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Other titles in the Inspector Vaara Novels series:
Inspector Vaara Novel #4: Helsinki Bloodby James Thompson
Disclaimer: Please be advised that this excerpt contains some graphic language.
I’m in Hullu Poro, The Crazy Reindeer, the biggest bar and restaurant in this part of the Arctic Circle. It was remodeled not long ago, but pine boards line the walls and ceiling, like an old Finnish farmhouse. Nouveau rustic decor.
Even though it’s early afternoon, a couple hundred people are here. The bar is crowded and noisy. It’s minus forty degrees Celsius outside, too cold to ski. The rush of wind from racing downhill would cause instant frostbite on even the smallest patch of exposed skin. The lifts are closed, so people are drinking instead.
My wife, Kate, is the general manager of Levi Center, a complex of restaurants, bars, a two-hundred-room hotel and an entertainment arena that holds almost a thousand people. Hullu Poro is only part of a massive operation in the biggest ski resort in Finland, and Kate runs it all. I’m proud of her.
Kate is behind the bar, talking to Tuuli, the shift manager. I’m eavesdropping on their conversation because I’m a cop, and Kate may want to have Tuuli arrested.
“I think you played with the inventory on the computer,” Kate says. “You transferred liquor to other sales points, made it look like it disappeared from other bars, but you brought the bottles here, sold them out of this bar and pocketed the money.”
Tuuli smiles and replies in Finnish. In a calm voice, she unleashes an eloquent stream of vicious invective. Kate has no idea of the ways in which Tuuli has insulted her.
Kate is five foot ten and slim. She’s wearing jeans and a cashmere sweater. Her long cinnamon hair is swept up in a chignon. Men around the bar sneak glances at her.
"Please speak English so I can understand you,” Kate says. “If you can’t explain where the liquor went, you’re fired. I’m considering pressing charges against you.”
Tuuli’s face is unreadable. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Kate is an expert in ski resort management. The owners of Levi Center wanted to expand the resort, so they brought her here to Finland from Aspen a year and a half ago to oversee the changes.
“I checked the dates and times on the computer system,” Kate says. “The inventory transfers are consistent with times you were on duty. No one else could have done it. Six hundred euros worth of liquor went missing last month. You’ve been working here for three months. Want me to check the other two months?”
Tuuli mulls it over. “If you give me a week’s pay and a letter of recommendation,” she says, “I’ll resign without protesting to the union.”
Kate folds her arms. “No severance pay, no letter. If you file a protest, I’ll prosecute.”
Tuuli fingers a bottle of Johnny Walker on the shelf. The dull shine of her eyes tells me some of the stolen booze has been going down her throat. I know drunks. She’s considering bludgeoning Kate with the bottle. She glances at me and I shake my head. Tuuli takes her hand off the bottle and tries the conciliatory approach.
“Let’s sit down and talk about this.”
Kate signals to the bouncer at the front door and he comes over. “This conversation is over,” she says. “Take Tuuli to get her things, then escort her out. She’s banned from the bar.”
“You’re a cunt,” Tuuli says.
Kate smiles. “And you’re unemployed. You’re also banned from every bar in Levi owned by this firm.”
That’s most of them. In effect, Tuuli is ostracized. She clenches her teeth and fists.“Vitun huora.” Fucking whore.
Kate looks at the bouncer. “Get her out of here.”
He puts a hand on Tuuli’s shoulder and guides her away.
When Kate turns to me, she looks ice-calm. “I have to do a couple things in the office, I’ll just be a few minutes.”
I lean on the bar while I wait for her. A tourist asks Jaska, the bartender, “Just how far north are we?”
Jaska puts on the condescending face he reserves for foreigners.
“You Australians aren’t too good with . . . ” he can’t find the word and reverts to Finnish. “Maantiede. Drive that way for one day and you reach the Barents Sea, the end of the world.” He’s pointing west.
“Some Finns aren’t too good with geography either,” I say. “That way is toward Sweden.” I turn ninety degrees. “The North Pole is that way.” I point east. “Russia is over there. We’re a hundred miles inside the Arctic Circle.”
“Inspector Vaara and I went to high school together,” Jaska says. “He got better grades than me.”
“Thanks for the lesson,” the Aussie says. “It’s hard to get oriented when it’s dark all the time. You’re a policeman?”
“Have one on me officer. What are you drinking?”
“Beer. We had a gold rush in the Arctic a little over a hundred years ago, and the brand name means ‘The Gold of Lapland.’ ”
Jaska makes drinks for the tourists and chats about skiing conditions.
It’s supposed to warm up to minus fifteen tomorrow, still bitter cold, but safe enough so that with proper clothing skiers can hit the slopes again.
It’s good for me to make my presence felt here, to discourage locals whose idea of a good time is to get drunk and beat up or otherwise harass tourists. I look to the other side of the room. The Virtanen brothers are here, prime candidates for such behavior. By the end of the night, like as not, they’ll pull knives on each other. One of these days one will kill the other, and the survivor will die of loneliness.
Jaska hands me my beer. “Jotain muuta?” Anything else?
“A ginger ale for Kate.”
While Jaska gets it for her, I go over to the Virtanen brothers’ table. “Kimmo, Esa, how’s it going?”
The brothers look sheepish. My presence makes them nervous.
“Fine Kari,” Esa says. “How’s your gorgeous American wife?”
My marriage to a foreigner causes suspicion and consternation among the less progressive thinkers of our small community, but also envy, because of Kate’s success and good looks.
“She’s good. How are your mom and dad?”
“Mom can’t speak since the stroke, and— you know how he is— Dad is Dad,” Esa says, and Kimmo nods drunken agreement.
Esa and Kimmo and I grew up in the same neighborhood. Esa means their father has been drunk for weeks. Every winter he stays tanked on cheap Russian medical alcohol through kaamos, the dark time, until spring, and even then his sobriety is measured only in relation to his alcohol-induced winter coma. I wonder if their mother can’t speak, or if she’s so worn out that she has nothing left to say. “Give them my best. You two stay out of trouble tonight.”
Kate comes out from the back room. I get our drinks and we go to a table in the nonsmoking section.
I set her ginger ale on the table in front of her.
“Kiitos.” Thank you. She can’t speak Finnish yet, but she tries to use the few words and phrases she knows. “I could use a beer right now,” she says, “but I guess I’m going to have to wait seven months for my next one.”
Kate is pregnant with our first child. She told me two weeks ago while we celebrated our birthdays. We were born two days shy of eleven years apart, on opposite sides of the world.
Kate has put away her tough facade. She’s trembling. “Tuuli,” she says, “is not a pleasant person.”
“She’s a thief. Why didn’t you have me arrest her?”
“Recovering the small amount she stole doesn’t balance against the bad press associated with theft by an employee. Word will get around. That’s why I fired her in front of Jaska. If anyone else is stealing, they’ll stop.”
“You have the day off tomorrow?” I ask. “You could use one.”
Kate manages a coquettish smile. “I’m going skiing.”
I don’t want her to, but can’t think of a reasonable objection.
“Do you think you should?”
She takes my hand. Before I met Kate, I didn’t like public displays of affection, but now I can’t remember why. “I’m pregnant,” she says, “not crippled.”
In fact, we’re both slightly crippled. Me from a gun shot, Kate from a skiing accident that shattered her hip. We both limp. “Okay, I’ll go ice fishing.”
She closes her eyes for a second, stops smiling and rubs her temples.
“You feeling all right?” I ask.
She sighs. “When I first came to Finland to interview for my job, it was summer. The sun was up twenty-four hours a day. Everyone here seemed so happy. I met you. They offered me a lot of money to run Levi, a great career opportunity. The Arctic Circle seemed exotic, an exciting place to live.”
She looks down at the table. Kate isn’t given to complaining. I want to know what’s on her mind, so I prod her. “What changed?”
“This winter, I feel like the cold and dark will never end. I get it now that people weren’t happy, just drunk. It makes me depressed. It’s terrible. Being pregnant in Finland seems scary, makes me homesick for the States. I don’t know why.”
It’s two thirty p.m. on December sixteenth. We won’t see daylight again until Christmas day, and then only a glimmer. She’s right. That’s the way things are here in winter. A bunch of depressed hard drinkers freezing in an endless night. Kaamos is tough on everyone. I can see how being pregnant here would make her feel vulnerable and frightened.
My cell phone rings. “Vaara.”
“It’s Valtteri. Where are you?”
“In Hullu Poro with Kate. What’s up?”
He doesn’t speak.
“There’s been a murder, and I’m looking at the body.”
“Tell me who and where.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s Sufia Elmi, that black movie star. It’s bad. She’s in a field on Aslak’s place, about thirty yards off the road.”
“Anybody there with you?”
“Antti and Jussi. They were the responding officers.”
“Anything that requires immediate attention, like a suspect?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Then seal off the crime scene and wait for me.” I hang up.
“Problem?” Kate asks.
“You could say that. Somebody’s been murdered in a snowfield on Aslak Haltta’s reindeer farm.”
“You mean where we met?”
She looks at me and I read pain in her eyes. “I wish you didn’t have to go,” she says.
I didn’t realize how much she needs me right now, and I don’t want to leave her. “Me too. Can we talk about this later?”
She nods but looks sad as I kiss her good-bye.
I step outside into the dark, and the cold makes my face burn. I take a deep breath to clear my mind, feel the hair in my nostrils freeze, check my watch. It’s two fifty-two p.m. I call Esko Laine, the provincial medical examiner, tell him there’s been a murder and to meet me at the crime scene. He’s getting ready to go to sauna, sounds a little drunk and less than pleased.
The car skitters on the ice as I pull out of Hullu Poro’s parking lot. I light a cigarette and crack the window, despite it being minus forty. Nicotine and cold are a good combination for thinking.
Finland has a population of only five and a half million people, but a lot of violent crime. Per capita, our murder rate is about the same as most American big cities. The overwhelming majority of our murders are intimate events. We kill the people we love, our husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and friends, almost always in drunken rages.
This is different. In a country as sensitive to insinuations of racism as Finland, the murder of a black, female public figure will explode across national headlines. It’s never happened before. If the actress, Sufia Elmi, has been murdered, I’ve got a big problem.
Finns are sensitive about race relations because by and large we’re closet racists. As I once explained to Kate, it’s not the overt racism of the American kind she’s accustomed to, but a quiet racism. The passing-over of foreigners for promotions, a general disregard and disdain. I compared it to politics. Americans ramble on about politics but have a low voter turnout. Finns seldom talk about politics, but around eighty percent vote in presidential elections. We don’t talk about hatred, we hate in silence. It’s our way. We do everything in silence.
I’ve heard jokes about Sufia, local rednecks snickering over their beers, talking about how they’d like to do it with the knockout nigger movie star, but never anything threatening. If we’re lucky, Sufia’s killer is a tourist and we can avoid cultural implications. I hope it’s a German. Germans are a petty hatred I inherited from my grandparents, who despised them for burning down half of Finnish Lapland during World War II.
During the war, my grandmother found a German soldier frozen to death on a mountainside and dragged him down to show her friends. She told me it was the happiest day of her life. In my work, I find them a terrible annoyance. German tourists will steal anything. Silverware, salt and pepper shakers, toilet paper.
I know a little about Sufia from the newspapers. Looks as much as talent have earned her a minor career as a B-movie starlet in Finnish film, and she’s wintering here in Levi. The first time I saw her, I found myself staring. I was embarrassed at first, but then I noticed she inspired that reaction in everyone, even women.
Sufia wore a cocktail dress that didn’t do much to conceal spectacular breasts. Her waist was so small I could have wrapped my hands around it, and high heels accented the slender legs of a gazelle. Her black skin was flawless and her angelic face bore a combination of youth, beauty and innocence. She had obsidian eyes and a look of perpetual amusement that charmed everyone around her.
Sufia is, or was, a physical anomaly, so beautiful that it didn’t seem possible for a creature like her to exist. What seemed a gift may have drawn the wrong kind of attention and gotten her killed. The first inclination of so many people in this world, when confronted by beauty, is to destroy it.
I pull off the road onto the drive leading into Aslak Haltta’s reindeer farm, park next to Valtteri’s squad car and get ready for the hours I’m going to spend in the cold processing the crime scene. A winter field uniform is wadded up in the backseat of my Saab. Marine-blue police coveralls, they’re lined and heavy, should keep me warm enough to do my job. I pull them on over my jeans, sweater and a layer of thermal underwear.
The neighborhood I grew up in starts on the other side of the road, about two hundred yards away. It will have to be canvassed during the investigation. No doubt my parents will enjoy acting like they’re being accused of murder.
All I can see from here is snow. Valtteri’s headlights are on to illuminate the crime scene, so I leave mine on too. They cut a swath through the darkness, and I see Valtteri standing twenty yards ahead of me with Jussi, Antti and Aslak. I leave the comfort of the heated car and take the two fishing-tackle boxes I use for a crime kit from the trunk.
Valtteri wades toward me through the snow. It’s deep, frozen hard on the surface but powdery underneath, and trudging through it makes him lurch until he reaches the driveway.
“Don’t go over there yet,” he says.
“Is it that bad?”
“Just take a second and brace yourself.”
Valtteri is a devout Laestadian and to my mind overobsessed with his strict, revivalist version of Lutheranism, but he’s a good man and a good officer. If having eight kids and going to church every Sunday and most evenings makes him happy, it’s okay by me. I turn on a flashlight and start toward the crime scene.
When I get about five yards away, I see a naked corpse embedded in the snow. I’m certain it’s Sufia Elmi. When I see what’s been done to her, I understand why Valtteri warned me. I’ve investigated more than a few homicides, but never seen anything so cruel. I set down the fishing-tackle boxes and take a moment to steady myself.
Judging by the indentations in the snow, it looks like the killer parked, then either dragged Sufia or forced her to crawl away from the car. The snow is about three feet deep and she’s sunk about half that distance into it. She managed to thrash enough to make a snow angel. Her black body is ensconced in white snow stained with red blood. In places, blood has spattered and sprayed two yards away from her. Her corpse is starting to cool, and silver frost is forming on her dark skin, making it shimmer.
A car pulls off the road and I figure it’s Esko the coroner. The responding officers, Antti and Jussi, are standing there shivering, even though, like me, they have on heavy winter field uniforms and thick hats and gloves. They’re looking useless and might pollute the crime scene tramping around, moving to keep warm. I tell Jussi to walk back up to where the driveway meets the road and look for discarded evidence. If there is any, it will be easy to find with the glare of his flashlight on unbroken snow.
Antti is our best artist. I take graph paper and a pencil from a tackle box and tell him to make sketches of the crime scene, not an easy task in this bitter cold. He puts chemical hand warmers inside his gloves to keep his fingers from getting stiff and starts drawing.
Esko comes over and nods hello, doesn’t speak. I tell him to take a look around.
I get two cameras out of the tackle boxes, one film and one digital, a couple external flash units and a tape recorder. Winter here is an endless night, but the snow reflects what little light there is and casts everything a dim murky gray. I use a Leica M3 to shoot film photos of the surroundings. Old Leicas are well made and don’t use batteries, so they almost never fail because of cold-weather conditions.
Snow photography isn’t easy. If you use lights or flashes at more than a forty-five-degree angle, everything disappears in the glare.
It has to be done with polarizing filters and lights at the level of the snow. I give the cameras to Valtteri. “You know what to do, right?” I ask.
Valtteri nods, starts setting up the external flash units. “I was going to take my boys deer hunting tomorrow,” he says. “Now I don’t think I have the stomach for it.”
I wouldn’t either. “Take photos with both cameras,” I say. “I want the snow as intact as possible so evidence doesn’t get mashed up in it, so try to walk in your own footprints.”
I rub my gloved hands together, try to warm them up. It’s seldom this cold, even here in the lower part of the Arctic Circle, and it creates an odd sensation. There’s a feeling of both heightened and deprived senses. Exposed parts of the body first burn, then ache, then go numb. The senses of touch and smell disappear. The cold makes my eyes run and the tears freeze on my cheeks. I have to squint and it’s difficult to see. Nothing moves, birds don’t sing.
There would be silence, but cold has a sound of its own. The branches of trees freeze solid and crack under the weight of snow with sounds like muted gunshots. The snow freezes so hard that its surface contracts and takes on a pebbled texture. It crackles underfoot, even when I think I’m standing still.
We’re in a field about thirty yards east of the main road. A barn with a pen outside it for sick and birthing reindeer stands twenty yards to the north. Aslak’s reindeer number in the thousands, and they’ve earned him a handsome living. His house, an expensive ranch-style brick, is another hundred yards northeast. Christmas lights in the distant windows wink on and off. To the south and west are only barren fields and icy forests.
The atmosphere is one of isolation, of desolation. It seems an ideal spot for a murder. I picture the murderer turning off the main road, killing his engine and cutting his headlights, gliding to a stop a little way down the drive. The sky is cloudy, no moon or stars illuminate the dark afternoon. The nearest homes are a football field away in one direction, two football fields in the other. The murderer had privacy and time. If he heard noise or saw lights, all he had to do was start his car and drive away before being spotted.
Aslak looks down at Sufia, leans on a shotgun, smokes a home-rolled cigarette. I guide him a few yards away from the body and light one myself. “See anything?”
“Not much. I came out to feed the dogs and saw headlights. I went back and got my gun"—he holds up a Mossberg twelve gauge pump—“and came over to see what was going on. I got here in time to see a car drive away. Then I saw her like this. I had my cell phone with me and called the police.”
“What kind of car?”
Aslak seems unperturbed. I’ve known him since I was a kid. He’s a Saame reindeer herder, an aboriginal Lapland Finn and a tough old bastard. “It was pretty far away, some kind of sedan.”
“How long ago did it leave?”
Aslak checks his watch. “ Fifty-two minutes.”
I look at Valtteri. “You didn’t set up roadblocks?”
“The only thing I could think to do was call you.”
“And I asked you if anything required immediate attention.”
Fuckup number one. If this case goes wrong, not just Valtteri will be blamed, but me as well, since I’m in charge. He’s embarrassed and I don’t press it.
Valtteri and I get some sticks and drive them into the snow. We spool out crime-scene tape and seal off a few yards of the tire tracks, then do the same in a ten-yard square around the body. Footprints span a fifteen-foot distance between the body and the tire tracks. We tape those off too, so we can make spray-wax casts later.
The driveway hasn’t been plowed for a couple days and has a few inches of powdery snow on it. Under the right conditions, tire tracks are as individual and identifiable as fingerprints. These look crisp enough to get the manufacturer and model, but maybe not the specific set of tires. The footprints are in deep snow and won’t yield much, but we might get a shoe size. Esko waits until we finish before he starts his examination.
Sufia is beautiful no longer. What’s left of her tells the story of an agonizing death. My first task is to describe this horror in detail. It makes me feel sad, and inadequate, because the only person able to describe such depths of suffering would have been Sufia herself. Valtteri starts shooting pictures. The flash pops every few seconds and lights up the blood and snow and Sufia, and I feel like I’m living in a grainy black-and-white photograph.
I start the tape recorder, and Esko takes out a notebook and pen. I’ll do a verbal description while he does a written one, for the same reason that Antti draws while Valtteri photographs, to rule out the chance of documentation being lost. I kneel down in the snow beside her. “Let me know if I miss anything.”
He nods. I run the beam of my flashlight up and down her body and start.
“General observations. A nude female body. The victim is black. A cord"—I take off my glove, reach over and touch it—“of silk or similar synthetic material, is around her neck, and ligatures suggest it was used as a means of control. The snow is disturbed in a five-yard line between the tire tracks and the location of her body. It appears she either crawled or was dragged from the vehicle to her present location.”
“Dragged, I think,” Esko says.
“The snow is unbroken outside the immediate vicinity of the body and drag line. Her arms are raised at forty-five-degree angles over her head. Her legs are spread, and the indentations in the snow indicate that she thrashed around as her killer assaulted her. Evidence such as other weapons or her clothing would be readily visible were they present. They’re not. The victim is mutilated. Her face is brutalized, but I recognize her. She’s the actress Sufia Elmi. The words neekeri huora, nigger whore, have been cut into her stomach.”
My worst fears are confirmed. This is a hate crime. It’s hard to believe anyone could have hated her so much. The question, despite the words carved on her stomach, is what could have inspired this kind of hatred? Was it her race, her beauty, or something else?
“A half-liter Lapin Kulta beer bottle has been broken off at the neck and inserted, broken end first, by means of twisting and cutting, into the victim’s vagina. No glass shards from the shattered bottle are evident. The victim was hit with a blunt instrument, which left a contusion on her forehead.”
Esko stoops down beside me. “She was struck twice. Probably with a carpenter’s hammer.”
I nod. “Probably with a carpenter’s hammer. Her eyes have been gouged out, maybe with the broken bottle. A superficial piece of skin from her right breast, about three by four inches, is sliced off and located beside the victim, near her left shoulder. There’s a long deep cut across her lower abdomen. Her throat is slashed. The clean cuts suggest the killer used an edged weapon, not the beer bottle, to inflict those wounds.”
“He left the piece of her breast,” Esko says. “Not a trophy taker.”
“At least three instruments appear to have been used to mutilate the victim, one blunt and heavy, as evidenced by the two blows to the head, and two sharp ones, one the beer bottle and the other an edged weapon.”
“I’d guess a serrated hunting knife,” Esko says.
“Have I missed anything?” I ask.
“I don’t think so.”
Something glints in the beam of my flashlight. I get down close to her. “What’s this stuff on her face?”
I point out three small streaks. “By her nose, on her cheek.”
“I don’t know,” Esko says.
“Think he spit on her?”
“It doesn’t look viscous enough for saliva.”
“It wouldn’t even be noticeable if she was white. Hard to see it as it is. Make sure you get a sample for testing. Anything else?”
Esko shakes his head no. He takes her hands, careful to keep from disturbing the snow lodged under her manicured fingernails, looks them over and puts plastic bags around them. He takes blood samples from various areas in the snow around the body, and a sample of the liquid on her face. “Listen,” he says, “I’m out of my depth, I’ve never handled anything like this. This is going to be international news and I’m afraid I’ll fuck it up.”
I appreciate his feelings. It’s been a long time since I conducted a difficult murder investigation. Plus, it’s near Christmas and four officers from our force of eight are on vacation.
We don’t even have an evening shift—we’re taking turns being on call at night. Even our dispatcher is on vacation. It’s an ideal time to commit a murder. A local would know this, and it bothers me.
“We have tire tracks,” I say, “and the body will yield a lot of evidence. We’ll solve this.”
We kneel in the snow and look at each other for a few seconds, both at a loss for words. From the pen outside the barn, a pregnant reindeer looks on with indifference. Aslak stands not far away, rolling a cigarette. I want this not to have happened. I want to be at home with Kate, to lay my hand on her belly and imagine our child growing inside it. I look across the snowfield. Aslak’s house is a shadow in the distance. Almost a year and a half ago, Kate and I met in his backyard.
The Saame people, Laplanders, suffer a lot of prejudice here, like Eskimos in Alaska. Every year on midsummer, Aslak throws a lavish party, invites friends, neighbors and the more prominent members of the community. Maybe it’s a way of proving to himself and everybody else how much he’s achieved despite the odds against him. Maybe it’s his way of saying, “Fuck you, I’m Saame and I’m richer than you are.” He has his own midsummer tradition: roasting a whole reindeer on a spit like other people roast wild boar. I’ve never seen anyone else do that.
Kate and I met at Aslak’s party. It was getting late, but this is the land of the midnight sun and in summer, especially after a few drinks, it’s easy to lose track of time because of the constant daylight. It feels like early evening all night long. I heard a voice speaking English and saw it belonged to a tall redhead across the lawn. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Kate was standing in a crowd, talking to a girl named Liisa, an assistant manager at Levi Center. Liisa and I had gone out a couple times a while back, but it never amounted to anything. I walked over.
They were drunk and giddy.
“Kari, this is Kate Hodges,” Liisa said. “She’s in Finland interviewing to be the new general manager of Levi Center. Kate, this is Kari Vaara. He’s the chief of police here. His name means Rock Danger.”
Kate burst out laughing. “Rock Danger, like a name in a bad movie?”
I had never thought about it. The idea made me laugh too. “It could mean that. Kari means rock, scar, shoal or reef. Vaara means hill, danger, risk or pitfall. So my name could be Reef Hill or Scar Pitfall. However you look at it, it sounds stupid in English. I promise it sounds better in Finnish.”
“You speak excellent English,” Kate said.
“Kari is a smart guy,” Liisa said. “He speaks Swedish and Russian too.”
“My Russian is weak,” I said.
“I was just telling Kate about midsummer,” Liisa said. “I explained that midsummer marks the summer solstice and is also Finnish Flag Day, that we have a tradition of going to sauna and having a big bonfire at midnight. Care to add anything?”
“Midsummer is the longest day of the year and a pagan festival of light,” I said. “It was Christianized into a celebration of the nativity of St. John the Baptist. That’s why in Finnish it’s called Juhannus. For pagans, it was a potent magical night, mostly for young women seeking men or wanting children or both. The burning of the bonfire is associated with beliefs concerning fertility, cleansing of the soul and the banishing of evil spirits.”
“Rock Danger,” Kate said, “you sound like an educated man.”
I smiled. “I’m a font of useless information.”
Kate pulled Liisa away a few steps. They whispered back and forth. I stood in the middle of a group of drunk people munching roasted reindeer and potato salad off paper plates, watched Kate and thought again how beautiful she was. She and Liisa finished their palaver and came back. “So this pagan thing,” Kate said. “Does it mean women can ask men out on midsummer?”
“I’m certain it does,” I said.
Alcohol had worked Kate’s courage up and, during their chat, Liisa had tried to teach her to speak a sentence in Finnish. “Komea mies,” she said, “lähtisitkö ulos ja pane minua syömään?”
Her pronunciation was strange, but what she said was clear enough. People around us burst out laughing. I felt my face turn red. She meant to say, “Handsome man, would you like to go out to dinner with me?” but what came out was something like, “Handsome man, would you like to go out and fuck me for dinner?”
Kate’s face turned red too. “What did I say wrong?” she asked.
Liisa whispered it to her.
Kate’s eyes fluttered like she was going to cry. She walked away from the people still laughing at her.
I went after her. She turned and looked at me, humiliated.
“I’d love to take you to dinner,” I said.
Then she saw the humor, managed a smile.
“They’re going to light the bonfire soon,” I said. “Want to go watch it with me?”
“That would be nice,” she said.
She took my hand, it surprised me. We started walking. “You limp,” she said. “How come?”
“Somebody shot me. How come you limp?”
We held hands and watched the bonfire in silence. Afterward, I asked Kate if she would like to come over to my house for a drink.
“Where do you live?” she asked.
“About a poronkusema from here.”
“How far is that?”
“A poronkusema is a Laplander measure of distance that means ‘reindeer piss.’ A reindeer can’t urinate when it pulls a sled, and it gets a clogged urinary tract if you don’t stop and let it pee once in a while. A poronkusema is about ten miles, around thirty minutes of riding on a sled.”
“You really are a font of useless information,” she said.
We went to my place. Six weeks later we were engaged. Nine months later we were married.
It’s hard to believe that this place, the site of an event that led to such happiness for me, is now the scene of such tragedy. I look down again at Sufia’s mangled corpse. “Esko . . . ”
I need to ask the question but I’m afraid to hear the answer. “How much of what happened do you think she was conscious for?”
“She’s such a mess that I can’t say without an autopsy. I’ve been wondering the same thing. Still, it could have been worse.”
He stands up and brushes the snow off his pants. “She could have lived through it.”
I look down at Sufia the snow angel. Her face changes and I imagine Kate naked and slaughtered, dead in a snowfield. The wave of sadness I felt earlier renews itself, and for the first time in my life I’m sorry that Finland has no death penalty.
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