Chapter 1: A Joyful Scene
Joy gripped the sides of the sink until her knuckles were almost as white as the ceramic surface. The rusted drain and streaks of iron stains swirled and rippled. She shut her eyes to fight back the nausea.
Sorrow snored rhythmically in the other room. Normally the sound would be somewhat comforting, but in her early morning confusion, it was like a saw across her brain, tearing backward, forward, backward, forward…
She opened her eyes, and the whole room swayed in time with the snores. She pitched forward and pressed her forehead against the cold mirror.
Three months earlier, in early August 1943, Joy had been standing in the lobby of a very different hotel in Borehamwood, England.
"Madam, those trousers just won't work for a lady agent."
She turned to the voice and saw a squat gentleman with a trim silver mustache and a bellman's uniform. He had appeared suddenly and silently in the entrance to one of the corridors. Although she wanted to dislike him immediately, something about the smile forming at the corners of his mouth charmed her.
She extended her hand for a handshake.
"Again, unbefitting of a lady," he chuckled, "but I guess I shouldn't have expected anything different from his daughter."
"You know my father?" she asked.
"Know him? I introduced him to your mother! I had to get special permission from the commander to be the one to greet you when you arrived here."
He reached for her bag, but she pulled it away.
"I can carry it myself, thank you," she snapped, "and I'm not staying anyway."
The bellman whistled a long note between his teeth and then said, "Follow me, then. I'll take you to the commander."
He performed a swift little turn, almost too graceful for a man of his size. His burgundy uniform flashed past her into the dark corridor, and she was startled by a faint memory.
Standing on the piano bench in the parlor. Her father and mother together. Her father's brown eyes smiling. Guests in gowns and coats. A dark-haired man with a white-tipped wand in a burgundy frock coat. He waved the wand and coaxed a dove out of the top hat he'd set on her head. She was in a white dress, and her curls fell past her shoulders. And she was laughing with unbridled joy…
"You say you knew my parents…"
"I did. Taught your mother German when she was a bit younger than you. Met your father in the Patriotic War. He seemed a bit lonely after the fighting was all over, so I sent him home with my best student. Ah, here we are."
He stopped in front of a heavy wooden door. It was charmingly Tudor, crossed with heavy beams with a brass knocker in the shape of a horse's head in the middle.
The man knocked, and a harassed-sounding voice from inside answered, "Come in!"
Joy and the bellman stepped into the room. The décor was rustic, but it had obviously been an expensive room when the place was a hotel. Now it was an office. A big, rough-hewn desk dominated the opposite wall. Joy grabbed the nearest chair to sit down.
"DON'T!" shouted a stick of a man in the same high-pitched voice they'd heard from the hallway. He ran toward her and snatched the chair from her hands.
"Don't sit in that!" He turned to the bellman.
"Why didn't you warn her, Astrus?" he hissed.
"What's wrong with the chair?" Joy asked.
Astrus opened his mouth to speak, but the other man interrupted.
"It'll blow up! That's what's wrong with it!"
"That's incredibly irresponsible, leaving it out like that! Of course, all I've seen since this war began is grown men being irresponsible. I've half a –"
"Joy…," muttered Astrus. "This is the commander."
"Oh," she cried, unable to hide a slight blush, which both men noticed softened her features considerably.
She held out a hand to him. He took it weakly.
"We're glad to have you working with SOE, Commander…"
"Joy," she offered.
"Joy, yes. Joy of the Cobra Unit. Glad, very glad," he said in a voice that didn't sound at all glad. "I'm Lieutenant Jonathan Thomas, and this is Major Mark Astrus. He invented the exploding chair."
"Among other things," Astrus said.
"Yes. Among other things…. Well, Miss Joy, you're here for a mission briefing. Shall we get started?"
A distant explosion shook the mirror. Joy moaned and held tight to the sink as the sconces flickered behind their rotting silk covers. The RAF was bombing Berlin again tonight. She kept no secrets from her commanders, but they never told her when they were going to bomb.
The snores from the bedroom stopped with a gasp and some low muttering in Russian.
"Misha, is that you?" she cried weakly. Her exhaustion had begun to overcome her nausea.
She pushed herself back from the sink and into the doorway, where she leaned against the frame.
The Russian continued. She had been learning the language, but the words she heard now, while she knew them as Russian, were spoken with such fervency that they ran together.
"Misha!" she shouted again. "Wake up!"
Sorrow's eyes widened in the darkness for a moment, and he stopped speaking. He smacked himself in the forehead with his palm.
"God. God. GOD! Joy, I asked you please not to call me that!"
The sight of Sorrow sitting up in the hotel bed, his messy blond hair silver in the moonlight and his forehead resting in his hand, was so pitiful that Joy almost laughed.
"Why do you laugh at the pain of others?" he had asked her shortly after they first met, at a Nazi research facility in Poland.
It was 1942, and although they were not yet calling themselves the Cobra Unit, Joy's unit was already taking on rescue and sabotage missions. Most of them were young – everyone but The End was under 30. Joy was barely 20 and already a formidable commander.
Special Operations Team Zero, as they were known in the early days of the war, had come to Poland to drug and kidnap a Nazi chemical warfare researcher for the Americans.
Finding the Sorrow was entirely accidental.
He was an orphan from Velitsky, a farming community on the lower Volga River. The famine of 1933 wiped the tiny town from the Soviet Union map. The few survivors, mostly children, fled into the forests and to nearby towns. The Sorrow and his older sister Marina made it to an orphanage in the city of Saratov.
He was a strange child with bulging blue eyes and hair like spun moonlight. He learned when he was very young that the other children could not hear the voices of their dead relatives. In Velitsky, his family had supplemented their farming income with his abilities. Usually it was simple questions – "Whom did Old Ivan want to inherit the cattle herds?" As the 1930s began, the wives and mothers of Velitsky were asking him to reach across space to find out if their husbands and sons in the work camps and gulags were still alive.
It was exhausting, and he was a sickly child. He rarely worked in the fields, and his eyesight was too poor for hunting. His ability, he felt, was the only contribution he could make to his family.
Spirits attached themselves to him, begging him to find their loved ones with one last message. His control over the voices was tenuous at best. The other children in Velitsky were wary of him. The other children at the orphanage were terrified of him.
When the Nazis came on a gray day in 1935, not even Marina was there to protect him. She had gone to live in a community apartment for textile workers, with the promise that she would return for him once she had the means. He was left standing in the rain with men who did not speak Russian while they waited for a train to Poland.
"I don't take pleasure in other people's pain!" Joy shouted in German, still grinning.
"You were laughing at me back there!" Sorrow cried. "When I was in the dark room! Was I amusing?"
Joy frowned. "I suppose not. What were they doing to you?"
"Experiment. They say I have a unique ability which may win the war. I am always so tired from their experiments, but I wish the killing to stop."
"I'm not sure they wish the same thing. Mind if I ask what your unique ability is?"
His eyes widened in his pale face. Joy realized that he had been squinting to look at her.
"I can… talk to the spirits of the dead. It's not a good thing. It's very… sad."
"The Sorrow…," Joy murmured in English.
This refers to the Thatched Barn, a hotel in Borehamwood, England that was used by the SOE during World War II as a research facility for explosives and camouflage as well as a stopping point for agents on their way to France. The hotel was later used as the set for The Prisoner.
Saratov is a city on the Volga River in Russia that has historically had a large German population.