Into Oblivion by Arnaldur Indridason is an Icelandic thriller and the 11th of the Inspector Erlendur series, following newly promoted Detective Erlendur as he deals with a litany of cases in this small, remote country. (Now available in paperback!)
A woman swims in a remote, milky-blue lagoon. Steam rises from the water and as it clears, a body is revealed in the ghostly light. Miles away, a vast aircraft hangar rises behind the perimeter fence of the US military base. A sickening thud is heard as a man's body falls from a high platform.
Many years before, a schoolgirl went missing. The world has forgotten her. But Erlendur has not. Erlendur is a newly promoted detective with a battered body, a rogue CIA operative, and America's troublesome presence in Iceland to contend with. In his spare time he investigates a cold case. He is only starting out, but he is already up to his neck.
A fierce wind was blowing over Midnesheidi Moor. It had swept south from the highlands, across the choppy expanse of Faxaflói Bay, before ascending again, bitterly cold, onto the moor where it whistled over gravel beds and ridges, whipping a pale etching of snow over the sad, stunted vegetation. Exposed to open sea and northern blast, only the toughest plants survived here, their stalks barely protruding above the level of the stones. The wind raised a shrill screeching as it penetrated the perimeter fence which loomed out of this bleak landscape, then hurled itself against the mighty walls of the aircraft hangar which stood on the highest ground. It raged with renewed force against this intractable obstacle, before hurtling away into the darkness beyond.
The noise of the wind carried into the vast interior of the steel-frame hangar. One of the largest structures in Iceland, covering 17,000 square metres and as tall as an eight-storey building, it had doors opening to the east and west that could accommodate the wingspan of the world’s biggest aircraft. This was the operational hub of the US Air Force 57th Fighter Interceptor Squadron on Midnesheidi. Here, repairs were carried out to the fleet of AWACS spy planes, F-16 fighter jets and Hercules transports. Huge pulley systems for manoeuvring aeroplane parts hung from girders running the length of the roof.
At present, however, work in the hangar was suspended for the most part due to the installation of a new fire-extinguisher system. A specially reinforced scaffolding tower reached right up to the ceiling at the northern end of the building. Like everything to do with the hangar, the job was a Herculean task, involving the laying of a network of pipes along the steel roof girders, which connected to a series of powerful sprinklers, spaced at intervals several metres apart.
The scaffolding tower stood on its wheels like a mobile island in the hangar. It was assembled from a number of smaller platforms with a ladder in the middle leading up to the main platform at the top, where the plumbers and their mates had been at work. Stacks of pipes, screws and brackets lay heaped around the base of the structure, together with toolboxes and adjustable spanners of all shapes and sizes, the property of the Icelandic contractors who were installing the sprinkler system. Nearly all the construction and maintenance work at Naval Air Station Keflavík was in the hands of local entrepreneurs.
All was quiet apart from the desolate howling of the wind outside when suddenly a low whine came from the direction of the scaffolding. A section of piping fell to the floor and rolled away with a clatter. Shortly afterwards there was another, more substantial rush of air and a man hit the ground with an oddly muffled thud, as if a heavy sack had been dropped from the roof. Then all was quiet again apart from the keening of the wind.
At times the patches on her skin itched so badly she wanted to claw at them with her nails until she drew blood.
She had been a teenager when she started developing these rashes, like eczema but coarser. She didn’t know what she had done to deserve such a disfiguring affliction. The doctor had spoken of accelerated cell division in the skin, which resulted in these raised red patches with a scaly white crust that tended to cluster around her elbows and forearms, on her calves and, worst of all, on her scalp. She had received medical treatment in the form of drugs, ointments and creams, but these were only intermittently effective in keeping the rashes and itching at bay.
Then recently her doctor had told her about this place down south on the Reykjanes Peninsula. News had spread among patients suffering from the same or similar skin complaints that the water there alleviated the irritation. Something to do with its silica content. Following the doctor’s directions, she had stumbled upon the place in the lava field, close to the power station, where the milky-blue, geothermal waste water spread out amid the mossy rocks. It took her some time to clamber there over the rough terrain but when she lay down in the soft water and began to smear the sediment on her skin she experienced a degree of relief from the itching and even a sense of well-being. She slathered the mud all over her face, hair and limbs, convinced that it was easing her symptoms and sure that she would come here again.
Since then she had visited the lagoon every so often, each time with a feeling of pleasant anticipation. She left her clothes on a clump of moss as there were no changing facilities and was always on her guard as she didn’t wish to be seen. She wore a swimsuit under her clothes and brought along a large towel to dry herself with when she got out.
The day she came across the body she had immersed herself full-length in the silky water, letting it lap her in warmth and comfort, and applied the mud to her skin, hoping that the silica, or whatever the doctor had called it, the minerals and algae would work their magic. The water felt warm and soft, the sediment soothing, and the location amid the old lava flow was tranquil and unusually beautiful. She savoured every moment, enjoying this time alone with her thoughts.
She was on her way back to the edge when she saw what looked like a shoe floating in the water. At first she was indignant, thinking some antisocial litterbug must have thrown it in the lagoon, but when she went to remove it, she discovered to her horror that it was still attached to its owner.
* * *
The interview room in the remand prison at Sídumúli was small and drab, with uncomfortable chairs. Yet again the brothers were being uncooperative and their interviews were dragging on. Erlendur had expected no different. The brothers, whose names were Ellert and Vignir, had been cooling their heels in jail for several days now.
It was not the first time they had been in trouble with the law for smuggling alcohol and drugs. Two years ago they had been released from Litla-Hraun after serving a three-year sentence for the same crimes, but their spell inside had done little to improve their characters. It appeared that they had simply picked up where they left off and in fact there was ample evidence to suggest they had continued to run their business from inside. The interviews were intended to clarify this point.
An anonymous tip-off had led the police to focus on their activities, and as a result Vignir was seized with twenty-four kilos of hash in a potato store not far from Korpúlfsstadir, to the north-east of Reykjavík. The police also found two hundred litres of American vodka in gallon bottles and several cardboard boxes of cigarettes. Vignir denied all knowledge of the goods, claiming that he had been tricked into visiting the shed – someone he didn’t wish to name had lent him the keys and told him he could lay his hands on some free potatoes there.
The brothers had been under surveillance for several days before the police took action. A search of their home turned up a stash of cannabis intended for sale. They had done little to refine their methods over the years; their last arrest had taken place in almost identical circumstances. Marion, who regarded them as brainless, petty thugs, was sick to death of the pair of them.
‘What ship did the goods come in on?’ Marion asked wearily. Erlendur had already put the same question twice.
‘There was no ship,’ retorted Vignir. ‘Who told you that? Was it Ellidi? The stupid fucker.’
‘Was the resin imported by sea too or did that come by air?’ asked Erlendur.
‘I don’t know who that shit belongs to,’ said Vignir. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve never been near that shed before. I only went there to nick some spuds. Who’s been feeding you this crap?’
‘There were two padlocks on the shed: you had keys to both. Why are you acting like that’s nothing?’
Vignir didn’t answer.
‘You were caught with your pants down, and you’re sore about it, but that’s just tough,’ said Marion. ‘Face facts. And stop pissing about so we can get this over with and go home.’
‘I’m not keeping you here,’ said Vignir. ‘You can bugger off for all I care.’
‘True,’ said Marion, glancing at Erlendur. ‘Shall we call it a day?’
‘Why do you think Ellidi’s got it in for you?’ asked Erlendur. He knew that the Ellidi Vignir was referring to had sometimes worked for the brothers, selling drugs, collecting debts and threatening punters. He was a violent thug with a long record of convictions for assault.
‘Was it him?’ asked Vignir.
‘No. We don’t know who it was.’
‘Sure you do.’
‘I thought Ellidi was your mate?’ said Erlendur.
‘He’s a dickhead.’
At that moment a detective stuck his head round the door and asked Marion for a word. Marion accompanied him out into the corridor.
The woman who had found the body was aged about thirty and immediately volunteered the information that she suffered from psoriasis. To prove it, she showed them the dry patches of skin up one arm and particularly around her elbow. She was about to show them her scalp as well but Marion had seen enough and stopped her. The woman was insistent that her skin disease should be mentioned as it explained why she had chanced on the body in this unlikely, out-of-the-way spot.
‘I’m usually alone here,’ she said, looking at Marion, ‘although I know other people visit the lagoon too, even if I’ve never seen any of them. There are no facilities or anything. But the water’s lovely. It’s the perfect temperature and lying in it makes you feel so much better.’
At this point she was sitting in a police car, describing to Marion and Erlendur how she had come across the body. Marion was beside her in the back seat, Erlendur behind the wheel. Around them were other patrol cars, an ambulance, a forensics team and two press photographers – word about the discovery had already reached the news desks. There was no road to the lagoon, which had formed three years earlier as an outflow from the Sudurnes District Heating Utility at Svartsengi. The geothermal power station was visible a little way off, lights ablaze in the winter darkness. The woman had been bathing in the western end of the lagoon, having hiked to it over the lava field from the Grindavík road. The water was shallow there and she had wallowed in it for an hour or so, before deciding to head home. The days were short at this time of year; dusk was falling and she hadn’t wanted to stumble through the winter gloom again like last time when she’d had real difficulty finding her car.
‘I stood up and … it’s always struck me as an incredibly beautiful place but a bit creepy too. The steam rising from the water, being all alone out here in the lava, you know … So you can imagine what a dreadful shock it was when I saw … I waded further out than I’ve ever been before and suddenly I saw a shoe. The heel was sticking up out of the water. At first I thought it was just a shoe – that someone had lost it or chucked it in the pool. But when I went to pick it up it was stuck and … stupidly I tugged harder and then I realised it was … it was attached to …’
The woman faltered. Marion, aware that she was badly shaken by her grisly discovery, was taking the interview slowly. When they had carried the body up to the road the woman had tried to avoid looking at it. She was close to breaking down as she related what had happened. Erlendur attempted some words of comfort.
‘You’ve coped extremely well in difficult circumstances.’
‘God, it was a shock,’ she said. ‘You … you can’t imagine what a horrible shock it was. All alone out there in the pool.’
Half an hour earlier Erlendur had pulled on a pair of chest waders and splashed out to the body, accompanied by two members of the forensics team. Marion had watched from the shore, smoking. Fortunately, the Grindavík police, who had been first on the scene, had had the sense not to touch anything until the detectives from CID arrived. The technicians took photos of the body and its position, their camera flashes illuminating the surroundings. A diver had been called out to comb the lagoon bed. Erlendur bent over the body, up to his waist in water, trying to work out how it had been transported to this spot. Once forensics had seen enough, they lifted the body out and carried it ashore, discovering something odd about it as they did so. The limbs appeared to have sustained multiple fractures, the ribcage had collapsed into the spine and the spine itself was broken. The corpse hung like a rag doll from their arms.
It was evening by now and pitch dark but floodlights, powered by a diesel generator, had been set up around the site and in their harsh glare the battered state of the corpse became even more evident. The face was crushed and the shattered skull gaped open. From the clothes, they guessed it was male. He had no ID in his pockets and it was difficult to guess how long he’d been lying in the water. Clouds of hot vapour formed continually above the wide surface of the lagoon, enhancing the eeriness of the scene. It was too dark to conduct a proper search for tracks now; that would have to be postponed until first light tomorrow.
The corpse was covered up and carried by stretcher over the lava field to the Grindavík road. From there it would be conveyed to the National Hospital morgue on Barónsstígur in Reykjavík, where they would wash off the mud and conduct a post-mortem.
‘And that’s when you notified the police?’ Marion prompted, as the three of them sat in the car. The heater was on and condensation had formed inside the windows. Outside, beams of light played over them, there was a sound of voices and shadowy figures flitted past.
‘I ran across the lava to the car and drove straight to the police station in Grindavík. Then I brought them back here and showed them the place. Then more police cars turned up. And then you two. I won’t be able to sleep tonight. I don’t suppose I’ll be able to sleep for a long time.’
‘That’s only natural. It’s no fun at all experiencing something like this,’ said Marion. ‘You should ask a friend or relative to keep you company. Talk about what happened.’
‘So you didn’t notice any other people near the lagoon when you came here today?’ asked Erlendur.
‘No, no one. Like I said, I’ve never seen anyone else out here.’
‘And you don’t know of anyone who comes to bathe in the lagoon like you?’ asked Marion.
‘No. What can have happened to the man? Did you see the way he …? God, I couldn’t bear to look.’
‘No, that’s understandable,’ said Marion.
‘This skin disease, psoriasis – does it cause a lot of irritation?’ asked Erlendur.
Marion shot him a look.
‘They keep developing new drugs to suppress it,’ said the woman. ‘But it’s not comfortable. Though the itching’s not the worst part. The worst part’s the blemishes.’
‘And the lagoon helps?’
‘I think it does. It hasn’t been scientifically proven, but I think so.’
She smiled weakly at Erlendur. Marion asked the woman a few additional questions about the discovery, then let her go. They all got out of the car and the woman hurried off. Erlendur turned his back to the north wind.
‘Isn’t it obvious why his face and body are mashed up like that?’ he asked Marion.
‘Are you implying he was beaten up?’
‘All I know is he’s a mess. Perhaps that was the intention. So you’re thinking he met someone out here, they came to blows and he was supposed to disappear permanently in the lagoon?’
‘Something along those lines.’
‘It might look like that,’ said Marion, who had examined the body before it was taken away, ‘but I’m not convinced the man died as the result of a beating. No ordinary beating, anyway.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘I’ve seen bodies smashed by a fall from a great height, and I have to say this reminds me of that. Or a serious car crash. But we haven’t been informed of any.’
‘If it was a fall, it must have been a pretty big one,’ said Erlendur, peering around, then up into the blackness overhead. ‘Unless he came from up there. Dropped out of the sky.’
‘Into the lagoon?’
‘Is that so absurd?’
‘I wonder,’ said Marion.
‘It doesn’t help that he’s clearly been in the water some time.’
‘So he can’t have been beaten to death on the scene,’ said Erlendur. ‘If it was a fall, as you say. Someone must have brought him out here so he wouldn’t be found straight away. His body must have been deliberately sunk in the pool. In this strange white mud.’
‘Not a bad hiding place,’ said Marion.
‘Especially if he’d sunk properly. Nobody comes out here. Except the odd psoriasis sufferer.’
‘Did you have to interrogate her about her condition?’ asked Marion, watching the woman’s car speeding away. ‘You’ve got to stop prying into people’s personal lives.’
‘She was upset. You saw that. I was trying to distract her.’
‘You’re a policeman, not a priest.’
‘The body would probably never have been found if it weren’t for that woman’s psoriasis,’ said Erlendur. ‘Don’t you find that … a bit …?’
‘Of a strange coincidence?’
‘I’ve known stranger. Bloody hell, it’s cold,’ said Marion, opening the car door.
‘What’s this place called, by the way? Do you know?’ asked Erlendur, surveying the power station with its billows of steam rising to the sky and dispersing into the night. The answer came back instantly.
‘Illahraun,’ said Marion, the know-all, getting into the car. ‘Formed during the eruption of 1226.’
‘Evil Lava?’ said Erlendur, opening the driver’s door. ‘That’s all we need.’
Copyright © 2016 Arnaldur Indridason.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
Arnaldur Indridason (ARD nal dur IN drith uh sson) won the CWA Gold Dagger Award for Silence of the Grave and is the only author to win the Glass Key Award for Best Nordic Crime Novel two years in a row, for Jar City and Silence of the Grave. Strange Shores was nominated for the 2014 CWA Gold Dagger Award, and the books in this series have been nominated for numerous writing awards all over the world in other languages. More than ten million copies of his novels have been sold world-wide. Indridason makes his home in Reykjavik.