Declare

9,081
07.03.2019

After several seconds the helicopter banked to the north, tilting the open cargo door up toward the sky, and Hale impulsively crawled forward and gripped the bottom edge of the steel-and-ceramic laminate of the craft's exterior armor, and he peered over the door sill, down through a hundred feet of swirling sand clouds, at the rippled desert of the Kuwait-Saudi border; he could make out bin Jalawi's camel, though he couldn't see his friend in the beast's shadow, and farther west he saw the shadows of other camels and the scattered white dots of robes sprawled on the reddish tan ground. Not far away to the north was the sulfur pool, though it was a featureless black disk from this height and distance. Farther off he could see the white of the salt flats, and dimly beyond them the long shadow of the Ash Shaq valley, while the tan horizon was the broad interior deserts of the Summan and Nafud.

The man who had pulled him into the aircraft now grabbed him by the ankles and dragged him back from the door.

"They still have rifles," the man told Hale, shouting to be heard over the rotor noise through the open door. "Come up by the pilot's station." Even shouting, he had a German accent. He pulled the heavy door closed along its track, and in the relative silence after it had slammed shut he said, "You look like hell. Are you shot already?"

"No," said Hale, bracing himself against a gun pylon as he got wearily to his feet.

The two high-backed seats up in front were nylon mesh strung across aluminum frames, and in the right-side one the pilot was hunched over the cyclic control stick-Hale saw that as he moved it, the stick in front of the empty left-side seat moved too, and for one childish instant, before he realized that the control sticks were linked, he nearly flinched.

"Ishmael killed himself?" asked the man standing beside Hale, still speaking loudly.

"Yes," said Hale, wondering if these men would believe a description of the action at the pool. They appeared to be in their late twenties or early thirties-and Hale, stiff and sore after sleeping on the ground in the rain and riding a camel for two days, felt incalculably old and decrepit and unreliable. "I didn't see it, but-I heard it."

The pilot nodded. "Years now, that old man's been looking for an excuse."

The German gave Hale a quizzical look. "The genie ate him?"

Hale found that he was laughing, though not hard enough to justify the tears that were blurring his view of the switches and circuit-breakers on the console in front of him. "That's what it sounded like, yes." You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din. "Do you gentlemen have any drink aboard?"

The pilot groped by his left knee and then, without looking away from the Perspex windscreen, lifted over his head a half-full pint bottle of Smirnoff vodka that swayed in his hand with the motion of the aircraft. "Bung ho, eh, what?" he said in an affected British drawl.

"Skol, Prosit," agreed Hale absently, catching the swinging bottle. He unscrewed the cap and took several deep swallows of the warm, stinging liquor. In his mind he saw bin Jalawi as he had been in 1948, dark-bearded and whipcord-thin; and then as he had looked two days ago, his beard white now, listening to the radio in his Al-Ahmadi house with the electric range and refrigerator in the modern kitchen. Hale thought, It was not a good day for you, old friend, when I came back into your life. "Where are we-going?"

" Kuwait International Airport," the German told him. "Ishmael said you have been confirmed, so now you are to get on an airplane, a private jet, there."

"To go…where?" Hale asked. "Do you know?"

The German gave him a blank stare. "Somewhere intermediate, I suppose. Probably several intermediate places. You are at home in them, I think."

Hale nodded and tipped the bottle up for another couple of swallows. "Oh sure," he said hoarsely. "Me and intermediate go way back."

"Soon we will be at the airport," said the pilot. "There are airport staff clothes and shoes in a locker in the cargo bay-get into them now." He glanced back at Hale with a cold smile. "You can take the bottle."

Hale found the locker, and after sloughing off his bloody, muddy old Bedu costume he put on the tan uniform, complete with name badge, of a Kuwait International Airport baggage handler. He bundled up the Bedu clothes and shoved them into the locker, and then he sat down cross-legged below a couple of bright steel bolts where a passenger seat could have been installed. He sipped at the warm vodka and tried to take satisfaction in the thought that he was now successfully injected into the opposition's machine, and that Theodora would be pleased; but in his mind was droning the old refrain, You can't relax yet.

The next twelve hours were a series of destinations and layovers, seen through a haze of intermittently renewed alcohol and persistent exhaustion.

At the Kuwait airport he simply walked from the helicopter across fifty yards of tarmac to a sleek British Aerospace commuter jet that the German had pointed out to him, and climbed aboard. The only crew members Hale saw were two young Arab men in snow-white Saudi-style robes and head-cloths, and they didn't speak to him beyond ordering him in terse Arabic to take a seat in the cabin and, in English, "Belt up." When the plane had taken off and reached cruising altitude, somewhere down the gulf coast over Oman, he was given a Savile Row suit to change into, and a shaving kit, a French passport, and an Alitalia Airlines ticket. Four hours later the jet landed at Benina International Airport near Benghazi, and he followed the directions he'd been given and got right aboard the next Alitalia flight bound for the Ciampino Airport in Rome, having spent less than forty minutes in Libya. Slumped in a window seat in the turboprop Alitalia Vanguard, he drank Canadian whiskey and watched twilight darken to full night over the purple expanse of the Mediterranean; and he kept reminding himself of what Ishmael had said to the djinn in the sulfur pool-He will be flying tonight west over the sands, to the western sea-your brothers and sisters are awake, but they will not approach him…

At the Alitalia gate in Ciampino he was met by a cheerful young couple who greeted him by the name on his new passport and drove him to a modern apartment in the Parioli district of Rome, and behind drawn curtains he managed to eat most of a quick, hindered dinner of lukewarm gnocchi and red wine even as the woman was cutting his hair in a bristly brush cut and then dyeing it and his eyebrows dark brown. When his hair was dry they took his photograph, and a couple of hours later he was given a British passport in the name of Charles Garner, with his new picture in it. The sky was pale above the electric trolley lines when he was bundled out of the apartment building and boosted into the back of a newspaper delivery van, and he fell asleep among bales of the daily Corriere della Sera as the van sped north up one of the new autostrade express highways. Finally at noon a dark-haired Charles Garner walked haggardly into the Malpensa Airport outside Milan and boarded a TWA flight for Beirut.

The Beirut airport was at Khalde, on the coast seven miles south of the city. The terminal was a long white two-story building with louvered ground-floor windows and a modernistic but vaguely Arab-looking lattice over the broader windows on the upper floor. After presenting the entry visa he'd been given, and getting his passport stamped on one of the artfully few remaining blank pages, Hale shambled aimlessly out into the linoleum-floored lobby, blinking up at the painted airplane models hanging on wires from the high ceiling. He could smell his own stale sweat, and even though his shoes were too big for him to lift his feet comfortably, he walked outside to the car park; but the pine-scented afternoon breeze was chilly, and he soon pushed his way back in through the glass doors.

This was Lebanon, and the loudspeakers broadcast arrivals and departures in English and Arabic and French; and a pair of Maronite Catholic nuns who stepped past him nodded and said Bon jour instead of Sabah al khair. Hale echoed their greeting-guiltily, for he was a lapsed Catholic and had spent time the previous day talking with a creature whose name was Legion.

A big dark-bearded man by the auto-rentals desk was baring white teeth at him in a grin-he wore a blue-striped gown under a French-cut jacket, and a white kaffiyeh, and Hale thought he was probably an Arab, altogether-and now the man strode over and said, in English, "You flinched, Mr. Garner! Confess, you were taught by nuns."

"Jesuits, actually," said Hale. "Same general effect."

The man laughed jovially and led Hale back out through the doors to the sidewalk. "That accidental encounter was a nice confirmation," he said, his voice just loud enough for Hale to hear in the cold open air. "It is odd how many of the people destined for our wielding were tempered in the Church-Dzerzhinsky, Theo Maly, even our late friend Ishmael-and the SIS would never have the wit to cook us a Papist double out of their Anglican fish-pot."

You don't know Jimmie Theodora, thought Hale. "No," he said tiredly, "they're not running me. They'd like to run me."

"And they would kill you afterward. This Volvo is ours," he said, waving at a little gray station wagon among the ranks of Mercedes-Benzes and Oldsmobiles and Peugeots in the car park. "I tried to kill you, in 1948-I was with the Russians on the mountain, and if I had not been knocked unconscious by a British bullet, I think I would have been killed or driven mad. I am an Armenian-it is our mountain, not the Russians' and not yours."

The steering wheel was on the left side, American-style, and Hale pulled open the passenger door. "Nothing's mine anymore," he said over the roof to his companion before getting in and closing the door.

"True," said the Armenian as he got in on his side, closed his door and started the engine. Hale noticed that the man's breath reeked of garlic and licorice. "I am Hakob Mammalian, and I am your handler in this undertaking. I am not interested in killing you anymore." He held out his big right hand toward Hale.

Hale smiled and shook the warm, dry hand. "You people killed three of my men that night, I think."

Mammalian released Hale's hand to shift the engine into reverse. "Consider what it was that you were trying to kill. The heart of the mountain! Do you still seek…vrej?"

The word, Hale knew, was Armenian for revenge. "Nothing's mine anymore," he said again. "I'm not after vrej."

"Remember that Charles Garner has no grudges. Much will be his, soon."

The road north to Beirut was a flat dirt track wide enough for two cars to pass comfortably. The lowering sun reflected off the Mediterranean to light the undersides of the clouds in gold, and the occasional roadside clusters of leafy cypresses threw blue shadows across the apricot-colored road.

"Charles Garner is a journalist," Mammalian told Hale, "a sometime foreign correspondent for the London newspapers The Observer and The Economist. A brief biography of him and a book of tear-sheets of his articles are in your room at the Normandy Hotel for you to study, so that you can make small talk. He is not a real person, but an occasional pseudonym used by another member of our team, who is a genuine journalist; you are welcome to the Garner identity and career."

Soon Hale could see the rocky beaches and the white office buildings of the Beirut promontory ahead of them, and within minutes they were driving along a new highway, with cliffs and the sea to their left and modern hotels and restaurants on their right. Hale stared at a place called Le Reverbere, which according to a sign was THE STEREO WITH A TOUCH OF PARIS.

" Beirut is become an American city, indistinguishable," Mammalian said, nodding. "Bowling alleys, and stereo clubs for the rock-and-roll and dancing. But it is, being in neutral Lebanon, the most wide-open city in the Middle East. No faction is truly in charge, not the Maronite Christians nor the Sunni Moslems, and nobody cares what you do if you keep your mouth shut about it; everyone is plotting something, and Nasser would not annex Lebanon if they begged him." He glanced sideways at Hale. "Ishmael sent us a radio message before the two of you left his house on Friday morning-a brief radio message. Did you explain to him what offer Cassagnac made to you on Wednesday morning? Did you inform him of what are Whitehall 's plans, what Whitehall knows about the mountain and its longevitous citizens?"

"Yes," said Hale. "Fully."

"Tonight you will tell it all again, to me, even more fully, with a wire recorder operating. We will drink a good deal of arak, I think."

Hale suppressed a smile, for he knew now where the licorice smell came from. Arak was one of the anise-flavored liquors, like Pernod and absinthe. He had never cared for the taste, though, and he didn't like the way the stuff turned milky white when water was added.

"I might stick to Scotch," he said.

"Charles Garner drinks arak," Mammalian said. "You must get used to it."

They had taken a right turn inland, and Beirut suddenly didn't look American at all. Latticed balconies fronted the windows above the narrow shops, the signs of which, except for the big Pepsi-Cola trademarks, were all in French and Arabic. Women in bright-colored European skirts and high heels stepped from the curb to the street to make way for flocks of sheep being herded along the sidewalks by Arab women in long black abas, and soldiers in black berets stood on the corners holding automatic rifles whose stocks were decorated with glued-on colored glass beads. At one intersection traffic was halted for a Christian funeral procession, noisy with wailing, and Hale stared at the bearded priests and the tall swaying crosses garlanded with flower blossoms, and on the air from the vent by his feet he caught a whiff of incense.

At last they reached the north shore. The curved front of the five-story Normandy Hotel stood in white splendor just across the street from the beach, between a stand of palm trees and a men's hairdressing, manicure, and pedicure salon.

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