AFTER THE WAR, THE WALL BROUGHT AN UNEASY PEACE.
When Soviet magicians conjured an arcane wall to blockade occupied Berlin, the world was outraged but let it stand for the sake of peace. Now, after ten years of fighting with spies instead of spells, the CIA has discovered the unthinkable...
THE WALL IS FAILING.
While refugees and soldiers mass along the border, operatives from East and West converge on the most dangerous city in the world to either stop the crisis, or take advantage of it.
Karen, a young magician with the American Office of Magical Research and Deployment, is sent to investigate the breach in the Wall and determine if it can be fixed. Instead, she discovers that the truth is elusive in this divided city--and that even magic itself has its own agenda.
THE TRUTH OF THE WALL IS ABOUT TO BE REVEALED.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
At a dimly lit street corner on Sebastianstraße, a few miles south of Checkpoint Charlie and uncomfortably close to the East German border, two men in government-issue overcoats warded off the autumn cold and tried their best not to look like Americans. Or spies.
“You know, I have a lighter,” the shorter man said. His breath steamed.
“I don’t need a lighter,” the taller man said through lips clenched around a bobbing cigarette.
It was quiet, as expected. There would be more signs of life farther westward, where routine had mostly replaced rubble, but stillness usually prevailed along the border. For this evening’s business, that was for the best. Overhead, a skeletal moon proved to be a disinterested accomplice, leaving the night dark even by West Berlin standards. The only other light came from the heavily curtained windows reluctantly overlooking the empty road. And, of course, from the otherworldly silver-white flicker of the Wall. Its magical threads pulsed softly and steadily, like breath.
The shorter man tilted back the brim of his hat. Dark curls popped out over a pale forehead. “From where I’m standing, Jimbo, it looks like you need a lighter.”
Jim frowned. “How about you worry less about me and more about watching for our guests, pal?”
“But watching your little show is far more interesting.”
Ignoring his companion, Jim took in a slow breath through his nose. He concentrated, murmured the words he’d been taught as best as he could remember them, and snapped his fingers.
The sound echoed hollowly down the quiet street. The cigarette remained unlit.
“The ladies must love this.”
“What would you know about ladies, Dennis?” What was the problem? This usually worked, though he had to admit it had been a long time since he’d failed out of St. Cyprian’s University of the Arcane.
Dennis laughed. “I may not have your chiseled jawline, but I do have something you clearly lack.”
“And what’s that, pal?”
In the gloom behind them, the “construction site” they had hastily thrown together looked more like a spent battlefield. Heavy green trucks (labeled us army in a previous life) were parked at odd angles next to aged German civilian machinery. Mounds of torn-up asphalt had been piled nearby. It had been costly (and a little sad) to dig up a perfectly good road, especially when plenty of streets in Berlin were still pocked with the cratered reminders of the war, but everything had to look authentic. Thick canvas tarps had been erected around the most sensitive areas of the site, blocking whole sections of the glittering Wall from view, to dissuade their more curious neighbors. Some things might be hard to come by in West Berlin, but it never lacked for prying eyes.
Snap. And again, nothing.
“See,” Dennis said, “this is why I, like most hardworking Americans, don’t bother with magic.”
“I thought that was because the examiners tested you and found you had no magical ability. Or charisma.”
“I don’t remember them testing for charisma.”
“In your case, they didn’t have to.”
Dennis shrugged. “Well, we can’t all be as magical as you, Jimbo, can we? Do that one again, where you snap your fingers and nothing happens. I love that one.”
The magic spell he was trying to cast wasn’t hard. Maybe he was mispronouncing the first word; Latin had never been Jim’s strongest subject. He’d always thought magic would be a lot simpler if he could just say the incantations in plain English. His disappointed professors hadn’t been very sympathetic to this point of view.
Was the accent on the first syllable or the last . . . ? He snapped his fingers again and this time was rewarded by a prickle across the back of his neck, and a tiny orange ember of flame hovering in the foggy air above his hand like a benevolent spirit.
“Huh,” Dennis said. “Would you look at that?”
“What did I tell you?” Jim said. “Magic.” He held up the tip of his cigarette to the floating fire and puffed his cigarette to life. He sucked in a long draw, the smooth, hot air filling his lungs. For a moment, he savored the acrid taste of the smoke and sweet flavor of victory. Then ducked as the flame suddenly exploded in an angry sunburst, like a journalist’s flashbulb, if it had been designed in hell.
Dennis’s eyes were wide. “Does that usually happen?”
A little singed and with the ruins of his cigarette crumbling through his fingers, Jim swore foully, first in English, then in German for good measure. “This damned city,” he said, mostly to himself. “Nothing works right here, not even magic.”
A surly voice surprised them out of the dark. “There’s this concept in intelligence work you two knuckleheads might want to look up,” it said. “It’s called subtlety.”
“Sorry, Chief,” they said in unison as Arthur joined them. He looked annoyed, but then again, he always did. The head of Berlin Operating Base wore a scowl effortlessly, as though his face had been molded that way by a disgruntled sculptor. His brown suit, the one that seemed expertly tailored to fit poorly, was scarred with the usual unintentional creases. His tie, a stained, threadbare mistake, hung on for dear life.
“They’re late,” Arthur said.
“Not late, Chief,” Jim said. “Just running on European time.”
Arthur snorted, which could have been a laugh or a rebuke. “Just keep your eyes open and let me know when they get here,” he said. “Oh, and Jim? Leave the magic to the professionals and the Commies.”
“Our wayward guests are causing enough stress on my ulcer without you—”
“A shod m’hot nisht geredt fun moshiach,” Dennis said.
“In English, Dennis, or I’ll—” Arthur began.
Dennis nodded toward the intersection ahead. Two cars, glossy with accumulated mist, were coming toward them. “You goyim would say: Speak of the Devil and he shall appear.”
The British got out first and dutifully greeted Arthur with firm, terse handshakes. Their leader, a burly Scotsman named Alec with a dark wild forest of a beard, had to stoop when he made his greetings.
Shortly behind came the French, a smaller, more somber contingent. They spoke in low whispers with Arthur for a long minute before he led them within the tent.
They gathered behind the tarps and trucks, a knot of foreigners ruling over the land they had rightly and thoroughly conquered, silent in expectation. Silent, that is, until Alec spoke.
“Would you look at this lot? One well-tossed grenade over the Wall and half the brains in Western intelligence go up in smoke,” said the big Scot, who nearly filled the cramped space by himself. He shoved an elbow into Jim’s ribs. “And that’s just if they get me.”
Alec had been a guerrilla fighter in the Highlands during the German occupation and had the scars to prove it. Jim had always wanted to ask him about what it had been like, but Arthur had been quick to wave him off. Some things are better left where they lay, had been his advice. Some wounds don’t heal right.
“Forgive me,” said a thin, dark-haired man. His English was excellent though his French accent unmistakable. “You said ‘brains’ but I believe you meant ‘fat.’”
Alec’s laugh nearly knocked down one of the tarps. “Emile, you didn’t tell me they’d started issuing you frogs a sense of humor.”
Emile was something more of a mystery. Jim had read his file, if you could call it that: a single sheet of paper, barely half-filled, with the only interesting bit of intel being his preferred brand of cigarettes. His age was hard to guess, but everyone in France was a veteran of some kind or another.
“Alec, ask Jim to light a cigarette for you,” Dennis added from a corner.
“Enough,” Arthur said. He eyed the assembled men with the red-rimmed glare of the unwillingly sober. “It’s late, I’m tired, and none of you are very fun to look at, so kindly shut up.”
With all mouths closed and eyes turned toward him, Arthur grunted. “Let’s get this over with so you can get back to your bosses and tell them we’re not crazy.” He motioned impatiently to one of his men standing by one of the trucks. “Just very unlucky.” The agent untied a cord and pulled back the canvas sheet that had been drawn over this section of the Wall. The others pressed in.
It wasn’t easy to see it, even when pointed out. Just a shadow, no more than an inch square, nestled in the shimmering weave that made up the Wall. But on closer inspection, it was more: a flaw, a withering of the magic.
Alec spoke first. “That’s it? That’s what we’re all getting so ruffled about? I could barely stick my wee finger in there. I don’t see many East Germans or Soviet spies sneaking through, no matter how little they feed them.”
“Are we certain this has not always been here?” Emile said quietly, his eyes never leaving it. With care, he touched the area around the breach, the soft crackle of the magic filling the silence.
“We are,” Arthur said. “And there’s more.”
This was news to Jim. “More?”
Arthur nodded. “It’s growing.”
Alec lurched back, nearly knocking a few of the others down in the process. “Growing? You never said anything about growing.”
Jim felt a little sick. Dennis wasn’t looking much better. Suddenly their joking didn’t seem as funny. They’d been briefed on the breach shortly after it had been found, but at that point there was still hope it wasn’t as bad as they feared. But if it were growing . . .
“We couldn’t confirm until a few minutes ago,” Arthur said. “We took another measurement and . . .” He pulled a folded slip of paper from his pocket and scanned it. “Five percent growth since discovery.”
“Five percent? That’s . . .” Alec said.
“This is a more serious problem than we thought,” Emile said. “I will need to send this information to Paris.”
“With the utmost security,” Arthur added.
“You do not think the Soviets already know?” Emile asked.
“It is their Wall, their magic,” Arthur said. “But even if the hole went all the way through, there’s not a lot of opportunity for them to examine it from their side, not unless they’re using a spotlight at a hundred yards or a rifle scope.” He rubbed his eyes. “And besides, even if they know, we don’t want them to know we know.”
“This is why we Americans build our walls out of bricks and concrete,” Dennis said. “Not fairy dust.”
Emile whispered to his companion, then said, “The timing of this concerns us.”
“How so?” Jim asked.
“This breach is a potential crisis between East and West,” he said, “and it comes only weeks after our governments began to rearm West Germany.”
“Over Moscow’s strenuous objections,” Arthur said.
Alec regained his composure enough to speak. “Am I the only one thinking about what happens if that wee hole doesn’t stop growing?”
“If the Reds keep their pants on, we can handle a limited breach,” Arthur said. “Just another gate to watch.”
“But what if it is more than that? What if the whole bloody thing comes down?”
It was Emile who answered. “We would have thousands of refugees attempting to cross the border within hours. The East Germans would be forced to stop them. The Soviets would assist, of course, and we would be required to match any show of force with our own.”
“And suddenly we’re all pointing guns at each other again,” Arthur said.
“Not just guns,” Jim added.
“A lot more than just guns,” Arthur said. “With fifty thousand civilians right in the middle. Civilians, I might add, who will be stupid and brave enough to force the issue.”
“It’ll be another war,” Alec said, the first quiet words out of his mouth.
“It’ll be the last war,” Arthur said. “We’re getting too good at killing each other not to do it right this time.”
“What is the United States going to do?” Alec asked.
“Ask Eisenhower. Ask the commandant in Zehlendorf,” Arthur said. “I just gather intel.”
“Arthur . . .”
“What do you want me to say? We’re going to prepare,” Arthur said. “Boys will start shining their combat boots, politicians will be polishing their sabers. The same dance with an updated tune.”
“And what are you going to do?” Emile asked.
Arthur sighed. “What else?” he said. “Figure out a way to keep the whole damn roof from falling in. Any of you all know anything about magic?”
Jim tried not to laugh at the question. There weren’t many people out there who could help with magic on this scale. After the German invasion, British magicians were an all but extinct species. The French were hardly in a better position. No, this one would fall to the US of A, no matter how little Mom and Pop America would like it.
“What about you, Jim?” Arthur said. “You went to school for this stuff. Can you offer any magical insight here?”
Jim stood by the breach. It didn’t look much bigger than when he’d first seen it a day or two ago, but he didn’t doubt the measurements. “Sorry, Chief,” he said. “They kicked me out long before we covered magic like this.”
He thought about St. Cyprian’s, and about the fireball blowing up in his face. He was pretty sure his eyebrows were a little burned. Carefully, Jim put a finger into the breach and felt only the cold. “I think we’re going to need to call in the experts for this one.”
“Whatever you do,” Karen said, “don’t move.”
“Why can’t I move?”
“I’m not moving.”
“Your lips are moving.”
“Why can’t my lips move?”
“Because you’re scaring Bing.”
“I think that might be the scalpel.”
“No, not Bing,” Karen said. She stroked the rat’s white fur and he looked up at her expectantly, tiny nose twitching. “He’s proud to do his part for magical research. Now hold him steady.”
Gerald held Bing in place while Karen made a shallow half-inch cut along the rat’s right leg. The blood was bright and quick, as if dropped on snow.
“See? He didn’t even feel it.” Karen set the scalpel aside and reached for the first element of the spell: powdered goat’s horn.
“Think this one will work?” Gerald asked.
“No idea,” Karen said as she sprinkled the grayish powder.
“But we’re trying it anyway?”
“That’s why they call it research,” Karen said. She handed him the transcription Allison had typed up. “Here,” she said, “read this. Your pronunciation is better than mine.”
“Come now,” Gerald said, taking the paper reluctantly. “Your magic runs circles around most of the people in this building.”
Karen smiled at that, though she didn’t believe a word of it. “Go ahead,” she said. “I want you to do it.”
With Gerald’s Midwestern accent droning two-thousand-year-old words in her ear, Karen set out the other prescribed magical reagents, making sure the dried hemlock didn’t touch the salt of an inland sea. She wanted to roll her eyes; these complicated spells never worked. The extra details always struck her as someone trying too hard. Good magic didn’t have to be so arcane.
“Ready?” Gerald asked.
“Let’s make history,” Karen replied.
His voice rose as he began the last stanza, an uncharacteristic dramatic flair for the owl-eyed magician from Topeka. But when you might be on the verge of the greatest magical breakthrough in human history, Karen figured a little showmanship wasn’t a bad thing.
There was some magic in the spell; Karen felt its familiar whisper starting in the back of her mind. Something was happening, she just wasn’t sure what. Neither, it seemed, was Bing, his round pink eyes darting about the room as unseen energy began to gather. Karen watched the cut, the blood already clotting, and willed it to close.
And then Gerald was finished. The silence that invaded the room held them all captive for the longest a single moment could be stretched.
And then the moment passed and the wound remained unchanged.
Bing sniffed the air and stared at them, as if to say, What did you expect, a miracle?
Gerald did not seemed surprised. “You know the old saying,” he said with a shrug. “‘You want to heal someone, call a doctor.’”
“‘You want to kill someone, call a magician,’” she finished. She let out the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding in and found her research notebook. She had a dozen of these, each full of similar failures. She read the title off the cover. “Sorry, Quintilianus the Great,” she said, “but your spell ‘Quicken the Mending of Mortal Flesh’ would be better named ‘Wasten the Time of Overworked Magicians.’”
“That’s why they call it research, right?” Gerald asked as he wrapped medical tape around Bing’s leg.
“Right,” Karen said, forcing herself not to sigh. “If it were easy, everyone would be doing it, instead of just two of us.” She scooped up the bandaged Bing and held him nose to quivering nose. “Your country thanks you, Bing the Rat, for your service.” She carried him across the room to his cage, where his fellow rats were waiting. “Marlon, Bob, Jimmy, you leave Bing alone. He’s had a rough day.”
The door to the cramped lab opened slightly and a blond-bobbed head peered in. “Is it over?” Allison asked.
“The magic or the rat torture?” Gerald asked.
“Yuck,” Allison said. “Both.”
“It is safe to enter,” Gerald said as Karen watched the rats plow through fresh sawdust. It was, she thought, a painfully apt metaphor for magicians: a simple, caged life-form digging ignorantly through the leavings of some complex, unknowable mind, hoping to find a treat.
“Miss O’Neil?” Allison said.
“Karen,” she said, seemingly for the hundredth time. “Call me Karen.” Allison was only a couple years younger than her, after all; such formality made Karen feel old. But Allison was a hard worker and fiercely loyal, which was always welcome in a world haunted by government bureaucrats. Karen suspected family connections had gotten her the job in the OMRD to keep her out of trouble until she found a good husband, which, as Karen guessed from the lengthy gossip Allison often subjected her to, wouldn’t take long.
“Karen, right,” Allison said, as if trying to commit the name to memory. “Karen, you’re late for your staff meeting.”
Oh, hell. Speaking of bureaucrats.
“Times like these,” Gerald said, not looking up from his notes, “I sure am glad you run this department, not me.”
Karen thrust her notebooks into a drawer. “I keep showing up late to staff meetings and there might soon be an opening.”
“No, thanks,” Gerald said. “Uncle Sam couldn’t pay me enough to sit in a conference room with the director.”
“Dr. Haupt?” Karen said. “He’s a great magician.”
Gerald snorted. “He’s terrifying.”
“Not if you get to know him.”
Gerald shook his head. “I think the more I knew, the more terrified I’d be.”
“It isn’t the director I’m worried about,” Karen said. “It’s the rest of those blowhards.”
Gerald adjusted his glasses. “I won’t argue, but to be safe, I think I’ll stay here and let you deal with the lot of them.”
“And they say that chivalry is dead,” Karen said. On her way out the door, she knelt down and put her face up against the wire bars of the rat cage. “Wish me luck, boys,” she said. “Time for me to get experimented on.”
Though she was only a few minutes late, they hadn’t waited for her. She tried to slip into the wood-paneled conference room as quietly as possible, even wondering if they’d notice if she used a few discreet spells to hide her arrival. But as soon as she stepped inside, all eyes turned her way.
“Nice of you to join us,” said Harold Wilkerson, the balding head of the Military Application Department. Harold seemed to barely tolerate her existence, but since he offered similar disdain to just about everyone at the OMRD she didn’t take it too personally.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said quietly as she hurried to her place at the long table.
“Actually,” said Marvin Barth, an ample-girthed magician who ran the Environmental Magic Department, whatever that was, “since you’re up, you know what would be swell? If you could get us some coffee.”
Karen paused in front of her chair. “I don’t drink coffee.”
Barth hefted his jowls into a smile. “But the rest of us do. And it would be swell.”
The rest of the room stared at her through the cigarette haze, a wall of unblinking masculine eyes, waiting for her to capitulate. Demanding her to.
“I’ll be right back,” she said, “but don’t go too far without me.” She hurried out into the hall. Before she closed the door, she heard someone say, “So where were we?”
The break room wasn’t far. The disorganized cupboards stared back at her in silent mockery of her situation. You’ll get no help from us, they seemed to say to her. We’re on their side. Simple, immovable, and usually full of worthless junk: the cupboards did remind her of most of the men of the OMRD.
Why let them boss you around? Why isn’t Fat Marvin in here making the coffee? Because he’s a man, obviously. Such domestic work would be beneath him.
Karen mercilessly flung a few open until she found what she needed. Grabbing a metal pot, she filled it with water and set it on the counter. With a fingertip, she traced a symbol on the surface, and nothing happened.
Of course, she thought. The enchantment had been used up and no one had bothered to reapply it. Why should they, after all, when they had a woman magician in the building? Isn’t that why God let women use magic, so they could power the household appliances? She should serve it to them cold. No, she should make it piping hot and pour it over their heads.
Enchantments had never been her strength, not in school and not after. They could be useful tools, certainly, but there was something macabre about it to her, infusing an object with your own energy. Like leaving behind a lock of hair. Or a fingernail clipping. She sighed. The damn coffee wasn’t going to heat itself, so instead she touched the leather pouch around her neck, gripped the pot with her other hand, and whispered the necessary words. The power moved easily enough, bleeding from her palm into the metal, settling there comfortably. Karen shivered.
The coffee grounds too were aligned with her foes. How much was she supposed to use? Did it matter which kind? If her mother knew she was twenty-six and still couldn’t brew a cup of coffee for her “handsome” coworkers, she’d probably have a heart attack. Who was she kidding? Her mother knew, but, as with everything else unpleasant in her world, just pretended not to.
When finished, Karen eyed her handiwork: it smelled like an ashtray and looked like mud. Perfect.
“ . . . this report comes in from Sparks, Nevada, says they have a bona fide werewolf on the loose,” Karen heard as she reentered the meeting with the coffee on a tray. The speaker was Al Lambert, head of Public Inquiry, the group responsible for handling reports of errant magic anywhere in the US. They were the largest group in the OMRD, with more than two dozen magicians on staff, and always had the best stories.
“So you tell them there’s no such thing as monsters?”
Al leaned back in his chair and adjusted his tie. “Oh, we told them. Ten or fifteen times. But the local police were insistent. You know how people get. Want to blame everything on magic. They hate us until they think they need us. So we had to send out a team.”
One of the others asked, “And what was it?”
“A particularly cranky beagle.” Laughs all around.
As they started to sip at her scalding-hot coffee, Karen did her best to hide a grin at their disgusted looks. Maybe they’d think twice before asking her to do it next time. After all, she didn’t remember seeing table service on her job description.
“Alright,” Wilkerson said, “who’s next? I don’t have all day for this status meeting.”
Just keep your head down, she thought. Don’t remind them you are crashing their good ol’ boys club and maybe you can get back to work faster.
“I for one would be very curious to hear the latest from Theoretical Magic,” said George Cabott, deputy to Harold over in Military.
Ugh, so much for keeping her head down.
“Thank you, George,” Karen said. He smiled. Allison would have swooned; just about every woman who worked at OMRD headquarters would have. But Karen knew George’s dark secret: he was unbearable. She didn’t really blame him, though, as human empathy had been bred out of his Manhattan-dwelling family generations ago. She just wished she had known all that before she slept with him back in college.
“Yes, great idea,” Barth said, straightening up a bit in his groaning chair. “We’ve heard enough about actually useful magic for one day.”
Karen turned to face him. “I’m sorry, Marvin, did you have some compelling breakthrough to share with us instead? Some wonderful achievement from the third floor to justify your bloated”—she paused for just a fraction of a moment before finishing—“budget?”
Barth choked on his coffee. See, this was why she usually kept quiet. She had plenty to say, but it never came out quite as nicely as these old men wanted it.
“As I’ve mentioned before,” she began before Barth could recover, noting then ignoring the rolled eyes from some of the assembled, “we have a number of exciting research projects ongoing. We were running tests this morning on healing magic, and then there is our continuing work on Universal Expression Theory—”
“Is this getting somewhere, honey?” Al Lambert asked. He’d lived in DC for twenty years but still sounded like he’d just walked off the ranch in Plano.
“I need resources,” she said flatly. There were groans all around. “My whole department is two magicians and one secretary. You talk about the public hating magicians. What if we could finally learn how to heal people? And what if we didn’t have to rely on spells, but could control magic directly—”
“And what if I had a unicorn that pissed gold dust?” Lambert said. “There are, what, a few thousand people in the whole country who can do decent magic? We can’t waste them all on chasing fairy tales. Listen here, honey—”
“Yes, sweetheart?” This stopped the old Texan cold. Stopped the whole room, actually. “Oh, I’m sorry,” Karen said, “I thought we were being familiar. My mistake.” There was part of her that hated herself for stooping to their level. But if you wanted to be heard by men, you had to act like a man: rude, entitled, and not afraid to make enemies. “Your team is chasing beagles. My team is trying to change the world. All I’m asking for is a few more people to help.”
“Young lady, I think—” Lambert never had the chance to finish his reply. The door to the meeting room swung open and the director of the Office of Magical Research and Deployment stood in the doorway.
Dr. Max Haupt was a small man, stooped by age and bent by war, with silver hair and a silver-tipped cane. He held the cane in front of him with his hands folded atop each other. His face wore his sixty years hard, the scars and wrinkles becoming nearly indistinguishable. His eyes narrowed behind his ever-thickening glasses and slowly interrogated each magician in the room.
“I trust,” he said, his German accent clipping every word, “that I am not interrupting anything.”
“No, sir,” Wilkerson said, standing. “We were just finishing here.”
“Good.” His gaze settled on Lambert, who did not return it. “Mr. Cabott and Miss O’Neil, I would speak with you in my office.”
Between the massive cherry-wood monolith that functioned as Dr. Haupt’s desk and the cascade of books that threatened to overwhelm even the sturdy shelves along every wall, the director’s office had little room for visitors. It was drafty and austere and smelled of old paper, and Karen loved it. Though she was curious about why they had been invited in, she really could only think about the weight of the old magic lingering in the Teutonic texts surrounding them.
Dr. Haupt sat behind his desk and for a moment said nothing. Karen had known him since her second year at St. Cyprian’s when she’d taken his class on Magical Source Theory, despite having been warned by older students to avoid him. During the lectures, he rarely interacted with his students other than to rap his silver cane on the desk of anyone starting to nod off. But when she’d visited his office, one significantly smaller than his current one, he had been delighted. He had mentored her for the following years until receiving the summons from President Eisenhower to head up the newly formed Office of Magical Research and Deployment. Karen hadn’t even bothered to apply anywhere else after graduation; she knew who she wanted to work for.
“Thank you both for coming,” he said softly. He sounded tired. Karen imagined the responsibilities of OMRD director were far weightier than shepherding magical sophomores through their required coursework, but Dr. Haupt rarely showed any sign of strain. He was constant, immutable, like the laws of the universe, from his cane to his suits to the empty walls of his office. Karen had known him for years now, but knew nothing of his life outside of work. They had made bets back in school to see if anyone could find an old picture of Dr. Haupt, or even one where he wasn’t scowling. None had ever surfaced.
“What’s wrong, sir?” she asked.
Dr. Haupt placed a darkly veined hand on a folder on his desk. “We have received a request from the State Department. A request for assistance.” His fingers idly tapped the folder. “With some reluctance, they have admitted that the request originated with the Central Intelligence Agency in West Berlin. The details are . . . scarce. Almost nonexistent. I have pushed for more information, but they have not been forthcoming.”
“Whatever the problem is, can’t we just leave it to the Soviets?” George asked. “They seem to want Berlin more than we do.”
“I doubt the people of Berlin would appreciate the nuance of your recommendation,” Dr. Haupt replied. An edge had entered his tone. George was a self-centered buffoon who didn’t have the history with Dr. Haupt that Karen did, but even he should have known to tread carefully on the subject of Germany with the director.
“Are we being sent to Berlin?” Karen asked.
Dr. Haupt looked at her almost as if he had forgotten she was there. His voice softened, as much as it could, and he said, “One of you is being sent to Berlin to gather information and to advise. The request was very clear on the number. The CIA believes too many magical assets on the ground would have ‘destabilizing potential.’”
“What does that mean?” George said.
“It means they don’t trust magicians,” Karen replied.
“They are not alone,” Dr. Haupt said, sighing. For a moment, he seemed to be lost in his own thoughts, as though he were suddenly someplace else entirely: memory or fantasy, Karen couldn’t tell, but whatever he saw there didn’t seem to please him.
George stepped forward. Karen hated the fact that he was nearly a foot taller than she was. “So who’s going?” he asked.
Dr. Haupt picked up his hand sharply, as though the folder had caught fire. His distant thoughts appeared banished. “I have asked you to come because you were both considered for this assignment. We are stretched for resources here and can spare little, but this is a request we cannot afford to ignore. Your names reached the top of a carefully selected list. You are both bright and capable and either of you would serve this office proudly in this matter.”
“But who is—”
Karen was pretty sure she was the most surprised person in the room, but it was close. George had the family connections in DC, a year of seniority, and immense skill. The decision shouldn’t have even been close.
“If I may ask, sir, why,” George said, his voice slowing down like it always did when he was attempting to control his anger, “was she selected over me?”
“You may ask, Mr. Cabott. But I do not choose to answer.”
Karen wished she could have enjoyed the color rising to George’s neck and face, but her mind was too busy elsewhere for proper gloating. She was going to Berlin? On a request from the State Department? To work with the CIA?
“Sir,” George said at last, saying the word through lips that were barely willing to open, “is that all?”
“There will be other assignments, Mr. Cabott. There is always work to be done.”
“Is that all? Sir.”
Dr. Haupt nodded, and George was gone.
“Thank you, sir,” Karen said in the ensuing silence. “Thank you for this opportunity. I won’t let you down.”
“Yes,” Dr. Haupt said absently, nearly lost again. “Yes, you are welcome, Miss O’Neil. Karen.” He took off his heavy glasses and placed them on the desk. With fingers expert in magic Karen could still only fumble at, he rubbed his deep-set eyes as if warding off an old ache. “I hope I have not made you an enemy.”
“George?” Karen said. “He’ll get over it. Though,” she added, “why did you ask him to come to your office, if he wasn’t picked?”
“I decided Mr. Cabott would benefit from learning he was my second choice,” he replied, his accent landing heavy on the word “second.”
Karen couldn’t hide a grin. “Thank you, sir.”
Dr. Haupt only nodded.
“You are from Berlin originally, aren’t you, sir?”
“Yes,” he said with a curt nod. “It is a beautiful city with a rich history, and an unfortunate present.”
“You didn’t want to take this assignment yourself, have a chance to see your home again on Uncle Sam’s dime?”
Dr. Haupt’s eyes dropped and Karen instantly regretted her question. “There is nothing for me in Germany now, I’m afraid. I have only been back once, since the war,” he said. “Official business. Unpleasant business. I am not eager to return.”
“Sir, I’m sorry. I—”
He held up a hand. “Forgive an old man his regrets. But the United States is my home now. A place of new beginnings. I shall leave Germany’s complexities to a younger generation. My generation has done enough damage.”
“Any advice for my first visit?”
“I doubt you will have much time for sightseeing, though there is much to be seen,” he said. His face turned a bit grim. “The best advice I can give is this: stay away from the Wall.”
“I’ll leave you, then,” Karen said. “And thanks again, sir.”
As she neared the door, he stopped her. “Karen?”
“I am sorry I interrupted the meeting earlier. I am certain you would have been able to handle it on your own satisfactorily.”
“Cranky men don’t bother me, sir.”
“Good,” he said. “And good luck.”
George was waiting for her when she reached the stairwell.
“You sleep with him too?”
“Go to hell, George.”
“Is that a yes?”
“That is a ‘go to hell.’”
She made to move past him, suddenly not in the mood for banter, but he reached out an arm and blocked the narrow hallway.
“This is a serious assignment,” he said. “Lives might be at stake. It is hard enough to get the government to recognize the importance of magic. We should be sending our best.”
“According to the director, we are.”
“No, we’re sending someone we can spare. Since Theoretical Magic isn’t actually accomplishing anything . . .”
“See, here I thought the ‘R’ in ‘OMRD’ stood for ‘Research.’ Silly me. Now, move.”
He didn’t. “You really think you’re ready for this? You really think you are the best person for the job?”
“I think our boss thinks so.”
“Should we invite him out here so you can call him that to his face?”
“I don’t care what he thinks. I asked if you think you’re ready for this.”
Karen considered retreating back the way she had come, but doubted that would deter him. “What do you want to hear, George? That you’re the greatest magician in the world and everyone else should bow down before you and kiss your saintly feet?”
He smirked. “That’d be a good start.”
“Fine. You’re the best. When I grow up I want to be just like you. And when I go to Berlin instead of you, I’ll do my best to make you proud. That good enough?”
“Then what do you want?”
He dropped his arm. “A bout. Like in college. Winner takes all.”
Karen groaned. It was always the same with men like George. “You only ever think about using your magic to smash something,” she said. “You might be surprised to learn it has other, less destructive uses.”
“You sound afraid.”
“I don’t need to be afraid. Dr. Haupt has already made his decision.”
“And if you walk back in there and tell him you think I should go, he’ll change his decision.”
“And why would I do that?”
“Because deep down,” he said softly, “you know I’m right.”
She’d never hated him more than in that moment. His arrogance, his snobbery, the way he strutted around the OMRD like it was his personal fiefdom: she could handle that. She’d grown accustomed to it, even. But this was worse. Much worse. Because she wasn’t sure he was wrong. She loved magic and was damn good at it. But was she the magician you wanted on the front lines, with everything at stake? Was she really ready for that kind of responsibility? Would she ever be?
“En garde,” she said, and tried to ignore how pleased he looked.
“One touch,” he said, backing up to an appropriate distance.
She grabbed the leather pouch. She saw him begin to spin the chunky gold ring he always wore, a gift from his father, if she remembered correctly, embossed with the Cabott family crest: a thistle and a branch. Magic began to hum in the air. “May the best woman win,” she said.
You can do this. He doesn’t stand a chance.
She took a breath.
Just forget the fact that he was captain of the spell fencing team at St. Cyprian’s three years running. And that he went undefeated in their last season, breaking the previous record that had been set by his father, the famous Stephen Cabott. Or the trophies; God, the trophies. Karen was pretty confident that George’s real favorite pastime wasn’t sport; it was gazing at his own reflection in polished brass.
But Karen knew that spell fencing, like its bladed cousin, was a sport of strategy. To win you certainly had to know your basic techniques: when to use a quick bolt of lightning or a slower burst of fire; which defensive auras could counter which attacks without leaving you without an offense of your own; when you could safely retreat and when to push back. But you had to do more than master your skills; you had to master your opponent. You had to make them think you wanted one thing when in fact you wanted something else entirely. You had to feint and anticipate and react before they even moved.
It was, simply put, a game far too subtle for a man.
Typically the first moments of a spell fencing bout were less than spectacular to watch; magicians quickly threw up some basic defensive spells to keep from getting caught by a lucky blow early on. With the right shields in place, strategy took over. Do you take out your opponent’s outer defenses with a spell of kinetic force? Or do you start to cast that spell, only to turn it to something that would cut deeper at the last minute? Or do you pretend to set more defenses in place, only to counterattack when your opponent tried to wind up for a big spell?
George did exactly what she knew he would. He was a good fencer, maybe great, but not an inventive one. She saw the blur of magical wards come to life as his lips murmured well-worn enchantments, spells that had stood the test of time. Getting through those barriers to hit his body would be difficult. Doing so while defending against his own attacks, which were sure to come any moment, might be impossible.
But since she had no intention of doing that, she wasn’t bothered.
Magical defenses, especially the simple ones used in spell fencing, were very specific. It took a lot of energy to block an oncoming spell, so you didn’t cast your shield over everything, just what you had to protect. So an attack to his chest would be like cutting through a concrete wall, but an attack elsewhere might be completely unhindered.
And, as it turned out, gold was a marvelous conductor for magical energy. And heat.
Karen finished her spell just as George was ready to start his attack. She could see the gleam in his eyes when he realized how few defenses she’d bothered to put up. This would be over soon, he surely thought, and then she’d know her place. Then the correct order of the universe, with George Alistair Cabott at the top, would be restored. And then . . .
And then his ring, the center of his magical focus, caught on fire.
George screamed and tried to tear the shimmering metal from his finger. In doing so, all his shields vanished in a puff. Karen immediately ceased her spell, or at least she meant to. But for a brief moment, she reveled in that feeling only her magic brought: soothing, yet bracing, like standing in a perfectly hot shower. From the very start, she had known this was what she was meant for.
Then she saw George was on his knees, doubled over in pain, and she cut the magic off in an instant.
It was quiet in the hallway for a moment. Karen was torn between a twinge of guilt at letting the spell go a little too long and the regret she always felt when she had to rein her magic in.
“That hurt.” George was breathing heavy.
“I believe the word you are looking for,” Karen said, her voice quavering a bit, “is ‘touché.’”
His face twitched with a mix of anger and pain. “I shouldn’t be surprised. This has always been your problem, in school, and now here. You think just because you’re good that you’re good enough.”
“Which one of us is on the floor, George?”
“You’re going to fail,” he said, clenching his blistered hand. “You’re going to get over there, in the middle of a world you don’t understand, and you’re going to fail. I only hope someone is there to pick up the pieces when you do.”
Karen wanted more than anything to have a good reply, something witty and mean that would have made George think twice about doubting her. But her mind was blank. No words, witty or otherwise, materialized. Just the silence of the hallway, the sting of his rebuke, and the lingering cordite smell of spent magic.
Without a word, she walked past him and down the stairs.
It was achingly cold, but that came as no surprise. In such a place, comfort would be inappropriate. Comfort invited a man to let down his guard, and only dead men made that mistake here. The colonel waited, as was so often his duty, and listened to the pipes ticking overhead and the watch ticking in his palm. He flipped the watch open. It was a weakness to look, he knew, but he was old enough now not to care. He sighed. The steadily clicking hands were not kind: he would be late. She would, he hoped, forgive him.
The door at the far end of the room groaned and swung out.
Leonid brought their guest in, as requested. The last one for the day. His uniform was mussed, a button missing from his jacket. A struggle, perhaps? No, not from this small man shivering under Leonid’s grip, the man with the broken lens in his glasses and the blood on his collar. This man had no fight in him. Perhaps he would not be so late after all.
“Thank you,” the colonel said softly, motioning to a waiting chair. “I have a place for our comrade just here.”
The man was talking before he had even been forced into his seat. “Comrade Colonel, I assure you—”
The colonel held up a hand and silenced him. Pain erupted just above his right eye at the sound of the man’s quavering voice. The headaches were always bad on days such as these. It was too much for one man to take on himself. That sounded like his wife’s voice: You use too much of yourself. There must be others who can do this. Others they can call on instead of my husband.
But there were no others. No one else who could do what he could.
“I am tired, Artyom Ivanovich. I am tired and I am running late. Let us therefore avoid unnecessary talk.”
“Comrade Colonel, whatever has been said of me, I—”
“We have never met, you and I, correct? Yet I trust you know me, perhaps by reputation. This is true?”
Artyom glanced back at the looming shadow of Leonid and nodded. “Yes, Comrade Colonel. I know who you are.”
“Good. Then you know by the fact that I am sitting across from you that certain options are now closed. This is not a time for bartering. This is a time to do what must be done. You understand.”
“This room, do you know what it is for? It is a place for remembering. At times, men must be reminded of the importance of duty. And so they come here. So I can help them. That is why we are here, together, you and I. To do our duty.”
“I have done my duty. I always do my duty. I—”
“At the academy, they teach us that magic is nothing more than will.” He tapped his temple. “Will. That is why some men can use magic and some cannot: they lack will. Will is what gives us power. Will is what helps us do our duty. Will keeps us from making mistakes.”
He clicked open his pocket watch and watched the seconds tick by. “This watch belonged to my grandfather. It still keeps perfect time, even after all these years. It helps me to focus, to impose my will.” His fingers snapped it shut, but he could still feel its pulse, that inexorable march. “Since you are lacking will of your own, Artyom Ivanovich, I will lend you some of mine.”
Now the words, in tongues ancient and lost, a further focus. The spells, those he had seen done so poorly by those who considered themselves masters, were so simple with the right will.
The screams echoed unheard down the long, empty hallways.
The theater was dark when he entered quietly, the performance nearly complete. He had a ticket for a seat, somewhere near the front, but no way to find it. That did not matter, however, now that he had arrived. He stood invisible in the shadowed back of the theater as the final soloist took the stage.
She was young, yet already growing into the dancer’s graceful form. Her golden hair was pulled back tight, her face a powdered porcelain mask. She was smiling, but he saw the determination written beneath. The music began. She moved across the stage, hesitant, slightly behind the music. Uncertain on pointe. No, no. Breathe, he thought. You are better than this. As you have been taught. Yes, like that. There is my daughter. There is my girl.
The first time he had seen her mother had been on a stage like this. She was part of the corps, not yet a soloist, but to him, she had been up there alone, dancing just for him. That had been a lifetime ago, longer perhaps.
Up now, turn and turn. Jump, then back. Yes, she had her steps now. The music was in her, animating her. Ah, a misstep, a near fall. Recovery, yes. Forget it, child. The flaw only makes them see the beauty of the rest.
The applause filled the theater as she took her bow and hurried to the wings on airy steps. He watched her go, content.
“Your daughter, yes?”
He had been distracted by the dance, more so than he would usually allow, and he had not noticed the gray-haired man standing at his side until he spoke.
“Yes,” he said.
“She dances with skill,” the gray-haired man said.
“Thank you, sir.”
“Perhaps we should speak outside?”
They stepped out into the granite chill of a Moscow autumn. Cars passed them by, their drivers invisible behind yellow headlights. An early rain caused their tires to hiss. Old leaves tumbled along empty sidewalks. The colonel followed the gray-haired man to the alley that ran behind the theater and lit his cigarette before lighting one of his own.
“The work is done?” the gray-haired man asked.
“We finished with the list earlier tonight,” he answered. “I expect you will find the results satisfactory.”
“We always have.” The gray-haired man coughed. “The Chairman himself would like to extend to you his thanks.”
He bowed, just slightly. “I am honored to serve the Party.”
“That is good to hear,” the gray-haired man said. Those were his words, but the colonel knew that more than this was being said: in the way he held his dirty-white cigarette, the way his small eyes glanced off into the night, the way his arthritic hands trembled.
“I remain at the behest of the Party,” he said. “And of the Chairman.”
“Yes,” the gray-haired man said, sucking on the cigarette like a man drowning. From his heavy woolen overcoat he produced an envelope and handed it across the stale alleyway air.
The colonel opened it and quickly read the terse documents it contained. “Berlin?”
The gray-haired man nodded, then crushed the half-spent cigarette under his shoe. “A filthy city full of ungrateful people,” he said with a shudder. “But an important city as well. We recently received word from a well-placed friend that our adversaries in the city have made a . . . significant discovery. It is imperative that they do not hinder our existing plans. Too much work has already been done. This must be contained.”
He tucked the envelope into his coat. Ahead, people had already begun to stream from the theater out into the streets. He took out his watch and checked the time. “You have my word,” he said. “I will see this done.”
“Yes,” the gray-haired man said. “We know that you will. That is why we are sending the Nightingale.”
Excerpted from "Breach"
Copyright © 2018 W.L. Goodwater.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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