The Undertaker's Daughter (Ilka #1)

The Undertaker's Daughter (Ilka #1)

Sara Blaedel

To Victoria


“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 B?rge 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.

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