Blackout: New Excerpt
Blackout by Ragnar Jonasson is the third Ari Thór thriller, delivering another dark mystery that is chillingly stunning with its complexity and fluidity.
On the shores of a tranquil fjord in Northern Iceland, a man is brutally beaten to death on a bright summer’s night. As the 24-hour light of the Arctic summer is transformed into darkness by an ash cloud from a recent volcanic eruption, a young reporter leaves Reykajvik to investigate on her own, unaware that an innocent person’s life hangs in the balance.
Ari Thor Arason and his colleagues on the tiny police force in Siglufjordur struggle with an increasingly perplexing case, while their own serious personal problems push them to the limit. What secrets does the dead man harbor, and what is the young reporter hiding? As silent, unspoken horrors from the past threaten them all, and the darkness deepens, it’s a race against time to find the killer before someone else dies.
PART I: DAY 1 SUMMER
How do you like Iceland?
If for nothing else, he had come to Iceland to avoid that kind of question.
The day began well, as the fine June morning dawned. Not that there was any clear difference between morning and evening at this time of year, when the sun stayed bright around the clock, casting blinding light wherever he looked.
Evan Fein had long anticipated visiting this island at the edge of the habitable world. And now here this Ohio art history student was, on his first visit to Iceland. Nature had pooled its energies, as if to add to the woes of the financial crash, by presenting Icelanders with two volcanic eruptions, one right after the other. The volcanic activity appeared to have subsided for the moment though, and Evan had just missed the events.
He had already spent a few days in Iceland, starting by taking in the sights of Reykjavík and the tourist spots around the city. Then he hired a car and set off for the north. After a night at a campsite at Blönduós, he had made an early start, setting out for Skagafjörður. He had purchased a CD of old-fashioned Icelandic ballads and now slotted it into the car’s player, enjoying the music without understanding a word of the lyrics, proud to be something of a travel nerd, immersing himself in the culture of the countries he visited.
He took the winding Thverárfjall road, turning off before he got as far as the town of Sauðarkrókur on the far side of the peninsula. He wanted to take a look at Grettir’s Pool, the ancient stone-flagged hot bath that he knew had to be somewhere nearby, not far from the shore.
It was a slow drive along the rutted track to the pool, and he wondered if trying to find it was a waste of time. But the thought of relaxing for a while in the steaming water and taking in both the beauty of his surroundings and the tranquillity of the morning was a tempting one. He drove at a snail’s pace, lambs scattering from the sides of the road as he passed, but the pool stubbornly refused to be found. Evan started to wonder if he had missed the turning, and slowed down at every farm gate, trying to work out if the entrance to the pool might be hidden away – across a farmer’s land, or down a side turning, a country lane. Had he driven too far?
Finally he saw a handsome house, which, on closer inspection, looked to be half built. It stood not far from the road with a small grey van parked in front of it. Evan pulled his car to the side of the road and stopped. And then started with surprise.
The van driver, the house’s owner, perhaps, was lying on the ground near the house. Unmoving. Unconscious? Evan unbuckled his seatbelt and opened his door without even turning off the engine. The age-old ballads continued to crackle from the car’s tinny speakers, making the scene seem almost surreal.
Evan started to run, but then slowed as the whole scene came into view.
The man was dead. There was no doubt about that. It had to be a man lying there, judging by the build and the cropped hair. There was no chance of identifying the face, though. It was erased by a spatter of blood.
Where there had once been an eye, there was now an empty socket.
Evan gasped for air and stared numbly at the corpse in front of him, fumbling for his phone, the incongruous sound of his Icelandic ballads in the background.
He turned quickly, checking that the man’s assailant wasn’t behind him.
Nothing. Apart from the dead man, Evan was alone.
Next to the body was a length of timber, smeared with blood. The weapon?
Evan retched as he tried to stifle the thoughts that flooded his mind.
Think. Be calm.
He sat down in the pasture in front of the house, and punched out the emergency number on his phone, wishing fervently that he had picked another destination for his holiday.
Iceland is one of the safest places on earth, the travel guide had said.
Evan’s eyes darted around, taking in the warm summer sun casting her glow across the verdant fields, the stunning mountains hovering in the distance, the glint of her rays on the bright-blue waters of the outlying fjord and its magnificent islands.
Not anymore, he thought, as the operator was connected.
The buzzing of a fly that had strayed through the open bedroom window woke Ísrún, prompting her to check the time and then curse when she realised how early it still was. She yawned and stretched her arms. A little more sleep wouldn’t have done any harm, and her shift on the news desk wasn’t until nine-thirty. She lifted herself on her elbows and gazed out the window at the tall trees in the communal garden outside and the block of flats on the opposite side of the road. It looked like an uneventful day ahead. The eruption had subsided for the moment, and now that summer was here, the city was quiet. And so was work. She’d been to a summer festival with a cameraman the day before, and her only task was to put together some lightweight filler material to bring the evening news bulletin to a close on a light-hearted note. Chances were that they wouldn’t run it anyway, as something meatier usually came long to take the place of the frothier material.
She’d been with the same news team for ten years now, albeit with a few breaks, joining straight from college on a freelance basis, and continuing throughout her psychology degree. Although she’d made a respectable attempt to work in the health sector, she found herself missing the newsroom buzz, and had dipped in and out over the years – while completing her master’s degree in Denmark, and even after taking up a hospital post in Akureyri for a while. But eighteen months ago, Ísrún had resigned from the hospital and returned to Reykjavík, searching out her old job in the newsroom.
Many of her old colleagues had moved on, replaced by new faces, but some of the stalwarts were still there. When she had first applied for the TV newsroom all those years ago, she had not seriously expected to get the job. She had thought that the scar on her face would undoubtedly preclude on-screen work, but she flew through the selection process and it hadn’t turned out to be a hindrance to her career. She stroked her cheek now, her scar as familiar to her as any other feature, the legacy of a childhood accident – an elderly relative had spilled hot coffee over her when she was just a few months old. One cheek was permanently disfigured, and although she had learned to apply makeup to make it less obvious, it couldn’t be ignored. But perhaps her scar was the reason why she had been so determined to apply for a TV job; it was an opportunity to show the world – or at least audiences in Iceland – that she wasn’t going to let it stop her.
Ísrún sat up in bed and looked around the airy, understated room with satisfaction. Living alone suited her. She’d been single for the last two years – the longest time she’d been without a significant relationship. Relocating to Denmark to study for a few years had ended things with her last boyfriend. They’d been together for five years, but it hadn’t been enough to make him want to join her there – or, indeed, wait for her to come home. Oh well, she had thought. That’s his problem.
To her surprise, television work turned out to be more rewarding than psychology, but what she had learned certainly helped with her work as a journalist. Her job gave her the opportunity to see something different every day – talk to interesting characters and hope that a decent scoop would come her way. Those were the best days. A little pressure could become addictive, but she didn’t enjoy the stress of the constant deadlines. Shifts were frequently short-staffed and it was often a struggle to delivery by the end of the day. Spending time on a story was a rare luxury, as was researching things in any depth.
Ísrún closed her eyes again, willing herself to fall back into slumber. The fly continued to buzz somewhere in the room, and her eyes snapped open with frustration.
Out of bed and on the street in her running gear just a few minutes later, determined to make the most of her unexpectedly early start, Ísrún took a deep breath of the morning air, missing its usual freshness. It tasted sour, tainted with the volcanic residue from the eruption in Eyjafjallajokull glacier, in the southern part of Iceland, which had spewed ash earlier in the spring, interrupting air traffic across half the world. No wonder the fly had sought shelter indoors. During and after the volcanic eruption, ash had frequently been carried over the city, even though the volcano was quite a distance away. It affected everyone, irritating eyes and hampering breathing. On the worst days it was recommended that people suffering from asthma and similar conditions should stay indoors. The eruption had now ended, with only this residual ash remaining, but there was some fear that this seismic activity could trigger an eruption of another ferocious volcano, Katla, with far more devastating consequences.
Ísrún lived in a small two-room apartment, in a block near the University of Iceland, and she made a habit of running along the seashore whenever she had the opportunity, preferably in the mornings before changing into her work clothes and leaving for the TV station’s offices. She was determined not to let the volcanic pollution stop her. During her run she thought ahead to what would undoubtedly be another routine day awaiting her.
Her old red banger, a car that had been in the family for years and was given to her by her father when she was twenty, still got her to work on time. Strictly speaking, the car was practically an antique, but it served its purpose. The traffic was quiet today – one of the advantages of the news desk job was the nine-thirty start, well after the morning rush hour had tailed off. Less popular were the frequent late shifts that took her past the evening bulletin and into an inevitable meeting afterwards. Working on the later bulletin was often a better option, however; she lost an evening, but gained the following morning off in lieu, and that time could be precious.
Hell! She had forgotten that Ívar was running the shifts today and tomorrow. There was a tension between them that was bordering on hostility. He had been appointed two years before, while she was still trying to forge a career in psychology. He considered himself some kind of big shot, having been poached from a competing station, and despite the fact that she’d more than proved herself over the past eighteen months, he still looked on her as a beginner. He didn’t seem capable of trusting her with anything serious, and she knew she didn’t have what it would take to hammer the table with her fist and fight her corner. Maybe she would have done a few years ago, but that time had passed.
* * *
She took a seat in the meeting room. Ívar sat at the end with his notebook, from which he was never far away, and a sheaf of papers – press releases that would find their way to one of the journalists or to the bin.
‘Ísrún, did you come up with any material from the summer festival?’
Did she detect a note of condescension there? Did the easy stuff always come her way? Or was she just being unnecessarily suspicious?
‘Not yet. I’ll have it done today and it’ll be ready for this evening. Two minutes?’
‘Ninety seconds, tops.’
Her colleagues had slowly gathered at the table and the morning news meeting had formally begun.
‘Did anyone notice the air pollution this morning?’ Kormákur asked, leaning back in his chair and gnawing at his pencil. He was known as Kommi, mainly because everyone was aware how much he disliked the nickname.
‘Yeah. It’s ash from the eruption blowing this way, stuff that built up during the eruption itself, or so I’m told,’ Ívar said.
‘I thought the eruption was all over,’ Kormákur said, and then grinned. ‘We can probably squeeze one more story out of it.’
‘Ísrún, can you check it out? Do something with a bit of menace to it, maybe. The eruption returns to Reykjavík – that sort of thing?’ Ívar smiled.
Condescending fool, she thought, glaring at her notebook.
‘But let’s have a look at the serious stuff,’ he said.
Exactly, Ísrún thought, raising her eyebrows with irritation.
‘I hear someone found a body up north, not far from Sauðárkrókur, next to a building site. Nothing’s confirmed yet. That’s definitely our lead, unless there’s another eruption.’
Kormákur nodded. ‘I’ll get onto it right away.’
It didn’t look like it was going to be a slow news day after all … for some.
Copyright © 2018 Ragnar Jonasson.