The Hunter from the Woods

Chapter 16

"Yes," he agreed, "I am the killer. Yes, I am. So." He lifted his gaze to the blue lenses. "I presume you have a chemist." "Yes." "I want a pill. Something that dissolves quickly. Something that is tasteless and odorless." He had to stop for a little bit, because he was hurting so much. "Something that will put her to sleep, within...fifteen or twenty minutes. That's what I want. That she just go to sleep." Kollmann thought about it, his fingers tapping the arm of his chair. "It's a tall order." Michael leaned toward him with such ferocity that the tapping instantly stopped and the man shrank back. "Yes, it is," Michael said, his eyes enraged though his voice was eerily controlled, "but I'm the killer. And I'm telling you, as a killer, that if she feels pain, that if she throws up her guts or defecates herself, or anything other than going to sleep, then I'm coming after the messenger. And the messenger may think he's so righteous and pure for his glorious love of what Germany once was, but it's all murder to me because I'm the killer. If the messenger tries to hide in his house, I'll tear it to pieces, and if he tries to hide in his church I'll take that apart too. And maybe I'll never leave this city alive, but after she's dead and I've ripped you to shreds I will have no more need to live another day, because the killer's work will be finished." It took a moment for Kollmann to relax. He must have really been close to God, because his next question was, "Shall I bring you two pills, then?" Michael had already thought about that. As much as he might wish it, suicide was repugnant to him. The wolf in him wouldn't allow it. No. Never. "Only the one," he said. The priest stood up, and so did Michael. Kollmann said, "We'll come up with something. Still...there won't be an opportunity to test its qualities. It'll have to be guesswork." "Prayer might help," Michael advised. Kollmann offered his hand. Michael just looked at it, and thought how he could tear it off at the wrist. On his way across the lobby, Kollmann was stopped by the older man and woman. The woman began to softly weep, and then so did the man. The priest spoke to them and touched their shoulders, but never did he remove his blue-tinted glasses. Michael climbed up the stairs to his room, where pallid-faced and gasping he leaned over the toilet just in time to be violently, wrenchingly sick. Eleven The Tenth Woman He went for a long walk through the streets, as evening turned the dim light of afternoon blue and snowflakes whirled around him. He walked on and on, as if seeking to be lost, but his sense of direction was unerring and he always knew exactly where his hotel was. He walked through bombed areas, where people still tried to salvage something of their lives from the ruins. He saw an overturned wagon with two dead horses still in their traces, the bloated carcasses whitened with snow. He saw a pack of desperate dogs gnawing in to get at the entrails, and he walked on. In the silence of the evening streets, just a few people out and a few wagons, some riders on bicycles and a scattering of cars, Michael thought he could hear the sound of artillery firing in the east. The Russians might be slowed for a short while, but nothing would stop them from taking this city. He knew the strong, unyielding and often brutal nature of the Russian; after all, he was one of them. At his hotel, the clerk gave him a message from Franziska. She had a dinner engagement she couldn't get out of, and then she had to do some photographic work in her darkroom. But she would call at eleven o'clock. The clerk read the last lines of the message: "Think of me when you have dinner. A thousand kisses. Weather forecast: more rain coming". The clerk looked strangely at the major, as if he suspected this must be some kind of secret code. Michael took the paper and had dinner in the restaurant followed by a good strong glass of brandy. He wound up paying for an entire bottle, which he took with a glass up to his room. He was waiting, half-drunk, when the telephone rang at ten-fifty-six. "I have to work a little later," she told him. "Some more pictures to develop, and they must be done tonight." "By order of Herr Rittenkrett?" he asked. She was silent for a few seconds. Then: "You don't sound like yourself. Are you all right?" "I've had dinner and I've been drinking. Just a little." Had he slurred that word? Have to be careful here, not to let his accent slip. What the hell was wrong with him, letting his guard down like this? "You've been drinking," she repeated back. "Yes. Brandy. I'm looking at what is almost an empty bottle. I expect to empty it in the next...oh...ten minutes." Franziska gave a sudden gasp, as if she'd been slapped. "Your orders came," she said. He closed his eyes, the better to see her standing before him. "Yes." "Oh...Horst. I'll be right there." "No! Franziska...finish what you're doing." "I'm leaving now. This can wait." "Listen to me!" he said, more sharply than he'd intended. "Just...stay there and do what you need to do. Keep your mind on your work." "Oh, of course!" Were there tears in that word? "I mean it." He wondered what Mallory and Kollmann would say to his telling her she should do the exact work he'd been sent to interfere with. Did it matter now? "Franziska," he said in a quieter tone, "I don't have to leave tonight. Nor tomorrow." "When do you have to go, then?" Yes, definitely a tear or two. Her voice had thickened with what could only be sorrow. I have to go after you're dead, he thought. But he said, "We still have time enough. I promise." "There can't be enough time." "Go back to your work," he said firmly. "I'll be there as soon as I finish." She hung up. Michael returned the receiver to its cradle and then he picked up the bottle of brandy and swallowed some more courage. He would go down and buy another bottle, but he couldn't get too drunk or he might lose himself. Whoever he was tonight. When Michael heard the knock on his door at twelve-forty and opened it, Franziska rushed in and put her arms around him. She was wearing her fawn-colored overcoat and a sea-green beret. She kissed him on the cheek, on the forehead, on the lips and on the throat. She pressed herself into him. Then she put her head on his shoulder and said in his ear, "I know men who can help. They can have you reassigned to duty here. All I have to do is - " He knew what she would have to do. He took her chin in his hand and glared into her luminous eyes. "No! You're not doing that for me. Do you hear? Not for me." He saw the pain in her face, and it nearly dropped him to his knees. He tried to pull a smile up from somewhere. "There's no need for sadness. Didn't you say to me that this is my purpose? And you know fully well you said that God would not allow a man like me to - " "That was before," she interrupted, and he saw the tears bloom. One overflowed and streaked down her right cheek. "Before what? We went to bed together?" "No." A second tear followed the first. "Before I wanted you to stay with me. I know forever is a long time, so I won't say forever. But we could start out by saying it might be forever. Couldn't we? Please, please, please." It was she who got down on her knees. She grasped his hand and kissed it, and she held it against a tear-wet cheek. "Please, I can take care of this. I can go see those men, it would be nothing, it would be so easy, I could - " "Stand up! Come on! Up!" He pulled her to her feet. "Don't beg," he said. "Never beg. Not to any man." "I don't want you to die!" she rasped. And there it was. The reality, in amid all the fictions, the parties and the merrymaking. She trembled, and her tears were trickling slowly down and so also trickled down a small thread of saliva from her lower lip. Get out of here, he almost said. He thought for a few seconds of shouting at her, of running her out because this was too much, it was impossible to bear this. But the fact was, he knew how short their hours were, and if she had to die - if she had to die - then he would be with her when it happened, and it would not be a cold stranger with a silenced pistol or a strangler in the alley at the end of the street. He would take the responsibility to put her over as gently as possible. And then, quite suddenly, he felt the burn in his own eyes and he lowered his head but she'd already seen. She put a finger under his chin to angle his face toward her again. Strongly and clearly she said, "I'm not going to let you be lost." "I have lied to you," he heard himself answer. "My Westphalian accent is false. Studied. I was not born in Dortmund. I am...different, from anyone else. I was born in Russia, and I was a child there. What you're hearing in my accent is - " Her fingers went to his lips. "Shhhhh," she said. "I don't care. Just answer me this: you're not a traitor, are you?" "No, I'm not a traitor." "Then what does it matter? Very well, so you were born in Russia. What were you, the family secret?" She didn't wait for a response. "If you looked into the histories of most of the people at that Signal party, you'd find few of them without a chambermaid or a stable boy hidden in their family trees." The power of illusion, he thought. Or delusion. Right now she was creating the story in her mind of how he was the child of an ill-starred love between a German officer and a Russian maiden on the eve of the Great War, and how he'd probably been raised by the simple and gentle maiden, but then she'd sent him to be cared for by his father in Dortmund because she knew what better education and enlightenment he would receive. In fact, that sounded close to the movie they'd seen at the cinema a few nights ago. What was the point of going down the road of truth? It was too fantastic to be believed. And if he showed her...what then? He might kill her of fright, and then he could go home like a real hero. He put his arms around her and held her tightly. They clung together like the only still-solid objects in a universe disintegrating to dust. "I'm so sorry," he said. Sorry, he realized, that she had not been born in England, that they had not met years before this one, that even together they stood on different sides of a chasm. Sorry that life was as cruel as it was, and that time could never be stopped or wound backward. "It wasn't a bad lie," she answered, misunderstanding. "I forgive you." She kissed him on the lips. She traced her tongue along the outline of his mouth. She took her clothes off and pressed her breasts against his chest. She ground her second heart against his groin in slow circles while she stared pleadingly into his eyes but he could not be roused. "Are you tired of me?" she asked. Could a man ever be tired of the sun in winter? He said, "No, it's not that." As Michael sat on the edge of the bed, Franziska knelt behind him and worked the tense muscles of his shoulders with her strong fingers. "I'll do anything you like," she told him. "I'm the tenth woman." He frowned. "The tenth woman?" "Oh, yes. Don't you know? Five women out of ten will slap a man's face for an indecent suggestion. Two will turn on their heel. One will kick him in the balls, and one will think it over. I'm the tenth woman." He smiled slightly, in spite of himself. "I'm the woman who refused to leave the Garden of Eden," she said as she worked on him. "I bake pies from the forbidden fruit, and I serve them to whomever I choose." "Sounds delicious," he said. "Do you think I'm a bad person?" she asked. "I you think I'm..." She trailed off, and Michael could feel her shrug. Her hands stopped. He knew what she was really asking: How do you feel about me? He turned toward her, and it hit him anew how beautiful she was. She was to him like a masterpiece of a painting, a work of art that comes together in its perfection only once in the proverbial blue moon, and always in her face there was some shade or nuance of expression that changed it ever so slightly so that looking at her was like seeing not one woman but a multitude. And all of them, every one, were now staring at him with this question in the perfume-scented air between them. He was going to show her how he felt. No matter what tomorrow held. She wanted to know, and words were not enough . So he would lay her down upon the bed and show her, with all his strength and tenderness and desire, because she deserved to know and he owed her that much. Then he would make her promise on both her hearts that she would do nothing to interfere with his orders, and he would tell her that tomorrow night he intended to take her to dinner and to a place where music played until very late, and afterward he wanted her right where she belonged, here in bed with him tasting the forbidden fruit. And champagne, he would say. Of course they needed champagne to drink, on the last night of their world. She wrapped herself around him as he entered her, and in his ear she blissfully sighed the name of a stranger. Twelve The Light And The Dark A bad part of the morning was when Michael, returning from a walk, asked at the desk if anything had arrived for Major Horst Jaeger. "Yes, Major. This came while you were out." The clerk brought from beneath the smooth oak counter a small box wrapped in brown paper. Michael noted at once that it was about the size of a jeweler's box. The kind that might hold a - "If you don't mind my asking," said the clerk, "I've seen you several times in the company of the beautiful young woman. Um...would this be a ring for her, sir?" Michael knew what the man surmised. Lovers being parted, the noble soldier of the Reich going off to war. Was this an engagement gift, perhaps? A promise of many bright tomorrows? "I'll need a magnum of chilled champagne in my room around midnight," he said, with no emotion. "Two glasses. I'd like the best bottle in the house." "Yes sir. I believe we have some Moet still in stock." "That'll do. Bill my account, of course." He started to walk away, the box in his right hand. "My compliments and congratulations, sir," said the clerk. In his room, Michael opened the box and unwrapped a small ball of waxed paper sealed with tape. The pill was white with a faint blue tinge, the same color and a little smaller than one of Franziska's pearls. He returned it to the waxed paper and then to the box, which went up on the closet shelf behind the folded extra blanket. For most of the day he slept, or tried to. He curled himself against the gray light that fell through the windows. Snowflakes spun against the glass. The steam pipes beat a rhythm. Just after three she called to say she would be there in front at six-thirty. Their dinner reservation, more romantic than necessary, was for seven o'clock. She said she was happy, and she called him darling. When he hung up, he was planning the evening. Yes, I am the killer. He showered and shaved and dressed well in advance of her arrival. He used a German military-issue brush on his hair, and a German military-issue toothbrush on his teeth. He took the taped-up ball of waxed paper from its box and put it into his trouser pocket on the left side. He wasn't sure yet how or when he was going to drop the pill in her glass, but he had the confidence of the professional. The killer, yes I am. Dark was falling, very quickly. He went downstairs to meet her, and pulling the collar of his feld-grau topcoat up he walked into the flurries and waited. The BMW came, its top raised and secured with grommets against the weather. When Michael climbed into the car, Franziska gave him a quick kiss at the corner of his mouth and she said she was famished, she'd been so busy during the day she hadn't had time for lunch. More photographs to be developed and some documents delivered. She looked as if she might have cried at some point today also, because her makeup didn't quite cover the dark hollows beneath her eyes. The roadster roared off, snow be damned. I am the killer. Yes. They ate at a restaurant that overlooked the river Spree. It was all candles and dark red drapes. A strolling violinist made the circle between their table and the only two other occupied tables, until Michael tipped him and said they wished to be excluded from the route. Michael had to move his chair a little, because from where he was sitting the view out the terrace windows to the east showed him the occasional dim flare of an artillery shell against low-lying clouds. Franziska played hands with him atop the table and rubbed his ankle with her foot beneath it. She ate her first courses of rose hip soup and potato salad like there was no tomorrow. When his meal, the grilled venison, came he moved it around the plate for show but found he had no stomach for the eating. Still, he had to pick himself up for her. He had to chat and listen and nod, and to give her a smile when she needed or expected one. And she had chosen this night to reveal to him the full power of her gifts, for not only was she streamlined and sleek as a racing machine in her black dress trimmed with silver spangles, and not only were the waves of black hair pinned back with a silver clasp in the shape of a half-moon, and not only did her wine-red lips shine and her gray eyes gleam in the low light, but her force of life was focused on him as if he were the only other human being in the world. Whenever he spoke about the most inane thing - the weather, the service at the hotel, what he'd seen on his walk today - seemed to her rapt attention to be the most heart-felt confession of a god. This was how she worked, Michael thought. This was how the family man or the office worker or the lowly aide tripped over his tongue in his eagerness to be heard and appreciated, to be thought so important by a beautiful creature. This was how the secrets became known: not by being pried out, but by being urged out word after word with silent approval. Then the Gestapo came and took the crowing, pitiful roosters to Hell, to be boiled down into oil for the potato salad. Yes. I am the killer. "You look so worried," she said, as she rested her hand atop his. "You don't need to be." "It's not worry. I'm just preparing myself, in my mind." "I know," she said, "that you want to do your duty. I know you're a warrior. What would you be, if you weren't? An office boy? And not some general's staff monkey, either. You are what you are, and I thank God for that. But you're also only a man, Horst. The same flesh and blood and...worries...of any man. It is the woman who shoulders the burden her man can't carry. This woman wants to, very badly. So if you need to talk about the war, or anything else that troubles you...please...I'm right here." Michael took a drink from his cup of erstaz coffee. Her man, she'd said. He picked up his fork and drew furrows in the white tablecloth. This was her power. Because everything in him wanted to say, yes I am the killer, but I want to be your man. And I want to start clean and tell you my story. I want to tell you how I was born, both times, and how I have lived. I want to tell you about my first bitch and my missing son. About the world as I know it, and the world as I wish it to be. I want to tell you how the old tales of the lycanthrope are wrong, and how they are right. And I want to be able to tell all this to you, and afterward look into your eyes and see not fear but love. But he didn't say any of this, because there was no time and the pill was in his pocket, and if he was indeed her man he would not ask her to shoulder any burdens he couldn't carry alone. "It's going to be all right," she said. "You'll see." Michael nodded. Sometime in the next few minutes one of the other couples in the room, an elderly pair, stood up and danced gracefully beside their table to the violinist's tune, and Michael watched Franziska's face as she smiled at the charming old man who at the end of the dance kissed his wife's hand and held her chair out for her as any gentleman should. They went to a music hall where the attendance was again skimpy, but the dark brew was good and a trio of guitar player, pianist and drummer held the stage. The lights kept flickering, not for effect but because of hits somewhere on the power grid. Michael asked Franziska to dance to a slow, jazzy number during which he held her as tightly against himself as he could without hurting her. Suddenly they found themselves alone on the floor because the music had stopped and the place was closing down. "Just a moment," he told her, and under the uncertain lights they danced a bit longer to their own secret music. Then it was time to go back to the hotel, back to room 214, because there was nowhere else to go. The magnum of Moet champagne sat in its ice bucket by the bed. Two champagne flutes had been placed nearby. A light blue envelope bearing the golden seal of the Grand Frederik called for Michael's attention, and when he opened it the note read in tidy German penmanship: Dear Major Jaeger, in recognition of your service to the Reich and to your happy occasion, which our day clerk Oskar has informed me of, please accept this bottle with the best compliments of the house, and please think of the Grand Frederik should you require accomodations for any future celebration. A good life to you. In Debt To Your Honor, Adrian Bayerbergen, Manager. "What's that?" Franziska put her arms around him from behind. He folded the note. "The bill," he said, as he put it into a coat pocket. "Unfortunately, in this world nothing is free." "Oh, don't be so sure about that." She kissed and nuzzled the back of his neck. "I'm pretty free." "You are free," he agreed, "and you are pretty." He turned around to face her, and he took hold of her chin and stared deeply into her eyes. His heart was its own BMW 328. "What can I do for such a free and pretty woman as you?" "Well," she breathed, with her lips just barely grazing his, "first I would like to put into my mouth a big, succulent, wet and delicious - " She held up before him the champagne flute she was holding. "Drink?" she finished. "I should spank you first." "Would you please?" she asked, her eyes going wide. He opened the champagne, which foamed extravagantly, and then he poured a flute for her and himself. She tapped his glass with her own. "To freedom?" she asked. "No, no! Wait! To...good decisions? No, wait!" She frowned. "Ah!" she said. "To the sun that sets in the west." "What kind of toast is that?" he asked as she drank. "One I hope you remember when you need to." she answered. "Drink up." He did, trying to figure out what she was saying. Maybe it was the beer talking? "Excuse me while I go to the bathroom." "May I give assistance?" "You may stay right here and have another drink." He went into the bathroom and leaned over the sink, because his heart was hammering and sweat was rising on his face. He might be a killer, but he wasn't a monster. He couldn't do this. No, tomorrow he would go to the safe house and tell them he was done, he was out, and to send a killer with the fingers of an angel and the mind of a blank slate to remove Franziska Luxe from this world. He took the ball of waxed paper from his pocket and held it over the toilet. But he asked himself: if it fell in the water and was swirled away into the depths of Berlin, would this be the act of a hero or the shame of a coward? The light and the dark, all mixed up together. The words of a priest. "Darling?" Franziska called. "Shall I phone for a plumber?" "Hush!" he told her, trying to keep his voice light. When he'd pulled the chain, the toilet had flushed and the waxed paper was gone, he walked out of the bathroom and found her naked on the bed but for a strip of sheet clutched between her legs. She was drinking her champagne and reading the afternoon's edition of the Deutsche Allemagne Zeitung as casually as if she were waiting for the next tram to come along. "Oh!" she said at his appearance. "Are you the new serving-man here?" "Does the uniform give me away, madam?" "It does. Please be kind enough to take it off and serve me." She watched as he undressed, making rather interesting noises and a few earthy comments here and there. Then, nude, Michael took her flute and poured some more champagne and as she leaned forward and gave his right buttock a fairly stinging slap he dropped into the sparkling liquid the small pill that had been held in his palm. He faced her with the glass down at his side, giving time for the dissolvement. "You have a very strange look on your face," she observed.

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