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Black Ice: Chapter 24

Reluctant spy Sam Craven, after tucking into breakfast, is given a not unexpected gift: a stuffed puffin.

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As soon as he picked up the phone, I went straight into my nasal-yankee voice. 'You gotta Mr Vale there?'

'Jack Vale speaking,' he said, in that mellifluous Edinburgh accent that made the rest of the English-speaking world sound like woad-smeared savages. 'Can I help you?'

'Sure you can, Vale, unless you wanna wind up at the bottom of the river with a nickelodeon around your neck. You can keep your stinkin' hands off my wife.'

A long pause followed. After all, it was five in the morning in New York.

'Behind that atrocious imitation of the great Mr James Cagney, I do believe I detect the unmistakeable voice of an old friend. How are you, Sam? And what do you mean by attempting such clumsy deceptions at this hour of the night?'

Since he went to freelance in New York ten years ago, I'd rung Jack about once a year, in a variety of causes and accents. I'd never survived the first minute without being spotted.

Just testing, Jack. I was wondering if you could check something out for me.'

'Do you have to tell me now? Oh, it doesn't matter, I'm awake. Who's it for?'

'Grimm's sunny stories.'

'Surely you're not reduced to that, are you? Tell me the worst then. But I warn you, under no circumstances will I even contemplate doing Sexy Secrets of the Stars again.'

I told him. He didn't sound too hopeful.

'Jamaica's out by the airport. He works in a muffler shop, you say?'

'Yes. I assume that's a place where Americans buy colourful woollen scarves to keep the cold out, isn't it Jack?'

He gave a sigh of elaborate weariness. 'You don't assume anything of the sort. But I must tell you that there are hundreds of those back-street exhaust centres - as you would put it, in your quaint British way. However, leave it with me.'

We were finishing off all that whatever-happened-to-old-thingy when I saw Christopher coming in through Hulda's door. Five minutes later he was having breakfast with me and rabbiting away with Hulda in Icelandic.

'Absolutely delicious,' he enthused, smearing what looked like jellied seal on to his toast. He made his finger and thumb into that Gallic ring of approval. 'Superb, Hulda, superb. Try some, Sam. It's a sort of potted lamb.'

I'd been tucking mine away behind the geraniums but now I didn't have any choice. He was right. It was delicious.

'If it wants to get eaten, why does it go round looking like that?'

'Don't be so squeamish,' he said. Then he rhapsodised some more at Hulda. She was presiding - no lesser word would cover it - at the head of the table, delighted at last to have an appreciative audience for her efforts.

When she spoke back to him, in Icelandic of course, I knew what she'd be saying by the formal way she tilted her head.

'You really ought to learn some of the language,' Christopher said to me. 'You miss so much.'

'Oh, I wouldn't say that. She just told you that it was her duty and her pleasure.'

His head spun towards me. 'Gosh, you do after all.'

'Sam knows me too well,' Hulda said, and they both laughed. I might've fooled him but I couldn't kid Hulda for long.

When she went through to the kitchen, Christopher began to talk seriously. He'd heard about Solrun's mother when he got back from the north the previous night. Even at second-hand, he was horrified by what had happened, which set me wondering if he could be Batty's man sent along to throw me a lifeline. There was his nose: surely that would pass as credentials for one of the shadier trades.

What he wanted, when he got around to it, was to express his doubts about Ivan. Knowing we were friends didn't make it any easier for him, but in the end he did manage to say it.

'He's up at the Russian Embassy again now.' He was whispering, his eyes on the door for Hulda's return.

I wasn't going to join in the whispering. 'Why not? He works for the Russian government.'

'Yes, but doing what? I know he's an old friend of yours and all that, but I must say it - I think he's a spy. A proper spy.'

'Like all of us, he operates as best he can in a world of limited possibilities.'

'An awful lot more limited in Russia,' he grumbled.

He'd come round to offer his services as interpreter again. He'd had a disappointing trip to Akureyri. No one was interested in his lavatory gimmick. It was hard to believe that he was genuinely surprised by this, but he was clearly quite crestfallen. Now he was having problems getting authority to move stuffed puffins out of the country.

His gypsy face looked quite pale. 'I'm beginning to think I may not be cut out for business after all,' he said. I had to hide my smile. 'Anyway, not to worry. At least it gives me the opportunity to offer a small present to your daughter.'

He swung over a plastic bag. Without looking, I knew what would be inside. It was. A stuffed puffin. I assumed it was stuffed but, to be honest, it looked alive to me. Alive, and very still. I'm sure you can't get that quality of malevolence into glass eyes. The look on its face was the sort of expression you'd expect to see on your worst enemy as you fell down a manhole. Malicious satisfaction. With its webbed feet clinging to a chunk of lava, it stood with its head cocked, gloating.

'I'm sure she'll love it.' He was almost prompting me.

'Oh, yes, I'm sure she will. Although I'm not sure Uncle Ivan will approve.'

'Any use for a passing polyglot today?'

For a second, I couldn't think what he meant. Then I realised. I was tempted to include him. I might well need an interpreter. But since the old lady's death, it had struck me I was involved with some deeply serious people.

'I can manage,' I said. 'But thanks, anyway.'


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