Authors: Peter Terrin
Tags: #FICTION / Dystopian
An imprint of Quercus
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Â© 2009 by Peter Terrin/De Arbeiderspers
English translation Â© 2012 by David Colmer
The translation of this book was funded by the Flemish Literature Fund (
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Cover design by James Nunn
Photograph of gun Â© Filmowe Efekty Specjalne
Photograph of fly Â© Andrey Armyagov
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, institutions, places, and events are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual personsâliving or deadâevents, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For V. and R.
“We have to see this through to the end.”
Resupplying makes Harry nervous. Even though we know our way blindfold, he folds the basement floor plan out on the table: one hundred and twenty parking spaces spread over forty secure garages, one for each of the thousand-square-meter luxury apartments. It would have been smarter to make the basement a simple rectangle. Perhaps that wasn't possible because of the building's construction and foundations. I'm no engineer. Still, a rectangular design with the parking spaces arranged neatly down the long sides would have made security a lot simpler. Harry suspects that the irregular layout was designed to meet the clients' requirements. With comfort and privacy taking priority. You know how these things go, he says.
I catch a whiff of his agitation. The smell of walnut, fresh walnuts that have just fallen from the tree, with hard, green hulls. We study the floor plan together. I lay a hand on his shoulder, realize that's not a good idea and pull it back. It's quiet. Out of habit, I touch the weapon at my hip; there's no direct danger. I take a step to one side so that the bare bulb can light every corner of the plan.
“So he comes in here.”
He points at the entrance, which is four meters wide and designed to withstand a missile impact. It's the building's only entrance. Apparently the ground floor is hermetically sealed: no windows or doors. For security reasons, we have neither a digital pass nor an infrared key, and the scanners don't recognize our fingerprints. We have to remain in the basement and guard the entrance at all times. Outside, on the other side of the gate, our authorization no longer applies.
“He'll open the gate and drive the van into the basement. You take up position at Garage 3. In clear view. Keeping him covered at all times. Okay?”
I nod. “Okay.”
“I'll ask for his ID and a confirmation. At my signal, you walk to the rear of the van. This is where it gets tricky. We have to be on our toes. When he swings open the doors, we have a fraction of a second to assess the situation.”
“No time to talk,” I add. “Each of us, separately, decides whether or not to open fire. But if one of us opens fire, the other joins in unconditionally.”
Harry puts his hands in the small of his back and leans back with his head and shoulders to ease the tension in his spine. “Dead right,” he says. When he bends forward again I see a loose thread in the seam of his uniform, a cheerful little curl poking out of the sharp line of his jacket, about twenty centimeters below his armpit. I don't mention it for now. I can do that later when we've gone through the plan in full detail. The rest of the plan comes first. Resupplying is just two days away.
I'm lying on the bunk bed, the bottom one, my pillowcase giving off the fresh smell of liquid soap. I will probably fall asleep soon. Our room is next to the first elevator. There are only three elevators for forty floors: an extremely fast elevator for the residents, an extremely fast service elevator and a reasonably fast elevator for visitors. Our room is small, but that is seldom, if ever, a problem. After all, we're always working. We sleep one after the other for five hours each. That's enough, we're trained for it. If one of us gets too tired, he can lie down for quarter of an hour. I can't recall it ever
happening, but it's reassuring that the organization has taken the eventuality into account.
The door is half open, the glow of the emergency lighting, which starts five meters away, is visible on the bunkroom floor. Outside, far beyond this building's thick walls, it is quiet and peaceful. At least, I can't hear anything: no rumbling, no explosions, no uproar. Nothing at all. I can't feel any vibrations in the ground either. We don't have an overview of the situation from in here. It is impossible for us to imagine what the conditions outside are really like. They're actually irrelevant. Our task is here in the basement, at the entrance.
Harry is on watch, sitting on the chair next to the door. Now and then he stands up and walks around in a small circle. When he passes the doorway his shadow darkens the room. He checks the cartridge clip of his weapon, then slides it back into the magazine with a loud click. Although I can't see him, I know that he is extending his arm, holding the pistol out in front of him. Possibly supporting one hand with the other. His right eye trained on the bead and the sights, his index finger cradling the trigger.
I lay the steaming loaf on a tea towel on a plate to let it cool down. I use the bread maker almost every day; it's dead easy and the bread is delicious, well worth it. The machine is a cast-off from the Olano family apartment and was meant to go out with the garbage.
I tell Harry he'll have to be patient.
Reluctantly, he walks out of the room to resume his position on the chair next to the door. A little later he pokes his head around the corner.
“You can smell it past Garage 4,” he says.
Garage 4 is furthest away from our room.
“The smell of concrete's gone from the whole basement. It's like walking around in a giant loaf of bread.”
I think about when I was little and dreamt about a bath that was filled to overflowing with chocolate milk. I didn't get out until I'd drunk it all. At school I kept sucking my fingers to get the faint, residual taste of chocolate from under my nails.
I notice that I'm hesitant about telling Harry about my dream, but can't immediately say why. Perhaps it's just because here, obviously, we have no access to chocolate.
The shiny toe of one of my shoes pops into the bottom of my field of vision every time I take a step. The blue trouser leg slides easily over the leather and falls back into its crease. I count us very lucky that we found liquid soap and a good supply of shoe polish in the staff general storage area, an improvised cubicle on our floor. The products weren't intended for the residents' clothes and shoes, but for the personal use of the staff; that's why we thought it, given the circumstances, completely acceptable for us to use them too. Ordinary shoe polish and barrels of bleaching liquid soap without any particular perfume, unless it's the neutral smell of cleanliness.
Harry and I are walking alongside each other. We are following the perimeter of the open space in the middle of the basement, hardly cutting any corners, keeping our hands behind our backs. It's not strolling; the pace we maintain is slow but steady. We keep silent so that we can judge each noise correctly, quickly locating its source. Our caps, blue with the organization's emblem embroidered on the front, are perched on our heads at the prescribed angle. The length of our steps differs but now and then, involuntarily,
we march in time for a couple of meters. The effect reminds me of pealing bells that disentangle more and more until all of the clappers strike the bronze together: just once, twice at most.
There was a time I counted my footsteps during every round of inspection, over and over again. I counted them in my head and then added the result, in my head, to the previous total. I never wrote anything down. I think it was the dedication that appealed to me, the concentration. I thought it would hone my attention. I no longer count because the reverse was true: it distracted me from my work. All things considered, counting footsteps was an exercise in futility.
We complete three inspection rounds then take a break. Harry sits on the chair, I sit on the stool. We sit either side of the bunkroom door, which is ajar. Harry hasn't slept well; I heard him tossing and turning. The slight bags under his eyes won't go away. Last night I cut off the loose thread in the seam of his jacket. His uniform is back in tip-top condition, the way it should be.
“Shall we run through the resupplying again?” he asks.
“Seems like a good idea to me,” I say.
We stay sitting there in the silence of the basement.
The emergency lighting is made up of sixteen light fittings on the ceiling and they all work, as dim as the tubes may be, which is nothing short of a miracle. With the exception of Number 22, all of the garages are closed. Remote controls are reserved for the apartment owners' personal assistants. It wasn't the first time Mrs. Privalova's assistant forgot to close the garage after fetching the Bentley.
“The organization sometimes tests its own guards,” Harry says.
“What do you mean?”
“You can count on it,” he says. “It couldn't be any other way, if you think about it. Random checks, you know the kind of thing.” He rubs his forehead with his right hand, thumb and fingers pushing the skin back and forth. “All businesses practice quality control. It's normal. Every business sets its own standards that have to be reached or maintained under all circumstances. Quality control is achieved through random checks. What is the organization, if not a business with a product?”
During my entire period of training I didn't hear a word about random checks. No one ever mentioned it. That's why, after a few seconds, their existence seems very plausible.
Harry slides his cap back, then forward again. “If the organization wants to secretly carry out random checks, I can only think of one possibility: standard situations.”
He means resupplying, the only standard situation we deal with. He says, “We have to be twice as alert. In a way we have two enemies to fear.”
I go into our room to get a piece of bread. Although I know that no one can see me, I am very aware of my movements. Back on the stool, I chew the bread slowly. I look out over a bare concrete surface, extending approximately one hundred meters. I avoid looking into the darkness beyond it.
“The nice bit,” Harry says suddenly, “what's clever of the organization, is that it's impossible for the random checks to ever come out. Either it ends well and everything's okay and no situation results, or it ends badly and, in that case, the incompetent guards were simply ambushed. You follow? Who in their right mind would accuse the organization of attacking its own men? Especially if there's casualties. Nobody, right!”
He smiles at his own conclusion.
At the same time his smile says it's an organization we can be proud to be a part of.
I ask about the elite, if they get tested too.
“You bet, Michel. I suspect they have even more random checks to deal with than we doÂ .Â .Â . Of course they do, that goes without
saying. The elite are the organization's calling card. The apex in security. That calling card has to be irreproachable. It can't have the slightest blemish. It has to be dazzling white.”
He stands up and walks into the bunkroom, where he unfurls the basement floor plan. He's stopped smiling. “I can assure you that we will not miss out on promotion because of laxness during a standard situation.” His voice sounds cold, as if I've insulted him. “That would be really stupid, don't you think, after all this time?”
I stick the key in the lock and turn it twice. The storeroom adjoins the bunkroom; this is my second inspection today. On the left, on three shelves attached to the wall with metal brackets, the boxes are arranged in battle order. Placed at right angles to the shelves, they are all marked Winchester. The caliber is printed on the short side: 9mm Luger (Parabellum). Above that, a cowboy gallops to the edge of the white box, his upper body leaving an orange trail, his horse, a red one. The brand name is printed in the red stripe, the letters sloping to the right as if caught in the horse's slipstream.
I see at a single glance that all of the boxes are present. I recognize the total picture, the complete array of ammunition. To be on the safe side, I count them, per shelf, my index finger brushing over the boxes. Three times fifteen makes forty-five.
I pick up the first box. Its weight in my hand feels right, familiar. It opens easily. After all this time, the box is loose around the flap. Gleaming cartridges, upright and neatly aligned, showing me multiple reflections of my silhouette. My index finger counts one row of five, then ten rows. Ten fives are fifty. I close the box, put it on the shelf and slide the second box out of the row. The weight feels right. The flap slips out with virtually no resistance.
After the inspection, I check the supplies on the shelves on the other wall. Our rationing is going according to plan. We still have one bottle of water left for the next twelve hours; we haven't touched the purification tablets. Shoe polish, liquid soap, toilet paper. Two kilos of powdered milk. We've used up the yeast and flour, but there's half a loaf of bread in our room.
I turn off the light and lock the door.
I inform Harry of the results of the count. We remove our Flock 28s from our hip holsters and take turns to push in the magazine catch and let the cartridge clip slide out of the pistol, counting the bullets in silence. After I've nodded to Harry, he repeats the result of my inspection out loud and says, “Plus two times fifteen.”
I do the first part of the night, sitting on the chair and keeping still. After a while I detect a noise that is only just audible over the hum of the lights. When I turn my head toward my left shoulder, it fades. The acoustics in the basement are strange. I don't find it necessary to wake up Harry. It's a blessing he's been able to fall asleep.
I decide to do a round to keep my head clear and set off in the reverse direction; my footsteps echo back from the basement's furthest corners. When I stop, it takes a moment for the last echoes to die out. Surrounded by bare walls and with sounds bouncing back at me from all sides, would I be able to distinguish the steps of other feet if they were hitting the ground at the same time as mine?
As uncertain as my answer may be, the question doesn't disturb me: having asked it means I'm still thinking. I have a strong suspicion that bad guards eventually stop thinking about their situation. Habituation is a stealthy foe.
I put one eye to the narrow crack to the right of the entrance gate and peer through it. The missing sliver of concrete probably broke off while the steel groove for the gate was being mounted. As it's dark outside, I can hardly see a thing. What I think I can see is a product of my imagination; the view is imprinted on my memory. A section of wall tapering up to street level. Above it, a round treetop silhouetted against a patch of sky. The treetop reminds us of the seasons.