The Night of the Fire by Kjell Eriksson: Featured Excerpt
By Crime HQSeptember 14, 2020
Regina Rosenberg was a new hire, and this was her third day on the job. But that didn’t make her a dimwit.
“I want to speak with Ann Lindell.”
“There is no Ann Lindell at the department,” Regina Rosenberg stated after a few quick finger taps and a glance at the screen in front of her.
“Of course there is. Are you new, or what?”
That couldn’t be denied, so for that reason she did another search, but just like before she found only one: Lindell, Leif Torsten, in Lost and Found.
“I’m sorry, but there’s no Ann Lindell in the building. What does this concern?”
“Knock it off, damn it! I’ve got to talk with her. Does she want to be anonymous, or what?”
“That tone isn’t much help,” said Regina, who was from a village in north Uppland, where people talk that way.
A few seconds passed. The man was breathing heavily into the receiver, as if he was jogging with the phone in his hand. Regina heard a clanging tone in the background, like the insistent, disquieting sound when the gate goes down at a train crossing.
“It’s . . . Someone may die.”
The alarming clang became more and more intense.
“I have to talk with her. She’s the only one who listens. Someone may die.”
“I’ll transfer you to the Violent Crimes Unit.”
Stefan Sanberg was not a good person. That was common knowledge. Essential features in his set of social skills were lacking. He had probably never watched a romantic comedy with enjoyment, or voluntarily listened to a peaceful ballad.
Even his grandmother, who’d had the sense, or the weakness some might say, to overlook and forgive a lot throughout her life, was forced to agree. “He’s mean,” she would say, “because he only thinks about himself.”
For Evelina Sanberg, that characteristic was the most despicable, because she was familiar with circumstances where generosity was the only way to make life more or less bearable. She could even use the word “solidarity” without it sounding strange, having grown up in straitened circumstances in farmworker barracks in the village of Rasbokil. At that time in such quarters new ideas were circulating that the poor did not have the slightest problem accepting. In reality they were the ones who made the solemn proclamations meaningful, not least because they put force behind the words.
“Now it’s just claptrap,” she would exclaim when the talk turned to politics.
“But, Evelina, aren’t you happy here?” replied Aamino, who was a nursing assistant at the home where Evelina had spent the past few years.
“I’m just saying,” Evelina said, flashing her best crocodile smile, and the woman from Somalia smiled back, even though she had no idea what she meant.
Stefan was about seventy years younger than his grandmother. It was during that three-quarters of a century that Sweden was transformed in a strange pendulum movement: from building up, which Evelina took part in, to tearing down, which in the autumn of old age she could observe with increasing consternation. “There are documents for everything,” Stefan’s father, Allan, maintained, but that wasn’t really correct, because in his work as a self-employed carpenter there were quite a few under-the-table jobs. In every election he’d voted like his mother, but now he was having doubts.
The pendulum movement had contributed to making Stefan Sanberg a heedless young man who could not spell “concentration camp,” much less Auschwitz, but eagerly posted pictures on the internet of ovens from there, as the final solution to the problems that tormented him and his friends. All born in the nineties. Obviously they had never experienced carpet-bombing, snipers, or boats that capsized. The most dramatic event during their childhood was when the school bus slid off an icy road and ended up at an angle, fortunately caught by a spruce tree so that no one was seriously injured.
Hate was their primary occupation. It was exhausting, because they hated so much, and so many.
“I’ll take them one by one,” Stefan Sanberg said, making a sweeping gesture toward the opposite side of the road, where the old school was fully lit up in the falling twilight. Advent stars were hanging in the windows and dark shadows could be glimpsed inside. There were those in the village who thought it looked cozy, like an exhibit in the local history museum.
The whole gang had gathered for a party at old man Ottosson’s run-down house. The old man himself was languishing in a nursing home, but a grandchild had a key, and the gang usually met there. Beer and liquor had flowed, and no one really believed Stefan’s bluster. They’d all heard him carry on before. A few listened more carefully, and perhaps were influenced, while others sneered.
One of those who was listening was Sebastian Ottosson. He was a listener, who often sat quietly. For that reason he could pick up on judgmental, meaningful glances, and not least become aware of suppressed emotions that could take the most peculiar expression. He read between the lines, knew to take the right position, and there was probably nothing wrong with that. He did like the rest. The problem was his surroundings.
Sebastian stood by the window, observing the old school. He went there a couple of years before it was closed down, but that was not anything that influenced him. There was no nostalgia, no memory that could counterbalance what he felt before its illuminated windows.
If darkies are going to live there, then it’s completely worthless, he thought. He knew that he would inherit the house, his grandfather had told him that. Sebastian had ideas about what he would do. A few acres of pastureland were part of the property, and Sebastian had fantasized for a long time about raising sheep and goats. It was a dream that few knew about, but he had figured it all out quietly. He knew that there was a market for goat’s milk. He could manage it, maybe by working extra at Sandvik to start with or somewhere else. But blacks as neighbors? They would surely steal his milk and animals. People like that eat goats, he’d heard. What was it called, hammal butchering or something?
It was a blindingly beautiful New Year’s Eve. In the days after Christmas it had snowed heavily before clearing up on the last day of the year. The whole village, even the properties with dilapidated fiber cement facades and moldy verandas in shadow, and the farms stained with rural melancholy, was embedded in a conciliatory white blanket. Abandoned farm machinery looked like prehistoric animals dressed in white fur. The roads were edged by snow-burdened spruce and over the fields the ice crystals sparkled. At the edges of the fields, surrounded by inhospitable thickets and invasive aspen trees, deer stood, hesitant, before they stepped out in the open to scratch out a rotting potato under the blanket of snow on Waldemar Mattsson’s parcel. The wind was stiff and it would pick up during the afternoon.
And naturally that made the firefighting harder in the blaze that would later light up the whole central village.
“They can’t even shovel snow, damn it,” Mattsson’s youngest son, Daniel, said. His father had a municipal contract, so snow removal was Daniel’s specialty, which he liked to talk about, especially after three days of intensive plowing on squares and parking lots and cul-de-sacs in a residential area in Gimo. In other words he was worn out and therefore susceptible. The weather forecast had promised that New Year’s Day would also be clear, so he’d gotten permission from his father to go to the party and even drink some alcohol. He maintained that he fell asleep a couple of hours before the old year turned into a new one, and would therefore be freed from all suspicions about participation in arson.
For arson it was, everyone was convinced of that, even if the investigation could not prove it unambiguously. There was talk of lit candles that were left in the kitchen, covered heating elements or overload in the electrical system in the antiquated school, which had not been maintained for several years but could now serve as a residence for seventeen men, thirteen women, and nineteen children. All victims of persecution and war. All in flight.
That night the temperature was eight degrees Celsius. The sky glistened with starlight, but who could appreciate that when the rays were hidden by grayish-white smoke in the freezing wind?
Gösta Friberg stood as if petrified, supported by the kitchen table, on trembling legs, with his feet stuffed in sheepskin slippers and with a damp spot that was growing on his flannel pajamas, a kind of afterbirth to his visit to the toilet. The glow from the burning school created a ghostly fluttering in his kitchen. The rain of sparks came like swarms of countless fireflies.
He had seen everything, or had he? It had happened so quickly, when as was his habit after a trip to the toilet he looked out from his upstairs window. The shadowy figures that were outlined against the snow had moved quickly, there were two or three of them, at first he couldn’t decide.
They came from the storage shed and were heading for the south end of the school building, the one that faced toward his house. The view was partly hidden by the lilac thicket that had always served as the boundary between the school property and his own. They moved ahead clumsily in the snow, one of them fell down, but was quickly helped up. But there had definitely been three of them.
It was not just the darkness and their hurried movements that confused him, the whole scene was like a hallucination. Sometimes he hallucinated, especially during the nocturnal trips to the toilet when in the borderland between sleep and waking he thought he saw and heard things. Irma had laughed at him many times when in the morning he told about his nocturnal experiences. “You should write a horror novel,” she’d said on one occasion, and Gösta had felt offended, even though he knew she didn’t mean anything bad. For him it was almost reality, and he didn’t like that she belittled his revelations. It was as if things really did happen, or could conceivably happen in the future.
That was the kind of feeling he got as the shadows were moving in the night. On the days that followed he would recall the sight in his memory, and the outlines gradually sharpened. At last he knew what he had seen and that what he’d seen was reality. He was still a little uncertain about who it was, but fairly sure. The one who ran first, leaning forward like a soldier in battle, Gösta had seen so many times that despite the darkness and the pulled-down cap, he was rather easy to identify. Even so he doubted himself and his impressions.
Flames started greedily licking the facade, at several places at the same time. The blaze quickly took hold in the century-old timber. Soon the whole school was on fire, burning along the full length of the facade. The top floor, which housed a schoolroom and the old teacher’s apartment, was already in flames. A broom of fire sprayed in the brisk wind like a blowtorch from the roof, which had partially collapsed. Everything happened so fast. He understood that nothing could be saved. Through the thicket of bushes he could see groups of people. They stood strangely quietly, as if they were attending a bonfire.
Gösta sank down on a chair. Naturally he should have called for the fire department and then gone out to see if he could help out, but the paralysis would not let go. “There is nothing to do, the school is lost,” he repeated again and again to himself, mumbling, “fire always wins.” Then, during those ghastly hours in the kitchen, it did not occur to him that people could be injured. That was of course an incomprehensible error, a self-betrayal that was grounded in his own panicky terror of open fire.
For a moment he stood completely still, staring down at the snow. He closed his eyes and tried to disconnect what was happening: the screams from the camp, the flames that created a restless fluttering across the sky, the smoke, the cold, and not least the terror.
It didn’t work, of course. He would never forget. There was only one thing for Omid, flight, once again flight, his whole life this feeling of shame of not belonging anywhere, forced to take to the roads, to flee. He extended his arm and with his bare hand stroked a tree trunk striped with snow. For a moment he wanted to turn around, but realized that it could be dangerous. Perhaps the crowd of people would kill him. They didn’t wish him well in any event. He knew what people in groups were capable of.
He looked around and returned to the road, hoping that no more cars would drive past. His feet were frozen stiff. His hands likewise. His head was bare. The only warmth was the jacket that he had grabbed in passing. He stamped his feet, waving his arms like his grandfather had done, and then set off at a rapid pace, away, away. The fire behind him was raging, the fire inside him was raging, driving his legs to keep moving.
After a few minutes he saw the glow of headlights, and realized it was a car. A short distance ahead was a narrow side road in between the trees. Not far away lights were shining in the windows of a house. He ran onto the road; clomping around in the deep snow was not an alternative, if he didn’t want his feet to freeze.
The car passed on the main road and clearly more were coming, headlights played between the trees. He headed for the solitary house. A dog barked. He picked up the pace and passed the house. The barking continued but grew quieter. The forest was dense, denser than any he had experienced. The darkness meant nothing. It was the fire that frightened him. The memories of consuming fire.
What had happened to Hamid? He had seen how his cousin had helped the woman from Syria with one of her children, how he carried the child in his arms wrapped in one of the red tablecloths that were on the tables in the meeting hall. He himself had helped Reza, who had a bad leg. The pain made him quietly moan a little, but Omid hurried him, almost shoved him ahead, out the door and stumbling down the steps.
Outside the Swedes had gathered. Silent. No one made an effort to help out. They just stood there, close together, without a word, staring.
It’s not my fault, he wanted to scream, but knew that silence was better, to not be seen and heard.
He started crying against the wind. Burning fire or paralyzing cold, always like that, never in between, then the body could relax. The dog unexpectedly resumed barking. A door opened, an oblong rectangle of light burst out on the farmyard. A shadow figure was outlined in the entry. The dog barked. “Shut up!” a man shouted, and those were words that Omid recognized.
For a moment he thought about making himself known. The light that radiated from the open door promised warmth, but he kept running. The snow muffled his steps. Soon he was swallowed up by the darkness. The dog kept barking. The door slammed shut.
Almost five months had now passed since the fire. The police investigation was officially still open but in reality shut down. The remains of the old village school were removed. All that was left was a shed that once housed an outhouse and storehouse, and then the blackened ground, a rectangle twenty-three meters long and eight meters wide, with a sooty chimney that rose like a macabre monument to an arson that took three lives, perhaps four. The rough-hewn granite plinths were carted away by Mattsson’s sons.
Especially for those who had attended the school it was of course a disheartening sight. Generations of villagers had been pupils in the hundred-year-old building. When they passed by they recalled episodes from another time, both kooky and clever. They thought about their own childhood, they recalled the two teachers, Edlund and Gauffin. One gruff and the other understanding, but both respected, in any event by most and now in retrospect. Åke Edlund died long ago, that was known, but no one knew where Alexandra Gauffin might be, if she was even alive, so there was great surprise when she showed up one day.
She knocked on Gösta Friberg’s door and introduced herself, which was completely unnecessary. Gösta had a hard time holding back the tears as he observed his old schoolteacher, who with her inimitable smile and still gentle gaze was standing so unexpectedly on his stoop. He quickly calculated that she must be over ninety.
“The school burned” was the only thing he could say.
“I heard that later,” Miss Gauffin said in a voice that had preserved its timbre. “I was in Odense visiting my sister over Christmas and New Year’s, and wasn’t really keeping up with what was happening in Sweden.”
It’s strange how some people go through life unbroken, Gösta thought. “You look so spry, miss . . . like before,” he said, and was immediately
embarrassed by his words, which perhaps could be perceived as intrusive, because she was still his teacher.
“You do too, Gösta. The same fine cheeks and glistening eyes.”
Then Gösta sobbed. Since his wife died, no one had said anything so beautiful to him.
They had coffee, sitting in the sun against the south wall, but with their coats on. It was spring. The hedge was about to flower over and the buds of the lilac were brimming with longing, or even blossoming, but it was not long since it had snowed. For that reason the spring flowers were somewhat stressed, they did not want to be passed up by the summer flora.
“You live alone now?”
“Yes, Irma passed away a year and three months ago. It still feels strange.”
Not a day passed that he didn’t think about her. “Was it cancer?”
Gösta nodded. “She struggled for a long time, and we tried everything. We even traveled to a special clinic in Florida, and stayed for almost two months, but nothing helped. She died late in the winter.”
“That must have cost a pretty penny.”
“Yes, it was frightfully expensive, over ninety thousand dollars. And as a carpenter you don’t exactly have any reserves. I had to borrow most of it.” “It’s good that the bank helps out in those situations, but the interest
rates must be high.”
Gösta’s face turned bright red. Miss Gauffin observed him for a moment before she changed the subject.
“And the police don’t know anything?”
“No, they have no answers. You know how it is.” “So what are people saying? In the village, I mean?” “Folks don’t want to talk about the misery.”
Should he tell what he knew? He’d asked himself that question hundreds of times, ever since the day when the last remnants of the school were still smoldering and the police investigators knocked at the door.
“There’s so much talk,” he said at last, thereby contradicting his own statement a moment before.
“I was thinking about sticking around the area for a while,” Miss Gauffin said, “so we’ll have more occasions to discuss.”
“Yes, I write a little. My memoirs, you might say, and it struck me that it would not only be pleasant to meet some of my pupils, but also valuable so that my recollections would be richer. We remember things so differently.”
“So you’re going to interview people?” “That’s going a bit far,” Miss Gauffin said. “How will you get around?”
“A great-grandchild of my brother drives me. He’s unemployed and I’m paying him. He forgot his snus and went for a drive. It will probably take a while, because I saw that the store is gone.”
The two of them, teacher and pupil, conversed a good while; it got cold around their legs. They went over who was still living in the area, who had died, and what might otherwise be of interest.
“There’s a boy missing, isn’t there?” she suddenly interrupted the review of old pupils, bringing him back to those horrible days in January. He nodded.
“And nothing new has come out?” “No, nothing new.”
He wondered how much she knew. Two cousins had disappeared. One was located. It was Gösta who found him. It did not seem as if she knew about the circumstances, even though it had been reported, and Gösta found no reason to tell. He did not want to tell. He did not want to even think about the terrible sight that had met him early on the morning of the third of January. It was as if he was an accessory to the boy’s death. There were those in the village who implied that too.
The young relative showed up and turned onto the driveway a bit carelessly. He nodded at Gösta but made no effort to leave the car.
“It’s a reliable car,” Miss Gauffin said, and you could hear that she also included the driver in that assessment. She placed her hand, as if consolingly, on Gösta’s knee before she stood up.
Long after the car had disappeared behind Efraimsson’s workshop, Gösta remained standing under the mighty maple that his grandfather planted perhaps a hundred years ago. The visit had had a double effect; he had been enlivened, but he also felt melancholy and a trifle anxious. Unconsciously he reached out one hand and stroked the smooth trunk as if it were a woman’s skin. He ought to go in, but he knew that fresh air made it easier, as if the anxiety could be aired out.
“Go up to Bertil’s,” he said out loud and challengingly, and obediently trotted off. It was a walk he had made thousands of times. Bertil Efraimsson was born-again, while Gösta was a dogged atheist, but they were good friends anyway and had been since they were kids. They were a week apart in age, sixty-six years old in July, and had been playmates and classmates as well as neighbors. Bertil had taken over the workshop from his father and uncle, and continued repairing everything from clocks to combines, but when the mechanics were increasingly replaced by computerization he closed down the operation. The decision was made on a Friday. He completed the few tasks he had, and on Tuesday he nailed up a sign that said CLOSED and then drove to the state liquor store in Öregrund, where he didn’t think he would be recognized. There he bought a bottle of cognac of the sort his father and uncle used to drink, the only alcohol he could identify with certainty. It was the first and so far the only time in his life he got intoxicated and boisterous. A strange and in retrospect inexplicable act, which should have led to remorse, but Bertil shrugged off the criticism and surprise of his surroundings, and in Gösta’s eyes the Pentecostalist became more human. He saw it as an act of reverence for the generation that preceded him. Bertil’s father, who was the son of a blacksmith from Lövstabruk, had slowly built up the workshop from scanty resources and it had supported two families.
Bertil was standing in the yard talking out loud to himself, unaware that his neighbor was approaching. Gösta stopped but his hearing was too poor to make out more than scattered words. Bertil had changed recently, becoming withdrawn and taciturn, even if he had never been a vivacious joker. “Secretive” was a word that occurred to Gösta, as if his neighbor was unwilling to share. Had he also seen something during the night of the fire? Over the years they had always talked with each other, had discussions, supported each other, but now it seemed as if the line was broken. Bertil was increasingly unwilling to socialize, the joint coffee breaks in his kitchen had unexpectedly ceased. He became contrary and strange, and yet another bewildering matter was Bertil’s new evening habits. Before he always used to turn off the lights after the nine o’clock news, now the lamps might burn until midnight and even later. Sometimes he could be glimpsed passing like a shadow in one of the windows. Gösta had not wanted to ask what he was doing up so late, but it was strange that a creature of habit like Bertil started behaving in a completely new way. Was it perhaps some illness that was sneaking up?
And then these frequent trips with the car, even into Uppsala, which
he previously despised visiting. Now he took off all the time and returned with bags and boxes with unknown contents. Once when Gösta openly showed his curiosity, Bertil said something to the effect that he was “in the process of inventing something.”
Bertil was tall, and he still looked imposing, standing there in his yard. Next to him, Gösta had always felt like a leprechaun at five foot five in stocking feet. His profile was like a Mohican, with an aquiline nose and sturdy forehead, his dark hair combed back. In his youth he was called “the Indian.” There was a time when women happily stopped by Efraimsson’s, on the pretext of buying eggs from Bertil’s mother or some other everyday errand, and if possible exchange a few words with the son. He mostly stayed in the workshop, however, and was unapproachable. In the congregation too he kept his distance from women, and gradually the courting ceased. He remained a bachelor.
Gösta coughed and Bertil turned around. “You scared me,” he said. “It’s not often—”
“We’re still alive,” said Gösta, “but it’s starting to thin out.”
They shook hands, a custom they’d had since their youth. After that they stood silently a moment and observed the road and the few cars that passed. “It’s strange,” said Bertil. “The blackbird that always stayed at the top
of the spruce has fallen silent. This year I haven’t heard a single warble.” “Either your hearing has gotten worse or else it’s dead,” said Gösta. “My hearing is worse, I know that, but I hear other birds. And dead?”
He snorted. “New generations come, they always have, but now it’s probably over.”
Gösta changed tack. “I had a visitor.” “Who might that be?”
“Miss Gauffin.” “It’s not possible.” “Old as the hills.”
“That was strange. What did she want?”
“She’s going to write her memoirs, as she said.” “And then you’ll be included?”
“Well, it’s probably more the school and such. She came of course as a brand-new teacher and stayed until retirement. There’s quite a bit to remember.”
They both looked toward the scene of the fire.
“I saw the one who set it, in any case one of them,” Gösta said quite unplanned, immediately bothered about what had popped out of him. Bertil stared at him, speechless.
“And you’re saying that now?!” he exclaimed at last. He seldom raised his voice, but now was such an occasion. “But you told the police that you were in bed asleep.”
“Yes, I misspoke.”
“Misspoke? That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Gösta turned away; he couldn’t bear his friend’s agitated expression. He knew himself that it was an extremely idiotic statement.
Bertil took hold of his shoulders, shook him, and forced him to raise his eyes. “You know who it was, don’t you?”
“Let go of me,” Gösta said. “We’ve never quarreled and there’s no reason to start now.”
“It was arson. People died.” Gösta nodded mutely.
“It’s someone you know,” Bertil observed. “Someone from the village, isn’t it?”
“I don’t want to talk about it right now,” Gösta said, releasing himself and fleeing with big strides. He cursed his own indiscretion. Why in the world he’d blurted out something he’d kept quiet about for months, he didn’t understand. Was it perhaps, in some strange way, Miss Gauffin’s influence?
Bertil was shouting something after him, but he couldn’t make out what. He didn’t want to hear, didn’t want to look back. It was painful to be at odds with his friend, and he understood that the matter was not over and done with. Bertil was stubborn and would go at him again, try to get him to speak up.
“Maybe it’s the only right thing,” he muttered as he passed through his gate. It was a sentence he repeated numerous times, but the fear of having to come forward and testify was too great. He knew that he would lose everything. Now admittedly he had lost his honor and had to live with a burning sense of shame, but he could still live in the village and in his house. And what good would it do if he testified? It wasn’t a certainty that the arsonists would be convicted anyway. Clever lawyers would be sure to question his credibility and do everything to decimate his testimony, even more so if he came forward five months after the fire.
Copyright © 2020 by Kjell Eriksson. All rights reserved.
About The Night of the Fire by Kjell Eriksson:
Police inspector Ann Lindell has left the Uppsala police and is living a quiet life, producing local cheese in a small town in Uppland. But life in the country is not as idyllic as it seems. On New Year’s Eve someone sets fire to the former village school which is now a home for asylum seekers, and three people are killed. Ann Lindell’s investigative instincts come back to life and soon she takes on the case. She is contacted by a person who has been involved in a previous investigation and who wants to warn her. His message is short and clear: Many will die. A few weeks later a bomb explodes in a suburb of Stockholm.
Kjell Eriksson wrote seven highly acclaimed novels about Ann Lindell, beginning with award-winner The Princess of Burundi, and now, after ten years, he returns to the Uppsala region and his sympathetic police inspector. The Night of the Fire is the first of two new volumes featuring Ann Lindell.