The Fifth Element by Jørgen Brekke is the latest book in the Odd Singsaker series (available February 28, 2017).
Police Inspector Odd Singsaker has been captured, imprisoned on an island off the Northern coast of Norway. He wakes to find himself holding a shotgun. Next to him is a corpse. But what events led him to this point? And how did he get here?
A few weeks earlier, Felicia, his wife, disappeared. Though he didn’t know it, she was trying to find her way back to Odd to reconcile, but then she vanished into a snowstorm. Possibly involved is a corrupt, coldblooded cop from Oslo, a devious college student who’s stolen a great deal of cocaine from drug dealers, and a hit man hired by the drug dealers who have been robbed. All of these lives intersect with Odd’s as he searches for Felicia.
Two weeks after it happened …
Odd Singsaker opened his eyes. He’d shut them to try to visualize the scene. Time seemed to have stopped ever since he’d stood in that house with the shotgun at his feet. Now he was sitting in an interrogation room along with Kurt Melhus, an investigator from Internal Affairs.
“Can you describe how you felt when you stood there?” said Melhus.
“I don’t know what I felt,” replied Singsaker.
“Was it hate?”
“I don’t know what hate is, to tell you the truth. That’s too abstract for me.”
“Haven’t you ever hated anyone?”
“I’m not sure.”
“What about love, then? In this very room, you told me about your love for Felicia Stone.”
“Yes,” said Singsaker, suddenly claustrophobic in the cramped interrogation room.
“Hate is the opposite of love, isn’t it?” Melhus seemed genuinely interested in this topic.
“Nothing is the opposite of love. When you love someone, there’s no opposite to it. Well, sorrow, maybe,” said Singsaker, looking down at the table between them.
“Is that what you really think? Well, they do say that love does not know its adversary,” said Melhus.
“I don’t know if hate exists. But never mind. I was angry, furious, I think.”
“So you picked up the shotgun?”
“Yes, I picked it up and took aim,” said Singsaker.
“And then what happened?”
“Then I said: You know I’m never going to kill you. Not as long as you haven’t told me where Felicia is and what you’ve done with her.”
The day before it happened …
Look carefully at the boy. Is he eleven? Thirteen? A confusing age.
When he’s asleep, his face looks like a little child’s. His head rests on the desk in the back room of the shop, with a trickle of saliva running down his chin. On the screen in front of him the game he fell asleep playing is still flickering. He must have gotten bored with it. Maybe he hoped he would dream about something more exciting. You have no idea what’s going on inside his head. Now and then he twitches, like a dreaming dog. Under his head of wispy dark hair there’s a book. A rare Spanish edition of Don Quixote and Other Works by Pierre Menard. The saliva has made a spot on the dust jacket; it looks like a thought, a question that’s sinking in through the cover. What will his father say?
* * *
In the kitchen the man looked to see whether there were any glasses left, but the cupboard was bare. Nothing but dust and grease spots. The faucet coughed hoarsely when he turned it on. After a moment the water ran free of rust. He bent down and took a drink. When he had quenched his thirst, he spat in the sink and watched the phlegm wash down the drain. Then he opened the cupboard again. He’d noticed something inside.
A children’s book lay on the bottom shelf, Charlie the Choo-Choo. Something the previous tenants had left behind. He took it out and brushed off the dust, the rubber gloves he wore making a rustling sound. He leafed through the book, and found an old faded photo that had been used as a bookmark. It was a picture of a girl with braids. She was standing in the living room of the apartment, smiling confidently. The girl was slightly blurry. The photographer had focused instead on the easy chair behind her, where a wineglass lay tipped over on the seat. It was a bad photograph, the kind that would be deleted from the camera nowadays. But in the old days that sort of image occasionally got caught on film. He folded the photo of the girl and put her in his pocket.
In the living room he stepped over the pump-action shotgun and went over to the telescope on the windowsill, a Zeiss Victory DiaScope 85 T FL—2011, the latest model. He reached up to brush back his hair. It was still thick and dark, with a light sprinkling of gray. Then he took one last look at the shop on the corner down below before he stowed the sawed-off shotgun, the scope, and the collapsible tripod in the duffel bag and left the apartment as empty as when he’d arrived.
The snow was blowing horizontally. The storm that had raged earlier in the week had started again this morning, but wasn’t supposed to last long. After he crossed the street he stopped outside the door of the shop and shook off the snow that had settled on his shoulders and the hood of his all-weather jacket. He wasn’t that happy with the jacket. On a hike in the mountains last fall he’d ended up soaked through.
There was a stained cardboard sign hanging in the window inside the door. CLOSED it said, in handwritten letters that sloped down to the right.
He went inside.
The owner, Isaac Casaubon, looked up at him sleepily.
He set his duffel bag down on the floor.
“Didn’t you see the sign?”
“Yeah, I saw it.”
“I’m not sure you get it. We’re not open for business today.”
“I know. But I’m not a customer.” He turned, shook off his hood, and locked the door. “Now no one else will bother us,” he said, picking up the duffel bag and striding to the cash register.
“Who are you?” The shop owner didn’t look sleepy anymore.
The man was sitting on a high stool behind the counter. Then he leaned forward, and their breaths mingled invisibly in the air between them.
“Come here, over to the window,” he said, placing his hand on Casaubon’s shoulder.
The shop owner got up, moving as though he were lifting weights. “What do you want?”
“Just come over here.”
Reluctantly, he obeyed.
“Awful weather,” the man said. “You can hardly see the building across the street.”
“What the hell do you want from me?” Casaubon’s eyes shifted nervously.
“Do you know who lives in the corner apartment on the fourth floor?”
“How would I know? Why are you asking me this? I want you to leave.” Casaubon straightened up, succeeding in making his small body look bigger, but he still looked scared.
“No one is living in that apartment on the fourth floor. It’s empty at the moment.”
“And what does that have to do with me?”
“The police have rented the place.”
Now Casaubon looked him in the eye for the first time.
“What are you talking about?”
“We were supposed to start the stakeout last week. But we’ve been dragging our feet, and the apartment is still empty, unused.”
“Are you a cop?”
He didn’t answer.
“This isn’t how the police work. Where’s your ID badge?”
“I’m not on duty.” He picked up the duffel bag and unzipped it.
Casaubon took two steps back toward the cash register.
“I’m actually on vacation. I’ve been spending it with a telescope up in that empty apartment. You’ve had two visitors today, even though it’s Sunday and the shop is closed. Both of them brought some items in with them.”
He rummaged around in the duffel bag for a moment. Then he took out the shotgun. It was an old Browning he’d inherited from his father, a classic, worth a lot to collectors before he’d sawed off the barrel the night before. The gun was unregistered. He’d never used it himself. He straightened up.
Casaubon took two more steps toward the cash register.
“Stay where you are,” he said, holding the shotgun loosely in one hand without aiming it at anything in particular.
Casaubon stood still.
He walked past the shop owner and went behind the counter. A pistol lay on the shelf right below the cash register. He removed the magazine, checking that it was full, and shoved it back in. He stuck the pistol in his belt.
“Please go back behind the counter and sit down,” he said calmly, looking at the shop owner. He returned to the middle of the room and took up position with his legs spaced wide apart. He whistled something that was almost a melody as Casaubon sat down. He set the butt of the shotgun on the linoleum floor.
“Do you think I’m going to shoot you?”
Casaubon was silent.
“Are you afraid to die?” He raised the shotgun and aimed it at the shop owner. “Fear makes you stupid, my father always said.”
Casaubon’s hands were shaking like an old man’s.
“He was a smart guy, but I’m going to give you a chance to prove him wrong.” From his duffel bag he took out a toiletry kit and flung it onto the counter.
Casaubon managed to pull the zipper open only partway before he gasped. He reached in and took out an unused syringe, a small plastic bottle of liquid, and a teaspoon.
“What am I supposed to do with these?”
“Don’t give me that.”
“But these are for a junkie.”
“Right. And the raw material is your livelihood.”
“I run a shop.” Casaubon stared at him, his eyes wild. Looking for something that might give him hope.
The man went over to the shop owner, swinging the barrel of the sawed-off shotgun lightly through the air, as if it were weightless, like a baton. He placed the muzzle almost hesitantly against the shop owner’s sweaty brow.
“The cranium isn’t very thick,” he said.
Casaubon’s lips moved, but no words came out.
“Some of the thinnest bones in the body protect its most important organs. What do you think? Is the brain the most important organ in the body? Or are you a heart man?” He pointed the shotgun at Casaubon’s chest before moving it back to his forehead. “If I pull the trigger, your head will be filled with buckshot,” he explained. “The alternative is to use this paraphernalia here. Do you know how to shoot up?”
Casaubon shook his head.
“Right. You’re just a middleman. You barely even know how your product is used or what it does to people. Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”
Casaubon nodded like a little boy.
“What do you know about the dosage?”
“You heard me. How large do you think a user’s dose should be?”
Casaubon didn’t answer. Snot was running from his nose down into his beard.
“Let’s see the goods!” he said.
Casaubon stared at him for a long time before he began to rummage through his pockets. He fished out a key ring and unlocked the steel cabinet under the counter. He bent down and then came up with a package wrapped in see-through plastic, which he placed on the counter.
“Step away, please.” He took out his pocketknife and punctured the package. He moistened his little finger with spit and stuck it in the hole. Dabbed it on his tongue. Heroin. Pretty good quality, he thought. He spat it out on the floor. Then he took the spoon and filled it. “What do you say? Is this an overdose?”
Casaubon didn’t utter a word.
“If you had to choose between shooting up this dose or me pulling the trigger, which would it be? If you ask me, I think you’d survive with the heroin.” He began to whistle again, those disjointed notes that didn’t quite come together in a melody. “I’ll give you ten minutes to decide.” He looked at the heart rate monitor on his left wrist, which also showed the time. “No, forget it, let’s make it five.”
Casaubon studied the spoon closely before he picked it up and held it in his trembling hands.
“Careful not to spill it. Do you know how to do it?”
Casaubon nodded and took the bottle and a lighter from the rack next to the register. It took him almost two minutes to prepare the shot. His coordination was clumsy.
The man leaned down and took a length of rubber tubing out of the bag, which he handed to Casaubon.
Casaubon took it, and as he began to roll up the sleeve on his left arm, he gazed out over the store, as if searching for salvation among the shelves of canned goods.
It was over in a matter of minutes. First the silent injection. Then the tourniquet was loosened. His muscles relaxed. The trembling slowed, and his body left time behind. The world went on without it. A few final spasms with his head resting on the counter, drool running from his mouth, his gaze turned inward, until at last the pupils of his eyes were swallowed by the darkness that came from within.
He put the muzzle of the shotgun to Casaubon’s head one last time. This time he pulled the trigger. There was no sound apart from an apologetic click from the unloaded gun.
Then he stood there thinking. He had no idea what it meant that Casaubon had died from such a low dose, but it wasn’t good. Mistakes had a tendency to multiply. Once a plan had gone wrong, it was hard to get back on track. But he couldn’t let this unnerve him. All he could do was go on.
So he walked around the counter to the steel cabinet. He’d kept an eye on the shop all week, and he knew what went on in here, who delivered the goods, and who showed up to pay. What made it a little confusing was that Casaubon was the middleman for more than one customer. Which meant that every so often there might be both money and dope in the shop at the same time, because a customer had picked up his goods and paid, while another package was waiting to be delivered. That was the case today. He took a fanny pack out of the cabinet and placed it on the counter. Unzipped it and saw that it was stuffed with thousand-krone bills. How many? Maybe five hundred. So he strapped it around his waist over the pistol, put the shotgun back in the bag, cleared off the counter, and left the shop. Outside he paused in the blowing snow to think.
The rubber tubing. He’d forgotten it inside. Had it fallen on the floor when Casaubon loosened it? Back inside the shop, he saw that the tubing had rolled under the counter. He picked it up and put it in the duffel bag with everything else.
When he straightened up, he caught sight of the boy. He was standing between the shelves, staring at him. His cap was way too big. Why was he wearing a cap indoors? And what was that old book in his hand? The boy stood there motionless except for the blinking of his eyes, as if his eyelids were counting out a beat that moved slower than the earth’s rotation. The boy stared at the dead man. Behind him the door to the back room stood open. On a desk was a PC with Angry Birds on the screen. Had the boy been there the whole time, waiting for him to leave? Why hadn’t he seen the boy enter the shop along with his father? The kid must have arrived when he went to the toilet to take a leak. That was the reason cops never did stakeouts alone.
He stood there looking into those brown eyes. Looking at the boy. So often it’s impossible to tell what a child is thinking.
* * *
Back in his car, he once again pulled on the rubber gloves and glanced at the heart rate monitor. It displayed his pulse in both percentages and whole numbers, along with the maximum rate and the average. It also had foot pods, a watch, and a fitness test. It was PC compatible, with a timer, a lap recorder, and a target zone indicator with an alarm. Even though it was almost three years old, it still worked fine. He was pleased with it.
His pulse was thirty-nine.
Before he left the shop he had decided to take some of the dope. He had filled a small, watertight cylinder with several doses of heroin. The cylinder was meant to store small things when he went swimming or diving. He’d bought it in Thailand. He normally wore it on a cord around his neck when he was on various assignments, and he’d often found a use for it. Now he removed the cylinder from the cord and stuck it in his duffel bag.
Then he drove off to work.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 Jørgen Brekke.
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Jørgen 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.