Book Excerpt: SLOWLY WE DIE by Emelie Schepp
MIRA; June 19, 2018
Emelie Schepp is one of the most exciting young authors at work in Scandinavia today. After self-publishing her debut, MARKED FOR LIFE, Schepp found incredible success and quickly set records for self-published novel sales in her native Sweden. Her Jana Berzelius series has taken the crime-reading world by storm, and her newest book is set to release in the US this June! SLOWLY WE DIE is another novel featuring Jana Berzelius, but, from what I’ve read of it so far, it’s quite different from the previous Berzelius books—making it a great place for readers new to the series to dive in. Unlike her prior Berzelius books, SLOWLY WE DIE takes on a new angle: that of a medical thriller. This Scandinavian crime novel involves a series of killings rocking the medical community, and special prosecutor Jana Berzelius finds herself tasked with the investigation. I’m not typically a reader of medical thrillers (though I’ve read a couple books by Tess Gerritsen, and loved them!), but if there’s ever one reason to give a medical thriller a try, it’s when it’s written by a Scandinavian author—especially one as inspiring as Emelie Schepp. Of course, I’ll have my full thoughts on the book (including whether it can be read as a standalone) to come in a full review, but while I devour my review copy of the book, I’m so excited to share an excerpt with CBTB readers! Thanks to the team at MIRA, CBTB readers can dig into the Prologue and Chapter 1 of SLOWLY WE DIE by Emelie Schepp in today’s post.
You can find Emelie on Instagram and Twitter at @emelieschepp, and you can find more details about her - and her books - on her website: www.emelieschepp.com.
AN ACCIDENTAL SLIP OF A BLADE…
A tragic incident on the operating table leaves a patient damaged for life and leads a young surgeon to abandon his profession as a physician… Now, years later, a series of senseless, gruesome murders are rocking the same medical community.
THEN MURDEROUS REVENGE…
The weapon? A surgical scalpel.
But who exactly is preying on these victims? And why? What does this grisly pattern reveal? And who will be the one to stop it?
Special prosecutor Jana Berzelius, who has her own dark secrets to hide, is in charge of the investigation. What she can’t know, until she is finally closing in on the murderer, is just how her own mother’s recent death is intimately connected.
This intricately plotted and relentlessly suspenseful medical thriller keeps everyone guessing until the bitter end.
SLOWLY WE DIE by Emelie Schepp
MIRA; On Sale June 19, 2018
The woman opened her eyes and looked straight up at me. Her hands began clawing desperately at the air, as if she’d just realized what was about to happen.
I could see her surprise, her confusion, and I whispered to her that there was no alternative, that it was too late, she had already seen too much in the back of the ambulance.
She should have kept her eyes closed, shouldn’t have looked around with her meddling gaze, shouldn’t have seen me take the ring.
“I’m sorry,” I said, pressing my hands against her nose and mouth, “but what would you do if you were me?”
She didn’t answer. How could she?
She struggled again to pull her face away from me, making one last desperate attempt. Her thin body thrashed up and down on the stretcher. She tried to grab my hands, but instead her fingers just pulled at my arms with increasing panic. Her nails tore at my skin, but I didn’t stop. I pressed harder. Harder.
She tried to scream, and I heard a gurgling sound. She couldn’t keep it up any longer; her strength began to wane, and she blinked a few times without any tears falling.
And then, finally, it came. The awareness. This was the end. Her brain let go of all other thoughts, taking in the reality—crystal clear and horrifying.
There was no sound, only a tiny gasp as she surrendered, as her body finally relaxed and became completely still.
I took my hand away from her mouth and listened to the silence.
I smiled. It felt so simple, so undeniable, so complete.
This was a deviation from the plan, yes, but nevertheless it was a beginning. I was filled with excited anticipation, with revenge.
Philip Engström leaned against the black kitchen counter at the ambulance station in Norrköping. Cool spring air wafted in through an open window. He reached for the cup in the coffee machine, wrapped his fingers around it and enjoyed its warmth. Then he walked through the room, sank down onto one of the sofas and took a couple of sips before putting the cup on the nearby coffee table.
He had one hour left before his overnight ambulance shift ended. He had to fight a strong desire to close his eyes and drift off, if only for a few minutes.
He knew that he shouldn’t give into his exhaustion; he needed to pull himself together after the shift’s stressful events, but he couldn’t help himself. He nodded off and was dragged down into sleep where he dreamed of a whirling, rushing waterfall. Then he heard someone yell, and he jerked himself awake, his hands fumbling over the table and knocking over his coffee cup.
“Hi, Sandra,” he said, drowsily.
Sandra Gustafsson stood six feet from him, one hand on her hip. Her hair was blonde and her eyes the same green as their work clothes. She was the newest paramedic, the most recent in a series of recruits. She was twenty-three, competent, worked hard and seemed to care about her colleagues.
“Still tired?” she asked.
“Not one bit,” Philip said, getting up and wiping the coffee from the table with a wad of paper towels before sitting back down on the couch.
She looked at him as he attempted to stifle a yawn, then went to the coffee machine, picked up two cups and filled them.
He couldn’t resist smiling when she held one out to him.
He took a quick sip and glanced at his watch. “Time to go home soon,” she said.
“Yep,” he said.
“Do you want to talk before you go?”
She sat in the armchair across from him. Her body was trim and fit.
“About the patient who died.”
“No. Why would I want to do that?” he said, taking another sip of coffee, still feeling drowsy and thinking that he really should start taking better care of himself. The nature of his work meant his sleep was often broken, and as a result he didn’t sleep enough. He knew he needed more than an hour or so here or there.
“It was an unusual situation,” she said. “It was your everyday heart attack. What is there to talk about?”
“The patient could have survived.”
“But she didn’t, okay?” Philip listened to the hum from the coffee machine as he thought about the woman who had died on his shift. He noticed his hands trembling.
“I’m just wondering how you feel about it all,” she said. “Sandra,” he said, putting his mug on the table. “I know
you’re just trying to be supportive, but that psychology nonsense doesn’t work on me.”
“So you don’t want to talk?” “No. I already said so.”
“I just thought…”
“What did you think? That we would sit in a circle and hug each other? Should we all put on our comfiest pajamas, too?”
“According to protocol…”
“Let it go. I’ve worked as an ambulance nurse here for five years. I know exactly what the protocol is.”
“Then you also know it’s not okay to fall asleep on a call.” Silence filled the room.
“Just think if someone found out?” she whispered.
“No one will find out,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, it falls under work confidentiality.”
He looked around, checking that no one was within earshot.
“You heard what I said.”
“What the hell, it can’t be like that!” she said. Philip met her gaze. “Why not?”
“You’re not sane,” she said. “You’re completely…” “I know it sounds strange.”
“Strange? It sounds wrong…”
He looked at the door and thought about how much he wanted to leave work right this very moment. He wanted to feel the calm, hear the silence, above all be rid of Sandra. “I’m sorry, Philip. I can’t let it go. You’re the one who
messed up, not me.”
“I never mess up, just so you know. And that’s not why the patient died.”
“Do you really believe that?”
Philip stared at her as he raked his hand through his hair and took a deep breath to calm himself.
“Okay,” he said after a long moment. “This is what we’ll do. If, contrary to my expectations, anyone finds out that I happened to fall asleep briefly on a call, I promise I’ll report myself.”
“What about me, if that happens?”
“You can blame everything on me. Claim you were afraid to say anything because you were new on the job and all of that. Make it all my fault.”
She just looked at him.
“Do we have a deal?” he said.
“Yes, this one time,” she said, quietly. “But you should really get a handle on things. One more incident and I’ll report you.”
“Thanks,” he said, leaning forward and laying a hand on her shoulder.
“I’m serious,” she said.
“I know,” he said, getting up.
Prosecutor Jana Berzelius sat on one of the chairs in the broadcast studio with her legs crossed. She was waiting for her turn to be interviewed by Richard Hansen, the host of the morning program for Channel P4 Östergötland on Swedish Radio.
When she saw Hansen’s signal, she walked silently to the seat opposite him and put a pair of headphones on. She listened as Hansen smoothly changed topics and announced that next up was Norrköping lead prosecutor Jana Berzelius, here to talk about a rise in criminal gang activity.
“Extortion, robbery and violent attacks with hammers, knives and automatic weapons. Gang violence continues to increase. Jana Berzelius, you’ve been the lead investigator in many cases of serious organized crime here in Norrköping for many years. What do you think is the reason for the increased violence we’re seeing?”
Jana cleared her throat. “First of all, we have to remember that we’re talking about the number of reported crimes, that an increase in crime, statistically speaking, isn’t the same thing as an actual increase in crime…”
“You’re saying that the numbers lie?”
“What we can see is that gang violence all over Sweden is increasing, at the same time as violence in society in general is decreasing.”
“And what is causing the increased gang violence?” “There are a number of possible explanations,” she said. “Name a few.”
She leaned forward. “You already named the most important ones in your introduction, and I can only agree that increased access to firearms along with an increase in social and economic segregation are contributing factors in this context.” “As you know, we’ve been tracking the criminal gangs in Norrköping,” Hansen said, looking down at the papers in front of him. “Our stories about gang activities regarding the illegal trafficking of weapons, narcotics and people are our most-followed stories. It has been a year since that coverage originally appeared, and there’s hardly been any improvement in this area. Very few jail sentences have been handed down; few cases have even ended up at trial, and many people are saying that the Swedish legal system is failing. Should we be concerned?”
“There is always a risk of error in the criminal justice system, which in unfortunate cases can lead to wrongful convictions or even a failure to convict.”
“Can a biased prosecutor pose such a risk?”
“Yes, just as much as manipulated police reports, misleading expert witnesses or false testimony. No one, not even a prosecutor such as myself, can deny that these are the dangers that sometimes result in wrongful convictions,” Jana said. “And what do you think about those voices calling for harsher sentencing for violent crimes, for example?”
“We can’t prove that harsher sentencing results in fewer crimes. However …”
“In the United States, they have prioritized stricter sentencing, and it has resulted in—” Hansen said.
“But we’re talking about Sweden. Norrköping, specifically,” Jana clarified.
Hansen looked down at his papers again. “Stricter sentencing is an important objective of the opposition’s legal policy.” “The foremost duty of criminal policy should be to work for increased opportunities for crime prevention.”
Hansen looked up at her and said, “In so-called Policegate, police brass and businessmen have been accused of interfering with justice, accepting bribes and smuggling narcotics, and they will very likely receive long prison sentences, if convicted.”
“From what I understand, Policegate is both complicated and unusual. Besides the obviously reckless elements of violent crime, this is also about a state-appointed official of the highest level who abused his authority, and very gravely so.” “You’re referring to National Police Commissioner Anders Wester,” Jana said. “But we don’t have the whole story yet, and not all of the suspects have been questioned…”
“That’s true, but you can’t deny that harsh sentences are needed in such a unique circumstance, to set a precedent for how seriously our society views this type of crime, can you? This is about our trust in the police force.”
“I can’t comment on that case,” Jana said.
“But don’t you agree that the penal system is a way for society to see how seriously different offenses are taken?” Hansen said.
“Yes, but as I said, there is no proof that harsher sentences result in fewer crimes, in the short term at least.”
“If I understand you correctly, you think that instead, we should invest more resources in policies that focus on prevention, and this is the only way to lower crime?”
“Yes. Of course.”
“And what has led you to this conclusion?” Jana looked him straight in the eye. “Experience.”
Nurse Mattias Bohed was walking through Ward 11 at Vrinnevi Hospital with his colleague Sofia Olsson. Outside Room 38 sat a high security guard named Andreas Hedberg, his back straight and hands folded. As the two nurses approached, Hedberg smiled shyly in Sofia’s direction and stood to unlock the door.
Once they had entered the room, Hedberg closed the door behind them and locked them in.
Murder suspect Danilo Peña had been receiving care in this private room, with a security guard stationed outside the door around the clock. Mattias didn’t know much more about the patient than what he had read online—that the guy was a criminal who had been mixed up in what had come to be called Policegate. He was suspected of having killed several Thai girls caught up in drug trafficking. The nursing staff that had been handpicked to take care of him had received a strict warning: absolutely no one was allowed to be alone with the patient in the room.
“Did someone forget to turn off the light?” Sofia asked when she saw that the lamp near the bed was on.
“No,” Mattias said. “I don’t think so,”
The private room was small and, aside from the usual medical equipment and monitors, contained only a bed, a night- stand, and a chair.
Sofia took out a small glass bottle and swirled it carefully before drawing the fluid into a syringe.
“Oh, by the way, you heard that the patient woke up yesterday, right?” she asked.
“Yes, I am,” she said, smiling. “Are you trying to scare me?”
“No, I just want you to be careful.”
The patient lay quietly in the bed, except for the rhythmic motion of his chest as it rose and fell with every breath. He was flat on his back with his eyes closed, a heart monitor attached to his chest and arms tucked under the blanket.
Mattias kept his distance even though he knew that the patient was in a drug-induced sleep.
“What’s up with you? It was just joking,” Sofia said, noticing Mattias’s nervousness. “He’s never shown the slightest sign of waking up when I’ve been here. He’s hardly even moved— he’s been lying just like this every single time I’ve come in.” “But theoretically he could wake up if the medicine isn’t strong enough.”
“Oh, just relax,” she sighed.
“But, really, what would happen if he did?”
“He’s not going to wake up,” she said. She walked over to the bed and spoke to the patient in a calm voice telling him that it was time for his shot.
“Why are you talking to him if he can’t hear you?” “Force of habit, maybe?”
She held the syringe full of sedative in her left hand and lifted the blanket up with her right.
“Could you give me a hand?” she asked.
Mattias went over and stood beside her, then reached over and wiped the skin of the patient’s upper arm with an alcohol swab. Danilo Peña’s body looked thin, he thought. He had probably lost a lot of muscle mass while lying in that hospital bed.
Mattias walked around the bed and tossed the swab into the wastebasket as he watched Sofia move the syringe closer to Pena’s upper arm.
“Sweet dreams,” she said.
Just then, Peña’s hand twitched and his eyes opened. Sofia jumped back and dropped the syringe on the floor. It rolled under the bed.
“Is he awake?” asked Mattias, who had backed up several steps toward the door.
“No. Look, his eyes are cloudy, unfocused. He’s still unconscious. But I wasn’t prepared for him to… I mean, I was just so surprised.”
She leaned over to pick up the syringe, stretching her arm under the bed, but it had rolled out of reach.
“It’s on your side. Could you pick it up while I prepare a new one?”
Mattias looked nervously at the patient before kneeling down on the floor. He could see Sofia’s feet and legs as he searched under the bed.
The syringe lay far back against the wall; his name tag and the pens in his chest pocket scraped against his chest as he wriggled in to reach it.
Just then, he heard a thud above him. He looked around but couldn’t see Sofia’s legs anymore.
“Sofia?” he said, getting up quickly, his hand gripping the syringe.
His body flooded with adrenaline when he saw that the blanket had been cast off and the bed was now empty.
Draped across the chair next to the bed was Sofia, her arms hanging limply and her eyes closed.
Mattias stared at her, his heart pounding so hard that it thundered in his ears. Not until then did he realize that he should press the alarm button and call for help, or call for the guard. But his body refused to obey him.
He took a step back, turned slowly, and discovered the patient standing completely still behind him, just two steps away, his fists clenched and his eyes dark.
Mattias gripped the syringe harder and raised it, as if to defend himself.
“Don’t even think about it,” Peña said hoarsely, stepping toward the nurse.
Mattias tried to jab the syringe into Peña, but his arm movement was too predictable. Peña caught his arm instead and twisted it, causing a sharp pain to shoot through Mattias’s body.
“What do you want?” Mattias whimpered. “Just tell me what you want, I can help you….”
The pain in his arm rendered him unable to say anything more. He couldn’t stand it any longer, and the syringe slipped from his hand and fell to the floor.
“Take off your clothes.” “What?”
“Take off your clothes. Now!”
“Okay, okay,” Mattias said, but remained standing. He felt paralyzed, as if he were completely incapable of moving.
Only when Peña repeated the words a third time did he finally understand. As he pulled his white shirt over his head and dropped it to the floor, he noticed Peña’s monitor wires came loose and dropped to the floor.
Mattias glanced toward the door. “Are you stupid? Hurry up.”
The blow to his face came so quickly, Mattias didn’t have time to react. He touched his mouth gingerly and felt warm blood between his fingers.
Peña leaned over and picked up the syringe. “Please,” Mattias said, “I’ll do whatever you want…” “Your pants.”
Mattias quickly undid the drawstring on his white pants, pulling them down past his knees. He tried to pull one leg out, but his white gym shoe got caught in the fabric. He lost his balance and fell sideways. He felt a sharp pain in his hip as he landed on the floor but continued tugging on his pants leg. He finally got his shoes and pants off and noticed the goose bumps covering his skin. He thought about his son, Vincent, who always got undressed so slowly. He always had to nag the boy when it was time to take a bath or go to bed. Now he promised himself that he would never nag him again. Never again, he thought, feeling a lump forming in his throat. “You forgot your socks. Come on!”
Mattias pulled off his socks, and looked at Peña. “I have a family, a son…”
“Get up,” Danilo said. “And get into the bed.”
Mattias stumbled forward, lacking nearly all physical control, but he managed to stay on his feet and climb up onto the sheets. He waited, panting and trembling. “Now what?”
“Lie down,” Peña said. “Here? In the bed?” “In the bed.”
Mattias noticed the sheets were still warm as he laid his head on the pillow. He was uncomfortable but didn’t dare move. Next to the bed he noticed a heart monitor machine and IV fluid pole.
Pena bent over and attached the heart monitor clip to Mattias, then picked up the shirt and pants from the floor, and put them on. The pants hung loosely from his waist. Then he turned back toward Mattias, pushed aside the sheet and held the original syringe over the nurse’s naked chest, a half-inch above his heart.
“It’s time for your shot,” he said with a sneer.
Mattias saw the needle pierce his skin. Then everything happened so quickly he didn’t have time to react as a coldness spread through his veins.
A red dot appeared from the puncture wound and soaked into the white sheet.
He should have felt scared, but he didn’t feel anything. All he could do was observe and register.
Peña said something, but the words echoed as if they had been uttered in a tunnel. Mattias saw him adjust the white shirt, pick up the pen that had fallen on the floor, put it in his breast pocket, and look at himself in the mirror. He smoothed both hands over his dark hair before turning again toward Mattias.
“Sweet dreams,” he said.
He walked toward the door. Mattias heard it unlock, open and close again.
“This can’t be happening,” was his last thought. Then he felt it come. The silence.
Followed by the chill. It began in his feet and hands, spreading slowly from his legs, arms and head in toward his heart.
And finally, darkness.
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: MIRA (June 19, 2018)
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