The Girl in the Spider's Web (Millennium series Book 4) (3 page)

In short, Levin had seen an unexpected opportunity to buy into one of the most prestigious brands in Swedish media. But Serner’s management was not enthusiastic, to put it mildly. On the contrary, people were heard to mutter that
Millennium
was old-fashioned and had a left-wing bias and a tendency to end up in fights with important advertisers and business partners. The plan would have come to nothing if Levin had not argued his case so passionately. But he had insisted. In a broader context, he argued, investing in
Millennium
represented a negligible amount, which might not yield vast profits but which could give them something much greater, namely credibility. Right now, after the cutbacks and blood-letting, Serner’s reputation wasn’t exactly their prime asset. Taking a stake in
Millennium
would be a sign that the group did after all care about journalism and freedom of expression, even if Serner’s board was not conspicuously keen on either. This much they were able to understand, and Levin got his acquisition through. For a long time it looked like a winning outcome for all parties.

Serner got good publicity and
Millennium
kept its staff and was able to concentrate on what it did best: carefully researched, well-written reportage, with Levin himself beaming like the sun and even taking part in a debate at the Writers’ Club, where he said in his usual modest way, “I believe in virtuous enterprise. I have always fought for investigative journalism.”

But then … he did not want to think about it. At first he was not really bothered by the campaign against Blomkvist. Ever since his former colleague’s meteoric rise in the reporting firmament, Levin had rejoiced secretly whenever Blomkvist was sneered at in the media. This time, though, his joy did not last. Serner’s young son Thorvald became aware of the commotion – social media made a big thing of it – even though he was not a man who took any interest in what journalists had to say. But he did like power and he loved to intrigue, and here he saw a chance to score some points or simply to give the older generation on the board a good drubbing. Before long he had encouraged the C.E.O. – who until quite recently had not concerned himself with such trivial matters – to declare that
Millennium
could not be given special treatment, but would have to adapt to the new times like all of the other products in the group.

Levin, who had just given Berger a solemn promise that he would not interfere in the editorial line, save perhaps as a “friend and adviser”, all of a sudden felt that his hands were tied and he was forced to play some intricate games behind the scenes. He did everything he could to get Berger, Malin Eriksson and Christer Malm at the magazine to buy into the new policy, which was never in fact clearly expressed – something that flares up in a panic rarely is – but which somehow entailed making
Millennium
younger and more commercial.

Naturally Levin kept repeating that there could be no question of compromising the magazine’s soul and provocative attitude, even if he was not sure what he meant by that. He only knew that to keep the directors happy he needed to get more glamour into the magazine and reduce the number of lengthy investigations into industry, since they were liable to irritate advertisers and make enemies for the board. But of course he did not tell Berger this.

He wanted to avoid unnecessary conflict and, standing there in front of the editorial team, he had taken the trouble to dress more casually than usual. He did not want to provoke anyone by wearing the shiny suits and ties which had become de rigueur at head office. He had instead opted for jeans, a white shirt and a dark-blue V-necked pullover which was not even cashmere. His long curly hair – which had always been his rebellious little gimmick – was tied in a ponytail, just like the edgiest journalists on T.V. But most important of all he kicked off in the humble tone he had been taught to adopt on his management courses.

“Hello, everybody,” he said. “What foul weather! I’ve said it many times before, but I’m happy to repeat it: we at Serner are incredibly proud to be accompanying you on this journey, and for me personally it amounts to more even than that. It’s the commitment to magazines like
Millennium
which makes my job meaningful; it reminds me why I went into this profession in the first place. Micke, do you remember how we used to sit in the Opera Bar and dream about everything we were going to achieve together? And we weren’t exactly holding back on the booze, ha ha!”

Blomkvist did not look as if he remembered. But Levin was not to be put off.

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all nostalgic,” he said, “and there’s no reason to do so. In those days there was much more money in our industry. Just to cover some piddling little murder in the middle of nowhere we would hire a helicopter and book an entire floor at the poshest hotel, and order champagne for the after party. You know, when I was about to go off on my first overseas trip I asked Ulf Nilson, foreign correspondent at the time, what the deutschmark exchange rate was. ‘I have no idea,’ he said, ‘I set my own exchange rate.’ Ha ha! So at the time we used to pad our expenses, do you remember, Micke? Maybe we were at our most creative back then. In any case, our job was just to knock out some quick copy and we still managed to sell any number of issues. But a lot has changed since then – we all know that. We now face cut-throat competition and it’s not easy these days to make a profit in journalism, not even if you have Sweden’s best editorial team, as you do. So I thought we should talk a little bit today about the challenges of the future. Not that I imagine for one moment that I can teach you anything. I’m just going to provide you with some context for discussion. We at Serner have commissioned some surveys about your readership and the public perception of
Millennium
. Some of it may give you a bit of a fright. But instead of letting it get you down you should see it as a challenge, and remember, there are some totally crazy changes happening out there.”

Levin paused for a moment and wondered if the term “totally crazy” had been a mistake, if he had tried too hard to appear relaxed and youthful, and whether he had started off in too chatty and jocular a vein. As Haakon Serner would say, “It is impossible to overestimate how humourless underpaid journalists can be.” But no, he decided, I’ll fix this.

I’ll get them on my side!

Blomkvist had stopped listening more or less at the point when Levin explained that they all needed to reflect on their “digital maturity”, and so he didn’t hear them being told that the younger generation were not really aware of
Millennium
or Mikael Blomkvist. Unfortunately that was precisely the moment at which he decided he had had enough and went out to the coffee room. So he had no idea either that Aron Ullman, the Norwegian consultant, quite openly said, “Pathetic. Is he so scared that he’s going to be forgotten?”

But in fact nothing could have worried Blomkvist less at that moment. He was angry that Levin seemed to think consumer surveys might be their salvation. It was no bloody market analysis that had created the magazine. It was passion and fire.
Millennium
had got to where it was because they had all put their faith in it, and in what felt right and important without trying to guess which way the wind was blowing. For a time he just stood there in the pantry, wondering how long it would take before Berger came to join him.

The answer was about two minutes. He tried to calculate how angry she was by the sound of her heels. But when she was standing next to him she only gave him a dejected smile.

“What’s going on?” she said.

“I just couldn’t bear to listen.”

“You do realize that people feel incredibly uncomfortable when you behave like that?”

“I do.”

“And I assume you also understand that Serner can do nothing without our agreement. We still have control.”

“Like hell we do. We’re their hostages, Ricky! Don’t you get it? If we don’t do as they say they’ll withdraw their support and then we’ll be sitting there with our arses hanging out,” he said, loudly and angrily. When Berger hushed him and shook her head he added sotto voce, “I’m sorry. I’m being a brat. But I’m going home now. I need to think.”

“You’ve begun to work extremely short hours.”

“Well, I reckon I’m owed a fair bit of overtime.”

“I suppose you are. Would you like company this evening?”

“I don’t know. I honestly don’t know, Erika,” he said, and then he left the magazine offices and went out onto Götgatsbacken.

The storm and the freezing rain lashed against him and he swore, and for a moment considered dashing into Pocketshop to buy yet another English detective novel to escape into. Instead he turned into Sankt Paulsgatan and as he was passing the sushi restaurant on the right-hand side his mobile rang. He was sure that it would be Berger. But it was Pernilla, his daughter, who had certainly chosen the worst possible time to get in touch with a father who already felt bad about how little he did for her.

“Hello, my darling,” he said.

“What’s that noise?”

“It’s the storm, I expect.”

“O.K., O.K., I’ll be quick. I’ve been accepted on the writing course at Biskops Arnö school.”

“So, now you want to be a writer,” he said, in a tone which was too harsh and almost sarcastic, and that was unfair in every way.

He should have simply congratulated her and wished her luck, but Pernilla had had so many difficult years hopping between one Christian sect and another, and from one course to another without finishing anything, that he felt exhausted by yet another change of direction.

“I don’t think I detected a whoop of joy there.”

“Sorry, Pernilla. I’m not myself today.”

“When are you ever?”

“I’m just not sure writing is such a good idea, given how the profession is looking right now. I only want you to find something that will really work for you.”

“I’m not going to write boring journalism like you.”

“Well, what are you going to write then?”

“I’m going to write for real.”

“O.K.,” he said, without asking what she meant by that. “Do you have enough money?”

“I’m working part-time at Wayne’s Coffee.”

“Would you like to come to dinner tonight, so we can talk about it?”

“Don’t have time, Pappa. It was just to let you know,” she said, and hung up, and even if he tried to see the positive side in her enthusiasm it just made his mood worse. He took a short cut across Mariatorget and Hornsgatan to reach his apartment on Bellmansgatan.

It felt as if he had only just left. He got a strange sense that he no longer had a job and that he was on the verge of entering a new existence where he had oceans of time instead of working his fingers to the bone. For a brief moment he considered tidying the place up. There were magazines and books and clothes everywhere. But instead he fetched two Pilsner Urquell from the fridge and sat down on the sofa in the living room to think everything through more soberly, as soberly as one can with a bit of beer in one’s body.

What was he to do?

He had no idea, and most worrying of all was that he was in no mood for a fight. On the contrary, he was strangely resigned, as if
Millennium
were slipping out of his sphere of interest. Isn’t it time to do something new? he asked himself, and he thought of Kajsa Åkerstam, a quite charming person whom he would occasionally meet for a few drinks. Åkerstam was head of Swedish Television’s “Investigative Taskforce” programme and she had been trying to recruit him for years. It had never mattered what she had offered, and how solemnly she had guaranteed backing and total integrity.
Millennium
had been his home and his soul. But now … maybe he should take the chance. Perhaps a job on “Investigative Taskforce” would fire him up again.

His mobile rang and for a moment he was happy. Whether it was Berger or Pernilla, he promised himself he would be friendly and really listen. But no, it was a withheld number and he answered guardedly.

“Is that Mikael Blomkvist?” said a young-sounding voice.

“Yes,” he said.

“Do you have time to talk?”

“I might if you introduced yourself.”

“My name is Linus Brandell.”

“O.K., Linus, how can I help?”

“I have a story for you.”

“Tell me.”

“I will if you can drag yourself down to the Bishops Arms across the street and meet me there.”

Blomkvist was irritated. It wasn’t just the bossy tone. It was the intrusion on his home turf.

“The telephone will do just fine.”

“It’s not something which should be discussed on an open line.”

“Why do I feel so tired when I talk to you, Linus?”

“Maybe you’ve had a bad day.”

“I
have
had a bad day. You’re right about that.”

“There you go. Come down to the Bishop and I’ll buy you a beer and tell you something amazing.”

Blomkvist wanted only to snap: “Stop telling me what to do!” Yet without knowing why, or perhaps because he didn’t have anything better to do than to sit in his attic apartment and brood over his future he said, “I pay for my own beers. But O.K., I’m coming.”

“A wise decision.”

“But, Linus …”

“Yes?”

“If you get long-winded and give me a load of wild conspiracy theories to the effect that Elvis is alive and you know who shot Olof Palme, then I’m coming straight home.”

“Fair enough,” Brandell said.

CHAPTER 3

20.xi

Edwin Needham – Ed the Ned, as he was sometimes called – was not the most highly paid security technician in the U.S., but he may have been the best. He grew up in South Boston, Dorchester, and his father had been a monumental good-for-nothing, a drunk who took on casual work in the harbour but often disappeared on binges which not infrequently landed him in jail or in hospital. Yet these benders were the family’s best time, a sort of breathing space. When Ed’s father could be bothered to be around he would beat his mother black and blue. Sometimes she would spend hours or even whole days locked inside the toilet, crying and shaking. Nobody was very surprised when she died from internal bleeding at only forty-six, or when Ed’s older sister became a crack addict, still less when the remains of the family stood teetering on the brink of homelessness soon afterwards.

Ed’s childhood paved the way for a life of trouble, and during his teenage years he belonged to a gang who called themselves “The Fuckers”. They were the terror of Dorchester, and engaged in gang warfare, assault and robbing grocery stores. There was something brutal about Ed’s appearance from an early age and this was not improved by the fact that he never smiled and was missing two upper teeth. He was sturdy, tall and fearless, and his face usually bore the traces of brawls with his father or gang fights. Most of the teachers at his school were scared to death of him. All were convinced that he would end up in jail or with a bullet in his head. But there were some adults who began to take an interest in him – no doubt because they discovered that there was more than aggression and violence in his intense blue eyes.

Ed had an irrepressible thirst for knowledge, an energy which meant that he could devour a book with the same vigour with which he could trash the inside of a public bus. Often he was reluctant to go home at the end of the school day. He liked to stay on in what was known as the technology room, where there were a couple of computers. He would sit there for hours. A physics teacher with the Swedish-sounding name of Larson noticed how good he was with machines, and after social services got involved he was awarded a scholarship and transferred to a school with more motivated students.

He began to excel at his studies and was given more scholarships and distinctions and eventually – something of a miracle in view of the odds against him – he went on to study Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at M.I.T. In his doctoral thesis he explored some specific fears around new asymmetric cryptosystems like R.S.A., and he then went on to senior positions at Microsoft and Cisco before being recruited by the National Security Agency at Fort Meade in Maryland.

He did not have the ideal C.V. for the job, even leaving aside his criminal behaviour as a teenager. He had smoked a lot of grass at college and flirted with socialist or even anarchist ideals, and had been arrested twice for assault – nothing major, just bar fights. He still had a volcanic temper and everyone who knew him thought better of crossing him.

But at the N.S.A. they recognized his other qualities. Besides which it was the autumn of 2001. The American security services were so desperate for computer technicians that they hired pretty much anybody. During the ensuing years nobody questioned Needham’s loyalty – or patriotism, for that matter – and if anyone thought to do so, his advantages always outweighed his shortcomings.

Needham was not just amazingly gifted. There was an obsessive streak to his character, a manic precision and a furious efficiency which boded well for a man in charge of building I.T. security at America’s most highly classified agency. Nobody was damn well going to crack his system. It was a matter of personal pride for him. At Fort Meade he quickly made himself indispensable, to the point where people were constantly lining up to consult him. Not a few were terrified of him and he was often verbally abusive. He had even told the head of the N.S.A. himself, the legendary Admiral Charles O’Connor, to go to hell.

“Use your own busy fucking head for things you might just be able to comprehend,” Needham had roared when the admiral attempted to comment on his work.

But O’Connor and everyone else let it happen. They knew that Needham screamed and yelled for the right reasons – because colleagues had been careless about security regulations, or because they were talking about things beyond their understanding. Not once did he interfere in the rest of the agency’s work, even though his level of clearance gave him access to pretty much everything, and even though in recent years the agency had found itself at the centre of a heated storm of opinion with advocates of both the right and the left seeing the N.S.A. as the devil incarnate, as Orwell’s Big Brother. As far as Needham was concerned, the organization could do whatever the hell it wanted, so long as his security systems remained rigorous and intact. And since he did not yet have a family he more or less lived at the office.

Apart from the occasional drinking session, during which he sometimes turned alarmingly sentimental about his past, there was no suggestion that he had ever told outsiders what he was working on. In that other world he remained as silent as the grave and, if ever questioned about his profession, he stuck to a well-rehearsed cover story.

It was not by chance, nor was it the result of intrigue or manipulation, that he had risen through the ranks and become the N.S.A.’s most senior security chief. Needham and his team had tightened internal surveillance “so that no new whistle-blowers can pop up and punch us on the nose” and during countless sleepless nights created something he alternately called “an unbreakable wall” or “a ferocious little bloodhound”.

“No fucker can get in, and no fucker can dig around in there without permission,” he said. And he was enormously proud of that.

He had been proud, that is, until that disastrous morning in November. The day had begun beautiful and clear. Needham, who had put on quite a belly over the years, came waddling over from the coffee machine in his characteristic way. Because of his seniority he completely ignored dress codes. He was wearing jeans and a red-checked lumberjack shirt, not quite buttoned at the waist, and he sighed as he settled down at his computer. He was not feeling great. His back and right knee hurt and he cursed the fact that his long-time colleague, Alona Casales, had managed to persuade him to come out for a run the night before. Sheer sadism on her part.

Luckily there was nothing super-urgent to deal with. He only had to send an internal memo with some new procedures for those in charge of C.O.S.T., a programme for cooperation with the large I.T. companies – he had even changed the codenames. But he did not get far. He was just beginning to write, in his usual turgid prose:


when he was interrupted by one of his alerts.

He was not particularly worried. His warning systems were so sensitive that they reacted to the slightest divergence in the information flow. It was going to be an anomaly, a notification perhaps that someone was trying to exceed the limits of their authorization, or some minor interference.

As it turned out, he never had time to investigate. In the next moment something so uncanny happened that for several seconds he refused to believe it. He just sat there, staring at the screen. Yet he knew exactly what was going on. A R.A.T. had got into the NSANet intranet. Anywhere else he would have thought:
Those fuckers, I’ll crush them
. But in here, the most tightly closed and controlled place of all, which he and his team had gone over with a fine-toothed comb a million times just this last year to detect every minuscule little vulnerability, here, no, no, it was impossible – it could not be happening.

Without realizing it he had closed his eyes, as if hoping that it would all vanish so long as he wasn’t watching. But when he looked at the screen again, the sentence he had begun was being completed. His <
I would just like to point out>
was continuing on its own with the words

“Jesus, Jesus,” he muttered – which was at least a sign that he was beginning to recover some of his composure.

But then the text went on:

at which point he gave a loud cry. The word “Root” brought down his whole world. For about a minute, as the computer raced through the most confidential parts of the system at lightning speed, he genuinely believed that he was going to have a heart attack. He was only vaguely aware that people were beginning to gather around his desk.

There was not much of a crowd down at the Bishops Arms. The weather was not encouraging people to venture out, not even to the local pub. Blomkvist was nevertheless met by shouts and laughter, and by a hoarse voice bawling:

“Kalle Blomkvist!”

It came from a man with a puffy red face, a halo of frizzy hair and a fussy moustache, whom Blomkvist had seen many times in the area. He thought his name was Arne, and Arne would turn up at the pub as regularly as clockwork at 2.00 every afternoon. Today he had clearly come earlier than that and settled down at a table to the left of the bar with three drinking companions.

“Mikael Blomkvist,” Blomkvist corrected him with a smile.

Arne and his friends laughed as if Blomkvist’s actual name was the biggest joke of all.

“Got any good scoops?” Arne said.

“I’m thinking about blowing wide open the whole murky scene at the Bishops Arms.”

“You reckon Sweden’s ready for a story like that?”

“No, probably not.”

In truth Blomkvist quite liked this crowd, not that he ever talked to them more than in throw-away lines and banter. But these men were a part of the local scene which made him feel at home in the area, and he was not in the least bit offended when one of them shot out, “I’ve heard that you’re washed up.”

Far from upsetting him, it brought the whole campaign against him down to the low, almost farcical level where it belonged.

“I’ve been washed up for the last fifteen years, hello to you brother bottle, all good things must pass,” he said, quoting the poet Fröding and looking around for someone who might have had the gall to order a tired journalist down to the pub. Since he saw no-one apart from Arne and his gang he went up to Amir at the bar.

Amir was big and fat and jolly, a hard-working father of four who had been running the pub for some years. He and Blomkvist had become good friends. Not because Blomkvist was an especially regular customer, but because they had helped each other out in completely different ways; once or twice when Blomkvist had not had the time to get to the state liquor store and was expecting female company, Amir had supplied him with a couple of bottles of red wine, and Blomkvist in turn had helped a friend of Amir’s, who had no papers, to write letters to the authorities.

“To what do we owe this honour?” Amir said.

“I’m meeting someone.”

“Anyone exciting?”

“I don’t think so. How’s Sara?”

Sara was Amir’s wife and had just had a hip operation.

“Complaining and taking painkillers.”

“Sounds like hard work. Give her my best.”

“Will do,” Amir said, and they chatted about this and that.

But Linus Brandell did not show up and Blomkvist thought it was probably a practical joke. On the other hand there were worse tricks than to have someone lure you down to your local pub, so he stayed for fifteen minutes discussing a number of financial and health-related concerns before he turned and walked towards the door, and that was when Brandell appeared.

Nobody understood how Gabriella Grane had ended up at Säpo, Swedish Security Police, least of all she herself. She had been the sort of girl for whom everybody had predicted a glittering future. Her old girlfriends from the classy suburb of Djursholm worried that she was thirty-three and neither famous nor wealthy nor married, either to a rich man or to any man at all for that matter.

“What’s happened to you, Gabriella? Are you going to be a police officer all your life?”

Most of the time she could not be bothered to argue back, or point out that she was not a police officer but had been head-hunted for the position of analyst, and that these days she was writing far more challenging texts than she ever had at the Foreign Ministry or during her summers as a leader writer for
Svenska Dagbladet
. Apart from which, she was not allowed to talk about most of it in any case. So she might as well keep quiet and simply come to terms with the fact that working for the Swedish Security Police was considered to be about as low as you can go – both by her status-obsessed friends and even more so by her intellectual pals.

In their eyes, Säpo were a bunch of clumsy right-leaning idiots who went after Kurds and Arabs for what were fundamentally racist reasons, and who had no qualms about committing serious crimes or infringements of civil rights in order to protect former senior Soviet spies. And indeed sometimes she was on their side. There was incompetence in the organization, and values that were unsound, and the Zalachenko affair remained a major blot. But that was not the whole truth. Stimulating and important work was being done as well, especially now after the shake-out, and sometimes she had the impression that it was at Säpo, not in any editorial or lecture hall, that people best understood the upheavals that were taking place across the world. But of course she often asked herself:
How did I end up here, and why have I stayed?

Presumably some of it was down to flattery. No less a person than Helena Kraft, the newly appointed chief of Säpo at the time, had contacted her and said that after all the disasters and bad press they had to rethink their approach to recruitment. We need to “bring on board the real talents from the universities and, quite honestly Gabriella, there’s no better person than you,” and that was all it had taken.

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