(Fiction) The Winter Bureau

That was my welcome to America. Prison.

Upon my release, I was placed into the custody of a man of ill health, ill fortune, and ill name: Spurgeon Fount, a parapsychologist-acolyte of Richard Hodgson—the man who, as an analyst for the Psychical Research Society, had discredited and disgraced HPB for speaking openly of The Masters. Spurgeon had no taste for politics, however, and turned instead to vampire hunting. Our time together was lively. Spurgeon was lustful and repressed, as were so many of his peers, and he wound up naked and drained by one of his prey after she lured him into one of his own traps. The beast traveled under cover of a circus, which is why I had been recruited. Many circus performers in those days were foreign, lured from across Europe with promises of streets of gold. Thanks to Durance, 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 so was inserted into the circus as an apprentice in order to discover the identity of the foul creature, who played some important role for our as-yet unidentified enemy. She also had a voracious appetite. Alas, I was a very poor spy and didn’t succeed in my mission in time to save Spurgeon’s life. But I avenged him. Our vampiress was a tumbler and quite a difficult woman to pin down. I managed to impale her on a tent pole, but only by throwing her off of 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, by which I mean years. Twenty-three, in total.  I was kept in a sanitarium, expenses covered by The Masters, or rather by their proxies. This was not done out of charity or obligation but rather because mine was a unique case deemed worthy of study. It seems no one in the world knew what would happen—or what to do. I’m told that at first, countless learned men came and went, as if they were carnival-goers vying for the high score at strongman’s hammer. Eventually, however, the number dwindled and I became just another curiosity, locked behind a steel door. I’m told also that for 17 of those 23 years, I was tended by the same nurse. She rose every day to check on me before her morning meal, twice during the day, and once again before bed. For seventeen years. She wasn’t devoted to me. She couldn’t have been. She never knew me. She was merely faithful in her occupation, my own Florence Nightingale. And yet I never met her. She died of pneumonia some twenty months before I awoke, one more victim of a much wider epidemic.

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, of course, an American. It seemed in those days as if suddenly everyone was American. It didn’t matter if you were in Paris or Istanbul. They were everywhere, both on the streets and in the papers. They invented industrious processes and married old European aristocrats and invested incredible fortunes and lost them. They made motion pictures and jazz music and chemicals and war. My American was Professor Henry Hunter, a classicist, which is to say a scholar of ancient literature. He was not a practitioner. Strictly speaking, he was a magus, an expert on magic—lost magicks in particular—and he had pursued the conundrum of my case as a kind of intellectual past time, the way a mathematician might become obsessed with a peculiar chess move, 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—barring the rare bout of catalepsy—in a locked cell at the end of a long hall in a basement floor of a sanitarium, seemingly forever.

When I awoke, he was speaking to the 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 didn’t miss the years, at least not in themselves. I didn’t miss them for the same reason I had fallen easy victim to opium—and probably would to heroin or cocaine if I allowed myself to try. I have a surplus of days. They travel quickly in aggregate, yes, but ever slow in the singular. 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 changed in my absence. I had seen automobiles in London, but they were, much like dirigibles, little more than a novelty, a new way for the rich to spend their millions. I had heard a phonograph as well. As a matter of historical record, Thomas Edison gave one to Madame Helena before she set sail for England and thence India. She kept it in the star-shaped library of Ardor House. But since the technology was terribly new, the quality was terribly poor. The first records didn’t play music—just 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. It was as if the record of my life had skipped an entire song but kept spinning all the same, and the tune it played was all the stranger for it.

The biggest news, however, wasn’t industrial. In my absence, our mysterious enemies—warlocks—had launched a major offensive, and the result was a world war. The conflict 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 at first. It was easy enough to accept that a man could be so cruel, or a handful of them, 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. It seemed that most of the women there had been with child or were escaping the fists of their husbands or fathers. A few were what today we would call alcoholic. As a condition of our board, our only responsibility was to follow the rules of the house, which were strict, but no more so than what I had suffered under the Countess Wachtmeister. Our time was otherwise our own, and I spent many hours confiding in Hank, either in letter or in person, the whole of my life’s story, pieced together over multiple visits. I needed to say it out loud, I think, after waking from so long a sleep, if only to prove to myself that it was real, that it had all really happened and hadn’t simply been a dream.

It was on one such visit—after I told him for the fifth time that I couldn’t stay in the women’s home any longer, that I needed to make my way in the world—that he told me he needed my help. 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. In response, a new organization had been created, of which Hank was a part, 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.

The organization was called The Winter Bureau, and its mission was to engage our enemies directly through subterfuge or 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 enemies’ 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 six languages, could pick a lock, use a knife, and quote classic poetry. I had more than a passing knowledge of magic, the maturity of age, and almost no fear of death. Indeed, I could be killed and still return with information.

I was, he said, “the perfect spy.”

I remember being somewhat surprised at my own resume as it was recited to me. I hadn’t seen myself that way. I was well over a hundred years old but still thought of myself as basically my father’s daughter, which is to say a fallen aristocrat, despite that by then most of the world I grew up with had completely disappeared. For his part, it seemed Hank had caused something of a stir by waking me, which no one had thought possible. Indeed, it was his success, along with some of his scholarship, that led to his recruitment. My case was trickier. Technically, I was still a criminal, but rather than return me to Everthorn, Hank convinced Master Crowley to apply my years in coma as time served and to commute the remainder of my sentence if I agreed to join The Winter Bureau and work for The Masters as a spy.

I agreed, of course. I felt no loyalty to my superiors, 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. Unbounded optimism bloomed in the New World as nowhere else. 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 been so 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 are not bitter enemies, as had been assumed at least 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 a sharp fellow, after all, and very convincing—a bit bookish perhaps, but in a way that you don’t find much anymore. He was an athlete as well as a scholar and had nearly competed in the 1920 Olympics. He was a fit, vigorous, studious young man who had rowed competitively for Harvard. He was by no means a fighter, like Durance, nor a firebrand like Wilm Castleby, but then, Hank Hunter could throw a punch when he needed to, and he could rally troops to cross a beach if it came right down to it. He could read and write almost every ancient language known, and even a few that had been forgotten. He enjoyed his old books immensely but 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 naive honesty, which is a poor trait for a spy and one that got us both into trouble on numerous occasions. My time with Durance aside, I had never thought of myself as particularly deceitful, not by nature, but in Hank’s company, it became necessary—even fun—to indulge that side of me. During our many adventures through what became “the radio era,” we made quite the pair, a fact made known the high society of Berlin one evening in the early 1930s when he and I came down the grand staircase at the same time, he from the right, me from the left, both in our formal wear. He was in pinstripes. I was in a slim lipstick-red dress. The room practically fell silent as we lightly joined the gala. That is how I will remember him always, as that dapper young man, hands in the pockets of his jacket, slight smirk hanging below blushed cheeks. He had forgone the wire-frame glasses that night at my request—we were, after all, undercover—and while dancing, 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.

Still, as dear to me as he became, I made absolutely sure that we were never more than most excellent friends, and I know for a fact he was conscious of the same—because he told me so. He didn’t say why, but he didn’t have to. We both knew we would be terrible as romantic partners, which is to say I would be terrible for him. Dr. Hunter was wise in the ways of the world, a true statesman, but he was ever hasty in the ways of the heart. Hank needed someone like him, a good woman of stout conviction with firm stature and broad hips with which to bear him many children. He found exactly that in Nancy Willard, a sweetheart from his childhood days, with whom he kept in constant contact—a fact that often put her in direct danger from our enemies. Had I ever conspired to take her place, I could’ve done nothing but hurt him.

In its mission, our new organization was both successful and not. We missed the stock market crash but correctly reported that the seekers of the dark were orchestrating the Nazi rise to power, although that knowledge did little to alter the course of events. The Masters had paid too much attention to their enemies, to Rasputin in particular, and not enough to their allies, who failed to act at decisive moments to stifle the threat. The rest is quite literally history.

After the war, thinking peace was upon us, Hank and I retired for a time. He married Nancy and started a family—a bit late, perhaps, but I was happy for him. I visited the couple at their home in Chicago whenever I could, but I never stayed long. Although she was only ever polite to me, Nancy was a straightforward woman from the middle of the continent who didn’t quite know what to make of her husband’s relaxed, casual joking with a foreign woman who always dressed sharply and who never seemed to grow a wrinkle. Rather than create trouble for my friend, I kept my visits brief and always withdrew without warning, as if to underline what an irresponsible person I was. Truth be known, I was jealous—not of Nancy, per se. Rather, of the both of them. Seeing the happy couple and their young children stirred something in me that I hadn’t felt before, and I did my best to ignore it.

As it happened, our parting was brief. We were revived by The Masters in the middle of the century. After conventional warfare had failed, Hitler’s sponsors turned to more directly occult mechanisms. Before the war, casting darkness—which is to say hiding objects or people in plain sight—had required an experienced warlock, someone to perform the ritual, as well as the Book of the Nameless itself, known in wider circles as the Necronomicon, from which the darkness emanated. As such, our focus in the war shifted from elimination of the book—which had eluded The Masters for decades—to the elimination of the senior warlocks such that there would be too few of them to use it effectively. The warlocks distrusted each other almost as much as us, which meant very few of them were ever allowed to set eyes on its pages. That gave us the edge. Our unity was our strength.

Of course, that meant Hank and I were, for all intents and purposes, assassins. Even where we didn’t pull the trigger or swing the blade, we identified the targets, including more than one famous name.

But after the war, a black magician named Zaragoza, an acolyte of Rasputin, developed the means to imbue the power of the book within specially designed objects—amulets, mostly—such that they could cast the wearer in darkness indefinitely and without need of a talented magician. Suddenly, everything changed. Agents of the dark, though depleted in number, could now move about in secret as never before, completely invisible to the Great Eye. Almost overnight, half of my colleagues were murdered in their beds, along with their families—including many children. So it was finding and destroying the book once again became our organization’s singular mission.

As the surviving members of The Winter Bureau reassembled in a secret chamber, families in tow, I remember asking the aged Master Crowley why we had ever stopped seeking it. I was told that what was done was done and that right then was not the time for questions and that the focus had to be on our own preservation. I suggested to him that in my experience, that’s all anyone ever focused on, preservation—if not life then wealth—which is why both were constantly imperiled. No one lifted their head from the counting desk long enough to see what was coming. Only I didn’t say it very nicely, and Master Crowley warned me never to speak to him that way again. His words and demeanor suggested I was, to him, still nothing but an accursed freak, and a criminal: a mizzen, a thief, and through my association with HPB, a heretic as well.

I suppose I was becoming disillusioned. I was starting to understand why it was The Masters had been so long unable to deliver the warlocks a knockout blow. Still, leaving America to join the fight was convenient for me. I had no family to protect, and my adoptive home was becoming ever more hostile to anyone of Russian ancestry. But I begged Hank to stay. He was then past 50, and I tried to impress upon him the immense value of what he had. But then, one would sooner convince the tides not to turn than Henry Hunter to forgo his duty, and after seeing Nancy and the kids placed into hiding, once again we were off.

It wasn’t the same, which he appreciated immediately. He was heavier and grayer and used to life as a suburban father and teacher, and our enemies were desperate and vicious and nimble as never before. (Only I was the same—always ever the same.) On our second mission, we met young Beltran, gregarious and cocksure. He kissed my hand wearing an amulet of steel and obsidian, and of course that fur hat that made him seem ten feet tall. He was barely twenty, and I laughed. We met him again a few years later when he was our contact in Turkey on the fateful trip that saw the gray-haired Dr. Hunter shot by Zaragoza himself.

“Stupid, stupid man,” I chided as I frantically tried to stop the blood from pouring from his chest. It covered his shirt and my hands and everything. We were on the floor of a truck which shook violently back and forth as young Beltran, behind the wheel, weaved at speed through traffic and secured our escape.

“I know,” Hank said, smiling up at me. “Tell Nancy—”

They were his last words.

I was stunned.

I realized that day the true weight of my curse, for some part of me died with Professor Henry Hunter. I could imagine that, in time, the rest of me would as well—all the parts that mattered, anyway—and I would walk the world a zombie. Or worse, as a wicked, uncaring thing. For I could imagine a time, yet far in the future, when people might become as ants to me.

But just then, it was not so. My dear friend had stepped in front of the bullet, you see, which had been meant for me—an enchanted obsidian bullet. No one knew whether or not it would work, whether it was finally the thing that could kill me, whether it would send me into another coma, or whether it would do nothing at all. I remember pausing for the briefest of moments at the sound of the shot. I saw it coming, and a fleeting thought took me.

Perhaps I wanted to find out.

Of course, by the cold calculus of fate, Hank should’ve stayed put. There was at least a chance I would survive, whereas by stepping in front of it, his fate was sealed. But in those moments of life and death, we act without thinking. It’s when our true characters are revealed, a lesson I would learn again some years later while in the company of a bald shaman from the Amazon.

I was devastated. Shocked. Silent. I wanted to deliver his body to Nancy in person, to explain that her husband had died a hero—and perhaps to let it be known that I had asked him not to leave her. I suppose I feared that she might blame me. It’s natural in such circumstances for a spouse to wonder if, perhaps, there wasn’t something more to our relationship, something that compelled him to go. I wanted her to know Hank was just as she knew him: a soldier and a gentleman to the very end.

But I was denied entry at the border. Now a superpower, almost against its will, America was beginning its long turn away from the freedom of its youth. It’s still turning.

I wanted to grieve but Hank’s death, along with several others, had left us critically shorthanded. We were in real danger of losing everything, not just our lives but the world itself, so within days of his death, I was given new orders: an urgent mission, an impossible mission, one that made it clear both how desperate we were and how expendable I was, even to the point of damnation.

Beltran, who had helped me transport Hank’s body across the ocean out of sheer respect for the man, warned me not to accept, just as I had warned Hank. He said we should run.

“We?” I asked.

It seemed so presumptuous. I felt I barely knew him. In my grief, I hadn’t yet noticed how Beltran looked at me when my eyes were turned. I told him there was no “we” and that I was going to complete the mission, as ordered, but not for The Masters. Nor even for the world. I would do it for my friend, because that’s what he would’ve done.

I never saw Nancy or the children again.

Winter of the following year, haggard and alone, I was on a train through the Urals. It was a ride that I will never forget—quite possibly the defining moment of my long life, the fulcrum on which it all balanced. I traveled under a fake identity and didn’t dare leave my locked compartment. In my hands I held the most wanted item in the entire world. The most wanted item in the history of the world.

A book.

A book that should never have been written.

I was rushing to meet Beltran, who had been my handler from afar. If I didn’t reach him, the fate that awaited me . . . Well, I’ll simply say that immortality truly can be a curse—like the endless hours in that attic in Whitechapel, starving and alone with a corpse, when all I wanted was finally to die. That is the fate I risked, a fate worse than death: eternal damnation.

When finally I found him, all Hell was at our footsteps. The horizon itself was dark as if at the approach of a violent storm. Thunder cracked—

rough cut from my work in progress, FEAST OF SHADOWS, a five-course occult mystery.

cover image by Can’t Kill Us