The woman was lying on the hillside, covered with snow, in the forest some twenty meters 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 toward 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 mo
bile, 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 Center 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 toward 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 gray-brown nine-story 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 preschool 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 toward 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. “Evening Post. 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 neighbor,” he said, taking a step back. “But you’ll have to talk to the regional communication center 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.
Annika was so cold now that she was shaking. The cardboard star was moving gently in the window. A man went past down Selmedalsvägen on a bike.
She ransacked her bag for her mobile, then took a picture of the nursery school, nodded to the rookie, and went back to the newspaper’s car.
* * *
The temperature had dropped significantly since it had stopped snowing. Her breath turned to ice on the windscreen and she had to sit there with the defroster on full blast for several minutes before she could drive off. She undid her boots and wiggled the toes of her left foot frantically in an attempt to get some feeling back into them.
Ellen and Kalle made their own way home from their after
school club, these days. It was on the other side of Hantverkargatan, and was one of the reasons why Annika had never tried to find anywhere else to live, even though the three-room flat she rented was far too cramped.
The traffic eased slightly so she took her foot off the clutch and the car moved a few meters forward. Not even the Essinge motorway had seen a snowplow. She wasn’t sure if the drifts on the road were the result of climate change or the consequence of a policy decision by the city’s new right-wing council.
She sighed and pulled out her private mobile, pressed to redial the last number, and listened to the crackle as the signal made its way through storms and satellites. There was a click on the line, no ringtone. “Hello, you’ve reached Thomas Samuelsson at the Department of Justice . . .”
Annoyed and slightly embarrassed, she clicked to end the call. Her husband hadn’t been answering his mobile since the evening before last. Every time she tried to get hold of him she heard that pompous message, which he insisted on keeping in English, even though they had been back from Washington for almost four months now. And the way he emphasized “Department of Justice,” Christ . . .
Her other mobile, the newspaper’s, rang somewhere deep in her bag. She dug it out without hurrying since the traffic wasn’t moving.
“What the fuck are these pictures you’ve sent through?” Patrik Nilsson, head of news on the printed edition, had evidently received the photos she’d taken with her mobile.
“Dead mother. She’d just dropped her son off at nursery school and died on the way home, unknown how. I’d put a tenner on her being in the middle of a divorce and the kid’s father beating her to death.”
“Looks like the root of a fallen tree. How did you get on with Ingvar?”
“Ingvar Kamprad, from Elmtaryd Agunnaryd?”
She had to search her memory to remember the job she’d initially been sent out to cover. “No good,” she said.
Patrik had got it into his head that the roof of the Ikea branch at Kungens Kurva, the biggest in the world, was about to collapse because of the amount of snow on it. Which would undeniably have been a great story if it had been true. The staff at the information desk had looked totally blank when Annika had asked if they were having problems with the roof. She’d told them they’d had a tip-off from a member of the public, and that it clearly wasn’t true. In fact the “tip-off” had arisen during the eleven o’clock editorial meeting that morning, presumably somewhere inside Patrik Nilsson’s head. In other words, she’d been sent out to see if reality could somehow be adapted to fit the Evening Post’s requirements, which, in this particular instance, had turned out to be a fairly difficult task. The staff on the information desk had phoned someone in Maintenance at a head office somewhere, and he had guaranteed that the roof could cope with at least twenty-two meters of snow.
“No broken roof,” she said sardonically.
“Yeah, but what the hell, did you see it for yourself?”
“Yep,” she lied.
“Not even any cracks?”
The traffic around her started to move. She put the car into first gear, slid on the snowy slush, and was able to get up to almost twenty kilometers an hour. “What are we doing with the dead mother?” she asked.
“The tree root?”
“The police seem pretty certain who she is—a neighbor called to report her missing during the day—but they probably won’t be releasing her name this evening.”
“And she was found behind a nursery school?” Patrik asked, with new interest in his voice. “By one of the kids?”
“No,” Annika said, moving up to second gear. “It was someone out skiing.”
“You’re sure? Maybe one of the kids ran into her on a sledge. Maybe an arm got caught in the runners.”
“The traffic’s moving now,” Annika said. “I’ll be with you in a quarter of an hour.”
* * *
She left the car in the newspaper’s garage, then headed down the steps to the underground tunnels. There used to be four ways up to the office, but bomb threats and box tickers had made sure that all but one were now blocked. The only way to avoid the caretakers was to go from the garage into the basement, then use the lift situated beyond the reception desk. She’d also have several run-ins with a former employee . . . admittedly, Tore Brandt had been fired after he was found to be selling black-market booze to the night editors, but the discomfort of having to walk past that long desk was still in her blood and she almost always used the basement entrance.
She had to wait several minutes for the lift. On the way up her stomach clenched, as it always did when she was on her way to the newsroom, a sort of expectant tension at what she might find when she got there.
She took a deep breath, then stepped out onto the stained carpet.
The open-plan office had been redesigned a couple more times during the three years she had spent as the paper’s Washington correspondent, to suit the new age’s demands for collaboration and flexibility. In the center of the room the news desk floated like a luminous spaceship. It had reproduced: There was no longer just one but three. Like two half-moons, print and online sat with their
backs to each other, staring at their screens. Berit Hamrin, Annika’s favorite colleague, called them the “Cheesy Wotsits.” The webcast unit was situated alongside, where the reception desk used to be. A dozen huge television screens above their heads showed flickering feeds from a mixture of online sites, text TV, and docusoaps. Marketing and advertising were now part of editorial, physically as well as in organizational terms. The screens around the dayshift reporters’ desk had been removed altogether.
In fact, everything was much the same, just closer together. The hundreds of fluorescent lights spread their indirect glow in the same flickering blue tone. Desks were covered with drifts of paper, heads lowered in concentration.
Her years in Washington felt like a story someone had told her or the remnants of a dream. Life was back to square one. This was precisely where she had started as a summer temp thirteen years ago, in charge of the tip-off phone line, running errands, a drudge in the service of the news.
She was seized by weariness. She was still hearing about the same murders of women as she had that first summer, just despatched to cover them by different heads of news. She was back, even living in the same block, albeit in a different flat.
“Have you eaten?” she asked Berit, who was typing furiously on her laptop.
“I got a sandwich,” Berit replied, without looking away from the screen or slowing down.
Annika got out her own computer. Even her mechanical gestures were the same: Plug in the socket, lift the screen, switch it on, log into the network. Berit’s hair was grayer now, and she’d got different glasses, but otherwise the world around Annika was the same as it had been the year she turned twenty-four. Then it had been the height of summer, and a young woman had been found dead behind a headstone in a cemetery. Now it was freezing winter and bodies were found in the forest behind a nursery school,
in car parks or residential streets or . . . She frowned. “Berit,” she said, “don’t you think rather a lot of women have been murdered in Stockholm this autumn? Outdoors, I mean.”
“No more than usual,” Berit said.
Annika logged into mediearkivet.se where much of the Swedish media stored their published articles and columns. She searched for “woman murdered stockholm” since the beginning of August that year and got a number of hits. The texts weren’t full articles, just notes, most of them from the prestigious morning paper.
Toward the end of August a fifty-four-year-old woman had been found dead in a car park in Fisksätra outside Stockholm. She had been stabbed in the back. Her husband had once served a prison sentence for beating and threatening her. He had evidently been held for her murder, but released due to lack of evidence. Because he had been picked up at once, the story had never made it beyond the “news in brief” column of the paper’s Stockholm section. It was labeled a domestic tragedy and written off.
The next report came from the same section, published about a week later. A nineteen-year-old immigrant woman had been found murdered at a popular beach by a lake north of the city, Ullnasjön. She had died from multiple stab wounds. Her fiancé, who also happened to be her cousin, was in custody charged with her murder. He denied any involvement.
And in the middle of October a thirty-seven-year-old mother of three had been found stabbed to death on a street in Hässelby. The woman’s ex-husband had been questioned on suspicion of murder, but it wasn’t clear from the report whether he had been taken into custody and charged or released.
There had been a number of murders in the home in other parts of the country, but the reports were even shorter.
“Hey, Annika,” Patrik said, looming above her. “Can you go and check out a fire in Sollentuna? Probably the start of the Christmas fire season, old dears getting a bit carried away with their Ad
vent candles. Do an overview of how crap Swedes are at using fire extinguishers and changing the batteries in their smoke alarms—could be a good consumer piece, ‘How to Stop Your Candles Killing You’ . . .”
“I’ve already got the dead mum outside the nursery school,” Annika said.
Patrik blinked uncomprehendingly. “But that’s nothing,” he said.
“The fourth murder since I got back,” she said, turning the laptop toward him. “All women, all from Stockholm, all stabbed. What if there’s a serial killer on the loose?”
The head of news looked suddenly uncertain. “Do you think so? How did this one die? Where was it again? Bredäng?”
“Axelsberg. You saw the picture, what do you think?”
Patrik stared across the newsroom, clearly digging out the picture from somewhere in his brain. Then he snorted. “Serial killer? Wishful thinking!” He turned on his heel and went off to talk to another reporter about his killer candles.
“So you got that one,” Berit said. “Mum with a young kid. Divorce? Reports of threatening behavior that no one took seriously?”
“Probably,” Annika said. “The police haven’t released her name yet.”
Without her name, it was impossible to track down her address, and thereby her neighbor, which meant no background and no story, if she really had been murdered.
“Something good?” Annika asked, nodding toward what Berit was writing as she fished an orange out of her bag.
“Do you remember Alain Thery? There was quite a bit written about him last autumn.”
Last autumn Annika had been immersed in the Tea Party movement and the American congressional elections. She shook her head.
“French businessman, blown up on his yacht off Puerto Banús?” Berit said, peering at her over her glasses.
Annika thought hard. Puerto Banús. White boats and blue sea . . . That was where she and Thomas had got back together, in the Hotel Pyr, a room overlooking the motorway. She had been covering the story of the Söderström family, killed in a gas attack at their home, and Thomas had been living with Sophia Grenborg at the time, but was in Málaga for a conference, at which he’d been unfaithful to her with his wife.
“A film’s been posted on YouTube,” Berit said, “claiming that Alain Thery was Europe’s biggest slave trafficker. His whole business empire was a front for smuggling young people from Africa to Europe and exploiting them, in some cases until they died.”
“Sounds like slander of the deceased,” Annika said, throwing her orange peel into the paper recycling bin and eating a segment. It tasted bitter.
“According to the film, there are more slaves in the world today than ever before, and they’ve never been cheaper.”
“That’s the sort of thing Thomas is busy with,” Annika said, and ate another segment.
“Frontex,” Berit said.
Annika threw the rest of the orange into the bin. “Exactly. Frontex.”
Thomas and his fancy job.
“I think it’s appalling,” Berit said. “The whole Frontex project is an incredibly cynical experiment, a new Iron Curtain.”
Annika logged into Facebook and scrolled through her colleagues’ status updates.
“The point,” Berit went on, “is to exclude the world’s poor from the riches of Europe. And with a central organization in charge, individual governments can shrug off a whole load of criticism. When they chuck people out, they can just refer to Frontex and keep their own hands clean, like Pontius Pilate.”
Annika smiled at her. “And when you were young you were in the FNL and protested against the Vietnam War.” Eva-Britt Qvist was looking forward to going to the theater that evening; Patrik had eaten a thin-bread wrap forty-three minutes ago, and Picture-Pelle had posted a link to an Evening Post documentary that had been made in the summer of 1975.
“Frontex’s latest idea is to get developing countries to close their borders themselves. All very practical. And in the developed world we, with our long-established freedoms, don’t have to deal with the issue. Gaddafi in Libya was given half a billion kronor by our very own EU commissioner to keep refugees from Somalia, Eritrea, and Sudan in enormous concentration camps.”
“True,” Annika said. “That’s why Thomas is in Nairobi. They’re trying to get the Kenyans to close the border with Somalia.” She got her mobile out and dialed his number again.
“Didn’t you get a new phone?” Berit wondered.
“Yep,” Annika said.
“Hello, you’ve reached Thomas Samuelsson at the . . .”
She clicked to end the call, trying to work out what she felt. The main question was whom he was sleeping with that night. She no longer felt any anger at the thought, just resignation.
That summer, when the family had returned to Sweden, Thomas had got a job as fact-finding secretary at the Agency for Guidance in Migration Issues. It wasn’t a particularly glamorous appointment and he had been pretty grumpy about it. He’d been expecting something better after his years in Washington. Maybe he’d consoled himself with a vision of all the conferences he’d be able to go to.
Annika thrust the thought aside and called the public prosecutors’ office that had responsibility for crimes committed in the area covered by Nacka Council—they answered calls round the clock.
But the operator was unable to help her find out which pros
ecutor was in charge of the investigation into a murder that had taken place in a car park in Fisksätra in August. “I can only go by what I’ve got on the screen,” the woman said apologetically. “I’d have to transfer you to the office, but they close at three p.m.”
Oh, well, it had been worth a try.
She called the prosecutors’ offices in the Northern and Western Districts as well, but they couldn’t tell her who was in charge of the investigations into the murders at the beach in Arninge or the residential street in Hässelby. (But, in marked contrast, everyone always knew who was responsible for the sexy investigations, like security vans held up by a helicopter, or sports stars taking drugs.)
“And now Frontex have started chartering planes,” Berit said. “They gather up immigrants with no official papers from all over Europe and dump them in Lagos or Ulan Bator. Sweden’s got rid of people like that several times.”
“I think I’m going to pack it in for the day,” Annika said.
She closed down her laptop, folding it away with practiced movements, and putting it into her bag, then pulled her jacket on and headed toward the door.
* * *
“Hey, Bengtzon!” came a cry from the caretakers’ desk, as she was on her way out through the revolving doors.
Shit, she thought. The car keys.
She followed the door round and emerged back in the entrance hall with a strained smile. “I’m really sorry,” she said, putting the keys to TKG 297 on the reception desk.
But the guard, who was new, just took the keys without shouting at her or asking if she’d filled the car up again or made a note in the logbook (she hadn’t done either).
“Schyman’s looking for you,” the new caretaker said. “He’s in the Frog conference room. He wants you to go and see him at once.”
Annika stopped midstride. “What for?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Even worse working hours?” he suggested.
Maybe there was hope for the caretakers after all.
She set off for the conference room. Why on earth was it called Frog?
The editor in chief opened the door for her. “Hello, Annika, come in and sit down.”
“Are you relocating me?” she asked.
Three serious-looking men in dark overcoats stood up as she walked through the door. They had spread out around the small birch-wood table. The reflection of a halogen spotlight off the whiteboard on the far wall dazzled her. “What’s going on?” she asked, raising a hand to shield her eyes.
“We’ve met before,” the man closest to her said, holding out his right hand.
It was Jimmy Halenius, Thomas’s boss, undersecretary of state at the Department of Justice. She shook it, unable to think of anything to say.
“Hans-Erik Svensson and Hans Wilkinsson,” he said, gesturing toward the other two men. They didn’t move.
She felt her back stiffen with wariness.
“Annika,” Anders Schyman said, “sit down.”
Fear appeared out of nowhere and dug its claws into her with a force that left her breathless. “What?” she managed to say, and remained standing. “Is it something to do with Thomas? What’s happened to him?”
Jimmy Halenius took a step closer to her. “As far as we know, Thomas isn’t in any danger,” he said, looking her in the eye.
His eyes were quite blue. She remembered being struck by the intensity of the colour before. I wonder if he wears contact lenses, she thought.
“You know that Thomas is attending the Frontex conference
in Nairobi about increased cooperation concerning European borders?” the undersecretary of state said.
Our new Iron Curtain, Annika thought. Land of the free, and all that.
“Thomas attended the first four days of the conference at the Kenyatta International Conference Center. Yesterday morning he left the conference to act as Swedish delegate on a reconnaissance trip to Liboi, close to the Somali border.”
For some reason an image of the snow-covered body behind the nursery school in Axelsberg came into her mind. “Is he dead?”
The dark-clad men behind Halenius exchanged a glance.
“There’s nothing to suggest that he is,” Jimmy Halenius went on, pulling out a chair and waving her into it. She sank down and noted the look that passed between the two men called Hans.
“Who are they?” she asked, gesturing at them.
“Annika,” Halenius said, “I want you to listen carefully to what I’m going to say.”
She looked around the room: no windows, just a whiteboard, an antiquated overhead projector in one corner, and some sort of ventilation shaft in the ceiling. The walls were pale green, a shade that had been popular in the 1990s. Lime green.
“The delegation consisted of representatives from seven EU member states who were going to find out more about border security between Kenya and Somalia, then report back to the conference. The problem is that the delegation has disappeared.”
Her heartbeat was pounding in her ears. The brown boot with its pointed heel was sticking straight up to the sky.
“They were traveling in two vehicles, both Toyota Land Cruiser 100s, and there’s been no word of either vehicles or delegates since yesterday afternoon . . .” The undersecretary of state fell silent.
Annika stared at him. “What do you mean?” she said. “What does ‘disappeared’ mean?”
He started to speak but she interrupted him. “How . . . I mean, what does ‘there’s been no word’ mean?” She stood up. The chair toppled over behind her.
Jimmy Halenius got to his feet too. His blue eyes were crackling. “The tracking equipment from one of the vehicles has been found just outside Liboi,” he said, “with the delegation’s interpreter and one of the guards. They were both dead.”
The room lurched and she grabbed the table for support. “This can’t be true,” she said.
“We haven’t had any information to suggest that anyone else in the group has been injured.”
“It must be a mistake,” she said. “Maybe they took the wrong turning. Are you sure they haven’t just got lost?”
“It’s been over twenty-four hours now. We can dismiss the idea that they got lost.”
“How did they die? The guard and the interpreter?”
Halenius studied her for a few seconds. “They were shot in the head at close range.”
She grabbed her bag, threw it on to the table, and hunted through it for her mobiles, but couldn’t find one. She turned the bag out on the table. An orange rolled off and landed beneath the overhead projector. She picked up her private mobile with trembling fingers and dialed Thomas’s number, but pressed the wrong button and had to start again. The call went through, with a good deal of crackling and hissing, buzzing and clicking:
“Hello, you’ve reached . . .”
She dropped the phone on to the floor, where it landed next to her gloves and a notebook. Jimmy Halenius bent down and picked it up.
“It isn’t true,” she said, unsure if she’d spoken aloud. The undersecretary of state said something, but she couldn’t make any sense of it: His lips were moving and he took hold of one of her arms. She pushed his hand away. They had met a few times but
he knew nothing about her; he had no idea about the state of her relationship with Thomas.
Schyman leaned forward and said something as well; his eyelids looked swollen.
“Leave me alone,” she said, slightly too loudly, because everyone was staring at her. She gathered all her things back into her bag, apart from the notebook, which she really didn’t need—it was just her notes from the idiotic job at Ikea—then headed toward the door, the way out, escape.
“Annika . . .” Jimmy Halenius said, trying to stand in her way.
She slapped him across the face. “This is your fault,” she said.
And then she left the Frog conference room.