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Black Ice: Chapter 20

Reluctant spy Sam Craven finally meets up with the husband of his ex-girlfriend, the beautiful Solrun, and encounters pain.

To read earlier chapters of Colin Dunne's stylish Cold War thriller please click on

When I come to think about it, I've never actually known a woman who rushed off home to mummy in moments of emotional crisis. My wife used to rush out and spend. To her, the cheque-book was a weapon of retaliation: it gave her a strike-back capability that was awesome.

All the other women I'd known used to go to the hairdressers. Some of them— I'll swear it — used to seek out emotional crises if they'd got word of a classy new crimper.

But I liked the home-to-mummy theory, and I was en-couraged by the glint of doubt in Hulda's eyes when I suggested it. Shaking her head like a terrier with a mouse, she said Solrun would never go to her mother's. Since Hulda seemed to be the chairman of the Solrun Defence League, that was good enough for me. I went.

Asta Arnadottir lived in a small flat-fronted terraced house, painted black, in what they call the Stone Village — Grjotathorp — in the old centre of the city. We had to park at the top and walk down. I climbed the three stone steps and gave the heavy brass knocker a bang.

'Hardly Knightsbridge, is it?' Ivan said, in his snobbiest voice.

Actually, it's got a lot of character. Two dozen or so houses, mostly old-style with steep-pitched roofs, dotted around a slope where you could still see some of the boulders that gave the place its name.

Across the road, a skinny woman in a floral pinafore came out and pretended to sweep the pavement so she could have a look at us. There's one of those in every street: self-appointed sentries.

I knocked again. 'It's no use,' Ivan said. 'Empty houses have a definite aura about them. This, I have to tell you, is an empty house.'

'So it is,' I said in mock gratitude. As he spoke, there'd been a noise from inside the house.

I called out 'Hello,' and this time used my knuckles on the dark paintwork. In the silence that followed, I put my ear up against it to listen. You couldn't say quite what sort of noise it was — a series of stifled sounds, somewhere between a whimper and a wail.

'Oh, let's go,' Ivan said, moving a step or two up the street. He'd wanted to come in the afternoon. He kept insisting it was too early, meaning, no doubt, too early for him.

'No, there's someone there.' If there was, they weren't opening any doors. I spent fifteen minutes knocking and calling, while the street-sweeper watched in silence, before I gave up and walked back to the jeep.

'You don't think that could've been a child, do you?' I asked.

Ivan was adamant. 'Definitely not. It was a puppy. She won't open the door because she has a dog in there and you know what they're like about that round here. They mow them down in the streets.'

'I'm surprised at you,' I said, as I picked my leisurely way through the morning traffic. 'You mustn't believe what you read in the papers, Ivan. They don't do anything of the sort.'

We were passing the Tjornin and the lake was as calm as a mirror.

I stepped on the brake. Marching alongside the water, in corduroy shorts, baseball cap and boots, was Bottger, the Esperanto-speaker who'd been on the flight out. With his long legs and bony knees, he looked like one of the rarer wading birds.

'Have you found your friends over here?' I asked him.

'No. It is most annoying. They have also gone on holiday.'

'Didn't you write to them to say you were coming?'

'Yes, but I fear there must have been a misunderstanding.'

I couldn't resist it. 'I thought that was what you Esperanto chaps were going to wipe out.'

He gave me a look loaded with reproach. 'And how is your friend with the musical lavatory?'

'He hasn't made his first million yet.'

He pointed a long hard arm out towards the mountains. 'I go there.' He banged his chest with his fist. 'Fresh air.'

As he loped off, knees high, Ivan patted the lapels of his blazer. 'I go Saga bar. Fresh g and t.'

With a couple of hours to kill, I nipped back down to the harbour to have a look at the Comrades Afloat.

The Pushkin was still there, though whether that was a good thing or not, I wasn't sure. And I could see what Petursson meant. The aft-deck was strewn with nets: the Russians don't usually go in for that much window-dressing. Fish too, Petursson had said. That was altogether too much innocence.

I stood for a while watching the harbour move to the rhythms of the sea. A high-prowed steel fishing-boat grunted in its chains. The little play-boats chattered like children. An old wooden warrior's engine drummed as it pushed out to sea, to where the light sky met the dark water.

I turned then and was looking down as I stepped through the sea's cast-offs - the scattering of torn tyres and wooden crates and plastic bottles — when I heard another engine drumming. I looked up. It was Palli Olafsson. He had stopped not six feet away from me.

He was still wearing the tee-shirt and shorts, thin rags on the hard pale slabs and ridges of muscle that looked as though they'd been bolted on to his body. The tattoos showed clearly through the thickets of ginger hair on his arms. You couldn't see his eyelashes and eyebrows, so his light blue eyes seemed to be staring out of a strangely naked face.

'Palli?' I said, wondering how the hell I was going to talk to him without Christopher.
He gave one short, pugnacious nod.

Slowly and deliberately, I mouthed: 'Do you understand English?'

He folded his heavy arms across his chest. 'Bet your ass I do,' he said. And a hard grin bent his lips as he viewed my astonishment.

I took him to a chintzy upstairs cafe near the lake. Among the blue-and-white gingham tablecloths and spindle-backed chairs, he looked about as likely as a water-buffalo in a dinner-jacket.

He can't have been precisely the sort of customer they were hoping would pop in to encourage mid-morning trade, but they didn't say anything. They didn't even say anything when he spun his chair round and the back creaked under the weight of his arms and shoulders. And they didn't say anything when he flicked the ash off his cigarette on to the floor.

I don't suppose he'd ever had a lot of complaints about his behaviour. Menace hung about him like a low cloud.

I didn't know where to start when I looked at that unnervingly hairless face. 'So . . . you're an American?'

'No. Next question.'

I'd no idea what to make of that. 'You're not an American?'

'That's what I just told you,' he said, in an accent that was pure popcorn and Budweiser. 'Anyway, I don't wanna talk about that.'

'What do you want to talk about?'

'You were looking for me, remember?'

I did, but that seemed a long time ago now. Abandoning all thoughts of subtle interrogation, I swallowed hard and went straight for it.

'You married Solrun, I believe?'

'Who wants to know?'

'Me.' I took his silence as the next question. 'I'm a newspaperman from London. I'm writing some stuff about her.'

He turned his eyes away in disgust. 'Why'd you think I'll buy that shit?'

'You want credentials . . .'I reached inside my jacket, but he was already shaking his head.

'You wouldn't pull that one unless you'd got the paperwork.'

'So how do I convince you? I was a friend of hers. You can ask people. I knew her a couple of years ago when I was on a press visit.'

To my relief he was nodding his head this time. 'I got you. The Brit. The shmuck in the photographs.'

This was no time to be proud. 'That's right,' I said, beaming with bonhomie.

A silence welled up between us as he studied me. If I'd had all day to think about it, I still couldn't have guessed his next question.

'You lay her?' he suddenly snapped out. The silence spread to the other tables. A tall man in a suit who was halfway through the door, glanced around, and went out again.

'Yes,' I said, after a lifetime's pause.

This time he leaned further forward and pushed his crude colourless face towards me. 'You fucked my wife?' he said, in a soft whisper.

'Yes.' My voice bent a bit in the middle but I managed to say it.

He sat back, threw his head back and blew smoke at the ceiling. 'If you'd said you hadn't, I'd have torn your ears off, man,' he said, his eyes, bright with amusement, returning to mine. 'I must be the only goddam guy on this island who hasn't.'

I concentrated on stirring my coffee. There was no sugar in it to stir, but it did seem a fairly neutral activity.

'You wanna write that down for your readers? C'mon, that's a great story — ain't that what you call it, a story?' I had a sudden thought then of Grimm and his ideas about the Sexy Eskies and I wondered what he'd make of reality when it came in this form.
Very gently, I inquired: 'And why was that?'

'Why didn't I get to screw her?' He took delight in spelling it out. Euphemisms weren't needed round here for the moment. 'Maybe she only liked you classy Brits and the way you say "bloke" and "bloody" all the time. Or maybe she was a real patriot and only kicked up her heels for these big dumb fish-stinkin' Icelanders.'

He'd lifted his voice for the last few words and he turned and looked around to see if anyone else wanted to contribute to the debate. They didn't.

He was a puzzle. There was a pride in his bitterness, a violent and defiant pride, and I couldn't see where it came from.

'Course,' he went on, pleased with the discomfort he was causing, 'maybe she didn't like Uncle Sam too much. Some of the folks round here don't. Ain't that right?'

Two stone-faced housewives rose and left. A workman in a donkey jacket followed.

'See what I mean? No, they don't all love the Americanos on this little island. Now I wonder why that can be? I really do wonder about that.'

'But you're not American, are you?'

The smile sank and I was left looking at the hollow emptiness of his eyes. Casually he reached out and took my right hand in his left. He held it softly, without force. Then, with the finger and thumb of his right hand, he took hold of the thin web of flesh between my own finger and thumb. He began to squeeze.

T know a hundred ways to give you pain.' He watched me with real interest.

At first I felt nothing. I watched his thumb, thick as a truncheon, go into rings of white and red as he increased the pressure. He ground the sliver of tissue until my whole hand felt on fire.

'Well, well, we got a toughie,' he said.

He moved his shoulders forward to get more pressure and he squinted up at me from beneath his bare brows. He was watching me with the detached curiosity of a professional. Inside, everything I had was screwed up into a tight ball in the middle of my chest to stop my face breaking open with the pain, and to stop the shouts from flooding out.

Behind me, I heard one of the waitresses say something which caused a wary look to move across his face. Gently, he released my hand and set it down as though it was a meal he didn't want any more. The pain surged in, white and red lances of it, as the blood moved back.

"I know about pain, friend,' he said, in a quiet, careful voice. "I was well trained.'

I was nursing my hand, but nothing could stop the feeling that it would detonate with pain.

'You said you weren't American,' I said.

'Did I say that?'

I got up, chucked down some money for the coffee and shook my head at the waitress who was poised to dial for the police.

'Where the hell do you think you're going?'

'A long way from you. I thought you wanted to talk to me, to help me. If you don't, that's fine with me. But what I'm not going to do is to play stupid bloody guessing games with you while you show the world what a big tough boy you are. Now, if you want to go ahead and stamp on my toes and pull my ears off until the cops come and beat some sense into any brain you've got left under that bristle, you'd better do it now- because I'm going.'

I walked out and left him there. I don't know how. Running would've been much easier.

I'd got about two hundred yards up the road by the Tjornin when I heard the big-drum thunder of his bike. The only person near enough for a Mayday call was a small boy in horn-rimmed specs who was shelling the ducks with crusts. He looked nasty enough to handle Palli but not quite big enough. Anyway, without his crusts he was probably nothing.

Palli came up alongside my left shoulder and throttled the engine back to a funereal popping sound.

'Hey,' he shouted over his shoulder. 'You wanna know about the wedding?'

I walked on. He wobbled, swung the front wheel for a balance he failed to find, and then tore down the street with a mighty grunt of the engine, braked hard, spun round, and came back. He turned again behind me and came up once more on my shoulder.

'Guess I was out ofline back there,' he said, shouting over the engine.

I stopped. He put his foot down.

'You were.'

He put his head on one side and ran his nails through his stubble of hair. 'Guy comes along, says he's a fucking writer or something, starts asking all sorts of questions . . .'

'Forget it,' I said, and I'd begun to move off when he called me back — politely.

'Let's talk. Don't be so goddam nervy.'


'Not now. Tonight. Seven. You good for a coupla drinks — Icelandic prices?'

We arranged to meet that evening at one of the few hotel bars — all the bars are hotel bars. As he roared off, I nursed my throbbing hand and hoped it was going to be worth it.


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