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The Drowned Girl (previously published as Only One Life)
By Sara Blaedel
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It’s clearly no ordinary drowning. When a young girl is pulled from the watery depths, a piece of concrete tied around her waist and two mysterious circular patches on the back of her neck, Detective Louise Rick is immediately called out to Holbaek Fjord.
Her name was Samra, and when the police learn that she was a member of Holbaek’s sizeable Muslim immigrant community, they immediately assume it was an honor killing. Yet her mother insists Samra had done nothing dishonorable. Louise must navigate the complex web of family and community ties in the small town’s tightly knit Muslim community as she hunts a killer . . . before he strikes again.
Thriller master Sara Blaedel is in top form as Louise takes on what may be her most important-and most deadly-case yet.
When women are seen as the carriers of a family’s honor they become vulnerable to attacks involving physical violence, mutilation and even murder, usually at the hand of an “offended” male kin and often with the tacit or explicit assent of female relatives.
—Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Opinion Piece for International Women’s Day: Honor Killing and Domestic Violence,” March 2010
An honor killing is the murder of a family member due to the belief that the victim has brought dishonor upon the family.
The United Nations Population Fund estimates that perhaps as many as five thousand women and girls a year are killed by members of their own families. Many women’s groups in the Middle East and Southwest Asia suspect the number of victims is about four times greater.
The perceived dishonor can be the result of dressing in a manner unacceptable to the family or community, wanting to end or prevent an arranged marriage, engaging in heterosexual acts outside marriage, or engaging in homosexual acts, among other things.
The most famous honor killing case in Denmark was that of Ghazala Khan, a nineteen-year-old woman who was shot and killed outside a train station in Slagelse, west of Copenhagen, in 2005 because her family disapproved of her choice of a husband. Nine people, including her father, brother, three uncles, an aunt, and two family friends, were convicted of murder or accessory to murder in this case.
She could just make out the blue flashes of light between the dense tree trunks, but she couldn’t see how many police vehicles were at the scene. The forest road was bumpy, with stacks of lumber on either side blocking out the bright morning light.
Søren Velin sped up, shooting small rocks against the undercarriage of the car, which skidded a little whenever the road turned. They waved him through the police blockade, and he parked next to one of the squad cars.
Louise Rick got out. The road ended at a small cliff where a narrow path led down to the bay, which extended smooth and calm across the sound to the tree-lined shore of Orø island in the distance. From here, Louise didn’t recognize any of the men huddled at the edge of the bluff, so she grabbed her jacket from the backseat and waited for Søren to lead the way.
A dark-haired, powerfully built man came up to greet them. “A fisherman found her,” he explained, walking past Søren to offer his hand to Louise.
“Storm,” he said. “I’m grateful you were willing to help us out.” Louise shook his hand and smiled. Storm was the captain of the Unit One Mobile Task Force with the Danish National Police, and he knew as well as she did that willingness had nothing to do with why she was out here, on the shore of the sound just north of Holbæk an hour west of Copenhagen. Higher-ups had made the decision before she was even asked, and they had just been lucky that she was in fact willing to help.
“We still don’t know how long she’s been in the water,” Storm continued as the three of them headed back toward the bluff. “The fisherman notified Holbæk Police this morning at eight thirty-five, saying he had spotted a motionless figure in the water. The girl had a heavy concrete paving slab tied to her torso, which kept her submerged under about four and a half feet of water, stuck in an old fishing net. The fisherman gave up trying to get her loose with his oar and called the police, who showed up along with an ambulance. The Falck Rescue Squad just finished recovering the body.”
Louise watched the search-and-rescue van’s trailer for the rubber raft that they had used to recover the girl. One diver had gone into the water to cut her free, then passed her off to the other diver, who had hoisted her up into the raft. Now they were loading the rescue raft back onto the trailer. Louise walked all the way over to the edge of the bluff and saw the white sheet covering the dead girl’s body and the crime scene technicians in their coveralls busy combing the shore for evidence.
“The local police have cordoned off the site, and as you can see the CSI techs are already at work,” Storm continued. “But we’re still waiting for a couple more cars.”
When they reached the others, he introduced each of them in turn. “That’s Bengtsen; he’s been with Holbæk’s major crime squad since before anyone can remember,” he said with obvious respect. “He knows everything worth knowing about Holbæk and the people who live here.”
Bengtsen nodded at her, but kept his hands in the pockets of his tweed trousers.
Storm stepped over to a man with an olive complexion. “Dean Vukić,” he said. The man shook hands with Louise. There was something hypercorrect about his well-dressed style, the shirt and tie under his leather jacket making him look more like a banker than a detective.
Another man offered his hand to Louise. “Mik Rasmussen,” he said. Like Vukić and Louise herself, Mik was in his mid- to late thirties.
“Louise Rick,” she replied. Out of habit she almost added Department A, but caught herself. Instead she quickly took in the new faces. It was quite a small group, and she wondered how she would fare at finding her place in this pack.
* * *
After the briefing that morning back at Copenhagen Police Headquarters with Department A—her homicide investigation unit—Captain Hans Suhr had opened the door to the office that Louise shared with her partner, Lars Jørgensen. Louise had just set her tea mug on her desk and was asking her partner about his adopted twins, who were home sick with the flu, when Suhr interrupted to tell her that her former partner Søren Velin was on his way to pick her up.
“Starting today you’ve been temporarily reassigned to the Unit One Mobile Task Force with the National Police,” he said, already on his way back out the door.
Louise quickly jumped to her feet and stopped him in the hall, wanting to know why she was being reassigned. Suhr’s response was curt and clear: because she was deeply familiar with cases like this one. Then he hurried off.
Louise went back to her office and took a sip of her tea, shaking her head in response to her partner’s raised eyebrows to indicate that Suhr hadn’t given her anything to go on.
“Rape, I’m assuming,” she said on her way out the door with her bag over her shoulder, telling Lars she hoped his twins felt better soon. It was only later, when she was sitting in the car next to Søren Velin and heading out toward Cape Tuse—more specifically, a nature preserve out there with the unusual name of Hønsehalsen, “the Chicken Neck”—that she realized she had misunderstood her boss.
“I have no idea whether rape was involved,” her former partner told her. “But it looks like the girl is from an immigrant background, and my understanding is that that’s why Storm really wanted you on this case.”
Louise sighed. She had just wrapped up a case like this, and she was still having such a difficult time letting go of it that she was considering seeing one of the police psychologists at the Counseling Services Unit to avoid any permanent trauma. As a young officer she had always struggled whenever she was confronted with people’s personal tragedies, and she had worked hard to learn how to handle this. Even so, she still sometimes found herself succumbing again. That’s what had happened with her last case, an attempted “honor killing.” It had ended with a charge of aggravated assault, but Louise and the rest of her investigative team had absolutely no doubt that certain members of that family had actually intended to kill the sixteen-year-old girl, but had botched the job. Now their eldest daughter was a vegetable in the neurology department of Rigshospitalet, the National Hospital in downtown Copenhagen.
* * *
“She was floating on her stomach,” Storm explained, pointing to a spot on their right not far out into the sound. “We don’t know who she is, but we think she’s between fourteen and sixteen years old, give or take. She didn’t have a purse or any type of ID on her.”
“The canine unit is on its way. We’ll see whether they can find anything that could identify her,” Bengtsen reported, coming over to stand next to the Mobile Task Force captain. “We can probably assume she was thrown into the water from a boat,” he continued, both hands still in his pockets, his eyes scanning the water. “It’s too deep here for anyone to have carried her out. A slab of concrete like that weighs a lot.”
Louise heard car doors slam shut and saw a blue van now parked next to the other vehicles and two men putting on their work clothes. She recognized one of them as Frandsen, head of Copenhagen’s Forensics Division, which had just been renamed the Forensics Center. She walked over to say hi. Frandsen had recently turned sixty, and the Forensics Center had thrown a big reception for him at their offices on Slotsherrensvej, in Copenhagen’s Vanløse district. Louise had given him a little pipe holder carved out of mahogany for the pipe he always carried with him even though she had never seen him light it in all the years she’d known him. Whenever Frandsen pulled the pipe out of his pocket and stuck it in his mouth, she knew it meant he was concentrating.
“I guess we’re back in business,” Frandsen said, pulling a large wooden box out of the back of the vehicle. “And here I was just getting a taste for the golden years.”
Instead of throwing a big birthday party for the family, Frandsen and his wife had chosen to spend two weeks in Thailand on vacation. They must have just gotten back, Louise thought. She smiled because he hadn’t spent even a second wondering what she was doing at a crime scene so far from Copenhagen, a sure sign that he was wholly focused on the task at hand.
After he got all his equipment together, he followed his team out to the bluff, and Louise walked over to the people standing with Dean and Mik. They had just gotten back from talking to a woman who’d been out walking her dog.
“Nothin’,” Dean said. “She lives on a farm right around here and takes her dog on walks through these woods twice a day.”
A big, black Citroën rolled up. “It’s Skipper,” Søren said, waving at the car.
Louise had heard of him over the years. He was a fixture at the Mobile Task Force and National Police, and he had a reputation for unparalleled skill with crime scene investigation and details. She could hear the muffled sound of music booming behind the closed windows of his car. Looks like Søren was right, Louise thought. On their way out here, he had told her about Skipper’s enormous passion for jazz fusion, which stood in stark contrast with his understated sweater, proper Windsor knot, and otherwise distinguished and reserved appearance—including his neatly groomed gray hair, which was combed back in a soft wave.
After Louise introduced herself to Skipper, Søren added that she had been his partner before he joined the Mobile Task Force.
“Well then, I’m sure we can’t get anyone better,” Skipper said with a warm smile. “Glad to have you with us.”
“Thank you,” she said, wondering what Søren had told him. She watched Søren as he spoke to two of the local uniforms. He had been with Department A homicide at the Copenhagen PD for a while when Louise was offered her job there, and they had enjoyed a really good working relationship for a couple of years before he moved to his current job.
The CSI techs were working on the bluff and at the edge of the water. Since she had been in the water, there would be hardly any traces of DNA left on the girl, but they were taking thorough photographs of the body and scene and bagging items from along the shore. Two men were focusing exclusively on finding footprints and tire prints. The coroner from Copenhagen had also arrived, Louise discovered—Flemming Larsen’s six-foot-six frame was impossible to miss. He was standing with his back to her as he balanced his bag on his knee to fish something out of it. When he turned around and caught sight of Louise, he set the bag down and walked toward her, his smile beaming.
“Does your being here mean this girl’s from Copenhagen?” he asked, surprised, giving her a hug that lasted a bit longer than Louise would have liked. She had worked with Flemming on many of her cases, and lately they had also been seeing each other a little outside of working hours, but no one else needed to know that.
“They sent me out here to assist the Mobile Task Force,” she replied.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said, still smiling. “I didn’t think Suhr and the rest of Department A could spare you. Is it permanent?”
“It’s just for this case— I’ll think they’ll manage,” she answered, thinking that the only person at Copenhagen PD who seemed to have a problem with her working with the Mobile Task Force was Michael Stig. But that was probably just because he thought they should have picked him.
“Good luck, and give me a call some night when you’ve got time to go out and have a glass of wine.” He walked over to pick up his bag as Frandsen returned from the shore, announcing that the coroner could proceed with his in-situ examination of the body.
Louise followed him to the bluff and watched as Flemming removed the sheet and squatted next to the girl. She was lying on her back on the black, wet shore of the sound, her eyes closed, and the slab of concrete still tied to her stomach.
Her long-sleeved T-shirt and lightweight beige jacket had slipped off, revealing how the rope had dug into her skin. Her long dark hair was plastered to her face like yarn; the coroner carefully pushed it to the side. Then he started his examination of the body.
Louise listened in as he reported to Skipper, who had appeared at his side with a notebook to record keywords.
“Unidentified woman found a short time ago,” Flemming started, focusing initially on the face. “No petechiae in the conjunctiva or surrounding the eyes. Around the abdominal region a”—he studied the rope—“blue nylon rope is visible, approximately three to four yards in length tied with a square knot with one end wrapped around the subject’s waist and the other around a concrete paving stone measuring sixteen by sixteen inches. Livor mortis visible on the abdomen, which does not disappear when pressure is applied, meaning the victim has been dead for at least four to five hours. Rectal body temperature is eighty-one degrees, and the water temperature is sixty-two,” he said.
“What do you think about the cause of death—did she drown? And how long has she been here?” Skipper asked, stepping closer.
Flemming stood up and crossed his arms as he contemplated the girl on the ground. Then he shook his head.
“I can’t tell how she died. There are no signs of force, but I don’t think she was breathing when she was put in the water. Otherwise she’d have foam both in her mouth and around it. Still, that may have washed off. The petechiae are sparse and reddish; she has goose bumps over her entire body, which we often see in individuals who have been in water. And there is pronounced wrinkling on the fingers, palms, toes, and soles—but that shows up only after a few hours.”
He concluded by saying that, judging from the rigor mortis, petechiae, and body temperature, he would tentatively estimate the girl had been dead somewhere between nine and fifteen hours.
“When can we get her autopsied?” Skipper asked, waving Storm over.
Flemming looked at his watch and then at the two men. “We can get started at one o’clock, provided you can get Falck Rescue to dispatch their bone bus out here that fast,” he said darkly.
The bone bus. Louise shook her head. The nickname for the ambulance with covered windows had stuck. In some cases, it made literal sense, but in others—like this one—it was jarring.
They put the girl into a white plastic body bag, and she was ready for transport to the forensics lab. It felt impersonal and cold for someone whose identity they didn’t even know. For a moment Louise had an urge to ride along with the girl so she wouldn’t have to make the trip alone, but the bone bus wasn’t like an ordinary ambulance with a seat for a family member. It was stripped bare so there was room only for two stretchers and a large exhaust fan in the ceiling.
After the coroner left, Storm headed for the vehicles to drive back to Holbæk PD Headquarters. “That means she might have been in the water since midnight,” he said, opening the door of his car. “Let’s get going.”
Louise took one last look at the scene before climbing in next to Søren, and they drove back along the forest road.
Holbæk Police Department was headquartered in an elegant, old-fashioned building of red brick with white window trim, making it look both impressive and well maintained. Louise followed Storm as he led them up one hallway and down another before reaching the Criminal Investigation Division. The offices were arranged in a row—some detectives shared, while others, like Bengtsen, had their own. His was a corner office with windows facing both the front of the police station and the large green lawn and pond at the end of the building. By contrast, Mik Rasmussen and Dean Vukić shared a smaller, darker office where there wasn’t room for much other than desks and bookshelves.
Louise had a hard time imagining how they were going to find any room for the extra help they had called in. Earlier Søren had told her about a case in which they had squeezed in an extra detective at a little elementary-school-style desk out in the hallway, and another case in which they kept moving a detective around. But just as she began to worry, her old partner emerged from an empty office. He ran his hand through his longish blond hair as he looked at the weekend bag and two computer bags he had set down on the floor in front of him.
“Are you moving in?” she asked, walking over to him.
“It’d probably be smarter to wait until we know who we’ll be working with, but it’d be nice to have a proper place to sit,” he said. At that moment Storm stuck his head out a door at the end of the corridor.
“Everybody’s meeting in here,” he called, waving for them to join him.
They entered what must have been the division’s conference room. Louise guessed this was likely where the Criminal Investigation Division normally held their morning briefings. The walls were painted a warm yellow reminiscent of a child’s drawing, with the sun a little too heavy and saturated with color—over the top for a small room, but the light from the tall windows compensated for the cramped feel. In front of one window they had a large whiteboard set up similar to the one in the briefing room at the Copenhagen PD, with bits of blue and green lines that the eraser had missed. On another wall there was a large dry-erase calendar next to an enlarged map of the area around Holbæk. Someone had decorated the opposite wall by tacking up a Matisse print, and an overhead projector was tucked away in the corner behind the door. Louise sat next to Søren, grabbing one of the lined legal pads stacked on the table with a few pens, which must have been left over from a previous meeting.
“I think he’s going to split Mik and Dean up, and you’ll get partnered with one of them,” Søren whispered to her.
Louise looked at both of them. One would be just as good as the other. It was standard procedure to form teams by mixing local and backup officers. She had also quickly determined that she was the only woman in the group, so it might well be that the local boys were sitting here wondering about their prospects of being partnered with her. She had heard stories about local police officers calling in sick because they felt invaded when officers suddenly showed up from the Mobile Task Force and started screwing with their routines.
Her thoughts were interrupted when Storm started speaking.
“Nobody has reported the girl missing, so we’ve put out notices to all police districts about the discovery, and we’ll be going to the press with a missing person report,” he said, opening the meeting. “Without a photo, initially,” he added. “We’ll stick to describing just the clothes she was wearing when she was found. If that doesn’t turn anything up, we’ll have to release one of the forensic pictures. We just don’t want to risk her parents’ finding out that way.” Several people in the room shook their heads. “We’ll set up three teams…”
At that moment the door opened, and a woman with elegant orange hair and red lips came in with a bag over her shoulder and a laptop under her arm.
“Hi,” she said, smiling.
“Ruth Lange,” said Storm, gesturing toward her. “Ruth is our administrative assistant.”
Warm hellos filled the room.
“Ruth and I will hold down the command center, which will be here in this conference room,” Storm said.
“The teams are as follows,” he continued, once Ruth had set her things on the table and taken a seat. He looked around the room. The local officers were sitting next to each other. Louise was sitting next to Søren, who stood out in his cargo pants and black turtleneck. Skipper was to her left.
“Skipper and Dean,” said Storm, “you two are responsible for the site where the body was found. In other words, all of the technical evidence.”
The two men smiled and nodded to each other.
“Louise Rick and”—he looked down at his papers—“Mik Rasmussen. We’re putting you two together to identify her family and social circle. We’ve got to find out what the motive might be. Rick has some experience working with ethnic minorities,” he continued. Louise furrowed her brow. She wouldn’t have gone that far, but she wasn’t going to correct Storm right now.
“Bengtsen, you and Søren will handle telecommunications and question potential witnesses in the area.”
Bengtsen set his pad on the table and nodded in satisfaction. Louise guessed it was probably more the telecommunications and any subsequent wiretapping that he was happy about and not working with Søren, because she had noticed Bengtsen sizing up her former partner. They would make an odd couple, Bengtsen with his tweed and corduroy and Søren with his casual style.
People started talking a little across the table, especially Skipper and Dean who seemed quite happy to be working together. Louise smiled at her newly assigned partner, who quickly looked down after having given her a brief nod.
Storm told everyone to quiet down and took control of the meeting again.
“We don’t know anything about the victim. Flemming thinks she was dead before she was placed in the water, but he can’t say with any certainty, so we’ll need to wait for the autopsy.”
Storm got up and pointed at Louise and Mik.
“You two will attend the autopsy. I just got off the phone with Frandsen—the head of the Forensics Center in Copenhagen,” he said. “He’ll make sure one of his people is ready around one o’clock so the autopsy can get started on time.”
Bengtsen nodded his head.
Louise stood up as Storm gestured at the door.
“I’ve put in a request for an official car for you,” he told Louise. “You can pick it up when you’re done with the autopsy. And Ruth will make sure to get you set up with your own laptops.”
She gave him a questioning look at his use of the plural.
“One laptop for our secure internal network and intranet, and one for external access,” he explained.
Of course they work on two computers, she quickly thought. The Mobile Task Force operated on a heavily firewalled secure police network, but they naturally also had access to the Internet and an open email system. The laptops would be some of the new gear suddenly available to her.
“You’ll also get one of our cell phones, but keep your own with you so ours isn’t busy when we need to reach you.”
As though that’s going to be a problem, she thought, but she just nodded.
- On Sale
- Dec 24, 2018
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Grand Central Publishing