Raybould Marsh is a British secret agent in the early days of the Second World War, haunted by something strange he saw on a mission during the Spanish Civil War: a German woman with wires going into her head who looked at him as if she knew him.
When the Nazis start running missions with people who have unnatural abilitiesa woman who can turn invisible, a man who can walk through walls, and the woman Marsh saw in Spain who can use her knowledge of the future to twist the presentMarsh is the man who has to face them. He rallies the secret warlocks of Britain to hold the impending invasion at bay. But magic always exacts a price. Eventually, the sacrifice necessary to defeat the enemy will be as terrible as outright loss would be.
Alan Furst meets Alan Moore in the opening of an epic of supernatural alternate history, Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis is a tale of a twentieth century like ours and also profoundly different.
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By Ian Tregillis, Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2010 Ian Tregillis
All rights reserved.
2 February 1939
Lieutenant-Commander Raybould Marsh, formerly of His Majesty's Royal Navy and currently of the Secret Intelligence Service, rode a flatbed truck through ruined olive groves while a civil war raged not many miles away. He secretly carried two fake passports, two train tickets to Lisbon, vouchers for berths on a steamer bound for Ireland, and one thousand pounds sterling. And he was bored.
He'd been riding all morning. The truck passed yet another of the derelict farmhouses dotting the Catalonian landscape. Some had burned to the ground. Others stared back at him with empty windows for eyes, half-naked where the plaster had sloughed to the ground under erratic rows of bullet holes. Wind sighed through open doorways.
Sometimes the farmers and their families had been buried in the very fields they tended, as evidenced by the mounds. And sometimes they had been left to rot, as evidenced by the birds. Marsh envied the farmers their families, but not their ends.
The land had fared no better than the farmers at the hands of armed factions. Artillery had pocked the fields and rained shrapnel upon centuries-old olive groves. In places, near the largest craters, the tang of cordite still wafted from broken earth.
At one point, the truck had to swerve around the charred hulk of a Soviet- issue T-38 tank straddling the road. It looked like an inverted soup tureen on treads but was based, Marsh noted with pride and amusement, upon the Vickers. It was a common sight. Abandoned Republican matériel littered the countryside. Most of Spain had long since fallen to the Nationalists; now they mounted their final offensive, grinding north through Catalonia to strangle the final Republican strongholds.
Officially, Britain had chosen to stay on the sidelines of the Spanish conflict. But the imminent victory of Franco's Nationalists and their Fascist allies was raising eyebrows back home. Marsh's section within the SIS, or MI6 as some people preferred to call it, was tasked with gathering information about Germany's feverish rearmament over the past few years. So when a defector had contacted the British consulate claiming to have information about something new the Nazis were field-testing in Spain, Marsh got tapped for an "Iberian holiday," as the old man put it.
"Holiday," Marsh repeated to himself. Stephenson had a wry sense of humor.
The truck labored out of the valley into Tarragona, briefly passing through the shadow of a Roman aqueduct that straddled the foothills. A coastal plain spread out before Marsh as they topped the final rise. Orange and pomegranate groves, untended by virtue of winter and war, dotted the seaward slopes of the hills overlooking the city. At the right time of year, the groves might have perfumed the wind with their blossoms. Today the wind smelled of petrol, dust, and the distant sea.
Below the groves sprawled the city: a jumble of bright stucco, wide plazas, and even the occasional gingko-lined avenue left behind by long-dead Romans. One could see where medieval Spanish city planning had collided with and absorbed the remnants of an older empire. On the whole, Tarragona was well-preserved, having fallen to the Nationalists three weeks earlier after token resistance.
Somewhere in that mess waited Marsh's informant.
Between the city and the horizon stretched the great blue-green expanse of the Mediterranean Sea. It sparkled under the winter sun. Most years enjoyed frequent winter rains that tamped down the dust. This season had been too sporadic, and today the winds blew inland, so the breeze coming off the sea spread an ocher haze across the bowl of the city.
Farther west, whitecaps massaged the coastline where a trawler steamed out of port. Marsh was too far away to smell the fear and desperation, to feel the press of bodies, to hear the din on the docks as families clamored for passage to Mexico and South America. Those refugees not willing to risk capture in the Pyrenees while fleeing to France, and who could afford otherwise, instead mobbed the ports. For now, Franco's Nationalists were busy formalizing their control of the country. But when that was done, the reprisals would begin.
The dirt road became cracked macadam as they descended into the city. Marsh shifted his weight when the macadam turned into uneven cobblestones. It had been a long couple of days since he'd crossed the border from Portugal.
His ride pulled to a stop in the shadow of a medieval cathedral. The driver banged his fist on the outside of his door. Marsh grabbed his rucksack and hopped down, gritting his teeth against the twinge of pain in his knee.
"Gracias," he said. He paid the driver the promised amount, a small fortune by the standards of a poor farmer even in peacetime. The driver took the cash and rumbled away without another word, leaving Marsh to cough in a plume of exhaust.
I'd spend it quickly if I were you.
Marsh set off for the cathedral. As far as the driver knew, it was his destination. And so he'd relate, if anybody should happen to ask him about his passenger. The cathedral loomed over the circular Plaza Imperial, and from there it was a short walk to the Hotel Alexandria. Marsh had memorized the layout of the city before leaving London. Walking massaged the ache from his knee.
The narrow side streets were quiet and devoid of crowds, a fact for which he was thankful. He wore the heavy boots of a farmer, a flannel shirt under his overalls, and a kerchief tied around his neck in the local style. But he also wore the skin of an Englishman, colored pale by years of rain, rather than a complexion earned through a life of outdoor labor. But most folks weren't terribly observant. With a little luck and discretion, his garb would plant the proper suggestion in people's eyes; as long as he drew no extra attention to himself, their minds would fill in the expected details.
It was livelier on the plaza. The handfuls of people he passed in the wide open space shuffled through their lives under a cloud of dread and anticipation. Strident Art Deco placards touted General Franco's cause from every available surface. (Unidad! Unidad! Unidad!) The Nationalists' propaganda machine had wasted no time.
The cathedral bells chimed sext: midday. Marsh quickened his pace. The plan was to make contact at noon.
Krasnopolsky, an ethnic Pole born in the German enclave of Danzig, had come to Spain attached to a unit of Fascist forces supporting the Nationalist cause. Whatever his work entailed, he'd done it without protest for years. Until he decided, quite spontaneously, to defect. But the Nationalists' victory was merely a matter of time, meaning that his new enemies had the country locked up tight. Betraying them so late in the game was a bloody stupid move.
Thus he had contacted the British consulate in Lisbon. In return for assistance leaving the country, he'd share his knowledge of a new technology the Schutzstaffel had deployed against the Republicans. Franco, moved by a fit of despotic largesse, had given the Third Reich carte blanche to use Spain as a military proving ground. In that manner, the Luftwaffe had debuted its carpet-bombing technique in Guernica. MI6 wanted to know about anything else the Jerries had developed over the past few years.
Which was why Marsh carried virtually enough money to purchase his own steamer, if it came to that. He'd stay at Krasnopolsky's side all the way back to Great Britain.
The Hotel Alexandria was a narrow five-story building wedged between larger apartment blocks. Its balconies hung over the street in pairs jutting from the canary-yellow façade. The building had only the single entrance. Less than ideal.
The lobby was a mishmash of ugly modernist décor and Spanish imperialism. It looked like the result of a halfhearted makeover. Clean, bare spots high on the yellowed plaster marked the places where paintings had hung, most likely of King Alfonso and his family. Through a doorway to the left, a handful of men and women talked quietly in what passed for the Alexandria's bar.
Marsh threaded his way toward the reception desk through a maze of angular Bauhaus furniture and potted ferns. But he abandoned his intent to ring Krasnopolsky's room when he caught sight of the lone figure sitting at the rear of the lobby, in the shadows of the staircase.
The man perched on the edge of a chaise longue, smoking, with a suitcase next to him and a slim leather valise on his lap. He stamped out his cigarette and lit a new one with shaky hands. Judging by the number of cigarette butts in the ashtray next to the chaise, he'd been waiting there, in public, since well before noon.
Marsh cringed. He'd marked Krasnopolsky instantly. The man was an idiot with no conception of tradecraft.
He purchased a newspaper from the front desk, then took a seat in a high- backed leather chair next to Krasnopolsky's nest. The other man looked at him, did a double take, and shifted his feet.
MI6 had no photographs of Krasnopolsky; they'd had to produce the doctored passport based on the man's description of himself. He'd overstated his looks. He was a tall fellow, even sitting down, and skeleton-thin with an aquiline nose and ears like sails. If he were to stand in the corner of a dark room, Marsh imagined, he might be mistaken for a coatrack.
Marsh paged through the paper, thoroughly ignoring Krasnopolsky. He waited until it looked like the defector wasn't quite so ready to flee.
"Pardon me, sir," said Marsh in Spanish, "but do you happen to know if the trains are running to Seville?"
Krasnopolsky jumped. "Bitte?"
Marsh repeated his question, more quietly, in German.
"Oh. Who knows? They're less reliable every day. The trains, I mean."
"Yes. But General Franco will fix that soon."
"Took you long enough," Krasnopolsky whispered. "I've been waiting all morning."
Marsh responded in kind. "In that case, you're a fool. You were supposed to wait in your room."
"Do you have my papers?"
Marsh took a deep breath. "Look, friend." He tried to clamp down on the irritation creeping into his voice. "Why don't we go back to your room and talk privately. Hmmm?"
Krasnopolsky lit another cigarette from the butt of the previous one. Italian issue. Marsh wondered how anyone could tolerate those acrid little monstrosities.
"I've already checked out. I'm safer in public. I need those papers."
"What do you mean, safer in public?"
Krasnopolsky drew on the cigarette, watching the crowd. Pale discolorations mottled the skin of his fingers.
"Look, we're not a sodding travel agency," said Marsh. "You haven't given me a reason to help you yet."
Krasnopolsky said nothing.
"You're wasting my time." Marsh stood. "I'm leaving."
Krasnopolsky sighed. Plumes of gray smoke jetted from his nostrils. "Karl Heinrich von Westarp."
Marsh sat again, enveloped in a bluish cloud. "What?"
"Not what. Who. Doctor von Westarp."
"He's the reason you left?"
"Not him. His children. Von Westarp's children."
Krasnopolsky shook his head. He opened his mouth to elaborate just as a glass shattered in the bar. His mouth clacked shut. The skin on his knuckles turned pale as he tightened his grip on the valise.
"What was that?"
Dear God. This is hopeless. "You need to relax. Let's get something to calm you down," said Marsh, pointing to the side doorway that led to the bar. He pulled the man to his feet and marshaled him through the lobby.
After getting Krasnopolsky settled at a corner table, Marsh went to the bar and ordered a glass of Spanish red. Then he thought better of it and ordered the entire bottle instead. The barman swept up the last of the broken glass, grumbling about having to retrieve the wine from the cellar.
Marsh waited at the bar, keeping an eye on Krasnopolsky while eavesdropping on conversations. The question on everybody's mind was how things would change once Franco was formally in power.
The barman plunked a bottle in front of Marsh. Marsh was digging cash out of his pocket when he felt the surge of heat wash across his back. Somebody screamed.
A cry went up: "Fuego! Fuego!"
Marsh spun. The rear corner of the hotel bar, steeped in shadows just moments earlier, now shone in the light from flames racing up the walls. No! It can't be —
Marsh dodged the people fleeing the fire, fighting upstream like a salmon. But he stopped in his tracks when he saw the source of the flames.
Krasnopolsky blazed at the center of the conflagration like a human salamander. New flames burst forth from everything he touched as he flailed around the room, wailing like a banshee. Air shimmered in waves around him; it seared the inside of Marsh's nose. The metal snaps on Marsh's overalls scorched his shirt, sizzled against his chest. The room stank of charred pork.
The burning man collapsed in a heap of bone and ash. Marsh glimpsed a half- incinerated valise on the burning floor. He gritted his teeth and kicked it away. The rubber soles of his boots became tacky, squelching on the floor as he danced away from the fire. He tossed aside a fern and dumped the pot of soil on the valise to smother the flames.
Then he snatched what little remained of Krasnopolsky's valise and fled the burning hotel.
3 February 1939
Artillery concussions boomed through the river valleys and almond orchards surrounding Girona. That's the sound of one's enemies caught between the hammer and the anvil, Klaus mused. With pride he added, And we are the anvil.
The besieged stronghold was Franco's final stop on his sweep through Catalonia. Once Girona fell, finishing the ground war would become a mere formality.
"They would have sent fighters after me today, if they had any planes left. I'm sure of it." Rudolf's hair shone like copper in the sun as he chucked Klaus on the shoulder. "Can you imagine that? I wish they did have an air force left. That would look spectacular on film!"
"T-t-t-t —," said Kammler.
"Rudolf running away again? I've already seen that in person. Why would I watch it on film?" Klaus laughed. "The doctor would prefer you actually confront our enemies. Like the rest of us do," he added with a gesture that encompassed himself, Heike, and even drooling Kammler.
Kammler again: "G-g-g —"
"Up yours," said Rudolf. "All of you."
They rode at the vanguard of a small caravan, bouncing along in silence but for the occasional outburst of stuttering nonsense from Kammler. His handler, Hauptsturmführer Buhler, had unbuckled the leash around Kammler's neck, so now the muscle-bound imbecile had reverted to his harmless and somewhat pitiable state. Klaus wondered what the cameramen and technicians in the other trucks talked about in their off-time.
The road back to their farmhouse wended through a vast olive plantation. Rows of trees marched all the way from the edge of the hills overlooking the town to within a dozen yards of the house. The hills themselves had turned brown in spots, owing to a dry winter. Overhead, a fingernail moon hung in a powder-blue sky. A cool, damp breeze gusted up from the river valley.
The north and east sides of the plantation had been shattered by misaimed artillery. The ongoing siege slowly chewed up more of the plantation each time another shell went off course. A shame, thought Klaus. I like olives.
They pulled up in front of a wide two-story farmhouse built in the style of a Roman villa. The family that had owned it must have been rather prosperous. When he had first arrived here, Klaus wondered if the family had also owned the almond groves that blanketed the surrounding hillsides. Not that it mattered. The Reichsbehörde had needed a base of operations from which to field-test Doctor von Westarp's work, and so the family had disappeared.
The others climbed out of the truck and filed into the house. Klaus paused a moment to scan the wide windows on the second floor, hoping to catch a glimpse of his sister. He worried about her when he was gone all day.
Excerpted from Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis, Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 2010 Ian Tregillis. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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