The wolfs hour, p.17
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       The Wolfs Hour, p.17
 

         Part #1 of Michael Gallatin series by Robert McCammon
Part III - Grand Entrance Chapter 3

 

  "There's your tub," Gaby told him, and Michael stood looking at a stone vat about fifteen feet across and four feet deep, full of water in which a few dead leaves and grass floated. "Here's your soap," she said, and tossed him a hard white brick from a wooden rack on which were also several ratty-looking but clean towels. "We just put the water in a couple of days ago. " She motioned toward a large stone spout that emerged from the wall over the vat. "I hope you don't mind bathing in water that's already been used. "

  He put on the best smile he could manage. "as long as that's all it's been used for. "

  "No, we've got somewhere else for that. "

  "The comforts of home," Michael said, and suddenly Gaby pulled off her dusty sweater and began to unbutton her blouse. He watched her undress, not knowing how to respond, and she looked at him as she took her blouse off and her bra was exposed. "I hope you don't mind," she said, without pausing as she reached back and unhooked her bra. "I've got to wash, too. " The bra fell away, and her breasts were in full view.

  "Oh no," Michael said. "I don't mind at all. "

  "I'm glad. Even if you did, it wouldn't matter. Some men are. . . you know. . . shy about bathing with women. " She took off her boots and socks, and began to unzip her slacks.

  "I can't imagine," Michael answered, more to himself than her. He took off his cap and unbuttoned his jumpsuit. Without hesitating, Gaby removed the last of her underwear and, totally naked, walked to a set of stone steps leading down into the water. She descended them, and Michael heard her catch her breath as the water crept up her thighs and reached her stomach. Spring water, he thought. Drawn through an ancient Roman system of pipes into what served as a communal bath, possibly in a temple of some kind. Gaby took the last step, the water just over her breasts, and finally released the air she'd been hoarding. It was chilly enough down here without wet skin, but he didn't care to go to Paris without bathing for the next two days. He stepped out of his underwear and walked down the steps. The cold water shocked first his ankles, then his knees, then. . . well, it was an experience he was not likely to forget.

  "Bracing," Michael said, with gritted teeth.

  "I'm impressed. You must be used to cold baths, yesi" Before he could answer, she walked to the center of the pool and ducked her head under. She came up quickly, and pushed her thick black hair back from her face. "The soap, pleasei" She caught it when he tossed it to her, and began to lather her hair. The soap smelled of tallow and oatmeal, definitely not a brand bought in a Parisian boutique. "You thought fast back at Bazancourt," she told him.

  "Not particularly. I just took advantage of an opportunity. " He ducked down to his neck in the water, trying to get accustomed to the chill.

  "Do you do that ofteni" she asked, her hair dripping suds. "Take advantage of opportunitiesi"

  "It's the only way I know. " The wolf's way, he thought. One took what was offered.

  Gaby soaped her arms, shoulders, and breasts, her movements fast and efficient instead of slowly seductive. Nothing was being offered here, Michael thought. Gaby was simply getting a job done. She seemed to be totally unconcerned about the fact that her tight, supple body was less than seven feet away from him, and that lack of concern-her confidence that she could deal with whatever problem that arose-intrigued him. But the chill water permitted only twitches, no arousal. Michael watched as she soaped as much of her back as she could reach; she didn't ask him to do the rest. Then she lathered her face, ducked underwater again, and came up rosy-cheeked. She tossed him the soap. "Your turn. "

  Michael scrubbed the camouflage paint off his face. The harsh soap stung his skin. "The lights," he said, and nodded toward the two bulbs that hung on wires at the wall. "How do you get electricity down herei"

  "We've spliced into the lines that feed a chateau about two miles away," Gaby said. She smiled faintly, suds still in her hair. "The Nazis are using it as a command post. " She rinsed her hair once more, getting the rest of the soap out; the suds floated around her like garlands of lace. "We don't use the electricity except between midnight and five a. M. , and we don't drain enough for them to notice. "

  "Too bad you don't have a water heater. " Michael doused his head under and wet his hair, then soaped it and washed the grit out of it. He scrubbed his chest, arms, and face again, rinsed himself off, and caught Gaby staring at his uncamouflaged features.

  "You're not an Englishman," she decided, after a few seconds of studying him without war paint.

  "I'm a British citizen. . . "

  "Perhaps you are. . . but you're not English. " She stepped closer to him. He smelled the natural fragrance of her clean flesh, and he thought of an apple orchard blooming white under a springtime sun. "I saw a lot of Englishmen, caught by the Germans in 1940. You don't look like they did. "

  "and how was thati"

  She shrugged. Came a foot or two nearer. His green eyes could mesmerize her if she let them, so she stared at his mouth. "I don't know. Maybe. . . as if they were children playing a game. They didn't realize what they were up against when they tried to fight the Nazis. You look. . . " She paused, the cold water on her breasts. She tried to articulate what it was she was thinking. "You look as if you've been fighting for a very long time. "

  "I was in North africa," he said.

  "No. That's not what I mean. You look. . . as if your war is here. " Gaby pressed her fingers over her heart. "Your battle is inside, yesi"

  Now it was his turn to look away from her, because she saw too deeply. "Isn't everyone'si" he asked, and began walking through the water toward the steps. It was time to dry off and direct his mind to his mission.

  The light bulbs flickered. Once, then again. They dimmed to brown and went out, and Michael stood in darkness with the chill water lapping at his waist. "air raid," Gaby said; he heard a tremor in her voice, and he realized she didn't like the dark. "The Germans have shut the power down. "

  There was a distant, muffled noise like a hammer whacking a pillow. Either a bomb exploding or a large-caliber cannon going off, Michael thought. It was followed by other blasts, more felt than heard, and the stones shivered beneath Michael's feet. "This may be a bad one," Gaby said, and this time she couldn't hide the fear in her voice. "Hang on, everybody!" someone shouted in French from another chamber. There was a boom and shudder and Michael heard the roof crack like a pistol shot. Bits of stone splashed into the water. Either bombs were falling close overhead or a battery of anti-aircraft cannons was filling the sky with explosions. Roman dust wafted into Michael's nostrils, and the next blast felt as if it landed within fifty yards of his skull.

  a warm, shivering body pressed against him. Gaby clung to his shoulders, and Michael put his arms around her.

  Fragments of stone were splashing on either side of them. Six or seven pebble-sized pieces fell onto Michael's back. another explosion made Gaby press closer into him, her fingers gripping at his flesh, and in a lull of silence between blasts he heard her gasp and moan in expectation of the next bomb fall. He stood, his muscles tensed, and stroked Gaby's wet hair as the bombs fell to earth and the anti-aircraft guns thundered.

  Then, a minute later, there was nothing but the sound of their breathing. Their hearts were slamming, and Michael felt Gaby's body quake with the violence of her pulse. Someone was coughing in another chamber, and a voice-McCarren's-shouted, "anyone hurti" Other voices answered, saying that there were no injuries. "Gabyi" McCarren called. "You and the Brit all righti"

  She tried to answer, but she had dust in her nostrils and throat and she felt as if she might pass out. She hated the dark, the sense of confinement, and the hammering blasts that brought back a terrifying moment four years ago when she'd hidden in a basement with her family while Luftwaffe airplanes bombed her village to rubble.

  "Gabyi" McCarren shouted, sounding a little frantic.

  "We're all right," Michael told him calmly. "Just s
haken up a bit. "

  The Scotsman whuffed a sigh of relief and went on to check another area.

  Gaby couldn't stop shaking. It was the cold water and her own chilled blood. She had her head against the man's shoulder, and it suddenly occurred to her that she didn't know-and shouldn't know-his real name. That was one of the rules of the game. But she smelled his flesh through the musty aroma of wafting dust, and she thought for an instant-but no, of course that couldn't be-that his skin had the faintest wild scent about it, like an animal's odor. It was not unpleasant, just. . . different, in a way she couldn't pinpoint.

  The light bulbs flickered again. Off and on, off and on as someone-a German hand-threw the switches that regulated the power flow. and then they came on and stayed on, though muted to a dim brownish cast. "all clear," Michael said, and Gaby looked up into his face. His eyes seemed to be slightly luminous, as if they were absorbing all the available light, and the sight frightened her, though she wasn't exactly sure why. This man was different; something about him, something indefinable. She met his stare, as time was measured in heartbeats, and she thought she saw a glimpse of something-a leaping, elemental thing-behind those green eyes like flames behind icy glass. She was aware of the heat of his body, steam beginning to drift from his pores, and she started to speak-to say what, she didn't know, but she did know that when her voice came out it would tremble.

  Michael spoke first, with his body. He turned away from her, walked up the steps to the towel rack, took one for himself and one for her. "You'll catch your death," he told Gaby, offering her the towel as an inducement to leave the chilly water. She came out, and Michael felt his body respond as the water crept down from her breasts, down her flat stomach and her glistening thighs. and then she was standing in front of him, dripping, her black hair wet and sleek, and Michael gently folded the towel around her. His throat was tight, but he got the words out anyway. "I'd better get some rest," he said, staring into her eyes. "I've had an exciting night. "

  "Yes," Gaby agreed. "Me, too. " She clutched the towel around her and left wet footprints on the stones as she went to her clothes and gathered them up. "Your room is down that corridor. " She motioned toward it. "It's through the second archway on the right. I hope you don't mind a cot, but the blanket's good and thick. "

  "It sounds fine. " He could sleep in the mud when he was tired, and he knew he'd be asleep within two minutes of hitting that cot.

  "I'll come for you when it's time to get up," she told him.

  "I hope so," he answered as he dried his hair. He heard her footsteps as she left the chamber, and when he lowered the towel, Gaby was gone. Then he dried his body off, picked up his clothes, and went along the corridor she'd indicated. There was a candle in a brass holder and a box of matches on the floor outside the second archway, and Michael paused to light the wick. He followed the flame into his room, which was a musty, damp-walled chamber that held a narrow, decidedly uncomfortable-looking cot and a metal rod on the wall with a few clothes hangers dangling from it. Michael hung his clothes up; they smelled of sweat, dust, and German-tank engine exhaust, with a hint of scorched flesh. Michael thought that after the war was over he might go into the business of renting his sense of smell, maybe to a maker of perfumes. Once, on a street in London, he'd found a woman's white glove, and in that glove he'd smelled the scents of brass keys, tea and lemons, Chanel perfume, the sweet earthy fragrance of an expensive white wine, the odors of more than one man's perspiration, a distant hint of an ancient rose, and of course the rubber smell of the Dunlop tire that had run across it as it lay on the street. He had learned over the years and by virtue of practice, that scents were almost as powerful to him as vision. His ability was stronger when he was under the change, of course, but much of it had seeped into his life as a human.

  Michael pulled the cot's blanket back and got into bed. The springs stabbed his back, but he'd been stabbed by sharper blades. He got himself situated under the blanket, and then he blew out the candle, put the candle holder on the stones beside the cot, and lay his head back on a pillow stuffed with goose down. His body was tired, but his mind wanted to roam, like a beast pacing behind bars. He stared into the darkness, and he listened to the sound of water dripping slowly down a wall.

  Your battle is inside, Gaby had said. Yesi

  Yes, Michael thought. and it came to him, something he pondered every day and every night since he was a child in the Russian forest: I'm not human. I'm not an animal. What am Ii

  Lycanthrope. a word coined by a psychiatrist, a man who studied jibbering patients in mental wards, their eyes glassy in the glare of the full moon. The peasants of Russia, Romania, Germany, austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Spain, and Greece all had different words for it, but those words converged on the same meaning: werewolf.

  Not human. Not an animal, Michael thought. What am I, in the eye of Godi

  ah, but there was another bend in the thicket of thought. Often Michael imagined God as a huge white wolf, striding across a snowfield under a sky ablaze with stars, and God's eyes were golden and very clear, and God's white fangs were very, very sharp. God could smell lies and treachery across the firmament, and he tore the hearts out of the disloyal and ate them bleeding. There was no escape from the cold judgment of God, the King of Wolves.

  But how, then, did men's God view the lycanthropei as a pestilence or a miraclei Michael, of course, could only speculate, but he knew one thing for certain: there were very few times when he didn't wish he might be a beast for all of his life, and run free and wild in the green halls of God. Two legs fettered him; four legs let him fly.

  It was time to sleep now, to gather his strength for the morning and the job ahead. Much to learn, much to beware of. Paris was a beautiful trap with jagged jaws, and it could break a man's or wolf's neck with equal ease. Michael closed his eyes, trading outer darkness for the darkness within. He listened to the water drip. . . drip. . . drip. He drew a long lungful of breath, let it go in a whisper, and he left this world.

 
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