On a remote and little-known Swedish island with no criminal history, a nine-year-old girl has been killed. The island’s inhabitants are determined to have the culprit arrested, but have no idea how to proceed.
On a perfectly normal day, a group of students on a field trip came across the corpse of a nine-year-old girl. The gruesome finding occurred as they were hiking up the volcano that sat proudly in the middle of their homeland, the small, beautiful and secluded island of Vala. Neither the students, nor their accompanying teacher, knew what to do.
‘We ought to call the authorities,’ Professor Lindström said, remembering a television show she had once seen.
Unfortunately, the island did not have a police station. It didn’t even have a telephone. Nobody had ever deemed either of them necessary. The only person in charge of anything on Vala was Mayor Lundgren, but he would be clueless, as always when something unusual happened. For the first time in their history, the island’s population would wish they did not live as hermits, on their cone-shaped island, in the Northern-most part of the Gulf of Bothnia.
The island was discovered in the nineteenth century by a group of idealists known as the Better World People. They had been meeting on a regular basis in Stockholm to exchange views on their society, which they unanimously considered evil and depraved beyond repair. One day, after a member of their club was mugged on a street, they decided to leave and create what they believed would be a perfect world. They purchased a boat and set sail for the unknown. Five days and a storm later, they discovered Vala and were enchanted by its warmness. The island benefited from a microclimate that brought them much milder temperatures than would be expected so far north. The air was balmy in winter and very hot in summer. According to recovered notes from that period, the idealists believed they had reached the Caribbean. They named the island Vala, because it was the closest they would get to the Viking paradise Valhalla, and called their settlement Dagmar, in remembrance of a pet cat that had died at sea. The idealists had plenty of time to design their ideal society. When all points were agreed on, they compiled them in a handsome leather codex, which they named The Vala Book of Laws, even though it was not intended to provide any real legal guidance. Nothing was said about what would happen in the event of murder, theft or rape, because none of these events could ever take place on their pure island. The book was an alphabetically ordered collection of thoughts and ideas, sometimes in the form of poetry. The group of idealists also devised a tagline for their island: Land of the Innocent. Years later, when Vala’s true geographic location came to light, they decided that their land should belong to Sweden, even though it was closer to Finland, but that did not matter as the island was not mentioned in any world atlas and no government knew of its existence.
Vala’s population steadily grew. By the early twenty-first century, it had reached six hundred, but not all island dwellers descended from the idealists. The rumor of a Nordic paradise had spread far and wide amongst sailors, resulting in regular new arrivals. According to The Vala Book of Laws, anyone who vowed to live a peaceful and respectful life was free to settle in Dagmar. No questions would ever be asked about newcomers’ pasts. Though most outsiders who established residence on Vala were good people, the island also attracted pirates, criminals and assorted villains in search of a hiding place. However, the crime rate on the island remained remarkably low. Maybe these crooks realized that a better world was possible, or maybe they were grateful for a second chance in life. One way or another, The Vala Book of Laws survived through the years and was never defiled. It sat smugly in its velvet case in the island’s small library. Everyone was free to consult it, providing they wore a pair of white gloves, which the librarian was happy to provide.
The field trip during which the group of students discovered the girl’s body took place in October, on the twenty-ninth to be precise. At that time of year and latitude, days were getting shorter. Professor Lindström knew they would not make it to the top of the volcano and back before nightfall and therefore had aimed for a less ambitious goal. She would take her students to a natural terrace located halfway up the volcano’s Western flank. The school’s main entrance had been set as their meeting point. At nine o’clock, teacher and students proceeded towards the center of Dagmar. They reached the village’s plaza, which had a Mediterranean feel, according to newcomers. Professor Lindström decided not to walk up the steep path that begun a hundred meters to their right. Instead, she led the kids to the western end of the village, past the tennis courts and through the pineapple plantation. The children were pleased with her choice. They knew that, after the fruit orchards and before the cotton fields, a far less strenuous footpath through the vineyards led to the natural terrace. An hour later, they stopped at a spot with rock engravings. Professor Lindström pompously called them petroglyphs, which made the kids snigger. Amongst their group were two sisters, fraternal twins named Annette and Emma Nilsson, who would soon turn thirteen. They were not paying attention to their teacher’s talk about prehistoric lifestyle, which they believed was made up. Those animal engravings had likely been created by previous generations of students on similar field trips. They gazed out at the sea and their village. Dagmar looked very small from above, but they could make out many of its landmarks, including its disused lighthouse, its bright pink toy factory and of course its plaza. On the island’s west coast, a path circled the volcano through a variety of crops and ended in high weeds. In the northern part of the island, a forbidding dark green expanse of trees covered the space between the sea and the volcano’s base. Nobody had bothered giving it a name so people referred to it as the uncharted forest. Even though they could not see the eastern part of the island from their viewpoint, the Nilsson sisters knew that it mirrored the Western one, only with different crops.
‘I will sneak off and go on walking to the terrace, to gain some ground,’ Emma said. ‘I’m tired of being the last in line.’
She walked away, around a bend and out of sight. Professor Lindström went on with her talk and was interrupted by a scream. Annette recognized Emma’s voice and ran off. She found her sister crouched in the middle of the path, next to a sleeping girl. She thought it odd that her sister’s scream had not awoken the girl and wondered why anyone would want to spend a night on a stony footpath. Then, she saw the blood splatters, the hole in the child’s forehead and noticed that her hands were gently clutching a small white bouquet. Within seconds, Annette figured out what had happened. The girl had been murdered and someone had tampered with the corpse. When she heard the rest of the group approach, Emma promptly grabbed the white flowers and stuffed them into one of her pockets.
‘What are you doing?’ her sister hissed. ‘Put them back!’
It was too late for that. Professor Lindström was joining them, followed by her students.
‘That’s Liselotte, the daughter of the couple who runs the village bakery,’ the woman said. ‘She’s in a class three grades lower than yours.’
Annette expected the woman to lecture them about life and death but she remained silent. Everybody was staring at the body, transfixed. Emma understood why. The corpse was magnificent in its lime green dress, against those bright red smudges.
‘Did you find her like this?’ Professor Lindström asked.
It was a stupid question, but Emma knew her teacher was merely trying to make small talk, to fill an uneasy silence. The girl was tempted to make up a story and say that Liselotte had short-changed her at the bakery while selling her an almond croissant. Upon seeing the bakers’ daughter wandering about on the volcano, she had an urge to shoot her, with that gun she always packed when going on field trips. Emma realized there was a tiny chance that her teacher would believe her. She figured it would be wiser and safer to tell the truth.
‘Yes, I found her like that,’ she said.
The news about Liselotte’s murder spread very quickly. People told and retold the story, each time adding a few details of their own, until no one knew which were the facts and what had been invented. The following morning, in an attempt to prevent the story from spiraling out of control, Mayor Lundgren stepped up on the small pedestal located in the middle of the plaza and read out the official version. He ended his speech by saying that, as far as anyone could remember, nobody had ever been murdered on Vala. Then, he stared down miserably at his shoes. The mass of angry and scared citizens that had gathered around him started to speak all at once, asking everyone else whether they knew anyone on the mainland who could help. Obviously, none of them did. According to The Vala Book of Laws, the less contact people had with the outside world, the better off they would be. This rule had been established to protect the islanders’ pure minds from negative energies. As Vala was not entirely self-sustainable, its inhabitants were obliged to purchase items in Haparanda, a small port town on the mainland. Once a week, someone journeyed from Vala to Haparanda by boat, with a shopping list provided by the mayor. To be able to afford these goods, they loaded every departing boat with island products, which would be sold upon arrival. In order to limit interactions to a strict minimum, only one island dweller was authorized to travel to Haparanda. It was the mayor’s job to select the adequate candidate amongst a list of applicants. Every five years, this person had to be replaced, so that nobody would accumulate too much bad energy. At the time of the murder, the selected traveler was a hefty woman named Helga. Mayor Lundgren had reluctantly given her the job because nobody else had applied. He believed that she was too fragile for this task and had consented to let her sail to the mainland at the condition that she wore a full suit of armor, which proved most unpractical, as it was extremely uncomfortable, very heavy and attracted incredulous stares from everyone. When Helga returned home from her first expedition, she threw her armor into a closet and decided to wear only normal clothes from that day on and not care about the town’s negative energies. She would shower whenever she returned from the mainland. Surely, that would wash away all evil.
‘Helga, you are the one who interacts with the outside world,’ a man shouted. ‘You should be the one who contacts the police.’
The woman pictured herself at the police station, explaining that someone had been killed on an island no one knew existed. She would likely get arrested.
‘They will not be able to bring the poor girl back to life, so what is the point?’ she asked.
The mayor pressed that the matter needed to be pursued to make sure that the culprit was prevented from committing other crimes.
‘The girl was not murdered,’ someone said. ‘She slipped and fell while hiking.’
‘And how would you know that?’ the mayor asked.
‘This is the Land of the Innocent. Nobody gets murdered here.’
Everyone suddenly realized just how serious the situation was. That bad energy the mayor had been warning them about had reached the island and infected them. Until then, crime had been an abstraction, something people did every now and then in the outside world. The islanders did have a vague idea of what the rest of their vast and mysterious planet was like, thanks to one essential appliance, an old black and white television set, which used to be located at the top of the lighthouse for better reception, until it became known that only the aerial needed to be elevated. The mayor decided to move the appliance to a place that was less tiresome to reach. An old islander named Mr. Olsson volunteered his living room, which was also much larger. Indeed, up to eighty people could fit inside. However, despite their many efforts, the island’s inhabitants only managed to get a clear reception on Tuesday evenings. According to their technician Stellar Sigmundsson, the problem was due to Vala’s peculiar electromagnetic fields. Stellar used to live in the outside world and had once worked for a large television network. He arrived in Dagmar on Helga’s boat, with a large collection of movies and electronic equipment. Nobody knew why the man had come to Vala, but people guessed that he was on the run for serious law infractions. On the day of his arrival, Stellar asked over fifty times whether the police ever came to the island. Like all other criminal refugees, he settled in well. During the following years, he spent most of his time working on his passion for stop-motion movies. He desperately wanted to share his work with his peers and diffused them on the evenings when they had no live reception. Alas, the islanders only came to Olsson’s living room on Tuesdays to watch what they called real television. Stellar’s productions had been disparagingly labeled fake television.
The only two people who ever watched fake television were Annette and Emma Nilsson. They were mesmerized that a man could go on producing shows over so many years, all the while knowing that nobody was interested in them. The sisters came to Mr. Olsson’s living room whenever they were troubled by something and needed to soothe their racing minds, for example when nine-year-old girls got murdered. When Mayor Lundgren had finished his speech and people began to disperse, Annette and Emma slouched on Mr. Olsson’s best couch, hoping that Stellar would not show one of his productions but rather a movie from his collection. They could not ask him directly, nor browse his entertainment list, given that Stellar transmitted from an unknown location and the two girls had never bothered following the cable to see where that place was. That evening, Annette and Emma were in for a big disappointment. Stellar decided to play a new episode of an extremely dumb and vicious homemade animated series about the misadventures of a pathetic schoolgirl named Lotta. The sisters resignedly watched the opening credits, which claimed that the show was produced by an institution called The Swedish Supreme Board for the Education of Children and Young Adults. Annette and Emma figured that Stellar wanted to blur the lines between real and fake television programs by having people believe that his production was backed by an official entity. Then, the show began, with its familiar and irritating xylophone soundtrack. In this episode, Lotta meets a girl made from a toilet paper roll, with threads of wool for hair and buttons for eyes. She is overjoyed by her new friendship. Then, a uniformed man shows up, yells at the toilet paper girl and tears her to pieces. Finally, he hits on Lotta’s head several times with a baton, for no apparant reason. The Nilsson sisters wondered whether Stellar’s work had always been so brainless or if it had declined over time, given the lack of audience.
‘I wish I were in charge of fake television,’ Annette said. ‘Every evening, I would show stunning movies and wonderful programs about fantastic animals from around the world. I would do close-up interviews of extraordinary people with orange, purple and pink hair. Each of my shows would be an eye-watering explosion of color. I’m sure that I would build up an audience in very little time.’
‘The only television set on our island is black and white,’ her sister pointed out.
A Swedish murder case
Kindle edition: goo.gl/P231ri