Declare, p.77
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       Declare, p.77

           Tim Powers
 
Page 77

 

  Neither of them said anything more until they had reached the park Philby had mentioned, a narrow grassy square with wooden benches around the periphery. And several of the old men on the benches were holding bottles.

  Hale and Philby found an unoccupied bench in the far corner, and sat down heavily enough to creak the boards.

  Philby was staring at Hale. "'What brings thee in to me,'" he said, "'seeing that thou art not of my kind and canst not therefore be assured of safety from violence or ill-usage?'"

  "The way in which I am of your kind outweighs all the rest," Hale told him, his voice still shaky. "I've come to propose a trade. " His heartbeat was slowing down, and at least he was able to speak without gasping. "Do you still have Theo Maly's instructions for preparation of the amomon root? Specifically a copy of those instructions?"

  Philby stared at him blankly. "Yes. "

  "Well, I want a copy. In exchange for that, and for one other thing, I will give you directions to a dead-letter box, a dubok, that I've found here in the city. In the dubok is an inhabited amomon root, wrapped up in waxed paper and rubber bands. It's my suspicion that the Soviet authorities will not have seen fit to provide you with one. "

  Philby shifted on the bench, then held out his hand for the bottle, which Hale passed to him. "Where," Philby whispered after he had taken a swallow, "did you get a live amomon root?"

  "In the Zagros mountains, last spring. The djinn-kill on Ararat was massive-there were whole hillsides of blooming amomon thistles. "

  "Ah," Philby said. "Yes, there would have been. "

  Hale took the bottle back and lifted it for another sip. He had to keep reminding himself that Philby had cold-bloodedly betrayed Hale's men in the Ahora Gorge in 1948, for what Hale was proposing here was a cruel fraud: even if Philby should correctly ingest an inhabited amomon root, his bloodstream would spin the primitive djinn past the Shihab shot pellets that were probably still imbedded in his back, and the amomon djinn would be killed instantly, uselessly. There could be no amomon immortality for Philby, though Hale needed him to believe that it was possible.

  "What is the 'one other thing' you want, in exchange?" asked Philby.

  "The diamond that Prince Feisal gave you in 1919," said Hale, making himself speak without emphasis. "The rafiq stone. "

  Philby was laughing softly, his puffy face gray in the cold sunlight. "Oh, Andrew! And here you are, devoted boy, in Moscow, on her fortieth birthday! Like Gershwin's Porgy, looking for Bess! I daresay you've got airline tickets, and so you need the rafiq diamond in order to fly out of the Soviet Union with her, unmolested by the angry angels at cruising altitudes! To where, boy? Back to your Bedouins?"

  Hale's whole body had gone cold. "She-t-told you?" he said-and remotely it occurred to him that Philby had lost his own stammer. "You?"

  "I've always been good about remembering birthdays," Philby said placidly. "Yes, in Dogubayezit she told me about her vow, on the day after nobody succeeded in the Ahora Gorge. 1948, you must remember it. She made a prayer to the Blessed Virgin, right?-when she was imprisoned in the Lubyanka here, during the war: 'I vow that on my fortieth birthday at high noon I will light a candle for you right here in Moscow '-O Mother of God!-'at St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square. ' Very devout young lady, I gathered, though she and I-" He chuckled and shook his head, then said, clearly reciting, "'Blue the sky from east to west arches, and the world is wide, though the girl he loves the best rouses from another's side. '" He glanced at Hale. "That's-"

  "Housman, I know. " Hale ignored the implication. He hadn't allowed for Philby knowing that Elena was supposed to be at the cathedral on this day, and he reconsidered the lines-of-compulsion in his proposed deal with him. "I will give you directions to the dubok that contains the inhabited thistle root-it should be testably genuine, able to animate cigarette ashes placed near it, or to wiggle the legs of freshly killed flies, for example, small agitations-and as soon as I have Maly's directions and the rafiq diamond-"

  "My wife Eleanor is living with me here in Moscow," Philby interrupted. "I don't think you met her, back in Beirut, did you? Lovely woman, but her passport expires in July, three months from now, and she's determined to be back in the United States by then. She's got a daughter there, by a previous marriage. She loves me, you understand, but she doesn't want to become just one more of the ring-road birds. "

  Hale decided to let Philby ramble-it was dangerous to let him control the conversation this way, but Hale might learn something that could be useful as leverage. "Ring-road birds?" he said.

  "'Dust is their food and clay is their meat, and they are clothed like birds in garments of feathers,'" Philby said. "Have you met them, the expatriates who've defected, given up their old citizenships-in the service, as they come unhappily to learn, of her? I swear their breath doesn't steam, on winter days!-as if they have no more body heat than trees, or lichens. When it was clear that Eleanor couldn't be dissuaded from catching an Aeroflot flight here to join me, my old pal Nicholas bloody Elliott took her to a London cinema and made her watch The Birds, that new Alfred Hitchcock movie. Have you seen it? Attractive, independent-minded young lady undertakes troublesome travel to be with the fascinating man, but brings down on herself the injurious wrath of the ordinarily timid fowls, and ends up in shock, mute and infirm. I could be a, a king, among that sad population. . . if I was willing to let go of what shreds of humanity I still possess. "

  "I met one of them yesterday," Hale said. "He-pitched over dead of fright, while I was talking to him. "

  Philby laughed and shook his head. "They're frail," he agreed, "individually. In a group, though, they have a certain spiteful power. And their eyes just glitter with sick envy when they learn that Eleanor still has a valid passport! Even Donald Maclean simply shivers when she speaks of flying back to- New York, London. And she is resolved to fly out, in June. And so"-he shrugged and smiled-"I will be without a wife, my boy! I think it was Hemingway who said that the state of being married is unimaginable until you've entered it, and then once you've been married you can't ever imagine not being. I've had three wives, and I'm vigorous enough for at least one more. "

  "What if," said Hale unsteadily, "Elena doesn't. . . want you?"

  "Do you think that will matter? Here? Droit de komissar, my boy!" Philby reached out one blunt-fingered hand to tousle Hale's hair affectionately, but Hale flinched back when he felt a blade cut his scalp. Philby was unfolding a handkerchief now and scraping onto the monogrammed silk the shred of bloody hair he had cut off with a tiny folding knife.

  "There," Philby said with satisfaction as he refolded the handkerchief and tucked it away. "Cheat me now, and I'll have the Mother of Catastrophes on you like a bloodhound, long before you can walk to the nearest border crossing. I don't relish the idea of summoning her and conversing, but I would make a point of it, in this case. "

  Hale's left hand was pressing his scalp above his ear, and he could feel hot blood matting his hair. He was nervously aware that he had lost control of this meeting. "I'm not going to cheat you. The terms I propose-"

  "Are irrelevant, Andrew!" Philby slapped his palms on his knees and stood up. "Excuse me for a moment, would you? while I talk to these good comrades. "

  Then Philby had strolled away across the grass toward the old men on the benches, and he had pulled a wad of banknotes from his pocket.

  Hale set the vodka bottle down on the bench beside him to grope for a handkerchief in the breast pocket of his inside-out overcoat-his scalp was still bleeding, and his left palm was red with blood. This was not going well at all. But surely Philby wanted the amomon root!

  And Hale needed the rafiq diamond. He did not want to have to try to take trains and boats out of the Soviet Union -and he certainly didn't want to walk out.

  Philby was striding back to the bench now, with a cigarette-pack-sized cardboard box in his hand instead of the bills.

  "How could
there not be a gambler," said Philby cheerfully as he sat down on the other side of the bottle, "among a crowd of Russian alcoholics? You recall Dostoyevsky!" The box he was holding was, Hale saw, a red pack of playing cards. "No, Andrew, the terms of our deal were defined fifteen years ago! The rafiq diamond resided in my guts then, and it stays with me now, though not so intimately; I was on Ararat too, a year ago, I too incurred the wrath of the stratospheric angels just as much as you did, and I might want to travel by air myself one day. " When Hale just stared at him, Philby explained patiently, "The thing is, we never finished our card game. Seven-card-stud, high-low declare-the high hand wins Elena Teresa Ceniza-Bendiga, the low hand wins the amomon procedure. " He held up his hand. "And-all three of the roots you brought are part of the amomon unit, and go in the pot. I know you brought one for yourself too, and one for Elena. "

  Philby was right, of course, beyond plausible contradiction-Hale had hidden two other inhabited roots in the journalists' hotel in the Sad Sam.

  "Yes," he admitted.

  Hale kept the angry frown on his face as he pressed the handkerchief to his scalp. But this was a rout. He had hoped to exchange one of the magical thistle roots for the diamond, and then go away on his own to meet Elena; now, though, the jewel seemed to be a lost cause, and it looked as though he'd be lucky just to be able to be the one to meet Elena! And Philby had cut a piece out of his scalp! For the first time, Hale had some professional respect for Philby as an agent-runner.

  Hale must at least seem passionately to want the amomon, for the sake of letting Philby seem to have won something by taking all three of the roots; but of course in the end Hale would declare high. He had brought along the two other amomon roots simply because he'd had them, and they had value; and because it had seemed too high-handed for Hale to decide, for Elena, that she did not want to avail herself of the magical longevity the amomon offered.

  But he was sure she would reject the option. She was, after all, a practicing Catholic, as Hale had been himself now for more than a year, and taking immortality from a fallen angel was hardly in accord with Catholic doctrine.

  In fact, Elena would almost certainly reject Hale, if he approached her in the cathedral. And the djinn-thistle, supplemented with Maly's instructions, would probably give him genuine immortality, if he won it.

  Suddenly, sickeningly, Hale was very far from sure that he did not want to be the one to win the amomon.

  "You want," he said carefully, "to deal a hand of-"

  "No, my boy, that would call for fresh rules, fresh definitions! Wild cards, cut-for-the-deal, dealer's choice, no end of arguments! No, I simply want to finish the hand that was interrupted by the earthquake in 1948. Here are cards, here are the players-here's the church and here's the steeple, open the doors and see Elena! If you won't play, if you forfeit the game, you lose-and I'll at least be the one to go meet Elena in an hour, and I'll have a good try too at getting the KGB to wring the dubok location out of you. "

  Hale's forehead was chilly with a dew of sweat. "But those cards were scattered. "

  "I remember mine. And I remember what you were showing on the board-a three, seven, ten, and nine, of different suits. Do you remember?"

  Actually, Hale did remember the hand, with hallucinatory clarity; he remembered too the rain drumming on the corrugated steel roof of the little war-surplus Anderson bomb shelter, and the tan woolen Army blankets, and the bottle of Macallan Scotch that they had rolled back and forth between them. "Yes. And you were showing an Ace, four, six, and eight; the six and the eight were diamonds. But are we to-trust each other, to choose the same hole cards we held then?"

  "That's an insulting remark from an Oxford man to a Cambridge man. And in any case it's high-low-unless one of us declares both ways, each of us gets half the pot. The girl-or life everlasting. " Philby stretched, yawning. "I wonder if she's kept her looks, our Elena? The white hair fetched me, I must say. " He smacked his lips and blinked at Hale. "You could probably kill me, right now-the old Fort Monkton skills-but of course then you'd never see Maly's instructions. And I took the Fort Monkton course too, remember, and I do have my little knife. "

  It was riskier than Philby had said. The ranks of the hands would be almost superfluous, since Philby would certainly choose new hole cards to maximally improve his own hand in one direction or the other, high or low, and he would assume that Hale would do the same-it would be more important here to guess which way the other man would declare.

  Philby leaned back and spoke into the sky: "'We have set the seal of Solomon on all things under sun,'" he said, reciting from Chesterton's Lepanto now, "'of knowledge and of sorrow and endurance of things done. '" He smiled at Hale. "That will have called witnesses, don't you think? You spoke the name of Solomon in that bomb shelter, if you recall, and it did summon attention then. "

  Hale could feel a pressure against his mind now-not the full, thought-scattering scrutiny of a corporeal djinn, but a quiver of alien attention, and he thought the grasses were moving more than the wind could explain. He exhaled to clear his nose of a new whiff of the metallic oil smell.

  Philby had moved the vodka bottle and was sorting through the cards, now laying one face-up on the bench, now tucking one under his thigh. After a minute there were three cards under his thigh and the predetermined Ace, four, six, and eight lying face-up.

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