Authors: Helen MacInnes
ALSO BY HELEN MacINNES
AND AVAILABLE FROM TITAN BOOKS
Pray for a Brave Heart
Assignment in Brittany
North From Rome
Decision at Delphi
The Venetian Affair
The Salzburg Connection
Message From Málaga
While We Still Live
The Double Image
Neither Five Nor Three
Agent in Place
Snare of the Hunter
Print edition ISBN: 9781781163320
E-book edition ISBN: 9781781164402
Published by Titan Books
A division of Titan Publishing Group Ltd
144 Southwark Street, London SE1 0UP
First edition: December 2012
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© 1974, 2012 by the Estate of Helen MacInnes. All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
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with the sweet memory of my good fortune
For he shall deliver thee from the snare of the hunter.
PSALM 91.3, THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER
A feeling of laziness, of a gentle slipping into sleep, spread over the fields as the July sun arced slowly downward, deepening in colour, yet losing intensity. Here, at the edge of the trees, the cool shadows of late afternoon turned into evening cold. Irina Kusak drew the cheap raincoat, dingy brown and as unobtrusive as her grey skirt and blouse, more tightly around her. The dark headscarf, which had hidden her fair hair all through the long day’s journey south, was now loose over her shoulders. She pulled it closely around her neck, shivering not so much from the deepening shadows of the wood as from her mounting anxiety and fear as she stared down over the long naked slope of grass to the barbed-wire fence. The boundary. And across it, on the other side, in another country, was a stretch of quiet narrow road, sandwiched between the barbed wire of Czechoslovakia and the hills of Austria.
Josef, lying close to where she sat, propped on his elbows, his eyes watching now the road, now the wide slope of grass in front, now the trees protecting them, had felt her tension. “Relax.” His voice was low, almost a hoarse whisper, but not unkind. He even gave her a smile of encouragement. An improvement, she thought, on his sullen silence all through their journey. “Not so long now. Another forty minutes. Then we should see the car, a light-coloured Volkswagen, begin to drive along that road. They’ll be coming from the west. The sun will have set, but it won’t be completely dark. Don’t worry. They’ll see us, all right.”
“Anyone could see us.” She looked at the open field in front of them. It was vulnerable, stripped bare, a bleak contrast to the rich farm lands and confusion of streams, paths and country roads through which she had travelled. Here, all trees and undergrowth had been cleared right back to the edge of this high wood. She wondered if her feet, tired and blistered after the three hours of rough walking which had brought her to the last stage of her journey, could move quickly enough to carry her down to the fence. The last stage? It was the beginning of another journey, another life. That was what made her fearful. The anxiety came from the field in front of her, stark and threatening, and the barbed-wire fence. It tore at her heart.
“Anyone could see us,” Josef agreed. At last he was becoming talkative, even friendly. “That’s why the patrols only come along every two hours. They were here at six. But before eight, just as dusk begins, the car will appear on the Austrian side. And if there are some farmers driving their carts along that road—” he pointed to it as a cart did trundle along, heavily piled with hay “—well, we don’t have to worry about Austrians. They won’t report us at the nearest police station.” He almost laughed. “Strange, isn’t it? My grandfather used to curse the Austrians for taking over the Czechs. My father cursed the Nazis. My brother and I curse the Russians.” Suddenly his voice was bitter. “Is that all we can ever do? Curse the invaders? Form small patches of underground resistance?” He eased up, but still kept on talking in his hushed voice, as if he felt that words could bring her back to normal. “My brother—do you remember him? Alois?”
She searched her memory. She was honest enough to shake her head.
“He wrote for the
before it was closed down. But I don’t suppose your husband ever allowed you to see an underground newspaper.”
“I separated from my husband.” Her voice was as cold as her chilled legs. She rubbed them, and wished the lost warmth in her feelings could be as easily restored. “He divorced me last month.”
“Too much of a handicap for him? Even the daughter of the great Jaromir Kusak, our internationally acclaimed cultural hero, was of no more use to him?”
“Please—” She bit her lip.
He was silent, but he didn’t apologise. Didn’t she know he was guiding her to safety because she was Kusak’s daughter? Not because she had once been the wife of Jiri Hrádek. She had seen through that son of a bitch eventually; perhaps had never known how important he was in the security police. She’s had troubles enough, he decided. And once, long ago, she had been his friend. “It has been many years,” he said, his voice losing its harsh edge. A bunch of students gathered round a café table in Prague, talking about music, whispering about politics and the Hungarian revolt, waiting—well, we waited too long. “I still remember you, though, as the prettiest girl in Prague. How old were you then?”
“Seventeen.” She kept stretching her legs and feet, her shoulders and back. She mustn’t freeze up. She must be able to move, and move quickly.
“Fresh from the country, filled with enthusiasm. You had the merriest laugh, Irina. Yes, I used to remember it when I’d hear your name every now and again.”
She tried to laugh now, only managed an uncertain smile. “Was that why you volunteered to get me safely into Austria?”
“Put it down to curiosity. I wondered whether you were still your father’s daughter; or had your mother won in the end?”
“I never became a party member.” Her voice was scarcely audible.
“Well, I guess your mother was Communist enough for both you and your father. I must say—” But he didn’t. Tactless, he warned himself, it would sound too much like gloating. Hedwiga Kusak, the devoted party member who had been jailed as a deviationist back in the early sixties by her own comrades. She had had a taste of what she had dished out to others. “Politics really screws a family up, doesn’t it? So now you are going to join your father. Why didn’t you leave with him when the Russian tanks came in four years ago?” Yes, almost four years ago, he thought grimly: August 1968. Today was the twenty-fourth of July 1972. Four years, and the trials still going on.
There was a long silence. “I had two children then.”
He swore to himself. He had forgotten the tragedy of the children. Too busy having his own personal triumph over Hedwiga Kusak. (She had destroyed his father’s name, had him banned from teaching, lecturing, publishing.) “I am sorry, Irina,” he said.
She touched his hand briefly. “I think you are still my friend In spite of what you heard about my name. Even now and again.” She managed a firmer smile this time. “Today, you were so silent most of the journey. I began to think—ah, well—” She sighed, looked at the western sky. Clouds were streaked with gold, tinged with vermilion. Would she ever see another sunset from her own land? “Thank you for bringing me safely here.”
“I was given the assignment. It’s my job.” He was brusque, but pleased.
“You are good at it.”
He shrugged that off.
“Who gave you this assignment?” She was tense again. She could see the strong handsome face of the man who had once been her husband looking at her intently, speaking with sincerity. Jiri’s words were as clear in her ear now as if he were doing the talking, and not Josef.
You’ll be safe
I have arranged it
. It could all have been a trick, another lie. Perhaps Josef and she were to be trapped at the border. Then Jiri could have her legally imprisoned, using that as the blackmail to bring her father back from exile. Yet Jiri’s voice had been sincere. She could sense by this time when he was lying. And in any case, this was her only chance to leave. Until those last few weeks, she had been closely watched, constantly under surveillance. In the last month she had been freed from all that. It was part of the deal that Jiri had made with her. “Sorry,” she told Josef. “You were saying?”
“I was saying I couldn’t tell you who gave me the assignment. The less you know, the safer for all of us. But you’re in good hands once you get through the fence. Ludvik Meznik will be in the car along with my brother.” He glanced at her startled face. “What’s wrong?”
“Ludvik Meznik—is he one of your group?”
“I didn’t know you had met him.”
“Only vaguely.” She nearly blurted out that she had seen him visiting Jiri: quiet visits. But that had been three years ago. And she told herself that Ludvik must have changed his politics—many were doing just that—or more likely as a secret member of the resistance, he had been assigned to infiltrating Jiri’s staff. She had lived too much with suspicions, she thought: they twisted her judgment. She could scarcely tell truth from untruth any more, or friend from enemy.
“Ludvik is all right,” Josef told her. “He did some good work for us in Prague. He has brains and he has courage. Doesn’t give a damn for danger.” He glanced at his watch. “Almost time.” Dusk was beginning to dim the fields and hills. “Enough light to see, not enough to be seen too clearly.” From one deep pocket inside his scruffy leather jacket he took out a pair of wire cutters, small but strong. From another pocket came heavy rubber gloves. He was wearing thickly soled shoes, again of rubber. He noticed her curious glance. “Cautious, that’s me. They may have some current turned on along that fence. I’ll go first. You count off ten seconds, then follow. But don’t touch any wire. I’ll see you through. Then I run like hell, just in case we’ve set off an alarm. The nearest border crossing is well guarded, but it is six kilometres to the east.”