December 31st 1966. New year’s eve fell on a Sunday. God’s day, which gave a cruel resonance to the sequence of events that would follow. These were secular days indeed.
Vilho Mäkinen turned up the collar on his gabardine overcoat and walked silently into the Helsinki night. It had been a particularly mild winter so far, but the sea winds had a wolverine’s bite. The sky was black, punctured only by pinhole pricks of starlight. Darkness was a constant in this part of the world, a part of the psyche of the nation. In December daylight was often five hours of dull grey, a glaucous ephemera dividing the belligerent black. Mäkinen didn’t mind. Mäkinen did his best work at night.
A short walk southeast on Mäkelänkatu took him to the tram stop, followed by an expectedly long wait. Mäkinen abhorred lateness, which was often the difference between life and death in his line of work. He nervously fingered the scrap of paper in his pocket as five minutes became ten, beads of sweat forming on his brow when the tram finally lumbered into view. Taking a seat, he silently cursed the public spending cuts that had allowed the historic tram network to fall into such disrepair. There had even been talk of scrapping the trams altogether, although this had been met with significant public outcry.
The trolley car lumbered slowly onwards, picking out a sinuous path towards the central railway station. The route passed through the run-down suburb of Kallio, which served as both the artistic epicentre of the city as well as home to countless types of depravity. Artists and musicians intermingled with drunks and whores, creating an atmosphere unlike any other part of Helsinki. Mäkinen had briefly rented a top floor flat on Vaasankatu as a younger man, sharing living quarters with an up and coming beat combo called the Blues Section. He’d always felt at home with the creative crowd, but had left that scene long behind him since he received the call. For the past two years he had been a ‘runner’, carrying out illegal errands for faceless employers under the cover of the long, lonely nights. Tonight’s errand was a big one. Tonight Mäkinen would kill.
The steep hills of Kallio gave way to the open environs of Töölönlahti, the great bay that carried the Baltic Sea into the heart of the city. Bright lights shimmered on the surface of the black water as Mäkinen contemplated the task ahead one final time. Vasiliev, the slimy Russian diplomat with the one-armed wife, had inextricably entangled himself in the Baltic underworld, and tonight was the night that his treacherous dealings would reach their denouement. Mäkinen recalled that, according to popular rumour, Vasiliev’s wife had lost her arm in a vicious brawl with one of his spurned lovers, although the truth was far less glamorous, being as it involved a mishap when slicing ham.
The glacial trundle of the tram finally drew to a close outside the central station, its impressive granite edifice illuminated by the yellow glow of street-lamps. The kivimiehet stood sentinel either side of the entrance, a role they had performed for almost 40 years. They reminded Mäkinen of himself, steadfast and stone-hearted. He checked his watch. 23.34 hrs. He was on time.
His destination was Senaatintori, the senate square overlooked by Engel’s sublime cathedral. 1967 would be the 50th anniversary of independence from Russia, and at midnight president Kekkonen was to deliver a speech to a massed throng of assorted diplomats and dignitaries. Among that crowd would be Vasiliev, no doubt still brokering nefarious deals whilst Finland’s greatest president delivered chapter and verse on Fenno-Soviet relations. The cathedral itself was built in honour of Tsar Nicolas I, and Mäkinen took dark delight in the delicious irony of his task.
His walk from the central square took no more than ten minutes, directly east on Aleksanterinkatu. He walked slowly, cobbles slick with rain, brain whirring in anticipation, fraught with anxiety and doubt. He had never failed before, but this could be the one. Approaching the junction with Unioninkatu he slowed, the wide senate plaza opening up in front of him. The crowds were beginning to mass in front of the cathedral steps. Mäkinen would have to be careful. The doorway to a small cafe along the southern edge of the square provided shelter from the rain, which was in the process of turning to sleet. It also provided a concealed location from which he could identify his target. He checked his watch again. 23.52 hrs.
Vasiliev was a tall man with a distinctive coiffure, a failed combover described by some wags in the media as looking like pubic hair glued to a boiled egg. His wife was a loud, boisterous woman, almost completely spherical (with the exception of the aforementioned arm which gave her a slightly off-kilter gait). It didn’t take Mäkinen long to locate them, their location in the midst of the crowd revealed by a startling guffaw from Lady V, reminiscent of a piglet in a cement mixer. The loudness of her laugh was matched by that of her dress, a lurid pink that did little to dispel the porcine mood that her outburst had created. She wouldn’t be laughing for long. 23.58.
At 23.59 hrs a brass band struck up a solemn tune, slow parps from the tuba creating vibrations in Mäkinen’s chest. The chiming of the cathedral bells struck midnight, cheers from the crowd fading to awestruck silence as president Urho Kekkonen appeared at a lectern on the granite steps. Kekkonen was a hugely influential figure in Finnish politics, and his presence instilled a hushed reverence in the enraptured mob, Mäkinen included. As Kekkonen launched into an impassioned speech, heavy with metaphors surrounded the Finnish swan and Russian bear, Mäkinen stepped into the crowd. It was time.
His weapon of choice for such tasks was his faithful puukko, a short hunting knife given to all Finnish boys as a right of passage. For most boys it was used for gutting fish and carving rude words into trees, but in the hands on Mäkinen it had a subtle brutality. He had spend an hour that afternoon working at his whetstone, giving the knife a keen, wicked edge. As he slipped through the crowd the knife was already in his hand, concealed in his sleeve. He soon found himself directly behind Vasiliev and his party. He slowed his breathing, and a dangerous sense of calm filled him. He waited for the right moment to strike.
President Kekkonen was mid-speech and made a particularly witty remark about the great Russian bear shitting in the woods. Amid the uproarious whooping and applause, Mäkinen seized the opportunity. Leaning forward he plunged the puukko into the side of Vasiliev’s neck, giving the short knife a sickening twist in the same action. As the Russian pitched forward and fell to the floor, blood spurting impressively from the killing blow, Mäkinen was already 50 yards from the epicentre of the writhing chaos, his overcoat ditched amongst the churning mass of human flesh. He was already running south along Helenenkatu when the droning voice of Kekkonen stopped, and was well past the Kauppatori fish market before the first faint sound of sirens reached his ears. The deed was done, but this was the most dangerous time for Mäkinen. This was the point that he lost complete control, and had to rely on others.
Sprinting south with the open sea to his left, Mäkinen arrived at the agreed meeting point the the entrance to Kaivopuisto Park. The note had only specified the location, he had no idea who he was meeting and how the escape was to unfold. He looked around frantically, until a faded black Volvo P130 screeched to a halt next to him. A female voice demanded that he get in the fucking car immediately. Mäkinen cursed under his breath – he’d always been a Saab guy.
She was beautiful, in a stern Scandinavian way. Blonde hair framed porcelain skin, and he was sure her eyes would have been sky blue, however it was dark so he soon gave up trying to tell. He wiped the blood from his puukko and returned it to its leather pouch as she drove them west towards the harbour isthmus of Munkkisaari. Moonlight illuminated the harbour cranes of Nosturi, used for loading and unloading merchant vessels, as they slipped into an underground car park at the corner of Bulevardi. The car park door was closed behind them, and Mäkinen was ushered out of the vehicle by the driver. Had this been one of those spy films that everyone was so fond of, he was sure she would have whisked him away for a night of passion, however this had never happened before and her expression told him that it would not be happening tonight. He knew the routine by now, he would be handed a brown envelope of full of used Finnish markka, before taking a seat in a brightly lit room. Eventually a man in a pristine lab coat would enter the room and then…
Mäkinen was awoken by the sound of a newspaper being pushed through the door. As always, he found himself in his own home, fully dressed and fuzzy headed, no memory of the previous evening’s exploits. He knew he’d been working, and felt for the familiar sting of the needle mark on his neck, then the equally familiar bulge of the brown envelope in his pocket. This was always the way, he was used to the process by now and understood the need for secrecy. After all, a known runner was a dead runner. He prepared a cup of thick, black coffee and sat at the kitchen table, casting an eye over the dramatic headlines that told of murder and the souring of relations with Russia. Fucking politicians, he thought, and went back to bed.
Hyvää uutta vuotta.