The thrilling final installment of the New York Times bestselling Nina Borg series set in Denmark
In an attempt to save their marriage, Nina Borg and her husband traveled to a beach resort in the Philippines for a dream vacation. Only now, six months later, does Nina begin to understand the devastating repercussions of that trip—repercussions that have followed her home across the globe to Denmark. On an icy winter day, she is attacked outside the grocery store. The last thing she hears before losing consciousness is her assailant asking her forgiveness. Only later does she understand that this isn’t for what he’s just done, but for what he plans to do to.
As Nina tries to trace the origin of sinister messages she’s received, she realizes the attempt on her life must be linked to events in Manila, and to three young men whose dangerous friendship started in medical school. Time and circumstance have forced them to make impossible choices that have cost human lives.
It’s a long way from Viborg to Manila, and yet Nina and her pursuer face the same dilemma: How far will they go to save themselves?
About the Author
Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis are the Danish duo behind the Nina Borg series. Friis is a journalist by training, while Kaaberbøl has been a professional writer since the age of 15, with more than 2 million books sold worldwide. Their first collaboration, The Boy in the Suitcase, was a New York Times and USA Today bestseller, has been translated into 30 languages, and has sold half a million copies worldwide. They are also the authors of two other Nina Borg novels in addition to The Boy in the Suitcase: Invisible Murder and Death of a Nightingale.
Read an Excerpt
The confessional was empty. Otherwise he wouldn’t have gone in. It was hushed and dim—almost cool after the moist, stinking tropical heat of Manila’s streets—and he could smell the beeswax the women of the congregation used when they polished the dark wooden panels. His right hand moved involuntarily in an ancient pattern—forehead to chest, left shoulder to right shoulder—but he didn’t know how to begin. Then it came, abruptly and without preamble.
“I have to kill someone,” he whispered at the small curtain and the confessional’s empty side. “I’m not sure I can do it. But I can’t not do it. Help me!”
He would have been terrified if there had been an answer. Instead the silence swallowed his words without giving him anything in return, and when after a few minutes he got up and left, he felt neither lighter of heart nor less fearful.
The second blow hit Nina on the back of the neck, right where the skull meets the cervical vertebrae. She fell forward. The cement rose to meet her, and she was already so numb that the abrupt contact didn’t hurt. She lay on the parking garage’s grubby, oil-stinking concrete deck, incapable of creating a connection between her bruised brain and the arms and legs she should have been mobilizing in order to save herself.
She had dropped the SuperBest bags with the first blow. A can of diced tomatoes rolled across the concrete, so close that she could have touched it if her arms and hands were still functioning, and right in the center of her foggy field of vision an object hit the floor with a drawn-out metallic clatter—an iron pipe, dark-brown with rust, as if it had been lying outside for years in some nettle-covered trash heap behind a shed.
Someone dropped to his knees beside her.
“Sorry,” mumbled a soft, stumbling voice in an odd sing-song English. “Sorry. It won’t take long, I promise . . .”
What wouldn’t take long?
“Ama namin,” the voice whispered, in a rapid rush, “Sumsalangi Ka, Sambahin ang ngalan Mo . . .”
Nina had heard the words before. She wasn’t sure where or what they meant, but somewhere in the increasing darkness in her skull, small bubbles of memory rose and burst, small explosions of sensory impressions from the past. Heat. Buzzing flies. The stench of corpses. Distant, inconsolable weeping.
“Mapasaamin ang kaharian Mo . . .”
The Lord’s Prayer, she suddenly thought. That’s the Lord’s Prayer. But she couldn’t remember in what language.
“Sundin ang loob Mo, dito sa lupa, para nang sa langit . . .”
Why was someone kneeling beside her on the damp cold concrete and reciting the Lord’s Prayer?
“Wait . . .” she mumbled. Or tried to, but her tongue was as senseless as the rest of her.
“Sorry, sorry,” repeated the voice. “Amen.”
Something dark and smelling of leather was placed across Nina’s face, shutting out almost all the light. There was the sound of footsteps. An engine started, revving up angrily. The roar receded, then came nearer again. She could hear the sound of the tires rolling across the concrete, closer and closer.
I should move, thought Nina. Crawl away. Do something. Save myself.
But instead of the shattering contact with tires, undercarriage and engine power she had expected, there was the scream of metal against metal and a muffled crash. The sound of the engine ceased. Into the sudden stillness came the sound of an agitated voice with a Viborg accent.
“What the hell are you doing? Watch out . . . Hey, I’m talking to you!”
Not to me, thought Nina. Not me. I don’t have to answer.
The other man, the apologetic one, apparently didn’t mean to answer either. There was the sound of a rattling cough from an over-choked engine, then it settled once again into smooth efficiency, and with shrieking tires and screaming brakes a car—the car, thought Nina—left the Saint Mathias Mall.
“What the . . .” Hesitant steps came closer. “Hello . . . Are you okay?”
The external darkness disappeared when someone removed the leather jacket covering her face. Instead, an inner darkness moved in inexorably.
“Fuck . . .” she heard the Viborg voice say, an instant before she ceased to hear anything at all.
“Yes?” Søren automatically reached for his notebook. There was an official quality to the unfamiliar voice at the other end of the line that triggered his professional instincts. He had been a policeman for most of his adult life, and an intelligence officer in the Danish PET for nearly fifteen years, and he was quite used to meticulously registering the details of other people’s disasters. But the next words shattered his expectations and froze his hand in midair above the pad.
“Next of kin to Nina Borg?”
Next of kin. Oh, God. She’s dead. Only dead people have “next of kin.”
“Yes,” he said hoarsely.
“I’m calling from Viborg General Hospital. Nina Borg has been hospitalized here following an assault, and unfortunately she is unconscious.”
Not dead. It was not only the dead, he thought with relief; patients had “next of kin” as well. But—assault? Unconscious?
“What happened?” he asked.
“I don’t know the circumstances,” said the voice carefully. “It’s a police matter. But I can tell you that she is on Ward A24, our ICU, under observation for a fractured skull. If you go to the ward’s reception desk . . .”
“I’m in Copenhagen,” he said. “It’ll take me a few hours to get there.” Tirstrup? Billund? No, Karup. Karup had to be the closest airport. Or was it faster simply to get in the car and drive? Unconscious. That could mean all kinds of things. “Can’t you tell me a little more now?” he asked and thought of the long drive across Fyn, and then Jutland, or the unbearable wait in the airport, without knowing, without having any idea how . . .
“I’m in administration,” said the voice, not without a certain degree of compassion. “Unfortunately, I only know what it says in the papers. Observation for a fractured skull.”
Observation—that sounded somewhat reassuring. If the skull had been seriously smashed, then it wouldn’t just be “observation,” would it?
“I’ll be there,” he said.
Then he remembered that he wasn’t the only one with a stake in this. There were people who had a greater right, a closer relationship to Nina than he did. Children. Family.
“Has her husband—I mean her ex-husband been informed? And her mother?”
Nina was in Viborg because of her mother. Because of her mother’s illness. In fact, why had they called him? Only now did he realize that this was odd. If Nina wasn’t conscious, then how did they know . . .?
“This is the only number I have been given,” said the voice. “It was in her diary under ‘in case of emergency.’”
“I’ll call the others,” said Søren.
He called the ex-husband first. It took a little while to find the number, time he felt he could ill afford. His instincts clamored for him to throw himself behind the wheel and just drive. But Morten was the father of her children.
There was an odd echo in the background of the call. Clattering steps, shouts, the shrill sound of sneakers squealing against a gym floor. Handball? Badminton?
Søren explained. For several seconds, there was silence on the line, except for the sports backdrop.
“Oh, damn it. Not again. What am I supposed to tell the children?”
Søren assumed it was a rhetorical question. He was amazed at the anger in Morten’s voice, as if this was something Nina had done on purpose to hurt her family. But the key to that anger had to lie in the “not again.” It was Morten who had initiated the divorce. He was the one who could not live with Nina’s involvement in other people’s disasters and the danger in which she repeatedly put herself—sometimes along with her family—as a consequence of what her daughter called her “save the world” gene. In the end, Morten had felt that he had no choice but to rescue Ida and Anton from Nina’s personal war zone.
“She didn’t exactly do it on purpose,” said Søren.
“No,” said Morten and did not sound particularly mollified.
“It’s never on purpose. She just can’t help herself.”
“I’m on my way there,” said Søren and let an unspoken question hang in the air.
“Good,” said Morten. “It’s great that someone still has the energy. Tell her that she should call the children as soon as she is able.”
“Aren’t you being a bit harsh?” Søren couldn’t help asking.
“Possibly. But it’s . . . let me see . . . the fifth or the sixth time in the last few years, if you count a few episodes from the Coal-House Camp. She’s been attacked, she’s had radiation poisoning, someone took a shot at her . . . She was the reason my daughter was attacked and kidnapped and . . . and placed in a hole in the ground, in an oil tank where she could have been asphyxiated . . .” Morten’s voice had acquired a tremor, and Søren sympathized. He remembered that particular episode more clearly than he liked, since he was the one who had pulled Ida out of that dark hole in the ground, out of what might otherwise have been a living grave. The expression in her eyes had stayed with him for days.
Morten interrupted his tally with what was clearly a great effort. “Just tell her to call,” he then said. “I won’t tell the children until she can speak to them herself.”
Nina’s mother was more compassionate, though her first reaction was almost identical:
“Oh, no. Not again.”
She apparently knew who Søren was, so although he had never met her—Nina and he had not proceded that far in their hesitant partnering—Nina had at least told her mother that he existed.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “But at least ‘under observation for a fractured skull’ isn’t the same as a fractured skull.”
“No,” said Hanne Borg. “I suppose not.”
“I’ll call as soon as I know more,” he said.
“I can call the hospital myself,” said Nina’s mother. “You just get going. And if you need a bed, I have a spare room.”
She didn’t sound sick, but then, no one said you had to sound like the final act of La Traviata just because you had been diagnosed with cancer.
Finally, he was free to leave. He chose the highway in the end; he didn’t have patience for the alternative. And while kilometer after kilometer disappeared under the Hyundai’s hood, he wondered what he should make of that “next of kin.” It was at once touching and surprising to him that she had thought of him in this way.
They had “dated”—he winced a bit at the adolescent connotations, but what else could you call it?—yet had proceeded no further into the minefield of personal relations. He was not sure what she wanted with him. Sex, yes. Love? He couldn’t quite tell. She didn’t have as much as a toothbrush in his house in Rødovre and no one had so far mentioned cohabitation. Perhaps it was only now that it occurred to him that this was what he wanted—completely and without reservations. To be a couple. Married or not, he didn’t much care which, but to share a home, to live together, to obey and honor and love, until the last breath of life left his feeble failing body.
Feeble. That was precisely the way he felt now, and perhaps the deeper reason he hadn’t pushed harder than he had. He felt more mortal than usual, more decrepit. It was not just the bullet that had made a mess of his lungs and ribcage, and the first convalescence that had taken much longer than he had hoped. He had made it to his feet again, made it back into his chair as group leader in the PET. It had been a struggle, but he could manage. Or he thought so until . . .
Until Torben, at his most boss-like, had put Søren out to grass, sent him home with orders not to return for at least three months. Anger, anger at the unfairness still rumbled inside him. How could Torben have betrayed him in that way?
He hadn’t told Nina. Wrongheaded masculine pride, perhaps. He would have to drop that now, he supposed. If they really were “next of kin.” And if he had to explain why he had been able to drop everything at a moment’s notice to go to Viborg to sit by her bedside.
He pictured her slight, boyish figure, the dark hair cut so short that it followed the shape of her skull like a soft, auburn shadow. It probably didn’t make much of a difference how long your hair was if someone decided to hit you in the head with a baseball bat, or whatever they had used. All the same, it seemed to him to make her extra vulnerable and the attack more brutal.
Who had done it? And why? Was it random, or was it because Nina was Nina? Both Morten and Hanne seemed automatically to assume the latter, but even stubborn and at times highly exasperating Red Cross nurses could be the victims of random violence. He had to speak to the local police. Find out what had happened, and how they were handling the case. The desire to act, to do something, was overwhelming.
He coaxed a few more miles per hour out of the Hyundai and changed lanes to pass a Polish long-haul. Adrenaline made his hands vibrate faintly against the steering wheel, and somewhere in his chest was a tight nervous pain that for once has nothing to do with the physical scarring.
He reached Viborg just shy of midnight. There had been an accident near Fredericia that backed up the traffic all the way across the Lillebaelt Bridge. The intensive care unit was dimly lit and oddly womb-like. There were no windows facing the outside world, only a glass wall separating it from the central observation point from which the output from all the various apparata in the ward was monitored. Sounds were faint and muffled, soft beeps and distant steps, lowered voices. Through the glass, he could see how the eyes of the duty staff slid constantly from one monitor to the next, their faces lit more by the screens than by the dim lamps. It reminded him sharply of the atmosphere inside a surveillance van.
Nina was alone in a unit called OBS 4. At the sight of her slight figure in the hospital bed, his heart took an entirely unauthorized tumble in his scarred chest. He knew it was illogical— that you in fact did not love with your heart, but rather with your brain and a complex series of hormonal signals. Still, he could not free himself from the thought that she had gained access to the most vulnerable part of him when she—to save his life and allow the punctured lung room to expand again—had plunged first a knife and then part of a ballpoint pen into his chest. With great precision and ruthlessness, in exactly the right place. “Wow,” the young ambulance doctor had commented, “she sure hit that one right on the nail.” And then, when he realized that Søren had heard him, “Sorry, but that’s one of the most effective acute interventions I’ve ever seen. You can thank her for the fact that you are still alive.”
He knew that. While he had lain there in the snow, feeling the ability to breathe being taken from him, heartbeat by heartbeat, he had had time to think about death. Not Death with a capital D, personified in the somewhat theatrical guise of the Grim Reaper, but the simple, concrete, and omnipresent biological process that would shut down all his vital signs. For his part there had been no dark tunnel and bright light, no out-of-body experience. Absolutely no sense of anything but struggle, pain, and suffering, and somewhere a point in time when the suffering would end, when everything that he considered his— an active body, a functioning brain, a consciousness or a soul or whatever you preferred to call it—when all of that would cease to be him and turn instead into random decomposable matter headed for biology’s recycling system.
Nina had saved him from that point of death. It was perhaps not too surprising that the experience had left certain inerasable grooves in his inner universe.
Sure, he had noticed her before that. There was something about her stubbornness, her intensity, the too-slender body, and those eyes . . . particularly those eyes, dark grey like a sky before a storm, with an unfathomably vivid gaze that he felt compelled to meet, even at moments when it would have been wiser not to. Certainly, he had seen her, and been curious. Interested. But it was only after the knife had gone in that she had acquired this ability to hurt him. The ability to make his abdomen contract the ability to make his hands turn into fists reflexively if he thought any kind of danger, imaginary or real, threatened her.
Right now his fists were clenched so hard that his fingers were getting numb. With an effort, he unclenched them one by one.
She lay on her side, probably so the weight of her head would not put pressure on the shaved area on the back of her head and the damage that was hidden under a white gauze compress as large as a standard sheet of paper. A raw and crusty abrasion covered most of one cheek, and the hollows of her eyes were so bruised and swollen that the eyes were just greasy slits. A bit of clear fluid leaked from one nostril and dripped down onto the flat pillow under her head, where there was already a damp spot.
Søren was relieved to see that she was breathing on her own, but otherwise there wasn’t much to celebrate.
“Nina, damn it,” he said quietly, without any hope that she could hear him. “What have you gotten yourself in to now?”
At that instant he recognized Morten’s anger and understood it completely. Nina had probably never had the occasion to force a kitchen knife into her ex-husband’s chest, but she had undoubtedly made him feel a similar pain every time she had thrown herself in front of an on-rushing catastrophe without considering the consequences. There had to be limits to how many stabs of that knife one could survive before one started to protect oneself.
And Morten was not alone. He had Ida and Anton to consider.
Søren hesitantly touched Nina’s hand and hardly knew himself whether it was to caress it or to register her symptoms. Chilled, he observed, but not ice-cold. Not the cold that comes when the blood is retreating from the body’s outer extremities because the inner organs are fighting off death.
Stable, they had said. Not critical. She had been hit twice; the first blow had landed quite high and had bounced off the skull to a certain extent, but the second was of more concern—it had gone in at the base of the cranium, and the full unblunted force of it had made the brain slap hard against its bony case. And, yes, there was a crack. A fractured skull was now the official diagnosis—a so-called basilar skull fracture.
“We can see a bit of fluid from the nose and the ears, so there must be a lesion in the brain membrane,” a helpful intensive care nurse had explained. “Usually it stops by itself, but we have to keep an eye on it. And we’d like to see signs of consciousness soon. If you could just sit and talk to her, that would be very helpful. Hearing is often restored long before any of the other senses.”
He obediently sat down, but at first could not get a word out. What was he supposed say? Should he scold her? Reassure her? Tell her that he “was here,” as if that circumstance alone would suddenly make all the horrors go away?
“Nina,” he said quietly, “it’s me, Søren.” He felt like a complete idiot. But if the nurse was right and it could in some way help Nina to hear his voice, then so be it. “I . . . came to see how you’re doing. So I’ll just sit here and . . . talk a little. So you know that I’m here.”