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Black Ice: Chapter 12

Reluctant spy Sam Craven goes for a stroll around Reykjavik and bumps into some old friends.

Colin Dunne continues his superb spy story. To read earlier chapters please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/black_ice/

The Vikings fixed on Reykjavik by the traditional, if chancy, method of chucking their furniture over the side of the longboat and setting up house where it landed. If you let your dining-table do your house-hunting, then I suppose you shouldn't complain too much if you end up in an odd sort of place.

And Iceland is an odd sort of place. For over a thousand years after that, they staggered on through blizzards and Black Death, frozen one minute, roasted by volcanoes the next, scratching out a living on a hot cinder still sizzling among the ice at the edge of the Arctic Circle.

Then, after the last war, they suddenly hit the jackpot with their fishing. By the seventies, when I first went there, it was one of the most prosperous countries on earth.

I walked down through the town to see how much it had changed in the past two years. Quite a bit, as it turned out. The pop-fashion explosion had hit them the same as everyone else. Down Laugavegur, blow-ups of Bogart and Monroe smould¬ered in the shop windows, and on the walkway at Austurstraeti the pavement was knee-deep in Bowie flooding from the shop doorways.

At some secret signal, discernible only to people under the age of twenty, the kids there had changed from skin-tight clothes to floppy, crinkly bags four sizes too big — just like the kids everywhere in the Western world. They lolled in the pale sunshine and tried to feel Mediterranean while they read each other's tee-shirts. Yet they still nibbled the hardfiskur they bought from the pavement stall with one hand, while drinking Coke with the other.

On the hillside opposite, the little toy-town houses in their bright coats of paint looked daintily impermanent. Dress it up how you like, Reykjavik still has the air of the Yukon about it. Only they didn't find gold here. This is a fish-rush town.

I had a coffee in a smart cafe overlooking the square and wrote a card to Sally. In a doomed attempt to impress the nuns, I'd bought one with a picture of one of the spouting geysers. But I'd spoiled it by writing on the back: 'As you can see, the plumbing here is an absolute disgrace. And guess who's here? — Uncle Ivan.'

Then, in one of those coincidences we deride on the telly but never question in real life, I looked down into the square and saw Ivan. He was sitting on a low wall surrounding a flower garden. Next to him was Christopher Bell.

I was so surprised that when I paid for my coffee I hardly noticed that it cost only slightly less than the down-payment on a five-bedroomed house in Kensington. Icelandic prices rate high on the wince scale.

'Here he is,' Ivan said, as I walked over to them. 'My favourite diurnalist.' He was the pal who'd done the writing on my office window.

'How did you two find each other?'

'Simple really,' Christopher said, a smile breaking out beneath his banana nose. 'I heard this gentleman asking for you at the desk of the hotel.'

It wasn't all that amazing. If you had an expense account and none of my funny twitches about dormitories, the Saga was the place to stay.

'What the hell are you doing here?'

Ivan ignored the question. With an exaggerated roll of his eyes, he replied: 'Never mind that, dear boy. Do you realise I'm missing Sussex at home to Yorkshire?'

'I say,' Christopher intervened with boyish excitement, 'are you keen on cricket?'

'Keen? I adore it.'

'He thinks it's the perfect evocation of man's eternal soul, don't you, Ivan?' I said, just to annoy him.

He rewarded me with a petulant blink. 'I still find it impossible to believe that such a bland race as the English could invent a game so rich in yearning. It's a very Russian emotion, yearning.'

'Ah, yearning. Yes.' Christopher didn't look too convinced, but then he'd probably never met anyone quite like Ivan before. He was an original.

In Fleet Street, he was known — affectionately, I hasten to add — as the Gay Red. His parents, one Russian, one English, were academics and he'd split his childhood between the two countries. For years now he'd been based in London for one of the Russian agencies. It was generally assumed, as with all Russian journalists, that his real job was to post bits of information back to the boys at home: this, together with his discreet but clear use of eye-liner, gave him the nickname — and a sort of raffish glamour.

I'd always liked him. When I was married he quite often came back for dinner. He used to entertain us at obscure and grubby East European restaurants which always seemed to be above men's hairdressers in Muswell Hill where the food was invariably a delight. After my divorce, we became good boozing mates.

I knew him as well as anyone, and even I was never sure how much was affectation and how much genuine. The one thing we didn't have in common was cricket. For all it meant to me, it might as well have been Russian. But he used to love to get out to the county games and install himself in a deck-chair among all those elderly couples, tartan rugs around their knees, making faint marks in large scorebooks as they ate damp egg sandwiches.

'And how is the wondrous Sally?' he inquired, with his usual reproving note. He was her godfather. He took his duties — including checking up on me — very seriously.

I showed him the card. 'You'll make the girl into one of those giggly creatures who work in dress shops in South Ken. Tell me it's not true that you are working for the dreaded Grimm — oh my God, it is.'

'What's in it for your Moscow masters, Ivan?'

'Perfectly obvious, surely. The beauty business is the classic
example of the exploitation of the innocent by the grasping capitalists. Don't you know anything, dear boy? But I hear you have mislaid, if that's the word, the lady in question.'

He caught my quick glance at Christopher — Ivan didn't miss that sort of thing — and explained: no one had been indiscreet; he'd picked up that information from the Russian Embassy. Not that it would matter, he added.

'I'd no idea you chaps co-operated so much,' Christopher said.

'Believe me,' Ivan replied, 'whether he's in London or Moscow, a boss is a boss is a boss. There is surprisingly little to choose between Sam's ghastly Sexy Eskies and my dreary little pieces of propaganda. Our principal problem, I fear, will be finding exquisite gifts for the wondrous Sally in this desolate dump.'

'I thought we might give her one of Bell's musical loo fittings?'

Ivan's eyes rolled to the skies. 'I declare that out of bounds immediately. Now I must go in search of a vast g and t, and you, Sam, will no doubt wish to have a gallon of that appalling slop you drink.'

'Not here. You can't get beer and there aren't any boozers. We'll have to go to a restaurant.'

'They are a bit restrictive with the old firewater,' Christo¬pher said, apologetically.

'In that case, let us waste no further time.' Ivan rose, a tall stick of a man, his greying hair falling in curtains on either side of his bony face. 'Good Lord!'

At that moment, through a bunch of kids playing around, came a boy with a wad of newspapers under his arm. He looked maybe eleven or twelve. He stopped in front of us and gave a weird funereal wail that was presumably the Icelandic for Three Hurt in Polar Bear Horror. But that wasn't what made us stare. His flat, expressionless face was the one that had become an international symbol for suffering. And you don't expect to stumble upon a Vietnamese at the other end of the world.

'One of the boat people,' Christopher explained. 'About two dozen of them fetched up here.'

'Have a care then, Mr Bell,' Ivan said. 'These people are ingenious entrepreneurs, I am told. They may well have plans in the general direction of the stuffed-puffin market.'

We watched the boy with the biscuit-coloured face wander off through the crowds, and then Ivan turned to me, slipping a silver-backed notebook from his pocket.

'Tell me,' he said, flipping it open, 'does the name . . . now where is it ... does the name Oscar Murphy mean anything to you?'

'Not a thing.'

'Truly?'

'Hell, Ivan, I've only been here one night. Why? Who is he?'

He put the notebook back into his pocket. 'I'm not quite sure. One of our embassy people mentioned him. He wouldn't say any more. You know what those awful Intelligence people are like . . . they won't tell you the time except in code. Come along, my children, Uncle Ivan is ready for drinkiepoohs. Lead the way, Master Bell, you're the nearest we have to a native guide.'

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