Lost in the Fog is a bestselling Nordic detective story from the Czech ace of crime fiction. Ann-Solveig lives in a remote Norwegian village, far beyond the Arctic Circle, with a man she fears. Instead of leaving him, she jumps from a cliff into the sea. A year later, her psychoanalytic therapist, Katrine, starts receiving threatening messages and soon after, another one of her patients dies. Czech detective, Josef Bergman, wanted to have a peaceful fishing vacation in Norway and contemplate his priorities in life, but instead becomes a key witness in this twisted case. He slowly realises that there is much more at play than just the private secrets of the residents in the seemingly idyllic village. Lost in the Fog is a hit with Czech readers and has already been reprinted twice.
She had already carried out the first task – going through Alex’s computer. On the days when he wasn’t working at the second-hand shop he didn’t go out much, but after lunch he’d usually snooze for an hour. She made good use of this. Although she could have done her investigating in peace on Tuesday when Alex was working, she couldn’t wait that long.
She had made up her mind to find out whether his novels and screenplays were really so full of cruelty. He hadn’t yet given her a complete one to read – occasionally he would show her an excerpt, but to be honest, she wasn’t interested in reading more than that. She had never been a big reader.
But now she wanted to find out more.
And it turned out just as she had feared: as she clicked through Alex’s files, more and more descriptions of violence appeared on the screen, going into such disgusting detail that she felt sick on several occasions. Those words, those ideas were formed in the head of her boyfriend? The man she was expecting a child with? She knew that Alex wrote crime fiction and thrillers, but she would never have thought of him capable of something like that.
Maybe it was some sort of therapy for him? Was he a sadist who had found a safety valve in writing? Perhaps it wasn’t even about getting these stories published or onto the TV. Perhaps the most important thing was the writing in itself – the ideas in themselves.
Bente closed all of the files but continued sitting at his desk, ingesting disgust, amazement and hopelessness. How was she to deal with it? Should she admit she had been snooping around in his computer? Ask him what was really going on? What had happened to Ann-Solveig? And what if one day he felt the urge and began to try out those sadistic scenes on her?
There was still the hope that Ann-Solveig had made the whole thing up to make herself look interesting, to get revenge on him for something, or to find a legitimate excuse for leaving him. And why should she believe Katrine Nordberg more than her own boyfriend?
He could be annoying, but he had never harmed her.
She was so caught up in her thoughts that she didn’t leave Alex’s study in time. When the stairs creaked on the first floor she only had time to stand up from the computer, but she had left it on so it was obvious she had been up to something.
She said she had wanted to look at the internet, but all it would take was for Alex to look at the history, which he was certain to do, to realize that she hadn’t been surfing online.
But why should it matter? If Alex started to get angry, she would just admit the truth…or rather some of the truth. She would say what she heard Katrine say. And that it frightened her. She would tell him everything, everything except the child.
And why didn’t she want to tell him about it? Because she had doubts about it?
A Czech policeman interrupted their argument and when he left Alex wordlessly locked himself in his study. Bente then waited for him to storm out and accuse her of reading his manuscripts, but nothing happened. Maybe he had found out but remained calm.
After an hour she figured that if he hadn’t made a scene by now then nothing would happen. He was writing and probably wouldn’t emerge from the study for hours. Any other time and she would have been annoyed, but now she was glad. She could continue what she had been planning.
She placed a bag of empty jam jars in front of the door to his study so that she could hear him come out. Then she began a systematic search of the house. She wanted to look at all of the places where Alex had his things – investigate his territory. First of all, she nosed around the cabinets in the corridor. Nothing of interest, just tools and old bits and bobs which Alex bought from his neighbours and occasionally took to the second-hand shop. Then she went down into the cellar, but all she found there were old jam jars, broken skis and various car parts. There was no point in checking the kitchen, living room or bedroom as she spent more time there than he did, so Alex wouldn’t hide anything there he didn’t want her to find. She would have a look through the study after their afternoon walk together through the village when Alex had a bath – he was able to laze about there for an hour with a book. Bente also decided to check out the loft – she had only ever been there once when Alex was showing her the house. She had never gone up there alone – what would she have done there?
In the loft there were only dirty old planks, offcuts from wooden boards and two wooden chests. She opened them. Inside she found lots of baby clothes and dusty toys – had all of this belonged to Agnes? Bente placed her hand on her stomach. Nothing will happen to you, she promised the child, I won’t let it… Which was precisely why she was there. Her throat tightened from all of the pink jumpsuits, quilted jackets and crocheted hats, but she forced herself to go through all of the things by hand to find out if there was anything else hiding amongst it all. She would have preferred to have hurried downstairs, as far away as possible from the memories of Alex’s child, but she took a hold of herself. While she was there, she felt behind the beams and looked into the dark corners.
There was nothing anywhere. She thought she heard a noise from the house. Her pulse quickened. She didn’t move and strained her ears to hear if there were any footsteps from below. If Alex caught her here, she could easily say to him that she was bored and so went up to the loft – there was nothing wrong in that after all. So why was she afraid? Why was her throat so tight, as though she was doing something extremely dangerous? She remained standing in the middle of the loft, breathing the stale, dusty air. The roof hadn’t been properly insulated so you could hear the sound of the sea and the birds from outside. Strips of sky were visible through the cracks between the tiles.
But there were no other sounds, so Bente also looked into a fishing satchel hanging from a nail; it only contained old fishing lines and bait, old and rotten, perhaps even Alex’s father’s.
As she was going down the stairs she wondered what she was actually looking for. Probably anything to support Katrine’s version. Anything suspicious. Any evidence that there was something wrong with Alex. But what exactly? Maybe magazines or books with sadistic themes, she replied to herself. Or photographs? Just anything Alex hadn’t told her about. A fragment from his other life, no matter what it was. Evidence that her partner was keeping a secret from her.
She had felt tense when rummaging through the contents of the old fishing satchel. And at that moment she realized what it was she was really looking for. There was no point in lying about it. She was looking for a fishing line. Unwound, tangled up in a ball and hid in a place where ordinary fishing lines do not belong. A murder weapon. Because if Alex had strangled that woman by the river, he certainly wouldn’t have wound the line back up into the spool and continued fishing. He could, of course, have thrown the line into the river or the sea…but he could also have brought it back home and hidden it properly. Once the police operation in the village had ended, he could get a boat and throw it far out into the open sea…
The hairs on her forearms stood up. For a while she had been seriously considering that her boyfriend was a murderer! What on earth was she thinking?
Was it so suspicious because he had lied to the police? They had come to question him because they had discovered that the murdered woman had been asking around the village about his ex. He had told them that at the time of the murder he had been in bed with his girlfriend – both of them had been sleeping. Bente had confirmed this without hesitation, even though it wasn’t true – she had actually been alone that night. As was the case on many evenings, Alex sat for a long time in his study and then slept on the sofa. But that in itself didn’t necessarily mean anything! He wanted to get the police off his back; when a murder is being investigated, any sensible person would prefer to have an alibi than bring attention to themselves. Why would Alex need to do away with a strange woman who had come round asking about his ex?
And what if it was because she had dug up an unpleasant truth? That Ann-Solveig hadn’t in fact jumped from the cliff, but that someone – someone – had pushed her? Alex said that when he returned from the south last year and didn’t find his wife at home, he had gone looking for her on the cliffs where she often went walking. But it was only his version of the story that at the top he saw her bumbag and the note Sorry. What if everything had been completely different?
Bente went to the kitchen, scratched two lottery cards – no winners – made herself a decaf coffee and carried the cup over to the window. How was it possible that a few sentences overheard behind an old boathouse could trigger such an avalanche of emotions? The fear inside her mingled with disbelief and doubts, but the strongest feeling of all was the determination to get to the bottom of it all.
Perhaps it was the child’s fault. Perhaps it was the moment when she discovered the two lines on the pregnancy test that transformed her into a fortress which was prepared to protect what was inside her. She couldn’t underestimate anything. She had to be certain. And at that moment she was feeling anything but. Although she and Alex had been living together under one roof for ten months, that didn’t mean she really knew him. Can anyone be one-hundred-percent certain that the person they are living with is not capable of murder?
Finally they had time for just the two of them to chat. At one o’clock, Hilda and Ellen hung a sign on the door of the tourist centre saying Lunch Break and spread out on a table plates with marinated salmon, olives and triangles of brown bread with different types of cheeses. They had returned home so late from the party last night that they had only had time to say goodnight outside Ellen’s house before going to bed. They had also been accompanied by the Czech fisherman so there was no way of having an intimate conversation. And Ellen had set off early in the morning to pay her husband a quick visit at their flat in Batsfjord – he wanted to show her some lovely things he had bought for the second-hand shop – and so Hilda had had breakfast alone.
Yesterday, Hilda hadn’t been in the mood for Katrine’s improvised birthday party, but in the end she had enjoyed herself, particularly when talking to Gérard. When they had first gone fishing with Pierre in Syltefjord, they were just other fishermen to her who were camping in front of the school. This year, though, they had been friendlier, perhaps because it was their second holiday spent there. Hilda found that she was looking forward to talking to Gérard again. He was…inspiring. She thought he was interesting. As a person, not as a man, she added quickly to herself, because what was the point in having a relationship with a man whose home was a thousand kilometres away? She had already turned down one such offer in Croatia and she knew fine well why she had done it. She belonged here. However, if the fishermen were going to be up in the evening drinking beer and wine, she’d be happy to join them…
Ellen was pouring out some of the good Croatian wine that Hilda had brought back across the border – somewhat more than was legal.
“We’re not going to talk about that murder, right?” she started off. “I slept badly. As if it’s not enough worrying about Katrine, now I’m starting to have concerns about Bente as well. That way of killing someone is…” She paused, realizing too late she was saying something inappropriate. “The whole thing just seems strange to me. Karl doesn’t want to believe that such a nightmarish thing happened here. We had always thought that all the bad things were happening far away and if you turned off the TV you knew nothing about it… Every time I crossed over the highlands I felt that I was leaving behind that dangerous world where you have to be careful…that nothing like that could happen in Syltefjord. I think that I’ve lost my illusions forever now. Why don’t you tell me about your holiday in Croatia, Hilda? Or from the journey… Tell me anything that has a happy ending.”
“I’m worried about Bente.” At that moment, Hilda didn’t want to talk about how she had still been swimming in the sea in December and eating supper in a garden under palm trees. My God, there had been a murder! How could she talk about the smell of grilled calamari and garlic? Ellen was a master at brushing things under the carpet, but if you don’t talk about dirt, that doesn’t mean it has disappeared. “Ellen, I need to tell you something. Yesterday it dawned on me why Katrine went to phone the police. That fishing line. Alex. And Ann-Solveig.”
Ellen moved her chair and sat down. She looked surprised. “You know about it?”
Hilda lowered her eyes. “I know it straight from Ann-Solveig.”
“From her? When did she tell you?” Katrine thought she was the only one in the village who Ann-Solveig confided in.
Ellen looked offended. “Why didn’t you tell me she confided in you? We talked about her so many times together…”
“You also knew and didn’t say anything,” Hilda reminded her. It occurred to her that this was perhaps the most difficult moment they had had in their friendship since childhood – you are used to talking to your friend about absolutely everything, but in adulthood there will inevitably come times when it is impossible.
“I had to promise Katrine to keep it to myself. A medical secret, you know? Sometimes I wonder how many doctors actually keep them. I mean, they must discuss their patients’ problems with their family…” Ellen shrugged her shoulders. “In any case, I couldn’t…”
“You see, and I promised Ann-Solveig as well. So there’s no reason to argue about it.”
“She would confide in you?” Ellen still had the offended tone in her voice.
“‘Would confide’….that sounds like it was often. I met her once on a walk. We went back together and within an hour had talked about our whole lives. She opened up to me…the way you might to a complete stranger who has nothing in common with you, someone you think won’t judge you. Everything came out which had been troubling her. I invited her to stop by some time for a coffee. She came twice or three times, but she was holding back again. Maybe she was ashamed for letting go like that…”
“I never saw her at your place.”
“We didn’t have Bente for help then. So when I could laze about in the trailer, you were probably here.”
They laughed. “That’s true.” Ellen poured some wine and became serious again. “So you know about the choking and those other things.”
“Yes, it’s been preying on my mind ever since Bente showed up here. She is defenceless beneath that grim façade, don’t you think? Such little birds. When we agreed to give her work I was relieved that we would could look out for her, at least a little… I would check to see if she had any bruises. If she looked unhappy. But everything seemed fine. And there were no outward signs from Ann-Solveig either…” Hilda lowered her gaze to her glass. She thought about how it was thanks to that confidential chat that she had connected with Ann-Solveig and how much it meant to her that they had become so close. She didn’t see her own daughter very often and felt little love from her side… She had often thought about getting a cat so she might have something to look after, but her parents wouldn’t have stood having an animal at home, and after they died she sold the house. And so she was alone again… Now she depended more and more on Bente, who was also alone and uprooted like Ann-Solveig. In Ann-Solveig’s case, though, she had never known her father and no longer had a mother, whereas Bente had cut herself off from her parents. She hadn’t seen them since she was eighteen. Hilda knew that Ellen was also drawn to their young helper. Fate had dealt them a similar hand. Having a grown-up child certainly didn’t mean having a soulmate, and it was neither here nor there whether they lived a thousand kilometres away or whether you saw them every day.
“We shouldn’t get mixed up in it,” said Ellen. “Bente will listen to reason.”
“Yeah, let’s leave it. We wanted to talk about something else anyway.”
Now, though, she couldn’t think of anything else. Their thoughts turned to what they had just gone over, and so they just sat silently across from each other, chewing at the cheese, salmon and olives.
“I’d like to celebrate the fact I’m alive,” said Ellen at last. “Yesterday, it was Katrine’s party, but I also want one of my own. To celebrate the fact that I woke up this morning. Because this sunshine…” she looked out of the window, “that woman from the river will never see it again.”
“I was also thinking about her this morning,” added Hilda. “Suddenly I was also pleased that I have this stupid trailer… It’s pretty pathetic, but it beats lying in a morgue.”
“Tomorrow I’ll invite a few people over for dinner.” Ellen was now in full planning mode. “Katrine, Nilse, maybe even Isaka now that he’s alone? But he probably won’t come. He’s never been up for these parties, has he? And the Frenchman too, why not? They hosted us yesterday, so we can return the favour… And our Czech guy? What do you think? Karl should be home by now. He’ll be pleased that something’s going on. What d’you reckon?”
Hilda smiled. Another evening with Gérard… How could she say no to that?
The sound of running water came from the bathroom; Alex normally ran a narrow stream of water into the bath as he had read somewhere that the murmur of water helped against anxiety. All the better – at least he wouldn’t hear what’s happening in the house, thought Bente as she went into his study. She didn’t have much time so she would have to act fast, but at the same time she couldn’t leave a mess behind her; everything had to look just as it was. She opened three drawers in the desk and looked through their contents; just a load of notebooks and printouts. The next time she was alone she could read through them. She gradually began taking books from the shelves, looking to see if there was anything behind them. She became startled when she noticed the marks left in the dust on the shelves. She hesitated then decided to wipe off the dust with the sleeve of her sweater. So she had tidied up for him – he was always complaining about the mess she made…
But there was nothing behind the books. Neither did she find anything under the carpet or under the cushions of the leather sofa which Alex had banned her from sitting on (“Do you know how much that cost? I don’t want you touching it with your greasy fingers”). She felt her behaviour was becoming more and more absurd. OK, she wanted to discover who the man really was whose child she was carrying. But was there really anything to discover? If Katrine’s words had provoked so many doubts within her, wasn’t that probably because, deep down, she already didn’t trust him, but why? Were there any signs to show there was something wrong with him? Did he unnerve her in some way?
She regretted the fact she didn’t have anyone to talk to, to ask for an unbiased opinion. She only had Hilda and Ellen… Yes, she had Hilda and Ellen! The thought comforted her somewhat.
She had already gone through everything in the study apart from a hanger on the door where a woolly cardigan hung limply along with two flat satchels with long straps. She took a cursory glance inside even though no right-thinking person would hide something in an open satchel on a hanger. Naturally they were empty. But when she brushed against the torn lining of one of them, something occurred to her. That fishing satchel in the loft…
When she had gone through it, she had focused on the colourful tangle of lines, sinkers, floats and bait. But there had been something else. The torn lining. Maybe even slightly bulging…or was she just imagining that?
Silently she went back up to the loft. She opened the satchel and slid her hand under the lining. With her first touch she felt against her fingertips a handful of banknotes. She pulled them out.
They were different values and at first glance represented a tidy sum. She counted them. Four-hundred-thousand Norwegian crowns. Why had Alex hidden them there? Why did he let her live under the impression that her income was so important for them when he had so much money there? Maybe he didn’t know about it? Maybe it was Ann-Solveig’s?
Or perhaps it was completely different. Perhaps Alex knew about it, but for some reason didn’t want her to know about it. Maybe it was thanks to that money that he could afford to work in the second-hand shop just two days a week and the rest of the time tap away at the computer. And buy expensive things…
She headed towards the stairs with the stack of banknotes. But after a few steps she stopped. Something told her she shouldn’t ask him about the money.