Monday, 29th May 2023 - 15:20:59 pm

The Ayatollah's face drained of color. "I'm worth more to you alive than dead."

"Oh really?" Ahmed said in mock surprise. "Just how is that?"

"I will renounce the Tehran regime and join you. Together we would provide political and religious leadership for all the Kurds."

"Now how could you do that? You are a Shi-ite. We Kurds are Sunni. Isn't there a bit of a conflict there?"

"I will convert to the Sunni faith."

"Yes," Ahmed threw a meaningful glance at Kincaid, "I rather thought you might."

"I mean it," the Ayatollah said. "I will do it."

"Oh I believe you, all right," Ahmed said. "But it seems to me you have converted before, haven't you? It might make one a bit reluctant to turn one's back on you. You do see the problem, don't you old boy?"

Rashad Hassim was silent for a moment. Then he said, "There are others in your camp already that you should not turn your back to."

Kincaid could see by Ahmed's expression that the shot had struck home.

"And who might they be?" Ahmed asked quietly.

"I will tell you in exchange for my freedom."

Ahmed's expression darkened. Kincaid watched him transform into the savage Kurd. The Khan said something in the guttural accents of the Kurdish language.

Whatever he said, it had an effect on the Ayatollah. Kincaid thought the man was going to faint.

Mohammed Parsee looked on coldly. Kincaid caught his eye. The CIA agent shook his head almost imperceptivity and mouthed the word, "later."

They topped the rise of a hill and looked down on a broad, flat valley. Ahmed stopped the Jeep. The paved road crossed the valley on a straight line. There was a small town at the toe of the slope they were on. The road passed almost completely to the south of it. The town was clustered around springs that came out of the hills farther north.

Kincaid couldn't see a sign of an airstrip anywhere. Along the road opposite the town were thirty or forty black clad horsemen. He could see more horsemen on the other side of the valley.

Ahmed, his black expression unchanged, dipped the Jeep down the road, into the valley.

Opposite the town, the horsemen put on a show for them, putting the horses into a full gallop then suddenly changing direction in mass. Ahmed stopped the Jeep when they were near. After the tribesmen raced around for a few minutes, they brought their horses up on their hind legs. Some were able to maintain that position for an incredible time. Then they all trotted to the Jeep. Kincaid noticed that almost all the horses had been trained to lift their forelegs high when walking or trotting as if they were on parade.

When the horsemen had gathered around, Ahmed stood up in the front seat. He pointed to the Ayatollah as he spoke to the men.

Mohammed Parsee leaned forward and told Kincaid what Ahmed was saying. "This man clams to be your leader. Do you know him?"

Kincaid could see from their expressions that most of the men recognized the Ayatollah. One of the Kurds handed his rifle to the man alongside him. He pulled out a great sword and started for the Jeep. Ahmed held up his hand and said something.

"He's asking for the sword."

The tribesman stopped and handed the sword to Ahmed, hilt first.

"He's telling them to follow us," Mohammed Parsee interpreted, "and to bring fuel for a fire."

Ahmed put the sword in front of him, on the hood. He started the Jeep across the valley, going slowly. The Kurds followed on both sides of the road.

Kincaid turned away from Ahmed to the side of the Jeep and motioned the CIA agent close. "What did he say to the Ayatollah back there?"

"You almost have to be a Kurd or an Arab to understand. He said, 'you will tell me in exchange for a quick death.'"

Kincaid understood. He looked over at the set features of the tribal chieftain. Yeah, he understood.

He also knew that he had to stay around until the string was played out, no matter what the risk. He owed them that. And Steve Kincaid always paid his debts.

As Kincaid had suspected the horsemen across the valley turned out to be Yasin and the rest of the patrol from Sanandaj. They were holding down what had once been an airstrip. It had since reverted back to farmland.

Ahmed drove the Jeep along the furrows on the edge of the strip and stopped a short distance from the road.

Kincaid dug out his plastic panels and went off to find and area in which to land the STOL. The center of the strip, he discovered, had been covered with crushed rock and compacted. Much grass had grown through the surface. There were signs that the local farmers had tried to plow it but with little success. The strip had been crowned so even the elements hadn't been able to ruffle the hard surface badly. There were thousands of feet along the center on which almost any small plane could land and take off.

Kincaid set his white panels and went back to where the Kurds had gathered around a fire.

The fire had been started in the drainage ditch that ran alongside the strip for its entire length. The fuel was dry stalks and dried cattle chips. The nearest wood was probably miles away in the brush of the hills.

The blade of the sword was in the fire.

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