Viveca Sten is a rising star among Swedish crime writers, and she also has a highly successful legal career as General Counsel and head of the in-house legal department at the Swedish and Danish Post. Her novels are set in the Stockholm archipelago on the atmospheric island of Sandhamn, a tiny community of only some 120 islanders which is invaded by hordes of tourists throughout the summer months. The setting is idyllic – but evil lurks beneath the surface. Viveca Sten has so far published three novels: I de lugnaste vatten (2008, Still Waters), I den innersta kretsen (2009, Closed Circles), and I grunden utan skuld (2010, Guiltless Shallows). In this extract from the first novel (pages 7-43), we meet Detective Inspector Thomas Andreasson and his childhood friend Nora Linde, a lawyer. Thomas is struggling to come to terms with the death of his young daughter and the subsequent break-up of his marriage, while the cracks are beginning to show in Nora’s own marriage to the increasingly arrogant and selfish Henrik. As Thomas investigates a mysterious death on the island, Nora is inexorably drawn into the mystery – but the real danger is much closer than either of them can imagine.
Everything was completely still, peaceful as it is only in winter, when the archipelago belongs to those who live there, and the raucous summer visitors have not yet taken over the islands.
The water was dark and shining, the cold of winter lying heavily on the surface. Odd patches of snow could still be seen on the rocks; they had not yet melted away completely. A few mergansers stood out like dots against the sky, and the sun was still low on the horizon.
‘Help me,’ he yelled. ‘Help me, for God’s sake!’
The rope that was thrown towards him was knotted to form a loop. In the ice-cold water he clumsily passed it around his body.
‘Pull me up,’ he panted, grasping at the side of the boat with fingers that had already begun to stiffen in the cold.
When the anchor to which the rope was attached was thrown over the rail, he seemed more surprised than anything, as if he didn’t understand that its weight would very soon drag him down to the bottom.
That he had only a few seconds left to live before his body followed the heavy lump of iron.
The last thing visible was the hand breaking the surface, tangled in the fishing net. The waters closed over it with an almost imperceptible sigh.
Then there was only the sound of the engine, as the boat slowly turned and began to make its way back towards the harbour.
‘Here Pixie, come here!’
The man gazed with some irritation at the dachshund as she set off along the beach. True, she had been shut in on the boat for several days, but she ought to show some self-control. She really ought to stay on the lead. On the island of Sandhamn in the Stockholm archipelago dogs were not allowed to run loose in the summer, but he hadn’t the heart to observe the rule when the little dog was so happy to be able to run free.
Besides which, there was hardly anybody in sight on the beach this early in the morning. Those living in the small number of houses along the shoreline had hardly woken up. The only sound was the screaming of the gulls. The air was fresh and clear, and the overnight rain had given everything a newly washed feel. The sun was already warm, promising another glorious day.
The sand was tightly packed and pleasant to walk on. The low growing pine trees gave way to rye grass and wormwood, mixed with clusters of yellow flowers. Tangled heaps of seaweed had been washed up at the water’s edge, and over towards Falkenskär a single early morning
sailboat could be seen travelling eastwards.
Now where had that bloody dog gone?
He followed the sound of barking. Pixie was yapping loudly and agitatedly, her little tail wagging furiously from side to side. She was standing by a rock sniffing at something, but he couldn’t see what it was. He went over to have a look, and became aware of an unpleasant smell. As he got closer it turned into a sour, suffocating, stinking miasma which almost overwhelmed him.
On the ground lay something that looked like a bundle of old rags.
He bent down to shoo the dog away, and realised it was an old fishing net full of seaweed. Suddenly he understood what he was looking at.
The fishing net ended in two bare feet. Both were missing several toes. Only the bones protruded from what was left of the shrivelled, greenish skin.
The urge to throw up was instant. Before he could stop himself his stomach turned itself inside out. A surge of pink vomit poured out. It splashed his shoes, but he didn’t notice.
When he was able to stand upright again, he used a little seawater to sluice out his mouth. Then he got out his mobile and rang the emergency services.
Inspector Thomas Andreasson was really looking forward to his holiday. Four weeks in his summer cottage on the island of Harö in the Stockholm archipelago. A morning dip in the sea. Paddling his kayak. Barbecues. Taking a trip over to Sandhamn to visit his godson.
Thomas Andreasson liked to take his holiday late; the water was warmer and the weather was usually better. But right now, immediately after midsummer, it was difficult not to long for an escape from the city, out among the islands of the archipelago.
Since he had started work with the violent crime unit in Nacka the previous year, he had had his hands full. There had been an enormous amount to learn, despite the fact that he had been in the police force for fourteen years, the last eight with the maritime police.
During that time he had sailed most of the craft used by the maritime police, from the CB90 to Skerfe boats and RIBs. He knew the archipelago like the back of his hand. He knew exactly where the unmarked reefs were, and which shallows were particularly dangerous at low tide.
As a maritime police officer he had seen a great deal, and heard many fantastic explanations as to why certain individuals sailed their boats as they did, particularly when it came to owners who’d had rather too much to drink.
He’d handled everything from stolen boats and criminal damage to lost foreign visitors and teenagers stranded out in the archipelago. The local population used to complain at regular intervals that people were fishing illegally in private waters. There wasn’t much the maritime police could do about that, other than turning a blind eye when the rightful owner of the waters took the interloper’s nets and kept them as compensation.
On the whole he had been very happy in the job, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that little Emily was on the way, he would probably never even have considered applying for a post with the police in the city.
Afterwards, when it had all been for nothing, he hadn’t had the strength to move. He had barely managed to live through one day at a time.
But life with the police in Nacka was intense and high tempo, and he found himself surprisingly at home with this new way of working, even if now and again, particularly during the summertime, he longed for the freedom he had enjoyed as a maritime police officer out in the archipelago.
Margit Grankvist, his colleague and a considerably more experienced inspector, stuck her head around the door and interrupted his thoughts.
‘Thomas, come and see the Old Man with me. They’ve found a body on Sandhamn.’
Thomas looked up.
The Old Man was the head of the criminal investigation department in Nacka, Göran Persson. He shared the Prime Minister’s name, a fact he didn’t appreciate in the slightest. He was very keen to point out that his political views did not necessarily correspond with those of the Prime Minister. However, he was not prepared to expand on those views. As he also had a somewhat portly figure, which in many respects matched that of the Prime Minister, he displayed a distinct lack of enthusiasm for all the comparisons his well-meaning colleagues drew to his attention.
He was a police officer of the old school, a man of few words. But he created a good atmosphere around him and was valued by his colleagues. He was conscientious and knowledgeable, and had a great deal of experience.
When Thomas walked into the Old Man’s office, Margit was already sitting there with one of her innumerable cups of coffee. The department’s drinks machine produced a liquid which would kill most things – it was positively toxic. How Margit could knock it back in such
quantities was a mystery. Thomas himself had changed over to drinking tea for the first time in his life.
‘Right, the dead body of a male has been found on the north west beach on Sandhamn,’ said the Old Man. ‘Evidently the body is in quite a bad state, it seems to have been in the water for quite some time.’
Margit made a note on her pad before looking up.
‘Who found it?’
‘Some poor sailor. Apparently he’s really shaken up. It wasn’t a pretty sight. He contacted the emergency services about an hour ago, just before seven o’clock this morning. He was out walking his dog when he more or less stumbled on the body.’
‘Any suspicion of murder?’ asked Thomas, taking out his own notebook. ‘Any signs of abuse or other violence?’
‘Too early to say. Apparently the body was entangled in some kind of fishing net. Anyway, the maritime police are on the way out there to investigate, and they’ve organised transport to bring the body in.’
The Old Man looked meaningfully at Thomas. ‘I seem to remember you have a house on Harö. That’s next to Sandhamn, isn’t it?’
‘It takes about ten to fifteen minutes to travel between the islands.’
‘Excellent. Local knowledge. You can go out to Sandhamn and take a look. And you can take the opportunity to say hello to your old colleagues in the maritime police at the same time.’
A cunning smile was playing around the chief inspector’s lips.
‘Is there any indication that we should be opening a murder enquiry?’ wondered Thomas, glancing at the Old Man.
‘For the time being it’s being treated as an unexplained death. If it turns into a murder enquiry Margit will lead it, but for now I think you can take care of it.’
‘Suits me perfectly,’ said Margit. ‘I’m already up to here with all the reports that have to be in before the holiday. You carry on!’
She nodded firmly to emphasise her words. It was obvious that the countdown to the holidays had begun. Just a few more days’ paperwork, then freedom beckoned in the form of a rented holiday cottage on the west coast, and four weeks with the family.
The Old Man looked at the clock.
‘I’ve been in touch with the police helicopter. They’re still in town, so they can pick you and the technicians up in twenty minutes. You just need to get to the helipad at Slussen. You can get a lift back with the maritime police. Or take the Waxholm ferry.’ He added the final comment with a grin.
‘Fine by me,’ smiled Thomas. ‘You can talk me into a trip by helicopter any day!’
The Old Man got to his feet, indicating that the briefing was over.
‘That’s all settled, then. Come and see me when you get back so that I can get an overview of the situation.’
He stopped in the doorway, scratching his chin.
‘Play things down a bit out there, Thomas. It’s the middle of summer, and it’s the tourist season. We don’t want a load of hysterical summer visitors and journalists getting ideas. You know what the evening tabloids
are like. They’d just love to swap their tired old summer standby of sex tips for speculation about a murder in the archipelago.’
Margit gave Thomas an encouraging smile.
‘You’ll do a great job. Ring me if you need to ask anything. And remember not to draw any conclusions until the technicians have had their say.’
Thomas pulled on the leather jacket he always wore, irrespective of the weather.
‘Do you think the helicopter could drop me off on Harö when we’re done?’ he asked in passing on his way out.
‘Of course. If the official government plane could fly Thomas Bodström to Greece for his summer holiday, I’m sure the Stockholm police can fly Thomas Andreasson out to his summer cottage.’
The Old Man grinned at his own wit.
Margit shook her head, but couldn’t help smiling. ‘Talk later. Say hello to the archipelago from me.’
She raised her hand in farewell.
Nora Linde answered her mobile phone automatically before realising that it was the alarm sounding, not the phone. She did have an excellent alarm clock, but it was easier to set her mobile so that it fulfilled two functions. Nora stretched. She turned over and looked at her husband, lying in bed next to her.
Henrik was breathing peacefully, like a child. Nora envied him his ability to sleep undisturbed through absolutely anything. The only thing that woke him was his pager from the hospital – then he was wide awake in a second.
He still looked almost the same as when they’d got married almost ten years ago. Dark brown hair, strong muscles in his stomach and arms from years of competitive sailing, sensitive doctor’s hands with long, beautiful fingers. Nora didn’t begrudge Henrik his stylish profile with its elegant, almost classical Greek nose. On the other hand, she thought it was wasted on a man. At least that’s what she used to say in order to cheer herself up, because her own nose was far too short and stubby for her taste. A few strands of grey were visible in Henrik’s dark hair, a reminder that he had recently turned thirty-seven, just as she had.
Her mobile buzzed again.
Nora sighed. Getting up at quarter to eight, Monday to Friday, wasn’t exactly her idea of a holiday, but if you had children on an island like Sandhamn, then those children attended swimming lessons. At the times available.
With a yawn she pulled on her dressing gown and padded into the children’s room. Simon, who was six, was lying in some kind of peculiar position with his bottom in the air and his head buried deep in the pillow. It was hard to believe he could actually breathe like that.
Adam, who had just turned ten, had kicked off the cover and was sprawled diagonally across the bed. His white-blond hair was damp with sweat, curling slightly at the back of his neck.
Both were fast asleep.
Simon’s swimming lesson began at nine o’clock, Adam’s at ten thirty, so she just had time to get home with Simon and make sure Adam had some breakfast before he had to set off.
Perfect timing, in other words.
In spite of everything, she would probably miss the contact with the other mothers and fathers when Simon was also old enough to cycle there on his own. It was very pleasant, sitting by the edge of the pool chatting as the children practised their strokes.
She had in fact attended swimming lessons herself with many of the parents as a child, so she knew most of them. At that time there had been no question of using a heated pool and warming up in the sauna afterwards. They had shivered their way into the water at Fläskberget, the beach on the north side of the island where the swimming school had been until the pool area was built.
She could still remember how incredibly could she’d thought it was. But she had gained her swimming badges in water with a temperature of sixteen degrees; they were still around somewhere. Presumably at her parents’ house, just a few hundred metres away.
Nora went into the bathroom to get ready. As she was brushing her
teeth, she sleepily examined her reflection in the mirror. Tousled, reddish-blonde hair cut in a bob. Snub nose. Grey eyes. A body shaped by plenty of exercise; some might even call it boyish.
She was quite happy with her appearance. For the most part, at any rate. Above all she liked her long, shapely legs, the result of many years of jogging. She found it so easy to think while she was jogging. Her breasts weren’t exactly something to shout about, particularly after two children, but then again you could get push-up bras these days. That helped a bit.
As she showered she thought about all the things that had changed on Sandhamn since she’d been a child going to her swimming lessons. As the summer population had increased, so had the traffic to the island. Now the tourists could take a half-hour flight over the archipelago, and there was a helicopter service flying hungry diners out to the Sailing Club Restaurant. The conference suite, situated in the Royal Swedish Sailing Society’s former clubhouse, built in 1897 in the National Romantic style, was open all the year round. It was also possible to hire kayaks and old-fashioned bikes to travel around the island.
The beautiful people loved coming out to Sandhamn, hobnobbing whenever there was a regatta or international yacht race. The Gucci quota shot up by several hundred per cent, as Henrik would remark with some amusement as the big jetty in front of the club house filled up with elegant women in expensive clothes and middle-aged men who carried both their rotundity and their bulging wallets with an air of authority and assurance.
Some of the residents muttered about the increased traffic and the number of tourists on the island, but the majority, who depended for their survival on the employment opportunities they provided, had a positive attitude to the development.
However, the contrast between the summer months, with two to three
thousand more people staying on the island and a hundred thousand day visitors, and the winter, with its one hundred and twenty residents, could not have been greater.
Despite the fact that Thomas had spent every single summer of his life in the Stockholm archipelago, he still found it incredibly beautiful in the clear morning air.
Travelling to Sandhamn by helicopter was an unexpected privilege. The view from the wide windscreen was matchless. The contours of the islands, strewn across the glittering water, were razor-sharp. It looked as if they were floating on the surface of the sea.
They had flown over Nacka and out towards Fågelbrolandet. Once they had left Grinda behind them and reached the outer archipelago, the character of the landscape altered. The gentler green of the inner archipelago, with its leafy trees and open meadows, changed to rocky islands and skerries with low-growing, windblown pine trees and bare expanses of rock.
When they were level with Runmarö, the characteristic view of Sandhamn opened out in front of them – a closely-packed collection of red and buff-coloured houses, just where the sound between Sandhamn and Telegrafholmen began.
Thomas never tired of the first sight of the familiar outline of the little community out on the edge of the archipelago. It had existed as a post for customs and pilot boats ever since the end of the sixteenth century, through Russian devastation and bitter winters, the arrival of the steamboats, and the isolation of the war years. It was still a living community in the outer archipelago.
Thomas squinted through his sunglasses and looked down.
Motor boats and sailboats were tied up by the wooden jetties, and behind them he could just see the old pilot tower rising up from the highest point on the island. White buoys bobbed out beyond the landing stages, with green and red spots showing the way for both commercial traffic and leisure sailors. It was early in the morning, but the channel was already full of white sails, on their way out into the archipelago.
After only a minute or so they were over Sandhamn. The pilot rounded the elaborate eighteenth-century Customs House, and the helicopter landing stage beside it quickly came into view. With a precise manoeuvre he put the helicopter down in the centre of the marked rectangle, just a few metres away from the quayside.
‘I can wait half an hour or so, then I need to leave,’ said the pilot, looking enquiringly at Thomas.
Thomas looked at his watch and thought for a moment.
‘I shouldn’t think we’ll be finished that quickly. You might as well go. We’ll get back somehow.’
He turned to the two technicians who had lifted their black bags out onto the landing pad.
‘Okay, let’s go. We’re heading for the west beach, north of Koberget. The maritime police are already there. No vehicles are allowed on the island, so we’ve got a nice, brisk walk ahead of us.’
As Nora cycled through the harbour area with Simon on the parcel holder, she could see a police helicopter on the landing pad. On the far side of Ångbåtsbryggan a large police launch had moored in the spot reserved for the doctor’s boat. A policeman wearing the distinctive uniform of the maritime police was standing on the deck. It was unusual to see so many police officers this early in the morning.
Something must have happened.
Nora cycled past the row of small shops, where you could buy your fill of sailing clothes, chandlery and sail-making items, and carried on past the back of the clubhouse. She turned into the harbour and cycled along the narrow track that ran parallel with the mini-golf course up to the enclosed pool area. After parking the bike behind the ice cream kiosk, she lifted Simon down. Holding onto him with one hand and carrying the bag with his swimming gear in the other, she ducked underneath the sign that said CLOSED and went into the swimming school.
In one corner some of the parents were talking agitatedly as the children ran around waiting for the swimming lesson to begin. Nora put the bag down on a sun lounger and went over to the group. She looked enquiringly at them.
‘Has something happened?’
‘Didn’t you see the police helicopter?’ replied one of the other mothers. ‘They’ve found a dead body – it was washed ashore on the west beach.’
‘A dead body?’
‘Yes, tangled up in a fishing net, can you imagine? Apparently it was just below the Åkermarks’ house.’
She pointed over towards one of the mothers, whose son attended swimming lessons at the same time as Simon.
‘They’ve sealed off the entire beach down there. Lotta only just got through on her way here with Oscar.’
‘Was it an accident?’ Nora wondered.
‘No idea. The police wouldn’t say much when she asked them. But it sounds gruesome, doesn’t it?’
‘Is it somebody from the island? Could it have been somebody who was out fishing, and just fell in?’
Nora looked at the rest of the group in horror. One of the fathers spoke.
‘I don’t think anybody really knows. I don’t suppose it was all that easy to see. But Lotta was pretty shaken up when she got here.’
Nora sat down on a bench by the edge of the pool. In the water Simon was hanging on tightly to an orange float as he struggled to kick his legs properly. She tried to shake off the unpleasant feeling, but without success.
Despite herself she could see the image of a person gasping for air as he became more and more inextricably entangled in a net which was slowly dragging him down to the bottom.
The western part of the island was almost unnaturally quiet. No morning breeze disturbed the surface of the water. Even the gulls had given up their usual screaming.
Down on the beach the maritime police had already managed to seal off the area where the body lay. A few curious onlookers were standing behind the police tape in a silent clump, watching.
Thomas greeted his colleagues and walked over to the bundle lying on the ground.
It wasn’t a pretty sight.
The torn fishing net had been partially moved to one side, revealing the remains of something which to all appearances was the body of a man. It was still wearing the remains of a sweater and tattered trousers. It looked as if something had been gnawing at one ear; there were only flakes of skin left.
Around the body, just under the arms, was a looped rope looking somewhat the worse for wear. It looked like an ordinary rope, the kind used to tie up small boats. Strands of green seaweed that had dried in the sun were still hanging from the rope.
The stench in the hot sunshine was almost unbearable, and Thomas instinctively turned away as it wafted over to his nose.
Some things you never got used to.
He quelled the impulse to vomit and walked around the body to look at it from the other side. It was difficult to draw any conclusions about the man’s appearance. Clumps of dark hair were still clinging to the skull, but it wasn’t really possible to make out what he had looked like originally. The face was swollen, the skin waterlogged. The body was blue and spongy; it looked as if it were made of wet clay.
As far as Thomas could judge, the man had been of medium height, somewhere between one metre seventy and one metre eighty. It didn’t look as if he’d been married; the ring finger on his left hand was still there, and there was nothing on it. Then again, a ring could easily have slipped off in the water.
The technicians had opened up their cases and were fully occupied with going over the scene. A middle-aged man was sitting on a rock a little way off. He was leaning back against a tree trunk, his eyes closed. Beside him stood a dachshund, snuffling anxiously. It was the dog owner who had made the gruesome discovery earlier and called the police.
He must have been waiting there for several hours, poor sod, thought Thomas, and went over to the man to introduce himself.
‘Are you the person who found the body?’
The man nodded without saying anything.
‘I’ll need to talk to you. I’m just going to sort something out here, then we can have a chat. Can you stay a little while longer? I know you’ve been here for quite some time, and I really appreciate the fact that you’ve waited for us.’
The man nodded silently.
He looked as if he didn’t feel all that well. Beneath the suntan he was pale, his face almost green. There was an unpleasant smell coming off his shoes.
His morning hadn’t got off to a particularly good start, Thomas reflected before he went back to have a few words with the technicians.
‘Hi Thomas, have you come to visit?’
Nora smiled broadly when she met one of her oldest and closest friends outside Westerberg’s shop on her way back from swimming. Her bike skidded to a halt in the gravel and she lifted Simon up.
‘Look who’s here, Simon,’ she went on. ‘Give your godfather a big hug.’
She had to stretch up high so that Simon could reach. Although she was above average height herself, it was nothing compared with Thomas at one metre ninety-five. On top of that he was well built, his shoulders broad from years of handball training. He looked just like the archetypal policeman, big and reassuring, with blond hair and blue eyes.
‘They ought to use you on recruitment posters for the police training academy,’ she used to tease him.
Thomas’s parents lived on the neighbouring island of Harö, and ever since they had attended the Friends of Sandhamn sailing camp together at the age of nine, Nora and Thomas had been the best summer friends in the whole world.
Every summer they had picked up the threads from the previous year, and despite their parents’ conviction that there was romance in the air, they had remained just good friends, nothing more.
The first time Nora got so drunk she had to throw up, it was Thomas who cleaned her up and got her home without her parents noticing anything. At least they’d never mentioned it. When the great love of his life as a teenager had dumped him, Nora had done her best to console him and let him go on and on about it to his heart’s content. They had spent a whole night sitting on the rocks as he poured his heart out.
When Henrik showed an interest by inviting her to the medical students’ ball, she had rung Thomas to tell him. She had been deeply attracted to Henrik, whose spontaneous charm had hit her with full force. As usual Thomas had listened as she fell in love and prattled on.
When they were fourteen they had spent a whole summer studying for their confirmation with the priest in the chapel on Sandhamn, and both of them had done every summer job on the island: worked in the kiosk, helped out in the bakery, worked on the till at Westerberg’s shop, and in the harbour of the sailing club. They had also danced at the
restaurant, Seglarrestaurangen, until, hot and sweaty, they ended the evening with a night-time dip in the sea below Dansberget as the sun was rising.
Thomas had always wanted to join the police, just as Nora had always wanted to read law. She used to joke that when she became the Minister for Justice, she would make him Chief of Police for the whole of Sweden.
When Adam was born, Nora thought he was the obvious choice for godfather, but Henrik wanted to ask his best friend and his wife. But when Simon was born, Nora insisted that it was Thomas who must be godfather. Thomas was exactly the kind of person you could rely on if anything happened to her or Henrik.
‘I’m here to work,’ said Thomas with a serious expression. ‘Did you hear that a dead body had been found on the other side of the island?’
‘It sounded dreadful. I’ve just been to the swimming school with Simon, and that was the only topic of conversation. What happened?’
She looked anxiously at Thomas.
‘I’ve no idea at this stage. All we know is that it was a man’s body, and it was entangled in an old fishing net. It looked pretty bad, so it must have been in the water for quite some time.’
Nora shuddered in the warm sunshine.
‘Terrible. But it must have been an accident, surely? It’s impossible to believe that anybody could be murdered here on Sandhamn.’
‘We’ll see. The pathologists will have to examine the body before we can draw any conclusions. The man who found it couldn’t tell us much.’
‘He must have been shocked?’
‘Yes, I feel sorry for the poor sod. Nobody expects to find a corpse when they’re out for their morning walk,’ said Thomas with a grimace.
Nora lifted Simon back onto the bike.
‘Can’t you come over when you’ve finished, if you have time? I’m sure you’ve earned a cup of coffee,’ she said persuasively.
‘That doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. I’ll try.’