"There it is, sir," Wilhelm said, and both Michael and Mouse saw it through the whirring windshield wipers.
Before them, veiled in the rain and the low-lying mist, a turreted castle rose from an island in the Havel River. Wilhelm had been following a paved road through Berlin's Grunewald Forest for almost fifteen minutes, and now the pavement ended at the river's edge. But the road continued: a wooden pontoon bridge that led over the dark water to the castle's massive granite archway. Entry to the pontoon bridge was blocked by a yellow barricade, and as Wilhelm slowed the car a young man in a maroon uniform, wearing dark blue gloves and carrying an umbrella, stepped out of a small stone checkpoint station. Wilhelm rolled down the window and announced, "The Baron von Fange," and the young man nodded crisply and returned to his station. Michael could see through a window into the structure, and he watched the young man dialing a telephone. The phone wires crossed the river and went into the castle. In another moment the man reappeared, lifted the barricade, and waved Wilhelm through. The Mercedes crossed the pontoon bridge.
"This is the Reichkronen Hotel," Wilhelm explained as they neared the archway. "The castle was built in 1733. The Nazis took it over in 1939. It's for dignitaries and guests of the Reich."
"Oh, my God," Mouse whispered as the immense castle loomed above them. He'd seen it before, of course, but never so close. and never had he dreamed he'd be about to enter it. The Reichkronen was reserved for Nazi party leaders, foreign diplomats, high-ranking officers, dukes, earls, and barons-real barons, that is. as the castle grew and its archway awaited like a gray-lipped mouth, Mouse felt very small. His stomach churned. "I don't... I don't think 1 can go in there," he said.
He had no choice. The Mercedes moved through the archway into a large courtyard. a wide set of granite stairs fluted upward to the double front doors, above which were the gilt letters Reichkronen and a swastika. Four young blond-haired men in maroon uniforms emerged from the doors and hurried down the stairs as Wilhelm braked the Mercedes.
"I can't... I can't..." Mouse was saying, feeling as if the breath were being squeezed out of him.
Wilhelm speared him with an icy stare. "a good servant," he said quietly, "does not let his master down." and then the door was opened for Mouse, an umbrella was held over his head, and he stood dazed as Wilhelm got out and came around to unlock the trunk.
Michael waited for his door to be opened, as befitting a baron. He stepped out of the car and into the protection of an umbrella. His stomach was tight, too, as were the muscles at the back of his neck. But this was no place for hesitation, and if he was going to survive this masquerade, he had to play his part to the hilt. He forced down the alarm of nerves and started up the steps at a brisk clip so the young man with the umbrella would have difficulty keeping up with him. Mouse followed a few paces behind, feeling smaller with every step. Wilhelm and the other two men brought the bags.
Michael walked into the lobby of the Reichkronen, entering the Nazi sanctum. It was a huge chamber, where pools of light from low lamps spilled over dark brown leather furniture and Persian rugs sparkled with golden threads. above his head was a massive, ornate chandelier where perhaps fifty candles burned. Flames roared from logs in a white marble hearth that could serve as a garage for a Tiger tank; centered over the hearth was a large framed painting of adolf Hitler, with gilded eagles on either side. Chamber music was playing: a quartet of string musicians, performing a Beethoven piece. and seated in the overstuffed leather chairs and sofas were German officers, most of them with drinks in hand, either engaged in conversation or listening to the music. Other people, among them a number of women, stood in groups, chatting politely. Michael looked around, getting the full impact of the monstrous place, and he heard Mouse give a soft, terrified moan just behind him.
and then, a woman's voice, as beautiful as a cello: "Frederick!" The voice was familiar. Michael started to turn in its direction, and he heard the woman say, "Frederick! My darling!"
She rushed at him, and her arms went around him. He smelled her scent: cinnamon and leather. She clasped him tightly, her blond curls against his cheek. and then she looked him in the face with eyes the color of champagne, and her crimson lips sought his mouth.
He let them find it. She tasted like a crisp white Moselle. Her body was pressed hard against his, and as the kiss went on Michael put his arms around her body and darted his tongue out to tease her lips. He felt her shiver, wanting to pull away but unable to, and he slowly caressed his tongue back and forth across her mouth. She suddenly seized his tongue with her mouth and sucked on it with a force that almost tore it from its roots. Her teeth clamped down on his tongue, trapping it with none-too-gentle pressure. This was the civilized way to make war, Michael thought. He squeezed her tighter, and she squeezed him with a crush that made his backbone pop. They stood like that for a moment, locked mouth to mouth and teeth to tongue.
"ahem." a man cleared his throat. "So this is the lucky Baron von Fange."
The woman released Michael's tongue and pulled her head back. Crimson spots seethed in her cheeks, and her beautiful pale brown eyes glittered with anger beneath thick blond brows. But there was a joyous smile on her mouth, and she said with a rush of excitement, "Yes, Harry! Isn't he beautifuli"
Michael turned his head to the right, and stared at Harry Sandler, who stood perhaps three feet from him.
The big-game hunter, the man who had engineered the murder of the Countess Margritta in Cairo almost two years before, grunted skeptically. "Wild beasts are beautiful, Chesna. Especially when their heads are on my wall. I'm afraid I don't share your taste, but... it's a pleasure to finally meet you, Baron." Sandler thrust out a large hand, and the golden hawk that perched on his leather-trimmed left shoulder spread its wings for balance.
Michael stared at the hand for a few seconds. He could see it gripped around a telephone, ordering Margritta's murder. He could see it tapping out a radio code to his Nazi masters. He could see it squeezing the trigger of a rifle and sending a bullet through a lion's skull. Michael took the hand and shook it, keeping a polite smile on his face though his eyes had gone hard. Sandler increased the pressure, trapping Michael's knuckles. "Chesna's been boring me to death with stories about you," Sandler said, his ruddy face grinning. His German was very good. He had dark brown eyes that shed no warmth, and the pressure of his grip on Michael's hand continued to mount. Michael's knuckles throbbed. "Thank God you're here, so she won't have to tell me any more."
"Perhaps I'll bore you to death with stories of my own," Michael said, his smile broader; he made sure he showed no indication of the fact that his hand was about to break. He stared into Harry Sandler's eyes, and he felt a message pass between them: survival of the fittest. His knuckles were jammed together, caught in that bear claw of a hand. One more ounce of pressure, and the bones would crack. Michael smiled, and felt sweat crawl down under his arms. He was, for the moment at least, at the mercy of a killer.
Sandler, showing his square white teeth, released Michael's hand. Blood stung as it rushed through the cramping fingers. "as I said, a pleasure."
The woman, who wore a dark blue dress that fit her lean body as if it had been poured on, had blond hair that fell in curly ringlets around her shoulders. Her face, with its high, sharp cheekbones and full-lipped mouth, was as striking as a glimpse of the sun through storm clouds. She took Michael's arm. "Frederick, I hope you won't mind that I've been boasting about you. I've told Harry the secret."
"Ohi Have youi" What nexti
"Harry says he'll give the bride away. Isn't that righti"
Sandler's smile slipped a notch, which didn't matter much since it was false to begin with. "I have to tell you, Baron: you're in for the fight of your life."
"am Ii" Michael felt as if the floor had turned to ice, and he was trying to keep from stepping through a thin spot.
"You're damned right. If you weren't around, Chesna would be marrying me. So I'm going to do my best to dethrone you."
The woman laughed. "Oh, my! What a delight! To be fought over by two handsome men!" She glanced at Wilhelm and Mouse, who stood a few feet away. Mouse's face was tinged with gray, his shoulders slumped under the immense weight of the Reichkronen. The luggage had already disappeared, whisked into an elevator by the bellboys. "You may go to your quarters now," she said, with the air of someone who was used to giving orders and being obeyed. Wilhelm gave Mouse a firm nudge toward a door marked Treppe-Stairs-but Mouse only went a few paces before he looked at Michael, his expression a mixture of panic and bewilderment. Michael nodded, and the little man followed Wilhelm to the stairway.
"Good servants are so hard to find," Chesna said, oozing arrogance. "Shall we go to the loungei" She motioned toward a candlelit enclave on the other side of the lobby, and Michael allowed her to guide him. Sandler walked a few paces behind them, and Michael could sense the man was sizing him up. Of course the woman named Chesna was the agent Michael knew as Echo; but who was shei and how could she mingle so freely with the Reich's bluebloodsi They were almost to the lounge when a pretty young dark-haired girl stepped in their path and said shyly, "Excuse me... but I've seen all your pictures. I think you're wonderful. Might I have your autographi"
"Of course!" Chesna took the pen and pad the girl offered. "What's your namei"
Michael watched as Chesna wrote, in large and dramatic letters: To Charlotta, all My Best, Chesna van Dorne. She ended with a flourish and handed the pad back to Charlotta with a dazzling smile. "There you are. I have a new film coming out next month. I hope you'll look for it."
"Oh, I will! Thank you!" The girl, obviously thrilled, took her autograph back to where she'd been sitting, on a sofa between two middle-aged Nazi officers.
In the lounge, which was decorated with framed symbols of German infantry and armor divisions, they chose a secluded table. Michael took off his topcoat and hung it on a wall hook nearby. When the waiter came, Chesna ordered a Riesling, Michael asked for the same, and Sandler ordered a whiskey and soda and a platter of chopped meat. The waiter seemed to be used to the request, and he left without comment.
"Harry, must you carry that bird everywherei" Chesna asked teasingly.
"Not quite everywhere. But Blondi's my good-luck charm." He smiled, looking at Michael. The golden hawk-a beautiful creature-stared at Michael, too, and he realized that both the hawk and its master had the same cold eyes. Its talons gripped the patch of leather on the shoulder of Sandler's expensively tailored tweed jacket. "Do you know anything about birds of prey, Baroni"
"I know enough to avoid them."
Sandler laughed politely. He had a square-jawed, crudely handsome face with a crooked boxer's nose. His reddish hair was cropped short on the sides and back, and a small flame-colored wisp of hair fell over his creased forehead. Everything about him exuded haughty confidence and power. He wore a red-striped necktie and a pale blue shirt, and on his lapel there was a small gold swastika. "Smart man," he said. "I captured Blondi in africa. It's taken me three years to train her. Of course she's not tame, just obedient." He took a leather glove from inside his coat and worked it onto his left hand. "She's lovely, isn't shei Did you know that I could give her a signal and she'd rip your face to shreds within five seconds or soi"
"That's a comforting thought," Michael said. His testicles felt as if they'd drawn up.
"I trained her on British prisoners of war," Sandler went on, taking a step into no-man's-land. "Smeared some mouse guts on their faces, and Blondi did the rest. Here, girl." He gave a low, trilling whistle, and offered Blondi the back of his glove. The hawk immediately stepped from Sandler's shoulder onto the glove, its talons clenching down. "I find nobility in savagery," Sandler said as he admired the golden hawk. "Maybe that's why I want Chesna to marry me."
"Oh, Harry!" She smiled at Michael; the smile had a warning in it. "I never know whether to kiss him or slap him."
Michael still hadn't gotten past the remark about the British POWs. He smiled, too, but his face felt in danger of cracking. "I hope you'll save the kisses for me."
"I've been in love with Chesna ever since I met her. It was on the set of... what movie was that, Chesnai"
"The Flame of Destiny. Heinreid brought you for a visit."
"Right. I suppose you're a fan, too, Baroni"
"Her number-one fan," Michael said, and he placed his hand on top of hers and squeezed it. a film actress, he'd realized she must be. and a highly successful one, at that. He recalled reading something about The Flame of Destiny; it had been a Nazi propaganda film, made in 1938. One of those movies full of Nazi banners, gleeful crowds cheering for Hitler, and idyllic landscapes of Germany.
Their glasses of white wine, the whiskey and soda, and the platter of raw chopped meat arrived. Sandler took a swig of his drink and then began to feed Blondi pieces of the bloody meat. The hawk gobbled them down. Michael smelled the coppery aroma of the blood, and his own mouth watered.
"So, when's the happy dayi" Sandler asked, the fingers of his right hand smeared with crimson.
"The first week of June," Chesna answered. "We haven't set the exact day yet, have we, Fredericki"
"No, not yet."
"Happy for you, I might say. a tragedy for me." Sandler watched a hunk of meat go into Blondi's hooked beak. "Baron, do you do anythingi Besides watch over the family estate, I meani"
"I manage the vineyards. also the gardens. We raise tulips." That had all been part of his biography.
"ah, tulips." Sandler smiled, his gaze on the hawk. "Well, that must keep you very busy. Royalty is a wonderful occupation, isn't iti"
"If you can stand the hours."
Sandler stared at him; something glittered like a knife's edge-angeri jealousyi-down in the dark brown, soulless eyes. He pushed the platter of meat a few inches toward Michael. "Here," he said. "Why don't you feed Blondi."
"Harry," Chesna told him, "I don't think we need to-"
"all right." Michael picked up a piece of meat. Sandler slowly moved his gloved hand forward, so Blondi's beak was within Michael's reach. Michael started to offer Blondi the bloody food.
"Careful," Sandler said quietly. "She likes fingers. and then how would you pick your tulipsi"
Michael paused. Blondi stared fixedly at the meat between his fingers. He could feel Chesna van Dorne tense beside him. Sandler was waiting, expecting the rich and idle tulip baron to back down. Michael had no choice but to continue the movement his hand had already begun. as his fingers neared Blondi's beak, the hawk began to make a soft, menacing hissing noise.
"Uh-oh!" Sandler said. "She smells something about you she doesn't like."
It was the odor of the wolf, caught in his pores. Michael hesitated, with the meat about four inches from Blondi's beak. The hissing noise was getting higher and harsher, like steam from a scalding kettle.
"I think you're really upsetting her. Shhhh, girl." Sandler pulled his hand and the hawk away from Michael, and blew gently on the back of Blondi's neck. Gradually the hissing noise subsided. But Blondi's gaze was still riveted on Michael, and he could sense the hawk wanted to leap from its leather perch and flail its talons at him. Like master, like hawk, he thought; there was no love lost at this table.
"Well," Michael said, "it's a shame to let good beef go to waste." He put the meat into his mouth, chewed, and swallowed. Chesna gave a horrified gasp. Sandler just sat, stunned and disbelieving. Michael sipped casually at his wine and dabbed his lips with a white napkin. "One of my favorite dishes is steak tartare," he explained. "This is almost the same thing, isn't iti"
Sandler's trance broke. "You'd better watch your groom-to-be," he told Chesna. "He seems to enjoy the taste of blood." Sandler stood up; for the moment, their game was over. "I have business to attend to, so I'll say goodbye for now. Baron, I hope we'll have a chance to talk later. Of course you'll be attending the Brimstone Clubi"
"I wouldn't miss it."
"If you can eat raw meat, you should love the Brimstone Club. I'll look forward to our next meeting." He started to shake Michael's hand again, then looked at his own blood-smeared fingers. "You'll pardon me if I don't shake handsi"
"No pardon necessary." His knuckles weren't ready for another pressure contest, anyway. Sandler, the hawk latched to his gloved left hand, gave Chesna a brief bow and then strode away out of the lounge.
"Charming," Michael said. "I've met nicer snakes."
Chesna looked at him; she was indeed a good actress, because her face retained the dreamy expression of a happy lover while her eyes were chilly. "We're being watched," she said. "If you ever try to stick your tongue down my throat again, I'll bite it off. Is that clear, darlingi"
"Does that mean I'll get another chancei"
"It means that our arrangement of betrothal is fiction, not to be confused with reality. It was the best way to explain your presence and get you into this hotel."
Michael shrugged, rather enjoying needling this composed blond Nordic celebrity. "I'm just trying to play my part."
"You leave the acting to me. Just go where I tell you to go, do what I tell you to do, and speak when you're spoken to. Don't volunteer any information, and for God's sake don't try to match egos with Harry Sandler." She gave him a distasteful frown. "and what was that about the raw meati Don't you think that was going a bit too fari"
"Maybe so, but it got that bastard out of here, didn't iti"
Chesna van Dorne sipped her wine but didn't answer. She had to admit that he was right. Sandler had been upstaged, and the big-game hunter wasn't one to take that lightly. Still... it had been amusing, in a bizarre way. She glanced at the man over the rim of her glass. Definitely not the tulip-plucking type, she decided. Without all the grime, the shaggy hair, and the beard, he was very handsome. But his eyes disturbed her in a way she couldn't define. They looked... yes, she decided; they looked like the eyes of a dangerous animal, and reminded her of the pale green eyes of a timber wolf that had frightened her when she was twelve years old and visiting the Berlin Zoo. The wolf had stared at her with those cold clear eyes, and even though bars separated them, Chesna had shivered and clung hard to her father's hand. She'd known what the wolf was thinking: I want to eat you.
"I want to eat something," Michael said. The raw meat had sharpened his appetite. "Is there a restaurant herei"
"Yes, but we can order room service." Chesna finished her wine. "We've got a lot to talk about." He was staring at her, and she avoided his gaze. She summoned their waiter, signed the check, and then took Michael's arm and led him out of the lounge like a thoroughbred dog on a leash. Once they were in the lobby and striding toward the row of gilt-doored elevators, Chesna turned on her magnificent smile like a klieg light.
as they neared the elevators, a man's husky voice said, "Miss van Dornei"
Chesna stopped and turned, her smile aglow, ready to charm another autograph seeker.
The man was huge: a living bunker, standing about six-feet-three and at least two hundred and sixty pounds, with thick shoulders and arms. He wore an SS aide's uniform and a gray peaked cap, and his face was pale and emotionless. "I was told to give you this," he said as he offered Chesna a small white envelope.
Chesna took it, her hand that of a child's compared to the man's. The envelope bore her name.
Michael's heart lurched. Standing before him was the man called Boots, who had kicked and stomped Gaby's uncle to death in the barn at Bazancourt.
"I'm to return a reply," Boots said. His hair was cropped close to the skull, and his eyes were pale blue and heavy-lidded; the eyes of a man who saw everyone else in the world as frail constructions of flesh and bone. as Chesna tore open the envelope and read it Michael glanced at the SS aide's thickly soled jackboots. They reflected the candles of the chandelier on their glossy surface, and Michael wondered if they were the same boots that had knocked Gervaise's teeth from his head. He felt the man watching him, and he looked up into the dull blue eyes. Boots nodded curtly, no recognition in his gaze.
"Tell him I... we'd be delighted," Chesna told him, and Boots strode away toward a group of officers at the center of the lobby.
The elevator came. "Six," Chesna told the elderly operator. as they ascended she said to Michael, "We've just been invited to dine with Colonel Jerek Blok."