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Black Ice: Chapter 25

...The map of Iceland might have unfolded itself if he hadn't been careful to pin it down with a good solid weight. But that's the thing about a Colt .45 automatic...

Reluctant spy Sam Craven does a spot of univited flat inspection.

To read earlier chapters of Colin Dunne's brilliant Cold War thriller, set appropriately in Iceland, please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/black_ice/

The coughing man was bothering me. I don't know why. There was no reason why Palli's girlfriend - if that's what she was -shouldn't have a male guest in the spare bedroom. She didn't altogether look like a girl who was saving herself for Mr Right. On the other hand, maybe it was her poor old granddad, or maybe an out-of-town hack like me who was staying with her.

When I'd heard him cough, she'd shouted out of the window at Palli and that was when he'd taken off. In the rush, I'd forgotten the coughing man.

I'd intended asking Palli about it last night. I'd also meant to ask him about the girl and the baby, although I'd somehow picked up the impression that they didn't belong to him in any permanent sense. All that had gone the moment I'd mentioned Oscar Murphy. That sobered him up all right. It sobered me up, too - for a second, there was a fair chance he was going to redesign my face. Then, without another word, he'd got up and thundered out. He crashed through the party crowds with as much ceremony as a Sherman tank.

I remembered he'd said he was going fishing. Maybe that would give me a chance to try to talk my way into the flat again. At the worst I could keep watch.
It was raining. Heavy sheets ceaselessly poured down, swinging and swirling in a gusty wind. In Iceland you don't let that keep you indoors. If you did, you could be there for a month.

As I drove up the long hill towards the Breidholt flats, I saw Palli's female flatmate rushing down behind an encased pram. If I'd thought about it, perhaps I would've turned back. But I was still suffering from brain damage from the night before and I wasn't up to flexible forward planning. So I carried on. In the car park I couldn't see any sign of Palli's Triumph.

Which meant, if the coughing man wasn't there, that the flat was empty. Me, I'm like nature, I abhor a vacuum.

Since my last visit, the only improvement to the environment was a fresh vomit stain in the lift. The corridor was empty. From the flat next door came the sound of American voices from the base radio and a small child's monotonous pleading. Happy-family time.

On the door of Palli's flat, swinging from a central drawing-pin, was a note. It was scrawled in thick blurred pencil lines on the back of a computerised bill. I read it, and read it again -'Lykillinn er a sinum stad.'

It didn't mean a lot to me. In fact, it didn't mean a thing to me. Not many Icelandic words do.

I took a closer look at the door. It wasn't much more than a thin board on a frame with a key-turn opening, which meant it only had one fastening. Under pressure from my hand, it gave a little before springing back. One bash would do it. One heel kick would rip out the screws that held it to the jamb.

It would also rip all the neighbours out of their flats to see what was going on. And what would I find inside? Maybe Palli lying on his bed reading comics and smoking while a friend borrowed his bike. No: whatever real spies may do, kicking doors down wasn't the answer.

I examined the note again in the hope that my Icelandic had improved. It hadn't. Next door the woman was singing and the child was crying - which was cause and which was effect was anyone's guess. Two doors down, I heard a man's voice getting louder as he got nearer to the corridor. His door opened and his voice, echoing in the tiled corridor, stopped when he saw me. He was a weathered-looking man, heavily built, in an old leather jerkin. He stood there, scratching his belly, then went back inside.

Then I remembered the credit card trick beloved of private eyes. The latch didn't take Amex, but thought seriously about Diners before rejecting that too.

I stared at the door again, hoping it would talk to me. In a way it did. Woman, child and Palli resident, plus one more man who may be resident or guest. Keys. How did they all come and go? Did people like that have a selection of keys ready cut for house guests? No, they did not. So what did they do?

Bruce Willmott, who was at school with me, had five brothers and two sisters. They didn't all have keys that was for sure. So what ... I remembered.

I reached up and ran my fingers along the shelf above the door. The key was there. They did what most people did who weren't too worried about burglars because they'd nothing worth nicking. They stuck the key in the nearest hiding place and left a note saying, 'Key in Usual Place'.

The door opened easily. I stepped inside and closed it behind me.

The coughing man suddenly became an eight-foot Viking in my imagination. Every creak became a footfall, every shadow an ambush. Even my breathing was deafening. I leaned back against the door and calmed down my fears. I was inside. I couldn't go back.

'Hello,' I called out in a breezy voice. 'Anyone at home? Palli? You there, Palli?'

With thumping, confident steps, I strode into the living-room. Some of the steamy smell had lifted, otherwise it was the same. If I abhorred a vacuum then she abhorred a vacuum cleaner.

The first bedroom was hers and the baby's. His too, lucky feller. Her clothes were heaped in a jumble on a chair, spilling down to the floor. She'd propped a chipped mirror against the window. That, with a few flattened tubes and topless pots, took care of her glamour requirements. Over the duvet cover, Snow White and the dwarfs scampered, presumably looking for somewhere to have a wash. Both pillows were badly bruised.

The second bedroom was unfurnished: no bed, no chairs, no carpet, nothing. But someone was camping out there just the same.

It was the tidiest corner of the whole flat. One olive-green sleeping-bag had been rolled up and stacked against the wall. Beside that stood a nylon tote-bag. A few items of clothing had been folded and put into a neat pile: roll-neck sweater, patch-pocket canvas trousers, a camo-shirt. A green woollen stocking hat held the pocket debris: a handful of American coins, an airline boarding pass, a pair of nail clippers, a book of matches from a bar in New Jersey inscribed 'No Faggots Allowed', two ballpoint pens. Next to that lay a duty-free carton of tipped Camels, ripped open with several packs missing, and a bottle of Jack Daniels Black Label, either half-empty or half-full, depending on whether you're a pessimist or an optimist.
Whoever he was, he liked things neat and tidy. The map of Iceland might have unfolded itself if he hadn't been careful to pin it down with a good solid weight.

But that's the thing about a Colt .45 automatic - they do weigh a lot. Now I don't know a lot about guns - when I first read James Bond I wondered why he shot people with the Pope's hat - but I do know that this one was very big, very wicked, and very dangerous.

If you could manage to lift it, that is. I could, with an effort. I held it in my handkerchief while I inspected it. Full magazine, one up the spout, safety on, which is how a working pistol should be if you're thinking of putting it to some use. And if you're not, why not carry a willing smile instead?

It wasn't new, but it was well cared-for. Which was more than you could say for me.

Then I thought of the ID tag which marines have on their shirts, inside and just below the collar where they have their name, rank and number. Someone else had thought of it too. Name rank and number had been snipped off. All that remained was the assurance that this shirt met USMC specifications. It was when I was trying to fold the shirt as neatly as I'd found it that I felt the photograph in the pocket. I say photograph, but it was only one of those instant snaps, so the focusing wasn't too good and there was a lot of glare from the snow.

Even so, it couldn't have been anyone but Solrun. She was standing on a wooden verandah outside what looked like a sumarhus the country cabins the Icelanders race to for their summer weekends. You could see the snow in the background and Solrun was wrapped in hood and gloves. So was the baby she was holding up for the camera.

If that's what it was. It was baby-shaped. It wore baby clothes. But that was all you could see. It looked like one of the in-arms models much the same as the one I'd seen here earlier rather than the running-around ones. That was about as far as my infant recognition took me.

I wasn't expecting to find that. I wasn't expecting the knock on the door either.

The first knock was hesitant. The second was more forceful. The third rattled the door on its hinges, and there were raised voices behind it too.

By then I'd shoved the photo back in the shirt and put it back on the pile. As I raced through to the bathroom I was taking off my jacket and tie, and I prayed that the shaky-looking shower-fitting worked as I stuck my head under and turned it on. It did. Then all I needed was a towel. I found one that had apparently been used for mucking out elephants - before I answered the door.

What I saw was the man in the leather jerkin I'd encountered earlier, and a watery-eyed woman he'd pulled in as a witness. What they saw was a half-dressed man who was in the middle of washing his hair.

'Ja?' I asked, giving my head another scrub.

The man, who'd been poised for action but had now dropped back a step in puzzlement, aimed some hesitant Icelandic at me. I retaliated with a minute and a half of rapid German along the lines of my being Palli's best friend from Hamburg. I mentioned Palli's name four times just to make sure.

'Ah, Palli?' he said, eventually.

'Ja,' I said, congratulating him as though he'd just won the pools. 'Friend,' I said in English, tapping myself on the chest.

'Friend,' the woman said, treating me to a brown-toothed smile. Still trying to smile at me, she shot a volley out of the side of her mouth at her husband. What it said, at a guess, was what the hell was he playing at, dragging her out of her flat with a lot of nutty talk about burglars and then disturbing innocent tourists in the middle of their toilet preparations. After all, whoever heard of a burglar hanging about to wash his hair?

'Guten morgen,' she said to me, in a moment of inspiration. She led him off by the arm and the moment their door closed she was at him like an angry monkey.

Five minutes later I left. It may not have been a very profitable morning, but at least I'd got my hair washed. I wanted to look my best for the US Navy top brass, didn't I?

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