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  • Published: 25 November 2021
  • ISBN: 9780241545546
  • Imprint: Michael Joseph
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 400
  • RRP: $32.99

A Question of Guilt

Extract

1

A fly landed on the rim of his water glass. Swatting it away, Wisting sat down in the shade of the parasol. After drinking half the water, he checked the total number of steps on his phone app – almost four thousand, and it was not yet noon. Most of them had registered as he walked back and forth across the grass with the lawnmower. His aim was to walk ten thousand steps every day during his holidays, but the daily average was down below eight.

Some years before Ingrid died, they had each received a step counter for Christmas from their son, Thomas. For the first few days he and Ingrid had competed to see who walked most. Eventually, however, the step counters were left lying in a drawer. But he always had his phone with him.

Squinting at the screen, he opened his browser. The latest news was of Agnete Roll, who had disappeared the same day Wisting had gone on holiday, though she had not been reported missing until two days later. The first articles to appear had described the search for her, but with each subsequent update the story had looked less and less like an ordinary disappearance. It had begun to resemble something different, something Wisting had witnessed before.

Now the leader of the search party no longer explained which areas had been fine-combed. The case had stepped up a gear and acting head of the Criminal Investigation Department Nils Hammer was the spokesperson.

The press coverage actually contained nothing new. Agnete Roll, thirty-two years old, had been in town with her husband when an argument sparked and she had left for home before him. Half an hour later, he told his friends he was heading home too. According to the online newspaper, the missing woman had last been seen when she left the pub in Stavern town centre just before midnight. That had been four days ago.

Each time Wisting picked up his tablet, he expected one of two things to have happened: that Agnete Roll’s body had been found, or that her husband had been arrested and charged. But so far this had not been the case.

He put down his iPad and took another gulp from the glass. Stretching out his legs, he leaned his head back and watched as a seagull wheeled above him.

He still thought there was something special about a physical newspaper, but nowadays it was too long to wait until the next day for a news update. Especially if something was unfolding. He liked having access to the latest news, whenever and wherever he wanted. Besides, it was reassuring to know that he had mastered the latest technology and new methods of acquiring knowledge and information.

He was unaccustomed to following a potential murder case from the sidelines without playing an active part in the investigation. From the facts he had gleaned from the media, a great deal jarred. Agnete Roll’s husband was not named, but Wisting had found him on social media. Erik Roll, who was one year older and worked in a local IT company, had waited nearly forty-eight hours to report her missing.

Missing-person cases were always difficult, but he had already worked out how he would organize the investigation. The approach had to be both wide-ranging and in-depth. Wide-ranging in order to cover everything, and in-depth in order to focus on whatever stood out and might point the investigation in a particular direction.

He knew that Hammer and the others would be knuckling down and that Erik Roll would be a person of interest.

The iPad on the table allowed him to log in to the police computer system and read the case documents, but he had consciously refrained from doing that. Being on the outside was something he would soon have to get used to, as before too long he would be getting ready to retire.

All the same he felt curiosity tugging at him. The key to missing-person cases was almost always to be found in words and incidents from the days before someone went missing.

A sudden noise made him open his eyes wide. The lid of the mailbox slammed shut out in the street on the other side of the house.

He remained seated until he heard the postman drive on. Only then did he get to his feet, walk through the house and exit on the opposite side. A smoky-grey cat, lying in the shade beside the garage, leapt up and darted out into the street, disappearing into a neighbour’s garden.

Wisting cast a glance down towards his daughter’s house. He had promised to take in her post, and she had now been away from home for five days.

Approaching his mailbox, he removed the contents: a collection of advertising leaflets but also one letter, a white envelope with his name and address written in neat capital letters. He turned it over, but no sender’s details were marked on it.

Line’s box contained nothing but the same junk mail. He dropped it all straight into the recycling bin and made his way home, curious about the letter he had received.

Only rarely did he receive letters these days, at least of this kind. He hardly ever received bills either, as most of them were paid by direct debit. The black handwriting on the envelope was unusual and almost looked professionally printed. The ‘W’s in William and Wisting were virtually identical and made him think that this must be some kind of personally addressed advertising material, while the ‘i’s were slightly different and gave the impression that it really was handwritten.

Taking a sharp knife from the kitchen drawer, he sliced the envelope open and removed the contents: a plain sheet of paper that had been folded twice. It looked as if it had been crumpled up and then smoothed out again. In the middle of the sheet there was only a series of numbers: 12-1569/99.

These numbers were written in a similar style to the address on the envelope. Precise and painstaking, stiff and straight.

He hovered in the kitchen with the paper in his hand, aware of what he was looking at, but baffled nonetheless.

It was a case number, labelled in the way cases had been organized when he began in the police. These days, new criminal cases were allocated eight-digit reference numbers, but in the past the case number was designated in such a fashion that it was possible to decipher it. The last segment, after the slash, was the year, 1999. The two initial numbers indicated which police district the case belonged to, with 12 signifying the former police station in Porsgrunn. 1569 was the actual case number, a sequential number given to new cases in chronological order.

He laid the paper down on the kitchen table and stood gazing at it.

Police district 12 also encompassed the local station in Bamble, a neighbouring district, but Wisting had never worked there. In size it was similar to his home district, with around fifty thousand inhabitants. They had approximately the same number of criminal cases per year, around three thousand. Case 1569 should therefore be a case from the summer of 1999.

This was so long ago that the case had probably been deleted from the electronic records. He would not be able to find it in any computer system, but the files should still be held in an archive somewhere.

He tried to cast his mind back, wondering if there had been any special events in the summer of 1999, but could not think of anything. Line and Thomas had turned sixteen in the June of that year and were about to start upper high school that autumn. He could not recall having gone on any summer holidays. Line had had a summer job at an ice-cream kiosk in Stavern, or had that been the following year? He did remember that Thomas had been working at the marina.

He left the letter and headed out on to the terrace again, where he sat down with his iPad to look up the year 1999. By then major newspapers already had their own web pages but it was difficult to retrieve individual coverage. However, there were Internet pages listing the most significant milestones of each year. The notorious triple murder at Orderud Farm in Akershus took place on 23 May. In Russia, Boris Yeltsin’s government resigned and fifteen thousand lost their lives in a Turkish earthquake. There had been local council elections in Norway and Bill Clinton had paid a visit to Oslo.

Having conducted a search for Porsgrunn combined with the year number, he ended up with an incomprehensible list of results. Some of these were police matters, but there was nothing at all that made sense.

Case 1569 had not necessarily received media coverage, but the anonymous sender must have a particular reason for sending him that number. It must be a case to which he had some kind of connection.

Or not.

As a detective, he had received any number of anonymous letters, normally lengthy, full of conspiratorial thoughts and disconnected allegations. Some were directed at him personally and concerned cases on which he had worked, while others had simply found their way to him in his capacity as a criminal investigator.

Moving inside again, he studied the unusual formation of the individual letters. A black felt-tip pen must have been used. The strokes were approximately one millimetre in breadth. There was a stamp on the envelope, which had been postmarked the previous day, but that failed to reveal where the letter had been posted.

It felt intrusive to receive such a letter in his mailbox at home. No threat seemed to be involved, but it was unpleasant all the same. Disquieting, as if it contained a warning of more to come.

Opening a kitchen drawer, he took out a roll of plastic freezer bags, tore off two and used a fork to prod the letter into one bag, the envelope into the other.

This entire business had begun to irritate him. It was not something he could ignore. He felt compelled to track down the case.

There was no longer a police station in Porsgrunn, but if he were lucky the case may have been included in the boxes moved to the new police headquarters in Skien. He might then be able to get an answer as early as today. In the worst-case scenario, if the case files had ended up in the national archives, it could take a few days.

He rang Bjørg Karin in the records office. A civilian employee, her work was nevertheless one of the most important elements in the force’s daily operations. She had been employed in the police longer than he had, was familiar with all its labyrinths and was his go-to person when he needed to decide where to turn within the system. In all likelihood, she would know who to phone to request a search in the archives of a neighbouring district.

He omitted mention of the anonymous letter and simply said that his enquiry had to do with an old case in an adjacent district.

‘Can you requisition it for me?’

Bjørg Karin asked no questions. ‘I’ll phone Eli,’ she answered. ‘And then it’ll be here by the time you come back.’

Wisting assumed Eli worked in a similar post to Bjørg Karin.

‘I’d really like to have it sent over as soon as possible,’ he said.

‘I see,’ Bjørg Karin replied, though it did not sound as if she genuinely did. ‘We get the internal mail tomorrow around noon.’

‘That would be fine.’

They were about to round off the conversation.

‘One more thing,’ Wisting said, glancing again at the letter.

‘Can you ask Eli to check what kind of case it is and let me know?’

He understood from Bjørg Karin’s response that she found it strange for him to be asking to have such an unknown quantity sent over, but she made no comment and merely promised to comply with his request.

Wisting moved out on to the terrace again and sat down to read the online newspapers. Half an hour later, Bjørg Karin called back.

‘I’ve spoken to Eli,’ she said, holding back a little: ‘Could this have to do with a murder case?’

‘I expect so,’ Wisting replied. ‘I only have a case number.’

‘She’s sending it over,’ Bjørg Karin continued. ‘It’ll arrive here around lunchtime tomorrow.’

‘Excellent,’ Wisting said.

Getting to his feet, he walked to the railings and gazed across the town spread out below him.

‘Who was murdered?’ he asked.

‘Tone Vaterland,’ Bjørg Karin told him.

The name meant nothing to him. He repeated it to himself but it held no associations.

‘Then I’ll see you tomorrow?’ Bjørg Karin asked. ‘You’ll drop into the office?’

‘See you then,’ Wisting confirmed.


A Question of Guilt Jorn Lier Horst

Wisting - hero of the hit BBC4 detective show - must prevent a murder who escaped justice 20 years ago striking again.

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