Break it now, Hale thought as his heart thudded like a hammer in his chest. You've been coat-trailing for the opposition, and it's worked, they've been fooled so far, they've picked you up. They've at least provisionally bought into your role as a renegade ex-Declare agent. Live your role, "Know, not think it." And…
And it would be membership, initiation, a way to get leagues farther in! What on earth-or above it or under it!-might you not learn, and become able to do, if you obey this creature or cluster of creatures and kneel to it, prostrate yourself before it? What kingdoms in the clouds…
To his own surprise Hale realized that he had not even shifted the weight on his bare feet; and a moment later he knew coldly that he was not going to obey.
Ishmael had stepped back, to Hale's right, and at a glimpsed glint of silver in the old man's hand Hale turned toward him. Ishmael was holding an American.45 Army Colt automatic pistol pointed straight at his face.
"Kneel, damn you," Ishmael snarled.
Don't worry about anything, C had told him in 1929, when Andrew Hale had been seven years old. You're on our rolls. And that had been the very day of Hale's first Holy Communion, when he had consumed the body and blood of God.
Steam like sulfurous breath touched his left cheek, but from the corner of his eye he could see that the black wall was holding its position for now, ten feet away down the slope.
It had been a.45 for Cassagnac, at the end, out of a revolver. Hale had seen men hit by the.45 slug. It had knocked them right down, breathless and pale and dying.
I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt not have strange gods before Me.
But you don't believe in God anymore! he told himself tensely. You kneel to check the air pressure in a tire, or to open a low dresser drawer-why can't you kneel here? Finish Operation Declare, redeem the deaths on Ararat, save your own life-
He could hear the hooves of bin Jalawi's camel, and he heard the stamp-and-slither as bin Jalawi must have seen the uptilted section of the black pool and frantically reined in the camel.
Speak you of the wrath of God? bin Jalawi had asked angrily on the drive down to Magwa.
Hale glanced to his left, squinting down the slope against the sandy whirlwind. All the holes had merged into one yard-wide mouth, and a ring of jagged rocks whirled around its circumference like a wheel of wet tan teeth.
A deep, inorganic voice groaned out of the black-water mouth: "Adore-us," it tolled, "bin Hajji."
Hale was still able to think. Bin Hajji meant son of a pilgrim, son of a devout Moslem who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Perhaps it was a taunt, a challenge. At the Ham Common camp in '42, Philby had said, Our Hajji which art in Amman…
Finally, it was simply impossible to prostrate himself before this unnatural thing in the sight of his old Bedu friend, Soviet tool though the old friend might be.
"I-won't do it," Hale said, exhaling. The old man was just a few paces too far away for Hale to have any hope of springing at him and grabbing the gun before it would be fired; and to dive to Ishmael's right, forcing the old man to swing the barrel out to the side, would be to jump down the slope and right into the spinning mouth. Better to stand still and only perhaps die. He looked past Ishmael and the monster, at the infinite extent of the Arabian desert, and he was oddly contented with the possibility that he had come back here at the age of forty to be killed. Elena was long lost to him. "Who is my father?" he asked curiously.
"This is the son," groaned the spinning hole in the wall of black water. The whole surface was quivering, and the fringe of steamy spray was flying away, beading up in the sky or kicking up splashes and sand below it, as if flung by centrifugal force. "This is the Nazrani son."
Abruptly Ishmael surprised Hale by throwing the gun to him, and then the old man reached inside his robe and pulled out a walkie-talkie-sized radio and yanked up the telescoping antenna.
Hale had caught the gun carefully by the grip, and he half-tossed it to grasp it firmly, his finger outside the trigger guard. He realized that he had been holding his breath, and he began panting. It was all he could do not to point the muzzle, uselessly, at the turbulent wall of water.
"Kill Salim bin Jalawi," Ishmael snapped. "That's an order, a condition of employment, a proof of your sincerity." He twisted a dial on the radio and then cupped his hand around the microphone and began to speak into it quickly in Russian, his eyes on the no-longer-distant riders.
Bin Jalawi knelt atop his camel fifteen paces across the sand toward the south; his voice now was loud and steady, and it must have required courage for the Bedu to speak at all in the terrible presence of the djinn: "Will you shoot me, bin Sikkah?"
Ishmael gave Hale a fierce nod. For the first time, he seemed more frightened than irritable. Peripherally Hale could see that the ring of stones was spinning more rapidly in the steaming mouth.
Hale laughed dizzily, still doubtful that any of them would live to leave this place. "No, my friend," he called over the whistling wind to bin Jalawi. And I do wonder if you would not shoot me, if our positions were reversed, old friend.
Ishmael stared at Hale, then after a moment of openmouthed hesitation pronounced some flat, clear Russian syllables into the radio, after which he dropped it onto the sand. "There is a ship off the Ras Khabji headland"-he spat out the words in English-"and a helicopter from it is now heading this way, fast, tracing the Al-Maqta stream. It is Rabkrin, get aboard it." He stepped sideways to face Hale squarely. "Kill me, then," he said. "I have told them on the radio that you are genuine-the devil confirms your identity, and certainly no SOE infiltrator would have perversely refused my orders-my part of the task is finished. The things of the water demand a life in exchange for their testimony, and we cannot possibly offend any ambassadors of theirs right now-kill me."
Hale heard the rapid multiple crunch of camel hooves, and saw that Ishmael's group of Mutair and 'Awazim had goaded their camels into a rolling gallop toward the east; in the southwest the unknown riders were close enough for him to see that their camels also were running-stretching their long legs and holding their heads low. Bin Jalawi was still sitting imperturbably on his camel close at hand, but all of them needed to get moving right now.
Nevertheless Ishmael had clearly meant what he had said, and it was probably true. If they cheated this, this oracle, the entire Rabkrin Soviet operation might misfire, which meant that Declare would misfire too.
Hale flexed his hand on the checked wooden grip of the.45-but it had been nearly eighteen years since he had shot a man, and he had never simply executed anyone, and somehow the sight of the old man's gray face and bare feet made shooting him impossible. "Kill yourself, then," said Hale thickly. "But do it quickly-I need your rifle if we're to get away from this hole."
The old man unslung the BAR from over his shoulder and simply tossed it through the air upright to Hale, who caught it by the stock with his left hand. The polished wood was warm, and the steel barrel was hot, and Hale noticed belatedly that the sky had cleared and the sun was a caloric weight on the landscape.
Then Ishmael simply turned toward the pool and started walking down the crusty sand slope-and the fringes of black water were as distinct as tentacles now, though water and steam still flew from their ends; as Hale watched, they began to bend forward, like the spines of a huge black Venus's-flytrap. The spinning rocks clattered like weighty castanets, and Hale could see the whirlpool mouth constricting and dilating until Ishmael knelt in front of the opening, blocking Hale's view; then the old man raised his hands and bowed forward.
Hale quickly slung the rifle and bent to pick up the radio, and then he stepped across to his couched camel and scrambled up onto the saddle. He tapped her neck to get her to stand, and as she rocked up onto her feet, he tucked the.45 and the radio into a saddlebag by his ankle, and neither he nor bin Jalawi looked back as they goaded their mounts into a gallop after their fleeing companions, away from the pursuing riders and the living sulfur pool and the splashing, sucking, cracking sounds behind them.
Hale thought of Elena's friend Maly, who had voluntarily gone to Moscow to be killed, and he wondered fleetingly if Ishmael had also been a religious man, once.
Hale was straddling the saddle and clinging to the rifle as his camel began lumbering after her fellows against the hot breeze, her hooves pounding the sand and the saddlebags flopping as she picked up speed. Hale braced himself with one hand on the forward saddle pommel, and he craned his neck to look back.
The strangers were gaining; he could clearly see the fluttering white robes and head-cloths, and the brandished rifles. And not all of the weapons were simply being waved in the air-his ribs went icy cold as he heard the chatter of a short burst of full-automatic gunfire, and then another.
He had just glanced down at the trigger assembly of the rifle that was jolting in his lap and flicked the change lever from single-fire to auto when he was startled by a loud and wildly prolonged burst from only a few yards to his right. Bin Jalawi had turned around on his own saddle and raked the whole quarter of the compass behind them.
More jackhammer racket replied, and Hale saw simultaneous spurts of sand kicked up along the ridge of a low dune ahead of them.
"Bloody hell," he wailed through clenched teeth. He clamped his legs on the saddle and then twisted his body around to point the heavy rifle's muzzle at the riders. When the front sight was bouncing closely across his view of the figures he pulled the trigger and released it, sending three or four 7.62-millimeter slugs toward them. The barrel jumped out of line, and he swung it back and fired briefly again.
When he glanced ahead he saw an underslung, streamlined olive-green shape scudding low over the dunes-it was the helicopter, flying toward them half in profile, and now he could hear the thudding of its rotors.
He lunged forward over the hot barrel of the rifle and snatched the radio out of the saddlebag by his ankle; he found the set's power switch, and he yelled into it in English, "Rabkrin! I'm the two riders! Shoot the ones behind me!"
He didn't know whether they understood English or had even heard him, but a moment later he saw a bright spot of fluttering muzzle fire in the dark rectangle of the helicopter's open cargo door; for several seconds the nearly continuous flashes didn't cease, and he could hear the choppy whisper of bullets ripping through the air over his head; then the muzzle flashes went dark and his ears were belatedly battered by the stuttering roar of the machine gun.
Clouds of sand scooped up into the air a hundred yards ahead. The helicopter was apparently settling down for a landing, its tail elevated as if the pilot was afraid of hitting one of the low sand dunes with the tail rotor.
The camels began hitching and lifting their heads as they pounded closer to the hovering aircraft, and when they were still fifty yards short of it they wobbled to a halt and balked at going any farther.
"-not bothered by a bloody genie," Hale snarled as he gripped the rifle and the.45 and simply jumped from the saddle. He knocked his chin with one knee when his bare feet hit the hot sand, but a moment later he had got up into a crouch and was limping to bin Jalawi's mount.
And Salim bin Jalawi rolled off of his saddle, slid facedown across the glistening water-skins and thumped heavily to the sand on his hip and shoulder. He was facing Hale, and the front of his robe was bright red with blood.
The sunlight seemed to dim, and there was a shrill keening in Hale's head. Ignoring several crackling, megaphone-amplified shouts from the helicopter, Hale crouched helplessly beside the dying Arab.
"Salim!" Hale's breath wavered in his throat. "Salim!"
The Arab opened his eyes. The flap of his kaffiyeh had been pulled away from his white-bearded face, and Hale saw blood on the man's teeth when he grimaced. "Get out of this, bin Sikkah," he whispered. "These men-traffic with devils-"
"Salim," said Hale urgently in Arabic, "I am still working for Creepo, under deep cover. This is a pretense, a trick, to confound this lot's plans. Are you hearing me? I-I pretend to kiss the enemy's hand, the better to be sure of cutting it cleanly off."
Bin Jalawi's mouth opened in what might have been a pained smile, as if he were trying to laugh. "'You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din,'" he said in English, quoting the Kipling poem that Hale sometimes used to recite when drunk; and then he shuddered and died.
Hale looked back the way they'd come-the riders who had been pursuing them appeared to have stopped and dismounted several hundred yards back, and Hale thought there were fewer of them now. They weren't shooting.
The Mutair and 'Awazim with whom Hale had ridden here were somewhere to the east, on the far side of the small sandstorm around the hovering helicopter-they or these southern tribes would no doubt take possession of the camels and, being Bedu, give bin Jalawi a Moslem burial.
Hale got to his feet and jogged painfully across the sand toward the drifting helicopter. Squinting against the stinging sand kicked up by its whirling rotors, he could see in the cargo doorway a short-haired man with sunglasses and earphones, waving at him; the man had apparently put down the megaphone, and the steady booming of the rotors was too loud for Hale to hear anything the man might have been shouting. Hale forced his aching legs to run faster over the uneven sand, and when at last he exhaustedly set one bare foot on the metal skid and grabbed the edge of the door frame, the man took Hale's free hand and dragged him in to sprawl onto the corrugated steel cargo deck between two.60-caliber machine guns mounted on pylons.
Hale's rescuer, who was wearing dungarees and a sweatshirt and appeared to be European, waved toward the pilot's station, and then Hale felt heavier as the big rotors thudded more loudly with their pitch angle increased for a fast ascent. There was no shaking or vibration from the engine, and Hale realized that it was some kind of turbine, not one of the piston engines that had powered the old Sikorskis and Bristols he had flown in after the war. He got cautiously up on his hands and knees and only then realized that he had at some point dropped both the BAR and the.45.