The Writing on the Wall

Gunnar Staalesen

The Writing on the Wall

Book 11 in the Varg Veum series, 2002

Translated from the Norwegian by Hal Sutcliffe

My Danish publisher and friend, Erik Vagn Jensen,

died before this book was completed.

It is respectfully dedicated to his memory.

And if I had called,

and he had answered me;

yet would I not believe that he had

hearkened unto my voice.

Job 9:6

One

WHEN ONE FRIDAY AFTERNOON in February Judge HC Brandt, age seventy, was found dead in one of the better hotels in town, wearing nothing but flimsy women’s underwear, rumours soon began to spread.

Each fresh revelation brought bursts of raucous laughter from the press tables at Wesselsttien Pub, and there was no shortage of details embroidered beyond all measure. I too received my fair share of speculations from my old school friend, Paul Finckel, also a reporter, over a quiet beer and a sandwich at the Exchange a few days later.

The fact that the judge had been found in women’s underwear was bad enough in itself. There was no shortage of suggestions as to what colour the flimsy garments might have been. Pink and red were the firm favourites, although quite a few people stubbornly backed lime green. Yet in the end, the general consensus was that they were most likely black.

Who might have been with him in the hotel room was also the subject of intense speculation. Not a soul believed he’d been there alone.

One faction was convinced it must have been a man, since it was the judge himself who had been wearing women’s clothes. But as nobody had ever heard the judge’s name linked to the gay community, and as he was also married and a grandfather, if he did turn out to be gay, his cover as a closet queen was blown wide apart and no mistake. And who could say for certain that his putative partner didn’t belong to the same group? If he did, the press tables weren’t short of hunches as to who it might be but lacked any concrete proof.

Some were adamant that the judge had been having an affair for years with one of his female colleagues, and a whisper of hushed scandal ran through those present when the name was mentioned.

At tables with only male reporters a few women’s names from their own inner circles were mentioned, among them a prominent journalist from one of the Oslo dailies and another, not quite so well known, from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation’s Today programme.

Others merely shrugged their shoulders, suggesting that the judge had simply been there with a prostitute, male or female, who cared? Another half pint, please.

No one speculated any further as to the actual cause of death.

Most of them probably assumed it was heart-related.

Two

SHE WAS SITTING in the waiting room when I got back from the funeral.

It was one of those days in February of which there are far too many, even though it’s the shortest month. February is a parenthesis in the year. The tax return has been handed in, the tourist season hasn’t yet started, and there’s nothing going on. Damp frost lay oppressively over snow-clad Bergen, pressing down so heavily that you could only just walk upright under the force of the depression. Greyish-brown slush lay in the gutters, and the mountains surrounding the city were barely visible through a bank of fog so stubborn that it did not disperse even after gale warnings were forecast. Like the brass buttons on the waistcoat of an abandoned snowman, you could just make out the lights of the funicular railway running up the mountainside, and the street-lamps were lit even at midday.

The funeral hadn’t exactly been a floorshow either. No one had danced on the coffin of Lasse Wiik, even though, at some of the darkest hours in my life, I could have imagined myself doing just that. But rather too many years had passed since Beate and I had parted company for the death of her new husband to make any deep impression on me now. And he wasn’t all that new anyway. They’d been married since 1975, and she’d stuck it out a good deal longer with him than she had with me.

I stood right at the back of the queue of people offering their condolences after the burial. When I had given her a formal embrace and mumbled an apology, we stood there for a moment avoiding each other’s eyes. – At least it was quick, I said. – He’d been on sick leave for almost a year, she countered.

Her face was the same, yet perhaps a little more pointed around the chin than before, almost like a caricature. – What were you thinking of doing now? I asked. Her eyes glanced past me down towards the lake, Store Lungegårdsvann, and the jagged silhouette of the tower blocks at Nedre Nygård. The large motorway intersection, completed in 1989, looked like some kind of vast instrument inadvertently left behind by a giant dentist. – I’m not really sure, actually… maybe just go back home. – Home? You mean… to Stavanger? – Yes…

I sidled up to Thomas and Mari, standing on the edge of a group of people I didn’t know. – When are you two going back? I asked. – We’re catching the night train this evening. There’s a seminar I have to be at tomorrow, said Thomas. – Will the two of you have time to pop in for a minute before you leave? – His eyes flitted to his girlfriend. – That might be nice, actually. What are you going to do now? – I think there’s going to be a little get-together for the immediate family…

February is a miserable month, the light as feeble as the will to do anything. Lasse Wiik had certainly chosen the right port to put to sea from. Winter still lay like a film over the fjord. Spring was only a distant hint of a life he, as a heart patient, couldn’t fully participate in anyway. For a moment I almost envied him.

Then I’d formally taken leave of the mourners in their black clothes and strolled down to Møllendalsveien, where the car stood waiting for me, cold and chilly in keeping with the month. I drove into town, parked just around the corner from where I lived and walked down to the office. If I needed the car, it wouldn’t take me more than ten minutes to walk back up again, and given the way the traffic patterns had developed in town over the last few years, it was in any case the best place to start from if you were driving anywhere.

I bought a couple of newspapers and almost dropped them in shock at finding someone sitting in my waiting room. Most people contacted me by phone, and those who came when I was out of the office rarely chanced waiting. The only conclusion was that it was something urgent.

As I came in, she quickly put aside the glossy magazine from 1974 and stood up. Seeing the magazine made me think I should perhaps consider paying a visit to the nearest antique bookseller and taking the whole lot with me. It might at least pay for some magazines from the nineties instead.

‘Hello. The name’s Veum,’ I said, introducing myself. ‘Were you waiting for me?’

‘Well, I was hoping so. I mean, that you’d turn up.’ She looked at me enquiringly but with a certain remoteness in her eyes. ‘I’m Mrs Skagestøl.’

We shook hands, I opened the door to my office and ushered her inside. Her perfume smelled of lemons. She’d opted for a scent with an autumnal touch: a landscape you looked at from a distance in clear weather but never went walking in.

On entering my office she glanced quickly around. I motioned her towards the visitor’s chair, asking whether I should put the kettle on for a cup of coffee.

‘No thanks, that’s – not necessary.’

I walked around the desk, sat down, opened the top drawer and took out a notebook and something to write with. For a few seconds we sat there looking at each other like two political opponents in a face-to-face encounter on TV thirty seconds before going on air.

She was in her early forties, fair-haired and wearing a waist-length brown and beige sports jacket, newly washed faded jeans and black ankle boots. She had a russet-coloured bag over her shoulder. Her face was distinctive, with arched light eyebrows, high cheekbones and a mouth that had lost the easy smile it once had, judging by the lines around her eyes. She was wearing discreet make-up and a simple gold chain around her thin neck.

She plaited her fingers and stretched out her arms, palms towards me: a fairly clear sign that she had no real desire to begin.

I pushed the notepad aside as though to give her a bit more confidence. ‘I didn’t catch… your first name…’

‘Sidsel. With a “d”.’

‘And what can I do for you?’

Again her eyes had that hint of remoteness as she looked at me. ‘I… I never thought I’d find myself in a situation where I’d need to resort to the services of, er – somebody like yourself.’

‘Let’s call a spade a spade – you mean a private investigator.’ I placed my hand on the left side of my chest and leaned back with a little smile. ‘But in my heart of hearts I’m a sociologist.’

‘Really? Is that your background?’

I nodded.

‘I haven’t told my husband that I… In any case… we’re separated.’

‘I see.’

‘I do ...

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