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Black Ice: Chapter 31

Journalist and reluctant spy Sam Craven meets another of Icelandic beauty Solrun's boy friends - and the mystery deepens.

Colin Dunne continues his brilliant Cold War spy tale.

To read earlier chapters please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/black_ice/

'Sam Craven,' said Andy Dempsie, 'meet Oscar Murphy.'

'Hi,' he said, like he would. Powerful handshake, square tough face, reddish-brown hair and a scattering of freckles. He was wearing standard inoffensive clothes: well-pressed grey trousers, dark blue blazer-style jacket, light blue shirt, mid-blue knitted tie, and black slip-on shoes. Late twenties, short thick-torso type that usually make good boxers, and an open intelligent face.

He gave a little whistle as he looked around. 'We don't get in here much on corporal's pay,' he said.

'So here's your boy, Sam,' Dempsie said, as though Murphy was a freshly-landed trout. He'd booked a private room and he was examining the full range of breakfast food that was laid out on a table at the side. 'Coffee, boys?'

'Yes, Sir,' said Oscar, and I nodded.

'You're still in the corps?' I was keen to get started.

'Yeah,' he said, almost as though his honour had been queried. Then his face lightened. 'Oh, I get you we don't wear uniform off base. That's so, isn't it, Sir?'

'Certainly is.' Dempsie grabbed my arm in a muscular hand and spoke quietly to me as he headed towards the door. 'Leave you with him, okay? He's a good guy. He'll tell you about the girl, too - no problem.'

As he left, Murphy got up and grabbed some toast and a croissant. I did the same. A bit of togetherness never did any harm.

'This is just for my information and doesn't go into any official report or newspaper report for that matter.'

'Fine, Sir.'

'So you were Solrun's feller?'

'You too,' he said, then he added quickly: 'Hope you don't mind me saying it like that.' When he saw I didn't, his face set in a smile of sheepish pride, but at least it was better than the barnyard bristling I'd been expecting. In fact, Oscar wasn't what I'd been expecting, but I didn't quite know why.

'You knew about me, then, Oscar?'

'Uhuh. She told me. Hell, you know Solrun - crazy as a monkey, but totally, totally honest.'

'You were seeing her at that time, then?'

He pulled an apologetic face and gave a long sigh. "Fraid so. I knew she had to spend a lot of time with these foreign newspapermen. Later she told me she'd taken a shine to one of them . . . kapow, that's Solrun.'

He unbuttoned his jacket and loosened his tie. 'Don't get me wrong. If I'd caught you then I would've broken your goddam neck. I cooled down a lot since then.'

'Thank God,' I said, to take any competitive sting out of the air. 'Tell me about you and her. How you met. Everything.'

'Well . . .' He glanced at the door as if he was afraid Dempsie might be listening. 'They don't encourage US servicemen to take up with the local girls. I'm not complaining about that. They tell you about the place before you come out here, and you can find every damned thing you want on that base.'

'How did you meet?'

'Skiing.' He pointed out of the window towards the ever-present mountains. You could see them clearly today. The mists and rain had gone. Now you'd think it was another country.

'That was one of the things I promised myself,' he went on. 'I was going to do some studying, get some exams, save some money, take a trip round Europe, and do some skiing. First trip into the mountains, I meet Solrun. End of studying and saving.'

Listening to this, I couldn't see how serious he was about her. He sounded almost too casual. 'I thought you two had a big thing going?'

His smile died. He looked down at his polished shoes. Then he glanced up. 'That's right. I try not to get too heavy about it now what's the point? but at the time I worshipped that girl.'

He rose so he faced me. "I wasn't some guy on a business trip looking for a piece of ass.' You couldn't miss the cool venom in his voice.

'I didn't think you were,' I said, as gently as I could, and I was relieved to see his shoulders sink down a fraction. It was too early in the day for all that say-that-again stuff.

He flapped his hand. 'Sorry about that,' he said, rubbing the back of his neck as though easing tension. 'Sometimes it still hurts.' He lowered his voice and asked: 'Is she okay, Craven?'

"I think so. Yes, I'm sure she is.'

'She's got into some trouble?' He didn't wait for an answer. 'No surprise, huh? Like I was saying, she knocked my socks off. I wanted to marry her and the whole bit, and the personnel people out at the base, they really tried to warn me off, you know. They say they don't do that, but believe me they do their best to build a wall a mile high between us and these Icelandic chicks.'

'Why?'

'Why? Come on now. Why? Because all the local guys will go bananas if we take all the best girls. Because no one nowhere likes to have foreign military around. And because a few hundred half-American kids running around is the quickest way to screw up international relations.'

'All of which you forgot the minute you saw Solrun?'

He held out his open hands in a gesture of guilt. 'Almost forgot my own name. I wanted to take her back to the States. I was very, very serious.'

'So where did it go wrong?'

He examined his immaculate finger-nails. 'Guess I found out what I knew all the time really. About the others. The guys like you. She told me. I suppose I couldn't take it, that's the truth of it.' Once again he was raiding the breakfast table, loading his plate. 'Can I get you some more coffee, Sir? No? Okay. Look, Dempsie said I wasn't to hold anything back. She was screwing a Russian. It's true. A diplomat from the embassy. I loved her because she was wild and dangerous but, believe me, that was a bit too wild and dangerous for me. That's why I wanted out.'

Squared-away. That was the expression. And I could see it applied. He was clean and bright and all the things officers like to see when they open a barracks door.

'You used to work for your brother. In a muffler shop I think you call it?'

He spun round so that he had to hold the croissants on his plate. 'How the hell do you know that?' Then he began to laugh. 'You reporters really do your homework, don't you? Yes, that's right. Joe's got a back-street place, down in Jamaica. He does okay.'

'And Vicky?'

His eyes narrowed down and he stood there without moving for several seconds.

'Jesus H Christ, you don't miss a lot. Vicky was my girl.'

'Still is?'

He shrugged. 'Who knows?' Untroubled again, he went on eating and waved to me to do the same.

I felt as though I'd strayed into a dream: reality was out of focus. This was Oscar Murphy. He had the same job and the same girlfriend as the one Jack Vale had checked out. He knew all about Solrun, he even knew about Kirillina. But Jack said he'd left the marines and was living in New York and I was watching him tear a croissant to pieces. Somewhere, time and place had got seriously out of tune.

Then I remembered. There was something else that didn't match up, too.

'That about does it then, Oscar.'

'That it?' he spluttered through the crumbs. 'Okay if I finish this? I mean we eat well out there but this is . . .' He pushed another piece in as evidence of his sincerity.
'And it's been all over between you and Solrun for weeks?'

'Months. Finite Forget it.'

That was my cue. 'So you don't really mind about her getting married the week before last?'

For one nasty moment I was sure he was going to take a swing at me.

One minute he was sitting pushing civilian goodies into his face and drinking coffee, the next he was standing in front of me practically growling. His left hand was resting lightly on my chest to get the distance and his right was ready to do almost anything except pat me on the head. His young face - once frank and friendly was now frank and very unfriendly.

'You're gonna tell me real quick how you know about that.'

Delicately, I lifted his hand off my chest. I'm not at my best as a target. 'Yes, I am,' I said. 'But first you are going to unbuckle that fist and calm down.'

At that moment the door opened and Dempsie stuck his big happy face round. The happiness soon left it.

'What's the trouble, boys?'

'Would you go and leave us, Sir?' Murphy's voice was high but firm. 'This is private.'

Dempsie looked at me, worried. I gave him one of those reassuring looks and nodded. 'I'll be in the foyer,' he said. 'Don't make it too long.'

Oscar tilted his head towards the door. 'He doesn't have to know about this. You got that?'

'He won't. Nobody will. Tell me your end of the story.'

His end fitted exactly the version Palli had given me. Although their affair was supposed to be over officially, they still saw each other and they still planned to go back to the States. She'd gone through the stamp wedding with Palli to raise money. Once again he made me promise not to tell anyone.

And once again there was only one thing wrong with the story. Palli like Jack Vale had Oscar Murphy back in New York already. Yet here he was.

'I wouldn't have thought Palli was your type,' I said, wondering if I could turn anything up by chatting around the fringes.

'That's what a few people said. He's an old meatball. He used to laugh at me because I'd made corporal on my first tour - and I'll make sergeant on this one. I felt sorry for him at first. He's had a bad time. So we used to take him back to the Marine House and feed him a few Buds or Polars because you can't get any real beer here. He even played on our darts team once. Hey, you're a Brit did you know we've got the only darts board in town in the Marine House? Sorry - I got to like him. He's mixed up but once you get past all that macho shit, he's okay. Hell, he got married for me, didn't he?'

He laughed, and so did I. It was authentic, every word of it. Yet it still didn't make any sense. I wished I'd got Jack Vale out of bed again before I'd come, to see if he'd dared to risk his social reputation by being seen in Jamaica.

Dempsie was waiting in the crowded foyer. All his geniality flooded back as soon as he saw Oscar and myself walk over to him chatting and smiling. We were doing those awkward triangular-handshake operations when a thin young waiter came through paging someone. It wasn't until he called it out the second time that I realised what he was saying.

'Mr Oscar Murphy. Mr Oscar Murphy.'

His mouth open, Murphy swung to Dempsie to see what to do. Dempsie did it. Three strides took him past a group of German businessmen and he grabbed the waiter by the shoulder and almost carried him off to the corner by the lift.

They talked for a while. I saw him stuff a note into the waiter's hand before he returned.

'He doesn't know who put the call out,' he told Murphy. 'It was a phone call.'

'Won't reception . . .'

Dempsie shook his head. 'They never remember phone calls. Let's get out of here.'

Then he remembered I was there. A ghost of the old affable Dempsie flickered through this new swift-moving, hard-talking version. 'Sorry, Sam. Got to move. Small problem. Catch you later.'

They went out through the swing door so quickly they almost fired Christopher and Ivan across the lobby as they came in.

'Your friends seemed in an awful rush,' Ivan said.

'That was your old pal, Oscar Murphy.'

'Really?' He pushed back his flopping wings of hair. He still looked ill and tired. 'I wanted to meet him. You're not doing one of those awful scoop things, are you?'

'Not if I can help it. Excuse me a minute.'

I went to the big window but I was too late. All I could hear was the drumming of the Triumph Trophy's engine as it moved up through the gears.

Someone had put the finger on Oscar Murphy. I had a nasty feeling it was me. There was only one way to be sure.

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