20 November 1939
Schnebel Theater, Hamburg, Germany
They came to watch her die.
Every night, they came. To gawk. To gasp. To shake their heads in awe. And Katarina Kerensky made sure they never left disappointed.
Tonight, she performed one of her favorites, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In typical Nazi arrogance, Germanizing the arts hadn't stopped at simply eliminating "dangerous" persons from cultural life. The Chamber of Culture had continued its purification function by also ruling that Shakespeare—in German translation, of course—was to be viewed as a German classic, and thus acceptable for performance throughout the Fatherland.
Leave it to the Nazis to claim the English playwright as their own.
In spite of her personal reasons for hating the Third Reich, Katia loved the challenge of taking a role already performed by the best and making Juliet her own.
For a few hours on stage her world made sense.
Now, poised in her moment of mock death, her hair spilled past her shoulders and down along the sides of the raised platform on which she lay. She held perfectly still as her Romeo drank the pretend poison and collapsed beside her.
She could smell the brandy and sweat on Hans as the foul scents mingled with the mold growing on the costume he hadn't washed in weeks, but Katia thought nothing of it. She was a professional and approached the role of Juliet as she would any role, on or off the stage. With daring conviction.
Hitting his cue, George, the bald actor playing Friar Laurence, made his entrance. As the scene continued to unfold around her Katia remained frozen, her thoughts turned to the actors who should also be sharing the stage. She was one of the lucky ones. Instead of playing a star-crossed lover doomed for eternity, she could have been among many of her peers thrown out of the theater due to whispers—often untrue—of their Jewish heritage or socially deviant behavior.
For now, at least, she was safe. As she was the daughter of a Russian prince, Vladimir Kerensky, fame had been her companion long before she'd stepped onto a stage.
Would notoriety be enough to keep her safe?
The Nazi Germany racial policy grew increasingly violent and aggressive with each new law. If anyone checked Katia's heritage too closely they might discover her well-kept secret.
To the Germans, she was merely a real-life princess playing at make-believe. A natural, as her mentor Madame Levine had always said. Good skin. Innate talent. Beautiful face and hair. All added to the final package. But the brains? Katia kept those hidden behind the facade of ambition and a seemingly ruthless pursuit of fame.
If the Germans only knew how she really used her talents. And why.
Opening her eyes to tiny slits, she tilted her face just enough to cast a covert glance over the audience. Her latest British contact was out there waiting. Watching. Bringing with him another chance for her to fight the monster regime and protect her mother with means she'd been unable to use to defend her father.
She drew in a short breath and focused on becoming Juliet once more. The scent of stage dust and greasepaint was nearly overpowering. Dizzying. The spotlight blinding, even with her eyelids half-closed. Nevertheless, Katia remained motionless until her cue.
"The lady stirs.…"
As though in a trance, Katia rose slowly to a sitting position. She fluttered her eyelashes and let her arms drag behind her. Arching her back, she held her arms limp, making the motion appear effortless.
Presentation, Madame Levine had taught, was the difference between a rank amateur and a true artist.
Pitching her voice to a hoarse whisper, she said, "O, comfortable friar! Where is my lord?" The muscles in her arms protested, but she continued to hold them slack.
Katia wrapped her temporary role of the doomed Juliet around her like a protective cloak then tossed a confused, sleepy look over the audience. "I do remember well where I should be." She sent the audience a long, miserable sigh, then wiped the back of her wrist across her brow. "And there I am."
Pushing a shaky smile along her lips, she let it cling to the edges of her mouth for only a moment before hiding it behind a pout. "Where is my Romeo?"
Friar Laurence tugged at her as he began his impassioned speech to make her leave the tomb with him.
Ignoring his pleas, Katia peered around. She blinked once. Twice. Then turned her head away from the audience.
Friar Laurence came to the end of his speech. "I dare no longer stay."
Katia focused her attention on the actor lying next to her, narrowing her performance down to this final moment. Nothing existed before. Nothing after. Just this handful of lines. A few moments when escape was possible.
Feigning horror at the sight of her dead husband, she allowed a lone tear to trail down her left cheek. In a tragic whisper she recited her next lines, pretended to search desperately for a drop of poison in the vial she rescued from Romeo's clenched fist, then listened to the lines spoken offstage.
She pulled her brows into deep concentration. "Yea, noise? Then I'll be brief." She made a grand show of searching Romeo's belt. On a gasp, she widened her eyes. "O happy dagger!"
Snatching the fake blade, she raised it high above her. Arching, she tossed back her head, snapped it forward again, then locked her gaze on to the thin blade. "This is thy sheath…"
With a dramatic flourish, she stabbed herself just above her stomach. "There…rust, and let me die."
Swaying, she sucked in her breath, buckled over in pain, and collapsed on top of Romeo.
As the rest of the cast trooped in for the final scene, Katia remained unmoving, only half listening to the words of the rest of the play.
Knowing her performance had been one of her best, she tried to ride the wave of success. But the joy remained elusive this evening, as it had each night since the Nazis had discovered Madame Levine's fraudulent papers.
And just as the Lord had done back in Russia during the revolution, God had abandoned Germany. Now most of the people Katia loved were dead, imprisoned or worse.
Her mind raced back to the last time she'd seen her mentor, now shipped off to Neuengamme, for her lie as much as for her Jewish heritage. There had been no warning, no time to help.
Would Katia's mother be next? The quick burst of fear came fast and hard at the thought.
Why didn't Elena Kerensky see that no one was safe in Nazi Germany, not even Russian royalty? Why didn't she understand that the very people who had killed Katia's beloved father—for no reason other than his distant relation to the Romanovs—were no different than the Nazis? Hitler could easily broaden his definition of a Jew to include anyone with only one Jewish grandparent, rather than the current definition of two.
At that thought, fear played in Katia's head, taunting her and convicting her. She would not allow her mother to die for so small a reason.
Katia was no longer a helpless eight-year-old witnessing the death of her loving father and loss of her beloved homeland. She was no longer an innocent who believed prayer was the answer, that God cared enough to stop the violence. As an adult she put her trust only in herself, not in a hard-hearted God who allowed courageous men like Vladimir Kerensky to die at the hands of their enemies.
At least now, as a British informant, she had the means to protect one of her parents.
A sense of control surged. The power of it danced a chill up her spine, giving her a foundation of order beneath the chaos.
The actor playing the Prince of Verona said his final line, dragging Katia back to her immediate job for the evening. "For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo."
The applause broke out like a rumbling stroke of thunder. With a convicted heart, Katia rose to take her bows.
She was ready to begin her next mission, ready to fight the Nazis, ready to stop the tyranny before it swallowed up her mother and others like her.
* * *
Avoiding the crush of people milling around backstage, Lieutenant Jack Anderson leaned a shoulder against the wall behind him and watched Katarina Kerensky in action. She accepted the congratulations from her fellow cast members and adoring fans with understated grace.
In stark contrast, the overbright laughter and din of heavily accented voices sounded like a gaggle of geese, rather than a celebration of a remarkable woman's acting triumph.
Out of instinct and years of training, Jack surveyed his surroundings. He eyed the tangle of ropes and pulleys on his right, the large circuit box on his left. Extra props were set in every available spot. Dusty costumes lay strewn over a large paint-chipped box. There seemed to be no order, no organization. A full hour in this world and he knew the chaos would drive him mad.
The putrid odor of sawdust, human sweat and unwashed costumes took away the mystique of the fantasy world he'd watched come alive less than an hour before. From his seat in the twelfth row, the actors had glittered under the lights. Here they looked haggard, wilted.
Except for one.
The woman he'd come to meet was a surprise. And he was only half-sorry for it. Even as the thought rolled around in his mind he realized he should have had some instinct, some internal warning, that this mission wasn't going to be as tidy as the new chief of MI6 had claimed. Not with a woman like Katarina Kerensky involved.
Clearly, the British had a hidden agenda. But were they using this mission to ferret out individual loyalties, or was there a darker motive? Had the spymasters grown to distrust Jack and set a trap for him? Or was Kerensky their target? Given Jack's direct relationship with Churchill, the latter was far more likely.
Jack now admitted, if only to himself, that he hadn't prepared enough for his first glimpse of the famous actress. His sudden inability to catch an easy breath was like having a destroyer deposited on his ch...