Read Open grave: a mystery Online

Authors: Kjell Eriksson

Open grave: a mystery

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One

The notification came unexpectedly.Bertramvon Ohler was eighty-four years old after all, somewhat frail, his legs did not always hold, the numbness in his hands created difficulties, especially at the dinner table. The dizziness in the evenings was getting more troublesome and meant that he socialized much less often. Bridge nights were sacred, however. There were some who thought he did not have much time left; the whispering about his ill health had increased.

Some were old colleagues who took pleasure in backbiting the old professor and competitor, or else they were simply acquaintances who for lack of other diversion spread unfounded rumors. One day it was some neurological disease that would soon break him down, the next the problem was advanced prostate cancer. There were also friends around him who listened eagerly, perhaps contributing a detail or episode and in that way kept the fire going.

Everyone took part in the rumor spreading with the same poorly masked enthusiasm. It was as if the sight of the old man, or the news that always flowed in during the autumn’s customary speculations, automatically elicited comments about his imminent demise.

His real remaining friends were few. Some had left earthly life, others were senile and put in homes. A professor in a related discipline, obviously demented, was shunted aside to a family estate in Skåne. But the few with whom Ohler socialized were upset.

“I’m used to it, many have tried over the years to take honor and glory from me and now it’s my life they’re after,” was his calm comment when his friends complained. But deep down he was distressed, disappointed at the pettiness and ill will, sometimes even genuinely angry.

He had reconciled himself with many things. Old grudges were buried, injustices that had been harbored for decades receded in a forgiving forgetfulness. Even Associate Professor Johansson, who lived only a stone’s throw away, could now exchange a few words with his former rival. Most recently, the other day they discussed Obama and “the other guy,” neither of them wanting to admit that for the moment they had forgotten his name. The professor stood on the sidewalk, the associate professor with a rake in his hand on the other side of the privet hedge.

Even the memory of his wife, deceased for many years now, had something conciliatory about it. Bertram von Ohler had developed a theory that in reality he had her to thank for his successes, indirectly and without her conscious assistance, but even so. She who the last thirty years of their life together constituted an unimaginable torment for him.

How could a phenomenon as lovely as Dagmar had once been turn into such a monstrous creature? He had consulted colleagues to get some explanation for her behavior with the help of academic expertise. No diagnosis could ever be made. “Some people are mean, it’s that simple,” a professor in psychology once stated when Ohler let slip what a virago he was living with.

Every breakfast in the Ohler home was a minefield; a single false step and the morning’s peace was shattered. Every dinner was trench warfare, with ambushes and snipers, and on really bad days it escalated to veritable carpet bombing of reproaches and suspicions.

He did not desert his marriage, something which even his children advised him to do, but he fled to the department as often as he was able, and stayed until late in the evening. Sometimes he slept there in a little storage room.

Perhaps it was this fact, this absence from home and wife, that was the basis for his success in the medical field. He had Dagmar’s quarrelsome and her suspicious nature to thank for his research results and his professorship, and for this belated crowning of his career.

*   *   *

The word came late inthe morning. Bertram von Ohler had just come home from a short walk and was preparing to have a pasta salad, which Agnes had prepared the day before, when the telephone rang. It was Professor Skarp at the Karolinska Institute.

Ohler had only met him in passing at a few gatherings. For that reason it was somewhat surprising that after the introduction he started with the word “brother,” as if they were members of an order, which Ohler doubted.

“Brother, I have the great honor and happiness to report that Professor Emeritus Bertram von Ohler has been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine.”

“Good for him,” was the only thing Ohler got out, incapable of putting these simple facts together into a coherent sentence.

“What did you say?” asked Skarp.

Bertram von Ohler, that’s me of course, the thought passing like a projectile through his head.

“What did you say?” he let out like an echo.

Professor Skarp left out “brother,” but otherwise repeated the sentence word for word. When he got no response this time either, other than labored breathing, he added something to the effect that he understood that this was overwhelming news, not unexpected in any way, but still no doubt difficult to take in immediately.

“Professor von Ohler, dear colleague … are you all right?”

“Fine, thanks. And I was just about to eat pasta.”

“Now it will have to be something more festive,” said Skarp, laughing with relief.

“I must call my children immediately. I’ll have to get back to you.”

“Of course. You can certainly expect an onslaught of phone calls and visits, brother, so perhaps it’s wise to notify those closest to you first.”

As if someone had died, thought Ohler.

“You don’t want to hear the motivation?”

“No, thanks, I think I understand. If you’ll excuse me now.”

They ended the call and he hurried to the toilet.

“Now I’m pissing as a Nobel Prize winner,” he said out loud, managing to squeeze a few drops from his wrinkled sex.

*   *   *

Instead of calling his twosons, both professors, one in Lund, the other in Los Angeles, and his daughter, who was research director at a pharmaceutical company in town, he pulled out the phone jack, quickly shoveled down a little of the pasta, took a few gulps of water, and left the house.

It was a radiant day, so he found, as he expected, Associate Professor Johansson in his yard. Marching in through the gate and ringing the doorbell would seem too forward, they were not on such good terms with each other.

The associate professor looked almost happy as he stood with the rake in his hand, surrounded by parallel rows of leaves. The associate professor had explained to Ohler that leaf raking must be done in a systematic way, and he understood now that his neighbor was about to combine the rows into neat small piles.

“It’s a good thing it’s not windy,” the professor began, but realized at once that this was not a particularly apt remark.

“I would never rake on a day like that,” said the associate professor.

“No, of course not.”

The associate professor took a few swipes with the rake. Ohler realized that he could not linger too long, and decided to get right to the point.

“A few minutes ago I got some happy news and I decided to share it with you first of all.”

The associate professor looked up.

“Yes?”

“We are colleagues, after all, we shared a laboratory for many years, we took part in joint projects, shared successes and disappointments, I don’t need to remind you of all that, but I’m doing it anyway, on a day like this.”

The associate professor stopped his work, leaned the rake against the trunk of a copper beech and took a few steps closer to the gate.

“That is an amazing tree,” said the professor, pointing toward the beech tree. “Surely the most magnificent we have in the area.”

The associate professor looked even more surprised. It was uncertain whether it was due to the unexpected praise or that the professor used the word “we,” as if he included the whole neighborhood as owner of the tree.

“I’m guessing that it’s the same age as the house,” the professor continued.

Now the associate professor was standing right inside the gate. His long, thin face expressed a touch of impatience, perhaps irritation, but he was trying to smile anyway, uncertain of what occasioned this unexpected charm offensive. But the smile mostly remained a twitch in his face.

“I’ve won the Nobel Prize.”

The cheeks rosy from sun and wind, the watery eyes, the narrow mustache, a barely visible streak over an open mouth, where a few fangs were visible, the narrow, sloping shoulders and the delicately built chest, all that was visible of the associate professor above the wooden gate, expressed an astonished distrust.

“The Nobel Prize,” he repeated awkwardly.

The professor nodded.

“In medicine?”

“Yes, what else?”

“For IDD?”

“I assume so,” said the professor.

IDD was the abbreviation they had used in the research group for the discovery that had been presented about twenty years ago and for which the professor had now been granted the honor.

“Assume?”

“I didn’t ask, I had to take a piss when Skarp called.”

Associate Professor Johansson shook his head and the professor saw doubt change to conviction, and he understood why: Never in public life had he used swear words or other strong expressions, never before had he uttered the words “take a piss,” not even in his youth or in family circles. At the most, “have to pee.”

He thinks I’ve lost my mind,thought Ohler, and at that moment it struck him that perhaps he had been the butt of a cruel joke. He was barely acquainted with Skarp, they had not had so much contact that the professor could say he would recognize the voice with certainty, in other words it could be anyone at all pretending to be the chairman of the Academy of Sciences. Someone sufficiently familiar with his background, his research, in the procedure around how the prize winner in medicine is named. Someone who wanted to play a trick on him, have a good laugh at his expense. That the person who called had addressed him as “brother” was a hint that something was amiss.

This sudden insight, that the whole thing perhaps was a deception, made the ground sway. He took hold of the gate, tried to suppress the dizziness by closing his eyes, lower himself somewhat with bent knees and arched back, the technique he always used. The fireflies behind his eyelids glistened in rapid bright streaks, there was singing in his head, and he had a slight taste of iron in his mouth.

When the attack was over and he opened his eyes, he discovered that the associate professor was glaring hatefully at his hand, as if it was a violation of his private life and property. But the professor did not dare release his hold on the gate.

“Excuse me,” he said, “I haven’t eaten properly today.”

The associate professor did not say anything.

“Could it be a joke? I mean the phone call.”

“Maybe so,” said the associate professor, and now the hint of a smile could be seen at the corner of his mouth.

“Do you think I’m mentally deranged?”

“Of course not, what makes you say that?”

“You think I’m bluffing, don’t you. But Skarp called!”

He was staring at the associate professor, whose Adam’s apple bobbed.I see, you’re swallowing your words,thought the professor bitterly. He stared at the wrinkled neck, which concealed esophagus, trachea, and the artery where the blood was pumped up to the brain.You don’t dare talk, afraid of saying too little, or too much. You haven’t changed.

He had decided to seek out the associate professor to show his willingness to share the honor. I go to an associate professor to spread luster over the entire research group, as if to say, “The credit is not all mine, we were a whole team. And then I am met with scorn.”

He shook the gate. Nothing remained of the associate professor’s smile other than a grimace.

He had done it without an ulterior motive, wasn’t that so? The thought had come quite spontaneously, what else would be possible, besides the presumptuousness of rehearsing his comments and actions in advance, to have them ready when the Nobel Prize committee called. Or was there, on an unconscious level, a degree of calculation? Because immediately in his mind he had formulated his first statement to the media: “I am overwhelmed and obviously very grateful”—something like that as introduction. And then the hook itself on which to hang his own excellence: “The first thing I did was go over to a neighbor, a dear friend and research colleague, Associate Professor Johansson, to share the joy with him, because the prize is not mine alone, it is shared with a whole staff of untiring, dedicated associates. Without them I would be nothing. Then I returned home and called my children.”

That was how the humility would be formulated. Not a dry eye. Perhaps he should mention the pasta salad?

The associate professor interrupted his train of thought.

“If it was even him.”

“I know him.”

No one was going to take the prize away from him now!

“Ferguson then?”

Allen Ferguson was an American researcher, active in Germany during the eighties, who had arrived at similar research results as the colleagues at Uppsala University Hospital. There were those who thought that his efforts were more pioneering and just a hair ahead in time besides.

“Ferguson based his results on our research, you know that very well.”

The associate professor was smiling again.

“I’m going to mention Ferguson,” the professor snapped.

“You’ll have to list a lot of names.”

“I thought you would be happy,” said the professor. “But clearly I was mistaken there. Of course I’m going to list a lot of names. Your name included.”

“Mine?”

“Why such surprise?”

The associate professor laughed, a laugh that resembled the hacking sound of an Angola hen. He made a grimace and twisted his mouth in a sneering smile.

Is this how it’s going to be?thought Ohler, but decided to make a new attempt. He was the one who could, and must, be generous.

“Your efforts were decisive, we both know that. So why put on a show? We are both old, I’ll turn eighty-five in December and you’ll soon be eighty, we can disappear from earthly life sooner than we know, so why this pretense, this playacting? We know how it works. There is never any absolute justice, above all not in our world. It could have been a Ferguson, it could have been a Johansson, now it turned out to be a von Ohler.”

“A von Oben.”

“What do you mean?”

At that moment a taxi turned onto the street. The old men saw it slowly approach, to finally stop outside Ohler’s driveway. In the backseat of the car a figure could be seen reaching out an arm, presumably to pay. The driver laughed, took the payment, and during the seconds that followed the duo by the gate breathlessly observed the scene. In order to see better the associate professor had leaned forward and supported himself against the gate, so that his hand almost touched the professor’s. Unaware of this nearness, almost intimacy, which perhaps was reminiscent of something twenty, thirty years ago, when they stood leaning over a flickering screen, a diagram, or a report, they watched the driver get out of the car, still laughing, and open the back door.

Bertram von Ohler’s cloudy eyes did not perceive what was happening, other than that a figure released itself from the inside of the taxi. But he heard how the associate professor took a deep breath, and realized that this identified the passenger.

“I think I have to piss,” said the associate professor, and this unexpected comment, which the professor immediately understood as an outstretched hand, a conciliatory gesture, made him sob.

“Splendid, Gregor,” he said. “Splendid.”

The driver hurried up.

“Mr. Olon?”

The professor nodded in confusion. The driver took his free hand, raised it and shook it frenetically, while with the other hand he patted the Nobel Prize winner on the shoulder. His broad smile and his entire appearance testified to great excitement and unfeigned delight.

“A good day,” he said.

The passenger, who had fallen behind, had now joined them.

“On behalf of the entire university I want to congratulate you.”

The taxi driver reminded him about the flowers.

“So true!”

When Bertram von Ohler later summarized the day, the congratulatory call on the street would stand out as the most successful tableau. First the people’s tribute, in the form of taxi driver Andrew Kimongo, followed by academic bloodred roses and the university rector’s torrent of words, at the head of the long line of callers who then followed in quick succession.

*   *   *

It was a restless night,he was constantly wakened from the unsettled slumber that characterizes persons born under the sign of Sagittarius, in Ohler’s case on the fifteenth of December. It was a theory that was championed by his daughter, Birgitta: Sagittarius dozes through the night, Taurus sleeps heavily, Libra gets up early. She herself was Aquarius, whose most distinctive feature was dreaming intensely.

Bertram von Ohler was somewhat concerned. His daughter was actually scientifically educated, a medical doctor, but still firm in the intellectually lightweight, stupid theory of astrology. It didn’t fit together.

She was a lesbian besides—a pure defense measure, she asserted, in this era of male violence—and for the past ten years living together with a nurse with Finnish background. A woman of whom Bertram disapproved. Maybe it was the Finnish accent. Liisa Lehtonen had been a successful competitive shooter and won medals at a number of international competitions.

If anything could be associated with violence it must be firearms, the professor asserted, but according to his daughter this was solely about mental balance and psychic energy. Liisa was a Virgo.

But despite the astrology, her sometimes meddlesome lifestyle advice, which might concern diet, exercise, wine drinking, open window at night, or basically anything at all, and as the cherry on the cake Liisa with accent and gun cabinet, and thereby self-imposed childlessness—despite all this Bertram von Ohler loved his daughter.

She was the youngest of the siblings and therefore also the one who fared the worst due to their mother’s capricious moods and increasing misanthropy. The two sons, ten and thirteen years older, had moved away from home as soon as possible and thereby avoided the worst tumult.

The oldest was christened Abraham, as a concession to his mother. He had studied in Lund and remained there, even adopted a Scandian accent.

Carl, named after his grandfather, moved into a student apartment belonging to the Kalmar student association. By tradition the family was registered there. Bertram’s great-great-grandfather originated from a family of pharmacists in Kalmar.

Like his brother Carl studied medicine and after several turns at various Swedish hospitals ended up in California, where he was now a moderately successful researcher in diabetes. According to his father a completely worthless field, an opinion he never uttered to anyone however.

He was proud of his children, happily bragged about them, as fathers do, remembered their birthdays, likewise the wives’ and grandchildren’s. Abraham had three children and Carl two. When Liisa’s birthday was, however, he had no idea.

He had actually never needed to send money to his children after they left home, except for the costs for university studies. They never talked about money at all. It was there, had always been there. Since the seventeenth century.

The progenitor of the Swedish part of the Ohler family, originally from Hannover, had been recruited by Axel Oxenstierna to build up the administration of the Royal Mint. Apparently a lucrative occupation, because already after a decade Heinrich Ohler had built up a considerable fortune. That Queen Kristina contributed a few estates onÖland and right outside Västervik did not make circumstances worse.

From that soil the Ohler family tree sprouted, where one branch became the “pharmacists/doctors.” There was also a minister branch, an officer branch, and an agricultural branch.

Just as happily as Bertram talked about his children and grandchildren, he could also, not without pride, tell the story of poor Heinrich, who came to Stockholm with an empty hand. In the other hand he had a knapsack.

*   *   *

In his bed, whose headboardwas war booty from Bratislava, the professor argued with selected representatives on the extensive tree and came to the conclusion that the Nobel Prize outshone all else that had been presented to the family: being raised to nobility, loads of medals and distinctions, and through the centuries membership in a number of learned societies.

A conclusion even his father Carl would have endorsed—that was the professor’s final, triumphant thought before he fell asleep at four o’clock in the morning.

 

Two

The voice was not reminiscentof anything he had heard before, sharp and aggressive but at the same time anxious.

It was Swedish, with no obvious dialect or accent—he was always attentive to that sort of thing—but still a voice foreign to the extent that when he told his daughter about the episode a few hours later, he hesitated when she asked if it was a foreigner.

“In a way,” he said. “Maybe it was an immigrant, someone who has lived here a long time.”

“Maybe someone who was disguising their voice,” his daughter suggested, “someone you know.”

“Who would that be?”

“Have you called the police?”

Bertram von Ohler laughed, even though he’d had that thought himself, because half-awake in the early morning hours he had experienced the call as an actual threat, just as real as if someone stood in front of him with a weapon raised to strike.

“It’s the sort of thing you have to expect.”

“But what did he say exactly, is there something you’ve missed?”

Misunderstood, he realized that his daughter meant.

“No, he said he would see to it that I ‘would never receive the prize,’ and then he muttered some vulgarities.”

“What were they?”

“You don’t want to hear that.”

“Of course I do!”

“Abusive language never deserves to be repeated. Besides, it didn’t mean anything.”

The fact was that what he called abusive language was what perplexed him the most, but there was no reason to drag his daughter into that.

He regretted mentioning the episode to her at all, and tried to guide the conversation to something else, said that Agnes showed up, even though she was supposed to be off. She had obviously congratulated him, but in that reserved way that only a person from a Roslag island can do, as if a Nobel Prize did not mean all that much, whether in Söderboda or in Norrboda.

No, she had viewed the matter purely professionally. The house must be, if not decontaminated, then gone through anyway and more thoroughly than what Ohler had allowed until now. She had threatened to bring in her sister Greta to help out.

“Then I gave her free rein, just so she doesn’t involve that ghost under any circumstances.”

Birgitta laughed heartily and the professor understood that for the moment he had diverted the danger, but to be really certain he continued.

“Agnes will order new curtains in the drawing room and the library and ‘polish’ all the floors, as she says. Then it will be the silver’s turn.”

“You’re lucky to have her.”

“Of course,” said the professor.

“That was lovely of you, those statements you made on TV. But you must be sure to use a comb, your hair was standing straight up.”

“It was windy.”

“But why didn’t you go inside the house?”

“Agnes phoned and forbade me from letting anyone in. If she hadn’t been on Gräsövisiting her sister she would have come here and organized the world press.”

He was rewarded with another laugh. He felt a need to keep his daughter in a good mood, perhaps as apology for not telling the whole truth about the telephone call at dawn.

“But it was beautifully expressed, that part that you weren’t alone.”

Iwasalone,he thought.

“Do you wonder what Mother would have said?”

That was a question that the professor found no reason to speculate about.

“Do you ever miss her?”

“No.”

Perhaps he ought to have said something beautiful here too, even if it wasn’t true? He knew that his daughter was of two minds about her mother.

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