The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye: Continuing Stieg Larsson's Millennium Series (10 page)

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She had swung a right at Benito’s windpipe with surprising precision, and in rapid succession elbowed her twice in the jaw. Then she took a step to one side, and not only to make room for the fall. She needed to size up the situation. So she watched as Benito collapsed without protecting herself with her hands and smacked into the floor, chin first. Salander heard the crunch of breaking bones. It was better than she had hoped for.

Benito lay motionless on her stomach, her face twisted stiffly into a grimace. She gave no sound, not even of breathing. Nobody would shed fewer tears for Benito than Salander, but her death would be an unlooked-for complication. Besides which, Tine Grönlund was standing there right next to her.

Grönlund was no Benito. She seemed more of a natural follower, someone who needed to be told what to do. But she was tall and sinewy and fast, and her punch had a long reach which was hard to handle, especially when it came from the side, as now. Salander only half parried it. Her ears rang and her cheek burned and she readied herself for another round. But there wasn’t one. Instead of launching an assault, Grönlund simply stared at Benito lying on the floor. Things were not looking good down there.

It was not only the blood coming out of her mouth and running into red, claw-like trickles along the concrete floor. It was her whole twisted body and face. Benito looked like a case for long-term care – if not worse.

“Benito, are you alive?” Tine croaked.

“She’s alive,” Salander said, without being entirely sure.

She had knocked out people before, both in the ring and outside it, and there had almost always been some whimpering or movement pretty much straight away. Now there was nothing, only a silence which seemed amplified by the quivering nervousness in the air.

“What the fuck – she’s completely lifeless,” Tine hissed.

“You’re right, she’s not looking too good,” Salander said.

Tine muttered a threat and looked ready to launch an attack. Then she stormed out, arms flailing. Salander remained impassive and stood her ground, her eyes on Faria. Faria sat on the bed in a blue shirt which was too big for her, arms clasped around her knees, and looked at Salander in bewilderment.

“I’m going to get you out of here,” Salander said.

Palmgren was at home in Liljeholmen in his medical bed. He was thinking about his conversation with Salander. He was sorry that he still couldn’t answer her question. His carer had ignored him and he was feeling too wretched and unwell to find the documents himself. He had pain in his hips and legs and was quite unable to walk, even with his walking frame. He needed help with almost everything and carers came to his home. Most treated him like a five-year-old and did not seem to like their work, or even old people in general. Sometimes, but not often – he had his pride – he regretted having so flatly turned down Salander’s offer to pay for qualified private care. Only the other day he had asked one of them, Marita, who was young and stern and always looked disgusted when she had to get him out of bed, whether she had any children.

“I don’t want to talk about my personal life,” she snapped at him.

So he was suspected of prying when he was only trying to be polite! Old age was degrading, an attack on one’s integrity. That is how he saw it, and just a moment ago, when he needed to be changed, he had been reminded of Gunnar Ekelöf’s poem “They should be ashamed”.

He had not read it since he was a young man. But still he remembered it well, maybe not word for word, but most of it. The poem was about a man – presumably the poet’s alter ego – who wrote what he called a preface to his own death. He wanted his last trace to be a clenched fist rising through a pond of water lilies, words bubbling to the surface.

Palmgren had been feeling so miserable that this poem seemed to offer the only hope left to him – defiance! His condition would undoubtedly worsen, and soon he would be lying in bed like a cabbage, and probably lose his mind as well. All he had to look forward to was death. But that did not mean he had to accept it – that was the message and consolation offered by the poem. He could clench his fist in protest. He could sink to the bottom, proud and rebellious, raging against the pain, the incontinence, the immobility, all the humiliation.

His life was not exclusively misery. He still had friends and above all he had Salander. And Lulu, who would soon arrive to help him find the documents. Lulu was from Somalia. She was tall and beautiful, with long plaited hair. Her expression was so sincere that it gave him back some measure of self-esteem. It was Lulu who had the last shift at night, putting on his morphine plasters and then his nightshirt and bedding him down. Even though she still made mistakes in Swedish, her questions were genuine. And they were not fatuous platitudes in the plural such as: “Are we feeling a little better now?” She asked him for suggestions on what she should study and learn, for stories about what Palmgren himself had done in his life, for his thoughts. She saw him as a human being, not some old carcass with no history.

These days Lulu was one of the highlights in his life, and the only person he had told about Salander and his visit to Flodberga. It had been a nightmare. Just seeing that high prison wall started him trembling. How could they put Salander in a place like that? She had done something fantastic, after all. She had saved a child’s life. Yet she found herself among the worst female offenders in the country. It was plain wrong. And when he saw her in the visitors’ room he was so upset that he had not watched his words as he usually did.

He asked about her dragon tattoo. He had always wondered about it, and indeed he belonged to a generation that had no understanding of tattooing as an art form. Why embellish yourself with something that never goes away, when we constantly change and evolve?

Salander’s answer was short and concise, and yet more than enough. He felt touched by it, and kept babbling on nervously and randomly. He must have got her thinking about her childhood, which was idiotic, especially since he himself hardly knew what he was talking about. What was the matter with him? It was not just down to his age and poor judgement. A few weeks earlier he had had an unexpected visit from a woman called Maj-Britt Torell, a bird-like elderly lady who had once been a secretary to Johannes Caldin, the head of St Stefan’s psychiatric clinic in Uppsala, at the time when Salander had been a patient there. Torell had read newspaper articles about Salander and had decided to go through the boxes of case notes she had taken responsibility for when Caldin died. She was careful to point out that she had never before breached doctor–patient confidentiality. But in this case there were special circumstances, “as you know. It was dreadful how that girl was treated, wasn’t it?” Torell was anxious to hand over the papers, to make the truth known.

Once Palmgren had thanked Torell, said goodbye and read through the notes, despair came over him. It was the same sorry old tale: psychiatrist Peter Teleborian had strapped Salander down in his treatment room and subjected her to serious psychological abuse. There was nothing new in the documents, as far as he could tell, but he might be mistaken. It had taken only a few careless words at the prison to get Salander going. Now she knew that she had been part of a government-sponsored study. She said other children had been involved, both in the generation before her and later. But she had not managed to find the names of the people behind it all. Great efforts appeared to have been made to keep them off the internet and out of all archives.

“Could you take another look and see if you can find anything?” she had said on the telephone. He certainly would, as soon as Lulu came to help him.

A burst of spluttering and spitting could be heard coming from the floor, and even before she could make out any words Faria recognized them as curses and threats. She looked down at Benito. The woman lay with her arms spread wide. No part of her body was moving, not even a finger, nothing apart from her head which she raised a few centimetres off the ground, and her eyes, which stared sideways up at Salander.

“My Keris is pointing at you!”

The voice was so muffled and hoarse that it was barely human. In Faria’s mind, the words flowed together with the blood that trickled from Benito’s mouth.

“The dagger’s pointing at you. You’re dead.”

This was nothing short of a death sentence. For a moment Benito seemed to be recovering some ground, but Salander did not look at all concerned. She said, as if she had hardly been listening, “You’re the one who looks dead.”

Then, Salander was listening out for noises in the corridor and it was as if Benito were no longer a factor. Faria heard heavy, quick steps approaching. Somebody was rushing towards her cell and the next moment voices and swearing could be heard outside, and then: “Out of the fucking way!” The door flew open and Warden Olsen stood on the threshold. He was in his usual blue guard’s shirt, short of breath. He had obviously been running.

“My God, what the hell’s happened here?”

He looked from Benito on the floor to Salander, and then to Faria Kazi on the bed.

“What the
hell
has happened?” he said again.

“Look there on the floor,” Salander said.

Olsen looked down and spotted the stiletto lying in a runnel of blood just by Benito’s right hand.

“What the fuck …?”

“Exactly. Someone got a knife past your metal detector. So what happened is that the staff at a major prison lost control and failed to protect a prisoner under threat.”

“But that … that …” Olsen muttered, beside himself now and pointing at Benito’s jaw.

“It’s what you should have done a long time ago, Alvar.”

Olsen stared at Benito’s smashed-up face.

“My Keris is pointed at you. You’re going to die, Salander, die,” Benito spat, and at that Olsen felt true panic set in. He pressed the alarm on his belt and shouted for back-up, then turned to Salander.

“She’s going to kill you.”

“That’s my problem,” Salander said. “I’ve had worse jerks threaten me.”

“There
is
nobody worse.”

Footsteps could be heard in the corridor. Had those shitheads been nearby all along? It would not surprise him in the least. He felt a violent rage bubble up within him, and he thought about Vilda and the threats; in fact the entire unit, which was a disgrace. He looked at Salander again and remembered her words: what he should have done a long time ago. He knew he needed to do something. He had to recover his dignity. But there was no time. His colleagues, Harriet and Fred, crashed into the cell and stood as if paralysed. They too saw Benito lying on the floor and heard the oaths being uttered, but now it was impossible to make sense of what she was trying to say. Fragments of words, only Ke or Kri, in Benito’s evil rant.

“Oh, shit!” Fred shouted. “Oh, shit!”

Olsen took a step forward and cleared his throat. Only then did Fred look at him. There was fear in his eyes, sweat was beading on his forehead and cheeks.

“Harriet, call the medic,” Olsen said. “Quick,
quick
! And you, Fred …”

He did not know what to say. He wanted to play for time, to assert some authority, but clearly it wasn’t working for him, because Fred interrupted in the same agitated tone:

“What a
fucking
disaster! What happened?”

“Things got very ugly,” Olsen said.

“Did
you
hit her?”

Olsen did not answer, not at first. But then he remembered the chillingly accurate description of the route to Vilda’s classroom. He remembered that Benito had told him the colour of his daughter’s gumboots.

“I …” he said.

He hesitated. Yet he sensed that there was something both terrifying and appealing about the word “I”. He shot a look at Salander. She shook her head, as if she knew exactly what was going through his mind. But no … it was make or break. It felt right.

“I had no choice.”

“For Christ’s sake, this looks horrible. Benito, Benito, are you O.K.?” Fred said. And that was the final straw after months of turning a blind eye.

“Instead of worrying about Benito, why don’t you look after Faria,” Olsen yelled. “We’ve let the whole unit go to shit. Look at the stiletto on the floor! See it? Benito’s smuggled in a goddamn murder weapon, and she was about to attack Faria when I …”

He was groping for words. It was as if all of a sudden he realized the enormity of his lie, and almost in desperation he looked again at Salander, hoping to be rescued. But she was not about to spare him.

“She was going to kill me,” Faria Kazi said from the bed. She pointed to a small cut on her throat and that gave Olsen renewed courage.

“So what was I supposed to do? Just wait and see if it all turned out O.K.?” he growled at Fred. And that felt better, though he was increasingly aware of the risk he was taking.

But it was too late to back out now. Other inmates were gathering in the doorway, some even pushing to get into the cell. The situation was going to get out of hand and there were agitated voices in the corridor. A few were also clapping. A great sense of relief began to spread. One woman shouted for joy and the voices became a buzz, a wall of sound which grew in strength, something like the aftermath of a bloodthirsty boxing match or bullfight.

Yet not all the commotion was joyful. There were also threatening noises, threats to Salander rather than to him, as if a rumour about what had really happened had already got out. He knew he had to act with determination. In a loud voice he announced that the police were to be informed at once. He knew more guards would be on their way from other units, that was standard procedure when the alarm went off, and he wondered whether to lock the prisoners into their cells or if he should wait for reinforcements. He looked at Kazi and told Harriet and Fred that she should be seen by the medical orderlies and a psychologist too. Then he turned to Salander and instructed her to follow him.

They went into the corridor, elbowing past a crowd of prisoners and guards and for a moment he thought the situation might boil over. People were shouting and pulling at them. The unit was on the verge of a riot. It was as if all the tension and exasperation which had been simmering beneath the surface for so long was about to explode. Only with the greatest effort did he manage to escort Salander into her cell and shut the door behind them. Someone started banging on it. His colleagues were shouting for order. His heart was pounding, his mouth was dry and he could not think what to say. Salander was not even looking at him. She just glanced at her desk and ran her fingers through her hair.

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