All twenty-six alphabets cringed at the sound of their superior's deep voice bellowing behind the closed door.
"I WILL NOT WORK WITH THAT WORTHLESS CURLY-HAIRED THIEF AGAIN!"
"Now, now, Major. You know that Eroica is uniquely qualified for this mission. Who else could get you and your agents through a security system of that caliber?"
"Dammit! I can do it myself and you know it! There is no need to hire outside contractors, much less criminals who can't be relied on!"
"What's the problem, Major? Afraid you won't be able to elicit cooperation from someone you can't send to Alaska?"
"Why, you - that verflucht Limey has robbed me! Stole the portrait of my ancestor in the pumpkin pants! And now I'm expected to work with a criminal who's robbed me?"
"Yes. You are. You are dismissed, Major."
The alphabets quickly turned their attention back to the papers on their desks. A few seconds later, the door crashed open, and their superior stomped through the door. Jade eyes blazing. Shoulder-length dark hair tossed back. Severely tailored suit, perfectly pressed, covering six feet of toned muscle and long legs from the primly buttoned-up neck to the trim ankles. A powerful body storming through the office almost shaking with held-in rage.
"A!" the Major snarled.
"Call that no-good thief Eroica and tell her we're hiring her bloody criminal services!"
A gulped, nodded, and grabbed his phone. His superior pulled out a cigarette with unsteady hands and fumbled with her lighter. Z solicitously pulled out a lighter, and got an outraged glare for his pains.
"I can light my own fucking cigarette! You think that's what you're paid to do? Light cigarettes? Get back to work! Schnell!"
Z obeyed. Every head was bent attentively over paperwork, though very little was getting done. Major Klaudia von dem Eberbach swept the office with a stony look before attempting again to light her cigarette. Yelling at Z had steadied her nerves a little, and this time she managed it.
A hung up the phone. "Ma'am? Lady Dorian accepted the mission."
"Of course she did," the Major snarled. "That prissy bitch is always eager to meddle in serious business and screw up my missions. Worthless dissipated aristocrat."
The alphabets nodded meek agreement. Klaudia stalked to her own desk and grimly attacked the files on her desk. Without looking up, she barked, "Get me some Nescafé."
There was a brief scuffle as several men leaped to their feet to obey her, but one was ahead of the others. Z, she discovered when he brought it to her. And as usual he delivered a look of hopeless yearning along with the Nescafé. Idiot boy had long ago cast himself in the role of gallant knight, and her in that of unattainable lady fair. Humph. She accepted the mug with only a curt nod, but the fact was, she derived a great deal of satisfaction from forcing men to make her coffee.
Not that it did her much god-damned good. This assignment was a deliberate insult. It wasn't enough that she had had to enter Intelligence because the regular Army didn't accept female soldiers, meaning she had to devote her career to nasty underhanded sneaking and eavesdropping instead of the blessedly straightforward soldiering of a tank regiment. It wasn't enough that when her promotion to Major could no longer be reasonably delayed, the higher-ups had inflicted a crew of nigh-incompetent subordinates on her, ranging from idiots like B and Z to oddballs no other officer wanted, like G. She often wondered if G hadn't been assigned to her just to taunt her. But now, only months after that insane Limey had stolen her painting and then her tank from her - and Klaudia had had to answer for losing the tank, not that her superiors would prosecute the culprit for it, oh no, not a culprit that pretty, the dirty old men - now she was forced to work with this criminal who had committed crimes against her. It was outrageous. No way the potbellied Chief would ever have dared pull this on a male officer. No way in hell.
But she had shown them before, and she would show them again. They might give her lousy raw material to work with, but she would bully her worthless subordinates into doing first-rate work in spite of themselves.
It was what the Iron Maiden did.
That evening Klaudia knew that she needed some relaxation, so she decided to get under the hood of her Benz. She was in luck: a couple of the belts were slightly frayed, and it wasn't too soon for a ring-and-valve job. She put on her mechanic's overalls, tied her hair back, rolled up her sleeves, and set cheerfully to work. Benzes were such wonderful machines. No car in the world could equal them, and no human behavior could match the sanity of a well-functioning engine.
She was under the car, her hands covered with grease, when her butler entered the garage. "Telephone for you, Madam."
"Tell them to go to hell," she muttered, intent on her work.
"It's your father, Madam."
"Damn." Reluctantly she slid out, wiped her grimy hands on a rag, and took the phone. "Sir?"
Her father got straight to the point as usual, the hope in his voice unmistakable. "Klaudia, what's this I hear about you and the Graf von Schumann?"
She winced. She hated to disappoint the old man, but good God, that weasel Schumann . "Whatever you've heard, it is without foundation."
His sigh was audible. "Klaudia when I was your age, I was already married." He no longer added, and had a higher rank. The last couple of times he had, the result had been a blowup of epic proportions on his daughter's part, in which she had aired every grievance of the glass ceiling that kept her an eternal Major, and in Intelligence instead of the real Army. Even Colonel Eberbach was unwilling to face a repeat of that tirade. "And you won't be young forever, you know. If you don't have a child in the next few years, the line will die out."
"I can't do that! No way I could do my job if I were pregnant. And since you won't hear of allowing a surrogate-"
"When are you going to marry, Klaudia?"
She let a minute pass. "You must know better than that, sir." Surely he wasn't going to make her at last put into words what he knew perfectly well. The old man probably blamed himself anyway. He had never said so, but she was certain he believed his daughter was such a rampant tomboy in an attempt to be the son he had wanted.
"You're as stubborn as General Rommel!"
Good. She would gladly listen to her father hold forth on his favorite subject if it meant being let off the hook about an heir she had no intention of producing. "Really, Father?" She looked wistfully at the temptingly exposed engine of her Benz, waiting for her hands. "Tell me why you say that."
"Why, back in '44, the Desert Fox ."
Her butler was still hovering in the doorway. She signaled him, and he vanished, returning a moment later with a beer. No way she could get through Rommel's story again without one.
The Major and her alphabets set up temporary headquarters in a London safehouse. Eroica and her entourage were summoned. They arrived fashionably late, but Klaudia had anticipated this and had ordered her to be there about two hours before she was actually needed.
The Countess swept in wearing a voluminous white mink, even though it was far too warm for a coat. But she didn't keep it on for long; no sooner had she ascertained that she had the undivided attention of every man in the room than she gracefully shed it, tossing it at her retainer Bonham, who clutched it as if it were a holy relic. Every one of the male thieves who worked for her was gazing at her as hungrily as if she were a juicy steak. Apparently regular proximity did not wither or stale her infinite variety. The alphabets were ogling her just as avidly, Klaudia noticed with disgust. Any man who looked at her that way would be picking up his teeth with broken fingers. But the blonde English hussy just allowed it, even basked in all the moronic male attention.
"So glad you could grace us with your presence, Eroica," the Major snarled. "Let's go."
"Just a moment, darling," cooed Gloria Red, Countess of Dorian. "I must check my hair." Her little accountant worshipfully produced a hand mirror and brush, and she started fussing with them. All that hair, yellower than torchlight and curly from root to tip. She must have to spend hours on it every day. Not to mention the warpaint, the artful outlining of eyes and sculpting of cheeks and the glistening red on her lips and nails, perfectly matching her dress. The dress was a red satin sheath. Not short or low cut, for a change, but snug enough that that made no difference. Certainly not to the drooling males in the room. Men. Totally controlled by their libidos.
Klaudia, on the other hand .
"I said, let's go." Without further warning, she strode to the door, seizing the Countess's arm in a viselike grip on the way. The Countess gave a fetching little yelp, but aside from that, made little resistance to being dragged out to Klaudia's rented Benz and steered into the passenger seat.
"You're so forceful," Gloria simpered. "Are all military women like this?"
Klaudia only snorted. "A! Z!" she snapped, and both of them hurried into the back seat.
"Ah, Major." Gloria gave a theatrically happy sigh as the Benz pulled into traffic. "I've been planning on obtaining a couple of trinkets from this museum for some time, but I never hoped to have NATO's help to do so."
"We're hiring you to get the keys to those codes out of that so-called 'sculpture'," Klaudia informed her, "not to pick up whatever takes your fancy."
Gloria smiled very sweetly. "Your Chief gave me his explicit permission to pursue objectives of my own provided that it didn't interfere with the mission, Major."
Klaudia ground her teeth. She would make damned sure it did interfere with the mission, then. The agents in the back seat were timidly silent.
"The work of art in question," Klaudia snarled, "is a sculpture made of coathangers and wads of paper towels, which I am assured has great artistic merit. Inside the paper towels are hidden the keys to three separate codes used by the KGB. We believe that when the work is on tour in Germany next week, East German agents will remove the codes. We need you to get them out and replace them with fakes we've provided, leaving the sculpture looking undisturbed. Can you do that?"
Gloria winced. "Of course. So long as you don't let it out that it's me. If word ever got out that Eroica had anything to do with a work of abstract art, my reputation would be ruined!"
"I thought you artsy-fartsy types liked that crap made of coathangers."
"Dear heavens, no. That's for easy marks. Abstract art is the greatest scam of the twentieth century."
Lady Dorian launched into an elucidation, to which Klaudia paid no attention. At least the flashy thief had some sense. Art was pointless, but art that didn't look like anything was inexcusable.
At the museum, Gloria kept trying to pause to moon over various paintings and sculptures, but Klaudia grimly dragged her on. "We're going to look suspicious like this, Major," Gloria protested. "It's normal for people in museums to look at things."
"Idiot," Klaudia growled. At least the things the Countess was trying to look at were paintings by artists who knew how to draw and sculptures that actually looked like something. Apparently her condemnation of abstract "art" was sincere. They reached the correct monstrosity and Klaudia stopped in front of it. "There it is. Take a look."
Gloria looked at the sculpture, grimaced, and then turned her attention to the security. She dropped her usual girlish fluttering and became all cool professional, evaluating alarms, cameras, and exits with a detached eye.
"Major!" a delighted British voice behind them rang out. "Fancy meeting you here!"
Klaudia's blood pressure, already dangerously high, skyrocketed. A and Z looked as if they were wishing there were something to hide under.
Gloria looked merely disgusted.
All four of them turned to see SIS Agent Laurence. He was advancing on them with arms outstretched, offering them what he doubtless considered a dazzling smile. He wore his usual loud tie, this one apricot; it matched the silk handkerchief peeking out of his breast pocket and his socks. "The two most beautiful women in Europe, both here at once! I feel like a knight of the Round Table, being greeted by both a German Valkyrie and a ." He faltered, then went on, "And the English Lady of the Lake!" Satisfied with his analogy, he beamed at them.
"You don't know the riddle of steel. I'm kicking you out of Valhalla," Klaudia snapped, turning away from him.
He gave her a hot, half-lidded gaze and lowered his voice huskily. "The riddle of steel? Perhaps you could teach it to me."
If I kill him, I'll never get promoted, Klaudia told herself.
"I'm here on business. Evidently the SIS can't take care of things by itself," she informed him coolly. "Shouldn't surprise me, I suppose. If you people were on top of things, you'd have arrested this thief years ago." She indicated Gloria with a jerk of her head.
Now the smoldering gaze was turned on Gloria. "Arrested her? What a waste that would be. I'll reform her, one day."
Klaudia quickly looked at Eroica. Eroica, as it turned out, was giving that creepy Laurence a melting look, her lips slightly parted as if uncertain, her eyes wide as if just a little bit frightened. The look of a woman on the brink of being swept off her feet. Only exaggerated to the point that Klaudia couldn't quite believe that even Laurence could be idiot enough to fall for it.
Yet again, however, she had overestimated the intelligence of her fellow man. Laurence was returning the look in triplicate. He swept forward, took Gloria's hand, and kissed it grandly. Then he gazed deeply into her eyes. "Someday," he promised, in a voice full of portent, before turning on his heel and striding manfully out of the room.
Gloria waited till he was out of earshot before giving in to helpless giggles.
The Major shot a withering glance her way. "So that's how you've kept from getting arrested all these years."
Composing herself, Gloria gave Z a languishing look. "Oh, I'm certain I couldn't have gotten away with it in Germany. Germany's such a wholesome country, you know, with much more efficient law enforcement. Isn't it, Herr Z?"
Z started to stammer a reply. He looked like he was going to have to be scraped off the museum floor if he were subjected to one more minute of that silly girl's fluttering lashes.
"Leave that decent German boy alone!" Klaudia snapped. "Get back to your business. This so-called work of art. Can you do the job?"
"One of these days, Major, maybe you could challenge me."
"Don't brag until you've finished the job," the Major retorted.
But the Countess was already intent once more on the layout. She studied a small window high above the floor. "Hmm. Don't they have a little café or something here? With a balcony for outdoor dining?"
Klaudia nodded. "It's on the map of the building."
The thief's smile turned sunny. "How very thoughtful of them. Let's have a look."
It was mid-afternoon, so the café was closed, but no one stopped the two women from stepping onto the balcony for some fresh air. "Stay inside," Klaudia ordered her subordinates. "Don't let anyone through that door." She closed it behind her, and they had the balcony all to themselves.
Gloria had left her fur back at the safehouse. It was just a little chilly; she rubbed her arms, hugging herself, and evaluated the balcony with a practiced eye. "I can easily rappel up this wall, there's at least two good spots for it . And that little window shouldn't give me any trouble at all. The alarm system's no problem."
Klaudia lifted an eyebrow. "My Chief claimed the security here is state of the art."
Gloria beamed at her. "It is."
The Major only looked at her.
"And so am I." The Countess held up an elegantly manicured hand, made a little movement like that of a magician, and the next thing Klaudia knew, the thief was proffering a familiar gold cigarette lighter.
Klaudia's hand shot to her own pocket, where her lighter should have been. Sure enough, it was gone, and the one Eroica held was hers, complete with the miniature boar embossed on one side.
The Major snatched it back. "When did you do that?"
The other woman tossed her hair pertly. "That would be telling."
Burning irritation made Klaudia turn on the Englishwoman. "Why?" she demanded. "Why do you act like such an airhead? You're one of the most competent and intelligent women I've ever met. Why the hell don't you act like it? Why play into all those male chauvinist fantasies?"
"Oh, like you're any better, trying to beat men at their own game by being as unfeminine as possible. Do you even own a skirt?"
"I have nothing against skirts. On other women."
"The world would be a better place if women were women!"
Klaudia couldn't restrain a supercilious grin. "And men were women too? I know the feeling."
Gloria lifted her head challengingly. "I've never met a man who I couldn't get to do what I wanted."
Klaudia gave her shoulder holster a fond pat, a gesture that was more challenging than it looked. Shoulder holsters weren't designed for women. Years of practice had taught her to draw from it easily, but she often wished she could take a leaf from the Amazons of antiquity who prevented one breast from growing because it interfered with drawing a bow. Maybe she'd get lucky and get breast cancer one of these days. "Neither have I."
"Oh, yes. You get your way by beating the hell out of any man who defies you." Her voice was disdainful.
"And you get it by screwing them," Klaudia sneered. Gloria drew herself up, outraged.
"On the contrary," she said icily. "I just make them want to. What's wrong, Major? Annoyed that your little Z's been making calf's eyes at someone else for a change? Jealous?"
Klaudia's jade eyes narrowed.
Gloria raised her eyebrows, challenging. "But then, it wouldn't be Z you'd be jealous of then, now would it?"
Klaudia could feel the blood draining from her face. Not that she thought the verdammt Limey thief hadn't guessed - everybody guessed - but very few people had ever dared to say it to her face.
God, I hate her, prissy little thing. The way she flaunts herself at every man in sight.
"You're just a tease, aren't you, blondie? You sure batted your lashes at Agent Z on our last mission," Klaudia murmured, eyes derisively narrow, "but when he made his move, you skedaddled quick enough. I notice how all those thieves who work for you ogle you. Your little finger would sure get cold without that stingy-bug, hm? But you've never actually gotten horizontal with any of them, have you? I can tell. They wouldn't be panting so hard if they'd ever scored."
"I can practice self-control," Gloria retorted haughtily.
"So can I," Klaudia told her in a glacial tone.
The Countess's eyes widened. "You mean to tell me-"
"That I don't consider wanting something good enough reason to take it. Not something I'd expect you to understand, Diebin."
With that, the Major turned on her heel and strode inside.
Iron Maiden. Hah. They ought to call that woman the Ice Maiden.
Eroica ignored the formidable Major who was standing guard beside her. Too bad it wasn't that sweet young Agent Z - she'd thought the darling boy was going to pass out when he saw her in her burglary catsuit - but he and B were keeping watch outside, near her rappelling point. G was behind the wheel of the van half a block away, and a couple more of them were in the park across the street. The Major insisted that the KGB would be watching, so as few of them as possible could sneak in. Which meant just the Major and Eroica.
Already tucked snugly into Gloria's belt was a small figurine of ivory, an antique Japanese netsuke carving of a decidedly sensual mermaid. The Major had tried to stop her from appropriating it, but a sweetly worded offer to give it to her for her own private enjoyment had made Klaudia drop the subject like a hot potato. (Then again, she probably would have kept a hot potato; that woman could put away fried potatoes like nobody's business.) For a self-aware queer, the woman was awfully repressed.
Gloria put the Germans out of her mind and concentrated on the alarms surrounding the piece of junk that certain people were pretending was a work of art. Really, that was what lithium was for.
Gloria pried open the tiny control panel, gauged the size of the mechanism, and selected a slender screwdriver and pair of needle-nose pliers from her toolbelt. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed the Major regarding her with surprised respect. She pretended not to notice. Really, the uberdyke was just as bad as a man, assuming that a woman who took trouble with her looks was helpless. Or maybe it was just the enduring myth of the dumb blonde, a myth Gloria used to her advantage regularly.
A sudden commotion outside made both women look up.
"What's that?" Klaudia hissed.
"I know that!" the Major snapped, impatient. "The other noise!"
Gloria held her breath and listened hard. And frowned.
"A goose?" she said, puzzled.
Klaudia closed her eyes briefly and sighed. "Ah, Z. How do you do it?"
Gloria looked up at her. "How do you know it's-"
The Major gestured impatiently to her to be quiet, and she shut her mouth. As they strained their ears, some words emerged from the ruckus of yells and running feet.
"Aaaaaaaaaaahh! No, no, my pants!"
This was followed by another series of goose squawks, punctuated with an occasional "Ow!"
Klaudia drew her Magnum. In the dim light, with her face so grimly intent, she looked like a Valkyrie, remote and merciless.
Gloria stared. She wondered how she had managed, up till now, not to notice that the Major was beautiful. As starkly beautiful as highly polished steel.
And just as unyielding.
The Valkyrie spoke. "They're going to know we're here now. We've got to go."
It took a moment for Gloria, distracted by the sight before her - as exquisite as a painting - to decipher the words. When she did, she dragged her priorities back to reality. "Without the codes?"
Eroica received an impatient look for that protest, even as gunfire began to sound outside. "You want to bypass the alarms and make the switch with the KGB breathing down your pretty neck?"
"I'm game if you are," Gloria said calmly. "Be a shame to go to all this trouble and not get what we came for."
They held each other's gazes for a moment.
"If your nerves are steady enough," Klaudia said at last, "go to it."
They were. With the Major standing beside her, gun at the ready, Eroica persuaded the alarm to be reasonable, carefully removed the codes and replaced them with the fakes, and fixed the monstrosity up to look undisturbed in one minute thirty seconds flat.
"Are you finished?" the Major asked tensely, stuffing the codes into her breast pocket. Good strategy; Gloria doubted the man lived who would dare try to retrieve them.
"Almost," the Countess replied. She reset the alarm. Then looked up at the looming German. "How do we get out of here?"
Klaudia jerked her head brusquely. "Same way we got in. Through the window and across the balcony."
Gloria didn't pretend it wasn't a daunting prospect. "Isn't there any other way?"
"No. They'll have all the doors covered now. The only way out is through." The Major's eyes were boring into her, somehow seeming to transfer some of her own courage to Gloria.
Gloria nodded. "All right. Now I'm going to convince the bad guys that we didn't touch this monstrosity." She indicated the mass of coathanger wire and paper towels.
Klaudia arched an eyebrow. "Oh? And how will you do that?"
Suddenly impish, Gloria reached over and firmly tapped the "sculpture", setting off the alarm.
"Good move!" Klaudia said, darting for the rope. She shimmied up it swiftly and pulled herself onto the roof, where she crouched, Magnum ready. Shots and yells were flying freely now. "Come on!" she whispered urgently, her every muscle tense, her senses abnormally alert.
Gloria climbed up and paused just below the window as Klaudia reared up from the meager shelter to fire off two shots before crouching down again. "Shouldnt we stay back?" the thief whispered.
"Listen, blondie," Klaudia snapped as she squeezed off another shot, "you think I'm the one who needs to stay back?" She fired three more times before taking cover again.
Gloria nervously climbed onto the roof. There had been a few close calls in the course of her work for NATO, but she'd never been shot at before. "Are you sure we shouldnt wait for help or-" she began lamely, but the Major cut her off.
"You think I'm not up for this?" Klaudia demanded, seizing the blonde's wrist. "Keep your head down," she added, and the next thing Gloria knew, the German was dragging her out of their shelter, firing as they ran. Gloria ducked her head and tried to keep up.
The Major slammed them both to the concrete, pressed against the low wall around the edge of the balcony. Gloria gasped for breath in the relative safety as bullets hurtled above them.
She looked to her protector for reassurance. Klaudia's green eyes were gleaming like those of a jungle predator, her hair slightly disheveled, her breaths quick. Gloria blinked, distracted once more from the imminent peril by the sight.
Klaudia snarled at her, her Magnum poised. "You think any man can even think to be my equal?"
She surged up, blasted away for a few seconds, then drew back to reload. Her motions were fluidly efficient, as graceful in their ruthless way as a ballet dancer's.
"You think," the Valkyrie ran her eyes up and down Gloria hungrily, taunting, most of her rigidity having melted in the fever of battle, "that you'd be better off with a man?"
Gloria caught her breath, her eyes wide.
Klaudia snorted. "I think you know better than that." She sighted carefully this time and shot. A cry sounded below them. Gloria shivered.
Some instinct made Klaudia turn her head. Gloria followed her gaze, but before she had time to register the sight of a burly stranger aiming at them, Klaudia's body had collided firmly with hers, knocking them both flat. It seemed only half a second later that a bullet embedded itself in the concrete wall, about where Gloria had just been.
Without straightening, still shielding Gloria with her own body, Klaudia aimed and neatly planted two bullets in their assailant. He was dead before he hit the ground.
The Major flung herself back into a crouching position and scanned the roof intently for signs of more attackers. Dazed, Gloria slowly sat up as well. Their eyes locked.
Klaudia held her gaze for a minute, then slowly smiled. She raked her eyes over the Countess again. When she spoke, her voice was full of scorn.
"There isn't anything a man can do for you that I couldn't do better," Klaudia said.
Gloria went hot and cold all over. She had never in her life imagined doing such a thing, but her instincts made her lean in and capture the Major's mouth with her own.
Gloria felt absolutely certain that this was the Major's first kiss, though how she knew, she couldn't have said. There was nothing hesitant in Klaudia's response, that was certain; Gloria had never been claimed with such ferocity. All of her muscles felt suddenly weak.
Two more shots blasted above them.
Klaudia wrenched away, snarling, and reassumed her shooting pose. She picked off three snipers in three tidy shots. Then turned to the Countess.
Gloria parted her lips to say something, she didn't get to find out what, because Klaudia stopped her with a brief but very fierce kiss. Then the Major wrenched herself away just as swiftly as before. "It's clear for the moment. Follow me."
With that she was over the wall, sliding down the rope. Numb, Gloria followed. When they hit the ground, Klaudia fired a couple of warning shots, seized Gloria's wrist again, and raced with her to the van.
An alphabet opened the van's rear door promptly. Klaudia shoved Gloria inside before loading herself in and slamming the door. The van took off instantly, tires screeching. "What the fuck happened, Z?"
"It wasn't my fault!" Z protested. He was shirtless, and all that was left of his pants was a few shreds around the ankles and waistband. Thankfully the geese hadn't been antagonized by his boxers; they were intact. "I was just standing there, keeping watch like you said, and these two huge geese from the park across the street just came up and attacked me! I didn't do anything to provoke them, honest!"
"Enough," the Major snapped. "What about your shirt?"
"I took it off to beat them away! They still have it!"
Klaudia gave one impatient shake of her head and stuck her head in the small window to the driver's cab. "Slow down, G. We're far away enough now. Double around to make sure we're not followed and then head back to the safehouse. Give me the radio."
A walkie-talkie was stuck into her hand at once. She seized it and started snapping orders to the alphabets at the safehouse in rapid German. Gloria couldn't follow it all, but one item stood out: "Oh, and have a pair of pants waiting for us. Yes? Yes, Z, of course."
Z appeared shaken. He was likely to never again look at wild fowl in the same manner.
On the breathless ride back to the safehouse, and throughout the copying of the codes and the assorted reports to headquarters, up until everybody was ordered off to bed except for two agents assigned to keep watch, Klaudia did not once look in Gloria's direction.
Gloria had gone to bed like a good little girl when the Major had ordered everyone to get some sleep. She did not, however, sleep. Instead she lay awake, her heart still pounding from the night's excitement.
She had tried to calm herself by studying the netsuke mermaid, but while her mind was full of visions of beauty, for once they had nothing to do with art.
She had never considered kissing another woman in her life, and now all that she could think about was doing it again.
It had taken her about five seconds to figure out the Iron Maiden's inclinations. She doubted anyone was confused about it, least of all the Iron Maiden herself, despite the woman's pristine abstinence. She wasn't exactly subtle.
Gloria, on the other hand .
Is this what I've wanted all along? she asked herself, staring at the ceiling. Why none of the men who've pursued me ever caught me?
Gloria shivered, not unpleasantly.
She was an aristocrat and a thief. Qualms about her own desires were foreign to her nature. The only questions were, Do I want it? and How do I get it?
She asked herself the first question, and thought about it.
It was only one minute later that she had risen, pulled on a pink silk robe, and walked softly out into the common room to learn the answer to the second question.
A and G were sitting together, playing cards and sipping coffee, both their guns on the table, ready. They both looked up and greeted her in soft voices. She nodded to them and zeroed in on the door to the Major's room.
There was a narrow band of light at the bottom of the door.
Smiling, she tapped softly on the door before opening it and strolling in, shutting it behind her.
The Major was sitting on the edge of the bed with her back to the door. She whirled, outraged at the intrusion. To Gloria's disappointment, she was wearing a full kit of striped woolen pajamas and a substantial bathrobe. She was holding a cloth and the barrel of one of her guns; apparently she'd been cleaning it.
"What the hell do you think you're doing in here?" Klaudia sputtered. Gloria wasn't altogether surprised; she was willing to bet that no force on earth could have induced any of the alphabets to enter this sanctuary.
"I was just wondering," Gloria murmured.
Now alarm showed in those dreamy jade eyes. "Wondering what?"
The warning in the German's tone did not deter the thief. She stepped closer, smiling softly. "Wondering when you're going to kiss me again."
Klaudia's eyes glittered for a second. And then, as abruptly as if she'd thrown a switch, she was the icy Major again, all tight self-control and impervious unattainability. Gloria sighed before she had even consciously registered the change.
"That did not happen," Klaudia stated.
Gloria gave the Major a sidelong look that seldom failed to turn males into gibbering idiots. For all the effect it had, she might as well have used it on a statue. "Don't try to convince me that you don't want to," she breathed.
"That is beside the point," the Major said coldly. "Being - what I am is one thing. Having people deduce it - there is nothing I can do about that. Actually indulging is something else again. And it is out of the question."
"Don't be silly," Gloria said, letting her voice turn to velvet. "You have every right to get what you want out of life."
Klaudia rose abruptly, tossing the rag aside, and strode swiftly to Gloria. But it was only to seize her arm in a painful grip and steer her to the door.
"If I were going to indulge myself," Klaudia informed her, "it would not be with a floozy of a criminal."
With that she shoved Gloria out the door and closed it firmly. A second later, a still-dazed Gloria could hear the lock turning.
A and G looked up, then quickly averted their gazes.
Gloria sighed deeply, but suddenly smiled to herself.
Never let it be said that Eroica was unequal to a challenge.
One year later
Klaudia pulled onto the Autobahn and floored the gas pedal.
Damned Limey bitch.
It had been bad enough when the flashy thief had confined herself to meddling in Klaudia's missions, helping or hindering as it suited her, distracting the alphabets with her outrageous flirtation and helping herself to whatever baubles she fancied.
Klaudia pushed her Benz to its limits, maneuvering around slower vehicles with daringly precise timing.
The lack of a speed limit was a beautiful thing.
Then the flouncing prima donna had realized that she was gay, and had taken it into her head to fancy Klaudia - probably just because Klaudia had been in her vicinity when the flighty blonde clued in. Those two kisses - the product of battle-madness, no more - had caused the chit to fixate on her. She had begun dogging Klaudia's movements with new determination, offering her delectable self at every opportunity. Klaudia had disciplined the desires of her flesh for years, but her discipline was not accustomed to such a sustained assault. She was not going to relent - that was out of the question - but her control was beginning to crack. People were noticing. They were remarking - though never in her hearing. The woman was a damned nuisance. That kind of disruption had no place in Klaudia's life.
But this new thing .
Reaching a relatively deserted stretch, Klaudia changed gears and flew down the road. She could almost believe, at this moment, that her Benz could escape gravity and take off into the air.
No matter how fast she drove, she could not outrun the scenario that played itself over and over in her mind.
The Italian police station. All those men, military and police officials, all watching them, listening to them. Klaudia, at the end of her rope after a week of dealing with the larcenous hussy's shenanigans, had demanded to know why. Why the brazen tramp always insisted on mucking around in Klaudia's life.
The Benz slowed for a few seconds, then revved back to full speed.
Eroica had looked so beautiful as she said it. Her cheeks faintly flushed with emotion, her eyes cast down demurely - ha! - and that sweetly joyful smile playing on her lips, as if she couldn't contain her elation even knowing that her words would be unwelcome.
"'Cause I love you."
Gripping the steering wheel, Klaudia shuddered.
"No, Lady Dorian," she said aloud. "I will not be added to your collection."
The only answer was the air rushing past.
Another year later
Gloria's azure eyes flitted disinterestedly across her morning newspaper. Love had given her a certain disdain for people blowing other people up - unless the first lot of people included a certain dashing Major, in which case the Countess would require front row seats.
But today's assortment of violent or merely depressing news held no such pleasures. She was on the verge of tossing it aside entirely when she spotted something in a human interest column that made her heart beat fast: she was having an effect upon the Iron Maiden.
"Sudden Surge in Alaskan Tourism: Lonely Planet Reprints Guidebook Twice in Six Months."
Klaudia had insisted on this coffeehouse because they served Nescafé. It was entirely unreasonable to expect her to get through this meeting without it.
Things hadn't changed. Consistent and vehement refusal hadn't convinced the spoiled Countess that Klaudia was one thing she wanted that she was not going to get. The irresistible force had met the immovable object, and the two were in stalemate. Neither of them were the sort to give way. Klaudia's head hurt, thinking about it; Lady Dorian had settled in for a long siege, and it was obviously going to be a long time before she had the sense to give up.
"So. You need me."
Gloria's voice was like velvet.
"Knock it off, Eroica," Klaudia snapped, not looking up. "Any two-bit housebreaker could do this. The Chief only forces me to hire you because he doesn't like me."
"Why, Major. If I believed that, I'd be hurt."
"I don't suppose you'd be hurt enough to refuse the-" Klaudia broke off mid-sentence; she had finally looked up from her coffeecup to see the thief, and Lady Dorian's garb would silence anyone.
Not that it was revealing. In the last couple of years, Klaudia had seen the Countess wearing garments which covered only those bits of skin required by law, and garments which appeared to have been painted on, and garments which would have been appropriate only during Mardi Gras.
Today's ensemble, however, was quite demure. Too demure. A red-and-black plaid skirt just reaching her knees. A white blouse, neatly buttoned up the front, with a matching plaid vest - just a little too big, for verisimilitude - and a short red tie. Ballet flats with little white ankle socks. Her only makeup was face powder and pink lipstick that looked almost natural. She hadn't gone so far as pigtails, but her hair was held back from her face with a couple of sensible barrettes.
Every man in the place was devouring her with his eyes.
"What the hell is with that idiotic getup, Lady Dorian?" Klaudia demanded.
"I knew you'd burst a blood vessel when you saw it," Gloria replied, looking pleased with herself.
"Sit down," Klaudia hissed. "Why the ersatz schoolgirl uniform? You're making a spectacle of yourself!"
Gloria took her time about arranging herself in her chair. She regarded Klaudia with dancing eyes. "I know you have a fetish, Major. Everyone does. I'm going to keep on trying until I find yours."
Klaudia noticed that her cigarette was almost burnt out. She quickly lit another one. "Maybe my fetish is for law-abiding citizens who work for something other than their own personal gain," she said coolly. "Now, the Chief insisted on hiring you because of this alarm system-"
"What can I get for you?" the waiter cut in, materializing beside their table and looking at Gloria in a way that made Klaudia's blood boil. Men.
Gloria played it up, letting the idiot have it with the big blue eyes, smiling very sweetly. "Oh, how about a hot fudge sundae." She dimpled. "No cherry." Her eyes flickered to Klaudia. "Unless you want it, Major."
Klaudia's face reddened, but her lip curled. "Keep it."
"Right," the waiter croaked before staggering away.
"The alarm system is-" Klaudia began, but another man presented himself beside them, giving Gloria that same wolfish look.
"Fraulein," he began, "I wonder if-"
"Nein," Klaudia said. "I have a gun. Go away."
Forlornly, Gloria's would-be suitor did. Gloria sighed theatrically.
"Right ammo, wrong target," she mourned.
Klaudia gave her what she knew was her most frightening glare. Unfortunately, it only made the thief look wistful. Klaudia informed her, "I went to a Catholic girls' school, you know. If one of those uniforms was all it took to impair my judgment, I'd have lost my resolve years ago."
"Oh." Gloria looked utterly crestfallen. "I didn't think of that."
"Of course you didn't. You're an idiot. Now, the alarm system is a-"
"Here you are, Fraulein," the waiter interrupted, setting the sundae in front of Gloria. "Is there anything else I can get you? Anything at all? Just say the word and-"
"We are trying to talk," Klaudia snarled. "Leave us alone."
The waiter shuffled reluctantly away.
"Our information is that the alarm system ." Klaudia's voice trailed off as she realized that Gloria still wasn't listening to her. She was intent on her ice cream. Klaudia could hardly stand to even look at all that sugar. But Gloria was so absorbed in the dessert that for the moment, she really did look as young - and as innocent - as her clothes implied.
"Are you paying attention, Eroica?" she demanded, dragging her mind back to the matter at hand.
The Countess let a few seconds pass before answering. "Of course, Major," she murmured, meticulously getting just the right balance of ice cream and syrup into her spoon.
Klaudia didn't let herself be sidetracked again. She recited the data about the security system rapidly, keeping a leash on her annoyance with Gloria's inattention. "Got that?" she asked briskly when she was done.
"Mmm hmm," Gloria answered, still in a world of her own with her ice cream.
It was only slightly less irritating than when the thief was too attentive.
"Good," Klaudia said. She put a few marks on the table for her coffee, stood up, and walked out without another word. Not that she expected rudeness to deter her all-too-faithful admirer. It hadn't thus far.
A schoolgirl uniform. Christ. Next time, the Countess would show up with jodhpurs and a riding crop.
No. Thinking about that was a very bad idea.
Gloria was fighting a losing battle. Klaudia had worked too hard to build her career and reputation to risk it all for conduct unbecoming. She was not going to fall to Eroica's charms and that was that.
The skirmishes, however, were trying.
Klaudia was careful not to let the effect Lady Dorian's wardrobe had on her show, but affect her it did. She could remember every damned outfit. Tight, revealing, flashy. Shameless.
Eroica had miscalculated with today's outfit, however. Not that it hadn't been alluring. Klaudia had kept her usual tight self-control in place, but inwardly she'd been slavering as avidly as those moronic males.
What the Countess hadn't reckoned on, however, was the memories her costume would evoke for Klaudia. Years of trying to keep her secret in boarding school. Averting her gaze in the showers. Praying every night to be made normal. Seeing uniforms similar to the one Gloria had worn today and trying not to think about what was under them, not to watch the plaid hemlines for the occasional fleeting glimpse of smooth leg, not to think about shyly touching shining hair and the soft skin of girlish hands, not to wonder what would happen if once, just once, she mustered the courage to do the one thing that she was actually afraid of doing . And then, the utter embarrassment the day she realized that at some point, seeing her prowess on the sports field and at fisticuffs and her indifference to the elder brothers of her classmates and her disdain for even the limited ornamentation the dress code allowed, everyone had known for some time what she had been trying so hard to hide.
Entirely too many memories.
It was going to be a relief when the thief finally realized that Klaudia's heart - and her chastity - were two things she couldn't steal.
One week later
Klaudia silently checked her Magnum and concentrated on staying as still as possible. From the safe concealment of the trees, she and A watched the KGB agents loading their vans.
She hadn't expected to actually catch them in the act. This had been a highly dubious lead; she and A were only here to investigate, and Eroica had merely insisted on tagging along for the ride. Which was why it was just the three of them, instead of the squadron they'd need to take on this many KGB goons.
Good thing they were all safely hidden.
Eroica wasn't right with them; she was a good twenty yards east of them, also safely hidden from view. And since she wasn't Z, she would have the sense to stay that way.
Klaudia watched the enemy intently, trying to memorize faces, to learn what she could about them. What was in those crates? Weapons, most likely. And there were at least fifteen men present. A couple of them she knew by sight. She'd been trying to find their headquarters for years. And those headquarters would probably be their next stop.
There were going to be a couple of very arduous days ahead of them at headquarters.
Looked like they were finishing up. Klaudia mentally cursed. They had only one vehicle, which they had taken the precaution of parking some distance away. They couldn't break cover, not outnumbered as they were; they couldn't make for their van until the KGB left. By which time it might be too late.
Think, Eberbach, she instructed herself. There had to be a way to follow them to their lair. Some way .
A slight sound to her right caught her attention. Glancing over, she saw, to her shock, Eroica calmly stepping out of her hiding place.
Automatically Klaudia made a movement to halt her, but stopped instantly. There was no way she could stop the idiot Countess without giving them all away.
Eroica was wearing one of those disgracefully tight black catsuits she wore for burgling. Her clothes blended in, but her hair most certainly did not. No way she could escape being noticed. But the bloody fool walked right over to the warehouse and climbed through a window, cool as a cuke.
A gave her a questioning look. Klaudia could only shake her head. She had no way of knowing what went on in that woman's convoluted thought processes. The woman was either half out of her mind, or else completely out of her mind.
For a brief moment there were raised voices inside the warehouse, and then two of the KGB thugs emerged, dragging Gloria between them. One man, who seemed to be in charge, ran over and started asking her questions. Klaudia couldn't make out the words. Gloria's expression was sullen, and she answered in monosyllables.
Then the man reached up and stroked Gloria's glowing flaxen hair.
"Major! No!" A whispered, seizing Klaudia's arm. She looked down at him, uncomprehending. "You can't go out there!"
Klaudia blinked and realized that she had taken a couple of steps, that she had indeed been on the verge of charging right out there to take on more than a dozen men single-handedly. Since when was she a lunatic?
They would have to let the bad guys take that god damned thief and hope to rescue her later, with backup.
Assuming, of course, that they were able to figure out where they took her.
Klaudia ground her teeth, watching helplessly as Gloria was bundled onto one of the vans and driven away. As soon as the last one was out of the parking lot, she broke into a run towards their hidden van, while A strove valiantly to keep up with her long legs.
"Major!" he gasped when they reached the van, collapsing against the hood.
She threw the door open. "Get in."
"Listen to me!"
"Please!" He took in a huge gulp of air. "Major, we can't rescue her by ourselves. We need backup."
"I know that!" Klaudia snarled, revving the engine. "Get in or I'll leave you! Use the radio to call for backup on the way!"
A climbed in and took the radio, but persevered in trying to communicate with his superior. "We can't chase them ourselves! They'll notice us and kill her or us or both!"
The tires squealed as Klaudia pulled onto the road. "If we don't, we won't know where those bastards have taken her!"
"Major! Her homing device! Remember?"
Klaudia abruptly decelerated. She looked at A, frowning and feeling like a complete idiot.
"She always has it in her toolbelt, right? She must have activated it before she left cover. She's smart enough for that. Her team will know the frequency. Wherever they take her, we can find her with it!"
Klaudia managed to get a breath into her chest, which was very tight. "Right. Call them. Now."
A turned on the radio and did so. In less than two minutes, Eroica's team had found her signal, and every alphabet available was arming and heading in her direction.
Klaudia forced herself to keep to the speed limit, and tried to remember to breathe. She scowled fiercely at the road before her.
"She did it on purpose," she heard herself saying aloud. A, who'd been about to speak into the radio, looked up in surprise.
"Yes, Major," he said, and waited. When she was silent, he bent his head to the walkie-talkie again. "You have an address yet? Good. How many of our units are in place?" He quickly relayed the answers to Klaudia, who nodded curtly.
"She did this so that we could find the headquarters," Klaudia blurted.
A studied her. "It looks that way, Major."
"It was a damned idiot thing to do." The Major's voice was oddly flat. "Doesn't she know how dangerous these men are?"
"Yes, Major. She has to have learned that, working for us for so long."
"Then why did she do it? Doesn't she know what they might-" Klaudia stopped.
"We'll get her out of there," A said quietly.
They were silent for a minute, then Klaudia snorted. Was the little pipsqueak reassuring her? She had never needed that before in her career. Except maybe during her first year, but she had been careful never to let it show. Tougher than any man, that was the Iron Maiden. What was the matter with her tonight?
"Scheisse," she said.
Klaudia brooded for a minute. Then sat bolt upright. "Dammit! When we close in, they'll take her hostage!"
"What should we do, Major?"
Suddenly unfrozen, Klaudia's mind raced. And swiftly found a solution. "Call those Limey thieves again. I have an idea."
The building the KGB agents took Gloria to appeared to be a boarding house, but when they hustled her past the front room - which had the expected worn comfortable bourgeoisie furniture - she was taken past rooms full of electronic equipment, folders, papers, and ominously unlabelled wooden crates.
The Major would be a kid in a candy store in this place.
Gloria tried not to shake as she was handcuffed and rather roughly escorted into a room with a table and a lot of chairs. It wasn't easy; the men who were dragging her in were large and mean, the suited men waiting in the room were slighter but no less mean-looking, and all of them were giving her a wolfish look she was only too familiar with.
And sitting in the place of honor, exuding menace, was none other than Mischa the Cub.
Hurry, Major, she thought, swallowing.
Not that she hadn't known the risk she was taking .
"What's the meaning of this?" Mischa demanded. "This is that lady Major's pet thief."
"She was breaking into the place while we were loading up."
"Really." He stood up. Gloria returned his gaze as evenly as she could. He stepped towards her, studying her.
"Can we keep her?" one of the others said, leering.
"Have you searched her?" Mischa asked.
One of the goons holding her grinned. "Not yet. Nowhere she could be hiding anything, is there?"
"Take that belt of hers and search it."
Gloria didn't try to resist; she knew it was hopeless. They'll probably find my transmitter, she thought numbly as they took it. But with any luck, her team would have already pinpointed her.
If not .
I won't think about that.
Mischa was playing with her hair now, though his grim expression hadn't changed. She stood absolutely still, giving him her best impression of the Iron Maiden's murderous glare. Unfortunately, it wasn't as convincing from a woman who'd never hit anyone in her life and didn't know one end of a gun from the other.
"Look at this," the man searching her belt said.
Mischa looked. The transmitter, naturally. He swore and threw it to the ground, crushing it under his heel. Then he looked at Gloria.
"Does Potato Klaudia know that you are here?" he demanded.
For an answer, Gloria tried the derisive smile she had once seen Klaudia give to Mischa when he had them at gunpoint. It had haunted Gloria's dreams for months, not that she had minded.
"Bitch." One of the goons put a gun to her head. She couldn't keep the smile in place, but she didn't tell the bastards a thing.
Mischa shook his head, impatient. "Stop that. Her accomplices are doubtless on their way here as we speak. We may need her for a hostage. Cuff her to that chair and keep her covered." He turned to one of the others. "Alert everyone. We may have a shoot-out in a few minutes."
Maybe this wasn't one of my better ideas, Gloria thought faintly as she stumbled to the chair.
She numbly watched the next couple of minutes of frantic activity. The KGB agents were giving each other orders, making quick ambiguous phone calls, and arming themselves.
One of the men, a younger chap, came in and went tensely to the leader. "They're here. They're being led by a tall dark-haired woman. Is that ."
"The Iron Maiden," Mischa confirmed, grim. "Let's go."
Gloria let out a breath. Then she gave her guard a dazzling smile.
"You lads are in big trouble," she confided.
All twenty-six alphabets listened tensely to their superior's orders, which she rattled off with machine-like dryness. It didn't fool them. She was always even more Eberbach-ish right before a mission, those jade eyes intent as laser beams, her jaw set implacably, her movements more perfectly economical than usual.
But this time there was an edge to her that wasn't generally there. And though none of them would have said so aloud, even in the grip of Mischa's electrical currents (whose effects the Major showed an unladylike relish in describing to her male subordinates), every one of them knew why.
"If they're wearing ridiculous T-shirts and don't have guns, don't shoot. They're with us. Much as I'd like it, you can't kill them."
The alphabets and Eroica's team exchanged nervous glances.
"H through M, cover the front. N through S, right flank, T through Y take the left. Z, you're on the basement door with Eroica's men. Everyone else, strike with me. Any questions?" the Iron Maiden demanded, giving her Magnum a quick final check. "No? Good. Try not to die. Foul this up and Alaska will look welcoming."
She was answered by the usual chorus of, "Jawohl, Major!"
"Good." Her eyes narrowed as she held her Magnum poised. "Let's go."
Gloria couldn't help flinching when the gunshots started outside. She never had gotten used to that sounds, and holding firearms still rattled her normally steady nerves.
"Watch the girl," Mischa ordered the goon he'd set over her, and shouldered his weapon. Gloria didn't know one gun from another, but this one looked nastier than most. It was large, and had lots of little controls and things on it.
"Compensation," she murmured aloud. Mischa heard her, and glared.
"It would behoove you to be more demure, Eroica," he warned. "Consider your fate after this fracas is over."
She forced herself to smile impudently at him, though her heart wasn't entirely in it. He regarded her coldly for a minute, and then, unnervingly, laughed before lumbering away without a word.
A younger man ran in, frantic, and told Mischa something in Russian. Gloria had learned a little Russian since falling in love with the Iron Maiden, but the talk she was hearing now was far beyond her. But whatever the young man said, it was enough to have Mischa barking rapid orders as he hurried out of the room. And a few seconds later, the gunfire increased. Gloria shivered. So many lethal little bullets out there, and sooner or later, someday, surely one of them would find her beloved .
Klaudia ducked back into cover and pulled out her radio. "Are you in position, Z?" she snapped into it.
"Just moving in, Major . Bonham is picking the lock . We're in!"
Klaudia gave the close-lipped smile that turned the knees of enemy agents - and flashy thieves - to water.
"Keep firing!" she shouted to the others, reloading. "Keep them busy!"
And slamming the clip home, she rejoined the battle herself.
Mischa appeared in the doorway, looked to Gloria still handcuffed to her chair, and nodded once. "Make sure nothing happens to her," he ordered her jailer. "NATO's gotten through our outer perimeter. Six of our comrades have fallen. We're going to need her as a hostage."
Gloria laughed. "She's winning. You think a stray criminal is going to make any difference to her?"
"She's brought her entire team here to retrieve you," Mischa sneered. "You had all of us fooled, the two of you."
"Oh, go take a cold shower," Gloria replied with disdain. "She doesn't give a hoot about me. She's here for you."
Mischa turned and stalked back out without replying. Gloria drew a slow, deep breath, trying to calm herself. Her palms were sweating.
The Major knows what she's doing, she told herself. She has a plan. Just keep breathing .
Hm. There was an odd smell. Gloria hadn't noticed it before. It was vaguely familiar, and she drew in another lungful of it, straining to remember.
Oh, she thought, right before passing out.
Klaudia's radio crackled. "Ja?" she barked into it.
"Major, Eroica's team says the sleeping gas should have taken effect by now. They should all be asleep."
Made sense. There hadn't been a single shot from the house in a full minute.
"We're going in!" she shouted to her men. "Proceed with caution. Put on your masks. Disarm and cuff them all. Move!"
The alphabets promptly donned the gas masks the Eroica gang had provided for them. Guns at the ready, they followed the Iron Maiden warily up the front walk, where she kicked the door in.
"Secure every room," she ordered, and went in search of their hostage.
Mischa the Cub, who tipped the scales at nearly three hundred pounds of hard-packed flesh and was one of the very few men to whom Klaudia had to look up - literally if not figuratively - did not succumb to the gas as quickly as his underlings did. When one of them fell, he glanced around at the abruptly bleary faces of his comrades, grasped the situation, and took evasive action.
There was a small bathroom, the size of a closet, whose sole tiny window they kept slightly open even in the dead of winter, because the room had no vents at all. Hence, no way for the famous Eroica sleeping gas to penetrate. Mischa ducked into that bathroom, almost stuffing his enormous girth inside, and shut the door. He promptly dropped a towel onto the floor, using his foot to nudge it over the crack between the bottom of the door and the floor. Then he cranked the tiny window open as far as it would go.
Then he waited.
Not for long. Soon he heard footsteps in the outer room, moving cautiously. Only one man, it sounded like. They paused a moment - probably frisking poor Brassilhov, lying there unconscious. When the steps resumed, Mischa waited, still holding his own gun by its barrel, until they neared his hiding place.
When the moment was right, Mischa threw open the door and brought the butt of his gun down firmly on the head of the startled alphabet. The man went down with a groan. Mischa swiftly pulled off his gas mask and put it on himself, then disarmed his semi-conscious victim before hauling him to his feet with one huge hand.
"Agent A, isn't it?" he asked in German, his voice distorted by the mask. A opened his eyes, saw Mischa and glared. "Tell me. How many of your people are guarding each entrance?"
A pressed his lips together, stubborn. Mischa gave him a little shake, sneering.
"What, too afraid of the woman you work for to disobey her? Still tied to a woman's apron strings?"
A continued to glare, but it was losing its edge as he continued to inhale the sleeping gas. Mischa turned to hold A in the relatively clear air of the little bathroom.
"Answer me, you little kraut," he hissed, raising a huge fist. A woozily braced himself.
A hand clamped down on Mischa's wrist. "Mind if I cut in?"
Mischa turned quickly, but not quickly enough. Before he knew it, Klaudia had brought the butt of her gun down hard on his left hand, the one that grasped A's shirtfront. His grip loosened and A sank to the floor, groaning.
Mischa lost no time in knocking the gun from Klaudia's hand. He swung his enormous fist at her, but she ducked in time and used her angle to lodge her elbow in his gut.
The next moment they were wrestling furiously, each keeping a death grip on the other. Mischa managed a punch to Klaudia's jaw, but was unable to get a good enough angle for the blow to have a devastating effect.
"You know, Majorette," he grunted, "I would never hit a lady."
"Oh, I've never heard that one before," she sneered. "Try to be more original."
They grappled ferociously. Mischa was a huge tank of a man, but Klaudia was a more skilled fighter, as she couldn't rely on her bulk, and Mischa's favorite move - a solid kick to the groin - wasn't especially effective on a female opponent. Added to that was his bad habit of wasting breath and attention on taunting his opponent. A habit which Klaudia encouraged by occasionally answering his jibes.
"Not bad, for a woman," he gasped, right after she got in a good blow. She didn't bother to answer.
"Of course, we Russians will always prevail over you Germans. Just as we did in the World Wars."
"You used up Rommel the last time I saw you," Klaudia grunted, striving to break his hold on her arm. She strained in one direction, then abruptly twisted in the other, freeing her hand. "Try something new."
"Then how about our triumph over your countrymen in the first World War?"
"Bullshit. We kicked your asses back to Moscow. Your allies had to finish winning the war without you."
"That is a ludicrous-" Mischa's next words were cut off by Klaudia's solid blow to his windpipe. It proved too much, and he went down.
Klaudia quickly retrieved her Magnum and leveled it at him. "Move and die, Comrade," she said.
He remained where he was, glaring. Agents C and D ran in and quickly joined her in covering Mischa. "The first floor is secure, Major," C said breathlessly.
"So kind of you to join us at last," Mischa told the agents sourly. "What kind of discipline do you have in NATO, not to arrive with backup until the fight is over?"
"Shut up, polar bear," Klaudia snapped. "Nobody criticizes my subordinates but me. Remember, Comrade, you're the one who just got beaten up by a girl. D, remove Mischa's gas mask and put it back on A. C, what about the second floor?"
"Is that why you are here? To fetch that thieving tramp?" Mischa sneered, already fighting against the sleeping gas now that his mask had been taken.
And Mischa's sneer was promptly transformed to an agonized grimace as Klaudia used his own favorite maneuver on him.
"Only I get to call her that," she said in a deadly tone.
Mischa was too busy groaning to reply.
"Get some more backup in here," Klaudia ordered. D hurried out, and a minute later returned with three other men. Leaving an increasingly woozy Mischa to their care, she headed upstairs.
By now, every unconscious KGB agent was cuffed and disarmed, and the alphabets were starting to carry them to the armored vans that were arriving.
"Major!" Agent B's voice called from one room. Klaudia moved swiftly to the door. Agent B was stooping beside Gloria, who was slumped senseless in a chair. Another KGB agent was sleeping soundly on the floor beside her chair, his fingers still loosely holding a gun.
"She's all right, Major," B assured her as he fumbled in the pockets of the sleeping KGB agent. "Ah, here's the key."
"Take his gun away, idiot," Klaudia ordered absently, plucking the key from his pudgy fingers. She unlocked Gloria's cuffs and tossed them to her subordinate. "Use these on him."
Nothing wrong with steadying Gloria by placing a hand on her shoulder, the thief would slide off the chair if she didn't. And it was only necessary that she put a hand to Gloria's forehead and then check her pulse, and then look her over quickly for broken bones or injuries; Gloria had just been abducted and then drugged, after all. It was only Klaudia's professional duty to make sure that her contractor was in good shape.
"Major?" Z appeared in the doorway. "All the KGB are locked in the vans. A's being carried out to the ambulance-"
"How is he?"
"Half asleep and with a big bump on his head. The medics didn't seem to think it was very serious. Does Eroica need-"
"She's fine. Let's get her to the safehouse."
With that, Klaudia very carefully lifted Gloria, still unconscious, and carried her downstairs.
"That was a damned idiotic thing to do, Lady Dorian," she informed the sleeping woman in her arms. "But I can't get angry at you, not now."
Outside, she laid the Countess in the back seat of one of the cars, and then took off her gas mask.
"I suspect I'm damned lucky that you're asleep right now, Lady Dorian," she murmured, before closing the door on her.
Gloria opened her eyes to a drab room. She was lying on a narrow cot with a deplorable mattress.
Beside the cot, the Major was sitting, examining her with unsettling intensity.
Gloria quickly sat up and tried to smooth her hair. God knew what it looked like, after lying on this cot for who knew how long. Klaudia's steady gaze did not waver.
"Did you get them?" Gloria asked, drowsiness still in her voice.
"Ja. We took them all into custody. And the documents we found in that place - we've only begun to go through them, but it's invaluable. You have done NATO a great service today, Lady Dorian."
To her own surprise, Gloria found herself go warm with pleasure. Never before had she received a compliment of that sort. Had anyone else been present, she would have blushed to feel so solemn at those words. The Major was going to turn her into a Girl Scout.
Gloria couldn't think of anything to say. She smiled shyly. When was the last time she had felt shy?
"Were you hurt?" Klaudia asked abruptly.
Of course not. My dashing Major came galloping to my rescue! But Gloria couldn't say it. "No, Major. Thank you." An awkward silence fell.
"That was very brave of you. No, that isn't what I meant. That was an idiotic thing to do," Klaudia stated at last. "You could have been killed. Or - worse."
"I knew you'd save me, Major," Gloria said quietly.
The silence stretched. Gloria wondered if she should break it. Or was it best to let Klaudia do this her own way?
"Why did you do it?" Klaudia asked at last, her voice tight.
Gloria didn't move, didn't let her gaze leave the Major's. "Because I love you, Major."
Klaudia blinked, and for the only time in Gloria's memory, actually looked almost afraid.
Gloria held her breath. Should she pounce? No, Klaudia was teetering on the brink. It would only be a few more seconds now .
The phone rang.
I am going to kill Alexander Graham Bell, Gloria thought with uncharacteristic violence as Klaudia lunged for the phone with patent relief.
"Eberbach here. Ja? Was?" This was followed by a rapid string of words that Gloria, being a lady, wouldn't admit to understanding. Klaudia slammed the phone down and bellowed. "Everyone! Get in here! Schnell!"
The alphabets ran in at once. Gloria wondered sourly if they'd all been waiting at the keyhole to see if their superior was finally going to accept Fate (in the form of a fetching golden-haired thief).
"Mischa escaped! How those idiots could have allowed - have the police set up roadblocks around the city! Get moving - we've got to find him before he gets out of the city!"
They swiftly dispersed with a chorus of "Jawohl, Major!" Klaudia strode to the door.
And paused. For just half a second.
"Good job, Lady Dorian," she said, not turning around, right before disappearing.
Gloria sighed deeply. Her shoulders slumped. She forced herself to straighten back up.
More than once, she'd heard the Major herself state that it didn't matter how many battles you won. What counted was the war.
"The war isn't over yet, my darling Major," Gloria murmured aloud.
One week later
Z's eyes started to close, but he forced them open again. No way he was letting any woman outlast him, even if that woman was the Iron Maiden.
In the week since Mischa's escape, the Major had lived up to her nickname. She spearheaded the manhunt for the notorious KGB agent, organizing stakeouts, roadblocks, bribes, and interrogations. She had driven herself even more mercilessly than she drove her subordinates, working twenty-hour days, eating when one of them managed to shove a sandwich into her hand, sleeping only when she passed out at her desk.
Z's assignment of the moment was to go over a sheaf of records of bank accounts Mischa and his associates were believed to have access to. Recent withdrawals might give a clue as to the Russian's whereabouts. It was vitally important and lethally dull work, and Z hadn't had a proper night's sleep in a week.
But he couldn't let the Major down.
A courier appeared in the doorway. Z looked up at him blearily, then shook himself. He had the desk closest to the door, so he came forward to sign for the envelope the courier proffered. Then examined the outside carefully before opening it.
It was a Polaroid of Mischa, with a grimly triumphant smile, standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. Holding a copy of this morning's newspaper. Just like the bastard, to taunt his archnemesis this way.
How the hell had Mischa gotten out of the country? Z wondered, but right now, the important thing was to alert the Major. He went to her office, tapped the half-open door and entered.
Klaudia was on the phone, firing questions at someone. Z silently approached and held up the photograph. Klaudia broke off mid-sentence, staring, and then said into the phone, "Never mind. Call off the surveillance. Mischa has escaped."
With that, she dropped the phone into its cradle, and the energy almost visibly left her body. She'd been keeping herself going through sheer force of will for days. Now she slumped over her desk.
"Call the idiots in Paris and see if they can find him," she muttered before her head fell onto her folded arms. About two seconds later, she was fast asleep.
Z took off his jacket and very gently draped it over his superior. He would probably get yelled at for it later, but he didn't care. He tiptoed out, turning off the light, and carefully closed the door.
"Notify Paris," he instructed Agent D, holding up the photo, and pulled up a chair beside the Major's door.
Anybody who wanted to wake her up would have to kill him first.
The elevator doors opened and the Chief stepped out just in time to miss colliding with his favorite subordinate by a mere inch. He looked up at the towering woman with delight. "Major! I meant to see you today."
Klaudia stood looming over him, her posture only a shade away from snapping to attention. Her expression was one of punctilious respect, the way she always schooled herself to look at him when she wasn't angry at him.
"Yes, sir?" Her stern tone made the words sound like an order.
She was arrogant, willful, bad-tempered, and never even attempted to hide the fact that only the chain of command - which confined her as stringently as whalebone corsets had confined her ancestresses - compelled her to treat him with any respect at all. Why he adored her so, the Chief couldn't imagine, but he did.
It wasn't anything sexual, certainly. Not that she wasn't stunning, with those long muscled legs and chiseled features. But her manner was so soldierly that one forgot her looks and sex very swiftly and thought of her only as a warrior. One who should have been wearing armor instead of Kevlar.
He smiled, pleased with himself, amused at how her jade eyes glittered with annoyance to see it. "I was going to insist that you hire Eroica to assist on your next assignment," he began.
"I am not surprised." Her face gave nothing away.
"But I suppose that won't be necessary now, will it?"
"You are always telling me to take the vacation time I have accumulated. Now I am."
He cocked his head, looking at her coyly. When he had received her form requesting a month's furlough, his first response had been simple bewilderment.
Then he had understood.
He let insinuation slide into his tone. "I do hope you won't miss Lady Dorian without that mission."
The effect, when she caught his meaning, was no surprise. Her eyes became twice their normal size, and her face went pale. She stared at him.
Really. Had she thought he wouldn't guess?
And he was glad for her. It was technically against regulations, of course, but her inclinations had been an open secret all along; it wasn't as if anyone could blackmail her over them. Besides, she was a healthy young woman. It wasn't right for her to be alone.
Plus, there was always the off chance that it would make her easier to get along with.
He patted her elbow (since he couldn't reach her shoulder) and gave her a fatherly smile. "Enjoy your vacation, Major." With that he strolled past her to his office.
He was at the door before Klaudia recovered sufficiently to start sputtering. "You - how dare you - that-"
He gave her one last affectionate smile. "That will be all, Major." He glanced at his secretary. "See that I'm not disturbed," he told her before going into his office and shutting the door.
He could hear the Iron Maiden yelling at her hapless alphabets down the hall. Poor lads. But he had no intention of listening to her attempts to deny the obvious.
He chuckled to himself as he settled into his desk. Surely the Major hadn't actually expected him to believe that she was going to spend the month climbing mountains.
"She's doing what?" Gloria asked.
"Climbing mountains, milady."
Gloria stared at her right-hand man. "Bonham, are you sure that's really what she's doing? She isn't actually on a secret mission or or something?"
"We have witnesses of her at the lodge in the Alps, and your private eye took pictures of her actually climbing them every day this week." Bonham pushed the envelope of pictures across the table to her.
Gloria flipped through a few of them before dropping them onto the rosewood top of her desk. "How could she?" she asked aloud, not really expecting an answer.
She had waited till the manhunt for Mischa was over before contacting her beloved. She had sense enough to know that a flying saucer could have landed on the stately lawn of Schloss Eberbach and Klaudia wouldn't have noticed unless Mischa had attempted to board it.
As soon as it was over, though, Gloria had moved in for the kill. She had decided against simply showing up and presenting herself; her adorable control freak would prefer to choose the time and place herself, she felt certain. And said adorable control freak was ready to do it. She just needed a tiny bit of encouragement.
So Gloria had started sending flowers.
Every day. Always an elegantly simple arrangement centered around a single exotic orchid. Only the best for her Major.
And Gloria had sat back and waited.
And now to get the news that Klaudia had been on vacation for over a week, and hadn't so much as phoned her, let alone come to Castle Dorian to sweep her off her feet .
Gloria suspected that at midnight she'd be weeping into her pillow, but for the moment, she was just angry. Abruptly, she swept up envelope, photos and reports and dropped them carelessly into the wastebasket.
"Never mind that," she informed her lieutenant coolly. "It's time I gave my attention to a woman who appreciates me."
"It's lovely, darling!"
The Major almost jumped out of her skin at the sound of that familiar lilting English voice. She whirled around, her lips already parted on a curse.
And froze, because Eroica wasn't speaking to her.
No, those vibrant blue eyes were fluttering at another hapless victim for a change. A very good-looking young woman with dark wavy hair and liquid brown eyes, who seemed more than a little amenable to the Countess's attention.
Quickly Klaudia changed course. She had been intending to swim a few laps, as relaxation for her muscles which ached from days of scaling mountains, but with that thief and her new girlfriend lounging around the pool, it seemed wisest to retreat.
Or, at least .
The pool area was elaborately landscaped - it had occurred to Klaudia before that Eroica would probably approve of it - which meant lots of artsy-looking greenery and fake rocks behind which one could conceal oneself. Klaudia took cover and observed the two for a few minutes.
They seemed like an ordinary enough pair of lovers, aside from that their gender was the same. They flirted openly, ignoring the curious glances that came their way.
Did Eroica know that she was here? Had this been arranged for her benefit?
There was absolutely no reason not to call the office and assign G to learning the identity of Eroica's new associate. Klaudia was in intelligence and Eroica had worked for her. Whatever Eroica was up to was Klaudia's business.
"Oh, come off it, Eberbach," she muttered to herself as she dialed.
"Stop it, Gloria," Amanda chided, elbowing the willowy blonde aside. "It's my turn to pick the lock."
Gloria pouted prettily, even though Amanda could scarcely be affected by the sight in this dim light. "But I'm quicker at it."
"Doesn't mean you can hog all the fun." Amanda bent over the lock and went to work on it, sparing only a brief glance at her companion's shadowy form.
In a millennium, she had met few women as beautiful as Gloria Red Dorian. Really, it was a shame Gloria wasn't an Immortal; to think of all that beauty aging and fading away. Criminal waste.
But for now, she had a shot at the pretty blonde thief while she was in full flower. How often, even over centuries, did a thief find someone with whom one could work and play?
"You should be glad I'm not fast," she murmured as the door swung open.
"Neither am I," Gloria giggled, sauntering through, letting her hips swing just to tease. "I don't put out on the first theft."
"Or the second, or the third." Amanda closed the door as softly as she could and grasped the blonde's arm. Moving close, she spoke breathily into Eroica's ear, even as she drank in the Englishwoman's rose scent. "So what about the fourth? When are you going to learn to mix business with pleasure?"
"Why, Miss Darieux." Gloria's voice was arch as she gently pulled free. "Anyone would think you were more interested in me than in Mr. Chandler's collection of jeweled cufflinks."
Amanda did not press the point. Gloria was right, after all; jewels lasted longer than affairs. And if Gloria didn't stop teasing soon, she was going to move on. The thrill of the chase was amusing and all, but even Immortals didn't waste too long on it.
"You insist that he keeps it in the safe in this room," Amanda said, opening the closet door. "You handle the combination and prove you were right. I still don't think he could be that dumb."
Gloria dropped to her knees in front of the small safe and pressed her ear against it as she twirled the knob. "I told you, darling, dear Mr. Chandler can't bear to have his treasures out of his reach. That's why he takes the whole bloody collection with him everywhere he goes." She paused for a moment, creasing her brow in concentration, before going on, "Some of them he had custom made, but a few are centuries old . One pair, I understand, belonged to Lord Nelson ."
"Hold it right there!"
Both thieves froze at the deep but unmistakably female voice that rang out. A second later, one lamp was turned on.
Amanda blinked. Standing there regarding them coolly was a tall, striking woman, holding a gun leveled at them.
"Stand up. Keep your hands in the air," the woman ordered in English. Amanda detected a faint German accent. She obeyed. No need to advertise that being shot wouldn't be more than an inconvenience to her.
"You a cop?" she asked when she realized Gloria wasn't going to say anything.
"In a manner of speaking," the German replied. "And you are Amanda Darieux, wanted by Interpol and the police forces of four different nations."
Hm. Might be time to retire this particular alias.
The German glared at her for a minute. "Be out of the country by morning or I will personally turn you in, you thieving French pervert."
"I'm not French," Amanda retorted.
"Get out of here. Now."
"And what about my partner?" She couldn't very well abandon Eroica to the mercies of this hun.
"Go ahead, Amanda," Gloria said.
Amanda turned in surprise to look at her but Gloria was gazing at the German intently. Not with longing or hope, but a kind of serenity, as if she were ready to accept her fate, whatever it might be.
"I see you two are old friends. Enjoy your evening, then," Amanda told them both, and strode out, leaving the two of them to work it out on their own.
Gloria's heart was pounding as Klaudia all but dragged her down the hall. She hadn't even been sure the Major had spotted her, despite her efforts to flaunt her presence and Amanda's company. Now - now she was about to find out if her gamble had worked. This night would end with her in either the Major's bed, or a locked cell.
Unfortunately, with the Major, either possibility seemed equally likely.
The Major stopped in front of the door to her own room and unlocked it. Her expression gave away nothing as she shoved Gloria roughly inside.
"Sit down," Klaudia ordered, pointing imperiously to a chair.
Gloria meekly complied. She couldn't resist knotting her hands in her lap as she waited. Nor could she help noticing that the Major looked wonderful this evening. Tonight's suit was black, and the pants were a little more snug than usual. Gloria reluctantly dragged her eyes back to her Valkyrie's stony face.
Klaudia subjected her to a full minute of the Eberbach glare before speaking. "What were you doing with that woman?" she demanded.
Gloria elegantly crossed one leg over the other, leaning back in her chair. "My job, Major. Not that it's any of your business."
"The hell it isn't. Lady Dorian," the Major said sternly, "that woman is a criminal and a trollop."
The Countess lifted an eyebrow. "So am I, or had you forgotten?"
Klaudia looked as if she didn't know how to answer that.
Would wonders never cease.
"No," she said uneasily after an awkward pause. "You're better than that."
"I can't imagine that Darieux woman risking her life to lead NATO to a KGB hideout. But you did. You deserve someone better than her."
"I tried for someone better," Gloria pointed out, trying to keep her voice even. "She wouldn't have anything to do with me."
Klaudia turned halfway away from her. She fumbled in her pockets for a cigarette. Apparently the first inhalation of smoke gave her the fortitude to say the next words. "I can't let you throw yourself away on someone like her."
Gloria went warm all over. With effort she kept her expression serious. "Just what are you saying, Major?"
Klaudia inhaled a fourth of her cigarette as she searched for words. "All right, so you're a hedonist and a criminal and a flirt," she said at last. "But you still have - a warrior's heart. You proved that, on our last mission. And now that I know that, I can't watch you continue to strive to be less than you truly are."
This was, in Gloria's opinion, a fair enough payment for allowing the KGB to kidnap her.
"Do you mean I need to be saved by the love of a good woman?" Gloria asked ingenuously.
Klaudia scowled and tensely stubbed out her half-smoked cigarette. She was just opening her mouth to say something as she looked up from the ashtray, but Gloria had risen and closed the distance between them in that brief moment, and stopped any words Klaudia might have gotten out with a kiss.
It was every bit as blissful as their first kiss two years before. And well worth the wait.
Their lips parted. Klaudia studied her, troubled.
"Gloria " she began, frowning.
"I know," Gloria whispered. "But it'll be all right." And she twined her arms around Klaudia's neck and captured her mouth again.
And that was all they really needed to say, for the time.
Dawn was doing its rosy-fingered thing when Mr. Chandler's safe opened to Amanda's deft handling. Not that she hadn't believed that German's threat, but she had a feeling that her attention would be elsewhere just now.
Amanda reached inside and pulled out an inlaid wooden box. She opened it and discovered that Eroica had been right. Mr. Chandler did take his cufflink collection with him everywhere.
And at a brief glance, its worth was in the five-figure range.
She tucked it into her pack, closed the safe, and climbed out the window. But before she returned to her own room, so that she could collect her suitcase and make herself scarce, she took a little detour.
From an angle that normally only birds could get, dangling from a small balcony on the floor above, she took a peek through the Major's window.
And smiled at what she saw there. She swung back up and moved to her own window, with the cufflink collection safely in tow.
It seemed that everyone had gotten what she wanted this night.