The Kingdom by Jo Nesbo Excerpt
"I heard him before I saw him.
Carl was back. I don’t know why I thought of Dog, it was almost twenty years ago. Maybe I suspected the reason for this sudden and unannounced homecoming was the same as it was back then. The same as it always was. That he needed his big brother’s help. I was standing out in the yard and looked at my watch. Two thirty. He’d sent a text message, that was all. Said they’d probably arrive by two. But my little brother’s always been an optimist, always promised more than he could deliver. I looked out over the landscape. The little bit of it that showed above the cloud cover below me. The slope on the other side of the valley looked like it was floating in a sea of grey. Already the vegetation up here on the heights had a touch of autumnal red. Above me the sky was heavenly blue and as clear as the gaze of a pure young girl. The air was good and cold, it nipped at my lungs if I breathed in too quickly. I felt as though I was completely alone, had the whole world to myself. Well, a world that was just Mount Ararat with a farm on it. Tourists sometimes drove up the twisting road from the village to enjoy the view, and sooner or later they would always end up in our yard here. They usually asked if I still ran the smallholding. The reason these idiots referred to it as a smallholding was probably that they thought a proper farm would have to be like one of those you get down on the lowlands, with vast fields, oversized barns and enormous and splendid farmhouses. They had never seen what a storm in the mountains could do to a roof that was a bit too large or tried to start a fire in a room that was a little too big with a gale thirty degrees below blowing through the wall. They didn’t know the difference between cultivated land and wilderness, that a mountain farm is grazing for animals and can be a wilderness kingdom many times the size of the flashy, corn-yellow fields of a lowland farmer.
For fifteen years I had been living here alone, but now that was over. A V8 engine growled and snarled somewhere down below the cloud cover. Sounded so close it had to have passed the corner at Japansvingen halfway up the climb. The driver put his foot down, took his foot off, rounded a hairpin bend, foot down again. Closer and closer. You could tell he’d navigated those bends before. And now that I could hear the nuances in the sound of the engine, the deep sighs when he changed gear, that deep bass note that’s unique to a Cadillac in low gear, I knew it was a DeVille. Same as the great black beast our dad had driven. Of course.
And there was the aggressive jut of the grille of a DeVille, rounding Geitesvingen. Black, but more recent; I guessed an ’85 model. The accompaniment the same though.
The car drove right up to me and the window on the driver’s side slid down. I hoped it didn’t show, but my heart was pounding like a piston. How many letters, text messages and emails and phone calls had we exchanged in all these years? Not many. And yet: had even a single day passed when I didn’t think about Carl? Probably not. But missing him was better than dealing with Carl- trouble. The first thing I noticed was that he looked older.
‘Excuse me, my good man, but does this farm belong to the famous Opgard brothers?’
And then he grinned. Gave me that warm, wide irresistible smile and it was as though time was wiped from his face, as well as the calendar which told me it had been fifteen years since last time. But there was also something quizzical about his face, as though he were testing the waters. I didn’t want to laugh. Not yet. But I couldn’t help it.
The car door opened. He spread his arms wide and I leaned into his embrace. Something tells me it should have been the other way round. That it was me – the big brother – who should have been inviting the embrace. But somewhere along the line the division of roles between me and Carl had become unclear. He had grown bigger than me, both physically and as a person, and – at least when we were in the company of others – now he was the one conducting the orchestra. I closed my eyes, trembling, took a quavering breath, breathed in the smell of autumn, of Cadillac and kid brother. He was wearing some kind of ‘male fragrance’, as they call it.
The passenger door had opened.
Carl let go of me and walked me round the enormous front end of the car to where she stood, facing the valley.
‘It’s really lovely here,’ she said. She was thin and slightly built, but her voice was deep. Her accent was obvious, and although she got the intonation wrong, at least the sentence was Norwegian. I wondered if it was something she had been rehearsing on the drive up, something she had made up her mind to say whether she meant it or not. Something that would make me like her, whether I wanted to or not. Then she turned towards me and smiled. The first thing I noticed was that her face was white. Not pale, but white like snow that reflects light in such a way as to make it difficult to see the contours in it. The second was the eyelid of one of her eyes. It drooped, like a half- drawn blind. As though half of her was very sleepy. But the other half looked wide awake. A lively brown eye peering out at me from beneath a short crop of flaming red hair. She was wearing a simple black coat with no sidecut and there was no indication of shape beneath it either, just a black, high-necked sweater sticking up above the collar. The general first impression was of a scrawny little kid photographed in black and white and the hair coloured in afterwards.
Carl always had a way with girls, so in all honesty I was a bit surprised. It wasn’t that she wasn’t sweet, because she actually was, but she wasn’t a smasher, as people round here say. She carried on smiling, and since the teeth could hardly be distinguished from the skin it meant they were white too. Carl had white teeth too, always did have, unlike me. He used to joke and say it was because his were bleached by daylight because he smiled so much more. Maybe that was what they had fallen for in each other, the white teeth. Mirror images. Because even though Carl was tall and broad, fair and blue- eyed, I could see the likeness at once. Something life- enhancing, as people call it.
Something optimistic that is prepared to see the best in people. Themselves as well as others. Well, maybe; of course, I didn’t know the girl yet.
‘This is—’ Carl began.
‘Shannon Alleyne,’ she interrupted, reaching out a hand so small that it felt like taking hold of a chicken’s foot.
Opgard,’ Carl added proudly.
Shannon Alleyne Opgard wanted to hold hands longer than me. I saw Carl in that too. Some are in more of a hurry to be liked than others.
‘Jet- lagged?’ I asked, and regretted it, feeling like an idiot for asking. Not because I didn’t know what jet lag was, but because Carl knew that I had never crossed even a single time zone and that whatever the answer was it wouldn’t mean a lot to me.
Carl shook his head. ‘We landed two days ago. Had to wait for the car – it came by boat.’
I nodded, glanced at the registration plates. MC. Monaco. Exotic, but not exotic enough for me to ask for it if the car was to be re-registered. On the walls of the office at the service station I had obsolete plates from French Equatorial Africa, Burma, Basutoland, British Honduras and Johor. The standard was high.
Shannon looked from Carl to me and then back again. Smiled. I don’t know why, maybe she was happy to see Carl and his big brother – his only close relative – laughing together. That the slight tension was gone now. That he – that they were welcome home."
Order your copy of The Kingdom now
by Jo Nesbo