Kitty's boat slid through the mist, its engine growling softly. The water hissed as it parted before the figurehead, a wooden gargoyle with a trident, and a shielded lantern illuminated the interior of the wheelhouse in dim green.
Kitty's hands-broad and coarse-were delicate on the wheel. Michael stood beside her, watching through the dripping windshield. Kitty had been drunk for most of the day, but as soon as the sun had begun to set she put aside the vodka and washed her face in icy water. It was past two o'clock on the morning of the nineteenth, and Kitty had pulled the forty-foot, weather-beaten relic out of its harbor slip about three hours before. Now, here in the wheelhouse, she was silent and brooding, with no trace of the grinning, drunken woman who'd greeted them in Uskedahl. She was all deadly business.
She had been right about the blow on the night of the seventeenth. a fierce wind had rushed down from the mountains and screamed over Uskedahl until dawn, but the houses were built for such caprices and there was no damage except to the nerves. She was correct, as well, about the fog that had crept over Uskedahl and the bay, blanketing everything in white silence. How she could steer in this soup he didn't know, but every so often she cocked her head and seemed to be listening; surely not for the singing of fishes, but for the sound of the water itself, telling her something it was not in his power to understand. She made minor corrections of the wheel from time to time, as gently as nudging an infant.
Kitty suddenly reached out and grabbed Michael's parka, pulling him closer and pointing. He couldn't see anything but fog, though he nodded. She grunted with satisfaction, let him go, and steered in that direction.
There had been a strange incident at the dock. as they'd been loading their gear onto the boat, Michael had found himself face-to-face with Kitty sniffing at his chest. She had sniffed his face and hair, then had drawn back and stared at him with those blue Nordic eyes. She smells the wolf in me, Michael thought. Kitty had spoken to Hurks, who had translated for her: "She wants to know what land you come from."
"I was born in Russia," Michael had said.
She spoke through Hurks, pointing at Lazaris: "He stinks like a Russian. You have a perfume like Norway."
"I'll take that as a compliment," Michael answered.
and then Kitty got very close to him, staring intensely into his eyes. Michael stood his ground. She spoke again, this time almost in a whisper. "Kitty says you're different," Hurks translated. "She thinks you're a man of destiny. That's a high praise."
"Tell her thank you."
Hurks did. Kitty nodded, and moved away toward the wheelhouse.
a man of destiny, Michael thought as he stood beside her and she steered deeper into the fog. He hoped his destiny-and that of Chesna and Lazaris as well-wasn't a grave on Skarpa Island. Hurks had stayed in Uskedahl, a stranger to travel by water since the U-boat torpedoing of his freighter. Lazaris was no lion of the sea either, but fortunately the water was glassy and the boat's progress smooth, so Lazaris had only heaved twice over the side. Perhaps it was nerves, or perhaps it was the reek of fish that clung to the boat like a miasma.
Chesna entered the wheelhouse, the hood of her parka up over her head and her hands in black woolen gloves. Kitty kept staring straight ahead, guiding the boat toward a point the others couldn't see. Chesna offered Michael a drink from the thermos of strong black coffee they'd brought, and he accepted it. "How's Lazarisi" Michael asked.
"Conscious," she answered. Lazaris was down in the cramped little cabin, which Michael had noted was even smaller than the kennel at Falkenhausen. She peered out at the fog. "Where are wei"
"Hell if I know. Kitty seems to, though, and I guess that's what matters." He returned the thermos to Chesna. Kitty turned the wheel a few degrees to starboard, and then she reached down to the greasy throttles and cut the engines. "Go," Kitty told him, and pointed forward. Obviously she wanted Michael to watch for something. He took a flashlight from a corroded metal locker and left the wheelhouse with Chesna following.
On the bow Michael stood over the figurehead and probed with the light. Tendrils of fog wafted through the beam. The boat drifted, and waves lapped at the boards. There came the noise of boots on the deck. "Hey!" Lazaris called, his voice as tight as new wire. "What happened to the enginesi are we sinkingi"
"Quiet," Michael said. Lazaris came forward, guiding himself along the rusted railing. Michael slowly swung the flashlight beam from right to left and back again. "What are you looking fori" Lazaris whispered. "Landi" Michael shook his head, because he really had no idea. and then the flashlight hit a faint, ill-defined object off on the starboard side. It looked like the rotten piling of a dock, with gray fungus growing all over it. Kitty had seen it, too, and she guided the bow toward it.
In another moment they all could see it, perhaps more clearly than they'd wished.
a single piling had been sunk into the muck. Bound to that piling by rotting ropes was a skeleton, immersed up to its sunken chest. a bit of scalp and gray hair remained on the skull. Twined around the skeleton's neck was a noose of heavy wire, and attached to the wire was a metal sign with faded German words: aTTENTION! ENTRY FORBIDDEN!
In the light, small red crabs scuttled in the skeleton's eye sockets and peered out between the broken teeth.
Kitty corrected the wheel. The boat drifted past the grisly signpost and left it in darkness. She started the engine again, throttling it to a low mutter. Not twenty yards from the piling and skeleton, the flashlight beam picked out a floating gray ball, covered with kelp and ugly spikes.
"That's a mine!" Lazaris yelped. "a mine!" he shouted at the wheelhouse, and pointed. "Boom boom!"
Kitty knew where it was. She veered to port, and the mine rolled in the boat's wake. Michael's stomach knotted. Chesna leaned forward, gripping the port-side railing, and Lazaris watched for more mines on the starboard side. "One over here!" Chesna called. It bobbed and lazily turned, encrusted with barnacles. The boat slid past it. Michael spotted the next one, almost dead ahead. Lazaris scrambled back to the wheelhouse, and returned with another flashlight. Kitty kept the boat at a slow, constant glide, weaving among the mines that now appeared on all sides. Lazaris thought his beard would turn white as he watched a mine, its spines covered with kelp, drift over the crest of a swell almost in their path. "Turn, damn it! Turn!" he hollered, motioning to port. The boat obeyed, but Lazaris heard the mine scrape across the hull like fingernails on a blackboard. He cringed, waiting for the blast, but the mine disappeared in their wake and they went on.
The last of the mines floated away on the starboard side, and then the water was free of them. Kitty rapped on the windshield, and when she had their attention, she put a finger to her lips and then drew it across her throat in a slashing gesture. The meaning was clear.
In a few minutes a searchlight appeared through the fog, sweeping around and around atop its tower on Skarpa Island. The island itself was still invisible, but soon Michael could hear a slow, steady thumping noise like a huge heartbeat. The noise of heavy machinery at work in the chemical plant. He switched off his flashlight, and so did Lazaris. They were getting close to shore. Kitty turned the boat, staying just outside the searchlight's range. She suddenly cut the engine, and the boat whispered through the swells. Michael and Chesna heard another, more powerful engine growling somewhere in the fog. a patrol boat, circling the island. The noise grew distant and faded, and Kitty throttled up with a careful hand.
The searchlight skimmed past them, dangerously close. Michael saw the glint of smaller lights through the murk: what looked like bulbs on outside catwalks and ladders, and the dark shape of a huge chimney that rose into the mist. The heartbeat thump was much louder now, and Michael could make out the hazy forms of buildings. Kitty was guiding them along Skarpa's rugged coastline. Soon they left the lights and the sound of machinery behind, and Kitty veered the boat into a small, crescent-shaped harbor.
She knew this harbor, and took them straight to the crumbling remains of a seawall. She killed the engine, letting the boat drift across silvery water at the base of the wall. Michael switched his light on and made out a barnacle-crusted dock just ahead. The rotting prow of a long-sunken boat jutted up from the water like a strange snout, and hundreds of red crabs clung to it.
Kitty emerged from the wheelhouse. She called out something that sounded like "Copahay ting! Timesho!" She motioned to the dock, and Michael jumped from the boat onto a platform of creaking, sodden timbers. Chesna flung him a rope, which he used to tie the boat to a piling. a second rope, thrown from Kitty, completed the task. They had arrived.
Stone steps led up from the dock and seawall. Beyond them, Michael saw by the flashlight beam, was a cluster of dark, dilapidated houses. Kitty's village, now occupied only by ghosts.
Chesna, Michael, and Lazaris checked their submachine guns and strapped them on. Their supplies-rations of fresh water, dried beef, chocolate bars, ammo clips, and four grenades apiece-were in backpacks. Michael, in his previous examination of their supplies, had also noted something else wrapped up in a little packet of waxed paper: a cyanide capsule, similar to the one he'd popped into his mouth on the roof of the Paris Opera. He hadn't needed it then, and he would die by a bullet rather than use one here on Skarpa.
Their equipment ready, they followed Kitty up the ancient steps into the dead village. She probed ahead with the flashlight she'd taken from Lazaris, the beam revealing a rutted main road and houses covered with wet mold as white as ash. Many of the roofs had collapsed, the windows without glass. Still, the village was not entirely dead. Michael could smell them, and he knew they were close by.
"Welcome," Kitty said, and motioned them into one of the sturdier-looking houses. Whether this one had been her home, Michael didn't know, but it had become a home again. as they crossed the threshold, Kitty's light speared through the mist and caught two skinny wolves, one yellow and one gray. The gray one leaped for an open window and was gone in an instant, but the yellow wolf wheeled on the intruders and showed its teeth.
Michael heard the bolt of a submachine gun going back. He grabbed Lazaris's arm before the Russian could fire, and said, "No."
The wolf backed toward the window, its head held high and fire in its eyes. Then it abruptly turned, lunged up into the window frame and out of the house.
Lazaris released the breath he'd been holding. "Did you see those thingsi They'll tear us to pieces! Why the hell didn't you let me shooti"
"Because," Michael said calmly, "a. burst of bullets would bring the Nazis here about as fast as you could reload. The wolves won't hurt you."
"Nazee boys nasty," Kitty said as she shone the flashlight around. "Wold not much so. Nazee boys make dead, wold yum dead." She shrugged her massive shoulders. "Such done."
This house, wolf droppings on the floor and all, would be their headquarters. Most likely, Michael reasoned, the German soldiers who guarded Hildebrand's chemical plant were as fearful of the wolves as Lazaris was, and wouldn't come here. Michael let the others start unpacking their gear, and then he said, "I'm going out to do some scouting. I'll be back as soon as I can."
"I'm going with you." Chesna started to shrug her backpack on again.
"No. I can move faster alone. You wait here."
"I didn't come with you to-"
"argue," Michael finished for her, "and that's not why we're here. I want to get in closer to the plant and take a look around. Better one scout than two or three. Righti"
Chesna hesitated, but his voice was firm and he was staring holes through her. "all right," she agreed. "But for God's sake, stay low!"
"I plan on it."
Outside, Michael strode briskly along the road and away from the village. Woods and sharp-edged boulders began about seventy yards east of the last house and ascended toward Skarpa's heights. He knelt down, waiting to make sure Chesna hadn't followed him, and after a couple of minutes he unstrapped his gun, took off his backpack and his parka. He began to undress, his skin rippling in the chill. Naked, he found a secure niche to wedge his backpack, clothes, and Schmeisser into, and then he sat on his haunches and began the change.
as a wolf, he realized the scent of the food in his pack would draw Skarpa's wolves like a dinner bell. One way to fix that. He urinated all over the rocks around his cache, and if that smell wouldn't keep the wolves back, they were welcome to his dried beef. Then he stretched, getting blood into his muscles, and he began to lope nimbly over the rocks above Wolftown.
after he crested the ridge, it was a half-mile jaunt through dense forest before he smelled the reek of men. The thumping noise was louder; he was going in the right direction. Other aromas crowded into his senses: the bitter smell of exhaust from the plant's chimney, the smell of wet steam, hares, and other small animals quivering in the woods at his passage, and... the musky perfume of a young female.
He heard the soft cracking of a twig off to his left, and when he glanced that way, he caught just the quickest glimpse of yellow. She was keeping pace with him, probably made a little nervous with curiosity and his own male aroma. He wondered if she'd witnessed his change. If so, she'd have interesting tales to tell her pack.
The bitter smell got worse, and so did the man-reek. The yellow she-wolf began to lay behind, intimidated by the nearness of humans. after a moment she stopped, and Michael heard her make a high-pitched yip yip yip. He understood the message: Don't go any closer. He wouldn't have cared to if he'd had a choice about it, but he kept going. about fifteen yards later he came out of the woods and there was Hildebrand's creation, rising like a dirty mountain beyond a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.
Smoke chugged from a massive chimney of gray stones. around it were concrete buildings, connected by catwalks and pipes that snaked through the place like one of Harry Sandler's mazes. The thumping heartbeat noise was coming from somewhere at the center of the complex, and lights shone through the shutters of windows. alleys wound between the buildings; as Michael watched, on his belly at the edge of the woods, a truck turned a corner and grumbled away like a fat beetle into another alley. He saw several figures up on the catwalks. Two workmen twisted a large red flywheel, and then a third checked what looked like a panel of pressure gauges and signaled an okay sign. Work was going on here around the clock.
Michael got up and slinked along the fence. Soon he made another discovery: an airfield, complete with hangars, a fuel tank, and fueling trucks. On the field, lined up in an orderly row, were three night fighters-a Dornier Do-217 and two Heinkel HE-219's, all with nose radar prongs-and a wicked-looking Messerschmitt Bf-109 day fighter. Overshadowing everything on the field was a huge Messerschmitt Me-323 transport aircraft, its wingspan over a hundred and eighty feet and its length almost a hundred feet. The Nazis were obviously doing some serious business here. For now, though, there was no activity on the airfield. Beyond the field the cliffs of Skarpa fell to the sea.
Michael returned to the forest's edge and chose his spot. He began to dig a hole beneath the fence; for this task, a wolf's paws were superior to human hands. Still, the ground was full of small rocks and it was strenuous work. But the hole grew, and when it was large enough, Michael pressed his belly to the earth and clawed himself under the fence. He stood up, on all fours, and glanced around. No soldiers in sight. He ran into the nearest alley, heading toward the heartbeat with a shadow's silence.
He smelled and heard the truck coming before it turned into the alley behind him, and he leaped around a corner and flung himself flat before the headlights found him. The truck passed; in its backwash, Michael caught a sour odor of sweat and fear: a zoolike smell he associated instantly with Falkenhausen. He got up and followed the truck at a respectful distance.
The truck paused before a long building with shuttered windows. a corrugated metal gate was drawn up from within, and harsh light spilled out. The truck pulled into the portal, and a few seconds later the corrugated metal began to clatter down again. It fell, sealing off the light.
Michael's gaze found a ladder, running up the building's side to a catwalk about twenty feet above. The catwalk continued along the center of the roof. There was no time for deliberation. He found a group of oilcans nearby and crouched behind them. When the change was done and his white skin tingled with the cold, he stood up, ran to the metal-runged ladder, and quickly scaled it, something that a man's hands and feet could do but a wolf's paws could not. The catwalk went on to the next structure, but on this building's roof there was an entry door. Michael tried it, and the knob turned. He opened the door, found himself in a stairwell, and started down.
He emerged into a workshop of some kind, with a conveyor belt and hoists just below the roof. There were stacks of crates and oil drums, and a couple of heavy load-pulling machines standing about. Michael could hear voices; all the activity was down at the other end of the long building. He carefully wound his way through the equipment, and instantly crouched down behind a rack full of copper tubing when he heard an irritated voice say, "This man can't work! My God, look at those hands! Palsied like an old woman! I said bring me men who can use saws and hammers!"
Michael knew that voice. He looked out from his hiding place, and saw Colonel Jerek Blok.
The hulking Boots stood beside his master. Blok was shouting into the face of a German officer who had flushed crimson, and to their left stood a skinny man in the baggy gray uniform of a POW. The prisoner's hands were not only palsied, they were gnarled by malnutrition. Beyond those four men stood seven other prisoners, five men and two women. On a large table were bottles of nails, an assortment of hammers and saws, and nearby a pile of timbers. The truck, flanked by two soldiers with rifles, was positioned near the metal gate.
"Oh, take this wretch back to his hole!" Blok gave the prisoner a disdainful shove. "We'll have to use what we've got!" as the officer pushed the POW back to the truck, Blok put his hands on his hips and addressed the others. "I trust you are all well and eager to work. Yesi" He smiled, and his silver teeth threw a spark of light. There was no response from the prisoners, their faces pale and emotionless. "You gentlemen-and ladies-have been selected from the others because your records indicate a familiarity with carpentry. We are therefore going to do some woodcraft this morning. Twenty-four crates, built to the specifications as follows." He withdrew a piece of paper from his pocket and unfolded it. "Thirty-two inches in length, sixteen inches in height, sixteen inches in width. There will be no deviations from this formula. These crates will be lined with rubber. The points of all nails will be blunted once they are hammered in. all rough edges will be sanded to a uniform smoothness. The lids will be double-hinged and padlocked instead of nailed shut." He gave the list to Boots, who went about nailing it up on a bulletin board for all to see. "Moreover," Blok continued, "these crates will be inspected at the end of sixteen hours. any not passing my inspection will be broken and its creator made to begin anew. Questionsi" He waited. Of course there were none. "Thank you for your attention," he said, and strode toward the metal gate with Boots right behind him.
The gate was being drawn up by the two guards, and the truck driver was backing it out with the officer and the palsied POW aboard. Blok did not attempt to hitch a ride on the truck, but he and Boots followed it out and then the metal gate was closed again. One of the guards shouted, "Get to work, you lazy shits!" to the prisoners, and the other strolled over to a woman and poked at her behind with the barrel of his rifle. a frail-looking man with gray hair and wire-rimmed glasses took the first step toward the worktable, then a younger man followed. When all the prisoners were moving-sluggishly, their minds and bodies beaten-the two guards sat down at a table and began to play cards.
Michael slipped back to the stairwell the way he'd come, ascended to the roof and then to the ladder again. On the ground he crouched behind the oilcans once more and grew a warm coat. His joints throbbed with the stress of so many changes within such a short time, and his muscles were sore, but he was ready to run again. He came out from his hiding place and sniffed the air. Through the multitude of scents he found the lemony tang of Jerek Blok's hair pomade, and that was the trail he followed.
He turned a corner and saw Blok and Boots walking briskly just ahead. He followed them, slinking low. Twenty-four crates, Michael thought. Lined with rubber. What would go into those cratesi It had occurred to him that the crates were about the size needed to hold a small shell, rocket, or bomb. The big transport plane out on the runway must be here to carry the loaded crates to wherever Iron Fist was hangared.
Michael's blood pounded in his veins. He had the killing desire. Taking Blok and Boots would be a simple matter, here in this alley, though both men wore holsters and pistols. It would be a balm to the soul to tear Boots's throat out and spit in his face. But he held himself back; his mission was to find out where Iron Fist was, and what kind of horror Dr. Hildebrand had created. First the mission, then he would feed his desire.
He followed the men to a two-storied concrete blockhouse near the center of the plant. again, the windows were shuttered. Michael watched as Blok and Boots climbed a metal staircase and went through a second-floor doorway. The door closed behind them. Michael crouched down, waiting to see if they'd come out, but the minutes ticked past and they did not. It would be dawn in two hours. It was time to get back to Wolftown.
Michael returned to the place where he'd dug his way in. This time he dug the hole deeper so a human body might crawl under. Dirt flew from beneath his claws, and then he eased beneath the fence and ran into the woods.
The yellow wolf, who thought herself crafty, came out of the underbrush and followed off to the side. Michael outdistanced her, wanting to reach his equipment and change before she could get too close.
On two legs, dressed and with his backpack on and the Schmeisser strapped to his shoulder, Michael sprinted along the road back through Wolftown. Chesna rose up from where she'd been hiding behind a wall of crumbling stones, her machine gun aimed at the approaching figure. It was Michael, she saw in another moment. He had dirt all over his face.
"I've found a way in," he told her. "Let's go."