Authors: K. O. Dahl
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
K. O. Dahl
Translated by Don Bartlett
As he opened his eyes they felt like sandpaper. He stared up at a greyish-white ceiling and knew it was day, knew he was sleeping in an unfamiliar bed, just didn’t know where. Until he felt her arm against his chest.
The dawn outside brought soft shadows to the room. It was morning and he had to get up. Go to work.
They couldn’t have been asleep long. Her body was silhouetted in the half-light from the window. Her skin glistened dimly in the gloom, only her legs and feet were covered by the duvet, which lay crumpled at the bottom of the bed.
Slowly he levered himself up. Leaned against the wall to clear his head. Tired. Wanted to lie down. To pull the duvet over himself, sleep some more. But for a shit of a foreman deducting pay from the first half an hour, he would have.
It was half past five. No hurry.
He fumbled for his underpants and the rest of his clothes. Gathered up everything in one big pile under his arms, went to the bathroom. The old-fashioned tap took ages to run warm. Gave him time to study his reflection in the mirror. A pale, unshaven face beneath long, black hair. Realized he needed a wash. He stared at all the bottles and jars on the bathroom shelf. Tiny, creased panties and long tights hung quietly in the white light. Sleepily, he put on his clothes; his hands splashed water in his face.
Best to creep out, best not to wake her. Ring later, perhaps in the afternoon, or the evening. But first have to go back in to search for socks. Couldn’t see them anywhere. Weren’t under the bed, either
Knees cracked as he stood up. She lay as if dreaming, sleeping soundlessly with her knees drawn up in front of her breasts. White skin and full lips. Short, blonde hair that fell over her eyes.
There they were. His socks were in a ball under the bookshelves.
Bang. Hit his head on a shelf as he straightened up. He grabbed his head and mouthed a curse. At the same time he heard the duvet rustle. She was awake.
‘Are you going?’
Her voice was husky, sleepy, her skin warm.
‘I’d been hoping you wouldn’t wake.’
He trembled as his mouth met her wonderfully soft lips.
‘I’d been hoping we’d wake up together,’ she whispered. He gently nuzzled her cheek and caressed one nipple with the palm of his hand. He said: ‘I’ll ring you,’ and reluctantly sat on the spindleback chair by the small desk. Pulled on his socks as her hands fondled his hair.
Then the telephone on the table rang.
cut through the room’s grey light and made him peer up at her. Her eyes were fixed on the telephone.
He kissed her stomach. Cute navel, he thought as she hesitantly moved her arm towards the telephone that was still emitting its jarring tones. ‘Is it for you, do you think?’ she whispered in a tremulous voice.
Her face was no more than a dark shadow against the dawning light from the window.
‘No one knows I’m here.’
She was still hesitating.
‘Pull out the plug then. If you don’t want to speak to anyone now.’
She lifted the receiver in one swift movement. ‘Yes, Reidun here!’ Decisive voice.
Silence on the line.
‘Hello, Reidun here.’
She smiled down at him. Held the phone between her head and shoulder and tousled his hair again, with both hands.
Still no sound.
He felt her stroking his hair backwards, gathering it.
‘Like this,’ she smiled. Her hand wagged the pony tail she had formed with his hair.
Why not? he thought. A pony tail would be all right. Especially if she liked it.
He bent down and tied his laces while she stated her name for the third time. No answer.
Her breasts rippled as she shrugged her shoulders and stared at the receiver. At that moment they both heard it. A dry click.
Whoever it was had rung off.
She slowly put down the receiver.
‘Do you often get calls like that?’
She turned and looked out of the window.
‘No,’ she said at length. ‘No, in fact, I don’t.’
Something had happened. They weren’t whispering any longer.
‘Why have you got to go?’
Her voice had acquired a slightly different timbre.
‘I have to go to work soon. Got to go home and change first. Bye,’ he whispered by the door. Again he felt his knees give way as he tasted her lips. Waited until she had locked the door before jogging down the stairs, tearing open the front door and taking a deep breath as it slammed shut behind him.
The backyard was a tarmac area with bike stands. The gate in the dark archway was closed. No handle on the lock.
Nonplussed, he ambled back, stood still in the middle of the yard. He was locked in! The impregnable block of flats towered up on two sides. The door to the staircase was locked, the gate was locked. However, to the right there was a wooden fence, not a brick wall. There was probably a demolition site on the other side. Impossible to know for sure. The fence blocked any view. But he ought to be able to clamber over. A shade under three metres. Were it not for the barbed wire on top. It was rusty, but still aggressively coiled in rolls.
Should be OK
, he thought, pulling the refuse container into position.
Shit! What a racket!
On to the lid. The crate started rocking.
Never mind. Bend your knees, launch yourself! Right!
He lay on the ground staring up at a blue sky and dark windows with white bars against pink brickwork. A gull circled above. Screaming. He held his head. Fingers bleeding. Another go. The container had to be stood upright again.
Now. The fence creaked and swayed under him. But it held. He managed to position a leg and heave himself up. Threw himself over and heard rather than felt the barbed wire tearing the seat of his trousers.
Correct. Demolition site. Greyish-brown tufts of grass between the remains of red bricks on the ground. Another wooden fence facing the street. But this one was lower. He ran up and jumped. The barbed wire snagged on his jacket. He was out. Silence. Just the sound of a car could be heard a long way off as he brushed himself. His shirt had ridden up from his trousers and he was bleeding more than he had at first thought.
A taxi came to a sudden halt beside him. Two people alighted, took very long paces to the gate and let themselves in as the taxi drove off. Typical! If he had waited a few minutes he could have strolled out.
Strange start to the day, he thought, wandering the few metres over to the gate which had been left unlocked and ajar by the taxi’s passengers. The gate creaked as he pushed it open to its fullest extent and walked back into the yard. Then he saw the bells by the door. Idiot! A quick press on the button and she would have come down with a key and let him out. A slip of paper with her name written next to the bell. Smudged writing in blue biro. The sight of the paper reminded him of the touch of her skin.
He could go back up. Get into bed with her and sleep a bit more. Until twelve or one. Wake up with her.
He pushed the door. Unlocked. All he had to do was run up.
Further away, a tram rattled down a side street. He remembered her hands fondling his hair. Caught in two minds, he stood looking at his wristwatch. A car door slammed somewhere. Sound of footsteps. Someone turned into the gateway. Coming towards him.
He took a decision. Work was waiting. He stepped off, but first nodded politely to the newcomer.
Once home, he changed into fresh work clothes. Time was on his side. So he rested on the bed.
Just have a little doze, fifteen minutes
. But went out like a light. Overslept his shift. Had forgotten to set the alarm clock. Slept until two in the afternoon. Thought of her as soon as his eyes opened. Thought of the night before, of her body. Of her wriggling beneath him. Of them lying side by side afterwards, of him holding her face in his hands, chatting, stray fingers on bare skin.
He had left her and skipped work afterwards, though unintentionally. Had lost six hours of a hundred per cent overtime and annoyed the fat-bellied firebrand of a foreman into the bargain. But he didn’t ring in. That would have been asking for an earful. So he sat up in bed, found her telephone number with a yawn and dialled.
Televerket automatically broke the connection. He put down the receiver and then picked it up again. Dialled the same number and let it ring, but without success. Until Televerket cut him off again.
* * *
The sound of a phone doesn’t carry. But if the flat is small and the door is open and banging, then it does. If the phone stops ringing, you know someone is at home. If it doesn’t, no one is at home. A problem emerges when all the indications tell you someone is at home, but the phone carries on ringing. The continuous ring is a signal, a warning that something is not right.
If you are washing the stairs, you don’t listen. But three-year-olds have not learned what you should or shouldn’t do.
Three-year-old Joachim had a little cloth in a bucket and of course the bucket tipped over at the bottom of the stairs between the second and third floor. Joachim smiled. ‘Wet’, he shouted and laughed, then started washing like mad. Until it was dry and Mummy had to go down with her bucket and give him a top-up. While she was there she noticed that Reidun Rosendal’s door was open. The door was banging. The lock kept knocking against the door-frame in the light draught there always was on this staircase. What was strange was the silence inside. Reidun had a small flat, so she ought to have been heard from inside the door. Mia Bjerke didn’t know Reidun that well, they just said hello, the way that neighbours do as they pass on the stairs.
But then, when she was halfway through the cleaning, the telephone rang inside the flat. For a long time, and when it finally stopped, it started up again. From the bottom of the steps, tiny Joachim said:
‘Ringing, Mummy!’ Twice he said that and twice she answered it was probably because Reidun, who lived there, wasn’t at home.
But then she opened the window on the landing between the floors to let air in and Joachim said that Reidun was at home. ‘You’re fibbing, Mummy!’ Joachim said.
For by opening the window Mia had created a kind of through-draught. Possibly because of a sudden gust of wind. At any rate, the draught was so strong that the door to Reidun’s bed-sit banged wide open.
‘Come here, Joachim!’ she called sharply. And Joachim listened to her. Perhaps because of the sound of his mother’s voice or perhaps because he was affected by the atmosphere that had developed on the staircase.
A naked foot on the floor of the bed-sit told Mia Bjerke that someone had been at home the whole time.
Inspector Gunnarstranda was taken aback by the sight of the figure opening the door. But not by her reaction, neither the look she gave him nor the one she cast afterwards at his ID. He knew this look, and was inured to it. For no natural authority emanated from his short, thin body. He was one metre sixty in his stockinged feet. All of his fifty-seven years had left their marks. His face was wrinkled and his pate shiny, almost bald. There was just a dishevelled clump of hair clinging on. He combed a few frugal wisps into position every morning, over from one ear to the other.
Gunnarstranda was conscious of his sad outward appearance. For this reason he was tolerant of her askance look, from top to bottom, as if he were an insect she had espied under the mat.
He unleashed his whitest smile by way of a response. Watched her confusion grow. Few people expected such a toothpaste-white row of teeth from such a short-arse in a threadbare coat, with nicotine-stained fingers and scorch marks on his shirt. Then there was all the dental work. A kind of porcelain. The finery that Edel had once paid for with her lottery winnings. ‘Finally we’re going to get your ugly mouth sorted out,’ she had said with her glasses well trained on the list of prizes. She must have been heartily sick of the cactus landscape in his cake-hole. He didn’t know. If that was why, she would never have said. So he had never asked. Edel always got her own way whatever happened. And now it was too late to ask. Four years too late.
The smile helped him on this occasion, as indeed it always did. The smile that obliterated the impression of scruffiness. The smile that caused people to fumble rather than punch him in the face. The rascally smile.
The woman returned his smile, and they were friends. She blinked, and consciousness returned. Moved to the side and held the door open, told him to make himself comfortable while she saw to her child in the kitchen.
He stood at his ease looking around the large, airy living room. A newly decorated flat. White jute wallpaper. Varnished parquet flooring without cracks or flaws. Curtains in light pastels hanging lightly over large windows. Simple expensive furniture, linen and dyed leather. On the floor some children’s games, even though a coffee table in thick, tinted glass and a glass display case suggested disciplined behaviour indoors.
On the walls were three originals by a modernist painter Gunnarstranda neither knew nor could name. But his seasoned eye soon detected the touch of class in a genuine signed oil canvas.
He found himself in a flat that distinguished itself by its youthful affluence.
In itself it was no strange thing to be in a pleasantly furnished flat in an apartment building in upper Grünerløkka. It was the elegance that caught his eye. Oil paintings and the style of the dignified woman he had made up his mind to like. She seemed dependable, despite her Oslo West-accented Norwegian. ‘Would you mind waiting in the living room,’ she had said.
In the living room!
Her pronunciation of the words made him pay attention to her choice of clothes. The jewellery around her neck. The manner with which she tackled the conflict between the child in the kitchen and his unspoken demands from the door.
On the sly, Gunnarstranda had studied her languorous gait from the hallway to the kitchen. The natural rotation of her hips. A lithe and well-proportioned woman of around thirty. Finished with her studies, he imagined. So, the sensible type. Job first, then children.
He stood by the window, looking down on to the street. Thought about the old days, skating in Dælenenga, the brewery horses, the sub-zero outside privies and the utility sink in the kitchen where you pissed at night.
And nowadays high society put down genuine parquet flooring over the old boards. Bizarre, he thought, posh folk tripping around in slippers so as not to scratch the floor. Here, in this old block.
A few years ago, it had been acceptable for snobs to live in lower Grünerløkka too, in Markveien and Thorvald Meyers gate. But most had shipped out now. Shipped up. Now he could confirm that the upper reaches of Grünerløkka were holding their own. And this was rather surprising. Because the woman in the flat shoes in the kitchen was, socially speaking, different compared with the Pakistani next door, who walked around in seventies clothing. His flat was furnished with flimsy, wobbly furniture from the Salvation Army shop. An unusually polite, plump man with fleshy cheeks and a toothbrush moustache. The type that shooed his wife straight into the kitchen the moment she shuffled in through the door. The man had been like a wind-up doll. Hands against his back and a rictus smile on his face. Hadn’t heard or seen a thing. Never did, and definitely not last weekend. Nevertheless the man did fit in here. Him and the two dilettantes on the floor above. Two tall, skinny hippies dressed in garish clothes, who were trying to grow marijuana on the window sill. The man fortyish and unemployed. The woman, barefoot in flares embroidered with flowers. Two living fossils from the sixties wading through piles of newspapers and half-empty wine bottles. Both were far too concerned to point out how little they knew of the world outside, above all on a Sunday morning when they were on their way back from a party.
It was different here, in this flat. What did she think about, this wealthy woman? A girl murdered downstairs. Did she think that this wickedness would implicate them, her and her family? And if they wanted to move, where would they move to? Lots of money had been invested in this flat. These were people who undoubtedly had the means to take the final step. To move to Bærum, or to Nordstrand. Without stopping a few hundred metres further up, in Valdresgata, where the blocks were newer and there were still enough journalists and union bosses for high society not to feel comfortable.
He leaned his forehead against the window pane and stared down on to the street, patiently waiting until she was finished and had returned from the kitchen.
‘You’ve been lucky with this flat,’ he exclaimed with his back to her. ‘And you’ve done the place up nicely. Imagine, when I was growing up, there wasn’t even a toilet in the corridor. And at that time it was as cold inside the block as it was outside.’
He turned and pointed to the sun beaming down through the pane. ‘You’ve got the sun here, too. Not many people have that here in Grünerløkka.’
She nodded politely, a bit apprehensive.
‘I grew up here, I did,’ he said, pointing out of the window. ‘In Seilduksgata, down from Dælenenga, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I haven’t hung out in this place at one time or another.’
The latter accompanied with a broad smile.
He strode across the floor and took a seat on the curved pink leather sofa.
The little boy clung to his mother’s trouser legs. Staring at Gunnarstranda with large eyes. Her bright blue eyes glinted nervously above a small strained smile that told him he should not reminisce about old times any more than was necessary. He squinted at her across the table, ignoring the boy. Children did not particularly interest him.
‘Are you a policeman?’ the boy wanted to know.
‘My father worked at Freia, the chocolate factory,’ Gunnarstranda continued, rapt in thought. ‘Got a good pension as well. He was famous for it, company director Throne-Holst was! Gave his workers a pension before the idea had even occurred to anyone else. Yes, you’ve heard of Throne-Holst, I suppose?’
The woman shook her head, wary.
He leaned over to her in confidence. ‘Please excuse me,’ he broke off, bursting with curiosity. ‘But for someone like me who grew up in these parts I have to say an incredible amount of work has been lavished on this flat. It can’t have been cheap.’
Her smile changed at the compliment and Gunnarstranda inferred she had played an active role in the redecoration. But the smile vanished. She was serious again.
‘Well, that is the issue, isn’t it?’ she answered. ‘Now that she has been killed downstairs. Joachim and I are worried the prices are going to plummet, and then we would lose loads of money on this.’
‘Are you going to move already then?’
Gunnarstranda essayed a little smile with the boy as well. ‘So, you’ve started work as an estate agent, have you?’
She smiled. ‘Joachim is my husband. This is Joachim Junior.’
She patted the boy on the head.
Joachim Junior, Gunnarstranda repeated to himself. Took a deep breath. ‘The murdered . . .’
Met her eyes. ‘How well did you know each other?’
She hesitated for a moment, considering the question.
‘Depends what you call well.’ She took her time. ‘I said hello to her quite a few times, of course. She seemed . . . well . . . quite nice. Seemed the easy-going type to me . . . and to Joachim.’ She hesitated again. ‘I don’t think he knew her any better than I did. That’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it,’ she laughed with a slight undertone.
Gunnarstranda wasted no time. ‘How do you mean?’
She looked down. ‘It was a joke,’ she said with a strained smile. ‘As you know, she was a very attractive woman.’
The words were spoken with a face that said she was the kind to keep an eye on her husband.
‘So he did talk to her once in a while?’
Gunnarstranda detected some irritation at his question.
‘We were neighbours in a way, weren’t we, and yes . . . no!’
She threw out her arms.
‘You didn’t have much to do with her then, you didn’t have mutual friends?’
‘Do you know if she hung around with a particular group? Was there anyone who visited her a lot?’
‘I’m afraid I can’t help you there,’ she said firmly. But continued when the inspector said nothing.
‘Yes, she lived below us, and the times I met her she was on her own by and large. I suppose I must have seen her with other people, men and women, as you would expect. She was just a normal girl living alone and we, well, we’ve hardly been here six months, not even that.’
‘Are you at home all day?’
‘Half of it, yes.’
The boy grew restless hanging from his mother’s arm, and she was being distracted.
‘Would you recognize any of these people, from a photograph?’
‘Which people? Stop it now, Joachim!’
She grabbed the wriggling boy’s hand to restrain him.
Gunnarstranda stared at her patiently. ‘The ones you’ve seen her with.’
‘Excuse me,’ she said, and got up. Bent down to the boy and talked softly to him while looking him in the eye.
‘Mummy has to talk to the man. Now you go and find something to do. Play with your bricks.’
The child was not in a co-operative mood. In a huff, he eyed the policeman, who took out his tobacco pouch and started to roll a cigarette. The lad was intrigued by the roller and turned to watch Gunnarstranda making a stockpile of filter roll-ups on the glass table.
Mummy had time to think. ‘To be honest, I don’t believe I noticed any of them she was with, don’t think so anyway.’
The inspector didn’t glance up. ‘But you’ve been living here six months! And there hasn’t exactly been a stampede on the staircase, has there.’
She didn’t answer.
‘And she was quite a good-looking woman,’ he continued. ‘The sort your husband would have cast an appreciative eye over!’
He met her eyes and noted the confusion there. But he didn’t give more than a glimmer of a smile. He could see she was of a mind to interpret the question in the best spirit. ‘To be honest, I don’t think I would recognize anyone in a photo after a brief encounter on the stairs. No, I don’t think I would.’
Gunnarstranda gathered all the roll-ups together. Got to his feet. At that moment they heard someone come through the front door. The boy ran towards it with his mother behind him. He lit a cigarette. Went over to the window and opened it a crack while she welcomed her husband. He could hear the father indulging in horseplay with his child and the couple whispering.
So as not to offend anyone, he tried to blow as much of the smoke as he could through the window.
Soon they were in the living room. ‘Feel free to smoke,’ she assured him, flustered. ‘I’ll find you an ashtray. This is the gentleman from the police.’
The latter was said to her husband, who trooped in behind her.
They greeted each other.
The man was getting on for forty, but had stopped somewhere along the way. Clammy hands, maybe as a result of wearing gloves. His hair was thick and bristly and fell in front of his eyes as he made a very formal bow. At the back of his head his hair had been cut in a straight line around his neck. His frenetic eyes emphasized a repellent energy in his nature.
‘We’re investigating the murder of a young woman on the lower floor,’ Gunnarstranda said gently.
‘Yes, well, it’s about time!’
Gunnarstranda looked the man in the eye as he flicked the ash from his cigarette into the ashtray the child’s mother had provided.
Sensitive mouth. Suggestion of a grimace around the lips.
The police officer elected the direct approach. ‘Have you ever been in her flat?’
A hesitant silence cast a shadow over the other man’s self-assurance for a second. It was a shadow of cold calculation. For Gunnarstranda this was enough.
Gunnarstranda felt the woman’s eyes burning into his right shoulder.
‘How many times?’
This time the silence was longer. ‘I gave her a hand, didn’t I, Mia? . . . Helped her start her car with jump leads in the winter, there was also . . . well, after all, she was one of our neighbours.’
The man spread his hands as if to crave understanding.
Gunnarstranda gave a pensive nod. ‘Her flat is much smaller than this one. Would you mind if I had a little look around?’
‘I most certainly would!’
Joachim Senior’s top lip was visibly curled. Gunnarstranda took another drag of his cigarette. He looked the other man straight in the eye. ‘You are interested in having this murder cleared up, are you?’
The man glared back and snarled. ‘First of all, you kept yourselves to yourselves all yesterday morning, banging around, people and cars everywhere. Then we waited all afternoon for you. I cancelled two important appointments. At that speed you’ll have the murder cleared up some time in the next century!’