The girl in bed number 12 woke up early.
A summer morning. The gentle light of dawn sneaked in through the inadequate curtains. Started thawing out the night, a bit at a time. Levering up the darkness out of corners, prying into the other girls’ innocent dreams. Their contented snifﬂing. She lay there for a while, listening to them. Trying to identify them. Kathrine was lying on her back as usual, snoring gently through her open mouth. Belle was hissing like a snake. To her right, Marieke was pufﬁng away; one arm was dangling down by the side of the bed, and her mop of red hair was spread like a fan over her pillow. A drop of saliva trembled in the corner of her mouth—perhaps she should creep over to her and use a corner of the sheet to wipe it away? But she desisted.
She would have liked to tell Marieke what she was going to do. Marieke if nobody else. Say something; leave a message, anything. But she still hadn’t made up her mind the previous evening. She’d been hemming and hawing. It wasn’t an easy decision to make. She’d lain there, brooding over it, tossing and turning and making the iron-framed bed groan and creak until well into the night—both Marieke and Ruth had wondered if she was ill, and Belle had begged her several times to stop making such a racket.
Belle was a bit of a pain, but her dad was a close friend of Yellinek’s so it was advisable to keep well in with her. That’s what they said, at least. But then, they said all kinds of things at the Waldingen camp.
Anyway, she’d been tossing and turning. She had no idea when she’d eventually fallen asleep, nor did she know what time it was now—but her body was telling her that she hadn’t had all that much sleep. In any case, now the moment had arrived—and, ah well, she’d better get up.
Her internal alarm clock had worked as it always did; but, of course, there was no reason it should continue to keep her awake. No reason at all.
She carefully folded back the heavy duvet and sat up. Dug out her jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers from the bedside cupboard and dressed quickly. Noticed that the pain in her stomach had returned, but brushed it to one side with the aid of her anger.
Her anger and sense of justice.
She scraped together the rest of her belongings in controlled haste: it wasn’t easy to ﬁnd room for everything, but she managed it. She fastened her rucksack and crept out. The door creaked as usual as she opened it, and some of the steps sighed unhappily when she trod on them, but in less than half a minute she was outside.
She scampered over the dew-laden grass and up toward the edge of the forest, stopping only when she had crossed over the little ridge and descended into the ﬁrst of the hollows. Out of sight of the buildings, and out of reach.
She paused for a while among the blueberry bushes, shivering in what remained of the chilly night air while she worked out points of the compass and directions. Noticed that her teeth were chattering. If she kept going straight ahead through the trees, she must sooner or later come to the road, she knew that. But it was a long way. Even if she managed to stick to a more or less straight line it would take half an hour at the very least, and of course it wasn’t certain that she’d be able to avoid going around in circles. By no means certain. She had lived in cities all her life: being close to nature among all these trees was not the environment she was used to.
She was playing away from home, you might say.
In normal circumstances she could have said a prayer, of course. Prayed to God and asked Him to stand by her and help her along her way, but it didn’t seem right this morning.
Not right, and somehow not really honest.
God had started to look different recently. Yes, that’s more or less what it seemed like. Become big, difﬁcult and unapproachable, and—even if she didn’t like to accept the thought—a bit frightening. The gentle bearded grandad ﬁgure of her childhood was swathed in shadows.
And now that she came to think about it, she realized that it was because of that very darkness that she was standing here among the blueberry bushes, wondering what to do next.
Hesitating and ﬁghting against her fear and her anger. And her sense of justice, as already mentioned.
Yes, that was why.
The terrain sloped down to the right. Toward the lake and the winding dirt road leading to the Finghers’ farm, where they took it in turns to go every evening to fetch the milk. And potatoes and vegetables and eggs.
Always in a group of four, with one of the rickety carts, and with Yellinek in the lead. Nobody could really understand why it was necessary for Yellinek always to be there when they went to the farm. Surely one of the sisters could have done it? Although it could have been to protect them from danger. That’s probably why. The Finghers’ farm was the only contact they had with the Other World, as Yellinek used to call it in his talks, the ones he held every morning and evening.
The Other World?
Now I’m standing in the Other World, she thought. I’ve only ventured a couple of hundred yards into it, and already I’m not sure which way to go. Perhaps everything really was like Yellinek said it was after all? Perhaps it really was Yellinek’s God who was the real God, and not her own—her kind and forgiving and almost a little bit childlike God, full of joy?
The hell it is, she muttered to herself with another shudder, this time mainly to reinforce her thoughts. What’s the point of a God who isn’t gentle and kind?
But what she would do if she did eventually manage to get to the main road—well, that was something neither she nor either of the Gods could answer.
Something will turn up, as her grandma used to say. I’ll think of something. She cast one more glance back over the ridge, toward the buildings: all she could see sticking up over the trees was the very top of the pointed roof of the dining room.
And the big, black cross, of course, the one they’d nailed together the very ﬁrst day they arrived. She took a deep breath, turned her back on all that and began to make her way down toward the lake. Best to stick to the familiar dirt road after all.
She emerged from the trees close to the enormous birch that she and Marieke had discussed carving their names into before they left.
Always assuming they could ﬁnd a way of slipping out unnoticed, that was the problem. They would have to steal twenty minutes from the Pure Life, sneak out and then back in without being seen. They didn’t really fancy their chances of actually doing it, it was just one of those things people said; but here she was now, in fact, rubbing her hand over the smooth, white bark.
The Pure Life? she thought. The Good Shepherd?
The Other World?
A lot of crap.
The word came into her mind just as quickly as it had done yesterday. “Crap.” She hadn’t been able to hold it back then—it had ﬂown out of her mouth like an angry and hotheaded little swallow, and in a ﬂash it had changed into a big cloud.
Yes, that’s exactly what it was like. A dark and threatening cloud hanging over the heads of everybody in the Hall of Life. It made the girls hold their breath, and Yellinek’s pale eyes slowly turned to stare at her for several seconds, which felt like days.
“I want to have a word with you afterward,” he’d said eventually, then turned his eyes away again and continued talking in his usual low voice. About purity and whiteness and nakedness and all that stuff.
Then later on in the White Room.
But not even there did he waste many words on her. Merely stated the fact.
“The Devil, my girl. You have the Devil inside you. Tomorrow we’ll drive it out.”
Then he’d sent her off to bed with a weary gesture.
She had heard about driving out the Devil, but had no idea how they went about it. She’d thought it was something that only grown-ups did, but evidently not. Anybody could be possessed by the Devil, even a little child: that was something she’d learned last night.
And now it was going to be driven out. That was bound to be an unpleasant experience. Much worse than the caning to drive out sin—and although she had been here for two weeks now, she still hadn’t grown accustomed to that. After every session she needed to cry a bit in private, but she hadn’t noticed any of the other girls needing to do that.
And now the need to cry had struck her again. Without any warning, she felt a burning sensation in her throat and then the tears started to ﬂow and she had to sit down by the side of the road. Just for a few moments, to let it run its course and go away. It was silly, wandering around in the middle of the road and sobbing. Even though it couldn’t have been later than six or half past—and even though there was virtually no risk of meeting another soul—it was silly.
She found a handkerchief in her rucksack and blew her nose. Remained sitting there for a few minutes, to be on the safe side, and it was just as she was about to stand up and continue on her way that she heard a twig snap close by, and she quickly realized that she was by no means as alone as she had imagined.
"Nesser's fine fourth Insp. Van Veeteren mystery (after 2009's Woman with a Birthmark) finds the crime-weary detective teetering on the brink of retirement while sweltering through a brutal case of rape and murder at a camp run by a religious group, the Pure Life (aka the 'sex sect'), for adolescent girls. Van Veeteren immediately suspects the sinister cult leader, Oscar Yellinek, of killing first one, then another of his eerily silent charges, but he himself faces the real mystery of this disturbing parable of good and evil: how long will Van Veeteren, 'spoiled over the years' by human inhumanity, be able to stand the desperately delicate balance of his chosen work, where he must constantly enter the malicious 'heart of darkness'? As Van Veeteren slowly reconstructs these crimes, he also wrestles with the dilemma central to Nesser's police procedurals: the necessity of protecting evildoers until justice can be done. (June)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.