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Black Ice: Chapter 41

...'But these guys are going to pull a big stroke. It's all building up for one. There was the business of Kirillina and the girl, there's the trawler down in the harbour with those two ghouls on board, and now we've got a Soviet destroyer parked outside the front door with a couple of helicopters warmed up and ready to go. And all we know for sure is that Oscar Murphy's out there on the rampage and we don't know where.'...

Sam Craven, a journalist who has been enrolled as a spy, tries to reassemble his memory after being tortured.

Colin Dunne's high-tension Cold War novel moves torwards a dramatic conclusion.

'I don't know how you stayed on,' Petursson said.

'That's what Hazel always used to say.'

'Hazel?'

'Sorry. Private joke. God save us!' I spluttered on a mug of soup that Hulda had brought me. She'd been having a lovely time with an invalid in the house. 'What's this - condensed polar-bear droppings?'

Even after ten hours' sleep I still felt groggy. As soon as Oscar had got out of sight, whatever it was that had kept me going had snapped, and I'd collapsed. I'd stayed that way while Bottger organised transport and had me shipped back to Reykjavik. The doctor and Hulda had battled over who got to play with my remains. Inevitably, Hulda won.

I'd come round for long enough to tell Petursson what had happened. In another lucid interval, I'd found Ivan and Christopher sitting beside my bed. Eyes brimming with tears, Ivan had gone all soppy: clasping my hand and saying whatever would he have told Sally ... he embarrassed half the island. Christopher, his gypsy face bright with relief, could only say how lucky I was to have chanced upon - or been chanced upon by - the ambassador for Esperanto.

The next time I slept a hot, troubled sleep shot through with dreams that were hardened with reality. I kept seeing Oscar's face, a hopeless mixture of sentiment and madness, as he talked about his baby. I could see the stream he'd talked about, with all the faces I knew - his and Palli's, Solrun's, the baby's, her mother's, even Petursson and the American, Dempsie - all floating in the water, mingling and drifting together, then parting again. And I couldn't get into the stream. I don't know how, but I was trying to dive in but one of those mysterious dream-powers held me back and I was crying as I watched it flow past. Next, I wasn't crying at all. I was being my usual arrogant self. 'As a matter of fact,' I was saying, to Ivan of all people, 'I never join streams. I'm not a stream sort of person.'

When I woke again, more rested this time, Petursson was back at my bedside.

'I could go for one of your pepper steaks.'

'Invite me to London and I'll make you one.'

'You're on.'

It was neatly done. For some reason, bachelor gents have problems with social preliminaries. I was absurdly glad to think we'd salvaged something from this meeting. I've always found friendship even trickier to manage than love because you don't have sex to fill in the blank bits.

'You must be quite a tough chap,' Petursson went on. 'That waterfall business wasn't just a whim, you know.'

'No, I don't. How'd you mean?'

'Sensory deprivation, dislocation of time and place, water, sudden physical shock . . . these are all established torture techniques.'

'That's okay, then. I wouldn't want him trying any un-established ones on me.'

'You held up very well.'

The truth was, I couldn't remember most of it.

'I wonder where they are,' I said. All that high wild country, a population the size of Southampton scattered in a country as big as England . . . they could be anywhere.

'We are looking. He has always been one step ahead of us. At Palli's. And wherever he is now. Of course he is trained in survival techniques, he's got that bike, he's got a car and a van somewhere too. He got back to you so quickly we think he must've been keeping the bike at one of the summer-houses.'

Suddenly I remembered. 'That's where he thought Solrun was.'

Petursson shrugged. 'We're looking, but there are so many. Who's this?'

Dempsie, swearing several oaths not to tire, distress or upset me in any way whatsoever, was reluctantly ushered in by, Hulda.

'Great security you've got here,' he said.

After saying all the usual things you say to people who've been pushed off waterfalls, the big American turned to Petursson. He only had to raise his eyebrows. Pete only had to shake his head. There was only one question anyone cared about now.

'You're still watching the trawler?' he said to Petursson, and was answered with a curt nod.

He sat examining his shoes for a while. He was strangely festive in all the bright pastel shades of the golf course that seemed to be his style. Pete, stiff in his spotless tweeds, looked formal beside him. Then I suddenly realised. The Icelander hadn't got his hat.

'What's happened - your hat?'

'Don't worry,' he said, thinking I was pulling his leg. 'Hulda is keeping an eye on it for me.' Then I understood: it must be something of an office joke for him to catch on so quickly.

'You know that destroyer they've got sitting on the twelve-mile limit?' Dempsie's voice wasn't much more than a growl. 'They've got two Helix choppers on board.'

'That is not so surprising.' Petursson looked uncomfortable.

'That means they can be on the island inside fifteen minutes and maybe that will be surprising,' Dempsie snapped. Then he sat back and slapped his belly twice. 'Look, Pete, for Christ's sake. I'm not sitting on your tail on this.'

'I hope not.'

'But these guys are going to pull a big stroke. It's all building up for one. There was the business of Kirillina and the girl, there's the trawler down in the harbour with those two ghouls on board, and now we've got a Soviet destroyer parked outside the front door with a couple of helicopters warmed up and ready to go. And all we know for sure is that Oscar Murphy's out there on the rampage and we don't know where.'

'He is an American,' Petursson reminded him, quietly.

They were into all that again, each furiously flying his own flag. I was glad that I'd never got around to developing team spirit.

That reminded me of my dream about the stream, and I was puzzling over that when I saw that Hulda had put all the contents of my pockets on the bedside-table while she tried to rescue the remains of my precious cord suit. And in amongst the pile the keys I'd used to catch Doris and the rest was a piece of paper with writing that didn't look like mine.

I picked it up. It was an Icelandic bar bill. The writing on the front, in ink, had gone into a blue smear where it had been soaked and dried. The writing on the back, in pencil, was almost legible. Then I remembered. I'd pushed it into my pocket when I was in the boot of the car.

It looked like two columns of figures, each one crossed out, and it was familiar in a way I couldn't place.

'Did you know about this kid?' Dempsie was asking Petursson.

'No. It was a very well-kept secret. Hulda tells me now of course that many people did know but they kept it from people like me, naturally.'

'For the same reason as the marriage?' I asked.

'Yes. They thought she wouldn't be allowed to become Miss World. Here, of course, there is no shame about that. It has been a custom for many years for girls to have babies before they marry. Her mother used to look after it. That's why she was tortured by people looking for the child.'

Even the thought of that made me feel sick. 'By Murphy?' I asked. It had to be him, I supposed, but I still couldn't see it. In his heart he was still a soldier, and that wasn't soldier's work.

I saw Petursson's eyes slide across to Dempsie, then back to me.

'No. Not Oscar. You've forgotten, haven't you?'

'What the neighbour said. The old lady with the brush. She said two men in dark clothes like uniforms, and a third man.'

This time it did sink in. The two men in dark clothes had to be the military blokes off the Russian trawler. So who was the other man? The two of them sat looking at me as I repeated the question to them.

'We kinda hoped you might tell us,' Dempsie said, gently.

Both their faces were turned to me, waiting. I knew what they meant. I'd known all along. Only it was something I chose not to think about. People pick their own loyalties.

There were so many other things jumbled in my mind after the chaos of the last few hours. Trying to find them and haul them up into the daylight was like fishing in mud. And I was tired, tired. Even the sky's light flooding in through the unguarded window couldn't keep sleep away.

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