The strong wind had packed the snow into solid drifts, and at any moment a swirl of fine snow, known as “snow smoke,” could hide the way ahead completely. Luckily the 172 had been cleared pretty well, so it didn’t take Embla very long to cover the thirty kilometers. When she saw a sign for Herremark Guesthouse, she turned off the main road, following the arrow. It wasn’t easy to cover the last few hundred meters, even though her car had good winter tires. She had borrowed a Kia Sportage from her friend Bella, who’d gone to New York to spend a year working for a bank. Embla’s own vintage Volvo 245 was due for a tune-up at some point during the spring.
As she slid to a halt in front of the guesthouse, the carved double doors opened and Harald and Monika came out to greet her.
“Embla—thank you so much for coming! This is just dreadful!” Monika exclaimed. She was shaking as she took Embla’s outstretched hand between her own. Her grip was unexpectedly firm, as if she were clinging to a life buoy. Harald’s anxiety showed itself in his inability to stand still. He kept shifting from one foot to the other, which made him sway slightly.
Monika was small and neat, with thick steel-gray hair cut into a short bob. She was wearing black pants and a pretty traditional Norwegian sweater in shades of blue. Harald was tall and had grown a little rotund over the years. Like Nisse, he’d lost most of his hair, and, also like his cousin, he’d chosen to shave off the few remaining strands. When they were young, Harald, Nisse, and Embla’s mother, Sonja, had all had flaming dark-red hair. Only Embla and her youngest brother, Kolbjörn, had inherited the family color; the two older brothers had dark hair like their father.
Harald was wearing a red checked flannel shirt and dark-blue chinos with a pair of neon-green Crocs. In spite of the cold, his forehead and upper lip were beaded with sweat.
Before Embla left, Nisse had told her something about the history of the guesthouse. It dated from the mid-nineteenth century, a prosperous manor house with plenty of agricultural land and forest. Unfortunately, subsequent generations had failed to manage the property responsibly. The last impoverished owner had sold the whole lot to Monika and Harald, and together they had built up the business over the past forty years. Today they were able to offer their guests five-star food in a restaurant with an excellent reputation, along with comfortable overnight accommodation. Behind the main guesthouse a field sloped down toward a large lake, and this was where Harald had had a number of cabins built, all expertly finished. Many visitors returned year after year, booking several weeks during the summer, when renting canoes to explore the region’s rivers and lakes was a popular activity.
The place was usually fully booked in the winter, too. Only a few kilometers away there was a slalom run with a drag lift, which families with children enjoyed, but most people came for the outstanding cross-country skiing. The tracks were well marked and maintained throughout the season. The restaurant was also highly regarded; you had to make a reservation weeks in advance. The specialty was game, often provided by Harald himself. Monika ran the kitchen, and had managed to attract a number of skilled chefs.
The couple were approaching retirement age now, and Nisse had told Embla that they were already negotiating with a possible successor. It was clear that the discovery of a body in one of their cabins had shocked them, and of course there were also implications for the guesthouse’s reputation.
“Come on in—you’ll freeze to death out here,” Monika said, drawing Embla inside. Only then did she release her grip on Embla’s hand. She gave her a warm hug, and Embla realized Monika’s cheek was damp with tears. Embla hugged her warmly in return as Harald followed them in and closed the heavy doors. The small lobby was welcoming, with several armchairs arranged around a crackling open fire.
“Let’s go upstairs,” Harald said, leading the way to a door marked private. He held it open politely for the two ladies. Embla took off her boots and hung up her jacket on one of the hand-forged iron hooks in the hallway. Then they headed up the stairs, Harald bringing up the rear with a heavy tread. The large, airy room was lined with bookshelves. The windows provided a fantastic view of the lake. There was a cane sofa and chairs with soft blue-and-white-striped cushions, and the rag rug on the floor was perfect, in different shades of blue.
“Please sit down,” Monika said.
Embla chose one of the chairs, while Harald and Monika sat close together on the sofa, unconsciously seeking each other’s hands. The cane creaked alarmingly beneath their combined weight.
No time for small talk—best get on with it, Embla thought.
“Are you absolutely certain the man is dead?” she began, looking at Harald.
“Definitely. All the blood . . . the head . . .” He broke off, fighting back the nausea.
He’s a huntsman. I’m sure he knows a fatal bullet wound when he sees one, Embla thought.
“When did he arrive?” she asked.
After a quick glance at her husband, who was still swallowing hard, Monika answered. “Yesterday afternoon. He signed in as Jan Müller, which was the name he’d used when he booked. And he said he didn’t want to be disturbed, so he requested the accommodation that was farthest away.”
Embla frowned. “Farthest away? But they’re all pretty close together along the slope, aren’t they?”
“It’s not one of the cabins by the lake—we have three newly built cottages on the road leading down to Klevskog—the nature reserve.”
Embla knew nothing about the nature reserve or the cottages, but decided to keep that to herself. “Are all three cottages currently occupied?”
The couple shook their heads, then Harald got to his feet with a mumbled apology. He looked terrible. He quickly walked over to a closed door, opened it, and disappeared. Monika watched him go with a concerned expression, then turned back to Embla.
“No. Our winter guests usually stay in the cabins by the lake. It was only Jan Müller who specifically asked to be by the nature reserve.”
“So how far away are these cottages?”
Monika frowned. “Let me think . . . The turnoff is about a hundred and fifty meters from here, then it’s maybe a hundred meters to the first cottage. They’re twenty meters apart—I remember that from the architect’s drawings.”
So the man had chosen to be as far away as possible from the main guesthouse, which might suggest that he’d been intending to take his own life, and didn’t want to risk being disturbed.
The door opened and Harald reappeared. His face was still flushed, but he looked calmer. He sank down on the sofa, which complained loudly.
“Sorry—I just needed a glass of water.”
Monika took his hand and squeezed it, while Embla gave him an encouraging smile.
“I assume Müller had a car.”
“Yes, an SUV—an Audi. And it was new—I remember him telling me he was breaking it in.”
“Has the road to the cottages been cleared?”
“Yes—the snowplow goes all the way to the reserve.”
“Müller . . . Is he German?”
Harald frowned. “I don’t think so. He spoke Swedish; he sounded as if he came from Gothenburg. He did have a slight accent, but we have a lot of German guests and they don’t sound like that. Hard to say where he came from, really.”
Monika nodded in agreement.
“What did he look like? How old was he? Any distinguishing features?” Embla continued.
Harald nodded to his wife to take over.
“Average height or slightly below, but powerfully built. I’d say he was between forty-five and fifty. Dark hair peppered with gray, a small bald patch that he was trying to hide with a comb-over. He was in a smart suit and a blue overcoat when he arrived, and he was also well-dressed at dinner last night. I remember he was wearing a pretty strong fragrance, and he had an enormous gold watch on his wrist. I noticed it when he checked in.”
“When did he make the reservation?”
“Early yesterday morning, and he immediately asked if any of the cottages by the nature reserve were available. When I told him all three were empty, he asked for the one farthest away.”
So he must have been familiar with the three cottages. Then again, no doubt the information was on the guesthouse’s website; Embla had taken a quick look before she set off for Herremark, although she’d missed the cottages.
“How long was he planning to stay?”
Harald took over. “Just the one night. He booked a table for dinner on Friday and breakfast on Saturday. He said he was an early riser, so he ordered breakfast for seven o’clock sharp. He mentioned it more than once, so when he didn’t appear this morning, I called the cottage. It was just before seven-thirty. There was no answer, which worried me; I thought he might have come down with something. It’s pretty isolated when the other cottages are empty.”
“When did you go to check on him?”
“At about quarter to eight. I took the car.”
Embla stood up. “Okay, I’ll go and take a look. Can you give me your cell phone numbers and a key? Plus I’ll need directions.”
“I don’t think I locked the door when I left, but here’s one of our spare keys.”
Harald produced a key from his pocket and passed it over to Embla.
“Was the place locked up when you got there?”
“Yes, but the key wasn’t inside.”
A detail that could be important.
“Is it possible that someone got a hold of a spare key?”
Harald shook his head. “No,” he said firmly. “There are four keys to each cottage. I gave one to Müller, and the other three are in our locked key cabinet. I noticed when I took out that one this morning.” His finger was trembling as he pointed to the key in Embla’s hand.
According to Harald’s directions, she was to drive approximately one hundred and fifty meters heading north on the 172 before turning off when she saw the sign for Klevskog Nature Reserve. Just as Harald had said, the road had been cleared. Through the snow-mist she could see the three cottages in a row.
Large fields extended on both sides of the road. Dense snow smoke whirled across the landscape in the strong wind. Embla could see majestic fir trees beyond the cottages, where the nature reserve began. Harald had given her a quick rundown before she left.
Klevskog was famous for being home to a variety of species, particularly birds. In the middle of the reserve lay a shallow lake, ideal for waders and seabirds. There were no houses inside the reserve. The cottages had been built with birdwatchers in mind, but because the standard was so high, they also attracted visitors who weren’t particularly keen on birds. According to Harald, the project had been a very good investment. However, they weren’t rented out as much from November to March, when tourists preferred to be closer to the guesthouse.
Why had Jan Müller specifically asked for the cottage that was the farthest away? He must have known the area—had he been there before? Was he an ornithologist? However, neither the time of year nor Monika’s description of his clothing suggested this was the case—a smart suit and a gold watch. Then there was the SUV—a brand-new Audi. Expensive and exclusive.
As Embla drew closer to the cottage, she saw a huge pile of snow covering the car. She parked her Kia behind the pile, where Harald’s tire tracks stopped. After turning off the engine she stayed put for a little while, observing her surroundings. The virgin snow in front of the cottage was marked only by a set of footprints leading to the steps, and another slightly different set leading away; clearly Harald had run back to his car.
The blizzard had abated, but there was no sign of the wind dropping. According to the forecast, more snow was expected during the day. Embla took out her phone and checked the weather for the previous night. The snow had begun to fall at around 1:00 a.m. and stopped at about 5:30. It seemed likely that whatever had gone on in the cottage had happened shortly before or early on within that period. Snow and wind can obliterate any traces very quickly. However, as a matter of routine she would check for any possible evidence before she went inside; she was first on the scene, apart from Harald. She put on a pair of latex gloves, slipped on her thick mittens, and got out of the car.
The full force of the wind hit her immediately, making her bend forward. The sharp snowflakes struck her face like tiny needles. She consoled herself with the thought that Elliot and Nisse wouldn’t want to be out in the cold for too long. They’d go home for hot chocolate and Uncle Nisse’s delicious cinnamon buns. That would be enough for Elliot; at least he’d participated in his very first hunting trip.
She set off toward the cottage, stepping in Harald’s tracks. She stopped several times, pulling off her mittens and photographing the ground with the camera on her phone. She couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary, but it was important to document Harald’s tracks.
Harald was right—he hadn’t locked the door behind him. Cautiously she pushed it open. The first thing she noticed was a distinct male fragrance. A bit too strong, in fact. She closed the door behind her, then flicked the switch on the doorframe, and two lights came on—one above the kitchen area and one in the center of the small room. She pushed back her fur-lined hood—the fur came from a fox she’d shot herself—and quickly scanned the interior of the cottage. A wall to her left, with a coatrack and a small closet. There was a dark-blue overcoat hanging on the rack and a neatly folded checked wool scarf on the shelf above, along with a pair of black leather gloves. A pair of black shoes was on the floor—definitely not suitable for the current weather conditions. The walls were covered in white-painted tongue-and-groove paneling, and the floor was pale varnished wood. The kitchenette was modern; there were no dishes in the draining board, and Embla made a mental note to check the dishwasher. By the window was a table and four chairs, and the space was brightened by green-and-white rag rugs. The living room was furnished with a sofa and two armchairs facing a TV on the wall, with an impressive soapstone stove next to the sofa. The plaited-iron basket was filled with logs; it didn’t look like the man had lit a fire.
As Embla was on vacation, she didn’t have her crime-scene kit in the car, but she had brought a couple of plastic bags from Nisse’s. She slipped them over her shoes before moving into the living room. One of the two doors was ajar, and through the gap she could see reflections in the glass of a medicine cabinet. The other door, leading to the bedroom, was wide open.
She decided to check out the bathroom first. She switched on the light, revealing a fully tiled room with a toilet, washbasin, and shower. The smell of male fragrance was strong, almost nauseating. She noticed a black toilet bag on a hook, a thick white bath towel, and a hand towel. Everything seemed fresh and new.
She closed the door and headed for the bedroom. She reached inside, switched on the light, and remained in the doorway, taking in the scene before her.
The raw smell of blood mingled with cologne and alcohol was striking. A double bed dominated the room and had a nightstand on each side. On the one nearest the door stood an empty vodka bottle and a glass. There was a double wardrobe along one wall. On a neat bench below the window lay a closed black carry-on suitcase—an ultra-light, ultra-expensive Samsonite. She turned her attention to the man in the bed.
She understood why Harald had been shocked; it was a horrific sight.
He was lying on his back, his large hands folded on top of the duvet, which created an oddly peaceful impression. He was wearing a gold signet ring with a polished green stone on the pinky of his right hand. She could see a pistol beneath his hands. To her surprise, he appeared to be wearing dark-blue silk pajamas. Who wears silk pajamas in a cottage in the country in the middle of winter? The man in the bed, obviously . . .
The hole between his eyebrows was pretty big. Large caliber. The pillow was sodden with blood, indicating a significant exit wound. Presumably the back of his head had been blown off. Embla stood on tiptoe to get a better look, which wasn’t easy in her heavy boots. Then she saw a bloodstain on the duvet in the vicinity of his heart. Two shots, then. His face had taken on a grayish tone, which suggested that he’d been dead for quite some time.
Given the two bullet wounds from a large-caliber gun, this definitely wasn’t suicide. You can’t fold your hands neatly after you’ve shot yourself in the head and the heart.
The victim was powerfully built, but not overweight. Even though Embla was three meters from the bed, she thought there was something familiar about his features: the bushy eyebrows, the dominant chin, the thinning hair peppered with gray.
She got the shock of her life when she realized who he was.
Milo Stavic, the man in the recurring nightmares that had plagued her for almost fifteen years. The man who, together with his two brothers, had abducted Lollo. The man who had threatened to kill Embla if she told anyone what had happened that night.
Instinctively she took a step back.
“No! That’s . . . crazy!” she said out loud.
Her voice was shaking and she took a deep breath, her heart racing.
The male voice behind her was deep, and she didn’t recognize it.