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Black Ice: Chapter 10

Journalist Sam Craven, reluctantly enlisted for a secret mission in Iceland, finds himself being questioned by the top spy catcher.

Colin Dunne’s brilliant novel is a reading treat. For earlier chapters please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/black_ice/

'Smoke?'

'I gave up.'

'Ah. Iron will. Did you smoke a lot?'

'Sixty a day.'

'That's a lot. Now it doesn't bother you?'

'Only sixty times a day.'

The smoke got mixed up in his rasping laugh and he waved it away from me with his hand. The packet on his desk identified them as small cigars called London Docks: presumably because of the smell.

'Petursson,' he said, extending his hand into the smoke-free zone between us. 'I'm a government fulltrui — an official.' As he spoke he removed his expensive continental tweed jacket and put it on a hanger which he then placed with care in a narrow teak cupboard in the corner. He also flicked at the flawless front of his cream shirt in case a speck of ash had dared to settle there. He was that odd combination of big and neat, the sort of hefty men they say make good dancers.

He must've been sixty and you might have taken him for another of those big men who got into police-type work to get shoes the right size, until you saw the intelligence in the hard slits of his eyes.

'That was very clever.' The chair squealed under his weight as he sat down. 'Magnus was supposed to make you angry. You turned it around.'

He picked up the plastic ruler and wagged it. The crack had split it down the middle. 'It is a delicate subject here.' He gave me a sharp look. 'It is a delicate subject anywhere, wouldn't you say — outsiders who come and take the local girls?'

I knew what he was after, and I wasn't going to let him have it. Father unknown. He'd picked up on that all right. I gave him a smile and let it grow into a yawn to remind him of the time.

Without speaking, Magnus delivered two coffees, and on the tray he placed in front of his boss I recognised the contents of my pockets.

One by one, Petursson picked up the bits of junk, and put them down again. A sleek Waterman pen I never used. A wrist-watch I got duty-free on a plane before finding they were cheaper on the ground. A red plastic rhino, cunningly conceal¬ing a pencil-sharpener, that Sally had given me for my birthday. Two chewed pencils. A parking ticket, still creased from where it had been screwed up in rage, then smoothed out again. Ford Escort keys on a Ferrari key-ring. A bill from Rugantino's commemorating dinner with a girl who'd extolled the wonders of celibacy — over the coffee and Sambucca. My passport. My press card. Come to think of it, my life.

He flicked the press card without picking it up.

'Are you really a journalist?' He had a conversational style, not nearly as pugnacious as his apprentice.

'More or less.'

'A scandal rag, I believe.'

'That sort of thing.'

Suddenly he began to pull hard on the cigar, which was threatening to die on him. When he'd kissed it back into life, he grinned up at me.

'You see, Mr Craven, we have people who come here who are not what they seem. Tourists who are not tourists. Businessmen who have no business. You understand?'

'I suppose so.'

'You seem a sensible young man. Why on earth do you work for a newspaper like that?'

'That's what people want to read. Who am I to deny the masses? That's democracy, isn't it? Crap for crap-lovers — I just shovel it.' I'd heard Grimm make that speech once, in El Vino's, but I must admit he did it with more conviction.

Petursson's eyes vanished in a silent smile. 'If that is what you say then I must believe you, Mr Craven. Do you — forgive my asking — do you know a journalist who is also based in London who is called . . .' he made a pretence of looking in a file, 'Ivanov. Oleg Ivanov.'

'Old Ivan? Sure.'

'Well, well. Mr Ivanov is also here in Reykjavik. I believe he works for one of the Moscow agencies.'

'That's what he says.'

'And here you are together. Is this a coincidence?'

I was wondering that myself. 'Unless we're both working on the same story.'

'Of course. Solrun. Don't worry.' He began to chuckle and held out both his hands, palm downwards, in a calm-down gesture. 'I am not so excitable as my young colleague. But she is a little wild. Even for us, Solrun is a little wild. But where has she gone? You cannot help us? You don't want to help us? I wonder.'

At that point, a cough started churning in his chest and then caught in his throat. He glared accusingly at the cigar. A few ambling strides took him to the window and he flicked it out.

'London Docks.' Back behind his desk, he looked regretfully at the packet, then sat back in his chair. 'I lived in London. Over a year.' He stifled a small yawn, then continued with his calculated rambling. 'Yes, a most pleasant time for me. I was attached to one of your government departments. I stayed with a family called Shivas. Charming people. They were very kind to me. I was young, and a little lost. We still write. Originally it was a Huguenot name. I could never understand why it was that they were more proud of that than they were of being British. That is the tragedy of your country, I think. People talk of being Welsh or even Yorkshire but they no longer talk of being British. In Scotland, at your rugby matches, they boo the national anthem. That is what happens when a country loses its identity and its pride — the people retreat into tribalism. Or am I being unfair?'

'I don't know. Does it matter?'

'Perhaps not. But don't make that mistake here. We do care. You saw that in Magnus. We are very close to our history here, and you must remember that.'

'The only bit of history we celebrate is the anniversary of the bloke who tried to blow the whole bloody place up. I've always thought that was a sign of maturity myself. By the way, Mr Petursson, which department were you attached to in London?'

'One of those in Mayfair. I forget the exact title . . .' He let the sentence die.

We both knew what he meant. Those buildings without plaques which you find dotted around Mayfair. Everyone knows what they are. The first principle of espionage is to stay near the good restaurants: they'd rather risk their lives than their lunch.

The phone rang and Petursson listened, then spoke briefly.

'A friend, Christopher Bell, is inquiring for you.'

'That's right. I thought I might need an interpreter.'

'You won't have any problems being understood, Mr Craven, providing that you speak the truth, of course.' His eyes vanished again at his own little joke, and he tipped my belongings in the tray towards me. 'You'd better take these. We do know where to find you, I believe. Ah, one moment. What is this?'

He'd picked up the winged badge I'd found in Solrun's photo album, which was now mixed up among my small change. He held it up and turned it around in the light. 'What is it, Mr Craven? Please enlighten me?'

As he placed it in the palm of his wide hand and held it out to me, I mumbled: 'That? Oh, just a bit of junk I picked up somewhere . . .'

'It looks like a military badge.' I could feel his eyes drilling into me. 'What are these letters? AC. What do they stand for?'

'Afrika Corps,' I said in a blaze of inspiration. 'Military badges, I pick them up for a friend's little boy.'

'Really.' His eyes didn't leave my face. 'Wouldn't AK be more accurate for Afrika Korps? And why would they want wings? Forgive me, but my memory is that they relied rather more on tanks than on aircraft?'

I made a show of inspecting the badge. 'Sorry — you're quite right. That's an air-raid warden's badge from the last war. The initials stand for "All Clear". Quite a collector's item.'

With a leisurely movement, he closed his hand over it and put it in his pocket. 'In that case, perhaps it would be wise if I look after it until you are leaving the country.'

What could I do? Nothing except thank him. So I did. And I was still wondering how he'd managed to outflank me like that when I stepped outside.

'Over here.' I heard a whistle, and then saw a taxi parked down the side of the building. Bell's head was poking out of the window. 'Got your message, but they wouldn't let me in, I'm afraid. Whatever was it all about?'

I told him — or at least an outline of what had happened.

'My word! Stirring times, as they say. They are taking you seriously, aren't they?'

'Why?'

'Petursson's the top chap. Chief spy-catcher.'

'What is that place anyway?'

'Rannsoknarlogrella Rikisins. Literally, Investigative Police of the State.'

'Sort of Special Branch and MI whatsit?'

'Yes. With Miss Marple and Oddjob thrown in. Did they give you a bad time?'

'Not really. Well, they didn't throw their bowler hats at me, anyway.'

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