The Quarry töq-3, страница 1часть #3 серии The Öland Quartet
( The Öland Quartet - 3 )
As the last snow melts on the Swedish island of Öland, Per Morner is preparing for his children's Easter visit. But his plans are disrupted when he receives a phone call from his estranged father, Jerry, begging for help.
Per finds Jerry close to death in his blazing woodland studio. He's been stabbed, and two dead bodies are later discovered in the burnt-out building.
The only suspect, Jerry's work partner, is confirmed as one of the dead. But why does Jerry insist his colleague is still alive? And why does he think he's still a threat to his life?
When Jerry dies in hospital a few days later, Per becomes determined to find out what really happened. But the closer he gets to the truth, the more danger he finds himself in.
And nowhere is more dangerous than the nearby quarry...
TRANSLATED FROM THE SWEDISH
BY MARLAINE DELARGY
It was March in northern Öland, and the sun was shining on small, dirty-white snowdrifts as they slowly melted on the lawns at the residential home for senior citizens in Marnäs. Two blue flags fluttered in the breeze by the car park – the Swedish flag with its yellow cross, and the flag of Öland with its golden stag. Both were flying at half-mast.
A long, black car moved slowly towards the home and stopped in front of the main entrance. Two middle-aged men in thick winter coats climbed out and went around to the boot of the car, where they slid out a metal trolley. They lowered the wheels and set off, pushing it up the wheelchair ramp and in through the glass doors.
The men were undertakers.
Retired sea captain Gerlof Davidsson was sitting drinking coffee in the dining room with his fellow residents when they emerged from the lift. He watched them move along the corridor, pushing the trolley in front of them; on top of it lay yellow blankets and broad straps which would be used to secure the body. The men plodded silently past the dining room and continued towards the service lift, which would take them down to the cold store.
The murmur of conversation among the elderly residents had temporarily died away as the trolley passed by, but now it began once more.
A couple of years earlier, Gerlof recalled, everyone in the home had been asked to vote on whether they wanted the undertakers to park at the back of the building and make their way in discreetly through a side door when they came to collect someone who had passed away. Most had voted against the suggestion, Gerlof included.
The old people in the home wanted to see a dead neighbour’s final journey. They wanted to say goodbye.
The person being collected on this cold day was Torsten Axelsson, and he had died in his bed – alone and late at night, as was often the case when death came. The staff on the morning shift had found him, called a doctor to certify the death, then dressed him in his best dark suit. They had fastened a plastic bracelet with his name and ID number around one wrist, and finally they had wound a bandage around Torsten’s head to keep his jaw closed when rigor mortis set in.
Gerlof knew that Torsten had been well aware of exactly what would happen to him after his death. Before he retired he had worked as a churchwarden and gravedigger. One of the many coffins he had buried belonged to a murderer by the name of Nils Kant, but most of the graves Torsten had dug were for ordinary islanders.
He had dug graves in the churchyard all year round, except when there was a great deal of snow and the temperature below zero reached double figures. It had been particularly difficult to dig in the spring, he had explained to Gerlof, because the frost was so slow to leave the ground on Öland. But the physical exertion hadn’t been the worst thing, Torsten had added: he had found it extremely hard to get out of bed on those days when he knew he had to make his way to the churchyard to dig a grave for a child who had passed away.
Now he would soon be lowered into his own grave. In an urn – Torsten wanted to be cremated.
‘I’d rather burn than have my bones left in the ground, to be tossed here and there,’ he had said.
Things were different in the old days, Gerlof thought. When he was young and some relative died, there were no undertakers or funeral directors to take care of the practicalities. In the old days you died in your bed at home, then some relative would make a coffin.
This thought reminded Gerlof of an old family story. As a newly married couple living in a renovated cottage down in Stenvik at the beginning of the twentieth century, Gerlof’s father and mother had been woken one night by strange noises coming from the attic; it had sounded as if someone was hurling around the leftover planks of wood his father stored up there. But when he went up to see what was happening, everything was silent and there was nothing there. His father came down and went back to bed, and the crashing and banging began again. Gerlof’s parents lay there in the darkness listening to the terrifying noises, not daring to move a muscle.
When Gerlof had finished his coffee, the undertakers came back with the trolley. He could see that there was a body on it now, hidden beneath a blanket and secured with the leather straps. They moved silently and quickly towards the door.
Farewell, Torsten, he thought.
When the outside door closed, Gerlof pushed back his chair.
‘Time to go,’ he said to his companions.
He got slowly to his feet with the help of his stick. He gritted his teeth against the rheumatic pains in his legs and went into the corridor, heading for the supervisor’s office.
For a few weeks now Gerlof had been thinking something over, ever since his birthday, when he suddenly realized he would be eighty-five in just a couple of years. Time was passing so quickly – a year now that he was old was like a week when he was young. Today, following Torsten’s death, Gerlof had made up his mind.
He knocked tentatively on the supervisor’s door, and pushed it open when Boel answered. She was sitting at the computer, filling in some kind of report. Gerlof stood in the doorway, saying nothing. Eventually she looked up.
‘All right, Gerlof?’
‘What is it? Is there some kind of problem?’
He took a deep breath. ‘I have to get away from here.’
Boel started to shake her head. ‘Gerlof …’
‘I’ve already made up my mind,’ he broke in.
‘I’m going to tell you a story …’ Gerlof noticed Boel raising her eyes wearily to the ceiling, but he carried on anyway. ‘My father and mother got married in 1910. They took over an old croft where no one had lived for several years. On that first night when they went to bed, they heard strange noises from the attic … It sounded as if somebody was sorting through the planks of wood my father had stored up there. They could find no explanation for the noise, but the following morning a neighbour called round.’ Gerlof paused for effect, then went on: ‘The neighbour told them that his brother had died over on his farm the previous evening. Then he asked if they could spare him some wood to make a coffin. My father let him go up into the attic alone to choose some planks, and as my parents sat there in the kitchen listening to the banging and crashing from above, they recognized the noise … It was exactly the same as they had heard the previous night.’
Silence fell in the room.
‘And?’ said Boel.
‘It was a sign. A sign of impending death.’
‘Well, that was a very nice story, Gerlof … But what exactly is your point?’
He sighed. ‘The point,’ he said, ‘is that if I stay here, it’ll be my coffin they’re making next. I’ve already heard the planks of wood being moved around. And the rattle of the trolley as it comes to collect
Boel appeared to give up. ‘So what are you intending to do, then? Where will you go?’
‘Home,’ said Gerlof. ‘Home to my cottage.’
‘Dying? Who said you were dying, Dad?’
‘But that’s ridiculous! You’ve got years and years left … lots of springs to look forward to,’ said Julia Davidsson. ‘Besides, you’ve made it out of an old people’s home alive – how many manage that?’
Gerlof said nothing, but he was thinking about the steel trolley with Torsten Axelsson’s body on it. He remained silent as his daughter drove on down towards the coast and into the village of Stenvik.
The sun was shining through the windscreen, making him long for butterflies and birds and everything else the warm weather would bring. His zest for life raised its sleepy head within his breast and blinked in surprise, and he had to make a real effort to sound gloomy when he eventually spoke.
‘Only God knows how much time I have left, and He is allowing it to pass all too quickly … but if I’m going to die, I want it to be here in the village.’
Julia sighed. She stopped the car on the deserted village road and switched off the engine. ‘You read too many obituaries.’
‘Correct. They keep the newspapers going.’
Gerlof’s last comment was meant partly as a joke, but Julia didn’t laugh. She simply helped him out of the car in silence. They walked slowly towards the gate of the family’s summer cottage, which lay in a grove of trees in Stenvik, just a few hundred metres from the sea.
He would be alone here most of the time, Gerlof was well aware of that, but it meant he would avoid all the illness back at the home. The residents with their pills, their oxygen cylinders and their constant harping on about what was wrong with them had started to get on his nerves. His former girlfriend, Maja Nyman, had become increasingly unwell, and now spent most of her time in bed in her room.
It had taken almost a month to persuade Boel and the rest of the management team at the home to agree to let him move back to Stenvik, but eventually they had realized that Gerlof would be making room for somebody else who actually did want to live in the Marnäs residential home for senior citizens. Of course, Gerlof would still need help with cleaning, medical care and the provision of meals, but that could be organized through visits from the community nursing team and the home-care service.
Gerlof’s mind was perfectly clear, even if he could barely move sometimes. There wasn’t much wrong with his head or his teeth – it was just his arms, legs and the rest of his body that could do with a makeover.
This day at the end of March was the first time this year he had been back to the village on the coast where he had been born and had grown up. He was back on the land the Davidsson family had owned and worked for centuries, and back at the cottage he had built for himself and his wife Ella some fifty years earlier. Stenvik was the place he had always come back to during his years at sea.
The snow had almost disappeared from the garden, leaving a sodden lawn that needed raking.
‘Last year’s grass and last year’s leaves,’ said Gerlof. ‘Everything that has been hidden by the winter is reappearing.’
He held tightly on to Julia’s arm as they walked across the pale yellow grass, but when she stopped at the bottom of the stone steps he let go and made his way slowly up to the door, leaning on his chestnut stick.
Gerlof was able to walk, but was glad of his daughter’s help; he was glad too that Ella was no longer alive. He would have been nothing but a burden to her now.
He took out his key and unlocked the door.
The musty smell of the cottage rushed towards them as he opened the glass door: cold, slightly damp air, but no hint of mould. It seemed that the slates on the roof were still in good condition. And as he stepped inside he noticed that there were no little black deposits on the wooden floor. The mice and shrews liked to spend the winter in the foundations, but they never came into the rooms.
Julia had come over to the island for the weekend to help him move into the cottage and get it sorted out. Spring cleaning, she called it. It was Gerlof’s cottage, of course, but it had been used as a holiday home for his two daughters and their families for many years. When the summer came they would somehow have to rub along together in the little rooms.
Plenty of time to worry about that, he thought.
When they had taken Gerlof’s things inside, switched on the electricity and opened the windows to air the cottage, they went back out on to the lawn.
Apart from the screaming of a few gulls down by the shore, the village had seemed completely deserted on this Saturday morning, but they suddenly heard thumping noises from the far side of the village road, echoing across the landscape like loud hammer blows.
Julia looked around. ‘There’s someone here.’
‘Yes,’ said Gerlof. ‘They’re building over by the quarry.’
He wasn’t surprised, because last summer when he was down in the village he had noticed that all the bushes and undergrowth had been cleared from two large plots over there, and a caterpillar tractor was busy flattening the ground. He presumed somebody was building even more cottages that would stand empty for most of the year.
‘Do you want to have a look?’
‘If you like.’
He took his daughter’s arm again, and Julia led him out through the gate.
When Gerlof built his cottage at the beginning of the 1950s, he had had a view of the sea to the west and had just been able to see the tower of Marnäs church in the east, but at that time there were plenty of cows and sheep grazing the land. Now the animals were gone and the trees had come back, their crowns forming an increasingly dense canopy around the cottage. As they crossed the village road, Gerlof caught only a brief glimpse of the ice-covered sound to the west.
Stenvik was an old fishing village, and Gerlof could remember a time when rows of gigs and skiffs lay drawn up out of the water along the gently curving shore, waiting to be rowed out to the fishing nets further out in the sound. Now they were all gone, and the fishermen’s cottages had been converted into holiday homes.
They turned off on to the gravel track leading to the quarry, where a new white sign proclaimed ERNST’S ROAD.
Gerlof knew who it was named after: Ernst had been a quarryman and a friend of his, and the last of the villagers to work in the quarry before it closed for good at the beginning of the sixties. Now Ernst was gone too – only his road remained. Gerlof wondered whether anything might be named after him some day.
As they approached the quarry, which lay behind a grove of trees, he saw that Ernst’s red-brown cottage was still there right by the edge, all closed up. Some second cousin and his family had inherited it when Ernst died, but they had hardly ever been there.
‘Goodness,’ said Julia, ‘I see they’ve been building here as well.’
Gerlof tore his gaze away from Ernst’s cottage and noticed the two new houses she was talking about. They were on the eastern side of the quarry, a couple of hundred metres apart.
‘They only cleared this last summer,’ said Julia. ‘They must have built them during the autumn and winter.’
Gerlof shook his head. ‘Nobody asked my permission.’
Julia laughed. ‘They don’t bother you, do they? I mean, you can’t see them, because of the trees.’
‘No, but even so. They could show a bit of consideration.’
The houses were built of wood and stone, with shining picture windows, whitewashed chimneys and roofs made of some kind of black slate. The scaffolding was still up at one of them, and a couple of joiners in thick woollen sweaters were busy nailing wooden panels in place. Outside the other house a large white bath stood in the garden, still wrapped in plastic.
Ernst’s cottage, to the north of the new houses, looked like a little woodshed in comparison.
Luxury homes, thought Gerlof. Hardly what the village needed more of. But h
The abandoned quarry lay like a wound in the ground, five hundred metres wide and filled with large and small lumps of reject stone that had been broken off and cast aside in the quest for the fault-free stone deeper down.
‘Do you want to take a closer look?’ asked Julia. ‘We could go over and see if anyone’s home.’
Gerlof shook his head. ‘I already know them. They’re rich, irresponsible city folk.’
‘Not everybody who buys a house comes from the city,’ said Julia.
‘No, no … But I have no doubt they’re rich and irresponsible.’
‘Do you want me to open the window?’ said Per Mörner.
His daughter Nilla nodded, her back to him.
‘Are there any birds out there?’ she asked.
‘Loads,’ said Per.
That wasn’t true; he couldn’t see a single one outside the hospital. But there were trees by the car park, and maybe some little birds were sitting in them.
‘In that case you can open the window,’ said Nilla, and explained: ‘My nature studies homework this week is to count different species of birds.’
Nilla was in Year 7, and all her school books were on the table next to her hospital bed. She had placed her favourite cuddly toy and lucky stones by her pillow, then climbed on the bed so that she could hang a big piece of fabric with NIRVANA on it on the wall above her head.
Per opened the window, and the faint sound of chirruping drifted into the room. But it was mixed with the whine of revving engines, and no doubt the birds would soon fall silent anyway; it was almost evening, after all, and shiny cars were leaving the car park as doctors and nurses set off for home. His own brown Saab was down there too, but it was nine years old and definitely not shiny.
‘What are you thinking about?’ said Nilla behind him.
Per turned his head. ‘Guess.’
‘You’re thinking about the spring.’