Freedom tasted good. To Long Ómar Magnússon freedom
tasted of hot dogs with ketchup and onions and washed down
with a cold can of malt. He thrust out long legs beneath the
café’s plastic table and belched luxuriously. A woman with a
brood of children at the next table turned her head and
frowned, but he met her stare and she thought better of saying
“Where are we going now, Ommi?” asked the tubby girl at
“Town. Your place.”
“We can’t go there,” she wailed. “Mum’ll go mad if she sees
you. She knows you’re not out for another year.”
“Good behaviour, Selma. Tell her I’ve been a good boy and
now I need some fun.”
He drained the can of malt and stood up, shaking his legs.
“Come on. There’s stuff to do.”
Selma hauled herself to her feet and trotted towards the
door with Ommi towering beside her. As she squealed in surprise,
the woman with the brood of children again turned her
head in irritation, in time to see a broad hand stretched down
to cup a buttock, half under Selma’s short skirt. The woman
opened her mouth to speak, but before she had decided what
to say, the pair had gone, with Selma’s squeaks receding into
“Laufey!”Gunna called for the second time.
“Laufey Oddbjörg Ragnarsdóttir! School!”
She brushed her teeth hurriedly and examined herself critically
in the mirror. Time for a haircut, she thought. Good
teeth, strong nose, thick eyebrows . . . Cupping a hand to lift a
mouthful of water, she swirled and spat as Laufey appeared in
the mirror behind her.
“Finished, sweetheart. All yours.”
Laufey nodded blearily and said nothing.
Gunna switched on the radio and waited for the kettle to
boil while Channel 2’s morning talk show chattered in the
background. Laufey shambled back to her room and shut the
door behind her.
“If she’s gone back to bed. . .” Gunna muttered.
The kettle steamed itself to a climax and clicked off as
Gunna poured cereal into a bowl.
“Laufey!” she called again. The bedroom door opened and
Laufey appeared, dressed and holding her school bag. “You’ll
have to be a bit smarter getting up if you’re going to college in
Keflavík next year.”
“Reykjanesbær, Mum. You shouldn’t call it Keflavík any
“Keflagrad they call it at the station, there’s so many foreigners
“Mum, that’s a bit racist, isn’t it?”
Gunna sighed. “Maybe, but it’s too early in the morning to
argue about it. D’you want some breakfast? There’s cereal or
Suddenly the radio caught her attention and she turned the
volume up quickly.
“A prisoner who absconded recently from Kvíabryggja open
prison is still at large and is reported to have been seen in the
Reykjavík area. Police have issued a description of Ómar Magnússon,
thirty-six years old. He’s one-ninety-nine in height,
heavily built, with medium-length brown hair. He has heavily
tattooed forearms and was last seen dressed in jeans and a dark
jacket. People are warned not to approach him, but to report
any sighting to the police on . . .”
Gunna spun the volume dial down to zero.
“Friend of yours, Mum?” Laufey asked slyly.
“Yup, most definitely one of mine right now. Actually, he’s
“A criminal from Hvalvík? Really?”
“He left Hvalvík before we moved here. Come on, I’ve got
to go in ten minutes if you want a lift.”
Laufey yawned. “It’s all right. I’ll walk.”
“It’s raining,” Gunna warned.
“S’all right. I’m meeting Finnur and we’ll walk together.”
“Fair enough. I should be back at five, unless something
crops up. I’ll let you know.”
“I might not go to college in Keflavík,” Laufey said suddenly.
“What?” Gunna said, startled.
“I might go to Hafnarfjördur instead. Their psychology
department is better. If you’re driving every day now, you could
give me a lift in the mornings, couldn’t you?”
Gunna thought for a moment of how early they would need
to leave every morning to take Laufey to Hafnarfjördur and
still get herself to work on time.
“Psychology? I thought you wanted to do business studies?”
Laufey frowned. “Business studies is so 2007, just not cool
“We’ll see, sweetheart. We can talk it over tonight. See you
later,” Gunna said, sweeping up car keys and her mobile phone.
“Yah, Diddi. Remember this face, do you?”
A look of alarm spread rapidly across the young man’s heavy
features. “Hey, Ommi. Good to see you,” he said, his voice
hollow. “Didn’t know you were out yet.”
“I’m not. Not officially,” Ommi leered, dropping a long arm
heavily across Diddi’s shoulders and sauntering with him along
the deserted street.
“What? Did a runner? So it’s you they’re looking for, is it?
“Yeah. Where d’you live now, Diddi?”
“Just round there. Not far.”
“Yeah, Diddi, but where?”
Diddi quailed and blanched. “Just up the road.”
Ommi used the hand draped across Diddi’s shoulders to haul
him round in a half-circle, slamming him face-first against a
raw grey concrete wall, a fist planted squarely over his kidneys.
Diddi wanted to yell for help, but knowing that nothing would
be forthcoming in a neighbourhood where people avoided
involving themselves in other folk’s problems, he steeled himself
to stay quiet.
“What’s the matter, Ommi?” he warbled.
Ommi leaned close. “Diddi, you let us down. You owe.”
“Wha-what’s that, Ommi?”
With one hand Ommi gripped a handful of greasy hair,
swinging with the other to land a smack to the side of Diddi’s
head that raised a whimper and left his victim in a daze. Ommi
loved the satisfying smack of fist on flesh, the rush of adrenalin,
the flush of power. He’d missed this in prison.
“You know,” he repeated. “You owe. Soon you’ll have to pay
up. All debts will be honoured in full. Understood?”
Diddi nodded. Blood was starting to seep from his right ear
on to the shoulder of his denim jacket, and his head was
buzzing. “Yeah, I get it, whatever.”
“Hope so. You haven’t seen me. Don’t know where I am.”
“I didn’t do it, Ommi.”
“That’s what you say,” Ommi hissed, delivering a punch to
the kidneys that left Diddi unable to stand on his own feet.
The whole thing had taken no longer than a minute, and
already Ommi was nowhere to be seen. Cross-eyed with pain,
Diddi wondered if Long Ómar Magnússon had really appeared
and beaten him up in the broad light of morning. The ringing in
his ears and the taste of bile convinced him that it had been all
too real, as he threw up messily across the pavement. Across the
street, an overcoated gentleman in a peaked cap kept his eyes to
the front and his chin high, making sure that he saw nothing.
The address was only a few hundred metres from the
police station at Hverfisgata and Gunna decided to go on foot.
She strode through the encroaching darkness of the windy afternoon
with Helgi loping at her side. There was already a patrol
car and an ambulance outside with lights flashing as they arrived
at the stairwell of the block of modern flats and found a young
officer fending off interested people claiming to live there.
“Crime scene. No admittance,” he announced as they
“Serious Crime Unit,” Gunna growled, watching the young
man take a step back.
“Straight up. Fourth floor. The lift’s not working,” he said.
Helgi eyed the stairs. “Four flights?”
The young man nodded.
Helgi set off up the steps with Gunna taking them two at a
time behind him. As they reached the open door of the flat, he
was breathing hard.
“This must be it?” he gasped, battling to keep the fight for
air under control.
“You want to pack in smoking, Helgi,” Gunna admonished,
stepping past him.
Another young officer stood at the door, this time one who
recognized Gunna and stood aside to let them in.
“It’s not a pleasant sight,” he said dourly as Gunna snapped
on surgical gloves and handed a pair to Helgi. She bent to pull
covers over her shoes and again handed a second pair to Helgi
as he fiddled with the gloves.
In the corridor, a young woman in police uniform, her face
pale as the apartment’s ivory walls, stepped back from the
kitchen door to let Gunna and Helgi through to where a paramedic
hunched low with his back to them. Gunna went carefully
around him and Helgi stayed in the doorway.
“Are you all right, sweetheart?” he muttered to the young
policewoman, who merely nodded back, eyes fixed on the
“Dead, I suppose?” Gunna asked, crouching next to the man
in his green overalls as she surveyed the scene.
“Well there’s not much reason for us to be here, if that’s
what you mean,” he replied shortly.
The body of a woman lay on the chequered tiles, arms
splayed in front and legs crossed awkwardly. A mass of fair hair
spread around her and a pool of dark blood had seeped over the
“Touched anything?” Gunna asked the paramedic.
“Checked for pulse, that’s it. Nothing’s been moved.”
“Good man. Not a chance that she fell and banged her
head, I suppose?”
“Not a hope,” the paramedic volunteered cheerfully. “Blunt
instrument, this one.”
Gunna looked up at the faces in the doorway. “Helgi,
would you get everyone out and bring the technical boys in
here right away? This one definitely needs to be sealed up and
gone over before we do any snooping ourselves. Do we have
Helgi and the paramedic both stared back at her.
“You mean you don’t recognize her?” the paramedic asked.
Gunna took in the woman’s long, ample figure, dressed only
in tracksuit bottoms and a white singlet. The taut skin
emerging from the sleeveless top was tanned to the point she
would have described as being crispy.
“Something about her rings a bell, but I couldn’t say,” she
“That’s Svana Geirs, that is. Was,” the paramedic said with
a mournful shake of his head.
“Ah, in that case you’d better make sure we don’t get any
intrusion from the gentlemen of the press. And not a word, all
The paramedic stood up and stretched. Gunna looked at
the woman’s face, half obscured by waves of hair. The skin at
the corners of the wide-open green eyes looked stretched,
parchment-like, in a way Gunna felt would have been more
usual in someone past retirement age. The abundant blonde
hair was coarse and thick, and she wondered if its natural
colour had been seen in the last twenty years. She tried to
estimate Svana Geirs’ age and put it at around thirty-five.
“We’d better get ourselves out and leave the place to the
technical team. Are you off?” she asked the yawning paramedic.
“As soon as the doc gets here to declare mortality,” he
replied, stepping back and carefully not touching walls or
worktops. “So, is this your first celebrity?”
“Sort of. I had a city councillor once. Heart attack jogging
on the beach at Nautholtsv’k. Stone dead by the time we got
there. Shame about Svana, though,” he sighed. “I used to have
a poster of her on my wall when I was a student.”
Gunna and Helgi left the technical team swarming
over the flat and met on the first-floor landing to compare
notes. As many uniformed officers as could be found had
already been dispatched to scour the area for anything that
could be a murder weapon, and to start the long process of
knocking on doors.
“Tell me about Svana Geirs, then,” she demanded. “The
name’s familiar, but that’s it.”
“Well we’ll have to do a bit of digging. I suppose she was
one of those people who are famous for being famous, if you
know what I mean.”
“You mean she didn’t actually do anything?”
“She was on telly for a while with a fitness show on Channel
2. My first missus used to watch it, so that has to be five years
ago at least, doing these daft exercises in front of the box.
Never did her any good. The show was less about keeping fit
than Svana’s tits bouncing up and down in a tight top. That’s
about it. She sort of disappeared from view after that, but she
still pops up in the gossip mags.”
“All right. So who wants to knock off a failed TV presenter?
There was some real force behind it, and that was a single blow
as far as I could see,” Gunna said. She would dearly have liked
a cigarette, but a promise is a promise, and Laufey would know
the second she walked in that Mum had been cheating.
“Time of death?” Helgi asked.
“Don’t know. Miss Cruz will give us an accurate idea later.
It’s getting on for six now, so I reckon this afternoon sometime.
She was still warm when we got here.”
The police’s only forensic pathologist was on long-term
leave and the post had been covered by a series of replacements
recruited from overseas. The latest was a woman from Spain
with a double-barrelled surname who had replaced a tall
Irishman and had instantly been christened Miss Cruz by her
“Who raised the alarm?” Gunna continued.
“The cleaner. Found the lift wasn’t working, climbed the
stairs and saw the front door was open.”
“Open? So whoever did this was out pretty quick without
waiting to cover their tracks,” Gunna said. “Did you check the
“Jammed between the third and fourth floors. Been like that
for a week, the maintenance man says.”
“Top flat. Nobody comes up here without a reason. What
about next door?”
“Nobody home. No sign of life.” Helgi frowned and rolled
his shoulders as if they ached. “Well, whoever lives there is
going to get a bit of a shock when he comes home from work.
How do you want to organize this, Gunna?”
For a moment she wondered why he was asking her. Being
in charge of a new investigation unit was a change that would
take some getting used to after the years running the police
station in rural Hvalvík, where weeks could pass with nothing
more serious than a stolen bicycle. The offer of promotion and
the shift to the Reykjavík city force had come as a surprise, and
working as part of a larger set-up was already taking some getting
used to. Although she had lived there in the past and
knew the city intimately, Gunna felt vaguely uncomfortable in
Reykjavík. Much had changed during the years she had taken
it easy in her coastal backwater. The city’s pace of life had
accelerated steadily for years until the crisis that saw the banks
nationalized and the country plunged into a recession stopped
progress dead in its tracks.
She had moved into the Serious Crime Unit’s new office as
the protests outside Parliament were becoming steadily angrier,
watching her uniformed colleagues disconcerted at the public
fury they were on the receiving end of at demonstrations every
weekend, while many of them felt a secret sympathy with the
protesters and their impotent rage.
Gunna had flatly refused to move house from Hvalvík, and
the forty-minute drive was proving a challenge in the mornings,
but the journey home had become an oasis of valuable
“Gunna?” Helgi asked again.
“Æi, sorry. Thinking hard for a moment. If you try and
figure out what the lady’s movements were over the last couple
of days, I’ll tackle the next of kin.”
“Fine by me. I’m still looking for Long Ommi as a priority
as well, you know?”
“Fair enough. Eiríkur should be here in half an hour and
you’d better fill him in on all this so he can collect everything
that comes in from the knocking on doors. I’m sure the lad will
have some kind of theory he read in a book that’ll boil down
to ordinary common sense. Pathology will tell us what they
can, but I reckon we’ve seen it already. Blunt instrument to the
head, single blow aimed to kill.”
“Any ideas?” Helgi asked hopefully.
“I was about to ask you that,” Gunna sighed. “On the surface,
it looks straightforward enough. When someone’s killed
like this, it’s either a junkie who doesn’t know what he’s doing,
or it’s money or anger. Svana Geirs must have pissed someone
off, or else she’d ripped someone off.”
“Certainly a possibility. You’d better find out who she was
shagging, in that case. I can’t imagine she lived like a nun. It’d
be handy to know what she did for a living. I doubt somehow
that a flat like this comes cheap.”
“I’ll see what I can dig out by the morning. Be in early, will
you?” Helgi asked.
“Nope. Bjössi in Keflavík asked me to stop by the hospital
there and look in on someone in the morning, a friend of your
chum Long Ommi, as it happens.”
“All right. Give him my regards, will you? Bjössi, that is, not
anyone who might be a friend of Long Ommi’s.”
Excerpted from Cold Comfort by Quentin Bates. Copyright © 2012 by Quentin Bates. Excerpted by permission of Soho Crime, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.