The House of Dolls by David Hewson – Extract

The House of Dolls

1

‘Vos?’

Laura Bakker walked through every room of the Rijksmuseum looking for him.

‘Pieter Vos?’

A slight man of medium height, hunched in a pale-green winter coat that had seen better days. Seated on a bench in front of the biggest doll’s house she’d ever seen, Vos seemed both young and old at the same time. His posture, his long brown hair, his creased and worn clothing spoke of middle age. Yet his face was unlined, interested, alert. That of a favourite teacher or a caring, patient priest. And his blue eyes, fixed entirely on the doll’s house opposite, had the bright, hard glint of a piece of pottery on the mantelpiece back home in Dokkum. Unwavering. Intelligent.

She’d read the file before De Groot dispatched her from the police station a short bike ride away in Marnixstraat. Pieter Vos, thirty-nine. Resigned from his position as Brigadier in that same station two years before after the failure of the investigation into the disappearance of his daughter Anneliese. Now living a downbeat bohemian existence on a houseboat in the Jordaan, struggling to survive on the paltry remains of his premature pension.

Bakker pulled out the folder she’d brought. Papers, photos scattered everywhere. She swore. Heads turned. Then she scooped up the strewn documents and pictures from the floor and crammed them back into place.

He was staring at her by then. A look she knew. It said… that was clumsy.

‘Vos?’ she asked, glancing at the ID photo to make sure this was the right man. In the force Vos was even more boyish in appearance. Events had aged him.

De Groot was his boss. A personal friend too from what she could gather. Heartbroken by Vos’s resignation and the loss of a famed Amsterdam police officer to… what?

Trying to repair his ramshackle houseboat on the Prinsengracht no more than a five-minute walk from the desk he once occupied. The early newspaper cuttings lauded Vos as a scourge of the city’s underworld, a languid, modest detective who’d torn the city’s gangs to shreds with a shrug and a smile. Not that there was much to read. He’d shunned the limelight when he was in post. Fled from it when his own daughter went missing, shattered, or so the papers said, that his own diligence as a police officer may have brought about her abduction. A fruitless search followed and then Vos was out of the force. Anneliese was one more name in the missing persons files. A case in the archives, gathering digital dust.

He had a lead coming out of his pocket, earphones on. She leaned down, gently pulled them out, was surprised to hear the loud jazz-rock of ‘Willie the Pimp’ coming out of them.

‘Pieter Vos?’ she said again and found herself reaching out to touch his arm, not quite knowing why. The long, uncombed hair and shabby clothes… there was something fragile about the man. It was hard to associate this quiet, absorbed figure with the Brigadier who put so many in jail. ‘You haven’t got time to listen to Zappa. Commissaris de Groot wants to see you in your office. Pick up your stuff. We’re off.’

‘What do you know about Zappa?’ he asked in a kindly, amused voice.

‘My dad liked him. Used to play that stuff all night long if he could get away with it. Get moving. We’re off.’

‘Why does Frank send me children?’ he asked then put the earphones on again.

She sat down next to him on the bench, folded her arms, thought for a moment then reached into his pocket and yanked out the lead for phones.

The look on his face was a mixture of surprise and outrage. ‘That’s quite a thing,’ Bakker said, pointing at the display case in front of them.

The doll’s house of Petronella Oortman was complex and a good head taller than Pieter Vos. An Amsterdam canal mansion in miniature. Three floors, each with three rooms and an adjoining staircase corridor. A kitchen, a parlour, a nursery, furniture and paintings, crockery and delicate, miniature draperies. He couldn’t stop staring at it and she knew why.

‘My name’s Laura Bakker. Twenty-four years old and no child, thank you.’

When his bright blue eyes fell on her she had nothing else to say.

‘Missing the green fields of Friesland, Laura?’

It was the accent that did it. Amsterdammers looked down on everything outside the capital. She came from the provinces. People there were simple, stupid even.

‘There’s more to Friesland than green fields,’ she said.

‘What does your father do when he’s not listening to Zappa?’ ‘Farmer.’

She was tall. Lanky even. Her fine red hair was pulled back behind her head, a practical decision for work. Laura Bakker didn’t give much thought to how she looked. Her long face was pale and, she felt, unremarkable. Not much different from when she was seventeen.

‘Do you miss him?’ he asked.

‘Yes but he’s dead,’ she said. ‘Mum too. Not that this matters. Just get your stuff, will you?’

He didn’t move.

She took out another folder from her bag, almost spilled the contents of that on the floor. He looked at her, one dark eyebrow raised, then went back to gazing at the doll’s house.

‘That cost Petronella twenty, thirty thousand guilders. As much as her mansion on Warmoesstraat I guess. Which is probably a coffee shop now, selling bad marijuana to drunken Brits.’

‘You look like you were expecting me, Vos. How’s that?’ ‘Magic. Didn’t you read the files?’

‘They don’t say anything about magic. Plenty else… ’ ‘Oortman was a wealthy widow. Her money came from the silk trade. Which kind of lived alongside slavery and spice. So maybe… ’ He stroked his chin, trying to find the right word. ‘Maybe things aren’t that different.’

‘Warmoesstraat? Is that where you buy your dope?’ ‘I said it was bad.’

‘It’s all bad, Vos.’

‘You’re young, Laura. What do you know?’

‘I know the daughter of the vice-mayor’s gone missing. Katja Prins. Not the first time apparently. But—’

‘Frank called me. He said he was sending their new aspirant. A simple country girl who thought she might catch drunk drivers in Dokkum. And when that didn’t happen felt she could make a difference in Amsterdam. He gave me your name.’

The blood rushed to her cheeks. Her fingers automatically clutched the simple, silver crucifix around her neck, over the plain black jumper.

‘By simple I’m sure he meant… unspoilt,’ Vos added in his quiet and diffident voice. ‘Nothing untoward. He said you crashed a squad car… ’

She wasn’t going there.

‘Your daughter was snatched by a man obsessed with dolls. There’s something like that with the Prins girl… ’

She placed the photo on his lap. An antique porcelain child’s doll in a white pinafore dress and a police evidence label next to it. There was a hank of blonde hair in its right hand. The pinafore had a large bloodstain covering most of the front.

Her long index finger jabbed at the gigantic model opposite. ‘Looks just like that one over there, in the Oortman house, doesn’t it? Just like the one he sent you? Except for the blood and the hair.’

Vos sighed.

‘The hair was in its left hand with me. The bloodstain was smaller.’

‘Katja was staying at a tenement in De Wallen… ’

‘The daughter of the man who runs the city council living in the red-light district? Doesn’t that tell you something?’

‘She hasn’t been seen for a week. We’re testing to see if the blood and the hair are hers. The doll was left outside her father’s house last night. In a miniature cardboard coffin. Just like he did with you in Marnixstraat… ’

No surprise. Just a sad, resigned smile. It seemed his natural expression.

‘Did Frank tell you Wim Prins’s wife was my partner for seventeen years? Anneliese’s mother?’

The heat fled her cheeks. ‘No.’

‘Amsterdam’s a small place. Not as small as Dokkum… ’

Vos went back to looking at the little rooms, the furniture, the doll marooned in a tiny nursery four centuries before.

‘Katja’s a crazy little junkie,’ he said, almost to himself. ‘Her own mother was too. She killed herself. The girl hates her stepmother. What’s new there?’

‘Vos… ’

‘She’s tried to extort money out of her father before. He always refuses to press a case. It seems she has a cruel imagination… ’

‘And if you’re wrong? If this is the same man who took your daughter?’

A shrug.

‘Then I expect you to do a better job than I did. You must excuse me.’ He rose from the bench seat, stretched his arms, took out a set of keys. ‘I have to go… ’

‘Do you think you’ll see him here, then? Is it as easy as that? He’ll walk in and you’ll know.’

Her words seemed to disappoint him.

‘No,’ Vos replied. ‘But I want him to see me. Good day, Aspirant Bakker. I wish you well in your career.’

Then he plugged the earphones back into the phone, put them in his ears, and left.

2

Jimmy Menzo sat in a cold basement by the grey-brown bulk of the Oude Kerk. The faint drone of a pipe organ made its weedy way through the high slatted window. Outside, in the shadow of the squat church, the first morning whores writhed behind the glass of their cabins, waving their come-on gestures to the tourists wandering wide-eyed down the street.

Some stopped. Some walked on into the coffee shops. Doped or screwed, he got into their wallets either way. The city was a money machine. His. Not going to change.

Menzo had fled the slums of Surinamese when he was nineteen, abandoning the squalor of South America for the Netherlands, a harsh new world he entered with nothing more than a handful of guilders in his pocket, two powerful scarred fists and a head full of envy and ambition.

Two decades on he lived in a mansion near the waterfront, not far from the red-light district with his coffee shops and brothels, his cabins for rent to the freelance hookers and, most profitable of all, his hands around the drug supply chains threading through the area the locals called De Wallen.

From Centraal station in the north to Spui, from Nieuwmarkt to Damrak, the heart of Amsterdam belonged to the man who’d left the hovels of Paramaribo with nothing but some ragged clothes and a few hundred US dollars ripped off a failed coke shipment.

He’d earned this prize. Fought for it. And good fortune had put his one last rival, Theo Jansen, in jail.

That was two years before. Twenty-four months had passed in which Menzo battled night and day to seize every last fragment of Jansen’s empire, changing loyalties through money, through persuasion, through hard fists or the barrel of a gun when needed.

It was war of a kind and, like most modern conflicts, this one would never end.

Now a couple of kids fidgeted across the table from him. About the age Menzo was when he first turned up in Holland touting a fake passport and a forged work permit. Ugly like him, brutal, looking for opportunity. From Surinamese, once a little piece of Holland on the edge of South America. Short, stocky wannabe thugs not long arrived in town, one dressed in a shiny blue tracksuit, the other in red.

Four weapons on the battered wooden table. Two machine pistols, a couple of semi-automatic Walther P5s, the same kind the police used. Which was no coincidence, not that he said.

The two hunched, scared figures opposite couldn’t stop looking at them.

‘We’d planned on staying longer.’ The blue one. The bravest.

Menzo threw a briefcase on the table, opened it. They went quiet, stared at the spread of green money.

‘Fifty thousand US dollars. A couple of Antilles passports. Two tickets to Cape Town. Business class.’

‘Business class,’ red kid repeated, reaching for the case.

A bronchial, smoker’s laugh. Menzo was about the same size, pug-like and thuggish, strong, not one to shirk a fight. Pockmarked surly face. Narrow eyes. Swarthy skin.

He passed over a sheet of paper with Miriam’s tidy, female handwriting on it. A Prinsengracht address.

‘Miriam can fill you in. Afterwards you go here. It’s a shop. There you get the money. And the tickets.’

They looked at the paper like dumb school kids given impenetrable homework.

‘When can we come back?’ blue kid asked.

‘You don’t. You take the money and do what I did. Make your own way. I’ve friends over there. They can get you started.’

The two kids looked at each another. ‘What kind of shop?’ the red one asked.

Menzo liked their idiot questions, rifled through the pockets of his jacket. Black silk suit, sharp, tapered, tight. Made for him by a tailor in Bangkok where he went for business and a little pleasure.

Two business cards, the same pretty picture on the front. A miniature Amsterdam canal mansion in wood. Tiny pink chairs with tinier figures on them.

Poppenhuis aan de Prinsengracht.

The Doll’s House on the Prinsengracht. He gave the kids a card each.

‘Dolls?’ red kid asked.

‘Don’t worry,’ Menzo told him. ‘They’re not there any more. Someone got rid of all the pretty things a while back.’

‘I got a sister here,’ the blue one said. ‘She just came out. Working in one of your restaurants. She needs me. If I leave—’

‘I’ll look after your sister. Make her manager. Give her a bar. Or something.’

A big, friendly smile.

‘Ask anyone. You do what Jimmy Menzo asks and no one ever touches you. I look after my own. Even when they’re someplace else.’

‘We’ve got a choice?’ blue kid asked quickly and Menzo thought maybe he’d underestimated this Surinamese brat, new off the plane, two hits to his name, police chasing him up and down the mainland and the Caribbean.

‘Sure you’ve got a choice.’

He lit a cigarette, listened to the asthmatic tones of the distant church organ. It was spring outside. Still cold with squally rain between brief spells of sun.

He took away the briefcase, put it on the floor. Their eyes were on the weapons.

Menzo got up from his seat, smiled at them. Launched himself at the table, seized the nearest machine pistol in his right fist. Waved the barrel in red kid’s face, then the blue. Laughing all the while.

‘Miriam?’ he yelled.

The door opened. Taller than Menzo, physique of a basketball player. Just touching thirty. Long face, one quarter Chinese she said and he believed it. A Trinidad girl, she barely spoke Dutch. Just English.

‘What?’ she asked.

Brown fur coat. What kind he didn’t know or care. She got all the money she wanted. Gave plenty in return.

‘These boys aren’t up to it,’ Menzo said. ‘Drive ’em to the station. Put ’em on a train somewhere. They’re pissing me off.’

The Surinamese brats shuffled on their seats, dumb young eyes on each other.

The woman walked up, threw some filthy English insults in their direction, glared at them with her big white staring eyes.

‘Fifty thousand dollars? How much you punks make back in Paramaribo?’

She leaned over them. There was a presence to her, both enticing and threatening. Menzo loved the way she could scare a man and make him want her at the same time.

The kids were shivering. More than they did for him.

‘How… much… ?’ Miriam wanted to know.

‘Money’s no good if you don’t get to stay alive,’ blue kid mumbled.

Her long fingers wound into his lank, greasy hair, shook his head. Hard. Menzo watched, chuckled.

‘You get to stay alive, boy!’ she yelled at them. ‘More alive than we ever was when we showed up here. You get to live somewhere warm and cheap and sunny. Where no one knows who you are. How hard can it be?’

Their eyes were on the floor. Menzo put the long black weapon back on the table next to the others.

‘Not hard at all,’ he said then opened the case again, plucked a wad of the dollar bills, waved them in their faces.

‘What are we supposed to do?’ red kid asked. Battle won.

‘Whatever Miriam tells you. Flight goes to London at six o’clock. You’re in Cape Town for breakfast. Looking at a new life.’

He patted the black gun.

‘You hear that? A new life. A little gratitude wouldn’t go amiss.’

Menzo waited. Miriam Smith waited, standing back on her heels, folding her arms through the brown fur coat.

‘Thanks,’ said red kid obediently.

‘Yeah,’ said the blue one and stared at the cold stone floor.

3

As usual Sam had stayed with the woman Vos had befriended in the security office. He retrieved the little dog, said thanks, then led him outside. The rain was holding off. He placed the white and tan fox terrier in the front basket of his rusting black pushbike, adjusted the plastic windscreen at the front, pulled two elastic bands out of his jacket pocket and snapped them round the bottom of his wide, unfashionable, creased and shabby jeans to keep them out of the chain.

Zappa had given way to Van Halen. He pulled out the phones and stuffed them into his pockets. One look at his jeans, the decrepit black bike, the dog in the front. Then he set off into the morning traffic for the ten-minute ride to the houseboat on the Prinsengracht.

Cyclists and trams. Cars and motorbikes. Baffled tourists wandering among them all, not knowing which way to look.

He’d asked Frank de Groot straight out: was there any news of Anneliese? The smallest piece of evidence to link her with the Prins girl apart from a doll? The silence that followed said everything.

Just eighteen months old, the dog circled the basket three times then settled, got bored and, as the bike picked up speed past Leidseplein, rose to his haunches, put his long nose and beard into the wind, turning from side to side with delight, mouth open, white teeth in an apparent grin.

The first spot of rain and he’d be back behind the windscreen. But spring was beginning to peek out from behind the grey shroud of winter. The lime trees showered the streets with their feathery seeds like tall statues scattering pale-green confetti for a wedding to come. The dog would enjoy his second lazy summer on the water, basking amidst the ragged vegetable and flower pots on the deck, enjoying the attentions of camera-happy tourists. More anonymously, Vos would too. And before the year was out the boat would be finished finally. He could try to think about what might come next.

A furious ringing of bells from behind, an exchange of cross words in English. Then, as he entered the long straight cycle path that ran alongside the canal, Laura Bakker pedalled briskly to his side muttering curses about tourists.

She was riding a rusty olive-green granny bike with high handlebars, sitting stiff-backed, a strand of red hair escaping to blow behind her in the spring breeze. The grey trouser suit looked as if it belonged in the 1970s. So, in a way, did Laura Bakker.

One hand, he saw, worked her phone. Talking while she rode, not looking where she was going. Or, worse, texting. As he watched the thing nearly fell from her grasp. She only stopped it with the sudden, informed response of someone who recognized how truly clumsy she was.

‘Vos! Vos!’ Bakker cried when she’d got firm hold of the phone again. ‘Listen to me! Stop, will you? Commissaris de Groot wants to see you to discuss this in person.’

A pleasure boat slowed on the canal. A pack of people in the front started taking pictures of them. Sam, paws on the front basket, little head into the breeze, shook his fur like a model posing for the camera.

‘Why on earth did De Groot send you? Of all people?’ Vos asked, keeping his eyes on the path ahead.

‘What’s wrong with me?’ She looked offended. ‘Just because I’m from Dokkum… it doesn’t mean I’m a moron.’ A glance towards Marnixstraat. ‘Whatever anyone thinks.’

‘I didn’t say that,’ Vos muttered then wove through a crowd of visitors wandering across the cycle track and quickly rode on.

‘Your dog’s very cute,’ Bakker noted as she caught up again.

A smile then. For a moment she looked like a naive student fresh out of college trying to persuade the world at large to take notice and treat her seriously.

‘You don’t know him,’ Vos said.

‘I always wanted a pet.’

He stiffened with outrage. ‘A pet? Sam’s not a pet.’

Laura Bakker seemed worried she might have offended him. ‘What is he then?’

The gentle rise of a bridge approached. Vos pedalled harder, left her behind again, took his hands off the handlebar, throwing up both arms in despair.

The tourists tracking them on the canal launch loved this even more. An argument among locals. A lover’s tiff even.

She was back by his side quickly, more of her red hair free now, flying back beyond her shoulders.

‘This is childish,’ Laura Bakker declared.

‘Being pursued along the canal by a wet-behind-the-ears junior. That’s childish,’ he complained, and realized how petulant he sounded. ‘Arrest me and have done with it.’

‘I can’t arrest people. I’m not allowed. Commissaris de Groot doesn’t believe Katja’s trying to extort money from anyone. He thinks this is to do with your daughter’s case… ’

Enough. He put out a hand to steady the dog then brought the bike to a sudden halt. The little animal yapped gleefully as if this were all a game.

‘I told you. Frank called me this morning,’ he repeated as Laura Bakker stopped by his side. ‘No one demanded a ransom for my daughter. No one gave me the chance to save her. If—’

‘Did you have much money?’

‘I’d have found it. If he’d asked. But he didn’t. For that or anything else. Anneliese was there one day. Then… ’

Three years the coming July. It might have been yesterday. Or another lifetime altogether. Tragedy occurred outside normal time, everyday conventions. It possessed a bewildering ability to fade and grow brighter simultaneously. There was no such thing as closure. That was claptrap for the counselling services. Only a pain so insistent it eventually became familiar, like toothache or the ghostly ache of a missing limb.

‘I’m fed up arguing,’ she said briskly. ‘Commissaris de Groot says he needs your help. You and him are supposed to be friends. It’s not like it’s the only thing he’s got on his mind.’

Vos growled, a habit he’d picked up from the dog, then started pedalling again. She kept up, legs pumping at a steady, leisurely pace, big boots occasionally slamming against the frame. A gawky, awkward young woman. The kind of clumping, bumbling ingénue from the provinces that Marnixstraat’s hardened city officers would pounce on and devour in an instant.

‘Of course it’s not,’ he said, making an effort to sound reasonable. ‘This is Amsterdam. How could it be?’

The houseboat was almost invisible from the road, an ugly black hulk marooned in the Prinsengracht beneath the line of the pavement. The cheapest on the market when he and Liesbeth sold the apartment, split the money, went their separate ways. It needed so much work and he couldn’t afford even half of it on the pittance of a cut-down, early retirement police pension.

‘There’s a crook called Theo Jansen in the appeal court today,’ she added. ‘According to what I hear they think he’ll go free.’

Another sudden stop. This time he forgot to reach for the dog. Sam barked testily as he was flung against the front of the wicker basket.

‘Sorry, boy,’ Vos murmured and reached out to stroke his wiry fur. ‘What?’

‘This Jansen chap’s in front of the judge this afternoon. Likelihood is he’s on his toes straight after… ’

They’d almost cycled past the place. The court lay along the Prinsengracht too, close to Leidseplein. Most of Pieter Vos’s working life, the police station, the courthouse, the cafes and brown bars of the Jordaan where he retreated to talk and think, lay within walking distance of his ramshackle houseboat.

‘If the idiots let Theo out the first thing he’ll do is start a war,’ he said. ‘Frank knows that as well as anyone. I hope he’s prepared. What in God’s name are they thinking?’

‘They don’t have much choice. You didn’t stay to finish the job, did you?’ She had a harsh and judgemental tone to her flat northern voice when she wanted. One that seemed old for her years. ‘That’s what they reckon in Marnixstraat. You quit and someone else screwed up in your place.’

A council boss’s daughter either kidnapped or demanding a ransom for herself. The city’s former gang lord about to get out of jail, looking for revenge against the Surinamese crook who’d seized his territory, the coffee shops, the brothels, the drug routes, while Jansen was in prison.

Pieter Vos could understand why his old friend was worried. ‘You’ve got a lot to say for yourself, Aspirant Bakker. Not much in the way of tact.’

She leaned closer. Pointed a long finger in his face. Chewed nails, he noticed. No polish. No make-up on her face.

‘I didn’t join the police to learn tact. De Groot told me to bring you in.’ She had green eyes, very round, a little on the large side, now gleaming with a mixture of determination and outrage. ‘That’s what I’m going to do. If I have to follow you around all day.’

He stifled a smile and pushed the bike gently forward again. ‘At the risk of repeating myself, I’m no longer a police officer.’

The boat looked dreadful in the strong spring sun. Peeling black paint. A shrivelled and desolate garden around the deck. The railings rusty. The wood rotten in places. In front of the bows, by the next mooring, a small dinghy sat half-flooded in the dank canal water, just as it did the day, almost two years before, when Vos moved in.

This casual neglect, a lack of care and worry, helped him feel easy in this quiet and leisurely part of the city. The Drie Vaten bar by the bridge to Elandsgracht. The little shops and restaurants. The people more than anything. The Jordaan was home. He couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

A portly figure strode out from the foot of the street, near the statues of Johnny Jordaan and his band. In his shabby jeans Vos never thought of himself as old. Nor did most of those he met as far as he could work out. They seemed to treat him like an odd adolescent, trapped in amber in his houseboat, listening to old rock, visiting the nearby coffee shop for a smoke from time to time, lingering over beers in the Drie Vaten.

Seeing Frank de Groot gave him pause for thought. At fortynine the boss of Marnixstraat was just ten years his senior. But he looked like a man well into middle age now, lined face, neatly clipped dark hair and tidy moustache, both too black to be real. His wan, watery eyes appeared tired and worried. A gulf had emerged between them. Vos had gone nowhere, gone backwards maybe, since he locked himself in the houseboat on the Prinsengracht. De Groot had stayed in post and that had marked him.

‘Pieter! Pieter!’ De Groot rushed up and forced a small package into Vos’s hands. ‘I thought I might catch you here.’

‘Here’s where I live, Frank. Where else would I be?’

‘Hanging round the Rijksmuseum,’ De Groot replied with a glint in his eye. ‘In the Drie Vaten eyeing up that pretty woman behind the bar. Not fixing your damned boat that’s for sure. This dinghy… ’

De Groot moaned about the half-sunken boat every time they met.

With a sudden clatter Laura Bakker turned up, shot out her long legs, slammed her heavy boots on the ground.

‘I was on my way to Marnixstraat,’ Vos said. ‘Aspirant Bakker briefed me.’ The green eyes were on him, surprised. ‘She did a good job. All the same I can’t help you.’

‘Cheese!’ De Groot patted the little package. ‘I got it from that shop you like. Kaashuis. They said it’s straight from the farm. It’s Limburger… ’

The dog was wrinkling its nose at the package.

‘You’re trying to bribe me with cheese? This is pathetic.’ De Groot nodded.

‘True. Please. Can’t we talk? Fifteen years we worked together. It’s not a lot to ask.’

The commissaris wore a fixed smile.

‘You’re looking… bohemian, Pieter. More so than ever I’d say.’

Vos climbed off the bike, lifted Sam out of the basket, found the lead in his pocket and a spare bag from the supermarket.

He extended the loop of the leash to Bakker and held out the bag.

‘You wanted a pet. Time to discover what it’s like. Clean up after him. He can’t do it for himself and there’s a fine if you leave it.’

‘I didn’t join the police force to walk dogs,’ she complained. ‘Indulge us,’ De Groot growled.

His voice could turn from amicable to threatening in an instant. She snatched the bag and the lead then bent down and cooed at Sam.

‘Don’t let him beg for food,’ Vos ordered. ‘And keep him away from other dogs. He doesn’t know he’s little.’

The two men watched Bakker chain her bike to the canal railings then wander down the canal, behind the happy, wagging tail of the proudly strutting terrier.

‘That was a dirty trick,’ Vos said. ‘What?’ De Groot asked, all innocence.

‘Sending me the office dunce and hoping I’d take pity on her.’ Vos stared at the wax paper package in his hands. ‘I hate Limburger.’

‘I’m not a cheese man, am I? She’s not a dunce, Pieter. Didn’t choose to be born in Dokkum. Kid just doesn’t fit.’ He thought for a moment then added, ‘Also I think she may believe in God.’ De Groot shook his head. ‘What the hell she’s doing here… I’m sorry. I thought she’d mess that up too. Why do you think I turned up?’

Vos lifted his bike onto the boat deck.

‘Do I have to beg?’ De Groot asked. Then he pointed to the half-sunken dinghy next to Vos’s home, the empty hull covered by a grubby tarpaulin. ‘I’ve told you a million times. You should do something about that. It’s against the law.’

Vos put his hands to his head and sighed.

‘It’s… not… my… boat. Remember?’

De Groot hopped from one foot to the other, apologetic, but only mildly.

‘Stuck next to your place like that. Looks like yours.’

‘Inside,’ Vos ordered then walked down the gangplank and threw open the tiny wooden door to his home.

4

‘De Groot wants us to go to Marnixstraat,’ Liesbeth Prins said. ‘Wim? Are you even listening?’

His office was one of the most palatial in the city hall on Waterlooplein. Long windows, a view. A feeble spring sun hung over the city beyond the window: the canal, the mansions and corporate headquarters, then the sprawling, chaotic community of De Wallen. There were more than eighty thousand people in the tightly enclosed fiefdom of central Amsterdam. Six months before, his Progressive group had seized a surprise number of seats in the elections then forged a fragile alliance with the tiny anti-EU Independence Party. And in the hard bargaining for seats that followed, Prins had won just what he wanted: the role of vicemayor, with a specific brief.

He was forty-eight, a tall, imposing, unsmiling man. Liesbeth had known him since she was a teenager, though most of her life was spent with Pieter Vos. Now he’d risen from rich city lawyer to full-time politician on the city council, and a part of her had come to wonder: was that why he needed her? To complete the picture? ‘I can’t waste more time on her games,’ Prins said flicking through one of the many reports on his desk. ‘De Groot should have better things to do. God knows—’ ‘You think she can be that heartless?’

He took hold of her hands, made her sit down. Looked into her eyes. A big man. A sad man in some ways. There was never the familiarity, the humour, the playful closeness she’d shared with Vos.

‘I know her better than you. She’s been like this ever since Bea died.’

‘Katja’s sick.’ Her voice faltered. She felt cold. Ill maybe. The black dress she’d picked that morning hung loose on her skinny frame. ‘Christ, Wim. I know you never liked the fact she wasn’t so bright. Not the star pupil. Some genius to take over your firm one day. But she’s still your daughter… ’

Prins placed the report on the desk. She saw the name on the cover in bold black letters: De Nachtwacht.

The Night Watch. The title taken from the city’s most famous painting, Rembrandt’s massive master work in the Rijksmuseum. A group of armed militia men about to patrol Amsterdam, to keep the city safe. Prins gave the same name to the key element in his election campaign the previous autumn. A promise to clean up De Wallen once and for all. No half-hearted measures any more. No compromises. From the start he’d pledged to make life unbearable for the dealers, the coffee shops, the brothels, the pimps and hookers who’d been there for decades.

No one expected him to win. But with the endless round of recession and austerity the popular mood had become febrile and unpredictable. People were looking for a change, any change. Then the Independence Party began to pick up votes on the back of suspicion about Brussels and the EU. They sensed an opportunity and joined the clamour. De Nachtwacht turned from a minor politician’s pipe dream into a hazy commitment that put him second-in-command in the council, with the one man above him, the Labour party mayor, happy to stand back from De Nachtwacht entirely and watch from a distance the developing furore about its implementation.

‘This,’ Prins said, tapping his finger on the report, ‘is more important than Katja now. I can’t help her any more. I’ve tried. But maybe someone else’s child—’

‘The police want to talk to us.’

‘You should have spoken to me before you called Marnixstraat.’

She shook her head. Ran three bony fingers through her scant, short fair hair.

‘Someone leaves a cardboard coffin outside the door. There’s a doll in it. Some hair. A bloodstain… ’

‘One more of her games… ’

‘A doll! A hank of hair. Blood.’

Prins closed his eyes for a second.

‘There’s nothing she won’t do if she needs money for dope. ’ He eyed the desk and the reports there. ‘They’re like that.’

‘Katja’s not heartless. She wouldn’t… taunt me with this.’ ‘You always see the best in people.’ His arms came away.

‘Especially when it’s not there. Stay out of it.’

‘How can I?’

He wasn’t paying attention. Wim Prins was smiling, the way he did for the public these days.

Margriet Willemsen, the pushy young woman who led the Independence Party, had opened the door. Behind her stood Alex Hendriks, head of the council’s general office. A diminutive, quiet man who seemed to live inside the sprawling council offices next to the Opera House on this open square near the heart of Amsterdam.

‘We’ve a meeting about De Nachtwacht,’ Prins said, for her benefit and theirs. ‘Call me later… ’

‘You can make time if you want,’ she insisted. ‘For Katja’s sake… ’

Still smiling he put his arm round her, whispered, ‘Tell De Groot I don’t want this in the papers. I don’t want to see her in court either when they pick her out of the gutter. We don’t need that and neither does he.’

Then, brightly, ‘Margriet. Alex.’

‘Is everything OK?’ the woman asked. ‘We didn’t mean to interrupt… ’

‘You didn’t. Sit down, please.’ The smile again. ‘Liesbeth is just leaving.’

5

The holding cells of the Prinsengracht courthouse. Basement rooms. No windows. No light. Stale, cold air.

Theo Jansen sat at a plain grey table waiting for his daughter Rosie and freedom. Fifty-nine years old, a giant of a man with the thick white beard of a fallen Santa Claus. When he was nineteen he’d started work as a bouncer for one of the Spui brothels patronized by rich foreigners, corrupt locals and the odd passing Hollywood star. The Seventies were a time of change. Drug liberalization, the consequent dope tourism and the spread of the red-light trade made the mundane profits of brothel-keeping seem tame.

Jansen was a quick apprentice, strong, fit, in the right place. He rose quickly through the gang ranks on the back of his fast fists, even temper, sharp intelligence and steadfast loyalty. Then his boss was cut down in the street during one of the periodic vendettas that gripped the Amsterdam underworld. There was no obvious successor so Theo Jansen, son of a lowly paid line worker from the Heineken brewery, stepped up for the title.

Three further executions, a flurry of generous bribes to politicians local and national, some strong-arm persuasion on the street and the old network was his. Until Pieter Vos came along.

Jansen didn’t hate cops. They had a job to do. Some could be bought. Some could be scared off. Others turned away by subtle coercion brought elsewhere. Vos, a man as relentless as he seemed invisible at times, understood no such pressure. Quietly, doggedly he worked away, chipping at the edges of the city’s criminal empires without fear, pulling in the small fry, offering them the choice between jail or turning informer.

Most chose jail, which was a wise decision. But not all.

The two men had met from time to time. Jansen liked Vos. He was an unconventional, modest man with a downbeat honesty and a fearless, perhaps foolish persistence. The city would always have police officers. Just as it would always be controlled to some extent by criminals. Might as well be one whose honesty could never be questioned.

Then the quiet detective’s world was torn apart and so, in a way Jansen still failed to understand, was his. Three years before the cop fell victim to a personal tragedy that saw him leave the police, a damaged, broken man. Not long after, tempted by Klaas Mulder, Vos’s successor, a small-time crook called Jaap Zeeger, a minnow Jansen barely knew, stood up in court and talked.

‘Liar,’ Theo Jansen spat out loud, just thinking about those weeks he spent in the dock, listening to fabrication upon fabrication. Zeeger, led on by Klaas Mulder, had put him there and still Jansen didn’t understand why.

‘Liar,’ he said again more quietly and then the door opened. Rosie, by her side Michiel Lindeman, the lawyer Jansen had used for a decade or more.

He smiled at his daughter. Thirty-two years old, her mother long gone from his life, vanished from Holland as far as anyone knew. Rosie would never abandon him. She’d stood by her old man throughout, had done since she was a teenager. Did her best to keep what remained of his empire running through a combination of strength and persuasion she’d learned from him over the years. She’d inherited his heavy physique and his outlook. A big, smiling, loud woman who never minced her words. Unlike Michiel Lindeman, a lean, humourless, middle-aged Amsterdam defence brief who’d come to make his name, and his fortune, representing crooks a few others didn’t dare touch.

‘Will I get out today, Michiel?’ Jansen asked watching them sit down.

‘All that money we’ve spent,’ Rosie said, glancing at the lawyer. ‘If Dad’s not home for supper I’ll be asking why.’

Lindeman took the hard cell chair so delicately it looked as if he feared the seat might break his thin and spindly frame. An act. This hard, unforgiving man was indestructible. Plenty had tried.

‘Well?’ Jansen asked again when he got no answer.

‘It’s up to the court. Not me.’

Lindeman always sounded bored. Odd given the money he was getting for every minute of his time.

‘We’ve got the statement from Jaap Zeeger,’ Rosie said. ‘Signed affidavit. Klaas Mulder got all that crap out of him by force. Threats. Beatings.’

‘If Vos had still been there none of this shit would have happened,’ Jansen muttered.

Lindeman laughed.

‘Vos would have got you straight. Be grateful he went crazy before he got the chance.’

Theo Jansen nodded. Before he set up on his own Michiel Lindeman was senior partner in one of the biggest city law firms. Alongside none other than Wim Prins, the new vice-mayor of the city council. The man who got into office by promising to clean up Amsterdam. That made Lindeman more valuable than ever.

‘Get me out of here,’ Jansen said. ‘Book me a meeting with your old friend Prins. We can sort things out. Reach an accommodation. He knows we’re never going away. Tell him he can trust a Dutchman. We’ll both run that Surinamese bastard out of town. Then things can be peaceful again.’

Lindeman shook his head and sighed.

‘You’re a criminal, Theo. Wim Prins can’t click his fingers and get you out. Even if he could… ’

He went quiet. ‘What?’

Lindeman stared at Rosie Jansen and said, ‘Tell him.’

She seemed uncomfortable for some reason.

‘Things are different, Dad. What was ours… maybe isn’t any more. I did my best. I’m not you. Half the men we had are with Menzo now. Those that aren’t are dead or gone.’

‘Not all of them. I get to talk to people inside. I’m not alone in there.’

‘Those people in jail are lying sons of bitches,’ she hissed. ‘Menzo’s putting words in their ugly mouths.’

Jansen could feel himself getting mad.

‘What’s lost I’ll take back. I’ve done it before.’

The lawyer looked round the room, pointed at the shadowy corners.

‘See, Theo. There you go. Talk first, think later. What if this place is wired?’

Jansen shifted on his chair, felt his big shoulders move the way they did when a fight was coming.

‘If they tapped into a private conversation between a man and his lawyer they’d never get to use it. I don’t pay you to be insulted.’ Besides, there was no mike in the room. This was Amsterdam. The courthouse. They did things properly. Carefully. Legally. The Dutch way.

‘You pay me to get you out of here,’ the lawyer replied. ‘To keep you out. If they think for one minute there’s going to be a war that won’t happen.’

‘I’m not guilty!’ Jansen slammed his heavy fist on the table. Then more quietly, ‘Not for that shit Mulder pinned on me.’

Rosie Jansen reached over and took gentle hold of his clenched fingers.

‘We know that. They do too. I want you home. I want you to stay there. You had your time—’

‘My time?’

They’d talked this through before. Reached a deal. He could see it now.

‘You’ve got enough legitimate businesses to keep you comfortable for the rest of your life,’ Lindeman said in a dry, tired tone. ‘Rich and safe. Zeeger’s affidavit doesn’t make you innocent. The best we can hope for is release on bail on the basis of an unsafe conviction. You need to give them something that will get us an appeal. I want to be able to say in private you’re out of De Wallen. Menzo’s taken most of the firms you ran there anyway—’

‘Stolen!’ Jansen bellowed. ‘Thieved behind my back while I was rotting in jail on some trumped-up—’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ his daughter cut in. ‘It’s happened. You can’t turn back the clock. No one can.’

‘I’m your father, Rosie. Don’t you know me?’

Her warm hand tightened on his. Her dark eyes shone at him, pleading.

‘You can’t. If you try they’ll put you back in prison. Me too maybe. It’s not just Wim Prins on our backs now. The government’s coming down on us. Times are changing. They won’t let things pass the way they did.’

‘Throw them some money. That usually works.’ Lindeman shook his head.

‘A lot’s happened in two years. Change of party since you went inside. Change of mood. Not just in the council. Everything we grew up with’s falling to pieces. You’re a dinosaur, Theo. Time to get out of the way before the comet hits.’

Jansen blinked.

‘You think I’ll just roll over and let Jimmy Menzo have it all?’ Lindeman shrugged.

‘If you want to go home and live with your daughter. Enjoy your money. Forget about how things were before. They’re gone for good.’

Rosie smiled at him, looking the way she did when she was five, ten years old. His daughter could always wind him round her little finger and she knew it.

‘That’s what you came to tell me? That I’m an old man and I’m out of it?’

‘Pretty much,’ Lindeman agreed. ‘I’m a lawyer. Not a miracle worker.’

They waited for him to say something. ‘I’ll think about it.’

Rosie wasn’t smiling any more.

‘I said I’ll think about it,’ Jansen repeated.

‘We’ve got a pre-hearing meeting fixed this morning, Dad. They want an answer before it comes in front of the judge.’

‘The court needs to know now,’ Lindeman added. ‘A commitment. A—’

‘A piece of paper?’ Jansen snapped. ‘You want me to sign that? I, Theo Jansen, relinquish all my rights—’

‘We don’t have any rights.’ Her voice was stern and rising. ‘We don’t have anything. We’re screwed. Let’s try and get out of this with a little dignity.’

There were tears welling in her solemn dark eyes and he always hated that.

‘I want you home,’ she said again in a voice so soft and gentle it belied her looks. ‘I want us to enjoy things together. That place you bought in Spain. We never went there. Not once. All the things we never had time for… ’

Jansen leaned back in his chair, looked at the ceiling, the bleak, windowless walls. In his mind he could see the city outside. April. Soon the new herring would be here. He could grab a beer in a brown bar, walk to a canal-side stall, dangle a sliver of raw fish over his mouth, down it like a Pelican the way he did when Rosie was a kid and he wanted to make her laugh. You weren’t supposed to do that in Amsterdam. It was common. But so was he. And she always giggled when he did it. That was enough.

Freedom wasn’t something intangible. It had a taste. You could touch it, smell it. A fifteen-year sentence, ten inside if he was lucky, wasn’t punishment. It was an execution of a kind, cruel and deliberate.

‘You need to say it now,’ Rosie insisted. ‘Michiel has to tell them. If he doesn’t there won’t be a hearing. You go back to jail. And I go home alone. Dad, if you won’t do it for yourself, just do it for me, will you?’


Excerpted from The House of Dolls by David Hewson. Copyright © 2014 by David Hewson.
First published 2014 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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