Snorri cackled and sucked at his teeth. The wind blasted across the lake, cutting the snow into sharp ridges. He hurled instructions at me as if he were whipping a husky, and I spun the wheel according to Snorri’s command. Our tires rolled off the beach onto the thick ice cap that froze over the lake in Winter, clods of snow drumming the floorboard from underneath, like the rapping of the dead. Somewhere in the endless white lay our destination.
“I’m a records clerk,” I said.
“A noble profession.”
“I shelve file folders and fuss with index cards. I’m not trained as a crime scene technician.”
“I’ll bet the Constable doesn’t get out of his vehicle,”
Snorri laughed, no longer having to be discrete. Despite having left the force more than a year before, he came around the stationhouse to harvest gossip and otherwise pierce the tedium of his days. Today, he had come to us with the news. With a grunt of satisfaction, Snorri shot an index finger under my nose. “Over there.”
Three precinct cars tailed us in caravan style, a procession blind to its destination and deaf to the admonishing wind. A knot of veins flared between Snorri’s eyes. We had found the hillock of snow Snorri wanted. It was the sole hillock of snow on the frozen lake, and he had scraped it up himself, a bier to mark the spot. His face twisted with exhilaration.
The remaining vehicles slid into place, a break against the gusts. Engines were cut, with more boots hitting the ice. Flipping the door handles, we stepped out and gathered in a ring. I looked around, first at Snorri and then at Bergthora, the sole remaining sergeant detective in our precinct. She was a wary creature whose penchant for vigilance had by slow degrees surrendered to grievance, just as her husky frame had given over to butter. The circle was completed by Patrolman Jerker, whose crisp azure uniform seemed ridiculously cheery.
Snorri muttered, “You see, what I said is true.”
Yes, we finally saw what we had come to see. I gazed down at the exploding nova of hair through the window of ice at our feet. The girl seemed to float in a cauldron of glass. She had been there for a while, days at least - her eyes rolled back, her arms spread in pirouette beneath the translucent dome, a distorted shadow in the watery darkness.
“Always a female,” said Bergthora.
I am a musician. I work as a records clerk at the police station for the paycheck. Fulaflugahål is a modest harbor city on Lake Munch that insists on its image as a dour commercial town, a solemnity underwritten by the beautiful dark secret of Scandinavian contentment. The unwritten code: conform, conform. Do not stick out, do not be different. Do not behave as if you have something unusual about you.
The day job suits me. By nature, I am an observer, a listener, absorbing all. When I am not toting sheaves of paper for cases or denying access to miscreants, I work on my music. At night, keyboards, band rehearsal. During the day, I get my musical fix while doing something else. I might give the impression of being unusually fidgety, but what I’m really doing is ensuring I understand. I work on a tricky spot in a song and run my hands over an imaginary keyboard as fast as I can - on the dashboard, on a lintel, on my thigh. Insanely fast. Hammering every single note. If I can do that, I’ll completely own the sound later.
Snorri picked at his eyebrows, then applied his blunt intellect like a pair of industrial tongs. “Lots of people walk out on this ice, hiking, or skiing, or chasing a pet, or drunk. Once every few years, some poor idiot breaks through.” The little man’s eyes flitted over the rim of the frozen grave. After a considerable pause, he remarked: “But this girl, uh, she didn’t just break through.”
A perfunctory hup echoed through the group, our signal for agreement. Snorri continued examining the scene as if he was parting the bones of a herring. He noted the thinness of the ice cap trapping her and that the surrounding ice was clear, with stress fractures that shot through the surface like the tails of comets. The surrounding sheet was the kind that takes months for nature to build, yet the mirror-smooth surface directly over her was less than a few centimeters thick. The new ice was recent and terribly precise.
Snorri tapped his nose. “Made for the purpose.”
Jerker nodded tentatively. “I know what to call it—a lid.”
Snorri beamed. “Exactly, it is a lid.” Flushed with overconfidence, however, he pushed his logic too far, supposing this or that, extrapolating any tenuous connection, nattering on and excluding only what his spirit impelled him to exclude. Finally, he arrived at a Zen-like impossibility: Someone had welded the ice cap in place.
“Welded?” Bergthora snorted.
“Welded,” Snorri insisted.
Jerker said, “I have heard of carving ice, but not welding ice.”
Bergthora rolled her eyes at the circus. “Welded with what?”
“A culinary torch.”
Bergthora wheeled on Snorri, a wave of flesh rolling across her gut. “This isn’t wagering on a Sunday match. You are beyond your depth, Sturlusson.”
“I have been known to beat the odds.”
“What are you even doing here? You were forced to retire.”
Snorri’s squint at me was as bitter as the one I received from him the morning the file had landed on the desk of the director-general for internal affairs. “Everything was fine for forty-five years until someone toted the wrong file from the archives.”
Bergthora interrupted him. “Back in the car, Sturlusson.”
Snorri planted his heels and said, “I found the body.” Bergthora hitched her thumbs into her belt. A standoff. Jerker used the backs of his trouser calves to polish his boots. I studied the lace of fractures in the ice.
Meanwhile, Bergthora tugged a thread on her sleeve and hinted she might lodge a complaint with the justice ministry. Recalcitrance hung heavy on the moment. Snorri spat at a snowbank.
With our alternatives rapidly diminishing, the rest of us turned practical. We documented, made shaky videos, tapped notes into our electronic devices. Jerker took countless photos with great care and paced off the perimeter distance. Bergthora broke the stalemate to produce a thermos of black coffee, dispensing it in paper cups.
Having otherwise wordlessly dispatched of our duties, we gathered again around the dead girl. Snorri said we needed a way to extract the body. Bergthora declared a chainsaw the best tool. A rectangular swathe would be cut around the corpse, a process she had read about in an article on corpse recovery. Or was it a circular swathe? She could not remember. While she thought about it, she ordered Jerker to fetch equipment from the vehicles.
Jerker trudged off, shoulders sinking. Hefting surely was the lowest job on an investigation. I was surprised Bergthora had not assigned it to me.
Grumbling with discontent, Bergthora then began to second-guess her own decision. She muttered that a chainsaw would disturb evidence and, even so, a rookie knew the cut should be rectangular. Snorri countered with a long-discredited theory that the body could remain as it was until the spring thaw. Bergthora retorted that vinyl fishnets were superior in every way for retrieving corpses from water. Dogmas mounted, spread, ossified.
Jerker returned empty handed. “Fine preparations here. The car boots are empty. No chainsaw or any other equipment to fetch a body from the lake.”
Bergthora smiled sharply. Her all-purpose pessimism was vindicated. Snorri and Jerker debated who should go back to the Fulaflugahål station. The dispute led to accusations. Meanwhile, the wind whipped the snow into miniature whirlwinds that blasted themselves back into powder against the car doors. We huddled and quarreled, oblivious to the nightmare beneath our feet.
As predicted, the Constable had remained in his car, engine cut, sheltered from the wind while consulting his ancient manual on investigative science. I had seen the book open on his desk; it was almost a century old, filled with dense, hand-wrought diagrams and complex tables, and with guidance surely obsolete.
I had seen the Constable around the precinct but did not know him well. His inky wool suit, cuff-linked shirts, cravats and wingtips, the heavy cloak and ever-present manual, were relics of long-gone salad days and fodder for pub hour mockery.
The Constable stepped from his car onto the lake, one exploratory foot after the other. He wore heavy-rimmed glasses, the left lens blackened to disguise an old wound that had taken his sight in that eye. At some angles, the black disk seemed to absorb all light falling upon it; at others, it glinted like a scythe of obsidian.
I didn’t know the Constable, but he knew me. He marched straight toward me. “You are Kolbitter?”
It had been the Constable himself who had insisted I accompany the squad. I was baffled when I saw the request. And though I dared not confess it, for fear of insolence, I had better things to do with my life than play at cops and robbers.
“Yes,” I said.
“Jerker informed me they found no tools. You loaded the vehicles?”
“You mean today?”
He cut me off. Wiry gray hair jutted in sprigs around his ears. I slipped my hands into my parka, wary. My fingers worked at a song.
“Check the glove box of your vehicle for the aerosol snow wax, Kolbitter.”
I fetched the can. Bending and marking the icy grave with waxen x’s and o’s, the Constable hunched over his work as a shaman at his symbols. He seemed to detect things the rest of us could not as he crouched in the wind, cloak fluttering.
“It’s too stupid. Terrible. Hopeless.” His lips paled with pressure. Then, the Constable stooped and lifted something from the ice. He handed me a shaggy brown clot of hair.
“Human hair?” I asked.
“No,” he blasted back. “Can you not tell human hair from animal hair, boy?”
I glanced at Snorri, then back at the Constable.
“I’m just a records clerk, sir.”
The Constable went back to spraying, wandering the ribs of the shoreline, an ever-lengthening trail of forensic wax dropping like spoor along his path. I looked back down on the frozen cloud of hair about the victim, bewildered, inexplicably embarrassed, listening to the crepitating ice.
Snorri shattered the moment with a plea.
“Constable, the sun is well past overhead. Our shift is almost over.”
Bergthora laughed with a sputter. “You don’t have a shift, Sturlusson; you don’t work anymore.”
The clouds had dropped and thickened. The sun was lost in grey. I did not want to be there; my heart was elsewhere. I dug my gloves further into the trenches of my parka and began again to finger an unheard chord. My head bobbed with a chord transition, a vexing shift I’d been laboring over. As my glove bumped into something hidden, a mechanical rumble started somewhere nearby. But I dismissed the noise as being incidental. I might have seen puffs of smoke wafting toward shore and misconstrued them as the handiwork of my wracked imagination, a prefiguration of dry-ice fog and lasers in a roaring stadium.
The Constable had loped almost a kilometer away to pursue something unknown to us, a detail, a pattern. Snorri drew a hand over the spade of his beard; our quarrel resumed within no time. Ours were the uncompromising disputes of those who treat delay as an entitlement and guesswork as science. At the Fulaflugahål precinct, few things were as deeply satisfying as a procedural victory.
The sun sank toward the hills. An hour later, everything had been posited, nothing resolved. We had lost sight of the Constable. The wind moaned, the heavens darkened, and time disappeared, like a continental shelf into the sea.
Then we saw the Constable’s flagging greatcoat and heard his cries across the frozen lake. He sprinted toward us over the ice, legs pumping. He had a long way to go, a kilometer perhaps, as we watched him tip and right in mad measures, waving his hands overhead. His screams seemed to perish on the wind like the cannonade of a losing army.
“What’s he saying?” Snorri fingered the skin flakes beneath his beard. “What do you think, Grammaticus? You’re a young man, and you have good ears.”
I leaned toward the Constable’s shouts. After much consideration, I said, “I don’t know.”
I sensed a tide of resentment in the silence of those around me. I shrugged, “I’m only a records clerk.” As it turned out, my shrug inspired their mutual incomprehension. They all shrugged, too. None of us could decipher the Constable’s caterwauling.
Slowly, the bounding man’s cries collapsed into meaning. “Turn it off!”
Too late. An enormous snap thundered a dozen yards behind us. We pivoted as smoothly as the chorus in a Wagnerian opera, gawking as a precinct wagon lurched. The rear axle spasmed; the front bumper yawned at the sky. Steam shot from beneath the vehicle, the frame shuddered, a fissure opened, and the wagon slipped through the ice into the boiling deep.
Rafts of ice closed over the water, that is, over the wagon I had driven with Snorri beside me gabbling directions. My gloved left hand wormed deep into the folds of my coat pocket, hunting. And there it was: an electronic ignition key that could start a car from a dozen meters. A vehicle that, with a running engine, would melt the ice underneath.
The Constable reached us, huffing. He halted, toes digging like crampons into the snow, his one good eye fixed on the bubbling gap in the ice. Tremors of outrage propagated over his face.
I quailed. “Sir?”
There I stood before them all, helpless. A tide of blood throbbed in my ears. My hand stopped twitching. I freed the key from my pocket and dangled the fob before them. The Constable plied the scar beside his eye patch. Jerker kneaded the back of his neck, and Bergthora frowned grimly. Snorri sat on the snow, placing his head in his hands.
“Usch,” Snorri moaned.
Pellets of snow streaked from the demolished sky.
A pale tangle lay beside the hole the girl had been sunk in. It then dawned on me that the pale tangle was the girl. Her body lay sprawled on top of the ice, displaced by the minor tsunami of the sinking car, and ejected from the ice like the cork from a champagne bottle. Her clothes spread about her in wet snarls lurid under the dim sun, a cape and corset and stockings.
The girl’s pallor was blue and ruinous. My jaw slackened. I tried to utter some words, any words, whether of shock, wisdom, or warning. No sound emanated from my lips. For a pair of large wings had begun unfolding around the corpse, beautiful, wispy, shivering with each gust like the pinfeathers of a hatchling drying in the dying light.