The third and likely final book of the Carpathia Timeline has been started. Set thirty years after the events of The Devil’s Harvest, this is a draft of the Prologue.
Budapest, Hungary, October 22, 1948
Teodor smelled the wolfsbane and feared the worst.
He was still blocks from the safehouse, forcing himself to walk slowly and without outward sign of concern as the odor of the noxious weed grew stronger. The streets and sidewalks for the city were mostly empty except for large piles of rubble that were coated with a grayish snow stained by dirt. Although the siege had ended three and a half years earlier, little effort had been made to rebuild the bombed-out buildings in this district of the city.
After leaving the meeting in the park he saw just a few pedestrians and a burly man pushing a hand cart, but Teodor felt many hidden eyes watching him from the relative safety of the damaged structures lining the streets. The citizens of the city had faces that displayed no joy; their pallor matching the dull gray of the sky above.
Teodor rounded a corner onto Tömő, his wolf’s eyes peering far down the street in the direction of the safehouse. There were three vehicles, two open-bed trucks and a passenger car, and a crowd outside the reddish-brown building. The vehicles alone told him the fate of his traveling companions — ordinary citizens were not allowed to possess any — but Teodor sighed inwardly seeing green Soviet Army uniforms intermixed with the dark blue of Hungarian state police.
The stench of wolfsbane grew stronger as Teodor approached the safehouse and he paused at a cross street several blocks away, glancing around as if trying to locate his bearings. About a dozen citizens formed a loose semi-circle around the building in the distance, watching the proceedings, but hiding among the crowd would be too dangerous. Even standing in open air, the faint trace of the noxious weed would affect him; his tear-filled eyes and dry cough would be a dead giveaway of his true nature and Teodor had no intention on joining his companions in death.
He had no doubt the thirty or so others who arrived at the safehouse with him the night before were now dead. Most were vârcolac like him, werewolves, but in the group there were also a pair of vampires, strigoi, traveling with their wolf companions. Like most vârcolac in Romania, Teodor’s vampire had been killed years earlier by the fascist Iron Guard during a purge that undid decades of peaceful but secret coexistence between the undead and the government.
Shortly after that many of the undead left their homes in the Carpathian Mountains, fleeing to enclaves established by earlier emigres in America, England, Ireland, and Spain. Teodor and those like him who remained moved higher into the mountains to avoid the groups hunting them. Then Romania entered into an alliance with the Axis powers of Germany and Italy and the pressure on the undead briefly diminished. Thousands of Romanians died during the failed Axis offensive against the Soviet Union, and with the Red Army at the border King Michael I reclaimed power and announced a treaty of peace and cooperation with the Soviets.
As far as Teodor and the undead in the mountains were concerned, however, there would be no peace. The Romanian Communists and their Soviet allies began hunting them again, this time with the assistance of traitorous vârcolac and strigoi. The only option was to flee but with the Soviets erecting the Iron Curtain between East and West, the journey from Romania to safety was long and arduous.
A bombed-out building was to Teodor’s right, and he slipped inside through a hole caused by a tank shell. The second floor was partially intact, and Teodor deftly climbed a pile of wood and brick debris to reach it. Kneeling down next to another shell hole, he could see the safehouse down the street without exposing too much of himself. Intent on the scene in front of the safehouse, the wolf did not notice the dirty shard of glass that knifed through his trouser leg, drawing blood from a scratch on his thigh.
As the wolf watched three Soviet soldiers came out of the safehouse, their greatcoats wet with blood. Each held a long sword smeared with gore. A few minutes later two more soldiers appeared carrying a blanket-covered stretcher; the hidden shape on the stretcher was a body, Teodor was sure, especially as the hump of a head was missing. Men who know to use wolfsbane to render werewolves helpless will also know cutting off the head is the only way to kill the undead, the wolf thought.
The soldiers walked to the open back of the nearest truck and lifted the stretcher up. They tilted the stretcher and a headless body slowly slid out from under the blanket, landing in the truck bed. The men lowered the stretcher and turned back toward the building as another Soviet soldier appeared, dragging a large canvas sack through the safehouse door.
Teodor’s mouth dropped open slightly as he realized the bulging sack contained the heads of his traveling companions.
I should have insisted on meeting our escape contact last night, as soon as we arrived in Budapest, the hidden wolf thought as his fists clenched and unclenched. The vampires would be awake and the wolfsbane would not affect them…two could hold back three times this number of mortal men. Even as this crossed his mind Teodor knew it would not have mattered. The group would still need to remain in place during daylight hours and the soldiers would have come and killed him as well as his companions.
Teodor had lost count of the number of bodies the soldiers brought out — along with one more canvas sack — when his attention was to drawn to the automobile. One of the sedan’s rear door’s opened and a man wearing a long black coat and hat stepped out, followed by a Soviet officer. The first man’s lower face was hidden by a light-colored cloth tied behind his head, but Teodor could see his hair was jet black and his build was powerful; as he watched the man walk to the truck to examine the bodies, Teodor realized he was a werewolf — vârcolac.
The hidden wolf watched as the man — A traitor to his race! — turned away from the truck and walked back to stand next to the Soviet officer by the automobile. They exchanged a few words and watched as the final bodies and one more sack were removed from the safehouse. The soldiers began moving among the crowd, pushing them with rifles butts and shouting in Russian at them to move along.
As the soldiers formed up into ranks, the Soviet officer ducked into the car. The wolf in the black coat untied the mask and pulled it from his face as he turned his back on the house in preparation for entering the automobile. Teodor studied his face, memorizing his features, which were handsome but lacked any semblance of warmth or good humor.
With one leg in the car, the traitor’s body suddenly turned, the man’s piercing blue eyes staring intently at the building where Teodor was hiding. The man’s chin rose slightly and he breathed in deeply, and Teodor realized the traitor sensed his presence. He must be very powerful and experienced, to smell me over the lingering scent of wolfsbane and blood, Teodore thought as he quietly backed away from the shell hole.
Moving stealthily through the rubble to the rear of the building, the wolf paused briefly to see if he was being observed before dropping to ground level and running across a small alley and into another derelict structure. Moving from building to building, he traveled several blocks before feeling it was safe enough to move on the snow-covered streets.
Several hours later the sun was nearly down as he returned to the city park where earlier he met the escape contact. Alert to the possibility of a trap, Teodor warily approached the iron bench and sat next to the contact, an older vârcolac whose name he did not know.
“Are they ready to go?”
“They are dead. The police, soldiers, raided the safehouse.”
The older wolf turned to him, his face expressionless. “When did this happen?”
“As we were meeting before.” Teodor related what happened at the safehouse, including the presence of the traitor vârcolac.
“Were you discovered? Did they follow you here?”
The escape contact nodded and returned to facing forward. “Then you will the only one leaving on tonight’s train.”
“I would prefer to stay, to hunt down this traitor and kill him. I know what he looks like.”
The older wolf shook his head. “We know him as well, but killing him…it would be very difficult. He is well protected by the Communists.”
“I do not care. I must try.”
Without looking over, the other wolf placed his hand on Teodor’s arm. “No. Your travel arrangements have been made, and you must go tonight. To do otherwise could jeopardize the friends we use to make such things possible. ”
Teodor’s head dropped until his chin rested on his chest. After a few moments he nodded.
“Good, good. This time tomorrow you will be well on your way.” The older man turned to Teodor with the ghost of a smile on his face. “You will never have to think about this traitor again. You will be free, and he will be here…or most likely killed by the Communists after the last of us has been liquidated or escaped.”
The younger wolf sighed deeply and nodded again.
* * * *
Chicago, Illinois, USA, eighteen months later
Teodor placed three apples in the hanging scale and checked the weight. The old woman standing next to him looked as well, and when he placed a fourth apple in the basket she made a clucking noise with her tongue.
“Just a pound, is what I can…what I want,” she said quietly in English heavily accented by the Balkans. “No more.”
Teodor nodded and placed the four apples into a mesh bag. “A pound, ma’am, as you asked.” He handed her the bag with a shy smile and a nod, and the woman took it with a grateful look.
“Thank you, Teodor,” she said, returning his smile and dropping two dimes in his hand. “My Viktor loves his apple pie, you know.”
Teodor nodded again and slipped the coins into his pocket as the old woman left the fruit stand. He watched as she waited a moment to cross the busy street before walking half a block to her apartment building.
The day was warm and Teodor glanced up at the cloudless blue sky, grateful to be have the shade of the fruit stand awning. The wide, tree-lined sidewalks on either side of the street were filled with pedestrians and there was a constant hum of noise in the air from cars on the street and people passing by the stand.
Teodor walked around his small business, checking the displays of apples, oranges, bananas and grapes. He pulled a dented apple from one tray, tossing it into a nearby garbage can, before bending over pick up some grapes that had fallen to the sidewalk. His head was down but he heard a car pull to the opposite curb and stop. The faint smell of wolves came to his nostrils.
Straightening himself, Teodor glanced across at the car, a new-looking Packard Super Eight, painted black. All the windows were down and four men sat in the car; as the fruit seller watched the rear door nearest to him opened and a man wearing an expensive-looking suit and hat stepped out. He was powerfully built, with black hair, handsome features and a broad smile.
The grapes were crushed to pulp as Teodor’s hand clenched, longish wolf nails sliding out involuntarily from his fingertips and digging into the flesh of his palms. Blood and grape juice dripped unnoticed to the sidewalk as Teodor stared at the face of the traitorous vârcolac responsible for the slaughter of his traveling companions in Budapest.
The traitor glanced up and down the street before leaning into the open driver’s window and saying something to his companions. The other three men — two wolves and a human, Teodor realized — got out of the Packard and briskly walked away from the car. Teodor watched as one entered the hardware store to the left of the fruit stand and another disappeared into the clothing store to his right. When the fruit vendor brought his head around to again look at the traitorous vârcolac his view was blocked by the third man, the human driver of the Packard.
“Nice fruit you got here, friend,” said the man as he picked up an apple and rubbed it on the lapel of his suit. The man looked to be in his early thirties, with short, curly blond hair and blue eyes. He sounded like a Chicago native. Fighting the first feelings of anger, Teodor mutely nodded and returned the man’s gaze. “You’re going to need a permit for this here fruit stand, though.”
Teodor turned to walk to the small table at the back of the stand where he kept a small box of papers. The man’s hand shot out and grabbed Teodor by the sleeve before he could take a step. “Nah, not a city permit. I don’t care about your city permit. You’re going to need a permit from us.”
The fruit vendor’s eyes turned to slits as he looked at the man’s hand on his sleeve. Taking a deep breath, Teodor turned his head to look back into the blond man’s face. “I do not understand.”
“Huh, you sound like you ain’t been here long, friend. How did you ever get a fruit stand on such a busy street?” The blue-eyed man dropped his hand from Teodor’s sleeve and began to walk around the stand. He pulled some grapes off a bunch and casually popped them into his mouth. “Mmm, good. Sweet.”
The man stopped at a tray of bananas and turned to look at Theodor. “It’s like this. To keep doing business on this street, you need a permit from my…group. A monthly permit. You understand?”
“I have paid the city.”
The blue-eyed man shook his head with a smile as he grabbed a banana. “Now you’re gonna pay us. Every month.”
“I do not understand.” Teodor moved over to face the man over the tray of bananas. “Why would I pay you?”
“Because if you don’t, you won’t be sellin’ fruit, or anything else, in this neighborhood. My boss right there says so,” the man said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the Packard parked at the curb.
Teodor breathed deeply to tamp down the feelings rising in his body before turning to look over at the traitor, who appeared to be watching them with great interest. The traitor’s eyes briefly flashed red. Teodor turned back toward the human and nearly lost the tenuous control he had over his temper at the sight of the man peeling a banana.
“So, you understand now, friend?” The man took a bite of banana as Teodor stared mutely at him. After a moment the man sighed and tossed the unfinished banana to the sidewalk. “I’ll be back on Friday for your first payment. Fifty dollars. No gold, no jewels, none of that Old World stuff you and yours hold dear. Fifty bucks, U.S.”
The man stepped on the banana, grinding it into the cement. “And don’t bother telling anyone like the cops. They know all about our…business.” He scraped the bottom of his shoe on the leg of one of the fruit trays before walking toward the Packard. As he left the shade of the fruit stand awning the blue-eyed man added over his shoulder: “See you on Friday.”
Teodor watched the man’s back as he walked over to the car, then the fruit vendor moved to the back of the stand to grab a small broom and dustpan. As he knelt to clean up the smeared banana his heightened hearing picked up the sounds of the two others, both wolves, returning to the Packard. Teodor stood as the foursome piled into their car, the traitorous vârcolac entering last.
As the car began to pull away from the curb the traitor turned to Teodor and smiled, causing the fruit vendor’s eyes to flash red with anger and frustration. Seeing that reaction, the traitor’s smile turned into a laugh as the Packard rolled down the street.