A WHOLE NEW GAME?
THE MOMENT HE woke up HP knew something was wrong. It took him a few seconds to put his finger on what it was.
It was quiet.
Far too quiet . . .
The bedroom faced out onto Guldgränd and he had long since got used to the constant sound of traffic on the Söderleden expressway a few hundred meters away. He hardly ever thought about it anymore.
But instead of the usual low rumble of traffic interspersed with the occasional siren, the summer night outside was completely silent.
He glanced at the clock radio: 03:58.
Roadwork, he thought. Söderleden, Söder Mälarstrand, and the Slussen junction closed off for yet another round of make-do-and-mend . . . But besides the fact that Bob the Builder would have to be working in stealth mode, it was also slowly dawning on him that there were other noises missing. No one rattling doors as they delivered the morning papers, no drunks shouting down on Hornsgatan. In fact hardly any sound at all to indicate that there was actually a vibrant capital city out there. As if his bedroom had been enclosed in a huge bubble, shutting the rest of the world out. Forcing him to live in his own little universe where the usual rules no longer applied.
Which, in some ways, was actually true . . .
He noticed that his heart was starting to beat faster. A quiet rustling sound from somewhere inside the flat made him jump.
No, impossible. He’d locked the high-security door, all three locks, just like he always did. The door had cost a fortune, but it was worth every single damn penny. Steel frame, double cylinder hook-bolt locks, you name it—so, logically, no one could have broken into the flat. But the umbrella of paranoia wasn’t about to let itself be taken down so easily . . .
He crept out of bed, padded across the bedroom floor, and peered cautiously into the living room. It took a few seconds for his eyes to get used to the gloom, but the results were unambiguous. Nothing, no movement at all, either in the living room or the little kitchen beyond. Everything was fine, there was no sign of any danger. Just the unnatural, oppressive silence that still hadn’t broken . . .
He crept carefully over to the window and looked out. Not a soul out on the street, not that that was particularly surprising given the time. Maria Trappgränd was hardly a busy street at any time of day.
Closed off for roadwork, that had to be it. Half of Södermalm already looked like some fucking archaeological dig, so why not go for a complete overnight shutdown? All the little cops were probably just having a coffee break.
Plausible—sure! But the uneasy feeling still wouldn’t let go.
Only the hall left.
He tiptoed across the new floorboards over to the front door, taking care to avoid the third and fifth ones because he knew they creaked.
When he was about a meter away he thought he saw the letter box move. He froze midstep as his pulse switched up a gear.
Two years ago someone had poured lighter fluid through his door and set fire to it. A seriously unpleasant experience, and one that had ended with him lying in Södermalm Hospital with an oxygen mask over his face. It wasn’t until much later that he had realized the whole thing was just a warning shot to remind him about the rules of the Game.
He sniffed carefully at the stagnant air but couldn’t smell paraffin or anything similar. But by now he was quite certain. The sounds had come from the front door.
Maybe someone delivering papers after all?
He crept a couple of steps closer to the door and carefully put his eye to the peephole.
The sudden noise was so violent that he staggered back into the hall.
For a few seconds he saw stars, and his heart seemed to have stopped.
Then another violent crash jolted him out of the shock.
Someone was smashing his door in!
The steel frame was already starting to bow, so whoever it was basically had to be stronger than the Hulk. A third crash, metal against metal, no bastard Bruce Banner but probably a serious sledgehammer—if not more than one.
The frame moved another few centimeters and he could suddenly see the bolts of the locks in the gap. A couple of more blows was all it would take.
He spun around, stumbling over his own feet, and fell flat on the floor. Another crash from the door sent a rattling shower of plaster over his bare legs.
His feet slid on the floor as his hands tried to get a grip.
He was up.
Quickly into the living room, then the bedroom.
Another crash on the door!
He could taste blood in his mouth, and his heart was pounding hard enough to burst.
His hands were shaking so much he had trouble turning the key in the lock.
Whatinthenameofholyfucksgoingon . . . ?
Another blow from the hall, this time followed by a splintering sound that almost certainly meant that the door frame had given way.
He grabbed the chest of drawers and almost fell over when it glided easily in front of the bedroom door.
Fucking chipboard crap!
If the steel door out there hadn’t been able to stop his attackers, then a bit of self-assembly furniture from the other side of the Baltic wasn’t going to win him more than a couple of seconds at most. He leaped at the bed and fumbled about on the bedside table, which was covered with magazines and paperbacks.
The phone, where the hell was the phone?
There! No, shit, that was the remote for the television . . .
He heard rapid steps in the living room, gruff voices shouting to each other, but he was concentrating too hard on his search to hear what they were saying.
Suddenly his fingers hit the phone, so hard that it fell to the floor.
The door handle rattled, then a rough voice shouting:
HP threw himself on the floor, fumbling wildly with his arms.
There it was, right next to his left hand.
He grabbed the phone, scrabbled at the buttons. His fingers were twitching as if he had Parkinson’s.
One, one, two is easy to do . . . like hell it was!
A crash from the door and the Ikea chest of drawers almost fell over.
“Hello, emergency services, how can I help you?” a dry, professional voice said.
“Police!” HP yelled. “Help m—”
A sudden flash of light blinded him, burning onto his retina.
Then a blow that was so strong he was left gasping for air.
And then they had him.
♦ ♦ ♦
“The van,” she added when he didn’t react immediately.
He glanced quickly in the rearview mirror.
“The same one as yesterday?”
“Mm,” she said, without taking her eyes off the extra mirror fixed to the windshield above the passenger seat.
What else would it be? she wondered quietly to herself.
“Four cars behind us. It’s been there awhile now . . . Just like yesterday, and in almost the same place.”
“Are you sure it’s the same one? There are plenty of white vans in the city . . .”
“I’m sure,” she said abruptly. “Slow down a bit and let him get closer.”
“But then I’ll lose the VIP . . .” He gestured toward the open-topped sports car in front of them.
“Just forget the Security Police handbook, Kjellgren, and try to be a bit flexible,” she snapped with unnecessary sharpness.
He took his foot off the accelerator more abruptly than he needed to. The car behind blew its horn angrily, then overtook them a little too closely. Another car followed it.
Rebecca opened the glove compartment and took out the camera. She held it low and close, so that the van driver wouldn’t see it through the rear window.
Another glance in the rearview mirror.
The zoom lens was pretty good, but the van was still two cars away and partially obscured.
“A bit more,” she muttered to Kjellgren, getting the camera ready in her lap.
She was fighting the urge to look around.
Suddenly the VIP in front of them changed lanes, crossing a solid white line, and headed up toward Kungsgatan.
Kjellgren had no choice but to follow it.
She swore quietly to herself—so much for that chance. But a couple of seconds later she realized that the van was still following them. Another of the cars between them was gone and it was much closer now. Considerably closer than she would have been if she were tailing someone.
The sudden lane change must have taken the driver by surprise. Forced him into making a mistake.
She slowly turned her upper body, pressing her left elbow against the seat and holding herself in place with her legs. The van’s license plate was still hidden by the car between them, but she could see the top halves of the two people in the driver’s cab through the tinted windshield. Long-sleeved, pale-colored clothing, some sort of overalls, just like yesterday. But last time she hadn’t managed to get the camera out quickly enough. She was planning to make up for that mistake today.
The car directly behind them suddenly signaled to change lanes and she saw her chance. She turned around in a flash, raised the camera, and aimed at the point where the license plate was about to become visible.
She pressed the button halfway down. The car between them pulled out. There was a short bleep as the automatic focus adjusted the image.
Button down. She fired off a couple of pictures. Perfect!
Then she quickly raised the camera toward the cab of the van. She focused on the driver and pressed the button. The telephoto lens whirred and the fuzzy shape behind the wheel suddenly became much sharper. But just as the automatic focus bleeped, Kjellgren suddenly accelerated hard and the rapid movement threw her off balance.
By the time she got the cab back into view, the van was already a long way behind them.
“What the hell are you playing at, Kjellgren?” she snapped as she took a series of shots, almost at random, of the diminishing silhouette in the van.
“The VIP, Wennergren junior.” He pointed ahead at the little sports car, which was almost out of sight. “He suddenly took off like a scalded troll. Didn’t want to risk losing him.”
She lowered the camera and sank back into her seat.
A quick glance in the mirror, but she already knew what it would tell her. The van was gone.
She clicked through the pictures on the little screen of the camera. The license plate was clearly visible, but just as she suspected, the images of the cab were pretty much useless.
Damn it to hell!
Call it police intuition or whatever you like, but there was something about that van that worried her.
As soon as she got back to the office she’d check the license plate, maybe even make a couple of calls and double-check with Surveillance if the Highways Agency didn’t come up with anything . . .
She suddenly regretted snapping at Kjellgren. His priorities had been totally correct. The VIP was the most important thing, after all, and she would have done exactly the same if she had been the one driving.
Kjellgren was an excellent driver, which was one of the reasons why she’d brought him across from the Security Police. He had already made up the distance to the VIP’s car and they were in their customary position immediately behind him.
“You made exactly the right call, Kjellgren,” she said, doing her best to sound neutral.
He merely nodded, and for a few minutes they sat in silence as they took turns checking their rearview mirrors.
“So when did you say we’d be going up to the Fortress?” Kjellgren said eventually, in a rather too friendly voice.
“That depends a bit on Black’s schedule.” She made an effort to return his smile.
“Okay. By the way, did you see that article in Dagens Nyheter? A big piece about the new uses people have found for old military installations. Apart from using underground bunkers as server rooms, they’ve also fixed the old communication tunnel to the coast so it brings in water for the cooling system. Seriously advanced stuff.
“The security’s supposed to be quite something as well.”
He pulled closer to Wennergren’s car and did a quick swerve to scare off a car that was trying to squeeze in between them.
“Apparently PayTag wants to retain its status as a high-security installation, which is pretty understandable. Because then their security staff up there can be armed . . .”
Kjellgren looked away from the car in front to give her a quick sideways glance.
She could hear the question coming before he had opened his mouth.
“By the way, how are things going for us on the weapons front, boss . . . ?”
“The licensing authority is still looking at our application . . .”
. . . again, she almost added, but her cell phone started to vibrate in her jacket pocket. Number withheld. Probably another marketing call, or some former police colleague fishing for a job . . .
She moved her thumb toward the red icon to reject the call but changed her mind at the last moment. Kjellgren kept glancing at her, evidently keen to carry on the conversation about weapons licenses. And he wasn’t alone in that.
Pretty much all of the new recruits to her bodyguard team had taken the job on the assumption that they’d be able to bear arms in the course of their duties. So if the application got rejected . . .
She quickly pressed the green icon on her phone.
“Sentry Security, Rebecca Normén,” she said, in an exaggeratedly businesslike tone.
“Personal Protection Unit, Detective Superintendent Ludvig Runeberg,” her old boss said at the other end.
“Hi, Ludvig, it’s been a while. Good to hear from you . . .”
“I’m not sure you’re going to think that by the time we’ve finished, Normén . . .”
Something in his tone of voice made her straighten up unconsciously.
“You should probably come up here to Police Headquarters, right away if you can manage that . . .”
The connection crackled and his voice vanished for a few seconds. But part of her had already worked out what he was going to say. Her stomach contracted into a hard little lump.
No, no, no . . .
“. . . your younger brother.”
Henrik “HP” Pettersson could never have imagined he’d become entwined in a chaotic and dangerous game of life and death when he picked up a lost cell phone on a commuter train. He thought he’d escaped.
Now, his paranoia quickly grows to mania, as he is convinced that the Game Master and past characters are following him and that the police are watching him. HP decides he must finish one last assignment and expose the Game Master’s secrets once and for all—no matter the cost.
What he uncovers is a potential link between his own father’s past and the Game— blurring the boundary between the virtual and reality more than ever.
The shocking finale to the fast-paced trilogy that began with Game and Buzz, Bubble will leave you breathless as you witness the final showdown between HP and the Game Master.