How to rest and sleep in winter
In the clumps of alder-bushes
Underneath the sheltering fir-tree,
Underneath the pine's protection.
Outside, it was minus ten Celsius. The sea was still frozen. Through the windows behind the Kalastajatorppa Hilton's reception hall, I could see people walking about on the ice. I could also see the woman talking to the desk clerk. An American. I can't distinguish regional accents, but she was well-dressed and sounded as if she was accustomed to getting her way with hotel staff. She was showing the man a photograph. He eventually shook his head. She persisted. He pointed across the foyer at me. My client had already left, and his chair was still vacant. She came across and sat down without being invited.
"Can I ask you a question?" she said.
"Please be seated. My name is Juho Virtanen."
"I'm sorry. My name is Margaret Fountain."
"How do you do."
"Have you seen my daughter?" showing me the photograph, "She is called Rachel. Rachel Fountain."
I recognised the girl, of course, but she hadn't been calling herself Rachel Fountain. I knew her as Ann Smith, and I'd met her briefly, a week ago. A plain girl, but not actually ugly. Athletic. A little underweight. Good teeth, hair and skin.
I said, "I don't remember her. Have you lost her? I may be able to help."
"She left home in Los Angeles two weeks ago. I discovered she'd booked a flight to Helsinki with one night in this hotel. I only found out because she used an online booking system that automatically credits the FrequentFlier miles to my account. I've been in contact with the management here, but she only stayed the one night. I just arrived to try and trace her."
"And you're talking to me because...?" I knew why, but I wanted to know what she thought.
"Teens only have one reason for coming to Helsinki these days."
"How old is she?"
"She's officially an adult here."
"Yes, I know. I'm worried about that. I spoke to the police, but..."
"... But she's not breaking the law in Finland, and she's an adult, so they can't help," I finished.
"Yes. I'm concerned she'll do something stupid."
"Most of the procedures are pretty costly. There's a limit to what she could buy."
"That's part of the problem. She was living in my beach house. She managed to sell it behind my back and I guess she's converted the proceeds to NetDollars. But still, I'm hoping it's just a cosmetic procedure she wants."
"Not necessarily. There are a number of possible procedures. She may be applying to VGMK for a new organ or limb. She may be seeking treatment from one of the many clinics here that offer gene modification to avoid inheritable diseases or tendencies. She may desire a body modification - horns, tails and tusks are popular with the more adventurous young persons this year. She may wish to donate an ovum or embryo for future use. She may..."
"OK! I have no clear idea what her intentions are. In my mother's day, it was tattoos and piercings, in mine, cyber enhancements and implanted hardware. Now, it's all body and DNA mods. I'd be prepared to pay for your time and expenses to find her. The clerk tells me that you are trustworthy and that you act as a... an agent? for GM procedures. You have contacts, yes? "
"Yes, I am a field representative for VGMK and a few other independent companies, but principally in the field of organ and limb replacements."
"VGMK? Who are they?"
"They are the Finnish state gene modification centre. They started this business a century ago, immediately after they left the EU. Organ banks, skin and limb farms, tissue matching. Your daughter has no such deficiencies, I presume."
"Of course not!
"Of course not. However, I do have a number of contacts in the cosmetic and body enhancement areas, and I could ask around. Show me the photo again." She held it out. I copied it to my FlashMem. "And dump me your contact details, and Rachel's."
"She's ditched her cell, I think. It's been no-sig since she disappeared. Please help, if you can."
I said: "It occurred to me that Rachel might have an accomplice. Is there a a boy or girlfriend involved, do you think?"
"I don't think so. The flight and hotel bookings were for a single traveller. Besides, she's a bit of a loner, never expressed any interest in boys... or girls, for that matter."
"She runs a lot. Miles along the beach every day, or on nature trails. And she was a little star-struck for a while. There are various entertainment stars living in our area. She used to spend hours standing outside their homes, hoping for a glimpse, and she has a collection of keepsakes and posters from some of them. But teenage girls go through that sort of phase. I know I did."
"Anyone in particular? Could one of them be on tour in Finland?"
"Oh! Alex Dostoyevsky - he was flavour of the month for a while. I don't think it's his real name. Horrid guy, but she adored him."
It was clear this woman's family was well-heeled. California beach houses have never come cheap. To milk the situation, I'd have to make this seem more difficult than it looked. I declined an advance. The price would escalate later.
"I'll be in touch," I said, "You'll be staying here?"
"Yes. Room 788. Do your best, please."
As I left the hotel, I heard the ice give one of its characteristic eerie groans, and in the early twilight, a fox ran through the taxi rank and tiptoed up the rocks into the pines.
He was known as Zeb. Short for Zebra, not Zebedee. His particular mutation was zebra stripes. All over him. Including his face. I caught up with him in a steamed-up coffee shop by the harbour, talking to a mermaid. Mermaids are one of VGMK's less successful ideas. Apart from anything else, merpeople are fat and ugly, because of all the blubber. They smell... kind of fishy. And they have immensely powerful shoulders and arms to drag themselves around on land, like seals. Short, kinky black hair, not blonde. Grey, dolphin-like skin all over, not pink above and scaly below as seen in popular art. Unattractive. She eventually flopped and slithered out.
I said: "Hi, Zeb. Your new girlfriend?"
"Ach... She's OK. They're great underwater workers, and sub-sea farming is important these days. Coffee?
"No, thanks. Look, I'll come to the point. You remember that girl, Ann Smith, that I sent to you?"
"What? You looking for a cut on the commission?"
"Well, maybe. But there's more money to be made for both of us if you haven't placed her yet."
"You must think I'm some miracle worker," he said. "There's waiting lists all over. I've got her stashed in the New Hesperia while I sort something out."
"Great. The thing is - her Mum's over from the States looking for her. I think we could share in a big finder's fee, and the longer it takes, the bigger the fee will be."
"I don't know. I'd lose the commission on the procedures."
"Not necessarily. You could get her done and pick up your percentage before we 'find' her."
A grin crinkled his striped cheeks as he took that in. "It's a deal."
"Just one thing. You'd better move her out of the New Hesperia to somewhere obscure, way out of town. I wouldn't put it past Mummy to visit every decent hotel in the city with her photograph."
"Yeah, right. I've got that cottage in the woods up country, with a couple of caretakers. She'd like that." We all knew that Zeb was desperately rich, and suspected that Zeb's "cottage" was a luxurious, under-used mansion. She should be very safe there.
"Just make sure she doesn't connect me with this deal, so I can look like a hero when I find her. We're not doing anything illegal, but it wouldn't look good. By the way, what does she want?"
"The girl? No biggy. Parthenogenesis job."
"Right. With a little twist. Nothing tricky or weird, though."
"What sort of a 'twist', Zeb?"
"She's got some DNA off some disgusting popstar all the kids are are crazy about. She provoked him into spitting at her and she preserved it in a sterile container. She wants to have his babies, plural."
"No accounting for taste, eh? Who are you placing it with?"
"Well, I was expecting to use KOGM - they have the shortest waiting list, but if she wants the best, I guess she'll have to wait for Niemi's clinic. Could be three weeks"
"Yes it does, doesn't it."
Next day, I called Ms. Fountain to report that I was making progress, but I'd know more the following day, Wednesday.
On Wednesday, as soon as Zeb reported he'd moved Rachel, I called Ms. Fountain and arranged to meet. I'd decided to tell her about Rachel's stay at the New Hesperia before she found out for herself. It would establish confidence.
I found Margaret Fountain in the bar of her hotel, staring out the window. Just outside, on the open-air beachfront terrace, in a temperature of minus ten degrees Celsius, three Polars were sitting around a metal table drinking. Already carrying a thick layer of fat against the cold, they were made bulkier by their heavy natural fleece. Drinking vodka, of course. Beer would have frozen in the can. Every so often, one of them hammered on the heavy triple-glazed door with an empty vodka bottle, and a waiter would be dispatched with a replacement, going round the long way so as not to let the winter into the lounge bar. Margaret Fountain seemed fascinated by them.
"I don't want her ending up like that," she said, shuddering.
"No danger, Ms Fountain. They were developed over years, at great expense. You seldom see them indoors, and never in Helsinki except in wintertime. They find warmth very unpleasant."
"Are they... human?"
"Oh, yes. A race apart, but they can theoretically interbreed with the rest of us, though both sexes only have a short period of fertility, just in the summer, when they moult their winter coats. They were created from a group of Lapp volunteers by VGMK to work in sub-zero conditions. So now the Arctic permafrost is warmed and softened by genetically modified bacteria, and Finland grows genetically modified cereals in the Arctic tundra, tended by genetically modified men who look more like bears than people. And their females? Hard to distinguish. Rough folk."
Polars typically wore only enough clothing for modesty. The three outside were dressed in shorts and trainers, only their leathery faces emerging from a thick white pelt that enveloped them from head to toe.
She drew herself together with a visible effort. "You have some news for me?" she said.
"Yes. She's been staying at the New Hesperia under the name of Ann Smith, but she left yesterday evening. I think she may have been tipped off by my enquiries. However, I've got a line on the agent she's using, so I'm hopeful. You mentioned an advance yesterday. I could do with a little money for expenses now. A few thousand dollars would do, meantime. There's a lot of secrecy in the industry, and breaking into it costs. I may also have to travel."
"Certainly. I'm grateful for your assistance. Will ten K do?"
"Fine." I gave her my pay-in code, and she PPed the sum on the spot.
Over the next week, I relieved Ms Fountain of another thirty K, drip-feeding my story of an energetic hunt for Rachel. I was able to reassure her that Rachel was still waiting for treatment, but I pretended not to know where she was waiting. I split the funds with Zeb, seventy percent for me, thirty for him. It was only fair. I was doing most of the work.
Meanwhile, I was negotiating on behalf of a prominent Middle Eastern client for a kidney transplant. Most First World countries were relaxed about medical applications of GM, and most had their own facilities. But many African and Asian nations had religious or ethical objections to spare parts surgery. I was there to ensure wealthy citizens of these nations that VGMK was their friend, no names, no disclosure. VGMK's successful Unconscious Universal Donor operation supplied the entire globe with organ and limb transplants, and the few mistakes they had made seemed to have been forgiven.
I entertained my client at a folkloric 'puppet' show, unique in the world. On the stage, Ilmarinen was being tricked by Väinämöinen to travel to Pohjola, where he would create the Sampo. It was a tale unfamiliar to most, and only comprehensible to me because I'd read snippets from Finland's folk tales - the Kalevala. The drama was being enacted by 'Little People', one of VGMK's misguided experiments.
The original intention had been to develop a race of tiny 'human-like' people, that could be a charming animated doll or pet for children. The creature was called Menninkäinen - gnome. They had turned out to be all too human in their disposition: aggressive, thieving, sexually active, and the experiment had been abandoned, all Little People to be rounded up and killed. Due to public anthropomorphic sentiment for their plight, the killing was incompletely carried out, and quite a few remained in captivity. A number. it was rumoured, had escaped and formed colonies in the wild. They were based on a strain of monkeys whose DNA is very similar to humans, but incorporated quite a lot of human genes, so that they really resembled small humans with oversized heads. They could not speak, so the soundtrack was spoken by the theatre. They were well-trained, being about as clever as dogs. They reproduced very quickly, copiously, and indiscriminately, about one year a generation. Uncontrolled, they could have produced a population explosion.
My client was clearly impressed by the show. The precision and grace of the creatures' movements, the dramatic appearance of the characters, the excellence of the costumes. His obvious delight improved my own enjoyment. The language was Finnish, but the rhythmic epic poetry had its mysterious appeal, and there were supertitles in English.
After the performance, however, Zeb's Giant, Matti, was waiting for me in the foyer, stooping to avoid clashing with the light fittings. A slightly more successful VGMK development, Giants filled many niches in society for which height was an asset, but it was common to see these three-metre Giants squeezed into public transport or doubled over in shops. Matti said: "Zeb wants you to come with me now."
Zeb could have txted a message. Matti was obviously there to make sure I actually came. He knew I could have been dragged along like an reluctant child. My client was impressed all over again by Matti. He wasn't keen to be sent back to his hotel, but I promised to entertain him again very soon. Meanwhile, he had other sightseeing to do.
Zeb was waiting around the corner in a Lexus Hummer lookalike, but bigger. The engine was running, the heater on. Matti folded himself into the space where the backseats and luggage area were combined. I opened the kerbside door to talk to Zeb, who was in the driving seat. "Get in!" he said.
I got into the passenger seat because it would have been too cold to stand in the street and argue.
"What is it?"
"We've got trouble. Big trouble, and it's all your fault. Your girl has disappeared." He was driving towards the Kotka road.
"Ann Smith, so called."
"OK, so she's changed her mind. They sometimes do. Especially the teenagers. It's not a complete loss, Zeb. You lose your commission, but we took a packet from Mummy already."
"You don't understand. She's missing. She went out for a walk and never came back."
"In this temperature?"
"Yeah, well, she'd been out before, well wrapped up, and came back OK. It's nice out there. It's near Repovesi."
"That's a wilderness, Zeb! Is that where your mökki is?"
"Sure. There's other cottages like it in the area, she may turn up. And the staff are out looking for her."
"Why am I in this car with you?"
"Because you are equally responsible. We are going to look for this girl together, and we are not calling the emergency services, and we will never speak of this to anyone but each other."
"OK. I'll help, but we've got to go a little public to speak to the neighbours, so word will get out. There's no harm in telling the truth. She was at your place perfectly legitimately, awaiting her treatment. It was a kindness. We needn't mention the Ms. Fountain connection."
"I suppose so."
It was nearly three hours before we got to Zeb's cottage, late at night. To my surprise, it really was a a cottage, not a country house as I'd expected. After we left the main road, we only saw one other habitation, then we took the side road, then the rough track. The cottage had a main room and two bedrooms. The staff consisted of an elderly Russian couple who lived in one of the bedrooms. That was it. Every few weeks, someone from a nearby town drove up there with essential supplies - food, cooking gas, bottled water, a can of diesel for the generator. It was life as it was probably lived two hundred years ago.
Ann had not returned. The old couple, refugees from just over the border in Russia, spoke little Finnish. But they did speak reasonable English. Apparently, the girl used to out and walk close to the cottage, wearing a borrowed fur coat and boots. She seemed to enjoy it. She had always returned after an hour or so. Today, she hadn't. And her cellphone was right here.
Despite the late hour, we phoned every neighbour - there weren't many - just half a dozen in a ten kilometer radius. Only two were occupied, and they knew nothing. We called the police. If she hadn't been found by now, we could be fairly sure she was dead.
As soon as it was light, Zeb and I explored the immediate area around the cottage, searching, calling. Trees, snowdrifts, fallen branches. There were some fearsome steep slopes and even cliffs, frozen waterfalls and streams, but no sign of her. Not a footprint. It had snowed. It was easy to get lost. Without Zeb, I'd have never found my way back to the cottage, even with my GPS. You couldn't see the cottage even when you were quite close.
Meanwhile, the police had visited all the unoccupied properties in the area, and drawn a blank. They spent a day with dogs. The dogs ran in circles, barked, tugged at their leads, sat, wagged tails, and generally did what dogs do when there's no scent. From experience, the police knew that a search helicopter, even with IR capability, was useless in such a heavily wooded area. They clearly expected someone to stumble over some bones in the Spring. The Russian wife complained that Ann had taken her coat and boots, so she could not venture out any more. I gave her money for replacements and arranged for the delivery van to bring them.
Then we went back to Helsinki. I had bad news to deliver.
I told Margaret Fountain that her daughter had probably suffered a misadventure during a forest walk while awaiting her procedure. She insisted she would stay and await news, however hopeless. Though it was hardly my fault that the girl had screwed up, I was suffering from guilt, big time, and I tried to return Mrs Fountain's money. When she refused, I insisted she move out of the expensive hotel, and live in my spare room. We telephoned the police every day without success.
For most of my time in Helsinki, I had been living alone in a small rented house in Munkkiniemi on the shore of a lagoon, a short distance from the centre of my operations, the Kalastajatorppa Hilton. The sea view from the triple-glazed picture window of my workroom included the frozen bay, distant headlands, huge rocks and stunted trees and bushes, the lagoon now frozen into a white moonscape, the floes piled against and riding over each other in confusion. The serenity and the long eerie creaking and clanking of the ice seemed to soothe her.
At first, she reminisced about her lost daughter, her separated husband, her rich, but ruined, life. Listening to her, it just made me feel worse, and I selfishly wanted her gone.
To my surprise, she stayed on from the short, stark, severe days of late winter through balmy early summer with long days and nights, when it never became properly dark, evening fading into morning, the lagoon peppered with pleasure craft. She spoke less, busied herself around the house, then, suddenly, she decided to go.
That should heve been the tragic end of it all.
This morning, as I left the house on the way to the hotel, a fox, possibly the vixen whose brood had been making the nights loud with delighted yelps, was sitting on a rock opposite my gate. She stared boldly at me for a minute, meeting my eyes, and then slid easily into the trees.
Mikko, the desk clerk, called across as I entered the lobby: "Juho, I have a letter for you."
"A letter? People don't write to me, or to anyone, these days. It must be a contract or a court summons or something else legal."
"Nope. A letter." And so it was. In a red, white and blue striped envelope, with actual stamps, a modern antique from the US Mail.
This is to tell you the great news that Rachel has been returned to me, intact. I should already have told you, but I have been so excited. She arrived last month carrying a temporary passport issued in Norway. She has had the most the most amazing adventures, and I enclose a cutting from our neighbourhood 'newspaper'. I am most grateful for your kindness in Helsinki, and I am relieved to tell you that she has given up her desire to mother the spawn of the Devil!
Please stay in touch.
© Gil Williamson 2016 All Rights Reserved
Date and time of last update 11:20 Sun 28 Aug 2016
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