by Adrian McKinty
Art by Jason C. Eckhardt
Black is the swastika, black is the night, black are the cold waters of the Skagerrak.
Rain pouring down the glass of the double-glazed windows.
We were up on the seventh floor of the hospital and from here on a clear day you could see all the way down the fjord to the ocean beyond. Not that there were many clear days in Trondheim. Not at this time of year.
The doctor put down the folder and gave me a tiny embarrassed shake of the head. She was nervous and perhaps a little too young for a job which often required her to give out devastating news. Nevertheless, I liked her. She was originally from Denmark and we had our foreignness in common. We were both outsiders dragged to this distant shore by what strange stars? For her, of course, the culture shock was not as extreme as it had been for me. Danish and Norwegian are mutually comprehensible. Twenty-two years I’d been here and I still asked everyone to speak a “little slower please.”
“I’m so sorry, Ivan,” she said in English.
“No response at all to the new drugs?” I asked. We’d been quite optimistic about this clinical trial.
“It seems to have had no discernible effect.”
I nodded, leaned back in the chair, and looked beyond her blond bob and green eyes to the windowpane behind her. It had been snowing in the morning, but the temperature must have risen to just above freezing, for now the snow had become that miserable bitter northern Norwegian rain that I had come to loathe.
“And there’s no way of finding out if I’m in the placebo group or not?”
“I’m afraid not. The study runs until the end of the year and only then will we be permitted to know.”
“I see. So, how long have I got?”
“I don’t know. There are a lot of different factors.”
“Again it is very difficult to—”
“Britte, come on . . .”
“Six weeks, plus or minus two weeks.”
“I’m sorry, Ivan.”
Only about three or four percent of pancreatic cancer patients are still alive five years after diagnosis, which is the same percentage as in the 1970s. It is not one of the “good cancers,” and the clinical trial of this new drug had been a long shot at best.
I sat there, stunned, but only for a moment or two.
In the last sixty seconds that crazy Plan B I’d been working on had become a definite Plan A. It was the only way now.
I nodded slowly, stood, shook her hand. “Thank you, Britte, you’ve done all you could and to be honest, this is what I’d been expecting.”
Expecting and secretly hoping for all along?
There were tears in her eyes as I left her office for the last time.
I found the Subaru on the top floor of the car park. I violently brushed the snow off the rear window with the back of my hand. I didn’t feel like I was dying. I felt strong. I was fifty-five, but twenty years on the North Sea oil rigs had hardened my body. Hardened my mind too—when I began a course of action I saw it through until the end.
I got behind the wheel and thought about calling Sonia.
We hadn’t spoken since last year. She had no idea about the cancer or the clinical trial or the Plan B. And that’s the way I was going to keep it.
I drove out along the fjord to Hell. The rain turned to sleet and then finally back to snow again. The house I’d been living in since the separation was a tiny wooden shack that in effect was an unwinterized summer home. No one wanted to rent it year-round and I’d gotten a pretty good deal. I had a view of the fjord from the living room, it was furnished, and the place even came with free geothermal heating. Despite the name, Hell was a pleasant enough sort of place if you didn’t mind six-month-long winters.
I think Sonia was glad I’d stayed reasonably close by. After our split she’d wondered out loud if I was going to go back to Belfast, but that was never a possibility. I was going to die here. Soon.
Just one thing to do first.
The Plan B.
I parked the Subaru and went inside the cabin.
I put the groceries on the kitchen table and went into the back room to check my e-mails.
There was only one.
Last year he had won a famous victory in court that guaranteed the privacy of his e-mails. Previously the prison authorities had been reading his letters and Internet correspondence and listening in on his phone and Skype conversations, but not now. Now that was considered to be a violation of his human rights.
He was still cautious, though, and right to be cautious.
The e-mail said simply, “Skype at 2 pm?”
I emailed back. “2 is good. Make sure you are alone.”
I made myself a cup of coffee, did my Sharpie business, and returned to the computer room. The flag was drooping because one of the nails had come out. I found the nail and a hammer and rehung it. The flag wasn’t in good shape to begin with, and every nail hole distressed it even more, but what could you do? It had cost me 20,000 crowns on the Dark Web and had come with a provenance certificate.
It looked good for its age and it went well with the other memorabilia I had acquired post-Sonia. I drank my coffee and to kill time I googled the names of the doctors on the pancreatic cancer-drug clinical trial. I considered writing them a begging e-mail and then dismissed it. Britte was right. They had protocols and the trial was almost certainly double-blind, so even they wouldn’t know who was getting the actual cancer drug and who was in the control group.
Two o’clock came and that familiar Skype doot-doo-doot ringer began to sound on my computer.
I turned on the camera and there I was in front of the flag.
Brakken had asked about the flag in our very first conversation. It was an original battle flag from the SS Heimwehr Danzig, a regiment with a storied history in the war, especially in those final few months on the fall- back to Berlin. Brakken was a history buff and had recognized the insignia immediately and even told me a few things I didn’t know.
His face appeared in the Skype window.
“Ivan!” he said with a grin.
“Are we alone?” I asked him.
“Are you quite sure?”
“Well then, let me come straight to it. If you want to do this, it’s going to have to be next week.”
“Wednesday, to be precise.”
“Why so soon?”
“We have two factors to consider: calm seas and either a moonless night or a cloudy sky. It’s clear skies until Tuesday but Wednesday is cloudy and the sea relatively calm.”
“And after that?”
“Well, after that we’re getting into winter. We’ve looked at the long-range forecast, Knut, and it’s not good. It’s the consensus here that we’ll have to delay until the spring.”
“It’s your choice, Knut. You don’t have to do it. You don’t have to do anything, but if you choose to I can assure you that my network will give you its full support. We have everything ready.”
“Passport, papers, and a bank account set up for you in Aruba that can be accessed from anywhere in the world.”
“And the apartment?”
“It’s not an apartment, Knut. You’re an important man. A great man. You have no idea, my friend. You have a lot of influential supporters. It’s a beach house for your exclusive use. It’s a gated community ten miles south of Rio de Janeiro. Exclusive and safe and, of course, there is no extradition treaty between Norway and Brazil.”
Brakken nodded. We’d been through all this before. He mopped his brow with a small towel a fan had made for him with interlinked swastikas. His head was shaven and his brown eyes were sunk deep in his skull. Not an unattractive man, but his ascetic diet and deathly pallor gave him a cadaverous, alien aspect. He was allowed two hours of exercise outside every day, but he almost never took the allotted time, and he’d had to supplement his diet with vitamin D pills. He seldom exercised because he was so busy with fan letters, inquires about documentaries, interview requests, et cetera. Brakken was always very conscientious about answering his correspondence, even the hate mail.
“I don’t know, Ivan,” he said hesitantly. “If we’re caught, they may add time to my sentence.”
“It’s your choice, Knut. It’s always been your choice. You’re our leader in this. Our leader over the water, as we say in my country. I will do whatever you want me to do, but I want you to act with all the information we have available and what my experts tell me is that if it’s not going to be this cycle we’ll have to postpone the operation until next spring.”
He sighed and nodded. “Well, I suppose you should probably tell me about the kayak. I’ve always been a bit of a nervous sailor.”
“It’s completely safe and stable; nothing to be nervous about.”
“But it folds up, you say?”
“You can google it, Knut. It’s a top of the range Oru foldable, two-man kayak. It’s a completely genius piece of kit. You’ll be happy with it, I promise, and if you’re not, don’t go.”
“So you kayak over and then fold it up?”
“I land on the beach and then simply disassemble it, fold it up, and put it into its carrying bag. I’ve practiced folding it and unfolding it fifty times and can do all that now in less than ninety seconds.”
“Giving us a window of what?”
“It takes the guard on the beach nineteen minutes to complete one circuit of the island. I wait offshore in the dark until he’s gone past my landing spot. I land. I fold up the kayak so there’s no evidence at all for him to see on the next circuit. I carry the kayak and my other gear to your cell. I torch the lock. We go to the dunes and wait until the guard has again gone past the landing zone, we reassemble the kayak, and we’re gone. Forty-five minutes across the water to where my team will be waiting for us.”
Brakken rubbed his chin. “And the flight?”
“A private jet will fly you to São Paulo and then on to your final destination south of Rio.”
“So when they notice I am missing?”
“You will be safely on a private jet over Brazilian airspace well beyond the jurisdiction of the Norwegian authorities.”
Brakken smiled thinly and looked around him. “It is not an entirely unpleasant place they have put me in, but I have grown to hate it. I have grown to hate the curfew and the cold and my fellow prisoners. And no women at all on the island and fourteen more years of this?”
“Perhaps even longer if they decide that you have not rehabilitated yourself or that you’re insane.”
“Yes, there is that. Perhaps even longer.”
“You don’t have to make a decision today, Knut, but you’ll need to make it soon if I’m to give a go to the whole team. There are a lot of people who need to know. The whole network.”
He mopped his forehead and nodded slowly. “Don’t think I don’t appreciate everything you’ve done for me, Ivan. I really do, but this is my life here.”
I observed my reaction in the camera in the left-hand corner of the screen. I looked, well, disappointed. And he could see that I was disappointed. We had grown close over these last few weeks and months. He valued my good opinion.
“What are you thinking, Ivan? Tell me the truth.”
“I am thinking about something the Führer said. ‘We men of action do not need an excessive amount of time to decide our fate.’”
“You are right, of course! Your risk is as great as mine, and I do not hear you complaining! It’s a go then. For Wednesday.”
“Are you sure?”
“I am decided.”
“You won’t regret this, Knut. There’s a whole new world out here waiting for you. You’re the leader we’ve been waiting for.”
“Perhaps my voice can contribute to the movement,” he replied modestly.
“I’m certain of it!”
“What must I do? Should I—”
“Do nothing! Act exactly the way you have always been acting. Change none of your routine whatsoever. If they’ve gotten a court order to listen to this conversation then I will shortly be arrested; if they haven’t, let’s not give them any reason to think that anything is amiss.”
“You are right again, Ivan. Until Wednesday, then.”
He waved and turned his wrist so his swastika tattoo was facing me. I did likewise and then pressed the red hang-up button, closed the laptop, and waited for the antiterrorism police to break down my door.
They didn’t come.
On Sunday, I made myself roast beef and mashed potatoes. I attempted to make an apple crumble but it didn’t quite work out as planned. But that was okay. It was the thought that counted.
I went to bed early on Tuesday and slept well. The first really deep sleep I’d had in seven years.
I dressed, and on the kitchen table I left a letter for Sonia and another one for Britte. There was no one else who needed an explanation, and I was fine with that.
I put the Oru foldable kayak in the back of the Subaru and packed the provisions and supplies.
I drove west along the E6 from Hell to Trondheim and then south down the E6 all the way to Oslo. I had a late lunch at Restaurant Kontrast, which had been Ana’s favorite. I left them a ridiculous tip. I drove south along the E18 in the direction of Larvik.
The Møller maximum-security prison was on an island two kilometers offshore in the choppy, chilly waters of the Skagerrak. It housed Norway’s most dangerous and serious offenders: serial murderers, serial rapists, and the like. Brakken referred to them as “low class” people. He was a political prisoner and did not understand why he had to be housed with common criminals. I had mentioned to him the IRA protests of my youth when they too had demanded political status and had gotten it after a series of hunger strikes. Brakken was intrigued but had decided not to go down that road.
It was rainy and getting dark by the time I reached the outskirts of Larvik, a small coastal town that I had only ever been to once before on a scouting mission.
The rain was good. It would keep people off the beach.
I parked the Subaru in the lot near the north-facing cove that I had also scouted. I put on my raincoat and took out the welding gear and the highly dangerous and flammable bottle of MAPP gas (which is a mixture of methylacetylene and propadiene). I put the gear and the MAPP bottle in a waterproof canvas bag and unloaded the rest of my stuff. I stripped, climbed into a thick dry suit, and put my clothes on top of that.
I left the Subaru unlocked and made two trips down to the beach with all the equipment. The sky was dull and menacing, which is what I wanted. I checked that the coast was clear and took the Oru two-man out of its bag. It really was an amazing piece of equipment, a light polymer seaworthy vessel designed to fold and unfold like origami. I put it together in under two minutes and loaded it with my gear. I slid it down the stony beach to the edge of the surf.
The waves were about three or four feet high, which was more than I’d been expecting. I had been for a dozen practice runs in the fjord off Hell and Trondheim but those waters were calm and cold and protected and I’d never been out at night.
I got into the kayak and fitted the spray skirt around me and pushed my way off the beach with the paddle. The kayak was buoyant up to three hundred kilograms, which easily covered me and my gear.
The spray water was chilly and the sea was rough and the wind was blowing against me. For the first thirty minutes I wondered if I was actually going to make it. When I looked behind me I didn’t seem any further from the shore, but eventually the lights of Larvik began to diminish and the safety lights on the island began to become more distinct.
In another thirty minutes I was there. I waited off shore until I saw the guard with the flashlight go past and then I paddled in. With relief, I felt the rocky shore of Møller scraping against the kayak’s bottom. I was completely soaked and cold and exhausted but I couldn’t rest until I was off the beach.
There was no fence to climb, but the armed guard would be along on his circuit soon enough.
I quickly got out, removed my bags, folded the kayak, and put it in its bag. I folded the paddle and made my way off the beach to the dunes.
There were seventy prisoners on the island, in separate cells or “bungalows,” as the authorities liked to call them. Brakken had drawn me a map to his cell and it wasn’t difficult to find it. He was partially segregated from the others on the north side of the island.
I tapped on the cell door . . .
Copyright © 2019. From Hell by Adrian McKinty