Vega Gillberg is 16 years old when the police come knocking on the door looking for her older brother, Jakob.
Vega hasn’t heard from him in days, but she has to find him before the police do. Jakob was involved in a terrible crime. What no one knows is that Vega was there, too.
In the rural Swedish community where the Gillbergs live, life is tough, the people are even tougher, and old feuds never die. As Vega sets out to find her brother, she must survive a series of threatening encounters in a deadly landscape. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s dealing with the longing she feels for a boy that she has sworn to forget, and the mixed-up feelings she has for her brother’s best friend.
During a damp, raw week in October, the door to the adult world swings open, and Vega realises that once she has crossed the threshold there is no turning back.
** This extract is from the beginning of October is the Coldest Month, published in Australia by Scribe. To purchase click on the 'Buy' link at the bottom of the page.
I guess it took about three days before I really grasped how serious the situation was.
The autumn mist descended slowly along the edge of the forest, turning into a thin white veil that covered everything. I walked home with a song in my headphones that afternoon — a man’s gravelly voice in my ears. After I’d got out of the bath I had taken to get rid of the chill, the doorbell rang.
He stood on our little concrete steps in his uniform and said that his name was Viktor Franzén. I didn’t like him.
He asked if Mum was home.
‘Do you know where she is?’
‘Do you know when she’s coming home?’
I said no a third time, and crossed my arms.
‘How old are you?’ he asked.
‘Can you answer the question?’ ‘I’m sixteen. What’s this about?’
‘Your brother Jakob.’
‘What about him?’
‘When did you last see him?’
‘I don’t remember.’
Viktor Franzén spoke with a southern, Småland accent, but he wasn’t from around our area, I could hear that much. He had sharp, narrow eyebrows, and when he raised them they looked like an angry M. He took a notepad out of his shirt pocket, a pocket that said POLICE INSPECTOR, and clicked a pen.
‘You don’t remember the last time you saw your brother?’
‘As I understand it, the two of you are pretty close.’
‘How did you come to understand that?’
I had an urge to get the shotgun, but it was by the kitchen window and if I went over there, it would give Inspector Franzén an opportunity to walk into the hall — and I didn’t want that.
‘We want to question Jakob.’
‘I can’t discuss that with you. Can’t you just tell me where your mum is?’
My arms were still crossed. A good thing, because otherwise he probably would have noticed that my hands were shaking. I leaned against the doorjamb, waiting for him to give up, and when he did, he took out a little card instead.
‘Here’s a phone number. As soon as you hear from her or your brother, ask them to call me. It’s important.’
Once Franzén had left the steps, I walked into the kitchen and stood there, following him with my eyes as he turned his blue-and-white Volvo around, drove back onto the gravel road, and vanished off through the trees. I read POLICE on the hood of the car, its sides, on the rear door. Alarm bells were ringing, and it was hard to breathe. I threw away the card with Franzén’s number.
It soon got dark, and I did the dishes to avoid thinking about what Franzén’s visit meant; then I switched to stuffing clothes into our old washing machine. I vacuumed and dusted and straightened up, putting things away in drawers and on shelves.
Once I was finished, I checked to make sure the shotgun was loaded. Then I wrapped an old fleece jacket around my shoulders, and went to sit on the concrete steps and smoke a cigarette in the cold.
If you look at a map of Varvet, the area where I live, you can see there are several hundred metres or even a kilometre between people’s homes — at least the ones that are marked on the map. As if God took a handful of houses, garages, barns, stables, and sheds in his giant hand and let them float down to earth, cold and lonely as snowflakes, spread out in a funny pattern. The landscape and the forest are the old kind that make you want to keep to the roads and paths even during the day. The summers always pulsate with heat, and in the autumn and winter the air is damp and raw.
I heard a bird screech in the distance, and sluggish insects who had survived the cold were buzzing nearby. The smoke rose from the glow of my cigarette, and I sat there thinking, and the more I thought the more nervous I got.
The police were looking for my brother. Aside from Mum, he was pretty much the only link I had to anything meaningful, and if they took him I didn’t know what I would do — how I would cope.
The rumble of an engine and the crunching of tyres coming down the gravel road grew stronger and closer, until Mum’s blue Ford pulled into the driveway and stopped.
I stood up and went inside, firm in my resolve to keep lying to her if necessary.
‘How was school today?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Because I didn’t go.’
‘And why is that? It’s Monday.’
‘We’re on autumn break.’
‘A policeman was here today.’ The words just slipped out. ‘He asked for you.’
She was standing at the stove with a teabag in her hand, waiting for the water in the saucepan to heat up. It always took an unnaturally long time. She turned around, leaning against the kitchen counter.
‘Yes. Viktor Franzén.’
‘What did he want with me?’
‘I think he wanted to ask about Jakob. If you know where he is.’
‘I have no idea. Did you tell him that?’
‘I said I didn’t know where Jakob was.’
‘But what about me,’ she said, ‘did you tell him I don’t know either?’
She stifled a sigh; I could tell from her shoulders. The saucepan started bubbling on the stovetop. Mum dropped the teabag into it and took a mug from the cupboard.
‘Don’t you?’ she asked.
‘Don’t I what?’
‘Don’t you know where Jakob is?’
‘No, but I guess he isn’t home,’ I said. ‘Otherwise the police probably wouldn’t have come here.’
‘No. No, you’re right,’ she said, and she seemed to relax, which made me feel relieved.
Maybe I wouldn’t have to lie.
Mum had work in an hour. That was how it had been for a while now: she worked at Varv House, the pub, serving beer and liquor to the five or ten people who went there on weekdays, and the twenty-five or thirty who went there on weekends. They closed at one o’clock and then Mum would stick around and have a glass or two, sometimes more, with the regulars. After that, it took another hour to count the register, clean up, and prepare for the next day. She rarely got home before four in the morning, and she often slept until after lunch.
It was a good job, but between the family we still always said that she’d gone to work for the competition, which in some ways was true.
When the tea was ready, she sat down at the kitchen table across from me. Mum had the sort of green eyes that made you think of jewels. I’d inherited them, and her high cheekbones. I had Dad’s hair, thick and dark as soot, and his crooked smile.
Jakob was nineteen, three years older than me, and we looked alike, had inherited the same features, but he was over six feet tall while I never got taller than five foot three, no matter how straight I stood.
‘You did the dishes,’ Mum said.
‘Did you vacuum too?’
‘Great.’ She drank some of the tea. ‘You should eat more. Those breasts and the nice arse you’ve started developing will shrink back down again if you don’t eat.’
When she left in the Ford a little while later, she’d changed into a pale grey flannel shirt knotted under her breasts, and a short black skirt. I liked to watch her as she stood in front of the mirror, fixing herself up — as she straightened or curled her long brown hair, as she put on her stockings and applied lipstick, making sure her clothes were sitting properly. It was calming, somehow.
But sometimes, as she stood in front of the mirror to see how she looked, to make sure that her panty line wasn’t visible through her skirt, she would put one hand on her arse and cup the other around one breast and squeeze, then laugh and say, ‘Got to have these on display because they pay our bills.’
It was gross.
The Ford drove off down the gravel road. I grabbed another cigarette and sat on the steps again, gazing out at the darkness and hoping that Jakob’s old Volvo would appear out of the shadows. It didn’t, so I sat there thinking about my brother, wondering where he was.
In Varvet, you inherit your house, your way of life, your loyalties. History is in your blood whether you want it there or not.
Once upon a time, for example, the Fällgren and Adolfsson families had an argument over a piece of land that was right between their farms, but had no papers. It began when two of Fällgren’s farmhands burned the field in the spring, to make it more fertile. When Farmer Adolfsson smelled the smoke, he left his morning coffee, rushed outside with his shotgun, and put a cluster of lead in the one farmhand’s back. That’s how it started: Fällgren suddenly had an injured farmhand, who needed medical care and rest, and on top of that it had happened right on Fällgren’s own property. Adolfsson had had his field burned to ash because the farmhands had done a bad job. The feud took root and began to grow. That was a long time ago now, when the farms were still doing well. Then came the hard years, and they never really recovered after that.
Other conflicts were considerably newer, like the one between us and the Sten family. It wasn’t until pretty recently that I’d figured out what that was all about.
I didn’t ask too many questions; questions would only stir the pot. What I did know was that Jakob had started doing a bit of work for Uncle Dan, who was a moonshiner. To get to Dan’s house you had to go deep into the forest, and not everyone could make the trip, so he took orders and had them delivered to the buyers.
Dan had left Varvet when he was about twenty, and had ended up a dockworker at one of the small harbours along the coast. He’d worked there until fate decided to drive him back home by making sure that a container fell and crushed his left arm so badly that there was hardly anything left to amputate. A one-armed dockworker is worse than none at all because he costs more money than he brings in, so in the end, Dan came back to Varvet again, and brought some of the skills he’d learned at the docks back with him — among other things, how to make your own hooch.
Moonshine had been old Frank Sten’s livelihood, but the problem was that the stuff he produced tasted like tar. With better liquor and ugly tricks, Uncle Dan put Frank Sten out of business, and Sten became unemployed and depressed. He tried to stay in Varvet, but couldn’t deal with it. His wife, Diana, and their son, Tom, wanted him to make a living some other way, but Frank said there was nothing else he could do. Eventually, his depression killed his marriage, and at that point he left Varvet. Diana and Tom stayed behind.
At first, Dad was the one who did some work on the side for Uncle Dan, handling the deliveries. Luckily, by the time he took off and left me, Mum, and Jakob, my brother was old enough to take over.
That was why we joked that Mum, who sold store-bought liquor down at Varv House, worked for the competition these days. Though really, they were probably more like colleagues.
The first time I rode along with Jakob was last summer. He came by our house one evening after Mum had gone to work and asked if I wanted to help him out, and I didn’t exactly have anything else going on, so I said yes.
Jakob’s car was an old Volvo station wagon, and the paint job was the fresh green colour of mint, or a coral reef in a movie. When I sank down in the passenger seat, it suddenly felt like I could go anywhere. Like I would no longer have to sit there, cemented, frozen, as the big world refused to stop spinning outside.
‘Where are we going?’ I asked.
‘We’re just going to drive some stuff around.’
‘What kind of stuff?’
‘Stuff. Stop asking.’
‘You want me to come along, but you won’t tell me what we’re doing?’
“Want” might be a strong word,’ Jakob mumbled, putting the car into first gear and adjusting the air conditioning.
That was when I realised what was actually going on.
I rested my head against the seat back and closed my eyes.
‘Mum made you bring me.’
‘Something like that.’
We drove along the gravel road. I heard the pebbles strike the undercarriage and breathed in deeply through my nose, so I could smell the heavy scents of nature.
‘We’re going to deliver some furniture down by Summer Lake,’ Jakob said at last. ‘Dan knows someone there who came across a nice old chest of drawers a few months ago, and now he’s sold it.’
We drove through the summer night. At first I mostly sat there quietly, but then we started to chat and time passed quickly, and soon we stopped at one of the houses near the lake. The chest of drawers we were supposed to pick up was behind a garage, hidden under a green tarp and wrapped in a thick blanket. It was old and wooden, and it was way too nice not to have been stolen. It was the kind of furniture you could only own in your dreams.
Jakob folded down the back seat of the car and I helped him lift the chest in.
‘Good thing you came with me,’ he said as he turned the key in the ignition again and we drove off. ‘I don’t think I could’ve managed on my own. Shit, that was heavy.’
Then we drove. It was already past Midsommar, but there was still almost the entire summer left before autumn began. I knew we were doing something forbidden, which made a nice kind of nervousness tickle way down in my belly. I wouldn’t have had any problem with life staying like that forever.
The slow summer days turned into slow summer weeks, and I kept riding along with Jakob. He started to enjoy it by the third or fourth time, I think, because he began to explain what he was doing, how it should be done, and what you should say to which person, the way you would explain a trade to an apprentice.
But then one night I remember that Jakob seemed different.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.
‘The guy we’re going to see tonight. I don’t like him.’
‘Who is it?’
‘You know who Lars Hellman from Krakasa is, right?’
I did. Hellman was an old ex-con who liked to go poaching. His wife had taken off a few years before, when she got tired of being beaten up every weekend, and since then he’d started drinking way too much.
‘I have to drop things off at his place because he won’t drive up to Dan’s. He’s crazy.’ Jakob shifted up a gear, which made the engine groan. ‘I’m pretty sure he’d have no problem shooting a man. To him, there’s no difference between a moose and a person.’
Krakasa was an area in the southern part of Varvet that had once been so overrun with crows that it was named after the sound they make. Where the crows had got to since, I didn’t know.
We arrived in Krakasa with three cans of liquor in the back, and as we stepped out of the car, Lars Hellman eyed me the way you look at a Barbie doll just before you pull its head off. The house he lived in was two storeys high, with brown corner posts, and mullions on the windows. The pale wood was old, and there was something about the house that made you feel uneasy. I thought of Hellman’s old wife, how it might have felt like a prison to her. How free she must have felt when she finally got out.
Hellman was a tall, heavy man of around fifty, with a thick white beard. He wore a cap on his head, and dark green hunting pants, the kind with lots of pockets. His massive upper body was covered by a flannel shirt that was open at the chest, and under that was a glimpse of an undershirt that had once been white but now was almost the same dirty colour as his skin. He moved clumsily but confidently, like a buffalo, and he stank of alcohol. A shotgun was leaning against a big rock behind him. Its barrel looked hard and cold.
‘Is she talkative, that one?’ he asked. ‘The kind who will talk if you ask her something?’
‘No, I’m not.’
‘I wasn’t talking to you, sweetie.’
‘Take it easy,’ said Jakob. He nodded at the cans. ‘Here’s the stuff. Just give me the money.’
‘What a puny little helper you have,’ Hellman kept on, looking at my arms.
‘Vega looks skinny,’ Jakob said, attempting a smile and patting me on the shoulder, ‘but she’s all sinew and muscle.’
‘If you say so,’ Hellman said, turning his head to look at an axe that was sticking out of a stump. ‘So if I were to test her, would you be sure she could handle it?’
Jakob had stopped smiling and was looking at me. ‘Come on,’ he said in a low voice, putting an arm around my shoulders. ‘Let’s go.’
‘Well, aren’t you in a hurry, little girl. When I was your age, I had already shot my first moose and beat the shit out of my old man. But then again,’ Hellman continued, baring his teeth in what I assumed was meant to look like a smile, ‘I wasn’t some helpless little cunt, either.’
He pronounced it cahnt.
‘I’ve been called a cunt before,’ I said, ‘but never by someone so old he couldn’t get it up.’
Hellman’s eyes narrowed.
‘What did you say?’
Jakob took a firm grip on my upper arm and we walked back to the car. Fury blossomed in my chest. Behind me, Lars Hellman spat on the ground.
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Christoffer Carlsson was born in 1986. The author of two previous novels, he has a PhD in criminology, and is a university lecturer in the subject. The Invisible Man from Salem has been a bestseller in Sweden, and won the Swedish Crime Academy’s 2013 Best Crime Novel of the Year award. It is the first in a series starring a young police officer called Leo Junker, and will shortly be developed into a three-season TV drama by StellaNova Film.