The Reckoning

Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, Translated by Victoria Cribb

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Reckoning, the second in Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s Children’s House series, which finds detective Huldar and child psychologist Freyja investigating a ten-year-old letter predicting six murders in 2016. When body parts start appearing, crimes from the past are linked to the present, and the Reykjavik team must race against the clock before another murder.

This time the e-mail contained no words, only an attachment labelled betrayal.jpeg. It was from the same sender as the others: reckoning@gmail.com. The first one had arrived shortly after midnight on New Year’s Day. There was no question it was from an Icelander. Although short and to the point, the messages couldn’t have been written using a translation program. After each one Thorvaldur had developed a knot in his stomach that no amount of gin and tonic could soothe away. He knew because he’d tried.

Even the first message had unsettled him, though at the time he’d assumed it must be a mistake. Have you made a will? The opening sentence had given the impression it was spam; he’d received any number of these messages over the years and was always amazed that anyone was idiotic enough to fall for them. What kind of person would make a will in response to an e-mail? But then he’d read further: You’ve seen your last firework display. Go ahead and celebrate the New Year with champagne. There won’t be any more once you’re in your coffin.

He had long since finished celebrating when he opened the message on New Year’s Day, in the grip of a crippling hangover.

The e-mails that followed had contained more in the same vein. Threats about his impending death—rather premature, in his opinion. He was only thirty-eight, his life not even half over, and he had no intention of dying before his time. It was ridiculous to be so shaken by this nonsense. He wasn’t used to it. As a rule nothing rattled him: he was never frightened at the cinema, never moved to tears, and had never yet encountered the roller-coaster that could set his pulse racing.

Therein lay the problem. Being afraid was so alien to him that now he’d let this absurd nonsense get under his skin, he didn’t know how to stop feeling anxious. If only he’d been in a better state when he opened that first e-mail, he wouldn’t be sitting here now with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, incapable of simply binning the message and its attachment. That bloody hangover was to blame for triggering this stupid attack of nerves.

Therein lay the problem. Being afraid was so alien to him that now he’d let this absurd nonsense get under his skin, he didn’t know how to stop feeling anxious.

One consolation was that the sender couldn’t know the effect the messages were having. Thorvaldur had resisted the temptation to reply to them, though the urge to send back a stream of abuse had been overwhelming at times.

Reckoning. The clue must be in the name. But he had no reason to expect a reckoning because he’d never harmed anyone. Not personally. Of course, it was inevitable, given that he was a prosecutor, that some people might feel they had a score to settle. Any number of them, come to think of it. Which was unfair, as they had only themselves to blame for their problems. But the possibility couldn’t be ignored.

Yet the messages never gave any hint of being from a current or former prisoner. There was nothing to suggest a link to a court case. Besides, his twelve-year legal career had taught him that the wrath of the convicted tended to be directed elsewhere—at their accomplices, witnesses, the police or judges, whereas prosecutors got off pretty lightly on the whole. The criminals didn’t seem to grasp how much power resided in the job. The power to prosecute or not. To decide which law to apply. Whether the defendant should receive a token sentence for assault or a long spell in prison for attempted murder. To decide who should be charged with being the ringleader and who the accessory. Just as well none of them had the brains to work this out.

Unless the e-mails were being sent by someone who had realised? Someone who had suffered from one of these decisions?

No. Unlikely. In the eyes of those he had prosecuted he was merely an insignificant lackey of the justice system. A misapprehension, yes, but a very convenient one.

‘Shouldn’t you be in court?’ One of the young clerks stuck his head round the door; a boy who had assisted Thorvaldur on numerous occasions but whose name he couldn’t for the life of him remember.

Thorvaldur tried to appear normal and relaxed. The last thing he wanted was for word to get around that something had happened to fluster him. He had a reputation for never losing his cool and he wanted to keep it that way. Clearing his throat, he gave the boy his customary look of disdain. ‘The case was postponed. The judge is ill. He rang to tell me I wouldn’t be needed.’

‘Wow. Did he call in person?’

‘What do you think?’ Thorvaldur made no attempt to conceal his irritation.

‘Oh, I don’t know. I thought they had secretaries for that kind of thing.’

‘It depends who they’re dealing with. You wouldn’t get a call like that yourself.’ Thorvaldur didn’t do the boy the courtesy of looking at him as he said this. Let him blush. ‘Would you mind closing the door after you? I’m rather busy.’

The door closed unnecessarily loudly, without actually slamming. The boy was no fool, though he had a lot to learn.

The e-mail was still open on his screen, the attachment still there, a picture file with the disagreeable name: betrayal.jpeg. Could the messages be from an old girlfriend he’d hurt? His ex-wife? Surely not. He didn’t make a habit of treating women badly—to be honest, he didn’t have many opportunities to do so. Since the breakdown of his marriage to Æsa, the mother of his children, he had buried himself in work and made no attempt to go out looking for women. He had little taste for trawling the city’s bars, and still less for the drunken slappers, with their slack mouths and glassy eyes, who were all he seemed to attract. On the rare occasions he met a woman he liked the look of, his interest was never reciprocated. The din in those places drowned out all conversation, so there was little point in trying to persuade them that what he lacked in sex appeal, he made up for in success. He still cherished the dream of meeting the right woman one day, but that hope had faded during the year and more that had passed since Æsa walked out on him.

The thought of Æsa automatically stirred up bitter memories of their break-up. He felt hard done by—not financially, because he’d been cunning enough to keep the flat in his name and take responsibility for the mortgage payments, which had left her empty-handed. But the divorce had deprived him of his children. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to him given the preferential treatment habitually shown to mothers in custody cases. A woman practically had to turn up with a syringe dangling from her arm, a hash pipe in her mouth, a bottle of vodka in her hand, an aluminium cap on her head to ward off aliens, before she would be deemed less suitable to be granted custody than a man. Despite being an exemplary father and model citizen, he hadn’t had a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the custody battle over their two children. Æsa, who had been considered the more suitable guardian, was a nonentity who worked for the council. She had barely scraped through her school-leaving exams, while he had graduated fourth in his year. And although he’d had to forgo the postgraduate degree he had planned, he would have passed that with flying colours too.

The e-mail was still open on his screen, the attachment still there, a picture file with the disagreeable name: betrayal.jpeg. Could the messages be from an old girlfriend he’d hurt? His ex-wife? Surely not.

He was gifted; she was average. He was comfortably off; she would struggle financially as a single mother. Yet she had been given custody. Unbelievable. Of course, it hadn’t helped that she had brought up what she described as his excessive drinking, and because he was a man his lifestyle had been subjected to extra scrutiny. Never mind that her claim was absolute rubbish. The magistrate had swallowed it hook, line and sinker, despite Thorvaldur’s objections and a character reference from no less a person than the State Prosecutor herself.

His e-mail bleeped. He had received another message from reckoning. What the hell was going on? He had half a mind to take the matter to the authorities. Or at least report it in-house. Surely the guys in IT would be able to find out who was behind it? Enough was enough. Thorvaldur rubbed his chin thoughtfully. But what if they were from Æsa? Did he really want to remind his superiors of how messy their divorce had been? Naturally, his boss was a woman. They mostly got along fine; he knew how to mask his opinion that she had neither the expertise nor the experience that would have been required of a man in her position. But a shadow had fallen over their working relationship as a result of the custody battle and he was aware that she had taken a dim view of him. Women tended to stick together at times like that. It was a law of nature and therefore futile to try to change it.

Could the messages be from her? From his boss? Thorvaldur shook his head over his own absurdity. Of course not.

Not from his boss, or Æsa, or any old girlfriends or criminals he could think of. So who then?

No one could have any reason to wish him harm. So why didn’t he hurry up and have the origin of the messages investigated? Was it the gnawing suspicion that this was not in fact a mistake? Was it the fear that an investigation might expose something he would rather keep hidden? Of course that was it. The sender made no bones about the fact that he had something on him. But Thorvaldur couldn’t imagine what it could be. Something he could easily shrug off, perhaps. It would take a lot to threaten a prosecutor with a long and, though he said it himself, bloody successful career behind him.

It was nobody’s business if that success was in part down to his habit of taking on the least challenging cases. No one ever appeared to notice. Unless his colleagues were whispering about it behind his back.

Was he becoming paranoid now on top of everything else?

Thorvaldur took a deep breath. He ran his eyes down the sleeves of his expensive jacket, resting them for a moment on the crisp, white cuffs of his shirt peeping out at his wrists, then flexed his neatly manicured fingers. This pleasing sight had a calming effect on him. An effect that was only enhanced when he tweaked his shirtsleeves a little to reveal the gleam of the expensive cufflinks he had recently treated himself to, when no one else had given him a suitable birthday present. His children’s crudely drawn cards didn’t count. Such naive creations held no charm for him.

The cufflinks glittered and Thorvaldur felt his spirits rising. He had no need to look down at his gleaming leather shoes and silk socks to recover his sangfroid and remind himself of who he was. A winner. A man who knew what it took. A man who inspired fear and respect, perhaps not from everyone but from most.

These e-mails were absolutely pathetic. He’d bet his life that the person responsible for the threats wrote them sitting at a crappy computer, wearing a grubby T-shirt and creased tracksuit bottoms that had never been near a gym. Loser. One thing was for sure, he was twice the man the sender was. Nothing got to him. So there was nothing to stop him clicking on the attachment and looking at the picture, then opening the latest message. He was strong. A winner. Thorvaldur smirked as he moved the cursor to the file betrayal.jpeg and clicked on it.

The photo almost filled the screen. He frowned. What nonsense was this? Two children, a girl and a slightly older boy, stared back at him, their expressions anything but happy. He didn’t recognise either child, but then he wasn’t particularly keen on other people’s kids, and neither of them was in any way memorable. They looked pale and rather scruffy; there was no colour in their cheeks or sparkle in their dull eyes. Where his own children’s untroubled glances revealed their irrepressible joy at being alive, these held a quite different, more adult emotion. He could have sworn it was accusation.

Thorvaldur stared at the photo, powerless to close it and resume his work. The longer he studied those nondescript faces, the stronger the feeling grew that there was something familiar about them. Where did he know these unfortunate creatures from? How were they connected to him? Think, damn it, think. It was bound to come back to him.

He shifted his attention to the rest of the picture. The surroundings told him nothing: the children were outdoors, the corner of a building and a street just visible behind them. They could have been anywhere in Iceland. Nor could he date the photo; he had nothing but the clothes to go by and they appeared to have been chosen with no purpose beyond shielding the children’s nakedness: some things were too large, others too small, all of them threadbare.

All of a sudden it fell into place. Shit, shit, shit.

The terror that had seized him gave way momentarily to relief. Thank God he hadn’t reported the messages. Thank God.

With trembling fingers he opened the latest e-mail. After reading it, he snatched up the telephone and selected Æsa’s number.

What beautiful children you’ve got. Make sure you take good care of them. There are people out there who might betray them, as you know only too well. 


From THE RECKONING. Used with the permission of the publisher, Minotaur. Copyright © 2019 by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir. Translation copyright © 2019 by Victoria Cribb.

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