Major Pavlichenko rested both elbows on the table and stared down at her wineglass. “We’re not like other soldiers. Yes, sometimes they send you off to knock out communication lines or machine-gun nests, and then you’re just a rifleman with a good aim.” She paused, turning the glass with her fingertips, and Mia knew more was coming.
“But sometimes it’s personal. You’re assigned to hunt a particular officer, or an enemy sniper, one of your professional colleagues, so to speak. Then the act of shooting is…a kind of intimacy and leaves a mark on you.”
“Intimacy? Shooting an enemy from a long distance?”
“Yes, because the target’s not anonymous anymore. You might track him for days or watch him for hours, as he moves around his subordinates. When he finally settles down and you get him in your scope, you fixate on him, on his uniform. While you’re waiting for the perfect shot, you can see his rank on his cap or collar, his medals. You study the details of his face, whether he shaved that morning or has a dueling scar. Maybe he’s handsome or looks like someone you know. You wait for him to turn just the right way, and when you lay your crosshairs over his face, you look into his eyes. He’s perhaps five hundred meters away, but he could be in your embrace, and he’s yours completely.”
She stared into space and seemed to be remembering.
“You feel a surge of power but also a little sadness because you know this man has no idea he is in the last moments of his life. How many more breaths will you allow him to take? You’re tempted to let him take another and another, because by now you’re half in love with him. But then you remember your duty and your homeland, and so, after a farewell in your thoughts, you fire. Your shot, your touch, is directly to his head. It’s a moment you never forget, and we have a name for it.”
“A name, for a kill? What’s that?”
“The sniper’s kiss.”
New York City, August 1942
“Patricide,” the detective said, sitting across from her at the interrogation table. He pronounced the word slowly, like something he’d never said before. “Don’t see much of that.”
Mia Kramer remained silent.
He leaned toward her, resting on his forearms. His rolled-up sleeves revealed an unpleasant amount of hair, and he gave off an odor of old sweat in spite of the fan that whirred from a shelf behind him. “The neighbors heard you fighting on the roof of the building. What were you doing up there anyhow?”
Mia sat back against her chair, seeking a maximum distance from him. “What do you think? It’s August, we live on the top floor of a tenement, and it’s like an oven inside. My father was drinking. We argued awhile, and I came downstairs again. I don’t know what happened after that.”
He slid a file toward him from the side of the table and opened it to typewritten papers stapled at one corner. He turned the pages leisurely, though obviously he’d already read them. “It says here you threatened him, that you hated him.”
“Everyone hated him. Everyone, except…that woman.” She looked away. “Wanting to do something is not the same as doing it.”
The detective read from the paper again. “‘That woman.’ You mean Agrafina Smerdjakov, otherwise known as Grushenka, the wife of Pavel Smerdjakov, the owner of the shop your father worked in. The neighbors across the alley heard the whole argument. They claim you called him a pig for screwing his boss’s wife, and in return, he said you were a pervert for doing the same thing.”
He glanced up, smirking. “I’ve always wondered how you girls do that, with no natural equipment.” He snickered. “But that must have made you pretty angry, knowing your old man was doing your girlfriend. Enough maybe to shove him off the roof.” He shook his head. “What you people get up to just amazes me. Like something out of a trashy novel.”
He clearly had an entire lurid scenario in his mind, half of which was correct, and she had no defense for it. She simply dropped her eyes. “Someone else was there. I heard my father talking as I went down the stairs.” It was a lie. She hadn’t heard anything.
“Who was he talking to?”
“I don’t know. Someone from the building, I suppose. Those neighbors who were listening so carefully, they must have heard him.”
The detective tapped the file with the back of his fingers. “Nope, nothing like that here.” He read from the report again. “So how come your father’s called Fyodor Kaminsky and you’re Mia Kramer?”
“His name was Kramer, too. They made us change it when we arrived. But when he got the job at Smerdjakov’s, he used his Russian name again. The customers liked that.”
“And Mia? That’s your real name?”
“It used to be Demetria Fyodorovna. They changed it at Ellis Island.”
“And your mother?”
“Has nothing to do with the case. She died ten years ago.” Mia waited for a reply, but he just stared and then stood up from the table. Another man stepped away from the wall where he’d been standing, and they conversed in undertones.
“Can I go now?” she asked.
“Yeah. Just stay away from married women.” The detective snorted, then strode with the other man out of the interrogation room.
A patrolman took her by the upper arm and led her along a corridor to a public room. Grushenka stood up from a bench as she entered. The pale Slavic face was as beautiful as ever, and the voluptuous body seemed to invite embrace. But Mia felt only disgust.
“I’m sorry, Mia,” Grushenka said, pressing her lovely full lips together in contrition. “I never meant to hurt you, or anyone.”
Mia walked past her without replying.
The tenement apartment was still sweltering in spite of the open windows. A paper bag full of trash that leaned against the wall added the odor of rotten vegetables. She lifted it gingerly by the damp bottom, laid it sideways on the shelf of the dumbwaiter, then reeled it down by its rope to the basement for the super to collect. Shutting the door cut off the fetid odor that rose through the shaft. As she turned away, the apartment door opened and Van came in.
“So, what the hell happened?” he asked, yanking open the icebox and snatching a bottle of beer. “I’ve just come back from the police station, and they said he fell from the roof. Or was pushed. Did you do it?”
“You expect me to say yes? I wasn’t there, so it could just as easily have been you. We both know how evil he was.”
He downed half of the bottle in several swallows, then wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist. “No, just a sanctimonious pig, a fanatic.”
“And you don’t call that evil?”
“No such thing as evil. We’re all animals who piss and fuck from the same part of our bodies. Some of us just do it in a more refined way.”
She grimaced. “You don’t have to be so vulgar, Van. If he wasn’t evil, why did you hate him so much?”
“Because he beat me once too often, especially after Mother died. And you know what he said when he beat me? That God smites us to drive out our impurities. That every blow hardens us and shapes us. Even after he started drinking and fucking every woman in sight, he was still whining remorse in front of his stupid icons.” He closed his eyes and finished the rest of the beer.
“So, why didn’t you kill him?” Mia took the bottle from his hand and set it with the other empties.
“I could have, and my conscience would have been clear. But I made a practical decision. If I killed him for being a pig, someone might kill me tomorrow for the same thing.” He reached into the icebox for a second beer.
“What a disgusting moral code.” She sat down, fanning herself with the newspaper.
“Okay, sorry. Well, whoever did it, I’m responsible for the funeral arrangements after the cops release the body. You’ll have to help me.”
“No, you’re going to have to do that yourself. Now that he’s out of the way, I’m getting the hell out of this place. I’m sick of nosy neighbors, of climbing up five flights every day, of having to stay on the roof every summer night until it cools. I’ve got a job offer in Washington.”
“Washington? What’s wrong with the accounting job you’ve got here?”
“Bookkeeping for a shoe store? No future in that. The government’s offering much better jobs for the war. This one’s with the Lend-Lease program.”
“Lend-Lease. What the hell’s that? Sounds like they’re loaning out lawnmowers.”
“Oh, come on. Don’t you listen to the radio? It’s war supplies. We make them and lend them to the Brits. Anyhow, I was going to announce it, but then this thing with Father came up. I’m leaving tomorrow. I need a few days to find a rooming house before I start work.”
He sat down, nonplussed. “You’re really serious, aren’t you?”
“Yes. Don’t worry. I’ll keep in touch, and the police will know where to find me. You can keep everything he left. The furniture, his filthy money, this cockroach-infested apartment. You’re the man of the house now. Enjoy it.”
Washington, DC, October 1943 (fourteen months later)
Mia glanced at the wall clock. Four thirty. Technically, she was supposed to be working, but she had nothing in her in-box, so she slid the new job application from her drawer and finished filling it out.
Education: Diploma—Manhattan School of Accounting.
Work experience and skills: Typist, accountant, Russian-English translation. Dictation in English or Russian.
Typing speed: Sixty words a minute. (She exaggerated only slightly.)
Mother’s and Father’s names: Ekatarina Kaminskaya, Fyodor Ivanovitch Kaminsky.
Her gentle mother had been gone too long to be more than a vague memory. But her father…well…her recollection of him was a mix of disappointment and fear, ending in disgust. He’d never really beaten her, the way he had Ivan, but his orders—that she dress like a drudge, that she give up her fun-loving American friends, that she be housekeeper in their tenement apartment—were absolute and tinged with threat. Her protestations simply elicited a slap from him. “Never question my authority,” he’d say. “A father knows what’s best for his children.” It was her first small victory to be allowed to take an accounting course at the local college, though he agreed only because he knew the dreary accounting job that followed would add to the family finances. And she’d had to fight hard to be allowed out of the house to volunteer for the Roosevelt campaign.
Well, the old tyrant had been dead over a year now, and the police investigation had gone nowhere. That was a relief, though she felt a slight shame for leaving the burial in Van’s hands. Well, Van, or Ivan, as his father had persisted in calling him, had inherited Fyodor’s bank account and possessions, of which the only things of value were a copper samovar and some gold-painted icons. As an atheist and a cynic, Van must have found that amusing.
She did think occasionally of Grushenka, but always with embarrassment. Since that unfortunate involvement, she’d been celibate. Men had paid court to her, but she wasn’t interested. And women weren’t exactly beating a path to her door. Even if they were, the risk of losing her job was too great.
Sally, sitting at the desk across from her, glanced over. “You’re going to leave us, aren’t you? I saw the application.”
“I’d like to. When I took this job last year, I didn’t think it would be so dreary. It’s only slightly better than the one I had before.”
Sally turned the platen and yanked out her finished page. “Yeah, numbers are numbers. Nothing jazzy about them. But didn’t you work for the FDR campaign in New York during the last election? Maybe something good might come from that.”
“That’s what I thought. Mrs. Roosevelt even thanked me for the bookkeeping I’d done for the committee. I gave my resume to the campaign headman, hoping for a little secretarial job in the administration. But everything went to the men. It’s maddening.”
“Hey, Mia!” The office boy stuck his head through the opening in the doorway. “Boss wants to see you.”
Mia winced with vague anxiety, then followed the boy down the corridor to the door at the end. After a timid knock and a muffled “Come in,” she opened the door.
Mr. Steinman sat at his desk puffing on a cigar. Another man sitting on his left stood up as she entered.
“Mia, this is Mr. Harry Hopkins. He’s looking for an assistant and insisted on talking to you.”
Still bewildered, she turned to face the stranger. He was tall, angular, and gaunt, and his too-large suit jacket drooped over both shoulders. His head, which jutted forward slightly, was almost cadaverous and had a receding hairline. The hand he held out to her was all bone, as if it should have held a scythe. She took it cautiously.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Miss Kramer. I’m afraid I’m in a hurry and don’t have time for an official interview. I need an assistant who’s good at taking notes and dictation.”
“I told you, Harry. George Osborne is good at that.” Steinman tapped his cigar ash into an enormous glass ashtray.
Hopkins ignored him. “It also involves the sort of Lend-Lease accounting you’ve been doing, but on a larger scale.”
“I’m telling you, George is the best accountant we’ve got.” Steinman was standing now. “And he’s a senator’s son.”
“I know Russian,” Mia said quietly.
Steinman sat down again, obviously defeated, and puffed on his cigar.
“Yes. That’s why I’ve come. The First Lady gave me a copy of your resume. So, do you want the job or not?”
“Yes, of course.” That was all she could manage. “When can I start?”
“Monday would be good. That will give you time to move in over the weekend.”
“Move in? Where? I already have a room in town.”
“No. I’ll need you close at hand. For meetings, and I’ve got a pile of calculations already on my desk. Your office will be down the hall from me, and they’ll give you a room upstairs.”
Mia was flustered. This strange, cadaverous man wanted her to live in the same house as him? Suddenly she had doubts.
“Upstairs? Where exactly is your office?”
“Sorry. Didn’t I mention that? In the White House. Come around to the Rose Garden entrance at eight o’clock on Monday, and someone will take you up.”
Mia checked her watch as she lugged her suitcase along the path that curved around the White House South Lawn. Seven thirty. She was on time.
“Can I help you, miss?”
Startled, she turned to see a uniformed policeman.
“Um, I’m supposed to report to Mr. Hopkins. I have an appointment at ten o’clock.”
“Well, the public ain’t supposed to be wandering around the Rose Garden, but I’ll take you to the door.” He swung toward the left and began walking.
“Thank you.” She grabbed her suitcase and scurried after him. The officer led her up a low flight of steps and along an arcade to the end. A door opened as they approached.
“I got a woman here says she has an appointment with Mr. Hopkins,” her guide announced. His job done, he hooked his thumbs on his belt and stepped back.
Nodding, the second officer dialed something on his phone and passed the message along. Mia glanced at her watch again. Quarter till eight.
Some two minutes later, a civilian in a dark suit appeared. “Good morning, Miss Kramer. I’m George Allen, the White House butler. Mr. Hopkins is expecting you.” He took her suitcase out of her hand.
Pleased to finally be acknowledged and relieved of the cumbersome baggage, she followed him without glancing back. He led her along a corridor that took them back into the main building, and they climbed a flight of stairs to the second floor. They passed closed doors, and she wondered what majestic staterooms lay behind them. He halted at the far end of the corridor where a plaque near the door read Lincoln Suite. The butler knocked and set her suitcase down against the wall.
The door opened to the same cadaverous man who’d hired her. “Ah, right on time. Thank you, Mr. Allen.” He waved away the butler and opened the door wider to admit her.
Inside, a desk, cabinet, and side table were covered with papers, and a jacket hung over the back of a chair. “Sorry about the mess. The paperwork just overflows, which is why I’ve hired you.”
She nodded, waiting for more explanation of her job. Would it start with housekeeping?
“I’m sure you’re familiar with President Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program. I’m in charge of it, more or less. In short, I work for him, and you’ll work for me. Let me show you to your office.” He stepped toward the door and held it open for her. “How’s your shorthand, by the way?”
“Tolerable. I can read it myself,” she said, passing him.
They strode along the corridor together. “That’s fine. The supply orders are constantly changing, and while the federal budget office will do the final accounting, I’ll need early estimates to present to them. So you’ll be my accountant, too.”
They stepped through a door into another hallway and then into an elegantly furnished room.
“And the Russian?” she asked. “You said that was a requirement.”
“The Russian. Yes. For the correspondence from the Soviets. The president has his official translators, of course, but I want to have my own resources.”
Her mind was buzzing with the amount of responsibility he seemed to be handing her, but it was a good buzz.
“Ah, here we are.” He opened the final door to a cubicle with a tiny desk, typewriter, and a gooseneck lamp. “This is your work space. On the other side of this wall is the First Lady’s office. It’s small, I know, but half the time, you’ll be at conferences with me taking notes.”
He glanced at his watch. “I have a meeting now with the president in the West Sitting Hall, so Mr. Allen will show you to your quarters. You can settle in and then meet me back at my room at ten.”
Escorting her to the door, Hopkins started off down the corridor on his long legs.
The butler still waited outside the office with her suitcase, and she rejoined him, stifling a grin.
So that’s it. I work for the president of the United States.
“Here you are, Miss Kramer.” The butler opened the door to her room and set her suitcase down just inside. “The bathroom is down the hall on the left, and you’ll be taking your meals downstairs in the White House kitchen. Supper is at seven.”
“Who else is up here?” she asked, noting the other doors.
“At the moment, just the housemaids and the occasional non-state guests. So, I’ll leave you to your unpacking now.” With the slightest hint of a bow, he backed away and closed the door gently.
She glanced around at her new quarters, in a part of the White House she hadn’t even known existed. The narrow room with a sloped ceiling was sparsely furnished, with fewer amenities than her rooming-house accommodations had offered.
She laid out her few belongings: her comb and brush, toothbrush, three changes of clothing, several sets of underwear. Nervously, she checked her watch. Almost ten.
After running her brush quickly over her hair and checking that her slip didn’t show, she hurried down to the main floor to the Lincoln Suite. No one replied to her knock.
Hopkins was undoubtedly still with the president, so she strolled toward the room where they were meeting. She’d only just arrived when the door opened. Hopkins stood in the doorway, his back turned, making some final remark. Curious, she looked past him to catch a glimpse of the president and caught her breath.
The president of the United States was in a wheelchair.
Russia, September 1943
The air raid siren over the city of Arkhangelsk began to wail for the hundredth time, and Alexia sprang into action. The Red Army was pushing back the Germans all over the Eastern Front, but the Luftwaffe persisted in bombing Arkhangelsk, trying to block the arriving arms shipments. Not only the harbor came under repeated attack; the town itself was regularly bombarded.
She rushed down the creaking wooden staircase at the back of the house and ran full-out toward the school. The first wave of bombers was overhead now, dropping their high-explosive charges. Knocked to the ground by the first concussion, she rolled behind a truck, covering her head. Her ears rang, and when she looked up she saw that the school, just in front of her, was untouched. Unfortunately, another raid would follow within minutes.
She staggered along the cratered road to where the rest of the wardens were already assembling with gloves and helmets, and Grigory was unrolling the main hose. Waving to the team leader, she rushed up the stairs to her post, cowering behind one of the walls as the next wave of planes arrived.
As usual, the second wave carried only incendiaries. Where the earlier explosions had penetrated the roofs, the incendiaries would finish the job inside the buildings, igniting fires inaccessible to the water hoses.
The incendiaries themselves were small, but very hot. Hundreds fell at once, littering the tar-and-wood roof in a network of sizzling sparks, and the wardens lurched toward one after another to snatch them up before they burned through.
Though she held them for only a second, they scorched her gloves, and the acrid smoke reddened her face, but she and the others succeeded in flinging them onto the courtyard below, where they burned out.
Then the planes were gone, and the school still stood. Exhausted, she joined the others jogging back to town, too exhausted and coughing to cheer, or even talk.
Ten minutes later, still standing in the road, she heard the rumble, and her heart sank. A third raid. And this one was in earnest, for bombs began exploding all around them. The school took a direct hit. From their position, Alexia and Grigory watched, stupefied, as the interior of the building shot up in a mass of wood and flame and fell again, battering what was left of the walls. They didn’t budge from where they crouched. There was nothing left to save.
“That’s it,” Alexia said. “I’m joining up.”
Alexia brought the glass of hot tea from the samovar and handed it on a napkin to her grandmother. “I’m sorry, Babushka, but the time has come. All the men I know are at the front already, and now that the school’s destroyed, I have no job, no reason to stay at home.”
“I don’t want you to leave, my Alyosha. You’ve been the light of this house for so many years, since your mother died.” She gestured toward the simple room cluttered with painted pottery and embroidered cloths. “How will I manage without you?”
“You do very well without me, Babushka. The neighbor’s boys feed the goat and chickens, you’re in good health, and Father Zosima will still come by every day, as he has for years.”
The old woman sipped her tea. “But it is a sin to kill,” she grumbled.
“I know that, Babushka, but it’s not a sin to defend yourself from a murderer. And the Germans are murdering us.”
“I pray to the Virgin every night that the war will end, but it never does.” She glanced lovingly toward the “beautiful corner” of the room, where a cabinet draped with a silken cloth held candles and three icons.
“Babushka, you know the village headman doesn’t like you keeping those.”
“I don’t care. No one is going to arrest an old woman for her icons. Even if you claim to be a good communist and member of the Komsomol, I know you have a soft spot for them.”
There was some truth in that. The Virgin and Child image had comforted her when she’d been orphaned at the age of seven and adopted by her grandmother. Saint George’s icon was appealing because he had a horse, and she liked horses.
The third, supposedly of the Annunciation, attracted her the most. Gabriel, with silver-painted wings and streams of golden hair, was suspended in the air over the Virgin, the angelic lips lightly touching the virginal ones. From her earliest notice of the icon, Alexia had assumed the angel was a woman offering a holy, life-changing kiss. It had filled her first with contentment and then with longing. Even after formally renouncing the faith upon entering school, she had fallen asleep at night imagining that the divine female Gabriel, in a robe of fluttering silk, hovered over her and pressed angelic lips on her own childish ones.
She laid a protective arm over her grandmother’s back. “I’ll always have a soft spot for you and this house. But I have to go. Patriarch Sergei himself said on the radio that the task of all Christians is to defend the sacred borders of the homeland against the German barbarians.”
The old woman sighed and set her tea glass aside. She placed a noisy kiss on Alexia’s cheek and stroked her hair. “All right. You have my blessings, Alyosha. But you must first promise to go and see Father Zosima.”
Alexia braced herself. That was going to be the hard part.
The old wooden church of Arkhangelsk had been closed for years and adapted as a storage depot. But the old priest known as Father Zosima still lived in a room at the back of it. When she knocked on his door, he greeted her with an embrace and led her into the church where barrels of kasha and dried fish had replaced the holy objects.
He drew her down next to him on a bench. “You see what the communists have done to us?”
She understood his sorrow and recalled the Christmas celebrations of her childhood, but she had no time for nostalgia. She gathered her courage and blurted out the news.
“The German bombers have destroyed my school. I have no more work, no more reason to stay here, so I’m enlisting.”
He took both her hands in his. “I am aggrieved to hear it, my child. I wish you would not soil yourself by killing. Even in defense. God gives us a free choice at every moment. You can choose to serve but not shoot. Perhaps you can be a medic or a guard or a mechanic.”
“Mechanic? I don’t know a wrench from a potato. As far as medicine is concerned, I’m afraid I’d cause more harm than good. I’ll go where they send me. Besides, weren’t you in the tsar’s military when you were a young man? My grandmother mentioned it once.”
“Yes. I was an officer. I was also a brute to my servants and a charmer to the ladies. I even fought a duel for a woman.” He chuckled at her expression of astonishment.
He smiled wanly. “I was really quite dashing, in fact, and caught the eye of a certain married lady. When her husband challenged me to a duel, I could not refuse. But the night before was a particularly beautiful summer evening. Moonlight shone on the water of the park where we were to duel. I decided I could not defile such beauty by killing someone, especially a man whom I had wronged in the first place.”
“So you canceled the duel?”
“No. I let him shoot me. And you know, God rewarded me for my decision by letting me be wounded but not killed. I recovered and vowed to never hurt any man. I renounced my military commission, and after a year of study I became a priest. So you see? We always do have a choice, even if it is only the choice of self-sacrifice.”
“I…I don’t know what to say. I suppose I will have choices, but not many.”
“Then choose to serve without shooting. And pray for the salvation of those who want to harm you. Remember, the most important gift we have is our capacity to love. Do not forget to love.”
Alexia sighed. She had grown up under the guidance of Zosima, but his faith didn’t include defending himself, or anyone. She thought of the angelic kiss of the icon. It seemed worlds away from the bombs dropping on Arkhangelsk.
She embraced him and left him sitting in his dusty church-turned-storeroom.
The commissariat was housed in an old brick building that had once been an export station for cod, snail fish, and salmon to the inland cities. The Bolsheviks had confiscated it in the 1920s and removed its processing equipment, and now the sign overhead read Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army. As she entered, Alexia was sure she could detect the faint odor of fish.
The commissar was short and somewhat spherical, his plump jowls blending in a smooth line with his wide neck, and the top button of his uniform collar was invisible under the rolls of his chin.
“So, you’d like to enlist,” he said. It wasn’t a question, so she merely nodded.
“How have you served until now?”
“In the Komsomol. I’m also a schoolteacher. Was. My school was bombed.”
“Schoolteacher, I see. But what about military training? Did you follow any of the Vsevobuch courses?”
“Yes, Comrade Commissar. Driving, marching, small-arms firing, political instruction.”
“Anything you particularly excelled at?”
He looked her up and down, then tilted his head. “Just how tall are you?”
“One meter seventy-seven, Comrade Commissar. I was the tallest in my class.”
He scribbled something on her papers. “They’ll find a place for you after your training. Here, fill out the form for your identification, then take it down that corridor to the photographer.” He handed her several sheets of paper as well as a pencil and pointed with his chin toward a table in the corner.
She wrote in her birth date and place, family members, Komsomol membership number, civilian profession, and list of Vsevobuch courses, then joined the line to the photographer. When she returned to the beefy sergeant and handed over her photo and questionnaire, he clipped everything together, then slid a page of military regulations toward her. “Sign here at the bottom,” he said, handing her a fountain pen. Without reading any of the text, she wrote her name.
“All right, then. You’re in the Red Army now. Report at eight tomorrow morning for the ride to the training center. Don’t be late, or you’ll be arrested.”
The next morning an open troop carrier transported her and sixteen other recruits to the training center at Vaskovo, where half a dozen other trucks had arrived as well. She clambered out of the carrier, shrugging inside her coat to keep away the sharp October wind, and was glad to soon be indoors in the female barracks. She and her barrack mates were herded into a central hall, where a lieutenant delivered a patriotic speech and then ordered them to the quartermaster to be issued uniforms.
With her own bundle in hand, she stepped into an assembly room and examined the parts. The trousers were baggy, wide at the hips and narrow below the knee, with the lower portion designed to slip into boots. The boots were a disappointment. She learned that leather was reserved for officers while hers were some sort of stiff rubberized material sewn over leather soles. Tying on the new footcloths, of which she was issued two pairs, she drew the boots on and found they were a size too large.
The best part was the gymnasterka, the closed tunic that would be both shirt and jacket. Buckling on the military belt, she sensed a change of attitude. More than the official welcoming speech, the uniform gave her a sense of belonging, of being part of a body of patriots defending the homeland.
“All right, stop preening,” the sergeant ordered. “Put your civilian clothes in the bags provided and write your home address on the outside. We’ll mail them for you. Five minutes, then fall out for roll call.”
Roll call meant another hour of standing in ranks until she had been assigned to a training group. Hers was Group J, and by the time the entire group had been assigned, she was hungry.
Her first military meal, a stew of kasha and assorted vegetables, was tolerable, and if it represented what she’d be getting for the rest of the war, she was content.
“Company attention!” Benches scraped as the recruits got to their feet. Another sergeant stood at the front of the dining hall with an open notebook.
“You all know your group designations, so you will march starting from the first table and proceed in order to the last. Training assignments are posted on the walls outside. You have ten minutes to determine your assignment and to fall in at the relevant location. Dismissed!”
Alexia shoveled the remaining portion of her stew into her mouth and joined the line from her table as it waited to exit the dining hall. Full, and feeling quite smart in her new uniform, she decided the army wasn’t such a bad place to be.
Because they were urgently needed at the front, their basic training was brief. They practiced running in full gear, jumping and falling without breaking a limb, shooting at straw targets, and marching in step to patriotic chants. She could dig a trench in just minutes, carry a fallen colleague on her back, and bayonet a sand-filled dummy on the run. And they listened to endless political lectures reminding her of the virtues and duties of communism.
Though she had little time for socializing, she grew to respect her comrades, tough men and women of northern Russia, hardened to the cold.
Ironically, her rifle fascinated her. The 7.62 caliber Mosin Nagant, with its bayonet attached, was longer than she was tall. With concentration, she could dismantle, rebuild, and fire it in less than three minutes, and it pleased her to hit the center of the target with surprising regularity. The rifle itself was a beautiful thing, but it marked the line between being a patriot and a killer. And always the spirit of Father Zosima seemed to hover near.
“Not bad, Mazarova.” her instructor said, “You’ll be an asset to the infantry.”
She cringed. “You think so, sir?”
“Yes, but it’s not up to me. The military board will decide what to do with you, and they’re full of surprises.”
The day came when training was over, and the lists were posted in the corridor. Alexia searched for her name, found it, and stood ruminating in front of the board.
Standing next to her, a comrade smiled at his posting. “Tank training. Fantastic. I love those things. Talk about power.” He turned toward her. “What about you?”
“Special Purpose Division, D.O.N, Kremlin Regiment,” she read off. “What’s that?”
“That’s the NKVD Honor Guard. They’re elite troops that guard the leaders. They were in the military parade in Red Square when the war started. You should be very pleased they’ve chosen you.”
“Why do you suppose they did?”
“To start, my dear, you look great in uniform. And you’re the tallest woman in our class. Ash-blond hair, great cheekbones, ice-gray eyes…your face is so Russian, it belongs on a coin.”
“What nonsense. Russians don’t look any special way.”
“The leaders don’t care, and they like having handsome people like you around them in spiffy uniforms. Don’t complain. You’ll stay alive longer than a lot of the rest of us.”
Uncertain, she returned to her barracks. Was a pretty face all she had to offer her homeland? And what did she want to do in the Red Army, anyhow? The Honor Guard, a purely ornamental regiment, would certainly please Father Zosima. But how could it be honorable to not want to fight?
The White House, October 1943
Her sparse belongings unpacked and stored, Mia descended again to the main floor and Harry Hopkins’s office.
Hopkins sat at his cluttered desk, cigarette in one hand. A slight haze of smoke surrounded him, and the odor of ashtray permeated the air.
“Sit down,” he said, pointing with the cigarette toward a chair at his left. “Are you settled in now?”
“Yes, sir. Raring to go.” She took a seat and tried to hold his gaze yet not seem to be staring. Up close, his face shocked her a bit. Hollow-cheeked and myopic, and with thinning hair, he reminded her of the pitchfork-holding farmer in the painting American Gothic.
“Is this where the Lend-Lease program began?” she asked.
“Yes, in fact. But soon enough the accounting became so complex, we needed other offices, like the one you were working in, to deal with Britain, China, Free France, and the two dozen smaller allies. Right now, my problem is the Soviets. Not just supply issues, but also diplomatic ones. For that I need someone to read and translate correspondence between this office and the Kremlin.”
The Kremlin. The word, like a sudden dramatic chord, stirred a mix of fear, fascination, distaste. She had grown up in an immigrant family with a hatred of Bolshevism, and the Kremlin was where the neo-Bolsheviks—who now called themselves Communists—were headquartered.
“We’ve achieved a certain rapport,” she heard, and she realized she’d lost the thread.
“Rapport?” She repeated, feeling a bit stupid.
“Yes. Stalin is a dictator and a hard pill to swallow diplomatically. But he has a huge nation to hold together and defend, and is losing thousands of men every day. I respect his position and sympathize with it a great deal. Stalin knows this and trusts me for it. Our president trusts me, too, so I’ve been acting as his de facto secretary of state, though we don’t say that around Mr. Hull, who actually holds the office. As a result, I need a Russian-speaking person at my side to negotiate the…turbulent waters.” He took a final puff and crushed the stub amidst a dozen others in his ashtray.
“Has the president already met with the Russians?”
“That’s what I—”
Someone knocked at the door, and he called out, “Come in!”
For the briefest moment, Mia stared, puzzled, at the slowly opening door, waiting for a head to appear. Only when she dropped her glance did she perceive feet, then knees, and finally a man rolling into the room in a wheelchair. She stood up.
“Mr. President,” Hopkins said, though he remained sitting.
“Good morning, Harry. Just thought I’d stop by and see what you’re hatching.”
Franklin Roosevelt looked tired, in spite of his good cheer. His long, oval face and prominent chin had always appeared amiable and paternal. But now his cheeks were sunken, his hair thin and receding. His gray-blue eyes were puffy, and he seemed to squint through his rimless glasses. It was strange to be in the presence of two men with such political power who appeared so physically feeble.
But FDR’s vigorous tenor voice belied his appearance. “Oh, please sit down, Miss Kramer. No need for formalities.” He maneuvered himself into place next to her. “So, you are to be our plenipotentiary to the Kremlin.”
“I’ll serve the White House in whatever way I can, Mr. President, but I’m still only a lowly assistant.”
“Don’t worry, my dear. We won’t overtax you. Mr. Hopkins tells me you have the best possible skills, though I suppose you are not fond of Mr. Stalin.”
She winced, not knowing what to reply, but he laid a soft hand on her forearm and leaned toward her as if confiding. “Mr. Churchill is not fond of him either, but he’s on our side in this war, so we have to keep him happy.”
“Thank you for your confidence, Mr. President. I’ll do everything I can to live up to it.”
“Good to hear you say it, my dear. Now, would you like to see our command center?”
“Command center? Really? Isn’t that top secret?”
The president chuckled. “I’m not going to show you our military strategies, only our wonderful setup. Very futuristic. Hopkins, would you be so kind as to wheel me there? Saves wear and tear on my hands.”
Hopkins leapt from his seat and took hold of the handlebars at the back of the wheelchair. They proceeded down the corridor to the elevator, and she strode alongside the president’s chair as he explained. “It used to be a simple map room, but now it’s staffed twenty-four hours a day and fitted out with…well, you’ll see.”
The elevator opened on the ground floor, and they turned right. The guard who stood before one of the rooms snapped to attention, then stepped in front of them to open the door.
What had been a low buzz now became a cacophony of orders, conversations, and ringing telephones. Mia felt her jaw drop slightly, and she closed it again.
The otherwise drab walls were papered with gigantic maps—of Europe, Africa, Asia, all the theaters of the war. Uniformed staff, both army and navy, stood before them, some on the floor and some on ladders, moving little markers here and there, though she was too far away to discern any patterns or identifications.
“Those markers show the progress of the armies?” she asked.
“Oh, much more than that. The staff tracks the movements of all the belligerents. The land armies, the convoys, ships’ day-to-day positions, sea battles and losses. It marks the whereabouts of certain people, too. You can’t see from here, but Mr. Churchill is a cigar, my marker is a cigarette holder, and Mr. Stalin is a pipe. Good thing we all smoke, eh?”
Mia let her glance sweep over the walls and the military personnel moving between them. “And that’s where the information comes from?” She nodded toward a long table where a row of men and women wearing headphones sat in front of typewriters.
“Yes. That’s our communication staff—smart, loyal people who can be trusted. They also transcribe and file all messages that pass between myself, Chiang Kai-shek, Churchill, and Stalin. They work in alternating teams, twenty-four hours a day, and I come in periodically with the war secretary to check on our progress.”
“So this is where strategy is formulated,” she murmured.
“Only to a certain degree. In fact, conferences in person are much more important. We have to coordinate with our allies.”
Hopkins spoke for the first time. “Which is why we’ve finally arranged a meeting with Stalin.”
“We’d have done it earlier, but the sonofabitch is hard to pin down,” Roosevelt grumbled, then glanced up at Hopkins. “Have you told her yet about Tehran?”
“No, sir. Not yet. I was about to when you arrived.”
“Well, then, let’s talk about it now. If you wouldn’t mind, Harry?” He tilted his head back toward the corridor.
“Oh, yes. Of course.” Hopkins drew the wheelchair back from the open doorway, and the guard closed the double door.
“Tehran? That’s in Iran, isn’t it?” Mia asked as she hurried alongside the rolling wheelchair. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand Iran’s position in the war.”
The president chuckled as they entered the elevator. “Neither do we, and even my advisors have trouble keeping track of who’s in control there. They just inform me that Iran has oil fields that the whole world covets, but since the double invasion—of the Soviets from the north and the British from the west—the Allies now occupy them. So now we can move millions of tons of war materials across Iranian territory to the Russians. Since they’re close to Russia, Stalin decided it was a good place to meet.”
The elevator carried them back up to the second floor, and a moment later, they stood before the president’s office in the Yellow Oval Room. The door opened from behind as they reached it, Mia followed the wheelchair inside, discreetly perusing the office.
The president’s dark wooden desk stood at the center of three tall windows, all hung with velvet drapery and square valances bordered in gold. The American flag and the presidential flag flanked the desk and chair, America’s stately but unglamorous version of a throne.
“This is Mr. Watson, my personal secretary,” the president said, as a broad-shouldered man in a gray suit wheeled him around behind his desk. Once in place, Roosevelt took a plastic holder from his desk drawer and inserted a cigarette into it. Leaning over his shoulder, Watson lit it for him. “Please, take a seat, Miss Kramer.” The president motioned to the cushioned chairs in front of his desk.
“As I was saying, we’ve planned a conference in Tehran next month, with Mr. Churchill and Stalin. Mr. Hopkins, as always, will assist me with some of the policy statements, and you, in turn, will assist him.”
“Uh, yes, certainly. A great honor,” Mia stammered. “When will the conference take place?”
Roosevelt puffed on his cigarette holder through clenched teeth. “Date’s not certain, and it’s a matter of security to not announce it beforehand anyhow. But you should be prepared to be out of the country late in November. If you need a passport, the State Department will see to it.”
“Passport, yes, sir.” She could think of nothing to add.
A butler stepped in from a side door. “Mr. President, Secretary Stimson is here.”
Obviously it was the signal to leave. Hopkins was already standing, and Mia leapt up to join him.
Mia’s head was spinning. Her first day on the new job and she was about to be sent into the cauldron of diplomatic negotiations with Churchill and Stalin.
Tehran. Iran. The words barely held meaning for her. And the two men she was supposed to assist were physical wrecks. She felt herself bend slightly with the weight of responsibility.
As they arrived back at Hopkins’s office, Mia expected to learn some of the details of the upcoming conference, but he only handed her a folder of papers and asked her to translate them. Then the phone rang.
She nodded, although he already gave his full attention to the telephone call, and she passed quietly from his office into her own.
At least she finally had a task. Under the light of her gooseneck lamp, she opened the folder. The papers were dispatches from the People’s Commissariat of Arms requesting specific items, others complaining about items that had not been delivered. Midway through the pile she came upon a telegram that seemed to leap out at her. From Molotov, the Russian foreign minister.
She found herself smiling. The political name Molotov meant “hammer” and, like Stalin, was obviously chosen to be intimidating. His language was brusque as he complained about an agreement for a certain amount of foodstuffs that had been promised and that had not arrived. Since the Red Army was sacrificing its blood daily nearly alone among nations, in defense of Europe, he pointed out, a replacement shipment needed to be sent as soon as possible. She translated the letter immediately, careful to express the right amount of anger and disdain.
The sound of tapping surprised her, and Mia glanced up, confused. Only on the second rap did she realize it came from the door to the First Lady’s office. She stood up and rushed to open it.
Eleanor Roosevelt stood in the doorway, hands clasped at her waist, her severe gray skirt and high-collar blouse adding to the schoolteacher image.
“Hello,” the First Lady said. “Mr. Allen said you were installed in your new office. The maid has just brought in a pot of tea, and I thought it gave us a chance to chat. Or are you working on something critical?”
“Oh, no. Nothing like that.”
Eleanor stepped back, and Mia entered the room hesitantly. The First Lady’s office was more domestic than official. A hinged “secretary” desk provided the only writing surface. It was open at the moment and revealed stationery and a tiny vase of roses. A small round table to her right was set for three, and the porcelain teapot at its center gave off a pleasant aroma.
“I was just translating a message from Molotov, but I’m sure it can wait.”
“Molotov!” Eleanor threw back her head and laughed. “That old Bolshevik can certainly wait for his answer.” She gestured toward the table and Mia took a seat.
“He’s a real scoundrel, that one. I take pains to keep out of my husband’s business with the Soviets, but I do read the newspapers. It was Molotov who negotiated the non-aggression pact with Hitler so the Soviets could annex half of Eastern Europe. Worse, he surely had a hand in the famine in the Ukraine that killed millions of peasants.” She sighed. “And now he’s our ally. Would you like cream and sugar?” She poured the steaming tea into both cups.
“Both, please, if you don’t mind.”
Eleanor passed the cream pitcher and sugar bowl to her, and they both sipped delicately.
“He’s a peasant, and it amazes me that he’s survived so long in Stalin’s government. He was here last year for meetings with the president and the State Department, and we all had a good laugh behind his back. Oh, he puts on a good façade, but you learn a lot about a person when you unpack their bags.”
Mia set down her cup, puzzled, and Eleanor raised her hand to cover her bright, ladylike snicker. “Oh, I didn’t unpack his bags, but Mr. Allen did, while Molotov was out shaking hands. It’s standard practice for White House guests. Believe it or not, Allen found a sausage, a loaf of black bread, and a loaded pistol.”
“A loaded pistol! In the White House? And I wonder if he thought our food might poison him.”
“Who knows what the man thought? Mr. Allen placed all three objects in the same drawer as his shirts but had the good sense to remove the bullets. If Molotov was upset at that, he apparently decided not to make an issue of it.”
The tale allowed Mia to relax in the First Lady’s presence, and she spoke candidly. “Well, he’s making an issue of some of the Lend-Lease deliveries, and it will be my job to sort it out in the accounting. But I’m delighted to hear about the sausage and bread. I’ll be a little less intimidated now.”
“Oh, you must not let anybody intimidate you, my dear.”
“Who is intimidating whom?” a rich contralto voice said, and Mia glanced up, startled.
A woman in her fifties entered uninvited. She was portly, plain-faced, and wore a mannish jacket over a long skirt. She dragged a chair over to the table and sat down by the third teacup.
“So you’re Harry’s new assistant. Is Eleanor giving you the pep talk?”
Eleanor glanced up through her eyebrows. “Hicks, do try to behave.”
“What? I’m just here to meet the new recruit.” She held out her hand. “Lorena Hickok at your service.”
Mia took it, found it meaty, warm, her grip firm. “I’m…uh…pleased to meet you.” Who was this drab, avuncular woman who could enter the First Lady’s office without knocking?
As if hearing her thoughts, Eleanor explained. “Lorena is head of the women’s division of the Democratic National Committee. In fact, she has rooms upstairs not far from you.”
“I see.” Mia smiled, though she didn’t see. Hickok’s job title explained little about either her residency at the White House or her familiarity.
Lorena reached past her and poured herself a cup of tea. “So, what’s this I hear about intimidation?”
“Miss Kramer was just saying that she was a bit alarmed by Molotov’s tone in his telegraphs. You know what he’s like.”
Hickok snorted. “He’s a bully. They all are.” She leaned toward Mia. “Don’t ever let them cow you. If I’d let big-shot politicos, domestic or foreign, browbeat me, I’d never have made it as a journalist. And Eleanor would never have stood up to the Daughters of the American Revolution.” She glanced toward Mia. “You must know what she did for Marian Anderson when the DAR refused to let her sing in Constitution Hall.”
“I know that she arranged an outdoor concert for her at the Lincoln Memorial. I heard it on the radio.”
Eleanor was more conciliatory. “The Daughters of the American Revolution has always been an all-white patriotic association. And then, of course, Washington was still very segregated in 1939. I’d hoped that Anderson’s fame—and pressure from the press, other artists, and politicians—would create an exception for her, but the DAR stood fast in their refusal.”
“But you did create a scandal, didn’t you?” Lorena beamed with wicked pleasure over the top of her cup.
“You mean by resigning? Yes, I suppose I did. But my real ally was the Secretary of the Interior, who helped me arrange the concert at the Lincoln Memorial. On Easter Sunday, no less. And the park estimated that seventy-five thousand people showed up.”
“I remember being thrilled by it, for her, for you, and for a government that had crossed the color line. And it has to cross that line. We can’t claim to be the bastion of freedom when we discriminate against our own citizens.”
Hickok tilted her head admiringly. “Oh, looks like we have a live wire here, Eleanor. We’re going to have to keep an eye on this one.” She bumped elbows with Mia.
Mia smiled weakly at the compliment. She would never have used the term “live wire” for herself.
The teapot was empty now and Eleanor was folding her napkin, a polite but unmistakable gesture. “It was lovely chatting with you, my dear,” Eleanor said.
Mia pushed back her chair. “A pleasure for me, too, and now I have Russian complaints to translate. Thank you so much for the tea, Mrs. Roosevelt.”
She edged toward the door leading to her own tiny space.
“Quite all right. Do let us know if the boys make too many demands on you.”
Mia smiled at the word “boys” and stepped through into her cubicle.
She sat down at her desk, no larger than that of the First Lady, and stared at the dispatches. Two realities seemed to run in parallel at the White House, the political and the personal. The men were dealing with armaments, international diplomatic confrontations, posturing, and the clash of armies, while the women worked with polite letters and pots of tea for democracy at home. Two forms of politics, the global and the intimate.
This was going to be interesting.