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Black Ice: Chapter 21

Reluctant spy Sam Craven and the Russian Ivanov make a shocking discovery when the go to the home of the mother of beautiful Solrun.

Tension increases in Colin Dunne's brilliant Cold War novel. To read earlier chapters please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/black_ice/

When I walked into Ivan's room, he was holding the bedside phone out towards me.

'Excellent timing. Your guru, I believe.'

It was Grimm. Hulda had put him on to the hotel. "Ere, was that that bloody Russian who's always hanging round the industrial boys?'

'Mr Ivanov, that's right.'

'You want to watch him, he's a spy.'

'So he says.'

That one flew straight past him.

'I've just been looking at today's paper and you know what's wrong with it?'

'No.'

'Adjectives.'

'Adjectives?'

'Sodding bloody adjectives, stupid useless bloody adjectives. I've told 'em all here. Anyone else uses adjectives and they're up for the chop. So remember it when you write your stuff. No bloody adjectives.'

'I will.'

'Oh, aye, and that pic of the bird and the igloo. You can always bung her five hundred if it'll help.'

'Five hundred pounds?'

'Well, I don't mean five hundred snowballs, do I? Ciao.'

Ivan was silent and withdrawn on the way up to the Stone Village. We'd arranged to have another go at Solrun's mother. Even my account of Grimm's phone-call didn't raise more than a thin smile.

'Tell me,' I asked, because I'd had time to think about it, 'why did you tell me about Solrun's Russian boyfriend?'

He kept looking straight ahead, his face drawn. 'Because you asked,' he said, with a funny little shrug.

We could hear the noise from Asta's house as we walked down the street.

'Yes, folks, those super singers from Oklahoma City will be at the Top Four Club tonight at twenny-hundred hours . . . the menu for the enlisted men's dining facility is corn chowder soup, shish kebab or southern fried chicken . . . make a note, our calligraphy class is due to start again soon at the Hobby Shop and anyone who's interested . . .'

It was the radio from the NATO base out at Keflavik and it poured out from the now half-open door of her house. The woman with the broom came to the door of her house and called out to us, but Ivan and I just exchanged glances. I knocked on the door. By the third time, with no answer still, I pushed the door gently open and stepped inside.

It was the home of a house-proud woman. You could see it in the gleaming paintwork, the shining windows, polished tan furniture, the kitchen in which every appliance nestled cosily on its hook and every substance had a labelled tin. Judging by the condition of the carpets, the occupants had mastered the mystery of flight. If a germ had got through the door, it would've died of loneliness. Everything was in its place. There was no sign that the perfect order of this dusted haven had been disturbed.

But there was no sign of Solrun's mother either. And fear hung in the air as unmistakeable as the smell of stale gunsmoke.

I'd switched off the parroting American voice, and we stood looking at each other in the perfect silence of her home. Then a soft gust of wind blew over the carpet and I saw something move.

At first sight you'd have taken it for thistledown. It was only when I bent down and held it between my hands that I could see it was a ball of hair. Silver hair, curled up, so that it rolled like a puffball on the lightest breath of wind.

Kneeling by the living-room door, I looked out into the hall and saw two more, then another one, another three or four drifting over the green carpet. I chased them and picked them up.

The specks of blood on the end were still wet.

I must've ripped open every door in the house before I saw the cupboard in the hall. It was set into the wall and painted white so you'd hardly notice it.

When I opened the door, she didn't fall out like they do in films. It took me a few seconds to see why. They'd used a snapped-off broom handle, three-foot of it, wedged wall-to-wall across her chest to hold her jammed against the back of the shallow cupboard.

They must have got her out of bed because she was wearing a pretty cream-and-white nightie with white lace trim and a matching housecoat over the top. It wasn't the sort of thing a middle-aged woman would buy herself: perhaps Solrun had got it as a present, and her mother would have said it was too young and been delighted.

The blood had soaked through both garments on her shoulders and all down the front where her head hung forward. There were splashes all over her bare feet and on the floor where it had gone on dripping. I'd never seen anything like her head. Jesus. Nothing, ever, not like that. At first glance it didn't even look like a head. It looked more like an Easter egg that some kid had inexpertly daubed with paint and decorated with fur and fluff. It was only when you saw the face beneath that you realised it was a head, and the decorations were blood and the few sad sprouts that were all that was left of her hair. Those, and some gummy strands glued to her head by the congealing blood.

I had to say the words to myself to make myself believe them. 'Dear God,' I said, 'she's been scalped.'

I kept saying that to myself, over and over again, when I heard a faint bubbling sound. With my left hand under her chin, I lifted that dreadful head, and I felt like Salome with John the Baptist. I heard the scrape of air in her throat. Incredibly, she was alive.

'Get the doctor. The police, anyone she's alive!'

Then I heard Ivan in the kitchen and I knew he was being sick. I made the call myself and when I'd finished Ivan was leaning in the kitchen doorway. He looked as though he was dying himself.

'Your shoe.' He put his hand up to his mouth again.

When I looked down, a tendril of silver hair had attached itself to my shoe. I bent down and brushed it off. It was the blood at the roots that made it stick.

'I've never seen anything so terrible.' For the first time he sounded like a foreigner. He patted his mouth with a hankie and muttered to himself in Russian.

I soaked a towel in the kitchen and tried to clean across the shining blue tiles of the kitchen. I hadn't the heart to go over and pick them up.

'She was young to have white hair,' Ivan said. It was one of those fatuous things you do say when you're in shock.

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