Petrograd, Russia. January 1919.
The moment the guard called her name she felt the weight of the other women’s eyes upon her.
It didn’t make sense, didn’t fit with the grim clock that regulated their lives. Too late in the day for an interrogation, the usual hour of execution was still some way off.
“Irina Bibikov,” snapped the guard once more, his silhouette black against the open door of the darkened cell.
She was hunched on her pallet bed, her back against the wall, her knees pulled tight to her chest for warmth, as tight as her new belly would permit. Unwinding, she rose awkwardly to her feet, her palm pressed to the damp stonework for support.
The guard stepped away from the door. She knew better than to meet his gaze as she passed by him and out into the corridor.
Blinking back the ice-white light from the bare electric bulb, she briefly heard the murmur of prayers on her behalf before the guard pulled the steel door shut behind them.
Tom fought the urge to hurry ahead. Nothing to arouse suspicion, he told himself. His papers, though false, were in good order, good enough to pass close scrutiny. He knew this because he’d been stopped by a Cheka patrol earlier that day while crossing Souvorov Square.
There had been two of them, small men in shapeless greatcoats that reached almost to their ankles, and they had enjoyed their authority over Yegor Sidorenko. The name was Ukrainian, to account for the faint but undisguisable hitch in Tom’s accent. He had called them “Comrade”; they had called him “Ukrainian dog” before sending him on his way. More than a year had passed since the Bolshevik coup, but evidently the spirit of brotherhood so widely trumpeted by Lenin, Zinoviev and the others had yet to reach the ears of their secret police. So much for lofty ideals. So much for the Revolution.
Tom knew that he couldn’t bank on being quite so lucky if stopped again, but only as he drew level with no. 2 Gorokhovaya did it occur to him that he might actually find himself face-to-face with the same two Chekists as they entered or left their headquarters.
There were patrols coming and going, passing beneath the high, arched gateway punched into the drab façade. Beyond lay the central courtyard, where the executions took place, where the bodies were loaded into the back of trucks, their next stop, their terminus, some nameless hole hacked out of the iron-hard ground beyond the city limits.
At least the sharp north wind sluicing the streets of the Russian capital permitted him to draw his scarf up over his nose, all but concealing his face. As he did so, he cast a furtive glance through the archway, past the sentries shivering at their posts.
What was he looking for? Signs of unusual activity, some indication that the plan had already been compromised. He saw nothing of note, just a courtyard shrouded in the gathering gloom, and the dim outlines of men and vehicles.
Trudging on past through the deep snow, Tom silently cursed the fact that Irina hadn’t been transferred by now to one of the state prisons, Shpalernaya or Deriabinskaya, where security was considerably more lax and bribery endemic. Instead, his only option had been to try to spring her from the beast’s lair.
In spite of all the planning, all the precautions, it suddenly seemed too much to hope for, and that unwelcome thought chilled him, far more than the raw wind that slammed into him at the end of the street. He bore left, hugging the shadows.
He couldn’t quite see St. Isaac’s Cathedral up ahead but he could sense its brooding presence in the darkness.
It was a cellar room, small and all but empty. There were some mops poking from their pails in one corner and a few large cans of cleaning fluid stacked up in another, but Irina’s eye was drawn to the wooden stool standing alone in the middle of the room. On it were some clothes, neatly folded, with two pieces of paper resting on top.
One was a visitor’s pass made out to Anna Constantinov. On the second was scrawled St. Isaac’s Cathedral. The words were in English, and she recognized the handwriting.
“Quick,” said the guard. He was the youngest of the three who oversaw the female prisoners, not much more than a boy, his mustache a tragic overture to manhood. “Get changed.”
Irina stared at the slip of paper in her hand, not quite believing that it had happened, trying to picture what Tom must have put himself through, the dangers he had faced, the border crossing from Finland . . .
It was almost inconceivable.
“Hurry,” hissed the guard.
His ear was pressed to the door, but his eyes remained fixed on her--eager young eyes, hoping for a glimpse of female flesh.
She was happy to oblige. It might provide some scrap of comfort at the end of his short life. She wondered how much money he’d been promised. More than enough to see him safely away, out of the country. To stay would mean certain death before a firing squad. She looked down at her belly, the still unfamiliar bow, the tautness of the pale skin around her navel.
Dressed now, her soiled clothes heaped on the floor at her feet, she wrapped the shawl around her head and turned to the guard.
“I’ll get rid of that,” he said, taking the piece of paper from her.
Young, yet sensible. It wouldn’t be wise to have details of the rendezvous about her person if she was stopped while trying to leave.
“Good luck,” he said.
They parted company wordlessly in the corridor outside, the guard pointing out her route before vanishing into the darkened bowels of the building.
Irina passed by the steps leading up to the interrogation rooms, silent at this hour, making for the stone staircase at the end of the corridor.
She was curious to see how far she would get.
On the floor above, she ran a short gauntlet of offices flanking a corridor before finding herself in the main lobby. There was a guard on duty at the big desk by the doors, bent over some paperwork. When she stopped to show her pass he waved her on, almost irritably, and she wondered if he too was in on it.
Outside in the gloomy courtyard, no one paid her a blind bit of notice, not the troops huddled around the brazier, not the officer berating the two mechanics poking around in the engine of a canvas-covered truck.
Was it really that simple? A mere slip of paper?
There were still the sentries at the main gate to get past, but she could see freedom looming ever larger beyond the tall archway as she approached. A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed that she wasn’t being followed.
One of the sentries unshouldered his rifle, keeping a close watch on her while the other checked her pass against a ledger in the small cubbyhole that served as their guardhouse. A bitter blast whistled through the archway, stinging her eyes. Then suddenly everything was in order. The pass disappeared into a drawer. Anna Constantinov was free to go.
How had Tom done it? No one had really expected him to try, let alone pull it off, least of all her. He had outwitted them all and she knew what she should now do, but she found herself thrusting her hands deep into her pockets and setting off up the street. She needed time to think, to work it through in her head.
She had taken no more than a dozen tentative steps along the icy pavement when she heard the teasing drawl of a familiar voice behind her.
“Going somewhere, Irina?” it said in Russian.
Tom lit another candle, an excuse to stretch his legs and warm his fingers over the bank of flickering flames.
He had spent almost an hour in the Alexander Nevsky Chapel, most of it on his knees, head bowed in a show of prayer. A pew would have been nice, a stool, anything, but seating had never figured large in the thinking of the Russian Orthodox Church. It allowed them to cram the people in. Fourteen thousand souls could fit into St. Isaac’s Cathedral; at least, that’s what Irina had told him when she had first taken him there, soon after his arrival in Petrograd, his raven-haired tour guide skipping her classes at the Conservatoire to show him some of the sights.
It had been a bright June morning, the sunlight flashing off the vast gilded dome and laying bare the fussy opulence of the interior: the intricate patterning of the marble floor, the steps of polished jasper, the columns of green malachite and blue lazurite, the walls inlaid with porphyry and gemstones, and the gilded stucco and statues wherever you turned. A blaze of fragmented color, had been Tom’s first impression, like stepping inside a child’s kaleidoscope.
He had made the right noises, but Irina had read his thoughts, sensed his reservations.
His church, the church of his youth, was a humble ivy-tangled affair in a village on the outskirts of Norwich, where the damp rose in waves around the bare plaster walls, and where Mr. Higginbotham, the churchwarden, had once threatened to resign his post because the new altar frontal sported an embroidered hem. Tom’s father had seen that the offending article was returned to Wippell’s, who had promptly dispatched a suitably chaste replacement.
“Your father is a priest?” Irina had asked.
“Is there a difference?”
“I suppose not. Only I’ve never heard my father refer to himself as a priest.”
“I’m surprised,” Irina had said, tilting her head at him.
“What, I give off an unholy glow?”
It was the first time he had seen her laugh, and he could still recall how his heart had soared at the sound of it, and at the sight of the curious new look in her eyes that seemed to hold the promise of something more than mere acquaintance. He hadn’t been wrong. The invitation to dinner at her uncle Vladimir’s dacha out on the islands had followed a few days later. It was one of many little wooden villas huddled along the shore, with wide, open verandas on all sides and a rambling garden running down to the Neva. It was also theirs for the weekend. Vladimir, a lawyer, had been held back in Moscow on urgent business at the last moment, but they were to make themselves at home. They did just that, helping themselves to a bottle of white Burgundy from his cellar and taking his fishing rod to the end of the stumpy jetty, where Irina pulled their supper from the river--four perch, which they gutted then grilled over a fire at the water’s edge. It was a warm evening, humid and close, and the sounds that came to their ears seemed muted by the heavy air: the distant whistle of a passenger steamer, the bells of a church on the mainland, the bark of a neighbor’s dog, a snatch of song from a passing barge. They sat out there for hours, bathed in the strange, eerie radiance of the long northern night, talking effortlessly of their lives and the upheavals of recent times. And well after midnight, when tiredness finally began to get the better of them, Irina showed him to his bedroom, only to return a short while later and slip silently between the sheets. They didn’t make love, not that first time out at the dacha; they held each other close and they fell asleep to the sound of the polecats scampering about inside the wooden walls and in the roof over their heads.
How had they gone from that to this in little more than six months?
He knew the answer, of course. A few weeks after that dreamlike introduction to the islands, Czar Nicholas and the imperial family had been murdered, slain by the Bolsheviks (in the basement of a house in Ekaterinburg, if the intelligence report that had recently passed through Tom’s hands in Helsinki was to be believed). The real turning point, though, had been the attempt on Lenin’s life at the end of August--two bullets, one to the chest, one to the neck--as the leader of the Bolsheviks was leaving a rally in Moscow. No one had expected Lenin to survive, but even before it became clear that he would, the Red Terror had been unleashed: a brutal crackdown intended to turn back the rising tide of anti-Bolshevism in the country.
Suspecting British involvement in the assassination plot, the Cheka had stormed the embassy in Petrograd. It was a Saturday, and Tom hadn’t been in the building at the time, but Yuri, the porter, had been. It was Yuri who had searched Tom out at the English Club and described to him the death of Captain Cromie, chief of the Naval Intelligence Department, dispatched with a bullet to the back of the skull after a fierce firefight on the main staircase. Tom’s boss, Bruce Lockhart, head of the special British diplomatic mission to Russia, had been taken into custody, and the Cheka had issued a warrant for Tom’s arrest.
Yuri had been accompanied by a tall and taciturn Finn assigned to spirit Tom away that same evening. In spite of Tom’s protestations, the Finn had not allowed him to see Irina before leaving. Evil was in the air. And besides, there was no time. The last train from Okhta station left at seven o’clock.
Tom’s summer in the Russian capital had ended abruptly with that journey northward: by rail to Grusino in a boxcar crammed with silent refugees, then a sapping foot march through the forests and bogs, dodging the patrols, tormented every weary step of the way by thoughts of the woman he had been forced to leave behind. Even when they had slipped past the border post on their bellies into Finland and freedom he had experienced no sense of elation.
The dread prospect of repeating that same perilous journey--not only in the dead of winter, but with Irina in tow--brought Tom out of his reverie.
His eyes darted to the bag of clothes he had secreted in the corner of the chapel, just beyond the glow of the candles. He couldn’t make it out in the shadows, but he sensed that it was there, just as he sensed the presence of someone standing behind him.
His head snapped around expectantly.
It wasn’t Irina; it was a young priest, not much older than Tom, and yet there was something haggard and careworn about him.
“If He hasn’t heard you by now, then I doubt He’s listening.”
Tom returned the faint smile, but said nothing.
“Vade in pacem,” the priest said softly before retiring into the gloom shrouding the main body of the cathedral.
Excerpted from House of the Hunted by Mark Mills. Copyright © 2012 by Mark Mills. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.