It had been quite a week. On Monday one of our clients, the leader of a major Eastern European country, was accused of poisoning his opponent in the presidential election. While it may be true that I take on clients that some PR firms avoid, we at Renard Strategic Communications do not, as a rule, seek those who invite their political opponents to dinner and serve them borscht à la dioxin.
On Tuesday the Professional Curling Association of Northwestern Wisconsin—not a marquee name, I grant, but a client—admitted that its top curler was not only a Canadian national but was also wanted by the Mounties for dynamite fishing. Personally, I think dynamite fishing is a more efficient way of catching fish than standing in cold water for hours, but I acknowledge that local laws were broken.
Then, on Thursday, we learned that another client, whose Senate confirmation hearing I was managing—he'd been nominated to be ambassador to a country in Central America—had fifteen years before served as a paid adviser to that country's government while it was solving a local native problem in a way certain not to impress the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A tribe of Indians had been harassing the employees of a multinational strip-mining company with blowguns, owing to the fact that the company was strip-mining the tribe's ancestral lands. Apparently my client had advised the government to resolve the situation by lowering nets from helicopters, scooping up the troublesome Indians, and depositing them on a barren, guano-covered island miles offshore. I like a challenge as much as the next PR person, and it's not my job to pass moral judgment on clients, but it's helpful when they at least alert you to the fact that they've been involved in ethnic cleansing.
At any rate, I was not having a particularly good stretch when my assistant, LaMoyne, buzzed to say that the head of something called spout was on the line.
"Society for the Protection of Our Undersea Titans."
"LaMoyne," I said, "what is Rule No. 1 here at Renard Strategic Communications?"
"Which Rule No. 1?"
LaMoyne is capable of attitude, but I tolerate it because he is so efficient. He more or less runs the day-to-day operation, leaving me free to concentrate on the philosophical aspects.
"No whales," I said.
It's nothing personal. I understand that they are wonderful and warm-blooded. Further, that all those squeaking noises they make are indicative of an impressive vocabulary. I enjoy listening to them while I'm having a massage. But what they are saying translates in my profession to "nonbillable hours."
"I explained our policy vis-à-vis cetaceans to the gentleman," LaMoyne said. "And doubled the quote on our retainer."
"You have a four o'clock with him."
I Googled "whales." You want to sound up to speed with a client. I learned that a sixty-ton sperm whale that was being transported on a flatbed truck through a city in Taiwan had exploded. (I didn't know that whales exploded.) And that several dozen whales had recently driven themselves up on a beach in North Carolina and expired. Pro-whale groups said that this act of mass suicide was the fault of the U.S. Navy, which apparently bombards area waters with low-frequency sonar waves to detect foreign submarines. I didn't know if this was true, but if that was the price of keeping the enemy from launching a sneak attack, I wasn't going to blubber about it.
LaMoyne ushered Mr. Spout into my office promptly at four. He was crisply dressed in a blue suit and black shoes so highly polished I could see my reflection. He had gray buzz-cut hair and a trim moustache. When he grinned, his teeth appeared capable of biting through steel cable. He didn't look like an environmentalist. I don't go in for stereotypes, but in my experience environmentalists don't smile much. They have this default expression, like they're expecting to hear any minute that a tanker has gone aground and spilled a half million tons of crude oil into a penguin rookery.
"Anders Gansevoort," he said, giving my hand a squeeze that would have dejuiced a grapefruit.
"Rick Renard," I whimpered.
"Are you familiar with our organization, Mr. Renard?"
"Of course. spout is in the vanguard of cetacean conservation throughout the world. Vital work."
"Mr. Renard, are you aware of the current situation in Grimland?"
"Yes. But I'd be interested to hear your take on it."
Grimland … the mind raced. I vaguely remembered not being able to locate it during a high school geography test. It's a place of interest primarily to a) Grimlanders, b) geologists, c) volcano scientists, and d) planes flying across the North Atlantic and running low on fuel.
Gansevoort informed me that the country had just doubled its quota of whales to be harpooned in the coming year. I shook my head.
"How can I help?" I asked, quickly adding, "On a professional basis." This was to deflect the dreaded words "pro bono." If you hear that phrase around the offices of Renard Strategic Communications, it's probably someone expressing a positive opinion of an Irish rock musician.
"We'd like you to undertake an anti-whaling campaign in Grimland," he said. "An aggressive campaign."
I silently counted to ten. This gives a client the impression you're weighing the matter rather than his wallet.
"Whatever it takes."
"And what sort of budget did you have in mind?"
He scribbled a figure on a piece of paper and slid it across the desk. I said, "Hmmnnn." In fact I felt like ripping off my shirt the way those Olympic women soccer players do after scoring the winning goal.
He stood. "You'll undertake this personally, I assume?"
"Personally, Mr. Renard. You'll go to Grimland yourself."
"I have a terrific team of people who—"
"Yourself, Mr. Renard."
"I always wanted to see Grimland," I said.
"Good." His face softened, though you could still see the granite under the topsoil. "Excellent salmon fishing. Do you fish?"
It struck me as strange that someone who wanted me to save whales was urging me to hook salmon. I was going to say, "Only with dynamite." But Renard's Second Rule No.1 is "When a client is dispensing cash, keep your hands out and your mouth shut."
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.
The client had said he wanted an aggressive campaign, and that's what I intended to give him, starting with a documentary video depicting the cruelty of whaling. However, when I saw the Viking-dragon figurehead that Ragnar had affixed to the bow of the boat (a boat I—or, rather, Gansevoort—had paid for), I demurred. This was not the image we were looking to project.
We were standing on the dock, having a frank exchange of views, when a car drove up. The woman who got out was so beautiful she would have induced cardiac arrest in an Egyptian mummy. I stopped caring about how the Viking figurehead would play on TV.
She spoke to Ragnar in Grimlandic, and then gave me an ultraviolet smile and shook my hand.
"I am Harpa. I am Ragnar's voman."
It's been a while since they introduced themselves that way back home.
Ragnar and his crew—Johann and Tooki—continued getting the boat ready. Harpa had brought us food for the trip. I put aside my video camera and volunteered to help her bring it aboard.
"How you are liking Grimland?" She had dimples, the most amazing dimples, and hair the color of spun honey. Her eyes were like emeralds—the expensive kind.
"Rick, vy you are caring so great for the vales?"
"Magnificent creatures," I croaked.
She shrugged. "Just big fish."
"But Ragnar … ?"
"He's my fellow." She had a singsong way of speaking. "But sometimes he's"—she pointed at her head and rolled her eyes—"hooof."
"There is a name for. I'm not know in English. His doctor is giving him medicines. But sometimes he's not taking them, and then ve haf the big argumenting. I think he like the feeling vidout the medicine."
Ragnar shouted at me to hurry up. But I wanted to get to the bottom of this interesting-sounding aspect of the man I was about to put to sea with.
"Sometimes he's being very happy. Then sometimes very sad. He stay in his hut forever and not come out. I vorry."
"Ya, that's it. Sometimes he's on North Pole, then sometimes—hooof—South Pole."
Ragnar bellowed at me to get aboard. The engines had started.
"What about his medicine?" I said. "Did he take his pills today?"
"He say he do. But I don't know. Anyvay, if he start to make like crazy, best you come back quick."
Ragnar insisted on a dedication ceremony. He broke a bottle of Black Death over the bow (I'm surprised it didn't take all the paint off) and grumbled some words in homage to Slagfinn. He insisted that I get it all down on video. I dutifully filmed it, though I had no intention of including it in the final footage. My goal was to create sympathy, not get us all thrown into the local mental asylum.
Between the North Atlantic swell and the diesel fumes and the anticipation of finding myself between a whale and a cannon-launched harpoon, I was not feeling totally 100 percent. I shot some B-roll of Ragnar and his crew and then curled up in the fetal position under a tarp. PR is not always the glamorous job it is made out to be.
A few hours later my sleep was interrupted by a commotion around the radar set. I felt the engines revving. I struggled to my feet and started filming.
Ragnar pointed to a blip on the radar screen. He altered course toward it. You could smell it from a mile off. If you are not feeling tip-top to begin with, the smell of a commercial whaling ship is not going to make you feel any better.
Ragnar got on the radio and began palavering with the captain in Grimlandic. He was grinning. I was not encouraged by this.
"What did he say, Ragnar?"
"That he vill shoot never mind ve are in the vay."
"And what did you say?"
"That I vill put harpoon in his behind!"
Just the Gandhi-like note I was hoping to strike.
Tooki, up on the bow, shouted and pointed, and there, a hundred yards off, I saw my first whale spout. Rick Renard is no pushover when it comes to the animal kingdom, but I have to admit it was a stirring sight.
Even more stirring, however, is the sound of a 60-millimeter Penthrite grenade harpoon penetrating the hull of your boat. I found myself on my back on the deck, covered with shards of fiberglass and Plexiglas. A leftover gene from my days as a TV reporter told me, Keep filming. Ragnar was covered with debris, but still at his station at the wheel. There was something heroic about it. He may have had his weak points, but he had the chops of a true Viking. I only wished he hadn't grabbed the hand mike and let loose so many X-rated epithets.
Suddenly Ragnar swung the wheel around and aimed straight at the whaler. Somehow I managed to keep shooting. The footage turned out well. It conveys what it's like to smash into a vessel ten times bigger than yours. I don't want to pat myself on the back, which still hurts, but I think Rick Renard showed grace under pressure, especially considering that the crew of the whaler began throwing heavy objects down on us as we scraped and bumped along its hull. Johann was knocked unconscious by an empty oil drum.
Tooki emerged from belowdecks covered with oil and dripping wet to report that we were taking on water at a rate deserving immediate attention; also that the starboard engine was emitting black smoke. A vote was taken to return to shore. I calmed my nerves by shooting footage of Tooki and the bloodied Johann—now conscious again—furiously bailing amid billows of oily smoke.
The police were waiting for us at the dock. They were very considerate to me personally. The one who put me in my cell said he had been to Chicago twice and had liked it very much. I gave him the name of my favorite steak place there.
The U.S. embassy officer who visited me in jail, a mere five hours after I called for rescue, had the bedside manner of someone who'd rather be reviewing visa applications.
"Nice of you to come so … promptly. I know how busy you must be in Grimland, here at the epicenter of diplomacy."
"You've broken locals laws, Mr. Renard," he said, practically yawning. "All I'm in a position to do is make sure that you are treated humanely and give you a list of attorneys."
"Thanks so much. I'll be sure to note at the international press conference I'll be holding shortly how helpful my government was after I was cast into this hellhole for the crime of trying to save a gentle giant of the deep."
He looked around the cell. It was actually pretty luxurious by penal standards, with a color TV and slippers.
"Well, I hope you survive your ordeal. I understand you're going to be released in an hour or so. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"Yes: arrange for the repatriation of my remains."
"That would be a pleasure, Mr. Renard." They can be supercilious, these State Department types. It probably comes from spending the whole day saying "We have no position on that."
I summoned LaMoyne to assist with the editing and the press conference. When he got his first glimpse of Ragnar on the video, he said, "Please don't tell me that he is the object of this hagiographical exercise." He uses these out-of-town words to annoy me.
"We've worked with worse," I said.
We started editing. I hired a local actor to dub heroic-sounding utterances to replace the forty-six times Ragnar swore on film. We left in the whaleship captain's radio cursing. A typical snippet:
Ragnar: I appeal to you in the name of humanity, spare this harmless creature!
Captain: Fuck your mother!
This is the part of public relations that I most enjoy: not making your client look good but making the other side look terrible.
We added some interviews with the few Grimlanders who didn't think that Ragnar was out of his mind, along with some stock footage of harpooned whales rolling over and dying. To my surprise, I found myself caring about the creatures. This went against Renard's Third Rule No. 1 of public relations: "Never get emotionally involved."
By the end of the week we had a twelve-minute documentary titled Ragnarsaga: One Man's Quest to Save His Country's Soul. With the editing and the soundtrack, the confrontation with the whaleship was thrilling. Harpa waving good-bye from the dock brought tears to my eyes—never mind that I knew she had been yelling, "Ragnar, take your damn lithium pills or I von't haf sex vith you!" After dubbing she was calling "Farewell, my brave man, my only love!"
Ragnar was scheduled to come before the magistrate the following Thursday. We got the film to the media on Monday, along with a press release that made it sound like Ragnar was about to be sentenced to life imprisonment by a corrupt judicial system that had sold out to Grimland's ruthless whaling lobby. This was a bit of a stretch, but in public relations you sometimes have to swing to the bleachers.
Grimland TV ran the tape several times. There's not that much original programming there. We also streamed video from our Web site, www.ragnarsaga.com. On Thursday the crowd outside the courthouse was the biggest Grimland had seen since a demonstration over falling gravlax prices.
LaMoyne had recruited some locals to hold up signs saying ragnar must be free! and whaling = death! When Ragnar emerged from the car, the crowd began to chant. The perfectionist in me said, If only it could have been at night, with torches.
Harpa had been peeved at me for the dubbing, but now she squeezed my hand and said, "You haf made him into hero!" Looking at her—my gosh, she was beautiful—the thought crossed my mind that it wouldn't be all that tragic if the magistrate tossed Ragnar into the cooler for a while.
Anders Gansevoort had (covertly) paid for Ragnar to be represented by Kefluvik's top lawyer. The attorney made it sound as though the whaleship captain had been the aggressor and it was only by luck that we were attending a hearing, not a funeral. An hour later Ragnar was back on the steps of the courthouse, shaking his fist triumphantly and making a stem-winder of a speech.
"What's he saying?" I asked Harpa.
"He is making challenge to captain of valeship."
"What kind of challenge?"
"To fight vith axes. Is ancient Grimland custom, for insultings."
We hustled him out of there, but not before the challenge was captured on film by Grimland TV, which aired it that night. The captain of the whaleship—his first name was Magnus, and his surname derived from the words meaning "thorax" and "remover"—was shown saying that he would be more than happy to meet Ragnar on the field of honor and crush his skull like an egg. The magistrate thereupon issued a stern warning pointing out that gulfussfarkschnortel—the custom of settling disputes with axes—had been illegal since 1858.
However messy the situation, Ragnar was now a hero and Grimland had itself an anti-whaling movement. It was time for me to declare victory and go home. I booked a flight for the following day.
That night there was a celebration. Grimlanders love nothing more than to light a big fire and dance and drink around it. It's called a gluggsplatt. Any excuse will do. They're big on solstices and equinoxes. Every time there's a solstice or an equinox, they'll be out there lighting fires and chug-a-lugging Black Death until they pass out. Anthropologists call this atavistic behavior. (We call it "spring break.") I was tired and had to pack, but I felt I should drop in.
It was held on the outskirts of Kefluvik, next to a hot-springs lagoon, or hupmalaugar. The air was cold, as usual, but once you're sufficiently drunk—which happens within minutes—you strip off your clothes and jump into the lagoon, which is not only hot but deliciously muddy. You feel at one with the old primordial ooze, sitting in soft, warm goo as the bottle is passed around and the firelight illuminates the upper torsos of lovely Grimland ladies. Really, when you come right down to it, a gluggsplatt is a pretty darn pleasant way of spending an evening.
I was sitting in the mud feeling very mellow, looking up at the stars. LaMoyne was somewhere nearby, having struck up a conversation with a handsome Grimlander. Ragnar was in the next pool over, surrounded by female admirers.
I became aware of someone sidling up to me. It was Harpa. In a situation like this, you're not sure what to do with your eyes. It's tricky if you haven't grown up in Grimland, where being naked in hot mud is the norm, culturally speaking. I went back to looking over at Ragnar and his entourage and tried to keep the conversation light, with witticisms on the order of "This is the life, huh?" and "Check out those stars."
Harpa was not her usual ebullient self. She was staring unhappily at Ragnar, who was now receiving the romantic attentions of two young women.
"He's the big man now," she said.
"Oh, he's just enjoying his moment in the limelight. I'm sure he's the same old Ragnar."
"So," she said, sliding right into my lap, "I, too, vill enjoy the limelight."
It was dawn, or what passes for dawn in Grimland, before I crawled out of the goo and went back to my hotel. I missed my flight, but it was one of the better sleeps I've had, and the dreams were excellent.
That should have been the end of it. But the patrimonial gods were not yet finished with Rick Renard. The next flight home wasn't for a few days, so I decided to relax, tie up a few loose ends, see a few sights. I did not call Harpa, tempted as I was. Rick Renard may have faults, but he knows the score. She was Ragnar's woman, as she would put it, and I knew that her sudden attraction to me in the lagoon had been nothing more than a passing Black Death—fueled jealous impulse. I was happy to have been of service and to leave it at that.
I was contentedly nursing this thought over a mini-bar beer in my room when my tranquillity was interrupted by a furious banging on the door.
It was LaMoyne. He brushed past me and gave me that look he uses to convey extreme gravity.
"Turn on the TV."
You could get English subtitles if you pressed the right button on the remote. Usually I ended up with French or Italian.
The screen showed a dead whale lying on a wharf. I felt a pang for this magnificent creature, indignation rising in my chest.
"Murderers," I muttered.
"Shut up and listen."
On came Magnus Thorax-Remover. He was pointing to the whale's back. The camera closed in on what looked like a wire, maybe ten feet long. One end was anchored in the whale's skin. At the other was something metal, the size and shape of a small sled.
The subtitles said, "… The object appears to be an electronic apparatus that was implanted in the whale previous to its capture …"
"Capture," I snorted. "Cold-blooded murder of a warm-blooded—"
"Rick, will you please just listen?"
The camera showed people—the kind you see on TV shows with "crime scene" in the title—gathering around the device, frowning.
"… Its origin and purposing is not at this point known. It will be taken to the National Laboratory for close examination …"
"Something fishy here," I murmured.
"It's Grimland. Everything is fishy."
The phone rang.
"Good day to you, sir. I am Ingmar Vattelsson, of The Grimsbladderdag." The daily newspaper.
"The reason for which I am calling is about the dewice which have been found on Mr. Turkkvekloffensson's whale?"
"Well, I am at the National Laboratory, and the preliminary inqviry is establishing that it is a dewice to imitate the, the—I am sorry for my English—sonar signature of a submarine."
"Specifically, an American submarine."
"I am therefore wondering if you will be making a comment about this."
"Why would I?"
"Well, you are American."
"Along with two hundred and ninety-six million other people."
"Yes, but you have been here making a propaganda for the whale saving."
"Excuse me. I have been here consulting with Grimlanders of good conscience who feel passionate about ending the senseless slaughter of gentle giants of the deep. And about restoring Grimland to its greatness."
"So that is your comment?"
"Yes. Please quote it in its entirety."
"Well, I must ask you therefore if you are in any ways connected with the U.S. military?"
"Military? I'm in public relations. I'm a strategic communicator."
"Thank you for commenting, sir. An excellent day to you."
"What's going on here?" I said to LaMoyne.
"I don't know, but what ought to be going is us."
"There's no flight for three days."
"There's one to Aberdeen, Scotland, in four hours. I think we ought to be on it."
"Do you mean run away?"
"'Those who run away today live to run away another day,'" LaMoyne said. "It's one of my favorite sayings. Suit yourself, but this strategic communicator is am-scraying. I'll start a Free Rick Renard movement as soon as I get back."
I paced my hotel room wondering what the next step was. Renard's Fourth Rule No. 1 of public relations is "Be pro-active." Take the fight to the enemy. But I wasn't sure who the enemy was.
I called Anders Gansevoort to see if he felt like springing for a private jet to wing me home.
"Sir!" he answered on the second ring, and it struck me how crisp and military-like he was for an environmentalist. I told him about the dead whale and the device and the reporter's call.
Silence. "Can't make sense of it myself. But I'd seriously consider exfiltrating yourself."
"Anders," I said. "Is there something you want to tell me?"
"You've done a damn fine job over there, Rick. But it looks like we've been compromised."
"No time to explain. Time to come on in from the cold. This line may not be secure." While I was contemplating what instrument of murder to use on him, he hung up.
I made sure the desk clerk in the lobby noticed my departure. "I'm going to the Riupa," I announced loudly but casually. This is a restaurant not far from the hotel. Once out the door, I beat it in the opposite direction. Aside from that, I had no plan.
I was a block away when I heard a panicky voice saying "Rick!" It was Harpa.
"It's Ragnar. He is knowing."
"Knowing? Knowing what?"
"About us lovemaking at the gluggsplatt."
"Someone who is seeing us is telling him. He is smashing things and breaking things and cursing terrible."
"Oh, wonderful. What about the pills? Is he taking his pills?"
"No. He's vild man. And then he is getting telephone calls from the paper, asking about you. Rick, is true you are vorking for the U.S. government?"
"A vile canard." Rhymes with Renard, unfortunately.
"Lies. Vicious lies. Where is Ragnar?"
"I think he's coming to find you. He take his ax and run out of the house. That's vy I come, to varn you."
"Did you explain that … the lagoon … that it wasn't my idea?"
"How can I tell him that? He vould kill me."
I reviewed the situation. The media were asking if I was a military agent, and I was being stalked by an ax-toting, bipolar six-foot-five Viking. Not encouraging.
My instinct was to get to the airport and crawl into the wheel well of the first airplane taking off. But Harpa said that her sister was out of town and she had a key to her apartment, where I could hide out until I had an evacuation plan. She dropped me off and went to check on Ragnar's movements.
The apartment was above a rave club. The water glass on the bedside table kept vibrating off the edge. It was a long night.
Early the next morning I bought a still-warm copy of The Grimsbladderdag. The front page showed a photograph of me next to one of the dead whale, and a close-up of the electronic device.
I called Harpa. She'd spent the night at a friend's place and had the newspaper in front of her. She sounded shaky. Ragnar had called her cell in a rage several times during the night, demanding to know where I was. He'd made quite a scene at my hotel. The good news was that he was now in police custody. Embedding an ax in a hotel front desk is, I was relieved to learn, against the law.
"The headline—what does it say?"
"'One of Their Vales Is Not … Here.'"
Either The Grimsbladderdag didn't go in for catchy headlines, or I was missing something. Missing.
"'One of Their Whales Is Missing'?" I said.
"Ya, that's it."
In her halting English, Harpa gave me the gist of the article. The device attached to the whale had been examined by experts, who pronounced it an SSDD, or Sonar Signature Decoy Device—a military-issue gizmo that sends out an underwater signal identical to that of a submarine. In this instance a U.S. submarine. It was to provide a decoy by fooling Russian submarines into thinking the whale was a U.S. sub, and tracking the whale instead.
Then she read how I was a CIA agent who had arrived in Grimland under cover of being a public-relations man and was assigned to foment an anti-whaling movement so that the devices would not be discovered by whalers.
"Oy," I groaned. Gansevoort's non-environmentalist manner suddenly came into focus. The duplicitous swine was CIA.
"An expression. It's what some people back home say when they realize that the universe is in a conspiracy against them. Harpa, does the article say anything about the police looking for me?"
"'He is being searched by the authorities. If you haf seen him, alert to the police.'"
I heard a beep on the line. "Vait moment," she said. She came back on, a new note of alarm in her voice. "Rick—is Ragnar. They haf let him out of jail. Someone puts the money for to guarantee he is coming to the courthouse for—"
"It's called bail, Harpa. Not normally granted to ax-wielding homicidal psychopaths, but then I'm sure Grimland is a model of progressive judicial standards."
So there it was: not yet 8:00 a.m. and the day already a nightmare.
"Isn't there a ferry?" I said. "A boat—the kind that carries cars—to Scotland?"
"Ya. Two times a veek. Sunday and Torsday."
Today was Torsday. It left at noon. I felt the flutter of the wings of the Angel of Hope—probably exhaust from a passing bus.
"Harpa. Can you meet me? Near the ferry dock—by the statue of Grim. Bring some food—anything but shark meat—and some warm clothing. Something to make me look like a Grimlander. Sheepskin jacket, sweater, wool cap. Rubber boots. A pipe—you know, the kind the old sailors smoke."
"You vill escape on ferry disguised like fisherman? Is good plan."
"Make sure no one's following you. And don't go home. Do not go home."
"Ya, okay, okay."
I made my way inconspicuously to the waterfront. I had a scarf, and I wrapped it around my face, which made me look like a terrorist.
The ferry was loading. The boarding process seemed casual. I didn't see any police officers. There was a line of cars. A lot of the drivers had parked and gone off for coffee or, more likely, drinks. My plan—I now had one—was to get into the trunk of a car, hold the lid ajar, get out once aboard, and hunker down somewhere for an enjoyable two-day passage across the North Atlantic. It was at least preferable to freezing to death in the wheel well of a jet.
I waited in the shadows of a shed fifty or so yards from the statue of Grim. A few minutes after eleven Harpa drove up. I lit out of the shadows and was ten feet from her when a black sedan shot out of nowhere, headed right at me: the police, presumably. I didn't want to get Harpa in trouble, so I raced back toward the shed, the sedan in pursuit.
In high school I ran the 100 in twelve seconds, but at forty-one I was no match for a Crown Victoria. I was huffing down a wet cobblestone alley that smelled of 900 years of cod guts when I heard a distinctly American voice shout "Mr. Renard! Rick!"
I looked back, still running. Leaning out the driver's window was the embassy guy who'd visited me in jail.
I stopped and stood there, doubled over, wheezing.
He got out of the car. "Didn't mean to startle you. Come on, we need to get you out of here."
"That's what I was trying to accomplish."
"Okay. You can stow away on a ferry in the North Atlantic or catch a private plane leaving from the Navy base in twenty minutes. It's up to you."
"Plane," I gasped.
"Get in the back and hold the newspaper in front of your face, just like a real U.S. diplomat. I'll be the chauffeur."
I was reaching for the door handle when I heard an unnatural roar. Ragnar stepped out of the shadows, swinging a piece of wood—not an ax, thank God. I ducked.
I heard State Department shout something in Grimlandic that sounded like "Halt!" and then the sound of wood on cranium. I swiveled and saw my knight in shining armor out cold. The last thing I remember is a piece of wood approaching the side of my own head at a velocity not recommended by trauma specialists.
After I opened my eyes, it took a few minutes to get myself oriented. I was aware of various sensations: A throbbing in my head. The vibration of engines. Being cold. Fourth, being tied up. Fifth, an up-and-down movement, the kind associated with being on a boat in the open sea. This was upsetting, because I did not remember having boarded the ferry. The sixth and final clue took the form of Ragnar, standing over me with a—I'm using the term clinically—manic expression. He was muttering in his native tongue and, most alarming of all, tying something around my ankles.
"Shut up. Make yourself vorthy."
"Of the gods."
But he'd disappeared forward. I was in what nautical types would call the stern of the boat. Of my boat, ironically enough.
I managed to lift myself up enough to examine what he had tied around my ankles, and saw that it was what nautical types would call a line. I followed the line and saw that it was attached to what even non-nautical types would call a harpoon.
I squirmed, but he'd trussed me like a Christmas turkey. The engines slowed. I heard a muttering from the wheelhouse, and made out the word "Slagfinn"—not at all a good thing.
Ragnar appeared aft and looked over the side. I heard a distinctive whoosh. If you have ever been on a whale-watching expedition, you may have heard it. People pay good money to experience it. To this day it turns my vertebrae to rubber.
He hoisted the harpoon.
When you're about to be tethered to a whale, the central nervous system shifts into four-wheel drive. I rolled over like a dropped hot dog and rammed Ragnar in the back of the knees, knocking him off balance.
He let out a fearsome growl. It was so fearsome that I entertained hopes it might persuade the whale to vamoose. But when I looked up, Ragnar was in the harpoon-launching position again.
My head was in proximity to his ankle. Normally in the course of conducting public relations I try to refrain from sinking my teeth into the people I'm working with—though I have been tempted. But desperate times call for desperate measures.
He let out an even more impressive roar. I looked up sideways with my choppers still clamped onto his Achilles tendon. His face had gone the vivid red of his forked beard. He re-vectored the harpoon so that it was now aimed at me rather than the whale. An improvement in one sense, but on the whole a situational downtick.
The moment froze. I sensed that Ragnar did not want to harpoon a fellow human being, even one who had had a little romp in the mud with his girlfriend and was currently gnawing on his lower leg. Everything went quiet in a hallucinatory kind of way.
Then a female voice cried out, "Rag-narrr!" My neurons were a little rearranged at this point. At first I thought, A mermaid?
Ragnar swiveled his head to see what was making this watery ruckus, thus aborting his shish-kebabbing of me. I relaxed my dental grip on his ankle. The voice was now jabbering away at full tilt in Grimlandic, above the sound of an outboard motor.
Ragnar lowered the harpoon—an excellent development. I heard another voice, male, and then there was a bump on the side of our boat, and Harpa and Johann clambered aboard. Harpa was delivering what sounded like a stern lecture on the theme "Ve do not tie foreigners to vales, and ve vill take our lithium," accompanied by a lot of kissing and hugging. Johann untied me.
"Rick, are you okay?" Harpa asked.
"I'll survive," I said, which was the truth.
We were about halfway back to shore, Harpa and Ragnar carrying on like love-sick teenagers (I think she was trying to distract him) when there came a sound like a million gallons of water being shoved aside.
If you have not seen the conning tower of a nuclear submarine rise out of the ocean, take it from me: it is a sight. I don't know if it's worth the $2 billion-per-conning-tower price tag, but that's another matter. At the time, I considered it worth every cent.
It loomed over us like a great black hump. A hatch opened and two frogmen popped out. An inflatable boat inflated and buzzed up alongside.
"Mr. Renard?" said one of the frogmen, who, I happily noticed, was carrying a machine gun.
"That would be me."
"Sir, compliments of Mr. Gansevoort. Will you come aboard?"
Harpa gave me a big hug. "Ragnar is sorry for vot he do."
Ragnar didn't look in the least bit sorry, but he grunted something that sounded vaguely like Good-bye-sorry-to-try-to-tie-you-to-vale.
"You must to come back to visit us, Rick," Harpa said.
"Oh," I said, "for sure."
It took a while to get to D.C., what with a complicated switch of vessels somewhere off Newfoundland and then a flight off the deck of an aircraft carrier to Norfolk. Back in the office the first thing I said to LaMoyne was "No more whales"—not that I don't have a whole new respect for blubber.