"He picked a damn lonely place to live, didn't hei" Major Shackleton lit a cigar and cranked down the glossy black Ford's rear window on his side to let the smoke seep out. The cigar tip glowed red in the gloomy twilight of late afternoon. "You Brits like this kind of weather, huhi"
"I fear we have no choice but to like it," Captain Humes-Talbot answered. He smiled as politely as he could, his aristocratic nostrils flared. "Or at least accept it."
"Right." Shackleton, a United States army officer with a face like the business end of a battle-ax, peered out at the gray, low clouds and the nasty drizzle. He hadn't seen the sun for more than two weeks, and the chill was making his bones ache. The elderly, stiff-backed British army driver, separated from his passengers by a glass window, was taking them along a narrow pebbled road that wound between dark, cloud-shrouded crags and stands of thick pine forest. The last village they'd passed, Houlett, was twelve miles behind them. "That's why you people are so pale," he went on, like a bulldozer through a tea party. "Everybody looks like a ghost over here. You ever come to arkansas, I'll show you a springtime sun."
"I'm not sure my schedule will allow it," Humes-Talbot said, and cranked down his window a turn and a half. He was wan and thin, a twenty-eight-year-old staff officer whose closest brush with death had been diving into a Portsmouth ditch as a Messerschmitt fighter screamed past seventy feet overhead. But that had been in august of 1940, and now no Luftwaffe aircraft dared to cross the Channel.
"So Gallatin served with distinction in North africai" Shackleton's teeth were clenched around the cigar, and the stub was wet with saliva. "That was two years ago. If he's been out of service since then, what makes your people think he can handle the jobi"
Humes-Talbot stared at him blankly with his bespectacled blue eyes. "Because," he said, "Major Gallatin is a professional."
"So am I, sonny." Shackleton was ten years the British captain's senior. "That doesn't make me able to parachute into France, does iti and I haven't been sittin' on my tailbone for the last twenty-four months, I'll guaran-damn-tee you that."
"Yes sir," the other man agreed, simply because he felt he should. "But your... uh... people asked for help in this matter, and since it's of benefit to both of us, my superiors felt-"
"Yeah, yeah, that's yesterday's news." Shackleton waved the man quiet with an impatient hand. "I've told my people I'm not sold on Gallatin's-excuse me, Major Gallatin's-record. His lack of field experience, I ought to say, but I'm supposed to make a judgment based on a personal meeting. Which isn't the way we work in the States. We go by the record over there."
"We go by the character over here," Humes-Talbot said, with a bite of frost. "Sir."
Shackleton smiled faintly. Well, at last he'd gotten a rise out of this stiff-necked kid. "Your secret service might have recommended Gallatin, but that doesn't swing a shovelful of shit as far as I'm concerned. Pardon my French." He snorted smoke from his nostrils, his eyes catching a gleam of red. "I understand Gallatin's not his real name. It used to be Mikhail Gallatinov. He's a Russian. Righti"
"He was born in St. Petersburg in 1910," came the careful reply. "In 1934 he became a citizen of Great Britain."
"Yeah, but Russia's in his blood. You can't trust Russians. They drink too much vodka." He tapped ashes into the ashtray on the back of the driver's seat, but his aim was off and most of the ash fell on his spit-shined shoes. "So why'd he leave Russiai Maybe he was wanted for a crime over therei"
"Major Gallatin's father was an army general and a friend of Czar Nicholas the Second," Humes-Talbot said as he watched the road unreel in the yellow gleam of the headlights. "In May of 1918, General Fyodor Gallatinov, his wife, and twelve-year-old daughter were executed by Soviet party extremists. The young Gallatinov escaped."
"andi" Shackleton prodded. "Who brought him to Englandi"
"He came by himself, working aboard a freighter," the captain said. "In 1932."
Shackleton smoked his cigar and thought about it. "Hold on," he said quietly. "You're sayin' he hid from the murder squads in Russia from the time he was eight to when he was twenty-two years oldi How'd he do thati"
"I don't know," Humes-Talbot admitted.
"You don't knowi Hell, I thought you boys were supposed to know everything about Gallatinov. Or whatever. Haven't you got his records verifiedi"
"There's a gap in his records." The younger man saw the dim glow of lights ahead, through the pines. The road was curving, taking them toward the sparkle of lanterns. "The information is classified, for the top echelon of the secret service only."
"Yeahi Well, that's enough to tell me I don't want him on the job."
"I presume Major Gallatin named those individuals who remained loyal to the memory of the royal circle and helped him survive. To expose those names would be... shall we say, less than prudenti" The small houses and clustered-together structures of a village were coming out of the drizzle. a little white sign on a post said ENDORE'S RILL. "I will pass on a bit of rumor, if I may," Humes-Talbot said, wanting to throw a smoking grenade back at the ugly american. "I understand that the mad monk Rasputin was in Saint Petersburg and enjoyed... liaisons with several ladies of breeding in 1909 and 1910. One of those ladies, dare I say, was Elana Gallatinov." He looked into Shackleton's face. "Rasputin may have been Michael Gallatin's real father."
a small cough of cigar smoke came from Shackleton's throat.
There was a tapping noise. Mallory, the driver, rapped his knuckles on the glass and put his foot to the Ford's brake. The car was slowing, the windshield wipers slapping away the sleet and rain. Humes-Talbot rolled the glass barrier down, and Mallory said with a crisp Oxford accent, "Beg your pardon, sir, but I think we should stop for directions. That might be the place." He pointed at a lantern-lit tavern coming up on the right.
"Indeed it is," the young man agreed, and rolled the glass back up as Mallory cruised the big car to a stop in front of the tavern's door. "I'll be back in a minute," Humes-Talbot said as he pulled the collar of his coat up around his neck and opened the door.
"Wait for me," Shackleton told him. "I could use a drink of whiskey to get my blood warm again."
They left Mallory in the car and went up a set of stone steps. a sign creaked on chains above the doorway, and Shackleton glanced up at it to see a painted sheep and the words THE MUTTON CHOP. Inside, a cast-iron stove burned with the sweet musk of bog peat and oil lamps hung from pegs on the wooden walls. Three men who were sitting at a back table talking quietly and drinking ale looked up from their conversation at the uniformed military officers.
"Welcome, gentlemen," an attractive black-haired woman behind the bar said with a heavy Welsh accent. Her eyes were bright blue, and they quickly examined the two visitors with a thoroughness that seemed casual. "What may I do for youi"
"Whiskey, babe," Shackleton said, grinning around his cigar. "Best poison you've got."
She uncorked a jug and poured him a murky shot glass full. "Only poison we've got, if you don't count the ale and bitters." She smiled faintly, a sultry smile with a challenge in it.
"Nothing for me, but I would like some information." Humes-Talbot warmed his hands before the stove. "We're looking for a man who lives around here. His name is Michael Gallatin. Do you-"
"Oh, yes," she said, and her eyes glinted. "I do know Michael."
"Where does he livei" Shackleton took a whiff of the whiskey and thought his eyebrows had been singed.
"around. He doesn't entertain visitors." She stroked a cloth across the jug. "Much."
"He's expectin' us, babe. Official business."
She considered that for a moment, looking at the shine of their buttons. "Take the road that runs through the Rill. It goes on for eight miles and then it turns into dirt, or mud, as the case may be. It splits into two. The road on the left is the rougher one. It goes to his gate. Whether it'll be open or not is up to him."
"We'll open it if it's not," Shackleton said. He took the cigar out of his mouth and, with a grin at the bartender, swallowed the local whiskey.
"Bottoms up," she told him.
His knees buckled as the whiskey seared down his throat like a trail of lava. He thought for a second that he'd swallowed crushed glass, or bits of razor blade. He felt sweat boil out of his pores, and he squeezed a cough down in his chest because the bartender was watching him, smiling knowingly, and he was damned if he'd fall on his ass in front of a woman.
"How do you like it, babei" she asked, all innocence.
He feared returning the cigar to his mouth, in case the smoke caught fire and blew his head off. Tears burned his eyes, but he clenched his teeth and slammed the shot glass down on the bar. "It... needs... agin'," he managed to croak, and his face flamed when he heard the men laugh at the back table.
"That it does," she agreed, and her soft laughter was like the rustle of a silk curtain. Shackleton started to reach for his wallet, but she said, "It's on the house. You're a good sport."
He smiled, more sickly than sporty, and Humes-Talbot cleared his throat and said, "We thank you for the information and hospitality, madam. Shall we go, Majori" Shackle-ford made something that might have been a grunt of assent, and followed Humes-Talbot to the door on leaden legs.
"Major, deari" the bartender called before he went out. He looked back, wanting to get out of this suffocating heat. "You can thank Michael for the drink when you see him. That's his private stock. Nobody else'll touch the stuff."
Shackleton went out the door of The Mutton Chop feeling like chopped mutton.
Full dark had fallen as Mallory drove them away from Endore's Rill, between the wind-lashed woods and mountains carved by the fingers of time. Shackleton, his face tinged the shade of tallow, forced himself to finish the cigar and then thumped it away out the window. It blew a trail of sparks, like a falling comet.
Mallory turned off the main road-a mud-puddled wagon track-and onto the rougher one on the left. The axles groaned as the Ford's tires plowed through potholes, and the seat springs yowled like pressured steam vents as Shackle-ton was thrown and jostled. The young British captain was used to uncomfortable roadways, and he clenched the hand grip over his door's window and lifted his rear an inch or two off the leather.
"Man... don't wanna... be located," was all Shackleton could say as the Ford shook harder than any tank he'd ever driven. Lord have mercy on my achin' tailbone! he thought. The road went on, a path of tortures, through the dense green woods. Finally, after two or three more brutal miles, the headlights found a high iron gate. It was wide open, and the Ford continued through.
The muddy road smoothed a bit, but not by much. Every so often they hit a bump and Shackleton's teeth cracked together with a force that he knew would cut his tongue off if he didn't keep it rolled up in his head. The wind swirled through the forest on both sides of the road, the sleet pelted down, and suddenly Shackleton felt a long way from arkansas.
Mallory stepped on the brake. "Here! What's that!" Humes-Talbot said, looking along the cone of the headlights. Three large dogs were standing in the road, the wind ruffling their fur. "My God!" Humes-Talbot took off his glasses, hurriedly wiped the lenses, and put them back on. "I believe those are wolves!"
"Hell, lock the damned doors!" Shackleton hollered.
The Ford slowed to a crawl. as Shackleton's fist hammered down the lock on his side, the three animals lifted their muzzles to the scent of hot metal and engine oil and vanished into the dark wall of trees on the left. The Ford picked up speed again, Mallory's age-spotted hands steady on the wheel, and they took a long curve through the forest and emerged onto a driveway paved with fields tones.
and there stood the house of Michael Gallatin.
It looked like a church, made of dark red stones chinked together with white mortar. Shackleton realized that it must have been a church at one time, because it had a narrow tower topped with a white spire and a walkway around it. But the truly amazing thing about the structure was that it had electricity. Light streamed from the windows on the first floor, and up in the church's tower panes of stained glass gleamed dark blue and crimson. Off to the right was a smaller stone building, possibly a workshed or garage.
The driveway made a circle in front of the house, and Mallory stopped the Ford and pulled up the handbrake. He tapped on the window, and when Humes-Talbot had lowered it, Mallory asked, a little uneasily, "Shall I wait here, siri"
"Yes, for now." Humes-Talbot was aware the old chauffeur had been supplied from the secret service's pool of drivers, but there was no need to let him know more than was absolutely necessary. Mallory nodded, an obedient servant, and cut the engine and headlamps. "Majori" Humes-Talbot motioned toward the house.
The two officers walked from the car through the biting sleet, their shoulders hunched in their overcoats. at the top of three stone steps was a scarred oak door with a green bronze knocker: an animal of some kind, with a bone clenched in its teeth. Humes-Talbot lifted the bone and the beast's fanged lower jaw rose with it. He knocked against the door and waited, beginning to shiver.
a bolt scraped back. Shackleton felt his gut bubble from the witch's brew in the Mutton Chop. and then the door opened on oiled hinges, and a dark-haired man stood outlined in light. "Come in," Michael Gallatin said.