Extract: The Crow Girl by Erik Axl Sund
It starts with just one body – tortured, mummified and then discarded. Its discovery reveals a nightmare world of hidden lives. Of lost identities, secret rituals and brutal exploitation, where nobody can be trusted. This is the darkest, most complex case the police have ever seen. This is the world of the Crow Girl.
This Scandi-crime sensation has two striking women as its centre and a series of plot twists that will leave you open mouthed.
Read on for an extract from this creepy psychological thriller!
The Crow Girl
Erik Axl Sund
was over a hundred years old, and the solid stone walls were at least a metre thick, which meant that she probably didn’t need to insulate them, but she wanted to be absolutely sure.
To the left of the living room was a small corner room that she had been using as a combination workroom and guest bedroom.
Leading off it were a small toilet and a fair-sized closet.
The room was perfect, with its single window and nothing but the unused attic above.
No more nonchalance, no more taking anything for granted.
Nothing would be left to chance. Fate was a dangerously unreliable accomplice. Sometimes your friend, but just as often an unpredictable enemy.
The dining table and chairs ended up shoved against one wall, which opened up a large space in the middle of the living room.
Then it was just a matter of waiting.
The first sheets of polystyrene arrived at ten o’clock, as arranged, carried in by four men. Three of them were in their fifties, but the fourth couldn’t have been more than twenty. His head was shaved and he wore a black T-shirt with two crossed Swedish flags on the chest, under the words ‘My Fatherland’. He had tattoos of spiderwebs on his elbows, and some sort of Stone Age design on his wrists.
When she was alone again she settled onto the sofa to plan her work. She decided to start with the floor, since that was the only thing that was likely to be a problem. The old couple downstairs might have been almost deaf, and she herself had never heard a single sound from them over the years, but it still felt like an important detail.
She went into the bedroom.
The little boy was still sound asleep.
It had been so odd when she met him on the local train. He had simply taken her hand, stood up and obediently gone with her, without her having to say a single word.
She had acquired the pupil she had been seeking, the child she had never been able to have.
She put her hand to his forehead; his temperature had gone down. Then she felt his pulse.
Everything was as it should be.
She had used the right dose of morphine.
The workroom had a thick, white, wall-to-wall carpet that she had always thought ugly and unhygienic, even if it was nice to walk on. But right now it was ideal for her purpose.
Using a sharp knife, she cut up the polystyrene and stuck the pieces together with a thick layer of flooring adhesive.
The strong smell soon made her feel dizzy, and she had to open the window onto the street. It was triple-glazed, and the outer pane had an extra layer of soundproofing.
Fate as a friend.
Work on the floor took all day. Every so often she would go and check on the boy.
When the whole floor was done she covered all the cracks with silver duct tape.
She spent the following three days dealing with the walls. By Friday there was just the ceiling left, and that took a bit longer because she had to glue the polystyrene first, and then wedge the blocks up against the ceiling with planks.
While the glue was drying she nailed up some old blankets in place of the doors she had removed earlier. She glued four layers of polystyrene onto the door to the living room.
She covered the only window with an old sheet. Just to be sure, she used a double layer of insulation to block the window alcove. When the room was ready, she covered the floor and walls with a waterproof tarpaulin.
There was something meditative about the work, and when at last she looked at what she had accomplished she felt a sense of pride.
The room was further refined during the following week. She bought four small rubber wheels, a hasp, ten metres of electric cable, several metres of wooden skirting, a basic light fitting and a box of light bulbs. She also had a set of dumb-bells, some weights and an exercise bike delivered.
She took all the books out of one of the bookcases in the living room, tipped it onto its side, and screwed the wheels under each corner. She attached a length of skirting board to the front to conceal the fact that it could now be moved, then placed the bookcase in front of the door to the hidden room.
She screwed the bookcase to the door and tested it.
The door glided soundlessly open on its little rubber wheels. It all worked perfectly. She attached the hasp and shut the door, concealing the simple locking mechanism with a carefully positioned lamp.
Finally she put all the books back and fetched a thin mattress from one of the two beds in the bedroom.
That evening she carried the sleeping boy into his new home.
The strangest thing about the young boy wasn’t the fact that he was dead, but that he had stayed alive so long. Something had kept him alive where a normal human being would long since have given up.
Detective Superintendent Jeanette Kihlberg knew nothing of this as she backed her car out of the garage. And she was unaware that this case would be the first in a series of events that would change her life.
She saw Åke in the window and waved, but he was on the phone and didn’t see her. He would spend the morning washing that week’s accumulation of sweaty tops, muddy socks and dirty underwear. With a wife and a son who were mad about football, it was a constant feature of daily life, this business of thrashing the old washing machine almost to the breaking point at least five times a week.
While he was waiting for the machine to finish, she knew he would go into the little studio they’d set up in the attic, and continue with one of the many unfinished oil paintings he was always working on. He was a romantic, a dreamer who had trouble finishing what he started. Jeanette had nagged him several times about getting in touch with one of the gallery owners who had shown an interest in his work, but he always said the pictures weren’t quite ready. Not yet, but soon.
And when they were, everything would change.
He would finally make his big breakthrough, and the money would start to pour in, and they could finally do everything they had dreamed of. Everything from fixing the house to travelling anywhere they liked.
After almost twenty years she was starting to doubt it was ever going to happen.
As she swung out onto the Nynäshamn road she heard a worrying rattle somewhere down by the left front wheel. Even though she was an imbecile when it came to cars, it was obvious that something was wrong with their old Audi and that she was going to have to get it fixed again soon. From past experience she knew it wouldn’t be cheap, even if the Serbian mechanic she went to out at Bolidenplan was both reliable and competitively priced.
The day before, she had emptied their savings account to pay the latest instalment of the mortgage, something that happened every three months with sadistic punctuality. She hoped she would be able to get the car fixed on credit. That had worked before.
Jeanette’s jacket pocket started to vibrate violently, as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony almost drove her off the road and onto the pavement.
‘Yep, Kihlberg here.’
‘Hi, Jan, we’ve got something out at the Thorildsplan metro,’ replied the voice of her colleague Jens Hurtig. ‘We need to get there at once. Where are you?’ There was a loud screech on the line, and she held the phone away from her ear to protect her hearing.
She hated being called Jan, and could feel herself getting annoyed. It had started off as a joke at a staff party three years earlier, but since then the nickname had spread through the whole of the police headquarters on Kungsholmen.
‘I’m in Årsta, heading onto the Essinge bypass. What’s happened?’
‘They’ve found a young dead male in some bushes by the metro station, near the teacher-training college, and Billing wants you there as soon as possible. He sounded pretty agitated. Everything points to murder.’
Jeanette Kihlberg could hear the rattle getting worse, and wondered if she ought to pull over and call a tow truck, then get a lift into town.
‘If this bastard car holds together I’ll be there in five, ten minutes. I want you there as well.’ The car lurched, and Jeanette pulled into the right-hand lane just in case.
‘OK, I’ll get going – I’ll probably be there before you.’
A dead man’s body found in some bushes sounded to Jeanette like a fight that had got out of hand. It would probably end up as a manslaughter charge.
Murder, she thought, as the steering wheel juddered, is a woman killed in her own home by her jealous husband after she tells him she wants a divorce.
More often than not, anyway.
But the fact was that times had changed, and what she had once learned at police training college was now not only open to question, but just plain wrong. Working methods had changed, and policing was in many respects much harder today than it had been twenty years ago.
Jeanette remembered the first time she was out on the beat, around normal people. How the public would offer to help, even had confidence in the police. The only reason anyone reports a crime today, she thought, is that the insurance companies demand it. Not because people have any expectation of the crime being solved.
But what had she been expecting when she quit her social-work course and decided to join the police? The opportunity to make a difference? To help people? That was what she told her dad when she proudly showed him her letter of acceptance. Yes, that was it. She wanted to be the sort of person who stood between people who did bad things and people who had bad things done to them. She wanted to be a real person.
And that was what being in the police meant.
She had spent her whole childhood listening in awe as her father and grandfather talked about their work in the police. No matter whether it was Midsummer or Good Friday, conversation around the dining table would always revert to ruthless bank robbers, good-natured pickpockets and clever con men. Anecdotes and memories from the darker side of life.
Just as the smell of the Christmas ham used to conjure up a whole roomful of expectation, the men’s talk in the living room provided a backdrop of security.
She smiled at the memory of her grandfather’s lack of interest and scepticism about new technological tools. Nowadays handcuffs had been replaced by self-locking plastic ties, to make things easier. He had once told her that DNA analysis was just a passing fad.
Police work was about making a difference, she thought. Not about making things easier. And their work had to adapt to keep pace with changes in society.
Being in the police means that you want to help, that you care. It’s not about sitting in an armoured police van, staring out helplessly through
had been as grey and as cold as the winter’s morning. He arrived on Air China in a country he had never heard of before. He knew that several hundred children before him had made the same journey, and like them he had a well-rehearsed story to tell the border police at passport control.
Without hesitating over a single syllable he delivered the story he had spent months repeating until he knew it by heart.
During the construction of one of the big Olympic venues he had got work carrying bricks and mortar. His uncle, a poor labourer, organised somewhere for him to live, but when his uncle was badly injured and ended up in hospital he had no one to look after him. His parents were dead and he had no brothers or sisters or other relatives he could turn to.
In his interview with the border police he explained how he and his uncle had been treated like slaves, in circumstances that could only be compared to apartheid. He told them how he had spent five months working on the construction site, but had never dared hope he might ever become an equal citizen of the city.
According to the old hukou system, he was registered in his home village far away from the city, and therefore had almost no rights at all in the place where he lived and worked.
That was why he had been forced to make his way to Sweden, where his only remaining relative lived. He didn’t know where, but according to his uncle they had promised to get in touch with him as soon as he arrived.
He came to this new country with nothing but the clothes he was wearing, a mobile phone and fifty American dollars. The mobile’s contact list was empty, and there were no texts or pictures that could reveal anything about him.
In actual fact, it was new and completely unused.
What he didn’t reveal to the police was the telephone number he had written down on a scrap of paper hidden in his left shoe. A number he was going to call as soon as he had escaped from the camp.
The country he had come to wasn’t like China at all. Everything was so clean and empty. When the interview was over and he was being led by two policemen through the deserted corridors of the airport, he wondered if this was what Europe looked like.
The man who had constructed his background, given him the phone number, and provided him with the money and phone had told him that over the past four years he had successfully sent more than seventy children to different parts of Europe.
He had said he had the most contacts in a country called Belgium, where you could earn big money. The work involved serving rich people, and if you were discreet and loyal, you could get rich yourself. But Belgium was risky, and you had to stay out of sight.
Never be seen outside.
Sweden was safer. There you would work mainly in restaurants and could move about more freely. It wasn’t as well paid, but if you were lucky you could earn a lot of money there too, depending on which services were in particular demand.
There were people in Sweden who wanted the same thing as the people in Belgium.
The camp wasn’t very far from the airport, and he was driven there in an unmarked police car. He stayed overnight, sharing a room with a black boy who could speak neither Chinese nor English.
The mattress he slept on was clean, but it smelled musty.
On only his second day there he called the number on the piece of paper, and a female voice explained how to get to the station in order to catch the train to Stockholm. Once he got there he was to call again for further instructions.
The train was warm and comfortable. It carried him quickly and almost soundlessly through a city where everything was white with snow. But by coincidence or fate, he never reached Central Station in Stockholm.
After a few stations a beautiful blonde woman sat down in the seat opposite him. She looked at him for a long time, and he realised that she knew he was alone. Not just alone on the train, but alone in the whole world.
The next time the train stopped the blonde woman stood up and took his hand. She nodded towards the door. He didn’t protest, and went with her like he was in a trance.
They got a taxi and drove through the city. He saw that it was surrounded by water, and he thought it was beautiful. There wasn’t as much traffic as there was at home. It was cleaner, and the air was easier to breathe.
He thought about fate and about coincidence, and wondered for a moment why he was sitting there with her. But when she turned to him and smiled, he stopped wondering.
At home they used to ask what he was good at, squeezing his arms to see if he was strong enough. Asking questions he pretended to understand.
They always had their doubts. Then sometimes they picked him.
But she had chosen him without him having done anything for her, and no one had ever done that before.
The room she led him into was white, and there was a big, wide bed. She put him in it and gave him something hot to drink. It tasted almost like the tea at home, and he fell asleep before the cup was empty.
When he woke up he didn’t know how long he’d been asleep, but he saw that he was in a different room. The new room had no windows and was completely covered in plastic.
When he got up to go over to the door he discovered that the floor was soft and yielding. He tried the door handle, but the door was locked. His clothes were gone, as was the mobile phone.
Naked, he lay back down on the mattress and went to sleep again.
This room was going to be his new world.
Jeanette could feel the wheel pulling to the right, and the car seemed to be heading along the road at an odd angle. She crawled the last kilometre at sixty, and by the time she turned off onto the Drottningholm road towards the metro station, she was beginning to think the fifteen-year-old car was finished.
She parked and walked over to the cordon, where she caught sight of Hurtig. He was a head taller than all the others, Scandinavian blond and thickset, without actually being fat.
After working with him for four years Jeanette had learned how to read his body language.
He looked worried. Almost pained.
But when he caught sight of her he brightened, came over and held the cordon tape up for her.
‘I see the car made it.’ He grinned. ‘I don’t know how you put up with driving around in that old crate.’
‘Me neither, and if you can get me a raise I’ll go and get a little convertible Mercedes to cruise about in.’
If only Åke would get a decent job with a decent wage, she could get herself a decent car, she thought as she followed Hurtig into the cordoned-off area.
‘Any tyre tracks?’ she asked one of the two female forensics officers crouched over the path.
‘Yes, several different ones,’ one of them replied, looking up at Jeanette. ‘I think some of them are from the lorries that come down here to empty the bins. But there are some other tracks from narrower wheels.’