March 18, 2008
Thóra Gudmundsdóttir put down the overview of her last month’s work schedule at the legal firm. It was hardly what she would call encouraging reading: The cases taken by her and Bragi, her business partner, along with two paralegals, were numerous, but mostly small-scale and quickly processed. That was certainly good for the firm’s clients, but it didn’t put much in the till. Nor was it all about the money. The most exciting cases demanded a great deal of work and were more complex than the smaller ones, which were usually run-of-the-mill and monotonous. Thóra groaned inwardly. She didn’t dare groan audibly for fear that one of the young lawyers would hear her. If he sensed that she were worried about the firm’s workload, he might start thinking of moving on, and they could not afford that. She and Bragi could never run the firm and everything belonging to it—not least their dreadful secretary, Bella—alone. Although it would be difficult to imagine how it could be possible to do her job any worse than Bella herself did it, Thóra had no interest in stepping in for the girl, and Bragi would do whatever was necessary to avoid having to sit and take phone calls. So they would just have to accept this arrangement: these two young lawyers who appeared more interested in YouTube than Supreme Court judgments, and Bella, who also spent more time than was healthy on the Internet.
Thóra turned back to the list of clients and cases. Divorces, bankruptcies, and other financial entanglements were the most prominent types of case by far. There were some involving inheritances, paternity suits, and sporadic minor cases. It was probably not appropriate to think so, but Thóra longed for more criminal cases. They were much more demanding than divorces, which Bragi had been specializing in recently. He had built up a good reputation in this area, which meant that more and more people turned to the firm for help when their marriages were on the rocks.
Such cases, however, could often be quite colorful. One of her current clients was a man named Trausti, who wanted to change his name following his divorce since his wife had left him for another man with the same name. Of course it was no trouble to obtain permission to name oneself something other than what was recorded on the church register. But things became complicated when this was not enough for Trausti; he also insisted that their children’s patronymics be changed accordingly. He wanted to make it clear to everyone that he and not his wife’s new partner was the father of his children. Although the laws on namegiving allowed for changes in children’s surnames under special circumstances, the legislation had not foreseen this possibility, thus there was no easy resolution to the case. Thóra thought it highly unlikely that a Trausti who did not want to be named Trausti would be permitted to change his children’s surname, especially in light of the children’s mother being totally opposed to the change. Her protestations only made her husband more determined to have his way, and in the end Thóra gave in and sent a letter describing the matter to the Minister of Justice. By then Thóra would actually have been completely willing to change her own name rather than sign such an unprecedented letter. Over a month had passed since she had sent it, and still no word had been received. She took that to mean that the authorities were wondering if this were some sort of joke.
At the time, her own divorce had certainly brought out less than the best in her and Hannes, her ex-husband. However, they hadn’t had the imagination for anything much beyond quarreling over worldly possessions—which of them would get the flat-screen TV, and so on. Name changes would have been inconceivable. It was probably this experience that distinguished her from Bragi, who enjoyed working on such cases. He had been happily married to the same woman for three decades, and thus had no personal experience of marital failure. Thóra, on the other hand, could easily identify with her clients and what they were going through. As a result, what she always wanted most was to tell her clients to face the fact that lying ahead of them were difficult times in which the spouse who was previously so dear to them would radically transform into the Devil himself and that no one, not even their mothers, would feel like listening to the dramatic stories of the other’s cruelty. Enough time had passed since Thóra’s own divorce for her to realize how unbearable she must have been; she had taken every opportunity she could in her conversations with others to complain about how impossible Hannes was. She had clearly been extremely unreasonable toward him—and vice versa. In any case, divorce had been the only sensible option in their situation, since they both agreed that they’d had enough.
Now things looked different. Thóra was in a stable relationship with Matthew Reich, who had accepted a job as head of security for Kaupthing Bank. But they hadn’t yet gone so far as to move in together. Not for lack of willingness on his part—it was Thóra who wasn’t quite ready. She was in over her head at the moment: Her two children, Sóley and Gylfi, made sure her hands were always full, not to mention her grandson Orri, who was almost two. Thóra was much more involved in Orri’s life than most grandmothers; her son had only been a child himself when he and his girlfriend, Sigga, had rushed rather heedlessly into their biological experiment. As a result, they would never be named Parents of the Year; with their son they behaved almost more like his siblings, and didn’t fully shoulder the responsibilities that come with a small child. Thóra realized this was partly her own fault, along with Sigga’s parents’. It was too easy to take over and do things herself; easier than following from a distance the teenagers’ unorthodox attempts at childcare. When Orri was with her, it was as if the child were Thóra’s own. She felt happiest when the boy was at home, but when she took him and his young parents into town she must have looked like a dubious mother, to put it mildly. Orri was barely talking and he already called Thóra “mama,” meaning that those who didn’t know their situation must have thought she was a bit strange, letting her older children look after the youngest and not seeming to care when Orri cried or called for his mother. But that was the life of a young grandmother.
So it wasn’t because she didn’t want to live with Matthew that she had responded to his suggestion unenthusiastically. She just found it so comforting to be able to switch to a different life now and then; a life in which everything was clean and tidy; no dirty diapers, no sandwiches to make or piles of clothes to wash. In that other life Thóra could go out to eat at a café, or do whatever else she wanted. That life revolved only around her and Matthew, adults with no obligation to wake up at the crack of dawn on weekends and watch cartoons. Thóra enjoyed that parallel life only on alternate weekends, when the whole gang abandoned her home and went to Hannes and his new wife. Few things cheered Thóra more than the pretend look of happiness on Weekend Daddy’s face when she drove up to his house with the youngsters. His smile had grown even stiffer after Sigga fell out with her mother and moved in with Thóra. She reluctantly went along with the others to Hannes’s and as soon as he tried to object, Gylfi said simply that if Sigga were made to feel unwelcome in any way he wouldn’t come either. His father quickly held his tongue and never complained again about the lack of space. Gylfi was now eighteen years old, which meant that he wasn’t obliged to spend time with his father every other weekend; in fact he could have refused to do so from the age of sixteen. Thóra doubted Gylfi realized this, but she had decided not to mention it so that he and his father would remain in touch. And also so that she herself would continue to have some space.
Thóra tried to direct her attention back to her work—a draft of a prenuptial agreement. Part of it concerned a two-story single-family home which was to be divided into two separate apartments to save the owner (the prospective bridegroom) from the black hole of the currency basket loan that he had taken at the wrong time, during a fit of great optimism.
Before she could get back to work, Matthew called. It was rather unusual for him to call her during working hours—unlike Thóra, he was quite formal and took everything very seriously. For example, he had enrolled in a course in Icelandic for foreigners—he was German—and worked on it very diligently. At first she had helped him out with the homework and had been unable to resist the temptation to slip in a few words at an inappropriately high level. Matthew wasn’t at all amused when this came to light, and he stopped asking for her help. Thóra’s daughter Sóley had then taken over as teacher’s aide. She was only eight years old and thus still had an almost unlimited respect for every sort of schooling. As a result the two of them had become good friends and Matthew started making quick progress in the language, even though he and Thóra still spoke German together.
“How would you like to take on a little project for the bank?” asked Matthew, after apologizing for calling her at work.
“The bank?” repeated Thóra. She was surprised, since the banks had armies of specialists and lawyers at their fingertips. “What kind of project?” She stared at the prenup awaiting her on the computer screen. Did they need a contract of this sort? Had their own army of lawyers refused to come anywhere near such trivialities?
“It has to do with a performance bond,” replied Matthew. “The bank has guaranteed a contractor called Berg Technology, which apparently is not going to fulfill a contract it signed with a British mining company. It looks as if the British want to claim insurance, meaning the bank will take the hit. It really is a lot of money, even more in the current financial situation, since the guarantee is in euros.”
“And what’s my job?” asked Thóra. “Get the mining company to drop their claim to the money?”
Matthew laughed curtly. “No, neither you nor anyone else would be able to do that. I understand they’re really hard to deal with, since they’re not in the business of giving money away. Even if they get the insurance money out of the bank, they still lose out on the work contract. They’re simply cutting their losses.”
“What am I supposed to do?” asked Thóra. “See to it that the euros change hands, or maybe try to file a complaint?” This was sounding potentially even duller than prenups, so it might be better not to take the job.
“Neither,” replied Matthew. “As things have gone, Berg Technology is way behind schedule and unlikely to be able to make up for the delays that have already occurred. On top of that, their work has come to a complete stop, and it looks as if that situation won’t be remedied any time soon. Their employees refuse to return to the site, and the work is so specialized that replacements can’t be picked up off the street. The plan is to send a team there to assess things and decide whether the bank should hire another contractor if the situation is irretrievable.”
“Can they do that?” she asked. Although her work had focused on contract law for some time now, an actual construction contract had never found its way onto her desk. She was not that familiar with them, but knew enough to understand what they involved, and to realize that they were considerably different from other, more traditional contracts.
“Yes,” said Matthew. “I’d like to send you the construction contract and the details of the performance bond if you’re interested, but I hope you understand that I can’t do so unless you’ve accepted the project.”
Thóra thought it over for a moment. “Am I to understand that the work is being done overseas?” She was quite prepared to get out of Iceland for a few days. The winter had been the hardest she could remember for a while, and although it was March it was still one storm after another.
“Yes, you would have to go abroad,” he said, without elaborating.
The tone of his voice suggested someplace rather unexciting. She was fairly sure there were no Icelandic contractors working in Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan or any other war zone, so it couldn’t be too bad. “What type of work is this precisely, and where?” she asked, crossing her fingers in the hope that it involved building a hotel in the Caribbean. She had a great bikini that she hadn’t had the chance to saunter around in since God knows when, and it was conceivable that the mining company wanted to branch out and try its luck in the tourist industry.
“They’re doing preliminary studies and constructing infrastructure facilities on behalf of Arctic Mining for a mining operation in Greenland. Berg Technology made the lowest bid for the project and has had workers there for nearly a year. Until now everything has gone without a hitch, though the results haven’t been exemplary. But now something has happened to unsettle the workers.”
Thóra’s mind had begun to wander when she heard the name. Greenland. One of the few countries that was colder and more unbearable at this time of year than Iceland. Her bikini would be of no use if she took this job—what she’d need would be sealskin trousers. She swallowed her disappointment. “Are the workers in Greenland?”
“No, they’re in Iceland. All but two people who are probably still on-site. The others came home during their allotted leave, but now refuse to return.”
“What do you mean when you say that the two who remained behind are probably still on-site?”
“Nothing’s been heard from them for around ten days, and they can’t get hold of anyone there to go and find out what’s happening. It’s possible that the camp’s communication system has simply failed, but apparently the only way to find out is to go there. If a logical explanation is found for their silence, it’s conceivable that the other employees can be persuaded to return. That of course would be the best solution for the bank.”
“Could something have happened to them? Could they have been trapped outside, or something along those lines?”
“That’s one possible explanation,” said Matthew. “It’s happened before. About six months ago a geologist there disappeared from the camp, a young woman, now presumed dead. She was never found, but it’s most likely that she got lost in a storm and froze to death.”
“She was out taking a walk in a snowstorm?”
“Nobody knows,” he replied. “She disappeared, so she could have committed suicide. People tend to get depressed in that kind of isolation.” Thóra was silent, not knowing how to respond. Matthew was quick to add, “That incident has nothing to do with your task, nor with the disappearance of the two others. In the best-case scenario, they’re still alive; the camp’s transmitter has failed and they simply haven’t been able to get it working again. Other explanations for their fate are rather more gloomy: The weather there has been like it’s been here recently, only worse. They wouldn’t have been able to survive it if they were anywhere but indoors. In any case, things have become serious, both with regard to these men and to the interests of Berg Technology—and, by association, the bank.”
“Isn’t it simpler to call on a Greenlandic emergency rescue team, or the police there?” she asked. “This all sounds rather frightening, and if something has happened, it’ll be up to law enforcement there to investigate it.”
“The site is in the wilderness on the east coast. Of course there’s a small village nearby, but it doesn’t have a regular police force, and the locals can’t be persuaded to go and investigate either for us or for Arctic Mining. If the men have suffered food poisoning or become ill in some other way, every day makes a difference and we can’t waste any time trying to get the Greenlanders to help.”
“I’m not going to be of much help if this is about a disease,” said Thóra. “And I’m not sure I want to go if I’m going to find people who are seriously ill—or even dying.”
“You wouldn’t be going alone,” said Matthew. “A doctor has already joined the team, as well as a highly experienced rescuer and a former employee of Berg Technology who knows her way around the place. The team will also include an information systems technician, to get the connection working again.” He paused. “And me.”
“Ahh,” said Thóra. That was certainly a plus. The location was a minus, at least in winter. “When is the team leaving, and for how long?” Judging by the number of people involved, this would be no overnight camping trip.
“We’re scheduled to leave tomorrow morning,” he told her. “The forecast is favorable—for once. We aim to be there for as short a time as possible, but that’ll become clearer when we get there. The weather will have a lot to do with it, of course.”
“Where would we be staying?” she asked, suspecting she knew what the answer would be. It was unlikely that a five-star hotel of the kind you might see in the Caribbean was to be found in those parts.
Matthew cleared his throat. “At the work camp. If it’s considered safe. If not, then we have to negotiate with the villagers for accommodation.”
Thóra looked at her computer screen and the boring document glowing back at her. She’d just been offered a little adventure, barely five minutes after she’d mentally complained about her unexciting work. She could easily leave the office for several days if the young lawyers took up the slack. They’d just have to spend less time on the Internet during her absence. “I’ll go with you,” she said, but hurriedly added, “Actually, I need to see about getting Hannes or my mother to look after the kids before I can give you a definite answer, but I don’t expect it to be a problem.”
“Fantastic,” said Matthew, and the satisfaction in his voice was plain to hear. “We can get it all arranged if you drop in here and speak to the person responsible. You’ll be well paid for it, that I can guarantee.”
“Why aren’t any of your lawyers going?” asked Thóra.
“Their hands are full at the moment, and anyway they’re not that interested. It doesn’t suit them. You, on the other hand, are perfect for the job.”
Thóra couldn’t understand why. She was no good at skiing or hiking, and didn’t care much for outdoor activities beyond short walks in good weather. However, the reason was irrelevant. Matthew saw the world differently than she, and as close as they were, he might very well be under the impression that Thóra dreamed of being the first grandma under forty to reach the North Pole with a grandchild in her arms, for all she knew. “Those men,” she said, adding what was pressing most heavily on her mind, “do you think they’re dead?”
Matthew inhaled sharply. “One of them has probably died, but hopefully not both.”
“What do you mean?” asked Thóra, startled. It was unlike Matthew to be so vague.
“One of the employees of Berg Technology here in Iceland made repeated attempts to gain remote access to the system and seems to have got in, although attempts by others since then haven’t produced any result. So there was a computer connection for a time, even though it was patchy, but now it appears to have been lost for good. In any case, the man managed to look up the latest files and among them he found a particularly interesting one that was created after the rest of the group left the site. The man saved it and then sent it to others in the group, and it seems the e-mail is the main reason why the staff refuses to return.”
“What did this file contain, then?” asked Thóra.
“Everything in it suggests that one of the men is alive, or at least that someone is still at the work site. It’s what caused the matter to be put on highest priority.”
“What was in the file?” insisted Thóra.
“I’ll just send it to you. Some of it is actually impossible to put into words,” he said. “Are you sure you want to see it? I’m warning you, the contents are not for the fainthearted.”
Naturally Thóra had to see the file, and as quickly as possible. They said goodbye and hung up, and she waited impatiently for the e-mail and clicked on it immediately when it appeared. The attachment was a wmp. file, its name made up of an indecipherable sequence of numbers. The numbers could not refer to the date, and must have been made up by the video camera itself. Thóra right-clicked on the file and saw that it had been created four days ago, just before midnight on March 13. She couldn’t determine whether this information had been added by the camera, or the computer onto which the file had been transferred. A wrongly set clock or different time zone could of course have confused this information. She shut the window and opened the attachment itself.
Copyright © 2011 by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir