JEAN-PIERRE leaned forward across the canteen table and fixed the brunette with a compassionate gaze. "I think I know how you feel," he said warmly. "I remember being very depressed toward the end of my first year in medical school. It seems as if you've been given more information than one brain can absorb and you just don't know how you're going to master it in time for the exams."
"That's exactly it," she said, nodding vigorously. She was almost in tears.
"It's a good sign," he reassured her. "It means you're on top of the course. The people who aren't worried are the ones who will flunk."
Her brown eyes were moist with gratitude. "Do you really think so?"
"I'm sure of it."
She looked adoringly at him. You'd rather eat me than your lunch, wouldn't you? he thought. She shifted slightly, and the neck of her sweater gaped open, showing the lacy trimming of her bra. Jean-Pierre was momentarily tempted. In the east wing of the hospital there was a linen closet that was never used after about nine-thirty in the morning. Jean-Pierre had taken advantage of it more than once. You could lock the door from the inside and lie down on a soft pile of clean sheets. . . .
The brunette sighed and forked a piece of steak into her mouth, and as she began to chew, Jean-Pierre lost interest.
He hated to watch people eat. Anyway, he had only been flexing his muscles, to prove he could still do it: he did not really want to seduce her. She was very pretty, with curly hair and warm Mediterranean coloring, and she had a lovely body, but lately Jean-Pierre had no enthusiasm for casual conquests. The only girl who could fascinate him for more than a few minutes was Jane Lambert - and she would not even kiss him.
He looked away from the brunette, and his gaze roamed restlessly around the hospital canteen. He saw no one he knew. The place was almost empty: he was having lunch early because he was working the early shift.
It was six months now since he had first seen Jane's stunningly pretty face across a crowded room at a cocktail party to launch a new book on feminist gynecology. He had suggested to her that there was no such thing as feminist medicine, there was just good medicine and bad medicine. She had replied that there was no such thing as Christian mathematics, but still it took a heretic such as Galileo to prove that the earth goes around the sun. Jean-Pierre had exclaimed: "You are right!" in his most disarming manner and they had become friends.
Yet she was resistant to his charms, if not quite impervious. She liked him, but she seemed to be committed to the American, even though Ellis was a good deal older than she. Somehow that made her even more desirable to Jean-Pierre. If only Ellis would drop out of the picture - get run over by a bus, or something . . . Lately Jane's resistance had seemed to be weakening - or was that wishful thinking?
The brunette said: "Is it true you're going to Afghanistan for two years?"
"Because I believe in freedom, I suppose. And because I didn't go through all this training just to do coronary bypasses for fat businessmen." The lies came automatically to his lips.
"But why two years? People who do this usually go for three to six months, a year at the most. Two years seems like forever.''
"Does it?"Jean-Pierre gave a wry smile. "It's difficult, you see, to achieve anything of real value in a shorter period. The idea of sending doctors there for a brief visit is highly inefficient. What the rebels need is some kind of permanent medical setup, a hospital that stays in the same place and has at least some of the same staff from one year to the next. As things are, half the people don't know where to take their sick and wounded, they don't follow the doctor's orders because they never get to know him well enough to trust him, and nobody has any time for health education. And the cost of transporting the volunteers to the country and bringing them back makes their 'free' services rather expensive." Jean-Pierre put so much effort into this speech that he almost believed it himself, and he had to remind himself of his true motive for going to Afghanistan, and of the real reason he had to stay for two years.
A voice behind him said: "Who's going to give their services free?"
He turned around to see another couple carrying trays of food: Valerie, who was an intern like him; and her boyfriend, a radiologist. They sat down with Jean-Pierre and the brunette.
The brunette answered Valerie's question. "Jean-Pierre is going to Afghanistan to work for the rebels."
"Really?" Valerie was surprised. "I heard you had been offered a marvelous job in Houston."
"I turned it down."
She was impressed. "But why?"
"I consider it worthwhile to save the lives of freedom fighters; but a few Texan millionaires more or less won't make any difference to anything."
The radiologist was not as fascinated by Jean-Pierre as his girlfriend was. He swallowed a mouthful of potatoes and said: "No sweat. After you come back, you'll have no trouble getting that same job offer again - you'll be a hero as well as a doctor."
"Do you think so?" said Jean-Pierre coolly. He did not like the turn the conversation was taking.
"Two people from this hospital went to Afghanistan last year," the radiologist went on. "They both got great jobs when they came back."
Jean-Pierre gave a tolerant smile. "It's nice to know that I'll be employable if I survive."
"I should hope so!" said the brunette indignantly. "After such a sacrifice!"
"What do your parents think of the idea?" wondered Valerie.
"My mother approves," said Jean-Pierre. Of course she approved: she loved a hero. Jean-Pierre could imagine what his father would say about idealistic young doctors who went to work for the Afghan rebels. Socialism doesn't mean everyone can do what they want! he would say, his voice hoarse and urgent, his face reddening a little. What do you think those rebels are? They're bandits, preying on the law-abiding peasants. Feudal institutions have to be wiped out before socialism can come in. He would hammer the table with one great fist. To make a souffle, you have to break eggs - to make socialism, you have to break heads! Don't worry, Papa, I know all that. "My father is dead," Jean-Pierre said. "But he was a freedom fighter himself. He fought in the Resistance during the war."
"What did he do?" asked the skeptical radiologist, but Jean-Pierre never answered him because he had seen, coming across the canteen, Raoul Clermont, the editor of La Revolte, sweating in his Sunday suit. What the devil was the fat journalist doing in the hospital canteen?
"I need to have a word with you," said Raoul without preamble. He was out of breath.
Jean-Pierre gestured to a chair. "Raoul - "
"It's urgent," Raoul cut in, almost as if he did not want the others to hear his name.
"Why don't you join us for lunch? Then we could talk at leisure."
"I regret I cannot."
Jean-Pierre heard a note of panic in the fat man's voice. Looking into his eyes, he saw that they were pleading with him to stop fooling around. Surprised, Jean-Pierre stood up. "Okay," he said. To cover the suddenness of it all he said playfully to the others: "Don't eat my lunch - I'll be back." He took Raoul's arm and they walked out of the canteen.
Jean-Pierre had intended to stop and talk outside the door, but Raoul kept on walking along the corridor. "Monsieur Leblond sent me," he said.
"I was beginning to think he must be behind this," said Jean-Pierre. It was a month ago that Raoul had taken him to meet Leblond, who had asked him to go to Afghanistan, ostensibly to help the rebels as many young French doctors did, but actually to spy for the Russians. Jean-Pierre had felt proud, apprehensive and most of all thrilled at the opportunity to do something really spectacular for the cause. His only fear had been that the organizations which sent doctors to Afghanistan would turn him down because he was a Communist. They had no way of knowing he was actually a Party member, and he certainly would not tell them - but they might know he was a Communist sympathizer. However, there were plenty of French Communists who were opposed to the invasion of Afghanistan. There was nevertheless a remote possibility that a cautious organization might suggest that Jean-Pierre would be happier working for some other group of freedom fighters - they also sent people to help the rebels in El Salvador, for example. In the end it had not happened: Jean-Pierre had been accepted immediately by Medecins pour la Liberte. He had told Raoul the good news, and Raoul had said there would be another meeting with Leblond. Perhaps this was to do with that. "But why the panic?"
"He wants to see you now."
"Now?" Jean-Pierre was annoyed. "I'm on duty. I have patients - ''
"Surely someone else will take care of them."
"But what is the urgency? I don't leave for another two months."
"It's not about Afghanistan."
"Well, what is it about?"
"I don't know."
Then what has frightened you? wondered Jean-Pierre. "Have you no idea at all?"
"I know that Rahmi Coskun has been arrested."
"The Turkish student?"
"I don't know."
"And what is it to do with me? I hardly know him."
"Monsieur Leblond will explain."
Jean-Pierre threw up his hands. "I can't just walk out of here."
"What would happen if you were taken ill?" said Raoul.
"I would tell the Nursing Officer, and she would call in a replacement. But - "
"So call her." They had reached the entrance of the hospital, and there was a bank of internal phones on the wall.
This may be a test, thought Jean-Pierre; a loyalty test, to see whether I am serious enough to be given this mission. He decided to risk the wrath of the hospital authorities. He picked up the phone.
"I have been called away by a sudden family emergency," he said when he got through. "You must get in touch with Doctor Roche immediately."
"Yes, Doctor," the nurse replied calmly. "I hope you have not received sad news."
"I'll tell you later," he said hastily. "Goodbye. Oh - just a minute." He had a postoperative patient who had been hemorrhaging during the night. "How is Madame Ferier?"
"Fine. The bleeding has not recommenced."
"Good. Keep a close watch on her."
Jean-Pierre hung up. "All right," he said to Raoul. "Let's go."
They walked to the car park and got into Raoul's Renault 5. The inside of the car was hot from the midday sun. Raoul drove fast through back streets. Jean-Pierre felt nervous. He did not know exactly who Leblond was, but he assumed the man was something in the KGB. Jean-Pierre found himself wondering whether he had done anything to offend that much-feared organization; and, if so, what the punishment might be.
Surely they could not have found out about Jane.
His asking her to go to Afghanistan with him was no business of theirs. There were sure to be others in the Party anyway, perhaps a nurse to help Jean-Pierre at his destination, perhaps other doctors headed for various parts of the country: why shouldn't Jane be among them? She was not a nurse, but she could take a crash course, and her great advantage was that she could speak some Farsi, the Persian language, a form of which was spoken in the area where Jean-Pierre was going.
He hoped she would go with him out of idealism and a sense of adventure. He hoped she would forget about Ellis while she was there, and would fall in love with the nearest European, who would of course be Jean-Pierre.
He had also hoped the Party would never know that he had encouraged her to go for his own reasons. There was no need for them to know, no way they would find out, normally - or so he had thought. Perhaps he had been wrong. Perhaps they were angry.
This is foolish, he told himself. I've done nothing wrong, really; and even if I had there would be no punishment. This is the real KGB, not the mythical institution that strikes fear into the hearts of subscribers to the Reader's Digest.
Raoul parked the car. They had stopped outside an expensive apartment building in the rue de 1'Universite. It was the place where Jean-Pierre had met Leblond the last time. They left the car and went inside.
The lobby was gloomy. They climbed the curving staircase to the first floor and rang a bell. How much my life
has changed, thought Jean-Pierre, since the last time I waited at this door!
Monsieur Leblond opened it. He was a short, slight, balding man with spectacles, and in his charcoal-gray suit and silver tie he looked like a butler. He led them to the room at the back of the building where Jean-Pierre had been interviewed. The tall windows and the elaborate moldings indicated that it had once been an elegant drawing room, but now it had a nylon carpet, a cheap office desk and some molded-plastic chairs, orange in color.
"Wait here for a moment," said Leblond. His voice was quiet, clipped and as dry as dust. A slight accent suggested that his real name was not Leblond. He went out through a different door.
Jean-Pierre sat on one of the plastic chairs. Raoul remained standing. In this room, thought Jean-Pierre, that dry voice said to me You have been a quietly loyal member of the Party since childhood. Your character and your family background suggest that you would serve the Party well in a covert role.
I hope I haven't ruined everything because of Jane, he thought.
Leblond came back in with another man. The two of them stood in the doorway, and Leblond pointed at Jean-Pierre. The second man looked hard at Jean-Pierre, as if committing his face to memory. Jean-Pierre returned his gaze. The man was very big, with broad shoulders like a football player. His hair was long at the sides but thinning on top, and he had a droopy moustache. He wore a green corduroy jacket with a rip in the sleeve. After a few seconds he nodded and went out.
Leblond closed the door behind him and sat at the desk. "There has been a disaster," he said.
It's not about Jane, thought Jean-Pierre. Thank God.
Leblond said: "There is a CIA agent among your circle of friends."
"My God!" said Jean-Pierre.
"That is not the disaster," Leblond said irritably. "It is
hardly surprising that there should be an American spy among your friends. No doubt there are Israeli and South African and French spies, too. What would these people have to do if they did not infiltrate groups of young political activists? And we also have one, of course."
"Oh!" Jean-Pierre was taken aback: he had not thought of himself as a spy, exactly. But what else did it mean to serve the party in a covert role? "Who is the CIA agent?" he asked, intensely curious.
"Someone called Ellis Thaler."
Jean-Pierre was so shocked that he stood up. "Ellis?"
"You do know him. Good."
"Ellis is a CIA spy?"
"Sit down," Leblond said levelly. "Our problem is not who he is, but what he has done."
Jean-Pierre was thinking: If Jane finds out about this she will drop Ellis like a hot brick. Will they let me tell her? If not, will she find out some other way? Will she believe it? Will Ellis deny it?
Leblond was speaking. Jean-Pierre forced himself to concentrate on what was being said. "The disaster is that Ellis set a trap, and in it he has caught someone rather important to us."
Jean-Pierre remembered Raoul saying that Rahmi Coskun had been arrested. "Rahmi is important to us?"
"You don't need to know."
"Then why have you brought me here?"
"Shut up and listen," Leblond snapped, and for the first time Jean-Pierre was afraid of him. "I have never met your friend Ellis, of course. Unhappily, Raoul has not either. Therefore neither of us knows what he looks like. But you do. That is why I have brought you here. Do you also know where Ellis lives?"
"Yes. He has a room above a restaurant in the rue de 1'Ancienne Comedie."
"Does the room overlook the street?"
Jean-Pierre frowned. He had been there only once: Ellis did not invite people home much. "I think it does."
"You're not sure?"
"Let me think." He had gone there late one night, with Jane and a bunch of other people, after a film show at the Sorbonne. Ellis had given them coffee. It was a small room. Jane had sat on the floor by the window. . . . "Yes. The window faces the street. Why is it important?"
"It means you can signal."
"Me? Why? To whom?"
Leblond shot a dangerous look at him.
"Sorry," said Jean-Pierre.
Leblond hesitated. When he spoke again, his voice was just a shade softer, although his expression remained blank. "You're suffering a baptism of fire. I regret having to use you in an ... action . . . such as this when you have never done anything for us before. But you know Ellis, and you are here, and right now we don't have anybody else who knows him; and what we want to do will lose its impact if it is not done immediately. So. Listen carefully, for this is important. You are to go to his room. If he is there, you will go inside - think of some pretext. Go to the window, lean out and make sure you are seen by Raoul, who will be waiting in the street.''
Raoul fidgeted like a dog that hears people mention its name in conversation.
Jean-Pierre asked: "And if Ellis is not there?"
"Speak to his neighbors. Try to find out where he has gone and when he will be back. If it seems he has left only for a few minutes, or even an hour or so, wait for him. When he returns, proceed as before: go inside, go to the window and make sure you are seen by Raoul. Your appearance at the window is the sign that Ellis is inside - so, whatever you do, don't go to the window if he is not there. Have you understood?''
"I know what you want me to do," said Jean-Pierre. "I don't understand the purpose of all this."
"To identify Ellis."
"And when I have identified him?"
Leblond gave the answer Jean-Pierre had hardly dared to hope for, and it thrilled him to the core: "We are going to kill him, of course."