by Óskar Guðmundsson
excerpts translated by Philip Roughton
December 11, 2011 Early Sunday morning
The girl had no idea that her mother would die after she herself went to bed. How could she have known that? Some people get hunches— unexplainable feelings that something is going to happen. But this six-year-old girl’s imagination hadn’t developed to the point where it would assume the unthinkable, the morbid. She could only look forward to events that she’d been told were in the offing. Her birthday, Christmas, going to the movies, or baking a cake with Mommy— when she got to lick the beaters. In the case of such activities or events, she could barely think of anything else all day, so consumed she was with eager anticipation.
She never got a knot in her stomach, as she’d heard people say when something uncomfortable was going to take place. She simply felt frightened when something bad could happen. For example, if she were somewhere up high and suddenly felt panicked — or when she was certain that someone was under her bed— or when Daddy hit Mommy. When, under such circumstances, she felt threatened, she naturally began to cry. She could never have imagined someone sneaking into her bedroom and watching her as she lay there on her side, with Pippi Longstocking in her arms. Nor that that person would take the blanket lying on the floor beside her bed and spread it very gently
over her body. Reach out to stroke her cheek— but then stop. Momentarily consider strangling her— before deciding not to. Leave the room quietly, shut the door carefully and walk just as silently toward the master bedroom— where her mommy now slept alone. And not without reason, she knew. Now it will just be the two of us, her mommy had said. She didn’t want to be with her daddy because he was a bad man. Wasn’t he? He often bought me toys. He hugged me a lot and said that he loved me to the moon and back.
This could be a bit confusing for her little brain, as it couldn’t determine which message was stronger: To love him. Or to hate him. Was there something in between? The latter came out on top most often, despite love sometimes bursting forth unexpectedly, without her being able to do anything about it. But the affection was short-lived, because that big hand always barged its way into her mind. Shot before her eyes, clenched into a fist, and smashed into Mommy’s face. She also saw the fist open into splayed fingers that clamped around her neck. Like the giant jaws of a viper. Saw her dad’s gaping mouth as it shouted words that she’d never heard in her life. And then she saw her mommy’s face — and her eyes, pleading with her to run away. To hide. In the closet. It had all happened so spontaneously. Like the hiccups. Just like that: her brain had never gotten any message that something was about to happen.
If only she’d woken earlier, when the man came in. And if only she’d woken when her mother screamed. Had she really screamed? Three times? Maybe the screams had melted like butter into her dream. If only she’d woken to that bad dream. Then maybe this wouldn’t have happened. He would have seen her standing there in the living room, with her long, blonde hair slightly tousled, a curl or two hanging down over her face. Two of them hooked on her long eyelashes. There she would have stood, in the darkness opposite him, in a new nightgown from Grandma Klara and holding Pippi Longstocking, and he wouldn’t have done anything. He would only have laid his index finger to his lips and quietly said “shhh” before leaving. Hissed and disappeared. Like a snake.
And she would never have said anything.
But she hadn’t woken— until too late. Actually, just slightly too late, because when she woke and opened the door a crack she saw him hurrying past in the darkness. He was so close that he nearly brushed against her— and she caught a whiff of lemon. Then she heard him open and close the front door softly behind him. Did he really close the door behind him?… yes, I’m pretty sure he did.
The door to Mommy’s room was closed. Mommy never closed it. She always left it open at bedtime, because otherwise her little girl felt scared. And now she looked at her mommy’s door and filled with fear.
She opened the door very slowly and peeked in.
Took a long look.
“Mommy, Mommy,” she said gently. “Mommy, wake up.”
No answer. No movement. She wasn’t sure whether she could go in. Maybe something was telling her that it wasn’t a good idea— to go in and give Mommy a shake. She closed the door again gently and reached for her mommy’s cell phone, which was lying on the dresser next to the bedroom door, where Mommy always put her phone and keys. Her mommy had taught her the three-digit phone number that she was supposed to call if something happened.
She had an uncomfortable feeling as she stood there looking at the bedroom door. Didn’t the front door close? A cold shiver ran from the back of her neck down her delicate spinal column. Someone was standing behind her.
From the top floor, Þórunn looked down through her own reflection in the window at the winter, which had been quite harsh. Cold and endless cold. Now the snow was falling heavily— in big flakes— the kind of snowfall that some people called “dog’s paws,” she thought, as she took a sip of freshly brewed green tea. Other people called it “noxious snow”— a blizzard, in other words— among other such old terms. She had heard once that there were well over a hundred Icelandic words and expressions for weather involving snow. For her, it was simply shitty weather. And now she saw a black bank of clouds storming in from Akranes toward Reykjavík, like a coarse hand barely stroking the choppy surface of the sea. Before long, it would settle over the capital city, and make the darkness even darker. Þórunn sipped her tea, which was now cold. She must have spaced out during her break, because when she glanced at the clock, she saw that it was nearing eight; her night shift was almost over.
She had just gone back down to the basement, where calls to the Emergency Phone Number were answered in a windowless room of the Public Safety Answering Center, and was startled when the phone on her desk rang. Þórunn knew that she would get used to it, but as she had only worked there for slightly less than two weeks, it still startled her every time the phone rang. It had been a busy night, with the calls mainly requiring a police or ambulance dispatch for brawls, minor traffic accidents, and illness— although there was one armed robbery, of a twenty-four-hour grocery store. Despite her lack of experience, she’d done a good job, and was given more responsibility than many other new staff members, being allowed to follow through on challenging and difficult calls. The correct response is crucial. Saying the wrong thing can have serious consequences. On the other end of the line, it’s often a matter of life or death, her supervisor had told her, in a serious tone. And of course, the phone calls that came in were never ordinary. Something was wrong in the case of every single person who called.
Þórunn walked quickly to her work station, and had said “one one two” into her microphone before she’d even sat down in her chair.
“Hi,” said a whispering, childlike voice.
“Hi, what can I do for you?” said Þórunn gently.
“My mommy’s dead,” said the child’s voice, in a slightly unusual accent.
“Your mommy’s dead? Why do you say that?”
“Because she won’t wake up,” said the voice, calmly. It was oddly composed.
“She won’t wake up? Where is your mommy?”
“Are you with her now?” “No.”
“Where are you now?” “In the kitchen.”
“Can you go to your mommy… and try to wake her up?” “But she can’t wake up.”
“What’s your name?”
“Mira? Where are you from, Mira?” “Norway… and Iceland,” she added.
“How old are you, Mira?” “Six.”
“Go to your mommy, and we’ll try to wake her up together. Will you do that for me?” She recalled her coworkers’ accounts of “death calls.” Some of them were just like this, when children called because their parents wouldn’t wake up, making them believe that their mom or dad was dead. And yes, they could in fact be dead. But usually, it was a different kind of death— the kind that alcohol and drugs had a tendency to cause. And no matter how much the children shook their parents, it didn’t liven them up. And these children had no life, either.
“No,” said Mira.
“Why won’t you?”
There was a long silence. As if Mira had simply hung up. “Hello? Mira, are you there?”
“Why won’t you go to your mommy?” “Because there’s so much blood.” “Blood? Where is the blood?”
Of course, Þórunn had noticed right away that the call was from an unlisted number. One of the three computer screens before her, however, displayed a map of the Seltjarnarnes area, and showed that Míra’s telephone was connected to a transceiver on the roof of the Eiðistorg shopping mall. The map displayed a greenish, conical image extending to the northwest and covering part of the residential area lying to the north, along Valhúsahæð and out to the sea.
“What’s the name of the street where you live, Mira?” “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know where you live?” Þórunn asked gently. “No. We’ve been here such a short time.”
“What phone number are you calling from, Mira?”
“Seven, two… I don’t remember,” she said, sounding upset about being unable to answer the question.
“Try to remember, Mira. It’s very important. You’re a good girl, Míra. Try to remember the number,” said Þórunn gently, but encouragingly.
“I don’t remember,” she said, after a short silence.
“Do you remember anyone else’s phone number?”
“No. I have a piece of paper in my backpack. It has Grandma and Grandpa’s phone number in Norway. Grandma Klara is from Iceland, but Grandpa is Norwegian. He’s very ill. But Grandma Klara taught me Icelandic,” she said proudly.
“You speak very beautiful, excellent Icelandic, Mira. Should we find the piece of paper, and you can tell me Grandma Klara’s number?”
“Why can’t you, Mira?”
“Because I’m locked in the closet.” “In the closet?”
“Yes, and I can’t open it. It’s locked.”
Þórunn moved forward in her chair. For the third time since the call began, in fact. “Did you lock the closet?”
“Who then, Mira? Who locked the closet?”
In the third chapter, the police officer Hilma and her superior, Guðmann, are at the Intensive Care Unit of the National Hospital, where Hilma’s colleague, Eyþór, is between life and death following a vicious knife attack by an agent of Vladas, as told of in the preceding novel, HILMA. Eyþór had been assisting Hilma with a criminal investigation when they fell for each other. Vladas was one of the most dangerous criminals in the Reykjavík underworld, but after Hilma uncovered his activities, he managed to flee the country. Vladas tries everything he can to get back at Hilma, including sending his men to attack Eyþór. The police are guarding Eyþór’s hospital room, because Vladas knows that if Eyþór regains consciousness, he could identify the attackers.
All available police units were called out, along with a specialized search-and-rescue team from the National Rescue Service.
The snow and leaden storm tried repeatedly to drown out the wailing sirens and blow away the flashing blue lights of the police cars that converged on the area of Seltjarnarnes covered by the transceiver at Eiðistorg. Everyone had received clear instructions from the coordinated control center at Skógarhlíð, where the movements of the police and rescue vehicles were tracked on a huge screen. Teams were sent to Austurströnd, Víkurströnd, Fornuströnd, Látraströnd, Barðaströnd, and Vesturströnd Streets. Others were sent out to Bollagarðar and Hofgarðar. Now these teams searched the neighborhoods, their spotlights’ powerful beams cutting through the storm as they pursued the few, vague clues provided by Mira.
“You’re very brave, Mira,” said Þórunn, trying to sound encouraging. She attempted to envision the situation, but found it difficult to put herself in the girl’s shoes. Six years old, and locked in a dark closet.
“Yes,” Mira replied calmly.
“What sort of house are you in?” Þórunn asked. “Is it an apartment building?” “No,” whispered Mira.
“A row house?”
“It’s like houses… in a row.” Þórunn had trouble thinking of a better way to describe a row house. “Houses connected side to side.”
“I don’t know.”
Þórunn realized that this description probably wasn’t good enough, and looked inquisitively at the five coworkers of hers who had gathered around her desk. One of them twirled her index finger rapidly, signaling Þórunn to move on.
“It’s just one house,” said Mira.
“A single-family home. Does your house have a yard around it?” “Yes. With a trampoline.”
“Is there a trampoline in the yard now?” “Yes, but it’s broken.”
One of the coworkers gathered at Þórunn’s desk relayed this information over the phone to the police officers directing the search, consequently enabling them to exclude large areas from it.
“What color is the house?”
“I don’t remember. Yellow. Maybe white. I don’t know.” “Is there anything else in the yard?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Wait, there’s a shed.” “What sort of shed?”
“Just a little shed. Mommy said it’s like the dollhouse that she had in her yard when she was little.”
“What color is it?”
“Red, and with little windows, but I can’t play in it. It’s full of snow. And rubbish,” she said, in something of a sad voice.
“Why is there snow in it?”
“Because the window’s broken.”
The same coworker relayed this information.
Þórunn thought about what she should ask next, despite knowing that she couldn’t really do that: stop and think. She just had to ask and ask. Get as much information from the girl as she could, in the shortest amount of time. But now she found herself at an impasse. As if her brain cells were made of glue.
“Are there Christmas…”
Someone behind her tapped her shoulder— three times.
Yes, she’d heard what he said.
“Does your mommy have a car?”
“Yes. Or no. Mommy’s borrowing it.” “Who loaned your mommy the car?”
“A friend of Grandma Klara. She loaned us the house, too. She’s overseas.” “Do you remember what Grandma Klara’s friend is called?”
“No,” she said, sounding upset about not knowing. “Maybe Sigga?” she said, slightly insecurely.
“Is the car outside the house?”
“No. It’s in the garage. So that it’ll be warm for when we go to the movies today,” she said, almost happily. “And then we’re going to buy a Christmas tree.”
“Great,” said Þórunn— despite being far from happy about this. Such statements yielded nothing.
“Are there Christmas decorations…”
Þórunn heard a scraping, creaky noise, which sounded like ungreased hinges. And she heard something else: quick, almost sharp breaths. Mira was obviously scared.
“Mira? Mira, are you there?”
Silence. The dead silence of a cut-off connection.
Of a phone abruptly hung up.
I was going to ask about a Christmas star in the window, she thought to herself, staring vacantly at the screen in front of her. No— she hadn’t thought that at all, because someone said “What?”
“I was going to ask if there was a Christmas star in the living-room window. If not, it would help us narrow the search area even further.”
One hundred and thirty-three residential buildings fell within the conical signal of the transceiver at Eiðistorg. Sixty-seven duplexes and apartment buildings were excluded— for now. Which left sixty-six single-family homes still needing checking. Now police cars drove slowly down the streets of these neighborhoods, as members of the search- and-rescue team, armed with both flashlights and helmet lights, moved in organized fashion from yard to yard in search of a damaged trampoline and a little shed with broken windows.
The majority of the yards did not have trampolines. The homeowners had conscientiously taken them apart and put them into storage for the winter. Most of the few trampolines left standing outside were in decent condition, thus making it possible to exclude those houses from further investigation. Two were in very bad shape— having possibly been blown around in the storm that had hit the area a few days earlier— but in those yards, there was no shed.
A few residents woke to the commotion and spotlights of this unusual Sunday morning, and stepped drowsily into their doorways. Some stood at their windows, phones in hand. Recording videos of the activity. This was exciting material for Facebook.
A scraggly homeowner in pajamas came out onto his porch to see what was going on. He said that the damaged trampoline in his yard certainly wasn’t his. The storm the other day had deposited that rubbish there.
“Why the fuck didn’t you call me sooner?” said Guðmann in a low, angry voice into his phone.
Hilma, who had just come back from the bathroom and was about to step into Eyþór’s hospital room, hesitated when she heard the curse word. Guðmann rarely ever used the word fuck— only when he felt it fully justified.
“Bad connection! There’s no… hello… hello… yes, the connection here isn’t the greatest,” he said, going to the door, where Hilma was still standing. He signaled to her that he had something to tell her— despite not yet knowing what it was— and stepped out into the
Hilma went to Eyþór’s bed and sat down on the bedside. She regarded him for a moment, then pushed back a lock of his brown hair lying across his forehead and stroked his head. She moistened a washcloth lying in a bowl on his bedside table and used it to wet his lips, which were dry and bluish. His strong countenance was still noticeable, despite the fatigue written on his pale face. She took his clammy hand in hers and laid her forehead to the back of it, which was uncomfortably cold. Guðmann hustled back into the room and grabbed his coat.
“Hilma. I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go. I’ve just been informed of a case that I’ve got to work.”
“What case?” she asked, straightening up.
Guðmann’s shoulders sagged slightly, suggesting that he either didn’t want to answer her, or didn’t know how to answer her.
“They’re searching for a house. A girl called 112 and apparently, something serious has happened to her mother.”
“And… well, no one knows where she is, exactly,” said Guðmann, as he turned to leave the room.
“Hilma,” he said brusquely. “The girl called from an unlisted number, but they’ve narrowed it down to a specific area on Seltjarnarnes. They’re searching house to house, or close to it. The girl saw her mother lifeless and covered in blood, and as far as I understand, she hid in a closet and called from there. There was someone else in the house, who had… Hilma, I don’t know the precise situation right now,” he said, sighing. “And I’ve only heard of it just now,” he continued, looking at his phone. Hilma knew that he was dying to use his special curse word again.
“Okay, let’s get going, then,” she said calmly, as she stood up grabbed her worn, black leather jacket and knitted scarf from where they lay over the end of Eyþór’s bed. Guðmann’s shoulders could not sink any farther. He drew a vigorous breath through his nose and straightened up, as if he’d inflated himself.
“No, Hilma,” he said calmly but firmly. “We’re not getting going. You’re going home and to bed, and I’m going down to the station. That’s that!”
That’s that my ass, she thought, as she wrapped her thick scarf around her neck and hurried to the door. She turned around.
“And what do you expect me to do in bed? Go to sleep?”
“Yes… that’s kind of the way I’d seen it.”
“Right. That bed’s waiting for me only to keep me awake. And I’ve already slept enough,” she said, leaving the room. She felt the heat that always went hand-in-hand with anger rush far too sharply into her face, highlighting its scar. She hated it when her scar asserted itself in this way. Reminded her of its creation, when her face was nearly sliced in two. Reminded her of Vladas.
“Is everything okay? asked the perky police officer sitting in a chair outside the room. Hilma was startled. She’d forgotten that he was there.
“Yes, everything’s fine,” she said, looking at him. “And you’re still here. You’re not tired?”
“No, I’m right as rain,” he said, smiling.
Right as rain, thought Hilma. The expression was nonsensical; just one of those clichés that people liked to use at the most unlikely of occasions. It got a bit on her nerves, despite understanding what he meant.
Guðmann stood there motionless, at a loss as to his next move. He was unused to this feeling of uncertainty. Hilma was one of the very few who could faze him— and this wasn’t the first time. And probably not the last, he thought. Why, for goodness’ sake, did he have such trouble keeping this girl in check? Of course, it shouldn’t have been the slightest problem for him. He was her superior, and if he didn’t want her involved in this case, all he had to do was say so. Be firm.
Guðmann decided to go and talk to Hilma, but before his feet could move, she reappeared. She walked determinedly over to Eyþór and looked closely at his face. She listened carefully to his breaths, as if to memorize them. She kissed him gently on the forehead, stroked his cheek, and whispered something softly in his ear. Then she walked determinedly out of the room again. Just before disappearing from Guðmann’s sight, she said: “Shouldn’t we get going?”
After sighing and looking down at the floor, he left the room— silently, and with heavy steps.
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