The Man Who Didn’t Die
Diemerpark, Ijburg, the Netherlands
De Jogt made for the ice, weaving among the black stone, aluminum and glass apartment buildings, pulling his collar tight against the wind. An early cold snap had frozen the bay end to end. Only the Dutch would build a city in the middle of an inland sea. But now that frigid landscape offered an insane, inviting escape route.
The goons weren’t far behind. De Jogt was a scientist, not an action hero—the fact that he’d thought of jumping from a second-story window into a trash bin and darting away through the shadows was as amazing as the fact that he’d pulled it off. The idea of capture, of imprisonment, roused the animal in any creature that understood it—whatever skills he possessed, De Jogt was rallying to the cause.
The company had a ‘red alert’ phone number—just call and Security would arrive in minutes. But his cell signal had disappeared at the same moment as the lights in the house. That had been the tipoff, the shivery indicator that had him at the back window when the scratching began at the front door. The good die young—the paranoid survive, De Jogt thought, ducking between thorn bushes and the few ancient elms this modern city hadn’t disrupted.
He was puffing already. He wouldn’t outrun any serious opponent. It was possible this was just a burglar. A burglar might want his watch, credit cards, laptop—nothing shattering. And if he really was pursued, the ice would even the odds—neither of them would be quick.
He skirted a toolshed and stepped onto the slippery surface. His shoes scraped against the ice as he pushed as hard as he could for the far bank. The lights were ten or fifteen minutes away, if he didn’t fall. There would be a pay phone there, a police station, a bar with witnesses, something.
A moment later, another benefit of the river became apparent—he and his pursuers would all be out in the open. But what he saw in the open gave him no comfort at all.
His pursuer was no burglar, that was certain on first glimpse. No burglar, no mugger, no amateur. Very fit, encased in a dark jumpsuit (Black? Blue? It was too dark to tell), a pair of very sophisticated night-vision goggles and what looked like a serious pistol (with silencer?) at his hip. But why was it still tucked away?
The only answer that made sense—that they wanted him, not valuables—was no surprise. De Jogt had seen it coming the day before. Yet still, it chilled him to the bone. He tried the cell again but it was dead. Well, not quite dead—it came on but made no connection.
He ran harder, which didn’t mean much faster. He slipped and scrambled over a hard high patch of ice onto a section milled by a hundred gleeful schoolchildren in skates. He saw to his chagrin that the ice wasn’t the leveler he’d hoped for—the jumpsuit was gaining on him rapidly while a second had emerged from the houses ahead, moving quickly on a trajectory that would easily cut off his escape.
He had to make a decision. De Jogt threw the switch on his belt and gave the mechanism a few seconds to charge. He felt the air around him tingle; his hair stood on end. He pointed ahead and below the first jumpsuit and squeezed together the wires in his palm. The surge ran through his forearm; he felt the searing in his fingers. A moment later, the ice split in front of the jumpsuit and he dropped into the icy water, splashing and coughing.
De Jogt turned and continued as fast as he could toward the other side. The jumpsuit’s cries tapered off as he faded into the distance. Glancing over his shoulder, De Jogt realized he was not going to shake his other pursuer—this one was even younger, fitter and closing the gap quickly. He would surely cut him off in less than a minute. No, De Jogt thought, snapping into the scientist’s dispassionate regimen of weighing options, if I’m to get away, I have to cut him off.
He maintained his course and even let himself slip a bit more than necessary. And soon the kidnapper—for surely, that’s what he was—was in his face, offering a menacing gaze and reaching for his gun.
De Jogt didn’t give him the chance. He raised his hand, pointed the index finger directly at the man’s chest and let go.
Correction: Yesterday’s edition reported the death of two men from lightning strikes on an otherwise clear night. This was in error. There was only one man involved, still unidentified, and he was apparently hit by a truck. He is in hospital in Diemen, in guarded but stable condition.
The day after this item appeared in an online edition of an Amsterdam newspaper, a sallow, cadaverously thin man appeared at the nurse’s desk at the Hospital in Diemen in a deep green windbreaker, hair jutting from his head in an unruly clump. He inquired about the ‘Jan Modaal’ (the Dutch version of a John Doe) run over by a truck.
“I was hiking with my friend Mikal Groeten and lost track of him—I fear this might be him.”
“And your name, sir?”
“Are you family? Significant Other?”
“I am a friend.”
“We’re sorry, sir, but the law requires—” the nurse began and immediately her mind filled with images of past lovers and friends, ministering to her in moments of need. She savored the memory of the help she owed to her old friends like Emil.
“It’s been a long time,” he said now—were his eyes a bit misty?
“It has,” she agreed, swamped with memories of love and intense devotion without entirely being able to pinpoint when and where they’d occurred. It was such a joy to see him, the answer to her dreams of so many years.
“So—my friend—his room number?”
A minute later, Max Renn let himself into Room 736, swapped his green windbreaker for the blue one hanging in the closet and verified that the man there had indeed been hit by a truck. Hit several times, in fact, almost certainly at high speed. The odds of this happening on a brightly-lit road in the middle of an Amsterdam suburb apparently hadn’t worried the authorities but Renn pondered it for some moments.
Ten minutes later, a man matching the nurse’s description of Emil Vogel was seen rummaging through the properties room of the hospital—specifically, the effects of the critical case in 736. By the time Security arrived, the man had disappeared.
The only inventoried items missing were a small fragment of cloth and a portion of a business card. The man, who had identified himself as Dr. Villette, had spent considerable time examining the jumpsuit the victim was wearing, which was rimmed with scorch marks, not a common occurrence in pedestrian-car accidents. He’d left a note behind asking how the man in Room 736 had fit into clothes that were obviously several sizes too small for him.
The assistant overseeing the property room insisted that Dr. Villette had presented the proper paperwork and ID and inspected the box in front of him. When he was told that no Dr. Villette practiced at the hospital—or indeed any other in the Diemen area—the assistant recounted the man’s entire job history and clear memories of two cocktail parties where they’d argued about politics and religion.
Kristina Gul pushed her cart to the dumpster outside the rear entrance of Forus Technologies. The ‘paperless office’ signs plastered around the place were a joke. Kristina routinely made three or four trips to the dumpster every evening before the place had even emptied out, just to give herself enough room to clean. The pushing should help keep off the extra pounds but of course it doesn’t. She could request a bigger wastebin but she’d never lift a bigger one once it was filled.
“Let me help you,” said the man in the blue windbreaker, appearing suddenly at curbside. “It looks heavy.” He didn’t look healthy enough to lift anything but he grabbed the bin and shook the contents into the dumpster. As he returned the bin to its spot on her cart, his hand brushed her shoulder.
A moment later, she was standing among the cubicles, in the midst of cluttered aisles overflowing with printouts, piles of backup discs and almost-new technology—iPods, laser pointers, entire videogame systems—sitting unplugged and unused alongside confidential memos and reams of code in hieroglyphic streams.
“Let’s talk about the man who’s missing,” the voice startled her. He was inside with her, the man in the blue jacket. He was inside past Security. How did she not remember passing Security?
“Are you with the company?”
“My name’s Emil Vogel. I’m trying to help locate the man who’s missing.”
“I just clean the place up. You should talk with—”
“You’re the one I want to talk to. You come in the evening while they’re leaving and you pay attention. You know who’s having affairs, who’s cheating on expenses, who’s stealing coffee from storage. You’ve decided who’s decent and who’s scum. And you know who’s missing—even if no one in the office will talk about it.”
Kristina felt a chill.
“They’re not lying to you. They’re lying to themselves. They’re telling themselves he’s taken a couple of days off or ‘gone flaky again’—they remember a past episode which may or may not have actually happened.”
“There was no past episode, not Meneer De—” and she stopped short.
Vogel glanced furtively in both directions and flashed a crooked smile. “There’s no one here,” he said. “You can say his name.”
“Meneer De Jogt!” she burst. “He’s not a man who disappears! He never takes days off! The police should be called! Are you the police?”
“I’m not. But I can help find him. I need to see his lab.”
Kristina pulled up taut. “I can’t show you that. This is—” and again, she hesitated.
“—a NATO security contractor. A restricted area. You had to get a security clearance to take this job emptying trash cans and dusting. I know. But Meneer De Jogt would want you to help me.”
This was too absurd. “Easy to say—he’s not here to tell me,” she said with Dutch rectitude.
Vogel pulled a piece of material from his pocket and showed it to her. “I know he let you in. You know what this is.”
Kristina’s eyes widened.
“And now,” he added, “I do too.”
“Take me to the lab and I’ll show you,” he said. “Or I could show you right here—but you wouldn’t want to have to clean that up, would you?”
She considered this—apparently for too long, because Vogel took off in the direction of the lab. She trailed behind him, waiting to see if he would stop at the right door. He did, waving his hand over the magnetic lock several times and frowning, frustrated. Finally, he held a finger to the box—a spark jumped the gap and the door fell open.
Kristina was open-mouthed. “He…did that, too,” she choked.
The room inside was divided into a large chamber and a smaller control room divided by an insulated wall with a large window. Stone tablets of immense size and weight ringed the big room; the walls were covered with flash burns.
“He worked here alone?”
“All sorts of people came in to answer questions or get research assignments but he was the only one who knew what was going on,” she said. She was aware that she should not be talking about these matters but somehow, when he asked, she felt she must. It’s like my father asking what he needs to know, she thought.
Vogel stepped into the control room. A very expensive 3D printer stood attached to a computer in the corner. Several odd electrical switches sat haphazardly on a desk, wearing belt clips. To one side, small sheets of some metallic substance stood in a stack; on the other, a smaller stack of the woven fabric Vogel had shown her. The rest of the room was crammed with a jumble of turbine-like rotors and wires leading to a tray mounted between two tall silver antenna out of a Frankenstein movie.
“I’ve never been here before,” Renn answered her question before she finished it. “Why?”
“It’s changed,” she said, looking around and he made it his business to remember the alignment she saw in her head. “It’s not the way I remember it.” Renn immediately captured the layout in her head and committed it to memory.
“Did he move things around often?”
“Never,” she said. “I wasn’t allowed to touch anything because nothing could be moved a millimeter.”
Renn flicked the switch on the Frankenstein suite. Things started whirring and buzzing—a Tesla-like ray of electricity jumped from one antenna to the other and enveloped the tray. Kristina jumped at the sound.
“Too late.” He moved his hands around the poles, frowning as though the air there offended him in some way.
“Hmpph!” he turned the machine off and stood for a solid minute just looking back and forth. He fingered a digital stopwatch that was swinging slowly from a shelf. “Ten minutes,” he mused, staring at the alarm set on it. “Does it take ten minutes?”
“I was never here when he did this.”
He stared at the metallic sheets, picked one up and flicked it onto the tray. He flipped on the machine again and started the stopwatch. Then he stalked the main room, inspecting the blast marks on the walls, while Kristina waited in the control room. When the stopwatch buzzed, he returned. The metal was now white-hot mesh— insulated gloves stood on the sideboard but he decided to let the thing cool before trying to handle it.
“I want you to try this on,” he told Kristina, who started as though she’d been sleeping.
“Who are you?” she said, eyes widening, “How did you get in here?”
“This place is restricted! How did you—?” He touched two fingers to her temples and she stopped talking. He thought carefully for a moment and lessened his grip. Her eyes were still glassy but she seemed aware enough.
“What is your name?”
“Kristina Van Tassel.” Her voice was disinterested, distant.
“So you remember.”
“My own name? Of course I do.”
“I’ve never seen you before! What game is this?”
“I’m here to help find Meneer De Jogt—do you remember that?”
Her face showed a sudden concern. “Is he missing?” He touched her forehead and she went slack again.
What the hell had happened? This was curious but Renn had a growing feeling he wouldn’t have time to find out.
He led her into the main portion of the lab. “I want you to try this on.” He took the material from the tray and pulled the mesh around her hand, snapping the notched ends together. He slid the electric switch onto her belt and found a small metal conductor on the shelf above, placing it over the tip of her index finger and connecting the wire at the end to the mesh. It’s a jury-rig, he thought, still a prototype. He hasn’t got the kinks out yet.
“Hold your hand out,” he coached and she did. The metal fabric began to glow and then, all at once, it peeled upward and began to melt. Kristina yelped and he pulled the thing off her before she was seriously burnt.
“Who are you?” she repeated, alarmed. “What are you doing to me?” Renn ran through three semi-plausible explanations, rejected them all and, sighing, touched her temple again to render her passive and silent.
He walked quickly into the control room and closed his eyes, calling up the picture he’d seen in her mind of the original configuration of De Jogt’s equipment. He focused on the details of the layout until he heard scraping. Then he darted from place to place, steadying tubes and beakers as the pieces of the apparatus moved, reassembling themselves into their earlier state.
“Back here,” he snapped his fingers, summoning Kristina back into the control room. He placed another piece of fabric into the machinery and flipped the switch. Then he left the room until the process was done.
“This is the way I remember it,” she said calmly as he joined her.
“You remember me now?”
“Of course. We just came in a few minutes ago.”
Curiouser and curiouser but no time to ponder. A new piece of mesh nestled in the tray; he lifted it out and offered it to her. But he had to show her where it went, as though the last time had happened without her. He felt his hair standing on end as soon as he flipped the belt switch, confirming his suspicions.
She held her hand out and, this time, a bright ball of electricity jumped off her finger, throbbing and growing as it leapt, wobbling and veering from side to side, to the stone tablet opposite. The concussion came with a blinding light and a thundercrack, shaking the room and shearing apart the tablet like it was paper.
“Wha—? How—?” Kristina exclaimed. Renn ripped the conductor off her finger and the mesh off her hand. He dumped the clothes from his backpack on the floor and began stuffing the finished mesh, conductors and belt switches in their place.
“That’s not yours!” Kristina yelled, pulling at him. He grabbed her forearm and pulled her around in front of him.
“Get everyone out of the building,” he told her. “Do it now. Anyone working late, security guards, all of them. Get them out now.”
“I—I can’t—you can’t—!”
His voice got softer, which only made it more menacing.
“The people who took him,” he warned, “they’re coming back.”
Her fear instantly switched targets.
“The kind of people who would know about this work—who would know what to do with it. Think about it—they can’t leave all this behind.” He pulled the memory card out of the 3D printer and stuck it in his pocket. “Go!” he ordered. “Be safe!” As she ran from the room, he began bashing at the apparatus, the printer and computer with a fire extinguisher.
As he reached his rental car, Renn could sense the kidnappers nearby. They were camped in an SUV along the courtyard across the street from the office, camouflaged behind a ring of fountains. Renn could feel them blocking in all directions—they weren’t expecting a threat, it was just routine self-protection. They’d waited patiently for the building to clear. They most likely didn’t know the police had been called but it didn’t really matter—their intent, surely, was to get in and out with what they needed and they would surely be done with that long before the police arrived. Especially once they got inside and realized it was already gone.
Two shooters jumped from the SUV and headed for the side entrance. There was some yelling back and forth out the truck windows—no surprise, given that it was all improvisation. That left three in the car—De Jogt, hulking in the back seat, the driver and a slim man with a goatee, straw hat and revolver pointed directly at De Jogt.
Renn had planned to follow when they left but suddenly they were down to two and right in front of him. These odds were as good as he was likely to get.
He waited till the shooters were inside, put the car in gear, gave it a little gas and tossed himself out the door. He rolled twice in his heavy winter coat on the cobblestoned street and was up and running through the courtyard, hidden from the SUV by the same fountains they used for protection.
The rental car gathered speed on the downhill slide. Renn saw the passengers in the SUV sitting up sharply as it rolled past them and straight into a Mercedes on the far side of the street.
While they were turned away, Renn charged the car.
His hand was through the back window before anyone saw him coming, grabbing the gun by the barrel. As soon as he made contact, the thing sizzled and zapped. Straw Hat howled and released the revolver, which fell to the floor. The driver turned and threw his door open—Renn laid two fingers to the back of his neck and he slumped out onto the street.
What happened next took him entirely by surprise. De Jogt burst from the car screaming, running in panic toward the office, calling loudly for help. Renn stopped dead, focusing all his concentration on stopping the man but he ran to the door without a pause.
“Don’t bother,” laughed Straw Hat, settled now in the back seat. “He’ll run till he reaches our protection—till he hears our password. If anyone gets too close, he’ll kill himself.” Renn turned in disbelief. Straw Hat only laughed harder. “No shit—we gave him a gun. I’m only a Level Four but I can do that much.”
“Mindbender,” Straw Hat answered. “We’re a bureaucratic organization, dude, we’ve got levels. You’re Renn, right?”
Renn nodded—there wasn’t much point denying it.
“Yeah, you’re like Level Twelve. Level One-More-Than-Anybody-Else. Not many of you out there. But give us six months and there’ll be dozens like me.” He grabbed at his gun suddenly but it sparked and he dropped it. He laughed again, holding his wrist like it was broken. “Is it true that when you kill someone, you find out everything about them in their last couple seconds?”
Renn’s expression soured further. “Not everything,” he said. “Your life doesn’t really flash before your eyes. Only what you really care about at that moment.”
“Strange shit?” Straw Hat asked.
Renn nodded. “Often.”
Straw Hat stared at the gun and his useless hand; the smile on his face grew. “You going to kill me?” he asked. “I’d do you, given the chance.”
“I don’t want to know you that well,” Renn said. He turned to go, just as the two shooters returned to the doorway across the street and opened fire.
Renn ducked behind a fountain as bullets ricocheted and marble shards flew everywhere. Police sirens sounded in near distance. Now they were coming. Rescuing De Jogt was a dead issue. The next objective was to survive and get away, preferably in one piece.
He ran swiftly to his right, taking cover behind one fountain after another, changing his speed to throw off their shots. After three fountains, he got the result he wanted: one of the shooters split off to get a better angle on him. The man went door to door, taking cover, heading straight for the rental car, still embedded in the fender of the Mercedes.
Renn waited until the man took cover behind the cars. Then he fastened the mesh around his own hand and placed the conductor on his fingertip. The apparatus was totally erratic—useless to try to hit a person but two cars locked together at close range made a pretty big target.
He held his hand out. His hair stood on end, he felt the spark travel up his arm to his hand—and stop dead. What was wrong?
Marble splintered all around him. His forehead went hot as it took a sliver and began to bleed. They had him in a crossfire. This has to work. Why wasn’t it? He’d conducted electricity through his fingers his whole life, not always willingly; this contraption should only concentrate it. Through his fingers—the phrase echoed in his head. He pulled off the conductor and suddenly felt the electricity running to the end of his fingers. He held out his hand again.
A bolt of lightning spit through the air into the mangled mess of cars across the street. The rental jumped into the air, ripping the front fender off the Mercedes and landing squarely on top of it. Both cars burst into flame and the shooter blew across the sidewalk, his coat on fire. The man dropped his gun and started rolling in the snow, screaming. Renn fired again, in the direction of the second shooter, but this time the blast wobbled and wavered totally offline, smacking into an old elm tree and a newsstand, setting them ablaze but missing the shooter completely.
Straw Hat had regained his gun now. He began firing—the two shooters had Renn boxed in. And the sirens were loud now. He jumped to the next fountain, where he had the SUV at point-blank range.
“Hey—Straw Hat!” he yelled.
After a few moments, he saw Straw Hat motioning out the car window and the shooting stopped.
“Meaning none of us can be here when the police arrive. I may not be able to get your man there but I won’t miss your car at this range and you have to get out of here every bit as much as I do.”
“ So I say, we both accept half a loaf: you’ve got De Jogt and I’ve got his equipment. Truce and we escape to fight another day. Yes?”
The sirens were very loud. Straw Hat didn’t wait long.
“How do I know I can trust you?” Renn said and unexpectedly, he felt Straw Hat’s mind open to him, the blocking fading away. Julian Congreve, who’d read Literature and Philosophy at Cambridge, spent a year in debauchery in Thailand before meeting Pietr Volkov and joining L Corp. Crazy for American football and boys with tattoos—and thrilled like a child at the old mindbender stories. Thrilled to have met Renn and looking forward to beating him decisively on a better day.
“Okay, now, Renn, you know me better than you want to,” Congreve yelled.
Renn said Yes in his own head and sent it back.
The car rushed to the front door. “Let’s go!” Congreve yelled and his men piled De Jogt into the car and away.
Renn was left marveling at the subtlety of the Level Four. He hadn’t dropped his shield really—Renn had read minds long enough to know the sound of chaos that was inevitable when the door was truly open. Instead, Congreve had pretended to let his guard down, while crafting every thought he ‘revealed’. It was a good trick, Renn thought. One he might have to develop.
But by then, he was running fullspeed into the building along the courtyard, across the lobby and out onto the ice of the canal on the other side, slipping and sliding in the direction of the next town, the next step, whatever it would be.