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Translated by John Rutherford
‘Attack the seagulls’ nest,’ a man’s voice repeated on the intercom. ‘Attack the seagulls’ nest.’
‘The seagulls’ nest?’ he tried to confirm. ‘That’d be the fourth day running, Queen!’ But the communication was cut short at the other end without further explanation.
[private]Attacking the seagulls’ nest meant, in their current code, modifying the route once again and driving through a different square from the scheduled one – and it turned out to be exactly the same square as on the previous days. Either he was totally mistaken or something was up, and he got ready to improvise.
The driver and he looked at each other for a few seconds with iron faces, bodyguards’ faces. Heavies in suits. There’s likely to be a traffic jam, they must have thought. On their left sides their pistol butts were beating against the linings of their jackets.
He folded up his sunglasses and fiddled with them on one of his legs, smoothing down the trouser crease. He heard how in the back of the car his charge, the Egg, was going through the press cuttings that somebody had selected for him hours before, turning the plastic pages of a folder.
The three were dressed impeccably, in designer shirts, shiny shoes and dark suits that concealed their weapons, their intercoms and their bulletproof vests. In the car it stank of cologne like a powder-room at a party.
It was seven thirty and dawn was pushing its way through. He inserted the tip of his tongue between his upper teeth to remove, in exasperation, the remains of his breakfast croissant, and it was then that he thought of a sentence: ‘The city was a mystery behind those tinted windows.’
He’d been accompanying the President for months, which was unusual, and whenever he saw him on television in the midst of a forest of microphones he remembered the strange phone conversations from the back seat, always filled more with silences than with words. But he, too, was capable of interpretation, of subtle reasoning. And he had his theories. The vein that ran vertically down his left temple swelled perceptibly on these occasions, when his temper would push him into action.
It was fine that the Egg hardly spoke to him, but a few days back he’d been landed with an idiot driver who put his nerves on edge; his handkerchief always at the back of his neck and hitching up his trousers to sit down; with that air of knowing it all and of doing you a favour, of dealing with everything grudgingly and in a bored manner, always turning away to avoid conversation. Until he learnt his lesson, mind you, and paid him back with the same bloody indifference; not that it seemed to matter to him, though, nor did he appear offended. His theory was that this guy was bad news, a jinx, and that today was a bad day.
‘Attention, Queen; attention, Queen,’ he called over the intercom. ‘Is the serpent moving towards that nest?’ – trying to find out whether the change of plans had been because of a traffic jam, or whatever the devil had been the reason. He knew he shouldn’t ask such a thing, that the earlier silence had obviously been an answer, and he received another warning, even more eloquent, in the form of musical interference. The driver reproached him in his own way, looking out of the corner of his eye at the digital display of the radio on the dashboard. But the fact was that this confirmed his theory: there were problems.
He looked for the President in the rear-view mirror and saw him rubbing his closed eyes. Every stop, every junction, every window, every motorbike, every zebra crossing, every parked car meant a threat. There were going to be difficulties.
He had asked again and again for another support car, some motorcyclists, but he always received the same excuses: the effect would be the opposite, making the target bigger and proclaiming its presence; the vehicle was a veritable tank; maybe he didn’t think he was up to it and ‘all right, my friend, all right – no doubt something can be done about it in the new budget.’ There was the square. Inside lane, room to escape.
And the fact was that if this was to be the day, morning was the most dangerous time. Almost all attacks took place about now, early on. There were always witnesses who were half-asleep, he thought: women in dressing-gowns with their hands locked behind their heads, and disabled war veterans opening their kiosks. The duty-bodyguards had always collected their charge from his private residence and driven him to his place of work.
He could see the story reported over and over again in the papers, the photos of the car pierced by the shrapnel, the details of the explosive used, the newsflashes, his name among the dead, his orphaned collection of sea-shells, of miniature liqueur-bottles, the statements of condemnation, the security measures and the appeals for cooperation. Sitting there as if nothing were happening was suicide.
The feeling of being cornered dogged him at every red traffic light. And yet it wasn’t him they were after, nor did he have anything against anybody, nor had he ever asked why anyone should plot to do for the man who was now stroking his moustache in the back seat. For the journalists he’d be the faithful dog, the innocent victim of indiscriminate violence. The pictures of his distraught widow at the funeral would be all over every television screen, if he’d left a widow.
And in fact nothing had ever happened. But in this job you needed a sixth sense to be able to sniff out the difficulties, and he had it. That ass of a driver didn’t, but he himself felt the danger in the bumps on the asphalt, in his gums, on the back of his neck, in the pit of his stomach, on the palms of his hands.
Any moment now he’d see how a young couple, in trainers and tight jeans and with sub-machine guns under three-quarter-length coats, approached the Mercedes. He’d have long hair and she a pony-tail; or both with shaved heads, or in disguise. They’d fire off a few bursts right there in the open and after five seconds flee in a car recently stolen and driven by the oldest of them, the third man; a car that the police would find that very afternoon, eight blocks from the scene of the incident. Hours later they’d have a bath in a flat in the suburbs, in the expectant silence of a submarine crew in an American film, pip… pip… pip… pip. Or else he’d see a powerful explosion and die just before the shock wave could deafen him. Nearby there’d be a school, a bus-stop, a home for old people who would survive by the skin of their teeth. He tried to send a warning over the intercom, came across a piece of croissant and swallowed it, noticed that he was shitting himself (that was an amazing thing) and heard a noise.
The President’s head had fallen backwards, against the seat, with a bullet-wound in the forehead and the mouth open. Blood was trickling down his Italian suit on to the cuttings in the folder and the black leather upholstery. But not a single window had shattered, there’d been no bomb, nothing suspicious. The folder had closed between his legs and slipped down on to the floor. From a car passing alongside a blonde child gazed at the black windows with her nose flattened against the glass, barely fifty centimetres from his own face.
Nobody outside had seen the driver shooting the Egg, and the detonation, muffled by the silencer, had not been heard. In this job you drove cars like those in films, true wonders, thought the driver. Precision shock absorbers, two thousand five hundred kilos and science-fiction materials.
But he was the driver, and there was nobody else there. The traffic jam was affecting the whole city. He lit a cigarette, turned on the air-conditioning and even opened the window a few centimetres, letting the world invade his ears. He felt protected by the surrounding cars, with nothing to fear. He drove a reliable car, obeyed the rules, lived discreetly and didn’t have a criminal record, even though he’d just lost his last job.
A few minutes later he reached the next zone in the security system. He looked at the dials that indicated the duration of the journey and the distance travelled, noticeably greater than scheduled. He picked the intercom up slowly and brought it to his lips, puffing out a mouthful of smoke before saying: ‘There’s been an accident, Queen. The Egg has broken,’ which in the code meant: ‘having reached such-and-such a point, nothing to report.’ He didn’t even bother to repeat it.
Those codes had always been a bit of a joke as far as he was concerned, but he’d always thought that this sentence, more than the others, would end up bringing about an unfortunate misunderstanding.[/private]