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Black Ice: Chapter 15

Sam Craven goes to the Hagstofa, Iceland's official records office, there to find out something suprising about his beautiful ex-girlfriend Solrun.

To read earlier chapters of Colin Dunne's brilliant spy novel please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/black_ice/

What you do in Britain when you want to play bloodhounds is to start off at the local sub post office. There, when they eventually dig out the electoral roll from under the bacon slicer - invariably covered in potato dirt and still warm from the cat -you can find out who lives where and with whom.

In Iceland, it's the Hagstofa. The official records office is in an old building opposite a green hillock where a statue of Eric the Unsteady, or one of his chums, leans on his axe. With his rat's-tail hair, staring eyes and straggly beard, he looks like a sixties' folk-singer.

I'd nipped back to Hulda's and had a quick shower and change when I realised I could just catch the Hagstofa before it closed. It had struck me that - apart from personal toe-curling information -1 knew very little about Solrun's background. I'd been taken there once before by a local journalist and I knew it was definitely the place to start.

The manager - if that's what the three-foot word on his teak door said - wasn't sure. He was a pink hairless man with rimless glasses and a face like a hamster after a three-course meal, and he was torn between their tradition of open government and suspicion of unannounced strangers.

Two things did it. The sight of my Metropolitan Police Press Pass, with my thumb over the last two words as it wafted across his line of vision, and the words Petursson and Kopavogur in the same sentence.

With mumbled apologies, he took me through to a room where the walls, from floor to ceiling, were lined with shelves of metal files.

He reached for one, then froze with his hand up, like a schoolboy wanting to leave the room.

'Allow me,' I said, reaching past him and taking the file down.

'Thank you,' he murmured. 'So difficult. The office girls are always taking away my steps. I think they do it for a joke.'

Naturally, since this was Scandinavia and not Britain, there was no potato dirt and cat warmth. Only sheet upon sheet of computer print-out. Hamster gave a little hop over to the table and began to flick rapidly through the thin skins of paper. Suddenly he stopped. With one small sausage finger, he pushed his specs up his nose and gave me a shifty look.

'For the police?' I don't suppose he'd seen many cops in crumpled old corduroy suits.

I nodded towards the grey telephone. 'Ring Petursson.' He gave me a quick nervous smile and turned the file towards me.

'This is her, I think. Is that her date of birth?'

I looked at his finger. That made her twenty. That would be her.

He slammed that file shut and pushed it away, and brought another one through from the next room.

'In this file there is just the standard information.' He had it open and his finger on her name again. He began to read offher address, occupation, parents' names, father dead . . . 'What exactly are you looking for?'

I was listening but I was watching him too. His lower lip was shaking. His eyes were all over the place. For reasons known only to himself and the computer, my little hamster was telling whoppers.

'Let's have a look.' I turned the file round towards me. When computers first came out I recognised them for what they were, a passing fad, and ignored them. The result is that I still experience deep panic at the sight of those square-shouldered letters. But I made him show me the letter code which followed every name, and what each letter meant.

And it was all exactly as he had said: except he'd missed out one letter - a capital C.

'What does it mean?'

The tip of his fat finger whitened on the page. His eyes blinked furiously behind his specs. His lip wobbled again. But he still didn't say anything.

This time I reach over for the telephone. 'Petursson will not be at all pleased . . .'

He leaned forward, his finger still stuck to the page. 'But he knows. He must know. Everyone in Iceland knows.'

I stood there holding the telephone, looking down at his burning face. 'I don't. Tell me.'

With a sigh he sat back, removed his glasses and rubbed the corners of his eyes with finger and thumb. In a quiet, relieved voice, he said: 'She is married.' Then he added: 'You knew, of course.'

I didn't. But he'd led me there by his own fear.

Solrun, married? Well, it wasn't so amazing, was it? What was amazing was that she hadn't told me. Neither had Hulda, come to think of it, when I'd stumbled upon the right question for once. And the little hamster here had nearly chewed his lips off with nerves when I'd asked. Yet it could hardly be a secret: everyone in the country must know.

'Why didn't you want me to know?'

He replaced his specs and looked at me unflinchingly through their smeared lenses. 'I must help you with your official inquiries but I think I must not give my personal opinions.'

Whatever it was he was defending, he was doing his best, and he wasn't a man who had been equipped by nature to stand up to Gestapo interrogation. I decided to leave him with his toenails on.

'In that case, officially, I'd like to see the official record of the official marriage.'

After a moment's thought, he blinked a couple of times and went back to his wall of files.

It was a pink slip of paper, a copy of the marriage certificate. That told me that she had married Pall Olafsson in a civil ceremony. It told me that Pall Olafsson was thirty-four. It told me that he was a welder. And it told me that he lived at Breidholt. That meant it was a love match. If you married someone for money they wouldn't be living at Breidholt - the Rolls-Royces were a bit thin on the ground out there.

All of that was both interesting and surprising. What was a lot more of both was the date. They'd got married exactly nine days earlier.

Which meant she'd spent at least one-ninth of her honey-moon with me. To a little old romantic like me, that didn't seem absolutely right.

'Thank you for all your help,' I said to the hamster, as I left. He didn't even look up.

Across in the park, Eric the Unsteady was looking somewhat wrecked after a day's pillaging, and ready for the next longboat home. I knew how he felt.


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