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Authors: Gunnar Staalesen

Cold Hearts

BOOK: Cold Hearts
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PRAISE FOR GUNNAR STAALESEN

‘Undoubtedly, one of the finest Nordic novelists in the tradition of such masters as Henning Mankell’ Barry Forshaw,
Independent

‘The Varg Veum series stands alongside Connelly, Camilleri and others, who are among the very best modern exponents of the poetic yet tough detective story with strong, classic plots; a social conscience; and perfect pitch in terms of a sense of place’
Euro Crime

‘Hugely popular’
Irish Independent

‘Norway’s bestselling crime writer’
Guardian

‘The prolific, award-winning author is plotting to kill someone whose demise will devastate fans of noir-ish Nordic crime fiction worldwide’
Scotsman

‘Intriguing’
Time Out

‘An upmarket Philip Marlowe’ Maxim Jakubowski,
Bookseller

‘In the best tradition of sleuthery’
The Times

‘Among the most popular Norwegian crime writers’
Observer

‘Dazzling’
Aftenposten

‘Ice Marlowe’
Thriller magazine

‘Gunnar Staalesen and his hero, Varg Veum, are stars’
L’Express

‘An excellent and unique series’
International Noir Fiction

Cold Hearts

GUNNAR STAALESEN

Translated from the Norwegian by
Don Bartlett

I WAS DANCING THE BRIDAL WALTZ
with Beate, but I was not in heaven; I was at Mari and Thomas’s wedding in Løten one boiling hot day in June, 1997.

I had met her at Oslo Station. She had come from Stavanger, I had come from Bergen. Since the last time I saw her she had had her hair cut short and there were red flecks in it, but her eyes were as I always remembered them: cornflower blue with a touch of aggrieved sorrow. She was dressed in a youthful style: jeans, pale green T-shirt and a light reddish-brown summer jacket. She gave me a quick hug, flashed me a wry smile and said: ‘Event of the year? Our only son getting married …’

The train journey north passed in amicable conversation. It was more than twenty years since we got divorced, four since she was widowed and soon two since I myself almost followed her second husband, Lasse Wiig, to the happy waiting rooms in the sky, if lecturers and private detectives were indeed on the same floor.

The wedding had run according to plan, even though several of the veteran cars transporting the bridal party from church to reception had begun to overheat. Indoors, the temperature was well over thirty degrees. When Odd Sverre Midthun, the bride’s father, stood up and removed his suit jacket for everyone to see, the relief was tangible. Within two seconds, every single male in the room had done the same. The women around the long tables regarded us with envy, but it may have created a
greater stir if formal dresses and traditional costumes had likewise been abandoned.

We were in the café rooms of what had once been Løiten Distillery, where the fumes of artificially spiced potato schnapps still resided in the walls. NON AGUNT NISI FLUIDA, it said on the wall outside, which Mari’s father had translated for me as ‘nothing works without liquid’, and for that matter they may well have been right, from water and blood to petrol and aquavit.

Dancing with Beate was like being transported back thirty years in time, to when we were young and in love. Stavanger was the town and the future lay before us like an endless red carpet; all you had to do was take a run-up and launch yourself. We hit the wall soon enough, but something always remained, if no more than dancing with each other on a timeless dance floor in a rhythm we had never quite forgotten, however long ago it had been.

Perhaps that was why it happened. Late at night, standing with keys in hand to our separate rooms in Miklagard, where we were staying, and glancing at each other.

‘Lonesome sleeping alone,’ I said.

She gave a mischievous smile. ‘If I’m not much mistaken we allowed ourselves to be tempted on another occasion as well.’

‘What about a repeat performance. Back by popular demand?’

‘Well, a repeat performance anyway,’ she said, putting the key in her pocket, coming over and standing close to me.

An hour later she lay in the crook of my arm, hot and sweaty. With infinite care, she caressed my two scars, one at the front and one at the back of my left shoulder, which the surgeons at Ullevål Hospital had patched up on that September night almost two years ago.

‘How did it feel to be at death’s door?’ she breathed.

‘Like a swallow dive,’ I answered. ‘The most perfect swallow dive of my life.’

When I had opened my eyes I was lying in a bed with drips in my arms, four thick tubes sticking out of my chest, upper body and bandaged left shoulder and a numb sensation throughout my body. The doctor treating me had explained how lucky I had been. If the bullet that hit me had been a few centimetres lower it would have gone straight through my heart. It had probably been a ricochet as the trajectory of the shot had been upwards. I had lost quite a lot of blood, which would soon have proved fatal if they had not got the flow under control. The left lung had been punctured, and I’d been bleeding fresh blood into the chest cavity. They had separated the sternum lengthwise to reach and stem the bleeding. The top of the left lung had been removed, I had one broken rib, and on its way out the bullet had taken with it something he called the scapula. He had obligingly explained to me what the scapula was: the bone at the back of the shoulder. ‘You can thank your lucky stars,’ he had concluded, ‘that this happened in Groruddalen and not on some islet far out at the mouth of a fjord. And that someone had rung for an ambulance so that we had you on the operating table before much time had elapsed.’ ‘But,’ I had said, ‘I was with someone. How did he fare?’ The doctor looked down and said: ‘Not as well as you, I’m afraid to say.’

The day after the wedding I took Beate to the churchyard where he was buried. The cemetery in Oslo Old Town lay in the shadow of Ekeberg Ridge. Standing there, we were surrounded by trees on all sides. A goods train passed on the nearby railway line, its wheels squealing on the track. The first
time I went, there had been a rudimentary wooden cross on the grave. Now it had been exchanged for a rock. On it was carved his name, year of birth and year of death, and last of all three simple words:
Dead For Ever
.

She read out his name and looked at me. ‘Who was he?’

‘A sort of client. I met him so long ago that you and I were still married. Later I bumped into him on several occasions, more’s the pity. A sad twist of fate. One of our failures.’

She took my hand and squeezed it lightly. ‘I’m sure it wasn’t your fault, Varg.’

‘I hope not. But for some reason we always feel just as guilty, we who strictly speaking are no more than casual passers-by in their lives.’

‘I know what you mean. I’ve often felt the same myself.’

I nodded and raised my eyes. A plane was flying in silence towards Fornebu. Soon that would be history too. In a year or two Oslo Airport would be somewhere else.

We shared a taxi there and sat waiting for our planes, she to Stavanger, me to Bergen.

‘You look so pensive, Varg … Have you got any regrets?’

‘No, no. We should make this a tradition, once every five years or so.’

‘Ha ha. So what is it that’s bothering you? Not the grave still?’

‘No. It struck me that … it was a case I was working on. Six months ago. In January … For some reason I can’t get it out of my head.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘Do you remember Hege?’

‘Hege … You don’t mean Hege Jensen, the girl Thomas …’

‘Yes. She …’

That was as far as we got. Her flight was called, and I accompanied her to the gate. We didn’t do goodbye kisses. We weren’t that young. But she got a hug for her journey and I got a caress to my cheek from a soft hand.

Three quarters of an hour later I was sitting on my plane, not only on my way to Bergen, but six months back in time, to the day in the middle of January when everything changed in one fell swoop from being a beautiful, white winter to slush and rain and chaos.

IT HAD BEEN A PALE
, colourless January day. I stood by my office window staring out.

Before the weekend, the weather had been wintry and frost-clear, and skiing conditions in the mountains had been excellent. On Friday evening I had done a few turns on the illuminated ski trail myself, beneath a starry sky and along a track bordered by snow-laden trees; an experience that was so Christmas-card beautiful I wished I had someone to send one to. But I did not, and by the early hours of Saturday the weather had changed, with strong winds from the south-west. The rain washed away the snow, formed cascades of water, flooded cellars, caused chaos on the roads and turned life upside down for twelve hours.

On Monday morning everything was back to normal. Down at the fish market there were just a handful of sellers who had bothered to open their stalls, but none looked as if they were expecting a great invasion of customers. The fare on the counters looked somewhat lean and they stood flapping their arms at regular intervals to keep warm.

For private detectives who refuse divorce cases January is a meagre month. There was a single message on my answer machine when I entered the office, and in the postbox there had not even been so much as a window envelope. Companies sending invoices reckoned that most people were scraping the bottom of the barrel after Christmas shopping, and advertising
brochures that had not had an effect in December would be hard put to have any in January.

I held a cup of freshly brewed coffee in my hand. The draught from the window was cold, and I wrapped my fingers tightly around the cup to keep them warm.

I had read the day’s newspapers from front to back, and there was not much to get your adrenalin flowing there, either. Everyone was writing about the storm at the weekend. A house had been set alight in Mathopen, and the police feared it was motivated by racism. In Italy there had been a train crash killing eight people. Børge Ousland was approaching the end of his trek across the Antarctic. Ole Gunnar Solskjær had scored in Manchester United’s 2–1 defeat of Tottenham at White Hart Lane. A man had been found badly beaten up in Skuteviken and had been taken to A&E by a passing taxi driver. The duty doctor had informed the police, but the man had refused to report the case. According to police accounts, the injured man was an old acquaintance of theirs. They assumed the incident was the settling of old scores between criminals. At the same time the Chief of Police announced that the force was planning a clampdown on the town’s drug community. Several head teachers reported a large, and in part covert, drugs problem at their schools.

I sat down at my desk and watched some coloured windows hovering aimlessly against a black background on my computer. I had learned it was called a screensaver.

My stay in Oslo had been drawn out for longer than I appreciated. In the days following the operation I contracted a serious infection that sent me into a two-week transport of feverish fantasies and intensive treatment. I was not discharged until the end of October, and was still sleeping on the sofa in
Mari and Thomas’s flat for a week before the doctors would risk letting me slip back over the mountains. During the winter I went for a number of check-ups at Haukeland Hospital, all of which were positive.

After four months of sick leave I had gone back to the office in February, still sore around the shoulder, but it improved by the day as I did the recommended exercises. From the convalescence period I had returned with a technological advance, a PC tower that hummed away on the floor under the desk, a keyboard that was a great deal easier to use than the old typewriter had been and a screen that was literally a window onto the world. The small mouse lay beside the keyboard like a cleft tortoise, and I was no more than a key or two away from the world’s infobahn. I had my own email address and had taught myself to travel on the internet’s highways where, not infrequently, I ended up on a side track that culminated in the darkest electronic forest, with no other solution than to press Control, Alt and Delete and start again.

Even after a year there were not many people who had my email address, and there had not been many messages in that postbox, either. Not surprising therefore that I raised both eyebrows when I heard the door to the corridor opening. Cautious footsteps crossed the waiting room floor, and there was a knock on the office door. I went over and opened up, flashing my warmest smile to the potential client, as warm as I could muster for a Monday in January.

She eyed me with a kind of experienced distant gaze, without saying a word.

I met her gaze and said: ‘Come in. I have some fresh coffee on the go.’

‘Thank …’

She stepped inside and scanned the room with wary vigilance.

At once I saw there was something familiar about her. She was in her late twenties, not altogether attractive, but conspicuous make-up emphasised her beautiful eyes, yet failed to hide the bitter expression in them. Her hair was black, perhaps not a gift of nature, and there was something tight and bitter about her full lips as well. She had no smiles left to spare, and not one for me. She was dressed in a large, practical puffa jacket, dark red in colour, and a not quite so practical pair of grey, skin-tight jeans. Her high, black boots had heels that would have required quite a bit of training to master balancing in them.

I held out my hand. ‘Varg.’

With a limp handshake she said: ‘Hege.’

‘We’ve met before, have we not?’

She looked away for an instant. ‘Yes, maybe.’

I studied her features. Deep inside I saw a younger face, a young girl of fourteen or fifteen with a saddened expression on her face even then. ‘From …’

‘Mind if I smoke?’

‘If you have to.’

She produced a pack of cigarettes from her copper green shoulder bag, poked a cigarette between her lips and lit it with a small lighter. After which she looked at me through the smoke. ‘I was in the same class as Thomas. At secondary school.’

‘Yes, now I remember you! Hege …’

‘Jensen.’

‘And you lived …’

‘In Nye Sandviksvei.’

‘Right … please, take a seat.’ I ushered her to the client’s
chair and fetched a clean cup from the cupboard above the sink. ‘You did want a coffee, didn’t you?’

‘Yes, please.’

I poured her a cup, and she smiled with gratitude. A coffee and a cigarette. For some, little more was necessary.

I sat down behind the desk with my back to the window, spread my hands and said: ‘So what brings you here?’

She looked at me, mistrustful. ‘I don’t know quite how to …’

I responded with a friendly smile, leaned over for a biro and opened my notepad. ‘You could start by saying what you do.’

‘What I … My job, you mean?’

‘Yes, that sort of thing.’

She looked past me. Her get-up and the expression around her mouth had caused me to draw some swift conclusions, and I had not been mistaken. ‘I, erm, sell myself.’

‘I see.’ I tried to give her a sense that in this office it didn’t matter. ‘Most of us do when it comes to the crunch.’

‘It’s not that simple, believe you me,’ she snapped, as though she had been expecting a stronger reaction from my side.

‘Listen, Hege …’ I leaned forward. ‘I’m a social worker by training and in the course of my career I’ve come across a great variety of human situations. I don’t judge anyone.’ After a tiny pause I added: ‘But I am keen to hear what you want from me.’

‘It’s about a … colleague of mine. A girlfriend. She’s gone missing.’

‘When did that happen?’

‘Before the weekend. I haven’t seen her since Friday.’

‘And she’s not in the habit of taking long weekends away?’

She rolled her eyes. ‘Long weekends? In our profession? That’s our peak business period.’ As I didn’t respond she continued:
‘Maggi and I always made sure we told each other if anything happened. After all, we know the risks we’re exposed to.’

‘Yes, of course. Her name’s Maggi?’

‘Yes, Margrethe in full. But we called her Maggi for short. She couldn’t walk the streets with the same name as the Queen of Denmark, could she!’

‘No?’

‘Eh?’

‘It might have added a frisson for some.’

‘For you perhaps?’

‘No, I don’t frequent prostitutes or such circles, if I may put it like that. What’s her surname?’

‘Monsen.’

I made a note. ‘And she lives …?’

‘She has a little flat in Strandgaten.’

‘Does that mean she also takes clients home?’

‘I suppose she does.’

‘That’s where you have your base?’

She nodded in silence and stared stiffly at me.

Hege Jensen … I tried to remember her. If she was the same age as Thomas she would be twenty-five or six. So it would be ten to twelve years since I had last seen her, and then in all probability
en passant
or at some school function. I didn’t remember her parents at any rate. I had a vague memory that she might have been one of four girls who had performed a pop song at an end-of-school social, but I was not certain.

‘Has anything special happened of late that gives you cause for concern?’

‘Yes, that’s just it. It was Friday evening. She turned down a trick.’ Then, as though I might not have understood the jargon, she added, ‘Refused a customer.’

‘I see. That must happen from time to time, I would imagine, mustn’t it?’

‘Yes, it does, but her reaction was so violent. And then Tanya said she would take him instead.’

‘Tanya?’

‘Yes, one of the others … out there.’

‘What happened next?’

‘Well, she went with him and came back a few hours later, in floods of tears, battered and beaten. She had bruises everywhere and looked absolutely terrible! She said she would report him, not to the police but to … well, you know, and if either of them showed their face out there another time she would kill them herself, if she got the chance.’

‘Them? She said
them
?’

She nodded.

‘How did Maggi react to this?’

‘Well, she wasn’t there. Not then. She must have had a trick of her own. I don’t know. I haven’t seen her since!’

‘You haven’t seen her since this Tanya returned from her trick. Have I understood you correctly?’

‘Yes, you have understood me correctly!’ she exclaimed with impatience, as though she were talking to someone hard of hearing.

‘OK, have you considered going to the police?’

‘The cops?’ She looked at me with contempt. ‘Well, you know how they treat cases like this when it’s about people like me and Maggi. Why d’you think I’ve come to you?’

‘Did you know it was me? Thomas’s father?’

She nodded, and for a moment or two a glimpse of childhood innocence seemed to flit across her face. ‘He … We were walking along Strandkaien once and he pointed up to one of
these windows, and then he said: “My father’s got his office up there. He’s a private detective.”’

I felt a stab of melancholy in my abdomen, a sudden yearning for the son who had walked past underneath with a school friend and had pointed up to my window, but who dropped by all too seldom.

‘Haven’t we met at some point?’

‘No, I don’t think so. I never went to your house. And I remember his mother better than I remember … you.’

‘Well … not so strange perhaps. But … back to the case. If she has in fact gone missing the police have quite a different set-up from mine.’

‘Really? Don’t you believe me?’

‘Yes, I do, indeed I do. But … it hasn’t been that long, has it. There may be a natural explanation for the whole thing. She didn’t have any plans for the weekend, did she, for example?’

‘No, imagine that. No, she did not! If she had she’d have told me beforehand.’ She pushed back the chair as though intending to get up. ‘Now tell me, are you going to take the job or not?’

I cast a glance at the expensive screen and reminded myself that there were still a few instalments to pay.

‘Yes, I am. I can always try. But then I’ll need some more information.’

‘OK, shoot!’

‘I need the precise address in Strandgaten. You wouldn’t have a key for her flat, would you?’

She nodded. ‘That’s the reason I know she isn’t there. We kept each other’s house keys, in case something like this happened. That one of us might go missing.’

‘Let’s take a look afterwards then.’

‘Us?’ She threw me a quizzical glance.

‘Yes, or I’ll go alone.’

‘That wasn’t because … I was thinking more about you and … your reputation.’

‘It’s pretty tarnished already. One migratory bird more or less won’t make much difference. What about her family, do you know them?’

She heaved a sigh of despair. ‘You know girls like us don’t exactly receive family visits at our workplace, and if we did it would spell trouble.’

‘You mean …’

‘No. In fact, brothers, fathers and uncles do show up out there to buy services, and then they bump into a little sister or a daughter or a niece. And that’s not the half of it. When one of them comes to return their little darling to the nest there’s a real rumpus.’

‘But Maggi’s family …’

‘We talked about the hells we have come from now and again. What she came from was nothing to boast about, either. The father drank and the mother whinged. One brother’s in the clink, and she said only the big sister has sort of coped.’

‘Which part of town did she come from?’

She hesitated. ‘From somewhere in Minde, I think. I’m not sure.’

‘Is she on drugs?’

‘What do you think? Why the hell do you think we’re on the game? Because it’s such great fun being fucked up the arse?’

I held my hands up in defence. ‘Alright! But I do have to ask, don’t I. You’ve given me a job to do, haven’t you?!’

‘Oh, yes? So you’re taking it, are you? Positive?’

‘I’ll do my best anyway.’ I made a few more notes. ‘So that’s
the address, drugs, family … How do you go about it? To be blunt … I suppose you’ve got a pimp, have you?’

She eyed me with the same distance as when we started the conversation. ‘We have someone who takes care of us, yes.’

BOOK: Cold Hearts
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