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Black Ice: Chapter 35

...Dempsie began to protest, then abandoned it and turned to a straightforward account of what had happened. He and his colleague - he didn't name him - were driving an open jeep back from town when he saw the motor-bike in the rear-view mirror. From the stance of the rider, he thought it was the desert-bike, but he couldn't be certain. The next few seconds were confusing. There were shots. The windscreen went and
one of the rear tyres. In the mirror he fancied he saw the rider holding a big handgun. Then there was the crash....

A cold-war battle between Russia and the USA is being fought undercover in Iceland, and reluctant journalist/spy Sam Craven finds himself at the centre of it.

Colin Dunne continues his top-drawer tale. To read earlier chapters please click on
http://www.openwriting.com/archives/black_ice/

Overnight they'd done a quick spray job on the sky. They'd taken the pattern from some minor public school tie - it was eggshell blue streaked with pale gold. The sea wasn't having any of that fancy stuff: it stayed surly grey, lightly topped with angry white.

The wind was back with us too. It tugged hard at the Daihatsu as I drove out to the base, and I saw that someone had moved the crashed car.

Ivan had caught me mid-shave that morning with a phone-call to say he'd filed a story, and I was glad of it by the time I got to the base hospital. It gave me something to trade with.

Petursson wanted me along. He insisted that I was central to his inquiries and he also pointed out that it wasn't wise to have stray newsmen wandering around unrestrained at a time like this. Dempsie wasn't sure, but he let it go when I told them about Ivan's call. I didn't feel bad about telling them. Ivan and I had agreed to let each other know before we filed. In any case, the Western embassies would pick up his story the next day.

He'd phoned from the Russian Embassy. I could tell that by his businesslike manner - no mention of leg-breaks, his favourite waiters, or even the heavy glooms. What he'd written was basically an Outraged of Omsk piece about the beating up of Kirillina. Professionally, that didn't bother me too much. I didn't think the civil rights of Soviet citizens abroad were at the forefront of Grimm's mind. If it was big enough to have a forefront, that is.

What interested the other two was the interpretation that Ivan had added on the end.
'Once more, please,' Petursson said, bending his ear towards my notebook as though he could actually hear my shorthand.

It was all about flagrant acts of provocation ... an indication of the increasing fear of the US imperialists that the peace-loving people of Iceland would no longer tolerate their nuclear bases . . . fears that the Americans planned further barbaric acts and that Iceland's friends would not stand idly by ...

'What next?' Pete said, looking at the American.

'That's definitely cue-for-song,' Dempsie said. He was sitting up in his hospital bed wearing raffish black pyjamas with red piping, and flicking through a clipboard thick with notes.

Vaulting through windscreens and a rub-down with volcanic rock was obviously his idea of a work-out. Despite the extra belly and chin, he was a real toughie. Cleaned up, his face was puffy and swollen and red with dozens of tiny grazes and scars, and his glowing charm had modified to a brisk bonhomie.

'Switch that trash off, will you?' He waved at the television in a far corner of the room. 'No wonder the Soviets laugh at us - we invent the most complete form of communication the world has ever known and all we put on it is cats chasing mice.'

'What happened?' Petursson asked.

'What happened? I tell you, I don't come out of this too well.' There was an apology in his laugh, but the Icelander merely acknowledged it with a sombre nod.

Dempsie began to protest, then abandoned it and turned to a straightforward account of what had happened. He and his colleague - he didn't name him - were driving an open jeep back from town when he saw the motor-bike in the rear-view mirror. From the stance of the rider, he thought it was the desert-bike, but he couldn't be certain. The next few seconds were confusing. There were shots. The windscreen went and
one of the rear tyres. In the mirror he fancied he saw the rider holding a big handgun. Then there was the crash. From tyre tracks nearby, he reckoned that the rider, the bike and his colleague had all been spirited away in a van.

'Neither of you fired back?' Petursson sounded stern.

'Come on, Pete. You know we wouldn't dare carry guns out there. Not on your patch.'

'I have to be sure.'

'I know that. And you know I wouldn't do anything like that. There's too much at stake. I wouldn't louse up things with your boys.'

With a solemn nod of his head, Petursson came to the question he'd been edging around. 'All I need to know then is the identity of your colleague who is now missing.'

'Not Oscar Murphy?' I thought a little light banter might help things along, but Dempsie gave me a warning look.

'You know I can't tell you that, Pete.'

'But he is one of your . . . department?'

'I can't even go that far. Hell, you know I can't. You're running up against our own security here. See it from my angle. Come on. We understand each other, don't we?'

He'd turned the full force of his warm sincerity on the Icelander. All Petursson did was to frown and get up and walk to the window. Dempsie shook his head with worry at the unfairness of it all.

'He was a great little actor, I'll say that for him,' I said. 'I thought he was going to take a poke at me when I asked him about Solrun marrying Palli.'

'We figured you'd try that one,' Dempsie said.

From the window, facing outwards, Petursson said: 'He would have learned everything that they had on Murphy. He would have had answers for questions you never thought of. That man would have been so well-briefed that he could pass any test except one. A friend of Oscar Murphy, or Oscar Murphy himself. Or both.'

There was only one question that was bothering me. And, since neither of them had asked it, they must both know the answer.

'Why did Oscar Murphy come back?'

Dempsie shifted his gaze to Petursson who had turned from the window to face me. He's with you, he was telling the full truth. Then he looked at me again and the American's blotched and battered face changed.

'Doesn't he know?' he asked.

Petursson had kept his eyes steadily on me all the time. Softly, he replied: 'I am not sure.'

'I'm damned sure . . .'

'Coffee, boys,' Dempsie roared. A white-frocked nurse wheeled in a trolley. 'And BLTs. Jesus, am I hungry?'

That was the only answer I was going to get.

As the American ate and appointed me on coffee duty with an impatient movement of the hand, Petursson half-sat on the window-sill. He wasn't picnicking. He was on official business. Patiently, he waited until the food had gone.

'I must make an official request for your full co-operation. I am inquiring into a serious crime. I can appreciate that your security is involved but so also is the security of the state of Iceland.'

Dempsie waved his arms to show how powerless he was. 'Think how they're going to be laughing over this in Gardastraeti. You're giving it to them on a plate, Pete. You're letting them get between us.'

Petursson's face was slowly hardening. 'Don't tell me my job. You had no business to instruct your men to try to conduct some sort of operation off this base . . .'

'Operation? What operation?'

'Creating false identities and fabricating evidence to confuse people . . .'

'Only a goddam newsman.' He was too good a PR man to leave that. Out of the side of his mouth he snapped at me: 'No offence, Sam.' Back to Petursson again, he said: 'Have you brought in Palli?'

'No.'

'Why the hell not?'

'Because he has not done anything. And please do not tell me how to conduct an investigation. I want that name.'

'Sorry, sorry, sorry.' The American hauled himself up in the bed. 'Let's remember what this is all about, right? Fundamentally we are talking about a PR exercise. That goddam thing,' he flung his hand towards the television, 'rules the world. That and you news guys. I am telling you, if we're not careful, and I mean very very careful, we're gonna come out of this looking so bad we'll make Herod look like Mary Poppins. My man will have to take his chance. What you've got to do is to get to Murphy and get to him fast. If he reaches the girl . . . You know what that means as well as I do. If he gets the girl, a year from now you'll have Soviet Typhoon subs calling in here to pick up ice to put in their vodka.'

He studied his clipboard. Without looking up again, he let one arm flop on the bed and released a small sigh. It was a signal of defeat. 'Okay, give me two hours and I'll get you all you need on the missing American. But I'll have to clear it first. From Washington.'

'Thank you.' Petursson was at his most formal. 'You also see my position. If my political bosses ask for an explanation, I cannot possibly say that I permitted anonymous and un-authorised agents to run amok.'

'Fine.' Frost had entered Dempsie's voice now. He wasn't backing off any more. 'And you take mine on board. It isn't easy sitting on our butts while a crazy man rampages around with a fistful of .45. Great ambassador for his country he's gonna be. And don't forget, if the shit does hit the fan, we told you the minute we knew he was heading this way. Don't forget that. You had your chance to get the girl out. That's down to you.'

'He was already in the country when you told us.' Petursson wasn't being bulldozed either. 'We didn't know how near he was. We had to telephone her to warn her. How were we to know she'd go into hiding? As it was, he attacked Craven only a few hours later at her flat. That's how close it was.'

So that was it. Solrun ran because she'd been tipped off. In my blissful sleep, I hadn't heard the phone. Too much pleasure, not enough duty - story of my life. That explained the 'Bless' and the goodbye kiss. Then I'd walked in on Murphy when he was searching the flat, with Kirillina sitting innocently downstairs waiting for her return.

'As soon as we knew, we passed it on.' Dempsie smoothed out the sheet before him like a symbol of the solution. 'Pull him in, that's all. Then we want him. He's ours.'

'That,' Petursson said, 'depends entirely on what he has done. Leave it to us. This time.'

Slumping down in the bed, Dempsie humped up on to one hip so he could read his clipboard more easily. The audience was coming to an end.

As we moved towards the door, he played his last card.

'While you're looking, it might help you to know that the Soviet destroyer Udaloy has anchored half-an-inch outside territorial waters south of Iceland. They're probably bringing food parcels to those bastards sitting in that trawler down in the harbour.'

He didn't look at us. He looked like a big black rock among all that snowy linen.

Petursson's face went even grimmer. 'Leave it to us,' he said, and marched out.

'Yeah,' we heard Dempsie's final word, 'yeah.'

Outside in the cool bright sunshine, we stood while the wind beat at our faces. Petursson put his hand up but his hair-cream was holding out all right. He was making regretful clicking noises with his tongue.

'What's a Soviet warship doing on your doorstep?'

He shrugged and sighed. 'He was right. They will be laughing in Gardastraeti. They put a wedge between us and we are stupid enough to let them do it.'

We began to walk over to the cars. I'd seen these two men, each strong in his way, collide mightily and each draw back, a little hurt, wounded, but still full of fight and pride. I wasn't absolutely sure why. So, quietly, I asked him if he had to force the issue on the missing American's identity.

As we walked, he held his head down so his words didn't get lost in the wind. 'Dempsie was right about that too. This is public relations. Not what is the truth but what seems to be the truth. Already an old lady has been brutally killed and a diplomat attacked. If it becomes known we have allowed American agents to treat our country as a playground, how do you think people would like that? How would they like that in Britain? I will tell you what would happen here. Even the most conservative of politicians would find it difficult to defend. Everyone would be shouting, "Go home, Yanks." I'm not sure I would not be among them.'

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