Arctic Chill

An Inspector Erlendur Novel

An Inspector Erlendur Series (Volume 5)

Arnaldur Indridason; Translated by Bernard Scudder and Victoria Cribb

Picador

1

They were able to guess his age, but had more trouble determining which part of the world he came from.
They thought he was about ten years old. He was wearing a grey anorak, unzipped, with a hood, and military-style camouflage trousers. His school bag was on his back. One of his boots had come off and there was a hole in his sock. One toe poked through. The boy was not wearing gloves or a hat. His black hair was already frozen to the ice. He lay on his stomach with one cheek turned up towards them, and they saw his broken eyes staring along the frozen earth. The puddle of blood underneath him had started to freeze.
Elínborg knelt down beside the body.
‘Oh my God,’ she groaned. ‘What on earth is happening?’
She held out her hand, as though she wanted to touch the body. The boy looked as if he had lain down to take a rest. She had difficulty controlling herself, did not want to believe what she saw.
‘Don’t move him,’ Erlendur said calmly. He was standing by the body with Sigurdur Óli.
‘He must have been cold,’ Elínborg muttered, withdrawing her hand and slowly getting to her feet.
It was the middle of January. The winter had been reasonable until the New Year, when the temperature dropped sharply. The ground was now covered in a solid coating of ice and the north wind howled and sang around the blocks of flats. Rippling sheets of snow swept along the ground. They collected into little drifts here and there and fine powder snow swirled away from them. Straight from the Arctic, the wind bit their faces and penetrated their clothes, cutting to the bone. Erlendur thrust his hands deep into the pockets of his winter coat and shuddered. The sky was heavy with cloud and it was dark, although it had only just turned four o’clock.
‘Why do they make military trousers like that for children?’ he asked.
The three of them stood hunched over the boy’s body. The blue flashing lights of the police cars bounced off the surrounding houses and blocks of flats. A few passers-by had gathered by the cars. The first reporters had arrived. Forensics were photographing the scene, their flashes vying with the blue lights. They sketched the layout of the area where the boy was lying and the immediate surroundings. The forensic investigation was in its initial stages.
‘Those trousers are in fashion,’ Elínborg said.
‘Do you think there’s something wrong with that?’ Sigurdur Óli asked. ‘Kids wearing trousers like those?’
‘I don’t know,’ Erlendur said. ‘Yes, I find it odd,’ he added after a pause.
He looked up at the block of flats. People were outside on the balconies watching, in spite of the cold. Others stayed indoors and made do with the view through the window. But most were still at work and their windows were dark. The officers would have to go to all the apartments and talk to the residents. The witness who had found the boy said that he lived there. Perhaps he had been alone and had fallen off the balcony, in which case this could be recorded as a nonsensical accident. Erlendur preferred that theory to the idea of the boy having been murdered. He could not pursue that thought through to the end.
He scrutinised the surroundings. The garden behind the flats did not seem well kept. In the middle was a patch of gravel that served as a little playground. There were two swings, one broken so that the seat hung down to ground level and spun around in the wind; a battered slide that had originally been painted red but was now patchy and rusty, and a simple see-saw with two little seats made from bits of wood, one end frozen solid to the ground and the other standing up in the air like the barrel of a gigantic gun.
‘We need to find his boot,’ Sigurdur Óli said.
They all looked at the sock with the hole in it.
‘This is can’t be happening,’ Elínborg sighed.
Detectives were searching for footprints in the garden but darkness was falling and they couldn’t see much on the frozen ground. The garden was covered with a coat of slippery ice, occasional clusters of grass poking through it. The district medical officer had confirmed the death and was standing where he thought he would be a sheltered from the gale, trying to light a cigarette. He was uncertain about the time of death. Somewhere in the past hour, he thought. He had explained that the forensic pathologist would calculate the exact time of death by correlating the degrees of frost with the body temperature. On first impression the doctor could not identify a cause of death. Possibly a fall, he said, looking up at the gloomy block.
The body had not been disturbed. The pathologist was on his way. If possible he preferred to visit the crime scene and examine the surroundings with the police. Erlendur was concerned at the ever-growing crowd gathering at the corner of the block, who could see the body lit up by the flashing cameras. Cars cruised slowly past, their passengers absorbing the scene. A small floodlight was being erected to enable a closer examination of the site. Erlendur told a policeman to cordon off the area.
From the garden, none of the doors appeared to be open out onto a balcony from which the boy might have fallen. The windows were all shut. This was a large block of flats by Icelandic standards, six storeys high with four stairwells. It was in a poor state of repair. The iron railings round the balconies were rusty. The paint was faded and in some places it had flaked off the concrete. Two sitting-room windows with a single large crack in each were visible from where Erlendur stood. No one had bothered to replace them.
‘Do you suppose it’s racially motivated?’ Sigurdur Óli said, looking down at the boy’s body.
‘I don’t think we should jump to conclusions,’ Erlendur said.
‘Could he have been climbing up the wall?’ Elínborg asked as she, too, looked up at the apartment block.
‘Kids do the unlikeliest things,’ Sigurdur Óli remarked.
‘We need to establish whether he might have been climbing up between the balconies,’ Erlendur said.
‘Where do you think he’s from?’ Sigurdur Óli wondered.
‘He looks Asian to me,’ Elínborg said.
‘Could be Thai, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Chinese,’ Sigurdur Óli reeled off.
‘Shouldn’t we say he’s an Icelander until we find out otherwise?’ Erlendur said.
They stood in silence in the cold, watching the drifting snow pile up around the boy. Erlendur looked at the curious bystanders at the corner where the police cars were parked. Then he took off his coat and draped it over the body.
‘Is it safe doing that?’ Elínborg asked with a glance in the direction of the forensics team. According to procedure they were not even supposed to stand over the body until forensics had granted permission.
‘I don’t know,’ Erlendur said.
‘Not very professional,’ Sigurdur Óli said.
‘Has no one reported the boy missing?’ Erlendur asked, ignoring his remark. ‘No enquiries about a lost boy of this age?’
‘I checked that on the way here,’ Elínborg said. ‘The police haven’t been notified of any.’
Erlendur glanced down at his coat. He was cold.
‘Where’s the person who found him?’
‘We’ve got him in one of the stairwells,’ Sigurdur Óli said. ‘He waited for us. Called from his mobile. Every kid carries a mobile phone these days. He said he’d taken a shortcut through the garden on his way home from school and stumbled across the body.’
‘I’ll talk to him,’ Erlendur said. ‘You check whether they can find the boy’s tracks through the garden. If he was bleeding he might have left a trail. Maybe he didn’t fall.’
‘Shouldn’t forensics handle that?’ Sigurdur Óli mumbled to deaf ears.
‘He doesn’t appear to have been attacked here in the garden,’ Elínborg said.
‘And for God’s sake, try to find his boot,’ Erlendur said as he walked off.
‘The boy who found him . . .’ Sigurdur Óli began.
‘Yes,’ Erlendur said, turning round.
‘He’s also col . . .’ Sigurdur Óli hesitated.
‘What?’
‘An immigrant kid,’ Sigurdur Óli said.
The boy sat on a step in one of the stairwells of the block of flats, a policewoman sat with him. He had his sports kit wrapped up in a yellow plastic bag and eyed Erlendur with suspicion. They had not wanted to make him sit in a police car. That could have led people to conclude that he was implicated in the boy’s death, so someone had suggested that he wait in the stairwell instead.
The corridor was dirty. An unhygienic odour pervaded the air, mingling with cigarette smoke and cooking smells from the flats. The floor was covered in worn linoleum and the graffiti on the wall seemed illegible to Erlendur. The boy’s parents were still at work. They had been notified. He was dark-skinned with straight jet-black hair that was still damp after his shower, and big white teeth. He was dressed in an anorak and jeans, and holding a woollen hat in his hands.
‘It’s awfully cold,’ Erlendur said, rubbing his hands.
The boy was silent.
Erlendur sat down beside him. The boy said that his name was Stefán and he was thirteen. He lived in the next block of flats up from this one and had done so for as long as he could remember. His mother was from the Philippines, he said.
‘You must have been shocked when you found him,’ Erlendur said after a lengthy silence.
‘Yes.’
‘And you recognised him? You knew him?’
Stefán had told the police the boy’s name and address. It was in this block but on another staircase and the police were trying to locate his parents. All Stefán knew about the boy was that his mother made chocolate and he had one brother. He said he had not known him particularly well, nor his brother. They had only quite recently moved to the area.
‘He was called Elli,’ the boy said. ‘His name was Elías.’
‘Was he dead when you found him?’
‘Yes, I think so. I shook him but nothing happened.’
‘And you phoned us?’ Erlendur said, feeling he ought to try to cheer the lad up. ‘That was a good thing to do. Absolutely the right thing. What did you mean when you said his mother makes chocolate?’
‘She works in a chocolate factory.’
‘Do you know what could have happened to Elli?’
‘No.’
‘Do you know any of his friends?’
‘Not really.’
‘What did you do after you shook him?’
‘Nothing,’ the boy said. ‘I just called the cops.’
‘You know the cops’ number?’
‘Yes. I come home from school on my own and Mum likes to keep an eye on me. She . . .’
‘She what?’
‘She always tells me to phone the police immediately if . . .’
‘If what?’
‘If anything happens.’
‘What do you think happened to Elli?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Were you born in Iceland?’
‘Yes.’
‘Elli too, do you know?’
The boy had been staring down at the linoleum on the stairwell floor all the time, but now he looked Erlendur in the face.
‘Yes,’ he answered.
The front door swung open and Elínborg was blown indoors. A thin sheet of glass separated the stairwell from the entrance and Erlendur saw that she was carrying his overcoat. With a smile he told the boy he might talk to him again later, then stood up and walked over to Elínborg.
‘You know you must only interrogate children in the presence of a parent or guardian or child welfare officer and all that,’ she snapped as she handed him his coat.
‘I wasn’t interrogating him,’ Erlendur said. ‘Just asking about things in general.’ He looked at his overcoat. ‘Has the body been removed?’
‘It’s on its way to the morgue. He didn’t fall. They found a trail.’
Erlendur grimaced.
‘The boy entered the garden from the west side,’ Elínborg said. ‘There’s a path there. It’s supposed to be lit but one of the residents told us there’s only one lamp-post and the bulbs are always getting smashed. He got into the garden by climbing over the fence. We found blood on it. He lost his boot there, probably when he was clambering over.’
Elínborg took a deep breath.
‘Someone stabbed him,’ she said. ‘He probably died from a knife wound to the stomach. There was a pool of blood underneath him that froze more or less directly it formed.’
Elínborg fell silent.
‘He was probably going home,’ she said eventually.
‘Can we trace where he was stabbed?’
‘We’re working on it.’
‘Have his parents been contacted?’
‘His mother’s on the way. Her name’s Sunee. She’s Thai. We haven’t told her what’s happened yet. That’ll be terrible.’
‘You go and be with her,’ Erlendur said. ‘What about the father?’
‘I don’t know. There are three names on the entryphone. One looked something like Niran.’
‘I understand he has a brother,’ Erlendur said.
He opened the door for her and they went out into the howling north wind. Elínborg waited for the mother. She would go to the morgue with her. A policeman accompanied Stefán home; they would take a statement from him there. Erlendur went back into the garden. He put on his overcoat. The grass was dark where the boy had been lying.
I am felled to the ground.
A snatch of old verse entered Erlendur’s mind as he stood, silent and deep in thought, looking down at the patch where the boy had been lying. He took a last glance up the length of the gloomy block of flats, then carefully picked his way over the icy ground towards the playground, where he grasped the cold steel of the slide with one hand. He felt the piercing cold crawl up his arm.
I am felled to the ground,
frozen and cannot be freed . . .
 
Excerpted from Arctic Chill by Arnaldur Indridason.
Copyright © 2005 by Arnaldur Indridason.
Published in September 2009 by St. Martin's Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.