Read The Ice Princess Online

Authors: Camilla Läckberg

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

The Ice Princess (5 page)

BOOK: The Ice Princess
4.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

At the far end of the gallery she saw a woman who looked unmistakably French. She exuded sheer elegance as she discussed a painting with a customer, gesturing eagerly as she talked.

‘I’ll be right there, please have a look around in the meantime.’ Her French accent sounded charming.

Erica took the woman at her word. With her hands clasped behind her back she walked slowly around the room as she looked at the artworks. As the gallery’s name indicated, all the paintings were done in the abstract style. Cubes, squares, circles and strange figures. Erica tilted her head and squinted, trying to see what the art aficionados saw. But it completely eluded her. Nope, still only cubes and squares like any five-year-old could produce, in her opinion. She would just have to accept that this was beyond her comprehension.

She was standing before a gigantic red painting with yellow, irregularly divided sections when she heard Francine come up behind her with heels clacking on the chequerboard floor.

‘That one is certainly wonderful,’ said Francine.

‘Yes, indeed. Exquisite. But to be honest, I’m not really at home in the world of art. I think Van Gogh’s sunflowers are great, but that’s about as far as my knowledge goes.’

Francine smiled. ‘You must be Erica. Henri just rang and told me you were on your way here.’

She held out a finely contoured hand. Erica hastily wiped off her own hand, still wet with rain, before she took Francine’s.

The woman facing her was small and slender, with an elegance that Frenchwomen seem to have patented. Erica was five foot nine in her stockinged feet, and she felt like a giant in comparison.

Francine’s hair was raven-black. It was pulled back smoothly from her forehead and gathered in a chignon at the nape of her neck. She wore a form-fitting black dress. The colour was no doubt chosen in view of the death of her friend and colleague; she seemed more the type to dress in dramatic red, or perhaps yellow. Her make-up was light and perfectly applied, but it could not conceal the telling red rims of her eyes. Erica hoped that her own mascara wasn’t running - no doubt a vain hope.

‘I thought we ought to sit down and talk over a cup of coffee. The weather is very mild today. Let’s go out back.’

She led Erica towards a small room behind the gallery that was fully equipped with a refrigerator, microwave oven, and coffeemaker. The table was small and had room for only two chairs. Erica sat down and was instantly served a cup of steaming hot coffee by Francine. Her stomach protested after all the cups she had drunk when she was visiting Henrik. But she knew from experience, from the innumerable interviews she had conducted to dig up background material for her books, that for some reason people talked more easily with a coffee cup in their hand.

‘From what I understood from Henri, Alex’s parents asked you to write a commemorative article about her life.’

‘Yes. I’ve only seen Alex on brief occasions in the last twenty-five years, so I need to find out more about what she was like as a person before I can start writing.’

‘Are you a journalist?’

‘No, I write biographies. I’m only doing this because Birgit and Karl-Erik asked me. And besides, I was the first one to find her, well, almost the first. And in some strange way I feel as though I need to do this to create another picture of Alex for myself, a living picture. Does that sound odd?’

‘No, not at all. I think it’s fabulous that you’re taking so much trouble on behalf of Alex’s parents—and Alex.’

Francine leaned across the table and placed a well-manicured hand over Erica’s.

Erica felt a warm blush spread across her cheeks and tried not to think of the draft of the book she’d been working on for large parts of the previous day.

Francine went on, ‘Henri also asked me to answer your questions with the utmost candour.’

She spoke excellent Swedish. She rolled her R’s softly, and Erica noticed that she used the French Henri rather than Henrik.

‘You and Alex met in Paris?’

‘Yes, we studied art history together. We ran into each other the very first day. She looked lost and I felt lost. The rest is history, as they say.’

‘How long have you known each other?’

‘Let’s see, Henri and Alex celebrated their fifteenth anniversary last fall so it would be…seventeen years. For fifteen of those years we’ve run this gallery together.’

She fell silent and to Erica’s astonishment lit a cigarette. For some reason she hadn’t pictured Francine as a smoker. The Frenchwoman’s hand shook a little as she lit the cigarette, and then she took a deep drag without taking her eyes off Erica.

‘Didn’t you wonder where she was?’ Erica asked. ‘She must have been lying there a week before we found her.’

It occurred to Erica that she hadn’t thought to ask Henrik the same question.

‘I know it sounds strange, but no, I didn’t. Alex…’ she hesitated. ‘Alex always did pretty much as she liked. It could be incredibly frustrating, but I suppose I got used to it over the years. This wasn’t the first time she was gone for a while. She usually popped up later as if nothing had happened. Besides, she did more than her share when she took care of the gallery all alone when I was on maternity leave. You know, in some way I still think the same thing is going to happen. That she’s going to come walking in the door. But this time I know she won’t.’ A tear threatened to spill from her eye.

‘No, she won’t.’ Erica looked down into her coffee cup to allow Francine to dry her eyes discreetly. ‘How did Henrik react whenever Alex simply vanished?’

‘You’ve met him. Alex could do no wrong in his eyes. Henri has spent the past fifteen years worshipping her. Poor Henri.’

‘Why poor Henri?’

‘Alex didn’t love him. Sooner or later he would have been forced to realize that.’

She stubbed out the first cigarette and lit another.

‘You must have known each other inside-out after so many years,’ said Erica.

‘I don’t think anyone really knew Alex. Although I probably knew her better than Henri did. He has always refused to take off his rose-tinted glasses.’

‘During our conversation Henrik hinted that in all the years of their marriage it felt as though Alex was hiding something from him. Do you know whether that’s true? And if so, what it could be?’

‘That was unusually perceptive of him. I may have underestimated Henri.’ She raised a finely shaped eyebrow. ‘To your first question I will answer yes: I’ve always known that she was carrying some sort of baggage. To the second question I must answer no: I don’t have the faintest idea what it could be. Despite our long friendship there was always a point at which Alex would signal, “so far, and no farther”. I accepted it, while Henri did not. Sooner or later it would have broken him. And it probably would have been sooner.’

‘Why is that?’

Francine hesitated. ‘They’re going to do an autopsy on Alex, aren’t they?’

The question took Erica by surprise.

‘Yes, that’s always done for a suicide. Why do you ask?’

‘Because then I know that what I’m about to tell you will come out anyway. My conscience feels lighter, at least.’

She stubbed out the cigarette carefully. Erica held her breath in tense expectation, but Francine took her time lighting a third cigarette. Her fingers didn’t have the characteristic yellow discolouration of a smoker, so Erica suspected that she didn’t usually chain-smoke like this.

‘You must know that Alex has been going to Fjällbacka much more often for the past six months or so?’

‘Yes, the grapevine works very well in small towns. According to the local gossip, she was in Fjällbacka more or less every weekend. Alone.’

‘Alone is not exactly the whole truth.’

Francine hesitated again. Erica had to check her impulse to lean across the table and shake the woman to make her spit out whatever she was holding back. Her interest was definitely aroused.

‘She had met someone there. A man. Well, it wasn’t the first time that Alex had an affair, but somehow I got the feeling that this was different. For the first time in all the years we’ve known each other, she seemed almost content. And I know that she couldn’t have taken her own life. Someone must have murdered her, I have no doubt about that.’

‘How can you be so sure? Not even Henrik could say for certain whether she might have committed suicide.’

‘Because she was pregnant.’

Francine’s reply caught Erica off guard.

‘Does Henrik know about this?’

‘I don’t know. At any rate, it wasn’t his child. They haven’t lived together in that way for many years. And even when they did, Alex always refused to have a child with Henrik. No matter how much he begged her. No, the child must have been fathered by the new man in her life—whoever he may be.’

‘She never said who he was?’

‘No. As you probably realize by now, Alex was very sparing with her confidences. I have to admit that I was quite shocked when she told me about the child, but that’s also one of the reasons why I’m absolutely sure she didn’t kill herself. She was literally brimming with happiness and simply couldn’t keep the news to herself. She loved that baby and never would have done anything to harm it, certainly not take its life. For the first time, I saw an Alexandra who had a zest for life. I think I would have grown quite fond of her.’ Her voice sounded sad. ‘You know, I also had a feeling that she intended to come to terms with her past. I don’t know exactly how, but a few scattered remarks here and there gave me that impression.’

The door to the gallery opened and they heard somebody stamping the wet snow from their shoes on the doormat. Francine got up.

‘That’s probably a customer. I have to go. I hope I’ve been of some help.’

‘Oh yes, I’m very grateful that you and Henrik have both been so frank. You’ve been a great help.’

After Francine assured the customer that she would be right back, she showed Erica to the door. In front of an enormous canvas with a white square on a blue field they stopped and shook hands.

‘Just out of curiosity, what would a painting like this go for? Five thousand, ten thousand?’

Francine smiled. ‘More like fifty.’

Erica gave a low whistle. ‘So, there you see. Art and fine wine. Two areas that remain complete mysteries to me.’

‘And I can barely write a shopping list. We all have our specialities.’

They laughed. Erica pulled her coat tighter even though it was still damp and headed out into the rain.

 

The rain had transformed the snow to slush, and she drove a bit below the speed limit just to be on the safe side. After wasting almost half an hour trying to get out of Hisingen, where she had ended up by mistake, she was now approaching Uddevalla. A dull rumble in her stomach reminded her that she had totally forgotten to eat all day. She turned off the E6 at the Torp shopping centre north of Uddevalla and drove into McDonald’s. She gulped down a cheeseburger as she sat in the parking lot and was soon back out on the motorway. The whole time her thoughts were filled with the conversations she’d had with Henrik and Francine. What they had told her created an image of a woman who had built high defensive walls around herself.

What Erica was most curious about was who could be the father of Alex’s baby. Francine didn’t think that it was Henrik’s, but no one could ever be completely sure what happened in other people’s bedrooms, and Erica still reckoned it was a possibility. If not, the question was whether the father was the man that Francine hinted Alex had gone to meet every weekend in Fjällbacka, or whether she had a lover in Göteborg.

Erica had got the impression that Alex was leading some sort of parallel life. She did as she liked, without worrying about how it would affect those close to her, and Henrik in particular. Erica had the feeling that Francine had a hard time understanding how Henrik could accept a marriage under those conditions. She also thought that Francine disdained him for that reason. Yet Erica could understand all too well how these sorts of things happened. She had been observing Anna and Lucas’s marriage for many years.

What depressed Erica most about Anna’s inability to change her situation was that she couldn’t help wondering whether she was part of the reason for Anna’s lack of self-respect. Erica was five years old when Anna was born. From the first instant she saw her little sister she had tried to protect her from the reality she carried round with her like an invisible wound. Anna would never have to feel alone and rejected because of their mother’s lack of love for her daughters. The hugs and loving words that Anna did not get from her mother, Erica supplied in abundance. She watched over her little sister with motherly concern.

Anna was an easy child to love. She was totally immune to the sadder aspects of life and took each moment as it came. Erica, who was old beyond her years and often upset, was fascinated by the energy with which her sister loved every minute of her life. Anna took Erica’s anxieties in stride but seldom had the patience to sit on her lap or let herself be cuddled for very long. She grew up to be a wild teenager who did precisely whatever she pleased, an unflappable and self-centred girl. In moments of clarity, Erica admitted to herself that she had probably both protected and coddled Anna far too much. She was just trying to give her what she herself had never received.

When Anna met Lucas she became easy prey. She was enthralled by his surface charm but failed to see the stifling forces underneath. Slowly, very slowly he broke down her
joie de vivre
and self-confidence by playing on her vanity. Now she sat in Östermalm like a lovely bird in a cage and did not have the power to realize her mistake. Every day Erica hoped that Anna of her own free will would reach out her hand and ask her for help. Until that day, Erica could do no more than wait and remain available. Not that she’d had any great luck with relationships herself. She had a long string of broken relationships and promises behind her; she was usually the one who had broken them off. There was something that snapped whenever she reached a certain point in a relationship. A feeling of panic so strong that she could hardly breathe; she had to clear out, lock and stock, without looking back. And yet, as long ago as she could remember, Erica had paradoxically yearned to have children and a family. She was now thirty-five and the years were slipping away from her.

BOOK: The Ice Princess
4.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The Threateners by Donald Hamilton
Sacred Ground by Barbara Wood
Crack-Up by Eric Christopherson
Thief of Hearts by L.H. Cosway
Poison Fruit by Jacqueline Carey
The Girl from Krakow by Alex Rosenberg
Shadow Girl by Mael d'Armor
Sioux Slave by Georgina Gentry