February 24, 1970
Even the finest hotel goes mad before a big event, and the Hotel International Praha was no exception. Gray-clad staff swarmed the back stairs and choked service elevators. Representatives from the Ministries of Culture and Science toured frieze-lined meeting rooms, hands clasped behind their backs, reviewing plush carpets and sparkling chandeliers with the couched disapproval of bureaucrats angling for a bribe. Everyone watched everyone else: Soviets watched Americans, Americans watched Soviets, Brits watched both, and everyone watched the Czechs.
But few people watched the maids.
“It’s a wonder,” Nadia Ostrokhina said, as she pushed the cleaning cart into a fifth-floor room and closed the door. Once inside, she switched from Czech to Russian. “Even in our line of work, where you would expect more vigilance, people tend to overlook serving staff. As if rooms clean themselves.”
Tanya Morozova shrugged, and lifted the top layer of folded bedsheets from the cart to reveal a stash of transmitters, which she then seeded around the room. “At least the uniforms matched this time. Not like the Berlin job.”
Nadia laughed. “The Berlin job! Those girls will drink on that story for years. But this fabric feels cheap enough to be real.” She flicked her over-starched collar, then grabbed another transmitter and headed for the bathroom. “Don’t you love this work?”
Tanya frowned at the transmitter she was trying to attach to a dresser’s underside; it would not stick. She pressed its back harder against the wood. “Forty rooms to check on this floor, bugs to plant, then surveillance to make sure no one removes them. There’s a fine line between impersonating menial laborers and performing menial labor.”
“Oh, please.” Tanya heard a clatter from the bathroom—Nadia, climbing onto the counter. “For once we get to do clean, normal spy work. No magic, no ancient struggle between Flame and Ice, only comrades and their enemies playing at a shadow war. Think of it as a vacation.”
The damn transmitter still would not stick. Tanya licked her thumb and rubbed the wood clean. “For this to be a vacation, we’d have to give the other world a rest.” Again the transmitter fell. “It won’t leave us alone just because we’re ignoring it.”
“Magic can take care of itself for a week or two.” Tanya heard Nadia climb down from the bathroom sink, followed by the sound of running water. “We have a building of biologists on whom to spy, quite possibly Amerikanski schemes to thwart. Our comrades in the Ice will understand a slight shift in priorities.”
“I’m not certain what to believe about our comrades in the Ice anymore.” Tanya clutched the transmitter in her fist as if to snap it in half. She remembered frozen bodies arrayed on narrow beds on a barge. She remembered Andula’s wide eyes before the safe house door closed, and imagined those same eyes, frozen shut.
Tanya sat back on her heels and glared at the transmitter in her palm. Nadia was standing beside her. Tanya hadn’t heard her move. She followed the line of stockings and skirt up to her friend’s—her partner’s—face.
“Tanya. I understand your misgivings, but you need faith for now. We’re doing good.” The last word seemed very hard for her to say. “Focus on the job. This is fun. If you don’t let yourself smile a little, you’ll crack.”
“Fine,” Tanya said, and slapped the transmitter back against the wood. This time it stuck.
“Not much of a safe house,” Dominic Alvarez said through his lit cigar.
Gabe Pritchard, hands in pockets, reviewed the alley. They hadn’t been followed, as far as he could tell, and even with all the secret magic crap he’d dealt with in the last few weeks, he remained confident in his ability to spot a tail—but there was always the chance he’d missed something, especially with Dom along. The man was distracting, and not exactly subtle.
“Christ, keep your voice down,” Gabe said. But the alley stayed still and cold and dark. No snow for once—a nice change—but enough left over from the last night’s fall that Gabe should have been able to hear footsteps, or a silent observer changing position. Nothing.
Not that a prospective tail had anywhere to hide: no obstacles or shelter here, unless you counted those few trash cans. Dom tipped cigar ash into the snow by the basement door, and kicked more snow to cover it up.
Gabe frowned. “They’ll see your footprints.”
“You CIA guys.” Dom didn’t quite laugh. “Always jumping at shadows. We would have seen a tail, and, Christ, do you really think some Soviet stooge will give a shit about one more ash pile in this city?”
Maybe, Gabe thought—if there were magic involved. The KGB had Ice moles—so why not Flame as well? Both mystical factions seemed to have a pretty damn wide sense of their own territory. Well, might as well get on with it. If he started second-guessing himself about magic, he’d be here all night. “The space looks good to me. Clear lines of...