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Salander was in a hotel room on Manezhnaya Square in Moscow, her eyes on her laptop, and she watched as Mikael Blomkvist emerged from the building entrance on Fiskargatan. He did not look his usual confident self, instead he seemed lost. She felt a pang of something she did not fully recognise, and did not feel minded to probe. She glanced up from her screen at the glass dome in the square outside, glittering with light of all colours.
The city which until recently had held no interest for her now beckoned, and it crossed her mind that she should just drop everything and go out on a binge. But that was idiotic, she had to remain disciplined. She had more or less been living at her laptop recently, sometimes she hardly slept. And yet she looked much neater than she had for a long time. She had had her hair cut short. Her piercings were gone and she was wearing a white shirt and her black suit, just as she had at the funeral, not actually to honour Holger, but because it had become habit and she wanted to blend in better.
She had resolved to strike first, not wait like some cornered prey, and that was why she now found herself in Moscow, and why she had arranged for cameras to be installed at Fiskargatan in Stockholm. But she was paying a higher price than expected. Not only because it brought back her past and kept her awake at night. It was also the fact that her enemies were hiding behind smokescreens and impossible encryptions, and she had to spend hours covering her tracks. She was living like a prisoner on the run. Nothing of what she was searching for came easily to her, and it was only now, after a month’s work, that she was nearing her objective. But it was hard to know for certain, and sometimes she wondered if the enemy was, in spite of everything, always one step ahead.
Today, when she had been out on reconnaissance, she had felt she was being watched, and sometimes at night she would listen for footsteps in the hotel corridor, especially those of one man – she was sure it was a man – suffering from dysmetria, an irregularity in his gait, who often slowed down outside her door, and who seemed to be listening too.
She pressed rewind. Again Blomkvist came out of the apartment on Fiskargatan with a hang-dog look, and she reflected on that as she drained her glass of whisky. Dark clouds drifted over the State Duma towards Red Square and the Kremlin. A storm was on its way, and that was perhaps just as well. She got up and considered taking a shower or a bath, then settled for changing her shirt, choosing a black one. That seemed appropriate. From a hidden compartment in her suitcase she retrieved her Beretta Cheetah, the pistol she had bought on her second day in Moscow, and slotted it into the holster under her jacket. She sat on the bed and contemplated the room.
She did not like it, nor the hotel for that matter. It was too luxurious, too ostentatious, and it was not just that there were men like her father socialising down in the bar, pompous shits with a sense of unconditional entitlement to their mistresses and subordinates. There were also eyes on her, and word could be passed to the intelligence services or to gangsters. Often she found herself sitting as she was now, fists clenched, ready for a fight.
She went into the bathroom and splashed cold water on her face. It didn’t help much. Her forehead was tense from lack of sleep, her head ached. Was it time to go, so soon? Probably just as well. She listened first for sounds from the corridor, then slipped out. Her room was on the twentieth floor, close to the lifts. A man of middle age was already waiting, good-looking with short hair, wearing jeans and a leather jacket and a black shirt just like hers. She knew she had seen him somewhere before. There was something strange about his eyes, they shone with different colours. She ignored him and stared at the floor as they rode down in the lift.
She stepped into the lobby and went straight out into the square. Ahead of her the large glass dome sparkled in the dark. Beneath this revolving map of the world was a four-storey shopping centre. On top, a bronze statue of St George and the Dragon. St George was Moscow’s patron saint and she ran into him everywhere in the city, with his sword raised. Sometimes she put a hand to her left shoulder blade, a gesture of protection for her own dragon. Or she would caress an old bullet wound in the same shoulder, or her hip, where there was a scar from a knife injury, as if to remind herself of past pain.
Her mind was on conflagrations and disasters, and she thought also of her mother. Yet she was still careful to avoid surveillance cameras. Her movements were therefore tense and irregular as she hurried towards Tverskoy Boulevard, the large, splendid avenue with its parks and gardens, and she did not pause until she reached Versailles, one of the fanciest restaurants in the city.
The building looked like a baroque palace, with columns, gold ornaments and crystal, an entire glittering seventeenth-century pastiche. She wanted nothing more than to get far away. But tonight a party was to be held there, for the city’s wealthiest, and from a distance she could observe the preparations. So far the only people there were small groups of beautiful young women, most likely call girls hired for the occasion. The staff were also hard at work making the final arrangements.
As she drew closer she caught sight of the host. Vladimir Kuznetsov. He was at the front entrance in a white dinner jacket and patent-leather shoes, and even though he was not old, barely fifty, he looked like Santa Claus with his white hair and beard, and a fat belly at odds with his thin legs. Officially he was something of a success story, a petty criminal fallen on hard times who had turned his life around to become a celebrity chef specialising in bear steak and mushroom sauces. But covertly he ran a string of troll factories that spewed out fake news, often with an anti-Semitic undertone. Kuznetsov had not only caused chaos and influenced political elections. He also had blood on his hands.
He was guilty of fomenting genocide and had turned hatred into big business. The mere sight of him at the entrance gave Salander a boost. She felt the outline of her Beretta in its holster and looked around her. Kuznetsov was tugging nervously at his beard – it was to be his big night.
A string quartet, which Salander knew would be followed by the Russian Swing jazz band, was playing inside. A red carpet had been rolled out beneath a broad black awning. It was bounded by rope and bodyguards who stood in serried ranks, kitted out in grey suits and earpieces. All were armed. Kuznetsov studied his watch. Not a single guest had arrived – perhaps it was some kind of game? Nobody wanted to be the first.
But the street was full of people who had come to gawp. Word had clearly got out that V.I.P.s were expected, and that was no bad thing, Salander thought. She would melt into the crowd more easily. Then the rain began to fall, first a drizzle, soon a downpour. There was a flash of lightning in the distance. Thunder rolled. The crowd dispersed, except for a few hardy figures with umbrellas who stayed put. Before long the first limousines and guests arrived. Kuznetsov greeted them one by one with a bow, and a woman beside him ticked off names in a little black book. The restaurant slowly filled up with middle-aged men and even more young women.
Salander heard the hum of voices from within and, more faintly, the music from the string quartet. Every now and then she glimpsed figures she had come across during her research, and she observed how Kuznetsov’s expressions and movements varied according to the status of each arrival. All guests received the particular smile and bow he considered they merited, and the really distinguished ones were treated to a little joke too, though most of the laughter came from Kuznetsov himself.
He grinned and chortled like a court jester, and Salander stood frozen and wet, staring at the spectacle. A guard noticed her and nodded at a colleague – she had become too absorbed and that was not good, not good at all. She pretended to walk away but instead hid in a doorway a little way off. She noticed then that her hands were shaking and she did not think it was because of the rain or the cold. Nervous tension had brought her close to breaking point.
She pulled out her mobile to check everything was prepared. The attack had to be perfectly coordinated, or she would be lost. She went through it once, twice, three times. But the minutes were running away from her and she began to have doubts. The rain fell and nothing was happening. It was looking more and more like yet another missed opportunity.
The guests seemed all to have arrived. Even Kuznetsov had gone inside. The party was in full swing, the men were already knocking back shots and groping the girls. She decided to go back to the hotel.
But at that moment another limousine drew up and a woman by the entrance hurried inside to fetch Kuznetsov, who came shambling out of the restaurant with sweat on his forehead and a glass of champagne in his hand. Salander decided to stay after all. This guest was important, that much was obvious from the behaviour of the security guards and the tension in the air, as well as the ridiculous look on Kuznetsov’s face. Salander slunk back into her doorway. But nobody emerged from the limousine.
No chauffeur jumped out into the rain to open the door, the car just stood there. Kuznetsov straightened his hair and bow tie, pulled in his stomach and drained his glass. Salander stopped trembling. She picked up something in Kuznetsov’s eyes that she recognised only too well, and with no further hesitation she launched her attack.
Then she tucked her mobile into her pocket and let the programme codes do their work while she looked around, noting every detail of her surroundings with photographic precision: the body language of the guards, the proximity of their hands to their weapons, the gaps between their shoulders along the red carpet, the irregularities and puddles on the pavement before her.
Motionless, almost catatonic, she stood watching right up to the moment when the chauffeur got out of the limousine, unfurled an umbrella and opened the back door. Then she moved forward with cat-like steps, her hand on the grip of the pistol inside her jacket.