It was just past six in the morning. The crime-scene investigation would go on for another couple of hours, but Chief Inspector Bertil Lundberg had seen enough. It was time to start working on other matters. He had arranged to meet with his colleagues in the third-floor conference room.
The prosecutor wouldn’t arrive until nine. She had children to drop off at day care, or it might have been school. Or else they were sick. It was always something with district prosecutor Petra Gren’s children. What does that husband of hers do? Bertil often wondered. But maybe she didn’t have one, what did he know? He would have to arrange for a special briefing with Gren when she showed up. That might be just as well. That would allow him to postpone “becoming familiar with the case,” “dealing with the media,” and “getting a handle on the situation.” Instead, he could concentrate on assigning tasks. His headache would ease up if they could just get started. If, in fact, that was why the inside of his skull was droning so badly.
His palm against his chest, Bertil tried to force down his reflux. He hadn’t been able to eat before leaving home. Typically, Sara would make oatmeal for him, with butter and whole milk. But when he left, she was still deep asleep. Snoring faintly, her upper lip sharp and her hand cupped over her round belly. Bertil had kissed the back of her neck, lingered a moment in her warm scent, before taking off. He had locked the deadlock with two turns of the key.
He’d thought it was too late, that he and Sara were both too old. But now they were going to be parents. Incredibly enough, he was going to be a dad. And he was almost happy; he’d stopped thinking about how old he’d be when his child finished school.
Bertil walked straight from the elevator to the conference room without a word; he took his place at the front of the room and leaned against the wall. He counted those in attendance. Everyone was on time—that was always something.
To start, the team consisted of fifteen or sixteen people. Not bad at all. But Bertil knew that high level of resources wouldn’t last forever. He guessed he had three weeks to a month to wind this up before he had to say goodbye to half the force at Midsummer and admit failure.
Bertil rubbed his temples. He couldn’t think that way. There was no reason to be so cynical. A fifteen-year-old, killed in her own home. It shouldn’t be all that complicated.
If Bertil were to guess, and he was happy to, they would just need to track down Katrin’s boyfriend. It was always the same sad song. The girl had met the wrong guy. She got it into her head that some real pig was sexier than James Dean. She fell in love with an idiot, a fool who had to hurt her to feel like a real man. And then it all went to shit.
Bertil took a step away from the wall. It was time to get started.
“Good morning,” he managed. “Thanks for coming. A homicide, in case anyone somehow missed the news. Our victim’s name is Katrin Björk. She was fifteen years old and home alone for the weekend. Her parents are in Skagen. I’ve spoken with Malmö, who in turn talked to the Danes, who woke Mom and Dad up in a room at Brøndums Hotel. So, we can be pretty sure it wasn’t the dad.” Bertil attempted a smile, forcing the corners of his lips to turn up. It didn’t go well; his head was still buzzing, now even louder. He went on. “Or the mom.”
It was always the same sad song. The girl had met the wrong guy. She got it into her head that some real pig was sexier than James Dean. She fell in love with an idiot, a fool who had to hurt her to feel like a real man.
One of his colleagues stood up and headed for the exit with his back hunched. At the door he turned around and brought an imaginary mug to his mouth.
What is he doing? Bertil thought. He shook his head in wonder. Couldn’t he have gotten coffee before the meeting? Bertil frowned and turned to those who remained.
“The murder weapon? He really went at her. It’s hard to tell, but he did use some sort of implement. We’ll have to see what they say, but she doesn’t appear to have been shot. I don’t think he cut her with a knife. It didn’t look like it, anyway. But did he strike her with something? We’ll have to wait and see. Meanwhile, we’ll start with the usual. The neighbor who called in underwent initial questioning on-site. He said the parents asked him to keep an eye on their daughter. To make sure she didn’t throw any big parties. Naturally we’ll have to talk to him again. Find out what he saw or didn’t see. And check him out thoroughly. Eva, will you make sure to do that as soon as we’re done here? Give him a vigorous workup. And you, Lena.”
Bertil waved a hand at another of the women.
“You find out where Katrin attended school. I’ll visit there on Monday morning. I may try to speak to her closest bereaved friends today. If we can identify them. We’ll see what the parents say. As I’m sure you all understand, I’d really like to find a boyfriend. And fast. It looked like the victim had invited someone over for dinner. It’s not as if this dinner guest is such a long shot. I want to know who he is. Preferably an hour ago. Because we’ll be bringing him in. We have to talk to her friends. It’s not out of the question it was someone who attends her same school.”
“And don’t be sloppy! Run every name that pops up. I want to know everything about everyone. If one of her teachers was hauled in for exposing himself in the park. If her mailman rents pornos at the same video store she goes to. I want you to find out if her neighbor looks into her windows with binoculars. You know what I mean. Eva, like I said: you stay here and do what needs doing on this end. And for God’s sake, make sure to answer the phone if it rings. If I call, I don’t want to end up with the operator because you’re on a smoke break. Smoke at your damn desk if you have to. You must be reachable. Understand? Send someone out for your lunch. Pee in a cup. Just don’t leave the goddamn phone.”
Eva rubbed her eyes and nodded. Two others yawned.
“The parents are returning home this morning. They’ll be driven straight here. I’ll take care of them. Lena, you can come with me. I need someone to hold their hands and listen, if they need it. Danne and Klas, you go back to the house, knock on doors, talk to everyone you see in the vicinity. Someone must have seen him arrive. Or leave. Be sure you talk to everyone who lives there, not just the ones who happen to be at home and answer the door.”
Another two colleagues stretched their jaws. Lena picked up one of the morning papers, leaned back, and began to read.
Bertil Lundberg looked around. No one was returning his gaze. The man who had left to get coffee had not come back. Eva was digging through her purse.
“And for God’s sake, make sure to answer the phone if it rings. If I call, I don’t want to end up with the operator because you’re on a smoke break. Smoke at your damn desk if you have to. You must be reachable. Understand?”
Lena turned a page in the paper. Bertil had already glanced through it in the car on the way to the station. There was nothing about last night’s murder. TT, the news agency, had already put out an item about it, but a dead girl found at home was not the kind of story that would stop the press or force the news editor to redesign the day’s front page. Not, at least, until it was clear that the girl hadn’t taken her own life.
A dead fifteen-year-old girl. She would end up among the incident reports: a few lines in a column alongside crashed trucks, a wounded wolf, and a stable of neglected horses on Gotland. This was the seventh teenager found dead in their own home this year, and if you believed what was and was not in the papers there was no reason to get worked up. It wasn’t even an honor killing in the suburbs. In some sense, it was a bagatelle. Just another number in the statistics.
Bertil yanked the paper away from his colleague. Lena looked up from her empty hands in surprise. Her cheeks turned pale pink. Everyone else did their best to pretend they hadn’t seen what had just happened.
These prize idiots, Bertil thought, carefully rolling up the paper. His hands grazed over the thin newsprint. They think I’m just nagging. That they’ve heard this a thousand times. That they already know it all. Exactly what to do and how to do it. Now they’re sitting there rocking on their chairs. Tough as nails. Chewing gum and thinking about other things. Leaving their emotions at home, sure that a simple notepad and some polite attention can get rid of all the feelings.
“I’m sorry,” said Bertil, “you may find this boring. You think there’s nothing exciting about a dead kid if the story doesn’t end up on the front page. You’re disappointed that Katrin wasn’t found dismembered in the forest or on the steps of City Hall.”
He had their attention now.
Suddenly Bertil had the urge to hit something. Throw a mug against the wall to watch it explode in a cloud of white porcelain shards. Or smack someone with the rolled-up newspaper. Instead he placed it on the table and took a seat.
His rage vanished as quickly as it had come. In its place came weariness, almost exhaustion. Why would I go after them like that? They haven’t had time to do anything, not yet. What do I know about what they’re thinking? His knees trembled. He made a fist and hit himself softly on the thigh. In just four months he would be a dad. In four months Sara would be a mom. A hundred and twenty days. A new life. A better future. The meaning of life?
After a moment, Bertil spoke again. His voice was low, almost a whisper.
“Our victim’s name was Katrin Björk. She wasn’t even sixteen. The only child of two parents who are sitting in a police car on their way here. The parents didn’t do it and we didn’t find any remorseful boyfriend on the front steps. As it stands now, the case is completely open. I would appreciate it if you made an effort. At least until Midsummer.”
Someone scraped their chair on the floor.
“Can we agree on that? That we’ll work this out. Whatever miserable little parts of it can be worked out.”
Bertil looked up. Someone nodded cautiously.
“What I’m trying to say,” he said at last, “is that I would appreciate if we did our very best.”