The Royal Copenhagen coffee cups were still on the table, with just the dregs in the bottom; the cake dishes were cleaned out and the glasses of juice empty. Blue polka-dot napkins—both fresh and soiled—were lying all over the place. The tablecloth was covered in coffee stains and crumbs, and here and there were red rings left by the glassware. The youngest children had rushed off, leaving the chairs pulled out from the table.
Half of the children were now on the Josef Frank sofa. The other half were running around shrieking, caught up in a heated sugar rush. A tennis ball came out of nowhere, fortunately hitting a gap between the souvenir plates hanging on the wall depicting different cities in Europe: Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Paris, Rostock, Leipzig, Bonn.
During the last week of school, the grandchildren had stayed with their grandparents so that their parents could take a holiday to Brittany. Sisters Malin and Lotta wanted to do it before the summer holidays began, and half of Sweden went down to France.
During the past week, Grandpa Stellan had taken refuge in the study while Grandma Agneta had made breakfast and dinner and driven the kids to and from school and their leisure activities. Not to mention keeping an eye on them as they bathed off the jetty in the unusually warm early summer evenings. It was also Grandma who’d gathered up and packed away the snorkels, flippers, swimwear, goggles, toys and what was left of the sun cream. As well as all the clothes, tablets, chargers and schoolbooks.
And now both of the sisters were there with their husbands, to take their children home again. It was almost as if the house was breathing a sigh of relief at the fact that peace would soon reign supreme and everything would return to normal.
The garden door was open and Lotta was outside, walking by her aging father’s side while he pointed out the latest additions to the flower beds and planters. She knew most of the flowers, but some had been added. Her dad liked to have a few ever-present favorites while varying the rest.
He thought the flowers were at their most beautiful just before they came into bloom. When the buds were beginning to burst open. On this, father and daughter differed.
Lotta listened attentively to her father as he enthusiastically exhibited his floral splendor: coneflowers, hollyhocks, blue delphiniums, bittersweets that had germinated by themselves, oregano, mint, yarrow and lady’s slipper. He loved his flowers, and Lotta thought about how much time he’d spent in the garden during her childhood. Dad was not to be disturbed out here—but you always knew where he was.
While Dad stopped to catch his breath, Lotta turned around discreetly and pretended to size up the house—the stylish, functionalist home that she knew inside out and really had no good reason to stand looking at. The large windows and the two terraces with the amazing views over Lake Mälaren and Kärsön Island.
Then her gaze settled on the garden path, the twelve heavyset stone slabs that she and her sister had run along so many times. Their dad jokingly called them the twelve-step model to a better life, because they led to the garden shed. Inside it, he could dedicate himself to what he loved most, undisturbed.
The stone slabs had been so awkward to lay that Stellan had decreed that they would remain there forever. And they already had forty years on the clock, so her father’s prophecy was probably going to be borne out.
She looked at her father. He was eighty-five years old, and just as lucid as ever, but his body was tired, and advanced in years, so much so that he missed parts of his throat while shaving. He had always been tall, but now he was stooping. The big pair of spectacles that had been his distinctive attribute for as long as she could remember often ended up crooked, and the eyes behind the frames were cloudy. Lotta was almost as tall as Stellan, but they were otherwise not particularly alike in appearance. Her father’s hair had been ash-blond, while his daughter’s was black—a legacy from her strong-willed grandmother, according to Stellan. And if his gaze was friendly and warm, then Lotta’s was scrutinizing and skeptical. “Can’t we sit down for a bit?” said Lotta, because she noticed that
her dad was tired and knew he would never acknowledge it.
They sat down on the flaking green bench outside the garden shed. Stellan fanned himself with a paper plate that had been heaped with bulbs, and Lotta wiped the sweat from her brow. The heat felt almost unnatural. It had had the whole country in its grip throughout May, and showed no signs of dissipating now it was June.
How many times had they sat here together? A bench for rest, but with all the tools within reach—a place where one recovered while also being ready to get working.
That was the theory, at any rate.
Inside the shed were stacks of garden furniture and tools that hadn’t been used in decades: weed hoes, sprinklers, a copper watering can, a now-moldy striped hammock and the creakingly old sunbeds that the sisters had loved playing with when they were little. They had sunbathed between the snowdrifts on the very first days of spring, “cloudbathed” on cloudy summer days, and spent entire summers pretending the sunbeds were boats, cars, planes, space rockets or jetties from which they could jump into imaginary water.
When the sisters had got too big to play, the sunbeds had gone into the garden shed, and there they had remained ever since. Instead, Dad had secretly used them for resting during his gardening, but had been given away by the light squeaking audible through the walls.
Now the shed was more of a monument to a bygone era. Only the garden table was brought out each year by the gardener, Jocke, who continued to put in appearances as regularly as clockwork, despite having retired many years ago. He wouldn’t accept any payment, either. He’d been coming weekly ever since Stellan and Agneta had moved into the house as newlyweds in the early seventies, and he’d carried on after retirement without either ask- ing or being asked to. Perhaps he needed the steady routine to maintain his sanity.
Lotta nudged the door to the shed ajar and the heat struck her.
The warm summer meant it was like an oven inside.
“Aren’t you going to open up that window again?” she said, pointing at the plywood board nailed to the back wall. “We’re not little anymore—there’s no risk of us spying.”
“No, but now there are new small spies,” Stellan said with a smile. “They only care about their screens.”
“I’ll ask Jocke to take it down. The window looks on to a lovely beauty bush, but I don’t come in here as much as I used to.”
“Not at all, I’d say,” said Lotta, her gaze lingering on the rusty sunbeds.
“This is for you,” said Stellan Broman to his daughter, holding out a flower.
Every time she visited, he gave her a plant or a bulb from his garden for her small kitchen garden, and she was grateful to receive them.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Clarkia, I think. Jocke planted it.” “You always blame him.”
Lotta smiled at her father.
Joachim—“Jocke”—had always been a natural part of her life, and he and Dad had always bickered gently over who knew the most about flowers. If she were honest, she’d probably learned more about plants and flowers from Jocke than she had from Dad.
But she still had very affectionate memories of her father’s passion for gardening during her childhood, since it had meant he had been at home. Not at work, not in the house surrounded by friends and colleagues. No grandiose partying, no job, just quietly pottering about in the flower beds.
His life must have been much calmer over the last thirty years.
Did he miss the old days? Being at the center of attention?
If nothing else, it had provided her and Malin with a different childhood—an existence that all their friends had envied. And what difference would it have made if Dad had been at home more—if he hadn’t shut himself away in the recreation room or fled into the garden as soon as he came through the door? They’d always had Mum.
And it had all been very exciting without a doubt: all the well-known faces that had turned up at the house, all the parties and frolics, and all the grown-ups doing strange things.
Perhaps it was their parents’ intense social life that had made her into such a recluse? The workaholic within her was definitely thanks to Dad, but even when she wasn’t working she preferred not to see people. She just wanted to settle down with a book. Or perhaps meet a friend to talk. One friend.
The shrill cry of a child signaled that it was time to go back inside to the others.
As usual, Malin had stayed inside with their mum. She had never liked the garden. “Urgh, worms and woodlice,” had been her judgment as a six-year-old—and she’d stuck to it.
Dark-haired Lotta and blonde Malin. The responsible big sister and the spoiled little princess.
Like a parody of a typical little sister, Malin hadn’t helped her mother with the cleaning, packing or dishes, Lotta noticed. Instead, she’d fetched a box of old clothes from the attic and was hunting for vintage treasures for her children.
“Do they really want old clothes?” Agneta asked.
“They’re lovely,” said Malin, holding up a pale blue plush playsuit from her own childhood.
With her blonde hair and dark eyebrows, Malin was a copy of her mother. It was obvious that Agneta had been a stunning beauty, and despite being almost seventy she still attracted glances when out and about. Even if she didn’t notice them herself. Both mother and daughter were beautiful in a way that made the people they met instinctively wish them well. It was as if their beauty radiated from within, and people therefore didn’t begrudge them anything. While Malin and Lotta had spent time with their parents and the kids had run around, the sisters’ respective other halves had— as usual—withdrawn. There was always something about work or the car or a bathroom renovation that they could discuss to one side: Christian, in his neatly pressed shirt and patent leather shoes, Petter in shorts and sandals. They weren’t altogether comfortable with each other—a financier and a cultural bureaucrat— but neither of them was at all comfortable with their great father-in-law, the legendary TV presenter, so they sought each other out. Neither of them was especially invested in the issues that interested Stellan: TV in the 1970s and 1980s, European travel or how classical culture, entertainment and public education were connected. Neither of them could quote Schiller.
After noting that the brothers-in-law had followed their usual pattern, Lotta noted that the kids were following theirs. Her own sons were sitting staring at their mobiles, and Malin’s two kids were fighting. Molly was screeching because Hugo had thrown a tennis ball at her forehead and told her to head it. The ball had bounced against the wall and then on the table between two coffee cups.
It was high time to drive the boys to training and get away from Malin’s badly brought-up brats. She had masses of meetings— being away for a whole week was a long time in her job. It was lucky that Petter could manage his own hours, and that the kids had activities all summer.
“Time to go. Say thank you to Grandma and get dressed.”
Leo shook back his fringe. He went to his grandmother, took her hand and thanked her. Sixten needed telling again, but then he went and thanked her too.
Malin rifled through the remainder of the clothes, threw a few garments into a bag and put the box to one side. She didn’t take it back up to the attic again, Lotta noted. And she was convinced that the bag of old clothes from their childhood that her sister had taken would remain untouched for years to come.
Lotta opened the front door and let her sons out. Petter took the hint immediately, came inside and thanked his parents-in-law and then went out to sit in the car. In the meantime, Lotta helped Malin’s children to get dressed. Her sister had to find Christian and tell him to come inside and offer his thanks, then Lotta herded them all out to the two cars on the driveway, while Malin hugged her mother.
Stellan returned to the armchair in the living room, a well-used Pernilla from Dux, with a protective auditory accompaniment in the form of the St. Matthew Passion: John Eliot Gardiner’s classic recording from 1988 with Barbara Bonney.
Agneta came out onto the front step to wave off the retreating hordes. Then the sound of the telephone ringing inside the house cut through the air, and she told her daughters she had to take it. Malin couldn’t help but comment with a smile that her mother and father were the only people she knew who still had a landline at home. She said she would never be able to explain to her children what a landline was.
“It’s your father,” Agneta said apologetically. “He absolutely wants to keep it.”
Then she went back inside the house, while her younger daughter joined her waiting family.
Agneta went into the study and picked up the big receiver attached to a spiral cable that led to an old Ericsson Dialog phone with a dial. She answered with her surname, just as she always had done.
On the other end of the line, a man’s voice spoke in heavily accented German.
It was as she’d feared.
But she heard the cars start outside, and realized she didn’t have much choice.
She quickly calculated, then she answered curtly “Yes” and hung up.
Then she went upstairs and into the bedroom, opened the drawer in her bedside table, pulled out the instructions for the clock radio and the bathroom scales, and then got out a big, black Makarov pistol and a silencer that she screwed onto it.
On the way back to the living room, she cocked the weapon and noted that it seemed to be functional, despite having lain unused for so long. At least it had been cleaned and oiled.
She approached her husband diagonally from behind, pressing the muzzle against the side of his head.
And then she squeezed the trigger.
Blood spattered onto the book, which fell out of Stellan’s hands: Goethe’s Faust in the original German.
It hadn’t been a loud bang, but louder than she remembered—so for safety’s sake she lowered her weapon and went to the living-room window.
Outside, the sisters seemed to have been conferring on something, because they still hadn’t left. But now Lotta walked away from Malin’s car to her own and got in.
Lotta looked back toward the house again from the driver’s seat, caught sight of her mother peering out and waved cheerfully. Malin followed Lotta’s gaze and did the same.
The weapon concealed behind her back, Agneta waved back with her empty hand. Her daughters let down the rear passenger windows so that the kids could also wave to Grandma one last time. They did, and their grandmother smiled and reflected that with such wonderful grandchildren, she must have done something right.
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It's early summer in Stockholm. Agneta and Stellan Broman have just waved off their daughters and grandchildren when the landline phone rings. The caller says just one word: "Geiger." Agneta hangs up, finds her old pistol, kills her husband of fifty years and then disappears from their home without a trace.
Sara Nowak, a police officer in the prostitution unit, is called by a colleague who is investigating the murder. Stellan was a widely loved former television presenter, and Sara grew up next door to the Bromans, spending much of her childhood in their grand house. Both the victim's daughters and Sara are devastated by the killing, and going against all regulations, Sara gets involved in the investigation. It is the beginning of a dark journey, leading back to the Cold War and fatal ideologies, and the truth about Sara's own childhood.