By Any Other Name
by Kay Reynolds
It was that damn cat again! Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach glared and threatened as it raced past and up the garden walk ahead of him. Klaus shouted - conveying very accurately what would happen if the little creature persisted in playing these silly games - catricide! But the feline remained undaunted. It scampered ahead and pivoted, crouching down beneath the cover of a fragrant rose bush, waiting for Klaus to catch up and play. Impossible! The cat's determination to frolic increased in direct proportion to the Major's persistence in maintaining the correct sense of propriety. There was a job to be accomplished here ... if only Klaus could remember what it was. He knew there was some task to be concluded but he had lost the focus, his thoughts now completely absorbed by fluffy menace.
Mischief sparkled in the cat's big, blue eyes. It twitched with playful anticipation from the tip of its pink nose to the end of its white plume tail. Then it took off, soaring towards the Major, winding itself affectionately - if dangerously - around his ankles, dancing away with a trilling purr at the last minute.
Klaus cursed and shook his fist again, promising all sorts of ugly retribution he was only too anxious to enforce but the cat simply trailed behind, just out of range and oblivious to verbal abuse. Klaus wiped the sweat from his forehead and kept walking. The sun was bright and bathed everything with an unusual white-hot, electric glow although the heat of the day paled against the furnace of Eberbach's temper.
Ignore it. Klaus decided that was what he should do. He would make the effort. He would succeed.
But the cat had other ideas. It made another gleeful pass and, this time, the Major lost his footing and sat down with a bone-jarring loss of dignity. Unendurable! As Klaus' frustration level struck critical mass, divine justice intervened. He spied a garden hose. Actually, the spray nozzle brought to mind another, more preferable instrument but - no matter! Klaus scooped up his weapon with a cry of triumph and took careful aim. A phrase, "Look out - he's got a hose!" flirted through his mind and laughter burst from his lips as he scored his first direct hit! Drenched, the cat let out a howl. Klaus leaped to his feet and ran after it, the pursued now the pursuer. Hose spun out behind him like a crazy, plastic snake until the line was suddenly depleted. The abrupt halt knocked Klaus off his feet again. He made another painful landing and stopped laughing long enough to mutter an appropriate curse. Then resumed his merriment as he watched the tiny creature streak off madly across the grounds.
But additional movement soon caught the Major's eyes - caught his breath, too. Something huge raced by him, kicking up grass and dirt as it went. Klaus even felt the steam of its heat as it passed, he breathed in the stench of its hide. The dog didn't bark, it growled continuously, low and deep and wild.
The hair raised on the back of Klaus' neck.
He had never seen such a mongrel before - and on his grounds! Ordinarily, size and temperament would have given him pause but now the Major ran after the beast as it gave chase to the cat. But there was something wrong ... his chest heaved like a bellows, his legs pumped as if he ran through a swamp. He gained distance only slowly. Klaus stooped and grabbed up a rock, never faltering in stride. He pitched it - hard! Heard it connect.
It didn't even slow the dog down.
That frightened him - but it made him angry, too. This animal, this monster had no business on the Eberbach estate! The cat was a pest - absolutely - but, instinctively Klaus knew it belonged. The cat was his, like it or not, and he would not have it hurt.
"No one's going to strangle that verdammt cat but me!" Klaus promised loudly and ran faster.
Yards ahead, Klaus saw the cat dart up a tree to safety - smart move! But the dog executed an unbelievable soaring leap, caught the little creature by the back of its throat and tore it down to the ground. The cat wheeled about and launched itself at the dog's face, tooth and claw. Klaus heard a deep roar of pain-laced rage. Then the monster shook himself free. Stunned, the cat crouched down, its fur no longer gleaming white.
Jaws closed over the cat's neck as Klaus' hands fastened on the canine. The dog snarled again and released its prey, turning in the Major's fists. Klaus dropped beneath the monster's weight and fell painfully hard, driving the air from his lungs. Now those dripping fangs snapped and tore at human flesh.
Klaus cried out, trying to get up, trying for air. But it was no good, the animal's weight settled on him, crushing him, pinning him down. Massive jaws locked into the Major's forearm and Klaus smashed his fist into the animal's head, again and again, but it didn't work, it wouldn't let go!
Yellow and red, they were hellhound eyes, blazing only inches from Klaus' face. Its breath was enough to make a man pass out, a scent from a fetid pit - ancient and decayed, it reveled in its own rot. Close cropped, slick brown-black fur slipped in Klaus' hands, impossible to grasp. It was like trying to grab oil. The dog growled deep in its throat, a low, rumbling bellow and the teeth ground through Klaus' jacket and deeper into flesh.
"Mein Gott," Klaus finally understood. "It is laughing at me!"
The bone in his arm was ready to snap. The Major's head swam, dizzy. It seemed as if the monster was drawing the very life out of him.
But then there was that little cat again! Klaus spied its tiny, triangle-shaped head materializing almost magically behind the beast, hissing, ear's flattened, fangs bared. Those perfect, sharp little teeth tore into the brute's sensitive ear. Claws raked over blazing eyes.
There was a sudden roar of howling and the weight was off him! Klaus rolled to his feet. There was power in his hands and arms again. His strength had returned - and his anger.
Klaus secured another stone. He struck again and again.
Then silence - louder than all the noise before. Now a gasp of breath like sobbing, tears and he didn't know whose although the noise was all around him. The cat shivered on the ground, its eyes still blue although the pupils had gone wide and round. The little creature pulled itself forward and pushed its head against the Major's thigh. As Klaus reached down to gather it up, it took in a long, deep breath and released a purr. Klaus winced. Impossible that it should be pleased with his touch. His hands shook far too much to handle it gently. He was too awkward. This fragile creature was hurt and the Major worried that he would cause worse harm. But the cat seemed to enjoy Klaus' clumsy attempts at comfort ... as much, surprisingly, as Klaus enjoyed comforting it. The little pest trembled in his arms snuggling closer and Klaus allowed his fingers to fall against its head. The fur was softer than silk to his touch and pleasantly warm.
The great bulk of the mongrel stirred once more. Klaus blinked, startled. It wasn't possible that should live - not after...!
But the dog shuddered up to its feet. The eyes opened and burned - red and glowing, somehow healed. Dark and dripping, its tongue lolled from massive jaws.
Klaus tried to get up. Couldn't. There was no feeling in his legs. The cat made a frightened sound against his chest.
Those scarlet eyes fixed on them.
"Stay dead!" Klaus shouted. His was a voice used to giving orders, a voice used to having those orders obeyed. "Stay dead, I tell you! Keep away!"
The maw opened, steaming, coming ever closer.
"Stay dead! Keep away!"
But the monster charged, leaping at them, its bulk striking like a grenade. The garden ground gave way beneath, opening into a pit. Overhead, the sun winked out, replaced by two glowing scarlet orbs that came closer...
And still closer -
- Until Major Klaus von dem Eberbach woke up. Sat up. Shivering and sweating, tangled in a lump of damp bed clothes and sheets. It was dark. The room was cold just the way he liked it and, he reminded himself, just the way it was supposed to be in November. On the table beside the bed, a digital clock blazed with red luminescence: 3:45 a.m.
There were no monster dogs lurking around, no mischievous cats. No hellish pits - the sun wasn't out. But Klaus still gasped, frosting the air with fevered, labored breathing while his hands continued to 'comfort' an eiderdown pillow.
Klaus heard a sharp click go off beside him. In the room's night-silence, the slight noise was as loud as a shot and the Major almost leaped off the mattress, diving for cover.
The clock made a satisfying crash when he hurled it against the wall. The pillow went after it.
Klaus waited. He knew the crash would be followed by a timid knock at his bedroom door. Then the knock would be followed by a discreet voice - just as it had for the last several weeks.
Tonight was no exception.
"Ja," Klaus groaned.
"Is everything all right? Are you ill? May I get you something?"
"No," Klaus stated, curtly. Then he forced himself to soften his tone of voice. "No, I am well. I am sorry to have disturbed you, Haselmann. Please return to bed."
Klaus could sense the old house-master's hesitation as he hovered on the other side of the door. The butler had taken care of Klaus since the Major's mother had died shortly after giving him birth. The Major's father had never quite forgiven his son for that particular blunder; they had never been close. Klaus' father had managed to keep himself apart and away so Herr Haselmann was the closest thing to a parent Klaus had ever known. Still, even that relationship was strained by the formalities of class distinction. The old butler may have raised Klaus from infancy but he had never forgotten the difference between their stations or neglected his duty. Klaus von dem Eberbach was the Master of the House; Haselmann was only a servant despite any ties of the heart. The butler had taught Klaus the responsibilities of his position and made sure that the boy understood and respected these differences.
"Are you sure I cannot be of any service to you?" Herr Haselmann continued, uncertain.
"No," the Major insisted. "Good night."
"Good morning, Herr Klaus," Haselmann corrected. Then, after a pause, "I suppose when I go to market tomorrow I should purchase another alarm clock?"
"Yes. That would probably be best."
"Jawohl. Perhaps I should pick up a gross."
Klaus made no reply and, with that final farewell, the Huashofmeister disappeared into the silence of the Eberbach family mansion. It always surprised Klaus that the ancient butler moved so quickly and so quietly within the equally ancient mausoleum. The House Master and his fathers before him had cared for the Eberbachs, person and property, for generations. They had ministered to the family concerns while the Eberbach men attended their country in whatever military capacity was required at the time. They knew as little choice in their vocation as Klaus knew in his.
Klaus experienced a certain unease surrounding that thought but shoved it away as he always did. His lifestyle held no room for rebellion. Assigned to NATO Intelligence, Klaus served the best interests of many countries, not just Germany's. He reminded himself of the pride he felt in his position. His was a singular honor no Eberbach had had the privilege to enjoy and the Major would not have chosen any other profession if he had been given his choice of any career in the world. Although, given the choice, he wondered how it would be to live in a more modern apartment as opposed to the Gothic surroundings of the old family manse. But Father would never sanction such a move so there was no use even speculating.
With that thought, Klaus swung out of bed, sliding his feet into comfortably worn leather slippers and shrugging into a warm robe. He made his way into the hall and walked towards the study. He would chance no more dreams this night.
So ... it seemed his sleep continued to be plagued with silly nightmares. He had heard that everyone working in high-stress positions went through a bad time now and then. With some it was insomnia. Others turned to alcohol, drugs or even sex. Some simply collapsed. It seemed it was his cross to deal with a few night bogeys - devil dogs and pesky kittens. Klaus could not repress a shudder. One night his sleep had been invaded by a golden-fleeced lamb chased by a Disney-wolf. What a horror! That had marked the last evening he had lulled himself into slumber with the familiar monotony of old nursery rhymes.
Still, Klaus was certain all his difficulties would pass as soon as his current assignment was completed. Fieldwork was his calling, not this miserable waiting, these constant international office intrigues. There was so much going on across the world from the break down of the Soviet Union and the crisis in Bosnia, to the horrors of the African famines (given a choice, hand-selected crew, Klaus knew he would make sure supplies got to those who needed them most, not those black market warlords), to the continuing trauma of Kuwait, even the tragic absurdity of the IRA - they all beckoned to him.
"They are bombing shopping malls in London and killing children, for God's sake," Klaus had bellowed at his superior. "What good are we doing sitting here?"
"What makes you think you can rout the IRA?" Chief Twitterswell had demanded. "I did not know you had a penchant for windmills, Major."
"What I know is that I am not helping anyone stationed here at this desk!" Klaus shouted.
"London...." The Chief mused aloud. His grey eyes narrowed, suspicious but amused. "Are you sure there's no other reason you want an assignment in London?"
"I am very sick and tired of that line of thought. I know who you are speaking of - that thief, Eroica. I know you believe I enjoy some kind of relationship with him. Well, you are right, Chief. I do." Klaus glowered. "One day, I am thinking, there will be somebody killing him. This I truly believe with all of my heart and my soul. And, with any luck at all, the somebody doing the killing will be me!"
Klaus had slammed his fist down on Twitterswell's table and stormed out.
Of course, he had received no assignment to London, to Bahrain or even to NATO's annual Queen Azalea Festival in Norfolk, Virginia. Hell, he would have even accepted that, a protocol assignment. Anything except this infernal waiting! Klaus made his way through the darkened house to the bar in the study. He poured brandy into a sparkling crystal globe. Drinking probably wasn't a good idea; liquor usually brought out the worst in him, it made him very emotional. Still, perhaps this small drink would settle his nerves. He certainly needed something; these nightly horrors were taking a toll. Klaus reached behind the bar searching for cigarettes and matches, rummaging through the collected debris. Metal brushed the back of his fingers and rolled with a musical clatter to the floor. His scowl deepened.
For a moment, Klaus simply let it lie there, an unfinished exclamation that rolled out from behind the bar across the polished wood until it caught at the edge of the carpet ... the Flute of Bagoas. The metal warmed quickly under the Major's fingers, as if it had been waiting for him, once he finally picked it up.
The Flute of Bagoas was an important piece of history and a significant work of art. Even the dim light of the room and centuries of tarnish could not diminish the delicate workmanship. Klaus had been advised by experts that the flute was worth a fortune. With respect to its historical relevance, it was price-less. To Klaus, the instrument had already caused more trouble than it could possibly be worth. He glared at it balefully as if the heat in his vibrant green eyes could melt it into non-existence. The flute, however, was no more obliging than his Chief.
Or the thief who had stolen it.
That would be Eroica, Prince of Thieves ... or Dorian Red, the Earl of Red Gloria as he was known in more aristocratic circles. Still, no matter how he was called, the most accurate name for him was Trouble!
True, one could argue that Eroica/Dorian was only succumbing to natural instinct, following his own heritage just as Klaus followed his. Eroica's ancestor, the first Earl of Red Gloria, had been a famous privateer, the source of the family fortune and title. Actually, as history had it, Eroica's great-whatever had experienced his own run-in with one of Klaus' more famous forbears, the Falcon.
Modern circumstance had forced the Major and the thief to become allies on a variety of occasions. Generally, the partnership had worked out well for both of them. There were those who would say the Major was one of the best in his field; the thief could claim equal distinction in his own profession. Eroica was no common burglar; he was a clever, resourceful, and talented artiste who specialized in the procurement of works of art. There wasn't a safe he couldn't crack, a security system he couldn't seduce at will; he was a master of deception and disguise, and his knowledge in certain areas remained unsurpassed by any historian in the field. Like a reliable weapon, Eroica's unique abilities had made him an essential ingredient to many missions. When preparing for a new assignment, Klaus could count on adding this one crucial element, "And this is how I shall use my thief."
Of course, Eroica would eagerly agree to the Major's plan because - and this was the problem - Eroica was in love with Klaus. Money wasn't really the object, no, it was this other matter. He was a gloriously confirmed homosexual who had demonstrated the unmitigated gall to fall in love with the Major. Eroica demonstrated no acceptable sense of discretion, no shame. His enthusiastic protestations of affection would always come about at the most unseemly time (as if, Klaus despaired, there could ever be a suitable one). Klaus' response to Eroica's avowed sentiments had also become predictable.
"Idiot - are you out of your mind?" That phrase prefaced many of the Major's discussions with Eroica. "Your proposals are ridiculously improper... and sinful, as well."
"Have I compromised your authority ... your modesty? Oh, I am so sorry," the thief would mouth his apology profusely - although not with the least genuine repentance. "But what am I to do, my darling battle ax? I do so adore you."
Klaus would usually end up slugging him and that would end the discussion. Temporarily. Klaus resented losing his temper; he was angry at Eroica for causing this reaction. The Major would never treat any of his other tools in such a way. Except for the people you work with, Klaus realized with a guilty shudder. Why couldn't people just - behave! Why couldn't they simply follow orders, do what they were supposed to do?
But Eroica was far too independent to bow to Klaus' form of discipline; he would always argue the point, always demand to know, Why? Nor could the thief be easily intimidated. Klaus scowled and swallowed more brandy. The thief was too clever, too fine ... like one of those incredible works of art he was always making off with. Eroica was simply too beautiful. Men were not supposed to be beautiful, not like that. But Eroica had skin the color of the finest porcelain... no - like a dish of crushed peaches and cream and a mouth like pale strawberries, all the texture of warm satin. His hair was a golden mane of curls falling across his shoulders, trailing down his back - a Pre-Raphaelite's angel curls framing a mood-ruled, angel face. He was as slim and perfectly formed as a dancer, as graceful as an aerialist, as supple and in command of his body as an Asian contortionist. Eroica's eyes....
Well, Eroica's eyes were blue weren't they? Klaus tried not to think much about that particular feature. He tried not to remember how they sparkled at him, full of good humor, charm and affection, the way they glittered whenever some fantastic new idea had leaped full-blown into his head. Or the way they darkened, pained at some careless reprimand or humiliation, some fresh, well-thought-out-brutally-delivered insult. Klaus could well believe that a man's soul was found in the eyes; he had looked into that blithe spirit's often enough.
What an impossible fool he was! What a child, an idiot!
"He says he loves me and I hate him," Klaus told his reflection in the mirror over the bar. The Major was furious. Again. "Eroica is a genius in his field and I need him. He is brilliant, he is reckless - he takes far too many chances ... too many risks. He will get himself killed one day and-"
Klaus finished his brandy and poured himself another.
"That thief is making me crazy. What am I doing in here talking with myself at this time in the morning? I do not need this happening to me. No, I do not."
The Major found his cigarettes, took one, lit it and inhaled deeply. He dropped the flute into the pocket of his robe without another glance. Tomorrow, Klaus vowed, he would be rid of the damn thing - even if he had to throw it into the Rhine himself.
If only he could dispose of that obnoxious thief as easily.
John Bonham made his way through a maze of twisting corridors to the main stairway and down into the grand hall. Despite Mr. James' best efforts, the passages were never completely dark at Castle Red Gloria. This was a good thing because it prevented little mishaps - like tripping over a stack of Renoir sketches in the hall or slamming into a suit of armor at the curve on the stairs or simply smashing into any one of a rather large collection of statuary, canvasses, candelabrum, antique weaponry and assorted artistic clutter which was distributed throughout, tower to dungeon. Of course, most of the Earl's toys were arranged about in a most decorative fashion designed to complement the room as well as the piece. However, Bonham had discovered early on in his acquaintance-ship with Dorian Red, the Earl of Red Gloria that you could never be absolutely certain of when or - more to the point - where some new acquisition would show up to demand its share of attention. It was best to be on one's toes when striding about the Earl's estate. Lord Gloria was always full of surprises.
For example, during his first week with the Earl, Bonham remembered stumbling, quite literally into a precariously balanced piece of statuary at the entrance of the music room. He had been arguing with Mr. James, an occupation that proved to take up a great percentage of his working and leisure time. They had been very much in the thick of it and, looking back over his shoulder, Bonham had missed the full-scale sculpture until it was quite too late.
Bonham had waltzed about for an infinitely suspenseful few moments trying to manage unyielding arms, legs and torso until, with a tremendous effort, he was able to heave the statue back onto its pedestal. Afterwards, he took several careful steps back, sweating profusely, breathing heavily and contemplating his near-squashed experience.
"Bloody hell, love," Dorian had cried out, hastening towards him. "Look out there - be careful!"
"I'm sorry," Bonham stammered, patting polished stone ineffectually. "No harm done, M'lord."
"Well, there'd have been plenty of harm done if you'd found yourself under that load." Dorian had dropped a reassuring hand on Bonham's shoulder. "Better have a care next time you ask a stone nymph out for a dance."
"Looks like a ... " Bonham gulped. Swallowed. "... a da Vinci?"
"Close. She's from the same school da Vinci studied at, the Andrea del Verrocchio studio. I think we're talking 1456 ... 58.... It's a bit of a knock off, if you see my point. Something decorative for the garden. Still, she holds up very well for a woman her age."
"And she's way out of your league, tubby," Mr. James had announced. "I wouldn't get my hopes up. Or anything else either."
"Stuff it, Mr. James, please." An automatic response. Dorian sighed and moved on across the room. "Get a few of the staff to move her to a safer place until I decide what to do with her. I don't want anyone hurt - and I'd like to keep her in good shape until we locate a buyer."
Dorian's ninja accountant, Mr. James, had not spared Bonham a second word or look; the little man scampered quick to keep up with the Earl's long-legged stride. You had to hand it to him, if anyone could get the Stingy Bug to shape up, shut up and behave, it was M'lord Gloria. Just another of his many remarkable talents.
Bonham side-stepped a precariously stacked forest of Flemish pikes on his way towards the kitchen, more expensive antiques. He hadn't been the first to observe that if M'lord were able to part with only a fraction of his collection, they would all be living like billionaires, probably ending up as regular features on one of those outrageous American lifestyle programs.
"Very amusing," M'lord would agree. "But how could I bear to part with this, especially after I went to all the trouble to bring it home?"
"But we could get a lot of money," Mr. James would protest in return.
"For another stale Christmas cake? I don't think so." Lord Gloria frowned, beautifully. "This way we can enjoy our riches in a more attractive form. Anyway, I can always pick up a few baubles for you to fence if we need cash that desperately, my dear."
Mr. James always needed cash, not that he ever did anything with it but pile it onto the horde. So the Stingy Bug would fret and whine until M'lord would procure the needed trinkets just to keep the peace....
Peace that had been eluding the Earl recently. Bonham tracked a glimmer of electric light into the kitchen. He found Lord Gloria standing barefoot on the tiles. A paisley silk robe in wine, gold and blue swirled about his legs. His sunflower curls fell all in a tangle into sleepy, morning-sky eyes.
"Balls, Bonham," Dorian moaned. "Isn't there anything to eat?"
"Sure there is. But you have to know where to look, M'lord."
"Well, I have looked." Dorian made a face, distressed and disgusted. "Mr. James has been bargain shopping again -"
"Rummaging through the trash bins at the market and restaurants, you mean."
"Rotten vegetables, stale bread ... and what is this supposed to be?"
Bonham made a quick study. "I ... I think I'd just put that back if
I were you." The stocky young man couldn't suppress a shudder. "It looks like it might attack."
"Balls," Dorian said again and sank down into a kitchen chair. He took up one of his thin brown cigarettes and fired it up. The Earl was partial to 20 Turks and soon the fragrant aroma of sweet Turkish tobacco and spice was competing for airspace with Mr. James' mangled groceries. Bonham cleared the debris from the counters and table.
"Let's see what else we can find here, shall we?" Bonham began setting out pots and a large iron skillet. He brought out an assortment of mixing bowls and a chopping board. He removed false fronts and backs from various drawers and cabinets and selected various food items.
"Oh," Dorian said. "So that's where we're keeping it now."
"I've got to keep switching them around. You know what a nosey prat he is." Bonham sliced bacon and placed it to cook in the low-fired skillet. "If Jimmy finds this cache he'll steal it and resell it." He cut off a wedge of cheddar and handed it to the Earl.
"That's all right, M'lord. I heard you banging about down here. Thought you could use some company." Bonham took thick fresh cream and eggs from the refrigerator which was masquerading as the dishwasher. Mr. James had threatened death to anyone who tried to use this "wasteful" modern convenience. With a bit of re-wiring and insulation, Bonham and the crew had turned it into a handy icebox.
"Sorry, love. I didn't mean to wake anyone." Dorian poured two glasses of wine. He kept one for himself and gave the other to his lieutenant.
"You planning a job or just having trouble sleeping?" Bonham asked.
The Earl made a movement, something that could have been a shrug. Bonham knew better. He handed Dorian a chunk of Romano cheese and a grater.
"Here you go, M'lord. Might as well make yourself busy."
Dorian grated cheese onto a plate while Bonham continued at the counter.
"I've heard you - Jimmy has, too - up and about at night for the last few weeks." Bonham poured water and a touch of olive oil into a large pot and set it to boil. "So we've all been wondering what's up."
"Actually, I don't really know."
"Don't know or can't tell?"
"A little of both, I think."
"Wouldn't have anything to do with our mutual enemy, Iron Klaus would it?"
"Now, don't go picking on the Major -"
"What? Me? Bully the German Wolf? No ... not a chance of it." Bonham glanced at the Earl. "You're not laughing."
"Well, that's because nothing's very amusing right now," Dorian snapped. Annoyed, he put the cheese aside. "Don't give me that look. It's nothing to do with you."
"I didn't think it was. But I know when something's up so it's no use you shutting down again. Something's been eating at you for a long while now - and I know the Major's part of it so don't try telling me different." Bonham placed a dish of butter to melt over the pilot on the stove. He wiped his hands on a dish towel and sat down at the table across from the Earl. "You've been out of it ever since you got back from that business in Egypt. We all saw how you was messed up when you got home. Nobody said anything 'cause that's the way you wanted it. You were pretty damn specific about that, all right. So we kept quiet - but it's clear as Waterford, whatever's gone wrong is still wrong. And it's not getting any better."
"So I think you better open up now and spill the lot."
"Or I will make you talk."
Dorian frowned, looking down on his short, stocky lieutenant from the far height of his aristocratic nose. "And just how, pray tell, are you going to manage that?" he demanded.
"Through the use of physical force," Bonham insisted, just as determined. "If necessary."
"Oh, Bonham - sod off on this." Dorian let his head fall into his hand, exasperated. "I don't know if I'm ready to say anything. Let me alone, can't you?"
"We've already tried that." Bonham picked up the wine bottle and topped off their glasses. "So, what happened in old Cairo with you and the Major?"
"You are an absolute misery!"
"Sticks and stones, M'lord. Here's looking at you."
Bonham tapped his glass against Dorian's and took a swallow of wine. It was very good, part of the family stock, but, more anxious than he appeared, Bonham didn't really taste it.
Dorian took a last drag off his cigarette, then crushed it out.
"The Major and I weren't actually working together in Cairo," the
Earl began to explain, defeated. "But we ran into each other on the job. Just like that time before. Only this time, we were caught."
"That we all know."
"It didn't go very well for us. I mean, we got away and all, you know, but - I encountered a problem with one of the guards. He came after me, he hurt me. He tried to rape me."
Dorian made that little movement again. Then he folded his arms onto the table and leaned forward, letting his hair fall over his face. "You heard correctly," he said, quietly. "I don't need to repeat it."
"M'lord - are you all right?"
Dorian nodded, looking up. He seemed almost surprised at the question. "Yes," he said. "Fine, actually. Really."
Bonham wasn't fine. His mind was reeling. Some words registered in the heart with all the impact of a physical blow. He felt that particular word. Rape. It was just impossible that that kind of harm could have come so close to the Earl. He shook his head. No. Not possible. The only one who had ever raised a hand in harm to Dorian had been-
"The Major," Bonham blurted out. "And what was Eberbach up to while that was going on?"
Now Dorian looked genuinely confused. "He wasn't doing anything. He couldn't. Klaus was locked in a cell ... but he watched. He saw."
"Sod that," Bonham said - and meant it. "Tell me what happened."
"Klaus killed him."
"Good." The word burst out of Bonham's mouth with absolute conviction. "The less we have of that lot around the better. I've never been a citizen, you know. Not me nor any of my family. We've always been outlaws. But I've never trucked with the strong arms, the kill-for-hire bullies or the rapists. They aren't our kind. They're not your kind either."
"Right." Dorian lit up another cigarette, tossing back his yellow curls. His sigh was more like a groan. "Maybe you could try explaining that to Klaus."
"Klaus? What would that prig know about the difference between what two lovers do in bed together as opposed to what some asswipe decides to take for hisself?" Bonham blazed, indignant. "Is that what this is all about? The Major thinks you brought it on yourself, did he? Thinks you asked for it, did he? Bloody hell! Bastard!"
"No," Dorian protested. "He's never said that. I don't know what the Major thinks - or doesn't think. It's just that, ever since ... well, it hasn't been exactly good between us."
"When has it ever been good between you two?"
"You're right, of course," Dorian agreed, dispirited. "Cracking the
Louvre is easier than cracking that almighty German-Catholic-military façade. I couldn't have chosen anyone less approachable, less attainable...."
"God knows what you see in that frigid, self-righteous, straight-laced, patronizing, acid-tongued, rotten-tempered, pistol-waving, homicidal chunk of German winter!" Bonham pushed himself away from the table and stepped back to the stove. He put pasta into the boiling water and reduced the heat while his own skyrocketed. In a separate bowl, Bonham began to whip grated cheese, cream, eggs, herbs and spices together, angrily beating them into an froth. "Major Klaus von dem Eberbach has never had a kind word to say about anyone or anything," he blazed. "Not within my hearing, he hasn't. You knock yourself out for him all the time and he treats you worse than cat piss. And just why someone like you wants to take up with the likes of someone like him is beyond all human comprehension. That's all I have to say. But-" Bonham poured the pasta into the colander to drain, bounced it vigorously - just as if he might have been smashing it against the Major's head - or the Earl's. "But - That's. Your. Choice. Yes!
Right ... and I would not wish it on my worst enemy, if you want to know my opinion, pardon me very much."
Dorian continued to stare, wide-eyed and somewhat open-mouthed, while Bonham placed the pasta onto a large plate and covered it with the creamy blend. His lieutenant was usually one of the most reasonable of men; he never lost his temper.
Bonham tossed in the bacon crumbles and garnished with a razor thin slice of orange and a bright bit of parsley. He slammed the finished plate down on the table. The silverware lifted off from the linen - then settled back down again.
"There. Eat your carbonara before it gets cold. It's good for you,"
Bonham snapped. "You've been off your feed here lately, don't think I haven't noticed. That in addition to going completely barmy. Zen mystics, my Aunt Matilida's ass! Haunted statues and the like! You've cracked is what. Eat!"
Or perish, Dorian thought. Cautiously, he took up a fork-full of pasta. Chewed and swallowed obediently.
"Thank you. This is delicious," the Earl said in a very small voice.
"The best you've ever had at four a.m. in the bloody morning," Bonham barked, still fuming.
"Without a doubt." Dorian held up another pasta-laden fork. "Have some?"
Bonham took a deep breath and regarded the Earl candidly. "Weren't you ever going to tell us about what happened?" he asked. "Didn't you think we cared enough? That it wouldn't matter to us if you got hurt?"
Dorian returned the fork to his plate. "It wasn't anything like that. All I could think of was ... I don't know. I tried not to think about it. I was afraid that -"
Bonham waited for the Earl to finish but the silence only deepened between them.
"What?" Bonham asked after a long while. "What were you afraid of?"
Dorian didn't precisely answer.
"I felt lousy," he confessed. "I felt so stupid. I didn't want to talk about it."
The two sat quietly together, miserable, watching the pasta get cold.
Finally, Dorian said, "Don't tell Mr. James about this. He doesn't have to know."
"Right." Bonham deliberated carefully. Watching but not watching, that was one of his best talents. Then he said, "There's something else, isn't there? Just a bit more you're not telling, right?"
Dorian started to speak, then faltered, lowering his eyes, hesitating. When he looked up again, Bonham could see the lie hovering on his lips. Just as abruptly, the Earl reconsidered - and ended the deceit before it left his mouth.
"Yes, there is something," Dorian admitted. "But I have to take care of it myself. Don't even bother asking. If it was anything I could bring you in on, I would. But I can't. I just can't." He began to spear at the pasta with his fork. He wouldn't meet Bonham's eyes. "Try to understand...."
Bonham gave a little shrug. Then he said, "Are you going to eat that or stab it to death?"
Dorian looked up, smiled and lifted his fork. He turned the conversation to other more pleasant topics.
Like he's flipped the bloody record over, Bonham thought darkly, playing along. Observing. He'd seen this act before although he'd rarely been on the receiving end.
Dorian finished his meal and continued to play the cheerful and charming guest/host; his conversation was witty, his expressions and gestures pitched up all the way up to `enchant,' and, of course, he turned the focus of the dialogue to Bonham's particular interests at every opportunity ... drawing his lieutenant out, flattering, appealing, leading him on such a merry verbal chase. And no matter how hard he tried, Bonham could not turn the track again. All other subjects were now closed.
Just like Dorian had closed himself off, a lone flower fluttering about in the dark without enough sun to blossom in. The Earl was hiding something - and rather desperately, too, from the sound and look of it. But, as every bud instinctively reached for the sunlight in order to grow, this secret was relentlessly dragging itself out into the open. And lugging the Earl over a very rocky flowerbed along the way from all Bonham could see.
"You sound like you're done in," Bonham said, after he'd seen and heard all he needed ... all he could stand. "Why don't you take off for bed? Looks like you could use some sleep."
"Thanks," Dorian agreed, rising gratefully. "You're a love."
Bonham rinsed pots and dishes at the sink. "I'll tell Jimmy to let you sleep in," he said.
The Earl paused as he walked past Bonham, then stopped and wrapped his arms around the shorter man, holding him hard. Bonham only gave a little yelp of surprise. Dorian Red Gloria was given to abrupt demonstrations of affection. Well, Bonham reasoned, while most people outgrew such spontaneity upon reaching adulthood, the Earl never had. These displays had thoroughly embarrassed Bonham when he'd first come to work for the Earl. Not that he was any kind of a prude; the lieutenant fancied both women and men in his bed or, more precisely, in his arms. But Bonham drew the line at involvement on the job; there was far too much potential for mishap. In his line of work, it simply wasn't smart to go about fucking one's employer - in any way, shape or form. Because of Dorian's preference for loving his own sex, Bonham had initially endured some of the most discomforting suspicions. But there was too much of the child in Dorian and his affection was too genuine to take offence. Bonham had since learned to be only startled when it erupted - and to enjoy the attention.
So, the lieutenant froze for a moment, standing by the sink. It was hard hugging back when one's hands were filled with dishes and silverware. But Dorian continued to hold him tightly, his fair, smooth cheek pressed against Bonham's night-grown stubble. And Lord, despite the hour, the Earl still smelled better than any man or woman he had ever had the pleasure of. Sunlight curls tickled, falling against Bonham's neck and arms. There were a few times when the stocky thief considered bending his rules. Just now, he was awfully glad to be handling expensive dishes.
"You're a good friend, Johnny Bonham," Dorian whispered, his breath sweet and warm against the man's ear. "You're one of the best friends I've ever had. Good night, my dear. Thanks for... everything."
Bonham managed an awkward pat; he was the sort of man who blushed profusely when caught in an unexpected en gardé of the heart so his face had gone completely scarlet. Still, he had to agree with the Earl.
"Yes," he admitted. "I am a good friend. Now get to bed, M'lord, get some sleep, all right? I'll take care of things here."
And elsewhere, too, he thought. It was time to put on his traveling shoes. Bonham had serious business to attend to.
Dorian padded up the stairs taking care not to be heard. The Earl could be very quiet when he wanted, that was his customary habit - but he knew how to make just enough noise to be heard by just the right person. And, God, he had needed to talk to someone for so long and Bonham was such a perfect choice....
Too bad he had made such a thorough mess of it.
The subject matter was hideous and Bonham had been angry with him, just as Dorian had suspected he'd be. How unnerving ... and yet, despite all that anger, Dorian had still longed to open up. He had felt all of his resolves piling up against his own self-constructed dam like so much badly heaped, rotten lumber. This reticence was unnatural and disturbing, too. Dorian had never been shy or timid. He delighted in blasting convention over upon its hypocritical hindquarters with a well-aimed truth. As the delightful Mr. Quentin Crisp would have said, "Wit is the language of style.... Brevity is not the soul of wit. Truth is its soul and brevity its body, but since by now all truths are foregone, it can only be the form that we give them that is our individual contribution. Those who sink to mere trading in facts insult their hearers. We can be offered only two kinds of information - what we already know, which is boring, and what we do not, which is humiliating.... Style, in the broadest sense of all, is consciousness and delivery."
The Earl adored style! He pursued it as the famished would have chased food and drink. Style to Dorian, in a very literal sense, was truth. And how lovely it was that, handled well, it could so thoroughly dislodge even the most pompous of self-righteous pilots.
"I once saw a movie in which Mary Astor promised her daughter a rich, full life." Dorian had once heard Mr. Crisp address a small gathering at his father's club. "She did not give a list of ingredients. I would say they were innocence, wonder, romance, debauchery, indiscretion, and death, but in that order."
Seated near the edge of the assembly, Dorian had been absolutely rapt with interest.
"It used to be said of America that she had passed from barbarism to decadence without ever becoming civilized," the ancient gentleman continued. "I would say that modern adolescents went from innocence to debauchery without ever knowing romance, but while inveighing against the permissive society I would not wish to be thought mingling my squeaks with those of Mrs. Mary White Mouse, England's local arbiter of television morality. I differ from her in that I do not think there is a pin to choose between innocence and debauchery. I complain merely because I feel that everyone, like a passenger on a luxury liner, should be allowed to work his way through the whole menu even if it makes him sick. The young are debarred from doing this. After decadence there can be no civilization. After debauchery, no romance. And romance, my dears, is the style in sex."
"But what about love?" Dorian had asked, startled into response. It had almost seemed that the elegant gentlemen was speaking directly to him. "Where does love fit onto your list?"
That question had induced an outburst of uncontrollable but oh-so-polite tittering - which Dorian had promptly ignored.
"Dear boy," Mr. Crisp had begun. He had not laughed. "How old are you?"
"Thirteen, sir," Dorian replied, which was the truth.
"Then my advice to you, child - and to the rest of you as well, is this. Live alone." The blue eyes twinkled and the rest of the crowd responded to his droll wit with indulgent smiles turned towards the boy. Dorian, however, went quite pale at the thought.
"Live alone...." Mr. Crisp had stressed. "The continued propinquity of another human being cramps the style after a time ... unless that person is somebody you think you love. But remember, whenever two people share a territory, ultimately they will be left with only the things about which they disagree."
"My God, how dismal." Dorian had made a face, appalled. "If I understand you correctly, it sounds as though all we can hope for is to find someone who puts the toilet paper on the spindle the same way we're used to."
"Ah... from the mouth of precocious children. You are quite right, dear boy. It is these little things that destroy a relation-ship. Shall we leave the lid to the commode up or down? Shall we place the soap on the right side of the basin or the left and whatever, pray tell, are we to do about the cap for the toothpolish?" The old man's humor was laced with a wry and tender remorse. "My dear young man, all I can say is that you must not expect to be happy in love. Do not enter a partnership thinking, This is the way I will be happy. You enter into this condition knowing that you are sacrificing yourself. You must say, I feel I have all sorts of things to give to a relationship and I will find somebody to whom I can give them. And I only expect to die fulfilled - not happy - that I have done what little I could do. If your view is that your style - your image - is to be self-sacrificing, and if you feel you have an infinite capacity for sacrificing yourself, then you well may think, Will I go to India to feed the starving, or to Crimea to bind up the wounds of the injured - or will I just get married?"
Dorian shivered. That will never be me, he thought. How dreadful. I would rather die than live like that. But to be alone ... completely alone!
It was a very grim prospect.
The room had dissolved with laughter. Even Dorian had smiled ... but it was in his nature to smile. It was in his nature to love, too, but this notion of self-sacrifice, of submitting so completely to another's will, remained only so much amusing drivel ... an interesting anecdote to share after theater or between cocktails at some dull, catered concern.
... Until Dorian met Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach. Initially, the two young men had mixed together about as well as mercury and stone, which was to say, not at all. They had hated each other mutually, completely and without reservation. But, somehow, the relationship had changed....
It wasn't just that Klaus was handsome. Dorian Red had known his share of good-looking men, most of whom had been far more attracted to him than he had ever been in return. Dorian was used to being pursued and used his looks to his advantage. However, he despised being collected. That eliminated a generous seventy-five to eighty percent of his potential suitors. As for the rest, there weren't many who could endure the mind that companioned their pretty playmate. Sex was one matter; everything else became grounds for immediate divorce. Once Dorian's intelligence emerged, along with a wit championed by a too-conscious, too-literate tongue, the affair was over. Dorian had learned quite early and quite to his dismay about love's dreadful Jekyll-Hyde complexity. No matter how promising the voyage, another personality always emerged from the jagged rocks of reality once the swell of lust and curiosity had been satisfied.
Sod it all to hell and back again!
It was as if some evil fairy godfather had determined to fulfill Mr. Crisp's prophecy, just like a legend out of a child's story book - "And on the stroke of midnight on her 21st birthday, she will prick her finger upon a spindle and sleep forever!" Dorian's version capered more along the lines of, "Somewhere around your 22nd year, just as everything begins to get really interesting and you're doing really well for yourself, you're going to meet and fall in love with a handsome but bad-tempered Storm Trooper who will make your life into a wretched, living hell and turn you into an internationally recognized lovesick ass for the duration of your days."
Charming ... absolutely charming! Dorian ground his teeth in frustration. He couldn't blame Klaus for calling him a fool - or worse. Klaus was a well-educated, intelligent man; he could spot an idiot when he saw one!
Klaus von dem Eberbach was everything Dorian had ever desired in a life-partner. Yes, the Major was attractive, positively striking with his deep, green eyes and thick, black hair. He was taller than Dorian, his muscles were like rock beneath smooth, fair skin. Sculpted marble under silk, Dorian closed his eyes summoning the image from his heart. Klaus was so proud, so strong.... He certainly wasn't Heathcliff-on-the-marsh, the Major was far too powerful and resilient to pass for that tender image. No, he was a warrior, a fighter - just exactly what he was supposed to be. Resourceful, reliable, capable and hot-blooded with an irrepressible compassion and sense of justice that he so tried to keep hidden. Klaus could become so defensive, violently self-protective, at the detection of even the slightest crack in his Teutonic armor. The man couldn't even pause to enjoy a simple sunrise or acknowledge a friend's concern without blowing his stack - and threatening to take everyone with him as he blew. Such feelings were too suggestive of weakness, as if they exposed some sort of terrible failure on his part. For Klaus, performance of duty was everything; it was his entire reason for being. There could be no distractions.
Methinks the man doth really protest too much, was Dorian's eventual, logical conclusion. He needs a friend. In time, I shall win him over. And the Earl had rededicated himself to winning Klaus' favor.
That had turned out to be an unfortunate deduction; Klaus had not succumbed, he did not want friends. If anything, Dorian's attentions only made matters worse between them. Thwarted, Dorian had tried again. And again! Sometimes, it seemed, he made progress.
Do not speak to me now, Klaus had pleaded/warned after their last escapade. This admonishment had come about after Dorian had stolen back a bit of purloined, top secret microfilm and, badly beaten, thrashed his way back across the Berlin boarder and into the Major's arms. Klaus had supported Dorian all the way back to the car, he had remained with him while he was examined at hospital. Do not speak to me now, Klaus had insisted. I have no wish to be angry with you.
So Dorian had remained silent. Truth to tell, he was far too done in to talk much at all. And after, Klaus had thanked him, acknowledged
Dorian's friendship and even agreed to be seen in public with the Earl.
So Dorian had slithered into his best drag and met Klaus at the Opera Ball. Whereupon Eberbach had become quite thoroughly disgusted and walked out.
Laughter rose, more bitter than bile in Dorian's throat. Easy to see how repulsed the Major had been. Dorian had been revolted himself by his own unnecessarily outrageous behavior. How could he have thought that Klaus would respond favorably to such a spectacle? Whatever had he been thinking?
And now, this affair in Egypt....
Bonham had believed his story - although how odd that he would think Klaus would have anything to do with ... that.
If Bonham had only been there, he would have known the truth of it. Dorian had never seen Klaus so furious. Dorian shook his head, trembling. There had been no words... nothing he could remember. Nothing he wanted to remember! But memories of pain and blood and fury continued to intrude upon the Earl's mind, both waking and sleeping.
And those memories brought other nightmares, as if that one horror wasn't enough, Richard Cole's soldier - that awful cell. He had never been so frightened, so humiliated. And that Klaus had seen! But then, Klaus had killed the monster, hadn't he? That should have been the end of it.
It was only the beginning. At first, Dorian was very sure that he had lost his mind. The visions had begun on the return flight from Cairo, bounding into his head with cinematic clarity as he catnapped on the dull trip home. Persistent little chunks of forgotten information had resurfaced in abrupt yet crystalline clear messages, something like the sudden recollection of a lost telephone number or finally placing some haunting, nameless tune. Except this information was nowhere near as benign.
This mystery had put him in a sweat, it had. Dorian had tried to brush it off, he tried to forget again. No good. Bit by wretched bit, the mind-puzzle locked into place with unrelenting clarity.
Dorian began his own investigation hoping to finish the thing. He could play the detective as well as any man or woman, and better than most. But what he discovered only made matters worse; inquiry gave substance to the nightmare. He could not ignore this information, could not plead either ignorance or innocence; he would have to act or go mad.
And he would have to act alone, Dorian understood that for certain. There was no one he could bring himself to involve in this dreadful business. Klaus would have been the most logical person to turn to for advice, for help, but Dorian couldn't bring himself to speak of it. To have Klaus know, to see the rage return or, worse, genuine hatred was unbearable. The Major could not hide his feelings and Dorian knew he wouldn't be able to endure that kind of cold loathing in Klaus' eyes. It would kill him; slowly, yes, it might take years but in the end it would surely crush him completely.
Talking to Mr. James was out of the question, simply not possible in these circumstances. And, apparently, despite all they had shared, Dorian could not tell Bonham. His lieutenant was one of his most trusted and reliable friends; the man was a member of Dorian's household, an advisor whose opinion mattered very much. Like Dorian, Bonham was a thief; the man lived by his wits and his skill. He wasn't a killer.
Dorian paused at the casement windows. He wrapped his arms around himself and held on tight against the shaking. Outside, the sun drifted up, framed in this perfect, eastern view. Winter fairies had been at work in the night, the first bright rays sparkled over the frost-dusted garden. Rose bushes, shorn of their summer majesty rattled their thorns against the glass. How lovely ... how compelling. Dorian had always loved the castle. It made a fine setting for adventure and romance, for dreams of sleeping princesses and valiant princes. It made him angry that this grim business had so intruded here. Balls, Dorian sighed. I could use a prince right now....
I've never been a citizen, you know, that's what Bonham had said. Not me nor any of my family. We've always been outlaws. But I've never trucked with the strong arms, the kill-for-hire bullies or the rapists. They aren't our kind. They're not your kind either.
Dorian had to wonder. Anyone could kill. Any man or woman - even a child could lift a gun and pull a trigger. Some were better at it than others - professional assassins who never left a trace except, perhaps, some small sign that would distinguish their work, artists leaving their mark. There were police officers and soldiers, like Klaus, who killed out of duty and necessity. There were the human predators, those who calculated their butchery and never felt a twinge of guilt or pain at the suffering they caused. In America, manslaughter was committed on the hour - on the minute! - in an agony born of rage and pain or in circumstances as casual as a gang initiation. Dorian shuddered hard, caught his breath on a sob. By any other name it was still murder and it was still a rotten, lousy business. It was the business of those who ruled, those who sought power and personal gain and those whose vengeful passions over-whelmed their heart. God, there were so many ways to kill....
When it comes right down to it, Dorian wondered, helplessly, how will I accomplish it? How will I kill that man?