Extract – Chapter 1

The weather was all consuming, for those five toxic days in December 1952, cloying and foul and deadly. It covered frozen London in a film of black slime, and enveloped its population in a blanket of deadly yellow and gray smog that clung to the skin and stung at the nostrils and eyes.
For those reckless few who ventured out, labored gasps for blessed freshness brought only a foul and bitter taste that offended the senses and constricted the lungs. For the sensible many who stayed at home, listening to prophecies of doom on the wireless while huddled around fires that belched further deadly toxins into the sky, it was a time to contemplate mankind’s stupidity and pray to their God for deliverance.
There was little traffic of any description on the Thames Embankment that evening; not a train rumbling beneath the frozen ground, not a taxi driver grumbling above it. Pedestrians groped their way from landmark to landmark, while blind and disoriented motorists were forced to abandon their spluttering vehicles at the roadside. Even the famous red buses that had once so stalwartly defied Adolf Hitler’s Luftwaffe had long since capitulated to the elements and crawled back to slime-covered depots.
As the yellow-gray of the afternoon turned into early evening blackness, and unhappy commuters and stranded passengers trudged the streets in search of food and warmth and any last remaining hotel room, the official estimate of visibility fell to nil and the official death toll climbed into thousands.
Slowly and inexorably, a desperate and stricken city was being suffocated.
Hidden below the putrid blanket of smog, in the basement apartment of a four-story Victorian house on the Thames Embankment, a middle-aged woman dressed in a drab housecoat and woolen shawl sat in front of an open fire. She was blankly staring at the glowing embers of coal, hearing the monotonous pulse of the clock on the mantelpiece, and wondering about the weather.
She was also wondering about him.
She doubted he would come tonight. He wouldn’t dare. Not on a night like this. The weather was too foul, the streets too deserted, the chance of discovery too great. He wouldn’t possibly risk it tonight. . . or would he?
As night fell without sight or sign of him, she moved to the window, drew back the curtains and peered into the blackness beyond. The murk was impenetrable. Hoping to detect some sign of life beyond the gloom, she lifted a latch, opened the smallest windowpane by a notch, and listened intently.
There was nothing out there but an eerie quiet and a blanket of smog; no late night shrieks of drunken foolishness from the pub on the corner, no clatter of passing traffic from the street above, no comforting klaxon blasts from the river beyond.
Perhaps he would come tomorrow night, when it was safe, when the smog had cleared and the city streets were once again full of familiar sights and comforting sounds, when the lights of the city could guide his steps and the passing crowds disguise his presence.
She left the window ajar to monitor any sound of movement, but closed the curtains to block out the smog. Gathering the woolen shawl around her shoulders, she returned to her chair by the fire and consoled herself in his wisdom. Yes, she was sure of it. He would not dare to risk it on a night like this. He was too clever for that. He was too cautious for that. She could relax until morning.
But then, a faint noise from the street disrupted her complacency. The sound of footsteps approaching through the blackness, perhaps? She cocked her head and strained her ears, wanting to hear more, not sure if she had heard or imagined. But there it was again, clearer this time, closer this time. The scuff of a mistimed stride, the crack of shattered ice on the pavement above, and then the sound of wary footsteps negotiating the pools of frozen slime and unyielding concrete on the eight narrow steps that led down to her door.
A momentary pause after that before the stillness was shattered by the dull repetitive thud of a clenched fist hammering against solid oak, and the answering rattle of unyielding bolt against stubborn mortise.
Despite its forewarning, the suddenness and violence of the noise startled her. She gathered her thoughts and steeled her nerve, wrapped the shawl a little tighter and waited for more. The hammering stopped. A man’s voice called out; a hoarse and frantic whisper that both identified and summoned.
“Olga! Olga Sergeyevna. Quickly! Answer the door.”
She crept to the hallway and stood listening, her heart thumping, her mind racing.
“Who is it?”
“You know who it is. Now let me in. It is freezing out here.”
“Jacek?”
She hurried to turn down the light in the lounge, and then returned to slide back the bolt and open the door. For an uncertain moment he stood shivering in the doorway, but then pushed his way into the lounge and toward the warmth of the fire. She hurriedly closed the door and refastened the bolt, then turned up the light and joined him by the fire.
He looked tired and gaunt, blue with cold and caked in filth, but there was something else. He also looked terrified. She studied the fear in him, and hid her own as she asked,
“You want some tea?” He nodded, and turned away to wash his hands in the warmth of the fire. She hurried to the kitchen to fill the kettle and light the stove, before returning to the lounge and saying, “I didn’t think you would come, not tonight, not through all that.”
“I had to come. I had no choice. You have to tell Moscow everything that has happened, everything that he said. . . and you have to get me out.”
The bolt of fear was electric and uncontrollable. She tried not to stammer her questions.
“Everything he said? Who are you talking about? What are you talking about? What do I have to tell Moscow? What do you mean, get you out? What has happened?”
“You don’t know?”
“Know what? I have been trapped in this stinking basement for three days. It has been too foul to go anywhere. Tell me, what has happened?”
He sank into the armchair by the fire, closed his eyes for a few tension-heightening seconds, and then looked up at her.
“We’re blown. . . All of us, we’re blown.”
She felt the fear resurgent.
“You mean the whole cell. . .  Curzon Street. . . Everyone?”
“Everyone. . .  Rostov, Milton, everyone. . .  even Toreli.”
“When?”
“Some were taken last night. Most were taken early this morning. They came for me, but in the smog they made a mistake. They went to the wrong house. I got away. I was lucky. Now you have to let Moscow know, and you have to get me out.”
“Of course. You know we always protect our own.”
She paused to think. Despite her assurance, that would not be an easy task. Not on a night like this. Not if he was blown. Not if they were searching for him. She amassed the obvious questions in her head, unsure which of them to fire first. Who else was blown? How much had they found out? How long had they known? Did they know about her? Were they on their way here? If so, how much time did she have? Her thoughts raced into panic. So many questions, filling her head, cluttering her mind. So many concerns to voice. So many possibilities to consider.
As those same thoughts began to overwhelm her, a sudden shrill whistle punctuated the quiet and jarred the nerves. The water had boiled. The kettle was summoning. She moved to stem the noise and make the tea, privately pleased by the distraction, grateful for the time to think. As she hurried away to the kitchen she tried a reassurance and fired the first of all those jumbled questions.
“We will get you out, but I must know how this happened. Did someone betray us?”
He called back to her from the lounge.
“You could say that. Someone. . .  Yes, you could say someone.”
He was talking erratically, making no sense. He seemed in shock. She spooned some tea into the pot, and then poured on the water as she spat her questions.
“So? Who talked? Tell me?”
He didn’t answer. She busied herself with the tea, stirring at the pot, hurrying the brew. She hadn’t bothered to warm the battered china teapot. She didn’t wait for it to steep.  Moments later she returned with the insipid brew. He took the cup and sank back into the armchair, appearing calmer now, seemingly gathering his strength, marshaling his thoughts. Impatiently, she repeated her question. In contrast to her agitation, his answer came slowly and evenly, each word carefully and deliberately enunciated.
“We have a traitor, in Moscow. He is conspiring with the British government; making agreements, selling us out.”
“What do you mean, selling us out? What sort of agreements?”
“He is offering to withdraw our forces in Germany and Austria, in return for American money and Western aid.”
“Without the approval of Stalin and the Presidium? Nobody could make such a promise. Nobody would dare, and even if they dared, the West would never take them seriously, not without Stalin’s approval, not without the Presidium.” She stemmed her outrage, and looked carefully into his eyes. He clearly didn’t share in her skepticism. She pressed for more. “Are you sure about this? You must be sure. You must be certain. How do you know this? Who told you?”
He paused to put down his cup and light a cigarette. He offered her the packet. She shook her head. He seemed oblivious to her rising impatience as he dragged the smoke deep before leisurely exhaling. He began to speak, but then paused, again, to carefully and infuriatingly pick an errant strand of tobacco from the tip of his tongue. With that done, he began his story.
“I have a contact in SIS. He calls himself Michaels, Stephen Michaels. He is a Polish refugee, and so we had something in common. His real name is Stefan Michalak, but he prefers to use the English version. He claimed that he was a Hurricane pilot during the war, but he didn’t seem to know much about aircraft and so I checked with records and discovered that he had actually worked as a code breaker at Bletchley. For the last three years he has been working for SIS, as some sort of cryptology clerk in their Eastern Europe section. Stefan Michalak is a vain man, a stupid man, a man who likes people to think he is important. I always thought he was full of shit, but that was before. . .”
He stared vacantly into space for a few further infuriating moments. She prodded at his abstraction.
“Go on.”
“Sometimes I would take him for a drink.” She pulled a face. He shrugged an apology. “Well, it was all good for the cover, and there was always a chance that he might have said something useful. I used to take him to the bar in Leconfield House, and because he is part of SIS I was able get him in without any problems. He said he liked it there. He said it was the only place in London where he could relax and get drunk. Sometimes, after a drink or two, he would try to worm information out of me.” She frowned at that. He qualified the remark. “Nothing secret or compromising, just gossip about the department. I also think he needed a drinking companion. He used to say that I was one of the few people he could trust.”
He reached for his cup, took a long swig of tea, and then returned to his story.
“A few nights ago we had a drink there. He got very drunk. We both did. As usual, he was full of his own self-importance. He said it was a pity that I was with Five and not Six, because I was his only real friend. . . well, he was very drunk. But then he leaned closer and told me that he had a secret to share with me. He said he needed to warn me. He said it was what real friends did for each other.”
He paused for yet another infuriating moment.
“Warn you about what? What kind of secret?”
“A big secret, he said. A huge secret. A secret about spies and traitors, and a huge Presidium fish that SIS has just landed.”
She felt the shock go through her.
“My God!” And then, “You mean, this traitor. . . He is actually on the Presidium?”
“Yes. Michalak was very specific. A big fish, he said, a huge fish, a huge Presidium fish, a huge Presidium fish. He kept repeating it. He said everyone at SIS was very excited about landing him. He said there were people at the British Foreign Office who believe it will change everything; with us, with the Americans, with everyone. He said some of the people over there are calling this man their very own Grandfather Frost.”
She scanned her translation memory banks. “You mean Ded Moroz? You mean Santa Claus?”
He nodded, slowly and solemnly.
“They say, this year the bringer of Christmas gifts will be a Russian.”
“He is Russian, this huge Presidium fish?”
He shrugged back at her. “Who knows? You know how insular the British are. They think we are all Russians.”
For a moment she thought about the Presidium’s leading lights, but then scoffed at the notion of a traitor among them.
“And all this foolishness has come from a stupid drunken Polish clerk, who likes to boast about how important he is? How can you take such a man seriously? He is just. . . ”
He stemmed her incredulity with a palm held out.
“Wait! There is more. Michalak also told me that this man had given the British a gift as a sign of his intent: a token, Michalak called it, to prove his integrity, to demonstrate his sincerity.”
“What sort of token?”
“He said this man—this huge Presidium fish—had given the British details of a high-level Soviet espionage cell, operating in London, a cell at the very heart of British Intelligence.”
Realization suddenly cleared her puzzled features.
“Curzon Street.”
“Yes. The drunken fool was actually gloating when he told me. He asked me how I felt about SIS doing MI5’s work for them. He seemed to think it was funny.”
“What did you say?”
“What could I say? I said if it was true, then good luck to them.”
She nodded her approval. He finished the story.
“After that the drink took over. He was rambling, slurring his words and talking nonsense. I got him a taxi. But, as I pushed him into the back of the cab, he stopped and grabbed hold of my sleeve. He seemed to have sobered a little. He seemed adamant. He said MI5 should be grateful. He said they didn’t know what was going on right under their noses. Then he climbed into the back of the cab. I think he passed out. I know the driver wasn’t happy.”
Suddenly, she was angry.
“And you knew about this, how many nights ago? Why did you not say something? Why did you not tell us, tell me? I could have done something to protect them, to get them out. Why did you not tell me?”
He met her accusing gaze with a look of entreaty. He seemed contrite, in need of understanding, in need of absolution. When she offered neither, he looked away and stared into the fire as he answered.
“Because I did not believe him, or not at the time. He didn’t mention Curzon Street, or Leconfield House, or anything specific.”
He stopped staring into the fire, and looked up at her with the same plaintive expression.
“I just thought it was the drink talking, you understand, the usual SIS jealousy for everything MI5, and Stefan Michalak’s usual drunken lies and stupid boasting. He had never told me anything that came to anything before. Why should I have believed him this time? A stupid drunken Polish bore telling me all about a traitor on the Presidium, and a high-level Soviet espionage cell operating somewhere in London? It was all too vague, too far-fetched, too ridiculous to be taken seriously.”
He shrugged a shrug of embarrassment and shame. She read the signs. He was fully deserving of his guilt. Her scolding owed more to mechanics than anger.
“That was not for you to decide. You should have immediately passed the information on.” She let go of the frown. “And that was all he said?”
“Yes. The next morning the smog closed in, and I forgot about it.”
“Until today. . . when they came.”
He nodded.
“That’s right. I couldn’t see them through the smog, but I could hear them on the other side of the road. A big commotion, with lots of noise, and police whistles, and men shouting. I stood and listened. I could hear them, breaking down the door. Someone called out my name, and so I got out. I ran. I went over to Pall Mall, to see Peter. He told me the rest had all been taken. I told him about Stefan Michalak, about what he had said. Peter didn’t seem to care about that. He said, if he ever got out he would pass it on, but first he had to get out. When I left he was burning everything, and he was very frightened.”
She snapped back at him.
“And then you kept our appointment. Are you mad?  You could have led them here. They could be waiting outside right now.”
He inclined his head to the window and the filthy night on the other side of the glass.
“In that? You can barely see a hand in front of your face. There was no way they could have followed me. Not a chance. Anyway, I had to tell you. Now you have to tell Moscow, and you have to get me out.”
She thought about the logic of that. It calmed her. She asked another question.
“Have you told anyone about me: my name, where I live, what I do. . . anyone at all?”
He shook his head.
“Of course not. I know the rules, and I have always obeyed them. I was their controller. You are mine. They had no need to know of you. They had no desire to know of you. That aside, I would never betray a comrade. . . especially not you.”
She reached to pick up his empty cup, and spoke as she carried it into the kitchen.
“I know, and I would never betray you, but you cannot stay here, not now, not with all this happening. It is too dangerous.”
The sudden alarm in his voice was clear.
“Where else can I go? Have you seen the weather out there? People are dying out there. There is nowhere else for me to go. Can I not stay here tonight? Please, Olga, let me stay with you? It has been such a long time since we. . .”
She returned from the kitchen, and fixed a benevolent smile.
“I know, it has been too long for us both, but we cannot take the chance of them finding you, not here, not now. Do not worry. I will keep you safe. We will get you out.”
“How?”
“There is a boat, a cabin cruiser. I use it for traveling up and down the river without attracting attention. It is small and old and dilapidated, and so nobody takes any notice of it. I keep it moored across the road, alongside the towpath. It is not ideal, but there is a bed and a paraffin stove and some basic provisions. You will stay there tonight. Assuming the smog clears a little, I will organize everything tomorrow.”
He looked uncertain.
“But how long can I stay hidden on a small boat, and how will you get me out?”
She held the smile. Her plans formed. Her purpose determined.
“There is a ship, downriver, tied up at the docks: the Star of Vladivostok. It was taking on trucks and machine parts. It became stranded by the weather. I know the captain. He is a good friend, and he is a good comrade.
“When I have made the arrangements, and the smog has cleared, we will take the cruiser downstream to where the ship is berthed. Once you are on board they cannot touch you.”
“And just how much of a friend is this ship’s captain?”
He was being stupid and weak and jealous. It was unlike him. Again, she scolded.
“He is a good comrade, and this is not the time for petty jealousy.”
“Of course, you are right. I am sorry. But, what about you? What will you do?”
She thought about her own level of exposure. There was no need for panic.
“They have not come for me yet, and the others know nothing about me. That probably means I am safe, for now at least. Tomorrow I will try to contact Moscow, tell them what has happened, but first I must get you safely to the cruiser.”
She collected her hat and coat from the stand by the door, put them on and then picked up her scarf and gloves. She unbolted the door and peered out. The smog was still thick, but it had cleared a little. Now she could just make out the first three steps leading up to the street. A thought suddenly struck, a worrying thought. “Wait a moment.” And then: “Are you armed?” He nodded and patted his breast pocket. “Good.” She nodded back, and hurried to the dresser. A nine-millimeter Makarov automatic lay in the middle drawer. She picked it up and checked the load, and slipped it into her coat pocket. “Just in case they are out there.”
She trod warily as she led him up the slime-coated steps leading to the pavement. The usually bustling street seemed eerily quiet. As they crossed the pavement and the road beyond she strained her ears for sounds of danger, and kept the scarf wrapped tightly around her nose and mouth to filter the smog.
They reached the pavement on the far side, and groped their way along the embankment wall until they reached the flight of steps leading down to the towpath and the tethered cruiser. Still no one challenged them. Still they heard nothing. As they negotiated the treacherous stairway leading down to the river she clung to the metal handrail, her nostrils stinging as they breathed in the foul night air, her eyes red and sore as they scanned the darkness ahead.
The river was strangely still that night, dark and cold and swollen; its surface black and silken with smog, its towpath coated in frozen slime. She found the water’s edge, and whispered her relief.
“I think we are safe, thank God!”
He peered at the swollen river, searching for the boat.
“Where is it?”
“There.”
He turned to follow the direction of her pointing finger, but there was only blackness. Then he turned back and fixed his eyes on the Makarov in her other hand. He gave a start of realization, and then looked back at her with terrified eyes as he begged for his life.
“But, I told you. I swear I would never have talked, never have betrayed you, never have told them about. . .”
The flash from the Makarov’s barrel was swallowed by the smog, its crash muffled by the same cloying blanket as the bullet found the left side of his chest.
The impact rocked him back. He staggered on the icy towpath. He fought to stay upright. He clutched at the agony. She took a step nearer. The Makarov spat once more. The second round hit him full in the throat, and sent him tumbling backwards into the cold and filthy water.
Suddenly he was gone, and she was alone in the darkness with only the foul night air and gently lapping river for company. She stood for a moment of silent remembrance, and then breathed a muffled epitaph into the emptiness, answering his last desperate assertion with a comment that she knew to be true.
“Never have talked? Oh, my poor Jacek, of course you would. . . Sooner or later, everyone does.”
She casually threw the Makarov after him, and then turned away from the water’s edge, heading for the steps leading up to the embankment and the warmth and security of her basement hideaway. Tonight the river would carry his body downstream. Tomorrow she would contact an old friend in Moscow and begin the search for a traitor.

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