Stefan Ahnhem Excerpt: The Ninth Grave

Would you kill for the one you love? That's the question that international bestseller Stefan Ahnhem's The Ninth Grave: A Fabian Risk Novel seeks to answer in this spine-tingling thriller set six months before the events in Victim Without a Face (available December 5, 2017).

On a cold winter evening, the Swedish minister of justice disappears without a trace from the short walk between the house of Parliament and his car. At the same time the wife of a famous Danish TV-star is found brutally murdered in her luxury home north of Copenhagen. Soon more bodies are discovered, all missing different body parts. As criminal investigator Fabian Risk and Danish counterpart Dunja Hougaard race to put the pieces together, they are dragged into a conspiracy worse than anyone could imagine.

Ten Years Ago

IT WAS SO DARK he could barely see what was right in front of him. The prisoner transport vehicle lurched forward so vigorously on its way through the difficult terrain that the letters he was trying to write were almost illegible. But that couldn’t be helped. It was his last chance to record his story of the love affair that made him leave everything behind before the pool of blood under him got too big. He would describe how he was shot down and captured by his own people and how he was now on his way to almost certain death.

He had found the pen in the Israeli military camp at the Huwwara Checkpoint that was in the uncontrolled part of the West Bank. The paper came from some empty diary pages he had found in Tamir’s backpack, along with the used envelope he could turn inside out.

Once he was finished writing, he folded up the pages of the letter with his bloody hands, slipped them into the envelope, and sealed it as best he could. He had no stamp — or even an address. All he had was a name. But he didn’t hesitate to push the letter out through the thin crack in the truck and let it go. If it was God’s will, the letter would get there, he thought, giving in to fatigue.

The envelope didn’t even have a chance to hit the ground before it was sucked up by the strong winds and pushed higher and higher up into the black, starless sky that was starting to resemble a storm above the Nablus mountains. The time between dull rumbles and flashes of lightning diminished and a feeling of rain was hanging in the air. In only a matter of seconds, the imminent rain would hammer the envelope down to the ground and transform the dry earth to wet clay. But no rain ever came, and the bloodstained envelope continued its journey over the mountains and across the border towards Jordan.

SALADIN HAZAYMEH WAS LYING on his sleeping pad looking up towards the sky, where the light of dawn was making its first hesitant attempts to peek out. The strong winds from the night’s storm had finally calmed down and it looked like it might be a beautiful day.

It felt as if the sun had decided to clean up the sky for his seventieth birthday. And though his birthday was the reason for this ten-day-long hike, Saladin Hazaymeh was preoccupied by something else.

When he first noticed it up in the sky, he thought it was an airplane several thousand metres above him, but then he decided it must be a bird with an injured wing. Now he had no idea what was floating down to the ground some fifty metres ahead of him, glistening in the light from the sun.

Saladin Hazaymeh got up and noticed his usual morning back pain was gone. He hurried to roll up his sleeping pad and put it in his backpack. Something was about to happen — something of great significance — and he felt full of energy.

It could only be a sign from the God he had believed in for as long as he could remember telling him that he was on the right path. For this birthday, he’d retraced the steps of Jesus all the way from Jerusalem to the Sea of Galilee.

Yesterday he had visited the holy grotto in Anjara and had hoped to spend the night there, just as Jesus had done with his disciples and the Virgin Mary. But the guards had discovered him and he had been forced to sleep under the open sky. But there was a meaning to everything, thought Saladin, hurrying off with a light step across the uneven land towards the olive tree, where the sign from God was caught among the branches.

When he got there he saw that it was an envelope. An envelope?

As much as he tried he could not come up with a logical reason to explain its origins. He finally decided that Heaven would have to do. And perhaps that wasn’t completely wrong. His inner voice kept repeating how important it was that he took care of it, like a mantra. It was how things were intended. That — and nothing else — was the real point of all his wandering.

After a number of attempts, he managed to hit the envelope with a stone and catch it before it hit the ground. It was dirty and full of small tears and looked as if it had survived the end of the world against all odds. It was also heavier than he’d expected.

All doubt had now blown away. God had chosen him. This was not just any old envelope.

He inspected both sides for clues, but found nothing other than a name written in small, sprawling letters: Aisha Shahin.

Saladin Hazaymeh sat down on a stone and laboriously sounded out the name, but it meant nothing to him. After some hesitation he took out his knife and carefully slit open the envelope. Unaware that he was holding his breath he pulled out and opened the letter, examining the long rows of handwriting.

It was Hebrew, that much he could tell. But he could barely read Arabic, so how would he able to understand this?

What was God trying to say? Was he punishing him because he never learned to read? Or was the letter not intended for him at all? Was he only an insignificant middleman whose sole purpose was to pass it along? He tried without success to dismiss the disappointment while he folded the letter and put it back in its envelope. He continued his wandering northward toward Ajloun, where he reluctantly put the letter in a mailbox.

MANY WOULD SURELY THINK that Khaled Shawabkeh had behaved shamefully and was deeply immoral. He, on the other hand, did not feel guilty at all when he picked up the envelope without a stamp, sender, or complete address. Letters where the sender had failed to do their part became his property. It was a practice he had applied without exception during the forty-three years he had worked sorting mail.

At home he had many boxes filled with stray letters, one for each year. He liked nothing more than fishing one out at random and studying the contents that were meant for someone else. This particular envelope was something out of the ordinary.

The oxidation confirmed that the journey itself must have been an adventure. Moreover, someone had already slit the envelope open, but left all the contents inside — for him and no one else.

Exactly ninety-eight minutes earlier than usual, Khaled Shawabkeh arrived home and locked the door. He had skipped afternoon tea, even though he’d brought harissa cakes, and jogged the whole way home from the bus. Now he was out of breath and could feel the sweat trying to penetrate his tight polyester shirt. Dinner could wait. Instead, he poured a glass of wine from the bottle hidden behind the books on the bookshelf, sat down in the armchair, took out the envelope, and solemnly coaxed out the letter.

“Finally,” he said to himself, reaching for the wine, blissfully ignorant of how the blood clot, which had been building up in his left leg for several years, loosened and followed the blood flow all the way up to his lungs.

EVEN THOUGH IT HAD been more than a year since Maria’s uncle died from a lung embolism, she had still had not set foot in his house. Her two brothers had challenged the will and done everything they could to pressure her to refuse the inheritance. Even her own father had tried to convince her, arguing that Khaled Shawabkeh had gradually lost his mind over the years and had left his house in disarray. He also didn’t think women would ever be able to manage property.

But Maria held her own and now, finally, she could put the key in the lock and go inside. In the negotiations she’d become estranged from her brothers and parents. The house would be cleared out and sold, and with the money she could afford to quit her job at the tailoring shop, move to Amman, and start working her dream job at the Jordanian National Commission for Women.

IT SHOULDN’T HAVE BEEN POSSIBLE. There was really nothing to suggest that the letter would ever reach its recipient. With all the obstacles, the probability was so slight it was impossible to calculate.

Yet that was exactly what happened.

One year, four months, and sixteen days after the letter had been pushed through a crack in the prisoner transport vehicle and taken hold of by the winds in the black night, it ended up in Maria Shawabkeh’s hands. A few hours later, she had succeeded in piecing together most of the missing information.

Three sleepless nights after reading the horrific story from the letter, she made a few Internet searches, put a stamp on the envelope, wrote down the complete address, and left it at the nearest post office — without any idea of the consequences.

Aisha Shahin
Selmedalsvägen 40, 7th Floor
129 37 Hägersten


Part 1

December 16–19, 2009

Many people will be horrified by the things I’ve done. Some will see them as revenge for all the injustices that have been committed; others as an unlikely game to trick the system and show how far one person can go. But the vast majority will believe that these are the actions of an extremely sick person.

All of them will be wrong.

Two Days Ago

SOFIE LEANDER WAS SITTING in the waiting room at Stockholm South General Hospital waiting for an ultrasound. She was browsing through a well-thumbed copy of We Parents filled with page after page of beautiful, happy mums and dads and she wanted nothing more than to be one of them. But after so many fruitless rounds of IVF, she’d started to doubt that her egg production would ever get started.

This was her absolute last chance. If the procedure didn’t work this time, she would have no choice other than to give up — something her husband already seemed to have done.

He had promised to be by her side when she needed him, but he’d missed today’s appointment. She turned on her cell phone and read his message again: Have a conflict and unfortunately won’t make it. He treated the whole experience like it was shopping for milk on the way home from work. He hadn’t even said “good luck.”

She had hoped that the move to Sweden three years ago would revive their relationship, especially since he had chosen to take her surname. She’d seen it as a declaration of love; proof the two of them were united, no matter what happened. Now, she was no longer so sure and she couldn’t escape the feeling that they were slipping further and further away from each other. She had tried to bring it up, but he persistently avowed his love for her. She could see it in his eyes though; or, more correctly, in the way he avoided her eyes.

Now, the man who had once saved her life suddenly had conflicts and hardly looked in her direction. She wanted to call and confront him, to ask if he’d stopped loving her or if he’d met someone else. But she didn’t dare. Besides, she was sure he wouldn’t answer. He almost never did when he was working, and especially not now when he was in the middle of a new project — something so secret that he couldn’t even tell her what it was. Her only chance was a positive report from the doctor. If she could just get that everything would surely be fine again. Then she would finally be able to give him the child they always wanted and he would realize how much he really loved her.

“Sofie Leander,” she heard her name being called. She followed the midwife through the corridor and was shown into a small examination room with closed blinds, a large computer-like apparatus, and a hospital bed.

“You can hang up your coat on the hook and then lie down on the bed. The doctor will be here at any moment.”

Sofie nodded and took off her coat and boots as the midwife left the room. Once on the bed, she pulled up her blouse and unbuttoned her pants. She decided to try her husband anyway and ask what was so important that he couldn’t join her. As she was reaching for her handbag the door opened and the doctor came in.

“Are you Sofie Leander?”

Sofie nodded.

“Good. I’ll have you start by lying down on your side with your back to me.”

Sofie did as she was told and could hear the doctor opening some plastic packaging behind her. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but there was something about the whole situation that didn’t feel right.

“Excuse me, I’m here to have my ovaries examined.”

“Absolutely. We just have to take care of this first,” the doctor said, pressing on her vertebrae.

Suddenly she felt a prick in the middle of her back.

“What are you doing? Did you just stick me with a syringe?” Sofie turned around and saw something slip into the doctor’s trouser pocket. “Now I demand to know what —”

“You don’t need to worry. This is purely routine. Are those your things?” The doctor said, pointing to her coat and boots, but didn’t wait for an answer and set them by her feet. “We don’t want to forget anything, do we?”

This wasn’t the first time Sofie had been in for an ultrasound of her ovaries, so she knew that this definitely was not routine. She had no idea what this was. All she was sure of was that she no longer wanted to be part of it and wanted to get away from the doctor, the examination room, and the entire hospital.

“I think I have to go now,” she said, trying to get up. “I want to leave. Do you hear me!” But her body refused to obey. “What’s happening? What have you done?”

The doctor leaned towards her, smiling and stroking her cheek, before stretching a respiratory mask across Sofie’s face. “You’ll understand soon.”

Sofie tried to protest and scream as loud as she could, but the mask suffocated all sound. Before she knew it, the brakes of the bed had been released and she was being pushed out of the examination room and into the corridor.

If only she could grab something, anything at all, and pull herself out of the bed to make everyone realize what was happening. But she couldn’t. All she could do was lie there, stare up at the ceiling, and watch as the fluorescent lights passed by and doors opened in front of them.

She saw so many faces: pregnant mothers and soon-to-be fathers, midwives and doctors. They were all so close, but still so far away. She heard voices and the sound of elevator doors opening and then closing behind her. Or were they opening? She was disoriented.

Then she was alone with the doctor again, who was whistling a tune that echoed between the hard walls. It was the only sound she could hear other than her own breath, which was starting to remind her of the asthma she had had as a child. Then, she had felt completely helpless when she had to stop playing to gasp for air. Now, she felt both helpless and small, and all she wanted to do was collapse and cry. But she couldn’t even do that.

The fluorescent lights on the dark concrete ceiling ended and she saw first her legs and then her upper body being lifted onto a stretcher. You’ll understand soon, the doctor had said. How could she understand? All she could think about was the story she’d read recently about a plastic surgeon in Malmö who had injected something into his patients so they couldn’t resist when he raped them. But why would anyone want to rape her?

She was pushed backwards into an ambulance and tried to focus on the sounds. She heard the driver’s side door close and the engine start. They started moving and turned west on Ringvägen and then continued along Hornsgatan towards Hornstull, where she got confused when they went through a roundabout. After that, she lost all sense of direction.

About twenty minutes later, they finally stopped. She had no idea where they were, but she heard a garage door open. The ambulance went in about thirty metres before the engine was turned off.

The ambulance doors opened, and she was pulled out and pushed away on the stretcher. New fluorescent lights chased each other in the ceiling. The pace quickened, and the doctor’s steps echoed against the hard floor until they abruptly stopped. She heard keys and a beeping sound, and then an electric motor starting.

She was rolled into a dark room and it sounded as if something was closing behind her. A strong lamp in the ceiling was turned on and was shining right down onto a rectangular table. She couldn’t see any windows or figure out the size of the room. She could only make out the lamp and the table with a number of devices around it. She was pushed forward and could now see that the table was covered with plastic and had a number of straps and an inch-wide hole right below the midpoint. There was another, smaller, metal table alongside the rectangular one that had various surgical instruments lined up on a white towel.

Once she saw the scissors, tongs, and scalpels, she understood exactly why she’d been taken away — and what was coming.


Copyright © 2017 Stefan Ahnhem.

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Stefan Ahnhem is an established screenwriter for both TV and film, and has worked on a variety of projects, including adaptations of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series. He also serves on the board of the Swedish Writers Guild. Victim Without a Face, his first novel, won Sweden’s Crimetime Specsavers Award and Germany’s MIMI for best crime fiction. He lives in Stockholm

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