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Black Ice: Chapter 16

After being bashed on the head with a pan, journalist and reluctant spy Sam Craven is subjected to further questioning while treating himself to lobster tails fried on the spit.

Colin Dunne's brilliant cold war novel becomes ever more intriguing.

To read earlier chapters - and if you fail to do so you are missing a treat - please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/black_ice/

The Kaffivagninn used to be exactly what it sounds like a coffee wagon for the fishermen and harbour workers. Now it's grown up into a charming one-room restaurant perched on the edge of the harbour wall.

At first sight you could almost take it for one of those London fish restaurants where they've laid the atmosphere on a shade too thick. Only here the nets outside are still damp from the sea, the fish is practically wriggling when it hits your plate, and no one has ever questioned the authenticity of the scented air. To you it might be the stench of fish: the Icelanders call it the smell of money - and they know what they're talking about.

The Kaffivagninn is the real thing all right, and so's their fish.

I'd planned on digging out Ivan and Christopher Bell. But my head hurt from the pan blow, and I wanted to think about the implications of the revelation at the Hagstofa, so I walked down to the harbour. I had lobster tails fried on a spit, and I sat and looked out of the window. The harbour was packed: everything from little plump plastic tubs to creaking old wooden boats and the big steel jobs, their plates stained with work.

Beyond the forest of masts, you could see clear across Faxafloi Bay to Snaefellsjokull. In the pure northern light, you felt as though you could reach out and touch the cold snows on the side of the mountains. Quite honestly, the lobster wasn't much more than perfect, and I was all set to sit there for a month or two, watching the light and the water making eyes at each other, when the chair opposite squeaked as a wide figure lowered itself upon it.

'The fish is good here,' said Petursson.

'Definitely got the edge on the guillemot.'

'I thought you would be dining with your Russian friend.'

'He's busy taking photographs of all your armed forces.'

'That will not take him long.' He smiled. Iceland doesn't have any forces, armed or otherwise.

'You have had a busy day?'

I wondered how much he'd know about my day. In a place that size, probably everything. Even so, I thought I'd let him tell me.

'So so.'

All he had to do was to raise one big hand to have a girl running out with coffees. I took a good look at him as he sat there. Tonight he was wearing a plain oatmeal-coloured raincoat and an old-fashioned wide-brimmed hat which he placed carefully on his knee, rather than on the table. It surprised me he didn't put all his clothes on hangers before he risked sitting down.

'We were talking about you today.'

'I'm flattered.'

'We are still puzzled, Mr Craven. We still do not quite know where to place you . . . no, no, please do not protest. I know that you are a journalist. The question is: are you something else as well?'

'I thought you did pretty well to turn up all that stuff on me last night.'

He shrugged. 'As I told you, I worked in London. I thought perhaps I would find that you are attached to one of the more informal security sections. Apparently not.'

Brightly, I grinned up at him. 'So there we are then.'

'So there we are. We shall hope so.' He raised his cup with difficulty in his big hand. 'You went back to the flat. I would be grateful if you would tell me about it.'

I was ready for the question, but not for the careful courtesy with which he put it. I had the feeling he was giving me a chance to be straight with him. I had another feeling: if I didn't take it, I'd regret it. So I told him the whole thing: about the way the place had been wrecked, Mr Chamois in the foyer, the crack over the head, even the pan. The only thing I didn't mention was the photograph well, that had gone anyway.

I ended up: 'Do you think Mr Chamois bopped me, Petursson?'

He rubbed his fingers up the long bones of his jaw. 'No, I do not think he did,' he said, in his roller-coaster accent. 'And now you want to know why. Many reasons. The ones you say, like why would he come back, and how did he get the pan, and so on. But there is another reason. It does not bother you if I smoke?'

He tapped one of his small cigars out of the packet and lit it with a green plastic lighter. He returned both the packet and the lighter to his pocket before continuing.

'He is a diplomat,' he said.

'A diplomat? What sort of diplomat?'

'Not the sort to assault journalists, I can assure you.'

'What nationality is he? What was he doing?'

He rapped the table top twice to silence me. 'Listen, Mr Craven, listen to me. The man who hit you with the pan was hiding in the kitchen.'

He picked a matchstick out of the ashtray and scraped the ash offthe end of his cigar before it fell in an unauthorised place.

He wasn't a man for chances, Petursson. That was what made him so good.

'How do you know?'

'Simple. My men were watching the flat. They saw him go in.'

'So why didn't they arrest him?'

'Also simple. They didn't see him leave. He got out by a service door at the side.'

'Was he a diplomat too?'

He chose to ignore the sardonic inflexion. 'No, not this man. I was hoping you might tell us a little about him, Mr Craven?'

I pointed at the top of my head. 'That's all I know about him.'

He sat back in his chair and studied me with an interested, uncritical air. 'That is my difficulty, you see. Am I telling you things? Or am I telling you things you already know? That is my main worry. That, and how much trouble you can make for my country.'

He rose clumsily, heaving the chair back with one hand.

'I'd like you to take a little walk with me, if you would be so kind.'

'Fine,' I said. 'But I didn't know anything about the man in the kitchen, you know. For all I know, he could've been there all night.'

'Oh, no, Mr Craven,' he said, checking the angle of his hat in the window. 'If he had been, you would have been dead. By the way, give me your opinion on the two gentlemen by the harbour as we go, will you?'

He knew how to deliver a line all right, did Petursson, and I hoped I looked appropriately shocked: because he was monitoring every reaction. Before I had time to wonder about the man who might have killed me, Petursson had ushered me outside into the soft light of the late evening. When he took my sleeve to point out the snow on the mountains, I knew he was giving me time to look at the two men dawdling at the water's edge.

They didn't even need to touch each other. The effect that Petursson's appearance had on them was minute but unmistakeable. One, who was throwing stones at a plastic bottle in the water, glimpsed us as he turned. His eyes flicked like knives to his mate, who had his back to us. With a quick movement of his hand, he tossed the remaining half-dozen or so stones into the water and, before the pitter-patter of their landing had died, the two of them were walking off briskly, shoulder to shoulder.

We watched them go before we, at a much more leisurely rate, followed.

'Well? Did anything about them strike you?'

'Obviously they're fishermen.' He didn't look too amazed by that deduction. Men in a semi-uniform of roll-neck sweater, reefer-type jacket, and roll-on woollen hats, all dark blue, seen patrolling a harbour were unlikely to be trapeze artists.

'Yes, that is obvious, I agree. Let us take a look at their vessel.'

By the time we got to the first corner, they were just rounding the next one, two yards ahead. When we reached that corner, they were disappearing up the gangplank of a dirty grey trawler.

'Fishermen - that's all?'

'I'd say so.'

They were men, they were off a fishing-boat, so that was fair enough. What he meant - and what I knew perfectly well he meant - was that they weren't fishermen. From what little I could see of their heads, their hair was too well trimmed. They were too sprucely dressed. They were too clean. They moved with short twelve-inch steps, clipped, quick, purposeful. It's a style that stays long after you've forgotten your drill sergeant's name. Whatever they called themselves now, they were military men.

But just this once I thought it wouldn't do any harm for Petursson to be doing the guessing.

'Very well,' he said. 'Now see what you can tell me about their ship.'

This time, instead of playing stupid, I decided to show him what a bright little fellow I could be.

'Isn't it an AGI?'

Under the brim of his hat, he looked surprised. 'How do you know about such things?'

'Aliens Gathering Intelligence,' I intoned heavily, and I won't say that I wasn't enjoying his surprise. 'Oh, I've written about them.'

I looked over the grey hull with the white superstructure and the name Pushkin in Cyrillic lettering on the bows and English on the side of the bridge. The only smartly-painted bit was the hammer and sickle in red on the funnel. That figured. The Russians knock hell out of their trawlers for a few years and then flog them to some poor unsuspecting Third-World country.

'What makes you think it's a spy-ship?' he asked.

Now I really did let myself go. 'Look at all those aerials and DF loops. Christ, you could get the BBC's News at One half-an-hour early with that lot. Even so, I'm surprised it's not got the Hydrographic Service flag flying you know, blue with a white lighthouse.'

He was just about to give me ten out of ten when a sound above made us both look up.
A fat old man with eyes like holes poked in grey pastry came up to the side to have a look at us. He dragged on a cigarette butt with the urgency you always feel for the last pull, then watched it fall into the oily sea below.

'You are very well informed,' Petursson said admiringly. 'You are correct about the flag though. But don't you think those nets are curious?'

I looked where he was pointing. The deck was covered in a jumble of nylon netting. Why would a spy-ship want nets?

'And this is a stern trawler. So far as I know, the Russians have not yet used a stern trawler as an AGI.'

'So what is it then?'

Again, he ignored my question, as we strolled alongside the scarred grey flanks of the trawler. 'We thought as you did, at first. And of course for the Russians to bring a spy-ship in here even for. repairs, as they insist would be provocative. As a fulltrui of the government, I sought permission to board her and have a look around.'

'Christ!' From a bit closer, I'd suddenly realised that the fat fisherman who was watching us wasn't a fat fisherman at all. It was a fat fisherwoman. Although how I managed to detect some vestige of femininity in that waddling bundle of rags, I couldn't say.

'A woman, yes. It is not so uncommon. So, as I say, I sought permission to inspect this vessel.'

'And did you?'

'Yes.' He stopped and looked down at me and I saw the twinkle of amusement in his face as he enjoyed telling his story. 'They were most helpful, the captain, the crew, everybody.'

'What did you find?' I asked, which was what he wanted me to do.

'What did I find?' He examined the ship again through narrowed eyes as though he'd only just noticed it. 'I found fish, Mr Craven.'

I was thinking about that when I saw the woman had shuffled along so she was almost above us.

'Good evening, madam,' I called out. 'And how are you?'

No expression touched her pudding features. I heard her hawking in the back of her throat and then she spat solidly and with great relish. It landed an inch away from the gleaming brown toe of Petursson's shoe. He raised his face towards her. She went.

'Yes, lots and lots offish. Isn't that a surprise? So we gave her the All Clear. Isn't that what it said on that interesting badge of yours. All Clear?'

*

You don't realise how much you rely on Mother Nature to switch off the lights until she lets you down.

Hulda's thin curtains were useless against the pale steady light of the northern night. I even tried hanging my jacket over the window but it kept slipping down. I wished I'd had some of the tinfoil the American troops use to seal their windows out at the Keflavik base.

It seemed like a good chance to give the old meditation another go. I might've known: the minute I was sitting up all relaxed and shurring-ing away, the pictures started tippling through my mind like a hysterical video. Oddly enough, it wasn't the mystery man in the chamois jacket (a diplomat, had Petursson said?), or the sputnik or the spy-ship that wasn't a spy-ship, or even Solrun, that kept cropping up again in the
screen of my mind. It was Magnus, the blondie at the Kopavogur office.

And the way he'd said 'Utlendingar'. Foreigners. Hands-across-the-sea is all very well until the hands start coming in contact with sisters, girlfriends and wives. Before you know it, you've got fists-across-the-bar. Okay, there was a certain historic irony in that the Vikings were supposed to have pioneered take-away women, but it must still be peeving to see visitors coming down the plane steps consulting their phrase-books for 'What are you doing tonight?'

If I didn't understand that feeling, no one would.

Utlendingar. It didn't just mean that you were foreign. It was geographically specific - something like coming from another place. An outsider. And that was a word that had a lot of smoky chemistry for me - outsider. In Barnardo's, that was our name for everyone else in the world. If they weren't Barnardo boys, they were outsiders.

Contrary to what most people supposed, we were the lucky ones and we pitied the outsiders. We had everything, didn't we? Our own village, a cluster of two-storey cottages (as we called them) set around a green, each one named after a famous battle and housing a dozen kids. We counted our gardens in acres, our friends in scores, our toys in hundreds, and our parents were anyone we cared to imagine.

Some days I'd look in the mirror and my hair seemed to be blacker and curlier than ever. Your dad can beat mine? Want to bet? Mine could be Sugar Ray.

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