In the next moment the giant came into view and Paolo Roberto instinctively twisted to the side. He escaped by a hairsbreadth another clublike blow from those enormous fists. He quickly backed up, three, four shuffles, and got his arms up in a defensive position. He was shaken.
The man regarded him with eyes that were curious and almost amused. Then he assumed the same defensive position. This guy is a boxer. They began to circle each other slowly.
The hundred and eighty seconds that followed became the most bizarre match that Paolo Roberto had ever fought. There were no coaches, no referee. There was no bell to call a halt to the round and send the fighters to their corners. No pause for water and smelling salts and a towel to wipe the blood from his eyes.
Paolo Roberto knew now that he was fighting for his life. All his training, all the years of hammering on punching bags, all the sparring, and all the experience from all the bouts he had fought came together as the adrenaline pumped in a way he had never before experienced.
They went at each other in an exchange into which Paolo Roberto put all his power and all his fury. Left, right, left, left again, and a jab with the right to the face, duck the left hook, back up a step, attack with the right. Every punch landed with solid force.
He was in the biggest battle of his life. He was hitting with his brain as much as with his fists. He managed to avoid every punch his opponent threw at him.
He landed a right hook clear as a bell to the jaw that felt like he had broken a bone in his hand and that should have made his opponent collapse in a heap. He glanced at his knuckles and saw that they were bloody. He could see bruises and a swollen area on the giant's face. But his opponent seemed not even to feel the blows.
Paolo Roberto backed up, breathed as steadily as he could, and took stock. He's no boxer. He moves like a boxer, but he can't box for shit. He's only pretending. He can't block. He telegraphs his punches. And he's as slow as a tortoise.
In the next instant the giant got in a left hook to the side of Paolo Roberto's rib cage. That was the second time he had connected well. Paolo Roberto felt pain shoot through his body as a rib cracked. Again he backed away, but he tripped over a pile of scaffolding and fell on his back. He saw the giant towering over him, but he flung himself into a roll to the side and staggered to his feet.
He squared up, trying to gather his strength, but the man was on him again. He ducked, ducked again, and backed away, feeling terrible pain each time he parried a blow with his shoulder.
Then came the moment that every boxer has experienced with dread. The feeling that could turn up any time in the middle of a bout. The feeling of just not being good enough. The realization that you are about to lose.
That's the crux of almost every fight, the moment when the strength drains out of you and the adrenaline pumps so hard that it becomes a burden and surrender appears like a ghost at ringside. That's the moment that separates the pros from the amateurs and the winner from the loser. Few boxers who find themselves at the edge of that abyss manage to turn the match around, turn certain defeat into victory.
Paolo Roberto was struck by this insight. He felt a roaring in his head that made him dizzy and he experienced the moment as if he were watching the scene from outside, peering at this giant through a camera lens. This was the moment when it was a matter of winning or disappearing for good.
He backed in a wide semicircle to collect his strength and buy time. The man followed him steadily but slowly, precisely as though he knew that the outcome was decided but he wanted to draw the round out. He boxes, but he can't really box. He knows who I am. He's a rank amateur. But he has a devastating power in his punch and he seems insensitive to all punishment.
These thoughts rattled around in Paolo Roberto's head as he tried to decide what to do.
Suddenly he was reliving the night in Mariehamn two years before when his career as a professional boxer had ended in the most brutal way. He had met the Argentine Sebastian Lujan, or rather, Sebastian Lujan met him. Paolo Roberto had walked into the first knockout of his life and had been unconscious for fifteen seconds.
He often thought about what had gone wrong. He was in tip-top shape. He was focused. But the Argentine had landed a solid punch and the round had been transformed into a raging sea.
Watching the video afterwards, he saw how he had staggered around the ring, as defenceless as Donald Duck. The knockout came twenty-three seconds later.
Sebastian Lujan hadn't been any better, or better trained than he was. The margins of error being so small, the bout could have gone either way.
The only difference he could detect later was that Lujan had been hungrier. When Paolo Roberto went into that ring in Mariehamn he was set on winning, but he wasn't dying to box. It did not mean life or death any more. A loss was not a catastrophe.
A year and a half later he was still a boxer. But he was no longer a pro, and he took on only friendly sparring matches. He went on training, and he had not put on weight or gone soft in the gut. He was not as well-tuned an instrument as before a title bout for which his body had been drilled for months, but he was Paolo Roberto and not some nobody. And unlike Mariehamn, the bout in the warehouse south of Nykvarn literally meant life or death.
He made a decision. He stopped short and let the giant come in close. He feinted with his left and put everything he had behind a right hook. He lashed out with a punch that hit the man across the mouth and nose. His attack was totally unexpected since he had been in retreat for the past few moments. He heard something give way. He followed up with a left-right-left and landed all three in the man's face.
The man was boxing in slow motion. He struck back with his right.
Paolo Roberto saw the punch coming far in advance and ducked under the huge fist. He saw the giant shift his body weight and knew that he was going to follow up with a left. Instead of blocking, Paolo Roberto leaned back and let the left hook pass in front of his nose. He replied with a massive blow to the body, just below the ribs. When the man turned to meet the attack, Paolo Roberto's left hook came up and hit him across the nose again.
He suddenly felt that everything he was doing was utterly right and that he was in control of the bout. The giant backed away. His nose was bleeding. He was not smiling now.
Then the giant kicked him.
His foot shot up and took Paolo Roberto by surprise. He had not been expecting a kick. It felt as if a sledgehammer had hit his thigh just above the knee, and pain ran right through his leg. No. He took a step back and his right leg gave way. He was on his back.
The giant looked down at him. For a second their eyes met. The message was unmistakable. The fight was over.
Then the giant's eyes widened as Miriam Wu kicked him in the crotch from behind.
Every muscle in Miriam Wu's body was aching, but somehow she had managed to slip her bound hands underneath her and then - agonizingly - over her feet so that she got her arms in front of her body.
She had pain in her ribs, neck, back, and kidneys, and only with difficulty did she get to her feet. Finally she wobbled to the door and looked on wide-eyed as Paolo Roberto - where did he come from? - hit the giant with a right hook and then a combination to the face before he was kicked to the ground.
Miriam Wu realized that she could not care less how or why Paolo Roberto had shown up. He was one of the good guys. But for the first time in her life she felt a murderous desire to damage another human being. She took a few quick steps forward, mobilizing every bit of energy and all the muscles she had intact. She came up to the giant from behind and landed a kick in his balls. It may not have been elegant Thai boxing, but the kick had the desired effect.
Miriam Wu nodded to herself. Men could be as big as a house and made of granite, but they all had balls in the same place. For the first time the man looked shaken. He gave a moan, grabbed at his crotch, and went down on one knee.
Wu stood indecisive until she realized that she had to do more to try to end this. She was going to kick him in the face, but to her amazement he lifted an arm. It should have been impossible for him to recover so fast. And it had felt like kicking a tree trunk. He grabbed her foot, dragged her down, and began to haul her in. She saw him raise a fist and she twisted desperately, kicking with her free leg. She hit him above the ear at the same instant his blow struck her on the temple. She saw lightning and blackness alternating before her eyes.
The giant began to scramble to his feet.
That was when Paolo Roberto swung a plank into the back of his head. The man fell forward and landed with a crash.
Paolo Roberto looked around as if in a dream. The giant was writhing on the floor. The girl had a glassy look and seemed to be totally drained. Their combined efforts had bought them only a brief respite.
Paolo Roberto could barely support himself on his injured leg, and he was afraid that a muscle had torn just above his knee. He limped over to Miriam Wu and pulled her to her feet. She began to move again, but her eyes could not seem to focus. Without a word he slung her over his shoulder and started hobbling towards the door. The pain in his right knee was acute.
It was exhilarating to come out into the dark, cold air. But he had no time to pause. He navigated across the yard and into the curtain of woods, the same way he had come. He was no sooner in the trees than he tripped over a root and tumbled to the ground. Miriam Wu moaned and he heard the door of the warehouse slam open with a crash.
The giant was a monumental silhouette in the bright rectangle of the doorway. Paolo Roberto put a hand over the girl's mouth. He bent down and whispered in her ear to be utterly still and quiet.
Then he groped among the roots of a fallen tree and found a stone that was bigger than his fist. He made the sign of the cross. For the first time in his sinful life he was ready to kill another human being, if it proved necessary. He was so shattered that he knew he would not be able to go another round. But nobody, not even a freak of nature, could go on fighting with a crushed skull. He squeezed the rock and felt that it was oval-shaped with a sharp edge.
The man went unsteadily to the corner of the building and then made a long sweep across the yard. He stopped less than ten paces from where Paolo Roberto was holding his breath. He listened and peered around - but he could only guess which way they had disappeared into the night. After a few minutes he seemed to realize that the search was futile. He went back into the building with quick determination and was gone for a minute or so. He turned off the lights and then came out with a bag and walked over to the Volvo. He drove off down the access road. Paolo Roberto listened until he could no longer hear the sound of the engine. When he looked down he saw a pair of eyes gleaming in the dark.
"Hi, Miriam," he said. "My name is Paolo - you don't have to be afraid of me."
Her voice was weak. He slumped exhausted against the fallen tree and felt his adrenaline dropping to zero.
"I don't know how I'm going to get up," he said. "But I have a car on the other side of the main road."
The blond giant was shaken and dazed and had a strange feeling in his head. He braked and turned into a side road east of Nykvarn.
For the first time in his life he had been beaten in a fight. And the one who had dished out the punishment was Paolo Roberto... the boxer. It felt like an absurd dream, the kind he might have on a restless night. He could not understand where the boxer had come from. Out of the blue he was just there, standing inside the warehouse.
It made no sense.
He had not even felt the punches. That did not surprise him. But he had felt the kick in the balls. And that terrific thump on the head had made him black out. Gingerly he explored the back of his neck and touched an enormous lump. He pressed with his fingers but he sensed no pain. And yet he felt groggy. He had lost a tooth on the left side of his upper jaw. His mouth was full of the taste of blood. He held his nose between his thumb and forefinger and bent it experimentally upwards. He heard a snapping sound inside his head and could tell that his nose was broken.
He had done the right thing in taking his bag and leaving the warehouse before the police could get there. But he had made a colossal mistake. On the Discovery Channel he had seen how crime scene investigators could find any amount of forensic evidence. Blood. Hair. DNA.
He didn't have the slightest desire to return to the warehouse, but he had no choice. He had to clean up. He made a U-turn and started back.
Just before Nykvarn he passed a car coming the other way, but he thought no more about it.
The trip back to Stockholm was a nightmare. Paolo Roberto had blood in his eyes and was so beaten up that his whole body hurt. He was driving like a drunk, weaving all over the road. He wiped his eyes with one hand and tentatively felt his nose. It really hurt, and he had to breathe through his mouth. He kept looking out for a white Volvo and thought he saw one pass going the other way near Nykvarn.
When he got on the E20 the driving was a little easier. He thought about stopping in Sodertalje, but he had no idea where to go. He glanced back at the girl, still in handcuffs, lying on the backseat without a seat belt. He had had to carry her to the car, and as soon as she landed on the seat she went out like a light. He didn't know if she had fainted from her wounds or shut down out of sheer exhaustion.
He hesitated, then turned onto the E4 and headed for Stockholm.
Blomkvist had slept only an hour before the telephone started ringing. He squinted at the clock and saw that it was just past 4:00 a.m. He reached groggily for the receiver. It was Berger, and at first he could not understand what she was saying.
"Paolo Roberto is where?"
"At the hospital in Soder with the Wu girl. He tried to reach you, but you weren't answering."
"I turned my mobile off. What the hell is he doing in the hospital?"
Berger's voice sounded patient but determined.
"Mikael, get a taxi over there right away and find out. He sounded totally confused and was talking about a chain saw and some building out in the woods and a monster who couldn't box."