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Authors: Marion Pauw

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BOOK: Girl in the Dark
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CHAPTER 2
IRIS

I am a professional. Or, at least, I start each day resolving to be. Even when that includes having to represent middle-aged men who do nasty things to naive young women and fatten their wallets while doing so.

I had agreed to meet Peter van Benschop at one of those overpriced restaurants in the Financial District. He was seated by the window, tapping away on his smartphone. It must be said that Peter van Benschop was a lot less dignified than the rest of the Van Benschops. The only child not involved in the family's thriving shipbuilding business.

“Mrs. Kastelein, so nice to meet you.” He rose to his feet and spoke so loudly that I wondered if he had a hearing problem. His handshake was, predictably, crushing.

We sat. I slung my handbag over the back of my chair, folded my hands, and said politely, “Mr. Van Benschop, what can I do for you?”

A waiter came and inquired what we would like to drink. I asked for a glass of fresh orange juice. Van Benschop ordered a double espresso.

“I take it you've had a look at the case?”

“I've read the letter from the plaintiff's lawyers, yes.”

With a smirk: “And the DVDs?”

“I have received those, too.”

“And?”

“It isn't my favorite form of entertainment, let's leave it at that. But from a legal point of view it's an interesting case.”

“You think I'm a pervert, don't you? A dirty old man.”

“Is that how you would describe yourself?”

“No, but that's how
you
see me.”

I gave it some thought. He had a point. But then I smiled and said, “You're not that old, surely.”

“Go on, admit it. You find me revolting. You think I like to hurt women. And yet I get stacks of fan mail from women. Highly educated, intelligent women like yourself.”

The waiter brought us our drinks. “Have you had a chance to look at the menu?”

“I'd like a cup of tomato soup, please,” I said.

“The club sandwich with fries. Ketchup, hold the mayo.”

The waiter nodded pleasantly and left us.

“There are plenty of mixed-up people in the world. Even women. As your fan mail just goes to show.” I took a slow sip of my OJ.

He laughed. “Do you have to be mixed-up to like sex, Iris?”

“No, but your sexual tastes are a bit more . . . extreme, wouldn't you say?”

“Well, guess what, Iris? Women like it. A lot.”

“Some
deeply troubled
women, maybe,” I said.

“Don't those women have a right to some fun, too, some pleasure in their lives?”

I couldn't help but speak my mind, although I would definitely hear about it later from Rence. “So now you're some sort of philanthropic do-gooder concerned with the psychological welfare of your fellow man?”

“Maybe.”

“Let's talk about your case. Are you aware that using underage actors in X-rated films is illegal? It's child porn.”

“Her ID said she was eighteen. And her cunt was definitely of age. No question about that.”

I wished Van Benschop would keep the volume down a bit. “Do you mean to say she had a forged ID? Did you keep a copy of it?”

“Sure.”

“I need to see it. As soon as possible.”

“Tsk. That's a problem. My partner has it.”

“In that case, could you ask
your partner
to produce it for me? If we can show that the girl—”


Girl,
my ass. Young woman. I insist that you call her a ‘young woman.' ”

I gave him what I hoped was a resolute smile. “If we can show that the
young woman
misled you with forged identity papers, that would seriously decrease the chance you'll be found guilty of producing child porn. And besides, it would prove the
young woman
had participated of her own free will.”

“My partner disappeared—with the contracts and a portion of my investment.” Van Benschop slurped his espresso and laughed. “But don't you worry, you'll get your money. And maybe I'll even throw in some extra for a little celebration afterward. Have you ever been to the Bahamas?”

I wondered again why I had been assigned this case. My boss had argued that assigning a female attorney to Van Benschop was a brilliant move. And Martha Peters, the other partner at the firm, just happened to be
too busy
, even though she was the one supposedly handling all the Van Benschop family's affairs, and making a big hoopla about it, too.

“To get back to your case: the fact that you don't have access to a copy of the ID does make it a bit harder. I take it that the”—I
was going to say “victim” but managed to control myself—“the
young woman
signed a release, a quitclaim detailing the nature of her”—again I had to search for the right word—“work?”

My phone started buzzing in my pocket. I glanced under the table at the number on the screen. It was the one I dreaded more than any other number in the world: Aaron's day care.

“You really ought to go there sometime, the Bahamas. The ocean's simply glorious,” Peter van Benschop continued.

“Excuse me. I have to take this.” I stood up and walked outside. “Hello?”

“It's Mika.” Her voice sounded hysterical. I knew exactly how she felt, even if all I could think was:
Please, not now. Just deal with it yourselves. Let me do my job. Please.

“Aaron's gone ballistic. He was coloring, and when one of the younger kids snatched away his crayons he bit her hard. Broke the skin—she was bleeding and everything. Now he's bonking his head on the floor and won't stop. Petra says you've got to come pick him up.
Now
.”

It was clear there was no point trying to negotiate. Let alone say, “I spend a substantial portion of my after-tax income entrusting my child to your care three days a week. Can't you just see it through for once?”


Now
, Iris,” she repeated. As if I hadn't heard. “Not in half an hour. Right now
.

“I'll do my best.”

The first person I called was the Procreator, even though I knew there wasn't much point. I'd heard from mutual acquaintances that he liked to complain tearfully about how little he saw of his son. But I got his voice mail, as usual. Next I called my mother. She was having a pedicure but promised to come pick up Aaron from my house as soon as her toenails were dry.

“Can't you come sooner than that? I'll treat you to another pedicure. I'll throw in champagne and a foot massage. Please?”

“Sorry, darling. I just can't.”

I wished that I could say the same thing. How wonderful it would be to say, “I just can't”! “Mother, I'm with a client. Do you have any idea what it looks like if I just get up and leave?”

“You don't really expect me to drop everything, do you? I'm happy to help, and I do that often enough, in case you've forgotten. But Aaron is
your
responsibility. You
are
his mother, after all.”

“No need to tell
me
,” I snapped. I noticed Peter van Benschop observing me through the window with an amused expression on his face. He raised both hands as if to say,
What's keeping you?
I turned my back on him. At the same time I heard my mother snort, “Well?”

“Sorry.” I hated having to apologize to her. Which happened all too frequently. “Okay, I'll pick him up and take him home, but please come get him as soon as you can. Please?”

“I'll do my best,” she said loftily.

I hung up, and instead of screaming and hurling a brick through the window at Van Benschop's aggravating mug, I took a deep breath. I squared my shoulders and marched back inside.

“I started without you,” said Van Benschop as he motioned to the food that had appeared while I was on the phone. “It was taking so long.” His top lip had a piece of lettuce stuck to it.

“I'm so sorry, but you'll have to excuse me. It's an emergency.”

“Your kid, I'll bet.”

“I'll call you this afternoon to make another appointment. Again—so sorry.”

“Single mother. It's easy to tell. I'm an expert at reading women. I can also tell that you prefer black underwear. And I bet you try
reading at night before going to sleep but you always nod off with the book in your hands.”

I suppressed a sigh of annoyance. “I'll pay the check.”

He grabbed me by the wrist. “I've never let a woman pick up the check in my life. I'm not about to start.”

“Company policy.” I jerked my arm loose and took out my credit card. “I'll call you this afternoon.”

I'd been told that a child enhances your emotional life. There was some kernel of truth in that. Ever since I'd had Aaron, I was often overtaken by a feeling of total incompetence.

It was the third time this month I'd had to pick up Aaron up early because he'd misbehaved. There had been other incidents as well, but my mother had been able to fill in.

I was thinking about the Procreator, who only had to worry about his son every other weekend but somehow still considered himself to be the perfect gentleman. After all, he had legally acknowledged the kid as his, and he did pay 250 euros a month in child support. It felt like hush money. We had contributed equally to Aaron's conception, yet my life had changed forever while he was able to go on just as before.

I could have spared myself a lot of misery if I hadn't had Aaron. But I was fourteen weeks along when I discovered I was pregnant. That's what you get when you work sixty hours a week. You don't have time to keep tabs on your menstrual cycle. Meetings, reports, lawsuits, deals all coming at you in such rapid succession that in the end you have no idea what you're doing, and yet somehow or other you manage to get it all done, and done damn well, too.

I had an ultrasound. On the monitor I saw little arms and legs waving. A heart beating. A real baby. How could I have that removed?

The Procreator hadn't been charmed, to put it mildly, by the prospect of fatherhood; he gave me hell for it, claiming the kid
probably wasn't his anyway,
since he certainly wasn't the only one I'd slept with. Didn't I want an abortion? he had asked. He had even offered to help pay for it, which was ridiculous, seeing that abortion is free in the Netherlands. He wrapped up his argument with the complaint that it had been the worst sex he'd ever had. My career, my figure, my entire life down the drain, and then to have to listen to that kind of crap . . . I didn't want to let it get to me, because it was so terribly childish. But it
did
get to me. So I told the Procreator he could go fuck himself.

Back in those days I still had some sort of survival instinct. I might be alone, but I was young, strong, and smart; I could handle it. I'd be the poster child for the tough, independent woman with a simply
adorable
child. I'd be mother and father, both caretaker and provider. I was proud of my swelling belly. Wept with joy when I first held Aaron in my arms. Wept with despair when a few days later I hadn't snatched more than two hours of sleep in a row.

One month after Aaron's birth I received a letter. The Procreator was indignantly demanding to have contact with his child. I didn't object.

He paid us a visit, with his mother. She had a grim, determined look in her eyes; the Procreator came trotting along behind. I wasn't in the mood to offer them baby-blue-and-white sugar sprinkles on toast to mark the happy arrival of a newborn.

Without asking, the Procreator's mother snatched Aaron out of the crib and shoved him into her son's arms. He just stood there. He had no idea what he was supposed to do with the baby, and I had no idea what to say. But his mother did. She had the whole scenario down pat. In a solemn voice she intoned, “This is your daddy, Aar
on
,” pronouncing the name wrong, with the emphasis on the last syllable. I'd have giggled if I hadn't been so exhausted.

“It's
Aa
ron,” I said.

“We'll need to get used to your name, of course,” she cooed at the baby.

“Mother, please,” said the Procreator. To me he said, “I like his name—
Aa
ron.”

We smiled at each other cautiously.

Since then the Procreator and I had found a way to get along. As it turned out, we were quite capable of exchanging information in a normal conversational tone, along the lines of “Aaron's already had his bottle,” or “He refused to go to sleep, and then he smeared poop all over the walls.” Sometimes we'd even have a cup of coffee together, although the Procreator was determined not to give me
any hope
—as a mutual friend informed me.

I had been attracted to the Procreator only once in my life, and that was after the consumption of a fair number of cocktails at a New Year's Eve party four years earlier. The arrogance of the man, to assume I was just dying to have a relationship with him, irked the hell out of me. Still, I was glad he didn't want to give me
any
hope
. The alternative, it seemed to me, would have been exhausting.

When I arrived at the day care center, Aaron was in a corner, playing with a stack of brightly colored blocks. When he caught sight of me, a big smile came over his face. “Mommy!” He ran clumsily up to me, the way three-year-olds do, and flung his arms around my neck. I picked him up and cuddled him. He smelled so good—I could have picked his smell out of millions.

“Hey, sweetie pie! Having fun?”

Aaron proceeded to demonstrate to me how a tower of blocks collapses if you pull out the bottom one.

“Clever boy!”

He was immediately so intent on his game that he didn't notice me walking away. Petra, Mika, and Emily were preparing fruit for snack time on the kitchen island in the center of the space.

“All appears to be well now,” I said to Petra, the buxom mother superior of the team of twentysomething, pierced-navel day care workers, none of whom I could believe would actually want to spend their days doling out Play-Doh to a gaggle of three-year-olds.

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