Authors: Camilla Läckberg
Patrik left Mellberg’s office with a heaviness in both his heart and his step. The damned old fool! He understood quite well that the superintendent had forced Ernst on him merely out of spite. It would almost be funny if it weren’t so bloody tragic. How stupid.
Patrik stepped into Martin’s office, frustration radiating from his body.
‘What did he say?’ asked Martin warily.
‘Unfortunately he can’t spare you. You have to keep working on some car-theft mess. But he apparently has no problem getting along without Ernst.’
‘You’re kidding,’ Martin whispered since Patrik hadn’t closed the door behind him. ‘You and Lundgren are going to work together?’
Patrik nodded gloomily. ‘Looks that way. If we knew who the killer was, we could send him a telegram and congratulate him. This investigation is going to be hopelessly sunk, if I can’t keep Ernst out of it as much as possible.’
‘Well, shit!’ said Martin, and Patrik could do nothing but agree. After a moment’s silence he slapped his hands on his thighs and stood up, trying to muster a little enthusiasm.
‘I suppose there’s nothing for it but to get to work.’
‘Where did you intend to start?’
‘Well, the first thing will be to inform the girl’s parents about the recent developments and cautiously try to ask a few questions.’
‘Are you taking Ernst along?’ Martin asked skeptically.
‘No, I think I’ll try to slip off by myself. Hopefully I can wait to tell him about his change of assignment until a little later.’
But when he came out in the corridor he realized that Mellberg had foiled his plans.
‘Hedström!’ Ernst’s whiny voice echoed across the station.
Patrik forced himself not to run back into Martin’s office to hide. At least one person on this newly formed police team would have to behave like a grownup.
‘Over here!’ He waved to Ernst, who came steaming toward him. Tall, thin, and perpetually grumpy, Ernst was not a pretty sight. What he was best at was kissing up and kicking down. He had neither the temperament nor the talent for regular police work. And after the incident last summer, Patrik considered his colleague downright dangerous: his foolhardiness and need to show off had put the investigation in serious jeopardy. And now Mellberg was forcing him to be partners with Lundgren. With a deep sigh he went to meet him.
‘I just talked to Mellberg. He said the little girl was murdered and that we’re going to lead the investigation together.’
Patrik‘s eyes widened. He sincerely hoped that Mellberg hadn’t decided to subvert his authority behind his back.
‘What I think Mellberg said was that I’m going to lead the investigation and you’re going to work with me. Isn’t that right?’ said Patrik in a voice soft as velvet.
Lundgren looked down, but not fast enough for Patrik to miss a quick glimpse of loathing in his eyes. Apparently his gamble had worked. ‘Yes, I suppose that’s right,’ Ernst said crossly. ‘Well, where do we start—boss?’ He said the last word with deep contempt, and Patrik clenched his fists in frustration. After five minutes of this partnership, he already wanted to throttle the man.
‘Come on, let’s go into my office.’ Patrik led the way and sat down behind the desk. Ernst sat down in the visitor’s chair with his long legs stuck out in front of him.
Ten minutes later Ernst had been brought up to speed on all the information, and they grabbed their jackets to drive over to the house where Sara’s parents lived.
The drive to Fjällbacka took place in total silence. Neither of them had anything to say to the other. When they turned up the hill and into the family’s driveway, Patrik recognized Maja’s stroller standing outside. His first thought was: Oh shit! But he quickly realized it might be good for the family if Erica was there. At least for Charlotte. She was the one he was most worried about; he had no idea how she was going to take the news they were bringing. People responded so differently. He had actually met relatives who thought it was better that their loved one had been murdered than that the death was accidental. It gave them someone to blame, and they were able to center their grief on something specific. But he didn’t know how Sara’s parents would react.
With Ernst at his heels, Patrik knocked cautiously at the front door. Charlotte’s mother opened it, and he could see that she was upset. Her face was flushed, and her eyes had a glint of steel that made Patrik hope he never had to cross her.
When she recognized Patrik, she made a visible effort to control herself.
‘The police?’ she said inquiringly, stepping aside to let them in.
Patrik was just about to introduce his colleague when Ernst said: ‘We’ve met.’ He nodded to Lilian, who nodded back.
Well, well, Patrik thought. Of course with the number of police reports flying back and forth between Lilian and the next-door neighbor, most people at the station should have met her by now. But today they were here on a much more serious errand.
‘May we come in for a moment?’ Patrik asked. Lilian nodded and led them into the kitchen, where Niclas was sitting at the table. He too seemed flushed and angry. Niclas noticed Patrik looking for the women and said, ‘Erica is helping Charlotte take a shower.’
‘How is Charlotte doing?’ Patrik asked as Lilian poured coffee for him and Ernst and placed the cups in front of them on the kitchen table.
‘She’s been completely out of it. But it worked wonders for Erica to come over. It’s the first time Charlotte’s been able to get up and take a shower and change her clothes since …’ he hesitated, ‘it happened.’
Patrik was wrestling with himself. Should he speak to Niclas and Lilian in private and ask Erica to break the news to Charlotte, or was she strong enough to join them? He decided on the latter option. If she was on her feet now, and also had the support of the family, then it ought to go all right. And Niclas was a doctor, after all.
‘Why exactly are you here?’ asked Niclas in confusion, giving first Ernst and then Patrik a puzzled look.
‘I think we should wait until Charlotte can join us.’
Both Lilian and Niclas seemed content to wait but they exchanged a hasty, inscrutable glance. Several minutes passed in awkward silence. Small talk would have felt out of place under the circumstances.
Patrik looked around the kitchen. It was pleasant enough but obviously the domain of a world-class obsessive-compulsive. Everything was sparkling clean and arranged in straight lines. A bit different than his and Erica’s kitchen, he mused, where there was most often total chaos in the sink while the dustbin overflowed with packaging from frozen microwave dinners. Then he heard a door open, and there stood Erica, holding Maja asleep in one arm. Beside her was Charlotte, fresh from the shower. The astonished look on Erica’s face quickly changed to concern, and she slipped her other hand under Charlotte’s elbow to guide her friend to a kitchen chair. They both nodded hello to the two policemen. Patrik didn’t know how Charlotte had looked before, but now she had a little color in her face and her eyes were clear and alert.
‘What are you doing here?’ Charlotte asked in a voice that was still hoarse from several days spent alternating between shrieks and silence. She looked at Niclas, who shrugged his shoulders.
‘We wanted to wait for you before we …’ Patrik’s words failed him as he searched for a good way to present what he had to say. Thankfully Ernst kept his mouth shut and let Patrik handle the situation.
‘We’ve received some new information about Sara’s death.’
‘You’ve found out something else about the accident? What is it?’ said Lilian excitedly.
‘It doesn’t look like it was an accident.’
‘What do you mean? Why not?’ said Niclas in obvious frustration.
‘It wasn’t an accident at all. Sara was murdered.’
‘Murdered? What do you mean? I thought she drowned!’ Charlotte look confused, and Erica grabbed her hand. Maja was still asleep in Erica’s arms, unaware of what was playing out around her.
‘I’m so sorry … She did drown, but not in the sea. The medical examiner found no seawater in her lungs as he’d expected. It was fresh water, apparently from a bathtub.’
The silence around the table felt explosive. Patrik looked with concern at Charlotte, and Erica fixed her big eyes on her husband’s face, obviously alarmed.
Patrik understood that the family was in shock, and he began cautiously asking questions to bring them back to reality. Right now he thought that was the best approach. Or at least he hoped it was. In any case, that was his job, and for the sake of both Sara and her family he had to get on with the interview.
‘So now we need to go over in detail the chronology of everything Sara did that morning. Which of you saw her last?’
‘I did,’ said Lilian. ‘I saw her last. Charlotte was lying down in the basement resting, and Niclas had driven off to work, so I was taking care of Sara for a while. Just after nine she said she was going over to Frida’s house. She put on her coat and went out. She waved as she left.’ Lilian’s voice sounded empty and mechanical.
‘Could you be more precise than just past nine o’clock? Was it twenty after? Five after? How close to nine was it? Every minute will have to be accounted for,’ said Patrik.
Lilian thought it over. ‘I suppose it was about ten after nine. But I can’t say for sure.’
‘Okay, we’ll check and see if any of the neighbors saw anything, so maybe we can get the time corroborated.’ He made a note in his book and went on: ‘And after that, no one saw her?’
They shook their heads.
Ernst asked brusquely, ‘So what were the rest of you doing at that time?’
Patrik cringed inside and cursed his colleague’s less-than-sensitive interviewing technique.
‘What Ernst means is that procedural routine requires us to ask both you and Charlotte the same thing, Niclas. Purely routine, as I said, just to be able to rule you out as suspects as quickly as possible.’
His attempt to dilute the impact of his colleague’s question seemed to work. Both Niclas and Charlotte replied without showing great emotional distress, and they seemed to accept Patrik’s explanation for this uncomfortable question.
‘I was at the clinic,’ said Niclas. ‘I start work at eight.’
‘And you, Charlotte?’ Patrik asked.
‘As Mother said, I was lying down in the basement, resting. I had a migraine,’ she replied, sounding surprised that a couple of days earlier she could have viewed that as a big problem in her life.
‘Stig was at home too. He was upstairs resting. He’s been bedridden for a couple of weeks,’ Lilian explained. She seemed annoyed that Patrik and Ernst dared to ask about her family’s activities.
‘Ah yes, Stig, we’ll need to talk to him too eventually, but that can wait a bit,’ said Patrik, who had to admit that he had completely forgotten about Lilian’s husband.
A long silence followed. There was the shriek of a child from another room, and Lilian got up to go and fetch Albin. Like Maja, he had slept through all the commotion. He still looked half asleep and wore his usual serious expression as Lilian carried him into the kitchen. She sat down on her chair again and let her grandson play with the gold chain she wore round her neck.
Ernst took a breath and seemed about to ask some more questions, but a warning glance from Patrik made him stop. Patrik continued instead, cautiously. ‘Can you think of anyone at all who might have wanted to harm Sara?’
Charlotte gave him an incredulous look and said in her hoarse voice, ‘Who would want to hurt Sara? She was only seven years old.’ Her voice broke, but she was making an obvious effort to control herself.
‘So none of you can think of any motive? Nobody who wanted to hurt you, nothing like that?’
That last question prompted Lilian to speak. The red patches of anger she’d had on her face when they arrived flared up again.
‘Somebody who wanted to hurt us? I should say so. There’s only one person who fits that description, and that’s our neighbor Kaj. He hates our family and has done everything to make our life a living hell for years!’
‘Don’t be stupid, Mamma,’ said Charlotte. ‘You and Kaj have been fighting with
for years, and why would he want to hurt Sara?’
‘That man is capable of anything. He’s a psychopath, I have to tell you. And take a closer look at his son Morgan. He’s not right in the head, and people like that are capable of anything. Just look at all those psychos that have been let back out on the streets and what they’ve done. He’d be locked up if anyone had any sense!’
Niclas put his hand on her arm, but she refused to calm down. Albin whimpered.
‘Kaj hates me, simply because he’s finally met somebody who dares to contradict him. He thinks he’s a big shot just because he was the manager of a company and has plenty of money. That’s why he and his wife can move here and everyone in town treats them like some sort of royalty. I wouldn’t put anything past him.’
‘Stop it, Mamma!’ Charlotte’s voice now had a new sharpness to it, and she glared at her mother. ‘Don’t go making a scene.’
Her daughter’s outburst finally silenced Lilian. She clenched her jaws, but didn’t dare contradict her.
‘So,’ Patrik hesitated, a bit shocked by Lilian’s outburst, ‘besides your neighbor, you can’t think of anyone who has anything against your family?’
They all shook their heads. He closed up his notebook.
‘Well then, we have no more questions for the time being. Once again, I just want to say that I’m truly sorry for your loss.’
Niclas nodded and got up to show the policemen out. Patrik turned to Erica.
‘Are you staying, or would you like a lift home?’
With her eyes fixed on Charlotte, Erica replied, ‘I’ll be here for a while yet.’
Outside the front door Patrik paused to take a deep breath.
Stig could hear voices rising and falling downstairs. He wondered who had come to visit. As usual, nobody bothered to inform him about what was going on. But maybe that was just as well. To be honest, he didn’t know whether he could handle any more details about what had happened. In a way it was nicer to lie up here in bed, in his private cocoon, and let his mind process Sara’s death in peace and quiet. His illness somehow made it easier for him to deal with the grief, because the physical pain helped push away some of the emotional torment.