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Once Bitten

Fan Fiction by Adam Smith (USA)

Chapter 17

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The call came late at home after another long, hard day full of surprises.  He was on the john reading the paper when he heard the muted ring of the phone downstairs.  Halfway through the third ring, there was the faint sound of Flora’s voice.  When she stopped talking, he knew it was for him. 

As he had anticipated, there was a soft knock on the bathroom door.  “Kurt, there’s a call for you.”  He debated asking her to tell whoever it was to call back.

“Who is it?”

“A detective in Norrköping.”

“Norrköping?”

“Yes.  Do you want me to tell him you’ll call back?”

“No--I’m coming.”  He stood, flushed, and washed his hands.  Didn’t bother to get a robe, and went down in his underwear and t-shirt--to hell with what the neighbors might see.

“Kurt Magnusson.  Who’s this?”

“Hi.  This is Detective Lonnqvist.  Sorry to bother you at home, but I was told it would be all right.”

“That’s fine.  How can I help you?”

“I’m responding to a Wanted for Questioning Notice that your department issued earlier today on a Maria Fridell.”

“Yep.  Did you find her?”  He grabbed a pencil and paper he kept by the phone and made a note of the time:22:37.

“Yes—well, we found her body and confirmed her identity with an ID found on the premises.  Down here in an apartment in Hageby.  They’ll be taking her out shortly.  Her sister in Södertälje got an anonymous call earlier this evening, telling her that her sister was dead, and where to find the body.  Then she called us to report it, and we sent some officers to check things out.”

“Any evidence of foul play?”

“Well, I don’t have all the details yet, but doesn’t sound like it.  The apartment was unlocked and barely furnished.  She was found in the tub with an external fracture of the right femur.  And there was a note.”

“What’d it say?”

“I don’t have that yet.”

“Can you get someone to fax it?”

“Will do.”

“Who’s the sister?”

“Lena Bergman.”

“Who’s in charge of the investigation?”

“Inspector Nordin.”

“All right.  What’s his number?”

“Her number.”

Kurt searched his memory as he jotted down the information.  Something he’d read in a departmental newsletter about . . . a year-and-a-half ago?  A promotion.

“Sorry.  Is that Tyra Nordin?”

“Yup.  That’s the one.”

“You planning on speaking with her later tonight?”

“I expect so.”

“You mind telling her I’m driving out, and I’ll be there first thing in the morning?”

“Not a problem.”

“Good.  Thanks very much for the call.”

“I look forward to meeting you, sir.”

Kurt wished he could still hear things like that without wondering what they meant.

Oskar pulled the blanket up a bit more around him, then glanced at Eli over the top of the newspaper they’d bought at the station in Norrköping.  She was sitting on the opposite aisle facing toward the rear of the train, kitty-corner to him, pretending to read the sports section.  There was no one else around, but they didn’t think it would be smart to sit together.  He couldn’t see her face, only the white poof-ball on top of her tobogganer’s hat, joggling a little with the movement of the train.

Are you okay.

The newspaper lowered a little, just enough for him to see her dark eyes, peeking out beneath the edge of her gray hat that was pulled low on her face.

About as good as I can be, I guess.  How about you.

There was a squeak and a metallic clatter as the train entered a bend.  The aluminum trim around his window was loose and it vibrated behind the beige curtains. 

Nervous.  Scared, really.  I’ve never been to Malmö before.  It was cool outside and he had the window cracked a little; the slipstream fluttered the top of his paper.

It’s just another city.  Actually, it’s neat because it’s on the Öresund—you’ll like that.  And if we need to, it will be easy to go into Denmark.  There was a pause, then: I hope you’re not mad about not calling Marta.

No-- I guess not.  I would’ve liked to see her, but I don’t know.  You’re probably right—she wouldn’t have known who we were, and once we told her about Maria, there would’ve been too many questions.

Yeah.  Who knows how she would’ve reacted.

Probably not too good.

Yeah.

So where are we going again once we get there?

About 25 years ago I lived in a little place called Limhamn.  It was near the water and there were these little cottages.  I thought maybe we’d start there.

Find one that’s empty?

If we can, yes.

And if not? 

They looked at one another across the car.  It was only for a few seconds, but to Oskar, it seemed much longer.

I guess we’ll do what we have to do.  We’ll see--maybe we’ll get lucky.

Are you very hungry?

Her eyes searched his.  I’m getting.

He nodded a little, and suddenly wished he could sit next to her and feel her hand in his.  She surprised him when she whispered “me too”; as soft as a cat’s paws, but he heard it, no problem.  He lowered his newspaper a little further and they exchanged smiles.

. . .

Eli finished reading the newspaper for the third time.  Because it could no longer serve as a satisfactory distraction she sighed, folded it, and put it on the empty seat across from her.  Then she pushed up the armrest to her right, swung her legs up onto the adjacent seat, pulled her hat down so it covered the upper half of her face, and curled up with her head on a pillow from the overhead luggage compartment, pretending to be asleep.

An image came to her mind, a recent memory that she had returned to, again and again, since yesterday night: Maria, sitting on the edge of the couch, nervous but trying not to be, with her arm extended down as Eli explained how she was going to make the cut.  The gentleness, the warmth that the three of them had shared as they worked through the process together; all of them wanting the same result, with no one dying for once.  The love that she had expressed for the two of them and that they had keenly felt; a love which had materialized before their eyes as the razor had swiftly done its work and the red freshet of life had sprung forth for them to consume.  It had been like a miracle.

The bitter disappointment remained in the center of her chest like a heavy weight, and she knew it would not be leaving anytime soon.  To be cheated out of the glimmer of hope for a better life that Maria had represented by the one who had ruined her life to begin with—it was the hardest thing.  And it never would have happened if they hadn’t agreed to let Maria scout out Djurön in advance.

Her inner voice assumed an outraged quality.  But how could they have known?--there was no way they could have.  The only thing that was supposed to’ve happened was for Maria to talk to some of the locals and gather information, do some of the things that it would’ve been hard to do at night.  Instead, she had wound up meeting the worst thing of all.  Maria--the one who’d been the kindest, most understanding grown-up that Eli could ever remember--meeting the worst creature imaginable.  Of course she’d become yet another of his victims—it could not have been otherwise.

Her slaying of the vampire lord was no recompense, did not make up for their loss.  It brought no satisfaction, represented nothing because he was supposed to have been dead in the first place.  Why had those foolish people let him live?  Hadn’t they known he’d find a way out?

She resisted the urge to begin crying again, and was able to control it.  She was beyond crying—burnt out, a hollow shell.  There was no question in her mind anymore: God really was against them—against her.  The snatching away of Maria proved it beyond a doubt to any reasoning mind.  He hated her, had cursed her, and would not tolerate her having a smidgen of happiness.  She was not allowed to hope for a better life, one in which the burden of killing other people was lifted.  If it had not been clear before, now it was—that was forever forbidden to her.  And to Oskar, as well.

Oskar’s face floated up in the darkness behind her closed eyes.  The one thing she had left, the one person to live for.  She would never allow God to take Oskar away from her.  Never.

She heard a creak and shuffling sound, and instantly recognized that it came from Oskar’s side of the car.  He was probably getting comfortable, too, she supposed.  Then, suddenly, she felt his blanket being laid over her.  And before she had time to lift her hat, she felt his lips on hers, giving her a soft kiss.

Martin yawned and put on his turn signal before swinging the Volvo into the adjacent lane to pass a truck.  He glanced over a Kurt, who was rereading the fax he’d gotten with the little passenger-side map light, and surpressed a chuckle.

He’s got his tie on.  It’s almost midnight, it’s just the two of us, and he’s wearing his tie.  How old school can you get?  He shook his head.  Then he picked up the styrofoam cup from between his legs and had a swig of coffee, wishing it was still hot.

They sped south through the night on E4/E20, headed toward Norrköping, the congestion around Stockholm finally behind them.  Martin glanced out the window at the seemingly endless series of pine trees steadily passing by.  The August sky was dark and clear, and the stars twinkled brightly.  A beautiful night.

“You know anybody who lives in Norrköping, Kurt?”

He didn’t look up from his reading.  “Nope—but I’ve visited it a few times with Flora.  You?”

“Huh uh.” 

Finally, Kurt lowered the paper and looked at Martin.  “You know, I don’t think I thanked you yet for all the work you’ve done over the last few days.  I think you’ve managed to get us back on the trail.”

“Thanks.”  Compliments from the old man were not a daily occurrence, so when they came he knew they meant something.  “But finding that hooker who knew Aguilar, Fransson, and Fridell was just a lucky break for us, I think.  As was discovering that the brother’s car had been towed from Fridell’s apartment the morning after Fransson was killed and was sitting right in our own impound lot.”  He smiled at the irony and shook his head.  Left hand, right hand—did they even know each other?  Then he added, “I wonder if he’ll wash up at some point.”

“That’s a good question.  I guess we’ll find out.”

“You think that really was her who called Bergman?  And wrote that note?”

“I think it’s a good possibility.”

“And that she killed Fransson.”

“Yup.”

“Mmm.  That’s just bizarre in the extreme, you know what I mean?” 

“Sure is.  I think Fransson was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  She wasn’t killed like the others; she was just . . . taken out of the picture.”

“I think you’re right.  But the concept of a person being pitched against a building like a ball . . . I mean, what’re we dealing with, Kurt?  This girl, or—thing, or whatever she or it is, has left a trail of bodies unlike anything in the history of this country.”

“Got that right.  Whatever she is, she’s dangerous as hell.” 

“Yeah.  I mean, these guys—the Aguilar brothers—they were no wimps.  Not the kind of people I’d think would be easy to take down, and maybe even armed to boot.  Yet the one who floated up—Miguel--he was killed just like all the others.”

“Martin, the problem is that these people aren’t suspecting any trouble before it happens.  They don’t understand what they’re dealing with.  If they did, they’d turn and run at the first sight of her.  And once she gets close, it’s too late.  If half the stuff in our file is right, including our theory about how Fransson died, she’s amazingly strong.  She could toss you or I around like a soccer ball.  Break our necks like that.”  He snapped his fingers.

Martin nodded, but although he understood what Kurt was saying on an intellectual level, it still wasn’t in his gut where it needed to be; hadn’t sunk down into him to the level of real knowledge.  He supposed it was because it was just too fantastic, even for him at the epicenter of the investigation.  It was too difficult to believe that something that looked like a nice little girl could do these kinds of things.  He wanted to keep that knowledge at arm’s length, because to truly embrace it would mean he’d have to accept a fundamental shift in his understanding of the world and of mankind.  And his inability to truly grasp what they were dealing with scared him.  It scared him because he was smart enough to know that when the chips were down, he wasn’t going to have time for reflection--he was going to need his brain in gear, and act.  If he didn’t . . . .

“Do you suppose a bullet will kill her, Kurt?”

“Who knows?  I guess that you and I had better hope it does.  Because unless she decides to cooperate with an arrest, which I can’t foresee, I don’t know what else we’ll have at our disposal.”

Martin glanced over at the thin sheet of curled paper in Kurt’s hand.  “I have to tell you, I’m not sure that’s from her.  That sure doesn’t look like something a stone cold killer would write.”

“I agree.”  Kurt held it up once more, trying to see it better in the weak overhead light.  “You know, I’ve never seen handwriting like this before.  All caps, printed neatly, but—”

“—old.”  Martin felt a shiver as he said the word.  One little word that covered an awful lot of ground.

“Yeah.  It looks like it was lifted out of a book of ancient manuscripts or something.”

“It feels weird to be talking about this, but how old do you suppose this thing is, Kurt?  I mean, if she really is a . . . .”

“I have no idea.  Could be centuries, I guess.  Did you notice that ‘us’ is used four times, and ‘we’ is used five times?”

“Yeah.  You think Eriksson is with her?”

“Who else would be?  She saved his life, didn’t she?”

Martin smiled.  “I guess that’s one interpretation.”

“Really.  Can you think of another?”

Martin pondered the question for awhile.  “No.”

Kurt turned a bit in his seat to face Martin, took off his glasses, and began to polish them with his tie.  “Who do you think this person really is, Martin?  Have you stopped to think about that?  You know as much about her as I do.  I mean, look at this note.  ‘She was like a mom to us.  We loved her very very much.’  It’s not exactly the sort of thing you’d imagine Count Dracula writing.”

“I don’t know, Kurt.  I mean, we’re assuming she wrote that, for starters.”

“True—but just assume it for argument’s sake.  Two days ago I went through the same thing you’re struggling with right now.  Who is this person we’re dealing with: is she a ‘she,’ or an ‘it’?  And the more I thought about it, the more I concluded that this really is a person, and not only that, but that this person really is a little girl.”

“Hmm.  I--”

“And you know what?  When I talked to Flora about it, she had no problem with the concept.  In fact, she went so far as to say that this girl-slash-vampire had fallen in love with this Eriksson boy.  Because they lived next to each other over in Blackeberg, before all hell broke loose.  And you know what?  I think this note proves she’s right.”

Martin glanced at Kurt, his eyebrows raised.  “How so?”

“It proves that this thing we’re dealing with had some sort of relationship with the Fridell woman that didn’t involve her instantly dying, that’s what I mean.  And not only that, that somehow this . . . vampire began to view Fridell as a mother.  So that tells you—”

“Tells you what?”

“. . . that we’re dealing with a child.  A little girl.  She’s somehow a little girl and a blood-sucking monster, all rolled into one.  How that can be, I don’t know.  But that’s what I think is going on.”

Sunday, August 14, 1983 – 2:08 a.m.    Central Station, Malmö

The lights inside the car, which had been turned down so passengers could sleep, flickered back on brightly, momentarily hurting their eyes as the conductor announced their arrival in Malmö.  A few minutes passed and then the train lurched to a final stop after its last, slow crawl into the station.

They disembarked separately; first Eli, then Oskar.  Before leaving Norrköping they had decided, with considerable regret, to consign Eli’s old steamer trunk to a garbage dumpster, and so they took with them only Eli’s money and toys, Oskar’s album, and whatever clothes they could cram into their suitcases. 

Eli walked up the chilly platform about a car length, found a shadowy spot and paused, turning slightly to wait for Oskar while a handful of bleary-eyed people passed by.  Once she saw him step down from the train, she turned around and kept walking toward the main hall. 

She wasn’t sure whether to be happy or unhappy that the station wasn’t too busy at this time of the night.  If it had been crowded, she and Oskar could’ve blended in better, but the risk of being spotted could’ve been higher.  But as it was, with few people, they stuck out more—young kids without parents.

They proceeded without incident through the main hall with its old-fashioned steel arches.  The restaurants and shops were all closed and dark.  Then they went outside through the main entrance, turned left, and proceeded down under the covered walkway to the bus stop, the little plastic wheels of their suitcases clicking as they passed over the cracks between the sidewalks.  They plopped down on different park benches and waited in the cold night air for a bus to take them to Limhamn.

Eli stole a glance over at Oskar.  He sat in his brown coat and brown and orange-striped hat, looking around with big eyes at the unfamiliar buildings and streets laid out before them.  A car honked off to their right on Norra Vallgatan, and instantly his head swiveled over to see.  Some Swedish flags flapped near a little pavilion across the canal, and soon his attention was drawn to them.  Despite their circumstances, Eli smiled to herself--some things hadn’t changed.  Then she frowned.  Why hadn’t they gotten him some different winter clothes?

When he pulled out his Rubik’s Cube and began to work on it, she stopped looking at him and started scanning around herself, especially to their left, where she presumed the buses would come.  Soon a big bus rumbled up, but it wasn’t going to Limhamn.  It stood for about a minute with its doors open, and then left.

A thin old man approached with a little kid in tow, smiled at Eli, and then sat down on the bench next to her.  The kid was about three years old, and had a hat with a long tail on it.  The man held the boy on his lap and played patty-cake with him.  Then the boy caught sight of Oskar’s cube and began pointing at it, saying “me want.”  He struggled to get off his grandfather’s lap, but the man wouldn’t let him.  Oskar glanced over at them with an open expression, unsure of what to do; then quietly slipped the cube back into his coat pocket.  The child began to cry, and the man tried to console him with a toy he produced from his own pocket.

There was a sound of breaking glass on the far side of the street, followed by drunken laughter.  A small group of young men had rounded the corner of Bruksgatan onto Norra Vallgatan and were strolling down the street, talking loudly and laughing.  A dark blue car moving in the same direction slowed as it passed them, and someone in it yelled an expletive.  One of the men yelled back and threw a bottle at the car, but the driver sped up with a squeal of tires, and the bottle missed.  Surprisingly, the bottle didn’t break, instead clattering loudly across the pavement before rolling to a stop in the gutter.

When the men reached the corner of Norra Vallgatan and Hamngatan off to Eli’s right, a police car came into view.  As it pulled up to them its flashing lights came on, but not the siren.  It stopped and two officers got out, stepped up onto the sidewalk, and began talking to them.

Eli glanced over at Oskar again.  Now he stood with his back to Norra Vallgatan, apparently studying the facade of the train station in earnest.

She felt as though she was being watched, and when she looked back to see if another bus was coming, she realized that the little boy was staring intently at her, his face expressionless, mouthing some brightly colored plastic keys.  He had settled down, and except for the movement of his jaw, was now was completely still.  His grandfather was watching the action across the street, and hadn’t noticed.  She wanted to move to another bench, but knew it would be a bad idea, so instead she smiled at the boy and waved her hand a little.  He didn’t smile back.

Much to Eli’s relief, at last their bus came.  As they boarded they looked down at the steps, not up at the driver, and they didn’t reply when he gave them an offhand greeting.  They found some empty benches toward the rear. 

Only after she had sat down with her luggage beside her did Eli see herself and Oskar plastered on the interior wall of the bus, up by the driver.  She sat with shocked stillness, staring at the grainy images—a photograph of Oskar, an artist’s sketch of her.  Not a bad sketch, either.  When had someone seen her?  She searched her memory, but everything seemed to blur together.  Oskar didn’t look dangerous—he was actually smiling--but her?  Her eyes looked empty; a pretty face, but . . . soulless.  Not someone who cared about very much.

At the top of the flyer, written in large, capital letters, was “WANTED FUGITIVES,” and below that, in slightly smaller letters, was “MULTIPLE MURDERS.”  Beneath each picture was their physical description.  At the bottom, immediately below “CAUTION,” was written “THESE INDIVIDUALS ARE SOUGHT IN CONNECTION A SERIES OF BRUTAL MURDERS AND ARE CONSIDERED EXTREMELY DANGEROUS.  If you have any information concerning these persons, please notify your local police department.”

She glanced over at Oskar, one row forward on the other side of the bus.  He was staring, open-mouthed, at the sign.  Then he slowly turned his head around to look at her, closed his mouth, and slouched down, sinking out of sight behind the back of his chair.  Eli did the same.

It was three o’clock in the morning when they got off through the back door and stood alongside Limhamnsvägen by the bus stop shelter.   The door hissed closed with a thump and then the bus pulled away, its diesel fading into the distance, leaving them under the orange streetlamps.

Up and down the tree-lined road neither cars nor people could be seen.  Behind them a reddish-brick wall ran as far as they could see in both directions, enclosing a community of attached, single-family homes.  On the other side of the road there was a tall, scraggly boxwood hedge, behind which some smokestacks and the roof of an old warehouse jutted up.   Unseen behind the hedge they heard the squeak and rumble of a slow-moving freight train.  A lonely whistle rose up about half a kilometer away.

Oskar looked around, his face drawn and tired.  “Where do we go now?” 

“I’m not certain we’ll have enough time to go looking for an empty house tonight.  What do you think?”

“I dunno.  What time will the sun come up?”

“It was up around 5:30 the other night.”

He pulled up the sleeve of his jacket and peered at his watch, which he noticed, for the first time, had a deep scratch across its face.  “It’s a little after three, so . . . probably in a couple of hours?”

“Let’s see if we can find a hiding place on the other side of that hedge to put our luggage and sleep.  Then if we feel up to it, we’ll do some scouting around, okay?”

“Okay.”

They trotted across the street and then moved along the hedge until they found a spot that was thin enough to push through.  They were tempted to fly over, but since neither of them knew what lay on the opposite side, they didn’t dare.

Eli peeked out of the bushes with Oskar crouched right behind her, his voice an anxious whisper.  “You see anything?”

“Just that train and a couple of warehouses.  With some trees beyond.”

“Okay.  You go on through and I’ll push the suitcases out to you.”

As they got the second suitcase through, he asked her whether she recognized anything.

“Not really.  Those homes across the road must be new; I don’t remember them.  But these train tracks have been here a long time.”

They hunkered down in the shadows for a few seconds, looking around while they waited for the train to roll by. 

“How long did you live here, Eli?”

“Not long—maybe about a month or so.”

“Mmm.”  Oskar nodded.  “Did you have someone to help you back then?”

“A guy named Ake.”

“How’d you meet him?”

“I don’t really remember.”

“Was he with you long?  What happened to him?”

“I woke up one night and he was gone.”

“Oh.  Why’d he leave?”

“He couldn’t take it anymore, I guess.”

“Never saw him again, huh?”

“No, I found him.”

Their eyes met.  Don’t ask, Oskar.  Please.

He squeezed her hand.  Okay.

When the train had finally passed they ran across a series of tracks and around the short end of the biggest warehouse, where they paused by a large, partially enclosed loading dock that extended out from the main building.

Oskar peered under the elevated wooden floor into the darkness that surrounded the support posts.  “How about under there?”

Eli looked.  “I don’t know.  It does go back a ways, but I’m not sure this place is abandoned.  It looks old, but . . . .”

“Yeah, I think you’re right—someone’s been here recently.  We’d better look somewhere else.”

Behind the warehouse, near the line of trees, they saw a spur track with a couple of old traincars on it.  Quickly they moved over to them and walked around, inspecting the cars carefully.

“They must be old streetcars.”

Oskar’s mood improved a little.  “Yeah.  They might work, huh?”

“I don’t think so, Oskar . . . too much glass.”

Oskar’s mouth twitched with disappointment.  “Yeah, you’re right.”

“Let’s see what’s behind the trees.”

They moved through a thin strand of trees that opened into a scrubby field.  Off to their left they saw some sort of industrial complex with one of the smokestacks they’d seen earlier.  Soon they came to a chain link fence.  On the other side was the back of a large parking lot, lined with old trucks and other heavy equipment.

Oskar put his hands up on the fence, grabbing the wire with his fingers, and looked around.  “I don’t know—it doesn’t look very promising.”

“You’re right; it doesn’t.”  She dropped the end of her suitcase dejectedly.

“Wait a minute—what about that?”

He pointed and together they stared at an old milk tanker that was sandwiched in between a couple of rusting trailers.  It obviously hadn’t moved in some time, given its nearly flat tires and flaking paint.  It had a cabover design like something from the 1940’s or ’50’s, and the window glass was cracked and milky.  On the side of the tank was a ladder that ran up to a hatch on the top.

She looked at him incredulously.  “In there?”

“Uh huh.  Let’s check it out.”

They looked around, didn’t see anyone, and then flew with their suitcases over the fence.  There turned out to be a ladder on both sides of the tank, so both of them dropped their luggage and clambered up to the top.

“Wow.  Check out this lid,” Oskar remarked, running his hands over the heavy, cast iron locking wheel.  He pulled, but it didn’t budge.

“Twist it.”

Together they grabbed the wheel and turned it counter-clockwise.  After a few squeaky turns there was a faint crackling sound as the desiccated rubber seal loosened from the seating ring.

“Pull.”

The lid came up, and they were rewarded with a puff of stale air.  When they looked in they saw that the interior, like the exterior, was constructed of stainless steel.  A series of baffles divided the tank into five compartments, but they did not extend all the way up.  It was very clean and dry inside.

Oskar dropped down in; Eli followed.  She could stand completely upright in the middle, but Oskar had to duck a little.

He looked at her.  “What do you think?”

She sighed and gave him a half-smile.  “I think it’s good.  About as good as we can hope for right now, I guess.”

She looked up at the hatch.  “What’ll we do about our suitcases?  They won’t fit through there.”

Oskar thought for a minute.  “Well, we could put them up in the cab, or . . . wait a minute.  Let’s just empty them out and then fold them up a little.  Then I bet we could get them through there.”

After several minutes of effort, they finally had everything inside.  They spread their extra clothes out in the bottom of the compartment furthest to the front, followed by their winter coats, making a makeshift bed.

Oskar checked his watch again.  “It’s a quarter to four.  What do you want to do?”

“I think I’d just as soon stay here.  How about you?”

“Fine with me.  It’s been a long day, what with the train and all.”

“Do you want to go back out and look around a little?”

“No--not unless you do.”

“Huh uh.”

“Okay.  Well, I’ll close the lid then.”  He drifted up to the hatch, grabbed the lid, and lowered it into place.

“Wow.  It really is dark in here,” he remarked.

“It sure is.  Can you see anything?”

“Nope.”

“Oskar . . . come here.”

He turned, felt with his hands in the pitch blackness to find the baffles, and traversed first one, and then the next.  When he clambered over the second one, he stepped on something soft, but hard underneath.

“Oops.  Is that you?”

“Yeah.  You’re standing on my ankle.”

“Oh.  Sorry.”  He moved his foot; felt himself blush.

“It’s okay.  Can you come under here with me?”

He didn’t reply, merely sunk to his hands and knees, feeling for her in the darkness.  He slid under the loose clothing and jackets and into Eli’s embrace.  They wiggled around a bit until at last he was lying on his back with her next to him, her head resting on his shoulder.  She lifted her head, and then he felt a kiss on his cheek.

“I’ve been waiting for this all day.  It was hard, being separated from you on the train.”

“I know.  Do you feel safe in here?”

“Yes.  I don’t think anyone will bother us.”

“That poster on the bus scared me, Eli.  They’re really out to get us, aren’t they?”

“I guess so.”

“What’re we going to do?”

“I don’t know.”

They were quiet for a time.  He touched her hair; ran his fingers gently through it, then down over the back of her shirt.  Turned his head a little, and kissed the top of her head.  She made a soft murmuring sound and her hand tightened on his upper arm, drawing herself closer to him.  He heard her swallow, then felt her breathing slow.

He thought about where they were--inside an old milk truck, in some industrial parking lot, in a city he’d never been to before.  They hadn’t even been in Norrköping a week before they’d had to move.  They had talked about staying—they had the lease—but that would’ve meant finding some other way to deal with Maria’s body.  They’d both agreed that there was no good way to get her to her sister’s home in Södertälje, which was over 100 kilometers to the northeast.  And they didn’t just want to dump her somewhere, either.  So, they had reluctantly agreed that it would be best to leave her there and move to Malmö, since going back to Stockholm so soon was too risky.

He was finally beginning to understand what life with Eli really meant: being on the lam.  Three times in less than a year, from one place to the next.  At the time, he hadn’t thought much about their escape from Blackeberg; it had all been new and exciting, to be striking out with Eli, so beautiful and amazing, after the thing at the pool.  And when they’d moved from Tensta in Stockholm to Norrköping, they’d had Maria along, and the move had had a purpose: to find the vampire’s castle.  Then they’d barely settled in Norrköping before they had to move again, apparently with the police hot on their tails.  Their move to Malmö had just been to escape, forced by their circumstances.  Would it always be this way?  Why wouldn’t it?  It wasn’t like the police would just forget about them.  Even if they went away and slept for a long time, they’d still wake up hungry, and have to start the whole process over again.

His thoughts returned to their conversation in Tyresta, after they’d killed that camper guy.  He had wanted answers; had wanted to find a way to undo themselves.  Eli had agreed, but that really hadn’t panned out, had it?  Maria had been a lucky break, but in truth, how long could she have held out against their needs?  He didn’t know, but even when he’d licked the last few drops off her forearm, he had been worried that it wouldn’t be long.  Eli had probably been right about that.

Was there anything else they could do to avoid killing people?  He didn’t know.

He sighed and hugged her tighter.  Eli, Eli . . . what are we doing?  Where are we going?

Sunday, August 14, 1983 – 9:07 a.m. Norrköping

Inspector Tyra Nordin was shorter than Martin had expected—short and feisty-looking.  They met her after roll call.  She strode briskly up to the two of them where they waited in the hallway, and vigorously shook first Kurt’s hand, and then Martin’s.

“Detective Magnusson--Lieutenant Lundgren.  I’m Tyra Nordin.  How can I help you?”

She wore her full navy blue uniform, neatly pressed, and her short, black hair was mostly hidden under her gold-embroidered cap.  Her dark brown eyes regarded them with quiet intensity, looking up directly at their faces.

Martin resisted the urge to roll his eyes.  She’s all business.  Would she be the typical newbie detective—everything by the book? 

He looked in her face for the smallest hint of an attitude about their report on the Christensen killing, but saw none.  If she had any views about supernatural killers, she was keeping them to herself.

Kurt offered her a warm, disarming smile, and made no effort to return her handshake with equal forcefulness.  “Inspector Nordin, it’s a pleasure to meet you.  We have reason to believe that the death of Maria Fridell may be related to a series of murders we’re investigating in Stockholm.  We’d like to see the body and her apartment, and talk with you regarding the status of the investigation.  I may also want to speak with her sister, Lena Bergman.”

“All right.  The autopsy hasn’t been done yet, but the body is downstairs and you’re welcome to look at it.  Her purse and the other evidence gathered at the scene are in the evidence locker, and I’m happy to let you examine those items.  I spoke with Ms. Bergman last night, and it’s my understanding that she is driving down from Södertälje to make arrangements to have the body transported back there for the funeral.  Depending on when she gets here, you can either speak with her first, or go to the apartment; that’s up to you.”

Kurt nodded.  “Excellent.”

As Martin waited for Nordin to board the elevator first, the reptilian part of his mind glanced at her backside.  She wasn’t slender, but she wasn’t overweight, either; she was more or less straight up and down, as if she had no hips—not particularly attractive.

After they got on, Nordin seemed to lose some of her stiffness.  She looked from the glowing floor numbers over the door to them and asked, “I read your report.  Why do you think Fridell has some relationship to the Christensen slaying?”

Martin spoke up, explaining how Fridell had been a prostitute, working for the Aguilars; how Miguel Aguilar, whose manner of death closely resembled Christensen’s, was last known to be alive headed for Fridell’s apartment in Sundbyberg; and how, on the same day, Estella Fransson, Rafael Aguilar’s girlfriend, had been brutally killed just a few blocks from Fridell’s apartment.  He also related how Fridell’s fingerprints had been found on the steering wheel of Aguilar’s Porsche, found abandoned in Rikeby two days ago, and how Rafael Aguilar’s vehicle had been impounded on August 5 in front of Fridell’s apartment—and that Rafael was missing, too.

She raised her eyebrows as the doors opened, admitting the familiar, antiseptic smell that everyone in the elevator immediately associated with cadavers.  “Hmm.  Sounds like you’ve got good reason to believe there’s a connection.”

With a heavy, metallic click, the orderly unlatched the stainless steel door, releasing an invisible plume of frigid air.  Then he grabbed a handle, lifted it, and pulled.  The metal slab under Maria’s body rolled out smoothly on the steel casters.

“Here you go.  Make sure that door is latched nice and tight when you leave, all right?”

“Sure.  Thanks.”  She pulled the blue sheet down and off the body, and all of them stared in silence for a brief time.

Martin had seen more than his share of dead bodies during his career, but never got used to it.  Some folks, especially the pathologists, could get fairly callous when it came to dealing with them, but not him.  He always found himself thinking about the person who once lived in the bodies he saw, imagining what they might have been like while they were alive.  This girl . . . he felt a tightness in his throat.

“She was very pretty.”  He said it softly, his tone somber.

Kurt, who was standing on the other side of the rack, glanced up at him.  “Yes.”  He stepped to his right a little, so that he was closer to her legs.  “Give me a hand, will you, Martin?  I want to roll her toward you a little bit so I can get a better look at that leg.”

Martin reached across, grabbed the body by the opposite hip, and pulled as Kurt pushed up from his side.  Kurt bent down so he could look underneath.  He whistled.  “Mmm.  That’s a nasty fracture--must’ve been painful as hell.  Wonder how she did that?”

“Must’ve been some sort of blunt trauma,” Nordin offered.  “Force applied directly to the front of the leg, to displace the bone backward like that in mid-shaft.”

He studied the skin on her legs carefully, starting from her hips all the way down to her feet.  “Huh.”

Nordin spoke.  “See something interesting?”

“Yeah—a couple of things, actually.  One, there’s some ligature marks above and below the fracture, indicating that something was tied around the circumference of the leg in both locations.  Do you see them?”

Nordin stepped from her position at Maria’s head around to Kurt’s side and looked.  “Yes.”

“Was anything found on the body?”

“No.  She was laying under a blanket in the tub, naked.”

“Was there much blood at the scene?”

“Almost none.”

“Well, that’s consistent with the other thing I see.  There’s very little hypostasis in the buttocks or the backs of her thighs.  She probably bled out somewhere else and her body was brought back to the apartment.”

“Kurt, take a look at her arm.”

“Yeah, I was getting to that.  Hang on a sec, though.  Take it one step at a time.”  He looked carefully at her feet, then came back up, trying to scan every square centimeter of her skin.  Only after his eyes had swept across her torso and chest did they come back down her right arm, which was closest to him.  Once again, he stooped down, this time trying to see the underside of her arm.

“Grab her shoulder, will you, Martin?”  He complied, and Kurt lifted the stiff, white appendage a little.

“She’s got a pretty severe puncture wound back here.  I’d be interested in knowing if that opened up the basilic vein or the brachial artery.” 

“We’ll let you know.”
“And she had something tied up here, too, just under her armpit.”

He straightened up and looked at Martin.  “That thing under there had to have bled quite a bit, but I don’t see much blood on the skin.  She must’ve been washed or cleaned up, somehow.  Let’s remember to swab the inside of the tub’s drain for blood.”

Martin let the shoulder down and Kurt turned the arm over so he could see the crook of the elbow with its the small, purple discoloration.  “Now this is very interesting.”

Nordin looked around Kurt’s shoulder.  “Cephalic vein was opened.”

“Yep--and not accidentally, either.  You see that?”  He pointed at some patches of reddish discoloration on either side of the mark.  “There was a bandage over that at some point not too long before she died.”

Nordin ran her finger over the clean, closed cut.  “Maybe she donated at the Red Cross, or for one of the local hospitals.  Although, being a prostitute, I’m not sure . . . .”

Kurt paused, glanced at Nordin.  “We’ll need to check into that, for sure.  But maybe it was a . . . private donation.”  He looked directly at Martin; caught his eye.

“We’ll check it out for you.”

He continued to scan down her arm.  Martin spoke up.  “I don’t see any evidence of trauma to her left arm.  But there’s quite a bit of dirt or something under her nails.”

“Yeah.  Her fingernails look pretty rough.  Broken.”

“That’s a bit surprising for a woman who workd as a prostitute and was also enrolled in college,” Nordin observed. 

“I agree, especially when you consider how nice her toenails look.  She was someplace, or doing something, that was out of the ordinary for her, I’d say.”

Kurt examined the neck very carefully, but saw nothing abnormal.  When they had finished looking at her head, Nordin rolled the body back into the cooler.

“I’d like to see the autopsy report on her as soon as possible.”

“Not a problem.”

“I’d like to see what you recovered from the scene now, before we go out and look at the apartment.”

“All right.  We need to go back upstairs.”

“So she was taking a weekend tour of Norrköping, huh?”  Martin spoke in half-jest as he put the little paperback tourbook down on the table.

Kurt smiled.  “Seems like she had a keen interest in your local castles, Tyra.”  A map of Östergötland County was spread open before them.  They studied the red circles with interest.

“Kinda looks that way.  Someone’s bookmarked them in here, too.”  She closed the older book on the castles of Sweden.  “Do you want me to send someone out to the libraries in town, speak with the librarians?  She must’ve checked these out from somewhere.”

“I think that would be a good idea—a great idea, in fact.  Have them start with the one closest to Hageby.”  He picked up the map and looked at it carefully, flipping it over.  “I’d say someone shoved this thing into their pocket at one point or another, don’t you, Martin?  And it’s been exposed to water, too.”

“It did rain over the weekend.”

Nordin spoke.  “You think she went around to these sites?”

“Yeah, I do.  And we ought to have someone talk to the staff of any that were open over the last week.  I think someone might remember her.”

Kurt surveyed the small handful of remaining items on the table: a purse, small address book, student I.D., driver’s license, apartment key, some credit cards, and a small amount of money. 

“Martin, let’s remember to check with the credit card companies for recent charges.  I want to know where she was spending her money in the last week of her life.”

He flipped through a little set of photographs tucked inside the wallet.  “Looks like she had a baby at one point or another.”

“Yes,” Nordin replied.  There’s a larger version of the same photograph in the box with her clothes, so it probably was hers.”

“What do you suppose happened to her baby?  I don’t recall that the property guy in Sudbyberg mentioned a child.”

“Maybe with the father?”

“Could be.  Need to ask the sister.” 

He continued.  “I wonder who this gal is.”  He slid the picture out of its plastic sleeve and flipped it over, but nothing was written on the back.

“There’s a picture of that woman with Fridell in the other box, too.  Must’ve been a friend.”

“Maybe she’s in here somewhere.”  Martin had picked up the address book and was going through it.  He looked at Kurt.  “Yeah, yeah . . . make a note to get someone on the phone.”

Kurt chuckled.  “You know me too well, my friend.”  Then he fingered the apartment key and looked at Nordin.  “Has someone talked to the property manager yet?”

“I did, last night.”  Nordin pulled a small notepad out of her pocket and flipped it open.  “His name is Liam Samuelson--a lawyer.  He remembered her quite well.  Said she signed the lease last Saturday, August 6.  Paid with cash.”  She read her notes out loud.  “From Stockholm.  Seeking employment with the county welfare office.  Said she was alone, but--” she looked more closely at her handwriting, “mentioned that her niece and nephew might visit on occasion.”

Kurt and Martin looked at each other.  Then Kurt spoke.  “Did he ever see anyone else with her, or in the apartment?”

“No.  Oh, also, she had no furniture.”

Martin grunted.  “That’s no surprise.  Her previous place came furnished.”

“That’s all I’ve got.”

“Did you talk to any of the neighbors?”

“Yeah—some.  No one knew her.”

Martin and Kurt began to examine the second box of articles removed from the apartment.  Martin pulled out a black plastic telephone answering machine, plugged it in, and rewound the little tape.

There was a click; then a man’s voice, with a heavy Spanish accent. “Hey Maria, this is Miguel.  Have you seen Rafael?  He hasn’t called, and I’ve been looking for him all morning.  Call me, will you?”  A robotic voice announced the date and time: Friday, August 4, 11:23 a.m.

Kurt raised his eyebrows, looked at Martin and grinned.  “Bingo.”

Another click, then this time a woman who sounded happy and unburdened.  “Maria?  Hey girl!  Pick up if you’re there.” A pause; then: “Okay, guess you must be at class.  Hey listen, I was wondering if you’d like to get together tonight.  I want to do some shopping downtown—I need to pick up a new skirt for work.  Give me a call when you get home, okay?  See you soon.”

“Friday, August 5th—10:53 a.m.”

Kurt sat up abruptly.  “Let’s go see the apartment.”

Sunday, August 14, 1983 – 11:20 a.m. Djurön

Isak trailed after the two kids and their worried mother, Mrs. Sandgren, as they walked through the muddy woods southeast of the granary. This was not how he had anticipated spending his day off, especially on a Sunday morning.

His foreman had called him at home around 10:30 a.m. He'd been in garage, putting his fishing pole and tackle box into the back of his pickup, when the phone rang.

"Yeah."

"Isak?  It's Jon."

"Hey, Jon. What's cookin'?"

"Hey, listen.  There's a woman here at the front office from the neighborhood who says there's some sort of hazard on our premises.  What she's saying don't make a whole lotta sense to me, but she's very insistent and is refusin' to leave until someone does something about it.  And I gotta get that wheat transferred over to Silo No. 5 this mornin' to get ready for this afternoon, or there'll be hell to pay."

"Aw, Christ, Jon.  Why are you bothering me with this stuff? Get her name and number, and let's deal with it tomorrow."

"Hang on a sec."  There was the sound of movement, the rustling of a hand cupping the phone, and he heard a muffled "excuse me, ma'am."  Then a door closed.

"Sorry, Isak.  Look, I already tried that, but she said no.  She won't leave, says one of her kids almost fell into this thing."

"What?  What the hell is she talkin' about, Jon?"

He sighed.  "She said her kids were playing out in them woods and found an underground room.  Really old.  And there's some sort of deep hole or shaft or something that she's worried could be dangerous to the kids who play out there."

Isak frowned.  "Underground room?"

"Yeah—I know, it sounds pretty kooky.  But do you mind coming out and talking with her?  I just don't have time to mess with this thing right now, you know?"

Isak thought wistfully about the fishing he'd planned to do today.  Then he thought about the hidden foundation line he'd explained to the college girl and frowned.  Hidden room . . . shaft . . . .

"Alright.  Tell her I'm coming, and that I'll be out there in about 15 or 20 minutes."

"Gotcha.  Hey thanks, Isak.  I know this is your day off, so . . . ."

"Yeah.  Well, I'll see you in a few."

"There's our fort!" The little boy pointed happily at the pile of sticks and logs marked with an old pillowcase turned flag, and ran forward.

His mother spoke up, her voice shrill.  "You be careful, Little Frank!  Don't you go down there!  You too, Elsie!"

The girl said ‘yes ma’am,’ but the boy paid her no attention.  He reached the forward wall, climbed up to the top, and turned to look at them.  "I'm king of the mountain!"

Isak smiled in spite of himself.  "Little Frank" could've been him, 65 years ago.  As he drew near he looked things over and said, "Pretty nice fort, kid."

The boy beamed as his sister climbed up to join him.  "Come'on inside and we'll show you!"

"Oh, these things scare me to death." The mother climbed carefully up and over the wall of branches.  "You two have no business playing out here in this.  You could twist your ankle, or break your leg, or . . . ."  Isak rolled his eyes as he watched her overweight backside swaying slowly up to the top.

They all stood around the hole, peering in.  Isak's fishing trip was now the furthest thing from his mind.  What in the hell . . . .

"Huh.  Never seen anything like this before.  How long you two known about the hole?"

Elsie looked at her brother, then up at Isak.  "Since Easter."

"Yeah, it was right after Easter when I fell and found it.  Then we made it bigger."

"What's this?" Isak flipped over the piece of plywood.

"That's our cover, is all," the boy replied.

Isak froze--the girl's notepad.  He reached down and picked it up; turned it right-side up flipped it open with his hands, which now felt oddly detached from himself.  Her summary of his remarks up on the gantry stared up at him in the leaf-dappled Sunday morning sunlight.

"Did either of you know this was here?"

The children peered at it with curiosity.  "No." Then the little girl's mouth dropped open and she looked at Little Frank with wide eyes.  "Wait a minute—wasn't that that woman's we met out here on Friday?"

"Uh huh.  She must've forgot it."

Isak found that very unlikely, but didn't say anything.  An uneasy feeling crept into the pit of his stomach.  "Did you show the hole to her?"

"Uh huh."

"Did she go down the—whatever it is?"

"No.  The door was closed when we were with her."

"Door?"

"Yeah—there's a door.  It was closed, but this morning it was open.  That's why we told Mom."

"Well, show me what this is all about." He took the flashlight off of his belt and switched it on.

"Don't you two go down there!" The mom looked sternly at her children.  "You let him go!"

"Aw, Mom!  The thing is down at the other end, not right here."

"I don't care.  You let him go first." She put her hand firmly on Little Frank's shoulder.

"Okay."

Isak looked at her.  "You mind holding this?" He handed her the damp notepad, then slipped down into the hole.

He grunted when his feet touched bottom.  His arms and shoulders wouldn't fit through the hole.  "Shit--kind of a tight fit."  He glanced up at the mother and saw her disapproving frown.  "Sorry, ma'am." Then he lifted himself up and dropped first one arm in and then the other, snaking his shoulders past the narrow opening.

"Not much headroom," he remarked, his voice rising up from the hole.  He clicked his flashlight on and shined it around.  "Someone's been down here, all right.  Footprints everywhere."

The girl looked in at him.  "Those're ours."

"Mmm.  Well—oh, I see the doorway.  Hang on a sec."

"Please be careful, Mr. Karlsson."

"I will be, Mrs. Sandgren.  Don't you worry, now."

Isak crept, bent over, to the opening.  He saw the displaced dirt; saw that the bottom portion of the door had recently been torn away.  Then he saw the steep, dangerous-looking shaft beyond, and stopped.  His instincts told him that he was close enough.

He yelled up.  "Did you kids open this door?"

Faintly the answer came.  "No.  It was locked last we saw it."

He glanced down at the dirt near his feet and saw the corner of something shiny poking up.  He pulled it out and realized it was a camera, covered with dirt.  He tapped it on his forearm to try to get some of the dirt off it.  Then the conclusion sprang into his mind like a lightning bolt: the girl had opened the door and had fallen in, sure as shit.  That was why her camera was here, and her pad had been lying outside.

"Ms.Fridell? You down there?" What was her first name?--oh yes.  "Maria?" He repeated her name three times, the final time shouting at the top of his lungs.  But there was no answer; just the smell of . . . ashes.

Isak frowned deeply, slipped the camera into his pocket, turned and crawled back to the hole as quickly as he could, responding to the panic that had abruptly settled into his chest.  Jesus H. Christ—the girl was down there, unconscious and probably badly hurt—if not dead.  All because he'd told her about that goddamn wall.  He pitched his flashlight out, then hoisted himself up.

Mrs. Sandgren did not miss the alarm on his face.  He spoke rapidly.  "I think the gal that the two of you met may be down at the bottom of that shaft, wherever it goes.  I need to call the police and the fire department right away."

The woman's face grew pale.  "Oh my God." The little girl looked at their frightened expressions, and began to cry.

"Do you all mind comin' back with me to our office? I reckon the police may want to talk to you."

"Not at all, Mr. Karlsson.  We'll help however we can."

It was almost noon as they headed back to the police station in Norrköping, after checking out Fridell’s apartment in Hageby.  Nordin piloted the unmarked patrol car skillfully though the light, Sunday morning traffic with Kurt riding shotgun; Martin sat in the back.

There hadn’t been much to see.  Kurt and Martin had spent most of the time evaluating the bathtub, but it had been scrubbed clean.  There was a little bit of food in the refrigerator, a mattress on the floor, some brand new, heavy drapes, and that was about it.

Martin finished updating his list of to-do’s, folded his notebook, and tucked it into his jacket.  Then he ran his window down a little to let in the cool morning air.  “So what do you think, Kurt?”

“About what?”

“You know—about how Fridell died.”

“I’d be more interested in hearing what Inspector Nordin has to say.  After all, she’s heading up the investigation of her death.”

Tyra glanced over at Kurt, who was looking at her expectantly.  Then she cleared her throat. 

“Well . . . looking at it chronologically, her life seemed pretty stable until, you know, whatever happened, happened.  She was convicted over four years ago for possession of methamphetamines and was put on probation, but she’s got nothing since then.  We don’t know too much about her personal life--maybe her sister can help with that--but from what I understand, you two have interviewed some people up in Stockholm who knew she was hooking at night, and going to college during the day.  Right?”

“That’s right.”  Martin shifted forward in his seat.

“So, I mean, I think something unusual happened to her on August 3 involving this Rafael guy.  Who was, I guess, her pimp?”

Kurt nodded.

“Okay.  So he disappears, and his brother thinks that Fridell knows about it.  Or knows why.  The next morning, he calls Fridell’s apartment, looking for Rafael.  Then he disappears, too, and turns up in the river however many days later it was, bitten with his neck twisted all to hell. 

“Then suddenly, for whatever reason, this hooker-slash-college girl decides to go looking at castles down here.  And she’s so interested that she breaks her lease, packs up all her stuff, and rents a new apartment in Norrköping.”  She looked at Kurt.  “Did you talk to her school?  What was it, Stockholm U.?”

“Yeah, but not yet.  Tomorrow.”

“It’ll be interesting to know what she told them.”

“I agree.”  He smiled.

“Anyway, the note that was left and Fridell’s statement to Samuelson about her niece and nephew suggest that these two children you’re after were with her.  And Aguilar’s death wounds match some of the other deaths you’re investigating.”

“Very much so.  And in some ways that are not described in the report.”

Tyra looked at him, intrigued.  “Such as?”

“I’ll tell you later—it’s not important for this.  Go on.”

“So it seems to me that there’s a good chance that she was harboring a couple of fugitives.  Somehow, they persuaded her to help them.  And since I can’t imagine why this girl would, just out of the blue, develop an intense interest in old castles, I have to believe that she was trying to help the two of them find something.  What, I have no idea.

“In terms of how and when she died, her death was reported by—well, we think one of the kids did it--to Bergman on the night of August 13, so I’d bet she died either on the 13th or the day before.  The map indicates she was out looking at castles, and her fingernails suggest that she was digging in the dirt. 

“The two major wounds could be accidental or intentional--there’s no way to know that right now.  The ligature marks indicate that a tourniquet or something like that was applied to stop the bleeding from both limbs.  Or maybe a splint of some sort on that leg.  But the small cut on her arm was not accidental.  Why it was done, I’m not sure.

“You can do better than that on the last part, Inspector.  Come on, think.”

“I know—you’re thinking that she gave her blood to—”

“The note said she was ‘very brave.’  ‘The bravest,’ in fact.  If she knew what this girl is—and her uprooting herself so completely strongly suggests that—then I’d have to imagine that letting her have her own blood would be very brave, indeed.  Do you agree?”

“I—I guess I have to admit I’m having a hard time with that whole part of your report.  I mean, a creature of fiction taking on reality . . . it’s just a little hard for me to get my head around that.”

“It was for us, too,” Martin commented.  “But alot of evidence points to it.”

Tyra continued.  “The note may or may not be true.  Or some parts may be true, and some parts false.  But if we take it at face value, as you seem prepared to do, then she died while engaged in some effort to help the two children.  She was doing something dangerous.  What, I can’t imagine and I don’t feel that I have enough information to offer an opinion.”

“Me either.  But unless the kids themselves broke her leg and did that thing to her arm—which is possible, I suppose—then she got into some sort of trouble.  Serious trouble, from the looks of things.”

“I agree.”

“Do you want to hear now about the other fact?  The one that’s not in my report?  It may help you with that big question.”

“Sure.”

“The bite wound on Aguilar’s neck, and on the neck of ‘The Ritual Killer,’ match that of a preadolescent child, age 11 or so.  But they were not made by the teeth of a human.  The incisor wounds were too deep for that.”

Tyra looked once again at Kurt; saw the seriousness of his expression.

“And also, those bite marks match the wound on  Jimmy Forsberg’s amputated arm found at that pool in Blackeberg.  His arm was bitten off, Inspector.  Does that help you with the big question?”

Suddenly the radio, which had been quiet all morning, came alive.  “Unit 51, please acknowledge.”

Nordin grabbed the mic and keyed it.  “Unit 51, responding.”

“Please respond to incident involving Maria Fridell.  100 Djurövägen, Djurön, Norrköping.”

Tyra frowned as Martin began jotting down the address with a puzzled expression.  “Message received.  Please clarify regarding nature of incident.”

“Clarification not possible.  Please report to Officer Marks on scene as soon as possible.”

“Give us that address, again?”

“100 Djurövägen.  There’s a grain mill there.  Can’t miss it.”

Fire Engine No. 7 and the Emergency Rescue truck pulled out of Djurön and headed back downtown with their flashers and sirens off.  Two of the firemen almost wished they’d had someone to rescue; it would’ve been better than what they’d just seen, which would haunt them the rest of their lives.

Nordin, Kurt, and Martin were speaking with Officer Marks near the hole in the ground.  One wall of the play fort, including the pirate flag, had been cleared away, and the hole had been enlarged somewhat to give the first responders access.  Two nylon ropes were anchored around to a nearby tree and ran down into the hole. 

A dozen or so people from the neighborhood and the Co-op were milling around.  A few tried to get close enough to peer down into the hole before they were shooed away by the small handful of police officers on the scene.  Some were snapping pictures.  Isak Karlsson and Mrs. Sandgren with her children were standing near the edge of the clearing, chatting with some neighbors who’d showed up.

A portable generator had been unloaded from the rescue truck, and a fireman who had remained on site was spooling out electrical lines for lights.

“Officer Marks, this is a crime scene until further notice,” Nordin barked.  “Tape it off 30 meters in all directions and have your men get these people back.  Tell Mr. Karlsson and the mom with the kids to come up so we can get their statements.  Do you have the evidence?”

“Yeah.  Here.”  He handed her a plastic baggie with Maria’s notepad and camera.

“Did any of the rescue people actually go down to the bottom of the pit?”

“I don’t believe so.  Once they saw there was no one alive down there, they came back up.”

“What did the EMS people do to the scene?”

“I asked them to rig their rope ladder before they left so we can get down there.  And the generator and lights, too, so you can see.”

“Good.  Call Central and have them send out the evidence people ASAP.  No one else goes down in until they’re on site.”

Karlsson came up, and Kurt shook his hand.  “Hi, I’m Detective Kurt Magnusson with the Stockholm Police.  Tell me everything you remember about Maria Fridell.”

Sunday, August 14, 1983 – 2:35 p.m. Djurön

Even though it made it harder to breathe, Tyra Nordin was grateful for the face mask as she climbed down the rope ladder--it helped keep the stench at bay.  Lt. Lundgren was on the ladder too, a few meters above her.  To her left, a black electrical line ran parallel to the ladder, providing electricity to a set of powerful lights that had been rigged, with considerable effort, below and to the side of the shaft’s terminus into the pit.

This shaft is scary as shit, she thought to herself.  If it weren’t for the rope ladder, traversing it would have been impossible; it was much too steep, and covered with loose dirt to boot.

She hadn’t realized that it would be harder to climb down a rope ladder lying on an angled stone floor than if it were hanging vertically.  She couldn’t get a proper foothold on the rungs, and had to do most of the work with her fingertips and toes.

Another light had been set up in the room above and angled down to illuminate the shaft.  If she tried to look straight up the shaft, the light was blinding, so she kept her eyes more or less in front of herself.

She began to notice a series of scratches in the stone.  She didn’t think much of the first few because she figured that the fire crew had made them when they’d come down to set up the light.  But when she saw some more, she paused.

“Lt. Lundgren, hold up a second.”

“What is it?”

“Have you noticed these scratches?”

“Yeah.  Just now, actually.”

“I think we ought to get some photographs.”

“Can you do it safely while we’re on this ladder?”

“I don’t know.  Let me try.”

“Okay—but for God’s sake, be careful.”  There was a pause, then:  “By the way, you can call me Martin.”

She smiled a little.  “Yes, sir.” 

He chuckled.  “Smartass.”

She surprised herself with a grin, then coaxed her little Kodak 35 mm camera out of a pouch on her belt, and as best she could, snapped a few pictures before resuming her descent.  When she reached the point on the ladder where it cleared the edge of the shaft and descended vertically to the bottom, she carefully maneuvered herself over the lip and started down the eight or nine meters remaining to the bottom of the pit.  Here at the edge she found even deeper gouges, and she snapped some more pictures.

“Do you think the firemen made those?”

“If they did, they sure beat the hell out of their equipment . . . but I doubt it.  We’ll need to ask them after we get back up.”

She paused and looked down over her shoulder at the indescribable scene below.  It reminded her of photographs she’d seen of some of those concentration camps in Germany at the end of World War Two.  Dachau, Bergen-Belsen . . . burnt human bodies, stacked up in an enormous pile in the bottom of a pit, right here in her home town, only a few kilometers from where she’d grown up.  She struggled to control the nausea that was attempting to take command of her gut.

“Stinks like hell down here,” Martin remarked.

“It’s like an ash pit.”  Kurt’s observation, made just a few minutes ago standing outside the hole, was right: Fridell had found what she was looking for.  But why had she come here?

“What do you suppose this place is?  Or was?”  She looked up and saw that he, too, was now staring down with revulsion.

“I don’t know, but I’ve never seen anything like it, I can tell you that.  And I’ve never heard about anyplace like it in Sweden, either.”

“That door up there looks really old.  It must’ve been sealed up for a long time.”

Martin looked straight down the dangling ladder to the bottom.  “If that guy is right and that really was Fridell’s camera, I’m beginning to see how she might’ve broken her leg.  It’s a long way down.”

When she was a short distance from the bottom—or at least, from the top of the heap of bones—Tyra told Martin to hold up a moment.  The light from above was good, but there were still quite a few shadows at the lowermost reaches, so she took her flashlight off her belt and began to shine it around the edges of the pit, then back and forth across the cremated skeletons, looking for anything unusual. 

Anything unusual, she thought.  The irony did not escape her.  How could I even tell?

For the first time, she realized that some of the skeletons were immature--children had died here.  Her sense of unease grew.  In her 33 years she had witnessed events and met people that she had thought were truly evil, but she had never felt as though she was in the midst of evil; surrounded by it, immersed in it.  That was how she felt in this place, and it made her skin crawl.  Inside her, not too far from the surface, a little girl about six years old who was afraid of the dark wanted to take charge and high-tail it out of here.

Another beam of light joined hers: Martin, too, was scanning the bottom of the pit.  Then, at nearly the same time, both of their beams passed over a place on the far wall, stopped, and returned to it—a dark, irregular patch on the rough-hewn surface, about the size and shape of a serving platter, just above the top layer of bones.

She frowned.  “What is that?”

“It looks like blood.”

She shook her head.  “What in God’s name went on down here, Lieutenant Lun--Martin?”

“I don’t know, but we need to check that out.  I just don’t know of any way to get over there except to climb over all these bones, and I’m not sure we ought to do that just yet.”

“Well, the evidence crew already photographed everything from up there, so . . .”

“I know, but . . . well, I guess there’s no other way.”

“Let’s get off this ladder; then we can maneuver around the edge, huh?”

She climbed the rest of the way down, then stepped off and into the ash and bones.  Her right leg sunk down up to her kneecap, cracking and snapping the bones underneath.  Her left went in, too, but not as far, and she tottered, off balance, and almost fell. 

“Shit!  It’s like a deadfall down here.”  She began to laboriously move along the wall to make room for Martin, lifting her legs high with each step, as though she were marching.  She tried to ignore the horrifying crunching sounds that her feet made as she trampled down the brittle bones.  Her face began to feel sweaty under her thin mask, and she noticed that she had begun to breathe too fast.  She wanted to tell Martin that she wasn’t feeling well, but didn’t dare.  This was not the time or place to lose her cool.

Martin reached the bottom and stepped off beside her, sinking in even farther than she did.  “Christ!  I can’t hardly move.”

“I know.  It’s like walking through a pile of—” 

“Hey . . . did you see this?”

She turned back to look at him.  He was crouched at the bottom of the ladder, which he held aside with one hand.

“What is it?”

“It’s a hole.”  He got down further and aimed his flashlight in.  “It’s like a little room, or . . . cavity.  Not very big, and—”

He held his flashlight very still; then leaned in so that his face was only a few centimeters from the opening.

“What the hell . . .”  He looked over at her, his eyes wide.

“What?”

“There’s some really old handcuffs in here, bolted to the floor.”

“Handcuffs?”

“You know . . . not handcuffs, but—what’s the word . . .”

“Manacles?”

“Yeah--manacles.”  He reached in, and she head a soft clanking sound.  “They’re locked.”  Quickly he withdrew his camera and took a few shots, then put it away.  He looked back at her, his face pasty.  “I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be locked away in there.”

Tyra had maneuvered back over to his side, and she ducked down and looked in.  “It’s some kind of a little prison cell, right?  I mean, what else could it be?”

He shook his head.  “I don’t know.”  Then he frowned.  “How’d you even get someone in there?  There’s no door.”

She shined her light around the opening, then below it.  “Look—loose rock.”

Martin looked down between his knees and saw the hunks of stone.  “Jesus, I’m practically standing right in it.”  Quickly he stood up and snapped some pictures as she held her light on the spot.  And as he focused the camera he saw not only bits of stone, but a broken skull.

He put away his camera and looked at her again, his face drawn and tense.  “If that Fridell woman was down here, then that note’s no lie--she really was brave.  I’ve never seen anything like this.  It’s fucking medieval.”

“Martin, was this place marked on that map?  The one that we recovered from the apartment in Hageby?”

“Not that I remember.  You ever heard of a castle being out here?”

“No.”

“Well I don’t know if this is part of a castle or not, but it’s as weird as hell.”

“Yeah.”  She surveyed the heap of charred remains, then looked up at the dark, enclosed ceiling.  “Something happened here a long time ago that someone didn’t want anyone to know about.”

It took them more than five minutes to get around the edge of the pit to the macabre spot on the opposite wall.  It was dried blood, just as Martin had said.  Small drips had run down from the bottom, and in the middle small bits of tissue were stuck to the stone surface.  Both of them got out their cameras and took several pictures.

Tyra took out a small tape measure and noted the size of the blood pattern.  “Do you think that could’ve come from Fridell?”

Martin shook his head.  “Don’t know.  But I can’t really see how that open fracture would bleed on the wall like this.  Or that arm wound, either.  It almost looks like the splatter pattern you’d see with a bullet wound.  Or like a part of someone’s body has been battered into the wall.”  He didn’t say what it actually reminded him of: the mark Estella Fransson’s body had left on the wall of that high-rise in Sundbyberg.

He produced an evidence bag and scraped a sample off the wall, his face twisted in disgust.  “We’ll have the lab check it for blood type and see if it matches her.”

Tyra scanned the wall around and below the splotch, looking for any additional evidence.  In her flashlight beam, something small and white glittered down in the bones.

“Martin, can you hold my light right there?  I see something.”

“Sure.”

She stooped as he held the light and carefully moved some bones out of the way.  A small cluster of white and red objects lay in a fine bed of ash, a few centimeters from the wall.  She quickly took some photographs, then pulled out an evidence baggy of her own, tore a piece of paper from her notebook, and folded it in half to make it stiff.  Then, very carefully, she slid the paper into the ash under the objects, lifted them up, and poured everything into the bag.

Martin was trying to see what she had as he held the light steady.  “What is it, Tyra?  What are those?”

She straightened and held up the sealed baggy.  “Not sure, but I think they’re . . . teeth.”
She held the baggy flat in the palm of her hand as he shined the light on it.  She tapped the bag and shook it a little.  Small, bloody pieces of enamel—two of them quite long and sharp--emerged out of the ash.  Martin leaned in and looked at the teeth very closely.

They stared at each other for a long time.

The six-year-old girl could no longer help herself.  “Martin, I’m sorry to tell you this, but . . . I want to get out of here.  Now.”

“I agree.”

When they emerged from the hole, they saw that some members of the press had arrived and were standing just beyond the tape, snapping pictures.  They were photographed, too, as they approached Officer Marks with their pants covered in gray ash.  Kurt was nowhere to be seen, and they learned from Marks that he had headed over to the granary with Karlsson. 

The office receptionist for the Co-op summoned the day crew foreman to escort them up to the southeast gantry, leaving behind some aggressive reporters who had followed them to the granary.  Up on the narrow platform, they caught the tail end of Isak and Kurt’s conversation.

“. . . and I’ve already called Christoffersen--he’s headed over here right now.  ’Cause I don’t know how to handle this.”

“Well, confirm with Inspector Nordin here, but I doubt we’ll need to do much beyond what’s being done now—walking that line for any evidence.  Once we’re finished with that, and once our inspection of the pit is concluded, we’ll have no further jurisdiction.  And that’ll likely be by the end of the day.  Then it’ll be up to the Cooperative to decide what to do about the discovery, unless the government intervenes.”

Kurt smiled broadly at Martin and Tyra as they came up.  “Guess who was out here Friday night?”

They stared at him expectantly; then Martin spoke.  “Let me guess.”

Kurt nodded; for once, his customary aplomb was broken, and he almost seemed excited.  “You got it—Oskar Eriksson and the girl.”  He held up one of the wanted posters, then nodded at Karlsson.  “Isak here says he’s sure it was them.”

“What were they doing, Mr. Karlsson?”

“Lookin’ for that girl—Maria.  Only they said she was their sister.”

Martin’s mind whirled as this new piece of information fell into place, tightening down some parts of an intricate network of facts, and opening up others.  “And when did you say that you met Ms. Fridell?”

“Same morning.  Brought her right up here to where we are now.  Showed her what I just showed Mr. Magnusson.”  He pointed out at the forest and at the strange line that ran through it.  “That’s what led to all this trouble.”  He put down his hand and held the railing; shook his head sadly.  “That poor girl—to’ve been hurt like that, down there.  Jesus God Almighty, what happened out here?”

Martin stood close to Isak and briefly put his hand on his shoulder.  “Mr. Karlsson, don’t be too hard on yourself.  We’ve learned quite a bit about Ms. Fridell in the last few days.  She was actually a prostitute, and we don’t think she was actually doing a research paper on castles.  It seems pretty clear that she knew what she’d gotten involved with.”

Karlsson shrugged, removed his cap, and looked despondently down at the grain silos below them.  “Well I don’t understand any of it, I really don’t.  Been workin out here practically all my life, and everything’s been fine.  Then one day, boom—this sorta thing happens.  Just makes you wonder what kinda things are goin on in the world.”  He looked at Kurt.  “I heard about your investigation in the news.  You really think all them murders are tied together like they say?  That that little girl I met the other night’s responsible for all of ’em?”

Kurt pulled a cigarette out and lit up.  “Yes I do, Mr. Karlsson.  And you should consider yourself a very lucky man, to have met her and lived to talk about it.  Because a lot of people haven’t, and now I suspect that the list may be much longer than we’ve realized.”

Nordin spoke.  “Kurt, we need to speak with you right away about some evidence we recovered.”  She glanced at Isak.  “When we get down from here, I mean.”

They shook hands with Isak, and thanked him for all of his help.

Eli woke up, alone in the dark steel belly of the milk truck.  Within the span of a few seconds she got her bearings, and rolled from her side to her back to look up.

The lid at the top of the tank was open, and she could see a small patch of the starlit sky beyond.  Oskar was not inside, but she could hear his voice, very soft and low, somewhere near.

“Don’t be afraid . . . I won’t hurt you.”  Silence; then: “Come on.  That’s a boy.”

Lighthearted, joyful laughter.  Intrigued, Eli got up and pulled her head and shoulders out of the hatch.

“Oskar?”

He was crouched down by the chain-link fence with his back to her, but when he heard her voice, he got up carefully and turned.  He was smiling, and holding something brown in his cupped hands.

“Eli, look!  It’s a little owl!  I think his wing is broken.”

She quickly scanned around and saw no one, so she climbed out the rest of the way and jumped down.  She came to him, and he held it up for her to see.

A pair of baleful yellow eyes peered silently up at her out of a mass of fluffy brown and gray feathers.  It was the smallest owl Eli had ever seen, fitting comfortably in Oskar’s palm.  When she extended her hand toward it, it opened its tiny beak and hissed at her, and all of the feathers on its head and chest rose up, making it appear to grow like a dry sponge sudden soaked in water.  Its left wing was tucked in against its body, but its right was splayed out at an awkward angle.

“Where did you find him?”

“I saw him hopping along the fence--I think maybe he flew into it.  We need to find a box or something to--”

He abruptly stopped in mid-sentence and suddenly looked down at his hands.  “Ow ow ow ow OWW!”  Although he didn’t want to, he couldn’t help it; he flapped his hand, dropping the little bird onto the concrete.  “Ow!  His claws are sharp!”  He seized his right wrist and stared with shock at the small, bloody cuts on his palm.

Eli did not reply right away.  Instead, she stripped off the old sweater she was wearing and bundled the bird up in it.  “Sorry, Oskar.  I must’ve scared him.  Let’s look around for a box to put him in.”

Oskar looked at her sheepishly.  “I didn’t realize he’d be so strong.”  Together they went to a metal trash dumpster standing at the far corner of the parking lot, and Oskar began to root around in it as Eli looked closely at his find.  The owl continued to hiss at her whenever she brought her face close to it.  “He’s got eyebrows, but no ear feathers.  I don’t think he likes us too much.”

“Maybe he’ll settle down once we make a little bed for him.”  Oskar climbed out of the side door of the dumpster with a small, cardboard box and a rag.  He put the rag into the bottom of the box, and together they laid the owl inside.  The bird swiveled its head around nearly 360 degrees to watch them as Oskar carried him back to the milk truck.

They decided to take the owl up into the cab, rather than the milk tank.  Together they sat on the old bench seat, the owl between them in its box. 

Eli gently probed its broken wing.  “I don’t think there’s much we can do for him, Oskar.  He’s so tiny, and his wing’s so fragile . . . .”

“Maybe we can keep him until he’s healed.  You know, good enough to fly again.  Then we could let him go.”

“I guess we can try.  He can’t go anywhere anyway, the way he is.  Some cat would probably get him.”

“What’ll we . . . how will we feed him?  I mean, I don’t even know what he eats, do you?”

“Probably mice.  Or maybe some big bugs.”

Oskar thought for a moment.  “I guess we could try to find a mousetrap somewhere . . . .”

Eli shook her head.  “We won't need to.  Catching mice is easy.”

“Really?  How?”

“I’ll show you a little later.  But shouldn’t he have a name?”

“Is he a boy or a girl?”

Eli chuckled.  “I have no idea.”

“Me neither.”

“I guess it doesn’t matter either way.”

They both thought for little while.  Oskar ventured “Hoot,” but they both decided it was probably overused for an owl name.

“Hmm.  How about ‘Athena’?  Didn’t she have a pet owl?”

Eli looked doubtfully in the box.  “Don’t you think it’s a little small to be named after a goddess?”

“Well . . . yeah, I guess you’re right.”
 
“Maybe ‘Griffin’?”

Oskar giggled.  “Like you said, he’s kinda puny to be named after something like that.”

Eli thought a little more while she watched the owl.  “Pudge.”

“Pudge?”

“Yeah—‘Pudge.’  What do you think?”

Oskar grinned.  “I like it.”

“Or maybe, ‘Leta’?”

“Mmm . . . I like ‘Leta’ too.  ‘Leta.’  It sounds good.”  He leaned down.  “Hi, Leta.”

Eli did the same.  “Hey, Pudge.” 

The owl hooted.

They looked at each other; then Oskar announced, “I think he likes ‘Pudge’ better.”  Eli nodded.  “Then he’s ‘Pudge,’ huh?”

“Yeah.”

They took turns petting Pudge’s head and back with their fingers.  Soon he stopped hissing and just looked up at them as they stroked his feathers.

“Oskar, we need to find you another coat and hat.  I didn’t realize until yesterday that you’ve still got what you had before we left Blackeberg.  Your mom probably told the police what you wear.”

“Oh yeah—my brown jacket.”

“And maybe we can find some hooded sweatshirts, too.  To help cover up our hair.”

“Are we going to go looking for an empty house tonight?”

Eli was quiet for a moment.  “I don’t know . . . all the homes around here are so close together.  Even if we found an empty one, there’d probably be some nosy neighbors keeping an eye on things.  I sorta like this truck.  I don’t think anyone would ever think to look for us in it.  What do you think?”

“I like it, too.  I mean, as long as no one sees us getting in and out of it.  And with these big trailers,” he nodded to either side, “it’s not easy to see except from the front and back.”

She smiled.  “It makes me feel safe--all that steel.”

“I also realized when I woke up that we can lock it from the inside.  I can move the locking part with my hands.”

“Really?”

“Uh huh.”  He smiled.

“So, do you want to just stay here?”

“Mmm hmm.”

“Good.  Me too.”

“Are we gonna catch a mouse, now?  It’s still kinda early to start running around.”

She smiled.  “Yeah—let’s do that first.  Then maybe we can start exploring.”

They crept out of the truck, taking Pudge with them.  Once they were sure no one was watching, they passed over the fence, and went out into the neglected little field behind the parking lot.

Eli angled over to a spot that offered some cover—some scrawny bushes, choked around with weeds, standing next to a twisted scots pine.  The remnants of a plastic trash bag had caught on the lower branches of the tree, and rustled forlornly in the breeze.  She knelt down next to the bush, her knees together, and composed herself as she looked out over the brown, stubbly grass.

“Keep an eye out, will you?  I need to concentrate to do this.  And be ready to catch one of the mice.”

Oskar frowned.  “Okay.”  He crouched down behind her, looking around for anyone who might pass by.  But his eyes kept returning to her.

She bowed her head with her eyes shut, and her chin settled to her chest.  She was perfectly still; the pale moonlight glinted on her hair.  At first her hands lay, palms down, on her thighs.  Then, after a short period—Oskar wasn’t sure how long, maybe 15 to 20 seconds—she lifted her head and her hands.  Her eyes remained closed, but her hands began to make an eerie, come-hither gesture, her fingers curling inwards, over and over, toward her palms.

Soon he heard it: a soft rustling in the grass.  He thought at first that the grass itself was merely swaying in the wind, but then he realized that the movement was independent; it seemed to boil in a cone-shaped pattern that had its narrow point closest to Eli, and widened out as it stretched away from them.  Then the first of the small gray shapes began to emerge.

Oskar took a step back into the bushes and almost fell down. 

The crept hesitantly, uncertainly toward her, many taking a few steps forward, then pausing with a paw lifted, to stare at her with small black eyes, noses twitching, before creeping closer.  Some moved sideways as they slowly advanced, as if trying to slide out of the arc of her invisible power, but none seemed able to free themselves.  And a few intermittently ran in frantic circles, as if chasing their tails, before leaping forward and repeating the process.  Intersparsed with the mice were a few dark gray rats, who behaved in the same manner. 

The ground swarmed with their squirming bodies.  The closest ones to her stopped and, strangely reminescent of the big gray wolf at Skansen, flattened themselves out on the ground, or rolled over onto their backs with their legs up in the air.

“Take one, Oskar.”  She spoke in a trance-like, impersonal whisper, not at all like her usual voice.

He came to her side.  He was afraid to touch her, or to get too close to the roiling mass before her, but finally he reached out, plucked up a little one by its tail, and plopped it into Pudge’s box.  “Got it.”

She opened her eyes and her hands fell limply to her sides.  Immediately the mice and rats stopped their advance, then scattered like the wind into the field.  She swayed, and for a moment Oskar was afraid that she was going to fall over, but then she righted herself.

“Eli—are you okay?”

“Yeah.  Just . . .”  She exhaled heavily and staggered to her feet.  He goggled at her.  She looked up at him, blinked, then smiled a little.

“What?”

“What?  What do you mean, ‘what’?  How’d you do that?”

“It’s kind of like when we talk to each other without talking.  Only . . . they don’t talk back.”

“What do you say to them?”

“It’s not words.  It’s like a command.”

“Do they think like we do?  Do they have thoughts?”

“They think—but not like us.”

“What do you mean?”

“They’re not like us.  They don’t—well, it’s hard to explain.  It’s like, they’re not aware of themselves.”

“I don’t get it.  How can they not be aware of themselves?”

“Sorry.  I mean—well, that’s not quite what I mean.  It’s like, they can’t think of themselves outside of themselves.  So when you give the command, they think you’re . . . like God.  Or maybe, that you are God.”

Oskar just looked at her, nonplussed.

She shrugged.  “You’ll just have to try it.  Then you’ll understand.”  She peeked into the box.  “He’s not eating it.”

The mouse had hidden under the rag and was busy scratching in a corner of the box, trying to get out.  Pudge ignored it, and was staring up at them instead.  Oskar watched for awhile.  “I don’t want to leave the mouse in there.  Can we take it out?”  I’d rather just feed him bugs.”

Eli surpressed a smile.  Oskar, Oskar

“Sure.  Just take him out, then.”

“You sure you won’t be mad?” 

“No.”

“’Kay.  It’s just that . . . since Maria died, I don’t want to . . . I just need a little more life right now.  You know what I mean?”  He lifted the mouse out by its tail and let it go in the grass.

“Uh huh—I do.  And you know, maybe Pudge isn’t hungry now, anyways.  Let’s wait a while, and then we’ll find some bugs to put in there.”

Together they walked, hand in hand, back to the truck.

Since he might hoot, they decided not to leave Pudge at their truck, so instead they carried him across the field and left him in one of the old trolley cars they’d seen the night before.  Then they set off in search of some clothes.

Oskar had no idea where they were, and was beginning to give up hope that they would ever find something useful when they came to a cluster of big green trash dumpsters located at the corner of a T-intersection.  They were still in an industrial area, and had crossed a seemingly endless number of chain-link fences and weedy parking lots.  A cluster of low, beige, nondescript commercial buildings were scattered around the intersection.  Only some of them had windows, and the ones that did were dark.  A line of streetlights stretched out before them on the far side of the street, one of them directly over the dumpsters in their small, fenced-in area.

They dropped to their hands and knees in a line of untended, overgrown bushes fifteen to twenty meters away, and studied everything carefully.  Then Oskar spoke, his voice only a whisper.

“You know, I always thought Blackeberg was kind of boring, but at least it didn’t look like this place.  Why would anyone want to live around here?”

“I guess there must be good jobs.  People want money to buy things.”

“Should we check those out?”

“Yeah.  Problem is, they’re right out in the open, and that light . . . it doesn’t help.”

“We could break it.”

“Okay—let’s find some rocks.”

They took turns pitching heavy stones, pieces of asphalt, and broken bricks at the light.  A couple of times their near misses hit the pole and bounced down off the dumpsters beyond with loud clangs.  Each time, they stopped and scanned around fearfully to make sure no one had heard.  Finally, Oskar managed to break it.

They ran across the street in the shadows, hurdled the fence, and began to examine the big steel containers.  On the third one they hit the jackpot; it was full of donated clothing.

Oskar wrinkled his nose as they slid a metal side door aside, climbed inside, and began to rummage around.  “Ugh.  Smells like old sneakers in here.”

“Sure does.  I guess they don’t have to wash their clothes before they give them away.”

Soon Eli found a big, gray, hooded sweatshirt with a pouch and a blue shield logo on the front.  She held it up for him to see.  “Hey, look at this--it’s got Malmö’s football team on the front.  Wanna try it on?”

“Okay.”  Oskar put it on over the thin shirt he was wearing.  His hands remained hidden inside the too-long sleeves.

“Guess it’s a little big.”

“It’ll work, don’t worry.”  He pulled it off, then took Rafael’s knife out of his pants pocket.  “Here, hold the ends, will you?”  He handed the sleeve ends to her, and once they had the arms of the sweatshirt taunt between them, he cut the wrist cuffs off.  While he put it back on, she asked him where he’d gotten the knife.

“It was that Rafael guy’s.  You know, the one who came into Maria’s apartment when I was there that night.”

“Why’d you keep it?”

“I don’t know—I guess I thought it might be good to have.”

She laughed softly.  “That seems like the last thing we’d need.”

“Maybe not.  I’m actually wishing we’d kept that gun, too.”

Her puzzled expression deepened.  “Why?”

“’Cause if we’re going to have to keep killing people, I think maybe we should use ordinary weapons.  When we do it the usual way, it’s like leaving a big note behind saying, “vampires were here.”  And then we have to try and get rid of the body somehow.  And I don’t think we can afford to keep doing that, if we’re going to go on sneaking around like this.”

“Hmm.  Well, guns are loud. It’d be better to use knives, I think.”

“You can get silencers for guns; I’ve read about them.  They fit over the end of the barrel and slow the bullet down so it doesn’t break the sound barrier.  Then you don’t get the bang.  It’s just like a little popping noise.”

He continued digging for something for Eli to wear.  “But really, Eli, I’m wondering whether there’s anything else we can do to try and get rid of our problem.  Or whether we should keep living like this.”

“What do you mean?”  She pulled a dark blue nylon windbreaker with a hood out from under a pile of clothes in one corner, slipped it on, and then fumbled with the zipper.  “I hope it’s not broken.  There.” It made a soft zipping noise as she pulled it up.  “What do you think?”

He tapped the emblem of the Swedish flag on the left breast.  “Very patriotic.”  Then he pulled her hood up around her head.  “Let’s see how your hood looks.”

He carefully pulled it over her head, tucked the loose strands of her hair inside, and pulled the drawstrings to tighten it down around her face.  Then he made a bow knot under her chin, and gave her a smile.  “You look kinda cute in there.”

She grinned.  “Oh yeah?  Well, let me do yours.”  She pulled up his hood and drew it tight around his face.  Then she giggled.  “You look really stupid like that.”

“I didn’t want to say it, but you look kinda silly, too.”  They laughed.

They couldn’t find a winter coat to replace Oskar’s, so they stopped looking and curled up together in the back of the dumpster for a little while.

“So what did you mean about what you said?”

“What I mean is . . . I guess before we met Maria, I never thought anyone would be willing to give us some of their blood to live.  But now, I’m wondering whether that’s really true.  And . . . well, they already know so much about us—you know, that newspaper article and everything . . . but the problem is, they don’t really know about the stuff that’s good.  I mean, like Maria was saying, maybe we could use some of the cool stuff we can do to help people.  So I’ve been thinking, how can we tell them about the good stuff?  About how we don’t really want to hurt anyone?  But without just . . . turning ourselves in, I guess?   And I’m thinking that maybe we could write to that policeman.  You know, write a letter.”

Eli frowned and pulled away so that she could see his face.  “A letter?  What good would that do?”

“Well, these guys that I used to read about . . . a few of them, usually the really bad ones—they’d write letters to the police.  To make fun of them, or give them little clues about the murders they’d committed.  It was sorta a power trip to them, you know—‘look what I can make the police do.’  Make them scurry around and stuff.  But the thing about using a letter is, you can send it without getting caught.  And then the cops, they’ll put their answer in the newspaper somewhere.  Like in the personals section.  Sometimes it’s in code, you know, so only the bad guy understands what it means.  But we wouldn’t need to go through all that.  We could just write a letter to that guy and tell him we’re really not bad, we’ve just got this disease and that we need help.  And then we could see what they say.  They could just announce it on TV or the radio, or whatever.  And if we don’t like what they say, we don’t have to do anything.  We’ll just keep going.  But maybe they’ll decide to help us.”

“They’d just tell us what they think we want to hear.  Make all sorts of promises to get us to turn ourselves in, then go back on them once we’re caught.”

“Not necessarily.”

“Oh come on, Oskar--of  course they would.  They’d do anything to stop us.”

“Well, who says we have to turn ourselves in?”

“What do you mean?”

“Eli, we’re the ones with all the powers.  You know how fast we can fly, when we really want to.  We could be halfway across the country in one night.  They’d never know where we went, or be able to find us.”

“—”

“So, I—”

“So what are you saying?  That we just—”

“We tell them we need fresh blood to live.  Maybe we ask them for volunteers?  We choose a time and place . . . pick someplace where there can’t be any traps, the first few times, until they know we’re serious about trying to be good.  Then, maybe, who knows?  It becomes more regular.  And then gradually we show them what we can do.”

“And then?”

“Well, we’d have to tell them we’re not going to be locked up somewhere.  We won’t be studied like a couple of guinea pigs . . . you know, tied down and stuck with needles.  None of that.  Maybe we’d even tell them that it all has to be in writing, signed by Carl Gustaf or the Riksdag, so they can’t go back on it.  And if they don’t like it, if they aren’t willing, then we can say at least we tried to do the right thing.  And we go back to the old way.  I’d feel much better about what we have to do, if we tried that first.”

“They’ll never agree to that.  They’d say we have to be tried for murder.  If they even give us a trial.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oskar—we’re vampires.  Don’t you get it?  There’ll probably be a lot of them who’ll say we should just be killed like rabid dogs.”

“I’m not a vampire.  And the first time we ever talked about this, you said you weren’t, either.  Right?”

She sighed with frustration.  “That’s not what I mean, and you know it.  I’m talking about how they’ll think of us.  They’ll be afraid.  People are superstitious, scared of things they don’t understand.  And that’s us, to a T.”

“Yeah, but maybe now’s our chance to prove them wrong.  To give them a chance to understand us.  Because now, we can tell them about Maria.  About how she loved us, even knowing what we are.  And we can tell them about how she changed our minds—gave us hope to try to do something different.  Because I have to tell you, Eli:  as much as I love you, I don’t think I’m cut out for this.  I mean, Rafael, he was different.  He was threatening to hurt Maria with the knife.  But I couldn’t kill Maria . . . I just couldn’t.  And I don’t know if I want to go on like this, skulking from city to city, living the way we are now—you know, with neither of us wanting to talk about what we’re going to have to do soon unless something changes.  I think we should give it a shot.  What do we have to lose?”

She crossed her arms.  “Everything, that’s what.  We stand to lose everything.  Don’t you see that, Oskar?  What we’re talking about is both of us dying.  I don’t want to die, and I don’t want you to die, either.  And I don’t want to ever be separated from you.  The whole thing is cruel, horrible.  Like a cruel joke.  God’s little joke on us.  To give us a person like Maria, and then snatch her away from us, just like that.  Open the door a crack and then slam it in our faces.  That’s just what happened.”

“But God didn’t take Maria away, Eli--the vampire lord did.  God didn’t want Maria to die.  How can you say a thing like that?”

“Okay, maybe not.  But it’s still their fault for letting him live.  They should’ve killed him a long time ago.  Instead, they sealed him up in there, alive.  That was just dumb.  And then we paid the price for it.”

Maria paid the price for it.”

“Yes, she did, but we did, too!  She died for us!  That wasn’t supposed to happen, Oskar!  It wasn’t--it wasn’t--oh dear God, Oskar, it . . . I had just started to love her, to think that things might, you know, might change for once, might somehow get better, and then, then—”  She began to sob bitterly.

He put his arms around her and drew her close.  “Eli, Eli . . . shh, shh, com’on; com’on now, please don’t, please . . . .”

“I can’t help it, Oskar.  I can’t.”

She continued to cry, and Oskar found himself joining in, despite his desire to be strong for her.

He began to speak again after bringing his tears under control.  “Eli, I know sticking that guy in there was stupid, but how can we blame the people now for what they did in Norrköping two hundred years ago, or however long it’s been?  They’re not the same people, are they?”

“I understand that.  But some things don’t change.  The way people think about us won’t change.”

“Hmm.  Maybe—but do we really know for sure?”

“Oskar, the biggest thing that’s kept me alive for so long is that people can’t believe I exist.  If we go and write a letter or whatever, then they won’t be able to do that anymore.  Then there won’t be anyone out there who isn’t prepared to kill us.  They’ll pass a law saying it’s okay to kill us on sight.  Heck, they’ll probably give a reward.”

“I wonder if that police report has started to change peoples’ minds about that, Eli.  And you said yourself that you’ve never had someone on your tail like this before.  Do you ever see it getting any easier for us?  To live like this?”

“It’ll lighten up once our big sleep comes.  We won’t have to do anything for awhile, and they’ll lose interest, maybe.”

“I doubt it—there’s too many people dead, and now there’s two of us.  And besides, what if we don’t go to sleep at the same time, like we talked about?  Then one of us will have to keep going.”

“I just think it’s a really, really bad idea.”

“Well I don’t see how it can make things any worse for us.  They already know just about everything about us.  At least maybe this way, they’d know that we’re not psychopathic maniacs who don’t care about anything.  And like I said, I just don’t know if I can keep going on killing people like that camper.  Or someone like Maria.”

“Okay, then I’ll just do what I promised originally.  Then you won’t ever have to kill anyone again.”

Now it was Oskar’s turn to sigh.  “I thought we agreed that that wasn’t much better than both of us doing it.  And are you really saying that you feel the same way about this now as you did before we met Maria?  Because I don’t.”

“I—I guess I don’t know how to feel anymore.  I feel all burned up inside.  Burned up and burnt out.  You’re the only thing that really keeps me going anymore.  And I’m scared to death of losing you.”

“Sounds to me like your heart’s really not in it, either.”

“I’ll do what I have to do to survive, Oskar.  I always have.”

“Yeah, but that’s just it—all we do is survive.  Why can’t we ever do anything?”

She looked at him, confused.  “What do you mean?  We do lots of things—have fun together, run around and stuff.  Aren’t you happy spending time with me?”

“Well yeah—sure I am.  But that’s not what I mean.  I mean—don’t you ever want to be somebody?”

“Like who?”

“Like . . . I don’t know.  I mean . . . didn’t you ever think about what you wanted to be when you were little?  Back before . . . .”

“It was always pretty much assumed we’d be farmers, Oskar.  Just like our dad was.”

“Hmm.  Well I’m not sure I’m talking about going into farming.  I just feel like maybe we should be trying to do something useful.  With all these powers we have, I mean.   You know, Maria sure thought we were awesome.  What was it that she said?  That we were maybe the most amazing people in the history of the world?”

“Extraordinary.”

“Yeah—‘extraordinary.’  So—I mean, if she thought that, then maybe other people will think so, too.”

“So you’re not happy, just being with me.”

He rolled his eyes and sighed.  “No, no--I’m not saying I’m not happy.  I’m just saying that maybe we could be a lot happier.  You know, just . . . take a little thing, like finding someone to help fix Pudge’s broken wing.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to do that without being afraid of getting captured or killed?  Wouldn’t it make you feel good inside, if we could help save somebody once in awhile?  I mean, just think of all the things we could do that no one else could.”

“Like what?”

“Like . . . I don’t know, maybe help a climber trapped on Mount Everest?  Help those sea scientists explore those super-deep trenches in the bottom of the ocean?  Or maybe even find sunken ships—that’d be cool.  We don’t need to breathe, right?  Or like Maria was saying, we could try to help people who’ve got mental problems?  Or even,” he chuckled, “just help people who’ve got rat infestation problems?  We could start our own business . . . .”

She giggled.

He grew serious; took her hand into his.  “Or you know, Eli . . . how about just being able to go to sleep at dawn with me in a real bed, and not have to worry about who might come along and kill us?  To not have to live in fear all the time?  Because—I don’t want you to be burned out; I want you to be happy.  Isn’t that worth taking a chance?”

She looked down, her voice barely audible.  “Yes.  I guess.”

“Did you just say ‘yes’?”

“Uh huh.”

He uttered a little cheer, and kissed her.

“But no letter.”

“What?”  He looked at her incredulously.

“We go see this policeman in person—no warning.  Talk to him face to face.  Then we’ll know how serious they are.  And if they’re not, then all bets are off.”

They saw it on their way back, on a TV inside a little gatehouse in front of an industrial storage facility.  They were on the opposite side of the street, moving along behind a screen of bushes, when the flickering bluish light from the cathode tube caught their eye.  The guard was sitting on his chair in the tiny room, facing away from them, with his feet up on a desk under the TV, which sat on a shelf beside some binders and a stack of paper.  The screen was small and wasn’t easy to see through the old, bent blinds that hung in the gatehouse’s front window, but the images under the header “Charnel Pit Discovered in Norrköping” were unmistakable.  Both of them stared in transfixed silence, wishing mightily that they could hear the anchorman’s words. 

The camera cut to footage of the hole in the ground, the door and the shaft beyond, and even showed the bloody splatter mark on the wall, prompting Eli to utter a tiny gasp.  Oskar’s mouth opened even wider when the image shifted to an interview of the man at the granary whom they’d met the night they were looking for Maria.  And when this was followed by a black-and-white mug shot of Maria, and then by the pictures of themselves they’d seen on the bus, they looked at each other despondently, both of them reexperiencing that sinking feeling they’d had when Maria had given them the Expressen.  Then they sank to the ground in the bushes, comforting each other with soft hugs and little kisses, and murmured whispers of “don’t worry” and “it’ll be alright.”  They tried not to cry lest they attract attention as their eyes were drawn back, over and over, to the TV, catching glimpses of the banner scrolling continuously across the bottom of the screen:

“pit believed to be secret remains of castle that existed more than 200 years ago . . .”

 “number of cremated bodies estimated to exceed 300 . . .”

“Government denies knowledge of pit or castle on site . . .”

“evidence of recent trauma, but no body recovered . . .”

“Stockholm woman believed to have suffered fatal injuries falling into pit, although cause of death remains under investigation . . .”

“death is related to two preteens wanted in connection with seven deaths in greater Stockholm . . .”

“. . . remain at large, and are believed to be extremely dangerous.”

Oskar sniffed and shook his head dejectedly.  “How did they find out about it?”

“I don’t know.”  Eli pulled away from him a little and continued to stare across the street.  “Someone must’ve discovered the open shaft and called the police.”

Sudden realization passed over Oskar’s face.  “Her camera--I left it by that door!”

“Maybe they found it and started asking around; talked to that man at the granary.  He probably told them about Maria.”

“And about us, too.”

Eli nodded.  “He must’ve.  No other way they could’ve known we were there.”

“And they know about what happened to Maria, so they have her body--and our note to her sister, too.”

“That’s not really surprising.”

“No; you’re right,” Oskar agreed glumly.  “They’re probably saying that we killed her.”

“Maybe.”

“Hey—there’s that cop.”

They both stared at the man identified as Kurt Magnusson.  He had been filmed standing by the playfort while he spoke to a middle-aged, heavy-set woman.

Eli’s mouth turned down in disgust.  “He must be back on our case.  We need to get a newspaper and find out what’s going on.”

“I thought Maria said he’d been temporarily fired for writing that report about us.”

“Yeah.  They must’ve changed their—”  Eli’s eyes widened in astonishment.  “Miguel!”

Oskar locked his eyes onto the TV.  Sure enough, it was a picture of Miguel; there could be no doubt.  “But I sunk him in the river, Eli!  How could they—”

She stared at him.  “Did you weigh him down?”

“Yeah!”

“And Rafael?”

“Yes!”

“Hmm.  Well, things have a way of coming back, I guess.   Nothing stays hidden forever.”

“I swear, Eli, honest!  I tied rocks to his feet and everything.”

“It’s okay, Oskar; it doesn’t matter.”  Her voice was flat and without affect.

“Eli, I—”

She shook her head.  “You don’t need to explain--it’s hopeless.  You’re right, Oskar, there’s no fighting against this.  They find out everything, no matter which way we turn.  We really do need to go talk to that cop and try to cut some sort of deal.”

“Looks like he’s in Norrköping.” 

“Yeah.  Who knows where he’s staying.  Or for how long.”

“Maybe we could catch him leaving the police station in a car.”

“We might have to wait a long time.  And what if he’s only at the station during the day?”

“I have an idea.  But let’s get a newspaper first.”

Wednesday, August 16, 1983 – 3:45 p.m. Stockholm

A soft knock, one he knew by heart, came on Kurt’s office door, followed by Karla’s voice.  “Kurt, there’s an unusual-looking letter here for you—it looks personal.  Do you want me to open it?”

He had been lost in his work, and with her knock he glanced up, slightly annoyed at the interruption.  But the emotion did not last.  “No, just bring it in.”

The brass knob turned and the door swung open with a creak.  Karla scurried in with a stack of mail, the single, unopened  letter on top.  She put the pile in his in-box, and put the letter down on the corner of his blotter.  She was old enough, and had worked with him long enough, to refrain from doing anything more, even though the handwriting on the envelope was very intriguing.  He thanked her and she left, closing the door behind her.

For a moment, all he could do was stare at the envelope.  The script was unmistakable, each letter of his name written in capitals with apparently painstaking care, all of them embellished with curled serifs.  Handwriting that he knew in his heart had been learned centuries ago.

No return address.

He moved the papers he’d been reading off the middle of his desk, picked the letter up by its corners using only his fingertips, and flipped it over.  Nothing written on the back, but a smear of dirt across the lower right corner.  He took his letter file out of its holder and, as carefully as he could without handling the letter, slit open the top.  Then, pinching the edge of the note, he carefully removed and unfolded it.

It was a flimsy, used restaurant napkin.  From the stains it was clear that someone had wiped their mouth with it, then crumpled it up and thrown it away.  And it was equally clear that someone else had then found it, flattened it out as best they could, and written on it with the same ballpoint pen that had been used to address the envelope.  In a few places, the pen had torn through the thin paper.

Dear Mr. Magnuson

We are everything you think we are, and more, but we have a disease.  We need someone’s help, just like Maria helped us, but we’re afraid people will try to kill us.  You know us better than anyone so maybe you are the one who can help us the best.

We want to talk to you.  Meet us at the top of Kockums Crane, Thursday Aug. 17 at 2:00 a.m.  Just you, no one else.  No guns.  If we see anyone else, or if you have a gun, we won’t come.  We promise we won’t hurt you.

Please.  We don’t want to keep doing this.

He rocked back in his chair, feeling the nervous energy course through him, starting with his toes and flashing up his body.  Kockums Crane: the world’s largest, down in Malmö.  He wracked his memory, trying to recall how tall it was, but couldn’t.  It didn’t matter—it was super-fucking tall.  Jesus.

He wiped a hand across his face, his mind racing.  Looked at his watch—tomorrow at 2 a.m.—barely ten hours from now.  How long would it take to drive down there?  Seven hours--six, maybe, if he drove like a maniac.  He had about four hours to prepare.  Make it two, to play it safe.  He stared at the note again. 

I could die

This fundamental knowledge settled into his stomach; never before had it been there, throughout the entire investigation.  He’d always come along after the fact, but now it would be different.  Face to face, just like he’d hoped would happen.  Only--not like this.  A jail cell?  Yes.  A treacherous, narrow metal platform, hundreds of meters in the air?  No.

He looked at his in-box.  What would happen if he weren’t around tomorrow?  His paperwork would be left unfinished.  He reached for the report he’d been completing before Karla had interrupted him.  He moved it to the center of his desk and brought his pen to it, but then put it down.  No time for that.  Not important.

What would he tell Flora?  They had invited friends over for dinner tonight.  When was the last time he’d looked at his will?  And he’d promised her he’d finish rebuilding those flower boxes this weekend . . . the ones that had been sitting on his workbench for the past four months.

He picked up the phone and dialed home; got the answering machine.  She must be out buying something at the last minute.  He was starting to leave a message when she picked up.

“Kurt?”  She spoke loudly, trying to be heard over the drone of the answering machine’s robotic monotone.  Then there was a beep.

“--Flora.  I thought you were out.”

“I just got back.  I was unloading some groceries.”  He heard the rustling of paper and imagined her standing by the wall phone, a little breathless from running in from the garage, putting a grocery bag down on kitchen counter.

“Well, I’m sorry to say this, but something important has come up in my case, and I need to drive to Malmö as soon as I can.”

Malmö?  I thought you said they were spotted in Norrköping.”

“Apparently they moved.  Anyway, I’ll be gone overnight, and may or may not be back tomorrow afternoon, depending on what happens.”

She sighed.  “I’ll call Rog and Bonnie and reschedule.”

“I’m sorry to do this, Flora, but it’s important.  You can still get together with them if you want, you know.  I won’t mind.”  

“Lately, your work has been a lot more important than us, Kurt.”

“I know, but there’s nothing I can do--I have to go.  We may be close to catching them.”

“Oh!  That’s wonderful news!”

“Yeah—well, we’ll see.”

“Will you please be careful.”

“I always am—you know that.”

“Kurt.”

“Mmm hmm.”

“I don’t know what’s going on, but . . . remember what I said about her.  That night we talked.”

“I’ll try, Flora.”  He read the note again as he talked: We don’t want to keep doing this.  “But I’ve got to keep in mind how dangerous she is.”

“Just do your best, Kurt.  That’s all I’ll ever expect from you.”

“I will.  And I’ll try to call you later tonight, if I can.”

“Okay.  Just not too late, alright?  I’m tired.”

“Okay.”  He paused.  “I love you, Flora.”

“Love you too.  Drive safe.”

He returned the phone to its cradle, dissatisfied with their conversation’s emotional superficiality.  It had been like hundreds of other calls he’d made to her over the years—gotta work late, won’t be home for dinner.  He’d wanted to say more--had wanted to convey to her that this might be their last conversation--but he just hadn’t been able.  To say more would have been akin to admitting his own mortality, and he didn’t want to do that.  Nor did he want her to suffer worry and anxiety over his well-being.  What would be the point of that?  What would happen, would happen.

It did not occur to him that he should not go.

He picked up the phone again and punched four numbers.  “Martin?  I need you in here right away.  And get Hallberg, too.”  He hung up and swiveled around in his chair. 

“Karla?”

The thump and squeak of her chair; then she appeared once again at his door.  “Did you call me?”

“Yeah.  Call Berta and tell her I need to speak with the Chief immediately.  Tell her it’s urgent.  And get me the phone number for the police in Malmö ASAP.”

Oskar’s eyes snapped open in the pitch blackness.

The soft and gentle sound of raindrops came from overhead, tinging gently on their metal home, trickling down the old, peeling paint on the outside of the tank.  No thunder, nor wind; just a continuous, light drizzle.

He turned and stretched his legs under the blanket.  Although he was wide awake, he didn’t feel like getting up yet.  It felt good just to be in here, listening to the rain, safe in bed with the only person in the world who mattered to him.  He thought about how nice it would be to simply stay here all night with her, doing nothing but snuggling under the covers and listening to the rain; sharing the feelings he’d sometimes had when he’d been younger, lying in bed at night or on an early Saturday morning.  No school, no job, no worries.  Just relishing the feeling of security.

Hoo.  Hoo.

He smiled and stretched out his hand in the darkness, feeling for the box.  Touched it, and was reassured by its nearness.  They hadn’t been able to leave Pudge out in the trolley car across the way; somehow, it had seemed cruel.  So here he was, with them in the milk truck.  Oskar wondered if he’d eaten any of the insects they’d caught before going to sleep yesterday morning.  He’d probably need more before they went to the crane tonight.

He turned back over, reached out again, and found her sleeping form.  Eli was lying on her side, facing away from him toward the front wall of the tank.  He inhaled deeply through his nose, then opened his mouth to breathe through it instead.  Neither one of them smelled too good.

His stomach tightened and the gnawing rushed in to push out his languid equilibrium.  He tried to remember how long it had been since they’d eaten.  A week since Maria; almost two since Rafael.  And although her love had been a beautiful thing, Maria’s blood hadn’t really fulfilled them.  It had been sort of like eating half a dinner, rather than a full one.  He was hungrier than he’d ever been, even more than after Eli had first turned him back in July.  And he knew that Eli must be, too, judging by the whiteness of her hair last night when they’d crawled in to go to sleep.  But they were trying to hold out.

To distract himself, he touched her shoulder, running his hand down her arm while he thought about what was coming.  The thought of the approaching encounter with the policeman filled him with hope and dread; anticipation and anxiety.  How would he react to them?  Was Oskar right, that the risk was worth it?  Or would something bad happen, as Eli feared?

What if he didn’t even show up?  What if the letter had been delayed and he didn’t get it until tomorrow?  Or what if he hadn’t returned to Stockholm, like they thought he would?  Then where would they be?  His mind began to fill with fears of misadventure, and without thinking about it, he drew himself to Eli, pressing himself to her back and putting his arm around her.  She stirred a little, but then settled down.

He didn’t care how they smelled.  She was his.

They had talked at length about what they would do tonight; had done what they could to prepare.  On the night that they had hit upon their plan, they had gone to the crane, which was so tall that it could be seen from virtually anywhere in the city.  They thought it would offer the best chance to meet Magnusson without being trapped or shot.  They had examined it from above, and when they were sure no one was around, had alighted upon its enormous upper span.  It was amazingly huge, and Oskar couldn’t help but wish he could see it in action, lifting something really heavy, like part of a ship or submarine. 

There was a crane situated cross-wise on the top of the span which could offer some cover for them, and the policeman would have to come up via one of the elevators at either end that ran up inside the A-pillars.  They could conceal themselves on the crane and have a clear view of the detective once he arrived. 

They examined the tops of the elevator shafts carefully.  In the machine rooms above each shaft they discovered the electronic controllers, and realized that they could disable an elevator simply by ripping its controller off its wall mount.  In this way they planned to shut down all of the elevators save one, so no police officers would be able to come up behind them while they spoke with Magnusson.

Then they had looked around at the nearby buildings.  Oskar was worried about the possibility that the police might put a sniper on top of a tall apartment building about two kilometers to the southwest.  It seemed pretty far away, and it wasn’t nearly as tall as the crane, but it was worrisome enough that they had gone to it and landed on its roof.  It was a little more than half the height of the crane, and Oskar couldn’t imagine how a gunman placed on its roof would have a decent shot at them over there.  Nevertheless, they decided that they’d check it out before going to the crane on Thursday night.  Neither of them had spoke about what they would do if they actually found someone up there, but Oskar knew it would probably spell the end of the whole scheme.

He heard a soft, swallowing sound as she awoke and yawned.  Then her stomach rumbled loudly.  She took his hand into hers, pulled his arm closer around her, and made a soft, satisfied noise.  When she spoke, her voice was a whisper.

“Oskar—you awake?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s raining.”

“Mmm hmm.”

They said nothing further for quite awhile.  Then she said, “I’m so hungry.”

“Me, too.”

She turned in his arms and embraced him.  “I’m afraid.”

“Me, too.”

Pudge hooted again. 

“I wonder if he’s hungry?”

“I don’t know.  Want to see if he ate?”

“Yeah.”  She stirred and got up, grateful that there was something to think about besides her empty stomach and the crane.

Carefully she clambered over Pudge’s box and the baffles.  Oskar heard the now-familiar sound of the tank lid being opened, and suddenly he could see again, as fresh, damp air flowed in.

“Mmm.  That’s better,” she remarked as she peered out.  “Stinks in here.”

“Yeah—it’s us, I think.”

“Mmm hmm.”

She pushed the lid all the way open, then slipped back down in.  Raindrops began to fall in through the hole.  She made a low, bemused grunt as she opened her mouth and began to catch them on her tongue.

“Ahh.”  He watched her; then realized with a start that her hair was now completely grayish-white; there was no dark anywhere.  And her face . . . she looked the way he remembered, that night they’d gone down into the basement of his old apartment building to play knights and dragons.  Only her eyes were the same.

“Does that help a little?  With the hunger?”

“Water?  Sort of.  But if you try to drink alot of it when you’re really hungry, you’ll throw up.  And sipping it won’t make the hunger go away.  But it does make your mouth feel better.”

He got up to join her and smacked his lips.  “My mouth’s so dry.  Ugh--gross.”

“This’ll help.  Here.”  She stepped over a little to make room.  Soon they found themselves sitting cross-legged on the floor of the tank, facing each other, craning their necks back to catch the raindrops.  Oskar brought Pudge with him, and he sat in his box between them, getting wet.

“You don’t look so good, Oskar,” she teased.  “You’ve got baggy eyes.”

His stomach gurgled.  “You don’t look so hot yourself, smarty-pants.”

“I know.”  She grinned.  “I probably look like shit.  Maybe this Magnusson will open a vein for us.”

He chuckled.  “I wouldn’t count on it.” 

She stroked Pudge’s head.  “He doesn’t seem to mind the rain.  Hey!  Looks like he ate those crickets.”

“Awww—Yeah, Pudge!”  He smiled down at the little bird and petted him with Eli.

“I think he’s starting to like us.  He’s not hissing any more.”

“Yeah.  Maybe we should take him out of the box tonight and let him move around.”

“Good idea.”  He sighed.  “I feel gross.  I’ve been wearing these same clothes since we moved in here.”

She smiled.  “Why don’t you take them off, go outside, and wash off?”

He looked at her hesitantly.  “What do you mean—like, go out naked?”

Her smile broadened into a grin.  “Uh huh.”

He tried to smile back, but faltered.  “Oh, I don’t--I’d feel kinda weird doing that.”

“Why?  It’s not as if you need clothes anyway.  And if no one’s around, what difference does it make?”

“But what if someone sees us?”

“Ah--so what. We’ll be seeing that cop in a few hours anyway.”

She stood and with no further ado, skinned the kitty with her shirt and peeled off her stretchy pants.  She smiled at him again.  “Besides, it might take your mind off your stomach.  And bring Pudge with you, will you?”  She climbed up, peeked out once again, and then she was gone.

Oskar frowned as he continued to pat the owl’s head.

“Well, Pudge, why not.  It’ll be weird, but . . . what else is new, huh?”

He joined her beside the truck.  The night was drizzly and foggy; so foggy, in fact, that they could barely see ten meters in any direction.  He wondered if it was always like this in Malmö because it was so close to the water, or whether things tonight were unusual.

To distract himself from her nudity, and hoping that she would likewise be distracted from his, he brought Pudge’s box up and looked in at him.  “Do you think he’ll be all right in this rain?”

She looked down into the box.  “It’s not sticking to his feathers.  I think he’ll be okay.”

“Maybe we can open the back of one of those trailers, and let him hop around in there.”

“No—let’s not do it so close to our truck.  Let’s just take him back to the trolley car and then take him out.  Maybe we can find some more bugs for him there.”

He looked at her, still uncomfortable with their complete absence of clothing.  “But Eli, it’s clear across on the other side of the field.  We don’t have anything on, and—”

“Oskar, there’s no one around here.”  Her voice became even more teasing and playful than before they’d climbed out, and Oskar suddenly realized that something had given way inside her; that her impulsive decision to go out naked was a release of built-up tension that they’d felt from having to sneak furtively about in the shadows for so long; always hiding, always fearful of being seen.  “You’re still thinking that you’re like how you were before I bit you, but you’re not.  Like I said, you don’t need clothes.  You can take a bath in the rain.  Com’on!”  She took his hand, and they headed off toward the back lot.  Her spontaneity was infectious, and as he ran by her side, he began to giggle; couldn’t stop himself.  This is so crazy.  But fun.

He felt very strange to be running across the field not only in his bare feet, but without clothes.  It was liberating and scary to feel the air over his entire body, and he kept wondering what would happen if they really did meet someone out here.  Soon, he fell behind her as he felt the pebbles and grassy stubble on the soles of his feet, making him pick his way more carefully over the uneven ground.  “Eli—wait up!”  Her form resolidified from the gray, hazy shape it had taken in front of him as she returned to his side. 

“Sorry.  Not used to running without my shoes.”

She waited for him and then swung in next to him as they continued.  “Tenderfoot.”

“I know it.  I’m a city boy, I guess.”

“When I was little, I always loved running around without my shoes on.  You know, in the Spring . . . feeling the grass between my toes.”

“Yeah, I like that, too.”  He thought for a moment about the summers he had spent at his father’s place.  Then he turned his head and looked at her.  “You ever done this before?  Run around outside with no clothes on?”

She smiled, and Oskar was happy to see that like her eyes, that, too, was unchanged by their abstinence.  “Maybe.”

“You have, haven’t you.  Come on, fess up.”

She chuckled.  “Okay, I did.  But it was on a dare.  It wasn’t like I did it all the time.”

“Uh huh.  Sure.”

“It’s true.  How ’bout you?”

He blushed.  “Are you kidding?—no way.  First time for me.” 

They were silent for awhile as they continued across the field.  A few kilometers away, the whistle of a train blew, the sound muted by the rain and fog.

“You’ve had a lot of firsts with me, haven’t you, Oskar?”  Now she sounded reflective and thoughtful.

“That’s for sure.”

“Have they made you happy, or . . . do you wish sometimes you’d never met me?  I mean—do you ever wish that maybe you could just go back to your normal old life?”

“Eli, if I’d never met you, I’d be dead.”

“That’s not really what I meant.”

“I know, but it’s the truth.  You saved my life.”

“That’s because I love you, Oskar.  And don’t forget, you saved mine, too.”

“I love you too, Eli. And I've never forgotten that time in your apartment.  And yes, you do make me happy.  Every minute of every day.”

She squeezed his hand.  “Good.”  Then she stumbled a little.  “The grass out here stinks.  It’s hard and crinkly.”

“I know.”

“Well, com’on—let’s not walk, then.”  She pulled gently, and they both left the ground and began to skim like a pair of fish over the field.

“Eli, what if someone—”

“Shhh.  Just be quiet, and keep your ears open.  We’ll hear anyone before they hear us.  Okay?”

“Okay.”

As silent as shadows, they slipped through the stand of trees and soon came to the spur track with the old, abandoned trolley cars.  No one was around, and they stopped outside the one with the broken door.  He put Pudge in his box down just inside the door, out of the rain.

Eli lifted an arm and sniffed her pit.  “Whew.  Man.”  She began to scrub herself with her hands, and Oskar stood in front of her and did likewise.  As he did so, he discovered that he was no longer self-conscious.  Eli didn’t seem to care or notice that he was hanging out, and had been acting toward him as she always did.  And although initially he kept glancing at her pubis, he soon lost interest; it seemed perfectly natural that it was accessible to view.

After a few minutes of vigorous scrubbing, she stopped and stepped closer.  “Do I smell better?”

He leaned close and sniffed.  “Definitely.  How about me?”

“Yeah.  A lot.”

“Good.”  He watched her wring the water out of her hair.  “You know, I really wish your hair wasn’t so white.  I like it black.”

“Well, maybe we’ll get some help with that tonight.  We’ll see, huh?  Keep our fingers crossed?”

He smiled hopefully.  “Yeah.”

“Come on.  Let’s see how Pudge is doing.”

They took the owl inside and down to the back, where there was an open area for standing passengers.  Eli lifted him out of the box and gently placed him on the floor.  He shook himself, spraying a fine mist of water around, and then began to preen.  Oskar cleaned out his box and refolded his rag bedding.  Then they sat down side by side against the back wall and watched him.

“There was an owl who lived around our farm, once,”  Eli remarked.  “I only saw it a few times, but it was a lot bigger than Pudge.”

“What kind was it?”

“Not sure . . . but it was a full-sized owl.  We’d hear it out in the trees.  Papa liked it because he thought it’d keep the mice down.”

“What kind of owl do you think Pudge is?”

“I don’t know, but he sure is tiny.  I wonder if he could even handle a mouse.”

Oskar laughed softly.  “Yeah, I know.  But he ate all those bugs.”

They were quiet for awhile.  Pudge began to hop around.

“Does this bother you, Oskar?  That we’re sitting here with no clothes?”

“Well, it did at first, but now it doesn’t.  Actually, it’s starting to feel normal--which I never thought I’d say.”

“Do you ever wonder why people are so ashamed of their bodies?”

“I guess I’ve thought about it a few times.  It does seem a little odd, when you think about it.  I mean, it’s how we are.  But of course, we need clothes anyway to stay warm—or I mean, I used to.”

“I think you look nice without clothes, Oskar.”

He wasn’t sure how to respond, and was preparing to tell her, in the absence of anything more intelligent, that she looked nice, too, when Eli spoke again.

“Animals don’t seem to mind being naked, do they?”

“No.” 

She pulled her legs up to her chest, thinking for a moment.  “Have you ever thought you’d like to be an animal?”

He relaxed, grateful that their conversation had shifted to more comfortable grounds. “Yeah.  When I was little, I used to think it’d be cool to be a cat.  Because, you know, it always seemed to me that cats pretty much had it made.  And when Mom asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up once, that’s what I told her.  I don’t think it was what she wanted to hear.”  He laughed.

Eli smiled and slid over against him.  “Sometimes I’ve thought it would be nice to be an animal.  They don’t seem to have any worries, like us.”

“What kind of animal would you be?”

“I don’t know.  Something peaceful, I guess.  Like a horse, or maybe a giraffe.”

“A giraffe?”  He smiled and looked at her quizzically.

“Uh huh—what’s wrong with that?  They have cool spots and pretty eyes, and they don’t hurt anything.  And they can run fast.”

“Nothing’s wrong with it.  I just hadn’t thought of it, that’s all.”

They heard the freight train whistle again; two long blasts.  Then there was a loud, low rumble and a rhythmic clanking, accompanied by squeaks and the groan of steel ties as it rolled by not too far away. 

He put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her to him.  “Something you said last night got me wondering--when you talked about commanding the mice.”

“What’s that?”

“I started to think about whether animals know about god.  Do you think they do?”

“Hmm . . . I don’t know.  Maybe on a different level than us?”

“Different level?”

“Well, you don’t see them going to church, do you?”

“No.”

Her voice assumed a detached quality as she thought out loud.  “Animals aren’t like us—they don’t know right from wrong.  But you can’t look into the eyes of a wolf and say there’s no intelligence there.  They think a lot—I know it.  So I think that maybe they have souls.”

He nodded.  “Uh huh.  That’s why sometimes I’ve thought it’d be great to be an animal—you wouldn’t have to worry about trying to be good, or have grown-ups telling you all the time that you have to be good.  Because they’re innocent.  I mean—you wouldn’t know any better.  You’d just be.”

“Exactly.”  She turned her head to look at him.  “But you know what?  I think I’d rather know.  Because if I were just an animal, then I doubt I’d ever be able to feel the way you make me feel, Oskar.  I’d never know what real love is.”  She took his head into her hands and kissed him gently.

A picture swam up out of the darkness behind his closed eyes.  It shimmered, wavered, and then solidified.  The top of his head and shoulders, seen from above, below the surface of the pale, unforgiving water; her arm extending down and her hand pulling him up, back from death.  His own face--eyes first closed, then slowly opening.  Then recognition, followed by a happy smile. 

The image shifted and blurred, becoming briefly indistinct.  Then he was shown something that he knew had not happened that night at the pool, but was what Eli wished had happened, had there been time and had they been alone: himself, laid gently and with loving care down on the gray tiles by the water’s edge, where there were no bodies, no blood.  Himself, weak but alive, as seen through Eli’s eyes: his slender arms; a pair of fragile, but perfectly formed clavicles above a pale, narrow chest that rose and fell with renewed life; his quietly smiling face, youthful and open. 

In this now sharply focused image he experienced the yearning in her heart for him--for his innocence, his kindness, his acceptance.  Then this yearning, this love, merged with the vision of himself as she knelt and drew him to her.  His frail, vulnerable body was innocence; the beating heart within him was acceptance and understanding.  And as she pulled his wet, naked body up and he felt himself clasped in her arms, he understood that to Eli, he was Beauty, body, mind and soul; that what she identified in her mind as Oskar and as The Beautiful were really one and the same.  And she drew him as near as possible to herself; loved and cherished her Oskar, whom she had snatched away from death, with all her heart and strength, never, ever to let him go.

Their kiss broke in a soft, fragile silence.  At last, he was able to speak.  “Is that what you meant when you said you like how I look without my clothes?”

This time there was no smile.  In her deep, dark eyes he sensed only the hopeful anticipation that what she had just expressed would not be too much for him to bear.  “Yes.”

He slowly nodded, then put his arms around her and pulled her to him; whispered in her ear before they kissed again.

“Eli, don’t worry—I’ll always be yours.”

They slid to the floor and laid on their sides, face to face, heads resting on their arms, and touched one another softly while they listened to the thump of the train and the patter of rain on the glass.  Time seemed to stand still as they kissed and kissed again, over and over.

A window at the front of the trolley suddenly exploded inward.  A brick thumped against one of the padded bench seats a few rows back and then hit the floor.  Then they heard approaching laughter.  It was very close--at least three people, perhaps more.

Deeply frightened, Oskar scooped Pudge up in a panic and dropped him unceremoniously into his box as Eli scrambled over and peeked out the closest side window to see who was coming.  Three . . . no, four, dark shapes emerged from the fog only a few meters away from the trolley.  The rumble of the train had masked their approach.

“Quick, Oskar!” she hissed.  Together they crawled up the aisle toward the middle of the trolley on their hands and knees, away from the open area in the back.  Unhappy at being jostled, Pudge fluttered in his box and squawked.  “Pudge, shh!”  Oskar tried to carry the box more carefully as they scrambled across the dirty, threadbare carpet.

Here!”  Her voice was only a whisper as she crawled under a pair of back-to-back bench seats to their right.  Oskar followed her in, pushing the box before him.  They embraced each other and curled up on their sides as tightly as they could, with Pudge in his box a few centimeters from their heads, just as the first person stepped up into the trolley.  They froze, hoping they were out of sight.  Oskar, with his bare bottom facing out toward the aisle, now wished mightily that they had some clothes on.  Anything would be better than this.

There was the sound of booted feet tramping up into the trolley, accompanied by more laughter.  A scrape as the brick was lifted off the floor; then more glass shattered.

“Yeah!”  A whistle; then more glass.

“Hey, check it out!  I’m driving the trolley, man!”

Laughter and scuffling.  “You look like a fuckin’ douchebag.”

“Hey—check this out.”  A rapid, rhythmic thumping sound.

“Lookit that shit fly.  Cuts through it like butter.”

“Yeah.”

A loud clang of metal on metal.  Oskar thought of the stainless steel handpoles near the front of the cab.

“Hey, watchit with that thing, will you?  Fuck!”  Laughter.  “You’re an asshole, Per.”

“Let me try.”

“No.”

“Give it to me, you freak.  It’s my fuckin sword.”

“I’ll give it to you.”

“Hey you assholes, get out of my way.”

The sound of approaching footsteps grew louder over more thumping sounds and laughter.  Oskar held his breath as the person approached; the boots made a grinding noise on the gritty shards of broken glass, and he waited for them to stop by their seat.  But they didn’t; instead, they went past as whoever it was went to the open end of the trolley, where they had been only seconds before.  Soon, the activity at the front door ceased as the rest of the group followed to the rear.  None of them stopped.  Oskar breathed a sigh of relief; then issued a thought.

Eli—what’re we going to do?

Nothing.  Just be still until they go away.

What if they don’t go away? 

She didn’t answer.

“You got any cigarettes, Per?”

“Yeah, sure.”  The sound of someone flicking a lighter.  More thumping sounds as someone sat down.

“Good to be out of the rain.”

“Give me one of those, will you?”

“No one out tonight, man.”

“Yeah.  Everyone’s scared.”  Laughter.

Booo . . . nice night for a vampire!”  More snickering.

“You believe that shit, Axe?”

“That cop’s off his fuckin’ rocker, man.  He should be locked up somewhere.”

“I dunno.  Did you hear about that pit they found?  With all the bodies?”

“Yeah.  Some weird shit there for sure.”

“I think it’d be cool to be a vampire.”

“Yeah.”

“Just think of all the cool shit you could do.  You know—fly, have super strength—all that shit.”

“Get to kill people, too—that’d be awesome.”

“Got someone in mind, Isak?”

“Maybe.”  More laughter, softer this time.  “I could think of a few.”

“You could set yourself up real good.  All the money you’d ever want.  Turn a few girls into vampires, too, and have them as your slaves.  Like Count Dracula with his witchy women.  Keep them around and make ’em do whatever you want.  That’d be fuckin’ awesome.”

Oskar sensed Eli’s reaction; the anger began to emanate from her like heat from a blacklight.  Eli . . .  She caught his apprehension and pulled the hostility back inside her, as if air was being drawn out of a balloon and back into her lungs.  He could sense her clamp down, closing a door that had begun to swing open in her mind.

There was a clank as something was dropped on the floor, followed by a rustling and then a quiet sloshing sound.

“Ahh.”

“Hey, gimme some of that.”

“Yeah—pass it around, Per.”

“You pricks are so fucking cheap.  Why don’t you ever buy your own shit?”

There was a lull in the conversation as they took pulls on a bottle.

“Fuck.  Axe, you fuckin’ pig.  Why’d you have to take all the rest of it?”

“’Cause it’s good, that’s why.”  A loud, ripping belch.

Laughter, followed by more belching from someone else.

“Isak, you got any weed?”

“If I did, I wouldn’t give you any, you fuckin’ mooch.”

A different voice.  “Com’ on, Isak—give.  Let’s toke up.”

Grumpily: “I got a little.”  A pause.

WoohooBig fuckin’ joint.  ‘Little’ my ass.”

“That’s ’cause I know I’ve always gotta share with peckerwoods like you, Axe.”

“Aww . . . ain’t you sweet.”  A throaty chuckle.  “When’re you gonna share Sara with me?”

“In your dreams, asswipe.”

“Got that right.”  Loud laughter all around.

“Shut the fuck up.”

The sweet, cloying odor of marijuana drifted through the trolley car, accompanied by the sounds of heavy drags on the shared reefer.  Time dragged by; seconds turned into minutes; five; ten; fifteen; more.  The hard floor was beginning to grow uncomfortable, and Oskar began to wonder how long they would sit back there, enjoying themselves.  Might be a long time—all night, for all they knew.  He began to wish he could look at his watch, but he didn’t want to risk moving and making a sound.

“Man, that’s good weed.”

“No doubt.”

“Who’s dealin’, Isak?  Jan?”

“Naw.  The last pot I bought from him was laced with some shit that made me sick.  I stopped buying from him.  I got it from Ian.”

Ian?  I didn’t know he was dealing.”

“Just started.  His brother got him into it.”

“Well tell him I’m interested.  This must be that skunk weed.”

“Purple haze.”

“Mmm.”

“Hey Lud, you don’t look so good.”  A mumbled, incoherent reply.

“Kick him, willya, Per?”

“What was that shit he took earlier, man?”

“I dunno.  I think he’s been shootin up.  He was in the toilet for awhile.”

Isak’s voice.  “He told me he’s been doin smack.  He was outta fuckin’ control at the club.  Now he’s off his rush.”

A low whistle.  “Expensive habit.”

“Fuck—who cares.  His old man is loaded.”

“I feel so mellow.”

“So Per . . . Reggie told me tonight that she got a new tattoo for you—in a ‘special place.’  She was real secretive about it.  Wanna tell us?”

Laughter.  “Ahh, yeah.  She showed me last night.  And it’s none of your damn business.”

“Aww, com’on man.”

“Yeah.  Fill us in.”  Sniggering.

“Well let’s just say she can make it do a little dance if she wants.”

Loud guffaws.  “Did you make it dance?”

“You bet your ass I did.”

“Mmm.  Me like, me like.  Me getsum pus—”

Hoo—hoo. 

A sudden, surprised silence.

Shh!  What the hell was that?”

Eli . . . Eli . . .

Make him quiet down, Oskar.

“There’s a fuckin’ owl in here.”

“It wouldn’t be in the trolley, you dope.”

“Sure sounded like it to me.”

Hoo.

Pudge, shut up!

“It’s coming from up there.”

“Have Lud check it out.”

Someone chuckled.  “I think he’s asleep.”

“More like comatose.”  More laughter.

“I’ll go see.”

Hoo hoo.

Oskar dragged the box as close to them as he could.  Eli could feel him tense in her arms, like a spring wound as tightly as it would go.

Don’t move, Oskar.  Don’t move.

The footsteps advanced slowly; one or two steps, then a pause, then a few more.  Coming up the aisle; searching.

Eli took her arm off Oskar’s back and brought her hand over to the top of the box, poised to reach in and crush the life out of Pudge if he began to hoot again.  But in the end, it wasn’t necessary.

The footsteps stopped right next to their seats.

Axe’s voice.  “Hey, there’s someone under the seat up here!”

“What?”

“I shit you not, man.  And they—”  the voice grew louder as Axe knelt down, “they don’t got no clothes on!”

Adrenaline shot through Oskar like a hot knife.  Yet still, he did not move--did not so much as twitch.

Per spoke from the back.  “Let me see.” 

“Hey . . . hey you.”

More footsteps, approaching rapidly.  Then bemused laughter, right next to them.  “There’s two of them.  They were fucking in the trolley car.”

More laughter; then Per spoke again.  “Lookit that naked little ass.  Come outta there, you two.”

Oskar felt a hand touch his back.  Eli lay in his arms, absolutely still.  The hand poked once, twice.  Then it grabbed a butt cheek and squeezed.

“He’s as cold as ice, man.”

“Are you sure he’s alive?”

A pause.  “I think so.”

“Well they ain’t movin.”

Shit.  Get outta the way, douchebag.” Isak.

A strong, hard hand grasped Oskar’s ankle and started to drag him out.

Eli Eli ELI—

The change overcame him; the hunger instantly followed.  He twisted and rolled, and in one motion lunged out from under the seats with a barking noise.  Like a viper striking from the tall grass he fell upon Isak, who flopped onto his back in the aisle with a surprised grunt.  Then he began to scream as one clawed hand dug into his scalp, the other into his shoulder, crushing the bones of the joint beneath.  Oskar opened his mouth wide and bit deeply into his throat.  Isak stopped screaming and began to jerk and thrash under him.

The weed-induced fog was just beginning to leave Per’s startled brain at the amazing spectacle of the blond-headed boy leaping upon Isak, when the second, naked form crawled out from under the seats.  A white-haired girl with bottomless black eyes, those eyes that he’d seen in that Wanted Sign, and her mouth was opening, and in that mouth was—

Oh Jesus--

She sprang upon him.  He stumbled backwards onto the seat on the opposite side of the trolley, trying to fend her off; then they slid down onto the floor between the seats.  She wrapped herself around him in a deadly embrace as he seized her head with both hands, trying to keep her away.  For a few seconds they remained this way, face to face, his eyes wide and terrified; hers as black as midnight and full of dark abandonment.  He strained with all his strength to keep her at bay, and he saw the pain and hatred in her writhing features as he clamped down on her head with everything he had.  But it was not enough.

With seemingly inexorable force, her head descended toward him despite all of his efforts, her eyes gleaming, catlike, in the darkness.  Then she was so close that he was no longer able to see her face.  His last words came out harshly between ragged breaths.  “No . . . no . . . no—”  Then the pain began.  He began to scream as his fists rained blows upon her head.  Yet still her teeth sank deeper, biting and tearing.

Axel Pemfors stood rooted to the spot, staring in disbelief while his friends lay on the floor, struggling to remain alive.  When both Isak and Pers stopped screaming, and the only noise was the sound of sucking and swallowing, his paralysis broke--he turned and ran.  With a thump and a bang he fled through the broken front door of the trolley.

Get him, Oskar.

Oskar didn’t respond; he was too caught up in his feeding.  And Eli couldn’t stop, because Per wasn’t dead yet.  Axel’s footsteps faded into the fog.

The high-pitched screaming brought Lud out of his sleep. 

Once he’d mainlined, he’d had a very euphoric time at the club.  It was the second time he’d injected heroin, and the sensation was much better than all of the snorting he’d done.  It was fucking unbelievable.

He had continued to feel pretty good after they’d left, but had started to come down when they’d gotten to Per’s house.  He’d wanted to crash there, but then Per and Isak had started talking about heading over to Jan’s place, and of course he couldn’t stay at Per’s if they did that.  So they’d all headed out into the shitty drizzle again, and halfway across the trainyard he’d really started to feel groggy.  He was beginning to stumble when Isak had spotted the trolley car and decided it’d be fun to check it out.  To Lud’s befuddled mind, it had sounded like a great idea—anything to get out of the rain and off his feet.

The last thing he’d remembered was someone talking about vampires.  Then everything had gone blissfully hazy and dark—until now.

With half-lidded eyes, he looked up the aisle of the trolley car.  Everything was sideways because he had fallen over after whoever he’d been leaning against had gotten up and left him.

Who’d been screaming?  He couldn’t figure it out.  He saw two people on the floor in the middle of the aisle, a few meters away.  It was hard to tell in the dark, but as he slowly righted himself, it looked like they were making out.  Hugging each other and kissing—no, necking . . . or something.  And the person on top was someone he’d never seen before; someone with blond hair and—his eyes widened a little--no clothes.  Looked like this person was lying on top of . . . Isak?  Yeah, it was Isak, all right.

Soundlessly he continued to push with his left arm until he was more or less vertical.  He began to feel more awake.  Jesus—listen to that slurping sound.  What the fuck were they doing?  And where was everyone else?

The boy on top of Isak suddenly growled.  He head shook and his hair quivered.  He was

(biting?)

 . . . yes—biting Isak.  And Isak didn’t look like he was moving too much.  His body shook when the boy growled, but that was it.

He suddenly understood that Isak was dead--the boy had killed him.  And now the boy was--was . . .

(that killer blond kid running with that fucking vampire holy SHIT he must be a vampire too and he’s drinking Isak’s BLOOD)

Something glimmered in his peripheral vision.  As if he were in a dream, he cranked his head around and saw Axe’s sword lying on the floor to his left.  The so-called “sword” that was, in fact, a cheap reproduction of “Toledo steel” that Axe had bought on impulse at a pawn shop.  Then, having grown bored with its dull edge over the summer, he’d taken his old man’s grinder to it one day and given it a sharp, uneven edge. 

A smoldering doobie lay a short distance from the sword near an empty vodka bottle.  Where was Axe?  Per?  He couldn’t figure it out.

The slurping, sucking sounds continued.  The boy was really getting into it, biting deeper into Isak’s neck.

He got himself moving; crawled over to the sword.  Grabbed it and then tried to stand, then realized that he couldn’t without some help.  But fortunately for him, help was there in the form of a metal pole the trolley passengers had held fifty years ago, or whenever the fuck the trolleys had been running in Malmö.  He slid his free hand up the pole, grabbed, and pulled as he pushed up with his legs.  Suddenly he was surprised to find himself standing.  A little wobbly, but by God, he was up.

He looked to his right and saw some double pneumatic doors and the big step down leading to them.  The rear exit.  Could he get to it without falling?  And even if he could, would they open?  He doubted it.

He looked back at the boy and saw that he was, indeed, as naked as a jaybird.  His back was heaving like some kind of wild animal from the African plain—a lion or a cheetah, munching on a fallen gazelle or wildebeast.  But he wasn’t watching; wasn’t paying any attention to Lud.

Then he saw Per’s boots a little farther up, jutting out into the aisle, and realized that the boy wasn’t the only one making those godawful noises.  It must be that girl—the one with the black hair who’d killed all those people.

Somehow, he wasn’t scared.  He knew he should be; maybe it was the smack that was keeping his nerves in check.  He felt positively serene. 

Keep standing here—you’ll die when the boy finally sees you.  Try to run—you’ll die when they hear you at the door.  He looked down at the sword in his hand.  Only one option, dude.  He could do it—why not?

As Oskar drained the last of Isak’s blood, he began to feel the effects of the alcohol and the marijuana.  He was suddenly lightheaded and unsteady, and when he began to lift his head, he felt as though he might fall over onto his side.  He let go of the young man’s shoulder and grabbed the edge of the seat next to him to steady himself.

Pudge hooted again; then he heard the scrape of a boot on the floor.  He looked up.  A dark figure and something shiny.  Then an explosion of pain in his left shoulder, and a bizarre, intense feeling of . . . coming apart.

(arm’s not where it should be)

Cold metal in its place.

He screamed--high and undulating.  A geyser of blood blew out from the severed ends of his subclavian vessels, spraying over the seat to his left that he’d been holding a second before.  His left arm and shoulder flopped down, now attached to his body only by the muscles beneath his armpit.

Lud yanked on the sword. It was imbedded in the boy’s torso and wouldn’t come free, so all he ended up doing was pulling the screaming boy down onto his face.  As he fell on top of Isak’s corpse his body twisted, and his nearly severed arm splayed out.  An amazing quantity of dark red blood continued to flow onto the floor, rapidly forming a large puddle.  Then the sword came loose.  But Lud never had time to lift it again.

Over the boy’s ear-splitting screams came a loud bark.  The girl struck Lud like a bullet, knocking him all the way back to the open end of the trolley.  He had no time to react.  The clawed hands scrambled to kill; they seized him by the head and clenched violently.  Lud’s skull imploded, and his Morphine-addled brain squirted like pudding out the back of his skull, and blew out the front of his face in a liquid jet of pinkish-gray tissue.

She released Lud’s lifeless body and turned, swaying drunkenly, blood and brain matter dripping from her hands.  Her head was spinning.  “Oskar!”  She staggered back to him, and for the first time, took in his shocking wound.  His blood was everywhere.   He had stopped screaming and was lying face down, half on, half off Isak’s prone form.

At the sound of her voice he turned his head sluggishly and looked up toward her, his lips and lower jaw smeared with blood.  She wasn’t sure if he was seeing her.  “Aaallii . . . .”  His skin was almost completely white.  She didn’t know if he would live or die.

She pushed him onto his right side, where he lay as if cuddling up to Isak’s still form.  His left arm and shoulder didn’t follow, remaining tethered to his body only by a narrow band of muscle and fascia.  She took his nearly severed limb and attempted to lay it back in position over the enormous hole in the side of his body, but it didn’t want to stay and kept sliding down.  As she kept trying to push it back into place, she began making a panic-stricken, whining sound deep in the back of her throat, and her tears blurred her vision.

He needs blood.  Lots of it.

She abandoned her effort to position his arm and took his head carefully into her hands.  “Oskar, can you hear me?  Oskar, talk!”

His eyes rolled sluggishly in their orbits, searching for her face.  They weren’t tracking very well, and she realized with rising fear that his enormous pupils seemed to be looking for her somewhere at the ceiling.  She punched the tip of her right index finger sharply into her left wrist at its juncture with her hand and dragged it in a straight line three to four centimeters upwards, barely aware of the pain as the slit widened and the dark redness flowing thickly out.  She brought the wound up and jammed it squarely into his half-open mouth.

“Drink!  Dammit, Oskar, drink!”

His lips moved feebly as it ran into his mouth and overflowed onto his cheek, then began to run back in a line toward his ear.  She thought she saw his tongue moving inside his mouth, and then she nearly succumbed to a wave of dizziness.   When her vision re-established itself, she saw that Oskar’s eyes were closed.  The movement of his lips slowed, growing weaker, and finally stopped.  His mouth hung half open and then his lips slid away in a smear of blood from the wound and down onto the pad of fat at the bottom of her palm.

“No!  Oskar!”  She grabbed his head from behind, fought off another wave of vertigo, and repositioned it back onto her wrist, forcing his mouth wide so that she could get as much of her blood into him as possible.  But he was now entirely passive, not helping at all, and so most of it splattered uselessly onto Isak’s forehead and hair.  Yet still, for many minutes she continued to try.

In the distance she heard sirens, blaring their high-low pattern.  Getting louder.  Her panic intensified.

A groan came from behind the seat--Per.  He should be dead—but he wasn’t.

(didn’t twist his goddamn neck and soon this guy’ll get up too, dammit)

With a cry of fury and frustration she let go of Oskar and looked wildly around the floor; saw the sword lying one row back where Lud had dropped it.

(gotta get Oskar outta here back to the milk truck where it’s safe, safe yes that’s where we gotta go Oh please Oskar don’t die Please)

She lunged up and grabbed the sword; almost stumbled and fell.  Turned and started to step over Isak and Oskar to get to Per.  And as she did, she saw Isak’s eyes open.

Per’s head began to rise up behind the seat back.  Then a pale hand with a skull tattooed on it followed, grasping the top of the seat.  The sirens continued, cutting through the fog.  Eli stepped squarely onto Isak’s stomach, stumbled past him, and turned to meet Per’s vacant stare just as he was standing up.  She swung the sword around in a flat arc.

The blade didn’t quite make it all the way through his neck, but almost.  Per’s head toppled off, back and sideways, and dangled briefly by a thin piece of skin and fascia over his shoulder blades; then there was a soft, moist tearing sound as it gave way, followed by a heavy thud.  The headless body wobbled briefly, then collapsed back into the footwell from where it’d come.  Eli, herself swaying, watched the body for movement, uncertain of whether to use the sword again.

Suddenly a hand swiped at her ankle--Isak was starting to sit up.  His long, brown hair hung in wild strands about his thin, pale face, and his eyes glared at her under heavy brows stained dark with her own blood.  She leapt sideways with a little ungainly hop and shrieked with fear.  Then she brought the sword around and plunged it squarely into his chest. 

Isak fell backwards on top of Oskar.  His body arched violently, his back rising completely off the floor, and his hands scrabbled to the blade jutting out from his chest, fluttering and fumbling uselessly around it.  He grunted and then began to moan continuously as he thrashed back and forth--eyes bulging, mouth gaping wide in pain and surprise, his feet thumping a drumbeat of denial on the floor.  Then, just as abruptly, he went completely limp and settled back next to Oskar with a sigh.

“Oskar!”  Eli uttered a terrified sob and came to him once again.  She grabbed the front of Isak’s jean jacket and after a brief struggle, managed to pull it off his sagging torso.  Then she wrapped Oskar’s upper body up into it and with groggy, jerky movements, half-carried, half-dragged him toward the rear of the trolley.

As she reached the rear doors she saw them: police cars coming up the road behind the warehouses only a few hundred meters away, their blue lights blurred flashes through the fog, the wailing of their sirens so loud now that they hurt her ears.  She thrust her fingers through the gap between the rear doors and pulled them apart with all her strength.  They came open with a screech, but the effort this time really did make her faint, and she fell backwards onto the step on her bottom.  She rested for a few seconds until her consciousness swam back, then regained her feet and struggled to haul Oskar down and out of the trolley.

Once she was out and onto the wet, rocky grass, she turned and started to drag him toward the stand of trees and the milk truck that she knew lay beyond.  But she stopped short when she saw that police cars were already in that direction. 

She spun and looked back across the trainyard toward Limhamnsvägen, where she and Oskar had gotten off the bus a few nights ago.  More blue flashing lights, moving rapidly behind the big bushes they’d crossed through.

She sensed dark shapes, running toward her through the fog.  Time to fly.  She scrambled to get a better hold on Oskar, to hoist him up into her arms.  His head bounced and flopped as she jostled his body into position.

His voice was weak, but she heard it all the same.  “Eli.  Don’t.”

She stopped and looked at his face, the tears now streaming freely down hers.  They were tears of confusion and fear, but when she heard his voice, they became tears of relief.  His eyes were open a little.

“Oskar!  You’re alive!  But we need to—”

He managed a weak, ironic smile through his bloodstained lips.  “No.  It’s over.  They’ll kill you if you try.”

She hesitated, uncertain.  All of her instincts told her to flee; to launch her exhausted, trembling body into the sky.  But in the end, the uncertainty of whether she even could, together with the peaceful resignation in his eyes, won out.  With a little cry of defeat, she collapsed down onto the ground, letting him slip in the process and go down harder than she wanted.

His eyes were closed again; his face, still pasty white.  He seemed to be trying to raise his good arm, but it was under the jacket and he couldn’t.  Then his eyes opened a little, and he looked at her.  “What time is it?”

She frowned in confusion at this unexpected question, and when she realized he was trying to look at his watch, she pulled his forearm out from underneath the jacket.

“Five to one.”

A heavy-set police officer with gray hair emerged from the darkness.  He was alone and carried only a flashlight.  He stopped about three meters from them and shined his light into their faces, making Eli wince.

“I’m Detective Magnusson.”

She put her hand up to block the light and stared at him, half-blinded, trying to take in his features.  He looked like someone’s grandfather.

He was pretty much out of breath from having run across the trainyard, and it was only with difficulty that he kept himself from putting his hands on his knees and panting like a winded dog.  He and Martin had arrived at the central police station only a half hour before the report had come in that his suspects had attacked some people in Limhamn.  Together with other units of the Malmö Police that had been on standby for the anticipated events at 2, they’d been vectored to the location with directions from the witness who’d escaped.

She was somehow smaller than he’d imagined, kneeling on the hardscrabble ground by the tracks with the boy in her arms—unquestionably Oskar Eriksson, who appeared unconscious.  Except for the dark stains that coated her chin and lower jaw, there was nothing about her that appeared threatening.  She seemed like a very sad little kid who’d just been scolded for doing something bad.  She looked . . . defeated.  He fought hard to contain a rising sense of pity.

“Is there anyone in there who needs medical attention?”

She looked down and shook her head.  “No.”  Then she thought for a moment, and looked back up.  “But Oskar’s hurt bad and he needs help.  And our pet owl’s in there.  His wing is broken.”

He took a step closer.  Behind him were other shapes; more police officers.  He looked angrily over his shoulder.  “Stay back.  Tell your men to stay back, dammit.”

He looked back at her.  “What’s wrong with Oskar?”

“He got cut really bad.  His arm’s almost off, and he lost alot of blood.”

“Well, we’ve—what’s your name?”

She didn’t look up.  “Eli.  I’m Eli.” 

“Well, Eli, we have some people here who can help Oskar, but we can’t do anything when we’re afraid you’re going to kill us if we get too close.  You know what I mean?”

She nodded silently.  “Yes . . . I do.”

“So if I come up there and take a look at Oskar, you’re not going to attack me.  Is that right?”

She shook her head forlornly.  “I won’t—I promise.”

“All right—’cause I don’t want anyone else to get hurt—especially me.  Let me see him, then.”  He pointed his flashlight down and walked hesitantly to them.

She was holding Oskar’s upper body in her arms, his head on the crook of her elbow.  When he was at their side, he crouched down next to them and shined his light on Oskar’s face.  He didn’t react.

“Lay him down, Eli, just for a second, okay?”

“He was talking a minute ago.  He told me not to fly.”

His eyes flicked briefly up at her face before returning to Oskar.  “Mmm.  Good advice, I think.  Let me see him, now.”  Carefully he pulled the jacket back from Oskar’s chest; sucked air in harshly through his teeth at what he saw.  He put his fingers under Oskar’s jaw and gently pressed; felt nothing.  Then he felt his right wrist.

“He’s got no pulse.”

“Our hearts don’t beat much, anyway--we don’t work like normal.  Can you check again?”

He grunted; then put his fingers back on the jugular.  Frowned.  “Yeah, it’s there—a little.”  He gently slapped Oskar’s cheek.  “Oskar?  Can you hear me?  Speak, buddy.”

“He needs blood--but he can't have the kind in those bags.  I tried to give him mine, but he passed out.”  She showed him her wrist with its thin, white scar--as if he would understand.  "I need to try again."

He frowned again, deeper this time, as he grasped the significance of the scar.  Then he looked directly at her face, taking in her dark eyes and blood-smeared face, and tried to keep his voice level.  “Eli, there’s some people here who can try to help Oskar, if you’re willing.  He’ll need to go to the hospital.  What do you say?”

“As long as I’m with him.  I won’t leave him, ever.”

“Mmm.  Well, we’ll try to accommodate you--and it sounds like you'll need to be with him at least until he's been stabilized.  Want to ride in the ambulance?”

She didn’t answer at first; just stared long and hard at him.  Then she pulled Oskar back to herself.  “’Try’ isn’t good enough.  I won’t ever be separated from him, do you understand?  Because he’s the only thing in this world that I really love.”

“Okay.”  Her tone surprised him.  He paused, hoping he could carry out what he was about to promise.  “I give you my word, Eli.  You can stay with him as long as you want.”

“And what’s going to happen after the hospital?”

“I wish I could tell you that—but the truth is, I don’t know.  But I do know one thing: I’ll do everything I can to make sure you two are treated fairly.  Okay?”

He saw the hesitation and uncertainty in her face and wondered which way she’d break.  Had he said enough?

“Okay.”

They stood together over Oskar.  He turned and looked at the men standing a short distance away.  “Get that ambulance up here right now.”

“Can I get our owl?”

He looked at her.  Could she be trusted not to run?  Then he remembered what she’d said about Oskar and realized how foolish his thought was.  “Sure.  But hurry.”

As they climbed into the back of the ambulance together it came to him for the first time that she was naked.  They sat down on the jump seats facing each other, Oskar lying between them on a stretcher.

“You want a blanket?”

She put Pudge down on the seat beside her and watched the paramedics anxiously as they started an IV in Oskar’s good arm.  “No.  I don’t need one.”

“Okay.”  He paused; then said, “I thought we were gonna meet on the crane.”

“Things didn’t work out the way we wanted.  But they almost never do.”

“Mmm.  Well maybe now things will change.”

Her voice was very soft; he almost didn’t hear it.  “I hope.”

“Me too.”

 

-- End


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