- book three of the Game Trilogy
Like a punch in the chest – that was pretty much what it felt like. In a weird way the blow seemed to slow everything down even more. All of a sudden he could appreciate the tiniest details around him. The gun aimed at his chest, the drawn out, panic-stricken screams from the surrounding crowd. All around him, bodies crushed together in slow motion. Trying to get as far away from him as possible.
But in spite of the evidence, in spite of the gunpowder stinging his nostrils and the shot still reverberating in his eardrums, his brain refused to accept what was happening. As if it were fending off the impossible, the unthinkable, the incomprehensible …
This simply couldn’t be happening.
She had shot him …
The pistol was still pointing straight at his chest. The look on her face behind the barrel was ice-cold, completely emotionless. As if it belonged to someone else. A stranger.
He tried to raise his hand towards her, opened his mouth to say something. But the only sound that passed his lips was a sort of whimper. Suddenly and without any warning time speeded up and returned to normal. The pain spread like a wave from his ribcage, out through his body, making the tarmac beneath him lurch. His knees gave way and he took a couple of stumbling steps backwards in an attempt to keep his balance.
His heel hit the edge of the kerb.
A second of weightlessness as he fought the law of gravity.
Then a dreamlike sensation of falling freely.
And with that his part in the Game was over.
A whole new Game?
The moment he woke up HP knew something was wrong. It took him a few seconds to put his finger on what it was.
It was quiet.
Far too quiet …
The bedroom faced out onto Guldgränd and he had long since got used to the constant sound of traffic on the Söderleden motorway a few hundred metres away. He hardly ever thought about it any more.
But instead of the usual low rumble of traffic interspersed with the occasional siren, the summer night outside was completely silent.
He glanced at the clock-radio: 03.58.
Roadworks, he thought. Söderleden, Söder Mälarstrand and the Slussen junction closed off for yet another round of make-do-and-mend … But besides the fact that Bob the Builder would have to be working in stealth mode, it was also slowly dawning on him that there were other noises missing. No-one rattling doors as they delivered the morning papers, no drunks shouting down on Hornsgatan. In fact hardly any sound at all to indicate that there was actually a vibrant capital city out there. As if his bedroom had been enclosed in a huge bubble, shutting the rest of the world out. Forcing him to live in his own little universe where the usual rules no longer applied.
Which, in some ways, was actually true …
He noticed that his heart was starting to beat faster. A quiet rustling sound from somewhere inside the flat made him jump.
No, impossible. He’d locked the high-security door, all three locks, just like he always did. The door had cost a fortune, but it was worth every single damn penny. Steel frame, double cylinder hook-bolt locks, you name it – so, logically, no-one could have broken into the flat. But the umbrella of paranoia wasn’t about to let itself be taken down so easily …
He crept out of bed, padded across the bedroom floor and peered cautiously into the living room. It took a few seconds for his eyes to get used to the gloom, but the results were unambiguous. Nothing, no movement at all, either in the living room or the little kitchen beyond. Everything was fine, there was no sign of any danger. Just the unnatural, oppressive silence that still hadn’t broken …
He crept carefully over to the window and looked out. Not a soul out on the street, not that that was particularly surprising given the time. Maria Trappgränd was hardly a busy street at any time of day.
Closed off for roadworks, that had to be it. Half of Södermalm already looked like some fucking archaeological dig, so why not go for a complete overnight shut-down? All the little Bobs were probably just having a coffee break.
Plausible – sure! But the uneasy feeling still wouldn’t let go.
Only the hall left.
He tiptoed across the new floorboards over to the front door, taking care to avoid the third and fifth ones because he knew they creaked.
When he was about a metre away he thought he saw the letterbox move. He froze mid-step as his pulse switched up a gear.
Two years ago someone had poured lighter fluid through his door and set fire to it. A seriously unpleasant experience, and one which had ended with him lying in Södermalm Hospital with an oxygen mask over his face. It wasn’t until much later that he had realized the whole thing was just a warning shot to remind him about the rules of the Game.
He sniffed carefully at the stagnant air, but couldn’t smell paraffin or anything similar. But by now he was quite certain. The sounds had come from the front door.
Maybe someone delivering papers after all?
He crept a couple of steps closer to the door and carefully put his eye to the peephole.
The sudden noise was so violent that he staggered back into the hall.
For a few seconds he saw stars, and his heart almost seemed to have stopped.
Then another violent crash jolted him out of the shock.
Someone was smashing his door in!
The steel frame was already starting to bow, so whoever it was basically had to be stronger than the Hulk. A third crash, metal against metal, no bastard Bruce Banner but probably a serious sledgehammer – if not more than one.
The frame moved another few centimetres and he could suddenly see the bolts of the locks in the gap. A couple more blows was all it would take.
He spun round, stumbling over his own feet, and fell flat on the floor. Another crash from the door sent a rattling shower of plaster over his bare legs.
His feet slid on the floor as his hands tried to get a grip.
He was up.
Quickly into the living room, then the bedroom.
Another crash on the door!
He could taste blood in his mouth, and his heart was pounding fit to burst.
His hands were shaking so much he had trouble turning the key in the lock.
A further blow from the hall, this time followed by a splintering sound that almost certainly meant that the door frame had given way.
He grabbed the chest of drawers, and almost fell over when it glided easily in front of the bedroom door.
Fucking chipboard crap!
If the steel door out there hadn’t been able to stop his attackers, then a bit of self-assembly furniture from the other side of the Baltic wasn’t going to win him more than a couple of seconds at most. He leapt at the bed and fumbled about on the bedside table, which was covered with magazines and paperbacks.
The phone, where the hell was the phone?
There! No, shit, that was the remote for the television …
He heard rapid steps in the living room, gruff voices shouting to each other, but he was concentrating too hard on his search to hear what they were saying.
Suddenly his fingers hit the phone, so hard that it fell to the floor.
The door handle rattled, then a rough voice shouting:
HP threw himself on the floor, fumbling wildly with his arms.
There it was, right next to his left hand.
He grabbed the phone, scrabbled at the buttons. His fingers were twitching as if he had Parkinson’s.
One, one, two is easy to do … like fuck it was!
A crash from the door and the Ikea chest of drawers almost fell over.
‘Hello, emergency services, how can I help you?’ a dry, professional voice said.