The Truth Behind the Lie

Sara Lövestam

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Truth Behind the Lie, by Sara Lövestam. Kouplan is an Iranian refugee working as a private investigator, contacted by a woman whose little daughter has gone missing, but who can't go to the police. It's clear that there is much more to her story. Kouplan only has a window of time to find out the rest, before the missing child vanishes for good.

Kouplan has a peculiar relationship with his heart. He’s training it. He’s the coach of his own heart, and he commands it to slow down. Just like doing really good push-ups: slow and controlled, stopping an inch above the floor before slowly coming back up. His heart has to be beating slowly so he will seem like a bored commuter.

The girl across from him believes the new iPhone comes in both black and white. She’s insisting she’s seen it in an ad. She blasts the information right into her iPhone 4S.

“Okay, sure, do you have a copy of Metro? It’s that ad, I swear! And there was a white one in the picture, but . . . yes, the iPhone! . . . Jesus, can you just listen to me? It’s important!”

Behind the girl there’s a group of gangly teenagers, and leaning against a seat, a woman who could be a police officer. She’s got that straight neck police officers get and she’s letting her gaze wander over the other passengers.

Kouplan puts his elbow against the window and looks out over Årstavik Bay, as if he is unbelievably bored, and, above all, relaxed.

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The girl in the seat across from him is calling some- one else to confirm that the iPhone does come in white. He can hear the person on the other end say she should check on the net. “Yeah.”

Kouplan gets up, and keeping the erect figure of the policewoman at the edge of his vision, exits through the other door. His heart follows his orders.

He walks over the bridge to the Globe Arena Center as if he were a completely ordinary man. It’s not Pernilla’s fault she lost her kid here, he tells himself. Still, he would have preferred any other place to this one. The rubber soles on his shoes suck up water from the wet asphalt, but from the top, they look good. His jacket is in worse shape. He found out that people look at the jacket first, then the shoes. Oh, well. It’s early in the morning and nothing is going on. Just people on their way to work. He’s on his way to work, too. He just has to project that feeling.

Pernilla doesn’t know what to expect. Obviously not a Sherlock with a pipe, a trench coat, and a magnifying glass. She’s not that naïve.

Pernilla doesn’t know what to expect. Obviously not a Sherlock with a pipe, a trench coat, and a magnifying glass. She’s not that naïve. Perhaps it’s that black-haired guy with a briefcase walking quickly past her, who stops and stares into a display window, perhaps to study her from her reflection. Perhaps it’s that hipster riding by on a bike. He gets off and locks it to a tree. He takes off his helmet and runs his hand through his more than unruly head of hair.

It could be him, even if he’s now heading right into the mall and is gone from sight. Certainly it can’t be that teenage kid in washed-out jeans, who stops in front of her with a questioning look.

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“Pernilla?” She nods, confused, and takes the hand he’s holding out toward her. From his eyes he appears to be, perhaps not fourteen, as she’d first guessed, but hardly more than eighteen. He smiles as he presses her hand.

“Let’s sit down, shall we?”

As they start to search through the Globe Arena Center for a place to sit, she makes up her mind not to give him any advance. At least, not until she’s questioned him thoroughly.

“I can barely stand being in this place,” she says in spite of herself, because he’s the only person she can talk to. “Even though I’ve been here many times since last Mon- day, it makes me feel ill. I don’t know what I’m looking for, and my dog Janus is not exactly a bloodhound. I don’t know . . .”

She lets her sentence hang in the air.

The boy detective gestures toward McDonald’s. “It looks empty in the corner. Let’s sit down.”

Kouplan has many favorite Swedish expressions. One is “truth with modification.” It’s a kind of truth that is not all that true. For instance: Size doesnt matter. Or: The eyes are a window to the soul. If eyes really were windows to the soul, Pernilla would not be looking at him with such skepticism. She would have realized at once that she was dealing with a sharp man who had the competence to solve her problem.

“I’m older than I appear,” he says and catches her eye.

It is a truth. Pernilla smiles in embarrassment, as if she suspected this but didn’t dare ask.

“I’m twenty-eight,” Kouplan continues.

That’s a modified truth. Still, adding three years to his age is not a sin.

Pernilla’s eyes narrow, as if she doesn’t believe him. “It’s a genetic issue: My genes make me look younger.”

That is a truth, and Pernilla can tell. She smiles quickly.

“You could make a fortune if you figured out how to sell that mutation.”

“I just wanted to put that out there, because I know you had to be wondering about it,” Kouplan says.

Pernilla straightens her back, clears her throat. She hasn’t touched her cheeseburger.

“Before we enter into a contract, I need to know more about you.”

Kouplan takes a bite of his burger. It tastes better than the ones you buy and bring home on the bus in a paper bag.

“Shoot,” he says.

“How long have you worked as a detective?”

“To tell the truth,” Kouplan says (and here comes another modified truth), “I’ve only worked as a detective for the past year. Before that I did investigative reporting. So, basically, I was trained as a journalist.”

Some old Nazi once said that if you want people to believe a lie, make it a big lie. But Kouplan knows better than to trust a Nazi slogan. He tells truths and modified truths, and when Pernilla asks about his career in journal- ism, he can answer.

“I have a great deal of experience in kidnapping,” he says.

That is a truth.

Pernilla begins to sniffle once they leave the restaurant. She’s about to show him where it happened, but she can’t get a word out. He lays a hand on her shoulder and feels her body stiffen.

“So you were walking here,” he says in a calm way, as if talking to a frightened child.

Pernilla nods.

“In this direction?”

She shakes off his hand and vaguely gestures toward the entrance to the mall.

“That way.”

“What brought you here?”

“We were shopping. Julia needs new winter shoes. And also I needed to buy groceries.”

Kouplan writes this down in his book.

“Are you absolutely sure this was the spot?”

He takes out his cell phone and begins to take pictures in every direction.

“The people we see can see us,” he explains. He feels uncomfortable hearing his own words out loud. “All the people in the restaurant, for example. Was it crowded when it happened?”

Was it crowded? Pernilla doesn’t remember. The more she tries, the less she can remember. She and Julia, in that rain she could barely feel. She sighs, shudders, tries to give this man-boy real answers.

“It was raining, but not hard. Almost misting.”

He writes in his book that looks to her like one of those composition books from elementary school.

“Did you have an umbrella?”

He’s looking at her in such a demanding way that she doesn’t tell him what she really wants to say. What does it matter whether or not we had umbrellas? Find my daughter! “No, our faces were getting wet. But Julia had a raincoat, in bright pink.”

Again she can feel the rain landing on their faces with the wind against them. The detective writes down that Julia was wearing a raincoat.

“Did anyone else around you have an umbrella?” She nods.

“Some people did.”

She remembers it now, because she remembers thinking that their umbrellas weren’t much help with rain hanging in the air like it did.

“About three or four people walking in front of us. And one person covered her head with a Metro newspaper.”


“She was probably worried about her hair. I think she went into Subway or that Greek place.”

“Did you notice anyone looking at you? Anyone who slowed down? Anyone who came and went and came back again?”

She closes her eyes and tries to see the umbrellas in front of her. In her memory, they’re all dark, either dark blue or green, and they are heading in the same direction as they were. The next moment, Julia’s hand slips out of hers.


At Subway, a lone girl is working, wearing an apron and with her hair in a bun.

“Can we sit down here for a minute?” asks Kouplan, and the girl squints at him with a touch of suspicion.

“Only if you buy something.”

Kouplan looks at Pernilla, who looks back at him perplexed. He can’t afford to buy even a single sandwich.

At last, Pernilla says, “Half a turkey sandwich and a coffee with milk.”

“Coming up,” the girl says, and turns to the sandwich board.

Most kidnapped children are taken by one of the parents. One of the things Kouplan had read last night, on many of the sites he’d visited. He hoped that Pernilla’s ex was a real bastard who’d been sneaking after them and took her away, because the other alternatives he’d found had been more troubling: extortion, adoption, child labor, murder. He asks about Julia’s father, but Pernilla shakes her head. “His name is Patrick. Go ahead and write it down if you want, but I doubt if he has anything to do with this. He ran off after Julia was born and I haven’t heard from him since. I’ve never even asked him for child support.”

Even though she’s shaking her head, Kouplan asks for Patrick’s last name. Otherwise he wouldn’t really be earning his four hundred an hour.

“Hey there,” the girl behind the counter says. “Your turkey sub is ready.”

As the girl hands them the turkey sandwich, she gives him an obligatory smile. Kouplan smiles back.

“Were you working here last Monday?”

“What do you mean?” She looks at him suspiciously. He must smile more broadly.

“Nothing about you, but I was wondering if you saw a little girl. About so high, wearing a bright pink raincoat. Was she here on Monday?”

She wrinkles her brow.

“No, why? Why are you asking?” “We’re looking for her.”

She looks at him as if she doesn’t understand what he’s talking about.

“Is she missing?”

The bell on the door rings, and a new customer enters and orders a large sub with extra garlic dressing. Kouplan writes a few numbers on a napkin.

“This is my cell phone. Call me if you remember anything.”

The girl’s mouth drops open. “Are you a policeman?”

The new customer turns and stares at Kouplan. It happens so quickly that he doesn’t have time to control his heart: It starts to pound and his legs are ready to run. He stops them by willpower alone and manages to shake his head.

“No, the police don’t get involved in custody . . . things.

Custody matters. So we’re trying to find her ourselves.”

Pernilla has gotten up. She casts a glance at the new customer, then looks at Kouplan and the girl, who seems more interested.

“That’s right,” she says. “The girl is my daughter.”

Kouplan realizes what an idiotic case he’s agreed to take on. As soon as he asks if someone has seen a missing little girl, he’ll be finding himself talking about the police. Then people will call the police. The police will start hearing rumors and they’re going to start wondering why a dark-skinned man, with a blue jacket and brown shoes, is doing their work. He’ll have to think of something better to say.

“We’re trying to find her father. He has her now, but he’s moved to an unknown address, that bastard.”

It works. The girl’s eagerness disappears. The question of a girl in a pink raincoat is now uninteresting. The new customer leans over the counter.

“Do you have any roast beef?”

Kouplan knows why the entire world is his enemy. He knows why he has to travel cautiously like Jum-Jum in the Country of Faraway, why anyone could be one of knight Kato’s soldiers. But why Pernilla doesn’t want to report this to the police is something she hasn’t told him.

“Have you had a bad experience with the police?” he asks when they head back out onto Arenavägen again.

“With the authorities,” she replies. Kouplan nods. “Me, too.”

Pernilla places a bundle of hundred-crown notes in his hand.

“I’ll need a record of your time and exactly what you’ve done.”

“That’s fine.” “And your name.”

He hesitates, but what can be more suspicious than a guy with more than one name?

“Kouplan. K-o-u plus plan.”

Pernilla looks him right in the eye. Her own are tired, blue, and belong to someone who must have already turned forty. Cried-out eyes.

“Here you go, Kouplan,” she says and hands him the turkey sandwich, uneaten and still wrapped in its paper. “You’re looking a little thin.”


From The Truth Behind the Lie by Sara Lövestam. Used with the permission of the publisher, Minotaur. Copyright © 2019 by Sara Lövestam.

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