by Cassie Ingaben
The bar was dirty and disreputable, which was the reason he had chosen it. Klaus traced his way back to the far corner table, and banged their beers on the table. Eroica looked up, puzzled. Well, Klaus would wipe that puzzlement off soon enough. He slipped into his seat, scanning for surveillance, and took a good pull of his drink. Weak. Eroica grimaced at his own glass. He pursed his lips and gave Klaus a scrutinising look. The foppish affectations had gone, which might or might not be a good sign.
"What can I do for you, Major?"
"I need your cooperation for an undercover mission. It won't be easy. Drink your beer."
"I think I'll pass on the beer, if you don't mind. And I fail to see how I can help with an undercover mission, darling. I'm not exactly unremarkable, you know. So, where's the catch?"
Klaus told himself to relax—his paranoia must be contagious. "It's not about disguising our identities. It's what we are to do." He stood abruptly. "Let's walk. It's stifling in here."
He stormed out, Eroica scrambling in his wake. It was not a failure of nerves, Klaus pointed out to himself. This part had to be really secret. He was going against orders. Klaus wended his way to a poor excuse for a park. Stupid Poles could not grow potatoes in a potato field, let alone ornamental greenery. Then he turned and stopped, so that Eroica almost bumped into him. Klaus grabbed him, and pulled him close, just in case. Looking down so that his lips could not be read, he mumbled as low as possible. "I have orders, but I am taking, ehm, liberties with them."
"What? Darling, you're scaring me now." Eroica sounded completely lost.
"Lower your voice. NATO's being blackmailed, and we think there's a mole in this mess, too. This is need to know, so I was not supposed to tell you. I was just to proceed with setting the bait, letting them bite, and then coming down on them."
"Yes. I am the bait. We are the bait."
After a few seconds, it sank in. Eroica started to tremble. Klaus looked up, ready to catch the thief when his knees gave way. And he realised he had miscalculated Eroica's reaction. He was pale, yes, but the trembling was sheer rage. "How dare they? How? And I didn't need to bloody know? Do they have any idea what they're asking?"
"Look down; they might read your lips."
Eroica shoved him away, and started to run. It took Klaus longer than usual to catch up, so he was rough in turning the furious thief around and wrestling him to a standstill.
"Let me go, dammit, let me go!"
"You don't want to know why I told you?"
Eroica froze. His eyes had gone almost indigo, noted Klaus. He let Eroica go, and the thief turned away, head bent. "I want to know why you agreed to go along with this."
"Orders are orders."
The thief flinched, but was otherwise silent.
"I do know what they are asking. What we are asking. That's why I am telling you. Even I can't do that to you."
"So, orders are orders when you want to follow them, otherwise you'll go against them."
"This is different. Goals are not means."
Eroica shrugged. He had sounded hollow, and his shoulders looked tired. There was a long silence. Klaus noted it had started to rain.
"They will realise you're letting them eavesdrop on purpose. You're not so stupid as to be caught if you don't want to."
"Yes. That will be difficult. But I have thought of some ways. We can have 'slips.' I—and you—should both know better. However, under the circumstances you would be distracted—we both can be, here and there. Discreetly."
Eroica's hair was becoming wet, hanging down like a darkened gold stream. He spoke slowly, as if thinking aloud.
"If you hadn't told me, it would have been easier for you to pretend. More realistic."
"I told you. I could not do that. It's not honourable."
"Honourable. Yes. Of course. Honourable. But why should I accept? I am not honourable."
"I thought that was what you wanted. In Vienna, you said you were happy to pretend."
Eroica made a stifled noise, barely audible in the rain; he shook his head so that droplets flew off his hair.
"What do I get if I say yes?"
"A very realistic pretence. And the usual NATO fee."
"Thirty pieces of silver? Or a painting? There's a Giorgione I fancied once."
Klaus had no answer to that, so he stayed silent. They were both getting wet to the bone.
"If I say yes—what comes next?"
"We get out of the rain. I will call your private line in three weeks' time with instructions."
"You said you didn't want to be cruel—No, never mind. Will the line be tapped?"
"It might. Make sure you are the one who answers."
Eroica nodded slowly, still not facing him, then walked off.
Klaus waited until the first streetlights turned themselves on in the thickening Warsaw twilight, then left too.
The phone call was short and to the point. Klaus thought it was suspicious, but not overtly so. At worst, the General would know he was obeying orders. He had no illusions that he wasn't under double surveillance. He rang Conrad to have his suitcase ready, and pocketed his plane ticket.
This park was better, though barren from the winter season. Eroica was at the duck pond, feeding the birds, which was expected. He wore red, and make-up, which was not.
"Hello darling! Fancy meeting you here!" He stood just a little bit closer than usual. Klaus suppressed his instinctive reaction, and let his space be invaded. "Should I smile, or should I sing, or both?"
"I don't think there's anyone yet."
"Pity, and me donning my best for the pictures."
"It may take some time before someone notices and decides to take an interest."
Eroica's bird-feeding flourishes faltered slightly, then smoothed again. "Ah, time to get to know each other. I always favoured a slow, traditional courtship. How do you like your affairs, Klaus?"
"Let's walk. You're being too obvious."
"However are they going to spot the difference?"
"You're not bitter, usually."
Eroica dumped the remaining feed in the water, causing a fight among the birds. "Touché. Incidentally, who are 'they'? You never said."
"It's better if you don't know."
"Blind man's bluff was never my favourite game. My sisters cheated."
"I have not lied to you."
"Just been economical with the truth."
This was actually quite good. If Eroica kept that attitude, they would soon spot that something was amiss, without requiring overt 'slips'. Eroica kept silent for an abnormally long time, walking just slow enough to infuriate.
"I've been wondering, darling. Why didn't you just ring an escort service? I can find you some good ones—high class, very clean. What you'd like, I think."
"Not safe, not believable, not manageable."
"And I am manageable."
"No. But you're more believable."
"So, they think you're a romantic after all. Well, then. Your place or mine?"
"I think I should mention that my superiors are probably keeping an eye on us as well."
"Splendid! You know how I love the theatre. Or is this the opera?"
The thief actually started singing some damn Italian song. Klaus took a deep breath. If he killed Eroica, it would be too broad a hint for them.
"What is it, darling? Don't you like Puccini? Maybe you'll prefer Wagner. The Liebestod, I think." He took a deep breath, and opened his mouth. Klaus grabbed Eroica's right arm, and shook him.
"Enough! This is too much. You're too angry."
"Wouldn't you be?"
"Touché." Klaus let him go. "I think we've done enough for today. You can return to your hotel."
Eroica deflated, looking around as if lost. "Like that? I mean, that's it? For today?"
"For the trip. Go home now. You'll call me in 11 days. This is the number you should use."
The thief glanced at the slip of paper. "Karl Vettel's line. You've used it already."
"Precisely. Now go. And do something for your face, it looks smudged."
Eroica stared at him, until Klaus unexpectedly found himself lowering his eyes. "I hate you, Major von dem Eberbach." With that, he left.
Klaus swatted powdery snow from his hair, and removed both his coat and jacket. The hotel room was awash in firelight and candles, bringing out the warm red tones of the upholstery. Eroica was sitting on the rug-covered floor in front of the fireplace, holding his knees in his arms and staring at the flames. He didn't turn away from his contemplation, but he shivered as the cold draft from the outside made its way into the room.
"When I was a child, I used to stare at the fire for hours, trying to name all the colours I saw. I could never do it."
Klaus looked at the thick fabric festooning the windows. A triangle of grey light showed up where the drapings didn't quite meet. "Did you draw the curtains?"
Eroica nodded slowly. "And checked for bugs. Should I turn on the radio?"
"No, I think this will do."
"Pity. I'd love to have some music."
"Stop being foppish."
"Are you going to be like this all evening?"
Eroica took a deep breath and uncurled himself, still not turning away from the fire. "Sorry. Habit." He fiddled with his sleeves, pulling lace cuffs out of the wide dressing gown sleeves. "Well, then," he whispered.
Klaus reached the rug and sat down on the deep pile. He removed his shoes and undid his tie. He had no idea what to do next. He sat like that for a while, waiting for the nightfall to make the lit interior more discernible.
"I have a fine Armagnac. Whisky for you, if you prefer," Eroica said quietly, but still did not stir. Was this what people did when they flirted? Implausible, but the thief should know. Klaus looked at the tray with bottles and glasses. Maybe it was supposed to be a hint. He poured Eroica his cognac, and himself a whisky. They drank in silence, then Eroica slowly put down his glass and leaned forward to add a log to the flames. That close to the fire, Klaus could see fine lines around the thief's lips, a slight puffiness under the eyes. No make-up this time.
Eroica leaned back and finally turned. "When this is over—" he whispered; then he pressed a finger on Klaus's lips. "No. Say nothing." He trailed his fingers down to Klaus's pulse point on the neck, then closed his eyes and kissed him.
It was not what Klaus had expected. Not fiery, not repulsive, but not irresistible either. Subdued, almost solemn. Lingering. The mechanics were eased by Eroica's finesse, making the experience somehow unreal. Bodies should be clumsier on discovery. Especially when they had such an unexpected shape and feel. Especially when they both knew they had an audience. Maybe that was why Eroica had kept his eyes closed throughout.
Duty done, they ended up tangled on the carpet, wrapped in a crimson silk quilt Eroica'd stolen from the closest armchair. Klaus was hovering on the brink of sleep, when the thief shook his arm. Klaus grunted interrogatively and opened an eye. Eroica scrutinized him, backlit by the dying embers, face unreadable. "Say my name. Say it." Klaus blinked. "Say, 'Dorian'."
"Go to sleep now."
When Klaus woke up, Eroica'd gone.
The watery sunlight was pouring through the glass walls, yet failing to really warm the patio.
"I usually despise modern architecture, but this place is remarkable. In the summer, one can see for miles, hear the sea if the wind is favourable. It's so open, transparent. See and be seen."
"But not heard."
"Good. I want a drink."
"You look like you already had a few."
"You were late; I was bored. Tequila all right?"
"As long as it's straight. None of that fruit cocktail crap."
Eroica snorted. "Of course. It's called a margarita, by the way. Daisy. Have you read The Great Gatsby?" He filled two shot glasses, handed Klaus one, downed the other in one go, and plonked himself on the bed-sized sofa.
"This is not good."
"What, the furniture? I agree. Me being drunk? Why not?"
"You might slip. We need to be careful."
"Yes of course. I am being very careful. I am watching everything. Remembering all."
Klaus shrugged, and he sat too. There was no point tackling Eroica when he was being contrary. Better to concentrate on the drink. Maybe it would help.
Or maybe not. Definitely not. Damn, they were a spectacle indeed. Eroica was staring hollowly at the sunset, eyes swimming in the slanting light. "So sorry, darling. You were right about the drink. All the way to San Sebastian, and all for nothing."
"Not to me. Not in a long time. You're not good for me. Bad luck."
Eroica was a maudlin drunk, this time. No dancing on the tables. That would have been good blackmail fodder. "Should I be offended?"
"Only if you answer a question. No, only if you can answer. Really answer."
Eroica was silent. He had not bothered to cover himself, which was disturbing. He groped around for the bottle, found it on the floor by the sofa's closest leg. Failed to find his glass, so he sat up and swigged directly from the bottle, then flopped flat again.
"You will be sick."
"I'm already sick. Very sick."
"Exactly what I wanted to ask. Over-doing things. All in the name of duty?"
"Attention to detail is vital, when there's little control over a situation."
"Details. It's called details, now."
"I think you should shut up."
"Did you know that up to half of all women fake it? I say, why not if you can get away with it."
"You are not making any sense."
"I think I am. You should go away now, Klaus. I think I gave you incontrovertible proof a few times already. Isn't that what you wanted?"
Klaus got up and dressed, Eroica's eyes trained on him like a camera. The thief made no objections when Klaus pried the bottle off his hand, and pointedly poured what was left of its content in the closest potted plant. "You should sleep it off. I will call you."
The phone rang several times before Eroica picked it up. Klaus strained to hear any clicking noises. Maybe; or maybe the line was simply bad.
There was a long silence at the other end, then: "I see. Well, do you have any news? Because I have news for you. Someone you should meet."
What was the idiot playing at? He repeated, meaningfully: "Dorian."
"I heard you. Where and when?"
Klaus gave instructions, and then hung up. There was something very wrong. He would know in less than two days.
It was more than wrong. It was a fucking nightmare. And he was sure that the hotel room was under video and audio surveillance this time. As usual, Eroica had lousy timing. Fairly preening in his evening dress, the thief gestured at the red-haired young man lounging next to him. "Klaus, meet Johann. Johann, meet Klaus. I found Johann in Vienna; he's the most brilliant violinist I ever heard. Divine. I am vanquished."
Johann held his hand out and attempted a mundane smile, but withered immediately under Klaus's glare.
"Oh never mind Klaus, darling. He has no manners. And he doesn't play well with others. So old-fashioned. Boring."
"E—Dorian. You will show this man the door now. And if I see him again, I will break all the bones in his hands. There are 27 in each one, but he should know that, with his line of work."
Blanching, Johann stood. "You are insane. Is this some kind of jealous charade? Old queers!" He cast a reproachful glance at Eroica and hastened to the door, slamming it behind him.
"Look what you did now!" Eroica pouted. "You scared him away! He was such a luscious young—"
Klaus grabbed the thief by his lapel and shook him. "I don't know if you're drunk or not, but I may kill you either way."
Eroica attempted to laugh through the clacking of his teeth. "I am perfectly sober. Just disappointed you didn't like my surprise. Do you even know what a threesome is?"
Klaus hit him.
"Get up, you slut. I know you're awake. I didn't hit you that hard. But I still may. Get up!"
Eroica backed up in a corner, hissing through bleeding lips staining his starched shirt ruffles crimson. "Slut. Yes, you should know. You wanted that, didn't you? A slut."
"Shut up! Shut up!" Klaus grabbed him, threw him on the bed, and went for his throat. Eroica started fighting back, screaming assorted insults. Klaus drew back and slapped him, hard. The thief's shirt gave way, the ripping sound preternaturally loud over their panting breaths. Klaus's mind stilled as he was in turn slapped back and his clothes attacked. He tasted blood on Eroica's lips; he was bitten and he bit back, didn't know anymore who was screaming at whom, and he'd never wanted anything like he wanted the sex now, in the midst of pure chaos.
Afterwards, the silence was eerie. They were still half-dressed, come stains all over, Eroica's bruises darkening already on his face. Klaus had scratches everywhere, and loose strands of long bright hair were tangled in his hands. Eroica spoke through swollen split lips.
"Say it. Say, 'slut'."
The thief got up and left.
Five days after, Klaus received his first blackmail letter. The following week was very busy. Final debriefings over, Klaus phoned Castle Gloria. Eroica would not pick up, so Klaus took a plane to England.
Klaus used his gun to wave aside all attempts to hinder him, and soon found Dorian in his library. In the streaming light of early spring, his bruises still showed starkly; by contrast, his eyes seemed flat, almost dead.
"I don't want to hear it, whatever it is. I'm calling it quits. I am not playing anymore. Be so kind as to leave my—
"We got them."
Dorian sat down, strings cut off. He blinked, then forced a grimace. Cleared his throat. "Well, then. Mission accomplished. James won't even invoice—"
They both stopped. The whole house seemed to breathe around them. Dust motes sparkled where the light pooled on the hardwood floor, drawing lozenges on the old grainy surface, bringing the colour out of a blue-ish oriental rug.
Dorian got up, stood in front of the window, looking out, blocking the light. The dust motes vanished, and the rug showed grey with age.
Klaus moved one step forward, then stopped. "Dorian. I just wanted to say—"
"Don't. Don't say it. I can't hear it. Not now. Not anymore. It's too late."
The room had grown stifling. Unseen, Klaus saluted. He did a formal volte face, and left.
21 June, 2009