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Black Ice: Chapter 43

...On the bed, his head raised on a pillow, his arms folded across his stomach, was the man I'd interviewed as Oscar Murphy. You might've thought he was resting there if it hadn't been for the hole where his right eye should've been. That's the way the pro's do it. It would look quite neat if you didn't have to dislodge the eyeball...

Colin Dunne continues his high-voltage Cold War spy thriller.

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

Conscience, the best early-morning alarm in the business, was off the mark sharp the next day. At six o'clock I was wide awake. And sleep, who's got this name for delivering solutions to problems under plain cover, for once lived up to his reputation.

I knew what the columns of figures on the back of the bar-bill were.

Petursson wasn't all that delighted to be woken up at that time - but he was when I began to tell him. He promised to pick me up in an hour.

Hulda emerged from the kitchen with coffee. Or one of the several Huldas who appeared on round-the-clock duty in this house, and it seemed as good a time as any to check up on my dream.
I had no problem in remembering it. In many ways it was like an enhanced form of reality. But I'd suffered so much mental confusion from the moment I'd awakened in the boot of the car that I didn't know if I could trust my own perceptions any more.

'Do you lock up at night, Hulda?' I asked.

'Most nights, yes. The young people today . . .'

Her purple-veined hand rose and fell in despair at the decline of youth.

'Did you last night, Hulda?'

'No.' That was all. No. She sat, her hands now linked in her lap, shoulders back, chin up. I'd reached the Please-Proceed-With-Caution sign.

'The door was open all night?' She gave one firm nod to that.

'Why?'

'Sometimes,' she said, rising to fetch more coffee, I lock the door, and sometimes I do not. Last night I did not. That is all.'

That was it. She could be a bit other-worldish sometimes, could Hulda, and this was obviously one of them. The Icelanders like a bit of the old mystic and cryptic. Solrun had been doing it in my dream - if it was a dream: in recollection, the conversation sounded like a Times crossword on a bad day.

As Hulda was halfway through the door, I thought of a question she might answer. Now.

'You know Solrun's baby?'

'Yes.'

'Do you know what they call it?'

'Yes. It is called Asta. After her mother.' With a flick of her long black skirt she slipped down the dark passage to the remoter regions of the kitchen. Anyone with any more trick questions could follow her down there if he dared.

As I was waiting for Petursson, the phone went. It was Christopher.

'Did you say it was that Esperanto chap Bottger who found you?' he asked, after apologising for ringing so early.

'That's right.'

'You wouldn't happen to know where he's staying I'm rather anxious to get in touch with him.'

'I don't think he'll need an interpreter.'

'What? Oh no, quite. No, I thought his Esperanto contacts might help me get the old musical loo thing off the ground. It's really not taking at all you know.'

I told him I didn't know for sure but I'd got the impression that he was camping somewhere up country. Before I had time to gauge his reaction, I heard Petursson's horn tooting outside.

At the entrance to Thingholtsstraeti, two uniformed cops waved our car straight through. We were expected.

The Marine House - three white-washed storeys of bed-sits, lounge, bar, television and games that's home for the marines on embassy duty - was buzzing with action. The door with the peephole in it was wide open. With an air of brisk urgency, several young men were bringing out loaded boxes and taking in photographic gear. They were all under thirty, they all had cropped hair, and they all had problems fastening their sports jackets over their chest development.

'I think you are right,' Petursson said, examining the limp piece of paper. 'Once or twice in London I played darts, and I remember this strange upside-down way of scoring.'

Why I hadn't recognised it immediately, I'll never know. The two columns began at three hundred and one and the numbers gradually whittled away until they came to the final dart. I can't think of any other game where they score from the top like that. And the only dartboard in town was the one in the Marine House basement bar.

In the bar, three young marines - two in pyjamas, one huddled in a striped-cotton robe - were lined up in front of Dempsie. He had one heavy haunch propped on the edge of the pool table. He was still in golf gear- powder-blue slacks, dark-blue sports shirt - but there was nothing playful in his manner.

'Later,' he snapped at a sharp-suited man who had to be something from the embassy and who'd apparently been rolling out the threats to the three young men. 'Right now I want to hear them talk.'

The one who'd got stuck with the spokesman's job had ginger hair and freckles - and a face blood-red with guilt. But he was trying hard to be a good marine and take it on the chin.

'Like we said, Sir, we felt sorry for him. I knew him from his last tour and he was a real squared-away guy then, so when he said he'd nowhere to sleep . . .'

At that the sharp-suit hissed: 'What about embassy security?'

Dempsie silenced him with one flap of his hand. 'Security's my game and I play anywhere I want. Go on, kid.' He took a cigarette from the pack with his lips.

'He came in with us, then later he said he had to see a friend and the way he said it I took it he meant this girl. I heard some bumping around later on but I didn't think anything of it . . .'

'You didn't see him bring anyone else into the building?'

'No, Sir. I told him to take Gary's room because he was away fishing and naturally Oscar knew which room was which and didn't need showing around or anything like that.'

'He'd gone the next morning?'

'Yes, Sir. Just that note saying thanks fellers or something, and we didn't have any reason to go into the room until you came this morning. Look, Sir, if. . .'

The dartboard was on the wall behind him. I went round and picked up the darts. One, two, three, just like that. They all missed the board. Darts is like riding a bicycle. Once you can't do it, you never forget.

'And you've no idea where he's gone?'

'None, Sir.' The red-head gulped and his Adam's apple bobbed. 'We didn't like to think of the guy sleeping rough, was all, Sir.'

'All grunts together, hey?' As the man in the suit started to interrupt, Dempsie cut him down. 'Hell, we teach 'em to be a team, don't we?'

'How was he?' I asked.

'You mean health-wise?' the embassy man said, incredulously.

'No. His mood.'

The marine was grateful for a distraction. 'Well, Sir, we all thought he was kinda spooky. He kept laughing but it was that uptight sort of laughing.'

'You'd better see this.' Dempsie led us up two flights of stairs. On the way he called out to us over his shoulder. 'Question: Where'd you hide a big black in a country like this? Answer: The one place where he wouldn't stand out. Here. He must've found it tricky getting in and out of Palli's, so he rolled up here. Then, if he moved at night and kept his face covered with that stocking mask and goggles no problem.'

At the top of the flight, he stopped. I think we both knew what to expect. It was a light airy room with white built-in cupboards, wardrobes, and dressing-table units. Hi-fi and video equipment was stacked waist-high next to a turntable and television set. Bar-bells and sets of weights were arranged neatly by the window. Over a chair by the bed hung a dark green sweat-shirt bearing the slogan, 'This is a herpes-free zone', above a down-pointing arrow.

On the bed, his head raised on a pillow, his arms folded across his stomach, was the man I'd interviewed as Oscar Murphy. You might've thought he was resting there if it hadn't been for the hole where his right eye should've been. That's the way the pro's do it. It would look quite neat if you didn't have to dislodge the eyeball.

The ID propped on his hands made him Roddy Hermon of the Naval Investigative Service.

'Not public relations?' I said to Dempsie.

'Same thing,' he growled. 'Same damn thing.'

When I got back to Hulda's, I stood looking at my bed in the hope of some sign that Solrun really had been my night visitor. I don't know why. As soon as Hulda had confirmed the baby's name was Asta, I knew I hadn't been dreaming.

Unless, of course, I was developing a talent for clairvoyant dreams, and after my experiments with meditation that didn't seem too likely.

So what was it she'd said about a ceremony? Try as I could, I couldn't make any sense out of that fragment. I was lying on the bed trying to dredge my memory when I saw the puffin watching me. With its cocked head and glinting eye, it looked to me like a puffin that knew too much. I pulled a sock over its head. And it wasn't a clean sock either.

A ceremony. A public ceremony. It was the price for something, she'd said, but I was damned if I could remember what.

I was quite glad when there was a tap at the door and Christopher Bell came in. He was wearing his usual cosy clutter of jumble-sale rubbish and his thick black hair was hanging down so that only one bright eye showed.

'You know, Christopher, either you're growing to look like those bloody puffins or . . .'

'Quite possibly,' he said, not at all affronted. 'Get the old hooter painted and I'll be in business, I dare say. Although, come to think of it, I shouldn't think my beak's straight enough.'

'How'd you get it?' I'd been wondering that since we met.

He tapped it with a knuckle and grinned. 'Awful, isn't it? Trouble is, I've got this high threshold of pain. Bust it in the first ten minutes playing scrum-half for Cambridge, didn't realise, and went on and played the whole damned game. Terrible mess.'

'Well, I've got this high threshold of nerves and that bird of yours was giving me the evil eye. Hence the sock.'

'Poor little chap. No word from Solrun, I don't suppose?'

'Not a cheep.'

'Actually,' he said, drawing the word out to four times its normal length, 'actually, I believe old Ivan's scooped you. Isn't that what you chaps call it?'

'I call it a damned nuisance,' I said, wondering if it was anything that might bounce back on me. 'You wouldn't happen to know what it is?'

'Well, I was wondering about the ethics of that,' he said, his dark face gleeful at all this mystery.

'The ethics are that you tell me about Ivan's stories, but not the other way round. How does that sound?'

Nothing would've stopped him anyway, he was so pop-eyed with the fun of it all. He'd called at Ivan's room and found the door standing ajar. And he had somehow been unable to prevent himself hearing what Ivan was saying down the telephone.

A man had been found dead in the Tjornin.

'Name?'

'Heavens, Sam, I wasn't eavesdropping, you know.'

'I know, and while you weren't eavesdropping you didn't happen to hear any more, did you?'

A crafty grin curved under his crooked nose. 'All Brits together, eh? I did actually. He said something about it being linked to an attack on a Russian embassy official. Does that mean anything to you?'

'Something to be suggesting that this person had met a violent end.'

'Whoever he was, he was in step with the spirit of our times,' I said, sitting up and reaching for my jacket. 'I think I'll go and take a look.'

'Can I come?'

'Why not? By the way,' I said, as casually as I could manage, 'I didn't know you counted Russian in your apparently endless repertoire of languages.'

'Only a smidgin,' he said, apologetically. 'Only about the-pen-of-your-aunt level.'

The bird didn't say a word as we left. If it had, Christopher would probably have replied. In fluent puffin.

I'd always had my doubts about him. Now I was beginning to assemble an entirely new set . . .

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