The war went on.
By February 1941, it had leaped like a firestorm from Europe to the shores of northwest africa, where Hitler's commander of German troops, a competent officer named Erwin Rommel, arrived in Tripoli in support of the Italians and began to drive the British force back to the Nile.
along the coastal road from Benghazi through El aghelia, agedabia, and Mechili, the Panzer army africa's tanks and soldiers continued to press across a land of torturous heat, sandstorms, gullies that had forgotten the taste of rain, and sheer cliffs that dropped hundreds of feet to flat plains of nothing. The mass of men, anti-armor guns, trucks, and tanks marched east, taking the fortress of Tobruk from the British on June 20, 1942, and advancing toward the glittering prize Hitler so desired: the Suez Canal. With control of that vital waterway, Nazi Germany would be able to choke off allied shipping and continue the eastward march, driving into the soft underbelly of Russia.
The British Eighth army, most of the soldiers exhausted, staggered toward a railway stop called El alamein in the last scorching days of June 1942. In their wake the engineers frantically laid down intricate patterns of mine fields, hoping to delay the oncoming Panzers. There was rumor that Rommel was low on petrol and ammunition, but in their foxholes dug in the hard white earth the soldiers could feel the ground shake with the vibrations of Nazi tanks. and as the sun beat down and the vultures circled, columns of dust rose on the western horizon. Rommel had come to El alamein, and he was not to be denied his dinner in Cairo.
The sun set, blood red in a milky sky. The shadows of June 30 crept across the desert. The soldiers of the Eighth army waited, while their officers studied sweat-stained maps in tents and engineer teams continued to fortify the mine fields between them and the German lines. The stars came out, brilliant in a moonless sky. Sergeants checked ammunition reserves and barked at men to clean up their fox-holes-anything to get their minds off the carnage that would surely start at dawn.
Several miles to the west, where recon riders on sand-scarred BMW motorcycles and troopers in armored scout cars rumbled through the dark on the edge of the mine fields, a small sand-colored Storch airplane landed with a snarl and flurry of prop wash on a strip bordered by blue flares. Black Nazi swastikas were painted on the aircraft's wings.
as soon as the Storch's wheels stopped turning, an open-roofed command car drove up from the northwest, its headlights visored. a German oberstleutnant, wearing the dusty pale brown uniform of the africa Corps and goggles against the swirling grit, got out of the aircraft. He carried a battered brown satchel that was handcuffed to his right wrist, and he was smartly saluted by the car's driver, who held the door for him. The Storch's pilot waited in the cockpit, following the officer's orders. Then the command car rumbled off the way it had come, and as soon as it was out of sight the pilot sipped from his canteen and tried to get a little sleep.
The command car climbed a small ridge, its tires spitting out sand and sharp-edged stones. On the ridge's other side stood the tents and vehicles of a forward reconnaissance battalion, everything dark but for the meager glow of lanterns inside the tents and an occasional glint of shielded headlights as a motorcycle or armored car moved on some errand. The command car pulled to a halt before the largest and most central of the tents, and the oberstleutnant waited for his door to be opened before he got out. as he strode toward the tent's entrance, he heard the rattle of cans and saw several skinny dogs rooting in the trash. One of them came toward him, its ribs showing and its eyes hollowed with hunger. He kicked at the animal before it reached him. His boot hit the dog's side, driving it back, but the creature made no noise. The officer knew the nasty things had lice, and with water at such a premium he didn't relish scrubbing his flesh with sand. The dog turned away, its hide bruised with other boot marks, its death by starvation already decided.
The officer stopped just short of the tent flap.
Something else was out there, he realized. Just beyond the edge of the true dark, past where the dogs were searching through the garbage for scraps of beef.
He could see its eyes. They glinted green, picking up a shard of light from a tent's lantern. They watched him without blinking, and in them there was no cowering or begging. another damned tribesman's dog, the officer thought, though he could see nothing but its eyes. The dogs followed the camps, and it was said they would lick piss off a plate if you offered it to them. He didn't like the way that bastard watched him; those eyes were cunning and cold, and he was tempted to reach for his Luger and dispatch another canine to Muslim heaven. Those eyes stirred ants of unease in his belly, because there was no fear in them.
"Lieutenant Colonel Voigt. We've been expecting you. Please, come in."
The tent flap had been drawn back. Major Stummer, a rugged-faced man with close-cropped reddish hair and round eyeglasses, saluted, and Voigt nodded a greeting. Inside the tent were three more officers, standing around a table covered with maps. Lantern light spilled over the chiseled, sun-browned Germanic faces, which were turned expectantly toward Voigt. The lieutenant colonel paused at the tent's threshold; his gaze wandered to the right, past the skinny, starving dogs.
The green eyes were gone.
"Siri" Stummer inquired. "Is anything wrongi"
"No." His answer was too quick. It was stupid to be upset by a dog, he told himself. He had personally ordered an "88" gun to destroy four British tanks with more composure than he felt at this moment. Where had the dog gonei Out into the desert, of course. But why had it not come in to nose amid the cans like the othersi Well, it was ridiculous to waste time thinking about. Rommel had sent him here for information and that's what he planned to take back to Panzer army headquarters. "Nothing's wrong except I have stomach ulcers, a heat rash on my neck, and I long to see snow before I go mad," Voigt said as he stepped into the tent and the flap fell shut behind him.
Voigt stood at the table with Stummer, Major Klinhurst, and the other two battalion officers. His flinty blue eyes scanned the maps. They showed the cruel, gulley-slashed desert between Point 169, the small ridge he'd passed over, and the British fortifications. Inked-in red circles indicated mine fields, and blue squares stood for the many defensive boxes, studded with barbed wire and machine guns, that would have to be overcome on the drive eastward. The maps also showed, in black lines and squares, where the German troops and tanks were positioned. On each map was the recon battalion's official rubber stamp.
Voigt took off his flat-brimmed cap, wiped the sweat from his face with a well-used handkerchief, and studied the maps. He was a big, broad-shouldered man whose fair skin had hardened to burnished leather. He had blond hair with swirls of gray at the temples, his thick eyebrows almost completely gray. "I assume these are up-to-the-minutei" he asked.
"Yes, sir. The last patrol came in twenty minutes ago."
Voigt grunted noncommittally, sensing that Stummer was waiting for a compliment on his battalion's thorough reconnaissance of the mine fields. "I don't have much time. Field Marshal Rommel is waiting. What are your recommendationsi"
Stummer was disappointed that his battalion's work wasn't recognized. It had been hard and heavy the past two days and nights, searching for a hole in the British fortifications. He and his men might have been on the edge of the world, for all the desolation around them. "Here." He picked up a pencil and tapped one of the maps. "We believe the easiest way through would be in this area, just south of Ruweisat Ridge. The mine fields are light, and you can see there's a gap in the field of fire between these two boxes." He touched two blue squares. "a concentrated effort might easily punch a hole through."
"Major," Voigt said wearily, "nothing in this damned desert is easy. If we don't get the petrol and ammunition we need, we're going to be on foot throwing rocks before the week's over. Fold the maps for me."
One of the junior officers began to do so. Voigt unzipped his satchel and put the maps in them. Then he zipped up the satchel, wiped the sweat off his face, and put on his cap. Now for the flight back to Rommel's command post, and for the rest of the night there would be discussions, briefings, and a movement of troops, tanks, and supplies to the areas Rommel had decided to attack. Without these maps the field marshal's decision would be nothing more than a toss of the dice.
The satchel now had a satisfying weight. "I'm sure the field marshal would want me to say that you've done a remarkable job, Major," Voigt finally said. Stummer looked pleased. "We'll all toast the success of Panzer army africa on the banks of the Nile. Heil Hitler." Voigt raised his hand quickly, and the others-all except Klinhurst, who made no bones about his distaste for the party-responded in kind. Then the meeting was over, and Voigt turned away from the table and walked briskly out of the tent toward the waiting car. The driver was already there to open the door, and Major Stummer came out to see Voigt off.
Voigt was a few strides from the car when he caught a quick movement to his right.
His head swiveled in that direction, and at once his legs turned to jelly.
Less than an arm's length away was a black dog with green eyes. It had evidently darted around from the tent's other side and had come up on him so fast that neither the driver nor Stummer had time to react. The black beast was not like the other starving wild dogs; it was as big as a bull mastiff, almost two and a half feet tall at the shoulder, and muscles, like bunches of piano wires, rippled along its back and haunches. Its ears were laid flat along its sleek-haired skull, and its eyes were as bright as green signal lamps. They stared up forcefully into Voigt's face, and in them the German officer recognized a killer's intelligence.
It was not a dog, Voigt realized.
It was a wolf.
"Mein Gott," Voigt said, with a rush of air as if he'd been punched in his ulcerated stomach. The muscular monster of a wolf was right on him, its mouth opening to show white fangs and scarlet gums. He felt its hot breath on the back of his handcuffed wrist, and as he realized with a flare of horror what it was about to do, his left hand went to the grip of his holstered Luger.
The wolf's jaws snapped shut on Voigt's wrist, and with a savage twist of its head it broke the bones.
a splintered nub tore through Voigt's flesh, along with a spouting arc of scarlet that spattered the command car's side. Voigt screamed, unable to get the holster's flap un-snapped and the Luger freed. He tried to pull away but the wolf planted its claws in the ground and wouldn't budge. The car's driver was frozen with shock, and Stummer was shouting for help from the other soldiers who'd just returned from their patrol. Voigt's burnished face had taken on a yellow cast. The wolf's jaws were working; the teeth starting to meet through the broken bones and bloody flesh. The green eyes stared defiantly at him. Voigt screamed, "Help me! Help me!" and the wolf rewarded him with a shake of its head that shivered agony through every nerve of his body and all but severed the hand.
On the verge of fainting, Voigt tore the Luger out of his holster just as the driver cocked his own Walther pistol and aimed at the wolf's skull. Voigt pointed his gun into the thing's blood-smeared muzzle.
But as the two fingers tightened on their triggers, the wolf suddenly hurled its body to one side, still clenching Voigt's wrist, and Voigt was thrown directly into the path of the Walther's barrel. The driver's pistol went off with a strident crack! at the same time as the Luger fired into the ground. The Walther's bullet passed through Voigt's back, punching a red-edged hole through his chest as it emerged. as Voigt crumpled, the wolf ripped his hand away from the wrist. The handcuff slipped off and fell, still attached to the satchel. With a quick snap of its head, the wolf flung the quivering hand out of its blood-smeared jaws. It fell amid the starving dogs, and they pounced on the new piece of garbage.
The driver fired again, his face a rictus of terror and his gun hand shaking. a gout of earth kicked up to the wolf's left as it leaped aside. Three soldiers were running from another tent, all of them carrying Schmeisser submachine guns. Stummer shrieked, "Kill it!" and Klinhurst came out of the headquarters tent with his pistol in hand. But the black animal darted forward, over Voigt's body. Its teeth found the metal cuff, and locked around it. as the driver fired a third time the bullet went through the satchel and whined off the ground. Klinhurst took aim-but before he could squeeze the trigger the wolf zigzagged its body and raced off into the darkness to the east.
The driver fired the rest of his clip, but there was no howl of pain. More soldiers were coming from their tents, and there were shouts of alarm all over the camp. Stummer ran to Voigt's body, rolled him over, and recoiled from all the gore. He swallowed thickly, his mind reeling at how fast it all had happened. and then he realized the crux of the matter: the wolf had taken the satchel full of reconnaissance maps, and was heading east.
East. Toward the British lines.
Those maps also showed the position of Rommel's troops, and if the British got them...
"Mount up!" he screamed, coming to his feet as if an iron bar had been thrust up his spine. "Hurry, for God's sake! Hurry! We've got to stop that beast!" He raced past the command car to another vehicle not far away: a yellow armored car with a heavy machine gun fixed to its windshield. The driver followed him, and now other soldiers ran to their BMW motorcycles and sidecars, which also were armed with machine guns. Stummer slid into the passenger seat, the driver started the engine and turned on the headlights, the motorcycle engines muttered and roared and their lamps burned yellow, and Stummer shouted, "Go!" to his driver through a throat that could already feel an executioner's noose.
The armored car shot forward, throwing plumes of dust from its tires, and four motorcycles veered around it, accelerated, and roared past.
a quarter mile ahead, the wolf was running. Its body was an engine designed for speed and distance. Its eyes narrowed to slits and its jaws clamped firmly around the handcuff. The satchel bumped against the ground in a steady rhythm, and the wolf's breathing was a low, powerful rumbling. The racing figure angled a few degrees to the right, went up a rocky hillock and down again as if following a predetermined course. Sand flew from beneath its paws, and ahead of the beast scorpions and lizards darted for cover.
Its ears twitched. a growling noise was coming up fast on the left. The wolf's pace quickened, its paws thrumming against hard-packed sand. The growling was closer... much closer... and now it was almost directly to the left. a spotlight swept past the animal, came back, and fixed on the running shape. The soldier in the motorcycle's sidecar shouted, "There it is!" and pulled the safety mechanism off the machine gun. He twisted the barrel toward the animal and opened fire.
The wolf skidded to a stop in a flurry of dust, and the bullets ripped a fiery pattern across the earth in front of it. The motorcycle zoomed past, its driver fighting the brake and handlebars. and then the wolf changed course and started running again at full speed, still heading east, still gripping the handcuff.
The machine gun kept chattering. Tracer bullets carved orange lines through the dark and ricocheted off stones like spent cigarette butts. But the wolf zigzagged back and forth, its body hugging the earth, and as the tracers whined around, the animal went over another hillock and out of the spotlight's range.
"Over there!" the gunner shouted against the wind. "It went over that hill!" The driver turned the bulky motorcycle and headed after it, white dust whirling through the headlight's beam. He gave the engine full power, and it responded with a throaty roar of German machinery. They topped the hill and started down-and the headlamp showed an eight-foot-deep gulley just beneath it, waiting like a jagged grin.
The motorcycle crashed into it, turned end over end, and the machine gun went off, spraying bullets in a wild arc that ricocheted off the sides of the gulley and slammed through the bodies of the driver and gunner. The motorcycle crumpled, and its gas tank exploded.
On the other side of the gulley, which the wolf had cleared with a single spring of its hind legs, the animal kept going, dodging pieces of hot metal that clattered down around it.
Through the echoes of the blast came the noise of another predator, this time coming from the right. The wolf's head ticked to the side, sighting the sidecar's spotlight. The machine gun began to fire, bullets thudding around the wolf's legs and whistling past its body as it ran in quick, desperate circles and angles. But the motorcycle was closing the distance between them, and the bullets were getting nearer to their target. One tracer flashed so close that the wolf could smell the bitter scent of a man's sweat on the cartridge. and then it made another quick turn, leaped high in the air as bullets danced underneath its legs, and scrambled into a gulley that cut across the desert toward the southeast.
The motorcycle prowled along the gulley's rim, its sidecar occupant searching the bottom with the small attached spotlight. "I hit it!" he vowed. "I know I saw the bullets hit-" He felt the hair on the back of his neck crawl. as he twisted the spotlight around, the huge black wolf that was running behind the motorcycle leaped forward, coming up over the sidecar and slamming its body against the driver. Two of the man's ribs broke like rotted timbers, and as he was knocked out of his seat the wolf seemed to stand up on its hind legs and lunge over the windshield as a man might jump. The tail slapped the gunner disdainfully in the face; he scrambled madly out, and the motorcycle went about another fifteen feet before it reeled over the edge and crashed down to the bottom. The black wolf ran on, coming back to a due easterly course.
Now the network of gullies and hillocks ended, and the desert was flat and rocky under the blazing stars. Still the wolf raced on, its heart beginning to beat harder and its lungs pumping the clean smell of freedom, like the perfume of life, into its nostrils. It snapped its head quickly to the left, released the handcuff, and gripped the satchel's leather handle so the bag no longer bumped the ground. It fought and defeated the urge to spit the handle out, because it held the foul taste of a man's palm.
and then, from behind, another guttural growl, this one lower-pitched than the voices of the other two predators. The wolf glanced back, saw a pair of yellow moons speeding across the desert, following the animal's tracks. Machine-gun fire erupted-a red burst above the double moons-and bullets shot up sand less than three feet to the wolf's side. It jinked and spun, checked its speed, and darted forward again, and the next long burst of tracers singed the hairs along its backbone.
"Faster!" Stummer shouted to his driver. "Don't lose it!" He got off another burst, and saw sand kick up as the wolf angled sharply to the left. "Damn it!" he said. "Hold it steady!" The animal still had Voigt's satchel, and was heading directly toward the British lines. What kind of beast was it, that would steal a case full of maps instead of scraps from the garbage heapi The damned monster had to be stopped. Stummer's palms were sweating, and he struggled to line the thing up in the gun's sights, but it kept dodging, cutting, and then picking up its speed as if it...
Yes, Stummer thought. as if it could think like a man.
"Steady!" he bellowed. But the car hit a bump, and again his aim was knocked off. He had to spray the ground ahead of the thing and hope the beast ran into the bullets. He braced himself for the gun's recoil and squeezed the trigger.
Nothing. The gun was hot as the midday sun, and it had either jammed or run dry.
The wolf glanced back, marking that the machine was closing fast. and then it returned its attention to the distance ahead-but too late. a barbed-wire fence stood just ahead, less than six feet away. The wolf's hind legs tensed, and its body left the ground. But the fence was too close to avoid completely; the wolf's chest was sliced by barbed knots, and as its body went over, its right hind leg caught in the coils.
"Now!" Stummer shouted. "Run it down!"
The wolf thrashed, muscles rippling along its body. It clawed the earth with its forelegs, to no avail. Stummer was standing up, the wind rushing into his face, and the driver pressed the accelerator to the floorboard. The armored car was about five seconds away from smashing the wolf beneath its stubbled tires.
What Stummer saw in those five seconds he might never have believed, had he not witnessed it. The wolf twisted its body, and with its front claws grasped the barbed-wire that trapped its leg. Those claws parted the wire, and held them apart as it wrenched its leg loose. Then it was on all fours again and darting away. The armored car ground the wire under its bulk, but the wolf was no longer there.
But the headlights still held it, and Stummer could see that the animal was bounding instead of running, leaping right and left, sometimes touching a single hind leg to the earth before it leaped and twisted again in another direction.
Stummer's heart slammed in his chest.
It knows, he realized. That animal knows...
He whispered, "We're in a mine fi-"
and then the left front tire hit a mine, and the blast blew Major Stummer out of the car like a bloody pinwheel. The left rear tire detonated the next mine, and the shredded mass of the right front wheel hit the third one. The armored car buckled, its gasoline ignited and tore the seams apart, and in the next second it rolled into yet another mine and there was nothing left but a center of red fire and scorched metal flying heavenward.
Sixty yards ahead, the wolf stopped and looked back. It watched the fire for a moment, its green eyes aglow with destruction, and then it abruptly turned away and continued threading through the mine field toward the safety of the east.