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She could just make out the blue flashes between the densely grown tree trunks, but she couldn't see how many police vehicles were at the scene. The forest road was bumpy with enormous piles of firewood 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 bluff where a small path led down the last stretch to the water, which extended smooth and calm across the sound to the tree-lined shore of Oro Island in the distance. From here Louise didn't recognize any of the men in the huddle at the top of the bluff, so she grabbed her jacket out of the backseat and waited for Søren to lead the way.
"A fisherman found her," a dark-haired, powerfully built man who came to greet them explained. He walked past Søren and offered his hand to Louise.
"Storm," he said. "I'm glad 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, also 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 the Holbæk Police this morning at 8:35, saying he had spotted a motionless figure in the water. The girl had a heavy slab of concrete tied to her torso, which was keeping her submerged under about four and a half feet of water where the body was stuck in some chicken wire. 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 noticed the search-and-rescue van with its 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 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."
He interrupted his brief summary when they reached the others, and he introduced each of them in turn.
"That's Bengtsen; he's been with Holbæk's crime division 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 he kept his hands in the pockets of his tweed trousers.
Storm stepped over to a man with an olive complexion.
"Dean Vukic," he said, and 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 an assistant detective.
Another man offered his hand to Louise.
"Mik Rasmussen," he said.
Like Vukic and Louise herself, Mik was in his mid- to late thirties.
"Louise Rick," she said. Out of habit she was about to add "Unit A," but she caught herself. She quickly looked around at all the new faces. It was quite a small group, and she wondered briefly how she would fare at finding her place in this pack.
* * *
After the briefing that morning back at Copenhagen Police headquarters with Unit 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 coffee cup on her desk and was asking her partner about his adopted twins, who were home sick with the flu, when Suhr uttered in two short sentences that Louise's former partner Søren Velin was on his way to HQ 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 corridor, wanting to know what was going on. 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 coffee, shaking her head in response to her partner's raised eyebrows, meaning 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 would feel better soon. On her way down the back stairwell to the exit onto Otto Mønstedsgade she thought it must be a rape case of a certain caliber since a local police force had called for assistance. It was only after she was sitting in the car next to Søren Velin heading out toward Cape Tuse—or 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 as she started asking him about the case, preparing for what lay ahead. "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 taken it hard whenever she was confronted with people's personal tragedies, and she had worked to learn how to handle this. Even so, she still sometimes found herself succumbing again, and that's what had happened with her last case, an attempted "honor" killing. The case 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 they had botched the job, so now their eldest daughter was a vegetable in the neurology department at National Hospital in downtown Copenhagen.
* * *
"She was lying 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. Then we'll have to see whether they can find anything that could identify her," Bengtsen interrupted, 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 and his eyes scanning the water. "It's too deep here for anyone to have carried her out. A slab of concrete like that weighs quite a bit."
Louise heard car doors slam shut and noticed 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 former 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 had 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 he was about to start.
After he got all of his equipment together, he followed his team out to the bluff, and Louise walked over to the people standing with Dean and Mik, who had just gotten back from talking to a woman who had been out walking her dog.
"Nothin'," Dean said. "That woman 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. Another thing she had heard about Skipper was confirmed by the muffled sound of music booming behind the closed windows of his car. On their way out here, Søren had told her about Skipper's enormous passion for jazz fusion, which was a complete mismatch with his understated sweater, proper Windsor knot, and otherwise distinguished and reserved appearance—including his neatly groomed gray hair combed back in a soft wave.
Louise introduced herself to Skipper, then 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 else Søren had told him. She watched Søren as he spoke to two of the local uniforms. He had already been with Unit 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 shifted to a new job.
The CSI techs were working on the bluff and at the edge of the water. There would be hardly any traces of DNA left on the girl because she had been in the water, but they were taking thorough photographs of the body and scene, bagging items from along the shore, and two men were focusing exclusively on finding footprints and tire prints. The coroner from Copenhagen had also shown up, Louise discovered. Flemming Larsen's six-foot-six frame was impossible to miss, even though 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 with a big smile on his face.
"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 preferred. 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, thinking it sounded a bit strange.
"Well, I'll be damned," he said, smiling. "I didn't think Suhr and the rest of Unit A could spare you. Is it permanent?"
"It's just for this case—and 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 looked down 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 a little, revealing how the rope had dug into her skin. The coroner carefully pushed her long, dark hair to the side so it wasn't plastered to her face like yarn anymore. Then he started his examination of the body.
Louise listened in as he leaned over and reported to Skipper, who had appeared 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 for a moment before continuing—"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 stepping stone measuring twenty by twenty inches. Livor mortis visible on the abdomen, which does not disappear when pressure is applied. This suggests 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 and then looked up at Skipper.
"What do you think about the cause of death—did she drown? And how long has she been here?" Skipper asked, taking a step 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 what she died from. There are no signs of force, but I don't think she tried to inhale underwater. Otherwise she'd have foam both in her mouth and around it. But obviously 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 the 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 so he could give his approval for the autopsy and lean on the coroner if he said all the autopsy rooms were in use.
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 had stuck whenever people talked about transporting a body. In some cases it was highly appropriate, but in others it seemed more jarring. Such as now. They put the girl into a white-plastic body bag, and she was ready for transport to the forensics lab in an ambulance with covered windows. Impersonal and cold for a young girl, 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 vehicle wasn't like an ordinary ambulance with a seat for a family member. This ambulance was stripped bare so there was room only for two stretchers, and there was a large exhaust fan in the ceiling. She pushed the idea from her mind.
After the coroner left, Storm started heading for the cars to drive back to Holbæk PD headquarters.
"That means she might have been in the water since midnight," Storm said just before 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.
Excerpted from Only One Life by Sara Blaedel. Copyright © 2007 Sara Blaedel. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted August 10, 2012
Only One Life by Sara Blædel is a fictional mystery book set in Denmark. This is the second book translated into English in the series featuring Detective Louise Rick.
When a young girl is found in a watery grave of Holbraek Fjord , Inspector Louise Rick is called due to her experience, knowledge and tactfulness with immigrants. The dead girl, as it turned out, is Samra, who lived in a new country, while her parents enforced old traditions. Samra’s mother maintains that she did nothing to “deserve” an honor killing, but Inspector Rick can detect that there is more than meets the eye.
Only One Life by Sara Blædel lives up to the previous novel, Call Me Princess, which I read about a year ago and enjoyed as well. The book is exciting and the characters are well written and continue to build up and expand from the previous book (even though I understand that there are more untranslated books).
The book touches on some relevant topics, such as honor killing, social intolerance and sexual based crimes. The author explores these subjects, and more, without forcing her own morality or ideology down the readers’ throats, which is a big plus for me. I love to read about different cultures and ideas, but I dislike absolutes. Ms. Blædel stays away from giving advice but supplying plenty of material to think about during and after reading.
There are several things I like about Ms. Blædel’s work, the social aspect and characterization come immediately to mind. The author writes about a conscious society, while not perfect it certainly isn’t the dog-eat-dog world which we read about in other books. I also like the character of Louise Rick, not a classic hero nor is she an anti-hero, just a simple working professional who makes mistakes, gets emotional, sometimes frustrated with her jobs, colleagues and her friends.
Basically, a human being.
Only One Life is an intelligent mystery, with a murder as a device to tell a story about people while bringing up some important questions. The book is solid, well translated and readable which is an amazing feat due to the heavy subjects it tries to deal with.