By Sara Blaedel
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The body of an unidentified woman has been discovered in a remote forest. A large, unique scar on one side of her face should make the identification easy, but nobody has reported her missing. Louise Rick, the new commander of the Missing Persons Department, waits four long days before pulling off a risky move: releasing a photo of the victim to the media, jeopardizing the integrity of the investigation in hopes of finding anyone who knew her.
The gamble pays off when a woman recognizes the victim as Lisemette, a child she cared for in the state mental institution many years ago. Lisemette was a “forgotten girl”, abandoned by her family and left behind in the institution. But Louise soon discovers something even more disturbing: Lisemette had a twin, and both girls were issued death certificates more than thirty years ago.
Louise’s investigation takes a surprising when it brings her closer to her childhood home. And as she uncovers more crimes that were committed–and hidden–in the forest, she is forced to confront a terrible link to her own past that has been carefully concealed. Set against a moody and atmospheric landscape, The Forgotten Girls is twisty, suspenseful, emotionally intense novel that secures Sara Blaedel’s place in the pantheon of great thriller writers.
Table of Contents
A Preview of The Killing Forest
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FOUR DAYS. That was how much time had passed since the woman's body had been discovered in the woods, and the police had yet to identify her. They didn't have the slightest clue to go on, and Louise Rick was frustrated as she pulled in and parked by the Department of Forensic Medicine late Monday morning.
The autopsy had started at 10 a.m., and it had been a bit later when the head of the Search Department, Ragner Rønholt, walked into the office and asked her to drive over and assist her colleague Eik Nordstrøm. Shortly before, Forensic Medicine had announced the decision to upgrade the autopsy to include homicide tests for DNA.
It was Louise's second week as technical manager of the Special Search Agency, a newly established unit of the department. Each year, sixteen to seventeen hundred people were reported missing in Denmark. Many turned up again and some were found dead, but according to the assessment of the National Police, there was a crime behind one out of five of the unsolved missing person reports.
Her department was tasked with investigating these cases.
Louise got out and locked the car. She didn't quite understand why they needed her at the autopsy when Eik Nordstrøm was already there. He had been off on vacation the past four weeks, so he was the only person in the department that she hadn't yet met.
It was Louise who had gone through the list of missing persons on Friday afternoon and discovered that none of the missing women matched the description of the woman found in the woods. Perhaps Rønholt felt that she ought to be present for the examination of the deceased as well. Or it could simply be because she had come from the Homicide Department and had more experience dealing with autopsies than her new colleagues. The move was an unusual step down, to be sure, driven by an excruciating decision Louise had felt compelled to reach. She'd make the best of it, but she wasn't thrilled to be here.
It actually felt nice to be tasked with something she knew how to navigate after a week of unfamiliar territory. Louise hadn't foreseen the hopeless feeling when starting a new job of forgetting people's names and not knowing where to find the copier. She had spent the first week organizing the "Rathole." Heck of a name, she thought, hoping that it wouldn't stick—she was already growing a bit weary of her colleagues' witty comments about the unused rooms at the end of the hall. The two-person office was above the kitchen and had been empty since Pest Control had dealt with a considerable rat infestation last spring. But the rats were gone now and no one had seen them since, her new boss assured her.
Ragner Rønholt had done his part to get the new department in order, purchasing new office chairs and bulletin boards along with a number of plants. The chief superintendent had a personal preference for orchids and apparently felt that some greenery was what was needed to bring life into the unused office. That was all very well, Louise thought. But what really mattered to her was the fact that she sensed his commitment. Ragner Rønholt was clearly determined to get this new sub-unit up and running. They had been granted one year to prove that there was a need for the special unit, and Louise had everything to gain. If this new job did not become permanent, she risked ending up a local detective somewhere in the district.
"You decide who you want on the team," Rønholt had generously told her when he introduced her to the idea of heading the Special Search Agency.
Since then she had considered at length who might be suitable prospects, and the final candidates on her list were all people with whom she had worked before. Experienced and competent.
First on the list was Søren Velin from the Mobile Task Force. He was used to working all over the country and had good contacts at many local police stations. But he liked his current position, so Louise didn't know how easily he would transfer; the question also remained whether Rønholt would match his current salary.
Then there was Sejr Gylling from the Fraud Department. He was great at thinking outside the box. But he was an albino, sensitive to bright daylight, and she was not sure that she could stand always working behind closed curtains.
Finally there was Lars Jørgensen, her most recent partner in the Homicide Department. They knew each other inside and out, and she felt comfortable working with him. There was also no question that this type of work would suit his temperament as well as his status as a single dad to two boys from Bolivia.
So there were several promising candidates. Louise just hadn't decided yet which one she should try to reel in first.
OUTSIDE THE DOOR to the autopsy unit, she spotted Åse from the Center of Forensic Services. The slender woman was crouched next to her briefcase but stood up, smiling, as Louise approached.
"We snapped a couple of photos for you before we really got started," she told Louise after they said hello. "Just of the face, in case you decide to ask the public for help in identifying her."
"Yes, it looks like that might become necessary," Louise conceded, even though pictures like that always caused a stir. Some people felt showing the faces of the deceased was too morbid.
The forensic officer gestured toward the autopsy rooms, her green eyes serious.
"The woman in there won't be hard to recognize. That is, if she has any next of kin," she said. "The entire right side of her face is covered by a big scar, presumably from a burn wound, which continues down onto her shoulder. So if she hasn't already been reported missing, a picture is probably your best chance of discovering her identity."
Louise nodded but didn't have a chance to answer because just then Flemming Larsen walked up along with two lab technicians. The tall medical examiner beamed when he spotted Louise.
"Well, I'll be—I guess we haven't seen the last of you after all!" he said, hugging her. "I was worried that it was me you were trying to get away from when you suddenly changed departments."
"You didn't really think that," she retorted, smiling and shaking her head.
Louise had known Flemming Larsen for the eight years she worked in the Homicide Department. She had been happy with her job and counted on staying there until her retirement, but with Willumsen gone and Michael Stig appointed new group leader, she had needed no time to think it over before accepting Rønholt's offer.
"Is Eik Nordstrøm in there?" Louise asked, tipping her chin toward the doors to the autopsy rooms.
"Eik who?" Flemming looked at her with confusion.
"Eik Nordstrøm from the Search Department."
"Never heard of him," Flemming said. "But let's head in there. We've completed the external part of the autopsy so I can give you a quick summary."
Louise was puzzled by the absence of her colleague. She held the door open for Åse before walking into the sluice room, where rubber boots and coats were lined up.
"What do we know about this woman?" she asked as she put on a lab coat and hairnet.
"So far, not much, except that it was a forest worker who found her on Thursday morning by Avnsø Lake on mid-Zealand," Flemming answered, handing her a green surgical mask. "According to the coroner's examination, she died sometime between Wednesday and early Thursday morning.
"The police think she fell or slipped maybe fifteen feet down a steep slope and landed badly," he continued. "The coroner's examination was carried out in Holbæk on Friday, and the medical officer and the local police decided to get an autopsy done—because she died alone, of course, but also because we have no idea who this woman is. I decided to upgrade the autopsy so we'll get the DNA."
Louise nodded in agreement. DNA and dental records were always the first steps toward an identification. It would have been nice if Eik Nordstrøm had bothered to show up, she thought, so one of them could follow up with the dentist right away.
"I can say almost for sure that this is no ordinary woman we're dealing with," Flemming went on, explaining that this was clear from both the clothes she had been wearing before they began and the condition of the body. "Or at least it's not a woman who has lived an ordinary life," he corrected.
"We've run her fingerprints through the system but with no matches," Åse added. "I'm thinking she might be a foreigner."
Flemming Larsen agreed that this was a possibility.
"It's certainly clear that she has not participated in any kind of social life for many years," he elaborated. "You'll see what I mean."
The medical examiner led the way down the white-tiled hallway with autopsy bays side by side to their right. In each, medical examiners stood bent over steel tables with dead human bodies. Louise quickly averted her eyes when she caught a glance of an infant's body on one.
"When we scanned the deceased's head before starting the autopsy, deep furrows in her brain were clearly evident," Flemming elaborated. "Simply put, she had a large cavity system, so there can't have been much going on in there."
"Do you mean to say that she was mentally handicapped?" Louise asked.
"She certainly wasn't the next Einstein."
THE HOMICIDE ROOM was at the end of the hallway. This rearmost autopsy room was twice the size of the other bays to allow room for police and forensic officers, but the room was set up the same as the others: with a steel table, a wide sink, and bright lamps.
Louise took out her Dictaphone and placed it where it could record Flemming's examination of the body. The entire process was photographed by Åse, who was compiling the materials for investigation at the Center of Forensic Services. The samples that Flemming collected in the process would be passed on to the forensic geneticists upstairs.
While Louise wouldn't exactly say the woman lying on the table in the middle of the room was dirty, neither would she say she was well groomed. Her hair was overgrown and tangled and her nails long and jagged. Most striking was the large scar that covered one cheek and pulled down the eye a little, giving her face a sad expression.
"The dentist was astounded, to put it mildly, when he finished his examination," Åse said as she lifted her camera. "He said it's extremely rare for him to see a set of teeth in such a state of neglect. They're ruined from cavities and very crooked."
Flemming nodded. "She has apparently never had any kind of orthodontics, and there's severe periodontal disease in the upper part of the mouth," he said. "She already lost several teeth."
Louise grabbed a tall stool, which she moved closer as Flemming started the internal examination. The organs had been removed and transferred to a steel tray next to the sink.
"We're dealing with a full-grown woman but I'm having difficulty assessing her age." He bent over the body. "As far as the distinctive scar is concerned, I feel certain that it has never been treated. It's a violent injury from some time back. It may also have been a corrosive burn," he added, pensively. "There hasn't been any grafting, and it must have hurt like hell when it happened."
Louise nodded. That had been her initial thought as well.
"She also has an old scar that could easily date all the way back to her childhood. At one point in time she broke a bone in her left forearm, which wasn't treated."
The medical examiner looked up at them as he drew his first conclusion.
"All of this tells me that she has been profoundly neglected throughout her life and that she was probably quite isolated."
Louise looked at the ruined soles of the woman's feet and the cuts on her ankles. They clearly showed that she had gone barefoot for a long way.
Flemming turned his eyes back to the woman's body once more and continued the autopsy in silence for a short while until he noted that in falling down the slope, the deceased had broken seven ribs on her left side.
"There's about five pints of blood in the left pulmonary cavity," he announced without looking up. "And the lung is collapsed."
After rinsing the internal organs and examining them one by one, he straightened up and told Åse that he was finished.
"Aside from the broken ribs and the blood in the pulmonary cavity there's no indication of violence," he said, rolling off his skintight gloves and throwing them in the trash. "My immediate guess would be that she died of her internal bleeding."
He paused and thought for a moment before adding: "One detail that may be of interest is that I'm quite convinced the woman had intercourse shortly before her death."
Louise looked at him in surprise.
"I believe there are remnants of semen in the vagina and on the inside of both thighs," he explained, "but I need to get that confirmed, of course, so I'll have to wait to get the test results back before I can say for certain. That could take about a week."
She nodded. It very well could when there was no indication that the death was the result of a crime. She got up and walked back to look at the woman's disfigured face.
"If I'm right, it could mean that perhaps she wasn't that lonely after all." Flemming walked over to call the technicians, letting them know he had finished.
"But still lonely enough that no one has found reason to report her missing despite the fact that she's been dead almost a week," Louise said.
She waited while Åse put away her equipment and then they said good-bye to Flemming, who had moved to the computer in the corner to dictate the details to his report.
They left the autopsy room with a nod at the two forensic technicians, who had to close up the body before it was taken back to the cold-storage room in the basement.
ANGRY, LOUISE PHONED Ragner Rønholt, her fingers punching the keys. "There was no Eik Nordstrøm when I got to the Department of Forensic Medicine," she began when Rønholt answered. "I don't know how you usually do things but it's a complete waste of the medical examiner's time when the police aren't there from the beginning. He had to repeat to me what they'd found out from the external part of the autopsy."
"Oh, what the hell," Rønholt grumbled. "He didn't show up?"
"At least not where the rest of us were," Louise answered, adding that she was heading back now.
"Hold on a minute," her boss said. "Just stay there. I'll call you right back."
After he hung up, she took the stairs down to the foyer and stood for a bit, waiting for his call. Finally she lost patience and walked across the street to the car.
She had just slid into the driver's seat when Rønholt's name started flashing on her phone.
"Did you leave?"
"I'm about to," she answered, making no attempt to hide her annoyance that he had kept her waiting.
"Could you do me a favor and pick up Eik at Ulla's out in Sydhavnen?" he asked. "Looks like he's having a bit of trouble getting back into the swing of things after his vacation."
Louise sighed and asked for the address. She ignored Rønholt's thanks as she entered the street name in her GPS.
She hadn't signed on for this. She was not some eager-to-please rookie; nor was she comfortable being asked to retrieve her drunken partner from some seedy pub.
Number 67. Louise couldn't find the place, only 65 and 69. Between them was a run-down closed bar, the door hidden behind rusty grating.
Just as she started walking back to her car, a beer truck pulled up at the curb, horn honking. Louise turned to watch the driver, who had already jumped out of the driver's cab and started lowering the wide tailgate.
She could have sworn that the bar with the peeling Carlsberg ad in the window had been sapped of life for years, but now a stocky, heavyset woman with jet-black hair appeared in the door, struggling to unlock the two padlocks on the rusty grating.
"Excuse me," Louise began once the woman had removed them. "Do you know if number sixty-seven is in the backyard?"
The woman hauled the grating inside the door, stepping aside as the truckers started hauling in boxes.
"This is sixty-seven," she answered, a stale smell of old smoke and spilled beer drifting out from behind her.
"I'm here to pick up Eik Nordstrøm at Ulla's. Do you know her?"
The middle-aged woman looked at Louise for a moment then gestured toward the room behind her.
"I'm Ulla. Ulla's is my bar, and he's in there."
The men were replacing the beer casks as Louise was ushered toward the back of the room, where two gaming machines hung on the wall. The carpet under her feet was sticky in several places, and full ashtrays were still sitting on the tables. Ulla was working on cleaning up after the night's drinking.
Nordstrøm was sprawled across four chairs that had been pushed together in a row against the wall. Someone had covered him with a small fleece blanket. He was snoring softly with his mouth open, and his greasy, longish hair covered his forehead and fell on his nose.
"Someone's here for you, hon," Ulla called, placing her hand on his black leather jacket as she started to shake him.
Louise took a few steps back, cursing Rønholt. "Never mind."
She was about to leave when Ulla stopped her. "Just give him two minutes and he'll be ready."
Louise stood and watched as Ulla walked behind the counter and got out a shot glass and a bottle of liquor, which she brought over and put down on the table before she started shaking Eik again.
He grunted loudly as he finally sat up with much difficulty and accepted the glass that Ulla handed him. He closed his eyes and tipped his head back, pouring the small drink down his throat and quickly accepting another.
Then he redirected his eyes and tried to focus on Louise.
"Who the hell are you?" he asked, his voice sounding as if it were coming through an old, rusty pipe.
"Rønholt asked me to pick you up," she answered. "Your vacation's over."
"Tell him to go to hell," he grumbled as he lit a cigarette from a flattened pack on the table.
Louise watched him for a moment before she turned around and left. Outside, the truckers were about to close the truck's tailgate, and Ulla started replacing the grating.
"Wait!" a voice jarred from inside.
He came stumbling out into the street, blinking in the bright sunlight while he ran his hands through his hair. For a moment it looked as if he was going to lose his balance, but then he started to follow her as she walked toward the car.
"Do I know you?" he asked, tossing his cigarette on the curb.
Louise shook her head and introduced herself. "You were supposed to be at the Department of Forensic Medicine three hours ago, so I filled in for you."
She opened the passenger door and maneuvered him into the car. She had barely walked around to the other side to get in before he leaned his head back and fell asleep.
The ride back to the Search Department was accompanied by a gentle snoring but Louise shut it out, instead focusing on the unidentified woman. There had been something vulnerable, almost childish, about the part of her face that wasn't disfigured by the large scar. She must have been pretty once. But the question remained—when?
LOUISE LEFT EIK Nordstrøm in the parking lot. He was still sitting in the car, eyes closed, when she slammed the door shut behind her. Then she walked to her office, keeping her eyes fixed on the grayish linoleum floor so as not to show the anger that was simmering in her head.
She dropped her bag on the floor and closed the door. The walls were still bare but Louise noticed that venetian blinds had been installed while she was out.
The sun shone brightly into the room so she walked over to adjust the blinds before sitting down at her desk and turning on her computer. She found the file containing résumés along with her own notes on the three people she thought would be well suited to lead the department with her while she considered if perhaps Henny Heilmann might also be a candidate.
Her previous group leader, who had been assigned to Radio Communication, had a long career in the Homicide Department behind her. She was one of the most experienced investigators Louise knew, but perhaps she did not have what it took to return to the fold, she thought, acknowledging that Heilmann was a wild card. She would either be incredibly committed and efficient, as in the old days, or it would be hard to get her back up to speed.
Someone pounded on the door. When it was flung open a second later Eik Nordstrøm barged in with a couple of boxes stacked on top of an office chair, which he was pushing in front of himself with one foot.
"All right, there's a chair in here already," he noted and stopped in the doorway.
"What's going on?" Louise exclaimed, quickly gathering up her notes while noticing that he had put some water in his hair and combed it back. She was guessing that he'd had a clean T-shirt at the office and had done a quick rinse-off in the locker room.
"I'm moving in," he said, nodding in the direction of the empty seat on the opposite side of the window. "I always wanted a female partner."
Louise got up, dumbfounded.
"You and I won't be working directly together," she shot back at him. "The Special Search Agency is more like a parallel unit to yours."
"Yes," he agreed as he unloaded the boxes on the desk. "And that agency is going to be you and me. I was just told to pack up my things and move in here with you."
"Then there's been a misunderstanding. Who told you that?"
Eik had tossed his leather jacket on the floor and started to unpack the two boxes.
"Rønholt. He put me on the case involving the woman from the woods."
Louise stared at him in disbelief.
"Sure, but you don't have to be in here to work on that case, right?" she tried.
"Yeah, 'cause I'll be working with you," he said and coughed as if his lungs hadn't quite gotten their day started yet.
She stood quietly for a moment, letting his words sink in. Then she grabbed the file from the desk and pushed past him as he started to maneuver the surplus chair out again.
"Is RØNHOLT IN THERE?" she asked when she stood in front of her boss's secretary. Hanne Munk had also worked in the Homicide Department some years ago, but only briefly. Her big red hair, multicolored clothing, and spiritual tendencies had not exactly been Detective Superintendent Willumsen's cup of tea, so within a few months he had managed to scare her away.
"You can't go in right now!" she said. "Ragner is preparing for a meeting with the national commissioner."
"I need to speak with him. It'll take two minutes." Louise continued through the front office.
Hanne leaped up and got to the door before Louise could raise her arm to knock.
"You can't just barge in and interrupt." She blocked the way, giving Louise an angry stare. "And he won't have any more time for the rest of the day. But of course you're welcome to schedule a meeting later this week."
"Oh, would you stop it!" Louise said. She stayed right in Hanne's face with no intention of giving in.
Just then the door opened and Ragner Rønholt nearly tripped over his secretary, who was still blocking the threshold.
"Well, hello there," he said, grabbing Hanne's shoulders to regain his balance while smiling at Louise. "I'm glad you were able to get Eik up and about. He's a good guy once he gets out of vacation mode."
"Yeah, about that… Louise slipped past Hanne while pulling Rønholt back into his office and closing the door behind them. "Our deal was crystal clear: I get to pick the other person who'll work in the new department."
She handed her papers to him.
"Here's a list of the people I consider qualified."
As he accepted the file, Louise remembered the small notes she had made, which were meant for her eyes only, and pulled the papers back out of his hands.
"No one ever said that you could just unload some drunk on me."
"Who said anything about unloading anyone?" Rønholt sounded defensive, a deep crease indented across his forehead. "Eik is my best guy, and I'm sure that the combination of the two of you could be world-class."
World-class? Louise was dumbfounded at both his choice of words and how effortlessly he'd dumped the colleague on her.
"He was sleeping it off in a bar. Once he finally came around, he downed two shots before he even got on his feet. That is not world-class. Forget it. I want Lars Jørgensen. I'm sure he could be transferred over here quickly."
Rønholt had moved behind his desk. He looked at her. "You're right that Eik is fighting some demons, which at times are stronger than him. But sometimes people's weaknesses can also turn out to be their strengths," he said. "Lars Jørgensen is a possibility. But give Eik a chance. For a start, I suggest that he and you find the woman's identity, investigate if there are any next of kin who need to be notified, and then we'll get this case closed."
It was not the reaction Louise had expected. She took a deep breath and exhaled. This wasn't over yet.
He looked at his watch and grabbed his coat from the rack. "I'm running a bit late. Tonight's bridge night and I'm in charge of the cheese platter, so I won't be able to make it back after my meeting."
Louise followed him out but paused by the door. Eik Nordstrøm was standing in the front office, chatting with Hanne, who was nodding and smiling at every word he said.
"So how about we figure out the identity of our Jane Doe?" Louise asked. "If you're not too busy?"
She marched through the front office, well aware of the sour tone in her voice. She heard Eik whisper something in Hanne's ear that made her giggle before he tore himself away to catch up with Louise in the hallway.
"You want a cup of coffee?" he asked, turning to walk into the kitchen.
"No thanks, I drink tea." Louise stopped in surprise by the door to the Rathole. The office was transformed. It suddenly looked like someone had moved in. Maybe those music posters in snap frames weren't exactly to her taste, but at least it looked inhabited.
"Well, I'll be… she exclaimed.
- On Sale
- Feb 3, 2015
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Grand Central Publishing