of psychic induction, attempting to generate a counterpart in me.

But I wasn’t the one to whom the guilt properly belonged.

You know who is, I told Legrand.

Does that mean that you’re accepting your responsibility to act as my punisher?

What makes it my responsibility?

Who else is going to do it? You’re the only one who knows how guilty I am, and of what. Not excluding myself.

The little that’s left of your miserable, sick life could never be remotely adequate punishment for what you did to Jacob. That appals me, but there’s nothing I can do about it. If you die soon, you’ll be out of my life and my head, and not able to do any more harm. If you don’t, you’ll suffer for a little longer. The realization of either possibility will be the feeble consolation for the failure of the other. For obvious reasons, I have a preference for the first.

You could make my suffering worse.

You make it sound as if that’s what you want.

The different things I want are unfortunately not reconcilable. That’s equally true of you. It’s true of everybody.

So? You just have to decide which you want more.

Oh, I know what I want most, and I intend to achieve it. That doesn’t lessen the desire for its negation. You should know that.

What do you want from me?

Georges was right, of course. I want to feel what it’s like to die, as you. Or rather, as not-me. I want to know exactly what death is, and yet live, at least for a short time. But —


I also want you to live. Not as much as I want to live through a death and, of course, yours is the only death available to me, apart from my own. So, whether you live or die, I gain something of value, but I also lose, inevitably.

Which do you want more?

I don’t believe I can face death, not knowing what it will be like. Overcoming that ignorance has to be the paramount consideration for me.


It’s another “but” rather than an “and”. It’s become obvious to me that you are the only person alive who is even potentially capable of doing for me something that I badly want even more than the experience of death. And to do that, naturally, you have to remain alive.

What is it that you so “badly want”?

I am of course a very rich man who has become accustomed, over many years, to power so great that I have lost any sense of where its limits lie. Such people form a small minority of the populace, though I think there are more of us than you probably imagine. I want what I believe many, perhaps most, men of power and wealth want: I want to be stripped of those things, indeed of everything. I want to have them taken away from me.

So resign from the board and set up a charitable trust. You don’t need me for that.

You don’t understand. I want to have them taken away from me, against my will. I will fight, tenaciously — desperately — to hold on to what I have, but I want to lose. On the other hand, the prospect of losing is so dreadful to me that I will do anything — I truly believe anything — to avoid it.

Why do you want this?

For many reasons, not all of which are clear to me. For a start, of course, because I know I don’t deserve to hold such power. Nobody does. That is a weak motive but it doubtless plays some part. A more important motive is that I have a need to know whether I could cope with the worst that could possibly happen. Would I survive if I had nothing? How would I survive? The thought terrifies me. And, as I know you’ve discovered for yourself, the only way to free oneself from a fear is to have the feared thing happen.

And why do you think I’m the person to bring this about?

You have the motivation, to punish me for what I’ve done, not just to Jacob but, even more importantly, to you. You have some of the evidence required, in Jacob’s files. You have a better knowledge of me, of what drives me, than any person alive, probably including myself. And you have Stefi who, apart from anything else, will know where to look for more evidence. And I have an added incentive to offer.

Yes, you have. If I succeed, you will no longer have the wherewithal to threaten my life. Unless, of course, you were to make arrangements now, to have me killed at some future date, irrespective of what your condition should be at that date.

If you succeed, Stefi will have a good idea where to look to see if I have indeed made any such arrangement and how to cancel it if I have. Another thing: if you succeed, I’ll cut off the feed from my end. I’ll still be able to eavesdrop on your life, for as long as my own may last, but you’ll never hear from me and will be able to forget I exist, if indeed I still shall. Anyway, I’ll be of no consequence, just a poverty-stricken, irrelevant, dying old man.

You know there’s a fundamental contradiction in what you’re proposing?

Obviously. More than one, I’d have thought. Which did you have in mind?

If I’ve got this right, you want me to — or expect me to, or think I might — impose my will on yours. Deprive you of your power, take away everything which enables you to control the world around you. But in doing so, I’d be carrying out your will. You’re the one, after all, telling me that this is what you desire — I’d certainly never have known without being told. You’re directing the scenario, setting the stage, writing the script. In the very (and as yet very hypothetical) negation of your will, your power, you’d be asserting them.

You’re right, of course. It’s a contradiction. How could it be anything else? Power is inherently at odds with itself. The more you have, the greater your freedom to act, the greater the responsibility, the compulsion to do something. When I say responsibility, I don’t mean, of course, that there’s a responsibility to act well, to do something noble or useful or admirable. I’m free to act reprehensibly and I often do. But I always have to do something, even if it’s only to decide to abstain from action. I want you to make it stop.

Is that what you want? Maybe this is a bluff, that’s what I think. Perhaps you want to convince me that your existence is already so tortured that I don’t need to do anything more to make you pay for Jacob’s death. That anything I could do would be superfluous, at most just an additional fleabite. Well, here’s the thing: you can save your effort. I’ve had enough. I don’t care whether you’re suffering or enjoying your celebrated “power” to the full; I’m not having anything more to do with it. I refuse to have anything more to do with you. I’m going to make copies of Jacob’s hard disk and have them sent to the non-executive directors, the investigating magistrate, the flics and Libération and let any one or more of them sort it out. I don’t care what they do or don’t do with them. Next I’m going to find somebody, anybody other than Émile or Amber, to make me a device, wearable around my neck, which will jam any incoming signal from you. If it also blocks the outgoing signals then so be it. I don’t care very much one way or the other. And after that, I’m going to spend the remainder of our joint lives ignoring you. I hope you manage to make the best of them.

You expect that to work, do you? Your jamming device?

As a matter of fact, I do. I’m willing to put up with a little low level interference, kind of like tinnitus. Once the judge and the independent directors get to work, I expect it’ll be easy to shake loose a few members of your research team, who’ll have a good idea of what we’re dealing with. It may take a while to get it working satisfactorily but I’m a reasonably patient woman.

You realize you’ll be taking a big risk. Not least with your life.

Another threat? I’ve heard it before. I don’t see how this renewed one makes me any worse off than I was already. Between the police, the judge, your board and the journalists, you’re going to be kept pretty busy. You’ll be under scrutiny. Not the ideal circumstances in which to plot a murder.

I sat at the computer and began to put together the package I was going to send to the various parties. The question of evidential integrity didn’t arise. What I had was a partly deleted copy of some folders from a disk whose antecedents I didn’t know. Even with my lack of legal expertise, I was confident that there wasn’t the slightest possibility of its being admitted into evidence at any kind of formal hearing. At best, it would tell the investigators where they should be looking and at whom. Nevertheless, it was clear that I should try to make the package as complete as possible. Legrand had had not only the “date” folder deleted, but at least half of the other material as well, leaving only that which pointed to his abuse of power and resources at the companies in his group. That, of course, would be of most interest to the directors. For the benefit of the other intended recipients, I spent some time recovering as much as I could of the remaining deleted material — the files which had been in folders other than the “date” one.

Then there was the question of the “date” folder itself. I felt that the contents of the documents, all of which I had read, and those images which I’d looked at, were personal and, though I’d never been intended to see them, intimate; and that it would be hugely embarrassing to me to circulate them. On the other hand, they were obviously relevant and might be helpful to the various investigating parties, so I found it difficult to escape the feeling that it was my duty to include them. I decided to read through everything again (or, in the case of many of the images, for the first time) to see if they contained anything that I simply couldn’t bear to make public.

That task took nearly three hours. For much of that time, I was simply torn. What Jacob had written and doodled seemed to be of such peripheral interest to any possible investigation that there could surely be no good reason to subject myself or Jacob’s memory to the exposure. On the other hand, I was obviously not disinterested; perhaps I was seeing only what it suited me to see?

The images were hard work for me. I’ve already said that I find text at once more direct and less immediate. The drawings and sketches, or at least some of them, were the opposite. I’m not visually astute and it generally took considerable time and effort for me to make out what I was looking at. In some cases, I was never finally quite sure. Yet, and often before I had begun to decipher what I unavoidably thought of at the meaning of the picture, I could fully feel its emotional effect — or at least an emotional effect. It was a feeling composed of sadness, loss, guilt and other things, things for which I didn’t have a name; and it seemed to accumulate as I regarded one after another of Jacob’s drawings. Such an unaccustomed emotional drain was exhausting and, by the time I had just half-a-dozen left to look at, I felt that I couldn’t continue and would have to sleep immediately.

But I didn’t dare stop. Legrand’s men had been able to enter the apartment and delete this material once; my presence, particularly in this state of fatigue, would not stop them from doing so again. And, in fact, I wasn’t even sure that they’d need physical access. Had Legrand’s people actually broken into Stefi’s apartment to delete my statement, after the printed copy had been snatched in the street? Now that I thought about it, it seemed more likely that he’d taken an earlier opportunity to set up some kind of back door on my notebook when I’d had it in the company’s apartment. Surely he wouldn’t have ordered the burglary of a gendarme’s home? It was my habit to shut the computer down when I wasn’t using it, but there were ways around that and anyway I couldn’t be entirely sure I’d done it systematically. One way or the other, the material I was working on couldn’t be regarded as safe before I’d got it into the hands of its intended readers. Until then, I couldn’t afford to take a break. I had to go on.

When I woke it was starting to get light. This was the first intimation I had that something had changed: when I’d drifted off, the light had been on. The computer on the desk in front of me had also drifted off. I woke it. None of the Jacob material remained. Apart from that, everything was the same.

You’re leaving me nothing, this time?

And this time, nothing is recoverable.

You know I have a backup, of course?

In that “cloud” service that costs you a couple of hundred euro a year? I know that. And you know that your passwords are not secret from me.

I have offline backups as well.

No you haven’t, not of this material. Do you know when you last took an offline backup? Because I do.

All right, then. I’ll go back to Stefi. I didn’t want to but she may still have a copy and, if she doesn’t, she can get —

I took the precaution of spamming the parties you’ve mentioned — and several others who might be interested — with pornographic links. Using your email address, of course. Don’t worry, I was careful not to include anything to do with children. None of it was actually illegal, but the material is certainly very graphic, even shocking. Unless the recipients are deplorably lax, they’ll all already have blocked your address. You could set up a different one, obviously, but it’s unlikely you’d get away with using your own name.

I quickly checked my Sent Items. Legrand had been telling the truth, of course. I felt my cheeks and neck grow very warm at the thought of what had been sent out in my name to strangers and figures of authority. Then I laughed.

Crude, but effective, I told Legrand. The inability to use my own email address wouldn’t put an insurmountable obstacle in my way, if I really wanted to make sure that the judge and the others received the evidence. You’re counting on my embarrassment to keep me from trying. And you’re probably right.

I think we can agree that I’ve got to know you rather well.

So where does this leave us?

The choice is yours. We can play one of my games or the other. Either you come after me and try to take my money and power away, or you don’t and you meet an early death. Very early. You understand, of course, that there’s no guarantee you won’t meet an early death if you pick the first option. It’s a question of playing the odds.

You know my choice.

And a wise one it is. I think we should meet face to face again.

I was of the same mind, but wanted to know why he thought it was a good idea.

So that you have a clear conception of what it is you’re trying to take away from me, and who it is you’re trying to take it away from. It’s in both of our interests that you shouldn’t underestimate your adversary. I’ve told you, I will fight very hard to keep what I have. It’s my whole life, in effect.

So, how can I be sure that this isn’t a trap? That you won’t just capture me and kill me on the spot, just to be sure that you don’t miss your opportunity?

Even if that were the case, you might still outsmart me. Sooner or later you’re going to have to try.

OK, I’ll come to see you. But there will have to be some strict conditions.

I’m listening.

Turn off the feed.

I can’t.

Nonsense. You’d have to have some way of doing it.

I don’t mean that it’s technologically impossible; I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I’m kind of addicted.

Has it occurred to you that if we’re in the same place, so that you’re seeing yourself through my eyes, it could generate some kind of feedback loop? I don’t have any clear idea what the effect would be but I can’t imagine it would be very pleasant.

OK, I’ll turn if off when you get here.

That’s not good enough. We’ve touched on this before. You want me to assert my will, to try to exercise control over yours. I’m supposed to be making an attempt to take away the very essence — or perhaps we should say the apparent essence — of what it is to be you. Yet you’re the one who sets the rules, dictates the circumstances. As you just said, my choice is limited between just two of your games. If there’s to be any chance that this might work out satisfactorily for either of us, I need some autonomy.

Which means no feed?

At the very least.

How quickly can you get here?

I’ll be with you by 9.30 tomorrow.

Very well. I’ll turn off the feed until after our meeting. What happens after that will depend on how the meeting goes.

I didn’t really expect Legrand to keep his agreement, but at least my various attempts to provoke him during the few hours which followed met with no response. Apart from phoning Stefi to let her know that I was going to meet Legrand, I wasn’t sure how I could best prepare for our encounter. At a minimum, I decided that I should write down, before my memory of it faded irrecoverably, all I could recall of the researches Jacob had carried out into Legrand’s activities. What I’d had before wouldn’t have been admissible evidence, merely a set of pointers towards the places where such evidence might be found. My summary, written from memory, wouldn’t be any better but, at least with regard to some of the details, it might not be much worse.

Faced with this task, my overwhelming sense was one of crushing fatigue, but I forced myself to sit at the computer and start typing. Soon, I was pleased and surprised at how much I remembered. At the very least, what I was writing would function as a reminder to myself as I went about the task of reassembling and filling out Jacob’s evidence. I began to feel almost hopeful. I paused very briefly for breakfast at 8.30, then worked though to lunchtime.

Once I was satisfied with it, I made several copies of my work, including one on a USB stick, which I put in a padded envelope and addressed to Stefi. I went out to the Post Office to send it, having first shut down my notebook and put it in its bag. I had been going to take it with me for safety, maybe even try to find somewhere secure to store it outside the apartment, but I couldn’t think of anywhere that wouldn’t have been equally accessible to Legrand as to me. Anyway, the time for such precautions had been yesterday, when I’d had something more worthy of protection than my own reconstruction from memory. I left the notebook in the apartment. At least it was offline and powered down, so anyone wanting to access it would have to pay a personal visit. When I got back from the Post Office, it did not seem to have been touched.

I’d missed lunch but I decided I needed sleep more than food. I dropped my clothes on the floor and got into bed. The next thing I knew, it was nearly 7 pm. By now, my need for food had unquestionably moved to the top of the priority list. I showered and dressed, tasks which took all the patience I had left; to have cooked as well would have been intolerable, so I went out. Being on my own and in a hurry to eat, I opted for a pizza restaurant and immediately regretted it. Still, it was sustenance of sorts, and I was back in the apartment by 8.45. In spite of my long afternoon rest, I decided not to put off going to bed. I wanted to be rested and alert for my meeting with Legrand in the morning. If it turned out that I couldn’t sleep, I’d get up and do some reading.

I don’t think it was very much later when I was woken by a loud, persistent knocking at the door of the apartment. Legrand’s people hadn’t knocked the last time or, presumably, any of the times before that. I pushed myself out of bed and pulled on the t-shirt and jeans I’d been wearing earlier.

“Who is it?” I called hoarsely.

“It’s me. Émile. Amber’s outside in the car. We’ve been trying to figure this out for ages, and then we got Stefi’s call. We think we have an idea.”