The Dying Game is the debut novel by Swedish author Asa Avdic. Combining suspense, unexpected twists, psychological gamesmanship and a sinister dystopian future, this is a brilliantly contemporary locked-room mystery that will keep you guessing.
On the remote island of Isola, seven people have been selected to compete in a 48-hour test for a top-secret intelligence position. One of them is Anna Francis, a workaholic with a nine-year-old daughter she rarely sees, and a secret that haunts her. Her assignment is to stage her own death and then observe, from her hiding place inside the walls of the house, how the other candidates react to the news that a murderer is among them. Who will take control? Who will crack under pressure?
But as soon as Anna steps on to the island she realises something isn’t quite right. And then a storm rolls in, the power goes out, and the real game begins…
Read on for an extract from The Dying Game!
The Dying Game
“Anna, you’re here today because I want to ask for your help. As you realize, it has to do with the RAN project. I won’t burden you with too many details; only a limited number of us have insight into the group’s work, and as it stands now…” The Chairman leaned back and sighed before going on: “As it stands now, the operative arm of the project has been beset by a defection. The simple fact is, we are one man — or woman — short.”
The sentence hung in the air and my mouth went totally dry.
“I am very grateful for your faith in me, but I’m really not sure whether I’m…”
I cut myself off when I noticed the Chairman’s astonished face. He stared at me for a few seconds with his eyebrows raised, and then he burst into loud, hearty laughter.
“No, I’m not suggesting that you should become part of the RAN group! No, dear Anna, I’d have to say we have other candidates with… well, different qualifications. But I could use your help during the recruiting phase.”
I felt incredibly embarrassed, the way you do when you respond to a wave and then realize it was meant for someone standing behind you. I swallowed my shame as hard and fast as I could and tried to move on.
“How can I be of service?”
The Chairman clasped his hands in front of him.
“As I’m sure you understand, we are looking at several candidates right now, each one extremely qualified in their own way. And what we want to do now is test them in a high-pressure situation. A little field exercise, you could say. That’s where you come in, Anna. You have a great deal of experience in confronting and evaluating people under extreme conditions. You are used to assessing strengths and weaknesses. You know how far people can go, and you also know when they’re at the end of their rope. This knowledge of yours is quite unique, Anna. Not many people have it.”
The flattery warmed me, even though I knew it was part of the strategy. I was supposed to feel indispensable and needed, and it was almost a little embarrassing that it worked even though I saw through it. I said nothing, waiting for him to continue.
“So what we were thinking is that we will carry out a little stress test. We’ll toss our top candidates into an authentic situation in which you can evaluate them. See who shows leadership qualities, who thinks strategically, who is diplomatic, and who doesn’t live up to expectations.”
I still didn’t understand what he was getting at.
“What is it you want me to do, more specifically?”
The Chairman gave a brilliant smile.
“Oh, it’s really quite simple. I want you to play dead.”
So that was the Chairman’s masterful plan, which he proceeded to lay out for me. A faked murder as a stress test. And this was how it would happen: the candidates for the position in the RAN project would be isolated on an island under the guise of participating in the first phase of recruiting, group exercises, and preparation in advance of the final tests. I would be presented as one of the candidates. The team would also include a doctor with experience in crisis management. Sometime during the first twenty-four hours, the doctor and I would stage my death (“At first we were thinking suicide, but I think we’ve settled on murder now,” the Chairman said in a tone that suggested that he considered himself flexible and accommodating), and once I had been declared dead by the doctor I would turn to observing the other participants from what the Chairman called “a hidden position.” My task would be to evaluate how the candidates handled my dramatic demise. Who took initiative, who thought about security, who was the first to come up with a theory about what had happened, and so on. After forty-eight hours, the exercise would be terminated, everyone would be brought home, and I would hand in a report about each of the candidates to the RAN project leadership. All contact would be carried out under the greatest discretion via the secretary of the RAN project. “What we’re really interested in is your intuitive judgment,” said the Chairman. “We can perform deeper analyses of the candidates later; for now, it’s your gut feeling we want to hear about above all.” I felt terribly uneasy when the Chairman was finally finished with his explanation.
The following hours passed slowly and began with a run-through by the secretary. He showed me nautical charts, maps, and drawings of an island by the name of Isola, which was very small and was situated all on its own at the very edge of the outer archipelago. The only way to reach it was by private boat. There were only two structures on the island: a boathouse and a main house. But the main house was a very unusual building. On the surface it looked perfectly normal: two stories and a basement that contained a medical station. But the house contained more than met the eye at first. There were small corridors sketched into the walls between every room; they were large enough for a person to stand in, and the secretary explained that there were tiny holes in each wall. A person could observe what was going on in the house through the walls.
“So that’s why I was given this assignment, you couldn’t find anyone else thin enough?”
It was meant to be a joke, but the secretary looked at me blankly and then continued to present the blueprints. A thought struck me:
“Wouldn’t it be easier to use surveillance cameras than to sneak around inside the walls?”
The secretary shook his head. “We prefer not to retain any documentation from these sorts of assessments. Tapes can certainly be erased or locked up, but they can also be forgotten, purposely or not. They can be abused.”
He pointed at a hatched area under the basement.
“And here, under the medical station, there’s a subbasement: the Strategic Level. That’s where you will spend nights and compile your reports when you’re dead. You and the doctor are the only ones who will have access to that part of the house.”
“Who’s the doctor?”
The secretary smiled for the first time.
“Katerina Ivanovitch, medical doctor and an expert in trauma psychology at the College of Defense. I can tell you she is a very trusted person who has worked closely with the RAN project form the start. You are in very good company.” Judging by the secretary’s expression, he had greater faith in her than he did in me.
“The door to the Strategic Level is opened and closed with a code lock. You’ll find the code in this envelope. You and the doctor will be the only ones with access to it. Be sure to memorize it well. Like I said, no notes.” He rose from his chair.
“Now I’ll leave you here with your homework. I’ll come get you in a few hours.” The secretary left the room. I sat down and stared at the nautical charts, the maps, the blueprints in front me and wondered what I’d gotten myself into.
I lay perfectly still in my little bunk, listening to the sounds from the medical station, whose floor was my ceiling. A woman’s voice (Katja?) shouting, “No, no,” more steps and thuds, and then a scream. Several loud bangs, as if heavy objects were falling to the floor, and then silence. And then steps that sounded like they were leaving the room. I spent a few seconds wondering what to do, and then I made up my mind. My legs unsteady, I struggled to rise from my cot; then I stumbled through the room and up the narrow stairs, opened the hatch, and climbed into the chest freezer. If it had been difficult to get down this way, it was nearly impossible to come back up without making noise or getting stuck. At last I managed to get into a position from which I could enter the unlock code on the control panel, which was hidden along with the hatch button in what looked like a refrigeration coil. Then, as gently as I could, I cracked the lid and peered out into the room.
It was chaos. Objects were strewn about the room as if there had been a fight. The hospital bed was overturned, and under it was Katja, who appeared lifeless. A dark red pool was expanding beneath her head at an alarming speed.
I pushed the lid open a little farther, and when it seemed the room was deserted I decided to take a chance. I awkwardly climbed out of the chest freezer and staggered over to Katja.
“Katja,” I whispered. “Katja? Can you hear me?” She didn’t react.
I placed a hand on her shoulder and shook her gently. Still no reaction. I kneeled down in the slippery, sticky blood to try to determine whether she was breathing, but I could neither see nor hear any inhalations, and I didn’t dare try to lift her head and examine her wound while the bed was on top of her torso, pinning her to the floor, so I stood up to try to move it.
Maybe it was because my head was still heavy with the drugs, but I was too slow. I heard steps behind me and whirled around, but I was not quick enough to see who was behind me or protect myself. The blow landed hard at my temple, and everything went black.