Excerpt

The Mist

Ragnar Jónasson

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Mist, by Ragnar Jónasson. Sheltered in a remote cabin during a terrible snowstorm, a couple lets in a stranger is knocking at their door. No one will survive the night, and the detective who comes to investigate the three dead bodies will have to figure out what happened from next to nothing.

Darkness had fallen outside. Einar and Erla were sitting at the supper table with their guest. The news was on in the background, the announcer’s voice crackling and distorted with static, carrying over mountain, moor and cold volcanic desert, all the way from the capital on the other side of the country. Erla saw the kitchen for a moment through their guest’s eyes. The yellow and white units, inherited from Einar’s parents, were not what they would have chosen for themselves. The heavy wooden table was an heirloom too, but Erla had bought the chairs herself. At first it had been a constant source of irritation to have to live in someone else’s home, surrounded by their taste, their furnishings, but she had grown used to it over the years. She really couldn’t care less any more.

So far, she had contributed nothing to the conversation, leaving Einar to do the talking.

‘Don’t people eat skate here?’ Leó asked, tucking into the roast lamb Erla had served up.

‘It’s not something we’ve ever done,’ Einar told him. ‘It was never the custom here in the east when I was a boy. Which is fine by me, as I have absolutely no desire to eat rotten fish!’ Laughter rumbled in his chest.

Article continues after advertisement

‘How’s the farming going?’

‘Don’t get me started! It’s a constant hard slog, but we struggle on. If I go, there won’t be a single farm left in the whole valley, and I don’t want that on my gravestone.’

‘Isn’t it inevitable, though? I mean, times are changing.’

‘Well, I’m old-fashioned enough to think that people should keep working the land. But I see you’re new to all this. I don’t suppose you’ve ever spent any time on a farm before.’

‘No, you’re right, I haven’t,’ Leó said. ‘But I admire your tenacity.’

Erla was sitting bolt upright, staring at Leó. She’d hardly touched her dinner. He seemed aware of her tension, flicking the odd glance at her while keeping up a friendly flow of conversation with Einar. She was fighting back the urge to interrupt their small talk to ask Leó just what the hell he was up to. Why had he come there and what did he want from them? But perhaps she ought to try and discuss it with Einar again first.

‘How often do you manage to leave the farm in winter?’ Leó asked.

Article continues after advertisement

‘Not often. The road’s more or less closed in the coldest months,’ Einar explained, ‘or difficult to drive on, anyway. We’re not well connected enough for them to bother sending the snow ploughs out this far, you see. And someone has to be here to feed the sheep.’

‘Nobody cares about us,’ Erla chipped in.

‘I wouldn’t go that far.’ Einar smiled awkwardly. ‘Though I’m sure if we were – oh, I don’t know – on the local council or in with our MP, there might be more pressure to keep the road open for longer. It’s all about politics – all about who you know. But then I expect it’s the same in Reykjavík too?’

Leó didn’t immediately answer, then said: ‘Yes, now you come to mention it, I suppose it is.’

Watching him, Erla got the impression that Leó was someone who had never had to worry about not knowing the right people. He looked as if he led a comfortable life, with no shortage of money. His clothes were obviously expensive and showed no signs of wear, making her acutely aware of how shabby she and Einar appeared in comparison. And his hesitation in answering had seemed genuine, as if he had never actually given any thought to how people might struggle without the right connections.

She was fighting back the urge to interrupt their small talk to ask Leó just what the hell he was up to. Why had he come there and what did he want from them?

It wasn’t exactly common for city types to go on shooting trips in the mountains at this time of year. No, it was a rich man’s sport. If only she and Einar had that kind of money … Then maybe they could live somewhere else and get tenants to take care of the farm. Erla knew Einar would never agree to sell the land, but she sometimes fantasized about moving without selling up, seeing this as a compromise that he might just be prepared to accept. With this aim in mind, she bought a lottery ticket whenever she went into the village. The girl in the shop always smiled when she came in: ‘Lottery time again, Erla?’ she’d say, then add some comment like: ‘You know, I’ve got a feeling this could be your lucky day.’ Her dream wasn’t that don’t suppose you’ve ever spent any time on a farm before.’

‘No, you’re right, I haven’t,’ Leó said. ‘But I admire your tenacity.’

Erla was sitting bolt upright, staring at Leó. She’d hardly touched her dinner. He seemed aware of her tension, flicking the odd glance at her while keeping up a friendly flow of conversation with Einar. She was fighting back the urge to interrupt their small talk to ask Leó just what the hell he was up to. Why had he come there and what did he want from them? But perhaps she ought to try and discuss it with Einar again first.

‘How often do you manage to leave the farm in winter?’ Leó asked.

‘Not often. The road’s more or less closed in the coldest months,’ Einar explained, ‘or difficult to drive on, anyway. We’re not well connected enough for them to bother sending the snow ploughs out this far, you see. And someone has to be here to feed the sheep.’

‘Nobody cares about us,’ Erla chipped in.

‘I wouldn’t go that far.’ Einar smiled awkwardly. ‘Though I’m sure if we were – oh, I don’t know – on the local council or in with our MP, there might be more pressure to keep the road open for longer. It’s all about politics – all about who you know. But then I expect it’s the same in Reykjavík too?’

Leó didn’t immediately answer, then said: ‘Yes, now you come to mention it, I suppose it is.’

Watching him, Erla got the impression that Leó was someone who had never had to worry about not knowing the right people. He looked as if he led a comfortable life, with no shortage of money. His clothes were obviously expensive and showed no signs of wear, making her acutely aware of how shabby she and Einar appeared in comparison. And his hesitation in answering had seemed genuine, as if he had never actually given any thought to how people might struggle without the right connections.

It wasn’t exactly common for city types to go on shooting trips in the mountains at this time of year. No, it was a rich man’s sport. If only she and Einar had that kind of money … Then maybe they could live somewhere else and get tenants to take care of the farm. Erla knew Einar would never agree to sell the land, but she sometimes fantasized about moving without selling up, seeing this as a compromise that he might just be prepared to accept. With this aim in mind, she bought a lottery ticket whenever she went into the village. The girl in the shop always smiled when she came in: ‘Lottery time again, Erla?’ she’d say, then add some comment like: ‘You know, I’ve got a feeling this could be your lucky day.’ Her dream wasn’t that far-fetched. A ticket with five winning numbers had been sold in a shop in the neighbouring village not so long ago. Needless to say, the winner had moved to Reykjavík.

‘Help yourself to –’ Einar broke off in the middle of what he was saying as the kitchen lights started to flicker.

‘What’s happening?’ Leó asked.

It looked as if the electricity was about to go. The lights kept dimming alarmingly, then brightening again as if nothing had happened.

‘It’s nothing new,’ Einar said. ‘Power cuts are part of our daily life out here. Well, not daily, obviously, but they’re far too common.’

‘Damn, I didn’t expect that.’

‘Welcome to the countryside, mate. We’re used to it. We always have candles at the ready and carry matches in our pockets. We use torches too, of course, but I find candles cosier.’ Einar took a box of matches out of his breast pocket and shook it as if for emphasis. ‘Always prepared.’ His smile looked a little constrained and Erla sensed that he was troubled. Was it beginning to dawn on him that there was something odd about Leó’s visit? Perhaps the threat of a power cut, on top of the strange coincidence of the phone stopping working, had got him worried.

‘They still haven’t reported you missing,’ Erla murmured, just loud enough for both men to hear.

‘I wasn’t listening, actually,’ Leó said. It was a feeble excuse. They wouldn’t have failed to notice if there had been mention of a lost ptarmigan hunter on the radio. ‘And the news isn’t over yet.’

Neither Einar nor Erla said anything. Leó dropped his eyes to his plate and took a mouthful of lamb. The newsreader droned away in the background. ‘I expect they’re all still searching for me and haven’t come down from the mountain yet. I … I’m sure that’s why. They’d do a thorough search of the area themselves before going to get help.’

‘All?’ Erla queried, pouncing on the word. ‘How many of them are there, then?’

‘Mm?’ Leó sounded puzzled. ‘Three.’

‘Oh, that’s strange,’ Erla said, careful to remain outwardly composed. She hoped he couldn’t hear from her voice how fast her heart was beating or how troubled she was underneath.

‘Strange?’ It was Einar who asked. ‘Why?’

Erla looked at her husband, then back at their visitor: ‘I thought you said earlier that you’d been out shooting with two friends? That there were only three of you in total?’

Although visibly disconcerted, Leó was quick to retort: ‘Did I say that? Two? No, there are three of them. There were four of us altogether. You … you don’t go on a trip like that in winter without, without … plenty of back-up.’ It was blatantly obvious to Erla that he was lying.

He returned her gaze with a challenging stare and she could have sworn that for an unguarded moment there was a flash of pure hostility in his eyes, before he quickly mastered it and resumed his bland expression.

The lights flickered again and Erla shivered.

Einar seized the excuse to change the subject. ‘Bloody power cuts.’ This was typical of him. Apart from good-humoured wrangling about politics, he had never been able to stand conflict of any kind, whether verbal or physical, and always went out of his way to avoid confrontation. Like water, he was adept at finding the path of least resistance. Until he was pushed too far, that is. Then she never knew how he’d react. But that’s just the way her Einar was and there was no changing him. You couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks, and all that. No, Erla knew it was up to her to take the initiative, as usual. Up to her to get rid of this potentially dangerous man.

‘Bloody power cuts,’ Einar repeated. ‘The electricity often goes at Christmas, I’m afraid.’

‘At Christmas? That must be a pain.’

‘Yes, it is, but it can’t be helped,’ Einar said. ‘Christmas puts such a strain on the system, you see. But we’re used to making the best of things. Aren’t we, love?’

Erla nodded, without a word.

‘We just open our presents and read by candlelight. It’s grand, actually. Reminds me of the old days. My family’s lived here for centuries, you know. It’s our ancestral stamping ground. Our little patch of earth. And you have to look after your own.’

‘You can say that again.’

‘What do you do yourself, Leó?’ Erla asked. ‘You said you were here with friends from Reykjavík. I take it you live there?’

‘What? Oh, yes, I live in Reykjavík. That’s right. I’m a teacher.’

‘School’s broken up, then?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Which school is that?’

‘Which school?’ he repeated, as if to win time.

Hasn’t he rehearsed his story better than that? Erla thought to herself.

‘The university, actually,’ he said. ‘I teach at the university.’

‘What?’ Erla asked, then clarified: ‘What do you teach?’

‘Psychology.’

‘Well I never, you’re a psychologist, are you? I hope you’re not planning to analyse us!’ Einar said with mock alarm, but the joke failed to dispel the tension.

‘No risk of that.’ Leó’s smile was forced.

The lights dimmed again.

‘You know, I’m afraid we really are in for a power cut. It always starts like this. Have you got a candle in your room for the night, Leó?’ Einar looked first at their guest, then inquiringly at Erla.

‘I don’t think there’s a candle in his room,’ she answered after a pause. ‘But I’m sure we can find a spare one, since it’s only for the one night. After all, he’s leaving tomorrow morning. I assume you’ll be setting off early, Leó? As soon as it gets light?’

‘Yes, absolutely. That’s the plan.’

‘Take the matches.’ Einar handed him the box from his breast pocket. ‘We’ve got another box in our room. And don’t let the darkness get to you, mate.’

‘Thanks for supper. It was very good.’

‘Erla’s an excellent cook. Are you sure you wouldn’t like any more?’

‘Thanks, but I couldn’t, I’m stuffed. You’re real lifesavers. I’m feeling a lot better already. You should open a guesthouse.’ He looked at them both in turn.

Einar smiled. ‘We do get visitors from time to time, so we’re used to it. Only last summer, well, late summer, there were a couple of lads from Reykjavík – nice kids. Stayed with us for three or four days. Which reminds me, Erla, I posted their letter last time I went to the village.’

‘Their letter?’

‘Yes, I found a letter that must have slipped down between the books in the guestroom, so I took it with me. I expect they’ll have been wondering what happened to it – or rather the person it was addressed to will.’

‘That must…’ Leó paused as if searching for the right words, then went on: ‘Everything clearly moves at its own pace here in the countryside.’

‘You can say that again,’ Einar replied. ‘The papers are always out of date by the time they reach us, and the clock stopped years ago!’ His laughter had a hollow ring.

Erla’s gaze was drawn to the window. It had started to snow again, quietly, inexorably covering Leó’s tracks, obliterating the evidence of his lie. But she knew and that was enough. She would have to be on her guard and take care for both of them. However pretty the white flakes looked as they danced past the window, to her they were ominous. She could feel the snow piling up, surrounding her, hemming her in. It would be a white Christmas, as usual. Stiflingly white. And now this intruder had entered their peaceful home and poisoned the atmosphere. You couldn’t describe it any other way. He’d poisoned it. The wind whined outside – hardly a harbinger of peace on earth and goodwill to all men.

———————————————————————————————————————

‘Shall we move into the sitting room?’ Einar stood up. ‘And how about some coffee?’

‘Sounds great,’ said Leó, following Einar’s example.

‘I’ll put some on.’ Erla watched the men go through to the other room.

She fetched the packet of coffee from the cupboard, counted out the measures for three cups, filled the machine with water and switched it on, hoping the electricity wouldn’t go before it had finished. As she watched the drops percolating into the jug, one after the other, she listened to the murmur of the men’s voices from the sitting room. The radio was still on; it was the weather forecast now. She turned it off. She didn’t need it to tell her that they were in for another snowstorm.

Erla took the coffee through and poured a cup for herself as well. She meant to drink plenty so the caffeine would keep her awake and alert tonight. ‘Milk or sugar?’ she asked Leó. She had no need to ask her husband: heavy on the milk, heavy on the sugar.

‘Just black, thanks.’

She sat down, and for a while no one said anything. The curtains were open and, outside, they could see the snow falling, or rather being whirled past the window.

‘That’s a fine Christmas tree you’ve got there,’ their visitor said at last, as if to fill the silence.

Erla chose not to answer. Rudeness didn’t come naturally to her, but she had no intention of playing along with this man, chatting away as if nothing was the matter. All she could think about was getting rid of him as soon as possible. It had to be made abundantly clear to him that he was unwelcome here. Even though she wasn’t always that happy in this house, it was her and Einar’s home, her sanctuary. But now she felt as if both her peace of mind and her safety were under threat.

‘Yes, though it’s rather a whopper this time,’ Einar replied. ‘It wasn’t meant to be that big, but it’s hard to picture how large it is until you get the tree into the sitting room.’

‘Well, I must say, it all looks nice and festive. Have you lived here long?’

Far too long, Erla wanted to say, but bit her lip.

‘All my life,’ Einar said, his pride audible. ‘Erla’s from Reykjavík, but she took on the farm when she agreed to take on me. It’s a good place to live. You know, you get used to the silence and the fact nothing ever happens out here. Of course, it’s not for everyone, but I reckon Erla’s adapted pretty well. It must be quite a change for you, though?’

‘You can say that again. I was brought up with the constant noise and bustle of the city. I’m almost sorry to have to hurry off in the morning, as it must be very special experiencing Christmas here, in the snow and the solitude.’

‘Yes, well, you’ll miss all that,’ Erla said pointedly.

‘It’s always quiet here, of course,’ Einar went on, trying to smooth over her rudeness. ‘Nothing ever happens. But we make an occasion of it. Have a special meal, treat ourselves, you know. And we listen to the Christmas service when the long-wave reception is clear enough, though it’s a bit touch and go, as you can imagine after hearing the news earlier. Sometimes it’s just as well to know most of the hymns off by heart, so it doesn’t matter if you can’t hear the words.’ He chuckled.

‘I suppose it’s quite a trek to the nearest church,’ Leó said.

‘You’re right about that. There’s absolutely no point us trying to make it to church in winter. I remember how that used to upset my mother in the old days, but Erla and I have tried not to let it bother us. You can get used to most things eventually.’

‘And…’ Leó turned to Erla: ‘What about your daughter? Will she be coming round tomorrow? You mentioned she lived nearby?’

‘Of course she’s coming,’ Erla said at once, sharply. ‘She’ll be here in the morning. Though I don’t suppose you’ll meet her because you’ll be gone by then, Leó.’

‘How … how old is she?’ Leó asked after an embarrassed pause.

Erla didn’t answer immediately as she was thinking hard about what to say. It was time to expose the man’s lies. She shot a glance at Einar, trying to convey the message: I’ll take care of this.

‘You should know,’ she said then, in a harsh, almost accusatory tone.

The words had quite an impact on Leó. He jerked back on the sofa, where he was sitting, and spilt some coffee on himself.

‘I’m sorry?’ he said, with a quick intake of breath.

The lights flickered again, more alarmingly this time, the darkness lasting longer before they came back on. The brief blackout distracted them from the conversation, giving the visitor an excuse to dodge her question, and he took full advantage of it: ‘God, I’m not used to this. Is there nothing we can do to sort it out – to stop the power going completely, I mean? You haven’t got a generator, have you?’

‘Not a single thing, I’m afraid,’ Einar said with a grin. ‘We’ve never got round to installing a generator. They’re just too expensive.’

Erla had the feeling he was getting a secret kick out of teasing the city boy. She watched Leó sitting there sipping his coffee. It would have been so easy to slip a couple of her sleeping pills into his cup, so she could rest easier tonight. She regretted not having thought of it before … As it was, she doubted she would shut her eyes at all.

‘Thanks for the coffee,’ Leó said, although he hadn’t finished it, ‘and for the hospitality. I’m very grateful to you both.’

‘No need to rush off to bed,’ said Einar. ‘Erla and I are enjoying having some company for a change.’

‘It’s kind of you to say so, but I’m fading a bit, to be honest. And it is St Thorlákur’s Mass, after all. I expect you had other plans.’ He smiled. ‘Doing the last-minute Christmas preparations and all that.’

No plans at all, Erla thought to herself. She had long ago got everything ready, with no help from Einar, who, despite what he said, was fairly indifferent to the occasion. Most days were alike to him and he could hardly be bothered to vary his routine for Christmas, Easter, or any other high days or holidays, for that matter. They never went anywhere and it was always left to Erla to make an effort. There were times when she’d considered doing nothing at all for Christmas and waiting to see if he even noticed. If he’d say anything if she didn’t ask him to cut down a fir tree; if she just served up blood sausage on the twenty-fourth and didn’t give him any presents.

‘Do stay up a bit longer,’ Einar said. ‘At least finish your coffee.’

‘Thanks, I will,’ Leó replied, though he looked as if he’d rather be elsewhere. His gaze wandered round the room. Erla wasn’t sure if he was looking for something in particular or just trying to work out an escape route from this oppressive threesome.

‘How big’s this house?’ he asked abruptly, as if in a rather desperate attempt to hit on a subject to talk about.

‘Big? How many square metres, you mean?’ Einar asked. ‘Oh, I can’t remember. It’s not something I’ve had to think about recently. After all, it’s not as if I’m planning to sell. We mean to grow old here, Erla and I.’ He threw her a smile, but she didn’t return it.

‘All on the one floor, I suppose?’

‘Yes, that’s right, though we do have a small attic.’

‘Oh, right, a loft for storage, you mean?’

‘Yes, box rooms, and a little room where we put up the youngsters who come to help out on the farm, and the odd paying guest as well.’

‘In that case, why don’t you put me up there? I’d be less in your way.’

‘No, no, out of the question. There’s no radiator up there. You’ll be much more comfortable where you are now. We usually keep it private and put visitors upstairs, but you’ve been through a rough time and we’re not going to stick you upstairs in the cold. We don’t want to risk you catching a chill. It’s our duty to look after people who get caught out in storms or lost on the moors. You could have died of exposure, you do realize that? Going out like that with no proper equipment and unused to conditions in the highlands … I’m sure your friends realize they’re to blame. They should have known better and made sure everyone in the group was equipped with a compass, a map, and so on. It was extremely reckless of them.’ Einar’s voice had thickened with disapproval.

Leó shook his head and said charitably: ‘I wouldn’t want to blame them, they’re good guys. It’s my fault, really. I should have taken more care. After all, I’m responsible for myself. Ultimately, we’re all responsible for ourselves, aren’t we?’

‘I certainly believe that,’ Einar said, but Erla remained tight-lipped.

‘Well, anyway, you’ve got a charming home, very snug,’ Leó went on.

‘Yes, we’re happy here,’ Einar said.

‘I assume you’ve got a cellar as well?’

‘A cellar? Oh, right, yes, a cellar. Anyone would think you wanted to buy the place!’ Einar laughed so hard at his own joke that he almost spilt coffee on his checked shirt.

‘Oh, ha, ha, no, it’s a bit too remote for me. No, I’m just interested. Just making conversation.’

‘There’s nothing of interest down there, just a freezer and food supplies, and so on,’ Erla said in a low voice, glaring at their uninvited guest.

‘Er, OK. I wasn’t actually planning to go down there,’ Leó replied, trying to make a joke of it.

He looked at her searchingly, but she averted her gaze, shifting it to the window instead, where she could see the sitting room mirrored in the glass.

‘Did you stop by at Anna’s house on your way here?’ she asked, apropos of nothing, watching his reflection in the window.

‘Erla, please –’ Einar began, but she cut across him, determined to get to the bottom of this.

‘Did you stop by her place?’ she asked again.

‘Sorry, I don’t understand the question.’

‘Anna, our daughter. I told you she lives in the next house, twenty minutes or so down the road. You passed it on your way here, didn’t you?’ As she said it, she felt a sudden, sickening fear that something might have happened to her daughter, that this stranger might have hurt her somehow …

‘No, I’ve, er, already told you. I came straight here. I didn’t pass any other houses on the way.’

Erla was now convinced that Leó was lying to them about who he was and what he was doing here. She was sure he’d come here to harm them, in one way or another.

‘You’re lying,’ she said fiercely. ‘I saw which direction you came from, Leó. I saw your tracks in the snow. You came past Anna’s house and, if you really were looking for help, you’d have stopped there.’

‘I … I don’t remember seeing any other house, but then I was pretty far gone at the time. Maybe that’s why I didn’t notice it.’

‘Did you knock on her door?’

‘No, I came straight here. Is there any chance you… might have misinterpreted my footprints or something?’ His gaze shifted to the window. ‘Why don’t we go out and check? Because I’m telling you the absolute truth.’

‘Of course he’s telling us the truth, Erla love,’ Einar said. But she could hear from his voice that she had sown a seed of doubt in his mind. ‘Why don’t we turn the radio on again. We don’t want to miss the Christmas greetings to friends and family.’

Erla ploughed on as if he hadn’t spoken. ‘It’s far too late to go outside now, as well you know. All the tracks will have been buried under a fresh layer of snow. But there’s only one road leading here and it goes past Anna’s house, and I know … I know…’

At that moment the electricity went.

__________________________________

 

From The Mist by Ragnar Jónasson. Used with the permission of the publisher, Minotaur. Copyright © 2020 by Ragnar Jónasson.




More Story
Patricia Highsmith: Preying on Our Minds With a new Ripley television series in production, and her diaries at long last to be published next year, Patricia Highsmith...