by Jen B.
There was very little that truly phased Dorian these days. He had been brought to physical exhaustion most people could only dream of more times than he cared to count, and he had been emotionally battered by a sadistic German – by choice – for nearly thirty years. He counted his blessings and checked the mirror every morning to assure himself that he was aging well. He liked to laugh at himself, comparing his recent rigorous exercise routine with Klaus’ own regimen.
Of course, even someone repeatedly over-exposed to danger can find new levels of horror. Dorian was considering his current situation as a serious contender.
“What?” The word that emerged from his throat was strangled and rather high-pitched.
Strangely, Klaus didn’t seem more irritated than usual at having to repeat himself. “There is a rebel group occupying the state museum. They are making threats. It seemed more effic-“
“The Li-Fu Collection! Is it safe?”
Klaus plowed through his interruption, merely raising the strength of his voice to a low bellow. “—efficient to bring in your team. I can focus on human retrieval, and you can protect those lumps of mud.” He waved his hand impatiently and his two head agents broke off their low conference in the corner. A, always rather high-strung, looked a great deal older than Klaus lately, though Dorian knew he was actually the younger of the two agents. B had lost weight since Dorian had last seen him, but seemed wrung-out rather than fit.
“Major?” B acknowledged.
“B will act as liaison between my team and yours. Eroica! Don’t touch that! Pay attention!”
Dorian reluctantly gave up on his attempt to pull the folder across the low table. He was itching for a look at certain papers. He settled back again with a sigh. Klaus had begun taking the initiative in involving “Eroica’s” team five years ago. It had seemed a step forward at the time. But the NATO officer was adept at both involving Dorian and keeping him safely removed from the action at the same time. The thief hadn’t had an opportunity to “get in the way” —a snarled phrase he often heard from the major— of Klaus’ missions for many, many years.
Frankly, Dorian was bored. Even a momentary panic over the well-being of an extremely rare collection of archaeological treasures hadn’t really managed to completely break the spell. He eyed Klaus, who was sitting ramrod straight on his opposing couch.
“In other words, ‘they’re safe enough, so shut up’?” Dorian inquired. The bitterness was unusually thick in his voice, and B watched him warily.
As always, Klaus allowed the sarcasm to flow over him without a twitch. “Exactly. I’m awaiting word on my Russian counterpart.”
“Ah, this close to the border…”
“Exactly,” Klaus repeated. “They want to make sure they have their finger in the pie, and the chief insists that we ‘keep relations harmonious’.” There was no doubt that he despised his superior. Dorian supposed that Klaus considered it an integral part of his job, as he had disliked the woman’s predecessor equally.
The phone rang and A scrambled to answer. “Yes? Yes. ….Understood.”
These florescent lights need to go, Dorian decided. A looks positively ghastly; you’d think he was about to pass out.
“Understood,” A said again. “Yes, sir. Goodbye, sir.”
The phone was gently replaced in its cradle and ever-so-slowly A turned to face the major.
“Well? Stop wasting my time. Out with it!”
“Ah, that was Bonn Headquarters. The Russian agent is on his way. We’re to allow him in upon visual identification.”
Klaus snarled. “And how are we supposed to identify him? Are they sending us a telepathic visual?”
“N-no, major. They said we would know him when we saw him.”
Dorian suddenly doubted that the florescent lighting was to blame for A’s paleness. With vague orders like that, Klaus was certain to get riled. Indeed, Dorian feared he saw the beginnings of a smile. Klaus didn’t find the same things amusing that most of humanity did. When he smiled, he was usually anticipating mayhem of one sort or another. Sadist, Dorian thought fondly.
“I see,” Klaus said. The smile grew, and his agents shivered. “Wonderful!”
Distraction Time. “So, Major, I’ve never seen your agents using a mobile phone. Why are you still using land-lines for communication? Wouldn’t the newer technology be more efficient?”
Predictably, Klaus could not resist the urge to punish a stupid question. “Idiot! It’s been all over the news for years, even a fool like you should have noticed. Mobile phone locations can be pinpointed by satellite technology.”
“Really? Ah, that makes sense,” Dorian allowed. “I don’t pay much attention to the news.”
Klaus’s eyes opened wide as he assumed his expression of ‘surprised benevolence’. The biting, biting sarcasm. “Why, you can’t have been allowing your men to carry mobile phones, Eroica. Have you?”
Dorian felt the small weight in his vest pocket like a burning coal. He laughed nervously. “Of course not.”
“Because that would be foolish, even for a thief. Especially for a thief; even civilian authorities can locate people by the phone.”
The earl swallowed. “Right.”
Klaus got tired of the game. “Get rid of them, Eroica.”
“For you, Darling, anything! But—“
Perhaps luckily, there was a knock on the door. T opened it far enough to allow him to lean into the inner room. “Sir, there’s a man at the door to the suite. Says he’s here to meet you.” There was a flash of unease. “You’re not going to like this.”
What Klaus wasn’t going to like was readily apparent from one glance out the peep-hole. He froze. Dorian took the opportunity to shove him aside for a quick look of his own. “Oh. Oh!”
“Mischa is retired from fieldwork,” Klaus growled. “What game are they playing now?”
“He’s too young to be the Cub, Major. But the resemblance is extraordinary. Shall I let him in?”
“Eroica…. Ah, you might as well.”
The blocky young man seemed as ill at ease as the alphabets who were crowded into the room. He entered slowly, his eyes moving rapidly to take in his surroundings, but his face was expressionless and his demeanor cool as he gave a nod to Klaus. “Major Eberbach. I am Kirill of the GRU [Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoye Upravlenie]. Your cooperation is appreciated.”
“You, at least, still have your hair.”
Oh, Klaus. Tact! Tact!
Kirill’s eyebrows rose. “I understand that premature hair-loss runs through the female genes. I am Mischa’s nephew on the fraternal side.”
“Not going to try to cover it up, then?” Klaus demanded.
“Why should I? My uncle worked for his country and did his duty well for many years.”
The two men were leaning towards each other from across the room, like a pair of fighting dogs straining at the leash. Everyone could see the tension crackling between them. Dorian felt a heavy flash of déjà vu. It could easily have been a quarter century ago, when the KGB and NATO had faced off against each other at the height of the Cold War in the persons of Mischa the Cub and Major Klaus von dem Eberbach. Only now Klaus was the elder. Still, he was no less aggressive.
This could get very tricky, Dorian thought. Strange, how much the idea warmed him. It had been a long time since a mission had roused him. When he was younger he had spent all his time finding something to inflame his senses, but recently he had been content to wait and come when called by NATO’s most tempting bachelor. I’m getting old.
* * *
Dorian could never decide which sort of mission suited Klaus more. On the one hand, the man was practically a fanatic about using blunt force – stealing Soviet jets, blowing up a Soviet ship in the Bosporous with a bazooka. On the other hand, he managed to cut through layers of intelligence and counter-intelligence with few detours – Dorian was still awed by his handling of the “Maria Theresa” Vienna Affair, and the way he had steered through the Horizon Scandal.
The current mission seemed to require a bit of both, and this was where the situation became tricky. Klaus detested dancing around a situation. It led to more chances for his ‘bets to make mistakes. Using force obliquely was not his forte.
Dorian could then, perhaps, appreciate the addition of Kirill to their happy party. However, the fact that the two agents got along as well as oil and water proved a lack of foresight among their superiors. Dorian sat through the storm of shouted German and Russian patiently. With every curse he inched closer to his goal and neither man paid him any attention as he rifled through the mission brief.
He couldn’t contain his surprise and looked around until he met G’s eyes. He had never failed at extracting information from the transvestite. He waved discretely at the agent and G began to edge around the outside of the room towards him.
“Isn’t this the sort of thing we should be taking care of immediately? Being a hostage situation and all?”
“Ah, well, we can’t just rush in,” G said apologetically. Both of them were keeping half of their attention on the quarrel. “Tends to set the homicidal types off, and we don’t want the hostages killed.” He gently tugged the folder out of the earl’s hands. He had acquired a rather strong dose of common sense in his dealings with Dorian.
“Hostage situations are definitely not normal missions for NATO Intelligence,” Dorian prodded.
“No,” G agreed. But he left it at that, and Dorian was rather disappointed.
Meanwhile, Klaus had noticed and broken off his argument. “L, M, N! Go and relieve the agents at the museum. A and Z, you’re with me. B!” He gave the agent a kind, frightening smile. “Don’t leave Eroica’s side. The rest of you slobs-!” The agents jumped in surprise. “Make yourselves busy doing something useful!”
The alphabets scattered, frantically diving for the temporary office that had been set up in the extra bedroom in the suite. Dorian slid himself into Klaus’ path with the ease of long practice. “May I contact my team, then?”
Klaus waved a fist under the Englishman’s elegant nose. He lifted a finger. “Bonham.” Another finger. “Kelly.” The two fingers were a pointed and, Dorian was certain, deliberate insult. “That is all.”
Dorian wasn’t the only one to snort at that, though the agents were quieter. “Aren’t you forgetting someone?”
“I would like nothing better. Keep your bug on a short leash.”
B trailed out after Dorian into a beautiful spring afternoon. The good weather didn’t seem to improve his spirits. If anything, he became even more morose. Dorian pulled out his forbidden mobile phone with a wink and snapped it open. The agent opened his mouth to comment, but gave up without a word.
“Yes, hello, Bonham. I have good news and bad news, which would you like first?”
A low-flying plane passed overhead, and the roar forced a pause in the conversation. Dorian took advantage of the moment by checking his watch and frowning.
“Neither? Well, that’s not an acceptable answer. For that, I’m giving you the bad news first. Klaus is on a rampage. Yes, he’s been paired with some relative of Mischa’s.”
B took in the conversation with undisguised horror.
“The good news? We’ve been invited along.” Dorian’s clear laugh rang out. “Pull Kelly out of whatever card house he’s crawled into. James? Yes, we could hardly prevent him. Bring the museum equipment. And, uhm…. Now’s as good a time as any to try the new gadget. Yes.” He covered the mouthpiece of the phone and addressed B. “Shall we bring everything to the Sunny suite, or keep the operations separate?”
“Separate,” B said firmly.
A small smile turned up the corner of Dorian’s mouth. “Yes, probably wisest.” He took a deep breath, thinking quickly. “Did you hear that, Bonham? The Hantuk Hotel near the station. Make reservations and call me back with the room number.”
The phone clicked shut.
“There, all as ordered. Calm down, Mr B.”
“The phones?” B asked.
Dorian frowned. “Not possible. We’ve been using them for too long; there isn’t enough time to come up with an alternative. I’ll take care of it after this is settled, don’t worry.”
B sighed. “Right.”
“Something is wrong.”
The agent shook his head. “No, not really. We’re just tired. We haven’t been back to Bonn since the Egyptian mission in February. Everyone is worn out.”
Dorian stared. “What are they thinking? Things will be a disaster if the agents can’t perform.”
“Honestly? I think they want to send the major off with a bang.” He paused and backtracked quickly at Dorian’s choked-off noise. “No! Retirement, I’m talking about retirement.”
“The major won’t retire,” Dorian argued in disbelief. “He’s barely fifty.”
“Forced retirement. He doesn’t need the income.”
“This is ridiculous,” Dorian said flatly. He stalked ahead down the long, dusty street.
Retirement? He’ll spend all day driving his servants mad. And I won’t— Ridiculous.
Dorian resolved firmly to forget the entire conversation.
He didn’t meet back up with Klaus that afternoon, but B spent a long hour conversing on the phone with his superior. Dorian kept one eye on the agent as he briefed Bonham and Kelly on what he had learned so far. James was only a pair of feet sticking out from under the beds as he hunted for loose change, but his occasional comment told them that he was listening as well.
“Terrorists? I didn’t exactly bring an arsenal with me, my lord,” Bonham interjected.
“Not terrorists, technically. More like conscientious objectors without the conscience. And we won’t be facing them down, we’re just going on a treasure hunt.”
“If all goes well,” Kelly added dourly. He was perhaps the most pessimistic of Dorian’s team of thieves. “A little security wouldn’t hurt.”
B had finished his phone-call and was looking nervous. The earl shook his head firmly. “No, we go in with what we have. If we try to buy irregular things we’ll start setting off alarms in the rumor market.
“Mr B, what can you tell us?”
“This is the plan….”
As B outlined the operation, Dorian couldn’t help but notice that he wasn’t being told more than he needed to do his part. It was the major’s usual modus operandi. Dorian repeated his mantra, the one where he reminded himself that he had made progress with Klaus over the years. Never in the direction he wished that progress to go, but progress none-the-less.
As he sat down to pour over blueprints with Bonham and Kelly, he couldn’t help but wonder if he was running out of time.
* * *
“Kssht. Major, Darling, can you hear me?”
“Kssht. All too well. Clear the channel, Eroica.”
“Kssht. Yes, sir!”
I wouldn’t have been able to get away with that without bloodshed, once, Dorian thought dreamily. My, how the times have changed.
Thirty minutes later the Li-Fu Collection had been removed from its cases and deposited in the virtually impregnable safe housed under the basement of the museum. Dorian felt a moment’s regret to have access to such a place and no desire to steal anything. But really, there was nothing that called to him. There was the Li-Fu Collection, of course, but as that was part of the major’s mission he considered it off limits. It was a new stricture, and one he had imposed upon himself when Klaus began actively asking for his aid on missions.
*Finished,* he signaled to Kelly as he wound up his tools and newest toy and stored them in a slim hip pouch.
His man nodded back in acknowledgement.
Dorian tapped his earpiece. “Kshht. It’s done, major.”
When there was no immediate response he frowned and waved Kelly back from the stairwell. They waited in the darkness. It was out of place, but Dorian grinned. He remembered Klaus’ attempt to cure him of his temporary achluophobia many years ago. While it didn’t matter, it amused him, but once it inconvenienced him….
After a suitable wait, he tried again. “Kssht. Major? It’s finished.”
“Kssssshhhhhh… pop! Then get out, idiot!”
The two thieves exchanged a glance.
“Something’s gone wrong,” Kelly hazarded in a low murmur.
He wants us out of the way, Dorian realized. For all I know, he could be preparing to blow the building up as a pointed ‘goodbye’.
“Go,” he ordered. “I’ll be behind you.”
Kelly shook his head, but started up into the darkness. Silent as a cat, Dorian followed. As they neared the stairwell for the first floor, Dorian could hear the crack of automatic weapons. He hissed ahead and when he had caught Kelly’s attention he pointed towards himself and then the door. Kelly shook his head again, but started off alone.
Dorian crept through the eerie red-lighted hallways towards the sound of the conflict. The dim lighting worked in his favor, but he couldn’t help but think that he was getting too old to dodge bullets. He dug out a knife from its wrist sheath as a precaution. He intended to avoid any hand-to-hand fighting, but he wasn’t a complete pacifist. If his own life were threatened he would act.
All too soon he came across his first opponent.
Yes, he decided, much too old for this.
Sound and bullets ricocheted along the corridor, chipping the stone construction. Dorian wasn’t able to throw his knife with great accuracy while moving. All he needed was a heartbeat’s pause, but that was a dangerous gamble when faced with a semi-automatic riffle. And every wasted moment could bring another enemy running.
At last he chanced it, and the throw was clean. The man was dead before his body hit the floor, for which Dorian was extremely grateful. Times when there was a need for mercy killings were the most wrenching – watching someone choking slowly on their own blood, or hearing their screams as they scrabbled in a puddle of their own filth. He could never get to them soon enough to end their pain. There were few pleasant ways to die.
His thoughts gave him pause. Who am I? Should I be ashamed of what I have become?
He retrieved his knife and wiped it clean on the dead man’s worn clothes. As he straightened, he caught movement from the corner of his eye and swung around to face the danger. There was a small antique mirror on the opposite wall. The hall was too dark for a true reflection, but he could see a shadow of himself. Pale skin with a reddish cast from the museum safety lighting. Dark hollows instead of the blue eyes he knew so well. He repressed a shudder.
Or should I be ashamed of the shame?
These were twisted, tangled thoughts that would get him nowhere. Klaus, he reminded himself firmly.
He continued his stealthy approach, made all the more necessary by a sudden, terrifying silence. The gunfire had stopped. At the next corner he paused and listened intently. The distorted echoes in a large building such as this often confused people, but Dorian had been raised in a castle. He had always won at hide-and-seek. There!
He took the left turn confidently, moving towards the front section of the museum. He remembered B making vague gestures in that direction on the map. At the time he had suspected that that would be the focus of Klaus’ half of the mission. As Dorian began stepping around bodies, he felt justified in his suspicions.
No movement from them. Dorian took heart that none seemed to be NATO agents or civilians. No– He pulled his eyes away from the corpses. Seek, and ye shall find.
As he drew nearer he realized that it was not completely silent. Instead, the air was thick with anticipation. There was a meaty impact, and a grunt. Finally, up ahead he could see the remaining hostages huddled behind the usual crowd of alphabets. On the opposite side of the galley the remaining hostage-takers were glaring ineffectually. Their weapons had been thrown into a heap in the center of the room. And there —at last!— was Klaus.
Once again Klaus had managed to make an international conflict personal. He grappled with a heavy-set man. It wasn’t a fistfight; instead they were wrestling for possession of a small object. Kirill stood closest to them, away from the crowds of spectators. He had a Glock held steadily in a two-handed grip. He didn’t have a clear shot, but Dorian sensed he was debating the drawbacks of shooting an ally along with an enemy. From the steadiness of his aim, the pros were winning out over the cons.
Maybe it was age telling at last, or a final furious burst of power, but Klaus faltered under the next chance-struck blow to his temple. The other man claimed his prize and retreated to the side of the gallery claimed by his men. Dorian watched in confusion as Kirill lowered his gun with a curse.
Kirill reached out to steady Klaus and the major slumped against him. His condition obviously wasn’t good if he was accepting aid from a Russian. The other man’s voice stopped them before they could start their own retreat.
“The tables have turned now,” he said in lightly accented Russian. He sounded more resigned than triumphant. “Now I have the detonator, Major. However, I have no wish to further complicate a complicated situation. I refuse to be responsible for the retaliation of your superiors on my people.”
Klaus remained silent. Kirill’s reply was rasped and barely intelligible: “The Russian government does not negotiate with terrorists.” Dorian suspected Klaus wasn’t the only one with wounds.
“It is fortunate for me, then, that I am speaking to men from NATO,” the other replied. “All I ask is that you leave behind your officer as an act of good faith.” There was a telling pause. “It is more than you would have been left with if he had succeeded in triggering his explosives.”
Dorian swallowed with a mouth gone suddenly dry. Oh, Klaus. ‘Go out with a bang’ indeed. He took an instinctive step from his hallway, then retreated.
Klaus jerked away from Kirill’s support, though Dorian couldn’t hear whether it was due to something the Russian had said, or something their opponent had said.
“Go to hell,” Klaus growled.
“That is hardly productive, Major.”
“You won’t use the bomb with your men here,” Klaus replied, “and my men are the ones with weapons. You’re in no position to negotiate.”
Both sides took a step toward the suddenly volatile pile of guns. The leader laughed, and it was much less hysterical than it should have been from Dorian’s past experiences.
“And your men won’t shoot into a crowd of unarmed opponents if they aren’t being offered violence. I admit we’re no threat, but I think we’re at an impasse.”
Klaus snorted and deliberately turned his back on the man as he started across the large gallery towards his alphabets. He moved very slowly. Dorian held his breath, even when it became apparent that Kirill would be making the trip walking backwards with both eyes on his enemy.
If the hostage-takers attempted to run or to retrieve their weapons, the NATO agents would open fire with decidedly deadly results. But if they remained and allowed themselves to be captured, they would be handed over to their government. The results would not be pleasant. Perhaps death in combat would be kinder.
The leader sighed, and though it wasn’t loud it was easily audible in the quiet room.
Several things happened at once.
The guerillas scattered, making themselves into difficult targets. It was obvious that the weapons pile was their goal. But both Klaus and Kirill stood between the alphabets and their opponents.
Unable to lay out a blanket of fire, the ‘bets settled for deadly sniping. They were good, but hindered from being as effective as they could be. Klaus dropped to the floor with a curse and Kirill followed soon after, but the damage had been done.
The guerillas who had managed to retrieve weapons set up cover fire for their companions and the alphabets were forced onto the defensive. Both sides had about equal strength in numbers, but the hostage-takers had superior weapons and the NATO operatives had to worry about protecting the ex-hostages. The NATO men pulled back from the large gallery, using hallways for cover. As they retreated, the guerillas moved forward.
Dorian watched in impotent anger as they overtook the German and the Russian officers on the floor. Klaus rolled and brought out his magnum. He shot up and out with a steady two-handed grip. It was the second hand that worried Dorian. He knew Klaus’ injury must be truly bothering him if he had given up his favored one-handed method. Kirill fought barehanded with an almost berserker rage – as expected from a nephew of Olympic boxing champion, Mischa the Cub.
Obviously they had been ordered taken alive, for the guerillas ran suicidal attacks across Klaus’ line-of-sight. Kirill managed to gain the momentum to smash his way free. When it became obvious that he would reach the NATO agents the guerillas opened fire. Dorian watched in horror as he jerked from the impact of bullets and tumbled into a heap at L’s feet. The guerillas redoubled their efforts to capture the remaining officer. Eventually superior numbers won out, and Klaus was hidden from Dorian’s view by a mass of opponents.
He debated his options. One, a frontal attack. Surprise and the enemy underestimating him had worked to his advantage before. But this was a long sprint across open space. There was little to work with. Two, join up with the alphabets, who all seemed to be crowded into the corridor that was 90 degrees from his own. Three, rejoin Kelly and his own team, who were probably waiting just outside the museum for his appearance. Or four, follow the retreating guerillas at a discreet distance.
As he hadn’t been noticed yet, he stood the best chance of tracing them as they transported his beloved major. But would he be able to keep up and would the knowledge do him any use?
Age had mellowed Klaus in some ways, and made him more stubborn in others. He had not given in gracefully. Dorian caught a glimpse of his head lolling limply, blood welling from a split lip, and then they had vanished into a corridor off to his left.
* * *
It was raining when Dorian emerged outside, the kind of sudden, sweeping downpour that kept a dry country from becoming a barren and lifeless plain of dust. Fat droplets pelted his skin and obscured his view. A blessing in disguise, he reminded himself. He blinked rapidly to clear his vision and pushed his sopping hair off his forehead. There! A small parade of jeeps and one small all-terrain truck.
It isn’t as easy to hitch a ride on the back bumper of a truck as the movies would lead you to believe. Particularly a small truck jolting over badly paved roads. Dorian kept his seat through sheer persistence; every bump causing him to fling out long limbs in an inelegant sprawl, grasping desperately. The three jeeps were somewhere ahead on the road. He could hear them faintly over the rumble of the truck’s motor. Of Klaus’s position he was unsure. The major had been hurriedly loaded into one of the jeeps.
The ride seemed endless, though in fact little more than an hour had passed when the truck began to slow. When a stop seemed inevitable he let himself drop quietly onto the muddy road. He rolled off into some low (and prickly!) vegetation.
As if it were a sign, the rain ended abruptly. The clouds fragmented and blew over the horizon with alarming speed. Dorian crouched in his inadequate bush and cursed his luck, for the men milling around the jeeps had a clear view of him. Yet none paused or thought to look for pursuit so soon. Dull metal and wooden structures squatted among the beginnings of hill-country to his right, and the guerillas seemed intent on moving their wounded inside and out of the rising heat.
Still, it was too risky to move and draw attention. He waited impatiently. His own view was partially obscured by the truck, but he heard Klaus’ clearly voiced annoyance as he, too, was moved.
When the last man had vanished, Dorian straightened. He moved slowly, stretching out new and painful cramps. Something thumped against his chest in a vest pocket, and he fished out his mobile. He contemplated it.
To call, or not to call. No, there’s still time.
He knew if he messed this up, Klaus was likely to do more than shout at him.
He may still carry through on that promised bullet from Rome. He’s been anticipating it for twenty-odd years. Cranky bastard.
Dorian never doubted his ability to handle a problem. Even when faced with evidence of failure he managed to twist it into a better scenario. However, he sometimes considered how Klaus would view his actions. Not often, because it was murder on his ego, but from time to time.
Calling in help from his own men would generate instant rage from the major. Contacting NATO forces would necessarily involve the younger bear cub, if he were still alive, and Dorian was certain Klaus wouldn’t want to owe a debt to the Russian. Alone it was.
Klaus was waiting impatiently in a small, drab room. He sat up abruptly when Dorian’s shadow darkened the doorway, and the metal bed frame shuddered alarmingly. His scowl spoke volumes.
Dorian shook his head and put a finger to his lips. Not yet, Darling.
A glance both ways assured him the shack had been cleared of all obstacles. He crept in and knelt down by Klaus’ side. “Wounds?”
“I can walk,” Klaus hissed in reply.
The twinkle was back in Dorian’s smile. “Can you run?”
Klaus stood, signaling an end to the hushed conference. The earl’s sharp eyes caught the way he over-compensated on his left. Some wound had stiffened during his short captivity, but this would not be one of Dorian’s rare opportunities to prop up an injured major.
Two steps, and Klaus stopped so abruptly in the doorway that Dorian nearly ran into him from the back. One large hand grasped at the empty frame, and Dorian nearly bent over backwards in order not to cover it with his own. He windmilled in mid-air for several moments before regaining his balance.
“You did this?”
There was a quality to his voice that the thief had never heard before. He hesitated for a moment before replying. “Yes?”
Klaus pushed off without replying, marching around the dead guard without further comment. Dorian followed him around the sprawled corpse. Now, what was that about?
A tap on the shoulder directed Klaus to circle close to the corrugated metal walls as they made their way around the outside of the shack. The sun had had a free hand for several hours now, and Dorian winced whenever bare skin brushed burning-hot metal. The peculiar smell of desert, which can only be described as ‘heat’, marched down the back of his throat to mix with the tang of iron.
Of the rebels there was little sign. They were content to wait out this windless part of the day inside their makeshift shelters. Nothing stirred.
Klaus started off at a punishing pace, which caught Dorian off-guard. The earl ran to match his stride. “Major, the road is in the other direction.”
“I am aware of that.” His volume may have been low, but he managed to convey his rage well. “The most advantageous terrain is in this direction.”
By the time they had completed the short march to the true hill-country they were both damp with sweat. Dorian grimaced at the heavy weight of his curls as they stuck to every available inch of exposed skin on his face and neck. He was concerned about the major. Klaus’ coloring was naturally pale because of his German heritage, but now it was verging on a gray tinge.
Dorian paused. “I’m a little tired. Can’t we rest? Just for a few minutes.”
“We don’t have time for-!” They locked gazes for the first time that day, and Klaus deflated. “Fine. For a short while. Stupid, shiftless civilian!”
Dorian only managed to wring ten minutes out of the impatient major, but at least the man no longer seemed on the verge of collapsing. As the valley walls got steeper, dark cracks and caves became more apparent, but Klaus refused to stop on the grounds that this was rebel territory. “They know every inch of this area,” he warned.
The sun went down behind the hills long before sunset. Footing became tricky in the strange half-twilight. Klaus stumbled at last and could not entirely bite back a cry of pain. Dorian settled into a crouch a good distance away. “Rest here?”
When no reply was forthcoming he finally gave into his worry and sidled closer. “Major?”
“Dammit, Gloria,” Klaus gritted out, “can’t you see I’m busy?”
The hair rose on the back of Dorian’s neck. “Klaus,” he began slowly, “what are you doing?”
Klaus didn’t bother to look up from where his hands were gripping the side of his ribcage. “I am attempting to keep from bleeding to death.”
“You’ve been stabbed! How long…” How long have you been walking with that wound? Hours? Major! “Here, let me.”
“Don’t touch it!” Klaus hunched away. “The fall reopened it. Give me a moment.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Dorian said flatly. “This is not a flesh-wound, Major. And contrary to what you may perceive, you are only HUMAN!”
His voice had risen with each word and he winced at the shrill echo that remained. “Please.”
Klaus looked up at last, and the sight was ghastly. Green, an icy green it hurt Dorian to see, in a bloodless face. “Fine.” His mocking smile was weak, but present. “Do your worst, pervert.”
Dorian bent to his task. “Words of love, Major? I can see you’re feeling better already.”
It was only later, when clear eyesight was no longer vital, that he turned his head aside and let the tears fall. Klaus pretended not to notice, though whether it was for his own offended sensibilities or some other reason only he could say. He lay flat on his back and stared up at the stars as they winked into existence one by one.
* * *
Three hours would have seen Klaus on his feet again, but for once Dorian put his foot down and he was in no condition to insist. “You’ll only drip a clear trail from here to Timbuktu,” Dorian told him coldly.
Klaus watched the thief closely from beneath lowered lids. It was rare for Dorian to let lose his icy rage, since the thief preferred more theatrical tantrums. He was not certain he liked this near-stranger who had replaced the more familiar version. Since when, he wondered, had Dorian been willing to kill for him?
Oh, long ago he had mistaken the flamboyance for weakness, but he had since seen enough evidence with his own eyes to know that Dorian was a force to be reckoned with in his own right. But to kill? Dorian’s skill with a knife was remarkable in its accuracy; he could disable an opponent as easily as kill them.
To nearly stumble over the body of that guard had… shocked him. Since when…?
He threw out an opening to Dorian’s back. “We can’t wait here until light.”
“You can’t travel.”
“There’s not much choice,” Klaus answered, and the annoyance was beginning to creep back into his voice.
Dorian finally turned to face him. “Will you swear to stay still long enough for me to scout the area?”
“I have already told you-“
“Yes, yes, they can see through walls, they can smell the blood of our corrupt ancestors, they know every grain of dirt for miles. Will you let me look?”
“Do what you like.”
“And you will stay here? Unmoving? Not aggravating that wound?”
Apparently that was enough for Dorian. The thief gave him a trademark wink and set off. Klaus began counting stars. He managed to make it to three thousand and twenty-eight before the inaction began to claw at his gut. If he felt secure enough to sleep he would have had no problems, but awake he could feel his thoughts turning inwards and the panic began to well.
Familiar rhymes from childhood and biblical quotes from school failed to keep his mind occupied. He could feel it, anticipate it— the inner-voice that tried to drive him mad.
He was not a quiet man. He traded on his active lifestyle; depended upon it. Men with bloody jobs cannot afford to be introspective. If he analyzed his psyche, what would he find? He was not ashamed of his life. He regretted some things that happened in the line of duty. Maybe not enough? He carried himself as his conscience dictated, what more was there he could do?
He was too old to learn new tricks.
Dorian’s return was a blessed relief. The thief was bounding over the rough landscape, a verb Klaus had never believed could actually be matched to a human action. He slid to stop near Klaus and leaned over, panting.
“Good news or bad news first?”
“For God’s sake,” Klaus snapped, “ just spit it out!”
“Well, the proverbial torch-carrying mob is just over that last hill.”
Klaus snapped upright, ignoring the twinge in his tightly bound ribs. “And? I hope that’s the bad news.”
Dorian grinned, a surprisingly boyish expression on a man his age. Or perhaps not so surprising, considering the man. “There’s a sort of cave just out of sight around the bend that way.” He gestured off to his right. “Very cozy, very chic.”
Klaus’ eyebrows flew up.
“I guarantee they don’t know about it,” Dorian added. “I stumbled and nearly broke an ankle falling into it. It’s concealed by some rather lonely bushes.”
Klaus startled Dorian by latching onto his shoulder and hauling himself to his knees. Catching on, Dorian rose with him and pulled him to his feet.
“I reserved us a lovely room with a view,” Dorian prattled as he backtracked to his discovery.
“Shut up.” Klaus’ voice didn’t carry much conviction.
‘Cozy’ didn’t even begin to describe the hole Dorian had found in the side of a hill. The major’s side was a wave of fiery pain by the time he finished the contortions necessary to fit his tall frame inside. Dorian wiggled in feet-first and rearranged the bushes to block them from discovery.
“There, all set,” he whispered.
Turning back around required some gymnastics on Dorian’s part, but Klaus noted that he was careful never to touch him. He closed his eyes and felt the air stir and tug at his clothes as Dorian turned above him. The thief settled in gingerly against his uninjured side, and Klaus was amused to note that it was Dorian who was stiff with tension.
“Alright?” Dorian asked quietly. His breath blew hot against Klaus’ ear.
“Fine. Stay awake. I’m sleeping.”
Sleep. I am sleeping. ‘Marry had a little……’
* * *
Dorian could feel every inch of heated fabric pressed between himself and Klaus. It had been a long time since he had touched the man. Klaus had dropped off to sleep in seconds with his usual military precision, which left Dorian awake and staring into the dark.
Ordering me to stay awake! As if I’d miss a moment of this! ……Even if I am hot and bruised. Even if I could be in my London flat with that edible young artist I discovered last week. I drop it all for you, Love. I always do.
In deference to the deep gash in his side, Klaus was for once not sleeping with his arms laid out in crisp military form. He murmured in his sleep, and one hand fell against Dorian’s hip. Dorian guessed he had a slight fever from the wound and prayed that he wouldn’t find himself a victim of Klaus’ nightmares.
It was yet another incentive to stay awake.
The fever progressed through the early morning hours and broke before Dorian had a chance to get truly concerned. As he cooled and slid towards true sleep, Klaus continued to murmur. It was as if the fever had broken something loose inside him. Dorian leaned shamelessly close and caught snatches of incomprehensible German.
Echoes and voices alerted him to the searchers soon after, and he tried to muffle Klaus’ murmurings with his own sweaty hand. The Major snapped awake immediately, though his eyes weren’t entirely lucid.
“Was?” he whispered.
Dorian made a shushing motion, and Klaus’ eyes began to clear. The searchers passed them by— once, twice…
“We can’t stay here,” Dorian said when they had moved away a third time.
Klaus simply looked at him. Reluctantly, Dorian reached into his pocket and slid his mobile out. The reaction was instantaneous, as Klaus’ face grew stormy. “Lord Gloria,” he ground out, “I believe I told you specifically to get rid of that thing.”
“And aren’t you glad I didn’t, Darling? Look, I even have A on speed-dial!”
Unable to shout, Klaus turned his face away in a fit of temper. Dorian took that as a ‘yes’ and dialed before Klaus could control himself enough to order him not to.
“Mr A, Love! …Yes, I bet you have wondered that. …Well, no, I can’t really speak up. We-“
Klaus ripped the phone from his hand and began giving rapid-fire coordinates and landmarks. “And don’t mess this up!”
Punching the button on a mobile phone wasn’t nearly as satisfying as crashing a phone back into its receiver. Klaus glared at the offending bit of plastic for a moment and eyed the cave wall. Dorian retrieved it before he could carry through on any nefarious plans.
“You know what they say about misplaced anger, Major. Besides, I really don’t think we should be banging things around just now.”
Klaus sighed. “Apologies. I am not at my best when I’m ill.”
Dorian reached up and squeezed his shoulder silently.
“I am… glad you came for me,” Klaus continued. “It would have been a damn stupid place to die.”
“None of that kind of talk, if you please,” Dorian replied tartly. “No one will be dying anytime soon.”
There was an uncomfortable silence for a moment, and Dorian tried to shift away from Klaus. The NATO major looked over at him sharply. “I am also glad that you were there on my last mission. The trust I have placed in you over the years has not been wasted.”
“It’s true then? You’re retiring?”
The corner of Klaus’ mouth tilted up. “You sound even less thrilled about it than I do.”
“Well, of course, Darling. It’s not nearly as fun to scale the walls of Eberbach as it is to be dragged through the dust of some nameless Asian dessert.”
“Yes, well… I don’t imagine any scaling will be necessary.”
Dorian swallowed an automatic response about the German taking all the fun out of his life. That had sounded suspiciously like a grudging invitation.
“Though I suppose something would not be right with the world if you failed to make a dramatic entrance.”
“And don’t start any damn crying!”
It was Dorian’s turn to be irritated. “Of course not! When have you ever known me to cry?”
Selective memory had erased any thoughts of a few hours before from Dorian’s mind. Klaus barely hesitated before subtly changing tact.
“It’s a foppish sort of thing, and-“
When the alphabets found them, Dorian’s knife was jamming the trigger to Klaus’ gun and both were nanoseconds from throttling the life from each other. Some things, it seemed, would never change.
* * *
The Russian agent was less than impressed with the results of the mission. His neat suit hid the bandaging well, though Dorian noticed that the cut was off slightly around his right shoulder. He was leaning against the wall across from Klaus’ hospital bed and scowling.
“Yes, the hostages and museum were unharmed, but your agents failed to bring in a single prisoner! Dead men aren’t any use to us!”
Klaus considered the ceiling above his bed, which was (rather unfortunately, he thought) a solid and uneventful shade of gray. He had been spending entirely too much time flat on his back of late. “You were there as well, Lieutenant Kirill. Or have you forgotten?”
“NATO,” Kirill informed him with a scowl, “has taken full responsibility for this disaster and issued an apology to the GRU.”
“That must be very nice for you,” Dorian said with that particular tone reserved for phrases like: ‘My, the weather is nice today, isn’t it?’
The thief sat neatly perched on the edge of the visitor’s chair beside the bed. He had been a permanent fixture there for over two hours, ever since the Major had been brought in. So far as anyone could see, Dorian and Klaus weren’t talking to each other, which made the situation all the more odd. He simply sat beside the bed, and they would occasionally grace each other with a glare of acknowledgement.
Western thief and Eastern agent sized each other up for a moment. Dorian smiled. “Just like old times.”
Kirill was silent for a moment, considering. “My government believes they have fled over the border. This has no longer become a matter of NATO jurisdiction, but… my uncle asks for your cooperation, Major von dem Eberbach.”
“Not likely.” Klaus snorted. “As of the completion of this mission, I am no longer a NATO officer.” He said the words as though he couldn’t decide if they were bitter or sweet.
“Two points, Major. One, is your mission truly complete? And two, your inactive status is exactly why Mischa has asked for you. As a free agent.”
Klaus was too surprised to be angry. “A mercenary? Working for the Russians? Hah! Old age has finally knocked the last of his brains loose.”
He’s going to do it, Dorian knew. He felt a growing elation. And I’m going to go with him.
They had taken away his gun at airport security. If Klaus had been irritable before, he was insufferable now. Every vacationing mama and her gaggle of kids was suddenly a deadly threat needing constant supervision. He would watch them from the corner of his eye as his right hand twitched towards the inner pocket of his suit. They were telltale gestures that he had never allowed himself before, and it was quickly driving Dorian mad.
The plane hummed and an announcement came over the speakers. They were beginning the descent to Moscow. It was easy to pick out the first-time flyers as they scrambled to press their faces to window glass at least twenty minutes before the plane would break out of the clouds. Dorian glanced at his companion and decided to keep any observations to himself. He turned back to his magazine with a silent sigh.
They had left from Bonn without any fanfare, and Dorian suspected that the Alphabets hadn’t been informed of the abrupt personnel change. Surely one of them would have kicked up a fuss? Perhaps not the younger lot, who viewed their major with awe and fear, but surely A or B? Surely…? For the first time, he wondered if they were in line for retirement as well.
“How is Z?”
“Stay away from him!” Klaus snapped from habit. The jab lacked any real heat.
“That doesn’t answer my question, Major. Stop being in such a snit. Don’t you want to meet Mischa with a sunny disposition?”
“I don’t want to meet him at all.”
“Then you shouldn’t have accepted his offer. Stop sulking about your gun.”
A stream of cold air from the circulation vent hit him at the same time as Klaus’ arctic glare, and Dorian wilted under the double blast.
“Shall we remember how many times that gun has saved your worthless life, thief?”
“No thank you!”
If Klaus had been surprised to see Dorian at the Köln Bonn airport, he hadn’t shown it. He had acknowledged the other man with a curt nod before proceeding to ignore him as they sat side by side near their gate. It had almost been a companionable silence.
The silence had continued onto the plane, and as always Dorian was surprised at how easily people could ignore their neighbors in cramped economy seating. For hours. He fidgeted with the complimentary flight magazines, flipping through quickly and bored to tears. Starting a conversation had become less and less daunting as the boredom began to eat at him.
Of course, once he had started it he remembered why he normally wouldn’t. At least, not in such tight quarters. Nowhere to run, really, when you’re in the middle of a passenger jet.
“And stop referring to me in that way. I’m no longer a NATO officer.”
Now that was food for thought. Not call the major “major”? “What on earth am I to call you, then? Mr von dem Eberbach? Does your family have a title?”
Klaus sat stiffly, staring straight ahead. “If we did it would belong to my father.”
Dangerous ground, mentioning Klaus’ father. Even Dorian knew that. Still, this was a rare opening. “So, does he?”
“Eberbach will serve.” It was as plain a hint as Dorian would get to mind his own business. The English earl sat back with a sigh.
Turbines kept up their muted roar and the endless field of clouds continued unbroken below them, denying him any hope of entertainment. He listlessly turned back to the magazines. Trinkets to live your life for you, convoluted looking book-lights, expensive champagne – who actually purchases these things?
Just at that moment, the pinnacle of his ennui, a miracle occurred. Klaus initiated a conversation.
“Gloria, listen up.” Dorian cocked his head, attentive. “I can’t begin to comprehend why you’re here— putting aside all of that crap you hand me all the time. But there’s no back-up team on this one, so I’m going to lay a few ground rules.”
That didn’t sound very promising.
A slim finger was flung up. “One, no red, ostentatious, attention drawing clothes. Two, do NOT go anywhere near a firearm. Three, no questioning my orders. Four, no mobile phones. Five, no perverted behaviors; if you touch me I will shoot you. Six, leave Mischa to me.”
“All right, Darling. Anything else?”
“You took that much too calmly.”
“I forgot my red vest in any case, so you really can’t hurt my feelings by saying how much you hate it. Do I get to make any rules?”
“Well, I have one anyway. You’re not allowed to run about doing any heroics on this one, Ma- Eberbach. The glory of Germany isn’t on the line here, and as you said, we have no one to catch us if you fall.”
Klaus gave a grunt, which could have been anything ranging from assent to contempt. Dorian took it for agreement. He knew he wouldn’t get anything better.
* * *
There was no one to meet them at the airport, which surprised Dorian. He had supposed that the Russians would want to keep an eye on Klaus, at any rate. However, Klaus seemed to know what he was doing, moving with steady purpose through the crowds. Dorian followed doggedly, huffing under the weight of his suitcase. Perhaps the Italian suits had been a tad excessive.
There was an unremarkable black car waiting for them outside the door nearest the Hertz rental kiosk. Neither man questioned how the car had managed to park so close to the terminal; that was just how things happened in their world. Someone in power pulled strings and things became possible. The agent waiting near the front passenger side door wore a familiar suit and pair of sunglasses, but Dorian couldn’t place the face. Not an agent he was familiar with, then. Too young, probably never raced around following the Bear Cub’s fuzzy hat.
The ride to their destination was relatively quick, a half-hour or so drive into one of the more residential sections of Moscow. It wasn’t what Dorian had expected. Klaus sat easily beside him, no tenser than usual and attentive to their surroundings. If he was worried, he showed no sign.
They rolled to a stop outside of a medium-sized house and were led inside by the unsmiling agent. Mischa didn’t stand up to greet them. He stood at a wide picture window, his back to his guests and his eyes on the neighborhood outside. His bald head gleamed slightly under the bright lights of the room.
“Welcome to my home,” he said without turning.
“Hello, Comrade Mischa!” Dorian replied cheerfully.
Mischa turned and raised his eyebrows. “Well, this is an interesting surprise.”
“I told you the thief would come too,” said a new voice.
Mischa’s nephew entered from a different door. Two stocky men standing side by side, though Mischa’s face showed more lines and signs of his hard life. The resemblance was clear and a bit too much for Dorian. His eyes widened slightly, a sign of preemptive action to come, and Klaus’ hand clamped down on his arm.
Mischa smiled, his expression turned taunting. “Have you finally adopted your stray then, Iron Klaus?”
“I don’t care for you tone, Mischa. I’m here, let’s drop the friendly chat.”
“Easily done. Have a seat. Kirill has already told you that we have a rough idea of their position, yes?”
“If by ‘rough idea’ you mean ‘somewhere in Russia’, then yes.”
“Now, Klaus. Naturally he couldn’t— What?”
Klaus’ expression had turned thunderous. “Do not call me by my Christian name.”
Mischa glanced over at Dorian, as if for an interpretation. “You are no longer a NATO officer. You call me by my given name.”
Dorian shrugged elegantly. “I think he would rather we honored his long, illustrious line of ancestors by calling him ‘Eberbach’.”
“Listen, you slimy, back-bending, piece of English—!“
“He’s been a little testy since they took his gun away,” Dorian confided.
Mischa’s smile grew, but he only shook his head. “Well, we’ll have to rectify that. And I think I have a solution to our other problem as well.” He picked a thin sheaf of papers up from his desk and handed them over. “It would suit everyone involved if you had a codename. Fewer chances for awkward problems or international incidents.”
“Cherni,” Klaus read. His voice was dryly amused. “I don’t get an animal?”
“What? What does it mean?” Dorian demanded. He leaned over Klaus’ shoulder to get a peek, but the papers were entirely written in Cyrillic. “I didn’t know you could read Russian.”
“Use your head, thief. I was trained during the height of the Cold War.”
Klaus continued to scan the paperwork, flipping through the pages. “You know quite a bit more than Kirill ever implied. And this is information that NATO would have found very useful two weeks ago. Before we began that operation.”
Mischa shrugged. “Naturally we could not reveal certain things that would run counter to the good of the state.”
Klaus snorted. “Of course. So, they’ve fled not just over one border, but over many. And you want me to do what? Act as some kind of mysterious hit-man from a third-rate action movie?” His words dripped scorn. “I don’t have the authority to chase your renegades across the globe.”
“We’d like them alive. I have every confidence in your abilities, Iron Klaus.”
“Excuse me,” Dorian raised a slim hand. “Would anyone like to fill in for the man who doesn’t speak spy-ese?”
“There, you see, you even have the resources of the world’s premiere art thief at your disposal. How could you fail?”
Klaus frowned. “Very amusing.” He tossed the pages of data back at the Russian agent. “Gloria, we’re collecting some misplaced men for the Russian government. Men the Russians don’t want to admit exist.”
An explanation? Be still my heart.
Klaus stood face-to-face with Mischa. “Resources? Support?”
“You’ll have Kirill. He has the authority to decide what is necessary and when.”
Kirill nodded from the corner where he had withdrawn during the subdued fireworks. “We’ll leave tomorrow morning, if that’s convenient. Get some rest.”
“Do I get a codename?” Dorian asked plaintively as the men filed out of the room.
“You already have one, Eroica.”
* * *
They were not invited to stay at Mischa’s house for their “rest”; the man apparently wasn’t feeling that friendly. To be truthful, Dorian was relieved to leave the cookie-cutter suburban home far behind. It offended his sense of aesthetics. They were shuffled back out into the car, but this time the extraneous agents were gone and Kirill was their driver. He drove in a competent, sedate manner that had Dorian ready to claw out the upholstery.
Klaus silently stared out his window for the entire ride and Dorian could practically see the gears grinding. Whatever had been in those papers must have sparked the other man’s interest, or he would never have agreed, no matter how tacitly, to the endeavor.
They didn’t speak until they had been checked into connecting rooms at a cheap hotel closer to the city. Traffic sped by outside, causing the whole structure to hum slightly. Dorian hid his despair, instead throwing his suitcase onto the narrow bed. He definitely heard it clunk on impact. Klaus knocked crisply on the connecting door.
First pose, then open.
Klaus pointedly ignored the way Dorian was draped over the doorframe. He came in and sat down in the only chair in the room with a sigh. He had his new gun in hand, and he turned it idly as he spoke. “Well, there it is then. This little project of Mischa’s is going to keep me busy for a very long time.”
“’Us’. It’s going to keep ‘us’ busy.”
“Lord Gloria, do you really intend to dodge my footsteps for years? Do you really think it can hold your interest that long?” He spoke carelessly, but Dorian fancied that there was real interest behind the question. He translated it in his head: “Are you really not going to prance off after the first pretty boy or piece of worthless art that crosses our path?”
“Bonham and Jamesie can look after my estates well enough, they’ve been at it behind my back for years.” He plopped down onto the bed and winced when it failed to bounce. “You’ve always been stuck with me, this time it’s just a bit more obvious.”
That got him a sharp look. “Gloria… What you want, I-“
“I don’t want anything, Klaus. I haven’t for years.”
“Good!” Klaus looked mortified to be having this conversation. “Forget whatever perversions are lurking in your empty brain and pay attention!”
Success! Slip number one, Klaus!
Klaus rolled his eyes. “I can’t be certain, but I suspect that our first stop will be somewhere in the northeast. Near Siberia. Where it is very cold.”
“…Empty your suitcase, Gloria.”
“Why, Darling! How scandalous.”
“Oh, for God’s sake! I don’t trust you to pack sensible clothing.”
He winced as his suits were tossed into a corner. Anything that draped, hung or floated quickly followed. His fur-collared coat was carefully studied and grudgingly approved. And then, a phrase that Dorian had never expected to hear from Klaus: “I’m taking you shopping.”
It gave him a shiver of foreboding, and he was right to fear. He was soon loaded down with utilitarian wool jumpers, down-filled vests, and long underwear. At last Klaus pronounced him satisfactorily equipped.
“You are unbelievably cruel,” Dorian complained.
“You’ll thank me when your eye-lashes are glued together with ice,” Klaus replied grimly.
The light that came through the hotel window was dim and touched with rose— sunset. Klaus’ case was neatly packed and set by his door; the man himself sat easily on his bed, triple-checking his new magnum. He didn’t trust an untried weapon. Dorian leaned back against the side of Klaus’ bed and tried not to think of how dirty the carpet under his legs most likely was. His head lolled back.
“Mm. Could be.”
“Kirill will be here early, go and get some sleep.”
“…Nothing, nothing. I’ll go sleep.”
But he didn’t move. Sleepy, warm, and strangely content on that filthy hotel floor.
Siberia was where their first quarry brought them, and it was indeed cold. Two weeks into the chase landed them at an antiquated guesthouse in a tiny town with an unpronounceable name. Dorian had adopted a strategy – whenever the ancient heating system clanked into motion he would stick out a gloved hand, and if the air was warm, he huddled next to the vent. As soon as it switched to a chill blast, he escaped back to curl up on his bed. A nest of blankets moved with him.
Klaus watched his maneuverings with well-buried amusement. The earl was always cat-like in his movements, but rarely was the comparison comical.
“It’s a matter of self-will, Gloria,” he reminded his companion.
A fine-boned, aristocratic nose appeared from the mound of cloth. “Easy for you to say, your blood runs at about this temperature.”
“Hm.” Klaus finished rooting through his small duffle bag. “Did you get that call through to Bonham this afternoon? Any news?”
“Not a whole lot. Our network doesn’t tend to keep tags on terrorists, Eberbach.”
Klaus twitched. Hearing Gloria call him that felt like someone had dumped him into a pond of needles. It lacked any of the … warmth? affection? that tainted everything else Gloria had called him over their long acquaintance. He shrugged it off. “And?”
“Some friends in Morocco may have spotted them. There’s a rumor in Sapporo as well. That’s all.”
“They must have split up. Kushnev has to be alone. Where the hell is Kirill?”
“Or it’s a wild goose chase. Klaus, we’ll know soon enough. You heard that man at the station; he’s only a day ahead of us now. And you know full well Kirill is still in Khostoy.”
Nervous energy, it had him on edge. This wasn’t productive in the least. He lay down and closed his eyes.
“I’ve seen you do that hundreds of times and it still creeps me out,” said the mountain of blankets that was Gloria. “You look like you’re getting ready to be dumped in your coffin.”
Klaus ignored him. The other end of the room ceased to exist.
Mariechen hat ein kleines Schaf….
* * *
It took them the better part of the next morning to close the gap between themselves and Kushev. He had been warned of their arrival somehow, and fled further and further north into the tundra and away from the villages and rivers that were the life-blood of this sparsely populated region. Klaus and the earl had snowmobiles rented from the village, private ones that were more borrowed than rented. It was very difficult to say no to Iron Klaus.
Kushev led them on a convoluted chase, and Klaus had had a worried eye on the gas meter when a sharp exclamation from Gloria jerked his attention up to the sky. A fast-moving storm swept down on them, too fast to retreat out of its reach.
The wind was vicious, throwing snow and ice into his face. Even with the goggles to protect his eyes the wall of white obscured his vision. Gloria was somewhere close behind – although he couldn’t see him he could hear him laughing like a hyena, even above the thrum of the engines and the howling of the storm. He let up on the gas, peering ahead into the blankness.
Kushnev couldn’t be far ahead, because he had seen the black speck of the man in the distance just before the storm closed in on them. Klaus let the snowmobile idle as he looked… and looked. He cursed.
Gloria drew up beside him and leaned over dangerously to close the gap. “We could go both ways,” he shouted, and he was barely audible.
Klaus’ first instinct was to do it, to go blasting in— but not like this. Not with Gloria beside him. “NO! You stay here if he doubles back. Turn off your lights!”
Gloria settled back into his seat and signaled acceptance. His lights went out. Suddenly he was only a ghostly shadow in Klaus’ beam.
Radios! We need bloody radios, Klaus thought. How the hell am I going to find him again with visibility like this?
“If I’m not back in twenty minutes get back into town and wait for me! Got it?”
Gloria waved him on. God, what was the matter with him lately? Had they taken his backbone along with his rank? His heartbeat pounded in his ears and his breath rasped in the thin air. He was alone in a bubble of raucous silence. There! Was that movement off to his right? No, only scrub brush twisting in the wind.
He went on, counting the minutes off in his head. At nine he turned and started back. He was moving blind, all traces of his passing swallowed up. He trusted to his instincts.
Slowly the storm began to subside. He could make out rises and dips of the land in the murky light. Far off in the distance was the tiny dot that was the earl. Klaus had gone off to the right slightly and would have to cut across to meet him. The stubborn bastard shouldn’t even still be there, for the twenty minutes were long over.
He felt a twinge of unease and pulled his magnum, holding it loosely along with the right handle of his snowmobile. What was Gloria doing, remaining on the top of that hill? Couldn’t he tell how vulnerable he was?
Of course he could, he was staying to be a beacon, to guide Klaus back. The fool!
Klaus poured more power into the snowmobile, but it could only go so fast; it hadn’t been built for speed. Something flickered in the corner of his eye. He turned his head and ground his teeth.
Kushnev! Much closer to Gloria, and narrowing the gap. He would get there first, and then what? Gloria must have seen the man, must have seen them both, but he still didn’t move.
"No heroics, damnit, Gloria! You stupid hypocritical pervert!"
There, finally! The earl turned his snowmobile and slipped from view on the far side of the hill. The enemy angled to follow and both were gone from the horizon.
The sound of a gunshot rang out over the empty snowscape. Klaus raged. Then a scream, long, high and drawn out, like a rabbit in a trap. It made his skin crawl.
He rounded the hill and sped forward. The snow had been kicked up and disturbed in a several meter radius and two snowmobiles sat empty. He killed his own engine and listened. There was a dry crackling sound and the gurgling of water. Rotten ice was collapsing in a frozen river nearby. He saw it then— it had been hidden under the snow, but now a dark hole gaped open. There was blood on the ice around it. And there, there was a figure scrabbling for a grip on the edge.
He cocked his gun and set it against the thrashing man’s temple. “Where is he, Kushnev?”
The man rolled wild eyes at him, wheezing. He slipped a few more precious centimeters. As he twisted Klaus saw that his neck and left shoulder had been lacerated, and blood bubbled from the throat wound. The man couldn’t talk.
Klaus put up his gun and grabbed the man firmly, dragging him up and out of the freezing water. “Where is he?”
Kushnev flopped a hand toward the empty hole. “Go-ne.”
All right, lose the extra weight. Coat too? No, need the heat. Commie bastard’s not going anywhere. Not a threat in that condition. Keep the goggles. Got thirty…sixty seconds tops before the cold gets to me. No time.
It was pitch black under the ice and the river had a steady current which could prove fatal. Klaus swung about blindly. He was rapidly losing feeling in his fingers; would he completely miss Gloria in his flailing?
Suddenly he had him, had his thick fur collar in as tight a grip as he could manage, and he aimed for the hole in the ice.
The earl was limp, and his lips were a dangerous blue. Klaus checked for breath, ripped his coat open and pounded on his chest. Pump and pump and clear his throat. Tilt his chin, pinch his nose, and breathe.
There it was, a weak choking. Gloria coughed up the water he had swallowed and his breathing settled into an uneasy wheeze. But it was breath. Klaus found no evidence of a bullet wound. He bundled him up again in his sodden coat before checking on his quarry. The Russian was dead, choked on his own blood.
Mischa isn’t going to like this.
Klaus shrugged and began pulling the dead man’s coat off. He wouldn’t be needing it where he was going, and despite the blood, it was drier than Gloria’s. He double-wrapped the earl and then settled onto his snowmobile with the lanky man propped in front of him.
It was a tight fit and a difficult ride. Klaus noted the landmarks as he drove back into town. Let Kirill come and clean up the mess when he finally caught up with them. He had proven useless so far.
* * *
“You’re certain, my scarecrow friend?” Kirill’s smile was more frightening than reassuring. “This would be a bad time to be mistaken.”
The thin man shrugged, turned his head aside and spit. “’S what I heard. You wanted to know about them, I told ya’.”
“So you did.” Kirill paused. “And ‘Lenko’?”
“Gone. Down to Korea. Maybe farther.”
“What do you need to know about him for? I hear you’ve already got men tailing him.”
Eberbach and the thief. “Humor me.”
“Northeast. Now tell me.”
“Mischa the Cub has a message for you first. You’ve got three days, he says.”
A little color faded from the man’s face. “Tell me!”
“The Anna at 5 o’clock tomorrow.”
“I can’t make that!”
Kirill heaved his bulk in a half-shrug. “Not my problem. I advise you to try, very hard.”
* * *
Klaus ran a warm bath in the old-fashioned standing tub. He was grateful for the functioning hot water heater and sturdy pipes that could withstand the cold. There was no hospital in the village, but a doctor had been sent for. His own teeth were chattering, so he abandoned paranoia for practicality.
“It’s a good thing you’re unconscious, thief,” he warned as he stripped out of his own icy clothes.
He sank in slowly, hissing. The water was only slightly warmer than room temperature, but it burned his icy skin. Gloria he settled in the cradle of his own long legs, leaning the man back against his chest. The earl’s golden curls were plastered and frozen to his skin, and scratched against the side of Klaus’ face, but he wanted the reassurance of that weak but steady exhale against his neck.
“You’re not allowed to die,” he told the other man, “because I am going to kill you when you wake up.”
He lay there until the water cooled, then shifted Gloria to drain and run the water again, hotter this time. With tanned fingers he began to meticulously check the earl for frostbite. Ears, so delicate and now reassuringly pink with health. He ran a finger down that proud nose, across long, fine-boned hands, so well suited to an artists and a thief. All safe.
Water sloshed as he moved around and drew one high-arched foot and then the other out of the water. They were soft, softer than he expected. He spent a moment chafing more warmth back into them, watching the water trail down past the bony ankles.
“Stupid, Gloria. So stupid.”
Squeaking of the stairs announced the arrival of the doctor, and he sat up straight once more.
Kirill had managed the impossible and chartered a private flight from Khabarovosk to Sapporo. Dorian was dying to know how.
"Who did you bribe? Or was it blackmail?"
He frowned. "Why are you so certain I did something underhanded?"
"An international flight to Sapporo?"
"It's not entirely unheard of," Kirill replied.
Klaus looked up briefly from his newspaper. "And not having to go through customs?"
"Just think of it as diplomatic immunity."
"Right." Klaus went back to his paper, a day-old copy of Die Welt which he had managed to unearth from a pile of foreign language papers at Sapporo Station. He had an instinct for that sort of thing. He also seemed to have developed an instinct that helped him to avoid eye-contact with Dorian. Since the thief had regained consciousness, Klaus had yet to acknowledge his existence in word or deed. Dorian wanted to press the issue, but not in a full train car, and not with the Russian sitting right beside him.
The bullet train clipped along at a steady pace, carrying its passengers high on its elevated tracks. Below them rice paddies stretched with small villages tightly packed on the hills around them. Mountains blocked every horizon, and from time to time the black tunnels that had been bored through their stony sprawl opened up and swallowed the train. That which should have been exotic and exciting quickly became monotonous.
This wasn't Dorian's first trip to Japan. He had come before, three or four times, on buying trips -- some had even been legitimate. He had never been this far north, however. The paddies were covered by a white expanse of snow. Here in Hokkaido, cattle roamed free-range in wide fields.
It was exceedingly boring, to tell the truth. He preferred the neon glare of Ginza or the crowds of Shinjuku. Perhaps their newest target would cooperate and continue heading south. It would certainly be easier for a foreigner to go to ground in Tokyo.
It was difficult to be unobtrusive in Japan. Even in a train car filled with suited businessmen, Dorian could feel the stares burning a hole in the back of his head. He made a small show out of adjusting his seat-back, double-checking his concealed knives as he did so.
Klaus turned to a new page with a series of rustles and crackles.
"So how much longer are we stuck on this bloody thing?" Dorian demanded.
Kirill glanced at his watch. "Depends on where our quarry gets off of his train."
From what he had been told as they were bundled onto the train at an unhealthily early hour, the man they were pursuing was on a train which had left two hours before their own. The earl pictured the man sweating in his inaction. After all, he had some very famous and very determined men on his tail.
"I assume this gives me ample time for a nap, then?" Dorian smiled winningly at the Russian, who merely looked annoyed.
"Considering the next stop isn't for three hours, I would say your assumption is correct." Klaus had lowered his paper. He was frowning at Dorian. "I don't like your color. Get some rest."
Dorian could feel his jaw dropping, but couldn't do anything to stop it. Klaus, mothering? "Pardon?"
"Go to sleep, idiot."
He had to smile. "Will you be my pillow?" He pointed to the empty seat beside the German. "I could sit there-" Klaus' blood-pressure rose visibly.
"I will NOT! Stay away, you pervert!"
There were still several long, long hours ahead of them, but Dorian doubted he would be bored. Not with such intriguing live entertainment.
* * *
Six hours later, Kirill stirred and pulled out a small, black phone from inside his coat. Dorian eyed it suspiciously.
"Isn't that a mobile phone?"
Kirill's reply was withering. "No. Do I look like a fool? It's a communication device."
"And just how does that differ from a mobile, then?"
"It wasn't produced by some spying Scandinavian government, for a start," Klaus answered for the Russian. "Now stop sticking your pointy nose into other people's business."
Pointy!? "I'll have you know that this is a fine, patricia-"
Kirill snapped his 'device' closed. "Sham is off. My men are tracking him."
Klaus unfolded a map of northern Japan and spread it over his lap. His finger traced down the train line. "Furukawa? No -- Sendai."
The Russian nodded. "It makes sense, being a fairly large city with both a harbor and an airport."
"By 'fairly large', I suppose you mean 'over ten people'," Dorian commented drearily. The rice fields and villages continued to flash by.
He was ignored. The two men had their heads bowed over the map and were discussing strategies. After a moment he shrugged and leaned back, letting the low murmur of their voices wash over him. At points they spoke English, at others they switched unconsciously to German or Russian -- Dorian was certain he caught a snatch of French at one point as well.
He slipped into half-dreams; first of that terrible rescue in the now-distant Asian desert. He remembered the heat and the fear, the blood in the red-lit museum corridors. He dreamed of a horrible, spreading war, and of a strategy tent occupied by the leaders of tattered countries, all arguing with dark energy. Somewhere, a faceless enemy laughed.
* * *
One of Kirill's men was waiting for them at the station. He was a young Japanese man in casual clothes with soft brown eyes and a nervous disposition. Dorian was smitten immediately. His mouth kicked into gear before his brain: "What a lovely young man!"
A heavy hand clamped down on his shoulder and hauled him slightly off into the crowd and away from Kirill and the spy. Klaus glared down at him. "I know your mind has been liquefied by the weight of all that hair, but try to use it every once and a while, will you?"
"Why, Darling, are you jealous? You're starting to become worse than James."
Instead of Klaus releasing him and backing off as he had intended, the grip tightened. He hissed in pain.
Klaus continued to eye him sternly. "I did not allow a foppish English aristocrat to follow me into Russia. I tolerated the presence of a persistent and... talented art thief. Don't make me regret my decision. Do you understand?"
Dorian's shoulder began to throb with the pain of crushed nerves. He clenched his teeth. "Indelibly."
Klaus released him. "Gut. Come on."
The young man had slipped back into the crowd without a ripple, but obviously he had told Kirill enough to give him direction. He hurried the other two men along as soon as they rejoined him.
"This way," he said tersely, leading the way through the milling press and out of the station. If there was order in the chaos, Dorian couldn't quite see it; he let himself be carried along in the human stream.
Outside, the sky was a perfect, painful blue. They followed some path known only to the Russian, going down first one busy street and then another. A sea of Japanese faces marked their passage, some staring, some patently obvious in their avoidance, and some too involved in their own business to do more than bat an eyelid.
They took an abrupt turn into a narrow, alley-like street, this one filled with criss-crossing electrical lines and dead neon signs. It was deserted, the bars and night spots closed during daylight hours. Here Kirill slowed his pace, leaning back to read the stacked signs which clung to the buildings on either side.
"What are we looking for?" Klaus demanded.
"Can you read Japanese?" Kirill asked in return. He snorted at Klaus' crisp negative. "Then you're no help. We're looking for a bar -- a little bird told me we can find our man there, or at least some of his friends."
As they followed the Russian down the street, Dorian took the opportunity to study him. The man remained a complete mystery, all they knew about him was his relationship to Mischa and all that that implied. What drove him? Mischa had been completely devoted to the communist ideal and the Soviet Republic; Klaus to executing his duty. This young man, despite his effectiveness, had a breath of dissatisfaction about him; he had been influenced by the tumult of events in his lifetime. He might resemble a younger Mischa superficially, but he wore well-fitting suits of a more modern style and his watch was flashier than anything the older generation would wear.
Dorian remembered that moment in the museum when Kirill had looked as ready to shoot Klaus as he had been to shoot the rebel leader. His face grew dark. Just as single-minded as any philistine with a gun, then.
Kirill waved them back and turned into a small doorway. He returned a moment later and his expression was unsatisfied. "He's not here, but he could show up later. I have some other leads...."
Klaus nodded. "We'll stay here."
Kirill hesitated, then continued on as if the idea was his own. "Here's a number to contact me. Plenty of pay phones in the neighborhood." He turned back after his first step. "We want this one alive."
They were left alone in the nearly empty street. Dorian bowed out. "After you."
I hope they speak something recognizable. I need a toilet and a stiff drink.
The bar was open at --Dorian checked the clock hanging behind the counter-- four in the afternoon. For which he was sincerely grateful. They settled into low chairs in a corner facing the door and began their wait. Dorian swiftly pronounced Japanese beer endurable and edamame amusing. Klaus merely watched him as he worried the salted beans out of their pods with his teeth. The lack of sharp commentary was worrisome.
Dorian glared at the German. "What?"
Klaus was unperturbed. "You're still too pale."
"I'm always pale!"
"You are?" Klaus frowned. "Is that stingy flea you call an accountant starving you?"
"Klaus, I'm ecstatic that you're finally taking notice of my lovely complexion, but do you have to sound so much like my mother?"
"Shut up and drink your beer."
That was an invitation to conversation, coming from Klaus. "So do you know what Mischa wants from these men? If they're such an embarrassment, why be so insistent that they live?"
Klaus' green eyes flickered toward the bar staff. Not here. Dorian obligingly switched tracks. "Mind if I go looking for one of those plentiful public phones? Jamesie is probably foaming at the mouth."
"Suit yourself, just don't give him any damn clues. I don't want him showing up."
Always gracious, that was Klaus.
* * *
Two steps out of the door and Dorian knew he had made an unforgivable blunder. A man was fleeing up the street, the sound of his steps magnified by the silence around them. He had taken one look at Dorian emerging from the bar and turned to run: Their target, now warned and about to disappear into the busy city. Klaus would never forgive him.
Dorian began to sprint after the man he knew only as Sham, his long legs giving him an advantage to balance out his age. The gap narrowed between them, but Dorian calculated distances and knew that Sham would reach the corner first.
One hand and then the other slid into his partially unzipped coat. They emerged gripping short, thin knives. He held them low, trying not to let the gleam of steel become too obvious in the midday street.
"Stop!" he shouted. As a plan, shouting lacked finesse, but didn't require much preparation. Sham glanced back over his shoulder and unwittingly slowed. Dorian saw him reach for something in his own coat, a concealed weapon of some kind. He threw one knife; it missed and skittered off into shadow. Sham stumbled, but Dorian was in no shape to press the advantage.
A flash of heat, of sand and blood. He had killed in that place, and had thought that once crossed the line would never confound him again. Yet now he hesitated and fretted that his next throw would also fly wild and this time prove fatal.
Sham tottered wildly and then recovered, using his momentum to lunge for the corner. There was no more time. Dorian cursed and let his final knife fly. It caught his quarry in the thigh and brought him tumbling down. Dorian closed in, jerking back just in time to avoid a wild shot from Sham's small pistol. His nostril's filled with the smell of gunpowder, real or imagined he couldn't tell. He grabbed the shorter man's wrist and twisted, then kicked the dropped gun out of range. It spun away with a clatter.
He leaned down and gripped the hilt of his buried knife, threatening to rip it out. "Stay still."
Sham froze. "You're English. What are you doing working for them?"
Dorian paused, considered, then sank back onto his heels. "Would you believe me if I told you the company was its own reward?"
The rebel laughed. "Communist dogs who won't admit that their master is dead? Traitors?" He moaned in pain and his eyes rolled white momentarily as his laughter jarred the knife.
The sound of a car horn drifted around the corner, reminding Dorian of how exposed they were. He sized-up the other man and disliked his chances of getting him back to the bar.
Keep talking and hope Klaus gets curious, he decided at last.
"So you don't like Russia and you decided terrorism in the new states was the way to go," he hazarded.
The rebel laughed once more-- a short, sharp bark. "They didn't tell you anything, did they?"
"Care to enlighten me?"
There was a thumping sound of rapid footsteps. Sham looked over Dorian's shoulder at whoever was approaching and his face closed down. "The Cub has a --How do you say?-- private agenda. Don't be so blindly trusting, Mr Englishman."
Their eyes met and Dorian hesitated for a fraction of a second. The footsteps drew nearer, and a glance back revealed Kirill bearing down on them. The Russian was slightly breathless.
"Found him! Good work, Eroica."
Dorian mouthed the appropriate acknowledgments, but he was watching Sham's face, and Kirill's. Kirill looked tense, on edge. Sham was completely blank, as if no one was home, though his pain from the knife wound was apparent.
"We shouldn't leave Herr Eberbach wondering what is going on," Kirill said. "I'll take care of this one and meet you back at the station in two hours, by the statue at the main doors."
I'm being patted on the head and sent off to bed. "I'd like my knife back," was all Dorian said. "It's a rare treasure; a remarkably balanced blade." Even as he spoke, Dorian picked up its twin from the street where it lay.
* * *
"What the hell happened to you?"
Dorian slid into his seat across from Klaus with a smile. "I had some exercise. What, is there something on my face?"
Klaus shook his head in a resigned way. "Only dirt streaks and something..." he eyed the filling bar, "... like blood."
Dorian grabbed a napkin and dipped it into Klaus' water glass. "Not mine."
"I take it you ran into our friend. More to the right."
"Thanks. Yes, literally. He stopped to chat. He seemed to know a lot about Russian animals."
Klaus' mouth tightened. "Sounds interesting."
"Oh, it was. You learn something new everyday."
"Give me that thing, you're just smearing it around." Klaus snatched the napkin away and leaned forward. Dorian covered up the hitch in his breath as those icy eyes scanned his face from centimeters away. The napkin was applied with impersonal and practical force.
Klaus' voice was very low, little more than a sigh. "We're leaving. Don't like the tone of this place."
Dorian blinked an acknowledgment, and Klaus leaned back again. "There. Done. I've paid up, let's go."
The bar had indeed filled up in the after-dinner hour. Most of the customers seemed to be foreign, men in business suits who had long ago marked this place as their own. A babble of languages filled the room, which made it strange that Dorian and Klaus were the center of attention. Oh, not that anyone was doing anything so obvious as staring, but Dorian could feel the hostility prickling down his spine. This was the bar Sham had been trying to reach. Doubtless he had contacts here.
They stood and the sensation intensified. Klaus shifted slightly and Dorian relaxed, letting his hands drop from his hidden weapons. It wasn't until they were at the door that he realized that Klaus' left hand was hovering at the small of his back, urging him on. It was a thoughtless, instinctual kind of gesture, and it made Dorian's eyes gleam.
The earl's smug expression had been fixed in its place since Sendai, but Klaus refused to ask and give him satisfaction. Doubtless he was still congratulating himself over his 'capture' and 'interrogation' of the Russian rebel.
Kirill was now a second shadow, and hadn't left them a moment alone since they rejoined him in Sendai Station. Not necessarily suspicious behavior; there hadn't been a reason to separate, and little opportunity to on the subsequent flight. Yet, in light of Gloria's veiled warnings, Klaus found himself hyper-aware of the Russian agent. What did that look mean? Why was he now always nearly blocking Klaus' gun-arm?
It was simple paranoia, which could as easily kill a man as save his life. Klaus kept his reactions to a minimum.
If he worried about Gloria giving something away, he soon knew better. The master thief was also a master of dissembling. His light chatter and self-absorbed commentary were as urbane as ever. Or, perhaps he really was a complete airhead.
Klaus didn't buy into that theory anymore, not after all these years. Which left him with the uncomfortable feeling that he couldn't read the earl as well as he had always believed. If the outrageous behavior was only a mask and had absolutely no bearing on Gloria's true thoughts... What was going on behind those sly blue eyes?
No, he couldn't believe that either. The earl's flamboyant half was just as solid as his serious half, and Klaus relied on both, loath though he was to admit it. Because otherwise, he was partnered with two complete strangers.
* * *
From Sendai to Melbourne by jet-- a long, exhausting flight. Then all three bundled onto a tiny Cessna plane which dropped them at a private landing field in a wide expanse of nothing. It was beautiful land, vast and austere scrub desert.
Gloria glanced around the empty runway and released a long sigh. Apparently he wasn't in the mood to appreciate nature. "Klaus."
There it was again, that damn thief flagrantly ignoring his wishes. Sneaking in his Christian name as if he wouldn't notice the difference. He ought to make an issue out of it; he ought to rip into the curly-haired menace and reduce him to a cowed and mewling penitent. Yet somehow he couldn't be bothered to dredge up the energy, even though he knew he was just encouraging the earl by ignoring him.
"What?" he snapped. From the corner of his eye he saw Kirill talking to a deeply tanned Aussie, but he knew the Russian still had half an ear tuned to them.
"Oh, I'm very sorry to hear that, Gloria. Here, let me lay my coat out on the ground for you to rest upon. You idiot! Do I look like one of your stupid servants? Do I look like I care?"
Gloria gave him a disapproving frown. "I was going to suggest that we sit in the shade." The shade, several meters away, where they would be able to talk freely. "But never mind." His face was tight with anger. "I'll just go collapse alone, like the fainting lily I am, shall I?"
He walked away with long, loping strides, the anger mostly disguised. Klaus shook his head, disgusted with himself. He was letting things clog his brain and they were distracting him when he could least afford it.
To his right, Kirill and the Australian were shaking hands, sign that an agreement had been reached. Kirill waved him over to join them. This was Klaus' first chance to observe the pilot who had flown them from Melbourne, and what struck him the most was that this was a man with secrets to hide. Klaus had refined a kind of sixth sense where liars and all their ilk were concerned. It was useful to know who might be turning around to stab him in the back. He didn't get any of those warning tingles from this one, but he did notice a reticence that belied his easy smile and friendly hand shake.
"This is Jack," Kirill said, "an old friend of the family." Was that a warning in the Russian's eyes? "He will be calling for transportation for himself and the earl."
Klaus frowned. "Just for them? And for the two of us?"
Kirill pointed towards the hulk of a jeep, which was neatly concealed by a dip of hill and tricks of the shadows. It was covered with a permanent coat of grime, which seemed to be all that was holding it together. The back end had been dismantled and equipment racks installed. An odd collection of tools and ropes was tangled into the racks, as well as several riffle-shaped wads of cloth. "We'll go on ahead. You know we can't lose any time on Lenko." His pale gray eyes seemed leached of color in the bright sunshine. "He's second to the monkey-leader."
"You could fit one more in the front," Klaus said.
Kirill looked surprised. "You'd leave him out here all alone?"
They both looked over at the earl, who had pointedly lain down in his patch of scraggly shade and closed his eyes. Klaus felt a pang of conscience and ruthlessly suppressed it. "I mean leave the Aussie. He obviously knows his way around."
The Russian shook his head. "No deal. Jack isn't so trusting."
"You mean the earl is... insurance."
The jeep engine coughed to life, and Gloria sat up with a start. He climbed to his feet, beating dust from his slacks as he did so, and made his way over.
"What's going on?"
This man trusted him with his life, and he was about to leave him behind with some third-rate kangaroo crook. There, that was his conscience again, as regular as indigestion. It hadn't been happy with him lately. He opened his mouth to reply, but Gloria threw up a hand, his expression alert.
"SH! There, can you hear that?"
Jack cut the engine, and all four of them stood still, listening. The earl had good ears, it was several more seconds before Klaus discerned the sound. It was the instantly recognizable noise of a low-flying plane. Now they could even see it approaching, a dark speck in the distance.
Gloria raised an eyebrow. "Expecting company?"
Kirill bit out a rude word in Russian, and they all sprang into action. Jack ran for his Cessna: "She's a sitting duck on the ground!"
Kirill's habitual frown deepened and Klaus knew he was also worried about how much fuel the tiny plane could possibly have left. Meanwhile, Dorian became the de facto driver, which left the two gunmen free to hang out of the jeep and shoot.
"Where am I going?" The earl demanded, spitting curls out of his mouth as they whipped in the generated wind.
"Anywhere!" Klaus shouted, at the same time that Kirill said, "East!"
"Anywhere east it is," Dorian muttered. His knuckles were white from his death-grip on the bucking wheel. Klaus decided he had never looked better, until a teeth-rattling bump nearly caused him to bite his tongue clear off. He spit blood.
"Can't you drive?"
"I'm so sorry! I seem to be missing a road!"
The strange plane roared by on its first pass, and Klaus felt his skin prickle. Surveillance that time, a small mercy. It was slightly larger than Jack's tiny four-seater, perhaps a light cargo plane.
"I counted two inside," Kirill said from his center position, "and something rigged to the base."
Klaus agreed. "A weapon, maybe automatic."
The jeep skidded when their driver jerked the wheel. "WHAT!?"
"You watch where you're going," Kirill told him. "Leave the plane to us."
There was a buzzing, growling sound as Jack's plane kicked into life. Klaus had never seen anyone foolish enough to try to get their plane off the ground with such a short run to gather speed, but the crazy Aussie managed it. Jack banked and sped off south, but the second plane didn't follow him. It was turning for a second pass over the jeep.
Are these the ones we're looking for? Klaus wondered. Or someone with a grudge against Kirill? Klaus had never been to Australia, he doubted that they were a ghost from his own past, and the earl never seemed to have any enemies. He wrote off a double-cross. One thing Mischa would never do was sacrifice his family.
There was an eerie and very familiar rat-a-tat-tat as the plane flew over them once more. Sand spit up where the bullets hit, a thrashing line that missed them by mere meters.
Dorian's voice was incredulous. "Was that a machine gun? Who the hell in Australia has a plane with a machine gun?"
The other men ignored him. "They're coming back for another shot," Klaus warned. "Aim for the fuel tank?"
"Agreed. Or the pilot."
The plane's shadow swept over them like their very own miniature storm cloud. By now Klaus could feel the hum of the propeller in his gut. He watched it come on, inevitable and ponderously slow to his heightened senses. Again the sand went flying behind them, followed by an ominous series of pings as the line of bullets worked its way up the body of the jeep. He abandoned his gun for a two-handed grip on one of the frame bars, and swung a kick across Kirill's lap and into Gloria's side. Gloria went flying from the jeep with a surprised cry seconds before bullets tore up the driver's seat.
"Go!" Kirill shouted, and they both jumped.
Bullets hit the jeep engine, and it hiccupped once before exploding in a hot, orange ball of flame. In the distance, the whine of the plane changed pitch. It dipped erratically once, twice, before plummeting out of sight.
"I hit it," Kirill said with grim certainty.
Dorian staggered over to them, one hand pressed to sore ribs. He glanced at the merrily burning jeep with its thick column of black smoke, then at the dust-smeared spies. There was something in his face that ran a curl of... anticipation along Klaus' spine. "Thank you, gentlemen. Excellent show," the earl murmured. He held out a hand to help Klaus up, and the German took it without hesitation.
* * *
"What is going on?" Klaus demanded. He waved a singed manila envelope--rescued from the wrecked jeep--in Kirill's face. "You didn't tell me they had the connections to pull off a stunt like that in a first-world country. Who's funding these jokers? Who's paying the bribes?"
"You went into this knowing there were levels of information you wouldn't have access to."
"Ha! Is that the official line that Mischa told you to feed me when things got hot?"
"If you're scared, Herr Eberbach..."
"You know damn well that fear has nothing to do with this! Give me the information I need, or our agreement is over. Don't try to stonewall me."
"I'm sorry you feel that way." Kirill didn't look regretful.
Gloria spoke up at last. "Is this where you tell us that we already know too much? How cliché."
For the first time since they had met him, Kirill looked uncomfortable. "Russia doesn't turn on its allies."
Not anymore. Not officially. "So Lenko is dead, perhaps. He was your precious link." It was a bad setback. They would have to work their way up a different human chain now. Klaus sorted through the facts in his head: Bangkok seemed the most likely starting point. "Now what?"
"I radio and get some investigations started. We'll check the wreck while we're waiting for the plane to come back."
"Assuming your shady pilot decides to return."
Gloria was watching them, his head turning one way and then the other as if he was watching a ping-pong match. Judging by his expression, he couldn't tell whether to be amused or horrified. His bony, patrician nose was turning pink from the sun. Without knowing why, Klaus' frustration level shot up several notches.
"What are you looking at?"
"Do something useful, or go sit in the shade!"
That earned him a disturbingly bright smile, as if there had been some hidden meaning in his words that the earl had deciphered. "I would, darling, but there isn't any in this particular patch of desert." He waved at the wreck of the jeep where it sat cooling into soot and scorched metal. "As lovely as the attractions were, I think it's time to move along. Shall we?"
The downed plane had glided quite far as it crashed, and Klaus could feel the sweat soaking into his shirt and sliding in slick, itching trails down the small of his back. Body temperature was a matter of discipline, but age appeared to be eroding his control. He didn't have many more desert hikes left in him.
Infuriatingly, Gloria was having no problems with the heat. He had cannibalized part of his outfit into a sunshade for his face and headed out at a steady pace, leaving Klaus and Kirill to follow, still arguing about need-to-know information.
The plane was mostly in one piece, and though the fire from the gasoline tank was still burning, it hadn't spread to the rest of the craft. Klaus smashed the front window with his gun, then climbed through. He emerged a moment later coughing and scowling.
"Two men, both dead, and neither one is Lenko. Though I did see a familiar face from my little side-trip last year, so they're definitely friends."
Kirill nodded, but moved toward the shattered window. Klaus caught his arm. "You don't trust me?"
The Russian shrugged him off. "I might be able to ID them."
Dorian watched him shuffle back into the cargo bay. He shifted closer to Klaus. "Something isn't right. I'm all for brotherly-love and peace, Klaus, you know me. So long as it doesn't get too boring. But this thing has been strange from the very beginning."
Klaus kept his eyes on the plane. "I know Mischa. We may not like each other, but he's not the type to double-cross."
"Even if it's for Mother Russia?"
"Or he may not be the one calling the shots," Dorian warned. "Kirill says they won't kill us for what we know. Do we dare be that trusting?"
Which was what Klaus had been asking himself from the very beginning. There was one cast-iron rule that he always followed, and that was to never work with someone whose motives he didn't understand. He hadn't understood the Russians for twenty years; they were too splintered, too divided in their loyalties after the fall of their god, Communism.
"I don't think forcing his hand would be a good idea," he had time to reply before Kirill reappeared.
* * *
Every airport has a distinct feel, something that tells you that you are here instead of there. Nevertheless, they also have a functional sameness that blends one long row of departure gates into another. Children cry and carts buzz to and fro, while overhead the overlords' voices boom and squeak, directing the tides of humanity. There's a distinct odor of sweat and impatience as travelers drag their over-sized carry-on luggage towards their eventual destinations.
Klaus suspected the impatience was catching. He was certainly irritable enough. Bangkok, he thought. It was becoming a mantra. If Lenko was a dead end, there was one more lead. He was quite prepared to shove his way straight through anyone slow or stupid enough to stand between himself and the ticket counter.
Kirill was using the payphone to confer with his superiors about their near-disaster in the outback, which left Klaus to steam. Dorian was leaning against a patch of free wall, watching the flow of the crowd. He must have been more tired than he let on, because he didn't do more than wink when he caught the eye of a young man turned out nicely in an expensive suit. Klaus realized he was staring at the earl, but he was too bad-tempered to care. He was out of patience with everything today, including the nagging voice of his conscience. Watching the earl wasn't anything personal; Gloria put on a show, and he expected an audience.
"Sorry to interrupt." There was a faint thread of contempt in Kirill's voice. The constant traveling must be wearing on him as well if he was letting his stony mask slip. "There's been a change of plans, so you'd better call him over."
"Let's make one thing clear, Ruskie. The earl is not for your amusement. Wipe that smirk off you face. Or hasn't Mischa told you about all the times Gloria ruined his Commie plans?"
Kirill stared at him for a moment before erupting into laughter. "Uncle must have been blind," he said when he had caught his breath. "He said you barely tolerated Eroica."
"I hear my name." Dorian had drifted over when he heard the laughter. "I hope you gentlemen aren't saying anything particularly unpleasant."
Klaus waved it away. There were some conversations he would rather avoid. "You were saying? a change of plans?"
There was still a smug smile tilted his way. Perhaps he should kill him now and save himself the inevitable mocking from the Cub. Kirill said, "Yes, I'm going on to Bangkok alone. I'll contact you when that's taken care of."
"Alone?" So, we're being sent away? It can't be that simple. "Why?" he demanded.
"It'll be easier for me to work alone-- I know Bangkok well."
I'm sure you do. Klaus adopted his patented I'm-surrounded-by-idiots expression. "I see. And what exactly is the point of hiring me if you're going to do every bloody thing by yourself?"
Kirill's blank mask had returned, along with his selective hearing. "It'll be easiest for us to contact you if you return to Germany."
"Oh, no, Kirill," Gloria protested. "I couldn't possibly go to Germany at this time of the year. Horrible weather."
"I'm sure Herr Eberbach can pass along any messages." An impossibly garbled announcement blasted from the speakers nearest them, and Kirill checked his watch. "Well then, I must leave to catch my flight. Your tickets are taken care of, departing in an hour for Munich. Where you go from there is your own business."
There was the smirk again, and Dorian noticed it this time. His eyebrows rose in polite confusion and he glanced at Klaus. Klaus shook his head. Best to drop it, for now. But someday he would take great pleasure in wiping the ground with the bastard and his lewd assumptions.
So he was returning to Germany. Alone and without occupation in Schloss Eberbach, a fate he had managed to avoid since his retirement. Wundervoll.
The truth was, of course, that Dorian was perfectly happy to return home by way of Germany. More time with Klaus was always welcome, even if he had been shuffled aside and consequently was in a foul mood.
"It's certainly been exciting this round, hasn't it?" Dorian ventured as they waited for the plane to touch-down in Munich.
"Should I start a conversation about the weather then?"
That earned him an exasperated glance. "Since when have you ever known me to talk simply for the sake of filling a room with hot air? Stop trying to bait me."
"And what would you do if I wasn't here to draw you into scintillating conversation?"
"Be more productive?"
Dorian raised an eyebrow pointedly.
Klaus tried again. "Have time to nap?"
The other eyebrow went up. Klaus looked as if he would continue, but suddenly stopped. He scowled. "Gloria."
"Come with me."
There was a short silence, as Dorian considered. "Come with you?" he repeated cautiously.
Although he had been to Schloss Eberbach often over the years, Dorian had never been invited there.
Klaus rolled his eyes before ducking back behind a newspaper produced from nowhere. "Just for a few days. Until I'm certain that the Old Man hasn't set up residence. I'm sure your presence would get rid of him."
"Thank you," Dorian replied dryly. "How can I refuse such a gracious offer?"
* * *
As they walked through Munich airport, Dorian felt a strange shiver work its way down his spine. Goose stepped on my grave. “Klaus…”
Dorian lowered his voice to match Klaus’. “Was it a trap, then?”
“Feels like one, doesn’t it?”
He looked coquettishly out from beneath his long lashes and checked all the shadows, what few there were in the brightly lit terminal. “Yes… and no. There’s something…”
They continued, just two more passengers swept along in the crowd.
“Oh! Skywalk! That’s new. Let’s try it.”
“Absolutely not,” Klaus muttered, looking like an embarrassed mother with an over-exuberant child. “Besides, it costs two euros.”
“We’ve been spending too much time in airports,” Dorian said. “This is starting to feel like home.”
“My home has the weight of a glorious German heritage behind it, but I agree—English architecture and airports do have certain similarities.”
Klaus was in full sardonic mode. “Of course. A place for large herds of people and barnyard animals.”
“Says the man who measures the value of priceless art with ballistics.” His voice was tart, but he was smiling. “I don’t think we’ve had this argument in ages. Feels—”
Dorian found himself grabbing for purchase on the smooth airport wall, stubbing his fingers on an advert-frame and gasping for breath as he recovered from the impact. There was a pockmark in the wall, not half a meter from the end of his nose, and he could recognize a bullet mark when he saw one. Klaus was a heavy presence against his back, covering him from any further fire.
You missed your calling, darling. You would have made a sexy bodyguard.
Then Klaus moved, pulling him along with impersonal briskness. There was no sign of the sniper, and barely a ripple of reaction in the passing crowd. Silencer. What the hell is going on? The Russians? The rebels? Someone with a grudge? The feeling of being observed, being picked apart by cold, purposeful eyes, had been with him from the minute they stepped off the plane, but vague instinct was no help when you were being shot at.
“Me? You?” he managed to gasp out as they walked along briskly, attempting to radiate normality to the people around them.
“The target?” Dorian was pettily pleased to hear Klaus trying to catch his breath as well. “Not sure. Keep moving.”
No, Klaus, I thought I’d stop and have a tea party.
Klaus picked up his pace, which forced Dorian to match it until he was nearly running. Apparently something was spooking him enough to take chances. Had he picked the shooter out of the crowd?
There were children around them—families, businessmen and women, vacationing honeymooners.
“Klaus, the people.”
Klaus’ jaw was clenched. “I know.”
A small alcove abruptly opened to their right, complete with unmistakable color-coded representations of a man and a woman. Dorian jerked his shirt sleeve out of Klaus’ grip and ducked through. Klaus cursed and followed him.
“You damned idiot! This is a dead end.”
Dorian looked around the windowless restroom. Ceramic tiles and faux-marble glittered back at him. “So it would seem.”
“And now he’ll be waiting to pick us off as we come out. God damn it, Gloria!”
“Someone was going to get shot!”
“Yes! Us! Didn’t you notice that the only time they fired was when there was a clear shot?”
Dorian stared at him. “You were keeping us in the crowds on purpose. That’s a terrible chance to take.”
Klaus ran a frazzled hand through his hair before rooting around in his jacket pockets for his cigarettes. “Sometimes you have to take chances. The hell, where’s my lighter?”
“In your inner pocket.” Dorian continued to study him. “You’ll set off the alarms.”
“Exactly.” He lit his cigarette with a practiced flick.
“And when security searches you and finds the gun in your pocket, wrapped so sensors won’t pick it up?”
Klaus choked on the inhale and continued coughing as he stomped the cigarette out. “Damnit.”
He definitely swore more when he was under stress.
“I don’t like your kind of chances,” Dorian said at last, “but I understand. I’ll go first.”
“The hell you will.”
Dorian dropped his voice into a low purr. “I’m more flexible than you, Klaus. I’ll get through and distract him while you come out.”
“The hell you will,” Klaus repeated. “That’s the plan of a complete idiot, which I would expect from you. We’ll do this my way.”
Dorian merely smiled at him. “Race you!”
Klaus caught him before he took three steps, grapping the back of his shirt and spinning him around, but Dorian recovered quickly and dodged his steps. Dorian was scared, and when he was scared he tended to turn things into a game.
White and gray tiles, harsh fluorescent lighting, streaks of motion across a dozen mirrors—his laughter echoed in the narrow passage as he ducked around Klaus and out the door. He paused, half turned to look over his shoulder. “Too sl—”
That’s an expression I’ve never seen on Klaus’ face before….
* * *
There was white. All white. White world, white sun, white shadows. White noise.
Memory of some nameless street in Cairo. Arguing with Jamesie while the hot African sun wore at his patience. Wondering how his life had ended up there.
It’s hot. It’s so damn hot.
Switch. A monochrome in green, the Rhineland in late spring. Seeing a quaint village of in the distance, but no motivation to leave the perfect panorama. He’s not one to seek out solitude, but when he stumbles upon it he’s reluctant to give it up.
Klaus, if you were here…
Switch. It’s the reek of wealth that’s always the first to hit him—new clothes, old furniture—the smell of money. Hard for even a crowd of several hundred to overpower that, no matter what ungodly concoctions of expensive perfume they wear. Leaning unobtrusively against oaken paneling and stifling in the heat. Keeping up appearances, because if his mother catches him slumped against the wall she’s going to scold him again.
I can’t do anything right lately.
Switch. He’s eighteen again, and all he’s hearing is the wind howling around him. Mikey’s shouts are being swallowed by the sound, and the boat creaks alarmingly as it tilts. He isn’t worrying at first, because he knows he’s too young to die. But not everyone is invincible.
Switch. Spices tingling on his tongue—that blend peculiar to New Orleans, because where else would history dump such a mish-mash of cultures? He’ll always remember the flavor of Cajun cooking, long after the rest of it has faded from his memory. And later the taste of clean skin and sweat. That was a good holiday.
And it never lasts.
* * *
He woke up in a dim room and the dull, uniform furniture informed him that it’s a hotel, and a cheap one at that. His throat was dry as sandpaper, and though he wanted to cough he didn’t trust himself to do so. His left arm wouldn’t move, and he had a momentary panic of being strapped down.
But it was only Klaus.
Dorian tried to tug his wrist free from Klaus’ death grip, but he only succeeded in waking the sleeping lion, whose green eyes seemed to collect all the light in the room.
“Awake at last?” His voice was sleep-fuzzed, although his expression was sharp enough.
Dorian made another brief struggle to sit up, but Klaus stopped him. “Moving is probably going to hurt.”
“Yes. You’ve got a large hole in your shoulder.” He paused, then added in a much more sympathetic voice, “It’s a damn good thing you twisted when you did, or it would have gone straight through your heart.”
“As it stands,” Klaus continued, “you’ve just managed to get us both wounded instead of dying in a bloody mess in the center of the Munich airport.”
“Both?” In one of the most belated discoveries of his life, Dorian finally realized that Klaus was shirtless. The shirt itself had been destroyed, used to make a clumsy bandage around his left bicep. He frowned, and felt a sinking suspicion. “Why aren’t we in a hospital?”
“Too easy of a target. Not without backup.” Klaus tapped something on the bedside table. “I told you to leave this damn thing behind this time… but I’m glad you didn’t.”
Reality was starting to ripple again in ways that made his stomach rebel. He closed his eyes and swallowed. “You called Bonham?”
“Yes. Sleep, you idiot.”
“But…” I want to stay and admire the view!
* * *
He spent most of that night and the next morning unconscious, and woke up irritable. He couldn’t hold onto the bad mood, however, when he saw the tableau spread out before him. Klaus had slumped over in his chair, and was twisted over the bed with his head nestled against Dorian’s hip. The whole of Klaus’ back was spread out before him, if he lifted a hand he could trace the curved line of his spine. Klaus’ good arm had reclaimed its almost painful hold on Dorian’s wrist, but the Englishman could only smile.
“I’m not going to run away,” he whispered.
The room was hot and sticky in a late summer heat wave, with only a weak breeze to provide relief. Klaus’ thick, dark hair added another layer of heat to the blankets trapping Dorian, but he resisted shifting—both to keep from waking Klaus and to avoid straining his wound.
He couldn’t stop the flinch when the totally unexpected voice floated up from Klaus’ motionless form. “I know that. Idiot.”
He’s awake? And lying down near me? Voluntarily? “Perhaps I really did die and this is Heaven.”
Klaus still refused to move, and all that Dorian could see was the back of his head. “Shut up.”
He got no sleep last night; he was taking care of me, Dorian reminded himself. But that doesn’t explain why he’s holding my arm.
There were things that weren’t spoken of anymore, things that had become too serious to joke about. Things that Dorian suspected, and some that he was certain of. He always ran into barriers around his stubborn Klaus. But many of those unspoken, unacknowledged barriers seemed to be fading away lately. Perhaps they always had been, maybe time was the one trick he’d never thought of.
“You talked too much last night,” the back of Klaus’ head told him. “Even when you’re unconscious you can’t keep your mouth shut.”
That certainly gave him a bad foreboding. “Really? Did I sing ballads? Spout poetry?”
“Nothing that coherent.”
Klaus’ shoulders rose and dropped in a long sigh, and then he sat up. He was smiling, slight but there, and not the toothy wolf smile that he used before biting someone’s head off. It twitched. “You should see your expression.”
“Keep that up and you’re going to get laugh lines to go with your crows feet,” Dorian said, at a loss.
“Are you a pod person?”
Klaus’ usual annoyed expression dropped into place, and his grip on Dorian’s wrist tightened. “An idiot. Whenever I forget, you’ll be certain to open your mouth and remind me.”
Dorian eyed his wrist and wondered if Klaus might accidentally break it if he said anything else that didn’t meet with his approval. “Ah…Ma-Klaus, not all of us are made of iron.” He tried to twist free.
In answer Klaus’ fingers loosened enough for Dorian to pull his hand through and free. But as he did so their fingers entwined, and Klaus’ other hand cupped them both. Startled, Dorian looked up. Klaus was staring at him as if considering the best way to take him apart, and it caused a cold shiver all up and down his spine.
When Klaus spoke at last, his voice was introspective, talking to himself, perhaps, or Dorian, or no one at all. “I must be going through that disgusting period when a man recognizes his own mortality. I’ve been closer to the edge before. Hell, so have you. But suddenly I knew that I might actually be free of your irritating presence…I wasn’t as happy as I’d thought I’d be.”
A sharp rap on the door interrupted and sent a startled Klaus to his feet. “M’lord?”
“It’s Bonham. Klaus…”
He opened the door, and reality poured back into that little room.
Klaus was tired. He suspected it was an emotional drain, rather than a physical one, but his muscles were protesting the night spent in a chair in a drafty hotel room.
Six hours – six hours watching Gloria breathe, watching the sweat gather and slide down into his golden curls as his body fought. He’d gambled a hell of a lot on the earl’s strength of character, had even tossed out a few prayers to a god he’d long ago lost faith in, because Gloria would never give up without a fight.
It was quiet now, now that Bonham and the others had carted off a protesting Gloria. He was weak as a kitten at the moment, so it hadn’t been hard. Some of the cruder curses were still ringing in Klaus’ ears, and he made a mental note to file them for the future. He’d never thought of such an imaginative use for a rubber duck before.
He pulled out his gun from its shoulder holster and checked it methodically. There was no room for mistakes now, and he’d given Gloria’s men enough of a lead. He didn’t want them getting too far ahead.
He imagined he could hear his bones creak in the stillness when he stood, and cursed himself. Nerves. Everyone had nerves, but he didn’t have to go like a lamb to the slaughter.
It was raining —as it should be— when he made his way to the front door. Fat rain drops that pelted the glass and slid down in complicated, snaking patterns. Klaus breathed out slowly, and then shoved his way out into the elements. He slammed the door with more force than was necessary and glared at anyone in the hotel courtyard who turned to look.
Dour, angry-looking middle-aged man coming through; get out of my goddamned way.
It was cold.
He hailed a cab and gave the driver instructions— just another businessman headed for the airport. His watch read 19:20. They were late. He worked very hard to not grind his teeth, and instead slipped a hand into his coat pocket. Like magic, the phone went off just as he touched it. He flipped it open.
“Hello, sir,” the voice on the other end of the line said, and Klaus relaxed slightly.
“Bonham, good man. You’re there?”
“Yes. …Sir, he’s not very happy wi-”
“What a shame. Keep him in the crowd. Get him on that plane.” He paused. “Keep him safe.”
“And don’t sound so damn shocked!”
Klaus hung up.
* * *
Gloria had told him once that there was an art to what he did. Klaus had expected some drivel about grey and tanks, or red and blood, as he used to do when they had first met, but Gloria had instead gone quiet for a moment before finishing. “You plan every move, carefully choreographed. You wait, you feel out the situation or your opponent. Or,” he grinned, “you attack the canvas, guns blazing, in a fit of temper.”
As time went on he tended to think more and shoot less, but that didn’t mean he disapproved of the method. It was damned effective, most of the time.
He stood on the wet pavement under the glare of the lights and considered the doors of the airport. There was an irritated cough from somewhere behind him, unrest as he held other travelers out in the rain, but he stayed blocking the entrance for a moment more. His skin prickled, and he could feel the cross-hairs of the unknown assassin.
Only one left, he was fairly certain. One desperate bastard with either a wrongheaded idea for revenge, or…
He moved, leaving the storm outside.
* * *
Mischa hated Thursdays. He had a long history of unfortunate events happening on Thursdays, and so always heaved a sigh of relief as he re-locked the door behind himself and hung up his hat.
It was late, and his wife and daughter were already asleep. The light in the living room had been left on for him, as usual. He set down his briefcase on the kitchen table, then paused. The low hum of canned conversation came from the next room, and he could see the flicker of the TV set.
No response from the quiet house, and he clicked his tongue. Someone had forgotten to turn the TV off.
As Mischa bent to pick the remote up from the arm of the couch a cold, hard object settled just behind his right ear. He froze.
“I wonder if that was your Ruskie idea of a joke, Mischa?”
The soft click of a safety being released was unusually loud in the stillness. Mischa could feel his muscles start to twitch in protest of his half-bent position, but he held still.
“My men lost tabs on you in Australia,” Mischa managed. “What happened in Bangkok?”
It was Klaus’ turn to pause. “Bangkok?” His voice was carefully expressionless.
That was certainly a warning. Mischa chose to press on, despite the gun muzzle pressed to his skull. “Yes, damnit, Bangkok! Where is Kirill? I’ve been expecting word from him for five days!”
There was another pause, and then Klaus stepped back. Wary, Mischa stood slowly and turned to face him. It was a shock.
The Iron Major looked exhausted— it was drawn in every line of his face. He also looked like a man trying to hold onto his anger… and failing. “You were never that good a liar,” Klaus said. He re-holstered his gun.
“First, drinks. Then we sit down.”
Still shocked by his uncharacteristic appearance and behavior, Mischa complied. Glass in hand, he stared across his normal, everyday coffee table at the other man. “And so?” he prompted.
Klaus took a long swallow, grimaced, and took another. “Drink your vodka, Mischa the Cub.” He set his glass down and rubbed at his temples. “Kirill is dead. He was working for Shenko.
‘I’m not certain if he was from the beginning, or if it happened during one of the many times we were split in our hunt, but at some point Shenko offered him something he couldn’t resist. When he couldn’t put it off any longer he made his move. … He sent Gloria and me home.”
Mischa stared at his glass. “You never went to Bangkok?”
Klaus laughed bitterly, and then slid a file across to the Russian. It stopped halfway across the table, caught in a wet circle left by one of their glasses. “I’ve just come from there. I picked you up some souvenirs.”
Mischa flipped through the stack of papers. At last he looked up and met Klaus’ eyes. “Proof?”
Klaus nodded. “Proof. For you, and not your government. He’s your nephew. … And this.” Another folder changed hands. “From Shenko’s office; I thought you might find them useful.”
Mischa sighed and refilled both of their glasses. “How did he die?”
Klaus knew he didn’t mean Shenko. “He followed us to Munich and put a bullet in the earl.”
Mischa closed his eyes. “I see.”
* * *
When the phone rang, James was the closest. Despite Bonham’s desperate dive, it was James who picked it up. “Hello?” His childish features drew together in a scowl. “You! How dare you call here you- you- you tank!”
Bonham managed to wrestle the phone free, but it took a couple of men to drag the squealing James out of the room. “Ma- Sir! You’re all right then?”
Klaus snorted on the other end of the line. “Deaf now, perhaps, but alive.”
“He’ll be very relieved to hear that.”
“Don’t tell him I called,” Klaus interrupted. “I just wanted to know how he was doing.”
Safely unseen, Bonham frowned at the receiver. “He’s upset. We hadn’t heard anything about yo-”
“How’s his wound?” Klaus clarified, enunciating each word carefully.
“Well, fine, I suppose. But-”
The connection clicked, and the dial tone began to drone. “Son of a bitch,” Bonham said softly, unsure exactly who he was talking to. He returned the phone to its cradle.
* * *
He had been here before. This time he walked alone up the long, long drive. Another man might be admiring the scenery of the North Downs— Klaus simply wanted a final hour to martial his thoughts. The taxi driver had been instructed to drop him at the end of the drive, and although there was a quiet pause, he had complied.
So Klaus walked, a lone gentleman with the distinct cadence of a man in an invisible uniform. If anyone had passed him on their way they might have been surprised by the slight, inward-turned scowl of a man who, to all appearances, was out for a breath of fresh air. Klaus did enjoy the scenery, in a distinctly Klaus-like way. He approved of the subtle landscaping, which allowed at least a battalion to lie hidden. The castle itself was, regretfully, British, but there remained one or two structural points in its favor. Klaus took it all in, for he had been in too much of a rush on his first —and only— visit to note the details. Mission first, and he had been light on the planning and heavy on the action in those days. He was lucky the earl had been more amused than annoyed.
There was a coat of arms above the door, which startled Klaus for a moment. He often forgot that Gloria really was an earl, and not some self-styled nouveau riche. The dark, disapproving toll of the door bell brought a man Klaus didn’t know, and apparently the sour-faced man didn’t know Klaus either, for he scowled and barked, “His lordship isn’t at home!” before attempting to close the door in Klaus’ face.
Klaus knew better than to try to stick a foot in the way of the massive oak, but he had no qualms about shouldering a rude man out of his way. Klaus hated rude men.
“Hey! You can’t do that!” the man protested, reaching after him with one skinny arm.
“He’s German, Mark, he can do whatever he pleases.”
Both men turned towards a stairwell half-hidden in shadow and the figure leaning against the bottom of the banister there.
He looks well, Klaus thought.
But a moment later he changed his mind, for why would Gloria —Gloria!— ever need to lean on anything? And then Gloria took his hand off the railing and came towards them and Klaus decided he had imagined that frail pose.
“Indeed,” Gloria continued lightly, “Germans can do no wrong. They can even—”
“I was wrong.”
Gloria blinked. “Pardon?”
“And if you ever expect me to repeat that, you really are an idiot.”
Blankness gave way to a slow-kindling anger. “Germans, as I was about to say, can even make cryptic statements that everyone else will understand through a bizarre mind-meld established at birth through the soil of the Motherland. Alas, us dowdy, normal beings are left to puzzle our sad little ways along.”
Klaus shot “Mark” a look which could have melted steel, and the poor man disappeared into the depths of the castle. He swung around to match glares with Gloria. “I was wrong forty years ago, I was wrong ten years ago. I’ve been wrong every minute of my life since I met you.”
The blank look returned. “Ma- Klaus, is that a confession? Or is this some bizarre mid-life crisis?”
“I’m too damn old for a mid-life crisis.” Klaus sighed. “Give me your hand, Dorian.”
Bemused, Gloria slowly complied. His palm was surprisingly calloused – for some reason Klaus always imagined it soft and yielding, but there was latent strength in it as it lay in his own.
“I’ve been wrong, but so have you. You had more masks than I ever did. How was I ever to know when you were playing one of your sly games?”
“Oh, all right, darling. Enough games.”
Somehow, Dorian’s capitulation was the most terrifying moment of Klaus’ life.
Author’s Thanks: Many thanks to Jenny for taking a stand on commas, and Louise for leading me to a life of elegance. Also, an abundance of gratitude to Mosellegreen and Sindeniirelle for sharp eyes and kind words.