Authors: Edward S. Aarons
THE bridge appeared at the last moment, and Kappic pulled the jeep’s wheel violently to one side. A mist hung over the mountain road and blanketed the whole earthquake area, and the fact that the bridge was wrecked was not apparent until it was almost too late.
The Turk, muscles bulging, used brute force to brake the speeding vehicle. The wheels kicked up a shower of gravel as they slewed sidewise. Durell hung on to the windshield bar as Kappic wrestled with the wheel. The jeep rocked to a halt a few feet from the rushing, swollen mountain stream, and the motor stalled.
In the sudden silence, Durell heard the sighing of the wind in the pines and the rushing voice of the little river that blocked their way.
“You drive like a lunatic, Kappic,” he said.
The Turk grinned, showing white teeth under his bushy black moustache. “But you said you were in a hurry, Mr. Durell.”
“In a hurry to get there—not to be killed.”
Kappic shrugged and pointed to the left. “I think we can ford the stream over there.”
The view was one of solemn desolation. Not a hut or a human could be seen in the sullen vista of tumbled mountain and pine forests on the eastern Turkish frontier. The mist moved in shredded streamers through the afternoon light, hiding the tops of the more distant peaks and their destination, on the craggy crest of Musa Karagh. This primitive road was the only auto route into the desolated area, according to Durell's briefing. The last landing strip in Barthum was twenty miles back, where he had disembarked from the emergency flight that took him eastward out of Ankara.
Not even a helicopter could risk landing in the winds that tore in every direction around the rugged shoulders of Musa Karagh.
He turned to the more immediate problem of getting across the river. The wrecked bridge was just one more bit of evidence of the violence wreaked by the earthquakes that had begun two days ago. The span’s main timbers had cracked and splintered, as if twisted in a giant’s grip, and the planks had been spilled into the swollen stream for a long distance down the narrow, foggy gorge.
Durell got out of the jeep and stared up and down the river bed. Kappic clucked his tongue and climbed down to join him, looking like a chunky bear in his greatcoat and lamb’s-wool military hat.
“The ford is beyond that bend, there, where that pine tree has fallen into the water,” said the Turkish security officer. “If we are careful, and Allah watches over us, we can get the jeep across.”
“All right, we’ll try it.” Durell looked curiously at Kappic. “Were you here when Base Four was first built, Lieutenant?” “Yes, as liason officer to the NATO group. I was assigned to security during the construction period. But I was transferred back to Ankara when the job was done.”
“How many men run the radar scanners on Musa Karagh?” The Turk shrugged. “Perhaps twenty. No more than that.” Durell stared at the misted mountains. “And how far is Base Four from the frontier?”
“The Moskofs are only twenty miles beyond Karagh.” To Kappic, as to all Turks, the Russians were invariably referred to as “Moskofs.” “Do you think they have taken advantage of the earthquakes and the confusion, Mr. Durell? You have seen the roads, the villages, the refugees. It would be as difficult for them to reach Base Four as it is for us.” “We still can’t lose any time,” Durell said.
“I understand this.”
Everything here was marked by the destructive force of the tremors that had shaken several hundred square miles of mountain wilderness. The Red Crescent was rushing doctors and medicines and food into the area, but the roads were primitive and the villages isolated in mountain valleys. A stunned apathy brooded over the shocked population. Landslides had changed the familiar face of the mountains, and the angry, uncertain earth movements had collapsed houses and mosques and bams and swept away the fruits of a lifetime of bone-cracking toil. It was possible, Durell thought, that the tremors had brought down the radio transmitting mast at Base Four, too. He hoped that the strange silence from the radar installation was due only to this, and nothing more.
He felt an impatience with Kappic, the Turk, that was not justified. Kappic had smoothed their way through the enormous confusion at the refugee evacuation center in Barthum, and commandeered the jeep that saved hours in getting away from the airstrip. But even the loss of an hour or two could tip the scales in the wrong direction, Durell thought. Other men might be toiling across the desolated mountains from beyond the frontier, intent on reaching the radar base at Musa Karagh. There had been an unusual urgency in the orders that took him from Paris to Ankara two days ago. Any further delay was dangerous.
Durell was a tall man who moved with lithe and easy coordination. His hair was thick and black, streaked at the temples with gray. His hands were like a gambler’s deft and strong, able to perform magic with cards or weapons, and in themselves they could be deadly and precise instruments of killing. His dark blue eyes often seemed black when he was frustrated. His Cajun temperament often worked against the long training and conditioned reflexes instilled in him for survival. He wore a dark suit and a dark blue knitted tie and a raincoat with a liner against the chill spring air of eastern Anatolia. Under the coat, in a specially tailored pocket, he carried his gun.
He considered the wrecked bridge carefully, then studied the opposite bank of the little river. If a roadblock and trap had been prepared for him, this was as good a place as any. From Barthum to this point they had passed through half a dozen shattered villages, cluttered with refugees, scarred by fire and tumbled houses shaken by the two days of earthquakes in the region. But now they had entered the desolate mountain gorges and passes of the frontier area, and not a house was to be seen. The pine woods ahead were wreathed in smoky fog that moved with the chill wind, creating images on the steep slopes that changed constantly. The road beyond the fallen bridge looked safe enough, however.
But he wasn’t sure.
The rocky mountain stream ran a swollen, savage course, and here in the heights the air was chill and biting. Durell shivered a little. But the Turk, Kappic, strode forward with eager strength, scrambling down the embankment to study the wreckage bridge structure. Durell stared again across the river where the road went on, climbing steeply into the pines. Nothing stirred in the mists that shrouded the rocky slopes -there.
“Come alone!” Dappic called. “There’s a ford, all right, just around the bend upstream.”
They walked to the left, through the smoky mist. Great boulders had tumbled down the mountain to rest in the narrow gorge. But walking was made easier by a small strip of sand that followed the water’s edge on their side of the river.
Durell noticed the tracks first.
“Somebody’s tried to use the ford ahead of us, Kappic,” he said.
There were narrow tire marks in the sand beside the river, made by a light-bodied European car. The tread pattern looked quite fresh, and Durell walked more carefully.
They were almost to the bend when they heard the girl scream.
Her voice was thin and frightened above the roar of the water. At the same time there came a metallic crash as if a car had turned over in midstream.
Durell ran, digging his toes into the sand. A fallen pine blocked his way and he hurdled it, with Kappic at his heels. Then he stopped abruptly.
As Kappic had predicted, there was a ford here—a flat rock ledge where the water flowed in green, smooth silence, extending from bank to bank as a shallow shelf of moderate depth. Halfway across, a blue French Dauphine had slid off the ledge and hung precariously in the boiling white water beyond. The current sent up gouts of spray all around it, and for a moment Durell could not locate the source of the scream.
Then he saw the girl clinging to the front of the car, up to her thighs in the quick current. She turned a white face toward them as they rounded the bend and halted.
“Oh, please!” she called in French. “Help me!”
“Hang on for a moment!” Durell shouted. “Can you hold on?”
Her appearance was incongruous in these wild mountains.
Her clothes were smart and expensive, a gray traveling suit with a white blouse and a fur piece to which she clung desperately, trying to salvage it. The current tore strongly at her clinging skirt, and revealed long, shapely legs.
“Cover me, Kappic,” Durell said quietly.
The Turk lifted heavy brows in surprise. “You think there is something suspicious here?”
“I don’t know.”
The Turk drew his gun. Durell could see nothing dangerous in the dark green pine woods across the river; but that might be just why this spot was chosen, if a roadblock had been arranged here to intercept him. He did not know who might try to keep him from reaching Base Four in Musa Karagh, but his instructions back in Ankara had been clear enough. He took no chances.
The water was icy, numbing his legs when he stepped out on the rocky shelf toward the girl. Her dark hair had come loose and streamed around her tense shoulders. She slipped suddenly, before he got halfway to her, and lost her fur scarf with a little cry of despair.
“Hang on!” he shouted again.
He realized that he had called out in English this time, and she had replied in kind, abandoning her French. Then he lunged for the car, caught it for support, and worked his way around to the front where the girl hung on desperately. At that moment he felt the little car lurch a foot or more farther off the edge of the rock shelf, sliding further into the boiling water below. The girl lost her grip and screamed again—and then tumbled into the white current.
Instantly he abandoned his grip on the car and dived after her. He no longer thought of a possible trap. The icy current slammed him downstream in tumbled confusion as he saw the girl’s face momentarily in the foam. He lunged for her, caught her hand, felt her wet fingers slip through his, and caught at her again. This time her arms went around him in strong panic and her wet body clung to him with frantic strength. They both went under, tumbling headlong downstream. When he came up, gasping, he twisted in her grip and saw the small car roll over and over toward them, as if a giant’s hand playfully turned it in the current. He yelled, shoved the girl aside, and felt something graze his leg as he stumbled. The car crashed violently on the rocks he had just quit and hung there, shattered, streaming water.
Durell got to his knees in the current and pulled the girl up with him. Her eyes were panic-stricken, dismayed, as she stared at the wrecked car, and he slapped her white face.
“Let go of your grip on me,” he rapped. “Try to help yourself!”
“But my sketches! I’ve got to get them—in the car—”
The current had thrown them against the opposite river bank, where the shallow water gave him a welcome foothold. He took her wet hands in his and hauled her bodily onto the dry shore under the pines. They were both soaked, and the mist and wind driving down the gorge bit clammily through their clothing. The girl shuddered violently in his arms and continued to look in despair at the wrecked car.
“My book of sketches—in the back seat—I’ve got to get them—” She shivered, started back to the river’s edge. “All my work is in there—”
“Hold it.” Durell studied the stream a moment, then nodded. “Stay here.”
He plunged back into the current, wading toward the rocks where the Dauphine hung. Alone, he was able to keep his footing with relative ease. The water boiled around the wreck, and for a moment he did not think he could pull the twisted door open. But on the third try it yielded, and he reached inside for a tightly locked, large, fairly flat leather case and hauled it out. A moment later he climbed back on the bank where the girl stood watching.
“Th-thank you. I thought there wasn’t—another soul around—for miles.”
He handed the case to her. “What were you doing here?” “Trying to get to—Mosa Karagh.” Her teeth chattered. “I guess I was foolish to try it alone, but everything here is so mixed up and everybody is so busy with the refugees and all—”
Before he could ask her more, Kappic yelled at them from upstream, and Durell called back for the jeep. But Kappic came trotting like a shambling bear on the opposite bank and paused, hands on hips. His grin across the stream showed his white teeth under his shaggy moustache. “Who is the foolish young lady?”
“I don’t know yet!” Durell called. He returned to the shuddering girl. Her lips were blue. “We’ve got chocolate, hot coffee, and raki in the jeep. You’ll be all right in a minute. But I’ve got to know why you’re going to Musa Karagh. You know it’s a restricted area, don’t you?”
She nodded dumbly, her teeth chattering.
“Who are you, anyway?” Durell asked.
“F-francesca. The raki ought to be good. Can’t you tell your infantry lieutenant to hurry with that jeep?”
“Uvaldi. I was on my way to see my father when the quakes began out here. I first heard about the tremors at the Yesilkoy Airport in Istanbul—you know, where the storks get in the way of all the planes. That was two days ago. I was doing some sketches for fashion designs—I work for Mini of Rome —trying to get some native motifs for silk patterns.” She smiled uncertainly. “That’s why I wanted to rescue my sketch case. I’m grateful to you for that—and for saving my life, I think.” She looked at Durell again and her slightly slanted gray eyes were alarmed. “You look at me as if I said a nasty word.”