VOICES (Chapter 1)
Elínborg was waiting for them at the hotel.
A large Christmas tree stood in the lobby and there were decorations, fir branches and glittering baubles all around. ‘Silent night, holy night’, over an invisible sound system. A large shuttle coach stood in front of the hotel and a group approached the reception desk. Tourists who were planning to spend Christmas and the New Year in Iceland because it seemed to them like an adventurous and exciting country. Although they had only just landed, many had apparently already bought traditional Icelandic sweaters, and they checked into the exotic land of winter. Erlendur brushed the sleet off his raincoat. Sigurdur Óli looked around the lobby and caught sight of Elínborg by the lifts. He tugged at Erlendur and they walked over to her. She had examined the scene. The first police officers to arrive there had made sure that it would remain untouched.
The hotel manager had asked them not to cause a fracas. Used that phrase when he rang. This was a hotel and hotels thrive on their reputations, and he asked them to take that into account. So there were no sirens outside, nor uniformed policemen bursting in through the lobby. The manager said that at all costs they should avoid arousing fear among the guests.
Iceland mustn’t be too exciting, too much of an adventure.
Now he was standing next to Elínborg and greeted Erlendur and Sigurdur Óli with a handshake. He was so fat that his suit hardly encompassed his body. His jacket was done up across the stomach by one button that was on the verge of giving up. The top of his trousers was hidden beneath a huge paunch that bulged out of his jacket and the man sweated so furiously that he could never put away the large white handkerchief with which he mopped his forehead and the back of his neck at regular intervals. The white collar of his shirt was soaked in perspiration. Erlendur shook his clammy hand.
‘Thank you,’ the hotel manager said, puffing like a grampus. In his twenty years of managing the hotel he had never encountered anything like this.
‘In the middle of the Christmas rush,’ he groaned. ‘I can’t understand how this could happen! How could it happen?’ he repeated, leaving them in no doubt as to how totally perplexed he was.
‘Is he up or down?’ Erlendur asked.
‘Up or down?’ the fat manager puffed. ‘Do you mean whether he’s gone to heaven?’
‘Yes,’ Erlendur said. ‘That’s exactly what we need to know…’
‘Shall we take the lift upstairs?’ Sigurdur Óli asked.
‘No,’ the manager said, casting an irritated look at Erlendur. ‘He’s down here in the basement. He’s got a little room there. We didn’t want to chuck him out. And then you get this for your troubles.’
‘Why would you have wanted to chuck him out?’ Erlendur asked.
The hotel manager looked at him but did not reply.
They walked slowly down the stairs beside the lift. The manager went first. Going down the stairs was a strain for him and Erlendur wondered how he would get back up.
Apart from Erlendur, they had agreed to show a certain amount of consideration, to try to approach the hotel as discreetly as possible. Three police cars were parked at the back, with an ambulance. Police officers and paramedics had gone in through the back door. The district medical officer was on his way. He would certify the death and call out a van to transport the body.
They walked down a long corridor with the panting manager leading the way. Plain-clothes policemen greeted them. The corridor grew darker the further they walked, because the light bulbs on the ceiling had blown and no one had bothered to change them. Eventually, in the darkness, they reached the door, which opened onto a little room. It was more like a storage space than a dwelling, but there was a narrow bed inside, a small desk and a tattered mat on the dirty tiled floor. There was a little window up near the ceiling.
The man was sitting on the bed, leaning against the wall. He was wearing a bright red Santa suit and still had the Santa cap on his head, but it had slipped down over his eyes. A large artificial Santa beard hid his face. He had undone the thick belt around his waist and unbuttoned his jacket. Beneath it he was wearing only a white vest. There was a fatal wound to his heart. Although there were other wounds on the body, the stabbing through the heart had finished him off. His hands had slash marks on them, as if he had tried to fight off the assailant. His trousers were down round his ankles. A condom hung from his penis.
‘Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,’ Sigurdur Óli warbled, looking down at the body.
Elínborg hushed him.
In the room was a small wardrobe and the door was open. It contained folded trousers and sweaters, ironed shirts, underwear and socks. A uniform hung on a coat-hanger, navy blue with golden epaulettes and shiny brass buttons. A pair of smartly-polished black leather shoes stood beside the cupboard.
Newspapers and magazines were strewn over the floor. Beside the bed was a small table and lamp. On the table was a single book: A History of the Vienna Boys’ Choir.
‘Did he live here, this man?’ Erlendur asked as he surveyed the scene. He and Elínborg had entered the room. Sigurdur Óli and the hotel manager were standing outside. It was too small for them all inside.
‘We let him stay here,’ the manager said awkwardly, mopping the sweat from his brow. ‘He’s been working for us for donkey’s years. Since before my time. As a doorman.’
‘Was the door open when he was found?’ Sigurdur Óli asked, trying to be formal, as if to compensate for his little ditty.
‘I asked her to wait for you,’ the manager said. ‘The girl who found him. She’s in the staff coffee room. Gave her quite a shock, poor thing, as you can imagine.’ The manager avoided looking into the room.
Erlendur walked up to the body and peered at the wound to the heart. He had no idea what kind of blade had killed the man. He looked up. Above the bed was an old, faded poster for a Shirley Temple film, sellotaped at the corners. Erlendur didn’t know the film. It was called The Little Princess. The poster was the only decoration in the room.
‘Who’s that?’ Sigurdur Óli asked from the doorway as he looked at the poster.
‘It says on it,’ Erlendur said. ‘Shirley Temple.’
‘Who’s that then? Is she dead?’
‘Who’s Shirley Temple?’ Elínborg was astonished at Sigurdur Óli’s ignorance. ‘Don’t you know who she was? Didn’t you study in America?’
‘Was she a Hollywood star?’ Sigurdur Óli asked, still looking at the poster.
‘She was a child star,’ Erlendur said curtly. ‘So she’s dead in a sense anyway.’
‘Eh?’ Sigurdur Óli said, failing to grasp the remark.
‘A child star,’ Elínborg said. ‘I think she’s still alive. I don’t remember. I think she’s something with the United Nations.’
It dawned on Erlendur that there were no other personal effects in the room. He looked around but could see no bookshelf, CDs or computer, no radio or television. Only a desk, chair, wardrobe and bed with a scruffy pillow and dirty duvet cover. The little room reminded him of a prison cell.
He went out into the corridor and peered into the darkness at the far end, and could make out a faint smell of burning, as if someone had been playing with matches there or possibly lighting their way.
‘What’s down there?’ he asked the manager.
‘Nothing,’ he replied and looked up at the ceiling. ‘Just the end of the corridor. A couple of bulbs have gone. I’ll have that fixed.’
‘How long had he lived here, this man?’ Erlendur asked as he went back into the room.
‘I don’t know, since before my time.’
‘So he was here when you became the manager?’
‘Are you telling me he lived in this hole for twenty years?’
Elínborg looked at the condom.
‘At least he practised safe sex,’ she said.
‘Not safe enough,’ Sigurdur Óli said.
At that point the district medical officer arrived, accompanied by a member of the hotel staff who then went back along the corridor. The medical officer was very fat too, although nowhere near a match for the hotel manager. When he squeezed into the room, Elínborg darted back out for air.
‘Hello, Erlendur,’ the medical officer said.
‘What does it look like?’ Erlendur asked.
‘Heart attack, but I need a better look,’ replied the medical officer, who was known for his appalling sense of humour.
Erlendur looked out at Sigurdur Óli and Elínborg, who were grinning from ear to ear.
‘Do you know when it happened?’ Erlendur asked.
‘Can’t be very long ago. Some time during the last two hours. He’s hardly begun to go cold. Have you located his reindeer?’
The medical officer lifted his hand from the body.
‘I’ll sign the certificate,’ he said. ‘You send it to the mortuary and they’ll open him up there. They say that orgasm is a kind of moment of death,’ he added, looking down at the body. ‘So he had a double.’
‘A double?’ Erlendur didn’t understand him.
‘Orgasm, I mean,’ the medical officer said. ‘You’ll take photographs, won’t you?’
‘Yes,’ Erlendur said.
‘They’ll look nice in his family album.’
‘He doesn’t appear to have any family,’ Erlendur said and looked around the room again. ‘So you’re done for the time being?’ he asked, eager to put an end to the wisecracks.
The district medical officer nodded, squeezed back out of the room and went down the corridor.
‘Won’t we have to close down the hotel?’ Elínborg asked, and noticed the manager gasp at her question. ‘Stop all traffic in and out. Question everyone staying here and all the staff? Close the airports. Stop ships leaving port…’
‘For God’s sake,’ the manager groaned, squeezing his handkerchief with an imploring look at Erlendur. ‘It’s only the doorman!’
Mary and Joseph would never have been given a room here, Erlendur thought to himself.
‘This…this…filth has nothing to do with my guests,’ the manager spluttered with indignation. ‘They’re tourists, almost all of them, and regional people, businessmen and the like. No one who has anything to do with the doorman. No one. This is one of the largest hotels in Reykjavík. It’s packed over the holidays. You can’t just close it down! You just can’t!’
‘We could, but we won’t,’ Erlendur said, trying to calm the manager down. ‘We’ll need to question some of the guests and most of the staff, I expect.’
‘Thank God,’ the manager sighed, regaining his composure.
‘What was the man’s name?’
‘Gudlaugur,’ the manager said. ‘I think he’s around fifty. And you’re right about his family, I don’t think he has any.’
‘Who visited him?’
‘I haven’t got a clue,’ the manager puffed.
‘Has anything unusual happened at the hotel involving this man?’
‘No. Nothing’s happened.’
‘He hasn’t become embroiled in anything that could explain this?’
‘Not as far as I know.’
‘Was he involved in any conflicts with anyone at this hotel?’
‘Not that I know of.’
‘Outside the hotel?’
‘Not that I know of but I don’t know him very well. Didn’t,’ the manager corrected himself.
‘Not after twenty years?’
‘No, not really. He wasn’t very sociable, I don’t think. Kept himself to himself as much as he could.’
‘Do you think a hotel is the right place for a man like him?’
‘Me? I don’t know…He was always very polite and there were never really any complaints about him.’
‘No, there were never any complaints about him. He wasn’t a bad worker really.’
‘Where’s the staff coffee room?’ Erlendur asked.
‘I’ll show you.’ The hotel manager mopped his brow, relieved that they would not close the hotel.
‘Did he have guests?’ Erlendur asked.
‘What?’ the manager said.
‘Guests,’ Erlendur repeated. ‘It looks like someone who knew him was here, don’t you think?’
The manager looked at the body and his eyes dwelled on the condom.
‘I don’t know anything about his girlfriends,’ he said. ‘Nothing at all.’
‘You don’t know very much about this man,’ Erlendur said.
‘He’s a doorman here,’ the manager said, and felt that Erlendur should accept that by way of explanation.
They left the room. The forensics team went in with their equipment and more officers followed them. It was difficult for them all to squeeze their way past the manager. Erlendur asked them to examine the corridor carefully and the dark alcove further down. Sigurdur Óli and Elínborg stood inside the little room observing the body.
‘I wouldn’t like to be found like that,’ Sigurdur Óli said.
‘It’s no concern of his any more,’ Elínborg said.
‘No, probably not,’ Sigurdur Óli said.
‘Is there anything in it?’ Elínborg asked as she took out a little bag of salted peanuts. She was always nibbling at things. Sigurdur Óli thought it was because of nerves.
‘In it?’ Sigurdur Óli said.
She nodded in the direction of the body. After staring at her for a moment, Sigurdur Óli realised what she meant. He hesitated, then knelt down by the body and stared at the condom.
‘No,’ he said. ‘It’s empty.’
‘So she killed him before his orgasm,’ Elínborg said. ‘The doctor thought—’
‘She?’ Sigurdur Óli said.
‘Yes, isn’t that obvious?’ Elínborg said, emptying a handful of peanuts into her mouth. She offered some to Sigurdur Óli, who declined. ‘Isn’t there something tarty about it? He’s had a woman in here,’ she said. ‘Hasn’t he?’
‘That’s the simplest theory,’ Sigurdur Óli said, standing up.
‘You don’t think so?’ Elínborg said.
‘I don’t know. I don’t have the faintest idea.’
VOICES Copyright © 2003 by Arnaldur Indridason