A thrilling novel of love, loyalty, and espionage, based on the incredible true story of Elizabeth Bentley, a Cold War double agent spying for the Russians and the United States, from USA Today bestselling author Stephanie Marie Thornton.
1963: Reeling from the death of her mother and President Kennedy’s assassination, Catherine Gray shows up on Elizabeth Bentley’s doorstep demanding answers to the shocking mystery she just uncovered about her family. What she doesn’t expect is for Bentley to ensnare her in her own story of becoming a controversial World War II spy and Cold War informer…
Recruited by the American Communist Party to spy on fascists at the outbreak of World War II, a young Bentley—code name Clever Girl—finds she has an unexpected gift for espionage. But after falling desperately in love with her handler, Elizabeth makes another surprise discovery when she learns he is actually a Russian spy. Together, they will build the largest Soviet spy network in America and Elizabeth will become its uncrowned Red Spy Queen. However, once the war ends and the U.S. and U.S.S.R. become embroiled in the Cold War, it is Elizabeth who will dangerously clash with the NKVD, the brutal Soviet espionage agency.
As Catherine listens to Elizabeth's harrowing tale, she discovers that the women's lives are linked in shocking ways. Faced with the idea that her entire existence is based on a lie, Catherine realizes that only Elizabeth Bentley can tell her what the truth really is.
Release date: September 14, 2021
Print pages: 416
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A Most Clever Girl
Stephanie Marie Thornton
NOVEMBER 23, 1963
The gun in Catherine’s Pucci handbag bumped reassuringly against her hip as she double-checked the address of the Connecticut apartment building.
The scrawled numbers refused to snap into focus until she blinked a few times; her eyes were still raw from yesterday’s news of President Kennedy’s assassination, from seeing photos of a tearstained Jackie Kennedy—whom Catherine sometimes glimpsed while giving tours of the White House—wearing that blood-spattered pink suit while Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office aboard Air Force One.
Yesterday had been the final straw.
One week ago, Catherine’s entire world had fallen apart. One day ago, the country.
But today, armed with a crumpled letter and the Smith & Wesson revolver her father had carried when he was shot down at the Battle of Saipan, Catherine was going to right some very old wrongs.
Two bullets, she thought to herself. One for her and one for me.
The building hunched in front of her was nondescript, shabby, and run-down; even the wood of the stairs underfoot felt rotten. Catherine—Cat to everyone outside of her mother, who had called her Cathy—had probably watched too much James Bond in Dr. No, but she’d expected a former spy to have a more impressive abode than this two-story mud-brown building with sagging gutters and peeling paint.
Probably fallen on hard times, she thought to herself as she knocked on the door of number 201, wishing she could break it down instead. She’s damned lucky she’s not in jail.
Cat waited, then gave a second sharp rap with the heel of her fist. She was about to start peering inside windows when a squat woman with snuff-brown hair cracked the door wide enough to reveal a rusted chain lock. She looked more run-down than the building itself, save for her painted red lips. Not just any red—vicious, violent, poisonous red.
“Hello, my name is Catherine Gray.” Cat smoothed the flip of her Jackie-esque bob, every rebellious blond strand lacquered into place with half a can of Aqua Net. Given the way the blood was pounding in her ears, she was impressed that her hands didn’t shake. “I’m here to see Elizabeth Bentley.”
The door slammed in her face.
Cat raised her fist again, this time ready to break the door down, but stopped at the unexpected rattle of chain. The door reopened, wider this time. The dumpy woman’s gaze swept the empty street, making Catherine wonder what—or who—she was looking for.
“I’m Elizabeth Bentley.” Her voice came out slightly nasal with that East Coast finishing school polish Catherine had grown accustomed to hearing after three and a half years at Trinity Washington University. Elizabeth Bentley’s face was the sort no one would notice in a crowd. The perfect face for a spy. The image was only marred by a small mole below her left eye and a scar that streaked beneath her lower lip.
This was the face of the woman who had destroyed Cat’s life.
It’s now or never . . .
In one swift movement, Cat aimed the Smith & Wesson revolver straight between Elizabeth’s eyes. The gun made a satisfying click as she cocked the trigger. “You ruined my life, you Communist bitch. And now you’re going to pay for it.”
She’d thought she’d be able to just pull the trigger, to end all this and escape the lethal undertow of pain. But when the moment came . . .
Can I really end someone else’s life? Am I capable of that?
To Elizabeth’s credit, she merely blinked. Was she really so accustomed to staring down the muzzle of a gun? “Well, Catherine Gray, unfortunately, I ruined a lot of people’s lives. Why don’t you come in and we can discuss like civilized people what I did that was so heinous that you want to kill me?”
Whatever Cat had been expecting while she rehearsed this scene in her head on the train ride up from Washington, DC, a civilized chat was decidedly not it.
Except Elizabeth was already turning around, the open door an invitation to follow her.
Cat worried that perhaps Elizabeth was going for her own weapon, but the former spy merely looked back at her. “Are you coming? Or are you really going to shoot me?”
Cat could pull the trigger—at such close quarters she could hardly miss, despite the sudden tremor in her hands—and exact a quick and easy revenge. Except it was difficult to think with her heart beating in her ears and the foundations of her plan crumbling beneath her very feet. It might be easier to follow Elizabeth Bentley inside. Maybe inform this criminal exactly why she was here, and see if Elizabeth Bentley would confess to crimes that had led a twenty-one-year-old college student to her doorstep with murder on her mind?
Then Cat could shoot her. And be done with all of this. Right?
Gun in hand, Cat stepped over the threshold.
She’d half expected encoding machines or telegraphs inside, found instead merely a plain apartment decorated in every shade of brown. A clock ticked somewhere, and the lone decoration on any of the oak-paneled walls was a tacky wooden crucifix with a resin Christ nailed to the cross. A stack of leather-bound books tottered on a battered end table, and a long-haired ginger cat stretched out lazily on a mushroom-brown sofa as if he owned the place. The thing opened one eye, then howled piteously before rolling onto his back. “Hush, George Washington,” Elizabeth chided him. “Catherine here has a gun, and you don’t want to upset her with your caterwauling.” She turned to Cat, arms open at her sides as if giving her one final opportunity to take the easy way out. Talk or shoot?
When Cat didn’t move, Elizabeth gave a tiny nod. “It’s almost one o’clock, but I’ll put on a fresh pot of Folgers. Or I have gin, if that’s your preference. Pick your poison, as it were.”
“No coffee, no gin. I don’t want anything from you.” Certainly not a glass laced with poison, which Cat wouldn’t have put past this woman who once took orders from the NKVD. “Except a confession.”
Elizabeth sighed, gestured toward the Formica table inside the thimble-sized kitchen. “Do you mind if we sit? Standing is hell on my knees these days.”
The last thing Cat wanted to do was to sit across from this woman in some cozy tête-à-tête, but she heard her dead mother’s voice inside her head. Manners, Cathy. And respect your elders.
Except she didn’t owe Elizabeth Bentley one iota of respect. She gestured with the gun toward the kitchen. “Let’s get this over with.”
And then I’ll shoot you.
Elizabeth settled into a floral vinyl-upholstered chair—brown, of course—and tugged on the garish suntan-hued pantyhose she wore under her brown rayon dress that was better suited to World War II fabric rations. The woman was plain as mud, not even a stitch of jewelry save for a golden ring studded with a ruby on her left hand. Quite the juxtaposition to Cat, who wore a black button-up jumper dress on the cutting edge of fashion—the only black dress in her closet—out of mourning for President Kennedy, her one splash of color a scarlet ascot at her throat.
Elizabeth sat, folded her hands before her. “Why don’t we start with you telling me exactly what I did to ruin your life.”
Cat, refusing to sit, remained standing at the kitchen door. She didn’t say a word, merely retrieved from her pocket her mother’s final letter, which she’d discovered two days ago while sorting through Joan Gray’s belongings in a neighbor’s garage, their house having been sold—unbeknownst to Cat until that horrible week—to pay an ever-increasing mountain of bills. That innocuous piece of flowered stationery had sent a fresh shock wave through Cat’s previously calm life. Joan Gray had fought a good fight, but she’d done it alone. And in the end, she’d lost.
And now, Cat was alone.
Cat tossed the bombshell letter on the table. “Read it.”
Elizabeth Bentley frowned when she had to reach across the table for the letter, apparently more perturbed by the breach of etiquette than the gun still pointed at her. She perched a set of unfashionable reading glasses on her nose, and her eyes flicked back and forth over the paper—it seemed to Cat that she read the entire thing at least three times before she finally folded the glasses back up.
“My condolences,” she said. “I can see why you sought me out.”
“My entire life has been a lie.” Rage seethed at the edges of Cat’s words, protecting her from the dark maelstrom of grief that churned beneath. “Because of you.”
“And that’s why you’ve come to kill me.”
“Your life for the one you stole from me.”
“That seems fair.” Elizabeth rubbed the scar on her chin. “Although I’m not sure a jury would necessarily agree. Life in prison is a long sentence for someone your age.”
Cat tapped the chamber of the revolver. “Two bullets,” she said. “Yours. And mine.”
A deep V formed between Elizabeth’s brows. “Your solution does seem terribly permanent. Also, as a patriotic American, I’d like to remind you about my right to a fair and speedy trial.”
“Patriotic?” If Cat had been closer to Elizabeth she would have laughed in her face. As it was, she fisted her hands and leaned over the table. “You were a goddamned Russian spy, Elizabeth, the furthest from a patriot as they come. All I want is to hear you admit your guilt so I can kill you.”
Elizabeth narrowed her eyes until Cat couldn’t help the shiver that rippled up her spine. “Here’s my counter to your proposal.” She set aside her reading glasses and pushed the letter back toward Cat. “You hear my side of the story—the real story, from start to finish—and then you can decide my fate, and your own. Judge, jury, and executioner, if you will. For both of us.”
Cat hesitated long enough that Elizabeth shrugged. “I’ve found that the best way to keep from drowning in grief is to find a distraction.” She retrieved a golden cigarette lighter from her skirt pocket. Cat waited for her to light up—the apartment smelled of stale smoke, and there was already an overflowing ashtray on the table—but instead Elizabeth only flicked the lighter a few times, causing sparks but no flame. Click click click. “Consider my story a distraction.”
“A distraction from the truth, you mean? I read enough old articles trying to track you down to know that you lied in your testimony to the Senate. And to the press. And God knows where else.”
“Haven’t you ever heard of shades of truth? That’s the problem with being an accomplished liar—no one believes you even when you are telling the truth.” Elizabeth sighed, pointed toward the sink, silently requesting permission to move. At Cat’s nod, she shuffled to a drawer, hands up in that universal gesture of don’t shoot. “Spy stories are rarely encumbered with something as mundane as the truth, but just in case you feel tempted to doubt me,” she said—then handed a slim pile of old envelopes from within to Cat, all bound with a frayed piece of twine—“here’s proof that although I am a Communist and I was a spy for Russia, there’s far more to my story than just that. Namely that I’m a patriot blessed with the gift of making spectacularly shitty decisions.”
Cat fingered open the first envelope to find a letter typed on official FBI letterhead and marked in capital letters: PERSONAL.
Dear Miss Bentley,
Your cooperation with this Bureau is a matter of public record and a commendable service to your country. I am happy to provide the same statement that I made before Congress in 1953: All information furnished by Miss Bentley, which was susceptible to check, has been proven to be correct. She has been subjected to the most searching of cross-examination, her testimony has been evaluated by juries and reviewed by courts and has been found to be accurate.
J. Edgar Hoover
There were several more, all from the director of the FBI. The golden cigarette lighter clicked again. Click click click.
Elizabeth resumed her place at the table, tilted her chin in defiance at Cat still standing sentry across the room. “I suppose it’s time someone heard the truth, even if that someone also happens to be threatening to kill me. So, I’ll tell you everything—about how I fell in with the Communist Party and became their spy, about my involvement with your mother and all my lies, everything. It won’t be a short story, but hell, I’ll even tell you about the three people who died because of me.”
“You killed three people?” Dear Lord. Cat shook her mother’s letter. “And how many more lives did you ruin? Aside from my mother’s?”
Elizabeth held up her hands. “All I ask is that you listen. Then you can decide if I’m worth going to prison for. I guarantee, I’m certainly not worth dying for.”
The matador-red flag of Cat’s rage was still there, but it no longer consumed everything, merely fluttered at the edges of her vision, biding its time . . .
Cat gestured with the revolver before crossing her arms. “It’s one o’clock now. I’ll give you an hour before I decide whether to kill you.”
Because honestly, I’m not even sure whether I can go through with it, no matter how much I might want to.
Elizabeth snorted, an indelicate sound. This time she lit a Lucky Strike with her golden lighter—it seemed embossed with some sort of design—and drew a deep drag before releasing the smoke toward the ceiling. “I’m fifty-five years old, Catherine, and I was a spy, for God’s sake. It’s going to take longer than one hour to recite my entire life’s story.”
“One hour and not a minute more—set the kitchen timer. I’d start talking if I was you, Scheherazade.”
And so, with the timer obstinately ticking down the seconds of her life, Elizabeth had no choice but to begin her tale . . .
I stood before the open casket, freshly orphaned.
(Before we go any further, Catherine, I ask you to hold on to this image in your mind. People always wonder how I could become a spy, how I could trick people into believing one thing when the exact opposite was the truth. Easily, I always respond. Because humans see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear. Right now, there’s a good chance you are imagining a child version of me, wearing ruffled socks with polished patent leather shoes, maybe even a cowlick unsuccessfully smoothed by the licked palm of some maiden aunt, and perhaps a pinafore over a quaint gingham dress. Or perhaps you’re envisioning me as copy of yourself at your mother’s funeral. Now do this properly and picture the real me in this scene. Not some child orphan but a twenty-five-year-old version wearing a black silk purgatorial getup that’s too tight across my ample hips, a wilting bouquet of spring pansies clutched tight in my fist. Let this be my first lesson to you: words matter. Use them carefully, like bullets.)
My silent, stoic father had died two days earlier of a heart attack, my art-loving teacher of a mother gone four years prior following a bout of peritonitis and late-stage intestinal cancer. I stared down at my father’s closed eyes, his jug ears and long Protestant face, found myself fixated by the map of broken blood vessels around his nose and the way the undertaker had combed his hair all wrong.
The head of the funeral home cleared his throat: a standard social cue that my time was up, compounded by the man’s gaze flicking to the grandfather clock on the cold fireplace mantel.
“Good-bye, sir.” I forced myself to squeeze my father’s stiff fingers, to remember this last physical connection. Given our constant cross-country moves as he’d chased one job after the other, without him there was no one left, no family or even friends.
I glanced around at the empty parlor, wondered if my funeral one day would also be a service for one.
The coffin lid closed, and that was the end of it.
It was 1933, the height of the Great Depression, and I had no job or connections. Unlike most women my age, I was unmarried, no well-positioned man to lean upon like all the other Vassar graduates from the class of 1930, nothing. Just me.
“I’ll make you proud,” I promised my father. “Both you and Mother.”
I would tell many lies in this lifetime. I won’t say that was the first or even that it was a lie, for back then I still thought I was capable of good.
Certainly, all the best villains do.
Use your mind, do something good and important with your life, Elizabeth. Help people and make your time here count.
That had been my mother’s last bit of wisdom imparted from her deathbed, the same promise my father had made me repeat to honor her even as he lay dying. From my mother I’d inherited an appreciation of art and literature; we’d pored over library books on every art style going back to the Renaissance, and my weekend memories were filled with museum excursions. With my master’s from Columbia in fourteenth-century Florentine poetry, I’d thought that perhaps I might follow in her footsteps and become a teacher. Except . . .
“It’s difficult to use my mind and do good when I’m constantly getting my backside pinched,” I muttered from my desk at the windowless insurance company where I’d finally landed a low-level temp job. I had moved to New York City following my father’s death and had barely survived the past two years by living off the small settlement my father left me; now I spent my days mindlessly pecking away at a Royal typewriter with an Ekey that stuck. Inevitably, it would be the most commonly used letter in the English language that I’d have to write in each time.
“What was that, Miss Bentley?” The head underwriter, a middle-aged man with eyes that bulged like a dead trout, leaned over me in his plaid sports coat and licked his fleshy lips. “Have you reconsidered my offer for lunch yet?”
One glance at his cheaply made trousers and I saw that his eyes weren’t the only thing bulging. His offer for lunch had been to share the ham sandwich his wife had made him. This, after his hand had somehow found its way to my breast and given it a painful squeeze.
Darkness pressed on my eyelids. I tried in vain to block out the way his roving eyes made me feel like something lower than the ugly things found under a rock. “I’m eating at my desk today.”
I knew I should be thankful for any sort of work, given that America was still in the throes of the Great Depression. The last of my savings from my father had finally dried up after nearly two years of ill-paying jobs including temporary stints as a Macy’s telephone operator, temp work at Cuemagazine, and typing manuscripts. Still, it was difficult to be truly grateful when it felt like the only job I could look forward to over the next twenty years involved writing mindless shorthand, taking someone else’s dictation, and dodging my male boss’s wandering hands.
(Remember, Catherine, this was a woman’s lot in the ’30s. And we were supposed to be grateful for the moldy crumbs tossed to us.)
After yet another miserable day, I anticipated another evening spent hunched over a can of cold beans—heating up the hot plate required too much effort—in my echoing boardinghouse room that smelled of cabbage and despair. The only sign of life there was my African violet barely clinging to its leaves. I’d named the violet Coriolanus after Shakespeare’s oft-forgotten tragedy that I’d recently checked out from the library. Along with a book on how to care for violets.
“ ‘Thus I turn my back. There is a world elsewhere.’ ” I sometimes quoted the Bard when I pruned back Coriolanus’s dead leaves and blossoms. “Except it feels like the world has turned its back on me.”
Unfortunately, Coriolanus wasn’t much of a conversationalist.
Lately, I found myself so lonely that I wondered whether any of this was worth it. No one would miss me if I died suddenly, probably wouldn’t even notice until the smell from my room got too bad.
I was so very weary of being invisible.
Except, as I approached my boardinghouse that evening after work, I had the distinct impression that I was being watched. I stopped more than once to glance around—only to find that no one paid me any attention—and the back of my neck still prickled by the time I let myself in and trudged up the three flights of narrow stairs to my floor.
There was a surprise waiting on my doorstep: an anonymous basket.
I glanced around, but seeing no one and being unable to get into my room without passing the thing, I hesitantly nudged its lid with the toe of my shoe.
Half expecting a tongue-flicking python, I yelped in happy surprise as the lid flipped open and the most adorable furry face I’d ever seen popped above the rim.
I scooped the scraggly little terrier into my arms and noticed the note pinned to the side of the basket, written in a feminine hand.
Our dog had puppies a few weeks ago, and it looked like you could use a friend. Please don’t say no—I have a whole litter to give away!
Your neighbor down the hall
Perhaps the world hadn’t turned its back on me. I didn’t socialize with anyone in the boardinghouse, and I’d never considered taking care of any living thing more demanding than Coriolanus, but one look at the squirming ball of fur in my arms had me reconsidering.
“Well, I don’t suppose you can stay out here, now can you?” I asked the brown-and-white pup, straightening his floppy ear that had gotten flipped the wrong way. I was rewarded with sloppy kisses on my chin and couldn’t help laughing as I shut the door behind us.
Me, laughing? Now that was a sound I hadn’t heard in a long time.
I expected the puppy to find some cozy spot on the rug to settle down or maybe to explore his new surroundings, but instead, he followed me like a furry shadow, tripping over his own feet several times.
“Are you hungry? What a silly question. Of course you’re hungry.” I rubbed behind his floppy ears with one hand while I cut up some precious leftover Polish sausage from the icebox and let him nibble it from between my fingers.
Enamored, once the sun started to set, I popped outside to let him explore the pavement from the safety of a lead I fashioned from the tie of my mother’s old housecoat, then sat on the cold stone stairs of my building and pulled out my lavender dime-store journal with the intent of taking down a few more entries. I was fluent in French and Italian, but as the awkward, introverted child of a traveling businessman who never stayed more than a few months in one place, I’d never had a steady group of friends. Most of my life I’d viewed people’s behavior as if through a kaleidoscope, broken and indecipherable. So, I’d started this journal, had learned to untangle the unruly syntax of gestures and facial expressions by filling its pages with sketches of people and notes on their behaviors. Until finally I’d started to decrypt the nuances of their actions: the surprised lift of an eyebrow, the uncomfortable tug of an earlobe, the nervous drumming of fingers. Watching people had begun so I might learn to emulate them; now it had become a game to predict their stories based on everything they didn’t say.
(Body language screams across a room, Catherine, as does tone of voice. It’s facial expressions that can be trickiest, as humans are masters of deception. Or at least they like to think they are.)
“You there.” I startled and glanced behind me to see a familiar woman striding out of my building. She might have been a pocket Aphrodite in the manner of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, barely reaching five feet despite the pale halo of blond hair piled high on her head. “You’re Elizabeth, right?” One hand held a freshly rolled cigarette, but Aphrodite thrust out her free hand at me in a way that belied the softness of her features. Her friendly blue eyes flicked over me, assessing. “I’m Lee Fuhr, your neighbor from down the hall. Two doors down, actually.” When she grabbed and pumped my hand, I flinched—an ingrained habit, considering I came from good Puritan stock that didn’t believe in hugs and physical touch. Or smiling, really. But she dropped my hand just as quickly, struck a match, lit the cigarette, and inhaled a long drag. “Cute little mongrel you have there.”
“Someone left him as a gift on my doorstep today,” I said. “Any idea as to who the culprit might be?”
I’d have known the answer from the way her gaze slid away from mine, even if the puppy hadn’t yipped excitedly and reached for her to pick him up. Guilty.
“Thank you,” I said before she could demur. I hesitated whether to tell her how much it meant that she’d thought of me. Maybe she’d already guessed. “I’ve never had a pet.”
She smiled, probably realizing she was off the hook. “Don’t mention it. Especially not to the landlady—she let me keep my daughter’s dog when we moved in, but old Mrs. O’Sullivan would shit kittens if she knew we were harboring a clandestine litter of puppies. You’re doing me a favor, really.” Another drag on the cigarette as the sun finished setting. I chose to ignore her use of profanity. “What’s his name?”
I hadn’t thought of a name yet, although I supposed that was the natural progression of steps. “I don’t know. Something tough—he is awfully small.”
“The runt of the litter, but scrappy for his size.” Lee cocked her head and frowned. “You’ll need a new lead if you want him to look tough. Are those pink butterflies?”
“It’s from a housecoat. I didn’t have any rope.”
She chuckled. “What about Vlad? After the Impaler, of course. No one would dare question him about wearing pink butterflies.”
I laughed—the second time in one day—and watched Vlad introduce himself to a random passerby with a goofy doglike smile that had his tongue lolling out one side of his jaw while he rolled on his back with paws in the air.
“Vlad it is.” I returned my journal to my purse and juggled Vlad’s makeshift lead, feeling positively dowdy next to Lee. “Nice to meet you. Although I hope you don’t always introduce yourself to strangers with gifts of puppies.”
“Only sometimes,” Lee laughed. “Listen, it’s Friday night and I’m heading out for a bit. Care to join me?”
I started to make an excuse, but Lee’s perfectly dimpled grin stopped me. Of course she had dimples. “I know you don’t know me from Judith or Delilah. However, it can’t be all that riveting spending every weekend alone in your room.” I must not have hidden my expression very well, for Lee only laughed. ...
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