The Undesired by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir is a chilling Icelandic thriller that might make you want to sleep with the light on after reading.
Aldis hates her job working in a juvenile detention center in rural Iceland. The boys are difficult, the owners are unpleasant, and there are mysterious noises at night. And then two of the boys go astray…
Decades later, single father Odinn is looking into alleged abuse at the center. The more he finds out, though, the more it seems the odd events of the 1970s are linked to the accident that killed his ex-wife. Was her death something more sinister?
Ódinn Hafsteinsson missed the heft of a hammer in his hand, missed taking aim, raining down blows on a four-inch galvanised nail. As a student he’d never sat a minute longer over his studies than necessary, and after graduating he had quickly given up on his first position at an engineering firm because it had condemned him to spending his days hunched in front of a computer screen. Instead, he’d found his vocation preparing quotes for his brother’s contracting company. This too should have been an indoor job but he managed to wangle it so that he got his hands dirty on as many site visits as possible. It had been a dream job. Yet now here he was, a desk jockey once more, pale, bored and lethargic after three months’ incarceration in an office. And today was one of the bad ones: a gale raging outside, all the windows closed and a heaviness in his head that only intensified when he was summoned to see his boss.
As always, Heimir Tryggvason’s lazy eye was pointing off to one side, and Ódinn experienced the usual urge to follow it to see what it was looking at. ‘Come to me if there’s any problem,’ said Heimir. ‘I’m not too clued up on the background but I might be able to help.’
Ódinn just nodded, having already thanked him twice for the same offer.
‘The priority is to try and get a sense of the scale – find out whether we’re dealing with a ticking time-bomb here. I hope not, of course, but if we are we could at least get in ahead of the media – and the inevitable outpouring of public sympathy. It would make a nice change.’ Heimir’s lips stretched in a humourless smile, his lazy eye swivelling so far to the side that only half the pupil was visible.
‘Is that everything, then? I think I’m fairly clear about what’s expected of me – I’m to pick up where Róberta left off and complete the report.’
Heimir’s smile vanished. ‘To be honest, I’m not sure how much use her work will be to us. She was in a worse state than anyone realised.’
Ódinn opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it. No one could have failed to notice that Róberta had been in very poor health. She had sighed at every step, and was constantly clutching at her left arm and shoulder, her face twisted with pain. Though no one said as much, few were surprised when it was announced that she had died of a heart attack. Neither had they been particularly startled to hear that it had happened at the office, after hours; she was often the last to leave. Even so, it was horrible to think that their colleague had spent a whole night dead in their workplace. And depressing that no one had missed her when she failed to make it home. It had been a nasty shock for the first employees to arrive that morning, and Ódinn was profoundly grateful not to have been among them. Róberta had been found sprawled in her chair, arms trailing at her sides, head craned back, mouth gaping and features contorted with suffering.
Why Heimir had seen fit to assign her one of the office’s very few genuinely demanding projects was anybody’s guess. He was certainly no judge of character. Perhaps he’d used the same criterion he was now applying in transferring the case to Ódinn: as an engineer, Ódinn could be trusted to take a rational approach and remain emotionally detached when dealing with sensitive issues.
‘I’ll start by checking how far she got. She may have achieved more than we think.’
‘Well, don’t get your hopes up.’ Heimir shot him a look intended to convey sympathy.
Ódinn rose to his feet, feeling a tingle of anticipation. At last he had been entrusted with a job he could really get his teeth into, and would no longer have to struggle to fill his days. This was a serious case, a report on the Krókur care home, which had operated as a residential home for delinquent boys in the 1970s. He was to find out whether the boys had suffered any lasting ill effects as a result of mistreatment or abuse and, if so, whether they had a right to demand damages. The home was unusually shrouded in silence; no former residents had come forward to ask for compensation or pour their hearts out in the media – with any luck because there was nothing to tell.
‘You’ll find Róberta’s files in her cubicle.’
Even a lowly entity like the State Supervisory Agency had its unofficial pecking order. All employees were allocated the same bland office furniture, but some got to sit by a window, while others faced a white, Artexed wall. Ódinn belonged to the latter group, yet considered himself a rung above Róberta, who had been stuck in a corner as far from the action as you could get. The only visitors she had were those who had specific business with her. But at least she’d had peace and quiet to work in, and, whereas others had been ordered to remove all personal touches, no one had made a fuss about the pictures that adorned her cubicle. Possibly no one had even noticed them. Now, faced with her wall, Ódinn could make no sense of the collage; it was like an intricate picture puzzle with no discernible connection between any two images.
‘Kind of crazy, don’t you think?’ Diljá Davídsdóttir, who occupied the neighbouring cubicle, was peering over the partition, glad of the distraction.
‘I don’t know. Better than a blank wall.’ Ódinn bent to examine one of the pictures, which, unlike the rest, was an original photograph rather than a printout. Judging by the clothes and faded colours, it was fairly old. A few more years and all that would remain would be a shiny white rectangle. ‘Are these relatives of hers?’ The photo was of two teenage boys in a grassy hollow, wearing jeans with turn-ups and rather grubby, threadbare jumpers. At first there seemed something vaguely familiar about the older boy, but, on second glance, this impression faded. He probably just had one of those standard-issue Icelandic faces. Also, Ódinn now realised, the boys looked so different that they could hardly be from the same family.
‘Search me. She wouldn’t answer my questions and I wasn’t about to beg. I just left her to her cutting and pasting.’
Ódinn straightened up. It was pointless trying to work out the rationale behind the collage when the only person who knew it was lying in her coffin in Grafarvogur Cemetery. He decided to start with the paperwork. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed that Diljá was still watching. ‘Did she have some sort of filing system?’
‘God, yes. She was about the most organised person I know. Though whether it’ll make sense is anyone’s guess.’ She regarded Ódinn with wide blue eyes. ‘I bet it’s insanely complicated.’
‘I hope not.’
‘Why are you interested, anyway? Have you got to go through all her stuff?’ She grinned broadly. ‘Yay! I was sure I’d be lumbered with that.’
‘Don’t celebrate too soon.’ Ódinn opened a file and flicked through it. ‘I’m only supposed to focus on material relating to the Krókur care home. Presumably someone else’ll have to deal with the rest. You, maybe?’
That wiped the smile off Diljá’s face. Her red lips thinned into a straight line and her jaw clenched. ‘I wouldn’t touch that job, and if I were you I’d find a way to get out of it.’
The file he was holding did appear to relate to Krókur, so he put it on the desk and grabbed the next one. ‘Well, I’m not exactly drowning in exciting projects.’ Over the years the office had found itself increasingly sidelined. Others had proved perfectly capable of solving the cases that had once fallen within its domain, and all that remained were crumbs from the tables of more powerful government offices, or assignments that Heimir managed to cadge at his monthly meetings with the representatives of other agencies and ministries.
‘Still, you wouldn’t catch me investigating a load of juvenile delinquents,’ she replied. ‘Even if they were abused. It’s all water under the bridge, and it’s not like they were innocent victims like the kids at the other homes.’
‘Calling them juvenile delinquents is a bit harsh.’ Ódinn replaced the second file, which turned out to have no connection to Krókur, and took out a third. ‘From what I can gather their offences were pretty minor. After all, they were only in their early teens.’
Diljá snorted. ‘Like that means anything. Children are perfectly capable of committing crimes. The other day I saw a discussion on Kidsnet about a boy up north who’s supposed to have murdered two children. He wasn’t even a teenager. For all you know, there may have been one of those at Krókur. I’d pass.’
‘There weren’t any murderers there. It would have been mentioned.’
Diljá’s eyes strayed to Róberta’s desk. ‘She used to talk to herself all the time. Róberta, I mean.’ She hesitated, then continued: ‘Sometimes it was just muttering to herself. But now and then I couldn’t help hearing every word. And, I’m telling you, it was really weird shit.’
‘So?’ Ódinn said absently, his attention on the files. Diljá’s dark hints held no interest for him. They hardly knew each other but he’d never been impressed by the endless stream of gossip she produced over the coffee machine, about people he’d never heard of or politicians who pissed her off. Not for the first time he thanked his lucky stars that he hadn’t gone home with her from a work party two months ago. The offer had definitely been there, and at the time spending the night with her had seemed like an excellent idea. But he’d had to pay a visit to the gents and by the time he got back she’d turned her attention to the office’s only other single man. For the next few days the atmosphere between Diljá and this man had been so tense that it was a relief to everyone when one of them was absent. If Ódinn ever found himself a girlfriend, it wouldn’t be at work. Not that it was likely to happen anywhere else either. A single parent with an eleven-year-old daughter, not particularly handsome and far from loaded – a man like that was hardly going to be the hottest bachelor in town. But he couldn’t complain. Casually mentioning his daughter was often all it took to persuade a one-night stand to leave before breakfast.
‘You know what I think? I think that case was the death of her. There’s something creepy about it and I’d think twice before taking it on.’
‘I’ve already taken it on.’ Ódinn had no interest in prolonging the conversation by pointing out that Róberta’s illness had long predated her investigation into the fates of the boys at Krókur, though whether a demanding case had proved the final straw was another matter.
Personally, he was confident that it wouldn’t get to him; he had no intention of becoming emotionally involved with other people’s suffering as he had enough of his own. Unlike the wretched boys at Krókur, however, he had been responsible for his own fate. At twenty-four he’d met Lára, the future mother of his child, who had been two years older. They had moved in together, got married, and a year later had a daughter. Her arrival had finally brought home to him what should have been obvious long before: that he and Lára were hopelessly unsuited. When he walked out on Lára and their newly christened daughter, his wife hadn’t seemed unduly upset. They’d both adapted to the change and life had carried on as normal, though doubtless it had been much tougher for Lára than for him.
Then, less than six months ago, disaster had struck. Lára had fallen out of the window of her flat and his life had undergone a transformation. Ódinn the weekend dad was a thing of the past; fatherhood no longer consisted of a film and a visit to the Hamburger Factory every other weekend. He had changed jobs in order to be able to take proper care of his daughter, and his uncomplicated, cushy existence was history. Though still not used to the change, he was gradually finding his feet.
‘I’m not kidding. I often used to hear her groaning as if the stress were killing her.’ Seeing that Ódinn was unimpressed, Diljá added, with slightly less vehemence: ‘Sometimes it sounded like she was talking to someone. Though not to me, that’s for sure.’
‘I expect she was talking to herself or muttering under her breath. It’s not that unusual, especially when someone’s ill.’ As far as Ódinn was aware heart disease didn’t usually manifest itself in delirium or bipolar episodes, but what did he know? He regretted letting himself be drawn into gossiping: if he’d resisted, Diljá might have given up and left him to get on.
When she spoke again there was no trace of the little-girl voice she adopted to appeal to men; she sounded like an adult, albeit an indignant one. It was a distinct improvement. ‘I know what I’m talking about after listening to her for nearly two years. She wasn’t like that until recently. The change had something to do with that case. It’s up to you whether you believe me or not. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.’ She sat down again without waiting for his response. Although she’d be able to hear him over the flimsy partition, he decided not to answer. When it came to women, he had a tendency to put his foot in it. He went back to examining the files.
It was too late to resurrect the conversation when he finally came across a second folder of documents relating to Krókur. Oddly enough, he found himself missing Diljá’s chatter; it would have provided a comforting backdrop to what he now read. The first page was a photocopy of the picture on the wall of the cubicle that had caught his attention. Underneath, Róberta had written two names and placed a cross after each:
Thorbjörn (Tobbi) Jónasson †
Einar Allen †
Only now did Ódinn notice the cold draught blowing on him from the air-conditioning vent above his head. Goose bumps crept over his scalp and he snapped the folder shut. His own cubicle wasn’t as chilly; he would take a closer look at it there. But the clumsily drawn crosses hung vividly before his mind’s eye. Shaking off a feeling of unease, Ódinn quickly left the cubicle. He didn’t care for the way the boys in the photo were watching him. Maybe it was the knowledge that they must have looked on equally impassively during Róberta’s death throes. Perhaps they had welcomed her on the other side, finally able to tell someone what had happened at Krókur.
Copyright © 2017 Yrsa Sigurdardóttir.
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Yrsa Sigurdardóttir (pronounced UR-suh SIG-ur-dar-daughter) lives with her family in Reykjavík. She is a director of one of Iceland's largest engineering firms. Her work is climbing bestseller lists all over the world, and films are currently in production for several of her books. Her titles include The Day is Dark and Ashes to Dust.