The Assignment

A/N: What would happen if things had worked out differently for Stefan in the first Wallander series? Although I've explored this subject before, having watched The Secret again I wanted to try another Alternative Reality fic, in which Stefan is able to deal with his problems, instead of being overcome by them. To this end, the story starts with him being sent on a special assignment...

Chapter One

Stones taught me to fly
Love taught me to lie
Life taught me to die
So it's not hard to fall
When you float like a cannonball - Damien Rice

Stuffy, the air in the office. Stefan fidgeted, rolled up his sweater sleeves, gazed at a fixed point somewhere in the middle distance. His discomfort was evident to the man sitting opposite, but did nothing to dissuade him from his attempted interrogation.

"What the hell is up with you, Stefan?" Wallander's face was white and tight-lipped.

"Nothing's up." Stefan dragged his gaze to his boss's face and looked him uncomfortably in the eye. He folded his arms and dropped his gaze to the floor. "Nothing's wrong with me."

"Really? So losing your temper with a witness and having to be restrained by your colleagues is perfectly normal, is it? Disappearing off on your own for hours in the middle of the day without a word to anyone? Picking an argument with Lisa? All this is completely reasonable behaviour?" Wallander's eyes bored into him. Stefan's mouth was completely dry, but he swallowed anyway. He was aware of his fingernails digging into the palms of his hands.

"Look, it's nothing, I just…"

"You've just picked up too many bad habits from Frank Borg, that's what! Look, Stefan," Wallander's voice dropped, his tone becoming calmer and more conciliatory. "I know you shot a man in self-defence." Stefan's eyes closed and he gave an involuntary shudder. Wallander continued, apparently oblivious. "It's hard to deal with, I of all people should know. But it doesn't give you an excuse to go off the rails or start behaving like Frank. I will not have that kind of behaviour in my team."

"So what are you going to do?" Stefan could hear the anxiety in his own voice. He felt like a condemned man all of a sudden, and Wallander was judge, jury and executioner.

Wallander sat back and rested his hands on his desk.

"You need a break, Stefan."

"No I don't, I need to work. I can't sit around all day staring at the walls. I need to do my job!" He stopped, aware that he was shouting again.

"You need a break," Wallander repeated. "A change of scenery will do you a lot of good. Which is why I've decided to send you out on secondment."

"Secondment? What the hell are you talking about?"

"Our colleagues in Växjö have a case that they need some help with. Their squad is a little thin on the ground at the moment and they could use another detective for a while."

"Not a chance!" Stefan pushed his chair away from the desk and made to leave.

"Well it's your choice." Wallander's voice suddenly had a hard edge. "You can take this assignment I'm giving you, which will hopefully keep you out of trouble for a little while, or you can go on leave. For God's sake, Stefan, I'm trying to help you." Wallander dropped a file onto the desk and stared at Stefan for a moment or two.

"Take leave? No, I can't… I just…" His words petered out. The idea of enforced leave was horrifying. He needed to be busy, to fill his days with his work, otherwise...

Stefan sat down again and picked up the file.

"When do I have to start?"

The drive to Växjö had been uneventful. Stefan stepped from his car, stretched and yawned, staring up at the large, modern building in front of him. He rubbed the back of his neck. Why had he been sent here? It didn't look like the sort of place where the squad would be "thin on the ground", as Wallander had put it. And why would they send for an officer from a provincial force like Ystad?

The answer, he suspected, was that they wouldn't. He didn't like that thought. It meant that Wallander had forcibly got rid of him, offloaded him to another force. Only temporarily of course, but the idea still stung. Why did you send me all the way out here, Kurt? After all the cases we've worked do you really think you have to pack me off to this place so I don't cause you any more problems? He rubbed a hand across his unshaven face and trudged to the entrance.

A young uniformed officer was sitting behind the reception desk. He looked up as Stefan entered, and smiled.

"Yes? Can I help?"

"Stefan Lindman, from Ystad." Stefan reached for his badge and handed it to the young policeman, who looked at it with what seemed to be great interest.

"Oh yes, we've been expecting you, I think." He leafed through an untidy pile of papers, evidently in an attempt to find something with Stefan's name on it. For a brief moment Stefan was reminded of Svartman. He allowed his thoughts to wander to what his colleagues in Ystad might be doing at this minute. What was Linda doing? Did she miss him?

"I've been told to ask for an Inspector Solberg," he said, dragging his attention back to the here and now.

"That's right!" The young officer suddenly found the piece of paper he had been looking for, and looked back up at him with a satisfied smile. "She's on the first floor, room B17. Here, I'd better give you this." He handed Stefan a visitor's pass and pointed him to the stairs. Stefan nodded his thanks and began his ascent to the first floor. It had been a long, long time since he had met a cop this cheerful. He wondered how long that would last.

Compared to the station in Ystad the building was confusingly large. A corridor ran the length of the first floor, with numerous doors leading from it. A number of people were striding up and down the corridor, purposeful looks on their faces. They entered and exited various rooms, looking as if they knew exactly what they were doing. Nobody took any notice of Stefan. He searched for room B17, grateful that he was not the centre of attention. Being here reminded him of something, but it was a couple of minutes before he realised what it was. He had felt exactly the same lost feeling on his first day of high school.

Coming at last to room B17, he shook his head hard and forced his misgivings into the back of his mind, resolved to stay rational. Come on, keep it together, you should be good at that by now… He took a deep breath and knocked on the door.

"Come in!" somebody shouted.

He opened the door.

A bright and airy conference room, with large windows and two people sitting at a sizeable table. The woman at the head of the table looked up eagerly at him, while the stout middle-aged man who was sitting near the door pushed his chair back and stood up, rubbing his moustache, an enquiring look on his face.

"Stefan Lindman, from Ystad," volunteered Stefan.

The man nodded.

"Yes, we've been expecting you." They shook hands. "Martin Turesson, Chief Superintendent."

It was a surprise to Stefan to find the Chief sitting so casually with one of his officers. The officer in question, glanced at her chief, then stood and stretched across the table to shake Stefan's hand.

"Britta Solberg. You'll be working with me. Make yourself at home."

He had the dream again.

In spite of the change of scene. In spite of the evening spent with his new colleagues, having been persuaded by Chief Turesson to join them for a drink. In spite of everything.

During the past few weeks the dream had visited him with increasing frequency. He was loath to admit it to anyone, least of all Wallander, but he suspected that the stress of his waking life was taking its toll. Shootings, armed robberies, working on the wrong side of the law with Frank: they had all weakened his resistance, and now his past was catching up with him again.

He was running, as usual. The gun in his jacket pocket banged wildly against his side, but he had to keep running through the dark woods. More than anything he needed to get away from the man in the car, the man who was pursuing him, crashing through the undergrowth in his wake. As usual he never saw the barbed wire until it was too late. Stefan felt the spike rip into the skin of his forearm, and woke with a start. He was not in the forest, he was in bed in his hotel room in Växjö. He was not eleven years old, he was a grown man. Nobody was chasing after him, except perhaps his own personal ghosts.

Why wouldn't they leave him alone? After all this time why couldn't he empty his head of all this stuff?

Stefan got out of bed, glancing at the illuminated dial of the clock on the bedside table. 2:17 a.m. He rubbed his face wearily and went to the window. Leaning his forehead against the glass he looked out across Stortorget. The square, largely empty except for a couple of parked cars, seemed devoid of life. Opposite, the local council offices were in darkness. The whole of Växjö seemed to be asleep, except for him.

What am I doing here? He let his thoughts wander back to Ystad, and to Linda. Why the hell didn't he just get in the car and drive back, go straight to her with a bottle of wine and chase the nightmares away? But he knew it wouldn't work.

Sighing, he dismissed the idea from his head and got back into bed. His last thought before he slept was of Linda, and all the things he wished he could say to her.