The house was warm. It had oiled oak floors, and in a high-roofed, timber-beamed den a fire blazed in a hearth of rough white rock. after Captain Humes-Talbot had given Michael the letter of introduction signed by Colonel Valentine Vivian of the "London Passport Control Office," Shackleton walked directly to the fireplace to warm his ruddy hands.
"Hell of a time gettin' here," Shackleton growled, working his fingers. "You couldn't have picked a more desolate place, could youi"
"I couldn't find one," Michael said quietly, reading the letter. "If I'd wanted to entertain unannounced visitors, I'd have bought a house in London."
Shackleton got the blood stinging in his hands again and turned to get a better examination of the man he'd come so far to meet.
Michael Gallatin was wearing a black sweater, the sleeves pushed up on his forearms, and faded, well-used khaki trousers. On his feet were scuffed brown loafers. His thick black hair, streaked with gray at the temples, was shorn in a military style, short on the sides and back. On his face was the dark grizzle of perhaps two or three days without a razor's touch. There was a scar on his left cheek that started just under the eye and continued back into the hairline. a blade scar, Shackleton thought. Close call, too. Well, so Gallatin had had some experience in hand-to-hand combat. So whati Shackleton guessed the man's height at around six-two, maybe a quarter of an inch more or less, and his weight at around one-ninety or one-ninety-five. Gallatin looked fit, a broad-shouldered athletic type, maybe a football player, or rugby or whatever the limeys called it. There was a quiet power about the man, like a heavy spring that had been crushed down and was on the edge of explosion. Still, that didn't make him ready for a mission into Nazi-occupied France. Gallatin needed sun; he had the pallor of hibernation about him, probably hadn't seen a bright sun in six months. Hell, there probably hadn't been anything but murky gloom in this damned country all winter. But winter was on its last legs now, and the spring equinox-March 21-was only two days away.
"Do you know you've got wolves on your landi" Shackleton asked him.
"Yes," Michael said, and folded the letter up when he'd finished. It had been a long time since he'd had a communication from Colonel Vivian. This must be important.
"I wouldn't go out walkin' if I were you," Shackleton went on. He reached into the inside pocket of his coat, brought out a cigar, and cut its end with a small clipper. Then he struck a match on the white stones of the hearth. "Those big bastards like meat."
"They're bitches." Michael slipped the letter into his pocket.
"Whatever." Shackleton lit the cigar, drew deeply on it, and plumed out blue smoke. "You want to have a little action, you ought to get yourself a rifle and go wolf huntin'. You do know how to use a rifle, don't-"
He stopped speaking, because suddenly Michael Gallatin was right there in his face, and the man's pale green eyes froze him to the bone.
Michael's hand came up, grasped the cigar, and pulled it from between the other man's teeth. He broke it in half and tossed it into the fire. "Major Shackleton," he said, with the trace of a Russian accent softened by cool British gentility, "this is my home. You'll ask my permission to smoke here. and when you ask, I'll say no. Do we understand each otheri"
Shackleton sputtered, his face reddening. "That was... that was a fifty-cent cigar!"
"It puts out half-cent fumes," Michael told him, stared into the man's eyes for a few seconds longer to make certain his message was clear, and then turned his attention to the young captain. "I'm retired. That's my answer."
"But... sir... you haven't heard what we came to say yet!"
"I can guess." Michael walked to the bay windows and looked out at the dark line of the woods. He had smelled his reserve stock of old whiskey wafting from Shackleton's skin, and smiled slightly, knowing how the american-used to bland liquor-must have reacted. Good for Maureen at the Mutton Chop. "There's a cooperative venture under way between the alliances. If this wasn't important to the americans, the major wouldn't be here. I've been listening to the cross-Channel radio traffic on my shortwave. all those codes, things about flowers for Rudy and violins needing to be tuned. I can't understand all the messages, but I understand the sounds of the voices: great excitement, and a lot of fear. I say that adds up to an imminent invasion of the atlantic Wall." He looked at Humes-Talbot, who hadn't moved or taken off his wet overcoat. "Within three to four months, I'd guess. When summer smooths the Channel. I'm sure neither Mr. Churchill nor Mr. Roosevelt cares to land an army of seasick soldiers on Hitler's beaches. So sometime in June or July would be correct. august would be too late; the americans would have to fight eastward during the worst of the winter. If they take their landing zones in June, they'll be able to construct their supply lines and dig into their defensive positions on the border of Germany by the first snowfall." He lifted his eyebrows. "am I closei"
Shackleton let the breath hiss from between his teeth. "You sure this guy's on our sidei" he asked Humes-Talbot.
"Let me conjecture a bit further," Michael said, his gaze ticking toward the young captain and then back to Shackle-ton. "To be successful, a cross-Channel invasion would have to be preceded by a disruption of German communications, detonation of ammunition and fuel dumps, and a general atmosphere of hell on earth. But a quiet hell, with cool flames. I expect the networks of partisans will have a busy night blowing up railroad tracks, and maybe there's a place in the scheme for the americans, too. a paratroop assault would sow the kind of discord behind the lines that might keep the Germans running in a dozen directions at the same time." Michael walked to the fireplace, beside the major, and offered his palms to the heat. "I expect that what you want me to do has a bearing on the invasion. Of course I don't know where it'll be, or exactly when, and I don't want that information. another thing you must realize is that the Nazi high command certainly suspects an invasion attempt within the next five months. With the Soviets fighting in from the east, the Germans know the time is ripe-at least from the alliance point of view-for an attack from the west." He rubbed his hands together. "I hope my conclusions aren't too much off the marki"
"No sir," Humes-Talbot admitted. "They hit the bull's-eye."
Michael nodded, and Shackleton said, "Do you have somebody spyin' for you in Londoni"
"I have my eyes, my ears, and my brain. That's all I need."
"Siri" Humes-Talbot had been standing almost at attention, and now he let his back loosen and took a step forward. "Can we... at least brief you on what the mission involvesi"
"You'd be wasting your time and the major's. as I said, I'm retired."
"Retiredi after one lousy field assignment in North africai" Shackleton made an unpleasant noise with his lips. "So you were a hero during the battle for El alamein, righti" He'd read Gallatin's service record during his trip from Washington. "You got into a Nazi commander's HQ and stole deployment mapsi Big damned squat! Unless you've missed the point, Major, the war's still going on. and if we don't get a foothold in Europe in the summer of forty-four, we might find our asses washed out to sea for a long time before we can make another try."
"Major Shackletoni" Michael turned toward him, and the intensity of his glare made the major think he was peering into the green-tinted windows of a blast furnace. "You won't mention North africa again," he said quietly, but with dangerous meaning. "I... failed a friend." He blinked; the blast-furnace glare dimmed for a second, then came back full force. "North africa is a closed subject."
Damn the man! Shackleton thought. If he could, he'd stomp Gallatin into the floor. "I just meant-"
"I don't care what you meant." Michael looked at Humes-Talbot, the captain eager to get on with the briefing, and then Michael sighed and said, "all right. Let's hear it."
"Yes, sir. May Ii" He paused, about to shrug off his overcoat. Michael motioned for him to go ahead, and as the two officers took off their coats Michael walked to a high-backed black leather chair and sat down facing the flames.
"It's a security problem, really," Humes-Talbot said, coming around so he could gauge Major Gallatin's expression. It was one of profound disinterest. "Of course you're correct; it does involve the invasion plans. We and the americans are trying to clean up all the loose ends before the first of June. Getting agents out of France and Holland, for instance, whose security might be compromised. There's an american agent in Paris-"
"adam's his code name," Shackleton interrupted.
"Paris is no longer a garden of Eden," Michael said, lacing his fingers together. "Not with all those Nazi serpents crawling around in it."
"Right," the major went on, taking the reins. "anyway, your intelligence boys got a coded message from adam a little more than two weeks ago. He said there's something big in the works, something he didn't have all the details on yet. But he said that whatever it is, it's under multilayered security. He got wind of it from an artist in Berlin, a guy named Theo von Frankewitz."
"Wait." Michael leaned forward, and Humes-Talbot saw the glint of concentration in his eyes, like the shine of sword metal. "an artisti Why an artisti"
"I don't know. We can't dig up any information on Von Frankewitz. So anyway, adam sent another message eight days ago. It was only a couple of lines long. He said he was bein' watched, and he had information that had to be brought out of France by personal courier. He had to end the transmission before he could go into detail."
"The Gestapoi" Michael glanced at Humes-Talbot.
"Our informants don't indicate that the Gestapo has adam," the younger man said. "We think they know he's one of ours, and have him under constant surveillance. They're probably hoping he'll lead them to other agents."
"So no one else can find out what this information is and bring it outi"
"No sir. Someone from the outside has to go in."
"and they're monitoring his radio set, of course. Or maybe they found it and smashed it." Michael frowned, watching the oakwood burn. "Why an artisti" he asked again. "What would an artist know about military secretsi"
"We have no idea," Humes-Talbot said. "You see our predicament."
"We've got to find out what the hell's going on," Shackleton spoke up. "The first wave of the invasion will be almost two hundred thousand soldiers. By ninety days after D day, we're plannin' on having more than one million boys over there to kick Hitler's ass. We're riskin' the whole shootin' match on one day-one turn of a card-and we'd sure better know what's in the Nazis' hand."
"Death," Michael said, and neither of the other two men spoke.
The flames crackled and spat sparks. Michael Gallatin waited for the rest of it.
"You'd be flown over France and go in by parachute, near the village of Bazancourt about sixty miles northwest of Paris," Humes-Talbot said. "One of our people will be at the drop point to meet you. From there, you'll be taken to Paris and given all the help you need to reach adam. This is a high-priority assignment, Major Gallatin, and if the invasion's going to have any chance at all, we've got to know what we're up against."
Michael watched the fire burn. He said, "I'm sorry. Find someone else."
"But, sir... please don't make a hasty-"
"I said I've retired. That ends it."
"Well, that's just peachy!" Shackleton burst out. "We broke our butts gettin' here, because we were told by some jackass that you were the best in your business, and you say you're 'retired.' " He slurred the word. "Where I come from that's just another way of sayin' a man's lost his nerve."
Michael smiled thinly, which served to infuriate Shackle-ton even more, but didn't respond.
"Major, siri" Humes-Talbot tried again. "Please don't give us your final word now. Won't you at least think about the assignmenti Perhaps we might stay overnight, and we can discuss it again in the morningi"
Michael listened to the noise of sleet against the windows. Shackleton thought of the long road home, and his tailbone throbbed. "You can stay the night," Michael agreed, "but I won't go to Paris."
Humes-Talbot started to speak again, but he decided to let it rest. Shackleton muttered, "Hellfire and damnation!" but Michael only pondered the fires of his own making.
"We brought along a driver," Humes-Talbot said. "Is there a possibility you might find some room for himi"
"I'll put a cot in front of the fire." He got up and went to get the cot from his storage room, and Humes-Talbot left the house to call Mallory in.
While the two men were gone, Shackleton nosed around the den. He found an antique rosewood Victrola, a record on the turntable. Its title was The Rite of Spring, by somebody named Stravinsky. Well, count on a Russian to like Russian music. Probably a bunch of Slavic jabberwocky. He could use a bright Bing Crosby tune on a night like this. Gallatin liked books, that was for sure. Volumes like Man from Beast, Carnivores, a History of Gregorian Chants, Shakespeare's World, and other books with Russian, German, and French titles filled the bookcases.
"Do you like my housei"
Shackleton jumped. Michael had come up behind him, silent as mist. He was carrying a folding cot, which he unfolded and placed before the hearth. "The house was a Lutheran church in the eighteen-forties. Survivors of a shipwreck built it; the sea cliffs are only a hundred yards from here. They built a village on this site, too, but bubonic plague wiped them out eight years later."
"Oh," Shackleton said, and wiped his hands on his trouser legs.
"The ruins were still sturdy. I decided to try to put it back together again. It took me all of four years, and I still have a lot to do. In case you're wondering, I've got a generator that runs on petrol out back."
"I figured you didn't have power lines way out here."
"No. Not way out here. You'll be sleeping in the tower room where the pastor died. It's not a very large room, but the bed's big enough for two." The door opened and closed, and Michael glanced back at Humes-Talbot and the chauffeur. Michael stared for a few seconds, unblinking, as the old man took off his hat and topcoat. "You can sleep here," Michael said, with a gesture toward the cot. "The kitchen's through that door, if you want coffee or anything to eat," he told all three of them. "I keep hours you might find odd. If you hear me up in the middle of the night... stay in your room," he said, with a glance that made the back of Shackleton's neck crawl.
"I'm going up to rest." Michael started up the stairs. He paused and selected a book. "Oh... the bathroom and shower are behind the house. I hope you don't mind cold water. Good night, gentlemen." He ascended the steps, and in another moment they heard a door softly close.
"Damn weird," Shackleton muttered, and he trudged into the kitchen for something to chew on.