The Hunter from the Woods

Chapter 14

She stared at him blankly for a few seconds. Then all the fire and excitement rushed back into her eyes and she began to laugh as if this had been the grandest adventure of a lifetime. Her laugh was so open and natural that Michael was struck by the strange humor it carried, and he too began to laugh. What could be more funny, he mused in his hilarity, than to be sitting in a fast roadster on the edge of Berlin with a beautiful Nazi Gestapo 'talent' and the smell of rocket explosive in one's clothes? He suspected that at this minute he'd become a little unhinged. Franziska's laugh ceased. She leaned toward him, took his cap off and put her hand around the back of his neck. Her lips just barely grazed his own, but her mouth was ready to be crushed. She stayed at that intimate distance. Michael didn't try to breech the gap; he didn't yet have her permission, and he respected that. When she kissed him, it was soft. It was the blue sky of May, the warmth of a sun-lit morning. It was distant music playing in a park. It was boats on a lake, young men in their best courting suits and young women with their parasols. It was a kiss that belonged to another world. He kissed her back, just as softly. Their lips met and held, and some trick of friction or cold air made them tingle together, and when Franziska pulled her head back and looked at him she said, "Oh," very quietly, as if he'd made a statement that required an answer yet she didn't know how to give one. "We'd better get off this road," Michael told her, which was what he'd intended to say before the air attack. When she still hesitated he had a bad instant in which he couldn't decide whether he'd spoken in German, Russian or English. Then she nodded, answered "Ja, haben Sie Recht," and she started them off once more toward the city. Seven I Loved A Man Who Died The damage to the BMW wasn't so bad. Besides the broken windshield, various dents to the bodywork, a single bullet hole in the spare tire mounted on the trunk and the groove across the passenger side where a ricocheting slug had passed, it was perfectly able to race another day. The damage to the bed in Franziska's studio apartment on Wittelsbacherstrasse was more substantial. Sometime during the afternoon's storm that swept through, the bed capsized on one side like a freighter struck by a U-Boat torpedo and its occupants, still wrapped up in each other, tumbled off to the floor where they finished what they'd started. They lay on a pile of pillows beneath the window, as the afternoon light began to fade. Franziska had her head on his shoulder, and she suddenly woke up from her sweet slumber and stretched so hard Michael heard her joints pop. "If you give me one more orgasm," she said into his ear, "you're going to have to take up permanent residence in my pussy." "What more could a man ask for but a warm, snug place to call home?" he asked. She began to lick in slow circles around his nipples, her tongue flicking this way and that. "You're tempting fate," he warned. Though one very important part of his body had come to the end of its usefulness for awhile, he still could flip her over and dive in headfirst, and before his own tongue and lips were through he would make her scream all the framed photographs off the walls. She put her chin on his chest and stared up at him. "Are you married?" An instant after she'd posed the question, she pressed her hand to her mouth. The gray eyes widened. "Oh my God! Oh Christ, I didn't mean to ask that! Forget it, all right?" "All right," Michael answered. Better, perhaps, to make her think he was married? "That's a stupid question," she went on after a short pause. She snuggled up in the crook of his right arm. "It's unsophisticated." "It's not unsophisticated to be curious." "Yes it is." She didn't speak again for a while, and he didn't either. He could feel her heart beating under his hand. They'd gone to lunch at a small cafe after the incident on the Reichsautobahn, and then Franziska had brought him here to take the photographs. After about half-an-hour of posing before a Nazi flag tacked to the wall, Michael had had enough of being told what to move and what not to move, especially when Franziska took off her clothes and informed him from behind the chrome-bodied Leica Standard that she just needed a few more shots. "When the war's over," Franziska said quietly, "it will all have been worth it." Michael said nothing. "You know what I'm saying. When the trash and the undesirables are removed from society. When Germany takes its rightful place. You know." "Yes," Michael had to say, because she was waiting for his reply. "I've seen some of the sketches for the buildings. Berlin is going to be the most beautiful city in the world. The parks will be majestic. The Reichsautobahn will connect every city in Europe, the trains will be back as they were, but even faster, and the ocean liners will even be bringing the American tourists over. And everyone will be flying in their own personal autogyros. You wait and see." "I'm just concerned with the next few months." "Oh, I understand that!" She rolled over so she could see his face in the shadowy light. "You don't have to grasp the big picture right now, but you're going to be part of it. All good Germans will be part of it. Those who fought and died, they'll be part of it too. The war memorials are going to be the envy of the world. Showing them all how we stood against the Bolsheviks. How we were the wall they couldn't break through. How we won the battle the British and Americans didn't have the courage to fight." She nodded, to emphasize her own certainty. "If the Fuhrer says it's so, it will be so." "Yes," Michael agreed. He had to stare at the ceiling. He'd already noticed many cracks up there. This building on the outside was untouched by the bombing, yet here was the damage from distant explosions, creeping along walls and ceilings from cellar to attic, weakening the structure by millimeters of brick dust and plaster, a slow destruction, a death counted in sheared-off nailheads and popped rivets, until the sick center could not hold. "Horst, you're going to live to see all this." Franziska put a hand on his chest, over his British and Russian heart. "God will not let a man like you be lost to the future. I know this like I know my own soul." Michael made some kind of noise of assent, he wasn't sure what. She stretched out upon him, her arms going around his body and her ear pressed down as if to count the heartbeats of such a noble beast. "You've seen so much death, I know," she said. "I can feel that in you. I think you've known very much pain. But you hide it from the world. You see, we're alike in this way. My parents were too busy for me, too busy adventuring. I was raised by a succession of nannies and thrown out of a succession of schools. I loved a man who died. In a racing accident, right in front of me. We were going to be married, know, such things happen. I was a girl." An element in her voice was quickly effervescent, and then gone. "I think...maybe all of me never came back from that. I'm sorry," she said suddenly, "I wasn't meaning to talk so much about myself." Michael's right hand had moved to poise over the black waves of her hair. He let his hand drift upon her head. He stroked his fingers gently through her hair and down along the back of her neck. "I like to listen," he invited. She didn't speak for a length of time. The light faded more and more, to less and less. When Franziska did speak, it was in a quiet voice that was tight with emotion. "Sometimes I if no one knows me, or can ever know me. I feel as one hears music as I do, or sees color, or appreciates...just living, every day. I feel...I'm in a world of shadows, and where are the real people? Am I the sleepwalker, or are they? Because if I learned anything from watching Kurt die, it was that one must be prepared to die, at any moment. But that doesn't mean being afraid, or locking yourself into a room and sealing off the world. Oh,'s the opposite. It means going out with courage into what you fear the most, and looking it right in the face. And if you live, you laugh, because you have won the fight for another day. That is how you prepare for death. By embracing life, not hiding from it. Oh, listen to me!" She glanced quickly up at him and then returned her head to the position it had been in. Michael knew she was enjoying having her head and neck rubbed. "Lecturing about life and death to a soldier!" "I understand what you mean," Michael said. "I knew you would. And I knew, the moment you approached me at Herr Rittenkrett's party, that you were different. I looked at you and took you in, and I thought... Franziska, you must be with this man. You must not only go to bed with him, but you must be with him. Why? Because I'm a selfish slut dressed up in silks and furs, and I want my pleasure. But also...because to you I want to give pleasure, and I haven't felt that way...since I was a girl," she finished. Michael said, "I'm honored," and he meant it. Her hand slid down between his thighs. "Now," she said, "I'm going to get up and go fetch from a drawer a paper pistol target and a floorstand to mount it on. I'm going to set the target up within an interesting distance. Then I'm going to give you the cocksucking of your life, and even though you think you might be tired, I'm going to use your gun to hit a bull's-eye. Do you understand that?" An expert marksman, Mallory had said. Michael would have to judge for himself. "Yes," he told her, and heard in his own voice the nearly giddy excitement of...a boy? "I very much understand." There would be no shooting of blanks in this contest. Sometime when the evening had closed in and they had showered together, she remarked on how fast his beard seemed to grow, and what kind of razor did he use? He said he owned a French Thiers-Izzard, and she gave him an expression of horror and said the beauty of his face should only be trusted to German steel. He wound up shaving with her razor, and afterward he watched as she sat on the edge of the tub and shaved her magnificent legs. "Do you like my bush?" she asked, with a dimpled half-smile he found devastating. "It's getting a little full, I think." He just had to look down at the floor tiles and shake his head at her earthiness, and when Franziska laughed at this unbelievable and until now unknown moment of shyness in the life of Michael Gallatin he thought he would pick this woman up in his arms and press her so close that Eve would return the rib. "Dinner?" he asked her, when he'd recovered himself. "Someplace with music?" A frown surfaced. "Oh...I have an appointment tonight. Something I can't put off. As a matter of fact, I was supposed to call Herr Rittenkrett by now. He'll be waiting to hear from me." Without the need for a towel, she walked in her glorious lithesome nakedness to the telephone in the other room. Michael hated to play his next card, but it was time to show the East Front Jack Of Hearts. He sighed as she picked up the receiver. "I'm sorry we can't spend all our time together. The time left, I mean." She put the receiver to her ear and started dialing. "If I get my orders tomorrow," he continued, "I might not have a chance to see you again." Careful, he thought. She mustn't smell the lie. "Franziska Luxe for Herr Rittenkrett," she said to whomever answered on the other side. "Well," he said, "do you have a suggestion for where I should eat?" She gave him a look over her shoulder that of itself was worthy of more target practice. "Hello, Axel," she said into the mouthpiece. "I wanted you to know..." She paused, still staring fixedly at Michael. "I'm not feeling very well tonight," she went on. "We'll need to postpone our plans. What? My condition? My throat is a little sore. Yes, I think I'll feel better tomorrow. Definitely tomorrow. I'll swallow something for it. Yes, I do know." She paused, listening to the Gestapo's 'Ice Man'. "That's right, Major Jaeger is here. I've been taking his pictures this afternoon. Yes, I'm aware it's evening, thank you." She gave a quick nod as if standing in Rittenkrett's presence. "I'm also aware of that," she replied. Then, after a silence, "I'll give him your regards, and I'll call you tomorrow." Franziska returned the receiver to its cradle. Her eyes had gone a little chilly. "He knows I'm lying, of course. It wouldn't do to lie a second time, about your not being here." She examined her fingernails for a moment, and then when she lifted her gaze to his again her eyes had warmed. "I am free for dinner, after all. And I do know a place with music." "And dancing?" he prodded. "I'll dance you into the ground," she promised. "We'll see about that." He hoped he wouldn't be dancing on a grave; either his own, or hers. The Ice Man might look coldly upon this interference in the Gestapo's plans, even if from a major who ought to be a colonel. Michael decided from here on out he should take care to pay attention to anyone coming up behind him. But, for the moment, there was life to be lived. Eight This Particular Wolftrap Over the next few days - as the air raid sirens shrieked at night, bombs fell on Berlin, troop trains passed through carrying more meat to feed the Russians and yet the parties went on at a pace meant to satisfy all human appetites and destroy all remaining inhibitions - the major with wary green eyes and the female photojournalist with an interesting reputation were seen in several restaurants, the cinema, and a few nightclubs that still had glass in the windows and not boards. Michael thought that for a person who felt she was known by no one, Franziska had an army of acquaintances. At lunch or dinner their table was bound to be approached by at least two or three people. Of course Franziska would introduce him and - most of these visitors being civilians - Michael would listen politely to their comments about the war being won soon, and Berlin getting back to normal and the world paying its heavy debt to Germany. Even Franziska, who could herself go on at length about the future of the Thousand-Year-Reich, was bored within one minute of the proclamations of some of these overstuffed blowhards. Michael didn't fail to notice that several of the married men, their mummified wives in tow, gazed upon Franziska with the eyes of those who have for a short space of time seen what lay beneath the gown and the manners, and their nervous movements from side-to-side showed they hoped someday to repeat that viewing. She dashed their hopes and broke their hearts with a quick sidelong smile and a turning away of the face that said Your day is done. Of more concern to Michael were the officers who occasionally ambled up, their pathetic attempts at charm not quite up to the hard reality of a missing limb, and above the fixed smiles the glazed expressions of actors no longer sure they remember their lines. They steered clear of actual war talk, movements of troops and tanks and so forth, which suited Michael fine, but what made him dodge a bit were the questions of did he know Colonel der von Glockenspiel or Major Hamminibus or some such name thrown at him like a fat piece of oily pork. He always said the name was familiar but, no, he had never met the man. He knew the name of his own supposed divisional commander, Burmeister, so he couldn't be tripped up for that mistake. The officers always said it was a pleasure, good luck in his forthcoming struggle, may God protect Germany, and Heil Hitler. Then, when the major and the photojournalist sitting at their table had seen that sharp hunger in the eyes of the other, the rising of the heated flame that no liquid outburst could extinguish for very long, either he or she reached for a knee and in his case winnowed his hand beneath her skirt and moved along a silken thigh, or in her case placed a firm hand of ownership upon what she wished to command, and one of them -or both at the same time, as had happened - would ask the question: "Are you ready?" They were always ready. He didn't know exactly what she was doing. If she was gathering information for the Gestapo by seduction, or by following and photographing the comings and goings of suspected Inner Ring members, or some of both. He didn't think she was doing only mundane investigation, she was far too talented for that alone. He understood how within a few minutes of being with her, a man would cast aside all caution and self-preservation and start to jabber about things to make himself sound important, until a slip of the jabber made her hone in on some remark and work it like she worked in the sheets on a man's most valued companion. If, as Michael understood, the majority of the Inner Ring's members were office clerks, military aides, pencil pushers and scientists who might be brilliant but sometimes forgot what shoe went on which foot, Franziska's work was nearly accomplished just by walking into the room. One evening at midweek, before going to a late-night Signal party that she'd invited him to, they went to dinner in one of the very few fine restaurants still open, and they sat before a picture window overlooking a lamplit park. They'd just gotten their food when the air raid sirens went off, and instantly the few other patrons started for the cellar. "No," Franziska said when he started to stand up. She was radiant tonight, absolutely gorgeous in a dark blue dress with a strand of pearls around her neck. She took his hand. "We'll be all right." Then she'd continued eating her dinner and drinking her wine, and though the manager came and implored them to leave their table and come down with everyone else she shook her head with a wry smile, and at last they were alone in the restaurant. The flak guns began firing, the sounds like pillows being whacked with cricket bats . Michael heard the distant thunder of the bombs. Through the window he could see the blue-white flashes, like whips of lightning, and then the faraway red flames curling up. She was staring at him across the table. He had lost his appetite, but he lifted his glass and said, "Prost!" "Prost!" she answered with pleasure, and they drank. A bomb fell closer. Michael felt its power in the floor. Multicolored lanterns at the ceiling shivered. Her fingers entwined with his. She said softly, "I am safe with you. And you are safe with me. As long as we're together...nothing can hurt us." "I'm glad you believe that." She shook her head. "More than believe. I know." But he wondered: do the bombs know? One fell very close, an explosion perhaps a street or two beyond the park. The wineglasses and gold-edged plates jumped on the table. Tree limbs came flying at the window and made a noise like clattering claws. She just smiled. Michael looked at her. Really looked, as if he'd never seen her before. At the birthday party, he'd said something to the Ice Man that wasn't exactly true: I don't fear. The truth was, he wasn't afraid. He was cautious, and he was prepared, and so he was not afraid. But he feared this woman sitting, smiling, before him. The woman whose fingers were entwined with his. He'd had choices presented to him, after the mission that involved the D-Day invasion of Normandy and the matter of Iron Fist. Chesna van Dorne had asked him to go to Hollywood with her. In his mind he'd weighed that invitation against disappearing into the wilds of Canada, of finding a hunter's stone cabin three hundred miles from people, and living as a solitary man there until, possibly, the end of his days. His decision had been neither of those. He'd decided to stay where he was, at the house in Wales. To press on pressing on, as the British would say. But now he knew, he had made a mistake. He should have left Wales. He should have gone where they couldn't find him. Where an inquiry for Michael Gallatin drew only a blank stare. He had made a mistake, and now he was in Berlin, with bloodthirsty Russians on the outskirts and bombs falling down, and he was holding the hand of Franziska Luxe. Whatever he was, he was not fully. Not one nor the other. He could not live in the crowded city of Hollywood, nor could he live three hundred miles from the nearest human being. But whatever he was, and whatever he at last became, he realized that he needed the human embrace just as every heart did. And more than that...his downfall...was that he needed to be the human embrace to some other heart. She was a Nazi, with a Nazi's view of the world. What they had between them was the sex. The deep and hungry kisses, the bites, the cries of passion, the friction of flesh, the movement of hips and the pounding one into the other until the electric release and then the wet mouths searching for each other again. They had the sex, and with that they were very good. But when the next bomb fell, again too close, and Franziska's hand tightened just a little on his own but her composed expression never changed, Michael feared this woman because she was the river that, once crossed, would never let him go home again. Moving in slow inches, he began to turn his chair and his body. She would say she needed no protection, and so he didn't ask. He positioned himself so he was directly across from her, his back offered to the picture window and to the God of War from whom all jagged shards flew. Franziska continued the conversation they'd been having before the sirens, about the prospects for German Grand Prix racing to be reinstated after the war, and her intention to be part of a team. She knew her cars inside and out and could explain the varying characterics of engines, braking systems, tires and so on year-by-year. Michael was more comfortable listening rather than talking very much, to avoid a blunder, though she did try to encourage him to talk about his childhood and his family. If she only knew the truth, he thought as he fed her the fiction that had been prepared for him before he'd left England. There were never any questions about his being married, or about his experiences in the war. She never failed, however, to at least once a day ask if he'd gotten his orders yet. Not ninety seconds later, the bomb that Michael was dreading ended its long fall among buildings on the far side of the park. At the same instant as they heard the hollow whump of the blastwave, there was a loud noise like a pistol shot. Michael flinched. The floor trembled and creaked. Brick dust drifted in the air. Throughout the restaurant the lanterns swung back and forth. Michael turned in his chair and saw first the crack that had cut diagonally across the window. Secondly, he saw that the park's lamps had been blown out, and thirdly he saw that a building was burning bright orange with a white center where the bomb had struck. Another bomb exploded further to the east, and one or two or several more after that, moving eastward still, the noises merging together to make a continuous whirling roar. Then, there were only the creaks and pops of an injured building settling deeper on its foundations. The air raid sirens were still shrieking and the flak guns continued to fire upon the departing bombers. Shortly after that, they heard the sirens of the ambulances and fire trucks. The flak guns ceased, and the air raid warning abruptly stopped in mid-cry. "Someday I'd like to take up sailing," she said to him, as the manager and the shaken-looking patrons began to emerge from the cellar. "On the open sea. At least try it. How does that sound?" "Wet," he answered, which was also the description of the back of his neck. "But with you, an adventure I wouldn't dare miss." "To our wet adventure," she said as she lifted her glass for another toast. "Someday. Prost!" The party - held in honor of Signal journalists by some very important backers and supporters of the magazine - was held in a private mansion on the Grabertstrasse. The place looked to Michael as if its architect had been a little too fond of gingerbread houses in his childhood, with its walls that resembled thick white frosting and upon the roofs, chimneys, and turrets that might have been sprinkled with cinnamon. On their way there, in the open-topped BMW through the wintry night, Franziska had given Michael a brief accounting of who would be in attendance: Baron von Caught the Clapp and his fourth wife the spindly sixteen-year-old Spidergirl, Ziggy the Playboy who zigged and zagged both ways, the Countess of No Worth, and so on, plus bodyguards and handholders for all these people and whoever else had decided to come in search of free champagne and little sausages in sesame-seed buns. It was dreadful, but the champagne was good and flowed freely. The chamber music ensemble wasn't so bad. The pile of logs in the huge fireplace was very warm, and the chandeliers sparkled in a merry way. Michael found himself and Franziska separated soon after they arrived, she whisked away by a spry white-haired man - the Clapp? - through a larger throng than he would have expected out on a bomb-run night. Suddenly Michael was surrounded by four girls, three of them very attractive indeed and the fourth unfortunately buck-toothed but who energetically kept wanting to feel his Iron Cross. They laughed and jostled together like brightly-painted freight cars while he tried to be charming and found that he didn't have to try too very hard. But the thing was...he realized that he was aware of wherever Franziska was among all these grinning and champagne-soused and somewhat sad people in the large ornately-appointed room. He just felt her out there. He would get a glimpse of her hair or her shoulder or her hip, before the crowd closed in, and then he would sense when she was moving, and in which direction. He laughed and talked to the ladies, but he was always aware that he was connected to Franziska by what seemed like an elastic band that could stretch to any distance and then draw them together again. The ladies chattered on. Then through the crowd he saw her standing amid a group of several uniformed men of varying ages, her champagne flute in hand, the men motioning and posturing with the animation of excitement, she calmly sipping her bubbly at the center of what looked like a lot of playboys talking with their groins. A thought came to him, unbidden. That is my woman. And as if she'd heard this as clearly as his voice, she looked at him directly across the room, through the puffery of playboys, and over the champagne flute that caught golden firelight from the blaze her right eye quickly winked. My woman, Michael thought. Then in the next instant he had to turn away, to stride past the girls with the giggles on their lips, to stride past the massive fireplace and the hanging tapestry that depicted a German knight on a white horse, and going past people he didn't know and would never know he had to find a place to stand by himself, to think, because he knew exactly what the spikes at the bottom of this particular wolftrap were made of. This was wrong, terribly wrong, and here he paused to pluck a fresh flute of champagne from a waiter's tray, and as he took a drink he thought it smelled of cigars and a leather saddle, and then the white-clad arm caught him hard by the shoulder and Michael turned into the mountainous bulk of the white-haired, red-faced man who also had hold of Franziska's left arm as one would clutch a troublesome piece of luggage that sprang open at the most inopportune times. Behind Axel Rittenkrett stood the thug and the accountant, both in their dark suits. "Major Jaeger," said Rittenkrett, with a slight bow of the mountaintop. "Franziska wishes to say goodnight, and may we call a cab for you before we leave?" Michael read Franziska's expression; it was more annoyance than pain, but the Gestapo man's fingers were pressing into her flesh. "Take your hand off her," Michael said. Rittenkrett's pale blue eyes were dead. Icy, as it were. "It's all right, Horst," said Franziska, her brow furrowed. "I just have to - " "Take your hand," Michael repeated into the dead eyes, "off her." And across his body - back, chest, arms and legs - he felt the scurrying of dangerous ants. "Or what, sir?" Rittenkrett's face thrust at him like a scarlet bludgeon. "What will you dare to do, if I don't take my hand off her?" Michael wasted no time in answering. He flung the remainder of his champagne across the flaming face and the snow-white suit jacket, and from the liquid that streamed down the cheeks and dripped off the chin he almost expected to hear a sizzle. Nine The Perfect Package The group of people who witnessed this drama froze as if statues in a tableau, though across the room the violins and cello of the chamber music ensemble kept on playing. The accountant, Sigmund, looked worriedly around as if searching for a notepad to write down the details of this atrocity. The thug, Ross, strode toward Michael with a grim purpose, his hands in black leather gloves clenched into fists. "Ross, be still!" snapped the Ice Man, whose face glistened. He had taken his hand from Franziska's arm, and he reached with it for the red handkerchief in his jacket. Ross stopped. "Everyone be calm," Rittenkrett said, to no one in particular. He wiped his face and gave a grunt of dismay at the champagne scrawled down the front of his suit. Michael felt Franziska wanting him to look at her, to convey some message, but he would not. He stood loose-limbed and relaxed, ready for whatever happened next. "This is a mess," the Ice Man muttered. He aimed his eyes at Michael and scowled yet there was no true rage in the florid face, as Michael had expected to find. "Major, this tells me you're either insane or you believe yourself to be in love. Which is it?" "I don't like to see a woman bullied by a man." "Bullied? Because I was guiding her to the door? Are you sure you know as much about women as you seem to think you do? By the way, are you married?" "No," came the reply. As far as he could tell, that brought no reaction whatsoever from Franziska. "Ever been married? No children?" Michael thought of a white palace, in what seemed another life. He was silent. "We need to have a little talk, Major. About the importance of responsibilities. I suggest we go find a quiet room. Everyone!" Rittenkrett said to the onlookers, many of whom obviously knew his station in life and wore sickly expressions that said they regretted having been witnesses to the incident. "This has been an unfortunate misunderstanding, but everything's fine. Believe me," he added, for the unbelievers. Michael, Franziska, Rittenkrett and the two underlings went through a door and along a hallway. Rittenkrett guided them into a room with a checkerboard-patterned floor and some overstuffed chairs arranged around another huge fireplace, this one cold. A chandelier hung from the high ceiling and the walls were adorned with a few light fixtures done up to resemble torches that might be carried by a village mob, but with electric bulbs. Rittenkrett closed the door behind them. In here there was no noise of the party, just the quiet ticking of a grandfather clock in a corner. Ross stood at the door. Sigmund wandered around, perhaps making mental numbers of how much everything in the room was worth. Rittenkrett folded his handkerchief into smaller and smaller squares. "I presume," he said after a few more ticks of the clock, "that you're fucking her brains out? You must be, because she's gotten stupid here just lately. She was supposed to meet me at headquarters this evening, at exactly six-thirty, yet where was she? With you, I'm guessing. This afternoon, she missed another important meeting. You know why? Because she called my secretary and said she had to go shopping." "I regret not being available this evening," Franziska spoke up, her voice firm and clear. There wasn't a hint of regret in it. "I had my notes delivered to you." "Oh yes, your notes. Your journalistic impressions. Of course. Those." Rittenkrett reached into a pocket and brought out a pack of Krenter Indianer cigarellos, with the stylized drawing of an American Indian chief on the front. He lit a gold-colored bullet-style lighter, got the cigarello going and blew a couple of hearty smoke rings. "Major, do you have any inkling of what Fraulein Luxe is doing for the Gestapo? Or should I say, for the war effort against traitors unfortunately too close to home?" "No." "Good, because it's not your concern. You have your own war to fight. I presume you do. When are your orders coming through?" "Any day now, I'm sure." This was a hazardous area; he didn't want the Ice Man checking up on his supposed division. "I'm ready to go tonight, if need be." "Are you?" Rittenkrett squinted at him through another smoke ring that floated toward Michael like a ghostly noose and broke apart only at the last second. He let the question linger, as he paced back and forth across the polished floor. His shoes were also white, and they made clacking noises. "Look, Major Jaeger!" Rittenkrett abruptly stopped, and with the cigarello clenched between his teeth he threw up his hands. "The problem seems to be that Franziska is neglecting some of her duties to be with you. Now, I don't care if you're fucking her. I myself have fucked her. She has a whole closet full of letters and medals and little pitiful gifts sent to her by men who have fucked her, from all branches of the services, and I think there are even some Boy Scout badges in there somewhere. I mean, this is what she does. She's famous for it, sir. Surely you know why by now. Either that, or you're dead down there." Michael was by no means dead down there, but he did feel a little ill. "She is the perfect package," Rittenkrett went on, behind his smoke rings. "And her photographic talents aren't so bad either. Working with Signal, she has an open doorway to anywhere she wishes to go. Which makes her also valuable to me." His gaze turned upon Franziska. "But I really don't like it when you send me notes as if I'm not worthy of your time or presence. You have winnowed yourself into a position of responsibility, and I expect you not to falter in your duties. You realize, the perks you enjoy aren't free." "I never assumed they were," she said, with her own touch of ice. Rittenkrett silently smoked at the center of the room. His expression told Michael he wasn't sure he liked her tone. But then he shrugged the massive shoulders. "Let's put this behind us and focus on our work. All right? The reason I've come here tonight is to tell you that something strange is happening with our list of clients. They are...shall we say...vacating the premises. Therefore we need to work faster. And, by the way, were you going to forget your appointment?" He checked his wristwatch. "In a little less than an hour, I believe?" "There's not much there," Franziska said, and Michael just pretended to wear a puzzled look that he kept short of too much curiosity. "But there's something there," the Ice Man reminded her, with a jab of his Indianer in the air. "You yourself said so, and I hold you to delivering it." He gave the major a damp smile. "Business, you see, goes on both day and night. Oh, don't look so glum, sir! I'll tell you what." He approached Michael, the white shoes clacking, but stopped short of crowding him. "We'll give you a ride. Not far from your hotel is an excellent whorehouse with many beautiful young girls. Some of them are gypsies, if you like the dark look. Very talented, in their way. So if you were hoping for a warm hole tonight, you won't be disappointed."

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