From Sweden’s internationally best-selling crime novelist, the author of Easy Money, comes the riveting second installment of the Stockholm Noir Trilogy. With his trademark live-wire staccato prose and raw energy, Jens Lapidus returns to the streets of Stockholm with an electrifying tale of seedy police officers and vicious underworld criminals.
Mahmud, an iron-pumping gym fiend raised among the city’s many concrete high-rises, is fresh out of jail and heavily indebted to a Turkish drug lord. To get free he accepts a job from the henchman of brutal mob boss Radovan—a job that quickly becomes something Mahmud wishes he’d never agreed to.
Meanwhile, Niklas is living at home with his mother and keeping a low profile after working as a security contractor in Iraq. When a man is found murdered in the laundry room of their building—a startling event that coincides with Niklas’s discovery of a young Arab girl being beaten by her boyfriend—Niklas decides to put his weapons expertise and appetite for violence to use and begins to mete out his own particular brand of justice.
Thomas is the volatile cop called to investigate the murder in Niklas’s building. When his efforts are suspiciously stymied and the evidence tampered with, he goes off the grid in search of answers. As the identity of the murdered man is discovered, the paths of these three men intertwine, and crimes and secrets far greater than a mere murder come to light—raising the stakes of Stockholm’s criminality to staggering new heights.
Abbou—Mahmud was impressed. According to his own view of things: Mahmud wasn’t the guy to get caught off guard by fly whips, boosted bling, or fat stacks. Him: the guy who’d rolled in an Audi before things went whack. The blatte who’d slung juice for a hundred G’s a month. Muscle man. Pussy pariah. Million Project myth.
But he felt like a newbie in this situation. They were sitting in the most expensive ringside seats. You had to be someone in fighter Sweden to even be allowed to buy seats like this. And the king who’d made this happen was definitely someone—King of Kings, Radovan.
Things had to be nice when the Yugo boss himself graced the scene. A couple of big fights were being decided tonight. The odds were high, in other words: thick rolls involved. Course the boss wanted to see up close when the boys in the ring had their foreheads smashed in and the dough was rising like crazy.
Master’s Cup, K1. The name K1 stood for the four Ks: karate, kung fu, kickboxing, and knockdown karate that all went head to head with the same rules. But in reality, most styles were allowed. Ruthless animals who were used to owning the ring at their home gyms had to limp off the mat, beaten to bits. Bare-chested fighters pummeled each other so hard you could feel it all the way up in the nosebleed seats. Eastern European giants tore through Swedish immigrant boys one by one: kneed chins, dislocated arms, elbowed noses. The audience howled. The fighters roared. The judges tried to break up punch sequences that would floor a rhino.
The fighters came from Sweden, Romania, former Yugoslavia, France, Russia, and Holland. Fought for the titles—and for who would advance to the big K1 competitions in Tokyo.
Mahmud caught a glimpse of Radovan, eight seats away in the same row. Fired up like everyone else. At the same time: Il Padre maintained his calm, his dignity—a boss never breaks a visible sweat. The Yugo brand equaled dignity, which equaled respect. Period.
Mahmud’d arrived at the arena with time to spare—five-forty. People were lining up outside to buy returned tickets. Security was worse than at the airport. The only advantage: here, they didn’t care that he was a Muslim. He had to pass through metal detectors, put his belt, keys, and cell phone through. They ran a manual metal detector over him. Groped his balls like fags.
At six o’clock he sidled up to the seat with the right number. No one was seated around him yet. It was way too early. The Serbs let him wait. Mahmud’s thoughts zipped off to an unwanted place. Almost a week since the nightmare in the woods. The wound on his cheek would probably heal fine. But his wounded honor—he wasn’t so sure about that. But, really, he knew—there was only one way. A man who lets someone walk all over him is not a man. But how the fuck would a vendetta go down? Gürhan was VP in Born to be Hated. If Mahmud so much as breathed cockiness, he’d be as screwed as Luca Brasi.
What’s more: Daniel, the Syrian who’d made him eat the gun, had called two days ago. Asked why Mahmud hadn’t started paying off his debt yet. The answer was a given: not a chance Mahmud could get anywhere near enough gold in three days. The Daniel dude told him to fuck himself—that wasn’t Gürhan’s problem. Couldn’t Mahmud borrow? Couldn’t Mahmud sell his mother? His sisters? They gave him a week. Then he had to make the first payment: one hundred thousand cash. No escaping it. Right now, the knife was at his throat. The Yugos might be his chance.
At the same time: reluctance. He thought about his talk with Dad a few days ago. Beshar’d taken early retirement. Before that, he’d slaved away as a subway engineer and janitor for ten years. Busted his knees and back. Struggled for the Svens, for nothing. Proud. So proud. “I’ve paid every cent of my taxes and that feels good,” he liked to say.
Mahmud’s classic answer: “Dad, you’re a loser. Don’t you get it? The Svens haven’t given you shit.”
“Don’t you call me that. You must understand. It’s not about Swedes this or Swedes that. You should get a job. Do right for yourself. You embarrass me. Can’t they arrange something through the parole office?”
“Nine to fives are no good. Check me, I’m gonna be someone without jobs and shit like that.”
Beshar just shook his head. He didn’t get it.
Mahmud’d known it already when he and Babak’d shoplifted their first candy bars. He could feel it in his whole body when they juxed seventh graders for cell phones in the hallway and when he blazed his first spliff in the schoolyard. He wasn’t made for any other life. He’d never get on his knees. Not for the parole people. Not for Gürhan. Not for anyone in Sven Sweden.
Twenty-five minutes later, a ways into the first fight, showtime: Stefanovic slid into the seat next to him. They didn’t shake hands, the dude didn’t even turn around. Instead he said, “Glad you could make it.”
Mahmud kept watching the fight. Didn’t know if he should turn to Stefanovic or if they were supposed to take care of the talk on the DL.
“Course. When you guys ask, you come. Right?”
They sat silently in the din.
Now and then Stefanovic turned to a guy sitting on his other side. Mahmud knew who it was: Ratko. He rolled with another huge Yugo, Mrado, who Mahmud used to hang with before he got locked up. It was damn shifty, those guys always said hi to Mahmud when they ran into each other at the gym, but here they didn’t move a muscle. Normally, Mahmud didn’t tolerate shit like that. But today he needed the Yugos.
Mahmud checked the place out. The Solna Sports Center: probably four thousand people rubbing elbows in the bleachers. Bodybuilding dudes—he said hi to some of them—young blattes with too much juice in their bodies and gel in their hair, combat sport freaks who loved the smell of blood. Cheaper versions of himself—he loved that he wasn’t sitting up there with them. Ringside, another style ruled. More suits, more glamour, more expensive Cartier watches. Older, calmer, more respectable. Stirred into the mix: twenty-five year old honeys with tight, low-cut tops and highlighted hair. Somber bodyguards and underlings. Mahmud hoped he’d be spared running into anyone from Gürhan’s gang.
The spotlights lit up every fighter that entered the ring. On one short side: the fighters’ national flags, size XL, on the wall. On the other: the K1 logo and the full name of the competition written across a banner: Master’s Cup—Rumble of the Beasts. Speakers blazoned out the guys’ names, their clubs, and nationalities. 50 Cent on max volume between fights. During breaks, babes with fake tits, hot pants, and tight t-shirts with ads on them held up signs with the number of the next round. Shook their booties as they sashayed around the ring—the crowd howled louder than at knockout.
The emcee of the night was standing in the ring, his soaring mood cranked up to max: Jon Fagert—full-contact legend, now a suit-clad combat sport lobbyist.
“Ladies and gentlemen, tonight is the night we’ve all been waiting for. The night when true sportsmanship, tough training, and, above all, bone-hard spirit decides the fights. Our first real title game tonight is within K1 Max. As you all probably know, the competitors are not allowed to weigh over one hundred and fifty-four pounds within this sub-class to K1. Let me welcome two fighters into the ring who have solid successes behind them. One is the winner of the Dutch Thai Boxing Society’s national tour three years in a row. He’s got nasty speed, feared backward kicks, and famous right jabs. The other is a legendary Vale Tudo fighter with more than twenty knockouts to his name. Ernesto Fuentes from Club Muay One in Amsterdam against Mark Mikhaleusco from NHB Fighter’s Gym in Bucharest—please welcome them up!”
In the middle of the applause Stefanovic said something straight out into the air, as if he were talking to himself, “That fairy up there, Jon Fagert. He’s a clown. Did you know that?”
Mahmud followed suit—Stefanovic didn’t want the whole arena to see that they were talking, of course. He watched how Ernesto Fuentes and Mark Mikhaleusco stretched one final time before the fight. Then he answered, speaking straight out into the air, “Why?”
“He doesn’t understand who picks up the tab for this whole spectacle. He thinks it’s some kind of charity. But even a player like that’s gotta understand that if you put dough in, you want bread back. Right?”
Mahmud wasn’t really listening, just nodded along.
Stefanovic continued, “We’ve built up this business. You with me? The gym where you work out, Pancrease, HBS Haninge Fighting School, and the other joints. We recruit good people from there. Make sure that guy up there and the other enthusiasts can have their fun. Did you put any money down, by the way?”
The discussion was weird. They could’ve been buzzing about anything. Stefanovic had his poker face on. The entire time: ice cold.
Mahmud responded: “No, who’s hottest?”
“The Dutch guy, I put forty Gs on the Dutch guy. He’s got dynamite in his fists.”
The audience was taut, like thousands of rubber bands ready to snap. The fight began.
Mahmud wasn’t completely green. He watched fights on Eurosport sometimes. Regular sports didn’t interest him, he didn’t get anything out of it. But watching the fights on TV gave him adrenaline.
The Romanian had blinding technique, speed, timing, and footwork. Sick round kicks and jump kicks à la Bruce Lee. Punch sequences fast like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. World class blocking. No doubt about it—Stefanovic was gonna lose his dough.
The Romanian maintained the upper hand through the end of the first round.
The music switched on: gangster rap on max. The coaches dabbed the fighters’ faces. Rubbed Vaseline on them so the punches would slide off easier. A chick swung her cheeks diagonally across the ring. Held up a sign with the number two on it.
The gong sounded. The fighters stepped back into the ring. Sized each other up for a few seconds. Then all hell broke loose. The Romanian continued to impress. Landed a perfect round kick in Fuentes’s head. The guy sank to his knees. The judge counted off.
The audience roared.
The Dutch man’s saliva: like a spider’s thread from his mouth down to the floor.
Mahmud’d seen a lot of fights in his life. But this—perfection.
Fuentes stood up. Slowly.
The audience howled.
A few seconds left of the second round. The punches echoed. The Romanian tried to get three punches in. The Dutch guy lowered his chin, raised both gloves in front of his face. Successful block.
Mahmud glanced at Stefanovic. The Yugo’s face was rigid like a rock. No sign of panic about his forty Gs that were about to be flushed down the toilet.
The third round began.
Something’d happened. It was like the Romanian was kicking in slow motion. Looked tired. But Mahmud was watching closer up than most—the guy wasn’t even out of breath. This had to be rigged. Was that really possible? Massive advantage two minutes ago, and now it looked like he was the one who’d almost been down for the count. Someone ought to react.
Slowly but surely, Fuentes took over the fight. Heavy punches, low kicks, and rapid kicks to the head. The Romanian fought like a girl. Retreated ringside at every advance. Waved his arms in front of his face without even touching the Dutch man on the nose.
It was stupid. Felt like an American WWE fight. Fake.
The rounds passed by one by one. The dudes in the ring grew more tired.
Mahmud almost laughed. Even if it was a rigged fight, Stefanovic was gonna get rich—and his boss, R, would probably get even richer.
The gong sounded. The fight was over. The Romanian was barely standing. The judge grabbed hold of their gloves.
Raised Ernesto Fuentes’s arm.
For the first time, Stefanovic turned to Mahmud. A smile barely flickered across his lips—but his eyes glowed like embers.
“Okay, soon we’ll talk business. The next fight is going to be huge. I promise, they’re giants, he-men. It’s what everyone’s here to see. The audience is going to be in ecstacy. Deafening support for the Swedish guy. That’s when we’ll talk. When everyone’s attention is directed at the ring and no one can hear us. You follow?”
Mahmud followed. Soon, he’ll get his chance. If only the Gürhan fag knew. Mahmud was about to cut a deal with the Yugos.
A half hour later: it was time again. Mahmud was in his seat, waiting. During the intermission, he’d walked around. Said hi to people he knew, buzzed with the guys from the gym. People were happy to see him out. “Welcome back, Twiggy. Now it’s time to get cracking and bulk up again.” They were right—the slammer was no place to work out. It should be perfect: lots of time, no booze, no unhealthy food. But you couldn’t sneak any juice in there, you couldn’t even buy dietary supplements in the prison commissary. Plus: the gym at Asptuna sucked. But the biggest difference was that it just wasn’t the same thing on the inside. The pen sucked you dry. Mahmud’d lost forty-four lbs.
The Yugos were the right move for him. He wanted up—was going up. Six months in the pen couldn’t stop him. Not a chance he’d let himself get benched. And anyone who wanted up knew one thing: sooner or later you have to deal with R—so you might as well do it on sweet terms. Play on the same team as the Yugo boss. Mahmud: the Arab they couldn’t gyp, the man who went his own way. This was soooo right. He just wondered what it was they wanted him to do.
Radovan came walking down a set of stairs. Trailed by a posse. Mahmud recognized a few of them: Stefanovic, of course. Goran: known as the city’s booze and smokes smuggling king. The Ratko dude. A couple other beefy guys he recognized from the gym. A trail of skanks.
Stefanovic sat down next to Mahmud again.
Jon Fagert stepped into the ring. Looked out over the sea of people. Silence settled.
“Honored guests. Today is a big day. One of the two men who are soon going to go head to head in the ring will advance. Not just to anything. Not to yet another championship fight in their individual genre. No, on to something much bigger. To the ultimate championship for the sport of sports. What I’m taking about, of course, is the K1 championship in the Tokyo Dome in December, where more than one hundred thousand people will be in the audience. First prize is over five hundred thousand dollars. One man will advance tonight. One man is strong enough. One man has the best fighting spirit. Soon, we’ll know which one.”
Smoke billowed out beside two entrances to the ring.
One silhouette appeared at each end.
The music played the soundtrack to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Fagert raised the volume: “Ladies and gentleman, I have the honor of introducing two giants. From Russia, straight from Moscow’s Rude Academy, we have the former Spetsnaz soldier with more than twenty K1 championships to his name. The man with the iron fists, the beast, the death machine, the legend: Vitali Akhramenko.”
The audience roared.
One of the silhouettes moved forward. Took a step out from the smoky fog. The spotlights followed his heavy steps. The feeling: like a God who made an entrance in the valley of death.
He was the biggest human being Mahmud’d ever seen, and Mahmud worked out at Fitness Center. Over seven feet tall. Defined muscles like on a comic book figure. Chest wide as a sumo wrestler. Biceps broader than Mahmud’s thighs.
Jon Fagert continued, making himself heard over the music: “And in the other corner we have a Swedish super fighter, straight from HBS Haninge Fighting School with over ten knockouts to his name. The power house, the tank, the fighting God, our very own Jörgen Ståhl.”
The atmosphere felt like a heavy metal concert. The music pounded. The spotlights played. Jon Fagert’s eyes flashed. The little punks in the bleachers were in ecstacy.
Jörgen Ståhl advanced slowly. Allowed the cheering to build gradually. Dressed in a cape with the HBS logo on the back. Black tribal tattoos covered almost his entire upper body. On one forearm in black inked letters: Ståhl is King. Mahmud thought about Gürhan’s tattoo.
Stefanovic opened his mouth, kept his eyes on the ring.
“People are crazed. A couple punches and some blood and those kids up in the bleachers think it’s a world war. They know nothing. Did you bet, by the way?”
“Didn’t bet last time, didn’t bet this time. But it seems like you cashed in.”
“That’s right. This time, I’ve put in one hundred large. On the Russian. He’s an animal, I swear. This could be epic. What do you think?”
Mahmud thought: Is Stefanovic trying to make me insecure? He’s ending every sentence with a stupid question.
“I don’t really think anything about it. You seem to know what you’re doing.”
“Listen, the Russian is a three hundred pound old man, but he’s got the technique of a two hundred pound kid. And speed isn’t the only thing deciding this—timing is even more important. You’ll see. He’s going to let all hell break loose on that Swede. Course, we’ve got a hunch about it, too.”
Mahmud wondered when Stefanovic was gonna get to the point.
The fight began up in the ring. Akhramenko tried to land a left uppercut on Ståhl. The Swede blocked good. This was like heavy weight boxing but with low kicks to the legs.
“Mahmud, we trust you. Do you know what that means?”
Yet another question. Might be the beginning of the real talk they were supposed to have.
“You can trust me. Even if I hung out with Mrado, I know he made some trouble for you guys. And even if I’m not a Serb. You use Arabs. Our people don’t have anything against one another here.”
“That’s right. Maybe you already know one of them, Abdulkarim. He’s out of the game right now, but you can’t find a better man. Are you like him?”
“Like I said, you can trust me.”
“That’s not enough. We need men who are one hundred and fifty percent loyal. It happens that we bet on the wrong fighters, so to speak.”
Mahmud knew what he was talking about—everyone knew. Lately there’d been a lot of shit going down in Stockholm’s underworld. That kind of thing happened: someone thought they’d be the new king of the hill, someone wanted to challenge the boys at the top, someone’s honor got stepped on. There were plenty of examples. The war between the Albanians and the Original Gangsters, the shooting out in the Västberga cold storage facility between different factions within the Yugo mafia, the executions in Vällingby last month.
Up in the ring, Ståhl was landing a series of kicks to the Russian’s calves and quick alternating punches to his head. Maybe the Sven was gonna take it home after all.
Stefanovic continued, “You could be our man. To see if you make the cut, I’d like to ask you for a little favor. Listen carefully.”
Mahmud didn’t turn around. Continued to eye the fight. The first round ended. The Swede was bleeding near the eyebrow.
“Have you heard about the hit against Arlanda Airport? It went smooth but still to hell. We’d planned it just as well as we always do. I think you know what I mean. Had the guards in our pockets. Knew the routines, the surveillance cameras, when the delivery of bills would arrive, the emergency exits, the escape routes, the exchangeable cars, caltrops, everything. There were four guys on the team, two of ours and two from your side of town, North Botkyrka. Three went into the grounds at Arlanda, into the storage area where the gear was stashed. One stayed outside. Everything went according to plan. When they’d driven the bags out on the pallet to the getaway car, they were met by the guy who’d waited outside, dude number four. With gun in hand. Pointed at them. You follow?”
“You got done.”
“We got done right up the ass. Hard. There were bills for more than forty-five million. And that dude, he took it all. Had the other three dump the crap in the car. Then he split.”
“You’re kidding? Who’s the guy?”
It took a while for Stefanovic to answer. Ståhl and the Russian were dancing around each other slowly. The Russian looked tired. Ståhl bounced away as though he knew how Akhramenko was gonna hit. Blocked. Ducked. In the zone, working it. Ståhl almost got a knee in. The judge broke it up. Sent them back to their positions.
“The guy’s name is Wisam Jibril. Lebanese. Heavy on CIT gigs. Remember him? Somewhat of a guru in your crowd, I think. He’s been missing since the Arlanda hit. Pronounced dead in the tsunami catastrophe a few years ago, just like so many others made sure to be. With forty-five of Radovan’s millions.”
Suddenly it was obvious why they’d chosen him. Wisam Jibril: one of Mahmud’s Gods growing up. Three years older. Went to the same school. From the same hood. Same gang. And his dad’d known Wisam’s mom, too. It’s as if they were asking him to rat out family. Fuck.
Still he heard himself say, “What makes you think I can find him?”
“We think he’s back in Sweden. People’ve seen him around town. But he knows we’re not happy. No one seems to know where he lives. He’s careful. Never goes out alone. Hasn’t even been in touch with his family, at least not as far as we know.”
Stefanovic let the words hang in the air for a second. Then he hissed, “Find him.”
Up in the ring, the giants were going at it. Ståhl was alternating between feeding upper cuts and jabs. The Russian’s guard was gradually being lowered. His head hung, he seemed unfocused. After two minutes: bam. The Swede landed a brutal power punch. The Russian bounced against the ropes. Ståhl went in close. Grabbed Akhramenko’s neck. Pressed the giant down. Kneed him with full force. The sound of something cracking in the Russian’s jaw. The mouth guard went flying. A brief second: silence in the arena. Then the Russian sank down to the mat.
Mahumud’s thoughts were in mad tumult. First and foremost: the offer from the Yugos was in many ways an easy gig. To find a dude like Wisam couldn’t be impossible, if he was in Stockholm. At the same time: the guy was a family friend. The guy was from his hood, an Arab. What did that say about Mahmud’s honor? At the same time: he needed this more than ever. With the debt to Gürhan. And his own honor to win back.
Stefanovic got up. The man’d just lost a hundred Gs. Maybe there was still some clean sport left—the Yugos didn’t seem to control everything in this city, after all. Mahmud eyed his face. Completely expressionless.
Stefanovic turned to him.
“Call me when you’re done thinking. By Monday.”
Then he left.
Excerpted from Never Fuck Up by Jens Lapidus. Copyright © 2013 by Jens Lapidus. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Jens Lapidus is a criminal defense lawyer who represents some of Sweden’s most notorious underworld criminals. He lives in Stockholm with his wife.