(Isaac Bell – 2)
DECEMBER 12, 1934
ABOVE THE SNOW LINE, THE GERMAN ALPS TORE AT THE SKY like the jaws of an ancient flesh eater. Storm clouds grazed the wind-swept peaks, and the jagged rock appeared to move, as if the beast were awakening. Two men, neither young, both strong, watched from the balcony of a ski hotel with quickening anticipation.
Hans Grandzau was a guide whose weathered face was as craggy as the mountaintops. He carried in his head sixty years of traversing the wintery slopes. Last night, he had promised that the wind would shift east. Bitter Siberian cold would whirl wet air from the Mediterranean into blinding snow.
The man to whom Hans had promised snow was a tall American whose blond hair and mustache were edged with silver. He wore a tweed Norfolk suit, a warm fedora on his head, and a Yale University scarf adorned with the shield of Branford College. His dress was typical of a well-to-do tourist who had come to the Alps for winter sport. But his eyes were fastened with a glacial-blue intensity on an isolated stone castle ten miles across the rugged valley.
The castle had dominated its remote glen for a thousand years. It was nearly buried by the winter snows and mostly hidden by the shadow of the peaks that soared above it. Miles below the castle, too long and steep a climb to be undertaken lightly, was a village. The American watched a pillar of smoke creep toward it. He was too far away to see the locomotive venting it, but he knew that it marked the route of the railroad that crossed the border to Innsbruck. Full circle, he thought grimly. Twenty-seven years ago, the crime had started by a railroad in the mountains. Tonight it would end, one way or another, by a railroad in the mountains.
“Are you sure you are up to this?” asked the guide. “The ascents are steep. The wind will cut like a saber.”
“I’m fit as you are, old man.”
To assure Hans, he explained that he had prepared by bivouack ing for a month with Norwegian ski troops, having arranged informal attachment to a United States Army unit dispatched to hone the skills of mountain warfare.
“I was not aware that American troops exercise in Norway,” the German said stiffly.
The American’s blue eyes turned slightly violet with the hint of a smile. “Just in case we have to come back over here to straighten out another war.”
Hans returned an opaque grin. The American knew he was a proud veteran of the Alpenkorps, Germany’s elite mountain division formed by Kaiser Wilhelm in the 1914-1918 World War. But he was no friend of the Nazis, who had recently seized control of the German government and threatened to plunge Europe into another war.
The American looked around to be sure they were alone. An elderly chambermaid in a black dress and white apron was rolling a carpet sweeper down the hall behind the balcony doors. He waited until she had moved away, then palmed a leather pouch of Swiss twenty-franc gold coins in his big hand and slipped it to the guide.
“Full payment in advance. The deal is, if I can’t keep up, leave me and take yourself home. You get the skis. I’ll meet you at the rope tow.”
He hurried to his luxurious wood-paneled room, where deep carpets and a crackling fire made the scene beyond the window look even colder. Quickly, he changed into water-repellent gabardine trousers, which he tucked into thick wool socks, laced boots, two light wool sweaters, a windproof leather vest, and a hip-length gabardine jacket, which he left unzipped.
Jeffrey Dennis knocked and entered. He was a smooth young operative from the Berlin office, wearing the Tyrolean hat that tourists bought. Jeffrey was bright, eager, and organized. But he was no outdoorsman.
“Still no snow?”
“Give everyone the go-ahead,” the older man told him. “In one hour, you won’t see your hand in front of your face.”
Dennis handed him a small knapsack. “Papers for you and your, uh, ‘luggage.’ The train will cross into Austria at midnight. You’ll be met at Innsbruck. This passport should be good until tomorrow.”
The older man looked out the window at the distant castle. “My wife?”
“Safe in Paris. At the George V.”
The young man offered an envelope.
Dennis read in a monotone, “‘Thank you, my darling, for the best twenty-fifth anniversary imaginable.”’
The older man relaxed visibly. That was the code she had chosen with a wink the day before yesterday. She had provided cover, a romantic second honeymoon, in case anyone recognized him and asked whether he was here on business. Now she was safely away. The time for cover was over. The storm was building. He took the envelope and held it to the flames in the fireplace. He inspected the passport, visas, and border permits carefully.
It was compact and light. Dennis said, “It’s the new automatic the German cops carry undercover. But I can get you a service revolver if you would be more comfortable with an older gun.”
The blue eyes, which had swept again to the castle across the bleak valley, pivoted back at the younger man. Without looking down at his hands, the tall American removed the magazine, checked that the chamber was empty, and proceeded to fieldstrip the Walther PPK by opening the trigger guard and removing the slide and return spring from the barrel. That took twelve seconds. Still looking the courier in the face, he reassembled the pistol in ten.
“This should do the job.”
It began to sink into the younger man that he was in the presence of greatness. Before he could stop himself, he asked a boy’s question. “How long do you have to practice to do that?”
A surprisingly warm smile creased the stern face, and he said, neither unkindly nor without humor, “Practice at night, Jeff, in the rain, when someone’s shooting at you, and you’ll pick it up quick enough.”
SNOW WAS PELTING HARD when he got to the rope tow, and he could barely see the ridgeline that marked the top of the ski slope. The stony peaks that reared above it were invisible. The other skiers were excited, jostling to grab the moving rope for one more run before the impending storm forced the guides to close the mountain for safety’s sake. Hans had brought new skis, the latest design, with steel edges riveted to the wood. “Wind is growing,” he said, explaining the edges. “Ice on the tops.”
They stepped into their flexible bindings, clamping them around their heels, put on their gloves and picked up their poles, and worked their way through the dwindling crowd to the rope, which was passing around a drum turned by a noisy tractor engine. They grabbed hold of the rope. It jerked their arms, and up the two men glided, providing a typical sight in the posh resort, a wealthy American seeking adventure in late middle age and his private instructor, old enough and wise enough to return him safely to the hotel in time to dress for dinner.
The wind was strong atop the ridge, and shifty. Gusts swirled the snow thick and thin. One moment, there was little to see beyond a clutch of skiers waiting their turns to start down the slope. The next moment, the view opened to reveal the hotel, small as a dollhouse at the bottom of the slope, the high peaks soaring above it. The American and Hans poled along the ridge away from the crowd. And suddenly, when no one saw them, they