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Black Ice: Chapter 34

Journalist/spy Sam Craven has a heart-to-heart talk with policeman Petursson.

Colin Dunne continues his brilliant Cold War novel. To read earlier chapters please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/black_ice/

Solo females celebrate their status. They gather in wine bars on Saturday lunch-times and swap notes on how to change plugs and what's new in rape alarms, and laugh scornfully about their enslaved sisters who have to wash shirts.

Solo males don't. It's widely assumed that they weep in dingy basements with only a budgie for company and pine for those little female touches, like a pile of smelly tights on the bathroom floor.

For some reason, it's an achievement for women, but a failure for men. Actually it isn't like that at all. The reason we keep so quiet about it is that we're having a lovely time: we're
just nervous that pitying women will burst in and rip the shirts off our backs to wash them.

By use of a secret international code, Petursson and I had established that we were both solo males. It's not all that secret you simply never use the word 'We'.

He lived in a cramped flat above a shop in Laugavegur, a long shopping street which runs right through the centre of the town. Some stretches look like a branch office of Bond Street, others more like an Arizona trading-post a century ago, and it's the only street I've so far come across where you can get an Icelandic-Vietnamese meal. The flat probably wasn't cramped before he moved in. But by the time he'd packed in huge chunks of dark gleaming furniture, presumably salvaged from some earlier existence in higher and wider premises, a library that lined almost every wall, a baby-grand that was more grand than baby, plus a high-security wardrobe to keep his hat in, and then slid his own considerable bulk through the door, it was cramped. Each of the three main rooms had a central clearing in which it was possible to sleep, eat, or sit.

Once you'd seen him at home you no longer wondered where he got such nimble footwork.

'Are you interested in food?' he asked. I'd found him in the kitchen, apparently unaware of the fact that he was wearing a full-length plastic apron cut and decorated in the shape of a half-naked hula-hula girl.

'I am, actually,' I said.

That was another tricky one. You had to be careful where you made that admission. Solo men who like food have the same problem as male hairdressers - people are apt to make snappy and inaccurate judgements.

'Then perhaps you can do these.' He handed me some peppercorns between two sheets of kitchen paper and a rolling pin. 'Ah, an expert,' he said, when I set about crushing them.

He was peeling broccoli stems which he then placed upright in a pan. 'So,' he said, obviously pleased to be able to show off a little. 'The steam cooks the heads while the water does the stems. It is quicker this way.' He took two quarter-pound steaks out of a dish of red wine where they'd been wallowing and dipped them in the crushed peppers.

'A point?' He slid them under the grill.

That was an expression you didn't hear a lot outside France which was where he'd picked it up. When he lived in London he did a lot of Channel-hopping.

He knew what he was about, too. When I sliced into mine I saw the thin line of raw meat in the middle. It was a point all right. And I wasn't sorry to see that he'd removed his pinafore before he sat down. Hula-hula dancers' breasts may well stimulate appetites but not when they're slung beneath an elderly copper's face.

We tried some burgundy, then some more burgundy on top of that burgundy and they got along fine. When the brandy went down to join them, it did no harm at all, so we sent off some more, with dashes of coffee in between. Two table-lamps spread light as thick and yellow as custard.

He told me he wanted me to visit Dempsie in hospital the next day. The American PR man hadn't got any serious injuries. They'd kept him in case of concussion and his face had been badly chewed up. When I asked why he wanted me to go, he repeated again his idea that I was there for a purpose. Had he some contact with Batty? Or even with Christopher Bell? I didn't know and he wasn't going to tell me.

'Do you really believe that Palli did that to Solrun's mother?' I was interested in his answer. If he did, he was a good deal dimmer than I'd taken him for. To my relief, he shook his head.

T tried to use it as a lever. It worked a little. At least he told us what he thought.'

'The Russian trawler. I thought you'd inspected that and found nothing but fish.'

'Sometimes you can have too much innocence.' He'd assembled his cigars, lighter and ashtray on a table beside his heavy leather chair. I noticed that he aligned them exactly along the edge of the table. That was how he liked things: neat.

'What was that old Icelandic saying that Hulda wheeled out for Palli?'

'Oh, yes. Something about we cannot save those who are doomed and we cannot send to hell those who must live. It's a saying you hear mostly from the old people.'

He looked at me carefully through the smoke from his cigar.
He wanted to see if I was laughing at it. Luckily I wasn't.

'Which did she think he was? Doomed to die or to live?'

'What do you think? To die, of course. Here, have some more brandy.'

'Why do you think she said that?'

He pondered on that for a while. He'd put on some classical piano stuff - Chopin at a guess - and he cocked his head to concentrate on that for a moment. After that he replied.

'Palli. Ah, Palli. I was thinking more about what you said about him. I tried not to be the policeman, to see him your way. I think that is why I wasn't so hard on him at the flat. Isn't it clear why Hulda said that about him? He has the smell of death about him. Perhaps it is from where he has been or perhaps it is a part of him, I don't know. But it is there, without a doubt.'

He wrinkled up his nose as though he could smell it there in his own warm den of a home. We sat in a comfortable silence before he carried on.

'Loyalties. That is what we are talking about here. Loyalties. Where do you think Palli's loyalties lie? With Iceland? With America? Or is he a maverick, a mad dog to be shot down?'

'No, he isn't a mad dog. He doesn't have loyalties to any country because he's a man without a country. All he has are places where they don't want him. You can't grasp that because your roots go ten miles down under this lot.'

I tapped my foot on the thick rug.

'So where does this man place his loyalty?'

'If you haven't got a country, it goes to your friends. Who are his friends? One. Only one. Oscar Murphy. Everything he does is for love of a friend. That doesn't make him too bad, Pete. Not with me anyway.'

At that he sat forward. 'That reminds me. Why didn't you tell me about your meeting with Murphy? I had told you things. I trusted you. I hoped you would return the favour.'

'If I did, you would've swamped the place with police and there would've been no Oscar Murphy, real or phony. Has he been picked up yet?'

He shook his head. 'Who else knew about that?'

'Ivan.' Even in saying that, I felt as though I was betraying him. 'And that means the entire Soviet Embassy, which also
means Kirillina. Very possibly Christopher Bell too, for what that's worth.'

He gave a mock hurt look. 'Everybody in Iceland except me.'

'Who was he? The man who vanished?'

'That,' he replied, tipping some more brandy into my goblet, 'is something I trust Mr Dempsie will tell us tomorrow.' He raised his glass. 'Seriously, I do owe you my thanks. You have told me about the real Oscar Murphy. Thank you.'

I thought of the way the police had appeared unsummoned on that first night. He'd known what that Air Crew badge was from the start. They'd been expecting him. They were looking for the ex-marine at Solrun's when they picked me up.

'I think you knew all about Oscar Murphy anyway.'

'Well, I will tell you this. I didn't know he was running around our countryside armed with a Colt .45. So I am grateful to you for your clever piece of burglary.'

He raised his glass again. 'And where do your loyalties rest?'

I lifted my glass to him and we held each other's eyes over the rim.

'With Dr Barnardo's, of course.'

He examined the ceiling in search of further evidence of my lunacy.

'I thought people who were raised in institutions needed the warmth of others around them?'

'Mostly they do.' It was true. That was why so many of our lads went into the Forces. It was also why they tended to make well-balanced citizens. 'But with one in a thousand it bounces the other way. You come out emotionally self-sufficient.'

He lowered his eyes to mine. 'So you won't be going out to Chelmsford, I take it?'

'No. Not a chance.'

'Like this country of mine, you are trying to be neutral in a world where it is not possible.'

'I wouldn't say that. Palli's neutral.'

'Palli is also crazy.'

'Why does it fascinate you so much?'

'Because neutrality is wrong. It is a form of cowardice. No, no, please don't take offence. I mean intellectual cowardice. Personally, it is merely tragic. Don't you feel this?'

Deep down in his half-buried eyes I thought I detected a sparkle of mischief. He was going to get me again. Like that afraid-of-the-past stuff. He led you on then, wham, he got you. A conversational mugger. But not me. Not again.

'I don't think it's tragic,' I said, slowing down while I looked for the traps. 'Not if you don't need to use other people as props.'

'There,' he said, flopping back as though I'd made some major admission. 'It is all a question of viewpoint.'

'How's that?'

'That's where we differ, you see. You say you don't need to use people as props. I was thinking how sad it was for people you might've propped up yourself.'

A large neon sign saying 'Mistake' lit up in my head, but I ignored it. 'Like who?'

He waved his hands to show it was of no importance. Then he answered. 'Like anyone. Like Solrun, maybe.'

He'd got me again.

I got him back, though. I watched him put the pinafore on again as we collected the dishes. 'You know, you're going to have to make your mind up which you're going for,' I said.

He gave me a puzzled look.

'Well,' I said, nodding towards his twin-barrelled chest, 'which is it? A face-lift or a bra?'
As I walked back to Hulda's, taxis were dashing around siphoning people from the blocks of flats to fill up the discos. The old gods of war had been at it again in the sky the clouds dripped blood all over the sea. In all its vivid horror, it brought back the memory of Solrun's mother with her freshly-plucked head. The thought stopped me in my tracks. I shuddered. The light night air went clammy on my skin.

It was all right sitting drinking brandy and swopping ideas about loyalty, but I was several fathoms out of my depth here. Unseen armies were locked in silent conflict of which I knew nothing.

With a swell of sudden fervour, I hoped that Christopher Bell was my lifeline. I prayed that the inoffensive Mr Batty, between sneezes, had made allowance for my amateur status in the
world of spies. Why me anyway? Why had he sought me out to fling me into the middle of this dress rehearsal for World War III?

I felt small, ignorant, and incompetent. I looked up at the butchery of the sky and silently mouthed the wish that God, Mr Batty or whoever was admin, night-duty was keeping an eye on me.

Two would be even better.


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