The Fifth Woman


The letter arrived in Ystad on 19 August 1993. Since it had an African stamp and must be from her mother, she hadn’t opened it immediately. She wanted to have peace and quiet when she read it. From the thickness of the envelope she could tell there were many pages. She hadn’t heard from her mother in over three months and there must be plenty of news by now. She left the letter lying on the coffee table, deciding to wait until evening. But she felt vaguely uneasy. Why had her mother typed her name and address this time? No doubt the answer would be in the letter. It was close to midnight when she opened the door to the balcony and sat down among all her flowerpots. It was a lovely, warm August evening. Maybe one of the last of the year. Autumn was already at hand, hovering unseen. She opened the letter and started to read.

Only when she had read the letter to the end, did she start to cry. By then she knew that the letter was written by a woman. It wasn’t just the handwriting, there was also something about the choice of words, how the woman had described as mercifully as possible the gruesome truth of what had occurred. There was no mercy involved. There was only the act itself. That was all.

The letter was signed by Françoise Bertrand, a police officer. Her position was not entirely clear, but she was employed as a criminal investigator for the country’s central homicide commission. It was in this capacity that she had learned of the events that took place one night in May in a remote desert town in North Africa.

The facts of the case were clear, easy to grasp, and utterly terrifying. Four nuns, French citizens, had been slaughtered by unknown assailants, their throats slashed. The killers had left no traces, only blood; thick, congealed blood everywhere.

But there had also been a fifth woman, a Swedish tourist, who happened to be visiting the nuns on the night the assailants appeared with their knives. Her passport revealed that her name was Anna Ander, 66 years old, in the country on a tourist visa. With the passport was an open-return plane ticket. Since it was bad enough that four nuns had been murdered, and since Anna Ander seemed to have been travelling alone, under political pressure the police decided not to mention the fifth woman. She was simply not there on that fateful night. Her bed was empty. Instead, they reported her death in a traffic accident and then buried her in an unmarked grave. All traces of her were erased. And it was here that Françoise Bertrand entered the picture. Early one morning I was called in by my boss, she wrote in the long letter, and told to drive out to the convent. By this time the Swedish woman was already buried. Françoise Bertrand’s job was to destroy her passport and belongings.

Anna Ander had supposedly never arrived or spent any time in the country. She had ceased to exist, erased from all official records. Françoise Bertrand found a travel bag that the investigators had overlooked, lying behind a wardrobe. Inside were letters that Anna Ander had begun to write, and they were addressed to her daughter in a town called Ystad in faraway Sweden. Françoise Bertrand apologised for reading these private letters. She had asked for help from an alcoholic Swedish artist she knew in the capital, and he had translated the letters for her. Françoise wrote down the translations as he read them to her, and