"Hayhat!" said the parrot; the word was Arabic, meaning roughly alas, or far be it from you and me.
Ishmael frowned at the bird. "Revolutionary mobs," he continued, "broke into the Okhrana headquarters in 1917 and burned all the records there, but the soul of the Okhrana had moved on, and the head of the Cheka was Feliks Dzerzhinsky-a man who, in his youth, had aspired to be a Catholic priest; a certain spiritual perspective had by this time proved to be necessary in the highest levels of state security and espionage. It was Dzerzhinsky who convinced Lenin to switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1918, adding thirteen days, so that the previous year's October Revolution was retroactively made to have happened in November; Dzerzhinsky knew the value of concealing true birthdays, though Lenin later became overconfident of it." Ishmael stared at Hale. "Mr. Hale, when is your birthday?"
"January sixth. I'll turn forty-one in three days."
The old man nodded thoughtfully, apparently weighing Hale's answer-though he must have known it. And Hale remembered that Philby had appeared to question his birthday, at the Ham Common camp in '42.
Ishmael went on, "Lenin himself instituted the autonomous Rabkrin directorate, with provisions to keep it independent of, and even secret from, the other services; he did not trust Stalin, who in fact later purged the services unmercifully in an unsuccessful effort to eliminate the Rabkrin element. Stalin had a horror of spiritual warfare, the possible wrath of God. Since then we have at different times been known as the OMS, which was the International Liaison Department of the Comintern, and as Smersh and Smernesh even under Stalin's very nose during the war, and at other times as flickering sub-directorates in the KGB; but since 1917 it has always been Rabkrin, under the shifting titles. Why didn't you accept Whitehall 's offer of 'at least partial immunity from prosecution'?"
"I don't know that it was Whitehall 's offer," Hale said over the noisy bickering of the birds. "In any case, I'm convinced that it was an offer of immunity from prosecution on account of death. Other agents who have got too informed about this operation have had a way of dying prematurely."
The old man nodded tiredly. "T. E. Lawrence was bludgeoned off of his motor-bicycle; the code-breaker Alan Turing was fed a poisoned apple. You were probably right. This MI5 advisor you killed yesterday, this Cassagnac-he was one of ours, once, and I am grateful that you succeeded in killing him at last-what did he tell you about our current operation? What does Whitehall know?"
This was moving very fast-everything since his arrival in Kuwait had been fast-and Hale felt badly uninformed, and he wasn't happy that this man had told him so much about the Rabkrin. "Am I working for your people now?" he asked nervously. "Does the Rabkrin offer me immunity from prosecution?"
"You think we'll resolve your status, as your service jargon has it? Establish the truth about you? No, I can demonstrate, to your most exacting satisfaction, that it would be against our interests to kill you afterward. As you proposed to Salim bin Jalawi, Tommo Burks can begin a new life in the Arab states-a very comfortable one at that, more privileged than you can now imagine. What did Jimmie Theodora talk to you about?"
"When you last spoke with him. When was that, to the best of your vain, ill-considered memory?" He shifted in his chair. "Any further lies will seriously impair the note of mutual respect you and I have established here."
Hale had to assume that the Rabkrin was unaware of his summons to London yesterday. "It was just before Ararat in '48," he said evenly. "We discussed…that operation, damn it. And I didn't ever see him again, after that."
"It was Cassagnac alone, then, who came to your house yesterday morning, with the news of your imminent detainment and possible immunity?"
"He was alone, yes."
"Incautious of him-but then you and he had been friends, I believe." Ishmael smiled. "In the old days."
Hale took a quick gulp of Scotch and then stood up and paced to the farthest birdcage and stared at a couple of angry-looking roosters. "I guess it's a lucky thing for you that SIS braced me when they did," he said tightly.
"Not coincidence," came Ishmael's voice from behind him, barely audible above the birds' squabbling. "Your masters are clearly aware that we are preparing for another attempt on the mountain-and you were the man in charge, working against us, when we tried it fourteen years ago. They would naturally want to compel your counsel and assistance in trying again to counter it. And when instead you fled England, ringing all the alarms, I was activated in case you decided to hole up among your leave-behind Hadhira or Bedouin networks. Other Rabkrin agents were activated in other places, or sent, to watch for you. Paris, Rome, even Chipping Campden, pitiably."
Rome? thought Hale. Because I used to be a Catholic? Theodora said Dick White had consulted the Pope…And Paris? That would have to be in case I had gone looking for Elena, through the French SDECE; apparently the Rabkrin really doesn't know her present whereabouts.
He walked back to his chair and sat down. "Right," Hale said, "now you want my…counsel and assistance. What if I'm not worth it, as things work out? I might not be much help, even with the best will in the world, you know. I'll tell you right now, if I…go with you, it'll cost you a lot." This shaky, defiant tone was good. "And-and I might not go with you in any case, you understand. I've never been disloyal, not to the service, at least."
"Only to your country, as in the matter of steering oil concessions to the Americans out from under the British Petroleum Company, and as in aiding Nazi war criminals to escape proper retribution. I do see. But how do you reconcile-I'm simply curious, my dear fellow-how do you reconcile having killed Cassagnac with 'not being disloyal to the service'? I would have thought that was a memorable event."
It was a good thrust, and Hale had stared at Ishmael and shrugged before he had thought of an answer; but without a measurable pause he said, "Cassagnac? But he wasn't SIS, was he? He was GRU, or Rabkrin, or French DGSS. At best he was part-time MI5."
Ishmael laughed, and again it was nearly coughing. "I like 'at best'! Interdepartmental rivalry! You don't have to tell me about it. Well, but you must admit you've shaved your patriotism down to a very narrow reed. It will not support you." He leaned forward, and the birds all clamored in their cages. "Break it now. Say, 'I break it now.'"
"Before I would-"
"You bought that coat you're wearing today after losing your previous one at the airport, and you have some kind of ankh or drogue stone in your pocket. I know you do, because if you did not have it, I would not have had to raise smells and flares here to summon the servant; and the birds are inhabited tonight. Do you understand? Assassins from Russia or England are not what you should primarily be afraid of."
Hale remembered the storm clouds he had seen over the Persian Gulf last night; but he forced himself to laugh and say, "I'll admit that-on Ararat itself-"
The old man got to his feet and was nearly shouting to be heard over the controversies among the birds. "What sort of personage did your Lawrence of Arabia learn of, in the brontologion scroll he found at the Qumran Wadi in 1917? Why did the American President Wilson suffer a stroke immediately upon returning to America from the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, where he had reluctantly agreed to take the League of Nations mandate to occupy eastern Turkey, in spite of the advice of the experts-experts on ancient Persian languages and the Crusades!-in his secret Inquiry group? Why did Lenin suffer the strokes that killed him in '22 and '23, after the Red Army had recaptured and then lost the Kars and Van districts in eastern Turkey? Idiot! Will you walk out of here still a knight without a protecting lord, without a covenant? Where will you walk-how far? I offer you a staff-say to me, about your old betrayed reed, 'I break it now.' Your statement will be witnessed."
Ice would have been rattling in Hale's glass, for his hand was trembling-but with sheer excitement, for this was the very highest-stakes table of the Great Game, and he didn't suppress a tight smile as he said, "I break it now."
Ishmael was breathing hard, as if he had just run up a flight of stairs. "Surrender your weapon."
Hale reached into the inner pocket of his new coat and dragged out the tinfoil ankh, and as the parrots and roosters shouted around him he tore it apart into impotent glittering shreds and let them fall like twisted airplane wreckage onto the spotlit flagstones.
"I break it now," he repeated.
Ishmael said, "Would you die for our cause, your new cause?"
Hale barked out two syllables of a surprised laugh. "No!"
"I would. Would you kill for us?"
"Well, it's your cause, isn't it? Makes a world of difference. I haven't got one of those any longer, aside from enlightened self-preservation. Kill for you?" Hale shrugged. "In some circumstances."
Ishmael pursed his wrinkled lips, clearly recognizing that this indifference, distasteful though he might find it, was a small point in Hale's favor-an infiltrated double might well have been told to feign more commitment. "What did Cassagnac say?" the old man snapped. "What does Whitehall know?"
Hale took a deep breath and opened his mouth-and then discovered that he had an almost physical difficulty in telling Ishmael the answers. As recently as yesterday, Hale would have undergone torture rather than tell a Rabkrin operative these things.
He exhaled without speaking, aware of a chill of sudden dampness on his forehead. But it's all wrong, he told himself, you can tell this man the old math because it's-apparently-invalid; but!-but it is nevertheless the math I put together, discovered!-to deceive and checkmate Ishmael's people-and it's so internally consistent, so convincing-
Ishmael was staring at him with eager attention, and Hale realized that his own hesitancy here was obviously genuine…and he knew that Theodora had arranged all this so that it would be.
And so at last Hale began talking, haltingly telling his questioner everything the Declare operatives had known in 1948, and describing, as if it were the still-current plan, his own earnest, painstaking strategy for countering that Soviet attempt to awaken what slept uneasily on the top of Mount Ararat.
The birds appeared to want to listen, and Ishmael had to summon the boy and make him beat the cages with a stick to get them all shouting and cawing again.
Ain al' Abd, 1963
…it was noticeable that whenever the Church of England dealt with a human problem she was likely to call in the Church of Rome.
– Rudyard Kipling, Kim
When the stars had begun to fade in the east, Hale and his host shared a breakfast of hot saffron rice with eggs beaten into it, accompanied by a choice of beer or camel's milk, of which Hale chose beer; and then Ishmael gave him a clearly secondhand set of Bedu clothes to change into: a patched cotton dishdasha smock with an aba robe to drape over it, and a once-white kaffiyeh head-cloth and an agal cord to tie it on with. Ishmael looked like a prosperous town Arab in his long white shirt and robe and white kaffiyeh, while Hale's smock had been patched with so many different fabrics that he sourly thought he looked like a dervish; and his bare feet were obscenely white, and soon achingly numb with cold from standing on the dewy flagstones.
In the frosty overcast dawn Salim bin Jalawi returned with the jaunty blue Chevrolet, and Hale and Ishmael climbed into the back as Ishmael gave bin Jalawi directions to a place off the highway south of Magwa.
Bin Jalawi was moody, and several times frowned at Hale in the rear-view mirror. Hale had gathered that they were to travel to some desert location to consult some very old person.
Hale thought about how to phrase a question. "Is it a place I know?" he asked finally, leaning forward over the seat back. They were driving down a big new divided highway under a clearing sky, and for nearly half a minute now had been gunning around the perimeter of a traffic circle almost wide enough to contain another airport; but the interior of the circle was just tractor-leveled sand, as were the expanses on either side of the highway, and the only other vehicles between the flat north and south horizons were a couple of miles-distant water tankers.
Bin Jalawi spat against the inside of the windscreen. "It is a place you have heard of. It is to the south, in 'Awazim country, and I am Mutair. We will meet guides at Magwa."
"Are the 'Awazim at war with the Mutair?" asked Hale. "Do we need a rafiq?" When trekking through hostile country, it was the Bedu custom to talk a member of the local tribe into coming along as a guarantor or peacemaker, known as a rafiq in these northern countries around the gulf.
"We wouldn't want a rafiq from the tribe of the one we go to see," said bin Jalawi in a tight voice.
"And the only tribe at war with us here is the KGB," said Ishmael, his watery old eyes blinking ahead. "Khrushchev is not hostile to my agency, but the Presidium is growing tired of Khrushchev, and Semichastny of the KGB is pursuing Stalin's old line toward us."
"Horror at the wrath of God," recalled Hale.
They had been speaking in English, but now bin Jalawi burst out, "Yahrak kiddisak man rabba-k!" It meant Burn the saint who brought thee up, and Hale, startled, met his eyes in the rear-view mirror. Bin Jalawi glowered back at him. Still in Arabic, he said to Hale, "Speak you of horror at the wrath of God?"
And Hale almost smiled, for he realized at last that bin Jalawi was, illogically, angry at Hale for giving in to his cut-off-the-hand-or-kiss-it argument and turning double for this Russian. I have disappointed you, Hale thought, haven't I, Salim? Were you dutifully waiting for me to condemn your duplicity?