The Girl in the Spider's Web (Millennium series Book 4) (8 page)

As the father of an autistic son Balder had long suspected that many parents hoped the notion of a savant would be their consolation prize to make up for a diagnosis of cognitive deficiencies. But the odds were against them.

According to a common estimate, only one in ten children with autism has some kind of savant gift, and for the most part these talents, though they often entail a fantastic memory and observation of detail, are not as startling as those depicted in films. There are, for example, autistic people who can say on which day of the week a certain date falls, within a range of several hundred years – in extreme cases within a range of forty thousand years.

Others possess encyclopaedic knowledge within a narrow field, such as bus timetables or telephone numbers. Some can calculate large sums in their heads, or remember what the weather had been like every day of their lives, or are able to tell the time to the second without looking at a watch. There are all kinds of more or less remarkable talents and, from what Balder gathered, people with these skills are called talented savants and capable of quite outstanding accomplishments given the fact that they are otherwise handicapped.

Another far less common group is where Balder hoped that August belonged: the so-called prodigious savants, individuals whose talents are sensational whichever way one looks at them. Kim Peek, for example, who was the inspiration for “Rain Man”. Kim was severely mentally disabled and could not even get dressed by himself. Yet he had memorized twelve thousand books and could give a lightning-quick answer to almost any factual question. He was known as Kimputer.

Or Stephen Wiltshire, an autistic English boy who was extremely withdrawn as a child and uttered his first word when he was six – it happened to be “paper”. By the age of seven Stephen was able to draw groups of buildings perfectly and in the minutest detail, having seen them for just one brief moment. He was flown above London in a helicopter and when he landed he drew the entire city in a fantastic, dizzying panorama, and with a wonderfully individual touch.

If Balder understood it all correctly, he and August must have looked at that traffic light in very different ways. Not only because the boy was plainly so much more focused, but also because Balder’s brain had instantly eliminated all non-essential elements in order to concentrate on the traffic light’s key message: go or stop. In all probability his perception was also clouded by his thinking about Farah Sharif, while for August the crossing must have appeared exactly as it was, in precise detail.

Afterwards he had taken the image away with him like a fine etching, and it was not until a few weeks later that he had felt the need to express it. The strangest thing of all was, he had done more than simply reproduce the traffic light and the man. He had charged them with a disquieting light, and Balder could not rid himself of the thought that August had wanted to say something more to him than: Look what I can do! For the hundredth time he stared at the drawings and it was as if a needle had gone into his heart.

It frightened him. He did not entirely understand it. But there was something about that man. His eyes were bright and hard. His jaw was tense and his lips strangely thin, almost non-existent, although that could hardly be held against him. Still, the longer he stared at him, the more frightening he looked, and all of a sudden Balder was gripped by an icy fear.

“I love you, my boy,” he murmured, hardly aware of what he was saying, and possibly he repeated the sentence once or twice because the words began to sound increasingly unfamiliar to his ears.

He realized with a new sort of pain that he had never uttered them before, and once he had recovered from the first shock it occurred to him that there was something contemptible in that. Did it take an exceptional talent to make him love his own child? It would be only too typical, if so. All his life he had had an absolute obsession with achievement.

He had never bothered with anything which was not innovative or highly skilled, and when he left Sweden for Silicon Valley he had hardly given a thought to August. Basically his son was no more than an irritant in the scheme of brilliant discoveries which Balder himself was busy making.

But now, he promised himself, things would be different. He would set aside his research and everything that had tormented him these last few months, and devote his whole attention to the boy.

He would become a new person.



Something else had happened at the magazine, something bad. But Berger did not want to give any details over the telephone. She suggested coming round to his place. Blomkvist had tried to put her off:

“You’re going to freeze that beautiful bum of yours!”

Berger had paid no attention and, but for the tone in her voice, he would have been happy that she was so stubborn. Ever since he left the office he had been longing to speak to her, and maybe even pull her into the bedroom and tear all her clothes off. But something told him this was not going to happen now. She had sounded upset and mumbled, “I’m sorry,” and this only made him more worried.

“I’ll get a taxi right away,” she said.

It was a while before she appeared, and out of boredom he went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. He had certainly seen better days. His hair was dishevelled and needed a cut and he had bags under his eyes. That was basically Elizabeth George’s fault. He swore and left the bathroom to set about cleaning up.

That was one thing at least that Berger would not be able to complain about. However long they had known each other, and however interwoven their lives, he still suffered a complex when it came to tidiness. He was a labourer’s son and a bachelor, she the upper-class married woman with the perfect home in Saltsjöbaden. In any case it could do no harm for his place to look a little respectable. He filled the dishwasher, wiped the sink and put out the rubbish.

He even had time to vacuum the living room, water the flowers on the windowsill and tidy up the bookshelf and magazine rack before the doorbell rang. There was both a ring and an impatient knock. When he opened up he was horrified. Berger was frozen stiff.

She shook like a leaf, and not just because of the weather. She was not even wearing a hat. The wind had ruined her neat hairstyle and there was something that looked like a graze on her right cheek, which had not been there that morning.

“Ricky!” he said. “Are you alright?”

“I’ve frozen off that beautiful bum of mine. Couldn’t get a taxi.”

“What happened to your face?”

“I slipped and fell. Three times, I think.”

He looked down at her dark-red high-heeled Italian boots.

“You’ve got perfect snow boots on too.”

“Yes. Ideal. Not to mention my decision to go without thermals this morning. Brilliant!”

“Come on in and I’ll warm you up.”

She fell into his arms and shook even more as he hugged her close.

“I’m sorry,” she said again.

“What for?”

“For everything. For Serner. I’ve been a fool.”

“Don’t exaggerate now, Ricky.”

He brushed the snowflakes from her hair and forehead and took a careful look at her cheek.

“No, no, I’ll tell you everything,” she said.

“But first get your clothes off and climb into a hot bath. Would you like a glass of red?”

She would, and she stayed in the bath for a long while with her glass, which he refilled two or three times. He sat on the lid of the toilet listening to her story, and despite all the ominous news there was something of a reconciliation about their conversation, as if they were steadily breaking through a wall they had lately been building up between them.

“I know you thought I was being a fool right from the start,” she said. “No, don’t argue, I know you too well. But you have to understand that Christer, Malin and I could see no other solution. We had recruited Emil and Sofie, and we were so proud of that. They were just about the hottest reporters around, weren’t they? It was incredibly prestigious for us. It showed that
was on the move and there was a great buzz, with really positive coverage in
Dagens Media
. It was like the good old days, and personally I felt strongly about the fact that I had promised both Sofie and Emil a secure future at the magazine. ‘Our finances are stable,’ I said. ‘We have Harriet Vanger behind us. We’re going to have the money for fantastic, in-depth reporting.’ You know, I really believed it too. But then …”

“Then the sky fell in.”

“Exactly, and it wasn’t just the newspaper crisis, or the collapse of the advertising market. There was also that whole situation at the Vanger Group. I’m not sure you realize what a mess it was. Sometimes I see it almost as a political coup. All those reactionary old men in the family, and women too for that matter – well, you know them better than anyone. The old racists and regressives got together and stabbed Harriet in the back. I’ll never forget that call from her. I’ve been rolled over, she said. Crushed. Of course it was her efforts to revive and modernize the group which had annoyed them, and then her decision to appoint David Goldman to the board, the son of Rabbi Viktor Goldman. But we were also part of the picture, as you know; Andrei had just written his report on beggars in Stockholm, which we all thought was the best thing he’d ever done, and which was quoted everywhere, even abroad. But which the Vanger people—”

“Thought was lefty rubbish.”

“Worse than that, Mikael – propaganda for ‘lazy buggers who can’t even be bothered to get themselves a job’.”

“Is that what they said?”

“Something along those lines. My guess is that the story itself was irrelevant, it was just their excuse, a pretext for further undermining Harriet’s role within the group. They wanted to put a stop to everything that Henrik and Harriet had stood for.”


“My God, yes, but that didn’t exactly help us. I remember those days. It was as if the rug had been pulled from under our feet, and I know, I know – I should have involved you more. But I thought that we’d all benefit if we left you to concentrate on your stories.”

“And still I didn’t deliver anything decent.”

“You tried, Mikael, you really tried. But what I’m coming to is that it was then, when it seemed as if we’d hit rock bottom, that Levin rang.”

“Someone had presumably tipped him off about what had happened.”

“Without a doubt, and I don’t even need to tell you that I was sceptical at first. Serner felt like the trashiest sort of tabloid. But Levin gave it the works, with his usual torrent of words, and invited me down to his big new villa in Cannes.”


“Yes, I’m sorry, I didn’t tell you that either. I suppose I felt ashamed. But I was going down to the film festival in any case, to do a profile on the Iranian film director. You know, the one being persecuted because she made the documentary about nineteen-year-old Sara, who had been stoned, and I didn’t think it would do any harm if Serner helped us with the travel costs. In any event, Levin and I sat up all night and talked and I remained sceptical. He was absurdly boastful and came on with all this sales talk. But eventually I began to listen to him, and do you know why?”

“He was a fantastic lay?”

“Ha, no, it was his relationship to you.”

“Did he want to sleep with me, then?”

“He has boundless admiration for you.”


“No, Mikael, that’s where you’re wrong. He loves his power and his money and his villa in Cannes. But more than that, it bugs him that he’s not as cool as you. If we’re talking cred, he’s poor and you’re stinking rich. Deep down he wants to be like you, I felt that right away, and, yes, I should have realized that that sort of envy can become dangerous. You do know what the campaign against you is all about, don’t you? Your uncompromising attitude makes people feel pathetic. Your very existence reminds them just how much they’ve sold out, and the more you’re acclaimed, the punier they themselves appear. When it’s like that, the only way they can fight back is by dragging you down. The bullshit gives them back a little bit of dignity – at least that’s what they imagine.”

“Thanks, Erika, but I really couldn’t care less about that campaign.”

“I know, at least I hope that’s right. But what I realized was that Levin really wanted to be in with us, and feel like one of us. He wanted some of our reputation to rub off on him and I thought that was a good incentive. If his ambition was to be cool like you, then it would be devastating for him to turn
into a run-of-the-mill commercial Serner product. If he became known as the man who destroyed one of the most fabled magazines in Sweden, any cred he might still have would be scuppered for good. That’s why I really believed him when he said that both he and the group needed a prestigious magazine, and that he only wanted to help us produce the kind of journalism we believed in. Admittedly he did want to be involved in the magazine, but I put that down to vanity, that he wanted to be able to show off and say to his yuppie friends that he was our spin doctor or something. I never thought he would dare to have a go at the magazine’s soul.”

“And yet that’s precisely what he’s doing now.”

“Unfortunately, yes.”

“And where does that leave your fancy psychological theory?”

“I underestimated the power of opportunism. As you saw, Levin and Serner’s behaviour was exemplary before this campaign against you got going, but since then …”

“He’s been taking advantage of it.”

“No, no, somebody else has. Somebody who wanted to get at him. I realized only later that Levin didn’t have an easy time persuading the others to support him in buying a stake in the magazine. As you might imagine, not everybody at Serner suffers from a journalistic inferiority complex. Most of them are just ordinary businessmen; they despise all talk of standing up for things that matter. They were irritated by what they described as Levin’s ‘fake idealism’, and in the campaign against you they saw an opportunity to put the squeeze on him.”

“Dear, oh dear.”

“You have no idea. At first it looked O.K. We were to adapt somewhat to the market, and, as you know, I thought some of that sounded pretty good. I have, after all, spent a fair amount of time wondering how we could reach a younger readership. I really thought that Levin and I were having a productive dialogue so I didn’t worry too much about his presentation today.”

“I noticed that.”

“But that was before all hell broke loose.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The uproar when you sabotaged his presentation.”

“I didn’t sabotage anything, Erika. I just left.”

Berger lay in the bath, took a sip of her wine and then she smiled a wistful smile.

“When will you learn that you’re Mikael Blomkvist?” she said.

“I thought I was beginning to get the hang of that.”

“Apparently not, because otherwise you’d have realized that when Mikael Blomkvist walks out in the middle of a presentation about his own magazine it’s a big deal, whether Mikael Blomkvist intends it to be or not.”

“In that case I apologize for my sabotage.”

“I’m not blaming you, not any more. Now I’m the one saying sorry, as you can see. I’m the one who’s put us in this position. It probably would have gone pear-shaped anyway, whether you’d walked out or not. They were just waiting for an excuse to take a swing at us.”

“What actually happened?”

“After you disappeared we all felt deflated, and Levin, whose self-esteem had taken yet another knock, no longer gave a damn about his presentation. ‘There’s no point,’ he said. He rang his boss to report back, and he probably laid it on a bit thick. I suspect that the envy on which I had been pinning my hopes had changed into something petty and spiteful. He was back again after an hour or so and said that the group was prepared to give
its full backing and use all its channels to market the magazine.”

“You didn’t like the sound of that.”

“No, and I knew before he’d even said one word about it. You could tell by the look on his face. It radiated a mixture of fear and triumph and at first he couldn’t find the right words. He was mostly waffling and said that the group wanted to have more insight into the business, plus content aimed at a younger readership, plus more celebrity news. But then …”

Berger shut her eyes, drew her hand through her wet hair, then knocked back the last of her wine.


“He said that he wanted you off the editorial team.”


“Of course neither he nor the group could say it straight out, still less could they afford to get headlines like ‘Serner sacks Blomkvist’, so Ove put it neatly by saying that he wanted you to have a freer rein and be allowed to concentrate on what you’re best at: writing reportage. He suggested a strategic relocation to London and a generous stringer arrangement.”


“He said that Sweden’s too small for a guy of your calibre, but you get what this is about.”

“They think they can’t push through their changes if I stay on the editorial team?”

“Something like that. Still, I don’t think any of them was surprised when Christer, Malin and I just said no, that it wasn’t even negotiable. Not to mention Andrei’s reaction.”

“What did he do?”

“I’m almost embarrassed to tell you. Andrei stood up and said that it was the most shameful thing he’d heard in his whole life. That you were one of the best things we had in this country, a source of pride for democracy and journalism, and that the whole Serner Group should hang their heads in shame. He said that you were a great man.”

“He does tend to exaggerate.”

“But he’s a good kid.”

“He really is. What did the Serner people do then?”

“Levin was prepared for it, of course. ‘You’re always welcome to buy us out,’ he said. ‘It’s just—’”

“That the price has gone up,” Blomkvist completed the sentence.

“Exactly. He claimed that whichever basis you use for valuing the business would show that any price for Serner’s interest should be at least double what it was when the group went in, given the additional value and goodwill they’ve created.”

“Goodwill! Have they gone mad?”

“Not at all, apparently, but they’re bright, and they want to mess us about. And I wonder if they’re not trying to kill two birds with one stone: pull off a good deal and get rid of a competitor by breaking us financially, all in one go.”

“What the hell should we do?”

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