Declare, p.55
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       Declare, p.55

           Tim Powers
 
Page 55

 

  He stamped on the brake and peered in that direction, but he didn't see the glow again; he backed the jeep in a wide arc onto the south shoulder of the path, to sweep the area on the opposite side with the headlamp beam-and he caught a gleam of reflected light on metal.

  He rocked the gear-shift into first gear and drove slowly forward across the road, and soon recognized the stack of unused bicycles. The helicopter was indeed gone. But though he had not seen the vertical glow again, he knew that it must have shone from the Anderson bomb shelter in the field beyond.

  Instantly he switched off the light and the engine; and he hefted the. 45 revolver and swung his legs stiffly down out of the jeep and stood up on the muddy grass. As he stole silently toward what he believed was the black hump of the bomb shelter, he saw again the gleam of yellow light, and he realized that it was lamplight inside the shelter, escaping through the gap at the hinge side of the door.

  A British voice from the darkness startled him so badly that he nearly pulled the trigger of the revolver: "Drop the g-gun, I've got you in my sights. I've h-heard you c-coming for the last t-t-ten m-miles. "

  Hale didn't move. "Philby," he said, trying to speak levelly.

  "Is it Andrew hay-hay-Hale?"

  "Yes. "

  "Are you alone?"

  "Yes. "

  "Ah, g-good. I've only got enough l-l-liquor for two m-men to get properly d-drunk tonight, while w-we w-wait for dawn. The road to dog-dog-Dogubayezit would be impossible at n-night, t-trust me. "

  Hale heard footsteps swishing laterally across the grass then, and a moment later the bomb shelter door was pulled open, spilling lamplight out across the wet grass.

  "D-d-do step in, my b-boy-you m-must be f-fruh-freezing. "

  Hale saw a figure in Kurd jacket and trousers crouch to step into the shelter, but he caught a glimpse of the face, and it was Philby's pouchy, humorous eyes that glanced back at him.

  Hale shoved the gun back into its holster and hurried out of the cold night into the glowing shelter.

  The bomb shelter wasn't tall enough to stand up in, and Philby was already sitting cross-legged against the corrugated steel wall at the back, with the paraffin lantern by his right elbow on a low shelf. A tan woolen Army blanket had been spread over the five-foot width of the floor, and Hale sat down on it after he had pulled the door closed behind him and pushed the bolt through the hasp.

  Several more blankets were folded and stacked on a shelf under the curved-over metal ceiling; Hale reached up and pulled one down, and then tugged off the soaked Kurdish vest and wrapped himself snugly in the dry wool. The rain was coming down harder now outside, drumming on the steel roof over his head.

  He leaned back against the bolted door, but even at this opposite end of the shelter he was only six feet away from Philby's knees.

  Philby was smiling as he twisted a cork into a nearly full bottle of Macallan Scotch and then rolled it across the floor toward Hale. Hale's numb fingers managed to grab it, but he used his teeth to pull out the cork and spit it onto the blanket by his boots. He tilted the bottle up, and the cold golden liquor seemed to boom like an organ chord in his chest, spreading heat and blessed looseness through his cramped muscles. Dried blood, he noticed now, spotted his knuckles and the backs of his hands. He lowered the bottle to take a breath, then lifted it again for another solid swallow, impatient for the sense of forgiveness he knew was alcohol's to bestow.

  "Are all y-your SAS men d-dead?" Philby asked.

  Hale wondered how Philby knew that an SAS patrol had been involved. "I thought the SAS was disbanded after the war," he whispered, exhaling richly volatile Scotch fumes.

  "Like the SOE. " Philby sighed, and recited, almost to himself, "'When as a lion's whelp shall to himself unknown, without seeking find, and be embraced by a piece of tender air; and when from a stately cedar shall be lopped branches, which being dead many years, shall after revive, be jointed to the old stock, and freshly grow; then shall the posthumous end their miseries, Britain be fortunate, and flourish in peace and plenty. '" For a moment he was glaring furiously at Hale. "'Read, and declare the meaning. '"

  Hale blinked at him in genuine bewilderment, careful to show no response to the word declare.

  Philby hooded his eyes in a smile. "Sorry-Shakespeare, the prominent B-British playwright-Cymbeline, Act Five. Do you th-think that didn't. . . b-b-bother me, as a child? 'A lion's whelp,' 'without seeking find'? What were you all d-d-doing up there? I am the Head of Station in T-T-Turkey. First a commotion on the So-So-Soviet border down by Sadarak, and th-then a thousand rounds of ammunition f-fired off in the ha-ha-Ahora G-Gorge!" He was still smiling, but Hale had blinked the exhausted blurriness out of his eyes, and he thought Philby looked desolated, as if by some enormous disappointment.

  "I-heard it," said Hale. "I drove around up there, but I wasn't able to find out what was going on. Shooting, evidently, as you say. " He wondered what Philby would say when he got a look at the bullet-riddled jeep.

  For the first time it occurred to him that his career, SIS or SOE, was probably over, after the disaster this operation had been. He took another sip of the Scotch, and then his hands had loosened up enough for him to shove the cork into the bottle and roll it back to Philby.

  Philby opened his mouth to speak, then appeared to think better of it. "'A lion's whelp,'" he said again, catching the bottle and uncorking it for a liberal swallow. "My f-father is Harry St. John f-f-Philby-have you h-heard of him?"

  Author of The Empty Quarter, thought Hale. "Noted Arabist, I believe. "

  "Who was your ff-f-father?"

  "A Catholic priest, according to the village gossip. "

  Philby nodded owlishly at him. "Have you ever h-heard of Rudyard Kipling?"

  Hale sighed. "He wrote a book called Kim. I have read it. "

  "Ah! Well, my f-father gave me that n-nickname, because I reminded him of the b-b-boy in that very book. I was b-born in Ambala-that's in-in-in India , Andrew!-in 1912. I spoke H-Hindi before I learned hig-ig-English. When and where were you born?"

  " 1922, in Chipping Campden, in the Cotswolds. "

  "Or possibly in polly-p-p-Palestine, as your SIS records c-claim. Were you khh-chriss-baptized in the J-Jordan River? My f-father t-took me along with him on a t-t-trip to collect s-samples of Jordan w-water, the year after your b-birth. "

  "I certainly don't recall. "

  "Y-you were in Berlin thruh-three years ago, and n-now here you are at rahrah-Arararah-Agri Dag, damn it. " He raised his eyebrows. "Do you have queer d-dreams on New Year's Eve?"

  Hale forced down his alarm and made himself smile quizzically. "I suppose so. And then wake up with a hangover. "

  Philby nodded. "Let's pass the t-time with a game of c-cards," he said. He tipped the bottle up for another mouthful and set it down carefully, and then dug a pack of playing cards out from under his blue Kurdish robe. Hale noticed for the first time that the man's robe was nearly as soaked as Hale's vest. "Poker," Philby said as he opened the box and spilled the red-backed cards into his hand.

  Hale laughed mechanically. "With promissory notes?" he said. "I'm afraid I left my notecase at the hotel in Kars. "

  "And I b-brought a j-jewel, but I'm afraid I s-s-swallowed it. D-Did you know that poker d-derives from an old purr-Persian card game, known as As-Nas? It was an ancestor of the F-F-French Ambigu as well. We can play for her. "

  Hale could feel the Scotch beginning to do its good work. He blinked at Philby in the lamplight. "Her? Who, this Ambigu?"

  Philby pouted his lips and shook his head. "You know who I m-mean. She appears to f-fancy b-both of us, so the l-loser of this hand will agree to stay-stay out of the other mman's way, fair enough? Elena Ceniza-Bendiga. "

  Hale's face burned with suddenly renewed humiliation-Cannibale!-and he wished the bottle was up at his end. "I won't play," he muttered. He recalled Elena's headlong gallop down the
lightless mountain path. "She may be dead, in any case. "

  "Then it's p-probably academic, isn't it?" Philby's face was heavy and expressionless, his lower lip hanging away from his teeth; Hale was reminded of the gargoyles on Notre-Dame. "We can play for her," Philby repeated, in a voice that made Hale think of heavy clay.

  Dimly Hale realized that this was a moral choice, possibly an important one. But there was no God, and Elena loathed him; and through his mind flickered a bit of Swinburne's verse: We thank, with brief thanksgiving, whatever gods may be, that no life lives for ever; that dead men rise up never; that even the weariest river winds somewhere safe to sea. No resurrection, no judgment. The bottle rolled across the blanket and rapped his knuckles, and he picked it up. "Very well," he said hoarsely. "Five-card draw?"

  Philby's charm had returned in the crinkling of his eyes and the quirk of his lips. "She's not dead, by the way-she rode past here twenty minutes ago, on a horse. No, not five-draw. A different derivation of As-Nas, I think," he said as he began shuffling the cards in a lazy, overhand style. "Seven-card stud-high-low-declare, not cards-speak. "

  Again Hale made himself show no reaction to the word declare. "High-low?" he asked. "Low hand splits the pot? How can that work? We can't split her, the way. . . the way King Solomon offered to split the baby those women brought to him. "

  The thunder of rain on the roof was redoubled, and the ground under the steel floor shook with an aftershock of the earthquake, or perhaps at the impact of a close lightning strike. Fleetingly Hale thought of the rough glass fulgurites he had found in the Rub' al-Khali desert three months ago.

  Philby had paused in his shuffling to stare speculatively at the curved, ribbed ceiling. "You're insane," he remarked in a conversational tone, "to invoke that name here, tonight. But you have, at least, summoned witnesses! No, we won't split her. High hand wins her, and the low hand wins this. "

  Holding the deck of cards in one hand, he reached with the other inside his robe, and then tossed out onto the blanket a thick roll of buff-colored paper.

  Hale stared curiously at it-it appeared to be a manila envelope, tightly rolled up and tied with a ribbon. Red wax had been smeared across the ribbon and over an ink signature on the outside of the envelope, and the paper was speckled with half-dried red drops, blotted in spots with a dampness that must be recent rain.

  From where he sat, Hale could read the signature's last name-Maly.

  Hale widened his eyes at Philby.

  "I was supposed to get that in '37, from an old friend, a Soviet agent I had. . . doubled, and was running in England. An inheritance, last-wishes type of thing. I only got it tonight, and even so I had to take it off of a dead man. "

  "And it is what?"

  "It's the true Eucharist, the guide to it, anyway; it's the reason Stalin purged the GRU in '37-what you'd have called the Razvedupr, during your Paris days. Did you know that even the GRU cooks and lavatory attendants were killed, in that purge? The illegals in Europe had stumbled on a discovery, learned it from the Communist Polish Jews who had fled to Palestine, in the 1920s, and run the undercover Unity network there. At first it was just a-well, you must have stumbled across it-a sort of beat, or cadence, used in telegraphy, to project signals better. But the illegals eventually discovered that this sort of cadence could evoke peculiar aid in all sorts of situations. Eventually this man"-he reached forward to tap the rolled envelope-"discovered how it could be used to-if used in a certain symbiosis-prevent death. "

  At the word death the shelter shook with a hard gust of shotgunning rain.

  "Yes!" Philby shouted at the roof. To Hale, he went on, "You know the amomon plant-your Kurds must have told you about it. "

  Hale turned up one palm. "Remind me. "

  "It's what my father searched for in the Rub' al-Khali desert, what Lawrence found and chose to die rather than use; it's-well, it's the way to avoid the 'truth to be found on the unknown shore,' be sure that you won't 'without seeking find. ' Stop anyone from establishing the truth about you, hmm? Evade the"-the corners of his lips turned down ironically-"'the wrath of God. '"

  "Not die, you mean," said Hale. "Directions are in that envelope. "

  "Your position is gone, you do know that, don't you? You're out of a job, old son; so why bother acting skeptical now? Yes, in this envelope! It's. . . it's partly a crude musical score, I'm told, and partly a recipe, for the preparation and awakening of the angel that slumbers in the thistle. " He smiled. "You were brought up a Catholic-evade the Last Judgment, husband your precious sins-live forever, without the necessity of a resurrection!"

  "And you're willing to gamble that against"-Hale paused to gulp some more of the Scotch-"just for an unobstructed way with Elena. "

  Philby opened his mouth as if in a laugh, but if there was any sound it was too soft for Hale to hear over the drumming of the rain. "I'm confident I'll get this again," Philby said, "if not entry to immortality on a higher level of access. You'll never see it again, that's certain. "

  And no djinn died on the mountain tonight, Hale thought dully. There will be no poisoned honey for the Kurds next spring, and I won't be bringing Elena to the village of Siamand Barakat Khan. But I might be able, back in the Nafud or Summan regions of the desert outside Kuwait, to find and kill a djinn; and then the following spring take a party of the Mutair out to look for blooming thistles. . .

  Live forever, evade the wrath of God.

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