The Man Who Laughed at Silence
By Jens Sjorstrom
Translated from the Swedish by Gunnar Courtland
Lars Larsson poked at the body with his toe. Something stuck to his shoe when he pulled it back.
“Shit!” Larsson said.
“Smells like it,” said his detective partner, Kjell Edlund, pinching his nostrils together through the handkerchief he was holding to his nose and mouth.
The wind, a gruff and determined Nordic wind, picked at the debris of the landfill, at the discarded fragments of Swedish life, picking up odd pieces of trash, examining them, twirling them, playing with them and then flicking them away, only to then choose more rubbish to tease. A crushing stench wafted with the caprice of the wind, into and out of the nostrils of the detectives.
The face and the upper body of the corpse were splattered with a thick brown coating, in some spots crusty on the outside but still soft and gooey inside, like a chocolate profiterole. The stink rushing up the nose holes of the detectives blended into the mixture of odors in the discontinued trash dump. The total smell was so thoroughly rotten that it seemed impossible such a stain could exist in a place as scrubbed and perfumed as Stockholm.
“You know this place?” asked Larsson.
“Military bilge,” said Edlund. “Scheduled to be closed.”
The body seemed to have been coated deliberately. Even now matted and flaked, the brown glaze swirled around the contours of the chin and shoulders, the upper arms darker and the hair as thick and stiff as a house shingle. The pattern continued down as far as the navel. What lay below that would have to wait until the body was removed from the trash and from the litter that surrounded it.
It occurred to Larsson that it would take a whole lot of lutfisk to produce that much shit.
“Do those look like brush strokes?” Larsson asked Edlund. “Like somebody painted it on?”
“More like dipped and then smoothed,” Edlund said. “See how it seems thicker in the hair and on the shoulders. And it ran into the ears. Up the nose, too.”
Edlund coughed. He snorted. His own nose was working much too well.
“Why can’t we ever be sent to nice garden or to a park?” he asked his partner. “Why do we always get the shit assignments?”
“Are you trying to be funny?”
“You know me,” Edlund said.
Larsson pushed his handkerchief down his battered nose to give himself a better view of the body. He could see that the corpse was clearly a woman. Her left breast was fairly unsoiled, the red nipple obscenely apparent, as if it had been licked clean.
“I think what we’re looking for is a painter with a vat of diarrhea,” said Edlund.
“Someone with a big brush,” agreed Larsson.
“Or a small broom,” said Edlund.
As inspector and sergeant of Stockholm’s GCD—Grisly Crimes Division—Larsson and Edlund were kept busy by a dependable assortment of murders and misdeeds in Sweden’s capitol. Decapitations, incinerations, mutilations, assassinations, these were crimes common enough to bring yawns to the detectives.
Not once had a severed head or a crispy corpse caused Larsson to miss a meal. The heavy body poorly served by his unpressed jacket was proof of his puke-proof appetite.
Well into middle age, Larsson had long ago stopped caring about his appearance, had stopped looking into mirrors. It was as if he believed the pouches under his eyes and the sagging skin on his neck, the graying hair that always needed a barber, would not be there if he did not look. He slept poorly and had not been with a woman since his wife died more than a year ago.
“Tyrkisk?” asked Edlund, reaching into an inside pocket. The butt handle of Edlund’s SIG Sauer P226 caught the lining of his double breasted jacket. Edlund shrugged the garment loose.
Unlike Larsson’s rumpled jacket, Edlund’s suit was tailored and fit smoothly across his shoulders. His pants were cuffed and broke nicely at the top of his shoes, Italian loafers with tassels. Edlund cultivated a meticulous mustache, thin and dark, contrasting with his blond, efficiently combed hair. But then Edlund was from Skvode and all Stockholmers knew that anyone from Skovde was just naturally prissy.
Edlund shook out several pieces of black licorice candy from a small blue bag and offered them to Larsson.
“Ja visst,” said Larsson, taking away his handkerchief from his face and popping the candy into his mouth.
“Extra hot,” said Edlund, his eyes already watery from the sharp sting of the peppery candy.
“You could be right,” said Larsson, wiping the toe of his shoe on the back of his trouser leg.
Larsson had to admit that he had never seen anything quite like this. The smell reminded him of the night he was on duty in Rinkeby and an angel-faced 12-year old boy had carried in a Willys supermarket bag and plopped it onto the admitting desk.
Larsson had been careful enough to pull on a pair of vinyl gloves before opening the bag. Inside was the severed head of a woman, her lipstick smeared down one side of her chin.
Her hair was still in curlers, clinging in tight little rows even a week later.
“It didn’t matter who I killed,” the boy told Larsson. “I just had to kill someone. Mommy should have gone bowling.”
Police would later find the mother’s severed left leg being used to support a dying banana tree plant in the foyer of their house. The woman’s right hand was cut neatly at the wrist, painted white and nailed to the kitchen wall, palm out and the thumb used to hang a spatula.
That one was weird but not as weird as this one. Who paints a corpse with…?
“S.O.S.” said Edlund, lapsing into English, speaking not too clearly over his chewing.
“S. O.S. Shit on a Swede,” said Edlund.
Larsson ‘s thick lips curved into a slight smile, more a smirk, but grudging acknowledgement of Edlund’s wit. Provided she was a Swede. It was hard to tell under all the gunk. Sweden, especially Stockholm, had lately seen more and more outsiders . Whenever possible the police blamed crime on aliens. Convictions of Arabs or Serbs or Turks were much easier to get.
If the suspects were Travelers, the gypsy Romani from Finland who obeyed no law but their own, all the evidence that was usually needed was a pointed finger.
“Where’s the driver?” asked Larsson.
“Still in that thing, I guess,” said Edlund, nodding his head in the direction of a great iron wheeled tractor sitting idle atop the highest mound of debris. The machine was silhouetted against a continuous sheet of gray, the usual color of the Scandinavian sky at this time of year.
Somewhere beyond the bleakness of the morning sky, a new day shone fresh and full of hope for happy children and optimists. In Sweden there were mornings like that, sometimes as many as ten or twelve a year.
Rust had eaten away the yellow paint of the tractor, leaving splotches of what it once had been peeping through what it had become. But the tractor still worked, still did its job, however loudly it moaned, however much its upright exhaust chimney belched. It had much in common with Larsson.
The drivers’ cabin was perched behind an enormous grate connected to the front. The vertical bars made the grate resemble the wall of a jail cell. The grate was used to push the trash around, providing what order there was to the place. Huge piles here, smaller piles there, a rough sorting of materials for recycling. This type of landfill, one where all sorts of rubbish was mixed with other sorts of rubbish, was outlawed. Similar sites had been cleaned and cleared long ago, the trash hauled to Hogdalen to be converted into heat and electricity.
No place on earth is more environmentally conscious than Sweden. Recycling is taken very seriously in Stockholm. Ugly and ubiquitous green bins spoil the flavor of the city, appearing nearly as unsightly as the trash they hold. Neighbors turn against neighbors when the wrong rubbish is discarded in the wrong bin or placed in a bin that does not belong to the discarder. Trash is fuel and compost is life. Nearly every Swede believes in that, some more than others.
The driver, a Somali listed as Abshir Waabberri Hassan on his operator’s license but called “Abe” by any Swede who had any reason to know him, had only incidentally discovered the body when he stopped his tractor, got down and dragged out of the way a broken IKEA sofa that he thought he might sell or use himself.
Abshir did not recognize the soft lump as a body at first, not until he noticed the red nipple. Picking through the fragments of rubble, the disposable diapers and the plastic plates, he cleared away enough junk to discover enough to make him scream. If an immigrant worker yells in a condemned landfill, does he make a sound? Even above the rattle of the idling tractor, his scream shook the mound of trash Abshir had just built and caused a gang of rats to scamper away.
Abshir was not, as Edlund thought, waiting in the tractor to be questioned. He knew enough of police to not linger. When he was told to wait, he nodded, said “Yes, sir,” and ran off the first chance he got.
“We have to find someone who saw the driver of the carrier that dumped her,” Larsson said to Edlund.
“She wasn’t killed here, painted with shit and half buried,” said Larsson. “Someone did this somewhere else. Probably threw her in a green bin, mixed biodegradable with solids.
“They left her jewelry on.”
“Wasn’t robbery, then.”
“It usually is.”
“Some kind of game gone wrong.”
“Some kind of sick game.”
“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t.”
Edlund coughed and Larsson turned his back to the wind. A clump of Larsson’s uncombed hair rose on a breath of wind and fell back.
“Might be something to it,” said Edlund.
“Throwing away trash into a trash heap. Could be somebody’s idea of balance, some twisted creep.”
“Didn’t even bother to bag her.”
“Why would they do that after all the trouble of painting her?” asked Edlund.
“I suppose they didn’t like the way she turned out. Artists can be temperamental that way.”
“You’re saying there will be others until the painter gets it right.”
“Gets it right?”
“Anders Zorn would do a hundred pictures of the same nude.”
“Maybe he just liked to look at naked women.”
“Who doesn’t?” asked Edlund.
Larsson knelt as close to the corpse as his nose and stomach would allow, brushing away the flies from her face. He peeled back an eyelid. Cold, lifeless, blank, her eye stared at nothing.
“Blue,” Larsson told Edlund. “Blue eyes.”
So, she was most likely Swedish, or Nordic at least. Too bad. Had she been Romani as both detectives thought when they first saw her, darkened and partly covered, the case would have been filed without urgency and left to laze with the unimportant clutter of the police files. Instead she was somebody’s woman, somebody’s wife, somebody’s daughter, maybe somebody’s mother and she was Lars Larsson’s problem. She was somebody to be taken seriously. Larsson could see that her hair was mostly blond under all that slime.
Larsson sighed and shook his head, fully aware of the work ahead. Absentmindedly, Larsson licked the finger he had used to pull back her eyelid. The small brown flake from his finger had dissolved on his tongue before he realized what he had done. His eyes widened and he spat.
“Shit! Shit!,” Larsson muttered.
Edlund burst into laughter.
“Hold on. That’s not shit, Edlund,” said Larsson, running his tongue over his lips.
Every Swede knows that taste, a flavor served with so many meals. It is a familiar mixture layered over meatballs with less care than it had been layered over the body in the landfill, but nonetheless as familiar to Swedes as Mother Svea herself.
Admittedly, it may resemble shit, brown and runny, and some might insist there is no difference, but it is Sweden’s gift to world cuisine.
“I know exactly what that is,” Larsson said. “It’s gravy.”
And for Larsson’s taste, the cook had used too much nutmeg.