The Silence of the Sea: New Excerpt

The Silence of the Sea by Yrsa Sigurdardottir is an Icelandic thriller and the 6th book in the Thora Gudmundsdottir series that features a mysterious luxury yacht that crashes into the pier completely empty leaving Thora to investigate this “cursed” ship (Available February 16, 2016).

A luxury yacht crashes into a Reykjavik pier. But the boat is empty; no one is on board. What has happened to the crew? And what has happened to the family who were very much present when the yacht left Lisbon?

What should Thora Gudmundsdottir, the series sleuth, make of the rumors that the vessel was cursed? She is spooked even more when she boards the yacht and thinks she sees one of the missing children. Where is Karitas, the glamorous young wife of the yacht's former owner? And whose is the body that has washed up further along the shore?

Chapter 1

The repairman scratched his neck, his expression a mixture of exasperation and astonishment. “Tell me again exactly how it happened.” He tapped a small spanner on the lid of the photocopier. “I can’t count how many of these I’ve dealt with, but this is a new one on me.”

Thóra’s smile was devoid of amusement. “I know. So you said. Look, can you mend it or not?” She resisted the temptation to hold her nose in spite of the stench rising from the machine. In hindsight it had been an extremely bad idea to hold a staff party in the office but it had never occurred to her that someone might vomit on the glass of the photocopier, then close the lid neatly on the mess. “Maybe it would be best if you took it to your workshop and carried out the repairs there.”

“You could have limited the damage by calling me out straight away instead of leaving it over the weekend.”

Thóra lost her temper. It was bad enough having to put up with this disgusting smell without enduring a ticking-off from a repairman as well. “I assure you the delay wasn’t deliberate.” She immediately regretted replying; the longer they stood around talking, the longer it would take him to get on with the job. “Couldn’t you just take it away and repair it somewhere else? We can hardly work for the smell.”

On entering the office that gray Monday morning they had been met by a foul stench. It was surprising no one had noticed it during the festivities on Friday evening, but perhaps that was some indication of the state everyone had been in, Thóra concluded.

“That would be best for us,” she continued. “We can manage without it for a day or two.” This was not strictly accurate; it was the only photocopier in the office and the main printer to boot, but right now Thóra was prepared to sacrifice a great deal to be rid of the machine and the accompanying miasma. Not to mention the engineer himself.

“You’ll be lucky. It’ll take more than a couple of days. I might have to order in new parts and then we could be talking weeks.”

“Parts?” Thóra wanted to scream. “Why does it need new parts? There’s nothing wrong with the workings. It just needs cleaning.”

“That’s what you think, sweetheart.” The man turned back to the machine and poked at the dried crust with his spanner. “There’s no telling what damage the stomach acid may have caused. The vomit has dripped inside, and this is a delicate mechanism.”

Thóra mentally reviewed the books, wondering if the firm should simply shell out for a new copier. They had been on a roll recently thanks to the economic downturn, which meant plenty of work for lawyers. Indeed, this had happened while they had been celebrating their success with their staff, who now numbered five in addition to herself and her business partner, Bragi. “How much would a new one cost?” The repairman mentioned a figure that was surely a quote for a share in his company, not a new photocopier. Despite their recent success, she wasn’t prepared to splash out on such an expensive piece of equipment simply to avoid a slight inconvenience.

Reading her expression, the engineer came to her rescue. “It would be ridiculous to have to fork out for a whole new machine just because of a little accident like this.” He put the spanner back in his toolbox. “If you have home contents insurance, it may well cover the cost of the repairs.”

“How do you mean? The photocopier belongs to the office.”

“No, that’s not what I was suggesting.” The man’s mouth twitched disapprovingly. “The vomit—you know. Your home insurance might pay for the damage you caused when you … you know…”

Thóra flushed dark red and folded her arms. “Me? How could you possibly think I was responsible for this? It has nothing to do with me.” Nothing she had said since showing him the machine had implied that she was in any way responsible. But then again, no one else had owned up and it was unlikely anyone would now.

The engineer seemed surprised. “Really? Then I must have misunderstood. The girl in reception mentioned your name.”

Thóra was livid; she might have guessed. Bella. Of course. “Did she, indeed?” She couldn’t say any more since there was no point arguing with the engineer. It wasn’t his fault he had been misled by her malicious secretary. She plastered on her best smile, smothering a desire to storm out to reception and throttle Bella. “Well, you needn’t take any notice of her—she’s a bit slow on the uptake. It’s not the first time she’s gotten the wrong end of the stick, poor thing.”

Judging by the man’s face, he thought they were both mad. “Right, well, I’d better get on. I’ll have the copier picked up later today. I suspect that would be the best solution.” He picked up the toolbox and clasped it to his chest, apparently eager to return to other, more conventional jobs. Thóra couldn’t blame him.

She escorted him to reception where Bella sat grinning behind her desk. Thóra shot her what she hoped was a meaningful look, but saw no sign of apprehension in the secretary’s smirk. “Oh, Bella, I forgot to tell you—the chemist rang earlier. The colostomy bag you ordered has arrived. Size XXL.”

The repairman stumbled over the threshold in his haste to leave, almost knocking down an elderly couple who had materialized in the doorway. Flustered, they apologized in unison, then dithered outside the door; either they expected someone else to land in their laps or they were getting cold feet. If Thóra hadn’t swooped on them with profuse apologies for the collision, they might well have turned away, using the incident as an excuse to back out. She recognized the look on their faces: she had lost count of the clients who’d worn that expression the first time they walked into the office. It was a combination of surprise at being compelled to seek out a lawyer and fear of having to leave the office, humiliated, when the subject of the fee came up. Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

When the awkwardness occasioned by the repairman’s departure had passed, Thóra asked if she could help, moving to block their view of Bella behind the reception desk, in a black T-shirt with a picture of the devil emblazoned over her ample bosom and a coarse English epithet underneath.

“We wondered if we could speak to a lawyer.” The man’s voice was as colorless as his appearance; it was impossible to tell if he had noticed the foul reek. Both looked around retirement age. The woman was clutching a faux leather handbag, the reddish-brown surface worn through here and there to reveal the white canvas beneath. The man’s shirt cuffs were a little frayed where they were visible under his jacket sleeves. “I tried to call but there was no answer. You are open, aren’t you?”

Bella seemed to think the phone in reception had been connected so she could spend all day gossiping with her friends, especially if they lived abroad, judging by the bills. At other times she generally left it to ring unanswered so she could go on surfing the Internet in peace. “Yes, yes, we’re open. Unfortunately our receptionist is ill, which is why no one answered.” At worst this was a white lie, since no one could claim Bella was fit for work, though unfortunately in her case the condition was chronic. “I’m glad you decided to come by anyway. My name’s Thóra Gudmundsdóttir and I’m a lawyer. We can have a chat now if you like.” As they exchanged greetings, she noted that both had decidedly limp handshakes.

The couple introduced themselves as Margeir Karelsson and Sigrídur Veturlidadóttir. Thóra recognized neither name. On the way to her office she observed their puffy features and although she couldn’t detect any alcohol on their breath, their appearance hinted at drinking problems. Still, it was none of her business, at least not at this stage.

Declining coffee, they came straight to the point. “We don’t really know why we’re here,” said Margeir.

“Well, that’s not uncommon,” Thóra lied, to make them feel better. Generally her clients knew precisely what they expected of her, though their expectations were often far from realistic. “Did someone recommend us to you?”

“Sort of. A friend of ours has a business delivering coffee to offices and he mentioned you. We didn’t want to go to one of those big, swanky firms because they’re bound to be far too pricey. He thought you’d almost certainly be on the cheap side.”

Thóra forced a polite smile. The office clearly hadn’t made much of an impression on the coffee delivery man and she would stake her life on Bella’s being the main reason. “It’s true that our rates are lower than the large legal practices. But won’t you begin by telling me what the problem is? Then I can explain what it’s in our power to do and perhaps discuss a fee for the service you’re after.”

The couple stared at her in silence, neither willing to take the initiative. Eventually it fell to the woman, after she had adjusted the handbag in her lap. “Our son has disappeared. Along with his wife and twin daughters. We’re at our wits’ end and need help with the stuff we simply can’t cope with ourselves. We have enough trouble getting through the day as it is and dealing with the basic necessities. Their two-year-old daughter’s staying with us…”

They were not alcoholics: the bloodshot eyes and puffy features had a far more tragic cause. “I see.” She could guess the context, though in general she paid little attention to the news. For the past two days the media had been full of the unexplained disappearance of the crew and passengers of a yacht that had crashed into the docks in Reykjavík harbor. Among them had been a family, a couple with two daughters. Like the rest of the nation, Thóra had been glued to reports about the baffling case, though her knowledge was limited as little of substance had been released as yet. But she did know that the incident was linked to the resolution committee appointed to wind up the affairs of one of Iceland’s failed banks. When the luxury yacht’s owner proved unable to pay back the bank loan with which he had purchased it, the committee had repossessed the vessel. As a result the yacht had been on its way from the Continent to Iceland, to be advertised for sale on the international market, but this process would presumably be delayed now by repairs and other matters arising from the dramatic manner of its arrival. Apparently there were no clues as to what had happened to the people on board, or at any rate none had found their way into the media. The disappearance of the seven individuals had shocked the nation to the core, but the case had attracted even more attention since the young Icelandic woman married to the yacht’s bankrupt owner was a regular in the gossip columns. To judge by the coverage, the reporters possessed almost no hard facts, but this didn’t prevent them from speculating, the most popular theory being that the crew and passengers had been washed overboard in a storm. “Are you the parents of the man from the resolution committee who was supposed to be on board the yacht?”

“Yes.” The woman gulped. She looked close to breaking down, but managed to carry on. “You mustn’t think we’ve given up all hope of finding them alive, but it is fading. And what little the police can tell us doesn’t give us any grounds for optimism.”

“No, I don’t suppose it does.” Thóra wasn’t sure if it would be appropriate to offer her condolences when they were still clinging to some hope that the family would turn up safe and sound. “We don’t specialize in marine claims at this practice, let alone employ an authorized average adjuster. So if that’s what you had in mind, I’m afraid I don’t think there’s much I can do for you.”

The man shook his head. “I don’t even know what an average adjuster does.”

“They’re experts in marine insurance, and can advise on claims arising from marine casualties.”

“Oh, no, we don’t need anything like that, just general assistance. For example, with writing a letter in English. We’re no linguists, so rather than make a hash of it ourselves, we thought it would be better to hire someone who speaks the language and knows the ropes to act for us. We also need help with talking to social services about our granddaughter as we’re not in any fit state to argue with the authorities at present.”

“Are they trying to take her away?”

“Yes, they are. The only thing stopping them is the uncertainty. You see, her parents entrusted her to us before they went abroad, so there’s still a chance we’re just looking after her for them. But the state is gearing up to take action and we’re afraid they may knock on our door any day now armed with a court order.” The man broke off, distressed. “Ægir was our only son. Sigga Dögg is all we have left.”

Thóra steepled her fingers on the desk in front of her. There was no easy way to break it to the couple that they probably wouldn’t be allowed to keep the child. They were too old, and no doubt too badly placed financially. “I really don’t want to upset you, nor do I want to give you any false hope that you’ll be allowed to keep your granddaughter in the event that your son and daughter-in-law are dead. The fact is that it’s extremely unlikely you’d be granted custody. The law isn’t on your side, as the permitted age bracket for family adoptions is very narrow and you fall outside it; I’m afraid I don’t know of any cases in which the child protection service has made an exception to this rule.” When they opened their mouths to protest, she added hastily: “But now’s not the moment to discuss this. Do you live here in Reykjavík?”

“Yes. Just round the corner. We walked here,” said Sigrídur. “It’s still a bit nippy out, though at least it’s sunny.”

It was extraordinary the details people felt compelled to share when discussing an uncomfortable subject, as if by this they could avoid the topic. Thóra wasn’t about to be sidetracked into talking about the weather. “What about your grandchild? Were your son’s family based in Reykjavík too?” This time they merely nodded. “It’s relevant to the question of which local authority will decide the case. If you like, I can assist you in trying to gain access, and—if you really think it’s in the child’s best interests—to obtain full custody. But let me repeat that the latter is highly unlikely. There are countless examples of close relatives being denied custody due to their age—it seems horribly unfair, I know.”

Margeir and Sigrídur sat as if turned to stone.

“Could I give you a word of advice, ignoring the legal side for a moment? If I were in your shoes I’d try not to worry about this right now. You’ve got more than enough on your plates and it’s important for the little girl’s sake that you bear up. Take it one day at a time.”

“Of course.” The man looked up. “We’re well aware of that.”

Naturally they knew far more about grief and shock than she did. “You mentioned a letter in English. What’s that about?” Thóra hoped this would prove a less emotive issue.

“Our son and daughter-in-law had a life insurance policy with an overseas company,” said Margeir. “He gave the papers to us for safekeeping before they set off on their trip and left instructions about what to do in the event of an accident. From the little we can understand, we need to inform the company immediately in the case of death. So we’d like you to write them a letter explaining what’s happened.”

Thóra considered: why the hurry? “I wouldn’t have thought any notification would have to be sent until the initial inquiry is complete. Your son and daughter-in-law are officially still only missing.”

“I know. And I can tell you think we’re motivated by greed, since the first thing we’ve asked about is the insurance money.” Margeir met Thóra’s gaze unwaveringly and she hoped she had managed to disguise the fact that this was precisely what she had been thinking. “But it’s not like that. If we’re to have any chance of keeping Sigga Dögg, we’ll need the financial security that the insurance money would bring. I have nothing but my pension and Sigrídur works part time in a canteen, so it wouldn’t be easy for us to provide for the child. The money would almost certainly improve our bargaining position.”

“Did you bring the policy documents with you?”

The woman burrowed in her handbag, pulled out a see-through plastic file stuffed with papers and handed it to Thóra. “These are the originals, so we’d need them back. Could you take a photocopy?”

“Not at present, I’m afraid. Our copier’s out of order. Maybe later.” Thóra hid her blush by bending over the documents. There were two sets: a life insurance policy in the name of their son, Ægir, and another in the name of their daughter-in-law, Lára. The beneficiary would be Lára in the case of Ægir’s death and vice versa, but Ægir’s parents were named if the prime beneficiary was unavailable. The sums insured were the same in both policies and Thóra raised her brows when she saw the figures. The couple had insured their lives for a total of two million Euros. It would be perfectly feasible to raise a child on that amount. She cleared her throat. “If you don’t mind my asking, how come your son and daughter-in-law are insured for such a large sum? Were they heavily in debt?”

“Isn’t everyone?” Sigrídur looked at her husband. “Do you know?”

“No. They have a sizeable mortgage on their house, I think, but I have no idea exactly how much. I doubt it’s in negative equity, though. They don’t live above their means and it’s only a terraced house. But you never know—perhaps all the life cover would go toward paying off the mortgage if it was sold. We’re living through strange times.”

“You do realize that two million Euros is equivalent to over three hundred million krónur? It’s highly unlikely they would owe that much on a modest terrace.”

“What?” the couple blurted out as one. Margeir stared at Thóra uncomprehendingly, tilting his head on one side as if this would help. Since his world had been turned upside down, this might well have been a more suitable angle at which to view it. “Did you say three hundred million? I’d worked it out at thirty something.”

“You missed a zero.” Thóra reached for a bulky old calculator and tapped in the numbers, then turned the screen round to show them all the zeros. Perhaps they would leap to their feet and head straight over to one of the big, expensive solicitors. But for the moment these were just numbers on a screen. “It’s a substantial sum.”

Little of any interest emerged after this bombshell. Still dazed by the news, the couple went through the formalities of instructing her and, in spite of the potential fortune that could land in their laps, Thóra offered them the lowest rate. The money would be better spent on the little girl’s upbringing or kept safe in the bank until she was older. Besides, the case promised to be rather interesting and at least she would be free of the smell of sick for a few days. Before they rose to leave, Thóra posed a question that she was not sure they would be able to answer. “You don’t happen to know why your son and his wife put you as beneficiaries on their insurance policies? You’d have thought it would be more usual to name their daughters.”

The couple exchanged glances before Margeir replied. “It’s not really a secret, though it’s awkward discussing it with strangers.”

“I assure you it won’t go any further.”

“Lára’s younger brother is a real dropout, who’s always after money to fund his lifestyle. If the girls came into money, Ægir was afraid he’d hassle them or try to scrounge off them, or even wangle his way into becoming their financial guardian. It might sound far-fetched but that brother of hers is capable of anything—even of cleaning up his act for just long enough to appear reliable. But Ægir knew we could be trusted to look after the money for the girls and that we wouldn’t let that bastard manipulate us. Lára’s parents are another matter. They let him fleece them, so it’s clear they’d never have been suitable.”

“I see. That does sound like a sensible precaution.” Thóra accompanied them to the door and asked them to get in touch as soon as there was any news. In the meantime, she would investigate the life insurance situation.

While they were standing in reception, two men appeared with the photocopier on a dolly and tried to maneuver it round the corner. The reek was more overpowering than ever. “Maybe you could pop into a shop and take a copy of the insurance documents. Our machine is on its way for repairs, as you can see. I could fetch them tomorrow morning, if that would be convenient.”

“Yes, of course,” replied Sigrídur. “You have our address and phone number. It would be best to ring ahead, though we’re almost always in.” The couple said good-bye and made their exit before the photocopier blocked their path. Thóra stood there, preoccupied, until she was jerked back to the present by one of the removal men tapping her on the shoulder.

“You might want this.” He handed her a sheet of A4. “It was in the machine.” He grinned and winked at her before turning back to assist his colleague. Thóra inspected the piece of paper. Although the image was dark, almost black, there was no question of what the flash had revealed. The culprit had leaned on the machine in the act of retching and inadvertently pressed the button. Thóra peered at the dim, blurry outline: Bella. Of course, who else? She turned round to give her a tongue-lashing but the secretary was nowhere to be seen. She could evidently move fast when required.

Triumphant at acquiring this piece of evidence, Thóra marched back to her office. One thing was certain: when Bella came back she would have to be confronted, but until then Thóra needed to get some work done. Thanks to the yacht affair, though, it would be hard to concentrate on mundane matters. It was all very peculiar and the high life insurance policy did nothing to lessen the mystery. Heavy drops of rain began to rattle against the window and gooseflesh prickled her arms as she tried to imagine what it would feel like to be trapped on a boat in a storm, or to fall overboard and struggle to stay afloat, knowing that help was unlikely to arrive. She hoped the passengers would be found alive, adrift in a lifeboat. If not, the odds were that they had met a sudden, tragic end.

She turned to the computer screen. Her current cases could wait half an hour or so; she wanted to refresh her memory of the yacht incident. As she trawled the Internet, it occurred to Thóra that she had failed to ask the couple a crucial question: why had their son gone on the trip in the first place—and taken his family too? It was still winter; hardly ideal cruising season, even on a luxury vessel. And why had the bank’s resolution committee allowed one of its employees to make use of an asset for a family holiday? There must be more to this than met the eye.

 

Copyright © 2016 Yrsa Sigurdardottir.

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Yrsa Sigurdardottir (pronounced UR-suh SIG-ur-dar-daughter) lives with her family in Reykjavík. She is a director of one of Iceland's largest engineering firms. She is the bestselling and award-winning Icelandic crime author of the Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series as well as several stand-alone thrillers. In 2011 her stand-alone horror novel I Remember You was awarded the Icelandic Crime Fiction Award and was nominated for The Glass Key award. Her work is climbing bestseller lists all over the world―and has been translated into more than 30 languages―and films are currently in production for several of her books. Sigurjon Sighvatsson, an Icelandic-born Hollywood producer who has produced films including Killer Elite, Brothers, and Arlington Road, is producing a major Hollywood film of I Remember You and a TV series based on Thora.

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