Read an Excerpt
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 2
Love and death are neighbors.
Their faces are one and the same. A person need not stop breathing in order to die, and need not breathe in order to be alive.
There are never any guarantees where death or love are concerned.
Two people meet.
They make love.
And they love and they love and then, after a while, the love runs out, just as abruptly as it first appeared, its capricious source blocked by circumstances, internal or external.
Or else love continues until the end of time. Or else it is impossible from the start, yet still unavoidable.
And is this sort of love, this last sort, is it really nothing but a nuisance?
That’s just what it is, thinks Malin Fors as she stands in her dressing gown by the kitchen sink, fresh from the shower, spreading butter on a slice of wholemeal bread with one hand, and lifting a cup of strong coffee to her lips with the other.
Six fifteen, according to the Ikea clock on the whitewashed wall. Outside the window, in the glow of the streetlamps, the air seems to have solidified into ice. The cold embraces the gray stone walls of St. Lars Church, and the white branches of the maples seem to have given up long ago: Not another night of temperatures below minus four; better to kill us outright and let us fall dead to the ground.
Who could love this sort of cold?
A day like this, Malin thinks, is not meant for the living.
* * *
Linköping is paralyzed, the city’s streets draped limply upon the crust of the earth, the condensation on the windows making the houses blind.
People didn’t even make the effort to get to the Cloetta Center last night for the ice hockey, just a couple of thousand instead of the usual full house.
I wonder how Martin’s getting on, Malin thinks; her colleague Zeke’s son, a local lad, a forward with a chance of a place on the national team and a career as a professional. She can’t actually summon up much interest in ice hockey, but if you live in this town it’s pretty much impossible to avoid hearing about events on the ice.
Hardly anyone about.
The travel agent’s on the corner of St. Larsgatan and Hamngatan mocks with its posters for one exotic destination after the other; the sun, beaches, the unnaturally blue skies belong to another planet, a habitable one. A lone mother is wrestling with a twin buggy outside the Östgöta Bank, the children nestled in black bags, almost invisible, sleepy, obstinate, yet still so unimaginably vulnerable. Their mother slips on patches of ice hidden under a powder of snow, she lurches but drives herself on as though there were no other option.
Winters here are the devil’s work.
Malin can hear her father’s words within her, his justification a few years ago for the purchase of a three-room bungalow in a retirement village on Tenerife: the Playa de la Arena, just north of Playa de las Américas.
What are you doing right now? Malin thinks.
The coffee warms from within.
You’re probably still asleep, and when you wake up it’ll be warm and sunny. But here, the frost reigns unchallenged.
Should I wake Tove? Thirteen-year-olds can sleep for ages, right round the clock if they’re given the chance, and in a winter like this it would be lovely to hibernate for a few months, not having to go out, and waking up fully restored when the temperature creeps above zero.
Tove can sleep. Let her tall, gangly body rest.
Her first class doesn’t start until nine. Malin can see it all in her mind’s eye. How her daughter forces herself to get up at half past eight, stumbles to the bathroom, showers, gets dressed. She never wears makeup. And then Malin sees Tove skip breakfast, despite all her cajoling. Maybe I should try a new tactic, Malin thinks: Breakfast is bad for you, Tove. Whatever you do, don’t eat breakfast.
Malin drinks the last of the coffee.
The only time Tove ever gets up early is when she wants to finish one of the mass of books she devours almost obsessively; she has unusually advanced taste for her age. Jane Austen. How many Swedish thirteen-year-olds apart from Tove would read something like that? But, on the other hand … She’s not quite like other thirteen-year-olds, never has to try hard to be top of the class. Maybe it would be good if she did have to make more effort, encounter a bit of real resistance?
Time has run on, and Malin wants to get to work, doesn’t want to miss the half hour between quarter to seven and quarter past when she is almost certain to be on her own in Police Headquarters and can plan the day ahead undisturbed.
In the bathroom she takes off the dressing gown. Tosses it on to the yellow synthetic floor.
The glass in the mirror on the wall is a little bowed, and even though it makes her height of five feet seven appear slightly squashed she still looks slim, athletic and powerful, and ready to meet whatever crap comes her way. She’s met it before, crap, she’s dealt with it, learned from it, and moved on.
Not bad for a thirty-three-year-old, Malin thinks, her self-confidence doing its job: There’s nothing I can’t deal with, and then the doubt, the old fixed belief, I haven’t amounted to much, and won’t now, and it’s my fault, all my own fault.
Her body. She concentrates on that.
Pats her stomach, takes in a deep breath so that her small breasts stick out, but just as she sees the nipples pointing forward she stops herself.
Instead she quickly bends down and picks up the dressing gown. She dries her blond pageboy with the dryer, letting her hair fall over her prominent but soft cheekbones, forming a pelmet above her straight eyebrows, because she knows that emphasizes her cornflower-blue eyes. Malin pouts her lips, wishes they were bigger, but maybe that would look odd beneath her short, slightly snub nose?
In the bedroom she pulls on a pair of jeans, a white blouse, and a loose-knit black turtleneck sweater.
Glancing at the hall mirror, she adjusts her hair, reassuring herself that the wrinkles around her eyes aren’t too visible. She puts on her Caterpillar boots.
Because who knows what lies ahead?
Maybe she’ll have to head out into the countryside. The thick, synthetic down jacket she bought from a branch of Stadium in Tornby Shopping Centre for eight hundred and seventy-five kronor makes her feel like a rheumatic astronaut, her movements sluggish and clumsy.
Have I got everything?
Mobile phone, purse in her pocket. Pistol. Her constant companion. The gun was hanging on the back of the chair next to the unmade bed. By the mattress with space for two, plus enough room for a decent gap, a gap for sleep and loneliness during the very darkest hours of night. But how can you find someone you can put up with if you can’t even put up with yourself?
She has a picture of Janne beside the bed. She usually tells herself that it’s there to make Tove happy.
In the photograph Janne is suntanned and his mouth is smiling, but not his gray-green eyes. The sky behind him is clear, and beside him a palm tree is swaying gently in the wind, while in the background you can make out a jungle. Janne is wearing a light-blue UN helmet and a camouflage cotton jacket bearing the logo of the Swedish Rescue Services; he looks like he wants to turn round, to make sure that nothing’s about to jump out at him from the dense vegetation.
He’s told her about dogs eating people who weren’t even dead yet.
* * *
Janne went, goes, has always gone as a volunteer. At least that’s the official version.
To a jungle so dense that you can’t hear the sound of the heart of darkness beating, to mined and blood-drenched mountain roads in the Balkans, trucks with sacks of flour rumbling past mass graves, poorly concealed by sand and scrub.
And it was voluntary from the start, for us.
The short version: A seventeen-year-old and a twenty-year-old meet in a regular old disco in a regular old small town. Two people with no plans, similar but different, yet with some shared essence, ideas that work for both of them. Then, after two years, the event to be avoided at all costs happens. A thin layer of rubber breaks and a child starts to grow.
“We have to get rid of it.”
“No, this is what I’ve always wanted.”
Their words slip past each other. Time runs out and their daughter arrives, the sunbeam to end all sunbeams, and they play happy families. A few years pass and a silence falls. Things turn out differently from the way they were planned, if they were planned at all, and each of those involved moves off in his or her own direction, without rhyme or reason.
No explosions, just a damp squib leaving a long trail into history, and even farther into the soul.
The serfdom of love, Malin thinks.
Bittersweet. As she thought back then, after they’d separated, when the removal van was heading for Stockholm and the Police Academy, when Janne moved to Bosnia: If I become really good at getting rid of evil, then goodness will come to me.
Surely it could be as simple as that?
Then love might be possible again. Mightn’t it?
* * *
On her way out of the apartment Malin feels the pistol pressing against her rib cage. She carefully opens the door to Tove’s bedroom. She can make out the walls in the darkness, the rows of books on the shelves, can sense Tove’s oddly proportioned teenage body under the turquoise duvet. Tove sleeps almost soundlessly, has done ever since she was two. Before that her sleep was disturbed, she used to wake several times a night, but then it was as if she realized that silence and calm were necessary, at least at night, as if the two-year-old instinctively knew that a person needs to keep the night free for dreams.
Malin leaves the apartment.
Goes down the three flights of stairs to the door of the building. With every step she feels the cold come closer. It’s practically below freezing in the stairwell.
Please let the car start. It’s almost cold enough to freeze the gasoline to ice.
She pauses at the door. The chill mist is drifting in waves through the streetlamps’ cones of light. She wants to run back upstairs, go into the apartment, tear off her clothes, and creep back into bed. Then it comes again, her longing for Police Headquarters. So: Pull the door open, run to the car, fumble with the key, open the door, throw yourself in, start the engine, and drive off.
The cold takes a stranglehold when she walks out; she imagines she can hear the hairs in her nose crackle with every breath, and feels her tear ducts grow treacly, but she can still read the inscription above one of the side doors of St. Lars: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
Where’s the car? The silver Volvo, a 2004 model, is in its place, opposite the St. Lars Gallery.
Padded, bulky arms.
With difficulty Malin gets her hand into the pocket where she thinks the car keys are. No keys. The next pocket, then the next. Damn. She must have left them upstairs. Then she remembers: They’re in the front pocket of her jeans.
Her stiff fingers ache as she thrusts them into the pocket. But the keys are there.
Open now, damn door. The ice has somehow spared the keyhole and soon Malin is sitting in the driver’s seat swearing: about the cold, about an engine that merely splutters and refuses to start.
She tries again and again.
But the car refuses.
Malin gets out. Thinks: I have to take the bus, which way does it go?
Damn, it’s cold, fucking damn car-fucker, then her mobile rings.
A clawed hand on the angry plastic gadget. She can’t be bothered to see who it is.
“Hello, Malin Fors.”
“My fucking car won’t start.”
“Calm down, Malin. Calm down. Just listen. Something big’s happened. I’ll tell you when I see you. Be with you in ten minutes.”
Zeke’s words hang in the air. From his tone of voice Malin can hear that something serious has indeed happened, that the coldest winter in living memory just got a few degrees less forgiving, that the cold has just shown its true face.