The Major was awakened exactly ten minutes before his alarm would have gone off by the telephone.
He picked it up before the second ring, sitting up wide awake in an instant. "Ja?"
"Good morning, Major."
Klaus at once recognized the voice of Bonham, the lieutenant of that verdammt thief. He scowled at the receiver; for the phone to ring at this hour, he had expected a national emergency of some sort. "What is it?" he snarled.
"Sorry to call so early, Major, but I'm trying to find His Lordship. Is he - that is, do you know where he is? We haven't seen him since yesterday morning."
Incredulous, Klaus demanded, "So why the hell are you pestering me about it?"
"Just wondering where he is, sir."
"How the hell would I know where your damned Earl is?"
"Only two things he does at night. In this case, I expect it'll be trouble, sir."
Horribly, comprehension began to dawn. "IDIOT!" he bawled into the receiver. "I did not - what makes you think-"
"Righto, sir. I'll let you know when we find him, shall I, sir?"
"I don't give a fuck where he is!" Klaus insisted at top volume before slamming the phone down. Why had that fat limey thought…. Klaus fumed throughout his shower.
The thought of Nescafé should have cheered him as he went downstairs in an impeccably pressed suit, but there was the drawback that he would have to drink it across the table from his father. His father had arrived a week ago for one of his usual sudden visits, giving Klaus only a day's warning before appearing. Klaus had braced himself for the usual lectures about his duty to marry and acquire an heir, but all the Graf had ventured in that direction was a few rather mournful references to young women of good family in the neighborhood, and he had not pressed the point when Klaus changed the subject.
Klaus greeted his father properly and resisted the urge to reach for the newspapers as he sat down to breakfast. The Graf acknowledged him quietly, pensive.
They spoke little for a few minutes as they were served. They had exhausted the one subject of genuine mutual interest to them, the Eberbach estate, two days ago, and the Graf had already delivered his customary recounting of the story of Rommel, which Klaus had endured as cordially as always.
A newspaper was not a very strong fortress, but for the moment, it was all Klaus had. He held it up and hunkered down behind it, hoping it would be enough to defend him.
"Ja, Vater," he said reluctantly, lowering the paper.
"I shall be returning to Switzerland today."
"What time? I'll order the car to be ready."
"I've already done that," his father snapped, but subsided at once. Klaus's suspicions were raised; the old man was never this easy to get rid of. "Klaus," the Graf said after another abstracted silence.
The elder Eberbach shocked his son by looking at him with resignation in every line of his face. "Before I leave, there is something we should discuss."
Of course. Klaus had known he wasn't getting off the hook this easily. "Yes, sir."
The Graf swallowed and then set his jaw. Then with an air of steeling himself, he said, "I think that your cousin Dieter would be a good choice. He's only sixteen, but he's turning out very well, and as the younger son, he doesn't have other obligations…."
"A good choice? For what?"
The Graf sighed, looking suddenly older. "For your heir."
Klaus's jaw dropped. He looked to his butler. Who, it turned out, had abandoned decorum to the extent of turning his back on them and weeping silently.
Klaus opened his mouth to protest, but caught himself in time. He was getting off the hook. Gift horses and all that.
"Right," he said. "Dieter. Excellent choice. I'll have the papers drawn up." He put down his paper and left for the safety of his Benz.
What had that been about?
He put it out of his mind when he reached his office. He was immediately informed that the Chief was waiting for him.
"Your mission," the Chief informed him once he'd reported, "is to guard an information drop in London for the next few days. We consider it vital that the Soviets not obtain the intel which is to be delivered." He slid a thick folder across his desk to the Major.
"Won't having a well-known operative such as myself on the job just draw attention to it?"
The older man grimaced. "They already know about it. The leak was discovered last night, but there is no way to contact the agent who we expect to use the drop before he does."
"I have to go to England?" Klaus asked glumly, taking the folder and starting to flip through its contents.
The Chief gave what he probably imagined was a fatherly smile. "Take heart, Major. You won't be… bored, at least." The smile widened. "I've already pulled some strings with Accounting. They've approved Eroica's fee."
Klaus froze, then looked up from the folder. "Eroica? What use would I have for a thief on a mission like this?" he asked incredulously.
The old lecher shrugged complacently. "I feel certain that you'll find one."
"What are you up to?" Klaus demanded. "I don't need that curly-haired idiot on this mission and I won't have him!"
"Oh, excuse me." The Chief actually looked just a little bit self-reproaching, and for one relieved instant Klaus thought that he was going to retreat. Instead, his superior abruptly leaned forward with his most truculent expression and declared, "You're hiring Eroica for this mission and that's an order!"
The Chief settled back comfortably in his chair. "You owe me a good turn now, Major. That will be all."
It wasn't all, of course, but half an hour of yelling and swearing had no effect. In the end, Klaus stalked out and pretended not to notice the alphabets scrambling to get out of his way.
No one dared to approach him as he started grimly sifting through the folder. But after a few minutes, the phone rang. G answered, and a moment later said timidly, "Major?"
Klaus looked at the little transvestite, glowering.
G very prettily turned pink. "It's Eroica, sir… for you."
Suddenly all of the alphabets were very busy and absorbed in things on their own desks.
"Tell that flashy bugger - no, give it to me." He rose and snatched the phone. "IDIOT! Why the hell are you calling me?"
For a few seconds there was no reply, and then the thief's familiar aristocratic lilt said, "Are you finished yelling? I knew you would, so I had the phone away from my ear-"
Klaus promptly bellowed again, hoping that this time Eroica wouldn't remove his eardrums from harm's way in time. "IDIOT! Don't call me again! And I expect you to refuse this assignment, you thieving pervert!" With that he banged the phone down. "Good God, I hate that bloody thief."
He expected the chorus of 'Yes, sir's' that answered his pronouncement. What he didn't expect was the cheerful tone. He surveyed the room in time to catch several quickly suppressed little smiles.
"What's so funny?" He chose A to receive the full force of his glare. "Well?"
A summoned a serious expression with an obvious effort of will. "Nothing, sir."
Klaus continued to glare until every one of the alphabets was squirming. At last he ordered, "Get ready. We leave for London in two hours."
* * *
Things hadn't improved the following day. The London office had assigned a few of their own people to help guard the drop, and one of them, consistent with his luck this week, was that James Bond wanna-be Lawrence. He had greeted Klaus by showing him a box which appeared to be a cigarette case but was actually a complete working two-way radio. Idiot hadn't changed one bit.
And while any mission was preferable to paperwork back at the office, this was the boring kind of mission, the sort that involved hours of standing around watching so as to be ready to prevent other people who might or might not be around from doing things they might or might not attempt to do. NATO had occupied the unused upper floors of the office building across the street from the drop as a vantage point, and the Major stationed his alphabets to loiter in the various nearby businesses. Which left him and A at the window, gazing morosely out the window, waiting for someone to do something.
"I need some coffee," he said irritably at mid-afternoon. When A started to rise, he stood himself. "I'll get it myself. I need to get out of this room for a few minutes."
He entered the small kitchen, where B and Lawrence were using the stupid cigarette case radio to listen to the information the others were reporting, if "Still nothing here" could be considered information.
"Go watch with A for a few minutes," he ordered B, ignoring Lawrence. As B obeyed, he stretched briefly and then started heating some water. There was a coffee maker with a half-full pot, but it had that stupid "real" coffee that other people liked.
Lawrence turned down the radio and spoke. "I'm told that Eroica arrived a few hours ago. He's been covering that café next door."
"Did you think I wouldn't be aware of exactly who's working and who's reported?" Klaus snapped. "I know he arrived! At 10:37 a.m., the middle of the night for that dissipated aristocrat, no doubt."
Lawrence gave a smarmy smile. "Do you know the story of David and Jonathan?"
Klaus turned, bewildered. "Who?!?"
"Didn't you learn the Holy Scriptures in school, Major?" Lawrence sighed dreamily. "David the intrepid youth who slew Goliath, then befriended the royal family. Jonathan, the crown prince, abdicated his throne for David."
Klaus snorted. "David must have been a shrewd operator."
"Oh, no. David and Jonathan were inseperable friends for all their lives. Their love 'surpassed the love of women'. Isn't that poetic?"
Klaus stared at the English agent, too horrified to speak.
"Oh, perhaps a story of the Japanese samurai would be more to your taste."
"Probably," Klaus agreed warily, not trusting Lawrence's oily smile. The man gave him the creeps worse than anybody else. Anybody.
"The samurai had a tradition of deeply intense friendships." The barest hint of a pause before the word "friendships" set off all Klaus's internal alarms, with, as it turned out, good reason. "Often a samurai would conceive an affection for one of his fellows and waste away with it." His face took on that creepy look of rapturous contemplation Klaus had seen on him the previous times they'd met. "Sometimes it wasn't until he was at death's door that his friends would intervene to arrange an introduction between him and the object of his affections, which never failed to mend his health."
"They must have been complete idiots," was Klaus's first amazed response, before he caught himself and bawled, "Weirdo! Why are you telling me such perverted stories?"
Lawrence gave him a smile of sympathetic understanding. It was infuriating. "Oh, I just happened to think of it."
"You have demented thought processes!" Klaus informed him. "You shouldn't be thinking of anything other than your mission!"
He stormed out, forgetting his Nescafé, but stopped outside the door to the lookout room. A and B were talking in low voices.
"I would have thought he'd have mellowed."
"Him? Never. Not even, you know."
"Nah, just make him meaner, wouldn't it?"
The Major groaned inwardly. No way he was going to deal with this lunacy without his Nescafé. He turned and went back to the kitchen.
"I forgot my damned coffee," he growled. "Don't distract me with any more foppish stories."
"It's a wonder how you can resist distraction while you work, Major," Lawrence marvelled. Klaus ignored this as he checked the water. It was hot enough now. He poured a cup and stirred in Nescafé.
Just then the outer door opened. Klaus could hear several agents filing in. Dropping the spoon in the sink, he went out to hear their reports.
He stood drinking his coffee and listening to them all confirm that none of them had seen anything of interest when Eroica appeared in the doorway. Instantly the agents fell silent.
"Well?" Klaus demanded. "Go on!"
Z stammered, "And… and so I tailed the man in the blazer, but then he got onto a bus without going near the drop, so it looks like he wasn't our man. Um, and that's all."
There was a murmur of agreement, and then all of them started edging towards various doors. Klaus watched in bewilderment as his agents tactfully faded away. Leaving him alone. With Eroica.
More apprehensively than usual, he met the thief's gaze. Who was looking almost as bemused as he was.
"What on earth has gotten into your alphabets?" Dorian asked.
"You mean you're not the one who gave them the idea that-" He stopped, too furious to speak.
The Major studied him. Dorian looked genuinely confused. He was telling the truth; he didn't know why everyone had this notion that….
The call came from the lookout room. Klaus turned and made his way swiftly to the window. "What?"
A passed him the binoculars. "Look!"
Klaus did, and a slow, predatory grin spread over his face.
"If it isn't my old friend Mischa," he purred.
"He seems to be alone," A remarked, bewildered.
"Probably his cronies just aren't walking with him," Klaus said, watching as Mischa headed unerringly for the drop.
Just then one of the English agents emerged from the kitchen at a run. "Major! Our lads have just picked up two of Mischa's men!"
Mischa reached the building and pushed the door open. Klaus dropped the binoculars into A's hands. "Let's go. Cover all the exits. Make sure no one leaves that building." He elbowed his way past Dorian as he strode out, and barked over his shoulder, "Go home, Eroica."
The alphabets fanned out to block the exits, as ordered, while Klaus went inside. He found Mischa just putting his hand into the arranged hiding place.
"Sorry, Comrade," Klaus said, his Magnum in his hand. "You jumped the gun. Our man hasn't shown yet."
Mischa turned, startled. He began to reach for his own weapon.
"Stop!" Klaus ordered, and Mischa froze. "My superiors would rather I take you alive, but for myself, I'd just as soon you tried to draw your gun."
Mischa glared at him for a minute, unmoving. Then he snarled, "We have all heard about you and that English thief, Iron Klaus. Surely you can't expect anyone to be afraid of you now that we all know that you're just a-"
A shot sounded, and the next moment Mischa was on the ground, his face twisted in pain and anger, both hands clasping his bleeding leg.
Klaus looked down at him frostily and said softly, "Whatever I am, I can still shoot you."
C and D rushed in, disarmed Mischa as Klaus covered him, and then they supported him as he limped out to the van that had been waiting to transport him. Klaus watched the van depart with satisfaction. Mischa had escaped them too many times in the past, evading interrogation by a slender margin, but his injured leg should be an added obstacle this time.
He went smugly back to the temporary headquarters. Almost as soon as he walked in, G announced, "Sir, we just got a call from the SIS office. The contact who was supposed to deliver the intel here has been monitoring the drop for the last three hours. He observed us staking it out and became suspicious, and left when the commotion with Mischa started. His supervisor has assigned him a different drop to use."
"Sounds like he's an agent who knows his job," Klaus remarked. "All of you, take a lesson from him."
A brief silence ensued, until Z asked G, softly and very casually, "So where did Eroica go?"
In an equally offhand tone, G answered, "Oh, he said he was going to his flat here in London. It isn't very far away, you know, just over in Mayfair. And he's here alone; his whole team is back at Castle Gloria."
"IDIOTS!" Klaus bawled. "Don't stand around chattering about irrelevancies!"
Everyone promptly snapped to attention. "No, sir!" they all replied.
He glared for a minute before saying grudgingly, "You all did good work today." And with that he stalked out.
He didn't have a planned destination, but his steps slowed when he caught sight of a fashionable converted townhouse he had seen photos of in various semi-classified files, whose address was stored in his memory along with dozens of other facts for which he had no need, really he didn't.
He stopped in front of the townhouse and looked at it for a few minutes.
At last, he began, very slowly, to walk up the path to the door.
There was no sense letting down everyone's expectations of him.