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  • Published: 3 December 2018
  • ISBN: 9781787300941
  • Imprint: Harvill Secker
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 384
  • RRP: $32.99

The Whisperer


Chapter 1

She wasn’t beautiful, and she was of course perfectly aware of it. She moved timidly across the floor in the way that most shy women do, with an apologetic expression. With no desire to take up space, no hope of making an impression or being believed, or, for that matter, being taken seriously at all. For well over forty years the mirror had taunted her about this lack of beauty, and she had bowed her head and accepted the judgement. If a spark had come blowing on the wind, she would presumably have gone up in flames – her hair was as dry as straw and she was pale as paper. She was wearing a green nylon coat, with big, deep pockets that contained nothing, as they had long since been searched and emptied. There was a logo on the breast pocket, over her heart, with the word ‘Europris’ embroidered in big letters. She had an ugly scar across her throat, left by a wound that had not healed well. She was underweight and perhaps anaemic, with red hair and freckles. And yet, despite her lack of colour, the blood was still coursing through her veins, especially now that she was standing in front of him, there to explain herself. Her hands hidden in the thoroughly inspected coat pockets. She was waiting for permission to sit down, was not presumptuous enough to make herself comfortable. Sejer had questioned many people over the years, but no one like her.

She pulled the chair out carefully, so it would not scrape on the floor – the noise might bother someone. She had never had anything to do with the public prosecutor before, must not irritate or provoke him in any way, make him angry. Only now did she notice the inspector’s dog over by the window; it stood up and padded across the floor. The dog, Frank Robert, was a small, fat Shar Pei and rather charming with all his wrinkles and folds, as if he was wearing a far too big coat, like herself. The dog stood up on his hind legs and laid his heavy head on her lap. His eyes, which were barely visible in among all the folds, instantly touched something in her and made her forget the seriousness of the situation. There was a small flash of joy in her own eyes, a glimpse. Her eyes lacked colour as well, the irises were pale and watery, and her eyebrows were thin as whiskers. She had not expected a dog. Certainly not one that would come up to her like that, devoted, without hesitation. She was not used to prompting such feeling, not from man or beast. As the beggar he was, Frank stayed on his hind legs and slavered on her coat. When she stopped patting him, he put his paw on her lap, hoping for more.

‘Frank,’ Sejer said. ‘Lie down.’

The dog padded back to his blanket. He pushed and pulled it with his paws to make a nest. The excess kilos slowed him down, and each command from his owner had to be interpreted and carefully assessed before it was obeyed, so everything took time. He was also getting on, in dog years. His sight, hearing and movement were all much reduced.

‘Let’s not make this too formal,’ the inspector said. ‘My name is Konrad.’

He held out his hand.

‘Ragna,’ she whispered. ‘Riegel.’

‘Like the chocolate,’ Sejer said with a smile. ‘I used to like their chocolate when I was a boy, and a bar only cost thirty øre. Everyone could afford a Riegel.’

As soon as he had said it, he realised it could be misinterpreted, but his words made her smile and the ice was broken.

Her hand, thin and white, rested in his for a moment. He noted the lack of strength. It was warm and dry, but there was no sign of nervousness, even though she was quick to lower her eyes. Their handshake was the first step towards something inevitable. Everything that needed to be talked about, explained and understood.

She snuck a glance at him and was reminded of old, impregnated wood or a log on a river, something heavy and solid. He was a good deal older than her, tall and grey. Dressed in a plain shirt with a dark blue tie. There was a cherry with two green leaves embroidered on the tie. That wasn’t sewn in a factory, Ragna thought. Someone, presumably a woman, had sat with a needle and thread and embroidered that cherry as a token of love.

‘You’re trying to win my trust,’ she whispered. ‘You won’t say a word about why I’m here, not for a long time. You’ll warm me slowly until I pop like popcorn in a pan. Turn myself inside out.’

‘Trust would be a good thing,’ Sejer said. ‘Is that what you want?’

Ragna had not hoped for anything. The police wanted a confession, and when they had that, they could charge her and have the case tried in court. And concentrate on the next investigation.

‘Yes,’ she whispered. ‘Trust would be good.’

He knew that she did not have a voice. She had lost it a few years earlier during an operation on her throat, which should have been a standard procedure, but instead had had serious consequences and permanently damaged her vocal cords. The wound had not healed well either, so she was left with a course, jagged scar that was red and clearly visible. He guessed that she often hid it with a scarf or a polo-neck sweater. She had not bothered now. Her bare, scarred neck was part of her explanation. Even though she could only whisper, he had no difficulty in understanding her. Ragna was more articulate than most. She used the muscles in her face, formed the words well with her tongue and lips. And Sejer quickly adapted to the situation. He used all his senses, read her lips and watched her expressions, something he generally did when questioning someone. It struck him that sitting here like this, facing someone who had a story to tell about fear and anger, or a dangerous opponent, or self-defence, some great accident, a burning hate, still excited him, despite his age. A childhood memory popped up. When he was a young lad and they used to lay into each other in the playground, they would then pipe up to any teacher who came to reprimand them: ‘He started it.’

‘Ragna,’ he said in a serious tone, ‘you have been held on remand for forty-eight hours now. And you will be held for four weeks, in the first instance, then for another four weeks, then it will be extended again and again. Can you cope with that?’

‘Oh yes,’ she whispered.

‘Are you able to call the officers or make contact if you need anything? Even though your request may be refused?’

‘I don’t need anything. I get food and drink. I have my own duvet. A bit like Frank.’

She nodded at the dog.

‘He obviously gets more than he needs,’ she said, alluding to his extra weight.

This little audacity was accompanied by a good-natured smile, perhaps a small dig in return for his comment about the chocolate.

‘I know that you don’t have any family,’ Sejer said. ‘Or am I wrong?’

‘I have a son,’ Ragna replied swiftly. ‘In Berlin. But he never comes home. He doesn’t have a family either, as he runs a hotel. I usually get a card from him for Christmas and my birthday. I was only seventeen when I had him.’

‘What’s his name?’

‘Rikard Josef.’

‘And his father?’

She shook her head.

‘Why doesn’t your son come home?’

She shrugged and looked away. Sejer put the absent son to one side like a piece of luggage he did not need at the moment.

As they talked, he observed this quiet creature. She sat poker straight on her chair, without moving, at the ready, and was clearly in awe of the authority he represented. However, he knew that given time, a few hours or days, she would slowly thaw. She would start to move, use her hands more, shift position, lean forward and pull back, he had seen it before. Not like the loud, aggressive ones, he’d met plenty of them in his time. They tended to lean over the table, banging their fist to emphasise their words, or they moved the chair to make as much noise as possible. Some stomped around the room and cursed and swore, as they screamed those words that he had heard so often in the playground. ‘He started it.’

Ragna would never be able to raise her voice. This knowledge gave her a stoic calm, kept her in her place; in a way it held her hostage. It is hard to be beside yourself when you cannot scream. She doesn’t belong here, he thought. She has everything under control. An old house in Kirkelina that she had inherited from her parents. A job and good colleagues. She did not earn much, it was true, but she lived alone and did not need to pay off a mortgage. She did not look like a woman with expensive habits, and certainly did not look like someone who drank or took drugs. And yet here she was, sitting opposite him.

‘Do you have any recordings from when you still had a voice?’ he asked.

Her water-blue eyes widened in surprise. No one had ever asked her that before, not a single person. She thought fleetingly that this must be how it felt when a woman was allowed to talk about her dead child. To talk about the dead child for the rest of her life to someone who was not afraid to reawaken the grief.

‘Why do you ask?’ she whispered, and felt happy. Her cheeks reddened.

‘I’m just curious,’ Sejer replied. ‘And if you did have a recording, I would ask to hear it. I’m trying to imagine how you would talk if you could talk.’

‘I don’t have any recordings,’ Ragna said. ‘But everyone told me that I sounded like a little girl. When strangers phoned, say a salesman, and I answered and said my name, I always got the same response: Are there any grown-ups there? It amused me every time. It became a kind of game. Embarrassing people by saying that I was nearly forty, and was alone at home, that my parents were no longer alive.’

‘Amusing game,’ Sejer said. ‘And now that you can only whisper? Do you still like to embarrass people when they ring?’

‘I don’t answer unless I recognise the number on the display. I reckon that if it’s important they’ll phone again. If I get a text, I answer. Or an email. But I don’t get many, it’s mainly advertising.’

‘And if someone rings at your door? Do you answer then?’

Something passed between them, like an electric current. Given everything that had happened.

‘Generally I do,’ she whispered, and looked down. ‘I’ve got quite good at nodding and smiling or shaking my head, or I use my hands. And I close the door again quickly if it’s not important, but then it’s never important. They’re all trying to sell something. But if it’s a child collecting money for something, I go in and get some change. Then wave them off. I can wave in different ways. Friendly or dismissive. I can wave people off like insects. Or hold up my hand like a stop sign.’

She raised her hand to demonstrate.

‘How do you manage when you’re out and about?’

‘Not very well,’ she admitted, ‘as you can probably imagine. I tend not to be out on the streets much, as there’s so much noise from the traffic. And there’s music in practically all the shops. Just the sound of an escalator or lift is enough. If I meet someone who wants to talk, I’m no use at all. It might be someone asking for directions, but I know they won’t be able to hear my answer, and because I don’t want to seem difficult or unhelpful, or arrogant for that matter, I tend to avoid situations like that as much as I can. But I do have to go out. I need to buy food and run other errands. Obviously my neighbours know, and I try to shop in the same places.’

‘And what about your colleagues at work? At Europris?’

‘They don’t have any problem hearing me, they’re used to it and have learned the technique. But we do have to be face-to-face. You’ll get used to it too,’ she whispered. ‘I can see that you’re making an effort. And your efforts are a heavy burden to carry. I don’t impose myself on people unless I have to.’

‘But there are lots of customers in the shop.’

‘I try to solve one problem at a time. I nod and smile and point.’

Ragna lowered her head again. A signal that the ball was in his court. He wondered if she had developed exceptional hearing in the way that people with hearing difficulties often speak loudly and clearly. He did not ask. He was still astonished that she was sitting there, that she had ended up in this situation, when she was about as robust as a reed and almost inaudible to boot. He could not see her hands, as she had them hidden in her lap. He wondered how much she could lift, how fast she could run, how hard she could hit. Everyone uses whatever weapon they have to hand. It struck him that being here in this room, as they were sitting now, face-to-face, alone without noise or distraction, was the best possible situation for unpacking the truth. The conditions for lying were not optimal.

What was it his dear old mum used to say, before a blood vessel in her brain punctured like a bicycle tyre and laid her life to waste? All those memories lost – the ones that had already happened, and those that would never happen now.

‘Absolutely everyone, at least once in their lives, should break down in tears of regret.’ That is what she had said. And then she died. Ragna Riegel was sitting in front of him, steeled by sheer determination. Would she break down in tears of regret?

The Whisperer Karin Fossum

Inspector Sejer returns in a stunning, psychologically acute new thriller from the Queen of Norwegian crime fiction.

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