“There’s no such thing as the perfect crime,” I insisted.
“Oh really?” he replied, his expression bordering on exasperation.
We had met in the kind of place to which men flock to have a pint or three, usually alone, though never in pursuit of the fairer sex. If that’s their objective, they pick a different spot. Ninety-nine per cent of the clientele around us were men, and those women present were either lost tourists who had stumbled in, unaware of the nature of their surroundings, or the odd escort, watched as keenly as a hawk eyes up a homeless hen. This was a place men came to in order to talk to other men about the kind of things that men talk about together.
“People always make at least one error,” I continued.
“Not necessarily,” he replied.
“You know, even the police reckon that most criminal offences shouldn’t really be defined as ‘criminal’ …”
“Like accidents, you mean?”
“That’s one example, yes.” He hesitated before continuing. “I’ve got a tale of my own.”
“A perfect crime?”
“In that case we need another round. Bartender!”
Our drinks were served, and after taking a swig he embarked upon his story …
They met at the edge of the forest that overlooked the sea.
They could see Lars down by the dockside, readying the lobster traps. Huddled over in his boat, he was barely visible against the backdrop of the water on that bright, warm evening in August.
She appeared uneasy. “I can’t hang around for too long! I told him I was just going to get changed.”
“Can you see this through, Anne-Mette?”
She nodded. “You’re sure that he doesn’t know anything about, you know, the undercurrents?”
“Of course not! Nobody was able to explain what had happened when Liv died all those years ago. The only reason I ever found out was because it’s part of my job to study that kind of thing. Meteorologists stumble upon all manner of strange natural phenomena, you know.”
“And what about … after?”
“It’s up to you what happens after that, Anne-Mette. There’ll be some kind of investigation, but nobody will blame you for the fact that the natural world claims its victims. If you keep things quiet and hold your own, we’ll both reap the rewards for years to come!”
“Oh Steinar!” She embraced him for a moment. “I can’t believe it’s come to this …”
“No one can escape their fate, Anne-Mette,” he said, tenderly stroking her hair. “But hurry up, or he might lose patience and leave without you.”
“I’m going! But … when will I see you next?”
“At the funeral.”
She cast him a final glance, the sorrow on her face giving way to a dejected expression as her arms dropped to her side. She raised a hand to bid him farewell before disappearing along the pathway towards the water.
He remained beneath the canopy of trees until he saw her reappear down by the boat, where Lars helped her on board. He lifted his gaze and looked outwards, towards the two Mackerel Isles and the narrow inlet that divided them.
The Mackerel Isles …
He and Lars had been childhood friends, and Lars on more than a few occasions had enjoyed long summer holidays in Steinar’s family’s summer cabin on the Sørland coast. Particularly in the years immediately following Liv’s death, Steinar’s parents had been consoled by the clamour of youthful houseguests: music blaring from the record player on the beach, one-on-one football matches in the back garden and warm evenings huddled around the barbeque having returned to dry land laden with freshly-caught cod, pollock or whiting.
The fact that, after marrying Anne-Mette, Lars had decided to buy a cabin directly across the bay came as no great surprise. It was here, after all, that he had spent his happiest summers. Why not attempt to harness that joy and bring it into his adulthood by relocating to the place from which it originated? But was it possible to extend into his maturity the secret magic that had brought him such pleasure in the springtime of his life?
It was also no great surprise when Steinar, Lars’ oldest friend, became a frequent guest at both the couple’s summer cabin and their home in Oslo; he had, after all, never quite managed to settle down with a spouse of his own, and Anne-Mette – even as a friend – was sufficiently generous to make room in her life for both men.
However, neither Steinar nor Anne-Mette were prepared when, a year and a half before, they found themselves growing gradually closer, with matters unexpectedly culminating in a weekend escape together to Sweden. Following a passionate few days spent in a guesthouse overlooked by the mountains, they had both racked their brains to find a reasonable explanation for the unexpected turn of events, though Anne-Mette more so than Steinar. She blamed her absence on a long, drawn-out trip with girlfriends – that’s right, just like in that film we saw, she explained to Lars, after making her way home on the express train from Gothenburg the following Monday morning. Steinar kept his distance from them that week, later relaying how he had made his way into the mountains – I just needed some time to myself, Lars, you know how it is; you find yourself nearing forty and you start to wonder, what have I done with my life?
And what had they done, exactly?
As it happened, Anne-Mette and Lars had two splendid children, both grown-up enough to be out and about that weekend towards the end of summer, attending scout camps and horseback treks. What about them? The thought had plagued Anne-Mette when she and Steinar had begun making their plan. He had placed a comforting hand on hers and re-assured her: “I’ll be like a father to them. I promise you …”
It was Anne-Mette who had first put her thoughts into words. “What if Lars weren’t … Imagine if he were … if it were just you and me, Steinar …”
“You mean, if he were … dead?”
“Yes! Oh, as if it’s even possible to imagine something so awful! But you’ve come to mean so much to me, and I want nothing more than to share everything with you. Everything! Do you understand?”
One evening, in his apartment in Majorstua, where she had become a more frequent visitor than any woman before her, he dropped a hint – a fleeting suggestion, at most – about how it could be arranged …
“You’ve heard about what happened to Liv, I suppose?”
“Your sister who drowned?”
The whole family had been out at the Mackerel Isles, and he and Liv had been bathing in the narrow inlet between the two small islands when Liv had suddenly vanished, as if grabbed by an invisible hand and pulled beneath the surface of the water. It was as if the Midgard Serpent had claimed her from the watery depths, because Liv never reappeared. She remained submerged. Their father had dived in desperation without seeing a thing, and when they had finally rowed back to land and called the rescue team, they knew it was too late – even if they had managed to find her, it would be to no avail.
But they never did find her, at least not until they were in the throes of autumn, when she washed up on dry land several kilometres northwards along the coast. That is to say, what was left of her washed up; it was only with the help of her clothing and dental fillings that they were eventually able to identify her.
“Oh, how awful it all must have been for your parents, Steinar!”
“It was awful for all of us. Neither of my parents ever really got over it, and even today I can’t look out towards the Mackerel Isles without thinking about it. But the point,” he continued, “is that, twenty years later, when a group of students and I mapped the tidal patterns along that section of the coastline, I discovered that, twice a day, between the ebb and flow of the tide, an undercurrent forms in the inlet of water between the Mackerel Isles. It must have been this that was responsible for pulling Liv under that day.”
“But surely you presented your findings?”
“No, that particular discovery held no relevance for our project. Besides, it was all too personal. Either way, I decided to keep it to myself.”
“You mean to say you didn’t even tell your closest friend?”
“No, Anne-Mette. Not even him.”
“So why tell me all this now?”
“The point is this: if I were to provide you with a list of times, and you could somehow lure Lars out with you to do some crab fishing or take a swim in the moonlight – anything along those lines – then …”
“It leaves too much to chance.”
“Maybe. But on the other hand … it would be the perfect crime. The sea gives and the sea takes away. Do you see what I’m saying, Anne-Mette?”
“I do …”
They rowed out in silence.
Lars was old-fashioned enough to prefer a boat without an outboard motor. “It’s not often we row out much further than the Mackerel Isles, anyway,” he used to say, “and the kids have their little inflatable speedboats to play with. I prefer the contact with the elements, the resistance of the water, the application of strength it requires; it’s only in the rowboat that I can really savour these things …”
She watched him from where she sat on the thwart furthest back in the boat: his broad, slightly mature body, his greying hair that was beginning to thin on top. He looked considerably older than Steinar, even though they were the same age.
As if he had read her mind, he said, “I see that Steinar’s out and about, too.” He gestured towards the opposite side of the bay, where light glowed from his childhood friend’s cabin. “Strange that he hasn’t popped over to see us.”
“He probably appreciates some time to himself now and then.”
“Now you mention it, I have noticed that.”
“That he’s pulled away from us over the past couple of years, what with his hikes in the mountains or that time he absconded to Paris out of the blue in the middle of autumn – around the same time you and Trude were in London …”
“Anyway, I’m sure he won’t abandon us altogether. We’ll see him tomorrow, no doubt.”
After a long silence, which was interrupted only by the creaking of the oars against the thole pins, he added, “I mean, we’re all he has.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
They approached the Mackerel Isles. It was a glorious late-summer evening, the August clouds forming dark, inky blots against the bright cope of heaven, yet with the warmth of any night in July, the air seasoned lightly with the scent of roses and honeysuckle. The sea undulated gently beneath them like an enormous bed of silk bordered with the luminescent glow of mareel, a draw calling from deep within the body of water.
In the bay they heard a motor boat starting up, the grating sound of the engine’s roar in the still evening causing Lars’ eyes to roll to the heavens in resigned frustration.
“Here we go again! The barbarians are on the loose!”
Immediately afterwards they saw a boat on its way out towards the fairway on the north side of the Mackerel Isles, a strip of foamy spray in its wake. Before they had arrived it was gone, yet they could still hear it, the roaring fading to a faint rumble across the landscape.
Lars released the anchor in the shallow waters just south of the larger of the two isles. He picked up one of the two lobster traps and lowered it into the water, the rope it was attached to slipping through his fingers as he released it. After the lobster traps had settled, he lifted the orange float over the side before giving Anne-Mette a satisfied nod and returning to his position at the oars.
She glanced discreetly at her wristwatch. Another ten minutes to go …
She dipped her other hand into the water. “Almost lukewarm,” she said, looking up at him suggestively.
He flashed her half a smile. “Do you fancy a dip?”
“Perhaps,” she replied, stretching her legs out before her like a cat soaking up the sunlight on a warm summer’s day.
By the rocky land mass, history was repeating itself: lobster trap, rope, float. It was almost time.
The hum of the other boat’s motor was still audible, though now from the opposite side of the isle.
Lars nodded towards the ridge on the mainland. “It won’t be long before the moon makes an appearance.”
She began unbuttoning her blouse. “Think you can beat me in?” she asked him coyly.
She knew him so well, she could perfectly predict his reaction. He could never resist a challenge.
He stripped off his t-shirt, pulling it up and over his head and standing up with such haste that the boat almost capsized. He unbuckled his belt, pulled down his jeans and sat down again to coax his legs free before casting them from him; they landed over the thwart further along in the boat. Dressed in nothing but his boxer shorts he suddenly looked at her. “Given up already?”
“Given up?” She felt herself pale.
He gestured towards her bosom, where her fingers had ventured no further than the top buttons of her blouse.
She felt a jolt shoot through her as she realised what he was referring to.
Demonstratively she worked her way through the remaining buttons, holding his gaze as she did so. She removed her blouse before unfastening her trousers and nimbly lifting her hips from the thwart, sliding them down over her long, tanned legs.
Like a teenager he gazed at her, as if he’d never before seen her undress.
For a moment they sat, each perched on their own thwart, both in their underwear.
He stood up while she remained seated.
He waited, the same unspoken challenge in his gaze.
She stood up to face him, wearing a faint, strained smile. Legs wide in the tiny vessel, they gently swayed towards one another.
“You’re surely not thinking about jumping in wearing that lovely brassiere?”
“No …” Her lips parted and slowly she ran her tongue over them as she reached her arms around behind her back and unhooked the delicate garment. She felt her bare nipples stiffen. With a sense of uncontrollable sexual arousal coursing through her body – stronger than he had awakened in her for many years – she dangled the brassiere in front of him.
He took it from her, a dangerous glint in his eyes.
He took one step forward, grabbed her wrist, and in one swift movement sat down firmly on the middle thwart, bracing his legs against the rigging and throwing her above his head. Her body formed an arc as she soared over the gunwale and entered the dark water, head first. With a short, sharp cry of shock, she disappeared into the deep water.
He quickly glanced at his watch. Just a few minutes past! Things were going perfectly.
From the opposite side of the isle he heard the other boat. It was obviously much closer now.
He peered over the side and down into the black depths.
Nothing to see. Nothing at all …
The small, high-speed boat made its way around the headland.
Lars waited, but no mermaids emerged from the waves beneath him. Nobody at all, for that matter. Anne-Mette was gone – forever.
The high-speed boat slowed, making an elegant turn before deftly lining up beside the much heavier rowboat.
Steinar looked at him quizzically. “So? Did everything go to plan?”
Lars nodded, his expression grave. “It had to be done – for the children’s sake,” he added.
Steinar nodded. “You’ve explained everything.”
“All those debts … the life insurance will pull us through the worst of it.” He leaned in towards his childhood friend. “I’ll never forget this, Steinar. If you hadn’t told me about the undercurrents, then …”
“Enough now,” Steinar replied. “One good turn deserves another,” he mumbled. “But look … I need to be getting back to the city. If anyone were to see us out here together they might put two and two together.”
“When will I see you next?” Lars asked, his expression disclosing a sudden sense of loss.
“At the funeral, I’d imagine. Let me know about the arrangements.”
He looked at me, a triumphant expression on his face as he gestured to the barman to serve us another round. “That was that. She was buried, and no more was said about it.”
“And nobody suspected anything?”
“Lars was summoned for a few routine interviews, obviously, but no. The water had been unusually warm that day, she was found wearing nothing but her underwear, and he explained that they were in the middle of taking a dip when she was suddenly pulled under. It didn’t do his case any harm when you consider that a similar accident had happened there thirty years before, almost to the day.”
“And the life insurance?”
“Paid out in full.”
Fresh pints appeared at our table. We each took a sip.
“So what’s your role in this tale, then? Are you Steinar?”
A faint smile crossed his lips. “You could say that. But that was years ago now. Four and a half, to be precise.” He threw out his hands. “In other words: yes, the perfect crime does exist.”
“Well, not entirely perfect,” I said.
“Meaning what, exactly?”
“It strikes me that you made one fatal error.”
“Which was …?”
“Revealing the story to a retired policeman four and a half years later.”
“I may not work for the force anymore, but as I’m sure you are aware, we retire at the sprightly age of sixty and many of us work elsewhere until we qualify for a state pension. For instance, I’m employed as an investigator by a life insurance firm. The same firm Anne-Mette and Lars – if we insist on continuing to use those names – chose for their policy all those years ago.”
He had fallen silent.
“We’ve had you all under surveillance since the incident all those years ago, but it was only today that we achieved our objective. I’ve got the whole thing on tape just here,” I said, lightly tapping my jacket pocket.
He looked at me bleakly without uttering a word.
Before we left, I had one final question for him. “What about now then, eh? Surely you agree with what I said earlier about the perfect crime …?”
By Gunnar Staalesen
Translated by Rosie Hedger
Gunnar Staalesen was born in Bergen, Norway in 1947. He is the author of more than twenty titles, which have been published in twenty-four countries and have sold over four million copies. Twelve film adaptations of his Varg Veum crime novels have appeared since 2007. Staalesen has won three Golden Pistols (including the Prize of Honour) and most recently the Petrona Award for the international bestseller Where Roses Never Die.
Rosie Hedger completed her MA in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Rosie’s translation of Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal won an English PEN Translates Award in 2016 and was selected for BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime. The novel was subsequently shortlisted for the 2017 Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year.