"Strangled him?"



"Yeah...  no...  he squeezed him to death. I think he broke his neck with his bare hands. I heard the guy's neck snap and he died right in front of me."



Sandstrom was swaying on the rope. Tears were streaming down his face. He had never told anyone this before. Salander gave him a minute to collect himself.




"And then?"



"The other man - the one with the ponytail - started up a chain saw and sawed off the guy's head and then his hands. After that the giant came up to me. He put his hands around my neck. I tried to pull his hands away. I pulled as hard as I could, but I couldn't budge him an inch. But he didn't squeeze - he just held his hands there for a long time.



Meanwhile Atho took out his mobile and made a call in Russian. Then he said that Zala wanted to talk to me and held the phone to my ear."



"What did Zala say?"



"He just asked whether I still wanted to pull out. I promised to go to Tallinn and get the car with the amphetamines. What else could I do?"



Salander sat without speaking for a long time. She contemplated the snuffling journalist on the rope and seemed to be thinking about something.



"Describe his voice."



"It...  sounded normal."



"Deep voice, high voice?"



"Deep. Ordinary. Gruff."



"What language did he speak?"



"Swedish."



"Accent?"



"Yeah, maybe a little. But good Swedish. He and Atho spoke Russian."



"Do you understand Russian?"



"A little. Not fluent. Just a little."



"What did Atho say to him?"



"He just said that the demonstration was over."



"Have you told anyone else about this?"



"No."



"Svensson?"



"No...  no."



"Svensson visited you."



Sandstrom nodded.



"I can't hear you."



"Yes."



"How come?"



"He knew that I had...  the whores."



"What did he ask?"



"He wanted to know...  about Zala. He asked about Zala. That was the second visit."



"The second visit?"



"He got in touch two weeks before he died. That was the first visit. Then he came back two days before you...  he... "



"Before I shot him?"



"Yes."



"And he asked about Zala then?"



"Yeah."



"What did you tell him?"



"Nothing. I couldn't tell him anything. I admitted that I'd spoken to him on the phone. That was all. I didn't say anything about the blond monster or what they did to Gustafsson."



"OK. Tell me exactly what Svensson asked."



"I...  he just wanted to know what I knew about Zala. That was all."



"And you didn't tell him anything?"



"Nothing of any use. I don't know anything."



She bit her lower lip pensively. There was something he wasn't saying.



"Who did you tell about Svensson's visit?"



Sandstrom seemed to shiver.



Salander waved the Taser.



"I called Harry."



"When?"



He swallowed. "The night Svensson visited me the first time."



She kept on for another half hour, but he was just repeating himself, adding details here and there. She stood up and put a hand on the rope.



"You must be one of the sorriest perverts I've ever met," Salander said. "What you did to Ines deserves the death penalty. But I told you that you would live if you answered my questions. I keep my promises."



She loosened the knot. Sandstrom collapsed in a slobbering heap on the floor. He saw her put a stool on his coffee table and climb up and unhook the block and tackle. She coiled the rope and stuffed it in a backpack. She went into the bathroom. He heard the water running. When she came back she had washed off the makeup.



Her face looked scrubbed and naked.



"You can cut yourself free."



She dropped a kitchen knife beside him.



He heard her out in the hall for a long time. It sounded as though she was changing clothes. Then he heard the front door open and close. It took him half an hour to cut off the tape. He first sank down on the sofa, then staggered to his feet and searched the apartment. She had taken his Colt 1911 Government.



Salander arrived home at 4:55 a.m. She took off the Irene Nesser wig and went straight to bed without turning on her computer to see whether Blomkvist had solved the mystery of the missing police report.



She was awake at 9:00 and spent all of Tuesday digging up information about the Ranta brothers.



Atho Ranta had an extensive record in the police criminal files. He was a Finnish citizen from an Estonian family. He came to Sweden in 1971. From 1972 to 1978 he worked as a carpenter for Skånska Concrete Pouring. He was dismissed after being caught stealing from a building site and sentenced to seven months in prison. Between 1980 and 1982 he worked for a smaller builder. He was kicked out after turning up drunk at work several times. For the remainder of the eighties he made a living as a bouncer, a technician at a company that serviced oil-fired boilers, a dishwasher, and a janitor at a school. He was fired from all these jobs for drunkenness or for getting into fights. His janitorial job lasted only a few months: a teacher reported him for sexual harassment and threatening behaviour.



In 1987 he was fined and sentenced to a month in prison for car theft, driving without insurance, and receiving stolen property. The following year he was fined for possession of an illegal weapon. In 1990 he was convicted of a sexual offence that wasn't specified in his criminal record. In 1991 he was charged with intimidation but acquitted. The same year he was fined and put on probation for smuggling alcohol. He served three months in 1992 for beating up his girlfriend and making threats against her sister. He managed to stay out of trouble until 1997, when he was convicted of handling stolen goods and aggravated assault. This time he got ten months in prison.



Harry, his younger brother, followed him to Sweden in 1982 and worked in a warehouse for a long time. His criminal record showed three convictions: in 1990 for insurance fraud, in 1992 with a sentence of two years - for aggravated assault, receiving stolen property, theft, and rape. He was deported to Finland but in 1996 returned to Sweden, when he was once more sentenced to ten months in prison for aggravated assault and rape. The verdict was appealed and the appeals court acquitted him on the rape charge. But the conviction for assault was upheld, and he served six months. In 2000 he was charged again, this time for intimidation and rape. The charges were later dropped and the case dismissed.



Salander traced their last-known addresses: Atho's was in Norsborg, Harry's in Alby.



Paolo Roberto got Miriam Wu's answering machine for the fifteenth time. He'd been to the address on Lundagatan several times already that day. No-one answered when he rang her doorbell.



It was past 8:00 on Tuesday evening. She had to come home sometime, damn it. He understood that Wu would want to stay out of sight, but the worst of the media blitz had subsided. He might as well sit outside the door of her building in case she turned up, even if it was only for a change of clothing. He filled a thermos with coffee and made himself some sandwiches. Before he left his apartment he made the sign of the cross in front of the crucifix and the Madonna.



He parked about a hundred feet from the entrance on Lundagatan and pushed back the seat to make more room for his legs. He played the radio at a low volume. He taped up a photograph of Wu that he'd cut out of a newspaper. She looked great, he thought. He patiently watched the few people walking past. Miriam Wu was not one of them.



Every ten minutes he dialled her number. He gave up trying to call at around 9:00 when his mobile told him that the battery was almost dead.



Sandstrom spent Tuesday in a state approaching apathy. He had slept the night on the sofa in the living room, incapable of going to bed and unable to stop the sobbing fits that regularly overcame him. On Tuesday morning he went down to Systembolaget in Solna and bought a bottle of Skåne Aquavit. Then he went back to his sofa and drank half of it.



Not until later did he come to a clear understanding of his situation and begin to consider what he could do about it. He wished that he had never heard of the Ranta brothers and their whores. He could not believe that he had been so stupid as to let himself be enticed to the apartment in Norsborg where Atho had tied the heavily drugged Ines Hammujarvi to a bed with her legs spread, then challenged him about who had the bigger rod. They had taken turns, and he had won the contest for the greater number of sexual feats performed that night.



The girl woke up once and tried to resist. Atho spent half an hour alternating between slapping her and filling her with drink, after which she was pacified and he invited Sandstrom to continue the sport.



Fucking whore.



How could he have been so stupid?



He could hardly expect any mercy from Millennium. They made their living with that type of scandal.



He was scared to death of the madwoman Salander.



Not to mention that blond monster.



Obviously he couldn't go to the police.



He wasn't going to be able to manage on his own, and the problem wasn't going to go away by itself.



There was only one slim possibility open to him, one place where he could expect an ounce of sympathy and maybe a solution of sorts. He was clutching at straws, but it was his only option.



That afternoon he gathered his courage and called Harry Ranta's mobile. There was no answer. He kept trying until 10:00 that night. After thinking about the matter for a long time (and fortifying himself with the rest of the aquavit) he called Atho Ranta. It was Atho's girlfriend Silvia who answered. She told him that the Ranta brothers were on vacation in Tallinn. No, she did not know how to reach them. No, she had no idea when they would be back. They would be in Estonia for quite a while. She sounded glad of that.



Sandstrom wasn't sure if he was depressed or relieved. It meant that he didn't have to explain things to Atho. But the underlying message, that the Ranta brothers had decided to take a breather in Tallinn for the foreseeable future, did not do much to calm Sandstrom's nerves.



CHAPTER 25



Tuesday, April 5 - Wednesday, April 6



Paolo Roberto had not gone to sleep, but he was so deeply immersed in his thoughts that it was a moment before he noticed the woman walking down from Hogalid Church after 11:00 p.m. He saw her in his rearview mirror. Not until she passed under a streetlight about seventy yards behind him did he snap his head around and at once recognize that it was Miriam Wu.



He sat up in his seat. His immediate thought was to get out of the car, but he might scare her off. It was better to wait until she reached the front door.



As he watched her approach, he saw a dark-coloured van pull up next to her. Paolo Roberto looked on, horrified, as a man - a devilishly huge beast - hopped out from the sliding doors and grabbed Wu. She was taken completely by surprise. She tried to wriggle away by backing up, but the man held her wrists in a viselike grip.



Paolo Roberto's mouth dropped open when he saw Wu's leg come up in a fast arc. She's a kickboxer! She landed a blow on the man's head but it didn't seem to faze him in the least. Instead the man raised his hand and slapped Wu on the side of her head. Paolo Roberto heard the blow from where he was sitting. Wu hit the deck as if struck by lightning. The man bent down, picked her up with one hand, and simply tossed her into the van. That was when Paolo Roberto closed his mouth and came to life. He threw open the car door and sprinted towards the van.



After only a few steps he realized how fruitless it was. The van that Miriam Wu had been thrown into like a sack of potatoes had made a U-turn and was already moving down the street before he reached full speed. It was headed towards Hogalid Church. Paolo Roberto spun around and raced back to his car. He too made a U-turn. The van had vanished when he came to the corner. He braked, looked down Hogalidsgatan, and then took a chance and turned left towards Hornsgatan.



When he reached Hornsgatan he came up against a red light, but there was no traffic, so he eased into the intersection and looked around. The only taillights he could see were turning left up towards Liljeholmsbron at Långholmsgatan. He could not see if it was the van, but it was the only vehicle in sight. He accelerated in pursuit but was stopped by the lights at Långholmsgatan and had to let the traffic from Kungsholmen pass as the seconds ticked away. When the traffic cleared, he accelerated hard, ignoring another red light.



He drove as fast as he dared across Liljeholmsbron and faster as he passed through Liljeholmen. He still didn't know if it was the van whose taillights he had seen, and he didn't know whether it had turned off to Grondal or Årsta. He decided to go straight and floored it again. He was doing more than ninety miles an hour and blew past the sluggish, law-abiding traffic, assuming some driver or other would take down his licence plate number.



When he reached Bredang he spotted the vehicle again. He closed in until he was only fifty yards behind and was sure it was the van. He slowed to about fifty miles an hour and fell back to two hundred yards. Only then did he start breathing normally.



Miriam Wu felt the blood running down her neck as she landed on the floor of the van. Her nose was bleeding. He had split her lower lip and probably broken her nose. The attack had come like a bolt out of the blue. Her resistance had been quashed in less than a second. She felt the van start up as soon as her attacker slid the doors shut. For a moment, as the driver turned the van, the blond giant lost his balance.



She twisted around and braced her hips against the floor. When the man turned towards her she lashed out with a kick, striking him on the side of his head. She even saw that her heel left a mark. It was a kick that should have hurt.

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