The second book in the Fredrika Bergman and Alex Recht series, 2012
English translation copyright © Sarah Death
IN THE BEGINNING
The meadow with its grassy greenness and wild flowers had always been hers. It had not been particularly hard to make a deal with her sister; all she had to do was agree that she could have the attic room in the summer house. She would never understand how her sister could ever accept a swap like that – a boring old attic room for a meadow. But she kept quiet. After all, her sister might decide to impose further demands on her.
The meadow, overgrown and left to run wild, was beyond the boundary of their garden. When she was younger, the tallest plants had reached right up to her chin. Now she was older, they only came up to her waist. She strode through the grass with light, easy movements and searching eyes, felt the flowers and stalks grazing her bare legs. The flowers had to be picked in silence, otherwise it would not work. There had to be seven different kinds and they had to be picked on midsummer’s eve and put under her pillow. Then she would see him, the man she was going to marry.
At least that’s what she had thought when she was little and picked midsummer flowers for the very first time. Her sister had teased her.
‘It’s Viktor you want to see,’ she said with a laugh.
She had clearly been naïve and stupid, even back then. It was not Viktor at all, but someone else. Someone secret.
After that first time she had repeated the same ritual every year. She was too big now to believe in that superstitious old stuff any more, of course, but it still felt like an important thing to do. After all, there wasn’t exactly much else to keep her occupied, she noted cynically. Year after year her parents insisted they came and celebrated midsummer out here in the country, and every time it felt more of a trial. This year it was even worse, because she had been invited to her friend Anna’s party. Anna’s parents were having a big midsummer celebration and their children’s friends were invited, too.
But her dad wouldn’t let her go.
‘We’ll celebrate midsummer the way we always do,’ he said. ‘Together. That’s the way it’s going to be, as long as you’re still at home.’
Panic swept over her. Couldn’t he see how unreasonable he was being? It would be years before she could even begin to think about leaving home. Her sister’s disloyal behaviour didn’t help, either. She was never invited to parties, anyway, and thought being on their own with their parents in the country was fine. She even seemed to like the peculiar guests who emerged from the basement at dusk and were made welcome on the glazed-in verandah, where Mum let the Venetian blinds down to make it difficult to see in.
She hated them. Unlike the rest of the family, she found it impossible to feel any sympathy or pity for them. Scruffy, smelly people who didn’t take responsibility for their own lives. Who couldn’t think of anything more sensible to do than lurk in a basement out in the sticks. Who were satisfied with so pathetically little. She was never satisfied. Never.
‘You must love your neighbour,’ her dad would say.
‘We must be grateful for what we’ve got,’ said her mum.
She had stopped listening to them a long time ago.
She caught sight of him just as she was picking the fourth flower. He must have made some sort of sound, otherwise she would never have noticed him there. She swiftly raised her focused gaze from the meadow and flowers, and her eyes were dazzled by the sun. Against the light he was no more than a dark silhouette, and it was impossible to see his age or identity.
She screwed up her eyes and shaded them with her hand. Oh yes, she knew who he was. She had seen him from the kitchen window a couple of evenings ago, when Dad came home late with the new batch of guests. He was taller than most of them. Not older, but taller. Sturdier. He had a very distinct jawline that made him look the way American soldiers used to in films. Square-jawed.
They both stood stock-still, eyeing each other.
‘You’re not allowed out,’ she said with a haughty look, although she knew there was no point.
None of that lot in the basement ever spoke any Swedish.
Since he did not move or say anything, she sighed and went back to picking her flowers.
Behind her, he was on the move, slowly. She glanced furtively back, and wondered where he could be going. Saw that he had come closer.
She and her family had only ever been abroad on one occasion. Just once they went on a normal package holiday, sunbathing and swimming in the Canaries. The streets were teeming with stray dogs that ran after the tourists. Their dad got very good at chasing them away.
‘Shoo,’ he would roar, throwing a stone in some other direction.
It worked every time. The dog left them and went chasing after the stone he had thrown.
The man in the meadow reminded her of the stray dogs. There was something unpredictable in his eyes, something indecipherable. Maybe anger, too. She was suddenly unsure what he would do next. Throwing a stone did not seem an option. One glance towards the house confirmed what she already knew, that her parents and sister had taken the car into town to get some fresh fish for the celebration dinner. Another ludicrous so-called tradition her parents had invented to preserve their image of a normal family. As always, she said she didn’t want to go with them, preferring to pick her flowers in peace and quiet.
‘What do you want?’ she asked irritably.
Irritably and with a growing sense of alarm. There was nothing wrong with her instincts, she recognised the scent of real danger. And this time, all her senses were telling her she’d got to take control of the situation.
The flower stalks felt rough in her hand as she clasped them tight. She only had one left to pick. A humble daisy. A weed with pretensions, her dad liked to call it.
The man took a few more steps towards her. Then he just stood there, a few metres from her. A broad, sneering grin spread slowly across his face. And at that moment, she knew what he had come for.
Her legs were quicker than her thoughts. Her spinal reflex signalled menace and at the same instant she broke into a run. The edge of the garden was less than a hundred metres away; she shouted for help again and again. Her piercing cries soaked into the silence of the meadow. The dry earth muffled the sound of her springing steps and the heavy thud as he brought her down after only twenty metres’ flight. Almost as if he had known from the outset that she wouldn’t get away and had just let her run for the thrill of the chase.
She fought like an animal as he tossed her over onto her back and wrenched at her clothes, so forceful and methodical that her overheated brain registered that this was something he must have done before.
And when it was all over and she lay there weeping in the hollow their bodies had made in the green depths, she knew this was something to which she could never reconcile herself. In her clenched fist, every knuckle raw from her hopeless fight, she was still clutching the summer nosegay. She dropped it as if it were burning her fingers. The flowers were entirely redundant now. She already knew whose face she would see in her dreams.
When her parents’ car pulled up outside the house, she was still lying in the meadow, unable to get up. The clouds looked as though they were playing a clumsy game in the blue sky. The world seemed unchanged, though her own was shattered for ever. She lay there in the meadow until they realised she was missing and came out to look for her. And by the time they found her, she was already another person.
FRIDAY 22 FEBRUARY 2008
Unaware that he would soon be dead, he delivered his final lecture with great enthusiasm and commitment. Friday had been a long day, but the hours had passed quickly. His audience was attentive, and it warmed Jakob Ahlbin’s heart that so many people besides himself were interested in the subject.
When he realised just a few days later that all was lost, he would briefly wonder if it had been his last lecture that did it. Whether he had been too open in the question and answer session, revealed that he was in possession of knowledge nobody wanted him to have. But he did not really think so. Up until the very moment of his death he was convinced it would have been impossible to ward off disaster. When he felt the pressure of the hard hunting pistol against his temple, everything was already over. But it did not stop him from feeling great regret that his life had to end there. He still had so much to give.
Over the years, Jakob had given more lectures than he could remember, and he knew he had put his talent as a fine speaker to good use. The content of his lecture was usually much the same, as were the questions that f ...