When a little girl disappears a few weeks before Christmas, suspicion falls on the last person she was seen with: the teenage loner who gave her a ride home after school. Complicating the matter is the fact that detectives can hardly get a word out of him. When a second child disappears and a police officer is found dead, tensions in the small town of Strömstad reach an all-time high.
Meanwhile, 28-year-old Detective Inspector Embla Nyström has just returned to work and is still recovering from her recent brush with a killer, which left her unable to get back in the ring to defend her title of Nordic light welterweight champion. As she hunts for the missing children, Embla can’t help but think of the case that has been haunting her for years: the disappearance of her childhood best friend. Could the incidents be linked? With the passing of each dark winter day, the odds of finding the children alive shrink, and desperation mounts. Their parents want answers and will stop at nothing to get them.
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Her heart was pounding and her stomach contracted with fear. Amelie was on the edge of her seat during the last ten minutes of the lesson. As soon as the bell rang, she leaped to her feet and raced out into the corridor, with Tuva right behind her.
“I’ll come with you to the bus stop!” Tuva shouted.
The girls pulled on their jackets as they ran toward the door, pausing briefly on the stairs to zip them up and put on their hats. It was already dark outside, and the bitter wind blowing in off the sea was icy cold. On top of everything else, it was pouring. Only two weeks to go until Christmas Eve, and not a flake of snow in sight. Horrible! Amelie thought. She would have liked to turn around and rejoin her classmates, but she had to dash home to pick up her Lucia robe and her candle.
The music teacher had said that everyone had to get changed so that it would feel real when they practiced for the last time before the Christmas concert and the Lucia procession. Dress rehearsal, that’s what she’d called it.
Things had been chaotic that morning. As usual her brother, Julien, hadn’t wanted to go to preschool; he was always tired and grumpy when he woke up. Their mom had spent ages coaxing him into his clothes, and they had all been seriously stressed—and very late—by the time they left the house. In the rush Amelie had forgotten her Lucia bag, which was still sitting on the floor in the hallway.
She had her own bus pass because she didn’t want to go to after-school club anymore. There was only one stop between the school and Önnaröd, where she lived, but it was dangerous to walk along the narrow road in the dark. Even though she had reflectors on both her boots and her coat sleeves, Mom insisted that she catch the bus. Tuva lived near school, so she didn’t need a pass. The girls were best friends. Amelie would be ten in two months and three days, and she thought after-school club was for little kids. Tuva agreed, even though her birthday wasn’t until May 5.
The girls could hear the bus pulling up at the stop. Or was it leaving?
“Wait!” they yelled.
They ran down the hill as fast as they could, only to see the red taillights disappearing into the distance. The next bus wasn’t due for twenty minutes. No! She had to be back for the rehearsal in half an hour!
The girls stood at the deserted bus shelter for a couple of minutes, trying to catch their breath. Maybe Amelie should just run home—it would only take ten minutes. But then I’ll stink, she thought. The familiar sound of a chugging engine cut through her thoughts. Kristoffer! He and Tuva were related, although Amelie wasn’t quite sure how. He’d given them a ride on his EPA-tractor several times.
Tuva positioned herself by the side of the road, frantically waving her arms as the slow, short truck approached. Amelie’s heart started pounding as Kristoffer stopped. He wound down the window and gave them an inquiring look. Loud rockabilly music poured from the speakers, echoing around the bus shelter.
“Hi—can you give Amelie a ride? She missed the bus . . . Pleeease, Kristoffer!”
He nodded and Amelie ran around to the other side of the vehicle. She gave Tuva a cheerful wave before opening the door and jumping in. She sank down on the soft seat with a sigh of relief. White leather—cool. Kristoffer’s EPA-tractor, no, A-tractor, was really nice. He was very particular about the names of cars, and apparently EPA-tractor was an old-fashioned term. There was a lovely smell from the fir-tree-shaped air freshener that dangled from the rearview mirror. Or maybe the smell was the gel Kristoffer used to keep his long hair in place? His “Elvis quiff,” that’s what Tuva called it. She thought it looked good, but Amelie wasn’t impressed. She liked One Direction, and none of the boys in the band had that kind of hairstyle. Kristoffer’s hoodie was covered in dirt and oil stains, as were his jeans. Amelie knew that he and his dad fixed up old cars.
She gave Tuva another wave as they set off.
“We’ve got a rehearsal and we have to wear our Lucia costumes, but we don’t need any sparkle, not until tomorrow. It’s the Christmas concert. All the parents come to watch. Me and Tuva are part of the procession. We sing all the time, and the little ones get to be sheep and shepherds, and we’re like angels and . . .”
Amelie chattered away. She knew Kristoffer, after all, though she had never been alone with him since Tuva had always been there when he had given them a ride in the past. But he seemed the same as always, and maybe she kept on talking because she knew he wouldn’t answer. He didn’t say much. Hardly anything, in fact. He was nice, though. He was taking her home. She leaned back in her seat, secure in the knowledge that she’d be back at school in time.
Julien was every bit as difficult in the afternoon when Maria arrived to pick him up from preschool. He flatly refused to go home. He and Malte were in the middle of building something with Legos, and there was no way it could wait until the following day. Maria felt the sweat trickling down her back as she tried to cajole and persuade him. Eventually she grabbed him and forced him into his outdoor clothes. He was cross and overtired. People talked about the terrible twos, but he was five years old now and had been behaving that way ever since he was born, Maria thought irritably. She exchanged a weary glance with the teacher, who had joined them in the entrance hall. Together they managed to get Julien into his jacket and boots, but they gave up on his thick waterproof over-trousers. Needless to say, he tripped and fell in a great big puddle on the way to the car. His jeans were soaked through, and he started whining again.
“We’re just going to collect Amelie, then we’ll go straight home. You can have hot chocolate with whipped cream, and I’ll take some cinnamon buns out of the freezer. I think we’ve earned a treat after a day like this, don’t you?”
She kissed his forehead and lifted him into the car. She had a struggle with the child seat, of course—it was definitely one of those days! Only when she sank down in the driver’s seat did she let out a long breath. Thank goodness they were only a few minutes away from Amelie’s school. She could use a hot chocolate and a cinnamon bun herself.
Maria looked from Tuva to Therese Jansson, the girls’ music teacher, in confusion. There were only the three of them in the hall where the concert was due to take place the next day. A strong smell of resin was coming from the tall Christmas tree in the corner, its branches weighed down with all the decorations the children had added.
“She didn’t come back?”
“No. I called her like a thousand times, but there’s no answer,” Tuva said.
“I tried calling her, too, both on her cell and your home number, but I had my hands full with the rehearsal . . .” Therese Jansson made an apologetic gesture and swallowed hard. Maria noticed that her hand was shaking as she pushed her large horn-rimmed glasses up her nose. She’s worried, too.
“Amelie wouldn’t just not turn up,” Maria said.
“Absolutely not, and she was really looking forward to singing her solo,” the teacher agreed.
“She always answers her cell,” Tuva said firmly.
She’s right, Amelie always picks up, Maria thought, her anxiety growing.
“I’ll drive you home, Tuva,” she said quickly.
“Can you let me know when you find her? It doesn’t matter how late it is,” Therese Jansson said nervously.
Maria was already on her way to the car.
They’d searched the house and garden. Julien had been happy to race around hunting for his sister. Hide-and-seek was his favorite game, so he knew all the best places. But he couldn’t find Amelie anywhere.
On the counter there was a glass with a drop of milk in the bottom, and a banana skin was in the sink. Before Amelie left, she had gone to the bathroom to pee, and she’d forgotten to flush, presumably because she was in a hurry. There was no sign of the plastic bag containing her Lucia costume and the little battery-powered candle, so Maria knew that her daughter had been home, eaten something, gone to the toilet, grabbed the bag, and dashed off into the rain and darkness. But she hadn’t made it back to school . . .
Mechanically Maria made hot chocolate and defrosted the promised cinnamon bun in the microwave for Julien. As he settled down contentedly with his snack, she called everyone she could think of. No one had seen or heard from Amelie. She tried her daughter’s cell phone at regular intervals; the signal rang out, but there was no reply. Tuva was right—Amelie always answered her cell. Only recently she’d been given a new model, and she was so proud of it.
Fear constricted Maria’s throat. Eventually she managed to pull herself together enough to contact her mother-in-law. Her hands shook as she keyed in the number. When she heard Iris Holm’s calm voice, Maria’s self-control gave way and she started to cry. She was relieved that Iris was home; she’d always been a reliable support. Between sobs Maria explained that Amelie was missing. She asked Iris if she could come over and look after Julien while she went out to search the area.