Big Ben chimed the eleventh hour. In another circumstance Michael Gallatin mused, that would be known as the wolf's hour. In this case, however, it was eleven o'clock on a sunny morning in the middle of June, and even a wolf wouldn't be brave enough to face London traffic.
He watched the traffic from a window over Downing Street, the cars moving alongside the Thames into the swirl of Trafalgar Square. He felt fresh and alive. It was always so when death was faced and beaten-at least for a time. He wore a dark blue suit, a white shirt, and a blue-printed tie, and under his clothes his ribs were laced with adhesive tape. His palm wound was still bandaged and his thigh gave him some trouble, but he was all right. He would run again, as fast as ever.
"What are you thinkingi" she asked him, coming up behind.
"Oh, that it's a beautiful day and I'm glad to be out of the hospital. Days like this don't look so nice from a bed."
"I'd say that depends on the bed, wouldn't youi"
Michael turned to face her. Chesna looked refreshed, her face free of the lines that pain had put there. Well, perhaps a few remained; that was life. "Yes," he agreed. "I certainly would."
The office's door opened, and a large-boned, big-nosed man in the uniform of a Royal air Force captain entered. Lazaris's hair was growing out, and he had kept his beard, though it was now neatly trimmed. He was as clean as soap, and he even smelled soapy. His left arm and shoulder were covered with plaster under his RaF jacket, a plaster patch mending the broken collarbone. "Hello!" he said, glad to see them. He smiled, and Chesna realized that in his own coarse way, Lazaris was very handsome. "I'm sorry I'm late."
"That's all right. Evidently we're not on military time." Their appointment had been scheduled for eleven o'clock sharp. "Speaking of military, have you enlisted in the RaFi"
"Well, I'm still an officer of the Russian air force," he replied, speaking his native tongue, "but I've been made an honorary captain, just yesterday. I went up in a Spitfire. Oh, that's a plane! If we'd only had Spitfires, we could have-" He smiled again, and let it go. "I'm going back, as soon as I can." He shrugged. "Like I say, in the sky I'm a lion. What about the both of youi"
"I'm home," Michael said. "For a long time. Chesna is going to California."
"Oh yes!" Lazaris tried English: "Cal-e-for-nye-ayi"
"That's the place," Chesna said.
"Verra gut! You be a verra beeg stir!"
"I'll settle for a small part. Even maybe as a stunt pilot."
"Pilot! Ya!" The mere mention of that word made a dreamlike expression surface on the Russian's face.
Michael slipped his hand into Chesna's and looked out at London. It was a beautiful city, made more beautiful by the fact that there would never again be Nazi planes in the sky over it. Bad weather had forced the postponement of D-Day from the fifth of June to the sixth; since that day, hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers had gone ashore on the Normandy beaches, steadily pushing the Nazis back toward Germany. The war wasn't over yet, of course; there would be more trials and tribulations once the Nazis were pushed back into their own den. But the initial step had been taken. The invasion of Europe was a grand, if costly, success. It was only a matter of weeks now before Paris would be liberated, and Gaby's homeland set free.
Hitler's advance was ended. From this point on there would be a long retreat, the lurching German war machine caught between the crushing-dare he think iti-iron fists of america, Great Britain, and Russia.
as the sun fell upon his face, Michael thought of the path. Of McCarren and Gaby, the underground passages, Camille and Mouse, the rooftop battle at the Paris Opera, the fight in the woods before Berlin, Mouse's ruined house and ruined life, the Iron Cross that meant nothing. He thought of the Reichkronen, and Harry Sandler's murder train, the kennels of Falkenhausen, and the long flight to Norway. Of Kitty, and a knife with a hooked blade.
There had been another path, too: he had been walking it since a boy chased a kite into a Russian forest. It had led him through a world of joy and sadness, tragedy and triumph, to this point in time, and beyond this point lay the future.
Man or beasti he wondered. He knew now which world he truly belonged to. By accepting his place in the world of men, he made the miracle true. He did not think he had failed Wiktor. In fact, he thought Wiktor might be proud of him, as a father is proud of a beloved son.
Live free, he thought. If that were at all possible in this world, he would try his best at it.
a buzzer went off on the receptionist's desk. She was a small, lantern-jawed woman with a carnation on her lapel. "He'll see you now," she told them, and got up to open the door into the inner sanctum.
The man within, bulldog stocky, got up from his desk and came forward to meet them. He had heard grand things about them, he said. Please sit down! He motioned them to three chairs. The medal ceremony, he said, would be a small, quiet affair. There was no use in alerting the press to such a sensitive undertaking. Did they agree to thati They did, of course.
"Would you mind if I smokedi" he asked Chesna, and when she said she wouldn't, he produced one of his long trademark cigars from a rosewood cigar case on his desk and lit it. "You must realize the service you've performed for England. For the world, actually. Incalculable service. You have friends in high places, and you'll all be well taken care of. ah, while we're on the subject of friends!" He reached into a desk drawer and brought out an envelope sealed with wax. "This is from a friend of yours, Major Gallatin."
Michael took it. He recognized the seal on the blob of wax, and smiled faintly. The envelope went into his coat pocket.
The prime minister went on at length about the ramifications of the invasion and that by the end of summer the Nazis would be fighting on the borders of Germany. Their chemical warfare plans had been miserably dashed; not only in this Iron Fist affair, he said, but also because of Gustav Hildebrand's... ah... shall we say dissolutioni
Michael studied his face. He had to ask a question. "Excuse me, siri"
"Do you... just happen to have any relatives in Germanyi"
"No," Churchill said. "Of course not. Whyi"
"I... saw someone dressed up to resemble you."
"ah, the cheeky bastards!" the prime minister growled, and puffed a gout of blue smoke.
When their audience with the prime minister was ended, they left the building and stood on Downing Street. a car with an RaF driver was waiting for Lazaris. He embraced Chesna, one-handedly, and then hugged his comrade.
"Gallatinov, you take care of Goldilocks, ehi" Lazaris smiled, but his eyes looked a little damp. "around her you act like a gentleman... which means like an Englisher, not like a Russki!"
"I'll keep that in mind." He thought, however, that Lazaris was a fine gentleman, even for a Russki. "Where will you bei"
Lazaris looked up, at the cloudless blue. He smiled again, slyly, clapped Michael on the shoulder, and got into the waiting car like a member of the royal family. The RaF driver pulled them away from the curb, and Lazaris gave Michael a salute. Then the car merged with traffic, and was gone.
"Let's walk," Michael said. He took Chesna's hand and guided her toward Trafalgar Square. She was still limping a little, but her ankle was healing with no complications. He liked Chesna's company. He wanted to show her his home, and who knew what might come of thati Something lastingi No, probably not. They were both moving in different directions, but now linked by hands. For a time, at least... it could be sweet.
"Do you like animalsi" he asked her.
"I'm just curious."
"Well... dogs and cats, yes. What animals do you meani"
"a little larger," he said, but did not elaborate. He didn't want to scare her before they left their London hotel. "I'd like for you to see my home, in Wales. Would you care to goi"
"With youi" She squeezed his hand. "When do we leavei"
"Soon. My house is very quiet. There we'll have plenty of time to talk."
again, she was puzzled. "Talki about whati"
"Oh... myths and folklore," he said.
Chesna laughed. Michael Gallatin was one of the most curious-and certainly unique-men she'd ever met. His nearness excited her. She said, "Will we only talki"
Michael stopped, in the shadow of Lord Nelson, put his arms around Chesna van Dorne, and kissed her.
Their bodies pressed together. Citizens of London stopped to gawk, but neither Michael nor Chesna cared. Their lips merged together like liquid fire, and as the kiss went on Michael felt a tingling sensation.
He knew what it was. Black, sleek wolf hair was rippling up his backbone, under his clothes. He felt the hair rise over his back and shoulders, tingling in this moment of pure, intense passion and joy, and then his flesh itched as the hair began to recede.
Well, there was always more where that came from.
Michael kissed the corners of her lips. Her aroma, cinnamon and leather, was in his soul. He hailed a passing cab, and he and Chesna got in and headed for Piccadilly and their hotel.
On the way he took the envelope from his pocket, broke the waxed seal, and removed the letter. There were two words, written in a familiar handwriting: another missioni
He returned the letter to the envelope and the envelope to his pocket. The man in him yearned for peace, but the wolf in him yearned for action. Which one would triumphi That he couldn't say.
Chesna leaned against him, her head on his shoulder. "Is that something you need to take care ofi"
"No," Michael told her. "Not today."
a battle had been won, but the war went on.