Inspector Norse stood behind the desk in his office at the Älmhult police station. Somewhere, amid the mounds of paperwork and empty plastic coffee cups that littered the surface, a telephone was ringing. It had been so long since Norse had used anything other than his Nokia that the phone had somehow become lost.
Having traced the sound a minor avalanche of papers was triggered as he rummaged for the receiver. “Ja,” he answered. There was no response, just a muffled sound, as if someone had their hand over the mouthpiece at the other end of the line. “Ja, Norse here,” he said.
Finally the voice on the other end of the phone spoke. “This is just the beginning, Norse. I know they’ll send you. But you won’t stop me. I’m going to destroy you, Norse.”
The line went dead. Norse slammed the handset into its cradle and dialled zero for the operator. “Where did that last call come from?” he demanded. As the operator read out a number, Norse repeated it trying to find some paper. He finally jotted it down on the back of what suspiciously looked like his payslip. A tap at his door, was followed by City pathologist, Doctor Bo Hägglund strolling into Norse’s office.
“What’s the matter, Norse? You look a little more hypertensive than usual”
“I just got a strange call,” said Norse. He read out the phone number.
“That’s the pay phone in the lobby”
“How do you know that?”
“I give it as my office number,” Hägglund explained. “I find it sufficiently truthful so as not to trouble my conscience, yet conveniently enigmatic so that I don’t get bothered by the crazy people.”
Hägglund removed a pile of papers from the visitor’s chair before sitting down. “I’ve seen sick rooms before,” he observed looking around him, “but this is a sick room.”
A chunky woollen sweater and crumpled chinos clothed Norse’s bulky frame which spilled out over the arms of his office chair as he collapsed into it. It was a little after eight o’clock in the morning and a faint colourless dawn was just breaking through his east facing window. Älmhult police station was a cold and draughty monument to 1960’s brutalist architecture so enthusiastically embraced by Sweden. Unfortunately for those forced to work there, it had been declared an essential part of the nation’s built heritage before its ill-fitting steel windows and inefficient heating system could be replaced. “Christ, it’s cold in here,” complained Norse and he began to cough.
“I’m no expert,” offered Hägglund, “but you don’t look too good.”
“Let me tell you something,” spluttered Norse through another fit of coughing. “I felt better when I smoked sixty Marlboros a day and drank a bottle of vodka…” The coughing overcame Norse causing him to pause. “…than I do now,” he was finally able to add. He stood up and began fumbling in a pocket of his chinos.
“It’s because of patients like you that I decided to devote myself to the already dead, rather than the merely dead-aspirant such as yourself.”
“I heard it was because your bedside manner was crap.” Norse was discretely counting the coins in his pocket, feeling each coin in turn, determining its value. Shit, he thought to himself. Not enough for a coffee. “What are you doing hanging around here at this time of the morning anyway?” he demanded of Hägglund.
“I generally come out when there are bodies to be had.”
Norse snorted into his handkerchief and slumped further into his chair. “Ah, some poor bastard in a traffic accident has summoned you from your slumber.”
“No, sir! The poor bastard is sitting in a mechanical chair testing machine over at the IKEA furniture store.”
Norse frowned. “An accident?”
“I don’t think so.”
“When we know that, dear boy, we’ll know everything there is to know.”
“How come you know this before I do?” complained Norse, hauling a shabby blue parka off the back of his chair.
“Pure chance – I was having a coffee with the very attractive new constable at the front desk when the call came in. You, dear boy, were on the phone to your mystery caller. I am just the messenger – don’t shoot me!”
Norse sighed. “Who found the body?”
“Some customers as I understand it. The store opened early for Christmas shopping and the customers noticed that the box containing the chair testing machine was sporting an uncommonly festive colour scheme.”
“I’m surprised they didn’t scoop it up and put it in their shopping baskets,” grumbled Norse. “People seem to go crazy at this time of year.”
“Johansson,” he yelled as he headed out of the door.
Sergeant Anna-Maria Johansson was already waiting in the outer office. “Right here, Inspector,” she said, brightly. “Are we off to see the body?”
“Does everybody in this building have to know everything before I do,” complained Norse.
“I believe the custody officer in the basement may not yet have heard,” offered Hägglund. “We don’t get so many killings in this town. And a body in a mechanical chair testing machine a few days before Christmas – well, that’s news that’s bound to travel apace.” Sensing Norse’s growing irritation Hägglund decided to take his leave. “I’ll go and round up my fellows and see you down there in a few minutes.”
Norse weaved his battered ’86 Saab 900 Turbo, won in a poker game when he still gambled, around a handful of police Volvos and onto the concourse at the entrance to the Älmhult IKEA store. Sergeant Johansson always insisted on riding in the back. “I’ll ride in the front when you get a proper car,” she had explained yet again. He hadn’t driven a police issue vehicle since he lost a second one taking a shortcut across a local lake that was supposed to be frozen.
“This car is a classic,” insisted Norse. “All the magazines say so.”
“It’s only a classic if you take care of it,” grumbled Johansson.
A horizontal freezing rain rattled against the windscreen, rendering it opaque as soon as the wipers stopped. Norse hesitated, reluctant to step out into the storm. Eventually he hauled up the fur trimmed hood of his parka and threw open the driver’s door. He climbed out before pulling his seat forward to allow Sergeant Johansson to exit.
A young constable was ushering members of the public out of the store, towards the paramedics, grief counsellors and personal injury lawyers who were already assembling in the car park. “I’ll see what stage they’re at with the evacuation,” said Johansson, as she hurried into the store. Norse took shelter in the doorway. His nose twitched as he smelled the aroma of fresh roasting beans coming from the coffee stand some way across the concourse. Standing with his back to the driving rain he thrust his hands into the pockets of his parka hoping some coins might have somehow materialised there since he last checked. Norse narrowed his eyes – he couldn’t very well ask the young constable to pay for his coffee. Could he?
He looked up and saw Hägglund approaching with a pair of technicians and a scenes of crime photographer in tow. A muffled burble came from somewhere deep inside Norse’s clothing. He eventually located the mobile phone in a forgotten inside pocket. He wondered if it might be the caller who’d had the balls to call him from his own building earlier that morning. Norse checked caller id and sighed heavily. He hit the answer button; “Ja, Mamma.” Hägglund was now within earshot with his entourage in tow. Norse nodded urging him to go on into the store without him.
“Mummy’s boy,” a smiling Hägglund offered as he passed by.
Norse’s mother spoke solidly for what felt like a full minute before Norse seized upon an opportunity to speak. “I haven’t forgotten, Mamma. I’ll be there.”
Sergeant Johansson appeared. “That’s it, Inspector,” she said, pausing to a take a long draft from a cardboard coffee cup she was carrying before discarding it. Norse dropped the phone momentarily from his ear and watched in dismay as the still two-thirds full cup formed a perfect steaming parabola towards the bin. “Mamma, I’ll be there to pick you up this evening,” he said, resuming the call. There was a long pause. “I do promise,” he added. “I have to go now. I have a dead body to investigate.” Another pause. “Yes, Mamma. I’ll be sure to wash my hands afterwards.” He snapped the phone shut and returned it to his pocket.
“Ready to take a look?” Johansson asked excitedly. “It’s pretty gruesome in there. Never seen anything like it, not even on TV.”
CSI Älmhult; God help us, thought Norse as he followed the Sergeant into the store. He hadn’t seen a dead body himself since he’d left the Stockholm police. Seven years now.
They hurried through the store, eventually rounding a stack of plastic dining chairs and there it was. Festooned with yellow scene of crime tape was a tall glass display case. Hägglund was already there, guiding his photographer as he chronicled the crime scene. It was hard to see anything inside as the inside of the glass walls were splattered with a frothy raspberry coloured fluid. A low but regular hydraulic hissing sound came from somewhere inside the glass case. In areas the blood had congealed on the glass making it virtually opaque.
“Can’t you get this thing turned off, for God’s sake,” said Norse as he pulled up the crime tape and advanced towards the glass box.
“Nobody seems to know how,” explained Hägglund. “It runs night and day. All they can do is turn off the power to this section of the store, but that kills the lights as well. I need to leave it for the moment.”
“It’s not as if anyone is likely to be still alive in there,” said Johansson. “I mean, is it?” Norse didn’t answer. He pulled a pair of latex gloves out of a pocket and snapped them on.
“Norse, I’m trying to record a crime scene here,” Hägglund complained.
Peering behind the glass box where it was backed against a partition wall, Norse reached in and his hand settled upon a length of stout electrical cable. “We know for sure it’s a body in there?” he asked, pausing for a moment. “A human body?”
Johansson looked momentarily disappointed. “It has to be,” she said. “Doesn’t it? I mean who would put an animal in there?”
“At a guess, I’d say someone marginally less psychotic than a person who’d put a human being in there,” replied Norse pulling the electrical cable out as far as it would stretch. He took a strong grip and yanked the cable as hard as his hefty frame could manage. Immediately the pneumatic hissing stopped, the blood splattered glass box went silent. Norse’s look of triumph lasted for just a split second however, before the entire windowless store was plunged into complete and absolute darkness. “Shit!” he announced into the blackness.