Blackmail Is Fun For The Whole Family
by Kadorienne & the Duchess
Iron Klaus resented the indignity of being stopped at three different checkpoints between the main road and the Roccanera estate... they bloody well knew he was coming; they should be waving him through deferentially rather than checking his damned photo ID, asking him to repeat the code number he'd been assigned, and ensuring his rented car contained no other passengers.
On the other hand, he had to concede that their excessive precautions he probably wouldn't need to be alert and ready for attack 24/7 while he was visiting Madame... he'd be alert anyway, of course, but it was nice to know that there was at least someone else on the planet who took security as seriously as he did.
At the last one they told him to have a nice day. Ha!
There were foresty bits, and rolling green lawns in the English style, and then the road began to run through garden after garden, each on a different theme, radiating out from the central complex that he suspected was even larger than Schloss Eberbach. But apart from the main house, which had been the country villa of a Bourbon prince, it had all been built in the last twenty years, which of course made it inferior... Klaus had no truck with shoddy modern constructions. They wouldn't stand the test of time; they'd be ruins a century hence and his own home would remain resplendent. Tradition, that was the thing.
The Major was met by footmen in very restrained black livery, one to drive his car on to the garages, and one to take the small bag he'd brought in grim expectation of being dangled on a string overnight at least. Meanwhile the appropriately bargelike butler led him through a succession of disgracefully foppish salons, other footmen standing at attention by the doors and then snapping them closed behind them in perfect unison.
He'd counted nineteen servants by the time he was deposited in the same room as a tray of nibbly things and a pot of piping hot Nescafé, and left to stew in his own juices until such a time as the lady of the house chose to receive him. Wasteful extravagance, even if they weren't wearing the ridiculous gold braid he'd half-expected from a woman who, Dorian assured him, had a room for shoes, a room for bags, and two for hats - "Summer and winter, darling, isn't that sensible?"
He reached out to pour his coffee, but the butler beat him to it.
Half an hour later, a no more than usually enraged Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach was ushered into Madame Roccanera's study. It was a masculine room, heavy on the leather and antique weaponry, with a platinum-coloured notebook computer and a glass of brandy on the desk. She was sitting at a right-angle to it in a high-backed black leather chair.
What struck him was that, while her upper half was suitably outfitted in a shiny zebra-printed jacket, the zip almost indecently low, the rest of her was hidden beneath a white cashmere blanket. Her hands were folded demurely in her lap. It was uncharacteristic, to say the least. He tried to remember if he'd ever seen her wearing something besides a very short skirt or a pair of extremely fitted pants... he didn't think he had.
"Well, darling?" She batted her eyelashes at him. "How's Dorian? I'm surprised he's let you off the leash."
Klaus coloured, wondering how on earth the woman could possibly know about that, before realising she was joking. And enjoying her joke, if that very characteristic look in her eyes was anything to go by. "Sit down before you fall down," she suggested.
On the whole Klaus would have preferred to stand, to signify his unwillingness to dally in what he thought was probably a den of iniquity. But he gloomily supposed there'd be the obligatory half-hour's beating about the bush before the woman was willing to get down to matters, and so he considered sitting. Her eyes hadn't left his face once, a move that had been known to regularly disconcert lesser men than the Major.
"Correct me if I'm wrong," she mused, "but did the mountain just come to Muhammed?"
Was she actually going to talk sense at once? He was surprised enough that he did sit down then. "I suppose you could say that."
"Then I'll have to ask the mountain why, won't I? I can't think it's merely a solicitous visit to inquire after the invalid's health."
This so surprised the Major that he almost did ask after her health. He had assumed that if she did have any problem, she would have refused to admit it. But common sense prompted him to seize the opportunity. Best to not beat about the bush. "I have to ask you a favour."
"What makes you think I'll be willing to do you a favour after the way you've treated me?"
"The way I've treated you?!?" he blew up. "Catering to your verdammt whims and being an unwitting bodyguard while you were playing your lunatic decadent games? Not to mention saving your bloody life?!"
"Oops - that line was from the script for my three o'clock." Madame smiled bashfully, and drank the rest of her brandy.
Klaus could speak in a civil voice when he really wanted to. Such was part of a gentleman's training. He utilised it now.
"My mistake. I thought you were actually going to speak sensibly without spending half an hour on foppish bullshit first," he said in the most courteous drawing-room manner. After he'd said it, he realized he was fighting with Dorian's weapons now. Ah, well, he thought with resignation. It was what marriage did to a man.
"Well, we could always speak sensibly if you've got your little heart set on it, but I've got you penciled in for thirty minutes, and if we run out of things to say I'll just have to sit around doing nothing until the next time block, and that would be so dull!" she sighed.
A girl in a short but stylish white shift moved into the study on stealthy bare feet. Her long black braid fell over her shoulder as she bent to replace Madame's empty brandy glass with a fresh one, and put gin at Klaus's elbow. Madame clicked her fingers and pointed. The beautiful teenager fetched cigarettes, lighter and ashtray, placed them just where they ought to be on the desk, and backed out of the room gracefully.
Then Madame sighed again. "Well, then, what's this favour? And why come to me for it?"
How frank to be? That was easy; if he was less than perfectly frank her radar would tell her as much, and she'd keep dangling him around until he blurted out the truth in sheer frustration. But there was no reason to let it out all in one go... Dorian's weapons, again, but they'd always worked for the thief-
"There is a man," he began slowly, "whose activities I am aware of... but I have no solid proof."
"Ah. So you'd like some. Now, what makes you think I have any? Do you think all we criminals belong to a secret club?"
"I know you do. I'm married to its chairman, remember?" he replied. She pouted, but didn't say anything.
"He cannot possibly be doing what we know he's doing, without having attracted your notice. I know you make it your business to know everything that's going on in your territory."
"And in other people's as well, yes, dear," she admitted, yawning neatly behind her manicured hand. "Good business is good business. I suppose you want to string the chap up or something... why should I let you do that? He could be a good friend of mine, you know."
"While I'm sure you know him, I'm equally sure he's not a friend of yours. Or he won't be, after you see this." He reached into his vest pocket and withdrew three photos. "These are unpleasant," he said as he handed them to her.
She took them and looked at them all closely, saying nothing, before raising her expressionless eyes back to him.
"The girl in the photos is eleven years old. She worked for him."
She gave the pictures back and said, "What's his name?" Her mask was intact, naturally, but he had a feeling he'd got to her nonetheless... despite her protestations to the contrary, she was a mostly decent person.
He mentioned a name.
Madame nodded happily. "Oh, good. Hard as it might be for you to believe, there are rules more easily broken by you than by me. You'll have to stay overnight, of course. There's a time-lock on my toybox."
"What time does it open?" he asked, wishing he'd brought Dorian after all.
"That would be telling!" She shook her finger warningly.
Her other hand hit a key on her laptop, and the girl in white promptly readmitted herself. "The Major's room is made up for him?" she asked. A demure nod answered her. "Then confirm there'll be an extra at dinner tonight and tell Rosenthal she owes me fifty pounds." Another nod, and the girl backed out again, her poise impeccable. A fitted gold bangle gleamed on each of her wrists as she closed the doors behind herself.
"How old is that... young lady?" he asked gruffly.
"Don't be coy. You know perfectly well why," he snapped.
"She's a maid, darling, not a whore." Madame winked.
"She still looks too young to be associating with the likes of you," he grumbled.
"She's sixteen or seventeen or something like that," Madame relented, shrugging elegantly, "I really couldn't say. My chauffeuse's sister. Let me explain the system of colour-coding so you don't put your foot in it. You'll see a lot of people wearing black. Black combat pants denote a member of the security team, black silk or leather or at any rate something chic means the wearer isn't staff at all, those wearing black in other ways will do as they're told. And girls who wear white simply shouldn't need to be told."
He had been right, this was a den of iniquity. Not troubling to pursue fruitless inquiries, he changed the subject without preamble. "Why do you say you're an invalid?"
"Oh, I had the most embarrassing accident!" she exclaimed in a tortured fashion.
Klaus was certain that his husband would have been able to come up with a clever answer to this. He merely waited.
"I fell off a horse. Well, he threw me off. Honestly! That hasn't happened to me since I was kneehigh to a grasshopper." She took out a cigarette and waited for him to light it.
"Is that really what happened?" he asked, lighting her cigarette and then his own.
"Gospel truth. I'll show you the bloody horse if you like, and you can try riding the brute... I keep suggesting Katalin have a go - I mean, she did grow up on a farm - but she keeps saying I must be trying to kill her and chases the maids instead. She's really not civilised, despite my best attempts in that direction." She nibbled her cigarette-holder forlornly.
"I'm sure your endeavours have been extensive," he said wryly. "The horse is here? If so, I'll take you up on your offer."
"Of course the horse is here. My doctor and I struck a bargain: I'm allowed to get back in the saddle next week, and in return I won't sue him for malpractice." She smiled sunnily and pressed that key on her laptop again.
"The Major would like to meet Incitatus. Would you make the introductions, dear? See to finding him some suitable clothes?" she said to the white-garbed nymphette.
The girl nodded - did she ever shake her head? - and beckoned gracefully for the visitor to follow her.
The mighty steed Incitatus had a high-fenced paddock all to himself, and he was enjoying the sunshine. The sunshine was enjoying him, too, judging by the way it made him gleam darkly from nose to swishing tail... he was a magnificent beast, no doubt about it, and the Major didn't blame Madame for coveting him and wishing to master him.
At present Darcey Kenton was feeding him sugarlumps. Klaus couldn't see her face underneath that vast straw hat, but he recognised the voice that was telling Incitatus what a good boy he was.
He watched her from outside the paddock with growing impatience. At last he could restrain himself no longer. "That's a stallion, young lady, not a poodle."
She jumped, much in the manner of an alphabet. "Major! Oh, you gave me a heart attack," she said, pushing her hat back a little so she could see him. Incitatus delicately licked the last sugarlump from her palm, and she wiped her hand on a handkerchief and tucked it back into the pocket of her extremely fitted Levi's. "Are you coming in?"
"Yes," he stated, but first turned to the stables. It only took him a moment to find a curry comb and brush. Then he was in the paddock, careful to keep his gait steady as he walked toward the horse.
Darcey gave Incitatus one last careful stroke, and backed away as Klaus approached; experience had proven that Incitatus didn't like to be surrounded by people. There were actually quite a lot of things Incitatus didn't like, but listing them would take so long she didn't bother. It would be interesting to watch the Major find out for himself, after all.
Of course, it was possible that Incitatus would decide he liked Klaus... much like the way he'd decided he liked Darcey, and didn't like Portia. His thought processes were one of the great mysteries of the age.
Animals were much simpler than people, the Major knew. You generally had to scare the wits out of people to get them to behave at all reasonably, whereas the best approach with animals was one of nonthreatening confidence.
Incitatus - just like that woman to inflict such a name on a horse - turned to evaluate him as he approached. Klaus spoke to him quietly in German, more politely than he spoke to most humans, and began to groom his lustrous coat. It didn't need it, but they would both enjoy it, and it was a fairly good way to get acquainted with a temperamental horse.
"Nice afternoon for it," said Darcey vaguely. She pushed her hat back down until only her chin and her lipstick were showing. "I'll just- go and file my nails or something." She let herself out.
Klaus was content to have Incitatus and the outdoors to himself. The stallion didn't seem to object to him. He curried his coat for several minutes before taking his bridle and guiding him to the fence. Incitatus made only a token objection to the saddle, taking a few steps away so that Klaus had to follow him and then stopping to allow Klaus to buckle it on.
Klaus stroked the stallion's mane and suddenly realized he was smiling. Not the cold half-smile he sometimes used to terrify humans (to great effect), but the genuine, unconscious smile he wore very rarely. Even though he knew no one was watching, force of habit made him school his face. Then, after another courteous remark to Incitatus, he put a foot in the stirrup and mounted.
Incitatus did indeed seem to challenge him after a short period of cooperation - increasing his pace, insisting on choosing his own paths. Klaus only smiled and held on, without loosening his hold on the reins. No wonder this horse and that woman didn't get along. It was her habit to master everything around her. By guile or force or whatever means necessary. It was effective with humans. But a horse demanded respect. That was the only attitude to take.
The first thing a responsible rider did at the conclusion of an outing was groom his horse. Klaus had every intention of doing it personally, but one of the damn grooms insisted on doing it for him. He thought about protesting, about working on his relationship with the horse, but as he'd never come back to Madame's country house again if he could help it, he relinquished the reins and trudged off up to the house to get out of his horsey clothes.
There was another nymphette in white in his room, this time a blonde, and while he was still processing this data and determining how to get rid of her with the least fuss, she padded softly into the next room and began to run a bath.
Klaus tromped over to the bathroom door. Dorian enjoyed being waited on as if he were a paraplegic, but then, for all his merits, Dorian was a dissipated aristocrat who'd not had the advantage of a proper upbringing.
But this was another matter altogether. He fixed the girl with a fierce glare, pointed to the door in case she didn't speak English, and said firmly, "Out." He repeated it in German and French for good measure.
The conflict in her face as her hand fell from the tap was of mammoth proportions. She took a step toward the doorway he was still partially blocking, clearly not sure whether to be more afraid of him or of her employer.
He stepped back from the door, and pointed imperiously for the second time. "I'll tell her I threw you out. She'll no doubt expect it. Leave now."
She obeyed with admirable haste. Obeying was, after all, something she did well.
Having sorted out a steaming hot bath with no need for assistance, Klaus indulged himself in a long soak. Dorian had been vastly amused to discover that this was his chief indulgence, aside from cigarettes. Klaus supposed he was rather an amateur at hedonism. And he planned to stay that way.
When the water began to cool for the third time, he got out and toweled himself off. His nightly situps and pushups could wait until he'd called Dorian, to let him know he wouldn't be back that night.
He ate in his room and did his best to ignore the goddamned bacchanal going on on the terrace under his windows. He resolutely kept his curtains closed, even when they started smashing plates.
After midnight there was a businesslike rap at the door. "Avon calling!"
But of course it was Madame, and after a perfunctory two-second wait, she barged in as if she owned the place. All right, she did own the place, but that still didn't excuse her habit of bursting in on a chap while he was reading a very interesting book about tanks.
He was about to protest when, making a moue, she exclaimed, "Sitting up here all alone? Is this fit behaviour for the Emperor of the Hamburg Nights?"
She lowered her heavily made-up eyelids and fluttered her lashes significantly. The door had closed as if of its own accord. "Don't play coy with me, handsome... I know your secret."
His eyes narrowed. "When did you meet that idiot Limey?"
"Oh, simply years ago, sweetie." She was wearing wide-cut black silk pants that in defiance of established wisdom made her look thinner, and a sort of silk top in various shades of flame that, with her gold hoop earrings, Dorian would've called 'very Natacha Rambova' if he'd been among those present. Her left foot was in a white walking cast, her right in a gloriously tasseled Moroccan slipper, which she kicked off as she threw herself down comfortably on the bed next to Klaus.
"Whatever he told you, it's a lot of rot. Limeys are all insane," Klaus informed her.
She plumped her pillows and snuggled down a bit, peering at his tank book. "Considering you're married to one and I'm going to bed with another, what on earth does that say about us, darling?"
Klaus didn't bother to answer. Instead he ordered, "Don't remind my husband of that Hamburg Nights rubbish. He'll be making idiot jokes about it for months."
Madame thought about his words for a moment. "I suppose this means I can't be your Empress," she said regretfully.
"Don't tell me that's what you came in here for," he retorted, impatient. "What do you want, woman?"
"A question many before you have tried to answer - and failed." Her smugness was palpable, and infuriating. She laid her head affectionately on his shoulder.
That did it. He lifted the infuriating woman bodily, rose, and carried her toward the door. She wasn't ruffled so much as wronged: "You forgot my slipper!"
He deposited her just outside the door, fetched the slipper, and threw it into the hall. "A sensible woman would keep her hands off me. I have a very jealous husband and he knows how to use a knife," he informed her, and closed the door firmly.
It was true. He would kill anyone who touched Dorian, but Dorian, he knew, would vivisect anyone who touched him.
He keyed in the lock code he'd selected earlier for his room's electronic security system; she overrode it a moment later and opened the door, leaning against the frame with a hand on a hip. "I only put my head on you, not my hands," she said reprovingly. "Besides which I came up for the sole purpose of making sure you had something to read - I wouldn't have sat down if I didn't have to keep this bloody foot elevated. You jump to conclusions even faster than I do, sweetie, and I'm an Olympic champion."
"I have something to read. Thanks ever so. Now go!" If she had legitimate business, this might prompt her to state it.
"How was your ride?"
"Excellent." He stretched out on the bed again and held the tank book in front of his face pointedly. "You look as if you're behind on your beauty sleep. You'd better go to bed." After he spoke, he realized that he was using Dorian's weapons yet again. This was going to have to stop.
"Bitch," she said, and waggled her finger at him, and departed.
Klaus glared after her. Well, at least it'd worked.
When the Major awoke, he found a note had been slipped under his door, requesting him to join Madame in the Fragonard Room at eleven o'clock. Implicit in the invitation was the assumption that their business would finally be transacted - Klaus believed in timelocks on principle, but this one had earned his eternal enmity.
He found the Fragonard Room the way she'd known he would, by accosting a servant and demanding directions... nothing if not efficient, was Iron Klaus. The name Fragonard was vaguely familiar to him from some rapture or other Dorian had gone into in his presence; and it was the Earl's sort of room all right, full of foppish pastoral pictures of men and women alike dressed in frilly whatchamacallits.
There was a big round table with fragile legs and two chairs: the one closest to the door for him, and the one opposite already occupied by Madame. She'd gone for the Slightly Slutty Shepherdess look, which could have been directly inspired by the paintings set high on the walls around her.
The dissonant item was the slim white cardboard box in front of her. It was open.
"Is that the evidence you promised me?" he demanded without preamble.
"This is my file on the gentleman in question, yes. And I slept very well, thank you."
He caught himself in time not to make another crack about her beauty sleep - this was really going too far; he was going to have to spend some time with a tank regiment before it became irreversible - and he charged around the table to grab the box.
She held on to it, too, and murmured, "Surely you don't need all of this, darling?" There was an eclectic mix of papers and photographs in the box, and a few things sealed in what looked like police evidence bags. One hand on the rim of the box, she drew out a black and white photograph and held it up for Klaus's perusal: "He had quite a nice body in his twenties, didn't he? You can't see her face but I rather think the woman is me... we were in Guadalajara, as I recall... he was temporarily in my employ and at the time that was the only way I could pay him... the photographer's bill was settled in much the same way, come to think of it."
He recoiled, too shocked to try to regain a grip on the box.
"Don't worry, there's nothing like this filed under Eberbach," she said sweetly. "Do sit down, darling, and then we can discuss the matter in a civilised fashion, without all that childish grabbing you're so inclined toward."
His face burning as he contemplated the very idea of pictures of him, he fell into the spare chair as if his knees had given way. Reading his thoughts, she said, "I shouldn't think I'll ever want to blackmail you... but if I did I wouldn't need anything so crude. No, these holiday snaps were just insurance, which it turned out I didn't need, so I put them away for a rainy day... and other things, too."
She rummaged in the box, raising an eyebrow as she pulled out a paper. "No, you certainly can't have this one; reason being that on this little job, I went along too to direct operations. An acquaintance of mine had a nasty infestation and we were cleaning house, I suppose you could say, room to room, with automatics rather than brooms..." She dropped the paper back into the box, and, as if she'd decided to stop toying with him, began to sort the contents of the box in a more businesslike fashion.
One of the white-clad girls appeared in the doorway and waited mutely. Klaus saw her and barked, "Nescafé. Now." If it weren't before noon, he would have demanded gin.
"And get me a very dry martini, won't you, dear?" Madame called after her without looking up. "Hair of the dog, you know," she confided to Klaus.
"Do you play croquet?" she asked suddenly.
"Nein. The temptation to misuse the apparatus is too strong," he snapped.
"Pity. A few of us were going to get up a game this afternoon... it might have diverted you, but I suppose we can't have a Teutonic psychopath armed with a mallet in our midst... Darcey for one is prone to fainting." One paper, then a second, then a whole sheaf, were placed on the table next to the box.
If the rest of the table hadn't been in the way, Klaus would have lunged at them. Instead he stood and decorously made his way to her side, and was reaching for them when her hand came down on top of them with surprising force.
"Now, now, tiger. Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can; it's seldom found in woman, and never found in people like us, so give it up already before I take my toys out of the sandbox in a huff."
His coffee and her cocktail were borne in upon a silver salver, and the girl deposited the drinks at their respective elbows without a sound.
Madame took a long mouthful of the martini. "Tell Darcey she may come in now - and tell Gilda I'll be wanting a foot massage as soon as I'm finished here."
The girl nodded as she backed out, replaced a moment later by Darcey Kenton. Madame selected a final document, and handed the papers to Darcey, murmuring, "Photocopy these." Darcey nodded and hurried away, her demeanour such that she should probably have been wearing white instead of a fetching shade of pink.
Klaus sat back and concentrated on his coffee with poorly concealed impatience. Fops. They were all in a conspiracy to drive him up the wall. It occurred to him that perhaps his behaviour would be perceived by them as evidence that they were succeeding in their dastardly mission, so he endeavoured to tone down his bad mood.
You had to give the man points for trying, Madame reflected, and he certainly was trying... it was a quality she knew all too well and could appreciate better than most. "What've you been up to lately?" she asked. "It's been the same old, same old around here. Toppling third world nations, buying politicians, throwing great parties, making money even faster than Darcey can spend it..."
"Beating up bad guys. Trying to discourage Dorian from stealing things. The usual. Oh - my father will finally get off my back; he's getting his heir soon."
She beamed. "And the Glorias are expecting, too, if I hear rightly... don't look surprised, sweetie, the dyke grapevine is a remarkable thing. It' is probably best for the girls to get it over with quickly - pregnancy gets more hellish the older you are."
"So I'm told," he muttered. A pregnant Gunilla was not the most congenial companion he'd ever known.
Then something curious happened to her smile. It became... genuine. "You're going to be a helluva father."
He was too surprised to say anything other than, "Am I?"
"Any child of yours is going to be brave and loyal, and know the difference between right and wrong. That's more than can be said for most people these days."
To his surprise - and embarrassment - he found that her words actually made him feel... 'A tank regiment,' he thought. 'The sooner the better.'
He was saved from having to reply by Darcey's return. She was wearing gloves now. Her fingerprints wouldn't be on the papers she was handing him, he realised, nor would Madame's... only his own. It was done gracefully.
Madame tucked the originals back into the box and closed it, then leaned forward and rested her arms on it possessively. "Staying for lunch?" she said when Darcey had gone.
He looked through the papers swiftly. Exactly what he needed. And he didn't doubt its authenticity... He would have to investigate if it might be feasible to have Dorian and his alphabets find out what else was in that safe; if the woman had access to this sort of thing... "No, I must go. Thank you." He stood and inclined his head.
"I bet you were the type who'd always fuck and run," she said shrewdly. "I'll walk you out." She had a footstool under the table; she disentangled herself from it and walked quite normally over to him. In that getup, he'd expected her to flounce.
"I was not!" he retorted indignantly, face scarlet. Not that he'd had a great many opportunities, but just the same.
She latched onto his arm as they strolled out of the Fragonard Room. "I've had an overactive sex life since you were a sparkle in your Papa's eye, sweetie, and believe me: I know your type. But enough about you; let's talk about me some more."
He said nothing.
Of course, if Madame saw a wasp's nest she'd poke it with a stick. "Cat got your tongue?"
Abruptly they weren't the only ones in the long gallery that connected two wings of the house: one of the girls in white, head bowed, was approaching them, walking just ahead of an attractive fortyish woman in a black silk skirt and fitted leather jacket. Just who was running the show was clear from her uncompromising but well made-up visage.
Madame ignored them and piloted Klaus through an open door into a salon he remembered from the previous day.
"You want to ask, don't you," she said a minute later.
"No, I do not," he said firmly. The less he knew about this house of horrors, the happier he'd be. The next time he needed something from this woman, he'd send his husband after it. They deserved each other.
"Suit yourself." They stepped into the entrance hall, and through the front doors he could see his rental car waiting, engine running and his bag in the backseat. She'd known he'd refuse lunch.
She reached up and ruffled his hair with arrogant familiarity. "Look after yourself, tiger, and those decadent aesthetes of yours too. And, of course, remember Roccanera Enterprises in future for all your grubby information needs. We live to serve!" She winked and flitted out in a susurration of silk.
Klaus smoothed his hair with meticulous care and stomped back to the sanity of his Benz.
He waited till he was well away from the Roccanera estate before pulling over to examine a hastily folded paper taken from Madame's white box. He scanned it and tucked it back into his pocket, satisfied with a job well done. He'd never use the evidence against her. But it satisfied him greatly to possess it.
Being married to the worlds greatest thief had its benefits.