Winter 1917: As a generation of Europe’s young men perish on the Eastern and Western fronts, British spy Jack McColl is assigned a sabotage mission deep in Central Asia, where German influence is strong. The mission only becomes more dangerous the closer he gets to its heart. Meanwhile, the woman he loves, Irish-American radical journalist Caitlin Hanley, is in Bolshevik Russia, thrilled to have the chance to cover the Revolution. Caitlin knows Moscow is where she is meant to be during this historic event—even if she is putting her own life at risk to bear witness.
But four years of bloody war have taken their toll on all of Europe, and Jack and Caitlin’s relationship may become another casualty. Caitlin’s political convictions have always been for progress, feminism, and socialism—often diametrically opposed to the conservative goals of the British Empire Jack serves. Up until now, Jack and Caitlin have managed to set aside their allegiances and stay faithful to each other, but the stakes of their affair have risen too high. Can a revolutionary love a spy? And if she does, will it cost one of them their life?
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As the horse clip-clopped its way up El Maghrabi Street toward Opera Square, Jack McColl let his gaze slip down the alleys on either side, wondering at the sheer volume of activity that each seemed to contain. Behind him the sun was almost down, the sky above the buildings a lurid orange. The heat, though, showed no sign of abating, and the shirt he’d only just put on was already stuck to his back. Every now and then, he swatted an arm at the posse of flies that seemed to have followed him all the way from his hotel.
The calash turned left across a corner of the square, its driver letting loose a string of curses at a tram that insisted on its right of way. As they passed up the western side of the Ezbekiya Gardens, McColl noticed palm fronds writhing above the perimeter wall, like ghostly spirits demanding release.
He’d been in Egypt for two days, long enough to notice a definite change of mood. First there had been the middle-class family on the train who’d all seemed so friendly until McColl spoke to the child in Arabic, and then the crowd of Egyptian Labour Corps volunteers at Cairo Station whose fervent singing only sounded patriotic if you didn’t understand the words. McColl did, and he had spent enough time in India to recognize the signs—colonial rule might look secure on the surface, but the longer the war went on, the more dangers lurked below it.
Turning north away from the gardens, the calash clattered up a short street toward the Wagh el-Birka, which marked the southern border of the red-light district. The driver stopped to let traffic cross in front of them, and McColl had time to scan the street in both directions. It had been crowded with troops on his last visit, but maybe the night was still young.
It was Cumming’s man in Cairo who had given him this errand. “All our Russian speakers were packed off to Russia,” Randolph Considine had complained, “and anyone who talks to Linkevich in English or German always seems to get the wrong end of the stick. So do us a favor and find out what he knows about Prince Kamal’s wife.”
“Why’s he still here?” McColl had wanted to know. “I thought the man was a revolutionary—why hasn’t he gone back to Russia?”
Considine had laughed. “Well, he’s been so useful to us that we put a few obstacles in his way. He kicked up a fuss at first, but since we doubled his usual fee, he seems to have settled down again.”
Maxim Linkevich held court in an alley just west of the Shari’ Clot Bey. Having arrived in Cairo from points unknown in late 1913—the rumor that he’d escaped from Siberian exile was probably his own invention—he’d soon made himself the city’s one indispensable source for local intelligence. The British, always the last to know what their subjects were thinking or doing, were his main customers.
McColl had visited the café twice in 1916, and Linkevich was always at the same table, the one farthest from the door. The light seemed poorer than McColl remembered, the two kerosene lamps hanging in the smoky atmosphere like navigation lights in a fog. There were several other customers drinking either mint tea or Turkish coffee, but none gave him a second look.
“Jack McColl,” the Russian said, rising with a smile and offering his hand. He looked much the same, his thick, dark hair brushed back and overlong, the quick black eyes behind the pebble glasses, a mouth that always seemed to be slightly open. Perhaps he had put on a few pounds—the lightweight tropical suit hugged him a little tighter. “I heard you were back in Egypt,” he said in English.
“Of course you did,” McColl replied in Russian, taking the proffered chair.
Linkevich offered him an expensive-looking Turkish cigarette and switched languages. “It’s so nice to hear my own tongue. And from someone who doesn’t butcher it. Some of your colleagues . . .” He shook his head sadly. “I wouldn’t bet much on their chances if they’ve gone to subvert our revolution.”
“As if,” McColl said with a smile. These days he wasn’t a regular smoker, but he’d always been fond of Turkish tobacco.
“So how I can help you?” the Russian asked, leaning back in his chair, cigarette arm aloft.
McColl got straight to the point. “The wife of Prince Kamal al-Din Husayn,” he said carefully. “She’s also the sister of the old khedive, as I recall—”
“The one you British got rid of,” Linkevich helpfully interjected.
McColl looked hurt. “We relieved him of his duties,” he conceded. “I’m sure he’s enjoying a life of luxury on some Italian island or other.”
“No doubt. Let me spare you a lengthy explanation. The old khedive’s brother, whom you put in his place, is ill and probably dying, and it has finally come to your attention that Prince Kamal, who’s next in line, will refuse to succeed him while you British are calling the shots. And you’ve probably heard that he and his wife are rather fond of the Germans.”
McColl smiled. “And?”
“You want to know if the rumors are true and, if they are, whether the royal lovebirds are plotting with the enemy.”
“Thank you. So how much are you offering—the usual?”
“Plus ten percent,” McColl said generously. No one had bothered to tell him what the usual was.
“Fine. But I also want a new passport. The nationality doesn’t matter, as long it gets me home.”
McColl considered. “We’ll need something special for that.”
“Have I ever let His Majesty down?” Linkevich inquired.
The Russian tapped the ash from his cigarette into an already brimming saucer. “Well, I should begin by pointing your Mr. Considine in another direction altogether. These royal fools don’t matter. Even if Kamal and his wife are plotting with the Germans, there’s no chance they could ever be anything more than figureheads—they can only front for the Germans once the Germans are already in charge. They couldn’t actually put them in charge. These people have no soldiers, no popular following—all they have is money, and I imagine they’re only allowed to hang on to that providing they spend it on things that don’t matter.”
“So who should we be looking at?” McColl asked, guessing that Linkevich had other names to offer.
“We are agreed on the terms?”
Linkevich nodded. “The Germans have had someone in Cairo for more than a month.” He smiled slyly. “So I’ve been waiting for your visit.”
“What’s his name?”
“Halberg. He’s a Swede, an archaeologist before the war—I don’t know if he still goes digging for that sort of treasure.”
“I don’t know. He was staying in the Rosetti quarter, but that was his third address in as many weeks. He may have left Cairo by this time. And Egypt.”
Linkevich raised a hand. “He’s not the one that matters. The ones who do are the Egyptians he talked to. They are the threat. The people who suffer real hardship from British rule, not the inbred peacocks who have their lives sent out from Harrods. And the Germans know this. The Egyptians never liked you British, but now they’re beginning to hate you. There are just too many stories going around about the Labour Corps, and how all these volunteers are really anything but, and how badly they’re treated the moment you get them out of Egypt. The Germans are looking for people who can channel all this anger—worker and peasant leaders, intellectuals, students. Looking and finding, I think.”
“Think or know?”
“Well, I know about one man. He’s a lawyer, quite young, I believe. His name is Safar, Abasi Safar. He has represented the families of several Labour Corps men who died in Palestine, supposedly in accidents but probably of ill treatment. Halberg made contact with him, and Safar has agreed to set up some sort of clandestine network. It was a good choice on their part. He’s well known in his section of Cairo, very competent, very popular. And if you arrest him, you’ll probably only make things worse.”
“We can hardly just let him get on with it.”
Linkevich shrugged. “It’s not my place to say, but I thought you employed Theorides to take care of situations like this.”
As was usually the case with Linkevich, McColl had to stop himself from asking, How the hell do you know all this? Theorides was another Cairo institution, this time of Greek origin. And while Linkevich employed an army of investigators to obtain his impressive results, Theorides relied on a gang of cutthroats. His results ended up entangled in reeds like Moses or stripped to the bone by desert winds.
Hearing McColl’s report an hour or so later, Considine came to the same conclusion. McColl couldn’t say he was happy about it, but treason was treason, particularly in time of war, and dying for one’s country was hardly a rare occurrence. The manner of it, though, was something of a shock. Accompanying the local police to Safar’s apartment in Bulaq on the following afternoon, McColl found himself staring at the aftermath of a supposed burglary, in the commission of which a man, a woman, and a child had all been stabbed to death. It would have been bad enough if McColl hadn’t known them, but this was the middle-class family he’d sat and talked to on the train from Alex. The ones who’d looked worried when they realized he spoke their language. Now he knew why.
The train hadn’t moved for over six hours, and there seemed no immediate prospect of its doing so. In the first-class carriage, the mood was more smug than angry. This is what happens when you tinker with the social order, the faces said, as if six-hour waits in the middle of nowhere had been unknown before the lower classes had the cheek to overthrow their betters.
The view through Caitlin Hanley’s carriage window, like so much else in Russia, was open to interpretation. A peaceful-looking river ran parallel to the railway tracks; beyond it a couple of peasants had spent much of the day scything the lawn that sloped up to the elegant mansion. On several occasions two young boys in Lord Fauntleroy outfits had run out onto the terrace and been shooed back inside by their nannies. Out here in the country, the present still looked a lot like the past.
Or did it? Over the six hours, Caitlin had seen paintings and statuettes carried out to a waiting cart and sensed a real unease in the scurrying servants and grooms. Every now and then, one would cast a worried glance toward the peasants on the lawn, who spent more time staring at the house than swinging their scythes.
According to one of the ladies in Caitlin’s carriage, the mansion belonged to Count Domontovich, whose prewar investments in Baku oil had tripled the family fortune. He was apparently away in Ryazan, contesting the local soviet’s confiscation of his forests. “As if the peasants would know how to look after them,” the woman had added dismissively.
The first-class carriage was replete with such opinions, and since leaving Tambov early that morning Caitlin had taken care to keep her own political views to herself. She’d been in Russia for several months but still felt far from sated—the endless debates, and the almost limitless possibilities they opened up, were like a drug she couldn’t get enough of. And the more she understood the language, the more addictive the drug became.
She had started learning Russian the day that news of the czar’s overthrow reached Brooklyn but knew that getting there might prove difficult. After leaving England under something of a cloud in 1916—the authorities suspected her of a more-thanjournalistic involvement in the Dublin Easter Rising—she had lost both her job and her access to Europe. But America’s entry into the war had changed everything—the New York papers were crying out for journalists with European experience, and the British government was bending over backward to please its new ally. The Chronicle, busy expanding its European desk, had not only taken her on but also put her in charge of following Russian affairs. As spring had arrived in Brooklyn, she’d boarded a ship to England.
She had hoped, without much expectation, to find her lover in London, but Jack McColl’s flat was empty and felt like it had been for weeks. No letters had reached her since his departure from America early in the New Year, and none were waiting at their London poste restante. The arrangement they had come to after the Easter Rising was still in place: they would do their incompatible jobs—he as an agent of the British government, she as a journalist with radical views—until the war was over. They would meet up whenever they could, but only as lovers; they would not probe each other’s professional secrets.
She had no idea where he was and had to admit that she didn’t spend all her days wondering. The summer in Russia had been so absorbing, an emotional jamboree of people and happenings, of dreams and nightmares and everything in between.
It was getting dark outside. Feeling the need to stretch her legs, she walked to the end of the carriage and stepped down to the side of the track just as Dmitri Ezhov was passing. The young Socialist Revolutionary, whom she’d met only that morning, had taken a stroll down the line to see what was holding them up. A verst or so to the west, he’d found another train whose crew knew no more than their own. There were probably others in front of that one and others still bringing up their rear.
Farther down the train, passengers from the third-class carriages were collecting water from the river. Yellow lights glowed in several windows of the mansion opposite, and as she looked across, Caitlin heard—or perhaps imagined—what sounded like a gong. Was the Domontovich family being called to dinner? Having eaten nothing since breakfast, she felt hungry enough to swim the river and present herself, gracefully dripping, at the dining-room table. She would probably find a welcome—Russians of all classes were inclined to be hospitable.
After wishing Ezhov good night, she climbed back aboard and curled herself up in her frayed first-class seat. Two groups of passengers were playing cards, several other people reading, but most seemed to be dozing. Caitlin felt her own eyes closing and offered up a silent prayer that the next thing she felt would be wheels moving beneath her.
She wasn’t sure which woke her up—the voices full of anger and alarm or the orange light dancing in the varnished panels of the wall beside her. Through her window she could see that one whole wing of the mansion was on fire, and even as she watched, the other wing burst into flame. Anywhere else in the world, an accident would have been the natural assumption, but here in Russia, in this of all summers, that was the least likely explanation. Every week the papers carried news of one or more estates falling prey to arsonists, and several prominent families had either perished in their blazing homes or escaped the flames only to be skewered on their peasants’ pitchforks.
Caitlin walked to the veranda at the end of the car and squeezed herself into the knot of watching passengers. The mood was black, one army officer muttering darkly about future revenge while his pretty young wife clung to his arm, two older men in business suits tut-tutting and shaking their heads at the madness of it all.
“Are we safe here?” the officer’s wife asked, gazing out across the river.
“I’ll shoot the first man who enters the water,” her husband promised.
On the opposite bank, several motionless figures were silhouetted against the flames. A ring of watchers, a ring of arsonists. Several dogs were barking, and the shadowy shapes of horses were moving in the gloom. The unseasonal sound of sleigh bells mixed with the sharp crack of timbers.
No one was hurrying down to the river, not that doing so would have made much difference. The house was beyond saving, ablaze from end to end. In one of the upper windows, something moved—a curtain, Caitlin hoped, though the bloodcurdling cries that accompanied the apparition suggested something more gruesome. Windows exploded one after another, like a particularly virulent string of firecrackers. Someone screamed, though whether from pain or excitement was impossible to tell.
The young officer next to Caitlin was breathing heavily, like a dog straining at his leash. “Domontovich was a good landlord,” another man insisted. “He even set up a school for his peasants’ children.”
Eager to get away from them, Caitlin shouldered her way into the next carriage and walked on down the train until she reached the third-class section. It was another world. A few of the older passengers were sleeping, but most were lined up by the windows, faces lit with exultation. That really was the only word for it. Tinged with guilt perhaps, though exultation nonetheless. They hadn’t set the fire, but it was theirs.
She remembered the Bolshevik in Tambov who had seemed so unperturbed by the recent jailing of his leaders. In his opinion only fools thought the czar’s departure would be the final word.
“What do you want?” a young soldier asked, tapping her on the shoulder. He didn’t look particularly threatening, but Caitlin was suddenly aware of other eyes turned in her direction, examining her clothes, seeing what looked like the enemy.
“Nothing,” she said automatically.
“She’s a comrade from America,” Ezhov said, appearing at her shoulder like a guardian angel.
“She doesn’t look like one.”
“Well, she is. She writes about our revolution for the American workers and soldiers. Writes about things like this,” he added, encompassing the fire outside with a sweep of the hand.
“I do,” Caitlin said gratefully. She did.
“They’ve had it coming for a long time,” one woman said.
“I know,” Caitlin said diplomatically. Perhaps the parents did, but the children?
Most of the faces seemed mollified.
“I’ll go back to my seat,” she told Ezhov.
He insisted on escorting her. “There are bound to be excesses,” he said sadly as they reached her carriage. “After so many years of cruelty . . .”
“I understand,” she said. “And thank you.”
Once he was gone, she sat watching the flames rippling like gold dust on the surface of the river. Not long after, their steward announced that the train would soon be moving. The entertainment was over, she thought, and now they could be on their way. A few minutes later, without so much as a whistle, the train clanked into motion, and all that was left in the window was her own distraught reflection.