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Black Ice: Chapter 2

...'What we're asking is for you to pop up to Reykjavik as an old friend, see what's going on, and do what you can to steer her away from any foolishness. I'm sure it will all become clear once you're there.'

'It certainly isn't clear now.'

He shrugged and dabbed at his face with the hankie.

'We're offering you rather a splendid opportunity...

Journalist Sam Craven is recruited for unspecified mission to fly to Iceland to discover what kind of trouble his former lover, the glamorous Solrun, has landed herself in.

Master wordsman Colin Dunne continues his high-tension cold war thriller.

The strongest phrase that William Batty did use, that morning he came sneezing up to my office four floors above Farringdon Road, was 'spot of trouble'. That wasn't much preparation for what was to come, either.

He mumbled on about keeping the old eyes open and a word in the right ear at the right time, and for quite a while I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. I wasn't much wiser when he left, come to think of it.

When I'd moved into that office two years earlier, a pal of mine had said that the sight of all those barrows loaded with second-hand books in the street below would depress anyone attempting to earn a living by arranging words into sentences of interest. It did depress me, but then that was never too difficult. In the film of grease and dust on the window, the same bloke had written 'Sam Craven, Diurnalist and Wordsmith Extra¬ordinaire'. Funny thing about journalists: because their trade obliges them to reduce the English language to a level comprehensible to a four-year-old, they tend to go round talking like Sir Roger de Coverley by way of compensation.

It caught Batty's eye. 'Most amusing,' he said, stooping to read it against the one shaft of sunlight that somehow managed to sneak through the chimneys.

Then he stood up with his hand on his chest, still searching for breath after the stairs. 'My word, young man, you must be very healthy to tackle those every day.'

'You know what they say? You can have all the health in the world but it won't buy you money.'

I took pity on his puzzled face. 'Joke,' I said.

'Joke?' he repeated, then, suddenly smiling: 'Oh yes, I love a joke.'

He sat down gingerly on the rackety bentwood chair I reserved for my most favoured guests. My least favoured guests too, since it was the only one. I had a good look at him.

Late fifties: grey nondescript suit and tie and black shoes, suggesting academic non-striver rather than commercial rat-racer; pale, podgy, with hair that looked like an old tabby that had crawled up there to die, depositing a small kitten on his upper lip on the way.

I was just beginning to wonder about the red rims round his eyes and nose when he suddenly began gasping for air, and tearing a sheet-sized hankie from his pocket he buried his head in it with a volcanic sneeze. 'Hay fever,' his muffled voice explained. 'Dreadful.'

Behind him, the wire coat-hangers on the door-hook tinkled a salute to his effort. He sneezed again, this time a planned and controlled explosion. Afterwards, he gave me a weak smile.

Now it was his turn to have a look. Topless jar of paste with plastic teaspoon replacing lost brush. Chain of paper-clips dangling from large bulldog clip which secured dished shade over desk lamp. Small dented tin teapot wearing smart prophylactic red-rubber spout. Scarred, chipped, scratched and stained desk, with filing cabinet to tone. Two empty lager bottles beside photo of young Sally, clasping kitten. In the loo next door, an echoing baritone's claim that he'd left his heart somewhere was drowned in a noisy gush of water.

'This is what you get for twenty years of honest endeavour,' I said.

Batty nodded uncertainly. If he was impressed by what he'd seen, he managed to restrain himself from showing it.

'Still,' he said, brightly, 'I dare say all a professional like you needs is a typewriter and a bit of paper.'

'And an employer,' I said. I gave him an encouraging smile in case he'd forgotten why he was here. On the telephone an hour earlier, he'd said he was from some international features agency which was interested in commissioning me. I didn't have so many customers that I could afford to let him sneeze himself to death before I'd got the job.

'Ah, yes,' he said, giving me an unexpectedly foxy look.
'Can I ask you something a little . . . well, a little unusual?'

I opened my hands to present an easy target. 'What do you want to know? Shorthand of seventeen words a minute, I can spell Mediterranean some of the time, and my litotes is the talk of Hammersmith.

'Solrun,' he said, ignoring that lot. 'Ring a bell, perhaps, Solrun?'

After a pause, I asked: 'The model?' And he nodded, without taking his eyes off my face.

Whatever I'd been expecting, that wasn't it. While I ran through the implications, I got up and banged the button on the electric kettle on top of the filing cabinet. It began to boil almost immediately. I still hadn't finished my last cup of tea but I needed time to think.

'Yes, I know her,' I said, topping up the tin teapot. 'But you know that already or you wouldn't be here. Tea?'

'Thank you, no,' he said, with a quick glance at the encrusted mug which was the only spare in my catering division. 'You're quite right, of course. Am I right in thinking she is ... was . . . rather a close friend?'

'You could say that,' I replied. For one heart-stopping moment, it occurred to me he might be collecting divorce evidence. Then I remembered that I was divorced and that Solrun wasn't married, and anyway I hadn't seen her for two years. 'Yes, she's a great lass,' I added.

'Good, good,' he hummed happily. 'You see, she seems to be in a spot of trouble.'

When wasn't she? I nearly asked, then didn't. I sipped my tea and waited for him to explain.

'What it is, Mr Craven, is that she's got mixed up with some rather dangerous types. Undesirables.'

Well, you certainly couldn't call Solrun an undesirable. On the other hand she was very, very dangerous.

These thoughts, together with other warm and pleasant memories, quite distracted me from Batty's explanation — something about a Foreign Office department concerned with British interests abroad — but I retuned quickly when he said they understood I was a close (ahem ahem) friend who could possibly use my influence to advise her. That was when he started going on about words in ears and open eyes. At that point I had to intervene.

'I don't really know what the hell you're on about,' I said.

He vanished into his hankie for some more secret H-bomb testing and when he came out his face was as pink as his eyes.

'What we're asking is for you to pop up to Reykjavik as an old friend, see what's going on, and do what you can to steer her away from any foolishness. I'm sure it will all become clear once you're there.'

'It certainly isn't clear now.'

He shrugged and dabbed at his face with the hankie.

'We're offering you rather a splendid opportunity, Mr Craven.'

'Are you?'

'I think so. You could have the chance to give history a bit of a nudge in the right direction. Tempting, don't you think?'

I'd never seen myself as a history-nudger. Personally, I had every confidence that the professionals in charge of our affairs could find the shortest route to Armageddon without any help from me.

'Hang on,' I said, doing a recap to try to straighten it out in my mind. 'You want me to go to Iceland as a sort of temporary diplomat . . .'

'Dear me, no. No, no, no.' He shook his head so quickly that his moustache nearly flew off. 'For us, you see, the whole attraction of employing someone like yourself is that you are not traceable. To us, of course.'

For a moment I had a chilling vision of myself in a mortuary drawer with a question mark on the tag tied to my toe. He must have picked up my reaction because he quickly went on: 'What I mean is that no one will know you're working for us.'

'Ah,' I said, wagging a finger at his beaming face. 'If you're in the line of work I think you're in, Mr Batty, shouldn't you be coming striding out of the sea half-naked with a bloody big knife strapped to your sunburned thigh?'

He straightened in his chair. 'Should I? Why ever do you say that?'

'Ursula Andress did.'

A crafty little smile twisted his lips. 'Really? Was she a civil servant too, Mr Craven?'

'Mr Batty,' I said. 'I do believe you're a bit of a tease.'


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