He would soon be here. The countess felt as excited as a schoolgirl on a first date. It had been more than a year since she'd seen him. Where he'd been in that time, and what he'd done, she didn't know. Nor did she care. That was not her business. all she'd been told was that he needed a sanctuary, and that the service had been using him for a dangerous assignment. More than that, it was not safe to know. She sat before the oval mirror in her lavender-hued dressing room, the golden lights of Cairo glittering through the French doors that led to the terrace, and carefully applied her lipstick. On the night breeze she could smell cinnamon and mace, and palm fronds whispered politely in the courtyard below. She realized she was trembling, so she put her lipstick down before she made a mess of her mouth. I'm not a dewy-eyed virgin, she told herself, with some regret. But perhaps that was part of his magic, too; he had certainly made her feel, on his last visit here, that she was a first-grader in the school of love. Perhaps, she mused, she was so excited because in all this time-and through a procession of so-called lovers-she had not felt a touch such as his, and she longed for it.
She realized she was the kind of woman her mother had once told her to stay away from, back in Germany before that insane maniac had brainwashed the country. But that was part of this life, too, and the danger invigorated her. Better to live than exist, she thought. Who had told her thati Oh, yes. He had.
She ran an ivory brush through her hair, which was blond and styled like Rita Hayworth's, full and falling gently over her shoulders. She had been blessed with a fine bone structure, high cheekbones, light brown eyes, and a slim build. It wasn't hard to keep her figure here, because she didn't care much for the Egyptian cuisine. She was twenty-seven years old, had been thrice married-each husband more wealthy than the first-and she owned a major share in Cairo's daily English newspaper. Lately she'd been reading her paper with more interest as Rommel advanced on the Nile and the British fought valiantly to stem the Nazi tide. Yesterday's headline had been ROMMEL HELD TO a STaNDSTILL. The war would go on, but it appeared that, at least this month, Hitler would not be saluted east of El alamein.
She heard the soft purr of the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow's engine as the limousine pulled to the front door, and her heart jumped. She'd sent the chauffeur to pick him up, following the instructions she'd been given, at the Shepheard's Hotel. He was not staying there, but had attended a meeting of some kind-a "debriefing," she understood it was called. The Shepheard's Hotel, with its well-known lobby of wicker chairs and Oriental rugs, was full of war-weary British officers, drunken journalists, Muslim cutthroats, and, of course, Nazi eyes and ears. Her mansion, on the eastern outskirts of the city, was a safer place for him than a public hotel. and eminently more civilized.
The Countess Margritta stood up from her dressing table. Behind her was a screen decorated with blue and golden peacocks, and she took the pale sea-green dress that was hanging over it, stepped into it, and buttoned it up. One more look at her hair and makeup, a quick misting spray of Chanel's new fragrance over her white throat, and she was ready to go. But no, not quite. She decided to undo a strategic button so the swell of her breasts was unconfined. Then she slid her feet into her sandals and waited for alexander to come up to the dressing room.
He did, in about three more minutes. The butler rapped quietly on the door, and she said, "Yesi"
"Mr. Gallatin has arrived, Countess." alexander's voice was stiffly British.
"Tell him I'll be down shortly." She listened to alexander's footsteps moving along the teak-floored corridor. She was not so eager to see him that she would go downstairs without making him wait; that was part of the game between ladies and gentlemen. So she gave it another three or four minutes, and then taking a deep breath, she left the dressing room at an unhurried pace.
She walked along a corridor lined with suits of armor, spears, swords, and other medieval weapons. They belonged to the former owner of the house, a Hitler sympathizer, who'd fled the country when the Italians had been knocked around by O'Connor back in 1940. She didn't care much for weapons, but the knights seemed to go with the teak and oak of the house, and anyway they were valuable and made her feel as if she were being guarded around the clock. She reached the wide staircase with its banisters of carved oak and descended to the first floor. The living room doors were closed; that's where she'd instructed alexander to take him. She took a few seconds to compose herself, held her palm up against her mouth to get a quick hint of her breath-spearminty, thank God-and then she opened the doors with a nervous flourish.
Silver lamps burned on low, polished tables. a small fire flickered in the hearth, because after midnight the desert breeze would turn chilly. Crystal glasses and bottles of vodka and Scotch caught the light and gleamed on a decanter against the stucco wall. The carpet was a blaze of intertwined orange and gray figures, and on the mantel a clock ticked toward nine.
and there he was, sitting in a wicker chair, his legs crossed at the ankles and his body in repose, as if he owned the area he occupied and would warrant no intrusion. He was staring thoughtfully at the mounted trophy on the wall above the mantel.
But suddenly his eyes found her, and he stood from the chair with smooth grace. "Margritta," he said, and offered her the red roses he held in his hands.
"Oh... Michael, they're lovely!" Her voice was smoky, with the regal lilt of the north German plains. She walked toward him-not too fast! she cautioned herself. "Where did you find roses in Cairo this time of yeari"
He smiled slightly, and she could see his white, strong teeth. "Your neighbor's garden," he answered, and she could hear a trace of the Russian accent that mystified her so much. What was a Russian-born gentleman doing working with the British Secret Service in North africai and why was his name not Russiani
Margritta laughed as she took the roses from him. Of course he was joking; Peter Van Gynt's garden did indeed have an immaculate rosebed, but the wall separating their properties was six feet tall. Michael Gallatin couldn't possibly have gotten over it, and anyway his khaki suit was spotless. He wore a light blue shirt and a necktie with muted gray and brown stripes, and he had a burnished desert tan. She smelled one of the roses; they were still dewy.
"You look beautiful," he said. "You've done your hair differently."
"Yes. It's the new style. Do you like iti"
He reached out to touch a lock of her hair. His fingers caressed it, and slowly his hand moved to her cheek, a gentle touch grazing the flesh and goose bumps rose on Margritta's arms. "You're cold," he said. "You should stand closer to the fire." His hand moved along the line of her chin, the fingers brushing her lips, then pulled away. He stepped closer to her and put an arm around her waist. She didn't back away. Her breath caught. His face was right there in front of hers, and his green eyes caught a red glint from the hearth as if flames had sparked within them. His mouth descended. She felt an ache throb through her body. and then his lips stopped, less than two inches from hers, and he said, "I'm starving."
She blinked, not knowing what to say.
"I haven't eaten since breakfast," he went on. "Powdered eggs and dried beef. No wonder the Eighth army's fighting so hard; they want to go home and get something edible."
"Food," she said. "Oh. Yes. Food. I've had the cook make dinner for you. Mutton. That's your favorite, isn't iti"
"I'm pleased you remembered." He kissed her lightly on the lips, and then he briefly nuzzled her neck with a softness that made the chill bumps burst up along her spine. He released her, his nostrils flared with the scent of Chanel and her own pungent woman-aroma.
Margritta took his hand. The palm was as rough as if he'd been laying bricks. She led him to the door, and they were almost there when he said, "Who killed the wolfi"
She stopped. "Pardon mei"
"The wolf." He motioned toward the gray-furred timber wolf mounted above the fireplace. "Who killed iti"
"Oh. You've heard of Harry Sandler before, haven't youi"
He shook his head.
"Harry Sandler. The american big-game hunter. He was in all the papers two years ago, when he shot a white leopard atop Mount Kilimanjaro." Still there was no recognition in Michael's eyes. "We've become... good friends. He sent me the wolf from Canada. It's a beautiful creature, isn't iti"
Michael grunted softly. He glanced at the other mounted trophies Sandler had given Margritta-the heads of an african water buffalo, a magnificent stag, a spotted leopard, and a black panther-but his gaze returned to the wolf. "Canada," he said. "Where in Canadai"
"I don't know exactly. I think Harry said up in Saskatchewan." She shrugged. "Well, a wolf's a wolf, isn't iti"
He didn't answer. Then he looked at her, his eyes piercing, and smiled. "I'll have to meet Mr. Harry Sandler someday," he said.
"Too bad you weren't here a week ago. Harry passed through Cairo on his way to Nairobi." She gave a playful tug at his arm to pull his attention off the trophy. "Come on, before your food gets cold."
In the dining room, Michael Gallatin ate his medallions of mutton at a long table under a crystal chandelier. Margritta picked at a hearts-of-palm salad and drank a glass of Chablis, and they made small talk about what was happening in London-the current popular plays, the fashions, the novels and music: all things Margritta missed. Michael said he'd enjoyed Hemingway's latest work, and that the man had a clear eye. and as they spoke, Margritta studied Michael's face and realized, here under the brighter light of the chandelier, that he'd changed in the year and five weeks since their last meeting. The changes were subtle, but there nonetheless: there were more lines around his eyes, and perhaps more flecks of gray in the sleek, close-trimmed black hair as well. His age was another mystery; he might be anywhere from thirty to thirty-four. Still, his movements had the sinuosity of youth, and there was impressive strength in his shoulders and arms. His hands were an enigma; they were sinewy, long-fingered, and artistic-the hands of a pianist-but the backs of them were dappled with fine dark hairs. They were a workman's hands, too, used to rough labor, but they managed the sterling knife and fork with surprising grace.
Michael Gallatin was a large man, maybe six-feet-two, with a broad chest, narrow hips, and long, lean legs. Margritta had wondered at their first meeting if he'd ever been a track-and-field athlete, but his response had been that he "sometimes ran for pleasure."
She sipped at her Chablis and glanced at him over the rim. Who was he, reallyi What did he do for the servicei Where had he come from and where was he boundi He had a sharp nose, and Margritta had noticed that he smelled all food and drink before he consumed it. His face was darkly handsome, clean-shaven and rugged, and when he smiled it was like a flare of light-but he didn't let her see that smile very often. In repose his face seemed to become darker still, and as the wattage of those green eyes fell their somber hue made Margritta think of the color in the deep shadow of a primeval forest, a place of secrets best left unexplored. and, perhaps, a place also of great dangers.
He reached for his goblet of water, disregarding the Chablis, and Margritta said, "I've sent the servants away for the evening."
He sipped at the water and put the goblet aside. Pressed his fork into another piece of meat. "How long has alexander worked for youi" he asked.
The question was totally unexpected. "almost eight months. The consulate recommended him. Whyi"
"He has..." Michael paused, considering his words. an untrustworty smell, he'd almost said. "a German accent," he finished.
Margritta didn't know which one of them was crazy, because if alexander was anymore British he'd be wearing a Union Jack for underdrawers.
"He hides it well," Michael continued. He sniffed at the mutton before he ate it, and chewed before he spoke. "But not well enough. The British accent is a masquerade."
"alexander cleared the security checks. You know how stringent those are. I can tell you his life history, if you want to hear it. He was born in Stratford-on-avon."
Michael nodded. "an actor's town, if there ever was one. That's got the abwehr's fingerprints all over it." The abwehr, as Margritta knew, was Hitler's intelligence bureau. "a car will be coming for me at oh-seven-hundred. I think you should go, too."
"Goi Go wherei"
"away. Out of Egypt, if possible. Maybe to London. I don't think it's safe for you here anymore."
"Impossible. I've got too many obligations. My God, I own the newspaper! I can't just clear out on a moment's notice!"
"all right, stay at the consulate. But I think you should leave North africa as soon as you can."
"My ship hasn't sprung a leak," Margritta insisted. "You're wrong about alexander."
Michael said nothing. He ate another piece of mutton and dabbed at his mouth with a napkin.
"are we winningi" she asked him after another moment.
"We're holding," he answered. "By our teeth and fingernails. Rommel's supply network has broken down, and his panzers are running out of petrol. Hitler's attention is fixed on the Soviet Union. Stalin's calling for an allied attack from the west. No country, even one as strong as Germany, can wage war on two fronts. So, if we can hold Rommel until his ammunition and petrol dries up, we can force him back to Tobruk. and past that, if we're lucky."
"I didn't know you believed in luck." She arched a pale blond eyebrow.
"It's a subjective term. Where I come from, 'luck' and 'brute strength' are one and the same."
She pounced on the opportunity. "Where do you come from, Michaeli"
"a place far from here," he replied, and the way he said it told her that there would be no more discussion of his personal life.
"We have dessert," she said when he'd finished his meal and pushed the plate away. "a chocolate torte, in the kitchen. I'll make us some coffee, too." She stood up, but he was faster. He was at her side before she could take two steps, and he said, "Later for the torte and coffee. I had another dessert in mind." Taking her hand, he kissed it, slowly, finger by finger.
She put her arms around his neck, her heart hammering. He picked her up, effortlessly, in his arms, and then plucked a single rose from where they were arranged in a blue vase at the table's center.
He took her up the staircase, along the hall of armor, to her bedroom with its four-poster bed and its view of the Cairo hills.
They undressed each other by candlelight. She remembered how hairy his arms and chest were, but now she saw that he'd been injured; his chest was crisscrossed with adhesive bandages. "What happened to youi" she asked as her fingers grazed his hard brown flesh.
"Just a little something I got tangled up in." He watched as her lace slip floated to her ankles, and then he picked her up out of her clothes and slid her against the cool white sheet.
He was naked now as well, and seemed larger still for the knots of muscle exposed to the candlelight. He eased his body down beside hers, and she smelled another odor under his faint lime cologne. It was a musky aroma, and again she thought of green forests and cold winds blowing across the wilderness. His fingers traced slow circles around her nipples, and then his mouth was on hers and their heat connected, flowed into each other, and she trembled to her soul.
Something else replaced his fingers: the velvet rose, fluttering around her risen nipples, teasing her breasts like kisses. He drew the rose down along the line of her belly, stopped there to circle her navel, then down again into the fullness of golden hair, still circling and teasing with a gentle touch that made her body arch and yearn. The rose moved along the damp center of her desire, fluttering between her taut thighs, and then his tongue was there, too, and she gripped his hair and moaned as her hips undulated to meet him.
He paused, holding her back from the edge, and began again, the tongue and the rose, working in counterpoint like fingers on a fine golden instrument. Margritta made music, whispering and moaning as the warm waves built inside her and crashed through her senses.
and then there it was, the white-hot explosion that lifted her off the bed and made her cry out his name. She settled back like an autumn leaf, full of color and wilted at the edges.
He entered her, heat against heat, and she clung to his back and held on like a rider in the storm; his hips moved with deliberation, not frantic lust, and just as she thought she could accept no more of him, her body opened and she sought to take him into the place where they would be one creature with two names and pounding hearts, and then even the hard spheres of his manhood would enter her, too, instead of being simply pressed against the moistness. She wanted all of him, every inch, and all the liquid he could give her. But even in the midst of the maelstrom she sensed him holding himself apart, as if there were something in himself that even he could not get to. In their cell of passion she thought she heard him growl, but the noise was muffled against her throat and she could not be sure it wasn't her own voice.
The bed's joints spoke. It had spoken for many men, but never so eloquently.
and then his body convulsed-once, twice, a third time. Five times. He shivered, his fingers twisting the tangled sheet. She locked her legs around his back, urging him to stay. Her lips found his mouth, and she tasted the salt of his effort.
They rested awhile, talking again, but this time in whispered voices, and the subject was not London or the war but the art of passion. and then she took the rose from where it lay on the bedside table, and she followed the trail down to his restirring hardness. It was a beautiful machine, and she lavished it with love.
Rose petals lay on the sheets. The candle had burned low. Michael Gallatin lay on his back, sleeping, with Margritta's head on his shoulder. He breathed with a faint, husky rumbling noise, like a well-kept engine.
Still later, she awakened and kissed him on the lips. He was sleeping soundly, and did not respond. Her body was a pleasant ache; she felt stretched, re-formed into his shape. She looked at his face for a moment, assigning the craggy features to memory. It was too late for her to feel real love, she thought. There had been too many bodies, too many ships passing in the night; she knew she was useful to the service as a refuge and liaison for agents who needed sanctuary, and that was all. Of course she decided who she would sleep with, and when, but there had been many. The faces blended together-but his stayed apart. He was not like the others. and not like any man she'd ever known. So call it schoolgirl infatuation and leave it at that, she thought. He had his destination, and she had her own, and they were not likely to be the same port.
She got out of bed, carefully so as not to awaken him, and went naked into the large walk-through closet that separated her bedroom from the dressing room. She switched on the light, chose a white silk gown, shrugged into it, then took a brown terrycloth robe-a man's robe-off a hanger and draped it around a female-shaped dress dummy in the bedroom. a thought: perhaps a spray of perfume between her breasts and a brush of her hair before true sleep. The car might be coming at seven in the morning, but she recalled that he liked to be up by five-thirty.
Margritta walked, the well-used rose in hand, into the dressing room. a small Tiffany lamp still burned on the table. She sniffed the rose, smelled their mingled scents, and put it into a vase. That one would have to be pressed between silk. She drew a contented breath, then picked up her brush and looked into the mirror.
The man was standing behind the screen. She could see his face above it, and in the second of calm recognition before terror she realized it was a perfect killer's face: devoid of emotion, pale, and quite unremarkable. It was the kind of face that blends easily into crowds, and you do not remember a moment after seeing.
She opened her mouth to call for Michael.