Dreamless by Jorgen Brekke is the 2nd Nordic thriller in the Chief Inspector Odd Singsaker series (available February 10, 2015).
A promising young singer is found dead in a clearing in a forest, gruesomely murdered—her larynx cut out, and an antique music box placed carefully atop her body, playing a mysterious lullaby that sounds familiar, but that no one can quite place. Chief Inspector Odd Singsaker, of the Trondheim Police Department, still recovering from brain surgery, is called in to investigate.
Singsaker, now married to Felicia Stone, the American detective he met while tracking down a serial killer, fears the worst when another young girl, also known for her melodic singing voice, suddenly goes missing while on a walk with her dog one night. As the Trondheim police follow the trail of this deadly killer, it becomes clear that both cases are somehow connected to a centuries-old ballad called “The Golden Peace,” written by a mysterious composer called Jon Blund, in the seventeenth century. This lullaby promises the most sound, sweet sleep to the listener—and as time ticks by, the elusive killer seems as if he will stop at nothing to get his hands on this perfect lullaby.
A fly balanced on the edge of the blade, its wings tucked in.
How did it do that?
If he turned the ax and brought it down on the chopping block, he’d cleave the insect in two. If it stayed there, of course. But they never did, those flies. They didn’t stay in one place. Not like he did. Sitting at the piano every day, his father standing behind him, holding a stick that he’d been given by a conductor who was more famous than he was. The stick stung the boy’s fingers.
I make mistakes when I play because I don’t have the music in my fingers like he does, thought the boy.
He liked reading the musical scores. They conjured up pictures and figures, secrets written in a language that he only partially understood. He never let his father watch when he read the scores. That would encourage his father’s dreams, give him hope and make him even more cruel.
His fingers. The ax. The fly.
He blew at it, and it took off buzzing toward the rafters. Then he turned the ax. If he spread his fingers he could see the cuts that had been made in the chopping block. His right hand lay on the uneven surface. He was left-handed and didn’t want to lose any fingers he might need. So he aimed for the little finger and ring finger on his right hand. They were the two least important. It was essential to strike in the right place, not too far up, not too far down. If he chopped off only a little stump, that wouldn’t be enough. He mustered all of his attention.
The ax whistled through the air and struck just under the middle joint of the two fingers. The sound reached his brain before the pain did. Crunching, like the sound of his mother slicing carrots. Then a silent movie began rolling. Two fingers shot up in separate arcs from the chopping block and landed on the damp garage floor. They were like rubber, bouncing away before coming to a halt. Only when they stopped moving did he notice the burning heat in his hand.
Then he heard his father outside.
“If you quit fooling around and really try to play this time, you can come back inside.”
The garage door opened.
His father stood there, motionless, staring at him. At first his face was flat and stiff, like a marble bust. Then he screamed.
His father understood what he’d done.
In the silence after the scream, the big man collapsed. But the boy remained standing there quite calmly, listening to the blood dripping onto the floor. Rhythmically, as if striking the keys of a piano. Music was finally pouring from his fingers.
The fingers. The drops of blood. The floor.
At last those terrible hours at the piano were over.
Christian Wingmark moved his eyes from the dice he was holding to the fly on the watchmaker’s forehead. It was moving slowly, counterclockwise. Between them towered stacks of coins. More than 107 riksdaler. The only thing that mattered. When he threw the three dice, any count above nine would win him the whole pot. Only the gaming board could offer the prospect of a better life to a troubadour and rogue like him, who otherwise lived a vile and foul-smelling existence.
There were many men seated around the table, but he focused only on the royal watchmaker, from whom time had run away. Jean Fredman’s face was slack, as if he’d already been defeated. At one time he’d been in charge of the clock on the cathedral, responsible for time in the capital of the realm; he’d been a gentleman among the most honorable of men. Ballads had been sung about him in those days. But who would sing about him now? Wingmark had no idea whether it was the loss of his workshop, his obsession with gambling, or a thirst for strong spirits that first had toppled the watchmaker, but he’d lost both his wits and all sense of decorum and no longer knew even what time it was. Mad dreams had kept him at the gaming table lately, and his hands had grown so accustomed to raising a goblet that soon they’d be able to do little else.
He and Wingmark were the only ones left vying for the pot. A watchmaker who could already see Charon beckoning from the rushing river, and a young troubadour who might have found his muse.
“Yesterday I wrote the ballad that will make me rich and famous one day,” he said loudly to the assembled players, noticing that his hands had stopped trembling. “All I need is this pot. It will more than cover the printing costs.”
No one spoke. He was filled with trepidation and anticipation.
“Oh, shut up and throw the damned dice!” shouted one of the men crowded around the table.
A pot this big had never been seen before at the inn called the Golden Peace, and all the other customers had gathered around the two men who were fighting for it. Everyone was impatient to see the outcome.
“No, let’s hear more about this ballad,” said a man with a deep voice.
It was the innkeeper who spoke, a red-nosed man with a talent for music who had mastered the French horn, flute, lyre, oboe, bassoon, clarinet, bass violin, and harp. He also dabbled in playing kettledrums in addition to running the inn. He was seated at the table with the other men, although he’d been knocked out of the game several rounds earlier.
Wingmark glanced at the innkeeper, then ran his hand over his forehead and wiped the sweat on his trousers.
“If you do have a song that might truly bring fame and honor to an idler like you, we’d like to hear it,” said the innkeeper, a dangerous glint in his eye. Everyone at the table, even the pitiful watchmaker, bellowed with laughter. They didn’t believe him. But that was of no consequence. One day they would all see him for what he was.
Wingmark didn’t utter a word until the laughter had subsided. Then he said, “Tonight I prefer to let the dice speak on my behalf.” He looked at poor Fredman, who immediately stopped snickering.
“Well said. So throw the dice,” replied the merry innkeeper.
His heart stood still. He looked at the dice as they rolled back and forth on his clammy palm. He clicked his tongue, stamped his feet in time to an inner melody, and took one last gulp from his goblet. Then time stood still as well. It was as if Fredman had sucked all of time into his fevered chest. Wingmark’s hand began to move. It hovered at the edge of the table. The spectators all leaned forward, as if they might see the numbers on the dice in advance. Then he sketched an arc in the air. The dice flew from his hand, and he felt like he’d thrown tiny bits of himself across the tabletop. He fixed his eyes on only one of the dice, the one that landed last. For an instant, it teetered between five and one, but then fell with the one showing.
He shut his eyes to think. I need at least nine from the two dice that I haven’t dared to look at. Am I to fail after all? Then he opened his eyes and stared at Fredman. Wingmark realized that the watchmaker had already looked, and he was seeing the face of a vanquished man. Quickly he glanced down. All three dice were on the table, and one of them showed a one. The two others showed five. At that instant he fell forward and felt his forehead strike the table with a thud. A marvelous new melody filled his head.
In a daze, he stood up and held his arms high.
A tempered cheer spread through the premises, and he realized that most of the customers must have been siding with the watchmaker. But what did that matter? It didn’t make his sense of intoxication any less. Tonight he would buy a drink for all of them. Tomorrow he could go to the printer.
Then a roar came from the entrance and everyone turned toward the sound. A stout man stood in the doorway. Around six foot two, he was dressed like a gentleman, and Wingmark knew that a gentleman he was.
Two days ago, the troubadour had written a ballad for Sir Erik’s eldest daughter, who was about to be married. He’d used the payment to buy his way into this game. Now he was the only one who understood why a furious man was standing in the entryway to the Golden Peace. The man was Sir Erik’s most trusted servant. The ballad had not found favor with the highborn lord. Something in the song must have offended him. Could it have been the comparison between Sir Erik’s daughter and Aphrodite? Or was it the impudent Bible parodies that Wingmark had woven into the song, which he himself had found so amusing?
“Where is that cursed trickster?” bellowed the man in the doorway.
Everyone stepped aside, understanding that this had to do with Wingmark. He’d just won the biggest pot in the history of the Golden Peace. Nobody won that sort of fortune without paying a price.
With three angry strides the stout fellow arrived at the table.
“Aha! So here you are. You call yourself a poet, but really you’re nothing more than a charlatan whose only talent is the ability to offend all that is good and noble.” The well-dressed gentleman looked at him with scorn. “But why am I wasting my words on you?”
Wingmark noticed that he was holding a rapier in one hand. From his belt he drew out another. This weapon he tossed on the table, scattering the silver and copper coins in all directions.
Wingmark stared, bewitched at the sword and the money that would buy him a way out of debt and misfortune. But what would buy his way out of this dilemma?
“Take the sword or leave it! Either way, I’m going to end your life, you miserable worm.”
Wingmark grabbed the sword from the table.
“Perhaps you are right,” he said. “The ballad was not one of my best. But I assume that a gentleman such as yourself would wish to settle this dispute outdoors, am I right?” He pointed toward the door.
“If you wish. It makes no difference to me where you begin your journey to hell.” He motioned for Wingmark to lead the way.
For a brief moment the troubadour considered whether he might stuff a few coins in his pocket without his adversary noticing, but he saw that the money was lost. Now it was a matter of saving his life.
Slowly he walked out of the inn, holding the sword. Behind him came Sir Erik’s man, with all the customers from the Golden Peace in tow. Once outside, he bowed to his opponent and took up the proper stance as he glanced around. Then he threw the sword to the ground and turned on his heel. With his back turned, he dropped his trousers around his knees and bent forward, exposing his pale backside.
“Here you have my honest opinion of your Sir Erik’s daughter. Give him my greetings,” he said and then turned again to face his challenger.
The man was momentarily stunned, his mouth falling open. Then he raised his sword.
Wingmark thumbed his nose at him and heard the laughter swell from the crowd that had gathered. Then he took off running. He shoved his way between two half-drunk spectators and broke free from the throng. After taking two steps forward, he stumbled on a loose cobblestone and fell to his knees, but he quickly got back on his feet before anyone managed to stop him. Then he sped off in earnest, and no one could catch him. He ran inside the wretched garret he had rented to fetch his lute, his notebook, and a much too meager cache of money.
After that, Wingmark disappeared from Stockholm for good. He knew what he had done. No one insulted Sir Erik or his daughter or his servant without paying a price. If he ever set foot in the city again, he was a dead man.
He found a little-used bridle path and followed it away from the city, heading in a northwesterly direction. Only a few times did he turn to look back at Stockholm. It was a beautiful city, filled with dreams and songs. The narrow lanes might seem perfect for dancing during the long summer nights. But in the winter they were cold and filled with snow. He’d spent his best and worst years there. Watched his youth disappear. In spite of years of misery, trouble with women, and drunkenness, he remembered that his real name was not Christian Wingmark, and that he’d learned to play his first lute in a different city, in another country, where he had once been happy.
When he could no longer see the city behind him, he was surrounded by forest on all sides, and he had acquired the company of countless flies. Their early appearance this spring was a torment. People said that it was because of the unusually warm temperatures at night. But right now the flies didn’t bother him. He listened to their buzzing and imagined it was a melody.
Then he began to compose a new ballad.
Grälmakar Löfberg was not really his name; it was just something he called himself. He was being buffeted by a gusty wind coming from the street, so he stopped. It was an unreliable wind, constantly shifting. Through the trees he could see the Ludvig Daaes Gate as snowflakes blew past the streetlights like swarms of soundless insects in the night. The cars had disappeared, leaving Trondheim in silence. The gusts slowly subsided, and few thoughts crossed his mind. Only the memory of a dream. It was weeks ago that he’d dreamed of anything at all, but old dreams still whirled in his thoughts like withered leaves. He’d met the devil over on Nonnegata, right outside the kiosk where he went every day to buy his cigarettes.
Satan was a polite man with a black coat and a hollow gaze.
“Have you finally come to get me?” Löfberg asked.
“No,” said the devil gloomily. “You’ve been here a long time.”
When he asked what that meant, he received no reply. Only after awaking did he understand the meaning: Hell is having to keep doing what you’ve always done.
Slowly he allowed this phantom of a dream to disappear into the dark of night. He took the music box out of his pocket and wound it up. The music began as soon as he let go of the key. He turned around, took two steps back, and set the music box on top of her. That was when he heard footsteps on the deserted street.
* * *
It felt like the wind was following her, poking her in the back the whole way, as if the icy gusts were trying to hurry her through her nightly walk, back to the bed where she should have been with her snoring husband. For once, Evy Saupstad hadn’t fallen asleep before he started his loud sawing, and then it was too late. Now she was paying for how soundly she’d slept on the plane home from Tenerife. She envied her husband, who had waited until they got home to sleep. At the corner of Ludvig Daaes Gate and Bernhard Getz’ Gate, in the Rosenborg district where she lived, she stopped to let her dog do his business.
She looked at her watch. It was three-thirty in the morning. She was glad she was still on vacation for a few days yet, so she could sleep late.
Her side of the street was lined with trees. This green oasis in the neighborhood was a wooded hill that rose steeply for several hundred yards.
She was about to straighten up when she heard the melody. It came from somewhere among the trees. A slow, rolling tune, bright and clear. She walked toward the music.
She was less than ten steps from the street when she saw something in the pale shimmer that filtered through the bare wintry branches of the trees. It was a lovely little thing, a cylinder-shaped box with a ballerina twirling on the lid as the music played. The ballerina seemed to be trying to shake off the snow that had settled on her hair. As soon as Evy Saupstad caught sight of the music box, it abruptly stopped. Silence descended over the trees, and she thought about how quiet it was at this time of night. The lonely hours. If someone really wanted to be alone in a city like Trondheim, this was the time to go outside.
The dog started barking, and that was when she saw it. The music box was not sitting on the ground. The snow had spread a white blanket over the figure underneath, a lifeless human body. As she moved closer, she saw that the snow was red near the neck. Blood had gushed out of the slit throat and congealed in the cold. A metallic smell wafted past her nose, then disappeared with the snowflakes and the wind gusting past.
Evy couldn’t help gasping. She looked around anxiously. Footprints led away from the corpse and into the woods before veering toward the entrance to a motorcycle club. The driveway to the club was approximately fifty yards farther along Ludvig Daaes Gate, toward Rosenborg School. The footprints were starting to disappear under the snow. She turned on her heel and ran the few yards out of the woods. The dog stopped barking as soon as they reached the street. The little creature made her feel safer, even though she realized that a one-year-old miniature dachshund would be no match for the monster who was responsible for what she’d just seen.
Then she pulled out her cell phone and called the police.
* * *
He headed toward the bomb shelter. He could see her from where he was standing. She leaned down to pet the dog, and fortunately it stopped barking. He couldn’t stand the barking. It made his head spin. He took a deep breath.
The woman took a cell phone out of her pocket and tapped in a number.
He stood and watched as she talked. He could hear the shrill tone of her voice but not the words she said. His footprints were starting to be erased from the ground, but the body had been found before it vanished completely under the mantle of white. Did it matter? He took a roundabout way back to the car and then drove home, to the yellowish brown ceiling over the bed and the hours of sleepless agitation.
Copyright © 2015 Jorgen Brekke.
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Jorgen Brekke was born in Horten, Norway. After completing his studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, he settled in Trondheim, where he currently lives with his wife and three children. Brekke taught education for some years, but recently worked as a freelance journalist. His debut novel, Where Monsters Dwell, was sold to fifteen countries.