Stone stairs, Michael thought. Just the thing to break an ankle on. He blinked, and returned from his inner journey.
Darkness all around. above his head an open white parachute, hissing as the wind strummed the taut lines. He looked down and to all sides; there was no sign of the green blinker.
a broken ankle wouldn't be pleasant, and certainly not the way to begin his mission. What was he descending ontoi a marshy fieldi a foresti Hard, tilled earth that would twist his knees like bits of taffyi He had the sensation of the ground coming up fast now, and he grasped the chute's lines and angled his body slightly, bending his knees for the impact.
Now, he thought, and braced himself.
His boots smashed into a surface that gave way under his weight like mildewed cardboard. and then he slammed down against a harder surface that shook and creaked but held him from falling any farther. The harness tightened under his arms, the chute snagged on something above. He looked up and could see a jagged-edged hole in which stars sparkled.
a roof, he realized. He was sitting on his knees under a roof of rotten wood. Somewhere out in the night, two dogs barked. Working quickly, Michael unsnapped the harness straps and shrugged out of the parachute. He narrowed his eyes, could make out heaps of material around him; he grasped a handful. Hay. He had crashed down into a barn hayloft.
He stood up, began to get the chute unsnagged, and drew it in through the hole. Faster! he told himself. He was in Nazi-occupied France now, sixty miles northwest of Paris. The German sentries on their motorcycles and in their armored cars would be all over the place, and the radio messages might be crackling: attention! Parachute spotted near Bazancourt! Patrol all nearby farmland and villages! Things might get hot very soon.
He got the chute into the loft, then began to bury the silk and pack in a large pile of hay.
Four seconds later he heard the scrape of a latch drawing back. He tensed, becoming motionless. There came the soft squeaking of hinges below. a reddish glow invaded the barn. Michael slowly, silently slid his knife from its sheath, and saw by the lantern light that he was balanced near the loft's edge. a few more inches and he would've gone over.
The lantern probed around, spreading light. Then: "Monsieuri Ou etes-vousi"
It was a woman's smoky voice, asking where he was. Michael didn't move, nor did he lay aside the knife.
"Pourquoi est-ce que vous ne me parlez pasi" she went on, demanding that he speak to her. She lifted the lantern high, and said, again in the crisp country lilt of Normandy French, "I was told to expect you, but I didn't know you'd drop on my head."
Michael gave it a few seconds more before he leaned his face over the loft's edge. She was dark-haired, wearing a gray woolen sweater and black slacks. "I'm here," he said quietly, and she jumped back and probed the light up at him. "Not in my eyes," he warned. She dropped the lantern a few inches. He glimpsed her face: a square jaw, deep-cut cheekbones, unplucked dark brows over eyes the color of sapphires. She had a wiry body and looked as if she could move fast when the situation demanded it. "How far are we from Bazancourti" he asked.
She'd seen the hole in the roof about three feet over the man's head. "Take a look for yourself."
Michael did, pulling his head up through the hole.
Less than a hundred yards away a few lamps burned in the windows of thatch-roofed houses, clustered together around what appeared to be a large plot of rolling farmland. Michael thought he'd have to congratulate the C-47's pilot for his good aim when he got out of this.
"Come on!" the girl urged tersely. "We have to get you to a safe place!"
Michael was about to ease down to the loft again when he heard the rough muttering of engines, coming from the southwest. His heart seized up. Three sets of headlights were quickly approaching, tires boiling up dust from the country road. Scout cars, he reasoned. Probably loaded with soldiers. and there was a fourth vehicle bringing up the rear, moving slower and carrying much more weight. He heard the clank of treads and realized with a cold twist of his insides that the Nazis were taking no chances; they'd brought along a light panzerkampfwagen: a tank.
"Too late," Michael said. He watched the scout cars fanning out, surrounding Bazancourt to the west, north, and south. He heard a commander yelling "Dismount!" in German, and dark figures leaped from the cars even before the wheels had stopped turning. The tank came clanking toward the barn, guarding the village's eastern side. He'd seen enough to know he was trapped. He lowered himself to the loft. "What's your namei" he asked the French girl.
"Gabrielle," she said. "Gaby."
"all right, Gaby. I don't know how much experience you have at this, but you're going to need it all. are any of the people here pro-Nazii"
"No. They hate the swine."
Michael heard a grinding noise: the tank's turret was swiveling as the machine neared the rear of the barn. "I'll hide as best I can up here. If-when-the fireworks start, stay out of the way." He unholstered his.45 and popped a clip of bullets into it. "Good luck," he told her-but the lamplight was gone, and so was she. The barn-door latch scraped shut. Michael peered through a crack in the boards, saw soldiers with flashlights kicking open the doors of houses. One of the soldiers threw down an incandescent flare, which lit up the entire village with dazzling white light. Then the Nazis began to herd the villagers at gunpoint out of their houses, lining them together around the flare. a tall, lean figure in an officer's cap walked back and forth before them, and at his side was a second figure, this one huge, with thick shoulders and treetrunk legs.
The tank treads halted. Michael looked out a knothole toward the rear of the barn. The tank had stopped less than fifteen feet away, and its crew of three men had emerged and lit up cigarettes. One of the men had a submachine gun strapped around his shoulder.
"attention!" Michael heard the German officer shout, in French, at the villagers. He returned to the crack, moving silently, so he could see what was happening. The officer was standing before them, the large figure a few steps behind. The flare light illuminated uplifted pistols, rifles, and submachine guns, ringing the villagers. "We knew a kite flier fell down in this arena!" the officer went on, mangling the French language as he spoke. "We shall now wish to grasp that intruder in our gloves! I ask you, humans of Bazancourt, where is the man we wish to cagei"
Like hell you will, Michael thought, and cocked the.45.
He went back to the knothole. The tank crew was lounging around their machine, talking and laughing boisterously: a boys' night out. Could he take themi Michael wondered. He could shoot the ones with the submachine guns first, then the one nearest the hatch so the bastard wouldn't jump down it and slam-
He heard the low growl of another engine and more clanking treads. The tank crew shouted and waved, and Michael watched as a second tank stopped on the dusty road. Two men came out of the hatch and started a conversation about the parachutist that had been reported on the radio. "We'll make a quick sausage out of him," promised one of the men on the first tank, waving his cigarette like a saber.
The barn-door latch scraped. Michael crouched where he was, against the hayloft's rear wall, as the door swung open and the beams of two or three flashlights probed around. "You go first!" he heard one of the soldiers say. another voice: "Quiet, you ass!" The men came into the barn, following their lights. Michael stayed still, a dark form in shadow, his finger resting lightly on the automatic's trigger.
In another few seconds Michael realized that they didn't know if he was hiding here or not. Out in the village square the officer was shouting, "There will be severe penetrations for all those cohabitating with the enemy!" The three soldiers were looking around beneath the hayloft, kicking cans and equipment over to prove they were really doing a thorough job. Then one of them stopped and lifted his flashlight toward the loft.
Michael felt his shoulder prickle as the light grazed it and swung to the right. Toward the hole in the roof.
He smelled scared sweat, and didn't know if it was the Germans' or his own.
The beam hit the roof, began to move steadily toward the hole.
"My God!" one of the others said. "Look at this, Rudy!"
The flashlight stopped, less than three feet from the hole's edge.
"What is iti"
"Here." There was the noise of bottles clinking. "Calvados! Somebody's stocked the stuff away in here!"
"Probably some damned officer. The pigs!" The flashlight beam moved, this time away from the hole; it grazed Michael's knees, but Rudy was already walking toward the bottles of apple brandy the other man had uncovered from their hiding place. "Don't let Harzer see you taking them!" warned the third soldier, a frightened and boyish voice. Couldn't be more than seventeen, Michael thought. "No telling what that damned Boots would do to you!"
"Right. Let's get out of here." The second soldier speaking again. Bottles clinked. "Wait. Got to finish it up before we leave."
a bolt drew back; not the door this time, but the mechanism of a submachine gun.
Michael squeezed his body against the wall, cold sweat on his face.
The weapon fired, chattering holes through the wall below the hayloft. Then a second gun spoke in a surly rasp, sending slugs up through the hayloft floor. Hay and bits of wood spun into the air. The third soldier fired up into the hayloft, too, zigzagging a spray of bullets that knocked chunks out of the boards two feet to Michael's right.
"Hey, you idiots!" shouted one of the tank crewmen when the noise of firing had died. "Stop that target practice through the barn! We've got gasoline tins out here!"
"Screw those SS bastards," Rudy said, in a quiet voice, and then he and the other two soldiers left the barn with their booty of Calvados bottles. The barn door remained ajar.
"Who's the mayor herei" the officer-Harzeri-was shouting, his voice edgy and enraged. "Who's in chargei Step forward immediately!"
Michael checked the knothole once more, searching for a way out. He caught a whiff of gasoline; one of the men on the second tank, parked in the road, was pouring fuel from a can into the gasoline portal. Two more cans stood ready for use.
"Now we can converse," someone said, from beneath the hayloft.
Michael silently turned, crouched down, and waited. Lamplight filled the barn.
"My title is Captain Harzer," the voice said. "This is my companion, Boots. You'll notice he's well clothed to the name."
"Yes, sir," an old man answered fearfully.
Michael brushed hay away from bullet holes in the floor and peered down.
Five Germans and an elderly, white-haired Frenchman had entered the barn. Three of the Germans were troopers, wearing field-gray uniforms and their coal-scuttle helmets; they stood near the door, and all of them carried deadly black Schmeisser submachine guns. Harzer was a lean man who held himself in that strict rigidity that Michael associated with devout Nazism: as if the man had an iron bar up his ass all the way to his shoulder blades. Near him stood the man called Boots-the hulking, thick-legged figure Michael had seen in the flare light. Boots was perhaps six three, and weighed in the neighborhood of two hundred sixty or seventy pounds. He wore an aide's uniform, a gray cap on his sandy-stubbled scalp, and on his feet were polished black leather boots with soles at least two inches thick. In the ruddy glow of the lamps two of the troopers held, the broad, square face of Boots was serene and confident: the face of a killer who enjoys his work.
"Now we're solitary, Monsieur Gervaise. You don't have to fear any of the others. We'll take care of them." Hay crunched as Harzer paced the floor, continuing to mangle his French. "We know the kite flier fell down near here. We believe someone in your village must be his touch... uh... agent. Monsieur Gervaise, who might that someone bei"
"Please, sir... I don't... I can't tell you anything."
"Oh, don't be so absolute. What's your Christian namei"
"Hen... Henri." The old man was trembling; Michael could hear his teeth clicking.
"Henri," Harzer repeated. "I want you to think before you answer, Henri: do you know where the kite flier fell down, and who here is helping himi"
"No. Please, Captain. I swear I don't!"
"Oh, my." Harzer sighed, and Michael saw him jerk a finger at Boots.
The big man took one step forward, and kicked Gervaise in the left kneecap. Bones crunched, and the Frenchman screamed as he fell into the hay. Michael saw metal cleats glint on the killer's boot soles.
Gervaise clutched his broken knee and moaned. Harzer leaned down. "You didn't think, did youi" He tapped the white-haired skull. "Use the brain! Where did the kite flier fall downi"
"I can't... oh my God... I can't..."
Harzer said, "Shit," and stepped back.
Boots slammed his foot down on the old man's right knee. The bones broke with pistolshot cracks, and Gervaise howled in agony.
"are we teaching you how to think yeti" Harzer inquired.
Michael smelled urine. The old man's bladder had let go. The smell of pain was in the air, too, like the bitter tang before a brutal thunderstorm. He felt his muscles moving and bunching under his flesh, and a sheen of sweat had begun to slick his body under his camouflage clothes. The change would be on him, if he wanted it. But he stopped himself on the wild edge; what good would it doi The Schmeissers would cut a wolf to pieces as easily as a human, and the way those troopers were spaced apart there would be no way to get all three of them and the tanks. No, no; there were some things a man was better at dealing with, and one of them was knowing his limits. He eased back from the change, felt it move over and away from him like a mist of needles.
The old man was sobbing and begging for mercy. Harzer said, "We've suspected for some time that Bazancourt is a center of spies. My job is ferreting them out. You understand that this is my jobi"
"Please... don't hurt me anymore," Gervaise whispered.
"We're going to kill you." It was a statement of fact, without emotion. "We're going to drag your corpse out to show the others. Then we'll ask our questions again. You see, your death will actually be saving lives, because someone will speak up. If no one speaks, we'll burn your village to the ground." Harzer shrugged. "You won't care, anyway." He nodded at Boots.
Michael tensed-but he knew there was nothing he could do.
The old man's mouth opened in a cry of terror, and he tried to crawl away on his shattered legs. Boots kicked him in the ribs; there was a noise like a barrel caving in, and Gervaise whined and clutched the splintered bones that had burst from his flesh. The next kick, with a cleated boot, caught the old man's collarbone and snapped it. Gervaise writhed like a speared fish. Boots began to kick and stomp the old Frenchman to death, working slowly and with careful precision-a kick to the stomach to burst the organs, a stomp to the hand to smash the fingers, a kick to the jaw to snap its joints and send teeth flying like yellow dice.
"This is my job," Harzer told the bleeding, mangled face. "This is what I'm paid for, you seei"
Boots kicked the old man in the throat and crushed his windpipe. Gervaise began strangling. Michael saw the sweat of effort glisten on Boots's face; the man was unsmiling, his features like carved stone, but his pale blue eyes spoke of pleasure. Michael kept his gaze fixed on Boots's face. He wanted to burn it into his brain.
Gervaise, with a final frenzied attempt, tried to crawl to the door. He left blood on the hay. Boots let him crawl for a few seconds, and then he stomped his right foot down on the center of the old man's back and broke his spine like a broomstick.
"Bring him out." Harzer turned and strode quickly toward the other villagers and soldiers.
"I found a silver one!" a soldier held up a tooth. "Does he have any morei"
Boots kicked the jittering body in the side of the head, and a few more teeth flew out. The soldiers bent down, searching for silver in the hay. Then Boots followed Harzer, and two of the soldiers picked up Gervaise's ankles and dragged the corpse out of the barn.
Michael was left in darkness, the smell of blood and terror filled his nostrils. He shivered; the hair had risen on the back of his neck. "attention!" he heard Harzer shout. "Your mayor has departed this life and left you all alone! I'm going to ask you two questions, and I want you to think carefully before you answer..."
Enough, Michael thought. It was time to ask his own questions. He stood up, went to the knothole. The gasoline smell was thicker. The man on the second tank was pouring in the last of the cans. Michael saw what had to be done, and he knew it had to be done now. He walked underneath the hole, pulled himself up onto the roof, and crouched there.
"Where did the kite flier fall downi" Harzer was asking. "and who is helping himi"
Michael took aim and fired.
The bullet smashed into the gasoline can the crewman was holding. Two things happened at once: gasoline sloshed out of the can onto the man's clothes, and sparks jumped off the edges of the bullet hole. Harzer's shouting ceased.
The gasoline can exploded, and the crewman went up like a torch.
as the man danced and writhed and the fire burned blue in the puddle of fuel around the gas portal, Michael turned his attention to the three crewmen on the tank just below the barn roof. One of them had seen the automatic muzzle flash and was lifting his submachine gun. Michael shot him through the throat, and the submachine gun fired a pinwheel of tracers into the sky. another man was about to shove himself headlong down the hatch. Michael fired, but the bullet clanged off metal; he shot again, and this time the man cried out and clutched his back, rolling off the tank's side to the ground. Michael registered the fact that three bullets were left in the Colt's magazine. The other crewman fled, running for cover. Michael jumped off the roof.
He landed on the tank near the main hatch with a shock that thrummed up his legs. He heard Harzer shouting for a machine gunner, and telling the soldiers to surround the barn. The hatch was still open, its rim smeared with German blood. Michael caught a movement to his right, almost behind him, and spun around as a soldier fired his rifle. The bullet passed between his knees and ricocheted off the hatch's lid. Michael had no time to aim; he didn't have to, because in the next instant a blast of bullets hit the German in the chest and lifted him off his feet before slamming him to the ground.
"Get in!" Gaby shouted, holding the smoking Schmeisser she'd picked up from the first man Michael had shot. "Hurry!" She reached up, grasped an iron handle, and pulled herself onto the tank. Michael stood stunned for a heartbeat. "Don't you understand Frenchi" Gaby demanded, her eyes full of fire and fury. a rifle spoke; two bullets whanged off the tank's armor, and Michael needed no further persuasion. He jumped into the hatch, down into a cramped compartment where a small red bulb burned. Gaby followed him, reached up, and slammed the hatch shut, then dogged it tight.
"Down there!" Gaby shoved him deeper into the tank's innards, and he slid onto an uncomfortable leather seat. In front of him was a panel of instrument gauges, what looked like a hand brake and a number of shift levers. On the floor were various pedals and before his face was a narrow view slit; to right and left were also view slits, and through the left one he saw the crewman burning on the ground beside the second tank, another man popping up from the tank's hatch to shout, "Turret swivel right sixty-six degrees!"
The tank's turret and stubby cannon began to crank around. Michael pressed his automatic's muzzle against the view slit and squeezed the trigger, blasting a chunk out of the man's shoulder. The German slid back into the tank, but the turret continued to swivel.
"Start us up!" Gaby shouted, an edge of terror in her voice. "Ram him!"
Bullets were knocking against the tank's armored sides like the impatient fists of a mob. Michael had seen this type of German tank in North africa, and he knew how it was steered-by the levers, which regulated the gears and speed of the treads-but he'd never driven a tank before. He searched in vain for a way to start it; then Gaby's hand slid down in front of his face, turned a key in an ignition switch, and there was a grinding, clattering roar followed by the hollow boom of a backfire. The tank was shuddering, its engine running. Michael pressed his foot down on what he hoped was the clutch and battled with the gearshift. a Jaguar touring sedan this was not; the gears ground together, finally meshed with the speed of fresh tar. The tank jerked forward, slamming Michael's skull back against the padded headrest. Up above him, in the gun loader's compartment, Gaby saw figures leaping up onto the tank through her own view slit; she thrust the Schmeisser's barrel through it and raked bullets across two pairs of German legs.
Michael pressed the accelerator to the floor and wrenched on one of the levers. The tread on the right stopped and the left one kept going, turning the tank to the right; that wasn't the direction Michael wanted to go, so he tried another of the levers and this time the left tread stopped and the right tread lunged forward, turning the tank sharply to the left and toward the enemy. The tank vibrated, but it obeyed allied as well as axis hands. Michael saw the second tank's turret about to reach the sixty-six-degree mark.
He jammed on the brake. The second tank's cannon spat fire.
There was a banshee scream, and a wave of oven heat hit Michael's face through the view slit. He had an instant of total confusion, not knowing whether he'd been blown to a million bits or not-and then there came the explosion, out in the farmland maybe three hundred yards beyond Bazancourt.
He had no time for shock, and certainly none for panic. He hit the accelerator again, and the tank continued its sharp left turn. The treads flung up yards of earth. and then the second tank filled the view slit before him, its turret cannon still flickering fire.
"That box behind you!" Gaby shouted. "Reach into it!" Machine-gun bullets whined off the turret, making Gaby duck instinctively.
Michael reached into the box and came up with a steel-jacketed projectile. Gaby pulled a lever, twisted another one, and there was the sound of metal sliding open. "Put it here!" she said, and helped him fit the shell into the cannon breech. She slammed the breech shut, prickles of sweat on her face. "Keep us going straight!" she told him, and she pulled another lever. Something whined, beginning to charge up.
The second tank began to back away, its turret turning again to get off another shot. Michael manipulated the levers and held a steady course, heading right at the monster. a man's head emerged from the hatch, shouting something that Michael couldn't hear above the engine's roar. But he could guess what the order was: Turret turn to ninety-eight degrees. That would give them a killing shot.
The cannon swiveled, seeking its target.
Michael started to hit the brake again, but stopped himself. They might expect him to halt this time. He kept pressing the accelerator, and a stray bullet hit the view slit's edge to his right and knocked sparks all around him.
"Hang on!" Gaby warned, and pulled a red trigger marked Feuern.
Michael thought that two things had happened concurrently: his eardrums had been blown out of his head and his bones had wrenched out of their sockets. He instantly knew, however, that his discomfort was mild compared to what befell the second tank's crew.
In the rioting red glare of explosion and flames, Michael saw the entire turret sliced off the other tank like a scalpeled wart. Its cannon fired into the sky as the turret lifted up, spun twice around, and smashed into the dust. Two human torches leaped out of the monster's body and, screaming, ran in search of death.
Michael smelled cordite and seared flesh. another explosion erupted from the other tank, sending pieces of metal banging down. Michael hit the brake and steered violently to the right to sweep past the gutted carcass.
German soldiers shouted and fled from the tank's path. Michael saw two figures through the view slit: "Fire! Fire!" Harzer was shouting, Luger in hand, but all order was gone. a few paces behind him, Boots watched impassively.
"There's the sonofabitch!" Gaby said. She reached up, unlocked the hatch, and threw it open before Michael could stop her. She lifted her head and shoulders out, took aim with the Schmeisser, and blew most of Harzer's head away. His body took three steps backward before it crumpled, and Boots threw himself flat on the ground.
The tank roared past. Michael grasped Gaby's ankle and pulled her back in. She slammed the hatch shut, blue smoke curling from the Schmeisser's muzzle. "across the field!" Gaby told him, and he drove straight ahead as fast as the tank could go.
Michael smiled tightly. He was sure Captain Harzer would understand that it had only been Gaby's job.
Its treads boiling up thick yellow dust, the tank rumbled on across the field, away from the village and the erratic flashes of gunfire. "They'll track us with the scout cars," Gaby said. "They're probably already calling for help. We'd better get out while we can."
Michael had no argument. He pulled another cannon shell out of the wooden box behind his seat and wedged it against the accelerator pedal. Gaby climbed up through the hatch, waited for Michael to join her, then tossed her Schmeisser over and jumped. He leaped off a couple of seconds later, and finally landed on the chalky soil of France.
For a moment he couldn't find her in the dust. He saw movement to his left, and she gasped, startled, when he came up silently beside her and grasped her arm. She had the submachine gun, and she motioned ahead. "The woods are that way. are you ready to runi"
"always," he answered. They started sprinting toward the line of trees about thirty yards away. Michael restrained his pace so he wouldn't get ahead of her.
They made the woods with no difficulty. Standing amid the trees, Michael and Gaby watched two of the scout cars pass, following the tank at a respectful distance. The tank would lead them several miles, at least.
"Welcome to France," Gaby said. "You believe in grand entrances, don't youi"
"any entrance I survive is grand."
"Don't congratulate yourself just yet. We've got a long way to go." She put the Schmeisser's strap around her shoulder and cinched it. "I hope you've got a good strong heart; I travel fast."
"I'll try to keep up," he promised.
She turned away, all business and deadly purpose, and began to move quietly through the underbrush. Michael stayed about twelve feet behind, listening for the sounds of anyone or anything coming after them. They weren't being followed; with Harzer dead, all initiative had broken down and no soldiers were combing the woods. He thought of the man with the polished, cleated boots. Killing an old man was easy; he wondered how Boots might do against a ferocious opponent.
Well, life was full of possibilities.
Michael followed the French girl, and the forest sheltered them.