The hunter from the wood.., p.1
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       The Hunter from the Woods, p.1
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         Part #2 of Michael Gallatin series by Robert McCammon
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The Hunter from the Woods
Chapter 1

 

  When the pain has passed, there remains the power.

  It, too, is born of pain. Yet from it comes the rush of life unknown to ordinary men. After the bones have bent and reshaped themselves, after the gums have burst and the fangs emerged, after the skull and face have become both less and more than human, after the hair has rippled and scurried in its thousands of frantic pathways across the flesh, after the heart has ceased its crashing and the lungs their straining for new breath, after the scents, sounds, colors and forms unknown to ordinary men have exploded upon the senses and nearly driven the reeling brain mad with their profundity of meaning only the wild can decipher. . .

  . . . there remains the power, and that is the alpha and the omega of the wolf.

  The Great White Way

  They travel by night.

  Along the roads that cut through massive fields of wheat and sunflowers as high as a man's head, beneath the silent stars and the watchful moon, the caravan of horsedrawn wagons and gypsy trailers creak and groan on their way from here to there. They pass through towns, villages and even-smaller hamlets that have been asleep since sundown, and the dust they raise glitters in the moonlight like diamonds before it returns to the Russian earth. They go on until the circus master, the white-bearded Gromelko, decides to pull his leading wagon to a halt at the centerpoint of two or more rustic towns that have likely never seen a circus since a Cossack first sharpened his saber on a blood-red stone, and there Gromelko uses his hooked nose to smell the summer wind. Then, if the wind is right, he says with satisfaction to his long-suffering wife, This is our home for tonight.

  The wagons and the trailers form a small village of their own. Torches are lighted and placed on poles. The main tent goes up first. Then the smaller tents, and the canvas signs announcing the attractions. One of the signs says how many coins are needed for entry, or how many chickens. The work animals are kept in a corral. The show animals - one young mule that can count up to twenty, two aged snow-white horses and a bandy-legged zebra all sleepy and dusty from their trip - are herded into a green tent to eat their hay and await their moments. The black leopard with one eye is kept in its own cage, because it has been known to bite the hand that feeds it. The wolf, too, is kept caged apart, because the wildness can't be whipped out of it. The ancient toothless bear lumbers around freely until it wants to return to its cage as protection from the leopard, the wolf and mean little children who taunt it.

  Then there comes the birth of the Great White Way.

  This is Gromelko's huge pleasure in life, now that he's nearly seventy-five years old and he can neither drink, smoke, nor screw. He stands watchful as ever, expectant of miracles, and it is somewhat miraculous that from the dirt and the sawdust rises within hours the village of the travelling circus, and then - miracle of miracles - that the Great White Way blinks several times like an old man waking up from a solemn snooze, and suddenly there is an electric odor like a passing thunderstorm and all the dozens of bulbs light up in simultaneous splendor along the midway's length. As long as someone pedals the stationary bicycle that powers the generator, the bulbs will glow. The bulbs not very bright nor the midway very long, but as the saying goes: A sparrow in the hand is better than a cock on the roof.

  In the morning, the towns awaken and the farmwork begins with its routine and drudgery, and then someone in the fields sees the tents. Not long after that, the wagons come through with the circus banners rippling on their sides, and in the backs of the wagons stand - or wobble, if they've been early with their vodka - some of the star attractions. There are the catlike Boldachenko sisters, Vana and Velika, who perform jaw-dropping feats of acrobatics and contortions atop a forty-foot pole; the Lady Tatiana, who with her daughter Zolli gallops the horses and the zebra at full speed around and around a terribly small bigtop; Yuri the clown and his miniature clown-doll Luka, who always seems to get the better of his befuddled master; Arman the handsome, who walks a wire in his black tuxedo and throws a paper rose to a lucky farmer's wife at every show; and Gavrel the fire-eater from whose mouth flare ropes of flame and showers of sparks that whirl around the tent like the eyes of demons in the dark.

  And also to mention the stars of the midway! For after the big show has ended, the audience is encouraged to walk in the glow along the Great White Way, to spend more coins or trade more chickens to visit Eva the bearded lady, Motka the man with skin so hard a hammer bends a nail upon his breastbone, Irisa the wrinkled dwarf who also plays superb classical Tchaikovsky on her pink toy piano, Natalia the emaciated spider woman, and last but not least the massive wrestler Octavius Zloy, who wears a purple cloak and a Roman helmet and stands with treetrunk arms crossed over his traincar chest and, his slab of a chin upraised and his small eyes narrowed, dares any son of Russia to pin his shoulders for the count of three.

  Though many have tried, no one ever has. And Octavius Zloy has no mercy for any son of Russia who climbs into the ring. Many have been removed, senseless and bloody, while his young and beautiful wife Devora raises his sweat-streaked arm and accompanies him as he parades back and forth like the superhuman species he believes himself to be.

  The sons of Russia do not know that Devora, for all of her dark gypsy beauty and nineteen supple years, is missing several teeth and used to have a straighter nose. They don't know about the broken arm of last summer, and the black bruise across her lower back that caused her to hobble like an old woman through the month of June. But it is late August now, in this year of 1927, and as the saying goes: When Anger and Revenge are married, their daughter is called Cruelty.

  It is the vodka, Devora thinks. Always the vodka. He lets it own him. And then when he has had more than enough to blaze his bonfire and not yet quite enough to topple him into sleep, Octavius Zloy rises up ragged and enraged within his own skin and he will not rest until someone has been hurt.

  That someone being herself.

  Oh, how he can use his hands. His hands were made for the punishment of other people. They are as strong as shovels, as brutal as bricks. They suit his soul.

  So on a night like this one, after the big show is over and all the people have gone, after the coins and chickens have been put away, after the midway has closed down and everyone departed to their little wooden trailers and bolted their shutters and the Great White Way has faded to dark, Devora wipes the blood from her nostrils with a cloth and walks past the drunken bulk of Octavius Zloy snoring on the bed. She checks her face in the oval mirror behind the door. Her ebony eyes are puffy from tears and pain. Her nose is swollen. Her lips look crushed. Her thick black hair is streaked with henna, because he likes the appearance of fire in his fists when he grips her head. She realizes she looks like a slim hard girl who has come many miles from where she began, yet she is still so far from anything.

  It is time to go, if she is going tonight.

  She has slipped into a patched gray dress, like the other few she owns. Octavius Zloy says he prefers her naked, anyway, and spread out upon the bed beneath him in helpless abandon. She puts upon her bruised lips a fingertip's worth of color, a deep red. Octavius Zloy would not like this, if he were to see. But soon it will be worn off. When she leaves the trailer she has a key with her, but she does not lock the door.

  It is silent in the village of the circus.

  Well, not quite silent. . . for as Devora walks her path she hears the distant note of someone's fiddle, a soft sad playing, and then the plinking of a toy piano. She can't understand the kind of music that Irisa plays, it's too far over the head of a country girl, but she appreciates how swift and sure the small hands are.

  She goes along the darkened Great White Way. The nig
ht's breeze stirs tent folds. Moonshadows lie at her feet. Her heart is beginning to beat harder, it seems, with each step. She is going to see the boy who takes care of the animals. Her lover. Her desire and her freedom, if just for a little while.

  As the saying goes: There is no winter in the land of hope.

  He is waiting for her, as always, in the green tent.

  He is a strange boy. He stays by himself most of the time. He seems to prefer his own company and the company of animals. Seventeen years old, he's told her. His first name Mikhail. He hasn't offered his family name, nor does she ask. He arrived at the circus little more than a month ago, with no belongings, wearing baggy clothes that might have been stolen from a fence where they were drying in the sun. Had he ever owned shoes? He never wears any. He is lean and sun-browned, and she can count his ribs. He has an untidy mop of shaggy black hair that always seems to have straw in it, and when he stares at her calmly and fixedly as he does with his luminous green eyes something in her soul thaws and warms and melts. At the same time, something lower than her soul moistens and tightens and readies itself like a creature over which she has no control. It was such the first time she saw him, and has been every time, and is now.

  He has lighted a few candles for them, in his private space of hay where he sleeps.

  He has put down a wheat-colored blanket and smoothed a place for her. But first, before she can enter his domain, he turns and picks up something folded upon a piece of clean canvas, and turning toward her again he smiles and lets unfold the beautiful dark blue dress he has brought for her, and Devora catches her breath because no one has offered her such a gift for a very long time. Of course there were the wildflowers he had for her last week. . . but this. . .

  He tells her to try it on, so that he can take it off.

  Over from the far side of the tent, Devora hears the wolf pacing in its cage.

  She does what he asks, with great happiness. The dress makes her feel sleek. It makes her feel. . . what is the word, when one feels uncommon? Well. . . uncommon. She won't ask where Mikhail stole it from, because now it belongs to her. She owns so few pretty things. She tells him she loves it. Loves, loves, loves it. The woman who gave her birth told her to say loves a lot to a certain kind of man, because they liked to hear it. Devora is very sure Mikhail is that kind of man. Boy. Whatever he is.

  But she knows she must have him, for the need for him is rising in her and as he advances and begins to slowly and gently remove her new dress she puts her arms around his neck and he kisses her mouth so softly it is like a feather tracing the outline of her crushed red lips. An angel's feather, Devora thinks. For truly this boy has come to her from Heaven.

  He blows out every candle but one.

  The wolf paces faster, back and forth. The leopard sits watching, its single eye catching a glint of light. The bear sleeps, and shivers a little in some dream of honey.

  Apart from the caged animals, the horses and the zebra doze but the ears of the intelligent mule twitch to catch the sounds of human passion.

  Devora interrupts their deep kisses to remove her lover's clothes. Then they sink down together upon the blanket in the hay, and she puts a hand in his thick hair and guides his head between her thighs because this is what she craves most tonight, and he is so good at it, he is so wonderful at this, and so she moves against his tongue faster and harder and he is patient and content to give her everything she needs.

  She will not ask who his teachers were. She will not ask who else he has loved in this way. But she loves, loves, loves this, and it is a sensation the selfish Octavius Zloy has never given her.

  When she is wrung out and trembling and the sweat of heat and exertion glistens on her body, she tells Mikhail what she needs now to do for him, and he turns over and says he is all hers, which sounds to her ears even better than music.

  She has a little trouble with this, though, and he understands why because she's told him about the force of Octavius Zloy's thrusts into her mouth, and how he seemed to want to choke her and though Octavius Zloy is not very large he uses himself like a battering-ram in her throat. So Mikhail quietly says, as he always does, that all else of life might be pain but love should be pleasure, and so he moves her back upon the blanket and lets her wait for a moment as his tongue plays with her navel and downward. Then he slowly presses into her, and they are one.

  As the boy moves within her, Devora looks up into his handsome face and green eyes. A light sheen of sweat glows on his cheeks and forehead. She thinks she could live with him forever. She thinks she could follow him wherever he went. But, alas, he has no money. He is a pauper, whereas Octavius Zloy has a boxful of money hidden somewhere in the trailer. She dares not search for it, but she believes it's there because her husband has never lost a bout and so never had to return any coins.

  Mikhail's rhythm is stronger. He is ardent and powerful and somehow older than he seems.

  She has told him, over the many nights, how her husband has beaten her. And he has seen the marks, too. She has told Mikhail how the brutish wrestler took her from her home when she was sixteen because she was the prettiest girl in the village, and he was a bully passing through and no one could stand up to him. So the thirty-year-old Octavius Zloy, which was not his real name but suited him as much as his hurtful hands suited his selfish soul, threw her into the back of a wagon and told her she belonged to him. He was so huge and so terrible, she had told Mikhail, that fighting him was like trying to fight a whirlwind. So she had simply waited for her moment to escape, and yet. . . the moment never seemed to come. Where would she go if she tried to run away? Who would help her? And if he caught her - when he caught her - it would be more blood on her face and on his fist. It was if, she'd said, he was trying to make her look as ugly as he was inside.

  Mikhail and Devora kiss and bite and cling to each other as they thrust together, and the wolf and leopard are both very interested in this performance.

  At last, when the spasms have shaken both of them and Devora has squeezed her eyes shut and cried out and Mikhail has pulled out of her and left his white signature upon the damp hair between her thighs, she rests her head against his shoulder and in the golden light he listens to her speak.

  She tells him that Octavius Zloy has vowed he is going to kill her when he awakens. She tells him that her husband may be insane, and that he cannot be stopped.

  Mikhail listens. The wolf is pacing again.

  She tells him that if she was free from Octavius Zloy she would find a way back to her village. But how to be free from him? How to be free from such a mad whirlwind as that?

  Mikhail is silent for awhile. Then he says he will go to the trailer and talk to Octavius Zloy.

  Devora shakes her head and tells him that talking will not do. She tells him that Octavius Zloy only understands violence, and so if Mikhail wants to help her he must go into that trailer where the bad man is sleeping and knock his brains out with whatever is at hand.

  Then, she says, she can be rid of him. The world can be rid of him. And she will be free. But, she says, he has vowed to kill her when he wakes up. . . so what shall happen next?

  And she presses her head against Mikhail's shoulder and cries a little bit, until Mikhail stands up, his face grim and his lips tight. He puts on his clothes and says he will go and talk to Octavius Zloy.

  This time, Devora does not speak.

  Mikhail says he will return and, without a weapon but his own slim frame and fists, he strides out of the tent on his urgent mission.

  Devora waits for awhile.

  Then she puts on her drab gray dress, made ugly with the patches that hold it together, and she looks with contempt at the blue dress the traitor has brought her.

  He will learn a lesson tonight, she thinks. The lesson will be: do not stand and let Zolli take your hand, when you belong to me. Do not smile and laugh and talk with Zolli, the little bitch, and think that I don't see
what you're doing. I could put a knife into Zolli's heart and twist it a hundred times, but instead I will stab you in the heart with a blade called Octavius Zloy.

  Yes, she thinks. Her eyes are slitted, her face crimped with ugly rage because her jealousy is and always has been a crippling disease. Go talk to him. He will be awake by now. Go talk to his fists, because I have told him you steal things and beware that you come to steal the moneybox in the dark of night.

  I will survive as I always have, she thinks. I will take my blows from him, because I know that when he beats me it is out of the purest love and sweetest possession.

  She knows that the boy and Zolli have been here, right here, in this same place. She knows that they must have laughed at her stupidity, for letting herself believe that the boy cared only for her.

  No one cares for her but Octavius Zloy.

  He has told her so himself.

  Devora stands up and leaves the tent, and she walks slowly and gracefully, as if in a dream, back the way she has come, back along the dark and moonshadowed Great White Way, back to the gypsy trailer where by now her husband has delivered justice to a very evil boy.

  As the saying goes: A stranger's soul is like a dark forest.

  And Devora is very certain the strange boy carries within him an unknown wilderness. But it is not one that any other woman in this circus will share, and for sure it will not be the simpering and smiling and oh-so-pretty Zolli.

  The trailer's door is open. Wide open. There is only blackness within.

  Devora goes up the steps and then inside. She speaks softly, calling for her husband. She hears breathing in the dark. It is a harsh rushing of breath. She smells the caged wolf on her skin. She spends a few seconds fumbling for matches and the candle on the table near the door, as she continues to call for her husband. He should be right there, the bed is right in front of her. The match flares and the candle's wick is lighted and she holds the flame out and then she sees the blood.

  Well, she thinks, justice has been delivered. Perhaps too harshly, but still. . .

  And she smiles a little, not thinking yet of what she's going to say to her husband to explain where she's been, except out walking in the moonlight as she sometimes tells him when he is contrite and weeps like a little child after he awakens.

  Then by the candlelight she sees the red mass on the floor at her feet and in it is something that might be a beefy arm torn from its socket, and there a leg with a massive thigh clawed to the crimson muscle and white bone.

  On the floor are blood-spattered clothes. She has seen those clothes tonight. She has removed those clothes tonight.

  She calls in a weak and trembling whisper for Octavius Zloy, her husband and her protector, the tyrant of her heart.

  The candlelight finds a head upon the bloody planks. It has a slab of a chin and small eyes and bears an expression of open-mouthed wonder and horror. On the end of an arm that has an elbow but no shoulder is a clenched fist, the scarred knuckles already turning blue.

  Devora is about to scream when something shifts just beyond the range of the light.

  He speaks from the dark. What he says she can't understand, because it sounds like a growl. It sounds like an animal's rage put to nearly-human voice. Then he speaks again and this time his voice is almost his own.

  "You're free," he says.

  And he repeats it: "You're free. "

  Devora shakes her head and spittle drools from her mouth. Because she doesn't want to be free. She doesn't know how to be free. She knows only that he beats her because he loves loves loves her so very much. He wants her to be the perfect wife for a great man like himself. And the film that is to be based on his life. . . she was to star in it also, and they would be stars together on the cinema screen, and both of them so uncommon the dolts and whores in her village couldn't stand to look upon the savage sun of their faces. He had promised about the film. Just as soon as he raised enough money.

  Then all life would be pleasure, and so many people would be jealous. But now. . . now. . .

  A hand moves into the light, reaching for her. It is not quite human, and seems alive with moving, shifting bands of hair.

  "I love you," the boy whispers.

  A word comes from Devora's bruised lips.

  That word is Murder.

  She speaks it again, louder: Murder.

  And now her eyes widen into terrified circles and she lets the scream go that will awaken the entire village of the circus and have the first of them here within seconds: Murder.

  A figure leaps from the darkness. It is strangely-shaped, glimpsed from a nightmare. As Devora staggers backward, the figure throws itself into the bolted window shutter and crashes through. Devora screams Murder again but now she is alone in the trailer with the torn meat, broken bones and smeared guts of a wrestler.

  They take her away to a place to sleep, but she cannot sleep and they cannot get the extinguished candle out of her hand. She lies in the bed with her eyes open and stares at the ceiling, and she doesn't respond when Lady Tatiana and her daughter Zolli, both of them so kind to everyone, come to sit at her bedside. It is soon clear to all that Devora has embarked on a journey that has no destination.

  The hunt for a murderer goes out across the countryside, but the boy has vanished. How the boy did what he did, to a formidable man like Octavius Zloy, is a mystery with no solution. Why did the boy take off his clothes? And another very odd thing: why did the boy leave a puddle of piss on the trailer's floor? It would be talked about in the village of the circus, and under the glowing bulbs of the Great White Way, for the rest of this dwindling season and surely into the next, as well.

  But, as with everything, life - and the show - must go on.

  Over several bottles of vodka and with men sitting around a table in the last twilight of August, old white-bearded Gromelko sums it up best.

  Beware the quiet ones, he says. Beware the ones who would rather live with animals than in the company of humans.

  For as the saying goes: Make a friend of the wolf, but better keep your axe ready.

  The Man From London

  The man from London, who today had journeyed by horse-drawn sleigh from a small Russian town called Pruzhany, wore dark glasses. Without them, the glare of the afternoon sun on the great wide landscape of snow was blinding. The man from London was careful with his eyes. Covered up with coarse blankets, he sat in the back of the sleigh while his driver cracked the whip on the struggling horses. He wore a brown mink cap with ear flaps. The man from London today went by the name of William Bartlett. Yesterday, in Minsk, his name had been Keith Suddings, and it was while wearing that name that he'd shot his target through the right temple in room 53 of the Hotel Fortitude.

  Last night the train had brought him to Pruzhany, and today the sleigh would take him to another place. He was a relaxed man. He was a cool, collected and calm Englisher. But there were times today he had looked back over his shoulder across the sea of snow, his pale blue eyes slightly worried behind the dark lenses. He knew there were always trains running from Minsk to Pruzhany, and if he had not undertaken to visit this drear little hamlet he was approaching he would already be in Warsaw by now, having a cup of what the Poles called tea and sending a coded telegram through the proper channels. But he was the chosen boy for this job, so that was that. And anyway, all the loose ends were tied up. Weren't they? He tapped the fingers of a gloved hand on the knee of his gray corduroy trousers. He was wearing several layers of clothing beneath a fleece-lined overcoat, because even the bright sun in a Russian winter felt frigid. Or maybe, he considered, it was just him.

  Revenge, of course, was a dish best eaten cold. He hadn't really known the man he'd executed in room 53 of the Hotel Fortitude, but he was the boy chosen for the job, chosen to carry out the revenge that some unknown other man desired, and now the desire for revenge would probably flip to the other side, and that was that.
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  The man from London was a thirty-six-year-old boy, Oxford-educated and wise to the ways of the dirty little world in which he found himself on this sunny Russian afternoon. It was the eleventh of February, 1928. In Germany the pain of the Great Depression was cracking the old order of things, and an ambitious man named Hitler had imposed himself as leader of a secret society with the trappings of medieval militarism.

  In Russia the equally ambitious Stalin had just inaugurated his first Five-Year-Plan to advance industry while underhandedly manipulating the peasants and the military. In Britain, cannabis had just become a controlled substance.

  But the British lions were awake. In fact, they never slept. In the backrooms under the small intense lights directed to the tables of maps and radio signal transcripts, the hale and hearty fellows from such stellar universities as Oxford, Cambridge, Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham made their deductions and decisions, and perhaps over time they would lose their hale and hearty demeanors and become more solitary and sallow, but that was the job.

  Someone had to do it.

  The man from London looked back once more over his shoulder, at all the snow and sky behind him. He was trying to summon up a Russian proverb. What was it? Oh, yes.

  The past is a different country.

  "How far now?" he asked the driver, in his meticulous and careful use of the Russian tongue. His answer was a shrug; you couldn't rush these oxen-like people.

  It was very interesting, the man from London thought, how the merry sound of sleighbells could over time drive a man nearly mad.

  But at last the driver said, "We are here," around his cigarette, though the cluster of wooden houses were still a thousand meters away across the flat white plain. As the sleigh closed the distance with its horrendously-jingling bells, the man from London could see stone ruins atop a small hill overlooking the village.

  That was the point of his interest.

  A few people emerged from their houses to watch the sleigh approach. They were bundled up in the tattered and patched coats of poverty. They stood like scarecrows in the wind. One of them, a small child, lifted a hand in greeting and the man from London cheerfully waved back because he knew it was important to make a good first impression.

  Then he shifted a little in his seat, because the compact one-shot assassin's pistol under his coat and three sweaters was pressing into his side.

  A large bull of a man emerged from one of the houses and approached the sleigh as if he owned this particular piece of snow-covered earth, which he probably did.

  The sleigh's driver recognized authority and put his muscles into the reins; the two horses stopped walking and blew gouts of steam. The bull-man, wearing brown britches and a heavy red sweater, came forward like a force of nature and was flanked by two other men who matched his stride but not his size. The bull-man had a bald head, a thick gray mustache and beard, huge gray eyebrows and gold rings in both ears. His boots crunched through the snow until he reached the sleigh's side.

  "Hello," said the man from London in the native language, his cheerful smile wide and his square white teeth ablaze with good intentions.

  "Who the fuck are you and what are you wanting here?" came back like a cannon's blast.

  Obviously the village chief, thought the man from London. Which was saying that maybe this gentleman owned more cattle or pigs than the others, or maybe he had the biggest gun or the biggest dick.

  "My name is William Bartlett. I'm - "

  "English?" It was spoken with incredulity. Other people were pressing forward now. The houses were emptying their peasant owners. The Russian-spoken English went around like a hushed echo.

  "Yes, I am," said the man from London. "May I step out?" He decided to add, "I've come a very long way. "

  The chief only glared. A small wizened woman who had eased up beside the bull-man gave him an elbow shot to the ribs. "Step out," came the reply, with a small wince of pain.

  "Ah, thank you. " The man from London put his boots into the snow and hauled himself free from the treacherous seat and smelly blankets. He stood six feet three inches tall and towered over the Russian heads. He was lean and broad-shouldered and gave the sensation of coiled power, for in his youth he'd been a champion boxer and such hard training and arduous experience never fully faded. Further evidence was his many-times broken and craggy nose, but he'd always given worse than he got. "May we go into your house, sir?" he politely asked the chief.

  "I asked what you wanted here. "

  "Yes, so you did. " The man from London removed his sunglasses to reveal the blue eyes that were as pale and sharp and cutting, if need be, as Imperial daggers. He paused to let them scratch the bull-man's surface. "But I didn't answer, did I?"

  The moment hung between jeopardy and violence.

  But the man from London knew the Russian mind. Perhaps bull-like, yes, but also holding the curiosity of a child. And very respectful of courage, that was certainly true.

  The chief's mouth seemed to tilt to one side. His eyes narrowed.

  "Come on, Bartlett," he said, speaking the name as if he'd spat it, and he led the path to his house a short distance away.

  A fire was crackling. The window shutters kept out much of the cold. The furniture was table, chairs, and foot-stool in the front room. Before the man from London had removed his coat, he had a brown mug of tea in his hand from the wizened old woman. He drank it down steaming hot to warm his innards, then he took off his coat and hat and let them see the silvery-blonde hair and chiselled profile of an Englishman with Viking blood in his veins. His jaw was square, his forehead high enough to house a brain full of facts these people could never comprehend, and across his cheeks and the crooked bridge of his battered nose lay a scatter of freckles that made him appear perpetually boyish and drove women absolutely nutsy.

  "Fine tea," he commented, though it was not so much tea as it was tree bark.

  "You're a fine shit thrower," said the chief, who sat down in the best chair and hooked the foot-stool toward him with a haughty boot.

  "I am that," agreed the man from London, with a placid smile. "But you have to know why I'm here. You're not stupid, are you?"

  "Not stupid. "

  "All right, then. I understand he lives in the ruins. "

  "The church," said the chief. "It is our village church. "

  "The ruins of a church," the man from London corrected. "He lives there, yes?"

  "Maybe. "

  "He lives there. Yes," said the man from London, with a firm nod. He thought of sitting down, but the other chairs looked none-too-steady and to fall on his bum before the chief and the watchful old woman would do nothing for the balance of power in this room.

  The chief stared up at him with something near pleading in his small black eyes.

  "What do you want with him? Huh? What does an Englishman want with him, to come so far?"

  "I want to speak with him. I understand he speaks English. "

  The chief peered steadily into the fire.

  "I know he's wanted for murder. I know it's just a matter of time before they find him. "

  "They won't find him. We hide him. "

  "Not very well," said the man from London. And added: "Obviously. "

  "Don't make airs with big words," the chief warned, his face clouding over. "That last Englishman who came. . . he made airs with big words, too. Him with his camera and all his little geegaws. Oh. " The chief's mouth hung open for a few seconds, and then it slowly closed. He smiled thinly. "I see. That Englishman. . . the newspaper writer. . . he told someone, is that it?"

  "He told the man who told the man who sent me. So. . . you're correct. "

  "And us trying to help a poor English newspaper writer fix his broken-down wagon," the chief said, with a fearsome scowl that turned into a sad half-smile. "We said we'd do the work for a few coins and he could stay the night. Then he saw something, didn't he?"

&
nbsp; "Yes, he did. " That had been back in October. The English journalist was in actuality a member of the British secret service on a piddling errand involving the movement across the Polish border of a few document photographs. Minor, busy-work stuff. . . but then the tale he'd brought back from this village on the raw and windswept frontier. . . much more interesting than armored-car blueprints. Therefore, while the man from London was in Minsk killing a Russian double-agent he did not know, and was so close to this little village, it might be worth the extra small trip.

  The bald-headed bull-man said nothing for awhile. Then, spoken quietly: "He catches food for us. He feeds the whole village. He's a very good young man. But. . . troubled. "

  "Yes, being wanted for murder is troublesome. " The field agent had brought back that information as well, gleaned from a young girl in the village who had heard it from the murderer himself. Such girls gave up quite a lot of information for a pair of silk stockings or a box of chocolates.

 
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