by Kadorienne & Grey Bard
Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach was a highly trained, top ranking NATO Intelligence operative. He could shoot a Magnum one handed or crack a prison in 48 hours, and he was spoken of in whispers in interrogation rooms across the free world. His entire adult life had been spent in one kind of danger or another.
Thus, when his instincts told him that something was not right, Klaus believed them. They were, of course, the very best instincts on the continent.
At that moment, every instinct he had was telling him there was a conspiracy here, within his very own household.
Dorian had been excessively smug in all the wrong ways last night, and conspicuously absent this morning. The man was a loving husband and a decent person, in his way, but Dorian Red Gloria was also a flamboyant art thief with delusions of cleverness. Certain of his varieties of smugness tended to be nearly lethal. And Klaus always rose before his bedmate, as on a particularly good day Dorian considered morning to begin at about ten a.m.
Still, that might have meant nothing.
But now? Two can be coincidence, three is a sign.
"I wish to go shopping," Gabrielle Red Gloria declared, as she stood in front of the breakfast table in a smart travelling outfit. It was several hours before her usual first appearance, too. She was holding her coat.
Klaus looked to his wife for clarification. Gabrielle was, after all, her personal bad habit. Not his.
Gunilla remained absorbed in the Frankfurter Zeitung in an almost painfully bland manner.
"Neither of you can come." Gabrielle said, tilting her chin up in what was as close to defiance as she ever got.
Klaus said nothing. At times such as this, it is better to remain silent and await further developments. The good spy, like the good hunter, learns patience. Properly speaking, the woman's movements were no concern of his. After all, the only things they had in common were their husband and their wife.
"Come, Gabrielle! Bonham has the plane ready and the bags are all on board," said Dorian, breezing into the room. "There are things that Gaby absolutely must have in Venice and I have an utter craving for the smell of canals. We'll return in time for the soiree at Chez Roccanera, so do try to survive for a few days without me."
This was followed by a kiss, which was extremely distracting and utterly inappropriate for such a public venue. There are some things for which even NATO training does not prepare a man.
By the time Klaus had recovered from the aftereffects of his husbands goodbye, both the Glorias were long gone.
"You must have known about this!" he growled at Gunilla, tearing the newspaper out of her hands.
"Eat your toast," said Gunilla von dem Eberbach.
Duty and pleasure were ill equipped to war in the heart of Major Eberbach, since Pleasure had about the significance of Luxembourg and Duty resembled Germany herself. Klaus did, however, find himself in the most unusual position of thanking God it was Friday.
There was no doubt about how he was going to spend his weekend.
Spread across the bed were credit card bills, phone records, a number of maps, the latest statistics on a number of bank accounts, the homing device records of every vehicle parked in the Schloss Eberbach garage plus several more elsewhere, and Klaus's personal secret photostat copy of his husband's address book. Klaus himself sat in the midst of them, propped up by the headboard and correlating data.
Obviously, he would have preferred a more seemly work surface, but working on his own time out of his own home was by no means as liberating as it sounded. For one thing, Klaus was by no means alone. Gunilla was still very much in residence, and kept turning up in any room he settled in and thwarting his work in any number of plausibly deniable ways. If you believed her, two thirds of the estate was off limits for one maintenance task or another. It was supremely nerve-wracking. Counterespionage was apparently even more disconcerting when it occurred in the home. In the end, he retreated to the only stronghold he had.
Now, sifting through masses of precious data, Klaus found himself hard pressed to draw any connections at all. He knew where the plane had landed, but because he didnt know what they were doing there in the first place, he was unable to do more than play catch up. Within the last month, the cars had never gone more than forty miles from Bonn, and the coordinates had all corresponded to the addresses of public places and favorite shops. A number of large sums had been transferred into the accounts, but with an art thief that information was hardly useful on its own. Computer usage was virtually nonexistent, as Gabrielle was easily frustrated by her attempts to use them and Dorian did not find the enterprise aesthetically appealing. He had people to deal with such things for him.
It wasn't that there was any lack of opportunity for something to have happened. It was that there appeared to be no indicators of where to start looking.
What were those two aesthetes doing in Belgium?
He was staring at the entry for a particularly large deposit made on Wednesday afternoon to one of the accounts that he not supposed to know about, when a name on a cell phone bill caught his eye. Darcey Kenton, Wednesday afternoon. The conversation went on for an hour and a half, and the time of deposit was within three minutes of the end of the call.
It was time to call in reinforcements.
Klaus loaded his travel bag into the Benz and pulled out his own cell phone with reluctance. He glared at it for a long minute before dialing a number he wished he had forgotten. He didnt anticipate any trouble getting through; that a woman like Portia Roccanera would have a basic amenity like caller ID was a foregone conclusion. Shed probably had it before it was invented.
Sure enough, it was only two rings before a husky feminine voice cooed, "Dont tell me you need another widget factory, darling."
"Its eight P.M. Do you know where your girlfriend is?" Klaus demanded. "Shes up to something! With my husband!"
After a brief silence, Portia started giggling. Realizing what hed said, Klaus closed his eyes and massaged the bridge of his nose with his free hand.
Controlling herself, the camorrista said, "If any man can be trusted with a ladys virtue, dear, its got to be Dorian Red Gloria."
"Im not concerned with her virtue. Im concerned with what theyre up to. Theyre doing something behind our backs!"
"Dont you trust your pretty Earl?" she drawled.
That brought him up short. "Im a spy. I lost the ability to trust over a decade ago," he informed her flatly.
"Even someone who loves you?"
Silence answered him, and he realized he may have just scotched whatever trust in Darcey the woman had acquired. He scowled.
"Do you know what our paramours are up to?" he asked.
"Why, no. Do tell."
"I meant, do you know. Ive been trying to find out."
He could almost hear the shrug in her voice. "I imagine theyre up to the same thing theyre always up to trying to bankrupt us both at Harvey Nicks."
"Together. Dont tell me you havent noticed that your Miss Kenton and the Glorias have been spending a good bit of time together."
"You wouldnt expect your pretty Earl to pick out ties for you all by himself, would you?"
Exasperated, Klaus shifted in the seat, fighting the urge to get out of the Benz and pace like a caged wolf. "Are you saying you havent noticed anything at all strange in your little girlfriends behavior, woman?"
"How many times must I tell you" Portia began with her usual trill, but stopped.
Klaus did not relent. "You have noticed."
It took her a couple of seconds to reply. For la Roccanera, it was an ominous sign. "Im sure its nothing. Darceys young. Young people like keeping secrets. Im sure its nothing important."
Her tone might have convinced someone less discerning than a NATO spy of the first order. "How do you know shes keeping a secret?"
Another fleeting pause. "She goes shopping and doesnt show me what shes bought."
Two years ago, this would have seemed a non sequitur to Klaus. Now he shared his life with two women and a fop. Gunillas tastes were thankfully spartan, but Gaby and Dorian both considered displaying their loot an essential part of the shopping experience they found so inexplicably enjoyable. Gunilla bore it quite well, having enough of the aesthete in her to find some interest in her wifes choices, but Klaus found it unendurable and had taken to barricading himself in his study to clean his guns when the nightmarish ritual began.
"Have you noticed any other unusual behavior from her?"
"Darling, youve met some of my associates. Its simply not possible to behave unusually in my circles."
"You know what I mean! Hasnt she done anything out of the ordinary?"
"Indeed she has. Just last night, in fact. But I imagine that if I tell you about it, youll have to ring for smelling salts."
His face burned, but he ignored her words. "Do you have any inkling what theyre up to behind our backs?"
This time the pause lasted a full ten seconds. Klaus was not gratified. Having his paranoia confirmed was hardly encouraging.
"No, I do not," Portia replied, every word clipped and precise. "And I am not accustomed to not knowing everything that concerns me even slightly."
"Nor am I. It seems expedient for us to exchange our intelligence."
She made a small annoyed sound. "I dont know any more than you do. All my people have discovered are the same things you have."
"But if you find anything out?"
"Yes, yes, Ill tell you. Its probably something that will require your giving your husband a good talking-to."
Klaus snorted. "Ill report when I learn anything."
"Why dont you come to my dinner on Sunday a couple of hours early, Major? Before your pack of aesthetes arrive?" she said suddenly, with a lightness that didnt fool him in the least. "You know how much we always enjoy each others company."
"Right." He hung up grimly.
Iron Klaus had been sighted arriving at the Brussels airport, and subsequently taking a stalk and evade route north through Brabant into Vlaanderen and down through the Schelde valley, stopping only to question innkeepers and interrogate terrified barmaids.
He was pushing himself relentlessly and maintaining a strict phone silence, turning up in the strangest places along his route. Obviously the man was chasing someone, and he appeared to be taking it personally.
Mischa the Cub had been stationed out of Ronse for the last four months and found the entire country boring, right down to the chicken stew. Of course he would have to investigate what his old rival was up to.
Taking the best car available to him, the Cub was ready when Iron Klaus passed Tournai on the way south toward northern France.
He was three cars behind his greatest rival, and the man didnt even suspect. The turn signal came on. Mischa didn't bother to signal, and joined the turn lane at the last instant, ignoring another driver's illegal hand signal to him.
As he followed the rented Benz down the exit ramp, Mischa burned with curiosity. Would it be a stakeout of a munitions plant? A showdown in an abandoned warehouse?
The actual destination was a bit of a letdown.
All this to get to a country club?
Klaus endured the rigmarole at the entrance to the Roccanera estate with such patience as he could muster. Which wasn't much. But he was, as usual, a man on a mission. He gave his keys to the valet and followed a footman to a butler and the butler to a veranda not, thank God, the Fragonard Room again where he was informed that Madame would be with him shortly. He rather doubted that.
He remained standing by the railing, surveying the grounds. Some distance away he could see a couple of gardeners, but other than that, the only signs of life were the birds. He wondered if Incitatus was still here, and if he was still intractable towards his would-be mistress. Perhaps he'd get a chance to look in on the stallion before he left. The prospect lifted his spirits slightly.
He turned at a soft footfall behind him, but it was only one of those demure, mute girls in white bringing a tray. With Nescafé, of course the woman didnt miss a trick. He turned away and resumed his perusal of the well-kept gardens.
To his surprise, it was only one more minute before Madame joined him. She settled herself decoratively in one of the impractical little chairs and helped herself to the bourbon on the tray. "What a lovely afternoon to see you, Major. Let me guess. Dorians gotten bored with you, and youre turning to me for consolation."
Klaus had expected a greeting along these lines and had already decided to ignore it. He got straight to the point. "Have you found out what our paramours are up to?"
She looked at him, her expression neutral. "A gentleman would offer me a cigarette," she said quietly after a moment.
Wordlessly, he took his pack out, held it out to her, then lit it for her. She cupped his hand lightly with her own to steady the flame. The contact reminded him of too many things he preferred to forget. He switched off the flame and straightened quickly.
She exhaled a stream of silver smoke and studied the gardens as if they were new to her. He waited. At length she said, "Darcey does keep talking about being lonely."
"Is she trying to get you to spend more time with her?"
Again that slight frown, more thoughtful than annoyed. "It doesnt sound that way. More like shes hinting at wanting something else."
"Such as? What exactly does she say?"
The Italian shook her head slightly, as if trying to deny that it were true. "Shell be riding or feeding Incitatus, and shell say things like, Dont you think poor Incitatus looks lonely? Its dreadful to be lonely, dont you think?" She did a fair imitation of Darceys voice, and the intonation was coy. "Shes my shadow, when I have to go elsewhere shes got Katalin or Rosenthal or someone to look after her, theres always a crowd going in and out how can she be lonely?"
The Major frowned in thought. "Its a pity if the young woman is lonely, but why would that make her spend all this time with the Glorias? That is, so secretively? If all she wants is their company, there would be no need for all this mystery ."
"My people managed to overhear a few bits of her telephone conversations." She stopped, apparently unwilling to go on. "Shes been very careful about using pay phones in crowded public places and all that, just like I taught her. Ive hardly been able to find out a thing."
"Except?" Klaus prompted.
The camorrista abruptly stubbed out her cigarette as if the ashtray had done her a bad turn. "Fancy some target practice?" she asked, and stood.
"I suppose I shouldnt be surprised that you have a shooting gallery here," he said sourly, knowing that he wouldnt be able to drag her back on topic until she was good and ready to be dragged.
"Of course I do," she said, clapping once. A servant appeared within seconds. "But its too nice a day to shoot inside, dont you agree?"
She gave her orders to the servant, and within five minutes a sporting clays machine was set up in the spacious yard and an impressive selection of firearms brought out for them to choose from. "I generally favor the Colt, but I believe Ill try your favorite toy today, Major," she said, selecting a Magnum and checking the chamber with a practiced air.
"Dont get fancy and try to shoot it one-handed," he growled. "Im sure you can handle a gun, but the recoil from a Magnum could injure you."
She blew out a martyred sigh. "I didnt get to be Portia Roccanera by failing to distinguish the line between challenges and suicide, my dear Major." She took a solid stance, her feet planted apart and both hands on the gun. As he watched, she shattered nine clay disks in a row, missing only one (and saying a word he hadnt thought women knew when she did). She handled the recoil quite well, he conceded with impersonal approval.
"You say you prefer the Colt?" he said, picking it up. He hefted it, evaluated the weight and balance, then without further ado starting dispatching clay at a brisk pace.
Neither spoke for a while, except for infrequent curses when they missed, or the odd "Good shot" tossed off absently as they continued, intent on their own blasting. Each of them tried several different weapons. Klaus could feel the tension flowing out of his muscles. The shooting was as soothing as a hot Jacuzzi.
Without warning, Portia squeezed off one last shot, replaced the gun, and turned on her heel. Klaus quickly laid his own gun down and followed her. They moved over the grounds at a brisk pace.
"Youre going to be a father soon, arent you?" she threw out.
"And a godfather, yes," he replied, nonplused.
"How can you stand it?"
"Your home is going to be full of brats!"
"Two is hardly full."
"You like children?" She said it as if she were asking if he liked roaches.
He considered this. "Not in general, but Im sure its different with ones own children."
"I hate them."
"Lord Gloria said you have a daughter of your own."
She gave a short bark of laughter. "Yes, but I almost never see her, even now shes grown up. I paid a decent couple very well to raise her. I was willing to be responsible for her, as long as she wasnt anywhere near me."
"Frau Eberbach and Lady Gloria are both very keen on having children," he said dismissively. "As my father was happy to hear."
"Ill bet." She took his arm and headed for what appeared to be an actual labyrinth, another silly thing Dorian had been enthusing over at some point not too long ago. He let her guide him through the twists and turns, waiting for her to reveal what she knew. "So just how twisted around your pretty Earls little finger are you, anyway?" When he turned a glare on her, she admonished, "Oh, come now, you can admit it to me."
"I think you know the answer to that," he ground out reluctantly.
"What wouldnt you do for him?"
"Betray my country," he said promptly.
She gave a small chuckle, turning away. "Of course. You would go straight to the big things. Would you wear his clothes?"
This time she laughed outright. "I thought not. But still, youd indulge him in anything you could tolerate, wouldnt you?"
"It is my duty. Hes my husband."
She looked away, thoughtful. "Ive never cared for anyone enough to make sacrifices for them. Never."
"You are thinking of making a sacrifice for Miss Kenton?" Even as he said it, he couldnt quite believe it.
"She asks for little enough. Would it really harm anything, to indulge her? If it made her happy? It would be Oh, God."
"What? What is this sacrifice?"
She stopped still, pulled a cell phone out of her pocket, and dialed a number. "Rosemarie. Darling. Oh, dammit, I forgot what time it is there. Hope you and Vivienne werent tipping the oh, for Gods sake, Ive been talking to a prudish queer for the last hour. Dont you start acting straightlaced at me. Pun intended. But lets get to the reason I called. I saw in the paper this morning what your little company is up to. Dont you know better than that, dear? ParCon did the same thing four years ago, and look what happened to it . Of course its my business, dear, I own thirty-seven percent of your company. What, you dont think I have it all under my own name, do you? Now fix it and protect my investment, dear. Youll thank me for this. Kiss Vivienne for me, wont you?" She pushed the button and smiled contentedly. "I dont believe dear Rosemaries going to speak to me for a while now. Americans are so earnest. Its sort of cute, dont you think?"
"Oh, for Gods sake. Theres nearly three hundred million of the damned Yanks, you cant just declare that theyre all earnest or anything else."
"Good heavens, I beg your pardon. I didnt realize that you were a champion of the colonials."
"Theyre less annoying than Italians," he growled, and got a laugh in answer.
"Thank you, darling," she trilled.
"Do you feel better now that youve gone and done sneaky camorrista things to a naïvely earnest American?" he asked levelly.
She beamed at him. "Oh, much."
"Gut. Then tell me what you think our consorts are up to. For my part, I have tracked them across Belgium and part of Normandy, but I have been able to discover little. They have been in business dealings, very expensive ones, but the security on the estates they have visited has been superb. Does that coincide with what you have gathered?"
Her smile faded. "Im afraid so. It makes a horrible kind of sense. Based on what littles been overheard..."
"Things like new home and..." Horror crept into her voice. "Adoption."
He frowned. "You think Miss Kenton is adopting a child?" he asked incredulously.
"What else could it mean?" Portia demanded, finally allowing her agitation to show through.
"Surely she wouldnt just do something like that without consulting you."
"Wouldnt she? Im the one who taught her the value of a fait accompli! If she just waltzed in here cuddling some brat "
"She must realize youd just make her give it away."
"But if it made her unhappy And there it is! Ive never given a damn if anyone else around me was unhappy! Who is she, that I should even think of it?"
"The girl you" Klaus stopped, and changed it: "who loves you. I know perfectly well just how much that means."
"But a child! How can she do this?" Portia cried.
"We dont know that she is," Klaus repeated, though he was starting to worry himself.
"Then what is she doing? What other explanation fits the facts?"
She looked away.
The silence had become almost unbearably oppressive when one of Portias serving nymphs entered.
"What is it?"
" Miss Kenton wishes that you would meet her in the stable yard presently, Madame."
She waved the girl away. "I hope your Earl arrives in time to escort your wives to dinner, darling," she said to Klaus. "You dont mind following me out to the stables, do you?"
"Not at all," he answered, and morosely complied.
It wasnt far to the stables but then, everywhere one was on Madames estate seemed to be convenient to everywhere else one might want to be.
They rounded a corner into the outer stable yard. Portia was about to speak again when the sound of hoofbeats attracted their attention. Darcey cantered into view on Incitatuss back, clad in a black velvet riding habit. She reined in several yards away. "Oh! Hello, Major."
He nodded a greeting and approached to rub the stallions flanks. Portia hung back, eyeing the horse resentfully.
"Oh, come on," Darcey urged, "hes in quite a good mood today. Come make friendlies with him."
Madame quirked an eyebrow. "Get down, then. I dont want that hayburner throwing you; your clothes will get dirty."
Darcey obligingly dismounted and held the stallions reins. Portia approached warily.
To her surprise and the Majors, Incitatus immediately turned his head to her and nuzzled her. Startled and pleased, she started stroking his face, and he made a pleased-sounding little whiffle.
"Hes decided he likes you?" Klaus was baffled. Horses didnt just change their minds that way. Not even female ones, let alone stallions.
Darcey gave a happy little laugh. "Try riding him! Ill get another horse." She turned and hurried in the direction of the stables.
Portia only hesitated for a moment before putting a foot in the stirrup, and that moment was probably more due to the fact that she wasnt dressed for riding than doubt about Incitatuss change of heart.
And the horse accepted her without protest. She dug in her heels and had him canter in a wide circle, and he followed her cues admirably while Klaus watched in no little amazement.
She reined in near him, looking smug. "I should have known. All men end up liking me, even if some of them do take a while to come around. You should know that." She winked at him. He scowled.
"Ehm. I think I know why he has become more manageable."
Painstakingly-shaped eyebrows lifted. "Do tell."
He gently grasped Incitatuss reins and motioned for her to dismount. Burning with curiosity, she did so and followed his gaze.
And her eyes widened in outrage.
"What the" She stopped, apparently unable to find words adequate for her shock.
"Well, it was really the sensible thing to do. Stallions are almost impossible to ride, you know," Klaus began reasonably, but Madame had found her voice now.
"They de-gentlemanned my stallion?!?"
"Hes not a stallion anymore," Klaus remarked, glad Dorian wasnt present to add levity to the moment.
"How dare she Darcey!" Madames voice went slightly shrill. "Get out here!"
"Calm yourself, Madame. Im sure she thought she was doing you a favor; she knew that you wanted to ride him and hed never"
"Thats no excuse! Hes my horse! She had no right to do this without consulting me!"
Incitatus shied, disturbed by her tone. Klaus stroked the geldings nose soothingly. "Quiet, youre making him nervous. You dont want to make him take against you again, do you?" He could hear hoofbeats. Apparently Darcey was approaching.
With visible effort, she controlled herself. "My horse! How dare she do this to my horse?! Darcey!"
"Youre the one who taught her the value of a fait accompli," Klaus pointed out reasonably. When he got back home, he was going to laugh his ass off.
Portia stroked the horses neck, crooning. "I know they say I'm a castrating bitch, but I promise you, my darling, they don't mean it literally! I never would have done this to you "
"You know, hes probably more content this way. Not bothered by urges, you know, and calmer."
She shot him a venomous glance. "I suppose thats your ideal."
"If it were, I would have let Mischa apply his electric currents to me years ago," Klaus snapped.
"Of course you wouldnt. You had your duty to the Eberbach line to consider," she snarled. "Dammit, my horse!"
The hoofbeats were nearer. They both turned, Portia narrowing her eyes in preparation for dishing out some suitable torment and then opening them wide again.
Because Dorian, Gabrielle, Gunilla and Darcey had all appeared on horseback, and Darcey was mounted atop a most certainly ungelded Incitatus.
Klaus and Portia both looked from one Incitatus to the other. The four conspirators beamed.
"His names Iron Hoof," Darcey offered helpfully, indicating Incitatuss gelded twin.
Portia looked at the gelding, not speaking.
"Hes very friendly, so I knew he wouldnt take a dislike to you like Incitatus did," Darcey went on, a hint of uncertainty seeping into her smugness. "But he looks almost exactly like Incitatus I thought youd like that "
Portia ran a hand over Iron Hoofs coat almost absently, still not speaking.
Now Darcey looked downright nervous, although her fellows in horse trading continued to radiate the assurance of their years. She cast an appealing glance at Klaus. "It was Lord Glorias idea, Major. I couldnt think of a good gift, so I asked him, and he had the idea, and he and Lady Gloria helped me find the right horse it was difficult, finding one who looked just like Incitatus but was nicer." She hesitated. "We ended up torn between two choices. The other was the sweetest mare, but we thought Madame might appreciate this gelding more."
Seeing that Portia was apparently lost in contemplating her new gelding, Klaus spoke up. "Why is that?"
The girl colored very faintly. "Well " She had some difficulty going on.
Gunilla took pity on her and attempted to take up the slack. "Some geldings are not convinced," she explained. "They dont seem to understand that they have been"
"De-gentlemanned?" Klaus supplied.
Dorian leaned over in his saddle and gave Iron Hoof an affectionate pat. "Iron Hoof still attempts overtures toward every mare he encounters," he said, giving Portia an arch look. "I rather thought you would admire his persistence, Madame."
Klaus snorted. Portia continued studying Iron Hoof in silence. Unnerved, Gaby spoke up.
"Well, really, Dorian was the one who named him. Iron Hoof is Cockney rhyming slang for pouf, you know, and we thought it would remind you of" She stopped, darting an apprehensive glance at the Major, who now looked like a volcano on the verge of spewing lava.
Portia turned an evaluating gaze on her young admirer that made the girl squirm. The camorrista let a long moment pass before speaking.
"Darcey. How do you feel about children?"
The younger womans nose wrinkled slightly. "Well, heterosexuals seem to like them. I suppose it comes from the same gene or something." Belatedly she sent an apologetic glance to Gunilla and Gaby, who only smiled at her.
Portia exhaled. "Then I have just one more question."
"Yes?" The girl bit her lip.
"How the hell did you know it was today?"
Darcey pursed her lips to hold in her laughter.
"Do you also know exactly how old Im turning today, you vixen?"
"I made a point of forgetting it, Madame." Her smile turned shy. "Shall we go riding, then?"
Klaus gave each Incitatus a pat and headed for the house, leaving the happy crowd to work it out. This was entirely too saccharine for him. He would deal with his own paramour later.
Iron Hoof indeed.