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Authors: Kjell Eriksson

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The Cruel Stars of the Night

BOOK: The Cruel Stars of the Night
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The CRUEL STARS of the NIGHT

Also by Kjell Eriksson

The Princess of Burundi

The CRUEL STARS of the NIGHT

Kjell Eriksson

Translated from the Swedish

by Ebba Segerberg

THOMAS DUNNE BOOKS

ST. MARTIN’S MINOTAUR   
   NEW YORK

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

THOMAS DUNNE BOOKS.
An imprint of St. Martin’s Press.

THE CRUEL STARS OF THE NIGHT. Copyright © 2007 by Kjell Eriksson. Translation © 2007 by Ebba Segerberg. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

www.thomasdunnebooks.com
www.minotaurbooks.com

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 
Eriksson, Kjell, 1953–

(Nattens grymma stjärnor. English)

The cruel stars of the night / Kjell Eriksson ; translated by Ebba Segerberg.—1st ed.

p. cm.

ISBN-13: 978-0-312-36667-4

ISBN-10: 0-312-36667-1

I. Segerberg, Ebba. II. Title.

PT9876.15.R5155 N3813 2007

839.73’8—dc22 
2007008353

First published in Sweden under the title
Nattens grymma stjärnor
by Ordfront

First U.S. Edition: May 2007

The CRUEL STARS of the NIGHT

Police Headquarters, Uppsala, September 2003

Has your father shown any signs of depression lately?”

Detective Sergeant Åsa Lantz-Andersson dropped her gaze as soon as she uttered the question. The woman sitting across from her had such a fierce expression on her face that it was hard to look at her. It was as if Laura Hindersten’s eyes nailed her to the wall, saying, I don’t think you will find my father and for this reason: you are a bunch of incompetent bunglers dressed up in uniform.

“No,” she said with determination.

Åsa Lantz-Andersson unconsciously let out a deep sigh. The desk in front of her was overrun with folders and files.

“No signs of anxiety?”

“No, as I said, he was like he always was.”

“And how is that?”

Laura Hindersten gave a short laugh. It was a quick, dry salvo that reminded the officer of a teacher she had had in elementary school, someone who had poisoned the children’s existence. She had emanated pride mixed with embittered exasperation at having to put up with such thickheaded pupils.

“My father is a professor and researcher and devotes all his time to his life’s work.”

“Which is?”

“It would take us too far off track to explain it in detail, but I can summarize it by saying that he is one of the nation’s leading experts on Petrarch.”

Åsa Lantz-Andersson nodded.

“I see,” she said.

Another dry cackle.

“So he left the house on Friday. Had he said anything about his plans for the day?”

“Nothing. As I said, when I came home from work he was gone. No note on the kitchen table, nothing in his calendar. I’ve checked.”

“Are there signs that he has packed, brought things with him?”

“No, not that I can see.”

“His passport?”

“Still there in his desk drawer.”

“Your father is seventy years old. Is he showing any signs of confusion, that he . . . ?”

“If you’re asking if he is senile or crazy, you’re wrong. His intellect is completely intact.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Åsa Lantz-Andersson said. “Is he in the habit of taking walks, and if so, where? The City Forest isn’t so far from your house.”

“He never takes walks.”

“Was there any conflict in the family? Had you had a fight?”

Laura Hindersten sat completely silent, lowered her gaze for a moment, and Åsa Lantz-Andersson thought she muttered something before looking up again. Her voice was ice-cold, free of any attempt to sound agreeable.

“We had a very good relationship, if you can imagine such a thing.”

“And why wouldn’t I be able to do that?”

“Your work can hardly be very inspiring.”

“No, you’re right about that,” Åsa Lantz-Andersson said with a smile. “It’s depressing, banal work, but of course we will do everything we can to locate your father.”

She gathered up her notes, but paused for a moment before getting to her feet.

“Thank you,” she said and held out her hand.

Laura Hindersten remained seated.

“Aren’t you going to . . .”

“Thank you,” Lantz-Andersson repeated. “As I said, we’ll do everything we can.”

“He may be dead, murdered.”

“What makes you think that?”

Laura Hindersten stood up. Her thin body didn’t appear to want to hold her up. She teetered momentarily and Lantz-Andersson put out a hand to steady her.

It’s a front, that haughtiness, she thought, and was suddenly gripped by a pang of conscience and pity.

Laura Hindersten was thirty-five, only a couple of years older than Lantz-Andersson, but she looked older. Maybe it was the clothes she wore, a gray skirt and an old-fashioned hip-length beige coat that gave that impression, for her face was the face of a young woman. There was no gray in the full, dark hair gathered into a ponytail—quite the opposite, in fact. Lantz-Andersson noted with a twinge of envy how shiny her hair was.

Her thin face was pale. The somewhat too-large front teeth led to thoughts of a rabbit especially when she laughed, but many would probably have said that Laura, with her mixture of forceful dark and delicate light, was an attractive woman. The eyes under the strong, dark eyebrows were light blue, and the small ears set close against her head had a classically rounded shape, like little shells.

On the desk, the photograph of her father taken a few years ago showed that Laura had inherited several of her features from him.

“One last question: was there any woman in your father’s life?”

Laura shook her head and left the room without a word. Lantz-Andersson did not think they would find her father alive. Three days had gone by. After the first twenty-four hours you could still be optimistic, after two days the chances were fifty-fifty, but after three days at the end of September, experience told her that all hope was lost.

Lantz-Andersson tried to think past conventional explanations, but gave up. All rational explanations had been tested. Already on Saturday they had gone door-to-door in the neighborhood. A search party had combed the nearby City Forest, without results. The only thing they found, hidden under a spruce, were the stolen goods from a theft on Svea Street.

It was as if Professor Ulrik Hindersten had been swallowed up by the earth. No one had seen him, not his neighbors nor anyone in the few kiosks and shops in the area.

At the literature department, where Hindersten had earlier been an active member but of late had only visited once or twice a month, no one showed any concern over the disappearance. Lantz-Andersson had talked to a former colleague who made no bones about his intense dislike of the retired professor.

“He was a pain,” was how the man summarized his opinion.

The impression from the door-to-door questioning in the area yielded the same weak results. No one actually expressed any regret at the old man’s disappearance.

“The old man must have gotten lost in his own garden,” the nearest neighbor said flippantly.

The latter was a professor of some subject Lantz-Andersson had never heard of, but she gathered it was something to do with physics.

She read through her notes. Ulrik Hindersten had been a widower for about twenty years and had lived alone with his only child during that time. Neither Ulrik nor Laura appeared in the police register nor did they appear to have any debts.

As far as she could tell the household was in good shape financially. Ulrik had a fairly generous pension and Laura’s work yielded a monthly income of more than thirty thousand
kronor.
The mortgage had been paid off long ago.

There were three possibilities, according to Lantz-Andersson. Either Ulrik Hindersten had committed suicide, had lost his way and collapsed due to exhaustion or illness, or he had been murdered, perhaps during an attempted mugging.

If she were going to put money on one of these alternatives she would have to go with the second as the most probable. She shut the folder with the feeling that she would have to wait before finding out whether she had guessed correctly.

One

“Manfred Olsson.”

“Good morning, my name is Ann Lindell, I’m with the Violent Crimes Division at the Uppsala Police. I’m sorry for disturbing you so early.”

She put the phone in her right hand and slipped the cold left hand in her pocket.

“I see, and what is this about?”

Manfred Olsson’s voice was guarded.

“Routine inquiries,” she started, in an unusually passive way.

“Is it about the car?”

“No, why, have you . . .”

“My car was stolen fourteen days ago. Have you found it?”

“It’s not about the car.”

Ann Lindell leaned against the wall. The rising sun warmed her frozen body. She had felt groggy when she woke up and it had not helped to be called out to a blustery front yard on a cold morning at the end of October.

The maple leaves glowed in shades of yellow-red, marred by tiny, black fungal spores, which, woven together, presented an impression both of the unending richness of the plant kingdom, but also of sadness and transience. Scoops of snow were evidence of winter having arrived early this year.

Ola Haver came out of the house, spotted her leaning against the wall, and nodded. He looked tired. He had mentioned something about both kids and his wife, Rebecka, having colds.

Or else it was because he had a hard time enduring the sight of a dead body. Lindell sensed it had to do with the fact that as a teenager Haver had seen his own father collapse at the dinner table—stung in the throat by a bee—and he had died within a few minutes.

“Do you know a Petrus Blomgren?” Lindell continued.

“No, I don’t think so,” Manfred Olsson said. “Should I?”

She heard voices in the background. It sounded as if a TV was on.

“What kind of work do you do?”

“Burglar alarms,” Olsson said curtly. “Why?”

“We found a note with your number on it at the residence of Petrus Blomgren. He must have gotten it somehow.”

Manfred Olsson did not reply.

“You have no explanation?”

“No, as I’ve already said.”

“Are you acquainted with the Jumkil area?”

“No, I wouldn’t say that. I know roughly where it is. What is this all about? I have to get going soon.”

“Where do you work?”

“I work for myself. I’m going to . . . I guess it doesn’t matter.”

No, Lindell thought and smiled in the midst of the misery, it doesn’t matter. Not now and maybe not later.

“Have you been to Jumkil recently?”

“I was there for a wedding once. That was maybe ten years ago.”

“You install alarms, isn’t that right? Have you had any requests for alarms in Jumkil in the last while?”

“No, not that I can remember.”

“Thank you,” Lindell said. “We may be in touch later and have you look at a photograph.”

“He’s dead, isn’t he? That Blomgren man.”

“Yes.”

The conversation came to an end. A sudden gust of wind made the leaves dance at her feet.

“Nothing,” Lindell said to Haver, who had come up to her. “He didn’t know a thing, not about Jumkil and not about Blomgren.”

“We’ve found a letter,” Haver said. “A farewell letter.”

“What? That Blomgren wrote?”

“It appears so.”

Lindell sighed heavily.

“Do you mean he was planning to kill himself and someone beat him to it?”

Haver suddenly started to laugh. Lindell looked at him. One of their colleagues from Patrol looked up. Haver stopped just as quickly.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “but sometimes it’s just too much. You’ve got red on your back. You shouldn’t lean up against walls.”

He started to brush off her light-colored jacket.

“It’s new, isn’t it?”

Lindell nodded. She felt his forceful strokes across her shoulders and back. It was not unpleasant. It warmed her. She had an impulse to punch him playfully but restrained herself.

“There we go,” he said, “that’s a little better.”

Lindell looked out at the surroundings. Here they were out in the field again. Yards, stairwells, basements, apartments, houses. Police tape, spotlights, screens, measuring tape, camera flashes, chalk marks on wooden floors, parquet floors, concrete floors, and asphalt. Voices from colleagues and crackling radio receivers. Footsteps in the darkness, in sunlight, in fall gloom and spring warmth. Objects that had been brought out, hung up, for decoration and joy, memories. Letters, diaries, calendars, notes, and grocery lists. Voices from the past, on videotape and answering machines.

Haver was talking about the letter but he stopped when he noticed her expression.

“Are you listening?”

“I’m sorry,” Lindell said, “my thoughts were elsewhere.”

“The view?”

“Yes, among other things, the view.”

That was the first thing that had struck her. The view.

“He lived in a beautiful place,” she said. “But tell me about the letter.”

“It’s short. A few lines. Somewhat oddly phrased.”

“And Blomgren is the one who wrote it?”

“That remains to be seen,” Haver said, “but I think so.”

“If the murder was supposed to look like suicide it was an extremely sloppy job.”

“Not with blunt trauma to the back of the head,” Haver said and looked in the direction of the shed where Petrus Blomgren had been struck down.

“Fury,” he said. “He is in very bad shape.”

“Maybe it’s Ottosson? Doesn’t he have a summer cabin in this area?”

“Should we take a look?” Haver said and walked toward the hall.

They glanced at the building where the forensic team was working. One of Petrus Blomgren’s legs could be seen through the door opening.

Lindell had already been in the house but had gone outside again to call the number they had found on a piece of paper. Petrus Blomgren had been a man of order, that much was clear. Maybe it’s the number of Eldercare Assistance, Lindell thought, as she and Haver again went into the kitchen. Everything was in its place. No dirty dishes. A coffee cup and saucer, a serrated knife, a bowl, and several serving dishes neatly placed in the drying rack.

There was a saltcellar and a newspaper on the table. The waxed tablecloth was wiped down. A couple of potted plants in the window and a vase with the last flowers of the season, several twigs of goldenrod and orpine.

“Was he signed up to receive Eldercare?” Lindell asked.

“Maybe. It’s nice and tidy, you mean.”

“Yes, for an old man on his own. It normally looks a little different than this.”

“Here’s the letter,” Haver said and pointed to an area of the counter next to the stove.

Lindell was surprised that she hadn’t spotted the white envelope earlier. It was placed next to the coffeemaker, but partly blocked by the bread box.

She leaned forward and read: “It’s fall again. The first snow. The decision is mine. That’s how it’s always been. I have had to make all of my decisions alone. You arrive at a certain point. I am sorry that perhaps I haven’t always handled things as I should have. A final request: I beg you not to chop down the old maple tree. Not yet. Let it stand there until it falls. My grandfather was the one who planted it. It’s not a pretty sight to hang oneself but I don’t see any other choice. It’s over.”

The letter was signed “Petrus Blomgren.”

“Why did he put the letter here and not on the table?” Haver wondered.

“Have you seen the leaf caught in the window?” Lindell asked and pointed. “It’s like a greeting from the maple.”

A yellow leaf had wedged itself into the woodwork of the window. The dark nerves were shaped like an outstretched hand. It wiggled a little in the wind, silently dashed a couple of times against the glass only to peel off and join the thousands of fall tokens whirling around the yard.

Haver looked at her.

“He wanted to die, but for the tree to live,” she said. “That’s strange.”

“Could he have sensed that the killer was waiting for him?”

Lindell shook her head.

“But then he wouldn’t have written like this.”

“The neighbor who called said that Blomgren lived alone, had always done so.”

“Where is she now?”

“At home,” Haver said and indicated a house that could be seen some hundred meters up the road. “Bea is talking to her again.”

“Did she see anything?”

“No, she reacted to the fact that the gate to the road was open. He was apparently very careful to keep it closed. She realized at once that something wasn’t right.”

“A creature of habit.”

“A man of order,” Haver said.

“Who couldn’t get his life in order,” Lindell said and walked over to the window. “How old is the tree?”

“At least a hundred years,” Haver said, a bit impatient with Lindell’s reflective mood, but well aware of the fact that there was no sense in hurrying her. It wouldn’t make any difference to Blomgren anyway.

“Do you think it’s a robbery-homicide?” Lindell asked suddenly. “Was he one of those old men with his dresser drawer full of cash?”

“In that case the thief knew where to look,” Haver said. “The technicians say that nothing appears to be disturbed.”

“Did he know that Blomgren was on his way to the barn? That’s a barn, isn’t it?”

Haver nodded.

“Or was he hiding in there and taken by surprise when the old man walked in with a rope in his hand?”

“We’ll have to check with the neighbor,” Haver said. “She seems to be the kind who keeps tabs.”

They both knew that Beatrice Andersson was the most suited to handle the questioning of the neighbor. If there was anything Bea excelled at, it was talking to older women.

“Who stands to inherit?”

Sammy Nilsson’s question broke the silence that had settled in the kitchen. He had come creeping in without either Haver or Lindell noticing.

Haver didn’t say anything but gave him a look that was difficult to interpret.

“Am I interrupting?” Sammy asked.

“Not at all,” Lindell said.

“Let’s hope for a dead broke, desperate nephew,” Sammy continued. Lindell tried to smile.

“Look over by the bread box,” she said.

Sammy walked over to the kitchen counter and read the good-bye letter in a low mumble.

“I’ll be damned,” he said.

A gust of wind underscored his words. Their gazes turned to the window. Outside a rain of leaves whirled from the tree to the ground. Lindell had the impression that the maple tree had decided to shake off all its leaves on this day.

“Makes you think, doesn’t it?” Sammy Nilsson said.

“I wonder how his thought process went last night,” Haver said.

“We’ll never know,” Sammy said and read the letter one more time.

Lindell slipped away, entering the small room off the kitchen. If she had been forced to guess what it would look like she would have scored a nine out of ten. There was an old sleeper couch with dingy red upholstery, most likely from the thirties, and an armchair of the same color, a TV on a table with a marble top, a couple of chairs surrounding a small pillar table, and a bookcase. On the small sofa in front of the TV there was nothing except the remote control.

It was a very personal room in spite of its predictability. It gave Lindell the feeling of intimacy, perhaps because she sensed that Petrus Blomgren spent his evenings here alone. He must have favored the armchair; it was extremely worn and had threads coming out of the armrests.

She walked over to the bookcase, which was filled mainly with older books. She recognized a few of the titles from her parents’ house. They had a coating of dust. No one had touched these books in a long time.

The left part of the bookshelf had a small cabinet. The key was in the keyhole. She pulled the door open with a pen and on the two shelves inside she saw what she thought was a photo album and a book entitled
The Uppland Horse Breeder’s Association.

Everything looked untouched. If this was a burglary-assault the perpetrator had been exceedingly careful.

“Allan will have to take a look at this,” she said, and turned in the direction of the kitchen. She got up and looked around but could not spot anything out of the ordinary.

“He’ll be here soon,” Sammy Nilsson said.

Haver had left the kitchen. Nilsson was staring out of the window. Lin-dell looked at him from her position diagonally behind him and discovered that he was starting to go bald on the back of the head. He looked unusually thoughtful. Half of his face was illuminated by the soft morning light and Lindell wished she had had a camera. She was gripped by a sudden feeling of tenderness for her colleague.

“What do you think about the new guy, Morgansson?”

“He seems all right,” Lindell said.

Charles Morgansson had been working in Forensics for a couple of weeks. He had joined them from Umeå, where he had been for the past few years. Eskil Ryde, the head of the Forensics Department, had installed Morgansson in the empty cubicle in their division and the northener had made a comment about it being like a row of boxes in the stables and had said little else since then. His reticence had irritated some, aroused the curiosity of others, but all in all the new recruit had acclimated well. This was his first homicide case in Uppsala.

“Have you heard anything of Ryde’s plans?”

“No,” Lindell said, who as recently as the other day had talked to Ryde about his plans of quitting the force and taking early retirement, but this was nothing she wanted to discuss with Sammy Nilsson.

“Anita thought his buns were cute,” Nilsson said.

“Whose buns?”

“Morgansson’s”

“Forget about his buns a while,” Lindell said flatly, “we have an investigation under way.”

“I was just trying to . . .”

“Forget it. Can you take the upstairs? I want to take a look around out there. Tell Allan to go over the TV room.”

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