Authors: Åsa Larsson
The film ends. Kristin grabs hold of the banister. This will be her and Stefan’s house. If Mildred’s husband thinks he can just leave all the furniture behind, and that nobody will dare to move it out, then he’s wrong. As she walks toward the car, she allows the film in her head to run once more. This time she edits out her son Benjamin.
nna-Maria drove into the yard of the priest’s house at Jukkasjärvi. She rang the bell, but nobody answered.
When she turned, a boy was walking toward the house. He was about the same age as Marcus, maybe fifteen. His hair was long and dyed deep black. Beneath his eyes was a black, sooty line of kohl. He was wearing a scruffy black leather jacket and tight black trousers with huge holes in the knees.
“Hi!” shouted Anna-Maria. “Do you live here? I’m looking for Stefan Wikström, do you know if…”
She didn’t get any further. The boy stared at her. Then he turned on his heel and ran. Ran off along the road. For a moment Anna-Maria considered running after him, but then she came to her senses. What for?
She got in the car and drove toward the town. Kept an eye open for the boy dressed in black as she was driving through the village, but there was no sign of him.
Could he have been one of the priest’s children? Or was it somebody who’d maybe been thinking of breaking in? Who was surprised because there was somebody there?
Something else was tapping her on the head as well.
Stefan Wikström’s wife. She was called Kristin Wikström.
Kristin. She recognized that name.
Then she remembered. Pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the car. Reached out for the pile of letters to Mildred that Fred Olsson had sorted out and thought might be of interest.
Two of them were signed “Kristin.”
Anna-Maria glanced through them. One was dated in March, and was neatly handwritten:
Leave us in peace. We want peace and quiet. My husband needs a peaceful working life. Do you want me to beg on my knees? I’m on my knees. And I’m begging: Leave us in peace.
The second was dated just a month later. It was obviously written by the same person, but the handwriting was all over the place, the downward strokes of the letter
were long, and some words had been scribbled out:
Perhaps you think we don’t KNOW. But everybody knows it wasn’t just chance that you went for the job in Kiruna just one year after my husband had taken up his post here in town. But I can ASSURE you, we KNOW. You are working with groups and organizations whose SOLE aim is to work against him. You are poisoning wells with your HATRED. You shall drink that HATRED yourself!
Now what do I do? thought Anna-Maria. Go back and get her up against a wall?
She rang Sven-Erik Stålnacke on her cell phone.
“Let’s talk to her husband instead,” he suggested. “I was on the way to the parish offices in any case to pick up the books of that wolf foundation.”
Stefan Wikström sighed heavily, sitting behind his desk. Sven-Erik Stålnacke had settled himself in the armchair. Anna-Maria was leaning against the door with her arms folded.
Sometimes she was just so… unprofessional, thought Sven-Erik, looking at Anna-Maria.
He really should have dealt with this little runt himself, that would have been better. Anna-Maria didn’t like him, and couldn’t hide the fact. Of course, Sven-Erik had read about the quarrel between Mildred and this priest, but they were here to work.
“Yes, I know about the letters,” said the priest.
His left elbow was resting on the desk, his forehead supported by his thumb and fingertips.
“My wife… she… sometimes she’s not well. I don’t mean she’s mentally ill, but she’s a bit unstable at times. She’s not really like this.”
Neither Sven-Erik Stålnacke nor Anna-Maria Mella spoke.
“Sometimes she sees ghosts in broad daylight. But she wouldn’t .. you can’t think she…?”
He lifted his head and banged the desk with the palm of his hand.
“If that’s what you think, it’s completely ridiculous. My God, Mildred had a hundred enemies.”
“Including you?” asked Anna-Maria.
“Certainly not! Am I a suspect as well? Mildred and I disagreed on some professional matters, that’s true, but to think that either I or poor Kristin would have anything to do with her murder…”
“That isn’t what we said,” interjected Sven-Erik.
He frowned in a way that made Anna-Maria keep quiet and listen.
“What did Mildred say about these letters?” asked Sven-Erik.
“She told me she’d received them.”
“Why do you think she kept them?”
“I don’t know, I mean, I even keep all the Christmas cards I get.”
“Did anybody else know about them?”
“No, and I’d be grateful if we could keep it that way.”
“So Mildred didn’t tell anybody else.”
“No, not as far as I know.”
“Did that make you feel grateful?”
Stefan Wikström blinked.
He almost burst out laughing. Grateful. Was he supposed to have felt grateful to Mildred? The idea was just bizarre. But what could he say? He couldn’t tell them anything. Mildred still had him trapped in a cage. And she’d made his wife into the padlock. And expected gratitude.
In the middle of May he’d gone crawling to Mildred and asked her for the letters. He joined her as she walked along Skolgatan on the way down to the hospital. She was going to visit somebody. It was the worst time of the year. Not at home in Lund, of course. But in Kiruna it was. The streets were full of gravel and all kinds of crap that appeared as the snow melted. Nothing green. Just dirt, rubbish and great drifts of gravel.
Stefan had spoken to his wife on the telephone. She was staying with her mother in Katrineholm with the youngest children. Her voice sounded more cheerful. Stefan looks at Mildred. She seems cheerful too. Turns her face up to the sun and sometimes takes deep, pleasurable breaths. It must be a blessing to have no sense of beauty. That must mean your mood isn’t affected by dirt and gravel.
It’s very odd, he thinks, not without some bitterness, that Kristin feels happier and draws strength from being away from him for a while. That isn’t really what he thinks marriage should be about, you should gain strength from each other and support each other. He accepted long ago that she wasn’t the support he’d hoped for. But now it’s beginning to feel as if she doesn’t think he’s enough for her either. “Oh, just a bit longer,” she answers evasively when he wonders how long she’s going to be away.
Mildred doesn’t want to give him the letters.
“You could smash my life to bits at any moment,” he says to her with a twisted smile.
She looks at him steadily.
“Then you must get used to trusting me,” she says.
He looks at her sideways. As they walk along side by side, it’s obvious how small she is. Her front teeth really are unnaturally narrow. She looks exactly like a shrew.
“I’m thinking of raising the question of the hunting lease for Poikkijärvi hunting club with the church council. The lease expires at Christmas. If we lease the rights to somebody who can pay…”
He can’t believe his ears.
“So that’s the way things are,” he says, surprised at how calm he sounds. “You’re threatening me! If I vote for the lease to stay with the club, you’ll tell everybody about Kristin. That stinks, Mildred. You’re really showing your true colors now.”
He can feel his mouth, living a life of its own. It contorts into a grimace, close to tears.
If Kristin can just get some rest, she’ll get back on track. But if this business with the letters comes out… he knows she won’t be able to cope. He can already hear her accusing people of talking about her behind her back. She’ll have even more enemies. Soon she’ll be waging war on several fronts simultaneously. And then they’ll go under.
“No,” says Mildred. “I’m not threatening you. I’ll keep quiet whatever happens. I just wish you could…”
“… accommodate me in this one matter.”
“Go against my conscience?”
And now she flares up. Shows her real self.
“Oh, come on! It’s hardly that, is it? A question of conscience?”
* * *
Sven-Erik Stålnacke repeats his question.
“Did you feel grateful about the letters? Bearing in mind that you weren’t exactly the best of friends, it was generous of her not to tell anybody about the letters.”
“Yes,” Stefan ground out after a while.
“Hmm,” said Sven-Erik. Anna-Maria’s back moved away from the door.
“One more thing,” said Sven-Erik. “The wolf foundation’s books. Are they kept here?”
Stefan Wikström’s irises moved uneasily across the whites of his eyes like goldfish in a bowl.
“The books for the wolf foundation. Are they here?”
“We’d like to have a look at them.”
“Don’t you need some sort of warrant from the prosecutor to do that?”
Anna-Maria and Sven-Erik glanced at each other. Sven-Erik stood up.
“Excuse me,” he said. “I just need to go to the bathroom. Where…?”
“To the left, out through the office door, then immediately left again.”
Anna-Maria took out the drawing of the hanged Mildred.
“Somebody sent this to Mildred Nilsson. Have you seen it before?”
Stefan Wikström took it from her. His hand was steady.
“No,” he said.
He handed the drawing back to her.
“You haven’t received anything similar?”
“And you’ve no idea who might have sent it? She never mentioned it?”
“Mildred and I didn’t confide in each other.”
“Maybe you could make me a list of people you think she might have talked to. I mean people who worked in the church or here in the parish hall.”
Anna-Maria watched him as he was writing. She hoped Sven-Erik would do what he had to do out there as quickly as possible.
“Have you got children?” she asked.
“Yes. Three boys.”
“What age is the oldest?”
“What does he look like? Is he like you?”
Stefan Wikström’s voice suddenly acquired a slight drawl.
“Impossible to tell. You can’t tell what he looks like underneath all the hair dye and makeup. He’s… going through a phase.”
He looked up and smiled. Anna-Maria realized the fatherly smile, the deliberate pause and the word “phase” were something he used as a matter of routine when he talked about his son.
Stefan Wikström’s smile suddenly disappeared.
“Why are you asking about Benjamin?” he asked.
Anna-Maria took the list out of his hand.
“Thank you for your help,” she said, and left.
Sven-Erik Stålnacke went straight from Stefan Wikström’s room into the parish office. There were three women in there. One of them was watering the plants on the windowsills, the other two were sitting at their computers. Sven-Erik went over to one of them and introduced himself. She was about the same age as him, around sixty, shiny nose and a pleasant expression.
“We’d like to have a look at the books for the wolf foundation,” he said.
She went over to one of the bookshelves and came back with a folder that had next to nothing in it. Sven-Erik looked at her quizzically. Accounts ought to consist of great heaps of paper, invoices, columns and calculations.
“Is that all there is?” he asked incredulously.
“Yes,” she said. “There aren’t that many transactions, it’s mostly credits.”
“I’ll just borrow this for a while.”
“Keep it, it’s only printouts and photocopies. I’ll get some new ones off the computer.”
“Er,” said Sven-Erik, lowering his voice. “I’d like to ask you about something, could we just…”
He nodded in the direction of the empty stairwell.
The woman followed him out.
“There’s an invoice to do with training costs,” said Sven-Erik. “Quite a large sum…”
“Yes,” said the woman. “I know the one you mean.”
She thought for a little while, as if she were gathering herself.
“It wasn’t right,” she said. “Mildred was very angry. Stefan and his family went on holiday to the USA at the end of May on the foundation’s money.”
“He and Mildred and Bertil were all independent signatories for the foundation, so there was no problem. He probably thought nobody would notice, or he might have done it to annoy her, how should I know.”
The woman looked at him.
“Nothing,” she said. “I suppose they drew a line under it. And Mildred said he’d visited Yellowstone where there’s a wolf project going on, so as far as I know there wasn’t any trouble about it.”
Sven-Erik thanked her and she went back to her computer. He wondered whether he should go back to Stefan’s office and ask about the trip. But there was no hurry; they could talk to him about it the following day. He instinctively felt he needed to think it over for a while. And in the meantime there was no point in frightening people.
* * *
“His face didn’t change at all,” Anna-Maria said to Sven-Erik in the car. “When I showed Stefan Wikström the drawing, his expression didn’t alter. Either he has no feelings, or he was too busy hiding what he felt. You know how it is, you’re so hell-bent on appearing calm that you forget you still ought to pretend to react in some way.”
Sven-Erik mumbled something.
“He should at least have been slightly interested,” said Anna-Maria. “Had a look at it. That’s how I’d have reacted. Got upset, if it was somebody I cared about. Or slightly disturbed if I didn’t know her, or actually disliked her. I’d have looked at it for a while.”
He didn’t actually answer my last question, she thought later. When I asked if he had any idea who might have sent it? He just said he and Mildred didn’t confide in each other.
* * *
Stefan Wikström went out into the office. He felt slightly queasy. He ought to go home and have dinner.
The girls in the office looked at him curiously.