as Michael was balancing on the hotel's ledge, Jerek Blok wiped tears of laughter from his eyes. Onstage, the spectacle involved a female midget and a burly Slav who obviously had been the idiot in some godforsaken Russian village. The man's physical equipment, however, was huge, and he grinned at the Nazi laughter as if he understood the joke. Blok looked at his pocket watch; he was getting sated on debauchery, and after a while all asses-no matter how big or small-looked the same. He leaned toward Chesna and touched her knee in a gesture that was far from fatherly. "Your baron must not have a sense of humor."
"He wasn't feeling well." as for that matter, neither was she. Her face hurt from all the false smiles.
"Come on, enough beer-hall entertainment." He stood up and grasped her elbow. "I'll buy you a bottle of champagne in the lounge."
Chesna was overjoyed to be able to make a graceful exit. The show was far from finished-there were cruder, audience participation events yet to come-but the Brimstone Club had never been anything for her but a way to meet people. She allowed Colonel Blok to escort her to the lounge, thinking that the baron might at this moment be either on his way in or out of Blok's suite. So far, there'd been no shriek of a plummeting body. The man-whatever his real name might be-was crazy, but he hadn't lived this long in a dangerous profession by being careless. They sat down at a table, and Blok ordered a magnum of champagne and checked his pocket watch again. He asked the waiter to bring a telephone to the table.
"Businessi" Chesna inquired. "So latei"
"I fear so." Blok closed his pocket watch and put it away in his neat uniform. "I want to hear all about the baron, Chesna: where you met him, what you know of him. as long as I've known you, I've never thought you were the type of woman to be foolish."
"Foolishi" She lifted her blond brows. "How do you meani"
"These dukes, earls, and barons are cheap currency. You see them every day, holding court and dressed up like department-store dummies. any man with a drop of royal blood pawns himself off as gold these days, when he's really pig iron. You can't be too careful." He wagged a warning finger at her. The waiter came with the telephone and proceeded to plug its prongs into the proper socket. "Harry and I were talking this afternoon," Blok went on. "He thinks the baron might be-how shall I say thisi-interested in more than true love."
She waited for him to continue; her heart was beating harder. Blok's pinched nose had picked up a scent.
"You say you've only known the baron a short time, yesi and already you're planning marriagei Well, let me get to my point, Chesna: you're a beautiful and wealthy woman, with a great reputation in the Reich. Even Hitler loves your films, and God knows the Fuhrer's favorite film subject is himself. But have you ever considered the possibility that the baron simply wants to marry you for your money and prestigei"
"I have," she answered. Too quickly, she thought. "The baron loves me for myself."
"But how can you be sure, without giving it timei It's not as if you're about to vanish from the face of the earth, is iti Why not give it through the summeri" He picked up the telephone, and Chesna watched him dial a number. She knew what number it was, and she felt her blood chill. "Colonel Blok," he said, identifying himself to the operator. "Medical, please." He spoke again to Chesna: "Three months. What could it hurti I have to tell you, neither I nor Harry like the man. He's got a lean and hungry look. Something about him doesn't ring true. Pardon me." He returned his attention to the telephone again. "Yes, Blok here. How was the operationi... Good. Then he'll recoveri... Enough to talk, yesi... and when might that bei... Twenty-four hours is too long! Twelve at the most!" He was speaking in his haughty colonel's voice, and he winked at Chesna. "Listen to me, arthur! I want Frankewitz-"
Chesna thought she gasped aloud. She wasn't sure. What felt like a band of steel closed around her throat.
"-able to answer questions within twelve hours. Yesi End of conversation." He hung up and pushed the telephone away as if it were something distasteful. "Now, we were talking about the baron. Three months. We can find out everything there is to know about him." He shrugged. "after all, that's my specialty."
Chesna thought she might scream. She was afraid she'd gone as pallid as a corpse, but if Blok noticed he didn't say anything.
"ah, here's our champagne!" Blok waited, drumming his spidery fingers on the tabletop, as the waiter poured flutes for them both. "To good health!" he toasted, and Chesna had to use all her skills to keep her hand from trembling as she lifted her glass.
and, as champagne bubbles tickled her nose, the counterweights fell, the chain rattled along its distance, the cage's door slid up, and Blondi came out at Michael Gallatin.
The talons raked air where his face had been a second before, because Michael had ducked low and Blondi's momentum carried her over him. She twisted in midair, her wings beating, and swooped upon him as he back-pedaled, his arms up to protect his face. Michael feinted to the light and dodged to the left with a wolf's speed, and as Blondi flashed past him two talons ripped into his right shoulder and sprayed bits of black cloth. She turned again and let out an enraged shriek. Michael backed away, frantically looking for anything to defend himself with. Blondi spun around the room in a tight circle, then suddenly reversed direction and darted at his face, her wings widespread.
Michael dropped to the floor. Blondi shot over him, tried to stop, and skidded along the arm of a black leather sofa, clawing deep furrows in the cowhide. Michael rolled away, got to his knees, and saw an open doorway in front of him: a blue-tiled bathroom. He heard the beating of golden wings behind him, sensed claws about to dig into the back of his skull. He flung himself forward, rolling head over heels, and through the open door into the bathroom. as he spun around on the blue-tiled floor, he saw Blondi streaking after him. He grasped the edge of the door, slammed it shut, and heard a satisfying thunk as the hawk hit it. There was a silence. Deadi Michael wondered. Or just stunnedi His answer came a few seconds later: the sound of frenzied clawing as Blondi attacked the door.
Michael stood up and gauged the boundaries of his prison. There was a sink, an oval mirror, a toilet, and a narrow closet. No windows, and no other door. He checked the closet but found nothing of use. Blondi was at work, tearing furrows on the other side of the bathroom door. To get out of Sandler's suite, he had to get out of this room and past the hawk. Sandler might return at any moment; there was no time to wait for the hawk to exhaust herself, and little chance that she'd lose interest. Michael knew she could smell the wolf on him, and it was driving her crazy. Sandler evidently didn't trust the Reichkronen's security system; the thin trip wire he'd managed to wrap around the doorknob as he'd gone out for the evening was a nasty surprise for the curious. Once a hunter, always a hunter.
Michael cursed himself for not being more alert. The grisly photographs had been on his mind. But what he'd found out tonight would be worthless if he couldn't get out. Blondi attacked the door again, her fury waxing. He looked at his reflection in the mirror and saw the ripped seam of his jacket. Some of the shirt was gone too, but his flesh was unscathed. So far. Michael gripped the edges of the mirror and lifted it off its mounting brackets. Then he turned it around, so the mirrored glass was aimed away from him. He lifted the mirror up over his face, like a shield, and then he went to the door. Blondi's talons must have been an inch deep in the wood by now. Michael held the mirror up with one hand, and then took a breath and with the other hand turned the knob and wrenched the door open.
The hawk shrieked and retreated. It had seen its own reflection. Michael protected his face with the mirror and backed carefully toward the terrace doors. He couldn't risk running into Sandler in the hallway; he'd have to get back to Chesna's suite the same way he'd come. Surely Boots and his prize had stopped dawdling by now and had left the balcony. Michael heard the whooshing sound of Blondi's powerful wings, coming at him. The hawk stopped short of its mirrored reflection and clawed wildly at the glass. Its strength almost knocked the mirror away from him, and he fastened his fingers around the edges. Blondi flew away and darted back again, unconcerned with Michael's fingers but concentrating on killing the hawk that had dared to invade her territory. again the talons scratched at the glass. Blondi made a high skreeling sound, flew a circle around the room, and attacked the mirror once more as Michael backed toward the terrace. This time Blondi hit the mirror a glancing blow, and the force of it staggered Michael. His heel caught on the leg of a low coffee table; he lost his balance and fell. The mirror slipped and shattered against the fireplace stones with the sound of a pistol shot.
Blondi flew just below the ceiling, making tight circles around the crystal chandelier. Michael got to his knees; the terrace doors were about twelve feet away. and then Blondi made one final circle and swooped down at him, talons outstretched to tear into his unprotected eyes.
He had no time to think. The hawk was coming in a blur of deadly gold.
It reached him, wings outspread. The talons drove downward, and the hooked beak started to stab for the soft glittering orbs.
Michael's right hand flashed up, and he heard the seam rip at his armpit. In the next second there was a burst of golden feathers where the hawk had been. He felt Blondi's talons grip his forearm, tearing through the jacket and shirt to find the skin-and then the bloody, mangled thing spun away like a tattered leaf and whacked against the wall, puffing more feathers. Blondi slid down to the floor, leaving smears of gore against the paint. The bloody mass that had been a bird of prey twitched a few times, then was still.
Michael looked at his hand. Black hair seethed and rippled over the powerful claw of a wolf, and the curved nails were wet with Blondi's blood and entrails. The forearm muscles bulged under his sleeve, straining the seam. The hairs had advanced almost up to his shoulder, and he could feel his bones starting to warp and change.
No, he thought. Not here.
He stood up, on human legs. It took him a moment to stop the change before it overwhelmed him, because the odor of blood and violence had flamed his nerves. The curved nails withdrew, with little pricklings of pain. The hair retreated, making his flesh itch. and then it was over, and he was human again except for a taste of musky wildness in his mouth.
He hurried out to the terrace. Boots and the girl had disappeared into Blok's suite. Michael wished there was something he could do to cover his tracks, but the damage was done; he stepped over the balustrade, got onto the ledge, and made his way to the southeast corner, where he descended to the level below by using the carved gargoyle faces and geometric figures again. In another eight or nine minutes he stepped onto the balcony of Chesna's suite, and went inside, closing the terrace doors behind him.
Now he felt as if he could breathe again. But where was Chesnai Still at the Brimstone Club's gathering, of course. Maybe he ought to make another appearance as well-but not in a hawk-clawed tuxedo jacket. He went into the bathroom and scrubbed all traces of blood from beneath the fingernails of his right hand, then changed into a fresh white shirt and put on a dark gray suit jacket with black velvet lapels. He wore his white bow tie again, since that had survived the blood spattering. His shoes were scuffed, but they'd have to do. He checked himself quickly in a mirror, making sure he hadn't missed a spot of crimson or a golden feather, and then he left the room and took an elevator to the lobby.
The Brimstone Club's meeting was apparently over, because the lobby teemed with Nazi officers and their companions. Laughter boomed out from beer-sotted throats. Michael searched for Chesna in the crowd-and felt a hand grasp his shoulder.
He turned, and found himself face-to-face with Harry Sandler.
"Been lookin' for you. all over," Sandler said; his eyes were bloodshot, his mouth wet and slack. "Where'd you goi" Beer had finished the job wine had begun.
"For a walk," Michael answered. "I wasn't feeling well. Have you seen Chesnai"
"Yeah. She's been lookin' for you, too. asked me to help. Good show, wasn't iti"
"Where's Chesnai" Michael repeated. He pulled loose from Sandler's hand.
"Last I saw, she was in the courtyard. Out there." He nodded toward the entrance. "Thought you'd decided to go back home and pick some more tulips. Come on, I'll take you to her." Sandler motioned him to follow, and the big-game hunter began staggering and weaving across the lobby.
Michael hesitated. Sandler stopped. "Come on, Baron. She's lookin' for her loverboy."
He followed Sandler, through the crowd toward the Reichkronen entrance. How the matter of the disemboweled hawk was going to be handled, he didn't know. Chesna was an intelligent, charming woman; she'd think of something. He was glad Mouse hadn't seen any of that hideous "entertainment," because it might have snapped the little man's last threads. One thing was clear to Michael: somehow, they had to find out what Gustav Hildebrand was working on. and, if possible, they had to get to Skarpa. But Norway was a long way from Berlin, and Berlin held enough danger on its own. Michael followed Harry Sandler down the steps, where the hunter almost lost his balance and broke his neck, which would have taken care of a task Michael planned to complete very shortly. They crossed the courtyard, the stones holding puddles of rainwater.
"Where is shei" Michael asked, walking beside Sandler.
"This way." He pointed toward the dark trail of the river. "There's a garden. Maybe you can tell me what kind of flowers are in it. Righti"
Michael heard something in the man's voice. a hardness, beneath the drunken slurring. His steps slowed. It occurred to him that Sandler was walking faster, keeping his balance on the uneven stones. Sandler wasn't as drunk as he pretended to be. Now what was this all a-
Sandler said, "Here he is," in a quiet, sober voice.
a man stepped out from behind a section of broken stone wall. He wore black gloves and a long gray coat.
There was a sound behind Michael: a boot sole, scraping stone. Michael whirled around and saw another man in a gray coat almost upon him. The man took two long strides, and the hand he'd already lifted came down. The blackjack he gripped in his fist hit Michael Gallatin on the side of the head and drove him to his knees.
"Hurry!" Sandler urged. "Get him up, damn it!"
a black car pulled up. Michael, adrift in a haze of pain, heard a door open. No, not a door. Heavier. The trunk lidi He was lifted up, and his scuffed shoes dragged across the stones. He let his body slump; it had all happened so fast, the gears of his brain had been knocked loose. The two men dragged him toward the car trunk. "Hurry!" Sandler hissed. Michael was lifted up, and he realized they were going to fold him up like a piece of luggage and throw him in the musty-smelling trunk. Oh no, he decided. Can't let them do that, oh no. He tensed his muscles then and drove his right elbow sharply backward. It hit something bony, and he heard one of the men curse. a fist struck him hard in the kidneys, and an arm gripped him around the throat from behind. Michael fought them, trying to get loose. If he could just get his feet on the ground, he thought dazedly, he'd be fine.
He heard the whistle of air, and knew the blackjack was falling again.
It hit the back of his skull, making black explosions burst across the white landscape of a ghost world.
Musty smell. Sound of a coffin lid slamming shut. No. Trunk lid. My head... my head...
He heard the sound of a well-tuned engine. The car was moving.
Michael tried to lift his head, and when he did, an iron fist of pain closed around him, and dragged him under.