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“These days Scandinavian crime writers are thick on the ground. It’s nice to see that the women can be just as bloodthirsty as the men.” —The New York Times Book Review
He watches the women from the shadows. He has an understanding with them: As long as they follow his rules, they are safe. But when they sin, he sentences them to death.
A woman is found dead in a cemetery, strangled and covered in plastic. Just a few days before her death, the victim had received a flower, an unintelligible note, and a photograph of herself. Detective Inspector Irene Huss and her colleagues on the Violent Crimes Unit in Göteborg, Sweden, have neither clue nor motive to pursue, and when similar murders follow, their search for the killer becomes increasingly desperate. Meanwhile, strange things have been going on at home for Irene: first the rose bush in her garden is mangled, then she receives a threatening package with no return address. Is Irene being paranoid, or is she next on the killer’s list?
About the Author
Helene Tursten was a nurse and a dentist before she turned to writing. Other books in the Irene Huss series include Detective Inspector Huss, Night Rounds, The Torso, The Glass Devil, The Golden Calf, The Fire Dance, The Beige Man, The Treacherous Net, and Protected by the Shadows. Her books have been translated into 18 languages and made into a television series. She was born in Göteborg, Sweden, where she now lives with her husband.
Read an Excerpt
Thin veils of mist lingered in the glow of the street lamps, but soon they would disperse completely. The gusts of wind were getting stronger all the time, carrying the first drops of rain. Dampness clung to her face as she leaned forward, fighting her way across the parking lot. Nobody was out and about without good reason; even the dog owners in the area seemed to have abandoned the idea of a last walk. The neighborhood was dark and silent; most people had already gone to bed. Only Bosse Gunnarsson’s kitchen window showed a warm, inviting light. He was sitting at the table with a sudoku puzzle as usual, his reading glasses slipping down his nose.
Her own house lay in darkness, but she would soon change that. Switch on the lamps, make a cup of tea, fix herself an egg and caviar sandwich. Light some candles on the coffee table. Wrap herself in a thick, soft blanket and watch the late news. Then off to bed, she promised herself. She reached into the mailbox: nothing but bills and flyers.
She continued toward the door, searching in her purse for the key. As she was about to insert it in the lock, she noticed a rapid movement in the darkness by the shed. Suddenly someone was right behind her. An iron grip around her chest pressed her close to her attacker’s torso, forcing the breath out of her body. She was paralyzed by the man’s strength and by the acrid stench emanating from him. Only when she realized what he was doing did she manage to offer some resistance. The man was using his free hand to try to loop something around her neck but was having difficulty getting it over her head—not because he was so much shorter than her, but because she was struggling, twisting from side to side as she tried to free herself from his grip. He growled and hissed something unintelligible but managed to hang on to her. After a brief battle he had the noose where he wanted it. Instinctively she reached up and slid one hand under the twine. The attack itself had been so sudden that she hadn’t had time to scream. She tried to call for help, but the only sound that came out was a faint whimper; the noose had already been drawn too tight. She felt him loosen his hold on her body so he could put more force into the act of strangulation. Even if she could manage to keep her hand between her throat and the twine, she was getting hardly any air. The darkness flickered before her eyes, and she realized that she would soon lose consciousness.
She managed to slip her other hand into her pocket and rummaged around feverishly. Paper tissues, a box of painkillers, her cigarette lighter . . . Wasn’t it there? It must be there! She panicked even more, her movements growing clumsy. Was it in the wrong pocket? The pain in her throat was unbearable. She couldn’t breathe.
All at once she felt the car key against her fingertips. She managed to find the little cylinder attached to the key ring and grasped it with trembling fingers. Her thumb slipped on her first attempt, but she could feel the button. Summoning up the last reserves of her strength, she pressed it again.
The screech of the attack alarm sliced through the silent neighborhood. She felt her attacker stiffen, and for a few vital seconds he lost concentration. She lifted one foot and kicked backward as hard as she could. The heel of her leather boot caught him just below the knee. He doubled over and groaned, loosening his grip for a fraction of a second. At the same time, she heard Bosse Gunnarsson open his door and yell:
“What the hell is going on out there? I’m calling the cops!”
Then the presence behind her was gone. She heard the crack of the gate as he f lung it open and disappeared in the direction of the parking lot.
“Hey, stop right there! What are you doing?”
Bosse’s voice again. Thank God for Bosse. She sank to the ground, trying to call for help, but all that emerged was a pathetic croak.
She had survived. She was alive!
Panic had locked her hand around the slim cylinder in a vise-like grip. She couldn’t bring herself to let go of the object that had saved her life.
The screech of the alarm stopped abruptly as the darkness closed around her.
Under normal circumstances Irene Huss was not a morning person, but there were days when she seriously considered trying to become one. Mornings like this, for example. The air was crystal clear, with a hint of crispness left over from the chill of the night. Above the horizon an amazing sunrise filled the sky with intense shades of gold. Could there be a more perfect start to the day?
She drew her robe more tightly around her body as she paused on the top step and inhaled deeply. The moisture from last night’s rain intensified the smells. The garden looked as if it had just woken up feeling refreshed. The luxuriant asters glowed deep red in the cast-iron urns on either side of the steps, a final defiant protest against the inexorable approach of the fall.
She padded down to the low gate in her slippers, leaned over and took the newspaper out of the mailbox on the fence. As she turned to go back indoors, she stopped dead. It took a few seconds before she realized that the small garden seat that normally stood between the two kitchen windows had been moved and was now in the middle of the f lower bed beneath one window. The newly planted rose bushes were badly damaged: several branches were broken. Annoyed, Irene picked up the seat and put it back against the wall. Strange—it had been there yesterday evening, hadn’t it?
“I think so,” Krister said when she asked him a little later.
He was standing at the stove cooking eggs, with crisply fried bacon and halved tomatoes piled on a plate beside him. As far as Irene was concerned, preparing such a hearty breakfast was a total waste of time. Three cups of black coffee and a couple of cheese sandwiches had been her standard start to the day for decades, but now her husband had decided that this was unacceptable. Perhaps it was, but it suited her. When she wondered how fried eggs and bacon could be regarded as healthy in view of the bad cholesterol involved, he had waved away the argument: “GI foods! A whole world of dieters can’t be wrong!” To tell the truth, Krister was the one who needed to lose weight, not Irene.
He put a plate of GI breakfast in front of her. As usual she could only manage to push the food around. At times like these she was seriously tempted to turn vegan, like Jenny. Their daughter had stuck to her principles for almost ten years and was now in Amsterdam, training to be a chef specializing in vegan dishes. Jenny was following in her father’s footsteps, but perhaps not exactly the way Krister had expected.
“But you have to admit it’s weird, the seat being moved,” Irene persisted.
“Oh, it’s probably just Viktor and his pals fooling around.”
“Why would Viktor . . . You could be right.”
The boy next door was ten years old, and he and his friends were always running around the neighborhood. As far as Irene could tell, they all seemed to get along with everyone, and she hadn’t heard of them getting into any serious trouble. She found it difficult to imagine why they would have picked up a seat and thrown it into the rose bed; it seemed completely pointless. The kitchen window was so low that Viktor could easily look through it if he wanted to; he wouldn’t even need to stand on tiptoe.
She shook her head and poured her third cup of coffee.
The following morning Irene woke at seven, despite the fact that it was Saturday, and she didn’t have to go to work. Krister had worked late at the restaurant the previous night, and the soft, regular breathing from the bed beside her suggested that he would remain deeply asleep for quite some time. She crept out of the warmth of the covers. When she had finished in the bathroom she put on her running gear, automatically reaching for her knee brace. Her knee was too painful if she didn’t use it these days. I’m starting to fall apart, she thought gloomily.
She opened the door and jogged down the steps, then stopped and stared straight ahead. Slowly she turned around.
The glorious asters had been torn out of their urns and lay strewn all over the lawn.
“Viktor would never do such a thing!”
Malin, who was Irene’s neighbor and Viktor’s mother, folded her arms and looked deeply insulted. Irene tried to adopt a conciliatory tone.
“To be honest I don’t think he would either, but . . .” she began.
“So why have you come here accusing him, then?” Malin snapped.
This was not good for neighborly relations, Irene realized. Nor did it constitute a successful interrogation, her professional side noted.
“I’m not accusing him, I just wanted to eliminate the possibility and ask him if he knew anything,” Irene tried to explain.
“Fucking police abuse!” Malin yelled as she slammed the door.
Police abuse? Presumably she meant abuse of power. To a certain extent Irene could understand why Malin was upset, but if she was so sure of her son’s innocence, why was she reacting so strongly?
As if in response to Irene’s train of thought, Viktor came ambling along the street. He opened the gate and grinned at her.
“Hi, Viktor. Listen, I just came to ask your mom something, but she got real mad at me.”
Viktor’s grin disappeared and he looked anxiously at her. Irene gave him an encouraging smile. “The thing is, someone’s being doing weird stuff in our garden. They’ve moved a seat and pulled up some f lowers. I just wanted to ask if you know anything about it.”
The boy shook his head; he looked genuinely surprised.
Irene looked him in the eye and smiled again. His expression was still a little uncertain, but he returned the smile. A guilty ten-year-old wouldn’t look that way.
Viktor wasn’t behind the vandalism.
So who was?