Hunched over his walking stick, the old man came out of the woods. The road was nothing more than a couple of overgrown tire tracks. He was wearing a pair of black rubber boots bought at Coop Forum in Handen a few weeks earlier, and a dark brown raincoat from Tempo in Fältöversten.
He wasn’t much of a man for buying clothes, he never had been.
The ground was still free from snow, but the frost had the trees and bushes in its iron grip. It was a genuinely cold day at last, and perhaps the snow would arrive that evening.
In the icy woods, where the trees’ dark green needles were the brightest color in an otherwise grayish-brown palette, a black dog appeared up ahead of the man. A Labrador retriever. The dog studied its owner, lowered its nose to the ground and ran off. A few yards later, three more black dogs came running, all the same breed and size. They crossed the track and vanished into the bushes on the other side. The old man followed them. He could hear the rest of the pack behind him, three bitches and a male, wandering back and forth over frozen sprigs of blueberries and thickets of ferns.
They were on their way home.
The man lived in a dark red cottage just south of Landfjärden, roughly halfway between Nynäshamn and Stockholm. Through the thick forest outside his kitchen window, he could see over to the island of Muskö during the winter. It was only a few hundred yards from his gate to the water’s edge, and there were plenty of spots for his dogs to splash about during spring and summer. Labradors were a breed with webbed toes, after all, bred for retrieving things from the water.
The eight adult dogs lived with the man in the main cottage, and the two outhouses were for the litters of puppies. He had been breeding Labradors for almost twenty years, and preferred dogs to people. That was why he lived in the cottage in the woods. Since there was neither mains water nor reliable electricity in the area, he was left to his own devices. His neighbors kept their distance, the closest living in the urban development that started twelve or so miles to the south.
The man had gone to meet the buyers himself during the first few years, but he had always lost his temper when the fat old ladies asked whether the dogs needed a lot of exercise and when the spoiled young kids pulled on the puppies’ ears. And when he lost his temper, he had always raised his voice and slapped away the children’s snotty hands.
It had never been God’s plan for him to be a salesman. These days, he had help. People from other kennels displayed the puppies and young dogs for him, they even looked after the business side of things. And took all the credit, not that the old man cared.
When he returned home from his morning walk, it was just before nine. His cottage consisted of three rooms and one kitchen. Since the dogs always brought half the forest back into the house with them, and the old man had been having back trouble for the past few years, there wasn’t much point in cleaning. He didn’t let the dogs into the kitchen, meaning it was the only room that had some kind of order to it. He turned on the coffee machine.
He was expecting company.
He knew them well enough to be sure they would turn up when he asked them to come. He assumed they were afraid of him, and they wouldn’t be the only ones.
Sami Farhan was first to arrive.
The old man saw him approaching along the path from the main road. The bus from Västerhaninge to Nynäshamn stopped up on the 73, and the cottage wasn’t much more than ten minutes into the woods. It had been years since Sami had last sparred in the ring, but he still moved like a boxer. Despite his big, heavy body, he was quick and light on his feet, and it took him less than a minute to make his way from the gate up to the house. He was wearing a short gray woolen coat that seemed better suited to the trendy Nytorget on a warm spring day, and he had white sneakers on his feet.
The man let him in. The eight black dogs were so excited by his unexpected visit that they came close to flooring the boxer. Since the man’s second guest clearly hadn’t been on the same bus, they would have to wait another thirty-five minutes. That was the amount of time between departures. The old man grabbed the key to the outhouse from a hook behind the door, and they went out into the yard together.
“How are your brothers, Sami?” the old man asked. “Why?”
“I saw your older brother Ali a while ago, but it’s a long time since I saw the younger one, Adil, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, that’s his name.” “Everything OK with him?”
“You’ll have to invite him over and ask him yourself if you’re so interested.”
The man nodded and looked down at the ground. An amused smile played on his lips. Sami’s touchiness where his brothers were concerned was the same as ever.
In the yard between the two outhouses, the old man had a root cellar. It had been built during the fifties. Stone had been laid on stone in the old-fashioned way, and there was moss growing on the roof. After just a few decades, the building looked as old as the woods surrounding it.
Flanked by the eight dogs, the man and Sami stopped at the cellar to fetch food for the puppies. It was where he kept the dogs’ food, the paper towels and toilet paper, and everything else that wouldn’t fit into the larder in the main house. The cellar was much bigger than it looked, blasted into the rocks behind it.
At the very back, shrouded in darkness, the old man had fifty or so boxes stacked on top of one another. Each was filled with banknotes, sorted into plastic pouches. There were notes of all denominations, and the sum total exceeded 300 million kronor.
In all likelihood, the money was on the verge of rotting in the cool, damp cellar.
But the old man wasn’t worried about that. There wasn’t anything in particular he wanted to spend it on, after all.
He asked Sami to carry the dog food, and they went to feed the ever-hungry puppies in silence.
When they returned to the main house, the old man disappeared into his bedroom one floor up, and Sami sat in the kitchen, staring at the water running through the coffee filter for ten long minutes. He had always had trouble sitting still, and without even thinking about it, he impatiently began tapping his foot so vigorously that his entire leg shook. He stared out the window and eventually saw Michel Maloof approaching through the woods. Right then, he also heard footsteps on the stairs; the old man was on his way back down.
Michel Maloof was shorter than Sami. He walked with his shoulders gently hunched, though he also moved quickly and determinedly. He was wearing a pair of boots better suited to the forest, but it was obvious he was freezing. When the old man opened the door, Maloof ’s face cracked into its characteristic grin, revealing two rows of teeth that shone bright against his well-groomed black beard.
“All right,” he said.
He held out his hand, forgetting that the old man never shook hands. Thanks to the dogs and the chaos of the situation, there was no time for embarrassment.
“Sami is already here,” said the old man.
“Sami?” Maloof repeated. “That Sami?”
There was a barely perceptible sharpness to his tone. Other than that, it was impossible to determine what Maloof really meant by his question. His ability to hide what he was thinking and feeling was legendary; no one would voluntarily play poker with Michel Maloof. His expressions were imperturbable, the customary smile not affected by any external circumstances, and his movements were slow, as though well considered and thought out.
He ran a hand through his beard as Sami appeared in the kitchen doorway.
“What a surprise,” the boxer said.
If you wanted to work with Michel Maloof or Sami Farhan, everyone knew that you couldn’t be messing about with drugs at the same time.
Despite this, Maloof ’s and Farhan’s paths had never crossed more than fleetingly.
Not before now.
They sat down at the worn kitchen table. Sami and Maloof both had their hands wrapped around their hot coffee cups, and Sami wondered how the man could live somewhere so cold. One of the dogs began to howl outside the kitchen, and it didn’t take long for his relatives to join in. The old man silenced them with a brief command, without even needing to raise his voice.
Sami and Maloof glanced at one another.
They shared the dogs’ respect for the old man, though they couldn’t claim to know or like him. He wasn’t the type of person you felt much affection for. Still, whenever he got in touch, they came. Why wouldn’t they? The old man often had interesting ideas.
“You’re not wearing enough layers,” he said when Sami asked about turning the heat up.
Sami held back from telling him that you could buy battery-powered heaters these days, if the problem was the lack of electricity in the cottage. “I’ve got a suggestion,” the old man continued. “Or perhaps a question.”
Sami and Maloof were listening. The difference between the two men was particularly clear when they sat next to one another. Sami’s gaze was open and encouraging, it waited eagerly for the next sentence, it was urgent. Maloof sat with his face turned away, tense and seemingly uninterested, lost within himself. When he briefly met the old man’s eye, it was with the cautious curiosity of a watcher.
“There’s a building in Västberga,” the old man said, “I know you’re both familiar with it. A building containing a huge amount of cash. And an opportunity has arisen . . .”
The dogs growled. They started playing, and it soon sounded like they were tipping the furniture in the next room. But their game came to an end without the man having to say a word.
“I know of a woman,” he continued, “who I think could be . . . of assistance. There’s a chance, at the very least. She’s looking for . . . company. She’s registered on those sites? You know, the kind where you make dates?”
Sami and Maloof nodded. If it had been someone else talking, they would have laughed at his choice of words, about “making dates.” But with this old man, there was no joking. With him, you kept your mouth shut and listened.
Instead, they drank the coffee, which was strong and bitter, and waited for him to go on.
“That’s why I asked you here,” he said after a short pause. “I thought it might be something for you. Maybe you’d like to meet the girl? She’s your age. Go out and eat dinner with her. You can say you got her details from the ad.”
Maloof and Sami glanced at one another. Neither of them had ever been lacking for women in their lives.
“I don’t think I can, sadly,” Sami eventually said. “You know we’re having another baby, right?”
“I know.” The old man nodded. “Pretty soon, isn’t it? Your son can’t even be one? What was his name? John? Has he been christened yet?”
“I can’t date a girl,” Sami said without answering his questions.
He stomped his feet in an attempt to warm them up, and explained: “Not even pretending. You know what I mean? Plus, I’m not doing that kind of thing anymore. I’ve got something else on the go. You
The man nodded, but his expression hadn’t changed. It was as though he hadn’t heard Sami’s objections.
“And what do you say, Michel?” he asked.
“Yeah, I mean,” said Maloof, “I can date anyone. I mean….. this
girl…… there’s a police station two hundred yards from that place in
Västberga. She can’t.. change that, can she?”
The man didn’t reply.
“No, no,” Maloof continued, both cautious about disagreeing with the old man and keen to share his doubts, “and, yeah……………………….. they’ve got guards in reception twenty-four seven. A hundred cameras. One of the most secure vaults in northern Europe? But………………………….. maybe she knows all that?”
The man didn’t seem to catch the irony.
“Meet up with her,” he repeated, and turned to Sami. “Listen to her.
She might happen to say something of interest.”
Sami pulled at the neck of his sweatshirt as though he needed to get some air.
“No thanks, not for me,” he politely replied, as though he had been offered another biscuit.
The man stared at him with no expression on his face, and then he turned to Maloof.
“Yeah. Or”—he changed his mind—“I don’t know?”
“If you take her out for dinner, I’ll foot the bill,” the old man said. “And if it leads anywhere, I could imagine helping out financially.”
“Sure, sure.” Maloof nodded. “No.” “No?”
Maloof made a gesture so vague it was impossible to interpret. He didn’t want to seem negative. He looked at Sami, who shook his head almost imperceptibly as he rubbed his hands to warm them up. Both had a huge amount of respect for the man with the dogs, but this time he seemed to be clutching at straws.“That disappoints me,” said the old man, getting up from the table. “That really disappoints me.”
A dense silence spread through the kitchen, and both visitors felt uneasy.
The man took a piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to Maloof.
“You could at least take this? The girl’s personal details. And the rest of her contact details. In case you change your mind?”
“Thanks,” Maloof replied, taking the slip and shoving it into his jacket pocket. “You never know. You don’t.”
“I think that you and Sami could achieve something really . . . interesting if you worked together,” the man added.