The Dangerous Game
The eighth book in the Anders Knutas series, 2015
English translation copyright © Tiina Nunnally 2015
IT WAS A warm day in May, and she was strolling alone through the streets of Milan. After a while she came to a large, paved piazza in front of a church. The square was filled with pigeons. White, grey, and some that were almost a shimmering blue. The birds fluttered around each other in a sort of lustful mating dance. Some strutted about contentedly on the sun-warmed paving stones, here and there casually pecking at a few crumbs. Lining the big open square were park benches bolted to the ground. A mother with a baby in a pram was trying to read the newspaper while her two little girls raced about. They were playing with multicoloured rubber balls, bouncing them on the pavement as they laughed merrily. A young man with rolled-up shirtsleeves stood at the sole vendor’s stand, selling burnt almonds in little paper bags. He was sweating in the heat, and his curly hair stuck to his forehead. He kept mopping his face with a handkerchief. The sweet scent of the almonds wafted towards her, prickling her nostrils. She was hungry and had plans to meet someone for lunch in the old part of town. That was where she was now headed, yet she took time to pause and enjoy the scene. A group of schoolgirls wearing green-checked uniforms had sat down on blankets placed in a circle to listen to their teacher, who, with sweeping gestures, seemed to be recounting the history of the church. A couple obviously in love sat on one of the benches, kissing. Seated on another were three elderly black-clad women, chatting in the shadow of the cypress trees. Surrounding the entire piazza were well-maintained blocks of flats with brightly painted window frames. She smiled to herself as she crossed the square and continued along the winding lanes in La Brera, the oldest neighbourhood in Milan.
Several hours later she was back at the same piazza, on her way to meet with her agent. She was in a hurry. The lunch with her new male acquaintance had been unexpectedly pleasant and lasted longer than anticipated. She was almost feeling a bit infatuated. She looked forward to the time soon to come when she would be working in this Mecca of the fashion world. Her head was brimming with thoughts about the man she’d just met.
When she reached the square, which had previously been so lively, she stopped short and looked around in bewilderment. The scene had dramatically changed. On the ground lay several dozen pigeons, lifeless and bloody. It was alarmingly quiet. The elderly women, the playing children and the amorous couple were gone.
She took in a deep breath. It looked like a war zone, just minutes after a massacre. With one blow the harmony had been replaced by devastation and death. The beautiful pigeons lay scattered about, their plumage stained with blood. Their eyes were closed, their throats limp, their beaks resting on the ground. Under one bench she saw a ball that had been left behind. She raised her eyes and discovered that the pigeons who had survived were huddled close together, perching on the window ledges of the surrounding buildings. The birds were utterly silent. Not a sound could be heard. She looked down, and noticed a red spot on one of her shoes. She stared at it with revulsion. Was that pigeon blood? Her cheeks flushed with an inexplicable feeling of shame.
In distress, she grabbed the coat sleeve of a man who happened to walk past, asking him what had happened here. He shrugged. Didn’t he understand what she’d said?
Before she rushed off to go to her meeting, she cast one last look at the dead pigeons. Her mouth was dry, and her head was throbbing. She couldn’t comprehend how all that effervescent life on the square could have been so cruelly replaced by such bleak destruction.
THE TAXI PULLED up in front of the Grand Hotel and smoothly came to a halt. The hotel was located in the heart of Stockholm, with a view of Gamla Stan, the old part of the city, and the palace, across the water. The magnificent baroque castle was one of the largest in Europe, but right now half of it was hidden by the November haze. And dusk had begun to settle in. The dark, cold water of Strömmen was teeming with ducks, swans and seagulls hoping for breadcrumbs from the passers-by. Lined up along the quay were the white boats with names like
The man in the back seat paid the cab driver in cash without saying a word. Under the black overcoat he wore a leaden-grey Armani suit, a silk tie in the same hue and a white shirt with a starched collar. He had on sunglasses even though the weary, late-afternoon light barely penetrated the clouds. Maybe he’s on drugs, thought the doorman who hurried to receive the guest. Or it could be that he simply didn’t want to be recognized. Maybe he was just another of the countless publicity-shy celebrities who had come and gone during the almost 150-year history of the hotel.
The doorman, impeccably outfitted in his black frock coat and top hat, opened the back door of the cab.
‘Good afternoon, Sir. Welcome to the Grand Hotel.’
He bowed and took a step back.
The passenger fumbled with the change he’d received from the cab driver and grabbed his briefcase before getting out.
A second later he dropped his wallet, but he was so quick to pick it up that the doorman had no chance to assist him. When the man bent down, his flawlessly pressed trousers hitched up to reveal that he was wearing tube socks with his custom-tailored suit. White tube socks. The doorman frowned. A clear breach of style. Not a VIP, after all, more likely some yokel trying to blend in, though without being entirely successful. The lack of baggage probably meant that the man was on his way to the bar, or that he was meeting someone for an early dinner. He watched with interest as the man disappeared through the glass doors of the hotel.
The doorman liked to amuse himself by making up stories about the guests. They came from every corner of the earth. Arabian princes, American pop stars, Greek ship-owners, government ministers and heads of state, kings and queens. Celebrities as varied as Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Grace Kelly, Charlie Chaplin, Nelson Mandela, and Madonna had stayed at the hotel. For thirty years the doorman had stood sentry at the entrance to the city’s most famous hotel, and by now he was used to almost anything. Yet he never tired of thinking about the guests – their lives and cultures, and where they’d come from.
He went back to his post behind the stand just inside the entrance.
Through the big glass windows he had a clear view of any approaching guests. He kept an attentive eye on all the passers-by on the street, looking for anyone who might be heading for the hotel.
It wasn’t long before the man with the sunglasses returned from the lobby. He seemed to be in a hurry and came striding towards the exit with his gaze fixed straight ahead. There was clearly something odd about him, something that didn’t seem right. It was the way he was moving. His gait was tightly controlled, almost stiff, giving the impression that he was unusually reserved or suffered from aching joints. Or, for some other reason, he was either unable to move naturally or chose not to do so. He seemed nervous, but harmless enough. A poor guy who had ended up in a setting where he felt extremely uncomfortable. No cause for concern.
The doorman smiled as he thought about the tube socks and reached for one of the evening newspapers that had been placed in the side compartment of his stand. Absent-mindedly, he began leafing through the paper.
The next minute he had completely forgotten about the man in the taxi.
ONLY A FEW hours before the launch of Stockholm Fashion Week, things were fairly chaotic in the improvised dressing room behind the stage in the winter garden of the Grand Hotel. A dozen long-legged models were crowded together with hairdressers, make-up artists, stylists and assistants helping the models into their clothes. Everyone was busy pinning up hair, curling lashes, fastening belts, tying laces and adjusting the drape of the garments.
Jenny Levin was perched on a bar stool, having her face powdered as she observed the confusion. She enjoyed the seething activity and nervous frenzy before a show, the hectic atmosphere in which everyone involved focused a hundred per cent of their attention on specific tasks. She was a newcomer, having worked as a model for less than a year, but she already felt right at home. As if I was born to do this, she thought, casting a satisfied look at herself in the mirror. Her coppery red hair had been drawn up into a big loose knot on top of her head, with a few tendrils hanging down here and there. It looked as if the strands had come loose by accident but, like everything else, that was merely an illusion. Every little detail had been carefully designed and styled.
Jenny knew that her face was considered beautiful. She had high cheekbones, almond-shaped green eyes and a fair, unblemished complexion with a light sprinkling of freckles.
She opened her mouth slightly as the make-up artist applied red gloss to her lips. Jenny stood ...