Declare

9,078
07.03.2019

"We will walk into the French Embassy," Elena said. There was a quaver in her voice, but her hand was steady. "We will surrender to their secret service. Defect."

Utechin licked his lips. "And…why?" he asked hoarsely.

"Because we are in front of it. If we were another block down the street, we would surrender to the Americans."

He shook his head slowly, an expression of both sadness and surprise on his damp face. "Ach, Elena, so soon! It is my fault, for not taking more time with you." And then he said, in Russian, "Take the death now."

A spot on her forehead stung with a sudden chill, and the breath stopped in her throat and her knees began to fold-and she realized that she must have been given a precautionary post-hypnotic order to die, as if of the gunshot that had killed her double in the Lubyanka cellar, upon hearing this Russian phrase a second time.

But though she fell hard to her knees on the pavement, she was able to raise the hidden.45 and keep it pointed at him; and the spot of chill on her forehead was now hot, as if a priest had marked the Ash Wednesday sign of the cross there with still-smoldering palm-frond ashes; and she realized that the words of the post-hypnotic order had got tangled with the words of the Ave Maria that had been droning in her head both before and after the shot had been fired-ruega por nosotros, pecadores, ahora en esta hora nuestra muerte-

Pray for us, sinners, now in the hour of our death.

Apparently the inadvertent parallel had disrupted the lethal grammar of the order, broken its imprinted lines like a double exposure.

Utechin hesitated, and then he abruptly crouched, falling backward as his right hand sprang up and under his lapel.

Elena hammered her gun hand downward to follow his sudden drop, and she twitched the trigger three times rapidly.

Only the first shot fired, for the recoiling slide snagged on the inside of the case-but when she brought her right hand back down into line after the recoil, she saw that Utechin was lying flat on his back, with a spreading spot of bright red blood on his white shirt over the solar plexus. His eyes blinked once, and then simply stared up at the cloudy sky.

Elena was dimly glad that she was kneeling as she stared at the body, for she was suddenly dizzy, and she was reminded of having seemed to die when the girl in the Lubyanka basement was killed. We don't want you wasting any more of your baptized sanctity, Utechin had told her in Moscow, until you can spend it effectively. At last, after no more than three stretched-taut seconds, she forced herself to look away.

The noise had been loud enough, but, muffled by the leather case, had not obviously been a gunshot; and the fact that Elena had fallen to her knees in the same moment that Utechin did had made the pedestrians duck away, fearful of whatever had apparently knocked these two down.

Glancing up at the rooftops now to suggest the idea of a sniper, Elena scuttled on her hands and knees up the gritty stone steps and through the swinging glass doors of the Cairo French Embassy.

Once inside, she got to her feet and walked directly to the reception desk. The man behind it had got to his feet to peer past her at the street, and she waved at him to catch his attention.

"I am a Soviet agent," she told him in French, speaking clearly though her vision was blurred with tears of a vast, almost impersonal grief, "and I have just killed my handler. I wish to defect-and to report a Nazi collaborator who has been working out of the City of the Dead here in Cairo, assisting the German General Rommel."

And after long interrogation in Algiers, she had been recruited into Colonel Passy's wartime Central Bureau for Information and Military Action; she met other ex-Communist agents in the BCRAM, and in 1944, by which time the French secret service had been incorporated into the Direction Generale des Services Speciaux, she was surprised and delighted to be assigned to work with Claude Cassagnac.

The DGSS counter-Machikha team in Algiers was deliberately assembled along the same lines as the American President Wilson's Inquiry group of 1917, which had included experts on ancient Persian languages and the Crusades, and the British Admiralty's Room 40, which during the First World War had included a scholar of the early Church fathers and the code-breaker Ronald Knox, who had become a Catholic priest after the war. The DGSS team also included a number of physicists and geologists and an astronomer.

The result of their researches had been the bullet, lathed from a nickel-iron Shihab meteorite, which Cassagnac had fired at Machikha Nash in Berlin in June of 1945.

Now, nearly eighteen years later, Elena crushed out a cigarette in an ashtray piled with cigarette butts, and she crossed again to the window of her room at the St. Georges Hotel. The sun from over the Jebel Liban mountains east of Beirut made the sails and the seagulls glow white against the dark blue Mediterranean, and she knew that the tables on the terrace below her door would be crowded with hotel guests having breakfast. She glanced at her radium-dial wrist-watch-but Philby would not be arriving there with his Soviet handlers for hours yet.

She walked barefoot across the carpet to the bathroom, and she began brushing her long white hair without turning on the light or glancing into the mirror.

Do you want to see a monkey?

Andrew Hale had been in Berlin in 1945, doing Declare work for the looking-glass SOE; her hair had been as white then as it was now, having grown in that way right after her…three days? her week?…in the Lubyanka cellars.

She didn't want to think of Andrew Hale, nor of what she would have to do if she met him-wasting what's left of your baptized sanctity, and this one would surely spend any last whiff of it that might still remain-and so she thought instead of her other one, the third man in her life after Hale and Cassagnac, whom she would apparently not be permitted to kill: Kim Philby.

But her time with Philby had been in Turkey, in May of 1948, and of course Andrew Hale had been there too.

Cannibale, she had called Hale. Nous cannibales would have been fairer. We cannibals.

In the Ahora Gorge on that terrible night she too had quickly figured out that using the old Parisian clochard rhythms was the only gambit that would save her from the supernatural death that leaned hugely down out of the turning sky. The other members of her French SDECE team were either killed in the Soviet ambush or, worse, were pulled away into the sky by the ravenous djinn that had somehow been summoned down from their mountain-peak fastnesses-and because she had aligned her mental rhythms, the rhythms of her very identity, to those of the inhuman djinn, she had found herself intolerably participating in the aerial dismemberment and devouring of her fellows.

–  And she had not, she admitted, been helpless in that participation. Like Andrew Hale, she could have stopped drumming and breathing and pulsing the rhythm, could have stepped out of the dance-but then she would have been just another human figure on the ground, prey for the djinn.

She had told herself that she was not responsible for the deaths of the SDECE men-that they were being killed in any case, and that she herself would have been killed if she had not…psychically flown along with the creatures that were tearing the men apart in the sky and eating them-but on that dawn, when she had at last ridden the horse all the way back across the muddy Aras plain to the clapboard Ararat Hotel in Dogubayezit, she had been convinced that she was a murderess.

She curtly told the base team at the hotel that the other operatives had all been killed and that this operation too had been a failure, and she made them pack up their radios and drive back to the pickup site in Erzurum-but she had stayed on at the hotel, alone, lying in her muddy clothes on the bed in her room, drinking cognac and watching the slow ceiling fan and desperately hoping that Andrew Hale would come to her there. She had not locked the door. She wanted to beg his forgiveness for what she had called to him last night on the mountain; and she thought that if they were together, talking, the enormity of what they had done might diminish. In Paris he had told her that he had been raised as a Catholic-perhaps he might find some way for her to assimilate what she had done: some way to take hold of the sin, voluntarily bear the weight of it, and then lay it before an outraged God in gross presumption on His mercy.

Later in the morning she had heard the motor of a jeep grind past on the dirt street under her window, but it had not stopped, and by the time she had blundered to the window and clawed the curtains away from the frame, the vehicle had driven on out of sight.

She threw herself back down across the bed, sobbing. Hale would not be coming. There was no way to diminish the magnitude of what she'd done. Man had been created in the image of God, and probably cannibalism was the "sin against the Holy Ghost," for which there was no forgiveness in this world or the next.

She slept heavily, and when she awoke with a start in darkness she thought for several seconds that she was lying in the Lubyanka basement, shot through the head.

That nameless Moscow girl had been killed on Elena's account. Utechin had killed the wrong girl. If Elena had died there, she might have died in sanctifying grace, not in certain mortal sin, as she was now.

All she could do to put an end to her restless self-loathing was to finish the job Utechin had mismanaged six years ago. She had neglected to cork the cognac bottle, and it had soaked the mattress, but she was able to get several more swallows out of it.

At last she sat up and fumbled around among the litter on the bedside table until she had found a box of matches. When she had lit the lamp on the table, she shook out the match and drew her gun from the holster under her mud-stiffened jacket.

It was a semi-automatic Swiss SIG, standard issue for the SDECE, chambered for the French 7.65-millimeter cartridge. She popped out the magazine that she had emptied on the mountain and dug a heavy magazine from her jacket pocket and slid it up into the grip until it clicked.

Belatedly she realized that it had been the sound of a jeep motor that had awakened her-but it didn't matter. It would not be Andrew Hale, for he would certainly be on his way back to London by now, or to wherever it might be that he was stationed-and if it were members of her SDECE base team that had missed the pickup and come back here in the jeep, they could not stop her.

She pulled the slide back against the resistance of the recoil-spring, paused, and then let it snap forward. A cartridge was in the chamber now, and of course the safety was off. Her nostrils twitched at the smell of gun oil over the cognac fumes.

She could hear footsteps in the corridor outside her room door.

She hefted the pistol and held it up to her forehead, butt out, with her right thumb inside the trigger guard. Straight through the center of the forehead was how the Moscow girl had been shot. This gun had been tucked under Elena's arm while she slept, and the muzzle ring was warm. Aunt Dolores, she thought, give me strength.

She heard the squeak of the doorknob and let her eyes focus past her thumb to the door. The knob was turning-and she waited, curious in spite of herself, as the door creaked open.

But the man who stepped into the room's dim lamplight was not Andrew Hale. It was the unpleasant stuttering Britisher from Berlin, the onetime chief of Section Nine, now SIS Head of Station in Turkey-Kim Philby.

He stared past the gun butt at her left eye. "Am I interrupting?" he said.

He had spoken in English, and she forced herself to frame an answer in that language. "I'll only be a moment," she told him.

He smiled and slowly closed the door at his back. "I say, could this wait-half an hour? I won you in a card game last night-well, it was interrupted, but the other fellow is long gone, and I believe I did have the high hand-and-well, damn it-it does just seem too bad of you to kill yourself the moment I arrive! What do you say? Twenty minutes!-for a spot of fornication? You and I halfway did it on New Year's Eve in 1941, proxy or vicarious or something. Hey? There's a good girl!"

She reversed the gun in her right hand and lowered it, pointing it at him. For a moment neither of them spoke, and she was trying to figure out if this was a humanitarian gambit on his part-distract her with insult so as to have a chance to talk her out of it-or if he really had meant what he had said.

"That would be a mortal sin," she said carefully. "Adultery, even-I happen to know you're married, Mr. Philby." She had also read that he suffered from a terrible stammer; but he seemed to be talking smoothly enough right now.

"Ceniza-Bendiga," he said. He waved at the wooden chair against the plaster wall. "Do you mind if I sit? Thank you. Spanish, that is. Mortal sin! Are you a Catholic?"

"Devout," she said with a nod.

"Ah! I'm an atheist myself, sorry. I thought you lot were down on suicide."

"Will you do me a favor, Mr. Philby?"

"If you'll do me one." He smiled and held up his hands, palms out.

"Will you? This is a-" She shifted on the mattress. "A deathbed request."

"I will," he said levelly. "If you will." Clearly he had meant what he had said a few moments ago.

She was sick at the idea, and at the abrupt immediacy of it. The fumy brandy surged up into the back of her throat.

But what if it's all you can do? she thought. It is all you can do. And who are you now to treasure scruples, souvenirs? You have abdicated yourself.

She waited several seconds, but there was no providential interruption. "Very well," she whispered. She took a deep breath and went on, "So listen. I will be missing an appointment I made six years ago-breaking a promise I made. It can't be helped, but-when I was in the Lubyanka, and it seemed that they were going to kill me, I made a promise to the Virgin Mary-she doesn't like communism, you know. I made a vow. Will you swear to keep it for me?"

Philby shifted uneasily in his chair. "Why were you in the Lubyanka?"

"I was being trained as an agent. I was an atheist then-my mother and father were shot down in a Madrid street by the right-wing Catholic monarchists in 1931, right in front of me; and when I was twelve years old I was a wireless telegrapher with Andre Marty. But in Moscow I saw the true face of communism. Will you swear on your own mother and father to keep my vow for me?"

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