White angel black night
White angel. Black night. A detective novel
The beams from the headlamps skewered the darkness ahead. Thick fog, combined with heavy rain, had draped a blanket over the desolate Vestfold landscape. Riffs from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young thumped out inside the leather-clad interior of the Jaguar. Ohio, ranked as the most influential protest song ever by Rolling Stone magazine, Shootings at Kent State University. Four dead in Ohio. The song made a strong impact on US forces withdrawing from Vietnam, but didn’t change the world.
The engine purred away under the shiny bonnet. I had treated the car to a re-paint job, from a plain blue to a bright red, – befitting for a Jaguar. In consideration of the heavy downpour, the speedometer needle hovered around forty. It was late September, in the small hours of Saturday. A pitch dark night. The clock on the dashboard showed 2.15 precisely. Identical to the time shown on my recent purchase, an Apple watch, to which my daughter had remarked that I had finally succumbed to becoming a slave to the computer giant
The country road had been dead straight for a long time. Now it curved into a long bend
and I slowed down while drumming my thumbs on the steering wheel in time with the music. The flat land flanking the road was now overgrown. A remote landscape, not a dwelling in sight. The rain lashed on the windscreen, autumn was fast approaching. I was all alone in no-man’s land.
A figure appeared out of the darkness. Suddenly it was there, straight in front of me, shrouded in the headlamps. For an instant, I was struck numb, then my instincts kicked in. I swung the steering wheel hard over to the right and floored the brake pedal. The Jaguar swerved towards the edge of the ditch.
It seemed like it was happening in slow-motion. A small figure, clad in white. A pale face, dark curls, a body against metal, banging the bonnet, a thump on the windscreen. Life’s worst nightmare.
The car jolted to a halt. The engine stalled. The safety belt was old and slack. I slumped forward with my hands frozen to the steering wheel. My ears were ringing. Yet Hulda, who had been asleep in the backseat, was calm. With trembling fingers, I released the safety belt. With no headlamps on, it was utter darkness.
I had run over a child. Or was it a dream? A momentary lapse, then imagination took over. Maybe a hare, a fox out hunting, a large bird, whatever. I wasn’t able to think rationally. A small person, alone out here, in the middle of a black night? I opened the driver’s door cautiously, anxious about what I would encounter.
In the first few seconds I saw nothing.
But a few metres behind the car, half obscured under a bush, something white caught my eye. I pointed the beam of light from my mobile phone towards it and gasped at the sight, so much so that I dropped my phone in the ditch that was full of water. When I picked it up, the screen was dull and flickering.
A little girl was lying there, clad in a white, soaking wet nightdress, covered in dirt and stained. Her feet were bare and blood-stained. She was lying on her side in a twisted posture with one arm trapped under her body. Her other arm was gripping a tree trunk, as if she was trying to stand up. Her thin legs were curled up under the nightdress. Lying there in the mud, pale, skinny and motionless, she looked like an angel.
For what seemed like eternity, I stood there contemplating the small figure until I came to my senses. I leant over her, touching her lightly on the cheek, stroking her forehead, trying to check her pulse, listening closely for any sign of breathing. She didn’t move, lying there in the same position. I couldn’t find any pulse nor detect any sign of breathing.
I don’t know how long I stood there while my mind was racing. All of a sudden, she
moved, raised her head and opened her eyes for a moment before flopping back and lying still. She wasn’t dead. Not yet. Now I needed some help, but my phone had shut down.
I stared into the gloom, there was not a building in sight, no lights. Carefully, I loosened her grip on the tree trunk, placed her hand under her frail body and carried her over to the car. She weighed hardly anything. I opened the rear door and then wrapped her in a rug. She moaned weakly when I laid her down on the seat. Suddenly, she coughed. Blood seeped out of her mouth, trickled down her neck, leaving a red stripe on the white dress.
The car was the next problem. A front wheel had slid over the edge of the ditch. Jaguars have many good qualities, but off-road driving is not one of them. After repeated attempts, I managed to get it back up on the road again, switched on the hazard warning lights and sped off towards Tonsberg.
No car passed me along the route. It was as if someone had dropped a neutron bomb on the rural areas of Vestfold. I raced through the bleak landscape.
On hearing a slight gasp from the backseat ,I stopped the car to check, switched on the interior light and leaned back over the girl who was crouched on the seat and motionless. But then she opened her eyes and stretched out her arms towards me. She moaned softly before flopping down again and lying still with uneven, squeaky breathing and staring at me bleary-eyed. I was afraid she was about to die, right there in front of me.
I packed the rug tightly around her and then, gripping the steering wheel, pressed on in the Jaguar at full power. The water temperature gauge showed an ominously high reading from the engine while we roared on through the darkness. Time stood still.
When I turned the Jaguar into the hospital entrance in Tonsberg, I was soaked in sweat.
We remained seated in the car, gazing over the blue sea speckled with white horses. It was a dark night, with the wind gathering force. Discarded life vests were strewn around on the pebbles, giving sombre memories. I turned towards the girl in the passenger seat. «When are the boats expected?»
«We don’t know, they are at the mercy of the wind and weather. We have no chance of giving them directions. They will try to take the shortest way across the stretch of water.» She pointed towards the steep terrain. «When the windy conditions improve, they will be in the area farther north, at Skala, where it is flat and easier to go ashore. Those who end up in the sea there, will not be battered by the cliffs, they just drown in silence or freeze to death.» She pulled her jacket tighter around her. «It can be terribly cold here.»
I took out the binoculars. The visibility was very poor – dark clouds of mist had draped
themselves over the sea. «Do you know if the boats are coming tonight?»
«We have reliable information. If they are not shipwrecked, we think they will land here.»
Some more cars had turned off the main road and approached slowly, soon there were a lot of people gathered here. «Who are these people coming here?» I asked. «Are they just people like you? Or from the authorities, like the police, for example?»
«The police?» She hissed. «Forget it, they’re never here. Most of them are here at their own will, not only locals as well as foreigners, but also tourists seeking some excitement. This place is well-known, all sorts of people turn up. Wait till it gets really dark»
«What about the human traffickers?»
«They’re on their way, for sure. They’re vultures» Her bitter tone continued. «This is the entrance to hell, Svend. You’ll see everything here: tragedy, idealism and greed, a terrible mix.» Her cell phone rang, she received a couple of messages, waved at a couple of new arrivals and grabbed her bag. «I have to work, you wait here. We’re going to get the equipment ready and prepare to receive a boat. You could come in useful also, if you fix it then.»
In the space of a few minutes, darkness enveloped the landscape. In the light from more and more car headlamps, I caught a glimpse of shadowy figures around me. Two motorbikes came rumbling down the road, passed by and left in the direction of the beach. The sound of a Harley could not be mistaken.
I got out of the car, walked down to the cliffs and trampled over discarded life vests, clothing and remnants left by a previous group of people.
The wind strengthened. It wasn’t warm any longer and the waves beating against the cliffs were clearly bigger. The shift in weather had taken place extremely quickly. I now realized how difficult it must be to beach a craft safely. In calm weather, with the hot sun overhead, it would be much less of a challenge. However, nature had now taken over command.
Shivering, I gazed over the dark waves. A crowd of youngsters had assembled on one of the cliffs and were scanning the waves with their searchlights. I recognised Tonje’s slender back as she was speaking on the cell phone, looking through binoculars. People began descending to the beach, a van with all its lights on drove towards the edge of the cliff face and its headlamps cast sharp beams of light out over the sea. Nobody said anything, the situation was tense.
The moment I heard the cries, I caught sight of a boat, less than a hundred metres from land, bathed in the strong light from the headlamps, before it vanished in the darkness. A bulky, black hulk being tossed around in the rough sea. Then I could make out weak spots of light from the boat, most certainly from cell phones. The screaming grew louder and
more piercing as I climbed along in the dark over the cliffs, down to the beach. There were many of us, some carrying ropes, life vests and blankets, others were empty-handed, like me. Nobody was giving orders, it was utter chaos. A searchlight behind me managed to light up the boat. I now had a clear view of it listing heavily, with its deck crowded with people clinging to the railings. A large, skate-like craft, evidently without any steering since it was rapidly approaching the shore.
While I stood there witnessing the drama, people started falling into the sea. The hulk was now only about thirty metres from the cliffs and would soon be smashed up. The sight of people jumping overboard into the sea with infants clinging on to them, was like a vision of hell itself.
When I ventured too far across a slippery rock face I was rescued by a strong arm that drew me back to safety. What we don’t need now is another idiot to save. Stay here and help me. The chap was right, of course. He slung over a line with nooses and hooks and ordered me to cast it towards the wreck, which had now struck the rocks. The scraping sound of the base of the craft running aground, virtually drowned out the shrieks coming from desperate people.
A bit farther away was yet another boat approaching land, an overcrowded rubber dinghy that barely stuck out of the surface. But it appeared to come across a narrow inlet in the cliff face where it could beach without difficulty. Everything was happening in a rush.
With my rope I had gathered up a whole family clinging to it. Together with my rescuer, we heaved on the rope until I nearly blacked out, and the skin on my hands was scraped to pieces before we managed to get the family close to the cliff, where we drew them up safely on land, one by one. First there was a mother with a baby bound to her, then two small girls tied to each other, then an old woman who looked already dead, before I gripped the father by the hand and tried to haul him up. But the man was big and heavy. Slowly, his hand slid out of mine. I could only watch as he sank into the sea and vanished in the darkness.
The woman lying on the rocks with her baby clinging to her let out a chilling scream that struck me right to the bone. At that moment I promised myself never to forget that sound. When she tried to get up and scramble down the cliff towards the sea, I had to use all my strength to restrain her. There was no sound coming from her youngsters. For a long tense
moment I feared that all three of them were dead. But when one of the rescuers showed up out of the blue and wrapped them in blankets, I realized they were still alive.
There were now bodies floating in the water, some were face down others were floundering in the rough sea. More helpers arrived, some unrolled rope ladders down the cliff faces so that we could climb down and gather who we could manage, before the current and waves took them. We worked as in a trance, without stopping to think.
But, suddenly, it was all over. The wreck had vanished into the deep. There were no more bodies in the water, just flotsam, life vests and clothing. Around me on the beach were crowds of shivering people sitting or lying down, wrapped in blankets or aluminium foil while helpers were quietly dealing out water, food and clothing. The hushed atmosphere was intense. Even the children were silent.
We placed the corpses in plastic bags, carried them away and loaded them into a van. I counted eight, but we had, without doubt, lost just as many in the sea. Three of the bags weighed hardly anything, they contained small children. It was like being in a horror movie. But this was no film.
Tonje was one of the carriers. When we had finished loading the bags into the van, she turned round and gripped my arm tightly. «Now you know perhaps what this is all about, Svend.»
I nodded in awe.
«Go home to Norway and do something about it» She tightened her grip on my arm. «Now you know.»
Mehlums Foyn stadig i toppklasse 5/ 6 stars
A key element for gripping the reader’s attention is the opening setting. This is what Jan Mehlum masters. In this latest Svend Foyn novel – the seventeenth in the series – “White angel. Black night” – he puts this technique to good use.
Along a rain-swept country road in the pitch darkness Foyn is driving his freshly-painted red Jaguar saloon through Re towards Tonsberg when fate strikes. A child shoots out into the road into the path of the car. Barefoot and wearing a white dress, she is unconscious when Foyn lifts her into his car and drives straight to the hospital in Tonsberg. The girl survives, but cannot speak
and bears no identification marks. This is the prelude to a well-written, action-packed detective novel where Jan Mehlum exploits his unquestionable talent: action that stems from a harsh, brutal reality and an author’s keen sense of acerbic wit directed towards segments of society that the candid Svend Foyn strongly disapproves – be it the stock exchange, banking or fat cat lawyers.
The police had their suspicions regarding the accident since there was no trace at all of the incident at Bispeveien; nothing to identify the child and, not least, in their opinion Svein Fond was hiding something. In Foyn’s case, there was a lot to deal with. He was not content with dismissing the incident and when he was assigned to find answers and connections by none other than the former lawyer, Christian Salvesen who, with his drunken elegance and well-lined office, gives Foyn a free rein, some headway was made. Further, when the former police investigator, William Mørk, enters Foyn’s casework, things start to happen.
Svend Foyn follows the leads to Germany and international criminality that lies in the wake of the overwhelming stream of refugees embarking from the Middle East and Africa. Soon, the daughter, Mari, from her base in Berlin, gets involved on interpersonal yet illegal grounds. These lead Foyn not only into the dense forests of Vestfold, but also to Oslo, Gothenburg, Lesbos and the borders of countries in Europe.
“White angel. Black night” becomes an action-packed detective novel that shows Jan Mehlum’s skills at balancing the narrative. He does not resort to elaborate violent effects since the reality behind what he is indirectly involved in is painful enough. Thus, he has gradually developed his own recognizable blend of style that is increasingly more refined.
The way Svend Foyn expresses himself is very attractive to readers – acerbic, ironic, conscientious – a Robin Hood figure clad in a drab lawyer’s suit.