The Lake by Lotte and Søren Hammer is the fourth Konrad Simonsen thriller—a story of ice-cold cynicism and contempt for human life (available July 3, 2017).
The remains of a young woman are discovered in a lake north of Copenhagen. Her identity is a mystery and no one, it appears, has reported her missing. After months of fruitless investigation by the local police, the case is handed over to Konrad Simonsen.
It soon becomes clear to Simonsen and his team that this unknown woman is the key to a world of trafficking, prostitution, and violence. A world where everything comes with a price, no mistake goes unpunished and everyone knows how to keep a secret.
The first real day of spring 2008 fell in the middle of March.
A warm, white sun hung over Denmark; it was reflected in that morning’s puddles, it tempted the bravest anemones out from the forest floor and chased the chirping lark skywards over stubble fields – it even reached into living rooms where its glare made children’s computer screens unreadable and sparked cries of protest.
In Nordsjælland, between the towns of Lillerød and Lynge, a black Audi R8 was eating up the highway. Envious glances followed it whenever it accelerated effortlessly away from the rest of the traffic after pausing for a stop signal or, on one occasion, a pedestrian crossing. Such obstacles now lay behind it, and the road stretched out as far as the eye could see. The driver pressed the accelerator gently and then a little harder, relishing the way the car practically stuck to the road surface as the landscape whizzed past, and youthful exuberance prompted him to release another fraction of the engine’s power.
Henrik Krag glanced at the man in the passenger seat, who was leaning back with his eyes half closed as if asleep, only he wasn’t. You never really knew with him. Sometimes he would be distant, almost beyond reach, even when he had been dry for a week; at other times he would react with lightning speed, despite having at least ten deep slugs from his ever-present hip flask sloshing around inside his considerable belly. The man’s name was Jan Podowski, and Henrik Krag couldn’t figure him out, indeed didn’t even know if he liked him, although they had now worked together for almost two months.
‘But it’s clear.’
‘It’s clear you’re going to get points on your licence, and you should count yourself lucky if that’s all that happens. Besides, it’s not up for discussion.’
Jan Podowski’s voice was calm, the tone almost conversational and devoid of irritation. Not that it was necessary: the balance of power between the two men was already established, and Henrik Krag took his orders without minding very much. He was a young man in his early twenties with unruly, blond hair, blue eyes that encouraged trust, strong limbs and a tarnished criminal record. He also had a steely determination to do well in his new job, learn from his more experienced partner and make a go of things for once. So far it had gone well if you were to ask him, which no one ever did. He said:
‘Cool car. How long do we have it?’
‘Until the mechanic has fixed our usual one.’
‘And when will that be?’
The older man’s response was indifferent:
‘Tuesday or Wednesday, might be later.’
‘I’m in no hurry.’
They drove for a while in silence, before Henrik Krag spoke again:
‘So how much would an Audi like this set you back?’
‘More than you’ll ever learn in a lifetime, so stop dreaming.’
A voice from the back joined in.
‘Why shouldn’t he? Let him dream, Paw Pojanski. It’s good to have dreams, it keeps people motivated. I’m sure you have an unrealistic little wish of your own . . . to live a few more years, for example.’
Laughter pealed out from behind the two men. Jan Podowski bowed his head and said:
‘I wish you’d stop calling me that, Benedikte. You know what my name is.’
She laughed again and Henrik Krag laughed with her, against his better judgement; it was hard not to, though he would rather have sided with his partner. He adjusted the rear-view mirror and furtively studied the woman who was in favour of his dreaming, as an oppressive silence descended upon them once more.
Benedikte Lerche-Larsen was attractive in a fresh and straightforward way. Henrik Krag thought she must be the same age as him, maybe a little younger. She was a redhead and her high, beautifully carved cheekbones and regular features gave her a welcoming expression, cheeky and carefree, as if she were constantly on the verge of breaking into a smile.
She caught him watching her in the mirror and smiled provocatively as she tilted her head from side to side, holding his gaze. Henrik Krag followed her posturing, unable to ignore it, though he could have done without it. Or so he thought. Suddenly she turned on him:
‘Stop leering at me. Who do you think you are?’
‘Let me tell you what my father’s cars cost. He has three, and this is the least expensive. The price of this one is about twenty hookers – that is, if they can be bothered to work, and this is where you come in, my gangly friend, because some of them would rather sit on their bony arses and waste the money we’ve paid for them than do their actual job.’
She tossed her head in the direction of the fourth and final passenger in the car.
‘Yes, I’m talking about you, sister. We’ve gone to the trouble of having you shipped all the way to civilisation, and now suddenly you can’t be bothered to keep your half of the bargain. But I’m not going to let you screw over my family, and I can guarantee that very soon you’ll find that out for yourself.’
The second girl was also pretty; however, in the current circumstances, she didn’t look it. It was hard to guess her age, but not her fear. She was curled up in the back as far away as possible from Benedikte Lerche-Larsen, and when spoken to, the girl pushed herself even further away, despite the fact she didn’t understand most of what was being said. No one, apart from her, knew her real name, but here in Denmark she was known as Jessica. All the women in her shipment had been given names starting with the letter ‘J’ – it was easier that way.
Henrik Krag glanced briefly over his shoulder at her. When they had picked her up an hour ago, she had cried; now she was starting again.
Benedikte Lerche-Larsen studied the girl, before losing interest and leaning forward between the seats.
‘Have you told him what’s going to happen?’
The question was directed at Jan Podowski, and the answer came reluctantly:
‘It’s not hard to guess.’
‘So you haven’t told him that it’s her second time either?’
She turned to Henrik Krag.
‘Wow, this will be interesting. It’s your first time, Henrik, but it’s Crybaby’s second, and you’ve no idea what you’re about to do. A real baptism of fire.’
Henrik Krag said nothing. What was there to say? Whatever he did, she would outwit him. Not to mention everything else that put her out of his reach.
‘Now what was her name . . . the last one, who also had to have a second trip before she finally worked out why she’d been imported? No, don’t tell me, Jan, I do know it, hold on, hold on . . . Isabella, her name was. Isabella, am I right, Jan?’
‘Hah! I knew I could remember it. Now listen to me carefully, Henrik, do you know what Jan did to her? He used the jump leads from his car, attached one to her tongue and the other . . . Well, you can guess what he attached that to. I’m telling you, she squealed like a pig – and that was long before the power was even turned on.’
The car swerved briefly into the other lane, not much, but enough to reveal that Henrik Krag had flinched at the image seared into his mind. Benedikte Lerche-Larsen loved the effect she was having; she reached out her hand and twisted a lock of Henrik’s blond hair around her finger.
‘Oh dear, oh dear, that wasn’t so hard to figure out, now was it? But you’re wrong, sweetheart, that would never do, of course it wouldn’t. We mustn’t spoil the goods. Who would want to buy . . .’
Jan Podowski interrupted her.
‘If you’ve got any coke on you, now is a good time to throw it out of the window, Benedikte.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘That little golden antiquity in your handbag needs to be able to withstand close scrutiny, unless you fancy a trip to Hillerød police station.’
Henrik Krag could also see what lay ahead; he slowed down the car as he jerked his hair free from her finger. A few hundred metres ahead a handful of cars had been pulled aside for a random spot check; a police officer was standing in the middle of the road, easily recognisable in his fluorescent vest with white reflective stripes. Benedikte Lerche-Larsen craned her neck and asked, somewhat hesitantly:
‘What’s going on, Jan?’
‘Don’t know. Breathalysing, speed or vehicle checks, what do I know?’
‘Does it have anything to do with us?’
‘No, but it might unless you get your act together.’
Benedikte Lerche-Larsen reached into her handbag and fished out a beautifully engraved gold case, but instead of tipping its contents out of the window, she thrust it at Henrik Krag and commanded him imperiously:
Henrik Krag looked quizzically at Jan Podowski. The older man shrugged in resignation, and Henrik Krag stuffed the case in his pocket and then asked:
‘What about Jessica? What if she tries to get out?’
‘Why would she want to do that?’
‘Because of the police, I mean . . . they help people, don’t they?’
‘It doesn’t work like that.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean, that’s not how the system works. If she goes to the cops, she’ll be sent back to Nigeria, and there are people in her home country she’s considerably more scared of than she is of us.’
‘And she knows that?’
‘Oh, she does. They all do.’
Jan Podowski was right. The African woman didn’t seize the chance to seek any protection from the forces of law and order as they were waved past; instead she started shaking and mumbling incoherently to herself some time later when the car turned off the highway and continued down a smaller one leading through a forest. Henrik Krag managed to steer the car clear of the worst potholes and soon they turned again, this time down a dirt track carved over decades into the heavy clay by countless vehicles. Above them dark conifers shut out the sunlight while, out of consideration for the suspension, Henrik cornered the long bends at a snail’s pace. At last they arrived at a small clearing, with an unpretentious log cabin at the far end.
As soon as the car had stopped, Benedikte Lerche-Larsen leaped out and rushed off down the dirt track leading deeper into the forest. The two men stayed in the car. Jan Podowski took a deep slug from his hip flask. Henrik Krag asked:
‘Where is she going?’
‘To have a pee, I guess.’
‘Why is she here? I thought we were doing this on our own.’
‘Forget about her, and focus on the job you’re paid to do.’
Henrik Krag nodded, but asked:
‘Was it true, what she said about that Isabella woman?’
‘Only some of it; she was exaggerating, but don’t be nervous, we don’t use that method any more. It was too difficult to control, and besides, I couldn’t start the car afterwards.’
‘So what do we use instead?’
He wanted the question to sound casual, as if it was all the same to him whether it was one kind of torture or another. He failed miserably. The older man picked up on his nervous undertone and said quietly:
‘Take it easy, it’ll be all right, it’s not that bad. Come on, let’s stretch our legs, we could do with that.’
They got out and stood either side of the car. Henrik Krag noticed how his partner wheezed at the slightest movement; he looked even worse than usual. When Jan Podowski had got his breath back, they carried on the conversation across the roof of the car.
‘There’s no point in hiding that this is the ugliest part of the job, but it doesn’t happen very often, two or three times a year at most, and it gets easier every time. The first time is definitely the worst.’
Henrik Krag nodded, but thought this was small comfort.
‘I mean, they all have at least two months’ experience from the brothels before we take them over, and they knock the worst of their nonsense out of them there. Besides, the girls who do need disciplining from time to time generally get the message after a few slaps around the head and a bunch of threats. It’s rare that we have to resort to this level, and this is her last chance. If today doesn’t make a difference, we’ll be sending her back.’
‘Because violence doesn’t fit with our business concept. The vast majority of our business partners don’t like this sort of thing.’
‘What has she done?’
‘The question is what hasn’t she done. She just lies there like dead meat. There have been several complaints, and we’ve had to refund seven visits, possibly eight, I don’t remember exactly. But this is all new. Up until recently her work has been beyond reproach – nobody knows what has got into her.’
‘What does she say about it?’
‘Nothing, or nothing that makes any sense.’
‘Maybe she doesn’t know.’ A small glimmer of hope formed in Henrik Krag’s mind. Perhaps he could talk to the girl, make her see sense, so to speak. But Jan Podowski extinguished it immediately:
‘Well, who knows? We’ll find out tonight.’
‘She has a client tonight?’
‘Of course. By the way, if it’s winter or frosty, then it’s a good idea to tether them outside for half an hour without any clothes on. It’s simple, but it’s incredibly effective. I’ve tried it three times, and all three girls subsequently worked without any problems, even in the summer.’
He laughed as if he had told a joke, and Henrik Krag laughed with him.
‘Right, the young lady is back from her stroll. You take Jessica into the cabin, I’ll unlock it and get our kit out.’
Henrik Krag turned around; Benedikte Lerche-Larsen was approaching. It was time to get to work.
It was a hunting lodge and very basic: one room, built from heavy logs, with a couple of grimy farmhouse windows on each long side. At one end of the room two bunk beds had been put up against the wall and a couple of foam mattresses were gathering dust; at the other there was a cast-iron wood-burning stove with a thin chimney pipe leading up through the roof. It was sparsely furnished, just heavy wooden chairs around a long table, which had been nailed to the floor. Nothing else apart from a yellowing steel engraving of a hunter with his dog, and various types of antlers over white skulls with empty eye sockets. The air was stale and dense, beer cans, nicotine and rancid cooking fat from the primitive patio grill competing with regular mould and damp. Henrik Krag scrunched up his nose and considered opening a window, but it remained just a thought.
They told the girl to get undressed, but she refused so they had to strip her naked. Jan Podowski had skilfully trussed her up in a form of torture known as the macaw’s perch. He tied her hands, pulled them over her knees and forced a strong stick between them and the backs of her knees. He threw a rope over a cross-beam in the roof, raised his victim about a metre into the air, then casually knotted the end of the rope around the wood-burning stove. She whimpered, not loudly, more pleadingly. Her curly hair hung down towards the floor, while her eyes rolled into the back of her head, leaving only the whites showing. Henrik Krag thought that it was all wrong, and allowed himself to look away for a moment before Jan Podowski handed him the truncheon. It was artfully plaited from electric cable; heavy yet simultaneously flexible. He looked at the girl again. One of her black hairbands had almost slipped off and was clinging to the tip of a lock of hair, like an insect camouflaging itself.
‘You need to hit her across her thighs, on her buttocks . . . I mean, her arse, and then her back or her shoulders. Watch you don’t damage the kidneys, her neck or genitals.’
Like a good teacher, Jan Podowski indicated the areas without touching the girl. Henrik Krag nodded.
‘How many times do I hit her?’
‘Until I tell you to stop.’
‘And how hard?’
‘As hard as you can.’
No more questions were needed, and there was no more reason to delay. Henrik Krag weighed the truncheon in his hand again, and then slammed it forcefully but with control against the girl’s back. The girl howled, writhing in agony, and swayed back and forth on her rope. Like a piñata, he thought, and gritted his teeth in order not to cry.
‘You can do better than that . . . put your back into it, mate.’
He hit her again in the same place, as hard as he could. The girl wailed pitifully; Benedikte Lerche-Larsen looked away, Jan Podowski nodded wearily. Henrik Krag felt a strange rage well up inside him towards the girl. Perhaps it was her screaming, perhaps because he had had to drag her in here from the car by her ear, and she had refused to take off her clothes so he’d had to pull them off her, or perhaps it was just because she was dangling helplessly in front of him and it was his job to hit her. After that the blows fell more easily, five times, ten times, twenty times; he didn’t count, he just carried on hitting to get it over with. The screams merged into one, interrupted only by the occasional gasp for air, and then suddenly, just as everything was going according to plan, Henrik Krag’s next blow caught the rope and the loose knot around the wood-burning stove undid itself, sending the girl headlong into the floor. Her neck snapped with a small, ugly sound. Silence fell.
Copyright © 2017 Lotte & Søren Hammer
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
Lotte and Søren Hammer are a sister and brother from Denmark who began writing crime novels together in 2004. To date, they have written six books in this series. The Lake is the fourth.