And so, in the uncritical credulity of drunkenness, Elena had learned about the supernatural creature who had been captured on Mount Ararat after the earthquake of 1883 had knocked down the old confining drogue stones; and she learned that the guardian angel demanded deaths in return for her protection of the Soviet empire-such a constant cascade of deaths that Utechin's agency had been forced to assist and even encourage the NKVD in its insane wholesale purges. Elena was told that the great famine in the Ukraine during the winter of 1932 and 1933 had not been an accidental consequence of collectivizing agriculture and relocation of the land-owning farmers, the despised kulaks; the famine had been deliberately set into motion, and the Ukraine had been cut off from the rest of the world by heavily armed OGPU detachments at the Kiev and Ukrainian-Russian borders. "Machikha Nash demanded sacramental cannibalism," Utechin said blandly, "and the starving Ukrainians provided it for her, in the interval before they became her food in turn."
And, finally, in order to "divest her of the Judeo-Christian spiritual gag reflex," she had been driven to the Lubyanka, only three blocks east of the Metropol Hotel, and taken down many flights of stairs to the basements. After fasting and being kept awake by electric shocks for forty-eight hours, she was shown the ring of huge rectangular stones in one of the remotest chambers, each stone with a loop carved at its top, and inside the ring she saw the crushed, skinned, and eviscerated bodies that had lately been offered to Machikha Nash; and she was taken to a cell full of Polish and Romanian women, and was allowed to talk to them in pidgin German for a few minutes before being forcibly restrained while they were brutally and deafeningly killed by guards with machetes; and after she was finally allowed to eat, she was told something abominable about the stew she'd eaten. Throughout the three-day ordeal she was prevented from sleeping and was constantly forced to choke down glass after glass of harsh vodka.
At last she was marched into a wide, tiled room that shone a sulfurous yellow in the light of an electric bulb that hung on a cord from the ceiling; two wooden chairs stood facing each other across fifteen feet, with a drain in the floor between them. Elena was tied into one of the chairs and given a hypodermic injection, and then an old man in a white coat came in and talked droningly to her as he swung in front of her eyes a tiny, anatomically perfect gold skull. After some time a young woman was brought into the chamber by a couple of aproned guards; the girl was dressed in a blood-spattered smock that was a precise copy of the one Elena wore, and she had clearly been chosen because of her strong physical resemblance to Elena-auburn hair, thin face, sunken, haunted eyes. She too appeared to have been drugged, and she didn't struggle when the guards tied her into the other chair, facing Elena.
"This woman is you," the old doctor told Elena in guttural English as he stood behind the girl, with his hands on her shoulders, "and you are sitting right here, you can feel the ropes that confine you; the chair out there toward which I am looking is empty." He was staring down at the top of the girl's head as he spoke, though Elena was finding it difficult to focus her eyes. "You feel my hands on your shoulders, don't you?"
Elena did-and when the doctor lit a cigarette and leaned down to blow smoke in the girl's face, Elena smelled the burning tobacco. After some unguessable period of time, punctuated by more injections and electric shocks and many administrations of vodka through a rubber hose, Elena found that she was able to see from the girl's eyes, and she could see that the doctor was right-the chair across the room was empty.
At last the old doctor stood away from her, with his back to the empty chair, and Elena saw him draw a revolver from the pocket of his lab coat. "Now you will be killed," he informed her. He pointed the gun at her face, and she saw his finger whiten inside the trigger guard.
A wall seemed to break in Elena's mind-and in the instant before the gun's muzzle exploded in stunning and obliterating white light, she thought, Santa Maria, Madre de Dios-
And when consciousness, but not light, returned to her, along with the sensation of lying on a cold stone floor, the voice in her head resumed where it had left off, simply because she had no thoughts of her own: -ruega por nosotros, pecadores, ahora en esta hora de nuestra muerte.
Pray for us, sinners, now in this hour of our death. Because there were no thoughts in her head, her concussed memory simply repeated the prayer over and over again.
Another voice was saying similar words in the dark, in insistent Spanish and Russian, and she tried to attend to the other voice's sentences too.
Then she was alone, lying in darkness for some period she could not estimate, without food or drink. She was able to move, and feel with her palms the texture of the stone floor and walls, and she could remember being hypnotized and told to identify herself with the girl who had been shot, but she was not at all certain that she was not in fact herself dead. And after the lights were turned on at last, and Utechin unlocked a barred door to run to where she lay and tip a glass of cold clear water to her cracked lips, she explained that the string she had tugged from her smock and tied into a series of knots had been her attempt to number the days of her confinement.
Her identity came back to her slowly. She pretended to have become the cold, truncated Party operative that they had worked so hard to make of her; and she kept deep within herself the memory that the string had been a makeshift rosary, and that in the long darkness she had made a binding vow to the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. In the years to come, she was to tell only two people of that vow-Andrew Hale, and Kim Philby.
For two weeks she was allowed to rest in a yellow-brick dacha in the village of Zhukovka, on the Moskva River outside of the city. When she wasn't sleeping she went for long walks in the green pine woods, never forgetting that she was being observed, careful not to move her lips or make the sign of the cross as she prayed.
And the day came when she saw the trim figure of Utechin striding up the path from the direction of the Moscow road, stepping around the laborers who were digging trenches to stop the Germans if they should get this far east.
In the kitchen of the dacha, over glasses of Caucusus tea-she was no longer required to drink vodka, which was fortunate since she could no longer bear the medicinal smell of it-Utechin told her, "You will now be called on to commit your second killing, the first real murder of your life. Is Elena Ceniza-Bendiga willing to spend her soul for the Party in this way?"
She smiled at him. "Elena Ceniza-Bendiga is dead-she was shot in the face in the Lubyanka basement. I will be happy to give the Party anything I have that was hers."
She thought she caught a fleeting wince of sadness in Utechin's face; but then he went on in a businesslike tone, "You and I will travel to Cairo. The German General Erwin Rommel has driven the British Eighth Army to a point west of Tobruk, in Libya, and we believe that Rommel is being assisted by the efforts of a very elderly scholar operating from a residence in the City of the Dead below Cairo, the ancient cemetery. You will kill that old scholar."
Elena spread her hands. "Show me the way."
That evening at dusk they boarded an Aeroflot Tupelov ANT-35, and took off on the first leg of the journey that would take them to Baghdad, Tel Aviv, and ultimately to Cairo.
Elena had seen photographs of the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx, and so when the two-engine Tupelov had at last flown west over the straight silver blade of the Suez Canal and banked south over the Nile Delta in its descent toward the Heliopolis airfield, she gasped at her first sight of the Sphinx through the airplane window.
"He has moved!" she exclaimed to Utechin, who was sitting in the seat beside her. "The Sphinx is on top of one of the pyramids!"
This seemed to alarm Utechin, who leaned over her to look down.
"Ah!" he said in evident relief as he slumped back into his seat. "No, child. That 'pyramid' under her chin is a support made of sandbags, thousands of them stacked up-to keep her head from falling off, if German bombs strike nearby. The three pyramids are still where they belong, west of her."
Elena leaned forward to peer back, and now she could see that the triangular slope under the scarred stone face was of a different tan color and texture than the three ancient stone monuments that dented the blue sky farther away. Elena knew that the Sphinx was a portrait of the Pharaoh Chephren, a man; evidently Utechin had confused it with the murderous female Sphinx of Greek mythology.
"Keep faith," muttered Utechin, apparently to himself, "and so will we." When Elena raised her eyebrows, he said, "The scholar in the City of the Dead knows of me; but, since he does not know I am coming to him, there can be no-truth to be established-for me in Cairo, on this trip."
But when they had landed and carried their valises out to the sidewalk to flag down a taxicab, Utechin was sweating through his sport coat, in spite of the cool breeze that rattled in the palm fronds overhead; and as he climbed into the back seat of the battered cab, he handed Elena a book-sized zippered leather case.
It was so heavy that she guessed it contained a handgun.
"American.45 automatic," he whispered to her in French as she hitched up her skirt and climbed in beside him with the case in her lap like a purse. "1911 Army Colt. You must be familiar with it from Spain. If we are cut off, cornered by anyone-use it on them."
Elena laughed easily, for she had long since decided to walk away from the Rabkrin in Cairo. "And promiscuously use up one of my sacramental bloody murders?"
Utechin's sweating face clenched in a frown that made him look ill. "Do as I say," he said softly. He tapped his lapel. "I am prepared too-and if you should fail to come to my assistance, you will not have any more heartbeats than I."
She stared at him curiously as the cab accelerated away from the curb. "But if we have killed our consciences," Elena said, speaking more loudly to be heard over the roaring automobile engine, "surely it was because there is no God?-and if there is no God, what is to be feared in dying?"
"No God," said Utechin, nodding rapidly as he stared out through the taxicab window at the narrow-windowed white houses. "Marx said that, but Marx was no Russian. The NKVD says that, but the NKVD is an army of witless thugs. We have never said that. We work to circumvent Him."
"Like a bull in the arena," said Elena, forcing herself not to smile. "Ah, you will divert Him with your capework, and leave Him blinking stupidly at empty sand while you steal around behind Him."
"This…merriment of yours may be an appropriate posture," Utechin said irritably; then he gave her a weak smile. "But it is certainly a trying one. Could you please put on a becoming solemnity, at least until after I've been able to catch up on my drinking schedule?"
Elena nodded obediently, and didn't speak until the taxicab had squeaked to a halt at the curb in front of Shepherd's Hotel on Port Said Street.
"Let us walk around a few blocks and view the layout of the streets before we go in," Utechin said as he climbed out. Elena had seen the United States star emblem on B-25 bombers at the Heliopolis airfield, and now she was staring at an American jeep swerving through the traffic of trolley cars and donkey carts on the broad boulevard; and Utechin added, "It will not be American soldiers, repellent though I grant you they are, who might assail us. Watch for…Egyptians, Arabs."
And in the crowded street Elena saw flashes of many Arabic faces-from the toothy grins of ragged brown boys crying for "Baksheesh!" to the white beards of Moslem elders, and she was nervous-even though she knew that Machikha Nash was confined within the borders of the Soviet Union-each time she met the eyes of an Arab woman staring at her from the slit above a black veil. It occurred to her that Utechin's target might be forewarned, and that Utechin's head and her own too might be centered in the sights of rifles in high windows even now. She hoped she might soon find a Coptic Catholic church-with luck, the priest wouldn't even understand the language in which she would make her lengthy Confession.
…that I have sinned exceedingly, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do…
The architecture of the city had been plaster-fronted white houses and domed mosques at the northern end, but on this street nineteenth-century European buildings had intruded among the older houses, making the traditional overhanging latticed balconies look frail.
"That is the French Embassy," said Utechin, nodding toward the Romanesque doorway of an ornate stone building front, "covert headquarters of the French secret service. They are hand-in-glove with the British Special Operations Executive. So is the American OSS, in the American Embassy, another block down this street."
Elena had gathered that the British SOE contained a secret core that was the Western equivalent of the Rabkrin. Among Andre Marty's Communists there had been rumors of a vast old British operation known as Declare, and from the way Marty had especially devoted his energies to killing any British agents who seemed aware of a supernatural element in the war, Elena was confident that Declare, if it existed, was opposed to the secret Soviet cult of Machikha Nash.
They had stepped off the curb and were crossing Port Said Street, among a mixed crowd of Europeans, Egyptians, American soldiers, and half a dozen goats that were being herded by children in loincloths and baseball caps. Elena unzipped the leather case Utechin had handed her.
On the sidewalk she slipped her hand into the case, and her palm fit familiarly around the.45's grip. The safety catch was up, engaged, cocked-and-locked-and she thumbed it down. Finally she took a deep breath and pointed the concealed gun at Utechin's back. "Look," she said.
Utechin's face went blank when he turned around and saw her hand inside the case. He stopped walking, and leaned against a lamppost. "Explain this, please," he said. The concealed muzzle was now pointed at his abdomen.