Chesna's chauffeur had brought the Mercedes from the Reichkronen's garage to the courtyard, and as Wilhelm and Mouse loaded the suitcases into the trunk, Chesna and Michael paused in the lobby to say their goodbyes to the manager.
"I'm so sorry about that dreadful accident," the florid-faced man said with a ceremonious wringing of his hands. "I do hope you'll return to the Reichkronen for another visit, Baroni"
"I'll look forward to it." Michael was clean and freshly shaved, and he wore a dark blue pin-striped suit with a white shirt and a gray-striped necktie. "Besides, the accident was my own fault. I'm afraid I... uh... was a little too relaxed to go roaming along the riverbank."
"Well, thank God for your presence of mind! I trust the brandy was satisfactoryi"
"Oh, yes. It was fine, thank you." In Chesna's suite the maid would find a washcloth that looked as if it had been bitten almost in two, and a strip of the bed's bottom sheet now bandaged Michael's thigh.
"Friulein van Dorne, I wish you and the baron the best of luck," the manager said with a crisp bow. Chesna thanked him, and slid a generous amount of appreciation into the man's palm.
Chesna and Michael walked through the lobby, arm in arm. Their plans were set: not for a honeymoon excursion, but for a flight to Norway. Michael felt pressure gnawing at him. Today was april 24, and Chesna had said they would need a week at the least to get their fuel stops and security precautions arranged through her anti-Nazi network. With the allied invasion of Europe set for the first week of June, time might become a critical factor.
They were almost to the front entrance when Michael heard the thump of heavy footsteps coming up behind them. His muscles tensed, and Chesna felt the tension ripple through his body. a hand grasped his shoulder, stopping him about ten feet short of the doorway.
Michael looked up, into the bland, square face of Boots. The huge man released Michael's shoulder. "My apologies, Baron, Friulein," he said. "But Colonel Blok would like to have a word with you, please."
Blok strolled up, smiling, his hands in his pockets. "ah, good! Boots caught you before you could get away! I had no idea you were leaving. I only found out when I tried to call your room, Chesna."
"We just decided about an hour ago." There was no hint of nervousness in her voice; a true professional, Michael thought.
"Reallyi Well, I can't say I'm surprised. Because of the incident, I mean." His gray, lizard eyes moved to Michael and then, heavy-lidded, returned to Chesna. "But surely you didn't plan on leaving before saying goodbye to mei I've always thought of myself as part of your family, Chesna." His smile broadened. "an uncle, perhaps, who meddles more than he ought to. Yesi" He withdrew his right hand from his pocket. Held between the thumb and first finger was a golden feather. Michael recognized it, and his stomach clenched. Blok, still smiling, fanned himself with the hawk's feather. "I'd consider it an honor to take you both to lunch. Surely you weren't thinking of leaving before you ate, were youi" The feather twitched back and forth, like a cat's whiskers.
Chesna stood her ground, though her heart was pounding and she smelled disaster. "My car's packed. We really should be going."
"I've never known you to pass up a leisurely lunch, Chesna. Perhaps the baron's habits have rubbed off on youi"
Michael took the initiative. He held his hand out. "Colonel Blok, it was very good meeting you. I hope you'll attend our weddingi"
Blok grasped Michael's hand and shook it. "Oh, yes," the colonel said. "Two events I never miss are weddings and funerals."
Michael and Chesna went through the doorway and started down the granite stairs. The colonel and Boots followed. Mouse was waiting, holding the Mercedes's door open for Chesna, and Wilhelm was putting the last suitcase into the trunk.
Blok's trying to stall us, Michael thought. Whyi The colonel had obviously found Blondi's carcass and other signs of an intruder in Sandler's suite. If he was going to make an arrest, why hadn't he done so alreadyi Michael walked Chesna around to her side of the Mercedes; Blok followed right behind them. Michael felt Chesna tremble. She also knew the game had taken a dangerous turn.
Chesna was about to slide into the car when Blok reached past Michael and took her elbow. She looked at the colonel, the sun on her face.
"For old times' sake," Blok said, and he leaned forward and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
"Until later, Jerek," Chesna answered, regaining some of her composure. She got into the car and Mouse closed the door, then went around to open the door for Michael. Blok followed on his heels while Boots stood a few yards away.
"It's been a pleasure, Baron," Blok said. Michael got into the Mercedes, but Blok held the door. Wilhelm was sliding behind the wheel and putting the key into the ignition. "I hope you and Chesna will enjoy the future you've chosen." He glanced up toward the courtyard entrance. Michael had already heard it: the low growl of a vehicle approaching across the pontoon bridge. "Oh, this I forgot!" Blok smiled, his silver teeth gleaming. "Sandler's servant got control of the train. They found Sandler's body, too. The poor man; an animal had already gotten to him. Now explain this to me, Baron: how could someone like you, a pampered civilian with no combat experience, have killed Harry Sandleri Unless, of course, you're not who you seem to bei" His hand went to the inside of his black SS jacket, as a truck carrying a dozen Nazi soldiers entered the courtyard portal.
Michael had no time to play the offended baron; he shoved his foot into the pit of the colonel's stomach and knocked him backward to the paving stones. as Blok fell, a pistol was already in his hand. Mouse saw the glint of the Luger's barrel, aiming at the baron. Something inside him roared, and he stepped into the line of fire and kicked at Blok's gun hand.
There was a sharp crack! as the pistol went off, and in the next instant Blok's hand had been knocked open and the Luger spun away.
Boots was coming. Michael raised up out of the car, grabbed Mouse, and hauled him in. "Go!" he shouted at Wilhelm, and the chauffeur sank his foot to the floorboard. as the Mercedes lunged forward, Michael slammed his door shut and a hobnailed boot knocked a dent in its metal the size of a dinner plate.
"Get the gun! Get the gun!" Blok was yelling as he scrambled to his feet. Boots ran for the Luger and scooped it up.
as Wilhelm tore the Mercedes across the courtyard, a bullet hit the rear windshield and showered Michael, Chesna, and Mouse with glass. "Stop them!" Blok commanded the soldiers. "Stop that car!" More shots were fired. The left rear tire blew. The front windshield shattered. and then the Mercedes was crossing the pontoon bridge, its engine screaming and steam spouting from a bullet hole in the hood. Michael looked back, saw several of the soldiers running after them as the truck turned around in the courtyard. Rifles and submachine guns fired, and the Mercedes shuddered under the blows. The car reached the opposite bank, but the right rear tire exploded and now flames were licking up around the hood. "The engine's going to blow!" Wilhelm shouted as he watched the oil-gauge needle plummet and the temperature-gauge needle riot past the red line. The rear end was slewing back and forth, and he could hold the wheel no longer. The Mercedes went off the road and into the forest, angling down an incline and crashing through thick underbrush. Wilhelm fought the brakes, and the Mercedes grazed past an oak tree and came to rest amid a stand of evergreens.
"Everyone out!" Wilhelm told them. He opened the driver's door, grasped its arm rest, and popped a latch beneath it. The door's leather interior covering fell away, exposing a compartment that held a submachine gun and three ammunition clips. as Michael got out of the car and pulled Mouse along with him, Chesna opened a compartment beneath the rear seat that yielded a Luger. "This way!" Wilhelm said, motioning them farther down the incline into thicker tangles of vegetation. They started into it, Chesna leading the way, and about forty seconds later the Mercedes exploded, raining pieces of metal and glass through the trees. Michael smelled blood. He looked at his hands and found a thick smear of red on the fingers of his right hand. and then he looked back over his shoulder, and saw that Mouse had fallen to his knees.
Blok's shot, Michael realized. Just below Mouse's heart, the shirt was soaked with crimson. Mouse's face was pallid, and glistened with sweat.
Michael knelt beside him. "Can you stand upi" He heard his voice quaver.
Mouse made a gasping noise, his eyes damp. "I don't know," he said. "I'll try." He did, and got all the way up before his knees caved in. Michael caught him before he fell, and supported him.
"What's wrongi" Chesna had stopped and come back to them. "Is he-" She silenced, because she saw the blood on the little man's shirt.
"They're coming!" Wilhelm said. "They're right behind us!" He held the submachine gun at hip level and clicked off the safety as his gaze scanned the woods. They could hear the voices of the soldiers, getting closer.
"Oh no." Mouse blinked. "Oh no, I've messed myself up. Some valet I turned out to be, huhi"
"We'll have to leave him!" Wilhelm said. "Come on!"
"I'm not leaving my friend."
"Don't be a fool!" Wilhelm looked at Chesna. "I'm going, whether he comes along or not." He turned and sprinted into the forest, away from the advancing soldiers.
Chesna peered up the incline. She could see four or five soldiers coming down through the brush. "Whatever you're going to do," she told Michael, "you'd better do it fast."
He did. He picked Mouse up across his shoulders in a fireman's carry, and he and Chesna hurried into the shadows of the trees. "This way! Over here!" they heard one of the soldiers shouting to his companions. a burst of submachine gun fire came from ahead, followed by a number of rifle shots. There was a shout: "We've got one of them!"
Chesna crouched against a tree trunk, and Michael stood behind her. She pointed, but Michael's eyes had already seen: in a clearing just ahead, two soldiers with rifles stood over Wilhelm's writhing body. Chesna lifted her pistol, took careful aim, and squeezed the trigger. Her target staggered back, a hole at his heart, and fell. The second soldier fired wildly into the trees and started to run for cover. Chesna, her face grim, shot the man in the hip and crippled him. as he fell, her next bullet went through his throat. Then she was on her feet, a professional killer in a sleek black dress, and she ran to Wilhelm's side. Michael followed, quickly making the same judgment as Chesna: Wilhelm had been shot in the stomach and the chest, and there was no hope for him. The man moaned and writhed, his eyes squeezed shut with agony.
"I'm sorry," Chesna whispered, and she placed the Luger's barrel against Wilhelm's skull, shielded her face with her other hand, and delivered the mercy bullet.
She picked up the submachine gun and pushed the Luger down into Michael's waistband. Its heat scorched his belly. Chesna's tawny eyes were wet and rimmed with red, but her face was calm and composed. One of her black high heels had broken, and she kicked the shoe off and threw its partner into the woods. "Let's go," she said tersely, and started off. Michael, with Mouse across his shoulders, kept pace with her though his thigh wound had opened again. His exhaustion was held at bay only by the realization of what would happen to them once they fell into the Gestapo's embrace. any hope of finding the meaning of Iron Fist and communicating that secret to the allies would be lost.
There was a movement on the left: the glint of sunlight on a belt buckle. Chesna whirled and sprayed a burst of fire at the soldier, who dropped to his belly in the leaves. "Over here!" the soldier shouted, and fired two bullets that thunked into the trees as Chesna and Michael changed direction and ran. Something came flying through the woods at them, hit a tree trunk at their backs, and bounced off. Three seconds later there was a ringing blast that knifed their eardrums, the concussion sending leaves flying. Dense white smoke billowed up. a smoke grenade, Michael realized, marking their position for the other soldiers. Chesna kept going, shielding her face as they tore through a tangle of thorns. Michael heard shouts from behind them, on their left and right. a bullet whizzed past his head like an enraged hornet. Chesna, her face streaked with thorn slashes, stopped in her tracks in underbrush near the edge of the road. Two more trucks had pulled off, and were disgorging their cargo of soldiers. Chesna motioned for Michael to back up, then she guided him in another direction. They struggled up a hillside through dense green foliage, then down again into a ravine.
Three soldiers appeared at the top, silhouetted against the sun. Chesna fired her weapon, knocked two of the men down, and the third fled. another smoke grenade exploded on their right, the acrid white smoke flooding across the ravine. The hounds were closing in, Michael thought. He could sense them running from shadow to shadow, salivating as their gun sights trained in. Chesna ran along the bottom of the ravine, bruising her feet on stones but neither pausing nor registering pain. Michael was right behind her, the smoke swirling around them. Mouse was still breathing, but the back of Michael's neck was damp with blood. The hollow crump of a third smoke grenade went off amid the trees to their left. above the forest, dark banners of crows circled and screamed.
Figures were darting down the hillside and into the smoke. Chesna caught sight of them, and her quick spray of bullets drove them back. a rifle slug ricocheted off an edge of rock beside her, and stone splinters jabbed her arm. She looked around, her face glistening with sweat and her eyes wild; Michael saw in them the fear of a trapped animal. She ran on, crouched low, and he followed on cramping legs.
The ravine ended, and yielded to forest once more. amid the trees a stream snaked between mossy banks. a bend of the road lay ahead, and beneath it was a stone culvert through which the steam rushed, its opening all but clogged by mud and vegetation. Michael glanced back and saw soldiers emerging from the smoky ravine. Other figures were coming down the hillside, taking cover behind the trees. Chesna was already on her knees, starting to push herself into the muddy culvert. "Come on!" she urged him. "Hurry!"
It was a tight squeeze. and, looking at it, Michael knew he could never get himself and Mouse through there before the soldiers reached them. His decision was made in an instant; as Chesna lay on her stomach and winnowed into the culvert, Michael turned away and ran out of the stream bed into the woods. Chesna kept going, through the slime, and the mud and underbrush closed behind her.
a rifle bullet sliced a pine branch over Michael's head. He zigzagged between the trees, until a smoke grenade exploded almost in front of him and turned him aside. These hunters, he thought grimly, knew their work. His lungs were laboring, his strength sweating away. He tore through a green thicket, the sunlight lying around him in golden bars. He struggled up a hillside and down again-and then his feet slipped on a carpet of dead brown leaves and he and Mouse slid into a tangled nightmare of blue-black thorns that snagged their clothes and flesh.
Michael thrashed to get loose. He saw soldiers coming, from all sides. He looked at Mouse, and saw blood creeping from the little man's mouth.
"Please... please," Mouse was gasping. "Please... don't let them torture me..."
Michael got his hands free and pulled the Luger from his waistband. He shot the first soldier he aimed at, and the others hit the ground. His next two shots went wild through the trees but the fourth clanged off a Nazi helmet. Michael took aim at a white face and squeezed the trigger. Nothing happened; the Luger's magazine was empty.
Submachine-gun fire kicked through the thorns, showering Michael and Mouse with dirt. a voice shouted, "Don't kill them, you idiots!" It was Jerek Blok, crouched somewhere up on the hillside. Then: "Throw out your gun, Baron! We're all around you! One word from me and you'll be cut to pieces!"
Michael felt dazed, his body on the verge of collapse. He looked again at Mouse, and damned himself for pulling his friend into this deadly vortex. Mouse's eyes were pleading, and Michael recognized the eyes of Nikita, as the injured wolf lay on the railroad tracks a long, long time ago.
"I'm waiting, Baron!" Blok called.
"Don't... let them torture me," Mouse whispered. "I couldn't stand it. I'd tell them everything, and I... wouldn't be able to help it." His thorn-scarred hand clutched at Michael's arm, and a faint smile played across his mouth. "You know... I just realized... you never told me your real name."
"Michael," Mouse repeated. "Like the angel, huhi"
Perhaps a dark angel, Michael thought. an angel to whom killing was second nature. It occurred to him, quite suddenly, that a werewolf never died of old age; and neither would the man Michael had known as Mouse.
"Baron! Five seconds and we start shooting!"
The Gestapo would find a way to keep Mouse alive, Michael knew. They'd pump him full of drugs, and then they'd torture him to death. It would be an ugly way to die. Michael knew the same fate awaited him; but he was no stranger to pain, and if there was one chance that he might be able to get away and continue his mission, he had to take it.
So be it. Michael tossed the Luger out, and it clattered to the ground.
He put his hands to the sides of Mouse's head and took the little man's weight on top of him. Tears sprang to his eyes, burning trails down his thorn-scratched cheeks. an angel, he thought bitterly. Oh yes. a damned angel.
"Will you... take care of mei" Mouse asked softly, beginning to fall into delirium.
"Yes," Michael answered. "I will."
a moment later Blok's voice again: "Crawl out into the open! Both of you!"
One figure emerged from the thorns. Dusty, bleeding, and exhausted, Michael lay on his hands and knees as six soldiers with rifles and submachine guns circled him. Blok came striding up, with Boots following. "Where's the other onei" He looked into the thorns, could see the motionless body lying in the coils. "Get him out!" he told two of the soldiers, and they waded into the tangle. "On your feet," Blok said to Michael. "Baron, did you hear mei"
Michael slowly stood up, and stared defiantly into Jerek Blok's eyes.
"Where did the bitch goi" the colonel asked.
Michael didn't answer. He flinched, listening to the sound of Mouse's clothes ripping on the thorns as the soldiers dragged him out.
"Where did the bitch goi" Blok placed the barrel of his Luger underneath Michael's left eye.
"Stop the bullshit," Michael replied, speaking in Russian. He saw the blood drain out of Blok's face. "You won't kill me."
"What did he sayi" The colonel looked around for an interpreter. "That was Russian, wasn't iti What did he sayi"
"I said," Michael continued in his native tongue, "that you suck donkey cocks and whistle out your ass."
"What the hell did he sayi" Blok demanded. He glared at Boots. "You spent time on the Russian Front! What did he sayi"
"I... uh... think he said... that he owns a donkey and a rooster that sings."
"Is he trying to be funny, or is he insanei"
Michael released a guttural bark, and Blok stepped back two paces. and then Michael looked to his side, at Mouse's corpse. One of the soldiers was trying to get Mouse's closed right fist open. The fingers wouldn't give. Suddenly Boots strode forward, lifted a foot, and smashed it down on the hand. Bones cracked like matchsticks, and Michael stood in shock as Boots crunched his weight down on the hand. When the huge man raised his foot again, the fingers were splayed and broken. There in the palm was a Cross of Iron.
Boots leaned over, started to reach for the medal.
Michael said, in German, "If you touch that, I'll kill you."
The man's voice-sure and steady-made Boots pause. He blinked uncertainly, his hand outstretched to grasp a dead man's last possession. Michael stared at him, smelling the heat of wildness burning in his veins. He was close to the change... very, very close. If he wanted it, it was right there within easy reach...
Blok's pistol, held at the colonel's side, came up in a savage arc and thudded into Michael's testicles. Michael gasped in agony and dropped to his knees.
"Now, now, Baron," Blok chided. "Threats are beneath royalty, don't you agreei" He nodded at Boots, who plucked up the Iron Cross into his own fist. "Baron, we're going to get to know each other very well indeed. You may learn to sing in a higher register before I'm done with you. Haul him up, please," he told two soldiers, and the men pulled Michael to his feet. Pain throbbed in Michael's groin, doubling him over; even as a wolf, he wouldn't get very far before he crumpled into an exhausted heap. Now was not the time, or the place. He let the wild call drift away from him, like a fading echo.
"Come on, we've got a distance to travel." Blok walked up the hillside, and the soldiers shoved Michael ahead of them. Other soldiers walked on either side of him, their guns ready. Boots followed at a distance, the Iron Cross in his hand, and a few more soldiers began to drag Mouse's body up toward the road. Michael did not look at Mouse again; the little man was gone, and he would not have to face the torture that awaited.
Blok looked up at the blue sky, and his silver teeth gleamed brightly as he smiled. "ah, it's a beautiful day, isn't iti" he said, to no one in particular. He would leave a detachment of troops to continue searching for her, and he had no doubt that the bitch would be found soon. She couldn't have gotten very far. after all, she was only a woman. His heart was hurting for being such a fool, but he looked forward to having Chesna in his hands. He had considered himself her agreeable uncle when he'd thought she was a loyal Nazi; now, however, a traitor of Chesna's magnitude merited treatment that was less familial and more familiar. But what a scandal! This must be kept from the newspapers, at all costs! and, also, from the prying eyes and ears of Himmler. So, a question: where to take the baron for interrogationi
ah, yes! Blok thought. Of course!
He watched as the baron was shoved into the rear of a truck and made to lie down on his back with his hands pinned under him. a soldier sat next to him, with a rifle barrel pressed against his throat.
Blok walked over to confer with the truck driver as other soldiers continued their search in the forest for Germany's Golden Girl.