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Black Ice: Chapter 29

Journalist and reluctant spy Sam Craven, who is looking for a former girlfriend, Icelandic beauty Solrun, makes a surprise discovery: there are two “versions’’ of the same man – one in New York and one in Iceland.

To read earlier chapters of Colin Dunne’s outstanding Cold War novel please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/black_ice/

Journalist and reluctant spy Sam Craven, who is looking for a former girlfriend, Icelandic beauty Solrun, makes a surprise discovery: there are two “versions’’ of the same man – one in New York and one in Iceland.

To read earlier chapters of Colin Dunne’s outstanding Cold War novel please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/black_ice/
From the top bar of the Saga we watched the bulging black clouds chug across the sky and tip their endless drenching loads on the city. It wasn't a scene to lift the human spirit, but right then you couldn't have budged Ivan's spirit with heavy-lifting gear.

His face, one of those long and mournful models at the best of times, hung in grey folds and his soft brown eyes were veined and rimmed with red.

'I know, I look ghastly,' he said, when he saw the expression on my face.

'What's the trouble?' I asked, waving up a martini for me and another gin for him.

'The usual.' He shrugged and turned his face towards the windows which were draped from the outside with nets of rain.

I don't know why I bothered asking. That was all he ever said: the usual. It was frustrating really, because he was disbarred from the one activity that all us diurnalists have in common — group grizzling. Somehow we manage to combine a mawkish affection for our worthless trade with a deep contempt for those who employ us. Grimm, admittedly, was an extreme case, but in general we were right.

And poor old Ivan couldn't join in.

'They're giving you a bad time?' I said. He didn't even nod. They probably had nod-detectors in every room in the place.

'I wish I were like you - independent,' he said, unexpectedly.

There were only three businessmen at the bar, and we were tucked quietly away in a corner.

'You are independent.'

'Not really. Not like you. Not emotionally independent. I'm terribly vulnerable, as I'm sure you know. It's inevitable if one is ... gayish.'

He always qualified gay by adding the last three letters, as though the process was somehow incomplete and a little bit of him was still heterosexual. If so, it was a little bit I'd never seen.

'I suppose they can always haul you back to Mother Russia.'

He lifted his hangdog face. 'Don't.'

'Are you filing anything so far?'

He shook his head. I was glad about that. What can happen on those sort of jobs is that some agency bloke files to Moscow, one of the Moscow-based western reporters picks it up and does it up for London and New York, and before you know where you are you have an editor ratting at you.

'Apparently,' he added, 'I'm on ice for a policy piece.'

'That shouldn't affect me too much. Unless it's a topless policy piece.'

'You?'

That was my chance to tell him about offering Grimm a story on Solrun's mother. I'd caught a call from him - and just missed one from Jack Vale in New York - when I got back to Hulda's. At least the story about Grimm might cheer him up.

'He said it was too fish-and-chippy and they'd got a dozen
like that down the Old Kent Road every week. So I suggested that there might be a security angle to it and my esteemed editor squealed with laughter. "What are they after up there," he said, "the secret recipe for fish fingers?" He told me to stay on the trail of the Sexy Eskies and he also authorised me to go up to a thousand quid to get the right pictures.'

Ivan did manage a tired smile. He wasn't being drawn by that reference to a security angle. All he said was: 'But you haven't got your model available for the pictures, have you?'

'We're working on it, Ivan. By the way, you know about your embassy chap being beaten up, do you?'

'It was nothing much,' he said hurriedly.

'Nothing much? I saw it. He'd had a damn good kicking and he was hand-delivered, in public and daylight, to the embassy door. Well, gate.'

Ivan looked agitated. 'I gather there's no official protest anyway.'

'Odd. Very odd.' That covered the two questions I'd wanted to put to him. Which left me with one small item of information which I wished to slip into his drink - or wherever else he might best swallow it. And I wanted to watch his face while he did it.

'Hey,' I said, breaking off mid-swallow as I suddenly 'remembered' something. 'One of your tips came up nicely, Ivan.'

'Did it?' he replied, listlessly.

'Yes. Oscar Murphy.'

'Oscar Murphy.' He ran his thin fingers around his mouth and began to pull himself up from his slouched position.

'You remember. Our first day here, I think. You said you'd picked his name up at the embassy.'

'Oh, yes, I remember.' He looked relieved. He didn't know what was coming next. For all he knew he was in for a nasty shock. He was.

'I've got an appointment with him tomorrow.'

Then he did drag himself up and he couldn't keep the amazement out of his face. 'Oscar Murphy? You're meeting him? That can't ... I mean, are you sure, is it the same man? I'm sure there's some kind of mix-up.'

'Why?' I almost hated myself for doing that. He was in
enough trouble as it was. But it was Ivan who'd fed me the two names in the first place, both the Russian and the American, and it was only fair I should bounce one of them back at him.

He cast about for an answer. 'I had the impression that he was . . . abroad somewhere.'

'Not at all,' I went on, breezily. 'Chap up at the base has fixed it all for me. I'm seeing him at ten tomorrow.'

'Where?' he asked, too quickly. Then he added lamely: 'You don't want to have to bother going all the way out to Keflavik again, do you?'

'No, they're bringing him down here. That's one thing about the Yanks, their PR is terrific. So I see him here and let's hope he can give us a lead on Solrun.'

What he should've done was to ask if the mysterious Oscar Murphy knew Solrun, because as far as Ivan was concerned, he didn't. But he was tired and he was missing a few, and he let that one go.

He sat back again and rested his head on the cushion. Wearily he closed his eyes. I felt sorry for him.

'This wretched business,' he murmured. 'Do your bosses ever make you do things you find distasteful?'

'Only every day.'

'Like what?' Above his closed and hooded eyes, his brows furrowed into a frown.

'Like getting out of bed. Picking up the telephone. Talking to their readers. All pretty grisly, I can tell you.'

After a short silence, still with his eyes closed, he asked: 'Have you found anything for the wondrous Sally yet?'

'I thought maybe something in sealskin.' I didn't dare tell him about Bell's gift of the stuffed puffin.

'How ghastly.' His eyes half-opened. 'I won't have that, I'm afraid. Not the skins of those dear little creatures. Why don't we look at some of the knitwear here? It's gorgeous.'

'Then we'll run into the save-the-sheep mob.'
As I walked through the door at Hulda's the phone was ringing. It was Jack Vale.

'What a busy little bee you are to be sure,' he said. 'This is the third time I've tried you.'

'How'd it go?'

'I managed to run him down all right. He's your man, no doubt about that, Sam. Hang on while I check my notes. Here we are . . . ready? It's Corporal Oscar Murphy and he was with the jar-heads.'

'Jaw-heads?'

'Jar-heads. Marines. They are known by this fine example of muscular American English because their caps fit so tightly on to their cropped heads that they look as though they've been screwed on.'

'Can we have the rest in English English please?'

'And who better than a Scot to answer that plea . . . yes, of course. On his first tour of three-to-four years he was a crewman on helicopters out of MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina. Okay?'

It was a clear line. I could even hear his notebook rustle as he turned the page.

'That's right, Cherry Point. He was a gunner on CH-46s. Is this what you want to know?'

'Couldn't be better.'

'He made E4, that's corporal, on his first tour, and — this is interesting — to do that you have to be what they call squared away.'

'English, please?'

'It's a reference to the way they have to do their beds at boot camp, like hospital corners for nurses. A squared-away marine is one who is well trained, highly-disciplined, a good soldier in other words. He was doing well, your man.'

'Was doing?'

'I'll come to that. On his second tour he came up to Iceland and they put him on security duty at the embassy there. Again, they don't give jobs like that to the ground-pounders.'

He was enjoying this. Oh, he really was. I didn't even have to ask.

'A ground-pounder, as I'm sure you're wondering, is also known as a meatball or a shithead. This refers to the more basic type of marine. Oscar Murphy was an altogether more superior type. At first, anyway.'

'What happened?'

'I don't quite know. The story is that there was some trouble over a girl out there and he was transferred back to the States. He hit the booze - also hit a sergeant apparently - and when he tried to re-enlist they wouldn't have him. So from being blue-eyed he sank to bum status in no time flat. Lives with a girl called Vicky.'

'He is there, isn't he, Jack?'

'Here?'

'Yes. In America.'

'Oh yes, he's here all right.'

That was what I wanted to know. More than anything else.
'So what's his explanation?'

'Ah. I thought you might ask that. You see I picked this up on the old white man's whispering wires.'

'You didn't go down there? You haven't seen him?'

'No, I managed to raise his brother at the muff. . . the exhaust centre, and he filled in all the background. Murphy's off work with 'flu, in common with about a million other people this week, so I didn't see a lot of point in driving all the way out to Jamaica to see him.'

He didn't want to drive out to Jamaica like people in Kensington don't want to drive out to Hackney. Even so, I wanted to know what he had to say about the girl, and Jack couldn't get that from his boss. I asked him to go out there.

'It'll cost.'Jack Vale charged a hundred quid for picking up the telephone. If you wanted him to speak into it that was another fifty.

'Charge it to Grimm,' I said.

T will, I will.'

T can only leave you with the advice Grimm himself gave me this afternoon, Jack. His final instruction, in fact.'

'What was that?'

I quoted it exactly as Grimm had said it to me before he rang off: 'Walk tall.' Then Jack actually replied what I'd only thought.

Anyway you looked at it, that was interesting. Jack was going out to see Oscar Murphy in New York. I was going to meet him in Reykjavik. Oscar Murphy, the model soldier who fell from grace. Either he was unusually adept at international transport, or there were two Oscar Murphys. At least. If ever they all got together in the same country they could have a reunion. As it was, I'd be quite happy just to meet one of them.

I started hanging my cord suit and spare shirts over the window, to keep the northern night at bay in the hope of a good night's kip, when Hulda tapped on the door. There was someone to see me downstairs.

'I hope you have not been a bad boy,' she said, archly.

'I believe I have, but it's so long ago now I'm no longer sure. Why?'

I got the answer when I went downstairs into the sitting-room. Petursson was standing there. He was sighing im-patiently and dabbing at his hat with a hankie.

'Raindrops,' he explained, in some irritation. 'Do you think they will mark it?'

L

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