A cold shiver runs down Penelope Fernandez’s spine. Her heart beats faster and she darts a look over her shoulder. Perhaps she feels a sense of foreboding of what’s to come as her day progresses.
In spite of the television studio’s heat, Penelope’s face feels chilled. Maybe the sensation is left over from her time in makeup when the cold powder puff was pressed to her skin and the peace-dove hair clip was taken out so they could rub in the mousse that would make her hair fall in serpentine locks.
Penelope Fernandez is the spokesperson for the Swedish Peace and Reconciliation Society. Silently, she is being ushered into the newsroom and to her spotlighted seat across from Pontus Salman, CEO of the armaments manufacturer Silencia Defense AB. The news anchor Stefanie von Sydow is narrating a report on all the layoffs resulting from the purchase of the Bofors Corporation by British BAE Systems Limited. Then she turns to Penelope.
“Penelope Fernandez, in several public debates you have been critical of the management of Swedish arms exports. In fact, you recently compared it to the French Angola-gate scandal. There, highly placed politicians and businessmen were prosecuted for bribery and weapons smuggling and given long prison sentences. But here in Sweden? We really haven’t seen this, have we?”
“Well, you can interpret this in two ways,” replies Penelope. “Either our politicians behave differently or our justice system works differently.”
“You know very well,” begins Pontus Salman, “that we have a long tradition of—”
“According to Swedish law,” Penelope says, “all manufacture and export of armaments are illegal.”
“You’re wrong, of course,” says Salman.
“Paragraphs 3 and 6 of the Military Equipment Act,” Penelope points out with precision.
“We at Silencia Defense have already gotten a positive preliminary decision.” Salman smiles.
“Otherwise this would be a case of major weapons crimes and—”
“But, we do have permission.”
“Don’t forget the rationale for armaments—”
“Just a moment, Penelope.” Stefanie von Sydow stops her and nods to Pontus Salman, who’s lifted his hand to signal that he wasn’t finished.
“All business transactions are reviewed in advance,” he explains. “Either directly by the government or by the National Inspectorate of Strategic Products, if you know what that is.”
“France has similar regulations,” says Penelope. “And yet military equipment worth eight million Swedish crowns landed in Angola despite the UN weapons embargo and in spite of a completely binding prohibition—”
“We’re not talking about France, we’re talking about Sweden.”
“I know that people want to keep their jobs, but I still would like to hear how you can explain the export of enormous amounts of ammunition to Kenya? It’s a country that—”
“You have no proof,” he says. “Nothing. Not one shred. Or do you?”
“Unfortunately, I cannot—”
“You have no concrete evidence?” asks Stefanie von Sydow.
“No, but I—”
“Then I think I’m owed an apology,” says Pontus Salman.
Penelope stares him in the eyes, her anger and frustration boiling up, but she tamps it down, stays silent. Pontus Salman smiles smugly and begins to talk about Silencia Defense’s factory in Trollhättan. Two hundred new jobs were created when they were given permission to start production, he says. He speaks slowly and in elaborate detail, deftly truncating the time left for his opponent.
As Penelope listens, she forces aside her anger by focusing on other matters. Soon, very soon, she and Björn will board his boat. They’ll make up the arrow-shaped bed in the forecabin and fill the refrigerator and tiny freezer with treats. She conjures up the frosted schnapps glasses, and the platter of marinated herring, mustard herring, soused herring, fresh potatoes, boiled eggs, and hardtack. After they anchor at a tiny island in the archipelago, they’ll set the table on the afterdeck and sit there eating in the evening sun for hours.
* * *
Penelope Fernandez walks out of the Swedish Television building and heads toward Valhallavägen. She wasted two hours waiting for a slot in another morning program before the producer finally told her she’d been bumped by a segment on quick tips for a summer tummy. Far away, on the fields of Gärdet, she can make out the colorful tents of Circus Maximus and the little forms of two elephants, probably very large. One raises his trunk high in the air.
Penelope is only twenty-four years old. She has curly black hair cut to her shoulders, and a tiny crucifix, a confirmation present, glitters from a silver chain around her neck. Her skin is the soft golden color of virgin olive oil or honey, as a boy in high school said during a project where the students were supposed to describe one another. Her eyes are large and serious. More than once, she’s heard herself described as looking like Sophia Loren.
Penelope pulls out her cell phone to let Björn know she’s on her way. She’ll be taking the subway from Karlaplan station.
“Penny? Is something wrong?” Björn sounds rushed.
“No, why do you ask?”
“Everything’s set. I left a message on your machine. You’re all that’s missing.”
“No need to stress, then, right?”
As Penelope takes the steep escalator down to the subway platform, her heart begins to beat uneasily. She closes her eyes. The escalator sinks downward, seeming to shrink as the air becomes cooler and cooler.
Penelope Fernandez comes from La Libertad, one of the largest provinces in El Salvador. She was born in a jail cell, her mother attended by fifteen female prisoners doing their best as midwives. There was a civil war going on, and Claudia Fernandez, a doctor and activist, had landed in the regime’s infamous prison for encouraging the indigenous population to form unions.
Penelope opens her eyes as she reaches the platform. Her claustrophobic feeling has passed. She thinks about Björn waiting for her at the motorboat club on Långholmen. She loves skinny-dipping from his boat, diving straight into the water, seeing nothing but sea and sky.
She steps onto the subway, which rumbles on, gently swaying, until it breaks out into the open as it reaches the station at Gamla Stan and sunlight streams in through the windows.
Like her mother, Penelope is an activist and her passionate opposition to war and violence led her to get her master’s in political science at Uppsala University with a specialty in peace and conflict resolution. She’s worked for the French aid organization Action Contre la Faim in Darfur, southern Sudan, with Jane Oduya, and her article for Dagens Nyheter, on the women of the refugee camp and their struggles to regain normalcy after every attack, brought broad recognition. Two years ago, she followed Frida Blom as the spokesperson for the Swedish Peace and Reconciliation Society.
Leaving the subway at the Hornstull station, Penelope feels uneasy again, extremely uneasy, without knowing why. She runs down the hill to Söder Mälarstrand, then walks quickly over the bridge to Långholmen and follows the road to the small harbor. The dust she kicks up from the gravel creates a haze in the still air.
Björn’s boat is in the shade directly underneath Väster Bridge. The movement of the water dapples the gray girders with a network of light.
Penelope spots Björn on the afterdeck. He’s got on his cowboy hat, and he stands stock-still, shoulders bent, with his arms wrapped closely about him. Sticking two fingers in her mouth, she lets loose a whistle, startling him, and he turns toward her with a face naked with fear. And it’s still there in his eyes when she climbs down the stairs to the dock. “What’s wrong?” she asks.
“Nothing,” he answers, as he straightens his hat and tries to smile.
As they hug, she notices his hands are ice-cold and the back of his shirt is damp.
“You’re covered in sweat.”
Björn avoids her eyes. “It’s been stressful getting ready to go.”
“Bring my bag?”
He nods and gestures toward the cabin. The boat rocks gently under her feet and the air smells of lacquered wood and sun-warmed plastic.
“Hello? Anybody home?” she asks, tapping his head.
His clear blue eyes are childlike and his straw-colored hair sticks out in tight dreadlocks from under the hat. “I’m here,” he says. But he looks away.
“What are you thinking about? Where’s your mind gone to?”
“Just that we’re finally heading off together,” he answers as he wraps his arms around her waist. “And that we’ll be having sex out in nature.”
He buries his lips in her hair.
“So that’s what you’re dreaming of,” she whispers.
She laughs at his honesty.
“Most people … women, I mean, think that sex outdoors is a bit overrated,” she says. “Lying on the ground among ants and stones and—”
“No. No. It’s just like swimming naked,” he insists.
“You’ll have to convince me,” she teases.
“I’ll do that, all right.”
“How?” She’s laughing as the phone rings in her cloth bag.
Björn stiffens when he hears the signal. Penelope glances at the display.
“It’s Viola,” she says reassuringly before answering. “Hola, Sis.”
A car horn blares over the line as her sister yells in its direction. “Fucking idiot.”
“Viola, what’s going on?”
“It’s over. I’ve dumped Sergei.”
“Not again!” Penelope says.
“Yes, again,” says Viola, noticeably depressed.
“Sorry,” Penelope says. “I can tell you’re upset.”
“Well, I’ll be all right I guess. But … Mamma said you were going out on the boat and I thought … maybe I could come, too, if you don’t mind…”
A moment of silence.
“Sure, you can come, too,” Penelope says, although she hears her own lack of enthusiasm. “Björn and I need some time to ourselves, but…”
Copyright © 2010 by Lars Kepler
Translation copyright © 2012 by Laura A. Wideburg