An excerpt of Helsinki Blood by James Thompson, the fourth book in the Inspector Kari Vaara thriller series (available March 21, 2013).
A missing woman too unimportant to raise alarms . . . criminal masterminds too powerful to pursue. And when the system fails, Inspector Kari Vaara must dispense his own brand of justice.
Kari Vaara is recovering from the physical and emotional toll of solving the Lisbet Söderlund case when he’s approached with a plea: an Estonian woman begs him to find her daughter, Loviise, a young woman with Down syndrome who was promised work and a better life in Finland . . . and has since disappeared.
One more missing girl is a drop in the barrel for a police department that is understaffed and overburdened, but for Kari, the case is personal: it’s a chance for redemption, to help the victims his failed black-ops unit was intended to save, and to prove to his estranged wife, Kate, that he’s still the man he once was. His search will lead him from the glittering world of Helsinki’s high-class clubs to the darkest circles of Finland’s underground trade in trafficked women . . . and straight into the path of Loviise’s captors, who may be some of the most untouchable people in the country.
As Kari works his new case, a past one comes back to haunt him when powerful enemies return to settle unfinished business. In a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse, he is propelled toward a reckoning in which the stakes are life or death . . . and only the victors will be left standing.
June had come to an end. I seldom went out, mostly because mobility was so difficult, but it had been such a bad day— Kate had been gone for around two weeks. I was depressed and in awful pain— that I thought fresh air and sunshine might be good for me, help me gain some perspective. Mental health care workers often recommend just getting out and about to raise spirits. Dumbfucks.
I hadn’t had a haircut in a couple months, went to the barber around the corner and got it cropped military short, as it’s been for more than thirty years. It revealed the scar that runs four inches across the left center of my head to the hairline over my eye. The ugly gunshot wound on my face was no longer bandaged but not healed.
Looking in the barber’s mirror, I thought of my severe limp and knew all I needed was a long black leather trench coat to look like a cliché Gestapo torturer in a B movie.
Afterward, I went a little way down the street to Hilpeä Hauki, my favorite bar. I believed it might be therapeutic for me. It’s a cozy, quiet place— they don’t even play music— that specializes in imported beers, and the same faces appear almost daily. Conversations went on around me, but speaking wasn’t required. People often just have a beer and browse through the daily newspapers or sit in silence if they don’t feel chatty.
The patrons almost all know me, or at least of me, and wouldn’t ask questions about my injuries, so I felt comfortable being there. I sat in “the dogs’ corner,” so called because customers are allowed to sit in the squared- off area near the L-shaped bar with their pets. A water bowl sat under a side table next to the door. The staff even keeps dog treats handy. I ordered a beer and a kossu—the colloquial for Koskenkorva, a kind of Finnish vodka— and sat on a stool at the bar.
A young drunk guy came in. He was loud, attention- seeking. The bartender, a half Finn, half Brit named Mike, refused him service. He called Mike a vittu pää—a cunt head. Mike is a big guy and used to dealing with such behavior, but I stuck my nose in anyway. “Shut the fuck up,” I said, “or I’ll come over there and beat you to death.”
The asshole was four paces away from me. He checked me out and laughed. “Listen, crip, the only thing you’re going to beat me in is an ugly contest.”
I felt myself seething. Mike leaned over the bar, looked at me, shook his head no. I saw that I had reached down and was going for my backup piece, a Colt . 45 with a three- inch barrel in an ankle holster. I didn’t realize I was doing it.
“Bad day?” Mike asked.
I came to my senses and pulled the cuff of my jeans back down over my . 45. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“Why don’t you come back on a day when you feel better.” It wasn’t a question, I was being kicked out. “I’ll buy you a beer the next time I see you.” He said it in a caring way, I couldn’t be mad about it. And besides, he was right.
I got up to leave.
Without deigning to look at me, Asshole said, “See ya, Frankenstein.”
I stepped toward the door as if leaving, but turned and swung my cane two- handed like a bat. Scored a perfect kidney shot with the back of the gold lion’s head handle. Asshole went down like a rock, screamed and curled up into a ball. I gave the folks in the dogs’ corner a small salute, wished them pleasant evenings and hobbled home.
On the way, I decided that in my current emotional state I was dangerous, not fit company for other humans. I decided to go into self-imposed isolation. It didn’t last long.
Six thirty p. m. Pizza delivered, waiting for hunger to build. Check. Tranquilizers, pain medication and muscle relaxants ingested, so that I could work up to eating it. Check. Half tumbler of kossu on the side table beside my armchair, to amplify the effects of the dope. Bottle on floor beside me. Check.
Only an idiot pays attention to the warnings on medication stating that it shouldn’t be taken with alcohol. Any fool knows tranks and dope work better with booze. The dope wasn’t that strong, just tablets with thirty milligrams of codeine and some Tylenol, max eight a day. I eschewed stronger painkillers because they guaranteed addiction and detox, the last thing I needed to add to my list of problems. Tranks are addictive, but were necessary to relax my jaw enough to eat or speak. As the doctors taught me, I had to balance functionality versus non functionality.
By that point in my life, I was expert at pain management. The buzz and pain relief the alcohol generated was enough to get me by. I’d gone to the manufacturers’ websites of all the medications and worked out how many I could take of each per day, in conjunction with alcohol, without destroying my vital organs. I discovered double-checking medical advice was a necessity after once going to terveyskeskus, the public health clinic, also known as arvauskeskus—the guessing center—with a simple flu. Had I taken the medication as directed, I would have required a liver transplant.
Katt, my cat, was fed, watered and litter box cleaned, in case I passed out. Check. I was ready to settle in for another stoned evening of introspection. For some reason, I felt a desire to tour my self-imposed luxury prison first.
Behind the living room in our fourth- floor apartment, a low dais next to the kitchen, our dining area, has a big oak table that seats ten, so we can have dinner parties. The kitchen has brushed-stainless-steel fixtures. The refrigerator and induction stovetop are state-of-the-art. Not the best money can buy, but not far from it. The bathroom is a tad small, but bigger than is common in apartments in Helsinki. It has a small electric sauna in it, and like many people, we use it more for drying clothes than sweating in steam heat. We have two bedrooms, one for Kate and me, with an oversized and almost too comfortable bed—I sometimes have to force myself out of it to face the new day—and one for our daughter, Anu.
In front of the dais is a long couch that faces an entertainment center. When you’re sitting on the couch, a bank of windows makes up the wall to my left. Floor-to-ceiling bookcases—which I built myself—make up the right side of the room. They’re chock-full, overloaded with books and music. My CD collection numbers over five hundred now, and my vinyl records number near a thousand. My man’s chair sits to the side and in front of the couch, near a large window, angled toward the forty-two-inch flat-screen television and stereo in our entertainment center. In summer, this is poor placement for the chair. The window faces east and gets the full blast of morning sun until the building across from me blots it out. The sun penetrates the drawn, thick red curtains, makes them glare like the front window of an Amsterdam whorehouse, and the light beating through them makes me swelter.
Most people love summer. It’s so short that it’s like a flower that blooms and quickly dies. People make such a huge deal out of it. We must have as much fun as possible while we can. Celebrate. Celebrate. Celebrate! Socially, it’s pressuring. If people don’t want to go to a summer cottage, pick berries and barbecue—or, if they stay in the city, don’t sit on the patios and drink fourteen hours a day—they’re considered deranged. And the whole country shuts down in June and July while people vacation. No work gets done. Fuck summer. If I were a
flower, I’d be a lily. They only open at night.
When we moved here from Kittilä, my hometown in the Arctic Circle, we got rid of all our old furnishings as a way of symbolizing a fresh start. It had all been collected by me over the years. Almost everything here is sparkling and new, chosen by Kate and me together, to make it ours instead of mine.
My tour of our home was some sort of self- punishment, an emotional self-flagellation. A re-enforcement of the knowledge that this is a home meant for a family, not for a man living alone, estranged from his wife.
I sat down in my oversized crushed blue velvet armchair. I more or less lived in it. I clenched my teeth to keep from grunting out loud from the coming blast of pain, and pulled my bad leg up onto the matching footrest in front of it. Being shot in the same knee for a second time did it no good at all. I already had a bad limp from when I was shot the first time, almost twenty years ago. The same went for my face. A second gunshot wound in the same jaw—the first a couple winters ago—created the current need to drink the kossu with meds. This latest wound tapped a bundle of nerves in my face, and because of the pain, I couldn’t manage to chew without it— even speaking was difficult—and tolerating soup for every meal was insufferable.
This was my second week of self-imposed isolation, except for dragging myself out to buy basic provisions. I had tried the company of others. I went to my brother’s mid summer party, but felt lonelier there among the revelers than I would have here at home by myself.
I had thrown away my crutches because they rendered me unable to carry anything. And also because of vanity. I despise the appearance of weakness. Everything I needed was close by. I had a granny shopping cart with two wheels. I gimped around with my cane in my left hand and pulled the cart with my right.
I checked to make sure my silenced .45 Colt was within easy reach, tucked under my seat cushion, the handle jutting out. After having been shot a total of four times, I vowed to never go unarmed again and to teach myself to be a crack shot, even though I have no interest in guns or marksmanship. However, only a reckless dumbass cop is stupid enough to have eaten this many bullets. I had no faith that I would become any wiser, so I needed to protect myself.
I hadn’t spoken to another soul for days, other than to say thank you to the store checkout clerks and delivery people. My wife, Kate, hadn’t answered my calls or text messages for a week, despite my right to see our daughter. My two protégés in our three-man crime unit— a euphemistic wordplay in our case, because as policemen, we’ve used Machiavellian rationalizations about the end justifying the means— inundated me with calls and text messages after we closed our last case.
Soon after, Kate left me and took Anu with her. I wasn’t angry, just frightened. Detective Sergeant Milo Nieminen and Sweetness, real name Sulo Polvinen, officially a translator but in truth my assistant and strong-arm man in the National Bureau of Investigation, were concerned about me being alone in my current state: shot to pieces, less than functional and, they left unsaid, distraught about my family situation.
I ignored them for a time, and finally sent texts telling them I was fine, asked them to please fuck off, and saying that I would contact them when I was ready. Milo respected that. He had problems of his own. A bullet shattered the carpal tunnel and severed the radial nerve in his right wrist, causing paralysis of his hand. He has very limited motion in it now, including his all- important trigger finger.
He would have called it his gun hand, as he considered himself a self- described pistoleer before the bullet put an end to that delusion. I think he envisioned himself a Wild West anti- hero, a Finnish Wyatt Earp. Plus, Adrien Moreau, who Kate blew in half with a sawed-off shotgun, lopped off his ear and it was sewn back on. It doesn’t hang quite right and he already had self- image problems, so I imagine looking in the mirror is difficult for him, let alone the automatic double-take people make when they see a disfigurement, no matter how small. I know all about that.
Sweetness came out unscathed. He’s a natural killer, and had just dumped two clips of . 45 caliber hollow-point rounds in our perp, at near-point-blank range, while neither Milo nor myself managed to even hurt anyone, let alone defend ourselves when we received our injuries.
Sweetness is rich from money we’ve stolen— as are Milo and myself— and has absolutely no conscience but a heart as big as his six-foot-three, two-hundred-sixty-five-pound frame. Sweetness ignored my text and showed up at my door with three cases of beer and a carton of Koskenkorva bottles, a dopey grin on his baby face. I hired him because he took some hard knocks and I felt sorry for him, but also because of his innocence and honesty, his capacity for violence, and because I was drunk at the time. I’ve never regretted the decision.
Sweetness places great faith in the saying “If the alcohol, tar and sauna won’t cure you, you’re already dead.” Neither of us knows what the tar is for, or what you’re supposed to do with it to use it as a curative. We sat together for a while, had a couple shots and beers, talked about nothing. I promised him that if he gave me some space, I would call him if I needed something, and if I needed nothing, I would call him when I was ready for company. He agreed.
When I shut the door behind him, I realized how much I envied him his contentment, his happiness, his simplicity. Many people mistake his simplicity for stupidity because of his size and childlike face, and treat him as a Lennie Small, from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. He is, in fact, astute and observant, and speaks five languages fluently. Despite our agreement and my refusal to respond, he texted three times daily, “just to make sure.” I was uncertain what he wanted to be sure of.
Sweetness looked up to me as a father figure. When I met him, he seemed lost. His brother had been killed by two bouncers. An accidental death, although better judgment on their parts would have prevented it. Sweetness’s father put him up to murdering the bouncers, and he tried to stab them to death with a box cutter. He managed only to disfigure them, and his father, a worthless piece of human garbage, finished the job as they lay in their hospital beds. He’s now serving a long prison jolt for the double homicide.
Sweetness’s true nature is a combatant, his calling a killer. He’s my friend, I don’t judge him for it. I did, however, insist as a precondition to hiring him that he get a higher, university or polytechniclevel education, because life in an illegal covert operation couldn’t go on forever.
I wanted only one thing for myself, to get my wife and child back and restore balance to our home. Kate was staying at Hotel Kämp, where she’s general manager, although currently on maternity leave. My last case went bad and had a devastating effect on her. She witnessed the horror and, having no choice, even took part in it, and the result was the severe psychological damage that she now suffers. And it was my fault, because of a glaring error in judgment.
She was emotionally disturbed and had no business being on her own. I feared she would do herself harm. I was afraid she would take Anu and flee home to the States, maybe to Aspen, where she grew up. I spent much of my days concocting schemes to tempt her to come home. None of them were feasible.
My glass was almost empty. I contemplated whether to have more kossu or eat. I opened and closed my mouth. The pain was still riveting. More kossu.
A crash and sudden pain scared the living shit out of me. Broken glass showered the room. A half brick shattered the big window, flew across the room, struck the bookcase, and came to rest on the floor. Because my chair sits near the window, only good luck prevented me from being skewered by a large shard, but smaller fragments cut me in over a dozen places. My cat likes to sit on top of the chair, near my head. If he’d been there, he might have been killed.
I forced myself to stand up, to keep from getting blood on the chair, hobbled with my cane over to the foyer and put some sneakers on. I worried about Katt cutting his paws and locked him in the bedroom. I looked around, at a loss. Broken glass requires meticulous cleaning, which entails bending and squatting to the floor, and those movements were near impossible in my condition. No way I could get it all up.
I picked up the brick. “There are ten million ways you could die” was written on it with a black felt-tip marker. A reference to the ten million euros Milo, Sweetness and I had liberated from a faked blackmail scheme involving everyone from a psychotic billionaire to people in the highest levels of government.
I did the best I could, got a waste can from the kitchen, pushed the big shards into a pile with my good foot and put them in it. Because of my knee’s limited range of motion, I had to lie on one side, propped up on an elbow, and pick them up with one hand.
Then I took out the vacuum cleaner and made some awkward attempts at pushing it around. I used the attachment designed for such things and vacuumed my chair with thoroughness. After bungling long enough, although I still saw the glint of tiny fragments, almost all the glass was cleaned up, and I felt I’d done the best I could for the evening. I redid the floors with parquet when we bought the apartment. The glass left deep scars in it. That irritated me more than anything.
My cuts were all superficial and stopped bleeding on their own. Still, I covered the chair with an old blanket in case they opened up again. Exhausted, I got a beer and poured another kossu. I sat down and thought it through, narrowed down the suspects of who might be harassing me. There were too many to even make an educated guess.
Cleaning up the mess caused me to mistime the drug-alcohol combination. I fell asleep in my chair with the pizza uneaten.
Copyright © 2013 James Thompson.
Learn more about or pre-order a copy of James Thompson's Helsinki Blood before its March 21 release:
James Thompson, eastern Kentucky born and raised, has lived in Finland for more than a dozen years. His first novel, Snow Angels, was nominated for the Edgar, the Anthony, and The Strand Magazine Critics Award.