The wolfs hour, p.24
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       The Wolfs Hour, p.24

         Part #1 of Michael Gallatin series by Robert McCammon
 
Part V - The Mouse Trap Chapter 3

 

  "He's gone," Michael said at last, when he was certain of it. He took a few deep breaths to calm himself, and smelled dust, his own sweat, and sweet apple buds. White blossoms lay all over the car and were still floating down. Gaby coughed, and Michael leaned forward, grasped her shoulder, and pulled her back from the wheel. "are you all righti" His voice was strained with tension. Gaby nodded, her eyes glazed and watery, and Michael sighed with relief; he'd feared that a bullet had hit her, and if that had happened, the mission was in dire jeopardy. "Yes," she said, regaining some of her strength. "I'm all right. Just dust down my throat. " She coughed a few more times to clear it out. What had terrified her most about the encounter was the fact that she'd been at the mercy of God, and unable to shoot back.

  "We'd better go. It won't be long before they find out Johlmann was shot by a Luger instead of a machine gun. "

  Gaby pulled herself together, a simple matter of willpower over scorched nerves. She took the brake off and backed the Mercedes along its path of plowed grass to the road again. She got up on the gravel and drove east. The radiator was making a little tinkling noise but all the gauges indicating that gas, oil, and water were okay. Michael watched the sky with a wolf's undivided attention, but no more planes swept out of the blue. Neither were they being followed, and he assumed-hoped, really-that the soldiers and the second Gestapo man were still in shock themselves. The road unwound beneath the Mercedes's tires, and abruptly the gravel turned to pavement and a sign announced that Paris was eight kilometers ahead. There were no more roadblocks, which relieved both of them, but they passed several truck-loads of soldiers going in and out of the city.

  and then the road was lined with tall, graceful trees and it widened into an avenue. They passed the last wooden farmhouse and saw the first of many brick and stone houses, then met gray buildings decorated with white statuary like sugar frosting on a cake. Paris gleamed in the sunlight before them, the towers of its cathedrals and monuments glowing like golden needles. Its ornate buildings crowded together much as the structures of any metropolis, but these with the dignity of centuries. The Eiffel Tower stood against a background of drifting clouds as fragile as French lace, and the vaulted roofs of Montmartre were the varied, burnished reds and browns of an artist's palette. The Mercedes crossed the pale green waters of the Seine over a bridge decorated with stone cherubs, and Michael smelled moss and mud-stranded fish. The flow of traffic was heavier once they crossed the Boulevard Berthier, one of the grand avenues that circled the City of Light and was named for Napoleon's marshals, but Gaby was undaunted. She merged into the contest of Citriens, horse wagons, bicyclists, and pedestrians, and most of them gave way before the imposing black staff car.

  as Gaby drove through the streets of Paris, one hand on the wheel and the other motioning other vehicles and people out of their path, Michael smelled the aromas of the city: a commingling, heady festival of a thousand scents, from a whiff of smoky perfume through the croissants and coffee of a sidewalk cafe to the grassy manure being raked by a street cleaner. Michael was near being overwhelmed by scents, as he was when he visited any city. The smells of life, of human activity, were sharp and startling here, none of those damp, foggy odors he associated with London. He saw many people talking, but few smiling. Fewer still were laughing. and that was because there were German soldiers on the streets, carrying rifles, and German officers drinking espresso in the cafes. They reclined in their chairs with the relaxed postures of conquerors. Nazi banners flew from many of the buildings, unfurled in the breeze over the upraised arms and imploring faces of marble, French-carved statues. German soldiers directed traffic, and some streets were blocked by barricades with signs marked aCHTUNG! EINTRITT VERBOTEN! adding insult to injury by not using the native language, Michael thought. No wonder so many faces scowled at the Mercedes as it swept past.

  Compounding the traffic problems were many laboring, swastika-emblazoned trucks, creeping along and backfiring in the midst of bicyclists like bomb blasts. Michael saw several troop trucks, loaded with soldiers, and even a couple of tanks pulled over to the side, their crews sunning themselves and smoking cigarettes. The whole picture said that the Germans believed they were here to stay, and while the French could go about their daily lives it was the conquerors who kept the reins tight. He saw a group of young soldiers flirting with girls, a stiff-backed officer getting his boots shined by a little boy, another officer shouting in German at a waiter who frantically mopped up a carafe of spilled white wine. Michael sat back in his seat, drawing in all the sights, sounds, and aromas, and he felt a heavy shadow over the City of Light. The Mercedes slowed, and Gaby hit the horn to hurry a few bicycling citizens out of the way. Michael smelled horseflesh, and he looked to his left at a military policeman astride a horse that wore blinders with Nazi symbols on them. The man saluted.

  Michael nodded absently and wished he had that bastard alone in the forest for one minute.

  Gaby drove east on the Boulevard des Batignolles, through an area crowded with apartment buildings and rococo houses. They stayed on that boulevard, crossing the avenue de Clinchy and then turning north. Gaby turned right onto the Rue Quenton, and they entered a district where the streets were made of rough brown paving stones and clothes hung on lines across windows. The buildings here were painted in faded pastels, some of their faiades cracked and the ancient clay bricks exposed like yellow ribs. Here the bicyclists were fewer, there were no sidewalk cafes or street-corner Van Goghs. The structures seemed to lean drunkenly against each other, as if in forlorn support, and even the air smelled to Michael of bitter wine. Shadows held figures who watched the black car glide past, their eyes dead as counterfeit coins. The Mercedes's breeze stirred old newspapers from the gutters, and their yellowed pages drifted over the littered sidewalks.

  Gaby drove fast through these streets, hardly pausing at the blind intersections. She turned left, then right, then left again a few blocks ahead. Michael saw a crooked sign: RUE LaFaRGE. "We've arrived," Gaby said, and she slowed down and blinked the headlights.

  Two men, both middle-aged, unlatched a doorway and threw it open. It led into a cobblestoned alley just a few inches wider than the Mercedes, and Michael braced for a scrape but Gaby entered the alley with clearance on either side. The two men closed the doorway behind them. Gaby continued up the alley and into a green garage with a sagging roof. Then she said, "Get out," and cut the engine. Michael did. a man with a brown, seamed face and white hair strode into the garage. "Follow me, please," he said in French, and began to walk rapidly away. Michael followed, and glanced back to see Gaby unlocking the Mercedes's trunk and removing a brown suitcase. She closed the trunk, then the garage door, and one of the first two men locked a chain and padlock and pocketed the key.

  "Hurry, please," the white-haired man urged Michael, his voice pleasant but firm. Michael's jackboots clattered loudly on the cobblestones, the noise echoing in the silence. around him, the windows of the crooked buildings remained shuttered. The white-haired man, who had the thick shoulders and arms of a heavy laborer, unlatched an iron gate with spear tips on the top, and Michael followed him across a small rose garden into the back door of a building as blue as a robin's egg. a narrow corridor stretched before them, and a set of rickety stairs. They went up to the second floor. another door was opened, and the white-haired man motioned him in. Michael entered a room that had a carpet of intertwined, multicolored rags and smelled strongly of fresh bread and boiled onions.

  "Welcome to our home," someone said, and Michael found himself looking at a small, frail old woman with snowy hair pulled back into a long braid. She wore a faded blue dress and a red-checked apron. Behind her round glasses she had dark brown eyes that took in all and revealed nothing. She smiled, her heart-shaped face folding into a mass of wrinkles and her teeth the color of weak tea. "Take off your clothes, please. "

  "My. . . clothesi"

  "Yes.
That disgusting uniform. Please remove it. "

  Gaby came in, escorted by the man who'd locked the garage. The old woman glanced at her, and Michael saw the woman's face tighten. "We were told to expect two men. "

  "She's all right," Michael said. "McCarren-"

  "No names," the old woman interrupted crisply. "We were told to expect two men. a driver and a passenger. Why is it not soi" Her eyes, as dark as pistol barrels, returned to Gaby.

  "a change in plans," Gaby told her. "I decided to-"

  "Changed plans are flawed plans. Who are you to decide such thingsi"

  "I said she's all right," Michael told the old woman, and this time he took the power of her stare. The two men had positioned themselves behind him, and Michael felt sure they had guns. One on the left, one on the right; an elbow in each of their faces if the guns came out. "I'll vouch for her," Michael said.

  "Then who's to vouch for you, Green Eyesi" the old woman asked. "This is not the professional way. " She looked back and forth from Michael to Gaby, and her gaze lingered on the girl. "ah!" she decided with a nod. "You love him, ehi"

  "Certainly not!" Gaby's face flushed crimson.

  "Well, maybe it's called something else these days, then. " She smiled again, but thinly. "Love has always been a four-letter word. Green Eyes, I told you to take off that uniform. "

  "If I'm going to be shot, I'd rather it be done while my pants are on. "

  The old woman laughed huskily. "I think you're the type of man who does most of his shooting with his pants off. " She waved a hand at him. "Just do it. No one's going to be killing anybody. Not today, at least. "

  Michael removed his overcoat, and one of the men accepted it and began to rip the lining out. The other man took Gaby's suitcase, put it on a table, and unlatched it. He started rummaging through the civilian clothes she'd brought along. The old woman snatched the Stalingrad medal off Michael's chest and examined it as she held it beneath a lamp. "This trash wouldn't fool a blind tinsmith!" she said with a sharp laugh.

  "It's a real medal," Gaby answered coolly.

  "Ohi and how do you know that, my little valentinei"

  "I know," Gaby said, "because I took it off the corpse after I slit his throat. "

  "Good for you. " The old woman put the medal aside. "Bad for him. You take off your uniform, too, valentine. Hurry, I'm not getting any younger. "

  Michael went ahead with it. He stripped down to his underwear, and Gaby undressed as well. "You're a hairy bastard," the old woman observed. "What kind of beast was your fatheri" She said to one of the other men, "Bring him his new clothes and shoes. " He went away into another room, and the old woman picked up Michael's Luger and sniffed the barrel. She wrinkled her nose, finding the odor of a recent shot. "You have any trouble on the roadi"

  "a small inconvenience," Michael said.

  "I don't think I want to hear any more. " She picked up the silver pocket watch, clicked the winding stem twice, and looked at the cyanide capsule when the back popped open. She grunted softly, closed the watch, and returned it to him. "You might want to keep that. Knowing the time is very important these days. "

  The white-haired man returned with a bundle of clothes and a pair of scuffed black shoes. "We got your sizes over the radio," the woman said. "But we were expecting two men. " She motioned toward the contents of Gaby's suitcase. "You brought your own clothes, theni That's good. We don't have civilian papers for you. Too easily traced in the city. If either of you are captured. . . " She looked at Michael, her eyes hard. "I expect you to know what time it is. " She waited until Michael nodded his understanding. "You won't see your uniforms or the car again. You'll be supplied with bicycles. If you feel you must have a car, we'll talk about it. We don't have a lot of money here, but we have a fortune in friends. You'll call me Camille, and you will talk only to me. You're not to address either of these two gentlemen. " She motioned toward the Frenchmen, who were gathering up the German uniforms and putting them in a basket with a lid. "Keep your pistol," she told Michael. "Those are hard to come by. " She stared at Gaby for a few seconds, as if evaluating her, then at Michael. "I'm sure you both have had experience in this. I don't care anything about who you are, or what you've done; the important thing is that a lot of lives depend on your being smart-and careful-while you're in Paris. We'll help you as much as we can, but if you're captured we don't know you. Is that cleari"

  "Perfectly," Michael answered.

  "Good. If you'd like to rest awhile, your room is through there. " Camille nodded toward a corridor and a doorway. "I was just making some onion soup, if you'd like a taste. "

  Michael picked up the shoes and bundle of clothes from the table where they'd been set, and Gaby closed her suitcase and hefted it. Camille said, "You children behave yourselves," and then she turned away and walked into a small kitchen where a pot boiled on a cast-iron stove.

  "after you," Michael said, and followed Gaby along the corridor to their new quarters. The door creaked on its hinges as Gaby pushed it open. Inside was a four-poster bed with a white quilt and a more somber cot with a green blanket. The room was cramped but clean, with a skylight and a window that looked out over the drunken pastel buildings.

  Gaby put her suitcase down on the four-poster bed with solid authority. Michael looked at the cot, and he thought he heard his back groan. He went to the window and slid it open, getting a lungful of Paris air. He was still in his underwear, and so was Gaby, but there seemed no need to hurry about anything, including getting dressed-or undressed, as the case might be. Gaby lay down on the bed and covered herself with a crisp linen sheet. She watched him, framed against the window; she let her gaze play over his muscles, his sleek back, and long, dark-haired legs. "I'm going to rest for a while," she announced, the sheet up to her chin.

  "Be my guest. "

  "There's not room for two in this bed," she said.

  "Of course there isn't," he agreed. He glanced quickly at her, saw her long black hair, unpinned now that it was out from under the cap, splayed across the goosedown pillow like an intricate fan.

  "Not even if I squeezed over," Gaby continued. "So you'll have to sleep on the cot. "

  "Yes, I will. "

  She shifted her position, the goosedown mattress settling beneath her. The sheets were cool and smelled faintly of cloves: an aroma Michael had detected as soon as they entered the room. Gaby hadn't realized how tired she was; she'd been up at five o'clock, and her sleep had been restless at best. Why had she come with this mani she asked herself. She hardly knew him. Didn't know him, really. Who was he to heri Her eyes had drifted shut; now she opened them and found him standing over the bed, staring down at her. So close it made her skin tingle.

  Her bare leg had slipped out from under the sheet. Michael ran his fingers along her ankle, raising chill bumps. Then he gently grasped her ankle and slid her leg back under the fragrant linen. She thought for an instant that his fingers had burned their impressions on her flesh. "Sleep well," he said, and he put on a pair of brown pants that had patches on both knees. He started to go out, and Gaby sat up with the sheet clutched to her breasts. "Where are you goingi"

  "To get a bowl of soup," Michael answered. "I'm hungry. " and then he turned and left, shutting the door quietly behind him.

  Gaby lay back down, but now she couldn't sleep. a heat pulsed at her center, and her nerves were jangled. It was the remainder of their encounter with the fighter plane, she decided. Who wouldn't be unable to rest after something like thati They were lucky to be alive, and tomorrow. . .

  Well, tomorrow would take care of itself. Like all tomorrows did.

  She reached down, beside the bed, and pulled the cot a few inches closer. He'd never know. Then, satisfied and growing drowsy in the embrace of goose down, Gaby closed her eyes. a few minutes passed, in which the shadows of airplanes and the sounds of gunfire played through her mind. Those things faded, like bad dreams in daylight.

 
; She slept.

 
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