“What’s your name?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Just wondering. It was nice talking to you. See you another time, maybe.” He puts his hand on hers. She removes it just as swiftly.
“Don’t think so,” says Lisbeth Salander, and she gets to her feet the moment the fasten seatbelts sign is turned off. She pushes past a family with children and joins the stream of people going through the gate.
She’s travelling light. A few changes of clothes are crammed into her backpack along with her laptop and assorted chargers, her exercise gear and a pair of sneakers, the leather cracked and the soles worn smooth. If the need arises, she’ll have to buy things along the way. An unseasonably warm October sun greets her. The air is clear. She can breathe.
As soon as she has checked in at the hotel, she logs into the Milton Security intranet. Answers a couple of pointless e-mails from an exceptionally dim colleague. Perhaps not surprising; this is a person employed to keep paper in order. She throws in “Have a nice weekend” and assumes Carina Jönsson’s will be as dreary as usual.
Small talk has never been Lisbeth’s strong point. But since she’s been part-owner of the company she’s become aware of increasing demands on her social skills. Especially if she has to go in on a Monday. Staff trickle in, pour coffee and say more or less the same things as they did the previous Monday.
For Carina Jönsson, life seems to revolve around being conspicuously normal. Picking mushrooms, cleaning the house, going to the theatre, making a special breakfast, going to IKEA. She is fond of the notion of treating oneself. I treated myself to a new dress. Sometimes you have to treat yourself to eating outside. It’s important to treat yourself to some of the good things in life.
“As if you know anything about life. I was born older than you are today,” mutters Lisbeth.
Personally she has nothing to contribute to the post-weekend conversation, either to Carina or to any of the other nerds. She’s a lone wolf and she likes it that way. In the eyes of the Milton staff, it’s self-inflicted. They have stopped asking whether she wants to come along to Lord of the Rings Live or the tech meet-up at the Hilton. She doesn’t say no to be unpleasant. Decoding the human factor is not like identifying a data breach. It requires something different. The ability to read between the lines, perhaps.
With very few exceptions, relationships with other people take too much energy. Most people who give something want something else in return.
Every day looks the same. She works, and when she isn’t working she exercises or sleeps. She has no specific partner. No children. No pets. Not even a potted plant. So she doesn’t even try. Has nothing unnecessary to say about herself, beyond the fact that she works and exercises.
“Are you still going to that boxkicking?” asks Carina in such a friendly tone that Lisbeth has to give a friendly response. “It’s called kickboxing,” she says, and she can’t be bothered to say that she’s now doing karate and it’s all the fault of that goddamned Paolo Roberto. Not because she cares who he sleeps with, but when you’re a hero in a trafficking racket one minute and a frequent customer of sex workers the next, it just gets to be too much.
This weekend, however, she’s doing something completely different. Something basically one hundred per cent against her will.
She looks in the minibar. No Coca-Cola. Opens a beer instead and drains it in one draught. Her head spins in the nice way that only a beer downed in one can produce.
A hundred per cent against her will, is that true? Even if she counts all the logical reasons for not wanting to get on a plane to some dump in Norrbotten, she still has to take into account the fact that she’s actually here. No-one has forced her. No-one has put a gun to her head or lured her here with fat rewards. So there’s something inside her driving her choice.
Isn’t that precisely what she loathes about people? Emotion-based decisions. Lack of logic.
Give her mathematics any day. Quite apart from its anxiolytic effect which beats Stesolid by a mile, it can fill an uneasy mind with outwardly simple theses that could still take an individual human thousands of years to work out.
Lisbeth has got caught up in the missing link in Goldbach’s conjecture. His assumption that every even number greater than two is the sum of two primary numbers is perhaps true because no-one has succeeded in proving the opposite. But it could also be false. The answer would then be found in the presumably infinite chain of prime numbers, not within a capricious human psyche.
So she’s looking for patterns. Spending nights and sometimes days in the clarity and safety of numbers. Not to get one over on Goldbach. No, it’s the very possibility that he could be mistaken which is significant. And if the counter-argument were to manifest itself, against all her expectations, then it would be utterly pure. Liberated from human fancy and subjectivity. The truth is a safe sequence of figures that arrange themselves in line, one after the other, until one jumps out.
It’s that damn psychotherapist’s fault, she thinks. Kurt Ågren, whom she has swiftly rechristened Mrs Ågren.
With his smooth voice, his clumpy, hand-thrown pottery teacups and his unfeigned empathy, he lures her into a state of openness. Makes her tell him things. Things that were buried long ago and ought not to be reawakened.
Afterwards she feels totally drained. Picks up a pizza from Little Harem and goes home to sleep. On the dot of four she is woken by the voice of anxiety asking what she said and why.
Mrs Ågren thinks it’s time for Lisbeth to step out of her comfort zone, as he calls it. Even though he is by now aware of quite a few of the uncomfortable zones in which she has found herself and still does.
“That’s exactly why,” he says. “The world isn’t as evil as you think.”
The world is more evil than you can imagine, Mrs Ågren, and in the end she couldn’t do it. Something would have to be re-ordered inside her. Memories would have to be erased and replaced by new thoughts.
The first session is a disaster. He just sits there waiting for her to say something. When she doesn’t, he makes tea. They drink tea in silence. The clock on the wall is the only sound to be heard. Tick tock for forty-five minutes. Then she pays nine hundred and fifty kronor and goes home and e-mails him.
“Give it one more try,” he says. “You’re the one who decides what you want to talk about, not me.”
At the next session he makes tea again. His Knulp slippers creak as he balances his way across the parquet with the tray. She gets to choose which chair. He asks her why she chose it.
“So my back isn’t to the door,” she says.
“Explain,” he says. And like a river when the ice melts in spring, the words come gushing out of her. Over a year ago now.
I don’t go north of my own free will, but I go. I don’t go to therapy of my own free will, but I turn up. Not because the world is good, it’s fucked, but I have to go.
And that is where she runs out of self-psychoanalytical steam. To have time to compose herself and to talk herself out of it, she has come up a couple of days early. Paid a lot of money for the hotel’s only suite, which has actually fulfilled her wish for sparse furnishing, bare walls and a hard bed. Right now, she is feeling inclined to retreat. Check out, catch a plane south and return to normal life in Fiskargatan.
Her phone vibrates on the table. She recognises the dialling code. Nobody but public organizations and old people call from landlines, and she doesn’t know any old people any more. She accepts the call but says nothing, letting the voice go through its hello, hello before she says yes.
“Oh, there you are, Miss Salander,” says the woman and introduces herself as Elsie Nyberg. “How are things?”
“Fine,” she replies.
“Good, good,” says the parrot and asks if they can meet up briefly.
“The meeting isn’t ’til the day after tomorrow,” says Lisbeth.
“I know, but something’s come up,” the woman says. “I’d prefer not to do it over the phone. Would it be possible for you to come here?”
“No,” says Lisbeth, “but we can meet at the hotel.” She runs her hand through her dirty hair and sniffs her armpits. If it was for anybody else, she might take a shower.
Lisbeth Salander pours herself a free cup of coffee from the thermos in the lobby. It’s lukewarm and has a metallic smell, but it eases the pressure in her head.
She sits down in an armchair. No frumpy social services types as far as the eye can see.
There’s no mistaking them, thinks Lisbeth as she surveys her surroundings. The suits are crowding around the bar, a gang of sports jackets are playing shuffleboard, office blouses are having after-work drinks and . . . There she is, on her way in through the first set of entrance doors. A female exemplar of the social-worker species. Indeterminate age, grey-blonde hair, a worry line across her forehead. A Kånken backpack, the original model, with a folding umbrella sticking out of the side pocket. Around her neck an ID lanyard she forgot to take off when she left the office.
When the woman stops, looks around, spies the after-work blouses, smiles and heads over to them, Lisbeth is taken aback. So shocked by her own misjudgement that she doesn’t have time to register the man who has materialised out of nowhere and is now holding out his hand to her.
“Erik Niskala,” he says. “Elsie Nyberg didn’t feel well so I’m filling in for her. Can I get you anything?” he adds, and suggests a beer.
Lisbeth nods. A few minutes later a beer and some peanuts appear in front of her.
Niskala hangs his overcoat over the chair and sits down, with some effort. He is big and overweight. The shirt buttons are straining around his belly beneath his cardigan, but his eyes are sharp. She notices that, too.
“Well,” he says. “I had to be briefed on this case in rather a hurry. And cheers, by the way, welcome to Gasskas. This IPA is brewed locally and they even sell it at the off-licence. Give it a try and you’ll detect distinct notes of pineapple.” He looks at her over his tankard and takes a few good swigs. Wipes the froth from his beard and ends with an “Ahhhh, I’ve been looking forward to that all day. An ice-cold beer in a proper glass.”
Then it’s as if he catches himself. The undesirability of drinking at work. The fact that he has business of a formal nature. He fishes his glasses and a plastic folder out of a battered leather briefcase and leans back. Puts on the glasses and then takes them off again. Leans forward as far as his belly will allow and regards her with the sort of look that a teacher might give a pupil who has done something unexpected. Not necessarily good, not necessarily bad.
“It’s about Svala,” he says. “Your niece, if I understand rightly.”
“Ronald Niedermann’s daughter,” Lisbeth replies. “She and I have never met.”
“No, I realise that,” he says, “but you’re down as Svala’s emergency contact. With no name or phone number. It’s evidently taken them some time to find you, but you’re here now.”
She tries to probe him on how they went about it, but he doesn’t know.
“I’m just a basic child welfare officer,” he says, “not some hacker.”
Lisbeth takes a few gulps of beer, too. Bloody pulse. Bloody headache that won’t let up. And bloody Niedermann, who should never have had a child before he died. How was she supposed to know? And even if she had known, would it have made any difference?
It was him or her, it was that simple. He was the one who came after her, not the other way round. Apart from that last time, perhaps. It’s still a favourite memory. Niedermann’s gigantic body, hoisted up in chains like a masochist at some S&M club. His rage, then his empty eyes and some mumbled German. The sound of motorbikes approaching. Lisbeth riding back to town, tasting freedom on the dark-red Honda.
Conclusion: of all the bad things she has done to other people, Niedermann’s death is up there with the best. She regrets nothing. Not even for the sake of an orphaned child.
“Do you know anything about her father?” says Niskala.
“No,” says Lisbeth, “I never met him.”
“So you don’t know how long he was on the scene?”
“No,” she says again.
Lisbeth Salander pins Niskala with her stare for so long that he is forced to look down.
“Alright,” he says, fingering the file. “I’ll get straight to the point. We need an emergency placement and Svala has suggested you.”
“Me?” says Lisbeth. “I can’t look after a child. I won’t do it. I agreed to meet her, but that was all.” Right now she has no recollection of why. “She’s got a grandmother. Isn’t it best that she lives with her?”
“That’s exactly why we had to see you today. The problem is, Svala’s grandmother died this morning. It was the girl who found her.”
“Shit,” says Lisbeth. “What did she die of?”
“I don’t know,” Niskala replies. “A heart attack, presumably. She was lying dead on the hall floor.”
“Shit,” she says again, but she’s thinking Fucking hell! If there was a chance of wriggling out of all this, that’s now gone. Of course she could say no. Social services would come up with a foster home and Lisbeth wouldn’t have to give it another thought. But social services are too damn good at messing up. They’d probably place the kid with some local paedophile.
“Naturally we’re working on finding a permanent family home for her,” says Niskala.
“How long?” says Lisbeth.
“Hard to say, we’ve got various suitable families in the area. It could all happen quite fast.”
“No,” she says, “I just can’t. I have to get back to Stockholm,” she adds, which is a lie. She comes and goes as she wishes. She has no need of an office to do her job. But a child. A teenager. No. She wouldn’t even agree to a stick insect.
He opens his folder to leaf through his papers.
“There’s nothing wrong with the girl,” he says, looking for a suitable passage to read out, but then he changes his mind and passes the whole file over to Lisbeth. “Take the evening to think it over,” he goes on. “It’s meant to be a confidential matter, but I daresay we can make an exception,” he chuckles. “You’re in the security business, after all.”