By Any Other Name
by Kay Reynolds
Several days later, Klaus von dem Eberbach was in a better frame of mind. He had a large thermos of coffee, a bag of scones and a mission. Sometime before dawn, there would also be sausage rolls with mustard. He would have preferred a beer with that but it was best to keep alcohol at bay when conducting a stake-out, especially a one-man stake-out.
Klaus took a sip of coffee and peered through his new Fujinon wide-angle, mini-binoculars. Lightweight and powerful, they were effective for either day or night use as well as waterproof against Britain's dreadful fog and damp. In addition, they boasted an automatic brightness control and infrared device - so useful for the close-up viewing and recording of maps, documents and various nocturnal wanderings. Altogether, the instrument was a fine investment. With its aid and an assortment of other surveillance equipment, Klaus had become very familiar with the comings and goings at Castle Red Gloria.
Papers were delivered at dawn; the daily post arrived at 11 a.m. In the evening, someone went into town to pick up more newspapers, tabloids, magazines and various articles. There was a constant flow of traffic moving in and out of the place. However, the Earl of Red Gloria, wasn't part of the parade; he had secreted himself away well within the stone walls. Klaus glimpsed him gazing out from the tower window from time to time, looking as wistful and hopeless as the young woman in his painting. But Klaus refused to be influenced by such a display; he remained on guard against sympathetic inclinations - especially now that he had decided to make it his business to investigate Eroica's "other commitments."
The Major was absolutely certain that the thief was up to no good. He was convinced that a capital crime was in the works, something so vast that Eroica had even kept it from his most trusted lieutenant. That's what Bonham must have inadvertently stumbled upon; that's what the Major had vowed to expose. Years ago, Klaus had promised himself - and everyone else within hearing distance - that he would have the pesky thief put away for 100 years! "They will have to remove your corpse from the cell!" he had raged. "Personally, I will see to it that you are not released until you have served your full sentence for the crimes you have committed."
"My dear Mr. Tank Commander," the brazen rascal had replied, "I had no idea you cared so much."
Klaus scowled, delighted, considering again. Little do you know, Herr Dieb... I will have you yet!
To that purpose, the Major was prepared. Klaus had his cameras set up, his scopes and his recording devices. The parameters were secured, all was well-camouflaged. Once Klaus had established the 24 hour pattern, he limited his personal observation to the night. After all, that's when Eroica would make his move. Now that the moon was on the wane, Klaus expected the time would come very soon.
The Major tried to relax beneath his shelter. This was a slow night and the wind was steadily working its way beneath his cover. November was an especially brisk month. Forecasters had been promising snow for days and Klaus could feel it in the air. Anticipation and adrenalin were still high but the Major was genuinely ready for something to happen.
He sighed. Finished his coffee. Screwed the cup-lid back onto the thermos. Secured that in his pack. Recently, Klaus had begun reading the works of the American author, Andrew Vachss. He found the fiction more than acceptable but had left his book back at the hotel. Klaus flexed the muscles in his arms and legs, working against the creeping cold. An hour earlier he had watched the main lights in the castle blink out one by one, trailing the housekeeper's path as he made his way from top to bottom. Klaus' monitors indicated that the main security system had been switched on - an impressive layout, discreet and subtle, an amazing and eclectic mixture of the antique and avant garde. Well, trust Eroica to know what he was about in this matter. Frown-lines in the Major's face deepened in a mixture of admiration and pleasure; the Stingy Bug must have pitched a pure, holy breath-holding-feet-kicking-fist-waving fit over the expense!
Finally, all that remained were the soft night lights glistening here and there behind the windows leaving the castle looking more and more like a child's vision of wonderland. Klaus cocked his head to one side, deliberating. All in all, the estate looked to be a safe, warm and amusing home. Filled with clutter, yes, top to bottom. Back in Bonn, Klaus had always complained that Eberbach House contained enough troublesome relics to fill six museums. Castle Red Gloria easily held twice that much and yet its aura of comfort was quite pervasive.
Klaus' frown dissolved into a half-smile; he had nearly been tricked into succumbing to that decadent atmosphere. He had become, as was usual in the thief's presence, very emotional. Very angry. Klaus stretched again, moving more like a cat than his namesake the wolf.
Two long, slow, cold hours later found the Major talking to himself again. Aloud.
"Kleiner Dieb," he whispered. "I thank you for your hospitality but this wolf is tired and cold with waiting. He is becoming very impatient. Oblige your frozen guest. Do something!"
As if in answer to his command, one of the monitors vibrated softly. An intense green-blue light began to flash. Movement near the northeast tower spiraled down through the hidden chapel exit - and outside!
It wasn't a fly in the soup, oh no. It wasn't even the guardian badgers frolicking about, sniffing for prowlers. Sensors indicated a definite human presence. Klaus tracked the movement with the Fujinon. It was unmistakably Eroica; his slim and supple body was sheathed in black - black boots, black leggings, fine kidskin gloves and a black suede jacket of some sort, its loose hood pulled up in a vain attempt at securing those sunflower curls. Klaus allowed himself a smile. The thief was definitely dressed to prowl. This was it.
Klaus made a slight adjustment on the binoculars. He felt, rather than heard, the camera click recording presence, date and time.
"All the better to convict you with, kleiner Dieb," he murmured. "And just where are you going this evening? Not that it matters ... I will follow you to the Tate Gallery, to Buckingham Palace, even to your Grandmother's house if that's what it takes. Wherever you are going, this wolf will follow."
Eroica disappeared into the garage. Klaus secured his material and shadowed - quickly! - towards his objective. Beneath the natural sounds of the night, he picked up a very quiet, very distinctive mechanical purr - the finely tuned engine of an Austin Healey Sprite followed by the soft crunch of gravel under rubber. It was a very stealthy sound, only a whisper of disturbance. Klaus bounded down the densely-forested incline and into his Mercedes.
Once on the road, Klaus kept as much distance as he could between them. The hour was late and the highway so sparse, he didn't want Eroica to pick up the tail. As they neared the city proper, the traffic increased and Klaus closed the distance. It was just as well. Eroica was a maniac behind the wheel. Following him required as much intuition as mechanical skill. The Sprite soared across several lanes and darted into an abrupt left. Klaus kept him in sight - barely.
He drives as if he knows I am here, the Major thought. It is as if he is trying to shake me off.
But Klaus reconsidered. Eroica always drove as if the rules of the road had been designed to keep everyone else out of his way. Speed limits and cautionary laws had been developed for lesser mortals. Do not panic now, the Major rebuked himself sternly.
Klaus stepped on the gas and followed, determined. It was not lost on him that they were entering a much less savory area of the city. What treasure could the thief be pursuing in this dismal pit of town?
They both slowed along a extended winding-snake trail of pitted asphalt and cobbled stone that wound itself over a series of canal bridges and narrow roads. The little Sprite was more suited for the navigation of these cramped byways. Still, the Major's Benz persisted. Klaus cursed again at an especially sudden turn.
And that was it. The Sprite's lights shut off as Eroica pulled into a narrow alley and parked. Klaus cruised on ahead, taking note of the position. He pulled over as soon as he could, shut off the engine and doubled back on foot.
Klaus' breath clouded the air outside of the Benz. The smell of the sea was strong although it wasn't an especially clean smell, not in this neighborhood. The purifying salt was burdened by the scent of rancid oil and things long drowned but not yet gone. Klaus scanned the alleys (by no stretch of the imagination could these passages be called `streets'.) He had seen slums like this before, tottering, ramshackle buildings heaving themselves up out of the garbage heaps that surrounded them. Every city had them.
The Major skirted the debris from a trio of overflowing trashcans and disappeared in the shadow of a crumbling stone wall. He couldn't actually see Eroica; he felt him. The air was charged with the thief's presence. It lifted the fine hair on the back of his neck, it settled in his stomach with the shock of a fist. Klaus could detect Eroica's scent soaring over the stench of rot and abused land. He took that route up a short flight of stairs and into another twisting lane.
Klaus spotted a series of row houses, Victorian-issue, each with its own little tower attached like a second-hand shrine. Every small square of yard was enclosed behind a rusting cast-iron fence. He detected some small but constant movement on the darkened stairway at the house on the far end. It was the only house to display a shingle, a sign which read, Dr. Victor T. Marsh - Private Music Instruction - Beginner to Professional. The lone advertisement struck an odd chord within; this wasn't the kind of neighborhood he would have expected to find a market for comprehensive music education. Still, such evidence leant credence to Eroica's interest. Klaus speculated on the possible booty; he would have bet money that it was another old painting, some passed-down-through-generations masterpiece belonging to some luckless (and probably not very good) music teacher. Perhaps it was some jeweled thingamabob that had seduced those lapis eyes. Still, Klaus shoved deliberation away; the bait didn't matter, that was not his objective.
Eroica's shadow flowed up the steps to the door. The thief moved like a stalking cat, no play to him at all. And that struck another odd note. Regardless, Klaus made himself into a phantom as he gauged the thief's progress. He raised the Fujinon again.
Eroica removed the lock pick from the cuff of his jacket.
Focus and click.
With little more than a twist of his hand, the door swung open.
Eroica moved so fast.
But not fast enough to escape modern technology.
Focus and click - click - click.
The thief paused for a moment, whirling suddenly to stare out over the night-black slum. The loose hood lost the war; sunlight tumbled out over Eroica's face and shoulders, brighter than a torch. Certainly brighter than those dim watt beacons placed to light the streets and doorways. Time drifted in an agonizingly slow stream as Eroica scanned the streets below. Klaus caught his breath. Held it.
Then Eroica returned to his business; he crossed the entryway and vanished inside the house.
Klaus' miniature camera captured it all on film.
Enjoy this game while you can, Eroica. Klaus' wolf-smile deepened. I wonder how you will play inside your prison cell?
Dorian closed the door behind him although he left it unlocked; he didn't expect to take very long and, in the event that a hasty departure was required, he knew this would help expedite the procedure. All was going according to plan - and yet....
And yet, he could not make himself feel good about this job.
In his time, Dorian Red Gloria had plundered hundreds of buildings. Truth to tell, he had lost count of the estates, museums, galleries, villas and vaults he had entered all through the expertise of his own hand. Still, these excursions had always carried the same sensation, an unmistakable aura of welcome! Dorian's beautiful objectives had all but leaped into his hands, welcoming his acquisitive caress like a new and impatient lover. It was as if these fabulous items had taken on life of their own, as if they had recognized and accepted his love and rejoiced at their rescue from the Philistines who possessed them.
But this job was different. This house didn't want him.
Worse, he could not help but feel that he was being followed, that his every movement right down to his every breath was being noted, recorded and judged. Dorian experienced the same tingle of dread and excitement he felt when confronting the Major's intense regard, whenever he had performed some deed Klaus disapproved of... or didn't understand.
I am behaving like an amateur, Dorian rebuked himself. No - a second-rate amateur. Take hold of yourself, Eroica. What would the Major say if he saw you like this?
The Earl sagged against the doorframe, considering.
As if he'd ever want to speak to me again after the shabby way I treated him. And after he'd been so kind, too. After we'd had such a lovely afternoon.... Dorian shook his head, resolute. Try not to be a bigger ass than you already are. You can't afford to dwell on that now. The best question to ask is - What would the Major do here? Answer - Get moving, idiot!
Dorian unzipped his jacket, checked the .45 automatic in his shoulder holster and moved out into the room. There was no need to examine the gun; he had already inspected it a thousand times before leaving the castle. And a few more times in the car for good measure. God, he'd almost missed the turn-off, hadn't he? Well, although pistols were not his forté, this would have to do. He would just have to make the best of it.
Dorian walked softly, listened hard. The house was full of all the little sounds one only noticed when breaking-and-entering; it was the kind of too-silent noise one always heard just before the approaching siren. The Earl smiled. He had always felt it so thoughtful of the local constabulary to broadcast an escape-warning.
Victor Marsh's home was still as obsessively neat as he'd noted in his earlier study. The room was as sterile as a catalog picture except for the rundown, third- and fourth-rate furniture littering the place. Sadly, it had never been good to start with. Cheap, threadbare rugs were placed about with geometric precision. The only piece with any class at all was the upright piano placed against one wall of the room. Even the prints on the wall were of the most mundane and unmemorable landscapes imaginable. Dorian could envision the landlord choosing them with such deliberate care; I need a series of atrocious grey-beige reproductions to go with an atrocious grey-beige room.... Yes, these will be fine.
The pictures alternated with the framed diplomas, degrees and citations all made out to Dr. Victor T. Marsh. The amazing thing here was that the man had never even bothered to change his name. He made a quick and thorough check of the top sitting room-kitchen floor. It was empty. Well, that was to be expected. But the bedrooms on the floor below were vacant as well and that was disappointing. No ... it was frustrating. Discouraging. And a tad frightening, too. It was after 3:00 a.m. when all good and bad men should have been tucked away except here, there was no one home. He could not bear it if he had to come back again. Dorian made another tour. Nothing.
The Earl came to a stop at the center of the top floor, a vantage point which allowed him a limited scan of every room at once - entryway, sitting room, kitchen, stairwell. Dorian took in a deep breath. Held it. Let it out slow.
I know you're here, you bastard. I just know it. He took a short step forward. Walking ... simply walking. I can feel something here. It's not right - it's not....
Dorian's eyes widened under thick, dark lashes. In the kitchen ... there were two doors in the kitchen. One for a shallow pantry, another opened onto a broom closet. Side by side, they were. He noted the unequal depths.
So where's the basement gone to, I wonder? Dorian's gloved fingers caressed the inside wall of the pantry shelf, searching, seeking. What a well-stocked cupboard you keep, Father Hubbard. And how out of date these groceries are, Dorian mused. You should speak with Mr. James about this lot, such an offer he would make you. Then again, if you ever even looked at my little Stingy Bug, I'd have to slice you in half.... Then again, Dr. Marsh, after tonight, it shouldn't actually matter. What an ugly building this is. Housed so many of these rotters, you've gone right over to them, haven't you? Don't reject me, love. I may not be down to your level but you'll find I'm quite capable of a twist or three. Like the Major says, I'm a man of pure malice. Really. I am.
A short section of molding depressed beneath Dorian's hand and the pantry shelving swung back, opening upon a steep stairway. The Earl peered down into darkness. The pit loomed before him; Dorian took out a small flashlight and played the beam over the steps.
"`... Give me a torch! Let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of a flower down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness even where Persephone goes, just now, from the frosted September to the sightless realm where darkness is awake upon the dark,'" Dorian murmured. Nothing like a bit of D. H. Lawrence to help one some attain of courage. Except that the month was actually November, he only carried a flashlight and he was certainly no immortal, goddess or otherwise.
The basement looked to be quite neat, as obsessively clean as the rooms above. But small scurryings rustled about, hurtling away from the sudden light. Dorian swallowed and hoped, Mice - it's only mice. But he knew better, the house was too near the wharves. The Earl held back a nervous sneeze and stepped down onto the wooden stairs, keeping close to the wall to avoid creaks.
Down below the rooms were considerably better, although very oddly furnished. Dorian found a pink bedroom, all lacy valentines, ruffles and rose satin. There were plastic cabbage roses in a mock Deco vase and little music boxes on the bureau. There were mirrors on the ceiling over the bed and twin vibrators in the nightstand drawer lying beside the steel handcuffs. The next room was much more stark - rough stone walls and manacles set into mortar. Dorian discovered a complex array of whips and stocks and other implements he only glanced at before turning away. The room opposite was set up as a photo lab, studio and storage area. Here Dorian found reams of glossy print paper, chemicals, video tape and movie cameras as well as a tripod-balanced camera designed for still work. There were lights, reflectors, a portable recorder, switcher and mixer and more equipment he didn't even recognize.
The last chamber was a child's room, a playroom. Dorian noted the fairy tale books on the shelves, bright colored balls, steadfast tin soldiers and ballerina dolls, round-bottomed slap-me clowns and stuffed tigers with big eyes and happy grins. The carpet was skylark blue and the sound-insulated walls were covered in drifting cloud, rainbow-speared wallpaper. Last, but by no means least, Dorian saw a large, bright red toy box near the center of the room, the lid fastened down - bolted and locked. He would have actually turned about and run at that sight, but actualization rooted him to the spot.
It's really here.... Dorian's breath dissolved into short, shallow gasps. The sudden sweat that slicked his skin went icy cold. He's painted over the old designs and replaced the lock. But I know that box, it's the same one ... the same.... I didn't make it up, Mother. It wasn't a lie.
His next and immediate impulse was to track Lady Red Gloria to the Baths or the Spa or whatever resort she'd stashed herself in, drag her back to London and present his evidence.
But Dorian couldn't do that, not now. Not when it was important to think - not just react. And he had to think! Had to plan what to do. With the terrible flash of vindication had come an equally startling truth.
"There is so much more going on here than I thought." The flashlight trembled in his hand. "I need help with this. I need Klaus."
Dorian began backing into the hallway - until a noise froze his escape. He listened to the room, every sense open and on full-alert. The sound came again, a faint scrabbling not too different from the patter of the rats in the walls he'd heard earlier.
But this came from inside the toy chest.
Dorian knew that sound wasn't mice. It wasn't rats.
The Earl swallowed a lump of outraged despair and rushed towards the box. He knelt down, holding the slim light steady with his teeth, plucking just the right tool from his cuff. Victor Marsh had changed the lock all right but he hadn't chosen anything better. Dorian couldn't think to be happy or sad about that. There was work to be done. Who knew how much time was left to do it?
Instantly, Dorian's thief's instincts began a slow, steady clarion up the back of his spine. He had to move now! Had to move fast! It wasn't insomnia, wasn't a holiday that took Victor Marsh from his home. No, he had business, too. Whatever the man had left behind, he would be coming back to finish - and soon, too.
The lock popped open under the Earl's expert touch, just as he'd known it would. The lid to the chest sprang up at the release and Dorian raised it the rest of the way. A stale scent of urine, chemicals and damp cloth drifted out to greet him. Next came a pair of large, liquid brown eyes that blinked back under the flashlights yellow beam. Dorian shifted the glare away from the child's face.
The boy yawned and rubbed at his eyes. He hiccuped once and gaped up at the Earl. Dorian gaped back.
Direct from Bombay, the Earl guessed. Or more likely Picadilly Circus. How old can he be - four years? Five? Someone, somewhere is in hell over you right now. Dorian stretched out his fingers to touch the dried tears on the child's face. He was pleased to see his hand didn't shake. More pleased when the boy didn't flinch away from him.
Dorian slipped out of his jacket.
"It's cold outside, darling," he whispered. "Bundle up now. I'm taking you home. All right? Okay?"
The boy allowed himself to be hoisted out of the toy chest and wrapped in Dorian's coat. The Earl hefted him up against his shoulder and made for the stairs. Once they were actually moving, the boy twisted his hands into Dorian's hair and held on.
"Deva!" he announced in a loud, childish treble. "Deva, deva, deva!"
"No, not quite," Dorian insisted, stifling alarm. He didn't want to frighten or startle the child. The Earl placed his finger against his lips, the universal symbol for silence. "You can't talk now, darling. We're playing the quiet game, all right? You know that one? Lips move - no sound. Whoever makes the least noise wins, understand?"
Whether he understood or not, the child went quiet. He settled against the Earl's shoulder and did not speak again.
Dorian ran for the stairs.
Klaus fumed almost quietly in the alley. He might have passed the time better with a cigarette but he wouldn't chance the attention a light might bring.
"God-fucking-damnit," the Major cursed under his breath. "He is taking too damn long up there."
Another problem with one-man surveillance. Hard to post a watch on all exits when working alone. It was downright impossible as a matter of fact. There was nothing for it but to check matters out for himself.
He lost no more time in making his way up the stairs. Klaus knocked softly, just in case. There was no answer. He tried the door and found Eroica had left it unlocked which was damn convenient - and a sign, Klaus was sure, that the thief had not yet departed. He fastened the lock behind him as he stepped inside. Eroica would not be leaving so quickly through this exit, not without calling attention to himself, Klaus thought.
The air was different inside, the Major noted, sterile with a veneer of advancing decay. Klaus took note of the layout, the furnishings and the framed documents on the wall. These citations and diplomas were from good schools and impressive institutions although most were dated twenty to thirty years ago. Still, the name backed up the advertisement on the shingle. He would have to rethink the doctor's musical ability; these kind of awards were not given away lightly.
Which only made the current set of circumstances that much more peculiar. Why was a man like Victor T. Marsh working in this pesthole?
Klaus wasted no time in his investigation. He moved quickly, eliminating one room at a time, taking the stairs to the floor below. Bedrooms here, one clearly used as an office. The Major went to the desk and opened it up. He found some brief correspondence regarding tutorial concerns and disability pensions. Standard information. There were a few bills and a checkbook with a balance in excess of £60,000. Klaus raised an eyebrow. Disability relief paid better than he would have imagined.
There were several photo albums stacked on the bookshelf over the desk. The Major selected a few at random and thumbed through. Two contained copies of music reviews and programs. Others held a multitude of school snapshots, all photos of young boys. Previous students, Klaus determined. So, I see Victor Marsh was a professor of music at some very distinguished schools. He picked up another album and paged through it quickly. It was difficult to date the photographs; most of the children were wearing uniforms which had been a tradition of long standing when they entered the school. Their children's son's would wear these exact same style of garments when they were sent away to school. Klaus was very familiar with the conventions of boarding academies, having grown up in such environments himself.
He prepared to close and replace the last album when a particular picture caught his eye and made him hesitate. The Major took a closer look and frowned taking in the youthful features - wide blue eyes, heart-shaped face, heart-breaking bone structure, an expressive strawberry mouth set below a prominent, aristocratic nose and all surrounded by a halo of pale, yellow curls. Klaus would have recognized this face at any age. This boy was Eroica.
Or, to be more precise, little Lord Dorian, the future Earl of Red Gloria. What an exotic and entrancing cherub the Earl had made. Your arrows are sparkling, little Eros, right there in your bright, blue eyes. Mein Gott, you were a handful even then. Klaus replaced the album carefully, considering. The connection is here, he thought. Despite the November cold, the rooms were of a decent temperature. Still, the Major felt a chill at his discovery.
Klaus continued his search, rifling through the rest of the desk drawers, exploring a battered and mostly barren file cabinet. Eroica is a professional thief but you, Dr. Marsh, are an amateur. An amateur would not live in such a hole and leave such a bankbook for someone like me to find. Klaus paused, studying the room. He shook his head, taking in the decor. These pictures are so dreadful. Even I would not live with such atrocities. Is this the prize, then? What would Eroica find of interest in work like this? Gott, there are so many of them ... . Who would have thought this much bad art would exist in one place? Who would have thought anyone, even Dr. Marsh, would hang these on his walls?
The answer to that came quickly enough. It struck the Major with all the impact of a blow.
Dr. Marsh is a collector, Klaus understood. He likes pictures, he likes to see his collection around him. He records everything. Keeps everything. He is an egotist, he wants - no, he must have his diplomas and credentials out where he can see them all the time. So....
Klaus crossed over to the first picture on the wall. Lifted it down, turned it over. He found a much different reproduction on the other side. The Major toured the room, relentless, taking the pictures down, turning them over - replacing the wall hangings on the hooks the way they were meant to be shown. The way Dr. Marsh kept them when he was at home.
The process took longer than Klaus would have guessed. When he was finished, the Major stood in the center of the room and gazed around him. The bed-office room had been transformed from its bland and tasteless monotony into a little pit of hell.
Be it ever so humble ... Klaus thought and faltered. Sex crimes were not his specialty. He tried to work himself back into a sense of righteous indignation or even embarrassment but all he could feel was horror.
These photographs had been expertly, even lovingly reproduced, matted and framed. All of the subjects were young and male. The prevailing theme was sexual with an emphasis on discipline. Apparently, some of the scenes had been shot in the house. Others had been taken at various schools. But there was a limit to Marsh's specialized interests; Klaus saw much of the same theme repeated over and over although it didn't make the pictures any easier to look at. The identical expression of shattered trust, fear and shame was locked onto each young face. These photographs were a tribute to debauchery, to the deliberate and willful ruin of innocence. Klaus stalked out of the room and peered again into Marsh's bedroom. He looked up the stairs towards the sitting room-kitchen. He noted dozens of frames mounted on every wall. The picture-glass glittered with the sheen of a slug's trail.
Klaus was pale; his mouth had gone very dry. How was Dorian Red Gloria involved in all this? Where was he? It had been over an hour since he'd lost sight of the Earl. Fear settled in beside the knot of anger in his stomach.
Upstairs, Klaus heard the rattle and creak of wood as the front door was unlocked and opened. This was followed by the sound of men entering the room - two pairs of feet. No, three - one with a cane? Yes. A dim light snapped on. There came the brash chatter of voices.
Klaus took out his gun and made his way upstairs, keeping to the shadows at the far side of the wall.
Dorian came to a halt inside the kitchen door; he peered cautiously around the corner. Three men were entering the house. Two were on the south side of middle-age, unremarkably dressed in top coats and basic business attire. One sported a dark blue blazer but he was short and the garment had been purchased when he had been pounds lighter. The gun he wore under the coat created a distinctive bulge.
"You're a fucking pain in the ass, Marsh." His voice was distinctly American and casually surly. "All we want to do is pick up the goods and make the drop off."
"You needn't be in such a rush, gentlemen," Dr. Marsh limped into the room, closing the door behind them.
"Business before pleasure, doctor." That was the other, tall and twitchy. His jacket floated around him like the rags on a scarecrow's frame.
Dorian swallowed, thinking, Balls - and that one's armed, too. Don't even think he's not. Still... so am I.
The Earl cradled the child against his shoulder, took the .45 from its holster. Swallowed again.
And stepped out into the room.
"Please don't make any sudden moves," Dorian said firmly.
Still hidden within the edge of the stairwell, Klaus grimaced and thought, Schieß - Dorian has a gun?! The Earl's lack of prowess with modern weapons was legendary.
But Dorian kept his weapon steady.
"Stand away from the door, please," he announced. "We will be leaving now."
"What the fuck is this, Marsh?" Surly snapped. "Who is this guy?"
Doctor Marsh hesitated only briefly before he answered, "Gentlemen, may I present Dorian Red, the Earl of Red Gloria." He smiled. "The Earl is one of my former students, one of my boys."
"I was never one of your `boys,'" Dorian snapped. "Let us be very clear about that."
"Of course. You were the one who got away. Still, I always knew you'd be back. And...." Doctor Marsh shrugged. "Here you are."
"It's not what you think. I only mean to end what should have never started all those years back."
"You mean your plans have changed? Certainly not on our account."
Dorian indicated the child in his arms. "No - his."
"Great," Surly groaned. "We ain't got time for this."
"Make time," Dorian purred with unmistakable menace. "And stand away from the door. Now."
To his unending surprise, the three men did just that. They might have moved with reluctance, but move they did heading towards the stairwell. Dr. Marsh trailed behind the others, limping heavily, supported by a gnarled, wooden cane.
"Forgive me," he said. "I haven't moved quickly in many years. Not since your father's last visit. But you know all about that."
Dorian backed carefully towards the exit, keeping the men in view, keeping the .45 level. "I have no idea what you're talking about," he said. "I could care less."
"Is that so? I would have thought differently." In his darkened heart, the old man had never left the classroom. Professorial condescension laced his voice. "I have kept some track of you and your family since I was forced to leave my post. I can't believe your father never told you about that - how he saw to it that my career was finished? He never regaled you with how he managed this?" Marsh indicated his cane, his maimed legs. "He never understood, none of them understood, how it was for me and my children. You did, even as a child. Your understanding... it frightened you at first, that's what caused you to run as you did. But it's what finally brought you back to me."
"I only had one reason for finding you," Dorian said softly.
"You mean you've come to kill me," Marsh concluded. "For what I did to you - or what I failed to finish?"
The Earl had gone very still, standing just before the door. He aimed the gun at Marsh's face - but confusion warred with the fury in his eyes.
"I don't believe you can pull that trigger." Doctor Marsh took one halting step towards the Earl. Then another. "I don't believe you have it in you to kill. Men, such as ourselves, were made for other things... forteaching, for stealing, yes - and for loving."
Dorian's face went the color of chalk. The child in his arms felt his alarm and made a sound, huddling closer against his shoulder. Dorian held him tighter, the .45 trembled perceptibly. The mood in the room altered at that. Marsh's smile became a sneer.
"I knew you couldn't do it," he said.
But Dorian lunged forward, lashing out with the gun at Marsh's head. With an agility that belied the Doctor's handicap, Marsh ducked down beneath the blow. Dorian only cuffed him lightly, grazing the man's temple.
Marsh raised his cane and slammed it into the Earl's ribs. Sickened, Klaus saw Dorian go down, curling himself around the child's body as he dropped. The boy screamed, loud and shrill. Surly and Scarecrow charged forward.
Then Klaus was out of the stairwell. He caught Surly's shoulder. Whipped him about and into Scarecrow. He shoved the heel of his hand up into the bridge of his nose, felt the face flatten and pulp under the blow. Surly's eyes rolled back and then his body went down - and stayed there. Scarecrow pulled his gun. He was fast, infinitely faster than his partner, but Klaus was ready.
Dorian rolled away from Marsh's foot. The doctor kicked at him again, chasing him across the floor like a manic windmill, arms, legs and cane flailing. The boot glanced off Dorian's hip and made him cry out. The boy continued to cling to him, keening non-stop. Dorian couldn't release him; he couldn't scramble enough distance to get to his feet and maneuver either. He threw himself out of Marsh's advance, crashed against a small table and into the wall. Then there was a sound of gunfire - two shots!
That broke the rhythm between them. Marsh hesitated briefly. Dorian was able to look up.
"Klaus!" The Major's name rose on a mixture of fear and hope in Dorian's voice.
Scarecrow's bullet had impacted the wall by Klaus' head, close enough for the Major to feel it pass. Scarecrow, himself, wasn't as fortunate. Iron Klaus never missed. The tall wraith dropped to the floor, dead before he landed.
Dorian tried to call out again. Marsh, however, raging, refused to give up. If nothing else, he would have a hostage, a shield. The doctor whipped his cane back, brought it down across Dorian's shoulders, snatched at the boy in his arms.
The Earl struggled away, shielding the child. Bright sparks whirled and danced before his eyes. Marsh raised his cane one last time. Klaus fired; his second shot. The wood burst into splinters and scattered down around them like a thousand angry wasps.
Doctor Marsh nearly fell himself, carried along by his own momentum. He stopped himself against the wall, held himself up. The anger drained out of him once he caught the expression on Klaus' face. He raised his hands, backing away from Dorian and the boy, moving slowly and very cautiously.
Dorian moaned, half dazed. Klaus crossed the room to stand beside him. He reached down, offering his hand. The Earl accepted it gratefully.
"Can you stand?" Klaus growled.
Dorian nodded, silent. He struggled up to his feet, determined. Sagged against the wall for a moment, getting his breath, getting his balance back. He waited for the room to stop spinning.
"You are an idiot coming in here alone," Klaus said, sincerely. "A hopeless idiot."
"No, darling. Hopeful - there's a difference."
"Gut, you are making jokes. You must be all right?"
Klaus kept hold of Dorian's arm. The Earl nodded - carefully.
"And the boy?" Klaus demanded.
"Frightened to death... but he's not hurt."
"That is well," Klaus said. "We will be making phone calls shortly. We will finish things here. Can you secure that man over there, the big one? I believe he is still alive. Doctor Marsh and I must have a talk."
"Klaus, you won't believe what I found in the basement," Dorian began. "It's... it's - When I came here, I didn't know. I...."
Words stopped in his throat. Klaus moved his hand from Dorian's arm to his shoulder. Concerned and confused, the Earl gazed up at him. This close, his blue eyes were enormous, deep enough to fall into and drown.
"I don't know why you're here," Dorian whispered. "And I don't care. But, God, I'm glad to see you."
"We will also talk," Klaus growled, embarrassed. He turned back to Doctor Marsh. "But first we will have a conversation. Downstairs, I am thinking."
"But my cane ... I can't walk -" Marsh began.
"I believe that you move well enough on your own. And we will walk very slowly, Doctor." Klaus' smile had returned. He was almost cheerful. "If you experience any difficulty, I will be glad to assist you. Come along with me."
Marsh walked slowly; he had transformed into an old and fragile man. He made his way towards the stairwell with difficulty. Klaus followed closely.
"Wait," Dorian gasped, suddenly panicked. He caught the Major's arm. "You don't have to ... this isn't your...."
Klaus frowned gently. "Take care of the boy," he said. He looked down to where the Earl's long, slim finger's restrained him. "Look at that - your hand is bleeding ... and bruised, too. You will need an ice pack for that."
Dorian faltered, catching his lower lip between his teeth. He couldn't quite meet the Major's eyes.
"You were going to do it, weren't you?" Klaus said, frankly. "I wondered at that, watching you there - did the gun jam or did you just forget to release the safety? Ja, I thought so. You should stick to your knives, Herr Dieb, they are more reliable weapons for you."
Color flooded the Earl's face but he could not let Klaus go. "Don't," he whispered. "It's not worth it. He's not worth soiling your hands."
"But this is my job." Klaus pried Dorian's hand loose; his touch was quite delicate but also firm. "My duty. This is what I do."
Stricken, Dorian let him go. It wasn't as if he had any genuine choice in the matter - or the will to stop him anyway. The boy wept quietly, winding down a bit. The Earl gave him what comfort he could, watching Klaus follow Victor Marsh out of the room. The darkness swallowed those broad shoulders too quickly.
Allow me to do what I do best, that's what Klaus was telling him. Allow me to be what I am. Dorian could have no more stopped him than he could have prevented a wild wolf from hunting.
For a short time, the Earl listened to Marsh's heavy, uneven footsteps on the stairs. He remembered how that foot felt slamming into his hip, his ribs. Silence came next, dragging into a time that seemed to last days. Then the questions began nagging at him. What had Marsh meant by saying his father had ruined him, crippled him? Was it only another charade? How would he ever learn those answers?
Dorian placed the child on one of the ugly, overstuffed armchairs. The boy had nearly passed out from exhaustion and terror. The Earl began searching for something to bind the surly American. The man's nose still gushed a small fountain of blood but his chest continued to rise and fall. Surly showed no sign of waking, but Klaus had said to make the thug secure so Dorian would do that. He found a roll of packing tape in one of the kitchen drawers. Actually, he found quite a lot of mailing supplies. Dorian tried not to think about all the things they had been used for, all the other packages Marsh had fastened up. He tried not to think.
He's killing him for me.... Dorian swiped at the tears that glistened on his face. Just like he killed that monster in Cairo. Klaus....
There came a sudden, loud and miserable wailing from the rooms below. The sound of a cornered beast, trapped and afraid, the fight all gone out of it. Dorian bit back a scream, he clamped his hands over his mouth. The hair lifted on the back of his neck, his arms.
There was a roar of a single shot.