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Prelude to Byzantium

A Chronicle of the Second Global War

by Claude Lalumière

5060 words
Listen to this story, read by the author

We weren’t going to torture the spy. But we did threaten to. And now he’s dead. Cyanide capsule. We weren’t fast enough to stop him. All we have to go on are the papers we found in his apartment in the cinquième arrondissement. We know from the dead spy’s documents that another agent — about whom we know nothing else — is boarding the Orient Express tomorrow, but we don’t know by which route. Despite the Second Global War, both the southern and northern routes of the Orient Express still run daily, travelling to and from Paris and Constantinople; the railway runs through both the United States of Europe and the Mediterranean Communities, and these two world powers are not at war with each other — not yet.

Édouard and I flip a coin to decide which of us will travel on the northern train, and which on the southern.

• • •

The young customs agent at the Gare de l’Est carefully examines my papers. The Orient Express may still be running, but wartime travel is partially restricted to those with the proper documents — or perfect forgeries. A clerk in the Ministry of the Exterior is in fact one of ours and keeps us supplied at all times with the most up-to-date paperwork. Without Eugène Fortier’s help many fewer innocents would have escaped the clutches of the now-fascist State of France.

I am travelling under the alias of Armand Collinge, a senior attaché delivering diplomatic papers to the French Consulate General in Constantinople. In fact, I carry with me slightly altered forgeries of the secret documents Collinge is expected to hand over to Consul Mondrilland. The real Collinge will remain in Paris, in the basement of our safe house in the neuvième arrondissement, enjoying the attentions of Marilyse Bourque, a particularly ruthless interrogator and skillful propagandist. If it is determined that Monsieur Collinge can be turned against the current regime, he will survive the encounter.

The customs agent hands back my travel documents with an earnest declaration of patriotism — “Pour la France pure et éternelle” — a rote phrase we are all expected to utter to display our allegiance. He is so earnest that I suspect him of in fact believing the opposite of what protocol behooves him to profess. Under the pretext of wanting to express my satisfaction to his superior, I get his name. We need more allies. We need everyone to reject this new state of affairs, but war is a convenient context for the fear-mongering that fuels the new regime. The fascists didn’t start this war, but they profit from it greatly.

I settle into my berth with the help of a matronly porter. I recognize her southern accent, and I instantly win her over by praising the beauty of Occitan French. I add, “I remember, before the war, this train always brimmed with passengers.”

To which she obligingly replies, “Perhaps, but it makes my work easier to only have eleven passengers to tend to.” A manageable number for me, too — especially that it is unlikely that all these will be staying the course the entire journey to Constantinople. “Although the tips were both more generous and more abundant before the war.”

Not missing my cue, I hand over a generous gratuity. I press further: “Are any of my fellow passengers also en route to Constantinople? Before supper, I should like to share a cognac with them and wish them good travels.”

There are only five others I need to concern myself with. I wonder how Édouard is faring on the northern route?

• • •

From the dead spy’s papers we gleaned that the cabal known to us as the Invisible Fingers — the organization responsible for covertly igniting the new war — is planning to unleash something in the twin cities of Constantinople and Istanbul; the agent travelling from Paris is in some way involved; and there’s the code word “Byzantium” — not coincidentally, the historical name of the twin cities when they were united, before the rift mandated by the Treaty of Monaco at the end of the First Global War. As to whether “Byzantium” refers to the agent, to the operation, or even to whatever the agent is carrying, or perhaps something else altogether … we have nothing beyond wild guesses based on insufficient intel.

• • •

In this new State of France, it is not a good idea to refuse a government official. All five of my travel companions accepted my invitation, as conveyed by the porter — I made sure to ask her to stress my purported identity.

The now defunct Utopia of France, my home nation, had upheld, or at least claimed to uphold, the values of truth, justice, and equality. Vérité. Justice. Égalité. The words are carved in stone for all to see at the entrance of the Palais de Bourbon, the French parliament. But those are now hollow words. Nevertheless, my brother and I have always lived by that motto, even if France no longer does. The Utopian government was compromised by long-standing sleeper agents that undermined the values of the Utopia and instead allied France with the fascist regimes that have swept most of Europe into the fledgling supernation calling itself the United States of Europe. But Édouard and I will never serve these new masters.

Until recently my twin brother and I were field agents of the Utopia’s Bureau d’action et d’intelligence, but now we are part of an underground network that is trying to sabotage the fascist governments of the USE, expose the shadowy Invisible Fingers, and, more ambitiously, achieve a peaceful and bloodless end to the Second Global War.

As part of the European Resistance, Édouard and I help “undesirables” escape the new regime. The majority of them are bound for either the Mediterranean Communities or the United Emirates of Allah, where, we know, the able-bodied will likely be conscripted to fight, perhaps eventually even against France as the war continues to escalate. The whole world is on a short fuse, ready to explode in every possible vector. Sending refugees to potential enemies of France is an ethical dilemma that Édouard and I still discuss. But ultimately we always come to the same conclusion: we do what is right — it is no longer safe anywhere in the United States of Europe for those not deemed of pure European heritage.

As the train departs from the first scheduled stop at Lausanne, in the French administrative region of Suisse, I join my travelling companions in the lounge car. I make sure to arrive five minutes late, and I am satisfied that my suspects are all waiting for me. Within minutes, after a flurry of introductions, all six of us sit around two small adjoining tables enjoying particularly fine cognac. My prey, if he or she is travelling on this route, must be among these five passengers.

The two nervous elderly ladies of means from Brighton are travelling together, under the guise of cousins, but I perceive their bond to be of the heart rather than of the blood. Only a year ago, they would not have needed to be so circumspect, but it is not a good idea to test to the limits of tolerance in the United States of Europe.

“We so love the Communities. Constantinople is so charmingly exotic. Isn’t that so, Jessica?”

“That’s right, Patricia. While it’s still allowed to vacation there, we should not miss the opportunity. We might not have another. What with the state of the world.”

I suspect their true intention is to flee their home in the European State of Allied Britannia and seek refugee status within the progressive Mediterranean Communities. For now, I deem them unlikely suspects.

Sitting with the two Englishwomen, and charming them with suave ease, is Mannfred Mannheim — a tall and muscular German businessman who divides his time among the international corporate headquarters of his engineering firm in Berlin, Paris, and Constantinople. I have met Mannheim before, but he does not appear to recognize me. Our encounter occurred seven years ago in Cologne, during the case of the Dumont forgeries. I was disguised as Marcel-Antoine Provost, a sculptor in search of patronage. Mannheim’s status would provide an excellent cover for an agent of the Invisible Fingers, whose main funding is suspected to come from business interests who want to wrest power from legitimate governments. Should he recognize me — although Provost’s beard, long hair, and glasses changed my appearance to such an extent that I doubt he will — it would be an easy feint to claim that the “artist” he met seven years ago is my brother and that his different surname is a bohemian affectation. Mannheim may appear to be a likely suspect, but I must not let that perhaps too obvious assumption cloud my observation of the other passengers.

Yusuf Khaiat is a Turkish flautist whose four-year-long contract with the world-renowned Philharmonie de Paris has now expired. His tenure began before the formation of the USE and before the new war. With no possibility of visa renewal under the new regime, he is now en route back to his home in Istanbul. As a notoriously nonreligious citizen of the faith-based United Emirates of Allah, he might have a personal stake in the status of the Byzantine twin cities. Another likely suspect. Khaiat has already finished his glass of cognac — the rest of us are still sipping at ours. I motion the bartender to refill his glass. The musician nods at me. “You are a most gracious host, effendi. May I invite you to breakfast tomorrow? At seven?” I nod back my acceptance.

The final travellerto Constantinople is a young Frenchwoman with a Breton accent. Answering a question from the flirtatious musician, Sandrine Madec informs us: “My doctoral thesis is on the impact of secular Mediterranean culture on Muslim family dynamics in the border regions of the Emirates and the Communities. I’m doing field work in the Byzantine twin cities.”

The Englishwomen coo appreciatively, but Mannheim seems bored, while Khaiat’s eyes glow with unabashed lust. As for me, I don’t know enough yet whether to believe her, or if she might be more than she purports.

• • •

At six in the morning, the train stops outside of Gallarate, where we are all subjected to a routine exit check by French USE officers. My forgeries pass muster. They always do. The agents are rude to everyone but execute their task with rapid efficiency.

I wish I could communicate with Édouard and share up-to-date intelligence. We’ve heard that scientists in the United Emirates of Allah have invented a long-distance portable communication device. What a boon such technology would be for the European Resistance! The rest of the world is always playing catch-up with UEA science.

Next the border patrol of the Mediterranean Communities goes through the train. Soon, we are again en route.

• • •

I arrive at breakfast precisely on time — based on my previous experience with both musicians and Turks, I expected Yusuf Khaiat to be late — and am surprised to find him waiting for me, serenely contemplating a large mug of black coffee. It’s not the only surprise awaiting me. Snuggled next to him is the young Breton scholar, Sandrine Madec, also engaged in silent contemplation of an identical beverage, but looking drowsy and ill-rested.

Sometimes stereotypes are handy shortcuts, but I should not succumb to that impulse with this unusual Turk. It takes courage, or stupidity, for a citizen of the Emirates to be such a vocal atheist, and Yusuf Khaiat is no idiot.

When he sees me, his face lights up in delight. “Good morning, effendi!”

I greet the two of them. Khaiat whispers something in Madec’s ear. She nods in assent, then wastes no time and excuses herself. “I’m not really hungry anyway, and I should get some sleep.” Without even sipping at it, she smells her coffee once more before getting up. The two of them touch fingers briefly as she leaves.

Khaiat turns to me: “Would you mind if I ordered for both of us?”

“I’m happy to be your guest, Yusuf.”

Our waitress is Turkish, and he orders breakfast in their shared language, much too fast and colloquially for me to follow, despite my passing familiarity with a few words and phrases.

We exchange pleasantries as we wait for the food, and now I can tell that something is happening between the lines. Khaiat is sussing me out, observing me much too keenly for this to be a mere casual get-together. He is biding his time, waiting to spring something on me. My curiosity is definitely piqued. Finally, the food arrives: an abundant variety of Turkish breakfast mezze.

“You’ve eaten mezze before, I see.”

“It is the best food in the world, my friend!”

Khaiat smiles as the waitress lays out twenty-odd small sharing dishes. For the next forty minutes we silently enjoy muhlama, a menemen scramble, three kinds of börek, sucuk saugages, olives, bal kaymak, yogurt, tomato and cucumber salad, stuffed dates, figs in honey, roasted pistachios, and various cheeses, breads, and condiments.

Afterward, over spiced black coffee, Khaiat’s body language shifts, as if he were now poised for action. “It pleases me that you take such delight in Turkish food, mas…” he switches from French to Portuguese and also lowers his voice, “who are you really, effendi?”

I continue in the same language, unfazed by his question. We both understand that fewer people are likely to understand Portuguese aboard this train. “What makes you ask that, my friend?”

“During my years with the Philharmonie de Paris, I gave many private recitals at government functions. I have met Armand Collinge on several occasions, and you are nothing like that distasteful little fascist. In fact, I would wager that you are no fascist at all.”

We stare at each other, neither of us blinking or even moving a hair.

Finally — because the clock is ticking and I must be bold if I want to get anywhere in this investigation — I say one word: “Byzantium.”

His eyes are like daggers. “That you know to use that name, here and now, tells me that you are a player in this game. But there are more than two sides, and I fear we may yet prove to be enemies. I would regret that, effendi.”

• • •

We choose neutral ground. We both agree that we should continue our conversation in a more private setting. There are many empty berths, and we pick one at random.

I see no advantage in not being candid with the Turk. If he is an enemy, deception will not change that at this point; if he is an ally, then the truth will reinforce our bond.

Still, in this game of give and take, we each parcel out information, taking turns sharing snippets with each other.

At one point the door slides open — we were both so wrapped in each other’s narratives when we should also have been paying attention to possible eavesdroppers. Magali, our Occitan porter, berates us. “Why are you giving me more work? I shall have to clean this one, too, now.” We both understand her true meaning and each hand her a much too generous gratuity.

Yusuf stands by the door. “She is gone.” He slides the door shut, and we resume our conversation.

Yusuf is a member of the Byzantine Resistance, which is active in both Istanbul and Constantinople and whose goal is to restore Byzantium, independent from both the Italian rule of the Mediterranean Communities and the Islamic grip of the United Emirates of Allah. The UEA and the Communities are currently allied against the Eternal Chinese Empire, the Hindu Supremacy, and the Antipodes (who are also all at war with each other), which is taxing each power’s military resources. Now is the time to strike. Yusuf spent his time with the Philharmonie courting diplomatic allies from many world powers, allies who understand the long-term strategic value of a neutral zone at the junction of the Communities and the UEA. He is returning home with information vital to the resistance, information that will put into motion a plan to wrest Byzantium back from its two conquerors.

I ask, “How are the Invisible Fingers involved?”

“What are the Invisible Fingers?”

I explain about the secret cabal of financiers masterminding the Second Global War and their possible agent on this train.

“Is that who they are…” Yusuf is aware that a group has been funnelling mercenaries into the twin cities, but the Resistance has been unable, so far, to learn much about them or their plans. “Perhaps we are allies after all. I will help you uncover this agent. For the good of Byzantium.”

“What of the French girl? What’s her role in this?”

“She is pleasant company for the journey, that is all.”

“Perhaps we ought not to trust anyone. The agent could be any of the travellers to Constantinople. And she is a likely suspect.”

“Then all the more reason to keep her close. To keep an eye on her.” He tries to sound all business, but the lascivious artist can’t suppress the leer from either his tone or his eyes.

• • •

The day passes — the Orient Express stops at Milano and Venezia. The Englishwomen disembark early, at Venezia; I was right: they are seeking asylum. Yusuf and I are no closer to uncovering the identity of the agent of the Invisible Fingers: Mannheim or Madec? I do not forget that Yusuf might be playing me, that he might be the very agent I am hunting. Or that the agent might not be aboard this train at all but on the northern route, with my brother.

A few minutes to midnight, the train arrives at the border station outside Trieste, where we are once again subjected to what I expect to be a routine exit check by Mediterranean officers, but unusually we are all escorted out of the train, which is then searched with dogs. I assume these are new wartime security measures. Inside the border station, we line up to get questioned at an agent’s desk. Every travelleris grilled with unusual ferocity. When they get to me, they only give my papers a cursory glance and I am quickly asked to follow a guard deeper into the station. Could something be amiss with my documents? I maintain the cool confidence of someone travelling with diplomatic privileges while being careful not to antagonize the border agents.

The Mediterranean Communities are covert allies of the European Resistance, but it is nevertheless a crime to cross a border under an assumed identity, and the Communities must juggle aiding us with respecting their official agreements with the USE. Not every government employee is aware of our clandestine arrangement. I might be in serious danger.

I am brought to a dark room and left with a man whose bulky silhouette I can barely discern — the only light seeps in through the minute slit in the doorframe. Before a word is uttered, I suspect the man’s identity. He wipes his brow several times — due to a glandular condition that makes him sweat profusely — confirming that I am indeed in the presence of Hermann Mikaalson, former Gestapo Intelligence Oberhaupt of the Northern Reich (before the fascists overthrew the Reich), now publicly believed to be dead and secretly the ringleader of the European Resistance but operating from the Mediterranean Communities.

“I have sad news, Émile.” Again, he wipes his brow. “There was a bombing on the northern line of the Orient Express as the train pulled out of the Strasbourg station.” He pauses to once more observe his sweat-wiping ritual. “There were no survivors. The Bureau d’action et d’intelligence has already identified one body as that of either you or your identical brother. They are under the assumption that you were both on that train and thus both dead — a notion that our inside agent has helped strengthen. The devastation is such that they might never identify all of the deceased.”

I remain still as a statue. Édouard and I have been considered enemies of the state since the fall of the Utopian government. Traitors in the eyes of France — but it is France that betrayed the values of vérité, justice, and égalité. We never did. I never will. I try to not let my voice betray the tears I am suppressing. “What are my orders?” Mikaalson does not answer immediately. While he again wipes his brow, I collect myself. Édouard and I knew the risks we were taking. We knew the stakes for which we were fighting. For which I will forever fight, in his memory.

“No-one has yet claimed responsibility, but we must assume, Émile, that the incident is related to your mission. It is completely in keeping with the methods of the Invisible Fingers to stage such an attack to further stoke the flames of war.” He pauses to wipe his face. “Do you need help with this ‘Byzantium’ case? I can have an operative board at Beograd or Sofiya.”

I do not hesitate. “No. I can handle this myself. But have a contact ready on the platform at each station. In Constantinople, too. How will I identify them?”

“This week, it’s a black beret with red piping. Identify yourself by asking ‘Was it in Istanbul or Constantinople that we first met?’”

Then I tell Mikaalson what I’ve learned about Yusuf and the Byzantine Resistance.

“Do you believe him?”

“I think so. He’s had several opportunities to betray me to customs officials.”

“Trust your instincts, but stay cautious. Stay alive.” A pause. Another sweat-wiping motion. Followed by an awkward silence. And then: “I’m truly sorry, Émile.” Mikaalson’s voice catches in his throat, and I’m grateful for that sign of emotion.

• • •

As we re-enter the USE at Trieste, the border guards of the Serbian Hegemony ransack everyone’s luggage. Given what I now know, their paranoia is understandable.

The next morning, as scheduled, I meet Yusuf for another breakfast feast. Sandrine Madec is again sitting with him. I wish she weren’t, so that I could discuss things more freely, but, then again, this might be a good opportunity to suss out if she is the agent of the Invisible Fingers.

“Effendi! I was worried about you! When I saw the border guards take you away…”

I decide a half-truth is best. Besides, their reactions might give something away. “I was taken aside as a professional courtesy.” I tap the diplomatic tag on my jacket. “To give me information. I’m forbidden to fill you in on all the details, but the news will spread soon enough.” I lower my voice to a whisper. “The northern line of the Express was bombed outside of Strasbourg.”

That jolts them. There are questions on their faces. I detect nothing rehearsed in either of them. I doubt they were involved. But they could be too adept at deception to be so easily caught.

Madec starts to ask: “Was anyone—?”

I cut her off. “That’s all I can say.”

They both nod; we all stay silent, observing one another.

Yusuf finally says, “I suppose one should lose his appetite after such news, but I hope neither of you will be offended that I will nevertheless indulge in breakfast. And I hope you will both join me.” This morning Madec stays with us.

Something catches Yusuf’s eyes. I follow his gaze. Mannfred Mannheim has walked into the dining car. Yusuf and I exchange subtle nods. Unfortunately Madec notices. So much for subtlety. Perhaps this matter will best be resolved overtly rather than covertly.

I wave at Mannheim, inviting him to join us.

Yusuf offers to buy everyone breakfast, but Mannheim overrules him. “Don’t be ridiculous. We’ll take advantage of your cultural expertise. You Turks prepare the best breakfasts in the world. But it would be absurd for me not to pay.” Mannheim is wealthy beyond measure — a prime candidate for membership in the Invisible Fingers. “Please make sure to order extra portions of those delicious sucuk saugages.”

Unlike the previous morning, breakfast is not eaten in silence. The conversation is freewheeling. Yusuf is especially good at getting tongues wagging, and it doesn’t take much to get the opinionated Mannheim going. Madec, however, observes more than participates. To be fair, between Yusuf and Mannheim, it’s not easy to get a word in. The war is an unavoidable topic.

Yusuf whispers, “Have you heard about the bombing?”

Mannheim presses him to elaborate.

The German businessman is disgusted. “I hate this war. We had a century of peace, and life was good for everyone. No good can come out of this.”

I push a little. “But isn’t all this warfare good business for an international engineering firm?”

“I cannot deny that contracts are rolling in. But to think war is good business is short-sighted. The purpose of enterprise is to increase welfare and quality of life. For all people. War does neither of these things. Short-term profit is a stupid way to think of business.”

Is he protesting too loudly? I don’t think so. There’s a passionate quality to his tone that is hard to discredit.

“Few, if any, of your fellow business magnates would agree, effendi.”

“I know. It disgusts me how gleefully my peers are coaxing their governments to step up the war machine.”

Madec snorts. “A pacifist capitalist? Are you putting on a show for our benefit? Don’t waste your breath.”

The German and the Frenchwoman disliked each other on sight when we all first met. Things have not improved. Mannheim’s eyes bulge with fury, but he stays his tongue. We’re all silent for a beat. Yusuf and I exchange a glance. We’re curious how this will play out.

Finally Mannheim says, “Perhaps I’m not welcome here after all.”

Madec gets up. “No, you stay. I’m the one who should leave. I was rude. I apologize.” Her tone is so neutral that it’s hard to gauge her sincerity. She hurries away.

The three of us continue to eat in silence for a few minutes. Mannheim appears profoundly haunted and troubled. Eventually he says, “I need to confess something. I’m privy to a terrible secret. It’s why I’m travelling to Constantinople.”

Yusuf and I exchange another glance. Stepping out of my assumed persona, I say, with all the sincerity I can muster, “We, too, believe in peace.”

“I belong to this covert organization called the Invisible Fingers. A cabal of privileged men and women who think the world is their playground. They — we — are behind this war. And now they’re planning bombings and shootings in both Istanbul and Constantinople to provoke a declaration of war between the Communities and the Emirates. I’ve been a vocal opponent to this entire war business, but I’m a lone voice within the Fingers. The time has come for me to expose the group and perhaps begin the process toward peace, if it’s not too late. For now, I need to warn the authorities in the twin cities to prevent yet more wholesale slaughter in the name of profit.”

I tell him, “There may be another agent of the Fingers aboard this train.” And we take him into our confidence.

• • •

Beograd. Sofiya. The border crossing at Kapikule. And now we’re less than two hours away from Constantinople.

Yusuf reluctantly agrees: Sandrine Madec is most likely working for the Invisible Fingers. Although there’s the possibility that the true agent perished along with my brother on the northern line, and I still harbour a suspicion that the agent might be Yusuf himself. But my gut tells me no. Or perhaps it is my emotions. I am still grieving Édouard, and Yusuf’s warm camaraderie has been a soothing balm.

“We might try to follow her in Constantinople, effendi, but it would be very easy for her to lose a tail in the labyrinthine metropolis. Especially if she suspects that we suspect her.”

A scream pre-empts my response.

We hurry from my berth and follow the commotion, which focuses on Mannheim’s cabin in the next car. There’s quite a lot of blood. His. And Sandrine Madec’s. Knives plunged in each other’s necks. The angle of the bodies is all wrong, though. This was staged. It can’t be Yusuf — he’s been with me for nearly an hour.

I push my way in — nearly everyone on the train is huddled in the corridor — boasting of an authority I do not possess. I need to examine the evidence before too much is tampered with. I notice the bottle of wine. I find the cork. The corkscrew failed to completely hide the needle mark. Poison.

How stupid I’ve been.

Before my presence is challenged I hurry out, grabbing Yusuf and whispering that Mannheim and Madec were murdered by a third party. “I know who the agent is,” I inform him. “We have to plan how to capture her at Constantinople.”

Her, effendi? But Sandrine is dead.” There’s deep sorrow in his voice. She’d touched him more than he’d admitted to himself.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know if she was an innocent, or yet another player who got in the way of the Invisible Fingers.”

“But who, then?”

“Who said the agent had to be a passenger?” I turn to look at him as I slide open the door to my berth. Yusuf knocks me to the ground. A bullet grazes my bicep. Before she can again take aim with her silent airgun, Yusuf lunges at Magali, our Occitan porter.

She overpowers my friend. Ignoring the blood oozing from my arm, I charge at her. But she fires again. The bullet takes part of my ear with it. Yusuf is up again. He knocks the gun away and grabs her neck with both his hands. He has her on the floor. Soon, he’s strangled the life out of her.

Yusuf’s face is wet with tears. “Yusuf, go away now. I’ll take responsibility for this. You can’t be seen here. It’ll compromise your plans. Go. Stop the Invisible Fingers. Save the twin cities. Save Byzantium.”

He nods and says only, “Effendi. You are a brother to me.”

“One last thing…” I tell him how to contact my fellow agent on the platform. I’m going to need extraction. Then, when I’m recovered from the bullet wounds, I’ll seek out my new brother. In Byzantium.

Claude Lalumière is the author of more than 100 stories. His books include Objects of Worship (2009) and Venera Dreams: A Weird Entertainment, which was a selection of the Great Books Marquee at Word on the Street Toronto 2017. His work has been translated into multiple languages and has been adapted for stage, screen, audio, and comics. Originally from Montreal, he now lives in Ottawa. Learn more at claudepages.info

Issue 32

November 2020

3LBE 32

Front & Back cover art by Rew X