"Possibly there are strange thoughts in my mind."
"I'm a journalist!" she said brightly, and sat up on her knees. "Tell me everything!"
He drank down the rest of his champagne, set her full glass on the table and his empty one next to it. His voice was husky when he spoke; not with passion, as she might think, but with the first pangs of true grief. "I've always been better at showing than telling."
If anything, he had to command his own performance. Franziska was talented, true, and she was eager and hot-blooded and adventurous, but Michael Gallatin was fighting his own battle even as he stormed her walls.
He gave her as good as he could, as long as he could. He stretched her out and pressed her inward. His tongue shattered her dam, and her mouth brought forth droplets of rain in February. He lay back on the pillow, seeing colors and catching his breath.
Before he could move or speak or do anything, she stood up from the bed, picked up her flute and drank the champagne. She took three long swallows.
It was too late to move. To speak. To do anything.
He noticed then the bruises on her smooth bottom and the backs of her thighs.
"What are those?" he asked.
"Bruises. Right there."
"There. Right there, on your - "
She slid into bed, tight up against him, and kissed him. Her mouth might have given him a taste of her champagne too, he thought. But it no longer mattered.
He pushed her back. "The bruises. From what?"
"I fell down today. I slipped on some snow. Fell smack on my bottom."
"That's not true."
"It is true!" she said, right in his face. "I promise!"
"I don't believe you. Not even a promise."
She tapped his lower lip with her forefinger. "Is this our first quarrel?"
"No, it's not a quarrel."
"That's too bad." She sat astride him, her legs curled around his hips. "Because, you know, they say the best thing about a quarrel is the making-up."
The bruises were not going to be explained. Michael let it go; the ticking of the clock had begun.
They lay together, cuddling. Warmth upon warmth. They kissed lightly and deeply. One mouth was never without the other for very long.
She lay without moving for awhile.
Michael said, "Are you all right?"
"Sleepy," she answered. "It just came on me."
"It's late," he told her.
"I did have a long day." She turned toward him and, looking into his eyes, she softly stroked his cheek. "You need a shave." Her voice was a little listless.
He caught her hand and kissed the fingers. Every one.
"Will you hold me while I sleep?" she asked, nestling against him.
"I will hold you forever," he said, and he put his arm around her.
"I'm so...tired. I don't think I've ever felt so tired. Or so happy," she amended. "I think you've worn me out."
"Just lie still. Rest."
She gave him a crooked smile, her eyes hazed. "I used to be young," she said.
When he looked at her again, her eyes had closed.
"Oh!" she said suddenly, with a jerk of her body. Her eyes opened. They were bloodshot, and Michael thought with a shrill of alarm that he was going to have to kill a messenger after all.
But she smiled in his direction, and she felt for his hand until he found hers, and she asked in a voice that was going away, "Am I still...only nearly...the most beautiful woman you've ever seen?"
He might, in some other situation, have had a response to this. A quick-witted comeback, a double-entendre, a poetic witticism worthy of Cyrano. Now, though, at this crucial and terrible instant he was struck dumb as a stone.
"It's all right," she whispered. Her eyes closed again, and with her last dwindling strength she squeezed his hand. "Tell me when I wake up."
She breathed in and out, and in and out. He heard her breathing become shallow. As if in slow-motion, her head came back and her neck stretched, a cord standing out against the flesh, and for an instant Michael thought she was having one of her small deaths, and that when she regarded him again it would be with sated eyes, a dimpled smile and the sparkle of sweat on her cheeks.
But she was gone.
He felt her leave. Because suddenly the room felt so dark, and suddenly he felt so alone.
He got up after a few minutes, because she wasn't coming back. He went into the bathroom, where he sat down on the cold tiles in a cold corner and wept.
She was right, he decided when he was all cried-out. Maybe he did need a fresh shave. She never knew my real name, he thought. That was what caused the first cut. Then, dripping blood from seven slips of the Solingen, which was not such a safety razor after all, he stood over her body and finished the last glass of champagne. He sat beside her for a time, just looking at her. She did appear to be only sleeping. But when he touched her hand he felt her already becoming common clay. That thought caused the tears to burn again. His nose ran like a spigot. Still, he held her hand until he was sure her ghost was no longer there, and he could no longer hear the music of her laughter.
One last thing. To get her properly in bed, with the sheet tucked around her and the fan of her black hair spread out on the pillow. Her face in repose did seem to have the hint of a secret smile. Something, perhaps, she knew that he did not?
Good dreams, he wished her.
He was tired, too. Worn out and weary. Sick with himself. He wished he could go to sleep and dream with her. It was going to be mind over matter tonight to get dressed and make his way to the safe -
He heard the footsteps at his door. The creak of a board.
They didn't bother with knocking.
A heavy boot crashed the door in. Men in black leather coats came boiling like ebony wasps into the room and from their midst strode the big man with the red face and the white suit.
He brushed past the major even as two men caught Michael's shoulders and slammed him against the wall. A painting of a golden-haired fraulein in a sunlit garden jumped off its hook and fell to the floor.
Rittenkrett walked to the edge of the bed and peered down at Franziska. He squinted, spoke her name, and then reached out to rouse her before he realized she could not be roused. "Hey! Sigmund!" he snapped. The accountant came over, lifted the sheet and tried to find a pulse. He leaned forward to feel for breath. He jammed a hand against her breast, seeking the missing heartbeat.
Sigmund shook his head. Rittenkrett turned toward the major with his face as red as a crimson lamp.
"You," said Rittenkrett behind a thick forefinger, "have done a dirty. Haven't you? Eh? Ask him, Ross."
As the two men held Michael, Ross stepped forward and hit him in the stomach with a black-gloved fist. The second blow was harder, and the third made Michael's legs buckle. Before he could find his balance, a hand gripped his hair and a knee burst his nose open.
"Careful with the blood!" Rittenkrett warned, retreating a step. "Christ, get him a towel! Stand up, Major Jaeger! But that's not your real name, is it? How did you murder Franziska?"
A throat cleared. Rittenkrett turned around to see Sigmund holding up the two champagne flutes. "We'll find out," Rittenkrett promised Michael. "Next question: why did you murder Franziska?"
Michael didn't answer. There was no point. Eight men in the room. At least four with drawn pistols. His nose was streaming blood, his eyes were swelling shut and his head pounded. Maybe down his sides or upon his back there were small stirrings of animal hair, but not much.
He could never commit suicide, but he was so weary and so sick at heart that he wished for death tonight. He welcomed it. He was no one's hero. He was the shadowy slime that could kill a masterpiece of a woman who loved him, a perfect package, and no matter what her sins were he had failed to move heaven and earth to find a way to save her life.
He deserved to die. To die brutally, and in great pain.
Which had already begun.
"We're going to march you out of here," Rittenkrett said. "No clothes are necessary where you're going, but we'll take your uniform anyway to go over everything with our fine-toothed buzzsaws." He came up close to the bleeding face, though not too close to risk the suit. "I hope you enjoyed her. Got your dick's worth. Because now, sir, whoever you are, you're coming to the Gestapo's playhouse. And there we will give you a fucking of another kind. Sigmund!"
The accountant hit Michael across the side of the head with a leather-wrapped blackjack. He was fast and efficient, no energy wasted.
They dragged the naked, bleeding major out. Behind them the pair of men charged with tearing the place apart for evidence peeked under the sheet. One grinned at the other and with his fist made a pumping gesture at his crotch.
Through the wind and gusts of snow the two black sedans drove. Through the dark and empty streets of Berlin. They drove also through the nightmares of those Inner Ring members who yet remained in this city, manning the code books and doing whatever small sabotage they could conceive for the glory of old dead Germany.
When these black sedans came for you, the intelligent thing to do was to pick up the pistol in the upstairs desk, shoot your children in the head and then your wife and then yourself. That was called escape.
And it was the only way.
But for Michael Gallatin - sitting naked, groggy and bleeding on the back seat of the lead sedan between Sigmund and Ross - it was no way at all.
His strength was gone. He was all used up. He just no longer wished to live.
Was it suicide if he allowed someone else to kill him? If he simply lay unresisting as they pulled him apart? On that matter, the wolf in him was silent.
Through the streets they went, through the wind and snow. At length the two cars turned onto Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse. Their yellow cat's-eye headlamps approached a block-long gothic slab of bricks, with five floors showing. Beneath the street, who knew how many? Lights showed through some of the windowblinds. This place never slept.
The cars went through a black gate, past the electric lamps that stood on either side of a porte cochere, and slid to a halt before a secondary entrance toward the rear of the building. Michael was dragged out, with Ross's Luger in his ribs. He knew that if he struggled, he would not be shot in the ribs but instead either clubbed again over the head, hit in the face or in the worst case shot in an area that would cause pain but no immediate death, like the back of the hand or the knee. He didn't care to struggle; it was too much of an effort.
Sigmund pressed a recessed button on the wall beside a door. In a few seconds the door was unbolted from within. The entourage, six men strong, went through with Michael a pale hobbler at their center. Inside there was a desk and a soldier and a file cabinet and a telephone and another door. Michael was half-pushed, half-carried through this door and into a green-painted corridor with frosted glass light globes spaced along the ceiling. Various doors lined this hallway, and at the far end was a tall, wide window through which another light gleamed.
At about the hallway's centerpoint they came to an oak-railed staircase and started down. When Michael's feet wanted to balk, he was picked up by two of the men and rushed downward. The staircase descended past several landings and more doors. It angled to the left, straightened out again and then angled to the right. Bare bulbs lit the stained risers. Michael smelled the old odors of human sweat and fear, and some of them not so old.
"Move!" a voice said from behind him. Sigmund's blackjack gave him a knock across the base of the skull, which filled Michael's head with flaming pinwheels. They came to the bottom of the stairs. Michael heard the jingle of keys, a merry sound like little bells. A lock was turned.
When the door opened, he was pushed and hauled through. In his haze he made out a stone-walled chamber with light bulbs hanging on cords from the timbered ceiling. Shadows ate some of the room. There were chairs sitting about. There was a machine of some kind on rollers, with coiled-up cables that ended in what might have been large alligator clips. Another machine was attached to what appeared to be a portable water tank on one end and on the other a gray instrument that resembled a baker's pastry bag. He doubted it was used to frost any birthday cakes. He heard the door close behind him. A bolt was thrown with a metallic finality that would have made most men start to either babble or weep. In here there were no windows. The air smelled of vinegar and the sharp bitterness of chemical disinfectant.
And fear. Much, much fear.
He was dragged onward, the men moving quickly around him.
The machines gave way to the medieval. Red embers glowed in a brazier full of pokers. And beside it stood that most ancient of torture devices: the rectangular wooden frame, ropes and rollers of the instrument known as 'the rack'.
Upon seeing it, something in Michael Gallatin stirred and growled a word he took to be resist. But that was all, just a growl. He didn't care to resist. He was no longer fit to wear either flesh or fur. It was over. He was ready to die.
But his captors didn't know that.
"Ross," said the Ice Man.
While Michael was held, Ross beat him. The black-gloved fists crunched his ribs, slammed into his shoulders, crashed into his jaw and nose and cheekbones. Michael's legs gave way and he tumbled into darkness.
He was aware of lying on his back, his wrists and ankles being bound with ropes. He heard the cranking of the ratchet. The rollers rumbled and the ropes tightened, and the pressure began building at the sockets of arms and legs.
Warm liquid was flung into his face. He sputtered and spat. His swollen eyes opened into slits, and he smelled and tasted another man's wine. In fact, wine from several men.
Michael moved the throbbing bloodmask of his face and was able to find Sigmund amid the shadows. The accountant held a bucket in one hand and was zipping up with the other. Ross also was zipping, and one man had his huge cock flapping up and down for the envy of the others.
Rittenkrett's crimson moon emerged from the dark. The teeth in its crater gripped a freshly-lit cigarello. "How do you like our champagne, Major?"
Michael closed his eyes again. He'd seen by the filmy glare from an overhead bulb that the Ice Man had removed his white suit jacket and was now wearing a leather butcher's apron.
"Your teeth are still there. Your lips haven't been ripped off. Yet. You can still talk. Let's hear the story."
Michael smelled the smoke ring drift into his face.
The ratchet went clack...clack...clack. The pressure on his joints in-creased. It was not pain yet, but it would be there on the handle's next turn.
"All right, let me try," said Rittenkrett. Michael heard the white shoes grind grit on the floorstones. "It's safe to say, I do believe, that you're not who you say you are. Eh? Not a German officer. And not even a German? So, because you speak so well and you act with such authority, I'd say someone has gone to great trouble to train you and put you here. You know, I told you...hey, look at me when I'm talking to you!" The tip of the cigarello crisped hair on Michael's chest.
Michael obeyed, not because he had to but because he wanted to move the torture session along. The sooner they got past the small stuff and Rittenkrett realized his guest would not talk, the faster they'd get to the hard treatment. And from that, it would eventually be the death that Michael desired. How many hours would it take?
No matter. He would never leave this room alive.
"Better," the Ice Man said. "All right, then. So...well, let me backtrack a bit!" He blew a few smoke rings and admired their advance. "The most amazing thing happened to me today! Just this afternoon, Franziska arrives at my office looking very fetching, and she says, 'Axel, do you know that thing you've always wished to do with me?' And you can bet I do! So she says, 'I have one request. That you call Denker in Administration and remind him to do what I've asked of him'. And what would that be? I inquire. But she says it's her private business, and so - knowing I'm going to find out from Denker anyway, who is scared to death of me - I say, as you wish."
"Therefore, we go to my little hideaway that every decent married man should have," said the Ice Man, with the cigarello in one corner of his mouth, "and for as long as I am able I partake of this offered gift. Oh, you should have seen her on the edge of the bed as she was! Such a beautiful ass! Ah well." The massive shoulders shrugged. "I'm going to miss her sense of humor."
"But that's not all the story!" Rittenkrett paced back and forth, smiling. He was careful never to leave his prisoner's field of view. "Denker calls me in the evening with this question: do I know what the relationship is between Franziska Luxe and a certain Major Horst Jaeger?" He made a face and slapped himself on the forehead. "That goddamned man again! After I've told him to leave Franziska alone! And now comes the real gem: Denker tells me that this morning Franziska went to see Colonel von Piffin, the old fucking goat who has some pull in the dispatching of orders and so forth, and for an hour or so they left the building. Denker, you understand, is von Piffin's aide. When they came back, von Piffin was using his walking-stick. It's common knowledge that he has a little hideaway as well, for his chorus girls. Now listen, Major what's-your-name, you'll appreciate this!"
A smoke ring ascended toward the dirty lights.
"Denker," said the Ice Man, "tells me that Franziska says she has always found him attractive - yes, him with his cocked eyes - and she wishes a favor. If Colonel von Piffin fails to put his signature upon a certain request for transfer in the next day or so, would Denker do it for him? To tell you the truth, he does it all the time. And if Denker the cock-eyed dreamboat will do this for her, Franziska will go to his fucking little hideaway with him. Only Denker's too stupid to have a hideaway, so they go to a broom closet on the fourth floor. Then...get this, now...after that is when Franziska came to me. Talk about doing a dedicated job, Major!"
Michael started to let his eyelids slide down, but the Ice Man was leaning over him.
"The kicker to this tale of lust and woe is that Denker tells me what Franziska wants done can't be done," said Rittenkrett. "She wants her Major Horst Jaeger transferred from the 25th Panzer Grenadier Division before it moves to the East Front. She wants this great man of hers to be transferred to a division on the Western Front. Only Denker's looked up the orders, and found that the 25th Panzer Grenadier Division was relocated to the East Front at the beginning of last week."
"We may have a deserter, I say to Denker. Now we have to do some digging and make some calls, because people have left their offices for the day. It's night now, the phone lines in and out of Berlin are cut by Inner Ring swine all the time, and every colonel worth a shit is in his little hideaway. Records are incomplete, fucked up by incompetents, lost and damaged. But at last - about an hour ago - we get the information we need. And you know what we find, don't you? Speak up!"
Michael remained silent.
"You don't exist," hissed the Ice Man. "You never did."
He let that hang, and blew a misshapen circle that curled in upon itself.
Then he opened a red box in his right hand and withdrew from it an ice pick with a pearl-white handle.
Clack...clack...clack went the ratchet. Michael winced and bit his lower lip as pain rippled through his joints.
"She was trying to have you sent to the Western Front." The Ice Man inspected his instrument of choice. A small spark of light jumped from the tip. "Hoping to save you from the Russians, I suppose? Picture it. Poor Franziska, fighting for the life of her noble knight with the only weapon she had."
I'm so tired, she'd said. She must have scrubbed herself raw to get rid of the odors of those men. Either that, or he was really and truly in love, because all he'd been able to smell was her.
And now, tortured in his own private hell, Michael thought her champagne toast made sense.
To good decisions?
To the sun that sets in the west.
What kind of toast is that? he remembered asking.
And the reply: One I hope you remember when you need to.
He realized what she was trying to tell him.
She seemed to speak to him again, her voice calm and quiet from the realm of the dead: They can't be stopped from the East. Not by all our wishes and dreams. Not by all we pretend to be but are not. They can't be stopped, and when this city dies I will die here too, because I have chosen my field of battle. But you...in the West...can make the good decision to live. You can put aside your rifle when there's no need for any more death. You can find honor in being one of the Germans who survives a war that is senseless to continue, and give yourself to the British or the Americans. It may be a little while until you find freedom...but you will.
You see? I said everything would be all right, didn't I?
"And then you killed her," Rittenkrett said. His hand reared back, and drove the ice pick into the exposed underside of Michael's left arm.
This little pain was nothing.
"Are you British?" The ice pick slid into his right arm. Rittenkrett gave it a twist.
"Are you American?" The ice pick went into his left thigh.
"Are you Russian?" There was a pause, and then Rittenkrett drove the ice pick into Michael Gallatin's right testicle.
"Oh," said Rittenkrett in the aftermath of the teeth-gritted scream, "I think that hit something!"
His audience, frocked in darkness, laughed.
Rittenkrett nodded to whoever was handling the ratchet.
Clack...clack. Two turns. Agony upon agony. A mist of sweat and a new flow of blood from Michael's nostrils. The next turn of the ratchet would tear his shoulders and legs from their sockets.
"I'll ask again," the Ice Man announced. "Are you British?"
The ice pick pierced Michael's side, and more blood spooled down.
"Are you American?"
The ice pick went into his right cheek. Rittenkrett let it sit there vibrating for a few seconds before he took it out.
"Are you Russian?" Rittenkrett's hand poised in the air. The stub of the cigarello in his mouth glowed as red as his face.
The ice pick entered the loose flesh between Michael's penis and scrotum.
"Oh, I missed!" said the Ice Man, and he pulled the pick out and jammed it into the left testicle.
His audience applauded at that one. It did go on at length.
Rittenkrett paused in his performance to take a drink of water and flame a fresh Indianer. "What's the reason for not speaking, sir?" he asked as he returned to the sweating, blood-pocked figure on the rack. "I'm just asking you your nationality, that's all. Who do you work for, that kind of thing." He took his position and lifted the pick. "Let's start again, shall we? Are you British?"
The pick swung down and entered Michael's left leg just above the knee.
"Are you American?"
Into the upper chest, where it turned on the collarbone.
"Are you Russian?" Rittenkrett lifted the ice pick high. "You know, sir, whoever you are, it's futile. You've lost. Not just you, but your entire effort. Because I hear it on great authority that the scientists are only a few days away from having the Black Sun, and when that is complete no force on earth can stand against the Reich."
Light gleamed from the bloody tip.
A drop of blood fell, and hit Michael on the forehead.
It was in his mind.
The Black Sun.
Only a few days away.
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