Authors: Colin Dunne
© Colin Dunne 2012
Collin Dunne has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
Published 2012 by Endeavour Press Ltd.
If you've never come to in the middle of the night to find yourself approximately halfway between New York and Moscow, right up on top of the world, standing outside a block of flats wearing nothing other than a ladies' silk dressing-robe and that decorated with large scarlet kisses - allow me to describe the sensation.
Confused. That's the word, I think. Confused, and cold around the knees.
I shivered, yawned and did a few push-ups with my eyelids while I applied my brain to some basic questions: like was it night or day? That isn't quite as easy as it sounds. In the summer, about the only way you can tell is by the life in the city. From where I was standing, outside the flats high up on Vesturbrun, the place looked like early-closing day on the Marie Celeste.
That made it night. Still.
I looked and listened. Nothing. Only, in the distance, a car chugging and spluttering. An early worker. Or, here in Reykjavik, more likely a late reveller.
I called out her name, then stood there feeling silly. Solrun isn't the sort of name you can go round shouting, not unless you've strayed into one of those operas where all the women look like sixteen-stone milkmaids. In any case, my cry fell into that damp silence like a stone down a well.
Then it struck me. If this was my debut in international espionage, I wasn't doing too well. I mean, how would it look on my c.v.? 'On his first operation, Craven actually lost the subject of his surveillance while she was in bed with him.'
Roger Moore never seemed to have these problems.
Once more I called out her name. The wind whipped it away and then frisked me with cold and cheeky fingers. Even with the scarlet kisses, the silk robe wasn't much protection against a breeze that had trained in the Arctic.
Dammit. What the hell was she playing at? Baffled? Oh yes, I was baffled all right. But I wasn't too worried because I knew Solrun. She was a twenty-four carat madcap, that one. Alongside her, other women were prisoners of iron logic. She was governed entirely by inexplicable whim.
Otherwise - let me say it first - what would she be doing in bed with me?
Anyway, at that point I wasn't too serious about my career as a spy. For one thing- as I'd said to Batty- those international organisations who were known by a deadly trio of initials always sounded like television stations to me. 'There's nothing on the KGB tonight, shall we watch the news on CIA?'
Come to that, no one had mentioned spying. 'Give history a bit of a nudge', was the expression Batty had used. From his prissy mouth, it sounded about as strenuous as stamp collecting.
Right now it was either too early or too late to do anything significant by way of history-nudging. I gave one last shout, one last yawn, one last shiver, and shot back indoors with as much dignity as man can muster when he's dressed like something from a boudoir catalogue. Which wasn't much.
As I waited for the lift, I recalled what she'd said about the two men. Perhaps they'd kill her, she'd said. For a moment, I felt uneasy, until I realised it was a minor attack of those just before-dawn doubts. She was always saying things like that. That was Solrun, living life downhill without brakes. Death threats, either real or imaginary, probably played the same part in her life as parking tickets in mine. So I shrugged the thought off and hopped into the lift.
That was my first day there. I didn't know what it was all about. Then it was just a good laugh spiced up with a bit of mystery.
Later, the spicing sort of outweighed the laughs.
The strongest phrase that William Batty did use, that morning he came sneezing up to my office four floors above Farringdon Road, was 'spot of trouble'. That wasn't much preparation for what was to come, either.
He mumbled on about keeping the old eyes open and a word in the right ear at the right time, and for quite a while I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. I wasn't much wiser when he left, come to think of it.
When I'd moved into that office two years earlier, a pal of
mine had said that the sight of all those barrows loaded with second-hand books in the street below would depress anyone attempting to earn a living by arranging words into sentences of interest. It did depress me, but then that was never too difficult. In the film of grease and dust on the window, the same bloke had written 'Sam Craven, Diurnalist and Wordsmith Extraordinaire'. Funny thing about journalists: because their trade obliges them to reduce the English language to a level comprehensible to a four-year-old, they tend to go round talking like Sir Roger de Coverley by way of compensation.
It caught Batty's eye. 'Most amusing,' he said, stooping to read it against the one shaft of sunlight that somehow managed to sneak through the chimneys.
Then he stood up with his hand on his chest, still searching for breath after the stairs. 'My word, young man, you must be very healthy to tackle those every day.'
'You know what they say? You can have all the health in the world but it won't buy you money.'
I took pity on his puzzled face. 'Joke,' I said.
'Joke?' he repeated, then, suddenly smiling: 'Oh yes, I love a joke.'
He sat down gingerly on the rackety bentwood chair I reserved for my most favoured guests. My least favoured guests too, since it was the only one. I had a good look at him.
Late fifties: grey nondescript suit and tie and black shoes, suggesting academic non-strivers rather than commercial rat racer; pale, podgy, with hair that looked like an old tabby that had crawled up there to die, depositing a small kitten on his upper lip on the way.
I was just beginning to wonder about the red rims round his eyes and nose when he suddenly began gasping for air, and tearing a sheet-sized hankie from his pocket he buried his head in it with a volcanic sneeze. 'Hay fever,' his muffled voice explained. 'Dreadful.'
Behind him, the wire coat-hangers on the door-hook tinkled a salute to his effort. He sneezed again, this time a planned and controlled explosion. Afterwards, he gave me a weak smile.
Now it was his turn to have a look. Topless jar of paste with plastic teaspoon replacing lost brush. Chain of paper-clips dangling from large bulldog clip which secured dished shade over desk lamp. Small dented tin teapot wearing smart prophylactic red-rubber spout. Scarred, chipped, scratched and stained desk, with filing cabinet to tone. Two empty lager bottles beside photo of young Sally, clasping kitten. In the loo next door, an echoing baritone's claim that he'd left his heart somewhere was drowned in a noisy gush of water.
'This is what you get for twenty years of honest endeavour,' I said.
Batty nodded uncertainly. If he was impressed by what he'd seen, he managed to restrain himself from showing it.
'Still,' he said, brightly, 'I dare say all a professional like you needs is a typewriter and a bit of paper.'
'And an employer,' I said. I gave him an encouraging smile in case he'd forgotten why he was here. On the telephone an hour earlier, he'd said he was from some international features agency which was interested in commissioning me. I didn't have so many customers that I could afford to let him sneeze himself to death before I'd got the job.
'Ah, yes,' he said, giving me an unexpectedly foxy look. 'Can I ask you something a little ... well, a little unusual?'
I opened my hands to present an easy target. 'What do you want to know? Shorthand of seventeen words a minute, I can spell Mediterranean some of the time, and my litotes is the talk of Hammersmith- if you'll forgive the hyperbole.'
'Solrun,' he said, ignoring that lot. 'Ring a bell, perhaps, Solrun?'
After a pause, I asked: 'The model?' And he nodded, without taking his eyes off my face.
Whatever I'd been expecting, that wasn't it. While I ran through the implications, I got up and banged the button on the electric kettle on top of the filing cabinet. It began to boil almost immediately. I still hadn't finished my last cup of tea but I needed time to think.
'Yes, I know her,' I said, topping up the tin teapot. 'But you know that already or you wouldn't be here. Tea?'
'Thank you, no,' he said, with a quick glance at the encrusted mug which was the only spare in my catering division. 'You're quite right, of course. Am I right in thinking she is was rather a close friend?'
'You could say that,' I replied. For one heart-stopping moment, it occurred to me he might be collecting divorce evidence. Then I remembered that I was divorced and that Solrun wasn't married, and anyway I hadn't seen her for two years. 'Yes, she's a great lass,' I added.
'Good, good,' he hummed happily. 'You see, she seems to be in a spot of trouble.'
When wasn't she? I nearly asked, then didn't. I sipped my tea and waited for him to explain.
'What it is, Mr Craven, is that she's got mixed up with some rather dangerous types. Undesirables.'
Well, you certainly couldn't call Solrun an undesirable. On the other hand she was very, very dangerous.
These thoughts, together with other warm and pleasant memories, quite distracted me from Batty's explanation - something about a Foreign Office department concerned with British interests abroad - but I retuned quickly when he said they understood I was a close (ahem ahem) friend who could possibly use my influence to advise her. That was when he started going on about words in ears and open eyes. At that point I had to intervene.
'I don't really know what the hell you're on about,' I said.
He vanished into his hankie for some more secret H-bomb testing and when he came out his face was as pink as his eyes.
'What we're asking is for you to pop up to Reykjavik as an old friend, see what's going on, and do what you can to steer her away from any foolishness. I'm sure it will all become clear once you're there.