The Butterfly House

Katrine Engberg

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Butterfly House, by Katrine Engberg. Investigators Jeppe Kørner and Anette Werner must track another killer through Copenhagen, after an exsanguinated corpse is found in a city fountain

“Ugh, this sucks!”

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Frederik wiped the water off his forehead and put the cap back on his head. He pulled up the hood of his rain poncho, made sure his under-seat bag was closed, and set off on his bike. Getting out of bed was always tough when the alarm went off at five fifteen, but some mornings were worse than others. This morning the driving rain made it hard to remember why he had ever said yes to this newspaper route. Six days a week, fifteen buildings in downtown Copenhagen, 620 flights of stairs up and down. Unfortunately it was the only way to make the money for his sophomore-class trip. And he wasn’t going to miss out on that.

The distribution point vanished into the dimness behind him as he rode along over the cobblestones. The phone in his pocket pumped music into his ears and reenergized him: “I got my black shirt on, I got my black gloves on.” Even in the rain there was something cool about having the city’s busiest pedestrian shopping street to himself. He stood up on the pedals and rode along Strøget until the old market square, Gammeltorv, and the new market square, Nytorv, opened up on either side of him. The neighborhood was full of neat stucco apartment buildings with muntin windows and copper gutters currently overflowing with autumn rain, grafted trees, and iconic Copenhagen benches with trash stuffed between their dark-green slats. The city’s municipal court’s sand-colored columns seemed to glow in the early-morning darkness, a moral juxtaposition to the age-old basement pubs across the square. During the daytime the two squares served as a hub for bicycle messengers, tourists, and people selling cheap nickel-alloy jewelry. At this hour it was completely deserted.

Frederik hopped off his bike and leaned it against the fountain in the middle of the square. He pulled out his earbuds and felt his jacket pocket to make sure he had enough coins for a warm cinnamon roll. Passing the fountain, he cast a quick glance at the surface of the water, which was rippling from the raindrops in the dark.

There was something in the water.

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There was often something in the water. Every day city workers fished out beer cans, plastic bags, and curiously solitary shoes.

But this was no shoe.

Frederik reeled. Three yards away from him, in Copenhagen’s oldest fountain, a person floated facedown with their arms out to the side. The raindrops hit the person’s naked back with innocent plops, splashing up into the air like hundreds of tiny, individual fountains.

For a second, Frederik couldn’t move. He was paralyzed, like in those nightmares he sometimes woke up from, sad that he had grown too big to be comforted by his mother.

“Help! Hello?” he yelled hoarsely and incoherently. “There’s someone in the water.”

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He knew he should jump into the fountain and turn the body, administer first aid, do something, but the warm urine running down his leg emphasized how unable he was to help anyone at all. Frederik looked back at the body in the water. This time really understanding what he was looking at. He had never seen a dead person before.

His legs trembling, he ran over to the twenty-four-hour convenience store. The automatic doors opened, the scent of cinnamon and butter hitting him just as he spotted the humming, blond checker. Water dripped into Frederik’s eyes from the visor of his cap, and he wiped it off, fresh water and salt.

“Help, damn it! Call the police!”

The checker stared at him wide-eyed. Then she dropped her tray of cinnamon rolls and reached for the phone.


Rain poured down on Copenhagen, blurring the contours of tile roofs and plastered facades. The sky sent cascades of unseasonably warm water straight onto the umbrellas and cobblestones of Old Market Square.

Investigator Jeppe Kørner squinted his eyes shut and decided to risk an upward glance. Not a single reassuring patch of clear sky on the horizon. Maybe the world really was dissolving, the oceans claiming back the last remaining landmasses. He wiped his face with a wet hand, stifled a yawn, and ducked under the crime scene tape. Water seeped into his sneakers at the seams, making them squelch with every step.

Through sheets of rain he saw miserable plastic-draped silhouettes busy erecting pavilion canopies around the fountain, the kind people rent for garden parties hoping they won’t need them. Jeppe ran to the closest pavilion for shelter and looked at his watch. It was a little after seven, and the sun was just rising somewhere behind the rain clouds, not that it made much difference. Today daylight would be no more than varying shades of gray.

A naked body floated in the fountain in front of him, reflecting the light from the crime scene work lamps. Jeppe took in the scene as he pulled a protective suit over his wet clothes. The body was lying facedown, like a snorkeler in the Red Sea. A woman’s body, as far as he could tell from the shoulder width and the arch of the back. Naked, middle-aged, dark hair with some gray, the scalp just visible between wet locks of hair.

“The name of the fountain is Caritas, did you know that?”

Jeppe turned around and found himself eye to eye with crime scene technician J. H. Clausen. The hood of his blue protective suit outlined a wrinkled face, making him look like a wet garden gnome in an oversize space suit.

“You’ll be pleased to hear that the answer is no, Clausen. I did not know that.”

Caritas means ‘charity’ in Latin,” Clausen explained, wiping his bushy eyebrows and then shaking water off his hands. “That’s why the figure on top is a pregnant woman. The symbol of altruism, you know.”

“I’m more interested in why there’s a body in the basin.” Jeppe nodded toward the fountain. “What have we got?”

Clausen looked around and found an umbrella leaning against one of the legs of the pavilion. He opened it and tentatively took a step out under the open sky.

“Damned weather, impossible working conditions,” he muttered. “Come on!”

Tall Jeppe had to walk in a stoop to fit under Clausen’s umbrella. At the stone rim of the basin they stopped to look at the body. Droplets ran down the white skin, making it look like a marble statue. A police photographer was trying to find workable angles all while shielding his camera from the rain.

“The medical examiner will obviously need to get her up out of the basin for a postmortem before we can say too much about her,” Clausen began. “But she’s female, Caucasian, average height. I would guess about fifty years old.”

A gust of wind gently nudged the body, so it floated past them to the other side of the basin.

“She was found by a paperboy at five forty a.m.,” Clausen continued. “The call came in to emergency services from the convenience store on the corner two minutes later. The first responders pulled her to the edge of the fountain and tried to resuscitate her, per protocol. I don’t know why the body hasn’t been taken out of the water yet. The paperboy and shop clerk are sitting in the store with an officer, waiting to be interviewed. The shop clerk arrived at five a.m. and is positive that there wasn’t anything in the fountain at that point, so the crime must have occurred sometime between five and five forty this morning.”

“You’re saying this is the crime scene?” Jeppe pulled his hood back to get a better view of the large public square. “She was killed in the middle of Strøget?”

Clausen turned to Jeppe, which caused the umbrella he was holding high above their heads to tilt. Rain gushed down on the both of them. Jeppe’s hair was instantly soaked.

“Oh, sorry, Kørner, for crying out loud! Did you get wet? Well, I’m being inaccurate. She could hardly have been killed here, for a number of reasons.”

“I guess it would be too risky . . .” Jeppe tried to ignore the raindrops sneaking down the back of his neck and inside his raincoat.

“Yes, the risk of someone coming by would be too big. The mere fact that someone has dared to dump a body in the fountain at Old Market Square is . . . well, that’s beyond my comprehension.” Clausen shook his head, dumbfounded. “But that’s not the only reason. Can you see those small incisions in the skin on the front of her arms? They’re facing down toward the water, so they’re hard to see.”

Jeppe squinted to get a better look through the rain. Bobbing in the surface of the water, a symmetrical pattern of small, parallel cuts was visible on the wrists, gaping gashes of whitish flesh. An image of a whale rotting on the beach flashed through Jeppe’s brain, and he swallowed his discomfort.

“There’s no blood in the water?”

“Exactly!” Clausen nodded in affirmation. “She must have bled profusely, and yet there’s no sign of blood, not in the fountain and not around it. We would have found some if she had been killed here, despite the rain. She died somewhere else.”

“There’s plenty of surveillance cameras we could retrieve recordings from.” Jeppe looked around at the old house facades. “If the killer dumped the body, there must be footage of that.”

“If?” Clausen sounded indignant. “She didn’t cut herself and then jump naked into the fountain, I can promise you that.”

“What were they made with, the cuts?”

“I can’t say yet. Nyboe needs to get her up onto the table first,” Clausen said, referring to Professor Nyboe, the forensic pathologist, who usually conducted autopsies for major murder cases. “But no matter what, the murder weapon isn’t here in the square. The dogs have been looking for half an hour and haven’t found anything. Also there’s no sign of her clothes.”

Something buzzed in Jeppe’s pocket. He wiped his hand on the seat of his pants and carefully took out his phone. Seeing Mom on the screen, he declined the call. What did she want now?

“In other words,” he said, “someone brought a naked body to the middle of Strøget and tossed it in the fountain early this morning?”

“Looks like it, yes,” Clausen said, his face apologetic, as if he were partly responsible for the absurd scenario.

“Who the hell does that?” Jeppe rubbed his burning eyes. He was short on sleep, and in the few hours he had slept, he had tossed and turned. Dealing with a dead woman in a fountain wasn’t exactly how he had imagined spending his day.

Disconnected lyrics from Supertramp’s annoying rain song ran through his head: “Oh no it’s raining again. Too bad I’m losing a friend.” If only Jeppe could at least pick the music his tired brain had to torment him with. Usually snippets of ultra-commercial pop music ran on a continual loop underneath his thoughts when he was stressed out. “It’s raining again. Oh no, my love’s at an end.” Jeppe pulled his hood back up and strode over to the convenience store, where the paperboy was waiting.


The cry was unbearable. A persistent, helpless wail on the same frequency as screams of terror or a dentist’s drill. The worst sound in the world.

Detective Anette Werner rolled over and closed her eyes tight. Svend was with the baby; this was her chance to catch up on a little of the sleep she hadn’t gotten the night before. She put a pillow over her head to block out the noise. Tried to think of something she wouldn’t give up for a night of uninterrupted sleep but couldn’t come up with a single thing.

The crying mixed with Svend’s soothing voice in the next room. If only he would shut the door; maybe she should get up and do it herself? Actually, she needed to pee anyway. Before August 1, she would have ignored a full bladder and slept on, but now she could no longer rely on her bombed-to-hell forty-four-year-old body to do its part.

Anette pushed herself laboriously into a sitting position and swung her legs over the edge of the bed. When would this permanent hungover, jet-lagged state be over?

She got up slowly, every single joint in her body gradually resigning itself to the weight of those bones, which were no longer supported by strong muscles. Her breasts ached. She looked down and noted that she had once again forgotten to take off her shoes last night. Then she dragged herself like a zombie across the carpeted floor, past the baby’s room, out to the bathroom. How could Svend be so calm and optimistic? She locked the door and looked at herself in the mirror.

I look like the living dead, she thought, and sat down on the toilet. I wish I were dead.

That was more or less what she had thought a year ago when she found out she was pregnant. They weren’t going to have kids, had agreed on that ages ago. It just wasn’t for them. Instead, they would focus on being the world’s most adoring dog parents. Sometime around her fortieth birthday they had stopped discussing kids altogether. Ironically, that might have been why they had grown careless about birth control; the idea that sex could lead to parenthood had somehow slipped their minds. For a long time, Anette had just thought she was sick, that she had inherited her father’s bad heart and that her pulse was racing toward a bypass operation or a pacemaker. The doctor’s results from the blood tests had been a relief. And a shock.

I wish I were dead.

Apart from that, things had gone fine from there. Unexpectedly enough Svend had been overjoyed about the news and had never questioned the prospect of parenthood. The pregnancy had passed without a hitch. The first-trimester screening had looked great, the birth itself was quick and uncomplicated. She had defied the bad odds and beaten every conceivable record for first-time pregnancies for the over-forty set. But when her little baby girl was placed in her arms, neat and clean, and immediately started sucking, Anette hadn’t felt a thing. The bond, which was supposed to occur instinctively, had to be forced along, and the love was somehow hard to feel. For her, anyway.

For Svend it was different.

In the last two and a half months, his love for the new, tiny human being had only grown stronger and stronger. The look on his face when he held her! His eyes beaming with pride. Svend swam like a fish into family life and was already more a father than anything else. Anette was trying; she really was. If only she wasn’t so exhausted all the time.

She rested her elbows on her thighs, leaned forward, and put her forehead on her hands.

“Honey, are you asleep?”

Anette lifted her head with a jerk, her neck so tight she instantly felt a headache looming. Svend’s voice came from the hallway. He must be standing right outside.

“I’m peeing,” she said. “Can’t it wait, like, two minutes?”

She heard the irritation in her own voice; the same resentment she had often witnessed in other women, but rarely displayed herself. Now it was like she couldn’t get rid of it. She stood up, washed her hands, and opened the door.

“She’s hungry. That’s why she won’t settle. See, she’s rooting!” Svend gently lifted their daughter up and kissed her on the forehead before holding her out to Anette.

She reached out her arms and felt the already familiar spasm of fear that she would drop the delicate life on the floor. People who compare having dogs to having children don’t know anything, she thought, even though she had been exactly one of those until two and a half months ago. She looked at the crying baby in her arms.

“I miss the boys,” she said. “When are we picking them up?”

“The dogs will be fine at my mom’s for another couple of weeks,” Svend said, eyeing her with concern. “They go for walks in the forest three times a day. We need to focus on little Gudrun right now.”

“Stop calling her that! We haven’t agreed on a name yet.” Anette squeezed past her husband with a brusqueness that forced him up against the wall of the narrow hallway outside their bathroom.

“I thought you wanted her name to be Gudrun?”

“I’m going to go sit in the car and breastfeed her,” Anette said, heading for the front door. “And please don’t say anything. I just prefer it out there.” She slammed the door behind her, as hard as she could with the baby in her arms, jogged through the rain to the car, and eased the door open. The baby stopped crying, maybe because of the unexpected sensation of rainwater hitting her face.

The car smelled familiar and safe, of work and dogs. Anette made herself comfortable, pulled up her blouse, and put her daughter to a swollen breast. The baby latched on and started sucking right away, settling down. Anette exhaled heavily and tried to shake the persistent feeling of stress in her body. She gently wiped a raindrop off the baby’s forehead and stroked her soft scalp. When she lay like this, quiet and peaceful, parenthood felt good. It was the crying and the nighttime battles that were hard to cope with. And maternity leave. Anette missed her job.

She looked out at the house. Svend was probably vacuuming or tidying up. With a quick push she opened the glove compartment and pulled out her police radio. It was actually supposed to be sitting in its charging station at police headquarters, but Anette had not gotten around to dropping it off. It was only a matter of time before someone noticed the radio was missing and deactivated it, but she would enjoy listening to it until then. She checked to make sure the volume was low, so as not to scare the baby, and switched it on. The familiar static sound caused a rush of emotion in the pit of her stomach.

And we need an escort for the deceased at Old Market Square in Copenhagen. We’re going to transport the victim from where she was found to the trauma center for the autopsy. We’ll maintain barriers on Frederiksberggade, and around Old Market Square until the crime scene technicians from NKC East are done gathering evidence and effects. . . .

A murder at Old Market Square? Her colleagues from police headquarters would be investigating that. Anette winced, feeling sore. Why did something as natural as breastfeeding have to hurt so darned much?

We need to obtain surveillance footage from all the cameras in the area. An investigative team led by Investigator Kørner will be in charge of this. . . .

Investigator Jeppe Kørner, who worked in the police’s crimes against persons unit, section 1, better known as Homicide. Her  partner.

Kørner and Werner, now without Werner. Werner, now without her job. Anette switched off the radio.


Excerpted from The Butterfly House by Katrine Engberg. Copyright © 2018 by Katrine Engberg. Excerpted with permission by Scout Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


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