The Ice Child
The ninth book in the Patrik Hedstrom series, 2016
Translated from the Swedish by Tiina Nunnally
The horse could smell the fear even before the girl emerged from the woods. The rider urged the horse on, digging her heels into the animal’s flanks, though it wasn’t really necessary. They were so in tune that her mount sensed her wishes almost before she did.
The muted, rhythmic sound of the horse’s hooves broke the silence. During the night a thin layer of snow had fallen, and the stallion now ploughed new tracks, making the powdery snow spray up around his hooves.
The girl didn’t run. She moved unsteadily, in an irregular pattern with her arms wrapped tightly around her torso.
The rider shouted. A loud cry, and the horse understood that something wasn’t right. The girl didn’t reply, merely staggered onward.
As they approached her, the horse picked up the pace. The strong, rank smell of fear was mixed with something else, something indefinable and so terrifying that he pressed his ears back. He wanted to stop, turn around, and gallop back to the secure confines of his stall. This was not a safe place to be.
The road was between them. Deserted now, with new snow blowing across the asphalt like a silent mist.
The girl continued towards them. Her feet were bare, and the pink of her naked arms and legs contrasted sharply with all the white surrounding her, with the snow-covered spruces forming a white backdrop. They were close now, on either side of the road, and the horse heard the rider shout again. Her voice was so familiar, yet it had a strange ring to it.
Suddenly the girl stopped. She stood in the middle of the road with snow whirling about her feet. There was something odd about her eyes. They were like black holes in her white face.
The car seemed to come out of nowhere. The sound of squealing brakes sliced through the stillness, followed by the thump of a body landing on the ground. The rider yanked so hard on the reins that the bit cut into the stallion’s mouth. He obeyed and stopped abruptly. She was him, and he was her. That was what he’d been taught.
On the ground the girl lay motionless. With those peculiar eyes of hers staring up at the sky.
Erica Falck paused in front of the prison and for the first time studied it closely. On her previous visits she had been so busy thinking about who she was going to meet that she hadn’t given the building or its setting more than a cursory glance. But she would need to give readers a sense of the place when she wrote her book about Laila Kowalski, the woman who had so brutally murdered her husband Vladek many years ago.
She pondered how to convey the atmosphere that pervaded the bunker-like building, how she could capture the air of confinement and hopelessness. The prison was located about a thirty-minute drive from Fjällbacka, in a remote and isolated spot surrounded by fences and barbed wire, though it had none of those towers manned by armed guards that always featured in American films. It had been constructed with only one purpose in mind, and that was to keep people inside.
From the outside the prison looked unoccupied, but she knew the reverse was true. Funding cuts and a tight budget meant that as many people as possible were crowded into every space. No local politician was about to risk losing votes by proposing that money should be invested in a new prison. The county would just have to make do with the present structure.
The cold had begun to seep through Erica’s clothes, so she headed towards the entrance. When she entered the reception area, the guard listlessly glanced at her ID and nodded without raising his eyes. He stood up, and she followed him down a corridor as she thought about how hectic her morning had been. Every morning was a trial these days. To say that the twins had entered an obstinate stage was an understatement. For the life of her she couldn’t recall Maja ever being so difficult when she was two, or at any age. Noel was the worst. He had always been the more energetic one, but Anton was all too happy to follow his lead. If Noel screamed, he screamed too. It was a miracle that her eardrums – and Patrik’s, for that matter – were still intact, given the decibel level at home.
And what a pain it was to get them into their winter clothes. She gave her armpit a discreet sniff. She smelled faintly of sweat. It had taken her so long to wrestle the twins into their clothes so she could take them and Maja to the day-care centre, she hadn’t had time to change. Oh well. She wasn’t exactly going to a social gathering.
The guard’s key ring clanked as he unlocked the door and showed Erica into the visitor’s room. It seemed so old-fashioned that they still made use of keys in this place. But of course it would be easier to get hold of the combination to a coded lock than to steal a key. Maybe it wasn’t so strange that old measures often prevailed over more modern solutions.
Laila was sitting at the only table in the room. Her face was turned towards the window, and the winter sun streaming through the pane formed a halo around her blond hair. The bars on the window made squares of light on the floor, and dust motes floated in the air, revealing that the room hadn’t been cleaned as thoroughly as it should have been.
‘Hi,’ said Erica as she sat down.
She wondered why Laila had agreed to see her again. This was their third meeting, and Erica had made no progress at all. Initially Laila had refused to meet with her, no matter how many imploring letters Erica had sent or how many phone calls she’d made. Then a few months ago Laila had suddenly acquiesced. Perhaps the visits were a welcome break from the monotony of prison life. Erica planned to keep visiting if Laila continued to agree to see her. It had been a long time since she’d felt such a strong urge to tell a story, and she couldn’t do it without Laila’s help.
‘Hi, Erica.’ Laila turned and fixed her unusual blue eyes on her visitor. At their first meeting, Erica had been reminded of those dogs they used to pull sleds. Huskies. Laila had eyes like a Siberian husky.
‘Why do you want to see me if you don’t want to talk about the case?’ asked Erica, getting right to the point. She immediately regretted her choice of words. For Laila, what had happened was not a ‘case’. It was a tragedy and something that still tormented her.
‘I don’t get any other visitors,’ she said, confirming Erica’s suspicions.
Erica opened her bag and took out a folder containing newspaper articles, photos, and notes.
‘Well, I’m not giving up,’ she said, tapping on the folder.
‘I suppose that’s the price I have to pay if I want company,’ said Laila, revealing the unexpected sense of humour that Erica had occasionally glimpsed. She had seen pictures of Laila before it all happened. She hadn’t been conventionally beautiful, but she was attractive in a different and compelling way. Back then her blond hair had been long, and in most of the photos she wore it loose and straight. Now it was cropped short, and cut the same length all over. Not exactly what you would call a hairstyle. Just cut in a way that showed it had been a long time since Laila had cared about her appearance. And why should she? She hadn’t been out in the real world for years. Who would she put on make-up for in here? The nonexistent visitors? The other prisoners? The guards?
‘You look tired today.’ Laila studied Erica’s face. ‘Was it a rough morning?’
‘Rough morning, rough night, and presumably just as rough this afternoon. But that’s the way it is when you have young children.’ Erica sighed heavily and tried to relax. She noticed how tense she was after the stress of the morning.
‘Peter was always so sweet,’ said Laila as a veil lowered over those blue eyes of hers. ‘Not even a trace of stubbornness that I remember.’
‘You told me the first time we met that he was a very quiet child.’
‘Yes. In the beginning we thought there was something wrong with him. He didn’t make a sound until he was three. I wanted to take him to a specialist, but Vladek refused.’ She shivered and her hands abruptly curled into fists as they lay on the table, though she didn’t seem aware of it.
‘What happened when Peter was three?’
‘One day he just started talking. In complete sentences. With a huge vocabulary. He lisped a bit, but otherwise it was as if he had always talked. As if those years of silence had never existed.’
‘And you were never given any explanation?’
‘No. Who would have explained it to us? Vladek didn’t want to ask anyone for help. He always said that strangers shouldn’t get mixed up in family matters.’
‘Why do you think Peter was silent for so long?’
Laila turned to look out of the window, and the sun once again formed a halo around her cropped blond hair. The furrows that the years had etched into her face were mercilessly evident in the light. As if forming a map of all the suffering she had endured.
‘He probably realized it was best to make himself as invisible as possible. Not to draw attention to himself. Peter was a clever boy.’
‘What about Louise? How old was she when she started to talk?’ Erica held her breath. So f ...