Losing ground in his fight against post-traumatic claustrophobia, war veteran Peter Ash has no intention of getting on an airplaneuntil a grieving woman asks Peter to find her eight-year-old grandson. The woman's daughter has been murdered. Erik, the dead daughter's husband, is the sole suspect, and he has taken his young son and fled to Iceland for the protection of Erik's lawless family.
Finding the boy becomes more complicated when Peter is met at the airport by a man from the United States Embassy. For reasons both unknown and unofficial, it seems that Peter's own government doesn't want him in Iceland. The police give Peter two days of sightseeing in Reykjavik before he must report back for the first available seat home. . . and when they realize Peter isn't going home until he accomplishes his mission, they start hunting him, too.
From the northernmost European capital to a rustbound fishing vessel to a remote farm a stone's throw from the arctic, Peter must confront his growing PTSD and the most powerful Icelandic snowstorm in a generation to find a killer, save an eight-year-old boy, and keep himself out of an Icelandic prisonor a cold Icelandic grave.
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Twelve Months Earlier
îskar wakes them both by jumping into their bed, a warm and wiggly bundle of excitement. Erik groans, and Sarah buries her head under the covers. It's barely dawn, and the Air and Space Museum doesn't open until ten, but îskar doesn't care. He wraps himself around his father's neck. "Happy Sunday," îskar whispers loudly, seven years old and unable to contain himself. "Happy Family Day!"
Sunday is Family Day, when îskar gets to choose an activity they will all do together. For more Sundays than Erik cares to think about, the Air and Space Museum, with a food truck lunch on the Mall, has been îskar's choice. But Erik is still mixing batter for Family Day pancakes when Sarah's phone rings with a work emergency. She gives Erik an apologetic look and runs upstairs to put on work clothes.
Erik can't face yet another Sunday fighting the tourists for a glimpse of the moon lander without her. Instead, he drops to his knees on the dirty kitchen floor. "îskar," he says, "I have an idea. What would you say to a Viking adventure in Rock Creek Park?" They have been reading Neil Gaiman's book on Norse mythology together, and the big park has plenty of wild sections and epic landscapes.
îskar cheers and jumps around the house, climbing the furniture while Erik stuffs a backpack with sandwiches and extra clothes and a thermos full of hot chocolate, knowing that îskar will happily wander all day if he's warm and fed. December weather in Washington, D.C., is nothing for a pair of real Vikings.
After a long and muddy day of exploration, they arrive back home at the last unrestored town house in Adams Morgan. îskar sprawls on the floor amid a chaos of Lego and buttery crusts of toast, while Erik stands at the open refrigerator, waiting for Sarah to text him back.
It is unlike Sarah to ignore her phone. Erik reminds himself that his wife runs her own small cybersecurity company, and a client emergency could well be a very serious thing. She might not be home until midnight or later, and dinner won't wait with a hungry boy in the house.
Erik is the one who likes the predictable pleasures of domestic life. Sarah, on the other hand, thrives on emergencies. She still loves late nights dancing in clubs where the floors are sticky and the music is loud enough to lose yourself until daybreak. Erik is happy to be her designated driver because his pleasure comes from watching his brilliant, buttoned-down wife slam around the dance floor in ripped Levi's and an ancient biker jacket, alarming the bartenders. On the wildest nights, she pulls him into the back of their minivan, where she frees him from the confines of his pants, then wiggles her tight and sweaty jeans down to her ankles to get him inside her with delicious and slightly alarming efficiency.
His family, of course, loves Sarah's wild side.
Erik has chicken thighs braising and a green salad coming together when, to his surprise, Sarah bangs through the back door, her scuffed leather bag slung over one shoulder.
As usual, Sarah's crisp, professional look has come undone during the course of her workday. Her sandy hair falls free from its ponytail, wisps hovering around her forehead like stray thoughts. Her good wool coat is unbuttoned and the weight of her bag pulls her starched shirt askew and up the lush curve of her hips, making visible a crescent of pale skin at her waist.
Erik always finds this aspect of his wife profoundly sexy. His plan is to put îskar to sleep as soon as possible, pour her a drink to vanquish the day, and then do his utmost to kiss his wife out of her clothing. The calendar says she's ovulating. Erik wants nothing more than another child.
Yet when he steps in to press his lips to hers, she holds him back with a hand on his chest. Her eyes remain dark and he knows she has not yet resolved her emergency.
"I need to show you something." She slips her bag off her shoulder. "Where's îskar?"
"Busy." Erik tilts his head toward the tinkle of Lego and îskar's voice mumbling numbers in the living room. "What's up?"
Sarah sets her laptop on the counter and types in her long and complicated password, automatically positioning her body to shield her keystrokes from prying eyes. Nothing personal, Erik knows, just long habit and sensitive client materials. She doesn't even use their home Wi-Fi, preferring a dedicated secure cell modem.
Then she steps sideways to make room for him at the counter, but keeps her torso angled to block the view from the door to the dining room. The door îskar would come through. She hits a key and a paused video frame comes up on the screen.
It shows a dim room, two pale bodies entangled on a dark leather couch.
She presses Play. The bodies begin to move. There is nothing remotely sexy about it. Erik can tell immediately that something is profoundly wrong.
It takes him several moments, however, to realize exactly how wrong. The body on top is significantly larger than the body on the bottom. One is a grown man, his pants down to his knees. The other is just a girl. And she fights to get free.
Erik turns from the screen. "Sarah, what is this?"
"Wait." She checks over her shoulder for their son. "Keep watching."
"I'd rather not." Erik puts out a hand to block his view.
"Watch," she commands, and pulls his hand out of the way. The camera zooms in. The girl's face is a mask of pain and terror. She looks very young. The man's face is rapt, mesmerized by his own pleasure and power. He holds the girl down with a practiced grip on the back of her neck.
Erik stabs out a finger and the video vanishes.
Sarah touches a key and the video returns. Her voice is calm. "Look at him, Erik. Do you recognize him?"
Erik blinks. He looks. He does recognize the man. He fumbles for the remote and turns on the small television in the corner of the kitchen. And there the man stands, as he does so often, on a futuristic set with his crisp haircut and a fresh shave and a microphone on his lapel, wearing a midnight suit and a blood-red tie.
The same man in the video with the girl.
That same face. Mouth moving, always talking, charming his viewers. Right now his topic is regional stability and the protection of American interests overseas, but Erik doesn't hear a word. He can't stand it. He feels sick to his stomach. He unplugs the TV and looks at Sarah.
"Where on earth did this come from?"
Peter Ash woke, gasping for breath, from a dream of gunfire. He could still feel the desert heat on his skin, and the memory of spent powder lingered in his nose.
Beside him, his elderly seatmate strained upward, one finger stabbing the call button overhead.
Peter blinked away the nightmare, wondering what he'd said or done in his sleep. He was a tall, bony man with shaggy black hair, a tired face, and the thoughtful eyes of a werewolf five minutes before the change. His green hiking pants were frayed at the seams, his Counterbalance Brewing T-shirt ghosted with old stains.
A beefy male flight attendant advanced up the aisle, broad face expressionless, hands open and ready. Watching him approach, Peter could tell the man had some physical training, and was probably tasked with controlling unruly passengers on this packed transatlantic flight.
Peter raised a hand and caught the other man's eye. "Sorry." It was hard to get the words out, his throat choked with the panic raised by the memories still burned into his brain. His T-shirt was damp with sweat and his mouth was dry as a dust storm. "Just a bad dream. Give me a minute, I'll be fine."
He bent to his bag stuffed under the seat and fumbled the flap as he dug for his pills. His seatmate had shrunk himself against the window, minimizing any contact. Passengers across the aisle were looking anywhere but at him.
"Sir." The flight attendant was almost on him. Peter's chest was tight, his lungs fighting for air. The cabin of the wide-body jet closed in hard. His fingers closed on the prescription bottle and he straightened up.
"I'm all right." He tried to believe it. "I just need my meds."
He fumbled the top off and shook four of the small pink circles into his hand. Then he found the last intact mini bottle of Reyka vodka in his seat pocket, twisted it open, and swallowed hard, pushing the pills down.
The dreams were new.
He'd come back from Iraq with claustrophobia bad enough to make living outside seem like a good idea. For more than a year, he'd slept alone under the stars or under a rain fly, high above the tree line of one mountain range or another, barely able to manage resupply in small-town grocery stores.
The post-traumatic stress came from kicking in doors in Fallujah, he figured. All those weeks of fighting house to house, room to room, clearing insurgents one doorway at a time.
Along with everything else he'd done.
He called it the white static, that feeling of electric overdrive that sparked up his brainstem, calculating firing angles, searching for exits. Nerves jangling like bare electrodes under the skin, his chest so tight he couldn't breathe, his fight-or-flight reflex gone into overdrive. When he first mustered out, he could only handle twenty minutes inside before the static turned into a full-blown panic attack.
In the time since then, he'd found a way forward. He'd made friends with the static, in a way, and a start at a new life. He'd found a veterans' group. He'd met a woman he didn't deserve, a woman named June Cassidy.
But he'd never had dreams, not like this. Not until after Memphis.
Something had broken loose inside him there. Something he'd thought he'd had under control. Now it was roaming around in his head, knocking pictures off the walls, breaking the goddamn furniture.
In retrospect, this trip was a bad idea. He'd been in a hurry, had booked his tickets for same-day travel. Seats were limited and the schedule was brutal. He'd started in Portland, Oregon, changed planes and airlines in Minneapolis, then done it again in New York.
Long hours spent in the stale fluorescent clatter of airports, televisions blaring CNN and the Senate hearings at every turn.
More long hours with his oversized frame jammed into undersized seats, trapped in a cigar tube at thirty-five thousand feet.
His only exercise was pacing the aisles, his only sleep a few fitful naps. He'd hoped the Valium would help keep the white static at bay, but he'd been stuck inside for too long.
The static was losing patience.
The werewolf was coming.
He touched the little screen on the seatback. The plane icon was over Greenland now. Only ninety minutes to Reykjav’k, Iceland, in late December. Where it snowed or rained for days at a time and the sun never truly rose, only brightening the sky for a few hours at midday.
He got up and went to the tiny restroom and splashed his face with water. He didn't look at himself in the mirror. He knew he wouldn't like what he saw there. On his way back to his seat, he plucked two more mini vodkas from the flight crew's service area and tossed them down in one go.
Maybe the dreams came from the Valium, fucking with him. It wasn't supposed to be a long-term solution. He'd read up on the side effects, and they weren't good. He sure as hell wasn't supposed to be chasing it with vodka, although the pills alone had stopped working months ago.
Maybe it was simply the price to be paid for getting back to some kind of meaningful work.
Or maybe he was just running away.
He told himself he'd quit the Valium once he got off the plane. He'd pick up his rental, find a place to park outside the city, and sleep it off, all of it. He had plenty of practice sleeping in a vehicle.
For now, he closed his eyes and drifted.
The airport's long, narrow halls were packed with people. Peter walked with the crowd to get his heavy pack and duffel, trying not to run, jumping out of his skin with the need to stand under the open sky and feel the wind on his face. Eight in the morning, and still dark outside. Daylight wouldn't come for hours.
At customs, the female agent behind the glass ran Peter's passport under the scanner. He heard a beep and her cool eyes flickered up at him. "Please wait a moment."
In less than a minute, two uniformed agents appeared as if from thin air, a man and a woman. The man collected Peter's passport from the scanner. "Sir, please come with us."
His English had just a trace of an accent. Sir became not quite shir, us became not quite ush, with a slight whistle to the sibilants. He was older than Peter, early fifties but slim in a crisp black uniform and fresh shave. His uniform had two tags, one in Icelandic on the right breast, lšgreglan, and one on the left that read police. There were no other markings of rank that Peter could see.
The woman was younger than Peter, but not by much. Her tag read customs.
Peter took a deep breath and let it out. The white static crackled higher up his brainstem, vaporizing the haze of Valium and vodka. His nerves twanged like a dropped piano and sweat gathered between his shoulder blades. He wanted nothing more than to get outside. "What's this about?"
The man saw Peter's rising tension and eased away from the woman, opening up the angles, giving himself room. He moved well enough, but he seemed unconcerned. There were a half-dozen other officers within view.
If he'd known what Peter was capable of, the things Peter had done, the things Peter was contemplating at that very moment, he would have been worried as hell.
The woman smiled with professional warmth. "Your name is Peter, right? I'm Sigrid. This is Hjálmar. Come with us for a moment, we'll explain everything. Would you like a coffee?"
Peter pulled in another long breath, then bent to pick up his duffel. He already wore the big pack slung over one shoulder. "Sure," he said. "Coffee would be good." Or a double bourbon, neat. Then another, washing down four more Valium.
He needed to get the fuck out of there.