Excerpt

Stalker

Lars Kepler

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Stalker, the latest from Lars Kepler, the acclaimed duo behind The Sandman. The fifth installment in the Joona Linna series finds the Swedish detective once again partnered with trauma-expert and hypnotist Erik Bark to track down a horrific serial killer.

Karolinska University Hospital is one of the largest in Europe, with more than fifteen thousand staff members. The Psychology Clinic is separated from the rest of the vast hospital. Though it doesn’t stand out if you approach it from the street, from above, the building looks like a rock carving of a Viking ship.

The car tires crunch softly as Erik turns into the parking lot.

Nelly is on the steps waiting for him with two mugs of coffee. She’s fairly tall and thin. She keeps her bleached hair neat, and her makeup is always tasteful.

Erik often sees her and her husband, Martin. Her husband is the main shareholder of Datametrix Nordic, so Nelly doesn’t really need to work. But she’s good at what she does, and she’s confessed to Erik before that without her own career, she would get restless.

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As she watches Erik’s BMW pull into the parking lot, she walks over to him, a mug in each hand. She blows on one of them and takes a cautious sip before setting it on the roof of the car while opening the passenger door.

“I don’t know what this is about. The police lieutenant seems pretty wound up,” she says, passing him the other mug over the seat.

“Thanks.”

“I explained to her that we always put our patients first,” Nelly says as she gets in and closes the car door behind her. “Shit! God, sorry. Do you have any tissues? I spilled some coffee on the seat.”

“Don’t worry.”

The smell of coffee spreads through the car, and Erik closes his eyes for a moment. “Tell me what they said.”

“Nothing I haven’t already told you. The bitchy—I mean, lovely—policewoman wants to speak to you directly.”

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“Is there anything I should know before I go inside?” he asks, opening his car door.

“I told her she could wait in your office and go through your drawers.”

“Thanks for the coffee. Both mugs,” he says, as they get out of the car.

Erik locks up, puts the keys in his pocket, runs a hand through his hair, and starts toward the clinic.

“Good luck!” she calls after him.

He goes inside and runs his passcard through the reader, then walks down the hallway to his office. He still feels groggy, and it occurs to him that he really needs to get the pills under control. They make him sleep too deeply. It’s almost like drowning. His drugged dreams have started to feel claustrophobic. Yesterday he had a nightmare about two dogs that had grown into each other, and last week he fell asleep at the clinic and had a sexual dream about Nelly. He can’t recall most of it, but he remembers that she was on her knees in front of him handing him a cold glass ball.

He still feels groggy, and it occurs to him that he really needs to get the pills under control. They make him sleep too deeply. It’s almost like drowning.

His thoughts dissipate when he sees the detective sitting on his office chair with her feet propped up on the trashcan. She’s holding her huge stomach with one hand and a can of Coke in the other. Her brow is furrowed, and she’s breathing through her half-open mouth.

Her ID badge is lying on his desk, and she gestures wearily toward it as she introduces herself: “Margot Silverman. National Crime.”

“Erik Maria Bark,” he says, shaking her hand.

“Thanks for coming in at such short notice,” she says, moistening her lips. “We’ve got a traumatized witness, and everyone tells me I should have you in the room with me. We’ve already tried to question him four times.”

“I have to point out,” Erik says, “that there are five of us in our unit, and I never sit in on interviews of perpetrators or suspected perpetrators.”

The light from the ceiling lamp reflects off her pale eyes. Her curly hair is trying to escape from her thick braid.

“Okay, but Björn Kern isn’t a suspect. He works in London and was on a plane home when someone murdered his wife.” She squeezes the Coke can, making the thin metal creak.

“Ah,” Erik says.

“He got a taxi from Arlanda and found her dead,” the lieutenant goes on. “We don’t know exactly what he did after that. He was certainly busy. We’re not sure where she was lying originally, but we found her tucked in bed in the bedroom. He cleaned up as well, wiped away the blood. He doesn’t remember anything, he says, but the furniture had been moved, and the blood-soaked rug was already in the washing machine. He was found more than a kilometer from the house. A neighbor almost ran him over on the road. He was still wearing his blood-soaked suit and no shoes.”

“I’ll see him,” Erik says. “But I must say at the outset, it would be wrong to try to force information from him.”

“He has to talk,” she says stubbornly, squeezing the can tighter.

“I understand your frustration, but he could enter a psychosis if you push too hard. Give him time, and he’ll tell you what you need.”

“You’ve helped the police before, haven’t you?”

“Many times.”

“But this time . . . this is the second murder in what looks like a series,” she says.

“A series?”

Margot’s face has turned gray, and the thin lines around her eyes are emphasized by the light. “We’re hunting a serial killer.”

“Okay, I get that, but the patient needs—”

“This murderer has entered an active phase, and he isn’t going to stop of his own accord,” she interrupts. “And Björn Kern is a disaster from my point of view. First he goes around and rearranges everything at the crime scene before the police get there, and now we can’t get him to tell us what it looked like when he arrived.”

She drops her feet to the floor, whispers to herself that they need to get going, then sits there stiff-backed, panting for breath.

“If we pressure him now, he may clam up for good,” Erik says as he unlocks his cabinet and removes the case containing his video camera.

She gets to her feet, setting the can on the desk at last, picks up her badge, and walks heavily toward the door. “Obviously I realize he’s gone through hell, but he’s going to have to pull himself together and—”

“Yes, but it’s more than that. It might actually be impossible for him to think about it at the moment,” Erik replies. “Because what you’ve described sounds like a critical stress response, and—”

“Those are just words,” she interrupts, her cheeks flushing with irritation.

“A mental trauma can be followed by an acute blockage—”

“Why? I don’t believe that,” she says.

“As you may know, our spatial and temporal memories are organized by the hippocampus, and that information is then conveyed to the prefrontal cortex,” Erik replies patiently, pointing to his forehead. “But that all changes at times of extreme arousal and in cases of shock. When the amygdala identifies a threat, both the autonomous nervous system and what’s known as the cortisol axis are activated, and—”

“I get it. Lots of stuff happens in the brain.”

“The important thing is that this degree of stress means that memories aren’t stored the way they usually are. They’re frozen, like ice cubes, separately. Closed off.”

“The important thing is that this degree of stress means that memories aren’t stored the way they usually are. They’re frozen, like ice cubes, separately. Closed off.”

“You’re saying he’s doing his best,” Margot says, putting her hand on her stomach. “But Björn may have seen something that can help us stop this killer. You have to get him to calm down so he’ll start talking.”

“I will, but I can’t tell you how long that’s going to take,” he replies. “I’ve worked in Uganda with people who’ve suffered the trauma of war, people whose lives have been completely shattered. You have to move slowly and use security, sleep, conversation, exercise, medication—”

“Not hypnosis?” she asks, with an involuntary smile.

“Sure, as long as no one has exaggerated expectations about the result. Sometimes gentle hypnosis can help a patient to restructure their memories so that they can be accessed.”

“Right now I’d give the go-ahead for a horse to kick him in the head if that would help.”

“That’s a different department,” Erik says drily.

“Sorry, I get impatient when I’m pregnant,” she says, and he can hear how hard she’s working to sound reasonable. “But I have to identify any parallels with the first murder. I need a pattern if I’m going to be able to track down this murderer, and right now I don’t have a thing.”

They’ve reached the patient’s room. Two uniformed police officers are standing outside the door.

“I understand this is important to you,” Erik says. “But bear in mind that he just found his wife murdered.”

***

Erik follows Margot into the room. It has been furnished with two armchairs and a sofa, a low white table, two chairs, a water cooler with plastic cups, and a garbage can.

There is a broken pot under the windowsill, and the linoleum floor is strewn with soil.

The man is standing in the far corner, as if he were trying to get as far away as possible.

When he sees Erik and Margot, he slides toward the sofa with his back against the wall. He’s extremely pale, and there’s a hunted look in his eyes. His blue shirt has sweat rings under the arms and is hanging outside his pants.

“Hello, Björn,” Margot says. “This is Erik. He’s a doctor here.”

The man peers anxiously at Erik, then moves back into the corner.

“Hello,” Erik says.

“I’m not sick.”

“No, but what you’ve been through means that you have the right to treatment nonetheless,” Erik replies matter-of-factly.

“You don’t know what I’ve been through,” the man says, then whispers something to himself.

“I know you haven’t been given any tranquilizers,” Erik says. “But I’d like you to know that the option is there, if—”

“What the fuck do I want pills for?” he butts in. “Will pills help? Will they make everything all right?”

“No, but—”

“Will they let me see Sanna again?” he shouts. “That’s not going to happen—is it?”

“Nothing can change what happened,” Erik says seriously. “But your relationship to what happened will change, regardless of whether you—”

“I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

“I’m just trying to explain that the way you’re feeling is part of a process, and I’d like to help you with that process if you’ll let me.”

Björn glances at him, then slips farther away along the wall.

Margot sets her little recording device on the table, then says the date and time and the names of those present in the room. “This is the fifth interview with Björn Kern,” she concludes, then turns toward him as he picks at the sofa. “Björn, can you tell me in your own words—”

“About what?” he asks quickly. “About what?”

“About when you got home,” Margot replies.

“What for?” he whispers.

“Because I want to know what happened and what you saw,” she says curtly.

“What do you mean? I just got home, isn’t that allowed?” He puts his hands over his ears and stands there panting.

Erik notes that the knuckles of both his hands are bleeding.

“What did you see?” Margot asks wearily.

“Why are you asking me that? I don’t know why you’re asking me. Fuck . . .” Björn shakes his head and rubs his mouth and eyes.

“I want you to feel safe here in this room,” Erik says. “I know you don’t think you’re allowed to relax, but you are.”

Björn picks at the edge of a piece of wallpaper with his fingernails, then tears off a little strip. “This is what I’m thinking,” he says without looking at them. “I’m thinking I have to do it all again, but do it right this time. I have to go home and go in through the door, and then it will be right.”

“What do you mean, right?” Erik asks, managing to catch his eye.

“I know how it sounds, but what if it’s true, you don’t know,” he says, gesturing at them to keep quiet. “I can go in through the door, and call Sanna’s name. She knows I have something for her, I always do, something from duty-free. And I take my shoes off and go inside.”

He looks utterly distraught.

“There’s soil on the floor,” he whispers.

“Was there soil on the floor?” Margot asks.

“Shut up!” Björn yells, his voice cracking.

He walks over the soil-strewn floor, picks up the other potted plant, and throws it at the wall. The pot shatters, and soil rains down behind the sofa.

“Fucking HELL!” he gasps. He leans against the wall, and a string of saliva drops to the floor.

“Björn?”

“Fuck it, this is hopeless,” he says with a sob.

“Björn,” Erik says slowly. “Margot is here to find out more about what happened. That’s her job. My job is to help you. I’m here for you. I’m used to seeing people who are having trouble, people who have suffered a terrible loss, who’ve experienced terrible things . . . things no one should have to go through, but which unfortunately are part of life for some of us.”

The man doesn’t respond. He just sobs quietly. His eyes are dark, bloodshot, and glassy.

“Do you want to stand over there?” Erik asks gently. “You wouldn’t rather sit in the armchair?”

“I don’t care.”

“Nor do I.”

“Good,” Björn whispers, turning toward him.

“I’ve already mentioned it, and I know what you said, but it’s my job to offer you all the help that’s available. I can give you a sedative. It won’t get rid of the terrible thing that’s happened, but it will help calm the panic you’re feeling inside.”

“Can you help me?” the man whispers after a pause.

“I can help you take the first steps toward . . . toward getting through the worst of it,” Erik explains quietly.

“I start to shake when I think about the front door at home . . . because I must have gone through a different door, the wrong door.”

“I understand why you feel that way.”

Björn moves his lips cautiously, as though they were hurting him. “Do you want me to sit down?” He glances cautiously at Erik.

“If it would make you feel more comfortable,” Erik replies.

Björn sits for the first time, and Erik notices Margot looking at him, but he doesn’t meet her eye.

“What happens when you walk through the wrong door?”

“I don’t want to think about it,” he replies.

“But you remember?”

“Can you . . . can you get rid of the panic?” the man whispers to Erik.

“That’s your decision,” Erik says. “But I’m happy to sit here and talk to you with Margot, or you and I could talk on our own. And we could also try hypnosis—that might help you through the worst of it.”

“Hypnosis?”

“Some people find it works well,” Erik replies simply.

“No.” Björn smiles.

“Hypnosis is just a combination of relaxation and concentration.”

Björn laughs silently with his hand over his mouth, then stands up and walks along the wall again until he reaches the corner and turns to look at Erik. “I think maybe the drugs you mentioned might be a good idea.”

“Okay.” Erik nods. “I can give you Stesolid—have you heard of it? It’ll make you feel warm and tired but also a lot calmer.”

“Okay, good.” Björn slaps the wall several times with one palm, then walks over to the water cooler.

“I’ll ask a nurse to bring you the pill,” Erik says.

He leaves the room, confident that Björn Kern will request hypnosis soon.

__________________________________

From STALKER. Used with the permission of the publisher, McClelland & Stewart. Copyright © 2019 by Lars Kepler.




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