Sören Hellström, a sophisticated Swedish aristocrat, lives a comfortable and seemingly peaceful life on his estate in Vickleby on the picturesque island of Öland, Sweden. But appearances can be deceiving. Sören´s murderous past is catching up with him and his tranquil existence is threatened to be overturned by blackmail and the imminent exposure of his darkest secret is looming ahead. On top of that Sören is irrevocably attracted to his mysterious new tenant on the estate, the enchanting, secretive and reclusive Clarice Carter. Can Sören save his reputation, his life of luxury and his blooming love for Clarice?
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A Crime Novel
Shadows of Sören
by Nicola Stöhr
published by: epubli GmbH, Berlin, www.epubli.de
Copyright: © 2013 Nicola Stöhr
”Tell me now:
is there a difference
Between a shark
And the ghost of a shark
´cause all I have are secrets
And memories of the dark …”
“Ghost of a Shark”
From “Just like blood”
Clarice entered his peripheral vision from the left. She must have come from the ostrich enclosure behind the house. She loved the ostriches and often spent her time just standing and looking at them.
Sören was standing at his bedroom window overlooking the front of Rettinge Gård and watched Clarice enter her house. The little house which she rented from him. It was one of the two former servant quarters situated a couple of metres in front of the main house, to the left and right of it. Between them ran a long alley leading away from the big house to the main road.
This was the basic setup for what classified a typical Herrgård in Sweden. A Herrgård was the original name for a big country house inhabited by an aristocrat. That would be him, Sören Hellström. Except that in any other country, the country house would have been a little grander and bigger than this one. But this was Sweden after all. The land of modesty, equal opportunities and good fortunes for everyone. Even the Royal family´s summer residence in Borgholm on Öland was only a third of Balmoral or Windsor Castle, or wherever it was the English Royals spent their holidays. His gård was at home on Öland, the little island which was situated just of the east coast of Sweden. Sören had grown up there in the village of Vickleby. Vickleby was an old, picturesque village which stood right at the edge of the Stora Alvaret, that limestone barren plain on the south of the island. The plain distinguished itself through a sparse vegetation of low shrubs interfused with limestone rocks.
Basically Vickleby consisted of one long, well kept street which ran through the middle of the village and was in itself a sight for those looking for genuinely old, idyllic structures. Although in many ways it resembled an old English country village. The houses were often hidden behind rough stonewalls and overgrown with ivy or wild wine. Almost every house had a row of stockroses planted in a straight, narrow line in front of it, in pink or red or dark blue. It was an almost uniform look which nearly every household seemed to conform to. The houses without the stockroses looked almost forlorn and naked. The village regularly won the vote as Öland´s most beautiful village.
Rettinge Gård, like all gårds, stood a little apart from the village and was well set back from the main road. The local council had however some time ago set up a huge sign by the main road pointing the way to Rettinge as one of the local sights of interest. Sören had at the time not really fathomed the point of this sign, since it lead every Tom, Dick and Harriet to his house, touring his grounds like the gård was some kind of amusement park.
The sign had also led Clarice to Rettinge and to his doorstep. She had shown up out of the blue one day, knocked on Sören´s door and asked about the house which was for rent. She had probably read the ad his estate manager had placed in the local paper. Sören had been too stunned by the sheer look of her to give her a straight answer or even form a coherent sentence. Her hair looked like it was on fire. He had really never seen such a shade of red before and she had the greenest eyes.
Strangers didn´t usually approach him directly about anything. For reasons Sören could not really fathom, a lot of people were intimidated by him. Clarice had not been intimidated nor particularly impressed by any of those attributes. Their conversation had been unusually personal and somewhat acrimonious for two people who had never met before. He recalled every word of it, as it was basically the pattern for almost every conversation they had had since then. Without any preamble or any sort of introduction she had immediately entered into question mode.
“Are you the landlord and the owner of that little house over there?”
It had taken him a while to gather his wits and she had just stood there with an expectant and somewhat impatient look on her face. “I am”, he had finally answered.
“And is it for rent?” she had enquired.
“Well can I rent it?”
“It´s not a summer house you know. I´m looking for a long term tenant.”
“Good, perfect.” She had nodded and had looked pleased.
Sören had been a little irked. “Really? Well we´ll see. Who are you, where are you from and why do you want to live in Vickleby of all places?” he had asked and felt some of his self-confidence return.
“What do you mean Vickleby of all places? You live here, don´t you?”
“I was born here, I grew up here.”
“Well that doesn´t mean you have to stay here, if you don´t like it.”
“It doesn´t mean I have to rent a house to you either and I didn´t say I didn´t like it here.”
“Then why shouldn´t I like it?”, Clarice had asked obstinately.
“I don´t know why you shouldn´t like it here, because I don´t know you from Adam. I´ve never met you before and I don´t know who you are, because you have as yet failed to introduce yourself to me!” At that point Sören had taken a deep breath.
“So when you said “Vickleby of all places” that was just a manner of speech? Well how should I know that, I don´t know you either. You know you should really restrain yourself from using idiosyncratic speech patterns like that when addressing perfect strangers.”
Sören had been completely flummoxed. Was he really having this conversation with a woman he had never met before on his doorstep? Or had he maybe had one Single Malt too many the night before? But a small childish part of him was actually enjoying the dialogue, plus the young woman was really stunning to look at. But stunning or not an introduction was definetely called for here.
“Your name, please, if I may?”, Sören had asked rather sternly.
She had conceded, “My name is Clarice Carter. I am a theoretical physicist and currently employed by the university of Kalmar.”
He had noticed that she hadn´t mentioned where she was from and something had kept him from asking again. And what the hell was a theoretical physicist? After almost nine months he still didn´t know where she was born, but she had an American accent, maybe Canadian, he couldn´t tell the difference. So his best guess was that she had been born somewhere in North America.
“Currently employed?” he had enquired. “This is a limited contract? I told you I want a long term tenant.”
“That was just a manner of speech! I meant employed full stop.”
“Okay, look”, Sören had said judiciously, “I actually have an estate manager who deals with rent and tenants and all that and as far as I know he already has a couple of prospective tenants who are coming to look at the place on Saturday. You may feel free to join them.”
“Ok, now you look, I don´t have time till Saturday, it´s too long. I need something right now.”
Sören had stopped short. “Why? Don´t tell me you´re living on the street. Are you homeless or something?”
Clarice had smiled in spite of his harsh tone of voice, “I almost wish. No, I am right now living in a student dormitory, since the university has failed to provide more adequate living arrangements for me and these Swedish students are driving me nuts. They disturb my sleep, they disturb my work and if there were another important aspect to my life, I´m sure they would be disturbing that too. I have to get out of there and soon. I need peace and tranquility. I have no time to waste. So can I rent the place or not?”
“Don´t you want to look at it first?” Sören had asked.
“I´m not fussy and it looks fine from here.”
“So you´re a bit of a strange one, aren´t you?”
“I´m actually the most boring person in the world. I have no husband, boyfriend, kids or social life to mention. All I do is eat, sleep and work. If that´s strange, then yes, I´m strange, but not serial killer strange, just boring strange.”
Sören had considered her answer.
“If you work in Kalmar, wouldn´t you want to live closer to the university? Like in Kalmar for example?”he had asked sarcastically.
“What´s wrong with Kalmar?”
“Nothing, I just don´t want to live there. I like the idea of living on an island.”
Sören could relate to that. “I´ll need a proof of salary and a downpayment of two months rent in advance.”
“Fine, no problem”.
“Fine. After that feel free to move in whenever you want.”
And that had been that. She had moved in two days later with a suitcase and a laptop. No boxes and not a single item of furniture. The house was furnished anyway, but most people usually brought a few personal items like pictures, commodes, side tables or books. Clarice brought nothing but herself, a laptop, a scuffed, beige coloured suitcase and her dark red New Beetle convertible. He had not learned any more about her past. Not for lack of asking on his part but for lack of forthcoming information from her. He had stopped asking, because he understood that she really, really didn´t want to talk about her past. Instead he tried to find out more about her by watching her and listening astutely to everything she said. He was mentally compiling a “things I know about Clarice” list. After almost nine months it was still pretty empty. She knew about wine. He had once opened a bottle of one of his better wines from his cellar, a 2003 Sancerre which was only compatible with a vintage white burgundy or the quality Blanc Fumés of the world. She had expressed her surprise and commented favourably on it, showing an impressive knowledge about aroma, taste, regions and vintages. He mentally added “Clarice knows about wine” to his list. His estate manager Magnus had not been happy about being sidelined by Sören on the matter of finding a new tenant for the house. He had indeed already made arrangements for a viewing of the premises with several people, which he had then be forced to cancel at rather short notice. But it was nothing that a good bottle of wine from Sören´s graciously stocked wine cellar could not quickly mend. A bottle of booze could do wonders in Sweden. Sören had often wondered himself why he had so quickly agreed to letting the house to Clarice. Even though he was Swedish, he could be impulsive and drawn to making spontaneous decisions if his mood called for it, but renting a house to a person he had only known for a few minutes had been more than impulsive and spontaneuous. Clarice had simply overwhelmed him and he remained overwhelmed. Did Clarice entering his life indicate a turning point in his comfortable and stable existence?
What was he doing here standing at his bedroom window reminiscing about Clarice and their very recent past together? He had an important meeting with a new client to attend to that morning. He owned one of the biggest consulting and accounting firms in Sweden, based in Kalmar. His company provided tax and specialist advice to businesses and their owners. And he had a personal meeting with a client who wanted to expand her ecological clothing business to Kalmar. He looked at his watch. It was earlier than he thought and he still had a good hour before he had to leave for the meeting. Then he remembered that Clarice had asked him whether he had a manual for the heat pump which Sören had installed in her house. He had found the manual the day before and then forgot about it. But Clarice was home now and he conveniently had an hour to spare before leaving for the office. So he could go over and give her the manual now. No harm in that was there? She had asked for the instruction booklet, though Sören was unsure as to why she wanted it. Those heat pumps were sensitive pieces of advanced technology and they usually readjusted themselves according to the outside temperature. He hoped she wouldn´t start fiddling around with it and mess up the whole system. Although she semed to have some competence regarding technical equipment. Tilda, the young woman who rented the second of the smaller houses across the driveway from Clarice, had told him that Clarice had connected and installed Tilda´s new television set plus the receiver and the satellite dish two weeks ago, when the TV man had not shown up as promised. And everything worked like a dream. So it would probably be alright.
Sören walked over the twenty metres or so to Clarice´s house holding the instruction manual. He waved it in her face when she opened the door.
“I found the manual which you asked for.”
Clarice seemed happy about that, “Hey that´s great. I´ll read through it tonight.”
“Are you sure your nervous system can take that much excitement? You might have trouble falling asleep tonight.”
“Is there a problem with the heating system?”Sören inquired.
“No, not yet, but I heard that they sometimes don´t adjust too well once the temperature drops to five below. So I´d like to be prepared. Because I hate being cold.”
“Doesn´t everyone?” Sören wondered.
“Yeah, I guess. I´ve just made a pot of coffee. Would you like some?”
“Well then come on in.”
Sören did so promptly. He followed her from the tiny hall to the living room. The “stugan”, really a summer house according to modern standards, had only four rooms and that included the bathroom. The kitchen and living room were open and merged into each other and then there was one bedroom and a tiny laundry room. Sören looked around while Clarice poured his coffee and rooted around in her kitchen cabinets for some biscuits. She hadn´t changed anything about the interior design of the house. Sören had furnished the houses with leftovers from the main house when he had taken it over eight years ago. So most of the furniture was antique. His parents hadn´t much appreciated modern design and furnishings. Sören had a combined mix of both in his house now. The first thing he had thrown out were the horrid pictures depicting hunting scenes, which had adorned the walls of his father´s library. He had hung them in the house which Clarice now occupied. She had even left those hanging. She didn´t seem to care. Strange really, he thought, because she did like pretty trendy clothes and she also drove a spiffy little new beetle convertible in a darker reddish colour with white leather seats. Not exactly the most inconspicuous car he had ever seen. He sensed that there was a story behind this car, but he was reluctant to ask, since she hated being questioned about anything even vaguely connected to her past. Sören did however notice that she had acquired a load of very expensive cooking ware. A mass of stainless steel and copper pots and pans in different shapes and sizes and electrical gadgets in a simple but expensive looking design adorned her kitchen counters and shelves. The shelves in the kitchen were also overflowing with high quality olive oil, vinegars, spices and herbs. Many of the latter obviously bought at Sören´s own herb boutique on the gård.
The hoardes of tourists which flocked to Vickleby and inevitably to his gård in the summer had hugely annoyed Sören in the beginning and then it had occurred to him that he could actually work this influx of summer visitors to his advantage and he had set up a retail establishment, namely the herb boutique, right at the entrance of the gård. It had worked like a dream right from the start. So he had gladly settled his dispute with the members of the village council, of which he was also a member, about the sign leading to Rettinge.
So Clarice liked to cook Sören mentally added to his list. Then why the hell hadn´t she yet invited him over to dinner? The cooking ware and her assortment of oils and other ingredients obviously indicated that she cooked on a somewhat elaborate level. Weren´t those artichokes in that hanging basket? To cook only for yourself was in Sören´s opinion boring and depressing, but that was what she apparently did, since Sören hadn´t noticed any guests coming or going from her house since Clarice had lived there.
He looked at her when she sat down across from him and asked “So how are my ostriches today?”
“Well, I didn´t ask them for a health certificate or anything, but they seem happy enough to me.”
“Oh good. Happy birds make for happy meat.”
Clarice winced and then tried to compose herself quickly before Sören noticed. But he had caught the movement. He smiled at her tenderly, “Clarice”, he said carefully, “You do know that I sell their meat? You didn´t think I kept them as pets, did you?”
“No,” she said quickly, “Of course not. I knew that. I just don´t like to think about it.”
Following her natural curiosity she was going to ask how they were slaughtered, but then changed her mind. She didn´t really want to know. Instead she asked, “What gave you the idea to breed ostriches in the first place?”
“I read an article a couple of years ago in an agricultural magazine. It sounded like a profitable and interesting venture, an investement that didn´t carry a great risk. But if I had known about the strict quaranteen laws I would have reconsidered.”
“But weren´t you working in London as a hedge fund manager a couple of years ago? Or was that much earlier? When did you actually leave Öland ? And you didn´t come back for the sole purpose of breeding ostriches, did you?”
Sören smiled, “So many questions. Let´s see. After I finished school all I wanted to do was get away from Öland. This is not an uncommon phenomenon. Most young people who grow up here on the island want to get away for at least a while. So I chose to study economics and management in Oxford. My mother was still alive and well at that time and my parents were still able to afford an Oxford education for their only child. So I graduated with a master in economics and management and moved to London and worked for one of the biggest banks as a hedge fund manager.”
“Did you like it? London and your job?”
“I loved it. The noise, the people hurrying all the time, the theater, parks, nightclubs, museums, shops. Everything. It was exhilarating. And I loved my stressful job at the bank and the after hour drinks and happy banter with my colleagues.”
“Did the job involve a lot of risk taking?” Clarice asked. She was genuinely interested.
“Yes, of course. Hedge-fund-managing is a high risk, high-return trading game. And it lures plenty of dreamers, believe you me. Everyone is aware of the galling sums of money hedge-fund managers can pull in. Here´s a popular joke about hedge-fund managers: What´s the difference between a hedge-fund manager and a dove? One sits in a hole and shits on people, the other is a bird.”
Clarice could feel that he had inwardly finished with that part of his life.
I was no dreamer, though,” Sören continued “I made money in my sleep and got out while I was still making money.”
“Why? Why did you get and out and move back here? Not that I blame you. This place is beautiful but since you loved London so much and everything?”
Sören squirmed a little in his chair. “I became a little discontent. I hardly noticed in the beginning, but then this feeling persisted. And then one morning I woke up to find myself homesick. Which I had wanted to avoid under all circumstances but I couldn´t ignore it anymore. I just wanted to go home. I missed the tranquility of Öland. I missed the slow stressless feeling of it and the flatness of the landscape and the view over the Kalmarsund. And I missed Vickleby. And I missed my people. The people here who sometimes take whole minutes to finish a sentence and don´t even know how to spell words like “stress” and “hurry”.”
Clarice smiled at him warmly, “And yet they mysteriously manage to get things done in their own unhurried, slow but efficient way. At least that´s what I´ve noticed, since I´ve been living here.”
“Precisely”, he smiled back.
“So how long were you in England then?”
“About eight years.”
“ Really, that long? I wondered why you speak English with a British accent.”
Sören laughed, “Yes, it did rub off on me.”
“I´ve noticed that most Swedish people speak English with an American accent.”
Sören nodded, “That´s because of all those American programmes on television, of course.”
“What did you mean when you said your parents were still able to afford a good education for you then? Did they lose all their money later?”
“More or less, yeah.” .Sören looked down at the table and didn´t say anything for a little while.
Then he continued“My father was a drunk and a gambler. But my mother had always had a firm grip on his drinking and gambling excesses, but then she got sick. She had breast cancer and she got too sick to manage the affairs of the gård. So my father drank and gambled a lot of it away. When I came back eight years ago, I was appalled by the state of neglect and dilapidation Rettinge had fallen into. My mother died soon after and I tried to keep a firm grip on my father. It was hard though. Then he died about a year after my mother.”
“And then you set about getting the place back into shape? And you started your business in Kalmar?”
Sören looked up, “Yes that´s right. I worked myself to the bone, putting in fifteen to sixteen hour workdays. I established the company in Kalmar and got the gård back on track with the ostrich farm, the sawmill, which was already in place but inoperative and the herb shop, the örtagård. And I succeeded, but it was a tough time.”
Clarice nodded. “That´s very impressive. It really is.”
Sören leaned in a little closer to her, “So now you know almost everything about me, Clarice.”
“Oh, I seriously doubt that, Sören , she interrupted him, but he continued unperturbed, “If there´s anything about your past you´d like to share with me, please feel free to do so now or any other time.”
Clarice looked at her watch, “Didn´t you say you have a meeting in Kalmar?”
Sören looked at his own watch and cursed, “Damn, so I have and I´ll be late if I don´t leave right now. Thanks for the coffee and the conversation, Clarice. See you soon, I hope. Hejdo”
Clarice watched him get into his bronze coloured Volvo S60 convertible and speed off, roof down, since the weather permitted it. It was still fairly warm for September in Sweden. Although dark clouds were gathering on the horizon.
While speeding down the alley away from the main house Sören noticed Per Nielson lurking by the side of the örtagård. Something really needed to be done about him, he was becoming a real pest. Per Nielson was the living personification of the fate that would have beheld Sören´s father if he had lived. Once a fairly prosperous milk farmer, Per had owned and run the smaller gård Ludbyholm which was situated to the south of Vickleby, while Rettinge stood to the north of Vickleby. But worse than Sören´s father, Per had not only been a drunk, he had been a violent woman and child beater, too. Sadly his wife had waited until their two girls were almost grown-up and had moved out, before leaving him.
There was also a son, a boy, who had still been small when his wife Gunhild had left him. She had already been in her late forties when she had given birth to him and everyone had been extremely surprised and also a little horrified at the thought that the woman was not just subject to her husband´s physical abuse, which had more or less been an open secret, but also still had to comply to his sexual needs.
And then the biggest shock was yet to come. Eric, the boy, was born with Down syndrome.åå
Soon after the farm had gone bankrupt and was taken over by the bank. Gunhild Nielson had moved to a small apartment in Färjestaden, where she still lived today with Eric, their son.
One of Per Nielson´s daughters, Tilda lived at Rettinge and worked for Sören. She was his cleaning lady and occupied the second of the smaller houses on the estate.
As is so often the case with children who grow up with violent fathers, Tilda had married a man at a very young age who had displayed the same violent tendencies as her father. But unlike her mother she had not waited until their son Oscar was grown up to leave him. After a particularly violent attack on her and their son she had called the police and Henric Johannson, her ex- husband, was right now serving a three year sentence. Sören didn´t really know the technical term which warranted such a verdict and it didn´t matter as long as the man was locked up.
Sören´s father and Per Nielson had been good friends once, which was why he tolerated the man´s presence on Rettinge. Not so long ago he had done the odd little job here and there, repairing fences, light gardening work, helping in the stables, but his alcoholism had made him more and more unreliable and in the end even Sören had lost patience with him. Per lived in a tiny cottage in the woods which was the only thing left of his once substantial property. And yet he insisted on returning to Rettinge almost daily and annoying the hell out of everyone who worked and lived there. Tilda of course wanted nothing to do with him and didn´t want her son anywhere near him, either.
What was he going to do about Per, Sören pondered while driving along, this couldn´t go on forever until his liver finally gave up on him. He was a resistant fellow, he might live for years and years to come. He had to get rid of him somehow, he couldn´t continue to lurk around Rettinge, listening in on conversations, disturbing people while they were working. And he spied on everyone without shame or discretion. He was also drunk out of his head half the time. Alma was upset because he had started to harass some of her customers and Tilda was downright terrified of him.
Sören drove along the northern Alvaret and from his car he could see the Blue Henry, which was a rare kind of lichen, spray its marin onto the grey rocks while other ferns glowed with a dark crimson. But his thoughts about Per poisoned these beautiful impressions. Per had never really been violent towards anyone but his family in the past, but lately he had violent mood swings and Sören had no idea what to do about it. Of course he had begged the man to stay away from Rettinge, the ordered him, then tried to bribe him. Per knew of course that he, Sören, would never go to the police about him, he knew that only too well. Sören had consulted Kent Persson, his old schoolfriend and local police Inspector on the matter, but Kent had been strangely reluctant to discuss Per Nielson and rather vague about possible actions that could be taken to get rid of him. Sören had assumed that Kent had other more important matters to deal with at that time and had let the matter rest. Presumably the police were also helpless in such cases, as long as no damage was done to either property or people. So Per was more or less free to come and go as he pleased. Which he did on a daily basis.
Sören thought back to the evening before, when he had had his monthly meeting with the old man. As usual Per Nielson had wandered into the house as if he owned it. Maybe he even had illusions of himself as the lord of the manor somewhere in his sick head. Sören always made sure that these meetings took place when Nanna, who was his housekeeper and cook, wasn´t home. Nanna had been his nanny when he had been small and she occupied a little flat at the back of the house. He and Nanna were very close, in fact she was more like a mother to him than his own mother had been. And the two of them often shared a drink or a meal together in the evening, so it was quite feasible that she might just walk in on one of Sören´s unpleasant meeting with Per Nielson, which Sören most definetly wanted to avoid. Per had served himself a gracious splash of Sören´s finest single malt and then brought forward his usual stream of accusations, threats and demands.
“So, young master of Rettinge, I´m glad you remembered to keep our little appointment. But then we both know what would happen if you didn´t, don´t we? Knowing what I know about you, it would not end well, would it?”
Sören handed him an envelope, “Cut the crap Per. Here´s your money and now get out of my house.”
“Well, how´s that for manners? I think your parents taught you better than that. Throwing an old friend of the family out of the house, really,” he feigned outrage, but then a violent coughing attack interrupted his performance. Per took a dark round case out of his pocket and spat a large clump of chewing tobacco into it. An unpleasant, sharp smell immediately fanned out.
“Leave my parents out of this and you know where the door is. Excuse me if I don´t bother to show you out.”
“Why the hurry, young Lord? You wouldn´t have another appointment with someone else would you? Maybe with that little redhead across the driveway?”
“Goodbye Per.” Sören showed him the door, but Per would not budge.
“She´s a pretty litte thing, that girl.” Per shoved a new clump of snus, the Swedish chewing tobacco, under his upper lip which then looked like it had been stung by a giant mosquito. “You know I´ve been thinking,” he continued, “Maybe I should warn her about you and tell her what the mighty young baron is really like. What do you think?”
Sören took a step towards him, “I wouldn´t if I were you.”
“Is that a fact? Somehow, Sören, I don´t think you of all people are in a position to determine what I do or don´t do.” As if to demonstrate his point he took the glass of single malt, emptied its contents on the polished hardwood floor and threw the glass over his shoulder. Then he took a long provocative sip straight from the bottle. Sören clenched his fists in his pockets and tried hard to remain in control.
“If you go near her, I swear you´ll regret it”, he said.
“Oh, serious threats now! You want to fuck her that bad do you?” Per salaciously licked his lips and in the process bared some of his yellowing teeth, which were dark at the edges, from his continous use of snus. “Hm, well she´s probably worth it. She is a hot one. I wonder if she´s a real redhead. Only one way to find that out, isn´t there, Sören?”
Sören´s knuckles went white with the strain of controlling himself. “Get the hell out of my house, Per, before I forget myself.”
“But that would be the end of you, too, wouldn´t it my young master? Don´t forget I have real evidence against you which is sure to be found should something happen to me. And come to think of it, I won´t even have to go near her. I can just drop a hint or slip a note through her letterbox. You can forget about banging her then, can´t you?” Per spat out a portion of snus again, but didn´t bother to take out his little case this time. A muscle moved in Sören´s jaw and he took another step towards Per. Per must have seen something in his eyes because he actually complied to Sören´s wish and left, taking the bottle of single malt with him as he went.
Sören swiftly navigated his Volvo convertible onto the Öland bridge, which was a magnificent masterpiece of technical engineering.
The Ölandsbron was a road bridge connecting the island to Kalmar and the mainland. It was 6,072 metres long, supported on 156 pillars, and had a characteristic hump at its western end – to provide a vertical clearance for shipping. When Sören´s father had been younger and still interested in amusing his youngster, he would accelerate before approaching the hump and the car would go flying over and Sören´s tummy would tumble while the car descended on the other side of the hump.
It was one of the rare fond memories Sören had of his father. The bridge was the longest in Sweden and one of the longest in all Europe. It had been inaugurated in 1972 and its construction took four and a half years. The bridge project had received a lot of support, but there had also been protests. The main objection was that the bridge would threaten the environment, possibly causing a huge influx of tourists to Öland and its valuable nature. This seemed like a joke to Sören today, because Öland was so dependent on the tourist business nowadays, that it would more or less cease to exist without it. He himself couldn´t completely free himself from this dependence.
Usually Sören was annoyed by the Swedish habit of fastidiously sticking to the given speed limit, not one mile over and no mistake. But it was a gloriously sunny day and the bridge offered a really spectacular view of the open sea to the left and right of him. The modest skyline of Kalmar was dimly looming ahead and the sun was leaving sparkles all over the water, while the swans drifted over the sea like silver ballons. On a day like this he didn´t mind at all that he was stuck behind one of those typically pedantic, rule obeying Swedish drivers.
He was moving along at a speed which would usually cause him to fall asleep or have a temper tantrum. While crossing the bridge Sören wondered what it was with Clarice that she constantly caused his mind to wander? He spent quite a big portion of his day thinking about her.
Well, she was enchantingly pretty, that would be one reason. And she was smart and interesting and mysterious and funny. A lot of reasons, then. So what was keeping him from making a move on her?
He knew why. She was pretty and smart and funny, but she was also aloof, non-committal and incredibly secretive about anything personal. As soon as he turned the conversation to a more personal level she either changed the subject or ended the conversation and walked off.
He was afraid that one day she would disappear just as quickly as she had entered his life and he had no interest in speeding up that process by being too intrusive or showing his romantic interest in her which he most definitely had. Only at one time had she given any indication that a tiny part of her brilliant mind was sometimes occupied with him too. On that occasion she had compared him to a fictional character in a popular movie based on the novels of J.R. Tolkien.
Sören had been busy stacking wooden logs into rows by the side of the house. His living room was located at the back of the house and had a pair of French doors which led out onto a wooden deck. Sören liked to place the firewood close to the deck, so he wouldn´t have far to go should he run out of logs for his open fireplace in the winter. Clarice had come from the direction of the forest which bordered on his property. Actually the forest was his property, too. She had obviously just returned from one of her long walks that she liked to take, all alone of course. Sometimes she went down to the beach. The forest seamlessly went over into a beach but the beach was not really attractive for bathing or for taking a sensual stroll in the sand at the water´s edge, because in this little cove the water kept on washing up an abundance of greenly-black algae which of course overlapped in a slimy, oily accumulation at the water´s edge and barred an untroubled, easy entrance into the water and the sandy land area was peppered with little rocks and clumps of reed. There was a little wooden pier which protruded into the algae-free zone oft he water and from which one could hop into the water quickly for a short swim. Clarice visited this beach in every weather, even when it was windy and raining. Sören, like every native who grew up on Öland, wouldn´t even dream of going to the beach in cold or ghastly weather. That was how you recognized a tourist or a newcomer to the island.
When Clarice was within earshot, he had interrupted his work for a moment and said,“Clarice, you do know that there are much nicer and proper beaches in the nearest vicinity, right?”
She had nodded, “Yes of course I know that, but they´re not within close walking distance, are they?”
“Yes, that´s true, but the other beaches are beautiful, with white sand, where one can walk unobstructed and bathe and stretch out in the sand.“
“I don´t want to stretch out in the sand”.
“No? What do you do at the beach then“?
“I smell the salty tang of the algae and the sea and listen to the gentle, rhythmic beating of the waves”.
“Ah. Well that´s nice. No shortage of rotting algae there. I´d say that salty tang is a somewhat euphemistic description for the smell they give off. Sewage plant would be more appropiate”
Clarice had smiled, “Yes, now and again, depending on how the wind blows. But that doesn´t matter. And anyway, I do sometimes visit other beaches“.
„Well, that´s alright then.” Sören had resumed stacking his logs.
She had silently watched him stacking the wood for a while and then thoughtfully remarked, “You know you look a lot like that elf, what´s his name again? Wait a minute, it´ll come to me… Legolas! That´s it. You know, from the Lord of the Rings.”
He had given her a puzzled and somewhat irritated look.
“I look like an elf? Elves are small, invisible people. How can I look like an elf?”
“You do know the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the movies I mean?”
“Yes... no, what is it?”
“Jesus, don´t you take any interest in popular culture at all?”
“Of course I do, certainly I do. I watched a movie in Kalmar only last week.”
“What was it?”
She had just stared at him.
“What´s wrong with Edith Piaf?” he had asked slightly peeved.
“Nothing is wrong with her. I own a couple of her recordings myself, she´s amazing, great voice, tragic life and everything, but she hardly classifies as popular culture. She would probably fall into the category of high culture, elitist even in your case.”
Was that an insult? Sören couldn´t say. “I´m not a teenager you know, I´m almost thirty-five years old.”
“So in that case you should have read Tolkien when you were a child.”
“Maybe, but I didn´t”.
“What did you read? Hang on a minute, you can read, right?”
He had ignored that remark. “Like any child growing up in Sweden I read Astrid Lindgren. In fact I think it´s a law in our country. Every child must read Astrid Lindgren and only Astrid Lindgren or you get sent to a child correction centre.”
“Are you kidding me? That boy with the propeller on his back and that little girl with superhuman powers who lives in a house all by herself?”
“Aha, so you read them, too!”, he had said triumphantly, picking up another armful of logs from the wheelbarrow.
“I most certainly did not, but I have watched about a thousand repeats of those ghastly movies they made in the seventies, which they show here almost every Sunday morning. And that little girl in the suspender stockings and that little shirt dress? She´s every pedophiles´s dream.”
After which he had straightened up, towered over her and put on his sternest look. “So you´ve got a bit of a dirty mind, haven´t you little girl? Maybe you need to be spanked?”
She had laughed, given him a toothy grin, showing a row of gleaming white teeth and wandered off. At least he knew how she spent her Sunday mornings. He had consequently hired the first of those movies she mentioned and been relieved to see that the elvian hero in question was indeed quite a handsome fellow and a very brave and capable warrior.
Of course the likeness she had mentioned was of a purely aesthetical nature, but still.
He had hired the other two movies, too and been a little disturbed by the fact that his elvian alias remained almost androginous and unattached right through the movies. No girlfriend, woman or wife in sight. On the plus side no boyfriend either, if you discounted the dwarf. The elf did have a likeness to Sören, except that Sören´s hair was not that long. His hair only came down to his chin. And he would never ever braid his hair, only if someone held a gun to his head. His nose was also thinner and straighter and his eyes not quite so blue. He was sure that guy was wearing contacts. And Sören was much taller than the elf, but that was because he wasn´t an elf, right?
Sören arrived at his office right in the city centre and switched off all thoughts about Clarice. His office in Kalmar was a Clarice free zone, physically, since she had never actually been there and mentally because here he concentrated only on his work.
The client was already waiting for him and turned out to be a very attractive blond woman in her late thirties called Anna. They shook hands and promptly retreated to his office to go over her business plan together.
“Who buys all this stuff?” Sören thought again when she presented him with a list of her product range. The thought was a hypothetical one though, since he already knew what sort of customer group was attracted to ecological clothing. His market research team had already looked into that matter and written up an extensive report including impressive looking diagrams and statistical charts.
During the course of their meeting Anna flashed her legs at him several times and touched her knees to his more often than was absolutely necessary. And why not? Sören thought. He was single and free and in contrast to Clarice, Anna was not immune to his charmes and his looks, even though she herself was skinnier than he generally preferred. But she was still quite attractive and entertaining.
So after their meeting he invited her to dinner at one of the few really good restaurants the town had to offer. The restaurant was in walking distance from his office. When they passed the harbour Anna pointed to one of the bigger yachts anchored there and said, “Oh look at that boat. Isn´t it big and shiny?”
Sören nodded. It was big and shiny, what could he say?
He had noticed that although she was a successful business woman a lot of her statements were naiv and almost childlike. Maybe it was an act she put on when she was attracted to a man. Many men felt insecure around succesful women. Sören wasn´t one of them but he knew men who were.
The restaurant was furnished with glass sculptures, vases and multiple other decorative elements made out of glass. Even the candelabras were made entirely out of glass.
Öland belonged to the province of Småland and Kalmar was its capital. Småland was most famous for its traditional glass manufacturers and the restaurant was decorated with products of the most prominent glass factories, like Kosta Boda or Orrefors, although they were mostly owned by Danish investors nowadays. The Danish were taking over many things.
They gave the waitress their order of beef in mustard and savory sauce for Sören and mango, avocado and pear salad for Anna.
No wonder she´s so thin, Sören thought again. He leaned back in his chair and took a sip of his red wine. Anna was drinking mineral water.
“So Anna, tell me about yourself. Where are you from, what do you like? I´m all ears.”
And she gave him a rather extended account of her past, her likes and dislikes, which were plentiful , her ambitions and her plans for the future. So here at least was a woman who wasn´t afraid or reluctant to discuss her life with him. That made a nice change, Sören thought. Or did it? Why was he comparing Anna to Clarice all the time? Why couldn´t he just relax and enjoy this woman´s company without thinking about her all the time? He was actually annoyed with himself. He tried to concentrate solely on Anna and their conversation, which she seemed to enjoy so much that she switched over from mineral water to wine. In fact she emptied most of the bottle of red that Sören had ordered , since Sören was driving and had to watch his alcohol level. The drink-drive-limit was zero percent in Sweden and Sören was already over the limit with only one glass of wine and he had only recently paid a hefty fine for being well over the limit. He had almost lost his licence when the police had stopped him just short of the Ölandbridge. So he was being careful.
Sören looked at his watch,” Wow, that late already. Where are you staying, Anna? Is it close by?”
“Well actually I haven´t booked into a hotel yet. I was planning to do that after our meeting. But then I didn´t know you´d invite me to dinner. You wouldn´t have a place for me to stay over night, would you Sören?”
She looked at him adoringly out of big, bright eyes.
Sören didn´t really need a more obvious invitation than that. “You know Anna, you needn´t bother with a hotel. I have loads of room at my place. Why don´t I pay the bill and we can leave?”
“Sounds good to me.” On the way to Öland he regretted inviting her home to Rettinge. What if Clarice was still up and saw him arrive with Anna? But she had been without a hotel room and it was late. He couldn´t let her sleep on the street, could he? Why did he actually care what Clarice thought? And why was he justifying bringing a woman home to his house and his bed? He was free and single and not involved in any way with a red headed, single-minded, sarcastic theoretical physicist, was he? Sören didn´t think she´d care anyway, so why should he feel guilty? Except he did.
Clarice was having a bit of a bad morning.
First she had worked on her M-theory, which was an extension of String theory, till late in to the night, but without making any progress or getting anywhere close to a solution. And then when she had just decided to call it a night she had heard Sören´s Volvo speed up the alley and watched him disembark with a blond woman, dressed to kill and obviously enamored with him.
The two of them had disappeared in to the house together and a couple of minutes later she had seen the lights come on in his bedroom. Actually she only assumed it was his bedroom, since she had never set foot in it herself and wasn’t really planning on it in the near future. She was upset and she didn’t know why.
He was her landlord, not even a friend or anything and that was the way she wanted it. She didn’t want to become involved with anyone, even if he had been interested.
Which he obviously wasn’t.
For a short while she thought she had detected a slight romantic interest in her on his part and had quickly withdrawn to her shell, but he had never acted on it and had obviously moved on. Good, perfect. He could be happy with Blondie, that was fine with her. Then she had woken in the middle of the night due to a recurring nightmare which always left her feeling shaky and vulnerable. As usual she hadn´t been able to get back to sleep.
Of course her thoughts had gone to Sören and his blond femme fatale, who were probably snuggled up tight in the arms of Morpheus. That image did absolutely nothing to improve her mood. Especially not at four o’clock in the morning. But then she grudgingly decided that it really was best for Sören if he pursued other amorous interests, since she was a troubled woman with multiple traumas that she yet had to resolve. Sören didn’t deserve to be burdened with her troubles and as Aimee Mann sang very aptly,”Noone´s got that much ego to spare.” Then again Aimee Mann also sang “It’s not going to stop till you wise up.”
And Clarice was making a lot of progress in the wising up department, especially since she had been living in Vickleby. She felt secure and sheltered on the island and at Rettinge. Her nightmares had receded in the past few months and when she did have them, they were less daunting and powerful.
Still, it was all for the best if she and Sören didn´t get involved just then or ever.
Except that in the morning the water in her shower was cold again and she really, really hated cold showers. The temperature had dropped a little outside and the supermodern, energy saving heatpump always took its time adjusting to the outside temperature. She hadn´t actually managed to study the instruction manual yet, so she didn´t know how to get extra hot water.
And to top of her morning, she discovered Per Nielson peering through her bedroom window. This was not the first time she had caught him peeping through one of her windows or Tilda´s windows. He did it all the time and she had taken to keeping the blinds drawn until she was properly attired. Clarice had not spoken to Sören about this, because she knew he was getting enough trouble from Anna, Magnus and Tilda about Per´s constant and annoying presence on the gård.
She was a little surprised though, that he hadn´t acted more vehemently towards having him removed somehow and she couldn´t really fathom why. Two nights ago she had even seen him come out of the main house when Sören had obviously been at home. It was all a little strange.
There was a knock on her door. She peeped outside. It was Tilda. As usual Tilda looked a little uncomfortable and apprehensive when encountering Clarice. Clarice gave her a broad smile to make her feel more secure.
“Hey. I was just wondering, I don´t want to bother you, but is your heat pump not working, either? I mean do you have only cold water too?”
“No, it isn´t. It´s a real bummer, isn´t it?”
“Yeah, I had to wash Oscar with cold water this morning and he really didn´t like it.”
“I´m not surprised. Listen, I´m going over to tell Sören. Maybe he knows how to work these things, he had them installed after all.”
“Oh, good. Could you, I mean do you mind asking him if he can fix mine, too?”
“Sure, no problem.”
“Oh thanks, thanks a lot.”
Clarice quickly threw on a pair of jeans and a sweater and purposefully marched over to the main house. She entered the house via the kitchen entrance at the side, as she always did. Nanna, Sören´s housekeeper was busy making more coffee for the happy couple.
“He has company this morning, Clarice,” she whispered, even though there was no way Sören could have heard her from the wide and spacious dining room.
“A dreadfully thin woman who drinks a lot of coffee.”
“Well good for him,” Clarice said.
Clarice had actually taken to visiting the big house and chatting to Nanna while she prepared Sören´s meals on a regular basis. Nanna had been Sören´s nanny when he was small and had stayed on as the cook when Sören got too big for a nanny. She was a cheerful, slightly overweight woman of about sixty withlively blue eyes. She and Sören were very close. Nanna was an excellent cook and Sören had several times invited Clarice to join him for dinner, because Nanna always cooked far too much. But this morning was obviously not one of those times when her presence was required. Well he would have to deal with her anyway.
“My shower is broken, I only have cold water, I need to talk to him”, she said and swiftly slipped past Nanna and in to the adjoining dining room.
Sören was in his usual place at the head of the table, reading the paper for heaven´s sake, like they were some old married couple. He was in what she thought of as his blue ensemble. Dark-blue pin striped jacket, dark-blue slacks and blue shirt open at the neck, no tie. He never wore ties. All his clothes looked like they were tailor made, which they probably were. He was really tall and she doubted he could wear anything of the rack. He also had his hair slicked back in a style reminiscent of Michael Douglas in Wall Street. She hated that look on him. She much preferred it when he just let his hair hang loose around his face.
But Sören´s hair was not really the issue right now, was it? The two of them hadn´t noticed her come in, but they would now. Hand on hips she declared, “Good morning. I´m sorry to disturb you in the middle of breakfast but my heat pump is not working. I realize the two of you are still basking in the afterglow of what was undoubtedly an energetic fulfillment of your biological urges, but would you mind sending someone over to adjust the heat pump?”
Sören almost dropped his piece of toast and Blondie turned a very ugly crimson red.
He fixated Clarice with a very cool stare and with obviously barely contained anger and very controlled movements he rose from his chair and coming towards her spat out “Anna, this is one of my tenants, Clarice Carter. Clarice let me introduce Anna, a client and personal friend.”
After which he more or less dragged her out of the room with a very firm grip on one of her arms.
“Ouch, you´re hurting me. Let go of my arm“, she sqeaked.
He turned so he was facing her, “What the hell do you think you´re doing? Coming over here, marching in to my house, into my dining room and insulting one of my guests during breakfast? A guest who just happens to be a very important client too.”
“Do you sleep with all your clients? I´m surprised you still find time to run your business.”
“Who I do or do not sleep with is none of your business, Clarice. You are my tenant, not the lady of the manor and have no business speaking to me the way you do.”
“What way? Alright, alright, calm down. I only want warm water. That damn heat pump isn´t working again.”
“That´s a matter which you very well know you should be taking up with Magnus, not with me. He manages the estate and the houses. That is what I pay him for, that is his job. I have other things to attend to, like the little matter of running a busy company. Which is by the way Rettinge´s main source of income or do you think Rettinge survives on your and Tilda´s rent or the herb boutique or the ostrich farm? Those just barely cover the running costs, the consulting firm is what keeps this place going and you have probably just lost me a very lucrative client.”
“I didn´t just come here because of the shower, I also came here to tell you that I have caught Per Nielson peering through my bedroom window and not the first time, either. And what are you going to do about that? Because you haven´t been exactly forceful on that matter have you? No, you even let him into your house, what is that about?”
“Excuse me?” Sören asked tensely.
“Yes, I saw him leave your house two nights ago. How can you let that disgusting old man into your house? What do the two of you talk about while he´s here? Do you have an idle chat about each other´s days?”
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