-a WICUS FOSTER novel –
Ingrid Landvik’s heart raced.
She ran down the apartment building’s hallway, sprinting over broken beer bottles, shattered light bulbs and discarded syringe needles.
He would be back at any moment.
She ripped open the heavy staircase door, racing down the concrete steps.
It was four flights of stairs to the main floor. At the main floor she flew out the door onto the street, disappearing into the dark night.
Blood from the gashes on her bare feet stained the concrete steps.
The back of her ripped black dress flapped with each hurried step. Her face and chest were peppered with blood. Her blonde hair, with streaks of gray was a tangled and matted mess.
She should have never gotten in the car to close the deal.
That was three—four hours ago.
He had almost killed her.
He would when he returned.
What a goddamn sadist.
Now I know!
Her left foot, slammed into her right heel rounding the corner, forcing her down onto the steps, splitting her forehead, as her hands were still bound behind her. Like a wild animal, she leapt back up and kept running, blood trickling down her forehead, her cheeks, her mouth.
One more flight.
She thought of the box. How absurd to leave it with Joachim but desperate times, demands desperate measures.
The stairs ended and she turned left, bursting through the Exit door with her shoulder, out into the cold, Oslo night.
Her feet tracked streaks of pink blood over the thin, crusted snow. She raced away from the streetlights, towards the darkness.
Minutes later, out of breath, Ingrid leaned against a chain link fence surrounding a vacant lot. In the distance, occasional headlights zoomed by in the early morning blackness.
Her feet were feeling the cold, the pain. She needed to keep moving.
Then her soul froze a moment before she screamed.
His hand yanked her to the snow by her hair.
He pressed his knee into her stomach, still holding the back of her head by the hair.
She stared at his face, still shocked that it was him, and watched in dismay as he grinned.
“No, no, noooo!” she wept, closing her eyes.
Twenty minutes late, back in Apartment 418C, Ingrid was bound and gaged again, her eyelids taped open with Scotch tape.
He had brought a black backpack. What he brought out of it was evil.
Ingrid’s eyes were open but she couldn’t see a thing except her son, the son they took from her, the son she was trying to save. The son from another universe.
Birk Black stood in the back of the crowded church staring down the aisle at Ingrid Landvik’s shiny wooden coffin. He pictured her eyes shut peacefully, her hands folded tenderly over her abdomen, her blonde hair with subtle streaks of grey covering her shoulders. He imagined it being light inside the coffin but he knew better. It was dark and his mother would never be exposed to light again.
Darkness covered her severed torso, cut in half with a wire, at her waist. Darkness filled the hole where her belly-button once was, cut out and removed like cutting a hole in the ice to fish or so he imagined. He imagined the funeral director using long skinny fingers to place Ingrid’s upper torso in the casket first, followed by her lower torso and pulling and pushing the two parts close together. But there still must have been a gap between top Ingrid and lower Ingrid. And she must be wearing a dress. That would help cover the gap. Even in the coffin’s darkness he was glad her hair covered her ears or where her ears should have been before they were melted. A head with no ears is monster-like and even though Ingrid could be a royal bitch, Birk’s mom was no monster. Monsters don’t get voted Miss Norway when they are young. Or at least not pretty monsters.
It was difficult to see the front row in the church. In the left pew was a tall man with blond hair, probably Ingrid’s twin brother, Anders. Birk had no memories of him beyond a few old pictures. The woman next to him Birk assumed was Anders’ wife and the older couple next to her must be Ingrid’s parents, Solvig and Bjarne.
Birk’s grandparents never held him. They wanted the baby to go away forever. A bastard child was not part of their grand plan for beautiful Ingrid. Banishing the bastard child to a parallel universe was one way to forget about him.
But Birk couldn’t be banished.
Beyond Anders, Solvig and Bjarne, Birk was at a complete loss. Anyone in the ballpark of his age could be his cousins. Ingrid had two older sisters, Anna and Astrid. Maybe they were in the pew on the right, which he couldn’t see.
The Lutheran Priest was young and seemed nervous even though Birk couldn’t understand a word he was saying. The sweat on his large forehead glistened in the Church’s overhead lights. He had small dark eyes that darted between the bible in front of him and Solvig and Bjarne. The coffin dwarfed his small frame.
Few people in the church took notice of Birk. Some wandering eyes came his way but not in a suspicious manner, just curious to see who strolled in to Ingrid Peterson’s funeral ten minutes late. Birk was sure none of them knew he was Ingrid’s bastard son from Montana.
Five days before the funeral Birk was having late morning coffee in Missoula, Montana at Bernice’s Bakery with his buddy, Nick, hearing about his exaggerated backcountry ski exploits over the weekend. They both kept staring out the window at Higgins Street, watching the snow pile high. Nick was talking about killer ski lines when Birk noticed Megan, one of his employees at Igloo Sports, dart across the window and burst in Bernice’s.
“Birk! A Norwegian guy is at the shop. Needs to see you ASAP. It’s some serious shit.”
Hurrying two blocks to the shop with the snow spitting in their faces, Megan continued. “The guy has a royal stick up his Nordic ass. Joachim is his name. Ya’ know him?”
“Don’t think so,” Birk said, as his mind spit out images of his mother over the years. Maybe this was her way of announcing a visit. Joachim could be a messenger. That’s what she did the last time they’d met. Three years ago in Jackson Hole, a guy, Arne, tracks him down in a bar to inform him he can see his mother the following day for breakfast. If he wanted to of course.
Maybe Joachim, will extend a lunch invitation to me. I wonder what the hell she’s doing in Missoula – it’s no Jackson Hole and she’s never dropped in before? The mountainous run-down town is beneath her stomping ground criteria. Swanky-trendy Whitefish or Bozeman, maybe, but not Missoula, home of the Ph.D., pawn shop workers and more second hand stores and coffee shops than gas stations. “Hopefully he wants to buy some of our stuff,” Birk’s says to Megan but he knows damn well his visit is about Ingrid.
“No way. The guy’s a jelly-donut. Smoking has to be the most active thing the guy does.” She pointed through the snow. “There’s the fat ass now.”
Birk saw the silhouette of a short fat man pacing in the snowstorm outside his shop.
Megan shot back into the store.
“Hey, I’m Birk. Megan said you’re looking for me.” Birk held out his hand.
Snowflakes lined Joachim’s bushy strawberry blond eyebrows. He was balding with thick tufts of hair matted to the side of his head above his ears and seemed not to have a neck. He wore a long black wool coat that made him look like a ball of wet yarn. His eyes were like a toad’s. He flicked his cigarette into the snowstorm. “Joachim—Petter—Steinvold, from Norvay.”
Birk shook his small, soft, hand.
“I verk for Ingrid Peterson. Vee must talk in private.”
“Sure.” Birk looked at his watch. It was 10:47. “Follow me.” He walked north a block then waited for the light to cross Higgins. Joachim had already managed to light another cigarette in the storm, probably lots of practice in Norway. “Ingrid knows I always say yes to lunch, dinner, breakfast. Whatever the occasion. I just can’t believe she’s in Missoula.”
Joachim stared into the storm. “Ingrid izz not in Mizzoula.” He dropped his cigarette into the snow.
The light changed.
Across the street Birk held the door at Chuck’s Bar for Joachim. They walked to the back of the bar across the old wooden floor and sat down at a dark table with a glass top. Birk sat sideways and leaned against the wall. Four drunks were perched at the bar. Birk smiled as Carol approached.
“You’re here early, Birk.”
“Business.” Birk smiled and glanced at Joachim. “Gotta pay the bills.”
“Don’t I know it,” Carol returned the smile. She was in her mid 50’s and had dated Birk’s father a long time ago. Cute and always happy. “What can I get you two?”
“A Cold Smoke for me.” I looked across the table. “Joachim – beer, whisky, coffee?”
He looked up at Carol. “Kaffee.”
“A Cold Smoke on tap and a coffee. Sugar, cream?”
“All right then – be right back.”
Carol sauntered back to the bar.
“Is this private enough?” Birk asked.
“It’s fine.” Joachim pulled out his pack of cigarettes.
“No smoking in here, Joachim. Sorry, dude.”
“It’s the shitz here. Can’t smoke anywhere except in snowstorms.”
Carol brought the drinks.
“Of course.” She winked and returned to the bar.
Birk sipped his Cold Smoke – a nice thick Scotch Ale. “So what’s up, Joachim? I haven’t heard from Ingrid since Christmas. What’s the occasion?”
Joachim cupped his coffee in both hands, staring at Birk through its steam. “I’m her advokat – her lawyer. One of them anyvays. Ingrid went missing on March fifth.”
“Went missing? She went missing from me since I was six weeks old.” I took a big sip of Cold Smoke.
“She vas last seen alive eleven dayz ago shopping in Oslo.” Joachim sipped his coffee. “On March 11th, her sister Astrid received a ransom demand. On March 13th the family paid the ransom request but Ingrid vas never released. Two dayz ago a confidential source from inside the Oslo Police Agency contacted me. They found Ingrid’s body.” Joachim stared at me.
Birk set down his beer, feeling dizzy. “She’s dead?”
“Ja. It’s not official but my source iz very reliable. The press will be onto it any hour now.” Joachim stared at Birk. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t fucking be. You don’t know me and Ingrid sure as hell didn’t.” Birk felt sick.
Joachim drank more coffee. “Vell, it’s in your interest to come to Norvay. Come to her funeral vhenever it may be. Probably in a veek or so. There vill be important paper verk you need to attend to and it vill be easier if you are in Norvay than if you are in Montana.” He looked at Birk across the table. “You also should be careful. Maybe you are in danger, too.”
Birk forced a sip of beer. “What the hell are you talking about? Paper work? Funeral? Danger? I don’t know you and I didn’t know Ingrid.”
“As her advokat I know much what others do not, especially her family.” He pointed his finger at Birk. “Birk Black, you are sole heir to Ingrid Peterson’s estate. It iz worth your time to come to Norvay, no matter how you feel about Ingrid Peterson. Soon others vill know you’re heir to her small fortune and it vill not be so easy to hide – even in Montana snowstorms.”
Birk watched Carol in the distance pouring a shot of tequila for old Cub at the bar, the spring snow outside the small bar window was a sheet of white blur. “Who kidnapped her?”
“At this time Oslo doesn’t think it was a kidnapping. Maybe a random abduction by two heroin addicts who later discovered they had someone worth money. I know few details. As soon as the media catches vind of it, I’ll find out more.”
“How was she was killed?”
Joachim looked around the room, before fixing his gaze at the snowstorm outside the window. Steam rose from his coffee. “It is believed she was tortured for some time.” He paused staring at the snow, his eyes squinting. “Her body vas cut in half, her ears melted. Her death vas horrific.”
Birk closed his eyes, rubbing his head. He couldn’t hear what else Joachim was saying. He managed to stand up and stumble toward the door. Somehow he noticed Old Cub was staring at him. He walked outside and headed into the storm, the snow pelting him in the face.
Birk spent the rest of the day at his house on Jackson Street, drinking coffee, searching the internet for news of Ingrid, checking in with Megan and by 3:30 he had purchased a round trip ticket to Oslo for $3,800.00, departing from Missoula in thirty hours.
Intermittently he found himself looking through the red metal toolbox he kept in his bedroom closet. It contained all the connections he had ever had with Ingrid Bitte Peterson over the thirty-one years of his life. From his Norwegian birth certificate to clippings of Miss Norway to the nineteen letters he had received over the years. There were pictures his Dad had given him from when they met in Nepal and when he visited her for two months in Drammen, Norway. There were three pictures of her holding Birk as a newborn when she was twenty-two, looking scared shitless. There were seven hard copies Birk printed of emails between them when he had a yahoo account and seventeen when I had a gmail account. For the last three years he used a Protonmail account and she had corresponded with him twenty-one times. He stayed logged on for the day and kept re-reading her last email to him from January 27th.
I know I shouldn’t email anyone after I have been
drinking but I email you anyways. I’m stuck in
zurich after purchasing a painting. For you. Yes, you,
Birk. I wish so much you would be a royal ass to me
someday but you continue to disappoint. Can you
imagine a worse Mor? In my wildest dreams I can
not. You are so nice and so handsome, like a prince to me who has been nothing but kruel and vile to you. We are who we are for the reasons. That is not so much an excuse but an explanation. Had I really been your
Mor you would be a wicked beast by now banished
to a desert island surrounded by blood thirsty sharks as I am now wanting to eat me alive before I complete more damage to my demons in this fairy tale called life.
Sometime after four Megan called.
“Fat Joachim wants to come to your house. Said he needs to talk before he flies back to Norway. He’s hanging out in the store, scaring customers away. No shit. Looks like a creepy pedophile lurking around. He said he knows your address on Jackson Street but wants to –”
“It’s fine. Send him over.”
“You okay, Birk?”
“It’s all good, just send him over.”
“Copy. I’ll get him a taxi.”
“Thanks, Megan. I gotto go.”
Joachim arrived twenty minutes later. He stomped the snow off his shoes on the porch. Birk opened the door and the fat Norwegian scooted inside, took off his jacket and made his way into the living room, sitting down on the sofa. “Aftenposten is breaking the story. It’s just after mid-night in Norvay. In seven, eight hours, Norvay vill know Ingrid Peterson vent missing for eleven days and vas found cut in two, three days ago in Oslo. Has anyone contacted you yet about Ingrid?”
Birk leaned against a bookcase, shaking his head. “No, not yet. You think someone will?”
“Ja. It might be a day or so but it’s no secret you’re her son, just forgotten until now. If Ingrid died in a car accident no one would give a shitz about you but with a grisly murder the press playz detective.”
“So I tell them I haven’t seen her for eight months and yeah, I’m her son. I don’t see how that’s a big deal.”
Joachim looked around the room. “Whisky now vould be nice.”
He nodded. “Ja. Ice.”
Birk went into the kitchen and returned with Joachim’s drink.
“Takk.” He leaned back into the sofa.
“I found you on-line today. You’re with a small firm in Oslo. Five partners. Wills, trusts, estate planning, taxes. Exciting stuff.”
Joachim sipped his drink. “It can be.”
“Kristensen, Jensen, and Steinvold have a number of international clients – at least that’s what you advertise.”
Joachim nodded his fat, round head. “Mmmm.” He had settled into the sofa enough now with his drink to start looking around the living room. “Two suspects my source says are in custody for Ingrid’s murder.”
“The heroin guys?”
“Ja. Very evil men.”
“Did Ingrid do that shit – heroin?”
“Not heroin. Hashish maybe when she traveled. The police still think she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“And that’s what you think?”
“Ja, ja. Ingrid didn’t run in those crowds.” He shook his head.
“What crowds did she run in?” I asked.
“Ingrid? You know Ingrid.”
With Birk’s arms folded he watched Joachim sip his whisky. “What the hell are you talking about? I know, Ingrid. I’ve got a hand full of letters from her in my life. I’ve seen her about once every two years. I don’t know jack-shit about Ingrid except she had more important shit to do with her life than deal with me. And I’m not playing the sympathy card. I have a great fucking life—it just happens to be a life without a mother. Dad has been great, my grandparents are awesome. My Aunt and Uncle have been rocks for me. I’m not one to wallow in pity. I get the big picture. Dad screwed a young, hot Norwegian he met in Nepal while on a K2 expedition. Nine months later I enter the world. Ingrid is twenty-one, Dad is thirty-one. Ingrid’s family hates Dad and hates me. Dad gets full custody and I have a great life in Montana. Big fuck’n deal. But Christ, I have a heart. You waltz into my life this morning to tell me Ingrid was goddamn sawed in half and all the other physco-shit you talked about. Now I’m flying to Norway to attend to affairs of Ingrid who I hardly knew other than she gave birth to me. So no, Joachim, I don’t know who the fuck Ingrid is and I sure as shit don’t know who you are!”
Joachim sipped his whisky, looking at the snow fall outside the window. “Ja. Ingrid is, umm, vas not such an easy voman to understand. I knew her fourteen years.” He looked at Birk. “Her heart vas big but her mind vas complicated. Vee vill have much to discuss when you are in Norvay.” He shifted his weight on the sofa. “How long vill you stay?”
“Two weeks. I arrive in Oslo on Friday.”
“Ja. Okay. That should be fine. You have accommodations? Oslo is expensive. I can help—“
“I’m good. I know how to travel.”
“Ja, of course.” He pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and fished a card out of it. “Call me as soon as you’d like. Earlier would be better. I also have your email and mobile number from Ingrid. I vill also be in communication.”
“Sure, that’s fine.”
Joachim looked back out the window. “And be careful. As I told you the police believe they have the murderers in custody but maybe the police are wrong.” He stared back at Birk.
“You’re telling me you think the police have the wrong suspects?”
“I’m saying the police could be wrong is all. You are not the only person in the vorld upset vith Ingrid. She made many people happy and she made many people mad.” He finished his drink before reaching into his leather satchel. “This is from Ingrid.” He handed Birk a small beige envelope.
Birk held it up. “It’s open.”
“Ja, it vas never sealed. Ingrid showed it to me but I don’t know what it means. Three months ago she gave it to me to give to you in case something happened. So there it is.” He pointed to the envelope.
“Sounds like she had a bad feeling about her future?”
Joachim nodded. “Ja, exactly.”
Birk pulled a small piece of cardboard out of the envenlope, the size of a business card. ++
+++++ (develop what is on the card)
He stood and headed toward the door. “I vill see you soon in Oslo, ja?”
“Yeah. Of course.”
“Vell, then. My taxi is still here. I vill go. Safe travels.”
Birk watched Joachim trudge back out into the snowstorm and climb into the back seat of his taxi.
About six that evening Birk went back to the shop to tie up loose ends before his unexpected two-week exodus. His father, Eric, started the shop when Birk was a kid and for about ten years it lurched along with fits and starts. Good weeks, bad weeks, good months, bad months, good years, bad years. But the last decade it came into its own. Somehow Eric scraped up enough money to buy the building he originally leased. Birk remembered the day Eric paid off the mortgage when Birk was seventeen. He had a party upstairs in the office, complete with beer, wine, bourbon and weed. All night people came and went, reminiscing of old climbing times or ski adventures and just damn crazy adventures. Birk knew most everyone. Half of them helped raise him, when Eric was off bagging peaks with clients or shredding lines with friends. Eric burned the mortgage, using flames from the burning paper to light a fatty. Birk usually didn’t smoke with Eric, but he did that night. It was all good.
About three that morning, there were still some stragglers and Eric was feeling good. His short speech was filled with bourbon breath and smoke. “As you all I know, the banks no longer own me – I’m a free man.” Everyone hollered and clapped. “But I couldn’t have done it without all of you and without my best buddy in the fucking universe – Birky.” He grabbed Birk by the shoulders and pulled him in for a bear hug. Then he started to cry.
“This handsome as hell kid, now a young man, has been my anchor in life. I know I haven’t been a role model for him, but I thank my lucky fuck’n stars he sure as hell has been a role model for me.” Eric gave Birk another hug before his next announcement. “And that’s why tomorrow Birk and I are heading to Chile where my boy is going to teach his old man how to board.”
Birk tried hard to look cool. “Sweet, Dad. Chile?”
“Si, amigo.” Eric’s smile filled the room, while every one hooted and hollered, his big hand resting on Birk’s shoulder.
Birk’s phone buzzed, bringing him back from the past.
“Hey,” he said. “Igloo Sports.” His watch read 10:08 PM. Strange.
“Birk Black?” It was a woman’s voice.
“Yeah, I’m Birk.”
“My name is Astrid Årud with the Aftenposten, a newspaper from Oslo, Norway. I’m sorry about the death of your mother, Ingrid Petterson. May I ask you a few questions?”
Birk hesitated, then clicked off his phone.
He walked over to his desk and sat down in front of his laptop. In a few clicks he was reading an English translation of the Aftenposten. Ingrid Petterson, Former Miss Norway, Brutally Murdered.” It was the frontpage story. There was a thirty-three year old picture of Ingrid with a gold tiara on her head, in a black gown next to a contemporary picture of her. Birk thought she looked prettier in the newer picture. He read the article.
Shit. Birk ran his fingers through his hair. He read the article again.
Ingrid’s severed body was discovered on March 29th in an abandoned warehouse by a realtor while showing the building to a group of prospective buyers. It took authorities four days to notify family before releasing a press release identifying the corpse. The article identified Helmut Krauhn of Germany as Ingrid’s partner for twelve years. That was the first Birk had heard of Helmut.
The police had apprehended two heroin dealer suspects in the grisly murder: Fadeh Assari, a twenty-three year old Norwegian citizen and Anak Fontessi, a forty-one year old Turkish immigrant. The end of the article surprised him when he read, “Ingrid Petterson is survived by her partner for twelve years Helmut Krauhn of Germany, her son Birk Petterson Black of the USA, her daughter, Kristin Hodne of London, her parents Bjarne and Solveig Petterson of Drammen, a brother Anders Petterson of Trondhiem, sisters Astrid Jensen of Gjerdrum and Anna Haagvard of Molde, and three nieces and four nephews. Birk had never heard of Helmut Krauhn nor did he know of Ingrid’s sister Astrid Jensen but Christ, how the hell didn’t he know he had a sister!
In the second pew behind Solvig and Barnje, Birk noticed two women, wondering if one was Kristin, his damn sister. Both of the women looked young, somewhere in their late twenties, early thirties. One had short blonde hair, the other had long brown hair. The blonde had a slight build while the brunette was bigger boned. Although seated next to one another, their body language provided the impression they did not know one another. The blonde had her head tilted, looking at the preacher. The brunette gazed back and forth between Solveg and Bjarne. Their shoulders did not graze against one another’s, nor did they exchange looks, or squeeze one another’s forearms in a reassuring way, as is common practice at funerals. They both were pretty, nice complexions, and poised. Neither, however, struck Birk as an Ingrid carbon copy.
Suddenly the tall man standing next to Birk lowered his head and whispered something in Norwegian. Birk stared straight ahead, ignoring him, not wanting to be identified as an American. The man repeated himself. Like an idiot, Birk glanced up at him, nodded his head, then stared back at the preacher. Whatever the hell he said, Birk’s nod satisfied him. He gave Birk’s shoulder a pat before folding his hand in front of him. Presumably he was also staring straight ahead but Birk dared not look, worried he’d speak to him again.
Birk scanned the Church, searching for Joachim. The Church was big and it was full, three hundred people or so. Birk had no luck finding him as his short frame was no doubt lost in a sea of taller people. As he was searching he noticed a woman about his age, dressed in grey, staring at him. Her hair was a busy shock of black. She squeezed the shoulder of the man next to her and together they both stared at Birk. Then the organ began playing and everyone stirred as a hymn started and people began standing. Birk lost sight of the couple staring at him and took that as a good sign to exit Ingrid’s funeral.
A few minutes later he was walking into a biting wind down a street lined with cars feeling damned alone in the world and cold and wondering what it would have been like to grow up with a mother, someone to wave at during a school concert, and whisper to his friend, “there’s my, mom,” and smile when she waved back at him.
At the end of a string of parked cars he turned to cross a quiet street when he noticed a woman twenty yards behind him. As he waited for a car to drive by he saw it was the woman from the church with the black hair. She was walking fast. He gave her an awkward smile as she approached.
She stood next to him as the car passed, pulling out an index card from her pocket. In black marker it read, Birk Black your lives are in Danger. Joachim is my friend. Follow me. You are not safe.
“What the hell?” he asked staring at her.
She held her finger up to her lips. “Sssshhhh.” She flipped the index card over. Listening and tracking devise is on you
“Christ,” he muttered before crossing the street. She walked with him. On the other side of the street she hurried ahead, five yards, motioning with her arm for him to follow.
He stopped on the sidewalk, rubbing his head, figuring what the hell to do. He pulled out his phone to call Joachim.
She walked back to him, shaking her head, mouthing, nooo. She pointed ahead toward a small car approaching on the street and gave him the thumbs up and smiled.
The black car pulled over. An older man was driving. The car was a Puegot. She opened the back door. “Pleeeease,” she mouthed. She held up the index card again, thrusting it in my face. Birk Black your lives are in Danger. Joachim is my friend. Follow me. You are not safe
“Shit,” Birk got in the car.
She scooted in next to him, shut the door and the old man took off, turning left, avoiding heading back towards the church.
The man handed back a brown folder to him
Birk opened it. There were maybe twenty pages inside. On top was a hand written letter.
This is Joachim. I will meet you in a few days. Stay with Britta always. So much danger is around you. More than I could have thought when we met in Montana. Inside you will find pictures from peoples following you and other important papers. Do whatever Britta says. She is top good. You must remove everything now and Britta will show how you tracked by the peoples. This is complex and bad. Stay good. Welcome to Norge.
Britta anxiously watched Birk. He went through the papers. There were a number of photocopied pictures. The first four were of him taken from Gardemoen Airport in Oslo. One was of him buying coffee. Another going through customs. The third and fourth of him waiting for a taxi. Then there were two of him from his layover at Reagan International. One he was sitting, sleeping. The other reading a book. The pictures were good, not blurry at all.
Birk looked at the next pictures. “Shit.” The first was of him walking outside of his shop in Missoula. He was with Kevin Neece, a guy on the City Council. It was taken a week before Joachim marched into his life. Another picture was of him loading his Subaru with skis in front of his house. Another picture was of him leaving the Good Food Store, baguettes and wine in hand.
He felt sick.
The next paper was a copy of his recent First Interstate Bank checking account statement. The next two papers were copies of his electronic Visa and American Express bills. The last number of papers were copies of his gmail account, his sent messages and inbox messages printed out. The last page were texts from his iPhone, the most recent a text from him to Megan from the airport. Birk looked at Britta.
She held up another index card. You are not who you think you are. Peoples want to kill you because THEY KNOW WHO YOU ARE
Shit. He shrugged, staring at her.
She scribbled again on an index card. Remove alls your cloths, kwickly. The tracking devis. She stared at me, snapping her fingers.
The old man studied him in the rear view mirror.
Britta gestured with her hands for him to hurry the fuck up.
Birk took off his wool coat, handing it to her. She brushed it with a small metal wand.
She examined the left shoulder and extracted a small metallic devise no bigger than a small button. It was stuck to his coat with some adhesive substance.
The tall man in the church, Birk thought. Shit.
Next he removed his sweater and unbuttoned his shirt, handing Britta both. She was through with them in a few minutes. Nothing.
She pointed to his t-shirt. He pulled it over his head. She scanned it and threw it into a leather rusk sack. She handed him a new white t-shirt and a black wool pull over sport shirt.
She pointed to his pants.
The old man was checking his mirrors, clearly making sure he wasn’t being followed. The car took another sharp turn.
Birk handed over his shoes, then socks.
He removed his wallet. “Jesus,” he said as he unbuckled his pants. He squirmed out of them and handed them in a ball to Britta.
She was thorough with the pants and belt.
She then moved the wand over his briefs and had him arch his back so she could wand his damn ass.
She handed him a pair of jeans and socks from a duffel bag next to her.
He put them on. The pants actually fit.
She pointed to the wallet.
It was a large wallet, oversized for foreign travel. It held travel information, passport, credit cards, medical information, his Montana driver’s license.
He held it out for the wand.
She stared at Birk.
He handed her the wallet.
She began removing items individually and scanning them. His license, his credit cards.
She looked up at him.
He shrugged again. What the hell?
Slowly she examined each page.
She stopped at his entry stamp, examining it closely.
She leaned forward, whispering something to the old man.
He removed a pair of reading glasses hanging around his neck and handed them back.
She put them on and held the stamp closer to her face. She nodded her head.
She then gave me the glasses and handed back the passport.
Birk put on the glasses and stared at the stamp.
The entry stamp was raised slightly on the page, a blue, red, and black circular stamp with the date and some Norwegian type. It had a sheen to it that the rest of the page did not. He held it closer to his nose and could discern what appeared to be five strands of hair-thin wire embedded in the stamp.
What the hell is going on?
He handed back the passport.
Britta fished around the duffel bag, pulling out a small pen knife. She placed the open page against the back of his wallet, using it for a firm surface and cut out the page from Birk’s passport.
She placed the cut out page in her lap and scanned it. It beeped.
She then scanned the passport.
She placed the loose page in the rusk sack and then scanned the remaining contents of the wallet.
Everything else was clean.
She handed Birk a wool hat, sun glasses and boots from the duffel bag and tapped the old man on his shoulder, whispering to him.
She pointed to the boots, urging Birk to put them on in a hurry.
She changed coats, put on a hat and traded her boots for shoes.
Two minutes later, at an intersection, Britta and Birk exited the Peugeot and the old man sped off with the duffel bag and rusk sack.
Birk followed Britta across a busy street and entered a parking garage.
While walking through the garage Britta took off her hat, turned it inside out so it changed from black to white and handed it to Birk. She yanked his red hat off his head as they walked. She pulled at her hair, yanking off a black wig. Her shock of black hair was now in her hands. She released her hair from a bun, draping long blonde hair over her shoulders. She stopped and removed leather boots from her paper bag and shoes for Birk.
Without stopping they walked by a small dumpster and Britta tossed the extra clothes into it including her jacket.
“Coat,” she demanded.
Birk took it off as they hurried through the garage and gave it to her.
Immediately she unzipped the sleeves and turned it inside out, changing it from black coat to a green wool vest. She put it on.
They jogged through the dark garage and up two flights of stairs, then headed toward a lit exit. She stopped at the door.
“We are now lovers. I speak German. You say nothing. Look happy.”
They exited the garage, side-by-side onto a busy sidewalk. Most people had their heads down into the wind. Her left arm wrapped around Birk’s waist, her hand, deep into his left front pocket. She nudged him, so he wrapped his right arm around her waist, his hand pulling her waist closer to him. Occasionally, when people were close, she’d prattle to him in German. Birk smiled and nodded.
After ten minutes of walking they entered a small grocery store. Britta bought a bottle of red wine and artisan bread. They didn’t speak. Back out on the sidewalk they walked again, side-by-side, holding hands. Birk carried the wine, Britta the bread, talking to him in German.
They stopped at a large gray, concrete building and entered a small courtyard. From the courtyard they turned left, and climbed five flights of metal stairs. At the top of the stairs Britta entered a number on an electronic keypad and they entered a wide hallway. They walked past doors numbered 512-517. At room 518, Britta entered another code on a keypad, then used two keys for two dead bolts.
She closed the door, locking both dead blots.
Inside the apartment was dark.
They walked through a small kitchen, into a living room. She turned on a floor lamp. She held her finger to her mouth, and then motioned for Birk to stay put. She left checking a bathroom and two other rooms. She returned and clicked on the television with a remote to a Norwegian news station and then an IPod with music. She took the wine from my hand and walked to the kitchen. Birk watched as she uncorked it, pouring two generous glasses. She returned, handing Birk a glass.
“You want this, yes?”
Birk took a sip, then sat down. “What the hell is going on?”
She sat down across from him on the couch and sighed. “Yes, there is lots to talk about.”
Birk sipped his wine, studying her. She looked like a healthy, forty-something Norwegian. Blue eyes, fair skin, blonde hair, fit, about one-hundred thirty pounds.
“Yeah, well before I talk too much tell me who the hell you are?”
She nodded. “Yes. Of course. As I said earlier you can call me Britta. I—”
“Is Britta your name or just what you want me to call you?”
She smiled. “Call me, Britta.” She sipped her own wine. “Your life is in danger and I work for a person who wants you to be safe, so I try to make you safe.”
“Who do I work for?”
“Yeah, the person?”
“I cannot say. Not yet.”
“Christ.” Birk drank more wine, then sighed. “So why is my life in danger and why the hell should I trust you?”
“People know you are Ingrid Petterson’s son and because of that they want to kill you or perhaps kidnap you.”
“Do they know I hardly knew the woman?”
“They know that.”
“But still, my life is in danger?”
Someone was unlocking the door.
“It’s okay,” assured Britta. She looked at her watch. “He’s on time.”
The door opened. In walked the old man driving the car. He quietly shut the door, locking both dead bolts.
“Hallo,” he said softly, waving before walking towards us, wearing a black hat and a gray trench coat. He looked around sixty. He looked at me under his bushy eye-brows, extending his hand. “Hello, Birk Black. Welcome to Oslo.”
Birk stood, holding his wine in his left hand, shaking with his right. His hand was warm and strong. “I’m Anders Petterson,” he smiled. “Ingrid’s older brother.”
“Yes.” He nodded.
“My Uncle Anders?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so. Not much of one, I know.” He studied Birk. “You look much like Ingrid.”
“Yeah, I guess that makes sense.”
He could tell Birk wasn’t in the mood for bullshit banter.
“Sit, please.” Anders looked at Britta, then back at Birk. “We have some explaining to do.”
“Yeah, ‘ya do.”
“Britta and I work for an art collector who lives outside of Norway,” said Anders.
“Art collector?” Birk asked.
Anders nodded. “Yes. The individual, shall we say, has very eclectic taste and—”
Britta shouted in Norwegian as two masked men emerged from one of the back rooms.
“Shit!” Birk stared in disbelief.
The first man aimed a pistol at Britta. He spoke softly. Her eyes, darted from Anders to the man with the gun.
He stopped mid-way between Anders and Britta, still pointing the gun at her.
The second man walked around him and approached Britta from her back. The man with the pistol continued speaking. In minutes Britta was lying on her stomach, gagged, her wrists bound with zip-ties, facing away from Anders and Birk.
The man who tied up Britta next walked toward Anders. As he walked between Anders and the man with the gun Anders sprung forward, tackling him into the gunman.
In seconds, however, the gunman kicked a bent over Anders in the face. Anders thrust back and fell to the floor, onto his stomach. The unarmed man, then jumped to Anders back, pinning him to the tiled floor.
The gunman spoke with faster cadence but still low and soft, the pistol pointing at Anders, then at Birk, then back to Anders.
Britta had twisted herself around, facing the men.
The gunman quickly bent down behind Anders, placing the pistol’s barrel with a silencer behind Anders head. He spoke for a few seconds, then laughed. He turned and faced Birk, still holding the gun to Anders head. He smiled and then shot Anders twice.
“Jesus!” yelled Birk.
The gunman swung the pistol around, aiming it at Birk’s face. He spoke softly, apparently giving orders to the other man. They forced Birk to stand and walk into the kitchen, where they sat him in a wooden kitchen chair with arms. With two large zip-ties on each wrist, they bound Birk to the chair. Birk kept gazing over at Anders where dark blood continued pouring out of the hole in his head.
The unarmed man disappeared into the back room, returning with a leather computer shoulder bag. He removed a long piece of cloth, and gagged Birk with it. Then he removed another cloth from a plastic bag. It was moist and he smothered Birk’s nose with it, pressing the back of his head into it. Birk didn’t know what the hell it was but he thought of formaldehyde. He held it over his nose for a few minutes until Birk started losing consciousness. Birk’s head felt like it was being pulled down by lead bricks. He tried fighting it, staring at all the blood but soon the lead bricks began pulling on his eyelids as well.
Something was happening to Birk’s arm. A piece of rubber. A needle. Birk was surprised he didn’t feel any pain. He saw vials of blood and thought they were scooping up Anders blood from the floor with the vials. Then he made the connection they were taking blood from him. He wanted to tell them to stop but his mouth was full of cloth. He tried to groan but he wasn’t sure if he did.
Then they ripped the gag off and Birk coughed.
Someone forced his mouth open while someone else kept sticking cotton swabs in his mouth. Then they made him spit or rather drool in some vials. He began to black out again. His hand was holding something metallic and his body moved out of the chair.
There was that sound again.
Pffffffff-Pfffffff- Pffffffff-Pfffffff- Pffffffff.
Birk’s shooting Anders again. In the neck. Then he was pushed down onto Anders and he rolled off into a pool of blood and he was glad the blood was warm and not cold because maybe that meant Anders could still be alive and Birk didn’t want his face to be in the blood but it was warm and so it wasn’t so bad and he wanted to pour the blood back into Anders head but it felt like a pallet of bricks was being lowered onto him, pressing him into the blood and he imagined splashing the blood into Ander’s hole but his fingers only twitched before blackness covered him more than tacky blood.
Birk passed out.
Birk’s head pounded. He was thirsty as hell.
He heard water running. He heard the faint sound of women talking. He wanted to open his eyes but they wouldn’t open.
Fucking Norway, he remembered. I’m in goddamn Norway. Birk remembered Anders and his dark blood and someone taking blood from him and he remembered the smell of the freshly fired gun and the black hole Anders’ head.
He passed out.
The room was tiny and aqua blue and made of concrete blocks. Incense filled the air. His body was achy and heavy.
He stared at a woman reading four feet from him. She was sitting in an armchair. Her back very straight. She was of Middle Eastern or Indian descent. She wore a bright orange robe. The cot squeaked when Birk moved.
She looked up from her book. Startled by Birk’s movement. Her eyes narrowed. “Birk? Can you hear me?” Her voice was soft, with a British accent.
Birk studied her a few moments, then nodded. “Yeah.” His throat, his mouth, dry as hell.
“One moment, Birk.”
She hurried out of the room, carrying her book.
In the adjacent room Birk heard water running. “Britta. He’s awake. Come, come.”
She returned with a small green glass full of water, handing it to him. “Are you okay?”
He heard footsteps. Britta entered the room. The two stood, side-by-side, staring at him. Britta wore jeans and a black t-shirt.
“You’re alive?” asked Britta.
He drank water. Paused. Then drank more. It hurt to swallow. “I’m alive but Anders isn’t. What the hell happened?” He could see Britta had been crying.
She shrugged. “I don’t know.” She looked hard at him. “Maybe the same people who murdered Ingrid – I don’t know.”
“I thought they were in jail.”
“That’s what you’re supposed to think. That’s what the country is supposed to think but these things are not so simple.”
Birk’s head throbbed. “Aspirin or Ibuprofen or something?”
“Yes, yes. Of course.” The other woman hurried out of the room again.
“Where the hell am I?”
Britta looked out the doorway then back at him. “At a friend’s. Outside of Oslo.”
“I hope so.”
The woman returned with a small bottle of Ibuprofen. “How many?”
He reached out my hand. “Four is good.”
Birk swallowed them all with one sip of water.
“Birk, this is Nina,” said Britta.
He waved. “Thanks, Nina.”
She smiled and nodded. “You’re welcome.” She paused. “I’ll be just out there,” she pointed to the doorway. “Let me know if you need anything.” Then she looked at Britta, saying something in Norwegian before leaving the small room.
“Why am I hiding here and not in a hospital talking to the police?”
Britta looked out the doorway, then back at Birk. “You know vhat, Birk?” She waved toward the door. “You can do that if you vant. You’re not tied up. Anders and I did not kidnap you. We did not hold a gun to your head to come vith us. If you vant to go to the police, then go. If you vant to go to a hospital, then go.” She waved her hand again toward the doorway. “I know more than you do but I don’t have all the answers. Maybe the Oslo police are part of the problem, maybe not but Anders and I think they are bad for you because they were bad for Ingrid.” She shrugged.
“You know the police might help you and protect you. But they also may arrest you for the murder of Anders Petterson and they may not be happy that you have no passport, no I.D. and they may not like that Anders was a friend of Ingrid’s and she was murdered and now he is murdered and your finger prints are on the gun. Things are not so simple, Birk.”
He finished the water. “What happened after I passed out?”
“The two men left. You were on the floor in Anders blood after they put the gun in your hand and forced the remaining bullets into Anders back. I’m sure they called the police by the time they left the apartment complex. I phoned people I could trust. I washed you up the best I could. Put you into some of Ander’s clothes and wiped our prints from Ander’s apartment. My friends carried you out, pretending you were drunk but only an old man saw us and he was crazy with age. We drove away when sirens were approaching. I disposed of your bloody clothes in a trash container behind a restaurant. If we had been another few minutes, you would be with the police right now.”
Birk stared at the ceiling which was also aqua blue, rubbing his throat. “And that’s all true?”
Britta laughed. “Remember this, Birk. No matter vhat happens you can alvays go for help vith the police or anyone you vant.” She stared at me. “Anders died trying to save you. I’m not eager to do the same.”
Birk rubbed his head. “You cut my hair.”
“Nina cut your hair.”
He kept rubbing it. “What time is it?”
She looked at her watch. “Half past three in the morning – Thursday morning.”
“I’ve been out of it for ten hours?”
“Where’s the bathroom?”
Britta pointed out the doorway. “Past the kitchen, to the left.”
He sat on the edge of the bed, feeling dizzy.
“You need help?”
“No.” He rubbed his face, then saw the bruises on his right arm. He looked at Britta. “They took blood from me?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about it the last few hours and I don’t know.”
“How much blood?”
“Yeah, how many vials?”
“At least four I think. Maybe more.”
He took a deep breath. “And they did something to my mouth.”
“Yes, what do you call, the spitting?”
“Yeah—saliva. I remember the cotton in my mouth.” Birk stared at his arm again. “Maybe they injected something in me?”
“Maybe but I didn’t have the best view.”
He looked up at Britta. “How did you get free?”
“It was not difficult. I stood up, and stepped back through my arms, then cut myself free with a knife from the kitchen. Two minutes at the most.”
“Limber? I don’t understand.”
He demonstrated with my hands. “Flexible. You can bend easy.”
“Yes,” she replied. “I am lim-ber.”
She looked tired and weary.
He slowly stood up. “Bathroom.”
She stepped aside as he walked into the kitchen.
It too, was small, painted yellow. Very clean, with vinyl floor. Nina was not there. He saw a door to the left.
Inside the small bathroom Birk saw himself in the mirror.
Not only was his haircut short, it was bleached blond as were his eyebrows. He said aloud, “Birk, what the fuck is happening?”
When Birk got back from the bathroom Britta told him to get some sleep. She said they’d be on the run again around 5:30 AM. He drank more water, then shut the light off. The kitchen light spilled into his room through the doorframe.
His face was clammy. His head still throbbed. He was at an ‘effing loss. Trapped in a foreign country with no passport or any I.D. He witnessed a guy’s head get blown apart, before he was drugged and forced to shoot the already dead guy. Some asshole stole his blood. Then he passed out in Ander’s blood. He’s trusting two strange women with his life. One he met twelve hours earlier, the other he met for two minutes before she disappeared. He doesn’t know their last names and doubt their first names are their real names. He doesn’t know where he is other than, ‘outside Oslo.’ The only damn Norwegian he knows is Ja and Nei and øl. Norway is damn expensive and he has no cash, no wallet and he may be a suspect in Anders’ murder. About the time Ingrid, who was in two pieces, was getting buried in the damn rain he was probably shooting Anders in the back or laying in his blood. Joachim keeps popping into his head. He better see that little fat fuck soon.
Leaving Nina’s was uneventful. Birk ate a hard boiled egg, and two pieces of artisan bread with jam and drank two cups of black tea before exiting the flat with Britta. Wherever they were outside of Oslo, the area had seen better days. There were a lot of concrete buildings, with dull, white lights.
It was dreary and frigid.
The small car’s clock reads 5:17. The highway outside the city was starting to buzz with morning life. It was still pitch black outside. The windshield wipers were on intermittent, wiping the drizzle from the windshield. Nina turned on the radio. She listened to the news while Birk listened to foreign sounds in a monotone delivery.
“What did you know about Ingrid and her art collection?” asked Britta.
Birk keeps starring out the dark window.
“Birk—what did you know about Ingrid and her art collection?”
Birk rubs his face hard with both hands, clearing my head. “You know what, Britta? I’m going to ask questions now because, I need to know—just what the fuck is going on, okay?”
Her face tightened. “Yes, Birk. Sure.”
Birk cleared his throat. “For a guy that likes to ski and mountain bike and rock climb and snowboard and float rivers and have a simple, healthy, goddamn honest life, I’m pretty fucked right now and last I checked I’ve never stolen shit, never hurt anyone, and lying and running from the authorities isn’t my thing.”
He breathed deeply.
“So first off, who the hell are you and then I want to know who the hell Anders was?” He shut the radio off. “And no bullshit.”
Britta remained silent.
And so did Birk.
It rained harder.
Britta switched the windshield wipers to a steady two-second cadence. She gazed at Birk, then back out the windshield.
“For now I vill only say my name is, Britta. But, yes, you need more information. I understand.”
She turned the radio back on, but not loud.
“I grew up in a smaller city than Oslo and my—”
Britta smiled. “A smaller one.”
Birk shook his head.
“My family traveled to many places and I spent much time in museums, especially art museums. I have artists in my family so at a young age I developed a passion for art and art history.”
“You’re an artist?”
She hesitated. “No, no. I paint when I can but I’m not so good but it provides me peace when I do.”
“Hhhhm. So how about the cloak and dagger aspect of your life? It’s an odd fit with old paintings hanging in quiet museums.”
“It is and it is not.” She glanced over at Birk. “For some, both artist and art consumers, art is a commodity, a product while for others it is an experience. In a world now where multi-millionaires, pale in comparison to multi-billionaires, some paintings sell at public auctions for hundreds of millions of dollars and there are many high-end sales the public is never aware of.”
“Hundreds of millions?”
“Yes. Paul Cézanne’s, The Card Player, sold between $250 and $300 million dollars as did Gauguin’s, Nafea Faa Ipoipo.”
“Who pays that?”
“The 21st century royalty. Wall Street, High Tech, Russian Oil, Drug Cartel Kingpins, sometimes countries. The Middle Eastern oil states have a big thirst for art. Even Norway, now. China, but they are discreet, and typically acquire through private sales. Maybe an occasional Dictator, sometimes royalty. Wayward heirs and heiresses.”
Britta watched a car pass her on the left. “And then there are the shadow thieves.”
Birk looked at her. “Shadow thieves?”
“Shadow thieves steal the stolen. From one thief, to another. The original thief can’t report it and can’t file an insurance claim, so perhaps under the right circumstances it may be less risky then a high profile heist might be.”
Birk turned off the radio. “What’s the wrong circumstances?”
“When the individual, or family, or state that holds the original stolen art, discovers the shadow thief and takes matter into their own hands as they do not want to be revealed, they want their art back, and they know one can never trust a thief.”
“So it can get bad?”
“I believe so, yes.”
“Is that what you are—a shadow thief?”
Britta laughed. “No. I help acquire stolen art but I do not steal it.”
“You buy it back then?”
“It depends on the circumstances. There is always room for creativity. Each situation is different. Sometimes we use blackmail to get the art back in the public domain. Sometimes we are able to force a work to be donated to a museum.” She scratched the back of her neck. “It always seems to be different.”
“How long have you done this?”
“Almost ten years.”
Birk studied her face in the dark car. “How old are you?”
“Older than you.”
“You know my age?”
“I saw your passport, remember?” Britta looked in her rear view mirror before turning the car sharply to the left and exiting the highway. She gazed in the mirror again.
Birk looked back. No car was behind them. “Where to?”
Crown Prince Vadim, an Honarary Member of Norway’s Minister of Culture, stepped back, admiring the recently acquired Immendorff piece, ‘Society of Deficiency’ for the new National Museum. He was pleased with the acquisition from a private collector in Russia. Not only did he adore the work, the acquisition was extra satisfying, as it seemed a few months back the Swedes had the inside track on the abstract painting. Vadim always liked to win, no matter who or what the competition, but it was always extra special to beat the damn Swedes.
The Crown Prince, like much of Norway’s art world, was well grounded in their perspective on their place in the greater art world. The global art community knew Oslo was no Paris or Venice or Geneva or New York or begrudgingly not even Stockholm but the country’s art elite, were trying to change that.
For some on the Minister of Culture, Vadim was a welcome addition for his stature, knowledge and appreciation of art coupled with his uncanny ability to procure valuable pieces the world over at often bargain basement cost. But to others Vadim was an inoperable metastasizing cancer in the Ministry. At the very least he came with considerable baggage.
Even Vadim’s worse critics, and that was likely most of Norway, recognized that for a life of ostensible privilege the Crown Prince had suffered many tragedies growing up in the Royal Palace. The string of mishaps began at birth when the country learned the eagerly awaited new-born Crown Prince, was born with but one blue eye. At age twelve, Vadim’s mother, Queen Rakel, drowned in a sailing accident off the Stavanger coast. Shortly after the Queen’s death, young Vadim made few public appearances over the next fifteen years, and when he did it was to the public’s dismay. At fourteen his white blond hair had been cropped into a dyed Mohawk. At nineteen he wore a pony-tail. At twenty one, his head was shaved and there were murmors he had a drug addiction. At twenty-three during the Mai 17 celebration, Vadim allegedly sexually assaulted a University Student, outside the Palace but the case was eventually dropped after two years of high profile publicity. But at twenty-seven the Crown Prince, finally shocked the nation to their delight with a captivating and articulate speech to the nation on the fifteenth anniversary of his mother’s death. He addressed his past mistakes, apologized to all the citizen of Norway who had done nothing but support him over the years, even when he was not worthy of it. “You know more about me than I do any of you, and for certain what you know likely gives you pause regarding my temperament, my sense of justice, and my love for this country. It is easy for me to stand before you and give a speech. But what I owe you is more than rhetoric, I owe you my unconditional devotion to Norway and in that, I need to earn your trust and respect, not talk about it. You deserve nothing less, my mother’s legacy deserves nothing less. I’m sorry about my past but I look forward in earning your trust tomorrow and everyday forward that I am alive.”
At age nineteen, the Crown Prince lost his little brother, Prince Espen, in a mountaineering accident in Nepal.
Norwegian coffee – kafee- is shitty. Black and bitter and served in small cups and expensive. Free healthcare but not free refills. Free refills have not been embraced by the Viking culture. All the shit that has happened over the last ten weeks and Birk’s longing for his old life because of a damned cup of coffee. He wants to be sitting outside of Bernice’s with Nick and Ellen with his second cup of Bernice’s Organic Blend planning the annual float on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, wearing flip-flops and enjoying Missoula’s morning sunshine, bull-shitting with friends and neighbors and strangers as they wander in and out of Bernice’s with fresh baked croissants and steaming cups of joe.
Instead, he’s in a small café in Oslo, downing his third cup of coffee, each cup setting him back fifty kroner which is about five bucks two much a cup, staring outside at Storgaten, the trendy street in Oslo where everyone shops, winding it’s bricked surface through the city up to the Royal Family’s peach colored castle. It’s drizzling outside and he’s in no hurry to leave his perch in the café but he recently learned to welcome the Oslo rain, as it provides nice cover.
His friends would still recognize him now but only after a discerning study of him. His hair is now cut in a short stylish European coif. High and tight on the sides, with a big comb over on the top complete with hair wax. And his sandy blond hair has given way to dyed black, even his eyebrows. His clothes are now stylish. Designer jeans, leather loafers, tight tailored shirts. Sometimes he wears cologne. He has a number of different styles of non-prescription glasses and sun glasses. Norwegians are not into hats but a wool hat every now and then isn’t out of place. Anything he can do to blend in, he does and then some.
He tried being on the run but that proved too hard and too risky. It wasn’t rocket science. In smaller cities he simply stood out more. Oslo is Norway’s biggest city with around 600,000 people. So he’d rather hide among 600,000 busy souls compared to 5,000 nosey ones. He leased a modest flat not far from the city center for a shit load of money but that’s life in Norway. Food, housing, booze, even pizza is damn costly. He’s stashed the money from Joachim in a few different locations not wanting to put all his eggs in one basket only to see that one basket stolen some day. It’s enough money to keep him afloat for years and that was another reason to stay put for a while. It’s hard hiding money when you’re homeless and on the move.
His routine is not to have a routine and that’s harder than it sounds. He grocery shops at different places, usually during the busiest times so he can just be part of the crowd. He makes sure to shop and eat like a Norwegian not an American with the exception of today when he’s indulging with coffee. He comes and goes from his flat at all hours. He walks, he bikes, he takes buses. The few times he’s been asked about his job he replies that he conducts market research for a few corporations that are attempting to increase their respective market shares in Scandinavia and he brushes off specific questions with the line that he works under a non-disclosure agreement and so far people just nod as if that makes perfect sense.
He has immersed himself in the language, forcing himself to watch only Norwegian television and movies. He’s not pleased with his progress but out of necessity he knows he’ll pick it up. It’s taxing, always red-lining his focus on every spoken word. It would be nice to speak the damn language on occasion but his opportunities are few and far between, especially as he’s trying to blend in, not stand out.
Along with the money, Joachim managed to get him a new identity – Thomas Larsen. He picked the name, saying it wouldn’t be a red flag in Norway or the U.S. He had a dual citizenship passport, Norwegian driving license and apparently a residence in St. Paul, Minnesota, and two credit cards, a Visa and a Mastercard that Joachim told him he should use sparingly. He also set Birk up with a Sparebanken bank account, complete with debit card. He assured him the passport was good but Birk was in no mood to give it a test drive yet.
Joachim knew a lot but not everything about Birk. Birk told him he was going to disappear for a while, somewhere far away. He didn’t know Birk was still in Norway, let alone Oslo. Birk also got lucky and bullshitted his way into his flat under the name of Kim Dahl. Thomas Larsen, was on hold, something to use in an emergency, an identity to use if he had the confidence it was safe to do so.
And it’s safe to say he lives like a paranoid freak. Whenever it’s practical he wipes his prints most places he go. Like the coffee cup in front of him. Before he goes, He’ll wipe it down with his napkin. He’s good at it now – can do it and not make it look like he’s wiping his prints off. For now he’s unplugged from the world. No phone, no laptop – no digital foot prints anywhere. Just him, newspapers, magazines and books. It’s amazing how people ignore you if you just keep quiet with your nose stuck in a book or a newspaper. People are more interested connecting with someone through their phone, not someone next to them with a beating heart.
Birk would have left Norway and certainly Oslo if it hadn’t been for Joachim’s last bit of the secret he shared with him, that connected many of the mysterious dots in his life that had surfaced over the last two months.
It was strange enough to learn his dad, wasn’t his dad, not in the biological sense, that he had grown to believe. And shocking to learn he was an art thief. And disturbing as hell to learn of Ingrid’s horrific last days and perplexing to learn of her work in the international intelligence community.
But when Joachim informed him who his father was, or rather is, he was fucking blown away and he’s still trying to get a handle on it.
Outside the café he walks up Storgaten in the Oslo rain, his head stuck under his umbrella. The typically busy street is quiet. He avoid puddles as he walks. The raindrops pelt the nylon umbrella.
He thinks of family and what the hell that means and what it doesn’t mean and that it’s not so much the shared blood as it is the shared narrative and even if the narrative is bullshit it doesn’t matter one bit unless the cover gets blown and in his case the cover got fucking annihilated and Birk guesses that just underscores the obvious. That being the narrative is never finished, it’s always being revised or redacted or edited or dropped in the mud or dried by the fire or frozen in a snow bank but if one looks hard enough and gives a shit it can be found and the damn thing is malleable and that’s one of the gifts in life that the narrative is malleable but the bitch is it often takes a ten pound sledge to even dent the damn thing but sometimes swinging the sledge is all we got so why not swing it instead of walking away to a sleep away the yard stick called consciousness.
Birk finds himself at the end of Storgaten, approaching the big peach colored castle and it makes him think again about blood being pumped by our hearts and that’s what killed Ingrid – her blood had mixed with another and the result was an affront to royal etiquette and tradition and behind the smoke the world is not a world of laws but of might and might at times is fair and at times it is bloody and Ingrid’s fate was the latter.
Juli 29, 1981
Ingrid sat at the end of the long dock, her legs dangling over the surf, fifteen feet below. She leaned back, propped upright by her arms locked at the elbows. She wore a sky blue bikini. Her tan stomach taut, her long legs and arms, golden brown from the Norwegian summer, of sailing and reading.
“Hi, hi,” said ‘Peps’, sitting down next to her, also leaning back, dangling his legs, and locking his elbows. He too, was tan, and his body fit from care and privilege. He leaned left, his shoulder, touching hers. “Vastly beautiful, yes?” His eyes locked with hers, before waving his right arm out towards the open sea, following eyes, trailing his arm. “Much like you.”
Ingrid smiled, ignoring Peps’ latter statement. “Yes, it is, so, so beautiful.” She leaned harder into his strong shoulder.
Peps stared out at the North Sea as he spoke, the warm, salty breeze brushing his face. “I have learned a secret about you this past summer.”
“Mmm, I know a secret or two about you, myself.”
Peps inched sideways across the dock, as Ingrid leaned in, with her back pressed against his chest. He wrapped his arms around her waist, the palm of his hands pressing gently down on each of her thighs. “I know you are even prettier inside, than outside,” he whispered. “And that is quite an accomplishment.” He bent his head down, kissing her salty neck.
She turned upwards, towards him, towards the big blue sky, towards the summer sun, towards endless summer days, towards young love and long, deep princely kisses.
• Have an action scene during Mai 17
The Eccentric Art Collecting Couple
The small schooner sliced through the black water. The surface was calm, the waxing moon bright. The yacht, Endelig, was two and half miles out at sea. Birk and Britta were bundled in down parkas, slickers and life jackets.
Britta skippered the small boat. Birk sat next to her, crouched low, staying out of the wind. He had never been so far from land. He didn’t like it.
“A few more minutes!” shouted Britta, checking her GPS unit.
Birk nodded, holding his hood down.
Britta kept shouting. “There it is!”
Birk looked up at the distant light.
The boat headed straight for it.
In a few minutes Birk made out the outline of the Yacht. He was disappointed, as it wasn’t nearly as big as he had imagined. He was thinking, more cruise ship size and was surprised how small the yacht looked against the black vastness of the open sea but at least in comparison to the tin can he was in with Britta, it did seem mammoth.
Two people on the upper deck, hurried along the upper deck, then disappeared. Moments later, they were at the aft of the boat, standing on a running board.
Britta maneuvered the boat so that she was parallel with the running board. One of the men reached out, grabbing the side of the boat, bringing it toward him. Britta killed the engine.
“Hei, hei, Britta!” said the man.
Britta waved. “Hei.”
“Hello,” said Birk.
“Hallo!” The man patted Birk on the back as he stepped out of the boat.
“Takk, ser deg snart,” said Britta to the man. She looked at Birk. “They’ll take care of the boat. Let’s go.”
Britta opened a small, short door behind the running boards. Inside was a small, lit room, with neatly hung life jackets, coiled yellow and white nylon braided rope, and a small cushioned bench.
Birk followed Britta’s lead, removing his life jacket and jackets.
They ducked low to pass through another entrance. The small room had a generator and two small built in stainless steel fridges. Britta and Birk made a right angle turn, climbing four steep stairs. They stepped into a large room, with blue and peach colored cushioned lawn furniture. A small row of rectangular windows looked out at the night.
A voice shouted behind them.
“Velcome to the Endelig!” The man was tall with dark hair and fit looking in his late 50’s early 60’s. He wore stylish jeans and a tight fitting black wool sweater.
“Hei, hei,” said Britta. The two shared a friendly hug.
The man struck his hand out toward, Birk. “Hello, Birk. Welcome aboard. Geir Skjeggestad.”
“Birk Black.” Geir’s hand was large and strong.
“A long two days, yes, Birk?”
“Yeah. Long enough.”
“Vell, I apologize Norvay has not been such a good host since you landed but perhaps a drink is long overdo?”
Birk smiled. “I think so.”
“Please, make yourself comfortable upstairs.” Geir waved his hand toward another small staircase to the left. “Drina and I will be right up. Help yourself to the snacks.” Geir smiled, before turning around and heading back from where he came.
Upstairs the room was of modest size but warm with candles burning on a small table adorned with food. Slices of various cheeses, meats, and pate’s were on small silver trays. Artisan bread was sliced in a bread basket, lined with a blue cloth. There were various jams and jellies. A short stack of Norwegian waffles sat piled on a silver plate. A silver bowl of meatballs steamed into the air. Purple grapes were heaped in a bowl. A pitcher of water, a carafe of coffee and a yellow ceramic teapot.
Birk grabbed a handful of grapes, eyeing the table. “I didn’t know I was so damn hungry.”
“Me, too.” Britta placed a waffle on her plate.
“Waffles at night?”
Britta smiled. “Very Norwegian. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. Ve alvays find reasons to eat vaffles. I like mine with goat cheese.”
“Hhhmm, the meatballs come first.” Birk dumped a pile on his plate, grabbed some bread and more grapes. He sat next to Britta on a bench along the table.
They ate a number of minutes in silence.
Birk poured coffee. “You want any?”
Birk placed a waffle on his empty plate.
“This is the goat cheese?” He held up a thinly sliced, brown piece of cheese.
“Yes. Gjetost. Just put it on the waffle.”
Birk took a bite. He chewed it slowly, sipped some coffee. Took another bite. He gazed at Britta. “Not exactly dessert, but not bad, especially when you’re starving to death.”
“Norway is offended.”
“Don’t go there.” Birk sipped more coffee, looking around the birth.
Someone knocked on the door to the right, before opening it.
Geir entered the room, followed by a slight woman, with sharp features, and black short cropped hair and high cheekbones. She wore a white sweater and large silver loop earrings. She walked directly to Birk.
“Hallo, Birk Black. Drina Skjeggestad. It’s my pleasure.”
Birk stood to shake her hand but Drina dove right in for a big hug. “I’m so sorry about what has happened to you the last few days.” She squeezed him hard. “So sorry.”
“Thanks.” He stepped back. It’s certainly hasn’t been the life I’m used to.”
“Nei, I can only imagine. Please let’s sit if you’re done with the food.”
“Sure. I was just finishing my first Norwegian waffle.”
“We don’t want to stop you from that,” laughed Drina.
“Oh, I’m done but it was good.”
“It won’t be your last, then?”
Birk shook his head. “No, but next time I may skip the goat cheese.”
“A smart man,” said Geir, handing Birk a tumbler topped with ice. “Scotch, with a little Scotch. That’s okay?”
Birk and Drina, sat on a small blue sofa. Britta sat across from Drina, Geir across from Birk in white chairs, with a wooden coffee table in the middle. Birk and Drina sipped Scotch, Britta red wine, and Geir, Absinthe.
“Do you know why we like to meet on the boat?” asked Geir.
Birk shrugged. “Because you’re Vikings?”
Geir laughed. “Good. That’s one reason, maybe. The other is we like a captive audience, not so many distractions and depending on what you tell us, it provides us options.”
“Maybe after we talk it may be safer for you to go to Sweden or Denmark or Germany or the Netherlands or Belgium or France or even the U.K.”
“On this boat?”
“Yes, on this ship if we need to.”
Birk looked around. “How many people on board?”
“Seven,” answered Drina. “The Captain, Arne, two crew who helped you with the boat and us.”
“You think it may not be safe to go back to Norway?”
Drina laughed. “It hasn’t been safe yet for you, Birk.”
“Britta told you about Geir and me?”
“She said you were wealthy art collectors who employed Ingrid Landvick as well as herself, helping acquire art around the world.”
Drina sipped her drink, crossed her legs, and looked over at Birk.
“We’ve known Ingrid for eighteen years. The first work she brought to us was a Theo Constanté piece which we acquired for a small Bergen gallery.” Drina smiled. “She would not let us pay her for her efforts. She would not. The painting had been locked in the basement of a Russian oil, oligarch. I can picture her now, I freed the painting, Drina, from the shadows of darkness, to an existence of light and culture! One cannot get paid for such an act?” Drina paused. “And then we were—what do you say—hooked?”
“We soon became friends, best of friends, and for so long now she was family to us.” Drina looked at Birk. “I’ don’t want empathy, I don’t. I know all that Ingrid wasn’t to you. You must be angry or bitter about her. I don’t blame you. But in telling you about her, I can’t help but describe what a warm, curious, person she was and it was her curiosity that often got her into trouble. It was just hard for her to say no.”
“Mmmm.” Birk sipped his Scotch. “Okay. She was great to you, horrible to me. I’m over it and have been for a long time. But right now all I want to do is go back home and get back to my life. Joachim XXXX showed up at my store five days ago, telling me about Ingrid and paper work I needed to attend to and I haven’t seen any paper work and I sure as hell haven’t seen Joachim.”
Birk saw Geir give a look to Drina, then to Britta. He set down his absinthe on the coffee table. “Yes, Birk. Joachim, is one of the reasons we want to speak with you.” Geir cleared his throat. “Yesterday, we received word from Joachim that he won’t be able to meet with you for some time to sign the papers .”
“Something has come up, he said.”
“Jesus, then he can bring me the papers back home. I don’t have time for anymore of this shit.”
Britta looked at Birk. “You can’t just leave Birk. You have no passport and as soon as you anyone recognizes you, you’ll be arrested for Anders’ murder.”
“Fine. I’ll just tell the police the damn truth. I didn’t do it and you know it.”
Geir shook his head. “Is that really a chance you want to take?” He shrugged. “Someone it seems wants you framed but not dead. At least not yet.
Vadim Calling Ab
The cottage sat twenty meters back from the forested shore. It was the last cottage along the northern shore. The siding was vertical faded wood, with sky blue trim, small and tidy with expansive windows. The yard leading down to the dark lake was scattered with towering pines. A large stone chimney exited the center of the clay-shingled roof. A short distance from the cottage and further from the lake was an outbuilding – a small red barn with white trim, also with vertical siding. It too had a stone chimney exiting the roof. An earthern, grassy ramp lead op to a large barn door. Rows of firewood were stacked neatly, running lengthwise between the barn and cottage. A small black car was parked in the gravel driveway.
Birk’s eyes kept returning to the smoke rising from the cottage chimney, wondering about Tuá inside, puttering around the cottage, hoping the black car parked outside was hers.
Then something stabbed him in the back.
“Aaaaagh!” He screamed, arching his back, pain radiating from his flank.
“Hvem er du?” said a woman’s voice quietly, pressing the primitive looking spear harder into his flank.
“Hhhm. You speak English.”
“Answer my questions or I will thrust this through your liver.” The woman’s voice remained quiet and calm. She pressed the spear downward.
“Who are you?”
“Birk Black, from Montana.”
“Hhhhmm. Why do you spy on my house?”
“You have a painting for me from Ingrid Peterson.”
The woman laughed. “Tell me about Ingrid.”
“You knew her, more than I do. I
Smoking hash oil……..
“I don’t blame you that you grew up American but now that you are a man, I blame you for being American.”
Birk laughed. “Seriously?”
Tuá set the glass pipe on the table. “Of course.”
“And that’s bad? To be an American?”
“I think so. Very bad.”
Birk looked out at the lake. “Why am I bad?”
“Like most Americans, you look the other way and listen to all the lies.”
Birk stared at Tuá. “I run a small outdoor shop and think politics is bullshit.”
Tuá laughed. “Yes, the American way. You have your island so the hell with everyone who is drowning supporting the American life style. Let me guess? You are educated. You call yourself liberal. You say you support equality and justice. You work hard and so your hands are clean and you sleep soundly. Life is good and you bear no responsibility for the suffering happening around the world. You vote when you feel like it and when you do you pat yourself on the back. You’ve never killed anyone so the murders committed by your country around the world have nothing to do with you.”
Birk stared at Tuá
Five days before the funeral Birk Black was reading Marx in the library at the privately run Northern Rocky Mountain Peace Haven Retreat. The high-end retreat provides psychiatric care for its forty-three live-in ‘guests.’ Guests staying at the Antler Lodge are free to come and go from the retreat as they please. They simply check in with the front desk. Guests at the Big Sky Cabin need an official release letter signed by any three of the retreats seven psychiatrists in residence. Guests at the Solstice House require a release letter signed by five of the retreat’s seven doctors and a concurring letter by two state psychiatrists as well as a letter of consent by the guest’s guardian or sponsor.
Birk ‘checked-in’ to the Solstice House fourteen years earlier two days after his eighteenth birthday. It has been his home ever since. And it’s not a bad home. Not in One-Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest sense. The retreat consists of an entire section of land, 640 acres, located between Whitefish and Eureka, Montana. The scenery is beautiful and all the buildings modern western, clean, and comfortable. Each guest is provided their own small suite. One bedroom, full bath, small kitchen area
“Who the fuck are you?” Birk Black stared at the fat, middle-aged man in a frumpy brown suit sitting in an armchair staring at him.
“Joachim Steinvold,” said the man with crooked teeth.
Birk’s hands were tied above his head to a wooden bedpost. A down comforter with a blue duvet covered him. He was wearing his orange prison jump suit. The bedroom had an antique dresser, a contemporary desk, a small bookcase and sliding doors, presumably a closet. The window’s taupe shades were drawn. Birk’s head throbbed. “I’m in the infirmary?”
Joachim shook his head. “You’re in Hvalstad, Norvay.”
Birk closed his eyes. He didn’t need this shit. His throat was like sandpaper. “Can I have some water?”
“Ja. Of course.” Joachim stood and left the room, returning shortly, setting a green glass on the bed stand next to Birk and unlocked his right hand.
Birk grabbed the glass, guzzling the water. He set it down on the bed stand. He realized his left foot was also locked in place.
“Did someone jump me?”
“A heart attack or something?”
“Nei. You are fine.”
“Then why am I chained to a bed?”
“I don’t vant you to run avay. I vant you to understand you are in Norvay not Florence High Penitentiary in Colorado.”
“Shit—how long have I been here?”
“Two maybe three minutes.”
“I spent the morning working laundry. Spent the afternoon reading Marx. Ate. Read more Marx. Lights were out as always at 09:30. And now I wake up in this damn bed.” Birk stared at Joachim. “What kinda test is this?”
“Nei. It’s not a test. No more prison. Now you’re in Norvay.”
Birk closed his eyes, talking. “Look. I don’t want any bullshit. I’ve been locked up since I was 18. I’ve served fourteen years, keeping my nose clean. I’ve got three years to go then I’m out. I don’t want to screw that up. If this is part of some fucked up parole board screening, then ask all the questions you want. I’ve worked my ass off to keep a low profile during my time and all I want to do is get out.”
“You are out.” Joachim stared at the handsome man’s face. His dirty blond hair was cut short. Stubble covered his chiseled chin and square jaw. His closed eye-lids covered his piercing blue eyes. The man’s exposed forearm, chained above his head, was taught and strong.
Birk opened his eyes. “Whatever.” He turned, facing Joachim. “I get that I was drugged. I’m now somewhere else in the prison or somewhere else in Colorado but why am I here, wherever here is?”
“You are not in the Colorado or the United States for that matter. As I said, you are in Norvay and you are here to help me steal a painting.”
Birk laughed. “Okay—right. When do I start?”
Birk rubbed his jaw with his free hand, nodding his head, amused with the fat man. “What happens tomorrow?”
“You’ll attend your mother’s funeral in Oslo.”
“Hhhhm. My mother died five years ago and hardly ever left Montana let alone the country.”
“Your foster mother—Helen Downes, died five years ago.” Joachim stared into Birk’s blue eyes. “Your biological mother, Ingrid Petterson, vas brutally murdered about one veek ago.”
“Bullshit,” laughed Birk.
“I don’t bullshit, Mr. Black.”
“You don’t know jack about me.”
“It means nothing, anything.”
“Oh, to the contrary. I’m afraid you don’t know jack about Birk Black.”
Gwen stared at the blank area on the wall. Her Visdeen painting had been stolen three years ago and not a day past that she didn’t long for it. It had been in the Laantern family for seven generations and it had disappeared under her watch. Yes, it was priceless, but like all admirers of it, she needed it. Daily. She was addicted to Utopia. The experiences it provided for her. The exotic smells and tastes, the foreign people, the erotic sex, the delightful foods and of course the wisdom and guidance of Zellaphenia.
Seth, her beloved Assassin, had killed the bitch who stole it. A horrific murder, with horrific agony and suffering. But revenge only fills part of the goblet. Gwen needed her goblet over flowing with delicious wine and that meant getting Utopia back to where it belonged. Hanging in the stately hall of the Laantern Mansion where she could travel to Utopia daily and indulge herself into cosmic secrets.
Seth had assured Gwen Utopia was within reach, with Ingrid Patterson killed and out of the way. The only thing standing between Gwen and Utopia was some convict bastard child of Ingrid’s named Birk Black, and Seth had promised he would be an easy kill. But Gwen had been around the block and knew nothing in life worth the effort was easy. Not a goddamn thing. Gwen Laantern, the energy conglomerate heiress wanted Utopia, and she wanted it now, whatever the price!
Birk stared at the white ceiling as the fat Norwegian ticked off with precision events from Birk’s past
“Your first memories were probably of you with the Hanson family in Coer d’Alene, Idaho. You were with them from three to about six until they divorced. You were the youngest of four foster kids. Then you went to the Downes family in Spokane. They moved to Butte, Montana when you were eleven. You had two foster sisters. One older, one younger. You were never adopted because that would have stopped the foster checks coming in to the family. It was a rough family but you survived. You turned eighteen in November of your senior year of high school. Two days later you were pulled over in Spokane for a broken taillight. The police found two pounds of meth in your car. Nine months later you were sentenced to 17 years of federal prison. The maximum sentence. You pled not guilty.”
What the hell? Birk rubbed his face with his free hand.
“ You’ve been eligible for parole four times and each time have the parole board has denied your request. You’ve spent 1, 233 days in solitary confinement. Your longest stint was 203 days. You’ve spent about 41 months of your life in 10’ x 8’ concrete cell by yourself. You were never provided a reason for being placed in solitary and apparently you never asked.” Joachim studied Birk. “Is that true?”
Birk ignored him, counting the white painted boards overhead, running perpendicular to his body.
“Most people would go clinically insane.” Joachim continued after a long pause. “You’ve worked mainly in the kitchen and library, providing you easy access to books, computers, magazines, and a little more control of your food. You’re in excellent shape but never once visited the weight room. In fourteen years you befriended only one other inmate, Juan Ricardo, a convicted bank thief.”
Joachim looked out the window. He gazed back at the bored man lying in front of him.
“You’re assumed to be a genius but your I.Q. is unknown as you refuse to participate in any such tests. You’ve taught yourself Spanish, French, German, and Mandarin. You never finished high school but hold five online degrees. Physics, Math, Political Science, Computer Science and English. You sketch incessantly but alvays destroy your vork. You drink as much coffee as you can in a day. Just black.” Joachim shifted in his seat. “Would you like some.”
“Blow me, fat-ass.”
“Look at this.” Zlata Koslov studied her 24” computer screen. Her black-framed glasses rose on the bridge of her nose as she squinted her eyes.
Elsbeth Müller peered over her colleague’s shoulders. “Hhhmmm. That was an hour ago?”
“Da—this morning. 08:03:23 to be exact.”
“Origin and terminus is Norway 3.”
“Da, da. The Drammen House.”
“Where’d it dig to?”
Zlata shook her head. “Don’t know yet.” She stared straight at the screen, her fingers working the keyboard.
“Find out – I’m getting Zhi!”
Elsbeth hurried over to her computer, sending a quick encrypted message to Zhi Kao. Moments later Zhi replied with a smiley face. “She’ll be here shortly.”
“Good.” Zlata scanned the columns in front of her.
Elsbeth returned to Zlata’s desk, looking again over her shoulder. “Chile again?”
Zlata shook her head. “Nyet.”
Zhi, with her small frame, hurried through the Munich streets. Her flat was four blocks from ‘the Center.’ Zhi had run the Munich branch for nine years. Zlata and Elsbeth had been under her supervision for the last six and four years respectively. Both were top notch. Zlata, a particle physicist from Moscow, Elsbeth a theoretical physicist who jumped ship form the Max Planck Institute. The Center’s monitoring work was under the radar of most of the world. Zhi didn’t have a firm handle on the funding the Center received but over the years she heard rumors that an absurdly wealthy individual or family was its main source of money. Initially, Zhi presumed it was for philanthropic reasons – a pure quest for knowledge. But over the past few years her perception become more cynical. Expanding markets seemed more likely the motive. Nonetheless the Center was more than solvent and the pay was extraordinary and most importantly the the research was cutting edge by centuries. Whoever, the benefactor was and whatever the reasons for the endless flow of cash, the pockets were deep.
Zhi punched in the code to the front door of the post World War II concrete, drab building. She sprang up the three flights of stairs to the third story. After a retinal scan, a finger print scan, and licking a fresh slice of plastic for a DNA scan, Zhi entered the windowless Suite 371.
Zlata was at her desk, her swivel chair turned away from the computer. She was curling her dark hair sprinkled with natural gray highlights with her long fingers. Her skinny jean clad legs were crossed. She sipped coffee from an oversized fuchsia mug. Elsbeth leaned against a bookcase, smoking an early morning joint, staring at her leather boots at the end of her long legs sticking out of her green skirt.
They both looked at Zhi.
“Brief me.” The boss folded her arms and plunked down into her recliner.
“Confirmed activity from Norway 3 this morning at 8:03.”
“The Drammen Ghost House?”
Zlata nodded. “Da. Norway 3. Origin and termination.”
“Huh. A round trip dig. Was there a surface point?”
Elsbeth snuffed out her joint on a stapler, saving the rest for later in the day, like after lunch. “The U.S. In Colorado.”
“You’ve both verified it?” asked Zhi.
“Of course.” Elsbeth ran her fingers over her lips.
“This is a new surface point, yah?”
“Totally new. Closest one prior to this was at Camp Williams in Utah in 2015. Exactly 313.89 miles away.”
“So the surface point was what? NORAD?”
“Uh-uh,” said Zlata, shaking her head. “Florence High Prison, 150 kilometers south of Denver. It’s a maximum security federal prison.”
Zhi rubbed her forehead. “Any missing prisoners?”
“We don’t know yet.” Elsbeth looked at her watch. “It’s only 1:39 AM there right now. If anyone’s missing they probably won’t be noticed for another six or seven hours.”
“Do we know the worm?”
“We’re not sure yet but likely Joachim.”
“Fuck,” said Zhi.
“Let’s go for a ride.” Joachim stood up.
Birk stared at the ceiling.
“You need to believe me you are in Norvay. You are not in Colorado. Of course you need evidence. You vent to sleep in your concrete cell. You vake up in Norvay with me staring at you telling you about your life.” Joachim opened the bedroom door, standing in it. “Come, come. I show you Norvay.”
Birk stared at the ceiling.
“Come, please.” Joachim stared at Birk. Birk stared at the ceiling. “Look. I don’t vant to hurt you but I vill if you don’t cooperate with me. I moved you from prison to Norvay in seconds. I can certainly kill you if I need to. I know all this is strange but it has to be better than prison.
“Any high profile inmates at Florence High Prison?” Zhi sipped tea sitting on the Center’s white sofa.
“Not really,” answered Elsbeth. “A mafia type crime boss guy and a low level al-Qaeda inmate.” She shook her head. “Their names were unfamiliar to me.”
“And who’s trailing Joachim right now?”
“Tuá is monitoring the Ghost house and Haakon is trying to find Joachim.”
“So no one is trailing Joachim right now?!”
“We have to find him first,” snapped Zlata.
Zhi glared over at Zlata typing at her keyboard before sipping more tea. ‘When was the last time Joachim dug a hole?”
“Fourteen months ago. Drammen to