- Published: 8 January 2019
- ISBN: 9781405930802
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 352
- RRP: $19.99
If you like Saga Noren from The Bridge, then you'll love Hulda Hermannsdottir
‘How did you find me?’ the woman asked. There was a tremor in her voice; her face was frightened.
Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir felt her interest quicken, though as an old hand at this game she had learned to expect a nervous reaction from those she interviewed, even when they had nothing to hide. Being questioned by the police was an intimidating business at any time, whether it was a formal interview down at the station or an informal chat like this one. They sat facing one another in a poky coffee room next to the staff canteen at the Reykjavík nursing home where the woman worked. She was around forty, with short-cropped hair, tired-looking, apparently flustered by Hulda’s unexpected visit. Of course, there could be a perfectly innocent explanation for this, but Hulda was almost sure the woman had something to hide. Over the years she had spoken to so many suspects she had developed a knack of spotting when people were trying to pull the wool over her eyes. Some might have called it intuition, but Hulda despised the word, regarding it as a sign of lazy policing.
‘How did I find you . . . ?’ she repeated calmly. ‘Didn’t you want to be found?’ This was twisting the woman’s words, but she had to get the conversation going somehow.
‘What? Yes . . .’
There was a taint of coffee in the air ‒ you couldn’t call it an aroma ‒ and the cramped room was dark, the furniture dated and drably institutional.
The woman had her hand on the table. When she raised it to her cheek again, it left a damp print behind. Normally, Hulda would have been pleased by this tell-tale sign that she had found her culprit, but she felt none of the usual satisfaction.
‘I need to ask you about an incident that took place last week,’ Hulda continued after a brief pause. As was her habit, she spoke a little fast, her voice friendly and upbeat, part of the positive persona she had adopted in her professional life, even when performing difficult tasks like the present one. Alone at home in the evenings, she could be the complete opposite of this person, all her reserves of energy depleted, leaving her prey to tiredness and depression.
The woman nodded: clearly, she knew what was coming next.
‘Where were you on Friday morning?’
The answer came straight back: ‘At work, as far as I remember.’
Hulda felt almost relieved that the woman wasn’t going to give up her freedom without a fight. ‘Are you sure about that?’ she asked. Watching intently for the woman’s reaction, she leaned back in her chair, arms folded, in her usual interviewing pose. Some would take this as a sign that she was on the defensive or lacked empathy. On the defensive? As if. It was simply to stop her hands from getting in the way and distracting her when she needed to focus. As for lacking empathy, she felt no need to engage her emotions any more than she already did naturally: her job took quite enough of a toll on her. She pursued her inquiries with integrity and a level of dedication that, she knew, bordered on the obsessive.
‘Are you sure?’ she repeated. ‘We can easily check up on that. You wouldn’t want to be caught out in a lie.’
The woman said nothing, but her discomfort was plain.
‘A man was hit by a car,’ Hulda said, matter-of-factly.
‘Yes, you must have seen it in the papers or on TV.’
‘What? Oh, maybe.’ After a short silence, the woman added: ‘How is he?’
‘He’ll survive, if that’s what you’re fishing for.’
‘No, not really . . . I . . .’
‘But he’ll never make a full recovery. He’s still in a coma. So you are aware of the incident?’
‘I . . . I must have read about it . . .’
‘It wasn’t reported in the papers, but the man was a convicted paedophile.’
When the woman didn’t react, Hulda went on: ‘But you must have known that when you knocked him down.’
Still no reaction.
‘He was given a prison sentence years ago and had done his time.’
The woman interrupted: ‘What makes you think I had anything to do with it?’
‘Like I was saying, he’d done his time. But, as we discovered during the investigation, that didn’t mean he’d stopped. You see, we had reason to believe the hit-and-run wasn’t an accident, so we searched his flat to try and work out a possible motive. That’s when we found all these pictures.’
‘Pictures?’ The woman was looking badly shaken now.
‘What of?’ She held her breath.
The woman was obviously desperate to ask more but wouldn’t let herself.
‘Including your son,’ Hulda added, in reply to the question that had not been asked.
Tears began to slide down the woman’s face. ‘Pictures. . . of my son,’ she stammered, her breath catching on a sob.
‘Why didn’t you report him?’ Hulda asked, trying not to make it sound like an accusation.
‘What? I don’t know. Of course, I should have done . . . But I was thinking of him, you see. Thinking of my son. I couldn’t bear to do that to him. He’d have had to . . . tell people . . . testify in court. Maybe it was a mistake . . .’
‘To run the man down? Yes, it was.’
After a slight hesitation, the woman went on: ‘Well . . . yes . . . but . . .’
Hulda waited, allowing a space to develop for the woman’s confession. Yet she wasn’t experiencing any of her usual sense of achievement at solving the crime. Usually, she focused on excelling at her job, and prided herself on the number of difficult cases she had solved over the years. The trouble now was that she wasn’t at all convinced the woman sitting in front of her was the real culprit in this case, despite her guilt. If anything, she was the victim.
Sobbing uncontrollably now, the woman said: ‘I . . . I watched . . .’ then broke off, too choked up to continue.
‘You watched him? You live in the same area, don’t you?’
‘Yes,’ the woman whispered, getting her voice under control, anger lending her a sudden strength. ‘I kept an eye on the bastard. I couldn’t bear the idea that he might carry on doing those things. I kept waking up with nightmares, dreaming that he’d chosen another victim. And . . . and . . . it was all my fault because I hadn’t reported him. You see?’
Hulda nodded. She saw, all right.
‘Then I spotted him, by the school. I’d just given my son a lift in. I parked the car and watched him – he was chatting to some boys, with that . . . that disgusting smirk on his face. He hung around the playground for a while and I got so angry. He hadn’t stopped – men like him, they never do.’ She wiped her cheeks, but the tears kept pouring down her face.
‘Then, out of the blue, I got my chance. When he left the school, I followed him. He crossed the road. There was no one else around, no one to see me, so I just put my foot down. I don’t know what I was thinking – I wasn’t really thinking at all.’ The woman broke into loud sobbing again and buried her face in her hands, before continuing, shakily: ‘I didn’t mean to kill him, or I don’t think I did. I was just frightened and angry. What’ll happen to me now? I can’t . . . I can’t go to prison. There’s only the two of us, my son and me. His father’s useless. There’s no way he’ll take him.’
Without a word, Hulda stood up and laid a hand on the woman’s shoulder.
The young mother stood by the glass and waited. As usual, she had dressed up for the visit. Her best coat was looking a little shabby, but money was tight so it would have to do. They always made her wait, as if to punish her, to remind her of her mistake and give her a chance to reflect on the error of her ways. To make matters worse, it had been raining outside and her coat was damp.
Several minutes passed in what felt like an eternity of silence before a nurse finally entered the room carrying the little girl. The mother’s heart turned over, as it always did when she saw her daughter through the glass. She felt overwhelmed by a wave of depression and despair but made a valiant effort to hide it. Though the child was only six months old – today, in fact – and unlikely to remember anything about the visit, her mother felt instinctively that it was vital any memories she did have were positive, that these visits should be happy occasions.
But the child looked far from happy and, what was worse, showed almost no reaction to the woman on the other side of the glass. She might have been looking at a stranger: an odd woman in a damp coat who she’d never laid eyes on before. Yet it wasn’t that long since she had been lying in her mother’s arms in the maternity ward.
The woman was permitted two visits a week. It wasn’t enough. Every time she came she sensed the distance between them widening: only two visits a week and a sheet of glass between them.
The mother tried to say something to her daughter; tried to speak through the glass. She knew the sound would carry, but what good would the words do? The little girl was too young to understand: what she needed was to be cradled in her mother’s arms.
Fighting back her tears, the woman smiled at her daughter, telling her in a low voice how much she loved her. ‘Make sure you eat enough,’ she said. ‘Be a good girl for the nurses.’ When really all she wanted was to smash the glass and snatch her baby from the nurse’s arms, to hold her tight and never let her go again.
Without realizing it, she had moved right up to the glass. She tapped it gently and the little girl’s mouth twitched in a slight smile that melted her mother’s heart. The first tear spilled over and trickled down her cheek. She tapped a little louder, but the child flinched and started to cry as well.
Unable to help herself, the mother started banging louder and louder on the glass, shouting: ‘Give her to me, I want my daughter!’
The nurse got up and hurriedly left the room with the baby, but even then the mother couldn’t stop her banging and shouting.
Suddenly, she felt a firm hand on her shoulder. She stopped beating at the glass and looked around at the older woman who was standing behind her. They had met before.
‘Now, you know this won’t do,’ the woman said gently. ‘We can’t let you visit if you make a fuss like this. You’ll frighten your little girl.’
The words echoed in the mother’s head. She’d heard it all before: that it was in the child’s best interests not to form too close a bond with her mother; it would only make the wait between visits more difficult. She must understand that this arrangement was for her daughter’s sake.
It made no sense at all to her, but she pretended to understand, terrified of being banned from visiting.
Outside in the rain again, she made up her mind that once they were reunited she would never tell her daughter about this time, about the glass and the enforced separation. She only hoped the little girl wouldn’t remember.
So heavy and unrelenting was the sense of lethargy weighing her down that she felt as if she’d been drugged.
I ’m not afraid of flying. The chances of dying in a plane crash for the average frequent flyer are one in eleven million.
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.
On Christmas Day 1996 a man was driving across the mountains on his way home from Oslo.