Helsinki Noir

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.

Sampo

The lake was her refuge, the place that she came when she wanted to be alone. Recently she had wanted to be alone often.

Her family, like many other Finnish families, owned a summer cabin that was used as a weekend retreat on hot summer weekends, a welcome break from their busy lives in the small city of Kuopio. The cabin was nestled amid pine and birch on the southeastern bank of Hirvijärvi, a modest lake about an hour’s drive to the west of the city. Hirvijärvi meant ‘moose lake’, referring to the huge, subarctic deer that made their home in the area. Rather aptly she had once seen a moose swimming across the lake, impressive head and mighty antlers held proudly above the surface as strong legs worked frantically, unseen.

Although the summer exodus from the cities was tradition, their cabin had seen little use in the past three years. Her parents had always had a turbulent relationship, a product of two hard upbringings creating two equally combustible characters, but they had always loved each other fiercely. Things seemed different in the past few years, however, with the eruptions of anger becoming more frequent and protracted. She suspected that something must have happened to cause this change, but she was too scared to ask. Asking led to talking, and talking made unspoken things real. She preferred not to know, so she increasingly chose solitude.

As an only child solitude was no stranger. She found it comforting, and lately she had chosen to spend her solitary time at the family cabin away from the verbal sparring at home. This spring was the first time she had ever ventured to the cabin alone. At seventeen she was still a year away from being old enough to drive, however the key to her freedom had arrived in the form of an inherited moped from a recently departed great uncle. The moped, named Tunturi after a Lappish mountain, was far from perfect, having grown tired and sluggish from many years of use. It’s two-stroke engine buzzed and gargled, spitting out thick puffs of rich, acrid smoke, but it hadn’t let her down yet. It didn’t need to be fast or quiet, the moped was her freedom from the disquiet of home life and she adored it.

She had ridden to the lake early that morning, arriving when the mist still clung to the surface of the water and dewdrops glistened on the rushy margins. The sun would burn the mist away before nine, but until then she sat at the edge of the water, basking in the ethereal beauty. Her mind invented shapes and figures in the swirling vapour, heroes and villains playing out tales from the Kalevala. She saw brave Väinämöinen battling Joukahainen, saw the hunt for the swan of Tuonela, and saw the first kantele being forged from the jawbone of a monstrous pike. If she concentrated hard enough she could almost hear the soft bell-like tones of the kantele, a lilting soundtrack to her rampant imaginings. She had been taught about the great epic poem of her people from a very young age. Many of her friends found the tales unspeakably dull, but she had always enjoyed the stories that the teachers told. As a child she imagined herself as the brave hero, but recently she found kinship with beautiful, tragic Aino. The drowned maid frequently stalked her dreams.

As the mist faded her mind turned to more practical matters. She walked slowly to the cabin, a fifty yard trudge through damp, coarse grass. Her shoes were soaked with dew by the time she arrived at the tatty wooden door, the key sticking slightly in the lock after years without care. A firm tug separated the swollen door from its tight wooden frame, and it swung slowly outwards with a protracted creak. The interior of the cabin was basic yet functional, and everything was arranged just as she had left it three weeks before. Nobody had entered the cabin since her previous visit, which meant that the small stash of firewood that she had stowed in a wicker basket had remained untouched. Sometimes she was impressed by just how organised she could be when she put her mind to it. Sometimes. Slipping the rucksack from her back she unzipped a side pocket, rummaging inside for the tools needed to create fire. The cabin used to have a gas burner which was a far more practical means of heating water and food, but the gas hadn’t been replenished for years. She didn’t mind though, making fire in the wood burner was an enjoyable challenge. She lay the tools on a small folding table, and pulled two slender birch logs from the basket. Birch burned much better than pine, which was filled with sap and filled the cabin with acrid smoke unless fully dried. Her first task was to prepare kindling to start the fire, which she did by using her puukko to shave thin strips of bark from the lengths of birch. The puukko, a small yet functional knife carried by most Finns as a rite of passage, was the perfect tool for the job, creating paper thin strips of dry, curled wood that practically begged to be consumed by the flames. Whereas her father would have gamely tried to ignite the tinder with a flint and steel, she found the quick strike of a match to be far more efficient. The warmth radiating from the burner soon filled every corner of the cabin, and a pot of water quickly came to the boil and was transformed into thick, strong coffee. She sat at the foot of a steel-framed camp bed and gnawed on a piece of tough rye bread, a local delicacy, as the hot liquid poured life into her tired bones.

The woodland surrounding the cabin was dissected by a nexus of narrow pathways, some of which were the remnants of old byways through the more ancient parts of the forest. These paths, created by ancient foresters, reminded her of the old caminos that they had walked during the Mediterranean holidays of her childhood. She knew relatively few of the vast array of paths with any degree of confidence, but had learned a couple of circular hiking routes that began and ended in the woodland to the rear of the cabin. It was the second, slightly easier of these routes that she chose for a mid-afternoon stroll. This particular path took her alternatively through bands of mature and young birch and pine, eventually depositing her in an area of recently felled forest where heather and bilberry flourished and woodlark sang joyously. She had walked this route the preceding autumn, and had stumbled on a rich harvest of mushrooms, bilberries and lingonberries, but it was too early in the year for such treasure to be available. The bilberries were beginning to appear, but were still tiny and bitter compared to the luscious indigo orbs they would become. Come August and September a frantic race would begin, as locals fought to harvest the natural bounty before it could succumb to the hungry mouths of deer, mice and songbirds that shared the woodland floor. Autumn in Finland was a particularly wonderful time for rustic cuisine, with seasonal mushrooms and berries providing perfect accompaniment to fresh grouse, salmon and venison. She could almost taste it.

She eventually came to an area of swamp, all rush and willow and reedmace. This was the place where the cloudberries grew, although few people could stand the mosquitos long enough to pick them. Cloudberries made a particularly delicious jam that reminder her of her maternal grandmother, five years dead but still remembered vividly. Alongside the swamp was the remnant of a lofty larch that had succumbed to the weather and now lay fallen and broken. The larch was a waypoint, reminding her to take the left hand path that looped back to the lakeside. This path almost entirely passed through old pine forest, dominated by vast specimens that had long avoided chainsaw and axe. The narrow, sinuous pathway wove between the trees, showing no evidence of having been straightened by man. She liked how the path deferred to the trees, rather than the other way round. A rich green carpet of mosses cushioned her steps and silenced her movement, the eerie quiet broken only by sporadic birdsong and the distant jackhammer bursts of a woodpecker, carving holes into the soft bodies of the birches at the woodland edge.

The shimmering surface of the lake was visible through the trees when a scent hit her, sharp and acidic like spoiled wine. She traced the smell to the edge of the path, where a large mound of pine straw and birch twigs confirmed her suspicion. Wood ants. The ants were swarming over their nest, clearly agitated and spraying a cloud of formic acid into the still air. She eventually spotted the source of their annoyance, in the still form of a decomposing adder half buried in the nest. She had seen adders occasionally in the forest, but never anything like this. She watched the ants milling around the olive form, almost entirely camouflaged against the dry plant matter from which the nest had been meticulously engineered. She couldn’t fathom how the snake had ended up in this situation, and wondered whether it had entered the nest of its own accord or had been found by the ants and dragged inside as a chance source of protein. Either option made her shudder, and she hastened back to the cabin before her empathy for the snake became too much to bear.

It was only when viewing the cabin with fresh eyes that she realised how dishevelled it had become, and how much maintenance would be needed to ensure that it remained habitable. The once vibrant russet paint had become faded and patchy, and the shallow felted roof was ragged and no longer kept all of the rainwater out. She had resolved to make repairs to the cabin herself, but this afternoon’s task was somewhat less challenging. The windows were thick with dust and grime, and she set about filling a metal bucket with soap and water. After an hour’s toil she stood back to admire her work, smiling contentedly at the obvious improvement. Her grandmother’s homemade Marimekko curtains were clearly visible through the revitalised glass, cheerful red and yellow flowers vivid against a bright white backdrop. That was more than enough hard work for one day.

Afternoon became evening, and the girl washed the plates of her evening meal in a small stream that trickled into the lake just south of the cabin. The sun sat low in the western sky, reflecting off the lake surface as she prepared for a brief evening swim. Many Finns would end the day with a spell in the sauna followed by a short dip in the lake, but her cabin had no sauna so the lake would have to suffice. She hadn’t seen anyone else all day, and she felt no sense of shyness and she left her clothes in a pile at the shore and slowly waded into the cool water. Ducking her head below the surface with a gasp, she briefly allowed the water to claim her before breaking the surface and swimming thirty yards out into open blue. She felt free as she swam confidently, enjoying the sensation of movement against her bare skin. After ten invigorating minutes she emerged and wrapped herself in a rough towel, drying her alabaster skin next to the dying embers of her cookfire.

As the day drew to a close the girl sat outside the cabin, watching the sky slowly change colour over the water. She wasn’t quite far enough north to experience true midnight sun, but night was still mercilessly brief in these parts. She sipped from a ‘borrowed’ bottle of Koskenkorva vodka as the horizon cycled through hues of tangerine and magenta, and reflected on a day well spent. She would ride the Tunturi slowly home in the morning, but today had been the respite she needed. She felt energised and able to withstand the hardships of family life once more, and she knew that she could withstand the challenges that lay ahead, as long as she kept reconnecting with the nature that she loved. Her eyelids grew heavy, and she drifted off to sleep filled with thoughts of Sampo, the magical artefact from the tales of Kalevala that bought untold good fortune. The lake was her Sampo, her well of succour and solace. An owl called from the forest as she slept peacefully beneath the stars.