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Black Ice: Chapter 45

...It was only about a seven-foot drop and when I got to the bottom I turned and swung the torch beam round. I've never seen so many damned eyes in all my life, and they were all looking at me...

Journalist and reluctant spy Sam Craven goes aboard the suspicious Russian trawlar in Reykjavic harbour.

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

Like new lovers, the sea and the boats played all afternoon. The sea surged in with sloppy kisses, the boats giggled and wriggled like schoolgirls.

'What are they cooking up? What the hell are they cooking up?'
Dempsie had been asking the same question, in assorted forms, all afternoon.

We were sitting in an unmarked car at the top of the slope that led down to the harbour. Below us, the Pushkin was tucked hard against the wall.

We'd been there for four hours, waiting for Petursson to arrive with the necessary authority to board the vessel. He was clearly having problems. He'd said himself that his government wouldn't like it. No one particularly wanted to go and kick the Soviet Union on the shin if they could avoid it.

It was when he'd said Palli had frozen to death that I remembered what he'd said to me. He pretended that I'd said Solrun was on the Pushkin. He'd done it to save my life, I knew that. Oscar was going to throw me under the waterfall again, and I wouldn't have stood another minute of sub-aqua rope-tricks by that time. He'd pretended they'd beaten the answer out of me. But there was more to it than that. He wasn't a stupid man. He wouldn't have suggested it unless he thought it could be true.

And the Pushkin was a freezer trawler.

Dempsie and I had spent four hours sitting in the car, me thinking about the stateless man in the cold steel drawer, and Dempsie trying to read the minds of the men below decks on the trawler. There was little enough life on board. Two fishermen -real sloppy unshaven fishermen, not the clean-cut military types - had come ashore and returned with some shopping. Three of them had been doing some repair work to the gantry over the aft-deck. Otherwise, it was quiet.
We waited. Dempsie smoked his menthol cigarettes and opened the windows so the smoke was swept away.

He squeezed his fleshy face between his fingers and pounded at his knee with his fist. 'Come on, what is it they're lining up for us? I know these bastards. Every time we work out one move, they've made three more. Where are they taking us? What are they leading us into? Christ, Sam, here he is.'
It was Petursson. If he could feel the pressure from Dempsie urging him on, he didn't let it show. Stone-faced, he unwound without haste from the back of the official Volvo and the two uniformed men accompanying him waited while the driver passed out his hat and his raincoat. Again, as though preparing for a stroll through the park, he put on the latter and held the former and marched up to the gangplank of the Pushkin.

'What're they saying, dammit?' Dempsie muttered as he leaned this way and that to try to make sense out of the babble of voices. A tall woman in a straight grey dress appeared to be Petursson's interpreter. She stood between him and a skinny wilting figure, wearing what looked like a soiled vest under a heavy overcoat. Beside him was the wide-bodied man-woman I'd greeted a few days earlier. By the way she pushed in she must be the commissar.

Then Petursson raised one arm and waved me down.

'Don't let him foul it up,' Dempsie said. He knew there wasn't a chance of smuggling an American intelligence agent like himself on board.

'It has been made clear to the captain here,' Petursson said, as I ran up to them, 'that this document here authorises us to board this vessel. Follow me.'

With delicate steps, he picked his way up the gangplank, with me, the interpreter and the two uniformed men in tow. The captain - in the grubby vest and overcoat - shouted, and the woman grunted at the captain and jabbed him in the back. But they parted.

'Hurry,' Petursson whispered to me, taking me by the arm. 'Once the Soviet Embassy gets here, things will become very difficult.'

I followed him down into the belly of the ship. Steep
companionways let out into dark narrow corridors. On the mess deck a dozen or so men were watching a film. It was either porn or the history of a pink blancmange factory. They hardly gave us a glance as we clattered by. A minute later we heard them cheer: presumably the pink blancmanges had clashed.
We went past the gutting benches and the vertical plate freezers, down through the factory floor until we came to a steel cover in the deck. Petursson had to put on his hat so he could use both hands to move it. I took hold of the iron-ring beneath and heaved out the foot-deep plug which blocked the hatch.

The gasp of cold air that swirled out behind it was like a draught from the grave. We both peered down into the half-lit space around the ladder.

'So,' Petursson said. 'No Oscar.'

That didn't bother me too much, but then I didn't have to justify raiding Soviet ships.

He handed me a pocket torch. 'You first.' I turned and went down the steel-runged ladder.

It was only about a seven-foot drop and when I got to the bottom I turned and swung the torch beam round. I've never seen so many damned eyes in all my life, and they were all looking at me.

I was in a space maybe a yard square. On all sides, stacked from deck to ceiling, were slabs of frozen fish. Wherever the torch beam went, it found glittering silver bodies, caught and crammed and crushed into hundredweight blocks. Tails, gaping mouths, scales and fins all solidified in motionless shoals, shimmering in the torchlight. But mostly it was eyes, bulging, white-framed, glassy, glossy eyes that caught the light.
When I breathed in, the air was like broken glass. It was thirty below. The cold bit like a rusty razor and was just as deadly. A weak yellow light in the deckhead hardly took the edge off the dark once I moved the torch away. And the only sound was the soft groan of the generator- to remind you that you were being frozen to death.

Forty-five minutes, the pathologist had said. That's how long a fit man could live in those conditions. I shivered. And it had nothing to do with the temperature.

What had it really been like for Palli down there? There was only one way to find out.

'Drop the bung back in.'

Petursson's face, unusually anxious, appeared above me. 'There is no need for that.'

'Seriously. Put it back in place.'

It dropped in with a heavy sigh. I switched off the torch. The deckhead lamp was no more than a clouded moon of light. In the dark, the generator's hum sounded like the voice of the cold itself, sawing roughly into your bones. Tiny flashes of light darted between the heaped shoals so that I glimpsed a lolling mouth, a fierce eye, a sudden sweep of the iron-coloured fish.
I climbed two rungs up the ladder and switched the torch on. Dark stains, black by torchlight, marked the steel rim. Where a ragged lip of metal stuck out, I found a sliver of ripped flesh. Then more, where he'd rammed his fingers into a crack to try to tear his way out.

I banged the underside of the bung. I was ready to come out. The silence that followed was too long. I flashed the torch around at the banks of gaping fish and the shiver which ran through my body owed nothing to the freezing air: that one was hatched in the imagination. Briefly I knew the fear that Palli must have faced. Then the bung rose and with relief I saw Petursson's friendly face.

'That's where he got his manicure.' I heard him curse at the grisly sight.

'And that,' he said, pointing to ripped wires on the deck, 'is where they disconnected the emergency alarm.'

'Probably spoiling their film-show.'

The bottom of the plug, which was made out of some sort of cork-type insulating material, was rough cast and it had taken tiny chunks of flesh offhis fingers where he'd been scraping and pushing at it. And all the time he'd be getting weaker and slower, the warmth of his body draining away until he folded up and died. In the dark, with only his terror for company.
Even for Palli, it was a hell of a way to die.


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