The ledge was still slick with rain. The wind had turned chill, and gusts plucked at Michael's hair and tugged his tuxedo jacket. He kept going, inch by inch, his chest pressed against the castle's mountainous wall and his shoes scraping along the ledge. The balcony of the next suite was perhaps thirty feet away, and then there was another eight feet or so to the southeast corner. Michael moved carefully onward, not thinking of anything but the next step, the next finger grip. He grasped an eagle that suddenly cracked and crumbled, the fragments falling into the darkness. He squeezed himself against the wall with his forefinger and thumb hooked into a half-inch-wide fracture until he regained his balance. Then he went on, fingers searching for fissures in the ancient stones, his shoes testing the firmness of the ledge before each step. He thought of a fly, crawling along the side of a massive, square cake. One step followed the next. Something cracked. Careful, careful, he told himself. The ledge held, and in another moment Michael reached the next balcony and stepped over the balustrade. Curtains were closed over the terrace doors, but light streamed through a large window just on the other side of the terrace. The ledge went underneath that window. He would have to pass it to reach the corner, where a pattern of gargoyle faces and geometric figures ascended to the next level. Michael walked across the terrace, took a deep breath, and stepped over the railing onto the ledge again. He was wet under his arms, and sweat dampened the small of his back. He kept going, relying on the ledge and not on handholds as he passed the window; it was a spacious bedroom, clothes scattered on the bed but no one in the room. Michael made it past the glass, noting with some displeasure that he'd left his palm prints on it, and the corner was within reach.
He stood clinging to the southeast edge of the Reichkronen, wind slashing into his face and searchlights sweeping back and forth across the clouds. Now he would have to leave the safety of this ledge and climb up to the next level, using the sculpted stones as a ladder. Thunder rumbled in the sky, and he looked up, examining the gargoyle faces and geometric figures, judging where to put his fingers and toes. The wind was an enemy to balance, but that couldn't be helped. Go on, he told himself, because this corner was the kind of place that sapped courage. He reached up, got his fingers latched on a sculpted triangle, and began to pull himself up. One shoe tip went into a gargoyle's eye, the other found an eagle's wing. He climbed the carved stones, the wind swirling around him.
Twelve feet above the sixth-floor ledge, he put his fingers into the eyes of a gaping, demonic face and a pigeon burst out of the mouth in a flurry of feathers. Michael stayed where he was for a moment, his heart hammering and pigeon feathers whirling around him. His fingers were scraped and raw, but he was only eight feet below the seventh-floor ledge. He kept climbing over the sculpted stones, got one knee up on the ledge, and pulled himself carefully to his feet. The ledge made a cracking noise and a few bits of masonry tumbled down, but he was still standing on something more or less solid. The next balcony belonged to Harry Sandler's suite, and he reached it with relative ease. He quickly crossed the terrace, slipped over it on the opposite side-and faced a ledge between it and Blok's terrace that had all but crumbled to pieces. Only chunks of stone remained, with gaping holes between them. The largest ledgeless space was about five feet, but from Michael's precarious perspective it easily looked twice that distance. He would have to cling to the wall to get over it.
Michael eased along the decayed ledge, balancing on his toes, his fingers finding cracks in the stones. as he settled his weight forward, a piece of the ledge suddenly broke beneath his right foot. Legs splayed and his chest hugging the wall, he tightened his grip on fissures in the stones. His shoulders throbbed with the effort, and he heard the breath whistle between his teeth. Go on! he urged himself. Don't stop, damn it! He listened to the inner voice, its heat thawing the ice that had begun to form in his knee joint. He went on, step after wary step, and he came to the place where there was no ledge.
"He asked for my advice, and I gave it to him," came a voice from below Michael. Someone talking on a sixth-floor terrace. "I said those troops were green as new apples, and if he put them in that caldron, they'd be chewed to pieces."
"But of course he didn't listen." another man's voice.
"He laughed at me! actually laughed! He said he certainly knew his troops better than I did, and he'd ask for my opinion when he wanted it. and now we all know the result, don't wei Eight thousand men trapped by the Russians, and four thousand more marching to prison camps. I tell you, it makes you sick to think of this damned waste!"
Michael didn't feel well himself, thinking of how he'd have to cling to the wall to get across that hole. as the two officers talked on the lower balcony, he stretched out as far as he could, hooked his raw fingers into cracks, and tensed his shoulders. Now! he thought, and before he could hesitate he swung out over the ledgeless gap, his shoulder muscles bunching under his shirt and his fingers and wrists as taut as pitons. He hung for a few seconds, trying to get his right foot up on the next fragment of ledge. a piece of masonry cracked off and fell, smaller pebbles of stone following it down into the dark.
"It's murder," the first officer was saying, his voice getting more strident. "absolute murder. Young men by the thousands, being torn to shreds. I know, I've seen the reports. and when the people of Germany find out about this, there'll be hell to pay."
Michael couldn't get his foot up on the ledge, because the stone kept crumbling away. Sweat was on his face. His wrists and shoulders were cramping. another chunk of masonry fell, and hit the castle's wall on the way down.
"My God, what was thati" the second officer asked. "Something just fell, over there."
Come on, come on! Michael told himself, and swore at his clumsiness. He got the toe of his right shoe wedged on a small piece of ledge that, mercifully, didn't fall. Some of the pressure eased on his fingers and wrists. But small bits of stone were still crumbling, the pebbles making little clicking noises as they ricocheted off the stones below.
"There! You seei I knew I heard it!"
In another few seconds the two men were going to lean over their balcony's railing, look up, and see him battling for balance. Michael slid his right foot forward, made room for the toe of his left shoe on the fragment of ledge, and then heaved with his straining shoulders and stretched so that his right foot found a stronger place to rest. Blok's terrace was within reach. He unhooked his right hand, gripped the balustrade, and quickly pulled himself over onto the sturdy surface. He rested a moment, breathing hard, his shoulder and forearm muscles slowly unkinking.
"This whole damn place must be falling apart," the first officer said. "Just like the Reich, ehi Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if this balcony fell under our feet."
There was silence. Michael heard one of the men nervously clear his throat, and the next sound was that of the balcony door opening and closing.
Michael turned the knobs of the French doors and entered Jerek Blok's suite.
He knew where the dining room was, and the kitchen beyond that. In that area he didn't care to wander, since some of the waiters and kitchen staff might be around. He crossed the high-ceilinged living room, passing a black marble fireplace above which the requisite painting of Hitler hung, and reached another closed door. He tried the gleaming brass knob, and the door yielded to him. There were no lights in the room, but he could see well enough: shelves of books, a massive oak desk, a couple of black leather chairs, and a couch. This must be Blok's permanent office when he visited the Reichkronen. Michael closed the door behind him, walked across the thick Persian carpet-probably stolen from the house of a Russian nobleman, he thought grimly-and to the desk. On it was a green-shaded lamp, which he switched on to continue his search. On one wall was a large framed photograph of Blok, standing under a stone arch. Beyond him were wooden structures and coils of barbed wire, and a brick chimney puffing black smoke. On the stone arch was carved FaLKENHaUSEN. The concentration camp, near Berlin, where Blok had served as commandant. It was the photograph of a man proud of his child.
Michael turned his attention to the desk. The blotter was clean; Blok evidently was the soul of neatness. He tried the top drawer: locked. So were all the other drawers. The desk had a black leather chair with a silver SS embedded in its backrest, and leaning against it in the desk's well was a black valise. Michael picked it up. The valise bore the silver SS insignia and the Gothic initials JGB. He put the valise atop the desk and unzipped it, reaching inside. His hand found a folder and drew it out.
Within the folder were various sheets of white paper-Blok's official SS stationery-on which numbers were typed. The numbers were arranged in columns, designating amounts of money. Budget sheets, Michael reasoned. Beside the numbers were initials: perhaps the initials of people, items, or a code of some kind. In any case he had no time to try to decipher them. His overall impression was that a large amount of money had been spent on something, and either Blok or a secretary had written down everything to the last deutsche mark.
Something else was in the folder, too: a square brown envelope.
Michael unclasped it and slid its contents out under the lamp.
There were three black-and-white photographs. Michael flinched, but then leaned forward and forced himself to study them closely.
The first photograph showed the face of a dead man. What was left of the face, that is. The left cheek had collapsed into a ragged-edged crater, holes covered the forehead, the nose had rotted into a gaping hole, and teeth showed through the tattered lips. More holes, each one about an inch in diameter, were scattered over the chin and the exposed throat. all that remained of the right ear was a nub of flesh, as if someone had burned it off with a blowtorch. The man's eyes stared blankly, and it took Michael a few seconds to realize that his eyelids were gone. at the bottom of the photograph, just below the corpse's ravaged throat, was a slate. and on that slate was chalked, in German: 2/19/44, Test Subject 307, Skarpa.
The second photograph was a profile of what might have been a woman's face. There was a little dark, curly hair clinging to the skull. But most of the flesh was gone, and the wounds were so hideous and deep that the sinus passages and the root of the tongue were exposed. The eye was a white, melted mass, like a lump of candle wax. across the corpse's cratered shoulder was a slate: 2/22/44, Test Subject 345, Skarpa.
Michael felt prickles of cold sweat on the back of his neck. He looked at the third picture.
Whether this human being had been man, woman, or child was impossible to tell. Nothing remained of the face but wet craters held together by strands of glistening tissue. In that gruesome ruin the teeth were clenched, as if biting back a final scream. Holes pocked the throat and shoulders, and the slateboard read 2/24/44, Test Subject 359, Skarpa.
Skarpa, Michael thought. The Norwegian island where Dr. Gustav Hildebrand kept a second home. Obviously Hildebrand had been entertaining guests. Michael steeled himself, and looked at the photographs again. Test subjects. Nameless numbers; probably Russian prisoners. But-dear God!-what had done this kind of damage to human fleshi Even a flamethrower gave a cleaner death. Sulfuric acid was the only thing he could think of that might have wreaked such horror, yet the tattered edges of the flesh showed no sign of being burned, by either chemicals or flame. He was certainly no expert on corrosives, but he doubted that even sulfuric acid could have such a savage effect. Test subjects, he thought. Testing whati Some new chemical that Hildebrand had developedi Something so hideous that it could only be tested on a barren island off the coast of Norwayi and what might this have to do with Iron Fist, and a caricature of a strangled Hitleri
Questions without answers. But of one thing Michael Gallatin was certain: he had to find those answers, before the allied invasion a little more than a month away.
He returned the photographs to the envelope, then the envelope and papers to the folder, the folder to the valise, the valise zippered and replaced exactly where he'd found it. He spent a few more minutes looking around the office, but nothing else caught his interest. Then he switched off the lamp, crossed the room, and headed for the front door. He was almost there when he heard a key slip into the latch. He stopped abruptly, spinning around and striding quickly for the terrace doors. He was barely out onto the balcony when the door opened. a girl's breathy, excited voice said, "Oh, this looks like heaven!"
"The colonel enjoys luxury," came the husky reply. The door shut, and was relocked. Michael stood with his back against the castle wall and darted a glance through the glass of the French doors. Boots had found a female companion, evidently bringing her up to Blok's suite to try to impress her out of her dress. The next step, if Michael knew anything about seduction, was to bring her out to the balcony and lean her over the edge to give her a tingle. In that case this would not be the best place to stand.
Michael quickly stepped over the balustrade onto the treacherously gapped ledge. He slipped his raw fingers into chinks, held tight, and started back the way he'd come. The masonry cracked and crumbled under his weight, but he got across the gaps and reached the balcony to Sandler's suite. Behind him he heard the girl say, "It's so high, isn't iti"
Michael opened the terrace doors and slipped through them, closing them softly at his back. The suite was a mirror image of Blok's, except the fireplace was made of red stones and the painting above it was a different vision of the Fuhrer. The place was quiet; Sandler must still be brimstoning. Michael walked toward the door, and saw standing near it a cage in which the golden hawk perched. Blondi wore no headmask, the hawk's dark eyes staring fixedly at him.
"Hello, you little bitch," Michael said, and tapped noisily on the cage. The hawk shivered with anger, feathers ruffling at the back of its neck, and began to make that hissing sound. "I ought to eat you and spit your bones out on the floor," Michael said. The hawk crouched over, its body quivering like a lightning rod in a storm. "Well, maybe next time." He reached for the doorknob.
He heard a faint, almost musical ping. Something clattered. Michael looked toward the hawk's cage, and saw counterweights descending from the ceiling. a small chain was playing out. Michael realized he'd just snapped a trip wire between him and the door, and he had no more time for further deliberation because the counterweights pulled the cage's door up and the golden hawk lunged out at him, its talons already shredding the air.