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Snare of the Hunter

Helen Macinnes



  Pray for a Brave Heart

  Above Suspicion

  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

  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  © 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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  For Gilbert

  with the sweet memory of my good fortune

  For he shall deliver thee from the snare of the hunter.


  Table of Contents

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  About the Author


  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 Chronicle 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?”

bsp; “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. No trouble. 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.”

  “They could have searchlights mounted in jeeps,” she said as she rose. She pulled her scarf over her head, fastened it tightly around her chin. Barbed wire, she warned herself, and repressed a shudder. She picked up the canvas bag which had lain against the tree that had sheltered them.

  “It won’t be dark enough for searchlights to be really effective.” Not altogether true, but he wanted to reassure her. She would have no need for extra worries in the next five minutes. “Besides, they’d have to bump along six kilometres of rough grass. The road is on the Austrian side, remember?” He smiled widely, a gaunt-faced man of thirty-three with sharp brown eyes that now softened as he studied her face. “You’re all right, too, Irina. Now, are we ready?” He pointed down towards the small ribbon of road. The Volkswagen had just come into view, travelling slowly without lights.

  “Don’t come back this way, Josef,” she said quickly. “Don’t even collect your motor-cycle where you left it. Go in another direction altogether.” She was thinking of Jiri.

  He paused for one brief moment, stared at her in surprise. “Don’t worry, Irina. I’m an old hand at this game.” He shouldered her bag and left, running swiftly. She made sure that the knot on her scarf was tight, ended a spaced count of ten, and stepped out of the trees. She raced after him, stumbled twice on the rough ground, but kept on running. He had reached the fence before she was half-way there, had started cutting the wire expertly. The car was still some distance off. Thank God, she was thinking as she reached the cruel tangle of barbs, thank God Jiri had kept his promise: no patrols crashing out from the shelter of the trees behind her, no sudden burst of machine-gun fire raking the field, no searchlights. There was just the grey veil of dusk falling more thickly over the wooded hills, shrouding colours, deepening the silence. She knelt down, touched the earth with her hand outstretched.

  “Now!” Josef told her. He had dropped the wire cutters. He anchored the lower strands with his feet at one side of the gash he had made. The middle strands were forced aside, held with an effort. She crouched low, kept her arms close to her body, passed safely through with only one small rip on the sleeve of her raincoat. “Step clear,” he warned her as she turned to look at him. He stepped back himself as he let the wires go. He picked up her bag, tossed it high over the fence towards her. She couldn’t speak. She stood there looking at him.

  Behind her, the car had stopped. A man jumped out, came running over the narrow strip of grass that separated the road from the boundary fence. He grasped her arm—it was Ludvik Meznik—and swung her round towards the car. “Get in!” he told her as he pushed past her to reach the fence. “Okay, Josef? No alarms?”

  “All okay.” Josef was picking up the wire cutters, stowing them into his pocket.

  And at that moment there was a shot. One bullet only, neatly cracking the deep silence, sending a swarm of ravens out from the tree tops. Their hoarse cries echoed across the shallow valley.

  Irina, almost at the car, turned swiftly. At first she could only see Ludvik’s thickset body backing away from the fence. “Get in, get in!” he yelled at her, catching her arm. “They’ll shoot us all!”

  She pulled herself free, stood looking at the cut fence. Josef was lying quite still. She started forward. Ludvik took a firmer hold on her arm, dragged her back to the car. The driver had left it. Ludvik caught hold of him too. “Get in, you damned fools,” he said. “We can’t help him. He’s dead. Get in, damn you, or they’ll get us all.” He thrust them ahead of him.

  “We can’t leave him there,” Irina was screaming.

  “He’s my brother—” Alois shouted.

  Then all protest, all argument was over as a searchlight beamed across the sky and the distant sound of a powerful engine came closer, closer. “I’ll drive,” Ludvik said.

  He drove f
uriously over the cart tracks and bumps, grim-faced, silent.

  Alois said nothing at all. He was still in shock.

  Irina was weeping. When she had enough control over her voice, she said, “But where did the shot come from?”

  Ludvik was intent on the road they had entered, a broader road, well marked. He had turned on the car lights, kept a saner pace through a straggle of traffic. “We’ve just turned south from the border crossing. See the guardhouse back there? Symbolic last view of Czechoslovakia, Irina. Look well!”

  She didn’t turn her head to look. She repeated her question. “Where did the shot—”

  “From the wood, I thought.”

  “No, no. We were hiding there. Josef had scouted it. He said it was safe.”

  “Then from the trees farther east. That’s where those damn birds were nesting.”

  She shook her head, unconvinced. “But the light was so poor. How could anyone shoot—”

  “They’ve got all the gadgets, infra-red tricks. Don’t ask me. I’m not a small-arms expert. Or perhaps it was just a lucky shot from one of their special snipers. There was no wind, not even a breeze tonight. That’s what they like: no variables. A lucky shot, though. The first one came nowhere close.”

  “Two? I only heard one.”

  “The first that missed both of us. And just as Josef turned to run, and the birds loosed all hell on us, the second shot came. That’s when he fell.”

  Yes, Irina could agree, she had heard nothing above the wild clamour of the ravens. She fell silent. Beside her, Alois was sitting stiffly, his hands clenched, his eyes closed.

  Ludvik told her, “We are on Highway 2. We’ll have you safe in Vienna in a couple of hours.”

  Safe. She thought of Josef’s still body. She began to weep again, but this time quietly.

  Ludvik’s voice was angry. “Someone had to keep his head tonight. And what could we have done, anyway?”

  Then they were all silent.