Czechoslovak Socialist Republic
February 17, 1970
It was a ramshackle little place, part stone and part timber, with moss growing between the shingles and bird-bone wind chimes swaying from the eaves. Fifty meters from the nearest road, the cottage hid within a stand of pines in an isolated valley forty kilometers outside of town. The roof had a pronounced sag, like a swaybacked horse. A lonely goat chewed cud inside a pen that looked unlikely to withstand the next strong breeze. The wind smelled of pine resin and goat shit.
Finding this place had taken all morning, half a tank of gas, and three stops for directions. Gabriel Pritchard couldn’t afford the time and he couldn’t afford to leave a trail of people who might remember a man with a strong American accent. But nor could he keep living with a disembodied spirit lodged in his soul like a couch stuck in a doorway.
So here he was. Hoping like hell he hadn’t been played for a fool.
He’d come on the advice of a KGB officer whom, quite frankly, he had no compelling reason to trust. Jesus, they didn’t even like each other. If he died out here, it might be days or weeks before the CIA found his body—if they ever did. Perhaps he’d die in an ambush today, or be captured. Or perhaps the end would come when the hitchhiker finally burst his skull like an overripe melon.
Fools rush in, he reminded himself. But he knocked anyway.
From within he heard quiet voices and the squeak of a chair. Slow footsteps on creaking floorboards.
A woman old enough to be Gabe’s grandmother opened the door. Behind her, bundles of dried flowers and herbs, dozens of them, hung from the rafters. A very large man, bald and meaty, ate black bread at the kitchen table. Too young for a husband or brother. Her son? Grandson?
Tanya had given Gabe an address, referring to a woman who might be able to help. He knew immediately what this place was and whom he’d come to meet.
He didn’t know the Czech term. But in Latin America they’d call her a curandera.
The old woman was a hedgewitch. A cut-wife.
This was the ragged fringe of the USSR, where local superstitions hadn’t been bulldozed by socialist realism. Here the cut-wife solved human problems beyond the purview of Marxism-Leninism. She lived on the outskirts of town because people feared her, maybe even reviled her at times, but they always stopped short of driving her away. Where else would they buy good-luck charms and love potions, have their fortunes divined or their most delicate problems solved with discretion?
For her part, she’d likely been expecting to find a girl on the doorstep. Somebody from one of the surrounding farms. Gabe could picture it now in his mind’s eye: a freckled milkmaid—he gave her Pippi Longstocking braids, because why not?—who’d naively spent some unchaperoned time in a hayloft with a charming boy and now found herself in just a little bit of trouble. Such was a cut-wife’s clientele.
Certainly she had not expected to find a man in his mid-thirties on the doorstep. And an American, at that.
They stared at each other for a long, awkward beat. To her credit, she didn’t slam the door. She looked him up and down, as if assessing a horse or cow for purchase. He wondered if she’d want to check his teeth, too. Then she narrowed her eyes and, just for a split second, the hitchhiker stirred.
Damn. She was good.
That’s when she made to slam the door. Gabe was faster. He caught the door with his toe. She yelped in protest. The large fellow set down his bread, tugged at the napkin in his collar, and dabbed the buttery crumbs from his lips. Then he pushed his chair away from the kitchen table and stood. He tilted his head far to the left, set his hands on his jaw and scalp, and gave a little tug, cracking the joints in his neck. Then he tilted his head the other way and did it again. It was quite a show. All very deliberate, probably to give unwise visitors time to rethink just how badly they needed to overstay their welcome. Performance completed, he approached the door. His hands curled into fists, undoubtedly anticipating a short, intense conversation with Gabe’s face. Gin blossoms pinked the man’s nose and cheeks.
She’s not aligned with either the Ice or the Flame and she’s got a drinking problem, Tanya had said, so she’s always in need of money.
Gabe carried a rucksack slung over one shoulder, and he hefted this now. Glass clinked. The old woman cocked an eyebrow.
“Slivovice,” Gabe said. She licked her lips. He pulled open the rucksack, just enough to show her the bottles.
Cocking her head ever so slightly, she said over her shoulder, “All is well.”
Baby Huey shrugged, turned, and lumbered back to the kitchen table. With the same deliberation with which he had prepared to show Gabe the error of his ways, he sat down, tucked the napkin back in his collar, and spread another spoonful of butter across his bread.
The woman reached for the sack. Gabe handed it over. The witch...