IT’S ALL A GAME . . . UNTIL YOU DIE.
A brutal killing spree at a home for wayward teens. One girl is dead, another is missing.
The police scramble to track her down before the death toll mounts. But as Joona Linna digs deeper into the case, he finds himself on a collision course with a terrifying killer whose past is more troubling than anyone could imagine.
About the Author
LARS KEPLER is the pseudonym of the critically acclaimed husband and wife team Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril and Alexander Ahndoril. Their internationally bestselling Joona Linna series has sold more than ten million copies in forty languages. The Ahndorils were both established writers before they adopted the pen name Lars Kepler, and have each published several acclaimed novels. They live in Stockholm, Sweden. Translated by Neil Smith (acclaimed translator of Jo Nesbø).
Read an Excerpt
Elisabet Grim is fiftyone years old and her hair is peppered with gray. She has cheerful eyes, and when she smiles you can see that one of her front teeth sticks out a little farther than the other.
Elisabet works as a nurse at the Birgitta Home, a children’s home north of Sundsvall. It’s privately run and takes girls between twelve and seventeen years of age.
Many of the girls have problems with drugs when they arrive, almost all have a history of selfharm and eating disorders, and several of them are very violent. For them, there aren’t really any alternatives to group homes with alarmed doors, barred windows, and airlocks. The next step is usually adult prison and compulsory psychiatric care, but the Birgitta Home is one of the few exceptions, offering girls a path back to society.
Elisabet likes to say that the Birgitta Home is where the good girls end up.
She picks up the last piece of dark chocolate, puts it in her mouth, and feels its blend of sweetness and bitterness tingle under her tongue.
Slowly, her shoulders start to relax. It’s been a difficult evening, even though the day started so well: lessons in the morning and swimming in the lake after lunch.
After dinner, the housekeeper went home, leaving Elisabet on her own.
The number of night staff was cut four months after the Blancheford Holding Company bought the place.
The residents had been allowed to watch television until ten. She had spent the evening in the nurses’ office, and was trying to catch up with her logs when she heard angry shouting. She hurried to the TV room, where she found Miranda attacking little Tuula, yelling that Tuula was a cunt and a whore, dragging her off the sofa, then kicking her in the back.
Elisabet is starting to get used to Miranda’s violent outbursts. She rushed in and pulled her away from Tuula, earning herself a blow to the face, and she had to shout at Miranda that this was clearly unacceptable behavior. Without any discussion, she led Miranda away along the corridor, to the isolation room.
Elisabet said good night, but Miranda didn’t answer. She just sat on the bed staring at the floor, and smiled to herself when Elisabet closed and locked the door.
The newest girl, Vicky Bennet, was booked for an evening conversation, but there was no time because of the trouble with Miranda and Tuula. Vicky tentatively pointed out that it was her turn and got upset when she was told it would have to be postponed. She smashed a cup, then slashed her stomach and wrists with one of the fragments.
When Elisabet came in, Vicky was sitting with her hands in front of her face, blood running down her arms. Elisabet cleaned the cuts, which turned out to be superficial, put gauze on her stomach, and bandaged her wrists, then sat and comforted her until she saw a little smile. For the third night in a row, she gave the girl ten milligrams of Sonata so that she’d get some sleep.
All the residents are asleep now, and the place is quiet. There’s a light on in the office window; the world outside seems impenetrable and black.
Elisabet is sitting in front of the computer, a deep frown on her face, writing up the evening’s events in the log.
It’s almost midnight, and she realizes that she hasn’t even found time to take her evening pill. Her little habit, she likes to joke. The combination of nights on call and exhausting dayshifts have ruined her sleep. She usually takes ten milligrams of Stilnoct at ten o’clock so that she can be asleep by eleven and get a few solid hours of rest.
The September darkness has settled on the forest, but the smooth surface of Himmel Lake is still visible, shining like motherofpearl.
At last, she can switch the computer off and take her pill. She pulls her cardigan tighter around herself and thinks about how nice a glass of red wine would be. She’d love to sit in bed with a book and a glass of wine, reading and talking to Daniel.
But she’s on call tonight and will be sleeping in the little overnight room.
She jumps when Buster starts barking out in the yard. He sounds so agitated that she gets goose bumps on her arms.
It’s late; she should be in bed.
The room gets darker when the computer shuts down. Everything seems incredibly quiet. Elisabet becomes aware of the sounds she’s making: the sigh of the office chair when she stands up, the tiles creaking as she walks over to the window. She tries to see outside, but the glass just reflects her own face and the inside of the office.
Suddenly, in the reflection, she sees the door slip open behind her.
Her heart starts to beat faster. The door was just ajar, but now it’s half open. There must be a draft, she tries to tell herself. The stove in the dining room always seems to pull in a lot of air.
Yet Elisabet feels peculiarly anxious, and fear starts to creep through her veins. She doesn’t dare turn around, just stares into the dark window at the reflection of the door behind her back.
She listens to the ticking of the computer.
In an attempt to shake off her unease, she reaches out her hand and switches off the lamp, then turns around.
Now the door is wide open.
A shiver runs down her spine.
The lights are on in the hallway leading to the dining room and the girls’ rooms. She’s just left the office, to make sure that the vents on the stove are closed, when she hears a whisper from the bedrooms.
Elisabet stands still, listening, as she looks out into the hallway. At first she can’t hear anything, but then there it is again. A slight whisper, so faint that it’s barely audible.
“It’s your turn to close your eyes,” the voice says.
Elisabet stands perfectly still, staring off into the darkness. She blinks several times but can’t see anyone there.
She is thinking that it must be one of the girls talking in her sleep when she hears a strange noise. It’s like someone dropping an overripe peach on the floor. And then another one. Heavy and wet. A table leg scrapes as it moves; then another two peaches fall to the floor.
Elisabet catches a glimpse of movement from the corner of her eye. A shadow slipping past. She turns around and sees that the door to the dining room is slowly swinging closed.
“Wait,” she says, even though she tells herself it was just the wind again.
She hurries over and grabs the handle but meets a peculiar resistance. There’s a brief tugofwar, and then the door simply glides open.
Elisabet walks into the dining room very warily, trying to scan the area. The scratched table stands out in the darkness. She moves slowly toward the stove, sees her own movement reflected in its closed brass doors.
The flue is still radiating heat.
Suddenly there’s a crackling, knocking sound behind the oven doors. She takes a step back and bumps into a chair.
It’s only a piece of firewood falling against the inside of the doors. The room is completely empty.
She takes a deep breath and leaves the dining room, closing the door behind her. She starts to head back toward the hallway to the isolation room but stops again and listens.
She can’t hear anything from the girls’ rooms. There’s an acrid smell in the air—-metallic, almost. Though she looks for movement in the dark hallway, everything is still. Even so, she is drawn in that direction, toward the row of unlocked doors. Some of them seem to be ajar.
On the righthand side of the hall are the bathrooms, and then an alcove leading to the locked isolation room where Miranda is sleeping.
The peephole in the door glints gently.
Elisabet stops and holds her breath. A high voice is whispering something in one of the rooms but falls abruptly silent when Elisabet starts to move again.
“Quiet, now,” she says to the girls.
Her heart starts to beat harder when she hears a series of rapid thuds. It’s hard to localize them, but it sounds as if Miranda is lying in bed and kicking the wall with her bare feet. Elisabet is about to check on her through the peephole when she sees that there’s someone standing in the alcove.
She lets out a gasp and starts to back away. She feels as if she’s in a dream, as if she’s wading through water.
She immediately realizes how dangerous the situation is, but fear makes her slow.
She only thinks to run for her life when the floor creaks.
The figure in the darkness moves very quickly.
She turns and starts to run, hearing footsteps behind her. She slips on the rug and knocks her shoulder against the wall but keeps moving.
A soft voice is telling her to stop, but she doesn’t—-she runs, almost throwing herself down the hallway.
Doors fly open, then bounce back.
In panic, she rushes past the registration room, using the walls for support. A poster falls to the floor. She reaches the front door, fumbles, but manages to open it and run out into the cool night air; but she slips on the porch steps. One of her legs folds beneath her as she lands awkwardly on her hip. The stabbing pain from her ankle makes her yell out loud. She slumps to the ground, then hears heavy steps on the porch and starts to crawl away. She loses her shoes as she struggles to her feet with a whimper.