The Hunter from the Woods

Chapter 18

Something that had wanted to go to sleep, that had yearned for the peace of sleep, now stretched its muscles and opened a fierce green eye. The Black Sun. What in the name of God could that be? In spite of himself, in spite of all the little pains that had merged together to make one pain huge and terrible, he knew his duty just as Franziska had known hers. In the flash of an instant it brought him back from the edge. It cleared his head. He knew who he was, what he was. And why he was. Michael looked up at the Ice Man and spoke. In a hoarse, nearly inhuman rasp. And in English. "I hadn't said that." "He said something!" Amazed, Rittenkrett looked around at the others. "I think it was English! Uthmann, come over here! Don't you speak English?" "I'm about to kill you," said Michael Gallatin, prisoner of the Gestapo and wrenched out upon the rack. "What?" Rittenkrett leaned down toward him, the cigarello gripped between his teeth on the left side. What the Ice Man could not possibly know is that there was more than one perfect package in this world. Fourteen The Soul Cage "Kill you," the major repeated. Except now it was mostly a snarl, because the change was upon him. One benefit of practice is, indeed, perfection. It comes only after many hundreds of attempts. And through Michael Gallatin's lifetime, it came from his practice of controlling and guiding the transformation sometimes three or four times a day, in all weather, in all positions both solemnly immobile in the cathedral of the forest and running at full speed as if to beat Satan's own locomotive on the underworld tracks. He was by now very good and very fast at opening his soul cage and letting Hell loose. Several things happened at once, in rapid succession. There were the crackings of bones and joints and the wet slidings and rearrangings of sinews that might have been taken for the work of the rack, but it was not. Bands of black and gray hairs rippled across the pick-pocked flesh. The face seemed to dissolve, to be replaced by a second, darker face that had been hidden beneath the mask of the first. It, too, was battered and bloody as the first one had been; the man's wounds were also the beast's. Fingers warped and toes warped into claws. Fangs exploded from bleeding gums. Ears burst forth fur as they lengthened like strange flowers. The ribcage shivered and changed shape. The torso altered, the spine shifted, the neck thickened, the shoulders grew muscles like pulsing gray ropes and then the black hair scurried over them and across the chest and groin where the pierced testicles tightened. The pain was exquisite. The pain was a religious experience, because through it Michael Gallatin was reborn. All this happened in a matter of seconds. It happened so fast the black wolf streaked with gray was there on the rack before Axel Rittenkrett could cry out around his cigarello or step back from the blood-dripping muzzle that now snapped up at his face. The fangs caught cheek, nose and forehead. Then the wolf's head thrashed side-to-side in a blur, the muscles standing out in its neck, and very suddenly Axel Rittenkrett really did have, as Franziska had said, two faces. Both of them were red. One was streaming blood around torn and twitching facial muscles. That side had no eye, because the eye was crushed between the wolf's jaws like a hard-boiled egg and swallowed. It had a gaping hole where the nose had been, because nose went very well with eyeball. In fact, much of the whole side of the face had gone down the gullet. A smoke ring red with gore burst from the mouth. The teeth clacked, like the sound of a rack's ratchet or white shoes on a checkerboard floor. And Rittenkrett's shoes were, alas, no longer the color of virgin snow. Michael Gallatin tore the Ice Man's throat open with his next snap and thrash, and perhaps it was due to the wolf's rage or his strength or his purpose returning, but the Ice Man's mangled head was ripped off and went rolling across the stones like a large red rubber ball. It rolled past the shoes of Sigmund, who like the others in the room were for the moment truly ice men: frozen in absolute, apocalyptic horror. As the merely human stood stunned, the monster of miracle's hind legs slipped out of the loosened bindings. One rope on the right foreleg had to be gnawed off, the matter of a few heartbeats, but the left foreleg came free easily enough. In his fever dream, Michael smelled that every man in the room had just peed in their pants. A couple of them needed their diapers. The wolf leaped to the floor, and the slitted green eyes searched for the next throat to savage. Could five men scream as one? They could. There was a rush toward the door. An entanglement of Gestapo men. A crashing together, stumbling and falling of the Master Race, reduced to Marx Brothers comedians. He paused to kill one man who'd fallen. It was fast and clean, and it tasted good. Then he was moving again, his shoulders hunched. It was unfortunate, Michael thought as he loped across the stones, that a bolted door couldn't be opened when so many hands were slipping and sliding all over the place. "Help us! God help us!" one of them shouted, banging at the wood. Was that Sigmund, whose account had suddenly become due? The wolf lunged forward, seized Sigmund's ankle and dragged him away, and that debt was paid in bloody full in about three seconds. Someone had either gone mad or found courage, because a Luger began firing into the dark. A bullet whined off the floor to Michael's left. "Get it open! Open it!" a man shrieked; now that was the sound of madness, for sure. A second Luger fired, the bullet hissing through the air over Michael's spine. Then suddenly there came the noise of the bolt being drawn, light from the staircase streamed in as the door was opened, and a trio of rabbits in pee-stained trousers were fighting to get past each other. Michael slouched forward as beasts do. He could slow time down to his own desires, so the merely human were moving as if through sludge. He let them all get started up the stairs. His muzzle was throbbing with pain. Something was not totally right with his lower jaw. The agony of two stabbed balls still writhed in his belly. Oh, he thought as he listened to them scrambling up those stairs and wheezing in fear, you are mine. Then the purely animal took him. He growled deep in his throat and flung himself through the door and up after the three men, rivulets of saliva crawling from his mouth. Ross was going up first. He had a Luger. When he turned and saw the monster coming, he got off a wild shot that was unfortunately not wild enough to miss the head of the man just behind and below him, who also had a Luger. Ross's hair was standing on end, as if electrified, and his face was the color of wet paper. As the man in the middle fell, the one closest to Michael screamed like a woman and tried to kick like a little girl, but he died like a pile of dirty laundry when Michael bit into the leg and threw him almost disdainfully down the stairs where his chin hit the railing, his neck broke, and he slithered down in his stinky pants. And now there was just the common thug. Ross started shooting over his shoulder, without looking. The bullets whacked risers and walls but no wolf. Then Ross got to the top of the stairs and turned to the right, and with a keening shriek he fled along the corridor in the direction of the large window. He ran out of one of his shoes. Michael, a green-eyed and ravening juggernaut, went after him. A bullet suddenly hit the wall and another cracked through the window's glass; someone, likely the guard at the door, was firing a pistol. Michael could imagine the man's dumbfounded wonder: how in the name of Gabbling Goebbels had a big dog gotten in here? The big dog now wanted out, and he saw the way. He managed a burst of speed, and he leapt. An instant before Michael hit Ross, the thug must've felt the death fangs at the back of his neck and somehow he mustered the courage to face them. He turned and fired, possibly his last shot. Michael felt the bullet go into his left hip and do serious damage, and then he was on top of Ross and Ross was being propelled backward along the hallway the last few feet to the window. They crashed through the glass and into a snowscape, with Ross taking the brunt of the injuries. The air whooshed out of the man's lungs, but in the next instant Ross didn't need that air anyway since claws and fangs removed the lungs in a small frenzy of maddened revenge. Ross, hollowed-out, lay twitching in the snow. Michael heard soldiers shouting, and the hard authority of an officer's voice: "This way! Move!" He took his bearings. He was in some kind of courtyard. A small park? Lights glowed on lampposts. There were snow-covered bushes and bare trees and a concrete pathway winding through. Life-sized statues of, presumably, famous Gestapo torturers stood about, and there were small concrete benches where one might enjoy a quick respite from working the electric gut-grinder. The snow had begun to fall harder, no longer the light flurries. He had to find his way out of here. His, that was bad. The pain in his hip was a thousand degrees of fire, yet he had the sensation that his left leg itself was becoming cold, losing all feeling. Going dead. His nostrils were so full of blood, both his own and others, that he could hardly draw a breath. He had to get out. He staggered along the pathway in what was nearly desperation. A wolf without four good legs on which to run, to evade and escape? Not good. He came to a wall. A high wall. Too high. He went in another direction, burst through the undergrowth and into another wall. "Blood on the ground over here!" shouted a soldier, off to his right. Oh, yes. He was bleeding pretty badly, too. This would be called a cock-up, Michael thought. But he was not yet ready to go belly-up. He turned away from the voice and ran low, the pain in his left hip nearly making him whine. He ran past two soldiers who never knew he was there. He heard a shot, but it came nowhere near him. "Over here!" came the yell, followed by another errant shot. They were seeing big dogs under every bush. This courtyard...was there even a way out of it? How had the soldiers gotten in? From the building, of course. He couldn't go back into there, not with this leg. He was going to have to get over the wall, while he still had enough strength. He circled from wall to wall, aware that the soldiers were circling too. A rifle shot hit a treetrunk to his right and sent a tremor through him; it had been much too close. "It's here, sergeant!" shouted the sharp-eyed rifleman. "I've got it!" Michael pushed through the undergrowth. He came out with snow on his back and a wall before him. On his left a few feet along the pathway there stood a stone bench. On his right, closer to the wall, was the statue of a man with his arms extended and palms offered heavenward, as if asking the help of God in smiting down the evildoers, perhaps with a blowtorch to the genitals. The wolf measured distances. It was a long jump, especially with the injury. But he really had no choice. They were coming. He heard the crunch of boots in the snow. Someone had a flashlight, the beam sweeping back and forth. How many men? Too many to kill all of them. A Gestapo security squad, ten at least. He had to go now. He ran back along the pathway. "There it is!" The light grazed him, lost him, searched for him. "Shoot it!" came the command, but the big dog had abruptly turned and was no longer there. Michael ran, one leg starting to drag. The pain was tremendous. It stole his breath. If he misjudged this, he was dead. Faster! Faster! he told himself. And when you give it, give it everything. He leaped upon the stone bench, sprang off its snowy surface with a jolt that this time did make him whine and brought a red mist whirling before his eyes, and in midair he stretched the long muscular black-and-gray body out as far as bones and sinew would allow. A rifle fired and the bullet went past his right ear. Another grazed his tail. A third hit the statue of the supplicant and threw stone chips into Michael's pelt. Michael's paws scrabbled on the outstretched palms. He heard something crack: his bones or the statue's arms, he wasn't sure. He didn't care. He leaped again with all his power, upward from the Gestapo's hands, and then the snow-slick top of the wall was in front of him and he was hanging onto it with his forepaws and trying to push himself over with one good leg. The rifles spoke. Bullets ricocheted off the wall. Someone fired a submachine gun in short, deadly chatters. The top of the wall blew up. Smoke and snow spun together in airy whirlpools. "Cease firing!" cried the sergeant. The last few rifle shots rang out, and the sergeant glared back at whomever had been slow to obey. Then, satisfied he wouldn't get shot up by his own men, he walked forward and aimed his flashlight at the wall beyond the statue of Rudolf Diels, the first commander of the Gestapo from 1933 to 1934. "Damn," the sergeant said. Because the big dog was not lying dead on the ground. Maybe it was on the other side of the wall, they'd have to go and look, but at least it was out of the courtyard. There was a mess to clean up inside. This might send him to the gallows. Maybe tonight he and his wife should take a little trip to the West. Like beginning in the next fifteen minutes. He'd seen many stray animals, but never one like this. Maybe it was a wolf that had escaped from the zoo? The sergeant, an old veteran with one hand, knew all about wolves. When he was a child his grandmother Tippi used to scare the shit out of him with her stories of wolf men. He still had nightmares about waking up with hairy palms, because in his dreams he was always a boy and he always had both hands. When the full moon shines bright, then the beast shall roam at night. All that kind of rubbish. But there was no full moon tonight. In fact, it would soon be morning. "Blast," he said, mostly to himself. "All right," he told the men around him, "let's go out and see if we killed anything." They had not. The wolf was on the move. It staggered, in great pain. Its left hind leg dragged. It rested for awhile, leaning against the corner of a building just as a weary man might. Then it went on a little further, and staggered again, and again had to find a place to support its unsteady weight. Snow fell, white upon the streets and bricks and stones of Berlin. The wind picked up and began to keen. Night could be brutal. Night could be the no-man's land of the soul, and so it was this night for Michael Gallatin. But he was alive. A truck carrying soldiers was coming. He turned into a trash-strewn alley and stood against the bricks, the left hind paw up off the ground above a puddle of blood. The truck passed. They were in no hurry, all the soldiers smoking cigarettes with their rifles at ease. They weren't looking for him. Michael lowered his head. Franziska, the wolf thought. Oh my God. Picture it. Poor Franziska, fighting for the life of her noble knight. And earning only bruises and a poison pill for her sacrifice. The green eyes dimmed. It seemed to Michael that in the battle called life a skirmish had been lost. It seemed to him that on this day the sleepwalkers had won just a little more ground. I will hold you forever, he thought. And then through the pain of broken heart and damaged leg he considered the fact that he was alone, hurt and naked in Berlin, and if the ex-Ice Man was correct, some fearsome secret weapon called the Black Sun was being prepared to destroy the enemies of the Reich. A few days, Rittenkrett had said. Michael thought: That gives me a few days. If I can survive the night. He had more stamina and resistance to pain as a wolf. When he became a man again, he was going to need crutches and a long sleep. So...among the pigeons with rifles and the sheep with machine guns stalks the wolf. But he had the feeling that the closer he got to the Black Sun, the more he was going to need everything the wolf could give him. A slight movement to his right suddenly riveted his attention. Down at the far end of the alley. What was that down there? He sniffed the air, and smelled... A white dog, dirty but still white enough, came a step closer and then stopped. Its ears were up, and it too was sniffing the air. Smelling his blood, Michael knew. He took a whiff of essence: female. Another dog appeared at its side. Small and brown. A sausage dog. Male. A third one nosed up beside the female. Another female, sand-colored with a long snout. She was mottled with sores, and Michael could smell her sickness. They all stood still, watching him. The snow fell down and the wind blew, and Michael Gallatin shivered and felt the blood running out of him. A fourth dog moved through the others. They parted to give him way. No wonder. He was the man. A big black Doberman with powerful haunches and eyes the color of amber stones. He got between the wolf and his charges and stared fixedly at the new arrival, which meant Do you want to fight? Michael Gallatin, for all his size and the fact that even as wounded as he was he could tear them to shreds in a matter of seconds, put his head down almost to the concrete and rounded his shoulders. No, I don't, he replied. The Doberman remained in guard position. Michael suspected that had been his job, before life in an alley. The white dog started to come forward, and the Doberman gave a whuff of Stay and pushed her with his snout. She stayed; she was his bitch. The dogs of Berlin, Michael thought. The castoff pets, the companions of dead people, the unwanted and unloved. Now scavaging for whatever they could find in the garbage cans, and living...where, exactly? The bitch with the sores on her body came up beside him. She sniffed at him, and to be polite he returned the compliment. She regarded him with eyes full of pain and, perhaps, true wonder. She was old. In her last days, her aroma said. Thin and diseased and homeless: a hopeless triad. She came closer. He could tell she'd seen a lot, this old one had. Had seen a hearth and bedroom slippers. Had seen maybe a child's joy. And a mother's sadness, too. There was a lot in there. She had a regal air about her, a self-possessed dignity. Michael thought she was like an empress whose lovely domain had one day suddenly crumbled around her, through no fault or doing of her own. Possibly it was one of the bombs. The little sausage crept up and, very carefully, sniffed. He couldn't reach what he was after. When Michael shifted one inch, the sausage yelped and skittered away. Then the white dog came, the beauty. The one who in another life would be companion to a fashion model in Paris and lie about on velvet cushions politely asking for liver treats. She came cautiously, stopping and then coming again, step by graceful step. The Empress spoke in a low throaty grunt: He's okay. Then the Beauty came on the last few paces, but she was trembling a little, like any high-spirited female might be in the presence of such a wounded monster, and she was ready to run. Finally, then, the Doberman arrived. He took stock of Michael at a distance, and with a sidelong appraisal. He sniffed the air, gave a quiet growl to let everyone know who was the Commander of this army, and then he pretended to look everywhere but at the wolf. The snow whitened his coat, and he gnawed at himself out of petulant irritation. Then, abruptly, he came right up to Michael and stood staring at an ear while the wolf, for the sake of getting along, gazed directly at the ground. A tongue licked him. Just slightly. Darting in and away. The Empress had found his gunshot wound. The Little Sausage ran around in a circle, snapping at some memory of table scraps. Then the Commander nudged Michael's ribs with his muzzle. A nudge neither hard nor soft, just testing the bones. The message was: Maybe we can use you. Michael was thinking the same thing. The dogs drew away from him and began to trot toward the far end of the alley. The Empress turned back and waited, and then one by one the others stopped to wait too, until finally the Commander paused, one foreleg raised in a military pose. Are you coming? was the pack's question. Michael Gallatin lifted his face to the sky and felt the softness of the snow. He felt also the oncoming dawn, far before the light arrived. He thought that the pack must have found or dug a shelter somewhere. He wondered if the Empress knew all the underground tunnels where the trains used to run when Berlin was a city with a heart, a soul and a mind. The Black Sun. He realized he might be the only one who knew. The only one who'd ever heard of it. Well, he'd let someone kill him some other day. When he was good and ready to die. When his job was finished. But this wouldn't be the day. The dogs were waiting for him. Michael thought that sometime soon he would find a silent place. A place where he could stand without being seen. A place where he could look out across the city and the sky. And in that place he would howl to the stars, he would howl to God, he would howl for the injustice and insanity of this world and he would howl for her. My Franziska. But for the rest of this night, perhaps only just this one, he would sleep among the angels. And, undefeated, Michael Gallatin struggled on. Death Of A Hunter When he found the gray wolf dead with its throat cut and its eyes gouged out, Michael Gallatin knew they had come for him. He sat in a brown leather chair in the front room of his house, which had once been a church and was to him still a holy place of solitude and reflection. The structure was made of dark red stones chinked together with white mortar. It had a narrow tower topped with a white spire and a walkway around it. Up in the tower were panes of stained glass colored crimson and dark blue. Darkness was gathering outside, across the dense Welsh forest that shielded Michael Gallatin's home from the rest of the world. It was the eleventh day of July in the year 1958. He was listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending on his record player. He knew that when the music was over and full darkness had fallen, he would get up from this chair in which he'd sat so many times, listening to music or reading before a polite fire, and he would go out to meet them. Because they had come for him. And he doubted if he would ever return to this house the same as he'd left it, if he returned at all. They were professionals. They were killers of the highest order. How many there would be, awaiting him out in the night-black forest, he didn't know. But they had executed one of his wolves - one of his companions - and he knew that if he did not go out to meet them tonight another wolf would die in his place. They wouldn't stop until all his companions were dead, murdered by the fast blade and then mutilated by some brutal Oriental instrument, and he could not - would not - allow that to happen. So he sat in the company of the music, waiting for the dark. He wore black shoes with soft soles, gray trousers and a dark blue cotton shirt. The air was warm outside, unseasonably warm even for the middle of summer in Wales. The hunter's moon would be shaped like a scythe tonight, perfect for cutting down old things that no longer had much use in this world. He was a hard-used forty-eight years old. His thick hair had turned fully gray on the sides, with a small thatch of gray at the front. His face was still ruggedly handsome and his eyes were still luminously green, yet he knew how slow he'd become. He knew the onset of age. He knew what had been and what was to be, if he lived through this night. He was not the man he used to be, nor for that matter the wolf. He thought of getting up and pouring himself a glass of Talisker, his favorite brand of Scotch whisky from the isle of Skye, but he decided against that. It had the salt taste of the sea in it, which he so enjoyed. One drink would be a pleasure, but one drink might give the killers a further advantage. No, if he lived through this night he would drink a toast to his miraculous survival at the dawn. But he doubted very seriously if he would ever taste Talisker again. His left shoulder had been bothering him today. The shoulder he'd broken in the crash of a Westland Lysander aircraft in the North African desert in 1941 . It was stiff and altogether unyielding to his will. His right leg today was also a traitor; it had been snapped in two places as he was caught in an avalanche on Monte Leone in 1952, when he'd been on the trail of the infamous professor of murder Dr. Shatterhand and his doxy of death Sabrina Neve. He had a headache that came and went, the nagging reminder of many fists, blackjacks and other items intended to knock his brains out. It was a wonder he still had any brains left at all. He checked his Rolex. On the table next to him was a glass case that held a Breitling wristwatch with a plain brown leather band. He kept the watch working, though he never wore it. The watch was not his to wear. The music ended, on its soft high lingering note. He stood up. The darkness outside was almost complete. He took off the Rolex, took off his shoes, took off his socks, took off his trousers and underwear and shirt. He went out the door into the summer night, and drawing a long breath of fragrant pines and green moss he thought he might never come home again. But he was certain he was going to kill at least one of them tonight. He would not go easy. He would not go without demanding a price be paid. Opening the soul cage was more difficult than it used to be. The hinges creaked a little. The wolf balked, wanting to stay comfortable. It came when it was beckoned and it answered its call, but it was an older wolf, a slower wolf, and it had become a little bit hesitant of the pain of change. Because the pain was the one thing that had not diminished. If anything, the pain had increased by many times. It was a hard birth for the wolf now, and a hard rebirth back to Michael Gallatin the man. Older bones for both wolf and man made the change slower, in each direction. The pain was exquisite. The pain that brought the scents, sounds, colors and forms in an explosion upon the senses unknown to ordinary men was almost too much to bear. Almost...but then there always came the power, and though that had also diminished it was still the alpha and omega of the wolf, and it was still worth the journey from man to beast and back again. He walked past his dark green Range Rover. He changed, as he stood in front of his church. He changed, in the dark with the yellow scythe of the moon hanging amid the clouds. He changed under a million million stars. Maybe he shuddered in pain and shed a few tears, but he changed. He had never asked for this. Had never dreamed of it, when as an eight-year-old boy in Russia he'd followed a drifting white kite into a forest just like the one here in Wales he was about to penetrate. He'd never asked for this; it had been thrust upon him, whether he'd wanted it or not. And now, as he contorted into a green-eyed wolf with more gray hair than black on its flanks and a certain injured stiffness in its stride, he thought how all these many years he had not been a hunter from the woods so much as he'd been a wanderer in the wilderness. It was the fate of all humans to wander in a wilderness, some made for them by others, some made by themselves. And the wilderness could be all of life, from beginning to end. A trackless wilderness that held no reference points nor easy places of rest. It was a place of hard demands and no acceptance of mistakes. It was a place that whittled a man of action down to a sleeper in a brown leather chair on a Sunday afternoon. And it was a place that could be so terribly lonely that the heart broke into a thousand pieces at the merest memory of a woman's name and her touch in the night. Michael could not go there. Not to that place. So he put his wolfen head down, and his wolfen body propelled itself forward, and though the old aches and agonies whispered through him and wanted to slow him down he loped onward into the woods, nearly soundlessly, his eyes seeking movement in the tangles of trees and folds of vegetation. They were here. They were close. Tonight there would be death. Death had always been at his shoulder. It had always been leering at him, in the faces of many enemies. As he ran, searching, he thought of his trial by fire on the Caribbean island of Augustin Mireaux, the industrialist who had sold his soul and his nuclear missile plans to the Red Chinese. He thought of his battle against the drug-created assassin known as Chameleon that had begun in Paris, moved to Rio de Janeiro and ended in the Amazon jungle. He thought of his narrow escape with Aurore Bardot from Edward Wintergarden's sinking submarine under the polar ice. He recalled Simon Tollemache's barracuda pool, and the bloody massacre on the golf course at St. Andrews. He remembered Tragg, the killer with hypnotic eyes and two-tone shoes. He could trace in his memory every step through the deadly funhouse of Phaninath Po. All those and more remained in his head, though some he fervently wished he might forget. He wished he might forget about the Ginshi Kazoku - the Family of the Silver Thread - and the murder of the man he'd known as Mallory, but he could not. This was why he was a hunter tonight. This was why he was ready to die, if he could kill at least one of them. He loped onward at an easy pace, tasting the air for humans. These killers were careful. They were using an odor mask, which could be as simple as pine soap or as complex as a homeopathic drug. The Family of the Silver Thread was famous for its creation of exotic pharmaceuticals useful to the criminal underworld, as well as for its international trade in weapons and military secrets. It was said that the Silver Thread was woven through thousands of tapestries in dozens of countries, and trying to remove such a global intertwining of interests based on money and power was impossible and for the most part fatal. Last year Michael had succeeded in small part, by crippling a faction of the Silver Thread in Hong Kong. One of their weapons warehouses had gone up with an ear-splitting bang, a courier with a large suitcase full of money had found himself staring at a set of fangs just before they seized his throat, and the floating mansion of the jet-setting newspaper mogul and Silver Thread leader Anthony Tong had been sunk to the bottom of the bay with Tong's body along as fishfood. Something jumped in the brush as he approached. A rabbit, running for its life. It didn't get very far before one of the other wolves emerged from the night to pounce on it, tear it to pieces and eat. Michael went on, slinking close to the earth. There were many other wolves here. Real wolves, not questionable miracles such as himself. They came, stayed as long as they pleased, and then drifted away again. A few ran with him on a regular basis and seemed to see themselves as his 'pack' and he the alpha. Two days ago a new wolf had appeared in an area Michael thought of as the Four Brothers, which was a sloping meadow that held four huge granite boulders. The new wolf, coal black and smelling of maleness, had been lying up on one of the stones basking in the bright sunshine. When it saw him it sat upright, perhaps also recognizing the large black wolf with gray sides as the ruler of this domain. Michael noted that this new male had the rarity of ice-blue eyes, and the commanding way it held itself made him wonder if he wasn't going to have to put up a fight to keep his kingdom. Getting old was a bitch. Michael suddenly stopped on his prowl through the woods. He had sensed something: a slow movement, a gliding from one patch of pure dark to another, a tensing of muscle before an action. He wasn't sure what it was, but it was there. An owl hooted distantly and another answered. The noise of the night's insects was a low susurrus. He waited, all his senses on high alert. When Valentine Vivian had retired six years ago to his estate in Wessex and begun writing paperback spy novels that no reader on earth could take seriously, a new hale and hearty boy had taken the reins of Special Operations. This one was straight out of Oxford, he wore natty tweeds and a regimental tie of the Royal Green Jackets, and he smoked a meerschaum pipe like a whorehouse chimney burning buggy bedsheets. This new boy, by the name of Cordwainer, greeted Michael Gallatin one day in his office with the brusque statement I understand you're quite the hero. Only at that early point Cordwainer had understood nothing. After a summoning to Valentine Vivian's estate where the master of suspense interrupted his latest epic to inform Cordwainer of things that Cordwainer needed to know, from that point on Cordwainer had declined to have Michael anywhere near his office and peered around corners to make sure the hero wasn't lurking in the shadow of the potted ficus tree. Michael began moving again through the Welsh woods. Slowly...slowly...inch by inch. His left shoulder protested this movement, and his right hind leg felt on the verge of a cramp. His eyes ticked back and forth, measuring space and darkness and distance. His nose sniffed, searching the air. His ears were up, twitching. After the scene in Hong Kong, Mallory had come to visit Michael in Wales. It seemed to Michael that Mallory had always looked like an elderly man, but maybe part of it had been stagecraft because Mallory in his dark blue suit and with his white hair combed and parted looked not much older to him than the day they'd sat drinking Guinness at a North African airstrip sixteen years before. Mallory had to be in his late seventies by now, yet perhaps he had against all odds retained the soul and spirit of a hale and hearty boy. Valentine Vivian had been the head of Special Operations. Cordwainer What'sHisName was currently the head of Special Operations. But Michael knew that this man sitting in his den, smoking a black briar pipe, was Special Operations, and it was a lifelong position. The word, Mallory confided, was that the Silver Thread had taken photographs with a long-lensed Leica. That Michael had been trailed by their professionals and the pictures snapped at an unfortunate moment. Michael had known what he meant. The Family of the Silver Thread had photographic proof of him changing from man to wolf, or back again. Be very, very careful, Mallory had told him. They may want your skin, or your heart, or your head. Or they may want all of you. So be very, very careful. But not more than a month later, it was Mallory who had not been careful enough. Missing for more than a week, he was found in the trunk of an abandoned taxi in an East London junkyard with his throat cut and his eyes gouged out. Valentine Vivian hired a small army of bodyguards and went on an author's tour of America, his author's name being Evelyn Tedford, and Cordwainer the new boy bought an attack dog to patrol his recently-acquired electric fence. Had something moved, or not? Michael got still. He heard the owl hooting again, and another answering. It came to him that just possibly they were not owls after all. The night hung on the edge of violence. There was this hero thing, Michael had often thought in less troubled times. This concept of the man of action. After all this time, he realized Rolfe Gantt had been right. Everyone loved the hero, but the hero walked alone. It was the nature of the hero, to be solitary. To live life on his own terms, and in his own time. To be neither rushed nor to rush toward oblivion, yet oblivion would claim the hero just as it claimed every ordinary man. And love? Ah, that. Love. What woman was it who could truly love the hero? Oh, they might wish to brush against the heroic flesh, or to have some fling in the heroic bed and make for themselves some memory of a heroic night, but love? No. When the chips were down and the night was cold, it was the ordinary man who won the heart. The man of meat-and-potatoes, the man who stayed fixed in place, the man who saw his destiny and future in a family, the man to whom wife and daughter or son transformed life into a hero's dream. But such was not to be, for a hunter from the woods. The death of a hunter loomed large in Michael's mind on this night, as it did on many nights. He was old and he was tired. He was hurting and he was slow. What was ahead for this hunter, who had already given everything? There was only one thing left to give: his life, in exchange for transfiguration from what was to what will be, as the lark ascends into the heavens and the last soft note fades slowly out. But it was not a soft note he suddenly heard, that made his wolf-bones jump and his green eyes widen. It was an explosion that cracked across the forest and echoed from every rock in the meadow of Four Brothers. It was, he realized, the sound of his house being destroyed. Several explosions followed the first. He saw the leap of fire through the trees and smelled the bitter tang of gunpowder in the concussive wind. They had blown his church to pieces so he might not find sanctuary there. They wanted him out in the open. They wanted him to know fear, because they moved as silently and swiftly as any wolves in the dark. And then a shadow shifted before him, very near, and the black arrow from the black bow fired by the ninja in black came at him with a serpent's hiss. Even as he twisted his body to escape, Michael Gallatin knew the arrow would find its mark. It did. It hit him on the right side. Its soft plastic tip, about the size of a ripe fig, burst open on contact. It splashed and streaked his gray hair with the bright green glow of chemical phosphorescence. He was well and truly marked. The ninja moved again, in a blur. A gloved hand opened and closed. A net of some fine and pliable metal caught moonlight as it bloomed in the air. It sailed toward the lycanthrope, expanding as it came. Michael saw the fallen tree to his left and the narrow space between it and the earth. He flung himself into the opening, his claws digging into the ground for traction. The net hit the tree above him, snagged on its stubs of dead branches, and the wolf pulled in his breath to flatten his ribcage and scrabbled under the trunk. Then he quickly turned to face his attacker. With a running start he took a powerful leap, pushed off with his hind legs against the treetrunk and fell upon the ninja. It was not to be so simple. The ninja retreated. With incredible speed that turned the wolf's leap into a slow-motion exercise, the assassin threw up a roundhouse kick that got Michael in the belly. As the wolf's body twisted again, this time in pain, the ninja got his balance and drove a rock-knuckled fist into the center of the chest. He was gone as Michael crashed into the underbrush. Michael drew a wounded breath and righted himself. He saw the ninja moving through the foliage on his left. With an instant's pause to calculate distance and speed he took off in pursuit. The ninja was fast and he was nimble, but this was the wolf's world. Michael caught the killer's right ankle between his teeth and crushed it. The ninja suffered in silence, but would not go down; he gave a one-legged leap toward the nearest tree and began to climb it, using what Michael thought must be small metal pitons embedded in his bootsoles. Michael leaped up, caught the man's left ankle and dragged him down. The ninja whirled around and like a cornered animal fought with everything he had: fists to the skull, a knee to the muzzle, stiffened fingers thrusting toward the eyes and the edge of the hand chopping for the throat. They did their deadly dance in silence, as flames crackled from the werewolf's church and red sparks whirled to heaven. Michael took a blow to the side of the head that made him whuff with pain. He dodged a strike meant to blind him. Then in a split-second calculation his animal instinct determined where the fist would be next and his jaws were there waiting for it. He crunched the fingers and torn human flesh to shreds. Blood sprayed into the air. The ninja gave a quiet noise not unlike a sigh of resignation. His remaining hand came at Michael with a slim-bladed knife in it and plunged the blade into the wolf's left shoulder. But Michael had his bloodlust at full charge now and the sharp bite of Japanese steel would not turn him aside. When the ninja withdrew the knife to strike again, the wolf gripped his arm at the elbow and with a ferocious thrash broke the bones and nearly tore the limb from its socket. The knife flew away from dead fingers. Michael seized the throat and ripped it open from ear-to-ear. A glistening black flood washed over his muzzle. Then something gave a small pop on the ground next to him and smoke welled up into his face. His eyes stung. He smelled an odor of bitter almonds. His lungs hitched and his heart was racing. He held his breath, even as the second gas grenade exploded behind him. A second ninja had joined the battle. Michael let the first one slither to the earth and then he turned and ran. At full speed, or whatever speed he could manage. A third grenade popped to his right, spewing a noxious cloud. He squeezed his eyes shut and ran blindly. Even a half-breath of the stuff was strong enough to nearly knock him senseless. He thought this was how they must have subdued his companion, then slashed the throat and taken the eyes. Maybe the gas had worked its will on Mallory, too. He began to feel his usually innate sense of direction betraying him; where was he, and where was he going? He crashed through a thicket and fell through thorns and down an embankment into a hollow where a pool of water smelled green. He plunged his head into the pool and opened his eyes to wash them out. Then he shook his head to clear it as best he could and lapped up water with a tongue that felt burned. He stood breathing hard through swollen lungs, his heart pounding. He saw the woods through a drugged mist. When he tried to move, he staggered. Wait, he told himself. He kept breathing, deeply and slowly. Maybe he could get his heartbeat regulated. He listened to the night and for the things that stalked in the night. How many ninjas there were, he had no way of knowing. He was going to have to get out of this hollow before they found him here, dazed and confused. And go where? he asked himself. There was only one answer. Go back to what had taken him to Octavius Zloy's trailer in the dead of night. Go back to what had brought him out of the ruined church in the Russian village, when he'd seen Valentine Vivian being carried away by men with guns. Go back to what had made him ask Paul Wesshauser if he could make a torpedo. Go back to facing Rolfe Gantt's pistol and saying he would let no man tell him what to do on the last day of his life. Go back to telling the Gestapo's Ice Man to take his hand off Franziska Luxe's arm. Go back to being a man, even if he wore a wolf's clothing. Go back to the fight. Always, always...go back to the fight. Michael Gallatin climbed up the embankment, pushed through the thorns and the thicket, and he was very much aware that his phosphorescent glow would bring them coming now, at any minute. He was ready to kill, and he was ready to die. But he would go out as he had lived, and no fear would cripple his cause. A wind moved through the trees. It stirred the new leaves on the old branches. It was the zenith of summer, and looking up at the scythe of the moon Michael opened his mouth and howled for what life had meant to him. For the joy of it, and yes for the sorrows too. All were important, in the grand scheme of things. He had not chosen this path. It had chosen him. But he thought - he hoped - he had walked it well and with honor, as both wolf and man. They fell upon him from the dark. There were two. One whirled a chain around Michael's throat and tightened it so hard the blood thundered in his head. The second had a baton in one hand and a net in the other, and Michael realized they meant not to kill him but to trap him. To take him on a drugged journey and place him before the Family of the Silver Thread, whose scientists would like to know what little boys who became wolves were made of. Michael turned toward his attackers. With a snarl and show of fangs that would have dropped any ordinary man to his knees, Michael first lunged toward the ninja who chained him. He got a kick to the muzzle from a man who was as quick as a cobra, but Michael was not stopped nor was he slowed. He hit the ninja with all the power he had and slammed the man's back against a tree. Then lifting up on his hind legs and pinning the ninja with his forepaws he tore into the masked face as one would scoop the flesh from an exotic fruit. He saw the wet terror in the man's eyes as fangs tore meat and muscle away from bone, and in a frenzy of killing Michael shivered to his animal core. He enjoyed it. The chain loosened. Michael pulled it free from the ninja's hand. The thing in front of him had no lower jaw but it was trying to scream. Something stabbed him on the left side. In the next instant he was lifted off his hind legs and thrown to the ground and he smelled the ozone of the electric shock after the searing pain had ripped through him. He struggled up to his knees, his muzzle dripping blood and his eyes full of red fire. He realized he was connected on the right side by a pair of wires to the baton in the remaining ninja's grip. A finger moved, a spark jumped, and the current delivered agony to Michael Gallatin. As the shock tortured him, he changed back and forth. From wolf to man and back again, an involuntary reaction to the electricity. He fell again to his side, in wolf form, and tried to get up again but once more the finger moved and the current obeyed and the electrical shock coursed through his body in waves that took him from wolf to man and man to wolf in a matter of seconds. His mind felt blasted; he had no sense of abrupt change, but rather that he had always been both wolf and man at the same time all his life and he had never known it. He told himself to get up. To keep fighting. He reached for the wires to yank their hooks out of his flesh. But the next long and terrible shock told him to stay down, and to give up. He lay as a man, weak and naked and bleeding. His strength was gone. He watched as the ninja came forward to throw the net, and then maybe there would be another gas grenade or a blow to the head and Michael Gallatin knew his freedom would be over. The death of a hunter, he thought in his suffering and near-delirium. He tried to change back to his more powerful form. He couldn't open the soul cage. Not this time. The wolf was paralyzed by shock, and the door of the soul cage was sealed shut. The ninja came forward, a graceful evil. He never reached his destination. For in the next instant a coal black wolf sprang at him from the side, and bearing him down to the earth it planted its paws upon his chest and took his throat between its jaws and with an explosion of power nearly ripped the head from the neck. Then it cracked the ninja's breastbone like an eggshell and winnowed its muzzle in and plucked out the still-beating heart. It turned its head to show Michael Gallatin the prize, and Michael saw that the black wolf's eyes were ice-blue. The wolf ate the ninja's heart. It licked the last of the blood from around its mouth. Then it stood up on its hind legs, and with a shiver of anticipation it began to change. As the black hair disappeared into white flesh, as the bones remade themselves and the spine drew its tail inward, as the ears became human and the face began to compose itself, the man walked toward Michael. He stood about two inches over six feet and he had a narrow-waisted body with wide strong shoulders. He moved with confidence, and Michael thought there was some arrogance in there as well. Fully revealed, the man was maybe in his mid-thirties, with thick black hair that tumbled over his forehead. He had a handsome, intelligent face with high cheekbones and the elegant nose of a lost aristocrat. A Russian face, Michael thought. The man's intense blue eyes remained fixed on Michael, even as he knelt down and pulled the hooks out from Michael's phosphorescent-streaked side. Michael just stared in amazement at this walking miracle. But he realized he recognized the eyes. With a start, he remembered whose they were. The younger man spoke with a distinctive Russian accent. A warmth came up in his eyes that melted all the ice away. "My name is Peter," he said. And he added, "I think you are my father."

Back to Table of content

Copyright © novelfull All Rights Reserved.