She knew that she would wet the bed during the night, and she knew Auntie Peggy would be angry.
It was always the same. Whenever she had to sleep at Auntie Peggy’s instead of with her own mother, that’s what happened.
Mami. She wanted to be with Mami. To sleep in her own bed in her own room with her doll Trudi under the duvet and her doll Bamba under her pillow. That’s what ought to happen; and when it did happen and she fell asleep with the lovely smell of Mami in her nostrils, her bed was never wet when she woke up. Well, hardly ever. Auntie Peggy didn’t smell anything like Mami. She didn’t want Auntie Peggy to touch her – and thank goodness, she didn’t do. But they slept in the same room, separated by a big blue curtain with splashes of red and some sort of dragon pattern, or maybe it was snakes; and sometimes other people slept there as well. She didn’t like it.
Neither did Trudi and Bamba. When they slept at Auntie Peggy’s, Trudi had to sleep under the pillow as well, so she didn’t get any pee on her. It was cramped and awkward – but obviously she couldn’t leave her dolls at home as Mami had suggested. Sometimes Mami could come out with the most ridiculous things.
One week, for instance, she had said: You can stay with Auntie Peggy for a week – I have to be away in order to earn lots of money. When I get back you’ll have a new dress and as much ice cream and goodies as you can eat.
A week was a lot of days. She didn’t know how many, but it was more than three and all that time she would have to sleep in that awful room with cars and buses driving past in the street all night long, hooting and braking and rattling non-stop. She would wet the bed, and Auntie Peggy wouldn’t bother to change the sheets, just hang them over the back of a chair to dry during the day – and Trudi and Bamba would be so sad, so very sad, that it simply wasn’t possible to console them, no matter how hard she tried.
I don’t want to be with that awful Auntie Peggy, she thought. I wish Auntie Peggy was dead. If I pray to God and ask Him to take her away and if He does that, I promise not to pee a single drop all night long: and when Mami comes to collect me next morning and takes me home, I won’t need to be here ever again. Never ever.
Do you hear me, God? Please send Mami back to me, and take away all the pee and Auntie Peggy. Kill her, or put her on an aeroplane to Never-Never Land.
She clasped her hands so tightly that her fingers hurt; and Trudi and Bamba prayed along with her as ardently as they possibly could. Perhaps things would turn out as she wished, despite everything.
On his way to work on Wednesday, 3 June, Private Detective Maarten Verlangen bought six cans of beer and six new vacuum-cleaner bags.
The first-named purchase was routine, but the second was exceptional. Not since Martha left him five years ago had his cleaning ambitions soared to such heights, and it was with a slightly unfamiliar feeling of a good conscience that he unlocked the steel door, treated with anti-corrosive paint, and occupied his office.
It was easily done. The room measured four by four by four metres, and no architect the world over would have dreamt of writing the word ‘office space’ on the plans. It was in one of the filthy old tenement houses at the far end of Armastenstraat, next to the railway line, and half a flight of stairs lower than the entrance to the building. It had presumably been intended from the start to be a sort of storeroom for the caretaker – a space where odds and ends needed by the tenants could be kept: spare lavatory furniture, shower hoses, hotplates and other utensils that frequently need replacing.
But now it was an office. Albeit scarcely a fashionable one.
The walls had been covered from the start in dirty, earth-coloured plaster, the floor had been painted dark blue some twenty or thirty years ago, and the only source of natural light was a small sort of porthole at street level, i.e. just below the ceiling. The furniture was simple and functional: a desk and a desk chair. A grey filing cabinet made of sheet steel, a low bookcase, a buzzing 1950s refrigerator, a kettle and a threadbare visitor chair. Hanging on one wall was a calendar advertising a petrol station, and on another a reproduction of a gloomy Piranesi lithograph. The other two walls were bare.
Apart from the calendar, which Verlangen changed with the precision of a sleepwalker every year at the end of January or the beginning of February, the office looked exactly the same as it had done for the last four years. Ever since he had moved in, in other words. One should never underestimate the ability of one’s surroundings to provide one with stability and security, he used to tell himself. One should not despise the dust that the years deposit on our shoulders.
He switched on the ceiling light as the desk lamp was broken, hung up his light windcheater on a hook on the back of the door, and put the beers into the refrigerator.
He sat down on the desk chair and put the vacuum-cleaner bags in the top right-hand drawer of his desk. He had no intention of using them in the office, certainly not. The Melfi vacuum-cleaner he owned – one of the very few items he had retained after the divorce, possibly because it worked about as badly as his marriage had done – was in his flat in Heerbanerstraat. That was where he intended doing the vacuum-cleaning. That was where the limit had been reached. He wondered whether he ought to leave the bags out on the desk: if he put them away there was a risk that they would be forgotten and left in the drawer when he went home after work, but he decided to take that risk. Vacuum-cleaner bags were not among the items a client expected to see in the office of a private detective of repute.
Verlangen’s Detective Agency. That is what it said on a simple but neat and tidy plate on the office door. He had made it himself and enclosed it in a plastic cover: it had taken him a whole morning, but the result didn’t look too bad at all.
He consulted his timetable for the day. He was due to attend a meeting at the insurance company in the afternoon, but that was all. He checked to make sure that there were no messages on the telephone answering machine, then took out a beer from the refrigerator and lit a cigarette.
He checked the clock: ten minutes past ten.
If I don’t have a client before noon, I’ll treat myself to a slap-up lunch at Oldener Maas, then shoot myself in the head, he thought and smiled grimly to himself.
It was a thought that came to him every morning, and one of these days he might actually do it. He was forty-seven years old, and the number of people who would miss him could be counted on the thumb of one hand.
She was called Belle, and was his daughter. Seventeen, almost eighteen. He contemplated her laughing face in the photograph next to the telephone directory, and took another swig of beer. Blinked away the tears that the bitter taste had brought to his eyes, and belched loudly.
How come that a swine like me could have a daughter like her? he wondered.
That was also a frequently recurring thought. Quite a lot of things kept coming back into Maarten Verlangen’s brain. Especially old, complicated questions that were impossible to answer. In occasional moments of clarity, this was a fact that could scare the life out of him.
But there was a remedy for fears that struck in moments of clarity. Luckily. He took another swig of beer and inhaled deeply on his cigarette. Stood up and opened the window. And sat down.
It was now thirteen minutes past ten.
She rang shortly before eleven o’clock, and turned up half an hour later.
Quite a tall woman aged about thirty-five. Auburn, shoulder-length hair. A narrow face with high cheekbones and delicate features. Slim and shapely, with strikingly prominent breasts. She was wearing well-fitting black trousers and a wine-red blouse with very short sleeves. Neatly plucked eyebrows. He thought she was beautiful.
She glanced quickly around the room. Paused for a moment when she registered the Piranesi print before finally focusing on Verlangen’s melancholy physiognomy.
‘Do you mind if we speak English?’
Verlangen explained that he hadn’t forgotten the language during the thirty minutes that had passed since they spoke on the telephone. There was a trace of a smile on her face as she settled down on the visitor chair. She crossed her legs and cleared her throat. Verlangen offered her a cigarette, but she shook her head and instead produced a packet of Gauloises from her red handbag and lit one with an elegant little gold lighter.
‘So you are a private detective, are you?’ Verlangen nodded.
‘There are not so many of those about nowadays, I gather?’
‘There are a few.’
‘Only five here in Maardam.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘I checked the telephone directory.’
‘I don’t suppose they’re all in there.’
‘Really? That’s where I found you anyhow.’
Verlangen shrugged. Noted that she had a small tattoo at the top of her left arm, just underneath the edge of her blouse sleeve. It looked like a swallow. Some kind of bird, at least.
He also noted that she was a little sunburnt. She must have been soaking up quite a lot of sun already, he thought, despite the fact that it’s only the beginning of June. Her skin had a pleasant tone reminiscent of café au lait: he wondered what it would be like stroking it with the tips of his fingers.
But then again, perhaps she was just one of those solarium chicks?
‘What would you like me to help you with?’ he asked.
‘I’d like you to keep an eye on somebody.’
‘Keep an eye on somebody?’
‘Or whatever you call it. I take it that’s one of the things you do?’
‘Of course. And who is it you’d like me to keep an eye on?’
‘Yes. I want you to keep an eye on him for me, for a few days.’
He turned to a new page in his notebook and clicked his ballpoint pen a couple of times.
‘So what’s your name, if I might ask?’
She had declined to give her name over the telephone, and hadn’t introduced herself when she came to his office. She seemed to hesitate for a moment now as well, as she took a drag of her cigarette.
Verlangen noted it down.
‘I’m American. My maiden name is Delgado. I’m married to Jaan G. Hennan.’
He had written as far as the middle initial before pausing.
Jaan G.? he thought. Good Lord! Jaan G. Hennan.
‘We’ve only been living in this country for a couple of months – although my husband comes from Maardam originally. We’re renting a house out at Linden . . . Thirty kilometres from here – I take it you know where it is?’
‘Yes, of course.’
Could there be several people called Jaan G. Hennan? Maybe. But what were the odds against this being one of the others? And how? . . .
‘How much do you charge?’
‘Depends on what?’
‘The kind of work involved. The time it takes. The costs incurred . . .’
‘I want you to keep an eye on my husband for a few days. From morning till night. You won’t have time to undertake any other work.’
‘Why do you want him kept under observation?’
‘I’m not going to go into that. All I want is for you to check what he gets up to, and then report back to me. Okay?’
She raised an eyebrow and looked even more beautiful.
Classic, he thought. I’ll be damned if this isn’t a classic case. It wasn’t often that he felt like Philip Marlowe – not while he was sober, at least. Perhaps he ought to suck away at this sweetie for as long as it lasted . . .
‘It’s not exactly an unusual commission,’ he said. ‘But I do have a number of questions.’
‘Let’s hear them.’
‘Distance and discretion, for instance.’
‘Distance and what . . . ?’
‘How much detail do you want? If he goes to a restaurant, for instance, do you want to know what he eats, who he talks to, what they say . . . ?’
She interrupted him by raising her left hand a few centimetres over the table. The swallow wiggled rather sensually.
‘I understand what you’re saying. It will be sufficient if you tell me what happens in broad outline. If I think any particular circumstances seem to be especially interesting, perhaps I can let you know?’
‘Of course. You are the one who makes the rules. And I assume he is not to know that I’m keeping an eye on him?’
She hesitated again.
‘Might I ask what your husband does for a living?’
‘Business. He runs an import company. Only just started, of course . . . But he did something similar in Denver.’
‘All kinds of things. Computer components, for instance. What does it matter what my husband does for a living? All I want is for you to keep an eye on what he’s up to.’
Verlangen clasped his hands on the table in front of him, and paused briefly.
‘Fru Hennan,’ he said in a tone of voice that he hoped would be interpreted as incorporating masculine firmness, ‘might I draw your attention to the fact that I haven’t yet accepted your commission. You want me to keep your husband under observation, and if I agree to do that I must know exactly what I’m letting myself in for. I’m not in the habit of jumping into whatever comes along with my eyes closed – you wouldn’t last long in my profession if you did that.’
She frowned. He could see that the possibility of him turning her down had never occurred to her.
‘I understand,’ she said. ‘Forgive me. But I assume you are used to acting with a certain degree of . . . discretion?’
‘Of course. Within reasonable limits. But without a knowledge of certain facts I simply can’t do what you want me to do in a satisfactory way. I have to know a little about your husband’s habits. What he does in a normal working day. The places he goes to, the people he meets. And so on. Most of all, of course, I would like to know what is behind all this – why you want to have him kept under observation: but I suppose I could do without that information.’
She made a vague movement of her head from right to left, and looked again at the Piranesi print for a few seconds. ‘Okay, obviously I respect your professional code of practice. As far as his routines are concerned, they are not exactly complicated. As I said, we live in that house out at Linden. He has his office in the centre of Maardam, and he spends six or seven hours there every day. We sometimes have lunch together, if I happen to be in town for some reason or other. I usually prepare the evening meal for seven o’clock, but occasionally he has dinner with business contacts . . . We don’t have many social contacts – we’ve only been living here for a couple of months, after all. Anyway, that’s about it in broad outline. Weekends are obviously rather different – we’re usually together all the time, and so I won’t need your services then.’
Verlangen had been making copious notes as she spoke, but now he scratched the back of his neck as he looked up.
‘What social contacts do you have, in fact?’
She dug out another cigarette.
‘None at all, really. Obviously my husband meets various people in connection with his work, but I only ever come into contact with the Trottas, if you can call it that . . . They are our nearest neighbours – a pair of utter bores, to be honest, but we have at least had dinner together in both our houses. He’s a pilot, she’s a housewife. They have a couple of insufferable children as well.’
Verlangen made a note of the name.
‘Photo?’ he asked. ‘I must have a photograph of your husband.’
She produced a white envelope from her handbag and handed it over. He took out two photographs, both of them 10×15 centimetres.
Jaan G. Hennan stared him in the eye.
Ten years later, but still the same Jaan G., no doubt about that. The photographs seemed to have been taken very recently, probably on the same reel, and both of them in profile – one from the right, the other from the left. The same deep-set eyes. The same austere lips and firm jaw. The same close-cropped dark hair. He put the photographs back into the envelope.
‘All right,’ he said. ‘I’ll do it. Assuming that we can agree on details, of course.’
‘Time. Method. Payment.’ She nodded.
‘Just for a few days, as I said. No more than a couple of weeks in any case. If you could start tomorrow, I’d be grateful . . . What do you mean by “method”?’
‘Twenty-four hours a day or just twelve? The degree of discretion or intrusion – the kind of thing I mentioned earlier.’
She inhaled and blew out a thin stream of smoke as she pondered. Just for a moment he had the feeling that she didn’t normally smoke at all, and had just bought a packet of Gauloises to make an impression on him. Some sort of impression.
‘Whenever he’s not at home,’ she decided. ‘That will be sufficient. From the moment he sets off in the morning until he comes back home – either early or late in the evening.’
‘And you don’t want him to notice me.’
There was another brief pause, and he registered that she still hadn’t quite made up her mind on that point.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Don’t let him see you. If I change my mind about that I’ll let you know. How much do I have to pay?’
He pretended to think about that, and wrote down a few figures in his notebook.
‘Three hundred guilders per day, plus any expenses.’ That did not seem to worry her.
‘Payment for three days in advance. I might have to rent a room in Linden as well . . . When do you want me to report to you?’
‘Once a day,’ she said without hesitation. ‘I’d like you to ring me every day at some time during the morning. I’m always at home in the mornings. If I think it seems necessary, we can meet – but I hope it won’t come to that.’
Verlangen had another ‘why?’ on the tip of his tongue, but he managed to swallow it.
‘Okay,’ he said instead, leaning back on his chair. ‘I take it that we are in agreement. If you can give me your address and telephone number, I can start tomorrow morning . . . And I need the advance, of course.’
She took out a dark-red purse and produced two five hundred-guilder notes. And a business card.
‘A thousand,’ she said. ‘Let’s round it up to a thousand for the time being.’
He took the money and the card. She stood up and reached out her hand over his desk.
‘Thank you, herr Verlangen. I’m very grateful that you could take on this job. It will . . . It will make my life easier.’
Will it really? he thought as he shook her hand. How? She was looking him straight in the eye for a long fraction of a second, and he wondered once again what it would feel like to touch some other part of her body than the firm and pleasantly cool palm of her hand.
‘I shall do my best,’ he promised.
She smiled, turned on her heel and left his office.
He remained standing, listening to her footsteps as she walked up the stairs. It almost felt as if he were waiting for some sort of curtain to fall.
Then he opened the refrigerator and took out a beer.
Excerpted from The G File by Håkan Nesser. Copyright © 2003 by Håkan Nesser. English translation copyright © Laurie Thompson 2014.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Mantle, 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.