Prague, Czechoslovak Socialist Republic
March 2, 1970
The CIA pilot readied his plane in the cold before dawn.
Whatever you’re imagining, he didn’t quite look like that. Higher-ups in his line of work frowned upon people who looked like anything in particular, and he conducted himself so as to minimize any form of notice, including frowns. He took no risks. He turned in early. He smoked, but never more than three a day. He did not drink outside his home. He last had a hangover in 1959. Whatever derring-do was, he daring didn’t.
The pilot walked slow circles and reviewed his checklist. No ice on the wings. Wheel well: free of detritus. No rivets loose. He reviewed two checklists—the one on his clipboard, and the one in his head. The checklist in his head featured a few select, secret, Langley-mandated items the one in his hand did not. For most people, this would defeat the purpose of a checklist. The pilot was not most people.
The fuel truck came. He exchanged nods and broad gestures with the crew; when they needed to speak, they used broken German. The pilot’s German was perfect, as was his Czech, but he did not want the crew to know he spoke either language well. He waved thank you to them. They waved back. Any description the flight crew later offered would be muddled by his gloves and hat and scarf and coat.
The sky above the airfield blued.
Prague winter morning cold crystallized the air. The pilot’s breath sparkled with ice. He stood before his plane’s nose, stared up at the featureless glass curve of the cockpit windshield, hands in his pockets. He rose onto his toes and settled back down again.
He relished waiting. He liked the pause, the tension like a coiled spring. Everyone the pilot knew thought about flight differently. For him, its magic consisted of suspension: the coyote magic of moving through air unfallen, so long as you kept to the plan and didn’t think too much. So long as you did what needed doing, when it needed doing.
The sun threatened the horizon. The pilot checked his watch. Not late. Not yet.
Gabe Pritchard ran a stop sign, skidded over a dusting of snow, and slammed the brakes, bringing the Moskvich to a sudden stop by the steps of a gray apartment building. Alestair Winthrop, smoking on the sidewalk and so swathed in slick fur and black wool against the cold that he looked like a pomaded werewolf, revolved toward Gabe with the disdain of a man roused far too early for far too little cause. “Gabriel. I was about to leave. Surely your emergency can wait until morning.”
“I need your help, Alestair.” Gabe climbed the four front steps in a jump, tried the door—locked, of course—took a knee, and pulled lockpicks from his inside jacket pocket. Hands shaking. That would be the heartbeat. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and tried not being furious, without much success. Not enough time.
“Apparently, if you’re willing to do that in full public view.” The Brit ran up the steps and spread his jacket wide like wings to shelter Gabe.
Gabe doubted the sail of Alestair’s coat would help them avoid attracting attention, though maybe well-dressed men flashed closed front doors in Prague on a regular basis. He’d run into weirder local customs in his travels. Distraction. That was the adrenaline, messing with him.
“What, pray tell, brought you to such a state?”
Gabe’s second attempt almost broke the pick. Adrenaline, again. No one on the street, no open windows. Maybe talking would help. “Dom’s cover’s blown.” Alestair said nothing—he was monumental and impassive, playing out the beat for more information. “The Flame had someone in the safe house before the Soviet raid. They know Dom’s fallback plan—they could jump him and snatch the target before they reach the plane.” So exposed, saying this stuff out loud. Hell. No time. Focus. Exhale. Tension, rotate, rake. The lock slipped, the knob turned, the door opened, and he ran inside, Alestair following.
“Your man won’t be home.” Running upstairs after Gabe didn’t seem to hurt Alestair’s composure any. His voice barely shook. “Not after what happened last night.” Not after the raid, he didn’t say. Not after an all-out KGB attack broke a CIA safe house that should have been impregnable, not to mention a secret. Not after a months-long plan to run a defector came to fuck-all because of what looked like the machinations of a cabal of—Christ—cultists. Because in spite of their precautions against the KGB, they hadn’t guarded against bedtime stories.
It was Gabe’s fault, again. His fault Dom was on the run. His fault Dom might already be dead, from magic or from a more prosaic bullet, and Maksim Sokolov, defector and elemental Host, in the hands of the Flame.
“You can help me find him.” Gabe turned a circle on the fourth floor, scratched wood floors sandy with snowmelt grit, walls long grayed from their former white. Dom’s apartment lay behind the stairwell, facing the street. Gabe ran to the door, which...