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Black Ice: Chapter 27

Journalist Sam Craven, enrolled as a reluctant spy, goes to the biggest America military base in Iceland seeking information and help.

To read earlier chapters of Colin Dunne's classic Cold War tale please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/black_ice/

'That's what I'd do,' said Andy Dempsie, sawing off a chunk of steak no bigger than a standard house brick. He held it in mid¬air as he finished his statement. 'Make 'em hate us. That's what I'd do if I was sitting down in Gardastraeti. You bet.'

The steak brick vanished.

He wasn't in Gardastraeti where the Russians had their embassy. He was facing me across a bare-topped table in the Navy Exchange snack bar on the NATO base at Keflavik. It was one of those places you couldn't hope to describe without a hatful of hyphens - it was a no-frills, fast-food, stand-in-line, serve-yourself place. All the phrases that in Britain guaranteed vyou a hamburger you could heel your shoes with, but here it meant a pizza as deep as his steak and just as delicious. And the Milwaukee beer was sweeping up the remains of the hangover from my long night with Palli.

'So,' he went on, 'when you phoned so early this morning— a London newspaperman, would you believe — and said you wanted to talk about one of our guys, I thought, here we go, it's happened. What's he done, this Murphy? Murdered a coupla dozen Iceland kids and every damn one of them as cute as hell? It's got to happen. One of these days. But it's not like that, you say?'

I told him again that it wasn't like that. I'd told him before when I arrived at the Public Affairs office, and he'd left one of his clerks to pull out the records on Oscar Murphy while we ate.

It wasn't hard to see why he was their Public Affairs man. With his wide-open face and non-stop chatter, plus a hair-trigger laugh, he was one of those blessed men who made you smile the minute you saw him. I've met a few with that gift, but not many. It's the sort of talent that opens doors and minds and mouths and if I could choose any talent, that's the one I'd go for.

He was a big-framed man and, although time and good times had added another chin and stomach, he still looked fit. He was wearing loose, colourful golf-course clothes.

'Another beer? Sure you want another beer. Now, where was I . . .' He'd kept up three lines of conversation since we met, and still managed to keep eating. 'Oh yeah, the doc. So I says to him, sure I smoke, forty-a-day, sometimes fifty. Do you drink? he asks, and I says, you bet I do, a few beers, a jugful of martinis before dinner, wine, a few big brandies later. I thought, dammit, I'm not going to lie to these medics, they rule our lives. He writes it all down then he looks up and says, "Mr Dempsie, you're in great shape. Whatever you're doing don't stop." Not bad, huh?'

Rich laughter rolled from him at the thought of how he'd cheated the medical profession. He finished off the steak, and speared the last dozen chips before pushing the plate away.

As he sat back, rocking the chair up on its rear legs, he lit a menthol cigarette and said: 'Nothing personal, Sam, but I truly am sorry to see you here.'

'Me? Why?'

'Because you're the guys who win and lose wars. Most of the time you win 'em for someone else and lose 'em for us.'

'But you're the country that invented advertising and public relations.'

'I know. And we keep getting whipped at it. Stay there.' He got up and came back a minute later with two more beers. 'One of the political boys was up from Washington doing a report and he said,' Dempsie puffed out his chest and lowered his voice, ' "The greatest threat to the American presence in the North Atlantic is the interface between the American male and the Icelandic female." That's what he said and it's true. But you wouldn't believe what we do to stay out of trouble.'

He recited it. They vetted servicemen to make sure they were suitable. They brought as many married couples as possible. Single men only stayed a year. They gave them everything they could to keep them on base: food at a quarter of Reykjavik prices, shops, clubs, sport, country lodges for fishing and skiing and night-classes in everything short of nuclear physics.

They were so low-profile, he said, they were almost underground. No men were permitted off base in uniform. Even out of uniform they had to be back on base before the Reykjavik night-life had begun to move. They even piped their three television channels around the camp so that it wouldn't get into the Iceland homes and corrupt them.

'You ever seen a US serviceman walking around in uniform in this country?'

I thought about that. 'I've not seen a US serviceman at all, as far as I know.'

He slapped the table with his non-smoking hand. 'There you are. Five thousand here, including dependents, and you wouldn't even know it. We are so careful, Sam, I'm telling you - so very very careful.'

'You're winning, then.'

With a sigh and a shake of the head, he murmured: 'We don't stand a chance.' He waved his cigarette hand at a man in aviator glasses who was feeding the juke-box. 'That's the man who's getting the computer to cough up on Oscar Murphy.'

'Why don't you stand a chance?' I didn't want that to get lost.

He assumed an expression of candid philosophical despair.

'Have you seen these Icelandic women?' He ground his cigarette out in an ashtray. 'And we have to persuade our fellers to stay in and study basic home economics? That's the interface he meant. Oh boy. Now you're going to tell me that Murphy's mixed up in some girl trouble?'

'Well...'

That was enough. He came bolt upright and rested his arms on the table and stared at me, waiting for the rest. I couldn't have lied to him. He seemed to have half-guessed anyway.

'Not necessarily trouble, but I'm writing a piece about an Icelandic girl and he's been . . .'

I pulled an apologetic face. He nodded and chewed his top lip.

'To be absolutely honest,' I added, 'I don't think he's here any more. But I thought you might have something on your records. Now I suppose I don't get any help?'

He scrubbed that out of the air with his hand. 'We can help, we will. That's where we're so stupid. Free press, open society. Christ! No wonder we don't have any control.' Somehow he dredged that big laugh up from somewhere. 'Don't look so grim, Sam, we'll sort it out.'

He lit another cigarette and the hospital smell of menthol drifted over.

'What I was saying before, I have a lot of sympathy for the Icelanders who don't want us here. They'd only just got their full independence from Denmark when we moved in during the war.'

I thought it was time I showed that I'd done some homework too. 'But don't all the polls show that two-thirds want you here?'

'They do, sure they do. Politically, rationally they know that. But I think that emotionally they'd like to be neutral. All those hundreds of years when they had the shit knocked out of them day after day by good old Mother Nature - I mean, if you weren't suffocated in a ten-foot snow drift then you had your ass burned off by a volcano - no one was interested then. Now it's strategically important, and they're pulling in the bucks too as it happens, and suddenly everyone wants to be their best friend. I can see they wouldn't like that. I can see they'd feel mightily inclined to tell us all to get the hell out. I'd feel like that too. It wouldn't take too much to turn that two-thirds one-third round.'

'What would it take?'

'Like I said, we pick our guys very carefully and we look after them too. But one day one of our fellers will sniff something or drink something or just go off the wall like people do sometimes, in the best ordered societies, and he'll run round burning Reykjavik down and we'll be in big, big trouble.'

He drank some beer from the can. 'I hope to God I'm not on duty when it happens. Come on back to my office for some coffee.'

It had stopped raining, but spiteful clouds still tumbled around the sky. Two young blacks in track-suits jogged past.

'That's something you wouldn't have seen at one time,' Dempsie said.

'Jogging?'

'No, blacks.'

'How's that?' I'd heard the story but I still wanted to hear his official version.

'When we first came here we had to make a deal that only "first-class" troops would be stationed here. You know what "first-class" meant then?'

'White?'

'White.' He stopped and looked out over the lava plains. With some care, he went on: 'These people had what I call an excess of national pride. They were pure bred. Literally, I mean. No newcomers had landed here for a thousand years. That doesn't seem important to mongrels like us but to them it was.'

'You mean they were racists.' I put that in to see what he'd say. He handled it well.

'I don't know. I don't think so. Certainly not in the sense of a racist in Birmingham, Alabama. Or Birmingham, England, for that matter. They didn't look down on other races because they didn't have any other races to look down on. A lot of the older people still feel the same. When they were discussing admitting two dozen boat people you would've thought they were landing battalions of Martian rapists.'

'Know what you mean. All those years, locked in here battling with the elements. I suppose after a few centuries you begin to think you belong to the most exclusive club on earth.'

'That's it,' he said, moving off again. 'The most exclusive club on earth, and membership's closed.' He gave me a grin over his shoulder. 'And if I was in a club with lady members like that, I'd close the membership too.'

Back at his office, we drank some coffee and talked some more until his assistant, the one who'd been playing the juke-box, walked in.

'We hit a snarl-up over this Murphy,' he said.

I can't say I was all that surprised.

'Sam was saying that he thinks maybe he's no longer with us,' Dempsie explained, but the man cut him off short.

'Oh no, Sir, he's still stationed here but he's not on the base today and I can't get in touch with him.'
He turned to me, looking even more apologetic. 'I'm sorry about this, Sir, I really am. What I was going to suggest was that maybe Mr Dempsie or myself could bring Corporal Murphy down to your hotel tomorrow.'

Now that did surprise me. And on Dempsie's large and genial features I thought I caught a glimpse of satisfied amusement.

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