The Witch Who Came In From the Cold. Episode One: A Long, Cold Winter Pt. 3
by Max Gladstone and Lindsay Smith
The Cold War rages in the back rooms and dark alleys of 1970s Prague and crackling beneath the surface of it all is a vein of magic, raw and waiting to be tapped. Covert agents from the CIA and KGB are fighting two wars: one between the United States and the Soviet Union, and another between ancient magical societies, the Consortium of Ice and the Acolytes of Flame.
This story, team-written by a crew of amazing authors is available for purchase on www.serialbox.com and our app. The first episode is serialized for free, here, as a treat to our Medium readers.
CIA Prague Station was born out of an architect’s mistake.
The embassy building that housed the station was a sharp Georgian beauty curled around a tree-strewn courtyard, and its large third-floor chambers might, in a distant aristocratic past, have been drawing rooms, or libraries, or studies — not that Gabe knew the difference between the three.
Those rooms, the few times Gabe had been inside them, demonstrated that the architect knew how to produce a decent space. Light filled the chambers from their plush carpeted floors to their high ceilings, and pale blue plaster walls created a flawless illusion of openness. Which, of course, rendered them utterly unsuited for intelligence work.
But between and behind those chambers — now repurposed as filing rooms or meeting halls or public offices — tangled a warren of coffin-sized rooms where two grown men would have to exhale to pass abreast, improbable cul-de-sacs, doors built for hunchbacks, S-curve crawl spaces with ceilings that belonged on a submarine, opening onto oddly-cornered cubbyholes twice as tall as any room in the rest of the house. All windowless, of course, even the one room large enough to stash four officers’ desks side by side. They’d been servants’ quarters once, or storage, meant for heavy use by people the building’s proper residents preferred to ignore.
Which, come to think, remained an apt description.
They’d carved a window for Frank’s office during renovations, a smoked-glass slit broader on the inside, like an arrow loop. That had been their one concession to design or comfort, a status symbol and a generous allowance for the Chief of Station. When Gabe first arrived in Prague, he had imagined they made the window narrow for security reasons, but today he thought there might have been a different sort of foresight involved. Granted, he’d put on weight since his college days, but even in football trim he wouldn’t have been able to throw himself out of that gap.
Franklin Drummond had killed seven men with a shovel in a foxhole in Korea. Gabe knew this, as did everyone in Prague Station, even though Frank never told the story and no one else did either. Secrets of many kinds moved around and through Prague Station, and some you learned just by breathing in.
Today, that story Gabe had never heard was impossible to forget.
“Sit,” Frank said when the door closed. “And take me through it one more time.”
“I’d rather stand, sir, if it’s all the same to you.”
“It is not all the same,” Frank said, his voice tightening and tensing as he circled the desk. “It is not all the same because one of us has a leg missing, and that one of us just happens to be your commanding officer, who is confused, and frustrated, and angry at what looks to be a first-degree failure of basic intel work last night. So sit down, Pritchard, and walk me through this mess again.”
Gabe sat. Frank sat.
“I screwed up,” Gabe said.
Frank lifted his clipboard with a typed report. “Officer Toms praises your work on the hand-off. The potential asset enjoyed the game, won big, for which I’m sure Accounting will thank you, and then the pair of you skipped off to a nice smoky bar for the final pitch.” He turned the page. “At which point, Toms continues, the, let’s just say ‘high-value,’ target, whom we have spent, and you have spent, six months and significant departmental resources developing, emerged from the bar ‘spooked’ and ‘shaking,’ which are not, in my professional opinion, words I would use to describe a successfully recruited asset. Would you agree?”
“Sir, I — ”
“Would you agree, Pritchard?”
“Yes, sir, I would agree. Those are not words I would use to describe a successfully recruited asset. Nor would I describe what I did last night as successfully recruiting Drahomir Milovic.”
“What would you describe it as?”
“I screwed up, sir. It’s in the report.”
Frank turned the page. “The report indicates that you suffered, and I quote, an ‘intense headache’ during the pitch. That you took suddenly ill, and asked the asset to leave rather than placing yourself in a situation where the two of you might appear on hospital records together.”
“That’s the shape of it, yes, sir.”
“You’re looking well today, Pritchard.”
“It was a twenty-four hour bug, sir. I thought I could keep it together for the op.”
“You went into a delicate recruitment op, which we’ve been planning and prepping for months, sick.”
“I was feeling off yesterday morning. I didn’t want to cancel at the last minute. It could have made us look bad.”
Frank threw the clipboard on the desk, folded his hands, and leaned across toward Gabe. “Friends cancel on friends all the time, because they’re sick. We could have changed the schedule. This week, next week, makes no difference. But you got to the pitch, and you blew it. Best case scenario, Milovic’s just worried about you. Worst case, which is likely, he knows you were trying to set him up for something, and he’s worried about us.”
“With respect, sir, I know this is bad. I’ll make it right.”
“Over a few months, during which we could have used you on other targets.”
“I know,” Gabe said. “I’m sorry. I’ve had a lot on my plate recently — ”
“A lot on your plate.” Frank’s eyebrows rose, as if he’d never heard those words in that precise combination before. “A lot on your plate. Boy, you’ve been dropping more balls than a drunk juggler. My girls have a Labrador, you know, those big dogs with the floppy ears?”
“I’m familiar with the breed, sir.”
“Now, I’ve known smart dogs in my time, and this is not one of those. When I throw a stick, she’ll run in the opposite damn direction. But my girls love their dumb dog, and because I love them, I love her too. I don’t mind that the dog can’t do what the damn thing’s bred for, because I don’t need it to. But I don’t have room for two pets in my life. Whatever unscrewed your head at Cairo Station, you’d best get it screwed back fast. I took you on because Killarney said you needed a change of venue, that you were a good officer, and I’ve seen some shades of that. But you better show me more than shades soon. There are boys dying for the chance to prove themselves here. We’re on the front lines of the Cold War. We are in the no-man’s-land.” His eyes met Gabe’s. “And the no-man’s-land is no place for someone whose head is not in the game.”
“I understand, sir.” Gabe’s heart beat fast, but his voice, at least, he kept level. “I’ll get it under control. I’ll do whatever it takes to land the asset.”
“Damn right you will. One more screwup, and there’s no way in hell I’m letting you touch ANCHISES next month.”
“Leave it to me, Chief.”
Frank pulled the report from the clipboard’s jaws, opened a desk drawer, and dropped the papers in a file. “Show me what you can do, Pritchard. Get this done.” Without looking, he slammed the drawer shut.
Tanya rushed through the Soviet Embassy’s hallways, sleep-crusted eyes squinted against the harsh morning sunlight. The worst sort of January day — inexcusably cold and unforgivably bright. Last night’s encounter with the Host and the construct still rattled around her thoughts. It had been a perfect pitch. She’d laid out precisely why the Flame posed a danger, and why the girl needed the Ice to keep her safe. But it had been too much to swallow, Tanya feared. The girl needed time to regain her footing.
And then there’d been all the paperwork for the Ice afterward, prepping the report, picking through the construct’s pieces for clues . . . And, of course, strategizing how they’d explain to their superiors that they hadn’t persuaded the Host (Andula, her name is Andula) to turn herself over to Ice protection.
But the girl would come in from the cold, Tanya told herself. They always did, once they saw just how determined the Flame was. Just how cruel their methods.
None of it mattered, though, the moment she walked through these corridors. Here, she was the KaGeBeznik Andula had accused her of being; when she was here, there was no room in her mind for anything else to matter. Her grandfather had pulled countless puppet strings to land her this prestigious assignment in Prague, the sort of post every ambitious officer’s school graduate would happily claw her eyes out for, and she couldn’t show one ounce of weakness.
We need you in Prague, he’d said. It’s vital to our success.
She’d just laughed. For the Ice? Or for the Party?
He hadn’t answered her for a long time; the tightness around his eyes had begun to frighten her. He’d always been that rarest of breeds — the unserious Soviet. The carefree true believer. Both, if you can, he’d said, finally. But in this, you must put the Ice first.
She hadn’t believed him then. Still didn’t want to now.
Tanya shoved open the door to the concrete rezidentura vault, buried like a tainted piece of evidence in the embassy’s basement.
Heads snapped up at her entrance, eighteen minutes late — including, she noticed with a scowl, Nadia’s. Hadn’t Nadia said something about heading to the bar, even after they’d finished up well past one? Tanya ducked her head and made her way down the swaying, clanking metal staircase, feeling the heat of every single one of her colleagues’ stares.
No encrypted cable messages from Moscow awaited her — no updates on her grandfather, no word from KGB headquarters, or from anyone else. She spun the dial to unlock her file safe and started to dig through the folders inside, but already knew what they’d all contain. A couple of surveillance shots of suspected CIA and MI6 officers, none particularly damning. Some of the people she was developing for recruitment — mostly university students who might someday, eventually, inform on their capitalist-leaning peers; a few handsy businessmen; and the dossiers on a couple of maids who might, if their third cousins were to be believed, might clean the American ambassador’s home . . .
They were Nadia’s potential agents, really; as her supervising officer, Tanya had encouraged her to pursue contacts at the university for some easy recruitments to get her initial numbers up. Their encounter with the Host the night before played through Tanya’s mind again. A university student herself. Andula Zlata. Tanya scribbled the name into a new information request form. She’d check KGB records first — then, if she couldn’t find anything there, she’d run it by the Czech secret police service, the StB. Andula had agreed to meet with them in two days’ time, after she’d had enough time to mull over Tanya’s pitch, but if the Flame was already on her trail, it never hurt to be prepared —
“Morozova.” Rezidentura Chief Aleksander Komyetski loomed in his private office’s doorway. “A word, please.”
Tanya dropped the form on her desk and shuffled toward his office. Nadia met her eyes as Tanya passed her; Tanya gave her the faintest shake of her head.
Chief Komyetski — Sasha, as he insisted even the most junior officers call him, in the spirit of socialist equality — was already seated at his desk when Tanya entered. A brutally sheared bonsai tree occupied one third of his desk, while a variety of chessboards covered shelf space, a few side tables, and two chairs. Sasha acknowledged her with a nod, but didn’t motion to the sole unoccupied seat as he rolled his own chair toward one of the chessboards farther afield. He clenched a scrap of cable traffic in his fist; Tanya’s heart leapt at the sight of it. Word from Moscow? An update on her grandfather’s condition, perhaps.
Sasha squinted at the paper, rubbing his free hand against his jowls. After a moment’s consideration, he changed to squinting at the chessboard instead. “Ah!” His whole face glowed as he slid his knight into position, and struck out the unseen opponent’s bishop with a click.
Tanya’s shoulders drooped. Of course. One of his countless games of correspondence chess with his chums back at Lubyanka, and the rezidenturas across the globe. She shifted her weight and waited.
“Officer Morozova.” Sasha turned his wire-thin smile on her. “I thought it was time that we discussed . . . your goals in Prague Station. Specifically, that you are not meeting them.”
Tanya felt her throat harden like ice, holding back all the objections she wanted to make. “I — I recruited over a dozen agents in my two years in Madrid,” she finally managed. “One of them was a British Royal Air Force attaché. He gave us — gave us vital information on NATO discussions.”
“So you did.” Sasha wheeled past her, making his way toward another board.
“It’s not even been two years since the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to crush the rebellion,” Tanya said, panic raising her tone. “The people are deeply distrustful of us — we have few friends amongst the Czechs.”
“All issues my other officers face,” Sasha said with a wave of his hand.
Tanya clenched a fist at her side. “I graduated top of my class at the academy. Top marks at Moscow State’s graduate program.”
“Yes, yes. And we all know your family’s credentials, as well.” Sasha settled another chess piece into place. “But what are you doing for me here in Prague?”
Tanya’s teeth clicked together. “It . . .” She swallowed hard, trying to vanquish the desert in her mouth. “It takes some time, sir, to familiarize myself with the new environment. We face far more hostility from the Western services here than we did in Madrid. But I’m building — building relationships. I have several developmentals in progress.” She glanced down. “I understand that the CIA station chief is aggressively thwarting our pitches, and I don’t want to get overeager without taking the necessary precautions . . . but you are correct, Comrade. I will do better.”
The click of another piece falling. “Everyone knows what a Morozov is capable of accomplishing. I know you will live up to your name.” The smile that shoved at Sasha’s chubby cheeks sent a chill down Tanya’s spine. He wheeled back behind his desk and gestured to a board on the far corner. All the pieces were lined up in starting position. “Come, Morozova. Sit. Would you like to play?”
Tanya hesitated, fingers curling around the top of the empty chair. She was fairly sure she had one too many games running at the same time as it was.
Two sharp knocks rang on Sasha’s office door, then the door swung open. “Izvinitye, Comrade Komyetski, I was looking for — ah. For Comrade Morozova.” Nadia cracked a wide grin. “I have the information you requested on the university student you’re developing. You know. The one you think is ready to be persuaded . . . ?”
Tanya took her hand off the back of the chair she’d been about to sit in. The university students were Nadia’s to recruit. But the tension in her partner’s smile was growing by the second. “Oh! Oh, yes, of course. Thank you, Comrade.” She hurried toward the door. “Come, I’ll show you how to study a developmental’s dossier, if you like. A good opportunity to prepare you to manage your own cases.”
“That’d be most helpful. As long as Chief Komyetski is finished,” Nadia added, with a shy glance toward Sasha.
His lips rolled into a smirk. “Go on, my dear, we were only having a little chat.”
As soon as they were out of Sasha’s hearing range, Tanya rounded on Nadia. “Please, this is your developmental — I can’t just take it from you.”
“You need to boost your recruitment numbers to get Sasha off your back. Besides, you’re the boss — you have priority. Around here, anyway.” Nadia cracked her gum with a grin. “After we’re done with the dossiers, I think we should both spend some more time at the university library. Check up on our new friend.”
Tanya scooped up the information request she’d filled out earlier. Andula Zlata. “My thoughts precisely.” She reached into her pocket and closed her hand around the bit of crystal she’d scavenged from the construct. “And then I’d like to do some research of our own.”
Jordan picked up her phone on the seventh ring, and didn’t miss a beat when Gabe said, “Introduce me.”
Nor did she look up from the bar when he entered the Vodnář that night, snow melting on his overcoat. Smoke burned his eyes. He peeled off his gloves and folded them in his coat pocket as he descended into the dark.
In the corner, behind a pillar — the table to which he’d guided Drahomir last night. Gabe draped his coat over his arm.
A man sat in the booth, reading: blond and long and pretty, a fencer or a gymnast gone soft with age. He wore a tweed jacket and a silk tie, either of which Gabe would have bet cost more than his own present wardrobe in its entirety. When the Brit saw Gabe he closed the book — The Stars My Destination, Gabe had never heard of it, maybe poetry or something — and smiled with the furthest corners of his lips, not baring teeth. A spark in the man’s blue eyes suggested merriment or larceny. “Good evening, dear chap. Please.” He extended one hand palm up across the table.
Gabe sat. A drink appeared at his elbow. “Jordan says you’re the man to see.”
“Very right.” The Brit didn’t look much older than Gabe himself — a handful of years at most — but his voice suggested otherwise. A put-on, Gabe thought, but maybe not, considering. This was a world inside the one he imagined he knew, with secrets of its own. “I am certainly a man, and I’ve had scads of people eager to see me, from time to time.”
“I’m Gabe Pritchard.”
“Alestair Winthrop.” The man’s handshake felt firm, not strong, like he was made from math rather than from muscle. “The fourth. Cultural attaché of her Majesty’s government. And I understand you’re an analyst with the American Department of . . . Agriculture, was it?”
“Commerce,” Gabe said.
“Oh, Commerce, indeed.” Winthrop folded his hands on the table. “We do love our masks. Miss Rhemes did me the favor of arranging this meeting, but she left the details of your story imprecise, their relation up to your own discretion. I understand that your main interest tonight thrusts neither toward, shall we say, commerce, nor culture, mine or anyone else’s. Beyond that I’m afraid you must be forthright, if I’m to aid you in any way save offering the considerable pleasure of my after-dinner conversation.”
Gabe felt the cold glass in his hands, and pondered walking out. He remembered Frank. He remembered Cairo.
He stared into the light in Winthrop’s eyes.
“Something went wrong in my head in Egypt,” he said. “And Jordan thinks the Ice can help.”
“Well, now.” Winthrop unfolded his hands, laid them palm down on the table, and leaned in. “Perhaps we can, at that.”
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