Nordic Noir Excerpt: THE UNDERTAKER’S DAUGHTER by Sara Blaedel
Denmark’s Queen of Crime launches a new series in the US next week with THE UNDERTAKER’S DAUGHTER (on sale February 6th) - and thanks to Grand Central, I’m thrilled to give CBTB readers an early chance to read the first two chapters from it! Blaedel, best known for her detective novels featuring Louise Rick, now branches out into a very different style of suspense writing—THE UNDERTAKER’S DAUGHTER shifts focus from solving crimes with Louise Rick to unraveling the family secrets of Ilka Jensen, a Danish woman with family in the US.
THE UNDERTAKER’S DAUGHTER follows a Danish woman who discovers previously-unknown truths about the father who abandoned her, and heads to America to pursue them. Set in Racine, Wisconsin, THE UNDERTAKER’S DAUGHTER is wholly distinct from Blaedel’s previous books. From its setting to its content, this book marks a new direction for the author - making this excerpt an even better opportunity to see whether this new style of Blaedel’s writing will work for you! This isn’t your standard Nordic Noir read: it’s a much lighter brand of interpersonal suspense, better suited to readers looking for character-driven stories of family secrets than those looking for the dark, gripping detective novels exemplified by Blaedel’s Louise Rick series. The great news for Blaedel readers: this spring marks both the release of THE UNDERTAKER’S DAUGHTER and the release of three of Blaedel’s Louise Rick backlist! You can find all these titles linked below - there's a little something for everyone on sale from Sara Blaedel this spring.
Sara Blaedel - Spring 2018 Releases:
- THE UNDERTAKER'S DAUGHTER
- THE NIGHT WOMEN (Louise Rick #4)
- THE RUNNING GIRL (Louise Rick #5)
- THE STOLEN ANGEL (Louise Rick #6)
Without further ado - grab a cup of coffee and settle in for the first two chapters of THE UNDERTAKER’S DAUGHTER!
Already widowed by the age of forty, Ilka Nichols Jensen, a school portrait photographer, leads a modest, regimented, and uneventful life in Copenhagen. Until unexpected news rocks her quiet existence: Her father--who walked out suddenly and inexplicably on the family more than three decades ago--has died. And he's left her something in his will: his funeral home. In Racine, Wisconsin.
Clinging to this last shred of communication from the father she hasn't heard from since childhood, Ilka makes an uncharacteristically rash decision and jumps on a plane to Wisconsin. Desperate for a connection to the parent she never really knew, she plans to visit the funeral home and go through her father's things--hoping for some insight into his new life in America--before preparing the business for a quick sale.
But when she stumbles on an unsolved murder, and a killer who seems to still be very much alive, the undertaker's daughter realizes she might be in over her head . . .
THE UNDERTAKER’S DAUGHTER by Sara Blaedel
Grand Central; On sale February 6, 2018
“What do you mean you shouldn’t have told me? You should have told me thirty-three years ago.”
“What difference would it have made anyway?” Ilka’s mother demanded. “You were seven years old. You wouldn’t have understood about a liar and a cheat running away with all his winnings; running out on his responsibilities, on his wife and little daughter. He hit the jackpot, Ilka, and then he hit the road. And left me—no, he left us with a funeral home too deep in the red to get rid of. And an enormous amount of debt. That he betrayed me is one thing, but abandoning his child?”
Ilka stood at the window, her back to the comfy living room, which was overflowing with books and baskets of yarn. She looked out over the trees in the park across the way. For a moment, the treetops seemed like dizzying black storm waves.
Her mother sat in the glossy Børge Mogensen easy chair in the corner, though now she was worked up from her rant, and her knitting needles clattered twice as fast. Ilka turned to her.
“Okay,” she said, trying not to sound shrill. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I wouldn’t have understood about all that. But you didn’t think I was too young to understand that my father was a coward, the way he suddenly left us, and that he didn’t love us anymore. That he was an incredible asshole you’d never take back if he ever showed up on our doorstep, begging for forgiveness. As I recall, you had no trouble talking about that, over and over and over.”
“Stop it.” Her mother had been a grade school teacher for twenty-six years, and now she sounded like one. “But does it make any difference? Think of all the letters you’ve written
him over the years. How often have you reached out to him, asked to see him? Or at least have some form of contact.” She sat up and laid her knitting on the small table beside the chair. “He never answered you; he never tried to see you. How long did you save your confirmation money so you could fly over and visit him?”
Ilka knew better than her mother how many letters she had written over the years. What her mother wasn’t aware of was that she had kept writing to him, even as an adult. Not as often, but at least a Christmas card and a note on his birthday. Every single year. Which had felt like sending letters into outer space. Yet she’d never stopped.
“You should have told me about the money,” Ilka said, unwilling to let it go, even though her mother had a point. Would it really have made a difference? “Why are you telling me now? After all these years. And right when I’m about to leave.”
Her mother had called just before eight. Ilka had still been in bed, reading the morning paper on her iPad. “Come over, right now,” she’d said. There was something they had to talk about.
Now her mother leaned forward and folded her hands in her lap, her face showing the betrayal and desperation she’d endured. She’d kept her wounds under wraps for half her life, but it was obvious they had never fully healed. “It scares me, you going over there. Your father was a gambler. He bet more money than he had, and the racetrack was a part of our lives for the entire time he lived here. For better and worse. I knew about his habit when we fell in love, but then it got out of control. And almost ruined us several times. In the end, it did ruin us.”
“And then he won almost a million kroner and just disappeared.” Ilka lifted an eyebrow.
“Well, we do know he went to America.” Her mother nodded. “Presumably, he continued gambling over there. And we never heard from him again. That is, until now, of course.”
Ilka shook her head. “Right, now that he’s dead.”
“What I’m trying to say is that we don’t know what he’s left behind. He could be up to his neck in debt. You’re a school photographer, not a millionaire. If you go over there, they might hold you responsible for his debts. And who knows? Maybe they wouldn’t allow you to come home. Your father had a dark side he couldn’t control. I’ll rip his dead body limb from limb if he pulls you down with him, all these years after turning his back on us.”
With that, her mother stood and walked down the long hall into the kitchen. Ilka heard muffled voices, and then Hanne appeared in the doorway. “Would you like us to drive you to the airport?” Hanne leaned against the doorframe as Ilka’s mother reappeared with a tray of bakery rolls, which she set down on the coffee table.
“No, that’s okay,” Ilka said.
“How long do you plan on staying?” Hanne asked, moving to the sofa. Ilka’s mother curled up in the corner of the sofa, covered herself with a blanket, and put her stockinged feet up on Hanne’s lap.
When her mother began living with Hanne fourteen years ago, the last trace of her bitterness finally seemed to evaporate. Now, though, Ilka realized it had only gone into hibernation.
For the first four years after Ilka’s father left, her mother had been stuck with Paul Jensen’s Funeral Home and its two employees, who cheated her whenever they could get away with it. Throughout Ilka’s childhood, her mother had complained constantly about the burden he had dumped on her. Ilka hadn’t known until now that her father had also left a sizable gambling debt behind. Apparently, her mother had wanted to spare her, at least to some degree. And, of course, her mother was right. Her father was a coward and a selfish jerk. Yet Ilka had never completely accepted his abandonment of her. He had left behind a short letter saying he would come back for them as soon as everything was taken care of, and that an opportunity had come up. In Chicago.
Several years later, after complete silence on his part, he wanted a divorce. And that was the last they’d heard from him. When Ilka was a teenager, she found his address—or at least, an address where he had once lived. She’d kept it all these years in a small red treasure chest in her room.
“Surely it won’t take more than a few days,” Ilka said.
“I’m planning to be back by the weekend. I’m booked up at work, but I found someone to fill in for me the first two days. It would be a great help if you two could keep trying to get hold of Niels from North Sealand Photography. He’s in Stockholm, but he’s supposed to be back tomorrow. I’m hoping he can cover for me the rest of the week. All the shoots are in and around Copenhagen.”
“What exactly are you hoping to accomplish over there?” Hanne asked.
“Well, they say I’m in his will and that I have to be there in person to prove I’m Paul Jensen’s daughter.”
“I just don’t understand why this can’t be done by e-mail or fax,” her mother said. “You can send them your birth certificate and your passport, or whatever it is they need.”
“It seems that copies aren’t good enough. If I don’t go over there, I’d have to go to an American tax office in Europe, and I think the nearest one is in London. But this way, they’ll let me go through his personal things and take what I want. Artie Sorvino from Jensen Funeral Home in Racine has offered to cover my travel expenses if I go now, so they can get started with closing his estate.”
Ilka stood in the middle of the living room, too anxious and restless to sit down.
“Racine?” Hanne asked. “Where’s that?” She picked up her steaming cup and blew on it.
“A bit north of Chicago. In Wisconsin. I’ll be picked up at the airport, and it doesn’t look like it’ll take long to drive there. Racine is supposedly the city in the United States with the largest community of Danish descendants. A lot of Danes immigrated to the region, so it makes sense that’s where he settled.”
“He has a hell of a lot of nerve.” Her mother’s lips barely moved. “He doesn’t write so much as a birthday card to you all these years, and now suddenly you have to fly over there and clean up another one of his messes.”
“Karin,” Hanne said, her voice gentle. “Of course Ilka should go over and sort through her father’s things. If you get the opportunity for closure on such an important part of your life’s story, you should grab it.”
Her mother shook her head. Without looking at Ilka, she said, “I have a bad feeling about this. Isn’t it odd that he stayed in the undertaker business even though he managed to ruin his first shot at it?”
Ilka walked out into the hall and let the two women bicker about the unfairness of it all. How Paul’s daughter had tried to reach out to her father all her life, and it was only now that he was gone that he was finally reaching out to her.
The first thing Ilka noticed was his Hawaiian shirt and longish brown hair, which was combed back and held in place by sunglasses that would look at home on a surfer. He stood out among the other drivers at Arrivals in O’Hare International Airport who were holding name cards and facing the scattered clumps of exhausted people pulling suitcases out of Customs.
Written on his card was “Ilka Nichols Jensen.” Somehow, she managed to walk all the way up to him and stop before he realized she’d found him.
They looked each other over for a moment. He was in his early forties, maybe, she thought. So, her father, who had turned seventy-two in early January, had a younger partner.
She couldn’t read his face, but it might have surprised him that the undertaker’s daughter was a beanpole: six feet tall without a hint of a feminine form. He scanned her up and down, gaze settling on her hair, which had never been an attention-getter. Straight, flat, and mousy.
He smiled warmly and held out his hand. “Nice to meet you. Welcome to Chicago.”
It’s going to be a hell of a long trip, Ilka thought, before shaking his hand and saying hello. “Thank you. Nice to meet you, too.”
He offered to carry her suitcase. It was small, a carry-on, but she gladly handed it over to him. Then he offered her a bottle of water. The car was close by, he said, only a short walk.
Although she was used to being taller than most people, she always felt a bit shy when male strangers had to look up to make eye contact. She was nearly a head taller than Artie Sorvino, but he seemed almost impressed as he grinned up at her while they walked.
Her body ached; she hadn’t slept much during the long flight. Since she’d left her apartment in Copenhagen, her nerves had been tingling with excitement. And worry, too. Things had almost gone wrong right off the bat at the Copenhagen airport, because she hadn’t taken into account the long line at Passport Control. There had still been two people in front of her when she’d been called to her waiting flight. Then the arrival in the US, a hell that the chatty man next to her on the plane had prepared her for. He had missed God knew how many connecting flights at O’Hare because the immigration line had taken several hours to go through. It turned out to be not quite as bad as all that. She had been guided to a machine that requested her fingerprints, passport, and picture. All this information was scanned and saved. Then Ilka had been sent on to the next line, where a surly passport official wanted to know what her business was in the country. She began to sweat but then pulled herself together and explained that she was simply visiting family, which in a way was true. He stamped her passport, and moments later she was standing beside the man wearing the colorful, festive shirt.
“Is this your first trip to the US?” Artie asked now, as they approached the enormous parking lot.
She smiled. “No, I’ve traveled here a few times. To Miami and New York.”
Why had she said that? She’d never been in this part o the world before, but what the hell. It didn’t matter. Unless he kept up the conversation. And Miami. Where had that come from?
“Really?” Artie told her he had lived in Key West for many years. Then his father got sick, and Artie, the only other surviving member of the family, moved back to Racine to take care of him. “I hope you made it down to the Keys while you were in Florida.”
Ilka shook her head and explained that she unfortunately hadn’t had time.
“I had a gallery down there,” Artie said. He’d gone to the California School of the Arts in San Francisco and had made his living as an artist.
Ilka listened politely and nodded. In the parking lot, she caught sight of a gigantic black Cadillac with closed white curtains in back, which stood first in the row of parked cars. He’d driven there in the hearse.
“Hope you don’t mind.” He nodded at the hearse as he opened the rear door and placed her suitcase on the casket table used for rolling coffins in and out of the vehicle.
“No, it’s fine.” She walked around to the front passenger door. Fine, as long as she wasn’t the one being rolled into the back. She felt slightly dizzy, as if she were still up in the air, but was buoyed by the nervous excitement of traveling and the anticipation of what awaited her.
The thought that her father was at the end of her journey bothered her, yet it was something she’d fantasized about nearly her entire life. But would she be able to piece together the life he’d lived without her? And was she even interested in knowing about it? What if she didn’t like what she learned?
She shook her head for a moment. These thoughts had been swirling in her head since Artie’s first phone call. Her mother thought she shouldn’t get involved. At all. But Ilka disagreed. If her father had left anything behind, she wanted to see it. She wanted to uncover whatever she could find, to see if any of it made sense.
“How did he die?” she asked as Artie maneuvered the long hearse out of the parking lot and in between two orange signs warning about roadwork and a detour.
“Just a sec,” he muttered, and he swore at the sign before deciding to skirt the roadwork and get back to the road heading north.
For a while they drove in silence; then he explained that one morning her father had simply not woken up. “He was supposed to drive a corpse to Iowa, one of our neighboring states, but he didn’t show up. He just died in his sleep. Totally peacefully. He might not even have known it was over.”
Ilka watched the Chicago suburbs drifting by along the long, straight bypass, the rows of anonymous stores and cheap restaurants. It seemed so overwhelming, so strange, so different. Most buildings were painted in shades of beige and brown, and enormous billboards stood everywhere, screaming messages about everything from missing children to ultracheap fast food and vanilla coffee for less than a dollar at Dunkin’ Donuts.
She turned to Artie. “Was he sick?” The bump on Artie’s nose—had it been broken?—made it appear too big for the rest of his face: high cheekbones, slightly squinty eyes, beard stubble definitely due to a relaxed attitude toward shaving, rather than wanting to be in style.
“Not that I know of, no. But there could have been things Paul didn’t tell me about, for sure.”
His tone told her it wouldn’t have been the first secret Paul had kept from him.
“The doctor said his heart just stopped,” he continued. “Nothing dramatic happened.”
“Did he have a family?” She looked out the side window. The old hearse rode well. Heavy, huge, swaying lightly. A tall pickup drove up beside them; a man with a full beard looked down and nodded at her. She looked away quickly. She didn’t care for any sympathetic looks, though he, of course, couldn’t know the curtained-off back of the hearse was empty.
“He was married, you know,” Artie said. Immediately Ilka sensed he didn’t like being the one to fill her in on her father’s private affairs. She nodded to herself; of course he didn’t. What did she expect?
“And he had two daughters. That was it, apart from Mary Ann’s family, but I don’t know them. How much do you know about them?”
He knew very well that Ilka hadn’t had any contact with her father since he’d left Denmark. Or at least she assumed he knew. “Why has the family not signed what should be signed, so you can finish with his.. . estate?” She set the empty water bottle on the floor.
“They did sign their part of it. But that’s not enough, because you’re in the will, too. First the IRS—that’s our tax agency—must determine if he owes the government, and you must give them permission to investigate. If you don’t sign, they’ll freeze all the assets in the estate until everything is cleared up.”
Ilka’s shoulders slumped at the word “assets.” One thing that had kept her awake during the flight was her mother’s concern about her being stuck with a debt she could never pay. Maybe she would be detained; maybe she would even be thrown in jail.
“What are his daughters like?” she asked after they had driven for a while in silence.
For a few moments, he kept his eyes on the road; then he glanced at her and shrugged. “They’re nice enough, but I don’t really know them. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen them. Truth is, I don’t think either of them was thrilled about your father’s business.”
After another silence, Ilka said, “You should have called me when he died. I wish I had been at his funeral.”
Was that really true? Did she truly wish that? The last funeral she’d been to was her husband’s. He had collapsed from heart failure three years ago, at the age of fifty-two. She didn’t like death, didn’t like loss. But she’d already lost her father many years ago, so what difference would it have made watching him being lowered into the ground?
“At that time, I didn’t know about you,” Artie said. “Your name first came up when your father’s lawyer mentioned you.”
“Where is he buried?”
He stared straight ahead. Again, it was obvious he didn’t enjoy talking about her father’s private life. Finally, he said, “Mary Ann decided to keep the urn with his ashes at home. A private ceremony was held in the living room when the crematorium delivered the urn, and now it’s on the shelf above the fireplace.”
After a pause, he said, “You speak English well. Funny
Ilka explained distractedly that she had traveled in Australia for a year after high school.
The billboards along the freeway here advertised hotels, motels, and drive-ins for the most part. She wondered how there could be enough people to keep all these businesses going, given the countless offers from the clusters of signs on both sides of the road. “What about his new family? Surely they knew he had a daughter in Denmark?” She turned back to him.
“Nope!” He shook his head as he flipped the turn signal.
“He never told them he left his wife and seven-year-old daughter?” She wasn’t all that surprised.
Artie didn’t answer. Okay, Ilka thought. That takes care of that.
“I wonder what they think about me coming here.”
He shrugged. “I don’t really know, but they’re not going to lose anything. His wife has an inheritance from her wealthy parents, so she’s taken care of. The same goes for the daughters. And none of them had ever shown any interest in the funeral home.”
And what about their father? Ilka thought. Were they uninterested in him, too? But that was none of her business. She didn’t know them, knew nothing about their relationships with one another. And for that matter, she knew nothing about her father. Maybe his new family had asked about his life in Denmark, and maybe he’d given them a line of bullshit. But what the hell, he was thirty-nine when he left. Anyone could figure out he’d had a life before packing his weekend bag and emigrating.
Both sides of the freeway were green now. The landscape was starting to remind her of late summer in Denmark, with its green fields, patches of forest, flat land, large barns with the characteristic bowed roofs, and livestock. With a few exceptions, she felt like she could have been driving down the E45, the road between Copenhagen and Ålborg.
“Do you mind if I turn on the radio?” Artie asked.
She shook her head; it was a relief to have the awkward silence between them broken. And yet, before his hand reached the radio, she blurted out, “What was he like?”
He dropped his hand and smiled at her. “Your father was a decent guy, a really decent guy. In a lot of ways,” he added, disarmingly, “he was someone you could count on, and in other ways he was very much his own man. I always enjoyed working with him, but he was also my friend. People liked him; he was interested in their lives. That’s also why he was so good at talking to those who had just lost someone. He was empathetic. It feels empty, him not being around any longer.”
Ilka had to concentrate to follow along. Despite her year in Australia, it was difficult when people spoke English rapidly. “Was he also a good father?”
Artie turned thoughtfully and looked out his side window. “I really can’t say. I didn’t know him when the girls were small.” He kept glancing at the four lanes to their left. “But if you’re asking me if your father was a family man, my answer is, yes and no. He was very much in touch with his family, but he probably put more of himself into Jensen Funeral Home.”
“How long did you know him?”
She watched him calculate. “I moved back in 1998. We ran into each other at a local saloon, this place called Oh Dennis!, and we started talking. The victim of a traffic accident had just come in to the funeral home. The family wanted to put the young woman in an open coffin, but nobody would have wanted to see her face. So I offered to help. It’s the kind of stuff I’m good at. Creating, shaping. Your father did the embalming, but I reconstructed her face. Her mother supplied us with a photo, and I did a sculpture. And I managed to make the woman look like herself, even though there wasn’t much to work with. Later your father offered me a job, and I grabbed the chance. There’s not much work for an artist in Racine, so reconstructions of the
deceased was as good as anything.”
He turned off the freeway. “Later I got a degree, because you have to have a license to work in the undertaker business.”
They reached Racine Street and waited to make a left turn. They had driven the last several miles in silence. The streets were deserted, the shops closed. It was getting dark, and Ilka realized she was at the point where exhaustion and jet lag trumped the hunger gnawing inside her. They drove by an empty square and a nearly deserted saloon. Oh Dennis!, the place where Artie had met her father. She spotted the lake at the end of the broad streets to the right, and that was it. The town was dead. Abandoned, closed. She was surprised there were no people or life.
“We’ve booked a room for you at the Harbourwalk Hotel. Tomorrow we can sit down and go through your father’s papers. Then you can start looking through his things.”
Ilka nodded. All she wanted right now was a warm bath and a bed.
“Sorry, we have no reservations for Miss Jensen. And none for the Jensen Funeral Home, either. We don’t have a single room available.”
The receptionist drawled apology after apology.It sounded to Ilka as if she had too much saliva in her mouth.
Ilka sat in a plush armchair in the lobby as Artie asked if the room was reserved in his name. “Or try Sister Eileen O’Connor,” he suggested.
The receptionist apologized again as her long fingernails danced over the computer keyboard. The sound was unnaturally loud, a bit like Ilka’s mother’s knitting needles tapping against each other.
Ilka shut down. She could sit there and sleep; it made absolutely no difference to her. Back in Denmark, it was five in the morning, and she hadn’t slept in twenty-two hours.
“I’m sorry,” Artie said. “You’re more than welcome to stay at my place. I can sleep on the sofa. Or we can fix up a place for you to sleep at the office, and we’ll find another hotel in the morning.”
Ilka sat up in the armchair. “What’s that sound?”
Artie looked bewildered. “What do you mean?”
“It’s like a phone ringing in the next room.” He listened for a moment before shrugging. “I can’t hear anything.”
The sound came every ten seconds. It was as if something were hidden behind the reception desk or farther down the hotel foyer. Ilka shook her head and looked at him. “You don’t need to sleep on the sofa. I can sleep somewhere at the office.”
She needed to be alone, and the thought of a strange man’s bedroom didn’t appeal to her.
“That’s fine.” He grabbed her small suitcase. “It’s only five minutes away, and I know we can find some food for you, too.”
The black hearse was parked just outside the main entrance of the hotel, but that clearly wasn’t bothering anyone. Though the hotel was apparently fully booked, Ilka hadn’t seen a single person since they’d arrived.
Night had fallen, and her eyelids closed as soon as she settled into the car. She jumped when Artie opened the door and poked her with his finger. She hadn’t even realized they had arrived. They were parked in a large, empty lot. The white building was an enormous box with several attic windows reflecting the moonlight back into the thick darkness. Tall trees with enormous crowns hovered over Ilka when she got out of the car.
They reached the door, beside which was a sign: JENSEN FUNERAL HOME. WELCOME. Pillars stood all the way across the broad porch, with well-tended flower beds in front of it, but the darkness covered everything else.
Artie led her inside the high-ceilinged hallway and turned the light on. He pointed to a stairway at the other end. Ilka’s feet sank deep in the carpet; it smelled dusty, with
a hint of plastic and instant coffee.
“Would you like something to drink? Are you hungry? I can make a sandwich.”
“No, thank you.” She just wanted him to leave.
He led her up the stairs, and when they reached a small landing, he pointed at a door. “Your father had a room in there, and I think we can find some sheets. We have a cot we can fold out and make up for you.”
Ilka held her hand up. “If there is a bed in my father’s room, I can just sleep in it.” She nodded when he asked if she was sure. “What time do you want to meet tomorrow?”
“How about eight thirty? We can have breakfast together.”
She had no idea what time it was, but as long as she got some sleep, she guessed she’d be fine. She nodded.
Ilka stayed outside on the landing while Artie opened the door to her father’s room and turned on the light. She watched him walk over to a dresser and pull out the bottom drawer. He grabbed some sheets and a towel and tossed them on the bed; then he waved her in.
The room’s walls were slanted. An old white bureau stood at the end of the room, and under the window, which must have been one of those she’d noticed from the parking lot, was a desk with drawers on both sides. The bed was just inside the room and to the left. There was also
a small coffee table and, at the end of the bed, a narrow built-in closet.
A dark jacket and a tie lay draped over the back of the desk chair. The desk was covered with piles of paper; a briefcase leaned against the closet. But there was nothing but sheets on the bed.
“I’ll find a comforter and a pillow,” Artie said, accidentally grazing her as he walked by.
Ilka stepped into the room. A room lived in, yet abandoned. A feeling suddenly stirred inside her, and she froze. He was here. The smell. A heavy yet pleasant odor she recognized from somewhere deep inside. She’d had no idea this memory existed. She closed her eyes and let her mind drift back to when she was very young, the feeling of being held. Tobacco. Sundays in the car, driving out to Bellevue. Feeling secure, knowing someone close was taking care of her. Lifting her up on a lap. Making her laugh. The sound of hooves pounding the ground, horses at a racetrack. Her father’s concentration as he chain-smoked, captivated by the race. His laughter.
She sat down on the bed, not hearing what Artie said when he laid the comforter and pillow beside her, then walked out and closed the door.
Her father had been tall; at least that’s how she remembered him. She could see to the end of the world when she sat on his shoulders. They did fun things together. He took her to an amusement park and bought her ice cream while he tried out the slot machines, to see if they were any good. Her mother didn’t always know when they went there. He also took her out to a centuries-old amusement park in the forest north of Copenhagen. They stopped at Peter Liep’s, and she drank soda while he drank beer. They sat outside and watched the riders pass by, smelling horseshit and sweat when the thirsty riders dismounted and draped the reins over the hitching post. He had loved horses. On the other hand, she couldn’t remember the times—the many times, according to her mother—when he didn’t come home early enough to stick his head in her room and say good night. Not having enough money for food because he had gambled his wages away at the track was something else she didn’t recall—but her mother did.
Ilka opened her eyes. Her exhaustion was gone, but she still felt dizzy. She walked over to the desk and reached for a photo in a wide mahogany frame. A trotter, its mane flying out to both sides at the finishing line. In another photo, a trotter covered by a red victory blanket stood beside a sulky driver holding a trophy high above his head, smiling for the camera. There were several more horse photos, and a ticket to Lunden hung from a window hasp. She grabbed it. Paul Jensen. Charlottenlund Derby 1982. The year he left them.
Ilka didn’t realize at the time that he had left. All she knew was that one morning he wasn’t there, and her mother was crying but wouldn’t tell her why. When she arrived home from school that afternoon, her mother was still crying. And as she remembered it, her mother didn’t stop crying for a long time.
She had been with her father at that derby in 1982. She picked up a photo leaning against the windowsill, then sat down on the bed. “Ilka and Peter Kjærsgaard” was written on the back of the photo. Ilka had been five years old when her father took her to the derby for the first time. Back then, her mother had gone along. She vaguely remembered going to the track and meeting the famous jockey, but suddenly the odors and sounds were crystal clear. She closed her eyes.
“You can give them one if you want,” the man had said as he handed her a bucket filled with carrots, many more than her mother had in bags back in their kitchen. The bucket was heavy, but Ilka wanted to show them how big she was, so she hooked the handle with her arm and walked over to one of the stalls.
She smiled proudly at a red-shirted sulky driver passing by as he was fastening his helmet. The track was crowded, but during the races, few people were allowed in the barn. They were, though. She and her father.
She pulled her hand back, frightened, when the horse in the stall whinnied and pulled against the chain. It snorted and pounded its hoof on the floor. The horse was so tall. Carefully she held the carrot out in the palm of her hand, as her father had taught her to do. The horse snatched the sweet treat, gently tickling her.
Her father stood with a group of men at the end of the row of stalls. They laughed loudly, slapping one another’s shoulders. A few of them drank beer from bottles. Ilka sat down on a bale of hay. Her father had promised her a horse when she was a bit older. One of the grooms came over and asked if she would like a ride behind the barn; he was going to walk one of the horses to warm it up. She wanted to, if her father would let her. He did.
“Look at me, Daddy!” Ilka cried. “Look at me.” The horse had stopped, clearly preferring to eat grass rather than walk. She kicked gently to get it going, but her legs were too short to do any good.
Her father pulled himself away from the other men and stood at the barn entrance. He waved, and Ilka sat up proudly. The groom asked if he should let go of the reins so she could ride by herself, and though she didn’t really love the idea, she nodded. But when he dropped the reins and she turned around to show her father how brave she was, he was back inside with the others.
Ilka stood up and put the photo back. She could almost smell the tar used by the racetrack farrier on horse hooves. She used to sit behind a pane of glass with her mother and follow the races, while her father stood over at the finish line. But then her mother stopped going along.
She picked up another photo from the windowsill. She was standing on a bale of hay, toasting with a sulky driver. Fragments of memories flooded back as she studied herself in the photo. Her father speaking excitedly with the driver, his expression as the horses were hitched to the sulkies. And the way he said, “We-e-e-ell, shall we .. .?” right before a race. Then he would hold his hand out, and they would walk down to the track.
She wondered why she could remember these things, when she had forgotten most of what had happened back then.
There was also a photo of two small girls on the desk. She knew these were her younger half sisters, who were smiling broadly at the photographer. Suddenly, deep inside her chest, she felt a sharp twinge—but why? After setting the photo back down, she realized it wasn’t from never having met her half sisters. No. It was pure jealousy. They had grown up with her father, while she had been abandoned.
Ilka threw herself down on the bed and pulled the comforter over her, without even bothering to put the sheets on. She lay curled up, staring into space.
No part of the above excerpt may be reproduced without the permission of the publisher.
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing; 1 edition (February 6, 2018)
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