Main Victim 2117 A Department Q Novel

Victim 2117 A Department Q Novel

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ALSO BY JUSSI ADLER-OLSEN


			Stand-Alone Novels

			 				The Washington Decree

				The Alphabet House



			 				The Department Q Series

				The Keeper of Lost Causes

				The Absent One

				A Conspiracy of Faith

				The Purity of Vengeance

				The Marco Effect

				The Hanging Girl

				The Scarred Woman





			An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

			penguinrandomhouse.com



			Copyright © 2020 by Jussi Adler-Olsen

			Translation copyright © 2020 by William Frost

			Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

			DUTTON and the D colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

			LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA has been applied for.

			9781524742553 (hardcover)

			9781524742577 (ebook)

			This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

			pid_prh_5.5.0_c0_r0





Dedicated to Sandra





CONTENTS


			 				 				Also by Jussi Adler-Olsen

			 				 				Title Page

			 				 				Copyright

			 				 				Dedication

			 				 				Epigraph

			 				Prologue

			 				1. Joan

			 				2. Joan

			 				3. Joan

			 				4. Alexander

			 				5. Carl

			 				6. Assad

			 				7. Assad

			 				8. Joan

			 				9. Joan

			 				10. Assad

			 				11. Carl

			 				12. Assad

			 				13. Alexander

			 				14. Carl

			 				15. Assad

			 				16. Joan

			 				17. Assad

			 				18. Ghaalib

			 				19. Joan

			 				20. Carl

			 				21. Joan

			 				22. Carl

			 				23. Joa; n

			 				24. Alexander

			 				25. Gordon

			 				26. Carl

			 				27. Assad

			 				28. Joan

			 				29. Carl

			 				30. Carl

			 				31. Ghaalib

			 				32. Assad

			 				33. Alexander

			 				34. Rose

			 				35. Joan

			 				36. Carl

			 				37. Alexander

			 				38. Rose

			 				39. Ghaalib

			 				40. Ghaalib

			 				41. Assad

			 				42. Rose

			 				43. Joan

			 				44. Carl

			 				45. Ghaalib

			 				46. Assad

			 				47. Alexander

			 				48. Assad

			 				49. Carl

			 				50. Assad

			 				51. Ghaalib

			 				52. Joan

			 				53. Carl

			 				54. Assad

			 				55. Joan

			 				56. Ghaalib

			 				57. Assad

			 				58. Carl

			 				59. Assad

			 				60. Rose

			 				61. Rose

			 				 				Acknowledgments

			 				 				About the Author





The Fingers of the Drowned

				The life

				of the hands

				of the drowned

				is

				longer than our history

				far away

				and so close

				we see the drowned

				see their longing

				for life and peace

				every day

				we see the tips

				of their fingers

				disappear into the ocean

				but our eyes

				have not learned to see

				their fingers emerge

				from the ocean

				stretch

				toward the sky

				they are no longer wet

				the fingers of the drowned

				are forever dried up.

				—Falah Alsufi, poet and quota refugee from Iraq





PROLOGUE





A week before Assad’s family left Sab Abar, his father took him to the Saturday market with its bustling throng of stalls with chickpeas, pomegranates, bulgur, brightly colored spices, and cackling poultry awaiting the ax. He laid his hands on Assad’s slender shoulders and looked at him with deep, intelligent eyes.

			“Listen well, my son,” he said. “You will soon dream of what you experience today, and there will be many nights like those before the hope of reliving these sounds and smells dissipates. Take a good look around you while you can; keep what you see in your heart and you will never lose it completely. This is my advice to you, my son. Do you understand?”

			Assad squeezed his father’s hand and nodded as if he understood. But he never understood it.





1


			Joan





Joan Aiguader wasn’t religious. Quite the opposite, in fact; he left town when the Easter processions with their black-robed Catholics invaded the Rambla, and he was also someone who collected irreverent statues of popes and the three wise men defecating. But despite this blasphemous tendency, he had nevertheless crossed himself numerous times over the last few days, because if God did exist after all, then he had to be absolutely sure to be in his good books due to the unfortunate turn things had taken.

			When the morning mail finally arrived with the long-awaited envelope, Joan crossed himself again, because the contents would come to shape his destiny. He was sure of it.

			Now, three hours after reading the letter, he was sitting at a café in the Barceloneta district, shivering in the heat, devastated and devoid of his spark. For thirty-three years he had lived with the ridiculous hope that luck would favor him at some point or other; after this, however, he didn’t have the energy to wait any longer. Eight years ago, his father had tied an electric cable around his neck and hanged himself from a water pipe in the building where he worked as the administrator. His small family was devastated, and even though his father had never been a carefree man, they didn’t understand why. From one second to the next, Joan and his sister, who was five years younger, were suddenly left alone with a mother who was never quite herself again. Joan tried his best to be there for them. Back then, he was just twenty-five and working himself to death studying journalism and holding down numerous small jobs to try to make ends meet. But the following year was the final turning point in his life, when his mother took an overdose of sleeping pills, followed by his sister a few days later.

			It was only now, in hindsight, that it made sense that he couldn’t deal with any more. Somewhere along the way, the Aiguader family had slowly lost its perspective on life. Darkness had claimed them all. It would soon be his turn. So apart from short-lived moments of happiness and minor victories, it was a life of damnation. And in the space of just a month, his girlfriend had left him and his career had been flushed down the toilet.

			Fuck it. Why torment yourself when everything was so meaningless?

			Joan put his hand in his pocket and glanced over at the waiter behind the bar.

			Would it be too much to ask to end my life with an iota of self-respect intact and pay for my coffee? he thought, staring at the dregs. But his pocket was empty, and the failed projects and ambitions of his life came back to him in an endless loop. All his bad relationships and constantly dwindling low standards had suddenly become too difficult to ignore.

			He had reached rock bottom.

			Two years ago, when another deep depression had taken root, a fortune-teller from Tarragona had told him that he would shortly find himself with one foot in the grave but that a light in the middle of the day would save him. She had seemed very convincing, and Joan had clung to her prediction—but where the hell was the light? He couldn’t even leave the café with dignity. He couldn’t even pay the couple of euros for his cortado. Even the filthy beggars sitting on the pavement with outstretched hands at El Corte Inglés could scrape together the cash for an espresso; hell, even the homeless dressed in rags and sleeping rough in bank doorways accompanied by a dog could manage that.

			So even though the fortune-teller’s intense gaze had seduced him and given him hope for the future, she had been terribly wrong. And now the day of reckoning had arrived. That was a certainty.



* * *



			—

			 			He sighed as he looked down at the café table and the pile of envelopes lying there—testimony to the corner in which he irrevocably found himself. He could, of course, ignore the reminder letters at home, because while he hadn’t paid his rent in months, the insane Catalonian tenancy laws meant he couldn’t be thrown onto the street. And why should he worry about the gas bill when he hadn’t cooked a warm meal since Christmas? No, it was the four envelopes in front of him that had pushed him over the edge.

			As far as his relationship with his ex was concerned, Joan had repeatedly repented, promised stability and improvement, but his earnings had never materialized, and in the end, she had had enough of supporting him and told him to take a hike. In the weeks that followed, he had kept the aggressive creditors at bay with assurances that when he had received payment for his four latest essays, he could easily pay them all. Wasn’t he in the process of writing a collection of brilliant texts? Why shouldn’t he believe it?

			And here on the table were the rejections, which weren’t hesitant, vague, elusive, or indirect but heartless and to the point, like when the matador in “Tercio de Muerte” thrusts his estoc into the bull’s heart.

			Joan raised his cup to his face to enjoy the faded aroma of his coffee while looking out over the beach with its palms and the throng of colors exhibited by the bathers. It wasn’t long ago that Barcelona had been paralyzed by a madman’s crazy driving on the Rambla and the central government’s slaughter of normal citizens in front of the voting stations, but this all seemed to have been pushed to one side now, because the sight that greeted him through the shimmering heat was a throng of happy people. Their heads were filled with their own chatter and shouts, sweaty skin and sensuous looks. For the moment, the city seemed to be reborn—almost scornful—while he sat in vain looking for the fortune-teller’s glowing star.

			The distance from the café where Joan was sitting to where the children were playing on the edge of the beach was tantalizingly short. In less than a minute, he would be able to run past the sunbathers and into the water, dive under the foamy waves, and inhale quickly and definitively. With the buzz of activity on the beach, no one would take notice of a crazy guy throwing himself fully clothed into the water. And in less than one hundred seconds from now, he would be able to leave his life behind him.



* * *



			—

			Despite his heart’s beating ten to the dozen, Joan laughed bittersweetly at the thought. Those who knew him would find it unfathomable. A weakling like Joan Aiguader committing suicide? The dull, anemic journalist who didn’t have the balls to speak up during a discussion?

			Joan weighed the envelopes in his hand. Just a few hundred grams’ extra humiliation added to the rest of the shit life had thrown at him, so why cry about it? He had made his decision. In a second, he would tell the waiter that he couldn’t pay and make a run for it toward the beach, ignoring the protests behind him, and execute his plan.

			He had tensed his calf muscles and was preparing to make his move when a couple of guests dressed in swimwear stood up so abruptly that they toppled their barstools. Joan turned to face them. One of them was staring blankly at the TV screen hanging on the wall while the other one scanned the beach.

			“Turn it up!” the first guy shouted at the screen.

			“Hey, look! They’re right down there on the promenade,” the other one shouted, pointing at a mass of people gathering outside.

			Joan followed his gaze and spotted the TV crew that had positioned themselves in front of the three-meter-high pillar the municipality had erected a few years ago. The lower part of the pillar was metal but at the top, four numbers were lit up on a digital counter. Joan had long since read the text on the pillar that explained that its purpose was to keep count of the refugees who had drowned in the Mediterranean since the start of the year.

			People from the beach in swim trunks and bathing suits were drawn like magnets to the TV crew, and a few local lads strode out from Carrer del Baluard toward the scene. Maybe they had seen it on TV.

			Joan turned his attention to the waiter, who was polishing glasses like a robot while staring at the TV. Text on the screen declared, BREAKING NEWS, so Joan took his chance and slowly made his getaway down to the promenade.

			He was still alive in spite of everything—and he was still a journalist, after all.

			Hell could wait a little longer.





2


			Joan





Unaffected by the runners, roller skaters, and general commotion all around her, the female reporter stood in front of the large pillar, fully aware of the effect she was having. She tossed her hair, licked her lips, and brought the microphone up to them while the men and boys from earlier stood openmouthed, staring at her breasts. It wasn’t exactly what she had to say that had attracted them.

			“We don’t know exactly how many have drowned escaping to Europe, which represents paradise and freedom for these unfortunate souls,” she said. “But the number in recent years has reached the thousands, with more than two thousand casualties this year alone.”

			She turned slightly while pointing up at the digital counter on top of the pillar.

			“Here we can see the number that tells us how many refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean this year right up until this very moment. This time last year, the number was even higher, and we can expect next year to be just as bad. It’s thought-provoking that even though it’s an unfathomable and terrifying number, the world—you and I—can look the other way without a second thought as long as these dead people remain anonymous.”

			She looked directly into the camera with dramatic painted eyes. “Isn’t that what we—and the rest of the world in particular—do? We simply ignore it. As a counterreaction to this—you could even call it a protest—TV11 has decided to focus our upcoming reports on one of the deceased, more precisely the man whose body very recently washed ashore on a beach in Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean. We will show that this refugee was a real man of flesh and blood.”

			She glanced down at her flashy watch. “Less than an hour ago, this poor man’s body was splashing around in the surf toward the beach among contented summer beachgoers, not unlike those here at Platja de Sant Miquel.” She gestured with her arm at the sun worshippers to illustrate to whom she was referring.

			“Dear viewers, this young man I’m talking about was the first whose body was washed up on the popular beach Ayia Napa in Cyprus this morning, and he brings the number on our counter on the beach here to two thousand and eighty. That’s how many have died this year alone.” She paused for dramatic effect and looked up at the counter. “It’s just a matter of time before the number increases. But the first victim this morning was a dark-skinned boyish man wearing an Adidas sweatshirt and worn-out shoes. Why should he have lost his life in the Mediterranean? When we look out over the tranquil azure waves here in Barcelona, is it possible to imagine that at this very moment the same sea thousands of miles from here is crushing hopeful refugees’ dreams of a better life?”

			She took a pause from her speech as her producer cut to images from Cyprus. The beachgoers were able to follow on the monitor erected next to the cameraman. The sight put an immediate end to the buzz. Frightful images of the body of a young man on his stomach in the swash and then a couple of Good Samaritans dragging him onto the shore and flipping him on his back. Cut, and the monitor once again showed the reporter in Barcelona. She was standing a few meters away, ready to wrap up the report.

			“We will know more about this man in a few hours. Who he was, where he came from, and what his story is. We will return after the break. In the meantime, the number behind me continues to rise.” She ended by pointing at the counter while looking earnestly into the camera until the cameraman said, “Cut.”

			Joan looked around and smiled. This could be big! But could there really be no other representatives from the media among the hundreds of people gathered here except himself and the TV crew? Was he in the right place for once? Did he really have a big scoop?

			He had never had such a strong gut feeling before.

			Who could let an opportunity like this pass them by?

			Joan looked up at the digital counter.

			Moments ago, the death toll had been 2080, and now it stood at 2081. And like the boys staring at the reporter’s breasts while she lit a cigarette and spoke with the cameraman, Joan also hung around.

			Ten minutes ago, he had been determined to contribute to the statistic of people who had drowned in the Mediterranean, but now he was glued to the counter instead. The devastating number was so present and real that it made him feel faint and uneasy. He had been standing here with a childish focus on himself, filled with self-pity and defeat, while at the same time people were fighting for their lives out at sea. Fighting! The word hit him, and suddenly he understood what he had experienced and repressed. The relief brought him almost to tears. He had been so close to death, and then the light had come that had saved him. Just like the fortune-teller had predicted. The light that would give him his raison d’être; the light from the digital counter in front of him bearing witness to the misfortune of others and that now offered an unwritten and fantastic story. He saw it all clearly now.

			As predicted, his foot had been pulled from the grave at the very last minute.



* * *



			—

			The next few hours were hectic for Joan now that he had hatched a plan to save his career and thereby his very livelihood and future.

			He checked departures for Cyprus and ascertained that if he took the 16:46 flight to Athens, he could catch a connecting flight to Larnaca airport in Cyprus and be on Ayia Napa beach around midnight.

			He stared at the ticket price. Almost five hundred euros each way, which was money he didn’t have. So, half an hour after making his decision, he was forcing entry into his ex-girlfriend’s grocery store. He opened the back door with the key she had been begging him to return for the last few weeks and walked determinedly behind the counter where she hid the cash in a small box under a couple of vegetable boxes.

			In twenty minutes, she would return from her siesta to find the IOU he had left in the box, while at the same time, he would be at the airport with almost sixteen hundred euros in his pocket.



* * *



			—

			The screams from the beach in Ayia Napa cut through the sound of the ocean, and the foam of the otherwise dark waves was illuminated by the floodlights shining over the scene. On the sand a few meters in front of a group of uniformed rescue workers, bodies had been laid out, their faces covered by gray woolen blankets. It was an awful—but journalistically fascinating—sight.

			Heavily guarded by police fifteen meters farther up, a group of twenty to thirty people stood despondent and in shock, shivering from the cold although covered with blankets—the same style as those covering the faces of the deceased. Silent tears of despair at reality’s lack of mercy spread among them.

			“Those standing over there are the lucky ones,” someone said in response to Joan’s scrutinizing gaze. “They were wearing life jackets and were fished out by the boats farther out at sea. Our crew found them just half an hour ago huddled together like a shoal so they didn’t get separated from one another.”

			Joan nodded and took a few cautious steps forward toward the bodies. A couple of police officers made to motion him away, but when he flashed his press pass, they turned their authority and admonitions to the horde of nosy tourists and party animals who were trying to record the scene on their smartphones.

			Heartless people, thought Joan as he pulled out his camera.

			He didn’t understand Greek, but there was no mistaking the rescue team’s body language. Just now, they were gesticulating furiously, pointing at the slowly approaching waves while one of them directed a floodlight toward an object floating to shore.

			When the body was twenty meters from the shore, one of the rescue workers waded into the water and pulled at it as if it were a pile of rags. As the lifeless body was pulled up onto the sand, some of the survivors began wailing.

			Joan turned to face the group. The cries of anguish were coming from two women who, bent over and with their hands raised toward their faces, tried with all their might to take in what they were witnessing. It was a sorrowful sight. A man with an unkempt black beard tried ardently to stop their reaction, but his efforts did nothing to alleviate their audible despair, which only worsened when a young man with a shaved head and wearing a blue uniform jacket sprang forward to photograph the body at close quarters. He looked official and was probably there to document every rescue, so Joan photographed him and nodded to him as a precaution, hoping to give the impression that he had special permission to be there. Fortunately, there were no other journalists at the scene.

			Then he turned around and shot a series of photos of the wailing women in the group; from a journalistic perspective, it always worked when you captured raw human grief—even though that wasn’t his only purpose. He would do exactly the same as the TV crew in Barcelona. Uncover, detail, shock, and share.

			This drowned man, regardless of how unfortunate it might have seemed, was his personal trophy; he would attempt to bring a dead man back to life—and not only for a small Catalonian readership. It would be for the whole world, just like when the three-year-old Syrian-Kurdish boy drowned and was plastered all over the world’s media a few years back. Regardless of how terrible the situation was, he would shine a light on a single person’s fate—and make himself rich and respected in the process. That was his plan.

			He hesitated for a moment. The screams in the background were very real. There hadn’t been that strength of emotion when TV11 in Barcelona had shown images from Ayia Napa. It gave that extra something, a sense of realness, everything you needed to ensure your story triumphed over the others. But confusingly, it also added something else. He knew the feeling from other situations, but he didn’t think it befitted the current context. Why should he feel a pang of guilt about what he was doing? Wasn’t he engaged in something very special?

			The camera suddenly felt heavier. He had thought he was onto something special, but hadn’t he actually just stolen the concept from TV11? Because regardless of the fact that he was researching on the scene, what made it stand out? He was just a copycat; why not just admit it to himself?

			Joan shook off the doubt. Copycat, and so what? As long as he did it authentically enough, who could complain?

			In a moment, when he had documented the rescue of the man’s body, he would turn his attention to the crying women to try to find out why this hit them so hard in particular and whether they knew the drowned man personally: something to put the details to his identity and why he had fled. Where did those people know him from? Why had he died and not them? Was he weak? Was he a decent man? Did he have children?

			Joan stepped toward the body and readied himself to photograph the man as he lay there with his head facing away from him in the swell. The man’s clothes were nondescript and twisted around his body. And then one of the rescue team pulled the body out from the swash.

			Joan was close to the corpse when the body was turned slightly, and what he saw made him stop abruptly. With a final jerk of the arm, the head turned to reveal that it was the body not of a man but rather that of an older woman.

			He flinched. Never before had he been confronted with so present a death; it was really unpleasant. He had seen the victims of car crashes, bloodstained tarmac and flashing blue lights from ambulances arriving on the scene in vain, and in his short time as a reporter, he had also seen his share of the city’s morgues. But in relation to those deaths, the fate of this defenseless woman hit him much harder. That such a long journey filled with hope had ended so tragically . . . It would surely make for an especially impressive story.

			He inhaled the sea air deep into his lungs and held his breath as he looked out over the darkness of the sea to keep his emotions in check. Because in the midst of the obvious tragedy, it was without doubt a scoop that the deceased wasn’t a man, young woman, or child. His intuition told him that the story was suddenly much more marketable with an elderly woman as the victim. Who could fail to see the meaninglessness and grotesqueness in this unfortunate fate? Such a long life and such a terrible end.

			After a brief moment, Joan nevertheless came to terms with the situation. He turned the camera on the body and took a series of shots before turning on the video function and moving around the corpse to ensure he captured every detail before the rescue team put a stop to what he was doing.

			Despite the time the corpse had been in the sea and the hardships endured on the sea voyage, it was easy to see that the woman came from an affluent home, which would definitely add to the sales and interest in the pictures. How often had people seen images of brutally exposed people in rags as testimony to the suffering of a long journey? This woman, on the other hand, was well dressed, though her fur jacket was torn and her shoes were missing. Her pale red lipstick was still visible and her eye shadow somewhat intact. Around seventy, she had been beautiful. However, one couldn’t overlook the furrows that ran the length of her face and undoubtedly bore testimony of some of the trials that had led her to this desperate escape, and yet she seemed strikingly dignified. “Do we know where these people came from?” he inquired in English of an authoritative man in civilian clothes kneeling by the body.

			“I imagine they’re from Syria, like the flood of refugees have all been over the last few days,” he replied.

			Joan turned toward the survivors. Dark skinned, but only slightly darker than the Greeks, so Syria seemed like a good bet. He looked at the row of bodies in the sand and counted them. Thirty-seven. Men, women, and possibly a single child. Joan thought about the beach in Barcelona on the other side of the Mediterranean, where the figure 2117 shone in the night sky. What a senseless waste of life.

			He pulled out his notebook and jotted down the date and time to at least give a sense of having started with the task that would pull him from the abyss and give him new meaning. It would be an article about the dead who were overlooked, not about a healthy adult in their prime or a defenseless child but about an old woman who had drowned moments ago. About a woman who, like the 2116 other casualties, hadn’t made it across the Mediterranean alive this year.

			He scribbled down his headline, “Victim number 2117,” and looked over at the group of survivors and the women who had screamed. There were still a lot of tormented faces and shivering bodies standing clinging to each other up there, but the two women and the man with the beard were gone. In their place stood the man in the blue uniform jacket who just moments before had been taking photos next to Joan.

			Joan put the notebook in his pocket and was about to take a couple of close-ups of the woman’s face when the clear, open gaze of her eyes hit him.

			Why did this happen? the eyes asked.

			Joan fell backward. In his world, occult phenomena were laughable, but in that moment, his body was shaking. It was as if the woman wanted to contact him. Make him understand that he knew nothing and that it wasn’t good enough.

			Joan couldn’t tear his eyes away because these beautiful, living eyes had yet more questions.

			Who am I, Joan?

			Where do I come from?

			What’s my name?

			Joan knelt down in front of her.

			“I’ll find out,” he said, and closed her eyes. “I promise.”





3


			Joan





“No, you can’t have your travel expenses covered as a freelancer if it isn’t agreed on beforehand. How often do we need to tell you, Joan?”

			“But I have the receipts here. Look, I have a complete travel budget!”

			He pushed the folder with the tickets to Cyprus and evidence for all his other sundry expenses across the desk and flashed his best smile. He was more than familiar with Marta Torras’s authority as an office assistant, so what right did she have to refuse him, especially now?

			“Didn’t you see my article on the front page yesterday, Marta? It wasn’t just some column in the supplement; it was no less than the top story at Hores del dia—and the best I’ve ever written. I know for a fact that accounts will approve my sixteen hundred euros. Have a heart, Marta; I can’t afford to pay the travel expenses myself. I borrowed the money from my ex.”

			And Joan’s imploring expression wasn’t just for effect. His ex had smacked him one and threatened to report him to the police. She’d called him a thief and cried because she knew that she would never see the sixteen hundred euros again. Then she had put out her hand and demanded that he return the key to her shop. And with that the relationship was no longer just finished, it was well and truly over.

			“And accounts will approve this for a fact, you reckon? Ha! Well, I am accounts, Joan,” she snorted. “And your ex must be a total idiot if she thinks you can just swan in here and demand money from the paper whenever you feel like it.”

			Joan was still regaining his composure as she walked back behind her desk.

			“Well, at least refund my flights, Marta. The paper can deduct it anyway.”

			“Complain to your editor. See if that helps,” she said tersely. She didn’t even bother to look up.



* * *



			—

			He had perhaps expected a little applause from the editorial office. Well-deserved acknowledgment that his reporting had finally given Hores del dia a scoop for which they had won the recognition of the world press. The international media had even used his photos. A drowned old woman in a fur coat bathed in floodlight, the bodies on the beach, the screaming women. Hores del dia had probably earned a fortune from it. But apart from a young foreign correspondent who visibly shook her head as Joan walked through the cubicles of the permanently employed staff, there was no reaction from anyone. Not even a nod or a faint smile. What the hell? In films, your colleagues always stood up and clapped for something like this. What was wrong?

			“I’ve only got five minutes, so keep it brief, Joan.” His editor closed the office door and seemingly forgot to invite Joan to take a seat, which he did anyway.

			“Marta from accounts has just called to tell me you want your travel expenses covered.” She looked at him sternly from over her glasses. “You can forget that, Joan. You’ll receive the eleven hundred euros for the Ayia Napa article that I was stupid enough to promise you when you submitted it. Not a cent more. And you should be grateful for that.” Joan didn’t understand. He had assumed the story about the drowned woman would result in a bonus and the prospect of a permanent job. So why was Montse Vigo, the editor in charge of freelancers, staring at him like he had spat on her?

			“You’ve made a laughingstock out of us, Joan.”

			Joan shook his head. What on earth did she mean?

			“Right, well then, let me fill you in about how the story of victim number twenty-one seventeen has developed. It certainly seemed like a good story yesterday. However, this morning, this was printed in at least fifty international newspapers—not to mention that every paper in Barcelona except us has the same story. The bottom line is that you didn’t do your job properly, Joan. You don’t even come close to your colleagues. You should’ve done your research when you were in the thick of it, my fine friend.”

			She slammed a few of the Spanish dailies on the table in front of him, and the headline nearly made him gasp.

			VICTIM NUMBER 2117 MURDERED!

			Then his editor pointed to a line a little farther down. “Information in Hores del dia about victim 2117 is incorrect. The woman did not drown; she was murdered. Brutally stabbed to death.”

			“You are aware that such a poorly researched story reflects badly on me,” she said, brushing the humiliating pile to one side on the table. “But the fault is mine, of course. I should’ve seen it coming after the uninspiring features you tried to fob off on us.”

			“I don’t get it,” he implored, and he really didn’t. “I watched her wash ashore. I was there when it happened. You’ve seen my photos.”

			“Then you should’ve waited to take your photographs until they’d turned the woman over. She was stabbed straight in the back of the neck between the third and fourth neck bones with something this long.” She demonstrated the length with her hands. “Death was immediate. Thank God we aren’t the only ones who’ve made fools of ourselves. TV11 has certainly changed its glorified images of the young man who washed ashore in Ayia Napa the day you were there. Turns out he was the leader of a terror cell.”

			Joan was shaken. Murdered? Was that what her eyes had told him? Should he . . . Should he have seen it?

			Joan turned toward his editor. He wanted to explain the experience he’d had with the woman. Why he hadn’t done his job better. That he had allowed himself to be affected and that he knew all too well that journalists shouldn’t allow that to happen.

			There was a knock at the door, and Marta from accounts entered the room. She handed two envelopes to Montse Vigo and left without so much as glancing at Joan.

			The editor handed one of them to Joan. “Here’s your eleven hundred euros, although you don’t deserve it.”

			Joan took the envelope without saying a word. Bullying came with Montse Vigo’s job, so what could he do? Nothing! He bowed a little and turned to sneak out the door. The question was how long this envelope could sustain him. He was already beginning to sweat.

			“Where do you think you’re going?” he heard from behind him. “You aren’t getting off so lightly.”



* * *



			—

			Shortly after, he was standing on the street, staring up at the building. Another demonstration was heading toward town from Diagonal with the accompanying sound of whistles, slogans, shouts, and aggressive-sounding car horns, and yet the only sound resounding in his head was what his editor had just said.

			“Here is five thousand euros. You have exactly fourteen days to get to the bottom of this story, and you’re on your own, got it? You’re an emergency solution because none of your colleagues will touch this case. Too many leads have gone cold already. But you’re going to warm them up; you owe the paper that much. Find some of the survivors who can tell you who the woman was and what actually happened to her. Understood? You know from your interviews with some of the survivors that she was with two women, one younger and one older, and that a man with a full beard was speaking with them during the voyage—right up until the inflatable raft sank. Find them. You know who they are because you have photos of them. I want daily updates about your whereabouts and what you’re up to. In the meantime, the editorial office will spin the story to keep it hot. The five thousand euros will have to cover everything you do; do you understand? I couldn’t care less who you bribe or where you live. If you don’t have enough money for somewhere to stay, sleep on the street; if you don’t have enough money to eat, starve. Do not turn up here asking for more money until the job is done, understood? This isn’t El País.”

			He had nodded and felt the weight of the envelope. What else could he do but see the job through?

			The five thousand euros was answer enough.





4


			Alexander





Over the last few months, his fingers had become so flexible that it almost felt as if he and the control had become one flesh. For the best part of the day, his PC and the Kill Sublime universe became his only reality; the distance between him and the soldiers on the screen—and the people they killed—became all and nothing at the same time.

			Alexander had surrendered body and soul to the game for more than one reason. While his high school classmates threw their graduation caps in the closet and attempted to put their exam ordeals behind them by jetting off on voyages of discovery to far-flung places such as Vietnam, New Zealand, and Australia, Alexander sought out the darkest recesses of his contempt for the world. How on earth could his idiotic classmates go globe-trotting and ignore that humans were like dirty rats whose sole aim was to dominate and eat one another? He certainly couldn’t, not even if he tried with all his might. In fact, he hated everyone. If they got too close to him, he exposed their worst attributes mercilessly; this made him an obvious target for bullying and resulted in anything but contact or friendship.

			No, Alexander had chosen a different path. He would live in a virtual reality and refuse to leave his room if there was a risk of meeting other people. And when the day came that he chose to leave his room, it would be the last day of his life.

			It had to be that way.

			For a large part of the day, he could hear sporadic noise from the other side of his bedroom door. From four in the afternoon until midnight and the following morning from six fifteen until quarter to eight, he could hear his parents moving around the house. When they finally slammed the door behind them on their way to work and all was quiet, he unlocked the door and crept out of his bedroom. Once outside, he emptied his pot in the toilet, made enough sandwiches for the rest of the day, and filled a couple of thermoses with coffee before creeping back, locking the door, and sleeping until one in the afternoon. When he woke up, he played Kill Sublime on his computer for twelve hours and slept again for a couple of hours to rest his eyes before sitting in front of the screen for another hour or two.

			And so he passed his days and nights. Fire, fire, fire, while his kill count rose steadily and his win rate, which increased when he exterminated all his enemies in the game, improved day by day. If anyone could be deemed an elite player of this game, it was him.

			Alexander prepared especially well for the weekends. Every Friday morning, he stocked up with plenty of oatmeal, milk, and bread and butter, and as week passed into week, he grew accustomed to the heightened rank smell from his pot until he could empty it on Monday. When his weekday routine was ruined by the bloody weekend, it meant that he could normally hear his parents outside his bedroom. Their increased fighting didn’t perturb him—he almost delighted in it—but when it suddenly went quiet, he was on his guard. They would soon be outside his bedroom threatening to kick in the door and have him committed. Next was the threat to disconnect the Internet, which didn’t fluster him in the least as they were equally addicted to it. Besides, they knew he had a powerful wireless modem and was capable of hacking into the neighbors’ Wi-Fi if it came to it. Then the threat would come that they would stop drawing on his inheritance from his grandmother and so would no longer buy food for him. And finally, that they would bring someone to talk to him: a psychologist, a social worker, a family therapist, even his former schoolteacher.

			But Alexander knew better. The way his parents’ minds worked, they wouldn’t want anyone to know what was going on in their quaint little yellow house in the Copenhagen suburbs. When they stood in front of his door pleading for all they were worth, fighting to regain the illusion of their normal bourgeois family life, he spat on the floor or laughed like a madman until they shut up.

			He didn’t give a damn how it made them feel. They had brought it on themselves. Was he supposed to cave in when his mother implored him so pathetically? What did she expect? That it would be enough to break him? That her hideous traits would simply drift away or that her desperation would eradicate all her shit? That he would forget how little she and his laughable parody of a father concerned themselves with the rest of the world?

			He detested them. And when the day finally came for him to leave his room, they would rue the day they had wished him to open the door.



* * *



			—

			For at least the twentieth time that day, he gazed with a sense of pleasure at the paused screen with its landscape of color and violence, and then at the front page of the newspaper that had been hanging on the wall for a couple of days now and had unequivocally given him the answer to how he could react to the indifference and cynicism his parents and their peers displayed. Because it was people like them who were the guilty ones in this world. They were the reason that there would continue to be victims like the woman on the wall.

			While his parents were at work, the paper had lain unopened in the hallway, as if world events were of no concern to them, and the headline had caught his attention. The resemblance of the woman to his grandmother hit a raw nerve, and painful memories of the closeness and care only she had given him came back with a vengeance.

			When he read the newspaper article about the woman’s fate from among thousands, he was overcome by an intense anger that he had observed growing inside him month by month and on which he now had to act.

			Alexander stared at her for a long time. Even though death radiated from her eyes, and despite her being from a world far removed from his, it would be in her memory that he would sacrifice himself. His message would be devastating and clear. Every abuse against humanity should be severely punished.

			First, he would inform the police about his mission, and when he finally made his move, it would hit the headlines.

			He pursed his lips and nodded. He currently had 1970 wins. He had killed more than 20,000 opponents, and even if it took all the hours in the day, he would reach his goal of 2117 wins in a relatively short space of time. All this in solidarity with the anonymous victim on the wall, number 2117.

			And when he finally reached that unimaginable number of wins, he would leave his room and avenge the old woman and all the insults to which he had been subjected, and there would be no mistaking it.

			He looked over at the opposite wall where he had hung the samurai sword inherited from his grandfather, which he had honed back when he used to play Onimusha on PlayStation 2.

			He would shortly have occasion to use it.





5


			Carl





It was one of those paradoxical rainy days when Carl thought that the pale light through the blinds made Mona’s naked flesh and the white walls glow. This morning his eyes were again caressing the grooves that gently formed between the tendons on her throat. She had slept heavily that night, as she always did when he was with her. The first months after the death of her youngest daughter, Samantha, she had sobbed constantly, begging him for daily companionship and desperately reaching out for him when he lay in her bed. Even when they made love, she cried—usually all night long. And Carl gave in to her needs.

			Naturally, that period had been strenuous for them, but had it not been for him and the sense of responsibility Mona felt for Samantha’s fourteen-year-old son, Ludwig, it would probably have been too difficult for her to carry on living. It certainly wasn’t due to Mona’s eldest daughter, Mathilde, that a more tolerable situation had begun to materialize; in fact, Mona never spoke with her.

			Carl reached out for his watch. It was time to call Morten at home to make sure he was getting Hardy ready.

			“Are you leaving?” said the sleepy voice next to him.

			He placed his hand on her short hair, which had now all but grayed. “I need to be at HQ in forty-five minutes. Go back to sleep; I’ll make sure Ludwig is up and out the door.”

			He got up and allowed his gaze to linger on the contour of her body under the duvet and had the same thought as every morning.

			The women in his life had it really hard.



* * *



			—

			Dark clouds hung over HQ like a woolen blanket and had been there for almost a week. It was a wretched autumn that slowly but surely weighed him down on the path to the dark winter months. He loathed that time of year. Sleet, snow, and crazy people tearing about like lunatics, buying presents nobody really wanted. As early as October, the Christmas music was already blaring out, and the sea of lights and amount of plastic and glitter that was supposed to remind humanity of Jesus’s holy birth were terrifying in their scale. And as if all this weren’t enough, behind these gray walls a pile of folders lay on his desk as testimony to how many killers unaffected by the fir trees and Christmas decorations were on the loose in Denmark at this very moment without anyone around them knowing what they had done. It was obviously down to him alone to find the bastards.

			Piece of cake, one might think. But since the case two years ago where a social worker had killed her clients in cold blood, the world had grown more twisted. Gun violence in broad daylight, lockout threats against civil servants, the burka ban, the circumcision ban, and no end of other measures that were impossible to try to administer or uphold. Colleagues who would rather enter local politics than go after tax evaders, maladjusted immigrants, and criminal moneymen. The new administrative regions that were finally starting to work and were now about to face their demise. It was time and energy spent in vain. Carl had almost reached his limit with this shit.

			But who on earth would investigate the serious crimes that the people on the second floor couldn’t solve if Carl suddenly threw in the towel? And the idea of stopping had already been planted. Maybe he could find work as a babysitter or a dog walker and decide for himself when to work and for whom. But then who would take care of all the bastards out there in society if everyone thought like him?

			Carl wasn’t sure how much longer he would have the energy to answer that question and sighed audibly when he nodded to the security guards. Everyone at HQ knew that sigh from Carl was a signal to keep their mouth shut and keep their distance, but strangely enough, it seemed like they noticed neither him nor the sigh today.

			He was already aware that things weren’t quite as they should be as he walked toward the basement. People were staring into space, and except for an almost nonexistent crack of light emanating from Gordon’s office at the end of the basement corridor, it was totally dark. All the lights in Department Q were turned off.

			Carl huffed. What now? Where the hell was the light switch? There were normally people to do this sort of thing.

			He fumbled to find a switch at the bottom of the stairs, but there wasn’t one. But there was a big heavy block against which he stubbed his toe and banged his knee. Carl swore and took a step to the side and then forward, stumbling over yet another large boxlike object, resulting in his slamming his head against the wall, hitting his shoulder against a vertical pipe, and falling flat on the floor.

			Lying there, he let out a tirade of expletives that he hadn’t even known existed.

			“Gordon!” he bellowed with all his might, as he stood up and felt his way along the wall. No answer.

			In his office, he finally managed to turn on a desk lamp and the PC, sitting down to rub his aches and pains.

			Was he really the only one here in the department? It would be the first time that had happened in a long time.

			He reached for his thermos, where on rare occasions there was a drop of coffee left over from the day before.

			It’ll do, he thought after shaking it and deciding there was enough for half a cup, cold or not.

			From the drawer, he took out a purple cup given to him by his stepson that should never have seen the light of day due to its extraordinary hideousness. He poured his coffee.

			“What the . . . ?” he said to himself when he saw the note on his desk.

			 				Dear Carl,

				The archival material you requested in connection with your current case is in the hallway because the boxes were too heavy for little me to carry so far.

				Love,

				Lis



			Carl frowned. It was a bloody stupid place to leave them, but to whom could he give a piece of his mind when the culprit was the hottest woman at HQ?

			Then he placed his mobile on the desk and looked at it for a moment.

			Why didn’t you use it when you needed some light! he thought, punching his fist on the table in frustration and causing the cup to jump and land on its side, spilling coffee not only over Lis’s note but also over all the papers that he shortly had to go through, leaving them resembling something that had been dragged up through the toilet.



* * *



			—

			He sat for ten minutes staring at the soiled case files and thinking about cigarettes. Mona had asked him to stop and that was that, but the desire to fill his lungs and nostrils with smoke was uncontrollable. The withdrawal symptoms made him cranky, which Assad and Gordon knew all too well, but he had to take it out on someone over the course of the day so he was ready to meet Mona with a hint of natural positivity.

			Shit! was his mantra when the urge to smoke became too much. As if that would help.

			The telephone rang, taking him by surprise.

			“Can you come up here, Carl?” It was a question that wasn’t up for discussion. The chief constable had a voice that was unusually squeaky even for a petite woman and that, consciously or not, had the ability to make anyone feel uncomfortable.

			But why was she ringing? Had the department been closed down? Is that why it was so dark in the basement? Or was he up for the chop? Had the decision been taken out of his hands? If that was the case, he wasn’t especially happy about it.



* * *



			—

			He immediately noticed a somber atmosphere on the second floor. Even Lis seemed conspicuously gloomy, and the corridor of the chief constable’s office was full of silent investigators.

			“What the hell’s going on?” he asked Lis.

			She shook her head. “I don’t know exactly, but it isn’t good. Something to do with Lars Bjørn.”

			Carl was surprised. Had they finally dug up some dirt on the chief of homicide? It would bloody well make his day if they had.

			A minute later, he was standing in the parole hall with his colleagues, who were all surprisingly expressionless. Was their budget being slashed again by the politicians? And was it Lars Bjørn’s fault? It wouldn’t surprise him. He certainly wasn’t here as far as Carl could see.

			The chief constable pushed her shoulders forward as she was wont to do in the vain hope that it could help in the struggle between the slightly-too-tight uniform blazer and her chest.

			“It is my sad duty to inform you, as some of you already know, that we received a call forty-five minutes ago from Gentofte Hospital with confirmation that Lars Bjørn has passed away.” She lowered her head for a moment, and Carl tried to fathom what she had just said.

			Lars Bjørn dead? He might have been an arrogant bastard and always in your face, and it was also true that Carl’s sympathy for the man was minimal, but he’d never wished him dead.

			“Lars went for his usual early-morning run in Bernstorff’s Park today and was apparently in good form when he returned home. Just five minutes later, however, he experienced breathing difficulties followed by a heart attack, which . . .” She composed herself for a moment. “His wife, Susanne, whom many of you know, attempted CPR, but despite the ambulance coming immediately and the best efforts of the cardiology department, they were unable to save him.”

			Carl looked around. A few of his colleagues seemed genuinely affected, but he interpreted the reactions of the majority as one of speculation: Who would be his successor?

			We’ve had it if they choose someone like Sigurd Harms, he thought with trepidation. On the other hand, it would work out nicely if it was Terje Ploug or, even better, Bente Hansen.

			Fingers crossed.

			He searched in vain for Assad’s face in the crowd. He was probably already visiting Rose or following up on a case somewhere. He did, however, see Gordon standing head and shoulders above everyone else at the back, his face ashen and his eyes red like Mona’s when things were at their worst.

			Carl beckoned him over as their eyes met.

			“Naturally, we should take it easy today,” continued the chief constable. “I am aware that some of you will have taken this hard because Lars was a respected leader and an asset to the force.”

			Carl had to bite his tongue to stop himself from an inappropriate coughing fit.

			“We will have to let time heal, but over the coming days we also need to continue working at our usual pace. I will, of course, inform you as to Lars’s successor as soon as possible, which will also be an opportunity to rethink procedures at HQ in the future.”

			Head of Communications Janus Staal was standing nodding by her side. Of course he was. Wasn’t the greatest weakness of any manager the temptation to turn everything on its head at the smallest of opportunities? How else could management, and especially in the civil service, justify their existence?

			He heard Gordon sigh behind him and turned to face him. It would be a stretch to say he looked well. Carl knew that it was Lars Bjørn who had eased Gordon’s way into HQ, so his reaction was understandable. But since then, hadn’t Bjørn made it difficult for Gordon to keep his position?

			“Where’s Assad?” asked Gordon. “Is he with Rose?”

			Carl frowned. Gordon was right to think about Assad in connection with Lars Bjørn. Strangely, there had always been a sort of brotherly bond between Lars Bjørn and Assad. Shared experiences in the past to which Carl was not privy had seemingly created a strong connection between them, and when it came to it, it was also Bjørn who had recruited Assad to Department Q. So, Carl had something for which to thank Bjørn.

			And now he was dead.

			“Shall I call Assad?” asked Gordon, fully expecting Carl to step up to the task.

			“Maybe we should wait until he’s back here. It might also agitate Rose if she’s with him just now. You never know with her.”

			Gordon shrugged. “You could send him a text to call you when Rose is out of earshot.”

			Good plan. Carl gave him the thumbs-up.

			“I had another call from that weird guy again this morning,” said Gordon, when he was finished sniffling and they were on their way down the stairs.

			“Okay.” That must have been the tenth time in two days that Gordon had mentioned it. “Have you asked why he calls you specifically? Has he told you?”

			“No.”

			“And you still haven’t been able to trace the call?”

			“No. I’ve tried, but he uses a phone card.”

			“Well, if it bothers you, hang up next time.”

			“I’ve tried that. It doesn’t help. He just calls back five seconds later and keeps at it until I’ve heard him out.”

			“Remind me again what it’s about.”

			“That he will kill when he reaches the number twenty-one seventeen.”

			“Quite a few years until then.” Carl laughed. It was the sort of comeback he might have expected from Rose back in the day.

			“I’ve asked him what twenty-one seventeen means, but his answer was really cryptic. He said it was obviously when his game reached twenty-one seventeen, and then he burst out laughing. And it was a really eerie laugh, I can tell you.”

			“Shall we just put him down as a disturbed idiot for the time being? How old would you guess he is?”

			“Not so old. He almost sounded like a teenager, but a little older, I reckon.”



* * *



			—

			The morning dragged on, and Assad didn’t call or answer Carl’s texts.

			Someone or other must have informed him by now.

			What Carl really wanted was just to go home. He hadn’t touched a case file since they had been called up to homicide, and his sense that everything was about to collapse had become overwhelming, much like his desperation for a cigarette.

			If Assad hasn’t turned up within half an hour, I’m off, he thought, and surfed the Internet looking at job ads. Oddly enough, there was nothing specifically directed at a fifty-three-year-old detective inspector with a BMI approaching twenty-eight.

			That really only left local politics, but what the hell would he do on Allerød city council? And for which party?

			Then he heard the distinctive sound of Assad’s footsteps in the corridor.

			“You’ve heard?” said Carl, referring to the two deep furrows between Assad’s eyes when he appeared in the doorway.

			“Yes, I have. I went straight over to Susanne for a few hours. It wasn’t pretty.”

			Carl nodded. Assad had comforted the widow. That was how close he was to the Bjørn family.

			“She was furious, Carl.”

			“Well, that’s understandable. It was very unexpected.”

			“No, not that. She was angry that he ran himself out.”

			“‘Wore,’ Assad. It’s ‘wore himself out.’”

			“I don’t get it, he was running. Anyway, she was also angry about all the hostage negotiations he worked on when he came home. Angry about his lover. That he spent money like it was going out of fashion.”

			“Hold on, back up a minute. Lars Bjørn had a lover?”

			Assad looked at him, puzzled. “Lars Bjørn would do anything on two legs if he could get away with it; you knew that.”

			Carl looked shocked. That wretched bore? What on earth did women see in that jerk?

			“Why didn’t she just kick him out?”

			Assad shrugged. “Camels don’t like new watering holes, Carl.”

			Carl tried to picture Bjørn’s wife. For once, the camel metaphor wasn’t totally misplaced.

			“What do you mean by ‘hostage negotiations’?”

			“Detained businessmen, journalists, stupid tourists, aid workers . . .”

			“Yes, yes, I do know what type of people are susceptible, but why Bjørn?”

			“Because he knew the pitfalls better than anyone when those on the other side kill because of the slightest wrong move.”

			“Is that how you and Bjørn knew each other? Did he help you in a hostage situation?”

			Assad’s face stiffened. “More the other way around. And it wasn’t a hostage case. It was imprisonment in one of Iraq’s worst jails.”

			“Abu Ghraib?”

			He nodded and shook his head simultaneously. “Yes and no. Let’s call it the annex. There were several, but let’s just call this Annex One.”

			“What do you mean by that?”

			“I didn’t understand it either to begin with. I later found out that that building complex was much smaller than Abu Ghraib. It was isolated from the main prison, and the inmates were prisoners who required special attention.”

			“Like who?”

			“Captured foreigners, high-ranking officials, politicians, spies, and wealthy people. Sometimes entire families who had defied Saddam’s regime. People who knew too much and who they wanted to speak. People like that.”

			Bloody hell, thought Carl.

			“Lars Bjørn was in there?”

			“No, not him.” Assad stood for some time shaking his head slowly and staring at the floor.

			“Okay,” said Carl. This was the sort of topic that Assad preferred to avoid. “That’s what I heard from Tomas Laursen. I also thought you confirmed it when I asked you. But listen, I know this is a difficult subject for you, Assad. Just forget I asked.”

			Assad closed his eyes and took a deep breath before looking Carl straight in the eyes.

			“No, Lars wasn’t in prison and he wasn’t a hostage. The inmate was his brother, Jess.” He frowned and looked like he might clam up again. Did he regret revealing something that shouldn’t have been spoken?

			“Jess? Jess Bjørn?” Something about the name rang a bell. “Have I met him?”

			Assad shrugged. “I don’t think so. Maybe you did, but he’s in a care home now.” He pulled his phone from his pocket. Carl hadn’t heard it, so it must have been on silent.

			Assad stood nodding with his phone at his ear while the furrows between his eyes grew deeper. He sounded dissatisfied when he answered. As if what he heard wasn’t the deal, whatever that might be.

			“I need to head off, Carl,” he said, and put his mobile back in his pocket. “That was Susanne Bjørn. We’d agreed that I would inform Lars’s brother, but she called him all the same and told him.”

			“And he didn’t take it well, is that it?”

			“He took it really badly, so I need to go again, Carl. I would’ve waited until later today, but it can’t wait now.”



* * *



			—

			It had been almost a week since Carl had last been in the house in Allerød. Since he had begun commuting between there and Mona’s flat, his tenant, Morten, had slowly but steadily made his mark on the place with his highly alternative talent for interior design. The entrance alone, flanked by two gold-painted statues of naked athletic men, would have rattled any care assistant, not to mention the living room, which was now transformed from its practical seventies style with plain furniture to a veritable orgy of color in saffron yellow and bright green. Actually, the overall impression was almost one of moldy Emmental if he were to try to describe it. All it needed now was for Morten to bring up the rest of his precious Playmobil toy collection from the basement and cover the living room with it.

			“Hello,” shouted Carl by way of warning that normality was entering.

			No answer.

			Carl frowned and tried to catch sight of Hardy’s wheelchair van through the kitchen window. His old friend and colleague was obviously out.

			He collapsed in the armchair next to Hardy’s empty bed in the living room and laid his hand on it. Maybe it was time to change Morten’s rental contract and give him tenancy of the whole house. With the understanding, of course, that if he and Mona couldn’t make things work, they would revert back to the former agreement that Morten had the basement.

			Carl smiled. If Morten Holland had the run of the house, his boyfriend, Mika, might also move in. They were both old boys now, so they were probably ready for something more formal.

			There was a rattle from the door, and the sound of Hardy’s electric wheelchair and Morten’s laughter filled the room with life.

			“Hi, Carl. I’m glad you’re here; you’ll never guess what happened today,” said Morten when he saw him.

			Nothing bad at any rate, he thought when he saw Hardy’s gleaming eyes and Mika’s muscular body dancing in behind them.

			Morten sat in front of him without taking off his jacket.

			“We’re going to Switzerland, Carl. The three of us: Mika, Hardy, and me,” he said, beaming.

			Switzerland? The country of cheese with holes in it and heavy-duty bank safes? How exciting could that be? There were lots of other places where Carl could better think of being bored than in Switzerland.

			“Yup,” continued Mika. “We’ve arranged an appointment with a Swiss clinic who’ve promised to assess whether Hardy is ready to have a brain–computer interface implanted.” Carl looked at Hardy. He had no idea what the guy was talking about.

			“Yeah, sorry you don’t know about it, Carl,” whispered Hardy. “It’s taken so long to scrape the money together. We didn’t know if we’d manage it.”

			“A German fund is paying for the accommodation and part of the operation. It’s crazy,” added Mika.

			“What are you all babbling on about? What’s this interface thing?”

			Now Morten went into overdrive. Strange that he hadn’t blurted it out long ago.

			“The University of Pittsburgh has developed a method where they implant microelectrodes in the part of a paralyzed patient’s brain that controls hand mobility. They’ve had success with the method in enabling a paralyzed body to regain feeling in the fingers, for example. That’s what we want to try with Hardy.”

			“It sounds dangerous.”

			“Yes, but it isn’t,” continued Mika. “And even though Hardy can already move one finger and has some shoulder movement, it isn’t enough to enable him to use an exoskeleton.”

			Carl couldn’t follow. “Exoskeleton?! What’s that?”

			“A lightweight robotic skeleton attached to the body. Small electric motors in the frame help those who can’t walk independently to be able to move, almost as if it’s the patient walking alone.”

			Carl tried to imagine how Hardy could stand and walk again after all these years. Six foot eight in an iron frame. He would end up looking like Frankenstein’s monster, or worse. It was almost laughable, but Carl felt no urge to laugh. Would it ever be a reality? Weren’t they just giving him false hope?

			“Carl!” Hardy drove his electric wheelchair a few centimeters closer. “I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’ll be disappointed, that it might get me down. That it will take months and months and still prove futile. Am I right?”

			Carl nodded.

			“But, Carl, since that day when I lay paralyzed at the spinal injuries center in Hornbæk and asked you to kill me twelve years ago, right up until today, I haven’t had any goal for my future that would go any way to making me feel normal. I can certainly drive around in my wheelchair more or less as I want, and I’m extremely grateful for that. But the idea that there might be something else to fight for gives me so much energy. So, don’t you think we should just deal with it if and when it doesn’t work out?”

			Carl nodded again.

			“I hope that the operation will allow me to feel my arms and maybe even my legs, using my mind. They’ve conducted experiments on paralyzed apes who have regained the ability to walk. The question is whether I have enough muscle power.”

			“And that’s where the exoskeleton comes into the picture, I imagine.”

			If Hardy could have nodded, he would have.





6


			Assad





A sinister blue flashing light danced over the wisteria on the facade of the care home.

			Allah hafiz. Please don’t let it be Jess, thought Assad when he saw the empty ambulance with its rear doors flung open wide.

			He took the stairs to the entrance in four strides and stormed into the reception. There were no staff there, only curious elderly residents who whispered and turned their heads away when he rushed past them and down toward his friend’s room.

			The three healthcare assistants on duty stood in the doorway with ashen faces, their eyes fixed on the room in front of them. There was a sound of muffled voices from inside the room; Assad stopped and took a deep breath. For almost thirty years, his fate had been inextricably linked to Jess, and he had cursed the day they’d met for many of those years. But despite that, Jess had become the person closest to him in this life and who knew more about him than anyone else, so the feeling that came over him was one of the worst he had experienced over the last ten years.

			“Is he dead?” he asked.

			The assistant closest to him turned toward him. “Oh, Zaid, is that you?” She held up a hand toward him. “Don’t come in here.”

			No further explanation, although none was needed, because in the next moment a stretcher was wheeled out; the feet were placed peacefully next to each other under the white cloth. It was only when the rest of the body came into view that Assad’s worst fears were confirmed. The paramedics had attempted to cover the face with an extra sheet but the blood had still seeped through.

			Assad held up his hand and asked them to stop when the stretcher was next to him. He had to be sure that it was really Jess. As expected, the paramedics protested when he lifted the sheet, but they fell silent when they caught his eye.

			Jess’s eyes were half-closed, and one corner of his mouth was sagging down toward the place where he had stabbed himself in his carotid artery.

			“What happened?” he whispered as he closed the eyelids on the lifeless face.

			“Someone or other called him,” said the eldest of the healthcare assistants while the stretcher was wheeled down to the front steps.

			“We heard him scream, but when we came running down to see what was wrong, he told us to leave him in peace. He just wanted a moment alone and said he would call us when he wanted to be wheeled out to be with the others.”

			“When was that?” asked Assad.

			“It’s only thirty minutes since we found him with a pen cartridge stabbed into his carotid artery. He was still breathing, and—” She stopped short with the sentence stuck in her throat. Even for a seasoned healthcare worker, this must have been a shocking sight.

			“The duty doctor had by chance just arrived to complete the death certificate for one of the other residents, who passed away last night. I think he’s still sitting in my office going through Jess’s medical journal,” said the other one.

			Assad steadied himself with the doorframe and tried to swallow the saliva at the back of his throat. Lars Bjørn and his brother on the same day; how was that possible? Was Allah standing right now with a heavy hand on his shoulder? Was it God’s will that he should suddenly feel as if his arm had been cut off? That his link to the past had been severed and thrown into the fire in which all memories end? It felt devastating.

			“I can’t grasp it; it’s too hard,” he said. “Jess and his brother were fighting fit this morning, and now they’re both gone.”

			Assad shook his head. If Lars and Jess had lost their lives in the countries that had bound the three together, they would have been laid in the ground before rigor mortis had a chance to set in.

			“No, it’s uncanny,” answered the healthcare assistant. “‘Blissful, blissful, every soul that finds peace. Still, no one knows the day before the sun sets,’ as the hymn says. We need to make the most of life while we can.”

			Assad stared into the room. Judging by the blood under the wheelchair and the dark stripe on the floor, Jess had done this while sitting down, and then after his death, he had been lifted to the left and up onto the stretcher. The Parker pen he had unscrewed the pointy cartridge out of was still disassembled on his coffee table. It was the pen that Assad had gifted him many years ago.

			“Where’s the cartridge he stabbed himself with?” he asked out of habit.

			“In a plastic bag in the office with the doctor. I heard him call to arrange to have some people sent down here. He also took some photos. He always does.”

			Assad looked around the room. Who would inherit the things in here now that his brother, Lars Bjørn, was also dead? Jess had no children and no other siblings. Were these greatly condensed remnants of eighty-three years of life to end up with Susanne? Brass-framed photos of a man who had once been almost six foot two and adorned with an array of medals on his uniform? And his cheap furniture and flat-screen that was long ago outdated?

			Assad walked into the office where the doctor was sitting typing with half-framed glasses perched on the end of his nose.

			Assad and the doctor had politely nodded to each other quite a few times in the years Jess had lived at the care home since his transfer from the home for retired servicemen. He was a taciturn and somewhat weary sort, but who wouldn’t be with his job.

			Now they acknowledged each other once again.

			“It was suicide,” he said tersely from behind the computer screen. “His fingers were still gripping the pen when I entered, and the position his head was in stopped him from letting go.”

			“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Assad. “He’d just received the terrible news that his brother was dead. Probably the worst news he could possibly receive.”

			“I see. That’s tragic,” said the doctor, devoid of empathy. “I’m in the middle of writing up my report, so I’ll note that down as the assumed reason for his actions. I’m given to understand that you’ve known each other for many years.”

			“Yes, since the 1990s. He was my mentor.”

			“Had he talked before about committing suicide?”

			Had Jess talked about committing suicide? Assad smiled unintentionally. What soldier who had taken as many lives as he had didn’t talk incessantly about it?

			“No, not while he’s been a resident here. Not to me, at any rate. Never.”



* * *



			—

			Assad called Jess’s sister-in-law, Susanne, calming her down from the shock and bringing her somewhat back to her senses when she began saying that it was her fault. He reassured her that it would probably have happened no matter what.

			He was lying about that too.

			Assad stood in front of the care home and stared up at the gray sky drifting by. What a fitting backdrop for the terrible events of the day. His myriad thoughts about these two men made him feel physically weak. His legs were unsteady and limp, and the rest of his body felt exhausted in a way reminiscent of having influenza. He took a couple of steps backward and reached out for the bench beside the steps where he and Jess had so often said a quiet good-bye. He sat down and took out his mobile.

			“Carl, I won’t be back in today,” he said, after giving him a short rundown of what had happened.

			It went quiet for a moment on the other end of the phone.

			“I don’t know what this Jess Bjørn meant to you, Assad, but I think that two deaths in one day—and people so close to you—are two deaths too many,” he finally said. “How long do you think you need?”

			Assad thought for a moment. How could he know that?

			“You don’t need to answer just now. Shall we just call it a week, Assad?”

			“Er, I don’t know. Maybe just a few days. Is that all right?”





7


			Assad





On the walkway under the dirty windows of Rose’s flat, a new pile of newspapers had already accumulated. If you took into account that the residents in the block donated around six kilos of magazines and newspapers on the average day, it amounted to over two tons a year, and the walk down to the recycling bin wasn’t exactly Assad’s favorite. But what the hell, the neighbors were being friendly and Rose lived and breathed for her newspaper clippings, so why not. At least people weren’t leaving all their papers in front of her kitchen window like they had a year ago. And the variety was good, he had to give them that. She didn’t only cover Danish publications; the diversity of news was considerably added to by magazines and newspapers in German, English, Spanish, and Italian from the foreign residents of the building.

			In the living room, Rose was sitting with her back to the windows facing out onto the grass area outside and with a pile of clippings in front of her as usual. This was her universe; since her ordeal of being cuffed to her neighbor’s toilet and held hostage by two brutal young women, she hadn’t really returned to reality. That was two years ago now. Back then, Rose had been thirty-six, but today she resembled a woman of forty-five, a good twenty kilos heavier and unsteady on her feet. The blood clots in her calves and not least the comfort-eating and antidepressants had taken their toll.

			Assad dropped the shopping bag and pile of publications at the end of the dining table and put the keys in his pocket, only saying hi when Rose looked at him. Her reactions were delayed, but otherwise the old, gruff Rose was still intact somewhere in there. And that was just the kind of stability he needed right now.

			“So, have you been out for a wander today?” he asked with an ironic smile, because she definitely had not. The world outside was no longer Rose’s world.

			“Did you remember the trash bags?” she asked.

			“Yup,” said Assad, unpacking the goods. Four rolls of transparent trash bags, enough for four to five weeks. “I’ve bought canned food for you, so you’ll be fine for the next few days, Rose. That’s why I’m here for the second time today.”

			“Is it a case?”

			“No. It’s indirectly related to Lars Bjørn. I take it you’ve heard?” he said, walking over to the radio to turn it down.

			“Yes, I heard it on the radio,” she said without seeming particularly affected.

			“Okay. I also heard it on the car radio just before.”

			“You said ‘indirectly’?” She put down her scissors for a moment, more as a formality than out of genuine interest.

			Assad took a deep breath; time to get to the point. “Yeah, it’s really tragic, for me too. His brother committed suicide after Lars Bjørn’s wife called and told him that Lars was dead.”

			“Called him?” Rose put her finger to her head and rotated it. “She’s never been the brightest spark. What a stupid bitch. He committed suicide? I didn’t know anyone could care that much about Lars Bjørn.” Her hollow laughter normally lifted Assad’s spirits, but not just now. Rose’s empathy for most people was hidden away somewhere remote.

			She noticed his reaction and looked away. “I’ve made some changes in here, can you tell?”

			Assad looked along the walls. Two of them were still covered from floor to ceiling with brown archive boxes filled with systematized clippings, while the third wall around the TV was covered with a large collage of clippings stuck up with tape. No subject was apparently devoid of interest or outside Rose’s sphere of curiosity, but her indignation was consistent and unmistakable. The topics varied from traffic safety during Copenhagen’s never-ending building projects and complex roadworks to animal welfare and a little splash of royal coverage, which as usual was overshadowed by journalistic attacks against bad political management, corruption, and politicians’ exemption of liability. For a contemporary historian, weekly photos of this variable and constantly changing selection could reveal the current status of Denmark and the rest of the world. But at this moment, Assad couldn’t pinpoint what was new.

			“I can, Rose,” he said anyway. “It looks good.”

			She looked annoyed. “It isn’t good, Assad. Denmark has been murdered, killed. Doesn’t it get to you?”

			He stroked his face; he had to get it out in the open. Maybe then she would understand.

			“Lars’s brother was called Jess, Rose. I knew him for almost thirty years. We had so many good memories and awful experiences together. And now I’m the only one who remembers them. I just need a few days to process everything, you know? Jess’s death has brought back so many memories.”

			“Memories come and go, Assad. You can’t control them, especially the bad ones; I should know.”

			He looked at her and sighed. Two years ago, these walls had been covered in distraught sentences from Rose’s diary. So painful that she had once drunkenly confessed to Assad that she would have committed suicide if she hadn’t been hindered by her captors. Of course, Rose knew only too well about the memories the mind stores that you would rather forget.

			Assad stood for a moment staring into thin air. Jess had taken his own life: the life Assad had once risked his own to save. And now both he and his brother were dead. All that was left was the memory of the life that ended on that fateful day many years ago when Lars Bjørn called, begging him to save his brother. Were it not for that phone call, he would still have his family, and that was so difficult to think about. Sixteen years had gone by since then. Sixteen years of hoping and fighting and doing everything in his power to keep the pain and tears at bay.

			He couldn’t take it anymore.

			He reached his hand back, and when he felt the chair, he collapsed in it and let the tears come.

			“What on earth’s the matter, Assad?” he heard Rose say. Without looking up, he could sense her struggling to stand, walk over, and squat in front of him. “You’re crying. What is it?”

			He looked into her eyes and observed a presence she hadn’t exuded for over two years.

			“It’s too long and sad an account, Rose. But I feel like the ending caught up with me today. I’m crying to let it out and be done with it, Rose, because I can’t do anything about it anyway. Ten minutes. Just give me ten minutes and I’ll be fine.”

			She took his hands in hers. “Assad, what would I have done if you hadn’t opened the book that I was hiding my past in? I would’ve killed myself; you know that.”

			“That’s also what the camel said when all the water was gone, but it kept standing by the trough, Rose.”

			“What do you mean?”

			“Look around you. Aren’t you slowly killing yourself? You’ve stopped working, and you’re just living off your pension. You never go out. You get kids and me to buy your groceries. You’re scared of the world. You’d rather sit behind these filthy windows so you aren’t overwhelmed by impressions from outside. You don’t talk with your sisters; you almost never call HQ. You forget the positives that Gordon, Carl, me, and being part of a fantastic team can give you. It seems like you don’t want any more from life. And if that’s the case, what’s the point?”

			“There is something I want, Assad, and you can give it to me right here and now.”

			He looked at her pensively. Probably not something he could or would give her.

			She started breathing heavily, as if what she wanted to say was stuck in her throat. For a moment, he almost recognized the former Rose from the intense sense of purpose in her eyes.

			“Right,” she said finally. “What I really want is for you to be the one to open your book this time, Assad. I’ve known you for eleven years and you’re my best friend, but I know nothing about you. Not about your background and not about who you actually are. I’d really like you to tell me about it, Assad.”

			He knew it.

			“Come with me to the bedroom and lie down beside me. Just close your eyes and tell me what you want to. Don’t think about anything else.”

			Assad tried to frown but couldn’t. The feeling of reluctance and mistrust simply couldn’t survive in the mire of sorrow he was experiencing.

			She tugged at him, and it was the first time in a long time that Rose had taken the initiative for something that wasn’t about herself.



* * *



			—

			Assad had not been in Rose’s bedroom since her collapse. But where it had once been a despondent and lifeless room, it was now transformed into a sanctuary where flowers on the bedspread and a sea of golden pillows dominated. Only the walls served to remind him that the situation here was also unstable, as even in this room they were covered in newspaper clippings accusing the world of being broken.

			Assad lay down on the bedspread and closed his eyes as she had requested.

			He felt the warmth from her body when she lay down next to him.

			“Come on, Assad, tell me what comes to mind,” she said, and placed her arm across his chest. “Just remember that I know nothing, so nothing is a given.”

			For a few minutes he fought his doubts: Was he ready? Was this the right time? But when she was lying perfectly still and no longer insisting or pressuring him, he slowly began.

			“I was born in Iraq, Rose.”

			He sensed her nodding beside him. Maybe she knew that.

			“My name is not Assad, even though today I don’t want to be called anything else. It’s Zaid al-Asadi.”

			“Said?” It sounded almost like she was tasting the name.

			He squinted. “My parents are dead, and I have no siblings. I now perceive myself as having absolutely no family even though that’s probably not true.”

			“So, you don’t want me to call you Said. Are you sure?”

			“You need to voice the first letter as ‘S,’ but it’s Zaid with a ‘Z.’ But no, for you and the other people I care about and know in Denmark, I’m still Assad.”

			She moved in closer to him. He could feel how bringing her into his confidence was making her heart race. “You’ve said that you were from Syria.”

			“I’ve said a lot of things in recent years that you should take with a granary of salt, Rose.”

			He felt her beginning to chuckle. It had been a long time and felt almost liberating. “It’s ‘with a grain of salt,’ Assad, not ‘a granary,’” she said.

			“I don’t get it.”

			“They sound a bit similar, but a granary would be a hell of a lot of salt in comparison with a grain. And salt isn’t kept in a granary.”

			“Then this time I’m right, Rose. A granary couldn’t possibly be too much in this case. And never mind if it should be kept there or not.”

			He opened his eyes and was about to laugh with her when he saw a clipping on the wall above her head that made him freeze.

			Victim number 2117, he read.

			Assad jumped up. He had to take a closer look. The grainy photos in newspapers often tricked the eye. It was probably just someone who looked like her. It had to be. It just had to!

			But from half a meter away he already knew that his doubt was in vain. It was her.

			He covered his eyes as he felt his throat constricting. He almost couldn’t hear his own whimpering. He felt his warm breath on his face and the drool running down his wrists.

			“Please, don’t touch me just now, Rose,” he gasped as he felt her hand on his shoulder.

			He tilted his head back, took in a deep breath, and slowly opened his eyes a fraction to allow the picture to slowly come more into focus. When he finally opened his eyes fully, it was painfully clear. The drenched body was positioned on its back, limp and all too obviously lifeless. The woman’s eyes were still vibrant despite staring up at nothing. The hands, which had so often caressed Assad’s cheek, seemed to be symbolically clutching the sand.

			“Lely, Lely . . . ,” he whispered over and over as his finger caressed her forehead and hair on the photo. “What happened? What happened?”

			Assad’s head fell down toward his chest. The years of uncertainty, longing, and sorrow grew stronger, paralyzing his senses. Lely was no more.

			He felt Rose’s hand again. It carefully linked with his, and with the other hand she gently turned his head so their eyes could meet.

			They looked at each other for some time without saying a word before she ventured to ask her question.

			“I change the clippings almost every day, and this one is very recent. You recognize her?”

			He nodded.

			“Who was she, Assad?”

			For many, many years, Lely’s fate had been unknown to him, but in his heart, Assad had always fooled himself that she would live forever. Even when the war in Syria was at its worst and no one cared who was killed or by whom, he knew inside that Lely would find a way out of the Ragnarök, because if anyone could, it was Lely. And yet there she lay, and Rose was asking who she was. Not who she is but who she was.

			He moved his hand from the newspaper clipping and struggled to find the breath he needed to speak.

			“Lely Kababi was the woman who took care of my family when we fled from Iraq. My father was an engineer and an official who had come too close to Saddam Hussein through the Ba‘ath Party, and one day he inadvertently criticized him. Had it not been for my father’s ethnic background as a Shia Muslim, it might have been all right, but at that time, any criticism or wrong move could easily mean death for a Shia like him. My father received no more than an hour’s warning that Saddam’s guard had orders to arrest him, so my mother and father made the decision to flee from one second to the next. They took nothing with them except some jewelry and me. I was just one year old when Lely Kababi welcomed us into her home in Sab Abar in southwest Syria. We lived with her even though we weren’t family and remained there until my father finally secured an opportunity to work in Denmark. I was just five at the time and a very happy little boy when we arrived here.”

			He looked up again at the newspaper clipping in the vain hope of catching the slightest hint of a message in her unseeing eyes.

			“You have to understand, Lely Kababi was our savior. And now . . .”

			He tried to read the text under the photo, but everything was blurry for him. God, what a terrible, terrible day. He had taken almost as much as he could bear.

			“I’m so sorry, Assad,” whispered Rose. “I don’t know what to say.”

			He shook his head. What could she say?

			“When you want to know more about what happened, I have some clippings from foreign newspapers that are more detailed than this one. I know exactly where they are because it only happened a few days ago. Do you want me to fetch them?”

			He nodded, and Rose left the bedroom.

			When she returned, she placed a brown archive box next to him on the edge of the bed and opened it.

			“This one is from The Times. They made a big deal out of it because the victim was so unusual. Look at the date. The article was published the day after a Spanish newspaper broke the story. It doesn’t make for pleasant reading, Assad. Shall I read it for you? Then you can tell me when to stop.”

			He shook his head. He preferred to do it himself; that way he might be able to control his reaction.

			Assad read. Like cautiously tiptoeing across an unsafe suspension bridge, his eyes moved tentatively over the words. The article was very detailed, as Rose had said it was, and it was all too real. The mucus in the victim’s mouth, the long row of bodies lying in the sand. The article stated that a holy warrior had been the first to wash ashore. The skin was still full of nicks after the necessary shaving off of the full beard that was a trademark of the militia.

			Assad struggled with the images and questions the article prompted. Why had Lely chosen to flee? What had happened?

			Rose passed him another newspaper. “The following day, The Times printed this. I’m telling you now, Assad, because it’s really awful. The old woman didn’t drown. She was murdered. That’s why I taped her photo on the wall. I wanted to tell her that I felt deeply sorry for her.”

			Assad’s shoulders gave way.

			“She was stabbed in the back of the neck with a sharp object. The autopsy details were made public yesterday. She didn’t have much seawater in her lungs, Assad. So she was more than likely already dead or dying when they threw her into the sea.”

			Assad didn’t understand. This warm, affectionate person without an evil bone in her body had been murdered. What vile pig would do that? And why?

			He picked up the newspaper. The photo was different from the one they had used the previous day. The angle was slightly different, but the stare and the position of the body were the same. He observed her again for a moment. She looked so trusting, just like he remembered her. And the hands lying flat on the wet sand. The hands that had caressed him, the mouth that had sung for him, the eyes that had inspired in him a belief that everything would one day be good.

			Just not for you, Lely, he thought as anger and a thirst for revenge began to take shape.

			Assad let his eyes wander over the grainy photo of corpses on the sand. It was terrible, almost unbearable. The outline of powerless bodies, rows of feet sticking out from the sheets. Women, children, men, and then Lely, who moments after this photo was taken would have been lined up with the others. Now this warm and soulful woman, to whom his family owed everything, had become a statistical testimony to the cynical and disgraceful errors of the world.

			Was this the sort of world he wanted to live in?

			He turned his attention to a photo of a group of people a little farther up from the beach whose faces were etched with terror.

			Did one of you do this? he thought.

			He screwed his eyes shut. If it cost him everything, he would get the people who had done this. He promised himself that.

			The photo was slightly unclear due to the poor light, and yet something caught his eye. A painful sense of recognition. Among the other survivors, there was a man standing in the background staring directly at the camera, almost as if he wanted it to capture him. His beard reached halfway down his chest, a reminder of the fanatical reign of terror from which he had fled, and his eyes were stern like the rest of his demeanor. Next to him stood a young woman with a distorted face. And next to her another woman who . . .

			And then the darkness consumed him while a voice far away shouted, “Assad!”





8


			Joan





Joan took an immediate dislike to the man sitting like a king on his throne behind the counter at Larnaca airport, a glowering man who stank of sweat and the reek of domestic defeat.

			He finally turned to face Joan. Two hours Joan had spent gawking at this unshaven, questionably put-together immigration officer before he deigned to answer Joan’s questions. It took him no more than ten seconds, and all the uniformed staff behind him nodded along. What the hell? So, they had all known the answer from the start.

			Joan’s nostrils flared. It was probably the desire to punch them all kicking in.

			“Yes, you see,” said the officer, unfazed, “the alive we took to Menogeia Detention Center yesterday. We put the dead in morgues. No one left in Ayia Napa,” he said, his English reminiscent of Joan’s level from middle school.

			Joan forced himself to nod politely. “Menogeia Detention Center. Got it. And how do I get there?”

			“You take the bus if you cannot afford taxi.”

			He couldn’t be bothered to ask where the bus left from.



* * *



			—

			A bus passenger told him that the barracks were situated like yellow splashes in a barren landscape, which far from matched the idyll of the journey. The buildings were relatively new and surrounded by a steel fence, and in front of the buildings, there were man-sized signs with site information. “You can’t miss it,” the unexpectedly friendly man had said to him. It didn’t make Joan feel any more comfortable with the place that the site information was written entirely in Greek, and that he had been unable to find a telephone number or any contact names on the Internet.

			He directed himself with the utmost humility to the first person inside the main building, aware of how arrogant a uniform could make its wearer in these parts. Rejection wasn’t an option he could afford.

			“Yes, of course. We’ve been expecting you, Mr. Aiguader; the immigration officer from Larnaca airport was kind enough to call us and announce your imminent arrival.” He stretched out his hand in a cordial fashion, leaving Joan speechless. “We’re always happy when the wider world focuses on our problems. You understand, it’s hard for our small country to accept so many refugees.”

			Joan saw the sweaty officer from the airport in a new light. When I meet him on my return journey, I’ll give him a bottle of seven-star Metaxa, he thought before recalling his budget. He checked his extravagance with the decision that the five-star version would be sufficient.

			“Last year we received four thousand five hundred and eighty-two applications for asylum,” continued the prison guard. “Naturally, most of them were Syrians, and we’re very behind with the processing. To be exact, we’re behind with one thousand one hundred and twenty-three applications, which is almost twice as many as at the end of last year. So, we appreciate the attention. Would you like a tour?”

			“Yes, please. But I’m mostly interested in meeting the survivors from yesterday. Is that possible?”

			A small twitch from the man’s mouth indicated that that wasn’t at the top of his agenda, but he managed to soften the impression.

			“Naturally. After the tour, okay?”



* * *



			—

			Hundreds of dark, scrutinizing faces watched him with a mixture of doubt and hope. What could his presence mean for each of them? Was he from an international aid organization? Was it a good or a bad sign that he was talking in English? Was it a sign of something positive that this man had suddenly appeared?

			The refugees were squatting in the courtyard along the length of the steel fence and inside large, sterile rooms painted in earth tones and with steel tables and a distinct lack of seating. In the dormitories, where everything had the same earth tone, men were lying in bunk beds with their heads resting on their hands, giving him the same look as he had encountered outside: Who are you? What do you think you’re staring at? This isn’t a zoo. Can you do anything? Can you help me? Are you just going to leave again? Can you please fuck off!

			“As you can see, it’s important to us that the surroundings are contemporary and well kept. The regrettable days when refugees were locked up on Block Ten in Nicosia’s main prison are thankfully behind us. It was dismal and unhealthy in there, with little light and overfilled cells. You can’t accuse us of that here,” said the guard as he offered an unreciprocated nod to a couple of the asylum seekers.

			“The few possessions these people had with them when they fled are naturally insufficient for a longer stay, so we’ve organized clothes collections and have a cleaning team who keep on top of hygiene.”

			I won’t be writing about that exactly, thought Joan. “I’ll make sure to remember that when I write my article,” he said all the same. “And the people who were brought in yesterday, where are they?”

			The guard nodded. “Well, we had to isolate them from the others. As you know already, of course, one of the deceased was identified as a wanted terrorist, so we’re not taking any chances. There could very well be more of them among the survivors, so we’ve begun investigations—and in some cases interrogations—so we can see if their individual stories are watertight.”

			“Is that something you can know?”

			“We’re very good at it, yes.”

			Joan stopped to scroll through the photo archive on his camera. “I’m interested in talking with these two women.” He pointed at the photograph of the despondent women standing next to the man with the black beard. “They were very affected by the situation when they pulled the old woman onto the shore, so I got the impression that they could tell me more about the woman I wrote about in my article.”

			The guard’s expression changed. “She was stabbed in the neck, but I guess you know that?”

			“Yes. The police know nothing, so I want to try to find out who did it and why. That’s why I’m here.”

			“You are aware that at this institution we adhere to all international standards for how immigrants are treated? Law one fifty-three from 2011 is not in conflict with the council’s directives from 2008, only that the automatic procedures concerning legal assessment of extended detention of more than six months have been suspended.”

			Joan shook his head. It was all gibberish. Why was he talking about that now?

			“Of course,” he said.

			The man looked relieved. “I mention it because we find ourselves in a dilemma. We don’t have any desire to detain immigrants. Actually, we want to get them all off our hands as quickly as possible, but once they are registered here, we’re stuck with them. And we won’t just release people who we’re not completely sure about into society; the world has to understand that. They could be terrorists, criminals, fundamentalists, the sort of people the rest of Europe wouldn’t host. Even though our resources are limited, we try to be cautious. We’ve had enough accidents on this island in my time here alone.”

			“I understand, but women and children are generally innocent, aren’t they?”

			“Children, perhaps, but women?” He snorted. “They can be put under pressure. They can be manipulated. They can sometimes be more fanatical than the men, so no. They aren’t just a priori innocent.” He pointed toward the courtyard of another extension. “We’ll go in there. The men and women are separated from each other, and I assume it’s the women’s block you want to visit.”



* * *



			—

			 			It was very quiet inside. High-pitched voices mumbled while others quietly sobbed. The women stared at him with imploring eyes, one of them breastfeeding an infant—otherwise, there were no children.

			“Where are the children?” asked Joan.

			“There were no children apart from this baby. As far as we know, there was a five-year-old girl with one of the women, but the child probably didn’t make it.”

			Joan looked again at the women’s resigned faces. Make it! he thought. What a cynical way to put it. Somehow it explained the extent of this nightmare better than anything else.

			“Is this all the women who were brought in yesterday?”

			“No, two of them are in the rooms there for questioning at the moment.” He pointed at two doors. “Always two at the same time.”

			Joan compared his photos with the faces staring at him. As far as he could see, none of them were a match with the two women who were deeply affected when the old woman was pulled up onto the shore.

			“The women I’m looking for aren’t here. Can I stick my nose in the interview rooms?”

			The guard looked doubtful but nodded. “Well, a few seconds is probably okay. We aren’t supposed to disturb them.”

			He tentatively opened the first door. A uniformed woman was sitting with her back to the door behind a desk with a pile of amateur-looking photos of men. A steaming cup was placed next to the prison guard but nothing was in front of the woman who was seated wearing a head scarf and staring at Joan. She wasn’t one of the women he was looking for either.

			Joan’s thoughts about his immediate future became blurry and unpromising. What if the women weren’t here at the camp? Where else could they be? Were those people who had disappeared from the crowd the other night now beyond reach? How would he be able to tell the story?

			A minute later, his worst fears were realized. The other woman being questioned was also not a match with his photo.

			“You’re sure that there are no detained women from that group anywhere else than here at the Menogeia camp?” he asked, shaken, when they returned to the common room.

			“Yes, quite su