ALL THE first day, the search parties found no trace of Ellis and Jane.
Jean-Pierre and Anatoly sat on hard wooden chairs in a spartan, windowless office at the Bagram air base, monitoring the reports as they came in over the radio network. The search parties had left before dawn - again. There were six of them at the start: one for each of the five main side valleys leading east from the Five Lions, and one to follow the Five Lions River north to its source and beyond. Each of the parties included at least one Dari-speaking officer from the Afghan regular army. They landed their helicopters at six different villages in the Valley, and half an hour later all six parties had reported that they had found local guides.
"That was quick," said Jean-Pierre after the sixth reported in. "How did they do it?"
"Simple," said Anatoly. "They ask someone to be a guide. He says no. They shoot him. They ask someone else. It doesn't take long to find a volunteer."
One of the search parties tried to follow its assigned trail from the air, but the experiment was a failure. The trails were rather difficult to follow from the ground; impossible from the air. Furthermore, none of the guides had ever been in an aircraft before and the new experience was totally disorienting. So all the search parties went on foot, some with commandeered horses to carry their baggage.
Jean-Pierre did not expect any further news in the morning, for the fugitives had a full day's start. However, the soldiers would certainly move faster than Jane, especially as she was carrying Chantal -
Jean-Pierre felt a stab of guilt every time he thought of ChantaJ. His rage at what his wife was doing did not extend to his daughter, yet the baby was suffering, he felt sure: trekking all day, crossing passes above the snow line, blasted by icy winds. . . .
His mind turned, as it often did nowadays, to the question of what would happen if Jane died and Chantal survived. He pictured Ellis captured, alone; Jane's body found a mile or two back, dead of the cold, with the baby still miraculously alive in her arms. I would arrive back in Paris a tragic, romantic figure, thought Jean-Pierre; a widower with a baby daughter, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. . . . How they would lionize me! I'm perfectly capable of bringing up a baby. What an intense relationship we would have as she grew older. I'd have to hire a nanny, of course, but I'd make sure she did not take the place of a mother in the child's affections. No, I would be both father and mother to her.
The more he thought about it, the more outraged he felt that Jane was risking Chantal's life. Surely she had forfeited all her parental rights by taking her baby on such an escapade. He thought he could probably get legal custody of the child in a European court on this basis. . . .
As the afternoon wore on, Anatoly grew bored and Jean-Pierre became tense. They were both tetchy. Anatoly held long conversations in Russian with other officers who came into the window less little room, and their interminable jabbering got on Jean-Pierre's nerves. At first Anatoly had translated all the radio reports of the search parties, but now he would just say "Nothing." Jean-Pierre had been plotting the routes of the parties on a set of maps, marking their locations with red pins, but by the end of the afternoon they were following trails or dried-up riverbeds which were not on the maps, and if their radio reports gave clues to their whereabouts, Anatoly was not passing them on.
The parties made camp at nightfall without reporting any signs of the fugitives. The searchers had been instructed to question the inhabitants of the villages through which they passed. The villagers were saying they had seen no foreigners. This was not surprising, for the searchers were still on the Five Lions side of the great passes leading to Nuristan. The people they were questioning were generally loyal to Masud: to them, helping the Russians was treason. Tomorrow, when the search parties passed into Nuristan, the people would be more cooperative.
Nevertheless, Jean-Pierre felt dispirited as he and Anatoly left the office at nightfall and walked across the concrete to the canteen. They ate a vile dinner of canned sausages and reconstituted mashed potatoes, then Anatoly went off moodily to drink vodka with some brother officers, leaving Jean-Pierre in the care of a sergeant who spoke only Russian. They played chess once, but - to Jean-Pierre's chagrin - the sergeant was far too good. Jean-Pierre retired early and lay awake on a hard army mattress, visualizing Jane and Ellis in bed together.
Next morning he was awakened by Anatoly, his Oriental face wreathed in smiles, all irritation gone, and Jean-Pierre felt like a bad child who has been forgiven, although as far as he knew he had done nothing wrong. They ate their breakfast porridge together in the canteen. Anatoly had already talked to each of the search parties, all of which had struck camp and set off again at dawn. "Today we will catch your wife, my friend," said Anatoly cheerfully, and Jean-Pierre felt a surge of happy optimism.
As soon as they reached the office, Anatoly radioed to the searchers again. He asked them to describe what they could see all around them, and Jean-Pierre used their descriptions of streams, lakes, depressions and moraines to guess their locations. They seemed to be moving terribly slowly in terms of kilometers per hour, but of course they were going uphill on difficult terrain, and the same factors would slow Ellis and Jane.
Each search party had a guide, and when they came to a place where the trail forked and both ways led to Nuristan,
they would conscript an additional guide from the nearest village and split into two groups. By noon Jean-Pierre's map was spotted with little red pinheads like a case of measles.
In the middle of the afternoon there was an unexpected distraction. A bespectacled general on a five-day fact-finding tour of Afghanistan landed at Bagram and decided to find out how Anatoly was spending the Russian taxpayer's money. This Jean-Pierre learned in a few words from Anatoly seconds before the general burst into the little office, followed by anxious officers like ducklings hurrying after the mother duck.
Jean-Pierre was fascinated to see how masterfully Anatoly handled the visitor. He sprang to his feet, looking energetic but unruffled; shook the general's hand and gave him a chair; barked a series of orders through the open door; spoke rapidly but deferentially to the general for a minute or so; excused himself and spoke into the radio: translated for Jean-Pierre's benefit the reply that came crackling through the atmosphere from Nuristan; and introduced the general to Jean-Pierre in French.
The general began to ask questions, and Anatoly pointed to the pinheads on Jean-Pierre's map as he replied. Then, in the middle of it all, one of the search parties called in unbidden, an excited voice jabbering in Russian, and Anatoly shushed the general in midsentence to listen.
Jean-Pierre sat on the edge of his hard seat and longed for a translation.
The voice stopped. Anatoly asked a question and got a reply.
"What did he see?" blurted Jean-Pierre, unable to keep silent any longer.
Anatoly ignored him for a moment and spoke to the general. At last he turned to Jean-Pierre. "They have found two Americans at a village called Atati in the Nuristan Valley."
"Wonderful!" said Jean-Pierre. "It's them!"
"I suppose so," said Anatoly.
Jean-Pierre could not understand his lack of enthusiasm.
"Of course it is! Your troops don't know the difference between American and English."
"Probably not. But they say there is no baby."
"No baby!" Jean-Pierre frowned. How could that be? Had Jane left Chantal behind in the Five Lions Valley, to be brought up by Rabia or Zahara or Fara? It seemed impossible. Had she hidden the baby with a family in this village - Atati - just a few seconds before being caught by the search party? That, too, seemed unlikely: Jane's instinct would be to keep the baby close to her in times of danger.
Was Chantal dead?
It was probably a mistake, he decided: some error of communication, atmospheric interference on the radio link, or even a purblind officer in the search party who simply had not seen the tiny baby.
"Let's not speculate," he said to Anatoly. "Let's go and see."
"I want you to go with the pickup squad," said Anatoly.
"Of course," said Jean-Pierre, then he was struck by Anatoly's phrasing. "Do you mean to say you're not coming?"
"I'm needed here." Anatoly shot a glance at the general.
"All right." There were power games within the military bureaucracy, no doubt: Anatoly was afraid to leave the base while the general was still prowling around in case some rival should get a chance to slander him behind his back.
Anatoly picked up the desk phone and gave a series of orders in Russian. While he was still speaking, an orderly came into the room and beckoned Jean-Pierre. Anatoly put his hand over the mouthpiece and said: "They'll give you a warm coat - it's already winter in Nuristan. A bientot." Jean-Pierre went out with the orderly. They walked across the concrete apron. Two helicopters were waiting, rotors spinning: a bug-eyed Hind with rocket pods slung under its stubby wings, and a Hip, rather bigger, with a
row of portholes along its fuselage, Jean-Pierre wondered what the Hip was for, then realized it was to bring back the search party. Just before they reached the machines, a soldier ran up to them with a uniform greatcoat and gave it to Jean-Pierre. He slung it over his arm and boarded the Hind.
They took off immediately. Jean-Pierre was in a fever of anticipation. He sat on the bench in the passenger cabin with half a dozen troops. They headed northeast.
When they were clear of the air base, the pilot beckoned Jean-Pierre. Jean-Pierre went forward and stood on the step so that the pilot could speak to him. "I will be your translator," the man said in hesitant French.
"Thank you. You know where we're headed?"
"Yes, sir. We have the coordinates, and I can speak by radio with the leader of the search party."
"Fine." Jean-Pierre was surprised to be treated with such deference. It seemed he had acquired honorary rank by association with a KGB colonel.
He wondered, as he returned to his seat, how Jane would look when he walked in. Would she be relieved? Defiant? Or just exhausted? Ellis would be angry and humiliated, of course. How should I act? wondered Jean-Pierre. I want to make them squirm, but I must remain dignified. What should I say?
He tried to visualize the scene. Ellis and Jane would be in the courtyard of some mosque, or sitting on the earth floor of a stone hut, possibly tied up, guarded by soldiers with Kalashnikovs. They would probably be cold, hungry and miserable. Jean-Pierre would stride in, wearing his Russian greatcoat, looking confident and commanding, followed by deferential junior officers. He would give them a long, penetrating look and say -
What would he say? We meet again sounded terribly melodramatic. Did you really think you could escape from us? was too rhetorical. You never stood a chance was better, but a little anticlimactic.
The temperature dropped fast as they headed into the mountains. Jean-Pierre put on his coat and stood by the
open door, looking down. Below him was a valley something like the Five Lions, with a river at its center flowing in the shadows of the mountains. There was snow on the peaks and ridges to either side, but none in the valley itself.
Jean-Pierre went forward to the flight deck and spoke into the pilot's ear. "Where are we?"
"This is called the Sakardara Valley," the man replied. "As we go north its name changes to the Nuristan Valley. It takes us all the way to Atati."
"How much longer?"
It sounded like forever. Controlling his impatience with an effort, Jean-Pierre went back to sit on the bench among the troops. They sat still and quiet, watching him. They seemed afraid of him. Perhaps they thought he was in the KGB.
I am in the KGB, he thought suddenly.
He wondered what the troops were thinking about. Girlfriends and wives back home, perhaps? Their home would be his home, from now on. He would have an apartment in Moscow. He wondered whether he could possibly have a happy married life with Jane now. He wanted to install her and Chantal in his apartment while he, like these soldiers, would fight the good fight in foreign countries and look forward to going home on leave, to sleep with his wife again and see how his daughter had grown. I betrayed Jane and she betrayed me he thought; perhaps we can forgive one another, if only for the sake of Chantal.
What had happened to Chantal?
He was about to find out. The helicopter lost height. They were almost there. Jean-Pierre stood up to look out of the door again. They were coming down to a meadow where a tributary joined the main river. It was a pretty spot with just a few houses sprawling up the hillside, each overlapping the one beneath in the Nuristani manner: Jean-Pierre remembered seeing photographs of such villages in coffeetable books about the Himalayas.
The helicopter touched down.
Jean-Pierre jumped to the ground. On the other side of the meadow, a group of Russian soldiers - the search party, undoubtedly - emerged from the lowest of a mound of wooden houses. Jean-Pierre waited impatiently for the pilot, his interpreter. Finally the man got out of the helicopter. "Let's go!" said Jean-Pierre, and started off across the field.
He restrained himself from breaking into a run. Ellis and Jane were probably in the house from which the search party was emerging, he thought, and he headed that way at a fast walk. He began to feel angry: long-suppressed rage was churning up inside him. To hell with being dignified, he thought; I'm going to tell this loathsome couple just what I think of them.
As he neared the search party, the officer at the head of the group began speaking. Ignoring him, Jean-Pierre turned to his pilot and said: "Ask him where they are."
The pilot asked, and the officer pointed to the wooden house. Without further ado Jean-Pierre went past the soldiers to the house.
His anger was at boiling point as he stormed into the crude building. Several more of the search party stood in a group in one corner. They looked at Jean-Pierre, then made way for him.
In the corner were two people tied to a bench.
Jean-Pierre stared at them, shocked. His mouth fell open and the blood drained from his face. There was a thin, anemic-looking boy of eighteen or nineteen with long, dirty hair and a droopy moustache; and a large-bosomed blond girl with flowers in her hair. The boy looked at Jean-Pierre with relief and said in English: "Hey, man, will you help us? We are in deep shit."
Jean-Pierre felt as if he would explode. They were just a couple of hippies on the Katmandu trail, a species of tourist which had not quite died out despite the war. What a disappointment! Why did they have to be here just when the whole world was looking for a runaway Western couple?
Jean-Pierre certainly was not going to help a pair of drug-taking degenerates. He turned around and went out.
The pilot was just coming in. He saw the expression on Jean-Pierre's face and said: "What's the matter?"
"It's the wrong couple. Come with me."
The man hurried after Jean-Pierre. "The wrong people? These are not the Americans?''
"They're Americans, but they're not the people we're looking for."
"What are you going to do now?"
"I'm going to speak to Anatoly, and I need you to get him on the radio for me."
They crossed the field and climbed into the helicopter. Jean-Pierre sat in the gunner's seat and put on the headphones. He tapped his foot impatiently on the metal floor as the pilot talked interminably over the radio in Russian. At last Anatoiy's voice came on, sounding very distant and punctuated by atmospheric crackling.
"Jean-Pierre, my friend, here is Anatoly. Where are you?"
"I'm at Atati. The two Americans they have captured are not Ellis and Jane. Repeat, they are not Ellis and Jane. They're just a couple of foolish kids looking for nirvana. Over."
"This does not surprise me, Jean-Pierre," Anatoiy's voice came back.
"What?" Jean-Pierre interrupted, forgetting that communication was one-way.
" - have received a series of reports that Ellis and Jane have been seen in the Linar Valley. The search party has not made contact with them but we are hot on their trail. Over."
Jean-Pierre's anger about the hippies evaporated and some of his eagerness came back. "The Linar Valley - where is that? Over."
"Near where you are now. It runs into the Nuristan Valley fifteen or twenty miles south of Atati. Over."
So close! "Are you sure? Over."
"The search party got several reports in the villages they passed through. The descriptions fit Ellis and Jane. And they mention a baby. Over."
Then it was them. "Can we figure out where they are now? Over."
"Not yet. I'm on my way to join the search party. Then I'll get more details. Over."
"You mean you're not at Bagram? What happened to your, ah ... visitor? Over."
"He left," Anatoly said briskly. "I'm in the air now and about to meet the team at a village called Mundol. It's in the Nuristan Valley, downstream of the point where the Linar joins the Nuristan, and it's near a big lake which is also called Mundol. Join me there. We'll spend the night there and then supervise the search in the morning. Over."
"I'll be there!" said Jean-Pierre elatedly. He was struck by a thought. "What are we going to do with these hippies? Over."
"I'll have them taken to Kabul for interrogation. We have some people there who will remind them of the reality of the material world. Let me speak to your pilot. Over."
"See you in Mundol. Over."
Anatoly began speaking in Russian to the co-pilot, and Jean-Pierre took off his headset. He wondered why Anatoly wanted to waste time interrogating a pair of harmless hippies. They obviously weren't spies. Then it occurred to him that the only person who really knew whether or not these two were Ellis and Jane was Jean-Pierre himself. It was possible - even if wildly unlikely - that Ellis and Jane might have persuaded him to let them go and tell Anatoly that his search party had just captured a couple of hippies.
He was a suspicious bastard, that Russian.
Jean-Pierre waited impatiently for him to finish talking to the pilot. It sounded as if the search party down in Mundol was close to its quarry. Tomorrow, perhaps, Ellis and Jane would be caught. Their attempt to escape had always been more or less futile, in reality; but that did not
stop Jean-Pierre worrying, and he would be in an agony of suspense until the two of them were bound hand and foot and locked in a Russian cell.
The pilot took off the headset and said: "We will take you to Mundol in this helicopter. The Hip will take the others back to base."
A few minutes later they were in the air, leaving the others to take their time. It was almost dark, and Jean-Pierre wondered whether it would prove difficult to find the village of Mundol.
Night fell rapidly as they headed downstream. The landscape below disappeared into darkness. The pilot spoke constantly on the radio, and Jean-Pierre imagined that the people on the ground at Mundol were guiding him. After ten or fifteen minutes, powerful lights appeared below. A kilometer or so beyond the lights, the moon glinted off the surface of a large body of water. The helicopter went down.
It landed near another helicopter in a field. A waiting trooper led Jean-Pierre across the grass to a village on a hillside. The silhouettes of the wooden houses were limned with moonlight. Jean-Pierre followed the trooper into one of the houses. There, sitting on a folding chair and wrapped in an enormous coat of wolf fur, was Anatoly.
He was in an ebullient mood. "Jean-Pierre, my French friend, we are close to success!" he said loudly. It was odd to see a man with an Oriental face being hearty and jovial. "Have some coffee - there's vodka in it."
Jean-Pierre accepted a paper cup from an Afghan woman who appeared to be waiting on Anatoly. He sat down on a folding chair like Anatoly's. They looked Army, these chairs. If the Russians were carrying this much equipment - folding chairs and coffee and paper cups and vodka - perhaps they would not move faster than Ellis and Jane, after all.
Anatoly read his mind. "I brought a few little luxuries in my helicopter," he said with a smile. "The KGB has its dignity, you know."
Jean-Pierre could not read the expression on his face and did not know whether he was joking or not. He changed the subject. "What's the latest news?"
"Our fugitives definitely passed through the villages of Bosaydur and Linar today. At some point this afternoon the search party lost its guide - he just disappeared. He probably decided to go home." Anatoly frowned, as if bothered by that little loose end, then resumed his story. "Fortunately, they found another guide almost immediately."
"Employing your usual highly persuasive recruiting technique, no doubt," said Jean-Pierre.
"No, oddly enough. This one was a genuine volunteer, they tell me. He's here in the village somewhere."
"Of course, they're more likely to volunteer here in Nuristan," Jean-Pierre mused. "They're hardly involved in the war - and in any case they're said to be totally without scruples."
"This new man claims actually to have seen the fugitives today, before he joined us. They passed him at the point where the Linar flows into the Nuristan. He saw them turn south, heading this way."
"Tonight, after the search party arrived here in Mundol, our man questioned some villagers and learned that two foreigners with a baby passed through this afternoon, going south."
"Then there's no doubt," said Jean-Pierre with satisfaction.
"None at all," Anatoly agreed. "We'll catch them tomorrow. For sure."
Jean-Pierre woke up on an inflatable mattress - another KGB luxury - on the dirt floor of the house. The fire had gone out during the night and the air was cold. Anatoly's bed, across the dim little room, was empty. Jean-Pierre did not know where the owners of the house had spent the night. After they had provided food and served it, Anatoly
had sent them away. He treated the whole of Afghanistan as if it were his personal kingdom. Perhaps it was.
Jean-Pierre sat up and nibbed his eyes, then saw Anatoly standing in the doorway, looking at him speculatively. "Good moming," said Jean-Pierre.
"Have you ever been here before?" Anatoly asked without preamble.
Jean-Pierre's brain was still foggy with sleep. "Where?"
"Nuristan," Anatoly replied impatiently.
Jean-Pierre found this enigmatic style of conversation irritating so early in the morning. "Why?" he said tetchily. "Why is it strange?"
"I was talking to the new guide a few minutes ago."
"What's his name?"
"Mohammed, Muhammad, Mahomet, Mahmoud - one of those names a million other people have."
"What language did you use, with a Nuristani?"
"French, Russian, Dari and English - the usual mixture. He asked me who arrived in the second helicopter last night. I said: 'A Frenchman who can identify the fugitives,' or words to that effect. He asked your name, so I told him: I wanted to keep him going until I found out why he was so interested. But he didn't ask any more questions. It was almost as if he knew you."
"I suppose so."
"Why don't you just ask him?" It was not like Anatoly to be diffident, Jean-Pierre thought.
"There is no point in asking a man a question until you have established whether he has any reason to lie to you." With that, Anatoly went out.
Jean-Pierre got up. He had slept in his shirt and underwear. He pulled on his trousers and boots, then draped the greatcoat over his shoulders and stepped outside.
He found himself on a rough wooden veranda overlooking the whole valley. Down below, the river coiled be-
tween the fields, broad and sluggish. Some way to the south it entered a long, narrow lake rimmed with mountains. The sun had not yet risen. A mist over the water obscured the far end of the lake. Jt was a pleasant scene. Of course, Jean-Pierre remembered, this was the most fertile and populous part of Nuristan: most of the rest was wilderness.
The Russians had dug a field latrine, Jean-Pierre noted with approval. The Afghan practice of using the streams from which they took their drinking water was the reason they all had worms. The Russians will really knock this country into shape once they get control of it, he thought.
He walked down to the meadow, used the latrine, washed in the river, and got a cup of coffee from a group of soldiers standing around a cooking fire.
The search party was ready to leave. Anatoly had decided last night that he would direct the search from here, remaining in constant radio contact with the searchers. The helicopters would stay ready to take him and Jean-Pierre to join the searchers as soon as they sighted their quarry.
While Jean-Pierre was sipping his coffee, Anatoly came across the field from the village. "Have you seen that damn guide?" he asked abruptly.
"He seems to have disappeared."
Jean-Pierre raised his eyebrows. "Just like the last one."
"These people are impossible. I'll have to ask the villagers. Come and translate."
"I don't speak their language."
"Maybe they'll understand your Dari."
Jean-Pierre walked with Anatoly back across the meadow to the village. As they climbed the narrow dirt path between the rickety houses, somebody called to Anatoly in Russian. They stopped and looked to the side. Ten or twelve men, some Nuristanis in white and some Russians in uniform, were crowded together on a veranda looking at something on the ground. They parted to let Anatoly and Jean-Pierre through. The thing on the floor was a dead man.
The villagers were jabbering in outraged tones and pointing to the body. The man's throat had been cut: the wound gaped horribly and the head hung loose. The blood had dried - he had probably been killed yesterday.
"Is this Mohammed, the guide?" Jean-Pierre asked.
"No." said Anatoly. He questioned one of the soldiers, then said: "This is the previous guide, the one who disappeared."
Jean-Pierre addressed the villagers slowly in Dari. "What is going on?"
After a pause, a wrinkled old man with a bad occlusion in his right eye replied in the same language. "He has been murdered!" he said accusingly.
Jean-Pierre began to question him and, bit by bit, the story emerged. The dead man was a villager from the Linar Valley who had been conscripted as a guide by the Russians. His body, hastily concealed in a clump of bushes, had been found by a goatherd's dog. The man's family thought the Russians had murdered him, and they had brought the body here this morning in a dramatic attempt to find out why.
Jean-Pierre explained to Anatoly. "They're outraged because they think your men killed him," he finished.
"Outraged?" said Anatoly. "Don't they know there's a war on? People are getting killed every day - that's the whole idea."
"Obviously they don't see much action here. Did you kill him?"
"I'll find out." Anatoly spoke to the soldiers. Several of them answered together in animated tones. "We didn't kill him," Anatoly translated to Jean-Pierre.
"So who did, I wonder? Could the locals be murdering our guides for collaborating with the enemy?"
"No," said Anatoly. "If they hated collaborators they wouldn't be making this fuss about one who got killed. Tell them we're innocent - calm them down."
Jean-Pierre spoke to the one-eyed man. "The foreigners did not kill this man. They want to know who murdered their guide."
The one-eyed man translated this, and the villagers reacted with consternation.
Anatoly looked thoughtful. "Perhaps the disappearing Mohammed killed this man in order to get the job of guide."
"Are you paying much?" Jean-Pierre asked.
"I doubt it." Anatoly asked a sergeant and translated the answer. "Five hundred afghanis a day."
"It's a good wage, to an Afghan, but hardly worth killing for - although they do say a Nuristani will murder you for your sandals if they're new."
"Ask them if they know where Mohammed is."
Jean-Pierre asked. There was some discussion. Most of the villagers were shaking their heads, but one man raised his voice above the others and pointed insistently to the north. Eventually the one-eyed man said to Jean-Pierre: "He left the village early this morning. Abdul saw him go north."
"Did he leave before or after this body was brought here?"
Jean-Pierre told Anatoly, and added: "I wonder why he went away, then?"
"He's acting like a man guilty of something."
"He must have left immediately after he spoke to you this morning. It's almost as if he went because I had arrived."
Anatoly nodded thoughtfully. "Whatever the explanation is, I think he knows something we don't. We'd better go after him. If we lose a little time, too bad - we can afford it anyway."
"How long ago was it that you spoke to him?"
Anatoly looked at his watch. "A little over an hour.'
"Then he can't have got far."
"Right." Anatoly turned away and gave a rapid series of orders. The soldiers were suddenly galvanized. Two of them got hold of the one-eyed man and marched him down toward the field. Another ran to the helicopters. Anatoly
took Jean-Pierre's arm and they walked briskly after the soldiers. "We will take the one-eyed man, in case we need an interpreter," Anatoly said.
By the time they reached the field the two helicopters were cranking. Anatoly and Jean-Pierre boarded one of them. The one-eyed man was already inside, looking at once thrilled and terrified. He'll be telling the story of this day for the rest of his life, thought Jean-Pierre.
A few minutes later they were in the air. Both Anatoly and Jean-Pierre stood near the open door and looked down. A well-beaten path, clearly visible, led from the village to the top of the hill, then disappeared into the trees. Anatoly spoke into the pilot's radio, then explained to Jean-Pierre: "I have sent some troopers to beat those woods, just in case he decided to hide."
The runaway had almost certainly gone farther than this, Jean-Pierre thought, but Anatoly was being cautious - as usual.
They flew parallel with the river for a mile or so, then reached the mouth of the Linar. Had Mohammed continued up the valley, into the cold heart of Nuristan, or had he turned east, into the Linar Valley, heading for Five Lions?
Jean-Pierre said to the one-eyed man: "Where did Mohammed come from?''
"I don't know," said the man. "But he was a Tajik."
That meant he was more likely to be from the Linar Valley than the Nuristan. Jean-Pierre explained this to Anatoly, and Anatoly directed the pilot to turn left and follow the Linar.
This was a telling illustration, Jean-Pierre thought, of why the search for Ellis and Jane could not be conducted by helicopter. Mohammed had only an hour's start, and already they might have lost track of him. When the fugitives were a whole day ahead, as Ellis and Jane were, there were very many more alternative routes and places to hide.
If there was a track along the Linar Valley, it was not
visible from the air. The helicopter pilot simply followed the river. The hillsides were bare of vegetation, but not yet snow-covered, so that if the fugitive were here, he would have nowhere to hide.
They spotted him a few minutes later.
His white robes and turban stood out clearly against the gray-brown ground. He was striding out along the clifftop with the steady, tireless pace of Afghan travelers, his possessions in a bag slung over his shoulder. When he heard the noise of the helicopters he stopped and looked back at them, then continued walking.
"Is that him?" said Jean-Pierre.
"I think so," said Anatoly. "We'll soon find out." He took the pilot's headset and spoke to the other helicopter. It went on ahead, passing over the figure on the ground, and landed a hundred meters or so in front of him. He walked toward it unconcernedly.
"Why don't we land, too?" Jean-Pierre asked Anatoly.
"Just a precaution."
The side door of the other helicopter opened and six troopers got out. The man in white walked toward them, unslinging his bag. It was a long bag, like a military kitbag, and the sight of it rang a bell in Jean-Pierre's memory; but before he could figure out what it reminded him of, Mohammed hefted the bag and pointed it at the troopers, and Jean-Pierre realized what he was about to do and opened his mouth to shout a useless warning.
It was like trying to shout in a dream, or run under water: events moved slowly, but he moved even slower. Before words could come he saw the snout of a machine gun emerge from the bag.
The sound of shooting was drowned by the noise of the helicopters, which gave the weird impression that it all took place in dead silence. One of the Russian troops clutched his belly and fell forward; another threw up his arms and fell back; and the face of a third exploded in blood and flesh. The other three got their weapons raised. One died before he could pull the trigger, but the other two
unleashed a storm of bullets, and even as Anatoly was yelling "Niet! Niet! Niet! Niet!" into the radio, the body, of Mohammed was lifted off the ground and thrown backward to land in a bloody heap on the cold ground.
Anatoly was still shouting furiously into the radio. The helicopter went down fast. Jean-Pierre found himself trembling with excitement. The sight of battle had given him a high like cocaine, making him feel as if he wanted to laugh, or fuck, or run, or dance. The thought flashed across his mind: I used to want to heal people.
The helicopter touched down. Anatoly pulled off the headset, saying disgustedly: "Now we'll never know why that guide got his throat cut.'' He jumped out, and Jean-Pierre followed him.
They walked over to the dead Afghan. The front of his body was a mass of torn flesh, and most of his face had gone, but Anatoly said: "It's that guide, I'm sure. The build is right, the coloring is right, and I recognize the bag." He bent down and carefully picked up the machine gun. "But why is he carrying a machine gun?"
A piece of paper had fallen out of the bag and fluttered to the ground. Jean-Pierre picked it up and looked at it. It was a Polaroid photograph of Mousa. "Oh, my God," he said. "I think I understand this."
"What is it?" said Anatoly. "What do you understand?"
"The dead man is from the Five Lions Valley," Jean-Pierre said. "He is one of Masud's top lieutenants. This is a photograph of his son, Mousa. The photograph was taken by Jane. I also recognize the bag in which he concealed his gun: it used to belong to Ellis."
"So what?" said Anatoly impatiently. "What do you conclude from that?''
Jean-Pierre's brain was in overdrive, working things out faster than he could explain them. "Mohammed killed your guide in order to take his place," he began. "You had no way of knowing he was not what he claimed to be. The Nuristanis knew that he was not one of them, of course, but that didn't matter, because (a) they didn't
know he was pretending to be a local and (b) even if they had they couldn't have told you because he was also your interpreter. In fact there was only one person who could possibly find him out. ..."
"You," said Anatoly. "Because you knew him."
"He was aware of that danger and he was on the lookout for me. That's why this morning he asked you who it was that arrived after dark yesterday. You told him my name. He left immediately." Jean-Pierre frowned: something was not quite right. "But why did he stay out in the open? He could have concealed himself in the woods, or hidden in a cave: it would have taken us much longer to find him. It's as if he didn't expect to be pursued."
"Why should he?" said Anatoly. "When the first guide disappeared, we didn't send a search party after him - we just got another guide and carried on: no investigation, no pursuit. What was different this time - what went wrong for Mohammed - was that the local people found the body and accused us of murder. That made us suspicious of Mohammed. Even so, we considered forgetting about him and just pressing on. He was unlucky."
"He didn't know what a cautious man he was dealing with," said Jean-Pierre. "Next question: What was his motive in all this? Why did he go to so much trouble to substitute himself for the original guide?"
"Presumably to mislead us. Presumably, everything he told us was a lie. He did not see Ellis and Jane yesterday afternoon at the mouth of the Linar Valley. They did not turn south into the Nuristan. The villagers of Mundol did not confirm that two foreigners with a baby passed through yesterday heading south - Mohammed never even asked them the question. He knew where the fugitives were - "
"And he led us in the opposite direction, of course!" Jean-Pierre felt elated again. "The old guide disappeared just after the search party left the village of Linar, didn't he?"
"Yes. So we can assume that reports up to that point are true - therefore Ellis and Jane did pass through that village. Afterward, Mohammed took over and led us south - "
"Because Ellis and Jane went north!" said Jean-Pierre triumphantly.
Anatoly nodded grimly. "Mohammed gained them a day, at most," he said thoughtfully. "For that he gave his life. Was it worth it?"
Jean-Pierre looked again at the Polaroid photograph of Mousa. The cold wind made it flutter in his hand. "You know," he said, "I think Mohammed would answer: Yes, it was worth it."