Read an Excerpt
The Draining Lake
By Arnaldur Indridason, Bernard Scudder
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2004 Arnaldur Indridason
All rights reserved.
She stood motionless for a long time, staring at the bones as if it should not be possible for them to be there. Any more than for her.
At first she thought it was another sheep that had drowned in the lake, until she moved closer and saw the skull half-buried in the lake bed and the shape of a human skeleton. The ribs protruded from the sand and beneath them could be seen the outlines of the pelvis and thigh bones. The skeleton was lying on its left side so she could see the right side of the skull, the empty eye sockets and three teeth in the upper jaw. One had a large silver filling. There was a wide hole in the skull itself, about the size of a matchbox, which she instinctively thought could have been made by a hammer. She bent down and stared at the skull. With some hesitation she explored the hole with her finger. The skull was full of sand.
The thought of a hammer crossed her mind again and she shuddered at the idea of someone being struck over the head with one. But the hole was too large to have been left by a hammer. She decided not to touch the skeleton again. Instead, she took out her mobile and dialled emergency services.
She wondered what to say. Somehow this was so completely unreal. A skeleton so far out in the lake, buried on its sandy bed. Nor was she on her best form. Visions of hammers and matchboxes. She found it difficult to concentrate. Her thoughts were roaming all over the place and she had great trouble rounding them up again.
It was probably because she was hung-over. After planning to spend the day at home she had changed her mind and gone to the lake. She had persuaded herself that she must check the instruments. She was a scientist. She had always wanted to be a scientist and knew that the measurements had to be monitored carefully. But she had a splitting headache and her thoughts were far from logical. The National Energy Authority had held its annual dinner dance the night before and, as was sometimes the way, she had had too much to drink.
She thought about the man lying in her bed at home and knew that it was on his account that she had hauled herself off to the lake. She did not want to be there when he woke up and hoped that he would be gone when she returned. He had come back to her flat after the dance but was not very exciting. No more than the others she had met since her divorce. He hardly talked about anything except his CD collection and carried on long after she had given up feigning any interest. Then she fell asleep in a living-room chair. When she woke up she saw that he had got into her bed, where he was sleeping with his mouth open, wearing tiny underpants and black socks.
'Emergency services,' a voice said over the line.
'Hello – I'd like to report that I've found some bones,' she said. 'There's a skull with a hole in it.'
She grimaced. Bloody hangover! Who says that sort of thing? A skull with a hole in it. She remembered a phrase from a children's rhyme about a penny with a hole in it. Or was it a shilling?
'Your name, please,' said the neutral emergency-services voice.
She straightened out her jumbled thoughts and stated her name.
'Where is it?'
'Lake Kleifarvatn. North side.'
'Did you pull it up in a fishing net?'
'No. It's buried on the bed of the lake.'
'Are you a diver?'
'No, it's standing up out of the bed. Ribs and the skull.'
'It's on the bottom of the lake?'
'So how can you see it?'
'I'm standing here looking at it.'
'Did you bring it to dry land?'
'No, I haven't touched it,' she lied instinctively.
The voice on the telephone paused.
'What kind of crap is this?' the voice said at last, angrily. 'Is this a hoax? You know what you can get for wasting our time?'
'It's not a hoax. I'm standing here looking at it.'
'So you can walk on water, I suppose?'
'The lake's gone,' she said. 'There's no water any more. Just the bed. Where the skeleton is.'
'What do you mean, the lake's gone?'
'It hasn't all gone, but it's dry now where I'm standing. I'm a hydrologist with the Energy Authority. I was recording the water level when I discovered this skeleton. There's a hole in the skull and most of the bones are buried in the sand on the bottom. I thought it was a sheep at first.'
'We found one the other day that had drowned years ago. When the lake was bigger.'
There was another pause.
'Wait there,' said the voice reluctantly. 'I'll send a patrol car.'
She stood still by the skeleton for a while, then walked over to the shore and measured the distance. She was certain the bones had not surfaced when she was taking measurements at the same place a fortnight earlier. Otherwise she would have seen them. The water level had dropped by more than a metre since then.
The scientists from the Energy Authority had been puzzling over this conundrum ever since they'd noticed that the water level in Lake Kleifarvatn was falling rapidly. The authority had set up its first automatic surface-level monitor in 1964 and one of the hydrologists' tasks was to check the measurements. In the summer of 2000 the monitor seemed to have broken. An incredible amount of water was draining from the lake every day, twice the normal volume.
She walked back to the skeleton. She was itching to take a better look, dig it up and brush off the sand, but imagined that the police would be none too pleased at that. She wondered whether it was male or female and vaguely recalled having read somewhere, probably in a detective story, that their skeletons were almost identical: only the pelvises were different. Then she remembered someone telling her not to believe anything she read in detective stories. Since the skeleton was buried in the sand she couldn't see the pelvis, and it struck her that she would not have known the difference anyway.
Her hangover intensified and she sat down on the sand beside the bones. It was a Sunday morning and the occasional car drove past the lake. She imagined they were families out for a Sunday drive to Herdísarvík and on to Selvogur. That was a popular and scenic route, across the lava field and hills and past the lake down to the sea. She thought about the families in the cars. Her own husband had left her when the doctors ruled out their ever having children together. He remarried shortly afterwards and now had two lovely children. He had found happiness.
All that she had found was a man she barely knew, lying in her bed in his socks. Decent men became harder to find as the years went by. Most of them were either divorced like her or, even worse, had never been in a relationship at all.
She looked woefully at the bones, half-buried in the sand, and was close to tears.
About an hour later a police car approached from Hafnarfjördur. It was in no hurry, lazily threading its way along the road towards the lake. This was May and the sun was high in the sky, reflecting off the smooth surface of the water. She sat on the sand watching the road and when she waved to the car it pulled over. Two police officers got out, looked in her direction and walked towards her.
They stood over the skeleton in silence for a long time until one of them poked a rib with his foot.
'Do you reckon he was fishing?' he said to his colleague.
'On a boat, you mean?'
'Or waded here.'
'There's a hole,' she said, looking at each of them in turn. 'In the skull.'
One officer bent down.
'Well,' he said.
'He could have fallen over in the boat and broken his skull,' his colleague said.
'It's full of sand,' said the first one.
'Shouldn't we notify CID?' the other asked.
'Aren't most of them in America?' his colleague said, looking up into the sky. 'At a crime conference?'
The other officer nodded. Then they stood quietly over the bones for a while until one of them turned to her.
'Where's all the water gone?' he asked.
'There are various theories,' she said. 'What are you going to do? Can I go home now?'
After exchanging glances they took down her name and thanked her, without apologising for having kept her waiting. She didn't care. She wasn't in a hurry. It was a beautiful day by the lake and she would have enjoyed it even more in the company of her hangover if she had not chanced upon the skeleton. She wondered whether the man in the black socks had left her flat and certainly hoped so. Looked forward to renting a video that evening and snuggling up under a blanket in front of the television.
She looked down at the bones and at the hole in the skull.
Maybe she would rent a good detective film.CHAPTER 2
The police officers notified their duty sergeant in Hafnarfjördur about the skeleton in the lake; it took them some time to explain how it could be out in the middle of the lake yet still on dry land. The sergeant phoned the chief inspector at the Police Commissioner's office and informed him of the find, wanting to know whether or not they would take over the case.
'That's something for the identification committee,' the chief inspector said. 'I think I have the right man for the job.'
'We sent him off on holiday – he's got about five years' leave owing to him, I think – but I know he'll be pleased to have something to do. He's interested in missing persons. Likes digging things up.'
The chief inspector said goodbye, picked up the phone again and asked for Erlendur Sveinsson to be contacted and sent off to Lake Kleifarvatn with a small team of detectives.
Erlendur was absorbed in a book when the telephone rang. He had tried to shut out the relentless May sun as best he could. Thick curtains covered the living-room windows and he had closed the door to the kitchen, where there were no proper curtains. He had made it dark enough around him to have to switch on the lamp by his chair.
Erlendur knew the story well. He had read it many times before. It was an account of a journey in the autumn of 1868 from Skaftártunga along the mountain trail north of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier. Several people had been travelling together to a fishing camp in Gardar, in the south-west of Iceland. One was a young man aged seventeen whose name was Davíd. Although the men were seasoned travellers and familiar with the route, a perilous storm got up soon after they set off and they never returned. An extensive search was mounted but no trace of them was found. It was not until ten years later that their skeletons were discovered by chance beside a large sand dune, south of Kaldaklof. The men had spread blankets over themselves and were lying huddled against each other.
Erlendur looked up in the gloom and imagined the teenager in the group, fearful and worried. He had seemed to know what was in the offing before he set out; local farmers remarked how he had shared out his childhood toys among his brothers and sisters, saying that he would not be back to reclaim them.
Putting down his book, Erlendur stood up stiffly and answered the telephone. It was Elínborg.
'Will you be coming?' was the first thing she said.
'Do I have any choice?' Erlendur said. Elínborg had for many years been compiling a book of recipes which was now finally being published.
'Oh my God, I'm so nervous. What do you think people will make of it?'
'I can still barely switch on a microwave,' Erlendur said. 'So maybe I'm not ...'
'The publishers loved it,' Elínborg said. 'And the photos of the dishes are brilliant. They commissioned a special photographer to take them. And there's a separate chapter on Christmas food ...'
'Were you calling about anything in particular?'
'A skeleton in Lake Kleifarvatn,' Elínborg said, lowering her voice when the conversation moved away from her cookery book. 'I'm supposed to fetch you. The lake's shrunk or something and they found some bones there this morning. They want you to take a look.'
'The lake's shrunk?'
'Yes, I didn't quite get that bit.'
Sigurdur Óli was standing by the skeleton when Erlendur and Elínborg arrived at the lake. A forensics team was on the way. The officers from Hafnarfjördur were fiddling around with yellow plastic tape to cordon off the area, but had discovered they had nothing to attach it to. Sigurdur Óli watched their efforts and thought he could understand why village-idiot jokes were always set in Hafnarfjördur.
'Aren't you on holiday?' he asked Erlendur as he walked over across the black sand.
'Yes,' Erlendur said. 'What have you been up to?'
'Same old,' Sigurdur Óli said in English. He looked up at the road where a large jeep from one of the TV stations was parking at the roadside. 'They sent her home,' he said with a nod at the policemen from Hafnarfjördur. 'The woman who found the bones. She was taking some measurements here. We can ask her afterwards why the lake's dried up. Under normal circumstances we ought to be up to our necks on this spot.'
'Is your shoulder all right?'
'Yes. How's Eva Lind doing?'
'She hasn't done a runner yet,' Erlendur said. 'I think she regrets the whole business, but I'm not really sure.'
He knelt down and examined the exposed part of the skeleton. He put his finger in the hole in the skull and rubbed one of the ribs.
'He's been hit over the head,' he said and stood up again.
'That's rather obvious,' Elínborg said sarcastically. 'If it is a he,' she added.
'Rather like a fight, isn't it?' Sigurdur Óli said. 'The hole's just above the right temple. Maybe it only took one good punch.'
'We can't rule out that he was alone on a boat here and fell against the side,' Erlendur said, looking at Elínborg. 'That tone of yours, Elínborg, is that the style you use in your cookery book?'
'Of course, the smashed piece of bone would have been washed away a long time ago,' she said, ignoring his question.
'We need to dig out the bones,' Sigurdur Óli said. 'When do forensics get here?'
Erlendur saw more cars pulling up by the roadside and presumed that word about the discovery of the skeleton had reached the news-desks.
'Won't they have to put up a tent?' he said, still eyeing the road.
'Yes,' Sigurdur Óli said. 'They're bound to bring one.'
'You mean he was fishing on the lake alone?' Elínborg asked.
'No, that's just one possibility,' Erlendur said.
'But what if someone hit him?'
'Then it wasn't an accident,' Sigurdur Óli said.
'We don't know what happened,' Erlendur said. 'Maybe someone hit him. Maybe he was out fishing with someone who suddenly produced a hammer. Maybe there were only the two of them. Maybe they were three, five.'
'Or,' Sigurdur Óli chipped in, 'he was hit over the head in the city and brought out to the lake to dispose of his body.'
'How could they have made him sink?' Elínborg said. 'You need something to weight a body down in the water.'
'Is it an adult?' Sigurdur Óli said.
'Tell them to keep their distance,' Erlendur said as he watched the reporters clambering down to the lake bed from the road. A light aircraft approached from the direction of Reykjavík and flew low over the lake; they could see someone holding a camera.
Sigurdur Óli went over to the reporters. Erlendur walked down to the lake. The ripples lapped lazily against the sand as he watched the afternoon sun glittering on the water's surface and wondered what was happening. Was the lake draining through the actions of man or was it nature at work? It was as if the lake itself wanted to uncover a crime. Did it conceal more misdeeds where it was deeper and still dark and calm?
He gazed up at the road. Forensics technicians wearing white overalls were hurrying across the sand in his direction. They were carrying a tent and bags full of mysteries. He looked skywards and felt the warmth of the sun on his face. Maybe it was the sun that was drying up the lake.
The first discovery that the forensics team made when they began clearing the sand from the skeleton with their little trowels and fine-haired brushes was a rope that had slipped between the ribs and lay by the spinal column then under the skeleton, where it vanished into the sand.
The hydrologist's name was Sunna and she had snuggled up under a blanket on the sofa. The tape was in the video player, the American thriller The Bone Collector. The man in the black socks had gone. He had left behind two telephone numbers which she flushed down the toilet. The film was just starting when the doorbell rang. She was forever being disturbed. If it wasn't cold-callers it was people selling dried fish doorto-door, or boys asking for empty bottles who lied that they were collecting for the Red Cross. The bell clanged again. Still she hesitated. Then with a sigh she threw off the blanket.
Excerpted from The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indridason, Bernard Scudder. Copyright © 2004 Arnaldur Indridason. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.