"a toast!" Harry Sandler lifted his wineglass. "To Stalin's coffin!"
"Stalin's coffin!" someone else echoed, and the toast was drunk. Michael Gallatin, sitting at the long dining table across from Sandler, drank without hesitation.
It was eight o'clock, and Michael was in the suite of SS Colonel Jerek Blok, amid Chesna van Dorne, twenty Nazi officers, German dignitaries, and their female companions. He wore a black tuxedo, a white shirt, and a white bow tie, and to his right Chesna wore a low-cut, long black dress with pearls covering the creamy swell of her breasts. The officers were in their crisp dress uniforms, and even Sandler had put away his tweeds in favor of a formal gray suit. He had also left his bird in his room, a fact which seemed to relieve many of the other guests as well as Michael.
"To Churchill's tombstone!" the gray-haired major sitting a few seats down from Chesna proposed, and all-including Michael-drank merrily. Michael scanned the table, examining the faces of the dinner guests. Their host and his lead-footed aide were absent, but a young captain had seated everyone and gotten the party going. after another few rounds of toasts, in honor of drowned U-boat men, the valiant dead of Stalingrad, and the fried corpses of Hamburg, white-jacketed waiters began to roll in the dinner on silver carts. The main event was roast boar with an apple in its mouth, which Michael noted with some pleasure was set in front of Harry Sandler. The hunter had evidently shot the beast in the forest's hunting preserve just yesterday, and as he cut slabs of greasy meat and slid them onto platters it was clear Sandler knew how to handle a carving knife as well as a rifle.
Michael ate sparingly, the meat too full of fat for him, and listened to the conversations on all sides. Such optimism that the Russians would be thrown back and the English would come crawling to Hitler's feet with a peace treaty was worthy of a gypsy and a crystal ball. The voices and laughter were loud, the wine kept flowing and the waiters kept bringing food, and unreality was so thick in the air Harry Sandler might have carved it. This was the food these Nazis were used to eating, and their bellies looked full.
Michael and Chesna had talked most of the afternoon. She knew nothing about Iron Fist. Neither did she know anything of Dr. Gustav Hildebrand's activities, or what went on at Hildebrand's Norway island. Of course she knew that Hildebrand advocated gas warfare-that was a common fact-but Hitler evidently remembered his own sniff of mustard gas in the Great War and didn't care to open that particular Pandora's box. Or, at least, not just yet. Did the Nazis have a stockpile of gas bombs and shellsi Michael had inquired. Chesna wasn't sure of the exact tonnage, but she felt sure that somewhere the Reich had at least fifty thousand tons of weapons, kept ready in case Hitler changed his mind. Michael pointed out the fact that gas shells could be used to disrupt the invasion, but Chesna disagreed. It would take thousands of shells and bombs to stop the invasion, she said. also, gas of the kind Dr. Hildebrand's father had helped develop-distilled mustard during the Great War, Tabun and Sarin in the late 1930's-might easily blow back on the defenders in the tricky coastal winds. So, Chesna told him, a gas attack on the allies might backfire on the German troops instead. That had to be a possibility the high command had already considered, and she didn't think one Rommel-who was in charge of the atlantic Wall's defenses-would allow. anyway, she said, the allies had control of the air now, and would certainly shoot down any German bombers that approached the invasion beaches.
Which left them where they'd begun, pondering the meaning of a phrase and a caricature of adolf Hitler.
"You're not eating. What's wrongi Isn't it raw enough for youi"
Michael looked up from his deliberations and stared across the table into Sandler's face. It had grown more ruddy from all the toasts, and now Sandler wore a slack-lipped smile. "It's all right," Michael said, and forced the greasy meat into his mouth. He envied Mouse, eating a bowl of beef soup and a liverwurst sandwich in the servants' wing. "Where's your good-luck charmi"
"Blondii Oh, not so far. My suite's next door. You know, I don't think she likes you very much."
"What a shame."
Sandler was about to reply-a gimcrack witticism, no doubt-but his attention was distracted by the red-haired young woman who sat next to him. They began to talk, and Michael heard Sandler say something about Kenya. Well, it took a bore to kill a boar.
at that moment the dining-room door opened, and Jerek Blok stalked in with Boots following behind. Instantly a chorus of cheers and applause rose up and one of the dinner guests proposed a toast to Blok. The SS colonel plucked a wineglass from a passing tray, smiled, and drank to his own long life. Then Michael watched as Blok, a tall, thin man with a sallow face, wearing a dress uniform studded with medals, made the rounds of the table, stopping to shake hands and slap backs. Boots followed him, a fleshy shadow.
Blok came to Chesna's chair. "ah, my dear girl!" he said, and bent down to kiss her cheek. "How are youi You look lovely! Your new film is almost out, yesi" Chesna said it was imminent. "and it'll be a tremendous smash and give us all a boost, won't iti Of course it will." His gray-eyed gaze-the eyes of a lizard, Michael thought-found Baron von Fange. "ah, and here's the lucky man!" He approached Michael, held out his hand, and Michael rose to shake it. Boots stood behind Blok, staring at the baron. "Von Fange, isn't iti" Blok asked. His handshake was loose and damp. He had a long, narrow nose and a pointed chin. His close-cropped brown hair swirled with gray at temples and forehead. "I met a Von Fange in Dortmund last year. Was that a member of your familyi"
"I wouldn't be surprised. My father and uncles travel all over Germany."
"Yes, I met a Von Fange." Blok nodded. He released Michael's hand, leaving it feeling as if Michael had gripped something oily. Blok had bad teeth; the front lower teeth were all silver. "I can't remember his first name, though. What's your father's namei"
"That's a noble name! No, I can't quite recall." Blok was still smiling, but it was an empty smile. "and tell me this: why isn't a strapping young man like you part of the SSi With your heritage, I could easily get you an officer's commission."
"He picks tulips," Sandler said. His voice was getting a little slurred, and he held his wineglass out to be refilled.
"The Von Fange family has cultivated tulips for over fifty years," Chesna spoke up, offering information from the German social registry. "Plus they own very fine vineyards and bottle their private labels. and thank you for bringing that to Colonel Blok's attention, Harry."
"Tulips, ehi" Blok's smile had grown a bit cooler. Michael could see him thinking: perhaps this wasn't SS material after all. "Well, Baron, you must be a very special man to have swept Chesna off her feet like this. and such a secret she was keeping from her friends! Trust an actress to be an actress, yesi" He directed his silver smile at Chesna. "My best wishes to you both," he said, and moved on to greet the man who sat at Michael's left.
Michael continued picking at his meal. Boots left the dining room, and Michael heard someone ask Blok about his new aide. "He's a new model," Blok said as he took his chair at the head of the table. "Made of Krupp steel. Has machine guns in his kneecaps and a grenade launcher in his ass." There was laughter, and Blok basked in it. "No, Boots was until recently working on an antipartisan detail in France. I'd assigned him to a friend of mine: Harzer. Poor fool got his head blown off-excuse me, ladies. anyway, I took Boots back into my command a couple of weeks ago." He lifted his filled wineglass. "a toast. To the Brimstone Club!"
"The Brimstone Club!" returned the refrain, and the toast was drunk.
The feast went on, through courses of baked salmon, sweetbreads in cognac, quail stuffed with chopped German sausage, and then rich brandied cake and raspberries in iced pink champagne. Michael's stomach felt swollen, though he'd eaten with discretion; Chesna had hardly eaten at all, but most of the others had filled their faces as if tomorrow was Judgment Day. Michael thought of a time, long ago, when winter winds were raging and the starving pack had gathered around Franco's severed leg. all this fat -grease, and running suet didn't fit the wolf's diet.
When dinner ended, cognac and cigars were offered. Most of the guests left the table, drifting into the suite's other huge, marble-floored rooms. Michael stood beside Chesna on the long balcony, a snifter of warm cognac in his hand, and watched searchlights probe the low clouds over Berlin. Chesna put her arm around him and leaned her head on his shoulder, and they were left alone. He said, in the soft murmuring of an enraptured lover, "What are my chances of getting in lateri"
"Whati" She almost pulled away from him.
"Getting in here," he explained. "I'd like to take a look around Blok's suite."
"Not very good. all the doors have alarms. If you don't have the proper key, all hell would break loose."
"Can you get me a keyi"
"No. Too risky."
He thought for a moment, watching the ballet of searchlights. "What about the balcony doorsi" he asked. He'd already noticed there were no locks on them. Locks were hardly necessary when they were on the castle's seventh floor, more than a hundred and sixty feet above the ground. The nearest balcony-to the right, belonging to Harry Sandler's suite-was over forty feet away.
Chesna looked into his face. "You've got to be joking."
"Our suite is on the floor below, isn't iti" He strolled to the stone railing and peered down. a little more than twenty feet below was another terrace, but it wasn't part of Chesna's suite. Their quarters were around the castle's corner, facing the south, while Blok's terrace faced almost directly east. He searched the castle's wall: the massive, weatherworn stones were full of cracks and chinks, and here and there were ornate embellishments of eagles, geometric designs, and the grotesque faces of gargoyles. a thin ledge encircled every level of the castle, but much of the ledge on the seventh floor had crumbled away. Still, there were abundant hand- and footholds. If he was very, very careful.
The height made his stomach clench, but it was jumping from airplanes that he most dreaded, not height itself. He said, "I can get in through the balcony doors."
"You can get yourself killed any number of ways in Berlin. If you like, you can tell Blok who you really are and he'll put a bullet through your brain, so you won't have to commit suicide."
"I'm serious," Michael said, and Chesna saw that he was. She started to tell him that he was utterly insane, but suddenly a young giggling blond girl came out onto the balcony, followed closely by a Nazi officer old enough to be her father. "Darling, darling," the German goat crooned, "tell me what you want." Michael pulled Chesna against him and guided her toward the balcony's far corner. The wind blew into their faces, bringing the smell of mist and pine. "I might not have another opportunity," he said, in a lover's moist and quiet tone. He began to slide his hand down her elegant back, and Chesna didn't pull away because the German goat and his nymphet were watching. "I've had some mountaineering experience." It had been a course in cliff climbing, before he'd gone to North africa: the art of making a hairline crack and a nub of rock support a hundred and eighty pounds, the same skill he'd used at the Paris Opera. He glanced over the railing again, then thought better of it. No use stretching his courage before he needed it. "I can do it," he said, and then he smelled Chesna's womanly scent, her beautiful face so close to his. Searchlights danced over Berlin like a ghostly ballet. On impulse Michael pulled Chesna against him, and kissed her lips.
She resisted, but only for a second because she also knew they were being watched. She put her arms around him, felt the muscles of his shoulders move under his tuxedo jacket, and then felt his hand caress the base of her spine, where the dimples were. Michael tasted her lips: honey-sweet, with perhaps a dash of pepper. Warm lips, and growing warmer. She put a hand against his chest; the hand made an effort to push him back but the arm didn't agree. Defeated, the hand slipped away. Michael deepened the kiss, and found Chesna accepting what he offered.
"That's what I want," Michael heard the old goat's nymphet say.
another officer looked out through the balcony doors. "almost time!" he announced, and hurried away. The goat and nymphet left, the girl still giggling. Michael broke the kiss, and Chesna gasped for breath. His lips tingled. "almost time for whati" he asked her.
"The Brimstone Club's meeting. Once a month, down in the auditorium." She actually-it was ridiculous-felt a little dizzy. The altitude, she thought it must be. Her lips felt as if they were on fire. "We'd better hurry if we're going to find good seats." She took his hand, and he followed her off the balcony.
They descended in a crowded elevator, along with other dinner guests. Michael assumed the Brimstone Club was one of those mystic leagues the Nazis prided themselves on, in a country of orders, fellowships, and secret societies. In any case he was about to find out. He noted that Chesna had a very tight grip on his hand, though her expression remained cheerful. The actress at her craft.
The auditorium, on the castle's first floor in the section behind the lobby, was filling up with people. Fifty or so Brimstone Club members had already found their chairs. a red velvet curtain obscured the stage, and multicolored electric lanterns hung from the rafters. Nazi officers had come dressed in their finery, and most everyone else wore formal attire. Whatever the Brimstone Club was, Michael mused as he walked with Chesna along the aisle, it was reserved for the Reich's gentry.
"Chesna! Over here! Please, sit with us!" Jerek Blok rose from his chair and waved them over. Boots, who might have taken up two chairs, was not in attendance, but Blok sat with a group of his dinner guests. "Move down!" he told them, and they instantly obeyed. "Please, sit beside me." He motioned to the seat next to him. Chesna took it, and Michael sat on the aisle seat. Blok put his hand on Chesna's and grinned broadly. "ah, it's a wonderful night! Springtime! You can feel it in the air, can't youi"
"Yes, you can," Chesna agreed, her smile pleasant but her voice tense.
"We're so glad to have you with us, Baron," Blok told him. "Of course you know all the membership fees go toward the War Fund."
Michael nodded. Blok began talking to a woman sitting in front of him. Sandler, Michael saw, was sitting up on the front row with a woman on either side of him, talking animatedly. Tales of africa, Michael thought.
Within fifteen minutes, between seventy and eighty people had entered the auditorium. The lanterns began to dim, and the doors were closed to shut out the uninvited. a hush fell over the audience. What the hell was this all abouti Michael wondered. Chesna was still gripping his hand, and her fingernails were beginning to dig into his skin.
a man in a white tuxedo came out through the curtains, to polite applause. He thanked the membership for attending, the monthly meeting, and for being so generous with their contributions. He went on, about the fighting spirit of the Reich, and how the valiant youth of Germany would crush the Russians and send them fleeing back to their holes. The applause was more scattered, and some of the officers actually groaned in derision. The man-a master of ceremonies, Michael reasoned-continued, undaunted, about the shining future of the Thousand-Year Reich and how Germany would yet have three capitals: Berlin, Moscow, and London. Today's blood, he said in a booming voice, would be tomorrow's victory garlands, so we'll fight on! and on! and on!
"and now," he said with a flourish, "let the entertainment begin!"
The lanterns had gone out. The curtains opened, the stage illuminated by footlights, and the master of ceremonies hurried off.
another man sat in a chair, reading a newspaper and smoking a cigar, at stage center.
Michael almost bolted to his feet.
It was Winston Churchill. Totally naked, the cigar clamped in his bulldog teeth and a tattered London Times in his pudgy hands.
Laughter swelled. The music of a brass band, hidden behind the stage, oompahed a comic tune. Winston Churchill sat smoking and reading, his pallid legs crossed and his etiquette hanging down. as the audience laughed and applauded, a girl wearing nothing but high black leather boots and carrying a cat-o'-nine-tails strutted out on stage. She wore a square smudge of charcoal on her upper lip: a Hitlerian mustache. Michael, his senses reeling, recognized the girl as Charlotta, the autograph seeker. There was nothing shy about her now, her breasts bobbling as she advanced toward Churchill, and he suddenly looked up and let out a shrill, piercing scream. The scream made everyone laugh harder. Churchill fell to his knees, his naked and flabby behind offered to the audience, and held up his hands for mercy.
"You pig!" the girl shouted. "You filthy, murdering swine! Here's your mercy!" She swung the whip and the lashes cracked across Churchill's shoulder, raising red welts on his white flesh. The man howled in pain and groveled at her feet. She began to whip his back and buttocks, cursing him like a blue-tongued sailor as the band oompahed merrily and the audience convulsed with laughter. Reality and unreality mixed; Michael realized the man was of course not the prime minister of England, just an actor who eerily resembled him, but the cat-o'-nine-tails wasn't a fiction. Neither was the girl's rage. "This is for Hamburg!" she shouted. "and Dortmund! and Marienburg! and Berlin! and-" She went on, a recitation of cities the allied bombers had hit, and as the whip began to fling drops of blood the audience erupted in a paroxysm of cheering. Blok leaped to his feet, clapping his hands above his head. Others were standing, too, shouting gleefully as the whipping continued and the false Churchill shivered at the girl's feet. Blood streamed down the man's back, but he made no effort to rise or escape the whip. "Bonn!" the girl raged as the whip struck. "Schweinfurt!" Sweat glistened on her shoulders and between her breasts, her body trembling with the effort, moisture smearing the charcoal mustache. The whip continued to fall, and now the man's back and buttocks were crisscrossed with red. Finally the man shuddered and lay sobbing, and the female Hitler whipped him across his back one last time and then put a booted foot on his neck in triumph. She gave the audience a Nazi salute and received a bounty of cheering and applause. The curtains closed. "Wonderful! Wonderful!" Blok said, sitting down again. a tight sheen of perspiration had collected on his forehead, and he dabbed it off with a white handkerchief. "You see what entertainment your money buys, Baroni"
"Yes," Michael answered; forcing a smile was the most difficult thing he'd ever done in his life. "I do see."
The curtains opened again. Two men were shoveling glittering fragments from a wheelbarrow, scattering them over the stage. Michael realized they were covering the floor with broken glass. They finished their job, rolled the wheelbarrow away, and then a Nazi soldier pushed a thin girl with long brown hair onto the stage. She wore a dirty, patched dress made of potato sacks, and her bare feet crunched the glass shards. The girl stood in the glass, her head slumped and her hair obscuring her face. Pinned to her potato-sack dress was a yellow Star of David. a violinist in a black tuxedo appeared from the left side of the stage, wedged his instrument against his throat, and began to fiddle a lively tune.
The girl, against all human reason and dignity, began to dance on the broken glass like a windup toy.
The audience laughed and clapped, as if in appreciation of an animal act. "Bravo!" the officer sitting in front of Michael shouted. Michael would have blown the bastard's brains out if he'd had his derringer. This savagery surpassed anything he'd experienced in the Russian forest; this, truly, was a gathering of beasts. It was all he could do to keep from leaping to his feet and shouting for the girl to stop, but Chesna felt his body tremble and she looked at him. She saw the revulsion in his eyes, and something else there, too, that frightened her to the marrow of her bones. "Do nothing!" she whispered.
Under Michael's tuxedo jacket and crisp white shirt, wolf hair had emerged along his spine. The hairs scurried across his flesh.
Chesna squeezed his hand. Her own eyes were dead, her emotions switched off like an electric light. On stage, the violinist was playing faster and the thin girl was dancing faster, leaving bloody footprints on the boards. This was almost beyond Michael's power to endure; it was the brutalization of the innocent, and it made his soul writhe. He felt hair crawling on the backs of his arms, on his shoulder blades, on his thighs. The change was calling him, and to embrace it in this auditorium would be a disaster. He closed his eyes, thought of the verdant forest, the white palace, the song of the wolves: civilization, a long way from here. The violinist was playing frantically now, and the audience was clapping in rhythm. Sweat burned Michael's face. He could smell the musky animal perfume rising from his flesh.
It took a massive effort of will to hold back the wild winds. They came very close to engulfing him but he fought them, his eyes tightly closed and the wolf hair rippling across his chest. a band of hair rose on the back of his right hand, which clenched the armrest on the aisle, but Chesna didn't see it. and then the change passed like a freight train on dark tracks, the wolf hair itching madly as it retreated into his pores.
The violinist played a flurry of notes at satanic speed, and Michael could hear the sound of the girl's feet sliding on the glass. The music reached its zenith and ceased, to cheering and more shouts of "Bravo! Bravo!" He opened his eyes; they were wet with rage and revulsion. The Nazi soldier led the girl offstage. She moved like a sleepwalker, trapped in an unending nightmare. The violinist bowed, smiling broadly, another man with a broom came out to sweep up the bloody glass, and the curtains closed.
"Excellent!" Blok said, to no one in particular. "This is the best presentation yet!"
attractive naked women appeared, rolling kegs of beer and iced mugs on carts along the aisles. They stopped to draw beer into the mugs and pass them to thirsty Brimstone Club members. The audience began to grow raucous, some of them breaking into obscene songs. Grinning faces gleamed with sweat, and beer sloshed as mugs were cracked together in vile toasts.
"How long does this go oni" Michael asked Chesna.
"Hours. I've known it to go on all night."
One more minute was too long, as far as he was concerned. He touched his pocket, and felt the key to their room that Chesna had given him. Blok was talking to the man next to him, explaining something with a hammering of his fist. an iron fisti Michael wondered.
The curtains opened again. at the center of the stage was a bed, its sheet a Russian flag. On that bed, her wrists and ankles tied to the bedposts, lay a dark-haired woman, nude, who might have been Slavic. Two naked, muscular men wearing Nazi helmets and jackboots goosestepped out from either side of the stage, to loud applause and excited laughter. Their weapons were raised for an assault, and the woman on the bed cringed but couldn't escape.
Michael had reached his limit. He stood up, turned his back on the stage, and walked quickly up the aisle and out of the auditorium.
"Where's the baron goingi" Blok asked. "It's the shank of the evening!"
"I... don't think he's feeling well," Chesna told him. "He ate too much."
"Oh. Weak-stomached, ehi" He grasped her hand to keep her from bolting, too, and his silver teeth flashed. "Well, I'll keep you company, won't Ii"
Chesna started to pull away, but Blok's grip tightened. She'd never walked out of a Brimstone Club meeting; she'd always been a loyal part of the group, and to walk out now-even following the baron-might cause suspicion. She forced her muscles to relax, and her actress's smile surfaced. "I'd love a beer," she said, and Blok motioned to one of the naked waitresses. Onstage, there was a scream, followed by the audience's shouts of approval.
Michael unlocked the suite door and went directly to the balcony, where he breathed in fresh air and fought down his churning stomach. It took a minute or two for his head to clear; his brain felt infected with corruption. He looked at the ledge that ran from the balcony along the castle's wall. Eight inches wide, at the most. Sculpted eagles and gargoyle faces were set in the cracked gray stones. But if he mis-stepped, or lost his handhold...
No matter. If he was going, it had to be now.
He eased over the terrace balustrade, set one foot on the ledge, and grasped the eye sockets of a gargoyle. His other foot found the ledge, too. He waited a few seconds, until he had his center of balance, and then he carefully moved along the ledge, a hundred and forty feet above Hitler's earth.