Page 25

 Tim Powers

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"Mina al-Ahmadi," he panted when he had climbed in.
Before looking for the marine welding shop he walked around the diesel-reeking waterfront yards, frequently pausing to stare past the docks, and past the close harbor boats and the expanses of open gray water, at the vast Kuwait Oil Company tankers moored way out at the T-end of the mile-long quay. The nine pipes that extended the whole mile looked like the fallen pillars of a temple that could have held up the marble sky if they had been standing, and Hale thought the angular black hulls out on the ashy Persian Gulf horizon, overhung with long streaks of smoke as if from sacrificial fires, looked like the remote tents of gods.
The wind was shifting around to come from the west, as he had expected, and it was replacing the diesel-and-seaweed smell with the remembered scent of the yellow Arfaj-grass flowers that would be blooming in this season across the infinite miles of dunes and gravel plains at his back.
And in spite of the landscaped lawns around the newer pastel office buildings, and the tall fiberglass GULF OIL signs and the modern asphalt of the streets, at the south end of the docks Hale saw ragged Arabs crouched over the old checkers-like dama boards by the side of oiled-sand roads, and beyond them the teak hulls and reefed lateen sails of fishing dhows dragged up onto the shore slope.
Judging by the street numbers, he was now within a few doors of the welding shop's address; and he was glancing around at the carpet-sellers' shops and car-repair garages as he strode purposefully down an awning-overhung sidewalk, when a car horn in the street tapped out the old SOE code group that meant emergency attention.
It was a crazy old yellow Volkswagen weaving down the oiled road, and its Arab-dressed driver was convincingly trying to get the attention of someone over by the beached boats on the shore. The man tapped out another series of honks as he drove on past, looking squarely away from Hale, and the nasal electric beeps were the fugitive-SOE code for go to and W-I-N-D-O-W and here.
Hale had permitted himself only the most casual glance at the Volkswagen, and now he returned his attention to the shops he was passing. Obediently he looked at the windows, and behind the dusty glass display flanking the recessed doorway of a pearls-and-antiques shop he could dimly see a bearded figure in a black robe.
Hale walked on past, then stepped in under the awning and glanced up and down the street, shivering in the eddying wind and wishing he had not lost his jacket at the airport. When he glanced at the old man behind the window six feet away, he saw that the man had breathed a patch of steam onto the inside of the entryway glass, and with a fingernail had written in tiny English letters: STAND + DECLARE. The letters were painstakingly drawn, and Hale guessed that the old man probably didn't even know the meaning of the symbols he was tracing in reverse on the glass.
Hale closed his eyes in a slightly protracted blink to show that he had understood; and then he looked the other way. This was fairly extreme caution-not even to go to the indicated address, and now to be redirected by this evanescent writing. And it occurred to him that only someone standing as close to the shop as he was would even see the old man in the darkness inside, much less the faint letters in the dampness on the glass.
Hale glanced back and saw that the old man had wiped out the two words and written, less legibly but still readably in the moisture: WATCHED-BRIEF IN BEIRUT.
Hale was apparently not being redirected, here.
His stomach churned, and his face was hot in the cold breeze as he turned away from the window. The planned briefing here in Kuwait had apparently been called off, with no fallbacks until he somehow got to Beirut. But he needed his script, he needed to know what story he was supposed to give the expected Rabkrin recruiter. Damn it, he thought worriedly, what am I supposed to say?
The unwelcome answer was written in a fresh patch of steam when he glanced back after another blind look in the other direction:
This time he looked away to hide his face, even just from this stranger behind the glass.
Hale was numb and dizzy, and for a moment his mind simply recoiled from comprehending the words he had read. The math-the strategy and the calculations and the orders given to the men he had led up the road below Ararat-had been of his own devising. "All wrong"? Was it actually possible?
With a desperate leap of logic he decided that it was not. Cold sweat of relief dewed his forehead as he told himself forcefully that his secret purpose here had been found out by the Rabkrin, that this was a gambit to trick him into revealing to their recruiter the valid deductions and strategy that he had assembled in '48. His mission here was blown, Cassagnac had been shot uselessly, but at least Hale was not guilty of having killed his own men through a mistake fourteen years ago. It was obvious, so obvious that he didn't need to prove it by trying to get confirmation of this "order," even if he could make contact with Theodora...
But the thought of Theodora brought back the old man's words yesterday morning-You'll probably doubt its validity...this right now, what I'm telling you, is your confirmation-in-advance. If you hate it, it's the genuine instructions.
Too obviously this was exactly what Theodora had been referring to.
Hale closed his eyes and let his thoughts collapse into an unvoiced shrill wail of abysmal dismay; and he didn't realize that he was clenching his jaws until the pain in his teeth made him involuntarily open his eyes, and then he had to blink away tears to see the street clearly.
He remembered wondering who or what Theodora expected him to betray in his script. But apparently it was not to be a script after all, and the betrayal had happened fourteen years ago.
All wrong. The words seemed in this moment to describe Hale's whole life.
He blotted his eyes on his shirt cuff and took a deep breath and forced his gaze to be blank as he looked back again at the window.
The old man was gone, and the word GO was barely visible in the fading steam. A moment after he had seen it, a wet squeegee drew an obliterating streak of runny cleanness across the inside of the glass.
All you can do now is justify the losses, avenge them, Hale thought emptily. If Declare knows the '48 math was bad, Declare must have some better sort to work with now-there's nothing for it but to push on and further that effort. Lines from a Bartholomew Dowling poem dirged in his head: 'Tis all we have left to prize. One cup to the dead already-hurrah for the next that dies!
He looked at his watch and then began trudging away on down the sand-gritty sidewalk. Forcing himself into the familiar cold professionalism, he considered whether it was likely himself or the welding shop that was being watched. Probably it was the shop-he was fairly sure he had evaded any watchers on the buses, or at the airport. He wondered what the rest of the missed briefing would have consisted of, and what "equipment" he would have been given.
But speculation was useless. He had no choice here but to follow such scanty instructions as he had been given, and look up Salim bin Jalawi and any other covert operatives he could find from among his old networks. He made a mental note to wash the shoe-polish out of his hair in the first men's room he found-it would be counter-productive to seem anxious about anything at all.
And as for equipment, he could make an ankh, if he had to-tinfoil rolled and bent into the right shape would do, since it was the Klein bottle topological shape of the thing that compelled the attention of djinn, not any property of what it was made of.
He filled his lungs with the sea air, then exhaled it all in a deep sigh. Since it might be himself who was being watched, he conscientiously stepped into a carpet shop to ask about some of the waterfront merchants he had known fifteen years ago. After half an hour of this, he could catch a bus back north to Al-Kuwait and call Salim bin Jalawi. Whatever agency might be watching, this would be behavior consistent with his fugitive cover, and the troublesome tail-evading route he had taken down here from Al-Kuwait could only make it look more genuine.
Old, reawakened practice permitted him to nearly forget the intolerable words drawn in the steam-ALL WRONG.
Salim bin Jalawi's house was air-conditioned, and in the aggressive chill Hale sipped a glass of tea and politely ate some cashew nuts from a bowl on the Danish Modern table. A refrigerator hummed out in the white-tiled kitchen next to an electric range, and fluorescent lights held back the dark of the late afternoon. Through the sliding glass door at his right Hale could see, as bright dots on the iron-colored southwest horizon, the beacons of natural gas flares out on the Burgan oil fields.
Bin Jalawi's beard was ivory white now, but his face was still as dark as coffee and as lean and angular as a Notre-Dame gargoyle, and he bared white teeth as he grinned at Hale.
"You must be a director," he said, "or a vice president, by now, of the Creepo."
There was knowingness in the man's voice, but Hale couldn't tell if it meant that bin Jalawi was somehow already aware of his fugitive status or, more likely, if it was just the equivalent of a wink at the long-compromised pretense of the old Combined Research Planning Office.
Hale had called the man from a nearby telephone, and though they had only exchanged the old recognition signals over the wire, bin Jalawi had greeted him at his door with Bedu enthusiasm, holding both of Hale's hands and joyfully shouting, Shlun kum? Kaif hal ak, kaif int, kaif int, kaif int?-and much more, all of which had essentially meant: How have you been?
Hale now put down his tea glass with a soft knock, absurdly wishing it were a cup of the coffee they had made at camp in the old days, harsh with the foul water of the desert wells.
"I've retired," he said in Arabic. "I felt like a change of water and air. Tommo Burks will, I think, begin a new life in the Arab states. And I thought you might be able to help me."
Bin Jalawi nodded, still grinning. "Allah is all-beneficent!" he said. It was one of the standard lines Arabs gave to importunate beggars, meaning Look to God, not to me-the equivalent of the British Tell your troubles to Jesus, mate-and Hale couldn't tell if the man meant it coldly or jokingly. "Many Arabs trusted Creepo," bin Jalawi went on in a jovial tone, "until they learned that the Israelis invaded Nasser's Suez with Creepo help, based on betrayed Arab confidences."
Nasser's Suez, thought Hale bitterly. As if the Arabs could have built the canal, or could even keep it dredged!
"I'm a landless man now," said Hale; "but you know that the British declared Kuwait to be a sovereign nation, more than a year ago." The remark was in character-to be too anti-British here would be to overplay his hand.
" Kuwait was never a long-term commitment, to England," said bin Jalawi. "Your policy here, and in all the Arab states, has been to get out as much oil as you could, before the indigenous peoples looked around and noticed that they were living in the twentieth century."
Hale supposed that was true. But he let his face stiffen as he said, "My policy?"
Bin Jalawi plucked several times lightly at the neck of his robe, then lowered his hands, palm down-an Arab gesture conveying something like, You and I have nothing to do with these villains. "I apologize, bin Sikkah," he said quietly, using Hale's Bedu nickname. "You were always a generous friend to the Bedu. 'Honor him who has been great and is fallen, and him who has been rich and now is poor.'"
The radio cabinet had been producing muted conversation for these twenty minutes, but now music started, some Islamic-style single-line melody, and the Arab got up from his couch, crossed to the radio and turned up the volume. The stylized, quavering singing of an Arab woman rang out of the speakers.
"Do you know her?" he asked.
Hale blinked. "Who, the singer? No. I suppose I might have heard her before."
"She is Um Kalthum," said bin Jalawi in a tone of reproof. "Every Thursday evening she is on Radio Cairo. In Cairo you don't even need a radio to hear her, because every set in the city is tuned to her, and her voice seems to emanate from the stones and the sky."
"Do you visit Cairo often?" Hale asked.
"Dogs can hear things that people cannot," said bin Jalawi, staring down at the radio console, "and so they know when to be vigilant, and which way to look, which way to run to safety. So can the Bedu perhaps hear things that Westerners cannot, singing out of the sky." He turned to give Hale a blank look. "You are maybe Bedu enough to hear also, if you clean out your ears. 'When thine enemy extends his hand to thee, cut it off if thou canst, else kiss it.' You in the old days cut off some metaphorical hands; now, my friend, is time to kiss the hand."
Hale smiled cautiously. He had often had to use the word metaphorical in dealing with bin Jalawi and the tribes, and the Arab had here pronounced the word in English, in imitation of him.
"I visit Cairo often," bin Jalawi went on. "You will be able to as well, I think, if you have invested the money you were paid by the American Standard Oil. Of what tribe were the Bedu guides you killed?"
Hale raised his eyebrows at the other man. " Saar," he answered. The Saar roved far to the south, above the Hadhramaut, and were feared by most of the other tribes. "It was self-defense."
This was of course his cover story, which hadn't been activated by Whitehall until late yesterday, according to Theodora. Perhaps to his credit, Salim bin Jalawi was not bothering with pretense, but Hale wondered sourly if the man had been taking Soviet pay in the '40s too; perhaps Hale would have been told, in the aborted briefing. Certainly the Soviet forces at Ararat had been able to prevent Hale from using the meteorite that he and bin Jalawi had found at the Wabar ruins in the Rub' al-Khali desert...
But...Hale's math had been bad. Apparently the meteorite had not been the Seal.
Still, if bin Jalawi had tipped the Soviets to Hale's activities then, he had no doubt helped the Russians kill Hale's men; those men who had been shot, at any rate, if not those who had been pulled screaming up into the sky...