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Authors: Marion Pauw

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BOOK: Girl in the Dark
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CHAPTER 5
RAY

I'd been to see shrinks before. Several times, in fact. They'd evaluated me at the Peter Baan Center for Behavioral Health. After days of interrogation by cops screaming their heads off at me, I'd been prepared for the worst. But these shrinks acted like I was their friend. They said they were trying to understand me. They'd nod at anything I said, or they'd make approving
mm hmm
noises.

Those conversations were nice. I'd never been much of a talker, but after everything that had happened, I liked getting it all out.

The report was read out at the trial. How could I have known they'd turn against me? The only shrink I'd ever seen before had been the one at the Mason Home. And that one had been real nice. He'd ask questions like “How are you?” Though I never knew how to answer that. I did feel pretty okay, generally. Sometimes I'd get angry or scared. But usually I felt fine. So that's what I'd tell him, and then we'd talk about the birds in the woods and which shark species was the most dangerous, the great white or the bull. But he never told people behind my back that I was crazy. Because they can come up with all the difficult words they like, but that's what it's about: Are you crazy or aren't you?

Dr. Römerman shook my hand and made me sit down on a
chair across from him. There was a pair of horn-rimmed reading glasses on his desk. And a thick file.

“You've been here for several hours, Mr. Boelens. What's your first impression?”

I had no idea what to say.

“Do you know why you are here?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Can you explain it—in your own words?”

“Who else's words would I explain it in?”

He smiled. “Fair enough, Ray. In that case I'll ask you simply to tell me why you are here.”

“Because I was sentenced by the judge. And because my prison term is based on me coming here.”

“And what were you convicted of?”

“The murder of Rosita and Anna Angeli. On May 17, 2003. I don't know what time it happened.”

He jotted something down on a piece of paper. I tried to read what he wrote so I wouldn't be unpleasantly surprised later by words like
psychotic, compulsive, obsessive,
or
dysfunctional.

“Do you know today's date?

“Sure do.”

“Can you tell me what it is?”

“June first.” I glanced at my watch. “It's three
P.M.
or, to be precise, two minutes and twenty-three seconds past three. What else do you want to know?”

“You are very exact.”

I nodded.

He wrote something down again. His handwriting was cramped and illegible. That in itself was worrying.

“Do you have any questions?”

I was briefly taken aback. It hadn't occurred to me that I might
be allowed to ask questions, too. Once I got used to the idea, I could think of only one question.

“Is keeping fish allowed? I have a saltwater aquarium.”

“I'll have to check on that. Do you like taking care of animals? Are you a caring sort of person?”

“I am.”

“Are you good at taking care of people as well?”

It was a red-flag question. The kind of question the people at the Peter Baan Center had asked. An apparently casual question, but later they'd draw all kinds of terrible conclusions from your answer. I decided not to respond and focused instead on the horn-rimmed glasses.

“Whom have you taken care of in the past?” the doctor tried again.

“Dunno.”

Dr. Römerman leaned back, arms crossed. “I see. Don't you know, or would you rather not answer the question?”

“All I want is my aquarium. That, or to get out of here as soon as possible.”

“Of course you want to return to your normal life. And that certainly is a possibility, but in order for that to happen, quite a few things have to happen first.”

“Quite a few things?”

“To start with, I need your full cooperation. So when I ask you a question, you must try to answer it.”

“I've answered thousands of questions, but the answer stays the same: it isn't my fault Rosita and Anna are dead. And yet I'm still here.”

“Mr. Boelens, I'm not here to play the judge. We could spend ages debating your guilt or innocence. However, we both know perfectly well that something's not quite right with you.”

I shook my head. If I'd tried to make one thing clear since Anna's and Rosita's murders, it was that I was
normal
. Normal enough, anyway. “There's nothing the matter with me! When will you all finally get that through your heads!” I slammed my fist on the desk. Dr. Römerman's horn-rimmed glasses jumped in the air.

The doctor didn't move a muscle. “Again, we are not detectives. We aren't going to revisit the work of the police or the judge. So whether you are guilty or innocent is not pertinent. I will tell you, however, that it's not advisable to keep denying your offense. It might lengthen your stay here even more.”

I tried to take in what he said.

“If you are convinced of your innocence, you can of course file an appeal with the Supreme Court. If there is reasonable doubt, the judge may find in your favor. But even in that case, good behavior will count. That means going to therapy, taking your medicine, and no aggressive outbursts, verbal or physical. And that applies doubly during our sessions. You don't want me to give you a negative write-up, do you?”

I had to go along with something I didn't agree with. But if I didn't go along with it, things would get even worse. It was always the same story.

“Your first evaluation hearing will take place in two years. And if indeed there is nothing wrong with you, as you claim, you will be allowed to leave the hospital.”

Two years was a long time. But less time than eight years in prison. “What do I have to do to get out of here?”

“You'll have to follow the rules.”

I could do that. I could do that no problem, in fact. “And what else?”

Dr. Römerman gave it some thought. “You like writing letters, don't you? I understand you are very good at it. Your first assignment,
then, is to write a letter to your neighbor”—he rummaged through his papers a moment—“Rosita.”

“She's dead. Why would I write a letter to someone who's dead?”

“Just pretend you're writing a letter to her in heaven.”

“But she's dead.”

He sighed. “Just pretend she's alive, then.”

“What am I supposed to write?”

“That's your decision. Just write whatever comes to you. Tell her what you think about her. What you're feeling. How you are holding up. How you feel about . . . what
transpired
.”

I nodded.

“You may hand in the letter the day after tomorrow, at our next session. But if you need more time, later in the week or next week is fine, too.”

More time. The last thing I needed was more time. But I thought about the full cooperation I'd be showing him and said, “I'll get it done.”

CHAPTER 6
IRIS

My meeting with Peter van Benschop was scheduled for ten thirty. He arrived right on time, dressed in jeans and an expensive-looking sky-blue jacket.

I had an intern bring him a coffee and took the seat across from him.

“Right, Mr. Van Benschop. I have gone over your case thoroughly.”

“So? What did you think? Have you watched the DVDs finally? Can I interest you in a nice little part in my next production? MILFs are a hot seller these days.”

“Actually, I was more interested in the legal aspect.”

“I haven't told your boss you walked out on me yesterday. I told him we had a very fruitful conversation.” He winked. “So now you're really going to take good care of me, aren't you?”

I swallowed my annoyance. “Yes, of course. Let's discuss the case, then?”

“All right, go ahead. So, how does it look?” He took out a notebook.

“To put it bluntly: not good.” I gave a nice long pause, in the hope that it would alarm him and he'd stop acting like a clown.
“The risks you're facing are serious enough to incline me to advise you to settle.”

He was quiet for a moment. I was pleased to see his face fall. He started tapping the cap of his gold fountain pen nervously. “What does that entail?”

“You might have to take it down from the Internet. And pay Miss De Boer some kind of compensation.”

“I've already paid her. Two thousand euro. Nothing to sneeze at, I'd say.”

“Let's go over the case point by point, shall we?”

He tapped his pen again a few times. Then wrote the word
SETTLE
in block letters in the notebook in front of him.

“We are facing a number of possible grounds on which a judge could convict you. The first is the production and distribution of child porn.” I saw him dutifully jot down
CHILD PORN
.

“Also sexual abuse, rape, and perhaps even attempted murder.” I paused to give him time to write down those keywords, too.

“Miss De Boer will most likely accuse you of forcing her to participate. She'll claim that she was naive and that you twisted her arm.”


She
was the one who came to
me,
actually.”

“Can you prove it?”

He took time to consider this. “I don't know. Maybe.”

“I'd be interested to find out. If you are unable to produce incontrovertible proof to that effect, a judge will be inclined to believe the plaintiff's story. After all, an eighteen-year-old girl tends to evoke more sympathy than a middle-aged man with a paunch in rather-too-tight leather pants, wouldn't you say?” I accompanied this with a friendly smile. Peter van Benschop didn't flinch.

“Let's first discuss the fact that Miss De Boer was a minor at the time of her employment. Filming sexual acts with a minor is a
punishable offense. It is also a crime to
pay
a minor for performing sexual acts. Consensual sex with persons over the age of sixteen is legal. But paying for it, which puts it into the category of prostitution, is not.”

“Ridiculous, isn't it?”

“Do you think so? Do you have children, Mr. Van Benschop?”

He shook his head. “Not as far as I know.”

“I didn't think so. Anyway, the one advantage you do have is that the girl didn't look like a minor.”


Young woman,
remember?” Peter van Benschop was sounding quite agitated. “Young woman. And she had a lot of street smarts, if you know what I mean.”

I ignored his remark and went on drily, “Besides, the films you made weren't intended as child porn and weren't marketed as such.”

“No, I don't do child porn. Never have, either.” He smirked as if he deserved a Nobel Prize.

“That's good, Mr. Van Benschop.”

Again he gave his pen a few taps.

“Producing child porn is a crime. The fact that Miss De Boer chose not to pursue criminal charges against you is not to her advantage. It will certainly raise questions in a judge's mind as to her motives.”

Van Benschop was nodding enthusiastically. In the dumps one moment, cheerful the next. Just like a little kid.

“The question is, why did she lodge a civil complaint? Why didn't she go to the police? I think it can only mean one thing.”

My client leaned forward in order not to miss one word.

“She wants money. A criminal case is one brought by the public prosecutor against the accused. A civil case is where one citizen sues another citizen. As is the case here.”

Van Benschop wrote the words
CRIMINAL
and
CIVIL CASE
.

“Now, it is possible to have a civil case heard in criminal court. In that case, the judge's decision will include victim compensation. However, in those cases the compensation is usually not all that great. Leading me to conclude that Miss De Boer has chosen the civil court because she wants money—a lot of it.”

“It's always the same story,” Peter van Benschop said wearily.

“And you should thank your lucky stars. Because if Miss De Boer were to have you prosecuted, I'd have to wait on the judge. If the judge ruled that rape was involved, or sexual abuse, or one of the other punishable offenses I mentioned, then you could easily get four or more years in jail. And who knows what else might come out once the police start digging into your affairs.”

“Such as?”

“You tell me. You mentioned yesterday that you like to go to the Bahamas. May I conclude from that that you keep your money in a foreign bank account?”

He didn't reply.


That's
what I mean.”

Peter van Benschop tapped his fountain pen one more time and underlined the word
SETTLE
in his notebook.

CHAPTER 7
RAY

I wanted to please the doctor so I could go home. But I couldn't get any words on paper. That night in bed I felt as if I was back in Pain de Provence, the French bakery on Princess Irene Street where I used to work. In the seventies, the baker, Pierre Henri, had followed his summer-romance girlfriend Margaret home to the Netherlands and set up his patisserie in a blue-collar neighborhood. Back in those days, the locals had never tasted a croissant, baguette, or brioche before; they wouldn't even know how to find Provence on a map. But Pain de Provence became a big success anyway. There was an ever-growing line of patrons coming from the fancy neighborhoods on the other side of town.

When he couldn't manage the bakery by himself anymore, Pierre took me on as his apprentice. Margaret, now his wife, manned the store, and had such a loud voice that we could literally hear every single order. “Four plain and two chocolate croissants for the lady. Coming right up.”

“Pff, croissants in the afternoon,” Pierre would say. “You Dutch people are crazy! In France I sell maybe a hundred fifty croissants a day. Here, five, six hundred, and sometimes even a thousand on the weekend. You people are
vraiment
crazy about croissants.”

Nothing I'd learned in baking school was useful, or even correct, according to Pierre. For example, at school we'd used yeast to get the bread to rise.

“Anyone,
tout le monde,
can work with yeast,” said Pierre. “Yeast is for a baker who has no
personnalité
. Yeast is for the factory, for the robot, for the baker who'd just as soon have become a bricklayer.
C'est incroyable
that already at school, they teach you to be
mediocre
.
Incroyable
!”

Pierre used a bread starter his father had given him thirty years ago. For the first couple of years I wasn't allowed anywhere near La Souche, as Pierre called the mother dough. It was kept in a special temperature-controlled cupboard, far away from anything that could endanger it. Pierre would take out a piece of La Souche every day to make the dough for the bread, baguettes, or croissants. After that the mother had to be replenished again so we'd never run out.

La Souche had to be fed at set times and then brought back up to the right temperature. Pierre even talked to her. “How are you feeling today, my treasure? Are you comfortable enough?”

To me, he said, “It's like making wine, Ray. It's all in the timing and the temperature. Remember: time and temperature.”

One day he called me over. “Smell.” He held the earthenware vessel in which La Souche lived under my nose.

I leaned forward, shut my eyes, and sniffed cautiously.

“Do you smell how sweet she is? Fresh but not too sour? She is what
I
am, Ray. It's thanks to her that our bread is so crusty on the outside and so soft inside. She gives it that fresh, sweet taste. Without her, bread is just flour and water. Without her, it's nothing,
mon fils.

He taught me how to handle La Souche, because she was an exacting, fussy piece of dough, “more trouble than a woman,” said
Pierre. He taught me exactly what she liked and exactly what she didn't like. What temperature worked best for her, at what time to feed her and how much.

A year later I was given full responsibility for La Souche
.
Pierre thought I was even better than he was at measuring her food exactly, or getting the temperature just right. He'd never met anyone as precise as me.

After five years I was able to handle the entire kitchen by myself. I started baking at three fifteen every morning. While the baguettes, the
pains aux noix,
the
pains aux céréales,
the
pains au chocolat,
the
chapatas,
the croissants, and the brioches were in the oven, I'd do the weighing. I'd get all the ingredients ready for that day, setting them out in little bowls: the flour, the chocolate, the raisins, the sunflower seeds, the cheese, the almond paste.

Margaret and Pierre would arrive at six thirty to start setting out the freshly baked goods in the store. When it opened at seven and the people from the fancy part of town began lining up, along with a few more sophisticated locals (“They're
crazy
!” Pierre would usually exclaim), Pierre and I would make the dough for the seven different kinds of bread, and we'd bake the
canelés
and
tartelettes.
The afternoon was devoted to the croissant dough. We'd keep folding the butter into the dough until there were hundreds of layers.

“Ah, perfection,” Pierre would finally say.
Absolute perfection.

After I'd been working there for years, Pierre and Margaret sold the business and moved to France. Pain de Provence was taken over by a man in flashy glasses who kept slapping me on the back. According to Margaret, he did that because he wanted to be my friend. After all, without me the bakery wasn't worth anything,
was it
? she said.

The day before they left, Pierre called me over. He was hugging
the earthenware pot with the bread starter in his arms. “This is my most precious possession,
mon
bébé.
It was given to me by my father when I started my first
boulangerie.
She's made me what I am. Since I don't have any sons, and Margaret is past childbearing age, I now give her to
you
.” There were tears rolling down his cheeks.

Salt is lethal to bread starter. I quickly took the earthenware pot from him to prevent his tears from falling into La Souche
.

“Enjoy her. Employ her. I trust you, in turn, will find someone to pass her on to when the time comes. And if you don't, I expect you to destroy her. Will you promise me that, Ray?
Tu me le promets
?”


Oui,
” I replied.

After Pierre and Margaret left, the new owner of the bakery decided to renovate. Before, the preparation area and ovens had had their own separate space behind the store. The new owner had decided it would be fun if the clients could see me at work. So that they'd know that everything was fresh and made on the premises and didn't come from a factory. So the wall separating the store from the kitchen was removed and replaced with a glass partition.

Suddenly I had people watching me peeling apples for the
tartelettes
and looking on as I kneaded the dough with calm, deliberate movements. It made me shy. It made me lose my confidence.

Before, every
couronne
I made weighed exactly 525 grams. I made sure they did. It was just one of those things; it was important to me. After the glass window went in, a
couronne
sometimes wound up being close to 600 grams because my hands were shaking when I weighed the ingredients. Or sometimes I let the
canelés
burn. I hated being stared at. Until I met Rosita. From that
moment on I constantly kept an eye on the glass wall so that when she came into the store I wouldn't miss a minute of her. Eventually I got used to the nosy glances, and then everything turned out exactly the right weight again.

I'd never had much to do with the people in the neighborhood. I didn't know what I was supposed to say to them. They'd sometimes say hello and then I'd say hello back. That was as far as it went. I was kept plenty busy with my daily routine. The bakery. My fish. Eating. Sleeping. Showering. Cleaning. Laundry. Ironing. Shopping. Breathing.

The day Rosita moved in next to me, the sun was shining. It was hot that day. She drove up in a rusty old delivery van, with a kid in a faded blue child seat and a man with greasy hair pulled back in a ponytail. Rosita and the man hauled a few pieces of furniture inside. A brown sofa set. A small table and two chairs. The biggest double bed I'd ever seen.

The man looked tired and old, even more worn and ragged than the mattress or the brown leather couch. Rosita, on the other hand, was all smiles. She wasn't wearing much in the way of clothes. A pair of very short shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt. Sweat dripped from her dark curls to form a big wet spot on her back. I didn't think she was wearing a bra.

I decided Rosita was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen. Prettier even than the girls on television, much prettier than the other women I saw in the street. The women on the street all had yellow teeth, and didn't wear bras, either. Only their boobs weren't as perky as Rosita's. They always seemed to be yelling, too. At their husbands. At their kids. At the stray dogs that pooped in their front yards and were responsible for Queen Wilhelmina
Street's nasty smell, especially in the springtime, after the snow had melted.

And why couldn't they take care of their front yards? The neglected front yards really, really irked me. Sometimes at night, before starting my shift, I'd take a pair of hedge shears with me. I couldn't very well tackle other people's gardens, but at least all the hedges along Queen Wilhelmina Street were dead straight.

It was a relief that I hardly ever saw the old man with the weird hair who came that first day. I did regularly see Rosita, however. I liked watching her from behind the dark red curtains my mother had picked out for me. As soon as I came home from work, which was always 3:05 in the afternoon, I'd settle myself in a chair at the kitchen window and look out, hoping to see her.

When it wasn't raining she usually came outside for a walk with her stroller. From where I sat I could watch her walk all the way down the street until she turned the corner onto Princess Beatrix Street.

The way she walked mesmerized me—head held high, in heels that clacked loudly with every step she took. And then her hips. The way they swayed from side to side in silent rhythm. I sometimes counted along out loud:
One, two, three, four. One, two, three four.
She never fell out of step, not even the tiniest fraction of a second.

Sometimes she'd stop for a chat with a neighbor. Or she'd stuff the pacifier back into the baby's mouth. But most of the time she just walked straight down the street without stopping.

The first time I saw her turn that corner, I jumped up and ran over to her house to read the nameplate by the door.
Rosita and Anna Angeli,
it said. The letters were hacked into a piece of brown
slate. I must have said her name aloud at least a hundred times:
Rosita, Rosita, Rosita.
It sounded like the name of a savory brioche. With Gouda and herbes de Provence
.

My favorite times were when she came back from her walk. Then I could see her face, although I found the hollow between her two collarbones possibly even more attractive.

Sometimes she'd wave at me. Then I'd dive back behind the curtain. Just the idea that I might wave back made me nervous. There was no way that I could.

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