Irene Huss is a former jujitsu champion, a mother of twin teenage girls, the wife of a successful chef, and a Detective Inspector in the Violent Crimes Unit in Göteborg, Sweden. And now she’s back in the gripping follow-up to Detective Inspector Huss. One nurse lies dead and another vanishes after a local hospital is hit by a blackout. The only witness claims to have seen Nurse Tekla doing her rounds, but Nurse Tekla died sixty years ago. Irene Huss has the challenge of disentangling wandering ghosts and complex human relationships to get to the bottom of this intriguing case.
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“You’re absolutely certain this was the nurse you saw last night?” Superintendent Sven Andersson frowned down at the thin woman sitting at the desk. Her lips were pressed tight shut, and she’d shrunk back into her loose-knit poncho.
“Yes, I am!”
With a resigned sigh, the superintendent turned back into the hallway. Holding a yellowed black-and-white photograph between his right thumb and index finger, he paced the room, pausing deliberately before each window. Finally he stopped in front of a particular one, checking the view against the photo. The foggy gray February morning had softened the edges of everything outside, but he could tell that the photo had been taken from this very spot.
A newly planted birch was barely visible on the left-hand side of the photo. As he peered through the transom window, he found himself looking directly into the crown of a fullgrown tree.
He walked ponderously back to the woman at her desk. He hesitated, then loudly cleared his throat. “Well, Nurse Siv, you can certainly understand my difficulty here.” Her ash-gray face turned toward him. “It was that nurse I saw.”
“Oh, for . . . !”He swallowed the curse. “The woman in this photo has been dead for fifty years!”
“I know. But it was her!”
The nightnurse, Siv Persson, had just stepped into the hallway when the lights went out. The street lamps outside spread a weak glow through the tall windows, but not enough to light up the hall. It appeared that only the hospital had lost power.
The nurse stopped short and spoke aloud into the darkness.
Hesitantly, she returned to the nurses’ station. With help from the streetlamps, she fumbled for the desk chair and sank down into it. She jumped, startled, when the respirator alarm went off in the small intensive-care unit. The sound was dampened by the solid double doors that isolated the unit, but the alarm still pierced the silence.
From her station she cast a practiced glance along the hallway and screamed. A dark shadow loomed in the door.
“It’s only me,” came the doctor’s exasperated voice. Nurse Persson jumped up from her chair. Without another word, the doctor rushed down the hallway to the ICU; the nurse followed him, using his fluttering white coat like a beacon in the dark.
Inside the ICU the sound was deafening.
“Marianne! Turn off the alarm!” the doctor shouted.
There was no answer from the ICU nurse who was supposed to be on duty.
“Siv. Find a flashlight.”
Nurse Siv said weakly, “I . . . forgot my flashlight when I was here helping Marianne turn Mr. Peterzén. It must be underneath the examination cart.”
“Go get it!”
She fumbled her way back toward the door. Her fingers rooted around in the darkness until they knocked against a hard plastic case. She pulled the case out and headed back in the direction of the doctor.
“Where are you?” she asked.
His hand on her arm made her jump. He grabbed the case from her.
“What’s this? The emergency kit? How can we use that when we can’t see?”
“Look inside. The bag-valve mask and a laryngoscope are in there,” she answered. “The laryngoscope is powered up, and you can use its light.”
The doctor muttered to himself as he opened the case. After some searching he found the lamp for guiding a breathing tube into the pharynx of anesthetized or unconscious patients. He clicked it open and shone the narrow beam of bright light toward the old man lying in the bed.
Now that they could orient themselves, Nurse Siv stepped toward the respirator by the bed and shut off the alarm. The silence echoed in their heads. They heard the sound of their own breathing.
“His heart’s stopped. Where is Marianne? Marianne!” the doctor shouted. He placed the ventilator mask over the patient’s nose and mouth. “Take care of his breathing while I do CPR,” he hissed through tight lips.
Siv began to pump air into the unmoving lungs. The doctor pressed down on the man’s breastbone, his palms rhythmically trying to stimulate the silent heart. They did not speak while they worked. The doctor took a minute to inject epinephrine directly into the heart muscle. It was no use. The heart would not resume beating. Finally they were forced to give up.
“It didn’t work, damn it. Where is Marianne? And why hasn’t the backup generator turned on?”
When the doctor flashed the light of the laryngoscope around the room, Nurse Siv glimpsed the examination cart. She stepped carefully toward it, her arm out stiffly, hip high. She moved her right hand along the top of the cart, over the examination instruments and plastic gloves. Finally she found the barrel of her flashlight and turned it on.
The beam of light struck the doctor right between the eyes, and he threw up his hands with a muffled curse.
“Uh . . . sorry,” Siv stammered. “I didn’t realize where you were.”
“Okay, okay. I’m just glad you found a working flashlight. Check out the floor. See if she’s here. Maybe she’s fainted.”
But the ICU nurse was not to be found anywhere in the small ICU.
The beam of the flashlight caught a phone, and the doctor strode to it and lifted the receiver. “Dead as a doornail.” After thinking a moment, he said, “My cell phone is in the on-call apartment. Let me take the flashlight up there to call emergency services. Then I’ll start searching for Marianne. You didn’t see her go past your station, did you?”
“No. I haven’t seen her since eleven this evening, when we were in here turning Mr. Peterzén.”
“So she must have gone out the back door. I’ll go that way to the on-call apartment and walk upstairs through the operating rooms. That’s the closest.”
The doctor swung the beam toward the door. Beyond it were the stairs and the elevator to surgery, one floor up. One floor down, on the ground floor, were the polyclinic and physical therapy rooms; one floor below that was the basement, where the X-ray suite, employee changing rooms, and building machinery were located. The hospital was a large area to search, but Surgical Chief of Medicine Dr. Löwander was the person who knew its layout the best.
Nurse Siv was left alone in the dark. Her legs trembled slightly as she made her way back down the hall to the nurses’ station. Out of habit she glanced through the ward door’s window. A bone-white moon augmented the mild glow from the street lamps outside. In the cold light from the windows, she could see a woman moving in the stairwell, her back to the nurses’ station. The woman’s white collar glowed against the dark fabric of her calf-length dress. Her blond hair was pinned back severely, and above it she wore a starched nurse’s cap.
Dr. Sverker Löwander paused on the other side of the ICU door. He let the beam of his flashlight play over the stairwell. Nothing. Rapidly, he climbed the stairs to the top floor and stopped again up there to shine his beam around the landing outside surgery. Everything appeared normal. Two rolling beds were parked next to the closet to his left. He went to the elevator shaft and shone his light through the window. As he aimed the beam down, he could see the top of the elevator just below him. He pulled out his key chain, which jingled as he searched for the master key.
Beyond the door to surgery, everything was still. The smell of disinfectant stung his nose. The doctor made a quick pass through the two anterooms and decided that all was as it should be.
He hurried through the surgery ward and opened the door to the other, somewhat smaller, stairwell. At the administration offices on the other side of the stairs, Dr. Löwander tested the doors to the house mother’s station, the doctors’ assistants’ offices, and his own office. He felt relief to find them all locked. The last door in the hallway belonged to the on-call apartment.
He rushed inside, snatched his cell phone from his briefcase, and tapped 112, his hands shaking slightly. The emergency- services operator promised to send a police car as soon as possible. They would also contact the emergency electric service but made no promises about when an electrician couldget there.
Dr. Löwander held the flashlight in his teeth to search through the phone book, which, luckily, was on his desktop. He flipped through the Bengtssons of Göteborg until he got to Folke Bengtsson, security guard, Solrosgatan 45. He had to describe the situation first to the newly awakened Mrs. Bengtsson and then again to Folke Bengtsson himself. Folke promised to jump into his car right away. As Dr. Löwander pressed end, he found he was covered in sweat. He took a few deep breaths before heading back out into the hallway and down the steps as quickly as he dared. He slowed as he got to the ward and carefully opened the door to the darkened room. Nurse Siv was sitting on the floor outside the nurses’ station, crying softly. She’d wrapped her arms tightly across her body, and she was rocking back and forth. When she saw the doctor, she began to wail.
“I saw her! I saw her!”
“Who?” the doctor asked, more sharply than he’d intended.
“The ghost! Nurse Tekla!”
Confused, Dr Löwander gaped at the nurse, who continued rocking and shut her eyes against the bright glare of the flashlight. Tears ran down her face. He pondered what to do. Finally he said, “Here. Take the flashlight. Sit here at the station. I’ll come back with the police. We’ll find out what’s at the bottom of all this.”
He helped the shaking woman to her feet, pushed the flashlight into her hand, and led her back to the nurses’ station and to her desk. Unresisting, she let him push her into her chair. Now that the moonlight was stronger, Dr. Löwander was able to find his way much more easily down the stairs to the ground floor. Once he reached the foyer, he had to slow his pace. The darkness among the pillars of the art nouveau arches was impenetrable. As he got to the main door, a chill went down his spine. He was certain that someone was watching him. He felt as if a person were standing amid the pillars observing his every move. His fingers fumbled with the key. He almost yelled with relief as the heavy door swung open. The chill of the night swept across his sweaty forehead, and he took a deep breath.
“I’ve searched the entire upper floor, and there’s no trace of Marianne.” Dr. Löwander filled the police in, trying to speed their search for the nurse. “She’s not on the middle floor either. That’s where the care wards and ICU are located. Probably she’s here on the ground floor or even in the basement. If she hasn’t gone outside into the park, that is.”
Security guard Bengtsson had brought his own flashlight. Dr. Löwander had already sent him to the basement to check on what had happened with the electricity and the backup generator.
The three policemen had brought strong flashlights as well. The oldest, who had introduced himself as Sergeant Kent Karlsson, swung the beam of his around the large, dark foyer. Dr. Löwander felt slightly irritated with himself; there was clearly no one hiding among the pillars.
“If you loan us your keys, Jonsson and I could make a round through this floor and—”
“Hey there! Help! I found her!”
A call from the basement interrupted the sergeant. They could see the wavering glow of his flashlight before the full beam blinded them and obscured the guard. Nevertheless, his excited words were clear: “I’ve found Nurse Marianne!”
“Where?” Dr. Löwander asked sharply.
“In the main electrical room. I believe . . . I believe she’s . . . dead.” Bengtsson’s voice was failing, and the word “dead” was nothing more than a hoarse whisper echoing among the pillars.
“Show us where you found her,” Sergeant Karlsson ordered.
Her body wa s stretched facedown across the backup generator. The men standing in the doorway could just see the backs of her legs and her rear, encased in long pants. Her head and arms were out of sight over the other side. Dr. Löwander registered that she was missing a shoe. He walked around the generator, bent down, and dutifully checked the pulse at her neck, but he could feel that the chill of death had already set in. Her thick, dark braid brushed the floor. A sharp bluish red mark ran across her throat.
“She’s dead,” he said quietly.
Sergeant Karlsson took charge. “We’re leaving the room now. Do not touch anything. I have to call for reinforcements.”
Dr. Löwander nodded and obediently left with the others.
“We’ve got to get back to Nurse Siv. She’s all alone,” he said.
Sergeant Karlsson looked at him with surprise. “Night nurses are used to being alone.”
“True enough, but not under these circumstances. She’s in shock.”
“She believes she saw a ghost.” Dr. Löwander said this lightly, hoping that the police would not pay too much attention to it. He quickly turned to Bengtsson and said, “Come with me. Let’s check on Siv.”
He took Bengtsson’s flashlight and led the way to the stairs. Folke Bengtsson followed him with relief.
At seven o’ clock, Superintendent Sven Andersson and Detective Inspector Irene Huss arrived at Löwander Hospital.
The investigators climbed out of their blue Volvo, which the superintendent had parked by the main entrance. They paused for a moment and looked up at the impressive building. The hospital was built of brownish red brick. The entrance led to a grand stairway right at the center of the structure. The main entrance was covered with stucco decorations. Two carved marble Greek gods kept watch on each side.
They pushed open the heavy door. Detective Fredrik Stridh was sitting in a chair by the entrance, waiting for them. They knew he was not sitting to rest tired legs but was taking the opportunity to write up his notes. When he saw them, he leaped to his feet and came to meet them.
“Good morning,” Superintendent Andersson said to his youngest detective.
“Morning, sir!” Stridh eagerly launched into his report.
“The crime scene was secured by the patrol, and the technicians were already hard at work when I arrived at three-thirty a.m. Malm is here from Forensics, and he says it appears the girl was strangled.”
The superintendent nodded. “Why weren’t you here before three-thirty?” he asked.
“I’d swung by Hammarkullen to look at a guy who flew out of a ninth-floor window just before midnight. There were quite a few people in the apartment, and the party was still going strong. Either they’d all worked together to throw him out or he’d decided to jump on his own. We’ll have to see what the chief forensics officer has to say. Speak of the devil, here she comes now.”
They looked out the thick panes of the window as a white Ford Escort shot in through the gate and stopped sideways behind the superintendent’s car. The driver-side door opened, and flaming red hair popped up over the roof.
“Yvonne Stridner!” moaned Superintendent Andersson.
Criminal Inspector Irene Huss was irritated by the tone of her boss’s voice, but she hoped he’d control his temper long enough to profit from Stridner’s invaluable information. Stridner was incredibly capable, according to many people working in the department, and Irene agreed with them. The superintendent was probably thinking along the same lines, since he lumbered forward and held the door open for Professor
Yvonne Stridner. She nodded condescendingly.
“Good morning, Andersson. I see that the Violent Crime Division has put in an appearance.”
The superintendent mumbled that this was indeed the case.
“Where’s the body?” Professor Stridner wondered aloud in her typical businesslike tone.
Fredrik Stridh showed them the way down the stairs to the basement.