The old guy mumbles in his hospital bed.
‘What did you say?’ I ask, leaning closer.
‘Death says check mate.’
He’s not much more than skin hung on old bones. His skin is pale grey, stretched across bones that stick out as if all the meat has gone from them. His hair’s grey and sparse. But there’s life in his eyes. They’re blue-green like the deep sea. A pair of twinkling stars in a body close to death.
‘I’ve outsmarted death more than once,’ he continues. ‘And more than twice.’
His voice is faint, hardly more than a whisper.
‘Now my battle’s almost over and the doctors say I have at best a few days to tie up loose ends.’
Hákon has a drip in his arm that feeds him. A computer monitors his pulse that flickers at around fifty beats a minute. There’s an oxygen mask hanging down on his chest and occasionally he feebly pushes it up to his dry, parted lips.
I put my russet-brown briefcase on the floor in front of the monitor.
‘It’s been a marathon and it’s almost over. I’m not running away from death any longer. No point now.’
‘The nurse said you had a final wish. What’s that?’
‘The sin of neglect weighs heavy on me.’
‘Sin? Wouldn’t you be better off with a priest?’
‘Not that sort of sin,’ Hákon says.
A middle-aged nurse looks in when he starts to cough. She makes the old man comfortable in his bed. She moistens his dry lips, passes a damp cloth over his pale grey forehead.
‘There you go, Hákon. That’s better, isn’t it?’ she clucks, without expecting a reply. Then she’s gone back along the corridor. A merciful angel in human guise.
This place gives me the horrors. I swear to myself again that I’m not going to end my days here in death’s waiting room. I try to get this visit over as soon as I can.
‘So, what can I do for you?’ I ask.
‘Are you in a hurry as well?’
‘I’d like to ask you to clear the way for me to complete a task I never had the energy to finish,’ Hákon says.
‘Let’s hear it.’
‘I’ve always found injustice hard to bear,’ he continues, his voice weakening. ‘It’s been a hell of a burden sometimes because in this world there’s so much that’s unjust. There are evil people running everything, and I’m sad to say I was never any kind of a hero. I often felt bad over the injustices I witnessed, and mostly never did anything.’
I look away, glance around for a chair. I pull a white stool up to the bed, and sit.
The old man’s stable, for the time being.
‘What happened that one time?’ I ask with impatience.
‘Come closer,’ he whispers.
I’m on my feet, closer to the bed. I lean down to his face. Even though I feel sick at the foul smell of death that’s coming from him.
‘I had to do something,’ he breathes.
‘What did you do?’
‘Killed a man or two.’
I’m taken uncomfortably by surprise. I’m not sure I’ve heard him right.
‘You killed a man or two?’ I repeat.
‘Aye. There were two of them.’
I straighten my back. Looking into his blue-green eyes. They look perfectly clear.
‘Are you messing with me?’ I ask coldly.
This makes me shiver.
‘I don’t regret it in the least,’ he whispers. ‘I had to do it to save my child from a terrible fate.’
‘I’m asking you to find my child.’
‘What child are we talking about?’
‘She was about a year old.’
‘I don’t know what her name is now,’ Hákon whispers. ‘She was christened Ásthildur. She was given a new name when she was adopted.’
‘When was this?’
I quickly do the sum in my head.
‘So now she’d be getting on for forty?’
‘Ásthildur will be thirty-eight at the end of May. Her birthday’s the twenty-fifth of May.’
‘Why should I search out this woman?’
‘I want my child to know the truth.’
‘The truth about her parents. The truth about Hjördís and me.’
Hákon’s eyes flicker to one side, to the white table by the bed.
‘Open the drawer.’
I pull the handle on the white cabinet. There’s a brown cigar box held together with tough red tape.
‘Take the box with you.’
‘You have to find my child,’ he whispers. ‘You have to tell her the truth.’
Murder at the Residence by Stella Blómkvist (Translated by Quentin Bates) Corylus Books
It’s New Year and Iceland is still reeling from the effects of the financial crash when a notorious financier is found beaten to death after a high-profile reception at the President’s residence.The police are certain they have the killer – or do they? Determined to get to the truth, maverick lawyer Stella Blómkvist isn’t so sure. A stripper disappears from one of city's seediest nightspots, and nobody but Stella seems interested in finding her. A drug mule cooling his heels in a prison cell refuses to speak to anyone but Stella – although she’s never heard of him. An old man makes a deathbed confession and request for Stella to find the family he lost long ago. With a sharp tongue and a moral compass all of her own, Reykjavík lawyer Stella Blómkvist, with her taste for neat whiskey, a liking for easy money and a moral compass all of her own Stella Blómkvist has a talent for attracting trouble and she’s as at home in the corridors of power as in the dark corners of Reykjavík’s underworld.