Authors: Elizabeth Hand
“Buy this book!”
—Darcey Steinke, author of
“Tense, compelling, and beautiful.”
—Christopher Farnsworth, author of
is dark stuff indeed.… This book disturbs and delights.”
—Paul Doiron, author of
The Poacher’s Son
“I hate modern fiction; it usually sucks.
is the exception to my rule. It is wonderfully depressing—the locations, the characters, the mood, the murders. It’s so well written, it reads true. I can think of no higher compliment.”
—Legs McNeil, cofounder of
Praise for Elizabeth Hand
“Lisbeth Salander, of
fame, looks like a candidate for Girl Scout troop leader by comparison with this nihilist with a Konica.”
—Ted Gioia on
“Intense and atmospheric,
is an inventive brew of postpunk attitude and dark mystery. Elizabeth Hand writes with craftsmanship and passion.”
—George Pelecanos, author of
The Night Gardener
“A potent socioerotic ghost story.”
—William Gibson on
Waking the Moon
“An ambitious and highly charged thriller.”
—Clive Barker on
Waking the Moon
“If Stephen King had set out to rewrite
The Waste Land
as a novel, the result might resemble
The Washington Post
“A literary page-turner … deeply pleasurable … inhabits the world between reason and insanity—it’s a delightful waking dream.”
(four stars) on
For Russell Dunn, 1958–2011, soul mate, true artist, and fellow traveler in Reykjavík, with love always
As ever, eternal gratitude to my agent, Martha Millard, for her support and encouragement over the years.
To Marcia Markland and Kat Brzozowski of Thomas Dunne Books, for all their help in bringing this book to light.
To Bob Morales, who came up with the title.
To my friends in Finland, Kati Makki-Clements and Tino Warinowski, for assistance with all things Suomi.
To Professor K. A. Laity, for her invaluable advice regarding all things Icelandic and
To Jonathan Clements, very special thanks for advising me on the finer linguistic points of Finnish, Icelandic, and Old Norse, as well as for his insights into shamanism and ancient Nordic ritual.
To David Shaw, Eric Van, and Robert Wexler, for sharing their knowledge of Nordic music, as well as to everyone who posted helpful info on
The Inferior 4
To Jonathan Clements, Ellen Datlow, Kate Laity, Bob Morales, and Bill Sheehan, who read this book in manuscript.
To John Clute, who traveled to Iceland with me in 2009, with all my love.
Finally, in memory of my lifelong friend, Russell Dunn, whose longtime dream was to visit Iceland, and who was my comrade-in-arms during my first trip to that country in 2007. “We know that love will be reborn, that death holds its own marvels, that both worlds hold joy.” Farewell, old friend.
All those young photographers who are at work in the world, determined upon the capture of actuality, do not know that they are agents of Death.
Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Howard
Domine, libera nos a furore normannorum.
“Lord, save us from the rage of the Norsemen.”
There had been more trouble, as usual. In November I’d headed north to an island off the coast of Maine, hoping to score an interview that might jump-start the cold wreckage of my career as a photographer, dead for more than thirty years. Instead, I got sucked into some seriously bad shit. The upshot was that I was now back in the city, almost dead broke, with winter coming down and even fewer prospects than when I’d left weeks earlier. I dealt with this the way I usually did: I bought a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, cranked my stereo, and got hammered.
When I finally came to, it was dark. Sleet rattled against a greasy window. In a corner of the apartment, a red light flashed beside a stack of old LPs: I’d turned off my phone but forgotten the answering machine. I lurched toward the blinking light, unsure if it was early morning or night, yesterday or tomorrow.
“Cass. What the hell did you do?”
I rubbed my eyes, head throbbing.
“… don’t know how you got that photo of my mother, but you better call me fast. Sheriff Stone wants to talk to you, also that guy Wheedler from—”
I hit erase and skipped to the next caller.
“This is a message for Cassandra Neary from Investigator Jonathan Wheedler of the Maine State—”
I erased that one, too, and all the rest without listening to them, just for good measure. Then I took a shower, waiting for ten minutes before the water pressure amped up to a scalding trickle. That’s what thirty-odd years in a rent-stabilized apartment on the Lower East Side will buy you. I dressed—moth-eaten black sweater, ancient black jeans, steel-toed Tony Lamas, the battered leather jacket I’d bought at Goodwill decades ago—and went outside to forage for coffee.
It was night. Streetlamps gave off a smeared yellow glow. The financial meltdown hit my neighborhood hard—not that I had any sympathy for the unemployed hedge-fund assholes and fashion models who spent their afternoons whining into their iPhones in front of the Dries Van Noten store. Before the crash, this part of the city looked like a cross between a Downtown USA soundstage and the Short Hills Mall; instead of stepping over junkies, I maneuvered around rat-size dogs in Juicy Couture sweaters and designer diapers. Now I wondered how bad things would have to get before Jack Russell terriers showed up on the menu at Terrine.
But I couldn’t afford to move. I’d been in the same place since the 1970s. The landlord had been trying to get rid of me for years; eviction notices had piled up in the weeks since I’d been gone, so I made a quick phone call to my father up in Kamensic Village.
“Talk to Ken Wilburn,” he said. “He’ll take care of it for you. Are you back from Maine, Cass? Any more trouble with that? Come home, and let’s have dinner one night.”
I said I’d think about it and hung up.
Tonight I kept my head down against the sleet and wished I owned a warmer coat. I passed a line of anorexics waiting to get into a restaurant specializing in downtown comfort food: mashed heirloom potatoes, truffle macaroni and artisanal cheese. As I walked by, one of the skinny girls laughed. I stopped, pivoting so that my boot’s steel tip grazed her Bally Renovas.
“Did you say something?” Skeletor met my eyes and blanched. “Didn’t think so,” I said, and kept going.
Back in the day, my nickname had been Scary Neary. Most of the people who called me that are dead now. No direct causal relationship, just bad drugs and worse luck. I’m nearly six feet tall, all speed-fused nerves and ragged dirty-blond hair, with a fresh scar beside my right eye, souvenir of my trip to Vacationland: a walking ad for Just Say No.
I skipped Starbucks in favor of the all-night Greek diner around the corner, found a booth in the back, ordered black coffee and a rib eye, rare. I was well into my steak when someone slid into the seat across from me.
“Hey, hey, hey. Cassandra Android.”
I winced. Phil Cohen, onetime rock journalist manqué, now the mastermind behind a celebrity blog called
Phil was a local bottom-feeder, one or two steps above or below me on the social ladder, not that anyone was counting. He was also my most reliable source for speed.
I hadn’t seen him since I’d been back. From the way he looked, alarmingly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, the downturn in the economy hadn’t hit his corner of Hoboken. Phil wasn’t a bridge-and-tunnel guy; more just a tunnel guy, especially when you factored in his ratlike ability to scrounge a living in the dark.
“Phil. How’s it hanging?”
“Not bad, not bad. Hey, I saw your photo got picked up by
The Smoking Gun.
Nice work. How the hell’d you do that?”
I pushed away my plate. “Fuck off, Phil.”
Phil looked wounded. “I told that German editor to get in touch with you—the lady from
? They pay good money; I figured you could use a taste.”
“You put her in touch with me?”
Phil nodded. He was fidgeting so much he looked like a life-size bobblehead. “Yeah, sure, how’d you think? Good thing your old man’s a lawyer.”
I glared at him and finished my coffee. Phil was the one who’d sent me to Maine; he’d lied about the interview he’d supposedly lined up, and lied about just about everything else, too. His connection turned out to be a photographer named Denny Ahearn, whose favorite subjects were decomposing bodies in trees. Long story short: Denny went overboard off the Maine coast and was now presumed dead. The story got some press but quickly ran out of steam since the killer was gone and the remains of only two victims had been recovered.
My own involvement in everything was a little shaky. I kept a low profile until I was safely back in New York, where an editor from the German tabloid weekly
had rung me a few days after my return.
“I so admire your work, Cassandra.” Her voice had risen slightly. “Your photo book
—that was brilliant. I was a big Bowie fan then, you know? We’d give you an exclusive.…”
She had been disappointed when I told her I didn’t have any photos of the serial killer or his victims. I’d been disappointed, too, when she named the figure they’d pay. Then I remembered the roll of film I’d shot on the island but hadn’t yet developed.
It had been a weak moment for me. Most of my moments are like that. Finally I said, “You familiar with a photographer named Aphrodite Kamestos?”
“Aphrodite Kamestos? Of course. She’s very well known here. Helmut Newton admired her work.” The editor hesitated. “She just died, too, didn’t she?”
I hadn’t told her I’d watched Aphrodite die, or that I’d lied to the cops about it so I could avoid a conviction for voluntary manslaughter. I did a quick mental rundown of where I could cadge a few hours in a borrowed darkroom so I could process the film without anyone else seeing the images. “Yeah. I might have an image of her, kind of a memento mori. Like a death mask.”
“A death mask?”
“Sure, you know. Something taken right after she died.”
The editor had moaned. “Oh, that would be so great.”
Now I stared across the table at Phil. “Yeah, good thing my old man’s a lawyer. So, you got anything in that little black bag for me?”
Phil’s eyes rolled back in his head like he was communing with the spirit world. “Focalin.”