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Black Ice: Chapter 3

'Excellent point.' He looked at me as, with one stiffened finger, he stroked his sad moustache as though he expected it to bolt for cover down his throat. 'Yes, excellent question. You see, we rather assume that you have the usual sort of loyalty to your country.'

Freelance journalist Sam Craven grudgingly allows himself to be talked into a spying mission in Iceland.

Journalist and author Colin Dunne continues his tale - with wit sparkling from every line - of cold war espionage.

Just for a minute there, I wasn't sure who was taking the mickey out of who. Or whom, as we diurnalists like to say. By way of celebrating this new rapport, Mr Batty agreed to risk a mug of tea as he told me about his plans for my future.

Not all that surprisingly, I suppose, he had it all worked out. They — his department, presumably — would arrange for one of the Fleet Street newspapers to send me to Iceland on a job. That should give me enough justification to go round asking questions and generally making a nuisance of myself.

'Which one?' I offered him a turn with the sugar-bag containing damp spoon. He declined. Our new rapport wasn't that good.

'One of the pops, we thought,' he replied. 'We have a little pull with them, and they'd be rather fun to work for, wouldn't you say?'

I worked mostly for magazines and the heavies. I'd steered clear of the tabloids ever since they'd taken to printing fiction. Still, this wasn't really work, was it?

'Of course, we'd cover your basic costs and I think we could arrange to put, say, five hundred in your bank account now.'

'That should bring my early retirement forward a couple of seconds.'

'It's all taxpayers' money, Mr Craven,' he said, with some indignation. 'We do have to spend it responsibly. Do you know, I'm convinced that tea tastes much better out of a mug like this, but my secretary won't hear of it.'

I shook my head at him. 'Great mistake, getting physically involved with your secretary.'

'I do assure you ... let me make it clear immed . . . ah, you're joking again I do believe, Mr Craven.'

'Caught me, Mr Batty. Tell me one thing — how can you be sure I won't nudge history in the wrong direction?'

'Excellent point.' He looked at me as, with one stiffened finger, he stroked his sad moustache as though he expected it to bolt for cover down his throat. 'Yes, excellent question. You see, we rather assume that you have the usual sort of loyalty to your country.'

'You could be making a mistake.'

The moustache twitched into a small smile. 'I don't think so.'

'Well.' I looked around my crumbling cabin of an office. 'It's only fair to tell you that I don't feel any sentimental bond to a particular acreage just because that's where my parents succumbed to an attack of lust.'

He went on smiling.

'If they'd had the same attack in the South Seas, we might be having this conversation on the beach over a glass of fresh coconut juice. If you take my point.'

His smile still hadn't shifted.

'Look, let me put it this way. My sole concern is to get this admittedly pathetic little body through from breakfast to bedtime each day with minimum damage. That's my only serious commitment to a philosophical ideal.'

'But you don't have any loyalties which might, shall we say, conflict.' It was more of a statement than a question and I realised, foolishly, that of course he would've had me checked out, even for this errand-boy sort of job.

'Not really.'

He made a brave try at drinking his tea and leaned forward to slide the mug on to my desk. 'Very fair of you to try to explain your position. These days, I think we're inclined to trust someone with your sort of healthy cynicism rather than an old-fashioned patriot. And you do have the incentive of wishing to see that your friend Solrun makes the right decision. Oh, no, Mr Craven. We've made the right choice. You must trust us to do that.'

'In that case . . .'

He was halfway out of the door before I realised what I'd let myself in for.

'One thing,' I said, before he vanished down the stairs. 'This job for the paper - will it be real or is it just . . . window-dressing?'

Well, I couldn't say 'cover', could I? Normal people don't go round talking about cover.

'Oh, yes, definitely. We shall see that it's put into their minds to give you a commission up there. You will have to do it, I'm afraid, but no doubt you will be generously paid for it.' He gave my arm a sympathetic pat. 'From what little I've seen of the popular papers, it shouldn't be anything too intellectually demanding. You'll cope, Mr Craven, you'll cope.'

The last I heard of him was a vast sneeze echoing up the stairs. I made another pot of tea and watched the gold dust dance in the one beam of sunlight I was permitted by city by¬laws.

That was when it struck me. However they dressed it up in homely jargon, the British Government were employing me — at least, indirectly — to go up to Iceland to see what Solrun was getting up to. And, presumably, to do something about it. That made me a spy. Okay, only Acting, Temporary, and Without Pension Rights, but I was still a spy. I looked around my broken-down office. At least I had one qualification — the ribbon on my typewriter was so worn I could use it as invisible ink.

But exactly what did they expect me to do about it? That was the big puzzle. If Batty had checked me out, which he must've done, then he'd know that I wouldn't be likely to have a deep sense of historic continuity. You don't have a lot of that if you haven't got a mum or dad, like me.

No man is an island? You want to bet? This one is. A private island, and I don't allow picnickers either.


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