Page 15

 Tim Powers

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They hurried out across the dark cobblestones to the sunken cement-lined gutter that ran down the middle of the Rue le Regrattier, and as she started south, toward the quai, Hale was following at her heels, the heavy radio case swinging beside his right knee. He was acutely aware of how vulnerable he was to arrest, carrying an illicit short-wave set and a bundle of one-time pads.
The heels and toes of her shoes were tapping out a hesitant, skipping beat that echoed between the close housefronts and batted away into the open sky above, as if dancing around some absent or inaudible bass line, and with the practice he had got from playing the telegraph key he quickly found himself stepping along in a choppy rhythm that made arabesques around her pace but still avoided placing a toe-tap squarely on the implicit metronomic thudding that he almost imagined he could hear.
"Good," she said softly over her shoulder. "You were born to this."
"Oh, thanks-very much," he said, breathing and speaking only sketchily, from the very tops of his lungs. The dark sky behind his lowered head seemed ponderous with momentum.
Born to this, he thought; had childhood dreams about this, nightmares. He was too tense and exhausted to sustain long thoughts, and these phrases echoed loudly inside his head. Born to these nightmares. Born in Palestine, found out the rhythms that placate. And then simply the phrase Born to this was pounding over and over again in his thoughts, weaving itself into his compulsively rhythmic pace.
Elena had mentioned two hands on a piano keyboard. Hale's mind now separated into two attentions, as if a pianist's hands had diverged to pursue separate scores, or as if the pianist himself had devoted one mind to following the notes perfectly and a second mind to catching every syllable of a backstage conversation.
-  sign the Official Secrets Act, for six hundred pounds a year, new banknotes in a blank envelope, no taxes-hurrah-and no pension either!-but I'm free to make pension arrangements with the service's own Drummond's in Admiralty Arch, am I? No, thank you, when I retire it will be to the place where nobody needs money.
It was a voice in Hale's head, but not his customary one. Even mentally, this one had a much more pronounced Oxbridge drawl, and it was deeper, older, than Hale's. The challenge of following Elena's tricky footsteps down the Rue le Regrattier fully occupied Hale's own attention.
-  Iberian sub-section of Section V, exposing German agents by buying the passenger lists from Aero Portuguesa and Trafico Aero Espanol, and then matching the Enigma-traffic code names and itineraries to the passengers who consistently took the same flights that were specified in the traffic, Madrid to Barcelona, Madrid to Seville, and alerting Lisbon Station to them. Have to work from out here in the British countryside in St. Albans it's true, War Station XB, nineteen miles north of London...The alien thoughts were accompanied by the warm, roofing-tar taste of Scotch whisky, and Hale felt drunk from the hallucinated fumes.
He took several deep breaths of the chilly river air, mostly to establish to himself that he was still in Paris. The world was spinning and he clung desperately to the grip of the radio case, and he was afraid he would somehow lose Elena before they got to the river and were able to look into each other's eyes again. "Elena!" he called unsteadily, without looking up from her heels. "Marry me."
-  Marry me? mused the other voice in his head. Well, she's taken my name by deed-poll, advertised it in the London Gazette. Still, with a child now, and more to come, I ought to do it properly, for them. I can think of nothing more rewarding than the sight of a row of descending heads at the breakfast table.
Hale was uncomfortable with the other attention's image. Children...? A very personal duty, voluntarily undertaken...
-  volunteer for night duty in Broadway, drive down to London once or twice a month and get to read freshly deciphered telegrams from Heads of Station all over the world-stop in at 58 St. James's Street to say hullo to the MI5 lads, give Dick White a peek at the latest Enigma-Ultra decrypts, in exchange for some gossip-but-
The emotion that now smoked in Hale's head was frustrated rage, and his sudden panting through clenched teeth threatened to interfere with his complicated pace.
-  am I even now in the Secret Service, the real one? The SIS Registry is right here in St. Albans, but the German incendiary bomb a year ago supposedly burned up all the old SIS files, all the way back to when the service was called MI- 1C. Really? All of them? Even the microfilm copy? Or has a deeper or higher secret service used the bomb as a plausible pretext to spirit those files away to some more secret registry somewhere? How far in have I got to get, to know what Lawrence knew?
The voice faded, and immediately Hale found its thoughts as hard to remember as the details of a dream, once one has awakened. Lawrence? Something about Drummond's? He was relieved to see that the Seine embankment was only a few steps ahead of Elena, for he was sure that the clochard effect of their footsteps had ceased and that he could safely look up into the sky now if he cared to-and in fact Elena's pace had subsided to a normal walk.
How long have we been walking? he wondered as he finally allowed himself to breathe deeply. I asked her to marry me, at some point! Has she answered yet? Did I even speak the words out loud?
He opened his mouth to say it again, but in that instant she stepped onto the grass between the riverside chestnut trees and turned around. The moon was behind her, just over her shoulder, and so her face was in darkness.
"I am glad you ask," she said, "because you need to understand that I am married to the Communist Party. The Soviet State is my husband, and I am a devoted, obedient wife. In Madrid I made my vows, after my deluded father and mother were killed by the fascists and my aunt Dolores took me in, and showed me the engine of human history, the real salvation, the real adventurous surrender to a supreme power. It is not just for the duration of this war-my life will always revolve around Moscow, and I will always take what Moscow gives me."
Hale nodded, and didn't speak. Since abandoning the religious faith of his youth he had had no such sun to fix the orbits of his whirling philosophies, but loyalty to England was secure in the central orbit. "I-follow you," he said miserably.
He saw the profile of her head turn to look up and down the embankment, and then again, more quickly; and she sighed deeply. "You follow me," she said in a new voice, flat and controlled. "I wonder what we both followed. We are in the Square du Vert-Galant, at the far end of the ile de la Cite. Look! This is where the old men fish, that is the Louvre across the river, we"-her voice was shaking-"must have walked right past the Palais de Justice, with you carrying an illegal radio! Past the police station!" Perhaps seeing his blank look, she said almost angrily, "We are on the other island now."
"We-" Hale glanced around, trying to identify landmarks by the moonlight.
She was right. This was the spot where he had stood on a recent afternoon and imagined that this island was a ship pointed downriver, and that the island on which they lived was a barge being towed behind. Somehow the two of them must tonight have walked north instead of south from their house, and across the short metal bridge that connected the islands, and past Notre-Dame.
The wind from off the river suddenly felt chillier, and he found that he had sat down in the damp grass. What had happened to him, when his mind had seemed to split into two? There had been another voice in his head, he remembered that much-
"You are a trouble to me, Marcel," Elena said remotely. "You make me unfaithful to my husband...for I believe I will not put this event into my report either."
Chapter Five
Paris, 1941
"How am I to fear the absolutely nonexistent?" said Hurree Babu, talking English to reassure himself. It is an awful thing still to dread the magic that you contemptuously investigate-to collect folklore for the Royal Society with a lively belief in all the Powers of Darkness.
-  Rudyard Kipling, Kim
They were alone in the windy moon-streaked darkness at the tip of the island-the furtive clochards must all have been clustered on the smaller island, or been frightened away by the approach of this particular semblance of "nothing right here"-and for a while during the hour or so before dawn Hale and Elena debated in whispers what to do with the radio.
Hale, still angry that Centre had broadcast their address to agents using duplicated one-time pads, was for throwing the machine into the river; Elena objected that it might be one of only a few sets in Paris available to the Party, perhaps in fact the only set, though she did think that carrying it through the city streets was unconscionably risky; it looked like a typewriter case as much as it looked like a valise, and even a typewriter was a suspicious thing to be carrying around in occupied Paris. In the end they groped among the leafy chestnut trees overhanging the river until they found a branch with a three-pronged crotch above eye level, and with Elena standing on tip-toe to help they wedged the case there, hoping that daylight wouldn't make it conspicuous. Hale was glad to get rid of it for now, and his step was a good deal springier as they walked away from the incriminating set.
When dawn had fully claimed the sky and the sparrows were a chattering noise in the leafy branches, Hale and Elena took one last anxious glance at the tree in which the radio was hidden-they could see nothing suspicious from up on the path, and Elena said they shouldn't approach that tree now that they could be seen from the south bank-and then they dutifully assumed the cover of a pair of early-rising lovers and strolled arm-in-arm across the Pont-Neuf to the south side of the river.
"We need a fish," she said when they had reached the broad pavement of the Quai de Conti on the southern shore. Seeing his blank look, she went on, "Anything obvious that one would call a fish-a real one, a toy, a painting of a fish."
"A recognition signal," hazarded Hale, and she nodded impatiently.
It took an hour. No shops were open yet, but after walking a hundred yards down the embankment, and approaching several of the old fishermen who looked as if they had been trailing their lines in the river all night, they at last found one old fellow who had actually caught something, and they bought a thoroughly dead trout from him. Elena slung it in a handkerchief and carried it with the fish's silvery head and tail hanging out at either side.
Then at an aimless-seeming pace that led them several times back across their own trail, they walked through the drafty narrow streets of the St.-Germain district, and after an expensive but suspicion-deflecting petit dejeuner at Aux Deux Magots-rolls and ersatz tea served by waiters in black waistcoats and long white aprons-Elena led him south to the gray stone fountain in the square in front of the Church of St.-Sulpice, which she described as her place of conspiracy.
"Ideally," she told him quietly as they leaned on the side of the coping that was not wet from wind-flung spray, "the place of conspiracy would be in a neighboring country-probably Belgium, if the Germans had not occupied it, or Switzerland, if the Germans had given Centre time to plan thoroughly." She sighed and brushed the disordered auburn hair back from her forehead, and Hale's heart ached at how young she looked. "But this is probably secure enough. Someone is assigned to watch this fountain until noon every day, and when they see us, with the fish, they'll refer the fact of us up the chain of command; we'll get a room somewhere tonight, and then come back here again tomorrow. And then, or the day after, or the day after that, a return message will have been sent back down the chain, and someone will approach us with instructions."
"Tomorrow's the first of November. Can you still meet the courier who'll have our pay?"
"Oh, certainly, that's in the afternoon. And I have to, don't I? Anyway, I don't see any reason to think the courier would be compromised."
Hale nodded and squinted curiously around at the Parisians who were beginning to populate the slantingly sunlit square. On the isle St.-Louis he had generally slept until noon, and made lunch of whatever bread and cheese and wine Elena had bought on the black market the day before; she would return from her clandestine meetings late in the afternoon, and after a shared glass or two of wine Hale would begin encoding the material she had brought home. Aside from their dinners at Quasimodo and occasional furtive walks to glance at the gargoyles and flying buttresses and ranked saints of Notre-Dame, he had not seen much of Paris at all.
And he was surprised now by all the bicycles. He had seen bicycles in the traffic jam at the Porte de Gentilly and on the island boulevards, but in this square and the adjoining streets of St.-Germain he saw people riding in the perambulator baskets of bicycle rickshaws, and groups of businessmen in suits and ties pedaling soberly across the cobblestones, and elegant ladies whose wide skirts were clearly designed to project out away from spokes and sprockets.
One man's bicycle had a green kite or paper flag rattling on an upright pole behind the seat-and Hale realized that it was a paper fish, ribbed with wooden dowels. The man was just riding in a big circle around the fountain.
"There's a fish," Hale said softly to Elena.
"I see it," she said-but she was looking back toward the pillars at the church entrance. Hale followed her gaze and saw on the steps a woman whose broad skirt had a big red-flannel sunfish stitched onto it.
They both saw the next one, a portly little man only a dozen steps away, carrying a dead trout like Elena's slung in a newspaper.
"Is it a coincidence?" whispered Hale.
The little man halted to stare at the fish Elena was carrying, and then he looked up at her and Hale with an expression of alarm.
Elena slid her hand behind her and dropped the trout and handkerchief into the fountain water. She stood up away from the coping and said softly to Hale, "Bless me!"