The Forgotten Girls
Pub: February 3, 2015
In a forest in Denmark, a ranger discovers the fresh corpse of an unidentified woman. A large scar on one side of her face should make the identification easy, but nobody has reported her missing. After four days, Louise Rick—the new commander of the Missing Persons Department—is still without answers. But when she releases a photo to the media, an older woman phones to say that she recognizes the woman as Lisemette, a child she once cared for in the state mental institution many years ago. Lisemette, like the other children in the institution, was abandoned by her family and branded a “forgotten girl.” But Louise soon discovers something more disturbing: Lisemette had a twin, and both girls were issued death certificates over 30 years ago. As the investigation brings Louise closer to her childhood home, she uncovers more crimes that were committed—and hidden—in the forest, and finds a terrible link to her own past that has been carefully concealed.
My own dear mother
I long for you
If only you knew
How they mistreat me
Confined to bed
Bound by belt and gloves
I long for you
—Solborgs bog by Solborg Ruth Kristensen
Gone is coming, Gone is coming! The words pounded in her ears as the rocks and branches of the forest floor tore her feet and shins. Her head was whirling, and fear made her heart constrict.
She was headed for the only light she could see. Like an opening in the dark, the gleam of white pulled her deeper into the woods. Confused and scared, she stumbled through the trees, gasping for air.
Her fear of the dark was like a choke hold around her neck. It had been that way ever since she was ordered as a young child to turn off the light and go to sleep. Or Gone would come and take her.
Gone, Gone, Gone—the words sounded rhythmically, and she was too slow to prevent a branch from flicking across her cheek.
Holding her breath, she stopped and stood as if frozen, completely surrounded by the saturated darkness from the trees that towered around her. Her legs were shaking from exhaustion. Frightened by the sound of her own crying, she slowly stepped forward, her eyes fixed on the light ahead. It blinded her when she looked straight at it.
She didn’t know how she had gotten lost. The door had been ajar, and they hadn’t noticed her standing in the doorway. She had been overcome with joy when she felt the sun warming her and beckoning her, but that was hours ago and now everything had turned cold and unsettling.
At one point hunger made her give up, and she sat down. Twilight fell while confusing fragments of images tumbled through her head until finally, unable to settle down, not knowing how long she had been sitting, she got back up. She wasn’t used to interrupted routines, and being alone was not good—especially not for the person left behind.
She increased her speed, getting closer to the white light. It was pulling her in like an irresistible force, and she shut out the pain and the sounds—a skill she had mastered by now. She had never learned to handle the fear, however. She needed to escape the dark, or Gone would come and take her.
She was getting close; only a little farther ahead through the last trees. Her heart slowed as she caught a glimpse of a moonlit lake. Just as she was about to slow down, the ground suddenly disappeared from under her feet.
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 about 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 starting a new job, forgetting people’s names, not knowing where the copier was. 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 as 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 ranger 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.”
You’ve just read an excerpt from The Forgotten Girls.