Good morning, afternoon or evening! I am freezing but absolutely happy to be a part of the tour for Whiteout by our very own Ragnar Jonasson! I need to thank Anne Cater and Karen Sullivan for including me! Today, I am lucky to present you a slice of Whiteout!!!
Two days before Christmas, a young woman is found dead beneath the cliffs of the deserted village of Kálfshamarvík. Did she jump, or did something more sinister take place beneath the lighthouse and the old house on the remote rocky outcrop? With winter closing in and the snow falling relentlessly, Ari Thór Arason discovers that the victim’s mother and young sister also lost their lives in this same spot, twenty-five years earlier. As the dark history and the secrets of the village are unveiled, and the death toll begins to rise, the Siglufjordur detectives must race against the clock to find the killer, before another tragedy takes place. Dark, chilling and complex, Whiteout is a haunting, atmospheric and stunningly plotted thriller from one of Iceland’s bestselling crime writers.
It was a sight Ásta Káradóttir would never forget, even though she had only been a child when she saw it – or maybe for that very reason.
She had been in her room in the attic when it happened. The door had been shut, as had the windows, and the air in the room was stale. She had been sitting on the old bed that would creak beneath her when she turned over in the night, staring out of the window.
Maybe, or even probably, there were things that subsequently seeped into her recollection of that day, drawn from other childhood memories. But what she saw – the terrible event she witnessed – would never leave her.
She had never told a soul about it.
And now she had returned after a long exile.
It was December and the light snow – just a thin layer that covered everything – was a reminder that Christmas was almost here. There had been a drizzle of rain when she had driven up from the south, and the weather had been relatively warm. With the heater running to keep the windscreen clear, the car had become almost unbearably hot.
Ásta had found her way out of central Reykjavík without a hitch – driving up Ártúnsbrekka and leaving the city where life was like bad sex: better than nothing, but only just. Not that she was expecting to leave her life behind her completely. Her intention was to bid adieu to the monotonous reality – the dingy basement flat and the sixty-eight square metres of claustrophobia and darkness. Sometimes, to alleviate the gloom, she would draw back the curtains, but that just meant that the passers-by on her busy street could peek in through the windows, spy on her comings and goings, and look
down on her, as if she had given up on any claim to privacy by living in a basement and not drawing the curtains.
Then there were the guys she brought home sometimes at the weekend, when she was in the mood. Some of them wanted to keep the lights on and the curtains open – to make love in plain sight. She was still young, only a few years past thirty, and while she was very aware she was not past the flush of youth, she was tired of the endless humdrum routine of temporary work and night shifts; fed up with scratching a living on benefits or minimum wage and living in a rented apartment in the centre of town.
To reach her destination, she had driven through the western part of Iceland and over the high mountain pass that led to the north, all the way up to the Skagi peninsula, to Kálfshamarsvík. She had never meant to come back, but here she was, carrying those old secrets with her. She had spent the day travelling, so when she arrived the bay was deep in evening darkness. She stood for a while and looked at the house. It was a fine building with two main floors, an attic and a basement. The architectural style probably pre-dated the house itself, even though it had been there for decades. It was painted a smart, clean white, with a dark-grey exposed foundation, and had curved balconies on the upper floor. Ásta and her sister had lived in the attic with their father and mother for a while. No expense had been spared when the house had been built.
There was a light on downstairs, where she recalled that the living room had been, and a lamp illuminated the front door. These two were the only lights, apart from the glow from the lighthouse on the point, of course. There was an undefinable grace to the interplay between light and shadow; the lights were unnaturally bright in the darkness. This was an area of great natural beauty and rich history, with remnants of disappeared houses hidden everywhere.
With no reason to hurry Ásta set off towards the house slowly, drinking in the fresh night air, and stopping occasionally to look at the sky and let the falling flakes of snow tickle her face.
She hesitated at the front door before knocking.
Was this really a good idea?
A sharp gust of wind sent a chill down her back, and she looked around quickly. The loud mutter of the wind had given her a sudden feeling of disquiet; it was as if someone was standing behind her. Ásta looked around her, simply to convince herself that this wasn’t
the case. The darkness greeted her. She was alone, the only footprints in the white snow were her own.
It was too late to turn back.
‘He wouldn’t have wanted you to stay here,’ Thóra said, more to herself than to Ásta. This was the second, maybe the third time that she had said the same thing, in one form or another.
Thóra was well into her sixties but she hadn’t changed much in the past twenty-five years. She had the same neutral expression, the same distant eyes and the same irritating, nagging voice.Óskar, Thóra’s elderly brother, sat at the piano at the far end of the living room and played the same quiet theme over and again. He had never been one for talking – was always quick to finish his coffee and make his way back to the piano.
Thóra seemed to be doing her best to make Ásta welcome. They had tried to reminisce about the old days, but the difference in their ages was too much for them to have many shared memories. The last time they had met, Ásta had been seven years old and Thóra around forty. What they did have in common, though, was that they both remembered Ásta’s father, so naturally, part of the conversation was about him.
‘He wouldn’t have wanted it,’ Thóra repeated.
Ásta nodded and smiled politely. ‘It’s not worth discussing,’ she said finally. ‘He’s dead and Reynir offered me a place to stay.’
She didn’t mention that it wasn’t Reynir who had broached the idea; rather that she had called him and asked if she could come for a few days.
‘Well, that’s the way it is,’ Thóra replied.
Óskar continued to play the same theme, not badly, but competently enough, filling up the awkward gaps in the conversation.
‘Does Reynir live here all year round?’ Ásta asked, although she was sure of the answer.
As the sole heir of a wealthy businessman, Reynir Ákason had been in the media spotlight for years. Ásta had read a few interviews with him in which he said that, when he was in Iceland, the only place he wanted to be was out in the countryside.
‘More or less,’ Thóra replied. ‘That might change now that his old man is no longer with us. I expect you saw it in the papers a fortnight or so ago – that he passed away.’ She dropped her voice in apparent respect for the deceased, but her tone sounded affected. ‘Óskar and I were going to travel south for the funeral, but Reynir said there was no need for that. Reykjavík cathedral is such a small church anyway. And we didn’t know him well – he wasn’t here that much. As father and son they weren’t much alike.’ She paused before continuing. ‘It must be a lot of work for Reynir taking over all that business, all
those investments. I don’t know how he manages it. But he’s a smart one, that boy.’
That boy, Ásta thought. He couldn’t have been much over twenty the last time they had met. Of course, back then he had been a grown man in the eyes of a girl of seven. Smart, yes, with an air of experience and ambition about him. He had been an enthusiastic
yachtsman, clearly entranced by the sea, just as Ásta had.
‘That boy,’ she said aloud. ‘How old is he now?’
‘Getting on for fifty, I’d say. Not that he’d admit it.’ Thóra tried to smile, but it was a half-hearted effort.
‘He still lives in the basement?’
The offhand question swept like a cold blast of air through the room. Thóra stiffened and stayed silent for a long moment. Thankfully, as before, Óskar continued to play. Ásta glanced at him. Hunched over the piano keyboard, he had his back to them. Every-
thing about his bearing was tired. He wore brown cord trousers and the same dark-blue rollneck sweater as he had worn in the old days; or maybe it was a close relative who’d worn those clothes.
‘Óskar and I have moved in there,’ Thóra said, her reply failing to sound as nonchalant as she clearly intended.
‘You and Óskar?’ Ásta asked. ‘Surely it must be cramped for the two of you?’
‘It’s a change, but that’s life. Reynir’s going to live up here, and it’s his house, of course.’ She was quiet for a moment.
‘We’re just grateful to be able to stay,’ Óskar broke in, surprisingly. ‘We’re fond of the point, in spite of everything.’ He turned and stared hard at Ásta. His face was craggy, his hands bony. She saw immediately the sincerity in his face.
‘I just assumed that you’d still have your space in the apartment up here, considering you brought me into the living room,’ Ásta said awkwardly, even though their discomfort did give her some quiet amusement.
‘No, no. We use the apartment up here when we eat together, all three of us, or when we have guests. The living room downstairs is darker than up here, not much good for entertaining,’ Thóra smiled.
‘I can imagine,’ Ásta replied, speaking from her own experience of living in a dim basement flat.
‘But I’ve done what I can to make it more comfortable,’ Thóra said, almost by way of an apology. Óskar had turned back to the piano and began playing the same tune as before.
Ásta looked around. The living room had hardly changed, although it certainly seemed smaller than before. As far as she could see, the same furniture was still where it always had been: the old Tudor-style sofa, the dark-brown wooden coffee table, the heavy bookshelves filled with Icelandic literature. The familiar smells played with her senses, creating an elusive aroma and feeling that were a part of the house. How remarkable it was that a smell could evoke long-forgotten memories. The handsome furnishings brought home to Ásta how bland, how depressing, her own apartment was with its cheap furniture – a ripped sofa, a table that she’d bought for almost nothing through an internet ad and the old kitchen chairs in a glaring yellow that had long gone out of fashion.
‘You’ll use your old room up in the attic, naturally,’ Thóra said quietly.
‘Really?’ Ásta asked in surprise. She hadn’t discussed the details of where she’d sleep when she had spoken to Reynir.
‘Unless you’d prefer not to? We can put you up somewhere else.’ Thóra looked nonplussed. ‘Reynir thought that’s where you’d want to be. We’ve stored stuff away up there these last few years, but we moved the boxes and things into the bedroom…’ She looked down suddenly and hesitated. ‘…Into the bedroom that was your sister’s.’
‘It’ll be fine,’ Ásta said decisively. ‘Don’t worry about it.’ It had not occurred to her that she would be able to stay, or would need to stay, in her old room. She would probably have preferred to be somewhere else, but she didn’t want to ask; she needed to be strong.
‘Don’t take it the wrong way, my dear,’ Thóra said with unaccustomed warmth. ‘Although I said that your father wouldn’t have wanted you to come back here, you’re always welcome.’
Generous of you, considering it’s not your house, Ásta wanted to say, but kept quiet.
‘So what do you do here now?’ she asked instead, and not particularly courteously.
‘Much the same as ever … looking after the house. There isn’t as much to be done as there used to be, and we’re not as young as we were. Óskar’s a sort of caretaker, like in the old days. Isn’t that right, Óskar?’
He stood up from the piano and came over to them, supporting himself with a stick. ‘I suppose so,’ he mumbled.
‘He can’t do heavy work anymore, as you can see,’ Thóra said with a glance at the stick. Óskar sat next to her but kept a distance. ‘Broke his knee climbing those damned rocks.’
‘It’ll sort itself out sooner or later,’ Óskar muttered. Ásta’s attention wandered from what Thóra was saying as she looked at the pair of them. The passing years had taken their toll, and the brother and sister seemed older and more worn than she had expected they would be. Like they’d just about had enough, she mused.
‘And he looks after the lighthouse as much as his bad knee will let him. Took over from your father.’
Ásta was overwhelmed by a feeling of discomfort. It happened occasionally; she inhaled deeply, closing her eyes as a way of slowing her breathing.
‘Are you tired, my dear?’ Thóra asked.
Ásta was taken by surprise. ‘No. Not at all.’
‘Should I make something for you to eat? I cook for Reynir when he’s here. Of course, he can look after himself, but I try and make an effort. It isn’t as if he needs us any longer; he could throw us out to fend for ourselves if he felt like it.’ She smiled. ‘I’m not saying he
would, just that he could…’
‘Thanks,’ Ásta said as she regained her composure. ‘I had a sandwich on the way. That’ll keep me going.’
Someone banged hard on the door and Ásta jumped. The elderly pair didn’t seem surprised, though.
‘I thought Reynir wasn’t coming until tomorrow night?’ Ásta asked.
‘He doesn’t make a habit of knocking,’ Óskar mumbled.
‘It must be Arnór, then,’ Thóra said, getting to her feet. Her brother sat immobile, staring into the distance and holding his knee, probably the damaged one, with a half apologetic look on his face.
‘You remember Arnór?’ he said in a low voice. Ásta gave the old man a warm smile, thinking of him as old, even though he could hardly be seventy. He certainly looked older, without the lively spark in his eyes that had once been there. She had always liked Óskar. He had been good to her, and on evenings when there had been fish for dinner, he’d made a point of bringing a glass of milk and some biscuits up to her room before bed. He knew that, despite the sea being so close by, or maybe because of it, little Ásta had never been able to stomach fish. She remembered the nausea she always suffered when there was fish on the table.
‘Thank you,’ she said to Óskar, having meant to say nothing more than a simple ‘yes’, and that of course she remembered Arnór.
‘Thank you?’ Óskar said, questioningly, still holding his knee and leaning towards her as if he had misheard and wanted to be sure not to let it happen again. Ásta felt her face redden, something that rarely happened.
‘I’m sorry. I was just thinking, you know, about the old days. You always used to bring me milk and biscuits … But, yes, I remember Arnór.’
Arnór lived on a farm nearby. He was Heidar’s boy, although he must be no more a boy now than Reynir was, despite being ten years younger. She could see him in her mind’s eye; a few years older than her, tall and chubby, he had been a shy and clumsy lad. The sisters had seen him around a lot, but he had never played with them. Maybe he thought it was silly to be playing with younger kids, especially girls; or maybe he was just shy.
She thought she saw a light in Óskar’s eyes. He looked at her fondly and then dropped his gaze.
‘So you remember, do you?’ he said. Then added, ‘It’s good to see that you’ve turned out so well.’ She smiled out of pure courtesy. Turned out so well? she thought and felt she could hardly agree with the sentiment. It was clear that he had no notion of the monotonous existence waiting for her back in that miserable apartment in Reykjavík; the unrelenting struggle to break free of the humdrum and do something with herself. She felt so depressed some evenings, lying on the sofa and staring into the darkness beyond the window, watching people hurry along while life passed her by, that she desperately wanted to break out of her own apartment – smash the windows and crawl out, scratched and bloody from the broken glass. That would make her feel something; and that would have to be better than feeling nothing at all.
‘He still lives in the same place?’ She could hear the murmur of conversation from the hall: Thóra and her visitor talking.
‘Oh, yes. He took over the farm after his father died a few years ago. Heidar was an old man by then, bless him. Arnór looks after Reynir’s horses for him. And he helps us out a lot here, especially with the lighthouse. I’m supposed to be the lighthouse keeper, but you can see that I’m past climbing all those stairs. He’s a good lad,’ Óskar concluded, with emphasis.
She looked up as Thóra and Arnór came into the living room, and saw a young man, tall and slim, with the older woman. She almost didn’t recognise him; it was only because she knew who he was that she could see the resemblance behind the bright smile. Otherwise, he had changed completely. He had become a handsome man – it was hard to see in him the clumsy boy she remembered.
‘Ásta,’ he declared confidently, as if he had seen her only the day before, out on the point, perhaps. Back then he was silent and hesitant, the sisters scampering around him as if their lives depended on it. Now he was self-assured.
‘Good to see you,’ he said. As she stepped towards him, she put out a hand, intending that he should shake it. Instead she found herself being hugged affectionately. His embrace was so warm, she couldn’t help responding, automatically drawing him closer. Then, realising what she was doing, she pulled away, uncertain. She looked at him awkwardly and said, ‘Good to see you too,’ almost in a whisper, following it with a shy smile.
There was nothing awkward about Arnór, though. He stood stock still while she fidgeted and wondered where to look. It occurred to her to say something about his father, to offer condolences, but she decided against it. She had no idea how long ago Heidar had passed away, or how, so she would have sounded insincere. Her own father had also died since the last time she had seen Arnór. Maybe those two deaths could cancel each other out? Neither she nor Arnór needed to mention them.
He glanced at Óskar. ‘I brought the tools, so shall we have a quick look at that window in the lighthouse? We need to fix it soon.’
‘It broke in the bad weather yesterday,’ Óskar said to Ásta before turning to Arnór. ‘Of course, not that I’ll be a lot of help.’
‘You’d better come anyway. I’ll need you to show me what needs doing,’ Arnór said, so politely that Ásta was almost convinced he was sincere, although she was sure he was just trying not to hurt Óskar’s feelings.
The two men left Ásta and Thóra standing wordlessly in the living room.
‘I think I’ll go up to bed,’ Ásta said finally, when the silence had become too awkward. She picked up her case.
‘All right,’ Thóra said. ‘The stairs to the attic—’
Ásta interrupted her. ‘I know the way,’ she said in a heavy voice.
What do you think? Keep an eye on the blog, the storm is only beginning…
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