Michael heard the train whistle. Was it retreating on the tracks, coming back at him for another racei If so, he knew it would beat him this time. His bones ached, and his head felt like a blister on the edge of bursting. The train's whistle faded. He tried to look back over his shoulder, through the darkness, but could see nothing. Where was the mooni It had been there a moment before, hadn't iti
There was a soft tapping sound. Then again. "Baroni are you awake, siri"
a man's voice, speaking in German. Michael's eyes opened. He was staring up at a ceiling of dark, varnished wood.
"Baroni May I come in, pleasei" The tapping was insistent this time. a doorknob turned, and a narrow door opened. Michael lifted his head, his temples throbbing. "ah! You're awake!" the man said with a pleasant smile. He was thin and bald, with a neatly trimmed blond mustache. He wore a pin-striped suit and a red velvet vest. Scarlet light glowed around him, as if he were standing on the rim of a blast furnace. "Herr Sandler wishes you to join him for breakfast."
Michael sat up slowly. His head pounded like hell's anvil, and what was that clacking racketi He remembered the blackjack; its blows must've unhinged his sense of balance as well as his hearing, because the entire room seemed to be gently rocking back and forth.
"Breakfast will be served in fifteen minutes," the man said, a cheerful announcement. "Would you prefer apple or grapefruit juicei"
"What is this placei" He realized he was on a bed. His shirt collar was open, his white bow tie unknotted, his shoes unlaced and on the floor. They looked as if they'd been freshly polished. The room-a cramped little chamber-held a brown leather chair and a table on which rested a white bowlful of water. Where the window should have been was a square of metal bolted down. He heard the train's whistle again: a high, piercing note from somewhere far ahead. Well, he knew where he was now, and why the room was rocking, but where was the train headedi
"Herr Sandler's waiting," the man said. Michael saw movement behind him. In the corridor, where a curtained window let in a little crack of scarlet light, stood a Nazi soldier with a pistol.
What the hell was going oni Michael wondered. He decided it was prudent to play along. "I'll have apple juice," he said, and put his feet on the floor. He stood up carefully, testing his balance. His legs held him.
"Very good, sir." The man-obviously a butler-started to leave.
"One moment," Michael said. "I also want a pot of coffee. Black, no sugar. and three eggs; do you have thosei"
"Good. I want three eggs, still in their shells."
The man's expression indicated he didn't register the request. "I beg your pardoni"
"Three eggs. Raw. In their shells. Is that cleari"
"Uh... yes, sir. Very clear." He backed out the door, and closed it firmly.
Michael went to the square of metal and tried to hook his fingers underneath it. The thing wouldn't budge, its bolts driven deep. He found a pull cord and yanked it, turning on a small light globe at the ceiling. a closet held his gray coat with the black velvet lapels, but no other clothes. He looked around. It was a Spartan room, a moving prison cell. Certainly the soldier outside the door was guarding him; were there more soldiers aboardi How far from Berlin were theyi Where were Chesna and Mousei He didn't even know how much time had elapsed since the ambush, but he doubted that he'd been unconscious for more than a few hours. So if the sun was coming up, the Brimstone Club gathering had been last night. Had Sandler found what was left of his hawki and if Michael was on his way to a Gestapo interrogation as a spy, then why had the butler still referred to him as "Baron"i
Questions, questions. None of them answerable yet. Michael walked two paces to the table, cupped water in his hands, and put it to his face. a clean white towel was folded next to the bowl, and he used it to dry his face. Then he cupped more water in his hands and lapped up a few swallows. a mirror hung on the wall nearby. Michael looked at his reflection. The whites of his eyes were a little bloodshot, but he bore no marks of the blackjack blows. With careful fingers he found the lumps on his skull, one just above his left temple and the other on the back of his head. The blows, either one of which could have killed him, had been delivered with restraint. Which meant Sandler-or someone else-wanted him alive.
His vision was still hazy. He would have to shake off the grogginess and do it fast because he had no idea what lay ahead of him. Back in the Reichkronen's courtyard he'd made the error of letting his instincts falter. He should've picked up the fact that Sandler's drunkenness was a sham, and he should have heard the man coming up behind him long before he did. Well, the lesson was learned. He would not underestimate Harry Sandler again.
He buttoned his collar and tied his white bow tie. No use going to breakfast looking unpresentable. He thought of the photographs he'd found in Colonel Jerek Blok's suite, the ravaged faces of victims of some horrible testing program on Skarpa Island. How much did Sandler know about Dr. Hildebrand's new projecti Or about Iron Fist, and Frankewitz's labors to paint bullet holes on green metal. It was time to find out.
Michael took the coat from the closet, put it on, checked his tie again in the mirror, and then took a deep, head-clearing breath and opened the door.
The soldier who'd been waiting outside instantly drew his Luger from its holster. He aimed it at Michael's face.
Michael smiled tightly and lifted his hands. He waggled his fingers. "Nothing up my sleeves," he said.
"Move." The soldier motioned to his left with the gun, and Michael went along the swaying corridor with the soldier a few paces behind. The car held several other rooms that looked to be about the size of the one Michael had occupied. It wasn't a prison train, Michael realized; it was too clean, the wooden walls polished and brass fixtures gleaming. Still, there was a musty scent in the air: the lingering aromas of sweat and fear. Whatever went on in this train, it wasn't healthy.
a second soldier, also armed with a Luger, was waiting at the entrance to the next car. Michael was motioned to keep going, and he pushed through a doorway and found himself in luxury's lap.
It was a beautiful dining car, with walls and ceiling of dark rosewood and a red and gold Persian carpet on the floor. a brass chandelier hung from above, and along the walls were brass carriage lamps. Beneath the chandelier was a table covered with white linen, where Michael's host sat.
"ah! Good morning, Baron!" Harry Sandler stood up, smiling broadly. He appeared well rested and wore a red silk robe with his initials in Gothic script over his heart. "Please, join me!"
Michael glanced back over his shoulder. One of the soldiers had entered, and stood beside the door, Luger in hand. Michael walked to the breakfast table and sat down across from Sandler, where a place setting of dark blue china was arranged for him. Sandler returned to his seat. "I hope you slept well. Some people have difficulty sleeping on trains."
"after the first couple of bumps, I slept like a baby," Michael said.
Sandler laughed. "Oh, that's great! You've kept your sense of humor. Very refreshing, Baron."
Michael unrolled his napkin. He had plastic eating utensils, whereas Sandler's were sterling silver.
"You never know how people will respond," Sandler went on. "Sometimes the scenes are... well... unpleasant."
"I'm shocked!" Michael said, with mock dismay. "Hit on the head in the middle of the night, shoved into a car's trunk, dragged away God knows where to wake up on a moving traini Some people would call that unpleasanti"
"I fear it's so. There's no accounting for taste, is therei" He laughed again, but his eyes were cold. "ah! Here's Hugo, with our coffee!" The butler who had come to Michael's room emerged from a door that must've led to a kitchen, and he brought two small silver pots and two cups on a tray. "This is my train," Sandler said as Hugo poured the coffee for them. "a gift from the Reich. Beautiful, isn't iti"
Michael glanced around. He'd already noticed that the windows were covered with metal shutters. "Yes, it is. But do you have an aversion to lighti"
"Not at all! as a matter of fact, we need some morning sun, don't wei Hugo, open these two." He motioned to the windows on either side of their table. Hugo produced a key from his vest, inserted it into a lock beneath one window, and turned it. There was a soft click as the lock disengaged, and then Hugo opened the shutters with a hand crank. Dawn light streamed through the window. Hugo unlocked the second window and cranked the shutters open the same way, then he pocketed his key and went back to the kitchen. Michael sipped his coffee-black and without sugar, just as he'd requested-and gazed out one of the windows. The train was moving through a forest, and the harsh sunlight glinted through the trees. "There," Sandler said. "That's better, isn't iti This is a very interesting train, as I think you'll find. My private car is the one at the rear, just behind where you woke up. Then there are three more cars between this one and the locomotive. a magnificent piece of machinery. Do you know much about trainsi"
"I've had a little experience with them."
"What's fascinating to me about a train is that you can create your own world inside one. This train, for instance: anyone seeing it from the outside would see simply what appeared to be an ordinary freight hauler. They wouldn't think twice about it. But inside... well, it's my world, Baron. I love the sound of the wheels on the rails, the power of the locomotive. It's like riding inside a great, beautiful beast. Don't you agreei"
"Yes, I would." Michael sipped again at his coffee. "I've always thought of a train as being... oh... like a huge iron fist."
"Reallyi That's interesting. Yes, I can see that." He nodded. There was no change in his relaxed, pleasant expression. No response to the phrase, Michael thought. Did he know anything about Iron Fist, or noti "You surprise me, Baron," Sandler said. "I assumed you'd be... shall we say... nervousi Or perhaps you're just a good actor. Yes, I think that's probably it. Well, you're a long way from your tulip gardens now, Baron. and I'm afraid you won't be leaving this train alive."
Michael slowly lowered his coffee cup to the table. Sandler was watching him carefully, waiting for a response: a cry of anguish, tears, pleading. Michael stared at him for a few seconds, then reached for his silver pot and poured himself more coffee.
a frown flickered over Sandler's face. "You think I'm joking, don't youi This is far from a joke, my friend. I'm going to kill you: whether your death will be fast or slow is up to you."
The sound of the train's wheels suddenly changed. Michael looked out the window. They were passing over a bridge that crossed a wide, dark green river. another startling sight caught his attention. The towers and turrets of a large building were visible above the trees, perhaps a half mile away. There was no doubt about it; it was the Reichkronen.
"Yes, there's the hotel," Sandler said, correctly judging the baron's response. "We've been circling Berlin for the past three hours. We'll continue to circle until the hunt's ended."
"Exactly." Sandler's smile returned; he was in the driver's seat again. "I'm going to hunt you, along the length of the train. If you can get to the locomotive and pull the whistle's cord three times before I find you, your death will be a quick bullet to the brain. If, however, I trap you before you get there, then..." He shrugged. "Hunter's choice," he said.
"You're out of your damned mind."
"Oh, that's the spirit!" Sandler clapped his hands together. "Let's get some emotion out of you! Come on, can't you work up a few tearsi Maybe beg a littlei Would it help if I told you I skinned the last man I hunted herei He was an enemy of Himmler's, so I gave him the skin. I do believe he mounted it."
Hugo came from the kitchen, rolling a tray that held their breakfasts. He put a platter of steak in front of Sandler, then a dish before Michael on which rested the three raw eggs. "You fascinate me, Baron!" the big-game hunter said, with a grin. "I don't know what to make of you!"
Michael's heartbeat had picked up and his throat was a little dry, but he was far from panic. He looked out the window, watching row houses and factories speed past. "I doubt if Chesna would like the fact that I've been kidnapped," he said frostily. "Or have you kidnapped her, tooi"
"Of course not. She's still at the Reichkronen, and so's your valet. Chesna doesn't know anything about this, and she never will." He picked up a sharp knife and began to carve his steak. The inside of the meat was almost red, blood oozing into his platter. "at this moment the police are dragging the river for your body. Two people have come forward and said they'd seen you wandering along the river-bank after you left the Brimstone Club. You, unfortunately, seemed to have had a bit too much to drink. You were staggering around, and you refused to go back to the hotel." Sandler chewed a piece of steak and washed it down with coffee. "That riverbank can be very treacherous, Baron. You shouldn't have gone there alone."
"I'm sure someone saw me leave with you."
"In that crowdi I don't think so. anyway, it doesn't matter. I received Colonel Blok's permission to take you; he doesn't want you marrying Chesna any more than I do."
So that was it, Michael realized. This had nothing to do with his mission, or the fact that he was a British secret agent. Sandler and Blok wanted Baron von Fange to disappear. It also was clear that Sandler didn't know about his hawk's fate; he probably hadn't had a chance to return to the hotel, and wouldn't go back until this ludicrous "hunt" was finished. Of course Chesna wouldn't believe the story about Michael being drunk. She'd know something was up; what would she doi He couldn't think about that right now, though. His primary concern was the smiling man who sat across the table from him, chewing on bloody meat. "I love Chesna," Michael said. "Chesna loves me. Doesn't that make a differencei" He let a little weakness creep into his voice; no use making Sandler too cautious.
"Oh, screw that! Chesna doesn't love you!" He speared another piece of meat on his fork and ate it. "Maybe she's infatuated. Maybe she likes your company-though I have no idea why. anyway, Chesna sometimes lets her heart rule her head. She's a fantastic woman: beautiful, talented, well bred. and a daredevil, too. Did you know she flies her own planei She did aerial stunts in one of those movies she made. She's a champion swimmer, and I can tell you she fires a rifle better than a lot of men I've met. She's tough up here"-he touched his skull-"but she's got the heart of a woman. She's been involved in ill-advised love affairs before, but she's never talked marriage. I'm a little disappointed; I always thought she was a better judge of character."
"Meaning you don't like the fact that Chesna chose me instead of youi"
"Chesna's choices are not always wise," Sandler said. "Sometimes she has to be led to the right decision. So Colonel Blok and I have decided you're out of the picture, permanently."
"What makes you think she'll marry you, even if I'm deadi"
"I'm working on it. Besides, it would be a great propaganda piece for the Reich. Two americans who've chosen to live under the Nazi banner. and Chesna's a star, too. Our pictures would be in newspapers and magazines around the world. You seei"
Michael did see. Not only was Sandler a traitor and a murderer, he had a colossal ego. Even if Michael hadn't wanted to kill him before, this would have sealed it. He picked up his plastic spoon, broke the shell of the first egg, lifted it to his mouth, and downed it. Sandler laughed. "Raw meat and raw eggs. Baron, you must've been raised in a barn!"
Michael ate the second egg the same way. Hugo returned, with carafes of apple juice for Michael and Sandler. The big-game hunter drank down his glass, but Michael paused with his glass right at his lips. He smelled a faint, slightly bitter odor. a poison of some kindi No, the odor wasn't that bitter. But there was a drug in the juice. a sedative, he reasoned. Something to make him sluggish. He put the glass aside and reached for his coffee again. "What's wrongi" Sandler asked. "Don't you like applesi"
"It smells a little wormy." He cracked the third egg's shell, and slid the yolk into his mouth, bursting it between his teeth. He swallowed, wanting to get the rich protein into his system as quickly as possible, then he washed it down with coffee. The tracks were turning to the northeast, beginning to circle around Berlin again.
"aren't you going to begi" Sandler leaned forward. "Just a little biti"
"Would it do any goodi"
Sandler hesitated, then shook his head. His eyes were dark and cautious, and Michael knew he'd sensed something he hadn't expected. Michael decided to probe once more: "So I don't have much of a chance, do Ii Like a roach under an iron fisti"
"Oh, you have a chance. a small one." again, there was no recognition of the phrase in Sandler's face. Whatever Iron Fist was, Harry Sandler knew nothing about it. "To die a quick death, that is. Just get to the locomotive before I find you. I'll be armed, of course. I've brought along my favorite rifle. You, unfortunately, will be unarmed. But you'll have a ten-minute head start. You're going to be taken back to your room for a while. Then you'll hear an alarm buzzer go off. That'll be your signal to start running." He carved another bite of steak, then slid the knife into the rest of it. "There's no use to try to hide in your room, or hold the door shut. I'll just find you that much faster. and if you think you can jump off the train, you're mistaken. There are soldiers aboard who'll be stationed between each car. and the windows... well, you can forget those." He motioned to Hugo, who'd been standing nearby waiting to clear away the plates. Hugo began to crank down the window shutters again. Slowly the sunlight was sealed off. "Let's make this a sporting contest, all righti" Sandler urged. "You do your part, and I'll do mine."
The last shutter closed. Hugo brought the key from his vest to lock them, and in the folds of his coat Michael saw a pistol in a holster.
"Don't think about trying to get Hugo's gun," Sandler said, tracking Michael's gaze. "He spent eight months on the Russian Front, and he's an expert shot. any questions about the ground rulesi"
"You really do amaze me, Baron. I have to say I thought you'd be on your knees by now. It just goes to show: you never know what's inside a man, do youi" His grin was all teeth. "Hugo, will you return the baron to his quarters pleasei"
"Yes, sir." The pistol emerged from his holster and was pointed at Michael.
When the door to his room was closed, Michael found the chamber altered. The mirror, the table, the white bowl, and the towel were missing. also the single hanger was gone from the closet. Michael had been looking forward to using shards of the mirror, pieces of the bowl, and the hanger to slash his way out of this. The light globe remained, however, and Michael looked up at it. The globe was out of reach, though he felt sure he could devise some way to burst it to pieces. He sat down on the bed to think, the train gently swaying and the wheels clattering on the rails. Did he really need weapons to beat Harry Sandler at his own gamei He didn't think so. He could change into a wolf and be ready to go once the alarm buzzer sounded.
But he didn't change. He already had the edge in instincts and perception. all changing would do was lose him his clothes. He could walk on two legs and think like a wolf, and still beat Sandler. The only problem was that Sandler knew the train better than he. Michael would have to find a place suitable to set up an ambush, and then...
Then the heavy weight of the Countess Margritta would be lifted from him. Then he could write finis to that sorry episode of his life, and turn away from the compulsion of revenge.
He would beat Harry Sandler as a man, he decided. With hands instead of claws.
Perhaps two hours passed, in which Michael lay down and rested. He was totally calm now, mentally and physically prepared.
The alarm buzzer went off, a jarring note. It lasted for maybe ten seconds, and by the time it had ended Michael was out the door and on his way toward the locomotive.