Image Missing

Contents

Cover

About the Book

About the Author

Also by Karin Fossum

Dedication

Title Page

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Copyright

About the Book

Ida Joner gets on her brand-new bike and sets off to buy sweets. A good-natured, happy girl, she is looking forward to her tenth birthday. Thirty-five minutes after Ida should have come home, Helga Joner, her mother, starts to worry. She phones the shop and various friends, but no one has seen her daughter. As the family goes out looking for Ida, Helga’s worst nightmare becomes reality, and they contact the police.

Hundreds of volunteers comb the neighbourhood, but there are no traces of Ida or her bike. As the relatives reach breaking point and the media frenzy begins, Inspector Sejer is calm and reassuring. But he finds the case puzzling. Usually missing children are found within forty-eight hours. Ida Joner seems to have vanished without a trace.

About the Author

Karin Fossum made her literary debut in Norway in 1974. The author of poetry, short stories and one non-crime novel, it is with her Inspector Sejer Mysteries that she has won great acclaim. The series has been published in sixteen languages.

Charlotte Barslund translates Scandinavian novels and plays. Her recent work includes Calling Out For You by Karin Fossum, Machine by Peter Adolphsen and The Pelican by August Strindberg.

ALSO BY KARIN FOSSUM

Don’t Look Back

He Who Fears the Wolf

When the Devil Holds the Candle

Calling Out For You

KARIN FOSSUM

Black Seconds

TRANSLATED FROM THE NORWEGIAN BY
Charlotte Barslund

TO ØYSTEIN, MY YOUNGER BROTHER

CHAPTER 1

THE DAYS WENT by so slowly.

Ida Joner held up her hands and counted her fingers. Her birthday was on the tenth of September. And it was only the first today. There were so many things she wanted. Most of all she wanted a pet of her own. Something warm and cuddly, which would belong only to her. Ida had a sweet face with large brown eyes. Her body was slender and trim, her hair thick and curly. She was bright and happy. She was just too good to be true. Her mother often thought so, especially whenever Ida left the house and she would watch her daughter’s back disappear around the corner. Too good to last.

Ida jumped up on her bicycle, her brand-new Nakamura bicycle. She was going out. The living room was a mess: she had been lying on the sofa playing with her plastic figures and several other toys, and it was chaos when she left. At first her absence would create a great void. After a while a strange mood would creep in through the walls and fill the house with a sense of unease. Her mother hated it. But she could not keep her daughter locked up for ever, like some caged bird. She waved to Ida and put on a brave face. Lost herself in domestic chores. The humming of the Hoover would drown out the strange feeling in the room. When her body began to grow hot and sweaty, or started to ache from beating the rugs, it would numb the faint stabbing sensation in her chest which was always triggered by Ida going out.

She glanced out of the window. The bicycle turned left. Ida was going into town. Everything was fine; she was wearing her bicycle helmet. A hard shell that protected her head. Helga thought of it as a type of life insurance. In her pocket she had her zebra-striped purse, which contained thirty kroner about to be spent on the latest issue of Wendy. She usually spent the rest of her money on Bugg chewing gum. The ride down to Laila’s Kiosk would take her fifteen minutes. Her mother did the mental arithmetic. Ida would be back home again by 6.40 p.m. Then she factored in the possibility of Ida meeting someone and spending ten minutes chatting. While she waited, she started to tidy up. Picked up toys and figures from the sofa. Helga knew that her daughter would hear her words of warning wherever she went. She had planted her own voice of authority firmly in the girl’s head and knew that from there it sent out clear and constant instructions. She felt ashamed at this, the kind of shame that overcomes you after an assault, but she did not dare do otherwise. Because it was this very voice that would one day save Ida from danger.

Ida was a well-brought-up girl who would never cross her mother or forget to keep a promise. But now the wall clock in Helga Joner’s house was approaching 7 p.m. and Ida had still not come home. Helga experienced the first prickling of fear. And later that sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach that made her stand by the window from which she would see Ida appear on her yellow bicycle any second now. The red helmet would gleam in the sun. She would hear the crunch of the tyres on the pebbled drive. Perhaps even the ringing of the bell: hi, I’m home! Followed by a thud on the wall from the handlebars. But Ida did not come.

Helga Joner floated away from everything that was safe and familiar. The floor vanished beneath her feet. Her normally heavy body became weight less; she hovered like a ghost around the rooms. Then with a thump to her chest she came back down. Stopped abruptly and looked around. Why did this feel so familiar? Because she had already, for many years now, been rehearsing this moment in her mind. Because she had always known that this beautiful child was not hers to keep. It was the very realisation that she had known this day would come that terrified her. The knowledge that she could predict the future and that she had known this would happen right from the beginning made her head spin. That’s why I’m always so scared, Helga thought. I’ve been terrified every day for nearly ten years, and for good reason. Now it’s finally happened. My worst nightmare. Huge, black, and tearing my heart to pieces.

It was 7.15 p.m. when she forced herself to snap out of her apathy and find the number for Laila’s Kiosk in the phone book. She tried to keep her voice calm. The telephone rang many times before someone answered. Her phoning and thus revealing her fear made her even more convinced that Ida would turn up any minute now. The ultimate proof that she was an overprotective mother. But Ida was nowhere to be seen, and a woman answered. Helga laughed apologetically because she could hear from the other woman’s voice that she was mature and might have children of her own. She would understand.

‘My daughter went out on her bicycle to get a copy of Wendy. From your shop. I told her she was to come straight back home and she ought to be here by now, but she isn’t. So I’m just calling to check that she did come to your shop and bought what she wanted,’ said Helga Joner. She looked out of the window as if to shield herself against the reply.

‘No,’ the voice answered. ‘There was no girl here, not that I remember.’

Helga was silent. This was the wrong answer. Ida had to have been there. Why would the woman say no? She demanded another reply. ‘She’s short with dark hair,’ she went on stubbornly, ‘nine years old. She is wearing a blue tracksuit and a red helmet. Her bicycle’s yellow.’ The bit about the bicycle was left hanging in the air. After all, Ida would not have taken it with her inside the kiosk.

Laila Heggen, the owner of the kiosk, felt anxious and scared of replying. She heard the budding panic in the voice of Ida’s mother and did not want to release it in all its horror. So she went through the last few hours in her mind. But even though she wanted to, she could find no little girl there. ‘Well, so many kids come here,’ she said. ‘All day long. But at that time it’s usually quiet. Most people eat between five and seven. Then it gets busy again up until ten. That’s when I close.’ She could think of nothing more to say. Besides, she had two burgers under the grill; they were beginning to burn, and a customer was waiting.

Helga struggled to find the right words. She could not hang up, did not want to sever the link with Ida that this woman embodied. After all, the kiosk was where Ida had been going. Once more she stared out into the road. The cars were few and far between. The afternoon rush was over.

‘When she turns up,’ she tried, ‘please tell her I’m waiting.’

Silence once again. The woman in the kiosk wanted to help, but did not know how to. How awful, she thought, having to say no. When she needed a yes.

Helga Joner hung up. A new era had begun. A creeping, unpleasant shift that brought about a change in the light, in the temperature, in the landscape outside. Trees and bushes stood lined up like militant soldiers. Suddenly she noticed how the sky, which had not released rain for weeks, had filled with dark, dense clouds. When had that happened? Her heart was pounding hard and it hurt; she could hear the clock on the wall ticking mechanically. She had always thought of seconds as tiny metallic dots; now they turned into heavy black drops and she felt them fall one by one. She looked at her hands; they were chapped and wrinkled. No longer the hands of a young woman. She had become a mother late in life and had just turned forty-nine. Suddenly her fear turned into anger and she reached for the telephone once more. There was so much she could do: Ida had friends and family in the area. Helga had a sister, Ruth, and her sister had a twelve-year-old daughter, Marion, and an eighteen-year-old son, Tomme, Ida’s cousins. Ida’s father, who lived on his own, had two brothers in town, Ida’s uncles, both of whom were married and had four children in total. They were family. Ida could be with any of them. But they would have called. Helga hesitated. Friends first, she thought. Therese. Or Kjersti, perhaps. Ida also spent time with Richard, a twelve-year-old boy from the neighbourhood, who had a horse. She found the contact sheet for her daughter’s classmates stuck on the fridge, it listed everyone’s name and number. She started at the top with Kjersti.

‘No, sorry, Ida’s not here.’ The other woman’s concern, her anxiety and sympathy, which concluded with the reassuring words, ‘She’ll turn up, you know what kids are like,’ tormented and haunted her.

‘Yes,’ Helga lied. But she did not know. Ida was never late. No one was home at Therese’s. She spoke to Richard’s father, who told her his son had gone down to the stable. So she waited while he went to look for him. The clock on the wall mocked her, its constant ticking: she hated it. Richard’s father came back. His son was alone in the stable. Helga hung up and rested for a while. Her eyes were drawn to the window as if it were a powerful magnet. She called her sister and crumbled a little when she heard her voice. Could not stand upright any longer, her body was beginning to fail her, paralysis was setting in.

‘Get in your car straight away,’ Ruth said. ‘Get yourself over here and together we’ll drive round and look for her. We’ll find her, you’ll see!’

‘I know we will,’ Helga said. ‘But Ida doesn’t have a key. What if she comes back while we’re out looking for her?’

‘Leave the door open. It’ll be fine, don’t you worry. She’s probably been distracted by something. A fire or a car crash. And she’s lost track of time.’

Helga tore open the door to the garage. Her sister’s voice had calmed her down. A fire, she thought. Of course. Ida is staring at the flames, her cheeks are flushed, the firemen are exciting and appealing in their black uniforms and yellow helmets, she is rooted to the spot, she is bewitched by the sirens and the screaming and crackling of the flames. If there really was a fire, I too would be standing there mesmerised by the shimmering heat. And besides, everything around here is like a tinderbox, it hasn’t rained for ages. Or a car crash. She fumbled with her keys while she conjured up the scene. Images of twisted metal, ambulances, resuscitation efforts and spattered blood rushed through her mind. No wonder Ida had lost track of time!

Distracted, she drove to her sister’s house in Madseberget. It took four minutes. She scanned the verges the whole time; Ida was likely to appear without warning, cycling on the right-hand side of the road as she should, carefree, safe and sound. But she did not see her. Still, taking action felt better. Helga had to change gears, steer and brake; her body was occupied. If fate wanted to hurt her, she would fight back. Fight this looming monster tooth and nail.

Ruth was home alone. Her son Tom Erik, whom everyone called Tomme, had just passed his driving test. He had scrimped and scraped together enough money to buy an old Opel.

‘He practically lives in it,’ Ruth sighed. ‘I hope to God he takes care when he drives. Marion has gone to the library. They close at eight, so she’ll be home soon, but she’ll be fine on her own. Sverre is away on business. That man’s never here, I tell you.’ She had her back to Helga and was struggling to put on her coat as she spoke the last sentence. Her smile was in place when she turned around.

‘Come on, Helga, let’s go.’

Ruth was a slimmer and taller version of her sister. Five years younger and of a more cheerful disposition. They were very close and it had always been Ruth who had looked out for Helga. Even when she was five, she had been looking out for ten-year-old Helga. Helga was chunky, slow and shy. Ruth was lively, confident and capable. Always knew what to do. Now she took charge of her older sister once again. She managed to suppress her own fears by comforting Helga. She reversed the Volvo out of the garage and Helga got in. First they went to Laila’s Kiosk and spoke briefly to the owner. They had a look around outside. They were searching for clues that Ida had been there, even though Laila Heggen said she had not. Then they went into the centre of Glassverket. They wandered round the square scanning the passing faces and bodies, but no sign of Ida. Just to be sure, they went past the school where Ida was a Year Five pupil, but the playground lay deserted. Three times during the trip Helga borrowed Ruth’s mobile phone to call her home number. Perhaps Ida was waiting in the living room. But there was no reply. The nightmare was growing; it was lying in wait somewhere, quivering, gathering strength. Soon it would rise and crash over them like a wave. It would drown out everything. Helga could feel it in her body: a war was being fought inside her; her circulation, her heartbeat, her breathing, everything was violently disturbed.

‘Perhaps she’s had a puncture,’ Ruth said, ‘and had to ask someone to help her. Perhaps someone is trying to mend her bike right now.’

Helga nodded fiercely. She had not considered this possibility. She felt incredibly relieved. There were so many explanations, so many possibilities, and hardly any of them scary; she had just been unable to see them. She sat rigidly in her seat next to her sister, hoping that Ida’s bicycle really had had a bad puncture. This would explain everything. Then she was gripped by panic, terrified by this very image. A little girl with brown eyes might make a driver stop. Under the pretext of wanting to help her! Pretending! Once again her heart ached. Besides, if Ida had had a puncture, they would have spotted her; after all, they were on the very route Ida would have taken. There were no short cuts.

Helga stared right ahead. She didn’t want to turn her head to the left because that way lay the river, swift and dark. She wanted to proceed as quickly as possible to the moment when everything would be all right again.

They drove back to the house. There was nothing else they could do. The only sound was the humming of the engine in Ruth’s Volvo. She had turned off the radio. It was inappropriate to listen to music when Ida was missing. There was still a bit of traffic. Then they spotted a strange vehicle. They saw it from a distance; at first it looked unfamiliar. The vehicle was part motorcycle, part small truck. It had three wheels, motorcycle handlebars, and behind the seat was a drop-sided body, the size of a small trailer. Both the motorcycle and the truck body were painted green. The driver was going very slowly, but they could tell from his bearing that he had sensed the car, that he knew they were approaching. He pulled over to the right to let them pass. His eyes were fixed on the road.

‘That’s Emil Johannes,’ Ruth said. ‘He’s always out and about. Why don’t we ask him?’

‘He doesn’t talk,’ Helga objected.

‘That’s just a rumour,’ Ruth said. ‘I’m sure he can talk. When he wants to.’

‘Why do you think that?’ Helga said doubtfully.

‘Because that’s what people around here say. That he just doesn’t want to.’

Helga could not imagine why someone would want to stop talking of their own free will. She had never heard anything like it. The man on the large three-wheeler was in his fifties. He was wearing an old-fashioned leather cap with earflaps, and a jacket. It was not zipped up. It flapped behind him in the wind. As he became aware of the car pulling up alongside him, he started to wobble. He gave them a hostile look, but Ruth refused to be put off. She waved her arms at him and gestured that he should stop. He did so reluctantly. But he did not look at them. He just waited, still staring right ahead, his hands clasping the handlebars tightly, the flaps of his cap hanging like dog ears down his cheeks. Ruth lowered the car window.

‘We’re looking for a girl!’ she called out.

The man pulled a face. He did not understand why she was shouting like that. There was nothing wrong with his hearing.

‘A dark-haired girl, she’s nine. She rides a yellow bike. You’re always on the road. Have you seen her?’

The man stared down at the tarmac. His face was partly hidden by his cap. Helga Joner stared at the trailer. It was covered by a black tarpaulin. She thought she could see something lying underneath. Her thoughts went off in all directions. There was room for both a girl and a bicycle underneath that tarpaulin. Did he look guilty? Then again, she knew that he always wore this remote expression. Sometimes she would see him in the local shop. He lived in a world of his own.

The thought that Ida might be lying under the black tarpaulin struck her as absurd. I’m really starting to lose it, she thought.

‘Have you seen her?’ Ruth repeated. She had a firm voice, Helga thought. So commanding. It made people sit up and take notice.

Finally he returned her gaze, but only for a moment. His eyes were round and grey. Had he blinked quickly? Helga bit her lip. But that was the way he was; she knew he didn’t want to talk to people or look at them. It meant nothing. His voice sounded somewhat gruff as he replied.

‘No,’ he said.

Ruth held his gaze. The grey eyes flickered away once more. He put the three-wheeler into gear and revved the engine. The accelerator was on the right handlebar. He liked revving the engine. Ruth indicated left and drove past him. But she kept looking at him in the mirror. ‘Hah!’ she snorted. ‘Everyone says he can’t talk. What rubbish!’

A heavy silence fell on the car. Helga thought, she’ll be back now. Laila from the kiosk doesn’t remember it, but Ida was there. She’s lying on the sofa reading Wendy and chewing gum; her cheeks are bulging with gum. There are sweet wrappers everywhere. The pink gum makes her breath smell sweet.

But the living room was deserted. Helga broke down completely. Everything inside her crumpled.

‘Oh my God,’ she sobbed. ‘It’s really true now. Do you hear me, Ruth? Something terrible has happened!’ Her sobs culminated in a scream.

Ruth went over to the telephone.

Ida Joner was reported missing at 8.35 p.m. The female caller introduced herself as Ruth Emilie Rix. She took great care to appear businesslike, afraid that the police would not take her call seriously otherwise. At the same time there was an undercurrent of desperation in her voice. Jacob Skarre made notes on a pad while the woman talked, and he experienced many contradictory feelings. Ida Joner, a nine-year-old girl from Glassverket, had been missing for two hours. Clearly something had happened. However, it did not necessarily follow that it was bad news. Most of the time, in fact, it was not bad news at all, but a minor upset. At first it would cause pain and fear, only to culminate in the most soothing comfort of all: a mother’s embrace. The thought of it made him smile; he had seen it so many times. Yet the thought of what might have happened made him shudder.

It was 9 p.m. when the patrol car pulled up in front of Mrs Joner’s house. She lived at Glassblåserveien 8, eleven kilometres from town and sufficiently remote for it to be considered a rural area, with scattered farms and fields and a range of new housing developments. Glassverket had its own village centre, with a school, a few shops and a petrol station. Mrs Joner’s house was in a residential area. It was attractive and painted red. A hedge of white dogwood with thin bristling branches formed a spectacular, spiky border around the property. The lawn had yellow patches from the drought.

Helga was standing by the window. The sight of the white police car made her feel faint. She had gone too far, she had tempted fate. It was like admitting that something terrible had happened. They should not have called the police. If they had not called, Ida would have come back of her own accord. Helga could no longer keep on top of her own thoughts; she longed desperately for someone to take over, take control and make all the decisions. Two police officers were walking up the drive, and Helga stared at the older of them, a very tall grey-haired man in his fifties. He moved quietly and thoughtfully, as if nothing in the world could unsettle him. Helga thought, he’s exactly what I need. He’ll fix this, because that’s his job; he’s done this before. Shaking his hand felt unreal. This isn’t really happening, she thought; please let me wake up from this terrible nightmare. But she did not wake up.

Helga was stout and thickset, with coarse dark hair brushed away from her face. Her skin was pale, her brows strong and thick. Inspector Sejer looked at her calmly.

‘Are you on your own?’ he asked.

‘My sister will be here shortly. She was the one who called you. She just had to go tell her own family.’

Her voice was panicky. She looked at the two men, at Jacob Skarre with his blond curls and Konrad Sejer with his steel-grey hair. She looked at them with the pleading expression of a beggar. Then she disappeared into the house. Stood by the window with her arms folded across her chest. Sitting down was out of the question; she had to remain standing, had to be able to see the road, the yellow bicycle when it finally turned up. Because it would turn up now, the very moment she had set this huge machine in motion. She started talking. Desperate to fill the void with words, to keep the images at bay, hideous images that kept appearing in her mind.

‘I’m on my own with her. We had her late,’ she stuttered. ‘I’m nearly fifty. Her dad moved out eight years ago. He knows nothing. I’m reluctant to call him. I’m sure there’s an explanation and I don’t want to worry him for no reason.’

‘So you don’t consider it possible that she might be with her father?’ Sejer said.

‘No,’ she said firmly. ‘Anders would have called. He’s a good dad.’

‘So you get on well as far as Ida is concerned?’

‘Oh, absolutely!’

‘Then I think you should call him,’ Sejer said.

He said this because he was a father himself and he did not want Ida’s father kept in the dark. Helga walked reluctantly towards the telephone. The living room fell quiet as she punched in the number.

‘There’s no reply,’ she reported and hung up.

‘Leave a message,’ Sejer said, ‘if he has an answerphone.’

She nodded and rang back. Her voice acquired an embarrassed quality because she had an audience.

‘Anders,’ they heard, ‘it’s Helga. I’ve been waiting for Ida; she should have been home ages ago. I was just wondering if she was with you.’

She paused and then stuttered: ‘Call me, please! The police are here.’ She turned to Sejer. ‘He travels a lot. He could be anywhere.’

‘We need a good description of her,’ Sejer said. ‘And a photo, which I’m sure you have.’

Helga sensed how strong he was. It was strange to think that he must have sat like this before. In other living rooms with other mothers. Most of all she wanted to fall into his arms and cling to him, but she did not dare. So she gritted her teeth.

Sejer rang the station and ordered two patrol cars to drive down the highway towards Glassverket. A nine-year-old girl riding a yellow bicycle, Helga heard him say. And she thought how nice it was to hear him talk about her daughter in this way; he made it sound like they were just looking for a missing vehicle. Later, a cacophony of voices and car engines followed, nightmarish images flickering in front of her eyes. Ringing telephones, snappy orders and strange faces. They wanted to see Ida’s room. Helga didn’t like that because it reminded her of something. Something she had seen on TV, in crime dramas. Young girls’ rooms, howling with emptiness. Quietly she walked upstairs and opened the door. Sejer and Skarre stayed in the doorway, taken aback by the large room and the chaos inside it. Animals, in all shapes and sizes. In all sorts of materials. Glass and stone, clay and wood, plastic and fabric. Horses and dogs. Birds and mice, fish and snakes. They hung suspended from the ceiling on fine wires, they took up the whole of the pale wooden bed, they were piled up on top of bookshelves and lined up on the windowsill. Sejer noticed that every book on the bookshelves was about animals. There were animal pictures and posters on the walls. The curtains were green and had seahorses printed on them.

‘Now you see what she’s into,’ Helga said. She stood in the open doorway, shuddering. It was as if she was seeing this for the very first time, the excess of it all. How many animals were in there? Hundreds?

Sejer nodded. Skarre was lost for words. The room was extraordinarily messy and contained too many things. They went back downstairs. Helga Joner took down a photo from the living room wall. Sejer held it up. The moment he stared into her brown eyes, Ida imprinted herself on his brain. Most kids are cute, he thought, but this girl is adorable. She was sweet and enchanting. Like a child in a fairy tale. She made him think of Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and Cinderella. Large dark eyes. Rosy red cheeks. Slender as a reed. He looked at Helga Joner.

‘You went out looking for her? You and your sister?’

‘We drove around for nearly an hour,’ Helga said. ‘There was only a little traffic, not many people to ask. I’ve called most of her friends, I’ve called Laila’s Kiosk. She hasn’t been there and I don’t understand that. What do I do now?’ She looked at him with red eyes.

‘You shouldn’t be on your own,’ he said. ‘Stay calm and wait for your sister. We’ll round up all the officers we have and start looking for her.’

‘Do you remember Mary Pickford?’ Sejer asked.

They were back in the car. He watched Helga’s house disappear in the mirror. Her sister Ruth had come back. Jacob Skarre gave him a blank look. He was far too young to remember any of the silent movie stars.

‘Ida looks like her,’ Sejer said.

Skarre asked no more questions. He was desperate for a cigarette, but smoking was not allowed in the patrol car. Instead he rummaged round in his pockets for some sweets and dug out a packet of fruit gums.

‘She wouldn’t get into a strange car,’ he said pensively.

‘All mothers say that,’ Sejer said. ‘It depends who does the asking. Adults are much smarter than kids, that’s the bottom line.’

His answer made Skarre uneasy. He wanted to believe that children were intuitive and sensed danger much sooner than adults. Like dogs. That they could smell it. Though, come to think of it, dogs were not very smart. His train of thought was starting to depress him. The fruit gum was softening in his mouth so he began chewing it. ‘But they’ll get into a car if it’s someone they know,’ he said out loud. ‘And it often is someone they know.’

‘You’re talking as if we’re already dealing with a crime,’ Sejer said. ‘Surely that’s a bit premature.’

‘I know,’ Skarre conceded. ‘I’m just trying to prepare myself.’

Sejer watched him covertly. Skarre was young and ambitious. Keen and eager. His talent was well hidden behind his large sky-blue eyes, and his curls added to his harmless appearance. No one ever felt intimidated by Skarre. People relaxed and chatted freely to him, which was precisely what he wanted them to do. Sejer drove the patrol car through the landscape at the permitted speed. All the time he was in contact with the search parties. They had nothing to report.

The speedometer showed a steady sixty kilometres per hour, and eighty when they reached the highway. Their eyes scanned the fields automatically, but they saw nothing. No little dark-haired girl, no yellow bicycle. Sejer could visualise her face. The tiny mouth and the big curls. Then a far more terrifying image appeared in his mind’s eye. No, a voice inside him called out. It’s not like that. Not this time. This girl is coming home. They come home all the time, I have seen it before. And why on earth do I love this job so much?

Helga inhaled deeply and exhaled irregularly. Ruth grabbed her sister’s shoulders while talking to her in a loud and exaggerated voice. ‘You need to breathe, Helga. Breathe!’

Several frenzied inhalations followed, but nothing came out and the thickset body on the sofa struggled to regain control.

‘What if Ida were to come in now and see you like this!’ Ruth shouted in desperation; she could think of nothing else to say. ‘Do you hear me?’ She started shaking her sister. Finally Helga managed to breathe normally. Then she collapsed and became strangely lethargic.

‘Now you have to rest,’ Ruth pleaded. ‘I need to phone home. Then you must eat. Or at least drink something.’

Helga shook her head. She could hear her sister’s voice coming distantly from the other end of the room. A low murmur that made no sense to her. Shortly afterwards she came to.

‘I told Marion to go to bed and lock the door,’ Ruth said.

The moment she said that, she felt an intense fear. Marion was alone in the house. Then she realised how inappropriate and needless her anxiety was, but now every word had suddenly become laden, every comment potentially explosive. She disappeared back into the kitchen. Helga heard the clinking of glass. A drawer was pulled out and she thought, Ruth is slicing bread. Having to eat now. I can’t manage that. She stared towards the window, her eyes aching. When the telephone rang she was so startled that she let out a sharp scream. Ruth rushed in.

‘Shall I get it?’

‘No!’

Helga snatched up the receiver and shouted her own name into the telephone. Then she crumbled. ‘No, she hasn’t turned up,’ she cried. ‘It’s almost eleven thirty and she left at six. I can’t take it any more!’

On the other end, Ida Joner’s father fell completely silent.

‘And the police?’ he said anxiously. ‘Where are they?’

‘They’ve all left, but they’re out looking. They have asked the Home Guard and some other volunteers to join in the search, but they haven’t called me yet. They won’t find her, I know they won’t!’

Ruth waited in the doorway. The gravity of the situation dawned on them both simultaneously. It was dark outside, almost midnight. Ida was out there somewhere, unable to make her way home. Helga could not speak. Eating was out of the question. She did not want to move or go anywhere. Just wait, the two of them together, hugging each other while their fear sent a rush of blood to the head.

CHAPTER 2

WHAT IS IT about kids and sweets?’ Sejer said. ‘Why do they crave them all the time? Do all children suffer from low blood sugar?’

Skarre perched on the edge of the desk. ‘Ida went to buy a magazine,’ he objected.

‘And sweets with the rest of her money,’ Sejer said. ‘Bugg. What on earth is that?’

‘Chewing gum,’ Skarre explained.

A couple of hours means nothing, Sejer thought, staring at his wristwatch. After all we are talking about a child who is nearly ten. She could speak up for herself and ask questions. However, it was 1 a.m. now. Outside, it was a black September night, and Ida had been missing from her home for seven hours. He became aware of a low murmur. For a while he sat still, listening to it. The sound increased. Rain, he thought. An early autumn rainstorm. It pelted the windows of the police station, washing dust and dirt from the panes in broad streams. He had wished for rain. Everything was so dry. But now it was bad timing. His body ached with a mixture of restlessness and tension. He should not be sitting here shuffling paper; he should be outside in the darkness looking for Ida. Then he remembered her bicycle. Chrome yellow and brand new. That too was still missing.

‘She might have fallen off her bike,’ Skarre said. ‘Perhaps she’s lying unconscious in a ditch somewhere. It’s been known to happen. Or she might have met someone who talked her into going for a bike ride. Someone irresponsible, but essentially harmless. Like Raymond. Do you remember Raymond?’

Sejer nodded. ‘He keeps rabbits. He could use them to entice a little girl.’

‘And Ida is animal mad,’ Skarre argued. ‘However, it’s also possible that she’s run away from home because of some row her mother doesn’t want to tell us about. Perhaps she’s asleep in a shed somewhere. Hell-bent on making her mother pay for something or other.’

‘They hadn’t been arguing,’ Sejer objected.

‘Perhaps her father was involved,’ Skarre went on. ‘They are, sometimes. A teacher or another adult she knows might have picked her up. For reasons we don’t understand yet. Perhaps they’ve given her a hot meal and a bed for the night. People do all sorts of things. We imagine the worst because we’ve been in this job for too long.’

Skarre undid the top button of his shirt. The semi-darkness and silence in Sejer’s office were poignant.

‘We have a case,’ he concluded.

‘Granted.’ Sejer nodded. ‘Though there’s not much we can do for the time being. We just have to sit here and wait. Until she turns up in some form or other.’

Skarre leapt down from the desk and went over to the window.

‘Has Sara gone?’ he asked with his back to Sejer. The tarmac on the car park outside the police station gleamed black and oily in the rain.

‘Yes. This morning. She’ll be gone four months,’ Sejer said.

Skarre nodded. ‘Research?’

‘She intends to find out why some people grow less than others,’ Sejer smiled.

‘In which case,’ Skarre chuckled, ‘you being two metres tall is no use to her.’

Sejer shook his head. ‘One theory is that some people refuse to grow,’ he said. ‘That they simply refuse to grow up.’

‘You’re kidding?’ Skarre turned from the window and looked at his boss open-mouthed.

‘No, no. I’m not. Often the explanation is much more straight forward than we’d like to believe. According to Sara, anyway.’

Skarre stared despondently out of the window. ‘I hate the rain,’ he said.

The shrill sound of the doorbell cut through the house without warning. Helga stared wildly at her sister; her eyes had a metallic sheen of terror. It was very late. An insane mixture of fear and hope surged through her body.

‘I’ll get it!’ Ruth said, rushing out. She trembled as she pushed the door handle down. Outside, standing on the doorstep, was Ida’s father.

‘Anders,’ she said, and could barely hide her disappointment. She stared at him and took a step back.

‘Have they found her?’ he asked.

‘No. We’re still waiting.’

‘I’m staying here tonight,’ Anders Joner said firmly. ‘I can sleep on the sofa.’

He sounded very determined. Ruth moved to let him in. Helga heard his voice and braced herself. She felt so many things. Relief and anger at the same time. He walked across the floor. A thin, lean man whose head was practically bald. She recognised his old grey coat and a jumper she had knitted him a long time ago. It was hard to look at his face. She could not bear to see the desperation in his eyes; she could barely contain her own.

‘You go to bed, Helga,’ he said. ‘I’ll wait by the phone. Have you managed to eat something?’

He took off his coat and placed it over the back of a chair. He made himself at home. But then again, for several years this house had been his home.

Ruth was standing in a corner. She felt that leaving them was like running away. ‘Well, I’ll be off then,’ she said, averting her eyes. ‘But promise me you’ll call if anything happens, Anders.’

She suddenly became very busy. Patted Helga on the back, tore her coat off the peg in the hall and rushed outside. Drove back to her house in Madseberget as fast as she could. Thoughts racing through her mind.

The rain was fierce, the wipers swept angrily across the wind screen. Her own cowardice made her feel wretched. When Anders had appeared on the doorstep and she felt she could go home, her sense of relief had been overwhelming. The whole evening she had been consumed by a terrifying, overpowering horror. But she had not allowed herself to give in to it. She had to be stronger than Helga. Now that Anders was keeping her sister company, her feelings surfaced once more and they took her breath away. She would escape it now, that awful moment. Escape the inevitable telephone call, the dreaded words: ‘We’ve found her.’ Now it would be Anders who would have to deal with it. I’m a coward, she thought, wiping away her tears.

She parked in the double garage and noticed that Tomme, her son, was still not back. She let herself in and ran up the stairs to the first floor. Her daughter, Marion, was asleep in her bed. She stood for a while, watching her daughter’s chubby cheeks. They were warm and rosy. Later she sat by the living room window, waiting for her son. It dawned on her that her sister had sat in the same way for hours waiting for Ida. Tomme was later than usual. She felt a fraction of Helga’s fear, but calmed herself down by remembering that he was an adult. Imagine sitting like this, she thought, and they never turn up. It was inconceivable. What if Marion vanished like that? What if the sound of tyres from her son’s Opel never materialised? She tried to imagine hours of waiting. Imagined that the familiar sound of tyres never came. That sooner or later she would be waiting for another sound, the sound of the telephone. She rang his mobile, but it was switched off. When he finally turned up, it surprised her that he did not pop in to say hi, but went straight up to his room. He must have seen the light in the window and realised that she was awake. She sat there for a few minutes, deliberating. Dreaded what she had to tell him. Then she went upstairs. Positioned herself in the doorway to his room. He had turned on his computer. Sat facing away from her, his shoulders hunched. His entire body exuded frustration.

‘What is it?’ she said quickly. ‘You’re terribly late.’

He cleared his throat. Thumped the table with his fist. ‘I bashed the bloody car,’ he said sullenly.

Ruth pondered his answer. She thought of everything that had happened and watched his narrow, angry back. Suddenly she felt incensed. Her fear and her rage started to pour out of her and there was nothing she could do to stop them.

‘So,’ she said, ‘you’ve bashed the car, have you? Well, your dad and I aren’t going to pay to have it fixed, so you’ll just have to drive it as it is, or you can save up and pay for it yourself!’ She was almost gasping for breath. Her son became wary, but he did not turn around.

‘I know that,’ he said in a monotone voice.

A labyrinth appeared on the screen. A cat prowled around inside it. Her son followed it with his eyes and turned up the volume. A mouse was scuttling around in the heart of the labyrinth.

‘It’s just so fucking annoying,’ he exploded.

‘I really can’t be bothered to talk about that right now,’ Ruth yelled. ‘Something dreadful has happened. Ida’s gone missing!’

Her son was startled, but he continued to stare at the screen. A low sound emanated from the speakers.

‘Missing?’ he said, shocked, and began to turn around slowly.

‘Your cousin Ida,’ she said. ‘She left home at six to get something from the kiosk. I’ve been with Helga the whole evening. They haven’t found her or her bicycle.’

‘They?’

‘The police!’

‘So where have they been looking?’ he asked, looking at her wide-eyed.

‘Where have they been looking? Everywhere, of course. She never even got to the kiosk.’

Ruth had to lean against the wall. Yet again she realised just how serious the situation was. Her son was still fiddling with the keyboard, moving the prowling cat into a blind alley. The mouse stayed put, waiting for its next move.

‘So that dent of yours is not worth worrying about,’ she said in a fraught voice. ‘It’s just some damage to an old car, which can be fixed. I hope you understand how unimportant it is.’

He nodded slowly. She could hear his breathing; it was laboured.

‘So what happened, then?’ she said with sudden sympathy. ‘Were you hurt?’

He shook his head. Ruth felt sorry for him. A dented car represented a defeat. He was young and thought he knew it all, and the dent had undermined his pride in the worst possible way. She did understand, but was not prepared to offer him anything more than basic sympathy. She wanted him to grow up.

‘I hit a crash barrier,’ he said.

‘I see,’ she said. ‘Where?’

‘By the bridge. In the centre of town.’

‘Were you with Bjørn?’

‘No. Not then.’

‘Do you want me to go out to the garage and have a look?’ she asked.

‘There’s no need,’ he said in a tired voice. ‘I’ve talked to Willy. He’ll help me repair it. I haven’t got any money, but he says he can wait.’

‘Willy?’ Ruth frowned. ‘Are you still friends with him? I thought you were going over to Bjørn’s?’

‘I was,’ Tomme said. ‘But Willy knows about cars. That’s why I drove over to his place. Willy has the tools and a garage, Bjørn doesn’t have anything like that.’

He started moving the cat again. Why won’t he look at me? Ruth wondered. An awful thought struck her.

‘Tomme,’ she said breathlessly, ‘you haven’t been drinking, have you?’

He spun around in his chair and gave her an irate look. ‘Are you out of your mind? Of course I don’t drive when I’ve been drinking. Are you saying I drink and drive?’

He was so genuinely outraged that she felt ashamed. His face was white as chalk. His longish hair was unkempt, and in the midst of everything that was going on, Ruth noticed that it could do with a wash.

She lingered in the doorway for a while. She could not calm herself down, she did not feel tired; all the time she was listening out for the telephone in case it should ring. She sensed how shocked she would be if it actually did ring. She imagined the moment when she would lift up the receiver and wait. Standing at the edge of the void. She would either fall into it or be pulled back from the edge and into the comforting reassurance of a happy ending. Because this had to have a happy ending. She could not imagine the alternative, not here, in this peaceful place, not for Ida.

‘I’m going over to Helga’s early tomorrow morning,’ she said. ‘You’ve got to give Marion breakfast and help her get ready. I want you to walk her to the school bus. And don’t just walk her there,’ she added. ‘I want you to wait until she’s found her seat. Do you hear me? I need to be with Helga in case anything happens. Uncle Anders is there at the moment,’ she said quietly.

She sighed forlornly and told her son to go to bed. Left him and went outside. It was a spur-of-the moment decision. She opened the door to the double garage. She was surprised to see that her son had covered the Opel with a tarpaulin. He never usually did. I suppose he can’t bear to look at it, she thought. She turned on the garage light. Lifted up the tarpaulin. On the right-hand side she found what she was looking for. A dent, a broken front light and some damage to the paintwork. It was scarred by long grey and white scratches. She shook her head and replaced the tarpaulin. Went back outside. Stood there pondering. Felt the rain on her neck, raw and cold. She glanced quickly up at the window to her son’s bedroom, which overlooked the drive. There she saw his pale face partly hidden by the curtain.

CHAPTER 3

HELGA WOKE WITH a jolt. She sat up in bed. For a brief second everything was as normal. She was Helga waking up to a new day.

Then she remembered. Reality hit her and forced her back down on the mattress. At the same time she heard the slamming of a car door and subdued, murmuring voices. Someone was coming to the house. She lay very still as if lying on a bed of needles, listening. They were moving very quietly, she could hear that. No hasty steps, no eager voices. She remained curled up in her bed. She was going to lie like this until Ida came home again. She would not move, eat or drink. If she stayed there long enough, the miracle would happen. And if it never happened she would let the mattress swallow her up. Lose herself in its stuffing. People could sleep on top of her, they could come and go as they pleased; she would not notice them. She would never feel anything ever again.

She heard Anders’ voice. Feet dragging across the floor. The front door being closed ever so gently. If the worst had happened, Anders would be standing