Read Last Rituals Online

Authors: Bernard Scudder

Last Rituals

BOOK: Last Rituals




Last Rituals
An Icelandic Novel of Secret Symbols, Medieval Witchcraft, and Modern Murder
Yrsa Sigurdardóttir
Translated from the Icelandic by
Bernard Scudder







This book is dedicated to my dear Óli.
Special thanks to Harald Schmitt,
who lent me his name—
and allowed me to kill him.



The head caretaker, Tryggvi, stood by the coffeemaker. The water…
Thóra Gudmundsdóttir brushed a stray Cheerio from her trousers and…
Thóra looked at the clock and put down the documents…
Thóra was not usually afraid of thieves, but on her…
There turned out to be five sheets of paper in…
Thóra reached the day care on time. She met the…
Finding a parking space at the national hospital was definitely…
There were few people at the Intercultural Center. Thóra had…
Gunnar Gestvík, head of the department of history at the…
Thóra spun around slowly on the shiny parquet floor of…
Laura Amaming looked at her watch. Fortunately it was only…
Thóra was sitting at Harald Guntlieb's desk, browsing through the…
The effects of divorce are not all positive. Thóra had…
Thóra was sitting at her computer in her office when…
"Don't be a jerk." Marta Mist pursed her lips and…
"Nothing," said Thóra, looking up in frustration from her computer…
Thóra was holding a small tan leather wallet that she…
"How do you do? My name's Gunnar Gestvík, head of…
Thóra straightened up and leaned back in her chair. She…
"Quick, quick," Matthew said. "Answer while he's still at his…
Thóra had read well into the night and she woke…
Thóra had not seen so much bad posture in one…
Matthew showed the students to the door. Meanwhile, Thóra and…
Dóri was enormously relieved as he hurried away from the…
The good weather from the previous evening seemed likely to…
The stately approach to the main building of the University…
The journey to Rangá went like a dream. The weather…
Thóra woke up with her head throbbing as if her…
Thóra was determined not to cancel the dinner invitation. As…
The young woman bore no resemblance to her mother, but…
Thóra felt uncomfortable sitting at the police station. She was…
Thóra regarded Halldór silently. He was sitting directly opposite her…
Thóra sat drumming on the edge of her desk with…
Matthew looked at Thóra and shook his head. They were…
Amelia Guntlieb stared at the tabletop, silent as the grave.



OCTOBER 31, 2005

The head caretaker, Tryggvi, stood by the coffeemaker. The water dripping through the machine was the only sound in the empty building, which housed the university's history department. Soon the bustling cleaners would arrive, chatting and giggling, dragging their carts and vacuums out of the housekeeping room. The caretaker reveled in the silence and the aroma of brewing coffee. He had been employed by the university for over thirty years and had seen his share of changes, not the least of which was the complete turnaround in the nationality of the cleaners who worked under his supervision. When he started they had all been Icelandic and understood his every word; now his interactions with his subordinates consisted of hand gestures and loudly spoken one-word orders. The women were all recent arrivals from Southeast Asia, except for one woman of African descent. Until the faculty members and students arrived for the day, he might as well have been working in Bangkok.



Taking his steaming cup, Tryggvi walked to the window. He lifted the blinds and looked out, taking an appreciative sip of the strong brew. The campus was covered with snow. The temperature was unusually low, causing the white blanket to shimmer as if someone had strewn glitter over the ground during the night. The muffling effect of the snow added to the sense of utter stillness. Tryggvi was reminded of the upcoming Christmas season and felt oddly content.



He watched as a car entered the parking lot.
So much for my Christmas spirit,
he thought. The car was carefully maneuvered into an empty space, unusual considering there were no other vehicles present and no obvious reason to take such care. Tryggvi looked on as the driver emerged from the car and shut the door. Through the closed window he heard the indistinct beep of a remote control engaging the locks of the vehicle. The man walked toward the building.



Tryggvi dropped the blinds and finished his coffee. From within the building he heard the faculty entrance door open as the driver came inside. Of all the staff, professors, lecturers, secretaries, and others whom Tryggvi had to deal with, this man Gunnar was by far the most unpleasant. He was uptight, constantly complained about the janitorial services, and had a superior air about him that always made Tryggvi feel small and uncomfortable. At the beginning of the term the man had accused the cleaning women of stealing a paper he had written about Irish monks in Iceland before the Viking settlement. Luckily the article had resurfaced and the issue had died down. Ever since, Tryggvi did not merely dislike him; he detested him. Why would Asian cleaning women who couldn't even read their own names in Icelandic be tempted to steal some highbrow article about Irish monks? In his eyes this was a cheap attack on people who were unable to defend themselves.



Tryggvi was appalled when Gunnar was appointed head of department. He had already spoken to Tryggvi about various improvements that he expected, one of which was that the cleaning women were to conduct their work in silence. Tryggvi had wanted to tell him that their chatter did not disturb anyone, as the bulk of their work was carried out either before or after anyone else was in the building. Except for Gunnar, of course. Why the man had to show up every morning before the buses even began to run was beyond Tryggvi.



A flutter of voices marked the women's arrival. They gathered in the little coffee room and said their accented hellos, followed by the usual giggling. Tryggvi could not help but smile. Then through their noisy bustle he heard a strange sound from within the building. It was a guttural moan, soft at first but growing louder. Tryggvi shushed the women and listened. The cleaners picked up on the sound, their eyes widening. Two of them made the sign of the cross. Tryggvi put down his coffee and hurried out of the lounge with the women in hot pursuit.



In the corridor, Tryggvi listened as the wailing became a scream. He could not distinguish whether the voice was male or female; he was not even sure it was human. Could an animal have gotten into the building and been injured somehow? The primal howl was suddenly joined by the sound of something falling over and breaking. Tryggvi quickened his pace down the corridor. The sounds seemed to come from the upper story. He took the stairs two at a time. The women were still following, and to Tryggvi's annoyance they now began to scream as well.



The staircase took him to the floor housing the department offices. Despite the wailing from behind him, Tryggvi could tell that the scream definitely came from this level. He broke into a run, followed closely by the cleaners. He opened the fire door to the office corridor and stopped so abruptly that the bevy of howling women crashed into him.



It was not the overturned bookcase or the frantic head of department, crawling on all fours over the books that had spilled across the corridor, that held Tryggvi mesmerized. It was the body lying faceup farther down the hallway, protruding from the alcove where the floor's printer was housed. Tryggvi felt his stomach lurch. What in God's name were those patches on its eyes? And the hands, what was wrong with the hands? The women peeked past Tryggvi and their screams intensified. He felt them pulling anxiously at his shirt, which came untucked. He tried to twist his body free from their grip, but to no avail. The head of department raised his hands in a plea for help, desperate to escape from the repulsive scene behind him. Tryggvi braced himself, suppressing the urge to grab the women and run. He took a step forward and the women let out another chorus of piercing screams. They tried to pull him back but he managed to shake them off. He approached the sobbing Gunnar.



He could make no sense of the mutterings coming from the professor's drooling mouth. On a hunch Tryggvi assumed that the body—it had to be a body, nothing living could look like that—had fallen onto Gunnar when he opened the door of the printer alcove. Against his will he gazed down at the appalling human remains. The black patches on the eyes were not patches at all. Tryggvi's stomach clenched.
God help us all,
he thought. The knot in his stomach tightened, and Tryggvi threw up.




DECEMBER 6, 2005

Thóra Gudmundsdóttir brushed a stray Cheerio from her trousers and quickly tidied herself before entering the lawyers' office. Not so bad. The morning's challenges of getting her six-year-old daughter and sixteen-year-old son to school on time were over. Recently, Thóra's daughter had started refusing to wear pink, which would not have been a problem if her clothes had not been more or less all in that color. Her son, on the other hand, would gladly have worn the same tattered clothes year in and year out provided there was a skull and crossbones on them somewhere. His great achievement was to wake up in the morning in the first place. Thóra sighed at the thought. It was not easy bringing up two children alone. Then again, it hadn't been easy while she was still married either. The only difference then was that, coupled with the morning chores, she and her husband had constantly bickered. The thought that this was a thing of the past cheered her up, and a smile crept over her lips as she opened the door.



"Good morning," she chimed.



Instead of returning her greeting, the secretary grimaced. She did not look up from her computer screen or stop thumping at the mouse.
As much fun as ever,
Thóra thought. Deep down inside she never stopped cursing their secretarial problems. They had doubtless cost their firm business. Thóra could not think of one client who had not complained about the girl. She was not only rude but also exceptionally unattractive. It was not being in the super-heavyweight bracket that was the big issue, but her general carelessness about her appearance. Plus, she was invariably angry at everything and everyone. And, to top things off, her parents had named her Bella. If only she would quit on her own initiative. She seemed far from happy at the firm and showed no signs of improving. Not that Thóra could imagine any job that would cheer her up. The trouble was, it was impossible to sack her.



When Thóra and her business partner, the older and more experienced Bragi, teamed up to open a legal firm together, they were so taken with the premises that they let the landlord add a proviso to the rental agreement: the firm would employ his daughter as a secretary. In their defense, they had no way of knowing what they were getting themselves into. The girl had a glowing recommendation from the estate agents who had rented there before them. Now, however, Thóra was convinced that the previous tenants had moved from the ideal location on Skólavördustígur solely to rid themselves of the secretary from hell. They were surely still howling with laughter at how gullible Thóra and Bragi had been about those references. Thóra was equally convinced that if they took the matter to court they could have the proviso overturned on the grounds that the references were dubious. But that would cost the firm the small reputation Thóra and Bragi had built up so far. Who would consult a legal firm that specializes in contractual law yet messes up its own contracts? And even if they could get rid of Bella, it was not as if good secretaries were lining up at the door.
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