Michael smelled his destination before he saw it. He was still lying on his back on the truck's metal bed, his arms pinned underneath him, with armed soldiers sitting all around. The cargo bay had been covered with gray canvas, shutting off all but a crack of sunlight. His sense of direction was impaired, though he knew they weren't heading into the city; the road was far too rough for the civilian wheels of Berlin. No, this road had been tortured by its share of truck tires and heavy vehicles, and his back muscles gripped with pain every time a rut shook vibrations through the floor.
a strong smell seeped in through the canvas. The soldiers had noticed it as well; some of them shifted nervously and whispered to each other. The odor was getting stronger. He had smelled something akin to it, in North africa, when he'd come upon a group of British soldiers who'd been hit by a flamethrower. Once the sickly-sweet smell of charred human flesh got up your nostrils, you never forgot it. This smell had burning wood in it, too. Pine wood, Michael thought. Something that burned very hot and fast.
One of the soldiers got up and lurched to the rear of the truck, to be sick. Michael heard two others whispering and caught a word: "Falkenhausen."
His destination was known. Falkenhausen concentration camp. Blok's child.
The smell drifted away. The wind had changed, Michael thought. But what in the name of God had been burningi The truck stopped, and stayed motionless for a moment or two. Over the low grumble of the engine he heard hammers at work. and then the truck continued on about a hundred yards or so, stopped again, and a strident voice shouted, "Bring out the prisoner!"
The canvas was whipped back. Michael was hauled out of the truck, into harsh sunlight, and he stood before a German major of the Waffen SS, a thick-bodied man wearing a black uniform that bulged at the seams. The man had a fleshy, ruddy face with eyes that were as white and hard as diamonds, but with none of their luster. He wore a black, flat-brimmed cap, and his brown hair was cropped to the scalp. around his girth was a holster that bore a Walther pistol and a baton of ebony rubber: a bone-bruiser.
Michael glanced around. Saw wooden barracks, gray stone walls, dense green treetops beyond them. a new barracks building was going up, and prisoners in striped uniforms were hammering the joints together as guards with submachine guns stood in the shadows. Thick coils of barbed wire formed inner walls, and at the corners of the outer stone walls stood wooden guard towers. He saw an entrance gate, also of wood, and above it the stone arch he'd seen in the framed photograph in Blok's suite. a dark haze hung in the air, slowly drifting over the forest. He caught the scent again: burning flesh.
"Eyes front!" the Nazi major shouted, and grasped Michael's chin to jerk his head around.
a soldier jabbed a rifle into his spine. another soldier wrenched his coat off, then tore his shirt away so hard the pearl buttons flew into the air. Michael's belt was removed, and his pants lowered. His underwear was pulled down. The rifle jabbed him again, in the kidneys. Michael knew what they wanted him to do, but he stared fixedly into the major's colorless eyes and kept both feet on the ground.
"Remove your shoes and socks," the man said.
"Does this mean we're engagedi" Michael asked.
The baton came out of the holster. Its tip pressed against Michael's chin. "Remove your shoes and socks," the major repeated.
Michael caught movement to his left. He glanced in that direction and saw Blok and Boots approaching.
"Eyes front!" the major commanded, and swung the baton a short, brutal blow against Michael's wounded thigh. Pain exploded through his leg as the gash burst open again, oozing scarlet, and Michael fell to his knees in the chalky dust. a rifle barrel looked him in the face.
"Baron," Blok said, "I'm afraid you're in our kingdom now. Will you obey Major Krolle, pleasei"
Michael hesitated, pain pounding in his thigh and beads of sweat on his face. a booted foot was planted on his back and drove him down into the dust. Boots leaned his weight on Michael's spine, making Michael grit his teeth.
"You really do want to cooperate, Baron," Blok went on. Then, to Krolle, "He's a Russian. You know how stubborn those sons of bitches can be."
"We cure stubbornness here," Krolle said, and while Boots held Michael down, two soldiers took off his shoes and socks. Now he was totally naked, and his wrists were clasped behind him with iron manacles. He was hauled to his feet, then shoved in the direction the soldiers wanted him to go. He offered no resistance; it would only lead to broken bones, and he was still exhausted from his battle with Sandler and the flight through the forest. There was no time to mourn Mouse, or to bewail his own predicament; these men meant to torture every shred of information out of him. It was to his advantage, though, that they thought he was an agent of the Soviet Union, because his presence would keep their attention on the East and away from the West.
It was a large camp. Distressingly large, Michael thought. Everywhere stood barracks buildings, most of green-painted wood, and hundreds of tree stumps testified to the fact that Falkenhausen had been carved out of the forest. Michael saw pallid, emaciated faces watching him through narrow windows with hinged shutters. Groups of skinny, bald prisoners passed, herded by guards with submachine guns and rubber batons. Michael noted that almost all the prisoners wore yellow Stars of David pinned to their clothes. His nudity seemed commonplace, and drew no attention. Off in the distance, perhaps two hundred yards, was a camp within the camp, more barracks enclosed by coils of barbed wire. Michael could see what looked like three or four hundred prisoners standing in rows on a dusty parade ground, while a loudspeaker droned on about the Thousand-Year Reich. He saw, in the distance on his left, a squat building of gray stones; from its two chimneys arose columns of dark smoke that drifted toward the forest. He heard the groan and rumble of heavy machinery, though he couldn't see where the noise was coming from. a change in the wind brought another odor to his nostrils: not the burned flesh smell this time, but a reek of unwashed, sweating humanity. In that smell there were notes of decay, corruption, excrement, and blood. Whatever was going on here, he thought as he watched the columns of smoke belch from the chimneys, had more to do with erasure than confinement.
Three trucks came along the road from the direction of the gray stone building, and Michael was ordered to halt. He stood at the roadside, a rifle barrel against his skull, while the trucks approached. Krolle flagged them down and took Blok and Boots around to the back of the first truck. Michael watched them as Krolle spoke to Blok and the major's ruddy face beamed with excitement. "The quality is excellent," Michael heard Krolle say. "In the entire system Falkenhausen's product stands out as the zenith." Krolle ordered a soldier to remove one of the pinewood boxes stacked in the rear of the truck. The soldier began to pry its nails open with his knife. "You'll see I'm continuing the standards of quality you so strongly demanded, Colonel," Krolle went on, and Michael saw Blok nod and smile, pleased with the ass-kissing.
The box's last nail was popped open, and Krolle reached in. "You seei I defy any other camp to match this quality."
Krolle was holding a handful of long, reddish-brown hair. a woman's hair, Michael realized. It was naturally curly. Krolle grinned at Blok, then reached deeper into the box. This time he came up with thick, pale blond locks. "ah, isn't this one lovely!" Krolle asked. "This will make a grand wig, worth its weight in gold. I'm pleased to tell you our production is up thirty-seven percent. Not a trace of lice in the whole lot. The new delousing spray is a godsend."
"I'll tell Dr. Hildebrand how well it works," Blok said. He looked into the box, reached down, and brought out a handful of gleaming coppery-colored hair. "Oh, that's just magnificent!"
Michael watched the hair fall from Blok's fingers. It caught the sunlight, and its beauty almost broke Michael's heart. The hair of a woman prisoner, he thought. Where was her bodyi He caught a hint of the burned smell, and his stomach lurched.
These men-these monsters-could not be allowed to live. He would be damned by God if he knew these things and did not tear the throats out of the men who stood before him, smiling and talking about wigs and production schedules. The cargo bays of all three trucks were loaded with pine-wood boxes; loaded with hair, shaved off skulls like fleece off slaughtered lambs.
He could not let these men live.
He took a step forward, brushing past the rifle barrel. "Halt!" the soldier shouted. Krolle, Blok, and Boots turned to look at him, hair still drifting down into the box. "Halt!" the soldier commanded, and drove the barrel into Michael's rib cage.
Such pain was nothing. Michael kept going, his wrists manacled behind him. He stared into the colorless eyes of Major Krolle, and he saw the man flinch and step backward. He felt the fangs aching to slide from his jaws, his facial muscles rippling to give them room.
"Halt, damn you!" The soldier hit him on the back of the head with his rifle barrel, and Michael staggered but kept his balance. He was striding toward the three men, and Boots stepped between him and Colonel Blok. another soldier, armed with a submachine gun, rushed at Michael and slammed him in the stomach with the gun butt. Michael doubled over and gasped in pain, and the soldier lifted his weapon to strike him across the skull.
The prisoner struck first, bringing his naked knee up into the man's groin with a force that lifted him off his feet and sent him crashing to the ground. an arm locked around Michael's throat from behind, squeezing his windpipe. another man drove a fist into his chest, making his heart stutter. "Hold him! Hold the bastard!" Krolle barked as Michael kept thrashing wildly. Krolle lifted the baton and brought it down on Michael's shoulder. a second blow dropped him, and a third left him lying in the dust, his lungs rasping as pain throbbed through his blackening shoulder and bruised stomach. He hung on the edge of unconsciousness, fighting against the change. Black hair was about to burst from his pores; he could smell the wildness in his skin, taste its musky power in his mouth. If he changed here, lying in the dust, he would be cut open and examined by German knives. Every part of him-from organs to teeth-would be tagged and immersed in bottles full of formaldehyde to be studied by Nazi doctors. He wanted to live, to kill these men, and so he battled against the change and forced it back down.
Perhaps a few black wolf hairs had emerged from his body-on his chest, the insides of his thighs, and his throat-but they rippled away so fast that no one noticed them, and even if one of the soldiers had seen, he would've thought his eyes were playing tricks. Michael lay on his belly, very close to passing out. He heard Blok say, "Baron, I think you're in for a very rough visit with us."
Soldiers grasped beneath Michael's arms, pulled him up, and began to drag him through the dust as he fell into darkness.