The Girl in the Spider's Web (Millennium series Book 4) (5 page)

“I just meant …”

“Yes, what actually
did
you mean?”

“That you should talk to him. I think he would like you. You’re the same uncompromising kind of guy.”

It was as if Brandell had suddenly lost his self-confidence and Blomkvist wondered if he had not been unnecessarily tough. As a general principle, he tended to be friendly and encouraging towards people who gave him tip-offs, however weird they sounded, not just because there might be a good story even in something that sounded crazy, but also because he recognized that often he was their last straw. There were many who turned to him when everyone else had stopped listening. He was the last hope, and there was never any excuse to be scornful.

“Listen,” he said. “I’ve had a really bad day and I didn’t mean to sound sarcastic.”

“That’s O.K.”

“And you know,” Blomkvist said, “there is actually one thing which interests me about this story. You said you had a visit from a female hacker.”

Alona Casales was not one to become nervous easily and she rarely had trouble staying on topic. She was forty-eight, tall and outspoken, with a voluptuous figure and small intelligent eyes which could make anybody feel insecure. She often seemed to see straight through people and did not suffer from a surfeit of deference to superiors. She would give anyone a dressing down, even the Attorney General if he came calling. That was one of the reasons why Ed the Ned got on so well with her. Neither of them attached much importance to status; all they cared about was ability.

Nevertheless, she had completely lost it with the head of Sweden’s Security Police. This had absolutely nothing to do with Helena Kraft, it was because of the drama unfolding in the open-plan office behind her. Admittedly they were all used to Needham’s explosions of rage. But something told her right away that what was going on now was on an altogether different scale.

The man seemed paralysed. While Casales sat there blurting some confused words down the line, people gathered around him, and all of them, without exception, looked scared. But perhaps because she was in a state of shock, Casales did not hang up or say that she would call back later. She let herself be put through to Gabriella Grane, that charming young analyst whom she had met and tried to seduce in Washington. Even though Casales had not succeeded in taking her to bed, she had been left with a deep feeling of pleasure.

“Hello, my dear,” she said. “How are you?”

“Not so bad,” Grane answered. “We’re having some terrible storms, but otherwise everything’s fine”

“I really enjoyed that last time we saw each other.”

“Absolutely, it was nice. I was hungover the whole of the next day. But I don’t suppose you’re calling to ask me out.”

“Unfortunately not. I’m calling because we’ve picked up signs of a serious threat to a Swedish scientist.”

“Who?”

“For a long time we had trouble understanding the information, or even working out which country it concerned. The communication was encrypted and used only vague codenames, but still, using a few small pieces of the puzzle we managed … what the
hell
…?”

“What?”

“One second …!”

Casales’ computer screen blinked, then went blank, and as far as she could see the same thing was happening all over the office floor. For a moment she wondered what to do, but carried on the conversation; it might just be a power outage, after all, although the overhead lights seemed to be working.

“I’m still here,” Grane said.

“Thanks, I appreciate it. Sorry about this. It’s complete chaos here. Where was I?”

“You were talking about pieces of the puzzle.”

“Right, yes, we put two and two together, because there’s always one person who’s careless, however professional they try to be, or who …”

“Yes?”

“Um … talks, gives an address or something, in this case it was more like …”

Casales fell silent again. None other than Commander Jonny Ingram, one of the most senior people in the N.S.A. with contacts high up in the White House, had come onto the office floor. Ingram was trying to appear as composed as usual. He even cracked some joke to a group sitting further away. But he was not fooling anyone. Beneath his polished and tanned exterior – ever since his time as head of the cryptological centre on Oahu he was suntanned all year round – you could sense something nervous in his expression, and now he seemed to want everybody’s attention.

“Hello, are you still there?” Grane said on the other end of the line.

“I’m going to have to leave you unfortunately. I’ll call you back,” Casales said, and hung up. At that moment she became very worried indeed.

There was a feeling in the air that something terrible had happened, maybe another major terrorist attack. But Ingram carried on with his soothing act and, even though there was sweat on his upper lip and forehead, he kept repeating that it was nothing serious. Most likely a virus, he said, which had found its way into the intranet, despite all the security precautions.

“To be on the safe side, we’ve shut down our servers,” he said, and for a moment he really did manage to calm things down. “What the hell,” people seemed to be saying. “A virus isn’t such a big deal.”

But then Ingram started spouting such vague statements that Casales could not stop herself from shouting:

“Tell us what’s actually happening!”

“We don’t know that much yet. But it’s possible that our systems have been hacked. We’ll get back to you as soon as we know more,” Ingram said, looking concerned, and a murmur ran through the room.

“Is it the Iranians again?” somebody wondered.

“We think …” Ingram said.

He got no further. Ed Needham, the one who should have been standing there in the first place, explaining what was happening, interrupted him brusquely and got to his feet, a bear of a man, and at that moment there was no denying that he was an imposing sight. Gone was the deflated Ed from a minute before; he now exuded a tremendous sense of determination.

“No,” he hissed. “It’s a hacker, a fucking super-hacker, and I’m going to cut his balls off.”

“The female hacker doesn’t really have anything to do with this story,” Brandell said, nursing his beer. “She was probably more like Balder’s social project.”

“But she seemed to know her stuff.”

“Or she was just lucky. She talked a lot of rubbish.”

“So you met her?”

“Yes, just after Balder took off for Silicon Valley.”

“How long ago was that?”

“Almost a year. I’d moved our computers into my apartment on Brantingsgatan. My life was not great, to put it mildly. I was single and broke and hung over, my place looked like hell. I had just spoken to Balder on the telephone, and he’d been going on like some boring old dad. There was a lot of: don’t judge her by how she looks, appearances can be deceptive, blah blah and hey, he said that to
me
! I’m not exactly the ideal son-in-law myself. I’ve never worn a jacket and tie in my entire life, and if anyone knows what people look like in the hacker community, then I do. Whatever, so I was sitting there waiting for this girl. Thought that she would at least knock. But she just opened the door and walked in.”

“What did she look like?”

“Bloody awful … but then, she was also sexy in a weird way. But dreadful!”

“Linus, I’m not asking you to rate her looks. I just want to know what she was wearing and if she maybe mentioned what her name was.”

“I have no idea who she was,” Brandell said, “although I did recognize her from somewhere – I had the feeling that it was something bad. She was tattooed and pierced and all that crap and looked like a heavy rocker or goth or punk, plus she was as thin as hell.”

Hardly aware that he was doing it, Blomkvist gestured to Amir to pull him another Guinness.

“What happened?” he said.

“Well, what can I say? I guess I thought that we didn’t have to get going right away, so I sat down on my bed – there wasn’t much else to sit on – and suggested that we might have a drink or something first. But do you know what she did then? She asked me to leave. She ordered me out of my own home, as if that was the most natural thing in the world, and obviously I refused. I was like: ‘I do actually live here.’ But she said, ‘Piss off, get lost,’ and I didn’t see what choice I had so I was out for a while. When I got back she was lying there on my bed, smoking, how sick is that? And reading a book about string theory or something, and maybe I gave her some sort of dodgy look, what do I know. She just said that she wasn’t planning on having sex with me, not even a little. ‘Not even a little,’ she said, and I don’t think she looked me in the eye even once. She just announced that we’d had a Trojan, a R.A.T., and that she recognized the pattern in the breach, the level of originality in the programming. ‘You’ve been blown,’ she said. And then she walked out.”

“Without saying goodbye?”

“Without a single damn word of goodbye.”

“Christ.”

“But to be honest I think she was just bullshitting. The guy at the N.D.R.E., who did the same investigation a little while later, and who probably knew much more about these kinds of attacks, was very clear that you couldn’t draw any conclusions like that, and that however much he searched through our computer he couldn’t find any old spyware. But still his guess was – Molde was his name, by the way, Stefan Molde – that we’d been hacked.”

“This woman, did she ever introduce herself in any way?”

“I did actually press her, but all she would say, and pretty surly she was too, was that I could call her Pippi. It was obvious that that wasn’t her real name, but still …”

“Still what?”

“I thought that it suited her somehow.”

“You know,” Blomkvist said, “I was just about to head home again.”

“Yes, I noticed that.”

“But now everything’s changed in a pretty major way. Didn’t you say that your Professor Balder knew this woman?”

“Well, yes.”

“In that case I want to talk to him as soon as possible.”

“Because of the woman?”

“Something like that.”

“O.K., fine,” Brandell said thoughtfully. “But you won’t find any contact details for him. He’s become so bloody secretive, like I said. Do you have an iPhone?”

“I do.”

“In that case you can forget it. Frans sees Apple as more or less in the pocket of the N.S.A. To talk to him you’ll have to buy a Blackphone or at least borrow an Android and download a special encryption program. But I’ll see to it that he gets in touch with you, so you can arrange to meet in some secure place.”

“Great, Linus. Thanks.”

CHAPTER 4

20.xi

Grane had just put on her coat to go home when Casales called again, and at first she was irritated, not only because of the confusion last time. She wanted to get going before the storm got out of hand. The news on the radio had forecast winds of up to thirty metres per second and the temperature falling to -10°C, and she was not dressed for it.

“I’m sorry it took a while,” Casales said. “We’ve had an insane morning. Total chaos.”

“Here too,” Grane said politely, but looking at her watch.

“But I do have something important to tell you, as I said, at least I think I do. It isn’t that easy to analyse. I just started checking out a group of Russians, did I mention that?” Casales said.

“No.”

“Well, there are probably Germans and Americans involved as well and possibly one or more Swedes.”

“What sort of group are we talking about?”

“Criminals, sophisticated criminals who don’t rob banks or sell drugs any more. Instead they steal corporate secrets and confidential business information.”

“Black hats.”

“They’re not just hackers. They also blackmail and bribe people. Possibly they even carry out old-fashioned crimes, like murder. I don’t have much on them yet, to be honest, mostly codenames and unconfirmed links, and then a couple of real names, some young computer engineers in junior positions. The group is active in suspected industrial espionage and that’s why the case has ended up on my desk. We’re afraid that cutting-edge American technology has fallen into Russian hands.”

“I understand.”

“But it isn’t easy to get at them. They’re good at encryption and, no matter how hard I try, I haven’t been able to get any closer to whoever leads them than to catch that their boss goes by the name of Thanos.”

“Thanos?”

“Yes, derived from Thanatos, the god of death in Greek mythology, the one who’s the son of Nyx – night – and twin brother to Hypnos – sleep.”

“Real cloak-and-dagger stuff.”

“Actually, it’s pretty childish. Thanos is a supervillain in Marvel Comics, you know that series with heroes like the Hulk, Iron Man and Captain America. First of all it’s not particularly Russian, but more than that it’s … how shall I put it … ?”

“Both playful and arrogant?”

“Yes, like a bunch of cocky college kids messing around, and that really annoys me. In fact there’s a whole lot that worries me about this story, and that’s why I got so worked up when we learned through our signals surveillance that someone in the network may have defected, somebody who could maybe give us some insight – if only we could get our hands on this guy before they do. But now that we’ve looked more carefully at this, we realize it wasn’t at all what we thought.”

“Meaning what?”

“The guy who quit wasn’t some criminal, but the opposite, an honest guy who resigned from a company where this organization has moles, someone who presumably happened to stumble on some key information …”

“Keep going.”

“In our view this person is now seriously under threat. He needs protection, but until recently we had no idea where to look for him. We didn’t even know which company he’d worked at. But now we think we’ve zeroed in,” Casales said. “You see, in the last few days one of these characters mentioned something about this guy, said that ‘with him all the bloody Ts went up in smoke’.”

“The bloody Ts?”

“Yes, cryptic and strange, but it had the advantage of being specific and highly searchable. While ‘bloody Ts’ didn’t give us anything, Ts generally, words beginning with T in conjunction with companies, high-tech firms of course, kept leading us to the same place – to Nicolas Grant and his maxim: Tolerance, Talent and Teamwork.”

“We’re talking Solifon here, right?” Grane said.

“We think so. At least it felt like everything had fallen into place, so we began to investigate who had left Solifon recently. The company always has such a high staff turnover, it’s actually part of their philosophy – that talent should flow in and out. But then we started to think specifically about those Ts. Are you familiar with them?”

“Only what you’ve told me.”

“They’re Grant’s recipe for creativity. By tolerance he means that you need to be open to unconventional ideas and unconventional people. Talent – it doesn’t just achieve results, it attracts other gifted people and helps create an environment that people want to be in. And all these talents have to form a team. As I’m sure you know, Solifon’s been a remarkable success story, producing pioneering technology in a whole series of fields. But then this new genius popped up, a Swede, and with him …”

“… all the bloody Ts went up in smoke.”

“Exactly.”

“And it was Frans Balder.”

“Exactly. I don’t think he’d normally had any problem with tolerance, or with teamwork for that matter. But from the beginning there was apparently something toxic about him. He refused to share anything, and in no time at all he managed to destroy the rapport among the elite researchers at the company, especially when he started accusing people of being thieves and copycats. There was a scene with the owner too. But Grant has refused to tell us what it was about – just that it was something private. Soon after, Balder gave notice.”

“I know.”

“Most people were probably relieved when he took off. The air at work became easier to breathe, and people began to trust each other again, at least up to a point. But Grant wasn’t happy, and more importantly his lawyers weren’t happy either. Balder had taken with him whatever he had been developing at Solifon, and there was a rumour – maybe because no-one really knew what it was – that he was on to something sensational that could revolutionize the quantum computer, which Solifon was working on.”

“And from a purely legal point of view, whatever he’d produced belonged to the company and not to him personally.”

“Correct. So even though Balder had been going on about theft, when all was said and done he himself was the thief. Any day now things are likely to blow up in court, as you know, unless Balder manages to use whatever he has to frighten the lawyers. That information is his life insurance, he says, and it may well be true. But in the worst-case scenario it could also be …”

“… the death of him.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Casales said. “We’re picking up stronger indications that something serious is getting underway, and your boss tells me that you might be able to help us with the puzzle.”

Grane looked at the storm that was now raging outside, and longed desperately to go home and get away from all this. Yet she took off her coat and sat down again, feeling deeply uneasy.

“How can I help?”

“What do you think he found out?”

“Do I take that to mean that you haven’t managed either to bug him or hack him?”

“I’m not going to answer that one, sweetheart. But what do you think?”

Grane remembered how Frans Balder had stood in the doorway of her office not so long ago and muttered about dreaming of “a new kind of life” – whatever he may have meant by that.

“Perhaps you know,” she said, “that I met him before he joined Solifon, because he claimed that his research had been stolen from him. I didn’t take to him much. Then when he came back there was talk in-house of getting him some form of protection, so I met him a couple of times more. His transformation over the last few weeks was actually incredible. Not only because he had shaved off his beard, tidied up his hair and lost some weight. He was also mellower, even a little bit unsure of himself. I could tell that he was rattled, and at one point he did say that he thought there were people who wanted to harm him.”

“In what way?”

“Not actually physically, he said. It was more his research and his reputation they were after. But I’m not so sure that, deep down, he believed it would stop there, so I suggested that he get a guard dog. I thought a dog would be excellent company for a man who lived out in the suburbs in far too big a house. But he wouldn’t hear of it. ‘I can’t have a dog now,’ he said rather sharply.”

“Why’s that, do you think?”

“I really don’t know. But I got the feeling that there was something weighing on him, and he didn’t protest too much when I arranged for a sophisticated alarm system in his house. It’s just been installed.”

“By whom?”

“A company we often use, Milton Security.”

“Good. But my recommendation is to move him to a safe house.”

“Is it that bad?”

“We think the risk is real.”

“O.K.,” Grane said. “If you send over some documentation I’ll have a word with my superior right away.”

“I’ll see what I can do, but I’m not sure what I can get my hands on. We’ve been having … some computer issues.”

“Can an agency like yours really afford to have that sort of thing?”

“No, you’re right. Let me get back to you, sweetheart,” she said, and hung up. Grane remained quite still and looked out at the storm lashing against the window with increasing fury.

Then she picked up her Blackphone and rang Balder. She let it ring and ring. Not just to warn him and see to it that he move to a safe place at once, but also because she suddenly wanted to know what he had meant when he said: “These past few days I’ve been dreaming about a new kind of life.”

No-one would have believed that at that moment Balder was fully occupied with his son.

Blomkvist remained sitting for a while after Brandell had left, drinking his Guinness and staring out at the storm. Behind him, Arne and his gang were laughing at something. But Blomkvist was so engrossed in his thoughts that he heard nothing, and hardly even noticed that Amir had sat down next to him and was giving him the latest weather forecast.

The temperature was already down to -10°C. The first snow of the year was expected to fall, and not in any pleasant or picturesque way. The misery was going to come blasting in sideways in the worst storm the country had seen for a long time.

“Could get hurricane-force winds,” Amir said, and Blomkvist, who still was not listening, just said, “That’s good.”

“Good?”

“Yes … well … better than no weather at all.”

“I suppose. But are you alright? You look shaken up. Wasn’t it a useful meeting?”

“Sure, it was fine.”

“But what you got to hear rattled you, didn’t it?”

“I’m not certain. Things are just a mess right now. I’m thinking of quitting
Millennium
.”

“I thought you basically
were
that magazine.”

“I thought so too. But I guess there’s an end to everything.”

“That’s probably true,” Amir said. “My old man used to say that there’s even an end to eternity.”

“What did he mean by that?”

“I think he was talking about love everlasting. It was shortly before he left my mother.”

Blomkvist chuckled. “I haven’t been so good at everlasting love myself. On the other hand …”

“Yes, Mikael?”

“There’s a woman I used to know – she’s been out of my life for some time now.”

“Tricky.”

“Well, yes, it is. But now I’ve had a sign of life from her, or at least I think I did, and perhaps that’s what’s got me looking a bit funny.”

“Right.”

“I’d better get myself home. What do I owe you?”

“We can settle up another time.”

“Great, take care, Amir,” he said. He walked past the regulars, who threw a few random comments at him, and stepped into the storm.

It was a near-death experience. Gusts of wind blew straight through his body, but in spite of them he stood still for a while, lost in old memories. He thought about a dragon tattoo on a skinny pale back, a cold snap on Hedeby Island in the midst of a decades-old missing-person case and a dug-up grave in Gosseberga that was nearly the resting place of a woman who refused to give up. Then he walked home slowly. For some reason he had trouble getting the door open, had to jiggle the key around. He kicked off his shoes and sat at his computer and searched for information on Frans Balder, Professor.

But he was alarmingly unfocused and instead found himself wondering, as he had so many times before: where had she disappeared to? Apart from some news from her one-time employer, Dragan Armansky, he had not heard a word about her. It was as if she had vanished off the face of the earth and, although they lived in more or less the same part of town, he had never caught a glimpse of her.

Of course, the person who had turned up at Brandell’s apartment that day could have been someone else. It was possible, but not likely. Who other than Salander would come stomping in like that? It must have been Salander, and Pippi … that was typical.

The name by her doorbell on Fiskargatan was
V. KULLA
and he could well see why she did not use her real name. It was all too searchable and associated with one of the most high-profile trials the country had ever seen. Admittedly, it was not the first time that the woman had vanished in a puff of smoke. But ever since that day when he had knocked on her door on Lundagatan and given her hell for having written a personal investigation report about him which was much too thorough, they had never been apart for so long and it felt a little strange, didn’t it? After all, Salander was his … well, what the hell was she, in point of fact?

Hardly his friend. One sees one’s friends. Friends don’t disappear like that. Friends don’t only get in touch by hacking into your computer. Yet he still felt this bond with Salander and, above all, he worried about her. Her old guardian Holger Palmgren used to say that Lisbeth Salander would always get by. Despite her appalling childhood, or maybe because of it, she was one hell of a survivor, and there was probably a lot of truth in that. But one could never be sure, not with a woman of such a background, and with that knack for making enemies. Perhaps she really had lost it, as Armansky had hinted when he and Blomkvist met over lunch at Gondolen about six months ago. It was a spring day, a Saturday, and Armansky had offered to buy beer and snaps and all the rest of it. Even though they were ostensibly meeting as two old friends, there was no doubt that Armansky only wanted to talk about Salander and, with the help of a few drinks, indulge in a spot of sentimentality.

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