A few days later, as I was about to head for the airport, LaMoyne handed me a thick, neatly bound briefing book full of color-coded tabs. He excels at the briefing book, LaMoyne. Normally he likes to go on the foreign trips, especially when it's some European capital with great restaurants and art museums and cultural what-have-you. When I did a job for Prince Charles, LaMoyne attached himself to me like an abalone. Not this time.
"Sure you don't want to come along?" I said.
"It's very busy right now."
"Tell me, LaMoyne, is it the active volcanoes, or the glaciers, or the fact that the sun sets in August and doesn't rise again until June? Or that they consider rotten shark meat a delicacy?"
"Watch out for the local liquor," he said. "It's called 'Black Death' for a reason."
I was not thrilled to be flying an airline named Grim Air, but you can smoke, the booze flows, and the flight attendants are so good-looking that your eyeballs ache. The women in Grimland are famously beautiful. According to LaMoyne's briefing book, it comes from Nordic DNA, eleven centuries of keeping out foreigners, and eating raw fish.
The country is named for its discoverer, a ninth-century Viking named Grim the Odious. The Vikings were not a warm and fuzzy people, but even by their standards Grim was a handful. His fellow Vikings in what is now Norway finally gave him a choice. He could be tied to bent pine trees and ripped in two, or exiled. Not being Grim the Stupid, he opted for exile.
Grim headed west, intending to discover America. It's a good thing he didn't—Thanksgiving would be a nightmare. He ran out of food and water and then wind. He and his men were about to start eating one another when a whale happened by. They harpooned it; it towed them into a fogbank and then to a huge island. It was barren and icy and full of active volcanoes, but still a welcome sight.
Grim decided that he had been saved by the Norse sea god Slagfinn. He declared that the only proper way to say thank you was to sacrifice one of his crew. So they rowed back out to sea, tied the end of a harpoon rope to someone's foot, and harpooned another whale. Grim declared that they'd do this every year on the anniversary of the discovery. This grotesque tale is recounted in the national epic poem, the Grimsaga.
I now had some insight into why Grimlanders are not sentimental about whales. I probably wouldn't be either, if my ancestors had been dragged out of warm beds and tied to them.
Grim himself did not die in a warm bed. Eventually his men got fed up with his general odiousness, and in particular with being tied to whales. One night they got him more than usually drunk on fermented fish juice, whacked him over the head, and chucked him into a crevasse. He's said to be still down there somewhere, chilling out. Every now and then some American billionaire shows up with a camera crew and the latest dead-Viking-locator technology and makes a documentary called something like The Search for Grim.
A beautiful flight attendant nudged me awake. We'd arrived in Kefluvik. It sounds like something you might take for an infection. Looking out the window, I wondered if things in the cockpit had gone very wrong and we'd landed in the Paleozoic era.
Grimlanders speak decent English, which is good since the other 99.99 percent of us on the planet don't speak Grimlandic. It's one of your more complex languages. You have to be careful. If you stress the wrong syllable, you end up saying "I shall now embed this spike in your skull" instead of "Do you take American Express?"
Grimlanders are a proud people, though I'm not clear why. They didn't cure cancer or land on the moon. They were neutral in World War II. They did allow our ships to refuel there. Ever since, we've maintained a military base in Grimland, on leased land, because of the strategic location: Russian submarines frequently pass by. We send out planes to drop buoys on them as they pass—our way of saying "Peek-a-boo, Ivan, we see you."
Relations between the United States and Russia were once again deteriorating, so the base was once again strategic. This fact was not lost on Grimland. It's a year-to-year lease. At the end of each year the parliament votes to boot us out. Then we agree to build something—a highway, an electrical grid, whatever. The lease was up for renewal in a few months, and the Grimlanders were hinting that it would be wonderful if someone built them a 500-acre greenhouse so that they could grow their own roughage. Hard to cultivate lettuce on the Arctic Circle.
I set up my base of operations at a hotel called the Glummhütt. It sounds awful, but translates to "Friendly Sod Hut." The clientele consists mostly of wealthy salmon fisherpersons on their way to the interior to spend $1,000 a day to stand in 35° water up to their groins. The décor reflects this. Practically every wall is adorned with a large dead salmon. The coat hooks are whale teeth, which persuaded me not to announce the purpose of my visit to my fellow patrons at the bar.
The second day I was drinking coffee and trying to coax a brainstorm out of the old left brain when a headline in the English-language weekly caught my attention.
local man arrested in protest at akurvik whale-processing plant
Ragnar Ragnarsson, 32, of Snaffelsfjord, was arraigned before Magistrate Halverson on the charge of unlawfully interfering with commerce at the Akurvik Number 3 whale-processing plant.
Ragnarsson, who has been arrested previously for similar actions, pleaded innocent and was released on his own recognizing for a hearing in three weeks time.
Police arrested him after he chained himself to the front gate of the plant, impeding trucks from their normal activities thither and hither the plant. Ragnar exclamated outside the magistrate's office that he would continue to make problematic the whale commerce.
"These are great and noble creatures," he expostulated. "They were sacred to our ancestors. It is a crime against the patrimonial gods what they are doing." He would not desist in his effortings, Ragnar vowed, "until Grimland men of good conscience cease in their abominations upon the water."
I thanked the patrimonial gods of public relations for Ragnar Ragnarsson and set off in a taxi for Snaffelsfjord. It's about an hour's drive if your vehicle has a front-mounted power winch. Most car trips, even to the grocery store, involve driving through a raging river.
Snaffelsfjord consists of about three dozen tin-roofed houses and a similar number of sheep. Ragnar Ragnarsson lived on the outskirts in what looked like an authentic bog hut. He cut an imposing figure: six foot five, with bright-red hair and a forked, braided beard. He was dressed in a sheepskin jacket and carried a club in his right hand. This fact and the look in his eyes—that of someone who had not enjoyed a good night's sleep in, say, ten years—did not make me feel all that welcome. But one of the things I enjoy about public relations is the variety of people you meet. This was my first ninth-century Viking.
"My name is Renard, sir, and I'm here to help you save the whales." I stipulate that this sounded idiotic, but when you are facing a large and menacing Viking, badinage is the first casualty.
Actually, Ragnar turned out to be good company. He was bright, spoke serviceable English, and had spent a summer in Los Angeles playing bass guitar for a rock band named Pancreatic Cancer. He told me that he had done "fantastic quantities" of LSD during his U.S. sojourn, and this, along with a brief incarceration in a Mojave Desert jail cell, had brought him back to Grimland resolved to live a simple life in the manner of his ancestors.
We drank numerous glasses of Black Death. He recited from memory a good deal of the Grimsaga. After the seventh or eighth glass he put his arm around my shoulders and told me to call him "Forkbeard," the ancestral name he'd taken for himself.
The next morning I lay on my bed at the Glummhütt praying for a quick death. Whatever else they say, when Rick Renard takes on a client, he gives 110 percent. It's only fair when you're charging 150 percent.