Serpent in the Heather
1 CRACOW, POLAND
FRIDAY, JULY 24, 1936. Sometimes, if you run, you attract predators. She knew this but, like a zebra on the savannah sensing danger, she fled. It had only been a man with a doll. Still, she ran. In her second-class carriage seat, Tilda Mazur scanned the railway platform. The train, reeking of oil and scorched iron, collected passengers, but no one she recognized. In the July sun, heat waves wobbled off the pavement, blurring her view of the holiday-goers, families, businessmen. Killers, maybe.
If she had been able to last a few more days, she would have made her rendezvous with “Allan,” who was to take her to safety. Allan, she had been told, was six-foot-one, with medium brown hair and blue eyes and would be carrying a leather satchel with a red kerchief tied on the handles. The British embassy had arranged everything: her forged passport, her escape to England. Escape, a terrible thing to say. But Poland had betrayed her.
Sitting by the window, clutching her handbag, she crossed her legs. As she did so, a middle-aged man across the aisle noted this, his gaze lingering on her legs. He didn’t mean anything by it, but she tugged her skirt down. He was small, dapper, thin. How did you know who was an agent of the Nazi SS? At twenty-three, Tilda Mazur knew little of politics, had never even been out of Poland. She thought Hitler’s Black Order would look brutish, with small, hostile eyes.
But they could be anyone.
An old woman sat across from her, a woven basket at her feet. Next to her, a young girl, hair brushed back, with the bright and bored face of a thirteen-year-old leaving for the weekend with Grandmamma.
Tilda moved over to allow another passenger to sit next to her. The woman, with iron-gray hair and smelling of cabbage, heaved her suitcase onto the luggage rack and settled in. Tilda had no luggage, only her handbag, stuffed with two fresh pairs of underwear and her face cream.
The train, which might as well have been cemented in place for all its promise of movement, finally began inching away from the station, venting steam in an explosive hiss. As the train picked up speed, the Dworzec station fell behind, but without bringing even a breath of air into the stifling car.
Nevertheless: in three hours, the embassy in Warsaw, and safety.
Tilda allowed her body to sag into the seat back. The worst was over, but still, her worries spun round and round: the rumors of people like her dying, jumping in front of trains, having heart attacks at thirty. Andrzej, who was her first friend at Sosnowa House, with his sweet demeanor and skill of hypercognition, had died in a fall from a bridge. An accident, the papers claimed.
But to her fellow subjects at Sosnowa House, it was an assassination, part of a string of them that the higher-ups wouldn’t admit. Dismissing the concerns, their handlers only said no, you are overreacting. She had demanded answers of her case worker. He had claimed she was perfectly safe since the Bureau would never divulge her name. But even if he believed this, perhaps he didn’t know if there was a traitor amongst them. Someone who identified Tilda’s colleagues to Hitler’s paramilitary SS, fanatics who would do anything to further their Führer’s aims.
Like the Dutchman.
She had met him in the market last week at the kiosk of antique dolls. She had stopped to admire the beautiful dolls, some with faces so exquisite they seemed to be alive. Many had carefully painted heads with specific character and bright glass eyes. There were even some with feathered brows and real eyelashes.
From behind her had come a voice in an odd, foreign accent: “The one that you are holding. It is a Simon & Halbig. An 1897 bisque doll.” She turned to see a stocky man in his mid-thirties, with a squarish face tending to jowls. He wore very thick glasses. A glare of sun slanted off them.
“You have exquisite taste.” His Polish was excellent.
Surprised to be addressed, she quickly replaced the doll she had been looking at. “Yes, she is very nice.”
As the merchant shuffled forward from the back of the stall, the man in glasses frowned him away. He picked up the Simon & Halbig doll. His full lips glistened as though he had just licked them. “This was among the first dolls to use children’s faces. Strange, is it not, that people preferred their dolls to look like women?”
“Oh, I didn’t know.” She finally placed his accent. Dutch. Actually, she had known about dolls’ faces, as antique dolls had
always fascinated her. But she did not want a conversation with this man who regarded her with an intensity she found unwelcome. There was something peculiar about his eyes. Behind the thick glasses, his eyes appeared to be crackled with fine lines like old porcelain.
“You like dolls, that is clear,” he said. “I, too.”
“No, no, too expensive,” she said, and made a shrug of indifference before she turned away.
“Sometimes, the price, it is worth it,” she heard him say.
She was eager to leave the market square. During their brief encounter, the Dutchman had been staring at her, and standing so close to her, in an over-familiar, disturbing way.
That had been six days before, on Saturday. Then, on Wednesday, she had seen the same man following her, and she had been seized by fear. Did the Dutchman know what she was? Had he come to kill her? Knowing she would have no help at Sosnowa House, she had contacted the British embassy. She must have protection. Surely they would help her, for she could offer them her services. A train ride to Warsaw, and it had all been arranged: her meeting with the man called Allan, her escape.
Her escape on Monday, three days from now. But she could not wait for him.
How had it come to this? Last year, when she had been offered training by the Polish army, she had felt proud of her special ability, but during the last weeks, how she wished she were ordinary! She had never considered how much danger she would be in should Poland’s enemies discover what she could do, how her ability was so powerful that she could be of direct use on the field of battle.
At first, it had been exciting. In the vale surrounding the top-secret Sosnowa House, her trainers had led her through precise
exercises in the use of her skill: darkening. She had learned how far she could reach and how to calmly employ her power under duress. These sessions and her fierce patriotism prepared her for sacrifice in case of war. But she had never thought the Nazi fanatics would come for her in Cracow, that Hitler would begin hostilities early, not bothering to declare war. Andrzej had said that Germany wished to weaken Poland’s ability to use Talents in their arsenal of defenses. Poland’s army was strong, and the Nazi war machine needed every advantage if they marched across the border.
And now, she believed, a traitor had handed over names of Poland’s Talents. Perhaps her name.
This morning, when she had seen the Dutchman again, she had telephoned her uncle, begging him to meet her at her apartment and to bring a gun. But then she had changed her mind, suddenly desperate for the safety of the embassy. Afraid to even leave a note for her uncle or mother, she had rushed to the railway station. Within the hour, she was on her way to Warsaw.
The train clattered through the countryside with its endless fields, some harvested to stubble, others with knee-high acres of wheat. Tilda had thought she would feel safer outside of the city, but this emptiness was worse. It felt more exposed, and the close confines of the carriage seemed to strip away her anonymity. How painful it was to be on alert for violence, as though a hand were gathering the nerves in her chest and slowly, softly, twisting them.
On the opposite bench seat, the young girl brought out a sandwich from her pocket. Her grandmamma spread a napkin between them, chatting with the youngster. While Tilda listened idly to their exchange, someone came through from the next car, moving down the aisle.
When Tilda looked up, she saw him. The man in glasses.
Shock coursed through her. He passed by, wearing a rumpled suit, his face glistening with sweat. He did not make eye contact. Oh, he had come for her. She tried to get ahold of her skittering thoughts. Perhaps he was merely a man following her because he wanted her and could not help himself. Still, why was he on this train, knowing she would see him and be forewarned? Perhaps he was one who enjoyed fear, who wanted to savor it.
Panic surged anew as her choice became plain to her: she would run again. The train was coming into a station.
Cradling her handbag, she lurched from her seat, not looking behind to locate the man in glasses. Against the swaying of the train, she staggered down the aisle, then shoved through the door to the inter-carriage compartment, balancing on the shifting floor sections.
The train stopped. Out the window she saw the sign for Czestochowa. She yanked open the door and jumped out.
And brought the night.
She cast a darkness around her, over the train, the station platform. She pushed her darkening as wide and far as she could, a full acre at least, and rushed along the platform, barely able to see people as they called out in alarm and milled in confusion under the black cloud. Her darkness would protect her. The disc of the sun cut through the dark like a baleful, silver eye, casting little light. Pain stabbed at her feet as she ran in her heeled shoes, desperate to be out of sight of the railway carriage windows. She ran past a large outbuilding, and then lumps of what up close she saw were motorcars. The car park.
She stopped to look behind her. But in the gray murk she threw around her, she could see little.
Where could she go? Running madly forward, she found herself in a grassy field. She stumbled on.
Dries Verhoeven had worried she might bring her Talent to bear. He had known it was powerful, possibly an 8, but he had not known which precise Talent it would be. Ach, so it was darkening! This was a Talent he was well matched for, especially now as she revealed her panic, bolting from the train as it made its stop.
He followed her, slowly and quietly. He had plenty of time now that she had crossed the car park and entered a field. He could just make out a slightly built young woman—with, he remembered, a very sweet face—stumbling about in the long grass.