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Monday, January 4, 2010
The building looked quite ordinary from the road. Tourists probably assumed it was just another farm where men toiled and sweated happily, at peace with God and the world. Perhaps they thought it was an unusually large and imposing family home, but either way they wouldn't have dwelled on it too long and probably wouldn't have looked back once they had passed it. Actually, it was just as likely that Icelanders thought much the same, but the place hardly ever came up in conversation; the rare times it was mentioned in the press, it was usually because something tragic had happened to one of the poor unfortunates inside. As they always do, readers would have skimmed over the general details in search of the juicier parts that described the most shocking and bizarre aspects of the residents' behavior, then skipped ahead in the hope of finding something more positive. After closing the paper it was unlikely they would retain much information about the place or its inhabitants; it was easier to forget about people like them. Even within the system there was a tendency to sideline the unit; certainly people understood the value of the work they did there, but there seemed to be a silent consensus among government officials to have as little to do with it as possible.
Thóra was sure that if they'd had more work at the law firm right then, she might have turned down the case that had brought her here. Of course, it was possible that her curiosity about the vaguely worded assignment would have made her take it on even if she were busy-it wasn't every day that an inmate of the Secure Psychiatric Unit at Sogn requested her assistance.
Actually, the history of the SPU was short; until 1992 prisoners with mental health problems had either been placed in institutions abroad or simply kept among the general population at Litla-Hraun prison. Neither option was ideal. In the first eventuality the language barrier must have caused patients untold hardships, not to mention the distance from their family and friends; and in the second, the prison was not an adequate healthcare facility. Thóra didn't know how well the prisoners considered to be of sound mind would interact with those suffering from mental illness, and she couldn't imagine how the harsh conditions of prison life could possibly be conducive to the treatment of the criminally insane. All seven places at Sogn were always occupied.
The turn was sharp and her car's wheels skidded on the slippery gravel. Thóra gripped the steering wheel more tightly and concentrated on getting up the short driveway. She didn't want to start her visit by driving off the road and having to be towed up out of the shallow ditch-today was going to be weird enough without that. The woman she'd phoned to put in her request to see the inmate had been quite pleasant, but it was clear from her tone that such inquiries were anything but commonplace. Thóra thought the woman had also sounded nervous, as if she was worried about the purpose of Thóra's visit. Not that that was surprising, given the background of the man she was there to meet. This was no run-of-the-mill inmate, no nervous breakdown, drug addict or alcoholic. Jósteinn Karlsson had been firmly on the road to perdition since his youth, despite numerous interventions by the system.
Thóra had acquainted herself with his record after deciding to assist him, and it hadn't made for pleasant reading. She had only had access to two of his cases-the details of the crimes he'd committed as a juvenile were off-limits-and in one of them, from twenty years ago, Jósteinn had been charged with false imprisonment, actual bodily harm and sexual offenses against children. He was alleged to have lured a nearly six-year-old boy into his home from the street, for a purpose that thankfully never became clear because the man in the flat next door called the police. The vigilant neighbor had long distrusted Jósteinn and insisted that he was responsible for the disappearance of his two cats, after the animals had been found in poor condition directly below Jósteinn's balcony. But although Jósteinn had been caught red-handed in his home with a child unknown to him, and in spite of the existence of a character witness without a good word to say about him, Jósteinn escaped from the affair relatively unscathed. The child couldn't be persuaded to testify, either in court or elsewhere. A psychologist had attempted to speak to him, but to no avail. The child clammed up as soon as the topic was broached. It was the opinion of the psychologist that Jósteinn had scared the boy into silence by threatening him. This, he said, was a common technique of abusers, to buy the child's silence with threats before violating their innocence, and nobody was easier to frighten than a young child. It was impossible to get the boy to tell him how Jósteinn had threatened him, or anything about what had occurred before the police arrived, which made it impossible to prove beyond doubt that Jósteinn had abused the child in the apartment. The prosecution's allegation of sexual assault and bodily harm did not get far, since the boy had no injuries. Yet no one in the courtroom could have believed Jósteinn's claim that he'd thought the child was lost and wanted to help him find his parents. Due to the lack of evidence, Jósteinn received a suspended sentence of six years for false imprisonment.
Twelve years later Jósteinn sexually assaulted a teenager, and this time there was no vigilant neighbor. The parents of the little boy who'd escaped relatively unharmed must have offered up heartfelt prayers of thanks when the media began to report the details of what Jósteinn had done to the second boy. Thóra remembered the case well-though almost a decade had passed-but this was the first time she had read the verdict itself. It seemed clear that Jósteinn had intended to kill the boy, and only pure chance had prevented him; the woman who cleaned the hallways had come to work a day earlier than usual that week, as her daughter was due to be confirmed the next day. She probably wouldn't have noticed anything if she'd only vacuumed the communal areas as usual, but some kid had spilled his ice cream on the wall right next to Jósteinn's front door, meaning she stopped there for longer than she usually would. When she turned off the vacuum cleaner she could hear the victim's muffled cries for help, and after a moment's hesitation she decided to phone the police instead of knocking on the door. In her call the woman had told the emergency services operator she'd never heard anything like the sounds coming from the apartment, and she was unable to describe them in detail. All she could say was that it was the sound of terrible suffering. The police broke into Jósteinn's flat again, and this time he was caught red-handed.
As she read through the ruling Thóra noticed a strange detail that piqued her curiosity. During the investigation, the police had received an anonymous tip telling them exactly where in Jósteinn's flat to find certain photographs; these photos had been taken over a number of years and showed clearly how many children he had abused, and in what ways. The photographs had raised the level of the investigation; had they not been found, the individual offenses Jósteinn would have been charged with might have only seen him sentenced to a few years. The discovery of the pictures allowed the police to obtain a search warrant for Jósteinn's workplace, a computer workshop, to which they had not previously had access. An enormous amount of child pornography and other hardcore material was found, which gave the investigators enough evidence to bring the case against him. Shortly thereafter it went to trial and Jósteinn was ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluation, following which he was found guilty but declared not criminally liable due to insanity. This meant he was acquitted of the criminal charges, but sentenced to detention in the Secure Psychiatric Unit at Sogn, where he was to remain until the courts ruled that his treatment was complete and that he no longer posed a threat to those around him.
Thóra could glean little more except that Jósteinn seemed to have fared rather better than his victim, who was still recovering in Reykjavík City Hospital's rehabilitation unit when the sentence was passed. In her peculiar phone call with Jósteinn he'd hinted that he wanted to discuss an old case, but it was unclear whether he meant the first one or the second. To reopen either seemed preposterous; he had received a ridiculously light sentence first time round, and the more recent case was so clear-cut that she couldn't see what there was to challenge about the verdict. Was Jósteinn hoping to overturn the ruling of insanity and have his incarceration transmuted to an ordinary prison sentence, after which he might be able to gain his freedom? From the short conversation they'd had it was impossible to assess his mental condition; he'd sounded completely normal, if a little brusque and arrogant. He was probably just as ill as the day that he'd arrived; the verdict had included a summary of the psychiatrist's diagnosis, stating that Jósteinn suffered from acute schizophrenia and other personality disorders that could mostly be kept in check with drugs and therapy but that would be almost impossible to cure fully. Thóra had noted that the same psychiatrist suggested the possibility be explored of housing Jósteinn in a secure psychiatric ward abroad, one better equipped to handle such a severely damaged individual; the doctor thought it unlikely that any Icelandic unit would be able to cope.
Thóra got out of the car and took her briefcase from the backseat. It actually didn't contain anything other than printouts of the two Supreme Court verdicts, along with a large notebook. Not that she expected to take many notes; she was almost sure she'd turn down the case, conjuring up some imaginary work as an excuse. The details of how Jósteinn had abused the teenager still haunted her, and she did not intend to hasten this man's release from custody. In fact, she wished she'd just said no from the outset. She shut the car door and walked to the entrance. She was in no position to assess the man's mental health and was unsure what she would be confronted with: had Jósteinn recovered his sanity? Was he now so overcome with remorse that he wanted a second chance? Or was he incurably evil, desperate to be released and find his next victim?
Thóra rang the bell and looked around while she waited. She watched two men walk slowly toward a little greenhouse and go in, each carrying a bucket. One of the men looked like he had Down's syndrome and was possibly an inmate, while the other appeared to be a staff member. Her attention was directed back to the house when the door opened to reveal a woman in a white coat, which she wore unbuttoned over jeans and a tatty jumper. The coat looked just as well worn as the jumper, and repeated washing had all but erased its National Hospital logo.
The woman introduced herself as the duty nurse. She ushered Thóra in and showed her where to hang her coat, making small talk about the traffic and the weather, then led her further into the house and opened the door to a shabby but cozy sitting room where she said the interview would take place. Large windows looked out on a garden and the little greenhouse, inside which the two men Thóra had seen a couple of minutes ago were now busily tending some impressively lush plants. The nurse volunteered the information that the greenhouse's construction had been funded by a generous donation from an elderly woman who more than sixty years before had lost her two-year-old daughter; a man with severe mental health problems had woken one day with the desire to kill someone, not caring who. He had chosen the little girl, though she was a perfect stranger to him. Her mother's benevolence after all these years showed great strength of character, thought Thóra, though this didn't make her any less nervous about the security situation in the sitting room if Jósteinn should decide to attack her. Ideally, she would have preferred them to sit on opposite sides of bulletproof glass. "Am I safe here?" She looked around at the chairs with their embroidered cushions.
"I'll be in the next room." The woman looked unruffled. "If anything happens just shout and we'll be right there." Realizing Thóra was still unsure, she said: "He won't do anything to you. He's been here for nearly ten years without hurting anyone." After a slight hesitation she added, "Well, any human beings, anyway."
Thóra frowned. "What do you mean-has he hurt an animal?"
"That's not an issue any more. There are no animals here now, because of how the most acutely ill inmates reacted to them. But of course we are in the countryside, and animals from the nearby farms do sometimes wander into the grounds." The nurse didn't give Thóra the chance to pursue the subject. "Please have a seat and I'll go and get Jósteinn." It seemed that the man hadn't earned himself a nickname during his detention. "I know he's excited to meet you."
The woman left, and Thóra pondered where it would be safest to sit. The last thing she wanted was to end up too close to him. A worn armchair positioned slightly off to the side appeared to be the best option, and Thóra went over and placed her briefcase on the coffee table in front of it. She decided to stand there until the man came in, having read a long time ago about the importance of standing when wishing to gain the upper hand. The person sitting was forced to look up at the other, which-so the theory ran-tipped the balance of power.
The nurse brought Jósteinn in, introduced him and reminded Thóra that she would be within earshot if they needed her. Thóra saw a grin flicker across Jósteinn's face at this, although the nurse had been careful to word it as if she were offering to bring them coffee if they called for it. He clearly realized that Thóra was nervous, so the balance of power was irrelevant. It was no use letting it get to her, so Thóra collected herself and calmly invited him to sit. Refusing to meet her eye, he accepted her invitation with the same sarcastic smile as before, choosing the sofa across from her chair. She followed his example and sat. Jósteinn was slim, and although the clothes he wore were not at all fitted, Thóra could tell from his sinewy neck and hands that he was strong. He appeared to have dark hair, but it could have been the gel or wax he'd applied making it look darker than it was. It looked almost as though he'd just been swimming, and in one place the clear substance had run down his cheek, leaving a shiny streak on his bony, rat-like face. He still hadn't looked directly at her.
"Are you comfortable?" he said. Although the question was courteous, his tone was faintly mocking. "I hardly ever have visitors, so I want your visit to be as pleasant as possible. They wanted to put us in a meeting room, but I thought it was too formal so I asked if we could meet here." He narrowed his gray eyes at the coffee table between them and pursed his thin lips. "I hardly ever have visitors," he repeated, then smiled unconvincingly. "Never, in fact."
"It might be easier if you got straight to the point." Thóra was generally much more polite to people she met through work, but Jósteinn made her so uneasy that she was going to find it hard to avoid being downright rude to him. "I've acquainted myself with your case as best I can, but I don't know what it is you expect of me. Naturally, I would prefer it if you just told me."
"Naturally?" Jósteinn looked up at her now. "What's natural? I've never been able to figure that out." He sniggered nastily. "If I had, we wouldn't be sitting here."
"No, probably not." Thóra opened her briefcase. "You've been here at Sogn for eight years or thereabouts. Is that right?"
"Yes. No. I'm not too sure. Numbers and I don't mix. They lay traps for me, then I fall in and can't get out."
Thóra didn't want to know what he meant. She had all the evidence she needed: he was still ill. Whether he was still dangerous was another matter, although Thóra felt fairly confident that he was. "Trust me, it's been pretty close to eight years." She regarded him as he nodded apathetically. "Do you miss your freedom?"
"I've come to consider myself just as free here as anywhere else." Jósteinn waited, perhaps expecting Thóra to contradict him, and continued when she said nothing. "Freedom is multifaceted, it's not just about locked doors and bars on the windows. The kind of freedom I long for doesn't exist, in my opinion, so I'd never be completely free anywhere. Here is no worse than anywhere else."
Thóra had no idea how to get the conversation on to a more even footing. "Do you have anything to occupy you? Do they have recreational activities, arts and crafts, anything like that?" She couldn't envision the man with scissors and glue, unless he were gluing someone's lips shut to stop them screaming as he stabbed them with the scissors.
Jósteinn laughed woodenly, like a bad actor auditioning for a comedy. The laughter stopped as abruptly as it had begun, and he straightened in his chair. "There are activities, yes. One guy embroiders pillows, and as you can see he's been here quite a long time. I work on repairing broken computers that we get for free from the government. The work suits me fine. It's what I did before I came here." He pointed out of the window. "And Jakob works in the greenhouse, growing herbs and lettuces."
Thóra turned and watched the two men come out of the little greenhouse, their buckets appearing much heavier now than when they'd gone in. It was clear now that the chubbier one did have Down's syndrome. "Very practical." She very much wanted to ask what Jakob had done; as far as she knew, people with Down's were usually peaceful and good-natured. Of course this went for most people, and it was the exceptions to the rule who ended up here.
"He's my friend. A good friend." For the first time Jósteinn seemed to be speaking sincerely. It didn't last long. He turned away from the window. "Is it possible to reopen old cases? To overturn a conviction and get an acquittal, if you're innocent?"
Thóra was prepared for this question, and had in fact been waiting for it. "Yes, if there is strong enough evidence of wrongful conviction."
"I've recently become a rich man. Did you know that?"
Thóra shook her head. Was he delusional? "No, I haven't looked into your finances. Have you made a profit from your computer work?" Perhaps his definition of "rich" was different to hers.
"I inherited money from my mother. Now everything I am and everything I own comes from her." His features softened into a dopey smile and Thóra recalled reading about his difficult childhood and the genetic nature of his condition. He had probably been raised by an unfit mother, a female version of himself.
"She was hit by a car, you see, and because she was paralyzed she got benefits. She died soon after, and now the benefits and everything else she owned are mine. I'm getting rid of all her personal belongings but the money, I'm keeping."
"Do you have a trustee?" asked Thóra. She was pretty sure he wouldn't be allowed control over his own finances.
"No. But I do have a supervisor. He's never been to see me; I've not even had a phone call." Jósteinn spoke dispassionately, as if unaware of the significance of this. "I want to use the money to reopen an old case. I don't have much use for it otherwise. Luckily, too much time has passed since I was convicted for the boy I messed with to sue me for damages. Or rather, for his relatives to sue me-I heard he lost his marbles." Jósteinn grinned, seeming to find the idea amusing.
There was a sudden knock on the window. Thóra couldn't conceal her shock, and Jósteinn looked delighted. "It's just Jakob, wanting to know who's come to see me. As I told you, I've never had a visitor." He smiled again. "Which is understandable, of course."
Thóra stared back at the beaming face with thick-lensed glasses pressed up against the window. Jakob ran his muddy hands down the pane, leaving brown smears, before waving enthusiastically at Thóra. She waved back. "Why is he in here?" The question slipped out before she had a chance to stop it.
Jósteinn did not seem rattled. "He killed five people in an arson attack, just like that. It was amazing."
"Yes, an extraordinary case." Thóra remembered it, as it wasn't an everyday occurrence for people to burn to death in Iceland. It had been overshadowed by the financial crash, which had happened at the same time. "Was it about eighteen months ago?"
"I think so." Jósteinn flapped his hand dismissively, as if the timing of the fire were an irrelevance. "He's only about twenty, and he'll probably spend most of the rest of his life in here. People like him often have weak hearts, so he might die before he ever gets out."
They seemed to be getting off-course again. Thóra said, "I think I ought to tell you that I don't believe there's much to warrant reopening your case. You were caught red-handed, so to speak, and I can't see how you could come up with a new explanation for what happened without very compelling new evidence. The verdict looks bulletproof, and I can't see that there was anything untoward in how the case was tried."
Jósteinn laughed again, louder this time. An unpleasant waft of halitosis drifted over to Thóra and she screwed up her face involuntarily, as she did whenever a change in the wind gave her an unwelcome update on the state of decay of her neighbors' compost heap. His hilarity was short-lived, and Jósteinn let his expression go blank once more. "Notmy case! Jakob's. The fire." He ran his hand through his greasy hair and then wiped it on the arm of the sofa. "He didn't do it. I know more than you can ever imagine about what it takes to do bad things. Jakob didn't set light to anyone or anything, and I want you to prove it." He suddenly leaned forward and grabbed Thóra's hand, which had been resting on the coffee table, with both of his. His eyes met hers for a brief moment, but then moved back down to their joined hands. She could feel the sticky hair gel, like thick sweat, on his palms. "Sometimes a child who's had his fingers burned still wants to play with fire..."
Copyright © 2013 by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir
English translation copyright © 2013 by Philip Roughton