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The Súd steered a careful course around the frigates and minesweepers in the approaches to Reykjavík harbour before finally coming alongside the docks. Shortly afterwards the passengers began to disembark, one after the other, many of them shaky on their legs and relieved to have dry land underfoot again. The voyage had been uneventful until they reached Faxaflói Bay, where the wind had veered to the south-west bringing squalls of rain and the ship had begun to roll. Most of the passengers stayed below decks, where a sour reek of wet clothes pervaded the cramped quarters. Several had been seasick during this last stage, Eyvindur among them.
He had boarded the ship at Ísafjördur, toting his two battered suitcases, and slept for most of the way, worn out from trekking round the villages and farms of the West Fjords. The cases contained tins of polish: Meltonian for shoes and Poliflor for furniture. He was also lugging around a sample dinner service that the wholesaler had imported from Holland just before the war.
Eyvindur had done quite well with the shoe and furniture polish, but in spite of his best efforts to sing the praises of Dutch tableware, it seemed there was no market for such goods in these treacherous times. His heart really wasn’t in it, and he hadn’t even bothered to visit all the places that normally formed part of his route. Somehow he couldn’t summon the powers of persuasion, that almost religious fervour which, according to the wholesaler, all successful salesmen required, and so he had returned clutching only a handful of orders. Eyvindur had rather a bad conscience about this. He felt he could have made more of an effort and knew that the few orders he had secured would make little impression on the wholesaler’s mountain of stock.
The trouble was that he had been in a bit of a state when he set out from Reykjavík a fortnight ago. That was one reason the trip hadn’t gone as well as it should. Moments before he was due to leave he had made an accusation in his typically tactless way, which led to a row that had weighed on him throughout the trip. Vera had reacted furiously, calling him all kinds of ugly names, and he started to regret his words as soon as the Súd sailed out of Reykjavík harbour. He’d had two weeks to brood and find excuses for his behaviour, though to be honest he still wasn’t convinced that he had been the one in the wrong. Yet her outrage had struck him as genuine when she retorted that she couldn’t believe he would accuse her of such a thing. She had burst into tears, locked herself in the bedroom and refused to speak to him. In danger of missing his boat, Eyvindur had snatched up the cases of polish and tableware and run out of the door, wishing with all his heart that he had a different job, one that didn’t force him to spend long periods away from home while Vera got up to goodness knows what.
These thoughts were still rankling as he leapt ashore and half ran towards the centre of town, hurrying as fast as his legs would carry him, plump, a little splay-footed and out of condition in spite of his age, clad in his trench coat, a case in either hand. The rain was coming down more heavily now and water trickled from the brim of his hat, getting in his eyes and soaking his feet. He took refuge under the porch of the Reykjavík Pharmacy and peered round the corner into Austurvöllur Square. A small troop of soldiers was marching past Parliament House. The Americans were in the process of taking over from the British, and you could hardly move these days for Yanks, army trucks and jeeps, artillery and sandbags – all the trappings of military occupation. The quiet little town was unrecognisable.
There was a time when Vera used to meet him off the ship and they would walk home together, she chatting about what she had been up to in his absence, he telling her about his latest trip, the characters he’d met and the goods he’d managed to shift. He had admitted that he wasn’t sure how long he would last in this job. He wasn’t really cut out to be a salesman. Didn’t have the necessary gift of the gab. Wasn’t that comfortable in social situations unlike, say, Felix, who positively radiated self-confidence.
That was true of Runki too. He sometimes sailed on the Súd, his cases crammed full of headgear from Luton. How Eyvindur envied Runki his nerve; he was always self-assured, even cocky, never had any trouble getting people’s attention. He was a born salesman. It was all about confidence. While Eyvindur was getting his tongue in a twist over the Dutch dinner service, all over town people were donning Runki’s new hats, in the smug belief that they had got themselves a bargain.
Too impatient to wait for the weather to let up, Eyvindur grabbed his cases again, ducked his head and ran across the square into the wind and rain, that cold, late-summer rain that hung like a low canopy over the town. He and Vera lived in the west end, in a small flat that belonged to his father’s brother. Rents were astronomical these days with all the people flooding in from the countryside to the towns, especially Reykjavík, lured by the prospect of working for the army, for hard cash and a better life. His uncle, who owned several properties in town, was raking in the profits, though he charged Eyvindur a fair rent. Even so, Eyvindur found it steep enough and kept having to ask for more time when his self-confidence was at its lowest ebb and he failed to bring home enough in commission.
The flat was on the ground floor of a three-storey concrete building. He unlocked the front door, then the door to the flat, before hastily retrieving his cases from the step outside and carrying them in. As he did so he called out to his girlfriend, who he assumed was waiting for him inside.
‘Vera? Vera darling?’
There was no answer. He closed the door, switched on the light and took a moment to catch his breath. He needn’t have bothered to hurry over the last stretch: Vera wasn’t home. She must have gone out, which meant he would have to wait a little longer before he could beg her forgiveness for his crass accusations. He’d been rehearsing what he was going to say – would have to say – if he was going to make things right again.
His outer clothes were sopping wet, so he took off his hat and laid his overcoat across a chair in the living room, then hung his jacket in the wardrobe by the door. Opening one of the cases, he took out a pound of genuine coffee that he had managed to get hold of in the West Fjords, hoping to give Vera a nice surprise. He was just about to go into the kitchen when he paused. Something wasn’t right.
Turning back, Eyvindur opened the wardrobe again. His jacket was hanging there, along with a second, longer jacket of his and another coat. It was what was missing that brought him up short: Vera’s clothes had gone. The shoes she kept in the bottom weren’t there. Nor were her two coats. He stood for a moment, staring blankly into the cupboard, then walked into the bedroom. There was another, larger wardrobe there with drawers for socks and underwear and a rail for dresses and shirts. Eyvindur opened it and pulled out the drawers, to be confronted by the astonishing fact that all Vera’s clothes had disappeared. His own things were still in their usual place but there wasn’t a single feminine garment left.
He couldn’t believe his eyes. In a daze, he went over to Vera’s dressing table and opened the drawers and compartments: it was the same story. Had she left him? Moved out?
He sank down on the bed, his thoughts miles away, recalling what Runki had said about Vera when Runki thought he couldn’t hear. The day he caught the boat to the West Fjords they had bumped into each other at Hot and Cold, a restaurant popular with soldiers. Runki had been there with a friend, shovelling down fish and chips, and as soon as he thought Eyvindur was safely out of earshot he had dropped that remark about Vera.
An absurd lie – he should have gone back and rammed the words down the bastard’s throat.
The lie that had made Vera so angry, so hurt when he was stupid enough to fling it in her face.
Eyvindur stared into the empty drawers and thumped his fist on the bed. Deep down he had been afraid of this. He was no longer so sure Runki’s remark had been an outrageous lie – that Vera was mixed up in the Situation.
And then there was all that nonsense his old classmate, that dirty rat Felix, had been rambling on about when they ran into each other in Ísafjördur. Was there any truth to it? All that stuff about the school and those experiments. Or was he simply out to humiliate Eyvindur because he was drunk, and cruel, just like he used to be in the old days when Eyvindur had laboured under the foolish belief that they were friends?
Flóvent surveyed the flat but could see no signs of a struggle, despite the aftermath of violence confronting him in all its horror. On the floor lay the body of a man, shot through the head. It looked like an execution pure and simple; no sign that the victim had tried to run. No chairs had been overturned. No tables knocked aside. The pictures were hanging perfectly straight on the walls. The windows were intact and fastened shut, so it could hardly have been a break-in. The door of the flat was undamaged too. The man now lying on the floor with a bullet hole in the back of his head must have opened the door to his assailant or left it open, unaware that it would be the last thing he did. It looked as though the victim had just walked in when the attack took place, since he was still in his overcoat, the front-door key clutched in his hand. At first glance Flóvent couldn’t see that anything had been stolen. The visitor must have come here to kill, and had carried out this intention with such brutality that the first police officers to arrive at the scene were still in shock. One had thrown up in the living room. The other was standing outside, protesting that there was no way he was going in there again.
The first thing Flóvent had done was shoo away those who had no direct role in the investigation: the policemen who had trampled all over the scene; the witness who had raised the alarm; the nosy neighbours who, when informed that a gun had been fired in the flat, were unable to say for certain if they’d heard a shot. The only people left inside were Flóvent himself and the district medical officer who had come to confirm the man’s death.
Copyright © 2018 by Arnaldur Indridason