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Authors: J. L. Merrow

Tags: #Nightmare

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BOOK: Fall Hard
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“We argued?” Was that what she’d meant by
not comfortable
,
when we’d spoken about my relationship with Sven earlier? “A lot?”

“It was…” Mags looked around, her gaze falling on the window. “Like the weather. Here, I mean. Often cloudy, but it soon blows over, and the sun comes out.” She pursed her lips, frowned and straightened one of her little trolls. “But you never really told me what you quarrelled about. You’d come in with a face like thunder, and I’d ask what was the matter, and you’d throw up your hands and say
Sven
, and then you’d smile at me. And then later, sometimes, you’d say something cryptic about your work, and then I’d know it was Egil coming between you again. But by the next day, it’d all be forgotten.”

Her expression was sunny again, but I had to struggle to match it. It sounded like these academic disagreements had been a regular occurrence.

Odd, when it was Egil, she’d told me, who’d brought us together in the first place.

 

 

Alex Winter appeared at my desk midafternoon—time enough to recover from that first, disconcerting meeting.

Or at least, you’d have thought so.

“I think I owe you an apology,” he said with a disarming smile. “I guess I came on a little strong this morning. I’m sorry if I freaked you out.”

I swallowed, my heart racing. “No—I think perhaps I wasn’t quite as ready to come back here as I thought I was.” I tried to match his smile but was uneasily certain it fell flat.

Alex nodded. “It must be kinda hard, not remembering anything about working here before. Hey, are you finding things okay? Need directions anywhere?”

“No.” I shrugged. “It’s all pretty well signposted.”

“You remember your Icelandic, then?” Was I imagining a sudden sharpness in his tone?

“I seem to, yes. Although I don’t suppose I was ever particularly fluent in speaking it. I’ve always been better with the written word.”

Alex just laughed. “That’s a language you wouldn’t want to have to learn twice. First time’s bad enough.”

I had a strange urge to defend the tongue. “There’s a beauty to it, though, in its inflected nature, and the way it’s stayed almost unchanged for centuries. And of course it’s impossible to fully appreciate the poetry of the sagas in English translation.”

“I’m only just beginning to realise that. The references, the layers of meaning—you peel back one, and there’s another half dozen underneath.” He flushed. “I guess I must sound like one of your students, learning all this for the first time.”

“I wouldn’t know, would I?” I tried to keep my tone light. I didn’t want to sound bitter. “The semester hasn’t started yet.” It wouldn’t start for another month, by which time, I assumed, Alex would be gone. Back to whatever life he led back in Boston. He hadn’t mentioned anything about his usual work, but I supposed he must have some. Presumably Mags would know.

“Damn.” Alex shook his head slowly. “Sorry. I don’t mean to be an insensitive asshole. I guess it just comes naturally. Of course you wouldn’t know.” He rubbed his neck. “Are you nervous about it? The students coming back, I mean. Having to deal with guys who know you, but you don’t know them?”

Well,
now
I was. “Story of my life, these days,” I said with a helpless smile. “As long as they don’t try to take advantage, I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

He cocked his head to one side. “I guess you have to watch that kind of thing, huh? People wanting to take advantage of you?”

“Because of the amnesia?”

“Yeah. That too,” he said, and I flushed as I guessed at his meaning. “Hey, I got to run. I’ll catch you later, okay?”

It felt more like a threat than a promise.

Chapter Three

Exhausted after my first day back at the institute, I made do with canned soup and the rapidly staling lava bread for supper, and had an early night.

If I’d hoped to dream again of the man with blue eyes, I was disappointed. All that stayed with me on waking was the echo of a melody—in truth, more a rhythm than a tune. An old song that seemed familiar even as it slipped away from me, smothered by the modern beat from my radio. I hastened to switch off the banal noise with an angry jab, but it was too late; all that remained of the dreamsong was a sense of loss at its passing.

I had a fairly good day at work, apart from when I visited the library. The young woman at the desk brightened when she saw me and proceeded to chat on at length about people she seemed to think I knew. When I managed to get a word in, I muttered something about my memory being gone. She faltered and stammered that she’d heard, but thought it was only “other stuff” I’d lost, and at any rate, surely I remembered her and Magnus and Yrsa?

I wished I’d just looked the information up on Wikipedia.

After work, I got Mags to go with me to where my belongings had been stored. I’d been expecting the garish, blocky sort of construction that blights the outskirts of towns in Britain, but the self-storage facility in Reykjavik looked more like a modern office building. Situated next to a supermarket, the bright white building with its discreet lettering and clean lines looked like it was slumming it, although perhaps the view across the bay made up for the low class of the neighbours. Parking was more than ample, and I wondered if this obviously new facility had really caught on yet.

Mags led me to a unit on the ground floor and unlocked it.

“I’m sorry it’s all so mixed up,” she said, my dismay at the piles of boxes and cases, none of them labelled, having obviously been poorly concealed. “It was all done in a bit of a rush, and I had to get some of the students to help—and, well, they meant well, but…”

“Don’t worry about it,” I hurried to tell her. “It must have been a difficult time for you too.” In the days immediately after the accident, there had apparently been serious doubts as to whether I’d ever wake up, and fears that even if I did, I’d be suffering from brain damage. She clearly cared about me a great deal. She’d done far more for me, both back then and since my return, than might reasonably be expected of even a close colleague. On impulse, I gave her a hug. “I really do appreciate everything you’ve done for me.”

Mags blushed bright red and muttered something that sounded like, “Don’t be silly.” When I released her, she fiddled with her glasses for a moment, then shook herself. “Right, let’s see if we can make some order out of chaos, shall we? What were you looking for in particular?”

I shrugged. “Anything. Everything. Although I do need more clothes. And any research papers or books.”

“From memory, there wasn’t a lot of that. You kept everything at the institute or on your laptop, of course.” Mags opened up a crate. “Hm. Books here, but they’re—well, what I’d call airport books. Bestselling potboilers, that sort of thing.”

“You do realise I’m going to have to swear you to secrecy about my taste in trashy paperbacks,” I said, smiling at the flashy covers with their bold fonts and monosyllabic titles. “Still, at least I’ll be able to read them all for the first time again.”

“Nice to know even amnesia has its upside.” Mags raised a teasing eyebrow.

“It was handy while I was in hospital, I’ll grant you. Gretchen got me loads of DVDs of all the TV shows and films that had been on while I was here, and I couldn’t tell which ones I’d seen and which I hadn’t. Although I did keep getting a weird sense of déjà vu when I was watching
Doctor Who
.”

“Mmm, but they do keep recycling the bad guys, don’t they?”

I turned to a box of my own. When I opened the lid, thick wool and cotton plaid were revealed—not with the musty smell I realised I’d been half expecting, but with just the merest hint of fabric softener. “Okay, this is clothes. I’ll just load the whole box into the car and sort it out back home.”

“Yes, makes sense,” Mags said. “You can take the ones you don’t want to a charity shop.”

I put the box to one side and opened another. Pictures in frames, I realised after a moment of staring blankly at newspaper parcels. It’d be good to have something on the walls of my little flat, although I wasn’t sure how I’d feel if they all turned out to be photographs of me with Sven. I could always send any photos to his mother, I supposed. Mags, or someone at the institute, must have her address. I put the box with the crate of clothes and took down a suitcase from on top of a row of boxes.

I soon realised I couldn’t hope to finish the job today. For one thing, there was a limited number of boxes my Mitsubishi could handle, and for another, I was reluctant to fill up my bright white flat with clutter too quickly. But I was glad to have located a sturdy pair of walking boots and some water- and wind-proof clothing.

“Okay, let’s call it a day,” I said finally. “I can always come back another time, now I know where it all is. Do you want to go grab some supper? I haven’t been shopping yet, and I probably shouldn’t get into the habit of eating out of tins every night. Which, thank you for, by the way. The tins, not the habit. I’m not holding you responsible for my poor diet.”

We ended up in a cosy little pizza place on the outskirts of Reykjavik. Long and thin in construction, it was full almost to bursting and decorated with memorabilia from American football teams.

“Did Sven like it here?” I guessed, digging into my guilty pleasure, an every-topping-under-the-sun pizza with extra pineapple. Although thinking about the trashy paperbacks, maybe not my only guilty pleasure.

Mags looked up from her healthy, multigrain vegetarian option. “Sven? Oh, no, he hated it. That’s why we used to come here, because he never would.”

“He…sounds a bit controlling,” I said after an uneasy pause.

“Oh—I don’t think so,” Mags said, fiddling with her water glass. “Not really. He just had strong opinions about certain things, that’s all. That’s what you used to say, anyway.”

“What did he object to about this place, anyhow?” I frowned as I waved a hand at the crowded restaurant, the air buzzing with cheerful conversation and the walls crowded with Americana. “I’d have thought he’d have felt right at home.”

“Oh no.” Mags sounded very definite. “Sven really wasn’t a pizza sort of person. He used to take you to a much better class of eatery.”

“Where did I take him?” I asked drily.

If Mags noticed my tone, she didn’t acknowledge it. “Oh, all over the place. Borgarnes and other saga sites. You seemed to spend most of your weekends on field trips, taking photographs and so on. You’d come back in on Monday mornings all weather-beaten and enthusiastic.”

“Well, I’m glad we had some fun together,” I muttered, poking at my pizza and trying to decide if I was too full to finish it.

Mags looked up, a dainty triangle of pizza hovering precariously on her fork. “Oh, you did. Of course you did. I remember when you first met him—you were so thrilled to find someone as interested in Egil as you.”

“You’re just too polite to say
obsessed
, aren’t you? You must have thought I was a total workaholic.”

Her eyes twinkled. “Not a
total
workaholic. I could usually manage to drag you away for an evening or so.”

I raised my glass of Coke. “My sanity salutes you for it.”

“Well, it’s nice to be appreciated.”

“You are, Mags. You are.”

Her face looked very pink in the warm lighting of the restaurant, but she was smiling too.

Chapter Four

Saturday morning, I drove in early to the Pride festival in Reykjavik, thinking parking anywhere near the centre might be a problem otherwise. I’d decided to do without my stick for the day, so I didn’t want to be stuck miles away. It left me with a couple of hours to kill before the parade, which I passed agreeably enough in Café Loki by the cathedral, under the far-seeing eye of Leif Erikson’s statue. I’d taken some work with me, but got none of it done. Picking up one of the free newspapers devoted to coverage of the weekend seemed to act as a signal to all and sundry that I was there for Pride and eager to talk about it.

After I’d got over the initial awkwardness of working out that people were just being friendly rather than actually acquainted with me from my previous time here, I found it all quietly exhilarating. There was a real buzz about the place. The streets of Reykjavik were crowded and the mood good-humoured. There were plenty of small children in pushchairs or already sitting on fathers’ shoulders to look out for the first sign of spectacle. It wasn’t a warm day, but it was, at least, dry for now.

Something caught my eye as I passed a side street on my way to what looked like a good viewing spot. I turned to see a flash of colour: Alex Winter’s unmistakable copper hair. He was walking with a young woman I didn’t recognise, petite and dark-haired. She was making animated gestures, and his head was turned towards her.

I hurried on. Maybe it was antisocial of me—all right, I knew it was—but I felt I’d seen enough of Alex lately. I wondered who the woman was, though. One of his fellow summer students, presumably. They must have turned the other way when they got to the end of the street; at any rate, I didn’t see them come past as I stood in the comforting anonymity of the crowd.

We heard the parade before we saw it—or rather, we heard the beeping of the motorcycle policemen’s horns that heralded its approach. The two policemen smiled at the crowd as they waved them firmly back off the road, and were closely followed by some tough-looking women on even tougher-looking motorbikes—
Dykes on Bikes
, declared the back of one woman’s jacket. A forest of Pride flags followed, held aloft by a group with matching blue T-shirts but no proclaimed group identity I could see. The following float was again a puzzle—the men and women on it seemed to have dressed up in whatever fancy dress they had lying around the house, rather than working to a theme. As I watched, the float stopped so a pair of giggling young women—or possibly boys in drag, I was too far away to tell—could be hoisted up to join the dancers on the back.

BOOK: Fall Hard
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