THEY TOOK OFF half an hour before dawn. One by one, the helicopters lifted from the concrete apron and disappeared into the night sky beyond the range of the floodlights. In turn, the Hind Jean-Pierre and Anatoly were in struggled into the air like an ungainly bird and joined the convoy. Soon the lights of the air base were lost from view, and once again Jean-Pierre and Anatoly were flying over the mountaintops toward the Five Lions Valley.
Anatoly had worked a miracle. In less than twenty-four hours he had mounted what was probably the largest operation in the history of the Afghan war - and he was in command of it.
He had spent most of yesterday on the phone to Moscow. He had had to galvanize the slumbering bureaucracy of the Soviet Army by explaining, first to his superiors in the KGB and then to a series of military bigwigs, just how important it was to catch Ellis Thaler. Jean-Pierre had listened, not understanding the words but admiring the precise combination of authority, calm and urgency in Anatoly's tone of voice.
Formal permission was given late in the afternoon, and then Anatoly had faced the challenge of putting it into practice. To get the number of helicopters he wanted he had begged favors, called in old debts, and scattered threats and promises from Jalalabad to Moscow. When a general in Kabul had refused to release his machines without a written order, Anatoly had called the KGB in Moscow and persuaded an old friend to sneak a look at the general's private file, then called the general and threatened to cut off his supply of child pornography from Germany.
The Soviets had six hundred helicopters in Afghanistan: by three A.M. five hundred of them were on the tarmac at Bagram, under Anatoly's command.
Jean-Pierre and Anatoly had spent the last hour bent over maps, deciding where each helicopter should go and giving the appropriate orders to a stream of officers. The deployments were precise, thanks to Anatoly's compulsive attention to detail and Jean-Pierre's intimate knowledge of the terrain.
Although Ellis and Jane had not been in the village yesterday when Jean-Pierre and Anatoly went to find them, nevertheless it was almost certain they had heard about the raid and had now gone into hiding. They would not be in Banda. They might be living in a mosque in another village - short-term visitors normally slept in the mosques - or, if they felt the villages were unsafe, they might move into one of the little one-room stone huts for travelers which dotted the countryside. They could be anywhere in the Valley, or they could be in one of the many little side valleys.
Anatoly had covered all these possibilities.
Helicopters would land at every village in the Valley and at every hamlet in every side valley. The pilots would overfly all the trails and footpaths. The troops - more than a thousand men - were instructed to search every building and look under large trees and inside caves. Anatoly was determined not to fail again. Today they would find Ellis.
The interior of the Hind was cramped and bare. There was nothing in the passenger cabin but a bench fixed to the fuselage opposite the door. Jean-Pierre shared it with Anatoly. They could see the flight deck. The pilot's seat was raised two or three feet off the floor, with a step beside it for access. All the money had been spent on the armament, speed and maneuverability of the aircraft and none on comfort.
As they flew north, Jean-Pierre brooded. Ellis had pretended to be his friend while working all the time for the Americans. Using that friendship, he had ruined Jean-Pierre's scheme for catching Masud, thereby destroying a year's painstaking work. And finally, Jean-Pierre thought, he seduced my wife.
His mind went in circles, always returning to that seduction. He stared out into the darkness, watching the lights of the other helicopters, and imagined the two lovers as they must have been the night before, lying on a blanket under the stars in some field, playing with one another's bodies and whispering endearments. He wondered whether Ellis was good in bed. He had asked Jane which of them was the better lover, but she said neither was better, they were just different. Was that what she said to Ellis? Or did she murmur You're the best, baby, the very best? Jean-Pierre was beginning to hate her as well. How could she go back to a man who was nine years older than she, a crass American and a CIA spook?
Jean-Pierre looked at Anatoly. The Russian sat still and blank-faced, like a stone statue of a Chinese mandarin. He had got very little sleep during the previous forty-eight hours, but he did not look tired, just dogged. Jean-Pierre was seeing a new side to the man. In their meetings over the past year Anatoly had been relaxed and affable, but now he was taut, unemotional and tireless, driving himself and his colleagues relentlessly. He was calmly obsessed.
When dawn broke they could see the other helicopters. It was an awesome sight: they were like a vast cloud of giant bees swarming over the mountains. The noise of their buzzing must have been deafening on the ground.
As they approached the Valley, they began to divide into smaller groups. Jean-Pierre and Anatoly were with the flight going to Comar, the northernmost village of the Valley. For the last stretch of the journey they followed the river. The rapidly brightening morning light revealed tidy ranks of sheaves in the wheatfields: the bombing had not completely disrupted farming here in the upper Valley.
The sun was in their eyes as they descended to Comar.
The village was a cluster of houses peeping over a heavy wall on the hillside. It reminded Jean-Pierre of perched hill villages in the south of France, and he felt a pang of homesickness. Wouldn't it be good to go home, and hear French spoken properly, and eat fresh bread and tasty food, or get into a taxi and go to a cinema!
He shifted his weight in the hard seat. Right now it would be good just to get out of the helicopter. He had been in pain more or less constantly since the beating. But worse than the pain was the memory of the humiliation, the way he had screamed and wept and begged for mercy: each time he thought of that he flinched physically and wished he could hide. He wanted revenge for that. He felt he would never sleep peacefully until he had evened the score. And there was only one way that would satisfy him. He wanted to see Ellis beaten, in the same way, by the same brute soldiers, until he sobbed and screamed and pleaded for mercy, but with one extra refinement: Jane would be watching.
By the middle of the afternoon, failure stared them in the face yet again.
They had searched the village of Comar, all the hamlets around it, all the side valleys in the area, and each of the single farmhouses in the almost-barren land to the north of the village. Anatoly was in constant touch with the commanders of the other squads by radio. They had conducted equally thorough searches throughout the entire Valley. They had found arms caches in a few caves and houses; they had fought skirmishes with several groups of men, presumably guerrillas, especially in the hills around Saniz, but the skirmishes had been notable only for greater-than-normal Russian casualties due to the guerrillas' new expertise with explosives; they had looked at the naked faces of all veiled women and examined the skin color of every tiny baby; and still they had not found Ellis or Jane or Chantai.
Jean-Pierre and Anatoly finished up at a horse station in the hills above Comar. The place had no name: it was a
handful of bare stone houses and a dusty meadow where malnourished nags grazed the sparse grass. The only male inhabitant seemed to be the horse dealer, a barefoot old man wearing a long shirt with a voluminous hood to keep off flies. There were also a couple of young women and a huddle of frightened children. Clearly the young men were guerrillas, and were away somewhere with Masud. The hamlet did not take long to search. When they had done, Anatoly sat in the dust with his back to a stone wall, looking thoughtful. Jean-Pierre sat down beside him.
Across the hills they could see the distant white peak of Mesmer, almost twenty thousand feet high, which had attracted climbers from Europe in the old days. Anatoly said: "See if you can get some tea."
Jean-Pierre looked around and saw the old man in the hood lurking nearby. "Make tea," he shouted at him in Dari. The man scurried away. A moment later Jean-Pierre heard him shouting at the women. "Tea is coming," he said to Anatoly in French.
Anatoly's men, seeing that they were to stay here awhile, killed the engines of their helicopters and sat around in the dust, waiting patiently.
Anatoly stared into the distance. Weariness showed on his flat face. "We are in trouble," he said.
Jean-Pierre found it ominous that he said we.
Anatoly went on: "In our profession, it is wise to minimize the importance of a mission until one is certain of success, at which point one begins to exaggerate it. In this case I could not follow that pattern. In order to secure the use of five hundred helicopters and a thousand men, I had to persuade my superiors of the overwhelming importance of catching Ellis Thaler. I had to make very clear to them the dangers that face us if he escapes. I succeeded. And their anger at me for not catching him will now be all the greater. Your future, of course, is tied to mine."
Jean-Pierre had not previously thought of it that way. "What will they do?"
"My career will simply stop. My salary will stay the same but I will lose all privileges. No more Scotch whis-
key, no more Rive Gauche for my wife, no more family holidays on the Black Sea, no more denim jeans and Rolling Stones records for my children . . . but I could live without those things. What I couldn't stand would be the sheer boredom of the kind of job given to failures in my profession. They would send me to a small town in the Far East where there is really no security work to do. I know how our men spend their time and justify their existence in such places. You have to ingratiate yourself with mildly discontented people, get them to trust you and talk to you, encourage them to make remarks critical of the government and the Party, then arrest them for subversion. It's such a waste of time. . . ." He seemed to realize he was rambling, and tailed off.
"And me?'5 said Jean-Pierre. "What will happen to me?"
"You'll become a nobody," said Anatoly. "You won't work for us anymore. They might let you stay in Moscow, but most likely they would send you back."
"If Ellis gets away, I can never go back to France- - they would kill me."
"You have committed no crime in France."
"Nor had my father, but they killed him."
"Maybe you could go to some neutral country - Nicaragua, say, or Egypt."
"But let us not give up hope," Anatoly said a little more brightly. "People cannot vanish into thin air. Our fugitives are somewhere."
"If we can't find them with a thousand men, I don't suppose we can find them with ten thousand," said Jean-Pierre gloomily.
"We shan't have a thousand, let alone ten thousand," said Anatoly. "From now on we have to use our brains, and minimal resources. All our credit is spent. Let's try a different approach. Think: somebody must have helped them hide. That means that somebody knows where they are."
Jean-Pierre considered. "If they had help it was probably from the guerrillas - the people least likely to tell."
"Others may know about it."
"Perhaps. But will they tell?"
"Our fugitives must have some enemies," Anatoly persisted.
Jean-Pierre shook his head. "Ellis hasn't been here long enough to make enemies, and Jane is a heroine - they treat her like Joan of Arc. Nobody dislikes her - oh!" Even as he was speaking, he realized it was not true.
"Somehow she irritated him beyond reason. It was partly that her cures were more effective than his, but not only that, for mine were, too, but he never disliked me particularly."
"He probably called her a Western whore."
"How did you guess?"
"They always do. Where does this mullah live?"
"Abdullah lives in Banda, in a house about half a kilometer outside the village."
"Will he talk?"
"He probably hates Jane enough to give her away to us," said Jean-Pierre reflectively. "But he couldn't be seen to do it. We can't just land in the village and pick him up - everyone would know what had happened and he would clam up. I'd have to meet him in secret somehow. ..." Jean-Pierre wondered what kind of danger he might put himself in if he continued thinking along this line. Then he thought of the humiliation he had suffered: revenge was worth any risk. "If you drop me near the village I can make my way to the path between the village and his house and hide there until he comes along."
"What if he doesn't 'come along' all day?"
"Yes . . ."
"We'll just have to make sure he does." Anatoly frowned. "We'll round up all the villagers in the mosque,
as we did before - then just let them go. Abdullah will almost certainly go back to his house."
"But will he be alone?"
"Hmmm. Suppose we let the women go first, and order them to return to their homes. Then, when the men are released they will all want to check on their wives. Does anyone else live near Abdullah?"
"Then he should hurry along that footpath all alone. You step out from behind a bush - ''
"And he slits my throat from ear to ear."
"He carries a knife?"
"Did you ever meet an Afghan who didn't?"
Anatoly shrugged. "You can take my pistol."
Jean-Pierre was pleased, and a little surprised, to be trusted that much, even though he did not know how to use a gun. "I suppose it may serve as a threat,' he said anxiously. "I'll need some native clothes, just in case I'm seen by someone other than Abdullah What if I meet someone who knows me? I'll have to cover my face with a scarf or something. ..."
"That's easy," said Anatoly. He shouted something in Russian, and three of the soldiers jumped to their feet. They disappeared into the houses and emerged a few seconds later with the old horse dealer. "You can take his clothes," said Anatoly.
"Good," said Jean-Pierre. "The hood will hide my face." He switched to Dan and shouted at the old man: "Take off your clothes."
The man began to protest: nakedness was terribly shameful to Afghans. Anatoly shouted an abrupt command in Russian, and the soldiers threw the man on the ground and pulled off his shirt. They all laughed uproariously to see his stick-thin legs poking out of his ragged shorts. They let him go and he scuttled away with his hands over his genitals, which made them laugh all the more.
Jean-Pierre was too nervous to find it funny. He took off his European-style shirt and trousers and donned the old man's hooded shirt.
"You smell of horse piss," said Anatoly.
"It's even worse from inside," Jean-Pierre replied.
They climbed into their helicopter. Anatoly took the pilot's headset and spoke into the radio microphone at length in Russian. Jean-Pierre was very uneasy about what he was about to do. Suppose three guerrillas were to come over the mountain and catch him threatening Abdullah with the gun? He was known by literally everyone in the Valley. The news that he had visited Banda with the Russians would have spread rapidly. Without doubt most people now knew that he had been a spy. He must be Public Enemy Number One. They would tear him apart.
Perhaps we're being too clever, he thought. Maybe we should just land and pull Abdullah in and beat the truth out of him.
No, we tried that yesterday and it didn't work. This is the only way.
Anatoly gave the headset back to the pilot, who took his seat and began to warm up the helicopter. While they were waiting, Anatoly took out his gun and showed it to Jean-Pierre. "This is a nine-millimeter Makarov," he said over the noise of the rotors. He flipped a catch in the heel of the grip and drew out the magazine. It contained eight rounds. He pushed the magazine back in. He pointed to another catch on the left-hand side of the pistol. "This is the safety catch. When the red dot is covered, the catch is in the 'safe' position." Holding the gun in his left hand, he used his right hand to pull back the slide above the grip. "This is how the pistol is cocked." He released it and it sprang back into position. "When you fire, give a long pull on the trigger to recock the gun." He handed the weapon to Jean-Pierre.
He really trusts me, Jean-Pierre thought, and for a moment a glow of pleasure took the chill off his fear.
The helicopters took off. They followed the Five Lions River southwest, going down the Valley. Jean-Pierre was thinking that he and Anatoly made a good team. Anatoly reminded him of his father: a clever, determined, brave man with an unshakable commitment to world communism. If
we succeed here, Jean-Pierre thought, we will probably be able to work together again, on some other battlefield. The thought pleased him inordinately.
At Dasht-i-Rewat, where the lower Valley began, the helicopter turned southeast, following the tributary Rewat upstream into the hills, in order to approach Banda from behind the mountain.
Anatoly used the pilot's headset again, then came over to shout in Jean-Pierre's ear. "They are all in the mosque already. How long will it take the wife to reach the mullah s house?"
"Five or ten minutes," Jean-Pierre yelled back.
"Where do you want to be dropped off?"
Jean-Pierre considered. "All the villagers are in the mosque, right?"
"Did they check the caves?"
Anatoly went back to the radio and asked. He returned and said: "They checked the caves."
"Okay. Drop me there."
"How long will it take you to reach your hiding place?"
"Give me ten minutes; then release the women and children, then wait another ten minutes and release the men."
The helicopter descended into the shadow of the mountain. The afternoon was waning, but there was still an hour or so before nightfall. They landed behind the ridge, a few yards from the caves. Anatoly said to Jean-Pierre: "Don't go yet. Let us check the caves again."
Through the open door, Jean-Pierre saw another Hind land. Six men got out and ran over the ridge.
"How will I signal you to come down and pick me up afterward?" Jean-Pierre asked.
"We'll wait for you here."
"What will you do if some of the villagers come up here before I return?"
That was something else Anatoly had in common with Jean-Pierre's father: ruthlessness.
The reconnaissance party came back over the ridge and one of the men waved an all-clear sign.
"Go," said Anatoly.
Jean-Pierre opened the door and jumped out of the helicopter, still holding Anatoly's pistol in his hand. He hurried away from its beating blades with his head bent. When he reached the ridge he looked back: both aircraft were still there.
He crossed the familiar clearing in front of his old cave clinic and looked down into the village. He could just see into the courtyard of the mosque. He was unable to identify any of the figures he saw there, but it was just possible that one of them might glance up at the wrong moment and see him - their eyesight might be better than his - so he pulled the hood forward to obscure his face.
His heart beat faster as he got farther away from the safety of the Russian helicopters. He hurried down the hill and past the mullah's house. The Valley seemed oddly quiet despite the ever-present noise of the river and the distant whisper of helicopter blades. It was the absence of children's voices, he realized.
He turned a corner and found that he was out of sight of the mullah's house. Beside the footpath was a clump of camel grass and juniper bushes. He went behind it and crouched down. He was well hidden, but he had a clear view of the path. He settled down to wait.
He considered what he would say to Abdullah. The mullah was a hysterical woman-hater: maybe he could use that.
A sudden burst of high voices from far down in the village told him that Anatoly had given instructions for the women and children to be released from the mosque. The villagers would wonder what the whole exercise had been for, but they would attribute it to the notorious craziness of armies everywhere.
A few minutes later the mullah's wife came up the footpath, carrying her baby and followed by three older
children. Jean-Pierre tensed: was he really well hidden here? Would the children run off the path and stumble into his bush? What a humiliation that would be - to be foiled by children. He remembered the gun in his hand. Could I shoot children? he wondered.
They went past and turned the corner toward their house.
Soon afterward the Russian helicopters began to take off from the wheatfield: that meant the men had been released. Right on schedule, Abdullah came puffing up the hill, a tubby figure in a turban and a pin-striped English jacket. There must be a huge trade in used clothes between Europe and the East, Jean-Pierre had decided, for so many of these people wore clothes which had undoubtedly been made in Paris or London and had been discarded, perhaps because they became unfashionable, long before they were worn out. This is it, thought Jean-Pierre, as the comical figure drew level; this clown in a stockbroker's jacket could hold the key to my future. He got to his feet and stepped out from the bushes.
The mullah started and gave a cry of shock. He looked at Jean-Pierre and recognized him. "You!" he said. His hand went to his belt. Jean-Pierre showed him the gun. Abdullah looked frightened.
"Don't be afraid," Jean-Pierre said in Dari. The unsteadiness of his voice betrayed his jumpiness, and he made an effort to bring it under control. "No one knows I am here. Your wife and children passed without seeing me. They are safe."
Abdullah looked suspicious. "What do you want?"
"My wife is an adulteress," said Jean-Pierre, and although he was deliberately playing on the mullah's prejudices, his anger was not entirely faked. "She has taken my child and left me. She has gone whoring after the American."
"I know," said Abdullah, and Jean-Pierre could see him beginning to swell with righteous indignation.
"I have been searching for her, in order to bring her back and punish her."
Abdullah nodded enthusiastically, and malice showed in his eyes: he liked the idea of punishing adulteresses.
"But the wicked couple have gone into hiding." Jean-Pierre spoke slowly and carefully: at this point every nuance counted. "You are a man of God. Tell me where they are. No one will ever know how I found out, except you and me and God."
"They have gone away," Abdullah spat, and saliva wetted his red-dyed beard.
"Where?" Jean-Pierre held his breath.
"They have left the Valley."
"But where did they go?"
To Pakistan! What was the old fool talking about? "The routes are closed!" Jean-Pierre yelled in exasperation.
"Not the Butter Trail."
' 'Mon Dieu,'' Jean-Pierre whispered in his native tongue. "The Butter Trail." He was awestruck by their courage, and at the same time bitterly disappointed, for it would be impossible to find them now. "Did they take the baby?"
"Then I'll never see my daughter again."
"They will all die in Nuristan," Abdullah said with satisfaction. "A Western woman with a baby will never survive those high passes, and the American will die trying to save her. Thus God punishes those who escape man's justice."
Jean-Pierre realized he should get back to the helicopter as quickly as possible. "Go back to your house now," he told Abdullah.
"The treaty will die with them, for Ellis has the paper," Abdullah added. "This is a good thing. Although we need the American weapons, it is dangerous to make pacts with infidels."
"Go!" said Jean-Pierre. "If you don't want your family to see me, make them stay inside for a few minutes."
Abdullah looked momentarily indignant at being given orders, but he seemed to realize he was at the wrong end of the gun for protests, and he hurried away.
Jean-Pierre wondered whether they would all die in Nuristan, as Abdullah had gloatingly predicted. That was not what he wanted. It would not give him revenge or satisfaction. He wanted his daughter back. He wanted Jane alive and in his power. He wanted Ellis to suffer pain and humiliation.
He gave Abdullah time to get inside his house, then drew the hood over his face and set off disconsolately up the hill. He kept his face averted as he passed the house in case one of the children should look out.
Anatoly was waiting for him in the clearing in front of the caves. He held out his hand for the pistol and said: "Well?"
Jean-Pierre gave him back his gun. "They've escaped us," he said. "They've left the Valley."
"They can't have escaped us," said Anatoly angrily. "Where have they gone?"
"To Nuristan." Jean-Pierre pointed in the direction of the helicopters. "Shouldn't we leave?"
"We can't talk in the helicopter."
"But if the villagers come - "
"To hell with the villagers! Stop acting defeated! What are they doing in Nuristan?"
"They're heading for Pakistan by a route known as the Butter Trail."
"If we know their route we can find them."
"I don't think so. There is one route, but it has variations."
"We'll overfly them all."
"You can't follow these paths from the air. You can hardly follow them from the ground without a native guide."
"We can use maps - "
"What maps?" said Jean-Pierre. "I've seen your maps, and they're no better than my American ones, which are the best available - and they do not show these trails and passes. Don't you know there are regions of the world that have never been properly charted? You're in one of them now!"
"I know - I'm in Intelligence, remember?" Anatoly lowered his voice. "You're too easily discouraged, my friend. Think. If Ellis can find a native guide to show him the route, then I can do the same."
Was it possible? Jean-Pierre wondered. "But there is more than one way to go."
"Suppose there are ten variations. We need ten native guides to lead ten search parties."
Jean-Pierre's enthusiasm rose rapidly as he realized that he might yet get Jane and Chantal back and see Ellis captured. "It might not be that bad," he said enthusiastically. "We can simply inquire along the way. Once we are out of this godforsaken Valley, people may be less tight-lipped. The Nuristanis aren't as involved in the war as these people."
"Good," said Anatoly abruptly. "It is getting dark. We've got a lot to do tonight. We start early in the morning. Let's go!"