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Authors: Pekka Hiltunen

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Black Noise

BOOK: Black Noise
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Black Noise

Studio Series [2]

Pekka Hiltunen

Finland (2014)

The second instalment in Pekka Hiltunen’s award-winning Studio series is an intelligent crime thriller pitting unlikely heroines against London’s dark crime underworld. This sequel to the prize-winning Cold Courage, published by Hesperus in 2013, presents the second instalment in the Studio series by Pekka Hiltunen, celebrated Finnish crime author. Ultra-violent videos of murder and torture are being uploaded to the internet and when bodies start showing up on the streets of London, it begins to seem that the videos may be real and that a gruesome, exhibitionist killer is on the loose. The news catches the attention of Mari and Lia. Mari and Lia are two Finnish women living in London. Despite bonding over their shared expat identity, they have rather different backgrounds. While Lia is a graphic designer, Mari runs the mysterious ‘Studio’, a private crime fighting organisation that considers itself above the law. Taking matters into their own hands, they take on cases where the police have failed or are indifferent. 
Lia in time has slowly found her place in amongst this mysterious, morally motivated group of people who are not above employing underhand tactics to make sure that justice is served. Backed by high-tech gadgets and their team of fiercely loyal experts, the two women set about trying to stem the recent surge of violence and track down the murderer. But the stakes are high and Mari will have to risk much, even the lives of her companions, if she is to bring the perpetrator to justice.
Black Noise

Pekka Hiltunen

Translated from the Finnish
by Owen F. Witesman

I

The Falling Tree
1.

Personal messages from the Devil.

The words had rung in Lia’s head all day.

When the dark videos appeared, they were like personal messages from the Devil.

Lia had noticed the short item about the videos in her newsfeed that morning when she arrived at work. Apparently someone had hacked the YouTube accounts of two English teenagers to upload some videos. The teenagers didn’t know one another, they lived in different parts of the country and they didn’t have the slightest idea why they were targeted or who had done it.

The strangest thing was that the clips were essentially blank – no picture, no audio. Just a black screen.

A reporter had interviewed one of the teens. He said the videos scared him. Staring at the soundless darkness had felt strange and funny at first, but when the nothingness just went on and on, it turned frightening. It was like getting coded messages or personal threats from the Devil, the boy had said. That was why he had contacted not only the YouTube admins but also the police and a newspaper. In the picture, the boy looked rather more pleased with the attention he was getting than racked with terror.

As a joke, the video stunt was dismal; as vandalism, ineffective; but still some significance seemed to lurk behind it.

The hacker had uploaded ten black videos under each teenager’s name, their lengths varying from a couple of minutes to nearly six. The videos had been taken down, and YouTube was currently investigating how the hack had occurred.

A marketing stunt perhaps?
Lia thought.

But what kind of company would want that sort of publicity? And YouTube would be sure to take to court anyone who used hacking for advertising.

By the end of the day, Lia still couldn’t work out what the videos were about. She left the office early because she had another, less orthodox job to do before the evening.

Only once she was safely out of her magazine’s building on Fetter Lane did she pull on her gloves. They felt soft and protective, and
signalled that something new was happening.

Lia wore gloves when she ran only on the chilliest winter days. She had a runner’s circulation and a Finn’s tolerance for cold. It was March, and London was already past the worst of its bleak spring, but today she still had to have gloves. With them on, she wouldn’t leave any fingerprints.

She looked at the thin, white fabric. The touch of cotton on her skin made the change concrete. She had entered into a new phase of an undertaking which had required long, painstaking planning. Now it was really happening, and there was no turning back.

Lia had chosen the gloves with care. She had looked at the range of a few department stores and chosen a brand sold at several. Even if they left fibres behind, tracing them would be impossible.

She checked the envelopes one more time. There were five small ones, their addresses printed on labels, their postage stamps affixed with glue. There were three larger, thicker envelopes, prepared in similar fashion. Each envelope, label and stamp was different.

Resealing the plastic bags she was using to protect them, she placed the envelopes in her rucksack.

Lia had decided to run her round. She had checked the locations of the postboxes and post offices online and carefully planned her route so the envelopes would go through different sorting facilities and arrive on three different days. If someone ever investigated the letters, connecting them to each other would be difficult.

Starting from the City, running the route would take her a good three hours, but it felt like a good use of her time. Every last detail had to be perfect. A person’s whole life was at stake, and the Studio would also be affected.

My lovely, peculiar second home.

The Studio had given her day-to-day life a new dimension – caring for other people. You could commit to a job like that more than to other things. Lia wanted to do her day job at
Level
magazine well too, but for more selfish reasons, to be thought professional perhaps. At the Studio she was doing things for other people, so the tasks became emotionally important. Doing these jobs made her stronger as a person.

Running through Clerkenwell and Finsbury, she headed towards Islington, taking in one of her favourite streets on the way. On Essex
Road her eyes took in every little launderette, shoe shop and undertaker’s, everything she had time to notice as she ran seemed to touch her lightly and spur her on as she passed.

The rucksack on her back grew lighter as she dropped each envelope in its appointed postbox. An almost melancholy feeling came over her. Off went all their meticulous hard work.

Whenever she stopped at a traffic light, she continued jogging slowly on the spot. People smiled, and Lia knew what they saw: just a young, blonde woman out for an evening run. Energy in motion, silent determination.

She thought of the envelopes she had posted and the routes they would travel. Each of them had a different destination but one and the same purpose.

In her mind she saw the letters’ journey. Postal workers fetching them, piling them onto moving conveyor belts, machines sorting them and sending them off in different directions. Then they would be delivered around London. The envelopes would travel in mail carts in buildings, making their way to secretaries’ desks and then to their intended recipients.

How long would they wait to be opened? And when they were opened, would they serve their purpose?

 

She dropped the last envelope near Primrose Hill. The round, red postbox swallowed it without a sound.

Home was a few kilometres away still. Accelerating, she felt her breathing speed up. Her step was light, so light she was almost floating in the air. As if she were breathing herself forward in the darkening evening.

When Lia arrived in Hampstead, she could recognise every hedgerow and garden gate. She knew exactly where and how to run so she wouldn’t need to slow down and could keep her heart rate steady at just the right level. On her street, Kidderpore Avenue, she finally slowed to a walk.

Right now she was powerful. An unusually long and winding run, just the right amount of exertion and the euphoria that accompanied it. The knowledge that the envelopes were on their way and that important things had been set in motion.
Her warm body. The chill evening. The contrast produced a physical pleasure that tickled a special place somewhere in the depths of her brain.

Stopping at the small park next to her building, Lia started moving through her familiar post-run stretching routine. Next to the large, dignified statues in the park, her slender body was a fragile blade of grass. But Lia felt vigorous and confident, utterly alive.

That evening she didn’t notice the news that someone else had discovered their YouTube account had been hacked. The Devil had sent more of his messages. Another ten videos had been uploaded to a Scottish woman’s account, again showing nothing but black silence.

2.

As soon as Lia opened the door to the Studio, she heard quick, alert steps start towards her.

Tap, tap, tap. The well-groomed claws barely touched the floor. Kneeling, Lia accepted all the warmth a dog’s greeting could give.

Gro always knew when she arrived before all the others did, perhaps even a split second before the Studio’s surveillance systems. And Lia always wanted to greet Gro as thoroughly as the dog wanted to greet her.

‘You’re going to spoil her rotten,’ Mari used to say. ‘What kind of a guard dog is she going to be now?’ But Lia defended herself saying that she was only petting and wrestling with her, not feeding her too much or teaching her bad habits. In reality Mari was almost as taken with Gro as the rest of them.

Gro was Berg’s dog. Berg was the Studio’s carpenter and set designer, who could create almost anything for their operations: documents, identity cards, tools, objects. If necessary Berg could create a whole flat that looked like it really belonged to someone.

Sixty-something, Berg was half Swedish and had named his dog after the former Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland. Berg wanted a woman’s name for his girl dog that exemplified Scandinavian values.

‘Gro doesn’t sound very dignified,’ Lia had said, teasing him. ‘It sounds more like a dog’s growl.’

‘But I know where the name comes from,’ Berg had said. ‘Since she has a name I respect, I never say it without that respect.’

Why not name her after a Swedish woman? Lia had asked. Greta Garbo? Ingrid Bergman?

‘No,’ Berg had said. ‘She looks like a Gro.’

In addition to serving as Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland had been a doctor, a party leader, director-general of the World Health Organisation and much more. Her black and white namesake also had a diverse background, but the breed she most closely resembled was a pointer. She was a stray Berg had adopted from an RSPCA shelter. After teaching her basic obedience and building her trust at home, he had gradually introduced her to the Studio’s team.

At the Studio Gro lived in the Den, which, despite its name, was an enormous space. That was where Berg worked, and it took time for Gro to learn not to chew on things she found on the shelves and desks and not to sniff at the cupboards in the kitchen area in the corner of the room.

But the dog worshipped Berg, and before long she learned her boundaries in the Den and the Studio at large. Eventually Berg even trained her to stay out of the kitchen.

Following a brief discussion, Mari had agreed to let Berg replace some of the Studio’s interior doors with lightweight swinging ones so Gro could move from one room to another by pushing doors open with her muzzle.

‘It’ll be easier for her to guard the place this way,’ Berg argued, although they all knew the Studio didn’t actually need any more guarding. The CCTV cameras, motion sensors in the floors and computer surveillance were quite sufficient.

Two places were off limits to Gro. One was Rico’s large office, dominated by dozens of computer racks and other delicate devices.

‘Gro Harlem is welcome in my home any time but not near these cables and instruments,’ the Brazilian IT genius said. Calling the dog by her full name amused him, what with its entirely non-Scandinavian reference.

Gro was also never allowed in Mari’s office. Lia wasn’t entirely sure why, whether it was meant as a sign of deference to Mari’s position at the head of the Studio’s little team or whether she just wanted to be left in peace, but Gro accepted this rule quickly too. Even though Mari’s door was often open, she never tried to go in.

‘She recognises natural leadership, who the pack leader is,’ Mari once observed to Lia, who was slightly irked to have to admit to herself that Mari was right.

Even though Gro had been a stray with some trust issues, she settled into life at the Studio significantly faster than Lia had herself. For the dog it took a couple of months, for Lia it had taken more than a year.

The Studio was a place the like of which Lia had never imagined existed, and she couldn’t talk about it to anyone. It was a large, eight-room space occupying nearly an entire floor of an office building in
London’s Bankside, and the jobs they did were always interesting and unusual. Mari always chose projects that would move the world in the direction she wanted. Sometimes it was behind-the-scenes charity work, but occasionally the jobs were stranger and more frightening.

For Lia the Studio was like a second home or office where the lines between friendship and work overlapped and intertwined. By day she worked as a graphic designer for a biweekly magazine named
Level
. In the evenings and at the weekends, she spent most of her time on Studio business.

Mari was her best friend, an exceptional woman who had suddenly appeared in her life after nearly six years living in London. Their shared Finnish background united them, along with an ability to drink with abandon when the opportunity presented itself and a feeling that they could get along in the world on their own but had to be thankful for true allies. Berg and Rico worked for Mari, but like Lia and everyone else at the Studio, they were also Mari’s confidants. The team’s two other members were Brits: Maggie Thornton, an actor in her fifties, who did background research and played characters in their operations as necessary, and Paddy Moore, a security specialist and private investigator.

Lia didn’t know how many of the Studio’s jobs required specific detective skills or led to illegal acts. Although she and Mari had become quite close, Mari remained tight-lipped about much of what her group had done over the years.

 

Lia stepped into Mari’s office and Gro returned to the Den, back to her master.

‘How did it go?’ Mari asked.

‘Well,’ Lia said, taking her usual place on one of the large sofas in Mari’s office.

She knew such a brief report wouldn’t be sufficient for Mari, who always wanted to know everything down to the tiniest detail. Lia had learned that it usually paid to tell Mari everything, because even the smallest-seeming bits of information could turn out to be worth their weight in gold once they had percolated for a while in Mari’s brain.

So Lia recounted the letters’ progress over the previous day. Of the five thin envelopes, three had been delivered today to the editorial
offices of large newspapers. The rest would arrive tomorrow. The three larger, thicker envelopes were still en route, one of them on its way to the editor-in-chief of a magazine and two to the offices of TV channels.

They had considered the number and manner of delivery of the letters for a long time, weighing the likelihood that each editor would make the contents public and which media outlets it was most important to reach. They debated whether to approach the newspapers by email or using more old-fashioned means. They decided on letters because these days those always made more of an impression on their recipients than emails, and concealing the true identity of the person sending a letter was easier.

Each of the five thin envelopes contained a letter to the editor. They all dealt with the same topic, although they were each written differently and sent using a different name.

Mari had written them with Lia’s help. From her day job at
Level
, Lia knew a little about what kinds of opinion pieces newspapers and magazines wanted to publish, but Mari had only needed a little help polishing them. Making sure each had a unique authorial voice was critical so the letters could never be connected to each other.

Together with the Studio’s other employees, they had also created contact information and an online history for the writers. If the newspapers checked up on them before the letters were published, the enquiries would come to the Studio. There Maggie and Rico were prepared to play the appropriate parts over the phone or via email.

Newspapers rarely checked opinion letter writers’ information, Lia knew. Mostly only when politically significant issues were in play. The editorial offices of the larger, more prestigious papers did look online and in the telephone directories to verify whether the senders existed and seemed like normal, respectable people. But that seldom led to even a phone call.

In the thicker envelopes were larger packets of information, and creating them had required more of the Studio. They had needed to set up an entire fan site. It was very small, built so one person could operate it, but in addition to a website it also required content with a range of dates and references to it elsewhere online. Berg and Rico had handled that.

All of the preparations had taken a little more than a week, in which time quite a bit of other planning also went on. That still amazed Lia. She had been working with the Studio for more than a year but still struggled to keep up with the rest of the group.

‘What now?’ she asked Mari. ‘Just wait for a couple of days?’

Mari nodded. Now they waited until the letters served their purpose. Then the next stage would begin.

Lia had learned at the Studio that Mari’s plans worked. And although waiting felt hard, she knew it was easy for Mari. She would use this time to plan too, always something new. For her, the world was a place that could be changed – you just had to choose what you wanted to change.

Fortunately Lia knew what to do while they waited.

‘I’m going for a jog,’ she announced and then left to make two creatures happy for the next two hours: the dog and herself.

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