Nancy: International Woman of Mystery

At the time this post hits the internet, I’ll be off on an adventure in a far (from me) city, soaking up local culture and doing serious research for a long-promised future series. I’ll give you more details about my trip next week, but for now thought I’d share a few pictures, interspersed throughout this post, that might give you a clue about where I am and what I’m researching.

If you can’t figure out my travel destination from the pictures, maybe this scene, which appeared on the blog a long time ago and might or might not end up in book 1 of that future series, will provide another hint. Happy reading, and I’ll be back next week to tell you all about my travels and the stories they’ve inspired!

Murder Clues

When I slid into the passenger’s seat of Pernilla’s tiny black Puegot a little after nine that night, she didn’t spare me a glance or a word. Just floored the gas pedal and sent us zooming down the side streets of Vesterbro before I could even click my seatbelt into place. I took her dark mood to mean she’d neither forgiven nor forgotten the sins I’d committed against her over the past 72 hours.

The driving beat of techno dance music pounded through the car speakers in time with my pulse hammering in my temples, a lingering remnant of this afternoon’s bender. Pernilla wordlessly changed the station, opting instead for an old Billy Joel tune, Only the Good Die Young. Well, hell, if that was true, I was probably damn near immortal. When Billy got to the line about “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints”, she finally, casually, flicked her eyes in my direction, then focused again on the road.

I didn’t completely disagree with her silent judgment. I was a full-blown asshole, or at least doing my best imitation of one. But a bona fide sinner? I’d failed Chastity 101, but really, who was she to judge? She, who woke up beside her husband every morning, including mornings after late-night hookups that ended with me inside her.

As we left the edges of Copenhagen behind us, I turned to stare back at the city, now lightly dusted with a snowfall that gave it an ethereal, heavenly glow. As we climbed a hill, I kept my eye on that glowing city receding in the distance, at the way the nighttime lights created a halo around it. It looked like a harbor of angelic virtue. Not a place where a beautiful young woman could fall prey to a malicious killer. Not a place where that killer could frame an innocent American – actually, half-American, half-Dane, which the Danish press was suddenly so quick to forget as they reported my ever-growing list of transgressions.

I closed my eyes and focused on my aching skull, willing the pain to abate just a little bit.

“Nicholai!”

My body shifted and slid sideways, only to be caught by my latched seatbelt. I opened my eyes to see Pernilla standing outside my car door, which she’d unceremoniously yanked open before bothering to wake me. She stomped away, clearly lacking the patience to tolerate another second with me.

I struggled out of the seatbelt and practically rolled out of the car. I fell into step behind her as we trudged up a slush and mud-covered driveway toward a falling-down shack of a place. Hardly the ideal spot for the knock-down, drag-out argument we needed to have to clear the air. Even less ideal for the inevitable make-up sex.

“Listen,” I was out of breath from trying to keep up with her in my barely sober state, “I know you’re pissed at me, but please try to refrain from giving me a heart attack.”

She stopped short and I stepped left into a puddle of muck to avoid slamming into her back.

“Is that why you think we’re here? Because I’m pissed at you? Do you think we’re going to…?” She turned toward me as she laughed. There was no kindness in that laugh, no generosity in those fathomless dark blue eyes. “Pride, envy,” she looked me up and down, “lust. Have you ever met a deadly sin you didn’t like?”

I shrugged one shoulder. “Greed, gluttony. Sloth…never been a big fan of sloth.”

She turned on her heel and called over her shoulder. “We’re not here for a booty call.” The Americanism sounded strange but highly erotic in her Danish accent.

“This address was on a piece of paper found in the victim’s apartment.” Pernilla mounted the creaking steps leading to the dilapidated porch. “It was crumpled up and had fallen under the table.” She stopped and turned in my direction. “It wasn’t in her handwriting.”

I was rooted to the ground at the base of the porch stairs. “The killer’s?”

Now she shrugged one shoulder and flashed a more genuine grin. “That’s what we’re here to learn.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a packet, which she tossed to me. I pulled out a Tyvek cap and booties.

“I don’t need the techs finding your DNA when they come out here.”

I finished adjusting the cap over my hair, then touched her arm. “If you’re going to treat this like a crime scene, what are you waiting for? Why bring me here first?”

I tried to keep my tone light, but something didn’t compute. Maybe Pernilla wanted to see my reaction to the place, to assess whether I’d been here before. Maybe she was still suspicious of me. Maybe the only person in all of Denmark who’d seemed to have any faith left in me didn’t believe me after all.

“I’m sure this will break your heart, but I want you for your mind. Your weird, hyper-logical, beautiful mind.” She shot me one of those half-grins that made her look like the fifteen-year-old girl who had, in fact broken my heart into a million thirteen-year-old pieces. “You see things differently. I’m hoping you’ll pick up on something my techs won’t. But don’t touch anything. Not one thing, understand?”

I held my hands up in front of me. “Touch nothing. Got it.”

“And put on your gloves, just in case.”

“Not that you don’t trust me, right?”

She didn’t answer me, and she didn’t wait for me as she tried the door handle, then leaned her shoulder into the rotting wooden door and forced it open on screaming hinges. “It’s a good thing it’s deserted out here.”

“See, I knew you just wanted to get me alone. You do want me for my body, after all.” I mounted the crooked steps to the front porch and followed her into the ramshackle shack. We stopped just inside the door.

Pernilla swept her police-issued flashlight over each corner and up across the ceiling. The interior of the place hadn’t fared much better than the exterior. But despite the thick dust and cobwebs covering the corners and the defunct light fixture in the ceiling, there was a clean spot in the middle of the floor. On that spot was a single table made of a light wood, the assemble-it-yourself kind of thing you could get at an Ikea in the States. Beside it was a narrow white board mounted on wheels.

“This is truly bizarre.” Pernilla took careful steps toward the table. “These are clean. Spotless.”

“You don’t have another one of those flashlights, do you?”

She reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a smaller model of her large flashlight, which she handed to me. This little one wouldn’t make much of a billy club, but its beam was strong and bright.

I ran the beam along each wall and the floor, then shook my head as I memorized the layout of the room and tried to determine what one could do with one small table and a white board. No chairs. No dry erase markers. I flipped a switch I spotted on the wall beside me. No electricity.

“What’s stranger is what isn’t here.”

Pernilla turned to me and nodded. “Exactly.” She glanced up at the darkened light fixture. “Although I’m sure whoever was here wasn’t sitting in the cold and the dark.”

I moved to the side of the table, my gaze fixed on the white board. “A space heater and a small generator could fix that.”

“If there was a generator…” She glanced out the back window, at the tangle of overgrown brush and weeds. “If they left in a hurry, maybe they left it behind. I’ll check outside.”

She hustled out the door. I didn’t follow her, nor did I try to stop her, although I knew the generator would be gone. It, as well as the chairs, markers, space heater, and any other equipment the shack’s former occupants had used would have been small enough to fit into a car or small pickup truck. Some vehicle that wouldn’t attract attention. Maybe the table and white board could be broken down far enough to be moved that way, too, but as Pernilla suspected, the criminals might have realized their hideout had been exposed, and thus left in a hurry.

I held out little hope that the criminal element with the savvy to pull off a high-tech burglary and low-brow murder and frame me for both had been careless enough to leave evidence for the police to find. As much as I hated to disappoint Pernilla, my beautiful mind – and I hadn’t missed her John Forbes Nash reference – couldn’t see anything that would be of use. Standing in front of the white board, I shone my flashlight on it. There were the tiniest marks in a few spots, but not enough to amount to even a letter of the alphabet, let alone a revelation about what the killer or killers had been doing here.

With my light still focused on the board, I moved to the side of it. My adrenaline surged when I realized this angle revealed more lines and squiggles. Symbols. And numbers. This wasn’t a board for capturing lists and writing out Plans to Destroy Nicholai Jens Olesen. Whoever had used this white board had been writing formulae. Mathematical formulae.

I pulled out my smartphone and stylus and swiped the screen. Nothing happened. Grunting with impatience, I used my teeth to pull off my right glove, useless for its lack of metallic thread, and used my finger to unlock the phone and open the camera app. I dropped the glove onto the table and used my mouth to hold the flashlight in place to illuminate the board while I photographed the board from different angles. There were big gaps, half-drawn symbols, and nothing I recognized in the remnants unwittingly left behind. Probably useless. But I felt compelled to capture everything I could, hoping I’d figure out how to fill in the gaps like some mathematical savant. As rusty as my math skills were, idiot without the savant was more like it.

The sound of Pernilla’s footsteps on the front stairs made me finish quickly and slide the phone back into my pocket. I pulled on my glove and turned toward her just as she entered.

“No generator,” she announced, “but there’s an 80 by 40 centimeter rectangle of crushed weeds a few meters from the house, and some lines that could indicate heavy cables.”

“The kinds of marks a generator might leave.”

“Great minds really do think alike.” She swept her flashlight along the walls again. “Anything in here?”

I forced my expression to remain neutral as my mind raced. I should share my discovery of the evidence left on the white board. When the techs showed up with their bright lights and chemical treatments, they’d probably miss it and likely destroy it. But the way she’d looked at me when we’d arrived, with that hawk-like focus and unreadable expression, left me with too much suspicion. That kind of suspicion had served me well in my life, had kept me out of danger and gotten me out of stupid situations I’d managed to cause more times than I could count. Right now, that instinct to trust no one was screaming in my brain, drowning out saner voices preaching trust and fair play.

“Not a damn thing.” And that’s exactly what she would get from me, at least until I could decipher the symbols and reassure myself that she and I really were on the same team, namely Team Nick.

Well, nothing except my body, if she really, really pushed for it. I might be an idiot, but I’m not stupid.

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