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Black Ice: Chapter 48

The Russians have arranged a wedding for the beautiful Solrun in Iceland's most dramatic setting. And journalist/spy Sam Craven is about to receive the shock of his life.

The drama becomes ever more intense in Colin Dunne's Cold War thriller.

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

Immediately, I knew why. If you wanted to shoot a film that was unmistakeably Iceland, that's where you'd do it.

There's no other stretch of countryside quite like it. At the foot of a red-stained hump of a hill, water and steam sizzle and bubble in the holes in the earth's crust. The Great Geysir — the one that gave its name to the whole lot of them — sulks underground now, but the rest of the springs boil steadily away. Strokkur, the one I'd seen from the road, blasts up a thirty- or forty-foot column every few minutes. All around, over an area the size of a football field, steam hisses and spits through fissures in the rocks; mudholes like vast paint-pots, every colour from pale blue to burnt brown, bubble; in others, waters of pellucid clarity swirl, rising and sinking. Put in your finger and it'll skin it. And even the stiff wind that night couldn't shift the stink of sulphur.

That's what they were all set to do: shoot a film.

Three men - one with a shoulder camera, one with a hand mike, one with a clipboard — were testing angles around where Strokkur had erupted. Watching them, and chipping in occasionally with his own comments, was Christopher Bell. Ivan was standing deferentially a yard or so behind him.

Down by the road, our Range Rover was parked near a Helix helicopter, one of those fat-bellied models that looks like a flying cow, which Ivan told me had ferried the camera crew in from the destroyer, Udalqy. Our driver and his mate had taken up their positions by the car, as relaxed as chauffeurs in the car park at Ascot.

When it dawned upon me that no one cared where I went or what I did, I walked up the hillside where I could watch the film crew prepare for action. Even so, I kept my distance, perhaps thirty yards or so away from them. In some ways I'd have been happier as a prisoner. Being unrestrained made me feel as though I was in collusion with them. It was an odd feeling. Quickly I saw why they weren't worrying about me. What could I do? Run to Reykjavik? And at this time - the middle of the night — no one would be coming here. They were perfectly safe for hours yet.

But when people watched the film on their front-room tellies, they'd see the jewelled light, the eggshell sky, the miniature mountains in the distance - all as innocent as a country wedding.

'Ah, there you are.'

Christopher turned away from the group by the water and came towards me. He was so little concerned about security that he hadn't bothered to see where I'd gone.

He was wearing a cheap imitation sheepskin and he had to hold his hair down in the wind. At first I couldn't think what it was that was wrong about him, then I knew. Nothing was wrong. He still had the same merry look in his black eyes, and the same boyish quality of mischievous innocence. Despite what I'd learned, he was the same man.

'Did you know this was what we were after?' Again, inexplicably, I expected him to have acquired a foreign accent. But he still spoke the same prep-school English, and with the same gushing enthusiasm.

When I didn't answer, he looked into my staring eyes and nodded in understanding. 'Of course, Sally. Sorry, I should've realised.'

'Where is she?'

'Perfectly safe so long as this goes off okay. That's all you need to remember. She's my guarantee of your good behaviour, if you like.'

'And if I don't behave?'

He frowned and pushed his lips out as he looked around. 'All we need now is the bride and bridegroom. There they are, I do believe.' He pointed to a puff of dust making its way up the road.

'And if I don't?'

He shot me one of his clever sideways looks. 'Fair enough. Perhaps you should know. If not, then she's run over by a hit-and-run driver. Killed. Tragically.'

He could see the anger inside me but he didn't back away or show any apprehension at all.

'So you see,' he said, with a quick smile. 'No nonsense, eh?'

He jerked round again at the sound of men's voices. Strokkur had fired again. A tall column of boiling water stood in the air, then crashed down. On the windward side of the pool, not a drop had fallen. But two of the Russians had strayed towards the other side, and the shouting came as they scrambled back to safety.

Christopher called over to them in Russian. To me, he explained: 'I told them to watch that equipment. I had a terrible job getting it issued.'

I felt as though I didn't know what to say to him. All the stuff about cricket and stuffed puffins didn't apply now. Yet we were the same people. Absurdly, and to my own confusion, my reaction to him was still the same: to like him.

He must have sensed this because he reached up and slung his hand over my shoulder. 'Don't worry about the little girl, she'll be fine.' He gave me a reassuring smile. 'It isn't personal, you know. It's a game. We played rather better than you this time, that's all.'

I could hardly bring myself to ask the question. 'What about Solrun's mother? She was clean bowled, was she?'

He gave one of those small impatient signs that you save for favourite children on their bad days. 'Really, Sam. What about the pensioners who die of hypothermia? What about the miners who die of pneumoconiosis? What about the Light Brigade? What about the Holocaust? People die of politics every day, I'm afraid. There's no halting that. All we can decently do is to make sure they don't die in vain. To make sure their deaths bring us a little closer to a better world. Hers will, you know.'

I remembered her scalped skull. 'How?'

He marked off a square in the air like film producers are supposed to. 'That's the scene. Solrun, symbol of Iceland's proud patriotism, stands there and tells what it is like to have your land occupied by a foreign power. She even holds a child she was given by a foreign soldier. What's worse, a black soldier. In that picture, Icelanders — certainly the older ones — will see their daughters being despoiled and their race which has until now been little more than a large family being tainted by unwanted outsiders. I'm not saying they're right. I'm saying that's what they will see on their screens. And Solrun has a story to tell. She will tell how desperately she regrets this, and how, once she decided to speak out against the crimes of the colonialist power who occupies her country, she was hounded. The man who made her pregnant, a homicidal American, was unleashed to hunt her down and kill her. Even her own mother was tortured and killed by the Americans. And what you must admit, Sam, as a man who knows something about publicity, is that it is very close to the truth.'

The look on my face was all he needed to continue.

'Oscar Murphy is homicidal - yes?'

'By now he is, the poor devil.'

'You and I know that we had to prime him a little to get him in that state but the fact remains that it's true.'

'Are you seriously saying the Americans killed her mother? It was you. You and those two thugs down there.'

He held out his hands in a gesture of open honesty. 'But it would never have happened if the Americans weren't here. You must admit it, Sam. And what the viewers will see is a happy ending. That's what they love, isn't it? I'm sure it'll make a great story for Grimm. The heroine swept off to safety by the handsome hero. To Russia. Mark my words. Ten years from now there won't be an American left on this island. And here, unless I'm much mistaken, are the happy couple.'

I felt lost without confetti to throw.

The black car pulled up on the road. Very correctly, the driver came round and opened the door. Solrun, baby in her arms, got out. Kirillina, immaculate in his naval officer's uniform, came round and took her arm and posed beside her.

Despite the strip of plaster across the corner of his left eye, and the other scrapes and bumps on his face, he was debonair, attentive, polished. You could almost hear how all the mums would catch their breath when they saw him on their screens.

This time, I thought, it's Solrun who's in a dream. She looked beautiful, but she couldn't really look otherwise. She certainly hadn't dressed up for the event as Kirillina obviously had. She was wearing one of her crinkly cotton things,
turquoise trousers and jacket, which instantly became glamorous when she put them on.

But she seemed isolated from all this weird scene. If she knew Kirillina was there, she gave no sign of it. She lifted her chin up another notch and, with short graceful steps, began to mount the gentle slope towards the hissing, smoking pools.

At that point, ludicrously, the camera crew gave a small ragged cheer. That was another layer of irony. If they were technicians, of course, they probably did believe she was a gallant freedom-fighter who was escaping to Mother Russia.
Christopher hurried down the hill to meet them by Strokkur. I didn't move. I watched. I saw him talking to them, and setting them with their backs against the geyser, and then shouting instructions to the camera crew. Solrun continued to stare ahead, even when Kirillina whispered in her ear.

This was what it was all about. All the lies, all the blood. I walked down to listen to what she would say.

'English version first,' Christopher was saying. 'This is the one for the whole world. I need hardly say that this is the one that matters. When you're ready, Solrun . . .'

She didn't speak. Instead she tilted her head even higher. But still the tears ran down her smooth tight cheeks.

'That's okay.' Christopher sounded pleased. 'Quite natural. Crying at having to leave her beloved country. We'll have some of that, I think. Ah, Sam, just the man. Give her some encouragement, will you?'

'Encouragement?' He was so informally cheerful that I had to make a conscious effort to remember what he'd done - and, even now, what he was doing.
He nodded towards her. 'Last-minute doubts. Not un-common, I dare say. Tell her she's doing the right thing.'

I've no idea what expression he saw on my face. Horror? Disgust? Whatever it was, he leaned over and said the one word: 'Sally.'

When I turned towards her, Solrun saw me for the first time. Awkwardly, her arms tight around the child, she shook off Kirillina's grasp and ran forward to me. I put my arms out to hold her and the child. That was the least I could do.
When I looked down and saw the baby's face, it made me start with a shock I couldn't quite define. It was white. Somehow that was wrong. But there was no time to work out what it meant then.

'I can't, I can't,' she was sobbing.

'Of course you can, dear,' Christopher said. 'That's it, Sam old boy, cheer her up. You're among friends, Solrun. Look, I think it might be easier without the baby. At least to start with. Let's give it a try. I'm sure you'll remember your words if you don't have to think about the baby.'

Without any force, he seemed to slip the bundle out of her arms. 'Sweet little thing, isn't she?'

With a quick move of his head, he sent one of the two trawler thugs over to her. He wrapped his thick fingers around her arm and marched her back to the position in front of the camera. The goodwill was beginning to thin out.

'Now,' Christopher said, his voice hardening a fraction, 'let's hear your piece, shall we? Now.'

The small bald man with the clipboard, obviously the reporter, stepped up beside her. I saw him moisten his lips before asking her, in goodish English, why she wanted to leave Iceland.

She began to say something about the United States, then broke down in heaving, racking sobs. Those stopped too, as her whole body seemed to stiffen and her hand crept out and pointed.

The baby, a two-foot pink bundle, was on the move. From where Christopher had set it on the ground beside him, it had dropped forward on to hands and knees and was plodding with slow determination with the gradient of the hill. Towards the geyser.

Christopher broke the silence as we all saw with horror what was happening. He snapped something in Russian. Kirillina immediately grabbed Solrun, his right arm round her, his left holding her right. The trawler thug also moved within arm's reach.

'Just the incentive we need,' Christopher said, with a smile that swept all around our group. 'Can we get it over with now, dear?'

He took two unhurried steps after the baby and stooped to take hold of the bottom of its coat. It tried to move forward, this time without making any progress.

'Now?' he suggested, looking up at Solrun.

She tried again, and again collapsed in tears. A third time she couldn't get beyond half-a-dozen words. By now she was blubbering and shaking her head from side to side in distress. Suddenly she jerked her face round to me. 'What shall I do, Sam? Tell me. Tell me for God's sake. What shall I do?' Kirillina was watching her closely, with something in his face I couldn't quite place.
Christopher was down on his haunches, still restraining the baby. Without glancing up, he said: 'Remember Sally.' Then he sat back and let the baby go.

The centre of the geyser is a four-foot hole which shows black and deep when the water is sucked back down. Then it slowly builds up for another blast, and this is what it was doing now. The water, diamond-clear, was swirling busily and then angrily around, until it flooded over the hard lip of the hole. From there it spilled out over a dish of rock burned bare by the boiling water, and spread to the craggy surround.

Horrified, fascinated, we all watched as the baby, like a large pink tortoise, crossed on to the rock: hand, foot, hand, foot. Her hand went in a tiny pool, not half a cupful of water, left from the last burst. It must have been very hot. She snatched her hand back and sat up looking at her fingers, a high wail breaking from her lips. Then, in fear and pain, she dropped again on to all fours and set off again.

Down the slope. Across the rock. Towards the swirling waters.

Solrun's cry tore the heavens apart and it was a few seconds before I understood what she was saying.

'She's yours, Sam. She's your daughter. She's your baby.'

Christopher pointed one finger at me. 'Sally,' he shouted.

But I ran, I ran like hell, I snatched the kid up under my arm and as I dived off the rock I heard the terrifying rush of hundreds of gallons of water boiled up in the guts of the world come bursting out.

As I looked up, I saw Oscar Murphy coming down the hill. He was riding his Triumph. And he was holding his big Colt .45 in his left hand.

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