From #1 bestselling Dutch author Suzanne Vermeer, the story of a family camping trip turned deadly
When Niels and his parents arrive at the beautiful forest campground in Lake Garda, Italy, they are looking forward to making friends, relaxing, and so much more. But they are not expecting that Niels will be witness to a killing. The ongoing investigation threatens the family's sense of security. Will Niels have to face the murderer? And more importantly, could he still be in danger?
In one of her most enthralling tales, Vermeer makes us all afraid of the dark woods.
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About the Author
Her thrillers, which focus on themes of travel, tourism, and vacation, are wildly popular.
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By Suzanne Vermeer, Jordan Sowle
De Arbeiderspers | A.W. BrunaCopyright © 2011 Suzanne Vermeer
All rights reserved.
Hans put some of the traditional kale and mashed potatoes on his plate and grinned at his eleven-year-old son, Niels. "It's raining cats and dogs out there—our driveway looks like split-pea soup! Thankfully, we are all warm and cozy inside and enjoying our dinner; what else could we want in life?"
"A spoon for the split-pea soup in the driveway, maybe?"
Petra laughed. Lately, Niels really managed to surprise Hans and her with his witty banter. "Well, I can think of something much better. What do you think about a fresh summer salad and a cold glass of white wine on a nice warm terrace while we watch the sun set over the water?"
Hans shrugged his shoulders. "Your time will come, sun worshipper. It will be summer in a few months."
"So, are we buying a tent?" Niels asked. He had dug out a hole in the center of his mashed potatoes, where the gravy should go.
"Where in the world did you get that idea?" Hans asked, surprised.
"I don't know," his son answered dryly.
"An eleven-year-old always has a reason for asking a question," Hans said determinedly, while trying to place his son's unexpected question. "Maybe you want to spend a night in a tent in the backyard? Does that sound exciting you?"
"No. I want a tent so we can go camping at a real campground. That's where Jimmy and Bart go."
"Why are you thinking about that in the middle of winter?"
"We learned about it in class today. Camping is really cool," Niels answered enthusiastically. "And you can make a lot of new friends at those campgrounds."
Hans nodded. "Yes, making new friends is always fun. But did they also tell you about the mosquitos in the tent and peeing and pooping in dirty public toilets?"
"Hans, please! We are eating for God's sake!"
"Sorry, you're right. It just slipped out."
"Just like the turds do in those public toilets," Niels said, snickering.
"Funny." Hans frowned. "But seriously, when I was a kid I spent quite a few summers at those campgrounds with my parents. I can assure you that it in no way compares to a nice condo or hotel."
Petra gave him a piercing look. "In your opinion."
"Yes, in my opinion. And I speak from experience. Have you ever even been to a campground?"
Before she had a chance to respond, Niels let out a theatrical and dramatic sigh. "So, we're going to one of those hotels again this summer vacation?"
"Spoiled child," Hans said, in a disapproving tone. "If I would have said something like that to my parents at your age, they would have thought I had lost my mind."
Niels looked at him with raised eyebrows. "Why? Because they didn't have any hotels yet back then?"
Petra couldn't hide her smile. Niels's uninhibited questions showed how rigid Hans could be in his thinking about certain things. She didn't want a big argument about it at the table now, but wanted to discuss it with Hans alone first. She changed the subject quickly and pointed out the last piece of sausage.
"I've had more than enough. Who wants the last piece?
It was a useless question. She cut the piece in two.
"Fine, then." Niels sighed and looked at his plate, clearly disappointed.
Hans nodded in confirmation and wisely kept his mouth shut. Thirteen years of marriage had taught him that his wife's assessment skills were far greater than his.CHAPTER 2
Hans turned off the television. After he had wished Niels a good night and Petra had crawled behind her computer, he'd had some trouble concentrating on the TV show he'd been watching. He got up and walked to the kitchen. When he got to the fridge, he turned around.
"Honey, I'm having a beer. Can I get you anything?"
Without taking her eyes off the screen, she answered: "No, thank you. I still have half a glass."
Beer bottle in hand, he walked back to the living room. "So, about what we discussed at dinner," he mumbled. "I may have been wrong. Maybe a campground isn't such a bad idea? Not that I'm jumping for joy to go camping, but Niels ... Well, you know what I mean."
"Yes, I know. I'm online anyway; I can look and see if I can find something fun?"
Hans sat back down in his chair and thought about going camping. He wondered where his aversion toward camping came from anyway. Because if he was honest, he actually had many happy memories of the many summer vacations spent camping. Despite the fact that the weather didn't always cooperate, it had never been boring.
But that was then and couldn't really be compared to now. As the youngest son from a working-class family with three children, he hadn't exactly landed in the lap of luxury. His father worked in a factory and his mother took care of the household and children. They always had more than enough to eat, but his mother had to squeeze every penny to make sure the children were dressed properly. Not much was left over from his father's salary at the end of the month, but they managed to save just enough to go camping for two weeks in the Dutch countryside. It was considered a big luxury and had made them all very happy at the time. Yet, Hans had always been somewhat embarrassed about his poor background. He knew that was ridiculous. But unfortunately it was buried deep inside him.
There had been a time when he was far more preoccupied with all of that. During that time he decided he needed to get as far away as possible from the working-class stigma. He wanted to choose a career path that people would look up to, that he looked up to, where he could be very successful, certainly financially. Maybe he would become a doctor, lawyer, accountant, or judge? He would never have to worry about something as trivial as money again. He also thought that it would make his parents proud. Despite their limited means, they had raised him to make the most of himself.
But in the real world things had gone very differently. He was not a great student, at least not at the level he needed in order to achieve his ambitions. He had tried, but being a law student was too far out of his reach. Eventually it had all become clear. Yes, he came from a working-class family, and yes, maybe it wasn't what he had hoped for, but he really did prefer to work with his hands. He actually didn't want to become a doctor, lawyer, accountant, or judge. It had to be a profession that felt good to him, that allowed him to contribute something to society, and with which he could support himself decently. As a compromise of sorts, he chose what was right for him and became a physiotherapist. Certainly a well-respected profession, one you still had to study hard for, but which was of a far more practical nature.
Petra interrupted his thoughts. "I may have found something; I'll show you in just a minute."
Hans looked at her back and noticed their wedding picture on the desk. This regular guy from Amersfoort did manage to marry the most beautiful girl in Soest! And he could support her financially. Even though that sounded horribly old fashioned now, at the time it had been very important to him. After he finished his physiotherapy degree, he had found a job in Baarn, a neighboring city. The fact that Petra could have supported herself perfectly well didn't seem to matter at the time. Then there was that magical moment where he had become a father and had held Niels in his arms for the first time. They had tried for a second child right away, but after two miscarriages and after he became a partner in the practice, they had decided not to put any more pressure on it and agreed that one child was also fine. Petra opened a fashion store in Amersfoort and they moved from their rented three-bedroom apartment in the city to a house they bought in Baarn. The only thing missing from the picture-perfect family was a pet. But Hans was incredibly happy with his life at the moment. Niels had mentioned a dog, but Hans found him a bit too young to fully care for one, and he and Petra didn't have the time to take on that responsibility. They would try and find a solution for it after summer vacation, but they managed to keep Niels in limbo for now; this way, it would be less disappointing if they couldn't figure it out but his excitement would be far greater if they did. But first they had to arrange their vacation plans.
The past few years they had spent their vacations in beautiful resorts. Only now did he wonder if Niels had ever enjoyed it as much as they had. When he recalled his own childhood vacations, he realized that Niels probably didn't need all of that luxury in order to enjoy his vacation. Besides, it was good for a child to learn to entertain himself and to not get too used to the idea of always being entertained. As a boy, the thing Hans had enjoyed the most was playing outside. It gave him a real sense of freedom.
Of course, Niels also had fun. Hans had been able to spend a lot of quality time with his son on their vacations. Niels's reaction at dinner probably didn't mean that he didn't like their previous vacation, but signaled the fact that puberty was on its way and that he would become more and more influenced by his peers.
"Hans come and take a look at this."
He got up and walked over to the desk and stood behind Petra. The bright and cheerful colors jumped off the screen. It was the home page of a resort somewhere in Italy, from the looks of it.
"La Regina di Garda," Petra read out loud. "The Queen of Lake Garda." She clicked on one of the boxes on the upper right side of the screen.
"This campground is right on Lake Garda, which is near Verona and about sixty miles from Venice. We've always wanted to go there."
They looked at the map and at the various facilities and options. Besides the large spaces you could rent for your own tent or caravan, the resort also offered luxurious tents, mobile homes, and bungalows. When Petra showed him some pictures of the different mobile homes, Hand sniffed his nose with disapproval.
"I don't think this is what he meant. Niels wants to be in a tent at a campground."
"Well, maybe you can fool yourself into thinking that you're going to do that, but not me, sweetheart. They may be luxurious tents, but they don't come with your own shower or toilet. Can you see yourself using public toilets and showers for two weeks? I don't think so, and the same goes for me, by the way. I think it's fine to have a little less excess and luxury, but let's not go from one extreme to another here."
"Spoiled brat," Hans responded, slightly annoyed. "So?"
"A compromise," Petra said firmly. "If you agree, we can book a mobile home at this campground. Niels will partially get his wish. He will be at a campground and not in a bungalow or a hotel and we get the mobile home with our own shower and bathroom."
Hans placed his hand over hers and moved the mouse; he pointed the cursor to the icon with the map and clicked on it.
"Unbelievable! It's huge; it looks like a damn city!"
Petra nodded in agreement. "I never knew that such giant campgrounds even existed."
"Do you think Niels will like it?"
"A quarter past three," Hans said, pleased with himself. "Now that's what I call on schedule!"
About two hundred yards after they took the exit to Peschiera del Garda from the highway, they could see Lake Garda in flashes between the freestanding houses and trees.
"Our campsite is somewhere close to this little village."
As they approached a roundabout, Niels pointed to a sign on the side of the road that listed a set of names. "There!" he called out enthusiastically. "Regina di Garda."
Hans took the turn and slowed the car down at the campground's entrance and turned on to the paved driveway a few moments later. A few hundred yards farther he stopped next to a young man, dressed in shorts and a white T-shirt that read Staff Regina di Garda in large black letters. Petra had barely opened her window when he began to explain to her, in English with a heavy Italian accent and in a friendly manner, where to park the car and check in.
After a short walk from the parking lot they entered the main office, which was bigger than it appeared to be from the outside. There were twelve consecutive counters. Ten women and two men, all wearing the same outfit the young man outside had worn, were all helping the vacationers to find their way to their new homes for the next few weeks. There were well over thirty people in line; Hans counted. He could hear English, German, Italian, and Dutch being spoken around him.
"Are the Rolling Stones playing in Verona and is this where we get the pre-sale tickets?" He mumbled sarcastically. "We should have brought our sleeping bags."
Niels stared at him with his big blue eyes, clueless as to what any of that meant.
"Ah, never mind," Hans responded. Even though the crowds and the size of the campground seemed a bit overwhelming, he also thought it was a good sign that the place was apparently so popular. The desk clerks did their jobs well. They remained friendly and worked fast. Within a half an hour, they were helped by a young lady around twenty years old, whose name was Jennifer, according to the badge on her shirt. She spoke German, Italian, and English. Petra handed her their voucher, and a few moments later they were officially checked in.
"Your mobile home is located at Bardolino number 27. You can park your car there yourself." She tapped on the map in front of her with her nails.
Along with the key, she gave them three blue wristbands and wished them a happy holiday.
When they got back in the car Hans said, "Without a map you would get completely lost here." He handed the map to Petra and pointed to the location of their mobile home. They left the parking lot and drove into the park.
"This is the Corso Copenhagen," Petra said, looking back and forth from the map to their surroundings. "This part only has tents." She nodded. "Keep going straight until we reach the intersection with Viale Bruxelles. Then take a right and then the third street on the left will be Bardolino.... It really does look like a city, but very well organized and perfect, like they planned every inch of this place with a ruler, and every road big or small has a name."
Hans took a right turn at the intersection. "If anyone ever tries to tell me again that Italians are chaotic, I'm going to personally slap them on the head with this map."
Petra grinned. She liked his enthusiasm. Despite all of his good intentions at the beginning, she still had her doubts about how he would react once they actually got to the campground. Thankfully, the pictures they saw online turned out to be an accurate depiction of how things were in reality. There was no way to compare this campground to the kind of campgrounds she and Hans had visited when they were kids. But she hoped she hadn't cheered too soon.
"Bardolino," Hans read from the street sign. "This is it. Let's find number 27." He continued slowly and stopped at the third mobile home on his left. They got out of the car and Petra opened the door to their new vacation home. After a quick inspection of the living room, toilet, and shower, Hans put his hand on Niels's shoulder and looked very satisfied.
"This looks perfectly fine, doesn't it? This gives us a little more room and luxury than a tent, and it's a bit cozier than a bungalow or hotel room."
Petra wasn't sure if he meant what he said, but she was pleasantly surprised herself.
Hans and Niels walked to the car and took out the two suitcases.
"Where would you like us to put these, dear?"
Petra nodded her head toward the bedroom entrance.
"Just put them on the bed. I'll unpack them at my leisure."
Niels looked at her with pleading eyes.
"Can I go get my swimsuit, Mom? I'm so hot, and I'm dying to go for a swim in the pool."
She ran her fingers through his blond hair. "You need to ask your dad, because he needs to go with you, and I am not sure he is in the mood to go right now."
Hans nodded jovially. "I think that's fine ... but shouldn't I help you to unpack those suitcases first?"
Petra shook her head and unzipped both suitcases. A minute later she triumphantly held up two swimsuits.
"Put them on and get out of here," she said a bit sternly.
"Yes!" Niels didn't waste any time and put his swimsuit on immediately.CHAPTER 4
They sat in the shade under the mobile home's awning. It was just after nine a.m., and the clear skies signaled the promise of a beautiful, warm day ahead. After they had dinner at a restaurant the night before, they managed to get to the grocery store just before closing to buy the general necessities. Exhausted from the long trip, they went to bed at ten thirty. Well rested and in a great mood, they were now having their first breakfast at the Regina di Garda campground.
Excerpted from Bella Italia by Suzanne Vermeer, Jordan Sowle. Copyright © 2011 Suzanne Vermeer. Excerpted by permission of De Arbeiderspers | A.W. Bruna.
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