Authors: Anders de La Motte
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. . . that’s his first lucid thought after he opens his eyes.
He can’t have been unconscious for more than a few seconds, a tiny micropause in his head. But the world seems so strange, so unfamiliar. As if he weren’t quite awake yet.
Blue reflections are dancing around him. In the rearview mirror, bouncing off the concrete walls, the roof, the wet road surface, even off the shiny plastic details of the dashboard.
A car. He’s in the driver’s seat of a car, going through a long tunnel.
The pain catches up with him. He has a vague memory of it from before he blacked out. A brilliant, ice-blue welding arc cutting straight through the left-hand side of his skull and turning his thoughts into thick sludge.
He can even identify the way it smells.
Metal, plastic, electricity.
Something’s happening to his body, something serious, threatening his very existence, but weirdly he doesn’t feel particularly frightened. He tightens his grip on the steering wheel, feels the soft leather against the palms of his hands. A pleasant, reassuring sensation. For a moment he almost gives in to it and lets go, tracing those smooth molecules all the way back into unconsciousness.
Instead he squeezes the wheel as hard as he can and tries to get his aching head to explain what is happening to him.
“Your name is David Sarac, and . . .”
The car is still driving through the tunnel, and one of the many incomprehensible instruments on the dashboard must be telling him that he’s going too fast, way too fast.
He tries to lift his foot from the accelerator pedal but his leg refuses to obey him. In fact he can’t actually feel his legs at all. The pain is growing increasingly intense, yet in an odd way simultaneously more remote. He realizes that his body is in the process of shutting down, abandoning any process that isn’t essential to life support until the meltdown in his head is under control.
“Your name is David Sarac,” he mutters to himself.
Various noises are crackling from the speakers: music, dialing tones, fractured, agitated voices talking over each other.
He looks in the rearview mirror. And for a moment he imagines he can see movement, a dark silhouette. Is there someone sitting in the backseat, someone who could help him?
He tries to open his mouth and sees the silhouette in the mirror do the same. He can see stubble, a tormented but familiar face. He realizes what that means. There’s no one else there, he’s all alone.
The light in the rearview mirror is blinding him, making his eyes water. The voices on the radio are still babbling, louder now—even more agitated.
The shutdown of his body is speeding up. It’s spreading from his legs and up toward his chest.
“Police!” one of the radio voices yells. The word forces its way in and soon fills the whole of his consciousness.
He looks away from the rearview mirror and laboriously turns his head an inch or so. The effort makes him groan with pain.
“Your name is David Sarac.”
Some distance ahead he can see the rear lights of another car. Alongside them is a large warning sign, an obstruction of some sort, and an exit ramp. The rear lights are suddenly glowing bright red.
He ought to turn the wheel, follow the car ahead of him out of the tunnel. His every instinct tells him that would be the sensible thing to do. But the connection to his arms seems to be on the way to shutting down as well, because all he can manage is a brief, jerky movement.
The obstruction is getting closer, a large concrete barrier dividing the two tubes of the tunnel. The reflective signs are shimmering in the glare of the car’s headlights. He tries to look a few seconds into the future and work out whether he’s in danger of a collision. But his brain is no longer working the way it normally does.
The shutdown reaches his face, making his chin drop.
The distance to the barrier is still shrinking.
The word is back, even more insistent this time, and suddenly he realizes why.
the police; the blue lights are coming from his own car.
His name is David Sarac. He’s a police officer. And . . . ?
The pain in his head eases long enough for him to be able to piece together a coherent chain of thought. What is he doing here? Who is he chasing? Or is he the one being chased?
The lights in the rearview mirror are getting closer and closer. Burning into his head.
Fear overwhelms him, sending his pulse racing. The ice-blue pain returns, even stronger this time. His eyelids flutter; all the noise around him fades away into the distance. He tries to remain conscious, fighting the shutdown process. But there’s no longer anything he can do.
A brief jolt shakes the car. But he hardly notices it. The
shutdown process is almost complete and he is more or less unconscious again. Free from pain, fear, and confusion. All that remains is a stubborn, scarcely noticeable signal in his tortured brain. An electrical impulse passing between two nerve cells that refuses to let itself be shut down—not until it’s completed its task.
Just before his car crashes into the concrete barrier, the second before the vehicle goes from being an object with clearly defined parameters to a warped heap of scrap metal, the impulse finally reaches its target. In a single, crystal-clear moment he suddenly remembers everything.
Why he is in this car. What it’s all about.
Faces, names, places, amounts.
The reason why all of them, every last one of them, must die.
All because of him. Because of the secret . . .
An immense feeling of relief courses through his body. Followed by regret.
His name is David Sarac. He is a police officer.
And he’s done something unforgivable.
As a child, Jesper Stenberg sometimes got the feeling he could make time stop. It usually involved Christmas or birthdays. Special occasions he’d been particularly looking forward to. In the midst of everything, when things were at their height, it was as if time would slow down. Giving him the chance to suck every little nuance, every euphoric sensation out of the moment he had been looking forward to for so long, in peace and quiet.
He could still recall those occasions of being utterly in the moment, and could describe them in minute detail thirty years later: the color of his mom’s dress, the smell of his dad’s aftershave, the way the shiny wrapping paper felt beneath his little fingers. It was all fresh in his memory, without the sad patina of pictures in a photograph album.
But the ability suddenly vanished during his early teenage years. For a long time he believed it was because of his parents’ divorce. Unless it was simply because he was growing up and losing his childish perception of time. Whatever the reason, special occasions were never the same after that. Graduation from high school, getting his law degree, his first criminal case, when he proposed to Karolina, even their extravagant wedding. It could all be summarized with just one word: disappointment.
He had worked so hard for those moments. Had longed for them, fantasized about how they would feel, taste, smell. Then, all too quickly, everything was over and all that was left were a few fuzzy memories and a nagging sense of dissatisfaction.
He would persuade himself that it would be different next time. If he could just aim a bit higher and pull the bow a bit
tighter, he’d be able to feel more. When the children were born, his job in the Hague, membership in the Bar Association, the day when he was invited to become the youngest-ever partner in the prestigious law firm of Thorning & Partners.
But there was always the same feeling, the same inability to live in the moment. As if there were some sort of thin filter between him and reality.
He started to take photographs. Deluged his computer with scalpel-sharp digital images, devoting hours to putting together short films of holidays in the sun, gingham-cloth picnics and Astrid Lindgren moments with Karolina and the children. But no matter how good the resolution of the camera, or how many pixels on the screen, he still didn’t feel satisfied. It was as if he had missed something essential in those moments, some tiny, invisible nuance that could make all the difference.
But today everything was different. This was Stenberg’s greatest moment to date, the moment he had been waiting for for years, and he didn’t need to look down at the Patek Philippe watch on his wrist. He knew that the second hand of the precision-made Swiss watch had just stopped, and that this moment would be just as stylized and perfect as he had always dreamed it would be. All his hard work, all his sacrifices were finally about to pay off. The years of drudgery in the public prosecutors’ office: the fraudsters, wife beaters, petty criminals, thieves, and all the rest of the rabble. Then his time in the Hague, admittedly with bigger cases, but where a young prosecutor like him mostly got used as an errand boy. Then the move to Thorning & Partners. High-profile cases, excellent for a young, ambitious defense lawyer who wanted to make a name for himself.
But in spite of the money, the prestigious job, and the increasing media interest in him personally, in spite of the fact that John Thorning had chosen him as his protégé, he had hated being a lawyer. During his first six months there, the first thing he’d do when he got home from the office was have a shower. Changing out of the bespoke suits and expensive
Italian shoes that made such an impeccable impression on television. Scrubbing his skin until it was bright red.
After that he got used to it and adopted a mask, just as Karolina had suggested. A sort of alter ego he could slip into and out of in a fraction of a second. Someone who looked and sounded like Jesper Stenberg, but with whose words and deeds he would prefer not to be associated.
That way he could go on playing the game and keep up appearances. He patiently bided his time, waiting for his moment.
And that was why he intended to squeeze every last millisecond out of it. Fix it to his cerebral cortex so he could remember every single detail, every nuance, even in forty or fifty years when the expanse of time that had seemed so infinite to him as a child was approaching its end.
His senses were wide open, feeding him with details. The grain of the wood on the heavy, dark furniture around the conference table. The thick, red carpet under his shoes. The light from the chandeliers reflecting off the silver coffeepots in the middle of the table. The wafer-thin porcelain of the cup in front of him. Everything was just as he had imagined it. But the most enduring impression was still the way the room smelled. A heavy, sweet smell that overwhelmed him. Almost making him feel slightly aroused.
The smell of power.
At the top of the table sat the boss, in toadlike majesty. His subordinates, including Stenberg’s own father-in-law, crowded the long sides of the table. Suits, Botoxed foreheads, and double chins. Friendly expressions on most of the faces, but naturally not all. After all, he was an outsider, an upstart who hadn’t followed the prescribed path. Someone who could disturb the balance of power.
The men and women around the table were all looking at Stenberg, awaiting his response. He checked his own expression. Humility, with a hint of surprise, he could manage that in his sleep. But an irritating little grin was lurking somewhere,
he could feel it tugging at one corner of his mouth. Hardly surprising, really. He had just been asked the Question. His dreams—no,
dreams—were about to come true, and everything would be different from now on.