Michael stared at the floor, somewhere between himself and the white shoes. "I'll just accept a ride to the hotel, if that's what you're offering."

"Yes, indeed it is. And Franziska, you should be on your way."

She left without another word.

They rode back in a long black Mercedes that displayed small Nazi pennants on aerials mounted above the headlamps. Sigmund drove, Michael had the shotgun seat, and Ross and Rittenkrett occupied the spacious rear seat. Michael's head felt foggy. He rolled his window down and put his face into the cold. A few snowflakes whirled before the lamps. Either that, or ashes.

Rittenkrett wished him good night in front of the hotel. "You do understand," he added before Michael left the car, "the value of the work that Franziska is doing?"

"I'm sure it must be valuable."

"Oh, yes. And one more thing, Major Jaeger: please don't try to see her again. It really would interfere. All right?" He continued without waiting for a response, and this time his voice carried a sharp edge. "You've crashed my birthday party, made a spectacle of me before some very important people, and taken Franziska's mind off her responsibilities. Now I'll tell you that if I find out you're seeing her again I'm going to forget what an excellent soldier for the Reich you've been and escort you through a door you certainly will not want to enter. In there is no cake and ice cream, I can promise you. But I'm sure we won't see each other again, so once more I say good luck to you in your future battles, and Heil Hitler."

Michael returned the salute with small enthusiasm. He got out of the car.

The Mercedes pulled away.

He went to his room, took a cold shower and stretched out on the bed. The sheets were fresh, but still her aroma seemed to be everywhere. It permeated and perfumed the air in here. No wonder, he thought; it was in his clothes. And it lingered on his own flesh too, no matter how hard he scrubbed.

But, in truth, he didn't want to scrub too very hard.

He might have gotten to sleep around midnight. But on the first ring of the telephone he was immediately awake. "Hello?"

There was a silence. Michael waited through it.

In a voice that tried to be cheerful but had a sad center, she said, "I'm missing you."

He didn't hesitate. "Franziska, come to me."

She hung up, and he lay waiting for her in the fragrant dark.

She arrived within fifteen minutes. His heart beat harder when he set his eyes on her. When he kissed her, he found her face was still cold from the wind. He wondered if she'd gotten the BMW up to racing speed through the empty streets. Under her coat she was wearing the dark blue dress and the strand of pearls around her throat. Within another minute she was as naked as he was, the expensive coat and dress falling to the floor the same as if they'd been old rags, her shoes kicked away, her sheer stockings tossed one way and another, her underwear crumpled in elegant folds. She started to remove the pearls, but he caught her fingers and said, "Leave those on for now."

Her raven-black hair was touselled and roughened by the night. Her gray eyes were sparkling and eager, but Michael could see they burned with a lower flame. He could smell the too-sweet cologne of the man she'd slept with, could smell his hair pomade and his bitter sweat. He could smell the cigarette the man had smoked in the aftermath. A much inferior brand to the cream of the British crop, he thought.

"I've been with someone," she told him, which was perhaps the biggest waste of breath in the history of the world.

"I know, but you're with me now."

"Please," she said, her mouth up close to his, "will you hold me?"

He guided her the few steps to the bed, and lying down together he enfolded her, and she pressed her head against his strong shoulder and gave a soft quiet sound worlds away from the brassy trumpets of the Third Reich.

She went to sleep in that position. He closed his eyes against the blue-shaded lamplight and dozed, opened them, closed them again, felt the full length of her body shift against his, deliciously warm in the sheets, her thighs moving, her lips grazing his cheek, and still she slept.

She trusts me, he thought. She trusts a fiction, to keep her safe through the night.

My God, what am I going to do?

If he ever really went back to sleep he wasn't sure, because the steam pipes began to knock and the radiator hissed. He heard the rumble and rush of wind beyond the glass. Maybe it was bringing heavy snow. The Ice Man's element, he thought. To Hell with that bastard.

Suddenly he felt her above him, and when he opened his eyes she was staring at him with her chin supported on her forearm, as if trying to memorize every line, every pore, every newborn beard hair.

"I've realized what I can hear in your accent," Franziska said. Her hair had tumbled forward, covering half her face. "You speak English."

"Speak English?" He needed a few seconds to think about that. If he did decide to start speaking the King's, she would instantly hear that he spoke it far too effortlessly. "No, I don't."

She frowned. It was a mystery she was trying to solve. Then her frown went away. Up close to his ear she whispered in lightly-accented English, "I've been waiting for you, for a very long time. I didn't think you were ever going to find me. But I'll wait for you still, however long it takes."

With the greatest force of will he'd ever commanded, Michael just gave her a bemused expression and shook his head.

Franziska returned to her German: "I just said I bought you a present today. It's in my handbag, over there." It had been placed on a chair. She licked across his chest with her talented tongue. "Why don't you go see what it is?"

When Michael removed the white-wrapped present with its green bow from the purse, he remembered Rittenkrett saying that this afternoon she called my secretary and said she had to go shopping. Here, then, was what she'd gone shopping for. A gift for him. He felt he should be pleased, but why did something the size of a pine knot seem to be caught in his throat?

"Open it, open it!" she urged, sitting up with her legs crossed under her.

He did. It was a flawless silver case, and upon opening that he found a shiny new Solingen travel razor, the kind that screws two parts together to make a whole.

"It's very handsome," Michael said. "That was kind of you."

"I was going to have your initials put on it, but I wasn't sure what type of lettering you'd like. There are too many choices these days. Can we go tomorrow and get it done? I'm free until two."

"Yes, absolutely."

"I'll take you to lunch. All right?"

He nodded. He realized that she was asking for more time with him because the howling wind and cold outside spoke volumes of merciless death on the Eastern Front. Which, of course, now Berlin bordered.

"I'd like you to use your razor now," said Franziska.

He touched his chin. It was a bit prickly.

"Not on you," she told him, as she stretched her legs out before her. She wiggled her toes back and forth. "You missed the jar of shaving soap and the scissors in my handbag. Get them." She smiled impishly, her dimples going deep. "I'll wait."

He got them. "And just what would you like me to shave?" he asked, though his cock already knew.

"I want a heart, right here." She put a finger into her untamed black bush. "Are you up for that?"

Which might have been the second biggest waste of breath in the history of the world.

Michael prepared a warm towel and warmer water in a white bowl. He got the razor rinsed and ready. He got the soap foamy. His cock strained upward, which might be a problem. When Michael sat down on the bed between her open thighs to begin this heroic endeavor by shaping the heart with the scissors, Franziska gave a throaty little laugh that almost finished him off.

"We're just using the soap cream right now," she reminded him. "Go ahead, my life is in your hands."

He did a good job. An excellent job. A slow, careful job. If a razor could speak, it would babble happily for the rest of its days.

Then it was done, and she gazed down upon the result and then looked at him with what he thought might be stars in her eyes.

"Now," she said, "I can say that both my hearts belong to Horst Jaeger."

He put the razor and the scissors and the soap and the bowl aside, and he grasped a handful of her hair to rock her head back and even as his mouth pressed forward hers opened to accept him and her tongue was formed of flame.

For the next hour, as the wind shrilled and the pipes thrummed, he devastated her. He took her to the edge and brought her back so many times she became a trembling, moaning, half-sobbing pulse of nerves vibrating with need and shining with sweat. He plunged into her full-length, at full power, and then he pulled out and balanced above her, the very tip of him making slow circles in the foldings of her new heart. Again and again he moved upon her, into her and within her. She cried out, and she mashed her lips against his shoulder to muffle her cries because any louder and the police would arrive to investigate the killing. Then, when she was crazed and her eyes were wild and her hair was a beautiful tangled jungle, Michael said he wanted to show her what pleasure he could give her with a strand of pearls.

At last, at length, as she lay upon him with her back against his chest and he clutched her breasts and stroked her fire like a machine, a cry came out from between her gritted teeth that became a scream from an open mouth. She tensed so hard Michael thought he could feel every muscle in her body move beneath the flesh like bundles of piano wire. It went on and on, and then the flash seared through his own body and as he slid out of her he felt the flood of her liquid explosion. In the next instant he knew what it was like to be a long-distance shooter, lying in a rain of his own making. She gave a groan that was nearly a different language altogether, and she turned over atop him and pushed him back in with one hand and clamped herself around him like a hot, soaking-wet vise.

They stayed that way, breathing hard together.

She shivered a few times, on her long strengthless falling back to earth.

She tried to lift her head. Tried to speak. He needed a towel and a new pair, because these were done for the night.

"Oh my God," she finally was able to gasp. And again: "Oh my God."

When he slid out of her again - and this time he wasn't going back in for a while, no matter how much he might desire it - Franziska tried in vain to hold him, but she too was as weak as yesterday's pudding.

With an effort her head came up and she looked at him through glazed eyes.

"I think you've broken me," she breathed. "I'm in pieces."

He brushed her hair aside and kissed her forehead. "Don't worry, I'll put you back together again."

That was enough for her to hear. She lay silently atop him, holding on.

And he stared at the ceiling for awhile and listened to the storm.

It was the sound, he knew, of the future lashing at the walls around them, trying to get in where the British secret agent and the Nazi huntress lay on the edge of slumber. But the future did not and would not slumber, and Michael knew that very soon it would rush in upon them no matter what he felt, or hoped, or wished for.

And what then?

Oh my God, he thought.

What then?


The Messenger

The future arrived at around three o'clock the following afternoon.

Berlin wore a crust of snow. Flurries drifted over the roofs and spires and made spitting noises in the places where bomb-burned buildings yet smoldered.

The future arrived as Michael, after returning from lunch with Franziska, was having a quick touch-up shave with the happiest razor in the world. On the silver case were the freshly-tooled letters H and J, as simple as possible. They'd had a long untroubled sleep, tangled together in the bed that she'd nicknamed der Regen-Hersteller, the Rain Maker, for reasons obvious to them both. He'd said he hoped she was careful today, whatever she was doing, and she'd confidently replied that she was always careful.

Not careful enough, he thought as he'd watched her walk away. And this time before she reached the end of the block she had glanced back at him and given him a wave and a smile that came closer to breaking his heart than any pain he'd ever known.

The future did not arrive with Russians smashing into the city. It did not arrive with Gestapo agents in black leather coats swarming out of cars and bounding up the stairs to room 214 with their Lugers drawn. It did not arrive with the falling of more bombs, or with train-killing Mustangs pumping rockets into buildings that were old when Beethoven's Fate first knocked at the door.

It arrived with a telephone call to his room, and a softly-delivered message from a clerk that a priest by the name of Father Hubart Kollmann wished to speak to Major Jaeger in the lobby as soon as possible.

The major said he'd be down in a few minutes.

Now this was puzzling. There was no need for alarm...but still...if this was someone from his side, what was the reason for contact?

But, of course! He was being contacted to end the mission! It was all over. They must have gotten enough of the Inner Ring out that a week's stay in this Devil's playground was no longer required. He could get to the safe house and -

Cross the river and go home?

Walk out of this hotel in the company of a priest and never see Franziska again?

And leave her to what he knew was coming, in a month or two or three at the most? The Russians were set on vengeance for what the Germans had done to their countrymen beginning in '41. The murders, atrocities and rapes were going to be returned a hundredfold. Michael knew that, as the Russians steadily advanced into German territory, the sufferings of civilians and the sheer horror endured by those who couldn't or wouldn't escape were already beyond any demonic imagination.

He finished his shave, washed his face, buttoned up his uniform, put on his cap just so and left the room. It seemed a longer descent down the stairs than before.

The priest was sitting in a black leather chair in the far corner of a lobby that maintained, in spite of all realities, its opulent faux medieval charm. Flames crackled in the gray stone hearth, which was decorated with carvings of the faces of various knights and noblemen. Flags of many family crests were on display, all surrounding a huge Nazi banner. It was fitting, Michael thought as he crossed the gold-colored carpet, that the priest be waiting for him under a tapestry that depicted a medieval wolfhunt, with men on horseback plunging their spears into the doomed and bloody beast.

"Major Jaeger," said the priest, as he stood up from his chair.

"Father Kollmann, is it?" He shook the man's hand. A hard grip, very dry.

"It is." Kollmann motioned to another chair, identical to his own, that faced him. "Please, sit."

Michael did, like a good dog.

Kollmann sat down and, smiling faintly, seemed to be carefully examining the major. Michael had already taken the priest in: tall and slender, about forty-five, with light brown hair showing hints of gray here and there, a sharp nose, a long chin, a pair of horn-rimmed glasses with blue-tinted lenses that made view of the eyes difficult. Slim-fingered hands with manicured nails, a bit vain for a priest. Black shoes polished to a military or holier-than-thou gloss. The smell of soap or aftershave that had a little too much topnote of Paris perfume, and the odor of a drink or two in the early afternoon. Also, the priest had a taste for licorice; there was probably some in his coat.

"We're all hoping for an early spring," said Kollmann.

"I can't recall a colder winter," Michael returned.

"But my dog certainly enjoyed it," was the response to that.

"What kind of dog?" The response to the response.

"Just a mutt," was the final piece.

Michael nodded. He removed his cap and stared up at the tapestry. There was some message in it, he thought. Maybe something he didn't want to see.

"The situation is evolving well," Kollmann said after a time. The movement of his head tracked a few people crossing the lobby. An older man and woman were seated on a sofa at a comfortable distance away, the woman's face bowed. The man was talking quietly to her. Michael had already seen them; they looked like people who'd made a long trip under the burden of great sadness, possibly to visit in the Army hospital an armless or legless or completely appendage-free torso that used to be a good German boy. Michael wondered how many times that scene had been repeated, in how many countries, and when it would ever stop. "Evolving well," Kollmann repeated.

"Glad to hear," was Michael's brusque comment.

The priest steepled his long fingers. He stared into space. Communing with God? Michael wondered. Hearing some voice from the divine infinite?

"There's been an alteration," said Kollmann.

Michael waited. He was tense. Alteration. A tailor's term, the taking in or letting out of clothes by nimble needles.

"We want the woman removed," came the next decree, as hard and dry as the handshake.

"Removed," Michael echoed. "You mean...taken somewhere?"

"You know what I mean."

"No, I do not." Michael's heart felt squeezed by a hand made of a thousand thorns. He couldn't breathe. The blood pulsed in his face. "No, I do not," he said again.

"The decision has been made to remove her. We want to make a statement."

And here was where he almost lost everything he'd built into himself over the hardship and experience of his years: his self-control, his knowledge that one must sometimes accept an occasional whip from a stupid man in order to move toward freedom, the pushing down and down and down of his own desires of the heart, the grimness of the morning before dawn when the wolves call and no human is there in bed to make you want to stay. To make you need to stay.

He almost lost it all, because the bones seemed to start to reshape in his face before he caught himself, and the blood roared within him and the scent of the wildness that was his deepest essence bloomed from his flesh.

"A statement?" He sprayed spittle. His face was contorted, and he leaned toward the priest with death in his eyes. "A statement of what? That we can kill women just as easily as they can?"

Kollmann said, "Calm down, Major," as if speaking to a slightly-troublesome moron.

That was very nearly his last utterance upon the face of this earth.

Michael struggled to regulate his breathing. His joints were sore. All his bones had threatened, in the briefest of seconds, to rearrange themselves. Across the back of his neck, against the collar, he felt the scurryings of small coarse black and gray hairs rising and falling like strange tides. Only he knew what they were, and only he knew how much he wanted to kill the priest for even daring to speak this dirty idea into action.

Kollmann, his eyes hidden behind the blue lenses, reached into the pocket of his immaculate coat, and the fingers with their manicured nails returned with a small packet of black licorice sticks. He took one, slid it into a corner of his mouth, and offered the pack to Michael.

"No thank you," Michael said. "I'm not a drunkard, so I don't need that to hide the smell of my breath."

Kollmann sat very still for a few seconds. His face was a blank. He returned the pack of licorice to his pocket.

"We are still where we are," he told Michael. "The alteration does not come from me. I'm the messenger. But I am told to tell you that you should not blame our mutual friend for the disaster at Arnhem, and you should not blame him for this."

"I'll blame whoever I fucking choose to blame," came the answer, spoken in almost a snarl.

"We need to make a statement," the priest went on, his voice and demeanor maddeningly calm. "Not to the Germans, but to the Russians." He lowered his voice, though there was no one close enough to hear. "They have spies here, watching. They want to see how we handle ourselves in matters like this, for future reference. We have to be as ruthless as they are, Major. Otherwise, they'll walk all over us when they take the world stage. And believe me...when they seize Berlin, which they will...they will claim a large piece of Europe. So the woman needs to be removed, as a statement of what we will not tolerate."

"One woman," Michael said bitterly.

"No, she's not the only one. Of course not. But she's the one you're being ordered to remove."

"Why? Because I've gotten close to her?"

"Exactly," said the priest.

Michael was sweating. It was oozing out of him. He could smell the sourness of himself. He put a trembling hand to his forehead.

"Are you going to be ill?" Kollmann inquired.

Michael lowered his hand. He smiled into the blue lenses, his face slick. "Do you believe in Hell?"

"Certainly I do."

"You're a damned liar," said Michael, "because if you believed in Hell, you would be getting out of that chair and running for your life."

The fingers steepled again.

"Oh, I see." Did the mouth, with its licorice stick in one corner, twist into the briefest worm of a smile? "We have a complication."

Michael stared at the floor, as that ridiculous hollow word clanged in his mind.

"I'll remind you, Major," said the priest, "that this woman has been instrumental in the brutal murders of many German patriots. Of many fine men, woman, and children. Because, you must realize, entire families have been destroyed in this. Just disappeared without a trace, but certainly we know they were taken first to Gestapo headquarters. And some of those people - those patriots who risked everything to save this country from its self-mutilation, its sheer drum-beating insanity - were my friends. Now, I suspect, bones and ashes in a garbage pit somewhere. Before we go any further with this, shall I supply for you a list of their names and a display of their photographs? I can show you some grand pictures of the children, all dressed in their nice clothes and smiling. You know, there's nothing quite like a child's smile."

Michael kept his head lowered.

Kollmann nodded, still working on his candy. "They are the future, children are. Such potential, to make things brighter in this unhappy world. But, things do get complicated. Sometimes - very often it seems, in this day and age - the dark and the light get all mixed up together. And there are intelligent men who count on that happening. They are educated to make that happen. It is their most profound desire to do so. Now, I can sit here and say that possibly this woman fell under the spell and influence of such a man. That finding herself surrounded by fellow Germans who bore a grudge against the world and heeded the stirring call of a madman gave her a swell of what she took to be true and most worthy patriotism. Well, he said it: if you don't follow me, you don't love Germany. And he's a fantastic speaker who can make some very convincing arguments. But..." And here he removed the stick and gazed at what had been whittled away. "One can call murder a process of cleansing, an eradication of the unfit, and the preparation for a Thousand-Year-Reich. It's still murder, even in the language of the lawyer and the politician." He let that hang for a few seconds. "She's one of the people who must pay for that murder. Not just of other human beings, but of the country I knew. Because, Major Jaeger, my land has been burned away. I'm just trying my best to save a few seeds to throw on the scorched earth, in hopes anything can ever grow here again."

"So," said the priest, "you see, I do believe in Hell." He brought out the packet and returned the remainder of the stick to its brothers. "I live there."

Michael put his hands to his face.

"Is there any other way?" he asked, with a note of pleading.

"You don't have to do it. Our mutual friend suggested it be offered first to you. If you refuse, you can go with me right now to the safe house. We'll get you out as soon as possible."

"But she'll still be killed."

"Yes. We have people with experience."

"How - " His voice cracked. He tried once more: "How would it be done?"

The priest watched a Naval officer cross the lobby with a stylishly-dressed woman in a derby hat clinging to his arm. "A knock at the door of her studio, late at night. A silenced bullet to the head. Or someone following her to strangle her with a wire garotte wrapped around her neck. It would be quick."

"Oh, Jesus," Michael whispered, in agony. "I suppose one can also call murder a just retaliation for past sins?"

Kollmann's face was impassive. "I didn't always need the licorice for my breath, Major."

The future had come. Michael knew it. And this future was more terrible than he ever might have conceived. The fighter pilots couldn't kill a woman, because they left that hideous job to the slime on the ground. The shadow men. And him, the most shadowy of all.

"Can't I get her out?" he tried. "Knock her over the head, use chloroform or something? Can't I just get her out, and call it done?"

"Too risky. And in the scheme of things she's more valuable to us dead than alive."

It took Michael Gallatin awhile to get the words from brain to mouth and out.

"If...I were to do it...how would I?"

"You're the killer," said Kollmann.

Michael closed his eyes. But when he opened them again, he was still sitting in a black leather chair in the lobby of the Grand Frederik in the presence of this priest, and there was still a task to be done.

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