Authors: Åsa Larsson
He waved them out into the garden and as people made their way out he took Torsten and Rebecka into the living room. Torsten had to look at his Lars Levi Sunna painting. Rebecka Martinsson noticed that the priest gave Stefan Wikström a look that meant: wait outside with the others.
“I think this is just what the community needs,” the priest said to Torsten. “Although I could really do with you now, not in twelve months’ time when all this can actually become a reality.”
Torsten considered the picture. It showed a gentle-eyed reindeer cow suckling her calf. Through the open door to the hall Rebecka could see a woman who had appeared from nowhere carrying out a tray of thermos pots and clinking coffee cups.
“We’ve had a very difficult time within the community,” the priest went on, “I assume you’ve heard about the murder of Mildred Nilsson.
Torsten and Rebecka nodded.
“I need to fill her post,” said the priest. “And it’s no secret that she and Stefan didn’t exactly get on. Stefan is against women priests. I don’t share his opinion, but I have to respect it. And Mildred was our foremost local feminist, if I can put it that way. It was no easy job being in charge of them both. I know there’s a well-qualified woman who’s going to apply for the post when I advertise. I’ve nothing against her, quite the opposite. But for the sake of peace and quiet at work and at home, I want to fill the post with a man.”
“Less well-qualified?” asked Torsten.
“Yes. Can I do that?”
Torsten rubbed his chin without taking his eyes off the picture.
“Of course,” he said calmly. “But if the female applicant you’ve rejected decides to sue, you’ll be liable for compensation.”
“And I’d have to give her the job?”
“No, no. If the job’s gone to the other person, you can’t take it off him. I can find out how much compensation’s been awarded in similar cases. I’ll do it for free.”
“He probably means you’ll be doing it for free,” the priest said to Rebecka with a laugh.
Rebecka smiled politely. The priest turned back to Torsten.
“I’d appreciate that,” he said seriously. “Then there’s another matter. Or two.”
“Shoot,” said Torsten.
“Mildred set up a foundation. We have a she-wolf in the forests around Kiruna, and Mildred felt very strongly about her. The foundation was to support the work of keeping her alive. Paying compensation to the Sami people, helicopter surveillance in conjunction with the Nature Conservancy Council…”
“The foundation might not be quite so embedded in the community as she might have wished. Not that we’re against having wolves, but we want to maintain an apolitical profile. Everybody, whether they hate wolves or love them, must be able to feel at home within the church.”
Rebecka looked out through the window. The leader of the association of churches was peering in at them curiously. He was holding his saucer under his chin to catch the drips as he drank his coffee. The shirt he was wearing was appalling. Once upon a time it had presumably been beige, but it must have been in the wash with a blue sock.
Good job, he’d been able to find a tie to match it, thought Rebecka.
“We want to dissolve the foundation and use the resources for other projects which fit into the church better,” said the priest.
Torsten promised to pass the question on to someone who was an expert in the law relating to societies and associations.
“And then there’s quite a sensitive issue. Mildred Nilsson’s husband is still living in the priest’s house in Poikkijärvi. It feels terrible to turn him out of house and home, but… well, the house is needed for other things.”
“Well, I’m sure that’s no problem,” said Torsten. “Rebecka, you’re staying for a while, could you take a look at the lease and have a word with… what’s the husband’s name?”
“Erik. Erik Nilsson.”
“If that’s okay?” said Torsten to Rebecka. “Otherwise I can look at it. The house is tied to the job, so if the worst comes to the worst we can get the police involved.”
The priest grimaced.
“And if it gets that far,” said Torsten calmly, “it’s a good idea to have a bloody lawyer to blame.”
“I’ll sort it,” said Rebecka.
“Erik’s got Mildred’s keys,” the priest said to Rebecka. “The church keys. I want those back.”
“Yes,” she said.
“Including the key to her locker in the church office. It looks like this.”
He took his keys out of his pocket and showed one of them to Rebecka.
“A locker,” said Torsten.
“For money, notes from counseling sessions, and things you just don’t want to lose,” said the priest. “A priest isn’t in the office much, and lots of other people are in and out all the time.”
Torsten couldn’t resist asking.
“The police haven’t got it?”
“No,” said the priest casually, “they haven’t asked for it. Look, Bengt Grape’s on his fourth helping. Come on, otherwise we’re not going to get anything.”
* * *
Rebecka drove Torsten to the airport. Indian summer sunshine over the dappled yellow birch trees.
Torsten looked at her from the side. He wondered if there’d been anything going on between her and Måns. At any rate, she was cross now. Shoulders up by her ears, mouth like a thin straight line.
“How long are you staying up here?” he asked.
“Don’t know,” she replied. “Over the weekend.”
“Just so I know what to say to Måns, since I’ve mislaid his colleague.”
“I shouldn’t think he’ll ask,” she said.
Silence fell between them. In the end Rebecka couldn’t keep quiet any longer.
“It’s obvious the police don’t even know that bloody locker exists,” she exclaimed.
Torsten’s voice became exaggeratedly patient.
“They must have missed it,” he said. “But we’re not here to do their job. We’re here to do our job.”
“She was murdered,” said Rebecka quietly.
“Our job is to solve the client’s problems, as long as it isn’t illegal. It isn’t illegal to get the church’s keys back.”
“No. And we’ll help them work out how much sexual discrimination might cost, so they can build up their old boys’ club.”
Torsten looked out through the side window.
“And I’ve got to kick her husband out,” Rebecka went on.
“I said you didn’t have to.”
Oh, pack it in, thought Rebecka. You didn’t give me any choice.
Otherwise you’d have got the police to chuck him out of the house.
She put her foot down.
The money comes first, she thought. That’s the most important thing.
“Sometimes it just makes me want to throw up,” she said tiredly.
“Goes with the job sometimes,” said Torsten. “All you can do is wipe your shoes and carry on.”
nspector Anna-Maria Mella was driving to Lisa Stöckel’s house. Lisa Stöckel was the chair of Magdalena, the women’s group. Her house was in an isolated spot up on a ridge beyond Poikkijärvi chapel. Behind the house the ridge plunged down into huge gravel pits, and the river was on the other side of the ridge.
In the beginning the house had been a simple brown chalet built in the sixties. Later on it had been extended and adorned with ornate white window shutters and an excess of white ornamental carving on the porch. Nowadays it looked like a brown shoebox disguised as a gingerbread house. Next to the house was a tumbledown rectangular wooden building, painted Falun red, with a corrugated roof. One barred window, not double glazed.Woodshed, storeroom and former barn, guessed Anna-Maria. There must have been another house here at one time. And they pulled it down and built the chalet. Left the barn standing.
She drove very slowly into the yard. Three dogs were running to and fro in front of the car, barking. Some chickens flapped their wings and sought shelter under a currant bush. By the gatepost stood a cat in front of a shrew hole, rigid with concentration, ready to pounce. Only an irritated swishing of its tail gave away the fact that it had noticed the noisy Ford Escort.
Anna-Maria parked in front of the house. Through the side window she looked down into the jaws of the dogs who were leaping at the car door. True, their tails were wagging, but even so. One of them was unbelievably big. And it was black. She turned off the engine.
A woman came out of the house and stood on the porch. She was wearing an incredibly ugly Barbie-pink padded coat. She called to the dogs.
The dogs immediately left the car and raced up onto the porch. The woman in the padded coat told them to lie down, and came over to the car. Anna-Maria got out and introduced herself.
Lisa Stöckel was in her fifties. She wore no makeup. Her face was sunburned after the summer. She had white lines around her eyes from squinting into the sun. Her hair was cut very short, a millimeter shorter and it would have stuck out from her head like a scrubbing brush.
Nice, thought Anna-Maria. Like a cowgirl. If you could imagine a cowgirl in that pink coat.
The coat really was hideous. It was covered in dog hair, and bits of the stuffing were sticking out from little holes and tears.
Girl? Anna-Maria did know women in their fifties who had girly lunches and would carry on being girls until the day they died, but Lisa Stöckel was no girl. There was something in her eyes that gave Anna-Maria the feeling that maybe she’d never been a girl, even when she was a child.
And then there was an almost imperceptible line that ran from the corner of her eye, under the eye and down toward the cheekbone. A dark shadow at the corner of the eyes.
Pain, thought Anna-Maria. In the body or in the soul.
They walked up to the house together. The dogs were lying on the porch, whimpering feverishly, desperate to be allowed to get up and greet the visitor.
“Stay,” ordered Lisa Stöckel.
It was directed at the dogs, but Anna-Maria Mella obeyed as well.
“Are you frightened of dogs?”
“No, not as long as I know they’re friendly,” replied Anna-Maria, looking at the large black one.
The long pink tongue lolling out of its mouth like a tie. Paws like a lion.
“Okay, well, there’s another one in the kitchen, but she’s like a lamb. These are too, they’re just a gang of village louts with no manners. Go on in.”
She opened the door for Anna-Maria, who slid into the hall.
“Bloody hooligans,” said Lisa Stöckel affectionately to the dogs. “Out!”
The dogs leapt up, their claws gouging long marks in the wood as they picked up speed; they took the steps down from the porch in one joyous bound and shot off across the yard.
Anna-Maria stood in the narrow hallway and looked around her. Half the floor was occupied by two dog beds. There was also a big stainless steel water bowl, Wellingtons, boots, tennis shoes and practical Gore-Tex shoes. There was hardly room for both her and Lisa Stöckel at the same time. The walls were covered in hooks and shelves, with several dog leads, work gloves, thick hats and gloves, overalls and all sorts of other things hanging from them. Anna-Maria wondered where she should hang her jacket; every hook was occupied, as was every coat hanger.
“Put your jacket over the back of the chair in the kitchen,” said Lisa Stöckel. “Otherwise it’ll get covered in hairs. Oh, no, don’t take your shoes off whatever you do.”
From the hallway one door led into the living room and one into the kitchen. In the living room stood several banana boxes full of books. There were piles of books on the floor. On one of the shorter walls stood the bookcase, empty and dusty, made of some kind of dark wood with a built-in display cabinet with colored glass.
“Are you moving?” said Anna-Maria.
“No, I’m just… You collect so much rubbish. And the books just gather dust.”
The kitchen furniture was heavy, made of varnished yellow pine. A black Labrador retriever was asleep on a rustic kitchen sofa. She woke up when the two women came into the kitchen, thumping her tail against the sofa in greeting. Then she put her head down and went back to sleep.
Lisa introduced the dog as Majken.
“Tell me what she was like,” said Anna-Maria when they’d sat down. “I know you worked together in this women’s group, Magdalena.”
“But I’ve already told him… a big guy with a moustache like this.”
Lisa measured a couple of decimeters from her top lip with her hand. Anna-Maria smiled.
“Can you go over it again?”
“Where shall I start?”
“How did you get to know one another?”
Anna-Maria watched Lisa Stöckel’s face. When people searched through their memories for a particular event they often dropped their guard. As long as it wasn’t an event they were intending to lie about, of course. Sometimes they forgot the person sitting in front of them for a while. A wry, fleeting smile crossed Lisa Stöckel’s face. Something softened for a moment. She’d liked the priest.
“Six years ago. She’d just moved into the priest’s house. And in the autumn she was to be responsible for confirmation classes for the young people both here and in Jukkasjärvi. And she set about it like a gun dog. Contacted all the parents of the children who hadn’t registered. Introduced herself and talked about why she thought confirmation classes were so important.”
“Why were they important?” asked Anna-Maria, who hadn’t thought they were the slightest use when she’d taken them a hundred years ago.
“Mildred thought the church should be a meeting place. She wasn’t that bothered about whether people believed or not, that was between them and God. But if she could get them to church for a christening, confirmation, weddings and major festivals, so that people could meet one another and feel sufficiently at home in the church so they’d turn to it if life became too difficult, then… And when people said ‘but he doesn’t believe, it seems wrong if he’s studying just to get presents,’ she said it was good to get presents, no young people studied because they liked it, neither at school nor at church, but it was part of their general education to know why we celebrate Christmas, Easter, Whitsun and Ascension Day, and to be able to name the apostles.”
“So you had a son or daughter who…”