Category: Crossover – Eroica/Strange Luck
Bait And Switch By Catt Kingsgrave-Ernstein Part I
Category: Crossover – Eroica/Strange Luck
Bait And Switch
By Catt Kingsgrave-Ernstein
Chance studied the streetmap on the back of the stop schedule as the bus lurched away from the curb. Beside him, the bag which contained his cameras, his wallet, and therefore his life rocked precariously. He grabbed it without looking, almost by reflex, shoved it farther back on the seat. All things considered, he was the last on in the world to want to push his luck…such as it had been today.
He leaned back into the tatty seat, turned his map upside down in case it made more sense that way, then sighed and looked out his window, thinking longingly of his car, California, and a better map.
Of course, he told himself as Chicago scrolled past the grimy window, If I was in California, that hotel might have had a secure garage, so my car might still have been there when I woke up this morning, and I wouldn’t really need a map then, would I?
But California was half a country away (and for all he knew, so was his car) and he was stuck in the Windy City, trying to find a Museum he’d never heard of before, on a map the size of his driver’s license.
The worst part was that Audrey would be totally unsympathetic, even if she knew. Not that she was cold – Chance had known her far too well for that – but one thing was, and always had been certain with her; work not only came first, it was almost all there was to be had. She had worked for years to become the Photo Editor of the Examiner, the paper and its pictures were not only of paramount importance to her, she couldn’t ever really fathom that they might not be to everyone else.
And right now, Audrey wanted pictures of Wilhelm Eizen A.K.A. the Mutilator’s first US exhibit. She didn’t want to hear about stolen cars – he could almost hear her demanding to know why anyone would want to steal a junk heap like that anyway. (Well, he wanted to know too, every time it got stolen!) And she certainly didn’t want to hear about him getting lost in Chicago.
He spied the lighted sign of a gas station up ahead, and pulled the stop cord. At lease there he could get directions, or at least a decent map. A lottery ticket wouldn’t hurt his wallet any either.
The bus slowed as he began making his way through the sea of feet and parcels in the aisle, then lurched and slued violently with a shrieking hiss as the driver slammed on the hydraulic brakes. Chance managed to avoid chinning himself on the handrail, but careened into the luckless passenger beneath instead.
“Sorry,” He mumbled, releasing his death-grip on his bag long enough to climb off the man and straighten his clothes a little. The man grinned through his sandy mustache at him and waved the apology away.
“Eh, T’salright, not your fault then, izzit? T’s Kami-bloody-kazy yank drivers it it.”
“Huh?” Buried in the microcosmic chaos of jostled passengers, Chance found the man’s accent all but indecipherable, especially with the tantalizing glimpse of a dark haired woman running away from the bus to distract him from pleasantries of conversation.
“Oh, sure. Where’d you think the bleedin’ Japanese got the idear? T’s watchin’ you blokes drive on the wrong side, it was!” The man laughed and shook his head. “Ere, you alright old son?”
Chance jumped as the man lay a hand on his sleeve. Outside the bus, another screeching of tires heralded the appearance of a silver Mercedes. They both watched as the car jounced partway up onto the curb, narrowly missing the bus and a newspaper machine before it slid to a stop. Two men in tan coats leapt out and ran off in the direction that the dark woman had gone. Both had guns.
The man in the seat seemed to have lost his train of thought, mutely handing the camera bag up when Chance asked for it, and sliding down in his seat; eyes glued to the alley the little parade had taken. Chance too watched the street, but looked away long enough to get the bus’s rear door open and get to the pavement.
With a glance at the gas station, he gave up all thoughts of not getting sidetracked and dove into the shadows of the alley, cushioning his cameras against him as he ran.
He came through the other side just in time to catch a glimpse of one of the coats – the blonde one with short hair – disappearing into a hotel near the end of the block. The revolving door spun in his wake, telling of someone – several someones – being in a considerable hurry. He sprinted for the hotel.
The lobby was empty – or nearly. The bellboy stood blinking owlishly at Chance from the shadow of a fake fichus tree.
“Where’d he go? The guy just came through here – tall, light hair—”
The boy pointed to the lone elevator. “I think he’s gone to the roof.”
“Great.” Chance swore to himself, remembering the woman’s dark eyes and ashen face as she’d fled. “Where’s the stairs?”
He only made it four flights up before meeting the immovable object. All things considered, with the dash from the bus stop, he wouldn’t have made it to the roof at a dead run anyway. The man with the Doberman just enforce the triumph of good sense over Chance’s paladin instinct.
In Chance Harper’s book, anything with teeth as long as a knuckle of hand got right of way over him – especially when it made a show of those teeth like the Doberman did. At least the dog’s owner apologized as Chance hastily vacated the landing, shutting the stair door against any crazy ideas on the Doberman’s part.
I’ll never catch her at this point. He wheezed, leaning against the window. I’ll bet she’s long… The woman appeared in the blind alley below, careened into a chain link fence, then put her back to it – a fox brought to bay with the hounds bearing down. Chance could see the white knuckles of her hand wound through the fence, as if she thought of climbing, but knew she wouldn’t make it.
Gotcha! He shoved the window open, noting with gratitude that it seemed to be will oiled, and slipped through it to the fire escape. From there, the scene was more complete, and a grimmer sight for the would-be rescuer.
One of the men – the one with the long, black hair – stood squarely in the mouth of the alley, pistol unwavering in his hands, trained on the girl. Who, Chance now noticed, had one of her own pointed back at the man.
Hmph. Maybe she doesn’t need rescuing. Chance thought, easing his camera bag to the metal grating of the fire escape as the man called something, his voice harsh, the words alien. But as least I can get a shot of this – local paper might pick it up.
The woman shook her head and shouted back, and Chance identified the language as German. She tightened her grip, leaning into her weapon and Chance wrestled with the bag, flipping back the top as last, and shoving is hand inside to find…
Something cold and lumpy and smoothly, utterly un-camera like.
What the Hell?! He almost swore aloud, fighting to get a grip on whatever it was as the man called out angrily again. It was heavy and awkward, and caught the interior straps as if to spite him. He gave it a harder tug and it tore loose, costing Chance his precarious balance.
He sat down, hard against the metal banister, wincing as his head hit something that scraped loudly and toppled away. He turned just in time to see the dislodged flowerpot land with an explosive smash.
The man jumped, half turning – just enough that the woman’s shot caught his arm, not his chest. He whirled back into the alley as from above, two more shots rang the air.
The blonde! Chance remembered as the woman sprinted over the fallen man’s body and out of the alley. He squinted up, met the cold blue eyes, glaring from directly above him. The man’s gun was already coming to bear…
Chance was through the window before the man could fire, bolting for the stairs with both hands full and without the nerve to stop and wonder why. No matter how often it happened, Chance never really got used to people shooting at him.
This, he reminded himself as he hit the revolving door at a run, is exactly why Audrey keeps telling you not to get sidetracked!!
It was three blocks from the bus stop to George Mcalfin’s shop, but Bonham was relatively familiar with the walk – he’d made it enough in the past few weeks that he thought he could likely make it walking backward and blindfolded all the way if not for the street toughs and vagrants.
Still, Chicago was no worst than the West End of London – streets just as mean, and just as shallow, and just as easy to navigate for one who’d grown up among the predators. Sharks were sharks, no matter the stripe.
Hmph. Serve tightwad James right if I did lose a shipment on the way to the fences. Maybe he’d finally pop for a rental.
With a chuckle, the Englishman shifted the bag to his other shoulder as a school of young angst-mongers lit up along the sidewalk. A couple of them eyed him as he passed, judging the weight of his bag and the grip of his hand. Bonham met their eyes – not enough to challenge, but to remind them of the difference between prey and suicide.
It seemed they knew well enough not to bother him. Not that dealing with them would have proven any real challenge – the work that he did for the Earl of Red Gloria (or rather, for Eroica) had inured him to such minor aggravation as that. What had really worried him was that he might have had to do something that would have caught the attention of that damned, inconvenient Major Eberbach.
What the sodding ‘ell is NATO intelligence doing in Chi-bloody-town anyway? Bonham frowned, chewing at his mustache. I’d’ve sworn that one was off chasing Arabs or the like! NATO attention’s the last thing ‘is lordship needs just now. He shook his head once more.
All things being equal though, Bonham supposed that he should have expected an operation of this scale to hit snags eventually. It was much bigger, more involved than anything they’d tried to do before. Even the (ahem) “work” the Earl eternally wound up doing for the ice-bound Major didn’t hold a candle to this…crusade.
Eroica had been steadily cleaning out the Mutilator’s store of precious victims over the past three months, and working with Lovejoy and a handful of others to replace the antiquities with fakes – valuable, excellent fakes, but fakes nonetheless. A hideously expensive operation that had nearly induced apoplexy in the Earl’s accountant, but one that Eroica ‘family’, the entire art world in face (barring a certain tasteless post-modern heresy movement, and Mr. James in moments of extreme financial outrage) considered vital, essential, and the will of God.
“Nothing else to do about it,” Dorian had told them all. – “There’s absolutely nothing legal that anyone can do to stop him. He’s buying all the originals, not stealing them. Ask any government in the world, and they’ll say it’s his property, he can do as he likes with it.” The Earl had burned with a flame of righteous indignation, blue eyes sparking a fire as he’d explained the heresy to his closest aides and friends. “It’s barbaric if you ask me, but no one ever accused Post-Modernists of having taste…or morals.”
“Yeh. Just look at that Pollock ponce.” Bonham mused, turning into Mcalfin’s shop. “Come to that, no talent neither.”
Desoto met him at the door, teeth bared in his best doggie ‘get lost’ grin. Bonham knew better than to flinch this time, grabbing the Doberman’s ear and tugging if firmly. The absurd thing yelped once, then its stumpy little tail started going great guns. It still gave Bonham the creeps, this S & M Greeting ritual that Mcalfin had trained into his pet, but he had to admit, not many robbers would think of it before Desoto tore into their leg.
“So you sick pup, where’s yer Master then?” Bonham asked, fending off the beast’s tongue once he’d let go of the ear. Mcalfin’s basso chuckle from the shadows of the back answered his question. Bonham shoved past the dog and followed the sound, expecting to blunder into a million things in the dark, and to have George charge him for every one.
As it happened, though, he mostly just ran into the dog before Mcalfin switched on the light at him. “Have a seat, Bonny. So what’d you bring me this week?”
Bonham claimed a char, nudging the dog away with as much emphasis as he could muster shy of a kick. (He didn’t want to encourage the beast.) “Dogs.”
Mcalfin’s wide face wrinkled into a grin. “What, you don’t think Desoto’s enough for me?”
“You don’t wan to ask what I think of Desoto, mate.” Bonham restrained a glare, but only just.
The fence laughed as his pet all but climbed Bonham’s lap. “Aw, smatter? He likes you plenty.”
“Yeh well git ‘im off me leg before he likes me a whole lot more than is good for ‘im!”
“Desoto! Good dog!” And the beast slung off, with a final, longing look toward Bonham’s knee. He watched it go with no small relief. “So.” Mcalfin continued, “You brought me dogs. Prcelain, I presume?”
Bonham shook his head. “Better. Jade, these are. Temple dogs, nicked off a shrine in Vietnam durin’ the Frog occupation. Appraiser said they were carved about the eleventh century. Think you can find ‘em a home then?”
For all that the man’s taste in pets made a person wonder, once George Mcalfin got down to his work, there wasn’t a sharper fence in the business… well, not in America, anyway. “Eleventh you say? Bronte sold a couple a jade Fu’s here this April – some German bought ‘em, but still. I’d have to move ‘em to the west. Chinatown mebbe.” He pulled his glasses on. “You got ‘em here?”
“Aye.” Bonham hefted the bag to the table, unzipped, reached in, and pulled out a camera. A nice one too, with a top notch lens, timer, auto-wind too it looked like.
But it wasn’t even remotely like a jade Fu dog.
Bonham ignored Mcalfin’s amused look, frantically scrolling back the frames of memory. Had it in the hotel – I bloody well checked them in the lobby. Looked in the bus too, before the little girl sat down… He considered her for a moment, then dismissed the idea as absurd. She’d been eleven at best, and he’s not let go the strap the entire time she’d been in the seat.
I didn’t let go the strap till that yank bus driver tried to run someone over…and… Oh bleedin’ hell! “Look,” he coughed, replacing the camera carefully. “Can I use your telephone?”
There were parts of his job that Major Klaus Von dem Eberbach loved. Getting shot was definitely not among them, especially when it accomplished nothing. Nor were dealing with nosey American nurses who wanted more to interrogate him on his life and insurance history than to treat the damned bullet wound so he could get back to work.
He swore under his breath again and reached over to jab in the cigarette lighter. “Not that there is work to return to.” He growled, fidgeting the seat belt impatiently as agent Z navigated the Chicago traffic with infuriating care. “Mein Gott, will you speed up?” he exploded. “The smugglers will be out of the country before you get us to HQ!”
The lighter popped, and he snatched it out. “Sir, we’re almost there,” Z said quietly as Klaus blew out a great cloud of frustration.
“Almost! Bah! Almost means nothing! Nothing!! I almost had Bearcat today! She almost managed to shoot me! You almost managed a shot a twelve-year-old with a slingshot could have made with his eyes closed! What do either of us have to show for this? Tell me, eh?!” Klaus drew black smoke in, hard and fierce. “Nothing.” The word hung in the smoke before him.
“Who was the man. The one who helped her escape – besides you, I mean.” Klaus shot a glare at his white-lipped agent, but Z just shook his head.
“An onlooker. I’ve never seen him before. He wasn’t with her when we picked up her trail.”
“I know that, but who is he?” Klaus demanded. “Onlookers in American cities do not get involved – even you know this, so who is he? Why didn’t we know there would be a second agent here with her?”
“Sir, I really don’t think he was an agent. He didn’t even have a gun—”
“Nein, you do not think, do you?!” Klaus pinned the other agent with his best glare as the shadow of the parking garage swallowed the car. “It’s called a diversion, and you do not need a gun to create one!”
Z didn’t answer, pulling the Mercedes into the parking space briskly. Klaus was out of the car and striding toward the garage elevators even before the engine died. “Go straight to agent M. I want a drawing of the man before I have to look at you again. We cannot afford chances here, Z.” He ground out his cigarette as the agent came up behind him, both their faces reflected grim in the streaked metal doors. “This is plutonium, not drugs, not firearms, not information. This time there is no room to fail.”
The doors opened and he stepped in, palming the security plate under the button control then keying in the basement. “I must have Bearcat and her ‘merchandise’ before she meets her buyer. Do you understand me, Agent Z?”
“Not quite, Sir.” Klaus rounded on his subordinate, furious retort poised, but Z pressed on. “I mean yes, I understand the issue, but this is only reactor grade plutonium, not weapons grade. Now I know that it’s still illegal for the Soviet – er, the Russian stats to be selling it to whoever asks, but—” His voice trailed off at Klaus’ withering stair.
The doors opened, Klaus ignored them, waiting for his agent to sweat out his ignorance. Finally, when the doors hissed shut again, the Major spoke, voice low, honeyed over with fury so raw it stung the air.
“Even from you I did not expect such ignorance! It is still plutonium!!” His voice rose to a shout, deafening and gratifying in the tiny elevator. “It will still explode if built into a bomb, and the difference in grade means only that a few thousand less will die! Lieber Gott!”
He stabbed at the open button and stormed out, hissing as he clipped his bandaged arm on the sluggish doors. “Get me that drawing!” He shouted, “Then get me a visual match form the image file!”
Klaus hit the doors with every ounce of frustration he could muster, and was rewarded with a satisfying crash from the doors, and a moment of stunned silence from the twenty agents behind them. They were too well trained to stare for long, however, which was good for Klaus’ temper. At least, he noticed as they all returned to their various make-work tasks, a few surreptitiously putting their guns away, they were not all caught flat on their asses!
“Someone get on the modem line to the main computer at HQ,” he barked, striding through the jumble of desks. “I want the entire image file on male agents under 50, retired and active.” He brushed past the phone station and its attendant agent. “I want it in twenty minutes.”
“Sir?” He halted, glaring down at the agent wearing the headset. “I – that is, it’ll be a while. We have to use the secure ling and…”
“Then use it! What’s the problem?”
“It’s agent A, sir. He’s on the secure line, right now, Major.”
They are idiots. I am surrounded by morons! Klaus stifled the impulse to strike the man. “Then clear the line and follow my order! Agent A can use the radio like the rest of you—”
“Sir?!” The man’s horrified expression was his first clue; something had happened.
“Agent A has reacquired, Sir.” Agent D supplied helpfully. “He’s been on her trail for the last thirteen minutes.”
“WAS!?” Klaus all but snatched the headset off the agent’s head. “A, report your location and status at once!”
There was a strange noise, somewhere between a strangled gasp and a solid thunk. Klaus guessed A had dropped the phone. “Oh, sorry sir. They told me you were out—”
“Nevermind that, A.” Klaus reined in the volume this time. “Report. I need your location and direction. Hurry man!”
“Yes Sir. I’m on Chrysler Street, North side of the River, about two blocks from the Washington Street bridge. She’s stopped sir.”
“Gut! I will have backup to your location in…” He checked his watch, then looked up. H was waving one splayed hand at him. “Five minutes. Where it the other one?!”
“Sir? She’s been alone since I picked her up – Wait!”
“What? What is it?!” Klaus dimly heard the office door slam as the agents raced out, dimly certain that they would be too late.
“She’s approaching a car Sir! A brown…sedan. I don’t recognize the make, but it’s old. Two passengers. I think this is it, Sir!”
“Damn!” Klaus scrambled for a pen. “Film, A! Get me film – and the license number; I’m ready!”
“Got it, Sir. California plates, number 2CHKS235. Repeat please.”
“2CHKS235. I want a good look at the occupants, A.”
“Yes sir. I’m trying for position now… She’s handing in a…small box, it looks like. Jewelry size.” The words punctuated a familiar ratcheting – camera at work. Klaus was almost proud. “Sir, that can’t be all. They’re arguing.”
Klaus checked his watch: three minutes to go. “Gut. Let them argue. Take all the time they want. A, do not move in alone.”
“No sir, I – Oh no. Oh it can’t be!”
“Was! What is it?!” Klaus was on his feet, shouting again.
“It’s another car, sir. It’s pulled right up behind, parked. The sedan is taking off!” Agent A sounded like he wanted to cry. Klaus could sympathize.
“Nevermind! Follow the woman! Do not lose her!”
“Oh damn. Oh damn it all, it is him.” A clearly was not listening.
“Who? What are you babbling about!?”
“The other car, Sir. It’s Eroica… I’m sorry.”
Klaus closed his eyes for a moment’s revelation: He wanted to vomit or to laugh hysterically, and he couldn’t decide which. “Ja. So am I.”
“Alright, what do you want?” The Major – Iron Klaus of NATO intelligence blew a lungful of bitter smoke into Dorian’s face along with the accusation.
The Earl, inured to this particular tactic, did not cough, or even blink. He was pleased to notice that his polite smile didn’t even stir a fraction – his mask was in place firmly. Agent A’s appearance outside his fence’s had scared it up, and the man’s ready willingness to escort Dorian to the Major’s presence had bolted it into place. No doubt about it, something was afoot, and until he was sure it didn’t spell trouble for his project or his people, Dorian meant to appear the epitome of British bland. With luck, Klaus might even fall for it.
“Well, first darling, I want to apologize.” He beamed, scanning the Major’s chiseled features, looking for the signs of a trap, hoping not to find them.
“Bah. You apologizing. Since when, eh?” Klaus’ narrow eyes sparked suspicion as he drew on his cigarette.
Dorian shook his head; this part was utter sincerity. “Since it was obvious I buggered up something this afternoon.” He shook his head at Klaus’ sharp glance, forestalling the obvious denial. “Come now, Major. You and I both know I did – all the signs were there, I was just a little too distracted to notice them until I’d already cocked things up.”
“And this is supposed to mean something to me?”
There was a part of Dorian that flinched at that – the part that never gave up hoping that Klaus would someday grow to love him. But that part was hidden away now, and another actor held the stage; Eroica, Prince of Thieves had a mission here in the den of law – Hurt feelings could only get in his way.
“Mm. No, I don’t suppose so, but I felt like saying it anyway.” He beamed for a moment, because it was expected, then sobered. “Now what I expect will interest you is a proposal I have to make.”
Klaus went red and began to tremble. Dorian watched, cutting off the explosion with immaculate timing. (Broken bones weren’t on his agenda either.) “I want to make it up to you – this matter that I bollixed up this afternoon. I’ll use any of my skills that you think appropriate to help you and your men—”
“We need none of your help!”
“And in return, I’d like your help finding this man.” Dorian slid the driver’s license across the table as if Klaus hadn’t said a word. And, of course, knowing for certain that your men weren’t planning a breakup of my little project wouldn’t be unwelcome either, my beautiful Major.
Klaus grunted disgust at first, slapping his hand on the laminate as if to fling it right back in Dorian’s face, but a glance at the license photo blew the wind right out of those furious sails.
Klaus flipped the license right side up, staring at the photo with all the blazing intensity that made his orbit inescapable to Dorian. It was all he could do not to shiver at the passion in Klaus’ emerald stare – especially when that stare and its wild light were turned on him.
“Where did you get this? What is this man to you? Why are you trying to find him?!”
Dorian recoiled – intensity was one thing, but Klaus looked as if he might come at him over the table. He gave a nervous laugh – allowed on hand to flutter at his throat for a moment. “La, darling! You almost sound jealous!” Dorian beamed, pretending he didn’t see the storm gathering in his Major’s eyes. “But not to worry, you haven’t got rival for my attentions; I don’t even really know who this Chance Harper is, but he’s got something that belongs to me, and I’d like to get it back.”
“What?” Klaus demanded, “What does he have?!”
“Ah, well.” Dorian coughed at the cloud this time – more to buy time than from any real discomfiture. “It’s not terribly relevant now, is it darling? It’s not as if it’s a matter of international security—”
“It could be.” The Major glowered at the photo once more. “This man is a spy and a smuggler. Probably Russian – ex-KGB, though the files have not yet come in.”
“Well, that would explain the cameras…” Dorian mused, unaware that he’d spoken aloud until Klaus exploded to his feet again.
“What cameras! Explain yourself!”
“Calm down, love!” Dorian was beginning to worry; Klaus wasn’t usually this mercurial – there was an almost desperate quality to his fury that was terrifying in its own right. What has gone wrong, my love? What’s frightened the Iron Wolf this badly? “I’ll tell, I promise, though three’s not much to tell, really. You see, there was a bit of a mix up; his bag looked like my bag, and… well, you understand.”
He leaned back in his chair, composing his tale carefully. “When I got to my hotel, I found I had a bag full of cameras, about twenty rolls of film, some lenses, and that,” he nodded to the license, all but forgotten at Klaus’ elbow, then shrugged. “That’s all, really. I was just hoping that you could just get me a telephone number so I could explain the mix-up and arrange a trade.” Dorian flashed another of his thousand-watt smiles, in case Klaus had forgotten what they looked like. “I’m sure that he’d rather have his bag of photo-goodies than a week’s supply of my smalls.”
“Feh. Who wouldn’t? Let me see them – these cameras. They could be dangerous. Have you searched the bag thoroughly? Was there nothing else?” Klaus apparently meant to ignore his flirting. Well, that was nothing new.
“I’ve not got them here.” Dorian held up spread hands to ward off the Major’s glare. “They’re not exactly light darling, and I didn’t dismantle the thing, no. But really, they seem just like any other cameras.”
Klaus stood abruptly, sweeping the license off the table and striding to the door. “F!” he barked, handing the card to an invisible someone. “Check this for radiation. Tell me at once if the Geiger counter so much as twitches, do you understand?”
Radiation?! The thought sent a wash of cold amazement down Dorian’s spine. Dorian Red Gloria, what have you gotten yourself into?
“When did this happen?”
“Eh?” He looked up, startled, as Klaus swooped down into his chair once more. “Well, today. This afternoon, about 4, but—”
Klaus sat back abruptly, consternation writ large across his face. “That cannot be.”
Dorian shrugged. “Well, darling, I’m not going to argue with you, but I do have his identification…”
“This man was nowhere near an airport at that time!”
“Well then, perhaps this Harper fellow isn’t the man you want.” Dorian tossed his golden curls. Frankly, I’d rather he not be if there’s radiation involved… of course, if he is, then I’ve got something hotter than usual… “You know, I didn’t say it happened at the airport.”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Dorian was cursing himself – the trap was sprung, and his own foot was in it.
Then where,” Major Von Eberbach asked, “did this happen?”
Oh sodding Hell! Dorian, will you ever learn to keep your nose where it belongs? Serve you right to get it cut off someday. Aloud though, he tried to brazen it out. “On the Bus. Somewhere near the river district. But it could still be the wrong man.”
Klaus’ eyes narrowed, chips of is in a stony brow. “You, on a Bus?”
“Well, let’s just say I’m a people person…”
“No. Let’s just say that you are lying. Where did you get the card, Eroica?” He was on his feet, stalking toward Dorian with murderous intent.
Dorian wasn’t stupid – he stood up and put the table between them. “I told you – bags got switched! It’s the truth!”
“What are you hiding from me, you Verdammet thief!!” Klaus lunged, and Dorian skipped away, a part of him half wanting to move too slow – just for the feel of Klaus’ arms closing around him. Then of course, there was the part that thought about what Klaus was likely to do to him after those arms closed…
“I don’t know what you’re talking abo— Eep!” Dorian pulled up short as the door flew open, nearly braining him as Agent Z charged into the room.
“Sir! We traced the owner of the sedan! An American from California named Chance—”
“Harper. Yes, I know. What else did you interrupt me for?” Dorian peeked around the door, only to be pinned by the Major’s eyes – there was to be no slipping away in the confusion, apparently.
“Well, Sir, I’ve got his record from his local police department – 25 pages of it, and his Federal file, and his file with Interpol.
“What about our files?”
Z ran a hand through his blonde hair, looking uncomfortable. “Well sir, we don’t have one. Nor does any other international intelligence agency that we can share data with. I don’t see how he can be a Russian spy, Sir.”
Well, that’s a relief! Dorian breathed a quiet sigh until that familiar look of determination settled over Klaus’ handsome face.
“Then he is one of the smugglers. I want that file in here at once! And tell all our field agents to be on the lookout for that car. From the size of the box A described, there is still more Plutonium to be delivered.”
Z saluted and turned to go. Klaus sent a last command after his top agent. “And whatever you do, Z let no one mention to Interpol that we’ve spotted him here! I want Harper and Bearcat for myself!”
Then the door snicked shut, leaving Dorian face to face with his beloved Major – too close to run, even if his knees weren’t weak under the power of that emerald gaze. He was caught even before Klaus’ hand shot out and snared his wrist, and Dorian knew it.
“Now, Eroica.” Klaus led him back to the chair, and meekly he went along, sitting without a fight. The Major loomed over him, on hand on either arm of the chair – a prison of flesh that would be hard to escape, even given that one wanted to. And Dorian knew better than to try. He’d pushed his luck more than was healthy once today, that was enough, even for a danger junkie like him.
“Suppose you start from the beginning, and tell me what I want to know, hm?”
Finally! Chance thought, working the arcane array of locks and chains to admit the bearer of the sacred elixir of life. Thank God for expense accounts! The youth and his coffee pot entered with a grin.
“Can you put it on the table?” Chance busied himself with his tie. “Thanks, um… I don’t—”
“Woah! Are those real!?” the bellboy interrupted. Chance turned to find him nose to nose with the green, bug-eyed animals – one hand hovering reverently near the statues, caressing the contours as if through a cushion of air.
“Well, unless we’re both imagining them…”
“No, I mean are they really Jade? ”
Chance shrugged, undid his tie and started over. The smell of coffee was approaching torture. “I dunno. How do you tell?”
The kid sat down, nudging the tray to the other side of the table. “May I?” he asked with a nod to the statues.
“Sure.” Chance took the other chair – where his coffee was.
The kid turned the statue over and over in his hands, holding it up the weak sunlight, examining the angles, running his fingers into the grooved and channels of the carving. Fascination sat firmly on his shoulders, even when he replaced the statue precisely beside it’s mate, Chance wasn’t sure the kid would be able to look away.
“They’re really Jade. Serpentine and Aventurine have scaling, and nowhere near this translucency… Wow. They’re not Chinese, and the Japanese didn’t use Jade – didn’t do Fu lions either…” At last the kid looked up, eyes piercing with near religious fervor. “Where did you get these?”
“Long story, uh…”
“Right.” He extended his hand. “Chance. You know about this kind of art?”
Tom nodded, but his gaze wandered back to the statues. “Yeah. I mean sort of. I’m not like an expert or anything, but I love this stuff. My uncle runs a cheap import store, but he’s got none of the real stuff – not like these… Now Angel’s dad… He’d have a cow over these beauties.”
Chance sipped the top layer off his coffee, avoiding a scalded tongue with practiced ease and a loud slurp. “Who’s that?” He sighed as the caffeine began to kick in.
Tom looked up. “Angel? She used to be my girlfriend. Her dad owns an antique shop uptown – real exclusive. Expensive too.”
“So, think maybe he’d be interested in these?”
Tom nodded, stroking one of the lion’s claws. “Heck, I’m interested in them, but at seven bucks an hour part time, there’s no way I could afford them – even with tips.” He looked up with a sad laugh, “Is there?”
Chance shook his head. “Well, I can’t really sell them anyway. I just need to find our more about them. Look, d’you think you can give me this antique dealer’s address?” He snagged the pad from beside the phone and slid it across the table. “I’d really appreciated it.”
“Hm? Oh, sure.” He thought, scribbled for a moment, then stood up, holding out the pad with a grin. “I think that’s right. It’s Eternity Antiques, but the guy’s name is Theo Bronte.” He looked down at the statues again. “Thanks for letting me see them.”
“Sure.” Chance examined the page, then folded it and stuffed it in his pocket. When he looked up, Tom was still there, hovering, but not over the dogs anymore. He grinned a little sheepishly at Chance’s expression, glanced at the coffee.
“Oh, sorry, I don’t have any… Wait a minute.” He snagged his trenchcoat from the chair and pulled last night’s lottery ticket from the pocket. “Here. Sorry it’s only two bucks…”
Tom grinned again and took the ticket. “T’s okay. I’ll be on tomorrow and Friday too, till noon. Ask for me if you need anything, okay?”
“Yeah… How about a camera, some film, and my wallet back so I can do my job…” But, of course, he was gone, and only the twin lions heard. Chance didn’t think they were likely to help in that respect. He shrugged and downed his coffee. “Well guys, at least we have a place to start, don’t we?”
“Yes… Well what did you say your name was again?” The man behind the counter peered over his spectacles with practiced scorn. Looking around the store, Chance imagined that look was among Mr. Bronte’s primary bargaining tools.
“Harper.” He supplied, resisting the urge to return the attitude. This was not easy to do in an atmosphere designed to make the Kennedys feel slightly grubby. Chance satisfied himself with a glance at the immaculate Persian carpet and a smile, remembering a certain wad of used chewing gum his shoe had encountered on the street outside.
“Hm… Well Mr. Harper,” Theo Bronte continued with a prim cough, setting the statue aside. “These are very interesting, but I’m afraid that I’m not interested.”
“Well that’s good, because I’m not selling them.” Chance sighed. “I just want to know what you can tell me about them.”
The ingratiating smile returned, and Chance braced himself. “Well, usually I charge a fee for appraisals, but in this case…” He placed the statues together on the counter between Chance and himself. “Well, there’s not much to tell, so I’ll waive it. You see Mr. Harper, your lions are fake.”
Chance stared for a moment. “Wait a minute, what do you mean, ‘Fakes’? Are they fake jade, or fake lions, or—”
“What I mean, Mr. Harper, is forgeries. Your lions are copied from a pair that I sold from this very store ten months ago.” He looked down at the pair, and this time allowed a glimmer of interest to show through the mask. “Oh, make no mistake, the forger was a genius, and as sculpture, they’re masterful. But they’re simply not antiques.”
Chance thought for a moment, brow furrowed. Something about that thought seemed wrong. “Are you sure?” He ventured at last, “I mean, what if the carver – the original guy I mean – what if he made four instead of two…?”
Bronte frowned for a moment, then favored Chance with another smile. “You don’t know much about Asian art, do you Mr. Harper?”
Chance shook his head – What else could he do?
“Well, you see, this design – the Fo Lion, was a common motif used in temples and palaces as guardian spirit images. As such, there was a lot of tradition that went along with the making of such images, and one of those traditions was that they were made in pairs. One male; this one with the ball in its paws, and one female; this one with the cub.” He shook his head. “They were made in pairs to symbolize mates, and if the sculptor carved more than one pair, he was always careful to make them significantly different so that the pairs could not be mis-matched.” Bronte turned the female over to point to an engraved squiggly on its base. “Now I checked the maker’s mark, and it’s the same as the pair I sold last April, so Mr. Harper, I’m afraid if they’re not fakes, they’re stolen.”
Well. That figured, didn’t it? Chance sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “Look, Mr. Bronte, you’ve been really helpful, but could I ask you one more favor? Could you call the guy you sold them to and find out if he’s still got his pair? Because if these are hot, I need to know about it.”
Theo frowned for a moment – an expression Chance was getting used to from him – then nodded, flipping on that condescending smile like it had a switch inside his head. “Well, it’s not normally my policy to, but I think this warrants a special case. Besides, I believe that my Customer is actually in town at the moment – rather lucky for you, I must say. Please wait here – I’ll make the calls from my office.” And he went, but not before plucking the key from the cash register.
Chance shook his head, flopping into a couch as the office door snicked shut. “Remind me not to trust you anytime soon either, Bronte,” he muttered to himself.
But on the bright side, the couch was more comfortable than it looked…except for that round pillow thing in the small of his back. Chance fished the hard little roll out to way and settled in, winching as his back expressed its displeasure at the amount of walking (And running, and climbing, and bullet dodging) he’d subjected it to of late. He crossed his legs, pausing as a flash of flitter caught his eyes – there was something stuck to the bottom of his shoe. Guess the carpet’s safe after all. Chance mused, reaching around to peel the scrap of paper off.
It was another lottery ticket; a scratcher type, (which had always been Chance’s favorite) and it hadn’t even been scratched yet. There was a sticky spot from the gum across on side of it, but other than that, the ticket was unmarred.
Not for long. Chance grinned to himself, fishing out his silver dollar and giving it a tap. The foil-goop peeled away, and lo; the answer to the camera problem appeared on the card underneath. “Winner: Five Hundred Dollars.”
The office door reopened, and Chance schooled his face to neutral as Mr. Bronte appeared. “Well, Mr. Harper, apparently, my client still has his pieces, however, he has graciously allowed that I might go and re-examine them, together with yours, and thereby determine which is the real antique.”
Chance raised one eyebrow. “Really. But what about your fee?”
That barb stuck. Bronte scowled and sniffed, pushing his spectacles higher onto the bridge of his nose. “I consider this to be a special case.”
Meaning that your customer called your integrity into question. The irreverent part of Chance’s mind translated. He hid a smile as Bronte continued.
“So if you’d leave these with me, I’ll be able to tell you my findings by – say – tomorrow morning, alright, Mr. Harper?”
So you can make the switch if I have got the real pair, and I’ll never know the difference. Chance shook his head, letting the smile out this time. “Well, Mr. Bronte, if they were mine, I’d have no problem, but – see I’m only looking after them, and… you understand. I think I’d better hand onto them myself.”
Chance stood and started packing the statues away, pretending not to notice Bronte’s ruffled expression as he continued. “So since I’ve got a couple of errands to run, I’ll meet you back here around –” He checked his watch. “Noon, and we’ll go to your customer’s place.” He zipped the bag and hiked it onto his shoulder, looking up with a grin. “See you then.”
“Oh yeah.” He turned back at the door – Bronte was still at the counter, looking distinctly sour. “Are there any pawn shops around here?”
“Well, I’ve seen worse.” Chance turned the camera over one last time before he put it back on the counter. “Throw in the case, and I’ll give you four hundred cash for the set.”
The pawnbroker looked mortally offended, as Chance had expected, and the haggling commenced.
“Four for the set? What, are you nuts? I gotta stay in business, pal, this ain’t a charity.”
“The case has been cracked here, I can see the glue.”
“Cosmetic damage – look at this autowind feature—”
“That was pieced in from a Canon. I’d be surprised if it actually works.”
“Okay, but only a pro could match it in like that.”
“Only an idiot would try. Three seventy-five’s twice what it’s worth, even with that zoom lens thrown in.”
“Four, and we’re not talking about the zoom, pal.”
Chance grinned, extending his hand. “Done. And don’t forget my case.”
“Yeah, right. Just call me Mother Theresa…”
And armed thus did Childe Harper unto the dark tower come. Except it was a warehouse, only tow stories high, and not particularly dark. More of a studied, cosmetic decrepitude really – tragically hip in abandoned industrial; you could practically smell the angst. Chance found it almost as pretentious as Bronte’s shop had been – just catering to a different pretense.
Bronte pulled up to the curb at the steel doors and killed the engine. Chance reached for his seatbelt, then hesitated; the other man hadn’t moved. He was scowling through his glasses at the dash and even as Chance watched, he seemed to come to a decision, fixing the scowl onto him.
“Mr. Harper, I want you to realize that my client is an intensely private man. He is rather famous, and has been the subject of some unwelcome critical obsession, you understand?” Chance nodded – stalkers were nothing new. Bronte coughed and folded his glasses into his vest pocket. “Well then I’ll expect you to follow some basic etiquette while we are in Mr. Eizen’s studio—”
“Waitaminit!” Chance cut in, “Did you say Eizen? Like in Wilhelm Eizen the artist that’s showing in the Chicago Museum this week?”
Bronte’s scowl deepened. “Yes, Mr. Harper, that is the man. Now no gawking, no autographs, and above all,” he glanced pointedly at the bag in Chance’s lap, “No photographs. Are we clear?”
“Sure.” It was hard to keep from sounding sour, but Chance thought he managed. Bronte coughed again, nodded, and set about unfastening his seatbelt – apparently satisfied that this barbarian was well trained enough to be admitted. Chance was beginning to wonder if he smelled bad.
The double doors at the street shrieked in their runners, but for all their noise, wouldn’t move more than two feet apart. “Great security system.” Chance decided, giving a final, futile shove. “You’d hear these opening in a coma.”
“Hrm. I suppose so. Still, the real security’s upstairs… Where it’s needed. Do come on, Mr. Harper.” Bronte strode into the gloom impatiently. Chance listened for a moment more to the sound of the approaching car – trying to decide what sounded odd about it. The answer didn’t pop up, so he shrugged and followed the antiques dealer up the stairs.
The loft workroom was all it should have been – Spartan brick and peeling paint, heavy tools and modern furniture that didn’t match. And Wilhelm Eizen was part and parcel of it all: A sternly ascetic man, tall and unsmiling in black turtle-neck and trousers, somehow free of any flecks of the artistically unswept dust in the studio. Andy Warhol only wished he looked so good.
And Chance Harper only wished he could keep a straight face as the towering man clicked his heels and nodded to him.
“Herr Eizen,” Bronte shot Chance a warning glare. “This is the man I spoke to you about…”
“Ja. I remember. Lions, you said.” Eizen’s voice was as cold as his eyes. He turned away from them and strode into the room, palming a cigarette case from a table as he passed. He stopped in the shadow of a statue and lit one of them carefully while Bronte and Chance caught up with him. “I vas meaning to drill through them this morning vhen you telephoned. Julia is still out looking for the proper size drill-bits. So: I haf not used them yet. Gut thing if they may not be genuine, ja, Theo?”
Bronte immediately set about dissembling the implied criticism. Chance took the opportunity to break rule #1 and examine the bronze statue they were gathered near.
It was surprisingly beautiful; a tall, slender woman in a Greek robe, face joyful and serene at once; balanced delicately on one foot, body turned, arm flung up to arc over her head. She would have looked like she was dancing, but her body was speared through with several eight foot pieces of rebar, turning the pose into a spasm of pain. There were quarter inch bolts welded to where her nipples had been, shiny steel against the mellow bronze of her skin.
Chance scratched his head, stepping over a cutting torch to move around the poor abused lady. On another table nearer the window lay a cubist painting, already ripped from its stretcher, and with a T’shirt pattern drawn over it in black marker. A very fine pair of sliver shears sat menacingly on top, waiting. Audrey’s description returned to his mind as he stifled a shudder. “Sculpture in semiotics, the artsy set call it. He works in sort of an extremely expensive ‘found object’ medium.”
“Ahem! Mr. Harper!” Bronte called him to heel with a look of pleading outrage. Chance smiled and gestured at the window.
“Ah, nice view you have here, Mr. Eizen. Does the river come right up to the foundation here?”
He heard the German’s measured stride circling the impaled lady. “Ja. There is an old loading dock outside – For river freight, I am told.” There followed a thin crackling hiss; Eizen drawing on his cigarette, then a billow of blue smoke. “Und I suppose the view is not so bad.”
“Yes well.” Bronte put in from behind them, “About the Lions—”
He got no further. The stair door crashed back against the wall, splintering as two men loomed through it. “Nobody move!” Came the order, backed up with very large guns. By which time, Chance had already dropped to his knees behind the base of the statue.
“Was ist los?” Eizen barked like an SS officer, but the neither of the gunman seemed impressed.
“Hold it Kaiser.” The Uzi swiveled to point at his chest. “Where is she?”
“Now see here—” Bronte tried his authority on the suited pair, only to confront the barrel himself. Behind the statue, Chance eased open his new camera bag and held his breath. They weren’t FBI or Secret Service, for all the two men looked like they could be either; Charcoal suits, black overcoats, and impenetrable shades to go with their perfect military haircuts. Still, Chance had it on good authority that neither of those organizations issued their agents sub-machine guns for field work. Both of these had them. So who were they?
“Stuff it grandpa. Where is she?”
“If you are looking for Julia, she is on an errand now, und—”
“Is she now?” The smaller man asked, straightening. “Well that’s a problem, a big on. Cause she’s got something that belongs to us.” He nodded to his fellow, who grinned and began an overly destructive examination of the studio. “Something very expensive, see Kaiser? And we want it. Right. Now.”
Chance glanced up, reassured himself that neither of the two had noticed him. Good, both distracted. And with that one throwing things around, they’ll never hear the shutter. He pulled the camera out…
And yelped reflexively as the flash went off in his face.
“What the hell—”
And then the shooting started. The camera shirred and clicked in Chance’s hand, autowind and flash strobing madly, and he too blinded and busy hiding to figure out why. He heard someone scream – high and shrill and wounded – and the piercing shine of bullets ricocheting. A moment’s pity for the bronze lady flashed through Chance’s brain, then gave way to self concern of the acutest kind: To hell with the statue – they were shooting at him! He smacked the camera against the floor, breaking the flash just as the film ran out. The manic clicking fave way to a whine as it began to rewind…the only sound in a suddenly still room.
Fear standing thick in his throat, Chance opened his eyes to the sight he’d expected and dreaded in one breath: Uzi boy was standing over him, and the barrel was still smoking.
It was one of those moments when not a word is spoken, yet a wealth of information passes. Chance watched the path of the other’s glance; his face, his camera, then his face again. There would be no bargaining – the man was going to shoot him, and take the camera when he left.
And there was nothing at all he could say. Chance braced himself and drew a deep breath, figuring he’d at least get off a good scream before he went. It wouldn’t do any good, but it might make him feel better about dying.
“HALT!!” The shout brought all three heads around to the door. Chance registered only that someone tall and armed was there before he found himself springing at the man before him, shoulder dipped football style to come up under the gun and catch him in the diaphragm.
The Uzi roared in his ear, its twin answering distantly through the ringing outrage. They hit the floor with twin grunts, glass and plaster and hot brass castings raining all around them. The man struggled, fighting off the stun impact, and Chance held him, desperately trying to figure out how to get away without getting shot. Ears still ringing, Chance didn’t hear the footsteps until just before his captive’s partner kicked him in the ribs.
Wheezing himself now, Chance rolled, fetching up against the wall as the man hauled his friend upright and fired off another volley at the doorway.
Muffled popping of single shots answered, but no one appeared in the door to aim them. Then the voice that had shaken them all a moment before echoed up through the stairwell.
“Harper!! We have this building surrounded.” A thin trace of German colored the accent. “You have thirty seconds to give yourself up before we shot in gas. Thirty seconds from now, Harper!”
Waitaminit! Chance thought wildly, trying to get enough breath to speak. He means me!!
He struggled upright just as the two black-suited men went out through the shattered window. Chance heard the splashes a moment later, and spared a thought to hope the pair of them drowned.
The he called out and hoped his voice carried to the men on the stairs. “Wait! I’m unarmed! Don’t shoot!” In a jaded corner of his mind, he was wondering if saying that might not get him killed all the faster, but it was too late: the words were out.
The guns appeared in the doorway first, then a flash of dark and light as he glance past the sill and retreated. Heartbeat…then another…then the gun and its man appeared again, bolting into the room and stooping hawk-like to where Chance leaned, tell breathless against the wall.
Others followed, but the first – the dark haired German from the hotel alley, Chance recognized with an inward clenching of guts – held his attention. Or perhaps it was his gun which was, after all, pointing firmly at Chance’s head.
Slowly, slowly, he uncurled his arms from his abused ribs and brought his hands into view, hoping he hadn’t just traded one peril for another. The other man relaxed not a hair when Chance’s hands came into sight – only straightened and took a step nearer, his black hair shifting as a breeze wandered through the open window. His eyes were flinty as his voice.
“Harper. Where is the Plutonium?”
The question came again an hour and a half later when they were all gathered back at HQ. “All” meaning Harper, the Major, and himself – the rest of the agents had been left behind to search, document, and deal with the police. Agent Z sighed and rubbed his eyes, silently quoting along with the answer that had become as much ritual as the question.
“I don’t know about any plutonium. I never saw any plutonium! I only went there to get some pictures – that was my assignment!” Pause, sigh, then, “If you don’t believe me, why don’t you just develop the film in my camera.” Z’s brain, numbing at the constant repetition was considering rap rifs to liven up the questioning session.
(You got to tell (TELL!) where the hot stuff is!
(Now lissen Hom-major, I jus’ ain’t seen
Z shook himself silently back to idle reality before he could laugh, and thereby discovered that the Major had diverged onto the second most repeated question of their session.
“What were you doing in the alley yesterday?”
To which the answer was to be – “I was trying to get a public interest picture of tow men attacking a woman in an alley! You know that news agencies love that sort of thing – I mean look at Rodney King!” (Who? What?) Z sat up straighter, interest renewed. Apparently Mr. Harper was getting annoyed enough with the questions to change his routine. New information might be forth coming.
“Rodney King?” The major looked at him, brow drawn, reluctantly confused. Z thought for a minute, then had to shrug. Harper was staring at them both as if they’d grown antlers.
“Jesus, where do they get you guys, Mars?” He leaned back in his chair, wiping at his face with weariness that Z at least, could sympathize with. “Look, am I under arrest here?”
Klaus glared at him for a moment, then lit a cigarette. “Perhaps. There are still questions you have not answered to my satisfaction.”
Harper glared back. “If I’m under arrest I want my phone call.”
The Major shrugged and blew smoke in the man’s face. “Then perhaps you are not under arrest.” Chance stood, shoving his chair over with a crash.
“Then ‘perhaps’ I’m leaving, and you can’t keep me here.”
Z moved to stand in front of the door as the Major blew another cloud into the already dense atmosphere. “I would not advise that you leave just now.” Klaus’ voice was colder than steel. “It would probably hurt you quite a lot.”
He stood, righting the upturned chair, and gestured to it with a hand. “Sit, Harper. We will begin again.”
Harper did not sit. “Look. I dunno if it’s occurred to you or not, but American citizens have certain rights—”
“I don’t know if it has occurred to you or not, but I don’t care what rights you think you have!” Klaus shouted. “America happens to be only a part of the whole world, and not a particularly big one, despite what you people like to think! So! Let us pretend for a minute that you are in the world, and sit down and answer my questions!”
Z found himself thinking that, himself, he definitely would have sat by now, and he didn’t know whether to be impressed or disgusted that Harper did not. Instead, the photographer walked up to the Major, took the cigarette out of his mouth and crushed it out on the table. “Fine. Then stop smoking. It’s bad for the environment.”
There is a certain sense of looming and imminent disaster that one gets at times – like standing on a mountain side three seconds before a volcano breaches the surface. Sort of a nameless dread of primal proportions that tells you that the end of the world as you know it has come.
It didn’t hold a candle to what Z felt in that second.
When his vision cleared, he found himself halfway down the hall, striding as fast as he could away from the questioning room. Z paused, thought for a second that he should go back – Regulations as well as common sense forbade leaving the questioner alone with an unbound suspect. But then again, if he wasn’t there, he couldn’t be called in to testify in the Murder trial, could he?
“I’ll just go check on that film.” He told the empty hallway. It sounded good to him.
As it happened, he beat the film to the office by about three minutes, and could tell by the sober look on the agent’s face that the package was more than vacation photos.
K dropped them on the desk and stood away, watching while he opened them. “You watched the process?” Z asked.
He nodded. “Mm. No extra copies, and I counted the negatives. This is everything.”
Z nodded, and pulled the photos out, spreading them across his desk.
After a few moments examination, he looked back up at K. “You’re absolutely sure this is all from the same roll of film? Just the one?”
K nodded twice, then gathered up the prints carefully. “I watched them come out of the machine, Sir. I didn’t believe it either, but watch this:”
Holding the prints by one side, he fanned through the other, unfolding a mini-movie of slaughter and mayhem that was comparable to anything Hollywood or Hong Kong could put out. At the end, Z sat back, feeling like someone had slapped him in the head with a big fish. “And he did this with what kind of camera?”
K shook his head, setting the stack of prints back into Z’s hands. “Actually, it’s not much of one. All I can figure is that this guy’s really lucky, or else really good…and that he’s probably telling the truth.”
Which isn’t nearly so lucky for us. Z sighed inwardly, rifling through the prints again. On the distantly bright side, even though they had to let their only suspect go, they did have several excellent pictures of the two gunmen, which was more than they had before.
He wiped absently at an oily streak at the bottom corner of one of the prints, trying to compose his re-entrance to the questioning room. Then he noticed that the smudge wasn’t moving. He flipped to the next, and it was there, and the nest.
Intrigued, he fanned the photo through again, this time watching the rainbow swirl and streak parade at the bottom of the frame.
“K.” He called, “What’s this? Did the Tech say?”
The red haired agent peered close, wiped the smudge with a finger, and then shook his head. “Dunno. Like I said, it wasn’t much of a camera. Probably malfunctioned while he was shooting it.”
“Yeah…” That wasn’t it, Z knew. The smudges were making his brain itch, and Z couldn’t for the life of him remember why. He shook his head; no time for that now. He had to intervene before Harper got himself into more trouble. “Whatever. Pack the camera up and bring it to the questioning room with the rest of Harper’s stuff.” He stood and headed back to the fray.
He took a breath, steeled his nerves, and opened the door.
“Where is the Plutonium?”
Z paused for a moment to appreciate the profound sense of déjà vu before he coughed gently to catch the Major’s attention.
“Ahem. Sir. The film is back. I have it here.”
Klaus was out of his seat in an instant, snatching the prints on his way out the door. Z stepped through it before it closed, breathing an inward sigh of relief that the worst of the Major’s reactions would be away from Harper – not to mention himself.
Harper was staring at him, sullen and not in the least cowed. Z still didn’t think he looked like any kind of agent. For the most part, he didn’t act like one either, but every now and then he’d do or say something that just screamed spy.
Like now: He’d been practically told outright that he was being kidnapped, but he wasn’t scared. As if he knew he’d get out of it no matter what. Only spies had that kind of faith – spies and the pope.
Z was betting that Harper wasn’t even Catholic.
Out in the hall, the swearing began. Harper’s scowl twitched toward a smile for a second. “I guess the focus was alright then,” he said.
Z stifled a chill. “Yeah. Pretty good, considering.”
Harper shrugged, not the least bit bashful. “What can I say: it’s my job…but then I already told you that, didn’t I?”
He restrained the urge to look down as a series of thumps came through the wall. “Mr. Harper, no one ever said that you weren’t a photographer. We merely asked you some questions, which you refused to answer.”
Harper slapped the table. “No, goddamit! I did answer your questions, you didn’t like my answers!”
Z shrugged. “I’ll admit; ‘I don’t know’ is terribly convenient when a man is hiding something.”
Harper sat back, laughing. “Why is it?” he asked the ceiling, “Why is it you people spend your entire careers combing through lies looking for the truth, but you can’t recognize it when someone offers it without a fight?”
The question seemed rhetorical, so Z didn’t answer it, instead, he thought for a moment. “What do you mean ‘you guys’?” He asked after a moment. Harper shrugged.
“You agency people. I mean of all the ones I’ve met, the only one who actually believed the truth was Mulder.”
The door opened, startling them both, and an eerily collected Major Eberbach stalked in. “Hmph. I have heard of Agent Mulder, you know, and he believes in UFOs and little green men as well.” Klaus snorted through his cigarette, then looked pointedly at Harper and stubbed it out on the table, two inches from the photographer’s hand.
Harper waited until Klaus had walked away to drop his hand into this lap. Klaus resumed his chair and stared for moment. Then. “These men. Who are they?”
Harper rolled his eyes, and Z nearly did the same. “I told you already!”
Klaus held up a hand. “Fine. Tell me again. I want to hear how it sounds different now that you aren’t a murderer.”
The man sighed, looked back at Z (who remained impassive) then began. “They didn’t say who they were, or where they came from. I think they were going to kill us all afterward anyway. They busted in, asked where Eizen’s assistant was, then started shooting up the place. They said she had something that belonged to them.” He shrugged. “I assume now that their ‘something’ was this plutonium you kept asking after.”
Klaus nodded briefly, an acceptance of the information, not necessarily of its veracity. “And they did not shoot you because…”
“You showed up and threatened to gas the place. I figured you could guess that.”
“In other words, you were just lucky…?” His tone made it clear that Klaus wasn’t inclined to believe that.
“…If I were going to call it ‘lucky’ I wouldn’t have been there at all, would I?”
“I don’t know.” The major glared down at the photos on the table; at their new square one. “Maybe it was lucky that you were, lucky for us all.”
He stood up, collecting the prints and his cigarettes. “Go away, Chance Harper, but not too far. You have not convinced me that you aren’t connected with all this, but I have other questions for other people. I do not trust you, you know that? Good. If you try and disappear, you may count on me bringing you back here where I can keep my hands on you.” Klaus paused at the doorway to pin home the threat with a stare. “And do not think that your American Rights will stop me.”
They gave him back his bag and cameras – both conspicuously immaculate. Chance was pretty sure they’d been searched, dusted, X-rayed, and tested six ways to Sunday, but they appeared to be in more or less the same condition that he’s bought them in. He grimaced, remembering the runaway auto-advance that had started the bloodbath in the studio. Not that that condition was anything to brag about.
Still, it was more intact than he’d expected to be an hour ago.
He signed the little blonde girl’s register to prove that he’d gotten it all back. “Thank you!” she chirped.
“Yeah, sure,” he said, heading for the door. She scurried out from behind her desk and caught up with him there.
“I’m supposed to see you out,” she explained, blushing when he raised an eyebrow at her. “I mean, to make sure you don’t get lost or anything.”
“I’ll just bet.” Chance didn’t bother to hide the sarcasm, then immediately felt like a heel when the girl bit her lip and looked away. It hadn’t been her fault, after all, just dumb luck…Just his dumb luck. He coughed, opening the door for her. “Look, you know my name already…”
“Well, it was on the paperwork.” She smiled, apparently the forgiving sort.
“So what do I call you; Agent Q or something?”
It must have been funnier than he’d realized – either that, or this girl was absolutely vapid and flirting with him. She giggled all the say down the stairs, finally getting her breath back in the lobby.
“No, silly. I’m G. Q is in Cairo this week I think.”
He stared for a moment, then hastily interrupted another giggle. “G? For real?” She nodded. “And it stands for…”
She smiled through lowered lashes, Doris Day playing Marilyn Monroe, and breathed, “Guess…”
Chance felt his blood go cold. “Oh. Kay. Look, I think this is the exit, right? Good. I, uh, thanks for walking me down—”
She didn’t appear to be listening. Her blue eyes were welded to the glass doors, or rather to a figure approaching them. Her perky little nose was wrinkling as if she smelled something bad.
“I hope this is okay,” she told him absently. “I have to get back upstairs now.”
Intrigued, Chance followed her line of erstwhile glare. There was a man there, stock still as the door swung shut behind him; not extremely tall, neither extremely short, nor extremely remarkable in any way save his haircut. And the intensity of his blue eyes as they pinned Chance through. He was Cockney, Chance remembered, and he didn’t think much of American bus drivers. Settling his camera more firmly on his shoulder, Chance Harper started over to meet him.
“You know,” he told the man, extending a hand to shake, “I’ve been looking for you all over the place!”
“Likewise ‘ere, mate.” He grinned, showing teeth through his sandy mustaches. “Look ‘ere. Fancy a pint while we sort things out?”
Chance considered the day and smiled. “You have no idea how good that sounds. Lead on, MacDuff.”
“Bonham,” the man corrected, throwing a companionable arm over his shoulders. “Johnny Bonham. Please to make yer acquaintance, Mr. Harper.”
Sometimes Dorian just liked people. Against all logic, and sometimes against all rules of conduct, propriety, and self-preservation. He could just tell when he met their eyes that they would be friends, whether they knew it, or admitted it, or not. It didn’t happen often, but as he had grown to adulthood, the Earl of Red Gloria had been forced to admit that when this liking chose to exert itself , it was useless for him to fight it; he would be along for the ride. And, as he listened to Chance Harper tell his tale of bizarre coincidence and happenstance, Dorian realized with no little chagrin that he liked the man.
It was far from wise — Harper was entirely too close to the happenings at Wilhelm Eizen’s butchery. Even if Chance knew nothing of the deeper implications of what he had stumbled into, with his bizarre luck, who knew what else he would trip over and thereby expose? Insanity for Dorian to stay anywhere near the man. And Chance was being watched by Klaus (Whom, Dorian remembered with a sigh, he had also immediately liked — and then some) who, if he were made aware of it, would certainly view Dorian’s illicit involvement with the late...artist... Eizen with no kind eye.
And all that was assuming that he really was ignorant, and that his story wasn’t an amazingly brazen lie; flashy enough to divert the mind from the lurking truth, which could be a far simpler story to tell. Chance Harper could have been involved with the plutonium smuggling ring — he could be working for another ring — possibly someone else in the antiques game, murdering Eizen for the (supposedly) valuable antiques that he was destroying to create his atrocities. There were plenty of dealers who could be brought to do murder over their precious trade — in face, Dorian’s partner in the bait and switch operation against Eizen, one Lovejoy, to whit, had rather a bloody swath attached to his reputation. (Of course, Lovejoy always had a reason why it simply wasn’t his fault that people were always dying around him, and that it always seemed to have something to do with antiques. And nothing had ever been proved, had it? Dorian found it easier to just nod his head, and watch out for thugs when he found it necessary to match efforts with the East Anglian. Things were much simpler when one didn’t expect the truth out of Lovejoy.)
But for all his inventiveness, Lovejoy would have been riding a rare high to come up with a string of events like those Chance Harper was describing. And of course from Lovejoy, you wouldn’t believe him, even though you’d seen the whole thing yourself. It wasn’t like that with Chance. His tale made you want to shake your head in disbelief — not in him, but that the world could be so very odd. Chance Harper might have been the most consummate liar the world had ever known, but Marian’s logical brain just didn’t seem to have the heart to convince the rest of him:
Dorian liked Harper. And, what was more, Bonham liked the man too, and Bonham’s opinion counted for a great deal.
Throughout their acquaintance, Johnny Bonham’s judgement of people had never known failure — only the earl had when he’d refused to listen to it, (Barring the subject of dear Klaus, that is; Bonham might consider the point won, but Dorian wasn’t ready to concede the match yet.) If Bonham didn’t smell dishonest on Chance, then it wasn’t likely that he was dishonest, however unlikely his story.
Dorian sneaked a look as his man to find him engrossed, beer foam sticking to his moustaches as he laughed and shook his head. There was no distrust. He turned his attention back to Chance, examining the man with all the care he’d given his most dangerous capers; After all, there was just as much at stake here.
The Earl’s examination supplied little, though what it told was pleasing enough; sandy hair, cut short as to be no trouble, shirt unpressed, tie — while not a clip on, still knotted imperfectly . He would be a man without a wealth of patience, but he could not be called sloppy in spite of that. His blue eyes were sharp, moving often and missing little, his hands were clean, even under the fingernails, which in Dorian’s experience was all but unheard of among Americans. He was careful in his movements, and even more so in what he was saying — having just come from an interviews with Major Von Eberbach, Dorian couldn’t find the heart to blame him for than. But there were signs of a soft heart in him as well, and a loyal one. His shoes were patched and overpatched, not just left to wear through, and his coat hung on his chair like a familiar — awaiting its place again. It knew, Dorian fancied, that it was never in any danger of being forgotten — he probably even wore it in the summer, having not the heart to leave it home.
In short, he looked alright, and Bonham liked him, which counted for a great deal. And Dorian liked him too, which made the whole issue rather redundant, when all was said and done.
“Um, do l have something on my face?” Chance interrupted Dorian’s reverie (and his own narrative) mid stream. It took Dorian a moment to realize why.
“Oh. I’ve been staring, have I?” Dorian flashed his most disarming smile and shook his head, noting with only a little disappointment that Chance was not the least bit distracted by his tossing golden mane. “Quite rude of me. I’m terribly sorry, it’s just that —”
“That you don t believe me.” Odd that there was no trace of disappointment voice; Dorian mused. One more strike against the liar idea. “It’s okay, you don’t have to. As long as I get my cameras and my wallet back, I’ll be happy.”
“Cameras?” Bonham asked, puzzled for the both of them.
“Yeah — the ones in the red bag, like your lions. Remember what started all this?” Dorian felt his face go cold as Bonham laughed, nodding. “Oh aye, I remember. Coudn’ ‘ardly forget now, could I? T’s just I thought you’d ‘ave—”
“You know... Chance,” Dorian interrupted, wishing he could stomp on Bonham’s foot. “You never did say what happened to the Lions.” He paused, feeling foolish and transparent, then shrugged. “It’s just that you didn’t say who had them at Eizen’s flat when the shooting started. It wasn’t Theo, was it? I’d hate to think they’d gotten damaged when he was...” Dorian stopped, realizing too late what he was saying. “Oh bollocks. You must think I ‘m a complete ass.”
“Serve you right if ‘e did,” Bonham muttered, finishing his beer in an abashed swig as Dorian turned a 10,000 volt glare on him. “Hrm. I’ll just go and get anovver. Right.” Dorian watched him go with a suspicion that his own ears were steaming. What a wholly intolerable situation! Just how was he supposed to tell his new friend that the cameras he wanted, and which he had every right to expect Dorian to hand over, were still in the Iron Major’s frigid clutches? And assuming he managed to do that, how was he to explain just how NATO intelligence got them in the first place?
Taking a long pull on his own beer to buy time, Dorian got his face under control and turned back to meet Harper’s frankly suspicious gaze. “I hope you don’t think that happens often, Mr. Harper,” Dorian tried, smiling.
Harper didn’t smile in return, only fired point-blank. “Only when you’re trying to hide something, I expect.”
Dorian sat back, incredulous and fighting the urge to laugh. In all his life, the one thing he’d never been called was a poor liar. “No, actually, just when it’s embarrassing.” Dorian paused for another sip before launching into his confession. “Look, Chance, I like you, and I think you’ve been playing straight with me, so I’m going to play it straight with you... What?”
The blond swallowed his smile and sipped his own beer. Dorian wondered fleetingly if he were ever in his life going to be able to use the word ‘straight’ in a conversation without eliciting that knowing little smile. “It’s nothing,” Chance said. “I mean thank you. Go on.”
Dorian coughed, struggling with the words. “Well, I’m afraid that... Well, Bonham wasn’t entirely honest with you when he said I was the Earl of Red Gloria.”
“So you’re not an Earl?”
Dorian looked up, startled. “I most certainly am! It’s just... that’s not all I am. That’s how I know you’re telling the truth; I’m an investigator with Interpol, antiquities division.”
From just behind him came a thump and crash, and Dorian whirled. Bonham was standing at his chair, shoes awash in beer foam, hand still clutching the air where the glass had been, staring at him like he’d just been slapped with a fish. “Good Lord, Bonham, you nearly startled the life out of me! Do try and be more careful!”
Bonham swallowed convulsively, glancing over Dorian’s shoulder — presumably at Chance. “But my Lord, you just —”
“I know what I’ve done, Bonham, but face it: Chance has to know.” He allowed himself one jab at his man’s dignity. “Now would you have the barkeep fetch over three more? You’d better let him carry them.”
“Aye, M’lord.” And Bonham went, with a glare that told Dorian plainly what he thought of this little plan. Dorian smirked in return.
“So.” He returned his attention to Chance. “You with me so far?”
“Yeah. Interpol, antiquities division. I thought this was about plutonium!” Chance raised an eyebrow, inviting further information. Dorian cheerfully supplied it.
“Well, it still might be, but that’s not my investigation, is it? I was after a thievery ring which seemed to have been operating around Herr Eizen and his ...art.” Dorian glanced back as Bonham returned, carrying three beers himself, his face perfectly neutral; a silent promise to Dorian that he was now ready for whatever heaping lies the Earl chose to dish out. They would, Dorian mused, probably have been easier to weather than the near truths that he actually had in mind.
“Well, I guess that explains the forged pair of Lions.”
“Mm. Bonham was on his way to the appraisers when the two of you had your little encounter with NATO Intelligence — We’d picked them up on a tip, and needed to verify that they were the ones which Eizen was supposed to have... er... altered.”
“You don’t think much of his work, do you, Lord Gloria?”
Dorian smiled as Bonham sneered into his beer. “No. I can’t really apologize for it; you see, that’s why I’m in antiquities and not modern art... aside from the fact that I’d have to work with that Zenigata git.”
“Who?” Chance scored another point for ignorance in Dorian’s book.
“Don’t worry. If you’ve not heard of him it would take too long to explain. Point being that if it weren’t for Eizen’s use of genuine antiques, I’d have no more to do with him than I would a rabid dog.” Dorian looked down at the table, creating ring patterns with the bottom of his glass for a moment. “Sorry to speak ill of the dead, but there it is; no point in lying, is there?”
Chance shrugged. “Guess there isn’t. So why are you telling me this?”
“Well, you see, it has to do with your cameras. When we found that you’d switched the bags, of course our first suspicion was that you were part of the ring we were investigating.”
Dorian made a few more circles on the table, trying desperately to remember what Agent Z had said the day before. “We decided, obviously, to check you out. Problem is, that our files only really cover international criminals. I had to go to another agency for help... you see this coming, don’t you, Chance?” He nodded, one hand still covering his face.
“Well, I’d dealt with Major Eberbach before, and his information has less red tape attached than any of your local agencies. I was more than a little surprised to learn that Eizen was being investigated for smuggling plutonium too. Anyway, the Major kept the lot; bag, cameras, your wallet, everything.”
“T’s right,” Bonham piped in, patting Chance’s elbow. “We’d not but thought e’d given ‘em back when he’d turned y’ loose.”
“Luckily,” Dorian supplied, “since he’s not particularly investigating you anymore, it’ll only be a matter of a couple of days to get them back to you.”
“You think so, huh?” Chance was obviously recalling dear Klaus’ more tenacious side.
Dorian chuckled. “Oh, don’t you worry. I’ve dealt with Major Eberbach before; I know just how to handle him.” Chance gave him a look, which Dorian ignored. “However, that still doesn’t help me about recovering the Fu Dogs. Now that I’ve given you my reasons, I trust you’ll find my asking after them a bit less asinine?”
Chance nodded, finishing his beer in a large swallow and a grimace of distaste which Dorian could heartily empathize.
“I’m glad of that. With all that’s happened around Eizen’s studio, I’ll need every scrap of evidence I can get to catch my little rascals.”
“Yeah, well.” Chance reached back for his coat. “I think it’s a good thing you can handle that German major, Lord Gloria, ‘cause I think he’s the one you’re going to have to get your Lions back from.” He rummaged in the inside pocket for a moment. “Lemme see... Ah. Here it is.” And he handed a photograph to Dorian. “I thought they wouldn’t miss one shot off the roll.” He grinned like a mischievous boy. “Especially since they never paid me for the film... Anyway, see: I got at least one shot with both sets of Lions in it. There, in the back corner by the door, you can see Eizen’s pair. The other one’s on its side. And your pair’s in that bag on the table.”
Dorian swallowed, trying to ignore the image of Theo Bronte, frozen in agony as the bullets were sawing him in half. Blood and steam made a cloud behind him, and his prized 18th century spectacles hung midair between Theo and his killer.
“Sweet Jesus,” Bonham swore, staring over Dorian’s shoulder. “Poor owd shite. Wot’s this flash then? They usin’ smokers in there? — Tell me there weren’t a fire.”
Chance craned his neck to look, then sat back, shaking his head. “I dunno what that is — probably something wrong with the camera. The whole roll of film’s like that, only it’s not consistent like a flaw in the shutter would be; it moves around the frame. it’s the damnedest thing.” Chance shrugged as Dorian studied the puzzling will o wisp. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
But I have! Dorian realized with a start. “Bonham. The hit on that Manchester arms dealer. Remember that film?”
Dorian watched with gratification as recognition lit in Bonham’s eyes too. The man had been no more than an amateur, and when apprehended, had been in the process of bungling his way through making a nuclear device. The unshielded radiation had made the evidence photos all but undecipherable, and they both remembered the Major’s month long bout of frantic hypochondria which had followed that particular bust.
Dorian looked again at the photo, and this time the dying man did not disturb him. The plutonium’s been here. Klaus should have put it together by now... no. That’s right. He wouldn’t even look at the Manchester photos for fear of radiation poisoning — he never saw them. He doesn’t know! He scanned the background of the photograph, counting and cataloguing. And what’s more, until I’ve had my pick of Eizen’s poor innocents, he won’t know.
Dorian stood up. “Come on. We haven’t a lot of time.”
“Ere M’lord, let someone else handle it.” Bonham reached for his coat, looking desperately brave.
“No, Bonham, it’s not that I’m after. I just want to get my Fo Lions before they get tagged into some local lawyer’s evidence file.”
“Waitaminit,” Chance stood too, pulling on his coat. “Wouldn’t Major NATO have them now?”
“Don’t be silly. Klaus would never disturb a murder scene — not before he’s solved it.”
“But you would?” It wasn’t so much a question as an assessment. Dorian flashed one of his best smiles in return.
“Dear boy! Klaus has an entire roll of film — it’ll matter not one whit to the investigation if I simply remove what is critical to my case. I had to pony up a lot for those Lions, you know, and there’s a little man in the accounting department who will give me no peace if I try and tell him they’re a total loss.”“ He fished out his keys and gestured toward the door. “Trust me Mr. Harper — I know what I’m doing.”
“That’s it.” Chance pointed over Dorian’s shoulder. “Just under that streetlight. That’s the warehouse.”
“Hmph. Bleedin’ would be,” Bonham groused from the shotgun seat. “Not half a jump from McAlpine’s, yer Grace.”
Dorian pulled his rented Camaro to the side across the street from the bereft looking place, then killed the lights and engine. “Yes. I’d begun to suspect as much. And that does explain what NATO was doing here yesterday.” The blond glanced back at Chance as he released the seatbelt. “Sorry. There’s a Fence we’ve been investigating in connection with Eizen, just four blocks down there.” He laughed, blue eyes glinting. “Serendipity, eh, Mr. Harper?”
Chance sighed to himself. You just don’t know the half of it, Tinkerbell. Aloud, however, he only said, “So what are we waiting for?”
Bonham answered by producing a pair of nightscope goggles. “Looking for signs of a stakeout, owd son.”
“But couldn’t you just–”
Dorian shook his head, hands busily tying back his masses of hair. “Not without a warrant, a few hours of red tape, and possibly a direct order from the U.N. Don’t let this startle you, Mr. Harper. Agencies do this all the time - even the friendly ones. It’s much quicker, and believe it or not, safer to let them know afterward than to set their permission beforehand.”
“Well, yeah, I guess I sort of knew, but I just don’t want to get shot tonight.”
“Aye, well that’s the point, innit?” Bonham put in, craning his neck to peer through the Camaro’s back window. “No one’s lurkin’ in any of the cars, nor at the streetside windows, far’s I can see. Wivvout gettin’ out on the street, though, I can’t be certain... Hullo...”
“Hm. Spot one?” Dorian was already reaching for his keys.
“Someone’s in there — in the ware’ouse!”
Chance peered through the tiny window, up at the second floor studio. There were no lights — not even a flashlight, but even as he watched, the streetlights caught a flash of metal. Then a resounding clang echoed across the street.
The sound hadn’t faded before both of the other men were out of the car. Chance scrambled after them, pulling his camera from his pocket, but keeping one hand over the treacherous flash.
Appearing for a moment under the light, Dorian caught Chance’s arm and dragged him into the shade of a dumpster shielded both from the street and the windows above. Bonham was there already. “How many exits?” The blond’s lips moved against his ear, the words shaped out in tickling breath and a wholly inappropriate rush of blood.
Chance fought the urge to jerk away, held up two fingers then pointed to the yawning black of the street door — still open as he had left it that morning. “Boat launch in the back,” he added.
Bonham was gone before the Earl even looked his way, with only a single, distant rattle of chain-link fence to mark his passing. Dorian looked back at Chance, his face flushed, eyes aglow. Obviously, the fear option hadn’t occurred to him. “Stay here.” And he was gone, a fleeting, pale shadow through the open street door.
“Sure,” Chance told the empty street, setting his back against the dumpster. “Whatever.”
Then he looked over his shoulder and suddenly it all made sense. There, parked on the street, not a hundred feet from the dumpster was his car. He broke out in a grin - like he always did when it went his way for once. Sometimes, Harper, he told himself, stuffing his camera back into one pocket while he fished his keys out of the other. Sometimes it actually doesn’t suck to be you! Then he was on his feet, casual, casual... just a man out for a stroll. But to anyone looking closely, he was an extremely pleased man out for a stroll. It was a beaten, battered hulk - a veteran of more accidents than most small town police officers see in their entire careers, and it had a ticket on the window, but at that moment, it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen in his life. He opened the door, smelling the familiarity of leaking antifreeze and photo chemicals. Then climbed in. The seat cradled him as if he’d never left it... even the spring that always jabbed him in the right shoulder felt comfortable. He rolled down the window, resting his arm on the door with a proprietary grin. His car was back. Reaching over his shoulder, Chance belted up, put the key into the ignition, and froze, his smile snuffed out like a candle. The Earl and Bonham were still in the warehouse, along with whoever had keen banging around in the dark. He’d let himself get sidetracked again. Audrey Westin would have smirked.
With a grimace, he unstrapped his seatbelt, then nearly leapt out of his skin as the passenger’s door flew open and a slight, dark haired woman threw herself into the car. “Thank God you’re here!” Her voice was deep, shaded over in a heavily European accent. It could have been fascinating if not for the distraction posed by the pistol clenched firmly in her hand. Ignoring him, she peered out at the street. “This place is crawling with NATO agents,” she growled, shouldering out of the loaded backpack she’d been wearing. Every line of her spoke of the hunted animal - feral and vicious. “What are you waiting for? Do you want them to catch us? Drive!”
Well, she’s got the gun. Chance started his car and drove. It didn’t take him more than a moment to recognize her. The woman he’d followed from the bus two days ago. The woman who’d shot the Major in that little blind alley. The woman who’d started all this. Of course. It didn’t take even a short jump of Chance’s logic to come up with her name - two names, in fact. Bearcat would be her code name, the one that frostbitten kraut was always snarling at him, and the other was...
“So where are we going, Julia?”
She whirled, white-eyed in panic and jammed the gun at him with a curse Chance didn’t need to speak Russian to understand. He remembered that desperate look, and he remembered the look of the man she’d shot when last he’d seen her that way. Chance took his hands off the steering wheel, held them up beside his head, meeting her eyes sidelong for a moment. Then he stomped on the brake.
She swore again as momentum hurled her against the dashboard, then against the door as the car began to fishtail madly. Chance kept his eye on that gun; half a chance to grab it was all he needed; she hadn’t put on a seatbelt, and this street wasn’t empty, or all that wide.
All we gotta do is hit something and it’ll be all over! The thought was alluring, but as the car slid gently through its last revolve without hitting so much as a pebble in the road, Chance had to admit that he wasn’t likely to be getting the firearm away from her.
“Kaffer!” she snarled, pulling herself out of the passenger’s side footwell, without losing her aim once. “Who the hell are you? What are you doing in this car? “She jabbed the gun against his neck and used a fistful of his coat to pull him into the pressure. “Tell me who you are or I’ll kill you!”
“OK! Ease up! I can’t tell you anything with a gun in my mouth, can I?” She did ease up, released his collar, but kept the gun against his skin. He swallowed, feeling its chilly kiss slither up from his jaw to his temple and seat solidly there. “This is my car,” he began, “it was stolen earlier this week. I just found it tonight, on the street where you got in. If you don’t believe me, look in the glove compartment. The car’s registered to Chance Harper. That’s me — look—” He started to reach into his coat for his wallet, but the ratcheting click of the gun’s hammer cocking back stopped him. “Look, Julia, it’s a mistake, that’s all. I’m not after you at all —”
“Then how do you know my name?
Shit, Harper. Chance grimaced inwardly. First engage the brain, then the mouth, OK? “I - uh. I’m a newspaper photographer. I’m only in Chicago to interview your boss Mr. Eizen about his artwork. Look — look under your feet, I got a million press passes over there in the footwell, and I’ve got a camera —”
“He’s dead.” Her voice was sharply bitter, cold in the darkness.
“Um. Yeah. I know.” He risked a look, finding his captor’s steel-blue eyes brimming in the streetlight slow. “I heard on the news... Terrorists. I’m sorry.”
“Fucking NATO terrorists!” she agreed, wiping at her eyes with the back of her hand. “Wherever you go, whatever you do, there they are. They’re so righteous, so sanctimonious... as if they’re morally superior. Wilhelm was totally innocent. He spent his own money, traveled with scrupulous records. They had nothing on him! Nothing.” She sniffed, and Chance felt the pressure of the gun ease up a little. “He was like a child. Nothing mattered to him but his art. He was a simple, gentle artist, but NATO killed him like a criminal!” She made a convincing spitting sound. “They’re no better than any single country’s Gestapo. It’s just that no one country will stand up to them!”
Chance nodded, sensing an old and touchy subject had been broached. She was editing the facts — he didn’t even need to temper her words with Lord Gloria’s confidences, or to consider anything Major Eberbach had let slip to him during his interrogation. Chance’s own eyes had told him enough to know that she was either deluded or lying. However, remembering his treatment at the Iron Major’s tender mercies, he was not entirely unsympathetic to Bearcat’s rage. As far as he’d been able to tell, she was right — one secret organization with too much power was pretty much the same as any other, and every country had them. Still, he doubted that sympathy was going to get him out of this. He coughed gently. “Well, you are a foreigner, and you’re on American soil. You could go to the Embassy, claim some sort of protection —”
She shot him a look of pure disgust. “Jauche Kaffer! You think the CIA would be a better choice for me? America would never risk NATO’S displeasure by giving me immunity. Once NATO’S wolves have your scent, you cannot run to any guard dogs for protection.” She sighed, looked down at her feet. “You have to go to the rats.”
“The Rats?” Chance thought he knew what she meant, but he asked anyway.
“The underworld. Mister...”
“Mm. The ones who don’t answer to the Dogs. They’re the only ones who can get me home now.” Her lips twitched upward, sketching a wry smile, and a hint of a devastating beauty. Privately, Chance decided right then that she should definitely smile much more often. “Unfortunately for you, Herr Harper, to reach the rats I have in mind, I must make use of you and your auto.” She settled back against the passenger door, put both hands on her pistol and her smile settled a little farther into the range of smugness. “I trust you will have no objections?”
Chance found himself fighting the urge to smile back at her. “So.” He coughed, nodding at the steering wheel. “Can I put my hands down?”
“You will have a hard time driving if you do not,” she said. “And I tell you that you will drive. And avoid any more sudden stops!” Chance smiled, wondering if it had occurred to her yet that she might put on her own seat belt. Then a flicker of black shadowed the rearview. He reached for the keys, checking the side mirror for a clearer look at the two men who were closing stealthily on his car. The nearest one he recognized at once. The last time he’d seen the face it had been on the other end of a sub-machine gun, and it hadn’t looked any happier than it did now.
“What?” Julia snapped, sensing, perhaps, his sudden shift of interest. He shot her a glance, then directed her eyes to the back with a quick shake of his head.
“Hang on!” Chance wrenched the keys over, praying for a quick start. His car apparently took that moment to proclaim itself an atheist. It wheezed, gurgled, coughed a couple of times, then finally turned over. A full thirty seconds after Chance found himself face to face with that sub-machine gun he’d remembered so well.
“Shit,” he observed, putting his hands back up into plain view. Behind him, Julia was growling a steady stream under her breath as the two rear doors openers and the car shifted under the weight of two more people. Uzi boy lifted the barrel away from Chance’s face for long enough to set into the car, but in his eyes was a gleam of intent that Chance could read as clearly now as he’d been able to last time. When this is all over, I’ll break every bone in your body, then rupture every one of your organs in alphabetical order. And I will enjoy it a whole lot.
He glanced into the rearview, met the eyes of a big, big man. A man he’d last seen in a stairwell, over the slavering jaws of a Doberman pinscher the size of a Buick. The man nodded to him, careless, and turned to the woman in the front seat with an oily smile.
“Well Julia. You know, I was just going to see you. Wasn’t I, gentlemen? I said to the boys as we walked out, ‘I really have to visit that nice little girl from the art-fag’s office, and see if I can’t get her to reconsider our deal.”‘ He held up his hands, face a mask of perfect credulity. “No lie. My very words. ‘Then I walk out, and here you are, being squired around the river district by—” And now the pale eyes did alight on Chance’s face with considerably more weight than before, “Someone else I’d been meaning to schedule a meeting with.” He laughed, genuine mirth that put chills right down Chance’s spine.
Beside him, Julia made the spitting sound again. “Well. Must be your lucky day, McAlpine.”
Again, the fat man laughed. When he was, he wiped at his eyes. “Yes. Yes I guess it must be.” ‘Then as quickly as it had come, McAlpine’s good humor evaporated.
“Now drive, and we’ll see just how lucky it is for you.”