Page 26

 Tim Powers

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Before speaking again, Hale carefully smothered the sick, remorseful anger this thought raised in him. You can't be sure bin Jalawi was doubling then, he told himself; and even if you could be, what would you do differently here?
"At Wabar," Hale said lightly, "you and I met a man who had long ago killed half of himself, to hide from the wrath of God. Is that a good way to live?"
"Half of you, you think it would be?" said bin Jalawi cheerfully. "Cut your hair, cut your toenails, and you'll have dispensed with more."
Hale knew that his companion-his oldest friend in the Middle East!-was referring to Hale's patriotism, his sense of duty to the Crown. In fact Hale suspected that it was more than half of himself, but his cover story required him to pretend far otherwise. Again he reminded himself not to get angry at bin Jalawi-the man simply believed the Whitehall-scripted cover story, which presented Hale as having been a crook for years, and which Hale had not denied here.
"More than that," Hale said. "A hand."
"A finger. A left-hand finger."
Hale fumbled a pack of Player's cigarettes out of his coat pocket. "Ramadan's fast ended two days ago," he said hoarsely. He could safely let his agitation show, as it would be interpreted as anxiety at the prospect of doubling, changing sides. "Do you have any old Ikhwan prejudices against your guests smoking?"
"Allah knows that djinn and ghosts without number clustered around our fires when you and I perfumed the desert with tobacco smoke," bin Jalawi protested. "Smoke like a refinery, if you like. The Russian we are to go to meet now, he smokes."
Hale was aware of his own knocking heartbeat. "You called him right after I called you?"
"That trouble was not required. His people placed a bug in my hatif last night. It is working as a microphone even now."
The Russian's house was in an old neighborhood in Al-Jahrah, twenty miles west of Al-Kuwait. It was a one-story coral-rock house with a tall square wind tower standing over the roof. The enormous front doors, visible in the headlights of bin Jalawi's Chevrolet, were of carved teak, studded with big iron nails in serpentine patterns, and a conventional-sized door had been cut and hinged into the right portal. When they had climbed out of the car and walked up to the small door, Salim bin Jalawi turned a wooden key in the wooden lock, and when the door had squeaked open, he stepped back and waved Hale toward the lamplit courtyard dimly visible within.
A drop of cold sweat rolled down Hale's ribs under his shirt, and he remembered the cheery greeting of the American OSS men in London during the war: Is anything okay?
As he trudged toward the flagstone threshold, he was rapidly, uselessly, trying to calculate the cui bono of his position. Who would benefit from having him killed here? Theodora would hardly have bothered to send him to Kuwait just for that; and the Soviet Rabkrin service was supposed to want his seemingly freelance expertise for the new Ararat operation, and even if they had found out that Philby had been doubled back, it was unlikely that they could know that Hale too was a Trojan horse.
I think this is okay, he told himself with frail confidence as he stepped through the low doorway.
A voice from a chair under the branches of a pomegranate tree said, in unaccented English, "You can have a drink, if you like, Mr. Hale. Scotch or vodka?"
I won't be obsequious, Hale thought. "Scotch, please." He squinted in the flickering amber lamplight, and saw that it was a lean man in a white Arab robe and head-cloth that sat in the chair. The garden walls appeared to be sheets of tarpaulin, their hanging folds gleaming dully in the muted light.
"Call me Ishmael," the man said without a smile. "John Christie is the SIS Head of Station in Kuwait, and the only cable he has got regarding you is an order that you be detained. Christie's office is of course now aware that you have arrived in Kuwait."
Hale just nodded, confident that his tradecraft had been logical and trusting the Russian to see that.
"Salim," said Ishmael, "you can go. Bring the car back at dawn."
Bin Jalawi had been standing in the doorway; now he nodded and retreated out of sight, closing the door.
"Sit," said the Russian, waving toward a palm tree a dozen feet from where he sat; a green or black rattan chair stood there, and Hale crossed the flagstones to it and sat down.
Hale looked more closely at the Ishmael person; he was much older than he had seemed at first glance, perhaps in his late seventies, and he didn't look well. His eyes glittered in dark sockets, and his leanness seemed a symptom of fever.
"You knew Kuwait in the old days, I'm told," the old man said. "Do you remember the flood of '34? No? Well, you'd have been a child, wouldn't you. On the first day of the Ramadan fast, four inches of rain fell in three hours-no drainage, the streets were five feet deep in water, and all the mud houses collapsed. Homeless, destitute. This was in May, when ordinarily there is never any rain. But the desert bloomed, grass for grazing was everywhere, and so butter and mutton and wool were suddenly as cheap as water. They were water, first destructive and then nourishing. You must remember when water was boated in from Iraq."
"Yes." Hale could vividly recall the teak booms that had sailed south daily from the Shatt-al-Arab, anchoring off Ras al-Ajuz to let the silt settle out in the topside tanks; then the itinerant Arab candaris would sell the water from goatskin bags, while established merchants sold it out of carts and trucks.
Beyond the door Hale heard bin Jalawi's car engine start up and then shift into gear.
"And when the sandstorms were fierce from Syria and Iraq," Ishmael said, "the boats couldn't sail, and Kuwait went without water for days." He coughed, and drank from a tumbler of what might have been vodka; when he put the glass down again on the table beside him, Hale noticed an automatic pistol lying beside it. The growl of bin Jalawi's Chevrolet diminished away down the road outside. "Nowadays," the old man went on weakly, "the Westinghouse distillation plant at al-Shuwaikh produces millions of gallons of water a day, so pure that brackish water has to be added to give it taste. Do you think the engineers could have accomplished that, if they had not first learned the secrets of rainstorms?"
"I suppose not."
"And still it rains." What Hale thought was more coughing appeared instead to be laughter. "Other, bigger, powers that can destroy or enrich remain-and if they cannot be tamed as thoroughly as rain and water can be, at least we owe it to ourselves to press for whatever accommodations we can get."
The old man gave Hale a quizzical look, and then picked up a cigar from the table and lit it with a gold lighter. In the glare his face was furrowed and lined. "If," he went on between puffs as the lighter flame rose and fell, "for no other reason-than to prevent inimical nations-from getting such accommodations-for themselves." He clicked the lighter shut and seemed to disappear in the sudden darkness. "You are, clearly, acquainted with the power I speak of," came his voice from behind the dim red coal of the cigar, "and you are at the moment a knight without a lord. Will you listen to persuasions?"
"Yes. Listen."
A barefoot Arab boy in a dark turban appeared at an inner doorway and stared with obvious expectancy at Ishmael; and the old man set down the cigar and waved a frail hand in a circle and then made a pulling-down gesture.
The boy nodded, and went to the nearest section of garden wall and yanked the tarpaulin down, exposing a bright metal mesh with dark movement behind it, and then went to the next tarpaulin. Hale guessed that the boy was a deaf-mute and had been summoned by the aroma of the cigar, in which Ishmael now appeared to have lost interest.
Brief staccato flutterings and mumbling and a smell like bad cheese on the chilly evening breeze let Hale know that the wire mesh structures the boy was exposing were tall birdcages; and when the boy had yanked the tarpaulin cover from the sixth and last cage, he scampered to a fuse box on the wall and stood on tip-toe to pull a switch, and floodlights lit the garden in a dazzling glare, illuminating dozens or perhaps even hundreds of finches and pigeons and doves and huge green-and-red parrots on perches inside the cages. Squinting, Hale even saw hens and roosters standing up and stretching their stubby wings.
Ishmael said nothing, simply stared at the nearest cage, until the birds had begun a fairly continuous din of cawing and chirping, punctuated by shouts from the parrots and crowing from the roosters.
"Why did you flee England yesterday morning?" Ishmael asked. Hale had to lean close to hear him, and he realized that the birds had been awakened in order to prevent any microphone from catching this conversation. And Hale was bleakly sure that the man wanted to prevent the KGB from eavesdropping as much as the SIS.
"I was about to be arrested, for old crimes," Hale answered.
"You are said to have killed two men yesterday, an MI5 consultant and a policeman. This would mean you can't go back to England ever again, if it's true, and that the SIS would work hard to find you, even here, and extradite you." He smiled, wrinkling his face. "These must have been extraordinarily bad old crimes."
"Bad enough." The news that Cassagnac and the policeman were dead hit Hale like profound weariness. He took a deep breath and made himself go on: "But in fact the MI5 consultant offered me at least partial immunity from prosecution, if I would do some work for them on an old operation." Living his cover, it didn't occur to him to urge the Russian to check out the facts of the story for himself. "They've probably been sitting on the criminal charges for some time, and dusted them off now just in order to compel me to work on the operation."
The Russian sat back, and for a moment seemed at a loss as to how to continue. At last he said, "Do you know which of the Soviet secret services I represent?"
Ishmael raised an eyebrow. "I hope that name is not common knowledge in the SIS. Do you know our history?"
"No. I know you were aligned with both the KGB-or NKVD, as it was called then-and the GRU, before the war, and independent after."
"Like your SOE," Ishmael agreed. "A secret service that is secret even from the secret service, isn't it? In 1880 Tsar Alexander II founded the Department of State Police to protect him from assassins, and the special department in charge of stopping political crimes was called the Okhrana. As it happened, the Tsar was blown up with a grenade in the following year, but the Okhrana, at least, was already a power unto itself. In 1883 an earthquake in eastern Turkey knocked down cliffs in the Ahora Gorge on Mount Ararat, and, after Kremlin scientists investigated the situation on the mountain, it became necessary for the Okhrana to establish a foreign agency, the Zagranichnaya Agentura. Its headquarters were in Paris -and still were when you did work for their ETC network there."
The news forced a harsh laugh out of Hale. "We thought we were working for the Razvedupr, the GRU. That was...Rabkrin?"
"Under one of its names, yes. Where is Elena Teresa Ceniza-Bendiga these days?"
"I don't know. I last saw her in Berlin in the summer of '45. She was working for the French DGSS then, out of Algiers." Hale wondered uneasily what he might have been told to reveal or hide, if the briefing today had not been aborted.
"You are lying. Good, you were almost seeming too perfect, too cooperative; but this lie is nicely vain, ill-considered. In fact you saw her in the Ahora Gorge in 1948, when you had tried to stifle the thing on Ararat for the SIS. She called you a rude name."
Cannibale. Hale could feel shame heating his face as he realized that one of the Russian gunmen must have survived that carnage, and heard her. It had to have been one of the Russians, surely...not something in the sky...
Hale breathed slowly. "You're right," he said. "I forgot."
"Is she so forgettable? I met her, in 1942, in the Lubyanka." He stared at Hale for a few seconds, then went on: "In 1913 the Zagranichnaya Agentura was ostensibly shut down to mollify certain French Catholics who had got wind of its real work and were threatening to involve Pope Pius X; but it went on under another name, in greater secrecy."
Hale was leaned far forward to hear, and now he said, "You mentioned a-drink."
The Russian nodded, as if Hale had made a conversational point; and his hand rattled among the items on the table beside him, at one point striking a flame from the cigarette lighter, and then he tossed out onto the flagstones a tiny cardboard cylinder that commenced whirling furiously and whistling and shooting out colored flame like a road flare. The Arab boy hurried up to him, and Ishmael gestured.
A parrot behind the mesh at Hale's right elbow said, "Allaho A'alam," and Hale glanced at the bird curiously, for what it had said was a deprecatory phrase, usually preceding some dubious story; but the parrot appeared to have nothing else to say.
The boy had scampered away, and now skipped back to where Hale sat and expressionlessly handed him a tall glass of neat Scotch, without ice. Hale tasted it-it was lukewarm, and he recognized the smoky, almost tarry taste of Laphroaig.
Ishmael nodded, and then went on: "When the Labor Party split into the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks in 1903, the Okhrana had penetrated both groups; and when six Bolshevik deputies were elected into the Duma parliament in 1912, two of them were the Okhrana's. The Bolshevik Lenin, motivated by both opportunism and idealism, came to a secret agreement with the Okhrana-they arrested the most troublesome of the Mensheviks for him, as well as any Bolsheviks still agitating for reunification of the Labor Party, and in return Lenin saved the core of the Okhrana, the onetime Zagranichnaya Agentura, and transplanted it into the new Soviet secret police, the Cheka."