The Legacy by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir is the first installment in the new Children's House series featuring the psychologist Freyja and the police officer Huldar (available February 13, 2018).
The only person who might have the answers to a baffling murder case is the victim’s seven-year-old daughter, found hiding in the room where her mother died. And she’s not talking.
Newly-promoted, out of his depth, detective Huldar turns to Freyja for her expertise with traumatized young people. Freyja, who distrusts the police in general and Huldar in particular, isn’t best pleased. But she’s determined to keep little Margret safe.
It may prove tricky. The killer is leaving them strange clues, but can they crack the code? And if they do, will they be next?
It takes Elísa a moment or two to work out where she is. She’s lying on her side, the duvet tangled between her legs, the pillow creased under her cheek. It’s dark in the room but through the gap in the curtains a star winks at her from the vastness of space. On the other side of the bed the duvet is smooth and flat, the pillow undented. The silence is alien too; for all the times it has kept her lying irritably awake she misses the sound of snoring. And she misses the warmth that radiates from her permanently superheated husband, which requires her to sleep with one leg sticking out from under the covers.
Out of habit she’s adopted that position now, and she’s cold.
As she pulls the duvet over her again she can feel the gooseflesh on her legs. It reminds her of when Sigvaldi was on night shifts, only this time she’s not expecting him home in the morning, yawning, hollow-eyed, smelling of the hospital. He won’t be back from the conference for a week. When he kissed her goodbye at the central bus station yesterday he had been more impatient than her to get their farewells over with. If she knows him he’ll come back reeking of new aftershave from duty-free and she’ll have to sleep with her nose in her elbow until she gets used to the smell.
Although she misses him a little, the feeling is mingled with pleasure at the thought of a few days to herself. The prospect of evenings in sole command of the TV remote control; of not having to give in to the superior claims of football matches. Evenings when she can make do with flatbread and cheese for supper and not have to listen to his stomach rumbling for the rest of the night.
But a week’s holiday from her husband has its downsides too; she’ll be alone in charge of their three children, alone to cope with all that entails: waking them, getting them out of bed, dropping them off and picking them up, helping with their homework, keeping them entertained, monitoring their computer use, feeding them, bathing them, brushing their teeth, putting them to bed. Twice a week Margrét has to be taken to ballet and Stefán and Bárdur to karate, and she has to sit through their classes. This is one of her least rewarding tasks, as it forces her to face the fact that her offspring display neither talent for nor enjoyment of these hobbies, although they don’t come cheap. As far as she can tell her kids are bored, never in time with the rest, forever caught out facing the wrong way, gaping in red-cheeked astonishment at the others who always do everything right. Or perhaps it’s the other way round: perhaps her kids are the only ones getting it right.
She waits for her drowsiness to recede, aware of the radioactive green glow of the alarm clock on the bedside table. She normally begins the day by hating it, but doesn’t experience the usual longing to fling it across the room as the luminous numbers show that she’s got several more hours to sleep. Her tired brain refuses to calculate exactly how many. A more important question is niggling at her: why has she woken up?
To avoid the fluorescent glare of the clock, Elísa turns over, only to choke back a scream when she makes out a dark figure standing by the bed. But it’s only Margrét, her firstborn, the daughter who has always been a little out of step with other children, never really happy. So that’s what woke her.
‘Margrét, sweetie, why aren’t you asleep?’ she asks huskily, peering searchingly into her daughter’s eyes. They appear black in the gloom. The mass of curly hair that frames her pale face is standing on end.
The child clambers over the smooth duvet to Elísa’s side. Bending down she whispers, her hot breath tickling her mother’s ear and smelling faintly of toothpaste. ‘There’s a man in the house.’
Elísa sits up, her heart beating faster, though she knows there’s nothing wrong. ‘You were dreaming, darling. Remember what we talked about? The things you dream about aren’t real. Dreams and reality are two different worlds.’
Ever since she was small, Margrét has suffered from nightmares. Her two brothers conk out the moment their heads hit the pillow, like their father, and don’t stir until morning. But the night seldom brings their sister this kind of peace. It’s rare that Elísa and her husband aren’t jolted awake by the girl’s piercing screams. The doctors said she would grow out of it, but that was two years ago and there has been little sign of improvement.
The girl’s wild locks swing to and fro as she shakes her head. ‘I wasn’t asleep. I was awake.’ She’s still whispering and raises her finger to her lips as a sign that her mother should keep her voice down. ‘I went for a wee-wee and saw him. He’s in the sitting room.’
‘We all get muddled sometimes. I know I do—’ Elísa breaks off mid-sentence. ‘Shh …’ This is more for her own benefit. There’s no sound from the hallway; she must have imagined it. The door is ajar and she strains her eyes towards it but can’t see anything except darkness. Of course. Who’d be out there, anyway? Their possessions are nothing special and their badly painted house is unlikely to tempt burglars, though their home is one of the few in the street that doesn’t have all its windows marked with stickers advertising a security system.
Margrét bends down to her mother’s ear again. ‘I’m not muddled. There’s a man in the house. I saw him from the hall.’ The girl’s low voice sounds wide awake, betraying no hint of sleepiness or confusion.
Elísa switches on the bedside light and gropes for her mobile phone. Could her alarm clock have stopped? It’s had to put up with all kinds of rough treatment over the years and she’s lost count of the times it’s ended up on the floor. It’s probably not worth putting Margrét back to bed; probably time to start the morning chores, pour out three bowls of buttermilk, shovel over some brown sugar, and hope she’ll be given a chance to rinse the shampoo out of her hair while they’re eating. But the phone’s not on the bedside table or on the floor, though she could have sworn she’d brought it in with her last night before turning off the lights. She wanted it to hand in case Sigvaldi rang in the early hours to let her know he’d arrived safely.
‘What time is it, Margrét?’ The girl has never wanted to be called Magga.
‘I don’t know.’ Margrét peers out into the dark hallway. Then, turning back, she whispers: ‘Who comes round in the middle of the night? It can’t be a nice man.’
‘No. It can’t be anyone at all.’ Elísa can hear how unconvincing she sounds. What if the child’s right and someone has broken in? She gets out of bed. Her toes curl up as they encounter the icy floor. All she’s got on is one of Sigvaldi’s T-shirts and her bare legs prickle with gooseflesh again. ‘Stay here. I’m going to check on things. When I come back, we won’t have to worry any more and we can go back to sleep. Agreed?’
Margrét nods. She pulls her mother’s duvet up to her eyes. From under it she mutters: ‘Be careful. He’s not a nice man.’
The words echo in Elísa’s ears as she goes out into the hallway, making an effort to appear unconcerned, confident that there’s no intruder. But Margrét has sown a seed of doubt in her mind. Oh, why couldn’t this have happened last night when Sigvaldi was home? Would that have been too much to ask? Elísa hugs herself against the cold, but it doesn’t help. When she turns on the light, the brightness hurts her eyes.
The door of the boys’ room emits a faint creak as she looks in to check that they’re sleeping peacefully. They’re lying in their bunks, eyes closed, mouths open. She pulls the door quietly to behind her.
There’s no one in the bathroom. In Margrét’s room her gaze is met by a row of dolls and teddy bears lined up on a shelf. Their eyes seem to follow her as she hastily closes the door again. She wonders if this arrangement might explain Margrét’s nightmares. Personally if she woke up in the night she wouldn’t want to be confronted by those rigid stares. In the gloom there seems to be an air of malevolence behind their cuddliness. It might be worth moving them to see if that would help Margrét sleep any better. She’ll do it after work this evening.
There’s nobody in the bedroom hallway or in the rooms opening off it; no sign of any mysterious intruder. But what was she expecting? Footprints? A cigarette butt on the floor? A broken flower pot in one corner? By the time she approaches the sitting room and kitchen she is feeling much calmer. The illumination from the streetlights is enough to convince her that it must have been another of Margrét’s fantasies. The dark always sends one’s imagination into overdrive. Now she can see that there’s no one in the sitting room, just the empty popcorn bowl in front of the television and swathes of Lego round the coffee table. Everything is exactly as it was when she went to bed. How silly to get in such a flap.
The smile that curls her lips disappears abruptly from her face. The sliding door dividing the dining area from the kitchen has been pulled shut.
But it’s never shut.
Slowly, warily, Elísa tiptoes towards it. Her bare soles stick to the cold parquet, her fear rising with every step. She presses her ear to the white door. At first there is silence, then she recoils violently at the sound of chairs being scraped back in the kitchen.
What is she to do? Her immediate instinct is to sprint back to bed and pull the covers over her head. Whoever is in there is bound to come out soon. Elísa couldn’t care less about their belongings. The burglar can take anything he likes, just so long as he goes away again. But what the hell is he doing in the kitchen? It sounds as if he’s sitting at the table, and for a moment she wonders if Margrét or one of the boys could have slipped past without her noticing. But no, that’s impossible.
To her horror, she hears the intruder getting up. All she can think of is to press her ear to the door again. A drawer is opened and closed, then another and another, until she hears a rattle of cutlery. Or knives. Then the silence is broken by the sound of the little sliding door to the larder opening. What kind of burglar would be interested in tinned food and packets of cereal? In a broom, dustpan and cloths, bucket and vacuum cleaner? Instead of being reassured by this development, Elísa’s terror intensifies. People who behave irrationally are far more dangerous than those who abide by conventional rules. Backing away from the door she retreats noiselessly across the sitting room. Her phone must be on the coffee table. Or in the bathroom. They decided to give up the landline two years ago and for the first time she misses it. Glancing into the entrance hall, she considers running outside, screaming for help and praying she’ll manage to rouse the neighbours in time. But that would mean leaving the children behind. With a man who may have armed himself with a kitchen knife. She takes a single step towards the front door, then stops; she can’t abandon the children. Instead she turns and heads for the bedroom hallway. She’s almost there when she hears the sliding door to the kitchen opening. Instantly she dashes into the hallway, pulls the door closed behind her and switches off the light. She doesn’t dare to pause and check if the man is coming after her.
Frantically, feeling as if her head’s going to explode with the strain, Elísa tries to work out what to do. How is she to get away? Her bedroom door won’t lock; most of the keys were missing when they moved in and they’ve never seen any reason to replace them. The bathroom locks but barricading herself in there would be as bad as fleeing the house: the children would be left unprotected. She darts into the bathroom anyway in search of her phone, flinging aside towels and pulling out drawers with shaking hands. But it’s futile, the bloody thing’s not there. Tears well up in her eyes as she surveys the mess. When’s she supposed to tidy this lot up? As if she didn’t have enough on her plate already.
She returns to the hallway, aware that she’s losing her grip. All she can think about is the time she’s wasted searching for the phone when she should have been trying to get the children out of here. Though she’s not sure how she could have done so, and it’s too late now anyway. She can’t bite back a scream when she sees the door at the end beginning to open. But her cry is neither loud nor piercing, more like the thin sound a rabbit might emit in extremis. She can’t bear to see the intruder, so she dashes into her bedroom and closes the door behind her. She hears the man’s footsteps, then a clatter, as though he’s dragging something behind him. But what? Her heart is hammering.
Her daughter is nowhere to be seen.
Her voice cracks, which does nothing to boost her courage. She simply cannot decide which to hunt for first, the phone or Margrét. Before she can make up her mind the door behind her opens and the man comes in. He pauses and the clatter sounds louder, as if he’s jerking something over the threshold. She can’t look round; her body is paralysed. She feels an overwhelming urge to close her eyes. Though the rattling noise is familiar Elísa can’t for the life of her remember what it is. Her brain is rapidly shutting down all its vital nerve centres, the ones she has most need of right now.
Rigid with fear, Elísa hears her name whispered behind her. The whisper is muffled, as if the man has a scarf over his mouth. She doesn’t think she recognises his voice, but what do people sound like when they whisper? Quite different from normal, surely? Margrét didn’t sound like herself when she whispered to her earlier. But the warm, sweet breath that tickled Elísa’s ear then is a million miles from the hoarse rasp that fills her with blind terror now.
Who is he? What does he want? He must know her, or her name anyway. Did he see it in the kitchen? On an envelope, or the postcard on the fridge from her friend Gunna?
Elísa feels a strong, apparently gloved, hand seize her neck, then something sharp sticking into her back. A knife. ‘Please,’ she whispers. She leaves the rest unsaid: please don’t hurt me. Please don’t rape me. Please don’t kill me. Please, please, please don’t hurt my children. The point of the knife is withdrawn, he releases his grip on her neck and before she knows what’s happening he’s blindfolding her. Her panic increases when she realises that he’s using strong, thick adhesive tape, winding it round and round her head. As in the bathroom earlier, logic deserts her and her fears for her own and her children’s safety momentarily recede before the worry about how she is to get the tape off again. It’s stuck on so tightly that it’s bound to rip out her eyebrows and lashes when she tries to remove it. Her tears well up with nowhere to go, dissolving the glue, which stings her eyes.
‘Please, please. I won’t tell anyone. You can take what you like. Anything. Take everything.’
‘Thanks but no thanks,’ she hears him whisper behind her.
Elísa’s knees buckle. ‘Please. Take it all!’ The tape is wound round her head yet again and she jerks as he cuts it. He runs his hand roughly over the back of her neck to stick down the loose end. Then she is spun round and flung down on the bed. The mattress yields as the man sits down beside her and she ducks her head instinctively as he strokes her hair. Suddenly his gentle caress changes, he grabs a fistful of hair and wrenches her head towards him.
He whispers again, a little louder this time. She doesn’t recognise his muffled voice.
‘I’m going to tell you something. A little story. A tragic tale. I advise you to listen carefully.’
Elísa nods. He tightens his grip on her hair so it hurts. Why does he want to tell her a story? Why doesn’t he demand to know her PIN number or where she keeps the valuables? She would tell him anything. He can have all her cards and access to the bank accounts. He can have the silver she inherited from her grandparents. The few pieces of jewellery she has acquired during her lifetime. Anything. So long as he spares her and the children. Nothing else matters.
Through her sobs she manages to ask if he’s going to hurt the children. She misses his reply and this only increases her anguish. Then he relapses into silence. The promised story doesn’t come and they sit there together without speaking, Elísa blindfolded, her heart pounding fit to burst. She hears and feels the man stand up, and experiences a flicker of hope that he might be about to leave; go no further. She daren’t entertain this hope. She needs to stay alert; perhaps he’s going to attack her from behind. She hears clattering again and thinks she detects a clunk like something being plugged in over by the door. Mentally she runs through all the electric appliances in the house that could inflict damage: the drill she gave Sigvaldi for Christmas, the hand whisk, the hedge clippers, her curling tongs, the iron, the sandwich toaster, the kettle. Which would be the worst? Which would be the least frightening? Elísa is breathing so fast and shallowly she thinks she’s going to faint. Then she remembers that most of these horrible gadgets have too short a lead to reach the bed, which reassures her slightly. But the feeling doesn’t last long.
Hearing the man approach the bed again she loses control and makes a last-ditch attempt to escape, an attempt she knows is doomed to failure. He can see; she can’t. He’s bigger and stronger. Even so, she flings herself across the bed in an effort to reach the floor on the other side. She hears an angry exclamation and feels the man’s weight land on top of her as she lies on her stomach, half on, half off the bed. One arm is bent underneath her; the other is hanging down to the floor, her hand groping under the bed. The man delivers a heavy blow to her back. Her spine judders and she is momentarily winded. He straddles her, pinning her down, and she hears him tearing more tape off the roll. Vainly she fumbles on the floor for a weapon. Her fingers crawl spiderlike under the bed. An unexpected but familiar obstacle gives her a moment’s pause. She gropes at the warm, soft entity and suddenly twigs. Elísa just has time to raise her finger to her lips and mouth ‘Shh’ before her arms are jerked roughly upwards and her wrists are taped together behind her back.
The man drags her up and shakes her until her brain feels loose inside her head. Everything is black and she’s afraid that this is no longer due to the tape; that her eyes have stopped working and her ears are going the same way. The small sounds that accompany the man’s violence seem to fade, then grow louder again when he hauls her close and starts to pour out the promised – threatened – story.
When he has finished, he stands up, rolls her over on to her back and jams a knee on her chest to prevent any further attempts at escape. Then he picks up the roll of tape and winds it tightly round her ears and nose. Round and round. She can hear the roaring in her ears but the desperate snuffling in her nose is far more worrying. And painful. The pressure on her chest lifts. Through the tape she hears a faint noise and finally it dawns on her what it was that the man dragged into the bedroom. Of all things, she hadn’t been afraid of that. When he grabs her again she realises how foolishly optimistic she had been.
Copyright © 2018 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.