The morning light swirled up dust from the heavy drapes. Gregers Hermansen sat in his recliner and watched the motes dance through the living room. Waking up took him so long these days that he almost didn’t see the point. He laid his hands on the smooth, polished armrests, tipped his head back, and closed his eyes to the flickering light until he heard the final sputters of the coffee maker in the kitchen.
After a brief countdown, he got up, found his slippers, and shuffled toward the linoleum floor of the kitchen. Always the same route: along the mahogany cabinet, past the green armchair and the damn handgrip on the wall that the aide had installed last year.
“I’ll do fine without it,” he had insisted. “Thanks anyway.”
So much for that.
In the kitchen he tossed the used coffee grounds from the machine into the trash bin under the sink. Full again. Gregers untied the bag and, supporting himself along the table as he moved across the kitchen, he managed to open the back door with his free hand. At least he could still take his own trash down. He looked askance at his upstairs neighbor’s collection of bottles on the landing. Esther de Laurenti. One hell of a drinker, who held loud dinner parties for her artist friends that lasted late into the night. But she owned the building, so it was no use complaining.
The steps groaned under him as he held on tight to the railing. It might be more sensible to move somewhere safe, to a place with fewer stairs, but he had lived his whole life in downtown Copenhagen and preferred to take his chances on these crooked stairs rather than rot away in some nursing home on the outskirts of town. On the second floor, he set down the trash bag and leaned against his downstairs neighbors’ doorframe. The two female college students who shared that unit were a constant source of irritation, but secretly they also stirred in him an awkward yearning. Their carefree smiles reawakened memories of summer nights by the canal and distant kisses. Back when life wasn’t yet winding down and everything was still possible.
Once he had recovered a little, he noticed the women’s door was ajar, bright light pouring out of the narrow opening. They were young and flighty but surely not foolish enough to sleep with their back door open! It was six thirty in the morning; they may have just come home from a night on the town—but still.
“Hello…?” he called out. “Is anyone there?”
With the tip of his slipper, he cautiously nudged at the door, which easily opened. Gregers reflexively recoiled a little. After all he didn’t want to be accused of being a dirty old peeper. Better just pull the door shut and finish taking out the trash before his coffee grew stale and bitter upstairs.
He held the doorframe tightly and leaned forward to grasp the handle but underestimated the distance. For one horrible, eternal instant—like when a horse throws you until you hit the ground—he realized he wasn’t strong enough to hold his own body weight. His slippers slid on the smooth wood parquet, and he lost his balance. Gregers fought with all the strength he no longer had and fell helplessly into the women’s apartment, landing hard on the floor. Not with a bang but with a thud—the pathetic sound of an elderly man’s diminished body in a flannel bathrobe.
Gregers tried to calm himself with a deep breath. Had he broken his hip? What would people say? For the first time in many years he felt like crying. He shut his eyes and waited to be found.
The stairwell fell silent once again. He listened for yelling or footsteps, but nothing came. After a few minutes he opened his eyes and tried to get his bearings. A bare light bulb hung from the ceiling, blinding him, but he could vaguely make out a white wall; a shelf of pots and spices; against the wall leading to the door, a line of shoes and boots, one of which he was surely lying on. Carefully he turned his head from side to side to check if anything was broken. No, everything seemed intact. He clenched his fists. Yes, they felt okay, too. Ugh, that damned shoe! Gregers tried to push it out from under him, but it wouldn’t budge.
He looked down and tried to focus his eyes on it. The uneasy feeling in his stomach swelled into a suffocating paralysis that spread throughout his body. Sticking out of the shoe was a bare leg, half-hidden underneath his aching hips. The leg ended in a twisted body. It looked like a mannequin’s leg, but Gregers felt soft skin against his hand and knew better. He lifted his hand and saw the blood: on the skin, on the floor, on the walls. Blood everywhere.
Gregers’s heart fluttered like a canary trying to escape its cage. He couldn’t move, panic coursed through his impotent body. I’m going to die, he thought. He wanted to scream, but the strength to shout for help had left him many years ago.
Then he started to cry.
Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
Copenhagen Police investigator Jeppe Kørner splashed water on his face and looked at himself in the mirror on the tiled bathroom wall. This particular mirror was concave and stretched his face tall and thin, while the one over the next sink stretched it wide. He always forgot which mirror did what until he was washing his hands. Today it was the concave, making him resemble the figure in Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. Suited him just fine.
He was looking tired and knew it wasn’t just because of the energy-saving bulbs used by police headquarters. The silly, peroxide-bleached hair didn’t help. He should never have let his friend Johannes talk him into it. Variety is the spice of life, ha! Maybe he should just shave it all off. Then at least he would look like a policeman again. Jeppe made a face at his own reflection. He was like every other newly divorced guy in the books. Classic. Next step would be to find himself a regular pub to hang out in, buy a sports car, and wear his pain on his chest like a badge of honor. Maybe even get himself a nice scar, a knife wound to match the scars he bore on the inside.
He dried his hands on the rough paper from the dispenser and looked for the trash can. Crumpled the paper towel and took a shot—it hit the floor with a limp, wet smack. Perfect, he thought, leaning to pick it up as nimbly as his sore back would allow. I’m one of those guys who misses the shot but is too duty-bound to leave a mess. He pushed open the bathroom door and headed down the hall toward his office, self-loathing flooding through his body.
With its three-sided neoclassical structure, Copenhagen Police Headquarters lent authority to its neighborhood, situated just blocks from the ever-blooming Tivoli Gardens amusement park. The building’s exterior, cold and unapproachable, was a smug beacon of power and integrity in the heart of the Nordic countries’ liberalism and nonsense, a much-needed counterweight to free pornography and record-setting alcohol consumption. On the inside, the famed circular colonnade of the inner courtyard and nineteenth-century Italianate craftsmanship softened the impression a little. Beautiful mosaics and terrazzo flooring brightened up the work days of the police staff, lying under their harried footsteps as a reminder of times when the workplace had to reflect the authority of the police force. The Homicide Department had been left in its original, somber state, with vaulted ceilings and dark red walls lit up with sconces. Practical modern furnishings clashed with the walls’ flaking paint, giving an overall impression that was equal parts dilapidated and forced.
The office Jeppe shared with his colleague Anette Werner was no exception: filled with sad laminate and molded-birch furniture and lacking any ambition whatsoever to create a cheerful work environment. Anette, on the other hand, provided just that. As he walked in, she was reclining in her chair, feet up on the desk, laughing at something she was watching on her cell phone.
“Kørner, come see this!” she said. “It’s incredible.”
“Morning, Anette,” Jeppe said from the doorway. “I thought you had class today.”
“You just won’t give it a rest, will you? The DNA class isn’t until next Wednesday. Come look at this. This fat Lab is trying to catch a ball but rolls all the way down a hill and lands in the snow.” She restarted the video and waved him over, still chuckling.
Jeppe hesitated. Eight years sharing an office and working as partners had smoothed remarkably few edges. In spite of that, he and Anette usually ended up on the same team when the police superintendent put together investigative groups for current cases. Apparently the two of them complemented each other in a way they themselves failed to see. And then there was how their last names rhymed in Danish just enough to confuse people; an endless source of irritation to Jeppe whenever they introduced themselves to witnesses or relatives.
He thought Anette was a bit of a bulldozer; she called him sensitive and a wimp. On good days they harped on each other knowingly like an old married couple. On bad days, he just wanted to throw her into the sea.
Today was a bad day.
“No, thanks, I’ll pass,” he said. “Animal humor has never really done it for me.”
Jeppe sat down on his side of the double desk, ignoring his colleague’s rolling of her eyes as he turned on the computer and pulled his phone out of his windbreaker pocket. His mother had called. He turned the phone and lay it facedown. Since his father’s death last year and Jeppe’s divorce six months ago, his mother had grown uncharacteristically clingy. He was finding it hard explaining to her that pestering him with her care wasn’t helping anyone.
Anette suppressed a new laugh across the desk and wiped her eyes on her sleeves. Jeppe sighed audibly. He’d been looking forward to having the office to himself today. Just one day for him to get to the bottom of his stacks of paperwork, without constantly having Anette’s loudness in his ears.
Yet another belly laugh shook the air and the desk. As Jeppe was about to protest, the office door banged open, and the superintendent was standing in the doorway, her coat still on. She was an older woman with a friendly face and tremendous command. Right now, a deep worry line over her brown eyes put an immediate end to Anette’s laughter and made her swing her feet off the desk. Despite the relatively flat hierarchy within the Danish police—after the police reform, most investigators held the rank of detective and were, in principle, all equals—the superintendent’s discreet authority was unquestionable.
“We have a body, a young woman,” the superintendent began. “The address is Klosterstræde Twelve, signs of foul play. The on-duty investigations officer just called. It doesn’t look good.”
Jeppe got on his feet. He should have known it was going to be one of those days.
“Forensics?” he asked.
“Nyboe. He’s on his way. So are the crime scene technicians.”
“Any witnesses?” Anette asked, also standing.
“Werner, I thought you were in class all day today,” the superintendent said. Clearly she hadn’t noticed Anette in the room. “Well, great. Then you can go, too. Kørner, I’m putting together a team; you’ll lead the investigation.”
Jeppe nodded with a conviction he didn’t feel. He hadn’t led a team since returning from his sick leave. The official reason for the leave had been a slipped disc; the unofficial, his slipped marriage.
“An elderly man who discovered the body has been taken to the hospital, but there’s another resident at the property, an Esther de Laurenti. Start by talking to her so the technicians have a chance to get the crime scene squared away in the meantime.”
“Was her name DeLorean?” Anette asked with a subtle burp, breathing the air out the corner of her mouth. “Like the car?”
Jeppe walked to the gun locker in the corner, took out his Heckler & Koch, and fastened it in his hip holster.
“Yes, Werner, like the car,” the superintendent sighed. “Exactly like that.”
ESTHER DE LAURENTI reached for the alarm and tried to stop the infernal noise from exploding her skull. The transition from dream to reality was foggy, and she couldn’t comprehend the sound of the doorbell until it rang for the third time. Her two pugs, Epistéme and Dóxa, were barking hysterically, eager to defend their territory. Esther had fallen asleep on top of her comforter and still had deep pillow marks on her face. Since retiring from her professorship at the University of Copenhagen a little over a year ago, she had let her inner type B personality take over and rarely got up before ten. Her mother’s antique brass clock with the shepherd and shepherdess on top showed 8:35 a.m. If it was that goddamned mailman, she was going to throw something heavy at him. The brass shepherds, perhaps.
She wrapped the comforter around her and made her way to the front door, her head throbbing. Had she finished that whole bottle of red wine yesterday? She had definitely had more than the two glasses she allowed herself when she was writing. Esther glanced at the stack of her printed-out manuscript, experiencing the writer’s never-ending attraction to, and repulsion from, her work. Her body longed for its morning routine: stretches, breathing exercises, and oatmeal with raisins. Maybe a Tylenol in honor of the occasion. She shook her head to clear it and looked through the peephole in the front door.
On the landing stood a man and a woman Esther didn’t recognize, although she admittedly did have trouble remembering the hundreds of students who had passed through her classrooms during her thirty-nine years in the department. But she felt quite sure these two were not former students of comparative literature. They did not look like academics at all. The woman was tall with broad shoulders, wearing a slightly too-small polyester blazer, her lips thin and cherry pink. She had a blond ponytail and skin that appeared to have endured too many years of sunbathing. The man was slim with strikingly bright-yellow hair; he might even have been charming if he hadn’t looked so pale and sad. Mormons? Jehovah’s Witnesses?
She opened the door. Epistéme and Dóxa barked, preparing for war behind her.
“You’d better have an unbeatable reason for waking me up at this hour!” Esther announced.
If they were offended by her greeting, they did not show it in any way.
“Esther de Laurenti?” the man asked in a serious voice. “We’re from the Copenhagen Police. My name is Jeppe Kørner, and this is my colleague, Detective Anette Werner. I’m afraid we have some bad news for you.”
Bad news. Esther’s stomach lurched.
“Come in,” she said with a frog in her throat, stepping back into the living room so the police officers could enter. Her dogs sensed the change in mood right away and jogged after her with disappointed whimpers.
“Please,” she said, sitting down on the chesterfield sofa and gesturing for the detectives to join her.
“Thank you,” the man said. He walked in a suspicious arc around the little pugs to sit down on the edge of the armchair. The woman remained in the doorway, looking around curiously.
“An hour ago, the owners of the café on the ground floor of your building found your downstairs neighbor, Gregers Hermansen, collapsed from a heart attack in the apartment on the second floor. Mr. Hermansen was taken to the hospital and is being treated now. Luckily, he was found quickly, and as far as we know, his condition is stabilizing.”
“Oh no! It was bound to happen,” Esther said, picking up the French press with yesterday’s coffee in it from the coffee table and setting it back down. “Gregers has been ailing for a long time. What was he doing down in the girls’ place?”
“That is actually what we were hoping you could help us shed some light on,” the detective said, folding his hands in his lap, regarding her neutrally.
Esther removed the comforter and laid it over the stacks of papers and discarded cardigans on the sofa. Those detectives would surely survive the sight of an old woman in her nightgown.
“Tell me,” Esther began, “do the police routinely go around asking questions every time an elderly man has a heart attack?”
The detectives exchanged a look that was hard to interpret. The man cautiously pushed a stack of books on the armchair aside and slid back more comfortably.
“Did you hear anything unusual last night or early this morning, Mrs. de Laurenti?”
Esther shook her head impatiently. First, she hated being addressed as Mrs. Second, she hadn’t heard anything other than the whale song meditation track that was her current sleep aid when the red wine didn’t cut it.
“What time did you go to bed last night?” the detective continued. “Has there been any unusual activity in the building the last couple of days, anything at all that you can think of?” His face was calm and insistent.
“You’ve chased me out of bed at the crack of dawn!” Esther replied, crossing her arms. “I’m in my nightgown and haven’t had any damn coffee. So before I answer your questions I want to know what this is about!” She pressed her lips together.
The detective hesitated but then nodded.
“Early this morning,” he began, “your downstairs neighbor Gregers Hermansen found the body of a young woman in the kitchen of the second-floor apartment. We’re still ID’ing the victim and establishing the cause of death, but we’re sure there was foul play. Mr. Hermansen is in shock and hasn’t been able to communicate with us yet. It would be helpful if you could tell us everything you know about the other residents in this building and what’s been going on for the last few days.”
Shock welled up in Esther, from her ankles, thighs, and pelvis to her chest, until she felt like she couldn’t breathe. Her scalp tightened, and the short, henna-dyed hair at the nape of her neck stood on end as a prolonged shiver ran over her back.
“Who is it?” she asked. “Is it one of the girls? That can’t be right. No one dies in my building.”
She realized what she must sound like—childish and out of control. The floor gave way beneath her, and she clung to the armrest to keep from falling.
The detective reached out and grabbed her arm.
“I think that coffee might just be a good idea, don’t you, Mrs. de Laurenti?”