"Well, I should say he's your half brother," Zalachenko said. "The result of a brief diversion during an assignment I had in Germany in 1969."
"You've turned your son into a murderer."
"Oh no, I've only helped him realize his potential. He had the ability to kill long before I took over his training. And he's going to run the family business long after I'm gone."
"Does he know that we're half siblings?"
"Of course. But if you think you can appeal to his brotherly love, forget it. I'm his family. You're just a buzz on the horizon. And he isn't your only sibling. You have at least four more brothers and three sisters in various countries. One of your other brothers is an idiot, but another actually has potential. He runs the Tallinn arm of the business. But Ronald is the only one who really lives up to the Zalachenko genes."
"I don't suppose my sisters will get a role in the family business."
Zalachenko looked startled at the suggestion.
"Zalachenko... you're just an ordinary asshole who hates women. Why did you kill Bjurman?"
"Bjurman was a moron. He couldn't believe it when he learned you were my daughter. He was one of the few people in this country who knew about my background. I have to admit that it made me nervous when he contacted me out of the blue, but then everything turned out for the best. He died and you got the blame."
"But why shoot him?"
"Well, it wasn't really planned. It's always useful to have a back door into Sapo. Even if I haven't needed one for years. And even if he's a moron. But that journalist in Enskede had somehow found a connection between him and me and called him just as Ronald was at his apartment. Bjurman panicked, went berserk. Ronald had to make a decision on the spot. He acted quite correctly."
Salander's heart sank like a stone when her father confirmed what she had already suspected. Svensson had found a connection. She had talked to Svensson and Johansson for more than an hour. She'd liked the woman immediately but was a little cooler towards the journalist. He reminded her too much of Blomkvist - an insufferable do-gooder who thought he could change everything with a book. But she had recognized his honest intentions.
It turned out that her visit had been a waste of time. They couldn't point her to Zalachenko. Svensson had found his name and started digging, but he wasn't able to identify him.
Instead, she had made a devastating mistake. She knew that there had to be a connection between Bjurman and Zalachenko, and she asked questions about Bjurman in an attempt to ascertain whether Svensson had come across his name. He hadn't, but his suspicions were instantly aroused. He zeroed right in on Bjurman and plied her with questions.
She gave him very little, but he had understood that Salander was a player in the drama. He also realized that he had information she wanted. They had agreed to meet again for further discussions after Easter. Then Salander had gone home to bed. When she woke up the next morning, she was greeted by the news that two people had been murdered in an apartment in Enskede.
She had given Svensson only one piece of usable information: the name Nils Bjurman. He must have called Bjurman the minute she left the apartment.
And she was the link. If she hadn't visited Svensson, he and Johansson would still be alive.
Zalachenko said: "You have no idea how surprised we were when the police started hunting you for the murders."
Salander bit her lip.
Zalachenko scrutinized her. "How did you find me?" he said.
"Lisbeth... Ronald is coming back soon. I can tell him to break the bones in your body one by one until you answer. Save us the trouble."
"The P.O. box. I traced Niedermann's car from the rental agency and waited until that pimply shit showed up and emptied the box."
"Aha. So simple. Thanks. I'll remember that."
The muzzle of the pistol was still pointing at her chest.
"Do you really think this is going to blow over?" Salander said. "You've made too many mistakes. The police are going to identify you."
"I know. Bjorck called yesterday and told me that a journalist from Millennium has been sniffing around and that it was just a matter of time. It's possible that we'll have to do something about that."
"It'll be a long list," Salander said. "Mikael Blomkvist and Erika Berger, the editor in chief, the managing editor, and half a dozen others at Millennium alone. And then you have Dragan Armansky and some of his staff at Milton Security. And Detective Inspector Bublanski and everyone involved in the investigation. How many people would you have to kill to cover this up? No, they're going to get to you."
Zalachenko gave her a horrible twisted smile.
"So what? I haven't shot anybody, and there isn't one shred of forensic evidence against me. They can identify whoever the hell they want. Believe me... they can search this house from top to bottom and they won't find so much as a speck of dust that could connect me to any criminal activity. It was Sapo who locked you up in the asylum, not me, and it won't take much for them to put all the papers on the table."
"Niedermann," Lisbeth reminded him.
"Early tomorrow morning Ronald is going on vacation abroad for a while and he'll wait out whatever develops."
Zalachenko gave Salander a triumphant look.
"You're still going to be the prime suspect. So it's best if you just disappear."
It was almost an hour before Niedermann returned. He was wearing boots.
Salander glanced at the man who according to her father was her half brother. She couldn't see the slightest resemblance. In fact, he was her diametrical opposite. But she felt very strongly that there was something wrong with Niedermann. His build, the weak face, and the voice that hadn't really broken - they all seemed like genetic defects of some sort. He had evidently been insensitive to the Taser, and his hands were enormous. Nothing about Ronald Niedermann seemed quite normal.
There are all sorts of genetic defects in the Zalachenko family, she thought bitterly.
"Ready?" Zalachenko asked.
Niedermann nodded. He held out his hand for the Sig Sauer.
"I'll come with you," Zalachenko said.
Niedermann hesitated. "It's quite a walk."
"I'll come anyway. Get my jacket."
Niedermann shrugged and did as he was told. Zalachenko put on his jacket and vanished into the next room for a while. Salander watched as Niedermann screwed what appeared to be a homemade silencer onto the gun.
"All right, let's go," Zalachenko said from the door.
Niedermann bent and pulled Salander to her feet. She looked him in the eye.
"I'm going to kill you too," she said.
"You're very sure of yourself. I'll say that for you," her father said.
Niedermann smiled mildly and then pushed her towards the front door and out into the yard. He kept a firm grip on the back of her neck. His fingers could reach almost all the way around it. He steered her towards the woods beyond the barn.
They moved slowly and Niedermann stopped occasionally to let Zalachenko catch up. They both had powerful flashlights. When they reached the edge of the woods Niedermann let go of Salander's neck. He kept the pistol trained on her back.
They followed a difficult path for about four hundred yards. Salander stumbled twice, but each time was lifted to her feet.
"Turn right here," Niedermann said.
After about fifty feet they came into a clearing. Lisbeth saw a hole in the ground. In the beam of Niedermann's flashlight she saw a spade stuck in a mound of soil. Then she understood Niedermann's assignment. He pushed her towards the hole and she tripped and went down on all fours with her hands buried deep in the sandy earth. She got up and gave him an expressionless look. Zalachenko was taking his time, and Niedermann waited patiently. The muzzle of the pistol was unswervingly aimed at her chest.
Zalachenko was out of breath. It was more than a minute before he could speak.
"I ought to say something, but I don't think I have anything to say to you," he said.
"That's fine by me," Salander said. "I don't have much to say to you either." She gave him a lopsided smile.
"Let's get it over with," Zalachenko said.
"I'm glad that my very last act was to have you locked away forever," Salander said. "The police will be here tonight."
"Bullshit. I was expecting you to try a bluff. You came here to kill me and nothing else. You didn't say anything to anybody."
Salander's smile broadened. She suddenly looked malevolent.
"May I show you something, Pappa?"
Slowly she reached into her left-hand pants pocket and took out a rectangular object. Niedermann watched her every move.
"Every word you've said in the past hour has been broadcast over Internet radio."
She held up her Palm Tungsten T3 computer.
Zalachenko's brow furrowed where his eyebrows should have been.
"Let's see that," he said, holding out his good hand.
Salander lobbed the PDA to him. He caught it in midair.
"Bullshit," Zalachenko said. "This is an ordinary Palm."
As Niedermann bent to look at her computer, Salander flung a fistful of sand right into his eyes. He was blinded, but instinctively fired a round from his pistol. Salander had already moved two steps to one side and the bullet only tore a hole through the air where she had been standing. She grabbed the spade and swung it at his gun hand. She hit him with the sharp edge full force across the knuckles and saw his Sig Sauer fly in a wide arc away from them and into some bushes. Blood spurted from a gash above his index finger.
He should be screaming with pain.
Niedermann fumbled with his wounded hand as he desperately tried to rub his eyes with the other. Her only chance to win this fight was to cause him massive damage, and as quickly as possible. If it came down to a physical contest she was hopelessly lost. She needed five seconds to make it into the woods. She swung the spade back over her shoulder and tried to twist the handle so that the edge would hit first, but she was in the wrong position. The flat side of the spade smacked into Niedermann's face.
Niedermann grunted as his nose broke for the second time in a matter of days. He was still blinded by the sand, but he swung his right arm and managed to shove Salander away from him. She stumbled over a tree root. For a second she was down on the ground but sprang instantly to her feet. Niedermann was briefly out of action.
I'm going to make it.
She took two steps towards the undergrowth when out of the corner of her eye-click-she saw Zalachenko raise his arm.
The fucking old man has a gun too.
The realization cracked like a whip through her mind.
She changed direction in the same instant the shot was fired. The bullet struck the outside of her hip and made her spin off balance.
She felt no pain.
The second bullet hit her in the back and stopped against her left shoulder blade. A paralyzing pain sliced through her body.
She went down on her knees. For a few seconds she could not move. She was conscious that Zalachenko was behind her, about twenty feet away. With one last surge of energy she stubbornly hurled herself to her feet and took a wobbly step towards the cover of the bushes.
Zalachenko had time to aim.
The third bullet caught her about an inch below the top of her left ear. It penetrated her skull and caused a spiderweb of radial cracks in her cranium. The lead came to rest in the grey matter about two inches beneath the cerebral cortex, by the cerebrum.
For Salander the medical detail was academic. The bullet caused immediate massive trauma. Her last sensation was a glowing red shock that turned into a white light.
Zalachenko tried to fire one more round, but his hands were shaking so hard that he couldn't aim. She almost got away. And then he realized that she was dead and he lowered his weapon, shivering as the adrenaline flowed through his body. He looked down at his gun. He had considered leaving it behind, but had gone to get it and put it in his jacket pocket as though he needed a mascot. A monster. They were two fully grown men, and one of them was Ronald Niedermann, who had been armed with his Sig Sauer. And that fucking whore almost got away.
He glanced at his daughter's body. In the beam from his flashlight she looked like a bloody rag doll. He clicked the safety catch on and stuffed the pistol into his jacket pocket and went over to Niedermann, who was standing helpless, tears running from his dirt-filled eyes and blood from his hand and nose. "I think I broke my nose again," he said.
"Idiot," Zalachenko said. "She almost got away."
Niedermann kept rubbing his eyes. They didn't hurt, but the tears were flowing and he could scarcely see.
"Stand up straight, damn it." Zalachenko shook his head in contempt. "What the hell would you do without me?"
Niedermann blinked in despair. Zalachenko limped over to his daughter's body and grabbed her jacket by the collar. He dragged her to the grave that was only a hole in the ground, too small even for Salander to lie stretched out. He lifted the body so that her feet were over the opening and let her tumble in. She landed facedown in a fetal position, her legs bent under her.
"Fill it in so we can go home," Zalachenko commanded.
It took the half-blind Niedermann a while to shovel the soil in around her. What was left over he spread out around the clearing with powerful jabs of the spade.
Zalachenko smoked a cigarette as he watched Niedermann work. He was still shivering, but the adrenaline had begun to subside. He felt a sudden relief that she was gone. He could still picture her eyes as she threw the firebomb all those many years ago.