There was a polite cough, and a peacock's eye winked fire. The bullet hit Margritta in the back of the skull, precisely where the assassin had aimed. Her blood, bone, and brains splattered onto the glass, and her head thunked down amid the vials of beauty.
He came out, snake-quick, dressed in tight-fitting black, the small pistol with its silencer gripped in a black-gloved hand. He glanced at the little rubber-coated grapple hook that clung to the terrace's railing; the rope trailed down to the courtyard. She was dead and the job was done, but he knew that a British agent was here as well. He looked at his wristwatch. almost ten minutes before the car would meet him beyond the gate. Time enough to send the swine to hell.
He cocked the pistol and started through the closet. and there was the bitch's bedroom, a low candle flickering, a shape in the sheets. He aimed the pistol at its head and steadied his wrist with his other arm: a gunman's pose. The silencer coughed-once, then again. The shape jumped with the force of the bullets.
and then, like a good artist who must see the results of his craft, he pulled the sheets away from the corpse.
Except it was not a corpse.
It was a dress dummy, with two bullet holes in its blank white forehead.
a movement, to his right. Someone fast. The killer panicked and twisted to get off a shot, but a chair slammed against his back and ribs and he lost the gun before his finger could squeeze. It went into the folds of the sheet and out of sight.
He was a big man, six-three and two hundred and thirty pounds, all beef-bred muscle; the breath left his mouth with the roar of a locomotive bursting from a tunnel, and the chair's swing staggered him but didn't put him down. The killer tore the chair out of his combatant's grip before it could be used again, and kicked out, his boot hitting the man's stomach. The kick drew a satisfying grunt of pain, and the British agent, a man in a brown robe, crashed back against the wall holding his gut.
The assassin flung the chair. Michael saw it coming in the flex of the man's hands, and as he dodged, the chair broke to pieces against the wall. Then the man was on him, fingers clenching around his throat, digging savagely into his windpipe. Black motes spun across Michael's vision; in his nostrils was the iron odor of blood and brains-the scent of Margritta's death he'd smelled a second after he'd heard the silencer's deadly whisper.
This man was a professional, Michael knew. It was man against man, and only one would be alive in a matter of minutes.
So be it.
Michael quickly brought his hands up, breaking the killer's grip, and smashed the palm of his right hand into the man's nose. He intended to drive the bones into the brain, but the killer was fast and turned his head to deflect the strike. Still, the nose crumpled and exploded and the man's eyes were wet with pain. He staggered back two steps, and Michael hit him in the jaw with a quick left and right. The killer's lower lip split open, but he grasped the collar of Michael's robe, lifted him off his feet, and hurled him through the bedroom door.
Michael crashed into the hallway and into one of the suits of armor. It fell off its stand in a clatter. The Nazi assassin came through the door, his mouth streaming blood, and as Michael tried to scramble up, a kick caught him in the shoulder and flung him another eight feet along the hall.
The killer looked around, his eyes glinting at the sight of armor and weapons; for an instant his face had a shine of reverence, as if he had stumbled into a holy shrine of violence. He picked up a mace-a wooden handle with a three-foot-long chain attached to an iron ball of jagged spikes-and whirled it gleefully over his head. He advanced on Michael Gallatin.
The medieval weapon shrieked as it swung for Michael's skull, but he ducked its arc and backpedaled out of range. The mace swung back the other way before he could get his balance, and the iron spikes bit brown terrycloth, but Michael leaped back, colliding with another suit of armor. as it fell, he grasped a metal shield and whirled around, catching the mace's next blow as it came at his legs. Sparks flew off the polished metal, the vibration thrumming up Michael's arm to his bruised shoulder. and then the killer lifted the mace over his head to crush Michael's skull-and Gallatin threw the shield, its edge hitting the other man's knees, chopping his legs out from under him. as the killer pitched down, Michael started to kick him in the face but checked himself: a broken foot would not help his agility.
The killer was getting to his feet, the mace still in hand. Michael darted to the wall and pulled a broadsword off its hooks, and then he turned to face the next attack.
The German warily regarded the sword and picked up a battle-ax, casting the shorter weapon aside. They faced each other for a few seconds, each looking for an opening, and then Michael feinted with a thrust and the battle-ax clanged it aside. The killer lunged in, avoided a swing of the sword, the battle-ax upraised. But Michael's sword was there to deflect it; the ax hit the sword's hilt in a burst of blue sparks, snapped off the blade, and left Gallatin standing with a nub of nothing. The killer swung the ax at his prey's face, his body braced for the pleasure of collision.
Michael had, in a split second, judged the fine angles and dimensions of impact. He realized that a step backward would lose him his head, as would a step to either side. So he moved in, crowding the killer, and since blows to the face seemed to do no good, he drove his fist into the exposed hollow of the armpit, his knuckles gouging for the pressure point of veins and arteries.
The killer cried out in pain, and as his arm went dead he lost control of the ax. It left his hand and thunked two inches deep into the oak-paneled wall. Michael hit him in the ruined nose, snapping his head back, and followed with a blow to the point of the chin. The German grunted, spewed blood, and fell back against the second-floor railing. Michael followed him, drew his arm back to strike at the throat-but suddenly the assassin's arms streaked out, the fleshy hands closing on his neck once more and lifting him off his feet.
Michael thrashed, but he had no traction. The killer was holding him almost at arm's length, and in another few seconds the idea would come to throw Michael over the railing to the tiled floor below. There was an oak beam two feet above Michael's head, but it was smooth and polished and there was nothing to hold on to. The blood roared in his brain, oily sweat surfaced from his pores-and deep within, something else stretched and began to awaken from a sleep of shadows.
The fingers pressed into his arteries, interrupting the flow of blood. The killer shook him, partly in disdain and partly to secure a tighter grip. The end was near; the German could see the other man's eyes beginning to bulge.
Michael's arms reached up, fingers grazing the oak. His body trembled violently, a movement that the assassin interpreted as the nearing of death.
For him, it was.
Michael Gallatin's right hand began to twist and contort. Beads of sweat ran down his face, and utter agony played across his features. The black hair on the back of his hand rippled, the sinews shifting. There were little popping noises of cracking bones. The hand gnarled, the knuckles swelled, the flesh turning mottled and thick, the black hair beginning to spread.
"Die, you son of a bitch!" the killer said, speaking in German. He squeezed his eyes shut, all concentration on strangling the man to death. Very soon now... very soon.
Something moved under his hands. Like scurrying ants. The body was getting heavier. Thickening. There was a pungent, animal smell.
The killer opened his eyes and looked up at his victim.
He was holding something that was no longer a man.
With a scream, he tried to throw the thing over the railing-but two pairs of claws dug into the oak beam and latched there, and the monster brought up a still-human kneecap and hit him in the chin with a power that all but knocked him senseless. He released the thing and, still screaming, but now in a high, thin drone, scrambled away from it. He fell over scattered armor, crawled toward the bedroom door, looked back, and saw the monster's claws wrench free of the beam. The thing fell to the floor, hitching and convulsing, and thrashed out of its brown terrycloth robe.
and now the assassin, one of the best of his breed, knew the full meaning of horror.
The monster righted itself, crawling toward him. It was not yet fully formed, but its green eyes caught and held him, promising agony.
The killer's hand closed on a spear. He jabbed at the thing, and it leaped aside, but the spear tip caught it on the malformed left cheek and drew a scarlet line against the black. He kicked desperately at it, trying to pull himself through the bedroom door and get to the terrace railing-and then he felt fangs snap shut on his ankle, a crushing power that broke the bones like matchsticks. The jaws opened and snapped on the other leg at the calf. again, bones broke, and the assassin was crippled.
He screamed for God, but there was no answer. There was only the steady rumbling of the monster's lungs.
He threw up his hands to ward it off, but human hands were of no consequence. The beast jumped upon him, its wet snout and staring, terrible eyes right in his face. and then the snout winnowed toward his chest, the fangs gleaming. There was a hammer blow to his breastbone, followed by another that almost split him in two. Claws were at work, the nails throwing up a red spray. The killer writhed and fought as best he could, but his best was nothing. The beast's claws entered his lungs, ripped away the heaving tissue, drove down into the man's core; and then the snout and the teeth found the pulsing prize, and with two twists of the head the heart was torn from its vine like an overripe, dripping fruit.
The heart was crushed between the fangs, and the mouth accepted its juices. The killer's eyes were still open, and his body twitched, but all his blood was flooding out and there was none left to keep his brain alive. He gave a shuddering, terrible moan-and the monster threw its head back and echoed the cry in a voice that rang through the house like a death knell.
and then, nosing into the gaping hole, the beast began its feeding, tearing with rampant rage at the inner mysteries of a man.
afterward, as the lights of Cairo dimmed and the first violet light of the sun began to come up over the pyramids, something caught between animal and man spasmed and retched in the mansion of the Countess Margritta. From its mouth flowed grisly lumps and fragments, a creeping red sea that went under the banister and over the edge to the tiled floor below. The naked retching thing curled itself into a fetal shape, shivering uncontrollably, and in that house of the dead no one heard it weep.