Page 24

 Tim Powers

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According to Theodora, Malo Ano was the slip of paper she had picked yesterday morning in Istanbul.
In these past fourteen years Hale had often dreamed about his brief times of intimacy with Elena in Paris and Berlin; and even during his wakeful hours, as he had graded test papers or trudged across the green lawns of the University College, Weybridge, he had imagined somehow meeting her one more time, imagined himself impossibly convincing her to marry him at last, in spite of their histories, in spite of their last words on the Ahora Gorge road in 1948. He had never married, and he had liked to imagine that in the unguessed course of her life she had not either.
The captain of a ship can perform marriages, Cassagnac had said with exhausted merriment on that Berlin night in 1945-the three of them had been crouched below the gunwales of a makeshift Ark on the bed of an American truck just east of the Brandenburg Gate, and though each of them had held a loaded pistol it had seemed likely that all three would be killed within minutes-and so I hereby pronounce you two man and wife. Kiss the bride quick, Andrew, before you die.
Hale had kissed her, tasting blood from her cut lip, and then she had kissed Cassagnac too.
Hale now flicked the cigarette out past the hotel balcony rail, over the broad new streets of the Kuwait that was no longer the city he remembered, and he watched the coal arc away through the night like a tiny shooting star.
Now his bleak prayer was that he and Elena would not suffer the useless hurt and bitterness of meeting again, ever.
Until the end of World War II, the standard cover for an SIS agent abroad had been passport control officer, attached to the local British Embassy; but when Hale had been an SIS agent in Kuwait in the late '40s, the cover organization had been the Combined Research Planning Office, CRPO, known as "Creepo." It had been run independently of the embassy and consulate, and largely even of Whitehall control, since a coincidence in the initials meant that a good deal of the secret correspondence from London was sent by mistake to the Combined Regimental Pay Office in Jerusalem, where it was generally lost.
Hale had not been the first agent-runner in the Middle East to note the unique qualities of the Bedu-the nomadic herdsmen were as unregarded as gypsies, one tribe hardly distinguishable from another except among themselves, and they were free to cross the Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Trans-Jordan borders with no notice or record-but probably few British agent-runners aside from Lawrence and the elder Philby had lived among them as closely as Hale had. Hale had recruited agents from among sheiks of the Muntafik and Mutair and Awazim tribes of the Kuwait-area Bedu, and even from tribes as far off as the Jerba Shammar in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley and the Bani Sakhr in Trans-Jordan, and like all agent-runners he had kept his networks a secret from his fellow SIS officers.
In this winter season the tribes he had known would no doubt be scattered across the deserts of Iraq and Saudi Arabia, chasing the rainfall for the grazing of their camel herds, but he had also established solid leave-behind networks among the Hadhira, the town Arabs, and he had hopes of finding some of these still in place.
The next morning he set out under an overcast winter sky to reacquaint himself with the city. He took his passport and cash with him, not just because it was second nature for an agent but also because he hoped to avoid staying at the Kuwait-Sheraton for another night.
The Kuwait oil boom had been going on for about ten years when he had last been here, but evidence of the country's wealth was lavishly obvious now. On the sidewalk of the boulevard called Fahad al-Salim he walked past nothing but modern architecture-gleaming stores and office buildings were separated by broad parking lots, and the design of the buildings was not Arab at all; Hale thought that some of the gigantic edifices he passed must in fact have been modeled on toasters, or unfolding lawn furniture, or the grillwork of modern American cars. The clusters of women he passed still wore the traditional black aba, but many of the Arab men had forsaken the dishdasha robes and wore Western business suits under the kaffiyehs that still covered their heads.
At the eastern end of the city, yellow bulldozers spouted plumes of black diesel smoke and ground their gears on fenced-off lots of raw cleared dirt, but Hale was cheered to see that the metal hard hats the laborers wore were incised with arabesque floral motifs as intricate as any fretwork he'd seen in Cairo mosques. And toward the gulf shore, down among the neon Pepsi-Cola signs and the petrol stations, he found an old neighborhood of mud-and-coral-walled houses that still hadn't been reached by the bulldozers.
In a broad, packed-sand alley behind a row of whitewashed houses, a dozen old men were sitting cross-legged on three plaid-print couches that appeared to be dry, and therefore must have been carried outside since the last rain. The men were dressed in what Hale thought of as Saudi fashion, with calf-length white shirts and cloaks, and white head-cloths held in place with black woolen head-ropes; a new Olympic television set stood on a table in front of them, connected to an orange extension cable. They had arranged their sandals on the ground below their crossed knees and were sipping tiny cups of coffee as they watched the American President Kennedy in ruddy color while subtitles in Arabic scrolled across the bottom of the screen. A stainless-steel electric coffeepot sat on top of the television.
Hale stood a dozen feet behind one of the couches, facing the other. "Salam 'alaikum," he said. Peace be with you.
"'Alaikum as salam," replied one of the bearded men. On you be peace. He lowered his brown feet into his sandals, stood up, and crossed to the coffeepot to refill his china cup. He turned to Hale and smiled as he offered it to him.
As soon as it became clear that Hale spoke Arabic, he was included in the conversation and invited to sit down. They asked him his name and he told them he was Tommo Burks, from Canada-it was one of the names he had used in dealing with his agents, unknown to the SIS, and it would be plausible that he would to try to revive it-and then his companions resumed an apparently ongoing discussion of real estate transactions. In their speech Hale recognized the classical accent of the Murra tribes of Qatar-pronouncing the capital of Najd as Riyal rather than Riyadh-and the softened j of the Manasir who ranged south of Abu Dhabi; and with a touch of nostalgic sadness he realized that these were Bedu, who had given up the nomadic life for a secure city existence. In Hale's day their discussion would have been of good grazing areas for the camels, and of when the dhows would be coming into port with the season's dates, and of which tribes were having feuds with which; and Hale wondered how long it would be before their descendants spoke the flat, Egyptianized Arabic that already prevailed in the Hadhramaut and Yemen.
Among other cover endeavors in the late 1940s, Tommo Burks had opened a news agency for the distribution of British news to Arab radio stations, and now Hale mentioned the names of some of the Kuwait Radio executives he had dealt with; his companions were able to tell him the current status of several of them, and Hale noted for possible contact the ones with whom he had done undercover business. And he reminisced about favorite restaurants, and learned that two were still owned by Arabs who had sometimes sold him information.
And finally, since these men sitting in the alley were Bedu, he asked them, "Is there news of Salim bin Jalawi, of the Mutair tribe?" Bin Jalawi had been Hale's main lieutenant in the operational days, and had accompanied him on a memorable trek into the Rub' al-Khali desert to the Wabar ruins in early '48. The Bedu passion for news and gossip could not have subsided, and these men might know what wells bin Jalawi's tribe had been seen at recently.
A couple of the old men, probably Mutair tribesmen themselves to judge by their accents, now looked away from the television to stare curiously at him. "Bin Jalawi lives in Al-Ahmadi," spoke up one. "He works as a guard at the Ministry of Education." He stepped into his sandals and stood up. "You can use my hatif," he said modestly.
Hale smiled and thanked him, but he was experiencing the old unreasoned chill at an operation that seemed to be shifting out of his control, and as always it almost made him want to crouch like a fencer or a boxer to keep his balance. It had started on the airplane last night, when he had thought that something had sensed his return to the East; and now, in spite of the example of these men in the alley, he was disoriented to think of bin Jalawi as a town Arab, for in Hale's mind the man's identity was inextricably that of a Bedu kneeling far back on the flat saddle of a camel, his old brassbound.303 Martini rifle slung over his shoulder and gripped by the muzzle in the universal Bedu fashion, squinting as he scanned the horizon or stared down to decipher wind-blurred camel tracks in the sand with such thoroughness that he could tell which tribe had passed, how many of them, and even whether or not any of the camels were in calf. If bin Jalawi had a garden now, or an automobile, or a bank account, could he in any sense still be the man Hale had so relied on fifteen years ago?
And, in an instance of the kind of portent that Hale had learned not to ignore, this man today had used the word hatif. Admittedly it was as common a word for telephone as the derivative tilifon, but in old Arab folklore a hatif was a mysterious voice from out of the night that foretold the death of some prominent figure. Hale wondered who this bad-luck portent was for.
"Mutsakkira," Hale said again. Thank you. Thank you for putting me on my guard, at least. "But I'll call him later."
Before leaving England Hale had eaten the slip of paper with the address and name on it which had been tucked into his passport, but of course he had memorized it, along with all the fictitious Customs stamps in the passport pages. Go there untraceably, Theodora had said not twenty-four hours ago, to hear all the details of this and to pick up your equipment.
The address was ostensibly that of a marine welding shop by the Mina al-Ahmadi quays, and Hale took a series of public buses down the modern desert-transecting highway back south to the airport, watching the Arabs and Westerners who got on and off the buses as he arbitrarily transferred, and sitting always by the back door so that he could get out fast if he had to and could watch the cars behind from the bus seat's high elevation. He could see no indication that he was being followed, and his coat and tie were not conspicuous dress.
At the airport he went to the Pan Am desk and stared at the posted schedule of international flights while he thought about any surveillance that might be focused on him. Would it be Arabs? He knew from experience that Arabs tended to find all fair-haired white men in European clothing indistinguishable from one another. Unobtrusively, as if checking a flight plan or tickets, he took his passport and cigarettes out of his coat, fumbled with them, and finally stuffed them into his front pants pocket.
He looked at his watch and then strolled away to a recessed shoe-shine booth under a sign in English and Arabic letters, consciously knocking the hard-leather soles of his shoes against the green linoleum floor in one of Elena's old attention-deflecting rhythms; and after getting his shoes shined, and palming a bottle of liquid white polish while making Arabic small-talk with the proprietor, he stepped away from the booth, again carefully tapping his soles on the floor. He noted where the nearest men's room was, and then walked across to a news kiosk and bought a pair of sunglasses and a copy of the London Times; he tucked the sunglasses into his pocket and flipped open the paper as he walked thoughtfully back the way he had come. Pretending to read, he was not conspicuous leaning on a pillar near the men's room.
Arabs in snow-white robes swept past him, and pilots and European businessmen strode by, but always singly or in pairs. Hale kept staring at the newspaper, though his attention was focused in the periphery of his vision above the paper edges.
At last he saw what he wanted-a group of Western businessmen hurrying this way, Texans by their accents, all wearing fedora hats. They clearly had no time to spare, and they would be trotting right past the men's room door, so Hale did a restrained tap-dance in the old rhythms across the linoleum, pushed open the lavatory door and stepped inside.
At the sink he quickly broke open the shoe-shine bottle and combed a couple of splashes of the white liquid liberally through his blond hair and eyebrows; then he whipped off his coat and tie-torso-cover being the inevitable primary flag in any surveillance-and dropped them on the floor. Finally he kicked off his shoes and shoved them inside his shirt, unfolded the sunglasses and slid them onto his nose, picked up the white metal waste bin and strode in his stocking feet to the door to listen.
When the Texas accents were loudest, he crouched and pushed the door open, shoving it against elbows and ribs.
"Hey!" came an annoyed yelp. "Steady, dipshit!"
"'Eh-sif!" Hale mumbled apologetically. "Is mahlee!" He waved his arm up in a placating gesture and succeeded in knocking one man's hat off.
And then Hale was walking rapidly away, his feet making no noise at all on the linoleum floor now, carrying the waste bin over his shoulder with a determined air of practiced ease.
The man whose hat he had knocked off was going on about it as the voices receded behind him, and Hale hoped any watchers would note the complaint and give extra scrutiny to any figure among the Texans who might look as if he had just put on the hat in question and joined the group.
Hale, meanwhile, was to at least a hasty glance a hunched, white-haired, pot-bellied figure in noiseless black footwear carrying a waste bin toward the nearest unmarked door; service personnel tended to be invisible, and when he had pushed open the door and stepped into a hallway lined with glass-windowed offices, none of the people at the desks gave him a second glance.
At the end of the hallway he set down the waste bin, pocketed the sunglasses and put his shoes back on, then hurried on through a series of corridors that eventually led to an outside door.
He was still tucking his shirt back into his trousers when he saw a cabstand, and he managed to wave as he hurried up to the first cab in line.