Read The Ice Princess Online

Authors: Camilla Läckberg

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Crime, #Thrillers

The Ice Princess (10 page)

BOOK: The Ice Princess
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Like so many times recently, her thoughts turned to Alex. Why had she driven to Fjällbacka every weekend? Who was she meeting there? And the ten-thousand-krona question: who was the father of the child she was expecting?

All at once, Erica remembered the piece of paper she had stuffed into her jacket pocket as she stood in the dark in the wardrobe. She didn’t understand how she could have forgotten about it when she got home the day before yesterday. She felt in her right-hand pocket and pulled out a wrinkled sheet of paper. With fingers that had grown stiff without mittens, she carefully unfolded the paper and smoothed it out.

It was a copy of an article from
Bohusläningen
. There was no date, but based on the typeface and a black-and-white picture, she could see that it wasn’t recent. Judging from the photo, it dated from the seventies. She easily recognized both people in the picture and the story recounted in the article. Why had Alex saved this article at the bottom of a bureau drawer?

Erica stood up and put the article back in her pocket. There was no answer to be found here. It was time to go home.

 

The funeral was tasteful and reverential. Fjällbacka Church was far from full. Most people hadn’t known Alexandra but were there merely to satisfy their curiosity. Family and friends sat in the front pews. Besides Alex’s parents and Henrik, Erica recognized only Francine. She had a tall blond man next to her in the pew, who Erica assumed was her husband. Otherwise, there weren’t many friends. They filled only two rows of pews, confirming Erica’s image of Alex. She had certainly had numerous acquaintances, but few close friends. There were only a few curiosity-seekers scattered here and there in the rest of the church.

Erica had taken a seat up in the balcony. Birgit had caught sight of her outside the church and invited her to sit with them. She had politely declined. It would have felt hypocritical to sit there amongst family and friends. Alex was actually a stranger to her.

Erica squirmed on the uncomfortable pew. All through their childhood she and Anna had been dragged to church on Sundays. For a child, it had been terribly boring to sit through long sermons and hymns whose melodies were hopelessly difficult to learn. To amuse herself Erica had made up stories in her head. Numerous sagas about dragons and princesses had been composed here without ever being committed to paper. In Erica’s teenage years, her church attendance was much less frequent because of her vehement protests. When she did go along, the sagas were replaced by stories with a more romantic theme. Ironically enough, she actually had this forced church attendance to thank, or blame, for her choice of profession.

Erica still hadn’t embraced any type of religion; for her a church was a beautiful building steeped in traditions, nothing more. The sermons of her childhood had prompted no desire to accept a faith. They often dealt with hell and sin; they lacked the bright belief in God that she knew existed but had never personally experienced. Much had changed. Now a woman stood before the altar, dressed in a pastor’s robes, and instead of eternal damnation she spoke of light, hope and love. Erica wished that this view of God had been offered to her when she was growing up.

From her hidden place in the balcony, she saw a young woman sitting next to Birgit in the first pew. Birgit was holding the woman’s hand in a convulsive grip, and occasionally she leaned her head on her shoulder. Erica thought she recognized her. The young woman must be Julia, Alex’s little sister. She was too far away for Erica to see her face, but she noticed that Julia seemed to flinch at Birgit’s touch. Julia withdrew her hand each time Birgit took it, but her mother either pretended not to notice or was truly unaware of her daughter’s reaction, due to the state she was in.

Sunshine flowed in through the high stained-glass windows. The pews were hard and uncomfortable, and Erica felt the beginning of a dull ache in her lower back. She was grateful that the ceremony was relatively short. When it was over she sat there and looked down on the people slowly wandering out of the church.

Outdoors the sun was almost unbearably bright in a cloudless sky. A procession of people walked down the little hill to the churchyard and the newly-dug grave where Alex’s coffin would be buried.

Until her parents’ funeral, she had never thought about how burials were done in the winter, when the ground was frozen. Now she knew that an area was heated so that the ground could be dug up. An area just big enough to hold all the coffins that were to be interred.

On the way to the site that had been selected for Alex’s grave, Erica passed her parents’ grave. She was last in the procession and stopped for a moment by the headstone. A thick strip of snow lay on the edge and she carefully swept it off. With one last look at the grave she hurried towards the small group that was gathered a bit farther on. At least the rubber neckers had stayed away from the burial ceremony; now only family and friends were left. Erica had felt unsure of whether she should come along, but at the last moment she decided that she wanted to follow Alex to her final resting place.

Henrik stood in front with his hands stuck deep in his coat pockets, head bowed and eyes fixed on the coffin that was slowly covered with flowers. Mostly red roses.

Erica wondered if he too was looking around and thinking that the child’s father might be among the group gathered at the grave.

When the coffin was lowered into the ground Birgit let out a long, drawn-out sigh. Karl-Erik was resolute and dry-eyed. It took all his strength to hold Birgit upright, both physically and emotionally. Julia stood a bit away from them. Henrik had been right in his description of Julia as the family’s ugly duckling. Unlike her big sister, she was dark-haired with short tresses clumsily cut in what could hardly be called a hairstyle. Her features were coarse, with deeply set eyes peering out from beneath a fringe that was much too long. She wore no make-up, and her skin showed clear signs of severe acne during her teens. Birgit looked even smaller and more fragile than usual standing next to Julia. Her youngest daughter was more than four inches taller, with a broad, heavy, shapeless body. Fascinated, Erica watched the series of conflicting emotions that raced like whirlwinds across Julia’s face. Pain and rage alternated at lightning speed. No tears. She was the only one who hadn’t placed a flower on the casket, and when the ceremony was over she quickly turned her back on the hole in the ground and headed back towards the church.

Erica wondered how relations had been between the sisters. It couldn’t have been easy, always being compared with Alex, always drawing the short straw. Julia’s turned back was a rebuff as she quickly put more distance between herself and the rest of the group. Her shoulders were hunched in a dismissive gesture.

Henrik came up to Erica.

‘We’re going to have a small reception afterwards. We’d be happy if you came.’

‘Well, I don’t really know,’ said Erica.

‘You could stop by for a little while at least.’

She hesitated. ‘Well, okay. Where is it? At Ulla’s house?’

‘No, we considered having it there but finally decided on Birgit and Karl-Erik’s house. Despite what happened there, I know that Alex loved that house. We all have happy memories from there, so what better place to remember her? Even though I understand that it might be a bit tough for you. You don’t have such pleasant memories from your last visit, I mean.’

Erica blushed in shame at the thought of what had really been her last visit. Quickly, she looked away.

‘It’ll be fine,’ she said.

 

She drove her own car and parked again in the lot behind Håkebacken School. The house was already full when she went in, and she wondered if she should turn round and go home. The moment for that came and passed; when Henrik came over and took her jacket, it was too late to change her mind.

It was crowded around the dining-room table, where a buffet of savoury quiches was laid out. Erica chose a big piece with shrimp and quickly moved to a corner of the room, where she could eat and watch the rest of the party in peace and quiet.

The party seemed unusually upbeat in view of the occasion. The undertone was feverishly cheerful. When she looked at the people around her, they all seemed to be wearing strained expressions as they conversed. The thought that Alex had been murdered hovered just beneath the surface.

Erica scanned the room, looking from one face to the next. Birgit was sitting on the edge of the sofa, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. Karl-Erik stood behind her with one hand placed awkwardly on her shoulder and a plate of food in the other. Henrik was working the room like a pro. He went from one group to another, shaking hands, nodding in reply to condolences, reminding people that there was also coffee and cake. In every respect he was the perfect host. As if he were at a cocktail party, instead of his wife’s funeral reception. The only thing that showed what an effort it was for him was the deep breath he took and a brief moment of hesitation, as if to gather new strength before he went on to the next group.

The only person who was behaving out of sync with everyone else was Julia. She had sat down on the windowsill on the veranda. One knee was drawn up and she was staring out to sea. Anyone who tried to approach her with a little kindness or some words of sympathy was firmly rebuffed. She ignored all attempts at conversation and kept staring out at the big expanse of whiteness.

Erica felt a light touch on her arm and gave an involuntary start so that a little coffee splashed onto her plate.

‘Excuse me, I didn’t mean to startle you.’ Francine was smiling.

‘Oh, that’s okay. I was just thinking.’

‘About Julia?’ Francine nodded towards the figure in the window. ‘I saw you watching her.’

‘Yes, I must admit that she interests me. She’s so totally cut off from the rest of the family. I can’t figure out whether she’s grieving for Alex or whether she’s been cast out for some reason I don’t understand.’

‘Probably nobody understands Julia. But she couldn’t have had an easy time of it. The ugly duckling growing up with two beautiful swans. Always shoved aside and ignored. It wasn’t that they were outright mean to her, she was just—unwanted. Alex, for example, never mentioned her during the time we lived in France. I was very surprised when I moved to Sweden and discovered that Alex had a little sister. She talked about you more than she talked about Julia. You must have had a very special relationship, didn’t you?’

‘I don’t know, actually. We were children. Like all kids of that age, we were blood sisters and never wanted to be separated and all that. But if Alex hadn’t moved away, the same thing probably would have happened to us. The same thing that happens to other little girls who grow up and turn into teenagers. We would have fought over the same boyfriends, had different taste in clothes, ended up on different rungs of the social pecking order, and abandoned one another for different friends who better suited the phase we were in—or wanted to be in. But sure, Alex had a big influence on my life, even as an adult. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to shake off that feeling of being betrayed. I always wondered whether I was the one who said or did something wrong. She just retreated more and more and then one day she was gone. When we met again as adults, she was a stranger. In some odd way it feels as though now I’m getting to know her again.’

Erica thought about the book pages that were piling up at home. So far she only had a collection of impressions and episodes mixed with her own thoughts and reflections. She didn’t even know how she would shape the material; all she knew was that it was something she had to do. Her writer’s instinct told her that this was a chance to write something genuine, but where the boundary lay between her needs as a writer and her personal connection to Alex, she had no idea. The sense of curiosity that was crucial to writing something also impelled her to seek the answer to the riddle of Alex’s death on a much more personal level. She could have chosen to dismiss Alex and her fate, turn her back on the whole sad clan surrounding Alex and devote herself to her own affairs. Instead she was standing in a room full of people she really didn’t know.

It suddenly occurred to her that she had almost forgotten the painting she found in Alex’s wardrobe. Now she realized why the warm tones used to depict Alex’s nude form on the canvas were so familiar. She turned to Francine.

‘You know, when I met you at the gallery…’

‘Yes?’

‘There was a painting right by the door. A big canvas all in warm colours—yellows, reds, oranges…’

‘Yes, I know the one you mean. What about it? Don’t tell me you’re a collector?’ Francine smiled.

‘No, but I’m wondering—who painted it?’

‘Well, that’s a very sad story. The painter’s name is Anders Nilsson. He’s actually from here in Fjällbacka. It was Alex who discovered him. He’s incredibly talented. Unfortunately he’s also a serious alcoholic, which apparently will ruin his chances as an artist. Today it’s not enough to hand in your paintings to a gallery and hope for success. As an artist you also have to be clever at marketing yourself. You need to show up at openings, go to functions, and live up to the image of an artist in every respect. Anders Nilsson is a drunken wino who isn’t fit for civilized company. We sell a painting now and then to customers who know talent when they see it, but Anders will never be a big star in the firmament of art. To be completely crass about it, he’d have the most potential if he drank himself to death. Dead painters have always been a hit with the general public.’

Erica gave the delicate creature in front of her a look of astonishment.

Francine saw her expression and added, ‘I didn’t mean to sound so cynical. It just burns me up that someone can have so much talent and squander it on booze. Tragic is only his first name. He was lucky that Alex discovered his paintings. Otherwise the only ones who would have enjoyed them would be the winos of Fjällbacka. And I have a hard time believing that they’re capable of appreciating the finer aspects of art.’

One piece of the puzzle was in place but Erica couldn’t for the life of her see how it fit with the rest of the pattern. Why did Alex have a nude portrait of herself painted by Anders Nilsson hidden in her wardrobe? One explanation was that it was intended as a present for Henrik, or maybe for her lover, and that Alex had commissioned the portrait from an artist whose talent she admired. Yet it didn’t quite ring true. There had been a sensuality and sexuality about the portrait that belied a relationship between strangers. There was some sort of bond between Alex and Anders. On the other hand, Erica was well aware that she was no art connoisseur, and her gut feeling could be all wrong.

BOOK: The Ice Princess
12.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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