- Published: 19 February 2019
- ISBN: 9781784163297
- Imprint: Black Swan
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 416
- RRP: $19.99
American By Day
Shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger Award
The Right Question
Sigrid Ødegård’s hands rest on the unopened blue folder as she stares out the window of her office. The seal of the Politi is embossed on the front in gold, red and black, meaning that someone decided to break out the good stationery for this one. It displays no author or title but she knows what it contains and she is in no rush to read it. Only two short months ago, in June, the entire city of Oslo, Norway, was trimmed with lilacs. Sigrid’s father had once told her that the early summer flowers were her mother’s favorite, and when the season was at its peak in Hedmark, their farmhouse was filled with them: a bouquet in each bathroom, a vase on the kitchen table. Their errant petals, he said, would drift through the house after her family as they journeyed its hallways stirring them up and scattering them in their wake. This collective movement — this collective memory — however, was thirty-five years ago. Sigrid was five years old when Astrid died. Sigrid wonders, looking out over the park with its August sunbathers and running children, whether those memories are even hers. They might have been given to her by her father. And if the memories are not hers, are they less precious or, perhaps, more?
She turns her attention from the window to the blue folder.
This, she’s been informed, is the final report and verdict about the events last month that resulted in the shooting deaths of four hostage-takers at a summer cabin near the Swedish border in the village of Glåmlia. She was the commanding officer and had made the decision to utilize the emergency response force — the Beredskapstroppen. Their assault killed three of the perpetrators. Sigrid, herself, killed the fourth.
Conscious of being watched through the glass by the prying eyes of her department, Sigrid flips open the cover but doesn’t read the words. She
should have closed the blinds after she’d received the folder from the
young cop who’d knocked on her door to deliver it. He was blond and looked worryingly pale despite it being late summer. She’d found his boyish face immediately annoying.
“Thanks,” she’d said, and started to close the office door.
“You’re welcome,” he’d said and then — oddly — extended his hand.
She couldn’t think of a reason why he’d do this but she shook it to make it go away.
He seemed pleased with this and walked off.
During the past month the internal affairs department has been studying the events leading to the shootings in accordance with standard procedure. The report was standard procedure, though, only in the sense of being formalized; it was hardly common. The last time a Norwegian cop had fatally shot anyone was two years ago, in 2006, and before that it had been… forever. A decade? It simply didn’t happen in Norway. Violent crime was very low, murder rarely happened, and when it did it was usually between people who knew each other, and most often between lovers. The man was always to blame.
Their training, at the academy, had been focused on how to deescalate a situation and gain a measure of control over it rather than rush in and encounter it. This is not what happened last month.
It was still the right call, she thought; they had taken a man, woman and child hostage. Under her fingertips, though, was the institutional wisdom of her department on the same topic. It may, or may not, be the same as her own.
They had chosen to deliver the file to her today, on Friday. Without reading it she’d never know whether the decision was sadistic or gracious.
The summer house where the shootings took place was deep in the woods behind a small field. It was a little larger than a standard hytte. It was a place intended for serenity. A hunting lodge. An escape for lovers. A moment after she had sprung from the police car with her colleague Petter, a young man emerged from the cabin — a man she had never seen before — and he ran in her direction.
To her? Toward her? At her? He was in motion, that was all she understood. His motive was opaque. Her fear and his direction, however, were not.
As she watched him she’d half expected him to stop. People usually change their behavior when seeing a police officer. They drive more slowly. They become more aware of their actions. They drop the weapon. They raise their arms.
He kept running. She called for him to halt. He kept running.
She saw the carving knife in his hand immediately. It seemed less dangerous than it did incongruous. There they were, in that beautiful season when the natural world was at its most expansive; the moment Norwegians wait for and dream about all through the dark winter so that its arrival is both blessed and wistful for being so short. And there he was, silently running toward her with a knife designed to slice meat.
If she’d delayed he’d have been on top of her. So she shot him. And then she shot him again.
“Screw it,” she mutters in her native language and starts reading the file.
His name was Burim and he was from Kosovo, apparently. His family fled to Norway as refugees from the war in the 1990s. His father had died of health complications after being freed from a Serbian internment camp. The report attributes the death to malnutrition and damage to internal organs likely caused by beatings at the camp. Young Burim, fatherless, had fallen into the wrong crowd in Oslo as he failed to assimilate into Norwegian culture. His immigrant experience and his behavioral patterns in Norway — concluded a forensic psychologist — suggested immaturity rather than malice or ambition. That was who she had killed.
However, the report continued to explain that the legal findings about her own guilt or innocence in the matter were based on a study of the facts of the case, and the circumstances of the encounter between the assailant (him) and the officer on the scene (her). She reads about the events that were in part described through Petter’s own testimony as he had eyewitnessed the shooting from his side of the patrol car.
The report contains a narrative account of the shooting. To Sigrid it reads like historical fiction. It is a story about a woman with her own name but this fictional character is clearly not Sigrid herself because the author of this story wasn’t at the cabin when all this happened. There was no video and other than Petter no witnesses. How could anyone possibly know what she’d really been doing let alone thinking?
Sigrid flips to the next page and reads on.
On what basis does this bureaucratic reenactment draw its claims and attributions of cause and effect? Who is this writer who drew conclusions about what happened at the moment Sigrid pulled the trigger on her weapon? And who is this forty-year-old Norwegian police officer named “Sigrid Ødegård” who shot the man and instead of rushing over to care for his wounds, ran instead to the eighty-two-year-old American man who had tumbled out of the cabin, his neck slashed with a knife?
The report does not mention the gentle and soft hand of the old man reaching up to touch her face, leaving his own fingerprints in blood on her cheek. It does not mention how she did not see those fingerprints until later that night when she returned to her own apartment in Grønland, alone, and looked in the mirror. Why was that not in the report if this writer knew her so well?
By page twelve it is clear that both Sigrid and her literary doppelgänger have both been exonerated.
• • •
Sigrid raises her eyes to see whether any of the junior staff are watching her with the file.
As none of them are looking at her it is clear that, moments earlier, all of them were.
She returns to the report, increasingly attentive to its fictions and assumptions; false premises and confident rhetoric.
And the more she reads past its bureaucratic surface and its misplaced certainty, the more Sigrid can sense a higher firmament of truth. Somewhere, beyond her sight but not her understanding, she can hear a different story; an untold story about a confused Kosovan refugee with no violent record, fleeing from a bad choice rather than making his way toward another. His lethal mistake was not his decision to hurt her but rather running in her direction and not speaking Norwegian well enough to understand the words she had called out twice: “Halt or I will shoot.”
In this story, everything is the same but the meaning of everything is different.
She pictures the events again. The green grass. The red cabin. The blue sky. The running man and his auburn hair. His wide brown eyes.
Sigrid reads on, ever more bothered by the casual ease of the writer. After page twelve, when the verdict is made clear, all other descriptions of the event seem reverse-engineered back to the conclusion. The author is reading into the events whatever is needed so that the findings become better illustrated rather than challenged. It does not seem to be — as best Sigrid can tell — entirely conscious or even deliberate. It is only that the pieces are all easy to explain once the final explanation is provided. In fact, by the end of the report it seems to Sigrid the chief that this fictional Sigrid character was destined to pull the trigger. That it was not only justified but even inevitable.
Not only does the report legally vindicate her, but somehow she is not even considered responsible for the shooting. And there, finally, is the disturbance. Because for the past month she has been tormented over the consequences of her very deliberate and not at all predestined decision.
She was tormented precisely because none of this was inevitable. It was a decision. A decision Sigrid needs to understand and one that can perhaps best be understood by taking apart the definite elements and replacing them with something new — something unexpected.
At her desk, her eyes closed, Sigrid engages in a technique she often uses in her own investigations. She turns summer to winter. She strips out the green grass between the patrol car and the cabin and replaces it with a snowy field. She turns the red summer house into a brown mountain cabin. She fades out the azure sky and replaces it with an iron canopy that presses down from the Arctic.
And across that snow, still holding a knife, and approaching at the same speed, comes the man. But not the same man.
This man is a blond Norwegian.
In this version he is Bjørn — not Burim — and he rushes at her through fresh powder snow with the determination of a Viking. Here is a counterfactual world. A new model. A new set of relationships. Here, in this scenario, everything is familiar but estranged. And it is in the blue eyes of that charging man that Sigrid finally finds the question that the report has not thought to ask. The question no one could imagine asking or, perhaps, no one dared.
It is, however, the question she has been looking for. The one that dismantles the institutional presumptions of cause and effect and inevitability. It is the question that calls everything into doubt and makes space for new truths to be known and, ultimately, acted upon: Would she have shot him twice in the chest — she can now wonder — if he had been a native Norwegian?
A Weird Place
Sigrid spends Saturday binge-watching American TV shows on a streaming service recently introduced to Norway. Her friend Eli insisted she subscribe.
“It’s better than a cat,” she’d said.
“Who mentioned a cat?” Sigrid answered.
“You don’t have a boyfriend.”
“Which is why I need a TV subscription?”
“Exactly,” said Eli.
It was easier, she’d reasoned, to pay the seventy kroner a month than to untangle that knot.
Sigrid soon learned that the streaming service had a function that caused the next episode in a television series to begin only fifteen seconds after the conclusion of the previous episode, thereby saving the subscriber the calories that might have been burned pressing the button. This simple function produced a new kind of restive anxiety that seemed to call out for a name.
The dull flicker of the television and the semi-satisfying stories are helpful at first but after watching for six straight hours she starts to ignore the story lines and instead indulge in spells of curiosity.
Why, for example, is overacting preferred in situation comedies but not in dramas?
Why doesn’t acting more dramatically result in more drama?
Why are American TV actors so… shiny?
British actors don’t appear to reflect light off their skins in quite the same glossy manner as American actors do. How can it be that with all the skin colors available in American society, each one comes with the same glossy finish and never matte?
Could it be something they’re eating? Or… not eating? Are Americans naturally glossy or… unnaturally?
Which would be scarier?
The television shows are terribly unrealistic but she is not bothered by this. It is in that space between divine truth and humanity’s fumbled efforts to make sense of it that Sigrid finds comfort in knowing she is not alone.
By eight thirty at night she has reached a broad conclusion about America. It is not an especially sophisticated conclusion, nor does she suspect that it is original, but it is satisfying to think so deeply about something for a long time and finally hit bedrock. It goes like this: “What a weird place.”
On Sunday she wakes to a Scandinavian summer sun that is so intense it threatens to turn her to dust. It is seven a.m. but the sun is high enough in the sky for the day to burn as noon. Sitting up in bed she realizes that her stomach aches from the bag of sour cream and onion potato chips she devoured last night. Neither the stomachache nor the guilt compare to the taste in her mouth that the toothpaste couldn’t defeat.
After a shower and coffee she tries, briefly, to hide inside the television again, but it has lost its magic. Without a sign of rain to encourage further isolation, she finally succumbs to her Norwegianness and accepts that she has to go outdoors.
She and her older brother, Marcus, had regularly been tossed outside by their parents, whatever the weather, based on a deeply held if unspoken Norwegian belief that any child who does not spend at least three hours outdoors every day might actually die.
Without her parents to compel her, or a child of her own for a surrogate, Sigrid forces herself outside. She spends the warmest part of Sunday alone on a small beach called Bygdøy sjøbad wearing an extra-large T-shirt over green bikini bottoms that have mysteriously grown smaller since last summer. The thin straps cut into her hips.
She has brought a book written by an American humorist. It is called When You Are Engulfed in Flames, and she bought it solely for the title. On the beach, leaning against a stone wall, she spends most of her time not reading it but watching small children run along the crescent-shaped bay, finding starfish and small crabs, and holding them up in delight and terror for their parents to see. Her father has been asking whether she wants children. She looks at the expressions of the parents on the beach for an answer.
That night, as Sigrid and her sunburn recline on the cool sofa across from the television, her father calls. It is not scheduled but it is not unexpected.
Sigrid puts the television on mute and watches an American police car with poor handling chase another car with poor handling though an urban environment, endangering the lives of hundreds.
“You didn’t call me with the results of the report.”
“I take it the findings were favorable.”
Sigrid switches ears. “Why?”
“Because I know you. You wouldn’t have shot a man unless you thought it was necessary.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t have thought it necessary. That’s the part the police department is ignoring.”
“You made a choice, not a mistake, in a situation where any reasonable person would have experienced danger. You’re free to return to work?”
“Come home instead,” he offers. “We’d be happy to have you.”
“Me and Ferdinand.”
“The duck. I could have sworn you’d met.”
On Monday morning Sigrid reports to the office convinced that her hair still smells like her compatriots’ oversexed flesh, their barbecued pork, and the tropical suntan lotion that no one needs this far north. As she enters the building she nods to the smokers by the door, their faces turned toward the sun like so many sunflowers past their prime.
Inside, the light is weaker and the air colder. She passes through the halls of the building that make the days bleed into each other by design. In uniform, she seats herself outside her commanding officer’s door. At precisely 9:15, and on schedule, he opens it and waves her in.
Sigrid stands to adjust her tie but does not step forward into his office. She wants to avoid signaling that this might be a long conversation. “I’m taking leave,” she says immediately.
“You don’t have to,” her CO says, standing with his hand on the door lever. “You’re cleared. The report was definitive. You rescued the hostages and took out a criminal network. You might even be up for a medal.”
“I’m going to take leave.”
He nods as though he understands something, though Sigrid can’t imagine what that might be. “There’s counseling,” he says.
“I’m going home.”
“You won’t mope around your apartment, I hope.”
“My father has a farm.”
“How long will you go on leave?”
“Until I’m back.”
Temperatures that late January morning plunged to four degrees above zero, and still people came by the hundreds of thousands, packing both sides of the procession route from Capitol Hill to the White House.
He opened the new bag of coffee beans and inhaled, relishing the toasted aroma that his favourite brand of arabica gave off.
Discarded medical equipment litters the floor: surgical tools blistered with rust, broken bottles, jars, the scratched spine of an old invalid chair.
The two suspects sat on mismatched furniture in the white and almost featureless lounge, waiting for something to happen.
Shula read his text message, and the air thinned around her. Why was he sending her this? It was exactly what they had agreed he must never do.