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Black Ice: Chapter 49

...Bellowing oaths, Oscar staggered to his feet and came rocking towards us, firing the gun. Some shots went into the ground, some into the sky. His limbs were all over the place...

Colin Dunne's brilliant Cold War spy thriller nears its conclusion with a crscendo of gunshots.

The baby was dangling over my left arm, kicking and shouting. I never did know how to hold the damned things. Behind me I could hear the rush and gush of the steaming geyser. Suddenly I knew they were all looking at me.

They hadn't seen Oscar. Stocking mask high up on his head, brandishing his gun like a cowboy, he came bucking and rearing down the hillside at a rare old rate - but they couldn't hear the bike for the noise from the waterhole.

My first thought was that he'd really flipped this time. You can't ride a bike over rough country like that one-handed, and you certainly can't hope to aim a big hand-gun like that. Even so, it might just give us a chance.

'The car,' I shouted to Solrun. 'Run for the car.'

'Stay where you are.' Christopher sounded crisp and commanding. 'Remember Sally.'

Fleetingly, I did. Sally in her straw-hat, with all her silly chatter about her giggling friends. And Asta: this pink bundle in my arms. Two daughters. One to live, one to die. And I had to make the choice.

Solrun was struggling to break free from the trawler thug who'd been our driver. He'd got her by the arm and collar and was shaking her to subdue her.

Then it was his turn. He glanced up, past where the camera crew and Ivan were backing towards the helicopter, and saw Oscar charging down on us. Instantly the driver flung Solrun from him so that she sprawled on the ground. Crab-like, he scuttled past Christopher and I could see the grin on his face. He knew the chances of being hit by a pistol, one-handed, from a bouncing bike. So he was smiling as he pulled a revolver from inside his jacket, and that was as far as he got. The first shot spun him to one side and the second kicked him six-feet down the hill. Those big Colts do that. He died grinning. All the odds were on his side,
but he was dead, just the same.

The other thug, the one with the bruised face, had rushed up from the cars and dropped to one knee. With both hands, he fired. Once, twice.

The crazy glee on Oscar's face switched to hurt surprise as the bullets caught him. He rose in the saddle like a stunt-man. The bike roared and slid away from beneath him, skidding on its side and finally coming to rest with the rear wheel in a brown mud pool.

Bellowing oaths, Oscar staggered to his feet and came rocking towards us, firing the gun. Some shots went into the ground, some into the sky. His limbs were all over the place.

He crashed to his knees with a jolt, still with his torso upright, and I saw his eyes fix on the pink bundle in my arms.

'Baby,' he shouted, in a voice that echoed all the way to the mountains. He stretched out one long arm, pointing. Then he crashed forward on to his face. The squared-away marine.

The engine of the bike phutted weakly to a halt. The baby was silent. Only the water still gurgled.

Before I even had time to think of it, Christopher was beside Oscar's body, and he came up with the Colt in his hand. He shouted in Russian to Ivan and the crew who were by now down by the helicopter. They wanted none of this rough stuff. But slowly, muttering, they began to come back up the slope.

Kirillina turned over the Russian who'd been shot and whatever it was he said meant only one thing: dead.

'Now.' Christopher sucked in a deep breath and flicked back his hair. He'd got everything under control again, but he was still using the pistol to underline his authority. 'Now we'll have this film made, shall we?'

Solrun came over to me and took the child. 'You really didn't realise? You didn't know she was yours?'

I shook my head. 'No. I didn't realise you wanted to come to me.'

'I said the father. I said I wanted Asta's father. Did you think I meant Oscar?' She saw the answer to that on my face and she reached out and squeezed my arm. 'I brought the birth certificate to show you. It will make you laugh.'

'Solrun.' Christopher's snappy command broke in. 'Over there with Kolai now, please.'

She didn't even turn to face him. 'What shall I do?' she asked me.

'Oscar was mad,' I said. 'They drove him mad.' She glanced at Oscar's body.
Tight-lipped, she moved her eyes to show she understood me.

'They killed your mother too. The Americans had nothing to do with it.'

The baby began to cry. She patted its back. 'Why?'

'For this,' I indicated the waiting camera crew, and the gaunt Ivan. 'And me. It's a great story. Beauty flees with love child to escape wrath of Yankee spies. And can you imagine what the Icelanders will think of it?'

'Cut that out,' Christopher said. He raised the pistol and gripped it with both hands. It made a thin bitter sound in the open air. I felt my left arm jump like a twitched string. But oddly, no pain.

'You're a bloody nuisance,' he said.

A bloody nuisance. I looked around. Oscar's crumpled body face down. One Russian thug on the floor with half his head missing and the other with his revolver looking in the general direction of myself. A bloody nuisance. It didn't seem adequate, somehow.

'Kolai, get that crew up here,' Christopher went on. He was trying again to impose order on the scene. 'We are going to do this interview whether they want to or not. Ivan, get up here, man. You're supposed to be a professional.'

'I can't,' Solrun said. She was holding the child tight to her and facing out across the open countryside, across the bubbling pools and the plumes of steam, to the high mountains. 'I won't.'

'She can't,' I said to Christopher. I had to make him see it was impossible. 'Don't you see, she's not being stubborn, she can't. Before she half-believed it, but not now. She's not going anywhere with him,' and I pointed to Kirillina. 'It's all different now. It won't work any more.'

I could see in his eyes that I'd won. He stared at me, then flicked a glance over the rest of them. It had gone. It had been a great scheme, but now it was in broken bits all over this wild landscape.

'Get in the helicopter,' I added, in a friendly reasonable tone. 'Just go.'

'He's right,' Ivan called over. I could hear him try to force some strength into his trembling voice, and I was glad. The rest of them were listening and watching. They knew a deal was being made.

Without warning, Christopher suddenly gave one of his pleasing smiles. 'Fair enough.'

Then we all froze and looked at each other.

A high penetrating voice called out: 'Drop those guns please. Drop your guns, all of you.'
After a moment's silence, the voice came again: T said, drop those guns, and I meant it.'

A rifle cracked. The windscreen of the Range Rover shattered and crashed inwards.

The remaining Russian thug threw his revolver down noisily on the rock and locked his fingers on top of his head. Professionals don't take on rifles with handguns. But Christopher kept a grip on his, and like all of us he combed the landscape to see who was doing the shooting now.

All except Kirillina. His eyes were on Solrun. In them I saw passion and pleading and tragedy, and I understood then, with a jolt, that for him it hadn't been acting. He did love her.

'Mr Bell now, please,' the voice called again.

Whoever it was, he was on the side of the angels. But he didn't know I'd struck a deal with Christopher, and there was no way I could start to tell him. My hand felt hot. When I looked down I saw it was soaked in blood. I'd forgotten about my arm.

'No. I don't think so.' This was Christopher's reply. Once again he'd raised the Colt, and he'd also taken a step forward. He pointed it now at the baby's back, as it snuggled against its mother. My baby.

'Shoot me and you risk the child. You may get away with it, you may not. Well? Is it worth the risk?'

You had to give it to him. His voice was level and controlled.

In the silence, I saw a movement on the hillside. He must've been lying down in some sort of cover. When he did stand up, I recognised him immediately, even at two hundred yards. I'd know those knees anywhere. It was Bottger.

We'd all seen him, except Christopher. He wasn't moving his eyes or the gun away from Solrun and the baby. They were his last chance.

Only two yards stood between them. But it was two yards of electric tension. She had her left hand under the baby and her right behind its head. Her face above was burning with the will to live. Between the two of them, but a little to one side, stood Kirillina, his dark eyes running from one to the other.

In tones of ringing clarity, Christopher gave his instructions to Solrun and to the man on the hillside he still hadn't seen.

'The girl is coming down to the helicopter now. With me. You know what will happen if you shoot.' Still with a raised voice, so the man would understand, he added: 'Come along now, Solrun. Let's go.'

He stepped towards her. After a moment's hesitation she moved back a step. It was weird - like watching a patient dancing teacher with an awkward pupil.

On the hillside, Bottger had lowered the rifle. It wasn't his battle now. It was between these two.

At that moment, Strokkur blasted. With our own drama, we'd all forgotten about the waters grunting and grumbling underground, and when the sparkling silver column climbed up above our heads, we all gazed at it. Even Christopher lifted his eyes.

At that moment Kirillina sprang. He didn't go for the gun. He grabbed him around the shoulders and the top of his arms, and with his weight he was much taller than the Englishman and impetus, he ran Christopher backwards. He was shouting in Russian: let go, get off, something like that.

Maybe he'd expected Christopher to give more resistance or perhaps he'd just caught him off-balance. Whatever the reason they stumbled down the hill until they were on the bare rock which surrounded the geyser. Just then, it broke. One second it was a shining pillar, the next it was gallons of boiling water crashing back to earth. I went staggering back as some of the hot spray, caught on the wind, touched my face, but even then I knew that Christopher had fired the Colt. I couldn't hear the noise for the bellowing rush of the water, but I felt the
disturbance in the air as the bullet rushed past.

Then I saw that Kirillina had flung himself sideways and was rolling away from the water. Christopher had gone.

In its rush to get back into the hot earth, the water raced in furious circles over the rocks. As the last streams were sucked into the plughole, I saw its black mouth gaping. That was where he'd gone.

'The girl.' It was Bottger who shouted as he ran towards us. We were all watching the waters close over Christopher's grave. Vanishing like that was somehow more complete than death.

When I spun and saw Solrun I knew instantly what had happened. She was still clasping the baby with both hands, but now she was on her knees. Her eyes and mouth were wide open in an expression of wonder, like a child's on Christmas morning.

As I reached her, she sank down on to her haunches, and if I hadn't put my arms around her she would have crashed over. I'd seen the neat hole the bullet had left in the baby's pink back. My fingers told me it had blown a hell of a chunk out of Solrun's back on the other side.

They were still locked together, mother and daughter. So, as gently as I could I lowered them to the ground just as they were. Solrun was still breathing in fluttery little gasps. Then her mouth closed, her top teeth bit briefly into her bottom lip, and she died. I sat there, holding the two of them. For a while, a sense of time must have left me. No thoughts passed through my mind. I wasn't thinking. But I was awake and aware. I could smell the sulphurous air. I could hear the waters hissing and bubbling around me. In the distance, I could see the saw-edged mountains. Strokkur fired again, three, or maybe four, times. The wind must have dropped for I no longer felt the hot spray.

I don't think I would have noticed the Helix going, if it hadn't churned the air so that Solrun's cropped curls lifted and moved. Gradually its clatter died away as it headed out over the sea. I didn't even notice the cars arriving. The next thing I knew was Petursson's hand on my shoulder. Then I remembered.

'They were going to kill Sally.'

In the police car on the way back, I wouldn't take Petursson's word for it. He radioed Reykjavik. They telephoned England. But it wasn't until they'd done it again, and the police operator in town had assured me personally that the nuns had been up to the dormitory themselves, that I believed them.
Sally was asleep in bed.

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