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Eva Sandström's eyes were damp with tears.
The hectic bustle of the terminal, the babble of speech and the crackling announcements from the loudspeakers, all this she experienced as thick porridge of sound somewhere in the background.
Eva could now see and hear nothing but her foster daughter. How she was standing a few meters away, saying goodbye and waving. The girl looked so small and fragile beneath her knee-length woolen coat. Eva measured the girl with her gaze, wanting to remember everything down to the last detail.
When would she be coming again?
Black army-surplus boots. Dark grey jeans. Thick woolen scarf around her neck.
How beautiful and frail Annika looked.
Pearly-colored, slender-featured face. Almost no makeup. Short, dark spiky hair.
Eva glanced at Lars, standing beside her. He was also surreptitiously wiping tears from his eyes. She turned his gaze back to the girl.
Annika looked different. Not much, but anyway.
The girl's eyes had not been so round and so Chinese. Her nose was very slightly straighter and sharper than before. And her mouth, above all her mouth and lips, already beautiful, were now fuller than previously.
A gift from my employer, the girl had answered ambiguously to their great surprise and wonder when they had met at this same airport the day before Christmas Eve. It didn't matter, Eva thought. It didn't matter at all. The girl was still the same old Annika that she had known for many years, almost all of ten years, in fact. It didn't matter what she did for a job or what she looked like. She would always manage. She had her own reasons. That's how she was. Just the same, even though she no longer looked completely like her old self. Behind the changed face she was still her very same and beloved little angel.
- Take care of yourself! Lars called out his voice trembling, fumbling to take his wife's hand, waving goodbye once more.
- I promise, Annika answered and went to the security-check door.
- Please remember that we love you, Anni darling.
Vi älskar dig!
Annika had already disappeared behind the doors. Eva Sandström turned to her husband, looked him in the eyes. An old man. An old man's grey and sad face. Poor you, Lars, Eva thought. Poor us! She took hold of Lars's hand. Wiped away his tears.
- Please cheer up.
- Why do I have the feeling that this could be...
- Shhh, don't say it, Eva hissed, her eyes aflame. She lifted a finger to her husband's lips. - Just don't say it. Don't say it Lars. You must not say it. Just don't tell me, this could be the last time.
She put her arm in his. They surrendered, gave in to their fate, turned around together.
The terminal foyer that had woken to a busy morning was an uninhabited desert to them as they walked arm-in-arm towards the exit.
The sun hadn't come up yet.
They stepped into the sharp biting open air and walked earnestly, supporting each other, to the tax queue, got into a car without saying a word.
The security check was over in a moment.
Annika put her belt back around her, pushed her laptop into her flight bag, slung her coat over her shoulder, checked that she still had her flight ticket - Stockholm /Åbo - put it in her breast pocket and set off for the transit hall, her mind buzzing with emptiness. At once the days spent at her foster parent's summer cottage in Stockholm began to teem around her mind. Annika couldn't remember when she had last had such a nice and warm feeling. All the peace and silence, interesting conversations and arguments with Lars, hot steaming mulled wine, warm woolly socks and her very own old red shawl, the roaring of the wind in the forest, the lake buried by a heavy snowstorm, lazy languid mornings and breakfast prepared by Eva, all the small wonderful Christmas presents and the tingling New Year champagne. Annika felt unwilling to leave. She should have just turned back and cancelled everything. Disappear. Hide somewhere in Sweden close to Eva and Lars. Would it be possible? Not, at least, as long as that accursed chip was embedded in her ankle. It had been a surprise. A disappointment, more like. She had noticed it immediately after coming round from the operation - an itchy scar on her left ankle, only a few centimeters long. It was a small, almost unnoticeable implant, but anyway. No wonder the gates howled every time she went through a security check. The old sporting injury seemed to completely fool the guards. What was the microchip for, they had quarreled about it, she and Jakobsson. He had won that fight too. A harmless little paraphernalia, a mere formality, don't worry about it, Jakobsson had said.
Bah! To hell with Jakobsson and his stupid explanations!
She wouldn't be able to escape. At least not before she had dug that fucking implant out of her ankle with a knife! Although it was small, about the size of a pinhead, she could feel it continuously pressing against the hard leather of her boot. Most of all it rubbed up against her dignity. And patience. Self-esteem. Pride.
A spanking new apartment was awaiting her in Turku. Well, a few years old, perhaps five or ten. But to her it was new. And fine. So fine that she had never been able to imagine living in such a place.
West-coast Street. The Föri-ferry, which plied its way back and forth across the Aura river. The frigate, the Finnish Swan. Ninety square meters of splendid fully-furnished room. Wide-screen television. Sauna. Marble floors. Own balcony. River view.
Her life had changed, that was undeniable. First, months of training in autumn. Then the face job, called harmless by Jakobsson. Finally, moving into a new home a few weeks before Christmas. There was pay too, excellent pay at that: almost five thousand Euros a month tax free for doing nothing, just for waiting, passing the time. Jakobsson had promised to take care of everything and he had kept his promise this time. Now she just had to wait, he had said. Wait for what? What would the upcoming mission be? When would she get it? Doubt, expectation and fear continuously filled her mind until she forced herself to put them aside, one by one. Music, exercise, studying, the library and white wine were the best medicine for waiting and stress. Wine, it is true, had the irritating quality of making her too emotional and sad. Sometimes it meant her putting on her coat and boots in the middle of the night. To walk up Linnankatu and from there to Ursininkatu. Standing for a while near to what had been Kati Wuolte's residence. She would sometimes spend a long time there, over an hour on occasions, looking at Kati's windows.
Now and then a light shone from one of the windows. Someone else was living there now. Some young couple. You could make out all kinds of things from the moving shadows inside. That also upset Annika. They probably loved each other.
Some nights she felt that she was breaking down, becoming paralyzed, crouched in hiding, descending into her own thoughts like a bottomless chasm. She would hide in the doorway of the house opposite, curled up in the darkness like a hedgehog, now and then taking a swig from a bottle of white wine she had brought with her in her breast pocket or bag. She wanted to petrify herself, to force herself to follow the lights and shadows projected from the apartment, their irritating games. Or then that terrifying darkness from the window which screamed of loss, of friendship bordering on love. Sometimes she was only able to look at Kati's apartment and think. Cry, maybe. Kati was no longer. She was dead, murdered. Annika didn't know what do with her life any more.
Footsteps leading to the coffee bar.
Annika grabbed a tray, poured a cup of black tea and a ham sandwich, damp from having been wrapped in cling-film, paid at the cash desk and made her way to the only empty table at one side of the café.
There was still over an hour to go before the plane took off. She looked at her ticket again - this repetitive checking was becoming a kind of compulsion - and found that she had it, still. The name on the ticket was Anita Malmberg.
The same name was on her passport, driving license and on the door of her Turku apartment. It had felt strange at first, but eventually not so bad. The name was, after all, was one she had herself invented years ago. It was, when all was said and done a minor evil; you could live with a lie like that, if you wanted. Luckily she had avoided Zhao Jing which Jakobsson had suggested at first. A Chinese act would have been too obvious an alter ego, aroused suspicion everywhere.
Although it was hot inside the terminal building, Annika stubbornly kept her scarf round her neck and her coat on. She didn't want to reveal herself to anyone, nowhere and at no time. Not even a little. Except in the gym, where you had to wear a karate suit. And in the changing room you had to be naked, if you wanted to take a shower. She simply wasn't one of those people who took off her top clothes as soon as the occasion arose. She didn't want anyone to look, stare, intrude. When she was alone at home she might move about naked, sometimes even enjoying it. Then she felt safe, hidden from the gaze and touch of others. She wanted to hide from the strange thoughts and continuous wondering directed at her. "Well aren't you the small one, and thin, and don't you eat at all, and how fair your skin is, as white as milk almost all over, and have you ever thought about a boob job as your breasts are so unfortunate and pointed just like small onions and your thighs too are so fleshless that they can't appeal to men, and you really are strong even though you're so small, and do small things like you get past shop detectives, and how strange your biceps are, you are nothing but skin and bones lass..."
And. And. and. Always "and".
In this respect she was perhaps a little emotionally crippled which meant that she sometimes had little time for people, particularly strangers. Just taking off her coat in a public place would have been too much at times, somehow much too revealing. Not that, if she had wanted to, or out of necessity, she couldn't change her behavior from one extreme to the other. Oh yes! Yes, she could have sat in this café quite naked if it had been absolutely necessary. But if she could choose, preferably not. Whereas a person's comfort zone was normally around an arm's length, about a meter, for Annika it was three, sometimes four.
It was a quirk of fate, then, that that comfort zone should be intruded upon just then.
A man, who you could tell was a Swede a mile off, sat down at the table.
With a cursory glance, Annika made a quick assessment of the man.
He was tall and slim, fair hair, neatly trimmed. His face was boyishly round. Over his plaid flight bag, almost too feminine, was carefully draped a light-colored blazer. The man was wearing disgusting chick-yellow Gant woolen knitwear under which was a white shirt. Straight khaki-colored trousers and two-tone loafers like golf shoes completed the absurdity of his appearance. Sickly-sweet aftershave had been poured on by the handful just a moment earlier. A quality watch glistened gold and silver, around his wrist. The man's skin was tanned dark brown, but at the point where a ring was missing from his ring finger there was a telling slightly lighter patch. The man tried to hide this.
The disgusting creature put his coffee cup down on the table, pulled his chair a little closer, put the afternoon paper beside the cup, smiled unconcernedly but modestly at Annika - as is often the way for many in such a situation - dug his cell phone out from his trousers pocket and lifted it to his ear. From his accent it was immediately apparent that he was from the Skåne district. His voice was both soft and grating at the same time, sweet and sour, warm and cold, friendly and calculating.
Annika looked away. She couldn't have cared less about him. A typical Swedish self-satisfied idiot, she mused.
All those sitting at tables up to a few rows away with enough knowledge of Swedish could tell that the man had just returned from a three week holiday in Torremolinos. That he was on his way home to Helsingborg. That to say there had been enough sun, wine and beer was an understatement. That there had been enough willing young women, some not so young, some of them Finnish. That he had fucked almost all of them. That there were some that he just couldn't get away from however hard he tried.
Gävla dumma kvinnor!
Annika felt like getting up and leaving, leaving her sandwich half eaten and her cup of tea on the table, or better still, pour the tea over the man's head, but she decided to wait a moment nevertheless.
Having explained the situation the man shut the cell phone, put it on the table, concentrated on his coffee and looked as self-satisfied as it was possible to look.
The minutes passed. There always seemed to be plenty of time when it really ought to have been on ration or in installments. It was really strange.
Having drunk his coffee, the man wiped his mouth with a serviette, stood up, grabbed of his bag and left. Annika let out a sigh of relief. She glanced at the clock - still a good half an hour - and ate the remains of her roll. It was then that she noticed that beside the tea cup were the man's newspaper and cell phone. Annika grabbed the phone and looked quickly around her. The idiot had left the scene and disappeared into the crowd. Annika stood up, tried to make him out in the crush. She couldn't see him. Humph! She grabbed her bag and rushed off after the man.
The number of people at the terminal was growing. People were rushing here and there with their baggage, pushing and shoving. The lugging stage of travelling was often hellish, nerve-jangling. Stretched nerves spread among the crowd like wildfire. It was like a plague, the symptoms an irritated hurry, an accusing and angry look. The corridor behind the cafë led to a spacious hall bursting with sweaty passengers. Annika found herself standing in the middle of a crowd of people in the transit hall. The man who had lost his phone had blown away like ash in the wind. Annika spun round on the spot, realizing at the same time that she wouldn't fine the man by dashing back and forth. Time, too, showed its real nature and began to run out. Short in stature, she began to try glancing round and between people to find a sign saying "information". It would be best, she supposed, to leave the cell phone in the care of an airport official. Far to the left she spotted what she was looking for and made her way, dodging the crowd, to the desk.
A few meters before she reached the information desk the telephone burst into life.
Annika stood still and looked at the screen.
Somebody in a hurry shoved her in the back.
Annika looked at the intruder, poked out her tongue and middle finger and looked at the telephone again. Everything slowed down. In fifth gear, the terminal's screaming turmoil screeched into overdrive and jumped free. The gearbox in charge of time, place and speed crunched into crawl mode. Someone had put on the breaks, all motion ceased.
+358 9 111 1111.
Annika recognized the number and hesitated for a moment. Then reluctantly put the phone to her ear.
- Malmberg? asked a gruff male voice.
- Green lights. Are you still there?
Annika swallowed. Her throat felt dry.
- In the café?
- No. I left to find the man who...
- Return immediately to the café. Quickly. Same table, the afternoon newspaper.
The line went dead.
Annika recognized the man's voice. It was Rämö, speaking from his island where he was a shooting instructor. Lieutenant. Jakobsson's right hand.
Annika was in debt to the man for her chronic tinnitus.
With an alarmed expression she sought the way back to the café.
Green lights! It' s all starting! Now!
Her one-size-too-big army-surplus boots clobbled greedily along the corridor.
Her wheeled flight bag bumping here and there.
Estimation error, Annika cursed as she rushed back in a half run. They had made a mistake. Didn't believe she would rush off after the man to return his phone. They thought she would still be sitting contentedly in the café with the man's phone in her own pocket. Finders, keepers.
Annika was puffing, trying to get back in time.
The paper was still lying on the table.
She shoved her bag onto the table. Pulled out a chair and grabbed the paper. In the middle-page spread she found a white envelope. She snatched the letter and ripped it open impatiently. The envelope fell to the floor. She examined the contents of the letter and then looked at the monitor fixed to the ceiling - only ten minutes before the gate closed. She had to act fast. She looked round for a guide indicating the right route, rushed off with her bag in the direction indicated.
Frantic thoughts gyrating sparks.
The Helsingborg man was a fake. A plant, a messenger.
Green lights! It's all starting! Now!
Annika almost bumped into an elderly couple as she ran towards the gate. The old people looked behind them open-mouthed, visibly shaken, shaking their heads at the despicable punk. On the way she found what she was looking for. A WC! Couldn't have been better, the door to a men's toilet was open. A glistening cleaner's trolley had wedged it open. Annika slowed down to a walk. Stopped at the trolley. Glanced quickly around her. Grabbed an unopened pack of rubber gloves, stuffed them into the side pocket of her bag and broke out into a run again.
The telephone rang again.
-Did you find the paper, did you get the material?
- Well done. Don't use your own phone any more, just the one you've got in your hand now. Turn it on as soon as the plane has landed, we'll be in touch later.
Annika shoved the cell phone into her pocket and rushed off.
The airplane official was just closing the gate. Puffing and panting, Annika apologized for being late. She was prepared to explain, even to lie to get on this flight. The official gave a broad smile.
- Anita Malmberg?
Annika nodded, gasping for breath.
- We've been making announcements for you. Your passport and ticket please.
Annika handed her the ticket she had found in the newspaper, along with her passport with its visa. Smiled back nervously. She hadn't heard a single announcement. The woman official took her time examining the documents. Glanced at Annika, handed the papers back and opened the tape blocking the way to the tunnel to the airplane.
- Hurry up please, they are waiting for you.
- I sure hope so..., Annika muttered to herself as she dragged her feet down the tunnel, her coat trailing behind her. The cold tin walls resounded to her hurried footsteps in time to the wheels of the flight bag, rrr rrr rrr...
The flight official attached the torn-off tag of the ticket to the same bunch of ticket tags as the other passengers.
SAS, SK732, Departure 08:40, Arlanda - Stockholm / Pulkova 2 - Saint Petersburg.