Heart of Deception

Krystyna Skarbek, a.k.a. Christine Granville, at the Gezira Sporting Club in Cairo, 1942.

The first time Leo saw Christine Granville she was laying on a chaise lounge by the pool at the Gezira Sporting Club in Cairo.  She wore a modern bathing costume, one that exposed the full length of her slim legs, her tanned arms, and an alluring patch of shoulder.  Dark brown hair, pulled away from her face by a headband, formed a crown of curls around her wide forehead; her mouth, resting slightly open, would have been too large for her face, had it not been shaped so perfectly.  One hand lay upon the ground, two fingers tucked into a book, as though she’d fallen asleep reading yet managed to keep her place before dozing off.

Leo located an empty lounge chair and pulled it into the small puddle of shade created by a palm tree.  He also had a book to read, a well-worn copy of Gulliver’s Travels left in the hotel’s lending library by a previous guest, but his attention kept straying from the page in front of him back to the woman by the pool. 

“Aha,” a man’s voice said, “I see you’ve discovered our Cleopatra.”

Shielding his eyes from the sun with one hand, Leo looked up to see an English officer, Roger Mayes, standing next to his chair.

“What was it that you said?”

Mayes squatted down and spoke directly into Leo’s ear as he gestured toward the sleeping woman. “I said I see you’ve found our Cleopatra, Christine Granville.”

“Cleopatra?  That skinny brunette with the long nose?”

“Oh, yes. To quote an ancient Roman who’d fallen under the spell of the legendary queen, ‘It was not the comeliness of her face or the fineness of her figure that created her allure, but the combination of merely sufficient beauty with extraordinary intelligence, wit, and cunning.  Enthralled, men came away from her presence with an impression of great beauty, when in truth, beauty was the least of her attributes.’”

“You sound pretty enthralled yourself.” 

“Hopelessly.  But alas, she has a husband in England and a lover here.  And, if one listens to the rumors, there are other men as well.  I only pass along that last bit of gossip because I’m insanely jealous that I’ve never been one of them.”

“Well, I suppose that’s honest,” Leo said in French-accented English, punctuating his response with a typical Gallic shrug.

Mayes stood up with a sigh.  “Yes, though it’s not likely to get me anywhere with the countess.”

“Countess?”

“Oh, did I neglect to mention that?  Yes.  She’s the daughter of a Polish count.  Have no idea what Polish titles mount up to, but unlike most of the Czarists around here, they’re legit.  What is it?  What’s so funny?”

“Oh, I’ve had a few dealings of my own with a countess.  Of course, that was a very long time ago.”

“Already had your own countess, have you?  Bloody hell.  You Frenchmen.  Well, good luck with this one.  You don’t choose her.  She chooses you.”

“Thank you for the warning, but I have no intention of getting in line.” 

Leo watched as Mayes strolled off, stopping to take a long look at the sleeping countess before ducking back into the main clubhouse.  Was it true, Leo wondered, that Mayes was with the British spy network in Cairo?   He and Peter Wilkinson were often together, and Wilkinson was reputed to be the new S.O.E. head.  Whenever Leo saw the lanky Englishman, he was tempted to disobey Coon’s orders, tell Wilkinson exactly why he was in Cairo, and ask the man to verify that he was, in fact, on the British undercover asset list.  He wanted to ask Wilkinson if someone was reassuring his daughter that he would come back to her.

He took Eddy up on his offer to send one letter home via the diplomatic pouch, but then the State Department cut him off.  Too complicated, the consul said, to use the diplomatic pouch for personal business.  Too much ass-covering involved if something should go wrong, that’s what he meant.  No wonder Eddy, Coon and Browne called the State Department the “Snake Pit.”

No, as much as he itched to ask Wilkinson for some enlightenment, he couldn’t do anything that might jeopardize his good standing.  As he’d told Eddy, for once in his life, he was going to play by the rules.  He’d done decent work.  The O.N.I and the O.S.S. and the S.O.E. and whatever other alphabet-soup operations he’d been spying for had better let him go soon.  Until then, he would obey his orders and sit tight, pretending to be a French businessman waiting to see which way the winds of war would blow.

The heat sent a drop of sweat trickling into his mustache.  It took some getting used to, having facial hair after a lifetime clean-shaven.  His new addition was thin and close-trimmed, unlike the huge, curling mustaches worn by the men of Budapest in his youth: mustaches that were groomed, pampered and fussed over like expensive pets.  He’d also cut his hair short, as Coon had suggested.  Not much of a disguise, but, he hoped, enough of a change to keep him from being recognized immediately while he waited.

Upon his arrival Leo learned that Cairo was full of people waiting.  At the exclusive Gezira Sporting Club, British residents organized polo tournaments, amateur plays, and ladies’ teas.  At Shepheard’s Hotel, British officers drank gin, played cards, and waited for orders from the desert front.  Polish military men drank vodka, ran their own spy network, and waited for the chance to fight the Germans again.  Everyone waited to see what the Allies would do next.  Russia couldn’t hold off the Nazis for much longer, and England couldn’t defend itself forever without help.  The Americans had to force Hitler to divide his resources. They would have to strike somewhere in Europe, and soon.

Leo tossed his book aside.  He’d lost his enthusiasm for plowing through English.  He’d go swimming.  No, he’d go for a walk in the marketplace.  No, he’d go over to the stables and see if anyone’s horse needed a bit of exercise. 

As he walked by her chaise lounge on his way back into the changing rooms, a cloud passed over the sun, and Cleopatra stirred.