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An Indifferent God

Part 1 - A Novel in Six Parts

Chapter One

Middlesbrough, England. April 2014.

He knew immediately that the boy was dead.

Savage watched the accident unfold below him as he hobbled across the elevated footbridge towards the park. The mother pushing a buggy towards the traffic lights – no doubt also on her way to the park - with the boy beside her, firmly grasping the arm of the pushchair in one stubby hand and a small red bouncy ball in the other. The baby starting to cry, demanding the mother’s attention as they approached the kerb alongside the busy intersection. The ball falling free from the child’s grip and bouncing into the road and the boy darting forward to catch it. Finally, the mother reacting half a second too late, reaching out a hand for a child already lost, and the car driver reacting just as slowly, and pointlessly slamming on his brakes despite the inevitability of a collision.

The car was going too fast. That much was clear from his vantage point on the bridge. But then again, thought Savage, so were all the other cars haring along the road. Morning rush hour was always the same.

The sound of the impact as the car made contact with the boy carried above the background noise of the traffic and resounded in his ears. It was like nothing he had heard before – a thud of flesh alloyed with a crunch of metal – and the child’s body cartwheeled in apparent slow-motion across the bonnet before slamming into the windscreen, splintering it. As the car screeched to a halt, the now-limp body of the boy rolled forward and dropped back onto the hard tarmac. Blood began to flow from beneath his head in an expanding pool as his mother screamed in horror.

Savage darted along the footbridge as fast as his gammy leg would allow, then hopped and skipped down the staircase to the pavement below. As he ran, he considered turning around and running in the opposite direction. He knew that getting involved would start a chain of events that might finally lead to his downfall, but he decided he had no choice. For the accident to happen right before his eyes seemed too much of a coincidence. It was fated that he intervene. And, in any case, he was tired of the game. A crowd was already staring to gather around the child’s body and the traffic around the lights had come to a complete standstill. The child’s mother knelt alongside him - the buggy holding her crying baby forgotten on the pavement behind her – tears streaming down her face in a shuddering despair.

Savage pressed through the circle of onlookers and lowered himself with difficulty to the tarmac. The thick ridges of scar tissue along the length of his left leg made the necessary bending movement to kneel down a difficult proposition. Behind him, he vaguely noted a man shouting into his mobile phone for an ambulance. He needed to act quickly. It was a snap decision to involve himself in the drama and he knew if he hesitated he would change his mind.

The child’s mother looked up at him and recoiled unconsciously in spite the trauma of her son’s broken body lying at her feet. People usually reacted strongly to his appearance and he had long ago reconciled himself to its inevitability upon a first meeting. He had once, a very long time ago, considered himself to be a handsome man, albeit marked indelibly with a birthmark snaking across his right cheek and forehead like a spilled glass of port wine. His mother had said it gave his face a character which, alongside his square jaw and bottle-green eyes, marked him as a future leader of men. She had been wrong in that respect, although she had always managed to still the sadness bubbling inside him after each cruel jibe he received about his appearance. But any beauty he may have perceived in himself as a young man, or which his mother’s generosity of spirit had instilled in him, had been lost in the fire.

The left side of his face was now a kaleidoscope of flaming red scar tissue, louder even than the birthmark, and only his eyes burned more brightly. No hair grew on the left side of his head and his ear was now no more than a hole in the ridged flesh. He knew he looked horrific. It was the reason he kept no mirrors in his home.

The mother recovered quickly and relaxed her expression of disgust, but it lingered in her eyes. “Can you…?” she started, looking down at the boy. “Is he…?” She began to cry again, already knowing the answers to her unfinished questions. The spreading blood reached the hem of her skirt, but she ignored its sticky advance. She knew he was dead. She simply didn’t wish to know it.

“God does all things for a reason…” began Savage.

The anger flared instantly on the mother’s face and she looked set to strike him as she turned back to face him.

“… but, above all, God is good,” he finished. He reached his right hand forward and pressed it firmly against the boy’s chest.

The onlookers would later disagree about what happened next. Some said there was a flash of light; others that the outline of the child simply blurred and shimmered for a moment. One bystander would even swear she heard a peal of thunder even though it was a sunny and cloudless day.

The only surety was that it was over in a moment. Savage lifted his hand away and the boy jerked upright in a spasm and sucked in a deep, shuddering breath of air. His eyelids fluttered open and he stared bemusedly into his mother’s eyes. Her face registered a moment’s shocked hesitation and then she embraced him with a plaintive cry.

“God is good,” said Savage again as he pushed himself to his feet. Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead and ran down his face. His movements as he stood up were slow and ponderous and weary.

The mother turned her face up towards him - her son cradled against her bosom in enfolding arms - and opened her mouth to say something, then stopped. She clearly didn’t know what to say. Her eyes glowed with gratitude, but with an underlying disbelief that a miracle had just occurred.

Savage waved a palm as if to tell her that no words were needed. He was too weak to talk, in any case, and had held the secret for so long in his heart that he knew he would struggle to find any words of explanation. He pushed his way through the stunned onlookers and hobbled away.

The planned walk in the park was out of the question now. He had to go home immediately to pack. The wolves would soon hear about the day’s events and would come baying for his blood. He needed to leave.

Chapter Two

Gengenbach, Germany. May 1933.

“Lukas, come quickly.”

He opened his eyes and jumped to his feet. Maria was out of sight beyond the surrounding trees and her call had risen up to him from somewhere down by the river. He brushed grass and leaves from the seat of his pants as he walked out of the clearing, and then danced quickly through the wood towards the sound of her voice.

He found her knee deep in the cool waters of the river Kinzig, her skirt pulled up to her waist. He skidded to a stop and leaned forward at the water’s edge, panting, and couldn’t stop himself from glancing at the flash of her underwear.

“Where have you been?” she asked, pretending not to notice his glance. She knew he liked her and it made her feel good. They had been friends for years, but it had only been in the previous six months that the onset of adulthood had become apparent to them both. It mostly manifested itself in strange expressions on his face as he looked at her, and she had occasionally caught him staring down at her budding breasts, although he never said anything openly about his thoughts. For her part, she simply noticed her friend had grown soft hairs on his cheeks, and that his voice kept changing tone as he talked and was constantly interspersed with comical squeaks.

At only fourteen years old and with Lukas just fifteen, Maria had decided there was time enough for romance when she was older. For now, she was satisfied to have him merely as a friend. She hoped he agreed with that sentiment and, if the only concession was to allow him to occasionally gaze longingly at her, then it was a small price to pay.

“I was in the meadow,” he said, “enjoying the sun.”

“Lazing in the sun, more like.” She laughed. “Look at what I’ve found,” she said, leaning forward and peering into the water. “The fish are swimming right around my feet.”

Lukas pulled off his shoes and socks and dropped them on the bank beside hers, then rolled up each trouser leg before stepping gingerly forward. “It’s cold.”

“It’s supposed to be cold, you baby. Don’t splash around so much; you’ll scare them away.”

He eased forward until their bowed heads touched and stared down into the shaded river at the fish. “It’s odd that they aren’t afraid.”

“I know why,” she said, “because they are Weisse Frauen disguised as fish.”

He frowned. He had never heard that the elven-like spirits could change their appearance, but he wasn’t about to contradict her. “Make a wish, Maria. You could become a goddess and live in a heavenly palace.”

“Or she could cut your throat to make matzah with your blood,” announced a harsh voice.

They both spun to face the speaker standing on the bank, Karl Jaeger, and his two companions, Manfred and Ernst. The three boys were only thirteen, but were already the established bullies of the town, with Jaeger the undisputed leader of the gang. They all matched Lukas for height and they outnumbered him, he realised. He decided to remain quiet and try not to provoke them any more than necessary.

“I would be happy to cut your throat, Karl,” snapped Maria.

Jaeger laughed. “Getting the Jewess to fight your battles, Bauer? Big mistake. You must know that their favourite pastime is killing Aryan boys.”

“He isn’t Aryan,” shouted Ernst. “See the mark on his face. It looks like someone spilled red paint on him.”

“Yes. We Aryans are perfect,” said Manfred. “But he is a freak. His mother should have thrown him back.”

Lukas said nothing, but his left cheek blushed to a deep red hue matching the birth mark on the other side.

“Leave him alone,” said Maria. “You’re all cruel and evil monsters.”

Jaeger’s face darkened and he suddenly lunged forward into the water, barging into Bauer, and reaching across to grab Maria’s arm. Lukas windmilled and fell backward into the river as Maria screamed and tried to pull away. Jaeger dragged her towards the bank and she lost her footing and fell forward into the rough gravel of the bank. “Get hold of her,” he yelled at his companions.

Manfred and Ernst took an arm each and pulled her from the water onto the bank. She kicked her legs to try and squirm free, but Manfred lay his shoulder and arm across her chest to hold her down.

“Rip off her skirt,” said Jaeger. Ernst stared back at him blankly. “DO IT!”

Lukas spluttered to the surface and tried to gain some footing, but Jaeger simply grabbed a handful of his hair and yanked him forward. He stumbled face forward into the dirt, half-in and half-out of the river. Jaeger took hold of his shoulder and flipped him onto his back. Seemingly from nowhere, he produced a knife and held the point of the narrow blade to Lukas’ throat. He glanced back at Ernst, struggling to get a hold on Maria’s garments with her frantically kicking legs. “I said rip it,” he yelled. “Underwear too. Hit her if she keeps struggling.” He turned back to face Lukas, madness blazing in his eyes. “Now, Jew-lover, take off your pants.”

“Please, Karl,” begged Lukas. “Don’t do this.”

“Take off your pants,” he whispered, “or I will kill you.”

Lukas looked into his eyes and knew he was speaking the truth. He reached down and unfastened his trousers, but could only reach far enough to push them partway down his thighs. His underpants followed and got no further.

Jaeger pulled him by the hair into a kneeling position and kept the knife tight against his throat. “Maria,” he called across. “Stop struggling and lie back quietly or I’ll kill you both.”

Maria could only see with one eye over the bulk of Manfred’s back, but fear was starkly etched in her expression. She could see he meant it; he was daring her to struggle to give him an excuse to draw blood. She acquiesced with a fatalistic determination and Ernst stepped back, the tatters of her undergarments held tightly in his hand. Manfred also relaxed his hold on her and slowly stood up. Maria lay frozen like a statue on the hard ground with tears rolling down her cheeks.

Jaeger dragged Lukas forward and he had to waddle on his knees to keep from falling, constricted as he was by his trousers. Jaeger pushed him down on top of Maria. “Now fuck your Jewish whore,” he snarled. He pressed a boot onto Lukas’ bare buttocks and pushed up and down rhythmically. “Beauty and the beast,” he laughed.

Manfred and Ernst joined his laughter, but theirs sounded forced and unsure.

Lukas laid his face alongside Maria’s as Jaeger continued the humiliating torture of them. The indignity of it all burned like a fire in his mind. There was no penetration but the naked flesh of their genitalia pounded painfully into each other with every beat of Jaeger’s boot.

“Forgive me,” Lukas whispered to her.

Maria said nothing. She closed her eyes, squeezing out a few more tears, and nodded against his cheek.

Chapter Three

Middlesbrough, England. April 2014.

The news had picked up the story far more quickly than he had imagined. It had been so many years since he had used his power that he’d assumed the details would be lost in a pragmatic attempt by the press to provide a reasonable explanation for the events of the morning. The modern world didn’t generally make room for miracles. But he was dead wrong in his estimation.

Even the BBC used the M-word almost indiscriminately in their broadcasts. A child had been healed by the single touch of an enigmatic stranger, they said, observed by a dozen reliable witnesses. There seemed no doubt that the child had been killed in a collision with a car; the quantity of blood left on the road, for one thing, attested to that fact. But the child was now under observation in the local hospital with not a mark on him and no evidence of any physical injury or trauma. He was filmed happily colouring a picture whilst sitting on a bed, seemingly oblivious to the interest of the media. The only consequence of his experience, as pointed out by his otherwise grateful and tearful mother, was that he grasped the crayons in his left hand, when prior to the accident he had been right-handed. A physician, touted as an expert on such matters, declared that traumatic events could cause such a physical change in a child.

The most worrying aspect of the broadcasts was the description of the stranger who had performed the miracle healing. Forget the bland description of his average height and build; forget his age of somewhere between late-twenties and early-thirties. They were unnecessary to assist in identification. The only pertinent point was that the man had a port wine birthmark across one cheek, with the other side of his face covered in scar tissue.

Savage watched the news unfold with a sinking feeling of dismay in his heart. It would be hard enough for him to escape his enemies without having to worry about being spotted and identified wherever he went. He shrugged as he shoved clothes into a duffel bag. It couldn’t be helped, he decided, so there was nothing to be gained by worrying about the situation. He would retrieve his motorbike from storage and leave the country as soon as he had packed his essential belongings.

There was surprisingly little that he wanted to take with him. Apart from a few changes of clothes and toiletries, he added only passports, other identification and money into his bag. He wandered around his house, opening drawers and cupboards, but closing them in turn without selecting anything else to take. His memories were his main possession, he realised, and he couldn’t leave them behind, as much as he might like to. He stopped at last before the mantelpiece and looked at the framed photograph sitting beside a gnarled piece of wood. The photo was an old black-and-white image of a young girl sitting in a formal pose. In swirling script the bottom half declared: “Friendship lasts forever. Love, Maria.” He shoved the frame into his bag.

He reached down and picked up the piece of wood and turned it in his hand. It was a broken piece of timber perhaps 10 cm square, blackened with bitumen and age, and with a rusting nail hammered into its surface. Savage smiled as he looked at it, remembering the first time he had seen the piece; it had been shown to him with such conviction and yet he had known immediately it was a fake. Poor Marko, he thought, as he recalled the darker days which had followed that innocent time. He placed the wood tenderly on top of his clothes and pulled the drawstring of the bag closed. There was no question of leaving it behind. It was his most treasured possession.

He turned off the TV and hefted the bag over his shoulder and stopped to take a final look at his home before leaving. Ten years of his life were tied up in this property and yet he found there was nothing worth remembering from that time. It had been a period for thoughtful reflection on the past - nothing more - like treading water before attempting the main battle against the current. He stepped through the doorway and pulled it closed behind him.

“Afternoon, Luke,” called a voice.

Savage turned to face his neighbour, Isobel. She was raking her uncut lawn, obviously biding her time in apparent activity until he emerged. Her wispy silver hair was pulled back into a harsh pony tail and she wore a straw hat to keep the sun from her eyes. She leaned forward against the shaft of the rake, willing a response. Her aging mongrel lay motionless on the edge of the driveway, his frosted muzzle lifting briefly from the ground in acknowledgement of Savage.

“Issy,” he said, “nice day for gardening.”

“Pish-posh,” she smiled. “Nice day for miracles, more like. Been busy?”

He shrugged. “I didn’t plan it, if that’s what you mean. It just sort of happened.”

She laughed. “You don’t fool me, Luke Savage. You’ve been praying for something like this to happen for years.”

He pursed his lips and glanced down at his feet. “No secrets from you, Issy.” He lifted his head and stared into her eyes. “It’s been a long time coming, but an ending is long overdue.”

She tried to smile, but the muscles in her jaw refused to play along, and her lips quivered briefly. Her eyes filled with tears as she looked at him. She started to speak, but couldn’t think of anything meaningful to say, so mumbled a few unintelligible words and fell silent.

“Don’t be sad,” he said. “Some stories do have happy endings and, who knows, perhaps mine will too.”

“I never thanked you for Megan,” she blurted suddenly.

He smiled ruefully and chuckled. “You’ve thanked me a million times, Issy. How is she anyway?”

“At university,” she cried. “She’s almost a woman now, thanks to you. She’s doing so well and …” Isobel suddenly dropped the rake to the grass and rushed forward. She wrapped her arms around his neck and sobbed against his scarred cheek.

Savage reached up a hand and patted her back awkwardly. “Issy, don’t …”

“I’m sorry,” she said, and kissed his cheek. “I told myself I wouldn’t do that.” She stepped back and rubbed the tears from her eyes. They smiled at each other and she reached up to pat his shoulder. She turned around and retrieved the rake, leaning against the handle again, and kept her back towards him. “I won’t watch you leave.”

He nodded in understanding. “Goodbye, Isobel.” He settled the bag onto his shoulder and walked along the driveway onto the road.

“Goodbye, Lukas,” she whispered.

Chapter Four

Ashkelon, Israel. April 2014.

Esra Abadi pushed the wheelchair slowly along the breakwater alongside the marina. The wind whipped across the water, chilling him through his thin shirt, and he looked down with concern at the frail bundle seated before him. His grandmother was wrapped in a thick shawl to protect her from the unseasonable cold, but she made no sign of movement as he wheeled her along. He considered stopping to check her pulse, but immediately rejected the idea – she would only chide him for his stupidity.

He flexed the taut muscles of his chest as he walked. He was a great fighter, he knew, second to none in both unarmed combat and the use of weapons. And yet his grandmother could disarm him with a glance and make him feel like a useless child in a heartbeat.

It was for that reason he had determined to bring her outside for a walk before breaking the news. She was less likely to express her anger in a public place.

They passed a few people taking a walk along the breakwater, and a couple of grizzled men with fishing poles, but the cool weather had obviously kept most people indoors and it was relatively quiet.

With a sudden jerk, she held up her right hand to indicate he should stop. He wheeled her round to face the water and engaged the brake. “Safta,” he said, - grandmother – as he stepped alongside her, “do you want to rest here a moment?”

“Foolish boy,” she said, crinkling her face. “Do you think I was born yesterday?”

“No, Safta, I …”

“Hush, now. Tell me your news quickly and get me back into the warm. I’m about to freeze to death and you ask me if I want to look at the view.”

“Very well,” he said. Trust her to see right through his deception. “There has been a miracle, Safta. A child has been brought back to life.”

“Where?”

“England. In the north. It happened yesterday.”

She frowned. “England? It makes sense, I suppose.” She lifted her left hand and used her right to rub circulation into the stumps of her missing three fingers. “And you think it is Bauer?”

“Yes, Safta, who else could it be?”

She lifted her face to stare across the bay, her green eyes sparkling with a vibrant fire that had long ago escaped the rest of her frail body. She had waited so long for this moment and, now that it had arrived, she felt a moment’s disquiet. She suddenly felt the weight of her ninety five years on the planet, and prayed silently that God would grant her the necessary time to finish things before she passed on.

“I loved him once,” she said.

Abadi stood silently watching her, unsure of the right thing to say.

“I loved him and hated him with equal measure. That was the way of things in the land of my childhood. Germans have always expressed opposing dualities – love and hate; good and evil.” She laughed briefly. “Our sex was magnificent, you know? He was an accomplished lover.”

“Safta,” he objected.

“Be still,” she said, tapping his wrist with her palm. “Do you think I have always been this old and decrepit?”

“No, I …”

“No. Of course not. I was a young and vibrant woman once and took a number of lovers before I met your grandfather.”

“Safta!”

“And,” she said, holding up a hand to quieten him, “you need to understand the way things were between me and Bauer. It will give reason to your task.”

He nodded. “So you do want me to go after him?”

“Yes.” She drummed her fingers on her lap. “He won’t give up his power willingly though, that much is obvious. It will be a dangerous endeavour. We must plan things carefully.”

“I’m ready, Safta, believe me. I have trained for this moment all my life.”

She took hold of his hand and patted it gently. “I know, my child, but I wouldn’t forgive myself if something were to happen to you. And this is for the future of Israel, don’t forget. We must not fail.” She released his hand suddenly. “Come now, take me back to the house and we will warm ourselves with mint tea and talk some more.”

Abadi unlocked the brake and turned the wheelchair around. “There isn’t much time, Safta. I should fly to England immediately. Surely he will run again and we must catch him before he leaves and has a chance to hide.”

“Oh, child,” she said, “he will already have left.”

“Left England?”

“Perhaps not England, but he will have fled from the area of this latest miracle by now.”

“If that is true then we may never find him,” he said, pushing the chair along the breakwater towards the town.

She craned her head around as far as she was able. “Watch the news,” she explained. “It is all about duality, Esra. Balance. You must listen to my wisdom to understand our enemy.”

“What do you mean?”

“He has given a life and now he will take a life.”

“Is that how the power works, Safta?”

“No,” she said, “but he will nevertheless take a life. It is what he believes.”

“And how will that help us? People are killed all the time and it doesn’t make the news.”

She chuckled without mirth. “It is the nature of the death which will be important. Watch the news, and then you will understand.”

Chapter Five

Offenburg, Germany. June 1933.

“Come out, little mouse. I know you’re there.”

Lukas hovered for a moment, crouched behind the wheel of the caravan, and contemplated running away. It had seemed like a good idea to sneak over to the bunched caravans of the Romani encampment for a better look, but up close the hard-faced men in the group looked intimidating and he’d remained hidden.

“Nobody will hurt you, little mouse,” said the voice.

With a pounding heart, he decided finally to take the speaker at his word, and stepped into the open.

The man facing him opened his mouth in a toothy grin, exposing blackened teeth. “Ah, the mouse accepts the elephant’s challenge.” He motioned with a burly arm. “Step forward, my friend. Tell me, why do you honour us with a visit?”

Lukas took two paces forward and watched him warily. A curved scabbard hung at the man’s belt and he imagined the damage the blade could do to him if he said the wrong thing. “I’m here to visit my aunt,” he stammered. “With my parents, that is; she lives in Offenburg. I’m from Gengenbach, you see. I saw your camp from the road and wanted to come and … come and see you. I’ve never met gypsies before.”

“Tch, tch, little mouse. Gypsy is such a nasty term. We,” and he spread his arm to take in the entire camp, “are Roma.”

“I’m sorry, I …”

“Never mind. You weren’t to know.” He stepped forward and dropped an arm on Lukas’ shoulder. “Come in and welcome. I will introduce you to my son, Marko; he is a similar age to you, little mouse. He can show you our camp.”

Lukas walked alongside him hesitantly, but the Roma he observed in the central space formed by the encircling caravans seemed disinterested in his presence. A few glanced in his direction and looked him up and down before turning back to their interrupted activities of cooking, cleaning or simply talking to each other while sitting around a large campfire in the centre.

His burly captor led him to a caravan at the far side of the clearing and barked a few unintelligible words through the open door. There was a noise of sudden movement inside and a head popped into the light.

Marko turned out to be a young man in his late teens. He had swarthy skin and hair as black as night, but his teeth were even and white, unlike his father’s, and he didn’t yet sport the same stubbly beard or moustache. He wore an open-necked shirt and baggy trousers which seemed too big for his lanky frame and which Lukas felt made him look like a vagabond.

“Pretty raklo,” said Marko, and jumped to the ground with a grin. Lukas assumed that raklo was a Romani word for mouse, but learned later it was simply a term to denote a non-gypsy boy. “Come to have your fortune read?”

“No, I …is that what you do?”

Marko laughed. “Not me. My mother reads palms. Come on, I’ll show you around.” His father clapped him on the back and turned away.

They spent the afternoon wandering around the camp with Marko pointing out people and things while giving a running commentary. He spoke German with a harsh pronunciation and Lukas had to strain to pick out some of the words, but as the time passed it became easier. He felt relieved to have been welcomed into the camp so readily given the general negative attitude that most Germans felt towards the Roma.

“There’s no future for our people here,” said Marko at one point, reading his mood. “The world is changing against us, my father says.”

“What will you do?”

Marko shrugged. “Go east perhaps. Into Russia. My father is the Rom Baro, erm, you would say he is leader of the community. He thinks we will have to leave Germany soon. The gadjo hate us and will destroy us if we let them.”

“Gadjo?”

He looked uncomfortable and kept his eyes hooded as he answered. “Outsiders. Like you.”

Lukas grasped his arm. “I will not harm you. Not all gadjo are like that.”

“The Kusi kadessa will protect us,” laughed Marko. The little mouse. “Come, let me show you something really special.” He led the way back to the caravan where they had first been introduced, and clambered up the ladder and through the doorway.

The interior was cramped and cluttered with belongings, mostly clothing. Marko pushed aside a pile of folded shirts and opened a drawer built into one side of the caravan. He pulled out a square of wood with a rusting nail protruding from its surface.

“This has been in my family for generations,” he declared proudly, “it is a piece of wood from the True Cross. This nail was one of the three used to crucify our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Lukas stared incredulously at the piece of blackened timber in Marko’s hand. He had never been told in church that pieces of the holy cross still existed. He felt a thrill run along his spine simply looking at it. He could imagine the power of God coursing through the grain and emanating from the head of the rusting nail.

“Here. Hold it.”

Lukas took it in his hand and it felt like any other piece of wood. He couldn’t feel any power running into his palm, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t there. He ran his finger along the nail and then held out the wood for Marko to put it back into its hiding place. “Amazing,” he said, meaning it completely.

“And look at this,” said Marko excitedly, jumping to a crouch in the cramped compartment. He lifted a curtain aside to reveal a hanging bearskin. “This is my outfit when we put on a show for the gadjo.” He jumped from foot to foot. “I’m a dancing bear.”

“That’s wonderful, Marko,” he said. “I think I should be getting back now, though. My parents will be wondering what’s happened to me.”

His face dropped. “And will you come back again, little mouse?”

“Yes, if you want me to. How long will you be here?”

“Two months at least,” he grinned. “You must come back. It will be fun. We can be friends for the summer and I will teach you to be an honorary Roma.”

“Yes, Marko. I would like that very much.”

Chapter Six

Hull, England. April 2014.

Savage parked his motorbike in a supermarket car park and secured it to railings. He kept his helmet on to disguise his identity, which would be easily discerned from his scarred appearance, and strode purposefully away from the shop without allowing his limp to delay him. After ten minutes of fast walking he found a bench on the edge of a housing estate and sat down to watch and wait.

He crossed his hands in his lap and gently rubbed the surface of the signet ring on his right ring finger. It was a torc design made up of twisted strands of bronze, silver and gold, open at the bottom, and with a flattened circular glob of gold forming a signet on top. A Chi Rho symbol – a capital P intersected with an X – was carved into the signet and suggested an early Christian design, but Savage knew the ring to be much older than that period. He rarely even realised he was wearing the ring anymore; it had become a part of him and seemed fused with the flesh of his finger.

Touching the ring probably wasn’t necessary, he realised, but he had found it helped him to concentrate. He let his mind reach out across the bunched houses and soaked up the emanating waves of emotion. He could sense a lot of relaxed thought, most likely from the dozens of mindless zombies watching TV. There were people washing dishes, some in bathrooms washing themselves, and others preparing or eating food, with relatively few actually engaged in conversation. A few people on the estate appeared to be engaged in sexual activities – he could sense their heightened arousal in the patterns of their beta brainwaves, and a couple were already asleep in a mixture of delta and theta state. Savage didn’t need to categorise the waves to understand them. He knew that in most human activity there was always a mixture of active brainwave types, with one tending to predominate depending on the activity. It was an absence of alpha waves which he was actively seeking, because that would likely be due to angry and violent thoughts or actions.

He found what he was looking for after twenty minutes of searching. He stood up abruptly and followed the patterns of thought along three side streets until he reached the entrance to a cul-de-sac. The third house in on the left held the target of his probing. The vision coalesced in his mind like fleeting shadows dancing behind closed curtains.

“You are making me do this,” screamed one shadow, its outline blacker than night. A shard like a claw reaches out to grasp the throat of the other shadow, grey and less substantial. “Why do you push me and push me and push me? Why?”

“I’m sorry, I …” answered the other. “Don’t wake Joey.”

“Joey? JOEY? He needs to see how pathetic you are. What a useless mother!”

“He’s just a baby.”

“Shut up.” A coiled fist of dark fury lashes out and the grey shadow doubles up, folding in on itself like a trapdoor descending. Another fist, loaded with hate and anger, arcs around in a flail and the grey shadow falls to the floor. “Sort your-fucking-self out. I’m going for a drink.”

Savage stood at the head of the street waiting patiently. The man who emerged from the target house was short and slim, with a receding hairline. The anger was still on him, but it rose from his head like dissipating steam from a kettle. He strode purposefully out of the cul-de-sac, with a confident loping gait, and Savage followed.

He stopped at a main road and glanced around before crossing. He spotted Savage approaching from behind, but seemed to discount his presence as unimportant. The man’s confidence was no doubt a mixture of his own arrogance and the security of being on his own turf. The entire housing development was interspersed with footpaths and cycleways and he followed a route alongside a tree-lined path bordered on one side by the high fences of back gardens. Savage increased his pace to catch up to him.

Partway along the path, in the dark shadows cast by the overhanging branches, the man turned suddenly and adopted a belligerent pose. “Are you following me?”

Savage reached out a hand and pressed it to the man’s chest. “Yes, I am following you” he said, his voice muffled by the helmet. “I’ve judged you to be unworthy and you have to die.”

The man tried to lean backwards away from him, but was unable to break the touch of Savage’s hand. It held him in place with an invisible force stronger than a vice He reached up and took hold of Savage’s forearm, though he couldn’t seem to grip with any real pressure. His movements seemed weak and uncoordinated and his mouth opened in surprise at the lack of control he suddenly had over his own body.

Savage let the power run through his hand into the man’s chest. Blood began to seep from beneath his fingers and ran down the man’s shirt. The pulsing flow of crimson fluid started slowly, then increased in speed until it became a torrent, gushing down to pool at their feet.

The man remained standing, held in place by Savage’s touch, his face a mask of surprise and pain and horror. “Please,” he whispered.

“Too late for redemption,” said Savage, coldly.

The man’s blood continued to flow. The tight skin of his face receded back against his cheekbones as his body drained, and he quickly turned blue. Finally, less than a minute after he had started, Savage closed his hand into a fist and pulled it away from the man’s chest. The empty body of the once-violent man flopped to the ground into the spreading, sticky pool of its own blood.

Savage took three steps backwards away from the body and knew he had left bloody footprints on the pavement. He glanced down at his feet and concentrated for a moment. The congealing blood on the soles of his boots suddenly lost its adhesion, almost like a magnet changing its polarity, and when he took another step backwards it had been left behind in the dust of the pavement. The soles of his boots were clean.

He looked next at his right hand, sticky with the cloying mess, and repeated the exercise. The blood ran along his fingers and dropped to the earth until his skin was clear of any incriminating evidence. He was happy to leave the trail of three bloody footprints in place; they would no doubt confound any investigators.

Savage took one last satisfied look at the dead man and then turned around and set off back towards the supermarket to retrieve his motorbike. He walked slowly, as if each step required an enormous effort of will, but he expected to recover soon enough to catch the overnight ferry. He intended to lead his pursuers a merry chase.

Chapter Seven

Buenos Aires, Argentina. April 2014.

“Herr Himmelreich, your suggestion is outrageous. It is nothing short of robbery.”

Himmelreich lifted a bone china cup to his lips and took a sip of tea. “Mr. Minister,” he said, “an additional fifty million dollars is a small price to pay for your piece of mind. Imagine if the United Nations were to discover our endeavour. Or the Americans.”

“And yet you offer no guarantee that they won’t,” he countered.

“True. But then again, how could I?” He turned slightly in his chair to gesture out the window at the sprawling skyscrapers of the city, dominated in the foreground by the Repsol-YPF Tower. “Need I remind you that it was your idea to hide our activities by having Himmelreich Industries work in collaboration with Repsol to locate and exploit petrochemical deposits in the Andes? It’s inevitable that some bright spark from that company will eventually notice our leaching project can’t possibly be extracting oil.”

“And then?”

“And then you come clean with the UN. Explain your reasons for mining uranium when you openly support non-proliferation. You might persuade them that you’ve just discovered the deposits, but once they know about it you won’t be able to siphon off any more.” He leaned forward and placed his cup and saucer on the table before them. “The trick, Mr. Minister,” he said, “is to achieve our objective before that happens.”

“But, another fifty million dollars …”

“Is necessary to complete the laser extraction facility at Neuquen and, more importantly, to hide its real purpose.” He laced his fingers together in his lap, liver spots visible through the soft hairs on his hands. “Give me six months and you will have enough weapons-grade uranium for a dozen bombs.”

The Minister sat upright on his chair, setting his jowls wiggling. He was almost sixty years old himself, only a few years younger than Himmelreich, but he looked to be at least a decade older. “Need I remind you, sir, that the Argentine government has no plans to secure nuclear weapons?”

He waved away the lie. “Apologies, Mr. Minister. Of course I understand that the uranium is for research purposes only.” There came a knock at the door and an earnest-face peeped inside and met Himmelreich’s angry eyes. “I asked for no interruptions.”

“Forgive me, Herr Himmelreich. I have important updates from our European offices.” The aide held a buff folder to his chest.

“I will leave.” The Minister pushed himself clumsily to his feet. “Our business is concluded in any case,” he said. He leaned forward and held out his hand. “I will communicate your request to the Premier and be in touch shortly.”

Himmelreich shook his hand. “Good day, Mr. Minister.”

He waited until the chubby politician had left the office before turning to his aide. “What’s so important that you would interrupt me, Klaus? That was a delicate negotiation. Five minutes earlier and we might have lost the Minister’s support.”

Haas flicked his head towards the door, dislodging his neatly coiffured black fringe. “So they will accept the increase then?”

“Of course.” He chuckled. “They have no choice now; we are too far down the road together. Let them play their silly games while we profit from it. They truly believe an atom bomb will make them a major player.”

“And if they attack Great Britain?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he snapped. “They might rattle their sabres about Las Malvinas and rant and rave at Queen Elizabeth, but they won’t risk annihilation for those worthless scraps of land.” He held out his hand peremptorily. “Come. What do you have for me?”

Haas held out the file. “Our man in Israel has been in touch.”

“Maria Vogel?”

He nodded. “Her married name is Abadi, sir.”

“Yes, yes. And as we’ve discussed many times before, if I choose to call her Vogel, I will.”

“As is your prerogative, sir.”

He ignored Haas’ sarcastic tone. “More to the point, have they found Bauer?”

“It appears so, sir. A small team of Israelis are heading to England as we speak.”

Himmelreich leaned back in his chair and stroked his chin thoughtfully. “They won’t find him an easy target, that’s for sure.” He flicked open the file and glanced quickly down the two brief pages of handwritten notes. “And it seems unlikely that he’ll wait for them to arrive.”

“Quite, sir.”

He looked up harshly. “Klaus, I love you like my own son, but your continual sarcasm is beginning to grate.”

Haas clicked his heels. “Please forgive me, Herr Himmelreich. I will endeavour to be more subservient in future.”

“Do that,” he smiled, wagging a finger at him, mock-scolding. “Where’s Catalina?”

“Italy, I believe, sir.”

“Contact her. I’ll brief her personally.”

“At once.” He began to turn at the shoulders. “Is that all, sir?”

“Not quite,” he said. “Have my plane prepared for an immediate flight to Suriname. I want to check progress on Perchta IV.”

Haas nodded and stepped from the room, pulling the door closed behind him. Himmelreich stood up and walked over to the room-spanning window and stared out across the vista of Buenos Aires. The end is finally approaching, he thought, and yet the outcome is still unclear. He felt a momentary fear that his father might have been wrong all along, but dismissed it from his mind. The die was cast and there was nothing he could do to change the plan now. He would follow it through to its conclusion and hope that he’d have an opportunity to exact his revenge on Bauer in the process.

Chapter Eight

Gengenbach, Germany. June 1933.

“You should come with me. You’ll like Marko.”

“Maybe.” Maria sounded noncommittal. “I don’t like to go far from home these days.”

Lukas nodded in understanding as he looked back towards the town from their vantage point in the hills. From this distance the tiny rooftops with no people in sight made the place seem safe and quaint, but up close things were moving in a way that scared him about the future. The past few weeks had seen the introduction of banners and flags of the National Socialist Party throughout the town and there had been an increased openness in the display of anti-semitic feelings by many inhabitants. Those feelings had always been there, but until recently had only been spoken about behind people’s backs. A few day’s earlier, Maria’s father had been spat at while walking along the street, so Lukas could understand her reluctance to stray too far from home.

“I’ll be with you,” he said, but he knew it to be a meaningless comment. He hadn’t been able to protect her from Jaeger a month ago, and he wouldn’t be able to protect her again.

She rolled towards him from her reclining bed of meadow grass, and smiled. “It’s good that you’ve found a friend.” She reached up a hand and began to unbutton her blouse.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

Maria said nothing. She continued to smile enigmatically as she undid the final button. She pulled the garment from under the hem of her skirt and shrugged it off her shoulders. Then she sat up slightly and lifted her undervest over her head, before lying back into the long grass.

Lukas didn’t move. His breath caught in his throat as he stared at her naked breasts and he could feel his cheeks reddening.

She wiggled her bottom to pull her skirt off and then quickly removed her cotton-white panties and dropped them to one side. She lay sideways to him, leaning on her arched elbow, confident in her beauty and youthful flawless body. She had pushed her shoes off with her feet, and lay there naked with only her socks on.

Lukas still made no move. His mind seemed fogged and the throbbing in his groin and pulsing in his brain threatened to engulf his senses. He didn’t know what to do and he felt about to pass out with a lack of oxygen. Finally, he forced himself to take a deep, shuddering breath.

Maria giggled and rolled onto her back. “Touch me, you idiot.”

He slowly reached out a hand and cupped her left breast. “You’re beautiful,” he murmured, bowing his head forward to kiss her rose-tinted nipple.

She mewled like a contented cat and reached her hands to the back of his head and began caressing his hair. He kissed her tenderly across both breasts and then worked his way up her neck to her lips. She opened her mouth slightly and pressed her tongue against his and rolled it around. Nerve shocks of ecstasy ran along his back and he shuddered.

Lukas rolled away from her suddenly and frantically began removing his own clothes, tossing them aside carelessly. She laughed again as she watched his desperate efforts. “There’s no hurry,” she said, “I’m not going anywhere.” He nodded agreement, but didn’t slow down. The button on his trousers popped off in his haste to remove them. He didn’t notice. He threw his underpants to one side and rolled back towards her. He felt a momentary pang that he was now exposed before her, and he didn’t share her self-confidence in his own body and was consciously aware of the burning skin beneath his birthmark, offset only slightly by his burning erection. He pulled her against him to hide his body with hers. “There’s no hurry,” she said again and eased herself backwards to reach a hand down to touch him. “We have all the time in the world.”

He forced himself to relax, but her touch only served to enflame him further. She spread her legs and pulled him forward, guiding him inside her. He kissed her all over her face and whispered, “I love you, Maria.” She wrapped her legs around his thighs and pulled him closer. “I love you too.” Afterwards, they lay entwined together in the soft grass, staring up at the drifting clouds. They didn’t speak for the longest time. Lukas had never felt more contented in his life.

“You should join the Hitler-jugend,” she said finally.

“What? Why would you say that after what we’ve just done? They hate Jews.”

“And Gypsies.”

Lukas sat up and turned to face her. “You said you loved me.”

She laughed. “I do love you, Lukas. And I want you to be safe. The Hitler Youth will give you a measure of protection against the storm which is coming.”

“And they’d expect me to stand against you and Marko.” He shook his head. “I’ll never join them.”

“You must.”

“And what about Jaeger and Himmelreich and Franke?”

“They’re in the Deutsches Jungvolk. It will be another year before they can join the Hitler-jugend. Plenty of time for you to establish yourself.”

He shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

She rolled over on top of him, pushing him onto his back, and pressed herself against his chest. “The world is changing, Lukas,” she said, “and you aren’t an innocent anymore. You must join them or I’ll only worry about you.”

“And what about you?”

She kissed his chin. “I’ll be fine. Trust me.”

“Alright,” he agreed finally, “I’ll think about it.” He knew he sounded petulant, but he couldn’t help himself. He really didn’t understand her. The last thing he wanted to do was to parade around town with a swastika on his arm.

Maria rolled her hips up and down against his groin. “Ooh,” she said, “what’s happening down there? Are you ready for some more?”

He laughed; a release of tension. “Maybe.”

“Fine by me,” she giggled.

Lukas would remember that day in the years to come as a significant turning point in his life. Not simply because it was his first fumbling experience of sex, but because all the clues about her real intentions had been there, and he simply hadn’t noticed. He often wondered if he would have done anything differently if he had realised what was going on in her mind. Probably not. He was too lost in the joyous physical release of expressing his love for her.

In the morning, Maria and her family were gone from Gengenbach, never to return. They sneaked away from their home in the middle of the night with only the belongings they could fit into their car. At some point before they left, Maria had come to his home and slipped an envelope under his door. There was no note; only a signed photograph of her seated in a formal pose. “Friendship lasts forever. Love Maria.”

Lukas carried the photograph back up to the meadow the following morning, and sat down and sobbed with it held tightly against his chest. It took an hour for his grief to be spent and, when he finally stood to his feet to head back into town, there was a new layer of simmering anger bubbling under his skin.

Maria had said there was a storm coming. He intended to stand against it.

Chapter Nine

Souain-Perthes-les-Hurlus, France. April 2014.

Savage turned his bike onto the dusty track off the Rue de Tahure on the outskirts of the village and followed it around to the back of the farmhouse. He found Kovacs sitting on the porch staring across the rolling fields of farmland. Kovacs glanced briefly in his direction, but didn’t show any other reaction to his arrival. His face wore a mask of stoicism. Savage stopped the bike and removed his helmet, hanging it on a handlebar, and then turned to face him.

“Bonjour, Edouard,” he said.

“So, God has come to visit.” His face kept its stony expression as he stared at him.

“There is only one God, my friend, and I am not Him.”

“And yet you are still a young man, while I wither with advancing years.” He looked down at his forearms, wrinkled and spotted with advancing middle age.

Savage simply shrugged.

Kovacs pushed himself to his feet and stepped off the stoop. “I will be sixty on my next birthday, and what are you? A hundred?”

“Ninety six.”

“Well then, you must have been favoured by God.”

“Or cursed.”

Kovacs chuckled. “Always your glass is half empty,” he said. “You haven’t changed.” He grinned then, breaking his harsh expression and crinkling his eyes in a welcoming smile. “Come here.” He grabbed Savage’s shoulders and pulled him into a bear hug. “It is good to see you, my friend.” His grip was still strong, despite his age, and Savage winced as his ribs creaked.

“Try and leave me in one piece,” he said.

Kovacs laughed again and released him, slapping him on the shoulder. “Come inside, my friend. We will have a drink and you can tell me your reasons for honouring me with a visit.”

They sat at a wooden table in the kitchen and Kovacs uncorked a bottle of Pastor Kadarka and poured two large glasses of the deep red wine. “A votre sante,” he said, lifting his glass and taking a sip. “Ah, the French make good wine, but this is better. My people know what to do with a grape, no?”

“Are you not French?” asked Savage, with a sly twist in his tone.

“Ptah, your sense of humour hasn’t improved with age, my friend. I am a citizen of France thanks to my faithful service, but I will always be Hungarian, as you well know.” He sipped another mouthful. “So tell me, Luke, without your childish jokes, why are you here?”

Savage shrugged. “It felt like the right place to be.” He lifted his own glass and swigged deeply. “I will try to explain,” he said, noting Kovacs’ frown. He held out his hand to show the signet ring. “This power I have has come to me for a reason, I am certain of that. I always believed it was my role to keep it from the Nazis. Who knows how the war would have gone if they had possessed it? Then, for a long time, I believed the safest course was to keep the power a secret from the whole world. I didn’t believe any nation could hold the ring’s power and not feel compelled to abuse it. So I locked the secret in my heart and avoided using the power. Until the very day we first met.”

“In Zaire,” he murmured. “I will never forget.”

“Yes. Zaire. I had wandered the world for years in anonymity. Until I arrived in Kolwezi. But why was I there, Edouard?”

Kovacs shrugged, unclear if the question was rhetorical. When no answer was forthcoming he asked, “Why?”

“Because the ring wanted me there.” He smiled ruefully and lifted his glass to his lips again. “It sounds ridiculous, I know. I was in Morocco in ’77 and suddenly had a desire to head further into Africa. That feeling led me to Zaire just before the battle. It wanted me there, Edouard. It wanted me to save you.”

Kovacs listened with wide eyes. “I am grateful to you, of course, and to your mysterious gifts, but you’ve still not explained your reason for coming here. Are you saying you have had a … desire to come here?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t understand.”

Savage smiled. “Nor do I. All I know is that the Israelis want the ring. Do you think they will use it for any greater purpose than would the Nazis? I cannot let them have it. They would tear the middle east apart.” He paused briefly and shook his head in consternation. “I can’t simply throw the ring away, or hide it, because it will not allow itself to be lost. I also cannot destroy it; I’ve tried and failed. But I was forced to use the power again after years of abstinence and now I’m exposed. My instincts told me to come to you. I can only presume that somehow you hold the answer, or at least can point me in the right direction.”

“Well, my friend,” he said, raising his glass, “we will endeavour to find your answer together.”

“I’ll drink to that.”

Kovacs chuckled. “It is strange, is it not, that I get no visitors all year and then two come along in the same weekend?”

Savage raised an eyebrow.

“My granddaughter called me yesterday to advise she is making a visit here on her way to England. She will be arriving tomorrow.” He smiled. “You will like her, my friend; she has her mother’s Latin temperament – fiery and passionate. Her name is Catalina.”

Chapter Ten

Offenburg, Germany. July 1933.

“Are you sure about this, Marko?”

The young Roma slapped him on the back. “Yes, little mouse,” he laughed. “I am very sure.” He pointed towards the street at the edge of town where a figure had just come into view. “Look, he is taking his daily walk. The fool.”

Lukas was torn with indecision. His humiliation at the hands of Karl Jaeger and his friends now seemed to have occurred in the distant past, especially since Maria and her family had departed. There remained only a smouldering anger under his skin towards all bullies, though he would happily wreak his revenge on Jaeger himself. But watching Manfred wandering happily out of town and into the woods didn’t raise such strong feelings in him. Manfred was a follower, not an instigator, and without the urging of Jaeger he would have done nothing on that fateful day to hurt Lukas or Maria.

When Lukas had told Marko about the events of that day he had been surprised by his friend’s fury. It was all he could do to stop Marko marching straightaway to Gengenbach to confront the three boys. He had pulled his hawkbilled dagger from its scabbard and threatened to cut Karl’s throat and pull his tongue out through the gap. “Revenge is the only true justice for evil deeds,” he had declared.

So when, a few weeks after his confession, Lukas had spotted Manfred in the centre of Offenburg, he had been initially reluctant to share it with Marko. But eventually it came out. Marko declared that it must be fate which had brought Manfred to them. It made a sort of karmic sense to his Roma sensibilities: exact revenge on each boy in turn, beginning with the lowest in the hierarchy of bullies, and working their way up to the ringleader.

It seemed clear that Manfred also had relatives in the town who he was visiting for a few weeks of his summer break from school. Each day he took a walk on his own through the quiet streets and headed across the fields of corn into the woods. It was probably just a way for him to pass the time, but it left him unknowingly exposed.

“Come on,” hissed Marko, jumping to his feet as Manfred slipped out of sight under the spreading branches.

Lukas followed him reluctantly. He knew there was no turning him from his course and he had no option but to go along with him.

They found Manfred by the river skimming flat stones across the water. He heard them coming, but didn’t turn around until they were almost upon him because he had no reason to feel insecure about other people walking through the woods. When he spied Lukas his eyes opened wide in immediate shock and fear. “What are you doing here?”

Lukas stared at him and said nothing.

Marko leapt forward with a suddenness which froze Manfred in place. He flung a hessian sack over his head and wrestled him to the ground. Manfred kicked and squirmed to get free but Marko held him firmly.

“Let me go,” he cried.

Marko looked towards Lukas. “Help me hold him down.” He flipped Manfred onto his front and kneeled on his back. “Stop squirming, rabbit,” he hissed, “or it will go worse for you.” He unsheathed his blade and pushed the point against the back of Manfred’s head through the heavy fabric. “Feel that. It will cut you from ear to ear if you don’t do as you’re told. Now stop squirming.”

Manfred stopped his frantic movements, but his body still shook with fear and he began to sob. “Lukas, I’m sorry. It was Karl, not me. You know that, right?”

“Shut up,” snarled Marko. “Lukas, sit on his back.”

Lukas kneeled with one knee on Manfred’s back and used his hands to press down on his shoulders. “I’m sorry, Manfred,” he whispered.

Marko glared at him and stabbed his knife into the hard ground beside them. He grasped the waistband of Manfred’s trousers and yanked at them until the button popped off and he could pull them down.

“No, don’t,” whimpered Manfred.

“I told you to shut up,” said Marko. “Don’t make me cut you.”

“Please, Lukas …”

Marko slapped him hard across his bare buttocks, causing him to squeal. He followed it up with a punch to the base of his spine. Manfred screamed.

“Shut up,” yelled Marko. “SHUT UP!” He punched him repeatedly in the ribs and Manfred squealed louder and tried to roll away.

Lukas had to drop his body onto Manfred’s back to hold him in place. He watched in horror at the expression of fury on Marko’s face as he delivered each shuddering blow, and regretted ever having told him about his own humiliation. Now that he was faced with it he decided that he no longer wanted revenge, but it was too late to stop it. All he could do was watch and hope that it would soon be over.

Marko leaned his head forward and snarled through the sackcloth, “Like to rape people, do you? Let’s see how you like it.” He reached into his pocket and emerged with a muddy parsnip in his hand. He sat back on his heels and rammed it hard between Manfred’s buttocks into his anus. Manfred screamed.

Marko stood up and motioned to Lukas. “Let’s go.”

Manfred lay unmoving, even when released, except for a sobbing shudder of his shoulders. Marko took a step forward and kicked him in the side. “Think on your sins, little rabbit.” He laughed, just a satisfied grunt, and took Lukas by the elbow to lead him away.

Chapter Eleven

Souain-Perthes-les-Hurlus, France. April 2014.

Savage was sitting at the kitchen table cradling a mug of steaming coffee when Catalina arrived. Kovacs met her outside on the porch and Savage could hear the emotional greetings and laughter, and could imagine the hugs and kisses. When she stepped into the house, flanked by her grandfather, he was struck immediately by her beauty.

Catalina was slim with flaring Latino hips and a firmly muscled frame. Her narrow face was framed by long curls of black hair, and her full lips were only overshadowed by her bright emerald eyes. She was dressed casually in jeans and a sweatshirt, and carried a small canvas rucksack over one shoulder.

She stopped dead when she spotted him.

Kovacs grinned and eased her forward to step alongside her. “Ah, this is my very good friend, Luke Savage,” he said. “Luke, this is my granddaughter, Catalina.”

Savage nodded in greeting.

Catalina’s eyes opened wide in recognition. His scarred face and birthmark were so distinctive as to leave no doubt as to his true identity. She dropped her bag from her shoulder in one fluid motion and grasped it in her right hand. Her left hand rose towards the bag’s opening.

Savage shook his head. “No need for that.”

Kovacs looked quickly from one to the other. “What is this? Do you know each other?”

“I know of him,” said Catalina. “Do you know who he is, grandfather? He is a demon.”

“He is my friend.” Kovacs reached forward and took hold of her rucksack, guessing her intention. “I think you have some explaining to do, miss. And you can start by telling me your interest in our friend here. But let me be clear, Catalina, there will be no confrontations in this house.”

Savage put his mug down on the table. “No need to worry, my friend. Your granddaughter is not here to kill me.” He held her eyes. “Are you?”

“No.” She released her hold on the bag. “Unless it’s absolutely necessary,” she added, with a smile.

Kovacs dropped the rucksack behind him. “Good. Sit down, Catalina, and we will all have a nice chat. I seem to be the only one here who doesn’t know what is going on.”

There was surprisingly little to tell. Catalina was open enough to explain that she was a troubleshooter for hire and she was currently employed by a German industrialist. She didn’t suggest that any of her work involved assassination, but it was clear there was often an element of danger in her work. She admitted that she did, in fact, have a handgun in her sparse luggage and knew how to use it. Kovacs was shocked; he had believed his granddaughter to be a travel consultant.

Her assignment in regards to Savage – who she knew as Bauer – was simple: first locate him and then persuade him to accompany her to Suriname in South America to meet her employer. She didn’t know the reason for the meeting, but had been assured it was simply to allow a proposition to be made to Savage. She had been told that Savage could be persuaded by force if necessary, though she knew it wouldn’t be easy to subdue him. She was well aware of his abilities and had intended to try the charm approach first.

When she finished her explanation she opened her hands on the kitchen table in a gesture of open submission. “That’s all of it,” she said.

Savage leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table, staring at her. “And you say your employer is named Himmelreich?”

“Yes. He told me you knew his father before the war.”

Savage nodded. Manfred. “Yes, I did,” he agreed. “One last question: you told your grandfather that I was a demon. What did you mean?”

“Himmelreich believes your power is the work of the devil.” She chuckled. “And he thinks your ring has a caged demon inside it.”

“Do you?”

She shrugged. “I’m not a religious person. No God, no Devil. But the alternative is to suggest you have a magic ring and that is even more unbelievable. So, no, I don’t know what to think.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I do know that you’re dangerous.”

Kovacs looked intently at Savage. “What now, my friend? And please do not make me choose between you. I owe you my life, but she is my granddaughter.”

“Don’t worry, old friend. I would not let anything happen to Catalina.” He smiled. “I think it would be best if I accompany her to meet Herr Himmelreich.”

Catalina grinned at him. “A good choice,” she said. “The journey will give you a chance to tell me why my grandfather holds you in such high esteem.”

“That is a story for another day,” said Savage. He pointed a finger at her. “But before our trip to Suriname,” he said, “we will make a side trip. I would also like to know a little bit more about this ring I wear. I have put off that investigation for far too long.”

“A side trip,” she muttered. “Where?”

“Norway.”

Chapter Twelve

Kolwezi, Zaire. May 1978.

Kovacs realised as soon as his parachute deployed that he was drifting away from his platoon. “Damn Yankee chute,” he mumbled to himself, pulling on the steering cords. His chute began to turn slowly, but he simply didn’t have the altitude to significantly affect his trajectory. He instinctively knew he would miss the target hippodrome completely and would land in one of the outlying streets.

On the ground, small arms fire spat upwards from Katangan rebel positions. The shots seemed to be aimed at the main contingent of his group and nobody appeared to have noticed him, but he didn’t expect that situation to last long. As he neared the ground, a shout rose from a nearby rooftop and he knew he’d been spotted.

Kovacs landed roughly between two rows of whitewashed adobe houses, and rolled onto his hip to absorb the impact. He leapt immediately to his feet and swung his MAS 49/56 semi-automatic rifle into position, ignoring the parachute still flapping in the wind behind him. He knelt on the dusty ground and lined up on the head of the street and waited for the attackers to emerge. He didn’t have long to wait.

Four rebels burst into view and opened fire immediately with a variety of antiquated weapons. They fired wildly, relying on superior numbers to shock Kovacs into submission. He carefully lined up his rifle and took aim on the lead attacker and exhaled slightly as he depressed the trigger. The man’s head exploded crimson and he fell into the dirt. Kovacs swung his rifle towards the second man and fired again, hitting him in the chest. The remaining men dived towards the cover of doorways on each side of the road.

Three more men appeared at the end of the street and began firing. Kovacs knew it was only a matter of time before somebody came behind him and caught him in a crossfire. Surrender was not an option though – the rebels had already slaughtered unarmed hostages and didn’t have the luxury of coping with prisoners – so he took aim and kept shooting.

He took out two more rebels before a wild shot caught him in the shoulder, followed by another low down in his abdomen. He rocked backwards onto his bottom and his rifle fell from his nerveless fingers into his lap. He fumbled to lift it, but couldn’t muster the strength to do more than lever the bayoneted tip to point towards his feet.

The rebels yelled and rushed forward. The lead man lifted a machete above his head as he ran forward, waving it in a circle.

“Ah,” thought Kovacs, “it’s not to be a quick death then.”

Suddenly, a man appeared at his side. A white man with a port-wine birthmark across one side of his face and scar tissue across the other. The stranger knelt beside Kovacs and leaned forward to press his right hand into the dust of the street. He looked towards the approaching rebels and narrowed his eyes.

The ground rippled outwards from the stranger’s hand like the crashing swell of a tsunami and catapulted the approaching men into the air. The lead rebel was flung in a cartwheel against the nearest building and his head shattered against the surface with the force of his impact. His body slumped to the ground like a ragdoll. The remaining two men were stunned by their respective impacts with the hard ground and lay motionless in the settling cloud of dust.

“We don’t have much time,” the stranger said. He reached up and unhooked the parachute from Kovacs’ shoulders, then pulled him into a standing position. He half-walked, half-dragged him through the entrance of the nearest house, then dropped him unceremoniously to the floor so he could close the door behind them.

Kovacs grunted heavily. His brow was spotted with sweat and the pain from his stomach was excruciating. He knew he was losing a lot of blood and was unlikely to live much longer, but surprisingly the prospect of death didn’t really worry him. “Who are you?” he asked.

The man ignored him and limped over to kneel at his side. “This will hurt for a moment,” he said, and reached his right hand onto Kovacs’ chest.

Kovacs arched his back as an agonizing heat ripped through his body, and then was gone as quickly as it had started. The pain in his stomach and shoulder dissipated to leave only a mild throbbing for a second. He sat up and looked down at himself. The bloody hole in his uniform was still present, but the wound beneath had gone. He worked a finger into the sticky fabric and felt the unbroken skin in disbelief. “How?”

“Just a trick I know.” He stood up abruptly and stepped towards the door just as it burst open and a rebel soldier stepped into view. The stranger touched the man on the forehead and he slumped to the ground. He lay there twitching and coughing blood for a moment and then lay still. The stranger ducked his head outside the door and, satisfied that there were no other enemies, he leaned back inside and pushed it closed.

“What the fuck is going on?” said Kovacs.

The stranger smiled at him. “No need for that, Monsieur. It will all become clear in time.”

Kovacs reached a hand towards his rifle but stopped halfway.

“Take it,” said the man, “you may need it soon enough.” He chuckled. “Not against me, of course.”

Kovacs lifted the gun and crossed it over his chest. “Am I dead? Are you an angel?”

“Hardly.” He frowned. “You aren’t French.”

“Hungarian. I’m with the Legion.”

“Ah.” The stranger nodded. “Well, my friend, today is your lucky day. I doubt all your compatriots will be able to say the same.”

Kovacs pushed himself to his feet. “I must get back to them at once. They’ll need my help.”

“Better to wait here. Your main force landed in the hippodrome. They’ll be fanning out and will reach this part of town fairly quickly.”

“You’re right,” he said, leaning back against the wall. “I apologise for being rude. I should thank you for saving me from those savages.”

He laughed. “We are all savages, Monsieur.”

Kovacs frowned. “Quite. My name is Edouard Kovacs. Who are you?”

“I have had many names, my friend, but I think you have just christened me again. It is an appropriate title indeed and my favourite name in many years. Savage,” he said finally, “you can call me Luke Savage.”

Fiction


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