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The Shadow District Sample

They hurried past the sandbagged sentry post in front of the National Theatre. She tried not to make it obvious that they were together, at least not while they were walking down the busier streets. Her parents had been furious when they learnt of the relationship and demanded that she break it off immediately. Her father had actually threatened to throw her out of the house, and she knew he would be as good as his word. She had been unprepared for such a violent reaction. Yet, unwilling as she was to defy her parents, she stubbornly resisted ending the relationship. Instead, she stopped talking about him and let them think it was over, but she carried on meeting him in secret.

 

There were few places to go if they wanted to be together. Back in late autumn, when they had first started courting, they had gone to Öskjuhlíd hill when the weather was fine. But now, in the depths of winter, their options were very limited. Checking into a hotel was out of the question, and so were the barracks. Once before they had resorted to the back of the National Theatre after nightfall. The building loomed darkly over Hverfisgata like the huge outcrop of columnar basalt it was designed to resemble, though it was in fact no more than a hollow shell. Work had halted on the ambitious project ten years ago with the onset of the Depression, and when the British occupied Iceland in 1940 they had requisitioned it as a supply depot, a role it had retained when the Americans took over in 1941. Now it was a popular meeting place for illicit lovers.

 

‘You’re never to see that man again!’ her father had roared, beside himself with rage, and for the first time in her life he would have raised his hand to her if her mother hadn’t intervened.

 

She had given him her word, only to go back on it straight away. Her lover’s name was Frank, he came from Illinois, and he was always clean and neat and smelt nice, and he had beautiful white teeth. And such gentlemanly, polite manners. They had talked of moving to the States together when the war was over. She was convinced her father would approve of him, if only the old man could be persuaded to meet him.

 

It wasn’t as though she was the only one, as though their relationship was unique. At the beginning of the war Reykjavík had had a population of forty thousand, but since then tens of thousands of servicemen had poured into the town. Liaisons between soldiers and Icelandic women were inevitable with the arrival of the Tommies, and they rapidly increased when the Tommies were succeeded by the Yanks who, with smarter uniforms, more money and better manners, were almost like film stars to the locals. Language was no barrier –  the language of romance was universal. But such was the resulting moral panic that a committee was set up to deal with this scandalous state of affairs which came to be known, in all its manifestations, as the Situation.

 

She didn’t give two hoots about committees and the Situation as she dashed across Hverfisgata with Frank from Illinois. It was a chilly evening in the middle of February. The wind whistled around the manmade castle of rock designed to resemble the elf palaces of Icelandic folklore. On entering the imposing theatre building, audiences were supposed to imagine that they were stepping inside a mountain, being transported to the gleaming halls of fairy tale. But for now, the sentries, huddled behind their barricade of sandbags, paid little attention to the pair who hastened round the corner, taking refuge from the streetlights. She was wearing the warm coat she had been given for Christmas; he wore his army greatcoat over the uniform she found so glamorous. He was a sergeant with men under his command, though she didn’t know exactly what this entailed. Her knowledge of English didn’t go much beyond ‘yes  ’, ‘no  ’ and ‘darling  ’, and his Icelandic was no better. Yet in spite of this they managed to understand each other quite well, and right now she needed to talk to him about a matter that was weighing heavily on her mind.

 

The instant they were out of the wind, Frank began kissing her hungrily. She felt his hands fumbling under her coat and her thoughts flew to her father. If he could see her now. She heard Frank whispering endearments in her ear: ‘Oh, my darling.’ Felt his icy hands through the blouse that she had bought from Jacobsen after New Year. He stroked her breasts through the thin material, then unbuttoned her blouse, touching bare flesh. She remained passive, inexperienced in the ways of lovemaking, though she usually enjoyed kissing him and felt a hot frisson run through her body when he touched her. Now, though, it was freezing cold and she wasn’t in the mood; her father’s fury loomed over her, and the thing she had to say to Frank was preying on her mind.

 

‘Frank, there’s something I have to tell you . . .’

My darling.’

 

He was so ardent that she lost her balance, stumbled and almost fell. He caught her and made to carry on but she insisted he stop. They were sheltering in a small doorway and something had tripped her up. She saw that it was a large,  broken- up cardboard box and some other rubbish that she assumed must have come from the depot. She hadn’t noticed it when they slipped hand in hand into the doorway. And only now did she realise that sticking out from the debris were two slender legs.

 

‘Jesus,’ groaned Frank.

‘What is it?’ she asked. ‘Who is it?’

They stared down at the legs: at the shoes with a strap over the instep, the ankle socks and above them the bare,  blue- white skin. Nothing else was visible. Frank hesitated a second, then bent down and tugged at the cardboard.

‘What are you doing?’ she whispered.

He dragged the broken box out of the doorway, uncovering a young woman of no more than twenty, who lay on her side against the wall. It was immediately obvious to both of them that she was dead.

‘Oh my God!’ she gasped, clutching at Frank, who couldn’t take his eyes off the body.

 

What the hell?’ he muttered under his breath as he squatted down beside the girl. He took hold of her wrist but couldn’t feel a pulse, then put his fingers to her neck, though he knew it was futile. A shudder ran through him. He had not yet seen combat and was unused to dead bodies, but he could tell at once that nothing could be done for the young woman. He searched quickly for signs of how she had died, but couldn’t immediately see any.

 

‘What are we going to do?’

 

Frank rose to his feet, putting his arm round his Icelandic girl. He liked her fine and understood only too well why she had never invited him home to meet her family. A lot of doors were closed to soldiers.

 

Let’s get the hell out of here,’ he said, peering round to see if the coast was clear.

‘Shouldn’t we fetch the police?’ she asked. ‘Get police.’

 

He couldn’t spot anyone nearby. Sneaking a look round the corner, he saw that the sentries were still at their post behind the sandbags.

 

No police. No. Let’s go. Go!

Yes, police,’ she said, struggling to resist him.

 

Pulling her by the arm, he hustled her in the direction of Lindargata, then along the road towards the grassy mound of Arnarhóll. As he was quicker on his feet, he almost dragged her along, and their progress attracted the attention of an older woman who was walking down Lindargata. She was on her way to Hverfisgata, on a route that would take her past the National Theatre. They didn’t notice her, but she had seen them fleeing from a dark recess behind the building. The way these girls carried on, she thought. Why, she had a feeling she recognised this one, used to teach her at one time. Didn’t realise she was caught up in the Situation.

 

As the woman passed the theatre, she peered into the doorway from which the couple had emerged and spotted the rubbish from the depot. She paused, then caught sight of the legs. Moving closer, she saw the girl’s body, which somebody had obviously tried to conceal among the scraps of old cardboard and other refuse. What immediately drew her attention was how inadequately the girl was dressed for the time of year, in nothing but a thin slip of a dress.

 

The wind howled around the building.

 

The girl was beautiful, even in death, staring up with glazed eyes at the forbidding edifice above her, as if her spirit had departed into the elf castle evoked by the theatre walls.

To buy The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridason, click here

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