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Death in Tallinn: Excerpt


Tallinn, Estonia, March 1933

It was a bad place for a view.

Not because of the view itself. From this vantage point up on the edge of Toompea Hill, the tourist or visitor from out of town, could enjoy a great panorama. Below and slightly to the right were the roofs and spires of the Old Town, a miraculous fossil survived from the Middle Ages: narrow cobbled lanes, the tall houses of the German merchants, and the churches their profits built, the Town Hall with its slender gothic minaret sitting at the edge of the Square. And everything squeezed snugly inside the city walls with their covered walkways and round towers. Beyond the Old Town could be glimpsed the ships tied up at the quays. And if you looked further, and the smoke drifting over from the plywood factory wasn’t too thick, there was the deep blue of the Gulf of Finland.

And another view by night. The array of lights measured the extent of the growing city. The lights of the Old Town, irregular and unpredictable, sunk in the narrow alleys, even the cafes on Town Hall Square blotted out by the invisible silhouette of the Town Hall itself. Beyond, to the north and east the regular streetlights of the New Town, and over to the west the dim and random twinkling of  the crowded slums and expanding suburbs. And at the water’s edge, blackness. But if you stood at the railing, the darkness permitted the living sounds of the city to rise up like a miasma; fragments and slivers of noise, hints of unseen living. A single word called out, a laugh, a trumpet’s blue note, a car horn, the whinny of a horse. And the odour of night: wisps of cooking, cigar smoke, malt of the brewery, rendered hoof from the glue plant.

No, the viewpoint was a bad place because of those forty metres of rock between the railing and the footpath below that led to the Old Town.  If you leaned out and looked straight down, you could see the hexagonal wooden roof of the kiosk by the path. But that was in daylight.

The man watched the pinpoints of light shimmering below. They seemed to rotate, and the railing reappeared. And then he floated out, and felt himself drifting over the nightbound city. Only the wind in his ears told him he was moving. The darkness thickened. And with a stab in his chest and a flash of light in his head, it was over.


Day 1. Wednesday 22nd March 1933


Kaarel Rebane saw the man when he arrived at six to open up his kiosk. The sun wasn’t up yet, but there was light enough in the grey sky for him to be visible. He stared at Kaarel with an expression of puzzlement, and at first that was all Kaarel saw, the face, with the short dark hair and neatly trimmed moustache. Then, as he stared up, more of the body became visible, shoulders, and outstretched arms draped either side of the kiosk’s roof. Kaarel walked round the back of the six-sided wooden building, looked up again. The man’s legs were spreadeagled on the rear of the roof. He was wearing a dark overcoat, grey trousers and black leather shoes, well polished. And, protruding through the dark bulk of the torso, the sharpened stake which pointed skywards from the kiosk’s apex. The Estonian flag, which normally fluttered from the makeshift flagpole, was, despite the light breeze, clinging stickily to the pole, the blue, black and white tricolor now a glistening black in the pale pre-dawn chill.

Kaarel knew he must inform someone. The kiosk sat by the path running round the foot of the cliff, near the lane leading into the Old Town. It was only two hundred metres to the Baltic Railway Station, where there might be a policeman on duty. But Kaarel ran in the other direction, towards the Old Town. Only forty metres took him to the nearest buildings, on the narrow street where once the Nuns’ Gate had stood. The beauty salon of Marju Simm was not yet open, so Kaarel entered, by a wooden door, the entrance passage next to the shop, ran up the stone spiral staircase to the first floor landing, and rapped on the door. He knew that the Simms had a telephone.

The Simms possessed a telephone because Artur Simm was a newspaper reporter. Even though it was expensive, Artur knew that every tool which speeds communication is a must-have for the modern journalist. There are limits, of course – he couldn’t afford a biplane, though he knew that for a big story, his paper, Pealinna Uudised, Capital News, would hire one. Artur was ambitious, and he knew that to get to the top you had to think big, seize every opportunity.

So when Kaarel Rebane arrived at his door, gasping that a dead man was impaled on the flagpole of his kiosk, Artur replied without hesitation, “Leave it with me, Kaarel, I’ll contact the authorities. You go back and wait for the police, I’ll make sure they’ll be along in no time. Don’t you worry.” As soon as Kaarel had gone, Artur phoned his paper and asked them to send a photographer. Then he told Marju to wait five minutes before calling the police, and rushed out himself.

As he came round the curve of the path, and his eyes adjusted to the weak pre-dawn light, he saw him. The man was draped face-down over the roof of the kiosk, the post protruding through his back. He seemed, apart from the flagpole, to be undamaged. But when Artur looked closer he realised that his head was at an odd angle, a damp train of blood crept down towards the roof’s edge.

Artur looked the man in the eye. He hoped the man would see him there, blink at him, then, with terrible effort, gasp out a few quotable words before giving up the ghost. But there was nothing in the eye that suggested life. The only thing was, the dead man was vaguely familiar. But Artur couldn’t place him. Looked a bit like Clark Gable. Maybe a businessmen – a few of them had killed themselves this year, their companies bankrupt or investments worthless. But none as spectacularly as this. How the hell did he manage to land right on the flagpole, Artur wondered. He’d seen flying squirrels in a short at the cinema, and imagined the man in his dark overcoat swooping effortlessly down from the clifftop, before sinking right onto the sharpened post, arms and legs stretched wide, as if to seize the whole roof of the little building.

“Artur, where are the police?” Kaarel interrupted his thoughts. He looked shaken.

“Don’t worry, Kaarel, they’ll be here any minute. In fact, I thought they’d be here by now.”

“Should I open the kiosk? What do you think?”

“Probably not a good idea. I expect the police will want to examine the body and then remove it.” Artur jotted down a few ideas in his notebook, glancing round to capture the scene in his mind.  He would find the right prose as soon as he got to the office. In a few minutes he heard the sound of footsteps, running towards the kiosk.

“Thank goodness,” gasped Kaarel, “That’ll be the police.”

But it wasn’t the police. It was a young man in a greenish tweed jacket, with his shirt tails flapping as if he hadn’t had time to tuck them into his trousers. Round his neck was a leather case from which he extracted a 35mm Leica camera, before looking up at the dead man.

“Wow!” he exclaimed. “This is something. Artur, do you …”

“Shut up, Tõnu, just snap it. The cops will be along in a minute, then you won’t get close to him.”

“But he is a cop, Artur! It’s Vaher. From the CID. He’s high up.”

“Not any more,” said Artur, “Get shooting, Tõnu, we haven’t much time.”

As Tõnu fiddled with a flash bulb, Kaarel asked Artur, “Where did he come from?  I thought you called the police.”

“Don’t worry, Kaarel, I called them too. I’m surprised Tõnu got here first. I really am. He’s only taking a few shots for the paper. Once the police get here we’ll all have to stand back. Nobody else will get pictures like this.”

Tõnu took several shots, from various angles, starting close to the body, then moving further back. But changing the flash bulb after every shot slowed him down, and soon they heard the rasp of a two-stroke engine, and saw among the trees a motorcycle and sidecar, heading towards them from the direction of the railway station.

“Shit,” said Artur to himself. He hadn’t expected that. He’d thought a couple of plods would walk over from police headquarters down on Pikk Street. “Tõnu,” he hissed, “Get out of here now, and over to the paper. Tell them what you saw. I’ll see what happens here, then come over and  work up a report. We’ll have it ready for the lunchtime edition. If not before. Quick!”

Tõnu dashed off, still clutching his camera, the case swinging wildly from the strap around his neck. He was gone by the time the bike emerged from the trees, roared across the empty ground in front of the path, and slithered to a halt by the kiosk. The patrolmen came over to stare at the dead man.

“Holy Spirit help us!” one of them gasped. “It’s Vaher!”

“Is he dead?” said the other.

“Looks that way, but we better check. Come on, Mati, give me a hand up.” With some help from his colleague, the patrolman managed to get a foot on the lip of the counter, which protruded beyond the closed shutters at the front of the kiosk and grabbed  the edge of the roof. With his own face inches from the dead man’s, it was obvious that he was dead. Nevertheless he checked for a pulse in the neck. Nothing.

Now they turned to the two men watching them, the older one middle-aged, short, balding, worried, the other slim with sandy hair and a toothbrush moustache beneath his pointed nose, smirking.

“You!” said the patrolman on the ground to the younger man, “Did you find the body?”

“No,” replied Artur, it was him, indicating Kaarel, “I just came by later.”

“OK,” said the patrolman, “We don’t need to talk to you. You get back over there by the trees.” He laid a hand on Kaarel’s arm. “You, Sir, just wait with us here. CID’ll be along in a minute.”