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On Wednesday, the seventh of August, 1996, Kurt Wallander came close to being killed in a traffic accident just east of Ystad.
It happened early in the morning, shortly after six o'clock. He had just driven through Nybrostrand on his way out to Österlen. Suddenly he had seen a truck looming in front of his Peugeot. He heard the truck's horn blaring as he violently wrenched the wheel to the side.
Afterward he had pulled off the road. That was when the fear set in. His heart throbbed in his rib cage. He felt nauseated and dizzy, and he thought he was about to faint. He kept his hands tightly clenched around the wheel.
When he calmed himself he slowly realized what had happened.
He had fallen asleep at the wheel. Nodded off just long enough for his old car to begin to drift into the opposing lane.
One second longer and he would have been dead, crushed by the heavy truck.
The realization made him feel suddenly empty. The only thing he could think of was the time, a few years earlier, when he had almost driven into an elk outside Tingsryd.
But back then it had been dark and foggy. This time he had nodded off at the wheel.
He didn't understand it. It had come over him without warning, shortly before the start of his vacation at the beginning of June. This year he had planned to take his vacation early. But the whole holiday had been lost to rain. It was only when he returned to work shortly afterMidsummer that the warm and sunny weather had come to Skåne.
The tiredness had been there all along. He could fall asleep in whatever chair he happened to find himself in. Even after a long night's undisturbed sleep, he had to force himself out of bed. Often when he was in the car he found himself needing to pull over to take a short nap.
He didn't understand it. His daughter Linda had asked him about his lack of energy during the week that they had spent sightseeing together in Gotland. It was on one of the last days, when they had checked into an inn in Burgsvik. They had spent the day exploring the southern tip of Gotland, and they had eaten dinner at a pizzeria before returning to the inn. The evening was particularly beautiful.
She had asked him point-blank about the fatigue. He had studied her face on the other side of the kerosene lamp and realized that her question had been thought out in advance. But he shrugged it off. There was nothing wrong with him. Surely, the fact that he used part of his vacation to catch up on lost sleep was to be expected. Linda didn't ask any other questions. But he knew that she hadn't believed him.
Now he realized that he couldn't ignore it any longer. The fatigue wasn't natural. Something was wrong. He tried to think if he had other symptoms that could signal an illness. But apart from the fact that he sometimes woke in the middle of the night with leg cramps, he hadn't been able to think of anything.
He realized how close to death he had been. Now he couldn't put it off any longer. He would make an appointment with the doctor today.
He started the engine and drove on. He rolled down the windows. Although it was already August, the heat of summer showed no sign of letting up.
Wallander was on his way to his father's house in Löderup. No matter how many times he went down this road, he still found it hard to adjust to the fact that his father wouldn't be sitting there in his studio, surrounded by the ever-present smell of turpentine, in front of the easel where he painted pictures of a recurring and unchanging subject: a landscape, with or without a wood grouse in the foreground, the sun hanging from invisible threads above the treetops.
It had been close to two years now since Gertrud had called the police station in Ystad and told him that his father was lying dead on the studio floor. He could still recall with photographic clarity his drive out to Löderup, denying that it could be true. But when he had seen Gertrud in the yard, he had known he could not repress it any longer. He had known what awaited him.
The two years had gone by quickly. As often as he could, but not often enough, he visited Gertrud, who still lived in his father's house. A year went by before they began to clean up the studio in earnest. They found a total of thirty-two paintings that were completed and signed. One night in December of 1995, they sat down at Gertrud's kitchen table and made up a list of the people who would receive these paintings. Wallander kept two for himself. One with a wood grouse, the other without. Linda would get one, as would his ex-wife, Mona. Surprisingly, and disappointingly to Wallander, his sister Kristina had not wanted one. Gertrud already had several and did not need any more. They therefore had twenty-eight paintings to give away. With some hesitation, Wallander sent one to a detective in Kristianstad with whom he had had sporadic contact. But after giving away twenty-three of the paintings, they couldn't think of any more names. At that point they had even given one to each of Gertrud's relatives. There were five paintings remaining.
Wallander wondered what he should do with them. He knew that he would never be able to make himself burn them.
Technically they belonged to Gertrud. But she had said that he and Kristina should have them. She had come so late into their father's life.
Wallander passed the turnoff to Kåseberga. He would be there soon. He thought about the task that lay before him. One evening in May, he and Gertrud had taken a long walk along the tractor trails that wound their way along the edges of the linseed fields. She said she no longer wanted to live there. It was starting to get too lonely.
"I don't want to live there so long that he starts to haunt me," she said.
Instinctively, he knew what she meant. He would probably have reacted the same way.
They walked between the fields and she asked for his help in selling the house. There was no hurry; it could wait until the summer's end. But she wanted to move out before the fall. Her sister was newly widowed and lived outside the town of Rynge, and that was where she wanted to move too.
Now the time had come. Wallander had taken the day off. At nine o'clock a real estate agent would come out from Ystad, and together they would settle on a reasonable selling price. Before that, Wallander and Gertrud would go through the last few boxes of his father's belongings. They had finished packing the week before. His colleague Martinsson came out with a trailer and they made several trips to the dump outside Hedeskoga. It occurred to Wallander, who was experiencing a growing sense of unease, that what remained of a person's life inevitably ended up at the nearest dump.
All that was left of his father nowaside from the memorieswere some photographs, five paintings, and some boxes of old letters and papers. Nothing more. His life was over and completely accounted for.
Wallander turned down the road leading to his father's house.
He caught a glimpse of Gertrud waiting in the yard. She was always up early.
She greeted him. To his surprise he saw that she was wearing the same dress she had worn at the wedding. He immediately felt a lump in his throat. For Gertrud, this was a moment of solemnity. She was leaving her home.
They drank coffee in the kitchen, where the doors to the cabinets stood ajar and revealed empty shelves. Gertrud's sister was coming to get her today. Wallander would keep one key and give the other to the real estate agent.
Together they leafed through the contents of the two boxes. Among the old letters Wallander was surprised to find a pair of children's shoes that he seemed to remember from his childhood. Had his father saved them all these years?
He carried the boxes out to the car. When he closed the car door, he saw Gertrud on the steps. She smiled.
"There are five paintings left. You haven't forgotten about them, have you?"
Wallander shook his head. He walked toward the little house that had been his father's studio. The door was open. Although they had cleaned in here, the smell of turpentine remained. The pot that his father had used for making endless cups of coffee stood on the hotplate.
This may be the last time I am here, he thought. But in contrast to Gertrud I haven't dressed up. I'm in my old baggy clothes. And if I hadn't been so lucky I could also have been dead now, like my father. Linda would have to drive to the dump with what was left after me. And among my stuff she would find two paintings, one with a wood grouse painted in the foreground.
The place spooked him. His father was still in there in the dark studio.
The paintings were leaning against one wall. He carried them to the car. Then he lay them in the trunk and spread a blanket over them. Gertrud remained on the steps.
"Is there anything else?" she asked.
Wallander shook his head.
"There's nothing else," he answered. "Nothing."
* * *
At nine o'clock the real estate agent's car swung into the yard. When the man behind the wheel got out, Wallander realized to his surprise that he recognized him. His name was Robert Åkerblom. A couple of years earlier his wife had been brutally murdered and disposed of in an old well. It had been one of the most difficult and grisly murder investigations that Wallander had ever been involved in. He furrowed his brow. He had decided to contact a large real estate company that had offices all over Sweden. Åkerblom's business did not belong to them, if it was even still in existence. Wallander thought he had heard that it had closed shortly after Louise Åkerblom's murder.
He went out onto the steps. Robert Åkerblom looked exactly as Wallander remembered him. At their first meeting in Wallander's office he had wept. Wallander seemed to recall thinking at the time that Robert Åkerblom had one of those faces he would never remember. But the worry and grief for his wife had been genuine. Wallander recalled that they had been active in a non-Lutheran church. He thought they were Methodists.
They shook hands.
"We meet again," said Robert Åkerblom.
His voice sounded familiar. For a second Wallander felt confused. What was the right thing to say?
But Robert Åkerblom beat him to the punch.
"I grieve for her as much now as I did then," he said slowly. "But of course it's even harder for the girls."
Wallander remembered the two girls. They had been so young then. They took it in without being able to fully understand what had happened.
"It must be hard," he said.
For a moment he was afraid that the events of the last meeting would repeat themselves; that Robert Åkerblom would start crying. But that didn't happen.
"I tried to keep the business going," he continued, "but I didn't have the energy. When I got the offer to join the firm of a competitor, I took it. I've never regretted it. I don't have the long nights of going over the books anymore. I've been able to spend more time with the girls."
Gertrud joined them and they went through the house together. Robert Åkerblom made notes and took some photographs. Afterward they had a cup of coffee in the kitchen. The price that Åkerblom came up with seemed low to Wallander at first. Then he realized that it was three times what his father had paid for the place.
Robert Åkerblom left a little after eleven o'clock. Wallander thought he should perhaps stay until Gertrud's sister came to get her. But she sensed his thoughts and told him she didn't mind being left alone.
"It's a beautiful day," she said. "Summer has come at last, even though it's almost over. I'll sit in the garden."
"I'll stay if you like. I'm off work today."
Gertrud shook her head.
"Come and see me in Rynge," she said. "But wait a couple of weeks first. I have to get settled in."
Wallander got in his car and drove back to Ystad. He was going straight home to make an appointment with his doctor. Then he would sign up to use the laundry facilities and clean the apartment.
Since he wasn't in a hurry, he chose the longer way back. He liked driving, just looking at the landscape and letting his mind wander.
He had just passed Valleberga when the phone rang. It was Martinsson. Wallander pulled over.
"I've been trying to get hold of you," Martinsson said. "Of course no one mentioned that you were off work today. And do you know that your answering machine is broken?"
Wallander knew the machine sometimes got stuck. He also immediately sensed that something had just happened. Although he had been a policeman for a long time, the feeling was always the same. His stomach tensed up. He held his breath.
"I'm calling you from Hansson's room," Martinsson continued. "Astrid Hillström's mother is here to see me."
"Astrid Hillström. One of those missing kids. Her mother."
Now Wallander knew who he meant.
"What does she want?"
"She's very upset. Her daughter sent her a postcard from Vienna."
Wallander furrowed his brow.
"Isn't it good news that she's finally written?"
"She claims her daughter didn't write it. She's upset that we're not doing anything."
"How can we do anything when no crime seems to have been committed? When all the evidence indicates that they left of their own accord?"
Martinsson paused for a moment before answering.
"I don't know what it is," he said. "But I have a feeling that there's something to what she's saying. I don't know whatbut there's something. Maybe."
Wallander immediately grew more attentive. Over the years he had learned to take Martinsson's hunches seriously. More often than not, they were later proved right.
"Do you want me to come in?"
"No, but I think you, me, and Svedberg should talk this thing over tomorrow morning."
"How about eight o'clock? I'll tell Svedberg."
Wallander sat still for a moment after the conversation was over. He watched a tractor out on a field.
He thought about what Martinsson had said. He had also met Astrid Hillström's mother on several occasions.
He went over the events again in his mind.
A few days after Midsummer's Eve some young people were reported missing. It happened right after he had returned from his rainy vacation. He reviewed the case together with a couple of his colleagues. From the outset he doubted that any crime had been committed and, as it turned out, a postcard arrived from Hamburg three days later. It had a picture of the central railway station on the front. Wallander could recall its message word for word. We are traveling around Europe. We may be gone until the middle of August.
Today it was Wednesday, the seventh of August. They would be home soon. Another postcard written by Astrid Hillström came from Vienna.
The first card was signed by all three of them. Their parents recognized the signatures. Only Astrid Hillström's mother hesitated. But she allowed herself to be convinced by the others.
Wallander glanced in his rearview mirror and drove out onto the main road. Martinsson had been right about his misgivings.
Wallander parked on Mariagatan and carried up the boxes and the five paintings. Then he sat down by the phone. At his regular doctor's office he only reached an answering machine. The doctor wouldn't be back from vacation until the twelfth of August. Wallander wondered if he should wait until then, but he couldn't shake the thought of how close to death he had come that morning. He called another doctor and made an appointment for eleven o'clock the following day. He signed up to do laundry, then started cleaning his apartment. He was already completely exhausted after doing the bedroom. He pulled the vacuum cleaner back and forth a few times over the living room floor, then put it away. He carried the boxes and paintings into the room that Linda normally used the few times she came to stay.
He drank three glasses of water in the kitchen.
He wondered about his thirst and the fatigue. What was causing them?
It was already noon, and he realized he was hungry. A quick look in the refrigerator told him there wasn't much there. He put on his coat and went out. It was a nice day. As he walked to the center of town, he looked at the properties for sale in the windows of three separate real estate offices. He realized that the price Robert Åkerblom had suggested was fair. They could hardly get more than 300,000 kronor for the house in Löderup.
He stopped at a fast-food kiosk and ate a hamburger. He also drank two bottles of mineral water. Then he went into a shoe store where he knew the owner and used the bathroom. When he came back out onto the street, he felt unsure of what to do next. He should have used his day off to go shopping. He had no food in the house. But right now he didn't have the energy to go back for the car and drive to a supermarket. After Hamngatan, he crossed the train tracks and turned down Spanienfararegatan. When he arrived down at the waterfront, he strolled along a pier and looked at all the sailboats. He wondered what it would be like to sail. It was something he had absolutely no experience with at all. Then he realized he needed to urinate again. He used the rest room at the harbor café, drank another bottle of mineral water, and sat down on a bench outside the red Coast Guard building.
The last time he had been here it had been winter, the night Baiba left.
He had taken her to Sturup Airport and it was already dark. The wind made whirls of snow dance in the headlights. They hadn't said a word. After he watched her disappear past the checkpoint, he returned to Ystad and went to sit on this bench. The wind had been very cold and he was freezing, but he sat here and realized that everything was over. He wouldn't see Baiba again. The breakup was final.
She came to Ystad in December of 1994. His father had just died and he had just finished one of the most challenging investigations of his career. But that fall he had also, for the first time in many years, been making plans for the future. He decided to leave Mariagatan, move to the country, and get a dog. He even visited a kennel and looked at Labrador puppies. He was going to make a fresh start. And above all, he wanted Baiba to move in with him. She visited him over Christmas and Wallander could tell that she and Linda got along well. Then, on New Year's Eve 1995, the last few days before she was due to return to Riga, they talked seriously about the future. Maybe she would move to Sweden for good as early as next summer. They went to look at houses together. They looked at a house on a subdivision of an old farm outside Svenstorp several times. But then, one evening in March, when Wallander was already in bed, she called from Riga and told him she was having doubts. She didn't want to get married, didn't want to move to Swedenat least not yet. He thought he would be able to get her to change her mind. The conversation ended with an unpleasant and drawn-out quarrel, their first. Afterward they didn't speak for over a month. Finally, Wallander called her and they decided he would go to Riga that summer. They spent two weeks by the sea in a run-down old house that she had borrowed from one of her colleagues at the university. They took long walks on the beach and Wallander made a point of waiting for her to broach the question of the future. But when she finally did, she was vague and noncommittal. Not now, not yet. Why couldn't things stay as they were? When Wallander returned to Sweden, he felt dejected and was still unsure of where things stood. The fall had gone by without another meeting. They had talked about it, made plans, and considered various alternatives. But nothing had come of it. It was also during this period that Wallander became jealous. Was there another man in Riga? Someone he didn't know anything about? On several occasions he called her in the middle of the night and although she always insisted that she was alone, he had the distinct feeling that there had been someone else in her apartment.
She had come to Ystad for Christmas that year. Linda had not been with them except on Christmas Eve, before leaving for Scotland with friends. And it was then, a couple of days into the new year, that Baiba had told him she could never move to Sweden. She had gone back and forth for a long time. But now she knew. She didn't want to lose her position at the university. What could she do in Sweden, especially Ystad? She could perhaps become an interpreter. But what else could she do? Wallander tried to persuade her to change her mind, but he didn't succeed and was forced to give up. Without saying anything explicitly, they both knew it was over. After four years there was no longer any road leading into the future. Wallander took her to Sturup, watched her disappear beyond the checkpoint, and spent the rest of that winter evening on the frozen bench outside the Coast Guard headquarters. He had been downcast and felt more abandoned than ever before. But then another feeling had crept over him. Relief. After all, now he knew where things stood.
A motorboat sped out of the harbor. Wallander got up. He needed to find a bathroom again.
They called each other from time to time. But then that had stopped too. Now they hadn't been in touch for over six months. One day when he and Linda were walking around Visby she had asked if things with Baiba were finally over.
"Yes," he replied. "It's over."
She waited for him to continue.
"I don't think either of us really wanted to break it off," he told her. "But it was inevitable."
When he got home, he lay down on the sofa to read the paper but fell asleep almost immediately. An hour later he woke up with a start in the middle of a dream.
He had been in Rome with his father. Rydberg had also been with them, as well as some small, dwarflike creatures who insisted on pinching their legs.
Wallander paused on the sofa.
I'm dreaming about the dead, he thought. What does that mean? I dream about my father almost every night and he's dead. So is Rydber, my old colleague and friend. The one who taught me everything I can even claim to know. And he's been gone for almost five years.
He went out onto the balcony. It was still warm and calm. Clouds were starting to pile up on the horizon.
Suddenly it struck him how terribly lonely he was. Apart from Linda, who lived in Stockholm and whom he saw only occasionally, he had almost no friends. The people he spent time with were people from work. And he never saw them socially.
He went into the bathroom and rinsed off his face. He looked in the mirror and saw that he had a tan, but the tiredness still shone through. His left eye was bloodshot. His hairline had receded further.
He stepped on the scale. He weighed a couple of kilos less than at the start of the summer, but it was still too much.
The phone rang and he answered. It was Gertrud.
"I just wanted to let you know that I made it safely to Rynge. Everything went well."
"I've been thinking about you," Wallander told her. "I should have stayed there with you."
"I think I needed to be alone with all my memories. But things will be fine here. My sister and I get along well. We always have."
"I'll be out to see you in about a week."
After the end of their conversation, the phone rang again immediately. This time it was his colleague Ann-Britt Höglund.
"I just wanted to hear how it went," she said,
"How what went?"
"Weren't you supposed to meet with a real estate agent today? About selling your father's house?"
Wallander recalled that he had exchanged a few words with her on the subject the day before.
"It went pretty well," he said. "You can buy it for three hundred thousand kronor if you like."
"I never even got to see it," she replied.
"It feels quite strange," he told her. "The house is so empty now. Getrud has moved and someone else will buy it. It'll probably be used as a summer house. Other people will live in it and not know anything about my dad."
Excerpted from One Step Behind by Henning Mankell. Copyright © 1997 by Henning Mankell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.