Icelanderby Dustin Long
“Icelander is . . . a kind of Series of Unfortunate Events for adults . . . It is writing born out of hysterical laughter and a lingering sense of childhood adventure.” —Newsday
A Nabokovian goof on Agatha Christie; a madcap mystery in the deceptive tradition of The Crying of Lot 49; The Third Policeman meets The Da Vinci Code. Icelander is the debut novel from a brilliant new mind, an intricate, giddy romp steeped equally in Nordic lore and pulpy intrigue.
When Shirley MacGuffin is found murdered one day prior to the annual town celebration in remembrance of Our Heroine’s mother—the legendary crime-stopper and evil-thwarter Emily Bean—everyone expects Our Heroine to follow in her mother’s footsteps and solve the case. She, however, has no interest in inheriting the family business, or being chased through steam-tunnels, or listening to skaldic karaoke, or fleeing the inhuman Refurserkir, or . . . but evil has no interest in her lack of interest, and thus; adventure ensues.
“Icelander is a giddy sendup of postmodern fiction . . . Long obviously knows what it’s like to hover between wanting to read about underground kingdoms and purloined documents and wanting to read about just plain real people. In fact, he seems perfectly happy to keep on hovering there, and he knows how to make his readers happy there, too.” —Laura Miller, Salon
“Icelander . . . is unlike any book you’ve read before. Imagine an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, set in a wintry fictional U.S. state, littered with references to Norse mythology, and peopled with characters from a Wes Anderson film. Next, add several different narrators. It all sounds painfully difficult, but in fact it is just good, albeit slightly absurd, fun.” —Calgary Herald
“Icelander is . . . a kind of Series of Unfortunate Events for adults . . . It is writing born out of hysterical laughter and a lingering sense of childhood adventure.” —Newsday
Our Heroine woke to the sound of snowflakes, plaughtting against the window, perfect stellar dendrites that shattered as they crashed against the glass. Through a too-dry throat she groaned at them—some Adamic word of banishing—but it was fruitless, and the snow’s frigid spirit managed nonetheless to translate itself across the pane. From there it pressed on through blankets, quilts, and sheets to possess Our Heroine buried nude beneath. She shivered, let a yawn well through her body, and as she stretched herself out among the farthest reaches of bed, she felt the acids built up in her limbs; she felt how far she could stretch without touching anything at all.
She had not been alone upon her alcoholic fall into sleep, though she found herself so now. Hubert Jorgen was not there. The quilts and comforters curled around her still smelled of him—clean and fleshy, like soap made from bacon fat—and his head had left a pillow-dent, but the body itself was lacking.
She pulled one last whiff of him in through her nostrils, and then again, across the roof of her mouth, she sounded her barbaric yawn. Song of herself.
Sliding grudgingly from the bed, then, she registered the fact that it was not her own, and she wondered vaguely how she had wound up in it. And then, through the haze of hangover, she recalled.
She’d started drinking early yesterday, hitting Hrothgar’s Mead Hall as soon as it opened. Hubert had stumbled in around three o’clock.
“Have you heard?” he’d asked, tentative, perhaps unsure of how to broach such a troubling subject if she hadn’t. But before she could answer he’d ordered a pint of Heidrun for himself and another for her. She’d drunk already six of the same, and the two of them continued to drink until their wallets were emptied.
Once, when Our Heroine was sixteen, she drank a couple of 250-pound Norwegian thugs under the table. Her mother had uncovered their secret smuggling ring, and they had been holding her captive in the hidden basement of an Orkney haberdashery for two days. Ever resourceful, however, she managed to convince them to play a few rounds of King’s Cup—a drinking game that they had mentioned to her on the first day of her captivity—ostensibly just to pass the time.
“You’ll have to untie my hands,” she’d told them.
“Uh . . . I dunno. The boss definitely told us not to . . .”
“Look, are we going to play or not? I’m sure not trusting either one of you to pour shots down my gullet. Or are you scared that I’m going to overpower the two of you?”
“Ah, go on. Untie her, Haakon.”
Our Heroine wrapped herself in Hubert’s white robe—pulled from the hook behind the bathroom door—sheveled her golden hair into a thin black elastic that she’d left on the sink-top the previous evening, and returned to the bedroom. Standing just this side of the doorway, in a robe that was not her own, she gained new understanding of the situation. She was alone, in Hubert Jorgen’s house.
All variety of villainy crept heh-hehing into her head. There were closets and drawers to rummage through, diaries to find and read, possibly some hidden stashes of pornography to peruse. . . The forbidden door in the basement to look behind (she wouldn’t have even been curious if he hadn’t expressly forbidden her to look behind it the night before; why did he always have to act so mysterious?). She had Hubert’s whole physical subconscious to explore. But this fancy was only fleeting, replaced almost immediately by further grim recollection. Of yesterday. Of Shirley. And suddenly Our Heroine’s exploratory impulses felt frivolous, forcing her again to reappraise her situation. She was alone, in Hubert Jorgen’s house.
Leaving then the bedroom and sweeping through the rest of the place did not dissolve her sense of solitude. Hubert was not in the study reorganizing his collection of Vanaheimic relics or in the library parsing the mysteries of some ancient Refurserkir tome. Neither was he in the kitchen thoughtfully preparing her breakfast. She poured herself a large glass of water. Well, then. It was time to go.
Our Heroine first met Hubert Jorgen during the case of the Reykjavik Museum Manuscript Murders. Emily Bean had become convinced that someone was planning to steal Codex No. 1005—the Flateyjarbók—from the Royal Library and replace it with an exact replica, and Hubert was called in as the reigning wonder kid of the library-science world; he specialized in forgeries in general and ancient texts in particular. Fifteen at the time, Our Heroine became briefly infatuated. She’d always imagined herself marrying someone like him. Tall, thin, and bookish. Tousled brown hair and rounded glasses, leather elbows on his tweed coat, knit tie, and only ten years her elder. His attention, however, was all on Emily. At first he sneered and tried to tell her how absurd her idea was—how it would be impossible to produce an even halfway believable copy of the book, it simply couldn’t be done—and even if it could, the cost involved would far outweigh any black-market value for the real thing. But Emily proved correct in the end, of course, and thus had begun Hubert’s life-long fascination with Surt, the master forger who’d been behind the whole thing to begin with.
Her thong from off the bed and up between her buttocks—long-johns would have been wiser—then on with the rest of her clothes, as bundled as she could. She gave another glance to the flecks of snow plaughtting against the window, grabbed her fleece coat from the front hall closet, and shivered expectantly against the cold before shoving through the door.
“Wordless curses to the northern winds,” she muttered; her nose felt red already. She bunched her coat up around her cheeks and pulled the door to a close behind her. As the mechanism’s metal tongue slipped with a click into its cavity, she heard the phone begin to ring within. The door responsibly locked, however, there was nothing she could do.
Yesterday Our Heroine had woken to a call from Barthes down at the coroner’s office. He hadn’t been able to reach Duplain, he explained, and so thought that he should call her instead. And then, before she could even express her confusion, he’d told her. In all the gory detail. When she’d regained a bit of her composure, Our Heroine had thanked him—though she wasn’t sure what for—and assured him that she’d do her best to find Blaise and let him know.
Blaise had finally answered his phone about four hours later.
“How has this happened?” he’d asked once he was able to speak in articulate English sentences.
She hadn’t been sure if she should go into the details with him over the phone, and so after the initial shock of the situation he’d agreed to meet with her at ten a.m. the next day—today—at the Elite Café.
The morning smelled of meat or oil behind the crispness of winter air, and the sky was a translucent gray, like fried chicken bones. Eight o’clock. Two hours to go. Across the street, the little blue building of the local store was already opening its door. She’d just have to concentrate on the shopping. For her father: stockfish, six eggs on the verge of rot, and a pint of buttermilk. For Garm, a box of meat-truffles. A bundle of peppermint for herself.
She was concentrating so intently on the shopping, in fact, that she forgot to concentrate on crossing the street; consequently, she almost allowed herself be run down by a big black car as she stepped blindly from the curb. Yet she did not allow herself to be unduly phased. “One must maintain composure, even in the face of utmost adversity,” as her mother had always said. Picking up a small plastic handcart, she reflected that it would have done her well to recall this little bon mot the previous morning.
At least Barthes hadn’t wanted her to come identify the body. Stabbed in the eye. Our Heroine had seen some gruesome corpses in her time, but . . . But this was Shirley.
She paused in the bread aisle to dry her tears.
Once, Our Heroine beat in a man’s skull with a brick of gold. He’d been holding a gun on her mother in a volcanic cave in Vanaheim. Our Heroine crept up behind him with the brick, one of many that he’d been planning to smuggle out of Iceland. She only meant to knock him out, but the first whack just made him angry, and he turned around and started choking her after the second, and he didn’t let go until the sixth, and her eyes had been full of tears, and it was so dark that she could barely even see him until her mother lit the acetylene torch. And by then it was too late.
Our Heroine’s father, Jon Ymirson, lived in his library. Shelves he’d hammered up from oaks he’d felled himself spanned all the walls, which were fifteen feet high and bookfilled beyond saturation; Ymirson had read each word and written many himself. He’d not, however, as went the popular lore, fattened and slaughtered the very lambs that had died to vellum the parchments.
Our Heroine found him seated quietly in a chair by his unblazing fireplace, staring blankly at a pile of books on the floor, and she set her bag of groceries down beside him.
“Papa, it’s me!”
“No, Pa, it’s me. Your daughter.”
“Where is Emily?”
“She’s not here, Pa.”
“Where is she?”
“She’ll be home soon.”
“I must speak to her. It is of the most utter importance.”
“She and I just went shopping together. She knows how you hate shopping, so she didn’t want to drag you along. I brought you some groceries.”
“Oh. That is very nice of you. How much should I tip? I am not familiar with the currency here. I will just have to trust you to tell me.”
“No tip necessary, Pa. I’m happy to do you such favors.”
“Oh . . . That is very nice of you.”
“I brought you some buttermilk.”
“Buttermilk? But where is my wife?”
“She’s in the town. Here, just a minute. I have something else for you, too. Let me get a bowl and crack these open . . . All right, now, take a whiff of this. What’s it remind you of?”
“Hmm . . . It is like the volcanoes of Vanaheim. We are in Vanaheim?”
“No, New Cruiskeen, Pa. Upstate New Uruk. The United States. It’s Mom’s home town, remember?”
“No. Some mistake has been made. I should not be here. You must fetch me my papers.”
“Your papers are all in order, Pa. Don’t worry. You and Mom will be back in Vanaheim soon enough. Magnus Valison—”
“Hmph. I have never liked that man. He has always had his eye on my Emily, I am sure.”
“I know, Pa. Everybody always had their eye on Mom.”
“Oh, my daughter! How are you? It is so nice to see you, my dear. You appear so strange to me, though. You are looking so old and tired!”
“I’m doing fine, Pa. Thanks for asking.”
“Hmm. You are welcome, dear thing. It is good news to my ears to hear that you are so fine, though. But where have you said that your mother has gone? She is not with Magnus Valison, is she?”
Magnus Valison, surprisingly enough, was fond of playing the fool. Our Heroine was thirteen when she first met him—during the L’anse aux Meadows case—but he treated her as if she were three. This disappointed her somewhat, since she’d only recently read Itallo, and it had filled her with such readerly pleasure that she’d been compelled to plow immediately through his various other novels of the fifties and sixties—all of which she’d enjoyed—and so she’d initially been quite excited about being introduced to him. But that excitement dissolved with his first words.
“This bean appears to be sprouting quite nicely,” he’d declared in his thick Danish accent.
She’d already been sensitive enough about what she perceived as her Amazonian height at that point in her life, and so this comment was perhaps not received in the same spirit in which it was intended. Still, by the end of the case, she was ready to forgive him.
Valison had been in L’anse aux Meadows doing research for a proposed novel of the supernatural. In particular, he was looking into recently reported claims of strange visitations from what seemed to be the spirits of the first Viking settlers of North America proper. New Cruiskeen being only a few hours away, the Bean-Ymirsons had been unable to resist the opportunity of debunking these reports themselves, and they had arrived in the area soon after Valison, who immediately became more fascinated with them than he had ever been with the supposed ghosts.
Emily—being a fan of Valison’s work, herself—had welcomed him into their circle, and a few days after their initial meeting she and her husband had even entrusted Our Heroine to Valison’s care while they went off to deal with the annoyances offered by two bungling “metaphysical detectives.”
“You seem excessively fond of fidgeting,” Valison had said to Our Heroine. She was sitting in an overly stuffed red velvet chair in the center of his generally garish parlor. He was sitting across from her on the red velvet couch, trying to keep an eye on her. She, of course, had been itching to help her parents with the case and so did not appreciate his dutiful vigilance.
“You are like a brincador,” he continued, arching an implausibly tensile eyebrow.
“A what?” she asked, incredulous, readjusting herself on the rocklike cushion.
“A brincador. What is inappropriately called in English a ‘jumping bean.’ But they do not jump. They fidget.”
“Gee, thanks for the compliment,” she answered.
“Ah, but it is a compliment. The brincador is a most remarkable thing, as I suspect that you are, too. Do you know how it is that it is able to fidget about, this little bean?”
“Yeah, it has a bug in it or something,” she said. As she spoke, she covertly surveyed all of the room’s windows with an eye for the easiest escape route.
“Well, but it is not just a bug!” Valison exclaimed, rising rapidly to his feet.
“Carpocapsa saltitans,” he pronounced. “It is a moth.” His voice had assumed a solemn tone, and he seemed to relish wrapping his mouth around the final “o.” But with a great flourish, then, he pulled a brown blanket from the back of the couch and crumpled it into a concentrated mass on the carpet in front of him.
“Um,” Our Heroine said. “What are you doing?”
“The adult lays its eggs within the little bean, and—when they are hatched—the larvae hollow the core and attach themselves to it with silken strands.”
Our Heroine watched, dumbfounded, while he acted out each step of this description—squatting to “lay his eggs” in the balled-up blanket on the floor, blinking dramatically as he “emerged from the egg within it,” and then forming a hollow space for himself by unfolding the blanket and pulling it up by its corners to drape over his head as he stood back up again.
“Then, when some young girl innocently takes the bean into her hand,” he shouted from beneath the blanket, “the sensitive little larva within feels the poignant heat emanating from her body, and he reacts to this heat by writhing—tugging upon the threads that bind him to the bean, thus effecting the aforementioned motion of fidgeting.”
Our Heroine never found out where the demonstration went from here, though, since—just as soon as Valison’s eyes were covered and he began to fidget upon the floor—she took the opportunity of tiptoeing toward one of the windows and silently boosting herself through it, off to help her parents round up the criminals responsible for the false ghosts. But the performance did endear him to her a little.
“Go ahead and get some rest, Pa. I just came by to see how you were doing and to bring you the groceries. I know how you always get down around this time of year, so I brought you stockfish for dinner.”
“Mmm. Stockfish is my favorite.”
“I know it is, Pa.”
“I will cherish it always.”
Despite the anticipatory rise of nausea, she continued: “There’s another reason I came, too, Papa. You probably won’t remember this when I leave, and it’s probably best that you don’t, but I should at least let you know . . . It’s about Shirley.”
“Shirley . . . Oh, I have always liked her.”
“Yeah, she liked you, too, Pa. She looked up to you . . . Actually, I think she even had a bit of a crush on you, but . . . I’m sorry.”
“It is all right, dear thing.”
“No . . . She’s—Shirley is—”
“Why are you crying, dear thing? Do not cry!”
“It’s okay, Pa. Sit down. I’m sorry, I’ve just been trying not to think about it. I can’t think about it right now. She’s dead, Pa. Shirley’s dead.”
“I’m going to talk to Blaise today—to make sure he doesn’t go off on some vengeance trip and try to find the killer himself. I thought at first that maybe I should just tell him to come and talk to you, since you know what it’s like to . . . I mean—”
“Pa . . . Surt’s dead.”
“He did this. He murdered our Miss MacGuffin.”
“He’s dead, Pa. I know. He died saving me.”
“Hmph. I snort derisively at that, for nonetheless this is he. I warned her of him when she came to me, for he has loosed himself from Leyding before, and Dromi, as well. Fetch me my belt. I must go find him and finish this for now and ever. Though dead already he shall die again!”
“Calm down, Pa. It’s okay. I don’t think we should go anywhere right now. We need to—”
“I shall fetch it myself, then. For I will not have you going off to find the killer by yourself. It is not safe for you, dear thing.”
“Wait a minute, shouldn’t we—”
“But there is no minute to wait!”
“Okay, but shouldn’t we wait for Mom? I mean, won’t it be better if you’re here to tell her about it? I really think she should hear it from you, so you can keep her calm. Who knows what she’ll do otherwise? You need to protect her. I’ll go try to find her, and I’ll send her back here to talk to you. I’ll let you break the news to her, okay?”
“Hmm . . . Yes, I see that it will be best that way. Go find her now and bring her to me.”
“Okay, I’ll do that. And you get some rest.”
“Hmm. All right, yes. It is always nice to see you, my dear. I will let your mother know that you stopped by.”
“All right, Pa. I’ll see you soon. I love you.”
“Yes, yes. Okay. Bye-bye, dear thing.”
Outside, Our Heroine’s tracks had been filled to indistinction by the snow’s ceaseless fall, though fresh footprints were visible in the path she’d taken. Palimpsestuous.
She smelled smoke before she saw it, a buttery blend, brimming visibly, volubly, from Mr. Wible’s short and wide pipe. Mr. Pacheco, looming thinly behind, stifled a cough as the smoke and its aroma diffused into the fog around him. Fire and water conspiring to further obscure the discernible.
“I didn’t expect to see you guys here,” she said.
“When flees the unknown, never are we two far behind, pursuing. Wishing not to interrupt your counsel with your father, we have been awaiting you here.”
“Are you still talking like that?”
“Still we speak as always we have spoken, yes, as still you jest too freely in the face of the Great Mystery of Death . . . At the moment, however, my partner and I are more concerned with another of the Major Arcana: Art. We have been given to understand that Ms. MacGuffin endowed you with certain ‘documents’ before her death. They are documents that I and my partner have been hired to retrieve.”
“Look, I don’t want to—You know, actually, I’ve always wondered about that. Are you guys? Partners, I mean.”
“Yes, of course we are partners. But you are ignoring the thrust of our enquiry. If you possess the documents to which we refer, then we must iterate that divesting yourself of them would be to your benefit. You cannot realize their full import. They would be safer in our care, as would you if they were there.”
“Wait a second. Slow down. You haven’t even told me what these documents are.”
“Did Ms. MacGuffin endow you with more than one set of . . . documents?”
“She didn’t endow me with anything. But I—Ugh. Can we not do this, please? I mean, how does this case even remotely fit into the sort of thing that you guys handle?”
“The case is the world, as we have told you time over. We seek its limits, which Shirley MacGuffin has now transgressed; beyond these limits lies the metaphysical. So is our involvement warranted.”
“Oh. Well, whatever; I don’t have the documents you’re looking for.”
“Attempt not to deceive us. There is neither need for that nor hope of success. You are aware, no doubt, that certain documents were stolen from her in the weeks prior to her demise?”
“Sure, but you think I stole them?”
“No, of course not. However, we do have reason to believe that the documents with which she endowed you were related to those that were stolen, and if you were to help us—”
“Sincerely, gentlemen. I can’t help you.”
“The Fool. That is what you are like. Treading dangerously close to a precipice that you do not perceive. Your dog barks a warning, but you do not hear.”
“Okay, that’s just about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Is it? Or is it the wisest thing you have ever heard?”
“No. It’s the dumbest.”
“Hmph. We shall see if that is true. But perhaps you will speak with less flippancy when you have realized for yourself the gravity of our statements. That we are not ‘kidding,’ so to speak . . . But for now you may go your way, separate though it may be from our own. Be mindful of what we have said, however. We have always had fondness for you and would be quite distressed if Ms. MacGuffin’s fate were one that you were to share.”
“Are you guys threatening me? I never took you for the Pinkerton types; I thought your spiritual path ran above that sort of thing . . .”
“Well, suggesting that I might share Shirley’s fate if I don’t help you . . .”
“Oh. No, of course not. Pardon our lack of clarity. We realize only now that such a statement could be readily interpreted in more manners than one. It was our wish to mean it simply in a manner that was not a threat and which conveyed genuine concern for your safety. Though in amiability we might also suggest that it might be dangerous indeed were you to attempt this investigation on your own.”
“Noted. And as long as we’re being amiable, I do like the mustache, Pacheco. The grey Fu Manchu thing works for you. It does a lot for your image as a mystery metaphysician. Goes well with the trench coat.”
“Your valueless flattery is not enough to distract us from our purpose.”
“Duly noted. But, as pleasant as this all has been, I should really be going now.”
“Of course. And in opposition to my partner, I appreciate your appreciation of my moustache. It took me quite a while to grow it out.”
“Well, it was worth it. It looks good.”
“The Image is the mask of Substance, but sometimes the two can become transposed.”
“Okay. I’ll see you guys later, then.”
“Indeed you shall. Indeed you shall.”
Mr. Wible and Mr. Pacheco, partners, first offered their assistance to Emily Bean during the Case of the Consternated Cossacks. It all began when some southern Soviet investors decided to finance the construction of a Valhalla-themed restaurant in Vanaheim. They called in a medium to consult the local fairies before any work began, of course—they all knew the story of the famous Icelander whose whole life went to ruin just because he moved a stone from one side of the road to the other without asking for permission first. Yet although the Hidden Folk expressed mild displeasure at the prospect of relocation, they gave no warning of the deaths to come.
Problems befraught the construction from the beginning. Water finding its way into unopened bags of concrete mix, blunted ends on shovels, inexplicable breakdowns of the bulldozers’ But it wasn’t until the investors began to die in their homes—no discernible cause of death, yet faces frozen in mortal fright—that Emily Bean decided to apply her talents to the case. Rumors that the murders were metaphysically motivated attracted the attentions of Wible & Pacheco, drawing them thousands of miles across the globe to investigate. The local law & order pursued a more pedestrian solution, of course, focusing their suspicions on a domestic restaurateur who had been outbid by the mysteriously death-prone foreigners. It took Emily and her young daughter, however, to dig up the true killers: the fox-shirted warriors of Vanaheim.
Over her shoulder as she walked, Our Heroine noticed that a big black car had begun to follow a ways behind, moving too slowly to be going anywhere on its own. Not that she really thought anyone would be following her. It probably just had no chains on its tires. She turned up the nearest corner, regardless. She’d just take the long way to her house.
A sigh escaped her mouth as the car rolled straight through the intersection without pause. She couldn’t see the driver through the tinted windows, but she supposed that was irrelevant since he wasn’t following her. And who would be following her, anyways? Unless this was about Shirley, in which case the murderer might—
Never mind. The car wasn’t following her, and that wasn’t what she should be thinking about right now, anyway. She didn’t need to solve anything; this wasn’t one of her mother’s mysteries. As she almost slipped in the snow, Our Heroine reminded herself that, in regard to Shirley, she was only concerned with the tragedy of someone who would never return. She was not concerned with finding some person who’d created a corpse.
But crossing then at the next corner, something big and black moved into her peripheral vision. To her left, crawling along the street immediately parallel, was the same car. Visions of Shirley’s punctured eyeball popped into Our Heroine’s mind, and she suddenly froze where she was; she crouched down, curling herself up in a ball of coldness in the center of the street. She did not want this.
But only for a moment. Then she raised herself to her feet—one must maintain composure—and walked on. Neck stiff, eyes straight, she proceeded on toward her home. Even when threatened with the extraordinary, one should never abandon the semblance of normality. Or, at least, so went one of her mother’s favorite aphorisms.
By the time she arrived at her house, the big black car was nowhere to be seen.
Her front door opened without need of the key, though Our Heroine was sure that she’d set both locks. She turned and gazed at the street behind her. There was no one in sight, however, and nothing sounded amiss from within. So she stepped inside. And still nothing. Silence. No toenails tapped across the tile; Garm was gone, she realized. Or dead.
“Garm, I’m home! I have meat-truffles!”
She walked to the kitchen but found only his empty food bowl.
Water sat on the white tile. She hoped it was water, but she hadn’t been there last night to let him out. The window was open. She noticed now the snow drifting in, only a few specks, but enough to account for the floor water over the course of the morning. Maybe he’d woken up and had to go and—an extraordinarily smart dog—figured out how to open the window. She shut it. No. He would have figured out how to open the door.
The door had been unlocked.
“Damn it. Garm!”
No response. Her home appeared otherwise in order, if a bit messy. But no indication of Garm anywhere. What could she do? Reason it calmly.
First she should make sure there were no intruders. Which would offer a more likely explanation for her open window and door. And perhaps they just had Garm with them in a closet somewhere. She closed her eyes and listened.
No noise apart from the usual sounds of the house. Quiet, but not too quiet. Not preternaturally quiet. Whoever it was must have left by now, if there had been anyone at all. And if not . . . She grabbed a steak knife from the kitchen and carried it up the stairs.
No one greeted her at the top, so she proceeded into her bedroom.
“Garm?” she called. She knew this was the moment at which he should have bitten the hand of whosoever held him, or at least emitted a little whimper from within his captor’s hiding hole. But nothing. She threw open her closet door, just in case, but was faced solely with shoes on the floor and a jumble of hanging clothes. Downstairs, then, into the study, and up the other staircase. But all was apparently well.
Enough of this. She was alone.
She’d take a bath, then. Soak and figure it all out; formulate a plan to find him.
The shower curtain was already pulled fully toward the faucet-side, just as she’d left it, thus saving her the trouble of yanking it quickly open with one hand, steak knife ready in the other. She shut the bathroom door behind herself, locked it, and then she stripped and started water into the toothwhite tub.
Her recently heavy doses of alcohol were beginning to exert some influence over her womanly form. Twisting her torso and pinching wherever possible, she perused her body in the bathroom’s mirror, to make certain she was abreast of all the recent shifts in topography. Though unwelcome to her stomach and thighs, her recent gains in weight had made generous contributions to certain previously less-than-ample portions of her anatomy.
“At least two good things have come out of all this,” she muttered as she stepped into the tub.
A game she used to play with Prescott: hiding in the steam, no light except the verdant phosphorescence of the ormolu lichen that subsisted on the sides of their secret subterranean reyklaug. He always had the advantage; his nose more accustomed to excluding the smell of sulphur, he could sniff her out by the oils of her hair or the sweet excretions beading on the effusive flesh of her underarms. His own skin was nigh-albino from a life of so little sun, somehow blending with the ripple of the water—probably a trick he learned from the Refurserkir—and she could never find him by sight. Sometimes, though, on instinct alone, following some immanent clew of desire, her mouth, unsensed, would alight on his, startling lips apart with the sudden tongue she slipped between them.
She let herself go limp, now, reclined. Knife within easy reach . . . Her hair darkened and floating around her chin, kneepeaks angled up and out untouched by the warmth of the water that refracted the rest of her body, distorted it. Elongated torso, flattened. Her body border-straddling—real above, myth below. Just look. Black hairs that struck her as flylike marked starkly the otherwise fish-white of her shins and inner thighs. Tally marks on a page that numbered the days since she cared about shaving; she fumbled for tweezers on the shelf beside her then dug them in to remove the one or two that had tunneled pinkly beneath.
From another room the telephone rang. The dog-ransomers? A second ring. Someone in the house, with a cell-phone, trying to lure her out of the bathroom? She groaned out of the tub, grabbed the steak knife—as well as a towel from off the rack, which she wrapped around herself—and billowed out to search for the phone, which rang a third time. Not on the cradle, of course. The fourth ring came from a vaguely kitchenesque direction. The dining room? No. The answering machine had it now anyway. From the living room she heard her voice.
“As you hear this, I probably either don’t know where the phone is, or I’m ignoring it, so leave a message and I’ll get back to you when my ignorance has ended.”
“Hey, this is Hugh. I really need your help with something. I don’t want to say too much on the machine, but, um . . . Come see me. I’m at the home away from home, you know? Think about Shirley. Anyway, I’ll be waiting for you, so I’d appreciate it if you could get here as soon as you can. Thanks. Sorry about last night, by the way. See you soon, I hope.”
Our Heroine plucked the phone from the refrigerator’s top and—setting the knife down on the stove—she dialed Hubert’s number.
It rang, but the bastard didn’t answer. Sorry about last night? And how could she know where he was if he wasn’t home? Stupid clues; say what you mean. At least he was okay. Just mourning in his own way, she imagined. She returned to the bathroom, pulled the plugstop from its snugness, and watched the water drain.
Perhaps Blaise would know where Hubert was. Maybe that’s what the mention of Shirley meant. Our Heroine had to meet him in half an hour, anyway, so it couldn’t hurt to ask. This didn’t help her with Garm, of course, but at least it was something.
Garm’s great-grandfather, the Fenris Dachshund, had insinuated himself into the life of Emily Bean during the same Icelandic vacation on which she first met Jon Ymirson. Emily was walking along the wharf, taking in the view of Reykjavik’s fog-filled bay, when Ymirson stumbled backward into her and nearly knocked her into the water. Hopping one-footed, he caught hold of her with his right hand while with his left he tried to extricate his flailing leg from the jaws of the long, black Fenris Dachshund.
“Sir!” Emily had exclaimed. “For shame to enlist the help of an innocent whelp in such a crude maneuver of courtship. That is neither the way to a woman’s heart nor the proper manner in which to treat a hound.”
Both dachshund and man desisted and turned their eyes to Emily.
Ymirson sputtered. The Fenris Dachshund whimpered.
“Woman,” Ymirson finally managed to bellow in his heavily inflected English. “This hound is not mine. He is a hound of evil who attacks my leg for no discernible reason. And the way to your heart is not—”
“Evil? You poor little thing.” She squatted to gently remove the Fenris Dachshund from Ymirson’s leg and then cradled him in her arms. “Perhaps, sir, if you would take more care in the future not to spill vanilla extract upon your shoes while preparing your morning cocktails, you would have greater fortune in avoiding the attentions of innocent, sweet-toothed dachshunds. Now, if you have finished harassing me and my newfound canine companion, I humbly request that you leave us in peace.”
Ymirson snorted derisively, glowered, and then huffed away, leaving her and what she now called “her” dog in peace. And so went the first meeting of Jon Ymirson and Emily Bean. Unbeknownst to either one of them, however, the Fenris Dachshund actually belonged at the time to Ymirson’s chief rival, the Danish anthropologist Anders Pytlick.
The two men’s mutual mentor, Clint Van Cleef—distressed by the rift between his two greatest students—had on his deathbed entrusted Ymirson with an unexplained set of geographical coordinates and provided Pytlick with a description of a landmark to dig beneath once those coordinates were reached. The two men would thus be forced into cooperation, Van Cleef had reasoned, by necessity reconciling their differences in order to locate the treasure that their mentor had bequeathed them. Van Cleef died secure in the knowledge that his pupils would thus be reunited. He had, however, never been a very shrewd judge of character.
The Fenris Dachshund was part of Pytlick’s scheme to keep Van Cleef’s treasure for himself. The dog had been trained to follow the scent of vanilla, which Pytlick had mixed into all of Ymirson’s tins of shoeshine, and each night, the amazing canine would lead his master through every step that Ymirson had taken over the course of the day. The plan, naturally, was to wait until Ymirson visited Van Cleef’s coordinates, at which point Pytlick would abscond with whatever legacy their mentor had left them. And, if Ymirson happened to arrive on the scene inopportunely or decided to cause any trouble, Pytlick always had his trusty blackjack.
The loving care that the dachshund received from Emily, however, when contrasted with the abuse he had suffered at the hands of his master, turned him firmly to her side of the struggle once she unwittingly became involved, and—in the end—he not only rescued Emily and Ymirson from a burning house but led them to Pytlick’s hideout as well.
Though Garm was too young to have ever had the chance to help with any of Emily’s cases—and despite a longhair or two on his mother’s side—a rough eighth of his blood was that of a hero.
A staircase led up to the Elite Café from the foyer of a cinema. Steps that Our Heroine had rushed up and down twice daily one summer, still fuzzed with the same footworn carpet. She took them two at a time, now, the rail rewelcoming her hand. Nine strides, eighteen again.
The café was much as she recalled it. Brightened by skylights and wall-spanning windows, populated by the University’s sundry denizens (undergrads discussing paper topics with teaching assistants, grads still rallying around their patron professors; in the least-lit corners registrars pursed their lips and drank their espressos, taking notes that no one would ever see). Our Heroine had gorged herself on this atmosphere back then. In a spiral binder she’d recorded her frustrated fantasies about the lives of these people she didn’t know. How they pursued Higher Truth by day but acquiesced to Deeper Stirrings by night, playing out their academic conflicts sexually until everyone had eventually slept with everyone else . . . By summer’s end a hundred pages had been filled with analysis of all the ideological consequences of each coupling. She generally stayed away these days and kept her literary aspirations limited to subjects she knew something about.
Blaise had chosen the place for their meeting, but he wasn’t there yet, so Our Heroine stepped counterward to order herself a drink.
“Well, Professor, hello!” a voice called from behind her. It was Boris Baxter, sitting at a table with three other white men. “Have a seat.”
She walked over toward his table but remained standing. “Hello, Boris. Is this all that’s left of your fan club?”
“Oh, my graduate student round-table doesn’t meet until one or so, if that’s what you’re referring to. I’ll be here for the next few hours, if you’re interested. But allow me to introduce Drs. Lorenz, Mohs, and Curleigh. Math, Geology, and Northern Studies, respectively. Visiting professor and two new additions to our little faculty, also respectively. I’m surprised you haven’t heard. Gentlemen, this is that same illustrious doctor of whom I’ve just been speaking. The Bean-Ymirsons’ daughter.”
“A pleasure to finally meet you,” said Dr. Lorenz. He was dressed rather ridiculously, Our Heroine thought—in orange pants and a green jacket—and as he spoke he toyed with a large, gaudy ring on his right hand. “Boris has told us so much, I feel as if I already know you. You’re Anthropology, as well?”
“I’m something of an interdisciplinarian, actually. Linguistics, Anthropology . . . I’m listed with the Scandinavian Studies department.”
“Well, I’m something of an interdisciplinarian myself,” Lorenz replied, grinning maliciously from beneath his bulbous nose. “Chaos is my specialty, but it’s comprised of so many things: mathematics, meteorology, lepidopterology—”
“Save your mothematical monsoons,” Baxter interrupted. “The trivialities of academia do not concern this one. Her criminological celebrity assures that she needn’t worry about such things.”
“Stop,” Our Heroine mouthed.
“I suppose Ms. MacGuffin’s murder was your true motivation for coming out this fine Bean Day morn.”
“Stop,” she said.
A pause. “Pardon me. You’re absolutely right for once; I should at least honor the dead. She always was the company I welcomed most from among your bunch, and I shall sincerely miss her. A remarkable girl, Shirley. Lovely.”
“I didn’t know you were acquainted.”
“Not incredibly well, I admit, though she and I did share a mutual affection for Saxo, and she briefly sought my help with one of the projects that she was working on in her latter days. Does that make me a suspect in your investigation?”
“So you were working with her on the—” Our Heroine began, but just then Dr. Lorenz choked on his coffee and sputtered a bit of it out across the table.
“Please pardon me, how clumsy . . .” he said as he quickly dropped a napkin atop the cream-clouded coffee puddle and then proceeded to pat it down with his ringless left hand.
“Why don’t you have a seat, Professor?” Dr. Mohs asked. He stood and made as if to grab a chair from a neighboring table.
“No, please,” she shook her head. “I’ll be leaving in a moment. I’m meeting someone.”
“Not to indulge Boris in his rudeness,” Dr. Lorenz said, looking up abruptly from his coffee-mopping, “but surely you must have some interest in the murder. I’ve only just read about it in this morning’s paper, and I’m not nearly as experienced in this sort of thing as you . . . but it seems quite clearly malicious. Not just some random stab in the nearest available eye. And she was a close friend of yours, was she not? Don’t you feel just the least bit obliged to lend your considerable talents to the case?”
Our Heroine faltered for a moment at mention of the eye-stab. But then she answered, recomposed.
“I haven’t read this morning’s article, but I’m afraid Miss Lingus must have overstated my talents. I’m just a professor. And apparently not a very good one.”
“But she was your friend,” Lorenz insisted. “Surely you must care about her enough to have at least some interest in finding her murderer.”
Indignant: “I cared about Shirley a great deal, I’ll have you know, and I resent your suggestion that my lack of interest in finding her killer might indicate anything to the contrary. But tracking down and punishing some criminal will not bring her back to life, and bodily resurrection is about the only thing I can imagine that would make me feel better about this situation.”
“Well, I do apologize for any offense I might have given,” Lorenz said, rubbing the tip of his bulbous nose. “I meant only that—being her friend—you might share some connection with her in the murderer’s eyes; you might be in danger yourself, that is, and so solving her case might be to your own personal benefit.”
“It might, but that sort of thing is what the police are for.”
“Yes, of course,” Lorenz conceded. “But still, you must—”
“Forgive me my tardiness,” Blaise Duplain said from nowhere, behind, and laid a steady bandaged hand on Our Heroine’s shoulder. “I was inextricably occupied otherwise.”
“Ah. If you’ll excuse me, it seems my friend has arrived. It’s been nice meeting you, gentlemen. Boris.”
Dr. Mohs raised his hand, slightly, and spoke before Baxter could formulate a retort. “Well, as we say in my department, rock on.”
“Likewise,” Dr. Curleigh said.
“Hmm. I’m afraid I must be going as well, boys,” Dr. Lorenz said, rising and slapping Boris forcibly on the shoulder with his right hand as he readjusted the bridge of his nose with his left. “It’s been a pleasure to meet you, though, Professor, and I do hope you’ll accept my apology for any tasteless remarks I may have made. I’m sure we’ll be seeing each other around. Until then, goodbye, and—as we say in my department—good luck.”
“Damn it,” Baxter said, scowling up at Lorenz and vigorously rubbing his shoulder where the man had slapped him. “Watch that absurd ring of yours, Lorenz. I think it might have just cut me through my jacket.”
Lorenz smiled an apology as he left, and by the time Boris turned his attention back to Our Heroine, she was already sitting across the room with Blaise.