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The Fire Engine that Disappeared
By Per Wahloo
VintageCopyright © 2009 Per Wahloo
All right reserved.
The man lying dead on the tidily made bed had first taken off his jacket and tie and hung them over the chair by the door. He had then unlaced his shoes, placed them under the chair and stuck his feet into a pair of black leather slippers. He had smoked three filter-tipped cigarettes and stubbed them out in the ashtray on the bedside table. Then he had lain down on his back on the bed and shot himself through the mouth.
That did not look quite so tidy.
His nearest neighbor was a prematurely retired army captain who had been injured in the hip during an elk hunt the previous year. He had suffered from insomnia after the accident and often sat up at night playing solitaire. He was just getting the deck of cards out when he heard the shot on the other side of the wall and he at once called the police.
It was twenty to four on the morning of the seventh of March when two radio police broke the lock on the door and made their way into the apartment, inside which the man on the bed had been dead for thirty-two minutes. It did not take them long to establish the fact that the man almost certainly had committed suicide. Before returning to their car to report the death over the radio, they looked around the apartment, which in fact they should not have done. Apart from the bedroom, it consisted of a livingroom, kitchen, hall, bathroom and wardrobe. They could find no message or farewell letter. The only written matter visible was two words on the pad by the telephone in the living room. The two words formed a name. A name which both policemen knew well.
It was Ottilia's name day.
Soon after eleven in the morning, Martin Beck left the South police station and went and stood in the line at the state liquor store in Karusellpian. He bought a bottle of Nutty Solera. On the way to the subway, he also bought a dozen red tulips and a can of English cheese biscuits. One of the six names his mother had been given at baptism was Ottilia and he was going out to congratulate her on her name day.
The old people's home was large and very old. Much too old and inconvenient according to those who had to work there. Martin Beck's mother had moved there a year ago, not because she had been unable to manage on her own, for she was still lively and relatively fit at seventy-eight, but because she had not wanted to be a burden on her only child. So in good time she had ensured herself a place in the home and when a desirable room had become vacant, that is, when the previous occupant had died, she had got rid of most of her belongings and moved there. Since his father's death nineteen years earlier, Martin Beck had been her only support and now and again he was afflicted with pangs of conscience over not looking after her himself. Deep down, inwardly, he was grateful that she had taken things into her own hands without even asking his advice.
He walked past one of the dreary small sitting rooms in which he had never seen anyone sitting, continued along the gloomy corridor and knocked on his mother's door. She looked up in surprise as he came in; she was a little deaf and had not heard his discreet tap. Her face lighting up, she put aside her book and began to get up. Martin Beck moved swiftly over to her, kissed her cheek and with gentle force pressed her down into the chair again.
"Don't start dashing about for my sake," he said.
He laid the flowers on her lap and placed the bottle and can of biscuits on the table.
"Congratulations, Mother dear."
She unwound the paper from the flowers and said:
"Oh, what lovely flowers. And biscuits! And wine, or what is it? Oh, sherry. Good gracious!"
She got up and, despite Martin Beck's protests, went over to a cupboard and took out a silver vase, which she filled with water from the washbasin.
"I'm not so old and decrepit that I can't even use my legs," she said. "Sit yourself down instead. Shall we have sherry or coffee?"
He hung up his hat and coat and sat down.
"Whichever you like," he said.
"Then I'll make coffee," she said. "Then I can save the sherry and offer some to the old ladies and boast about my nice son. One has to save up the cheerful subjects."
Martin Beck sat in silence, watching as she switched on the electric hotplate and measured out the water and coffee. She was small and fragile and seemed to grow smaller each time he saw her.
"Is it boring for you here, Mother?"
"Me? I'm never bored."
The reply came much too quickly and glibly for him to believe her. Before sitting down, she put the coffee pot on the hotplate and the vase of flowers on the table.
"Don't you worry about me," she said. "I've got such a lot to do. I read and talk to the other old girls, and I knit. Sometimes I go into town and just look, though it's awful the way they're pulling everything down. Did you see that the building your father's business was in has been demolished?"
Martin Beck nodded. His father had had a small transport business in Klara and where it had once been, there was now a shopping center of glass and concrete. He looked at the photograph of his father that stood on the chest of drawers by her bed. The picture had been taken in the mid-twenties, when he himself had been only a few years old and his father had still been a young man with clear eyes, glossy hair with a side-part, and a stubborn chin. It was said that Martin Beck resembled his father. He himself had never been able to see the likeness, and should there be any, then it was limited to physical appearance. He remembered his father as a straightforward, cheerful man who was generally liked and who laughed and joked easily. Martin Beck would have described himself as a shy and rather dull person. At the time the photograph had been taken, his father had been a construction worker, but a few years later the depression came and he was unemployed for a couple of years. Martin Beck reckoned that his mother had never really got over those years of poverty and anxiety; although they were much better off later on, she had never stopped worrying about money. She still could not bring herself to buy anything new if it were not absolutely necessary, and both her clothes and the few bits of furniture she had brought with her from her old home were worn by the years.
Martin Beck tried to give her money now and again and at regular intervals he offered to pay the bill at the home, but she was proud and obstinate and wished to be independent.
When the coffee had boiled, he brought the pot over and let his mother pour it. She had always been solicitous toward her son and when he had been a boy she had never even allowed him to help with the dishes or make his own bed. He had not realized how misdirected her thoughtfulness had been until he had discovered how clumsy he was when it came to the simplest domestic chore.
Martin Beck watched his mother with amusement as she popped a sugar lump into her mouth before taking a sip of the coffee. He had never seen her drinking coffee "on the lump" before. She caught his eye and she said:
"Ah well, you can take a few liberties when you're as old as I am."
She put down her cup and leaned back, her thin freckled hands loosely clasped in her lap.
"Well," she said. "Tell me how things are with my grandchildren."
Nowadays, Martin Beck was always careful to express himself in nothing but positive terms when he talked to his mother about his children, as she considered her grandchildren cleverer, more brilliant and more beautiful than any other children. She often complained that he did not appreciate their merits and she had even accused him of being an unsympathetic and harsh father. He himself thought he was able to regard his children in a quite sober light and he presumed they were much like any other children. His contact with sixteen-year-old Ingrid was best, a lively, intelligent girl who found things easy at school and was a good mixer. Rolf would soon be thirteen and was more of a problem. He was lazy and introverted, totally uninterested in anything to do with school and did not seem to have any other special interests or talents either. Martin Beck was concerned about his son's inertia, but hoped it was just his age and that the boy would overcome his lethargy. As he could not find anything positive to say about RoIf at the moment and as his mother would not have believed him if he had told her the truth, he avoided the subject. When he had told her about Ingrid's latest progress at school, his mother said quite unexpectedly:
"Rolf's not going into the police force when he leaves school, is he?"
"I don't think so. Anyhow, he's hardly thirteen. It's a little soon to begin worrying about that sort of thing."
"Because if he wants to, you must stop him," she said. "I've never understood why you were so stubborn about becoming a policeman. Nowadays it must be an even more awful profession than it was when you first began. Why did you join the police force, anyway, Martin?"
Martin Beck stared at her in astonishment. It was true she had been against his choice of profession at the time, twenty-four years ago, but it surprised him that she brought the subject up now. He had become a Chief Inspector in the Homicide Squad less than a year ago and his conditions of work were completely different from those that had existed when he had been a young patrolman.
He leaned forward and patted her hand.
"I am all right now, Mother," he said. "Nowadays, I mostly sit at a desk. But of course, I've often asked myself the same question."
It was true. He had often asked himself why he had become a policeman.
Naturally he could have replied that at the time, during the war years, it was a good way of avoiding military service. After a two-year deferment because of bad lungs, he had been declared fit and no longer exempt, which was quite an important reason. In 1944 conscientious objectors were not tolerated. Many of those who had evaded military service in the way he had, had since changed occupation, but he himself had been promoted over the years to Chief Inspector. That ought to mean that he was a good policeman, but he was not so sure. There were several instances of senior posts in the police being held by less good policemen. He was not even certain he wanted to be a good policeman, if that involved being a dutiful person who never deviated one iota from the regulations. He remembered something Lennart Kollberg had once said a long time ago. "There are lots of good cops around. Dumb guys who are good cops. Inflexible, limited, tough, self-satisfied types who are all good cops. It would be better if there were a few more good guys who were cops."
His mother came out with him, and they walked together in the park a bit. The slushy snow made it difficult to walk and the icy wind rattled round the branches of the tall bare trees. After they had slipped about for ten minutes, he accompanied her back to the porch and kissed her on the cheek. He turned around on his way down the slope and saw her standing there waving by the entrance. Small and shrunken and gray.
He took the subway back to the South police station in Vastberga Alle.
On the way to his office, he glanced into Kollberg's room. Kollberg was an Inspector as well as Martin Beck's assistant and best friend. The room was empty. He glanced at his wristwatch. It was half-past one. It was Thursday. It required no profound thoughts to know where Kollberg was. For a brief moment Martin Beck even considered joining him down there with his pea soup, but then he thought of his stomach and desisted. It was already disturbed by the far too numerous cups of coffee his mother had pressed on him.
On his blotter there was a brief message about the man who had committed suicide that same morning.
His name was Ernst Sigurd Karlsson and he was forty-six years old. He was unmarried and his nearest relative was an elderly aunt in Boras. He had been absent from his work in an insurance company since Monday. Influenza. According to his colleagues at work, he was a loner and as far as they knew he had no close friends. His neighbors said he was quiet and inoffensive, came and went at definite times and seldom had visitors. Tests on his handwriting showed that it had indeed been he who had written Martin Beck's name on the telephone pad. That he had committed suicide was perfectly evident.
There was nothing else to say about the case. Ernst Sigurd Karlsson had taken his own life, and as suicide is not a crime in Sweden, the police could not do very much more. All the questions had been answered. Except one. Whoever had written out the report had also asked this question: Had Chief Inspector Beck hadany connection with the man in question and could he possibly add anything?
Martin Beck could not.
He had never before heard of Ernst Sigurd Karlsson.
Excerpted from The Fire Engine that Disappeared by Per Wahloo Copyright © 2009 by Per Wahloo. Excerpted by permission.
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