Declare, p.51
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       Declare, p.51

           Tim Powers
 
Page 51

 

  Khaki-clad Turk askers stood with rifles beside the weathered sign that announced KARS-SOVIYET SINIRI, the border between the Soviet Union and the Kars district of Turkey, and four Russian soldiers in green uniforms marched across the bridge from a black Czech Tatra sedan parked on the eastern side; two of the Russians were clearly officers, with blue bands around the visors of their caps and gold epaulettes on their shoulders, while the other two were plain pogranichniki, border guards carrying rifles with bayonets. The Russians and the Turks saluted one another, and the Turk soldiers handed over a sheaf that presumably was the train crew's passports and any bills of lading.

  Hale was standing beside Philby and the stocky, red-faced Burgess in the shadow of a guard shack a hundred feet away from the tracks on the western side, and all three watched the two pogranichniki walk around the train cars, poking their bayonet blades into the spaces under the carriages.

  "I h-hope your Armenians are s-s-stoical about a blade or two up their arses," said Philby softly to Hale. They were dressed in anonymous khaki for this dawn outing, and they were being careful not to be heard speaking English. "Though some m-might like it, I sup-s-suppose. Do you f-fancy any of those pogranichniki, G-Guy?"

  Hale was making a modest show of glancing covertly at the train, and he wished the other two Englishmen had not come along to observe. Philby had insisted on driving them all out here in an embassy-pool jeep, and he was the Head of Station.

  "Pooh!" said Burgess, pouting his full lips toward the Russian soldiers. "Slavs have shovel faces. Slav probably means shovel in some Balkan language. "

  "Be quiet," whispered Hale.

  Burgess turned from Philby to give Hale a pop-eyed stare. Perceiving that Hale was annoyed, he went on in a mock-reasonable tone. "It's true. Look-you or I, if we were starving and saw a potato growing in the dirt, we'd dig it out and cook it. " His breath was sharp with vodka, though the sun was hardly above the eastern hills. "But Slavic facial features are clearly evolved for diving right into the dirt to eat the potato, dirt and all, not bothering with the hands: the teeth slant out, there's no chin to get in the way, the cheekbones make fenders, and the eyes slant back and up, and the ears are set back to keep the dirt out. "

  Philby was laughing softly.

  The Russian soldiers a hundred feet away had stepped back from the train cars, and on the locomotive's black flank the long connecting rods rose and shifted forward as the steel driving wheels began to roll and the train surged ahead, onto the bridge.

  "Intermission," said Philby as the train picked up speed and the first of the cars rattled up the metal bridge. "Half an hour from now it will return, backward. We can check then for blood on the brake riggings and the axle-boxes. "

  Which there will of course not be, Hale thought, unless by coincidence someone really did sneak across this morning-and who would want to sneak into the Soviet Union?

  "No," he said, nodding toward a watchtower that stood only a hundred yards away on the Soviet side of the border. "If they see a party hanging about to look at the undercarriage, they'll know we sent someone across. We leave now. " He began trudging back toward Philby's jeep, and was relieved to hear the other two following him.

  "What were the names of your Armenians?" called Burgess from behind him.

  Hale stepped up on the jeep's running board and looked back at Philby and Burgess. "Laurel-ian and Hardy-ian," he said.

  "Oh, see, he's a c-c-close-mouthed b-b-boy, Guy," said Philby, puffing up to the left side, where the Ford jeep's steering wheel was. "Don't even t-try to draw him out with your sut-suttee-subtleties. "

  Hale sat down cross-legged on a coil of rope in the bed of the vehicle, and as Burgess grunted and hoisted his portly frame up into the passenger seat, Hale noticed for the first time a steel ring welded onto the dashboard on that side, right next to the brass plate that showed the gear-shifting positions. And when Philby had started the jeep and clanked it abruptly into reverse, Hale grabbed at the rope coil and found himself gripping an oblong steel ring knotted to one end of the line; glancing down, he saw that the oblong ring could be opened at a spring-loaded gate-it was a carabiner, a snap-link. He was sure that the rope was meant to be secured to the ring on the dashboard, to drag something; but why not simply moor the line to the hitch on the back bumper?

  As Philby rocked the jeep around in the yard behind the guard shack and shifted into first gear, Hale groped among the rope coils under him to find the other end. And when he found it he recognized the release-pin housing of a weather balloon launcher.

  The rope wasn't for dragging something-it was for towing an airborne balloon.

  SIS business, he thought-but when he glanced up he caught Philby's gaze in the rear-view mirror, and Philby's eyes were narrowed with obvious displeasure.

  Hale shrugged and dropped the end of the rope. "Weather balloon?" he said, loudly over the roar of the four-cylinder engine.

  "Fuck me wept!" exclaimed Burgess, thrashing around in the passenger seat to goggle back at him.

  "I'm doing," said Philby clearly, as if to prevent any further outburst from the drunken Burgess, "a top-poppographical s-s-survey, of the border r-regions out here. Operation Spyglass, we sussur-surveillance wallahs are c-calling it. And in order to m-measure atmospheric presh-pressure, and t-temperature, and relative you-you-humidity, we attach a radiosonde t-transmitter to in-sin-instruments on a wet-wet-weather b-balloon, moored to a mobile receiving station: namely th-this jeep. " He cuffed sweat from his forehead as he steered the jeep along the dirt road back toward Kars. "Ultra-sensitive operation-k-keep it under your h-hat. "

  "Fine," said Hale easily, squinting out at the green hills. "Better you lot than me. "

  But as he kept a distracted expression on his face, he was remembering the balloon he had glimpsed over the incongruous Arab boat on the eastern side of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin three years ago, in the oily warm rain-the balloon that had been engulfed, a moment later, by the sentient tornado. Like bait swallowed by a fish?-a lightning rod struck by lightning?

  Philby had been in Berlin, then. Had he been monitoring that briefly glimpsed balloon, from a safe position on the western side of the gate?

  Two alien thoughts had intruded themselves into Hale's mind on that turbulent night: She walks in Beauty, like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies, and Zat al-Dawahi, Mistress of Misfortunes, look favorably upon our sacrifice! He had been sure then that he had picked up the thoughts like a badly tuned radio receiving two signals at once, and now in the back of this rocking jeep he wondered for the first time if the intruding thoughts could have been Kim Philby's.

  He recalled another night, nearly four years before that night in Berlin, when he had heard thoughts in an older man's voice, and had even tasted the Scotch the other man had been drinking. It had happened when he and Elena had used the old clochard rhythms to flee the Rue le Regrattier house in Paris and had ended up walking blindly all the way to the end of the ile de la Cite.

  It seemed to him now that that voice too had been Philby's. And on the last night of 1941 he had seen Philby in a dream, in which Philby had split into two men; and that had been about seventy-two hours before Hale and Philby first actually met, in the interrogation room at Latchmere House in Richmond.

  Hale swirled the milky liquor in his glass, and then gave Mammalian a look that he knew must appear frightened. "Why do I-seem to have some kind of psychic. . . link with Kim Philby?"

  Across the polished table, Mammalian shifted in his chair and looked away. "I am not a theologian, Andrew," he said. "He is ten years older than you, nearly to the day, if your stated birthdays are to be believed. I will tell you this-the Rabkrin is now convinced that both of you must be present on the mountain, working together, for this attempt to succeed. " Seeing Hale shiver, he stood up and walked around him, and as Hale stared into his glass he heard Mammalian pulling the window closed and latching it.
From behind him the Armenian's voice asked again, "What did you learn from the Kurds?"

  Tell him something he already knows, thought Hale. "I learned that, in 1942, British Army engineers in the Iraq mountains above Mosul had extinguished the 'burning, fiery furnace' that's mentioned in the Old Testament Book of Daniel-the perpetual natural-gas flare into which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon threw Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. We had to, the Luftwaffe was using it for night navigation. "

  The Zagros mountain range was a vast snow-capped wilderness that extended from western Iran by the Persian Gulf up along the boundaries of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and the Soviet Union. During the war the United States Army had run supply trains through the mountain passes to Russian bases on the Caspian Sea, and the Red Army had established transient outposts in the highlands above Teheran, but the Zagros Mountains had always belonged to the Kurds-who had been the Kardouchoi, described by Xenophon in the fourth century B. C. as "warlike people who dwelt up in the mountains," and who had been the Medes who stormed Babylon and killed King Belshazar at his feast.

  Hale was to find that time passed unevenly in the mountains, free of all calendars; things seemed to happen either at once, or never.

  On the evening of the same day that had started at the train tracks by the border crossing, Hale was pushing his way through a mixed herd of donkeys and goats up a narrow street toward the house of Siamand Barakat Khan, the chief of this small village in the mountains above Sadarak and the Aras River. The southwest half of the sky was blocked by snowy peaks rimmed with pink in the last rays of the sun, but the winter had retreated from these lower slopes, and Hale was sweating as he shuffled forward between the furry beasts. In order to be inconspicuous he was dressed in baggy blue wool trousers and a Kurdish quilted felt vest like a life-preserver, with the horsehair fringes of a turban waving in front of his eyes-but the valise that he held above his head with both hands contained a short-wave radio, much more powerful and compact than the old models he and Elena had had to use in Paris seven years earlier.

  An RAF Chevrolet truck had taken him up the steep mountain roads to within a mile of the village, and after dropping Hale off the driver had turned back, hoping to get to the British outpost at Aralik before full dark.

  The only herder that Hale could see for all this livestock appeared to be a boy who was walking behind the beasts and scraping dung into a sack-but even as Hale braced himself for the last push through the donkeys that blocked his way and the goats that bit at his vest, the crowd of animals was separating into twos and threes, trotting purposefully away down this alley or that toward their familiar stables. Hale was at last able to lower the valise and stride freely across the packed dirt to the gate of the Khan's house. Cold air down from the mountain peaks blew away the livestock smell.

  Theodora had said that Hale would be expected and welcomed, and in fact the white-bearded Kurd who stood beside the gate stepped forward without unslinging the rifle from his shoulder and took Hale's free hand and lifted it to his forehead.

  "A joyful welcome, Hale Beg," said the man in English as he released Hale's hand. He too wore a turban with the fringe that was meant to keep off flies, but it didn't appear to bother him. "How are you? Where have you come from? How are your children? I am Howkar Zeid. " He spread his arms in a gesture that took in the boy with the bag of donkey dung, and two women in blue robes who were hurrying past on the opposite side of the twilit street, as well as Hale; "Siamand Khan invites you all to sup with him!"

  Hale had had enough experience of Bedu greetings to recognize these as formalities rather than challenges. "I am well, thank you, Howkar Zeid," he told the man. He looked over his shoulder and saw the boy and the two women bowing and murmuring as they continued on their ways, and he guessed that the broadcast invitation had been a formality too, routinely declined. He was wondering whether he was expected to decline the invitation as well, when the old man took his elbow and led him in through the gate. Already Hale could smell roasted mutton and coffee, and again he was reminded of the Arab tribes.

  The Khan's house was a two-story structure, a wooden framework filled in with alternating sections of mud brick and rough stone; the windows were dimly lamplit squares of cloth set back in rectangles of stone coping.

  Hale took off his shoes, and then was led in his stocking feet through a shadowy hallway to a broad stone-walled room that was brightly lit by a paraffin lamp hung on a chain from a ceiling beam. The dirt floor was almost entirely covered with expensive-looking red-and-purple rugs, and Hale's host stood up from a European upholstered chair and strode forward across the floor.

  Howkar Zeid was pouring coffee into tiny cups at an ornate black table in the corner, but Hale was looking warily at his host.

  The Khan was dressed in a dark Western business suit and a knitted cap, with an orange silk scarf around his neck instead of a necktie; and Hale thought that even dressed this way he would have alarmed pedestrians in London or Paris, for the haggard brown face behind the white moustache was ferocious even in cheerful greeting, and the man moved on the balls of his feet with his big hands out to the sides, as if ready at any moment to spring into violent action.

  Siamand Khan shook Hale's hand like an American, strongly and vigorously.

  "My friend!" exclaimed the Khan in English as he released Hale's hand. His voice was a gravelly tenor. "Thank you for what you bring us!" He took a cup of coffee from Howkar Zeid and handed it to Hale with a bow.

  Theodora had mentioned having sent a gift of rifles on ahead. "You're welcome," Hale said, bowing himself as he took the tiny cup.

  "This is a radio!" the man observed, pointing at Hale's valise. Two moustached men in vests like Hale's and caps like the Khan's had stepped into the room from an interior doorway.

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