Monday, 29th May 2023 - 15:27:02 pm

Ahmed joined him in the creek bed where Kincaid had burned the cigar down an inch.

Ahmed lit a cigarette off the cigar. "It's not your fault you know," he told Kincaid.

"My fault?" Kincaid's surprise was in his voice. "Hell no it's not my fault."

"I thought you might be blaming yourself."

"It's not myself that I'm blaming."

Ahmed caught the implication. He looked uncomfortable. "Who then?"

"This should have been an easy mission," Steve Kincaid said. "A long ride maybe, but after that a single soft probe. Get my man and get out. Simple."

Ahmed believed him. He wouldn't have believed him two days before but now he believed him. "Probably very much like a vacation for you." There was no irony in his tone.

"It hasn't worked out that way. This job has been fouled up from the beginning. And now I've lost someone who was close to me. When someone works with me they've made a commitment and I've made a commitment. There is a bond between us. Now I owe him. We all owe him. There's no way that I can ever repay him bur I can make damned sure that the rest of the debt is paid. Like it or not, I'm taking over that debt. So now I figure that you owe me. I want you to tell me what happened."

"Why would you think the problem is from my side?"

"My people, the ones back in Iraq and elsewhere, had no idea what I would do once I got here. Neither did I, as far as that goes. It all depended on the information you gave me once I was here. That's why the problem is from your side. So what's going on?"

"Someone got careless," Ahmed said. "There was a leak."

"It was more than carelessness. The Revolutionary Guards who tried to hit our camp knew me by name. Someone on your side had given detailed information. We are dealing with an agent. Someone on your side is an Iranian agent."

"We discussed that, old boy. That smuggler, Van, is for sale to the highest bidder. He saw a chance to make a profit from both sides. Lord knows he's done the same thing before."

"But you're supposed to have had him under guard. If your men did their job, he had no chance to tell them that we were coming down the caravan trail. He couldn't have known that in advance because we didn't know that."

"No," Ahmed said slowly, "he couldn't have known that in advance."

"So who told them?"

"I see your point, old boy. It would appear that one of my men... But I have hundreds. Any one man back in my camp could have easily found out where we were going and passed the information on. But you're right. I see that we have a security leak. Now that I know... well, we have ways of tracking things like that down, old boy."

For and instant, only an instant, Ahmed's civilized British veneer fell away and Kincaid saw the hard, relentless tribesman beneath. He had seen it when Ahmed was dealing with other Kurds, but this was the first time his surface had cracked when talking to Kincaid.

Kincaid pressed on. "How many of your men knew me by name?"

Again the veneer broke a little. Kincaid casually moved his right hand nearer to the Beretta in his shoulder holster.

Ahmed quickly recovered. "Quite a few actually."

"You spread my name around a lot, did you?"

"Not at all, old boy. But if you"ll remember, I spoke your name when we first met. Why I must have had more than a dozen men there. They all could hear me quite easily."

"You were speaking English," Kincaid pursued relentlessly. "It would all sound like gibberish to them unless one of them also spoke English. Could any of them speak English?"

Ahmed tried to field that one smoothly, not quite pulling it off. "That will be a good place to start our investigation," he said. "When I get back, I"ll look into that."

Kincaid stared at him.

"Look here, old boy," Ahmed said. "A man could, for some obscure reason, do something which is against his nature. He might make a mistake for which he is forever regretful. That doesn't mean that he is a bad man or that he will ever do that sort of thing again. Do you see what I am driving at?"

Kincaid flicked his cigar away. He watched Ahmed carefully while he bit off the end of another and started chewing on it.

"We both know it doesn't work that way," he said. He held the cigar in his left hand leaving his right hand free. "Let's assume that one of your men speaks English and heard you mention my name and knew our plans. This is a good man but for some reason doesn't agree that we are doing the right thing. He decides to inform to the regime. He has made up his mind that he is only going to do it this one time and never again. But the next time your enemies need information, they come to this man and say, 'If you don't ell us what we want to know, we will tell who gave us the information before.' They know what you would do to a spy, don't they?"

There was hatred in Ahmed's eyes as he stared at Kincaid. He dropped his veneer completely and made no effort to recover it.

Kincaid put his right hand on the butt of the Beretta. Ahmed watched him coldly.

"Then this man would have three choices," Kincaid continued. "He could kill himself. He could cooperate with your enemies and give them the information they wanted. Or he could let them expose him to you, hoping that you wouldn't believe them." Kincaid paused, rolling the cigar around in his mouth. "But you would believe them," he said quietly, "wouldn't you?"

The two men looked deeply into each others eyes. Neither liked what he saw there.

"Wouldn't you?" Kincaid asked again. This time it was more of a statement than a question.

Ahmed nodded and looked away.

Kincaid relaxed a little. "You would have to believe them because you already knew. And this man, this good man, might suspect that you knew. So now he has only two choices. He can kill himself or continue to be a spy."

"It could be no one on this patrol," Ahmed said suddenly. His British accent was not as pronounced. "We left very quickly. There was no time." As an afterthought he added, "And he would be exposing himself to danger."

"That's true," Kincaid said, taking his time. "Or that would be true if the spy were working alone. But that would be difficult. No spy can work alone. He can't be seen walking into the office of the Iranian district commander. People would get suspicious. The spy would need someone he trusted to pass the information along. And perhaps that man would need someone else. The message could go to someone in camp and then to an Iranian in the nearest village, perhaps a shopkeeper. And then to the authorities. It's not easy to be a spy," Kincaid added pointedly.

Ahmed looked at the ground.

"The Revolutionary Guards were looking for me. It was only me they wanted. Maybe their orders were to get me and leave the rest of the patrol alone. It would take a desperate man to give information about a patrol that he himself was on, but maybe he only had those two choices that we talked about. Being exposed to danger beats dying for sure."

They locked eyes again.

"Did Yasin tell you," Kincaid said casually, "that he saved my neck tonight?"

Kincaid saw Ahmed working to reacquire his civilized shell.

"No, old boy," Ahmed said, struggling with the transformation. "Did he really?"

"Yeah," Kincaid said. "Stopped me just before I rode my horse over the bank of the creek. I could have been killed."

"I say. Good show."

Kincaid studied Ahmed. "He is a good man," Kincaid said carefully.

The pain in Ahmed's face was tough to take. Kincaid had to look away.

They listened to the sounds of the digging. A horse whinnied. The horses had been rounded up and were in the grass south of the creek.

Kincaid watched Ahmed out of the corner of his eye.

"One must be careful when collecting debts," Ahmed said, breaking a long silence. "One can ask for too much. When that happens, the debt could be turned around. The one collecting could suddenly find that he is the one who owes."

"That happens," Kincaid said.

"We had an older brother, Yasin and I. His name was Jabar. He died when I was a boy, killed by the Iranians. They owe me. How can they ever repay me?"

Kincaid knew he wasn't expecting an answer. There was no answer.

Ahmed suddenly straightened up. His features again took on the civilized mask. "It's uncanny," he said, "how much you remind me of my older brother. Yes, you two would have gotten on well together, had he lived. You are very much alike."

The shifting of personalities was confusing but Kincaid knew which Ahmed Kurtsan he had to believe; which one was real. His life depended on it.

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