Authors: Liza Marklund
Tags: #Detective and Mystery Fiction, #Sweden
A mother found. A father lost.
In the midst of a Swedish winter, a young mother is found murdered behind her son’s nursery. Halfway across the world, in the sweltering Kenyan heat, a government official is kidnapped.
As a journalist, Annika Bengtzon is often on the frontline, witness to the darkness humans are capable of. But this time it’s different. It’s personal.
The official held to ransom is her husband and she must meet the extreme demands of his kidnappers if she is to bring him home. And what of the Swedish mother slain in the snow? Until her killer is found, no one is safe . . .
I wasn’t worried. The roadblock looked the same as the others we’d been through. Rusting oil-drums on either side of the track (you couldn’t really call it a road), a tree-trunk, which had been stripped of most of its branches, and a few men with grimy automatic guns.
There was no real cause for concern. But still I felt Catherine push her leg closer to mine. The gesture transferred itself through muscles and nerves and ended up in my cock. It wasn’t a conscious reaction and I did nothing about it, just glanced at her and gave her an encouraging smile.
She was interested, just waiting for me to make my move.
Ali, the driver, wound down his window and leaned out, holding our security clearance in his hand. He was sitting right in front of me; the car was right-hand drive, built for use in the Commonwealth. A hot wind full of dusty earth swirled into the car, dry and abrasive. I looked out over the countryside: low thorn bushes, jagged acacia trees, scorched earth and a sky without end. There was a covered truck up ahead on the right, a pile of empty bottles and old boxes, a body. The other Land Cruiser pulled up alongside us on the left, and the German clerk waved at us through the window. We both pretended not to see her.
Why send a clerk on a trip like this? The rest of us couldn’t help wondering.
I looked at the time – 13:23. We were slightly late. The Romanian delegate had taken loads of pictures, and Catherine had already sent out some sort of briefing for the conference. I thought I knew why. She didn’t want to have to sit there writing it this evening. She wanted to skip the official dinner and be alone with me. She hadn’t asked me yet, but I could feel it.
She was leaning against me now, but I decided to make her work a bit harder.
‘Thomas,’ she said, in her cut-glass English accent, ‘what’s going on?’
Our driver had opened the door and stepped out onto the red soil. The men with automatic weapons were circling the car. One opened the front passenger door and said something to the interpreter in a loud, commanding voice, and the skinny young man raised his hands above his head and got out too, I heard one of our guards in the seat behind us take the safety-catch off his weapon. A sudden flash of metal met my eyes. I was starting to find the situation uncomfortable.
‘Don’t worry,’ I said, trying to sound calm. ‘Ali will sort it out.’
Now the rear passenger door on the left-hand side of the car was opened. The French delegate, Magurie, who was sitting nearest, sighed and got out. The dry heat overcame the air-conditioning, and red dust swept over the leather seats, like a coating of lace.
‘What’s going on?’ the Frenchman asked, in his nasal voice. He sounded genuinely indignant.
A tall man with a very long nose and high cheekbones stopped outside the door on my side of the car and stared at me. His face came very close to mine. One of his eyes was criss-crossed with red, as if he’d just been hit. He raised his gun and tapped on the glass with the barrel. The air behind him was white and parched, vibrating in the heat.
Fear grabbed me in a stranglehold.
‘What are we going to do?’ Catherine whispered. ‘What do these men want?’
An image of Annika flashed through my mind, her big eyes and hair like rain.
‘They’re just showing how powerful they are,’ I said. ‘Don’t worry. Just do as they say and everything will be fine.’
The tall man opened the door on my side of the car.
The woman was lying on the hillside, covered with snow, in the forest some twenty metres behind the nursery school. One brown boot was sticking up, like a windswept branch, or perhaps the roots of a fallen tree. A ski-track on the path seemed to hesitate at that point, marks in the snow showing where the poles had lost their rhythm. But apart from that the snow was undisturbed.
If not for the boot, the body could have been a rock, an anthill, or a sack full of last year’s leaves. It bulged like a white seal among the low scrub, shimmering and soft. The snow crystals on the boot glittered intermittently in the fading light.
‘You shouldn’t be here.’
Annika Bengtzon pretended she hadn’t heard the policeman as he came up behind her. She had trudged towards the body from a path behind Selmedalsvägen, via an abandoned football pitch, then up the hill and into the low-growing forest. Her boots were full of slowly melting snow, and her feet were so cold she was starting to lose the feeling in them.
‘I can’t see any cordon,’ she said, without taking her eyes from the body.
‘This is a crime scene,’ the policeman informed her, sounding as if he were trying to make his voice deeper than normal. ‘I’m going to have to ask you to leave, at once.’
Annika took two more pictures with the camera on her mobile, then looked up at him. He was so young he hardly needed to shave. ‘Impressive,’ she said. ‘The body’s still covered, but you already have a preliminary cause of death. What did she die of?’
The policeman’s eyes narrowed. ‘How do you know it’s a she?’
Annika looked at the body again. ‘Trannies might wear high heels, but usually not in size … What do you think? Thirty-six? Thirty-seven?’
She dropped her mobile into her bag, where it drowned in a sea of pens, children’s gloves, passcards, USB memory sticks and notebooks. The policeman’s colleague came panting up the hill with a roll of tape in his hand.
‘Has she been reported missing?’ Annika asked.
‘Fucking liberty,’ the policeman said.
‘What?’ Annika said.
‘That the Regional Communication Centre call the evening papers before alerting a patrol car. Get lost.’
Annika hoisted her bag on to her shoulder, turned away from the body and walked back towards the football pitch.
In recent months RACEL, Radio Communications for Effective Leadership, had been introduced throughout Sweden: a digital radio system for the police, ambulances and fire brigade that couldn’t be tapped into. At a stroke all the civilians who used to pass on tips about police were out of a job. The staff at the regional communication centres had enthusiastically taken on the task, as well as the extra income that came with letting the media know about outbreaks of violence and misery.
She reached the edge of the forest and stopped to gaze out across the suburb.
The grey-brown nine-storey blocks below her were wrapped in a veil of frost and fog. The black branches of the forest were reflected in blank windows. The flats must have been built at the start of the massive house-building boom that had begun in the mid-1960s: the façades seemed to hint at some attempt at quality, as if there had still been an ambition to make the place worthy of its inhabitants.
Her toes were numb now. It was late afternoon. She could feel the wind blowing between the blocks.
Axelsberg. A residential district with no obvious limits, a name on a windy underground platform.
‘A dead body behind a pre-school in Axelsberg. It can’t have been there long.’
She’d been on her way back from Ikea at Kungens Kurva when the newspaper’s switchboard called. She had cruised through the slush, crossing the four lanes of the motorway and pulling off at the Mälarhöjden junction. Sure enough, she had got to the scene thirty seconds before the first patrol car.
She sent two of the pictures from her mobile to the desk, an overview of the crime scene and a close-up of the boot.
A dead body didn’t necessarily mean that a crime had been committed. All types of suspicious death were investigated by the police, but most turned out to have some natural explanation, or to have been accidents or suicides.
Something told Annika that this wasn’t one of those cases. The woman hadn’t been out jogging and then had a heart attack, not in those shoes. Anyway, she wouldn’t have been jogging through the undergrowth alongside the footpath. And she couldn’t have just tripped and fallen, not that far, and not right into the middle of a clump of bushes.
She had been covered with snow, but the caller had been correct: she couldn’t have been lying there for very long.
It had started snowing late the previous evening, sharp ice crystals that lashed at windows and stung like needles on the face of anyone who had to go out and buy milk at half past ten at night, as Annika had had to. During the morning the snow had started to fall more heavily and the Meteorological Office had issued a class-two warning: ‘Dangerous conditions for the public, damage to property and severe disruption of public services.’
An hour ago it had stopped.
The woman couldn’t have been lying there all night: if she had, her foot would also have been buried in the snow. She had ended up there some time this morning, Annika thought. What’s a woman doing, walking along a path behind a nursery school in high-heeled boots through a snowstorm at eight o’clock in the morning?
Annika headed right, down towards the street.
There were two nursery schools next to each other on Selmedalsvägen, one run by the council, the other private. Three patrol cars, the lights on their roofs flashing, were parked up, spreading a cloud of exhaust fumes in front of the entrances to the schools, which gradually dissipated among the climbing-frames and slides. As long as the lights were flashing, the engines had to run or the batteries would die. On more than one occasion a potential car-chase had never happened because the police vehicle wouldn’t start.
A few parents, two mums and a dad, were arriving at the private nursery school, wide-eyed with anxiety. Had something happened? Surely not at their school. And not to their children because someone would have called, wouldn’t they?
Annika stopped behind one of the patrol cars and watched them. The father took charge and went up to the rookie cop who’d been left in the cold to fend off the press and any other curious onlookers.
A body had been found, presumably deceased, in the forest … No, not in the nursery-school garden, up on the hillside … No, it was unlikely that any of the children had seen it … No, the cause of death wasn’t known at present, and there was nothing to suggest that the death had any connection to the nursery school …
The parents breathed a sigh of relief and hurried in to their offspring, clearly relieved that, once again, death was someone else’s concern.
She went over to the rookie cop. ‘Bengtzon,’ she said. ‘
. Which one of the nursery schools were her children at?’
The rookie glanced over at the council-run school. ‘Child,’ he said. ‘She only had one, as far I know. A boy.’
Annika followed his gaze. A red cardboard star was hanging in the window next to the door. White snowflakes had been cut out and stuck to the glass. ‘And it was her workplace that sounded the alarm, wasn’t it? When she didn’t turn up this morning?’
He shook his head. ‘A neighbour,’ he said, taking a step back. ‘But you’ll have to talk to the regional communication centre about that, or a senior officer. I don’t really know anything.’
She felt a rumble of anxiety in her midriff, and thought it funny that she never got used to hearing news like this. A young mother with small feet and high heels drops her child off at nursery school and dies on a path as she’s heading home through a snowstorm.