East of Desolation
East of Desolation
EAST OF DESOLATION
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF
First published in Great Britain by Hodder and Stoughton 1968
Copyright © Jack Higgins 1968
Harry Patterson asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
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Source ISBN: 9780007223701
Ebook Edition © JANUARY 2009 ISBN: 9780007290420
EAST OF DESOLATION was first published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton in 1968. It was later published in paperback by Coronet but has been out of print for several years.
In 2006, it seemed to the author and his publishers that it was a pity to leave such a good story languishing on his shelves. So we are delighted to be able to bring back EAST OF DESOLATION for the pleasure of the vast majority of us who never had a chance to read the earlier editions.
For Arnold Spector – good friend
I brought the plane in low over the sea and took her up to three thousand as land appeared and beyond, through the harsh white moonlight, the Greenland ice-cap gleamed like a string of pearls.
East from Cape Desolation the Julianehaab Bight was full of smoky mist indicating no wind to speak of and certainly nothing more than five knots, which was something. At least it gave me a chance of dropping into the valley at the head of the fjord. Not much of a one, but better than staying here.
It was cold in the cabin with the night wind streaming in through the splintered windscreen and the lighted dials on the instrument panel were confusing in their multiplicity, occasionally merging together in a meaningless blur.
And then, on the far side of the mist the waters of the fjord gleamed silvery white in the intense light and the strange twisted moonscape rolled towards the ice-cap, every feature etched razor-sharp.
It was time to go. I reduced speed, put the auto pilot in control and unbuckled my safety belt. When I turned, he was there as he always was, the head disembodied in the light from the instrument panel, eyes fixed, staring into eternity as he lolled back in the co-pilot’s seat.
I moved into the darkness of the cabin and stumbled, falling to one knee, my outstretched hand touching the cold, ice-hard face of the other, and panic seized me as it always did and it was as if I couldn’t breathe as I lurched through the darkness and clawed at the quick release handles on the exit hatch.
It fell away into the night and I stepped into space without hesitation, aware of the intense cold, feeling strangely free. I seemed to somersault in slow motion and for a single moment saw the plane above me in the night drifting steadily eastwards like some dark ghost and then I reached for the ring to open my chute and it wasn’t there and I gave one single despairing cry that was swept away into the night as I plunged into darkness.
I usually only got the dream when I was overtired or depressed, but it always left me in the same state – soaked in sweat and shaking like a leaf. I lay there looking up at the ceiling for a while, then flung aside the bedclothes and padded across to the window. When I rubbed the condensation away a fine morning greeted me.
I was flying out of Frederiksborg that year, Godthaab the capital having got just a little too civilised for comfort. It was a small place about two hundred miles below the Arctic Circle on the south-west coast. The population couldn’t have been more than fifteen hundred, but during the short summer season it was artificially inflated by the influx of two or three hundred construction workers from Denmark who were engaged in building rather ugly three-storied blocks of concrete flats as part of the government development programme.
But Frederiksborg, like most places on the Greenland coast, still had the look of a raw pioneering town, the mushroom growth of some gold or silver strike. The roads were unsurfaced and most of the town was scattered over a peninsula of solid rock. The houses were made of wood and painted red, yellow and green, and because of the rock foundations everything went overhead and telephone and electric cables festooned the air from a forest of poles.
The harbour was half a mile away at the end of a rocky road beside the new canning factory and contained half a dozen fishing boats, a Catalina flying boat used by East Canada Airways for coastal traffic, and my own Otter Amphibian which was parked on dry land at the head of the concrete slipway.
It was almost ten o’clock and I went into the bathroom and turned on the shower. There was a quick knock on the outside door and I wrapped a towel around my waist and returned to the bedroom.
Gudrid Rasmussen looked in. ‘You are ready for coffee, Mr Martin?’ she said in Danish.
She was a small, rather hippy girl of twenty-five or so, a Greenlander born and bred, mainly Danish by blood which showed in the fair hair plaited around her head, with just a touch of Eskimo in the high cheekbones and almond shaped eyes. Most of the year she spent housekeeping for her grandfather on his sheep farm at Sandvig about a hundred miles down the coast, but during the summer she worked as a chambermaid at the hotel.
‘Make it tea this morning, Gudrid,’ I said, ‘I’m feeling nostalgic.’
She shook her head in reproof. ‘You look awful. Too much work is not good for a man.’
Before I could reply the sound of an aeroplane engine shattered the stillness of the morning and I went to the window in time to see an Aermacchi flip neatly in across the harbour and drop flaps to land on the airstrip beyond the canning factory.
‘Here comes your boy friend.’
‘Arnie?’ There was a touch of colour in her cheeks as she crossed to the window. ‘Any girl is Arnie’s girl, Mr Martin. I hold no special rights.’
It would have been pointless to try and pretend otherwise and we stood there together for a moment in silence watching the wheels come down beneath the skis with which the Aermacchi was fitted.
‘I thought he was going to take those off and put his floats back on,’ I said.
‘The skis?’ She shrugged. ‘He’s got an extension of his service contract with the American mining company at Malamusk on the edge of the ice-cap. Up there the only place to land is the snow-field.’
His landing was good – not excellent, but then we all have our off-days. The Aermacchi rolled along the airstrip and disappeared from view behind the canning factory.
Gudrid smiled brightly. ‘I’ll bring your tea while you have a shower, then I’ll order breakfast for you. I’ll change the bed later.’
The door closed behind her and I went back into the bathroom and got under the shower. It was nice and hot and very relaxing and after a while my headache started to go, which was a good thing considering that I had a two and a half hour flight ahead of me. I pulled on my old silk dressing gown and went back into the bedroom towelling my hair briskly. In my absence, Gudrid had brought in a tray and the tea, when I poured it, was scalding. I finished the first cup and was pouring another when the door burst open and Arnie Fassberg blew in.
He was about my height, which was a little under six feet, but the resemblance stopped there. My hair was dark, his so fair as to be almost white, his face open, mine closed and saturnine. As yet he had not been used by life or at least had been used kindly and his forehead was as unlined as any child’s. By birth an Icelander, he had perhaps the most incredible appetite for women that I have ever encountered, and like all Don Juans he was an incurable romantic, falling in and out of love with astounding frequency.
He presented a slightly theatrical figure in his fur-lined boots and old flying jacket and he tossed a canvas holdall into the corner and moved to the table.
‘I thought you might have left. I’ve probably broken all records from Søndre Strømfjord to get here.’
‘Any particular reason?’
He helped himself to tea using my cup. ‘You’re flying supplies out to that American film actor aren’t you?’
He was referring to Jack Desforge, who’d arrived unexpectedly in Godthaab early in June in his motor yacht Stella. Since then he’d been cruising the coast fishing and hunting and I’d been flying out supplies to wherever he was at regular intervals.
‘Why the interest?’
‘I’ve got a passenger for you. She got off the midnight jet from Copenhagen at Søndre. Wanted me to take her straight to Desforge, but I couldn’t oblige. Have to be at Malamusk by noon with some spare parts they’ve had specially flown in from the States. Where is he, by the way?’
‘Somewhere north of Disko in the region of Narquassit as I last heard; looking for polar bear.’
There was genuine astonishment on his face. ‘At this time of the year. You must be joking.’
‘About the only thing outside of a Tibetan yak that he’s never laid low. You never know, he could hit lucky. I’ve seen bear up there myself in August before now.’
‘But not often, my friend. I wish him luck.’
‘This girl – what’s her name?’
‘Eytan – Ilana Eytan.’
I raised my eyebrows. ‘Israeli?’
‘I would have said English.’ He grinned. ‘Not that it matters – in any language she’s a lot of woman.’
He shook his head. ‘Ugly as sin and it doesn’t matter a damn.’
‘A rare combination. I look forward to meeting her.’
‘She’s having breakfast downstairs.’
The door opened and Gudrid entered as I knew she would, her excuse the clean sheets she carried. Arnie swung round and advanced on her.
‘Gudrid – sweetheart.’
She side-stepped him neatly and dropped the sheets on the bed. ‘You can cut that out for a start.’
He unzipped one of the pockets of his flying jacket and took out a roll of notes. ‘I got paid, angel. A thousand dollars on account. Where would we be without our American friends?’
‘And how much of that will go across the card table at the Fredericsmut?’ she said acidly.
He peeled off two hundred dollar bills and held out the rest of the money. ‘Save me from myself, Gudrid. Be my banker like always.’
‘What would be the point? You’ll want it back again tomorrow.’
He grinned. ‘Put it in the bank then, in your name. Just so I can’t get at it. I trust you.’
And as usual, she was putty in his hands. ‘If you’re sure you want me to.’
‘Would I ask if I didn’t?’ He patted her on the bottom. ‘I’d better come and see where you do put it, just in case you get knocked down in the street or anything.’
I didn’t need the wink he gave me over his shoulder as they went out to tell me what that meant. Poor Gudrid. Always on hand to keep him occupied in between affairs, never facing up to the hopelessness of the situation from her point of view. And yet in his own selfish way he had a genuine affection for her, and she did act as his banker on occasion, which was probably the only reason he had any money at all.
But I had enough problems of my own without worrying too much about other people’s and I finished dressing quickly and went downstairs.
As was only to be expected at that time in the morning, the restaurant was empty except for the girl sitting at a table in the bow window drinking coffee and looking out into the street. I could see at once what Arnie had meant, but he was wrong about one thing – she wasn’t beautiful, not in any conventional sense, but she was far from ugly.
She had a strong Jewish face, if one can use that term these days without being called a racialist – a proud face with strong lines that might have been carved from stone. Full red lips, high cheekbones, hooded eyes – a face that was unashamedly sensual and the straight black hair that hung shoulder-length in a dark curtain was perfectly in keeping. No Ruth in any cornfield this, but a fierce proud little queen. An Esther perhaps or even a Jezebel.
She looked up as I approached, her face calm, the dark eyes giving nothing away. I paused, hands in pockets.
‘Miss Eytan? Joe Martin. I understand you want to see Jack Desforge. Mind if I ask why?’
She looked faintly surprised. ‘Does it matter?’
‘It might to him.’
I sat down opposite her and waved to the waiter in the kitchen entrance who immediately produced a whale steak from the hotplate and brought it across.
‘Are you his keeper or something?’ she said without the slightest touch of rancour in her voice.
‘Let’s put it this way. Jack has a great big sign out that says: Don’t disturb. I fly supplies to the Stella once a week and he not only pays me double – he pays me cash. Now I just love that kind of arrangement and I’d hate to see anything spoil it.’
‘Would it make any difference if I told you we were old friends?’
‘Somehow I thought you might say that.’ She opened her handbag and took out a wallet that was surprisingly masculine in appearance. ‘How much do you charge to make the sort of flight you’re doing this morning?’
‘Five hundred krone.’
‘What’s that American?’
‘Call it a hundred and fifty dollars.’
She extracted three notes and flipped them across the table. ‘Three hundred. That means I’ve paid in advance for the round trip if he doesn’t want me to stay – satisfied?’
‘Considering that I’ll be getting paid twice, how could I be otherwise?’ I took out my wallet and put the notes away carefully. ‘We leave in forty minutes. The flight should take just over two hours if the wind is right.’
‘That’s fine by me.’
It was only when she stood up that I realised just how small she was – not more than five feet three or four. She was wearing an expensive tweed suit, nylon stockings and flat-heeled pigskin shoes.
‘One more thing,’ I said. ‘You’re dressed just fine for those long country weekends, but you’ll need something different for where we’re going.’
‘Rugged country?’ she said. ‘Well that should make a change. So far I’ve found the whole thing just a little disappointing.’
‘They don’t wear sealskin trousers any more if they can help it,’ I said, ‘and a whaleboat with a diesel motor is a damned sight handier in rough weather than a kayak, but if it’s the rough outdoors you want, I think Disko should satisfy you.’
‘I can’t wait,’ she said dryly. ‘Where can I change?’
‘Use my room if you like. It’s on the first floor – twenty-one. I’ll finish here, then I’ve a few things to see to. I’ll pick you up in half an hour.’
She went out through the archway and spoke to the porter who hurried round to pick up the suitcase she selected from the stack that stood against the wall, and she followed him across the hall to the stairs. At that distance there was something vaguely familiar about her, but I couldn’t pin it down.
She walked well, with a sort of general and total movement of the whole body and in one very quick movement, I wondered what she would be like in bed. But that would have been Arnie’s reaction. He probably already had his campaign mapped out.
Suddenly angry with myself, I turned back to my steak, but it was already cold and I pushed it away and helped myself to coffee.
I think it was General Grant who said: War is hell. He should have added that women are worse. I sipped my coffee and stared out across the wide street towards the harbour where the Otter glinted scarlet and silver in the sunlight, but all I kept getting was a disturbing vision of Ilana Eytan crossing the hall and her damned skirt tightening as she mounted the stairs. It had been a long time since a woman bothered me as positively as that.
I borrowed the hotel Land-Rover and drove down to the harbour, mainly to get the met report from the harbourmaster’s office. I’d refuelled the Otter on flying in the night before so there was nothing to do there and at a crate of Scotch per week, Desforge had become such a valued customer of the Royal Greenland Trading Company that their local agent had supervised the loading of his supplies himself.
I drove back to the hotel and went upstairs. When I went into the bedroom there was no sign of the girl, but I could hear the shower going full blast so I went into the dressing room and started to change.
I was as far as my flying boots when the outside door opened and someone entered. As I got to my feet, Arnie called my name and I moved to the door. I was too late. By the time I reached the bedroom, he was already entering the bathroom. He backed out hurriedly and Ilana Eytan appeared a moment later swathed in a large white bath towel.
‘I don’t know what’s supposed to be going on,’ she said. ‘But would you kindly send Little Boy Blue here about his business.’
Arnie stood there speechless and she shut the door in his face. I tapped him on the shoulder. ‘On your way, Arnie.’
‘What a woman,’ he whispered. ‘My God, Joe, her breasts, her thighs – such perfection. I’ve never seen anything like it.’
‘Yes you have,’ I said. ‘About three thousand and forty-seven times.’ I pushed him out into the corridor and slammed the door.
I returned to the dressing room and pulled on a sweater and an old green kapok-filled parka with a fur-lined hood. When I went back into the bedroom Ilana Eytan was standing in front of the dressing table mirror combing her hair. She was wearing ski pants, cossack boots and a heavy Norwegian sweater.
‘Arnie thought it was me in there,’ I said. ‘He didn’t mean any harm.’
‘They never do.’
There was a hip-length sheepskin jacket on the bed beside the open suitcase and as she picked it up and pulled it on, I once again had that strange feeling of familiarity.
‘Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?’ I said, and then the obvious possibility occurred to me. ‘In pictures maybe?’
She buttoned up the jacket, examined herself carefully in the mirror and put the comb to her hair again. ‘I’ve made a couple.’
‘With Jack?’ And then I remembered. ‘Now I’ve got it. You played the Algerian girl in that last film of his. The film about gun-running.’
‘Go to the head of the class,’ she said brightly and zipped up her suitcase. ‘What did you think of it?’
‘Wonderful,’ I said. ‘I don’t know how he keeps it up. After all, he made his first film the year I was born.’
‘You make a poor liar,’ she said calmly. ‘That film was the original bomb. It sank without trace.’
In spite of her apparent calmness there was a harsh, cutting edge to her voice that left me silent, but in any case she gave me no chance to reply and went out into the corridor leaving me to follow with her suitcase feeling strangely foolish.
As we roared out of the mouth of the fjord and climbed into the sun, I stamped on the right rudder and swung slowly north, flying parallel to the bold mountainous coast.
In the distance the ice-cap glinted in the morning sun and Ilana Eytan said, ‘The only thing I ever knew about Greenland before now was a line in a hymn they used to sing at morning assembly when I was a kid at school. From Greenland’s icy mountains … Looking down on that lot I can see what they meant, but it still isn’t quite as back of beyond as I expected. That hotel of yours in Frederiksborg even had central heating.’
‘Things are changing fast here now,’ I said. ‘The population’s risen to sixty thousand since the war and the Danish government is putting a lot of money into development.’
‘Another thing, it isn’t as cold as I thought it would be.’
‘It never is in the summer, particularly in the south-west. There’s a lot of sheep farming down there, but things are still pretty primitive north of the Arctic Circle. Up around Disko you’ll find plenty of Eskimos who still live the way they’ve always done.’
‘And that’s where Jack is?’
I nodded. ‘Near the village called Narquassit as I last heard. He’s been looking for polar bear for the past couple of weeks.’
‘That sounds like Jack. How well have you got to know him since he’s been up here?’
She laughed abruptly, that strange harsh laugh of hers. ‘You look like the type he likes to tell his troubles to.’
‘And what type would that be?’
‘What he fondly believes to be the rugged man of action. He’s played bush pilot himself so many times in pictures over the years that he imagines he knows the real thing when he sees it.’
‘And I’m not it?’
‘Nobody’s real – not in Jack’s terms. They couldn’t be. He can never see beyond a neatly packaged hour and a half script.’ She lit a cigarette and leaned back in her seat. ‘I used to love the movies when I was a kid and then something happened. I don’t know what it was, but one night when the hero and the girl got together for the final clinch I suddenly wondered what they were going to do for the next forty-three years. When you begin thinking like that the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.’
‘Not for Jack,’ I said. ‘He’s been living in a fantasy world for so long that reality has ceased to exist.’
She turned, the narrow crease between her eyes a warning sign that I failed to notice. ‘And what’s that supposed to mean?’
Considering the way she’d been talking I was more than a little surprised at her reaction. I shrugged. ‘He’s playing a part right now, isn’t he? The rugged adventurer cruising the Greenland coast? He’ll spend the day in a dory helping to bait and hook a three-thousand-foot line or he’ll go seal hunting among the pack ice in a kayak, but there’s always the Stella to return to each night, a hot shower, a six-course dinner and a case of scotch.’
‘A neat strip,’ she said. ‘They could use you at Metro, but what about your own fantasy life?’
‘I don’t follow you.’
‘The tough bush pilot act, the flying boots, the fur-lined parka – the whole bit. Just who are you trying to kid? I wouldn’t mind betting you even carry a gun.’
‘A .38 Smith and Wesson,’ I lied. ‘It’s in the map compartment, but I haven’t had time to shoot anyone lately.’
I’d managed a nice bright reply, but she was hitting a bit too close for comfort and I think she knew it. For a little while I busied myself unnecessarily with a chart on my knee checking our course.
About five minutes later we came down through cloud and she gave a sudden exclamation. ‘Look over there.’
A quarter of a mile away half a dozen three-masted schooners played follow-my-leader, sails full, a sight so lovely that it never failed to catch at the back of my throat.
‘Portuguese,’ I said. ‘They’ve been crossing the Atlantic since before Columbus. After fishing the Grand Banks off Newfoundland in May and June they come up here to complete their catch. They still fish for dories with handlines.’
‘It’s like something out of another age,’ she said, and there was genuine wonder in her voice.
Any further conversation was prevented by one of those sudden and startling changes in the weather for which the Greenland coast, even in summer, is so notorious. One moment a cloudless sky and crystal clear visibility and then, with astonishing rapidity, a cold front swept in from the ice-cap in a curtain of stinging rain and heavy mist.
It moved towards us in a grey wall and I eased back on the throttle and took the Otto down fast.
‘Is it as bad as it looks?’ Ilana Eytan asked calmly.
‘It isn’t good if that’s what you mean.’
I didn’t need to look at my chart. In this kind of flying anything can happen and usually does. You only survive by knowing your boltholes and I ran for mine as fast as I could.
We skimmed the shoulder of a mountain and plunged into the fjord beyond as the first grey strands of mist curled along the tips of the wings. A final burst of power to level out in the descent and we dropped into the calm water with a splash. Mist closed in around us and I opened the side window and peered out as we taxied forward.
The tip of an old stone pier suddenly pushed out of the mist and I brought the Otter round, keeping well over to the right. A few moments later we saw the other end of the pier and the shore and I dropped the wheels beneath the floats and taxied up on to a narrow shingle beach. I turned off the mast switch and silence enveloped us.
‘Where are we?’ she asked.
‘A disused whaling station – Argamash. Like to take a look round?’
‘Why not. How long will we be here?’
‘Depends on the weather. One hour – two at the most. It’ll disappear as unexpectedly as it came.’
When I opened the door and jumped down she followed me so quickly that I didn’t get the chance to offer her a hand down. It was colder than Frederiksborg, but still surprisingly mild considering we were twenty miles inside the Arctic Circle and she looked about her with obvious interest.
‘Can we explore?’
‘If you like.’
We followed the beach and scrambled up an old concrete slipway that brought us to the shore-end of the pier. The mountain lifted above us shrouded in mist and the broken shell of the old whale-oil processing factory and the ruins of forty or fifty cottages crouched together at its foot.
It started to rain slightly as we walked along what had once been the main street and she pushed her hands into her pockets and laughed, a strange excitement in her voice.
‘Now this I like – always have done since I was a kid. Walking in the rain with the mist closing in.’
‘And keeping out the world,’ I said. ‘I know the feeling.’
She turned and looked at me in some surprise, then laughed suddenly, but this time it lacked its usual harsh edge. She had changed. It was difficult to decide exactly how – just a general softening up, I suppose, but for the moment at any rate, she had become a different person.
‘Welcome to the club. You said this was once a whaling station?’
I nodded. ‘Abandoned towards the end of the last century.’
‘They simply ran out of whale in commercial quantities.’ I shrugged. ‘Most years there were four or five hundred ships up here. They over-fished, that was the trouble, just like the buffalo – hunted to extinction.’
There was a small ruined church at the end of the street, a cemetery behind it enclosed by a broken wall and we went inside and paused at the first lichen covered headstone.
‘Angus McClaren – died 1830,’ she said aloud. ‘A Scot.’
I nodded. ‘That was a bad year in whaling history. The pack ice didn’t break up as early as usual and nineteen British whalers were caught in it out there. They say there were more than a thousand men on the ice at one time.’
She moved on reading the half-obliterated names aloud as she passed slowly among the graves. She paused at one stone, a slight frown on her face, then dropped to one knee and rubbed the green moss away with a gloved hand.
A Star of David appeared, carved with the same loving care that had distinguished the ornate Celtic crosses on the other stones and like them, the inscription was in English.
‘Aaron Isaacs,’ she said as if to herself, her voice little more than a whisper. ‘Bosun – SeaQueen out of Liverpool. Killed by a whale at sea – 27th July, 1863.’
She knelt there staring at the inscription, a hand on the stone itself, sadness on her face and finding me standing over her, rose to her feet looking strangely embarrassed for a girl who normally seemed so cast-iron, and for the first time I wondered just how deep that surface toughness went.
She heaved herself up on top of a square stone tomb and sat on the edge, legs dangling. ‘I forgot my cigarettes. Can you oblige?’
I produced my old silver cigarette case and passed it up. She helped herself and paused before returning it, a slight frown on her face as she examined the lid.
‘What’s the crest?’
‘Fleet Air Arm.’
‘Is that where you learned to fly?’ I nodded and she shook her head. ‘The worst bit of casting I’ve seen in years. You’re no more a bush pilot than my Uncle Max.’
‘Should I be flattered or otherwise?’
‘Depends how you look at it. He’s something in the City – a partner in one of the merchant banking houses I think. Some kind of finance anyway.’
I smiled. ‘We don’t all look like Humphrey Bogart you know or Jack Desforge for that matter.’
‘All right,’ she said. ‘Let’s do it the hard way. Why Greenland? There must be other places.’
‘Simple – I can earn twice as much here in the four months of the summer season as I could in twelve months anywhere else.’
‘And that’s important?’
‘It is to me. I want to buy another couple of planes.’
‘That sounds ambitious for a start. To what end?’
‘If I could start my own outfit in Newfoundland and Labrador I’d be a rich man inside five or six years.’
‘You sound pretty certain about that.’
‘I should be – I had eighteen months of it over there working for someone else, then six months free-lancing. The way Canada’s expanding she’ll be the richest country in the world inside twenty-five years, take my word for it.’
She shook her head. ‘It still doesn’t fit,’ she said, and obviously decided to try another tack. ‘You look the sort of man who invariably has a good woman somewhere around in his life. What does she think about all this?’
‘I haven’t heard from that front lately,’ I said. ‘The last despatch was from her lawyers and distinctly cool.’
‘What did she want – money?’
I shook my head. ‘She could buy me those two planes and never notice it. No, she just wants her freedom. I’m expecting the good word any day now.’
‘You don’t sound in any great pain.’
‘Dust and ashes a long, long time ago.’ I grinned. ‘Look, I’ll put you out of your misery. Joe Martin, in three easy lessons. I did a degree in business administration at the London School of Economics and learned to fly with the University Air squadron. I had to do a couple of years National Service when I finished, so I decided I might as well get something out of it and took a short service commission as a pilot with the old Fleet Air Arm. My wife was an actress when I first met her. Bit parts with the Bristol Old Vic. All very real and earnest.’
‘When did you get married?’
‘When I came out of the service. Like your Uncle Max, I took a job in the City, in my case Public Relations.’
‘Didn’t it work out?’
‘Very well indeed by normal standards.’ I frowned, trying to get the facts straight in my mind. It all seemed so unreal when you talked about it like this. ‘There were other things that went wrong. Someone discovered that Amy could sing and before we knew where we were she was making records. From then on it was one long programme of one-night stands and tours, personal appearances – that sort of thing.’
‘And you saw less and less of each other. An old story in show business.’
‘There seems to be a sort of gradual corruption about success – especially that kind. When you find that you can earn a thousand pounds a week, it’s a short step to deciding there must be something wrong in a husband who can’t make a tenth of that sum.’
‘So you decided to cut loose.’
‘There was a morning when I walked into my office, took one look at the desk and the pile of mail waiting for me and walked right out again. I spent my last thousand pounds on a conversion course and took a commercial pilot’s licence.’
‘And here you are. Joe Martin – fly anywhere – do anything. Gun-running our speciality.’ She shook her head. ‘The dream of every bowler-hatted clerk travelling each day on the City line. When do you move on to Pago Pago?’
‘That comes next year,’ I said. ‘But why should you have all the fun? Let’s see what we can find out about Ilana Eytan. A Hebrew name as I remember, so for a start you’re Jewish.’
It was like a match on dry grass and she flared up at once. ‘Israeli – I’m a sabra – Israeli born and bred.’
It was there, of course, the chip the size of a Californian Redwood and explained a great deal. I quickly smoothed her ruffled feathers. ‘The most beautiful soldiers in the world, Israeli girls. Were you ever one?’
‘Naturally – everyone must serve. My father is a lecturer in Ancient Languages at the University of Tel Aviv, but he saw active service in the Sinai campaign in 1956 and he was well into his fifties.’
‘What about this film business?’
‘I did some theatre in Israel which led to a small film part, then someone offered me work in Italy. I played bit parts in several films there. That’s where I met Jack. He was on location for a war picture. He not only took the lead – he also directed. Most of the money was his own too.’
‘And he gave you a part?’
‘A small one, but I was the only woman in the picture so the critics had to say something.’
‘And then Hollywood?’
‘Old hat. These days you do better in Europe.’
Suddenly the mist dissolved like a magic curtain and behind her, the mountain reared up into a sky that seemed bluer than ever.
‘Time to go,’ I said, and held up my hands to catch her as she jumped down.
She looked up at the mountain. ‘Has it got a name?’
‘Agsaussat,’ I said. ‘An Eskimo word. It means big with child.’
She laughed harshly. ‘Well, that’s Freudian if you like,’ she said, and turned and led the way out through the gap in the wall.
Just like that she had changed again, back into the tough, brittle young woman I had first encountered in the dining room of the hotel at Frederiksborg, safe behind a hard protective shell that could only be penetrated if she wished, and I felt strangely depressed as I followed her.
Off the southern tip of Disko we came across another two Portuguese schooners moving along nicely in a light breeze, followed by a fleet of fourteen-foot dories, their yellow and green sails vivid in the bright sunlight.
We drifted across the rocky spine of the island and dropped into the channel beyond that separates it from the mainland. I took the Otter down, losing height rapidly and a few moments later found what I was looking for.
Narquassit was typical of most Eskimo fishing villages on that part of the coast. There were perhaps fifteen or sixteen gaily painted wooden houses strung out along the edge of the shore and two or three whaleboats and a dozen kayaks had been beached just above the high water mark.
The Stella was anchored about fifty yards off-shore, a slim and graceful looking ninety-foot diesel motor yacht, her steel hull painted dazzling white with a scarlet trim. When I banked, turning into the wind for my landing, someone came out of the wheelhouse and stood at the bridge rail looking up at us.
‘Is that Jack?’ she asked as we continued our turn. ‘I didn’t get a good look.’
I shook my head. ‘Olaf Sørensen – he’s a Greenlander from Godthaab. Knows this coast like the back of his hand. Jack signed him on as pilot for the duration of the trip.’
‘Is he carrying his usual crew?’
‘They all came with him if that’s what you mean. An engineer, two deck hands and a cook – they’re American. And then there’s the steward – he’s a Filipino.’
She was obviously pleased. ‘There’s an old friend for a start.’
I went in low once just to check the extent of the pack ice, but there was nothing to get excited about and I banked steeply and dropped her into the water without wasting any more time. I taxied towards the shore, let down the wheels and ran up on to dry land as the first of the village dogs arrived on the run. By the time I’d switched off the engine and opened the side door, the rest of them were there, forming a half-circle, stiff-legged and angry, howling their defiance.
A handful of Eskimo children appeared and drove them away in a hail of sticks and stones. The children clustered together and watched us, the brown Mongolian faces solemn and unsmiling, the heavy fur-lined Parkas they wore exaggerating their bulk so that they looked like little old men and women.
‘They don’t look very friendly,’ Ilana Eytan commented.
‘Try them with these.’ I produced a brown paper bag from my pocket.
She opened it and peered inside. ‘What are they?’
‘Mint humbugs – never been known to fail.’
But already the children were moving forward, their faces wreathed in smiles and she was swamped in a forest of waving arms as they swarmed around her.
I left her to it and went to the water’s edge to meet the whaleboat from the Stella which was already half-way between the ship and the shore. One of the deckhands was at the tiller and Sørensen stood in the prow, a line ready in his hands. As the man in the stern cut the engine, the whaleboat started to turn, drifting in on the waves and Sørensen threw the line. I caught it quickly, one foot in the shallows, and started to haul. Sørensen joined me and a moment later we had the whaleboat around and her stern beached.
He spoke good English, a legacy of fifteen years in the Canadian and British merchant marines and he used it on every available opportunity.
‘I thought you might run into trouble when the mist came down.’
‘I put down at Argamask for an hour.’
He nodded. ‘Nothing like knowing the coast. Who’s the woman?’
‘A friend of Desforge’s or so she says.’
‘He didn’t tell me he was expecting anyone.’
‘He isn’t,’ I said simply.
‘Like that, is it?’ He frowned. ‘Desforge isn’t going to like this, Joe.’
I shrugged. ‘She’s paid me in advance for the round trip. If he doesn’t want her here she can come back with me tonight. I could drop her off at Søndre if she wants to make a connection for Europe or the States.’
‘That’s okay by me as long as you think you can handle it. I’ve got troubles enough just keeping the Stella in once piece.’
I was surprised and showed it. ‘What’s been going wrong?’
‘It’s Desforge,’ Sørensen said bitterly. ‘The man’s quite mad. I’ve never known anyone so hell-bent on self-destruction.’
‘What’s he been up to now?’
‘We were up near Hagamut the other day looking for polar bear, his latest obsession, when we met some Eskimo hunters out after seal in their kayaks. Needless to say Desforge insisted on joining them. On the way back it seems he was out in front on his own when he came across an old bull walrus on the ice.’
‘And tried to take it alone?’ I said incredulously.
‘With a harpoon and on foot.’
‘It knocked him down with its first rush and snapped the harpoon. Luckily one of the hunters from Hagamut came up fast and shot it before it could finish him off.’
‘And he wasn’t hurt?’
‘A few bruises, that’s all. He laughed the whole thing off. He can go to hell his own way as far as I’m concerned, but I’m entitled to object when he puts all our lives at risk quite needlessly. There’s been a lot of pack ice in the northern fjords this year – it really is dangerous – and yet he ordered me to take the Stella into the Kavangar Fjord because Eskimo hunters had reported traces of bear in that region. The ice was moving down so fast from the glacier that we were trapped for four hours. I thought we were never going to get out.’
‘Where is he now?’
‘He left by kayak about two hours ago with a party of hunters from Narquassit. Apparently one of them sighted a bear yesterday afternoon in an inlet about three miles up the coast. He had to pay them in advance to get them to go with him. They think he’s crazy.’
Ilana Eytan managed to disentangle herself and joined us and I made the necessary introductions.
‘Jack isn’t here at the moment,’ I told her. ‘I think that under the circumstances I’d better go looking for him. You can wait on the Stella.’
‘Why can’t I come with you?’
‘I wouldn’t if I were you. Apparently, he’s finally caught up with that bear he’s been chasing. No place for a woman, believe me.’
‘Fair enough,’ she said calmly. ‘I’ve never been exactly a devotee of Jack’s great outdoors cult.’
The deckhand was already transferring the stores from the Otter to the whaleboat and I turned to Sørensen. ‘I’ll go out to the Stella with you and I’ll take the whaleboat after you’ve unloaded her.’
He nodded and went to help with the stores. Ilana Eytan chuckled. ‘Rather you than me.’
‘And what’s that supposed to mean?’
‘When Jack Desforge starts beating his chest wig it’s time to run for cover. I’d remember that if I were you,’ she said and went down to the boat.
I thought about that for a while, then climbed inside the Otter, opened a compartment beneath the pilot’s seat and pulled out a gun case. It contained a Winchester hunting rifle, a beautiful weapon which Desforge had loaned me the previous week. There was a box of cartridges in the map compartment and I loaded the magazine with infinite care. After all, there’s nothing like being prepared for all eventualities and the girl was certainly right about one thing. Around Jack Desforge anything might happen and usually did.
The diesel engine gave the whaleboat a top speed of six or seven knots and I made good time after leaving the Stella, but a couple of miles further on the pack ice became more of a problem and every so often I had to cut the engines and stand on the stern seat to sort out a clear route through the maze of channels.
It was hard going for a while and reasonably hazardous because the ice kept lifting with the movement of the water, broken edges snapping together like the jaws of a steel trap. Twice I was almost caught and each time got clear only by boosting power at exactly the right moment. When I finally broke through into comparatively clear water and cut the engine, I was sweating and my hands trembled slightly – and yet I’d enjoyed every minute of it. I lit a fresh cigarette and sat down in the stern for a short rest.
The wind that lifted off the water was cold, but the sun shone brightly in that eternal blue sky and the coastal scenery with the mountains and the ice-cap in the distance was incredibly beautiful – as spectacular as I’d seen anywhere.
Suddenly everything seemed to come together, the sea and the wind, the sun, the sky, the mountains and the ice-cap, fusing into a breathless moment of perfection in which the world seemed to stop. I floated there, hardly daring to breathe, waiting for a sign, if you like, but of what, I hadn’t the remotest idea and then gradually it all came flooding back, the touch of the wind on my face, the pack ice grinding upon itself, the harsh taste of the cigarette as the smoke caught at the back of my throat. One thing at least I had learned, perhaps hadn’t faced up to before. There were other reasons for my presence on this wild and lovely coast than those I had given Ilana Eytan.
I started the engine again and moved on, and ten minutes later saw a tracer of blue smoke drifting into the air above a spine of rock that walled off the beach. I found the hunting party on the other side crouched round a fire of blazing driftwood, their kayaks drawn up on the beach. Desforge squatted with his back to me, a tin cup in one hand, a bottle in the other. At the sound of the whaleboat’s engine he turned and, recognising me, let out a great roar of delight.
‘Joe, baby, what’s the good news?’
He came down the beach as I ran the whaleboat in through the broken ice and as always when we met, there was a slight edge of unreality to the whole thing for me; a sort of surprise to find that he actually existed in real life. The immense figure, the mane of brown hair and the face – that wonderful, craggy, used-up face that looked as if it had experienced everything life had to offer and had not been defeated. The face known the world over to millions of people even in the present version which included an untidy fringe of iron-grey beard and gave him – perhaps intentionally – an uncanny resemblance to Ernest Hemingway who I knew had always been a personal idol of his.
But how was one supposed to feel when confronted by a living legend? He’d made his first film at the age of sixteen in 1930, the year I was born. By 1939 he was almost rivalling Gable in popularity and a tour as a rear gunner in a B.17 bomber when America entered the second world war made him a bigger draw than ever when he returned to make films during the forties and fifties.
But over the past few years one seemed to hear more and more about his personal life. As his film appearances decreased, he seemed to spend most of his time roaming the world in the Stella and the scandals increased by a sort of inverse ratio that still kept his name constantly before the public. A saloon brawl in London, a punch-up with Italian police in Rome, an unsavoury court case in the States involving a fifteen-year-old whose mother said he’d promised to marry the girl and still wanted him to.
These and a score of similar affairs had given him a sort of legendary notoriety that still made him an object of public veneration wherever he went and yet I knew from the things he had told me – usually after a bout of heavy drinking – that his career was virtually in ruins and that except for a part in a low budget French film, he hadn’t worked in two years.
‘You’re just in time for the kill,’ he said. ‘These boys have finally managed to find a bear for me.’
I slung the Winchester over my shoulder and jumped to the sand. ‘A small one I hope.’
He frowned and nodded at the Winchester. ‘What in the hell do you want with that thing?’
‘Protection,’ I said. ‘With you and your damned bear around I’m going to need all I can get.’
There was a clump of harpoons standing in the wet sand beside the kayaks and he pulled one loose and brandished it fiercely.
‘This is all you need; all any man needs. It’s the only way – the only way with any truth or meaning.’
Any minute now he was going to tell me just how noble death was and I cut in on him quickly and patted the Winchester.
‘Well this is my way – the Joe Martin way. Any bear who comes within a hundred yards of me gets the whole magazine. I’m allergic to the smell of their fur.’
He roared with laughter and slapped me on the back. ‘Joe, baby, you’re the greatest thing since air-conditioning. Come and have a drink.’
‘Not for me, thanks,’ I said.
He had a head start anyway, that much was obvious, but I followed him to the fire and squatted beside him as he uncorked a nearly empty bottle and poured a generous measure into a tin cup. The hunters from Narquassit watched us impassively, a scattering of dogs crouched at their feet. Desforge shook his head in disgust.
‘Look at them – what a bloody crew. I had to bribe them to get them this far.’ He swallowed some of his whisky. ‘But what can you expect? Look at their clothes – all store bought. Not a pair of sealskin pants among them.’
He emptied the dregs of the bottle into his cup and I said, ‘I’ve brought a visitor to see you – a girl called Eytan.’
He turned sharply, bewilderment on his face. ‘Ilana – here? You’re kidding.’
I shook my head. ‘She flew into Søndre from Copenhagen last night.’
‘Did she say what she wanted?’
I shook my head. ‘Maybe she’s come to take you home.’
‘Not a chance.’ He laughed shortly. ‘I owe too many people too damned much on the outside. Greenland suits me just fine for the time being.’ He leaned across, full of drunken gravity. ‘I’ll tell you something in confidence – confidence, mind you? There’s a lulu coming up that’ll put me right back there on top of the heap and take care of my old age. Milt Gold of Horizon should be in touch with me any day now.’
‘Maybe this Eytan girl has a message for you,’ I suggested.
His face brightened. ‘Heh, you could have a point there.’
There was a faint cry from along the beach and we turned to see an Eskimo trotting towards us waving excitedly. Everything else was forgotten as Desforge got to his feet and picked up a harpoon.
‘This is it,’ he said. ‘Let’s get moving.’
He didn’t even look to see if he was being followed and I shouldered the Winchester and went after him, the hunters from Narquassit following. You can tell when an Eskimo is happy because sometimes he’ll actually smile, but more often than not it’s impossible to know how he’s feeling at any given moment. Allowing for that I still got a definite impression that the men from Narquassit were something less than enthusiastic about the whole thing and I didn’t blame them one little bit.
We reached the end of a long strip of shingle beach and started across a much rougher section that was a jumble of great boulders and broken ice when one of the hunters cried out sharply. They all came to a halt and there was a sudden frenzied outburst of voices as everyone seemed to start talking at once.
And then I saw it – a great shaggy mountain of dirty yellow fur ambling along the shoreline and as the first dog gave tongue, he paused and looked over his shoulder in a sort of amiable curiosity.
You don’t need to be a great white hunter to shoot a polar bear. One thousand pounds of bone and muscle makes quite a target and it takes a lot to goad it into action, but when he moves, it’s at anything up to twenty-five miles an hour and a sidelong swipe from one of those great paws is guaranteed to remove a man’s face.
Desforge saw only the quarry he’d been seeking for so long and he gave a howl of triumph and started to run, harpoon at the trail, showing quite a turn of speed considering his age.
The dogs were well out in front, but the Eskimo hunters from Narquassit looked considerably more reluctant and I knew why. In their mythology and folklore the polar bear holds roughly the same position as does the wolf for the North American Indian, a creature of mystery and magic with apparently all the cunning of Man: on the other hand, they weren’t keen on losing their dogs and went after them fast and I brought up the rear.
The bear loped across the strand and skidded on to the pack ice, making for the nearest water, a dark hole that was perhaps ten or twelve feet in diameter. He plunged in and disappeared from view as the dogs went after him closely followed by Desforge, the hunters some little way behind.
I shouted a warning, but Desforge took no notice and started across the ice to where the dogs ringed the hole howling furiously. A moment later it happened – one of the oldest tricks in the book. The bear sounded, striking out furiously with both paws, erupting from the water and falling across the thin ice with his whole weight. A spider’s web of cracks appeared that widened into deep channels as he struck again.
The hunters had paused on the shore, calling to the dogs to come back. Most of them managed it safely, yelping like puppies, tails between their legs, but three or four tumbled into the water to be smashed into bloody pulp within seconds as the bear surged forward again.
Desforge was no more than ten or twelve feet away and he hurled the harpoon, losing his balance at the same moment and slipping to one knee. It caught the bear high up in the right side and he gave a roar like distant thunder and reared up out of the broken ice, smashing the haft of the harpoon with a single blow.
Desforge turned and started back, but he was too late. Already a dark line was widening between him and the shore and a moment later he was waist-deep and floundering desperately in the soft slush. The bear went after him like an express train.
Desforge was no more than four or five yards away from the shore as I burst through the line of hunters and raised the Winchester. There was time for just one shot and as the bear reared up above him I squeezed the trigger and the heavy bullet blew off the top of its head. It went down like a tower falling, blood and brains scattering across the ice and Desforge fell on to his hands and knees on the shore.
He lay there for a moment as the hunters rushed forward to catch the carcase before it went under the ice. When I dropped to one knee beside him he grinned up at me, the teeth very white in the iron-grey beard as he wiped blood from his forehead with the back of one hand.
‘I always did like to do my own stuntwork.’
‘A great script,’ I said. ‘What are you going to call the film – Spawn of the North?’
‘We could have got some good footage there,’ he said seriously as I pulled him to his feet.
They hauled the bear on to the shore and the headman pulled out the broken shaft of Desforge’s harpoon and came towards us. He spoke to me quickly in Eskimo and I translated for Desforge.
‘He says that by rights the bear is yours.’
‘And how in the hell does he make that out?’
‘The harpoon pierced a lung. He’d have died for sure.’
‘Well that’s certainly good news. Presumably we’d have gone to the great hereafter together.’
‘They want to know if you’d like the skin.’
‘What would be the point? Some careless bastard seems to have ruined the head. Tell them they can have it.’
I nodded to the headman who smiled with all the delight of a child and called to his friends. They formed a circle and shuffled round, arms linked, wailing in chorus.
‘Now what?’ Desforge demanded.
‘They’re apologising to the bear for having killed him.’
His head went back and he laughed heartily, the sound of it echoing flatly across the water. ‘If that don’t beat all. Come on, let’s get out of here before I go nuts or freeze to death or something,’ and he turned and led the way back along the shore.
When we reached the whaleboat he got in and rummaged for a blanket in the stern locker while I pushed off. By the time I’d clambered in after him and got the engine started, he had the blanket round his shoulders and was extracting the cork from a half-bottle of whisky with his teeth.
‘Looks as if they carry this with the iron rations,’ he said and held it out. ‘What about you?’
I shook my head. ‘We’ve been through all this before, Jack. I never use the stuff, remember?’
I had no way of knowing exactly how much whisky he had put away by then, but it was obvious that he was fast reaching a state where he would have difficulty in remembering where he was and why, never mind make any kind of sense out of past events. I knew the feeling well. There had been a time when I spent too many mornings in a grey fog wondering where I was – who I was. At that point it’s a long fast drop down unless you have enough sense to turn before it’s too late and take that first fumbling step in the other direction.
‘Sorry, I was forgetting,’ he said. ‘Now me – I’m lucky. I’ve always been able to take it or leave it.’ He grinned his teeth chattering slightly. ‘Mostly take it, mind you – one of life’s great pleasures, like a good woman.’
Just what was his definition of good was anybody’s guess. He swallowed deeply, made a face and examined the label on the bottle. ‘Glen Fergus malt whisky. Never heard of it and I’m the original expert.’
‘Our finest local brew.’
‘They must have made it in a very old zinc bath. Last time I tasted anything like it was during Prohibition.’
Not that he was going to let a little thing like that put him off and as I took the whaleboat out through the pack ice, he moved down to the prow. He sat there huddled in his blanket, the bottle clutched against his chest, staring up at the mountains and the ice-cap beyond as we skirted an iceberg that might have been carved from green glass. He spoke without turning round.
‘Ilana – she’s quite a girl, isn’t she?’
‘She has her points.’
‘And then some. I could tell you things about that baby that would make your hair stand up on end and dance. Miss Casting Couch of 1964.’ I was aware of a sudden vague resentment, the first stirrings of an anger that was as irrational as it was unexpected, but he carried straight on. ‘I gave her the first big break, you know.’
I nodded. ‘She was telling me about that on the flight in. Some war picture you made in Italy.’
He laughed out loud, lolling back against the bulwark as if he found the whole thing hilariously funny in retrospect. ‘The biggest mistake I ever made in my life, produced and directed by Jack Desforge. We live and learn.’
‘Was it that bad?’
He was unable to contain his laughter. ‘A crate of last year’s eggs couldn’t have smelled any higher.’
‘What about Ilana?’
‘Oh, she was fine.’ He shrugged. ‘No Bergman or anything like that, but she had other qualities. I knew that the first time I met her.’ He took another pull at the bottle. ‘I did everything for that girl. Clothes, grooming, even a new name – the whole bit.’
I frowned. ‘You mean Ilana Eytan isn’t her real name?’
‘Is it hell,’ he said. ‘She needed a gimmick like everyone else, didn’t she? I started out myself as Harry Wells of Tilman Falls, Wisconsin. When I first met Ilana she was plain Myra Grossman.’
‘And she isn’t Israeli?’
‘All part of the build-up. You know how it is. Israeli sounds better. It did to her anyway and that’s the important thing. She’s got a complex a mile wide. Her old man has a tailor’s shop in some place called the Mile End Road in London. You ever heard of it?’
I nodded, fighting back an impulse to laugh out loud. ‘It’s a funny old world, Jack, has that ever occurred to you?’
‘Roughly five times a day for the last fifty-three years.’ He grinned. ‘I’m only admitting to forty-five of those remember.’ And then his mood seemed to change completely and he moved restlessly, pulling the blanket more closely about his shoulders. ‘I’ve been thinking. Did Ilana have anything for me?’
‘A letter maybe – something like that.’
It was there in his voice quite suddenly, an anxiety he was unable to conceal and I shook my head. ‘Not that I know of, but why should she confide in me?’
He nodded and raised the bottle to his mouth again. It was cold now in spite of the sun and the perfect blue of the sky. A small wind lifted across the water and I noticed that the hands trembled slightly as they clutched the bottle. He sat there brooding for a while, looking his age for the first time since I’d known him and then quite unexpectedly, he laughed.
‘You know that was really something back there – with the bear I mean. What a way to go. Real B picture stuff. We don’t want it good, we want it by next Monday.’
He took another swallow from the bottle which was now half-empty and guffawed harshly. ‘I remember Ernie Hemingway saying something once about finishing like a man, standing up straight on your two hind legs and spitting right into the eye of the whole lousy universe.’ He swung round, half-drunk and more than a little aggressive. ‘And what do you think of that then, Joe, baby? What’s the old world viewpoint on the weighty matter of life and death, or have you no statement to make at this time?’
‘I’ve seen death if that’s what you mean,’ I said. ‘It was always painful and usually ugly. Any kind of life is preferable to that.’
‘Is that a fact now?’ He nodded gravely, a strange glazed expression in his eyes and said softly, ‘But what if there’s nothing left?’
And then he leaned forward, the eyes starting from his head, saliva streaking his beard and cried hoarsely, ‘What have you got to say to that, eh?’
There was nothing I could say, nothing that would help the terrible despair in those eyes. For a long moment he crouched there in the bottom of the boat staring at me and then he turned and hurled the bottle high into the air and back towards the green iceberg. It bounced on a lower slope, flashed once like fire in the sunlight and was swallowed up.
As we approached the Stella, Sørensen and Ilana Eytan came out of the wheelhouse and stood at the rail waiting for us. Desforge raised his arm in greeting and she waved.
‘Ilana baby, this is wonderful,’ he cried as we swung alongside and I tossed the end of the painter to Sørensen.
Desforge was up the ladder and over the rail in a matter of seconds and when I arrived she was tight in his arms looking smaller than ever in contrast to his great bulk.
And she had changed again. Her eyes sparkled and her cheeks were touched with fire. In some extraordinary manner she was alive in a way she simply had not been before. He lifted her in his two hands as easily as if she had been a child and kissed her.
‘Angel, you look good enough to eat,’ he said as he put her down. ‘Let’s you and me go below for a drink and you can tell me all the news from back home.’
For a moment I was forgotten as they disappeared down the companionway and Sørensen said, ‘So she is staying?’
‘Looks like it,’ I said.
‘When do you want to start back?’
‘There’s no great rush. I’ll refuel, then I’ll have a shower and something to eat.’
He nodded. ‘I’ll get you the evening weather report on the radio from Søndre tower.’
He went into the wheelhouse and I dropped back into the whaleboat, started the engine and turned towards the shore feeling slightly depressed as I remembered the expression in Ilana’s eyes when Desforge had kissed her. Perhaps it was because I’d seen it once already that day when Gudrid Rasmussen had looked at Arnie, offering herself completely without saying a word, and I didn’t like the implication.
God knows why. At the moment the only thing I could have said with any certainty was that in spite of her habitual aggressiveness, her harshness, I liked her. On the other hand if there was one thing I had learned from life up to and including that precise point in time, it was that nothing is ever quite as simple as it looks.
I thought about that for a while, rather grimly, and then the whaleboat grounded on the shingle and I got out and set to work.
I didn’t see any sign of Desforge or the girl when I returned to the Stella and I went straight below to the cabin I’d been in the habit of using on previous visits. It had been cold working out there on the exposed beach with the wind coming in off the sea and I soaked the chill from my bones in a hot shower for ten or fifteen minutes, then got dressed again and went along to the main saloon.
Desforge was sitting at the bar alone reading a letter, a slight, fixed frown on his face. He still hadn’t changed and the blanket he had wrapped around himself in the whaleboat lay at the foot of the high stool as if it had slipped from his shoulder.
I hesitated in the doorway and he glanced up and saw me in the mirror behind the bar and swung round on the stool. ‘Come on in, Joe.’
‘So you got your letter,’ I said.
‘Letter?’ He stared at me blankly for a moment.
‘The letter you were expecting from Milt Gold.’
‘Oh, this?’ He held up the letter, then folded it and replaced it in its envelope. ‘Yes, Ilana delivered it by hand.’
‘Not bad news I hope.’
‘Not really – there’s been a further delay in setting things up, that’s all.’ He put the letter in his pocket and reached over the bar for a bottle. ‘Tell me, Joe, how much longer have we got before the winter sets in and pack ice becomes a big problem and so on.’
‘You mean up here around Disko?’
‘No, I mean on the coast generally.’
‘That all depends.’ I shrugged. ‘Conditions fluctuate from year to year, but on the whole you’re clear till the end of September.’
He seemed genuinely astonished. ‘But that would give me another six or seven weeks. You’re sure about that?’
‘I should be – this is my third summer remember. August and September are the best months of the season. Highest mean temperatures, least problem with pack ice and so on.’
‘Well that’s great,’ he said. ‘Milt thinks they should be ready to go by the end of September.’
‘Which means you can hang on here and keep your creditors at bay till then,’ I said.
‘They’ll sing a different tune when I’m working and the shekels start pouring in again.’ He seemed to have recovered all his old spirits and went behind the bar and poured himself another drink. ‘You flying back tonight, Joe?’
I nodded. ‘No choice, I’ve got two charter trips arranged for tomorrow already and there could be more when I get back.’
‘That’s too bad. You’ll stay over for dinner?’
‘I don’t see why not.’
‘Good – I’ll settle up with you first, then I’ll take a shower and change. How much is it this time?’
‘Seven-fifty including the supplies.’
He opened a small safe that stood under the bar and took out a plain black cash box. It was one of the strange and rather puzzling things about him, this insistence on paying cash on the barrel for everything. His financial position may have been pretty rotten everywhere else in the world, but on the Greenland coast he didn’t owe a cent. He opened the box, took out a wad of notes that obviously contained several thousand dollars and peeled off eight hundred dollar bills.
‘That should take care of it.’
I fitted the notes into my wallet carefully and Desforge replaced the cash box in the safe. As he locked the steel door and straightened up again, Ilana Eytan came into the saloon.
I saw her first in the mirror behind the bar framed in the doorway and anywhere in the world from Cannes to Beverly Hills she would have had the heads turning.
She was wearing a slip of a dress in gold thread with tambour beading that must have set someone back a hundred guineas at least. The hemline was a good six inches above the knee, just right for swinging London that year and the black, shoulder-length hair contrasted superbly with the whole ensemble. Perhaps it was something to do with her smallness in spite of the gold high-heeled shoes, but she carried herself with a kind of superb arrogance that seemed to say: Take me or leave me – I couldn’t care less. I don’t think I’ve ever met any woman who looked more capable of taking on the whole world if needs be.
Desforge went to meet her, arms outstretched. ‘What an entrance. I don’t know where you got it, but that dress is a stroke of genius. You look like some great king’s whore.’
She smiled faintly. ‘That wasn’t exactly the intention, but it will do for a start. What about the letter – good news? Milt didn’t tell me much when I saw him.’
‘More delays I’m afraid.’ Desforge shrugged. ‘You should know the movie business by now. Milt thinks we’ll be ready to go by the end of next month.’
‘And what are you going to do till then?’
‘I might as well stay on here. It’s the perfect solution under the circumstances and I’m having far too good a time to want to leave just yet.’ He turned and grinned at me. ‘Isn’t that a fact, Joe?’
‘Oh, he’s having a ball all right,’ I assured her. ‘The only question is will he survive till the end of September.’
Desforge chuckled. ‘Don’t take any notice of Joe, angel. He’s just a natural born pessimist. Give him a drink while I have a shower then we’ll have something to eat.’
The door closed behind him and she turned to look at me calmly, hand on hip, the scrap of dress outlining her body so perfectly that she might as well have had nothing on.
‘You heard what the man said. Name your poison.’
I helped myself to a cigarette from a box on the bar. ‘Jack’s memory gets worse almost day-by-day. He knows perfectly well that I never use the stuff.’
‘That’s a dent in the image for a start,’ she said and went behind the bar. ‘Sure you won’t change your mind?’
I shook my head. ‘With a dress like that around I need a clear head.’
‘Is that supposed to be a compliment?’
‘A statement of fact. On the other hand I’ve no objection to keeping you company with a stiff tomato juice.’
‘Well laced with Worcestershire Sauce?’ I nodded.
‘We aim to please. Coming right up.’
There was an elaborate stereo record player in one corner and I moved across and selected a couple of old Sinatra LPs, mostly Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart material, with one or two standards thrown in for good measure.
The maestro started to give out with ‘All the things you are’ and I turned and went back to the bar. My tomato juice was waiting for me in a tall glass. It was ice-cold, obviously straight from the fridge and tasted fine. I swallowed half and she toasted me with an empty glass, picked up the bottle of vodka that stood at her elbow and poured some in. She added a scoop of crushed ice, something close to amusement in her eyes.
‘The perfect drink. Tasteless, odourless, the same results as a shot in the arm and no headache in the morning.’
I think I knew then what she had done and a moment later a sudden terrible spasm in the pit of my stomach confirmed it. I dropped the glass and clutched at the bar and her face seemed to crack wide open, the eyes widening in alarm.
‘What is it? What’s wrong?’
The taste started to rise into my mouth, foul as sewer water and I turned and ran for the door. I slipped and stumbled half-way up the companionway and was aware of her calling my name and then I was out into the cool evening air. I just managed to make the rail when the final nausea hit me and I dropped to my knees and was violently sick.
I hung there against the rail for a while, retching spasmodically, nothing left to come and finally managed to get some kind of control. When I got to my feet and turned she was standing a yard or two away looking strangely helpless, her face white, frightened.
‘What did you put into the tomato juice – vodka?’ I said wearily.
‘I’m sorry.’ Her voice was almost inaudible. ‘I didn’t mean any harm.’
‘What was I supposed to do, make a pass at you on one vodka?’ I found a handkerchief, wiped my mouth and tossed it over the rail. ‘Something I omitted from the story of my life was the fact that I was once an alcoholic. That was as good a reason for my wife leaving me as all the romantic ones I gave you at Argamask. After I crawled back out of nowhere for the third time, she’d had enough. Her parting gift was to book me into a clinic that specialises in people like me. They did a very thorough job of aversion therapy with the aid of a couple of drugs called apomorphine and antabus. Just a taste of any kind of liquor these days and my guts turn inside out.’
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘You’ll never know how much.’
‘That’s all right, Myra,’ I said. ‘You weren’t to know. Part of that fantasy life of mine that we were discussing earlier today and I’m stuck with it. I suppose we all have things we don’t care to discuss in mixed company.’
She had gone very still from the moment that I had used her real name and suddenly I felt bitterly angry and sorry for her, both at the same time.
I grabbed her by the arms and shook her furiously. ‘You stupid little bitch – just what are you trying to prove?’
She struck out at me and wrenched herself free with a strength that was surprising. I staggered back, almost missing my footing and she turned and disappeared down the companionway. There was a murmur of voices and a moment later, Desforge appeared.
‘What in the hell is going on here?’
‘A slight disagreement, that’s all.’
‘Did you make a pass at her or something?’
I laughed. ‘You’ll never know just how funny that is.’
‘But she was crying, Joe – I’ve never seen her do that before.’
I frowned, trying to imagine her in tears and failed completely. Perhaps that other girl, the one in the graveyard at Argamask, but not Ilana Eytan.
‘Look, Jack, anything she got she asked for.’
He raised a hand quickly. ‘Okay, boy, I believe you. All the same, I think I’d better go and see what’s wrong.’
He went down the companionway and the door of the wheelhouse opened and Sørensen came out, his face impassive although I realised that he must have seen everything.
‘I’ve got that met report for you from Søndre, Joe. Things look pretty steady for the next couple of hours, but there’s a front moving in from the ice-cap. Heavy rain and squalls. You might just about beat it if you leave now.’
It gave me a perfect out and I seized it with both hands. ‘I’d better get moving. No need to bother Desforge at the moment, I think he’s got his hands full. Tell him I’ll see him next week. If he wants me to come for the girl before then you can always radio in.’
He nodded gravely. ‘I’ll get the whaleboat ready for you.’
I went below for my things and when I returned, one of the crew was waiting to take me ashore. He dropped me on the beach and started back to the Stella straight away and I got ready to leave.
I did the usual routine check then started the engine and ran the Otter down into the sea. I took up the wheels and taxied down-wind slowly, leaning out of the wide window and checking the water for ice floes before making my run.
When I was about a hundred yards north of the Stella, I started to turn into the wind and found the whaleboat bearing down on me, Desforge standing up in the prow waving furiously. I cut the engine and opened the side door as the whaleboat pulled in alongside. Desforge tossed me a canvas holdall, stepped on to the nearest float and hauled himself up into the cabin.
‘I’ve got a sudden hankering to see some city life for a change – any objections?’
‘You’re the boss,’ I said. ‘But we’ll have to get moving. I’m trying to beat some dirty weather into Frederiksborg.’
The whaleboat was already turning away and I pressed down the starter switch and started to make the run. Twenty seconds later we drifted into the air and climbed steeply, banking over the Stella just as Ilana Eytan appeared from the companionway and stood looking up at us.
‘What about her?’ I said.
Desforge shrugged. ‘She’ll be okay. I told Sørensen to make tracks for Frederiksborg tonight. They’ll be there by tomorrow afternoon.’
He produced the inevitable hip flask, took a swallow and started to laugh. ‘I don’t know what you did back there, but she was certainly in one hell of a temper when I went to her cabin.’
‘I’d have thought you’d have wanted to stay and console her,’ I said sourly.
‘What that baby needs is time to cool off. I’m getting too old to have to fight for it. I’ll wait till she’s in the mood.’
‘What’s she doing here anyway?’ I said. ‘Don’t tell me she just came to deliver that letter. There is such a thing as a postal service, even in Greenland.’
‘Oh, that’s an easy one. She’s hoping for the female lead in the picture I’m making.’ He grinned. ‘That’s why I’m so sure she’ll come round – they always do. She’ll be sweetness and light when the Stella arrives tomorrow.’
He leaned back in his seat, tilting the peak of his hunting cap down over his eyes and I sat there, hands steady on the wheel, thinking about Ilana Eytan, trying to imagine her selling herself, just for a role in a picture. But why not? After all, people sell themselves into one kind of slavery or another every day of the week.
Rain scattered across the windscreen in a fine spray and I frowned, all other thoughts driven from my mind at the prospect of that front moving in faster than they had realised at Søndre. I pulled back the stick and started to climb.
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