Read an Excerpt
The Ice Swimmer
Kjell Ola Dahl
Oslo. Thursday, 10th December
Nina threads her way through the stream of people pouring up the steps at Egertorget Metro Station. She continues along Karl Johans gate, where the heating cables under the flagstones keep the pavement free of snow. She speeds up. The traffic lights change to red, but Nina doesn't stop. She glances over her shoulder and sets off at a run. The exhaust fumes spreading across the open tarmac reflect the lights of the morning rush-hour cars and creep up their bodywork. In shop windows plastic Christmas pixies in woollen jumpers and coarse fabric trousers stand and laugh. Others wear frozen smiles and wave stiff arms. Nina races past, a shadow on the glass.
Nina runs down the steps of Jernbanetorget Metro Station.
A train roars in and screeches to a halt. The doors open. Passengers disgorge onto the platform.
Nina hesitates. Waits. Looks around. The doors close. At the last second she makes a lunge. A man does the same into the carriage behind.
The train sets off. The temperature inside is warmer, but Nina is frozen. The carriage jerks and lurches around the bends. Passengers cling to the poles that connect the floor to the ceiling. Nina sits facing backwards. Her eyes flit across the other people, all squeezed close together, some staring at the ceiling, some with their noses in a book or a newspaper. Nina continues to search. And makes eye contact with her pursuer.
He is sitting right at the other end and raises his hand in a wave.
Nina jumps up. She works her way forwards. The train is packed and she hides behind backs as she moves towards the door. The train stops at Grønland.
The doors open.
Nina waits and gets off just as the doors close.
The train pulls away.
Nina is left standing on the platform. She doesn't move, as though afraid to look, afraid to know the result of her sudden manoeuvre. Finally she turns. She sees her pursuer standing a few metres away.
They stare into each other's eyes for several long, mute seconds. Nina is on the point of saying something. The words are drowned by the noise of another train braking and coming to a halt alongside the platform. The man can read her fear.
The doors open, passengers spew out and a few get on.
The two of them are motionless. Only Nina's eyes roam.
The doors close.
Nina flings herself in.
In some miraculous way the pursuer manages to follow suit before the doors are closed.
The train moves off. Nina advances through the carriage, pushing people aside. She is at the front now. Soon she won't be able to go any further. Slowly she turns and meets her pursuer's eyes. She is standing like this when the train arrives in the next station. The doors open. Nina waits. The doors are about to close.
Nina makes a lunge at the last instant.
Nina walks slowly, glancing to each side.
As the train picks up speed, she looks around. Sees only passengers, no sign of her pursuer. The crowd on the platform is thinning.
Then she sees him. She has walked past him. The man starts walking. Towards her.
Nina backs away, down the platform. They are alone now. Nina is forced against the wall. But there is a gap in the wall.
She spins round and jumps down onto the tracks. She runs into the tunnel. Soon she has merged into the blackness.
The lowest strip of sky formed a purplish line above the horizon: a red incision in a frieze of grey hues. Steam rose off the water in the harbour. Twenty-four degrees below zero outside. In a few days the harbour would freeze over.
Lena Stigersand braked for the traffic lights in Kontraskjæret. The mere thought of minus twenty-four made her shiver.
'Is that what you keep in here?' Emil Yttergjerde asked. He was bent over in the passenger seat, rummaging through the glove compartment for a CD. He held up an unopened packet of o.b. tampons.
'You won't find it in there,' she said. 'It's probably in another cover. I can't keep them tidy when I'm driving.'
'Another cover? We're talking Tom Waits here,' Emil said. 'You don't treat Tom Waits like that.' He continued to search through the glove compartment. The lights changed to green and Lena pushed the gearstick into first.
'What's this?' Emil asked as she changed back down, turned and crossed the tram tracks.
Lena was startled. 'Put it back,' she said quickly. 'It's a pepper spray.'
'It's dangerous, you know,' Emil said.
'That's why you should put it back!'
Lena steered towards the City Hall Quay, where a patrol car and a yellow ambulance were parked.
Lena stopped and pulled the handbrake. Took the spray out of Emil's hand. 'Where's the lid?'
'It wasn't on.'
'Give me the lid.'
'I'm telling you the truth. It wasn't on.'
Lena threw down the spray, opened the door and got out. Her body hit the cold; it was like a solid wall. The snow creaked with every step as she made her way towards the two uniformed officers who were putting up barriers and securing cordons. Two other figures were operating a yellow crane on the edge of the quay.
She stepped over the cordon, walked past the stone building on the pier and went to the edge. The engine of the winch purred. A man in a diving suit stood on a life raft attaching a strap under the arms of a lifeless man floating in the icy water.
One of the paramedics tapped Lena on the shoulder. 'I've been given to understand you're in charge here.'
'He's dead and has been for quite a while. There's nothing we can do, so we're off.'
She nodded again. 'OK.'
The ambulance started up and drove away.
The winch raised the body from the water. The stiff corpse banged against the quayside and the crane driver cursed.
A tram glided away from the Vestbane stop and was soon lost behind the pointed roofs of the stalls in the Christmas market, which looked like a festively illuminated village in front of the City Hall.
The crane driver cursed again. The dead man rose higher and rotated in the air. The lapels of his jacket hung like heavy pennants. Water dripped and immediately froze into icicles on his clothes. The crane driver shouted for someone to grab the body. Hands stretched into the air, be-gloved and be-mittened. They couldn't reach. The body was too high.
'Down, down, down,' Lena whispered to the driver.
The body was lowered to the ground. Emil Yttergjerde grabbed the strap and turned the body onto its back. The water on the dead man's face froze to ice as they watched. A glassy face belonging to a young man with short, fair hair. Lena knelt down and examined the man's hands. No wedding ring, but an expensive watch on his left wrist: a Tissot Chronograph model that was still ticking. It was nine o'clock.
The sound of a choir singing far away could be heard, coming in waves through the grey light. Lena turned to look. Behind the fences, between the Christmas-market stalls, she caught a glimpse of a group of nuns singing a hymn for the first arrivals. Dressed in black. Like crows.
A knot of spectators had assembled behind the police cordon. Lightning flashed.
'Suit and smart shoes in minus twenty-five,' Emil mumbled, and added, as if to explain: 'Heading home after a Christmas dinner, rat-arsed, and then he went to the harbour edge for a piss.'
Lena knelt down, searched the wet pockets and found a bunch of keys. In the inside pocket of the jacket, a wallet.
She opened the stiff leather. Had to take off her gloves. Blew on her fingers and studied the bank card: the owner's name was Svei-nung Adeler. The date of birth showed he was thirty-one years old. The wallet also contained a prescription for cortisone cream and a wad of notes, which as yet hadn't frozen into a block. She counted two thousand, two hundred kroner.
The dead man was tall, slim and well proportioned. Two years younger than me, Lena reflected. This is a guy who, yesterday, could have been sitting on the same bus as me or sweating profusely in the same gym, on a bike.
Just unutterably sad, she thought, with a shiver. The nuns had finally stopped singing. It had become lighter, a December grey. The Nesodden ferry clanked to a halt a hundred metres away. A flock of black, winter-clad passengers hurried out and dispersed towards Vika-terrassen and the National Theatre.
The only people interested in the scene where she stood were the clutch of reporters behind the cordon.
* * *
By the time the mortuary vehicle started up and took the deceased man to the Pathology Institute, two SOC officers had secured the pier. Lena and Emil strolled back to the car.
Reaching the cordon where the press were waiting, Lena took a deep breath and told them: 'We don't know any more than what you've seen. A man, ethnically Norwegian. An accident we presume occurred at some time during the night. We'll establish the facts and send a press report when we know more.'
She hurried past the group.
A hand grabbed her arm.
The man holding onto her was around forty with long, brown, wavy hair, a becoming unshaven face, and grey eyes that sought hers above a smile that revealed a little gap between his front teeth.
'A photo?' He flourished a camera. His eyes twinkled and she smiled back.
'No, thank you,' she said, opening the car door. She got in.
She took the business card he handed her and pulled the door to.
Emil was behind the wheel. The press reporters were moving away. She watched the figure walking alone across the square, knotting his scarf and pulling a cap over his head. She read his card: Steffen Gjerstad, journalist.
'I know that guy a bit,' Emil said. 'That is to say, my girl does. Monica. She's on the reception desk at Dagens Næringsliv. He works there.'
'Nice bum,' Lena said.
'Lena,' Emil grinned, and shook his head, smiling. He started the car and crunched it into first.
Axel Rise was a tall, lean guy with long hair, which he kept combing back with two fingers as he tried to secure it behind his ears. The hair had to be a relic of twenty years before, when Axel was a motorbike cop, rode a big BMW and dazzled women with his hippy ways. Now he maintained the style with a short leather jacket. But his hair had thinned and greyed over the years.
'It's just incredible,' Rise said in his Bergen dialect. 'One of the Metro drivers sees someone running down the tracks in the tunnel. He sounds the alarm. The ops room in Tøyen brings all the traffic to a halt and sends staff in to check. They trawl through without finding a single living soul – they claim. Then the trains resume service. The Grorud train's standing at the Grønland stop. It only manages two hundred metres. Guess what happens. This woman's behind one of the pillars between the tracks. And she throws herself in front.'
Gunnarstranda's biro died. He looked up. Straight at Rise. Rise appeared to be waiting for some comment. Gunnarstranda tried the biro again. No luck. 'Have you got something to write with?' he asked.
Rise took a silver Ballograf from the breast pocket of his biker jacket.
'The woman was cut to pieces. You could've put all of her into an IKEA bag,' Rise said. 'If it hadn't been such a messy business. Twenty minutes of high-pressure hosing in winter temperatures is hell for everyone.'
Gunnarstranda wasn't interested in Rise's Metro job. But his chuntering was making him lose concentration. He had half filled in the football pools coupon. But where was he in his system?
Emil Yttergjerde came through the door and sat down beside Gunnarstranda.
'Quite a start to the day,' Rise said.
'What's he blathering on about?' Yttergjerde whispered in Gunnarstranda's ear.
Gunnarstranda gave up on the pools. He pushed the Ballograf pen back and collected his coupons together.
'What was that, Rise?'
'A woman threw herself in front of a train,' Axel Rise said. 'It's tragic, of course, and we know suicide victims are resourceful. But how was it possible? The Metro people claim they checked the tunnel but didn't find her. Standing in front of the train, I could see there were lots of places to hide. Niches in the wall with locked gates in front. But they can be opened.'
'I feel ill every time I hear about a suicide,' Yttergjerde said.
'I just can't understand how it's even possible,' Rise intoned again. 'The staff searching the tunnel must know it pays to search properly. Traffic's held up for much longer after a suicide.'
'I'm sure they do,' Gunnarstranda said drily. He didn't like hearing complaints about other people's work. It reminded him of gossip. The cackle around the village pump.
'Was she young?' Yttergjerde asked.
Rise shrugged. 'No teeth, a syringe and the whole kit and caboodle in her pocket – junkie. Plata type. If only she knew the trouble she's caused. Why didn't she kill herself in Plata? Couldn't she have done it with a shot of heroin?'
'Junkie?' Yttergjerde said. 'Anyone we know?'
Rise shrugged again. 'Her name's Nina Stenshagen.'
Yttergjerde shook his head.
'How is it possible?' Rise rumbled on again. 'To search a tunnel with torches and the lights on and not find ...?'
Gunnarstranda, who had decided to do the pools somewhere else, wasn't listening any more. The door closed with a bang behind him.
Lena found a gap between two 1.5 metre-high piles of cleared snow in Vogts gate. This was Lena's speciality, parking in tight spots. She signalled and drove past the car in front, ignored the queue braking behind her, reversed straight into the gap, twisted the wheel hard over and pulled the handbrake. The car slid into position as though the car and the gap were made for each other. Lena got out and checked her handiwork before strolling off to the entrance of the apartment block. The bells on the wall showed that Sveinung Adeler lived on the second floor. Could the dead man have a partner? It didn't seem to be the case. There was just one name on the bell tab.
Lena pressed and waited as she sorted the keys on the ring she had found in his pocket.
Not a sound from the intercom by the bells. No buzz of the lock.
She pressed the button twice more, then opened the door with a key. She found the name S. Adeler on one of the post boxes attached to the wall. Inserted the correct key in the lock and opened the box. Advertising. No letters. She locked the post box and went up the stairs.
There was only his name on the door. Presumably he had lived alone. She fumbled with the security lock. She had to turn it three times before the door to the flat opened.
She stood in the hall and breathed in the atmosphere. The flat was utterly silent apart from a low buzz from a fridge. Lena sniffed and smelt a faint scent of green soap.
To the left a sliding door was open. It led to a bedroom. A white double bed dominated the room. It was made and tidy. On the wall there was a poster of Rihanna wearing a full white bodysuit. She might just as well have allowed herself to be photographed nude. Lena continued into the living room. One wall was almost completely covered with the spines of DVDs. A large flatscreen filled another wall. Surround sound. She looked at the film titles. A lot of action movies. She recognised a few: Pulp Fiction, Fargo, films with Jason Bourne. Also: Hong Kong films and American B films with Travolta and Cage. On the lowest shelf there were a couple of films with the Playboy bunny logo. This was obviously a single man's room. On the table there were two empty bottles of Mexican beer – Corona. No ashtrays.
In a corner there was a kitchenette. A sheet of paper on the worktop. A neatly written note: 'Need more washing powder and Jif'.
The note was signed. 'Pamina'. Probably a home help. This Pamina might have just been in to clean. There were no pans of leftovers on the stove.
Lena opened the fridge. The remaining four bottles of a six-pack were on the top shelf. Otherwise there were two tomatoes, a Fjordland ready meal, a carton of apple juice and an unopened packet of two chicken filets. This fridge belonged to someone who lived alone.
She went back to the hall. Opened a cupboard. Piles of trainers and ski sticks. Sveinung Adeler liked to stay fit.
The mirror cabinet in the bathroom was overflowing. An electric toothbrush and a shaver between bottles of fancy after-shave and deodorants: Dolce & Gabbana, Armani, Hugo Boss, Tommy Hilfiger. There were almost more bottles than Lena had at home.
She turned to the laundry basket. It was stuffed full: jeans, training kit, underwear.
This flat didn't tell her much. No calendar, not even a desk. No computer. Why not? Had he had a laptop with him last night? In which case it would lie in the mud at the bottom of Oslo harbour until archaeologists scoured through it at some point in the future.
Lena needed some personal information. She had to contact the relatives. She went through the bedroom again. No desk, no files, nothing.
She left the flat. Sealed the door with police tape. Went downstairs and onto the street. The cold gnawed at her nose.
Vanity and winter weather did not go together, Lena thought, as she stalked off in her long, thick puffa jacket, tying the cord of her fur hat under her chin. She felt like a penguin and probably looked like one too, but it didn't matter. When the cold bit, health came before beauty. The people on the uncleared pavement were a study of hats, long coats and solid winter boots – also the man a few metres ahead of her. Reefer jacket and knitted beanie. Mittens.