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Authors: J. L. Merrow

Tags: #Nightmare

Fall Hard

BOOK: Fall Hard
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Dedication

I’m grateful to all those who helped me knock this story into shape: as always, Josephine Myles and the guys from VWC; Lou Harper; Alex Beecroft; Stevie Carroll; Jennifer Bales. Especial thanks to Erica Pike for casting a critical Icelandic eye over the manuscript. All remaining errors are, of course, mine alone.

Chapter One

I was falling again, my stomach lurching as the dizziness rose. I had my eyes shut tight against the rushing water, the thundering of it oddly muted in my ears. Even as I fell, I knew I had to open my eyes. There was something important. Something I needed to see.

My eyelids weighed a hundred tons each. I battled to force them open—but when I finally succeeded, all I saw was my little sister Gretchen, her hair falling forward over her face as she bent down to place a steaming mug on the bedside table.
Little
was relative, of course. She’d turned thirty this year. I wondered if I’d sent her a present. Maybe I should ask her, but it seemed a bit late now.

She straightened, tucking wavy dark strands firmly behind her right ear. “Wake up, lazyarse. You’ve got a plane to catch.”

I gazed blearily at the clock until the numbers swam into focus. 8:17 a.m. “In
seven
hours
,” I groaned. “And great, now you’re making me do mental arithmetic before I’ve even woken up.” I turned over, pulling the pillow over my head.

Ruthless hands yanked it out of my grasp. “Yeah, but how much packing have you done?” She paused. “Paul, you don’t have to go. You could stay here.”

“Don’t be daft. I’ve got a job there, remember?”

“Fine. Come on, then, you lazy sod. Sit up and drink your tea.”

“You know I hate tea in the mornings,” I grumbled, sitting up.

She perched on the side of the bed with a smug look. A natural morning person herself, Gretchen enjoyed taking advantage of those who liked a slower start to the day. “Yeah, but you hate making your own coffee first thing more. So drink up your tea like a good little boy.”

I took a cautious sip from the mug and grimaced. “And you put way too much milk in it.”

“It’s all calcium. Good for your bones.” Gretchen had inherited a touch of Teutonic bullishness along with the name from our long-dead grandmother.

“Stable door, much?” I gestured at my left leg, not that there was much to see except a leg-shaped lump under the crumpled duvet, and felt bad when her expression changed. “I’m drinking it, all right?” I took a large gulp of the vile stuff to placate her and only just managed not to gag at the greasy, oversweet taste.

Gretchen watched me for a moment. “Sure you don’t want me to come to the airport? Are you going to manage all right with a case and your stick?”

“I’ll be fine. I’ll have to cope on my own at the other end, anyway. Just go to work. The oppressed minorities are counting on you.” I paused, then added with awkward sincerity, “And thanks for, you know, everything.”

She looked even more uncomfortable hearing it than I felt saying it. My sister and I didn’t really do sincere. “Yeah, well. Blood thicker than water and all that. Speaking of which, you’ll be careful, won’t you? This time.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll steer clear of waterfalls. If I see anything with
foss
in the name, I’ll run a mile. Limp a mile, whatever.”

“Git.” She sighed, then, in a surprise move, hugged me. I suspected she wasn’t the only one who turned pink. “I’d better go. Call me when you get sorted, okay?”

 

 

I left London sweltering in a heat wave, the burning August sunshine an incessant, aching glare—I might have been stretching the truth just a little when I’d assured Gretchen my headaches had gone—and landed in Iceland to find the rain coming at me sideways. Keflavik airport was cool and spacious, seeming several times bigger than it needed to be—even now, at the height of summer, there was hardly anyone there.

Maybe they’d seen a weather forecast.

I walked down miles of gleaming corridor, the tapping of my stick on the floor beating time to the rumble of the wheels of my suitcase. Halfway down, I stopped to admire a scale model of a Viking longboat displayed in a glass case, wondering if I’d seen it the last time I was here. A smart young woman in uniform popped out of nowhere to ask pointedly if I needed assistance. Her Viking genes coming out, perhaps, I thought wryly as I allowed her to shepherd me through the corridor. An ancestral impulse to protect the boat from foreigners.

Out in the foyer, a middle-aged woman with a thin, anxious face was holding up a handwritten sign for Dr. Paul Ansell. Me. I recognised her from the photo I’d seen online: Dr. Margaret Kettle, my colleague and fellow English ex-pat at the Snorri Sturluson Institute for Icelandic Studies. She spotted me an instant after I’d seen the sign. “Paul!” she cried out, waving frantically.

I smiled back and returned her wave, relief washing over me. She was shorter than I’d imagined, a head smaller than me, with her mouse-brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, a pair of unfashionable plastic-framed glasses on her nose, and no makeup to accentuate her plain, friendly features. The hair, I realised as I approached her, was greying in streaks. She looked around fifty, but I knew from my online reading she was actually almost a decade younger than that.

I’d be lying if I said I knew her, precisely, but either her smile or some familiarity buried in my subconscious made me warm to her. “Margaret, am I right? Paul Ansell. Um. You already know that, of course. Sorry.”

“Oh, please!” Her pale blue, almost grey eyes were moist. “Mags. You’ve always called me that.” She gave me a hesitant look. “Can you…?”

I shook my head. “It’s still all blank, I’m afraid. I’m hoping being back here will jog my memory.”

She nodded, but her smile quivered. “It’s so strange, seeing you and knowing you can’t… I so badly want to give you a hug, but I suppose you’d just think me terribly forward.”

Touched and a little overwhelmed, I opened my arms. “Of course not.” As she clung to me, I breathed in her scent, a curiously appropriate mix of musty old books and herbal shampoo. For a moment I felt a brief flicker of familiarity, of comfort, and my heartbeat quickened.

Then she released me and stepped back, sniffing. “Sorry. Don’t mind me—just being silly. It really is awfully good to see you back here, looking almost as good as new. But let’s get out of here. Shall I take your suitcase?”

“No, I’m fine, thanks.” Luckily for my masculine pride, it wasn’t that heavy.

As we stepped through the glass door, the wind hit with enough force to whisk my breath away. Rain whipped at my face and hair, making me blink at the onslaught. My thin jacket, a hot, heavy burden in London, was wholly inadequate here. The air, when I could catch my breath, smelt fresh and of the sea.

“The car’s just over here,” Mags yelled, seeming unbothered by the weather even as the wind plucked stray tendrils of hair from their moorings and set them dancing across her face. Trying not to lag behind as I battled with the wind to retain control of my suitcase, I followed her brisk pace. We crossed the road to the airport car park, where she unlocked a four-wheel-drive Mitsubishi, and again I felt that nagging sense of familiarity.

“Have I been in this car before?” I asked, once we’d shut the doors on the wind and I could breathe again. The sudden stillness in the air was almost jarring.

Mags looked delighted. “Yes—well, actually, it’s yours. I’ve been keeping it going a bit. My little Skoda is getting awfully unreliable—but obviously, it’s all yours now you’re back.”

“Thanks,” I said, touched once more. “I knew I must have had a car, but I just assumed it’d been left to rust wherever I last parked it.” Buying a new one had been top of my To Do list, in fact. It was a relief not to have to face either the expense or the hassle.

“Oh, don’t be daft—it was at least as much to my advantage as it was to yours.” She hesitated. “And it seemed such a shame about the flat—I mean, obviously they had to find other tenants; they couldn’t afford not to—but it seemed horrible, leaving you with no home to come back to.”

“I was told all my things were in storage?” My breath hitched at the sudden, irrational fear I’d been misinformed, and all the traces of my life here wiped out as thoroughly as my memories.

She nodded, pulling out onto the main road. “We got the furniture out, of course, to put in the new flat—well, most of it, anyway—but I thought you’d prefer to sort out the more personal items yourself. Just let me know when you’d like to go and fetch them.” There was a pause. “I’m afraid a lot of Sven’s things are there too. His mother came over from America, of course, to collect the…to take Sven home, but she left most of his things behind. And, well, I didn’t like to get rid of anything without asking you. In case you wanted it as a memento.”

“I suppose it’s possible seeing things that were his might bring some memories back.” My voice sounded doubtful in my own ears. Staring at his photograph back in Gretchen’s chaotic living room hadn’t helped at all. Sven Halvorson—my late lover—who, despite the name, had apparently been as American as they come, had been a broad-shouldered, somewhat swarthy man with dark, curling hair and full, sensual lips. Not a classically good-looking man, I supposed, but definitely an attractive one. But I’d looked at him, and I’d felt nothing.

Nothing but a vague sense of guilt, that was. And this was the man I’d shared a flat with—shared my life with? I’d wondered if my accident had somehow left me incapable of emotion. But the warmth that had suffused me when I’d met Mags, the genuine pleasure I had in seeing her again, seemed to refute this.

“Or, you know, for when you’ve got your memory back,” Mags was saying. “A keepsake, I meant.” She seemed a lot more certain than I was that my lost year would eventually return. “Do you… Do you remember anything at all? Anyone?”

“Plenty,” I said with a rueful smile. “Just nothing and no one to do with my time in Iceland.”

“So strange that it should hit you like that,” Mags mused. We were speeding past garages and other businesses, Reykjavik Bay to our left. A tautology, as my mischievous memory reminded me. Reykjavik itself meant
bay of smoke
. It seemed fitting. Everything that wasn’t man-made was in shades of monochrome—the skies like a dove’s wing, the roads a fresh black and the countryside—if you could call it that—a mass of charcoal-coloured rocks, overgrown with greyish-green moss. It was a soothing, calming antithesis of London’s bright, bustling streets.

I shrugged. “The doctors seemed to think it might be a self-preservation thing,” I admitted. “Losing my…losing Sven, and nearly dying at the same time—I guess it’s not surprising I didn’t want to remember.” Just saying it out loud made me feel uncomfortably raw. “Did I like it here?” I asked, anxious to change the subject. “I mean, I think I must have, but…”

“Oh yes—at least I think so.” Mags hesitated. “Of course, I was never quite sure how much was Iceland and how much was Sven.”

“Did you know him well?”
Did I love him very much?
was what I really meant.

“I—well…” She fiddled with the rearview mirror. The plastic figure of a red-haired, grinning troll someone—I?—had hung from it swung crazily. “I really only knew him through you.”

She hadn’t liked him, I was suddenly sure. I frowned. “How did I meet him?”

“Through a mutual acquaintance. Egil Skallagrimsson.”

I blinked. She’d just named a man who’d been dead for a thousand years. “Er,
what
?”

“Sorry—that wasn’t very clear, was it? I keep forgetting…” She gave a nervous laugh.

“Go on.” I tried to sound reassuring. Calmer than I felt.

“Well, Sven was quite a scholar himself—although he wasn’t at the university. You knew that, didn’t you? He was an engineer—worked at the geothermal power station near Thingvellir. But he was writing a book in his spare time—about Egil and his family. I got the impression it was the werewolf thing that fascinated him particularly.”

I nodded. Egil, according to the ancient saga that bore his name, and his father and grandfather were all berserkers in battle. As tended to happen in tales of such fierce, maniacal warriors, they were commonly depicted in legend as having been shape-shifters, although in most respects the sagas were more history than fiction.

“I remember one time we were all out for a meal and he got quite worked up about the Paget’s disease theory,” Mags continued. “He said it was typical of modern revisionists to insist that anyone extraordinary must have had something wrong with them.” She rolled her eyes, at once looking much closer to her true age.

BOOK: Fall Hard
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