(Fiction) The Winter Bureau

At the start, I was a very poor spy. I lost my first partner to a vampiress. But then, Spurgeon Fount was an awkward man. He had Napoleon’s stature but not his confidence, and like so many of his Victorian peers, was lustful and repressed. The beast we chased traveled under cover of a circus, which is why I had been recruited. Many American circus performers were foreign, lured from across Europe with promises of streets of gold. Thanks to my time with the mizzen, I was handy with a lock pick and a blade, which meant, with some training, I could perform minor feats of escapistry and knife throwing, and with Spurgeon as my handler, I was inserted as an apprentice performer in order to discover the identity of the foul creature, who played some important role for our shadowy adversaries. The vampiress was at least as old as me, and after several months, neither of us could get the better of the other. Alas, I did not take adequate precautions to protect Spurgeon, who was observed sneaking out of my tent and who subsequently met a gruesome end.

I avenged him at least. Our vampiress was a tumbler—quite a difficult woman to pin down. I managed to impale her on a tent pole, but only by throwing her off me, whence I was bitten. I cannot describe what followed since I was not conscious to witness it. For the longest time, two curses waged war within me: one granting me eternal life, the other eternal undeath. It seemed neither could get the better of the other. I was wracked with tremors and night sweats that emerged between long bouts of still coma—seventeen years of it. I was moved to a sanitarium, expenses covered by proxies of The Masters. Mine was a unique case, it seemed. No one in the world knew what would happen—or what to do. Countless learned men came and went at first, like carnival-goers. Gradually, the number dwindled and I became just another curiosity, locked behind a steel door. For many of those years, I was tended by the same nurse. She rose every day to check on me, returned thrice during the day, and once again before bed. My own Florence Nightingale. And yet, I never met her. She was caught with millions of others in the influenza pandemic of 1918.

The man who woke me, who discovered the means to push the eternal battle within me towards the white curse and against the black, was an American. It seemed in those days as if suddenly everyone was American. It didn’t matter whether you were in Paris or Istanbul. They were everywhere, both on the streets and in the news. They invented industrious processes and married European aristocrats and earned incredible fortunes or lost them. They made motion pictures and jazz music and chemicals and machines and war. My American was Professor Henry Hunter, a classicist and scholar of lost magicks. He was not a practitioner. Strictly speaking, he was a magus, and he pursued the conundrum of my case as a kind of intellectual past time, the way a mathematician might become obsessed with an unsolved proof or a detective, a cold case. I was a terrible mystery, it seemed. The sleeping beauty. The woman who could not be roused, who needed neither food nor drink, who simply rested—seemingly forever—in a locked cell at the end of a long hall in a basement floor of a sanitarium.

When I awoke, he was speaking to a nurse.

“Well,” he said, looking down at me through his wire-rimmed spectacles, “there you are.”

It may seem odd to say it, but I hadn’t missed the years, at least not in themselves. I have a surplus of days. They travel quickly in the aggregate but drag in the singular. After a century, one is very much like the next. I would never have minded the ability to fast-forward a bit, to use a modern phrase. Still, it was uncanny the way the world had changed in my absence. I had seen automobiles in London, but they were little more than a novelty, a new way for the rich to spend their fortunes. I had heard a phonograph as well. As a matter of history, Thomas Edison gave one to Madame Helena Blavatsky, whom I accompanied to India. She kept it in the library. The first records didn’t play music. The quality was too poor. Rather, they played random sounds: the honk of a buggy horn, the chirp of a bird, bits of human speech. It was a novelty, something to give the guests a giggle—that noises could be trapped in a box—and after clustering around it excitedly for a week, the bearded gurus and I never touched it again.

But when I finally awoke from my coma, cars choked the streets. Music, once the monopoly of the musician, played from every open window. There were machines to wash clothes, machines to refrigerate food, even machines to send messages through the air. Greater still, our mysterious enemies had launched a major offensive. The result was total war. It had stretched round the globe. Many wizards and millions of civilians had died. I couldn’t believe it. Truly, I thought someone was trying to trick me. It wasn’t until Dr. Hunter brought me stacks of old newspapers that I began to appreciate the scale. It was easy enough to accept that a lone man could be cruel, or a handful of men, perhaps even a nation, but this insanity had engulfed the species. It didn’t seem possible. What had gone wrong?

Dr. Hunter—“Hank” to those who knew him—arranged for me a convalescence at a women’s home run by a religious charity, where I spent many hours reading. I confided in Hank, either by letter or in person, the whole of my life’s story. A cover had been invented for me while I was in a coma. I was said to be a poor girl who had fallen victim to meningitis as a child. I knew that such a disease could affect the mind. After waking from so long a sleep, I needed to say my life out loud, to repeat it continuously if only to prove to myself that it was real, that it had all really happened and hadn’t simply been a dream, as the rest of the world then seemed to be, that I wasn’t Dorothea, a deranged sanitarium girl from Montana, but the immortal daughter of a Russian noble. Some days, it seemed like one had invented the other.

Eventually, when I was well, Hank admitted his own selfish ends. The war had surprised everyone, he explained, even the High Arcane. No one was sure what was coming next. I promise you, the followers of the dark were never stronger, more numerous, or more openly influential than in the early decades of the 20th century. As a result, a new organization had been chartered, of which Hank and I were founding members—a kind of magical intelligence agency operating under Master Crowley, whose public shenanigans were nothing but a means of keeping the public focused on a fantasy, a cartoonish magic, and so away from the truth, even as he carried it out right in front of them.

It was called The Winter Bureau, and its mission was to engage our enemies directly through espionage and subterfuge—even, where necessary, by means of the black arts, which were for all other persons expressly forbidden. Its aim was to discover, in advance this time, the enemy’s secret intents. Dr. Hunter had convinced Master Crowley that I was singularly qualified. I was attractive, he said, and skilled in the social arts, including deception. I spoke five (and two half-) languages, I could pick a lock, use both a knife and a revolver, and quote classic poetry. I had more than a passing knowledge of magic, from books as well as practical experience, not to mention almost no fear of death. Indeed, I could be killed and still return with information. I was, he intoned emphatically, “the perfect spy.”

I remember being somewhat surprised at my own resume as it was recited to me. I felt absolutely no loyalty to my superiors, who had sent me to rot in Everthorn, but I did to the good Dr. Hunter. He was a decent man. An honest man. More than that, he was an optimist, like any good American. Americans do not see the world as it is, which often makes them seem clumsy or naive. Rather, they see the world as they want it to be, which is why they have often been successful in making it so. And in those days, I needed to believe we could win. That the world could go off and get itself into such trouble in my absence made me question my faith in our very humanity. If the 20th century proved anything, it’s that cruelty and rationality were not bitter enemies, as had been assumed since Plato, but in fact the best of friends. I knew that I had no chance of believing we could win, of holding on to hope, anywhere but in the good doctor’s company.

He was certainly a sharp fellow, if a bit bookish, but in a way that you don’t find much anymore. He was an athlete as well as a scholar—a fit, vigorous, studious man who had once rowed competitively for Harvard. He hated guns, but he could throw a punch if need be. He could read and write almost every ancient language, and although enjoyed his old books immensely, never more than people. He didn’t drink, except for the occasion celebratory toast. Yet, if you played the right tune, he would dance like Fred Astaire. If he had a fault, it was most certainly his naivety, which is a poor trait for a spy and one that got us into trouble on numerous occasions. My time with the mizzen aside, I had never thought of myself as particularly deceitful, at least not by nature, but in Hank’s company, it became necessary—even fun—to indulge that side of me. During our many adventures through the radio era, we made quite the pair, a fact we demonstrated to the high society of Berlin on our first mission together. The room practically fell silent as we lightly joined a gala. That is how I remember him, as that dapper young man, hands in the pockets of his jacket, reaching for a cigarette to calm his nerves. He had forgone the wire-frame glasses that night at my request—we were, after all, undercover—and with impaired eyesight, he tripped and fell over a crystal punch bowl at just the right time to avoid getting shot. The crowd broke into screams and we were off on the first of many adventures: Timbuktu, Moscow, Shanghai, Baghdad. Automobiles and radios and airplanes with ghost pilots and boats that descended to a city under the sea.

from the conclusion of my epic urban fantasy FEAST OF SHADOWS.