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Black Ice: Chapter 23

Reluctant spy Sam Craven has a long, drunken and fruitful conversation with Palli, the violent one-time husband of Icelandic beauty Solrun.

Colin Dunne continues his thrilling and chilling Cold War spy tale. To read earlier chapters please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/black_ice/

Reluctant spy Sam Craven has a long, drunken and fruitful conversation with Palli, the violent one-time husband of Icelandic beauty Solrun.

Colin Dunne continues his thrilling and chilling Cold War spy tale. To read earlier chapters please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/black_ice/

Chapter 23


I found Palli on a stool in the hotel bar he'd named. He hadn't got any smaller, any lovelier, or any sunnier in his disposition.

'I was drinking a brenni-and-coke but for you I'll have a vodka - that big.' He opened his fingers to the barman to indicate about half a pint of vodka. Then he gave a silent jeering laugh.

As the glass landed on the bar, I grabbed it and held it at arm's length.

'Now, before we start, there's one thing we get straight. No pain. No hand-squeezing, no tooth-pulling, no eye-poking and no neck-breaking. Got me? You're going to sit up there like a nice big boy and smile and say thank you to the kind gentleman.'

He came slowly up off the stool. No one had spoken to him like that since he was seven, and they'd probably regretted it then.

'I'll say what the fuck . . .'

'Or,' I said, silencing him with one raised finger, 'you don't get to know about today's murder.'

'What murder?' He sank back. I was quite relieved. Although Petursson had said it was nothing to do with him, he would've been my number-one suspect for any crime north of Glasgow.

'Solrun's mother,' I said, handing him his drink.

'Shit. The old lady. Why'd anyone want to do that?'

I told him what little I knew about it, and news of a juicy killing seemed to calm him down. He'd certainly found a drinking place to match his personality. It was a bleak dark barn, and the only other customers were two men: one singing softly to the fruit-machine as he tried to waltz with it, and a man on the next stool who was trying to guess his own name.

Brain-damage boozing used to be quite a problem in Iceland. He'd managed to find the one place where traditional values still prevailed.

'Your turn,' I said, without any ceremony.

'How's that?' he said, squinting up at me over his second drink.

'You said you'd tell me about you and Solrun. The marriage - remember?'

To my surprise, in a quiet and reasonable tone he began to tell me.

'Have you heard of Frimerkjapeninga? Sure you haven't. Why the hell would you? It's just another of them crazy words that's three blocks long - they got plenty of those here, believe me. Frimer-crap, whatever the word is, is what they call the stamp money the government here pays all the school-kids for their vacation work. Like picking up leaves in the parks and picking the weeds out, all crummy jobs like that. They stick the money away in the bank for them and when they're twenty-two or so they can pick it up. Worth having too. It can be a couple of thousand bucks.'

'As much as that?'

'That's right.' He drained his drink. 'You okay for another of these? Thanks. It's a long time between drinks when I'm paying. So that's what they call their stamp money. There's only two ways of getting your hands on it. Either you wait till pay-out day, or you get married.'

He pointed his thick blunt finger at me. 'You got it. They call them stamp weddings — I think that's frimekjagifting, or something like that. Some of the kids get married just so's they can pick up the cash. Then they get divorced. Who cares — they got the money.'

'She only married you for the money?'

'You got it.'

I remembered what Hulda had said. 'And it wasn't a real marriage. There wasn't anything between you?'

'You mean true love?' He gave his sour laugh again, took a slot out of his new drink and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. When the jeering, ugly look drained from his face, something a good deal more pleasant moved in. On anyone else you might've taken it for general human decency. 'Truth is,' he added, 'I was standing in for my best buddy.'

'How'd you mean?'

'Well,' he clamped a hand over his flat stomach as a belch erupted from his mouth, 'I said I'd tell you so I will. She was my best buddy's girl. He wanted me to marry her so's she could get the money and that's what I did.'

'And you're not going to tell me who your best buddy is?'

'No sir, I am not. He asked me to look after his desert-bike and I did, and he asked me to look after his baby and I did. No problem.'

'That's the Triumph Trophy, is it?'

The glass stopped halfway to his mouth and his face burst into one big grin.

'The six-fifty?' I went on.

'Hell, how about that, we gotta guy who knows about desert-bikes.'

The truth is that I don't know much about them at all. I'd recognised it: but then, with those old-fashioned sit-up handle¬bars and high ground clearance, it wasn't all that clever. I knew that they were the great classic bikes of the sixties. You had to be able to handle them too - not like these modern rockets that the kids strap themselves inside before they close their eyes and pray. What might've been a little bit clever was that I'd noticed the chain, clean enough to wear as a slightly oily necklace - the sign of a man who loved bikes.

What had happened was that somewhere along the way, among the thousands of people I'd chatted to and thousands I'd interviewed, or among the thousands of bits and pieces I'd written and thousands I'd read, someone had told me about desert-bikes, and a bit of it had stuck. But for the next thirty minutes he told me how much he knew about them - which actually was a lot - and he still thought I was an expert.

And as he talked, I saw the way he changed. He'd begun by wanting to demonstrate his fury and his cruelty. But when he talked about something he loved, you could almost see the bunched muscles soften and pleasure drive the tension out of his gripped face.

'Pinky's?' My eyes were on the girls - romantic rather than pornographic — who writhed in smudged blue and red beneath the hair of his arms. It was a fair guess. A lot of Americans in their thirties had picked up tattoos at Pinky's on R and R in Hong Kong.

By way of reply, he pushed up the short sleeve of his tee-shirt where it stretched over his football of a bicep. There were the two tattooed words I knew would be there.

'Some of the boat people ended up here, I believe,' I said.

Slowly, he nodded his cropped and colourless head.

Casually, I went on: I saw the little kid selling newspapers in the town.'

'I seen him too. First time I was so scared I started shaking. I was thinking about the kids who used to come up to us carrying grenades.'

He slapped the bar with his hand. The crack was so loud that the man who was now proposing to the fruit-machine turned and glared at us, then carried on.

'Now I see him and I know he's just a kid, like any other kid, nothing special. You know something? This place is too damned dull. You know what the guys out at the base call this island? Icehole. I know what they mean. Sometimes when it's been raining for about a year and the wind takes the goddam coat off your back every time you step out, it can be rough. But you go to the right place, it's Fun City, coupla laughs, coupla drinks, coupla girls - each. Fun City, man.'

By two in the morning we'd had those coupla drinks a coupla dozen times, and he'd had all four girls - his and mine -crawling all over him. Now he was down to one.
We were watching a strange tribe engaged in a frenetic fertility ritual which involved self-dislocation of all the major joints while being tortured by the most advanced sound-and-light techniques. It was a disco, half-a-dozen floors of it from what I could see. To me it looked like a high-rise hell, but then these days I find whist over-stimulating. Palli - even though he was my age — and the rest of the young savages thought it was wonderful.

'Kids fly in from London to this place,' he told me.

'Can't they shoot their planes out of the sky before they land?'

We'd reached an agreement over the booze. Palli had stopped being so punitive about it and reverted to his brenni-and-Coke. He was the only non-native I knew who actually liked the stuff. It's known locally as Black Death, some say because of the colour of the bottle and some say because they have to carry you home in a hand-cart afterwards. I'd settled for martinis, which they served in the same measures as beer and at the same price as gold.

'Shall I tell you about my daddy?' There was a lot of self-mockery in his question, but something else too.

'Tell me about your daddy.'

We were spread all over the table, facing each other. The last of the girls was sitting on the floor, looped disconsolately around his thigh.

'My daddy was an Icelander.' I tried to make the right sort of surprised reactions. 'So was my old lady. They bust up. She married a guy from the base, and I ended up back in Chicago.'

He stopped. To spur him on, I said: 'You enlisted?'

'Yeah. Afterwards I had problems. Shrinks, all that garbage. Shit, man, I didn't know who the hell I was.' He shuffled the girl around so he could lean over the table to get nearer to me. She didn't mind. She didn't even notice.

With one scarlet talon she was tracing the blue, blurred letters at the top of his arm. She did the V, then the I, but gave up halfway through the E, and yawned instead. Someone ought to do a study of the incidence of boredom in beautiful girls: it's phenomenal.

'I didn't get this off the shrinks, I swear it, and maybe I don't explain too good, but I'll try. Look. You gotta know what you are. You think, here I am, I'm a goddam peasant from Chile and my pa's a fisherman, and that's what I am. I started thinking like that, and naturally I started seeing what I really was. I'm an Icelander. My daddy's an Icelander. So let's get the hell to Iceland.'

'Did you find your father?'

He had turned his face towards the band. They were doing their best to wake up Greenland. Even so I still heard him give that sour, edgy laugh again.

'I found him, okay. That was something. That was really something.' He went quiet for a moment while he thought about that and I thought then that he wasn't going to tell me. He raised his glass to me. In a much better English accent than he could've managed sober, he said: 'Sam, you're a bloody good bloke.' He slapped the girl on the rump and said: 'He's a bloody good bloke, this Brit. He's one of the good guys.'

He put his drink down and rearranged the girl and then started again. 'Yeah, I found him. We stood staring at each other. Just staring. He was crying, for Christ's sake. Tears pumping down his cheeks. So was I.'

'I can understand that.'

He shook his head. 'No, you can't. You see, we couldn't speak to each other. He didn't speak any English. I didn't speak any Icelandic. So what else could we do? We stood and cried like two fucking big babies. That's something.'

'Do you like living here?'

'Do I like it? Look at these girls, for chrissakes! They don't look like this in Chicago, I'm telling you. Have you seen the country? All those mountains and rivers. It's a helluva country.'

I knew why he hadn't answered my question. I also knew he would, in his own time. It only took another half-minute's silence.

T hate it, man.' He patted the girl again as she whispered into his ear: 'Sure, sugar, sure.' Then he carried on. 'Sure, it is a great big wonderful place, I know that. But do you know what lonely is? I look at those mountains and I feel so lonely I could cry. Spend most of my time round at the Marine House — the guys on embassy security duty give me a game of pool and a few Buds. Hell, at least I can tell what they're talking about.'

For all his toughness, he was just a little boy who'd turned one corner too many and lost sight of home. Now he was just very lucky that he happened to tell me. At two in the morning, with enough of the right stuff down my throat, there are few problems I can't solve. And this was one I knew something about.

'Go home,' I said.

'This is my home.' He stabbed a finger against his bicep. 'I got Icelandic blood in these veins. Pure one hundred per cent Icelandic blood.'

I shut him up with a wave of my hands. 'Blood doesn't have a nationality. It's just the red stuff that fills up your tubes. You're an American. You look like one, you talk like one, you think like one, you are one. Go back and be one.'

'Yeah, but my daddy . . .'

'He's got nothing to do with it. Look, I'll tell you my theory. Shall I?'

He hitched the girl up a bit higher and gave me a big grin. 'He's going to tell us a theory. My bloody good bloke. Let's hear it, Sam.'

He was so drunk that if I'd told him the story of Goldilocks he would've hailed it as the solution to the human predicament. The story of Goldilocks probably makes more sense than my theory, but I told it anyway.

'You are alone. I mean, so am I and so's everyone else too, but for the purposes of this drunken explanation, you are alone. Right?'

'Right.' He tipped his drink up and somehow managed to keep his eyes on me at the same time.

'People are frightened of being alone, and they use anything to try to disguise the fact. They use sex, they use love, they use marriage, they use friendship, they use all these things to try to kid themselves that they are not by themselves. Most of all they use family. They give them special names like uncle and sister and grandma to try to bind them closer. Sometimes it works. Sometimes - say at a family party at Christmas - you really feel as though you belong to a sort of club. Or if you're with one of these girls, or the two of us having a drink.'

He raised his glass. 'You're a bloody good bloke,' he said again. 'And you're right, I just know you're right.'

'These,' I said, jabbing him in the chest, and that's not a tactic I'd risk sober, 'are fairy-stories we tell ourselves so we won't be afraid of the dark. But they don't mean a thing. In the end, there's just you, Palli Olafsson, that's all.'

The girl on the floor yawned. 'Too much talking.' Then she curled round his leg again.
Palli was leaning forward again, frowning in concentration. 'It's like a new deal when you're born?'

'That's it.'

'It doesn't matter who your father is?'

'No. Not a bit.'

He clapped his hands on his legs to applaud himself as he triumphantly yelled at me: 'Okay, so if your father - your own father — was, say, Adolf Hitler, would you still say all that?'

'As a matter of fact, my father was an American.'

At first he took it for a joke whose meaning had got misted over by the booze.

'Well, don't you go near any of those Klansmen down "in Alabama, not with your hair, buster . . .' He stopped as he saw my face. 'Hey. You ain't joking?'

I shook my head. 'All I know about my father is that he was an American GI stationed in Britain.'

'Wow.' He took a gulp at his drink. 'Wow,' he said again.

I was nine when the letter came. As soon as I opened it, I felt my nerves sizzle. I don't know why, but I remember that quite clearly.

'Dear Samuel,' it began, and no one, not even the super-intendent, called me that. 'I thought I would drop you a line to say that we hope you are getting on all right. You'll be ten next month, won't you? Quite the young man, I expect. I want you to know that your mum had to put you in the home because of the problems it would have caused in the family. I expect she thinks about you a lot and I know I do. I was thinking the other night that you don't want to grow up thinking you weren't loved, so I decided to write this letter. All the best. Your grandma.'

Looking back now, I suppose I was devastated. I was excited, but it was excitement with a touch of terror in it, I think.

Although she had written her name and address quite clearly, I never made any attempt to reply to it or to get in touch with her. Now I'm not quite sure why. Perhaps I never thought of it. Perhaps I did, and rejected it. I don't know.

And I never told anyone about it either. I kept it, folded in its envelope, as a secret. Often when I was alone I took it out and reread it, testing each word for different meanings and interpretations. Eventually, it disintegrated.

It wasn't until three years later, when I was thirteen, that I went to the superintendent and said I wanted to know who my parents were. He told me my mother had been a local factory girl and my father was a US serviceman. 'As far as we can establish,' he said, 'they only met on the one occasion.' He warned me against digging too deep. People who did were almost always disappointed, he said. His advice was to let well alone. When I said that was what I'd do, he looked relieved.
After that I never asked again.

Not that I told one word of that to Palli.

'Wow,' he said, for a third time. 'Don't you know who he was?'

'No. I don't know who my mother was either.'

'Can't you find out some way?'

'I could - I don't want to.'

'That is very, very cool.' He shook his scrubbing-brush head, grinning and giggling. 'You don't want to know and you carry on as though nothing's happened?'

'Nothing did happen to me, did it?'

'I guess not. That's it! Christ, you are right!' He reached over and grabbed my hand and started shaking it. I thought mine was coming off at the wrist. 'So what the hell does it matter about your old man, you're here and you're having a good time. It's a new deal. Every time, every life, it's a new deal.'

As he was calling up some more drinks, he suddenly remembered something. He leaned over the table and put his hand on my arm. 'You know what I said . . . you know, about the Alabama Klansmen, shit, I was only joking.'

'That's okay, Palli.'

'I mean, fuck, you don't look anything . . .'

'Forget it, Palli.' Somehow, through the seas of booze, I managed to recognise that as the key moment. 'You know that Solrun's done a runner, don't you?'

'She has?' He tried to look surprised but failed. He knew. Without a doubt he knew.

'Look, I know you've got to be loyal to your pal but do you think she could've gone to him?'

'No chance.' I could see the effort it took for him to face me with steady eyes. 'He's back in the States, working in a muffler shop in Jamaica. You know, near Kennedy.'

'Where you should be? Back in the States?'

'Oh, yeah.' Again the slow smile softened his face. 'I'm going fishing tomorrow. Why don't you come along, Sam? Few beers - real American beers - see what we can haul in?'

'Why not?' I replied, in that easy-going carefree way that means you haven't the faintest intention of doing it.

But then what a dull old world it would be if we all told the truth all the time. Like that business over the AC badge. I wasn't in any rush to tell Petursson but I'd recognised the badge the minute I saw it. It was a miniature of the US Marines breast insignia for Air Crew. The real one is about four inches across but this smaller version was the one they gave to girlfriends to 'pin' them. In the same way that little boys at parties stick their fingers in the tastiest cakes to reserve them.

That was the badge. Somehow that slotted in neatly with a spare name I'd got rolling around in my mind unclaimed. I'd been fed two names. Solrun had talked about two men. One of the names, Kirillina, fitted the young Russian diplomat. Logically then . . . Oscar Murphy ... or was I jumping to conclusions?

There was only one thing to do. Try it.

'What I don't understand is this, Palli,' I said. I didn't have to act drunk. This was Method School where you have to live the part.

'Whassat?' He had one eye closed to focus on me. The girl had gone.

'This.' I wanted to bring the badge and the man together in one sentence for maximum impact and with the state my brain was in it wasn't easy work. But eventually I got there. I took a deep breath. 'If your buddy Oscar Murphy had got his helicopter wings and was doing so well, why the hell did he want to quit the marines like that?'

His face registered a bull's eye.

Show me a conclusion and I'll jump to it. If I had a family, that'd be the motto.

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