The smell coming from the kitchen woke Minister of Justice Jesper Stenberg. Bacon and eggs, freshly brewed coffee. Those thick American pancakes that the girls loved to drown in maple syrup.
He got out of bed and pulled on his robe. It was just past ten o’clock. He had slept for almost eight hours. Eight hours of deep sleep, just the way it should be. It had been several months since he last had any nightmares, which was as good a sign as any that his brain had moved on. That he’d put everything that happened last winter behind him.
In the bathroom he splashed his face with water. Tried out some of his most reliable facial expressions. Interest, concern, pensiveness. Everything seemed to be working and he winked at his own reflection.
As he walked down the stairs he heard voices from the kitchen. Karolina and the girls, of course, but among them a male voice that he’d hoped to avoid. But after the previous evening that was obviously a vain wish.
“Good morning, Jesper,” his father-in-law said.
“Good morning, Karl-Erik. Morning, darling.” He glued on a polite smile, kissed his wife on the cheek, and took the cup of coffee she held out to him.
“We thought you deserved to sleep in,” Karolina said. “You did well yesterday—didn’t he, Daddy?”
“Absolutely. The papers are unanimous in saying you did an excellent job. Even the opposition papers’ lead articles express reluctant admiration.”
Stenberg took a sip of coffee. Walked around the kitchen and kissed his two children on the head.
“We saw you on television yesterday,” his youngest daughter said, looking up from her iPad.
“And what did you think?”
“You were really good. Mom let us play on our pads so we wouldn’t wake you up.”
Stenberg pulled out a chair and sat down opposite his father-in-law. Decided to preempt any criticism.
“I could have been more aggressive with the opposition. I could have made it even clearer that they’re soft on crime and terrorism.”
His father-in-law made a soothing gesture.
“You’ll have plenty of opportunities to do that over the next few weeks. The main thing is that people saw you can handle a tough line of questioning. That you can keep a cool head and come across as solid and dignified under pressure and without a script.”
“Statesmanlike. He was, wasn’t he, Daddy?”
Karolina put a plate of bacon and eggs in front of Stenberg, half as much as he would have liked. He noticed her exchanging a quick glance with her father.
Karl-Erik got to his feet and patted him on the shoulder. “High time for me to get going.”
“Don’t you want breakfast?” Karolina sounded slightly disappointed.
“Thanks, but I haven’t got time to stop. I just wanted to call in and congratulate Jesper on his performance. Boman’s waiting out in the car.”
“But why didn’t you ask him in? Nisse’s always welcome; he’s one of the family. Isn’t he?” Karolina gave Stenberg an encouraging glance as she followed her father out of the room.
“Of course, absolutely. Nisse’s always welcome,” he muttered after them.
Nisse Boman had been his father-in-law’s driver and right-hand man for the past thirty years, if not more. Before that,
sometime in the Stone Age, he had been Karl-Erik’s orderly in the military. Karolina had grown up with him around, thought of him as an extra dad. The sinewy little man was always polite, never behaving with less than military correctness toward those around him. He only spoke when he had something important to say, which wasn’t very often. He was also considerate, almost protective toward Karolina and the girls. Yet there was still something about Boman that irritated Stenberg. Something about his eyes that was, in the absence of a better description, actively unpleasant. They were pale blue, cold. Almost like a fish’s. They always seemed to be watching and judging him. And not in a way that did him any favors.
His wife came back into the kitchen.
“Daddy doesn’t want to say anything to you yet,” she said, and he could hear the excitement in her voice. “But he’s having an informal meeting with the prime minister this afternoon. He’s worried about the opinion polls. And the likelihood that people regard him as old and tired, especially now that he has to walk with a stick since the operation. Yesterday’s interview was the final test, and you passed. The prime minister is going to ask if you’re ready to stand by his side for the last part of the campaign. His unofficial crown prince.”
Stenberg nodded. He could feel his face automatically delivering the right expression as his wife went on talking.
“All our dreams are coming true. After all our hard work. And sooner than we could ever have hoped. Prime Minister Jesper Stenberg—how does that sound? I’ve booked us a table at the Diplomat this afternoon to celebrate. Lina will stay on for a couple of hours to look after the girls.”
Stenberg went on smiling at his wife. Nothing can spoil this moment, he told himself. Nothing and no one.
• • •
“Good afternoon, Minister,” Oscar Wallin said in an exaggeratedly cheery voice as he walked into Stenberg’s spacious office.
He stopped obediently behind one of the leather armchairs that were positioned at just the right angle for visitors to be able to see both the City Hall and the water of Riddarfjärden through the large windows facing Rosenbadsparken.
“Congratulations on your excellent performance on television last night. You looked like you owned the whole studio. That vicious little journalist really didn’t have much luck. The lead article in my paper declared that you’re the future of the party, possibly even our next prime minister.”
“Hello, Oscar. Have a seat.” Stenberg nodded toward the chair on the other side of the desk. “You wanted to see me?” he added before Wallin had a chance to go on with his predictable flattery.
Wallin opened the blue folder he had been carrying under his arm and put it down on the table between them with a flourish. Stenberg did his best to maintain a neutral expression.
“Well, I just wanted to update you on the body that was found in Källstavik last weekend. I thought it would be good for you to know. The body was found just a stone’s throw from your father-in-law’s country retreat. My guess is that sooner or later someone will start asking questions.”
Stenberg waved one hand. “Of course. But keep it brief, if you don’t mind.”
Wallin started to talk, but Stenberg was only half listening. He knew that Wallin would let his secretary have a detailed memo. To show how clever he was, how industrious. The problem with Oscar Wallin was that he tried too hard, not least when he’d done something wrong, which made him look slippery and ingratiating rather than reliable and trustworthy.
He had begun to get seriously fed up with Wallin. His boyish appearance, the little water-combed curl in his hair, the breezy tone of voice. Not to mention that tired old thing he did with his folders. Wallin was intelligent—very intelligent, even, at least in some respects. But in others he was a complete idiot. Wallin had made a serious mistake last winter, biting the
hand that fed him. But he didn’t actually seem to realize that he ought to have handed in his resignation instead of prancing about in the corridors, trying to find things to do and look important.
For a couple of days last Christmas, Stenberg had been worried. Wallin indicated that he had found a trace of blood in Sophie Thorning’s apartment. He had kept the documentation inside one of his blue folders and intimated that he could link Stenberg to Sophie, possibly even to her suicide. At first he had considered giving in to Wallin’s demand and appointing him as the new national police chief. But then he calmed down. Realized that Wallin was actually playing poker and was bluffing. Wallin had seen to it that dozens of prominent police chiefs had lost their jobs and privileges. Without political protection his career in the police authority was doomed. Probably within the entire justice system, actually. And the only person protecting Wallin was Stenberg himself.
So he had seen through the bluff and consequently deprived Wallin of his dream job. And there was nothing Wallin could do to stop him. It was three days until he appeared in Stenberg’s office with a servile smile and a blue folder under his arm. But by then Stenberg had begun to doubt that there had ever been a trace of blood at all.
He had contemplated going whole hog and firing Wallin. Or, even better, giving him a tedious job in some inquiry and letting his career gradually wither away. He had already slashed Wallin’s budget and seen to it that he had lost his colleagues. All it would take was a single stroke of the pen, and he’d be gone.
But that blue folder Wallin was carrying was still a signal. If Wallin was utterly humiliated, there was a risk that he’d start talking to John Thorning, reveal that Stenberg had been having a secret affair with John’s daughter for years and that Wallin strongly suspected that Stenberg had been there when she killed herself.
Stenberg daren’t take the risk of his former mentor becoming his enemy. He still needed John’s support, not least because he was general secretary of the Bar Association. So Wallin was allowed to keep his office, at least for the time being.
Wallin was still talking. He was halfway through a lengthy description of how bodies decompose in water. Something about bottom-feeders eating the dead bodies.
Stenberg couldn’t help thinking of Sophie, of how her beautiful, slender body was lying in a coffin deep below the ground. Skin and tissue slowly turning to wax. If the worms hadn’t gotten there first.
He felt suddenly nauseous. He stood up abruptly and went over to one of the windows. The smoke from the steamers by the City Hall was drifting on the breeze above Riddarfjärden.
Just a few meters outside his window a seagull hung in the air, almost motionless. It stared at him with empty, dead eyes.
• • •
When Oscar Wallin closed the door of his office his watch struck the handle with an alarmingly loud noise. It had been a Christmas present to himself, a Patek Philippe, exactly the same as the one Jesper Stenberg wore. Before he sat down behind his desk he anxiously checked to make sure the diamond-polished glass wasn’t damaged. His mother had commented on the watch when they had dinner recently. A gift, he had told her, for professional accomplishments. “From the minister?” she had asked, but her tone revealed that she already knew the answer. He had managed to avoid the trap.
Six years ago he helped organize an apartment on Gärdet for her, just a stone’s throw from his own. He moved her out of the dull suburb where his father had exiled them to a three-room apartment, ninety square meters with a view of the city center. He’d had to pull a lot of strings to get it, but obviously the apartment wasn’t the same thing as a grand villa, which it hadn’t taken her many minutes to point out.
All through the years when he was growing up she had waited. Every evening she had forced him to dress for dinner. “Your father will call soon, you’ll see, and you must promise to be a good boy this time.”
The fact that the professor had replaced her with a woman fifteen years her junior, and that the villa was now inhabited by his new family, appeared to make little difference. She had gone on waiting, hoping, and nothing he did could possibly replace what had been taken from her.
As a teenager, he had sometimes gone back to their old home, creeping through the garden gate and standing there in the darkness, looking in through the big windows. The home where he was no longer welcome. The perfect family he wasn’t part of. Dad, mom, daughter, son. Even a golden retriever that didn’t have the sense to bark on the occasions it found him out there in the garden. It just licked his hand and waved its tail stupidly, as if it expected him to play with it.
He still looked up his father’s family from time to time. His half brother and half sister had gone to fancy schools, had traveled the world and studied abroad. Unlike him, they had no student debt and hadn’t had to do part-time work and evening courses with sweaty cheese sandwiches and thermos-flask coffee. Even so, they were no more than drones. Idiots with no ambition to achieve anything, to make a lasting impression.
He had always known that he was different. That he was destined to achieve things. Great things. In that way he and Jesper Stenberg were pretty similar. They weren’t content merely to exist, but knew they were meant for something more than just an ordinary life. They set ambitious goals and did whatever it took to achieve them. Not long ago Jesper had been his role model. A man he regarded as his mentor. Now everything had changed. He hadn’t understood that Stenberg had appointed Eva Swensk as national police chief in order to gain support within the party. Instead he felt let down, overlooked, just as he had as a teenager. And he had been stupid and clumsy enough
to try to force Jesper to change his mind. And since then their friendship had soured badly.
All Wallin had wanted to do was prove the extent of his loyalty. That he was the right man to keep Stenberg’s secrets, and that he could do so even better as national police chief. But Stenberg had misunderstood his intentions and stripped almost everything he had built up away from him. His privileged access, his staff, all the power that made his colleagues fear him. The same colleagues who used to beg and plead for a five-minute meeting now kept their distance from him or openly mocked him.
His relationship with the minister of justice had been seriously damaged; he couldn’t deny that, even if he was doing his best to improve things. In a number of discreet ways he was trying to get Stenberg to realize that his secrets were still in safe hands and that he could be trusted. Evidently that tactic had failed, judging by the conversation they had just had.
But he still had his job in the Ministry of Justice. That meant he still had a chance. He looked up at the framed quote from Robert Kennedy on his wall:
Only those who dare to fail greatly, can ever achieve greatly.
He had failed. That was all there was to it. But he wasn’t beaten yet. One way or another he would make his way back to the top. He would climb higher than anyone could imagine. His colleagues and everyone else who had underestimated him over the years would have cause to think again. He had licked his wounds long enough, playing the role of obedient lapdog. It was high time for a new strategy.
He pulled a business card out of the top drawer of his desk, picked up the phone, and dialed the direct number written on the back.
A male voice answered on the second ring. A short, confident bark.
“Hello, this is Detective Superintendent Oscar Wallin. I was wondering if you had time for that meeting we talked about.”