Except for the attractive brunette nurse. She came in quite often to see him, and to fuss over him, and to smooth his hair and once even to sit by his bed and sing to him.
She just couldn't seem to leave that boy alone.
She brought him some jacks and a ball. Michael watched him shaking the jacks in his hand, and he saw the boy cast them on the floor and bounce the ball. And as he scooped up the jacks in the hand that used to hold a pair of dead man's dice the boy smiled, and from then on the brunette nurse had him running errands around the hospital and the base. The doctor gave him a nickname: Jacky. Then one afternoon Michael heard the brunette nurse call him Jack, and the boy looked at her as if all his life he'd been waiting to hear that name spoken by a voice just like hers.
Michael learned that the nurse's husband had been a Spitfire pilot who'd lost his life over Dunkirk. Her infant son had been killed in a German bomb raid in London in 1940. He didn't ask her what the boy's name had been. He didn't think he had to.
Even the roughest road led somewhere, he thought.
On the morning of the fifth day, two officers in clean uniforms with polished buttons arrived at the base in a Douglas Dakota transport plane. Michael knew one of them as the man sometimes called 'Mallory', who wore a Colonel's insignia. It was explained to him, as they sat under a striped awning facing the airstrip and drank Guinness Stout brought in a keg with the Dakota, that it was imperative he return to Cairo and, as Mallory put it, "get back on the horse".
It was explained to him that he could fly back with them in the Dakota or, if his recent experience had somewhat sullied his desire for air travel, he might be driven in a truck back to HQ in Cairo. Of course, there was a very large difference in travel time between plane and truck, but it was his decision.
Not to put any pressure on him, of course.
Michael Gallatin sipped from his glass of Guinness and listened to the noise of an aircraft's engine revving across the field. The sky was clear and untroubled by German fighters, yet who could say where the next Messerschmitt ace lurked? Michael had been dreading this moment, and his heart had begun beating harder. Perhaps, too, a fine sheen of sweat had risen at his temples.
He drew from his pocket a wristwatch.
He examined its face only briefly. It was the plain brown leather band that drew his attention. He thought of the old planes of the Great War, and how they were put together with wires, fabric, leather, and wood. How also they were taken up, as flimsy as they were, into the huge sky by small men with large dreams and the bravery of giants.
He ran his fingers across the brown leather. He listened to the engine revving, and heard it miss a beat.
They were still brave giants, in those cockpits.
Maybe it was time for him to grow a little larger, too.
He gave his answer.
Gone Too Deep
When Michael Gallatin could force himself to meet his own eyes in the mirror, he opened the flawless silver case that lay atop the blue porcelain sink. It was monogrammed, in simple capital letters, with an H and a J. He removed from the case the two pieces of the Solingen travel razor. The Germans made such beautiful instruments, especially those that could kill.
He put a fresh blade into its resting place and screwed the pieces of the razor together to make a whole. He turned on the cold water tap and ran the blade's edge beneath it. Then, completely naked, he stared into his face as if looking for recognition there. He was no longer sure what he was seeing, in those green eyes that held secrets even from himself. To him they looked smoke-hazed, bloodshot, weary from the constant war.
But a gentleman must be well-groomed, and so with just a few seconds' decision to employ no lather he began to shave the stubble from his right cheek. On the first stroke his hand betrayed him. He went too deep, felt first the nick and then the heat of blood rising from the cut on his cheekbone.
Michael watched the drop of blood roll down through the small hairs toward his jawline. Another followed, and then a third. They smelled of blood sausages in the Paris market, fresh after midnight. He was hungry, roused to appetite by his own juices. But he continued to shave, stroke after stroke - some smooth, some ragged - and when he was done with the massacre of his face he began to shave his throat and down across his chest, cleaving the field of black and gray hair, cutting himself here and there, no matter, no matter at all, for this little pain was nothing, and what would his Russian family think of him if he could not stand a little pain?
When he finished this task, he was going to have to decide what to do about the dead woman in the bed.
So he kept shaving, and he kept cutting.
Here and there, but this little pain was nothing.
He regarded the first nick he'd made, on his right cheek, and thought he fully understood his problem. He had certainly gone too deep.
So he stood in this bathroom, in room number 214 of the Hotel Grand Frederik, with its gold-colored walls and blue porcelain and its matching gold-and-blue tiles on the floor, and he dripped blood from seven cuts and mused on how his odor of wounded weakness would have had him torn to pieces in a certain area of Russian wilderness very distant from this dying city of Berlin. They would have consumed him, eaten his lungs and heart and all the meat that meant life for the strong, and they would have left his bones for the little scavengers who hid in the rotten logs, and all would be right with the world.
Michael Gallatin, born Mikhail Gallatinov in St. Petersburg thirty-four years ago, was no longer sure he was fit.
Nothing had changed about him, except for the slips of the razor. Except for the haze in his eyes. The tightness of his mouth. He was lean and healthy, his shoulders were broad and his waist narrow and he had enough muscle to get his work done. His thick hair was black, streaked with gray at the temples and cut short in the military style. Across his left cheek was a scar that began just under the eye and continued back into the hairline, the gift of a would-be assassin in North Africa in 1942. He bore other scars, nothing too ghastly, nothing that could not be explained to a woman between the damp sheets, with her head leaning against his shoulder and her fingers wandering the fields of his flesh, as the demands of a soldier.
He was going to have to go and look at her again. He steeled himself for it, but his metal had become tin. He wondered, as he put the bloodied razor away into the beautiful silver case she'd bought for him two days ago, if after he drank the last glass of champagne and put on his uniform of a German major he should set fire to the bed and send her to Valhalla in the proper fashion.
It had begun barely a month ago, when Michael had returned from an early-morning run through the cold January sleet of Wales and found a black Bentley Mark V in front of his proudly isolated house. At its wheel waited the older man Michael knew as Mallory, who said he would wait while Michael put on some clothes, and then they needed to take a drive and have a chat.
"The Inner Ring has been penetrated," Mallory said as they drove along the tracks that passed as roads and sleet slashed across the windshield.
Michael knew, of course, about the Inner Ring. The group of Germans who were still doggedly fighting Hitler and the Nazis from within. They were scientists who did their best to delay or sabotage weapons projects. Secretaries and aides who made notes on overheard conversations or intercepted messages. More than one railway dispatcher who sent a munitions train onto a track laid with explosives. A priest or two who kept a radio tuned to the British secret service wavelength, and a codebook hidden where only Christ might find it. Prostitutes and pickpockets, old white-haired soldiers who carried scars from the first Great War, and ordinary citizens with extraordinary courage who had come over to the hope that Germany would surrender to the British or Americans, and that it would happen before the Russian wave smashed over the crumbling rock of the Fatherland.
"A woman has penetrated the Ring," said Mallory. "She has seduced her way in. Her name is Franziska Luxe. She's a photographer and a journalist for Signal."
Signal magazine, as Michael also knew, was the glossy, lavishly-illustrated propaganda magazine of the German armed forces, enjoyed - if that was the right word - at the height of its popularity by over two million readers.
"The Ring is being taken apart," Mallory went on. "Person by person. They are disappearing into the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin. Fraulein Luxe is a bit of a...I would call her a huntress. She's gotten on the scent of the Ring through a stupid, love-stricken man, and she is working with a Gestapo official named Axel Rittenkrett to uncover and destroy - a kind way to put it - every member of the Ring and their families. Out of a hundred or so, there are maybe fifty left. We've been helping as many as we can, but some have complications and can't get out. Some refuse to leave, they consider themselves martyrs for a cause. This is why you're needed."
"I knew it was coming to that," said Michael, as he stared at the black briefcase that lay on the biscuit-colored leather next to him.
"We're trying our best to get everyone out. We won't be fully successful, but we need time. And we need you, Major, to give Franziska Luxe something to think about other than tracking down members of the Ring and sending them to be tortured to death at the hands of the Gestapo." He paused for a few seconds, during which only Michael saw the pack following along, just loping easily through the sleet, almost grinning in the cold bracing air with lung-steam curling from their snouts. "Do you understand the mission?"
"Go into the chaos of Berlin, masquerade as a German - an officer, most likely, and a man with an interesting back-history - to seduce a rather nasty female Nazi? I'm flattered, but I believe there are other men who are better suited for this job." And who most probably would die trying, he thought.
"Read her dossier, there in the briefcase," Mallory instructed. "She's thirty years old and quite beautiful. She's a champion skiier, an expert marksman and driver of racing cars as well as being fluent in French, Italian and English. Her father was a daredevil pilot who ended his life last year testing the new German jet aircraft. Her mother at seventeen was a circus lion-tamer, has been an Olympic swimmer and a member of the most recent German expedition to Antarctica in 1938. Here, now...what's this?" He put his foot to the brake and stopped the car. He leaned forward, peering through the windshield as the wipers scraped back and forth. "I presume that's one of your companions standing on the road? Am I in some kind of violation I need to know about?"
"A precaution," Michael said. "No one can take me beyond this point without my agreement. And theirs, also."
"My God, that's a big one," said Mallory, still looking forward. "Um...may I ask...?"
"Animal," came the response. "As far as I know, there is no one else..." Michael looked at the briefcase and put two fingers against it. "Like me," he finished.
"One never knows what the Germans, if not stopped, might try to create in their laboratories." Mallory winced a little, even before he'd finished saying it. "Oh, my. That didn't sound right, forgive me." He cleared his throat and put the stick into Reverse. "I'll back up, shall I?"
It was very important that Michael do this, Mallory told him on the return drive. By diverting Fraulein Luxe's attention and managing to stay at her side for one week in February, Michael might save the lives of twenty people...a dozen...five or six, but at least the Inner Ring would not be, so to speak, thrown to the wolves.
The German Army was reeling back from the Ardennes in the aftermath of Operation Wacht Am Rhein, Mallory said. Divisions would be refitting, restaffing and waiting for further orders. There would be some confusion to take advantage of. This mission involved no parachute jump, just a truck trip in the company of British commandos and a river to be crossed at night by rubber raft. On the other side would be some soldiers of the Inner Ring, to get him into Berlin by staff car. He would have a solid identity, papers made up by someone who made real papers, and a safe house to go to if things went wrong. He would be contacted as when to end the mission, and leave the same way. What made him so valuable was that he knew his way around Berlin.
And around and around, Michael thought, recalling a certain train trip he'd taken there on his last visit. "All measured out," Michael said as they neared the house. "So simple, in theory. I understand the capture of the bridge at Arnhem was also a simple theory." He expected no response on that one, and got none. "How am I supposed to meet Franziska Luxe?"
"I said the German Army was reeling back, and there's confusion to be used in our favor. I said nothing about the end of parties and merrimaking in Berlin, did I?"
Michael nodded. They would carry on their parties in Berlin until their world was on the verge of destruction. Then, if the Russian tanks rolled into what was left of that city before the Americans or British got there, it would be a party in a vast blood-drenched boneyard. Even the remaining members of the Inner Ring would be crushed beneath the treads...if any still remained by then.
"Can I count on you?" Mallory asked as he stopped the car. It was a polite question, from one gentleman to another.
Michael took the briefcase, and got out.
A river to be crossed, he thought. And leave the same way.
But it occurred to him that no river could be crossed twice by the same man, because the river was never exactly the same, and neither would be the man.
The Hunter Who Lives In The Woods
Michael Gallatin walked out of the bathroom, stood over the bed and stared at her body.
The lights flickered. A power interruption, somewhere in the grid. The slow blinking of the eyes of a groggy leviathan. Did she move, in that brief loss of light? Did she stretch her long taut legs and open her own smouldering gray-hued eyes, and whisper up at him in her low voice rasped with passion, Come to bed again, darling. Come crush me into wine and drink all of me, every drop.
She did not.
Michael wondered what would become of himself, at the end of his life. What was beyond this existence, for a creature such as he? Would he sleep among the angels, or would he just go on fighting the demons in a flame-lit room at the bottom of the stairs?
Dressed in his uniform as a German major of the 25th Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion, 25th Panzer Grenadier Division, Michael had seen her across the dance floor at the Grand Frederik's Regal Room. A foursome band in tuxedos was playing on stage, not the oompah-pah stuff of old Germany but the new Swing of the Jazz Age. Red balloons drifted along the vaulted ceiling, which was painted with the faces of ancient kings and emperors looking down through the pastel clouds of heaven to see what a mess they'd left behind.
It was his third night in Berlin, and this party was his reason for booking a room at the hotel. Every so often the golden-globed lights faltered, and with them the babble of conversation, the sometimes strident voices struggling to sound unconcerned, and the laughter too loud for the bad jokes of matings between American jackasses and Russian goats. But even in the dark the music kept playing, and even in the dark Michael watched her move amidst the men and other women like a torchflame amidst sad candles, and as he sipped from his glass of 1936 French Armagnac and the lights came up again he caught the glint of her eyes for the briefest of seconds passing across him and he felt the quick exhilarating celebration of being noted like a knight on his knees before a queen.
Not all the men in the room wore uniforms, but most did. Not all the women in the room were beautiful, but most were.
But none like her.
He felt a man whose belly was about to burst his polished gold buttons coming toward him, possibly to ask some inane question about troop dispositions or what action he'd seen, or to voice some wine-odored opinion about the next thrust against the Russians, who in this first week of February were forty-some miles away from the city. Therefore Michael took another drink of his excellent brandy, squared his shoulders and gathered his courage and made his way across the dance floor to the woman in the long flowing crimson dress who was speaking to two other men, and when the men looked at him and the woman turned because she already knew he was coming he said into her face which was almost level with his own, "Pardon me," in his best Westphalian accent, "but you are nearly the most beautiful woman I have ever seen."
She just stared into his eyes for perhaps three seconds. Three very long seconds.
Her red lips parted.
She said, with a hint of a smile that was not quite there, "Nearly?"
"Well," he answered, and he gave her his own most disarming smile, "I haven't seen all of you yet."
He hadn't known what he was going to say until it was time to speak, but as these words passed through the air she lifted her chin, almost as if to taste them. Her throat was offered to him, for a heartbeat. They stared at each other, as the two men behind Franziska Luxe seemed to Michael to diminish in size, to become cardboard cutouts, citizens of a world where passion grew pale for fear of failure. And so went the entire room and all its other inhabitants: sickly, small, and impoverished. If this Regal Room was its own jungle, the two greatest animals of the night had found each other.
And then Michael again said, "Pardon me," to her, and to them, "Gentlemen," and with a nod he moved away into the underbrush.
She did not follow. Nor did she track him very long with her gaze. Instead, she returned to her conversation, and a third man brought her a crystal glass of Picardon Blanc. In another moment a huge white buttercream-frosted birthday cake was wheeled out on a cart from the kitchen, and the jazz band - Die Vier glatten Klagen, printed across the bass drum in black letters - took up the universal 'Happy Birthday Song', and the room sang out loud as the figure of the hour, a big man wearing a white suit, a white shirt and a red tie stepped forward to try his lungs against thirty-seven candles, his face already flushed before he even began blowing.
Michael watched the festivities from the edge of the room, sipping slowly at his drink and avoiding the occasional glance from anyone else. His mind held the image of Franziska Luxe's face: her strong jawline and classic Roman nose, her delicious-looking lips ripe for the kiss but perhaps with a twist of cruelty in them, her gray eyes almost luminous in this golden light, the arch of her black eyebrows and the mane of ebony hair that framed her face and fell about her bare shoulders and down her back. The grainy photograph of her had failed to fully prepare him. She was not the German Nordic ideal. She was not a pin-up fiction for the German troops to salivate over. She was a real woman of flesh, sinew, blood and bone. The heat that rose from her was, to him, an intoxicant far stronger than the vintage Armagnac. The aroma of her body beneath the floral Houbigant perfume - Quelque Fleur, he knew it was, from experience - was more wild and untamed forest than sculptured Paris garden.
Which suited him. After all, they'd given him the name of Horst Jaeger, the 'hunter who lives in the woods'.
Her name was interesting as well. Franziska meant 'free'.
But he thought that many men must have paid dearly to whisper it.
As the cake was being cut into pieces, a tub of ice cream was wheeled out. More bottles of wine and various liquors appeared. The Four Smooth Suits began to really - as the Americans would say - jump the blues, with the tenor saxophone wailing away and the drummer pounding a powerful beat. 'Boogie-woogie', he thought it was called. A slender young woman in a black dress, her hair red with coppery highlights and her face lovely if a little vapid, drifted out from the dancefloor and came directly toward Michael, offering him her cigarette to light. He'd picked up a packet of matches from the lobby for just such a moment - ten flimsy matches to the pack, the chemicals being in such shortage, yet the cigarette smokers were legion.
Michael struck a match and held it out, and as the red-haired woman grasped his hand to guide the flame, a breeze blew from the southeastern quadrant, the match went dark, and a hand took the cigarette from the woman's lips.
"Go back to your husband, Bette," said Franziska Luxe. She put the cigarette into Bette's hand and closed the white fingers around it. "He's about to be cornered by the most infamous homosexual in the room."
Bette left, drifting along like someone who was already dead but didn't know it.
"There," Franziska said to Michael, with a faint smile playing at the corners of her mouth. "I just saved you from a boring encounter with a nymphomaniac."
Michael lifted his eyebrows. "Thank you?"
"I am Franziska Luxe," she announced, and offered her hand not to be kissed or merely limply held in that most gratuitous of gestures, but to be gripped and shaken. He did. She gave his hand a crush before she let him go. "I'm a photographer and writer for Signal. You may have seen my work."
"Possibly," he replied. "I haven't had much time for the reading of magazines."
"You're a major?" Of course she'd already seen the insignia of rank. "Reconnaissance?" That was clear, by the badge. His Iron Cross was also on full display. Now came what she really desired to know: "What's your name?"
"Horst Jaeger, fraulein. At your service." He gave her a little bow of the head.
Her smile, cautious as it was, seemed to deepen. "Why do you presume I'm not married? I could have chosen to leave my ring at home tonight."
"No German husband," Michael said, "would not be cleaved to the side of a woman like yourself."
"Really? Why is that?"
He shrugged and took a sip, the last of his Armagnac. "To protect her from men like me."
"I need no protection," she said, and he could tell she meant it because it wasn't softened with a further smile. There was a pause of a few seconds, during which Michael thought he might have lost her. He was expecting her to turn away, but when a man in the uniform of a Luftwaffe captain touched her shoulder and murmured to her and she did not respond Michael relaxed, just a bit. The Luftwaffe man glanced at Michael, gave him a look that said good luck, and moved away.
"I'm interested in you," Franziska told him, as the band quietened into a slower, softer number. "Major Jaeger, have you ever been professionally photographed?"
He returned a quizzical expression.
"My intent," she explained, drawing a little closer to him, "is a photographic piece on the faces of the noble warriors. Those who haven't surrendered. In your heart," she said. "I can tell, in this room, who has surrendered in the heart and who has not. No, I'm not saying that anyone here is a coward, or a doom-sayer, or treasonous. But there is a difference between the noble warrior who still believes in the German future, and the rabble, whether they wear uniforms with polished gold buttons or not." And at this point she cast a sidelong glance at the fat-bellied officer, who staggered around behind a half-empty glass of some liquor that had for a while dulled the knife's-edge prickling at the back of his neck.
Michael was impressed by her intensity. She was standing right in front of him now, filling up his vision. Completing it, in a way. She was almost six feet tall, and he'd already seen that her heels were not very high. Again he caught the wild forest under her perfume. In her eyes lay a controlled wildness, a calm before the storm. He thought her fierce beauty was breathtaking, almost other-worldly, and he had to remind himself that he was here in enemy territory on a very dangerous and important mission, and the smallest mistake - the smallest slip of accent or attitude - could end his life before the stroke of midnight.
"I'm not sure I'm so noble," he answered, and for once in his life he had to look away from the searching eyes of a woman because he feared they saw too much.
"And an essence of humility too," said Fransizka, who had almost breathed it as a sigh. Her voice had changed; there was a girl in there somewhere, who perhaps once had dreamed of meeting a knight on bended knee. "My God, where have you been?"
"Now who is this, Franziska?" came a man's voice. "An uninvited guest, I think?"
I Don't Fear
It was the birthday boy, in company with the two men who'd been conversing with Fraulein Luxe when Michael had first approached. Both the men wore dark suits with swastika lapel pins, white shirts and dark ties. One man was husky, with a frizz of curly black hair and the sunken eyes of a common thug, while the other wore wire-framed spectacles and had thinning reddish-brown hair and the look of a worried accountant who has misplaced the key to his master's deposit box.
The birthday boy, however, was a formidable presence. In his polar-white suit his shoulders looked to be five feet broad, and he was easily as tall as Michael, at about six-two. He had a little snow-cap of white hair atop the mountain peak of his head, his hair cropped right to the scalp, sandy and sparkly, on the sides and presumably also on the back. He had the round face and full cheeks of a cherub, a boyish grin on his wide mouth and pale blue eyes that did not quite complement the grin. What immediately struck Michael - along with the aromatic impressions that this man smoked cigars, had recently ridden a horse and had just finished a bowl of vanilla ice-cream - was that his face was as red as if he'd been weaned on tomato ketchup, and it had nothing to do with blowing out candles. It was a startling sight, really, like seeing a fireball sitting atop the body of a snowman. Michael wondered if the man wasn't in need of a heart specialist close at hand. At the center of the red necktie was a swastika stickpin with a small diamond set into each of the four arms.
A white suit in winter? Michael thought. It was obviously some attempt at a throwback to Viking furs or else simply to make a statement that this man was too large to be concerned either about proper fashion or God's weather. The German word for that would be barbarisch.
Michael got his mouth in gear, careful with the Westphalian twang. "You're absolutely correct, sir. I'm staying here and was passing by when I heard the music. I...um...don't know anyone here, but I thought - "
"You'd walk in and help yourself to a drink or two, Major?" the man interrupted. He was still smiling, but the blue eyes in the ruddy face were dangerous. "At my birthday party? That takes some cheek, sir."
"I didn't know. No one stopped me at the door."
"There's a sign on the door that says 'Private Party'. Did you not see that? What's your name and your division?" Still the blaze of his smile had not cooled.
"His name is Horst Jaeger," the woman spoke up, and Michael saw the man's eyes go to her and fix there. "He's a friend of mine, Axel."
"A friend? Of how long? Five minutes?" Now his smile did hitch and sputter. The gaze swung back upon Michael Gallatin. "Your papers, please."
Michael stood very still. His heart was hammering. He was, as the British would say, close to slipping in it. But by force of will he kept his expression blank. He cocked his head to one side.
"I'll see your papers first, sir," he said.
There was a silence. How long did it stretch? From here to London, it seemed.
"You wish to see my papers? My papers?" It was not a roar, as much as it was the sound of steam escaping an injured boiler.
"I know who I am," Michael said calmly. "I have no idea who you might be."
The man pushed Franziska aside and came up upon Michael like an Alp. The Four Smooth Suits were playing a midtempo jump, the dance floor was crowded, the drinks flowed and laughter rose up like the chatter of machine guns. The heat from the scarlet face almost seared Michael's brows, and down in the man's eyes burned small vicious cinders.
Michael stood his ground and made himself larger, swelling out his chest and shoulders. A whipstrike of bloodlust hit him. Oh, he was so close -
A hand plunged down into an inner pocket of a white jacket. It returned gripping a leather wallet covered with white horse hair, which Michael realized he'd mistaken as the scent of a saddle.
"I," said the man's mouth, "am Axel Rittenkrett, senior investigator with the - " The wallet opened to display the square brass badge with the German eagle stamped above the Nazi swastika and along the bottom the words Geheime Staatspolizei. "As you seem to disregard plain writing, Major, I will tell you that this is all the paper I need to put you in a car in the next moment and carry you with great glee to Gestapo headquarters."
Michael felt sweat at his temples, but after all it was warm in this room, with all the heat of dancing roiling around. Rittenkrett also was sweating; it wouldn't have surprised Michael if the man's face leaked blood. He had to say something - right now - and it had to be impressive because his life depended on it.
"Herr Rittenkrett," said Michael, staring calmly into the man's furious eyes, "I have been with the 25th Panzer Grenadier Division since France in 1940. My companions and I were sent to the Russian Front in 1941. We fought at Minsk, Kiev, in the blizzards before Moscow, over the minefields of Kursk and through the inhuman butcheries at Smolensk. We fought our way out of the encirclement of Army Group Center, with heavy loss. We were sent to the Western Front after the invasion, undermanned in the hedgerows with mostly green replacements. Most recently - was it just in December? - we were holding the Bitche sector in the Ardennes. Herr Rittenkrett," he said, "I appreciate the weight and power of your Gestapo badge, but I have seen men gutted, disemboweled, beheaded, cut in half, reduced to jibbering torsos that beg for death, crushed flat and unrecognizable as anything ever human under tank treads, blown into glistening shreds by artillery shells, burned alive by flamethrowers and - worse - not completely burned alive by flamethrowers, frozen solid into snowbanks, killed in ridiculous accidents by comrades too bone-weary to check their weapons, and drowned crossing rivers because they were too proud to tell their sergeants they never learned to swim. I have seen a young man turn eighty years old in a matter of minutes. I have seen the handsome pride of a loving mother lose his face like a mask being torn away, so much garbage for the summer flies.
"So, Herr Rittenkrett," Michael said, thinking that some of these things - too many of these things - he had actually seen in his duty in North Africa, except it was British young men bearing the agonies, "I appreciate your position and I congratulate you on your birthday, but I am expecting to be ordered eastward again any day now, with the 25th Panzer Grenadiers for the glory of the Reich, and so until then I will walk through any door I please and take any drink I please because, Herr Rittenkrett, I walk and drink in the company of many hundreds of ghosts, and we have earned that very small privilege, even from the Gestapo."
And though Herr Rittenkrett did not move an inch, Michael felt him draw back.
The music played and played. Above the dance floor the old dead regals peered down upon the lively celebration.
Rittenkrett slowly released the breath he'd been holding.
He said, "I have one question for you, Major. Answer it very carefully."
"Go ahead, sir."
Rittenkrett's snow-capped head nodded. One hand slowly came up to grip Michael's right shoulder. The blue eyes crinkled.
"Would you like ice cream with your cake?"
"Yes," Michael replied, holding back his sigh of very huge relief, "I would."
"Ross, go get it for him," Rittenkrett said into the air, and the thuggish one moved to obey. "I suppose it's unnecessary to surmise that you've given back to the enemy double or triple what you and your brave comrades have endured? No answer needed there, I can see for myself. Otherwise, you wouldn't be alive, yes? Franziska! Why isn't our new friend a colonel?"
"I was going to ask him the same question." She wound her arm around Michael's in a smooth, beautifully sinuous motion.
"There are already many talented and able colonels," the wolf in the room answered. "I prefer to be nearer the action."
"Ah!" Rittenkrett beamed. "Spoken like a man who ought to be a colonel. Your accent...is it...?"
"Westphalian," Michael responded. "My hometown is Dortmund."
"I've had some dealings involving the Hadamar hospital there. A shame your fair city has taken so much damage from the bombers. But that will be reckoned with, very soon. I presume you were here last night? During the air raid?"
"I was, yes." It had been around eleven o'clock when the sirens had begun to shriek, and Michael had been in bed resting for the day to come. He'd gone down to the cellar with the other guests, maybe seventy or so people in the entire hotel. The lights had flickered and vibrations had pounded through the floor and the walls and a few of the women had begun to sob as they held their children but the night bombers had left smoking craters and fire-scorched ruins in another part of the city.
"Prepare for more," Rittenkrett cautioned, his smile now gone. "But don't fear, our courageous Luftwaffe is steadily rebuilding. I know of some tricks up their sleeves, yet to come."
"I don't fear," Michael said. Tricks up their sleeves? He didn't like the sound of that. "I have the utmost confidence in the Luftwaffe and in the ultimate destruction of all our enemies." He decided to add, "If the Fuhrer says it will happen...so it shall."
"Exactly." Rittenkrett leaned in toward him and said, sotto voce, "But in the meantime, Major, make sure you get your ass to the cellar when you hear those sirens." Then he winked and laughed and clapped Michael hard on the arm that Franziska wasn't holding, and Michael allowed a smile and a nod.
The thug returned with a plate of cake and ice cream and both a fork and spoon engraved with the name of the hotel. As Michael accepted the gift and wondered where he was going to dump the sugary stomach-clogger, the man who looked like a distressed accountant whispered something into Rittenkrett's ear and the big red-faced man grimaced. "Well, Sigmund reminds me I have business to tend to even on the night of my own party. Franziska, I'm sure you'll be in your element as a gracious hostess in my absence. Oh..." That last word, Michael realized, was meant as a bridge between party-talk and more serious matters, for Axel Rittenkrett's eyes sharpened again as he regarded the lady.
"Our continuing project requires your special enthusiasm," Rittenkrett told her. "Your invaluable communication skills. We have some new clients on the list. Shall we talk in my office tomorrow morning? Around nine o'clock?"
"Absolutely," she said.
"She warms my cockles," Rittenkrett replied, speaking to Michael. "Major Jaeger, eat and drink to your heart's delight and walk through any door that pleases you. It was an honor to meet you. Good luck and good...I'm sure you must hear this quite a lot...hunting. Heil Hitler." He put up his right hand in the salute.
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