Excerpt

The Shadow Killer

Arnaldur Indridason

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Shadow Killer, the latest from internationally bestselling Icelandic crime writer Arnaldur Indridason, and his second to explore the social changes accompanying American military occupation of Iceland during WWII. In the following passage, a detective examines a murder scene, then tracks down an errant entertainer.

The woman who found the body was a widow of around fifty called Ólafía. She had gone down to remind the man about his rent and walked in on what she described as the ‘ghastly scene’. His rent had been due on the first of the month, she said, and he was never late. Admittedly, she hadn’t seen him for a while but then he was often away for a week or two at a time, sometimes longer. She had gone down to the basement and was about to knock on his door when she noticed that it was open a crack. There was no reply when she called his name, so, after a moment’s hesitation, she had gone inside to find out if he was all right and to ask why he hadn’t paid his rent.

‘Of course, it was mainly because I was worried about him,’ she assured Flóvent, as if fearing he would doubt her motivation and suspect her of nosiness. ‘The moment I walked through the door I saw him lying there on the floor. It was horrible, quite horrible, and I . . . I gasped, and, well, to be honest I screamed and ran back out again, slamming the door. The whole thing’s a nightmare. A terrible nightmare!’

‘The whole thing’s a nightmare. A terrible nightmare!’

‘So you found the door open, ma’am?’

‘Yes, which was very unusual because he always kept it locked. In fact, he told me he wanted to change the lock because it was so old it would be far too easy to pick. Maybe he was right, but then we don’t bother locking our doors any more than anyone else in this town. We’re just not used to it. I suppose it’s our old country ways that haven’t kept up with the times. Not with the way things are these days.’

‘Are you the only person with a key to the flat?’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Where do you keep your key?’

My key? I hope you’re not suggesting I was responsible. What a nerve.’ The woman looked outraged.

‘No, ma’am, of course not,’ said Flóvent. ‘I simply need to know who else could have had access to the flat in the last twenty-four hours—or in general. That’s all. Is it possible that someone else could have taken your key, used it to enter the flat, put it back, then lain in wait for the man and attacked him when he came home? Or else picked the lock, as you mentioned? It must have happened yesterday evening.’

Ólafía’s eyes still radiated suspicion. ‘Nobody can have taken my key,’ she said firmly, ‘because Felix had it himself. He’d borrowed my spare to get it copied. Said he’d lost his own. Maybe that was why he was talking about changing the lock.’

‘Did you see Felix at all yesterday evening?’ ‘No, not at all.’

‘And you didn’t hear any sounds from his flat?’

‘No, I didn’t. I was asleep by ten, as usual. That’s when most people in this house go to bed. I like my tenants to keep regular hours.’

‘Had Felix been renting from you for long?’

‘No. It was about six months ago that he enquired about the flat. I had to get rid of the previous tenants: a drunken lout and his wife, nothing but trouble. I have no patience with that sort of behaviour.’

‘You say Felix used to go away for a week or two at a time? Why was that?’

‘He was a commercial traveller, wasn’t he? Used to make regular trips out of town.’

‘And he’d always paid his rent punctually in the past?’

‘Yes. But he was a week overdue this time and I wanted my money.’

The man’s upstairs neighbours, a couple in their thirties, said they hadn’t noticed any comings or goings or heard any raised voices in the night. But then they had been sound asleep by mid- night. They’d been renting from Ólafía for two years, so they’d lived there longer than their neighbour. They didn’t know him very well but both agreed that he had been a cheery bloke and easy to talk to—just as you’d expect a good salesman to be. They weren’t aware that anyone had a bone to pick with him and couldn’t imagine what it was all about or comprehend the shocking brutality of what had happened.

‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep in this house tonight,’ the woman exclaimed, looking anxiously at Flóvent. As soon as she heard that their neighbour had been murdered, she had telephoned her husband, who worked as an overseer for the British, and he had come home early.

‘I don’t believe anyone else in the building is in danger,’ Flóvent reassured her.

‘Who could do such a thing—shoot a man in the head like that?’ asked the woman.

Flóvent couldn’t answer this. ‘Did he have any dealings with the army?’ he asked. ‘Did you ever see Felix in the company of soldiers? Did any of them ever visit him, as far as you’re aware?’

‘Oh no, I don’t think so,’ said the woman. ‘I never noticed any soldiers round at his place.’

The man said the same. After asking them a few more questions, Flóvent thanked them for their time, then went and knocked on the door of the third set of tenants, an older couple who had been renting from Ólafía ever since her husband died. They informed him, unasked, that the husband had been shipwrecked off the Reykjanes Peninsula in a storm.

Neither of them had heard a gunshot; they had both been fast asleep at the time Flóvent believed the weapon had been discharged. They couldn’t tell him a great deal about Felix Lunden either. He wasn’t there much and never caused any trouble, never had noisy visitors or threw parties, didn’t seem to have many friends and wasn’t involved with a woman, as far as they were aware. Or if he was, they hadn’t noticed her visiting him. They knew nothing of his family circumstances.

‘Do you know if he had any dealings with the army?’ asked Flóvent.

‘No. Are you asking if he worked for them?’

‘Yes, or if he was acquainted with any soldiers.’

‘No,’ said the woman, ‘that is . . . not that we were aware.’ Flóvent sat with the couple for a little while longer before returning to Felix Lunden’s flat. The body had been removed and taken to the mortuary at the National Hospital. The district medical officer and photographer had left, but a uniformed policeman was standing guard outside to ensure that no one entered the flat. Flóvent was currently the only detective working for Reykjavík’s Criminal Investigation Department. All his colleagues had been seconded to other, more urgent policing roles at the beginning of the war, but he thought he might have to recall some of them to assist him with this case, which promised to be both complex and challenging.

All the evidence suggested that he had been killed by someone connected to the military, and the message was clear: Felix had deserved nothing better than a cold-blooded execution.

He studied the bloodstain on the living-room floor, then examined the spent bullet that had been buried in a floorboard. He rolled it in his palm, picked it up between his fingers and held it to the light. Every gun left signature marks on the bullet, as unique as a fingerprint. If he could only find the firearm, he could prove that it was the right one by comparing the marks on the bullet to those produced by the barrel.

He recognised the make and calibre of bullet. It belonged to a Colt .45 pistol, the standard-issue sidearm carried by American servicemen. His question about whether the neighbours had seen Felix Lunden in the company of GIs had not been an idle one. All the evidence suggested that he had been killed by someone connected to the military, and the message was clear: Felix had deserved nothing better than a cold-blooded execution.

***

The plane taxied to the end of the runway, turned and prepared for take-off. Thorson, driving after it at breakneck speed, could see no alternative but to block its path. He had no intention of wasting any more time on the entertainer if he could possibly avoid it.

The man had finally turned up when an elderly woman living on Öldugata had reported him to the police. They had been searching for him all morning. At first, when she found the man sleeping on the steps outside her house, she had taken him for a tramp. But then it occurred to her that he was the best-dressed tramp she had ever seen. After taking a closer look, she concluded that he must be a foreigner, here with the army perhaps—though he wasn’t in uniform. When the police informed her that he was an American singer who had gone missing in town, and was quite the drinker to boot, she had laughed and said had she known she would have invited him in.

Thorson had wasted the entire day on that pain in the neck, all so he could shove him onto a plane and send him home. The singer was from New York. He had arrived in Iceland a week ago with a group of his fellow countrymen to entertain the troops, had been drunk more or less throughout his stay and had managed to get himself into a series of scrapes.

Thorson had been dragged into it when the man was beaten up after drunkenly insulting a bunch of soldiers after one of his shows. The US Military Police Corps was called in and Thorson had taken the man’s statement when he was brought in to the sick bay to be cleaned up before being sent back to Hótel Ísland, where all the entertainers were staying. The singer had no idea who his assailants were; they didn’t come forward and there had been no witnesses. All he could remember was that there had been three of them, they had found fault with his singing, and he had accused them of being rednecks. The incident had taken place behind the large barracks where the show, and a dance, had been held for the troops. The singer hadn’t come out of it well. He had a split lip and a black eye and complained that his side hurt where he’d been kicked in the ribs.

Two days later, when all the performers were due to fly home, he failed to show up at the airfield. Thorson was given the task of finding him and getting him on that plane, no matter what. The singer wasn’t in his hotel room and hadn’t packed; the place looked like a bomb had hit it, with clothes, empty bottles and sheet music littering the floor. Thorson soon discovered that he had been playing poker in the kitchen with the cooks until the small hours. One of them told Thorson that the man had been ranting about getting even with a bunch of punks, and that he had last been seen, at the crack of dawn, heading in the direction of the harbour.

‘Was he any good at poker?’ asked Thorson.

‘Had the shirts off our backs,’ said the sleepy cook ruefully.

Thorson phoned the airfield and extracted a promise that the plane wouldn’t take off until the singer turned up. After that, he called out several of his fellow MPs to join in the search, and they scoured the town, checking all the watering holes and guesthouses and even people’s gardens. He also alerted the Icelandic police in case they got wind of the man’s whereabouts. The singer hadn’t been in Reykjavík long enough to acquire any regular haunts, so there was no telling where he might be. A man answering his description was seen trying to scrounge a bottle of brennivín at the seamen’s hostel run by the Salvation Army; while customers standing outside Mrs Marta Björnsson’s restaurant on Hafnarstræti reported seeing an American weaving his way unsteadily towards the west end. Then a mature woman, wearing Icelandic national costume, reported that she had been accosted by a foreigner who had started following her in the vicinity of White Star, a late-night bar on Laugavegur, and offered her money to sleep with him. There had been the odd incident of this kind ever since someone had started the rumour that women who wore peysuföt were prostitutes.

It wasn’t until midday that the police heard from the housewife on Öldugata. The singer was delivered into the hands of Thorson, who drove him at high speed first to his hotel to collect his belongings, then out to the Reykjavík airfield where they learnt that the pilot’s patience had run out. The plane was revving up for take- off. Without further ado Thorson stamped on the accelerator and raced down the runway. By then the entertainer was waking up to the realisation that his plane was about to leave and that he was in danger of being stranded on this remote island. He stood up in the jeep, waving his arms frantically and raising his fine tenor voice to bellow at the plane to stop.

By then the entertainer was waking up to the realisation that his plane was about to leave and that he was in danger of being stranded on this remote island.

The pilot sat watching their approach and for a moment it appeared that he was going to ignore them, then he threw up his hands in surrender and waited while Thorson pulled up along- side. The noise of the propellers was ear-splitting. A door in the fuselage opened and the singer leapt out of the jeep, grabbed his suitcase and was about to race to the plane when he remembered his saviour. Turning to Thorson, he drew himself up straight, raised a hand smartly to his brow in a salute, then climbed aboard. Thorson heaved a sigh of relief, swung the jeep out of the way, and watched the plane trundling down the runway, before lifting clumsily into the air and vanishing into the west.

On the way to the airfield Thorson had tried to find out how the hell the singer had ended up asleep on a doorstep in Öldugata. The man, who had only a hazy recollection of meeting Thorson before, said he had no idea what he had been doing there. But some women had approached him at Hótel Ísland and one of them had given him an address, so perhaps he had been trying to find their place.

‘At least you’ve been keeping busy during your stay in Iceland,’ remarked Thorson, looking the man over. The singer was Italian American: dark hair, sun-bronzed skin. When he smiled there was a flash of fine white teeth.

‘Why are you staring at me like that?’ he asked, catching Thorson’s eye.

‘Sorry, I was miles away. I guess I haven’t been sleeping too well lately,’ said Thorson. ‘This place gets to you after a while.’

‘It’s the goddamn back of beyond,’ the singer said flatly.

__________________________________

From The Shadow Killer. Used with the permission of the publisher, Minotaur Press. Copyright © 2018 by Arnaldur Indridason.




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