Beautiful Assassin


Colorado, 1996

Elizabeth had driven several miles past the dirt road before it occurred to her that it might have been the one the old woman had told her to take. After glancing once more at the directions, she decided finally to turn the rental car around and head back along the same parched stretch of eastern Colorado road. The August afternoon was scorching, the blacktop ahead undulating like a snake trying to shed its skin. Her eyes ached from the glare off the pavement, and even with the air conditioner on full blast, her blouse clung damply to her back. On either side of the road, the brown, desiccated plains stretched out to the harsh blue of the sky. The sheer relentlessness of the landscape called to mind a train ride she’d once made to Kiev for a story. She’d been traveling from Moscow, where she was the bureau chief for an American newspaper, and was on her way to interview one of the leaders of the Rukh nationalist movement. This was back in the eighties when the idea of an independent Ukraine was still a pipe dream. She remembered seeing out her compartment window the Russian steppes unfurling endlessly, their vastness giving her vertigo. Now, halfway around the world, she was, ironically, going to see another Ukrainian, one who’d declared her own independence a long time ago.

There was no mailbox or marker, but she took the chance and turned down the narrow dirt road. She drove over a cattle guard, then up a bumpy incline. The washboard road kicked up stones against the car’s undercarriage, the pinging sounding eerily as if someone were shooting at her. When the road leveled off, it appeared headed straight for a windbreak of cottonwoods off in the wavy distance. In the shelter of the trees stood a weather-beaten barn and several outbuildings, a windmill listing precariously, a small white farmhouse. That had to be her place, Elizabeth thought.

She wondered if the old woman would look anything like the person in the newspaper photos. Every picture Elizabeth had come across, as well as everything she’d read about Tat’yana Levchenko, only confirmed that she had been a striking-looking woman. “A real knockout,” one reporter had called her in that hard-boiled journalistic slang of the times. Dark hair done in those pin curls of the forties, short enough to tuck beneath the forage cap she sometimes posed in. The strong features, the high, Slavic cheekbones and slightly aquiline nose, the smooth, porcelain complexion. A full mouth that, for the cameras at least, was always made up with lipstick and smiling as buoyantly as a Girl Scout, an image that her uniform, with its cluster of impressive medals, only enhanced. Yet it was the eyes that drew the viewer: a lucid dark, wide and serious, exuding the innocent gaze of an ingenue having just arrived in the big city. But that image, of course, belied the facts, what she’d accomplished in the war (one newspaper article had dubbed her “the doe-eyed executioner”). Elizabeth sensed something else lurking beneath those innocent eyes. She’d seen that look before, the masklike expression in the faces of the Muscovites she passed in the streets, the old babushkas cautiously avoiding eye contact with strangers, the young trained to be wary, as if their very thoughts were being monitored by the government. Elizabeth felt that if she could get beneath the public face of Tat’yana Levchenko, she would get a glimpse of the real woman who lay beneath and the story she’d been guarding for more than half a century.

The American press back then