Victim Without a Face, page 1
About Victim Without a Face
About Stefan Ahnhem
About Rachel Willson-Broyles
Table of Contents
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Three days from now.
THE CROW LANDED ON his naked belly and pressed its sharp claws into his skin. The first few times it happened, the weight of the bird on his body had woken him up. He had managed to scare it off and make it let go. But this time the crow wasn’t frightened as easily; instead, it stood unflinching, walking around on top of him, becoming more and more impatient and hungry. It was only a matter of time before it would start picking away at him bit by bit. He screamed as loudly as he could, and the bird finally let go, cawing as it flapped away.
At first he’d thought the whole thing was a nightmare and that all he had to do was wake up to make everything okay. But once he had opened his eyes, all he could see was darkness. He was blindfolded. The light, warm breeze indicated that he was outside and he could feel that he was lying naked on something hard and cold, splayed out like one of da Vinci’s anatomical drawings. That was all he knew for sure. Everything else was just a series of questions piling up in his mind. Who had put him here, and why?
He tried to yank his limbs free again, but the harder he tried the further the barbs from the straps dug into his wrists and ankles. The sensation cut into him like a piercing treble tone. It reminded him of the excruciating pain he had experienced as a nine-year-old during dental surgery, after he’d failed to convince the dentist that the novocaine wasn’t kicking in.
But then again, that was nothing compared to the pain he was in now. It usually came once a day and often lasted for several hours, penetrating him like a welding flame as it moved slowly across his naked body. Sometimes it would stop suddenly, only to return just as abruptly, and sometimes it didn’t come at all. He had spent hours trying to figure out what caused the pain. Was someone standing there torturing him? How was this happening? Now he had stopped trying to make sense of it and was directing all of his energy toward trying to withstand the agony.
He cried out for help as loudly as he could. He was struck by how puny his voice sounded and tried a second time, making an effort to use more force. But as the echo died away, he could hear his own shrill notes of desperation stubbornly coming through. He gave up. There was nobody listening. No one except the crow.
He reviewed the sequence of events in his mind, though he had lost count of how many times he’d done so already. Maybe he was missing a small detail that could give him some answers. He had left his house just after six in the morning, more than forty-five minutes before his shift started. He left the car at home, which was his habit as soon as the weather permitted; his walk through the park never took more than twelve minutes, so he had plenty of time to get to work.
Immediately after leaving the house, he had felt that something was off.
The feeling was so strong that he stopped to look around, but nothing stood out as unusual. There were only two people out that morning: a neighbour struggling to start his rusty old Fiat Punto, and a woman pedalling by on her bike, her skirt and beautiful blonde hair fluttering in the breeze. He remembered that her bike basket was decorated with plastic daisies. It was as if she were out for a ride solely to put smiles on the faces of the people she passed by. He hadn’t been receptive to it in the least.
His anxiety had a hold on him, and he walked with nervous footsteps to the other side of the street even though the walk sign was red, which he never usually did. But that morning was different; his whole body was wound tight as a spring, and by the time he had gone partway through the park he was certain that someone was following him. The footsteps on the gravel behind him sounded like tennis shoes.
He’d realized that he was walking very quickly, and he tried to make himself slow down again. The steps came closer and closer and he fought the urge to look back over his shoulder. His heart was pounding and a cold sweat washed over him like a wave. He felt like he was about to faint. He finally gave in and turned around. The man walking behind him was indeed wearing tennis shoes — a pair of black Reeboks. All of his clothes were dark and he had a lot of pockets. He had a backpack on and was carrying a rag in one hand.
But it wasn’t until the man had looked up and met his gaze that he was able to see his face.
After that, everything happened so fast. The pain shot out through all his nerves as a fist struck him in the abdomen. He had to fight to breathe and immediately fell to his knees and felt the rag pressing into his face.
His next memory was of waking to claws sinking into his belly.
HIGH ABOVE HIM NOW, a lone cloud was hiding the sun, a moment of deliverance as ephemeral as a sand castle. When the cloud finally drifted on and disappeared, the sky was the perfect blue only seen on a Swedish summer day. The sun was shining with all its strength straight at the carefully placed lens, which in turn directed the beams to a focal point next to the strapped-down man. The earth’s rotation took care of the rest.
The last thing he heard was the horrid crackling of his own burning hair.
June 30–July 7, 2010
In the fall of 2003, psychologist Kipling D. Williams performed an experiment to test social exclusion. He had three test subjects participate in a game of Cyberball — a virtual ball game where the players pass a ball around. After a period of time, two of them started to pass the ball between themselves. The third player, unaware that he was playing against two computerized test subjects, immediately experienced strong feelings of exclusion and rejection. The feelings were so powerful that an MRI was able to register enhanced activity in the very same part of the brain that is activated during physical pain.
FABIAN RISK HAD DRIVEN this route more times than he could remember, but it had never felt as easy and uplifting as it did right now. His family had left Stockholm early in the morning and rewarded themselves with a long lunch break in Gränna.
Fabian’s anxiety about moving back to his hometown was already starting to dissipate. Sonja was happy, almost bubbly, and had offered to drive the last stretch through Småland so he could enjoy a beer with his herring at lunch. Everything was almost too perfect, and he found himself wondering if it was all just for show. If he were to be totally honest with himself, deep down he had been hesitant to believe that running away from their problems and starting over again would truly work.
The children had reacted just as expected. Matilda saw it as an exciting adventure, even though she would have to start fourth grade at a new school. Theodor hadn’t been quite as positive, and even threatened to stay behind in Stockholm. But after their lunch in Gränna, it seemed that even Theodor was willing to give it a chance, and to everyone’s surprise he had taken his earphones out and spoken with them several times during the car ride.
But best of all was that the shouting had finally stopped. The shouts and screams of people begging and pleading for their lives had hounded Fabian for the past six months, both in his dreams and during the better part of his waking hours. He had first noticed their absence around Södertälje, southwest of Stockholm, but he’d assumed it was just a figment of his imagination. Not until they’d passed Norrköping was he totally sure that with every kilometre the voices were losing strength. Now that they had arrived, 556 kilometres later, the voices were silent altogether.
It was as if their life in Stockholm and the incidents of last winter were deep in th
Pålsjögatan 17 was in the Tågaborg neighbourhood, a stone’s throw from downtown and just around the corner from the Pålsjö forest. Fabian had plans to jog in the woodland each morning and start playing tennis again on the clay courts nearby. The seaside was also very close: it was a quick walk down Halalid hill to get to Fria Bad, the public beach where he had gone swimming all the time as a boy. Back then he used to pretend that he lived in this very neighbourhood rather than the yellow tenement buildings up in Dalhem. Now, thirty years later, his dream had come true.
“Dad, what are you waiting for? Aren’t you going to answer that?” Theodor asked.
Fabian roused from his daydream and realized that the rest of his family were down on the sidewalk, waiting for him to pick up his ringing phone: it was Astrid Tuvesson, his new — or rather, future — boss in the criminal investigation department of the Helsingborg police.
He was still part of the Stockholm police department on paper for another six weeks. Outwardly, it had been his own decision to quit, but Fabian had no doubt that most of his old colleagues knew what really happened. He would never be able to set foot in that police station again.
Now he had six weeks of involuntary vacation, which was starting to seem more and more appealing. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had this much time off — it must have been since he’d finished school. The plan was to use the six weeks to get settled in their new house and city. Depending on the weather and their mood, they might even take a trip somewhere warmer. The last thing they wanted to do was stress out. Astrid Tuvesson was undoubtedly well aware of this fact. And yet she was calling.
Something must have happened, but Fabian and Sonja had made a promise to each other. This summer, they would be a family again and share their parental responsibilities. Fabian was hoping that Sonja would have the energy to finish her last few paintings for an exhibition this fall.
Weren’t there other police officers in Helsingborg who weren’t on vacation?
“No, the call can wait,” he said, putting his phone in his pocket. He unlocked the front door of the house and opened it for Theodor and Matilda, who were fighting each other to be the first one in. “If I were you, I’d check out the backyard!” He turned to Sonja, who was coming up the stairs with an iPod speaker in her hands.
“Who was that?”
“It wasn’t important. Come on, let’s look at the house.”
“No. It wasn’t,” Fabian said. He could see in her eyes that she didn’t believe him, so he got out the phone to show her who had called. “It was my future boss, who I’m sure just wanted to welcome us to town.” He guided Sonja into the house with his hands in front of her eyes. “Ta-da!” He removed his hands and watched as she looked around the empty living room with its fireplace, and the connecting kitchen that looked out onto the small backyard, where Matilda could be seen jumping on a big trampoline.
“Wow. This is... absolutely fantastic.”
“So it gets a passing grade? You like it?”
Sonja nodded. “Did the movers say anything about when they’ll be here?”
“Only that it will be sometime this afternoon or evening. We can always hope they’re delayed and don’t get here until tomorrow.”
“Why would we hope that, may I ask?” Sonja said, placing her arms around his neck.
“We have everything we need right here. A clean floor, candles, wine, and music.” Fabian pulled out his old, scratched iPod Classic and placed it in the speaker, which Sonja had put on the kitchen island. He chose Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago — a favourite album of the last few weeks. He’d been late to hop on the Bon Iver bandwagon. He had initially thought the record was boring, but upon giving it a second chance had realized what a masterpiece it really was.
He put his arms around Sonja and started dancing. She laughed and did her best to follow his improvised steps. He looked into her hazel eyes as she loosened her hair clip and let her brown hair down. The exercise her therapist had prescribed had certainly brought results, both mentally and physically. She must have lost about ten pounds. She’d never been fat, quite the opposite, but her facial features were sharper, and it suited her. Fabian swung around suddenly and dipped her. She laughed again and he realized how much he’d missed that sound.
They had discussed a number of solutions before settling on Helsingborg. Everything from moving out of their apartment near Södra Station and buying a house in one of Stockholm’s many inner suburbs, to buying a second apartment and having a trial separation, taking care of the children in turns. None of these alternatives had seemed right. Whether it was because they were too afraid they might get divorced or because deep down they actually still loved each another was still unclear.
It wasn’t until he found the house on Pålsjögatan that everything fell into place. He was offered a job as detective inspector with the Helsingborg police, there were open spots at Tågaborg School, and Fabian had found this perfect house, with its large, sky-lit attic that would make an ideal studio for Sonja. It was as if someone had taken mercy on them and decided to give them one last chance.
“What do we do about the kids?” Sonja whispered in his ear.
“I’m sure there’s some room down in the basement where we can lock them up.”
Sonja was about to respond, but Fabian interrupted her with a kiss. They were still dancing when the doorbell rang.
“Are the movers here already?” Sonja pulled away. “Maybe we’ll get to sleep in our beds after all.”
“And I was so looking forward to the floor.”
“I’m sure the floor is still available. I said sleep. Nothing more.” She resumed their kiss, letting her hand run down his stomach to find its way under his waistband.
Everything is going to turn out fine and we will live happily ever after, Fabian thought as she removed her hand and went to open the door.
“Hi, my name is Astrid Tuvesson. I’m one of your husband’s new colleagues.” The woman in the doorway extended her hand to Sonja. With her other hand, she pushed her sunglasses up into her curly blonde hair, which, along with her colourful dress, thin brown legs, and sandals, made her look a decade younger than fifty-two.
“Oh? Hello?” Sonja turned to Fabian, who walked over and shook hands with Tuvesson.
“You mean future colleague. I don’t start until August sixteenth,” Fabian said, noticing that her left earlobe was completely missing.
“Future boss, then, if we’re going to be that nit-picky.” She laughed and adjusted her hair to hide her ear, and Fabian found himself wondering if it was an injury or something she’d been born with. “Sorry. I really don’t want to bother you in the middle of your vacation, and you both must be tired after your trip, but —”
“No problem,” Sonja interrupted. “Come in. Unfortunately we can’t offer you anything because we’re still waiting for the movers.”
“That’s quite alright. All I need is a few minutes with your husband.”
Sonja nodded mutely and Fabian showed Tuvesson to the deck out back, closing the door behind them.
“I gave in and bought my kids a trampoline, too. They had to bug me for several years before I agreed to it, and by that time they were too old.” Tuvesson said.
“I’m sorry, but why are you here?” Fabian had no desire whatsoever to spend his vacation making small talk with his new boss.
“There’s been a murder.”
“Has there? What a shame. I don’t mean to interfere, but wouldn’t it be better to talk to one of your colleagues who isn’t on vacation?”
“Jörgen Pålsson. Sound familiar?”
“Is he the victim?”
Fabian recognized the name, but he wasn’t tempted to try and place it. The last thing he wanted to do was work. He was beginning to feel like a fully loaded oil tanker that had just been hijacked by pirates and forced to turn away from an island paradise.
“Maybe this will jog your memory.” Tuvesson held up a plastic sleeve with a photograph inside. “It was on the victim’s body.”
Fabian looked at the photo, and knew immediately that there would be no island paradise for him. He recognized the image, although he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen it. It was his class photo from the ninth grade, the last year of compulsory school — the last picture of all of them together. He was in the second row, and Jörgen Pålsson was behind him — crossed out with black marker.
FABIAN HAD SPENT JUST one hour in the house — one hour — before the doorbell rang. He understood why Tuvesson had chosen to contact him: he might be able to remember something that could speed up the investigation, and even save a few lives in the long run. But Fabian hardly remembered anything about compulsory school and he had no desire to relive that period of his life.
Tuvesson led Fabian to her white Corolla across the street from the house. She had offered to drive him to the crime scene and back, so that Sonja could unload their car. “Just so we’re clear, I truly appreciate you taking the time to come with me, even though you’re in the middle of a vacation.”
“Middle? It’s hardly even begun.”
“I promise this won’t take more than an hour.” Tuvesson stuck the key in the lock and turned it. “The car has automatic locks, but the door sticks, so you’ll have to put some muscle into it.” Fabian yanked the door open and noticed the passenger seat was covered with empty travel mugs, open packs of Marlboros, keys, scraps of food, used paper towels, and a box of tampons.