Arnaldur Indriðason, whom The Sunday Times calls "one of the most brilliant crime writers of his generation," has thrilled readers around the world with his series set in Reykjavík. In Black Skies, Indriðason further cements his position as one of today's top international crime writers.
A man is making a leather mask with an iron spike fixed in the middle of his forehead. Meanwhile, a school reunion has left Inspector Erlendur's colleague Sigurdur Óli unhappy with life in the police force. While Iceland is enjoying an economic boom, Óli's relationship is on the rocks and soon even his position in the department is compromised. When a favor to a friend goes wrong and a woman dies before his eyes, Óli has a murder investigation on his hands.
From the villas of Reykjavík's banking elite to a sordid basement flat, Black Skies is a superb story of greed, pride, and murder from one of Europe's most successful crime writers.
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An Inspector Erlendur Novel
By Arnaldur Indridason, Victoria Cribb
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Arnaldur Indridason
All rights reserved.
He took the leather mask from the plastic bag. It had not turned out as he had intended; in fact, it was a bit of a botched job. But it would serve its purpose.
His greatest fear had been of running into a cop on the way, but in the event no one had paid him any attention. In addition to the mask, the plastic bag contained two bottles from the state off-licence and a suitably heavy hammer and metal spike bought from a DIY shop.
The materials for the mask had been purchased the day before from a wholesaler who imported leather and hides. Since he had known exactly what he needed he had no problem in acquiring the necessary leather, thread and strong wedge needle. He had made an effort to shave beforehand and put on the least shabby clothes he owned.
Realistically, there was little danger that he would attract any unwanted attention as it was early in the morning and there was barely a soul about. Head down, making sure not to catch the eye of any passer-by, he strode up to the wooden house on Grettisgata where he hurriedly descended the steps to the basement, opened the door and slipped inside, closing it carefully behind him.
Once inside he paused in the gloom, though by now he knew the layout of the flat so well that he could find his way around it in pitch darkness. It was not large: there was a windowless toilet to the right, off the hall, and the kitchen was on the same side with a big window that faced the back garden, which he had covered with a thick blanket. Directly opposite the kitchen was the sitting room and, beside that, the door to the bedroom. The sitting-room window faced on to the street but had heavy curtains drawn across it. So far he had only taken one quick glance into the bedroom, which had a single window, high up in the wall, blacked out by a bin bag.
Instead of turning on the lights he fumbled for the candle stub that he kept on a shelf in the hallway and lit it with a match, before following its eerie illumination into the sitting room. He could hear muffled cries coming from the old man tied to a chair with his hands bound behind his back and a gag over his mouth. Being careful to avoid even a glimpse of his face, especially his eyes, he put the bag down on a table and took out the hammer, mask, spike and bottles. Next he tore the seal off the brennivín and began eagerly gulping down the lukewarm spirit that had long since ceased to burn his throat.
Then he set the bottle down and picked up the mask. Only the finest materials had been used: thick pigskin, and seams double stitched with waxed sailmaking twine. He had cut out a round hole in the forehead to accommodate the galvanised-iron spike, then sewn a thick rim around it so that the spike would stand up unsupported. The sides of the mask had slits for a broad leather strap which could be tied tightly round the back of the head. There were also slits for the eyes and mouth. The top of the mask extended to the crown of the head and had a leather strap attached that could be tied in turn to the strap at the back of the neck to make sure the mask did not slip. He had not bothered to take precise measurements, working mainly from the size of his own head.
He took another swig of the spirit, trying not to let the old sod's whimpering get to him.
There had been a mask like this on the farm when he was a boy, though it had been made of iron rather than leather. It was kept in the old sheep shed, and despite being forbidden to handle it, he had once managed to sneak a look. The iron, which was rusty in places, had felt cold to the touch, and he had noticed that there were dried bloodstains around the spike hole. He had only seen the mask used once, when the farmer destroyed a sick calf one summer. The farmer was far too hard up to own a gun, but the mask did its job. It was almost too small to fit over the calf's head and the farmer explained that it had been designed for sheep. The farmer had picked up his big hammer and struck the spike a single heavy blow which drove it deep into the calf's head. The animal collapsed on the spot and did not move again.
He had been happy there, in the countryside, where nobody ever told him he was a pathetic little wimp.
He had never forgotten what the farmer had called the headpiece with the spike which jutted out like the reminder of a quick and painless end. A death mask.
It was a chilling name.
He stared for a long time at the spike which protruded from his own ham-fisted effort. He had worked out that it would penetrate five centimetres into the skull, and he knew that this would be enough.CHAPTER 2
Sigurdur Óli let out a heavy sigh. He had been sitting in his car outside the flats for nearly three hours now. Nothing had happened: the newspaper was still in its place in the postbox. A few residents had come or gone but no one had so much as glanced at the paper, which he had purposely left sticking halfway out so that any passer-by could easily snatch it if they had a mind to. If they were a thief, in other words, or had some reason for wanting to upset the old woman upstairs.
As cases went, it was not exactly a challenge; in fact, it was the most trivial, tedious affair that Sigurdur Óli could remember since joining the police force. His mother had rung and asked him to do a favour for a friend who lived in a block of flats on Kleppsvegur, near Reykjavík's northern shore. The friend had a newspaper delivered but when she went to fetch it on a Sunday morning she kept finding that it had vanished from her postbox in the communal lobby. She had had no luck in discovering the culprit herself, as her neighbours all swore blind that they had not taken it. Some even sneered that they would not touch such a crappy right-wing rag with a bargepole. In a way she agreed; she only really stayed loyal to the paper for the obituaries section that sometimes made up as much as quarter of its contents.
The friend had identified various suspects on her staircase. On the floor above, for example, there was a woman she believed to be 'one of those nymphomaniacs'. There was a constant stream of men to her door, especially in the evenings and at weekends, and if not her, then no doubt one of them was the culprit. Another neighbour, two floors up, did not have a job but lounged around at home all day, claiming to be a composer.
Sigurdur Óli watched as a teenage girl entered the block, evidently on her way home from an all-nighter. She was still drunk and could not immediately find her keys in the small purse that she took from her pocket. She swayed, grabbing the door handle for support. She did not give the paper a second look. No chance of any photos of her in the Social Diary section, thought Sigurdur Óli, as he watched her stagger up the stairs.
He still had a touch of flu that was proving stubborn to shake off. No doubt it was his own fault for getting up too soon but he simply could not face languishing in bed, watching films on his 42-inch plasma screen any longer. It was better to be busy, even if he still felt grim.
His thoughts wandered back to last night. There had been a reunion party for his sixth-form class at the house of a guy known as Guffi, a conceited lawyer who had annoyed Sigurdur Óli almost from the day they met. It was typical of Guffi – the kind of prat who used to turn up to school in a bow tie – to invite them round to his place, ostensibly for the reunion but really, as he revealed in a breathtakingly pompous speech, to announce that he had recently been promoted to director of some division at his bank, and that this was as good an opportunity as any to celebrate that as well. Sigurdur Óli did not join in with the applause.
Looking discontentedly around the group, he wondered if he had achieved the least of all of them since leaving school. It was the kind of thought that preyed on him whenever he bothered to attend these reunions. The gathering included other lawyers like Guffi, as well as engineers, two vicars, three doctors who had completed lengthy training as specialists, and even an author. Sigurdur Óli had never read any of his stuff but they made a fuss of him in literary circles for his distinctive style that bordered on the 'irrational', in the jargon of the latest pseudo-intellectual school of criticism. When Sigurdur Óli compared himself to his former classmates – his life in the force, the sort of investigations he was involved in, his colleagues Erlendur and Elínborg, and all the human dross he was forced to deal with every day – he could find little reason to be cheerful. His mother had always said he was too good for that, meaning the police, though his father had been quite pleased when he joined and pointed out that at least he would be doing more good for society than most.
'So, how's life in the force?' asked Patrekur, one of the engineers, who had been standing beside him during Guffi's speech. He and Sigurdur Óli had been friends since sixth form.
'So-so,' Sigurdur Óli replied. 'You must be run off your feet, what with the economy booming and all those hydroelectric projects.'
'We're literally up to our eyes,' Patrekur said, with a more serious air than usual. 'Look, I was wondering if we could meet up sometime soon. There's something I'd like to discuss.'
'Sure. Will I have to arrest you?'
Patrekur did not smile.
'I'll be in touch on Monday, if that's OK,' he said, before moving away.
'Yeah, do,' Sigurdur Óli replied, nodding to Patrekur's wife, Súsanna, who, though partners did not usually show up, had accompanied him. She returned his smile. He had always liked her and regarded his friend as a lucky sod.
'Still upholding the law?' asked Ingólfur, coming over, beer glass in hand. One of the two vicars in the group, he was descended from priests on both sides of his family and had never harboured any other ambition than to serve the Lord. Not that he was the sanctimonious type; quite the opposite: he liked a drink, had an eye for the ladies and was already on his second marriage. He used to argue with the other vicar in the class, Elmar, a very different kettle of fish; so pious that he bordered on the puritanical, a fundamentalist who was deeply opposed to change, especially when it involved homosexuals wanting to overturn the country's deep-seated Christian traditions. Ingólfur, on the other hand, could not care less what kind of human flotsam washed up on his doorstep, adhering to the one rule his vicar father had impressed upon him: that all men were equal before God. He enjoyed riling Elmar, however, and was always asking him when he was going to form his own breakaway sect, the Elmarites.
'And you? Still preaching?' Sigurdur Óli asked.
'Of course. We're both indispensable.' Ingólfur grinned.
Guffi appeared and gave Sigurdur Óli a hearty slap on the back.
'How's the cop?' he boomed, full of his new importance.
'Never regretted quitting your law studies?' Guffi went on, conceited as ever. He had put on quite a bit of weight over the years: his bow tie was now gradually disappearing under an impressive double chin.
'No, never,' Sigurdur Óli retorted, though actually he did occasionally wonder if he should leave the police and go back and complete his degree so that he could get a proper job. But there was no way he was going to admit this to Guffi, or the fact that Guffi was something of an inspiration to him when he was in this state of mind: after all, he often reasoned, if a buffoon like Guffi could understand the law, then anyone could.
'You've been marrying queers, I see,' said Elmar, joining the group and giving Ingólfur a reproachful look.
'Here we go,' said Sigurdur Óli, searching for an escape route before he got caught up in a religious debate.
He turned to Steinunn who was walking past with a drink in her hand. Until recently she had worked for the tax office and Sigurdur Óli used to call her from time to time when he ran into difficulties with his tax return. She had always been very obliging. He knew she had got divorced several years ago and was now happily single. It was partly on her account that he had made the effort to come this evening.
'Steina,' he called, 'is it true that you've left the tax office?'
'Yes, I'm working for Guffi's bank now,' she said with a smile. 'These days my job consists of helping the rich to avoid paying tax – thereby saving them a fortune, according to Guffi.'
'I guess the bank pays better too.'
'You're telling me. I'm earning silly money.'
Steinunn smiled again, revealing gleaming white teeth, and pushed back a lock of hair that had fallen over one eye. She was blonde, with curly shoulder-length hair, a rather broad face, attractive dark eyes and brows that she dyed black. She was what the kids would call a MILF and Sigurdur Óli wondered if she was aware of the term. No doubt; she had always known that sort of thing.
'Yeah, I gather you lot are not exactly starving,' he said.
'What about you? Not dabbling yourself?'
'In the markets,' Steinunn said. 'You're that kind of guy.'
'Am I?' Sigurdur Óli asked, grinning.
'Yes, you're a bit of a gambler, aren't you?'
'I can't afford to take any risks,' he said, grinning again. 'I stick to safe bets.'
'I only buy bank shares.'
Steinunn raised her glass. 'And you can't get safer than that.'
'Still single?' he asked.
'Yes, and loving it.'
'It's not all bad,' Sigurdur Óli conceded.
'What's happening with you and Bergthóra?' Steinunn asked bluntly. 'I heard things weren't going so well.'
'No,' he replied, 'it isn't really working out. Sadly.'
'Great girl, Bergthóra,' said Steinunn, who had met his former partner once or twice at similar occasions.
'Yes, she was ... is. Look, I was wondering if you and I could maybe meet up. For a coffee or something.'
'Are you asking me out?'
Sigurdur Óli nodded.
'On a date?'
'No, not a date, well, yes, maybe something like that, now you come to mention it.'
'Siggi,' Steinunn said, patting him on the cheek, 'you're just not my type.'
Sigurdur Óli stared at her.
'You know that, Siggi. You never were, never will be.'
Type?! Sigurdur Óli spat out the word as he sat in his car in front of the flats, waiting to ambush the newspaper thief. Type? What did that mean? Was he a worse type than anyone else? What did Steinunn mean by her talk of types?
A young man carrying a musical-instrument case went inside, took the paper from the postbox without breaking his stride and proceeded to open the door to the staircase with a key. Sigurdur Óli just made it into the lobby in time to shove his foot in the door as it was closing, and pursued him into the stairwell. The young man was astonished when Sigurdur Óli grabbed him as he started up the stairs and yanked him back down, before relieving him of the newspaper and whacking him over the head with it. The man dropped his instrument case, which banged into the wall, lost his balance and fell over.
'Get up, you idiot!' Sigurdur Óli snapped, trying to drag the man to his feet. He assumed that this was the layabout who lived two floors up from his mother's friend; the waster who called himself a composer.
'Don't hurt me!' cried the composer.
'I'm not hurting you. Now, are you going to stop stealing Gudmunda's paper? You know who she is, don't you? The old lady on the first floor. What kind of loser steals an old lady's Sunday paper? Or do you get some sort of kick out of picking on people who can't stand up for themselves?'
The young man was on his feet again. Glaring at Sigurdur Óli with a look of outrage, he snatched the paper back from him.
'This is my paper,' he said. 'And I don't know what you're talking about.'
'Your paper?' Sigurdur Óli broke in quickly. 'You're wrong there, mate; this is Gudmunda's.'
Only now did he cast a glance into the lobby where the postboxes hung in rows, five across and three high, and saw the paper jutting out of Gudmunda's postbox just as he had left it.
'Shit!' he swore as he got back into his car and shamefacedly drove away.
Excerpted from Black Skies by Arnaldur Indridason, Victoria Cribb. Copyright © 2009 Arnaldur Indridason. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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