JEAN-PIERRE walked aimlessly through the moonlit fields in the depths of a black depression. A week ago he had been fulfilled and happy, master of the situation, doing useful work while he waited for his big chance. Now it was all over, and he felt worthless, a failure, a might-have-been.

There was no way out. He ran over the possibilities again and again, but he always ended up with the same conclusion: he had to leave Afghanistan.

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His usefulness as a spy was over. He had no means of contacting Anatoly; and, even if Jane had not smashed the radio, he was unable to leave the village to meet Anatoly, for Jane would immediately know what he was doing and would tell Ellis. He might have been able to silence Jane somehow (Don't think about it, don't even think about it) but if anything happened to her Ellis would want to know why. It all came down to Ellis. I'd like to kill Ellis, he thought, if I had the nerve. But how? I have no gun. What would I do, cut his throat with a scalpel? He's much stronger than I am - I could never overcome him.

He thought about how it had gone wrong. He and Anatoly had become careless. They should have met in a place from which they had a good view of the approaches all around, so that they could have been forewarned of any approach. But who would have thought that Jane might follow him? He was the victim of the most appallingly bad luck: that the wounded boy was allergic to penicillin; that Jane had heard Anatoly speak; that she was able to recognize a Russian accent; and that Ellis had turned up to give her courage. It was bad luck. But the history books do not remember the men who almost achieved greatness. I did my best, Papa, he thought; and he could almost hear his father's reply: I'm not interested in whether you did your best, I want to know whether you succeeded or failed.

He was approaching the village. He decided to turn in. He was sleeping badly, but there was nothing else to do but go to bed. He headed for home.

Somehow the fact that he still had Jane was not much consolation. Her discovery of his secret seemed to have made them less intimate, not more. A new distance had grown up between them, even though they were planning their return home and even talking about their new life back in Europe.

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At least they still hugged one another in bed at night. That was something.

He went into the shopkeeper's house. He had expected Jane to be in bed already, but to his surprise she was still up. She spoke as soon as he walked in. "A runner came for you from Masud. You have to go to Astana. Ellis is wounded."

Ellis wounded. Jean-Pierre's heart beat faster. "How?"

"Nothing serious. I gather he's got a bullet in his bum."

"I'll go first thing in the morning."

Jane nodded. "The runner will go with you. You can be back by nightfall."

"I see." Jane was making sure he had no opportunity of meeting with Anatoly. Her caution was unnecessary: Jean-Pierre had no way of arranging such a meeting. Besides, Jane was guarding against a minor peril and overlooking a major one. Ellis was wounded. That made him vulnerable. Which changed everything.

Now Jean-Pierre could kill him.

Jean-Pierre was awake all night, thinking about it. He imagined Ellis, lying on a mattress under a fig tree, gritting his teeth against the pain of a smashed bone, or perhaps pale and weak from loss of blood. He saw himself preparing an injection. "This is an antibiotic to prevent infection of the wound," he would say, then he would inject him with an overdose of digitalis, which would give him a heart attack.

A natural heart attack was unlikely, but by no means impossible, in a man of thirty-four years, especially one who had been exercising strenuously after a long period of relatively sedentary work. Anyway, there would be no inquest, no post mortem, and no suspicions: in the West they would not doubt that Ellis had been wounded in action and had died of his wounds. Here in the Valley, everyone would accept Jean-Pierre's diagnosis. He was trusted as much as any of Masud's closest lieutenants -  quite naturally, for he had sacrificed as much as any of them for the cause, it must seem to them. No, the only doubter would be Jane. And what could she do?

He was not sure. Jane was a formidable opponent when she was backed up by Ellis; but Jane alone was not. Jean-Pierre might be able to persuade her to stay in the Valley for another year: he could promise not to betray the convoys, then find a way to reestablish contact with Anatoly and just wait for his chance to pinpoint Masud for the Russians.

He gave Chantal her bottle at two A.M., then went back to bed. He did not even try to sleep. He was too anxious, too excited and too frightened. As he lay there waiting for the sun to rise, he thought of all the things that could go wrong: Ellis might refuse treatment, he, Jean-Pierre, might get the dosage wrong, Ellis might have suffered a mere scratch and be walking around normally, Ellis and Masud might even have left Astana already.

Jane's sleep was troubled by dreams. She tossed and turned beside him, occasionally muttering incomprehensible syllables. Only Chantal slept well.

Just before dawn Jean-Pierre got up, lit the fire and went to the river to bathe. When he came back, the runner was in his courtyard, drinking tea made by Fara and eating

yesterday's left-over bread. Jean-Pierre took some tea, but could not eat anything.

Jane was feeding Chantal on the roof. Jean-Pierre went up and kissed them both goodbye. Every time he touched Jane he remembered how he had punched her, and he felt his whole being shudder with shame. She seemed to have forgiven him, but he could not forgive himself.

He led his old mare through the village and down to the riverside, then, with the runner at his side, he headed downstream. Between here and Astana there was a road, or what passed for a road in Five Lions: a strip of rocky earth, eight or ten feet wide and more or less flat, suitable for wooden carts or army jeeps although it would destroy an ordinary car within minutes. The Valley was a series of narrow rocky gorges broadening out at intervals to form small cultivated plains, a mile or two long and less than a mile wide, where the villagers scraped a living from the unwilling soil by hard work and clever irrigation. The road was good enough for Jean-Pierre to ride on the downhill stretches. (The horse was not good enough for him to ride uphill.)

The Valley must have been an idyllic place once upon a time, he thought as he rode south in the bright morning sunshine. Watered by the Five Lions River, made secure by its high valley walls, organized according to ancient traditions, and undisturbed except by a few butter carriers from Nuristan and the occasional ribbon salesman from Kabul, it must have been a throwback to the Middle Ages. Now the twentieth century had overtaken it with a vengeance. Almost every village had suffered some bomb damage: a water mill ruined, a meadow pitted with craters, an ancient wooden aqueduct smashed to splinters, a rubble-and-mortar bridge reduced to a few stepping-stones in the fast-moving river. The effect of all this on the economic life of the Valley was evident to Jean-Pierre's careful scrutiny. This house was a butcher's shop, but the wooden slab out front was bare of meat. This patch of weeds had once been a vegetable garden, but its owner had fled to Pakistan. There was an orchard, with fruit rotting on

ground when it should have been drying on a roof ready to be stored for the long, cold winter: the woman and children who used to tend the orchard were dead, and the husband was a full-time guerrilla. That heap of mud and stones had been a mosque, and the villagers had decided not to rebuild it because it would probably get bombed again. All this waste and destruction happened because men such as Masud tried to resist the tide of history, and bamboozled the ignorant peasants into supporting them. With Masud out of the way, all this would end.

And with Ellis out of the way, Jean-Pierre could deal with Masud.

He wondered, as they approached Astana toward noon, whether he would find it difficult to stick the needle in. The idea of killing a patient was so grotesque that he did not know how he would react. He had seen patients die, of course; but even then he was consumed by regret that he could not save them. When he had Ellis helpless before him, and the needle in his hand, would he be tortured by doubt, like Macbeth, or vacillate, like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment?

They went through Sangana, with its cemetery and sandy beach, then followed the road around a bend in the river. There was a stretch of farmland in front of them and a cluster of houses up on the hillside. A minute or two later a boy of eleven or twelve approached them across the fields and led them not to the village on the hill, but to a large house at the edge of the farmland.

Still, Jean-Pierre felt no doubts, no hesitation; just a kind of anxious apprehension, like the hour before an important exam.

He took his medical bag off the horse, gave the reins to the boy, and went into the courtyard of the farmhouse.

Twenty or more guerrillas were scattered around, squatting on their haunches and staring into space, waiting with aboriginal patience. Masud was not there, Jean-Pierre noticed on looking around, but two of his closest aides were. Ellis was in a shady corner, lying on a blanket.

Jean-Pierre knelt down beside him. Ellis was evidently

in some pain from the bullet. He was lying on his front. His face was taut, his teeth gritted. His skin was pale, and there was perspiration on his forehead. His breathing sounded harsh.

"It hurts, eh?" said Jean-Pierre in English.

"Fuckin'-A well told," said Ellis through his teeth.

Jean-Pierre pulled the sheet off him. The guerrillas had cut away his clothes and had put a makeshift dressing on the wound. Jean-Pierre removed the dressing. He could see immediately that the injury was not grave. Ellis had bled a lot, and the bullet still lodged in his muscle obviously hurt like hell, but it was well away from any bones or major blood vessels - it would heal fast.

No, it won't, Jean-Pierre reminded himself. It won't heal at all.

"First I'll give you something to ease the pain," he said.

"I'd appreciate that," Ellis said fervently.

Jean-Pierre pulled the blanket up. Ellis had a huge scar, shaped like a cross, on his back. Jean-Pierre wondered how he had got it.

I'll never know, he thought.

He opened his medical bag. Now I'm going to kill Ellis, he thought. I've never killed anyone, not even by accident. What is it like to be a murderer? People do it every day, all over the world: men kill their wives, women kill their children, assassins kill politicians, burglars kill householders, public executioners kill murderers. He took a large syringe and began to fill it with digitoxin: the drug came in small vials and he had to empty four of them to get a lethal dose.

What would it be like to watch Ellis die? The first effect of the drug would be to increase Ellis's heart rate. He would feel this, and it would make him anxious and uncomfortable. Then, as the poison affected the timing mechanism of his heart, he would get extra heartbeats, one small one after each normal beat. Now he would feel terribly sick. Finally the heartbeats would become totally irregular, the upper and lower chambers of the heart would

beat independently, and Ellis would die in agony and terror. What will I do, Jean-Pierre thought, when he cries out in pain, asking me, the doctor, to help him? Will I let him know that I want him to die? Will he guess that I have poisoned him? Will I speak soothing words, in my best bedside manner, and try to ease his passing? Just relax, this is a normal side effect of the pain-killer, everything is going to be all right.

The injection was ready.

I can do it, Jean-Pierre realized. I can kill him. I just don't know what will happen to me afterward.

He bared Ellis's upper arm and, from sheer force of habit, swabbed a patch with alcohol.

At that moment Masud arrived.

Jean-Pierre had not heard him approach, so he seemed to come from nowhere, making Jean-Pierre jump. Masud put a hand on his arm. "I startled you, Monsieur le docteur" he said. He knelt down at Ellis's head. "I have considered the proposal of the American government," he said in French to Ellis.

Jean-Pierre knelt there, frozen in position with the syringe in his right hand. What proposal? What the hell was this? Masud was talking openly, as if Jean-Pierre was just another of his comrades - which he was, in a way - but Ellis . . . Ellis might suggest they talk in private.

Ellis raised himself on to one elbow with an effort. Jean-Pierre held his breath. But all Ellis said was: "Go on."

He's too exhausted, thought Jean-Pierre, and he's in too much pain to think of elaborate security precautions; and besides, he has no more reason to suspect me than does Masud.

"It is good," Masud was saying. "But I have been asking myself how I am going to fulfill my part of the bargain."

Of course! thought Jean-Pierre. The Americans have not sent a top CIA agent here just to teach a few guerrillas how to blow up bridges and tunnels. Ellis is here to make a deal!

Masud went on: "This plan to train cadres from other zones must be explained to the other commanders. This will be difficult. They will be suspicious - especially if I present the proposal. I think you must put it to them, and tell them what your government is offering them."

Jean-Pierre was riveted. A plan to train cadres from other zones! What the hell was the idea?

Ellis spoke with some difficulty. "I'd be glad to do that. You would have to bring them all together.''

"Yes." Masud smiled. "I shall call a conference of all the Resistance leaders, to be held here in the Five Lions Valley, in the village of Darg, in eight days' time. I will send runners today, with the message that a representative of the United States government is here to discuss arms supplies."

A conference! Arms supplies! The shape of the deal was becoming clear to Jean-Pierre. But what should he do about it?

"Will they come?" Ellis asked.

"Many will," Masud replied. "Our comrades from the western deserts will not - it's too far, and they don't know us."

"What about the two we particularly want - Kamil and Azizi?"

Masud shrugged. "It is in God's hands."

Jean-Pierre was trembling with excitement. This would be the most important event in the history of the Afghan Resistance.

Ellis was fumbling in his kitbag, which was on the floor near his head. "I may be able to help you persuade Kamil and Azizi," he was saying. He drew from the bag two small packages and opened one. It contained a flat, rectangular piece of yellow metal. "Gold," said Ellis. "Each of these is worth about five thousand dollars."

It was a fortune: five thousand dollars was more than two years' income for the average Afghan.

Masud took the piece of gold and hefted it in his hand. "What's mat?" he said, pointing to an indented figure in the middle of the rectangle.

"The seal of the President of the United States," said Ellis.

Clever, thought Jean-Pierre. Just the thing to impress tribal leaders and at the same time make them irresistibly curious to meet Ellis.

"Will that help to persuade Kamil and Azizi?" said Ellis.

Masud nodded. "I think they will come."

You bet your life they'll come, thought Jean-Pierre.

And suddenly he knew exactly what he had to do. Masud, Kamil and Azizi, the three great leaders of the Resistance, would be together in the village of Darg in eight days' time.

He had to tell Anatoly.

Then Anatoly could kill them all.

This is it, thought Jean-Pierre; this is the moment I've been waiting for ever since I came to the Valley. I've got Masud where I want him - and two other rebel leaders, too.

But how can I tell Anatoly?

There must be a way.

"A summit meeting," Masud was saying. He smiled rather proudly. "It will be a good start to the new unity of the Resistance, will it not?"

Either that, Jean-Pierre thought, or the beginning of the end. He lowered his hand, pointing the needle at the ground, and depressed the plunger, emptying the syringe. He watched the poison soak into the dusty earth. A new start, or the beginning of the end.

Jean-Pierre gave Ellis an anesthetic, took out the bullet, cleaned the wound, put a new dressing on it, and injected him with antibiotics to prevent infection. He then dealt with two guerrillas who also had minor wounds from the skirmish. By that time word had got around the village that the doctor was here, and a little cluster of patients gathered in the courtyard of the farmhouse. Jean-Pierre treated a bronchitic baby, three minor infections and a mullah with

worms. Then he had lunch. Around midafternoon he packed his bag and climbed onto Maggie for the journey home.

He left Ellis behind. Ellis would be much better off staying where he was for a few days - the wound would heal faster if he lay still and quiet. Jean-Pierre was paradoxically anxious now that Ellis should remain in good health, for if he were to die the conference would be canceled.

As he rode the old horse up the Valley, he racked his brains for a means of getting in touch with Anatoly. Of course, he could simply turn around and ride down the Valley to Rokha, and give himself up to the Russians. Provided they did not shoot him on sight, he would be in Anatoly's presence in no time. But then Jane would know where he had gone and what he had done, and she would tell Ellis, and Ellis would change the time and place of the conference.

Somehow he had to send a letter to Anatoly. But who would deliver it?

There was a constant trickle of people passing through the Valley on the way to Charikar, the Russian-occupied town sixty or seventy miles away in the plain, or to Kabul, the capital city, a hundred miles away. There were dairy farmers from Nuristan with their butter and cheese; traveling merchants selling pots and pans; shepherds bringing small flocks of fat-tailed sheep to market; and families of nomads going about their mysterious nomadic business. Any of them might be bribed to take a letter to a post office, or even just to thrust it into the hands of a Russian soldier. Kabul was three days' journey, Charikar two. Rokha, where there were Russian soldiers but no post office, was only a day away. Jean-Pierre was fairly sure he could find someone to accept the commission. There was a danger, of course, that the letter would be opened and read, and Jean-Pierre would be found out, and tortured and killed. He might be prepared to take that risk. But there was another snag. When the messenger had taken the money, would he deliver the letter? There was nothing to stop him "losing" it on the way. Jean-Pierre might never

know what had happened. The whole scheme was just too uncertain.

He had not resolved the problem when he reached Banda at dusk. Jane was on the roof of the shopkeeper's house, catching the evening breeze, with Chantal on her knee. Jean-Pierre waved to them, then went inside the house and put his medical bag on the tiled counter in the storeroom. It was when he was emptying the bag, at the moment when he saw the diamorphine pills, mat he realized there was one person he could trust with the letter to Anatoly.

He found a pencil in his bag. He took the paper wrapping from a package of cotton swabs and tore a neat rectangle out of it - there was no writing paper in the Valley. He wrote in French:

To Colonel Anatoly of the KGB -

It sounded oddly melodramatic, but he did not know how else to begin. He did not know Anatoly's full name and he did not have an address.

He went on:

Masud has called a council of leaders of the Rebellion. They meet eight days from today, on Thursday 27 August, at Darg, which is the next village to the south of Banda. They will probably all sleep in the mosque that night and stay together all day Friday which is a holy day. The conference has been called for them to talk with a CIA agent known to me as Ellis Thaler who arrived in the Valley a week ago.

This is our chance!

He added the date and signed it Simplex.

He did not have an envelope - he had not seen one of those since he left Europe. He wondered what would be the best way to enclose the letter. As he looked around, his eye fell on a carton of plastic containers for dispensing tablets. They came with self-adhesive labels which Jean-Pierre never used because he could not write the Persian

script. He rolled his letter into a cylinder and put it in one of the containers.

He wondered how to mark it. At some point in its journey the package would find its way into the hands of a lowly Russian soldier. Jean-Pierre imagined a bespectacled, anxious clerk in a cold office, or perhaps a stupid ox of a man on sentry duty outside a barbed-wire fence. No doubt the art of buck-passing was as well developed in the Russian Army as it had been in the French when Jean-Pierre did his military service. He considered how he might make the thing look important enough to be handed to a superior officer. There was no point in writing Important or KGB or anything at all in French or English or even in Dari because the soldier would not be able to read the European or Persian letters. Jean-Pierre did not know any Russian script. It was ironic that the woman on the roof, whose voice he could hear singing a lullaby now, was a fluent speaker of Russian and could have told him how to write anything at all, had she been willing. In the end he wrote Anatoly - KGB in European letters and stuck the label on the container, then put the container into an empty drug box which was marked Poison! in fifteen languages and three international symbols. He tied up the box with string.

Moving quickly, he put everything back in his medical bag and replaced the items he had used at Astana. He took a handful of diamorphine tablets and put them in his shirt pocket. Finally he wrapped the Poison! box in a threadbare towel.

He left the house. "I'm going to the river to wash," he called up to Jane.

"Okay."

He walked quickly through the village, nodding curtly to one or two people, and headed out through the fields. He was full of optimism. All sorts of risks attended his plans, but he could once again hope for a great triumph. He skirted a clover field that belonged to the mullah and climbed down a series of terraces. A mile or so from the village, on a rocky outcrop of the mountain, was a solitary

cottage that had been bombed. It was getting dark when Jean-Pierre came within sight of it. He walked slowly toward it, picking his way gingerly across the uneven ground, regretting that he had not brought a lamp.

He stopped at the pile of rubble that had once been the front of the house. He thought of going in, but the smell as well as the darkness dissuaded him. He called out: "Hey!"

A shapeless form rose from the ground at his feet and scared him. He jumped back, cursing.

The malang stood up.

Jean-Pierre peered at the skeletal face and matted beard of the mad fellow. Recovering his composure, he said in Dari: "God be with you, holy man."

"And with you, Doctor."

Jean-Pierre had caught him in a coherent phase. Good. "How is your belly?"

The man mimed a stomachache: as always, he wanted dings. Jean-Pierre gave him one diamorphine pill, letting him see the others then putting them back in his pocket. The malang ate his heroin and said: "I want more."

"You can have more," Jean-Pierre told him. "A lot more."

The man held out his hand.

"But you have to do something for me," said Jean-Pierre.

The malang nodded eagerly.

"You have to go to Charikar and give this to a Russian soldier." Jean-Pierre had decided on Charikar, despite the extra day's journey it involved, because he feared that Rokha, being a rebel town temporarily occupied by the Russians, might be in a state of confusion, and the package could get lost; whereas Charikar was permanently in Russian territory. And he had decided on a soldier, rather than a post office, as the destination because the malang might not be able to deal with the business of buying a stamp and mailing something.

He looked carefully at the man's unwashed face. He had been wondering whether the fellow would comprehend even these simple instructions, but the look of fear on his

face at the mention of a Russian soldier indicated that he had understood perfectly.

Now, was there any way Jean-Pierre could ensure that the malang actually followed these orders? He, too, could throw the package away and come back swearing that he had carried out the task, for if he was intelligent enough to understand what he had to do, he might be capable of lying about it.

Jean-Pierre was inspired with an idea. "And buy a pack of Russian cigarettes," he said.

The malang held out empty hands. "No money."

Jean-Pierre knew he had no money. He gave him one hundred afghanis. That should ensure he actually went to Charikar. Was there a way to compel him to deliver the package?

Jean-Pierre said: "If you do this, I'll give you all the pills you want. But do not cheat me - for if you do, I shall know, and I will never give you pills again, and your bellyache will grow worse and worse and you will swell up and then your guts will burst like a grenade and you will die in agony. Do you understand?"

"Yes."

Jean-Pierre stared at him in the faint light. The whites of his mad eyes gleamed back. He seemed terrified. Jean-Pierre gave him the rest of the diamorphine pills. "Eat one every morning until you come back to Banda."

He nodded vigorously.

"Go now, and do not try to cheat me."

The man turned away and began to run along the rough path with his odd, animal-like gait. Watching him disappear into the gathering darkness, Jean-Pierre thought: The future of this country is in your filthy hands, you poor mad wretch. May God go with you.

A week later the malang had not returned.

By Wednesday, the day before the conference, Jean-Pierre was distraught. Every hour, he told himself the man could be here within the next hour. At the end of each day, he said he would come tomorrow.

Aircraft activity in the Valley had increased, as if to add to Jean-Pierre's worries. All week the jets had been howling overhead to bomb the villages. Banda had been lucky: only one bomb had landed, and it had merely made a big hole in Abdullah's clover field; but the constant noise and danger made everyone irritable. The tension produced in Jean-Pierre's clinic a predictable crop of patients with stress symptoms: miscarriages, domestic accidents, unexplained vomiting and headaches. It was the children who got the headaches. In Europe, Jean-Pierre would have recommended psychiatry. Here, he sent them to the mullah. Neither psychiatry nor Islam would do much good, for what was wrong with the children was the war.

He went through the morning's patients mechanically, asking his routine questions in Dari, announcing his diagnosis to Jane in French, dressing wounds and giving injections and handing out plastic containers of tablets and glass bottles of colored medicine. It should have taken the malang two days to walk to Charikar. Allow him a day to work up the nerve to approach a Russian soldier and a night to get over it. Setting off the next morning, he had another two days' journey. He should have got back the day before yesterday. What had happened? Had he lost the package, and stayed away in fear and trembling? Had he taken all the pills at once and made himself ill? Had he fallen in the damn river and drowned? Had the Russians used him for target practice?

Jean-Pierre looked at his wristwatch. It was ten-thirty. Any minute now the malang might arrive, bearing a pack of Russian cigarettes as proof that he had been to Charikar. Jean-Pierre wondered briefly how he would explain the cigarettes to Jane, for he did not smoke. He decided that no explanation was necessary for the acts of a lunatic.

He was bandaging a small boy from the next valley who had burned his hand on a cooking fire, when there came from outside the flurry of footsteps and greetings which meant someone had arrived. Jean-Pierre contained his eagerness and continued wrapping the boy's hand. When he heard Jane speak he looked around, and to his intense

disappointment saw that it was not the malang but two strangers.

The first of them said: "God be with you, Doctor."

"And with you," said Jean-Pierre. In order to preempt a lengthy exchange of civilities he said: "What is the matter?"

"There has been a terrible bombing at Skabun. Many people are dead and many wounded."

Jean-Pierre looked at Jane. He still could not leave Banda without her permission, for she was afraid he would get in touch with the Russians somehow. But clearly he could not have contrived this summons. "Shall I go?" he said to her in French. "Or will you?" He really did not want to go, for it would mean an overnight stay in all probability, and he was desperate to see the malang.

Jane hesitated. Jean-Pierre knew she was thinking that if she went she would have to take Chantal. Besides, she knew she could not deal with major traumatic wounds.

"It's up to you," Jean-Pierre said.

"You go," she said.

"All right." Skabun was a couple of hours away. If he worked quickly, and if there were not too many wounded, he might just get away at dusk, Jean-Pierre thought. He said: "I'll try to get back tonight."

She came over and kissed his cheek. "Thank you," she said.

He checked his bag quickly: morphine for the pain, penicillin to prevent wound infections, needles and surgical thread, plenty of dressings. He put a cap on his head and a blanket over his shoulders.

"I won't take Maggie," he said to Jane. "Skabun is not far and the trail is very bad." He kissed her again, then turned to the two messengers. "Let's go," he said.

They walked down to the village, then forded the river and climbed the steep steps on the far side. Jean-Pierre was thinking about kissing Jane. If he succeeded in his plan, and the Russians killed Masud, how would she react? She would know he had been behind it. But she would not betray him, he was sure. Would she still love

him? He wanted her. Since they had been together he had suffered less and less from the black depressions which used to assault him regularly. Just by loving him she made him feel that he was all right. He wanted that. But he also wanted to succeed in this mission. He thought: I suppose I must want success more than happiness, and that is why I'm prepared to risk losing her for the sake of killing Masud.

The three of them walked southwest along the clifftop footpath with the rushing river loud in their ears. Jean-Pierre asked: "How many people dead?"

"Many people," said one of the messengers.

Jean-Pierre was used to this sort of thing. Patiently he said: "Five? Ten? Twenty? Forty?"

"A hundred."

Jean-Pierre did not believe him: there were not a hundred inhabitants in Skabun. "How many wounded?"

"Two hundred."

That was ludicrous. Did the man not know? Jean-Pierre wondered. Or was he exaggerating for fear that if he gave small numbers the doctor would turn around and go back? Perhaps it was just that he could not count beyond ten. "What kind of wounds?" Jean-Pierre asked him.

"Holes and cuts and bleeding."

Those sounded more like battle injuries. Bombing produced concussion, burns and compression damage from falling buildings. This man was obviously a poor witness. There was no point in questioning him further.

A couple of miles outside Banda they turned off the cliff path and headed north on a track unfamiliar to Jean-Pierre. "Is this the way to Skabun?" he asked.

"Yes."

It was obviously a shortcut he had never discovered. They were certainly heading in the right general direction.

A few minutes later they saw one of the little stone huts in which travelers could rest or spend the night. To Jean-Pierre's surprise, the messengers headed for its doorless entrance. "We haven't time to rest," he told them irritably. "Sick people are waiting for me."

Then Anatoly stepped out of the hut.

Jean-Pierre was dumbfounded. He did not know whether to be exultant because now he could tell Anatoly about the conference, or terrified that the Afghans would kill Anatoly.

"Don't worry," Anatoly said, reading his expression. "They're soldiers of the Afghan regular army. I sent them to fetch you."

"My God!" It was brilliant. There had been no bombing at Skabun - that had been a ruse, dreamed up by Anatoly for getting Jean-Pierre to come. "Tomorrow," Jean-Pierre said excitedly, "tomorrow something terribly important is happening - "

"I know, I know - I got your message. That's why I'm here."

"So you will get Masud . . . ?"

Anatoly smiled mirthlessly, showing his tobacco-stained teeth. "We will get Masud. Calm down."

Jean-Pierre realized he was behaving like an excited child at Christmastime. He suppressed his enthusiasm with an effort. "When the malang failed to come back, I thought ..."

"He arrived in Charikar yesterday," said Anatoly. "God knows what happened to him on the way. Why didn't you use your radio?"

"It broke," said Jean-Pierre. He did not want to explain about Jane right now. "The malang will do anything for me because I supply him with heroin, to which he is addicted."

Anatoly looked hard at Jean-Pierre for a moment, and in his eyes there was something like admiration. "I'm glad you're on my side," he said.

Jean-Pierre smiled.

"I want to know more," said Anatoly. He put an arm around Jean-Pierre's shoulders and led him into the hut. They sat on the earth floor and Anatoly lit a cigarette. "How do you know about this conference?" he began.

Jean-Pierre told him about Ellis, about the bullet wound, about Masud talking to Ellis when Jean-Pierre was about

to inject him, about the bars of gold and the training scheme and the promised weapons.

"This is fantastic," said Anatoly. "Where is Masud now?"

"I don't know. But he will arrive in Darg today, probably. Tomorrow at the latest."

"How do you know?"

"He called the meeting - how can he fail to come?"

Anatoly nodded. "Describe the CIA man."

"Well, five foot ten, a hundred and fifty pounds, blond hair and blue eyes, age thirty-four but looks a little older, college-educated.''

"I'll put all that through the computer." Anatoly stood up. He went outside and Jean-Pierre followed him.

Anatoly took from his pocket a small radio transmitter. He extended its telescopic aerial, pressed a button and muttered into it in Russian. Then he turned back to Jean-Pierre. "My friend, you have succeeded in your mission," he said.

It's true, Jean-Pierre thought. I succeeded.

He said: "When will you strike?"

''Tomorrow, of course.''

Tomorrow. Jean-Pierre felt a wave of savage glee. Tomorrow.

The others were looking up. He followed their gaze and saw a helicopter descending: Anatoly had presumably summoned it with his transmitter. The Russian was throwing caution to the wind now: the game was almost over, this was the last hand, and stealth and disguise were to be replaced by boldness and speed. The machine came down and landed, with difficulty, on a small patch of level ground a hundred yards away.

Jean-Pierre walked over to the helicopter with the other three men. He wondered where to go when they had departed. There was nothing for him to do at Skabun, but he could not return to Banda immediately without revealing that there had been no bombing victims for him to take care of. He decided he had better sit in the stone hut for a few hours then return home.

He held out his hand to shake with Anatoly. ''Au revoir.'' Anatoly did not take his hand. "Get in."

"What?"

"Get in the helicopter."

Jean-Pierre was flabbergasted. "Why?"

"You're coming with us."

"Where? To Bagram? To Russian territory?"

"Yes."

"But I can't - "

"Stop blustering and listen," Anatoly said patiently. "Firstly, your work is done. Your assignment in Afghanistan is over. You have achieved your goal. Tomorrow we will capture Masud. You can go home. Secondly, you are now a security risk. You know what we plan to do tomorrow. So for the sake of secrecy you cannot remain in rebel territory."

"But I wouldn't tell anyone!"

"Suppose they tortured you? Suppose they tortured your wife in front of your eyes? Suppose they were to tear your baby daughter limb from limb in front of your wife?"

"But what will happen to them if I go with you?"

"Tomorrow, in the raid, we will capture them and bring them to you."

"I can't believe this." Jean-Pierre knew that Anatoly was right, but the idea of not returning to Banda was so unexpected that it disoriented him. Would Jane and Chantal be safe? Would the Russians really pick them up? Would Anatoly let the three of them go back to Paris? How soon could they leave?

"Get in," Anatoly repeated.

The two Afghan messengers were standing either side of Jean-Pierre, and he realized that he had no choice: if he refused to get in they would pick him up and put him in.

He climbed into the helicopter.

Anatoly and the Afghans jumped in after him, and the chopper lifted. Nobody closed the door.

As the helicopter rose, Jean-Pierre got his first aerial view of the Five Lions Valley. The white river zigzagging through the dun-colored land reminded him of the scar of

an old knife wound on the brown forehead of Shahazai Gul, the brother of the midwife. He could see the village of Banda with its yellow-and-green patchwork fields. He looked hard at the hilltop where the caves were, but he saw no signs of occupation: the villagers had chosen their hiding place well. The helicopter went higher and turned, and he could no longer see Banda. He looked for other landmarks. I spent a year of my life there, he thought, and now I'll never see it again. He identified the village of Darg, with its doomed mosque. This Valley was the stronghold of the Resistance, he thought. By tomorrow it will be a memorial to a failed rebellion. And all because of me.

Suddenly the helicopter veered south and crossed the mountain, and within seconds the Valley was lost from view.

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