Philby puffed out his cheeks. "Well, that's not really my line of territory. What was the vow?"
"I told the Virgin: 'If you will intercede with your Son to get me out of Russia alive, I vow that on my-'" Elena frowned. "I wanted to give it time, selfishly wait until my youth was safely gone, I think-I said, 'I vow that on my fortieth birthday at high noon I will light a candle for you right here in Moscow, at St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square, in the heart of your enemy's kingdom, the way you put your heel on the serpent's head.' And I promised her that I would-"
After several seconds Philby shook his head and raised his eyebrows. "What's the harm of being honest now, here? On your deathbed?"
"Oh God," Elena sighed. "I promised her that I would be a chaste wife from then on. I didn't want to embark on it too soon, there was a young man-gone now-"
"Chaste," said Philby impatiently, "do go on. I don't need to hear about your tiresome young men. Whom were you going to be married to, in your old age?" Philby himself was then thirty-six.
"I vowed that I would not marry until then, and that-that I would consider marrying-I was delirious-that I would take whomsoever she might elect to show me, after I had lit the candle. You see? I was humbly placing the selection in her hands. I think I imagined Prince Myshkin." The gun was wobbling in her grip, and she told herself that she must soon return it to its position against her forehead. "If there is a man there, in the cathedral when you light the candle…give him my regrets."
Philby nodded. "I can do that much-no prayers. When would be your fortieth birthday?"
"April the twenty-second-in 1964."
"My calendar is free on that day, as it happens." Philby stared at her in evident perplexity. "You're about to-kill yourself, but you still believe all this business?"
"I wouldn't kill myself if I didn't believe this business." She shivered. "Sin has real weight."
"What, your men dying on Mount Ararat last night?" When she didn't answer he shook his head and laughed, clearly not yet satisfied with her situation. "You know, I've never understood…faith. 'Do the stars answer? in the night have ye found comfort? or by day have ye seen gods? What hope, what light, falls from the farthest starriest way on you that pray?'" She had realized that he was quoting something, and now he waved deprecatingly and said, "Swinburne."
"Yes," she said. When he raised his eyebrows, she went on, miserably, "Yes, the stars answer. God answers."
Philby opened his mouth, then frowned and closed it; he appeared to shiver, and when he finally spoke, it was more quietly. "What d-does H-H-He say, ch-child?"
Elena blinked tears out of her eyes. "He says, 'Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee, save Me, save only Me?'" She sniffed. "Francis Thompson."
"I n-know it," he said. "'Yet I was sore adread lest, having Him, I must have naught beside.'" Philby seemed agitated. "Tell mmmm-tell me!-when you g-go to your s-sacrament, of C-C-Confession!-do you really have a f-firm purpose of am-amendment?"
"Yes. It might not seem possible later, but-yes. 'To sin no more.'"
"And in b-baptism you were freed of the-w-weight of ss-sin? The b-black drop in the h-human heart?"
"Yes, I was."
"I-" He sighed and shook his head. "But for m-me that would be g-going b-back to point zz-zero! At my age-at m-my age! It's not for m-me, my dear. Too much tie-time invested." He slapped his open palms on the thighs of his trousers and stood up. "But sss-suicide is n-not for you-'the Everlasting hath fix'd his canon 'gainst self-slaughter,' you n-know. Is this doubt, do you d-doubt that your ggg-your God, will f-forgive you, as p-promised? Or is it p-plain shame? 'I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself.' O santisima Elena!-are you s-simply ashamed to approach H-H-Him as…just one m-more sinner, as b-bad as the rest of us? You w-w-won't play, if you c-can't wear the halo?" He laughed gently. "You're n-not the-that egotistical, surely?" He took a step toward her across the threadbare carpet. "Test your m-monstrous villainy, my dear. Either sh-shoot me, or give me the g-gun." He walked toward her with his palm out.
Elena's hand twitched, as if to fire the gun at him or turn it on herself while she still could, but when his palm was below hers she opened her trembling fingers and let the gun fall.
Quickly he popped out the magazine, and he tugged the slide back and forth several times, ejecting the round that had been in the chamber. Finally he dry-fired the gun at the ceiling, and when it had clicked harmlessly he tossed it clattering onto the floor.
In her suddenly renewed drunkenness it seemed echoingly loud.
Elena covered her face with her hands, and all at once she was sobbing at the appalling prospect of living until tomorrow, and the day after that-and she only realized that he had sat down beside her when the mattress tilted under her.
In the morning he had been gone, but he had left a note on the bedside table under her retrieved gun, signed with a hasty pen-drawing of three interlocked, leaping fish. The note had been brief: On second thought, I don't think He'll forgive you. I've reloaded your SIG. (Through the roof of the mouth is better, by the bye.)
She could tell by the weight of the gun that the full magazine had been replaced, but she had truly not believed that he would actually have chambered a live round, until she roused all the chickens and dogs of Dogubayezit by blowing out the hotel window with a tentative pull of the trigger.
Yesterday evening, in the Normandy Hotel bar, Philby had said to her, I have a fucking bullet hole in my head; do take note of the fact that you have not got one in yours.
That had been before he had learned that Elena had been the one who had shot him.
She remembered lying prone in the darkness on the office building roof, seeing that familiar pouchy face in the yellow square of the bathroom window across the street, divided into fleshy quadrants by the cross-hairs of the telescopic sight. He had turned away, toward the mirror, and she had centered the cross-hairs on the back of his head, and squeezed the trigger.
Even with the silencer the shot had sounded like a hammer-blow on a door, and she had hurried away to the fire escape, mentally preparing the report she would encode and radio to the SDECE headquarters in Paris-OFFER WAS A TRAP, DISCRETIONARY VERIFICATION OF THE DECOY BECAME NECESSARY-but later when she listened to the police band to confirm the kill, she learned instead that Philby had been taken, alive, to the American University Hospital.
She should have known that his birthday-of-record would not be his real one. And she could not deny now that his offer to defect was clearly genuine; the SDECE team would exfiltrate him, and soon the service would learn that she had slept with a Soviet agent directly after the infamous 1948 catastrophe in the Ahora Gorge.
Trying to kill Philby had not been part of her orders, had not been for the defense of France -it had been sheer attempted murder, a mortal sin. The next morning, with as much "firm purpose of amendment" she could muster, she had confessed it at the St. Francis Roman Catholic Church on Hamra Street.
She tied a towel around her white hair, put on a pair of oversized sunglasses, then opened her hotel room door and inhaled the chilly sea air.
She stepped to the rail and looked down at the crowded tables under the bright red umbrellas on the terrace-and fell back against the stucco wall, her heart racing and her face suddenly cold.
Andrew Hale was sitting at one of the tables, blinking up at a waiter.
"Will they kill thee?"
"Oah, thatt is nothing. I am a good enough Herbert
Spencerian, I trust, to meet little thing like death, which is all in my fate, you know. But-but they may beat me."
– Rudyard Kipling, Kim
The waiter said, "Here's a list. Gin…Scotch…brandy…vodka…"
Hale's attention had been caught by the man's first sentence, and vodka made four. "Right," said Hale hastily, "vodka." God! he thought; after a night of arak! Why couldn't the fourth word have been beer? But his thudding heartbeat had instantly become more rapid, for this was the old SOE recognition code; though of course the waiter might not be a player at all, might simply have sized Hale up as a man who needed strong drink this morning. Hale squinted up against the sunlight at the clean-shaven young waiter. He appeared to be Lebanese.
"On the rocks," Hale added.
The table was on a railed cement deck on the Mediterranean-facing side of the St. Georges Hotel; a red umbrella shaded half of the table from the pre-noon sun, but Hale had chosen one of the white-painted wrought-iron chairs in the direct sunlight. Sweating seemed to lessen his headache, and his white shirt was already clinging to him.
Hakob Mammalian had knocked at Hale's hotel room door at about ten o'clock, an hour ago, and said that Philby wanted to meet them up the street at the St. Georges Hotel, rather than at the Normandy; and Mammalian was now standing only six yards away, at the rail overlooking the beach and the white sails on the blue sea. Hale had got perhaps four hours of sleep after the long, recorded interview. At least he couldn't remember any dreams.
"Shall I tally the bill now, sir?" the waiter asked.
Hale frowned in thought. I've got to think of a contrary and then a parallel or an example, he told himself. "Rather than me pay cash now," he said haphazardly. "Why don't you simply bill it to the Queen." He caught the waiter's eye and raised an eyebrow toward Mammalian. For God's sake, Hale thought, don't say anything here to compromise my cover!
The waiter smiled and nodded. "Do be careful not to overindulge, sir," he said. "If you were inebriated on the street, you would be arrested-and taken to jail. Very routine, happens with frequency."
He stepped away from the table to take Mammalian's order, and Hale peered after him uncertainly. Had that been the deliberate recognition signal? Had Hale just been ordered to fake drunkenness so as to be arrested, and presumably receive his long-delayed Declare briefing in the local jail-or had that simply been a friendly warning from a plain hotel employee? He would have to assume the man was an SOE operative, and that it had been deliberate.
Hale heard Mammalian order coffee and arak, and then the big Armenian was shuffling back to the table, his blue-striped gown flapping in the wind.
"He's right," said Mammalian as he pulled out another chair and sat down. "You shouldn't get drunk."
The sea breeze was pleasantly cool on Hale's forehead, but he would have to be moving soon. He had to bolt this drink and then get out onto the Avenue des Français, where, if he had understood the waiter correctly, surete officers were waiting to arrest him. "A sober traitor will cost you a lot more," Hale said, putting irritation in his voice.
"Does it sting you, valuably, to use ugly words like that?" Mammalian was staring at him curiously.
"'Traitor.' You were born in Palestine, and the service you worked for planned to kill you even before you fled, a week ago. Do you suppose that in 1948 they went looking for the SAS men in your party who had gone mad on the mountain? Well, perhaps they did-to kill them, 'give them the truth.' No, my friend, you are simply devoting all of your energies and recollections now to a new cause-one that will allow you to sire children in the next century, and the century after that."
"'Take the cash in hand, and waive the rest,'" quoted Hale, shaking his head. "Children in another century! How is all this live-forever stuff supposed to happen, precisely?"
"You are skeptical, after all that you have seen!" Mammalian bared his white teeth in a grin. "Perhaps you will become the consort of a goddess, Andrew Hale, and share in her immortality. Perhaps you will have a djinn for a body slave, who will protect you from every ill, even from age. If all else fails, you will eat a salad of enchanted thistles, and never die. Believe me, the 'cash in hand' will be the most trivial of your rewards. You do a service for angels here."
"And for Russians."
"The angels do not distinguish among our nations."
Seem reckless and belligerent, Hale thought. "The Russians…kidnapped one of your angels," he said, "in 1883, didn't they? Took it back to Moscow, moored it with drogue stones, anchors, in the Lubyanka basement and at the Soviet borders. I would think his fellows-" He remembered the thing he had seen in Berlin, and corrected himself: "Her fellows, would look unkindly on that."
Mammalian's face was expressionless. "If we-when we succeed, on the mountain, this time-" He raised a hand hesitantly. "You needn't fear that there will be injustice."
Hale quickly looked over his shoulder, as if impatient for his vodka-for Mammalian, hungover himself, had given away more than he had meant to, and there was no advantage for Hale in seeming to have noticed.
But Hale was certain now that Mammalian's loyalty here was to the djinn themselves, and not to the Rabkrin. And Hale wondered if Mammalian had even been a devout Communist during the Rabkrin attempt in 1948.
In fact the waiter was now striding back toward their table, carrying a tray; and neither of the seated men spoke as the two glasses and the coffee cup were set down on the glass tabletop. But as the young man was stepping away Hale called, "Another vodka here, please! And a cold Almaza beer with it to put out the fire." He bolted the glass of vodka in two hard swallows.
The waiter nodded without looking back.
"You will be useless before noon, at this rate!" exclaimed Mammalian in dismay. "And Charles Garner drinks arak!"