”How the fuck could the cars be empty? Our guy in Ventspils checked and sealed every fucking thing before the ferry left the har–“
“I don’t know”, he snapped. He glanced at Maks from the corner of his eye before his attention returned to the road.
He was in the fast lane and speeding so goddamned fast that the surrounding lights turned into long neon lines in the periphery. Why the hell did you have to fucking drive all the way down to the Kungsholmen island to get from the Värtahamnen harbor to Tomteboda?
“This whole thing is gonna go to hell, straight to fucking hell”, he heard Yousef mumbling from the backseat. His foot was drumming nervously against the floor, and the panic in his voice could not be mistaken for anything else. “What’s gonna happen now? What did he say? Why did he want to meet–“
“Shut the fuck up, I just told you I don’t know.” He shot Yousef a sharp look through the rear-view mirror.
His eyes then moved to the cellphone in his lap, to the message on the screen: Meet me in the usual place. Now. The number was new of course, but there were no doubts about the identity of the sender.
“I’m sure Lambert just wants to talk”, he heard himself say as the car left the Northern Link tunnel and emerged in the open beneath the light polluted night sky. “We’re gonna figure this out. We’ll just pull some strings, cash in some favors. Compensate him for the shit that’s gone missing. We’ll figure this out.”
His voice, as usual, was deceptively composed and calm, but on the inside he wanted nothing more than to scream and slam the wheel until his hands were numb. This was so fucking bad.
Wares for hundreds of thousands of kronor were gone without a trace, and no matter how this could have happened, it was his fault and the entire blame would fall upon him. The. Entire. Fucking. Blame.
The knot in his stomach continued to grow as he steered the car through Stadshagen, over the Ekelunds Bridge and up towards Solna.
“He just wants to talk”, he repeated, but so quietly this time that the others might not even have heard him. The words, however, sounded empty even in his own ears, and after that no one spoke until the car turned into the desolate industrial area.
Two cars were already parked in front of the dark warehouse. He wondered who – probably more than one person – that Lambert had brought to the meeting.
Normally, it would have been himself, Maks and Yousef, but this was not normally. Not by a long stretch.
“Are… all of us going in?”, Yousef asked hesitantly as the car came to a standstill in the empty parking lot in front of the building.
“Of course”, Maks snapped. “There’s three of us in this shit, and no one is gonna face the consequences alone.”
He then opened the passenger door and stepped out into the darkness, as if to prove a point – thus missing the tired, grateful look afforded him from the driver’s seat.
Yousef nodded quietly, maybe ashamedly, and exited the car himself. He walked around to the driver’s seat and opened the door.
“I’m sorry”, he said. “I didn’t mean… what that sounded like. Of course I’m not gonna leave you in the lurch here.”
“It’s okay”, he said, patted his friend’s shoulder and stepped out of the car. “We’re just going in there to talk. Out within ten. Then we’re going for a pizza.”
He leant back into the car to retrieve his gun from the center console, but then changed his mind mid-motion. Bringing a gun to this meeting would just send the wrong kind of signals.
The knife sheath, however, he let remain on his belt beneath the hoodie. A gift from dad. Old habits. Fuck the knife legislation and all that jazz.
Maks was sitting on the hood, smoking a cigarette that he instantly flicked away when the other two approached.
“Well then”, he said tensely. “Let’s get this thing over with.”
Without another word – there really wasn’t all that much left to say – they then started walking across the parking lot, towards the towering warehouse and the thin strip of light that hinted at a backlit door in the façade.
He saw Maks reaching for the door handle, and grabbed his arm to stop him.
“No”, he said and shook his head. “This is my fuckup. I’m going in first.”
He then opened the door and stepped inside, before Maks had a chance to argue.
The light in the large warehouse was dim, but that didn’t stop him from instantly recognizing the figure waiting for them in the central isle between the lines of covered up crates and barrels. Lambert Ferek looked at him coldly and slowly shook his head.
“Jacob, Jacob, Jacob… I must say I’m very disappointed in you.”
Jacob’s throat tightened, and before it even struck him how strange it was that Lambert was alone, he heard Yousef cry out behind him. He quickly turned around – and froze.
Maks and Yousef, who had entered behind him, had been grappled by two other figures and now stood there with guns pointed at their heads. When Jacob realized who the assailants were, a burning rage hammered through his spine like a heated nail.
“Christoffer, you fucking asshole”, he growled at the man holding Maks. “I should–“
“Relax, captain”, the man smiled mockingly. “Me and Danne here are just taking these gentlefolk out for a little walk, so that you and the boss can talk without distractions. From what I’ve heard there seem to be some things to… straighten out.”
“Let them fucking go, I–“
“It’s okay, Jacob”, Maks said tightly. “We keep it chill. It’ll be alright.”
“That’s right, listen to your little lieutenant”, laughed Danne, who had never even dared to raise his voice to Jacob before. “We’re just going out for some fresh air. You won’t even have time to notice they’re gone.” He laughed again, as if he had just said something unusually funny.
Even Christoffer laughed at the joke, while Jacob was forced to powerlessly watch his two friends being escorted back out into the night. He met their gazes before they disappeared through the door. In Maks’ eyes he saw murder – in Yousef’s nothing but pure, unmasked horror.
“So”, Lambert Ferek said when the door had slammed shut. “I understand that you have lost me some serious money tonight, Jacob Hellström.”
Jacob slowly, reluctantly turned to face him, and shivered at the realization that the man was now so close that all that separated them were three meager yards of concrete floor.
“I… I don’t know what happened”, he said, fighting to keep his voice from breaking. “We… I… had checked everything, all the details, contacts, stages… The same people, the same methods as always. It has never–“
“No, but now it did”, the man interrupted him. “And from what I’ve heard, I think that you know more about this than you pretend to do, Jacob. Is there really not something that you want to tell me?”
Jacob stared uncomprehendingly at the man in front of him – at his pale face, abyssal predator’s eyes and eerily motionless posture – and felt his entire body begin to shake as the words sank in. Shocked, he took a step backwards and raised his hands.
“No. No, no! I don’t know anything, I promise”, he stammered.
He had known that Ferek would be pissed about this, that he himself would probably be in trouble for botching such a big transaction. But now it suddenly sounded like he stood accused of something…
“I don’t know what you’ve heard”, he said, struggling to regain the calm tone of voice that had saved him from so many fucked up situations in the past, “but I have no idea what happened tonight, or why. I will do everything in my power to find that out, and to compensate you for the losses. If you just let me–“
He silenced when Lambert started laughing. A powdery dry, joyless laugh that didn’t entirely seem to come all the way down from his lungs.
“But Jacob”, he said coldly. His smile was nothing but an impassive mimicry, not even halfway reaching his pitch black eyes. “After this little faux pas, my trust in you has been entirely depleted. Didn’t you realize that?” He laughed again.
“Or did you think that I would let you walk out of here and potentially cause even more damage? If the things I have heard are even remotely true… Well, I’m almost impressed by how recklessly bold you must be to attempt such a double cross. Too bad you didn’t choose to invest that quality better – you could probably have gone far within the organization. But as things have turned out… A shame, as I said. A real goddamned shame.”
“But, no, I don’t know what you’re talking about! Who told you this? Tell me what you’ve heard so I can–“
All the air was pressed out of him when Lambert Ferek’s long fingers suddenly closed around his neck. Jacob hadn’t even seen him move. He felt his feet leave the ground as the man who wasn’t really a man tightened his grip on his throat and lifted him from the concrete floor.
He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t make a sound. The blood thundered in his ears and his vision started to black out.
“It doesn’t matter who my sources are, just that they’re convincing”, Ferek said while Jacob struggled for air in his grip.
“They contacted me last night, with information about you and your two friends planning to… misappropriate this delivery. I decided not to act prematurely, but instead to test you. To see if the warning had any truth to it. And, as it turned out, it had – the cargo actually disappeared. So as you can see, Jacob – you have been exposed. You have all been exposed. I didn’t bring you here tonight to receive a status report or to issue reprimands. I brought you here because betrayal like this demands the kind of vengeance that cannot be delegated.”
Jacob’s thoughts raced wildly side by side with the panic in his mind. He kicked with his legs, struggled to loosen Ferek’s grip with his own increasingly nerveless hands. He needed time, he needed air to his brain in order to figure out what all this meant. Someone had sold him out, backstabbed him, made it look like…
“A… setup”, he pressed forth with the little air he had left in his lungs. Every word tore like glass paper against his compressed vocal cords. “It’s a fucking setup, can’t you see that?”
But Lambert Ferek just looked at him where he hung, regarded him like an art appraiser might regard an especially difficult painting. This time the smile reached his eyes, but this did nothing to lessen the discomfort of the beholder – rather the contrary.
“I’m sorry, Jacob”, Ferek said with a voice that actually hinted at some kind of perverted sympathy. “But the game’s over. Your friends are already dead, and now you’re going to join them. Think of it as an act of goodwill that I’ll at least let your blood live on through me – that, at least, is a respect I can pay you after all these years of service.”
Jacob didn’t even have time to process everything that Ferek had said, before the man pulled him in and sank his teeth deep in his carotid artery. Blood begun gushing out of him with a force that made his ears roar like crashing waves. His vision went black, and all the nerves in his body started going numb.
But at the same time as his life flooded out of him, another kind of cold started spreading in his veins. Your friends are already dead. That’s what Ferek had said. Your friends are already dead.
In his mind he replayed the sight of Maks and Yousef being led out of the warehouse, over and over again. The rage in Maks’ eyes, the fear in Yousef’s. And then Danne’s words: You won’t even have time to notice that they’re gone. He had known. They had known.
When they took his friends away, it was to kill them – that’s what Danne’s joke had inferred. That fucker knew, and he joked about it. As if it were… And now… Your friends are already dead.
And at once Jacob knew who Ferek’s sources were. Who had “warned” him about Jacob’s fabricated betrayal, and then themselves sabotaged the delivery from Latvia. And who would now probably be promoted to leading positions, be given power over all the things that Jacob, Maks and Yousef had been part in building. Take their places…
The heated nail of rage from before suddenly ignited inside him again, deep within the buried, sore part of him that still breathed, felt, struggled. The part of him that still hadn’t given up. And from somewhere he got the strength to move, to make one last, desperate lunge.
He barely felt it when his hand closed around the knife’s handle, didn’t know if the arm moved for real or just in his desperate thoughts, until his fist hit Lambert Ferek’s jawbone with a muted thud and he realized that the knife’s blade sat deeply buried up through the man’s head.
Next thing he knew, he was plunging towards the ground as Ferek’s cramping hand lost its grip on his throat. He both felt and heard things break on the inside as he hit the hard floor and landed in a helpless pile.
Ferek remained standing for a few more seconds, before his legs gave way under him and his entire frame collapsed on the concrete right in front of Jacob. Blood immediately began to form a dark puddle under the man’s head – a puddle that quickly bridged the distance between them and soon warmed the right side of Jacob’s ruined face.
He met Ferek’s gaze as they lay there on the floor, and he could read both shock and hatred in those night black eyes. For a moment his dying brain experienced an emotional spike of victory, of successful revenge.
Then he suddenly remembered Christoffer and Danne, and the emotion instantly gushed out of him together with the lifeblood that still pumped from his neck to mix with Ferek’s blood on the floor. He just could not let them get away with this. Would not. Must not…
His quickly fading mind grasped desperately for straws, threads, anything that might save him. And suddenly it got hold of something. He didn’t know what Ferek and his kind was, but had seen enough bad movies and tv-series to venture a qualified guess.
They were pale. They didn’t breathe. They drank blood. Jacob was working for fucking vampires, for fuck sake – even though he had always avoided using that particular term. It was just too unbelievable. Too weird. Too… mental.
But now, as he lay there feeling his life slowly drain from his veins, it suddenly didn’t seem as mental anymore. Maybe it was due to the majority of his brain having already shut down, or to desperate wishful thinking in the face of death, but either way he thought that this just might be his chance of salvation.
He had no idea how much of the movie mythos was actually true, how creatures like Ferek were actually created, but… But what if…
The other man’s eyes widened in horror as Jacob used his very last strength to crawl closer through the blood. Grabbed his neck. Pulled him as close as possible… And put his mouth to the bleeding crater in his upper throat.
Ferek struggled to get away, but Jacob’s fingers had stiffened in the final iron grip of the dying and there was no getting away.
Jacob knew that he only had mere seconds before the last spark of life would trickle out of him, and he drank desperately from the gushing blood. Swallowed mouthful after mouthful while all sound slowly silenced and his vision faded into a black nothing, right up until the moment when even the muscles in his own throat started shutting down as his body slowly died.
He didn’t register when Lambert Ferek finally stopped struggling, when the blood from the man’s neck slowly dwindled into a weak trickle against his lips or when the body beneath his hands little by little started dissolving into a fine-grained powder.
Towards the end Jacob just lay there and lapped weakly at the dusty puddle of blood on the floor, lacking the strength even to move or draw sufficient breaths. He couldn’t see anymore, heard no sounds. All that was left for him was the blood. The blood that maybe, maybe, maybe could save him. That maybe could give him some kind of retribution for what he and his friends had been subjected to.
And then his breathing, heartbeat and thoughts finally stopped, together with the last spasmic movements of his body. And Jacob Hellström was dead.
He opened his eyes and drew in a deep, desperate breath. His eyes, mouth and nose were instantly filled with cold, thick dirt. Panic gripped him and he started coughing uncontrollably. Flailed wildly to get away from the weight that pressed down on his arms and legs.
But the weight was everywhere, and he realized that he was beneath the ground. They had buried him alive, left him to slowly choke to death under the mud and soil.
The panic increased and he knew that he didn’t have many seconds to reach the surface. Desperately, he started pulling his arms in, struggled with all his might to get them closer to his body so that he could start digging.
He clawed upwards with sore fingers, kicked downwards with aching legs, did his best to hold his breath, to make the last oxygen last long enough to–
Skin. His hand struck against cold skin – not his own, somebody else’s. A body. Now he lost control completely, flailed wildly in all directions, felt bones breaking inside his body as he mindlessly pressed himself against the heavy, densely packed dirt.
He struggled for breath and felt his mouth and lungs fill with moisture, earth and roots. His hands struck against more and more skin. Damp fabric. A face. Panic was everything now, nothing else existed. This was a fucking grave, and he was not alone inside it.
At first he barely noticed when his right hand broke the surface, but when he did he felt a pang of new hope. With renewed strength he braced his legs and pressed himself upwards. Ignored the cracking noises in his skull, the creaking of the small bones in his shoulders, the unbearable pain in his entire body.
His head exploded up through the surface and into the cold night air. Like a drowning man he threw his arms up onto the ground and held on for dear life, as if fearing that the ground would suddenly change its mind and start sucking him back down again.
He lay there for a long time, feeling the cold grass against the side of his face while he drew deep, even breaths and listened to the distant sounds of traffic.
Memories nudged persistently at his still slightly offline brain, but he didn’t want to acknowledge them. Not yet.
Then he suddenly remembered the bodies, and instantly forgot to draw his next breath. On shaking arms, he heaved himself out of the pit, crouched down and started digging.
He dug with a frenzy born out of memories he still didn’t want to let back in, dug until his fingers bled and he had almost managed to forget why he was even digging in the first place. He dug until his hand struck something that was not dirt, and then he stopped.
He didn’t want this. Didn’t want to know. He knew that if he continued digging now, he would find something that he would not be able to reclaim the ignorance of. Something that would force him to remember things. Realize things.
He hesitated. Felt sick. Wanted nothing more than to just get up and walk away. But he didn’t.
Instead he carefully leant down and brushed away the last layers of dirt from that which he had unearthed. Brushed away more and more, until he had uncovered a face.
First uncomprehendingly, then with increasing panic, he met Maks’ stiff, flat stare. The rage in the blue eyes was gone now, and only emptiness and silence remained.
For a surreal moment, Jacob thought that his friend was alive, that he was looking back at him from down there in the dirt. But only a defaulted heartbeat later the truth sank in: Maks was dead. Dead. Dead.
Christoffer and Danne killed him, he thought with a strange cold. And they didn’t even bother to close his eyes.
The cold inside him spread like poison in his veins while he slowly continued digging. He dug now with a pragmatism that he knew wasn’t really his, but which he had pulled over himself like a cold, wet blanket in order to get through this at all. Because he needed to see. He needed to know.
And then he found Yousef as well. At least his eyes are closed, he thought as he carefully caressed a moist, dirty strand of hair from his friend’s pale face.
They had both been killed by gunshots to the head, he registered. Up close, slightly from above. Pure executions. He stared down at his two best friends, thought that it was only moments ago that he had heard their voices, the sound of their footsteps behind him in the desolate parking lot…
And that’s when the memories finally returned. He remembered the drive, the industrial area, the warehouse, Lambert Ferek, Christoffer and Danne… And he remembered the setup. The realization. The anger. The blood…
And he suddenly realized that he hadn’t breathed for several minutes, that the air in his lungs was the same as that he had drawn in when he’d first found Maks.
And then came the feelings.
He fell down on hands and knees, screamed his lungs out, felt tears start streaming down his face and when he looked down, he realized that they were tears of blood.
He collapsed on the ground, pulled his knees up to his chin and cried without restraint until there were no tears left, until he had screamed his throat raw, until his brain couldn’t process this horrid reality anymore. The reality of what had happened to his friends, what had happened to him, what all this meant…
Then he just lay in the grass, feeling the cold blades against his face and just staring straight ahead along the ground.
The moon shone down upon him, upon the copse in which he lay, upon the piles of dirt in front of him and the hole from where the dirt had come.
He thought that he wanted to crawl back into that hole, lie down next to Maks and Yousef and hope never to wake up again. Maybe the earth would take him back, let him rest in its dreamless oblivion once again…
But it was impossible, he knew that. There was no place for him there.
He didn’t see the bodies, not from that angle, but he knew they were there. Knew that they lay there, dead and immobile, waiting for him to do something with them. To dig them up or bury them back down. To call the cops or let alone. To make sure their families were given closure, or to let them wonder forever.
He didn’t know what the right answer was, what he should do.
What he knew by then, however, was that he didn’t have any pulse. That he could cut out the breathing if he wanted to. That his broken bones were already healing beneath his skin.
That he had made it through – but not survived. That he was dead.
And he realized that it didn’t matter what he did with the bodies. That wasn’t the reason for him being here, for him having clawed himself back up from the cold earth, where all sound reason dictated that he should still remain.
He wasn’t here to honor his dead friends, to give closure to their families or really even to administer justice.
He was here to mete out punishment, to exact revenge. It was as Lambert Ferek himself had said:
Betrayal like this demands the kind of vengeance that cannot be delegated.
He rose on unsteady legs. Noted that his fingers weren’t bleeding anymore, and that the crushed and broken bones were no longer hurting.
He approached the edge of the hole again, looked down at the dead bodies of his friends one last time. They lay there in the moonlight, pale and silent like emptied containers.
He thought about a line from the children’s novel The Brothers Lionheart. “That’s only their husks laying there”.
Yes, he thought silently. That’s how it is. They’re not here anymore, those are just empty husks.
Then he knelt down and started scooping the dirt back into the hole. Shoveled it back over the lifeless bodies until they were gone, stomped the ground until all that could be seen was a slightly more agitated area in the underbrush.
He felt sorry for the families who would suffer in a state of unknowing limbo for the rest of their lives, but the bodies could never be found – at least not until he was done.
If they were unearthed, Christoffer and Danne would start wondering where his own body had gone – and in the worst-case scenario that would cause them to realize that he was still in possession of some semblance of life.
The fact that they thought him obviated was his strongest trump card against them, and he wanted to save it for the moment when it would do the uttermost damage to them and everything they stood for.
He had clung on to life with tooth and nail, had kicked and clawed his way back from the silent embrace of the underworld, to kill those who had done this to him and his friends.
To put fire to their world and watch it burn until nothing remained but grey ashes and twisted, scorched corpses. To then salt the earth where they had trod and obliterate their memory.
Then, and only then, when all this was accomplished, he would be done. Only then would he allow himself to sink back down into the cold, quiet depths of the earth and let darkness and oblivion finally take him.
But that time was not now.
With dirt smeared hands and a heavy heart, he turned his back to the hidden forest grave and started walking towards the city.
The harsh, lone call of a solitary crow echoed in the distance, and he silently wondered how much of Stockholm would have to burn before this was over.