Read an Excerpt
They took her alive because she refused to die. Maybe it made them love her even more. That she was always there, that she felt real. But that’s also what they didn’t get, what would be their mistake. That she was alive, thinking, conscious. Plotting their demise.
One of her earbuds kept falling out. The sweat made it slippery. She wedged it in at an angle, thought it might stick, stay in place and continue playing music.
The iPod Nano bounced in her pocket. She hoped it was safe. No way she could drop it. It was her favorite possession and she didn’t even want to think about the scratches it could get from the gravel on the road.
She groped with her hand. No worries: The pockets were deep enough; the iPod was secure.
She’d treated herself to the iPod as a birthday present and loaded it with as many songs as it could hold. It was the minimalist design, the brushed green metal, that’d tempted her to buy it. But now it meant something else to her, something more. It gave her peace. Every time she picked up the iPod, it reminded her of these moments of solitude. When the world didn’t force itself on her. When she was left alone.
She was listening to Madonna. It was her way of forgetting, running to music and feeling the tension slip away. Burning fat at the same time was obviously a perfect combo.
She flowed with the rhythm. Almost ran to the beat of the music. Lifted her left arm a bit higher to check her time on her wristwatch. Every time she went jogging she’d try to break her own record. With the competitive obsession of an athlete, she checked her time, memorized it, and later wrote down the results. The route was a total of four miles. Her best time was thirty- three minutes. During the winter months, she trained only indoors at the gym. Weight machines, treadmills, and StairMasters. During the summer months, she kept going to the gym but traded the treadmill for side roads and gravel paths.
She was heading toward Lilla Sjotullsbron, a bridge at the far edge of Djurgarden, a park on the fringe of Stockholm’s inner city. A chill rose from the water. It was eight o’clock and the spring evening was beginning to give way to dusk. The lights along the path hadn’t yet been lit. The sun that shone on her back no longer gave any warmth. She was chasing her own long shadow and thought that soon it would completely disappear. But in a moment, when the path was lit up, her shadow would flicker and change direction in time with the lampposts she passed.
The trees were beginning to sprout crisp leaves. Closed buds of whitewood anemones pushed up through the grass beside the path. The banks of the channel were lined with old, dry reeds that’d survived the winter. Flashy villas rose up to the left. The Turkish embassy with its barred windows. Farther up the hill was the Chinese embassy, surrounded by tall iron fencing, surveillance cameras, and warning signs. By the rowing club was a mansion with a yellow picket fence around it. Fifty or so yards farther up was a rectangular home with an outdoor pavilion and a garage that looked like it was built right into the bedrock.
Ritzy private houses with sheltered gardens spread out all along the running path. Every time she jogged, she’d check them out, massive hidden villas protected by bushes and fences. She wondered why they tried to appear unassuming when everyone knew only heavy hitters lived in Djurgarden.
She passed two girls who kept a high pace. They sported that special Ostermalm look for power walking in the Djurgarden Park: down vests over long- sleeved shirts, yoga pants, and, above all, baseball caps pulled down low. Her own workout outfit was more serious: black Nike Clima- FIT windbreaker and tight running pants. Clothes that breathed. It sounded cliched, but it worked.
Memories from that weekend three weeks ago came flashing back again. She tried to push them away and think about the music instead, or concentrate on running. If she focused on making good time around the channel and the Canada geese she had to veer for, maybe she could forget.
Madonna was singing in her ears.
There was horse shit on the path.
They thought they could use her any way they liked. But she was the one using them. That attitude protected her. She was the one who chose what she did and how she felt. To the world at large, they were successful, wealthy, powerful men. Their names appeared on the front pages of the daily business sections, on the stock market tickers, and in the highest income tax brackets. In reality, they were a bunch of pathetic, tragic losers. People who lacked something. People who obviously needed her.
Her future was staked out. She’d continue to play along in the charade until the time was right to stop and expose them. And if they didn’t want to be exposed, they’d have to pay. She’d prepared herself, gathered information for months. Lured confessions out of them, hid recording devices under beds, even filmed some of them. Felt like a real FBI agent, except for one difference. Her fear was so much greater. It was a high-stakes game. She knew the rules, and if things went wrong, it could be the end. But it would work. Her plan was to quit when she turned twenty-three. Leave Stockholm for something better, bigger. Cooler.
Two young girls, straight-backed, came riding over the first bridge by Djurgardsbrunn Tavern. They still hadn’t seen life with a capital L. The same way she’d been, before she left home. She straightened up, because that was still her goal. To ride with her head held high through Life. She’d make it.
A man stood with his dog by the bridge. Spoke into a cell phone while he followed her with his gaze. She was used to it, had been the center of attention since early puberty, and after a boob job at twenty, it’d been like an invasion of constant male staring. She got a kick out of it, but it grossed her out at the same time.
The man looked built. He was dressed in a leather jacket and jeans, with a round baseball cap on his head. But something was different about him. He didn’t have that ordinary horndog look in his eyes. On the contrary, his senses seemed elevated, calculated, concentrated. As if it was her he was talking about on the phone.
The gravel ended. The road leading to the last bridge, Lilla Sjotullsbron, was paved but riddled with deep cracks. She considered running on the trail that was trudged up in the grass instead. But there were too many Canada geese there. Her enemies.
She could hardly make out the bridge anymore. Why weren’t the lights coming on? Didn’t they usually turn on automatically when it got dark? Apparently not tonight.
A van was parked with its back toward the bridge.
No people in sight.
Twenty yards farther up was a luxury villa with a waterfront view. She was familiar with the owner, who’d built the house without a building permit inside an old barn that’d already been on the property. A powerful man.
Before she could turn onto the bridge, she noted that the van was parked weirdly close to the gravel path, only a few feet from her as she turned right.
The van’s doors swung open. Two men jumped out. She didn’t have time to realize what was happening. A third man came running toward her from behind. Where’d he been a second ago? Was he the man with the dog who’d been watching her? The men from the van grabbed hold of her. Put something over her mouth. She tried to scream, scratch, strike. She gulped for air and became dizzy. There was something in the rag they were holding over her mouth. She threw her body around, yanked at their arms. It didn’t help. They were too big. Built. Brutal.
The men pulled her into the van.
Her last thought was that she regretted ever having moved to Stockholm.
A shit city.