Or rather former Nazi storm trooper.
He also had the same pale face as Gunther, only something seemed wrong. The left side of his face drooped like a stroke victim. His left arm trembled with a palsy as he pointed toward the door.
"Kommen mit mirf'he snapped.
They were being ordered out. The massive leader turned and strode away, as if any thought of disobeying was simply unfathomable. Then again, the rifles at their back certainly reinforced that assumption.
Painter nodded to Lisa. She joined him as they exited, trailed by the cadre of guards. The hallway was narrow, hewn from the rock, barely wide enough for two people. The only illumination came from flashlights secured to the guards' rifles, jittering shadows ahead of them. It was distinctly colder in the hallway than their room, but far from frigid.
They were not led far. Painter estimated that they were headed toward the front facade of the castle. He was right. He even heard a distant whistle of wind. The storm must have kicked up again outside.
Ahead, the massive guardsman knocked on a carved wooden door. A muffled response encouraged him to open the door. Warm light flowed out into the hall, along with a breath of heat.
The guard stepped through and held the door.
Painter led Lisa into the room and searched around him. It appeared to be a rustic study and library. It climbed two stories, all four walls covered in open bookshelves. The upper level was circled by an iron balcony, heavy and undecorated. The only way up was via a steep ladder.
The source of the room's heat was a large stone hearth, aglow with a small bonfire. An oil painting of a man in a German uniform glared down at them.
"My grandfather," Anna Sporrenberg said, noting Painter's attention. She rose from behind a carved monstrosity of a desk. She wore dark jeans and a sweater, too. Apparently it was the dress code for the castle. "He took over the castle after the war."
She motioned them to a circle of wingback chairs that fronted the fireplace. Painter noted the circles under her eyes. It looked like she hadn't slept at all. He also smelled smoke on her, an odor not unlike cordite.
Painter met her eyes as she approached the heavy chairs. The small hairs on the back of his neck prickled. Despite her exhaustion, her eyes were bright and sharp. Painter recognized a cunning, predatory, and calculating gleam. Here was someone to watch closely. She seemed to be appraising him just as intently, sizing him up.
What was going on?
"Setzen Sie, bitte,"she said, nodding to the chairs.
Painter and Lisa took neighboring chairs. Anna chose one opposite them. The guard kept a post by the closed door, arms crossed. Painter knew the cadre of other guards still waited outside. He surveyed the room for escape routes. The only other exit was a deep-set glazed window, frosted to obscurity, crisscrossed with iron bars.
No escape that way.
Painter returned his attention to Anna. Maybe there was another way out. Anna's manner was cautious, but they had been called here for a reason. He needed as much information as possible, but he would have to handle this deftly. He noted Anna's family resemblance to the man in the oil painting. A place to start.
"You said your grandfather took over the castle," Painter said, prying for answers, sticking to safe ground. "Who held it before him?"
Anna leaned back into the seat, obviously relieved to sit in front of the fire for a quiet moment. Still, her manner was focused, hands folded on her lap, eyes passing over Lisa, then back to him. "GranitschloR has a long and dark history, Mr. Crowe. Are you familiar with Heinrich Himmler?"
"Hitler's second in command?"
"Ja. The head of the SS. Also a butcher and madman."
Painter was surprised to hear this characterization. Was this a trick? He sensed a game afoot. Only he didn't know the steps…at least not yet.
Anna continued, "Himmler believed himself to be the reincarnation of King Heinrich, a tenth-century German king of the Saxons. Even thought he received psychic messages from him."
Painter nodded. "I've heard he was interested in the occult."
"Obsessed actually." Anna shrugged. "It was a passion of many in Germany. Going back to Madame Blavatsky, who coined the term Aryan. She claimed to have gained secret knowledge while studying at a Buddhist monastery. Secret masters supposedly taught her how mankind had devolved from a superior race and would one day evolve back."
"The proverbial master race," Painter said.
"Precisely. A century later, Guido von List mixed her beliefs with German mythology, refining a Nordic origin to this mythic Aryan race."
"And the German people bought the story hook, line, and sinker," Painter said, baiting her a bit.
"And why not? After our defeat in World War I, such an idea was a flattering conceit. It was taken up in a flourish of occult lodges in Germany. The Thule Society, the Vril Society, the Order of the New Templars."
"And as I recall, Himmler himself belonged to the Thule Society."
"Yes, the Reichsführer believed fully in this mythology. Even in the magic of the Nordic runes. It was why he chose the double sig runes, twin lightning bolts, to represent his own order of warrior-priests, the Schutzstaffel, the SS. He became convinced, from studying Madame Blavatsky's work, that it was in the Himalayas that the Aryan race first arose, and that it was here that it would rise again."
Lisa spoke for the first time. "So Himmler did send expeditions out into the Himalayas." She shared a glance with Painter. They had talked about this earlier. So they weren't so far off base. But Painter still wondered about Anna's cryptic statement.
We're not Nazis. Not anymore.
He encouraged the woman to talk while she remained gregarious. He sensed a setup, but he had no idea where it was leading. He hated being in the dark, but he refused to show it.
"So what was Himmler searching for out here?" he asked. "Some lost tribe of Aryans? A white-supremacist's Shangri-La?"
"Not exactly. Under the guise of anthropological and zoological research, Himmler sent members of his SS to search for evidence of a long-lost master race. He became convinced that he would find traces of the old race here. And though he found nothing, he grew more determined, driven further into madness. When he started constructing an SS stronghold in Germany, a personal castle named Wewelsburg, he built a mirror image of the same here, airlifting a thousand slave laborers from German concentration camps. He also shipped a metric ton of gold bullion. To make us self-sufficient. Which it has, with careful investments."
"But why build here?" Lisa asked.