The Darkness – Ragnar Jonasson

‘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. ‘Oh?’ ‘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. ‘Children.’ 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. ‘Quite.’ ‘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. II 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. III It was getting on for six when Hulda finished questioning the woman, so she headed straight home. She needed time to think before taking the next step. Summer was coming and the days were growing longer, but there was no sign of the sun, just rain and more rain. In her memories, the summers had been warmer and brighter, bathed in sunshine. So many memories: too many, really.

It was incredible to think she was about to turn sixty-five. She didn’t feel as if her sixties were half over, as if seventy was looming on the horizon. Accepting your age was one thing; accepting retirement quite another. But there was no getting away from it: all too soon, she would be drawing her pension. Not that she knew how someone her age was supposed to feel. Her mother had been an old woman at sixty, if not before, but now that it was Hulda’s turn, she couldn’t feel any real difference between being forty-four and sixty-four. Maybe she had a little less stamina these days, but not that you’d notice. Her eyesight was still pretty good, though her hearing wasn’t quite what it used to be. She kept herself fit, too: her love of the outdoors saw to that. Why, she even had a certificate to prove she wasn’t an old woman.

‘In excellent shape,’ the young doctor had said – far too young to be a doctor, of course – at her last medical. Actually, what he’d said was: ‘In excellent shape for your age.’ She’d kept her figure, and her short hair was still naturally dark, with only a few grey hairs here and there. It was only when she looked in the mirror that she noticed the ravages of time. Sometimes she couldn’t believe her eyes, feeling as if the person reflected there was a stranger, someone she’d rather not recognize, though her face was familiar. The wrinkles here and there, the bags under her eyes, the sagging skin. Who was this woman, and what was she doing in Hulda’s mirror? She was sitting in the good armchair, her mother’s chair, staring out of the living-room window. It wasn’t much of a view; pretty much what you’d expect from the fourth floor of a city tower block. It hadn’t always been this way. Occasionally, she allowed herself a fleeting moment of nostalgia for the old days, for family life in their house by the sea on Álftanes.

Allowed herself to remember. The birdsong had been so much louder and more persistent there; you only had to step out into the garden to be close to nature. Of course, the proximity to the sea had made it windy, but the fresh ocean air, cold though it was, had been a lifeline for Hulda. She used to stand on the shore below their house, close her eyes, fill her mind with the sounds of nature – the boom of the waves, the mewing of the gulls – and simply breathe. The years had flown by so quickly. It hardly seemed any time since she had become a mother, since she had got married. But when she started counting the years, she realized it was a lifetime ago. Time was like a concertina: one minute compressed, the next stretching out interminably. She knew she was going to miss her job, in spite of all the times she had felt aggrieved that her talents weren’t appreciated. In spite of the glass ceiling she had so often found herself banging her head against.

The truth was that she dreaded being lonely, though there was a potential bright spot on the horizon. She still didn’t know where her friendship with the man from the walking club was going, but the possibilities it opened up were both tantalizing and unsettling. She had been single, more or less, ever since becoming a widow and had done nothing to encourage the man’s advances at first. She had kept dwelling on the disadvantages of the relationship and worrying about her age, which wasn’t like her. Usually, she did her best to forget it; thought of herself as young at heart. But this time the number – sixty-four! – had got in the way. She kept asking herself if it was really a good idea to begin a new relationship at that age but soon realized this was nothing but an empty excuse for avoiding taking a risk. She was afraid, that was all. Whatever happened, Hulda was determined to take it slowly. There was no need to rush into anything.

She liked him and could easily imagine spending her twilight years with him. It wasn’t love – she’d forgotten what that felt like – but love wasn’t a requirement for her. They shared a passion for the great outdoors, which wasn’t to be taken for granted, and she enjoyed his company. But she knew there was another reason she had agreed to see him again after that first date. If she were honest, her impending retirement had been the deciding factor: she couldn’t face the prospect of growing old alone. IV The email troubled Hulda, though the request seemed simple enough. Her boss wanted to meet her at nine that morning to talk things over. The email had been sent late the previous evening, which was unusual in itself, and it was most unlike him to want to start the day by ‘talking things over’ with her. Hulda was used to seeing him holding informal morning meetings, but she had never been invited to one herself. These weren’t work meetings so much as bonding sessions for the boys, and she definitely wasn’t part of that gang.

Despite all her years in a position of responsibility, she still had the feeling that she didn’t enjoy the full trust of her superiors – or of her juniors, for that matter. Management hadn’t been able to overlook her entirely when it came to promotion but, eventually, she had hit a brick wall. The positions she applied for kept going to her younger, male colleagues, and in the end she had accepted the inevitable. Instead of applying for further laurels, she had settled for doing her job as a detective inspector as well as she could. So it was with some trepidation that she went along the corridor to Magnús’s office. He answered her knock promptly, affable as ever, but Hulda had the feeling his friendliness was all on the surface. ‘Take a seat, Hulda,’ he said, and she bristled at what she took to be a note of condescension in his voice, whether conscious or not. ‘I’ve got a lot on,’ she said. ‘Is it important?’ ‘Take a seat,’ he repeated. ‘We need to have a little chat about your situation.

’ Magnús was in his early forties; he’d risen fast through the ranks of the police. He was tall and healthy looking, if unusually thin on top for a man his age. She sat down, her heart sinking. Her situation? ‘You haven’t got long now,’ Magnús began, smiling. When Hulda said nothing, he cleared his throat and tried again, a little more awkwardly: ‘I mean, this is your last year with us, isn’t it?’ ‘Yes, that’s right,’ she said hesitantly. ‘I’m due to retire at the end of the year.’ ‘Exactly. The thing is …’ He broke off, as if choosing his words with care: ‘we’ve got a young man joining us next month. A real high achiever.’ Hulda still wasn’t sure where this conversation was heading.

‘He’ll be taking over from you,’ Magnús continued. ‘We were extremely lucky to get him. He could have gone abroad or into the private sector.’ She felt as if she’d been punched in the stomach. ‘What? Taking over from me? What … what do you mean?’ ‘He’ll be taking over your job and your office.’ Hulda was speechless. The thoughts began racing around in her head. ‘When?’ she asked hoarsely, finding her voice again. ‘In two weeks.’ ‘But … but what’ll happen to me?’ She felt floored by the news.

‘You can go now, straight away. You don’t have much time left anyway. It’s only a question of bringing your leaving date forward by a few months.’ ‘Leave? Straight away?’ ‘Yes. On full pay, of course. You’re not being sacked, Hulda, you’ll just be taking a few months’ leave, then you’ll continue straight on to your pension. It won’t affect the amount you receive. There’s no need to look so surprised. It’s a good deal. I’m not trying to short-change you.

’ ‘A good deal?’ ‘Of course. It’ll give you more time for your hobbies. More time for …’ His expression betrayed the fact that he had no idea what she got up to in her leisure time. ‘More time to spend with …’ Again, he trailed off mid-sentence: he should have known that Hulda had no family. ‘It’s kind of you to offer, but I don’t want to retire early,’ Hulda said stiffly, trying to control her expression. ‘Thanks, all the same.’ ‘It wasn’t an offer, actually: I’ve already made my decision.’ Magnús’s voice had taken on a harder edge. ‘Your decision? Don’t I get any say?’ ‘I’m sorry, Hulda. We need your office.

’ And to surround yourself with a younger team, she thought. ‘Is that all the thanks I get?’ She could hear the wobble in her voice. ‘Now, don’t take it so badly. It’s not intended as any reflection on your abilities. Come on, Hulda: you know you’re one of the best officers we’ve got – we both know that.’ ‘But what about my caseload?’ ‘I’ve already allocated most of it to other members of the team. Before you leave, you can sit down with the new guy and put him in the picture. The biggest thing you’re handling at the moment is the hitand-run on the paedophile. Have you made any progress there?’ She thought for a moment. It would have been satisfying to her ego to end on a high note: case closed, confession in the bag.

A woman who had, in a moment of madness, taken the law into her own hands to prevent further children from falling into the clutches of an abuser. Perhaps there had been a kind of justice in the attack, a just revenge … ‘I’m nowhere near solving that one, I’m afraid,’ she said after a pause. ‘If you ask me, it was probably an accident. I’d advise shelving the case for the time being and hoping the driver will come forward in due course.’ ‘Hmm, right. OK, fine. We’ll hold a little reception to give you a formal send-off later this year, when you officially retire. But you can clear your desk today, if you like.’ ‘You want me to leave … today?’ ‘Sure, if you like. Or you can stay another couple of weeks, if you’d prefer.

’ ‘Yes, please,’ she said, immediately regretting the ‘please’. ‘I’ll leave when the new man starts, but until then I’ll continue working on my cases.’ ‘Like I said, they’ve all been reallocated. But you, well, you could always look into a cold case, I suppose. Anything that takes your fancy. How does that grab you?’ She felt a momentary impulse to jump up and storm out, never to return, but she wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. ‘Fine, I’ll do that. Any case I like?’ ‘Er, yes, absolutely. Anything you like. Anything to keep you occupied.

’ Hulda got the distinct impression that Magnús wanted her out of his office; he had more pressing matters to attend to. ‘Great. I’ll try to keep myself occupied then,’ she said sarcastically, and getting to her feet, she walked out without a goodbye or a word of thanks.

.

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