"Heil Hitler," Michael replied, lifting his hand with the fork in it and on the fork a little bite of cake with buttercream icing.
The white, mountainous shape of the Gestapo investigator and his two assistants moved away through the throng. He had trouble getting out, as people converged upon Rittenkrett to clap him on his back, speak in one of his flaming ears and otherwise brown-nose him all the way out the door and beyond.
The Battle Is Life
"Interesting man," said Michael in the rippling wake of Rittenkrett's departure. "May I ask...why the white suit in winter?"
"His persona." There was a note in the woman's voice that said she was quite relieved her Gestapo acquaintance had left the party. "He always wears a white suit, in every season. He likes to be called the 'Ice Man'."
"The 'Ice Man'? Why is that?"
"You don't want to know," she said, and when Michael looked into her eyes he saw a boundary there that should not be crossed. "We've just met, but...I have to say... you take a great chance speaking that way to someone like him."
"I'd probably take a greater chance putting this in my stomach before bedtime." He set the cake and ice cream on the tray of a passing waiter.
"I mean it." Franziska's hand found his. "Axel has two faces. You can never know which one is looking at you."
"Meat," said Michael.
"Oh, I'm thinking aloud. I would like some meat. I believe the restaurant's still open across the lobby. Have you eaten dinner?"
"I should stay here."
He looked at her steadily. He put himself in her eyes.
"No," he said gently, "you should not."
Even though supplies were running low, the chef was doing the best he could and the grilled lambchops in the Koniglicher Garten were excellent. Franziska grazed on a salad. In the brighter lamps of the restaurant, she was no less stunning a creature than Michael had first seen. Here again he had to be very careful, because she would ask a question - about his life in Dortmund, his education and so forth - and she would watch him intently and also, it appeared, listen intently until his reply was done. Never once did she ask if he was married. He wore no ring either, but still...he might have left it in his room. She touched only very briefly on his military service, which suited him fine because even though he'd fully memorized the exploits and travails of the 25th Panzer Grenadiers gleaned from prisoners of war captured in the Ardennes a month ago, he didn't wish to wander too deeply into the details.
"Your accent is strange," she suddenly said, as he was reaching for a glass of water.
He continued his motion, picked up the glass and took a good swallow.
"I've known...met...people from Westphalia before. Your accent...it's different, somehow."
"Accents are as different as people, I suppose," he answered. Was his throat too tight when he said it?
"I suppose," she agreed, and she shrugged her lithe shoulders.
"I have a question." And thank God for it, he thought. She focused entirely on him, which was a trait both complimentary to a man and confounding to a secret agent. "As a Signal photographer and journalist, what project are you working on with the Gestapo?"
She didn't even blink. The gray eyes - and there were hints of violet in them, he saw, or perhaps that was a trick of the small candleflame between them - were steady and absolutely cool. She turned her head as if to speak to someone else across the room, perhaps one of the partygoers who had stumbled in and to whom she'd already introduced her friend Major Horst Jaeger.
I may have gone my own bridge too far, Michael decided. But he waited.
"We are both soldiers," Franziska said, her gaze swinging back upon him. "You have your battlefields and I have mine, because we both love Germany and the Reich. What more is there for us?"
"Life," he said, and it stunned him because he didn't know where it came from.
"The battle," she said, "is life."
He had eaten his way to the bones, and now he pushed his plate aside. Without looking at her, he could feel her like his own heartbeat. Her eyes were on him; they were taking him to pieces, even as he sat wondering what he should say next, what witticism, what paltry poetry meant to lure her upstairs to the bed in room 214, what gentlemanly endeavor in a world where the gentleman was nearly dead? And he himself...a hollow uniform, worn over a masquerade? He thought...he feared...she could see all the way into him, and what he thought of himself, everything he'd been through, all the fire and the blood, all the torment and tribulation, the very soul of what he pretended to be, all of it, everything, came down to the sudden crack of confidence, the feeling that for this woman, this creature, this job, he was not good enough.
"I am not a whore," she said.
"And I am not sorry for you," she went on. "If you're ordered to go east tomorrow morning, or the day after...that is your purpose. What I told you at the first is true. I'd like to photograph you for my article. Why? You are a very handsome man. You would look good on a magazine cover. And as I said...I know you have a strong and noble heart. How do I know that? Because even though you and I both are aware we desire to go to your room and make love tonight, you're not rushing me there like an animal. I would go with you, regardless if you were all claws and spittle, because I do want the photograph. But because you are not an animal, I will go with you gladly and in great anticipation of learning what you think of all of me."
It took him a moment to recover.
"I might turn into an animal the instant the door is locked," he told her.
"I'm counting on that," she said, and for the first time he realized she had the most adorable dimples in her cheeks.
She also, behind the locked door, revealed her adorable dimples of Venus, as her red dress and silken slip glided to the floor with soft whispers. Michael thought he could set teacups in those indentations at the small of her back, or pour pools of cold water into them and as he crouched above her on all fours lap them dry with a flicking tongue. The black air-raid shades were lowered over the windows, cutting any glimpse of seething fires that still glowed from the raid the night before; in this room was seething fire enough.
She said she wished to keep the small lamp atop the writing table on, with its royal-blue shade that cast the light of secret grottoes and stolen moments. They began by standing close together, at the center of the room, and admiring with fingertips and slow caresses the bodies offered one to another. Her fingers played over the muscles of his shoulders, down through the hair on his chest, along his hard stomach and downward still. She wore the expression of someone in a dream world that could not be shared, her lips slightly parted and teeth gleaming, her gaze upon him hungry yet not to be hurried through this banquet. He moved his hands over her like a sculptor, warming the smooth sleek stone before its transformation; she was harder than other women he'd known, her breasts small but the nipples yearning for his touch and taste. He slid his fingers along her sides, feeling the ribs there and all the constructions of sinew, bone and flesh that held the soul at its center. He let the knuckles of his right hand glide slowly down her stomach, down over her deep-dish navel, and she gave a quiet soft utterance as his fingers reached and lingered upon the black triangle of hair between long thighs that had begun almost imperceptibly to tremble.
Michael cupped the back of Franziska's neck with his left hand, and as he drew her face to him to brand her lips with his own, she put a finger against his chin and the message was clear: You do not have my permission for that.
So he pulled his face away, and he picked her up in his arms and took her to the bed.
Herr Rittenkrett Calls
He longed to enter her, to join himself with her in the only way he could, and she longed for it also because she pressed herself, moist with excitement, against him, yet he had no intention of rushing the moment. He began a soft consumption of her, an exploration of her beautiful body with his tongue and small nips of the teeth, and he began this study of erotic geography with her throat, which she offered to him like any passion- charged bitch in heat. He spared no effort and missed no port of call, and when his journey was almost done she shifted her hips and grasped his hair with both hands and called him back to revisit her aching harbor.
Then it was her turn to travel.
Michael Gallatin had known many excellent visitors, with many outstanding and often amazing talents, but Franziska Luxe very easily could be awarded the key to his city, if not his world. Her mouth was larger than he could have imagined, and her tongue more heated. Her forthright intention was to consume him to the root and hold him there until pleasure and pain began to merge together into a third sensation unknown to him until now. She was a relentless lover, a force that went nearly too far, backed off again, and again pushed the limit of his endurance. He felt as he had always wished every woman in his bed felt: that the world had stopped for a span of time, that nothing existed beyond the walls, or indeed beyond the moment, and that there was no one else on earth but these two figures, damp with sweat and breathing hard in the celebration of what seemed the act of gods and too exalted for mere human beings.
When at last he pushed himself inside her, she took him in deeply and wrapped her legs like bands of fire around his hips. They rocked together upon the wrecked sheets. She bit at his neck and made noises against his ear like the keening of wind through pines in the Russian woods. He saw colors behind his eyes that had no description, and were blinding even in his darkness. He shivered, as if struck by the passing blast of a train on a wilderness track. He almost forgot himself, and what began in his mind as a howl emerged from his throat in a moan of pure white ecstasy. Then he opened his eyes to drink in her beauty and found her glistening face looking up at him with wonder, as a solitary traveller through many black nights might look upon a guiding star.
She mounted him, while he lay on his back in what felt like the embrace of a swamp. It had always been his belief that one could tell how passionate in bed a woman was by the way she danced, by her innate sense of rhythm and her daring to experiment with the music she heard in her soul. It occurred to him that she could knock the hell out of the Four Smooth Suits.
As Franziska gave a sudden cry and shuddered, so too did Michael. His orgasm racked him, again the sensation of pain mixed with pleasure. It went on, wave after wave, until he was emptied. Franziska clung to him through her own series of small deaths and in her rebirth melded her cheek against his. With her damp ebony hair in his face Michael released a long sigh of utter and complete satisfaction.
They lay side-by-side with their heads on the same pillow, staring at each other, her fingers caught with his and her thighs held between his own.
"What can I say?" she asked softly.
"What would you like to say?"
"There's no one listening but me, and I know you're a lady."
She moistened her lips. "You make me very, very, very, very...horny."
Which was music to his ears.
The second time they made love was slower and softer. They were both tired, but both eager and willing to drive themselves and each other into the realm of dazed insensibility. Around three in the morning they showered together and were slick and soapy when the warm water abruptly turned icy cold, bringing a shriek and gale of laughter from Franziska and a good Germanic curse from the major.
"Oh, the time!" she said, as he towelled her off. Her face without makeup was no less beautiful, and to Michael even more so; she was scrubbed and naturally radiant, and her hair smelled of the hotel's sandalwood shampoo. She went up on her tiptoes and gave a giggle that could only be described as girlish when he put the towel between her legs from behind and gave her a little buzz of friction. "You'd better be careful!" she warned.
She turned around, pressed her breasts against his chest and with her arms around him looked him straight in the eyes. "You keep this up and I'll have to stay with you all day. Just so you won't get into trouble."
"If you want me to keep it up, just ask." He glanced southward. "Um...a growing boy does require breakfast."
"I think," she said, as she placed her fingertip on the end of his nose, "you should get some sleep. And I should go home too, sad to say."
"Sad to say," he repeated, and quickly he caught her finger in his mouth and almost sucked the meat from it. "So...don't say it."
She smiled at him, the perfect smile of freedom and happiness. But he saw the smile slowly fade away, until it was all gone. "I can't stay. Really. I have some work to do this morning, I have to be clear-headed."
"Am I now a noxious fog?"
"I'm serious, Horst. I would love to stay and have breakfast with you, and...do whatever you'd like, but..."
"Herr Rittenkrett calls."
"Yes, he does. And I wish you would forget you ever met him or heard him speak to me. This is something you don't need to be concerned about."
"Which makes me more concerned than before. Is it dangerous?"
She pulled away from him and stepped back. Though completely naked, she was climbing into her armor. She began to get dressed and studiously avoided his stare.
He sat on the bed and watched her. God, she was some piece of fabulous woman! he thought. The memory of her vagina clamped to his penis as if he had pressed into a jar of warm honey sent a shiver up his spine. I could take you to lunch, he almost said. But in the next instant he thought, Don't beg. Never beg. Not to any woman.
Suddenly she looked up at him and, half-dressed, she let out a laugh. "You've got the face of a wounded puppy! Get some sleep, you'll feel better in a few hours."
"I doubt it, but thank you anyway."
"Of course you'll feel better. Or I hope you will. Because I'm going to cut my meeting short, tell Herr Rittenkrett what he wants to hear, and then I can take the rest of the day to show you something I think you'll really like. Will you do my buttons?"
It dawned on Michael what she was saying. He buttoned her up and placed his hands on both globes of her bottom, tight in the saucy red dress. "I've already seen something I really like."
"Men," she said, and she tensed her buttocks under his fingers. "Oh, look at you now! A wolf where a puppy just was!"
"Yes," he agreed. "That's me." He let her go and frowned up at her. "Won't our Gestapo friend take offense at your...shall I say...unprofessional attitude today?"
"It's a meeting to make plans, that's all. Now I've said enough about that, and you've asked enough questions." A hint of frost was creeping into her voice. "Honestly," she said, as if scolding a schoolboy. She finished dressing in silence, putting on her mink coat, her long red leather gloves and getting her handbag, and Michael let her alone.
When Franziska was ready to go, Michael unlocked the door for her. Before he could turn the cut-glass knob, she placed her hand on his.
"I am never unprofessional," she said. "Not when I'm working. Or...when I'm involved in a project. We won't talk about this anymore." It was a statement not to be challenged. Her face softened, and with it her voice. "If you'll be downstairs in front of the hotel at ten-thirty, I'll come for you."
"In public?" he asked.
A naughty little laugh wanted so much to spring from her mouth. A muscle in her jaw moved to clench it shut, but her eyes were sparkling. "You," she said, "are part gentleman and all beast." The way she said it, that put him far ahead of other men she knew. She pushed him playfully on the chest, and then she opened the door for herself, went out into the hallway and closed the door behind her.
One of the hardest things he'd ever done was not open the door and watch her walk away, heading for the staircase since the elevator wasn't working due to the lack of lubricating fluids for the motor. He lay on the bed for awhile, but it smelled too much like her. He got up and in the bathroom splashed cold water in his face. The bathroom, too, was heady with her fragrance. She was even still in his own freshly-washed skin and hair. He would have to cut his nose off if he wanted to be rid of her.
A rather nasty female Nazi, he remembered saying to Mallory.
Well, she was.
He'd done his damnedest, but he hadn't stopped her from going to see Rittenkrett. Maybe he was responsible for the meeting being cut short, as she put it, but that didn't mean some member of the Inner Ring might not be picked up tonight. Her invaluable communication skills, Rittenkrett had said. New clients on the list. Did that mean she was inserting herself into having affairs with suspected members of the Ring to get information? So she might not be a whore for a single German officer, but she was indeed a whore for the entire Third Reich?
Oh my God, he suddenly thought with a startle
Michael, old chap. Jealous just a little bit, are we?
He decided to take another shower, and the colder the better.
Why Scout Cars Aren't Silver
It was Michael's intention to be a few minutes late striding out onto the Kleiststrasse, in front of the hotel, yet he found himself leaving the Grand Frederik a few minutes early.
He wore his perfect counterfeit uniform, his cap and boots, a feld-grau overcoat and black leather gloves. It was a chilly morning, though the sky was blue and the sun bright. A breeze moved past him, ruffling his coat and bringing to him the smell of the state of affairs in Berlin, and most likely the pungent aroma of its future. Smoke stained the eastern horizon, reddish in hue. He could smell scorched bricks, burned lumber and the odors of the dust of centuries spun up from the ancient cellars when the bomb-blasted buildings crashed down. True, Berlin was a massive city and there were scores of large buildings remaining, but it was now a town of targets. From his position he could see at the Berlin Zoo one of the three huge gray concrete flak towers that stood like the stalks of poisonous mushrooms in defense of Berlin. They were medieval in design, like Barbarossian castles, suitable to shelter ten thousand civilians and topped with a Hell's garden of flak cannons. Still, the larger the flak towers and cannons, the bigger the bombers and more deadly the rain. It was just a matter of time.
And his thoughts on that subject came to an end when a sleek silver Bayerische Motoren Werke 328 sports roadster slid out of the trickle of elderly black cars and cloak-wrapped citizens on bicycles and stopped with a polite growl in front of him.
It was a convertible, the top was down, and Franziska Luxe sat behind the wheel with a gray woolen cap pulled jauntily over her hair and green-tinted pilot's goggles on her face, though the glass windshield was up both for driver and passenger.
"Ah!" Michael said, in appreciation of her machine and of her promptness. He smiled at her smile. "In the style of the Silver Arrows?"
"Exactly. Get in, I'll take you for a ride."
How could he not accept such an offer?
It was a tight squeeze. A car with a Grand Prix pedigree was not necessarily built for a man his size. Even for that, he felt it was the type of car one might need to be strapped into, because he saw on the speedometer the top marking of one-hundred-and-fifty kilometers per hour. Then Franziska put the white-knobbed gearshift into First, tapped the accelerator and they were off along the Kleiststrasse like a silver swan amid the waddling, somber geese.
He was glad she had the good sense to be wearing a fawn-colored overcoat and brown driving gloves. She kept increasing the speed, shifting through the gears with an expert hand. Michael remembered driver of racing cars from his briefing about her.
Franziska whipped to the right on Motzstrasse, crossing over the tram tracks and ignoring the shout of a traffic warden to slow down. A whistle was blown, which caused Franziska to shrug her shoulders and grin into the wind. Her foot descended on the accelerator again, Michael held his breath as they passed through a flurry of bicyclists, and they sped along toward the southwest.
"Your car?" he asked. "Or a friend's?"
"Mine, all mine," she answered, as she cut around a fat-assed sedan that flew a Nazi flag from an aerial on its roof and looked terrifyingly important. But it was left behind when she made a quick right onto the broad boulevard of the Hohenzollerndamm. "I was part of the Grand Prix Mercedes-Benz team in '39," she explained. "This was as close as I could get to a Silver Arrow for the road."
Michael nodded. The story was that in 1934, prior to a Grand Prix race at the Nurburgring, a competing Mercedes tested one kilogram over the limit on the weight scales, so the racing manager and driver at that time removed all the white paint from the car to lose the offending kilo. The next day, the shining silver car won the race, and a legend was born. Between 1934 and 1939, all the great German racing cars of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union were bare silver, and all were referred to as 'Silver Arrows'.
Franziska and Michael arrowed along through the city, at one intersection causing a horse drawing a coal wagon to rear up in angry defiance of the 20th century.
"My studio's over there," she said, pointing to a concentration of gable-roofed buildings to the right. Not a minute afterward, she turned off the avenue and began a twisty-curvy tour that took them across cobblestoned streets not suited for speed, and as Michael had already seen the haze of smoke and dust in the air he knew she was trying to avoid the bombed-out sections.
It was an impossible task, because there had been so many bombs. Thousands of them, most likely. Rubble and twisted metal were so common in some places here that the unmarked buildings looked strange. Some of the destruction resembled what might have been Axel Rittenkrett's birthday cake baked to gargantuan size, set on fire and allowed to melt into the street like black tar stubbled with fist-sized nuggets of cemented sugar. Buildings leaned against each other like drunken buddies, their faces full of cracks. Seas of broken glass glittered before the roadster's tires, but in this area of Berlin Franziska was always twisting and turning the wheel, getting out of danger an instant before it got to her, avoiding the shattered bricks of buildings cleaved down the center so all the burned-up entrails showed, avoiding the dusty rag people with wheelbarrows who searched through the cratered wreckage, and avoiding the roaming packs of dogs that used to be household pets and now had no masters but Fate.
She didn't speak while they were driving through or around these sections, and neither did Michael. He wanted to ask her how she was getting the fuel and oil to operate this buggy, since for every car he saw there were a half-dozen wagons and a dozen more bicycles, but he decided it was not a prudent question.
The clusters of buildings thinned to outskirts. Suddenly they came upon a checkpoint with a lowered gate and four soldiers with machine guns. Michael's gut clenched, even as he returned the salute the soldiers gave him. Franziska showed one of the men a small booklet with a yellow cover stamped by the Nazi swastika. He opened it briefly to look at something - a special permission to come and go, Michael assumed -and then the booklet was returned to her, the gate opened and the 328 shot through onto what Michael realized was the Fuhrer's pride, the Reichsautobahn.
It was four lanes of white concrete separated by a grassy median about five meters wide. It stretched on across the rolling winter-brown landscape like a ski trail, which Michael thought touched two of Franziska's interests, both involving speed. As far as he could see, and he could see very far, today the Reichsautobahn belonged to her and her alone.
She had the BMW in fourth gear, her mouth was grinning below the goggles and the elegant Roman nose, the engine roared and the speedometer's red needle was climbing rapidly toward that one-hundred-and-fifty mark.
"Do you like to go fast?" she shouted to him against the wind.
"I do," he answered. "When do we start?"
She gave him a quick elbow in the ribs. He grasped his cap to keep it from flying away.
They went into curves that Michael was certain they could never take at this speed, yet they were kept on the concrete by Franziska's undeniable skill with the clutch, gearshift and quick taps of the brake. They hurtled onward. The smells of engine oil, grease and hot metal washed back through the cockpit. The engine noise was nothing short of apocalyptic. Michael had been in speeding aircraft before, yes, but never in a road rocket. The winter trees on either side blurred together. Now the BMW came out of a curve onto a straightaway, and as the engine screamed impossibly louder Michael looked at the speedometer and figured that at this rate they'd be in Amsterdam by early afternoon.
There was an idea, he thought. Just drive all the way to the American or British lines, turn her over to the first officer he saw, and there would be no more rivers to cross. She would be spared from the oncoming and unstoppable horde, in spite of herself.
He wondered if she kept a pistol in the glovebox, and if it would be loaded. But he felt that even at gunpoint she might fly this machine off into the woods, and it was a ridiculous thought anyway because there would be many checkpoints ahead just for the reason that Hitler wanted no capitulation with the Allies on the western front.
"You're very quiet!" she shouted after a few more minutes of racing along the perfectly-smooth roadway.
"I'm enjoying the ride!" he shouted back, which was absolutely true. He expected she'd be turning back before long. He intended to ask her where he might take her to lunch, and after that he would say he wanted to see her studio and maybe this afternoon, if she was willing, to get the photographs done. After that, if she was willing...
His reverie on matters of the bedroom was interrupted by a quick glint of metal.
Up in the sky, at about the two o'clock position.
He looked for it again. They were going down into a small decline. The hills and trees obscured his vision on the right. Then they curved to the left and started upward once more, and at the top of the rise the pair of aircraft, one following off to the side of the other, shrieked about fifty feet above their heads with a noise that enfeebled the 328's husky voice.
The car briefly slewed from side to side until Franziska got full control again. She glanced back over her shoulder, and Michael's head also swivelled.
They both knew their aircraft. The two planes were P51 Mustangs, bright silver as the BMW, and marked with American stars. Michael saw that the aircraft in the rear position, the wingman he thought that would be, carried four air-to-ground rockets. As Franziska returned her attention to the roadway and her fingers tightened on the wheel, Michael saw the two planes began to turn to the right.
His heart had given a lurch. He leaned toward her and said as calmly as his voice would allow, "I think we'd better get off this - " Road, he was about to say, for obvious reasons, but already the first Mustang was straightening out and coming in for the kill.
Sparkles of fire erupted from the leading edges of both wings.
He imagined the fighter jocks had been train-hunting today, and maybe one had already used its rockets to knock a locomotive off the rails. In any case, the little silver roadster with two Nazis in it was just too good a target for a trigger-happy Yank to pass up.
In the next instant the Browning machine gun bullets began to march in rows across the other side of the Reichsautobahn, on a collision course with the BMW. Michael nearly reached out to grab the wheel, but Franziska hit the brake. The car skidded in the smoke of burning rubber. The section of roadway it would have passed over if she'd kept up the speed was torn into pieces of flying concrete that thunked into the hood, smashed the windshield in front of Michael's face and passed over their heads almost as deadly as the slugs.
The carefree girl was gone. She whipped the wheel around and downshifted as she punched the accelerator again and the BMW fishtailed and spun in a circle that left a perfect O of black rubber. The second Mustang flashed over their heads.
"Hang on!" Franziska shouted.
He surely wasn't going to get out and walk. The 328 seemed to pause for a few precious seconds even though the accelerator was pressed to the floorboards, and then it gave what was nearly a forward leap that rocked Michael's head back and cracked his teeth together. When he got his neck working again and looked over his shoulder he saw the two angels of death turning for another pass.
Franziska didn't look. She just drove, now jinking the BMW to left and right, refusing to give the planes an easy target. Berlin, and its flak towers, was more than ten kilometers distant. Michael thought he should be pleased at this development of Allied fighters seeking kills on the edge of Berlin in broad daylight, but somehow he was not so pleased.
Another burst of bullets tore across the concrete and median in front of them, and then Michael heard a whoosh and felt something scorching hot pass seemingly right behind his neck. Over on the right, trees blew out of the ground, a geyser of dirt exploded and small things on fire began to run wildly across the hillside. Michael could imagine the radio chatter: Direct hit today on a rabbit burrow, flight leader.
Franziska was nearly standing on the accelerator.
The two planes roared over them, marking them with their shadows, and again made a circle.
It had already gone through Michael's mind that she should get off the roadway and make for the woods, but he understood why she didn't. In this case, speed was life. The car's silver gleam would not be hidden by leafless limbs. The only chance they had, if indeed it was a chance at all, was to outrun both bullets and rockets. One advantage owned by Franziska: the fighter pilots were used to attacking trains, tanks and trucks, which moved considerably slower and more predictably than the small quick 328.
To emphasize that point, Franziska suddenly swerved the wheel to the right and they crossed the median onto the other pair of lanes. Two rows of Browning bullets rushed after them but were late to catch their target, and so pocked the concrete and threw up plumes of dirt in the median. The first Mustang zoomed over their heads, but the second had eased back on the throttle and Michael knew the pilot was lining up a shot. Franziska knew it too; she hit the brake, violently downshifted and fought the wheel to veer again over the median to the other side. Heat waves shimmered past the car, there were two bright flashes and a black-edged crater suddenly marred Hitler's highway. Chunks of concrete crashed down, but the BMW was already racing out of the next curve.
Michael lost sight of the planes. An onrush of panic seized him. He twisted around, and there directly behind them the Mustangs were coming down side-by-side, like vultures, almost floating toward them. Taking their time, he thought. Waiting for Franziska to commit to a move. Where was the Luftwaffe, for Christ's sake? Closer still came the Mustangs, and lower.
It was just a matter of seconds now before the machine guns started firing and the last rocket ignited. The Mustangs were nearly wingtip-to-wingtip. Michael had the feeling they were going to let go at the same time with everything they had, and it was probably going to happen when the BMW started up the slight incline that was just ahead.
He sensed her trying to decide what to do. Over the noise of the wind they heard the low roar of the Mustangs right at their backs. She decided, and he saw her grasp the gear knob to shift down. She was going to stomp the brake and make the Mustangs overshoot.
Michael had had enough of playing with death. He made his own decision. He reached out and pulled the cap off Franziska's head, letting the ebony hair boil out and stretch behind her like a banner. She looked at him from the green-tinted goggles as if she thought he'd gone stark raving mad.
The flesh on the back of Michael's neck crawled. Time seemed to hang, even at one-hundred-fifty kilometers per hour.
The two Mustangs passed overhead, still side-by-side. Picking up speed, they waggled their wings. Then they turned to the right, and Michael watched them as they flashed away, silver-bright and shining, toward the west.
"It's all right!" he shouted, the wind in his face through the broken glass. "They've gone!"
"They've gone? How do you know?" Her voice was admirably controlled, but he could see that her eyes were wet. "And what was that with my cap?"
"I decided that no fighter pilot worth his wings," he said, "would kill a woman in a sports roadster. But they had to see you were a woman." He thought the waggling of the wings was the same unspoken message that the Luftwaffe captain had given him at the party last night: good luck.
So there were gentlemen left in the world, after all.
Their good luck, today.
At the top of the incline, Franziska downshifted, braked and cut their speed. In the distance ahead of them was the smoke-haze of the destruction in Berlin. Franziska eased the BMW to a stop in the road, and they sat there while the engine burbled and the hot metal tick...tick...ticked.
She drew a long breath, both her hands still tight on the wheel. Michael reached into his coat for the white handkerchief he always carried. "Let's do this," he said, and he pushed the goggles up on her forehead. The tears in her eyes were of course from terror, but she was certainly a strong-hearted woman. He dabbed the tears away, as gently as he could. If he wasn't supposed to be such a man, he might have shed a few himself. Even so, his hand wasn't exactly the steadiest it had ever been.
"Now you know," he told her, "why scout cars aren't silver."