My Swedish Friend

I have always been an ordinary guy who appreciates the simplicity of things. My dad used to say the intelligence of a man is defined by his well-thought plan of action, an action that facilitates human life and enables progress. As a child, I had many dreams, which were primarily highlighted by my interest in comics and science fiction. Superman was more of a disappointment as he was born a superhero, but on the other hand, Spiderman convinced me that you could mutate into a superhero. Therefore, as a child, I almost poisoned myself with bleach. Then along came Batman, who had no powers and was fueled with anger and grief triggered by his dark past. But I am not like that. My past – my childhood was okay, despite not having many friends, and yet I cannot express what is bothering me so much. Images of all these superheroes continued to haunt me, along with this constant urge to accomplish something worthy of recognition.

My wife Colleen is a simple woman, too, except that she does not have these urges. Her whole life, she has only intended to be a good wife and mother, which she is, of course. And for that reason, I cannot share my sentiments with her, as they would taint her.

My working hours vary a lot, as it’s fully determined by the person that I am investigating. A lot of times, I feel more like a justified stalker or someone who is looking to steal a person’s life by keeping track of every single keystroke. I prefer the latter, especially if the subject is of personal interest, like my latest investigation.

He is called Matthias, a Swede and a current law student at New York Law School. According to his profile, he’d received two warnings for consuming marijuana, followed by a suspension based on an apparent physical assault on one of his law professors, Mr. Bateson. However, the final judgment was put on hold, as only one witness had seen a masked figure on campus. Currently, Matthias is employed as a part-time Swedish-speaking consultant. And now I’m hired to investigate his private life. If no further evidence comes to light, the university must take him back on the course. Still, according to the Law School principal, he is determined that Matthias is part of some illegitimate underground mass.

On my first day of investigation two days ago, I gathered that he has an American girlfriend, Lauren Cregan – a pretty girl with short dark hair. He picked her up from the Forensic Science School, and they went for a romantic dinner in Times Square. I took a few innocent photographs.

He made several private phone calls in her absence, but in her presence, I saw him dismissing the calls. Judging by his facial expression he is secretive, but at the same time, his pale blue eyes express some sort of a delicacy, which particularly comes to the surface in Lauren’s presence. His golden hair suggests some fairy tale innocence juxtaposed with Lauren’s dark hair, which makes her a modernized version of Snow White.

They ended up making love at her place just outside Queens. I began to think about my former loves and how they’d left me empty by attempting to challenge a side of me that simply didn’t exist. I’m not sure if a person lives for another person. Alternatively, you do need a person for balance. Maybe Matthias would agree with me. I never had a friend with whom to share such a sentiment. Of course, he is hiding something, something Lauren isn’t even aware of, because, she, too, wouldn’t understand like Colleen never would.

 

Last night he stayed at hers as well. Now watching them leave her apartment together the next morning, parting in different directions, I realize that I haven’t been home at all to sleep. I take a few more pictures. Matthias is walking towards the subway to go to work while she is heading to the bus station. I don’t know why I choose to follow her for a while instead of going home to freshen up before my appointment.

 

 

I’m at New York Law School to report the first day of the investigation to my client, principal McCain, who had distributed Matthias’s documents one week prior to the investigation start. To my surprise, my own boss, Chad Hallowell, is present at that meeting as well, waiting for me to sit down next to him.

“Hi Ed,” he says.

Further in the back in the room behind Principal McCain, a grim-looking man is scrutinizing me.

“Mr. Olsson, nice to see you. May I introduce you to our renowned law professor, Mr. Bateson.”

He merely gives me a brief nod, or he might not have nodded at all; I don’t know; he doesn’t appear human to me; more an illusion arose from a nightmare. He’s bald, sharp-headed. His eyes are two slits, which the sunshine has never penetrated.

“As you may know, Mr. Olsson, we are very concerned,” the principal says.

I throw a brief look at Chad.

“Why so, Mr. McCain?” I ask.

McCain moves closer to the American flag hanging just above the fake fireplace made of plastic. The investigation has just started, and they are not giving me enough time for in-depth implementation.

“Are you a patriot, Mr. Olsson?”

I am stumped.

“Uhm, sure. I vote. I work. I pay tax. I love this country.”

“That’s good to hear.”

From the corner of my eyes, I see that Chad has glanced at me as if unsettled by my response.

“You are of Swedish heritage, aren’t you, Mr. Olsson?”

“Yes, my grandfather moved to New York in the 20s.”

“Ah, the golden age!” he sighs.

There is a long pause, almost evolving into an awkward silence, but I’m unsure of what to say first, despite knowing their trust in me as an investigator is at stake for whatever reason.

“Mr. McCain,” I say, “on the first few days of investigation, I can only report that phone calls were made in the absence of Mr. Arlberg’s girlfriend, who is a forensic student…,”

Both the grim man and Mr. McCain choke up an ironic laugh.

“They spend much time together,” I continue, “but I assure you that I will make a closer move to speed up the investigation.”

He sits down at his desk, now facing Chad and me.

“I appreciate your help, Mr. Olsson. You Swedish folks are such a neutral bunch; you always mind your own business.”

“Thank you for the compliment. However, I assure you I will do my job,” I say and notice Chad’s nervous twitch from the side of my eyes.

“Good man,” McCain says. “I trust your skills, Olsson. Please be aware that this law school has certain principles that all students and staff must honor and respect. We cannot tolerate people who don’t.”

 

On the way out with Chad, he appears more at ease again. I light a cigarette. He does not utter a word until we both enter my car.

“Lordi, that was tense!” he blurts out.

“What the hell just happened in there, Chad? What happened before I came?”       I start the engine.

“Well, listen, I’m under a hell of a lot of pressure. Maybe I should’ve never given you this case.”

I turn down the engine.

“What are you talking about?” I ask.

“We’re both aware that they want Arlberg down. So just focus on that.”

“Of course. After gaining evidence.”

He looks at me again in disbelief like he did inside the principal’s room.

“Sure,” he says.

My presentiments signal something bad, and I’m sure Chad feels the same way.

“You know he was asking whether you were a Swedish patriot, right?”

I dig my cigarette into the ashtray.

 

That meeting left a bad taste in my mouth.

Since Matthias won’t finish work until 5 pm, I’ve been watching Lauren at the public library in Manhattan. She is a decent girl with ambitions, someone who truly knows what she wants and wouldn’t give it up for anyone. According to her records, her dad’s in prison for murder. I wonder what further secrets she has got and whether Matthias knows about them. Matthias himself doesn’t have much of a record in the States. The only pieces of information that stand out are that his dad was Christer Arlberg, the first Swedish astronaut to enter space in 2006. Matthias’s excellence is marked by his fantastic grades in science, like father like son, and yet he chose to study law.

Despite sitting two tables away, I can smell the scent of maple in her hair and I hear the little breaths leaving her nostrils. Her mesmerizing slim figure would make her a very delicate dancer. I can’t help imagining her slowly taking her clothes off while walking towards me on the table, dedicating me the attention that I’ve been looking for all my life. Before dwelling too deeply on this, I try to focus on the newspaper with the latest updates on the Menzies murders. Lewis Menzies is New York’s most wanted prostitute killer (both men and women). His style is to skin the females alive and castrate the males, followed by a stab in the chest after a final prayer to set their souls free.

By the time Lauren leaves the library to meet one of her girlfriends for dinner, I realize that it’s almost 5 pm and Matthias should finish work soon.

 

He is wearing a black winter jacket and a blue polo shirt underneath. His posture has changed, and his eyes look sharp. He’s quite a tall fellow. It’s also the first time that I see him smoke, which he presumably does not do in Lauren’s presence. He enters an ugly grey Polo Moda parked at the side of the building. Whoever’s sitting in the driver’s seat must have been waiting for a while, as I have not noticed his arrival. I make a quick note of the registration number, followed by some pictures.

Almost all the way down Lexington Ave, they turn into Park Avenue toward Broadway. At this point, Matthias represents everything that I wish I were because what I am about to discover is what I’ve been dreaming of all my life. My palms are sweating, and my heart is pounding hard. My senses are sharp; I smell the gas of my own car mixed with my aftershave; it smells like victory, but the battle hasn’t started yet. For a second, I thought I heard Matthias laugh and judging by the brief sight of his teeth in the rearview mirror, he is laughing. I feel like I’m on drugs, although I’ve never done that before and yet there is ecstasy in my blood. I’ve never felt so exuberant in my life.

I’ve lost track of where we are, and I have to ensure they don’t notice my car.

Eventually, we arrive at a rough neighborhood. I park on the side street and turn the lights off. Matthias and his partner get off to greet two other guys who have been waiting in front of a Volvo. His partner, however, gets back into his ugly Polo Moda and drives off. I watch how the rest put a cotton mask on before they enter a building that seems to be unsecured. I get out of my car to investigate. Having reached the building, I perceive a foul smell of mold and rat excrement. Their footsteps are not far ahead of me, and I hurry up the stairs as fast as I can. Next, I hear a door smashing from the second floor, but before I can figure out which apartment, the door has been slammed shut. I hear a sound coming from room 245. I hold my ear against the door and hear several men shout; one seems to be preaching. There is light shining through the keyhole, enabling me to peek through.

“Motherfuck, man, get him to shut his trap!” one of the masked men shouts.

Matthias is the tall, quiet one standing at the side of the table, holding a sharp barber’s knife. The only unmasked is the resident on his knees with his head hanging down.

“God sent me to clean this city; God sent me to save America. If my time has come, Lord, please…”

One of the guys has stuffed the man’s mouth with a towel.

“Holy fuck, he’s crazy!”

“It’s our job to clean this city, you hear?” says the other, grabbing the man by the hair and forcing him to raise his head.

I instantly recognize the face of Menzies, the prostitute killer. Matthias moves closer to him while holding up the barber’s knife.

Behind me, a door opens, exposing the pretty face of a lady.

“Who are you?” she says.

Before the guys hear a word from outside, I approach her immediately with my ID, two fingers hiding my surname:

“Private investigator, O’Neill,” I whisper, gesturing for her to enter her apartment again. I enter it with her and then nervously close the door behind us. She is a neat-looking lady, most likely Christian, judging by how she buttoned her blouse to the top. Her blonde hair is firmly tied back.

“I heard noises. Is Reverend Hollis alright?”

“Rev…? Please, ma’am, I’ll take care of it. It’s for your own safety.”

“I was going to call the police. Is he under arrest?”

She grabs hold of her cross, almost close to tears. We both hear a loud groan from Menzies apartment. She sighs in fear, holding her hand against her mouth.

I hold up my cell phone and pretend to call 911 so she won’t do anything.

“This is O’Neill, calling from 134 E11 Street. Please urgently send reinforcement.”

The woman is crying while praying with her eyes closed.

“Ma’am, please do not worry. The police will arrive any minute and take care of it.”

She is lost in her empty prayer for this ruthless man who is by no means the reverend that he claims to be.

Fifteen minutes later, she is still on her knees, facing the cross on the wall. Menzies door finally opens. Through the keyhole, I watch Matthias and the two guys silently walk down the stairs. While the lady’s still praying, I quietly sneak out to check on Menzies. I carefully push open the broken door to his apartment and find him still on his knees, covered in blood, his head hanging. Half of his face has been skinned, as well as half of his chest, and there is blood running down from between his legs. As I hear the sound of sirens from afar, I hurry down the stairs and head to my car. A dark Volvo passes me, and I recognize Matthias in the passenger’s seat. I enter my car to follow the guys to Brooklyn, where they eventually enter a club.

I take quick pictures of the guys before they go in.

 

 

I wake up to the crackling sound of a space shuttle, but as soon as my eyes are open, I hear workmen’s drills from outside.

I have never witnessed a crime scene like that of last night; although it might be debatable if vigilantism is an act of crime, according to the law, it is.

While observing the photographs in my laboratory, I face a huge dilemma: My next move could jeopardize my occupation in one way or another.

Looking at Matthias’s startling eyes only justifies that we are not who we appear to be. After eight years of PI service, I have not encountered one person without a secret identity, apart from a woman called Lauretta, who was the exact equivalent of Oscar Wilde’s Sphinx with no secret. Eventually, she died of her husband’s lack of trust in her. Of course, there are bad women as well aiming for money and power—them, I put behind bars. My eyes wander towards a photograph of Lauren smiling at Matthias whilst running her fingers through her hair. If he loves her, I’m sure it’s torture to keep such a big secret from her. But like me, Matthias knows that the conscience of a woman of that pure kind will not understand his view of what is right or wrong. Or maybe knowing this is the only balance in his life; determined that one part of him needs to be connected to the delicate side of life. And Lauren happens to define that part.

I will get a call from Chad very soon. I can sense it; no matter how much I trust him as a colleague, this is too much of a risk.

I destroy the photographs of Menzies and Matthias with the mask, leaving the pictures of the after-show party in Brooklyn.

 

 

When Chad came by this morning without notice, I led him through my lab to show him photographs of Matthias leaving work and meeting friends for a night out. Chad was not happy, of course, but he asked no further questions.

Watching Matthias and his pals in this club right now induces a sense of paranoia in me as if someone’s watching me while I’m watching Matthias. But I see no one in this club who would cause any suspicion.

Matthias has been wearing the same blue polo shirt for three days now; never would it occur to him that the dangling button is irritating.

Today, he’s wearing no aftershave. Yesterday, I smelled it in my car. It’s intriguing enough that his tastes and habits are that of mine. I keep my Pall Mall in my left inner pocket as well, and a spare pack will be in my backpack.

Matthias pulls at his cigarette a lot more elegantly than I do; it’s like each exhalation has a purpose, but when I picture myself exhaling the smoke, it loses all meaning, as though I have no reason to smoke, not to mention a reason to be here. In his presence, I am no longer the same; it’s as if I have given my existence away to a being more identifiable than mine.

He’s at it again. I wonder how the concept of substance abuse can give you joy and pleasure when all you can think of is the after-effects. Or maybe it’s just me. Once happiness is gained, you can only think of its transitory nature. The sugar melts on your tongue, and the sensation travels through the nerves towards your brain, making you happy for a while. On the contrary, I prefer to gain and maintain happiness through stability, such as having a decent job and looking after my family.

Colleen is calling. I set the phone to silence and dismissed the call.

Every Friday, Matthias hangs around with his dealer, Sean, and some other lowlife friends in this underground rock bar.

They seem to be mapping out tonight’s targets. Watching them from the side of the bar, I notice some papers on the pool table illustrating outlines of places. It seems like tonight’s leading destination will be Midtown. I put away the newspaper highlighting Menzies’s arrest.

I follow Matthias and his buddies outside, where they enter the Volvo. Sean throws them a brief wave before disappearing into the club.

I sneak into my Volkswagen Jetta and parked two cars behind them. They seem to be taking their time before starting the engine.

At this moment, Chad calls me on the phone.

“Yes.”

“Ed, where are you? Any news?”

“I just got in my car. I think they’re about to cross Brooklyn Bridge.”

Matthias lights a cigarette in the car, enabling a brief view of how the other two put masks over their heads.

“What do you think they have in mind?” Chad asks.

“Hit the bars, I suppose?”

Chad sighs in disappointment. Matthias is at the wheel and has started the engine. I hit the clutch and turn the key.

“Come on, Ed, I need evidence; I want results. Get ‘em for me!”

“Sure, Chad.”

I follow the Volvo down Pearl Street and turn right towards the bridge. It’s some kind of a misty evening; there is always one or two of these nights toward the end of fall, which puts people right into a Halloween mood.

Matthias is the leader of the group, proven by his reserved nature and common sense. Noticing the smoke of his Pall Mall, I only realize that I’m smoking as well, but I don’t remember having lit it.

The guy in their backseat seems restless and out of his mind for continuously drumming against his buddy’s headrest. Matthias is oblivious to it. I wonder what they have in mind. This might be another night of victory like the last one.

Having reached the end of the bridge, we continue past the Technology College and straight into downtown. My digital watch is striking at midnight. After several turns, we are near Court Station, the worst subway station in Brooklyn due to its mazy structure and exhausting atmosphere. They finally stop, but I’ve lost track of where we are. I have to ensure that I’m not too close behind them. This place seems familiar because I’m almost certain I’ve been here before. The air carries the smell of chlorine and Chinese takeaway, which brings to mind an image of the gutter. A sudden sense of nausea befalls my head, but I feel I’m used to this environment. I switch off the lights and stop in front of a permanently closed gateway. Matthias has made another right turn, and I know there are no more streets to enter, as this is a residential area of council estates. I don’t like these places; there are way too many closed doors and unidentified noises seeping through walls.

Matthias and the two masked imbeciles are rummaging around in the trunk for weapons, I presume. But to my surprise, the two fellows bring forward two bondage whips while Matthias takes a set of love balls out from a cotton bag. Now, he veils his face underneath a black cotton mask as well. They enter the building with a card key, stolen or copied. I see them hurrying up the stairs, and before the door falls shut, I rush to hold it, but I slip on the front door curb and fall forward on my stomach. At this moment, my cell phone falls out of my pocket, sliding through the entrance. The heaviness of the closing door pushes my cell phone back towards my direction, and it eventually gets caught right between the gaps. The sound of my phone breaking into pieces only motivates me to promptly get back on my feet and follow the guys up the stairs.

I hear screaming on the fourth floor, followed by heavy footsteps coming down my way. Several half-naked teenage girls are hurrying down the stairs, some with tears in their eyes and some simply fleeing for their lives. Halfway up on the fourth floor, I hear a man squealing with fear. Looking up the staircase, he tries to escape, but one of Matthias’s masked buddies stops him.

“Where do you think you’re goin’? You’re a customer, aren’t ya? You have the right to be served!”

I climb a few steps higher to peek through the closing door. Matthias got the pimp to kneel along with a couple of other customers with no pants on. The masked little helpers have their whips ready. Matthias looks over his shoulder briefly, and I wonder whether he has noticed my presence.

The door falls shut.

 

 

I return to my car and watch my trembling hands on the steering wheel. It is not fear, but something is happening with me as if I’ve entered a different dimension. When I turn the ignition, the lights of my car brighten up the street so that the two masked imbeciles, who have just come out of the council estate, spot me right there. The engine dies as they run towards me, but the lights remain on.

“Shit!”

The two guys swing open the doors of my car and hop in as if I were some random cab driver.

“How about telling us when you leave!” says Bruce in the passenger’s seat.

“Come on, come on, start the car, dude!” says Pete in the backseat.

I start the engine, and the only thing I have in mind now is to find my way out of this maze. For a second, I’m not sure if I have stepped into the wrong car, but it’s definitely my car, my Volvo.

The two of them are cheering loudly, giving each other high-fives, after which they shake my shoulders joyously.

“Who says retribution is bad?” says Bruce.

“Those pricks deserved it,” says Pete. “I think that was one of the worst criminal acts we’ve had to deal with. I felt physically sick, man.”

“I feel sorry for what you had to do, Matts!” says Bruce, and they laugh.

Both of them remove their masks, and each one lights a cigarette.

“Look, the cops!”

Only now have I become aware of the sirens. The cops are heading towards the council estate where the pimp and some others have been handcuffed to each other. They should find our notes on the young girls who have just fled to their homes.

I look at the rearview mirror and see that my blue eyes look different, somewhat sharper and more determined like my father’s.

Looking at my cell phone, I see a text message from Lauren asking if I am around. Bruce and Pete ask whether I’m joining them for a night out, and I say no.

 

My heart is beating fast as I stop outside her place. The smell of maple trees and the slight sound of her breathing are already clearing my senses, washing away tonight’s mess. Before I knock on her door, she opens it and swings her arms around my neck. After a sweet kiss on my lips, she says: “Thanks for coming. I’ve made too much pancake!”

“What? At this time of night?”

We watch TV set to silent, pretending to be the speaking actors with funny voices. She likes that; she says this stimulates her creative side and distracts her from criminology-related shit.

“What did you want to be as a kid?” she asks.

“Isn’t it obvious?”

She knows about my dad.

“What about you? Why are you in forensics if you don’t want to think about crime?” I ask.

“I want to understand.”

I think about her dad, Robert Cregan, who is jailed for life for killing a man in a grocery store. He used to be a successful businessman with no previous criminal records. Before that happened, Lauren was kidnapped. She was 15 when it happened, and all she remembers is being kept in a basement, not knowing what was going to happen. After less than a week of capture, they eventually released her. She hardly arrived home safely, and her dad had shot the man while doing grocery shopping.

She only spoke of it once and never again. Shortly after sharing the story with me, I enrolled at Law School.

“I need to understand what’s wrong in a killer’s head. They must be fueled with so much rage triggered by suppression.”

I look at the sticky maple syrup on a half-finished pancake. No one knows why her dad killed that man, and neither does she.

“Do you think killing someone as punishment is justifiable?” I ask.

“Of course not.”

I smile.

 

 

The following day, I find my car vandalized. There is a little note stuck between the window:

“We know what you did.”

For a second, I don’t know who is being addressed, but then all becomes clear.

I look around me and across the road, and I see the same Volkswagen Jetta that has been following me for a while. I wonder what the man behind those windows has reported about me so far. Bateson wants me, and this mysterious man knows, but it’s not until now that Bateson has finally struck. Why did it take him so long?

I look at the Jetta as I walk towards the subway. But before I even cross the road, a Mercedes stops right before me. Out of the car come two masked men; one of them punches me in the face while the other pulls both my arms behind my back. After a smack behind my head, they drag me into the vehicle, where I lose consciousness.

 

 

I hear the crackling noise of a space shuttle. My eyes open to a blur. I taste blood between my teeth, and I see a drop of blood hanging from my left eyelid. I groan in pain as I try to lift my body from the cold concrete. It appears to be a basement, judging by the sight of pipes and the sound of water leaking.

I smell cigarette smoke—a chair squeaks.

I press my hand on the floor to lift my body. I turn around. Bateson is sitting at a table with his hand resting on a gun.

“What’s wrong with the law here?”

“You should know it best,” I say.

He rises from the chair, and the next thing I feel is his fist on my face. I fall hard on my elbow. The button from my polo shirt has fallen off.

“I do,” he says. “It’s having a little retaliatory force like you around who’s a junkie on top of it!”

This time, he kicks me in the stomach.

“You see, we clean the streets of America as well, but from foreign scumbags like you who wish to take over.”

I spit blood.

“I get paid quite well; maybe I should quit teaching.”

“You corrupted piece of shit,” I say.

“Corruption is probably not the right word. But tell me, how did you find out about me?”

“I just look at the person’s shitface, and I know.”

I feel his tight grip around my throat, his grim face only one inch away from mine, which I guess must be covered in blood, as somewhere on my head, I’m bleeding. I feel faint again, and yet an image of Lauren’s face keeps me awake.

“I asked how you knew about me.”

“Cregan,” I say.

“What?”

“Robert Cregan’s in jail because of you.”

He lets go of me, and a series of questions begin to erupt from his dark eyes, but I can immediately read the answers from his lips. I remember talking to her dad through the glass. He didn’t know me, but I knew everything about him.

“The Irish fella?”

I’m surprised he remembers his victims.

“You abducted his daughter and threatened to sell her.”

“So, it’s his daughter you’re dating?”

“Fuck you.”

He grabs his gun and starts polishing it on his sleeve. I think I’ve heard steps above us for a second, and then my left ear goes deaf.

“Well, Robert was a good man – virtuous and obedient. He had a lot of money to offer, too.”

Which, of course, Bateson didn’t need and, therefore, didn’t take. He observes the gun from bottom to top and then puts it back down.

“But I really needed him to get rid of that illegal immigrant who was planning to bring his entire family into the country with fake visas. You agree that’s wrong, don’t you?”

I hear crackling noises in my ear again.

“However, you are putting my reputation at risk, and you’re giving the university a bad name, buddy…”

I am oblivious to the sight of the gun, which he is about to point at me. The crackling sounds in my ear come from Lauren’s frying pan. I smell maple syrup.

I think the back of my head is bleeding heavily; lines of blood are flowing down my back. I fall on the side of my body.

“Do what you have to do, then,” I say.

I imagine how much Lauren will hate me if she ever finds out. She has told me everything, and I’ve kept everything from her.

My vision becomes blurry, and this is the moment I see a second figure enter the room. He is wearing a black mask similar to mine. It looks like he is pointing a gun at Bateson. I can’t hear the conversation; it’s as if I am underwater.

He then takes off his mask, and the conversation continues. I never took off my mask. I wonder what he looks like; his posture reminds me of me.

My eyes are halfway shut. I hear a gunshot.

I smell my aftershave.

 

 

For J.A.: I was in a hotel room in Edinburgh, putting myself under pressure so I’d finish this story in time for your birthday. But you were doing things behind my back in London. I don’t think you ever finished reading this.

 

by P-chan (c) 2012

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *