Flora Hansen calls herself a medium and makes a living by pretending to commune with the dead. But after a gruesome murder at a rural home for wayward girls, Hansen begins to suffer visions that are all too real. She calls the police, claiming to have seen a ghost, but only one detective puts aside his skepticism long enough to listen: Joona Linna. Linna has spent more time at the scene of the crime than any other detective would. The case seems obvious on the face of it: One of the girls at the home escaped in the middle of the night, leaving behind a bloody bed with a hammer under the pillow. But why does Hansen insist that the murder instrument was a stone, not a hammer? And what’s the story behind the dark red grain of sand, almost like a splinter from a ruby, stuck beneath the dead girl’s fingernail? As Linna refuses to accept easy answers, his search leads him into darker, more violent territory, and finally to a shocking confrontation with a figure from his past.
Elisabet Grim is fifty-three years old. Her hair is streaked with gray, but her eyes are bright and happy, and when she smiles, one of her front teeth juts out impishly.
She is a nurse at Birgittagården, a state-approved home for especially troubled girls north of Sundsvall. It’s a small, privately owned residence. Rarely are there more than eight girls there at a time. They range from twelve to seventeen in age. Many are drug addicts when they arrive. Almost all have a history of self-injury—eating disorders, for instance. Some can be violent. For these girls, there is no alternative to Birgittagården, with its alarms and double-locked doors. The next step would be prison or forced confinement in a psychiatric unit. This home, by comparison, is a hopeful place, with the expectation that the girls can make it back someday to open care.
As Elisabet often says, “It’s the nice girls who end up here.”
Right now, Elisabet is savoring the last bite of a bittersweet bar of chocolate. She can feel her shoulders begin to relax.
The day started well but the evening was hard. There were classes in the morning, and in the afternoon, the girls spent time at the lake. After the evening meal, the housemother went home, leaving Elisabet in charge on her own. The night staff was recently let go when the company changed hands. Elisabet had sat in the nurse’s office, catching up with reports, while the girls watched television, which they were allowed to do until ten.
And then she’d heard the yelling. It was loud, very loud. She’d hurried to the television room, where Miranda was beating up tiny Tuula. Miranda was screaming that Tuula was a slut and a whore. She’d yanked the little girl off the sofa and was kicking her in the back.
It was not unusual for Miranda to explode violently. Elisabet was used to her outbursts. She pulled her away from Tuula, and Miranda slapped Elisabet in the face. Elisabet was used to that, too. Without further discussion she led Miranda down the hall to the isolation room. Elisabet wished Miranda a good night, but Miranda didn’t answer. She just sat on the bed and studied the floor with a secretive smile as the nurse shut and locked the door behind her.
Elisabet was scheduled to have a private talk with the new girl, Vicky Bennet, but after the conflict, she found she was exhausted and couldn’t face it. When Vicky came by and timidly mentioned that it was her turn for a chat, Elisabet put her off. This made Vicky so unhappy, she broke a teacup and slashed her stomach and wrists with the sharpest piece.
When Elisabet checked on her a while later, Vicky was sitting in her room with her hands in front of her face and blood running down her arms.
The wounds were superficial. Elisabet washed the blood off, wrapped gauze around the girl’s wrists, and put a Band-Aid on her stomach. And Elisabet comforted her, soothing her with sweet names, telling her not to worry, coaxing her until a tiny smile crossed the troubled girl’s face. For the third night in a row, Elisabet gave the girl ten milligrams of Sonata so she could sleep.
LARS KEPLER is the pseudonym for a literary couple who live in Sweden. Their novels, including The Nightmare and The Hypnotist, have been number-one bestsellers in more than a dozen countries, including Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, and Spain. They live in Stockholm.