ELLIS THALER took the Eastern Airlines shuttle from Washington to New York. At La Guardia Airport he got a cab to the Plaza Hotel in New York City. The cab dropped him at the Fifth Avenue entrance to the hotel. Ellis went inside. In the lobby he turned left and went to the 58th Street elevators. A man in a business suit and a woman carrying a Saks shopping bag got in with him. The man got out at the seventh floor. Ellis got out at the eighth. The woman went on up. Ellis walked along the cavernous hotel corridor, all alone, until he came to the 59th Street elevators. He went down to the ground floor and left the hotel by the 59th Street entrance.
Satisfied that no one was following him, he hailed a cab on Central Park South, went to Penn Station and took the train to Douglaston, Queens.
Some lines from Auden's "Lullaby" were repeating in his head as he rode the train:
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral.
It was more than a year since he had posed as an aspiring American poet in Paris, but he had not lost the taste for verse.
He continued to check for a tail, for this was one assignation his enemies must never learn about. He got off the train at Flushing and waited on the platform for the next train. No one waited with him.
Because of his elaborate precautions it was five o'clock when he reached Douglaston. From the station he walked briskly for half an hour, running over in his mind the approach he was about to make, the words he would use, the various possible reactions he might expect.
He reached a suburban street within sight of Long Island Sound and stopped outside a small, neat house with mock-Tudor gables and a stained-glass window in one wall. There was a small Japanese car in the driveway. As he walked up the path, the front door was opened by a blond girl of thirteen.
Ellis said: "Hello, Petal."
"Hi, Daddy," she replied.
He bent down to kiss her, feeling as always a glow of pride simultaneously with a stab of guilt.
He looked her up and down. Underneath her Michael Jackson T-shirt she was wearing a bra. He was pretty sure that was new. She's turning into a woman, he thought. I'll be damned.
"Would you like to come inside for a moment?" she said politely.
He followed her into the house. From behind she looked even more womanly. He was reminded of his first girlfriend. He had been fifteen and she had been not much older than Petal. . . . No, wait, he thought; she was younger, she was twelve. And I used to put my hand up her sweater. Lord protect my daughter from fifteen-year-old boys.
They went into a small, neat living room. "Won't you sit down?" said Petal.
Ellis sat down.
"Can I get you something?" she asked.
"Relax," Ellis told her. "You don't have to be so polite. I'm your Daddy."
She looked puzzled and uncertain, as if she had been rebuked for something she did not know to be wrong.
After a moment she said: "I have to brush my hair. Then we can go. Excuse me."
"Sure," said Ellis. She went out. He found her courtesy painful. It was a sign that he was still a stranger. He had not yet succeeded in becoming a normal member of her family.
He had been seeing her at least once a month for the past year, ever since he came back from Paris. Sometimes they would spend a day together, but more often he would just take her out to dinner, as he was going to today. To be with her for that hour, he had to make a five-hour trip with maximum security, but of course she did not know that. His aim was a modest one: without any fuss or drama he wanted to take a small but permanent place in his daughter's life.
It had meant changing the type of work he did. He had given up field work. His superiors had been highly displeased: there were too few good undercover agents (and hundreds of bad ones). He, too, had been reluctant, feeling that he had a duty to use his talent. But he could not win his daughter's affection if he had to disappear every year or so to some remote corner of the world, unable to tell her where he was going or why or even for how long. And he could not risk getting himself killed just when she was learning to love him.
He missed the excitement, the danger, the thrill of the chase, and the feeling that he was doing an important job that nobody else could do quite as well. But for too long his only emotional attachments had been fleeting ones, and after he lost Jane he felt the need of at least one person whose love was permanent.
While he was waiting, Gill came into the room. Ellis stood up. His ex-wife was cool and composed in a white summer dress. He kissed her preferred cheek. "How are you?" she said.
"The same as ever. You?"
"I'm incredibly busy." She started to tell him, in some detail, how much she had to do, and, as always, Ellis tuned out. He was fond of her, although she bored him to
death. It was odd to think he had once been married to her. But she had been the prettiest girl in the English Department, and he had been the cleverest boy, and it was 1967, when everyone was stoned and anything could happen, especially in California. They were married in white robes, at the end of their first year, and someone played the "Wedding March" on a sitar. Then Ellis flunked his exams and got thrown out of college and therefore was drafted, and instead of going to Canada or Sweden he went to the draft office, like a lamb to the slaughter, surprising the hell out of everyone except Gill, who knew by then that the marriage was not going to work and was just waiting to see how Ellis would make his escape.
He was in the hospital in Saigon with a bullet wound in his calf - the helicopter pilot's commonest injury, because his seat is armored but the floor is not - when the divorce became finai. Someone dumped the notification on his bed while he was in the John, and he found it when he got back, along with another oak-leaf cluster, his twenty-fifth (they were passing out medals kind of fast in those days). / just got divorced, he had said, and the soldier in the next bed had replied No shit. Want to play a little cards?
She had not told him about the baby. He found out, a few years later, when he became a spy and tracked Gill down as an exercise, and learned that she had a child with the unmistakably late-sixties name of Petal, and a husband called Bernard who was seeing a fertility specialist. Not telling him about Petal was the only truly mean thing Gill had ever done to him, he thought, although she still maintained it had been for his own good.
He had insisted on seeing Petal from time to time, and he had stopped her calling Bernard "Daddy." But he had not sought to become part of their family life, not until last year.
"Do you want to take my car?" Gill was saying.
"If it's all right."
"Sure it is."
"Thanks." It was embarrassing having to borrow Gill's car, but the drive from Washington was too long, and Ellis
did not want to rent cars frequently in this area, for then one day his enemies would find out, through the records of the rental agencies or the credit card companies, and then they would be on the way to finding out about Petal. The alternative would be to use a different identity every time he rented a car, but identities were expensive and the Agency would not provide them for a desk man. So he used Gill's Honda, or hired the local taxi.
Petal came back in, with her blond hair wafting about her shoulders. Ellis stood up. Gill said: "The keys are in the car."
Ellis said to Petal: "Jump in the car. I'll be right there." Petal went out. He said to Gill: "I'd like to invite her to Washington for a weekend."
Gill was kind but firm. "If she wants to go, she certainly can, but if she doesn't, I won't make her."
Ellis nodded. "That's fair. See you later."
He drove Petal to a Chinese restaurant in Little Neck. She liked Chinese food. She relaxed a little once she was away from the house. She thanked Ellis for sending her a poem on her birthday. "Nobody I know has ever had a poem for their birthday," she said.
He was not sure whether that was good or bad. "Better than a birthday card with a picture of a cute kitten on the front, I hope."
"Yeah." She laughed. "All my friends think you're so romantic. My English teacher asked me if you had ever had anything published."
"I've never written anything good enough," he said. "Are you still enjoying English?"
"I like it a lot better than math. I'm terrible at math."
"What do you study? Any plays?"
"No, but we have poems sometimes."
"Any you like?"
She thought for a moment. "I like the one about the daffodils."
Ellis nodded. "I do, too."
"I forgot who wrote it."
"Not really. I'm more into music. Do you like Michael Jackson?"
"I don't know. I'm not sure I've heard his records."
"He's really cute." She giggled. "All my friends are crazy about him."
It was the second time she had mentioned all my friends. Right now her peer group was the most important thing in her life. "I'd like to meet some of your friends, sometime," he said.
"Oh, Daddy," she chided him. "You wouldn't like that - they're just girls.''
Feeling mildly rebuffed, Ellis concentrated on his food for a while. He drank a glass of white wine with it: French habits had stayed with him.
When he finished he said: "Listen, I've been thinking. Why don't you come to Washington and stay at my place one weekend? It's only an hour on the plane, and we could have a good time."
She was quite surprised. "What's in Washington?"
"Well, we could take a tour of the White House, where the President lives. And Washington has some of the best museums in the whole world. And you've never even seen my apartment. I have a spare bedroom . . ." He trailed off. He could see she was not interested.
"Oh, Daddy, I don't know," she said. "I have so much to do on weekends - homework, and parties, and shopping, and dance lessons and everything. . . . '
Ellis hid his disappointment. "Don't worry," he said. "Maybe sometime when you're not so busy you could come."
"Yes, okay," she said, visibly relieved.
"I could fix up the spare bedroom so you could come anytime you like."
"What color shall I paint it?"
"I don't know."
"What's your favorite color?"
"Pink, I guess."
"Pink it is." Ellis forced a smile, "Let's go."
In the car on the way home she asked him whether he would mind if she had her ears pierced.
"I don't know," he said guardedly. "How does Mommy feel about it?"
"She said it's okay with her if it's okay with you."
Was Gill thoughtfully including him in the decision or just passing the buck? "I don't think I like the idea," Ellis said. "You may be a little young to begin making holes in yourself for decoration."
"Do you think I'm too young to have a boyfriend?"
Ellis wanted to say yes. She seemed far too young. But he couldn't stop her growing up. "You're old enough to date, but not to go steady," he said. He glanced at her to catch her reaction. She looked amused. Maybe they don't talk about going steady anymore, he thought.
When they reached the house, Bernard's Ford was parked in the driveway. Ellis pulled the Honda in behind it and went in with Petal. Bernard was in the living room. A small man with very short hair, he was good-natured and utterly without imagination. Petal greeted him enthusiastically, hugging and kissing him. He seemed a little embarrassed. He shook Ellis's hand firmly, saying: "Government still ticking over okay, back in Washington?"
"Same as always," Ellis said. They thought that he worked for the State Department and that his job was to read French newspapers and magazines and prepare a daily digest for the France Desk.
"How about a beer?"
Ellis did not really want one, but he accepted just to be friendly. Bernard went into the kitchen to get it. He was credit manager for a department store in New York City. Petal seemed to like and respect him, and he was gently affectionate with her. He and Gill had no other children: that fertility specialist had done him no good.
He came back with two glasses of beer and handed one to Ellis. "Go and do your homework now," he said to Petal. "Daddy will say goodbye before he leaves."
She kissed him again and ran off. When she was out of earshot he said: "She isn't normally so affectionate. She seems to overdo it when you're around. I don't understand it."
Ellis understood it only too well, but he did not want to think about it yet. "Don't worry about it," he said. "How's business?''
"Not bad. High interest rates haven't hit us as badly as we feared they might. It seems that people are still willing to borrow money to buy things - in New York, at least." He sat down and sipped his beer.
Ellis always felt that Bernard was physically frightened of him. It showed in the way the man walked around, like a pet dog that is not really allowed indoors, careful to stay an inch or two out of kicking distance.
They talked about the economy for a few minutes, and Ellis drank his beer as fast as he could, then got up to leave. He went to the foot of the staircase and called: "Bye, Petal."
She came to the top of the stairs. "What about having my ears pierced?"
"Can I think about it?" he said.
Gill came down the stairs. "I'll drive you to the airport," she said.
Ellis was surprised. "Okay. Thanks."
When they were on the road Gill said: "She told me she didn't want to spend a weekend with you."
"You're upset, aren't you?"
"Does it show?"
"To me it does. I used to be married to you." She paused. "I'm sorry, John."
"It's my fault. I didn't think it through. Before I came along, she had a Mommy and a Daddy and a home - all any child wants. I'm not just superfluous, though. By being around I threaten her happiness. I'm an intruder, a destabilizing factor. That's why she hugs Bernard in front of me. She doesn't mean to hurt me. She does it because
she's afraid of losing him. And it's me who makes her afraid."
"She'll get over it," Gill said. "America is full of kids with two Daddies."
"That's no excuse. I fucked up, and I should face it."
She surprised him again by patting his knee. "Don't be too hard on yourself," she said. "You just weren't made for this. I knew that within a month of marrying you. You don't want a house, a job, the suburbs, children. You're a little weird. That's why I fell in love with you, and that's why I let you go so readily. I loved you because you were different, crazy, original, exciting. You would do anything. But you're no family man."
He sat in silence, thinking about what she had said, while she drove. It was meant kindly, and for that he was warmly grateful; but was it true? He thought not. I don't want a house in the suburbs, he thought, but I'd like a home: maybe a villa in Morocco or a loft in Greenwich Village or a penthouse in Rome. I don't want a wife to be my housekeeper, cooking and cleaning and shopping and taking the minutes at the PTA; but I'd like a companion, someone to share books and movies and poetry with, someone to talk to at night. I'd even like to have kids, and raise them to know about something more than Michael Jackson.
He did not say any of this to Gill.
She stopped the car and he realized they were outside the Eastern terminal. He looked at his watch: eight-fifty. If he hurried he would get on the nine o'clock shuttle. "Thanks for the ride," he said.
"What you need is a woman like you, one of your kind," Gill said.
Ellis thought of Jane. "I met one, once."
"She married a handsome doctor."
"Is the doctor crazy like you?"
"I don't think so."
"Then it won't last. When did she get married?"
"About a year ago."
"Ah." Gill was probably figuring that that was when Ellis had come back into Petal's life in a big way; but she had the grace not to say so. "Take my advice," she said. "Check her out."
Ellis got out of the car. "Talk to you soon."
He slammed the door and she drove off.
Ellis hurried into the building. He made the flight with a minute or two to spare. As the plane took off he found a news magazine in the seat pocket in front of him and looked for a report from Afghanistan.
He had been following the war closely since he had heard, from Bill in Paris, that Jane had carried out her intention of going there with Jean-Pierre. The war was no longer front-page news. Often a week or two would go by with no reports about it at all. But now the winter lull was over and there was something in the press at least once a week.
This magazine had an analysis of the Russian situation in Afghanistan. Ellis began it mistrustfully, for he knew that many such articles in news magazines emanated from the CIA: a reporter would get an exclusive briefing on the CIA's intelligence appraisal of some situation, but in fact he would be the unconscious channel for a piece of disinformation aimed at another country's intelligence service, and the report he wrote would have no more relation to the truth than an article in Pravda.
However, this article seemed straight. There was a buildup of Russian troops and arms going on, it said, in preparation for a major summer offensive. This was seen by Moscow as a make-or-break summer: they had to crush the Resistance this year or they would be forced to reach an accommodation of some kind with the rebels. This made sense to Ellis: he would check to see what the CIA's people in Moscow were saying, but he had a feeling it would tally.
Among the crucial target areas, the article listed the Panisher Valley.
Ellis remembered Jean-Pierre talking about the Five Lions
Valley. The article also mentioned Masud, the rebel leader: Ellis recalled Jean-Pierre speaking of him, too.
He looked out of the window, watching the sun set. There was no doubt, he thought with a pang of dread, that Jane was going to be in grave danger this summer.
But it was none of his business. She was married to someone else now. Anyway, there was nothing Ellis could do about it.
He looked down at his magazine, turned the page, and started reading about El Salvador. The plane roared on toward Washington. In the west the sun went down, and darkness fell.
Allen Winderman took Ellis Thaler to lunch at a seafood restaurant overlooking the Potomac River. Winderman arrived a half-hour late. He was a typical Washington operator: dark-gray suit, white shirt, striped tie; as smooth as a shark. As the White House was paying, Ellis ordered lobster and a glass of white wine. Winderman asked for Perrier and a salad. Everything about Winderman was too tight: his tie, his shoes, his schedule and his self-control.
Ellis was on his guard. He could not refuse such an invitation from a presidential aide, but he did not like discreet, unofficial lunches, and he did not like Allen Winderman.
Winderman got right down to business. "I want your advice," he began.
Ellis stopped him. "First of all, I need to know whether you told the Agency about our meeting." If the White House wanted to plan covert action without telling the CIA, Ellis would have nothing to do with it.
"Of course," Winderman said. "What do you know about Afghanistan?"
Ellis felt suddenly cold. Sooner or later, this is going to involve Jane, he thought. They know about her, of course: I made no secret of it. I told Bill in Paris I was going to ask her to marry me. I called Bill subsequently to find out whether she really did go to Afghanistan. All that went down on my file. Now this bastard knows about her, and
he's going to use his knowledge. "I know a little about it," he said cautiously, and then he recalled a verse of Kipling, and recited it:
When you're wounded an' left on Afghanistan's plains,
An' the women come out to cut up your remains,
Just roll to your rifle an' blow out your brains,
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Winderman looked ill at ease for the first time. "After two years of posing as a poet you must know a lot of that stuff."
"So do the Afghans," said Ellis. "They're all poets, the way all Frenchmen are gourmets and all Welshmen are singers."
"Is that so?"
"It's because they can't read or write. Poetry is a spoken art form." Winderman was getting visibly impatient: his schedule did not allow for poetry. Ellis went on: "The Afghans are wild, ragged, fierce mountain tribesmen, hardly out of the Middle Ages. They're said to be elaborately polite, brave as lions and pitilessly cruel. Their country is harsh and arid and barren. What do you know about them?"
"There's no such thing as an Afghan," Winderman said. "There are six million Pushtuns in the south, three million Tajiks in the west, a million Uzbaks in the north, and another dozen or so nationalities with fewer than a million. Modern borders mean little to them: there are Tajiks in the Soviet Union and Pushtuns in Pakistan. Some of them are divided into tribes. They're like the Red Indians, who never thought of themselves as American, but Apache or Crow or Sioux. And they would just as soon fight one another as fight the Russians. Our problem is to get the Apache and the Sioux to unite against the palefaces."
"I see." Ellis nodded. He was wondering: When does Jane come into all this? He said: "So the main question is: Who will be the Big Chief?"
"That's easy. The most promising of the guerrilla leaders, by far, is Ahmed Shah Masud, in the Panisher Valley."
The Five Lions Valley. What are you up to, you slimy bastard? Ellis studied Winderman's smooth-shaven face. The man was imperturbable. Ellis asked: "What makes Masud so special?"
"Most of the rebel leaders are content to control their tribes, collect taxes and deny the government access to their territory. Masud does more than that. He comes out of his mountain stronghold and attacks. He's within striking distance of three strategic targets: the capital city, Kabul; the Salang tunnel, on the only highway from Kabul to the Soviet Union; and Bagram, the principal military air base. He's in a position to inflict major damage, and he does. He has studied the art of guerrilla warfare. He's read Mao. He's easily the best military brain in the country. And he has finance. Emeralds are mined in his valley and sold in Pakistan: Masud takes a ten percent tax on all sales and uses the money to fund his army. He's twenty-eight years old, and charismatic - the people worship him. Finally, he's a Tajik. The largest group is the Pushtuns, and all the others hate them, so the leader can't be a Pushtun. Tajiks are the next biggest nation. There's a chance they might unite under a Tajik."
"And we want to facilitate this?"
"That's right. The stronger the rebels are, the more damage they do to the Russians. Furthermore, a triumph for the U.S. intelligence community would be very useful this year.''
It was of no consequence to Winderman and his kind that the Afghans were fighting for their freedom against a brutal invader, Ellis thought. Morality was out of fashion in Washington: the power game was all that mattered. If Winderman had been born in Leningrad instead of Los Angeles, he would have been just as happy, just as successful and just as powerful, and he would have used just the same tactics fighting for the other side. "What do you want from me?" Ellis asked him.
"I want to pick your brains. Is there any way an undercover agent could promote an alliance between the different Afghan tribes?"
"I expect so," said Ellis. The food came, interrupting him and giving him a few moments to think. When the waiter had gone away, he said: "It should be possible, provided there is something they want from us - and I imagine that would be weapons."
"Right." Winderman started to eat, hesitantly, like a man who has an ulcer. Between small mouthfuls he said: "At the moment they buy their weapons across the border in Pakistan. All they can get there is copies of Victorian British rifles - or, if not copies, the genuine damned article, a hundred years old and still firing. They also steal Kalashnikovs from dead Russian soldiers. But they're desperate for small artillery - anti-aircraft guns and hand-launched ground-to-air missiles - so they can shoot down planes and helicopters."
"Are we willing to give them these weapons?"
"Yes. Not directly - we would want to conceal our involvement by sending them through intermediaries. But that's no problem. We could use the Saudis."
"Okay." Ellis swallowed some lobster. It was good. "Let me say what I think is the first step. In each guerrilla group you need a nucleus of men who know, understand and trust Masud. That nucleus then becomes the liaison group for communications with Masud. They build their role gradually: exchange of information first, then mutual cooperation, and finally coordinated battle plans."
"Sounds good," said Winderman. "How might that be setup?"
"I'd have Masud run a training scheme in the Five Lions Valley. Each rebel group would send a few young men to fight alongside Masud for a while and learn the methods that make him so successful. They would also learn to respect him and trust him, if he is as good a leader as you say."
Winderman nodded thoughtfully. "That's the kind of proposal that might be acceptable to tribal leaders who would reject any plan mat committed them to take orders from Masud."
"Is there one rival leader in particular whose cooperation is essential to any alliance?"
"Yes. In fact there are two: Jahan Kamil and Amal Azizi, both Pushtuns."
"Then I would send in an undercover agent with the objective of getting the two of them around a table with Masud. When he came back with all three signatures on a piece of paper, we would send the first load of rocket launchers. Further consignments would depend on how well the training program was going."
Winderman put down his fork and lit a cigarette. He definitely has an ulcer, Ellis thought. Windermam said: "This is exactly the kind of thing I had in mind." Ellis could see he was already figuring out how to take the credit for the idea. By tomorrow he would be saying We cooked up a scheme over lunch and his written report would read Coven action specialists assessed my scheme as viable. "What's the downside risk?"
Ellis considered. "If the Russians caught the agent, they could get considerable propaganda value out of the whole thing. At the moment they have what the White House would call 'an image problem' in Afghanistan. Their allies in the Third World don't enjoy watching them overrun a small primitive country. Their Muslim friends, in particular, tend to sympathize with the rebels. Now, the Russians' line is that the so-called rebels are just bandits, financed and armed by the CIA. They would just love to be able to prove it by catching a real live CIA spook right there in the country and putting him on trial. In terms of global politics, I imagine that could do us a lot of damage.''
"What are the chances that the Russians would catch our man?"
"Slender. If they can't catch Masud, why would they be able to catch an undercover agent sent to meet Masud?"
"Good." Winderman stubbed out his cigarette. "I want you to be that agent."
Ellis was taken by surprise. He should have seen this coming, he realized, but he had been engrossed in the problem. "I don't do that stuff anymore," he said, but his
voice sounded thick and he could not help thinking: I would see Jane. I would see Jane!
"I talked to your boss on the phone," Winderman said. "His opinion was that an assignment in Afghanistan might tempt you back into field work."
So it was a setup. The White House wanted to achieve something dramatic in Afghanistan, so they asked the CIA to lend them an agent. The CIA wanted Ellis to work in the field again, so they told the White House to offer him this assignment, knowing or suspecting that the prospect of meeting up with Jane again was almost irresistible.
Ellis hated to be manipulated.
But he wanted to go to the Five Lions Valley.
There had been a long silence. Winderman said impatiently: "Will you do it?"
"I'll think about it," Ellis replied.
Ellis's father belched quietly, begged pardon and said: "That was good."
Ellis pushed away his dish of cherry pie and whipped cream. He was having to watch his weight for the first time in his life. "Real good, Mom, but I can't eat any more," he said apologetically.
"Nobody eats like they used to," she said. She stood up and began clearing away. "It's because they go everywhere in cars."
His father pushed back his chair. "I've got some figures to look over."
"You still don't have an accountant?" Ellis said.
"Nobody takes care of your money as well as you do," his father said. "You'll find that out if you ever make any." He left the room, heading for his den.
Ellis helped his mother clear away. The family had moved into this four-bedroom house in Teaneck, New Jersey, when Ellis was thirteen, but he could remember the move as if it were yesterday. It had been anticipated literally for years. His father had built the house, on his own at first, later using employees of his growing construction business, but always doing the work in slack
periods and leaving it when business was good. When they moved in, it was not really finished: the heating did not work, there were no cupboards in the kitchen and nothing had been painted. They got hot water the following day only because Mom threatened divorce otherwise. But it got finished eventually, and Ellis and his brothers and sisters all had room to grow up in it. It was bigger than Mom and Dad needed now, but he hoped they would keep it. It had a good feel about it.
When they had loaded the dishwasher he said: "Mom, do you remember that suitcase I left here when I came back from Asia?"
"Sure. It's in the closet in the small bedroom."
"Thanks. I want to look through it."
"Go on, then. I'll finish up here."
Ellis climbed the stairs and went to the little bedroom at the top of the house. It was rarely used, and around the single bed were crowded a couple of broken chairs, an old sofa and four or five cardboard boxes containing children's books and toys. Ellis opened the cupboard and took out a small black plastic suitcase. He laid it on the bed, turned the combination locks and lifted the lid. There was a musty smell: it had not been opened for a decade. Everything was there: the medals; both the bullets they had taken out of him; Army Field Manual FM 5-31, entitled Booby Traps; a picture of Ellis standing beside a helicopter, his first Huey, grinning, looking young and (oh, shit,) thin; a note from Frankie Amalfi which said To the bastard that stole my leg - a brave joke, for Ellis had gently untied Frankie's lace, then tugged at his boot and pulled away his foot and half his leg, severed at the knee by a wildly flexing rotor blade; Jimmy Jones's watch, stopped forever at half-past five - You keep it, son, Jimmy's father had said to Ellis through an alcoholk haze, 'cause you were his frien', and that's more than 1 ever wuz; and the diary.
He leafed through the pages. He only had to read a few words to recall a whole day, a week, a battle. The journal began cheerfully, with a sense of adventure, and very self-consciously; and it got progressively disenchanted,
somber, bleak, despairing and eventually suicidal. The grim phrases brought vivid scenes to his mind: goddam Arvins wouldn't get out of the helicopter, if they're so keen to be rescued from Communism how come they don't fight? and then Capt. Johnson always was an A. hole I guess but what a way to die, grenaded by one of his own men, and later The women have rifles up their skirts and the kids have grenades in their shirts so what the fuck are we supposed to do, surrender? The last entry read What is wrong with this war is that we are on the wrong side. We are the bad guys. That is why kids dodge the draft; that is why the Vietnamese won't fight; that is why we kill women and children; that is why the generals lie to the politicians, and the politicians lie to the reporters, and the newspapers lie to the public. After that his thoughts had become too seditious to be committed to paper, his guilt too great to be expiated by mere words. It seemed to him that he would have to spend the rest of his life righting the wrongs he had done in that war. After all these years it still seemed that way. When he added up the murderers he had jailed since then, the kidnappers and the hijackers and the bombers he had arrested, they were as nothing when balanced against the tons of explosives he had dropped and the thousands of rounds of ammunition he had fired in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
It was irrational, he knew. He had realized that when he came back from Paris and reflected for a while on how his job had ruined his life. He had decided to stop trying to redeem the sins of America. But this . . . this was different. Here was a chance to fight for the little guy, to fight against the lying generals and the power brokers and the blinkered journalists; a chance not just to fight, not just to pay a small contribution, but to make a real difference, to change the course of a war, to alter the fate of a country, and to strike a blow for freedom on a big scale.
And then there was Jane.
The mere possibility of seeing her again had rekindled his passion. Just a few days ago he had been able to think of her and the danger she was in, and then put the thought
out of his mind and turn the page of the magazine. Now he could hardly stop thinking about her. He wondered whether her hair was long or short, was she fatter or thinner, did she feel good about what she was doing with her life, did the Afghans like her, and - most of all - did she still love Jean-Pierre? Take my advice, Gill had said; check her out. Clever Gill.
Finally he thought about Petal. I tried, he said to himself; I really tried, and I don't think I handled it too badly - I think it was a doomed project. Gill and Bernard give her all she needs. There is no room for me in her life. She's happy without me.
He closed the diary and returned it to the case. Next he took out a small, cheap jeweler's box. Inside was a small pair of gold earrings, each with a pearl in the center. The woman they had been intended for, a slant-eyed girl with small breasts who had taught him that nothing is taboo, had died - killed by a drunken soldier in a Saigon bar - before he gave them to her. He had not loved her: he had just liked her and felt grateful to her. The earrings were to have been a farewell gift.
He took a plain card and a pen from his shirt pocket. He thought for a minute, then wrote:
To Petal -
Yes, you can have them pierced. With love from Daddy.