AT THE TABLE OF WOLVES

A Dark Talents novel

by Kay Kenyon

 

1936 England

Kim Tavistock has a psi-gift of drawing out truths people most wish to hide. Using this Talent, she stumbles upon a German plot–led by a charismatic and ruthless Nazi intelligence officer–that will use a frightening new power to conquer England. No one believes an invasion of the island nation is possible, not Whitehall, not even the Secret Intelligence Service. They are wrong, and only one woman, without connections or training, wielding her Talent of the spill and her gift for espionage, can stop it. 

 

Part I

The War of the Talents

 

1

Wesermarsch sub camp, north coast of Germany

March 27, 1936. In the distance, across the marshland, a large black car sped under a leaden sky toward the gates of the sub camp. The road led straight across the wild plain with its sere yellow grasses. Beyond lay the immense gray wilderness of the North Sea, stretching all the way to the British Isles.

As Lieutenant Colonel Kurt Stelling stood on the parade ground, his adjutant at his side, the wind blew the scattered rain sideways, driving into his cheek like frozen needles. He clasped his gloved hands behind his back and watched as the car approached. A Mercedes-Benz 770, favored by the Nazi party. Hitler’s parade car. It bore an SD officer, Colonel von Ritter, whose purpose in coming Stelling did not know.

It was bad enough to have been holed up on this flat and frozen plain for the past ten months, much less to have to wait in the rain for a Sicherheitsdienst officer who must be given “every cooperation” by the sub camp’s commandant. It was common knowledge that Hitler mistrusted his own army, preferring his loyal SS and their intelligence arm, the SD, to keep his secrets and discover others. Stelling had the feeling that this SD visit was to inspect him more than the sub camp. Despite his role in their audacious operation, they didn’t like that Stelling wasn’t a Party member.

He nodded at the guards, who opened the chain-link gate. The gate arms of the guardhouse rose up in a wooden salute as the car roared in, Nazi bumper flags rattling in the wind.

The car stopped, and the driver moved smartly to open the door for his passenger.

The SD officer stepped out. In plain clothes rather than in uniform, he wore a finely tailored camel-hair coat. He looked around him, observing the perimeter of the camp with its guardhouses, massive barracks compound and officers’ quarters. When he had taken in his surroundings, he drew off his gloves and tucked them under his arm.

Stelling stepped forward to greet him, clicking his heels and extending a hand. They would not salute, since von Ritter was in plain clothes. “Colonel Stelling at your service, sir. Welcome.” He introduced his adjutant, Lieutenant Hass.

Von Ritter made a bow and shook Stelling’s hand.

He was smiling, or almost smiling. Stelling noticed how the man was completely at ease here in the work camp, as though he were in charge and not a guest. “A very great pleasure, Colonel.”

The second thing he noticed was von Ritter’s astonishing good looks. Somewhat over six feet tall, lanky in build, dark eyes in a patrician face, black hair combed back and hardly stirring in the wind off the sea. Stelling gestured to the camp headquarters building. “Some refreshment, sir. Please.”

Stelling led the way, leaving Lieutenant Hass to escort the driver.

His adjutant had laid out food: crackers, a plate of herring, black bread and a round of Tilsit cheese with good coffee in an urn. Noting this, von Ritter smiled, as though the bread and cheese were unprofessional, leaving Stelling uncertain as to the impression he had made.

After washing up, von Ritter walked toward the outer door, putting on his gloves. “I don’t mean to be abrupt, Colonel. But I have been eager to see the . . .” Here he paused, spreading his hands in apology. “The fence. You will think me foolish. But I would see the fence without delay.” He gave a self-deprecating smile that left Stelling taken aback. When he smiled, the man could be called—the man was—beautiful.

“Of course. The fence. It is where it all began, after all. I understand.”

As they turned to leave, von Ritter held up a hand and swung by the table, taking a piece of bread. “There. We will not let it go to waste!” His driver had followed them into the building, and now von Ritter waved at him to help himself.

“We will go alone, Colonel. Yes?”

Stelling followed him out, both troubled and excited. It had been a long time since he had felt such a surge of attraction. His tongue felt dry in his mouth, and his chest ached as though a stone pressed on it. The man had a charm that was not forced or manipulative, but almost playful. A man who was not afraid to enjoy himself. Despair hovered at the edges of his consciousness, reminding him that nothing could come of such longing. But to be swept away by five minutes in the man’s presence . . . it was exhilarating.

They passed Barracks Unit 6. “Here are the strongest Talents,” Stelling explained. “They rank from 5.3 to 8.2 on the scale. Naturally, we take the best care of them.”

Von Ritter smiled indulgently. “Naturally.”

“Behind are Units 4 and 5, also assigned to the operation. Lower rankings, but still of the utmost importance.” Beyond the three elite barracks were the brick prisoners’ barracks. On the eastern border, the laborers were constructing the bivouacs to accommodate fifteen army divisions for the staging phase.

“You yourself are also of the Talent—our special Talent,” von Ritter said as they walked. “A 6.5. Am I correct?”

“Yes, sir. It still seems strange to me. I never guessed that I had a Talent. I was not an adolescent, after all. One forgets that those who were older when the bloom first began can have a Talent burst through for them, no matter the age. So, when it emerged on that day three years ago, it took me quite by surprise. The ice Talent. We were lucky to discover it.”

“There is no such thing as luck, Colonel.”

“You don’t think so? You do not believe in coincidence?”

“There is only deserving.” Von Ritter stopped, forcing Stelling to stop as well. He turned to him. “We cannot blame fortune for what comes our way, that is superstition. We make our destiny. That is why we will win in the coming struggle. Because we have the will and our enemies do not, England does not.” His black gaze held Stelling in a disturbing, compelling lock. “Tell me that you believe this, Colonel.”

“I do.” He had never thought about it, but held in the man’s demanding gaze, he was sure he did believe it.

“Ah, I thought so.” Von Ritter clapped Stelling on the back. “Now, the fence.”

They crossed a broken surface of concrete and approached a section of the perimeter fence between two guard towers. The closest guard could be seen on the tower walkway. He turned to note their approach to the fence, then swung back to survey the unrelenting flat plain, beyond which the North Sea rolled out, deeply etched with foam-tipped waves.

Stelling nodded at the fence to indicate it was the one.

“Tell me,” von Ritter said.

“I stood here as we marshaled the new prisoners into a line for provisioning when they first arrived. Some of us touched the fence.”

Von Ritter murmured, “And then?”

“It froze. Froze solid. It was as though a frigid current ran in a wave down the fence. Our hands tingled, then felt a shock of ice. It had frozen, holding some of us melded to the links.”

“The ice Talent,” von Ritter murmured. “Fascinating.”

“We were all tested to see which of us had such a Talent. I was the only one who did.”

“Such a thing had never been seen before,” von Ritter said. “That the ice Talent could go beyond the freezing of merely small things.”

“They poured cold water to release us.” Stelling held up his gloved hand. “But one can still see the effects.

“Show me.”

He removed his right glove. Von Ritter took Stelling’s hand, turning it over, examining the scars from that day. The man’s touch burned through his veins. When von Ritter broke contact, he left Stelling unable to speak.

Von Ritter stared out at the sea. “It started with you. Your Talent of the ice. And it will end with England under our boot.” He grasped the fence with both hands. “Sturmweg,” he mused. “Can you imagine what it will look like, Colonel? The invasion of England. They will be helpless. Stupefied. They think their island nation is protected. In Sturmweg, we will march to their door. More than that. To their very beds!” He turned back to Stelling. “You are a celebrity, Colonel Stelling. We have all heard this story. What a pleasure to hear it from you personally.”

Stelling found himself acutely listening to the timbre of von Ritter’s voice, as though drinking a shamefully expensive wine.

Von Ritter cocked his head. “What is it, Colonel?”

Stelling realized he was staring helplessly at von Ritter. He stammered, “I . . . I . . .” He felt paralyzed but longed to be set free.

Von Ritter stepped closer to him. “What, Colonel? You have something to say?”

They were very close now. “I . . . do not.”

“But would like to?” Von Ritter asked quietly. “But wish that you could?”

“No.”

“I think that you do.”

“No, sir. What you say about England, this is true—”

“—I think it is something more personal, is it not? That you would like to say?”

“No. You mistake me.”

“I do not think so, Kurt. It is Kurt, is it not?” When he got no answer, von Ritter turned away, then swung around explosively, reaching across his chest to a holster under his arm. He pressed a Luger to the side of Stelling’s head.

Stelling stepped backward, but von Ritter followed, keeping the gun at his temple. “You are disgusting!” he hissed. “A corrupt thing, a mongrel.” He leaned in until his face was inches from Stelling’s. “Do you lie with dogs, Colonel? Tell me, are you degraded, unnatural in your manhood?”

“No,” Stelling whispered. “Please.” He staggered back, his head smashed against the fence. He heard the gun cock. He would die here, his brains blown through the chain link. The wind blew, carrying the smell of salt water and oblivion.

“Open your mouth,” von Ritter ordered.

Stelling could not move, could not contemplate the order.

The gun muzzle prodded at his lip, chipped at his teeth. He opened his mouth, and von Ritter jammed the Luger up to the roof of his mouth, sliding the barrel savagely against his teeth. It tasted of fresh oil.

Stelling closed his eyes. It was better to die than to endure the gun in his mouth.

Then von Ritter ripped the gun out of his mouth and stood back. “Perhaps I am wrong.” The gun now pointed at Stelling’s legs. “Do you say I am wrong, Colonel?”

“Yes, wrong,” Stelling managed to whisper. It had not been obvious how he felt, had it? No, no, it had not. But, oh God, it must have been clear in his face. Smitten, smitten. “Wrong,” he repeated.

An expression of contempt crept over von Ritter’s face. “You would say anything to save your life, of course.” He put the gun back in its holster beneath his coat.

The wind roared in Stelling’s ears, as his eyes seemed to fill with a silvery light from the low clouds. He began to realize that he was not going to die on the fence. Tears lined his eyes in a rim of ice. Sweat lay as a frozen mask on his face.

“You are a 6.5. Too valuable to lose, do you not agree, Colonel?” Von Ritter cocked his head mockingly, waiting for an answer.

“Yes,” Stelling said, pushing away from the fence and finding that he was barely able to stand on his shaking legs.

Von Ritter laughed. “Say ‘I am a dog but I am too valuable to kill.’”

Stelling looked into the beautiful man’s eyes and thought he would rather die than obey such a command. “No.”

Again, the cocked head, but now an appraising look. An almost-smile. “Very good, Colonel. You are willing to die for your honor. I admire that.”

He turned and walked away.

When Stelling heard the car rumble off, he walked slowly back to the headquarters building, his senses so acute that he could hear the muted roar of the North Sea against the beach and, once inside, marvel at the remarkable smells of herring and coffee.

 

2

Wrenfell House, East Yorkshire

Sunday, April 5, 1936. If Kim Tavistock blurred her eyes, the massive gray-stoned house before her could almost be called grand. A riot of ivy, bursting in spring green, cloaked the persistent gaps in the stonework. Returning from a short trip to the Midlands, Kim was pleased to find that Wrenfell looked like home. As though she had always lived there, as though she were at last thoroughly English.

Born in Yorkshire, raised mostly in America, she’d been back at Wrenfell three years now. She might not fit in completely—so many reasons for that—but the Tavistock estate held her family’s history in every stone and field.

She retrieved her valise from the car as the dogs catapulted from around the back of the house. Flint, the setter, and Shadow, her border collie. She knelt to dispense rubs, noting that nothing had progressed on the repairs to the porte cochere, which was leaning heavily toward the barley field.

Walter Babbage came to carry her things. He saw her glance in the direction of the carriage porch and made himself busy gathering up her valise and camera case.

“All well here?” Kim asked, looking for a bit of welcome.

“Nowt amiss.” Walter ducked his stolid head in greeting, revealing a faded cap that had once been red-and-gold plaid. “Didna expect tha’ so early,” he said, marching off for the house.

Flint stuck with Walter, but Shadow had become hers and raced in circles around her as she climbed the stairs. A whiff of dry rot came to her as she entered the slate-tiled foyer. They must find the slow leak, perhaps replace the entire plumbing. Her father, seldom at home, had put her in charge of the place, an assignment she relished. Managing the restoration was just the thing for a thirty-three-year-old woman with a flagging journalism career and energy to spare. But deeper than that, she felt a profound urge to restore the place that had once been home to the complete family: her American mother, her father in better days. And Robert, her beloved older brother, before he was taken from them.

In the dining hall, the mail lay strewn on the table. Sorting through it, she found a letter from Philadelphia. Her mother. Also, a note from the housekeeper, Mrs. Babbage, saying that her father had rung up to say that he was bringing Georgi Aberdare for luncheon on his way home from York on Sunday. Since that was today, she trusted that Mrs. Babbage had preparations underway. She checked her watch. Already twelve thirty.

It was odd that he was in company with Georgi—a popular and poisonous London hostess. She must have been a guest in York and offered Julian a lift home. There was no time to lose getting changed, but on her way to the entry hall, Kim pulled a chair from its spot next to the sideboard so that there were an even number of chairs on each side of the great table. Nor could she pass up the necessity of setting the candlesticks in a proper row on the mantle.

Kim ducked into the kitchen, finding that Mrs. Babbage did indeed have the meal well in hand, before hurrying up the hallway stairs to change.

She washed her face and ran her hands through her hair. The mirror showed her a bit unkempt, but a little lipstick and powder were all that could be done for now, and besides, there would be no competing with Georgi Aberdare in looks or style, even if Georgi was well over forty. Kim could not lay claim to elegance, being perhaps rather too tall at five-eight, and her hair too short, at chin length. Her strong points were said to be good cheekbones and a very appealing empathy.

As for empathy, she knew why people thought so: she was always curious about people, that was true. But it wasn’t why they tended to confide in her. It was because of her Talent. The spill. A level 6 on a scale topping out at 10, strong enough to be disruptive but not obvious. Few people knew of her ability, and no one in her family or in the village. It was best that way. Since her adolescent years with the spill, she had known that it caused problems, even with—especially with—friends. People kept secrets to preserve the face they showed the world. If that facade wobbled around Kim . . . well, she had seen the discomfort she caused. Boyfriends were the worst. They resented that you knew their secrets, their anxieties. They left.

A compensation was in journalism. She couldn’t deny that in interviewing, she’d often had a boost from her Talent. And a good thing too, with jobs so hard to find, and women being the last in line to get them. But her employers need never know her peculiar advantage. She got her scoops, and that was enough for them.

Many people felt the same need for secrecy, even now, so long after the bloom had come into the world. The onset did not have a specific date but had crept in during the last year of the Great War, starting with small outbreaks of paranormal claims and gathering power into a great upwelling of psychic gifts. These abilities visited perhaps one in a thousand after puberty, but it was hard to know the numbers, since people didn’t like to say. The special abilities carried a whiff of the unsavory. Talents could, of course, be exploited. Criminals might use mesmerizing or precognition in their attempts to steal or otherwise take advantage. At the same time, the authorities in turn might use object reading and trauma view to solve a crime, so in that arena it rather balanced out.

The bloom might have begun at Ypres, or the Marne or Gallipoli, when those who waited at home began to understand the unbearable losses. Scientists studying paranormal abilities thought that Talents had lain dormant for millennia, ultimately emerging from mass trauma. They theorized that, even before the bloom, some people had possessed Talents. And some cultures had accepted them more freely than others. The more deeply buried they had been, the more notable the outbreak. Or so they said.

A great deal was yet to be sorted out. Monkton Hall was part of that sorting, but of course she must never say anything about that.

She chose a gray wool skirt with her best sweater set and was just coming down from her room when through the foyer windows she spied a large maroon-and-black touring car enter the gate. Kim slipped quickly out the back door to cut a few flowers for the table centerpiece, but Rose, the Babbage’s adult daughter, had already been put to the task, and sat among the daffodils with a shears. At nineteen, she was limited in some of her abilities, but she did very well at simple tasks.

“Oh good, Rose! Take a few branches of quince, too.”

Back in the hall, she found her father and Georgi laughing over something in the bustle of removing coats. Julian Tavistock cut a fine figure at sixty-two with his solidly built frame and flawless English bearing. He nodded at Kim as he gave the coats to Walter. The Babbages were everywhere—the three of them—circulating through tasks as though there were ten of them instead of three.

Georgi produced a wide, red smile for Kim. “My dear. How lovely to see you.” Her acid glance took in the foyer all at once: the stripped-off paneling leading down the hall to the buttery and kitchen, and the water stain below the ceiling cornice. She looked smart in a navy blue suit trimmed in velvet. With her hair pulled back from a severe center part, she was vivacious and a little scary.

“We have quite barged in on you, I fear,” Georgi said. She unpinned her hat and set it on the round hall table.

“Oh, not in the least,” Kim answered. “It’s very good to see you again.” They had met last season at a torpid dinner at Georgi’s London house with two earls and a handful of marquises, all of whom seemed to sympathize with Germany’s ambitions. As did her father. Since coming home, she had had to get to know him again—there having been little communication during her American years. She didn’t quite care for what he’d become.

Julian came forward and pecked Kim on the cheek. “We’ll have time for a glass of sherry before luncheon.” He led both women into the parlor.

“We can take our time. It’s only sandwiches,” Kim said. “At least, I think so. I just got back from four days in Gloucester and Shrewsbury.”

Georgi accepted a sherry from Julian. “Don’t worry, we shan’t stay long. I have a long drive home—alone, I fear, unless I can persuade your father to come down to Summerhill for a few days.”

Kim did wonder how Georgi could hope to sway her father, who had perfected a kind of inattentive passivity on which no amount of petition had the slightest effect.

A great clatter from across the foyer brought Kim to her feet and thence into the dining hall, where the daffodils lay amid shards of a vase, and Rose stood on the verge of tears. Mrs. Babbage hurried in, noting with dismay the jumble of flowers and glass. Julian and Mrs. Babbage managed to get things swept up and Rose comforted, while Kim got a few sprigs of the quince into another vase, the daffodils being a loss among the breakage.

At table, Georgi murmured that Rose did not seem quite right, which Julian ignored, leaving Kim with the duty to defend the girl. “Oh, she does very well, actually.”

Georgi smiled pityingly. “I do hope you don’t allow her around the china, though.”

“If you had your way, Georgi,” Julian said, “all our young ladies would have gone to finishing school.” Mrs. Babbage served the luncheon, quarter-cut sandwiches nicely spaced on a bed of watercress.

“Oh, I hope you don’t mean equality,” Georgi said, arranging her napkin. “If you turn into a freethinker, Julian, we must ban you from the hunt.”

“No danger there.”

Georgi turned her attention like a gun barrel at Kim. “Julian tells me you are writing up little side tours of England.”

“Yes, my magazine series. I’m seeing quite a lot of the country this spring.”

“But whatever for? There is scarcely anything to tour except in London.”

Kim locked glances with her. “It would make a short series, then.”

“Well, if you can make something of Shrewsbury or anything in the Midlands, it’s to your credit. Of course, after the terribly unfair matter at that American newspaper, one must do one’s best.”

Kim shot a glare at her father for telling Georgi about that debacle.

Georgi went on. “My own writing skills do not go beyond a nice invitation. I am useless, you see.”

“Nonsense,” Julian gallantly protested. “Where would the season be without you?”

“How was your trip to York?” Kim prompted, hoping to find an agreeable topic before she tipped the hollandaise sauce in Georgi’s lap.

The woman sighed. “Trying, I’m afraid. Two dreary days with my cousin panting at my heels, even if he is an earl.”

Julian coughed discreetly. Georgi stared at her plate, murmuring, “Well, that’s all long over.”

In turn, Kim stared at her own plate. Had Georgi just implied that she’d had a dalliance with her cousin? Kim flushed with dismay lest her father suspect what had just happened. A spill. Kim never knew when a confidence was coming. In fact, she knew quite well that when she wanted to know, all chance of a spill fled.

She glanced at her father. He was clueless about her Talent.

But Georgi certainly had embarrassed herself. Julian was the first to rally. “Your cousin was all for rearming and rattling swords in the face of the Hun. You took him to task, though.”

Georgi managed a smile. “One does one’s best.”

Kim was still trying to overcome her shock at having received a spill from none other than Georgi Aberdare. Her cousin, panting at her heels. But spills did tend to be the things you most wished to hide.

Georgi accepted a helping of asparagus from Mrs. Babbage, who hadn’t bothered to remove her cook’s apron. “Unemployment is shrinking on the continent, that’s the thing people forget. Hitler is getting Germany back on its feet. He’s not popular in some quarters, but one can’t argue with success.”

“One might argue about his marching into the Rhineland,” Kim said, trying, but not very hard, to keep an even tone.

Julian flashed a look at her. “Germany is encircled by enemies. Russia. France. Don’t press them too closely, or you’ll provoke Herr Hitler well and good. We don’t want another war, that’s the main thing.”

Despite the spill and that it had happened in front of her father, Kim was unable to pass up their old debate. “I don’t see how Germany’s rearming makes peace more likely.”

Georgi tapped her mouth with her napkin. “Really, Kim, you are quite behind in your thinking. Once Germany feels safe, the whole continent will be secure.”

“As long as England is secure,” Kim shot back.

Georgi pounced. “That’s just what we’ve been saying! It’s the way toward peace.”

Looking from Georgi to her father, Kim felt like an outsider at her own table. Not that it was exactly her table; it was her father’s, of course. She was grateful to be taken in, as she could not yet afford to live on her own.

Her exposé on animal vivisection in the Philadelphia Inquirer had ruined her career. Medical researchers protested the attack, and readers objected to the sensational content in an uproar that went well beyond Philadelphia. No one wished to read about the torture of animals over their morning bacon and eggs. When Kim had quit in protest at being put on the obituaries, she found herself blackballed. Thus, she must make something of the English countryside, which quite frankly, she felt lucky to be able to do.

Mrs. Babbage brought in a tray of sherbets as conversation turned to whether Julian would come down to Summerhill in the fall for the grouse. Hunting was another topic about which Kim had best remain silent. She had sometimes been accused of liking animals better than people, which was patently untrue. Except that animals were innocents. And as the spill constantly reminded her, people were not.

At last, Julian stood. “Let me show you the village, Georgi.” A sly smile: “You haven’t seen Yorkshire until you’ve seen Uxley.”

“Oh, does this country tour never end?” Georgi wailed in good humor. But they were soon off, with Georgi no doubt enduring a trip to the village in order to please Julian, whom she seemed keen on charming.

Kim watched them driven away by the chauffeur, down the long driveway. Kicking off her shoes, she splayed her toes against the cool flagstones of the hall.

It was then that she noticed a puddle of water by the floor trim. The pipes really must be replaced, she thought with dismay, but when she looked closely, she saw that Rose’s plaid coat was the cause, dripping wet.

In the kitchen, Rose sat on a stool, rolling out biscuit dough under her mother’s supervision.

“Rose,” Kim asked as she ducked in, “why is your coat soaking wet? Did you fall in Abbey Pond?”

Rose grinned at this. “The snow melted! Little storms goin’ on!”

The weather was on and off again, but Kim hadn’t seen snow since mid-March. Perhaps Uxley had shared in the bad weather that had visited the Midlands.

She wandered into the parlor and gazed out the window, down the driveway where the maroon-and-black car had disappeared. She had been looking forward to being home after being on the road a few days with her assignment, but the argument about Germany had disconcerted her.

She picked up the LNER booklet from the coffee table and settled onto the couch to peruse the little orange tract. The London and North Eastern Railway timetable fell open to the weekday schedule with its rows of precise departure times from nearby York. The 2:18, the 2:42. York to London or Edinburgh. She relaxed into it, feeling the assurance of British regularity and accuracy. Here you had a 4:41 arrival in Leeds and a 5:10 in Doncaster. It was like the clockwork underpinning of the world, a mirror of the orderly universe. She had seen how easily the world could spin out of control. The LNER timetable was a great comfort.

Another comfort was Monkton Hall. All those who participated in its program were subject to the strictures of the Official Secrets Act, so it was necessary to pretend that her trips to the North York Moors were for a writing assignment rather than top-secret research into Talents. Her case worker at Monkton Hall said that the next war—and war was coming, he assured her—would be won by Talents. Decrypts of German army communications showed that they strongly believed in potential military uses of Talents.

Ominously, they had almost a decade’s head start.

 

◊◊   To see an annotated list of the Talents.  ◊◊

 

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