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The Assignment

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He didn’t remember how he had gotten into the house, but he knew something was wrong.  Moving from room to dingy room he called out again and again, knowing that there was someone there, if only they would just respond to him, but no voice answered.  He stopped in the hallway, an inexplicably long, dark corridor that seemed to stretch endlessly back into the gloom.  He shuddered at the thought of moving into the darkness, but against his will his feet carried him down the hall.  He felt himself drawn to the doorway on his left and, pushing open the door, he looked into the room, knowing that something horrible was waiting there for him.  A bare lightbulb cast an unbearably harsh light over the peeling wallpaper and frayed carpet of the mouldering room.  As if in a trance, he walked to the sofa – the only piece of furniture in the room – and looked down at the lifeless figure of Stefan lying there.  He put his hand out to shake Stefan, to try and wake him, but the young man’s body was stiff and stone cold, as he had known it would be.  When he withdrew his hand, he saw that his fingers were damp with blood.  In panic he tried to shout for help, but his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth and no sound would come out of his throat.  As he looked down at Stefan, unable to do anything to help him, Stefan’s eyes snapped open and stared accusingly into his.

Kurt Wallander awoke with a start and flopped over onto his back, feeling several beads of sweat trickle down his forehead.  He rubbed his face with a slightly trembling hand and turned on the bedside light, then lay still for several minutes until his pulse returned to normal.  It was not unknown for him to have nightmares, but this?  He shivered.  He had never believed in omens, but this dream had been so vivid, so horrifying, that he felt sure it must be some kind of warning from somewhere in the back of his mind.

Sitting up, he looked at the clock.  4:49 am.  Dog-tired as he was, he doubted he would be able to get back to sleep.  The dream images still plagued him, and would probably continue to do so for most of the day.  But what was it all about, anyway?  He supposed that on some level he must be more worried about Stefan than he’d been willing to admit.  Perhaps he should call him later and speak to him, find out how he was actually getting on with the Växjö force – and perhaps a little about the troubling turn their case had taken.  Yes, on reflection, perhaps that would be a good idea.  However, an iota of doubt persisted.  Was Stefan possibly in danger somehow?  Could he be doing more to try and protect him from whatever the threat might be?

Wallander shook his head hard.  How the hell could he protect someone from something he didn’t even know about himself?  Assuming that there even was a threat, of course.  And what made him think that Stefan would want his help?  The last time they’d spoken, the younger man’s animosity towards him had been almost palpable.  Most likely, thought Wallander, all these absurd worries were nothing more than the early morning ramblings of a half-awake brain unsettled by a nightmare.  All the same, though, he couldn’t shake off his conviction that he needed to speak to Stefan, if only for his own reassurance.

With a groan he got out of bed and wrapped the quilt round himself before padding into the kitchen, where he began to make some coffee.  Might as well try and do something productive.

Wallander sat at the kitchen table for an hour, cup of coffee in one hand, bundle of case notes in the other.  They had names (some of which he recognised) and some faces to go with the names.  They even had a couple of witness statements culled from incident reports and prior intelligence-gathering.  What they really needed, though, was some concrete evidence, and he knew he would probably need a warrant to be able to search for it.  For some time, Wallander pondered how he could persuade Holgersson to get him a warrant, before concluding that it would be an uphill struggle.  He would have to find another way, and the thought troubled him.

He would find a way, though.  He had done it before: putting together cases almost out of thin air, finding proof, one way or another.  He thought about how he had castigated Frank Borg and his unorthodox (and unethical) methods, but were they really so different, he and Frank?  When it really counted, wouldn’t he do the same as Frank if it meant putting an end to a repulsive crime?  The thought did nothing to improve his mood.

With a grimace, Wallander swallowed the bitter dregs of his now tepid coffee and got up from the table.  He went back into the bedroom and threw some clothes on.  He would get an early start at the station, and focus all his attention on the original name that their anonymous whistle-blower had supplied: Magnus Rhunberg.

One way or another, I’ll pin you down, Rhunberg.

If they could crack him, perhaps there was hope.

Outside, he set his face against the wind that whistled down Mariagatan and set off walking.  The horror of his nightmare was fading, but he was unable to shake the feeling that something somewhere was very wrong.

It was the sound of his office door shutting that made him look up from the desk to see Linda standing in front of him.

“You’re early,” she said.

“I couldn’t sleep,” he said, simply.

She sat down and glanced at the stack of paper in front of him.

“Making any progress?”

“I don’t know.”  Wallander rubbed a hand across his eyes.  “I want to speak to this Rhunberg, though.”

“Me too.  Do you think he’ll talk?”

“I don’t know, but I intend to lean on him.  His background’s murky, to say the least.”

“Don’t forget the names we got from the Polish police too.  I managed to look at one or two of them.  As you say, the backgrounds are murky.  The whole business gives me the creeps.”

Linda pulled the sleeves of her jumper down over her hands and put a hand to her forehead, rubbing the faint frown lines that had formed there.  She still looked pale and drained.  Wallander sat back in his chair and studied her face for a few moments, wondering how badly she was being affected by the stress of their current investigation.

You shouldn’t be exposed to this, he thought.  You should have left these dreadful things for me to cope with, without having them in your head too.

His urge to protect her was suddenly very strong.  Nevertheless, they had a job to do.

Out loud he said: “We were going to have a talk about Stefan, weren’t we?”

She nodded and settled into her chair.  It was going to be a long morning.

The youngster fidgeted in his chair and, for the third or fourth time, got up, paced to the window and peered out.  Stefan thought he understood.  It was difficult to have this kind of conversation.  Difficult or impossible.

“You mustn’t worry now, Elias,” Solberg was saying.  “You’re safe, nobody knows you’re here.  And you can tell us everything in confidence, you know that.  You’re not in any trouble – we’re going to help you – and Ingvar, if we can track him down.”  She went on a little longer, putting Elias at ease and explaining what would happen, and how.

Stefan wondered how many times she’d done this before.  She seemed to know exactly what to say to the boy, and the tone of voice in which to say it.  He glanced at her.  She was smiling kindly at Elias, relaxed and attentive, like a counsellor or a concerned friend.  A real expert.

The boy opposite them relaxed a little.  He stared down at his hands and began to pick at his fingernails.

“I’m scared,” he said.  “I can’t remember when I wasn’t scared.”

He glanced towards the window.

“When they put Ingvar in the hospital I thought that would be it, he wouldn’t want to deal with them again.  But it only got worse.”

Elias planted his feet on the coffee table in front of him and wrapped his arms round his knees.

“How did it get worse?” Solberg asked.

“He had to do even more for them.”  Elias’ voice dropped to a mumble.  “And I had to do more as well.”

“Do more?  What do you mean?  More of what?” Stefan cut in.

Elias gazed back at him through the blond fringe that hung into his eyes, his face a picture of abject misery.  His pale eyes seemed deeply haunted, and he appeared to stare straight through the two officers as if nothing really existed to him except his own pain and fear.  Stefan had been told that the boy had just turned fifteen, but he seemed much younger, skinny and fragile as he was.

“What do you think I mean?”  Elias’ voice was barely more than a hoarse whisper.  “You wouldn’t be asking me about Lars if you didn’t know what he’s like, would you?”

He stared at Stefan.  Stefan held his gaze and nodded.

“I know what he’s like all right.  That’s why I need you to tell me everything you know, so we can stop him.  So he can get what he deserves.”

Elias gave a vague nod and pushed his hair out of his eyes with a shaky hand.

“We understand this is hard for you,” said Solberg.  “Take as long as you need.”

“You’ll never understand how hard this is!” Elias cried, his eyes gleaming with unshed tears.

But I do understand, thought Stefan.  I understand much more than anyone realises.  He swallowed the lump that had crept up into his throat.  Out loud, he said some calming words to try and reassure the boy.  Damn it, Solberg’s manner was wearing off on him now.  He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth.  I wish this was over.

Nevertheless, he sat still for almost two hours as Elias told them his story – a long account of abuse and manipulation that was sickeningly familiar.  Matsson had treated Elias in much the same way as Roffe had treated Stefan.  And it wasn’t just Matsson, but two or three of his objectionable friends, who seemed to have been passing Elias around among themselves since he was eleven or twelve.  There were photos too.

“He blackmails me, you know,” said Elias, his voice shaking.  “He said that if I told anyone he’d post photos of me all over the internet and everyone would see what sort of person I am.  Or if I don’t do what he tells me to do, or what the other guys tell me.  And he said he could put Ingvar back in hospital like those guys did last year.”

Elias looked away and stared down at the floor.

“He doesn’t take pictures of me any more, or... touch me or anything.  I’m getting too old for him now, know what I mean?”  He glanced back up at them.  Stefan nodded at him.  He knew all right.

“But he’s still got all the pictures of me, and he’s got other boys.  He always did.”

“Do you know any of these boys?  Would you recognise them if you saw them?”

Elias didn’t reply straight away.  After a few seconds he nodded slowly and looked up at Stefan.

“Ye-es.  Yes, I’d know some of them.  Not all of them, but one or two.  Can you... can you get them away from Lars?”

“You bet we will, if we can find them.”

Wallander shivered.  The dismal cold had leached into his bones.  Above him, the heavy grey sky promised yet more snow.  At least they were being spared the damp and mud that a thaw would bring, but this was little comfort at present.  He had begun to wish quite desperately that he was somewhere far away from here.  Nevertheless, although he could flee to the most remote tropical island if he wanted to, he would never be able to leave this case behind him.  The anxiety that had been eating at him would never let up until he had reached a solution, both to this investigation and to the problem of Stefan.

Stefan.  He sighed.  He was going to have to make a phonecall later.

Linda came back round the front of the house.

“No signs of life anywhere,” she said.  “This is a miserable place.”

“Yes, it is.  Where’s Martinsson?”

“Over here,” called a voice from round the corner.

When they joined him, Martinsson was examining a large-ish van parked by the side of the house.

“Is this Rhunberg a builder or something?” he said, pulling at the rear doors, which were locked.

“Not that I know of.”  Wallander tried the driver’s door.  Also locked.

Linda had wandered back round the rear of the house.  Presently they heard her calling them.  Wallander hurried to join her.

“Look at this,” she said.  “He left a spare key in the plant pot.”

For a moment they looked at each other, then he nodded to her.  She put the key in the lock and pulled open the door.

Whatever they were expecting to find in the house, they could never have been ready for what confronted them.

“What’s going to happen to him?” Stefan demanded.

Solberg shook her head and huddled deeper into her padded jacket.

They were walking near Växjösjön, with the icy wind whipping over the surface of the lake, blowing their hair into their eyes and taking their breath away.  Solberg had insisted on it, said that she wanted to clear her head.  Stefan reflected that, had she been here, this would have been one of the rare times when Linda would have gone for a cigarette.  Solberg, however, didn’t smoke.

She didn’t say much either.  She had stopped, and was staring over the water, towards the houses on the other side.  Finally she answered him.

“We’ll keep him in the safe house, of course.  God only knows how long for, though.  We need to interview him again...  A lot of it’s up to Martin now.  I’m going to speak to Social Services as well, try and get a counsellor to see Elias.”  She looked down, grinding the toe of her shoe into the dirt.  “Heaven knows he’s been through stuff that no kid should ever have to go through.”

“Tell me about it,” said Stefan, through gritted teeth.

She looked up at him.

“You were very good with him.  Like you were on his wavelength.”

Stefan flinched.  He had an uncomfortable feeling of being caught out somehow.

“No, it’s just...  It’s like you said.  Nobody should have to go through that.  It’s not fair that kids like Elias are suffering, and the creeps who abuse them get to walk around free, like they’ve done nothing wrong.”  He kicked savagely at a loose pebble, sending it bouncing along the path in front of him.

Solberg was looking at him, the same expression of sympathy on her face as when she had spoken to Elias.

“This case has really touched a nerve, hasn’t it?”

He didn’t reply.  His whole body was a raw nerve.  It all hurt so damn much.

Wallander leaned wearily on his desk.  The office was silent at last.  Everyone had gone home except Holgersson, who stubbornly refused to leave her office, choosing instead to make call after call to various higher-ups who needed to be kept abreast of the latest, most unwelcome development in their investigation.  Putting his head in his hands, Wallander shut his eyes and tried to block everything out.  It didn’t work; instead the unwelcome images flooded back with a vengeance.  The stacks and stacks of photos they’d found...

He shuddered, forcing himself to think of something else.  There would be time enough to deal with the implications tomorrow.  And at least they had evidence now.

He got up from the desk and pulled out his phone.  He still had to make that phonecall.  Now was as good a time as any.

He dialled the number and listened to the ringing from the other end, praying that Stefan would pick up.  Suddenly Stefan’s voice came on the line.


“Hello Stefan.  We need to talk.”