Page 23

 Tim Powers

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"Possibly. Even probably. Not obviously."
The phrase Iberian sub-section, in that Oxbridge voice, was still echoing in Hale's head, and it had almost reminded him of something; but an officer who had not previously spoken now asked, plaintively, "So is bloody Hale a British spy or a Communist spy?"
The civilian at the table pushed back his chair and stood up. He wasn't looking at anyone, but Hale got the impression that his words were addressed to Philby: "We'll keep him-safe, here-until we can find out. He's had a medical examination and proves out fit; it would be very puzzling indeed if he were to-die, say, before all this is sorted out to everyone's satisfaction. Guard, escort Mr. Hale back to his room. Mr. Philby, it is good of you to have given us your time."
The place where Hale was being confined, he learned, was known as Camp 020, and it was only half a dozen miles southwest of London, at Ham Common in Richmond. The makeshift compound was an interrogation center and a prison for spies, and as a combination of those functions it was also a sort of espionage retooling center, in which captured German spies were induced to use their call-signs and their smuggled radios to conduct a deceptive traffic with Berlin, the receptions being monitored and the transmissions scripted by the counter-intelligence division of the British Security Service, known as MI5. Hale was reminded of Cassagnac's fatalistic dictum: Playback is the natural last stage of any spy network.
The civilian member of the board that had interviewed Hale proved to be an MI5 agent called Speas, and Speas would frequently escort Hale on walks around the camp's snowy perimeter and have him talk about the Communist networks he had had dealings with in England. "MI5 is concerned with espionage in England and the colonies," Speas told him more than once. "I'm not interested in whatever you did in France." And Hale was glad to tell the MI5 man about the woman who had approached him at Oxford and about the secret wireless school in Norfolk. True to his word, Speas never asked about the Paris network, and his references to Hale's arrest at the King Street Communist headquarters were incidental and only mildly ironic.
The playback operation was a joint effort among the three military services and SIS and MI5, but it was the B Division of MI5, the counter-espionage division, that ran the camp and maintained the various shacks and Quonset huts and the Victorian edifice of Latchmere House. Hale soon gathered that the opinion of his MI5 captors was that Philby had been correct, that Hale was just a very covert agent of Theodora's, though they were determined not to turn over custody of Hale to SIS before the head of Philby's section returned to England.
After a week Hale noticed that his door wasn't being locked at night, and, when he asked a guard if he was expected to grow a beard here, an unarmed orderly began leaving a basin and shaving kit on the windowsill. But the little mirror in the kit reminded him too clearly of Elena-Want to see a monkey?-and so he began carrying his razor and brush downstairs to the common staff lavatory. During one of their outdoor walks, he asked Speas if there was any way to trace a Soviet agent who had been summoned from Europe to Moscow, and Speas told him that that would be an SIS matter, difficult even for them, and that anyway any such agent would probably have been shot soon after arrival in Moscow; Hale then asked about the availability of liquor, and that night Speas brought him a nearly full bottle of Ballantine whisky, which was no longer nearly full by morning.
Hale was soon given cooking duties in the Latchmere House kitchen-the German prisoners were reportedly amazed to find meat and butter in England, after having been assured by their own intelligence service that the country was expiring in famine-and it was on the second day of February 1942, while he was bent over a pot of pea soup on the stove and singing along to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" as it was being sung by Judy Garland on the battered old kitchen radio, that Theodora found him.
"I shouldn't be angry," Theodora interrupted from the kitchen doorway. Halted in his singing, Hale glanced up and recognized the man, and dropped the ladle into the soup. "I should," Theodora went on, "recall that you must have had some hair-raising experiences in Europe, no doubt a good deal worse than what I've been having in London. Nevertheless, to find that I risked my career and possibly my liberty in order to make a good kitchen scullion out of you is...maddening."
For a moment neither of them spoke. Hale slowly reached up to the shelf to switch off the radio, noticing Theodora's rumpled suit and tie and aware of his own stained apron.
"Are you here in authority," Hale asked finally in the sudden quiet, "or as another prisoner?"
"Oh, I'm reinstated in SIS, my dear." He smiled, but Hale thought he had lost weight, and the dark circles under his eyes implied that he had not been getting much sleep lately. "And I've come to take you to Broadway, where you will make a detailed report of your undercover experiences. It might take a couple of days."
"Can you find out the status of a Soviet network agent who's been summoned from Paris to Moscow?"
Theodora was probably about fifty then, but for a moment he looked older. "That would be Delphine St.-Simon," he said, and sighed. "Sometimes we can. We haven't heard anything about her."
Hale turned off the fire under the soup pot and began untying his apron. "My felonies-" he began.
"Are dismissed, erased, forgotten. Cowgill is back from North America, all is forgiven-it's quite safe now for you to leave this camp. Cowgill is the head of Section Five, the counter-espionage section of SIS; he was opening a branch of the British secret service in New York, flogging some most-secret decrypts of ours to the Americans, even as the Japs bombed Hawaii. Gave some extra force to his arguments, I gather."
Hale scouted up one of the other cooks and told him that he was leaving; and as he followed Theodora down the hall toward the duty officer's desk, the older man said quietly over his shoulder, "It would probably be possible now to get you back into your Oxford college."
Theodora's drawl had been more pronounced as he said it, and Hale asked cautiously, "What would be the alternative?"
"A post in Broadway. Continue working for SIS, but on the official payroll now. It could be argued that your country needs you there."
And, as he was to find again twenty-one years later, his academic career seemed like an inconsequential pastime now that he had become a player in what Kipling had called the Great Game.
"When do I start?"
"Well, today, lad. Did you think you'd get a period of leave? We're at war, you must have read about it."
Chapter Seven
Kuwait, 1963
You want to know the Secret-so did I, Low in the dust I sought it, and on high Sought it in awful flight from star to star, The Sultan's watchman of the starry sky.
-  Omar Khayyam, The Rubaiyat, Edward J. FitzGerald translation
And behind the temporary overt war had been an enduring secret war, one that had started long before Hale was born and was apparently still churning-above or below the radar of newspaper headlines, in the remote border regions and the fastnesses of unnamed government corridors where the Great Game was played.
From his window seat on the starboard side of the big Vickers Viscount, Hale stared out at storm clouds over the Persian Gulf, and the unchanging background whine of the four turbine engines seemed to emphasize the astronomical silence of the miles-distant storm front.
The Great Game. Kipling had used the term in his book Kim, a novel about an orphaned British boy, raised as a native beggar in India, who had become a roving agent of the fin de siecle British secret service; and Hale wondered now if the one-legged Chief he had met thirty-three years ago had been a youthful agent in the service in those days. During the long night in the Anderson bomb shelter below the angry peak of Ararat in '48, Kim Philby had told Hale that he himself had been born in India in the last days of the colonial Raj, and had spoken Hindi before he spoke English, and that his father had given him his nickname after the Kipling character. And now Hale was winging his way back to "somewhere east o' Suez," under the indelible cover of disgrace and treason, to threaten Philby with death and then to accompany Ararat, again.
The sun was setting over the Arabian desert on the other side of the plane, lighting the seats and overheads in window-fragmented orange. In other years, on other flights, Hale had looked out through a Perspex window at the shadow of his airplane cast by a dawning sun onto the surfaces of close white clouds, and the silhouette of the plane, growing and shrinking abruptly as the cloud contours moved past, had always in those moments been at the center of a complete rainbow, a perfect prismatic circle unbroken by any horizon; but this evening the clouds at the eastern nadir seemed to be half a world away, towering gods carved out of the old ivory sky by a supernatural Rodin. Where the Viscount's shadow would be, and it would be far too tiny to see at this infinite distance, a golden cumulus column filled an eighth of the sky, and world-spanning beams and fans of shadow radiated as dark as nicotine from the heart of it.
Soon the Saudi coastline was nearly invisible in the darkness below, and the lights of El Qatif or Qasr es Sabh were hardly more than clusters and strings of yellow light-points. Under the purple sky-vault the eastern horizon was ringed with the tall clouds, lit from within by flashes as continuous as a barrage-Hale saw no arcs of lightning, just the glaring bright flares inside the clouds, sometimes nearly simultaneously rushing from south to north like a relay sequence of timed charges.
Hale shivered and wondered how the storm sounded to any luckless sailors who might be out on the gulf tonight-and how the light might be seen to move over the water.
He couldn't pry his gaze away from those towering, incandescing sentinels on the edge of the world; and though he resisted it, and even waved his emptied glass at the stewardess for yet another refill of Scotch, the thought muscled its way into his consciousness: They can see me, they know I've come back.
He didn't sleep through the remaining hour of the flight, and when the Viscount touched down at the new Al-Kuwait international airport, he was among the first to exit the plane and climb down the aluminum stair to the tarmac.
It was not raining tonight in Kuwait. The well-remembered Shamal wind was blowing cold from the Iraqi marshes below the Tigris and Euphrates Valley to the northwest, and Hale knew he would have to buy an overcoat at the first opportunity; but he knew too that by morning the wind would have shifted to come more bearably from the west. And just being back in Kuwait again, even after nearly fifteen years, gave him again the Bedu's instinctive gratitude for winter winds; the hot Suhaili winds would not start up until April, and along with the drying up of the desert grasses they signaled the onset of the murderous summer, when the Bedu would be deprived of grazing and would have to camp miserably on their wells until the appearance of Canopus in the southern night sky in September. On the very next day after Canopus was finally sighted, as he recalled, the summer heat was palpably broken, and water-skins left out that night would be cold by morning.
Tonight, as he hurried into the spotlit terminal building and patted the angularity in his coat pocket that was his Andrew Hale passport, he thought that any such water-skins would be jangling with frost by morning.
After a routine procession past the Customs desks-as Theodora had promised, Hale's name and passport number clearly had not been flagged yet-a quick cab ride took him to the new Kuwait-Sheraton, which as best he could estimate stood where the crumbling old mud wall had once defined the southwestern corner of the city. Now, from the balcony of his sixth-floor room, he could see bright-lit highways and shopping arcades stretching away in every direction, and all the buildings seemed to be modern concrete and glass.
He struck a match to a cigarette, wishing for a drink.
During the last hour of his flight, he had wondered whether or not to register at a hotel. It was a move calculated to make it easier for the very secret Soviet service to track him, of course, but eventually he decided that it was in character as well. According to his cover story, he wouldn't have had time to acquire a contemporary forged passport in England, and so the airline and Customs records would clearly indicate that Andrew Hale had fled to Kuwait in any case; and checking into a hotel showed a confident knowledge of the workings of SIS-his imminent status as a "person to be detained" might have got him arrested at Customs, but would not quickly provoke a canvassing of local hotels by the Kuwait Head of Station.
And it made sense that he would not try to look up his old contacts in the changed city immediately upon his arrival, like a desperate fugitive. Obligations of hospitality and protection were taken with religious seriousness among the Arabs, but Hale's relationship with his contacts had been as an agent-runner, and he had not been dealing exclusively with the most honorable citizens in those old days...and he remembered the Arab proverb: When the camel kneels down in exhaustion, out come the knives.
Before stepping back inside, he glanced to the west, now as dark as the rest of the sky. Far away in that direction, out beyond the Syrian desert and past Damascus, on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, Philby awaited him unaware in Beirut. What would the man's response be, on being approached and threatened by a retired agent of the disbanded SOE?
Hale remembered the lines from Cymbeline that Philby had quoted in the bomb shelter below Ararat: When from a stately cedar shall be lopped branches, which being dead many years, shall after revive, be jointed to the old stock, and freshly grow...
And Elena was in Beirut too-she had apparently been there last night, at least, and had not then succeeded in killing Philby. How soon would it be until she heard Hale's cover story, got the scripted news that he had treacherously shot old Cassagnac? If Hale were to meet her, he could not tell her the absolving truth about that; wherever her loyalties lay now, clearly her plans were at radical odds with Operation Declare. And Hale did desperately need to complete the long-delayed assault on Ararat, needed to justify the deaths and broken minds of the five men he had led up that terrible road in 1948. And so Elena must be allowed to believe that Hale had shot and perhaps killed their loyal old friend, who had saved their lives in Berlin.