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The Man in the Lighthouse

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1503942635
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ALSO BY ERIK VALEUR

The Seventh Child





This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.





Text copyright © 2015 Erik Valeur and JP/Politikens Forlagshus A/S

Translation copyright © 2017 Mark Mussari

All rights reserved.





No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.





Previously published as Logbog fra et livsforlis by JP/Politikens Forlagshus A/S in Denmark in 2015. Translated from Danish by Mark Mussari. First published in English by AmazonCrossing in 2017.





Published by AmazonCrossing, Seattle

www.apub.com





Amazon, the Amazon logo, and AmazonCrossing are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc., or its affiliates.





ISBN-13: 9781503942639

ISBN-10: 1503942635





Cover design by David Drummond





CONTENTS

PREFACE THE OMINOUS DREAM

PROLOGUE THE WIDOW'S DISAPPEARANCE

PART I HELL'S DEEP

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

PART II VIGGO LARSSEN

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

PART III DEATH

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

CHAPTER 11

CHAPTER 12

CHAPTER 13

CHAPTER 14

CHAPTER 15

CHAPTER 16

PART IV THE JOURNEY

CHAPTER 17

CHAPTER 18

CHAPTER 19

CHAPTER 20

CHAPTER 21

CHAPTER 22

PART V VENGEANCE

CHAPTER 23

CHAPTER 24

CHAPTER 25

CHAPTER 26

CHAPTER 27

CHAPTER 28

EPILOGUE THE FINAL SERMON

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR





PREFACE

THE OMINOUS DREAM

The Omen came to him in his dreams one night, as he slept, smiling as all children do when they sleep.

The woman. The sea. The woman’s hands reaching for him, as if beckoning him toward her.

Viggo Larssen awakened, with a small shout, to his dark room. Even back then, he could already sense what the dream meant—and why, as an adult, he named that dream the Omen.

He never told anyone about the fearful drea; m, neither his mother nor his grandmother, and certainly not his grandfather, who suffered from a persistent, mood-darkening migraine and who was renowned throughout their modest neighborhood for his peevishness.

After all, they were adults. They would never understand. They already thought he was peculiar; that was the word adults used to describe him. They were afraid of the unknown, of anything different, of visions they could not explain. That sort of thing belonged elsewhere and must never come anywhere near their neighborhood.

Viggo Larssen kept his disturbing dream private. Periodically, the dream would return. The hands. The sea. The woman who looked like his mother. A dark shadow whipping the water into a white froth around her feet. Yet he always awoke before the shadow lurking beneath the surface ever made it into the light.

Even at such an early age, he sensed that his nocturnal visions demanded a deeper level of thought than anything else he had encountered in his short life. He somehow felt that no one could possibly draw any kind of comparison with his strange dream, and that he would be alone in his experience. Thus, he buried his fear deep inside himself, as children often do.

When, at fifteen years old, he recognized his dream in someone else’s description, it was due neither to decades of research on his behalf nor to any newly sharpened mental prowess, but instead solely to what Destiny has only ever been the sole true expert in—surpassed by neither God nor the Devil—chance.

What normally separates events in time and space suddenly unites them in a completely unanticipated way, creating a pattern that no eye can detect and no thoughts can explain. But one that Viggo Larssen still knew existed.

By the time the dramatic events at Solbygaard Nursing Home in Gentofte ended his self-imposed isolation, he had long since grown up.





PROLOGUE

THE WIDOW’S DISAPPEARANCE

Office of the Prime Minister

Thursday, January 1, 2015, late in the evening

The prime minister shook his massive and, as some wicked tongues might say, grotesquely large head.

Then he rested it in his huge paws, which were big enough to span it.

A news journalist (allegedly using a craniologist as his source) had once estimated that the head in question weighed more than a medium-size bowling ball. You could almost hear thoughts crashing around behind the prime minister’s granite-hewn forehead, unable to find their way out.

Long ago, the prime minister’s mother had given him a series of illustrated booklets about the trapper Davy Crockett; absurdly enough, the burly man now resembled the wounded bear of those drawings. Rising up on its colossal hind legs, summoning a mighty roar that soared up, up toward the sky, the bear had been drawn with a furious, wordless pain, giving the dying giant an almost human appearance.

Yet not a sound came out of the chief executive’s thick lips, his face clenched in rage. For prime ministers rarely roar in any official capacity. Nor in private, either, for that matter.

Instead, he stood and paced once around the desk in a large, aimless circle before returning to his chair and sitting back down.

The chair, its seat and back made of Congolese buffalo leather, was a gift from an African delegation that had not anticipated their host’s impressive weight; the relatively fragile piece of furniture creaked under the huge body.

The man across from him remained seated. His head was the same shape (though not exactly the same impressive size) as the chief executive’s. Clearly, the two men were closely related, both resembling the parents who had passed on these powerful genes. Their eyebrows were similarly gray and stern, their foreheads towered over their broad noses, and their hairlines had all but disappeared, except for a crescent-shaped wreath encircling each head.

The younger man leaned forward reassuringly but without speaking, since he was, after all, only the country’s second in command.

The brothers’ respective positions as prime minister and minister of justice, since 2011, made everyone think of the two murdered brothers of the Kennedy clan. The press had quickly embraced this idea, christening the two Danish politicians and their brood of ambitious sons and daughters, “the Blegman Dynasty.”

Just like the Kennedys in the 1960s, Denmark’s first famous political dynasty had an imposing widow at its head. Her husband, a tyrant by any estimation, had died at a relatively early age, and since then she had reigned over the family.

At almost ninety years old, Widow Blegman still enjoyed the status of a queen, even though the brothers had been forced to move her to Solbygaard Nursing Home in the wealthy community of Gentofte after she had fallen seriously ill with a pernicious case of pneumonia that would not release its grip; however, her time at the home, with its beautiful tall trees in a parklike setting, had apparently done her some good.

And yet the Widow was the problem this evening.

“Where is she?” asked Palle Blegman in his unusually deep voice; he had since his earliest youth been nicknamed “the Bear” by friends and enemies alike.

The younger of the country’s two most powerful men, Poul Blegman, answered. “I don’t know.”

None of the comments that followed were suitable for publication or even worth hearing outside the high-ceilinged room, the finest in the kingdom, which people somewhat disrespectfully called the Bear Cave. Here, at the height of desperation, the brothers’ voices had the same deep rumble that resonated in their chests long after their last syllables were spoken.

“He must have some goddamn theory,” said the Bear.

“He’s a fucking pedant—he makes a virtue out of working tirelessly . . . and slowly, much too slowly,” replied his brother.

The object of their contempt was Copenhagen’s most accomplished policeman, whom the nation knew simply as the Homicide Boss. Of course he had been placed in charge of the investigation, which grew ever larger by the minute and would soon involve much more than just the nursing home in Gentofte and the surrounding wealthy suburbs. This investigation had only one person as its target: their mother.

The policeman’s skill was indisputable. The brothers had called him immediately, but their patience had lasted only a few hours.

“He’s shitting on us . . .” Once again, the younger Blegman brother placed outraged emphasis on the swear word.

The prime minister sat back down again and covered his face with his hands.

“I’ll call him.”

“No.” Palle Blegman shook his enormous head twice; more than ever the two men resembled a pair of Davy Crockett’s giant bears. “I’ll do it myself.”

There were journalists who, smirking, had privately christened the Blegman dynasty “the Cave Bear Clan,” though none of them would dare write that in their newspapers or say it on television. Even in a country whose press incessantly strove to appear brave and critical, there was still something menacing about the two brothers—something that made otherwise merciless critics retreat with fear for their lives.

The prime minister reached for the telephone.





Office of the Homicide Boss

Thursday, January 1, just before midnight

The Homicide Boss was an unobtrusive man. Though not particularly tall, he was likewise not short and stocky. He was neither too heavy nor too thin, neither too dark nor too fair, and had it not been for a distinct air of authority (which, at times, struck those around him as hostile), he would have been the archetypal nondescript Dane.

To place such a calm and balanced man in police headquarters in the heart of the capital—as the leader, no less, in the fight against the ugliest crimes humans were capable of committing—might seem paradoxical, yet everyone knew he was the very best at what he did. The Homicide Boss shook his head for at least the tenth time that night and turned toward his deputy assistant, who was never called anything except Number Two.

“It’s completely insane. Who decides to abduct an old woman from a nursing home—and what in the world would be their motive?”

As expected, Number Two’s response was immediate. “Money.” His deputy assistant was unknown outside police headquarters, and even within headquarters, many people no longer remembered his real name. Most of the time, he rarely contributed to discussions. In his silence he was an effective investigator, and his boss’s favorite and only confidant. They had attended police academy together and, as new cops, had gone on evening patrols in the city’s most sinister alleys.

“Ransom?” said the Homicide Boss. “Maybe. Terror . . . no. If so, they would have cut off her head and hung it in front of city hall—or blown up the whole nursing home, no?”

Such a brutal scenario made the deputy briefly close his eyes, perhaps imagining the smoky ruins of the nursing home. Behind his seemingly impenetrable facade, he had a reputation for being far more sensitive than his superior. Their shared office at police headquarters was not particularly spacious, furnished with only two easy chairs, a rosewood desk, and a pair of light walnut office chairs with comfortable arms.

“The clan—the dynasty—is affluent, but there are other, much wealthier families. And yes, they have great power but”—the Homicide Boss shook his head yet again—“no, it doesn’t make sense. We all know that she’s old and weak. The entire public knows that. So if anyone wanted the Widow dead, they only needed to sit back and wait a few months. It doesn’t make sense.”

It was the third variation on the same theme in less than half a minute, and Number Two could already detect his boss’s hatred for his unknown adversary—the very hatred that famously motivated him. His boss’s predecessor had once observed, somewhat pompously, “One hunts a beast but captures a person,” but that’s not what his current boss thought. Now, beasts were beasts, even if some bleeding-heart judge or an overly forgiving God foolishly showed mercy. Such nonsense belonged in courtrooms—or in the hereafter—both places far from police headquarters.

The first police who arrived at Solbygaard Nursing Home had found the Widow’s small two-room apartment in perfect condition. On the windowsill stood a birdcage with a slightly frightened golden canary sitting on its topmost perch. A small pile of New Year’s newspapers and a single magazine were on her coffee table; everything appeared peaceful and calm.

There was no sign of a struggle. No one had seen her leave her apartment, and no one had seen anyone go in. On the other hand, that wasn’t so odd, since the staff spent most of their time in the spacious office across from the dining room, generally with the door shut, so they could work in peace. Mounds of paper lay scattered among coffee cups, timetables, forms, charts, and spreadsheets, all waiting for attention. Evaluation and control of the aging population were becoming their central tasks—or at least their most time-consuming.

Half an hour later, the two police chiefs arrived at the scene; it was the prime minister’s mother who had disappeared, after all, and the prime minister was demanding action.

First, they sealed off the Widow’s small apartment, then her floor, then the entire building, and finally the sprawling parklike surrounding area. It had been barely an hour since the Blegman brothers had sounded the alarm. Their mother had invited them over at six o’clock; when they arrived, she was gone, and she hadn’t been seen at dinner just before, either. The brothers claimed that the door to her apartment was ajar, and naturally that detail had to be addressed. It was not like the dynasty’s first lady to leave anything ajar, least of all the door to her home.

In their search, the evidence technicians had almost immediately discovered a small piece of yellow plastic, about the size of a hand, lying on the windowsill. It was found between two elegant porcelain figurines of Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard, alongside pictures of the Widow’s three sons, the youngest having died as a child. They had carefully eased the rather curious discovery into a sterile evidence bag. It didn’t look like anything an older woman would use as a decoration.

Ten minutes later they found another piece of plastic, of exactly the same type as the first, this time under the Widow’s pillow. This had seriously disturbed them. Were they a sign of senility, which might then explain her disappearance, or had someone brought the yellow pieces of plastic into the apartment—and if so, why?

The third possible clue, discovered by the eagle-eyed deputy police chief, proved to be the most peculiar; naturally, Number Two had already determined its possible meaning. He only had to ask the nursing home’s terrified supervisor a simple question before the foreboding that had grown inside him with each passing minute took hold. He no longer had any doubts.

He now knew that something had gone very wrong in that apartment.

His boss immediately decided to keep his second in command’s discovery confidential, a decision that was communicated to the nursing home supervisor in such urgent tones that her nervousness manifested as bodily tremors. She immediately became unfit for work.

The technicians carefully removed the third and final discovery from the drawer in the Widow’s bureau, where Number Two had found it.

The large leather folder that had caught his eye was brown and faded, and by all accounts appeared quite old, but the writing on the little piece of cardboard clipped securely to the front was in black ink and clearly far more recent in origin. He had studied the two words for almost a minute before he moved.

Will, signed.

That second word was what had heightened his growing feeling of unrest. There was something definitive, irrefutable, about that word, as if the signing itself had been of utmost importance.

However, when he carefully opened the brown cover, the real reason for his concern emerged. The old leather folder was empty.

If there had ever been a will, it was gone.





Afterward, the two police chiefs drove back to headquarters to consider everything and to piece together an initial theory about what had happened. Was the Widow’s disappearance merely the unfortunate consequence of a lack of supervision at yet another nursing home hit by budget cuts—or simply the result of a confused or slightly senile woman’s suddenly impulsive behavior? Neither scenario seemed likely. All the exterior doors were locked securely, precisely because of confused residents with dementia; anyway, the Widow was mentally as sharp as a tack.

She had even told the staff that she was expecting a visit from her sons.

The Homicide Boss didn’t care for the other possible scenarios. At the very worst, it could be kidnapping for ransom (he hated that thought). Or it could also simply be an act of revenge against the reviled dynasty. Or something else entirely, something completely unknown.

Though they had no answers, they sent out a terse press release based on demands from the police director’s office, a few floors up.

Seconds later, or so it seemed, the phone system in police headquarters collapsed, and the press began its daylong siege of both Solbygaard and the police’s office at the Central Station.

The Dynasty’s Grand Old Lady Vanished—Possibly Kidnapped, proclaimed all the major news outlets. This revelation was followed by a hefty stream of Facebook and Twitter updates with accompanying rumors and doomsday theories, the entire nation apparently caught up in an intoxicating emotional blend of titillation and horror.

“No one has come forward . . .”

“. . . with threats or demands—for anything.” The Homicide Boss completed his second in command’s assessment of the situation.

Just then, the red telephone to his right rang: the number was known by only a small handful of executives and politicians, and neither of the two policemen had any doubts about who was calling.

The roar would now come over the line, issued from the highest halls of the realm. This case would receive greater priority than any in the nation’s history.

Placing two chronically choleric brothers in the realm’s highest positions (two tyrants, if ever there were) was one thing—but abducting their mother on the first day of the new year, without any explanation, would ignite a sustained and unstoppable fury.

The Homicide Boss caught his subordinate’s glance before he straightened up and lifted the receiver. Over the past decades, they had endured numerous crises and conflicts together—ever since, as newbies, they’d had to confront Vietnam War demonstrators, Hells Angels, and revolutionary house squatters. Back then, the enemy indicated their position with prior press releases and mounds of ammunition. It was no longer that simple.

Both men thought about the evidence found in the Widow’s abandoned rooms, evidence that had to remain hidden from the world until otherwise necessary. Hidden also from the terrifying man who in a second would be venting his frustration and demanding immediate solutions.

They had to maintain control over an investigation they had already sensed would become the strangest case in their beleaguered police careers.





The Lighthouse on the Cape

Thursday, January 1, midnight

At exactly the same moment, out by the old lighthouse on the tip of the long peninsula, a man stood with both hands buried deep in his pockets, watching the moon over the dark water.

The yellow disc hung low and clear over the place that had seen countless shipwrecks through the centuries. Most of them had been unavoidable, a confluence of unfortunate circumstances, a few of the caliber no one in the area today would mention to strangers.

The lighthouse rising above his head did not seem especially tall, but its one shining eye—when still in use—had been seen from as far away as twenty-five miles. Nevertheless, those dark waters held nightmarish tales of ships and crews coming too close to shore, then being ensnared by the winds rushing over the cape’s cliffs and out across the water, whipping the sea into foam with their otherworldly howls and then grabbing the unlucky seafarers before they could react, pulling them down into the deep.

Turning away from the moon and the water, the man traipsed the few steps back to the lighthouse’s garden, which was overgrown with scrub and wild bushes: blackthorn, buckthorn, hawthorn, and elder.

There was a little stone bench next to the lighthouse door. He sat there, his hands still in his pockets, and leaned his back against the whitewashed wall of the tower.

When the fading orb of heaven was finally swallowed up by the clouds—a few seconds before midnight—he was still sitting there, motionless, his eyes closed, almost as if the wind and the sea and the deep rumbling sound of the waves against the rocks didn’t even exist.

If he was cold, no one watching could tell.





PART I

HELL’S DEEP





CHAPTER 1

The Lighthouse on the Cape

Friday, January 2, morning

By the time the story of Widow Blegman’s mysterious disappearance exploded onto the media scene on the second day of the new year, I had been living as Viggo Larssen’s neighbor for exactly three months and three days.

The case made the entire country quiver in terror-induced pleasure. Ours was a country obsessed with becoming ever more cozy and comfy, a need that is measured as happiness in international studies, recently underscored by the most frenzied and consumer-driven Christmas season ever. For such people, sudden catastrophes arrive like a refreshing breeze from another world, a spine-tingling yet much-needed respite from everyday life.

Leaving my rickety red woodland home, sliding and half running down the slope to the deep hollow where the trees thin, I glimpsed the white tower on the tip of the cape. I don’t think I could ever tire of observing it, leaning as it did in that slightly menacing way, as if the wind and the white spindrift were pushing it back against the rocky coast on which it had been built.

There was a strange depression in the landscape here, as if a giant had stepped across the hollow in ancient times, leaving behind a single violent footprint in the cape’s soft soil. From the very first day, I called it the Giant’s Footprint.

Throughout the hollow, there were still remains of primeval forestlike shrubs. Venturing farther into the woods became a laborious, almost painful struggle among the enormous trunks, craggy branches, blackthorn, dog rose, and hawthorn. It was almost as if a rainforest from the Amazon had been planted here at Fyrskoven on Røsnæs.

When the fog creeps up over the fields in the early morning, resting like a gold-and-white halo over the landscape, the Røssers—as the people of Røsnæs call themselves—know that winter is coming to an end. Later, when the sun finally breaks through in those summers not washed out by rain or trapped beneath drifting clouds, clusters of nature lovers come wandering or cycling through Ulstrup then out along the winding road toward the Lighthouse. Here, the fields sprawl over the hills and down the valleys, past cliffs where attentive hikers can spot exotic plants, such as shade-seeking primrose, nodding pasqueflower, and rough saxifrage. Those who are truly attentive might even see a rare butterfly—such as the ochre satyrid, black copper, or French skipper—or hear the small fire-bellied toad, whose call sounds like distant church bells. In the autumn, after a violent downpour rips yet another chunk off the steep cliff where my house is built, you can see large flocks of migratory birds on their long journeys south.

As for the inhabitants on the cape, I think they’ve been satisfied living and dying exactly as they do, up on the rocky cliffs, in the thickets among the massive ravaged branches, which in the evening twilight resemble withered limbs. When winter storms sweep in from the northwest, even the heaviest of the fallen pine branches let themselves be moved, ever so slightly, to new positions in the landscape, stretching reluctantly toward heaven before once again slipping back into the soil, engulfed by the shadows.

The white tower stood steadfast on Sjælland’s most westerly point, on the tip of what looked like a crooked protruding finger pointing resolutely toward the west, in the direction of the island of Samsø and Jutland. If you shifted your gaze just slightly toward the northwest, you were staring directly out to the place where the seabed suddenly changed beneath the waves and rose up, up toward Røsnæs Reef. Parish records, gravestones, and oral legends told stories about shipwrecks and drowned seafarers that fully justified the name people had given the place in ancient times.

Hell’s Deep. That’s what they called it.

I heard the name for the first time from the old woman whom locals knew only as the Sea Witch. She told me the day she handed me the keys to the ramshackle house in the thicket east of the Lighthouse.

I had rented it dirt cheap from her for four months. Only an outsider would move into a house that stood there literally swaying beneath the tall pine trees, far out on the cape’s steep northern slope. During every major storm on the peninsula, gusts of wind lopped off yet another chunk of the house’s crumbling foundation. From my kitchen window, I could look directly down into the abyss, down into the black water and onto the waves with their foamy white crests.

My landlady released the rusty key chain (which looked as if it hadn’t been used in years) and briefly held my hand tightly in her crooked fingers.

Then she released her grip and pointed toward the lighthouse, standing in silhouette between the branches and pine trunks, and said in her hoarse voice, “There is the Lighthouse, it has been there for a hundred years. And out there”—the old woman stretched her finger even farther out toward the horizon—“out there is Hell’s Deep. Don’t ever forget it . . .” She froze for a moment, before returning again to that strange, low whisper. “Remember that you must never go near that place, no matter what happens.”

I took note of the warning without really understanding what she meant. Although serious shipwrecks had become increasingly rare as the years passed, hundreds, possibly thousands, of unfortunate sailors lay on the bottom of the ocean. So said the locals—and so said the manager of the Daily Market in Ulstrup, the first person I spoke with in town.

The plump, almost pear-shaped man—I immediately felt at ease with him as I rarely did with strangers—had shaken his head when he heard about my stay in the Sea Witch’s house, as if only a lunatic would do something so strange.

I ignored that, just as I’d learned since birth to ignore unpleasant facts. One’s personal actions were not always explainable, even more rarely logical, and strangeness was not a characteristic that offended me. I was not, nor had I ever been, afraid of living anywhere, not under tall trees, not on some crumbling foundation, not even in an extremely odd house, and certainly not by the sea.

He promised me a weekly delivery of food and necessities; he would drop off my goods at the foot of the cliff, where I could then carry them across the torn-off branches and up the hill to my wobbly home. It would work.

I didn’t need anything else.

That’s how my months began in what I can only describe as my completely new life. I began exploring my very first day, partly out of curiosity and partly because I knew there was no time to waste.





I had come to the cape in late September, and the first few days I did not make my presence known.

Even on the coldest days, I would see Viggo Larssen out in the sea air, sitting motionless on that little stone bench next to the lighthouse door, before he got up to make his hours-long afternoon trek along the shore, out to Bavnebjerg’s Cliff, then back again.

Of course he was older and taller (and thinner) than when I had last seen him, at a cemetery in Søborg when he was fifteen years old. I had been only a child then. That meeting was brief, confusing and permeated by his sorrow; it had been no place to meet someone.

Now, what amazed me most was his immobility. He barely turned his head, hardly moved an arm or a leg; he simply sat there for hours, leaning back against the wall of the lighthouse, staring out over the ocean, sometimes with a bottle of wine and a glass sitting on the bench beside him. I used to be able to guess—almost predict—people’s thoughts, even before they spoke or moved, but I couldn’t with Viggo Larssen, no matter how hard I tried.

I watched him, unnoticed, for almost a week, without fail. If life had taught me anything, it was patience, the patience my long-ago foster mother had considered boundless, violent, almost disturbing.

On the sixth day—a day when the October sun hung over the cape against an icy-blue background—I made my decision, took a deep breath, and rose out of the shrubbery covering the border of the cliff.

Naturally, I hesitated a bit before my first step out into the open, as it was essential that this meeting went well. He didn’t see me until I was almost next to the bench.

“Good day,” I said plainly.

Though clearly slightly startled, he didn’t answer. The only sound was the persistent whisper of the wind through the Sea Witch’s forest.

“My name is Malin . . .” For me, the information was an offer of friendship, one that I hadn’t given to anyone since I was quite small.

He remained motionless on the stone bench and made no sign of getting up. Neither of us extended a hand.

Right then, I wouldn’t have bet even a single cent that I’d ever be able to get closer to him. He must have thought our meeting was an accident—and on that autumn day, barely three months before the Widow’s disappearance, it might as well have been. Of course, I already knew his name, and in some strange way I think he sensed that, though I couldn’t say why.

Now—as then—his name struck me as a bit comical, with the two g’s in Viggo and the two s’s in Larssen. Viggo Larssen, fifty-nine years old, haunted by demons, recently relocated from the center of Copenhagen to this, his apparent final resting place.

I sat down on the bench next to him—but I was perched so precariously on the edge of the cold stone seat that a medium-size puff of wind would have blown me out over the edge of Hell’s Deep.

Even though we sat less than two arms’ lengths apart, and despite a lack of eye contact, I could still sense the loneliness that had always surrounded him, his eyes filled with a touching sadness that revealed no signs of regret.

A book lay on the bench between us; it was the reason I decided to come out of hiding.

I had watched Viggo Larssen sit there reading before he slowly, carefully set it down on the stone seat, almost as if it might crumble at the slightest touch. It was no larger than my old composition books from school, and it was the first time he’d done anything other than stare up into the sky or straight ahead, or drink a little wine. The cover was green, and up close, I was almost certain that it was made of leather. The binding was beautiful, faded with age and slightly stained, as if it had been protecting the book’s contents for a hundred years.

There was no title on the cover.

I fought a violent urge to reach for it. I think he sensed my interest, because he moved his treasure away from me and out of sight. I didn’t care; patience was my main virtue, and anyway, I had other methods. Haste would be your last resort if you wanted to get close to a person like Viggo Larssen.

“I’m your new neighbor,” I said, despite having spied on him for almost a week. But he would have no idea that a newcomer had arrived. A day, a week, a month—he wouldn’t know the difference.

“I live in that red house on the cliff, up in the woods,” I said. He didn’t respond, but I thought I perceived a slight nod. That would have been a tremendous step forward, but it may have only been my imagination.

Then I made a small but obvious blunder: “That’s a beautiful book.”

I could have bitten my tongue in two. Naturally, my comment was too forward and came at the absolutely worst moment. The faint light in his eyes—if it had even been there—disappeared, and he folded back into himself.

I remained seated, silent, for a couple minutes more before I rose and said good-bye. Once again, neither of us extended our hands.

At least he didn’t actually ask me to leave, which is the most I could have hoped for from our first meeting. He had no reason to invite anyone into his space, neither into the light nor the dark. It was the latter he possessed the most of—something I knew better than anyone.

When I visited him the following week, I mentioned the book again.

It sat between us on the bench once more, almost as if he were teasing me, and this time he didn’t move it.

He was wearing faded brown Wranglers and a green windbreaker that stretched to the middle of his thighs, enveloping him like a shield, with only his head protruding from the fur collar.

“It’s a really beautiful cover,” I said, without looking down.

His left eye, the one closest to me, twitched slightly. His gaze held, unwavering, straight toward the horizon, out across the ocean.

“Where is it from?” My boldest volley yet.

He straightened a bit, for once his back and shoulders no longer resting on the lighthouse’s wall. I could see how hard he was struggling to keep his hands, folded on his lap, completely still. He had no way of knowing that I was more familiar than most with these outward signs of a person’s inner idiosyncrasies, with all the uncontrollable tics and involuntary movements we carry throughout life. Right then, despite decades of training and all his cleverness, Viggo Larssen was having difficulty hiding them.

Then he shrugged his shoulders and spoke for the first time: “It’s just a journal . . . an old journal from the Spanish Civil War.” His left eye had blinked significantly at the word old, and I realized that his childhood tics had returned, as if they had never gone away.

“It’s nothing,” he added, stressing the last word slightly.

I turned and looked at him. My curiosity must have crawled out to the tip of my tongue, where it floated into the air as a tall, but unusually insistent, question mark—and nothing else. As a child I had learned that this form of silence, a kind of wordless exclamation, was the best means of opening adults up. The twitching around his left eye became even stronger, traveling down his cheek. I could have cried for him right then, merely because of that detail, but naturally that would have destroyed any advantage I had just gained.

Standing, he abruptly shoved the book inside his jacket, within a hidden pocket that appeared just large enough to hold it. “It’s about a time . . . very long ago,” he said. It was a remark that could mean everything—and nothing.

I looked out over the ocean. It didn’t matter. My patience was boundless. I didn’t know why he was fascinated with the green book. I didn’t even know who had written it, but it was clear that I shouldn’t underestimate its meaning to him—and thus to the problem I had come to the Lighthouse to solve.

I also stood up, then walked back through the woods. I slipped and almost skidded down the long hill, through the Giant’s Footprint, before continuing back up the steep, crumbling slope to the Sea Witch’s house.

If he wouldn’t willingly open the door to his precious treasure, I would have to find another way in; as always, my curiosity would make its way through whatever barriers anyone might set before me.





The day the Widow disappeared, three months had passed since our first meeting. I had lived on the cape for half the winter yet had gotten no closer to him.

My house was still standing, and it creaked and groaned as if demonstrating that it still had some life left before its inevitable and final collapse. On a shelf in the living room, I unearthed an old book, bearing the date 1878 in gold-stamped letters, in which a long-dead poet had written about a legend known by everyone on Røsnæs. According to tradition, King Valdemar the Conqueror’s son, while on a hunting expedition in the year 1231, was killed by a stray arrow. Afterward, in a fit of uncontrollable rage, the king ordered all the trees on the cape burned down to the ground: not one trunk, or stump, or even the smallest branch or twig should ever cast its shadow on that cursed ground.

Where once a Royal Child

In the Cape’s Woods, on a Barrow,

Fell suddenly into Death’s trap

From an Archer’s errant Arrow,

Now shall Denmark’s Children

Safely, freely run,

Behind Refsnæs’ thorns and thickets

Laughing in the Sun!




It struck me as a bit pompous—plus, I’d never thought of children so clearly laughing because of what adults do. On the contrary. Children laugh for reasons adults don’t understand, because they live in a world adults can never see.

I replaced the book on the shelf. When the time came, it would fall into the sea, along with the house.

That night I had the feeling I was being watched by unknown eyes deep inside the woodsy thicket; yet, when I opened the door and listened, I heard only the sound of the wind in the treetops and the surf pounding the coast. Several times since my arrival at the Sea Witch’s house, I had seen a fox crouching in the dense thicket, but on a night like tonight, it would certainly rather take cover in its deep hole.

I closed the door to the darkness, but I didn’t lock it; no demon was going to prevent me from carrying out the plan that had led me to this house in the woods, to the cape, and to the man in the tower.

I tensed the muscles in my lopsided shoulders and shook away my fear. My task had become no less interesting because of the information streaming out of the radio since early this morning, filling all the news programs.

The strike against the Cave Bear’s otherwise invincible clan.





Office of the Homicide Boss

Friday, January 2, morning

The Homicide Boss turned toward his Number Two, both men appearing to be listening for unspoken words, which—if interpreted correctly—could possibly solve the mystery that lay before them.

They had temporarily silenced their iPhones. They both knew that once they turned them back on the insistent stream of urgent calls would mean only one thing: they were up to their necks in their most difficult case.

That the country’s Grand Old Lady could disappear for as much as an hour was dramatic, two hours was shocking, and more than half a day constituted an all-out sensation.

“Nothing . . . significant.”

Number Two shook his head. The evidence technicians had learned nothing from examining the old folder. Not that they had seriously expected to find anything.

And yet.

They had discovered a little yellow slip of paper, glued to the inside cover, with a date written on it—completely commonplace and yet inexplicable. That slip was now lying inside a clear plastic evidence bag on the desk in front of the Homicide Boss.

“Why would anyone . . .” The Homicide Boss stopped and stared at the date on the note.

Number Two could have easily finished the thought but remained quiet.

“So, the will is missing . . . and instead there’s a note with the date on it, which—”

“—makes no sense.” This time Number Two completed his boss’s thought.

“A date that is—”

“—more than four decades old, although analysis shows that . . .”

“—it was written recently . . . with a blue ballpoint pen.”

That last observation hung quietly in the air.

The Homicide Boss held the strange discovery up to the light, as if the sun’s first rays could provide an answer.

“Why would anyone write down such an old date and place it in her folder?” he said.

He continued in an even more hesitant tone, “There’s something strange about it . . .”

“Yes, but perhaps all of us are strange,” said Number Two, noticing the uncharacteristic hesitation coming from the man he admired so unconditionally. “We’re born strange . . . and we die strange.”

That was more philosophic than anything the Homicide Boss had ever heard from the otherwise down-to-earth man. He glanced cautiously at him and replied, “If we’re all strange, then that would be the norm. Unfortunately, I think—no, I can sense—that this case involves something we’ve never encountered before. That’s what I’m feeling. That we don’t know the half of it yet. Indeed, maybe we know nothing at all.”

His second in command kept silent, and that said it all.

He felt exactly the same way.





The Lighthouse on the Cape

Autumn 2014

My little house had obviously been empty for a long time, and the old woman with the curious nickname had let me move in without asking for anything more than four months’ rent in advance.

I didn’t have to answer any nosy questions, produce any papers, or offer any explanation for my sudden urge to live on top of a cliff with a steep drop to the shore below. She didn’t care who I was—or how I had stumbled upon the tiny sign at the end of the gravel road, next to the tourist parking area, that read “House for Rent”—written in an old woman’s almost illegible hand.

My new home was only just large enough for two wood elves to have lived there in luxury. The peeling red plaster around the sunken window frames indicated that no one had shown any interest in this place for decades.

Inside, the living room was furnished with an old table and a few chairs of indeterminate wood species. To someone who grew up surrounded by fine antique dressers and bureaus, it might have seemed spartan, but not to me.

My first night in the house, I turned around completely three times, feeling satisfied with the space. I was sitting on the old woman’s furniture, sleeping in her bed, drinking water out of a faucet that frequently sputtered and gurgled, with a view between the trees, up toward the hill and the Lighthouse, where the purpose of my journey lay. Sometimes I would spot a red-brown shadow between the craggy branches, indicating that the fox was on the hunt. I recalled a tale from one of my childhood homes about a fox that spoke to a boy about invisibility and friendship—right before my foster mother determinedly threw the book out. She had no use for false dreams that might influence the budding destinies she was protecting against all evil until they could encounter life without any fear of going astray.

The second time I visited the Daily Market in Ulstrup, I asked the manager about my gnarly old landlady, and he said she had inherited the red house when her parents had died. Her parents, who’d built the house, had lived there all their lives. If I wanted to find the Sea Witch, I simply had to walk across the street to the cemetery, where she sat so often that almost no one could remember having visited their parents’ graves without bumping into her there.

And sure enough, there sat my landlady, bony and hunched over, dressed totally in black, sitting on a little stone bench right across from two black gravestones. In the late winter sunlight, a red glow fell across her neck and shoulders; in a way, it was a beautiful sight, although it also disturbed me. She sat just as motionless as Viggo had, and I got the same feeling from her presence that I had gotten from his: that she seemed to be waiting for something that she’d hidden scrupulously from the world around her.

Back in my lopsided house, I turned my attention once again to that mystical journal he had been reading—first questioning myself, then firmly making my decision. I realized that there was no other way.

Every afternoon, at the same time, Viggo Larssen left his lonely tower, walked down the crooked stairs to the shore, and wandered along the water toward the cliff. It was a difficult trek, rocky and uneven. He stopped to rest frequently and was often gone for a couple of hours, sometimes even longer.

Before he left, he would place the key to the lighthouse door under a tuft of moss in the front yard, a safe place only if you’re naïve. It was a breeze for me to spot his hiding place through the powerful binoculars I had brought with me to the cape (and that I’d had all my life), and to uncover the large rusty key.

The small green leather-bound book was lying on a chair just inside the door.

I opened it with reverence, with anticipation, soon replaced by disappointment.

The journal, as Viggo had called it, contained no author’s name, only about fifty handwritten pages written over the course of a few weeks, while the writer—apparently a young Dane—was traveling south to join the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. It was decades old.

The first entry was from Esbjerg, dated June 18, 1938, when the young volunteer boarded a ship for Antwerp along with a friend. From there, they traveled by foot through Europe, and I leafed impatiently through descriptions of landscapes, villages, mills, rivers, and hostels. By the end of the journal, the writer had almost made it down to Basque country. None of it struck me as particularly interesting, and I couldn’t understand why Viggo read all of it so carefully, again and again.

I sighed and studied the few pieces of furniture in Viggo’s living room: a small round table, shoved up against the window, and a black easy chair with rips in its shiny, worn leather. A vintage transistor radio rested on a low coffee table. In its own way it was as dreary and bland as the descriptions in the journal.

On the next to the last handwritten page, the young journal writer finally made it to the front. It was in July 1938, at the Ebro River, where the International Brigades were involved in a large attack on the fascists, but apparently he never managed to fire a shot, as his last lines described nothing but a very strange dream, which I read somewhat impatiently before setting aside the book.

The abrupt ending and the remaining blank white pages might indicate that the soldier had been grabbed by the enemy after his final entry about the dream. Perhaps he had fallen in battle on a remote Spanish hillside.

I found no explanation for how the book had come into Viggo’s possession or why he found it so interesting that he had brought it here, to this place near the end of the world, as his only reading material. I just couldn’t understand it. Not then.

Of course, I had overlooked one small detail, one that I discovered months later, to my great horror—one which the man in the Lighthouse, my friend Viggo Larssen, son of a long-dead single mother who had been buried one sunny summer day in a cemetery in Søborg, had not.

And that was my first big mistake.





Office of the Prime Minister

Friday morning, January 2

The Homicide Boss’s call was transferred to Palle Blegman via his permanent undersecretary, a tall, somewhat lanky man who, rumor had it, had been a relatively aggressive, highly ranked socialist in his more youthful days, but who now belonged among the realm’s most powerful and loyal men.

If a more recent rumor were true, he was also a member of the Tårbæk Club, an almost- mythical exclusive organization for the highest-ranking government officials—both old and new.

“Did you ever notice if your mother had a piece of yellow material lying around?” The Homicide Boss had cut straight to the chase. “In her house—or at the nursing home?”

There was a pause of several seconds, then the Bear’s voice was cautious when he answered in the form of another question: “A piece of yellow material?”

“Plastic,” said the Homicide Boss. “Old, torn. With some dark spots on it. From what, we don’t know.”

The next pause lasted even longer. “No.”

“We’ve found some things, but it’s too early to say whether they . . .” The Homicide Boss let the sentence fade into the air.

“What did you say?”

“Nothing.” The Homicide Boss could hear that his answer sounded absurd.

Nothing was not a concept found at this level.





The Lighthouse on the Cape

late autumn 2014

The second time I snuck into the Lighthouse, I was determined to read the book as thoroughly as possible. There had to be an explanation somewhere for Viggo’s almost obsessive protection of his treasure. There was something in that book that the rest of the world wasn’t supposed to see—after a day’s worth of speculation, I was totally convinced of that—I just couldn’t figure out what it could be.

Nevertheless, I sensed that it could be of utmost importance to the mission I had come to the cape to carry out, and I had time—lots of time, or so I had naïvely believed. This was two months before the Widow’s disappearance.

Once again, he had gone on his solitary walk to the cliff, but to my great irritation, the book was not on the chair. Indeed, I couldn’t find it anywhere. A narrow bookcase on the opposite wall had maybe fifty books on it, and I spent a good fifteen minutes skimming their titles. There were several books about journalism and the media; a series of older, vaguely familiar Swedish crime novels; and a cookbook about mussels that must have been here when he arrived. Personally, I never cared for seafood. The Spanish journal was not there.

For a moment I stood there, hesitating, while I stared at the door to the next room; then I let my curiosity push all concerns aside, and I opened the door with a firm push.

To the right, under a small window, was an unmade bed. Half of the comforter was lying on the floor, spilling out of the duvet cover, and I couldn’t see a pillow anywhere. I could not fall asleep without a pillow under my crooked skull, which my foster mother had always told me looked shrunken.

To the left, just inside the door, was a wooden shelf, painted blue and fastened to the wall with sturdy brackets: it held a portable electric typewriter, the kind considered modern in the seventies. A piece of paper was hanging halfway out of the roller.

I stepped closer, leaning over a beaten-up desk chair with a frayed gray seat. He had written only five words, at the very top of the page, and they provided just as little meaning as the Spanish journal with its long-winded travel and nature descriptions: My mother and the canary.

It was like the beginning of a childhood diary. My only source from that time told me that the man in the Lighthouse had fled the city to take control of his life and to write down everything that had pained and tormented him. She also told me that he bore a mysterious story, one he had never shared with anyone. A secret that could explain his lifelong shyness.

Then I spied a trash bag under the table, in which there were some ten-odd crumpled pieces of typewriter paper. A couple of them had been torn in half—as if in irritation over incomplete thoughts.

I placed the first of the torn pages on the table and smoothed it out. Once again, only two words had been written on it, providing as little meaning as the others: The tricycle.

I placed all the pages on the table, but none of his aborted writing attempts offered any insight.

My grandfather appeared on one of them. Once again, only two words.

So I turned toward the bed, which was no more than an arm’s width and certainly not intended for visitors or a restless sleeper. I lifted the comforter off the floor, the result of a long-ingrained and now-routine sense of tidiness, which irritated me but which I knew I could never escape.

To my surprise, the move revealed a small three-legged stool that seemed to function as a nightstand. On it lay a single book: a small, very old copy of The Little Prince—the tale of the pilot who meets a boy from another planet after they both crash-land in the desert and become friends with a fox.

I opened it with the fingers that had rummaged through countless other hiding places and found what I expected. A handwritten inscription: To my own boy, Viggo, August 31, 1963.

Personal yet also quite formal. From his mother.

On one of the first pages, she (or so I assumed) had circled the passage in which the author mourns that his very first childhood drawing—of an elephant being swallowed by a boa constrictor—had never been understood by others.

I understood that better than anyone. The snake had swallowed an elephant, but everyone thought they were looking at the drawing of a hat.

For a moment, it softened my mental image of the woman who had given Viggo the book. Otherwise, my opinion of adults is rarely warm and fuzzy.

As I placed the book back on the stool, some invisible hand—or maybe a sixth sense—nudged the bedroom door back toward the door frame, revealing a small cabinet hanging on the wall behind it. When the door stood open, the cabinet was completely hidden, making it impossible to see from outside the little window over his bed.

Behind the cabinet’s glass door were three shelves. A large, thick red book sat on each shelf, each with the same title, leaving no doubt about what I had found: My Diary—embossed in gold letters—followed by Viggo’s mother’s initials.

The book on the uppermost shelf was dated in gold lettering: 1955–1964.

On shelf number two, the dates read: 1964–1970.

And on the bottom shelf: 1970–.

No final year had been engraved on that cover.

That book would remain unfinished, which I knew better than anyone, and I hardly even blinked before grabbing the little brass handle and trying to pry open the door.

It was locked securely.

I searched for almost twenty minutes for a hiding place for the key—a drawer, a box, a crack in the wall. Beneath the lighthouse steps was a blue dresser, but there was only a pair of pants, along with some shirts, tossed inside the drawers. I even went into the lighthouse tower and up the steep spiral staircase, which made me a bit dizzy but no less impatient.

He must have the key on him.

I didn’t sleep well that night. And, of course, I went back the next day.

As soon as Viggo had left the house and was nothing more than a tiny spot on the shoreline, I let myself in. That pattern repeated itself throughout the ensuing weeks, while autumn turned to winter. I always left the lighthouse master’s small residence in the same condition, so he would never have even the slightest suspicion that he’d had an unexpected visitor. At least that’s what I believed at the time. Also, as I said, Viggo Larssen was punctual in a way—even though he had abandoned everything else.

At one point I tried to pry open the glass cabinet with a thin knife, but to no avail.

I left some small scratch marks in the wood around the keyhole, just like the ones my foster mother had found once on a bureau drawer after I rummaged through her belongings, but I didn’t think Viggo had her powerful sense of intuition about those things. He’d never notice.

Every day, I sat down in his chair and read the new sentences that showed up on the roller of the old Olympia typewriter, without ever noticing anything of interest. First day of school. Ove, Adda, Verner, and Teis.

Names from his past. I knew some of the families in the cul-de-sac, but that was long after the five friends had lived there. They were born several years before me.

It seemed as if he couldn’t come up with a single word past that first line, as if as soon as he shoved the roller to the next line, all contact between his hands and the keys was broken and he had to give up.

I leafed through the old copy of The Little Prince and took note of the places Viggo’s mother had circled in pencil. Maybe she was thinking about Viggo (or maybe only about herself) or (it suddenly occurred to me) maybe about her own mother: the little prince must tame the fox if he wants to play with him.

I understood the reference. There was a fox living on the slope beneath my bedroom window.

My foster mother didn’t care for fairy tales. She loved only a few children’s songs whose choruses involved straightforward lessons: marching across an abyss while maintaining one’s balance—and for God’s sake, not looking down.

Her favorite song about elephants caught in a spider’s web had countless verses.

On the first of December, the Spanish journal was lying on the chair just inside the door to the lighthouse. My relief was indescribable, because I was beginning to fear that he was taking the mysterious writing with him on his daily walks as a precaution.

I sat next to Viggo’s desk, with its peeling blue paint, and read the first twenty pages again, slowly, thoroughly. The young journal writer was traveling with a Danish friend, and among the handwritten entries the two adventurers had placed small pieces of paper, postcards, stamps, and point-of-entry stamps that they must have cajoled out of border guards. They had made a two-day stop in Paris, and next to a line drawing of the Seine there was a long passage about the people they met there.

Along with a German and a Czech, we went for a walk in the city. In the evening we walked up to Montmartre, where we met all our friends from the hostel: Americans, Australians, Danes, Swiss, Germans, Frenchmen, my friend Kalle from Helsingborg.

I studied the meaningless passages for at least another half hour, then put the book back exactly as I had found it, long before Viggo’s frail figure would appear on the horizon on his walk home.

Despite the daily break-ins—and my renewed reading—I still didn’t understand what was so terribly important to him about the little book. The eager volunteer for Spain wrote about his final dream, which read more like a delirium he’d had just before the battle by the Ebro River, where it was also thought that the young writer Gustaf Munch-Petersen had fallen. As did many other Danes.

The description of the vision filled the last half page before the writing stopped inexplicably: It is the most frightening and ominous sight I have ever experienced, he wrote in the last line. I wasn’t surprised that the soldier had nightmares about confronting the Devil himself in the figure of the Generalissimo, who had wiped out all that era’s young heroes in his dark crusade.

In the middle of the book was a lined piece of paper with a slightly clumsy rhyming poem handwritten in pencil, but since it wasn’t written in the young man’s handwriting, I put it back impatiently. I left the book on the chair once and for all. I simply couldn’t figure out its importance.





Office of the Homicide Boss

Friday, January 2, around noon

By the second day of the Widow’s disappearance, bloggers and tweeters and anyone else with an opinion—including news commentators and editorial columnists—had already questioned the quality of the police’s investigation. Wasn’t it going much too slowly?

Wasn’t there any news they could elaborate, exaggerate, or otherwise comment on?

And was Homicide really the right venue for such a delicate case? They needed to establish a task force; indeed, that very word had a calming effect.

The Widow with the famous Blegman name, the head of that dynasty, was gone. That was the only thing that mattered.

None of the media outlets were pulling any punches. None of the media displayed any empathy for the police; they all demanded action and immediate results. Exclamation points riddled all of the press’s calls and accusations; journalists rattled the doors to the police chief’s office. Every single editor let their criminal reporters crack the whip over the Homicide Boss’s head. In this case they were all, regardless of political affiliation, on the side of the Blegman dynasty. It had a unifying effect on the nation.

There was no sign of anything at all abnormal in the Widow’s apartment at Solbygaard Nursing Home, wrote the news agency Ritzau, making a point about the poor police work by adding: or so say the police.

The two lead investigators didn’t counter the accusation.

Seen superficially, it was indeed true. At first everything appeared completely normal. And yet it wasn’t.

The prime minister and the minister of justice found their mother’s two rooms gapingly empty and sounded the alarm with all the efficiency and discretion that define the Blegman dynasty’s two renowned sons, wrote the bureau, in something resembling royal reverence.

She vanished into thin air, wrote the daily Berlingske Tidende quite simply.

No clues in the case, proclaimed three of the leading national newspapers, all owned by the same publisher. Of course, that wasn’t true. The two officers were at their wits’ ends by the thirtieth time they’d examined the three slightly peculiar clues they did have, none of which seemed to provide any insight. The two yellow pieces of plastic, the (almost) empty folder in which there should have been a will, the slip of paper with a date they didn’t understand: these three small things, which individually seemed meaningless, taken together made them uneasy. There was no reason to believe that the public could do any better—and if the odd findings really held any meaning, public disclosure might harm the investigation and their hunt for the beast (the Homicide Boss refused to use a milder term).

Only one person also knew about their strange findings—and that was whoever was there when the Widow disappeared.

On the desk between the two policemen lay a brochure, created by a management firm north of Copenhagen, with the title Solbygaard—Life at Its Best. The Homicide Boss shook his head irritably. As if anyone in the twilight of their life would be thinking about sunshine in such a lifeless place, which in no way reminded him of the farm where he had grown up, in eastern Jutland.

According to the nursing home manager’s statement, she’d hired a professional branding and management consultant to update all of the home’s “internal and external workflow to better benefit the elderly,” all of which was outlined in the brochure. The Homicide Boss had seen evidence of this from the first time he walked the area. The lawn between the nursing home’s tall gray buildings had been filled with bars and hoops and chalk lines, evidence of a new training program that promised to bring “pep to both the staff and the elderly,” as the manager put it. More likely to tire the oldest residents to death, thought the Homicide Boss, but no surprise for a municipal facility like the home. When forming their government, the Blegman brothers had promised a thorough cleanup of bureaucracy at both the state and municipal levels, but inexplicably, the cleanup only led to a slew of new agencies and functions just as burdensome as those already in place.

That the two conservative front-runners had won governmental power in 2011, at the head of an otherwise deeply ailing party, had come as a gigantic surprise. It happened only because the two largest parties on both the right and the left had lost the threads tying together a government, and so the vote went to the Blegman dynasty, with its almost mythical status.

The Homicide Boss took another look at the nursing home’s brochure and repressed a snort, a sound not usually heard in his office.

Then he looked back at the brown folder and the little yellow piece of paper with the date on it, which the police had failed to get any information from, and which no one could explain.

There was no will, which was alarming given the nursing home’s careful record-keeping. Plus, the Widow had mentioned the existence of a will several times, and her lawyer revealed that it had been delivered from his office in the summer of 2014 because she wanted to make a new one.

The lawyer hadn’t seen it since.

She could have written a new one and placed it in her dresser drawer—that was the only plausible theory given the title on the empty folder—but if so, what happened to it?

And, as Number Two remarked, why hadn’t she locked the drawer?

In the Homicide Boss’s preferred words these days, it was all very strange.





CHAPTER 2

The Lighthouse on the Cape

Friday, January 2, early afternoon

The five typewritten lines looked like black strokes running across the white paper. He had never written so many words in a row before once again tearing the paper out of the typewriter and crumpling it up.

This was the day after the Widow’s disappearance and the subsequent hysteria.

I picked up the paper and smoothed it out; it looked like the beginning of a letter:

Dear friend,

It has been a long time. I think the current events in Copenhagen (regarding the Widow Blegman’s disappearance) made me think of you. You probably remember her, and we both certainly remember her two sons. For a long time I have been trying to tell a story so strange that I haven’t known exactly how to begin. That’s why I am asking you for advice. My story is about Death. It began in Søborg when we were children. Right after Arrow’s death.

It seemed as if the second appearance of the word death had been too much for the man in the Lighthouse, since he then abandoned the letter.

I looked around. No other pieces of paper were lying about. I had no way of knowing if he had finished the next version or if he had given up on the endeavor entirely.

I couldn’t understand the connection between the Widow’s disappearance and a long-ago death, yet there was no further explanation. My story is about Death. It began in Søborg when we were children. Right after Arrow’s death.

Once I had read those lines for the third time, I finally understood that Viggo had changed tactics—if you could refer to his numerous crumpled-up pieces of paper as a strategy—and abandoned his time-consuming attempts at depicting an obviously important childhood event. The letter form showed that Viggo Larssen had decided to share his thoughts with someone he trusted, and naturally that was not going to be me.

I replaced the paper where he’d tossed it. I felt like I knew the lines by heart.

As usual, before I left the Lighthouse, I gave my routine tug on the handle of the glass cabinet door guarding the three red books that bore his mother’s initials. And as usual, it didn’t move an inch.

Once home, I turned on the radio. On this Friday afternoon the nation was still momentarily obsessed with the Widow Blegman’s disappearance into thin air, as if she had ascended into heaven—which many thought was the wrong direction in the afterlife for any member of the Blegman dynasty (although they wouldn’t dare say so out loud).

Restless, I listened to the news reports, then a little later I left the Sea Witch’s house and half ran, half slid down the wet, rocky hillside, through the crooked branches, down to the hollow where nothing remained except the half-white birch trunk. From there it was only a short way up to the topmost shrubbery, where I could watch the Lighthouse unseen by its resident and make sure that he was home and not doing anything that I ought to know about.

I suddenly had a premonition that I couldn’t explain, and naturally it had something to do with the most recent lines he had typewritten.

Maybe I could sneak a little closer at dusk and venture a peek in the window. I had to know if he was continuing to write that mysterious letter.

Just then, the lighthouse door opened. I froze, and then slowly slunk back into my hiding place. The little I knew about my shy neighbor as an adult I’d heard secondhand or read on the Internet. He had been a journalist for a grassroots magazine and later for the Danish Broadcasting Corporation. He’d had a nervous breakdown—what the journalists in his social circle called burnout syndrome (many of them had quietly burned themselves out)—yet he had continued working, caught in a deadly blend of pills and booze and unfinished work, until he collapsed and was placed on disability.

It struck me yet again that I had never seen the strange man on the bench with any texts other than the old book from the Spanish Civil War. And he had never left the Lighthouse twice in the same day.

Now, he was walking my way, carrying a medium-size envelope. I barely managed to sink behind a broom bush as he walked by, heading in the direction of the woods and the road leading to Ulstrup.

I pulled my binoculars out of their worn case, which was always hanging from my belt, and studied him.

Through the strong lenses I could make out both a stamp and the fuzzy form of a handwritten name and address.

There had been an uncharacteristic sense of purpose in his stride down the gravel path, then past me into the woods; his expression also struck me as different than usual. In the previous days and weeks, he had held the world at bay by staring across the ocean with that distant look and those half-closed eyes. Now they were wide open and fixed on the path that led through the dense woods, toward Ulstrup and, I assumed, toward the mailbox hanging on the wall of the market.

I almost felt an absurd attack of unadulterated jealousy at the sight of the envelope. He wended his way through the woods and headed east. And I was right behind him.

The entire trip took almost an hour and fifteen minutes, with me constantly trying to avoid being seen should he suddenly stop and turn around. He didn’t.

He stood motionless for a moment at the mailbox, then he mailed the letter, turned on his heel, and walked back toward the Lighthouse.

I stood there for a long time; I even considered finding a tool strong enough to break open the mailbox. It wasn’t misplaced ethics or other nerves that held me back. In some way I sensed that the letter should continue on its journey, which evoked in me a feeling so strong that it overcame my curiosity.

Although I couldn’t explain my reaction, I had no more doubts. The letter should be read by whomever Viggo Larssen was thinking about when he wrote it.





Back at the Lighthouse, the man sat on the bench and rested his back against the wall. He looked like he’d returned home after a long day’s work, exhausted but satisfied with his effort. He fetched a bottle of wine and poured himself a glass, then stayed seated, completely still. As I watched him through my binoculars, it occurred to me that I had never seen him like this before.

Toward evening he got up, walked back into the small house, and closed the door behind him. I wanted to warn him of my sense of impending disaster, but that would have been in bad taste.

I turned on my flashlight and wandered back to my wobbly haunted house, which would undoubtedly fall into the deep during the next big storm. That night I could hear the breakers on the reef and the wind in the treetops, and I could almost sense the fox’s watchful eye from the hollow the Sea Witch’s forest hid so well.

Maybe that’s the real meaning of life—that the world’s oddballs must find each other. That’s what my only true friend (long since dead) had once said to me.

People like us have no language, we have no room where we can share our hard-won experiences, and so we meet in silence—nowhere.

She’d always laughed so hard that her crooked limbs would dangle over the armrests on her rusted wheelchair. She often spoke in riddles. Still, what she said made sense to even the loneliest child—which I should well know.

That evening, I should have sensed what was to come of the tale that Viggo had carried to the mailbox in Ulstrup. Only later did I easily count fifty years since Viggo Larssen had first had the dream that he called the Omen, an eternity over the course of a human life.

Actually, as I realized later, there was only one odd thing about his decision to wait so long to share his revelation with the world, a revelation he must have believed had the power to shake a society down to its very foundation: Why was Teis, the awkward, fat boy who also foundered late in life, the one Viggo Larssen had chosen to share the first glimpse into the world he had hidden for so long?





Teis from Søborg

Saturday, January 3, at noon

Teis Hanson leaned back and closed his eyes. His arthritis was always worse when something was bothering him, especially in the arm that had been partially paralyzed since high school.

In another lifetime, on such a mild winter day, he might be enjoying lunch at home with his wife and young children, basking in the light of yet another award for his research—maybe even a Nobel Prize.

It shouldn’t have seemed like such a far-fetched idea.

The wide antique armchair had been placed precisely between the floor lamp and the north-facing window. He’d lived in that third-floor condominium since he began his medical studies at the University of Copenhagen in the mid-1970s. Below lay Gothersgade, its far eastern end boring directly into the square known as Kongens Nytorv, the heart of the city.

His parents, both schoolteachers, had bought the apartment for him because they wanted their son to concentrate fully on his academic endeavors. They intended for him to be the first in their family to win prestigious awards, renown, fame—maybe even a Nobel Prize. Back then, with a little good will, such dreams could be fostered in children, even in the dining room of a schoolteacher’s modest row house. And though little Teis had been shy and a tad eccentric, he was a budding genius, or so his parents believed. And his parents had supported his choices with a tenacity that refused to leave their son’s happiness to chance.

Now they were dead, and nothing seemed as it once did.

Still, he had pursued his life’s greatest academic challenge: the exploration of human heredity and the double helix of DNA, with its marvelous codes for all living things on earth, which had turned into human genome research and a teeming host of miraculous new medical advancements.

If any path could lead straight to science’s holy grail, he believed that was it.

Today, Teis would call his choice the gold rush of science. All kinds of social climbers and self-promoters had overrun the field; also, his department funding had lessened as the years passed, until the new conservative government cut his research unit—then finally the entire department. The Blegman government had slain him with one fell stroke of the pen. Today, the founders of modern genetics, like Watson and Crick, were nothing but shadows in his faded dreams of greatness. He had been sent packing. The strange and rare illnesses he had researched were filed in binders and folders and packed into boxes, to be stored in a university basement, where a stray spider—or another eccentric scientist—might one day discover them.

Fortunately, his parents had died by the time his lifelong dreams had been extinguished, and since he only believed in matter and molecules, he figured that he wasn’t being observed (or reproached) from above.

In his forty-fourth year, Teis Hanson became single when his girlfriend since college vanished without warning or any word of farewell. She hadn’t taken anything with her when she disappeared, other than the clothes on her back. The police had said there wasn’t anything unusual about vanishing that way. If people become unbearably tired of their life partners, some of them prefer to simply leave everything behind. They erase themselves, so to speak.

They refused to even search for her.

He ransacked the apartment, looking for a good-bye letter, but he had never found so much as a torn piece of paper in all those dozen-plus years since she left. Sometimes the impulse would return, and he’d spend an entire Saturday afternoon searching, but with less and less enthusiasm as each year passed. He thought that time would eventually soften his loss, as would the microbiological mechanisms he had researched in his glory days.

They’d never had children, and now he was sitting in his massive easy chair and staring at a mysterious letter with no return address. He wrinkled his eyebrows, which were pronounced and steel gray, as befitted any Nobel laureate.

The letter seemed almost surreal. His name was on the front, Teis Hanson, and both the name and address were written in cursive that was neither attractive nor particularly consistent.

He didn’t know anyone who would send him a private letter. Still, it must be someone who knew him well, because most people still made the mistake of spelling it Hansen with an e—as if the o were a spelling error, or the remnant of some long-lost Swedish ancestor.

That had always irritated him.

He turned the letter over, checking for any clue the sender might have left, then split it open with the fine whalebone knife from Greenland his girlfriend had given him their last Christmas together, right before the millennium. He had no idea that she had any interest in Greenland.

The first page was dated yesterday, January 2, and he read the beginning, perplexed.

My dear friend. It has been a long time. I’m writing to you because something strange has happened. The events in Copenhagen—the disappearance of Widow Blegman—and my discoveries as a fifteen-year-old and in the years that followed—are somehow connected. I don’t fully understand the connection, but I am certain it must exist. Something happened that I never told anyone about . . .

Teis hesitated and then turned the page over before he continued reading.

Søborg . . .

This was not just a letter from a distant friend—it was a message that would remind him of a past he didn’t always want to remember.

Viggo Larssen . . .

. . . standing at the end of the road, by the hawthorn bush, with his jug ears and weird tics on either side of his face; at times they tugged at his eyes or pulled an entire eyebrow out of shape.

A strange boy, the grown-ups would say.

Teis Hanson returned to the first few lines, scanning the text skeptically with scrutinizing slowness.

Once again he wrinkled his gray eyebrows, his high forehead furrowing. What in the world had his old friend from the neighborhood been thinking with this peculiar story?

He would like to have shown someone else the letter, especially his mother, but Alice Hanson was long since dead (no genetic miracle had been able to prevent her lung cancer), and there was no one else he could ask. His old colleagues had turned their backs on him when the media tagged him “the leading conspiracy theorist” for defending the theory that the American government had been involved in the terror attack of September 11—the real reason the Twin Towers had collapsed into rubble. The nickname had erected an invisible but impregnable wall around him. No one understood how a once-renowned genetic researcher could support a theory ascribing responsibility for 9/11 to the former American president. It was as if the scientist, at the end of his career, had used the supernatural and the inexplicable as some childish response to all of his career disappointments. No Nobel Prize, only mysterious theses about crumbling towers and flying saucers. His colleagues had thought that perhaps an incipient senility had made him turn to the unknown.

Of course, even for a scientist raised on chemistry, biology, and physics, it was true that sudden revelations could turn out to be correct. Just look at Einstein’s theory of relativity, which had upended everything. Even so, Teis Hanson felt almost physically ill while reading the bizarre three-page letter, in which his childhood friend set forth a single (horrible) thesis, resting on a foundation that the aging scientist barely understood.

The theory was truly unpleasant, and no one would want it to be true; it would alter people’s lives forever.

For some reason Teis Hanson blushed a faintly disturbing hue, like a piece of clothing that has been washed on the wrong setting.

He could see his friend, small and a bit hunched over, because shyness often made him collapse into a defensive position, as if longing for invisibility.

Maybe it was his attachment to the peculiar grandparents whom Viggo and his mother had lived with that had caused that effect.

Or maybe it was the death he had been exposed to early in life, far too early. Teis recalled glimpses of events that had changed life in the neighborhood and that he never wanted to experience again, or even remember.

He had seen Viggo Larssen’s strange fall onto the stone steps, his blood on the white flagstone, adults kneeling by his side.

He had also seen little Arrow in his torn raincoat before they carried him away. He had seen the red stains on the asphalt and heard Mrs. Blegman screaming by the open gate.

The third catastrophe occurred without warning—not even the creaking sound of a gate’s hinges could have warned Viggo Larssen of Destiny’s blow. He was simply struck down.

Understandably, he hadn’t gone outside for three weeks afterward. No one had ever experienced anything even remotely similar, and no one (except maybe Palle and his equally malevolent little brother) would wish it on anyone. Those three brutal events had undoubtedly made the lonely boy a bit crazy.

And now, the densely written page Teis Hanson was holding in his hand seemed to prove it.

He could see Viggo Larssen before him once again. Those blue, blue eyes that betrayed everyone and everything, not maliciously, but because they had to hide the peculiarities jostling around in what the adults would call his soul.

Teis Hanson read the letter for the third time and then set it aside.

Somehow, a strange child must attract strange happenings. That assertion was totally unscientific, as was the theory about the Twin Towers. Yet, he thought, that’s the way it was in both cases.

He closed his eyes, and his mind drifted back to memories of his childhood . . .

It’s not God who determines where we grow up. No, God simply plants three blocks of red row houses and lets mortals move in.

Viggo and Verner. He could picture them.

Ove and Agnes. Who lived today in luxury up near Dyrehaven. God and Satan under the same roof. He almost laughed out loud, which he hadn’t done in a long time.

Everyone grows up with peculiarities they fear someone will see. But his life had never forced him to the extreme, into life’s darkest corners.

Very few get to avoid that, so maybe he had been lucky after all.





Office of the Homicide Boss

Saturday, January 3, a little after noon

Yet another day had begun badly for the Homicide Boss. It was day three following the Widow’s sudden and absurd disappearance from the upscale nursing home in Gentofte.

The telephones had been ringing off the hook all morning for his industrious band of detectives and their assistants, yet not a single piece of information had led to anything other than frustration.

Looking at his deputy, Number Two, he felt momentary relief that he shared his office with this man who rarely said anything—and almost nothing unsolicited unless it was of the utmost importance.

So when he did speak, the Homicide Boss listened intently.

“This is a story in two acts. Each with its own headline.” Two unsolicited sentences in a row, an almost superhuman amount coming from Number Two. Then he added a third: “And we’ve only gotten the first act—at the crime scene—so we’re still waiting on the second.”

The Homicide Boss started to tilt his head to the side but stopped himself. He didn’t want to look like a character in a bad novel—or even worse: a police boss in some TV drama. “You mean—the discovery of—?”

Number Two nodded. Yes, the discovery of the Widow.

First thing that morning, the two detectives had gotten a message from their two bosses that the investigation was entering a new and necessary, but also sensitive, phase. They had been told to examine the Widow’s closest family members and their pasts—discreetly—and come back with the information before the end of the weekend.

“Both brothers also . . . those two,” the youngest investigator had whispered at the morning meeting, staring at the other cops like a hamster in a cage.

“The two Blegman brothers—yes. And it must be stressed that this course of action is completely normal. We can’t avoid a normal investigation because of the victim’s closest relatives . . . but naturally it should happen discreetly.”

The Homicide Boss had no doubts about taking the utmost care. This part of the investigation could irritate the country’s most powerful pair of brothers beyond belief. No one wanted to see the Bear standing on his back legs, growling senselessly at police headquarters and the inner city, while threatening everyone involved with immediate termination without pension—threats that the powerful prime minister and his equally domineering little brother would happily execute.

And everybody in the room knew it.

“They were born in Søborg but grew up on Smakkegårdsvej in Gentofte, in a nicer middle-class home. Their father was a so-called éminence grise, a kind of ideologue in the Conservative Party during the seventies and eighties, an executive committee member, lawyer for the Supreme Court, filthy rich . . .” The Homicide Boss stopped himself and then added: “The mother stayed home.”

“Mrs. Blegman,” Number Two clarified.

“Yes.”

The youngest of the detectives had cleared his throat, despite his cautious appearance and nervous mien. “But they didn’t move to the upscale neighborhood until the father was allowed to practice before the Supreme Court—several years after the accident that befell them.”

The Homicide Boss nodded. That was true. And it was a problem.

The accident was one detail in the Blegman dynasty’s past that had to be looked into—and then skirted around—and that could be quite difficult as it was undoubtedly a lifelong sore point for the two powerful brothers. In newspaper features on the family and the two brothers’ past, they’d never wanted to talk about that time—or what had happened.

“They had a younger brother who was killed in an accident.” Once again, it was the young detective who, despite his nervousness, doggedly kept talking. “There wasn’t any . . . crime, but naturally it left a certain . . . sorrow. It’s difficult to see what the relevance might be today.”

No one could argue with the youngest man’s somewhat self-contradictory conclusion.

“They’ve created a lot of enemies on their way to the top, haven’t they?” The question, phrased more like a statement of fact, came from Number Two.

Created was an especially imprecise word in this case, thought the Homicide Boss. One doesn’t create enemies the way one creates a painting or a deep poem. Enemies are generated by brutality and a lust for power. Nevertheless, the two brothers had to be investigated.

“Yes, the past can always mean something,” the Homicide Boss said.

“You mean there could be something in their past . . . a motive for revenge?” Number Two pronounced revenge in a slightly singsong accent, reflecting his upbringing in the northern Fyn coastal town of Kerteminde.

The Homicide Boss nodded. “Yes, but it’s a huge history to tackle, and—”

“—they’ll be furious.”

Anyone in that room could have finished that sentence.

Now that the two men were alone, the Homicide Boss repeated that again and then said to his second in command, “Our only hope is to show them that the investigation will help solve the mystery and save the Widow, wherever she is . . . if she’s still alive. They can’t possible say no to that . . .”

That statement should have resulted in nothing more than a nod from Number Two; however, he delivered his fourth unsolicited sentence that afternoon, this time a short but no less ominous prediction: “We’ll definitely find her . . . but we’ll find her dead.”

It was impossible to argue with him.

Not after the void that had followed the Widow’s disappearance. No tips, no whispers in the city’s underworld, not the least sign of any abduction.

There was only one sinister conclusion: that she no longer existed.





PART II

VIGGO LARSSEN





CHAPTER 3

Søborg, near Copenhagen

1955–1960

Viggo Larssen did not seem like a normal child, yet that is exactly what he was. Which is something I only realized much later.

Maybe I understood all his quirks—his tics, his strange behavior and odd sounds, his urge to explore the darkest corridors of a mind not made for that sort of thing—because I recognized him deep inside myself. I had grown up with the same tendency to distort everything that should remain beautiful and, in others’ lives, would seem totally normal, the terrible fear of laying yourself bare, mixed with a child’s intense need to feel invisible, especially when everything surrounding you has crumbled and oddness flows from every pore.

It’s just genetics, Teis would have said. Defective mechanisms, bad biological compounds, garlands of genes strung in some misplaced strand of DNA.

But Teis, maybe we’re made of more than you suspect. All children grow up with secrets, secrets hidden by the Devil and God and Science. So maybe your explanations are merely some bizarre comfort demanded by your ever-present and all-controlling sense of reason. A hat placed on top of reality, so that we never see the terrible snake that has swallowed the elephant—or something even worse.

Viggo Larssen was born in Copenhagen to a single mother, and long before his birth, his father had renounced any responsibility or paternity and moved home to Sweden. “Beyond all mountains,” as they used to say in the Copenhagen Council for Unwed Mothers and Their Children, at a time when thousands of unfaithful fathers left their children every year, often before they were even born.

This time, however, the saying rang true, at least in terms of geography: Viggo Larssen’s biological father had fled all the way to Kebnekaise Mountain in Lapland, where the Swedish authorities found him. Following a blood test tying him to the unwanted seed he’d left in Denmark, he was forced to send monthly child support checks. And that was all Viggo Larssen knew of his father.

Viggo’s mother was a small, solidly built woman, darkly beautiful in her own way; her hair was almost black, even though there were (supposedly) only fair Jutland genes beneath her skin. She had attempted suicide with sleeping pills when Viggo’s father left her, fleeing in the direction of Sweden’s highest peaks.

One time she read aloud for Viggo from The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, but she slammed the book shut when she realized where the lead goose Akka—with Nils on her back—was planning to land.

Back then, single mothers bent their heads in shame over having what was called an illegitimate child; maybe that’s also why, in the fullness of time, his mother gave Viggo the book about the boy who had neither father nor mother and yet ruled his own planet: The Little Prince.

Dear God, the little fool, people thought as her stomach grew. Her father had said it aloud, only without the unnecessary modifier, so that the word fool could haunt and condemn her. A more Danish and devastating epithet didn’t exist back then, and the shame was unbearable for a man like him.

When the hardships of single motherhood became too great, Viggo’s maternal grandparents decided to leave the fjord town of Vejle, where they had moved after recently retiring, and relocated to Copenhagen. Viggo’s grandfather already had two brothers living there, which became the official explanation for their new life. They bought a row house in Søborg, so that their daughter and grandson could move in with them.

The suburban neighborhood of row houses was considered a vanguard in the early welfare state of the sixties. They built kindergartens, grade schools, riding schools, sports clubs, high-rises, television stations—even a huge open-air swimming pool where some years later, on sunny summer Sundays, you could watch the day’s freakiest rock group, Savage Rose, sunning themselves on the lawn right across from the ten-meter diving board, which no one dared use.

In Viggo’s neighborhood, adults spent their weekends working in the garden, cutting the grass, laying flagstones, cultivating tulips, raking rose beds, planting crocuses, pruning rhododendrons, and arranging rows of potatoes and parsley that were flanked by red currants, strawberries, and black currants, as well as apple, pear, and plum trees. Anything could survive the new garden owners’ slightly untrained fingers, with the help of some solid doses of DDT and artificial fertilizer, as this was before the time when environmentalists cared about that sort of thing. In general, an immense array of plants could be squeezed into a very long, narrow garden of flowers, trees, and bushes—and pesticides—where neighbors peeked discreetly over the low, newly planted hedges at the glory of the competing plant kingdom.

“The grass should be really green this year,” said Viggo’s grandfather. But you could tell that he didn’t really think so, because he was born skeptical—some might even bluntly say grumpy. In the neighborhood of row homes, he was known as a very moody man, a man who occasionally nodded but rarely spoke.

Until his third or fourth year, Viggo Larssen seemed like a relatively normal boy. Nothing hinted at the defects that would later manifest themselves. Yes, as a three-year-old he was still drinking milk with his lips against the cup’s upper rim—he had a small silver mug with his initials engraved on the handle—and naturally the contents landed in his lap. On the other hand, it looked so comical that the hearty laughter of everyone around him hid what was probably concern. Sometimes I think that it was the accident on the tricycle that resulted in something serious—that, in any case, revealed a side of him that no one knew before.

I think that all people live both a real and a fairy-tale version of their lives. The first is visible, while the other is invisible, at least at first. On the outside, Viggo struggled to be like everyone else, to appear normal, but deep down, strange and unspeakable thoughts and ideas were rattling about, coming and going as they pleased. Knowing instinctively that he mustn’t put them into words, he forced them back into his body, into a dark bottomless pit (what the faithful would call a soul), from where the strange visions and dreams could not return.

But they could—and naturally, they did.

For Viggo Larssen, they surfaced as strange tics in his face, an involuntary toss of the head or a lengthy crick in his neck, a bewildered blink of an eye, first one and then the other, and finally as a snorting sound that came from deep in his throat, a sound that made people turn around.

Often he would sit motionless, staring at his wrists, and no adult could figure out why. In kindergarten he had heard a mother talking about a boy who died of a sudden case of blood poisoning after getting a tiny, almost invisible scratch on his hand. As a result, Viggo was struck with fear over even the smallest cuts and scratches, a fear of dying, which none of the adults around him realized. He had no doubt about it: one day he would see a red streak shooting up across his wrist and traveling up his arm, running toward his shoulder and his chest, while the poison aimed straight for his heart.

If people had asked, “Is something wrong?” they wouldn’t have gotten an answer. Children refuse to grant adults access to a world that grown-ups cannot understand. Children know instinctively that doing so will only lead to their downfall, with adults first showing amazement, then irritation—and finally anger.

Therefore, countless children just like Viggo grow up with thoughts and quirks they never reveal. On the surface, they seem so innocent, so childlike. Beneath the surface, they’re stunted seeds that sprout in the dark and have visions that can never be shared. We carry those thoughts with us throughout life, children and adults, the old and dying alike. All people possess that knowledge, just like the picture of the hat that hides a snake. Or maybe, in reality, it’s an elephant.

My foster mother would have chosen the latter transformation.





Viggo’s story is not, therefore, easy to tell. I simply don’t know all the nooks and crannies where he stored his secrets; and even though I’ve always had a certain knack for observing boys like him—peering into their dungeons—he was something special.

If he reminded me of anyone, it was myself. Not that I’d ever tell anyone else that.

My own story is not important. I grew up an orphan and came of age very late—as people would say back then—when I left the orphanage in Skodsborg, north of Copenhagen, where I had lived my entire childhood and youth as foster daughter to the woman who ran the home.

Viggo Larssen had been there the first few months of his life, too, but that was several years before my time.

I first met him in the cemetery in Søborg when he was fifteen, right after his life capsized—at least that’s the way I see it. My foster mother towered over me among the gravestones. In her eyes, what Viggo went through that day was not all that devastating. People die, and the only important thing is that amends are made on earth.

After my foster mother died, I finally left the nest (as those fortunate enough to be raised at home call this not-so-simple feat). I wrote my name on one of the baptismal forms my foster mother always had lying around and took work as a night watch at a nursing home in the city’s nicest suburb. I was the best night watch they’d ever had. Caring for the elderly is like taking care of babies, and for years I lived discreetly, almost unseen, in a small basement apartment beneath the nursing home. When I first moved to the cape, the light and the wind and the vast ocean nearly knocked me over.

Although I hadn’t seen Viggo Larssen in decades, barely a week or month passed that I didn’t think of him. Maybe because he reminded me of my own past—or maybe because we shared the same sensibility. Whenever the world’s troubles became overwhelming, I’d leave planet Earth and set up headquarters on a small, obscure planet where, from a safe distance, I could observe the people down there in their beautiful gardens.

One day when he was three years old, Viggo Larssen was standing at the top of the stone steps that led from his front door down to the garden, his round shoulders hunching slightly forward, as if he were vigilantly waiting for a sudden blow or a shove from some invisible opponent whirling down from the sky.

I recognized his watchful stare; I saw his gaze floating in front of him, around the corner, past the low row house hedges, in and out of garden gates and behind parked cars. Was someone lying in wait, someone watching him?

No, but on that spring day, a tricycle was sitting by his front door. He was three and a half years old, and I’ve often thought that if he hadn’t noticed the tricycle just then—hadn’t gotten on it with that look in his eyes that I knew so well—that everything that followed would have remained a cruel but unexecuted glint in some devil’s eyes.

Even before the crash, the tricycle already bore signs of what was then called a healthy boy’s usage, to put it mildly, with scratches in the paint, bent handlebars, and a frayed seat. Bloodred, the bike was equipped with a small basket, which that morning held a Donald Duck comic with one of his favorite stories in it.

Maybe he heard a voice in his head taunting, You don’t have the guts to do it! Or maybe it really was Agnes who yelled the cruel challenge from her spot behind the neighbor’s hedge. As Teis later contended, “She wanted his Donald Duck comic, the one about the duck family’s trip to the Land before Time in search of square eggs from Peru.”

Teis was standing out on the road when it happened, and he heard a voice challenging Viggo—a girl’s voice. In all those years since, he’s still willing to swear to it.

A second later, when Viggo Larssen rode those few inches toward the edge of the high staircase’s top step, his decision was firmer than the cement beneath his wheels. He wouldn’t stop—he wouldn’t stop for anything in the world. This spite, mixed with a kind of defiance, often frightened other children. Viggo narrowed one eye and measured the distance to the flagstones at the foot of the stairs, while keeping the other eye closed—as if aiming down the barrel of a rifle. Then he pushed off with his small, naked legs in his shorts, and the cycle with the boy on it tipped forward and rattled down, down, down . . . and everyone closed their eyes . . . then opened them again, as children do, to see what happened after such a precipitous fall.

The Donald Duck comic, miraculously, was still lying in the basket, trapped in a crease of bent iron. Viggo had clearly struck his head, because he was lying motionless on the flagstones at the foot of the stairs, with both eyes open. If not for his tears, everyone would have thought he was dead. The mangled tricycle was upside down, one pedal bent crooked and the small white basket pushed halfway up toward the seat. It sat there at a grotesque angle, looking like a leg or a bone jerked loose from a human body.

Just then, she stepped out of the shadows. Agnes, the only girl he occasionally played with, had been standing a short distance from him, on the other side of the neighbor’s hedge.

As a child she was teased because her last name was Persen instead of Pedersen or Petersen, like everybody else. When she started at Søborg School, you would often hear the shouts in the schoolyard: “Little Persen! Little Persen! Little Persen!” It was mortifying to her.

Viggo Larssen was lying on his back, unmoving. He closed his eyes briefly, and when he opened them again, she was gone. As was his Donald Duck comic book.

The front door at the top of the steps flew open, and his grandmother and grandfather came rushing toward the half-conscious boy. There were red stains on the flagstones, and Viggo’s grandmother dabbed the back of his head with a wet washcloth. From far away, the ambulance siren could be heard with its ominous sound of death and terror. The families on the street stood bathed in its blinking blue light in the front yards of their low connected houses. They had never seen an ambulance in the neighborhood before then.

Later, after they came home from the hospital and put Viggo in bed (a chalk-white bandage wrapped around his head), the three adult members of his family sat in the living room and discussed the strange episode.

Clearly, no one had shoved their boy; his cycle must have rolled forward because he’d made a m