- Published: 17 September 2019
- ISBN: 9781405939768
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 512
- RRP: $19.99
The Chestnut Man
The chilling and suspenseful thriller soon to be a major Netflix series
Tuesday 31 October 1989
Red and yellow leaves drift down through the sunlight on to the wet asphalt, which cuts through the woods like a dark and glassy river. As the white squad car tears past, they’re spun briefly in the air before coming to rest in sticky clumps along the edge of the road. Marius Larsen takes his foot off the accelerator and eases up for the bend, making a mental note to tell the council they need to come out here with the sweeper. If the leaves are left too long they’ll make the surface slippery, and that sort of thing can cost lives. Marius has seen it many times before. He’s been on the force forty-one years, senior officer at the station for the last seventeen, and he has to prod them about it every single autumn. But not today – today he has to focus on the conversation.
Marius fiddles irritably with the frequency on the car radio, but he can’t find what he’s looking for. Only news about Gorbachev and Reagan, and speculation about the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s imminent, they’re saying. A whole new era may be on its way.
He’s known for a while that the conversation has to happen, yet he’s never been able to screw up his courage. Now there’s only a week until his wife thinks he’s retiring, so the time has come to tell her the truth. That he can’t cope without his job. That he’s dealt with the practical side of things and put off the decision. That he isn’t ready yet to settle on the corner sofa and watch Wheel of Fortune, to rake leaves in the garden or play Old Maid with the grandkids.
It sounds easy when he runs through the conversation in his head, but Marius knows full well she’ll be upset. She’ll feel let down. She’ll get up from the table and start scouring the hob in the kitchen, and tell him with her back turned that she understands. But she won’t. So when the report came over the radio ten minutes ago he told the station he’d handle it himself, postponing the conversation a little longer. Normally he’d be annoyed about having to drive all the way out to Ørum’s farm through fields and forest merely to tell them they need to keep a better eye on their animals. Several times now, pigs or cows have broken through the fence and gone roaming the neighbour’s fields until Marius or one of his men made Ørum sort it out. But today he isn’t annoyed. He asked them to call first, of course, ringing Ørum’s house and the ferry terminal, where he has a part-time job, but when nobody picked up at either place he turned off the main road and headed for the farm.
Marius finds a channel playing old Danish music. ‘The Bright Red Rubber Dinghy’ fills the old Ford Escort, and Marius turns up the volume. He’s enjoying the autumn and the drive. The woods, their yellow, red and brown leaves mixing with the evergreens. The anticipation of hunting season, which is just beginning. He rolls down the window, the sunlight casting its dappled light on to the road through the treetops, and for a moment Marius forgets his age.
There’s silence at the farm. Marius gets out and slams the car door, and as he does so it strikes him that it’s been ages since he was last here. The wide yard looks dilapidated. There are holes in the windows of the stable, the plaster on the walls of the house is peeling off in strips, and the empty swing set on the overgrown lawn is nearly swallowed up by the tall chestnut trees encircling the property. Littered across the gravel yard are leaves and fallen chestnuts, which squelch beneath his feet as he walks up to the front door and knocks.
After Marius has knocked three times and called out Ørum’s name, he realizes nobody will answer. Seeing no sign of life, he takes out a pad, writes a note and slips it through the letter box, while a few crows flit across the yard and vanish behind the Ferguson tractor parked in front of the barn. Marius has driven all the way out here on a fool’s errand, and now he’ll have to stop by the ferry terminal to get hold of Ørum. But he’s not annoyed for long: on the way back to the car an idea pops into his head. That never usually happens to Marius, so it must be a stroke of luck that he drove out here instead of heading straight home to the conversation. Like a plaster on a cut, he’ll offer his wife a trip to Berlin. They could nip down there for a week – well, at least a weekend, say, as soon as he can take time off. Do the drive themselves, witness history in the making – that new era – eat dumplings and sauerkraut like they did before in Harzen, on that camping trip with the kids far too long ago. Only when he’s almost reached the car does he see why the crows are settling behind the tractor. They’re hopping around on something pallid and formless, and not until he gets closer does he realize it’s a pig. Its eyes are dead, but its body jerks and shivers as though trying to frighten off the crows, which are feeding from the gunshot wound at the back of its head.
Marius returns to the house and opens the front door. The hallway is dim, and he notices the scent of damp and mould, and something else he can’t quite put his finger on.
‘Ørum, it’s the police.’
There’s no reply, but he can hear water running somewhere in the house, so he steps into the kitchen. The girl is a teenager. Maybe sixteen, seventeen. Her body is still sitting in the chair by the table, and what’s left of her ruined face is floating in her bowl of porridge. On the linoleum on the other side of the table is another lifeless figure. He’s a teenager too, a little older, with a gaping bullet wound in his chest and the back of his head tilted awkwardly against the stove. Marius goes rigid. He’s seen dead people before, of course, but never anything like this, and for a brief moment he’s paralysed, until he takes his service pistol out of the holster on his belt.
Marius proceeds further into the house as he calls Ørum’s name, this time with his pistol raised. Still no reply. Marius finds the next corpse in the bathroom, and this time he has to clap his hand to his mouth so he doesn’t throw up. The water is running from the tap into the bathtub, which has long since filled to the brim. It’s spilling on to the terrazzo flooring and down the drain, intermingled with the blood. The naked woman – she must be the teenagers’ mother – is lying tangled on the floor. One arm and one leg have been separated from the torso. In the subsequent autopsy report, it will emerge that she has been struck repeatedly with an axe. First as she lay in the bathtub and then as she tried to escape by crawling on to the floor. It will also be established that she tried to defend herself with her hands and feet, which is why they have split open. Her face is unrecognizable, because the axe was used to cave in her skull.
Marius would have frozen at the sight if he hadn’t glimpsed a faint movement out of the corner of his eye. Half hidden beneath a shower curtain dumped in the corner, he can make out a figure. Cautiously, Marius pulls back the curtain a little. It’s a boy. Dishevelled hair, about ten or eleven. He’s lying lifeless in the blood, but a corner of the curtain is still covering the boy’s mouth and it vibrates weakly, haltingly. Marius swiftly leans over the boy and removes the curtain, picking up his limp arm and trying to find a pulse. The boy has cuts and scratches on his arms and legs, he wears a bloody T- shirt and underwear, and an axe has been dropped near his head. Finding a pulse, Marius leaps to his feet.
In the living room he grabs feverishly at the telephone beside the full ashtray, sending it tumbling to the floor, but by the time he gets hold of the station his head is clear enough to deliver a coherent message. Ambulance. Officers. Asap. No trace of Ørum. Get going. Now! When he hangs up his first thought is to hurry back to the boy, but then abruptly he remembers that there must be another child: the boy has a twin sister.
Marius heads back towards the front hall and the staircase up to the first floor. As he passes the kitchen and the open basement door, he stops short. There was a sound. A footfall or a scrape, but now there’s silence. Marius draws his pistol again. Opening the door wide, he shuffles gingerly down the narrow steps until his feet find the concrete floor. It takes his eyes a moment to adjust to the dark, and then he sees the open basement door at the end of the corridor. His body hesitates, telling him he ought to stop here, wait for the ambulance and his colleagues; but Marius thinks of the girl. As he approaches the door he can see it’s been forced open. The lock and bolt are discarded on the ground, and Marius enters the room, which is lit only dimly by the grime-smeared windows above. Yet he can still make out a small shape hidden well back beneath a table in the corner. Hurrying over, Marius lowers his gun, bends down and peers underneath it.
‘It’s okay. It’s over now.’
He can’t see the girl’s face, only that she’s shaking and huddled into the corner without looking at him.
‘My name is Marius. I’m from the police, and I’m here to help you.’
The girl stays timidly where she is, as though she can’t even hear him, and suddenly Marius becomes aware of the room. Glancing around, he realizes what it’s been used for. He’s disgusted. Then he catches a glimpse of the crooked wooden shelves through the door to the adjoining room. The sight makes him forget the girl, and he walks across to the threshold. Marius can’t see how many there are, but there are more than he can count with the naked eye. Chestnut dolls, male and female. Animals, too. Big and small, some childish, others eerie. Many of them unfinished and malformed. Marius stares at them, their number and variety, and the small dolls on the shelves fill him with disquiet, as the boy steps through the door behind him.
In a split second Marius realizes he should remember to ask Forensics whether the basement door was broken down from the inside or the outside. In a split second he realizes something monstrous may have escaped, like the animals from their pens, but when he turns towards the boy his thoughts swim away like tiny, puzzled clouds across the heavens. Then the axe strikes his jaw, and everything goes black.
Monday 5 October
The voice is everywhere in the darkness. It whispers softly and mocks her – it picks her up when she falls and it whirls her around in the wind. Laura Kjær can’t see any more. She can’t hear the whistling of the leaves in the trees, or feel the cold grass beneath her feet. All that is left is the voice, which keeps whispering between the bludgeon’s blows. If she stops resisting, she thinks, the voice might go quiet, but it doesn’t. It keeps going, and so do the blows, until at last she can’t move. Too late she feels the sharp teeth of the saw against her wrist, and before she loses consciousness she hears the mechanical noise of the sawblade and her own bones being severed.
Afterwards she doesn’t know how long she’s been gone. The darkness is still there. So is the voice, and it’s as though it has been waiting for her return.
‘Are you okay, Laura?’
Its tone is soft and affectionate and much too close to her ear. But the voice doesn’t wait for an answer. For a moment it removes the thing that was stuck over her mouth, and Laura hears herself begging and pleading. She doesn’t understand anything. She’ll do anything. Why her – what has she done? The voice says she knows that perfectly well. It bends down very close and whispers into her ear, and she can tell it has been looking forward to exactly this moment. She has to concentrate to hear the words. She understands what the voice is saying, but she can’t believe it. The pain is greater than all her other injuries. It can’t be that. It mustn’t be that. She pushes the words away, as though they’re part of the madness that engulfs her in the blackness. She wants to stand up and keep fighting, but her body gives in, and she sobs hysterically. She’s known it for a while, yet somehow not – and only now, as the voice whispers it to her, does she understand that it’s true. She wants to scream as loudly as she can, but her guts are already halfway up her throat, and when she feels the bludgeon stroke her cheek she flings herself headlong with all her strength and staggers deeper into the gloom.