He examined Michael's bruised face and swollen left eye at a distance of a few inches. He looked at the arm in the sling. He shook his head sadly. "You no Devil. You hurt, maybe crazy headed fool."
"This is my disguise," said Michael. Nuri didn't seem to understand, so Michael amended it. "My mask."
The Fireman reached under his robe and brought out a knife with a curved blade. He put it to Michael's jawline. "Nuri cut your mask off," he said, his eyes glittering in the torchlight. "Then know your real face."
Michael had to brace himself. He had to hold himself steady. He had the feeling that now was not the time. The time was coming, very soon, but this was not it.
He said easily, "I've come all the way from Hell, Nuri. A long way. Won't you show me a little of your village before I destroy you?"
The tip of Nuri's knife dug into Michael's flesh, but not quite hard enough to draw blood. Nuri began to laugh again. It was a low laugh, a dark and twisted laugh, and it was echoed by only a few of the others. Nuri lowered the knife and grinned. "All Hell," he said, opening his arms wide to encompass the world. "Everywhere. Me. King of Hell. Me. King of all devils. You only fool with madness here." He touched his own skull with the handle of his knife. "Where you from come? Do not know. Where you go...Nuri do know." He called out what sounded like a series of commands. A rifle barrel came up between Michael's shoulderblades and a pistol was aimed at the side of his head. Nuri turned away and walked through the throng. The rifle barrel shoved Michael forward. A man with three teeth darted in, chattering, and looked to be measuring Michael's boots against his own well-worn sandals. Michael let himself be moved, as the crowd moved around him. At least, he thought, he was headed in the right direction, toward the waterhole.
He noted that the watchman had returned to his post and that Nuri, certainly no fool, had sent a trio of men with rifles out into the dark to see if any more devils lurked nearby. Gantt and the boy were on their own.
Michael was paraded through the Dahlasiffa village. Women, children and dogs kept pace with the knot of armed men who surrounded him. One dog in particular came running up and started barking and spewing spittle with such abandon that Michael thought it was going to take a bite from his leg, and then a man gave it a kick that sent it reeling back amid its more reluctant brethren. These were not gentle people. Michael knew that whatever was in store for him would be a kind of Dahlasiffa hospitality that he might not appreciate.
He was stopped somewhere within the village. Torches and oil lamps ringed him. The guns were everywhere, and they were all pointed at him.
The crowd parted once more as Nuri the Fireman approached. He again got up almost face-to-face with Michael. "Village mine," he said. "People mine. Nuri rules here. You say different, Devil?"
Michael stared into the man's eyes without flinching. "I say Nuri will soon be on his knees. I say Nuri will soon be begging for mercy."
That brought a huge smile and a clap of the hands. Evidently Nuri was enjoying the baiting, as Michael had hoped a hardened killer would. He doubted that anyone in this world had ever spoken to Nuri thus. And who else would have the courage to say this to him, but the Devil himself?
"Devil," said Nuri, "meet my son."
A boy about fourteen appeared, hobbling on sticks covered with gauze bandages likely scavenged from a dead medic's pack.
The boy, wearing a loosely-fitting white shirt and a pair of red-dyed trousers, resembled his father. Except his right leg was gone at the hip, and there was only enough remaining of his left foot to grip a small piece of ground. It was, really, the shape of a cloven hoof. Michael recognized the injury. It was what happened when you stepped on a mine. Even if you survived the blast, some body parts did not. Looking into the boy's sunken eyes, Michael wasn't sure how much had actually survived. The right eye was a white, rolled-back orb, sightless. That side of the face kept twitching violently as injured nerves spasmed.
"Hasib mine," Nuri said quietly, up close to Michael's ear. "Eldest son. Such pride. Is handsome boy? Say speak, Devil."
The boy stared at Michael with as much hatred as Michael had ever dreaded to see. If this boy had a gun, the little play would be over. The hate was a living thing. It felt like a lizard with a skin of spines, and it smelled like a world on fire. Michael knew this boy. He knew him well. This boy was every sufferer that war had made, every orphan, every widow or widower, every amputee, every brutalized corpse in a shallow ditch, every piece of flesh that used to be a man, every silent scream.
He knew this boy well, and he felt terror to his soul.
"Handsome," whispered Michael Gallatin.
"Ah!" said the Fireman, smiling. "Thank you so."
Michael felt a night breeze blow past. He heard the rattle of the palms and he smelled the enticing perfume of the waterhole. The urge to drink fell upon him, and still stunned by this vision of war's corruption he was seized by a moment of rare weakness.
"I would like some water," he told Nuri.
"Thirsty is the Devil? How this?" Nuri's head cocked to one side. In his eyes evil festered. "Drink," he said, and he spat into Michael's face.
The crowd shouted its sincere approval. They hollered and danced, and some of them fired their weapons upward into the night. It seemed to Michael that it was nearly time indeed.
Nuri spoke another series of commands. Hands grasped Michael by the arms - both arms, which caused him to grit his teeth and put his head down so they might not see him on the verge of crying out - and half-pushed, half-dragged him along. The entire Dahlasiffa nation seemed to be out in force, and like a sea in the desert they moved along with him in dusty waves.
They took him to the pit.
He lifted his head and saw that it was about six meters long and three meters wide. Across its length was the trunk of what had been a sturdy palm tree, secured on either end by piles of sandbags. Various clay jars stood alongside the pit. The crowd was festive, the musicians began playing once more, and Michael wondered what the hell he'd gotten himself into.
He was able to have a look into the pit. By the light of the flickering torches, he saw it was about a meter and a half in depth and had a short ladder leaning against one side. At the bottom, some scurrying around and others sitting deathly still, were perhaps three hundred scorpions. Pale brown ones, Michael noted. Those gave a nasty sting but were not poisonous. He was pushed and dragged along to one end of the palm log, and standing there with his right hand on his broken shoulder he saw Nuri take up position on the far end.
Nuri motioned to the crowd, and they were quiet. "Devil!" he called out. "Have we a contest!"
Michael remained silent. Two dozen guns from three nations were aimed at him.
Nuri stepped out onto the palm log. His balance was sure. He was grinning broadly. "Devil!" he said. "Meet us in..." He was having trouble with the translation.
"There," he said, and pointed at the log's center. "Have us...what call you...a cheerio little war. Me. King of all devils. You. Spit-faced fool." He translated that to his people and they laughed so uproariously Michael was certain some had peed in their robes. It didn't take much to keep this crew happy. Reading Michael's silence as fear, Nuri asked, "Has Devil no brave?"
Michael was watching the scorpions. Maybe more than three hundred in there, he decided. But not poisonous. He knew he had to do this. "The Devil has brave," he replied.
"Ah! Then well!" Nuri gave an order. One of the men picked up a clay jar and upturned it over the pit, and venomous black scorpions by the dozens began to slide out.
The audience had begun to dance and clap to the rhythm of the music. Nuri reached under his robes and brought out in his left hand the knife with the curved blade. The right hand gripped a piece of iron pipe with a half-dozen short chains attached to its end and a nail fixed on the end of every chain.
A second jar was upturned. Dozens more black scorpions slid into the pit. Some of them had obviously expired during what might have been a long stay in the jar, but enough crawled around twitching with anger to let Michael know the man who fell among them was not going to be loved to death. Another robed Dahlasiffa reached in, pulled the ladder up and threw it aside.
"Devil!" Nuri shouted. "Come, come!" He started out along the log, the knife low at his side and the chains already swinging over his head.
Michael nodded, if only to himself.
It was almost time.
Now...the question was...where were Gantt and the boy?
With extreme caution and in no particular hurry, Michael walked out foot-over-foot above the scorpion pit. This action received a roar of enthusiasm from the Dahlasiffas, who obviously had seen other uneven contests play out over this pit and knew what the final result must be, but surely it was never a dull moment when a hapless enemy either fought for his wretched life or begged for it. Either way, he was going to become a stinger's pincushion.
"Come, Devil!" Nuri shouted, swinging the chains. "Come, come!" He walked along the palm log as if he could do this in his sleep. When Michael got within range, the nails came whistling at his face and he had to jerk back to keep his nose. His left foot slipped. He was aware of all the small darting movements in the dark piles below him. Now he had to focus on the task and that alone. Nuri walked forward with no fear and no reason to fear. The chains and nails went over Michael's head as he ducked, and then the knife was coming at his stomach in a glittering blur. Michael retreated, to a chorus of what could only be derisive catcalls. But Nuri was quick and relentless, and with a savage grin on his face he flailed at Michael with the chains and caught him across the left bicep, tearing his shirt and flesh and throwing droplets of blood into the air.
The audience cheered for their hero, the Fireman in red.
Michael dodged another swirl of the chains but now the knife was driving in at his right thigh. He moved the leg in time to avoid the stab but caught a graze, and at close quarters he stepped into Nuri and headbutted the man. Nuri's nose burst open, and the crowd went silent. Nuri staggered back, almost toppled off the log but regained his balance, and now with blood streaming from both nostrils he gave an animalish snarl and swung the chains and nails across Michael's chest on the left side. Shreds of bloody cloth whirled up. The knife flashed, but Michael had already shifted his position and was ready for it.
He caught Nuri's wrist and held it.
They stared at each other, man against man.
Nuri reared his right arm back to strike with the chains.
And Michael knew the time had come.
He opened the soul cage, just a crack, to let some of it free.
His hand, holding Nuri's wrist, rippled and began to change. Michael directed its transformation, he willed it and controlled it and owned it. Within seconds the hand had darkened with hair; it had altered its shape, and its fingers had curved into the claws of a killer. Black wolf hair ran like strange vines up his arm, twining around and around.
And so too did Michael direct the transformation to his face.
Nuri's movement with the chains had already frozen, for he saw the commingling of human hand and animal claw that seized his wrist. Blood was already being drawn. The pressure was about to crack his bones. His eyes widened and his mouth opened, but no sound emerged and certainly no laugh to be echoed by his people. The face. The face was what caused Nuri to give a choked cry that flew toward a scream.
For Michael's features distorted in the space of a shuddered breath.
With the crunch of bones and the moist slippage of sinews and muscles changing their human position, they submerged and reformed and rearranged themselves like mystic continents on the map of a foreign world. A shadow seemed to pass over Michael's face, and from its darkness emerged the maw of the wolf, the green eye that was not a swollen slit glaring without mercy into Nuri's face, the wolf's new and bleeding fangs promising agony upon agony. Or, at the very least, the Devil's own justice. Michael held Nuri fast. He swept his one-eyed wolfen gaze across the crowd as the black forest of hair burst free from his facial flesh and flowed along his throat. He felt his back aching to bow down, and his limbs - even the broken one - yearning to take their primal shapes. The Dahlasiffa were, as one, riveted in place. Someone dropped a torch, and an oil lamp shattered on the ground. A woman screamed and a child yowled with fear. The voice of a man - no, several men - rose up gibbering to the night.
Michael Gallatin balanced not only on the palm log but between worlds. The werewolf's green eye peered into Nuri's face once more and saw the horror become madness; it happened in the stutter of a heartbeat. Saliva bubbled from Nuri's mouth and dribbled down his chin. His eyes were scorched. He had truly seen behind the Devil's mask, and now he was destroyed.
Michael let him go.
Nuri retreated. He slipped and fell. He landed on his back down amid the scorpions, both brown and black, and as he rolled in a mad and entirely useless attempt to avoid being stung the things got into his crimson robes and onto his keffiyeh and onto his hands and his face and delivered enough venom, Michael thought, to kill even the self-proclaimed King of Hell several times over.
Then the crowd of once-gleeful Dahlasiffa turned their faces away from Michael, and though some fell to the ground on their knees to beg for mercy from the merciless, the great majority of them fled for their lives.
An explosion across the village sent up red and white fireworks. Or, rather, pieces of shrapnel. A secondary blast held within it maybe four or five smaller explosions merged into one thunder. Gantt and the boy had obviously found the correct tent. But the work was mostly complete, because now even the Dahlasiffa who'd been on their knees were scrambling up and running. The mass of people ran shrieking and screaming toward the other side of the village. Anywhere, if they could escape the Devil. Even the dogs were getting out. Michael gazed down into the pit and saw Nuri on his stomach, trying to claw his way up the side. His hands had a number of scorpions on them.
Michael decided to leave the Fireman to his impending state of peace. He edged back from the wild just as he edged back along the palm log, and by the time his boots touched earth he was once more only a man. But, as sometimes happened, his teeth ached fiercely and he had to pee in the most pressing way.
The village seemed to be empty. Maybe the Dahlasiffa would stop running when they reached Cairo, or when they ran across the nearest minefield.
Michael walked toward the tent that was burning brightly and sending up deadly fireworks fit for the grandest holiday. Another explosion shot up a plume of orange flame and shook the ground. Mortar shells, perhaps? Other tents under the rain of burning munitions were catching fire; it was going to be a festive night after all.
In the glow of the flames, two figures were approaching. One tall, one small.
"My God!" said Rolfe Gantt when the distance closed between them. "What the devil did you do?"
"Exactly that," Michael told him.
"Never mind." He scanned their surroundings and saw no other humans. The boy had begun shaking his dice again; it seemed that Fate knew no resting. "We'd better be careful," Michael advised. "I think everyone's gone but for the watchman and three men who went out to look for you two." They hadn't witnessed the performance, so they might be still lurking about. "Give me a gun." He held his hand out.
Gantt started to give him the Colt and then suddenly paused.
The German flier had both pistols. He was weak and unsteady, but he was still in control of his senses. Michael knew what he was thinking.
"You'll have to kill me," Michael said, and he meant it.
The dice clicked...clicked...clicked. The boy opened his hand and stared at the pips.
"A fine pistol," Gantt said, with a brief nod. "But not of German quality." He put the Colt into Michael's outstretched hand. Gantt's eyes narrowed. "You've been cut up a little. We might find a medical kit somewhere."
"Later. First...the water."
The three of them walked through the village toward the waterhole. A few either very brave or very stupid dogs skulked around. The flames were still burning high, and every so often there was a boom and more shrapnel flew up.
"I suppose I won't ask," said Gantt as they walked.
"What you really did to frighten everyone out of here. I suppose I won't ask. And I suppose...I really don't want to know." He gave Michael a sidelong glance, and Michael wondered if one of his fingers had not entirely been changed back when he'd first offered his hand to take the Colt. No, no; of course not. But...he was so very tired.
No, of course not.
They were almost to the waterhole when a figure on crutches emerged from between two tents and aimed the pistol he had somehow gotten hold of. Maybe it had fallen to the ground in the flight of the Dahlasiffa. Maybe he'd taken it from his father's tent. In any case, Nuri's son Hasid was armed and dangerous. First he aimed the gun at Michael but something on the boy's firelit face and in the eyes that glittered with such venomous hate said it was useless to shoot the Devil, so he altered his hand toward Gantt. Two bullets were fired even as Michael shoved the flier aside.
Hasid fired once more as Gantt fell to his knees. Then Michael shot twice at Nuri's son, and he didn't know if the bullets had hit or not because Hasid was already hobbling on his crutches into the shadows, his cloven hoof tossing up a spray of sand.
In another few seconds, the Fireman's son was gone.
"Ah," said Gantt, in a weary voice. "Ah, verdammen Sie alles dieses."
Michael knelt beside him. Gantt had both hands pressed to his midsection. The blood was rising on the front of his shirt. Shot twice in the stomach, Michael saw. "Move your hands," he said, but Gantt would not. "Come on, let me see!"
"Jeder moglicher Dummkopf kann sehen, dass ich sterben werde," Gantt answered, with a crooked smile. He'd said: Any fool can see I'm going to die.
"Not if I can find a medical kit." Michael started to stand up.
Gantt grasped his wrist with bloody fingers. "Save your strength. Are you a surgeon? No. As they say...ich bin kaput." He winced. A thin thread of blood broke over his lower lip. "Would you help me...get my back against something?"
Michael helped him up but couldn't get him too far because Gantt began shuddering with pain. Michael eased him down so his back was supported against the side of a tent away from the danger of catching fire.
"Better," Gantt said. "Thank you." He was not sweating, but his eyes were wet. His hands pressed to his stomach as if to keep his insides from oozing out.
The boy knelt to the ground a distance away and began throwing his dice.
"Must he...do that?" Gantt asked. He waved a gory hand to dismiss his own question. "Ah, let him alone. I suppose it's the only pleasure he has. Eh?" Moving with painful slowness, he withdrew the Walther from his waistband. Michael offered no help, thinking Gantt was still capable of his own actions. "German quality," Gantt said, as he placed the pistol at his side. "Cannot be bested."
A movement to the right caught Michael's attention. Two Dahlasiffa men with rifles were coming their way. Maybe they were part of the trio who'd gone out hunting.
Michael fired a shot at them and they were gone like desert hares.
"Can you protect yourself while I get you some water?" Michael asked.
"I can. But...it's very interesting, Michael. I am no longer thirsty. Please...go ahead...for both of you."
Stay here, Michael told the boy. In the second tent he entered he found a suitable water vessel, a German canteen stamped with the palm tree and Nazi symbol seal of the Afrika Korps. He went into several others in search of a medical kit, but had no luck. He walked on to the waterhole. He got on his knees, cupped his hand and drank a few swallows that went down like the sweetest wine ever pressed from the most luscious grape. Then he filled the canteen full, and while he was doing this he had to interrupt the task to shoot at a man who was coming across the oasis from the opposite direction. The intruder turned his robed tail and ran. It seemed that without their 'shade' the Dahlasiffa fled from their own shadows. Which was fine with Michael. He spent a few more seconds to splash water into his face, and then he took the canteen and walked back the route he'd come. He knew he couldn't give Gantt any water; the stomach cramps would only add to the man's agony, and without professional medical attention Gantt was, as he'd said, kaput.
So, all he could do now was make Gantt as comfortable as possible and keep him company. He'd known stomach wounds like this to kill a man within an hour or so, and on the other end of that a man might linger for a day or more. It was, after all, up to Fate.
The dice were still being rolled, back and forth. Gantt picked up the Walther at Michael's approach and then set it aside again. Michael gave the boy the canteen, and at last the dice were still while the boy drank.
Too fast, Michael cautioned. Too much. He took the canteen away. He sat on the ground a few feet away from the flier, at an angle so he could watch for more Dahlasiffas creeping back in. If they dared.
It seemed they did not. No more returned, as first one hour and then a second passed. The boy slept curled up with the dice in his hand. Gantt's eyes grew heavy-lidded and closed, but Michael Gallatin remained vigilant. After a while Michael got up and went searching through the nearby tents for a medical kit. He found a box of British bandages and a box of Italian condoms, but not an ampule of morphine. He took the bandages and was able to pack Gantt's wounds while the man slept. The front of Gantt's shirt was a bloody mess. The two bullet holes were spaced about four inches apart and the slugs were still in his intestines.
At last, the sky began to lighten to the east. It was the beginning of another day.
Red shards of sunlight burst from behind a mountain range. The shadows shrank. The heat began to grow.
The boy awakened. Michael gave him a little more water. He sat cross-legged, staring at the sleeping Gantt. The dice were quiet in his fist. Michael leaned forward to check Gantt's pulse and the man's eyes opened. "I'm not dead," said Gantt, but his face seemed to have taken on a certain gaunt and toothy quality Michael had seen before. It was amazing, how quickly that happened.
Gantt felt the bandages. "Nice work," he commented. He looked at the sky. "Oh...it's getting light."
"Hot day coming," said Michael.
"Is there any other...in the desert?" Gantt smiled at him, and then pain made the smile crimp and vanish. "Scheisse, die verletzt! Ah...I'm all right now." He breathed shallowly, taking sips of air. "Michael," he said after another moment.
"I want to...apologize. For the...destruction...of your aircraft. I would not have wished...to have shot down...an unarmed plane. It was not...chivalrous."
"I think chivalry has nothing to do with war."
"True...but...there is...the ideal." He had to stop speaking for awhile, to deal with the pain. Michael wondered if he should knock Gantt out...but what would be the point?
The boy's dice were rolling once more. "In any case...sir...I apologize."
"It was your duty," Michael said.
"Yes. That." Gantt winced and closed his eyes. For an instant he resembled a mummy, the cracks in his gray face full of dust, his mouth a grim pain-drawn line.
His eyes opened again, but Michael saw that they had dimmed. Their color was no longer amber, but a pale sun-bleached yellow. "I have always...loved...the dawn," Gantt said, with an effort. "The cleanest air, you see. The aircraft performs...best...at the dawn. Oh, Michael!" He gave another tight smile. "You should have been with me...up there."
"With you or against you?"
"With me. Oh...you wouldn't have lasted...an instant...against me. Did I tell you...my count is now..." He was silent, figuring the numbers. "Forty-six. No. That's not right. Fifty. I think. Yes, fifty."
"An impressive number," said Michael, who saw the boy leaning over the freshly-thrown dice to read the pips.
"Did we ever find...water?" Gantt asked, his eyes narrowed against the rising sun.
"Yes, we did."
Gantt's eyes slid shut again. Michael and the boy waited.
Perhaps ten minutes later, Gantt looked into Michael's face and said, "You English. Playing at war. With your...tea breaks. Your...what was that? Aftershave lotion? Oh, my! Well...you...shall go down to defeat...smelling like gentlemen. For that...I salute you."
"Many thanks," said Michael, who didn't think he could look into Gantt's face much longer, for the man was fading away minute by minute.
And as time was of the essence, suddenly the essence became time.
Gantt held up his arm and began to remove his wristwatch.
"What are you doing?" Michael asked.
"This." Gantt got the Breitling off. He regarded not the timepiece itself, but the plain leather band. "I want...you...to have it," he said, and he offered it to Michael.
"I can't take that."
"If you don't...they will."
True enough. Eventually the Dahlasiffa would come back, Devil or not.
Michael accepted the watch. "I will take care of - "
"You'd better," Gantt interrupted. "It's come...such a long way."
The dice were rolling, back and forth.
The sun was coming up. A hot, clear dawn. Flying weather, Gantt might have said.
"Michael?" Gantt whispered, his voice nearly gone.
"We...men...of action," he said, and then he smiled. "Must never...stop...trying. Eh?"
"Never," Michael agreed.
"Good man," said Gantt, and then he watched the sun as it rose higher.
Sometime during the next few minutes, he left this world.
Michael felt it, and saw the empty stare in the man's eyes, and when he checked the pulse and heartbeat he verified what he already knew. The boy stopped rolling his dice and he sat looking at the body of Rolfe Gantt, the famous Messerschmitt ace, the shining example to German youth, the celebrity, the great lover, the man of action, the hero.
After a while the boy crawled forward. He put the pair of dice in Gantt's right hand, possibly for luck in the afterlife, and then he closed the fingers and he stood up and stretched as if awakening from a long sleep.
Michael put the Breitling in his pocket. There was no need to bury Gantt; the Dahlasiffa would just dig up the body. But it was only a suit of flesh, and the bird had flown.
It was time to find another two or three canteens, fill them up and find a way back home.
The boy motioned him to the camel corral.
Michael had no idea how to handle one of those creatures. How to saddle them up and get the bridles set. But fortunately the boy did, and he was very efficient about it.
They wet cloths and wrapped them around their heads and faces. They hung the canteens by leather cords from the saddles. They headed off in the direction they'd come, the boy leading the way on his camel and Michael just along for the ride. His camel seemed to hate him, and spat and fumed like a vindictive old man. Probably something in the way he smelled, Michael thought. But the camel moved onward, and so did the day.
On the second morning, with a hard hot wind blowing from the southwest, the two riders came across a platoon of soldiers escorted by a pair of tanks. The soldiers wore British khaki, and the tanks were Matildas. When Michael had made the platoon's lieutenant understand who he was and where he'd come from, he and the boy were placed on one of the tanks and driven to a small air base called Al Massir, about twenty kilometers to the east.
The base had a hospital. It wasn't much, but they had soft beds and cooling palm-frond fans that turned at the ceiling. Michael's broken shoulder was set and put into a cast and his cuts swabbed with iodine. He decided not to look into any mirrors for a while, because he'd seen the expression on the face of the young and attractive brunette nurse. Then Michael and the boy both slept more than twelve hours, and when they awakened they were given glasses of orange juice and plates of scrambled eggs, figs, and olives. An apple-cheeked, serious red-haired captain named Findley-Hughes came in with a clipboard to ask Michael questions and take notes, and this went on interminably until Michael asked the young man if he'd had his eighteenth birthday yet.
After that they were pretty much left on their own.
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