How can you hide your affair when your lover's been murdered? From the author of The Therapist, a gripping story of secrets, lies, extramarital affairs and murder.
"A wonderful storyteller" Chris Whitaker
Is it worse to lie to your husband or the police?
Rikke is deceiving them both. When their upstairs neighbour Jørgen is found dead, she's questioned alongside her husband Åsmund.
How can Rikke admit in front of Åsmund that Jørgen and she were having an affair? Or explain to the police the complexity of her feelings for Jørgen? The hint of relief that he's dead. And, as the investigation closes in on the neighbourhood, how long can she conceal the affair from her neighbours, her husband and her teenage daughter?
Rikke knows she can't hide the phone calls, emails and messages from the police. So she cuts herself a deal. In return for a few days' grace to tell Åsmund before anyone else does, she'll share everything about the affair.
But before she can summon the courage to confess, Rikke is struck by a chilling revelation. Jørgen can only have been killed by someone living in their small apartment building.
Praise for The Therapist
"Creepy, compelling and very well written" Harriet Tyce
"Wonderfully creepy, twisty and compelling" Karen Hamilton
"Masterfully paced and hauntingly written" Anna Bailey
"Gets under your skin" Jo Spain
"I couldn't put it down" Sarah Ward
"A marvellously assured debut thriller" Irish Times.
"A striking debut" Spectator
Translated from the Norwegian by Alison McCullough
Release date: June 23, 2022
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Print pages: 320
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But I remember the first time I saw him. It must have been the beginning of July, the year we moved in. I’m able to date this so precisely because it was just a few days after Åsmund and I got the keys to the new apartment, a warm summer evening when we were sitting around at home back in our old flat, and I just couldn’t help myself. Simply had to get up and go see the new place, where our new lives would soon begin.
They were sitting out on the patio in the garden when I arrived. You know how the path to the entrance goes straight past it? I looked over at them as I walked by, ready to greet them, but they were eating and paid me no attention. They were five in total, obviously good friends. I came alone, heavily pregnant, huge, and I’d been walking quickly, so I was dripping with sweat. And I didn’t know them. I let myself into the building.
Inside, the apartment was empty. The previous owners had taken all their belongings with them, but their smell still hung in the air. It didn’t smell of us there, you know? When we closed on the apartment it felt as if we had bought our way into a certain lifestyle. Or into a certain social segment. As if we were now just that tiny bit finer than we had been, simply because we owned this place – at this address. But now that it was no longer tastefully furnished, now that my steps echoed between empty walls punctured with holes left by nails, I felt unsure. I can’t explain it any other way than this: I felt as if I was playing dress-up in shoes that were far too big for me.
In the kitchen I went over to the window and looked out at the patio and the people sitting out there, though I didn’t open it, despite the heat. I don’t know. Perhaps I didn’t want to intrude. It looked as if they had just finished eating; a few wine bottles on the table. They were chatting, and I could hear their voices through the closed windows – not what they said, but their tone. They were discussing something or other, fairly intensely, or so it seemed, but the mood was good. Occasionally they broke out into laughter, all five of them. Three men and two women. One of the men I recognised – he was a film-maker who had made a controversial documentary a few years back, about what I couldn’t remember. Refugee policy or integration, something like that. Quite a bit was written about it in the papers. There was something about one of the women, too – I had the feeling I’d seen her on TV. At one of the table’s long sides sat a man and a woman who were obviously a couple. His arm was slung along the back of her chair, and on one of the occasions when everybody laughed she turned towards him, smiling, and wiped something from his cheek. A little later he moved his arm, setting his hand on her lower back as she was leaning across the table to say something. Her hair was long, a deep shade of red, gathered into a thick, elaborate braid that travelled the length of her spine; when she bent forward to speak, it slid off to one side. Her husband – the man sitting next to her – gently put it back. She turned to face him, aware that he had touched her, and continued to speak as she smiled at him. Perhaps she was telling the others about something they had experienced together.
He was sitting with his back to me in a way that made it difficult to see his face, but when he turned in a certain direction, I could see it. He was good-looking, with curly hair that had started to grey. He had prominent cheekbones and a big, charming smile that he clearly used often. I guessed that he was probably in his mid-forties, approaching fifty, perhaps.
That was Jørgen. That was the first time I saw him.
Since they didn’t appear to have noticed me, I just stood there and watched them, these five friends discussing important matters around a dinner table, one summer evening in a garden in Kastanjesvingen.
Then the woman with the braid got up. She took an empty serving platter from the table and made her way over to the paved path that leads to the front door. Halfway down the path she caught sight of me – and no wonder, really. I was standing right in front of the window. Not even trying to hide the fact that I was watching; I was so captivated by them that it hadn’t even occurred to me that I ought to move. She stopped, looking at me. I raised my hand and waved.
She just stood there. She didn’t wave back, and nor did she smile at me – though she didn’t look put out, either. She seemed almost neutral, standing stock-still and considering me. It lasted only a moment, and then she walked on. From where I was standing, I heard her open the front door to the stairwell. I hurried away from the window, fretting at having been caught staring so openly. Felt it deep in my stomach – that I had acted inappropriately, and so felt ashamed.
The trees around me are deciduous, with huge crowns and strong branches. Nothing like the spruce forest that bordered the house where I grew up, and yet I know, in the way dreamers do, that I’m in the forest of my childhood. I know it well, understand how easy it is to disappear in it. You stick to the well-worn paths. But then you take a detour, following the sound of a deer or a glimpse of a lush blueberry patch a little off the trail, and when you turn back, everything has changed. Trees in all directions, dark and silent, layer upon layer. None of them look like the trees I know.
In the dream, I’m searching for someone. At first, I don’t know who it is I’m looking for, but then I realise – it’s my children. Lukas, I shout, breaking into a run. Emma! Before me, the forest opens out into a clearing. It isn’t large, maybe five metres across, but the sun slips between the leaves and it’s light and warm, fresh grass covering the ground. I stop. It’s beautiful here, but my throat tightens. Without me fully understanding why, I am certain that something terrible has happened.
Out in the living room the air is still filled with the morning cold. I quietly close the bedroom door behind me, not wanting to wake the others. The room is unfamiliar in the flat dawn light. Perhaps the nightmare has yet to release its grip on my body, because the furniture seems huge and severe; the bookcase looks closed and secretive, and the coffee table is uncharacteristically tidy. My bare feet soak up the chill from the parquet. In the hallway I find my slippers, stuff my feet into them and go out into the kitchen.
It’s surprisingly tidy in here, too. Åsmund and I shared a bottle of wine last night while we watched a film, a fairly mediocre one, although perhaps it got going eventually – I was tired and went to bed halfway through. Åsmund must have tidied up. The red symbol on the dishwasher tells me that it’s finished its cycle, so for once he must have remembered to put it on before he came to bed.
I lean against the kitchen counter. This room is the major selling point of our apartment. This was where they took the photograph that filled the front cover of the brochure we were given when we attended the viewing. The kitchen is large and light-filled, and while the rest of our windows face either the overgrown hillside behind the house or the apartment complex next door, those in the kitchen look out on the garden. In order to make full use of the light, the architect who designed the house at some point in the 1950s made this wall a single long row of windows. We’ve positioned the kitchen table in front of them, and when we sit there, we can see the small garden in its entirety – the patio with its garden furniture, the barren apple tree, the stand for the mailboxes and the white wooden fence. Beyond it is Kastanjesvingen, a little cul-de-sac that ends in a turning circle forty metres or so past our gate. On the other side of the road are detached houses – some of them from the same period as this one, which has been split into four apartments, and some of them newer. Behind them is the hill known as Bakkehaugen, which separates us from the city centre, and although I can’t see it from the kitchen window, I get a warm glow just from knowing that it’s there, behind the hill. That this is where we live, in this quiet cul-de-sac, but with the city so close we can almost touch it.
I take a seat at the table. Sit quiet as a mouse, listening. Is he awake up there? Is he moving around, can I hear him? But no, it’s too early, I know that. I’m probably the only person awake in the entire building. Still, it isn’t completely silent. The soundproofing isn’t good enough – you can hear even the lightest of breezes, the chestnut tree whipping its branches against the living-room window, the creaking of joists and timber whenever a neighbour moves.
Still sleepy, I stretch my body. I slept so heavily last night – I didn’t even hear Lukas when he came into our room. Waking blind and afraid from my nightmare, I flicked open my eyes and saw his dishevelled head, his little hand beside mine. Tiny fingers with dirt under the nails; a green plaster around an invisible wound on his index finger. I felt so relieved, surfacing from the dream – he was there, everything was fine. I brushed his fringe aside. When had he come in?
Across the street, I see Hoffmo emerge from his brown-painted house. He stands on his front step and looks around, like a petty king surveying his kingdom. Then he sets his hands on either side of his big stomach and stretches, rolling his hips first one way and then the other, his belly quivering in front of him. He’ll be heading out for a run, because that’s what he’s like – over seventy and still running twice a week, whatever the weather. His blue tracksuit with its white stripe down each leg is a relic of the seventies and makes his silhouette even more comical, but there’s something about Hoffmo – a kind of natural authority – that stops people laughing at him. The two of us get along well.
“Done any running lately?” he tends to shout over his fence whenever he sees me. “Exercise is good for the brain, you know, Prytz. Healthy body, healthy mind.”
We address each other by our surnames – it’s a kind of joke. I watch as he bends forward and touches the ground. He’s not doing too badly on the flexibility front, I think, for a man of his age and his size. He straightens up, stretches, ready to run. I lift a hand and wave to him from my window, but he doesn’t see me.
I can hear him even before he reaches the kitchen, his tiny, quick feet slapping against the floor. Lukas grabs hold of me and clambers up into my lap, leaning his head against my shoulder and closing his eyes. He could easily fall asleep there, I know – he can sleep anywhere. Part of me would like that, to just sit here in peace and quiet with a sleeping child on my lap.
“Lukas,” I say. “Did you come into our bedroom all by yourself last night?”
He opens his eyes, looks up at me.
“Yes,” he says, but hesitantly – like it’s a question: Yes? Did I?
“I didn’t hear you,” I say.
This he doesn’t deign to answer. He sets his head back against my shoulder and closes his eyes. I breathe deeply, listening for signs of life in the apartment above. Lukas opens his eyes again.
“Mamma,” he says. “Can we find my big tyrannosaurus?”
I stand up to see Hoffmo jogging down his drive with short, light steps. As he reaches his gate and opens it, he catches sight of me, raises a hand and waves. I lift my own to give him a kind of military salute for his efforts and see him chuckle, his laughter rumbling through his big body.
After breakfast we dress and get ourselves ready for the day, which is going to be a hectic one. The plans were made long ago – all we have to do is follow them. This is the way every weekend will be now, right up until December. Sometimes I feel like we’re rats on a wheel, we hurry from one appointment to the next in an uphill struggle that never ends. A few years ago I dreamed of renting out the apartment, taking all our savings and buying four plane tickets to Vietnam. Settling there and running a little hotel on the beach. Living life in the now and having time for each other, for the kids. Watching the days come and go – not racing to beat the clock, to make it to activities on time, to get everything done before diving into bed and recharging our batteries so we can do it all over again the next day, but able to really check in with ourselves. To live authentically, in touch with nature. I no longer think this way. On the beach in Vietnam we’d have other problems. We’d worry about whether our hotel was bringing in enough money; the guests would be dissatisfied with this, that and the other; there would be floods or drought; the plumbing would be old and the cost of replacing it too great, and so on.
Åsmund digs out a T-shirt from the pile in the corner. I make the bed as I tell him about my dream. I no longer remember the details – I was looking for something, I was afraid. I must have been dead to the world, I say, because when Lukas came and got into bed with us, I didn’t even wake up.
“We ought to start weaning him off that,” Åsmund says, fastening the strap of his watch around his wrist. “He’s old enough to sleep alone.”
“He’s only four,” I say.
“Emma slept all the way through in her own bed when she was four,” Åsmund continues. “And all the sleeping during the day, Rikke – he needs to stop that. He’s too big to need a mid-morning nap.”
“Yeah, well,” I say, not wanting to discuss it any further.
Lukas is my miracle baby – he was born almost two months premature. We were moving into this apartment when he arrived; I was in the process of unpacking cups and plates from boxes when the biting pain in my belly and back took hold. Åsmund was off somewhere picking up new furniture, Emma was with her grandmother, and I stood there before the empty kitchen cabinets, thinking: Have I overdone it with all the lifting and carrying? Have I overexerted myself? Maybe I should sit down for a minute?
When I finally left for the hospital, it was almost too late. I called Åsmund as I waited for the taxi; he jumped straight in the car and only just made it. The baby was taken from me the moment he was born – he had to be tested, measured, weighed, time was of the essence, and some information must have been lost in all the urgency, or perhaps I was so groggy after the birth that I didn’t quite catch it, because I wasn’t sure if everything was alright – was he alive, or not? They disappeared with him, and I turned to Åsmund and said:
“Are we parents again?”
Åsmund was crying – it’s how he is, he can’t help it, the tears just leak out of him at weddings and christenings. Then a doctor came in, her brow wrinkled and her lips pursed. I saw all this and thought: The baby is dead. Felt the terror first as a punch to the gut before it spread to my arms and legs, possessing my body. The doctor wasn’t aware of this, and nor was Åsmund, but in the seconds it took for her to tell us that everything looked fine – the baby was small but strong, there would be a lot of tests and we might require follow-ups at the hospital going forward, but there was every reason to believe that everything was going to be okay – in those seconds I was certain that I’d lost him. It was a reality for me. And when I realised that I hadn’t lost him after all, or in all likelihood hadn’t lost him, at least, the relief was so great that all the rest of it – the risk of asthma and ADHD and problematic lung infections – was immaterial to me. I’ve returned to that moment again and again. I still do. My miracle baby. In some true sense, he’s a bonus. I really did lose him. But I got him back.
“Okay, I’m ready,” Åsmund says.
He’s wearing a Lycra cycling suit, which is black with fluorescent yellow go-faster stripes. While I take Emma to her school play rehearsal and then go for coffee with my sister, he’s going to take Lukas and ride out to Bærum to visit a friend. On the e-bike, of course, but he’s dressed as if for a training session. He’s gained a bit of weight in recent years. There’s nothing unusual about it, it’s just how it is. His friends have put on weight, too. Something happened in their mid-thirties. It left physical traces.
“What is it?” he asks.
“You’re looking at me?”
“The Lycra,” I say.
“Oh, that,” he says. “Too tight? Is it embarrassing?”
“No, no. Very professional.”
He winks at me.
“Tour de Tåsen, baby,” he says, and goes out into the living room.
I can hear him out there, lifting Lukas into the air and roaring. Lukas laughs. My conscience stabs me in the gut, sharp and painful. There he goes – the father of my children. The man I have promised to love and honour. I quickly finish making the bed, then pick up the dirty clothes from the floor. Up in Jørgen’s place, it’s still completely silent.
“But at any rate,” Lea’s mother says to Saga’s mum, “it’s incredibly unpleasant, the whole thing.”
“Ugh,” Saga’s mother says with a frown.
I’m standing with my back against a pillar beside the fabric-covered gymnastics ladder, listening to them as I consider the stage. It’s empty, for the moment. The actors – if they can be called that – are shuffling between the front row of seats and the back room, where two mothers from the costume group are taking their measurements. I was back there just now, hoping to talk to Emma, but she was standing with a group of friends and didn’t want to acknowledge me. One of the girls was being measured, and one of the costume mothers, armed with a measuring tape and safety pins, had said to her, now let’s see, what size do you take? The girl had turned red and mumbled something in a low voice; Emma and the two other friends had laughed. I had looked over at my daughter. She’s tall and slim, without so much as a hint of womanly curves – the way they are, these kids – but the friend having her measurements taken has already filled out a little at the chest and hips. With nothing else to do back there, I returned to the hall.
The mothers I can overhear are from the school activities group. I haven’t really got to know them yet. Saga is one of Emma’s new friends, and her mother is a journalist for one of the big newspapers, I see her photograph next to articles from time to time. Not so long ago she wrote a somewhat personal piece about body image pressure, and how quickly girls grow up these days. Lea’s mother is a stay-at-home mum – apparently by choice, because she has a master’s degree from a prestigious university in the UK. When school started in August, she and her husband invited all the girls in the year over to their house. They live in a villa, high up the hillside in Tåsen. I went there to collect Emma and tried not to be impressed by the huge house, the neatly cultivated front garden.
“From what I’ve heard, the poor cat was almost turned inside out,” she says, this housewife with the master’s degree. “Its innards were spread all over, and the rest of it – the skin and bones, from what I gather – were strung up on the wrought-iron fence.”
“Just awful,” the other mother says.
“The boy who found it was only young, poor thing. Just ten or eleven, I think. And the poor twin girls who owned the cat – well, apparently they’re devastated. They’re in the same class as my youngest – their mother said she had to keep them home from school for a couple of days. You know how they are, they get so attached to pets at that age, and it’s one thing if they disappear or die of natural causes, but when they’re killed like that . . .”
“Poor kids,” says Saga’s mum.
I lean my head back against the pillar. I will not be dragged into this. I will just let it lie.
By now the young actors have arranged themselves onstage, ready to begin. Emma and her friends are standing in a cluster on the right, and on the sofa at centre stage sits the ninth grader playing Mack the Knife, along with a couple of other boys in leading roles. The director is speaking to them from the front row, explaining how he wants them to approach the scene. The girls aren’t paying attention. Emma says something, but I’m standing too far away to hear what. The four friends around her laugh in unison. There’s something affected about it, I think. As if they’re laughing on cue, without thinking about whether what they’ve just heard is funny or not.
“And you know,” the housewife says, “it isn’t the first time it’s happened, either.”
“No, exactly,” says Saga’s mother. “There were the incidents this spring, too.”
“Yes!” the housewife says. “First they found one in Godalsparken, and then in a garden in lower Tåsen. He hung it from a tree, you know – with a noose and everything, as if from a gallows. Luckily, it was an adult who found it.”
“Well, that’s the worst thing about all this, isn’t it?” Saga’s mother agrees. “How it’s affecting the children.”
“Of course – they might be traumatised,” the housewife says.
They’re quiet for a moment. As if savouring the seriousness of the situation, allowing the unease to build up.
Down in the front row the director has finished speaking with the boys. He doesn’t go over to the girls, just shouts at them: “Remember to stay present, okay?” He’s a fairly young man, tall and thin, with thick, dark-brown hair and the kind of horn-rimmed glasses men in their twenties wear when they want to let everyone know how creative they are. Apparently, the school employed him just before the summer. He introduced himself at the parents’ meeting in August – his name is Gard. He’s a recent graduate, and he wants to work with young people because he believes that it’s precisely at this point in life that one is most open to impulses and ideas. He wants to introduce his students to world literature. Their first play would be The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht – nobody could accuse him of not aiming high enough. Drama is just an optional subject, but Gard argued his case well and managed to borrow a few hours’ rehearsal time from the German, Norwegian and music teachers. This arrangement brought about a surge in recruits, and Emma, who had never shown much interest in the theatre, applied for a part when she realised she would get to spend her time standing around onstage instead of conjugating German verbs.
“Are we ready?” Gard shouts, running a hand through his thick fringe. “Yes – this is where the music will come in, but since Merete isn’t here today, we’ll have to do it without. I’ll just mark it – one, two and ta-ram-tam-tam-tam.”
He has an impressively deep voice for someone with such an ungainly appearance. Still, his humming is no replacement for Merete’s deep, suggestive piano chords, which usually attend the scene. The housewife appears to agree:
“Is Merete not here?”
“She’s taken Filippa on a camping trip, apparently,” Saga’s mother says. “And you know, Jørgen isn’t very interested in the theatre.”
“A camping trip?” says the housewife, raising an eyebrow. “When there’s a rehearsal?”
Don’t the rest of us also have things we’d rather be doing on a Saturday, that eyebrow says. Do we really want to be standing here in this sports hall that still smells of sweat, even now that the stage curtains have been hung along the walls? Don’t we have cabins that need to be closed for the summer or opened for the winter, don’t we have gardens to tend to, houses to maintain, skis that need to be prepped well before the season begins?
I say nothing. Emma is going back to Saga’s house after the rehearsal because I’m going to grab a coffee with my sister. I’m about to sneak out in an hour. I really am no better than that.
In the front row sits Nina Sparre, the deputy head teacher and our neighbour across the hall. I can see her small head with its close-cropped hair nodding quickly up and down, as if her neck were a coiled spring. What is she doing here, I wonder – why is she spending her Saturdays attending these rehearsals? Presumably she’s here on behalf of the school administration. She stretches her skinny bird’s neck, and even though I can only see the back of her head, I can imagine how she’s scrutinising her surroundings with eyes that dart from one person to the next, as if she prides herself on ensuring no detail evades her.
“Ugh, I just can’t stop thinking about those cats,” Saga’s mother says. Then she turns to address me: “Wasn’t one of them found down by your place, Rikke?”
“No,” I say quickly. “No, it was in Hauges vei. Quite far down, too.”
She nods. The stay-at-home mum gives me a sceptical look. In my opinion the neighbourhood has taken these incidents – the cats that have been found killed – far too seriously. Of course it sends a shiver down your spine, and I understand that it affects people, but this collective panic is way out of proportion. All this casual throwing around of big words like evil, traumatising, criminal activity. The police have even been called.
“You know,” says the housewife, “it could happen anywhere in Tåsen. Once this kind of psycho gets going, nobody in the neighbourhood is safe.”
Both their faces are deeply creased with concern.
“I mean, who knows what goes on in the head of a person who would do something like that?” Saga’s mother whispers.
I can no longer bite my tongue.
“But isn’t all the speculation getting a bit out of hand, too?” I ask.
They look at me.
“Of course, people are afraid when something like this happens in the local community,” I say. “But then, in some ways it ends up being depicted as worse than it really is.”
“That animal was tortured,” the housewife says, a touch defensively. “And no cat falls onto a wrought-iron fence like that – the police said so themselves.”
“I’m sure it looked terrible,” I say. “But this talk of – what did you call it? – this evil at the root of it all, is a bit much, don’t you think? I wouldn’t be surprised if it was just some kids who found a dead cat and decided to have a bit of fun.”
This last part I try to say cheerfully, as if to lift the mood, but I can hear that I’m way off the mark. I’m being too brusque, too pompous, writing off what they have to say and discrediting their fears. I’m right, of course – or at least, I think I am. But I don’t express myself in the right way – make a mess of it. They consider me. This will be remembered. I take a breath, wanting to say more, but before I get that far a dad in worn jeans appears, a glue gun stuffed into his belt.
“The pizzas are here,” he says.
The housewife slings her handbag over her shoulder and follows him out. Her gym leggings seem sprayed on to her body; she’s nothing but skin and bone.
It turns out my sister can’t meet up after all. I lean my back against the pillar as I read her text message. Something important has come up, she has to sort it out. Beside me stands Saga’s mother, immersed in the contents of her own phone. We’ve agreed that Emma will go home with Saga after the rehearsal. Åsmund and Lukas won’t be back for several hours. I’ll have the apartment to myself.
And Jørgen will be alone upstairs. He messaged me yesterday morning to tell me that Merete and Filippa will be gone until Sunday and that he’ll be home all weekend, writing. There was a hint of an invitation in his words, but I ignored it. Good luck with the writing, was all I wrote in reply. Left it at that.
Up onstage, Peachum pulls the proverbial strings and gets Mack the Knife arrested. The director has already lectured the kids on the moral aspects of the play, I’ve heard him at several rehearsals: Mack the Knife commits terrible misdeeds without the others so much as batting an eye, but when he seduces Peachum’s daughter Polly – which is perfectly legal – Peachum declares that Mack the Knife must die. Can we understand Peachum’s indignation, with Mack the Knife being the person he is, the director asked rhetorically – or does he become the play’s villain when he snitches on Mack the Knife, in effect sentencing him to death? So far the young actors haven’t had very much to say about this – they’re more concerned with the costumes and who’s going to snog who onstage.
The girls have stepped down to sit in the audience. Emma fixes her hair with quick, practised hand movements – there’s something grown-up about this gesture, I think, something feminine. Her hair is blonde, like mine. People often tell us that we look alike. I see her cast a glance over her shoulder. Maybe she’s looking for me, because her gaze slides across the pillar I’m standing against and meets mine. I smile at her. Something moves in her face, the slightest admission that she has seen me. Then she turns back around, and all I can see is her neck, taut and strong, her blonde hair wound into a knot above it.
“I’m not a criminal,” says Peachum from the stage, affecting a high-pi
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