A Single Spy by William Christie follows Alexsi Ivanovich Smirnov, a Russian orphan forced to become a spy during WWII, as he navigates the war and his mission—one that could change the very course of history (available April 25, 2017).
“A single spy―in the right place and at the right moment―may change the course of history.”
Alexsi Ivanovich Smirnov, an orphan and a thief, has been living by his wits and surviving below the ever-watchful eye of the Soviet system until his luck finally runs out. In 1936, at the age of 16, Alexsi is caught by the NKVD and transported to Moscow. There, in the notorious headquarters of the secret police, he is given a choice: be trained and inserted as a spy into Nazi Germany under the identity of his best friend, the long lost nephew of a high ranking Nazi official, or disappear forever in the basement of the Lubyanka. For Alexsi, it’s no choice at all.
Over the course of the next seven years, Alexsi has to live his role, that of the devoted nephew of a high Nazi official, and ultimately works for the legendary German spymaster Wilhelm Canaris as an intelligence agent in the Abwehr. All the while, acting as a double agent―reporting back to the NKVD and avoiding detection by the Gestapo. Trapped between the implacable forces of two of the most notorious dictatorships in history, and truly loyal to no one but himself, Alexsi’s goal remains the same―survival.
In 1943, Alexsi is chosen by the Gestapo to spearhead one of the most desperate operations of the war―to infiltrate the site of the upcoming Tehran conference between Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin, and set them up to be assassinated. For Alexsi, it’s the moment of truth; for the rest of the world, the future is at stake.
1936 Soviet Azerbaijan
The complaint began to rumble deep down in the mule’s throat. Alexsi hopped up from the ground and rubbed her nose and ears before the sound could work its way out and erupt into a deafening bray that would ruin them all. She scuffed her front hooves in the sand, settled down, and kept silent. If you gave a mule something to think about other than what was annoying it at that particular moment, it tended to forget all about it. You really couldn’t force a mule to do what it didn’t want to. The other men would beat them, of course, but then people just liked beating things. Especially what couldn’t beat them back. But all he had to do was offer the mules the occasional sugar beet and they would follow him like dogs.
The desert looked flat from a distance. But once you were inside it there were all kinds of subtle hills and valleys that could hide men and horses and a string of mules from plain sight. And a teenage boy.
Alexsi looked up at the progress of the moon and saw that it was past midnight but still at least three hours from sunrise. It was a half-moon. Any fuller made it easier to see at night, but also made it too easy to see them. From the stars he knew they were on course. It was cold, and now that the mule was quiet he stopped stroking her and stuck his hands back into the pockets of his lamb’s fur coat. She nuzzled him, though he knew it wasn’t out of love. She was looking for a treat.
He checked her load to make sure it wasn’t rubbing on her. The two long rolls strapped to the yoke harness contained Mosin-Nagant rifles wrapped up in canvas like carpets. Rifles were one of the few things the Soviet Union produced that someone in another country would want to trade for. The other mules also carried rifles, and tins of rifle ammunition.
The border with Iran was up ahead. At this spot it was just a horse road patrolled by Russian border guards, but the talk was that soon there would be a tall wire fence and land mines. So everyone was rushing to make what money they could before that happened.
The men he was with were Shahsavan tribesmen, as were those they were waiting for. Nomads, Azeri-speaking, and the arbitrary Soviet-Iranian border had cut them off from their traditional pasture migrations from southern Azerbaijan to northern Iran and back. When Reza Pahlavi, the one-time sergeant who now called himself Shah, seized power in Iran in 1921, his first goal had been to bring all the independent tribes to heel. He defeated the Shahsavan in 1923 and exiled their chiefs. Some of the tribesmen moved to the city of Ardabil and settled down. The rest still ran their flocks of sheep, camels, and horses between pastureland according to the grass seasons and tried to keep a step ahead of the government. But fewer pastures meant having to fight for them. And smaller flocks and less powerful chiefs meant more raiding to stay alive. So they always needed guns.
On the other side of the border their Azeri cousins had taken one look at collective farms and Soviet power and gone into smuggling. Alexsi knew they were on borrowed time but he wasn’t sure they did. They still talked about being free men.
They allowed an outsider to ride with them because Alexsi could do three things they could not. The first was read and write. He’d been living by his wits on the streets of Baku. Then one morning he bumped into four Shahsavan, looking much harder than the usual yokels from the hills, wandering about hopelessly lost looking for a smuggling contact. Though Alexsi hadn’t known that at the time. Always on the hustle for a few kopecks, he’d offered to guide them and they’d accepted out of sheer desperation.
During the meeting he’d had to wait outside in the hall for his money, trying to look young and meek while a couple of enormous thugs stared him down. When it was over, the rubles the tribesmen paid him were obviously counterfeit. After he quietly passed that information along, the knives flashed out and an instant later the two thugs were left vainly trying to hold their cut throats together. It was even worse than slaughtering sheep, since sheep were tied up and didn’t run around spraying blood everywhere once the killing cut was made. At that point Alexsi was thinking that leaving without his money might not be the worst thing in the world, but the Shahsavan, who took being cheated badly, kicked down the door in order to reopen negotiations with their contact.
Things only got worse. All the noise attracted attention, and with more thugs pounding up the stairs, Alexsi was presented with the choice of greeting them by himself in the hallway or running into the room where the fight was going on. Inside, and with no good options, he dove for the nearest neutral corner and tried to make himself as small as possible. It wasn’t like a boys’ fight: a live-or-die contest never lasted long. This one ended with the contact and four of his men spilling their guts on the floor and screaming their last breaths while the tribesmen fished the real money out of their pockets. The Shahsavan, he learned, only cut throats when they were in a hurry, wanted things kept quiet, or didn’t feel the need to make a point. Having seen all he wanted to, Alexsi was the first one out as soon as a safe path to the door presented itself. He wasn’t alone. The tribesmen thundered after him, either out of instinct or terror at the prospect of being lost in the big city again. Later the Shahsavan were enormously impressed that, rather than head down to the street where they might bump into more of the disemboweled criminal boss’s henchmen, he’d led them up and over three adjoining rooftops, choosing to ignore the fact that he hadn’t exactly been waving his arms and urging them to join him. As soon as they all were safe and laughing at their good luck, they offered him a job.
The second thing that kept him in their company was his ability with locks. During their escape he’d opened a locked rooftop door in a few seconds, and the tribesmen thought that was the most amazing thing they had ever seen. Urban life and its tools and ways were foreign to them, and they’d been used to kicking their way into and out of places. A confederate who could open locks was more in keeping with their stealthy desert instincts. Not to mention safer.
The third reason was that, incredibly enough considering their trade, he spoke Russian and Farsi and they didn’t. You needed Russian for school, and growing up on a kolkhoz, a state farm near the Iranian border, meant you picked up a lot of Farsi. The Shahsavan only spoke Azeri and their tribal dialect, and with their nomad sense of superiority didn’t feel the need to know anything else. Usually any stranger they bumped into during border crossings ended up being disposed of by the jackals, but they considered having someone who could translate very useful in emergencies.
Riding and shooting were second nature to the Shahsavan, and they taught him to do both better than he’d ever dreamed. They also taught him to live in the desert and scout without being seen. They insisted he become a Muslim, and to keep from ruining a good deal he agreed, praying when they did.
After a few trips he had more rubles hidden away than most party bosses in the Soviet Union, let alone sixteen-year-olds. He didn’t even have to break into the state food stores to eat anymore. Though he still did occasionally to get the good stuff they kept locked away for themselves, and for the sheer thrill of burglary. It had been his routine since escaping from the state orphanage three years before. Whatever he didn’t use himself he sold in the flea market in Baku. The market might not be Communist, but the authorities allowed it because things were so bad that if they didn’t let people sell their possessions in order to buy food there might be a revolt. They kept a close watch, though, so Alexsi had learned it was better to get some old woman to sell your loot in exchange for a piece of it.
They were waiting there in the desert because the smugglers didn’t bother keeping track of the Russian border guard patrols. They had a much simpler and more direct method. While they paused just short of the border, four tribesmen were sneaking up on the nearest border guard post a kilometer away. The guards were used to harassing rifle shots from angry tribesmen, but when these four opened fire with their brand-new Degtyarev light machine gun the post would panic and shoot off their emergency flares to summon all the roving patrols back to their aid. And the smugglers could then cross the border unmolested.
Sometimes the rifles would be exchanged for Iranian gold, which was best. Sometimes opium, when it was in season. But usually they drove back a flock of sheep, the tribe’s main currency. Harder to manage, but food on the hoof outside the state system could always be turned into good money.
The rifles came from a Shahsavan sergeant in the local Red Army garrison, the Azerbaijan Division. Older weapons packed in grease and set aside for wartime mobilization. Replaced in their crates with broken rifles that were supposed to be disposed of. The crates were counted regularly but no one ever bothered to look inside. The same with the ammunition. The wooden crates were still stacked up in the armory, but the metal cans of bullets that had been inside them were long gone.
Sound carried a long way in the desert at night, and everyone heard the shooting start at the border guard post even though it was kilometers away. Usually the machine-gun fire was followed by a patter of frantic shots from the post, but this time there was a roar of return fire. It made the mules jump, and Alexsi had to go down the line to calm them.
The flares popped in the far distance, little pinheads of red and white light. Now everyone was counting down the time for the patrols to ride to the rescue.
A soft, low whistle spread through the air. The kind of muffled sound you hear for a brief instant at night and then dismiss that it ever happened. The tribesmen could make it carry a very long way. Without further command everyone silently slipped back onto their horses and the column of riders headed out. Even the mules got moving without complaint, probably because it was warmer to be walking.
With flankers on both sides of the column looking out for ambush, they crossed the border road into Iran. The Iranian border guards didn’t even have to be paid off. They didn’t patrol at night. It was too cold and too dangerous.
After a while they stopped, and following the usual routine Alexsi rode up to the head of the column.
Selim, the leader of the tribesmen, softly called out, “Anatoli, time to go.”
It was a world of informers—Alexsi knew that only too well. So when the Shahsavan first asked his name, and names were of enormous importance to them, he had given that of his worst enemy back in the kolkhoz. If word ever got out of a Russian boy riding with a group of tribal smugglers, and it probably would, the authorities could go back to the farm and arrest Anatoli. Every time they called him that, Alexsi imagined Anatoli desperately trying to convince the police he wasn’t a smuggler, and it was hard to keep the smile off his face.
It was his job to go out and meet with the scout for the Iranian group, and then bring them all together. This was much safer than two groups of armed men bumping into each other in the darkness. Everyone was always alert to the possibility of other raiders waiting in ambush to take their goods.
“There was a lot more shooting at the border guard post,” Alexsi whispered.
“Don’t worry,” Selim replied. “They probably put more men in there since the last time.”
Alexsi was worried anyway. It sounded like a lot more men. He slid down from his horse and handed the reins to Selim. “Rashid, let’s go.”
He and Rashid always went out together. One man wandering alone in the desert at night might never be seen again.
“I can’t walk,” Rashid replied. “I’m sick.”
Rashid was his age. The Shahsavan considered a sixteen-year-old a man, and as a matter of practicality liked their scouts to be the fastest runners and smallest targets. Rashid had never been sick before. If he’d been sick, why had he come along in the first place?
Alexsi walked down to Rashid’s horse. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m sick to my stomach,” Rashid said with a groan. “I can’t walk.”
Alexsi instantly knew that Rashid was lying. It wasn’t even a good act.
“I’ll send someone else with you,” said Selim, who had heard everything.
“No, I’ll go by myself,” Alexsi said quickly.
There was a pause while Selim thought that over. “Are you sure?”
“I’ll be all right,” said Alexsi.
Selim thought it over some more. “If you get lost or there’s any trouble, fire one shot and we’ll be right there.”
“I will,” said Alexsi.
Selim leaned over his saddle and pointed out the small hump of a hill in the near distance. One desert hill in the dark of night was never the same as any other to the Shahsavan.
“I see it,” Alexsi said.
Selim patted him on the back.
Alexsi left his rifle on his horse. It was too unwieldy at night. Ducking low to be out of sight, he unhooked the water bag from his saddle and slung it across his back. Straightening up, he reached under his coat and drew the Nagant revolver from the leather flap holster, the same as the secret police bluecaps wore. He looked back at Selim, who nodded, and trotted off into the darkness.
Copyright © 2017 William Christie.
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William Christie is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and a former Marine Corps infantry officer who commanded a number of units and served around the world. In addition to A Single Spy, he has written several other novels, published either under his own name or that of F.J. Chase.