A Matter of Goodwill

by Beth Minster

It had finally quit drizzling and begun to rain in earnest. The warm night opened and the water came, sheeting down with a reptilian hiss. It shot in golden rays across the light of the little streetlamp that did nothing to relieve the gloom of Bourbon Street. It splashed in the deep puddles that dotted the narrow walkways and danced against the paned windows of the basement businesses that thrived in this part of the city. Although, reflected Major Klaus von Eberbach, from what he could see, the entire city of New Orleans was given to that type of business. He turned up the collar of his raincoat and contemplated the two doors opposite from him. One sign flashed on and off with scroll-worked pink neon that crawled in the shifting darkness—Live GirlsLive Girls. The other stayed lit, its purple block lettering bold and unashamed—Live Boys. Better the rain, thought Klaus and retreated as far back into the shadows as he could.

Thunder rolled overhead. Lightning flickered briefly, high in the clouds and harmless. Somewhere a car honked, the sound seeming miles away although he knew that Canal Street was only a few blocks over. The French Quarter, Klaus had discovered, swallowed sound. What happened on one corner would not be heard on the next. It wasn’t that the area was noisy so much as that the air seemed to instill its own brand of silence.

The Major shook out a cigarette, lit it and tossed the match into a nearby puddle. It sizzled and died. Another death in New Orleans. He hadn’t expected the city to feel like it did. Klaus had heard of Mardi Gras, of course, but that was merely tourism taken to an all new, American high and he’d dismissed it as such. He’d read the report his Section Chief had given him, too. New Orleans, the city that was sinking slowly into the swamps. The most violent city in the United States—and that was saying something. It had a nickname that the Federal of Bureau of Investigation used—The City of Decay. It was not inaccurate. What he had not anticipated was the air, the feel of the city. On street level, among the old buildings, there was a sensation of waiting, a presentiment of potential, as if something intuitive but no less alive, lay listening. It was very akin to the feeling of being watched. It made the Major’s skin crawl.

Klaus looked down the street and spotted a narrow door with an awning. At least he could wait for his contact with some sort of roof over his head. He crossed the street and ducked under the canvas. It helped considerably. It was also wide enough to protect part of a window which afforded him a small ledge to sit against. Klaus took another drag on his cigarette. Much better. Although, now that he wasn’t actively being rained on, he’d begun to get hot—again. It was too wet to go without the coat and too warm to wear it. And it wasn’t even summer.

The rain kept coming steadily. Someone down the street turned into one of the clubs (Klaus couldn’t see which one) and light skittered across the slick blackness of an umbrella before it disappeared inside. The Major found himself straining to see if the person had yellow curls. Damn. But it was only natural, he supposed, that he’d think of Eroica. This place had all the elements the Prince of Thieves would find appealing—live boys and all.

Another figure turned onto Bourbon Street. He passed beneath the lamp and Klaus could see that he was an old negro carrying what looked like a suitcase. The old man approached and then, to the Major’s annoyance, stepped under the same awning. Being far past retirement age, he was most definitely not the Major’s contact. The old man’s coat was old and patched and his pants had been rolled up to reveal skinny ankles above the tops of ancient, worn out dress shoes. He sat the suitcase down and unpacked a golden, shining saxophone.

Klaus started to get up to give the old man room. He was obviously one of the street musicians who made their meager living on the charity of tourists. The most he could do was give him space to play in.

The old man smiled, teeth ivory in the darkness. Gray, short-cropped hair dusted his head with silver. His face was deeply lined with laugh lines, anger lines and creases of despair. It was a lived-in face.

"Yor all right, honey," the old man said, deep voice slow and lazy with an easy southern accent. "I’m jus’ gonna romance the rain a little."

Klaus opened his mouth to tell him not to call him "honey"—but the kindness in the black man’s eyes stopped him. He’d probably called people "honey" for decades. The musician gave him a reassuring wink and started fitting the mouthpiece on his instrument.

Klaus sat back down, tossed his cigarette away, lit another. He wondered where Lieutenant St. Ambrose was. It was easily fifteen past the hour.

With a soulful moan, the saxophone gave voice to the rain-slicked cobblestones. It was a lovely, eerie sound. It brought the night in closer. It sent shivers down his spine. The old man played and Klaus listened. The song wandered slow and sensual through a melody that spoke of love, sadness and longing. It was a simple tune but the old man gave it soul and a crying voice that slipped through the rain like a ghost, like a rusalka born of sound. Klaus lost track of time listening to the music and watching the dark streets. The moments stretched, wavered and eased into an endlessness until it seemed as if all his life, the Major had been sitting there: all his life, this song had been playing; this same ancient father had been swaying in the rain wet night. The cigarette burned itself out and dropped onto the pavement. Now became forever… forever became reality.

An eternity later, the music sighed into silence. The old man stood for a long while, still humming the last tune under his breath. Then he packed the glistening instrument away, stuffing an assortment of rags around it to hold it secure. He latched the battered case closed.

Klaus dug in his pocket for the bill he’d shoved there earlier and held it out to the musician. "Here," he said.

The old man smiled, stuffed his hands in his coat pockets. "Aw, now, honey, there’s no need for that. I ain’t so poor I got to have cash for every tune I play."

"Here. You made my wait easier. Danke." Klaus held the bill out further, insisting.

The man smiled again and took it, black blunt fingers warm against Klaus’ hand for the fleeting second of contact. He shoved the ten into his pocket, hefted his case and turned to go. "You watch yor back now," the old man said—and then he was gone, his ragtag form fading rapidly into the night.

A few seconds later, a slim young figure came into sight, leaping nimbly over puddles. He walked up close and then ducked under Klaus’ awning. "Major Eberbach?"

Klaus nodded and stood up. He flashed his I.D.

"Charles St. Ambrose, F.B.I. I appreciate you waiting for me," the agent said. His badge was a dull flash of silver in the dark. "Shall we go? I know a place where we can talk."

Klaus followed him. "I hope it isn’t’ one of those clubs," he warned.

The young man looked up at him, then glanced at the lit signs as they passed by. Live Girls. Live Boys. Lieutenant St. Ambrose grinned.

"Not a good place to talk. There’s a café called Bella’s on St. Peter Street. Do you like seafood?" St. Ambrose’s voice was as smooth and mellow as wine.

"Ja."

"Good. Bella’s has good shrimp."

They passed under the streetlight and Klaus could see that Lieutenant St. Ambrose was in his twenties with a lean, sculpted face the color of chocolate. His hair was cut close against a well-formed head and was a peculiar shade of dusted yellow. St. Ambrose was a few inches shorter than Klaus but he moved with the lithe strength of a gymnast. He wore his hat at a jaunty angle with a white cotton scarf around his neck.

They turned right on St. Peter. The thunder grumbled overhead. "Does it ever stop raining?" Klaus demanded irritably.

"Oh, once in a while," the Lieutenant answered. "But not for very long. You’re from Germany?"

"Ja."

"All right," he said as if that were something worth knowing. "Way back in my family is some German blood. In the 1800s, a fellow named Fauss. I think he was a merchant. Here." The Lieutenant stopped and pulled open a narrow door set deep into a tall, stone wall. It opened into a flood of light and a waft of rich smells. With gratitude, Klaus von Eberbach finally got out of the rain.

Bella’s was a tiny place as far as restaurants went, but it did have a couple of well-secluded booths set against the far wall. They claimed one and took off their raincoats. St. Ambrose ordered shrimp for them both and tall, ice cold, dark beer while Klaus surveyed the café more closely. The walls were papered in amber satin and painted with delicate ivy vines and tiny pink flowers. Only the sparsity of the wood furniture and the modem sheen of appliances saved it from looking like a bordello. The ceiling was molded and a huge fan turned lazily, casting slow, rotating shadows. There was only one other patron in the café and he was across the room with a walkman plugged into his ears. The waitress had disappeared into the kitchen.

"How much do you know of this case?" Klaus asked, careful to keep his voice low.

"NATO sent you to recover a family heirloom that is reported to be hidden somewhere in New Orleans and return it to its proper heir." Lieutenant St. Ambrose unfolded his napkin and laid it in his lap. "Which is a good indication that an un-proper heir has an interest in it. The map to this treasure was somewhere on the body of the original owner whose corpse was kidnapped from the funeral before NATO could present the will that it held in trust for this man." He grinned. "Naturally, I have a million questions."

Klaus nodded. "Ask them."

"This map—why didn’t NATO acquire it before the man died?"

"The will and instructions were sent to us only a day before Lord Stephen Kimberly passed away. I assume that the map was somewhere on the suit he was dressed in for the funeral. Or perhaps the map is literally on the body—a tattoo of some sort. We did not receive his will before he had died. By the time we arrived, the body was already missing."

The waitress came over with their beers and set them down. She smiled at both Klaus and St. Ambrose and then walked away. Her hosiery had a narrow seam up the back. St. Ambrose appreciated this fact a little as he continued.

"Why is NATO involved in this in the first place? It sounds more like a problem for Interpol."

Klaus shrugged. "I understand that NATO is indebted in some way to the proper heir and so has agreed to look into this as a gesture of goodwill. I gather the treasure is of some historic and pagan religious significance. One thing is for sure, the proper heir is not Lord Kimberly’s grand-niece, Stephanie. They had a horrible falling out about one week before his death. But the girl has been claiming that the will is fake and the inheritance is hers." He sipped his beer. It was chillingly cold and, while he preferred his beer warm, Klaus had to admit it wasn’t bad. "The treasure is suspected to be a staff, a jewel-encrusted thing that was part of the old Mithra religion." He looked around quickly to be sure no one had heard. Klaus studied the waitress unobtrusively, recalling that a certain art thief he knew was also very good at disguises.

Lieutenant St. Ambrose whistled softly. "Amazing! The Staff of Mithra? Yes, I suppose you could say that was an important piece. One hopes if the treasure is here, it’s amply protected from the wet. I assume that all the family members have been cleared of suspicion in the theft?"

"Yes. Even the grand-niece."

The dusky Lieutenant sat back, studied the pictures that dotted the walls. Most of them were dark, somber street shots with a couple of old Mardi Gras posters thrown in. St. Ambrose lowered his voice as he said, "F.B.I. suspects that the Cult is behind the kidnapping."

"The Cult?"

"Shhh—" St. Ambrose looked around quickly. "The Cult has ears in New Orleans."

Klaus lowered his voice to a whisper. "Who is the Cult?"

"Caribbean Mafia. They are an almost absolute power in the islands. They’ve been trying to move into the states for over a decade. It makes sense that they’d want the treasure—the Cult follows the Old Religion."

Klaus stared at him, waiting. Whatever St. Ambrose had meant by that was totally lost on him. Old Religion?

St. Ambrose sighed, realizing that the Major was missing the reference.

"Voodoun," he explained. "The Cult practices Voodoo."

For a second, a chill raced down Klaus’ spine. And then he laughed out loud. Lieutenant St. Ambrose looked surprised, then rueful. The Major leaned back, giving the waitress room to put down two plates laden with shrimp, calamari salad and crisp bread.

"Laugh if you like," St. Ambrose said when the woman had left. "But it’s in the official reports. Now, whether it works or not is anyone’s guess."

Klaus applied himself to dinner. "Why would they want the Staff? It’s not their religious artifact."

"The Cult has an interest in anything they suspect might have power and, aside from that, it would certainly bring a great price on the black market."

The shrimp, Klaus found out rather belatedly, was spicy—and hot. He’d eaten a few bites before the chemical reaction set in. He knew his eyes went wide. And then he was drinking beer—lots of it. After a few moments the fire faded, though the coals still simmered in his throat. He calmly put down the glass.

"Why," Klaus demanded, with commendable patience, "didn’t you tell me it was hot?"

* * * * *

It was late when St. Ambrose led Klaus to the apartment he kept on Rue Toulouse. They walked, passing through the quiet streets, meeting a few late party-goers. The rain had shifted once again to drizzle. Klaus had given up any hope of ever being dry.

"Does this city never sleep?"

The Lieutenant smiled. "Sometimes. But we’re coming up on Mardi Gras. It’s only a couple of days away, in fact. That’s why there weren’t any accommodations made for you—all the hotels are booked up. It’s better that you stay in the Quarter in any case if the Cult is involved. They’ll work out of this area if they’ve a choice."

"Why?"

"History, Major. New Orleans has always had a large black population and, in the old days, that meant Islanders and Africans imported to the colonies through the slave trade. They brought their own religion with them and set up altars in their rooms, mostly in the basements of the houses they belonged to. Old altars are preferred for rituals."

Klaus cast a curious glance at the younger man. "You seem to know a lot about it."

St. Ambrose smiled again softly. "My grandmother was a Voodoun priestess."

"Are you—Voodoun?"

"Me? No." The Lieutenant rolled his eyes in a gesture of long sufferance. "I’m Catholic."

Klaus nodded and grimaced. "Me, too."

"Through here." St. Ambrose led the way down a tall, narrow walkway into a courtyard that was ringed with second-story windows. Balconies dripped with a multitude of potted plants and windsocks stirred softly in the mist. The lower level was a row of businesses, all closed. Klaus followed the F.B.I. agent up a twisting stairwell to a wooden door black with age. He fitted a large key into the lock and opened the door.

St. Ambrose’s apartment was small, almost tiny. The living room was smaller than Klaus’ bedroom at home and, from what he could see of the adjoining room, that wasn’t much bigger. The kitchenette was hardly larger than a closet. A second closet-like area proved to be the bathroom. The first room was wallpapered in an evergreen print of branches and magnolia blossoms. A tiny chandelier hung from the ceiling on a silver chain. One wall held a huge, gold framed mirror over a miniature piano. The furniture, thank God, was simple black wood with plain green cushions. There was a television in one corner sharing room with an impressive stereo system. The couch was a long, low plush affair of dark green. An oriental carpet covered most of the dark wood floor. Klaus almost retreated at first glance. Eroica, he thought, would love this.

"Make yourself at home, Major," St. Ambrose said. "I’m going to call in and see if there’s any new information on the Cult. There’s coffee in the kitchen if you like." The Lieutenant disappeared into the other room.

Klaus shut the door and shed his dripping coat. He hung it on a nearby rack and loosened his tie, stifling a yawn. He’d boarded the plane to the States in Paris hours ago and hadn’t slept on the flight (he could never sleep on planes). Then he’d waited for St. Ambrose and their talk had taken yet another hour or two. He was impatient to begin his mission, but already tired. What he needed was some coffee and cigarettes.

St. Ambrose was a true native. The coffee can proved to be full of pitch black cajun grains. The smell alone almost floored Klaus. "Mein Gott!" he hissed and replaced the lid.

"Nothing yet, Major." St. Ambrose returned from the bedroom minus his coat. The suit he wore was of dark gray linen with a pearl gray handkerchief in the pocket—monogrammed. "They’re waiting on a contact. When they know where to go, they’ll have us go meet him."

Klaus nodded. "Gut. Is there a drugstore near? I am out of cigarettes."

"Sure. Two blocks down and take a left. You’ll see it. I’ll come get you if they call."

* * * * *

It was still drizzling outside. What a surprise. Klaus turned up the collar of his coat and scowled at the sky. He walked quietly, listening to the dull thunder, the splash of puddles and the occasional yowl of an alley cat. The air pressed warm and close against his skin, like a caress. He tried to shrug it off but the feeling of unseen observance kept coming back. If this kept up he was going to go insane. The somnolence of the air was seductive and sweet but the sense of being watched was intense. It made him alternately nervous and then distracted. Klaus passed several alleys, some overgrown with ivy and weeds, some silent and heavy with the feel of menace. The violence of the city was obvious, yet it seemed only natural, as if death were only one part of the night, no less and no more than the all-prevailing music and parties. Klaus turned at the proper street and saw the little all-night store. He passed under plant-draped balconies and went in.

American cigarettes. Terrible things. But he couldn’t be choosy so he bought a carton and left, glad to escape the roving eye of the shop girl. The Major started back, cigarettes shoved into his coat pocket.

A shift in climate outside, a veritable wave of promise and longing, swept over him. Klaus stopped dead on the glistening streets and listened. The night had gone totally silent. It came again, a touch of erotic presence mingled with sunlight and the whiff of English lavender. Klaus caught his breath and looked up towards the roofs of the old buildings. He was here!

Silhouetted against the night sky, Klaus recognized a slim figure. Bright, golden curls lifted in the breeze and blazed in the rain-drenched night like a torch. The man held a small, coiled rope in one hand; the other rested against a narrow hip. He tossed Klaus a jaunty salute and bounded away across the rooftops. Within seconds, the Major was after him. The balconies proved to be adequate ladders. From there it was easy to leap to the roof for a handhold and heft himself up.

"EROICA! Thief! Halt this instant!" Klaus’ roar shook the windows in their panes.

"Darling," Eroica’s musical voice floated back. "Don’t shout, I can hear you quite well." The thief came to a stop a few roofs over. He was dressed in black, skin-tight lycra, ninja boots and a purple belt pack. His yellow hair was loose and curling like mad in the mist. His blue eyes glittered like mischievous stars. He appeared to be quite thrilled to see Klaus.

"Put it BACK!" Klaus yelled, not sure exactly what Eroica had taken but certain that it was illegal.

"But sweetheart," Eroica protested, retreating another roof-length as the Major stalked towards him. "I haven’t taken anything. I’d let you search me yourself… but you’re always so rough."

"I know you, Eroica," Klaus shouted. "I don’t trust a word you say!"

"Really!" The thief sounded almost insulted. "I’ve never lied to you—much."

Determined, Klaus closed the gap between them. "Put it—"

Eroica executed a fabulous backwards somersault—and vanished from sight. With a curse, the Major raced across the rest of the short distance and glared down at an empty alley.

"EROICA!" he thundered into the blackened pit, at war with the dying storm and winning easily. "Eroica—dammit!"

There was, of course, no answer. Klaus climbed down. A pair of mounted policemen waited on the street below. They watched patiently while Klaus dusted himself off. The one dismounted and approached, very businesslike.

"I’m with NATO," Klaus snapped and handed over his I.D.

The officer looked carefully at the picture and matched it to the impatient German. They all shared a brief and not precisely pleasant interlude, Klaus and the officers, while credentials were validated over radio units.

"Does headquarters know where you’re staying, sir?" the officer inquired politely as he returned the Major’s I.D.

"Yes. If they have any further questions, they know where to reach me. I’ll answer them later."

Klaus turned on his heel and stalked away. One of the officers called after him, "Enjoy your stay in the Big Easy, Major." Klaus merely snarled. Big easy, he thought. Big pain in the ass is more like it! Eroica—here! I should have known!

The walk back to St. Ambrose’s apartment went all wrong. Klaus was so angry, he’d neglected to ask directions of the police and so quickly became lost. The narrow streets all looked the same and the courtyards appeared identical in the dark. At one point, he found Toulouse and turned down it. The street angled, then became very, very dim. The silence grew again, pressing against his ears. Klaus knew within a few steps that he’d wandered into the bad part of town. He felt it in the quiet, in the way the windows stared, cognizant, out into the streets. It was in the straggling weeds that grew thick against the old walls. Tragedy waited in the shadows and the mist-cloaked alleys. Klaus turned back the way he’d come.

A silent, masculine shadow waited on the walkway. Slim, black and deadly. It wasn’t Eroica. He waited, facing the Major with the terrifying calm of a predator. After a long moment, the stranger said, "NATO—where is the map?" His voice was musically resonate, deep and thick with the lilting accent of the Islands.

"You are with the Cult?" Klaus demanded.

"Yes. Where is it?"

Klaus said, "I thought you had the body."

The beautiful voice acquired an edge of menace. "Do not play with me. I know your reputation and that of your compatriot. The Cult will have that map. Now."

Klaus made himself relax, made his voice mellow, even. "I’m sorry. I don’t have it. Whoever stole it is not working for NATO. If I had it, I would not be here, wandering the streets. I’d be securing Mithra’s Staff. Wouldn’t I?"

That bit of reason sparked another silence although, still, the man did not move. After a long while, he said, "We shall see."

"I don’t suppose you remember anything about the location yourself?" Klaus asked.

White teeth flashed in a dark face. "It does not matter, Unbeliever. If we cannot find the map, there are other ways of gaining the information we seek." With a sudden, graceful gesture, the man leapt up—an incredible spring that carried him to the roof of the building beside him. A stray light illuminated ebony features and gold-tipped braids. At his hip hung a ninjato and a magnum. Obviously, he believed in being prepared for all contingencies. Klaus could respect that.

"If the map is not returned, then we will raise the dead man and he will tell us himself", the stranger called back. "it is not an especially kindly ritual. Any true heir would not want to have it done. But Mardi Gras is nearly arrived and there will be plenty of power in the streets for the priests to use." Then he vanished, leaving the Major alone on the wet street.

Klaus walked quickly, putting the silent street behind him as fast as he could without actually running. Raise the dead? he mused. Impossible. No one had the power to make the dead talk. Still, Klaus now had a damned good idea of who had stolen the map. The next time he saw Eroica, the thief would not get away.

The Major discovered that he had found the right neighborhood a few blocks down when St. Ambrose came dashing out of the courtyard, coat in one hand. He saw Klaus and jogged over to meet him.

"Our contact is at a club called The Caverns," the Lieutenant said quickly. "Her code name is Silver."

* * * * *

The Caverns was actually several clubs all strung together by a myriad of hallways and passages. They were initially basements but the club owners had molded the walls to look like caves, left the inherent dampness alone and strung net-coated lamps from the ceilings as lights. The front door was a narrow portal set beneath a flower shop. Even after midnight the club was packed.

"How are we going to talk in this racket?" Klaus demanded.

"We aren’t," St. Ambrose assured him. "There’s a restaurant in the back Cavern where the booths are fairly secluded."

They excused themselves through the first club—a noisy, jazz-crazy crowd that talked more than they danced.

"When we go through this next area, keep your coat on," St. Ambrose advised.

"Why?"

"It’s the gay club and things get kind of wild in there sometimes."

"Then we won’t go through!" Klaus exploded.

"We have to. You can’t get to any of the Caverns without going through the others. Just keep your hands in your coat pockets," St. Ambrose said, following his own advice. "It’s sort of a code to let them know you’re just passing through."

"If they lay one finger on me…!" Klaus shouted and then glared around balefully as they exited the first club and entered the next.

They were nearly all men, including some strikingly glamorous women too perfect in detail to be anything less than impersonators. He did get a glimpse of two women dancing together who appeared to be the genuine article. Most of the men were dressed in tight jeans, flowing shirts and earrings. Klaus glowered at whoever glanced his way. Only one guy whistled but he disappeared like a magician at the look on the Major’s face. Luckily, Klaus and St. Ambrose made it through untouched.

"It’s really not that bad," St. Ambrose looked rueful. "But sometimes someone will be very drunk."

Klaus shuddered. "Why don’t they move them out?"

The Lieutenant looked surprised again. "They do no harm. And their money’s as good as any."

The next club was a Country Western dance floor. The third a Comedy club. The fourth a miniature Dinner Club. From there, they took a short cut through a Rock club to the restaurant. Amazingly enough, it was fairly quiet once the glass door closed behind them. Lieutenant St. Ambrose indicated a corner booth and they slid into the empty seat.

"Silver should be along any minute," he said.

Klaus nodded. "We may have a complication in this case," he said.

St. Ambrose had taken off his coat and Klaus could see that he’d changed into a svelte, black evening suit. There was a miniature Mardi Gras mask for a tie-tack on his silk scarf and jet cuff links glittered at his wrists. There was little doubt where St. Ambrose’s salary was spent. A man could feel quite plain in his presence.

"What do you mean?" the Lieutenant asked, immediately alert. Klaus took a deep breath and continued.

"I met a thief when I was out getting cigarettes." He told St. Ambrose what had happened—edited, of course.

But the agent had done his homework. "This thief is Eroica? I understand that he sometimes works for NATO—and for you."

"Ja. But this time he is not. Yet."

"We’ll have to get the map from him if he has it," St. Ambrose’s voice was soft but unwavering as if he expected Klaus to object to the comment.

Klaus gritted his teeth. "Don’t worry," the Major insisted. "I will."

A slim, pretty woman paused at their table. St. Ambrose slid over immediately, making room for her to sit beside him. The girl sat down, crossing her legs. She was quite tiny, with hazel eyes heavily kohled and lips the color of sea shells. Her hair was silver-white. She wore a black lace bustier and a black miniskirt. Her gaze was as friendly as a piranha’s.

"Evening, Miss Silver." St. Ambrose’s voice became even more melodic than before. "This is Major von Eberbach."

She studied Klaus. "I’ve heard of you," she announced finally as if accusing Klaus of something. "Your boytoy is that stuck-up art thief, Eroica."

A cold lump of rage coiled in Klaus’ belly. He lit a cigarette. Blew out smoke. "Tell me, liebchen, do you want to walk out of here or not?"

Silver’s head went up. Delicate nostrils flared. "I walk. Now." She started to get up but St. Ambrose laid a hand on her arm.

"Wait, Miss Silver. My colleague is new to the city. Have pity on us both and talk to us." The Lieutenant smiled softly. "C’mon now, sit down. I’ll buy you a drink."

Silver sent a venomous glare at Klaus who returned it with interest. But she sat down again slowly and spoke strictly to St. Ambrose from then on. "Scotch. On the rocks," she snapped out.

St. Ambrose ordered her drink and then smiled sweetly at her. Klaus rolled his eyes as the girl visibly relaxed under the dark man’s charm.

"So," St. Ambrose began. "What can you tell us?"

The girl said, "I hear you want information on the Cult."

"That’s correct."

"They are here—in force. Some priests have arrived yesterday from Haiti. Their swordsman is with them, a man named Brishon Uzoma. He’s good, really good. Rumor has it that the Yakuza once sent a ninja after him but he defeated the man and kept his sword as a tribute. They say Uzoma can walk on water."

Klaus snorted. The drink was brought. Silver drank half of it in one gulp without even blinking.

"They are somewhere in the Quarter but no one knows where exactly," she went on. "They brought a corpse with them." Silver paused and finished off the scotch. "There was supposed to be a map of some sort on the body but they haven’t found it. Word is that it’s either been lost or stolen."

"Do you know the names of the priests?" Klaus asked.

Silver ignored him. Klaus reached across the table to grab her arm but St. Ambrose blocked his move.

"Please, Major. We need Silver’s cooperation."

Klaus scowled but drew back his arm. The girl didn’t even look triumphant.

"Do you know the names of the priests?" St. Ambrose repeated the question.

"Only the code names," Silver lowered her voice. "Viper. Emerald. Topaz. Dancer. There is another rumor about these priests…"

"Yes?"

"It’s said that the non-Cult priests in the Islands are feuding with them. The Islanders say that the Cult have started to use the spirits—play with them. And that is sacrilege."

"Have you heard what they’re planning to do with the body?"

The petite woman didn’t move but dread and awe colored her body language.

"They plan to raise it from the dead." Silver shuddered. "During Mardi Gras, when they can use all the energy from all those people. They will raise him—though I’m not sure why. I would guess to bind him to their will."

"Do you know which night the ritual will occur?"

"The first night." Her sharp eyes raked the room nervously. "Somewhere in the Quarter. The sanctuary is old and well established but I have no knowledge of it. I’m sorry. I can’t tell you anything else."

Can’t tell or won’t? Klaus wondered briefly, then dismissed that line of thought. Silver demonstrated too much anxiety beneath her carefully constructed composure. And he could feel the bond between them, the girl and St. Ambrose. She would not mislead the Lieutenant; not about this. Klaus was not unfamiliar with the feeling.

St. Ambrose thanked the girl, paid for another drink and motioned Klaus out of the bar. The trip out of the Caverns was a lot easier on the Major’s nerves. The only infuriating part came when they passed through the gay club again. None of the patrons paid them any attention but there was a dancer on stage and Klaus had to endure several minutes of masculine whoops and catcalls before he was free. At the last second, a sudden thought made him look towards the stage—but the dancer was definitely not Eroica. He’d gotten enough of an eye-full to be certain of that. Klaus shook himself like a nervous wolf once they’d safely reached the outside.

It was raining again. St. Ambrose handed Klaus a compact umbrella.

"I think we shall have to find your friend," the Lieutenant said. "And fairly quickly."

"Eroica is not my friend." Klaus started walking—apparently in the right direction because St. Ambrose did not try to change it.

The Lieutenant fell into step beside Klaus. His own umbrella was of raw silk.

"Can’t you contact him somehow?" St. Ambrose asked.

"Somehow." Klaus answered grudgingly. He knew that Eroica would be impossible to track—therefore, the thief would have to be trapped. It was a fairly sure bet that Eroica knew where Klaus was staying so the trap would best be laid there. He glanced at St. Ambrose.

"Do your balcony doors lock from the inside?"

The Lieutenant looked thoughtful, not thrown by the question at an. "No," he said. "They have a lock like the front door."

Klaus nodded, considering. It was also fairly certain that the room was bugged then, particularly if Eroica had stolen the map and was nervous about Klaus finding him. Locks were playthings to Eroica, as were bugs and microphones. And the chance to eavesdrop on Eberbach might prove too irresistible, even if he wasn’t nervous about being caught. Now that Klaus thought about it, he wondered why Eroica hadn’t taken the treasure and left instead of hanging around New Orleans and letting Klaus see him. Unless the Staff was already secured and the thief was just playing with him. Eroica just loved his little games. Klaus gritted his teeth again. He had no intention of playing the fool to Eroica’s pranks.

"Lieutenant, we will need to trap this thief," Klaus began. "I have reason to suspect that he’s bugged your apartment and, if he hasn’t, then there is a chance he’s found some way to listen in."

St. Ambrose looked mightily intrigued. "How do you figure that?"

"Just trust me," Klaus said dryly. "I know this man. When we get to your home we will need to appear as if we are continuing a discussion we started long before. Can you follow my lead?"

"With fascination, Major."

"Gut."

"But, if he can bug my apartment so quickly, what makes you think he can’t overhear us now?"

"Too much rain noise." Klaus scowled up at the black clouds. "Besides, I would feel it if he were near. Trust me."

* * * * *

"But why do you keep it here?" Klaus asked as they opened the front door and strolled into St. Ambrose’s apartment.

The Lieutenant didn’t even blink at the sudden question. "Where else would I keep it?" he asked.

"A safety deposit box might be advisable."

"I don’t trust banks," St. Ambrose said. He’d followed Klaus’ lead and refrained from mentioning what "it" was. His eyes sparkled with amusement. "I’ve seen too much of their lousy security systems. It’s safe enough here—besides, not that many people know I have it."

Klaus sounded thoughtful as he checked under the piano lid for bugs. "True. Of course, I’ve heard that some art magazines are as tenacious as Interpol and a lot less moral. I’d hate to get between you and them if they got wind of your prize."

"It’s small," St. Ambrose’s voice was careless, nonchalant. "I’ve hidden it well."

Klaus checked the large mirror frame next. Then the underside of the couch. Nothing. But Eroica was clever and the Major didn’t believe for a minute that the bugs weren’t there. He shared a look with St. Ambrose.

"Just don’t let everyone know you have it," Klaus said. "I’d like to see whatever papers you’ve got on the Cult now. I’m particularly curious about this sacrilege your informant spoke of."

For the next hour, Klaus studied the meager records of the Cult’s activities in the U.S. They covered everything from murder and drug dealing to prostitution and zombism. The latter accusation surprised him.

"There is no such thing," the Major said as he returned the papers to St. Ambrose. "I thought you Americans were too practical to prosecute on pure superstition."

"It isn’t superstition." St. Ambrose gave him a peculiar took. "Zombism is real. Technically, it is caused by a drug that is derived from a plant brought to the Islands from Africa." The Lieutenant walked into the kitchen and started making coffee. "Added to this drug are several things, not all of which are known. But one of the ingredients is scrapings from the bones of a human corpse. When imbibed, this drug induces a ‘death.’ In every way it is death—save that the body never rots or deteriorates. And the spirit does not flee the body. But there is no pulse, no breathing, no brain activity." He plugged the coffee maker in and then leaned against the counter looking suave and modern and not at all like a man who was talking about zombies. "There is some other drug—at least we think it is a drug—which will later raise the victim from this false death, except that this time, the victim lives with no will or mind of its own. Classic Zombie state."

"This is documented?"

"Oh, yes. We’ve even found and interviewed people who were once made Zombies that managed, somehow, to escape the effects enough to have a mind again. Of course, these people did not live long."

"Medical difficulties?" Klaus asked.

"No. Murder." St. Ambrose’s smile had an edge. "Voodoun keeps its secrets."

Klaus took a long drag of his bitter American cigarette.

"And if we fall into the hands of the Cult—what of us?"

The Lieutenant’s smile faded. "Well… my grandmother once assured me that a Zombie does not suffer—much."

"Why do the priests in the Islands disapprove of the Cult? I do not understand."

"It’s not that difficult." St. Ambrose smile returned more congenially. "Voodoun is actually a very basic and naturalistic religion. They are highly spiritual and a lot of their ceremonies are joyful, nothing more than expressions of life and its eternal energy. Zombism, from what we can tell, was originally used to take the undesirables of society—murderers, child abusers, etc.—and make them harmless. They’d use them, then, to toil in the village’s fields and gardens in order to repay the village for the harm they had caused. No worse, certainly, than prison—and a lot more practical." He paused to pour two cups of steaming, pitch black coffee. "The Cult has abused its heritage. They make their political enemies into Zombies. They make unwilling women into Zombies and then use them as prostitutes. Priests have been known to make their own successor into Zombies if they suspect that he is growing too clever or ambitious." St. Ambrose placed Klaus’ cup down in front of him. To the German’s relief, he also handed over a tiny, silver pitcher of thick, sweet cream. "In short, they have grown corrupt in the eyes of the more pure priests and priestesses back home."

Klaus shot him a look. "You believe in Voodoun."

St. Ambrose’s expression softened. "Of course. just because I am Catholic doesn’t mean that my eyes are closed to the world of witchcraft and magic. Those things are real—we just don’t understand them yet. I do not practice any magic because my religion forbids it. But it would be silly, in my eyes, to believe in the saints but not the spirits."

Klaus didn’t answer. He studied the papers and doctored his coffee with cream and sugar. Then took a sip of the dark brew. The Major nearly choked. Like a trail of acid, it burned clear down to his stomach. It made his eyes water. His ears burned and his sinuses felt like a flamethrower had just been shoved up his nose. Klaus gagged and coughed.

St. Ambrose fetched him a glass of water and slapped him resoundingly on the back a few times. After a moment, the worst had passed.

Klaus drew in a shaking breath. "Mein Gott! Are you trying to poison me?"

The younger man tried to stifle a grin but it slipped out anyway. "No, of course not, Major. Though I must admit it is rather suspicious coming hard on the heels of a discussion about Zombism. Here, I’ll water it down for you."

After a bit of water and some more cream, the coffee became digestible. Barely. St. Ambrose drank his black. They are all insane, Klaus thought, every last one of them!

After another hour had passed, Klaus decided he’d given Eroica enough time to work up a gentle sweat over the mysterious "it" that St. Ambrose kept hidden in his apartment. No doubt the thief was fairly dancing with impatience to search the place.

Klaus stretched. "Well, Lieutenant. I think I’m going to get some rest."

St. Ambrose nodded. "You may have the bedroom, Major."

"Are you sure? The couch looks quite comfortable."

"Positive—and it is comfortable. But you are my guest and you must have the bed. I’ll wake you at, say, six o’clock?"

Klaus nodded and stood up. He mimed keeping his shirt buttoned and St. Ambrose nodded, understanding that he was not to get undressed. They made the general sounds of getting to bed.

The bedroom proved to be a lot less baroque than the living area. It featured a huge, black, wrought iron bed wrapped with yards of white cotton. The pillows were huge and luxurious. The furniture mostly consisted of black Spanish antiques and the bare wood floor was polished to a pleasing glow. Beautiful charcoal portraits hung on the walls along with an amazing collection of antique guns. The portraits were from various New Orleans artists and the guns were a contribution from the Lieutenant’s favorite aunt, now deceased. St. Ambrose laughed, "You would have loved my aunt, Major. She was a straight old lady with a sharp tongue and a wicked sense of humor. Best damned marksman I’ve ever met."

Klaus wasted a few minutes reverently handling and hefting the old weapons. They were all in excellent condition. The Lieutenant kept them well oiled and clean. Reluctantly, Klaus put them back and pretended to go to bed. It was time to catch a thief.

Klaus pulled off his shoes and jacket. He removed his tie but kept his shirt on. He wasn’t about to give Eroica anything to ogle. Then he turned out the light and slid under the cotton sheet. In the front room, he dimly heard St. Ambrose flick off the chandelier and settle onto the couch.

For a long while nothing happened. The night crept in, sensual and lazy. It swirled the cotton draperies on the bed and teased at his hair. Rain made the air close and warm against his skin. It smelled of magnolias and moss, of slow dancers and deep water. It brought Eroica’s presence closer to him. The Major lay very still and waited.

After a long time, a shadow moved on the other side of the balcony doors. Klaus held his breath. Another long moment passed followed by a silent click, followed by a nearly soundless laugh, heralding Eroica’s arrival.

The doors swung softly open. Eroica, the Prince of Thieves, the Ace of Hearts, stood framed in the old French windows, hair haloed with a misting of silver raindrops. During less clandestine activities, the man was known as Dorian, Earl of Red Gloria. But the Earl had evolved from a long line of thieves, privateers and gentlemen scoundrels; he seemed determined to carry on the family tradition through this generation as well. Dorian had added a flowing black cape to his lycra and a multitude of tiny black ribbons that fluttered from his wrists and ankles. He looked like a Roccocan pirate, full of panache and daring. His eyes glimmered like stars in the darkness. Presence crept over Klaus again with a touch of silken petals and a whiff of musk.

Catlike, Dorian slipped into the room. He made absolutely no sound as he approached and stood over Klaus. For a long second neither one of them moved. An errant breeze lifted the edge of Dorian’s cape, kissing it against the twisted cotton of the bed curtains. A shimmer of raindrops sparkled from the thief’s curls. A distant nightbird chirped sleepily. Time stretched and altered until the moment lengthened to a millennium. Klaus lay and listened. He felt moved, oddly touched, as if this instant meant more than it seemed. As if the silent man with the dancer’s build had stood watching him sleep, not for a few seconds, but for a lifetime. Klaus remained still, afraid to disturb anything, but also afraid that the moment would become more than he could bear, too. The Major inhaled a lungfull of sensual air flavored with the spark of rain and growing things.

Dorian turned from him, glancing around the little bedroom. With an almost audible snap, the strange moment passed.

Klaus leapt from the bed, hands outstretched to grab the nearest part of Dorian’s anatomy. The thief was fast. He had heard/sensed Klaus coming and, though the German was quick, Dorian made his living at stealth. He sprang back, leaving Klaus holding nothing but his cape.

"You fiend!" Dorian gasped and laughed. "You were shamming!" And then he was out the window.

Klaus followed with a roar. "Halt!"

Dorian gained the roof more than a dozen feet ahead of Klaus. But, though the Major was a shade slower, he had a gun. He pulled himself up. Dorian was a shadow against the low, moist clouds, fleeing across the rooftops. Klaus yanked his magnum free.

"Eroica! Not another step!"

The thief apparently recognized the tone in Klaus’ voice because he stopped and peered back over his shoulder.

Klaus thumbed off the safety.

"I mean it, Eroica," he snapped.

Dorian Red Gloria pivoted about and regarded Klaus with affectionate exasperation. "You really ought to break this habit of pointing a gun at me every time I show up," the thief purred. "It’s bad for my image."

Klaus used his free hand to beckon with his index finger.

"Come here."

Dorian came, sauntering up with a lazy swing to his legs and something approaching a smile on his lips. He reached the break where one roof ended and another began. Dorian executed a faultless forward cartwheel over the drop, neat feet finding solid footing at the last second. Klaus drew a sharp breath. Fool! Damned fool! Wet tiles were treacherous. Then Dorian stopped in front of him, chest almost flush with the barrel of Klaus’ magnum.

"You," Dorian whispered, "are a tricky German."

Klaus pushed softly with the gun, just enough to let the thief feel it. "Where is the map?"

Dorian’s gaze never wavered. "I haven’t got it."

"Liar! Hand it over!"

"Darling, I haven’t—" His words ended in a squawk of alarm as Klaus grabbed him by the arm and shook him.

The Major cursed in German, then in French.

"I know you, Eroica! And I will—" shake "not—" shake "play-" shake "with you!" Shake, SHAKE!

Dorian made a sound somewhere between a cry and a gasp. His head snapped back on his neck as Klaus suddenly stopped shaking him. Blue eyes, hurt and bewildered, stared into furious green.

Klaus turned back to St. Ambrose’s apartment and hauled Dorian afterhirn. He pointed at the balcony. "Down!"

Dorian paused a moment to regain his abused balance, then dropped effortlessly onto the balcony—almost into St. Ambrose’s arms. Klaus followed.

St. Ambrose stepped backwards, then took a long moment to take in the vision before him.

The Lieutenant’s velvet voice was deep and warm. "You must be the Prince of Thieves."

Dorian smiled and shrugged with charming nonchalance. "When I’m not the Major’s whipping boy."

Klaus grabbed him again and yanked him into the bedroom. He shut the balcony doors. "Turn on the light," he said to St. Ambrose.

The room flooded with golden lamplight. Illurnination did nothing to eliminate Dorian’s allure; it merely revealed him as a creature of light as well as shadow. He smiled sweetly at St. Ambrose.

"You must be the Major’s American counterpart in this mission."

"Charles St. Ambrose." The Lieutenant inclined his head in a slight bow. "All in the name of justice."

Klaus held out his hand. "Let’s have it, Eroica."

"I told you—I don’t have it." Dorian sighed. "Truly, I don’t. Why would I have come here if I had the map?"

Klaus smiled, gloating a little. "Because your curiosity was driving you mad."

To the Major’s surprise, Dorian’s mouth dropped open. He paled, then turned several alarming shades of red. Dorian managed to get his mouth closed but his eyes were large and totally shocked. To Klaus’ further astonishment, the slender thief dropped his eyes in what looked like an extreme case of shyness.

"Oh." It was a very small voice. "Well, I’ve never seen you—you know—but that wasn’t why I came here. Although, I must confess to being more than a little intrigued…."

It took Klaus a few minutes to understand. He stared, feeling his anger drown in a pool of bewilderment. What was Dorian blathering about? Then he got it. The Major felt his own jaw drop open. He was so furious he couldn’t talk. Dorian merely stood still, looking everywhere but at the Major, plainly embarrassed. St. Ambrose had perched himself on the edge of the bed, arms crossed on his knees, watching the interchange with interest. The Lieutenant fought to keep a smile from his face although nothing in the world could have hidden the laughter in his eyes.

Finally Klaus found his voice and exploded.

"PERVERT!"

Dorian jumped and then stared in surprise at the Major.

"You—PEEPING TOM!" Klaus bellowed.

Dorian’s eyes sparked fire of their own. "Who are you to call me names? YOU were the one who brought it up!"

St. Ambrose could contain himself no longer. He howled out his laughter and collapsed backwards on the bed.

"SHUT UP!" Klaus roared.

"It’s not his fault!" Dorian protested. "You were one to bring up nude shows."

"I was not talking about nude shows! Shut up about it!" Klaus yelled. "I was talking about the thing you came in here to steal."

"Steal what?" Dorian shouted back. "Your virtue?"

"SHUT UP!"

"Well, what? What was I supposed to steal?"

St. Ambrose sat up, wiping his eyes and trying to keep from laughing again. "The object I’m supposed to have hidden in my apartment," he explained, gasping for air. "The thing the art magazines would kill to get."

Dorian looked at the Lieutenant and the Major as if they had lost their minds. "What? What are you talking about? I came in here to see if the Major was still awake so I could ask him about the Cult. So I could see if—"

"You didn’t bug the Lieutenant’s apartment?" Klaus demanded. "You don’t have the map?"

Dorian was patient. "No, darling, I didn’t and I don’t. I was going to explain about—"

The Major raised the magnum, threatening. "Eroica—consider yourself hired by NATO."

"But—"

"You are NOW working for ME!"

Dorian smiled sweetly. He relaxed suddenly and gave a careless shrug. "Oh, all right," he agreed, amiably. "I’m working for you. Payment to be settled by your Chief and Mr. James when we’re done."

Klaus nodded and re-holstered his gun. St. Ambrose regained his composure. Dorian fluttered his eyelashes at the Major.

"Now," the thief purred, "I wonder where I’m going to sleep…?"

* * * * *

When Klaus woke the next morning, Dorian was still asleep on the couch. St. Ambrose had volunteered to stand watch during the night. The Cult plainly thought that NATO had the maps and so precaution was observed.

Klaus woke, did his exercises, showered and shaved all before Dorian even stirred. He looked into the living room and glimpsed a tangle of golden hair, white sheets and one long, naked leg. The Major knew better than to waste time calling his name and went over to shake the thief awake. He grabbed Dorian’s arm and shook.

"Wake up."

The thief murmured in protest.

"Wake up, Eroica." Klaus shook him again. "Get up."

Very slowly a pair of sleepy blue eyes opened and stared up at Klaus. Dorian looked like a man on downers—or a lover after a long and strenuous night. The thought made Klaus brusque. "Get up, fool," he snapped.

With effort, Dorian dragged himself up into a sitting position, the white sheet barely covering his lap. He smiled with sleepy joy at Klaus. "Good morning, Major!" His voice sounded warm and sweet even on first awakening. Sunlight curls hung to his bare shoulders in wanton disarray.

"Go take a shower," Klaus ordered and returned to the bedroom.

St. Ambrose looked in from the balcony.

"Is he awake?" the Lieutenant asked.

"Maybe," Klaus answered. "I’m going to go get some coffee and breakfast. By the time I get back, he may be up."

St. Ambrose nodded. "There’s a place on the corner that sells croissants. Good breakfast food—and it’s not spicy." At the look Klaus gave him, he grinned. "I promise!"

"We’ll see." Klaus glanced into the living room to be sure Dorian wasn’t walking around naked or some other outrageous thing. The thief was still on the couch, blinking owlishly at the opposite wall. "I’ll be back," he promised St. Ambrose and headed for the door. Dorian smiled at him, the gesture turning into a huge yawn. Klaus hoped that the Lieutenant would try some of his coffee on Dorian—now that would wake him up!

* * * * *

New Orleans was ablaze with sunlight. It beamed down straight and white, sparkling off the cobblestones and shop windows. Windsocks danced in the breeze and luxurious plants dripped over wrought-iron railings to shed petals on the passersby. The only witnesses to yesterday’s rain were shallow puddles and the moist, black earth of window boxes. The streets were busy and Mardi Gras posters plastered every available wall. Klaus stopped off at the store for instant coffee and then the bakery for the croissants. The puffy pastries smelled delicious and when Klaus asked the woman if they were spicy, she laughed at him and let him try one. He bought half a dozen.

When the Major got back to the apartment, Dorian had, indeed gotten up. The thief was lounging on the balcony wearing nothing but a long, silk shirt of St. Ambrose’s that barely covered him. The sunlight turned his curls to iridescent yellow and sitting amongst the luxurious plants and hanging pots of ferns, he looked like a summer elf. Dorian was slowly devouring an orange with casual passion. Long legs flashed naked in the light. The fool didn’t seem to realize—or care—that the businesses in the little courtyard were open and enjoying a lively clientele—a clientele that didn’t ming ogling Dorian’s delectable assets one bit.

Klaus stopped on the walk and glared up at him. "Get inside, you idiot! You look like a whore on display!"

Dorian rested his elbows on the twisted iron railing and gazed down at the Major, blue eyes bright and teasing. "Is that an offer?" he asked cheerfully. "I’m very expensive. Are you sure you can afford me?"

Klaus muttered a curse and stormed up the stairwell. If he ever met the capricious saint who had decided that Dorian/Eroica would be a good cross for Klaus von Eberbach to bear, he’d create a whole new meaning for the word "canonized!"

* * * * *

Dorian Red Gloria heard the door slam shut and took a second to reflect, sorrowfully, that he had yet to pass a day in the Major’s company without having him lose his temper. Then a hard hand closed around his upper arm and he was yanked into the bedroom. Dorian stared up into impatient green eyes.

"Careful, darling. You don’t want to bruise the goods, do you?"

Klaus’ grip lightened the smallest amount, hurting Dorian’s arm. "Get your clothes on. Now."

"But I haven’t got any! Nothing except the lycra—and that’s not exactly day wear, you know."

"I’ve got some things you can borrow," St. Ambrose’s voice was as smooth as wine. "I would also suggest, Major, that you ditch the suit. If we can manage to blend into the crowd even just the littlest bit, it’s all to our advantage. There’s no reason to stroll about with ‘the Authority’ emblazoned across our personages." The Lieutenant was already dressed in white cotton pants and a blue and white striped pullover shirt. Around his neck was a white cotton scarf and gold jewelry glittered from his neck, wrists and fingers, accenting the yellow-gold of his close-cropped hair. He looked absolutely gorgeous. Dorian cast an appreciative eye over him, hoping that Klaus would pick up a little of the Lieutenant’s style. The things Klaus could do with his coloring if he only tried!

Klaus growled and shoved Dorian in St. Ambrose’s direction. "Then give him something to wear. Something decent!" The Major left the room.

St. Ambrose held onto Dorian until the blond had regained his footing, then released him. He looked thoughtful. "Is the Major always this rough with you?"

"Yes." Dorian sighed and set his orange down on a side table.

"Whatever for?" The Lieutenant went to a black wood dresser and began rummaging about.

Dorian grimaced. "He hates me."

St. Ambrose cast a look back over his shoulder. "Why? Because you’re a thief?"

"Partly. But mostly it’s because I love him." Dorian couldn’t quite keep the misery out of his voice. "It’s an old, well established war."

"They why not abandon it?"

"What a bore life would become then." Dorian laughed. "It doesn’t matter that he hates me, really. What matters is that he never ceases to surprise me, that he’s never boring, that I’m the most—alive—when he’s around." Dorian stopped suddenly, realizing he’d said too much already. He glanced at St. Ambrose but the dark man was still searching drawers. "Are you gay?" he asked curiously. It’d certainly explain a lot.

St. Ambrose laughed. The look he turned on Dorian was very amused but not at all offended. "No. Sorry," he said. "I’m strictly a man for the ladies, God bless them! Here—" He tossed over a handful of bright blue cotton. "See if those fit. If not, here’s a pair of cut-offs. Shirts are in the closet. You’re welcome to whatever fits. May I ask you a question?"

Dorian nodded, holding up the clothing to inspect it.

"If you were coming in here to discuss things with Major Eberbach, why did you run when it turned out he was awake?"

"Habit. Sheer reaction." Dorian sighed. "Well, wouldn’t you run if Klaus started chasing you with a magnum?"

"Point taken," St. Ambrose said. "I’ll go see what’s for breakfast." The Lieutenant left, shutting the door behind him.

Dorian investigated his impromptu wardrobe. The pants were loose, cool cotton with a drawstring waist. They ended at mid-calf and fit perfectly. Unfortunately, upon inspecting his reflection, Dorian discovered they ruined the line of his leg. He chucked them for the shorts, which were something of a snug fit since St. Ambrose was just that much smaller and shorter. Still, they fit and looked fine enough once they were on; they didn’t restrict movement either. From St. Ambrose’s impressive shirt collection, Dorian found a white tank top and a multi-colored scarf. There was even a pair of sandals that weren’t too small. He spent the next few minutes primping before an old mirror, enjoying how the blue denim deepened his eyes to ocean-blue. He hoped Klaus would notice.

The Major had changed his clothes by the time Dorian went into the front room. The sight stopped the thief dead. There were times when Klaus could take Dorian’s breath away. Like now.

The Major had on a pair of dark green safari pants that wrapped and buckled at the ankles and fit across his ass like a glove. (Dorian was quite sure Klaus wasn’t aware of that.) His T-shirt was blindingly white with the sleeves rolled up—in one was his pack of cigarettes. His belt was black leather and he was actually wearing tennis shoes. The white shirt made Klaus’ bronzed skin glow. The green pants made his eyes electric. The whole effect left Dorian feeling quite faint. Then desire kicked in and a sensuous daring overcame his surprise and, unfortunately, his sense.

"Hi there, soldierboy." The greeting was out before he could stop it.

The German scowled. "Shut up and eat." He jerked his thumb at the plate of croissants. Breakfast was usually Dorian’s favorite meal. It was the best time to relax, eat, think of what the day would bring, decide his mood, listen to music and watch the world slowly awaken. But with Klaus in the room, it degenerated into a rushed gobble that left little room for anything but bickering. Neither one of them was ever too rushed for that.

"Hurry," Klaus snapped. "We’ve already wasted an hour."

"Egad! An hour! What more can be expected of a man, I ask you."

"That he spend another waiting for a stubborn idiot," Klaus answered. "Here—" He poured Dorian a cup of coffee.

Dorian was immediately suspicious. Klaus never poured coffee for him. He lifted the cup and sniffed. Sure as the Mississippi, it was chicory. He sent the German a woeful glance. "Major, how childish of you." Dorian pushed the cup away and neatly stole Klaus’ orange juice.

"You thief!" The Major grabbed for it but Dorian held it out of reach. Klaus glared at him. "Give it back."

Dorian smiled sweetly. "All right." Then he licked the entire edge of the glass, watching with satisfaction as Klaus turned a few interesting colors. He jerked back as Dorian held it out. "Here’s your juice, Major," he said innocently.

"Get it away from me."

"Come now, Major," Dorian cajoled, batting his eyelashes. "Just one little sip?"

"GENTLEMEN!" St. Ambrose’s bellow startled them both. The two jumped like guilty children and stared at him. The Lieutenant smiled placidly. "If we could dispense with breakfast, we have a rather full day ahead of us."

"We are finished," Klaus announced and took both Dorian’s half-eaten croissant and his own plate to the sink. He still didn’t touch the orange juice. Dorian shrugged and drained,it down.

* * * * *

The streets were full of tourists, corner musicians and kids selling little plastic Mardi Gras masks. It was a talkative, happy crowd with just the tiniest edge of hysteria. The actual celebration was still a few days away but everyone seemed quite willing to jump the gun.

"I need to talk to another contact," St. Ambrose explained quietly when they paused at a comer that was momentarily deserted. "It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. He’s not a very trusting type, so I’ll leave you two here. Give me about ten minutes and then meet me at Jackson Square. Do you know where it is?"

Dorian nodded. "You’ll be all right, Charles?"

St. Ambrose flashed him a smile. "Don’t worry. If I’m late… give me another ten minutes and then contact headquarters. I don’t think it’s dangerous, though. Later!" The Lieutenant crossed the street and disappeared into the crowd.

Klaus led the way and Dorian followed, letting his eyes feast on the Major’s impressive back end. It didn’t help that Klaus didn’t realize the picture he made. In fact, it only made it worse. Dorian was always aware of von Eberbach’s lovely physical self but it was rarely so enticingly packaged. If there was ever any question about the amount of fat Klaus carried on his personage, those safari pants gave a well-illustrated answer—none. It was all lovely, sculpted, fluid muscle…. Dorian began to wonder if he could risk a smack and blame it on the one of the passersby.

"What are you thinking, Eroica?" Klaus demanded, making him jump guiltily.

"What?"

"You are too quiet. What are you thinking?"

"You’ve a lovely…" he began. After all, Klaus had asked. But the German cast a hard glance over his shoulder and Dorian thought better of it. "Head of hair," he concluded, smiling.

Klaus stopped suddenly as a pair of mounted police trotted by, right in front of him. Dorian collided against him, his hand already going for the Major’s sweet asset. But then something hard and searching closed intimately on the thief’s ass and gave him a thorough and startling fondle. Dorian squeaked and jumped in front of Klaus, hand traveling to his outraged derriere. He stared wide-eyed at Klaus. "Bloody damnation! Someone pinched me," he gasped.

A myriad of tiny expressions flitted over the Major’s eyes, then he threw back his head and laughed.

"Serves you right for wearing those shorts!"

Dorian rubbed his smarting flesh. "But it hurt!"

"Are you wounded, Eroica?" Eberbach inquired, eyes glinting wickedly. "Should we incarcerate you in the hospital?"

"Stow it!" Dorian snapped, though he had to admit the situation was funny. "Jackson Square is this way." He took over the lead, still rubbing his bruised butt. Whoever it was had a strong grip.

Jackson Square was filled with people. All along the iron rails there were artists selling their work, portrait painters with palettes of bright colors and mask-makers touting Mardi Gras specials. The smell of seafood and pastries filled the air. A row of horse-drawn carriages was lined up at the front entrance to the little park at the square’s center. In the middle of it a rose the huge statue of Jackson, dark and imposing.

Dorian loved it. The crowd was bright and laughing. A small brass band was jazzing its way through Frankie and Johnnie, and there were a pair of dusky twins belly dancing in oblivious joy to the tune of their finger cymbals on the opposite corner. Mules brayed from their harnesses. High above and across the street rose the incline to the bank of the Mississippi—The River, as it was called by the locals. It never amazed Dorian to realize that the entire city was below sea level. Maybe that was what gave New Orleans its own special blend of joy—the knowledge that even the sea was held at bay.

They went into the crowded park. All the benches were full so Dorian chose a patch of grass and sat down, patting the ground beside him. This was what he loved, a bright day and Klaus beside him! Eberbach sat down, folding his legs neatly beneath him. In casual clothes, Klaus looked younger, less stressed. Dorian wondered what he’d looked like at seventeen. Serious, to be sure, serious and intense. But very handsome with a blooming figure that only hinted at the shoulders and the legs to come. He wished he’d known the Major then. Maybe they could have been friends. "I hope St. Ambrose knows where to look for us," Klaus said, glancing around at the crowd.

"I am sure he does. Charles knows what the Square is like." Dorian sniffed appreciatively at the air. "That smells good! I wonder where it’s coming from?"

Eberbach sniffed and eyed the surrounding stores. "There. See that place, Riverside Bakery? That’s where. It smells like turnovers."

"Yum! Can I go get some, kind sir?"

Klaus scowled. "You had breakfast."

"No, I didn’t. I had your orange juice. I want a turnover."

"Then go get one." Klaus shrugged.

"I don’t have any cash, Major." Dorian batted his eyelashes. "Remember? You haven’t let me go to my hotel and get any of my stuff."

Eberbach grunted and dug in his pockets. "I did not know you had a room."

"Well, I certainly wasn’t sleeping on the streets." He accepted the bill Klaus handed him.

"When St. Ambrose gets back," Klaus said, "we’ll go get your things."

Dorian grinned and bounded to his feet. He didn’t say anything, afraid that the Major might realize that he’d just agreed to letting him stay in the apartment with him and the Lieutenant. The thief skipped down the park stairs and over to the crowded bakery.

Dorian stood in line and listened to the lazy drawl of southern natives and the faster speech of easterners. Next to him, an old queen flirted over the counter with one of the bake boys. To Dorian’s everlasting delight, New Orleans had proven to be very tolerant of alternative lifestyles. Only the tourists gave it any notice. He was almost to the window to order when something made him look sharply to the right.

On the outside of the bakery, staring in at him, was a man that chilled him to the bone. He was Dorian’s height, slim of build and solid with supple muscle. He had black hair that hung to his waist in a multitude of black braids tipped with golden caps. His eyes were black as onyx and sharp as a crow’s. He was wearing loose, white cotton pants and a red tank top. At his waist hung a ninjato. A real one. Dorian felt his eyes widen. The only way a man could gain one of those was from the body of a ninja. He returned the black man’s gaze. The stranger gave a barely perceptible nod and then vanished into the crowd.

"Yes sir?" the shop girl asked. Dorian pointed out what he wanted. They were turnovers! Hot, fat ones coated in powdered sugar. He bought two, one cherry and one apple, and a cola, then wandered thoughtfully back to Klaus.

It took a bit of effort but Dorian managed to sit down without spilling anything. "Want some?" He offered the pastries to Klaus. "See? I’ll let you have the first bite so you won’t get cooties from me." The thief smiled charmingly.

Klaus scowled at him but he did take a bite. Then he sat back and chewed while Dorian devoured the rest. The sunlight turned his black hair into shades of dark purple and deepest blue.

"He’s late," Eberbach said after a moment. "if he doesn’t show up in the next few seconds, we’ll go after him."

Dorian nodded and ate as fast as he could. After another minute, he caught a glimpse of blue and white stripes. He nudged Klaus and nodded in St. Ambrose’s direction as the Lieutenant came into the park. St. Ambrose saw them and walked over.

"Nothing," the Lieutenant said and squatted down beside them. "The Cult hasn’t stirred from whatever lair they’ve taken. My contact says they haven’t left but no one knows where they are. He told me the same thing Silver did about the ceremony during Mardi Gras."

"What ceremony?" Dorian asked. St. Ambrose filled him in while Klaus sat and thought. Dorian listened and felt dread fill his belly, warring for room with the flaky pastries which had become a sudden, solid knot. His appetite faded appreciatively. Dorian had heard of Voodoun but hadn’t really investigated it. Its trappings of spirit communion and possession didn’t attract him. It was a Goddess-based religion, Dorian’s own preference of belief, but it’s history of Zombism had always made him wary. Now he wished he’d looked into it more.

"And they want the Staff for its power, of course," Dorian added when St. Ambrose had finished.

Klaus shot him a glance. "How’d you know it was a staff?"

"I know all the treasures of England," Dorian said. "And Mithra worship was practiced in the Isles for over a hundred years. We have to stop the Cult from getting it. If they can warp its power, we’ll all be in a lot of trouble."

"You’re a fool, Eroica," Klaus snorted. "There is no such thing as supernatural power."

"You can say that?" Dorian raised his eyebrows. "When you believe in all that saint-stuff? With all those people being carried up to heaven by gleaming angels? What’s so different from believing in a piece of the Original Cross and the Staff of Mithra? It’s all a form of power, Major."

"I think," Klaus concluded as he got up and dusted off his pants, "that we had better just concentrate on getting it back. First we need to go get Eroica’s things from his hotel room. Separate quarters will only complicate matters. Then we need to start investigating those old basements we were discussing yesterday. Any objections, Lieutenant?"

"None, Major. I hope neither one of you have claustrophobia."

"Nein. Let’s go."

* * * * *

Dorian hadn’t brought much with him. Within a few minutes he’d stashed everything in a knapsack and checked out of the Le Meridian Hotel. Then they stopped at the apartment where he gleefully stowed his clothes next to Klaus’, knowing that the Major wasn’t in the room to protest. After that, they trooped down into the Quarter to go underground—literally.

The day’s search was disappointing. The basements were all damp, hot places where bugs bred. The tunnels they found were inhabited by mud-loving creatures and more bugs. Near sundown, they did manage to locate an old altar. It was sunk deep into the black mud underneath an old aristocrat’s house near the river. But nothing had worshiped there for decades except snakes, lizards, worms and still more bugs!

"It’s getting dark, Major." St. Ambrose’s voice was soft in the stillness. "And we’d better be available should headquarters find anything or the Cult start to act."

"Ja. Let’s go."

Dorian was more than happy to comply. The trio emerged, covered in mud, into a warm southern evening and started back to the apartment. The sky was still clear and the late afternoon sun shone full and strong, a final salute before twilight. The air smelled like spring and clung to the skin like a green caress. The streets were rapidly filling with early party-goers. The edge of hysteria that Dorian had noted earlier was more pronounced. There were even a few people roaming about in costume.

"When does Mardi Gras begin?" Klaus asked St. Ambrose.

"Officially, it gets underway tomorrow night."

Klaus muttered a curse. "I have no wish to hunt for the Cult in the middle of a street party!"

"Neither do I. But we may to if they lay low until then."

They passed a narrow alley and Dorian caught a glimpse of black, black eyes. A stray beam of light glinted off gold.

"Major?" Dorian began cautiously.

"Ja?" Klaus was immediately alert.

"I think we’re being followed." Dorian reached up to fuss with his hair and under the cover of that movement, loosened the dagger he had hidden in the cotton scarf; he palmed another tiny but lethal-looking blade from the decoration on his belt.

Klaus shrugged, a gesture that Dorian knew from experience meant he was shifting the weight of his shoulder holster. St. Ambrose casually slid a hand into one of his pockets.

They crossed the street. A handful of dark-clad people materialized out of the crowd and shoved them all toward a black alley entrance. With a swift gesture, Dorian let fly one of his daggers. The tiny blade found its mark, burying itself in a thick, muscular arm. Klaus jerked his magnum free. St. Ambrose spun about, a small automatic in hand.

Silently, three dark forms dropped from above. With a boom! Klaus’ gun flashed in the dusky light followed by the harmless-seeming pops of St. Ambrose’s pistol. Dorian dodged a tall, thin black man who grabbed at him and sunk another little blade into pliant flesh. The man cried out and Dorian danced out of the way. A fist caught his leg and tried to trip him but Dorian Red Gloria was used to keeping his balance in far more trying circumstances. He sliced at another assailant—heard the Major’s gun roar out again and another cry that could have been St. Ambrose.

It didn’t take any superior mental effort to know that they were out-numbered. Dorian tried to dodge another man. If he could just get a little breathing room, he could run and get the police.

Then, abruptly, it was all over. Someone caught his legs, this time succeeding in knocking him over, and several pairs of hands held him down. They dragged Dorian into the alley. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Klaus go down as if knocked unconscious. Dorian cried out but someone clamped a hand over his mouth, cutting the sound short. St. Ambrose was pinned to the alley wall by a couple of dark-skinned men with braided hair.

Sudden silence fell. Sickened, Dorian saw that the tall, thin man he had wounded stood over Klaus, a gun trained on the Major’s dark hair. One of Klaus’ hands was trapped beneath him, the other lay slack and empty on the ground. The Major’s magnum was a few feet away where someone had kicked it.

Into the quiet group strolled Brishon Uzoma, sleek, dark and as graceful as a jaguar. His gold-tipped braids lay seductively along his strong shoulders. He ignored Klaus Von Eberbach and St. Ambrose and walked directly towards Dorian. Immediately, the guard twisted Dorian’s arms behind him, holding the thief motionless.

Black eyes dragged Dorian’s gaze away from Klaus. They were seductive eyes, deep and languid like the River at midnight—and just as unpredictable. Uzoma’s face was as sculpted as an Egyptian statue, smooth and unnaturally even. His voice was molten sugar and rum.

"Where is the map, Prince of Thieves?" Uzoma demanded.

Dorian sighed. Not this line of inquiry again! "I don’t have it, love," he said. "Truly, I don’t."

Uzoma tipped his head, regarding his prisoner frankly. Then he pulled the ninja sword from its black sheath. Dull light caught and held along its razor’s edge. With a dancer’s grace, Uzoma laid the tip of the blade against Dorian’s throat.

"Tell me, Golden One. I have no patience this evening for games."

"No games, I swear it. I just don’t have it. I never did."

"He doesn’t," St. Ambrose confirmed, struggling to be heard around the strong arms that held him pinned to the alley wall. "We wouldn’t be wasting time digging around the Quarter if he did."

After a long moment, Uzoma said, "I don’t believe you. I think you have the map and are merely having a little difficulty in following its instructions." The blade pressed ever so gently against Dorian’s throat. The skin stretched, then gave beneath the sharp metal like a pliant lover. The thief gasped. A small drop of blood trickled down his neck. "Where is it, Cat Foot?" Uzoma demanded gently.

Out of the corner of his eye, Dorian saw Klaus stir. Not randomly like a man waking up, but with purpose—shifting his weight and flexing his trapped arm with intent. Desperately, Dorian returned his gaze to Uzoma so as not to attract attention to the Major.

"I don’t have it," he said. "I’m not really an idiot, you know. If I had it, I’d give it to you."

"I am sorry, I do not like having to do this." The Islander pricked Dorian’s flesh again. Deeper. The thief gave a short, sharp cry. "I can make this last a long, long time," Uzoma promised.

Dorian forced a smile to his lips. "I’ll bet that’s what you tell all the boys."

Uzoma’s smile came more easily. His eyes glittered like the sheen on his steel. "Why should that be of interest to you?" he asked. "I understand you are already taken."

"Promised, darling," Dorian purred. "Not taken."

Uzoma raised the blade to the fair cheek. Caressed him lightly, at the last minute turning the edge away. "I will make you a promise," he said. "Pain—like you could never dream imaginable—unless you talk to me. And talk now!"

Without a sound, Klaus rolled to his feet, moving faster than his guard surely thought possible. He let off two shots in as many seconds. One shot dropped the guard on Dorian’s left. The other would have surely killed Uzoma. But the Islander had turned and, to Dorian’s astonishment, the blade came up, slanted and flashing with speed—and deflected the bullet! A flash of sparks signaled the impact. Then the bullet buried itself in the opposite wall. Uzoma leapt and gained the roof within an instant.

Another shot rang out and another dark thug fell to the ground. The remainder fled, vanishing like mist into the dark. Dorian felt the strength leave his legs and he sank to the ground. Now that the moment of danger had passed, he felt sick and started to shake. Uzoma had deflected the bullet! He’d somehow seen it coming and saved himself with near-supernatural speed and skill. That scared him more than the feel of the blade at his throat.

Klaus knelt down beside him and roughly pulled his head back. "He cut you!" The Major’s voice was husky with fury, as if he were mad at him. But his fingers were warm and unexpectedly gentle as he touched the small wounds on Dorian’s throat. "Mein Gott!"

"No, it’s all right, darling. Really it is. It’s only bleeding a little," Dorian protested weakly. "He was quite delicate, all in all."

Dorian’s trembling belied his attempt at nonchalance. Klaus’ arm tightened around him. "Stupid idiot! He would have killed you!" Klaus fished in his pocket, found and pressed a small handkerchief to the wound. "Here, hold this until it stops completely."

"Are you okay, Eroica?" St. Ambrose peered over Klaus’ shoulder.

"Fine, Lieutenant. I think I can get up now."

Klaus hauled Dorian to his feet. He swayed, clutching the Major’s arm, trying to find his balance again. This close, the Major smelled of gunsmoke, cigarettes and the last traces of musk aftershave. Klaus really shouldn’t use musk, Dorian thought. It was too promising to bear. "I’m fine," the thief murmured, taking strength from the Major’s presence. How could he tell Klaus how sick he had felt when he saw the Major go down under the thug’s gun? Dorian didn’t have words to describe that kind of fear, that kind of pain. Besides, it would only make Klaus angry if he said anything. So he held to the Major, accepting the reassurance of his body. Klaus was safe.

Then Dorian recalled, yet again, the impossible flash of sword and bullet… the chilling understanding and ability in Uzoma’s dark eyes. He started away, still grasping the Major’s arm.

"Did you see it, Klaus? Uzoma deflected the bullet! He used a sword to ricochet the shot."

Von Eberbach shook his head. "Nein. I saw it. It was a fluke. He simply turned after the first shot and that brought the sword down into the line of fire. It was an accident, Eroica."

"We’d better be going," St. Ambrose advised urgently. "The shots were surely heard. This way—"

The Lieutenant led the way to an alley wall and they climbed over, emerging on a less populated street a few blocks down from Rue Toulouse.

They hurried back to the apartment. Dorian watched the deepening shadows but no glimmer of black eyes stared at them as they passed. No matter what the Major said, he was certain that Uzoma had deflected the shot by skill.

By the time they slipped back into St. Ambrose’s apartment, the wounds on Dorian’s neck had stopped bleeding completely. Silently, Klaus returned the Lieutenant’s little .38 to him.

"I fell on it on purpose," he explained.

St. Ambrose grinned. "It may be small but it gets the job done." He checked the time. "We need to eat. If you’ll both change quickly, I’ll call in a reservation. I’ve a feeling that more detailed plans are in order and I can’t think on an empty stomach." They made quick work of the showers, Klaus delegating strict time-allotments with no unnecessary lurking about allowed. With a disappointed sigh, the Ace of Hearts trudged to the tiny bathroom and shut himself away from the sight of his beloved preparing for dinner. Sometimes Klaus could be so unfair!

* * * * *

Klaus von Eberbach changed into a black evening suit, then cleaned his gun and St. Ambrose’s while the Lieutenant dressed for dinner. Dorian Red Gloria was still in the bathroom. Apparently, Uzoma’s actions had done little to intimidate the thief. Klaus could hear Dorian singing, the sound of his voice rising wistfully over the splash of water in the shower. After the guns were cleaned and oiled, the Major went out onto the balcony.

The setting sun bathed the city in deep amber shades and sullen, brooding reds. Down among the buildings, darkness had settled in like an old neighbor. Here and there the street lights blazed, casing a surrealistic glare of energy over the cobblestone pavement and the stone store-fronts. It had cooled a little and clouds were gathering overhead, swallowing the sky bit by bit. The air smelled of rain and close greenness. The wind pushed at Klaus’ hair, seeking a way inside his suit, seductive in its scent and feel. The Major tried to draw a deep breath but the air was too rich, making him feel lighthearted.

"Darling?"

Klaus turned. Dorian stood just inside the door. The thief had changed into something only Dorian would consider dinner wear. His legs were encased in black lycra, his feet in ankle high stiletto boots. His shirt might have been acceptable if he’d had anything on beneath the black lace. As it was, the blond’s fair skin showed through, golden and inviting to touch, even the nipples were clearly visible. Dorian had kohled his eyes. Long, jet bead earrings played with his curls.

Klaus swallowed and scowled. "Are you sure it’s legal to wear that outside?"

"Of course." The thief looked amused. "What did you expect me to wear—a suit?"

Klaus knew he was being teased and, though he didn’t particularly hate it, it certainly wasn’t respectful. Not appropriate to the mission. "Don’t push me, Eroica. Is St. Ambrose ready?"

"Almost." Dorian slipped past Klaus and out onto the balcony. The wanton wind played with his curls but he didn’t seem to mind in the least. The blond drew in a deep, slow breath. "No place on earth smells quite like New Orleans."

"Ja. Rotting plants and sewer problems." Klaus lit a cigarette, the flame bright and flickering in the gathering gloom.

Dorian laughed. "You’re such a poet. That’s what fascinates me about you Germans—no matter what the atmosphere, you manage to reduce it to its lowest element. Well, fine. You can smell the sewers—but that doesn’t mean that’s all there is to the city."

Klaus leaned against the railing. The sun had set. Down below the closing shops looked like haunted buildings and night pooled deep and thick in the courtyard.

"No, that is not all there is to this place," the Major began. "This city is also the most violent city in the United States. It has one of the highest robbery ratings in the world. It has a bad problem with rats, roaches and various other vermin and it is slowly sinking to its death in the swamps beneath it. Only the French could have built a city in such a ridiculous place."

Dorian’s eyes sparkled in the dark. "But it is the birthplace of Jazz and the cradle of the Blues. It has life and richness and so much passion! Have you seen how many art and antique shops there are here? Have you noticed how much people laugh, how much they dance?"

"Ja. And I have also noticed the poor, the homeless, the drunks, the thieves and the murderers. Do not be deceived, Eroica—this city is a very dangerous place to live."

Dorian smiled, absently pushed away a tousled curl that the affectionate wind had teased over his eyes. "The whole world is a dangerous place to live, Herr Eberbach. But that’s no reason to stop living. Besides, with you here, nothing frightens me anyway."

Before Klaus could respond, Lieutenant St. Ambrose called from the livingroom. "Ready, gentlemen?"

Their host and team mate was dazzling in a suit of gold-chased linen, a silk tie and a pair of cream silk slacks. He wore a gold chain with an opal around his neck and a gold gazelle tie-tack. His raincoat was bronze raw silk with a matching umbrella. When the Lieutenant moved, the light caught and held in his dusted gold hair.

"Where does he get such incredible style?" Dorian murmured to Klaus.

"Keep your eyes off his style and on business," Klaus warned, although he had to admit that the dark Lieutenant went beyond the word fashionable on a daily basis.

"I’ve received word that Silver wants to see me again," St. Ambrose pulled on his raincoat. "if you two can go on ahead, I’ll make the talk as short as possible. I thought Silver might be more receptive without you there, Major. I’m to meet her a block over by the cemetery. The restaurant is Petrocelli’s."

"I know where that is," Dorian said.

"Good. I won’t be long."

Klaus pulled on his trench coat. "Be careful, Lieutenant," he urged, darkly. "Damned careful."

Lieutenant St. Ambrose smiled. "I always am, Major."

* * * * *

Petrocelli’s was, despite its name, a German restaurant that featured a good selection of Oriental food. The bar was upstairs. The subtitle to the establishment was "A good German/Chinese restaurant—A heck of an Irish pub." Dorian thought it very clever but Klaus only muttered, "Yanks!"

Their table was located in one of the back areas in an old-fashioned, walled booth. The waiter was dressed in tails and a blinding white shirt. Dorian ordered appetizers while Klaus chose a wine. The china was imported and the silverware heavy and freshly polished.

"Nice." Dorian crossed one shapely leg over the other. "Although Mr. James would have a screaming fit at the prices."

"Where is he?"

Dorian looked smug. "I mentioned that I’d lost a receipt from my last shopping trip—giving him a good indication that I’d thrown it away. He should be done searching the local dumps by now and started on the city ones."

Klaus shot him a level gaze. "What’s to keep him from tracing you here if he finds it?"

"I didn’t tell him where I was going—or that I’d even left. Poor Mr. James. I love him but he can be a trial." Dorian smiled as the waiter held the wine bottle up for inspection.

Klaus accepted the cork, made sure the scent was right, then signaled the young man to pour. When he had left and Klaus had had his first sip, he said, "We’ll have to split up tomorrow. There is a lot we need to get done."

Dorian was making love to the clean, clear wine, tasting it with coral pink lips and inhaling the scent with his eyes dreamily closed. His profile was as lovely and classic as a painting from an old master—his expression a perfect blend of promised bliss, anticipation and acceptance. Klaus shuddered. He felt the moment change suddenly, grow still and ease into an indeterminate length of time. The silent vision of Dorian caught in his mind and froze like a fossil in the coils of his brain forever. Black lace, golden curls, curved lips, fine-drawn, angled cheekbones. His chest grew tight, as if there were no air in this space of endlessness. But Klaus didn’t move afraid to break the porcelain moment, afraid that if he did anything, Dorian would shatter like a mirror, leaving behind only the fragmented memory of an art thief with the ageless look of an angel.

"That might not be wise," Dorian purred. "Separating…."

Klaus blinked rapidly. What had he asked the thief? He’d forgotten. "Perhaps not," he stammered.

Dorian opened his eyes and glanced at the Major. "I imagine that one of the things we’ll need to do is get costumes for tomorrow night."

"What for? We are here on assignment, Eroica, not to play."

The thief grinned. "You keep saying that. But if you intend us to prowl about the city to look for the Cult incognito, then I’d say the best way to disguise ourselves is behind Mardi Gras masks. Who’s going to notice three more party-goers?"

"We do not really need the Cult. It is quite obvious that they do not have the map."

"But they might without realizing it. You heard the Lieutenant. It could be a tattoo placed somewhere clever. We won’t know for sure until we can examine the body ourselves."

Klaus hated to admit that Dorian was right. The street festival would provide adequate cover if they were in costume. Unless Silver did have more pertinent information, Mardi Gras might be very unavoidable.

St. Ambrose arrived at the same time as the appetizers. He gave his order without needing a menu and gratefully accepted a glass of wine. "Our problems have just multiplied," he advised them.

"What did Silver have to say?" Klaus passed the plate of quail eggs.

"The Cult has apparently decided not to take any chances with their little dead-raising ceremony. Silver says they are going to sacrifice someone as a gesture of appeasement to the gods." The Lieutenant took another deep drink of wine. "She was very nervous tonight."

"Kill someone?" Dorian frowned. "Well. Map or not, we have to stop them."

"My thoughts exactly." St. Ambrose unfolded a pure white napkin and laid it across his lap. "If we can figure out where they are going to hold the ceremony, we can bust the whole lot of them on attempted murder, international theft and a few dozen other charges."

"Assuming," Klaus began, "that we find them in time to stop them."

"We will, darling." Dorian smiled at Klaus. "We always do."

Eberbach bore the flirtation with what he thought was admirable restraint. He scowled and changed the subject. "Lieutenant, tomorrow I want you to research everything you can on those aliases Silver gave us and look into all the old house plans of the French Quarter that you can find. If there is any old, large area that you think is a possible meeting place for the Cult, we will need to investigate it. It isn’t much but it will be a start."

"And I," Dorian said, blue eyes dancing with anticipation. "I will find us Mardi Gras costumes to wear. Something that will keep us well hidden."

"Not at this late date." St. Ambrose shook his golden head. "There isn’t a place in the city that will have anything left."

Dorian laughed, his jet beads catching and reflecting the light. "I am not called the Prince of Thieves for nothing, Charles."

Klaus’ scowl deepened. "Eroica…"

"Don’t scold, darling. It’s all in the name of justice."

Dinner arrived and they sat back to give the tuxedoed waiters plenty of room. When more wine had been poured and the dishes uncovered, the waiters withdrew once again.

"I will look into all the museums. There must be some trace of Voodoun temples in this city’s history. Perhaps I can find some clue there." Klaus paused and began to eat dinner. Their plans were feeble at best. It was amazing that they could be hip deep in the Cult’s business and still be ignorant of so much.

"I think, personally," said St. Ambrose, "that it will all go down on Mardi Gras. The research is a good idea but don’t expect too much, Major. Come midnight on the first night, we’ll find answers aplenty."

"Answers are fine," Klaus muttered. "But last minute answers tend to be armed and dangerous."

"Then we’ll have to be the same." St. Ambrose’s eyes danced and Klaus tried not to be irritated at the Lieutenant’s enthusiasm. There were times when St. Ambrose and Dorian were very much alike.

* * * * *

All museums, no matter how well kept, smelled dusty. This one smelled moldy as well as dusty, with an over-glossing of lemon furniture polish. The wood floors echoed Klaus’ footsteps and the sound reminded him of the Roman catacombs when he and Dorian had been lost beneath the ground, surrounded by the silent tragedies of ancient tombs. He resisted the urge to shudder and wished, not for the first time, that New Orleans would decide either to retreat into its seductive machinations or complete the threat—and stop switching unexpectedly between the two. The Major bent over yet another map carefully encased in sealed plastic, tracing the angle of St. Charles Street with his eyes. According to the lady who had shown him the book of maps, only the oldest documents bothered to show any of the slaves’ quarters. She’d crossed herself and given him a frightful look when he mentioned old altars. She said she doubted the map-makers even knew where they were. Then she’d retreated to the safety of her desk.

A slow, stalking echo of steps crept up one of the side aisles toward Klaus. They hesitated, then approached again. Stopped, then came closer.

"Nein." Klaus said, his voice echoing loudly. "I do not need any more help."

The startled lady nearly squawked in surprise. Klaus stifled the impulse to yell at her. She was an older woman with long black hair tied in a bow similar to the kind worn by pre-adolescent schoolgirls. She dressed like a young girl, too, in a flowered dress with a flounced hem and wide, puritan lace collar.

"J-just checking, sir," she whispered, then fled, her schoolgirl shoes making a hammering noise on the wooden floor.

The Major turned the page and inspected the next set of maps. None of them showed a thing. He pushed it aside and began to wander, his teeth gritting every time his shoes touched the floor. Clunk—Clunk!

The museum wasn’t bad as far as small ones went. The glass cases all had special lighting to avoid fading the documents and the pieces of silverware and glass were all carefully cleaned. Near the back was a long case full of old, old photos. Klaus paused and leaned over it to look. Some of them were of plantations and townhouses, their white owners posed carefully in front of the piano or on the sweeping porches. But on the second shelf he found another set of photos and the faces that stared solemnly at the camera were black and careworn. Klaus moved closer and looked them over.

Dark, dark eyes set in dark faces. Enigmatic expressions above work clothes and muscles hewn hard by daily labor. Even the children were sober-faced, staring at the camera with wary eyes that would someday grow remote and hard-to-read. One photo showed a tall, strongly built man standing in front of a whipping pole. Underneath, the caption read: Willie Stiles—whipped 62 times in 31 years. 47 times for running away, 14 times for talking back and once for attempting to seduce a white woman. Willie Stiles’ face was hard and expressionless.

Klaus straightened up and stared down at the case for a long minute. He was willing to bet almost anything that Willie hadn’t wanted the white woman; he had just done it for spite.

The floor echoed hesitant footsteps that approached him from the left. They stopped, then came a little closer. The creeping museum lady again.

"I’m finished!" Klaus announced loudly and suddenly. The lady squeaked in surprise although Klaus couldn’t comprehend how she expected him not to know she was there.

"Thank you for letting me look at the maps," Klaus said and left, hurrying when he heard her clomping after him.

The Major reached the door and was out on the street before she caught up with him again. Thank God, now he could walk without his every step proclaiming his existence.

Klaus glanced at his watch. It was past noon and he still hadn’t found a thing. It was amazing that Voodoun could have been practiced here for over two hundred years and still leave so few traces of its passing. He took off his suit coat and slung it over his shoulder. The sun had come out and the air was hot and close and green again. How he longed for cooler, less complicated climes.

The Major thought back over the last few days, looking for some clue he might have overlooked. But all he could really remember was the rain and heat, Dorian and masks and Voodoo and saxophone music.

The music lifted on the still air, floating on its own power over the heads of the people in the street. It reached out and touched Klaus, insinuating itself into his thoughts. It was a wailing, soul-riveting sound edged with a bit of anguish.

Klaus stopped and looked around. A nearby alley connected with the street, its narrow entrance shadowed by the overhang of the roof of the neighboring shop. A form swayed in the deep shade and a stray bit of sunlight glanced against old, dark skin and worn out dress shoes. The old man.

Klaus walked over to him and stood and listened while the song wound on and the sun baked the ground. The music ended with the softest of sighs. The old man hummed under his breath and cleaned the mouthpiece with his shirt sleeve. His friendly eyes glanced over at Klaus.

"Hot day," the old man said.

"Ja", Klaus answered. He felt oddly drawn to the musician. "I did not expect to see you again."

"Oh, I’m always around here and there."

"If you played on the corner there, you would make more money."

The old man chuckled. "I’d also melt right into the cracks of the sidewalk. Don’t worry about me, honey. I was out earlier and I’m doing all right." He nodded towards the museum Klaus had just exited. "What you doin’ in that old place? You don’t seem like the museum type."

Klaus almost grinned at that. "I don’t? Perhaps you are right. I was looking for something that exists but leaves no trace and has no one who knows anything about it." He scowled in frustration. "I am losing my patience."

"Mmm-hmm," the old man mused. "You must be lookin’for somethin’mighty powerful and mighty secret then."

"Yes." Klaus regarded the old man calmly. It was odd but everything seemed to have grown quiet and still around them. It felt as if time had stopped and the urgency of his mission faded a little, leaving him time to talk with the old saxophone player. "Who are you?" he asked.

Teeth made a white crescent in a midnight face. The old man rocked back on his heels. "I’m just an old musician, honey."

"Are you sure that is all?"

The black eyes sparkled with amusement. "Well, now—I’m yor fairy godfather, too."

Klaus snorted. "I’m not a child. And don’t use that word."

"What word?"

"Fairy."

The eyes danced again. "Now, honey," he said. "Don’t you have just a bit too much on yor mind to be gettin’ picky about words? I’ll tell you a secret, Godson—if you can’t track somethin’ down, then just wait and let it come to you." The old man picked up the sax and adjusted one of the shining knobs. He raised it to his lips and ran a scale, his attention centered on his music. Like water, the melody flowed out on the air with the voice of a cooling rain. It wandered over the crowd, relaxing but exciting at the same time. The old man rocked back and forth, making music with his eyes half-closed in delight.

Klaus hitched his jacket up higher on his shoulder and walked slowly off, turning back to glance at the figure in the shadows several times until the angle of the street took him back towards St. Ambrose’s apartment.

* * * * *

Dorian wasn’t in the apartment when Klaus unlocked the door and went in. His clothes were tossed in a pile at the end of the sofa and his half-eaten breakfast was balanced precariously on the arm of the chair on a white china plate. With a sigh, Klaus picked up the plate and carried it into the kitchen. Dorian’s tidiness always deserted him when he started thinking deeply—Klaus had noticed, on several occasions, that the harder the thief thought, the messier he got. The Major dumped the clothes in the thief’s suitcase and put the pillows on the sofa to rights. If he ever lived with Dorian, the habit would drive him insane.

Klaus jerked upright as if stung. Mein Gott! What was he thinking? Of course he would never live with Dorian, the very thought made his stomach lurch and twist. Sweet Mary, he’d kill the thief on the first day. But there would never be any first day, so the whole subject was ridiculous.

The Major backed away from the sofa and fled into the safety of St. Ambrose’s bedroom. He shut the door behind him. The Lieutenant’s aunt’s collection of firearms hung on the wall by his head. Klaus ran a hand through his hair. By the end of the assignment, he was going to be mad—insane and probably dangerous.

* * * * *

Dorian paused beside a tall, wooden trunk and looked around the dark, silent room. He stood for a rninute, a lithe, living form wandering among the shapes of shadow and light. The closed shop was quiet and empty. He smiled in delight and began, ever so soundlessly, to rummage in all the costume boxes, the closets and the display windows. The store was called The Great Charade and was considered to be New Orleans’ finest costuming shop. All over the walls and across the fronts of the counters were masks of feathers, leather, beads and twisting, colored cloth. The sightless eye-holes stared at him as he shopped, mouths agape as if astonished at his presence.

He discovered a lot of abandoned Robin Hoods and several versions of Henry the Eighth. One closet held an incomplete Bird of Paradise costume of glittering feathers and white, shimmering satin with overlays of transparent silk and silver netting. Dorian reluctantly put it away. Another chest held a Zorro costume that nearly sent him into ecstasy when he imagined Klaus inside of it. Oh, how those green eyes would pierce the heart glaring out from the ebony mask! How delicious the Major’s legs would look in skin tight leather! Dorian laid the costume carefully across the top of the trunk for further consideration.

He didn’t find anything for himself until he’d unearthed a heavy storage box that had been shoved into the back room. Inside of it was a costume that seemed to be made up of shredded blue and green silk and the tiniest bit of shimmery lycra. Dorian pulled it out into the room and shook the folds out of it. The tag on the front of it read: Water, The Element of Emotion. It took him several minutes to figure out how it went on. By then he knew he had to have it.

* * * * *

Dorian folded it carefully into his backpack. If the back room contained one such treasure, perhaps it had others. He spent the next hour searching through boxes of material and bags of trim and beads—but he eventually found another box just like the first one. Inside of this one was a costume of red, orange and yellow. Fire, the tag read, The Element of Passion.

Zorro ceased to have green eyes and instead the Fire Elemental blazed with Klaus’ temper and form. Zorro began to look suspiciously like St. Ambrose. Dorian held the fire costume up to the masks that lined the wall.

"Well," he asked. "What do you think?"

The mouths all seemed to form a little "o" of pleasure.

"Why, thank you. I believe I love it, too, so I simply must have it. And that Zorro outfit as well, if you don’t mind. I have a new friend that will look absolutely delicious in it."

Dorian packed the costumes away, slung the canvas on his back and went out the way he’d come in—through the skylight. He couldn’t wait to see Klaus in his costume!

The thief emerged from the shop, slipping into deep shadow along the roof line for a few blocks, relishing as he always did, his sense of perfect balance and the supple strength of his body. Dorian did not participate in false modesty. This was the game he loved more than any other!

"Good evening, Golden One."

The voice was as warm and fluid as honey-spiked rum. It was the assassin, Uzoma. Dorian crouched and turned, a long knife in his hand held fencer style.

Brishon Uzoma stood in the shade of a huge oak tree that grew up the side of one of the shops. His form was living shadow but his eyes glistened and reflected the starlight—as cold and final as death.

"What do you want?" Dorian demanded when the man made no move to draw the sword at his belt. In Dorian’s mind, he saw again the flashing arch of steel, heard the ping! of a deflected bullet.

"Do not fear me, Cat Foot." Uzoma moved out of the shadows a little. His dark skin was smooth over long, well-defined muscle. "I would no more harm you than I would desecrate a holy place. You are too rare to handle roughly."

"Is that so? As I recall, you weren’t quite so cautious of my well being yesterday."

"Ah… yesterday." Uzoma sighed like a lover recalling something very pleasant. "I wept tears of true grief for every drop of your precious blood. Such a waste. And you were so beautiful and brave beneath my steel. How could I remain unmoved?"

"Oh, please. I left my hip waders at home." Dorian scowled. Perhaps he had grown cynical, perhaps Klaus’ rather overly-rough handling had made him suspicious of compliments. Or maybe this man simply frightened him and he was wary. He stood up slowly, keeping his knife at ready.

"I assure you, Cat Foot, I am sincere," Uzoma protested. "You are a work of art. Such grace and balance, such precise placement of foot and leg. White men very rarely have such a keen knowledge of where their bodies are and how they move. You are a symbol of their potential. I swear I would not harm you." Uzoma’s white teeth gleamed in the dark.

"Unless you had to, yes?" Dorian finished. "Well, what do you want? Surely you didn’t come here to exchange pleasantries?"

"Why not? You are constantly in the company of that German—and he would not hesitate to shoot me should I show my face."

Dorian drew in a long breath—but did not relax his guard. Uzoma was a mystery and he had no answers. Yet.

"Fine," he said. "So what do you want to talk about? The map?"

"No. There is no need to track that territory again. I am certain you know nothing of it. And, even if you did, we now have our own plans." White teeth flashed again. "I wish to speak to you of my passion, of course. Sword fighting. Do you duel?"

"What?"

"I recall reading that the famous cat burglar, Eroica, was a master of the blade."

Dorian smiled then. So that was why Uzoma was here. This he well understood. Nothing short of sex could take the place of a good duel; nothing less than a perfect work of art could replace the beauty of the dance of dueling blades. The thief shifted his weight to one hip and tossed the knife in his hand, up and down, letting the little blade catch and flash the starlight. His smile was both playful and provocative.

"So… do you duel, too, Master Uzoma?"

"Of course." Uzoma’s voice was as come-hither as a lover’s. For a long moment they stood and stared at each other, two souls locked in perfect harmony, in total understanding of each other and the intent in the air.

Finally, the dark man spoke again. "Not here, honored opponent. But soon—very soon."

Dorian caught his spinning blade and frowned, sobered by a sudden thought. "You don’t mean to the death, surely?"

"No. Have I not said that I would never hurt you?" Uzoma faded back into the shade of the oak. "Trust me on this, Cat Foot."

And then he was gone—without a shiver of leaf or a shimmer of movement.

* * * * *

St. Ambrose was late. Klaus paced the little livingroom from one end to the other. It was past dusk. He wasn’t worried about Dorian’s continued absence—it was agreed that it might take him well into night to find and… procure the appropriate costumes. But St. Ambrose had been due back two hours ago. Klaus paused and lit another cigarette. He would give the Lieutenant another half hour. Then, if he hadn’t shown up or called, he would go looking for him.

The Lieutenant and Dorian showed up at almost the same instant—one through the front door and the other through the bedroom window. (Dorian in his Eroica persona never used a door unless it was locked.) St. Ambrose looked worried and alarmed. Dorian appeared absolutely blissful, glowing with success and anticipation of the night’s dangers.

"Did you get them?" Klaus asked the thief and then turned to St. Ambrose, "What’s wrong? " "Yes, darling, you’ll never believe what I found!" Dorian pulled the bundle from his back.

"Silver is missing." The Lieutenant’s voice had gone flat, his eyes were deeply pained. "No one has seen her. Although a friend saw her drinking with a dark man. A dark man with an island accent."

Dorian had stopped pulling things from his pack to listen. "You think the Cult has her?" he asked.

"I think I can figure out who the sacrifice will be." St. Ambrose let out a rush of air and with it went his calm. "Goddamn them! She’s just barely eighteen!" He yanked off his coat and threw it onto the chair.

Dorian stood up slowly. "That’s terrible."

"It’s more than terrible. She was trying to make something of her life. She wanted to go into police work someday, she—" St. Ambrose stopped abruptly and disappeared into the kitchen. They could hear him banging around, making coffee.

Klaus shared a glance with Dorian.

"He cares for her," the thief said softly. "He really cares for her."

"Mein Gott," Klaus muttered. He’d heard of it before—how an agent could get involved with his contacts over the course of time but he’d never known anyone personally. The Major felt awkward, uncertain. How would this affect the mission? Was St. Ambrose still reliable?

Dorian walked into the little kitchen. Klaus could easily hear what they said.

"We’ll get her back, Charles," the thief said. "Klaus is a genius. You’ll see. He always manages to pull things around in the end."

The Major winced. He wouldn’t bet anything on his success in this particular issue.

St. Ambrose sighed. "I got too close to her. It’s hard not to when you have the same contact for years. It’s easy to forget how short a life span most of those people have."

"We’ll find her."

"I don’t doubt that." The Lieutenant came out of the kitchen followed by Dorian. "What I doubt is whether we’ll find her alive." He glanced at the pile of shimmering silk and ribbons that the thief had unpacked. "You found costumes, I take it."

For a minute, Dorian searched the dark man’s face. Then apparently deciding that the man would be all right, he allowed himself to smile. "I think you’ll love them," he said.

* * * * *

Klaus was not in love with his costume. Once he’d figured out how to get it on, he had to wrestle and twist to work the stretchy fabric over his body. The falls and swirls of fire-shaped silk swathes kept getting in the way, spilling under his feet and getting tangled in his fingers. Twice he nearly decided to abandon it, but if they were to appear as merely part of the costumed crowd, he had to be in costume. So Klaus fought with it until he had it on. Then he had to pull and yank the thing to get it all in place. Even then it didn’t behave itself until he lost his temper and shook both fists in silent rage at the bathroom door behind which Dorian was dressing—and so discovered that the violent maneuver had shaken all the fire swirls into shape. Klaus stomped, did a few deep knee squats and the whole outfit molded to his form like a workout suit. To the Major’s surprise, it was rather comfortable.

St. Ambrose emerged a minute later in the Zorro costume. He’d even painted on a thin, curling mustache. The Lieutenant grinned at Klaus while he tied the silk mask on around his face.

"Well, Major?" St. Ambrose began. "Ever wear such fabulous threads to apprehend criminals before?"

"Nein. Does Headquarters know we are going out?"

"Oh, yes. There’s at least two teams following various leads, looking for any sign of trouble. Other officers are out on patrol keeping a watch-out for the Cult’s activities as well."

"It must be a heavy load in addition to their Mardi Gras duties."

"It is." St. Ambrose sighed. A touch of weariness and concern shaded his voice.

Dorian swirled out of the bathroom in a shimmer of blue-green, aqua-green and mist-green ribbons and tatters. If Klaus was fire, then Dorian was undeniably water. His long legs were encased in skin-tight green lycra and great glimpses of them showed through the torn silk all the way up to, and including, his butt. The costume dipped way down in front, revealing smooth skin, taut nipples and belly button. In the back it revealed almost his entire back and the sculpted muscles of his shoulders. Golden ringlets frothed over the whole spray of silk like the glimmer of sunlight on waves. Sky-blue eyes sparkled out from behind a mist-green mask.

"Well," Dorian said, gleefully. "What do you think?" Then he saw Klaus and gasped. "Darling! You look fabulous!"

Klaus snarled and ignored the open admiration in the thief’s eyes. "These outfits are hardly legal," he snapped. "Do not tell me you couldn’t find others."

"Of course not." Dorian smiled, still taking in the Major’s physique. "But I so rarely get a chance to dress you properly. Would you rather have me un—"

"Eroica—shut up!"

Dorian subsided and turned his attention to St. Ambrose. "Marvelous, Charles! But why the mustache?"

The Lieutenant mimicked twirling the mustache’s ends. "Have you ever seen a Spaniard without one? In Mexico the boys all grow mustaches as soon as they can. It’s a sign of virility."

"Are you both ready?" Klaus broke in. He was searching for a place to bide his gun and not having much luck.

"No problem, Major." St. Ambrose patted the obviously fake sword sheath at his side. "Inside the sword’s hilt. Hm… I’ve no idea where you can hide yours."

"It’s easy," Dorian said and lifted his hair off the back of his neck, a little, sensuous gesture that made Klaus stare for a second. "Under your hair, darling. Right under the suit’s collar. Your hair will cover the bulk of it and it’ll be right at hand should you need it." When Klaus looked doubtful, Dorian walked over and showed him how.

"See?" Warm hands pushed Klaus’ hair aside. The Major froze, startled. "Slip the strap down under your shoulder on the inside and adjust it to keep the gun up here." Dorian’s voice was soft and his breath fanned the back of Klaus’ neck. If the Major had had the slightest hint that Dorian was causing these sensations on purpose, he’d have stopped him, but the thief was apparently all business. "Understand?" Dorian concluded. He rested a hand against Klaus’ back.

The Major finally got his breath. "Ja. Now—unhand me!" Dorian sighed and dropped his hand.

"You are so touchy sometimes. Klaus wrestled with the gun and discovered that Dorian was right. If he adjusted it just so and twisted it up so that the holster rested against the back of his neck, his hair covered all signs that it was there and the fire tatters covered the rest. "Gut," he agreed at last. "Now. Everyone ready?"

St. Ambrose and Dorian both nodded. "The only place I could find that looked likely is near Pirate’s Alley," the Major said. "There is a large basement that was once a slave’s church. It’s mostly buried now but it seems a good starting point. Any other ideas?"

"Plenty," St. Ambrose said. "But the basement is as good a starting point as any. We can work our way through the Quarter as we go. I have contacts on the lookout, too. They are supposed to call Headquarters if they find anything. We need to phone in every half hour to see if anyone has heard anything."

"Gut. This is a ridiculous way to go about it but it is all we have. Let’s go."

* * * * *

The streets were alive with color, sound and people. Crowds clogged the cobbled roads, the dark alleys and the squares. Streamers and confetti rained from every balcony and window; music blasted from a million different stereos and live bands rocked on tall, wooden stages. There were tigers, cavaliers, aliens, flower fairies, Mae Wests and knights in armor. There were Luke Skywalkers, Spocks, punk rockers, bears, elves, birds of paradise, Grecian maidens and Roman soldiers. According to St. Ambrose, this year was one of the few years that Mardi Gras wasn’t drenched in rain and cold northern winds. The result made for near frenzied good spirits. On a night like this, nearly anything could happen.

Dorian was in raptures. "Oh, Klaus, look! It’s a Celt. What a great costume."

"Keep your mind on business," the Major snapped back.

"But did you see that Macaw outfit, the one with the six foot red feathers?"

"Shut up, Eroica."

The thief batted his lashes at Von Eberbach. "But, of course, I’m partial to men in red."

Klaus glared at him from behind his fire mask but Dorian never flinched. The German looked more than glorious in his costume. The color suited him, as did the theme, and the tights were a definite improvement over trousers. Klaus had a very fine body indeed, for all that he never noticed. But Dorian noticed—and he had no qualms about looking.

"This is a mission, Eroica, not a party," Klaus growled. "And if you do not stop talking about these unnecessary things, I will strangle you. That is a promise."

St. Ambrose walked behind them, laughter in his eyes. Still, he very intelligently refused to become involved.

"But this is a party!" Dorian refused to give in so easily. "No, it’s more than a party—it’s a spectacle." He waved cheerfully at a passing Chewbacca who roared in answer. "Really, darling, you surely don’t expect me to ignore Mardi Gras?"

"No," Klaus ground out between his teeth. "I don’t expect anything of you but childish indulgences and spoiled…." The Major yelped as a passing saloon girl pinched him on the behind. He whipped around to see who it was but the crowd was too thick for him to do anything but shout in offended German.

A zebra-loined African paused beside Dorian. The man looked splendid in his tribal raiment of claws, teeth, leopard-skin cloak and lots of black, smooth skin. He even carried a feathered spear with a tangle of fake bones that rattled against the wooden shaft. His twisting hair reached clear to his waist. His cheekbones were high and slanted.

"Alone, little water sprite?" the stranger asked. White teeth flashed in a smile.

"No." Dorian smiled back. "I’m with the screaming German."

"Ah… too bad. This simple warrior would like a cool sip or two—just to cool the blood." His hand brushed Dorian’s back. The black eyes were smoky and warm. His near-naked body was taut with well-formed muscles. "Could you spare a few drops?"

"Maybe…."

The arm circled around Dorian’s waist, black and strong and very, very sweet. The stranger dropped a kiss on Dorian’s temple and traveled down to gently brush against his lips. Dorian leaned against him. Sighed. The African smelled of sandalwood and spice. And it was so nice to be held. How long had it been since he’d lain with another? How long since he’d tasted the sweet tang of midnight honey? It was getting to the point where even affection from a passing stranger felt like heaven.

"Mein Gott!" Klaus jerked Dorian out the African’s embrace. The Major was clearly in an absolute fury. He gave the thief a hard shake. "I can’t leave you for a minute! You have no self-control at all. I turn my back and you start—"

"You got a problem, man?" The African dropped his flowery speech and interposed his spear between Dorian and Klaus. "I don’t like seeing anyone abused."

"Stay out of it!" Klaus snapped.

"Hey, it was just a snuggle."

Klaus’ eyes acquired a dangerous glint and Dorian quickly said, "Come on, Major. Let it be."

St. Ambrose was leaning against a lightpost, watching with the air of someone at a drive-in movie.

"If you aren’t gonna let your boyfriend have any fun, you shouldn’t go out at Mardi Gras," the African stated.

For a second, Klaus was silent—but not from anything resembling acceptance of the comment. Then he bellowed, "He is NOT my boyfriend!"

The African decided that he’d truly gotten into more than he wanted. Dorian sent him a pleading please-drop-it look and the dark man disappeared into the crowd.

"Dumkopf!" Klaus shouted after him. "I hate him! He is not my boyfriend!"

"Look, darling…." Dorian pitched his voice to its sweetest possible tone. "Lieutenant St. Ambrose is waiting for us."

Klaus gave him another shake. "You keep your perverse hands to yourself or I’ll tie them together! You understand?"

Dorian bit his bottom lip and tried very hard not to let tears form in his eyes. Von Eberbach detested weakness.

"All right, darling," the thief said. "But I’d never do anything, you know. I’m saving myself for you."

Klaus shoved Dorian away as if he were poison. "Mein Gott, I hate you!" he snapped. Then turned and marched off, leaving the thief to follow.

Dorian lost his battle with tears and wiped them away with the back of his hand. Why did Klaus have to be so cruel? He would never understand him, never! But he hurried and caught up with the Major just the same.

* * * * *

They forced their way along in unnatural silence for a time through a street-to-street horde of party-goers. Elaborate face paint, masks and wild hair-dos made even the most common person look exotic. Confetti swirled with every little gust of wind; music blared all around them.

Klaus von Eberbach kept a close eye on Dorian. After that incident with the man in the African outfit, he wasn’t about to trust that the thief would behave himself. He saw again in his mind’s eye the look of appreciation and admiration that Dorian had given the dark man who held him. What had the thief been thinking? He was on a mission, albeit a mission he was shanghaied into. Still, it was a mission just the same; Dorian should control himself. The African had obviously returned the thief’s regard; the smile he had given Dorian was gentle and teasing and coaxing.

Klaus looked around, just to make sure that the African wasn’t following them, hoping for another chance with Dorian. Although the Major received several smiles and one shouted offer, he didn’t see the tell-tale flash of leopard spots and black skin.

"Through here, Major!" St. Ambrose turned down a small alley that led off of Pirate’s Alley and down to a small door sunk into a brick wall. Several steps led down to it. He brought out a long, thin flashlight from his boot, flicked it on and fiddled with the lock.

"Allow me, Charles." Dorian brushed by Klaus, his lycraed form brushing against the Major as he passed. "I don’t really need the light…." Dorian knelt down, pulled a thin wire from his tangle of blond curls and inserted it into the lock. A bare second later, it clicked and he pushed it open. "After you, Lieutenant."

The basement was old and musty—and very, very empty. Even when Dorian found a secret door along one wall, the resulting space turned out to be thick with damp and bugs and nothing else. Disappointed, they carefully re-locked the door and went back to the crowded, noisy streets. The next stop was an old Catholic mission on a tiny street named Desidore. Rumor had it that the Pagan population used it a great deal and that followers of the Old Religion frequented it as well.

The mission turned out to be empty as well. They paused by the neighboring cemetery to consider where to go next.

"This is ridiculous," Klaus fumed.

"What other choice do we have, Major?" St. Ambrose shook his head. "None of my contacts have heard a thing. Only Silver knew much and she…." He shook his head again.

"We’ll find her, Charles," Dorian soothed.

A form flashed out of the dark towards them—a pale, small form that stopped a few feet away. It was a cat, agile and nearly white with short, silver fur. It regarded them for a second.

"Alert your men to step up their patrol of the Quarter," Klaus reached for his cigarettes, then remembered he didn’t have them and aborted the gesture. "It may not be discreet but we will cover more ground that way. In the meantime, we can continue to look ourselves." He uttered a short curse. "I had thought the basement would be the place."

The cat mewed and paced over to them. She ignored Klaus and Dorian and walked straight up to St. Ambrose. She pushed against his leg, purring.

"Well, hello, puss. Trying to help?" The Lieutenant leaned over and gave her a pat. She arched against his hand, then peered up at him. She gazed into his eyes for a long second.

St. Ambrose stopped in mid-stroke and a startled look passed over his even features. "Charles?" Dorian began. He shared a look with Klaus.

The Lieutenant bent down and stared more intently into the cat’s eyes. His lips parted in astonishment.

"Lieutenant St. Ambrose!" Klaus snapped.

The cat mewed again and then took off at a run down the narrow street. St. Ambrose stood up and then started following the cat, black cape billowing out behind him.

"St. Ambrose!" Klaus gave chase with Dorian close behind him.

"I can’t explain it, Major!" St. Ambrose said as Klaus caught up with him. "It doesn’t make any sense—but that cat knows were Silver is. I’m sure of it."

"What?" Klaus grabbed hold of the dark man’s arm, pulling him to a stop. "Dumkopf! We are not here to—!’

"Major…." The black eyes were serious. "There are more things in this world than we will ever be able to understand. Magic exists. My grandmother wielded it, my mother studied it. And that cat knows where Silver is." He jerked his arm free and took off after the silver feline.

"Come on, darling," Dorian urged. "We mustn’t lose him!" And he followed St. Ambrose.

"Idiots!" Klaus shouted. But he couldn’t lose track of both of them, so he followed Dorian’s fluttering green and blue silk tatters. This was insane.

They turned down three different streets, climbed over one alley wall and raced through another cemetery. They emerged on a street full of costumed, laughing people where, inexplicably, the cat disappeared into the crowd.

They caught their breath.

"So much for your magic," Klaus snapped. "Where are we?"

"Look!" Dorian cried and pointed into the throng. "See him?"

"Who?" Klaus demanded. The crowd in the street moved and shifted. Laughter and shrieks soared above the roar of music and shouts. The green smell of the city was close and hot.

"He was there," Dorian insisted. "Right by that shop. The swordsman—Uzoma!"

Klaus pushed his way through the crowd to the place Dorian indicated. There was no one there. "Are you sure?" he asked.

"Yes." Dorian looked around, puzzled. "He looked right at me and motioned for me to come over to him." The thief pushed golden hair back from his face. "He was there, darling. I swear it." Dorian looked around again—then seemed to see the swordsman a second time. "There! We have to follow him—come on!" He sprinted off into the crowd.

"Mein Gott," Klaus moaned. Not again. St. Ambrose followed Dorian’s lead almost at once and, again, Klaus had little choice but to run along as well.

This time, Klaus had to run, finding it difficult to keep up with the pace Dorian and the unseen Uzoma set. They twisted down alleys, through gardens and even over the top of a building. At times, the noise of Mardi Gras seemed to fade only to grow loud again at the next turn.

Uzoma abandoned them in a back alley near the river. Dorian stood and looked around, baffled. "I don’t understand where he went," the thief gasped.

"Disappeared like St. Ambrose’s cat, ja?" Klaus said acidly. "Are you quite finished playing games, Eroica?"

Then, through the flow of the River and over the distant roar of Mardi Gras came a haunting, lyrical sound. For a few minutes, Klaus thought he was imagining it. Then the sound grew stronger and he became sure.

The wail of a soulful saxophone floated sweet and sad on the humid air. Klaus frowned. What was the old man doing this far from the parties and the people?

"What’s wrong, darling?" Dorian asked.

"Don’t you hear it?" Klaus demanded.

"Hear what?" The thief’s voice sounded mystified; he gazed about anxiously.

Klaus did the same thing, searching for the old black man. He caught a glimpse of movement across the dark street and the ragtag form of the saxophone player melted out of the shadows. The melody floated into the silence and he raised his head. Even from where he stood, Klaus could see the smile and the nod, could feel the gaze of those ancient eyes. Light reflected off of the golden surface of the saxophone.

"Major?" Klaus heard Dorian’s voice but, for some reason, he couldn’t look away from the old man across the street. The saxophone player gestured with one hand; he peered off down the street and gestured again.

"I must go." Klaus was barely aware of speaking, barely aware of Dorian’s hand on his arm. The saxophone player began to walk rapidly down the street, moving parallel to the River, the hfe-current of New Orleans, the moody, treacherous pulse of the heartland. Klaus followed. Behind him, he could hear Dorian and St. Ambrose exchanging baffled comments.

The old man traveled swiftly, passing in and out of shadows with the speed of someone much younger. Klaus had to push himself to keep him in sight. Part of him knew that this was stupid but another, deeper part whispered urgently that this was very, very important. The Major ran on. High above passed the Mississippi and the weight of the ever-changing water behind its levee was like an evil troll on his back, a warning hand on his shoulder.

The saxophone player turned into a small, narrow alley and Klaus pursued him in a nearly blind rush to overtake him. But, once he had gained the entrance, the Major lost track of the old man. With a shudder, the sensation of urgency vanished. Klaus drew a sudden, deep breath. Where had the old man gone?

"Major?" Dorian’s voice was soft. Klaus heard St. Ambrose breathe a soft curse behind him.

"He is gone." Klaus started to back out of the alley. He didn’t want to talk, didn’t want to explain. What could he say? Why had he followed the old man? What a ridiculous thing to do. He was the idiot this time. The saxophone player knew nothing of the Cult. Why had it seemed so important to follow him?

"Listen!" Dorian clutched Klaus’ arm. "Can you hear it?" Excitement made his voice tremble.

Klaus listened. After a moment, he heard a soft, thrumming sound like a swarm of deep-voiced and angry wasps.

"Feel it?" St. Ambrose’s voice was barely louder than a murmur.

The floor of the alley was vibrating the tiniest bit, as if somewhere a long train was passing by.

Klaus moved further into the alley and began to investigate. The deeper along the twisting little walkway he went, the louder the buzz became and the more pronounced the vibration. He tracked the sound to a small window near the alley floor. Klaus bent down and pressed his ear to the dusty glass.

The buzz rearranged itself into voices—voices and the high, rapping beat of a hand drum. Somewhere deep below, a large group of people were chanting and wailing.

* * * * *

Dorian had little problem with the window lock. The most difficult aspect was the rust that made the gears catch. But Klaus used a little of his impressive strength and the window creaked open. Moist air wafted out and the sound of chanting grew clearer. The noise made the hair on his neck stand up. Magic drifted on the wind, coaxing him to follow it, promising things unknown. It frightened the thief but it excited him, too. Dorian wasted no time slipping through the narrow opening and down into the tiny basement.

Klaus muttered an objection but gave it up without too much of a fight. He followed Dorian and St. Ambrose inside. The Lieutenant fished out his torch again and swept the small room. Against one bare, damp wall gaped a thin doorway. Against another wall was a cellar door, barred on the inside with a thick plank of wood. Runes snaked over its surface. Magic caressed his senses again.

"Gentlemen," St. Ambrose gestured them toward the small, opened door with a flourish. The passageway was narrow and damp but no mud sludged the floor or walls, giving silent testament to its frequent use. The blackness was thick around them, pressing in against their light. Klaus led the way. In such close quarters, Dorian was keenly aware of the German’s physical nearness. He could scent the musk of his skin and feel the occasional flutter of silk flames. Dorian drew a deep breath and warned himself not to get distracted.

The chanting grew louder and more distinct. Wails and gasps of ecstasy punctuated the rhythmic noise. The sound made him shiver. The scene of otherwhere grew stronger as they approached. Dorian resisted the impulse to grasp Klaus’ hand.

The tunnel began to grow brighter, lightening in an artificial imitation of dawn. St. Ambrose flicked off the torch and motioned them to the side. Another tunnel branched off from the first one.

"This way," the Lieutenant mouthed.

Klaus shrugged and turned down the path, making a "slow-down" gesture at Dorian. The thief nodded, understanding that it wasn’t a good idea to risk stumbling into anything that was making a sound like that!

After a few long minutes, the tunnel brightened further and opened out into a large, underground chamber. The chanting had grown loud and varied, the shouts of glory tumultuous and ringing. There were no guards at all and when they crouched just inside the tunnel, they could see the entire room.

Nearly two hundred people moved and danced in the flickering light of flaming torches. Sweat beaded and ran down dark, naked skin and bright feathers bobbed and swayed from twisting, wild hair. The odor of burning hemp, incense and herbs made the air acrid. Once every second or two, something would pop like a firecracker. Huge metal braziers belched smoke and colored flames. Tall poles were spiked upright throughout the crowd, some empty, some sporting feathers, beads and bones. One was crowned with a severed human head, rotting and discolored.

At the very center of the large room was a long table. At one end the priests gathered, odd and silent in business suits draped with arcane symbols and tattered herb ropes. The head priest wore sunglasses and a white fedora. In one hand, he mixed an oily concoction that looked green in the torch light. His lips moved in silent invocation. Behind them, against the wall stood Brishon Uzoma, arms crossed over his smooth chest, clad only in a white linen wrap-skirt and his sword.

On the table a corpse was laid out, naked, the dead skin seeming to swallow the light. Dorian bit his lip. It was Lord Stephen. He looked away from the body.

At the other end of the table was a thick pole. Tied to it, nude and trying hard to look defiant, was Silver. Her hair was trailing across her shoulders and on her skin were several red welts.

St. Ambrose jerked to attention when he saw her. Dorian laid a cautioning hand on his arm. The thief needed the touch himself, to still the frantic beating of his heart. They were so outnumbered; the best course now was to run, get help. But Dorian was held frozen in place by the sheer, overwhelming magnitude of the madness before him. And how could they go? What would happen to Silver if they left? It was impossible.

Dorian knew nearly all of the religions of the Goddess. He had spent more than a few years looking for a deity he could believe in. His search had taken him to many strange and unexpected places. He knew a little of Voodoun—and what was being practiced here was warped out of all proper form. Perhaps the magic worked for them this way, perhaps the spirits did answer them—but Dorian knew he wouldn’t have wanted to be on the receiving end of such a summons. Such things had a way of returning multifold on the person who called them.

Torch light flared, the drums beat faster and the dancers whirled. Someone screeched and fell to the ground. It was a tall woman dressed only in a red loincloth and beaded necklaces. When she suddenly jerked upright again, her eyes blazed with rage. She shook and snarled. She began to run around the room grabbing people and sinking her teeth into them. Blood ran into and then out of her mouth. She laughed and chased after one of the dancers. Another worshipper screamed and, when he opened his mouth, steam rose like a cloud from his throat.

Dorian huddled close to Klaus. He needed to touch von Eberbach, needed the courage his love always gave him. For there was insanity here—and angry, demented spirits. Dorian could see them out of the corner of his eye—strange shadow forms that mimicked human shape, then dissolved into something else, something not even animal. A couple across the room began to copulate wildly, ripping at each other with teeth and fingers.

The priests raised their hands and a counter-chant began to weave into the pounding rhythm of the primary song. Dorian shuddered. They should have never come here. They should have stayed away.

With a piercing scream, a form launched itself out of the crowd and into the tunnel. Dorian caught a glimpse of wild eyes with dilated, red pupils—pupils that matched the color of her loincloth and the blood that poured from her mouth. Then she was on top of Klaus, tearing at him, rasping out scream after scream.

Dorian didn’t give himself time to think. He threw himself on top of the possessed woman and grabbed her arms. He struggled backwards, trusting his body weight to do what his physical strength couldn’t. He was aware of St. Ambrose locking his arm around the woman’s neck, keeping her teeth only bare inches from Klaus’ throat.

The Major didn’t take more than a second’s respite to act. Klaus lashed out with a fist, knocking the woman back and away from him. She hit the floor with Dorian beneath her. Then she was up and after Klaus again.

Von Eberbach had gained his feet and the second blow he delivered smashed the possessed woman into the opposite wall, knocking her unconscious.

Dorian lay very still. The drums had ceased abruptly and in the dead quiet he could hear his breathing and Klaus’. He sat up.

"Gentlemen," St. Ambrose spoke calmly, almost casually.

The woman was out cold, lying on her face, her black hair a tangle around her. Standing beside her was a tall, black man. Next to him stood one of the priests. And Uzoma. Moving now in total silence, the tunnel filled with people. All of them were looking at Klaus, Dorian and St. Ambrose. All of them carried madness and death in their eyes.

After a long while, the high priest in the white fedora spoke.

"Bring them."

* * * * *

Klaus von Eberbach had never accepted bondage of any type without a struggle. It was a matter of ethics as well as an instinctive reaction. So he fought the men who wrestled him to the ground and then tied his hands behind his back. The Major kicked and landed a few well-deserved blows before they bound his feet. He could hear Dorian gasp and then cry out as they took him. The sound only made Klaus fight harder. After a few strategic kicks to his middle, however, the Major subsided and let them haul him into the center of the room. They pulled him upright, using his hair as a handhold. Dorian was placed beside him. On the other side was St. Ambrose.

Klaus tested the ropes and figured out that if he stood still without jerking around, he could stand on his own. The men who’d tied him up kept a good hold of him anyway. Dorian stood beside him quietly; a small line of blood trickled from a cut in his bottom lip. The Prince of Thieves bruised easily and Klaus could see at least three places where Dorian was going to have bad ones. Before them was the pole where Silver was bound. Her eyes were wretched—frightened and desperate. She kept staring at St. Ambrose.

The room grew silent as a grave. The dead Lord Stephen Kimberly stretched out before them on the table. Hostile, glittering eyes regarded them from every corner. Klaus’ stomach tightened. This was not good, not good at all.

"You have violated a sacred rite. You have offended the Spirits and struck down a follower of the Way of Fire." The head priest’s sunglasses reflected the torch light. "Our punishment for such acts is ancient." His gaze challenged the assembled worshipers. "Do any object to the sentencing of the violators?"

"Hell, yes! I object!" St. Ambrose’s voice was strong and emphatic.

The priest smiled tolerantly. "Charles St. Ambrose. We have heard of you. You shame your grandmother’s memory."

St. Ambrose gave a soft laugh. "My grandmother would have spit on your shadow and made wards for her children to keep such as you from their dreams. You corrupt the Old Way to advance your ambition. Yes, I know who you are."

One of the men laid a blow to St. Ambrose’s knees, making the Lieutenant fall to the floor—hard.

"You know nothing," the priest said calmly. "You are a fool." He surveyed Klaus and Dorian. "You will be killed and resurrected. You will be made Zombie."

Dorian stifled an exclamation of protest. St. Ambrose muttered a curse under his breath. Klaus looked the room over carefully. The only two exits were against the far wall—one was the hallway where they had been watching the ritual, the other a larger hall that branched off from the first. There were a few windows but they were very small and high up on the wall. Not even Silver could have squeezed out of one of them.

"We begin!" The priest raised his hand and the drums started up once again. Where there had been wildness and ecstasy before was now deadly intent. The torch light actually flickered and dimmed. The room grew darker. The dancers began to circle around them like lions on the prowl. Dorian shuddered and leaned even closer to Klaus. His wide blue eyes were frightened.

The priest started to chant in a high, carrying voice. He swirled the oily liquid and steam began to roll off of it into the close air. The light shimmered and moved over Lord Stephen’s body giving the illusion that it breathed.

The priest poured the liquid into a tall, narrow bone glass and handed it to Brishon Uzoma. The swordsman carried it to Silver, gasped her jaw and forced her mouth open.

St. Ambrose snarled and launched forward. His captors hauled him back and started to beat him. The Lieutenant was a strong young man and Klaus could well imagine how desperate he was. It took a little while before he lay still. By then Uzoma had forced the potion down Silver’s slender throat. The swordsman stepped back and handed the empty vial to the priest.

The drums increased their tempo and the other priests picked up the chant, pitching their voices to resonate and underscore the head priest’s tone. The dancers swirled; cries and wails punctuated the chants. The priest called out something and the torches flared suddenly, pouring fire down onto the floor, scorching the dancers who never noticed their burns.

Dorian slipped his fingers into one of Klaus’ hands. It was a subtle movement and since they were standing so close, it went unnoticed by their guards whose attention was riveted on the priests. The Prince of Thieves had managed to loosen his ties a bit, too, so his hand had more range of movement. Dorian grasped the Major’s hand and held on.

Klaus closed his fingers around Dorian’s. The thief was frightened and needed his reassurance—but the touch of his hand helped him think more clearly, too, for some reason.

Klaus knew they had to stop the ritual again. Perhaps if they interrupted it enough, the feverish intensity would break a little and the priest would have to start over completely. Time was what they needed.

Silver shuddered and her head dropped forward. She moved in her bindings as if in pain. St. Ambrose struggled to his feet only to be knocked down again. They weren’t going to give him the chance to cause more trouble.

Dorian leaned back against Klaus, his fingers flexing in the Major’s hand. His weight was almost pleasant against Klaus’ side. The heat of Dorian’s body was soothing and it was odd how his form seemed to fit Klaus’ even in this awkward position. The sensation was unexpected and it distracted Klaus a great deal. The fingers wiggled again.

Then something cold, hard and sharp touched the palm of the Major’s hand. Klaus froze. It was a knife. A very thin, very sharp knife. Klaus stayed extremely still while Dorian worked the blade into place and began to cut through the Major’s ropes with the barest of movements.

There were times when Klaus would have cheerfully throttled Dorian Red Gloria. There were days when he felt like murdering the insufferable thief. But there were also moments when he felt such a rush of admiration and fierce approval that it took his breath away. In this particular instance, Klaus could have kissed him.

The head priest poured more of the liquid into the bone vial and swirled it as if to make sure it was well mixed. He handed it to Uzoma. The swordsman approached them; he thrust his hand into Dorian’s hair, pulling his head back. Uzoma gave Dorian a small, neutral smile and raised the vial to the thief’s lips.

Like a snake, Klaus struck. He broke free of the ropes and thrust upward, catching Uzoma on the underside of the chin. The swordsman was quick and, although he jumped backwards with inhuman speed, Klaus’ fist still caught him a glancing blow. It knocked the bone container from his hand. The vial arched through the air and smashed against the table, spilling steaming, green potion all over Lord Stephen’s body.

For a second, nothing happened. Then the followers roared with a howl of rage.

The guards leapt on Klaus from behind and their combined weight carried him to the ground. The Major lashed out and kicked—rolled to make himself a more difficult target. He heard Dorian screaming his name.

With a sudden, quaking boom, all the windows in the room exploded inward. Glass rained down onto the floor with a sound like wind chimes. The noise drowned the drums and the wind fanned the torches. The whole building shook.

Everyone froze in surprise. Klaus got a clear view of one of the windows. Something had blown the whole thing off and created a huge, gaping hole. Through that hole, with rifles at the ready, came the New Orleans police.

* * * * *

The fight was short and very bloody. The followers, half mad from smoke and religious fervor, threw themselves at the police with abandonment. Knives slashed and flashed in the torch light. The rifles boomed in answer and blood arched through the air.

Klaus reached up and grabbed Dorian’s legs, pulling the thief unceremoniously onto the floor. Dorian hit hard and then cried out, startled as his beloved Major tossed him over his lap, face down. For a wild second amid the killing and the noise, Dorian wondered if Klaus was about to spank him. Instead, the German used the thin knife to cut the rope around Dorian’s wrists. Then the Major dumped him back on his ass with as much consideration as he had used yanking him to the floor.

"Stay down!" Klaus barked, cutting the ropes around both their ankles. Dorian kept his head lowered and was plenty glad of it when one of the spears whistled by overhead. Klaus thrust the knife back into Dorian’s hand, reached back underneath his hair and pulled his gun free. The Major’s green eyes were keen and blazing when he looked at Dorian.

"This way!" Klaus shouted and started running through the crowd, low to the ground, apparently looking for something.

Dorian followed. "What are you doing? We have to save Charles and Silver!"

"The priests!" Klaus yelled back. "I saw them run back down the tunnel. We can’t let them get away."

Dorian started to protest, then choked as a body blocked his way. It was the red loin-clothed woman, her eyes sightless and dead, her mouth frozen in a raging scream. Dimly, he felt Klaus grab his arm and drag him out of the embattled room.

Dorian followed von Eberbach, trying hard not to be sick. The tunnel was too damp, too hot. The wall that brushed his shoulder felt like it was covered in blood. He kept his eyes on Klaus and tried not to see or feel anything else.

The basement door and the window were both open, the wooden plank that had barred the way in was splintered and smoldering around the edges. Klaus raced through it without a second’s pause, gun at the ready.

The quiet of the alley was unexpected. Moonlight filtered down between the buildings in clean, sheer shafts. The sound of the River was near and soft. Frogs sang and burbled in constant, contrasting beat until the sounds were all one continuous song. Deep below came the muffled boom! of a rifle.

"Which way, Dorian?" Klaus’s voice was soft, businesslike.

The blond thief hesitated. It was the first time in days Klaus had addressed him by his proper name. For a moment, Dorian marveled at the German’s faith in his abilities. There was no doubt in Eberbach’s voice, no indication at all that he didn’t fully expect him to track the priests, no matter that it was night, that Voodoun priests had ways of making themselves nearly invisible, that smoke and fear and death had shaken him badly. Klaus clearly expected him to succeed.

Dorian Red Gloria drew a deep breath and looked around. He paced the alley carefully while Klaus waited. The Major’s belief in him was soothing and encouraging.

"Here." Dorian kept his voice soft. Against one of the walls was a vine, thin and green. Part way up was the slight imprint of a foot. "They went up."

The German grunted, holstered his gun, then gestured. "Good work, thief. After you."

Dorian grinned. Like a sudden sunrise, his whole mood changed. Phoenix-like, his heart lifted and soared. Klaus was here with him, they had villains to catch and they were both gloriously alive! What was there to fear with Klaus at his side? Not even twisted magic had proven their equal.

With a soft laugh, Dorian scampered up the side of the building, taking care to point out the handholds to Klaus, who wasn’t as used to scaling buildings. Without any fear at all, his Major followed, strong arms and fingers finding and making use of every crack and seam in reach. Klaus’ fire tatters fluttered as he went. Muscular thighs bunched and stretched beneath red lycra. He joined Dorian on the roof only seconds after the thief had reached it himself.

"You are incomparable, darling," Dorian whispered. "You’re the only man I know who’d manage a wall like that without a course in climbing and a safety rope! No wonder I love you so!"

Klaus shook his hair back and pulled his gun free. "Ja. Perhaps I should ask for an increase in salary."

"Darling," Dorian gasped. "You made a joke!"

"Nein. Perhaps I am serious." The answer was dry. "Which way?"

The priests were easier to track on the roof. Once above ground they apparently saw little reason to hide their passage, trusting to a conventional policeman’s assumption that escape lay among the streets and in cars. Klaus and Dorian made good time. Before long they could see figures ahead of them, moving steadily.

"Confident," Klaus mused in a whisper. "They are not even running."

They followed, leaping from one roof to the next.

A form flashed out of the shadow where a taller building over-hung the shorter one. It was inhumanly fast and moved like a soaring falcon. It struck Klaus with an audible impact. A dark fist smashed against the Major’s wrist. The pistol skittered across the roof, coming to a stop several yards away. Von Eberbach brought up his other fist, then stopped the gesture short.

Against his throat rested a silver-bladed sword.

Brishon Uzoma smiled down at the Major. "Greetings, German."

He still wore only the white wrap skirt. Across his back was strapped a spare sword. The edge of his own drawn blade rested against Klaus’ flesh. His gold-tipped braids glittered in the moonlight.

"Don’t hurt him," Dorian said. There was the sound of the blood of kings in his voice. It was an aristocrat’s voice, a man who was used to giving commands. And used to being obeyed.

"Why should I spare him?" Uzoma asked, almost casually. "The Spirits have been called and no sacrifice has been made. They are angry. Can you not feel it, Cat Foot?"

"Yes. I feel it. But the Major isn’t part of that. You can’t—" Dorian’s eyes widened. This could not be happening; he could not let it happen. His voice faltered and died leaving only desperation and despair locked in a stricken young face. "Don’t… please…"

Uzoma shook his head briefly. His smile became a shade more rueful.

"You speak with great passion but you do not convince." There was another flash of teeth, as cold as the metal pressed to Klaus’ throat. "What can you do to stop me?"

Dorian took in a deep breath. "If you kill him, you will never have me."

"Eroica!" Klaus snapped, appalled. "What—"

Uzoma struck him, cobra quick, turning the sword hilt, smashing it against the Major’s head.

"You will be silent, I think." Uzoma returned the edge to Klaus’ throat. "Continue, Cat Foot. I am intrigued."

Dorian stared as Klaus struggled against passing out. His own breath heaved out of his body in an unconscious sob; his slim fingers curled into fists. Silence lashed the space between them. Blood streamed across the Major’s brow. The thief recalled with terrible clarity just how sharp Uzoma’s blade was.

"As I said, Brishon Uzoma, you will never have me." Dorian’s voice dropped to a low, sibilant purr. He forced his screaming muscles to relax. "You’ll never know what it was like to take me. Never know how good it could have been. You can kill us both. You’ll have to, you know. But—if you do…." Dorian lifted his shoulder in a little shrug. He smiled.

And put everything he had into that one smile. I know what you want, those blue eyes whispered. Promised. I am the best you’ll ever have…. And you know it, too.

"Perhaps," Uzoma murmured. He remained quite still for a long, agonizing moment, keeping the blade pressed to Klaus’ throat. Suddenly, he reached a decision. "Very well," he agreed. "it is time."

Brishon Uzoma moved swiftly, putting Dorian between them.

Major von Eberbach lurched to his feet, staggering. He scowled at Dorian, furious. "What the hell do you think you are doing, thief? Why didn’t you run? What is going on here?"

"No time to talk now, darling." Dorian pulled the knife hidden in his hair loose and handed it to Klaus. In a duel there could be no secret weapons, no ruses.

Klaus was pale and angry beneath the blood that streaked his face. Dorian trembled passing the blade to him. Klaus, what was he going to do with Klaus? There was no chance that the Major would leave—no chance that Uzoma would allow him to go.

"Darling," Dorian began. "Klaus, my love, please do not interfere." You must let me do this for you, he pleaded silently.

The Major looked startled. He said, "What do you mean?"

Dorian could hardly keep his eyes off Uzoma. The man had pulled the spare sword from his back. The blades were twins of each other. Dorian would have wagered his entire collection that they were equally balanced, equal in length and weight. Uzoma was only a half inch shorter than Dorian and roughly of the same weight. The Earl’s heart fluttered and he couldn’t keep from smiling. In spite of the danger to Klaus and himself, he knew that this was going to be wonderful.

Good. It was best to concentrate on that.

"Uzoma and I are going to duel, Major," Dorian said, firmly. "Please understand. This is very personal and I wouldn’t take it all well if you interfered." He tore his eyes away from the Islander and stared at his German love. "I beg you, darling."

"Nein—you cannot be serious."

Dorian drew in another deep breath. "Klaus." He waited until the Major looked at him. He held Klaus’ green-eyed gaze with his own. "Do not disturb us." He had never used that tone of voice with Klaus before—but he knew Uzoma would kill Klaus if he got in the way. This situation had become a very private—and crucial—matter between himself and the Islander. Klaus simply had to stay out of it.

For a brief second, the Major looked surprised. Then his arching black brows plunged down into a deep, stubborn frown. He folded his arms over his chest and regarded Dorian with silent rage.

Dorian spared him one last entreaty. "Please, Klaus." Then he stepped forward.

The roof was fairly level, with just enough unexpected roughness to make the footing interesting. The moonlight was bright enough for good visibility.

Uzoma gave Dorian a slow bow, his dark eyes never wavering. Dorian returned the gesture. The Islander offered both swords, hilt first.

"Your choice, my Golden One, my Cat Foot."

"Why, thank you, love. How considerate of you." Dorian chose the sword on the left, stepping back out of range to test the blade. If a good duel could be compared to love-making then the testing of the sword was foreplay. It was always an excellent barometer as to how well the match would go. Dorian swung the blade a little, did a backhand crossover. His stomach and groin tightened in anticipation. This was going to be exquisite!

"Are you well satisfied?" Uzoma asked in his honey-rum voice.

Dorian’s smile brightened. "Not yet, but the sword is lovely. I take it yours is a twin?" Uzoma smiled slowly. "By the same swordsmith, in the same year. You may try it if you wish."

"No need, darling. I trust your word."

Uzoma drew a slow, sensual breath. His invitation was as provocative as a kiss. "Shall we?"

"Delighted."

They moved into range, blades raised into guard position. They circled each other, slowly, watching. Dorian had never met a man so graceful, so naturally athletic. Uzoma moved as if fighting were as much a part of his life as sleeping or breathing. The occasional roughness of the roof only made him grin, as if it were a good jest. He moved like a cobra—hypnotically smooth. His black, black eyes never left Dorian’s gaze.

Dorian relaxed, letting the night ease into his limbs, letting the danger of the moment soothe his nerves into a calm but hyper-aware state. He knew that he was smiling at Uzoma and he knew that the smile was much more sexual and alluring than it needed to be but he couldn’t stop himself This battle was food for his spirit, a balm to his restless soul.

Uzoma struck first. The blade sliced in so fast it was hardly a flash in the pale light. But Dorian moved a fraction of an inch to the side, caught the blade as it compensated and neatly deflected it. The thief countered with a fast, subtle move to the unguarded left shoulder but Uzoma’s blade turned the strike away. The first kiss of steel. Dorian’s pleasure grew despite himself.

They circled again. Wind played in Dorian’s hair, his feet glided across the rough surface. The air in his lungs was clean and sweet. Life narrowed to the dark-eyed man across from him and the dance of swords. This was what he was meant for. This parry and strike. This night of skill and steel and nerve.

Dorian never gave another thought to Klaus von Eberbach. He couldn’t afford to.

* * * * *

Klaus clenched his fists and tried not to make any noise. Dorian and the island assassin circled around each other. At unexpected moments the swords would flash, faster than the eye could follow, so close to their marks that Klaus couldn’t tell until seconds afterwards that they hadn’t scored any hits. The Major’s stomach knotted, reacting to that display of speed and steel.

Desperately, Klaus looked around, trying to catch sight of something that he could use to distract Uzoma. His gun was several yards away beyond the duelers.

The blades met, exchanging more pleasantries. Then parted again. Klaus held his breath trying to see.

No blood.

Without warning, Uzoma struck, fast and furious. His blade sang in the air as the Islander made thrust after thrust. Klaus couldn’t tell how many blows he lashed out in those few seconds. Steel battered steel again and again. Rising above it all, the Major heard Dorian’s delighted laugh. Klaus ground his teeth together. Insane! Dorian was insane to find this amusing!

The fighters parted, then re-engaged almost immediately. This time they didn’t back off. Klaus stood, frozen with dread. The swords lashed at each other, the two men ahnost waltzing together, trapped in a web of flashing silver. Moonlight glistened on fierce smiles of joy and razor sharp sword-edges.

Dorian and Uzoma parted again.

Once again, no blood.

"Mein Gott." Klaus had to stop this. Dorian was no killer. Uzoma obviously was. There was only one way that this ridiculous duel would end—and Klaus had to keep that from happening. He tore his eyes away with an effort and looked for a weapon again. The Major began moving cautiously toward his gun, keeping away from the swordsman.

Klaus couldn’t fire at Uzoma. The fight moved so fast and unpredictably that he could well have hit Dorian instead. Wait. He could fire over their heads. Three or four fast shots. The F.B.I. and the local police were out in force, trying to find the escaped priests. An unexpected volley of gunfire would no doubt startle the island swordsman.

But how would Dorian react to such an interruption? Klaus hesitated, caught in an unexpected agony of indecision.

"Do not disturb us." Klaus frowned. He’d never heard Dorian so adamant before.

The swords engaged again. The blades clashed in a rapid exchange of blows. This time, Uzoma laughed. It was hard to tell what had transpired. The two men were both master swordsman and the fight went too fast to actually follow. They parted. Dorian glided away from the Islander.

No blood. Still no blood. Klaus let out his breath in a ragged gasp. Shook his head. This could not continue so much longer.

Determined, the Major edged closer to his gun. He had to move slowly so that he didn’t disrupt Dorian’s concentration. But finally, he reached the weapon. With a fierce grin of satisfaction, Klaus brought his gun up. He judged the height of the duelers. Made his decision. For a brief second, it occurred to him that Dorian was going to be very angry with him.

Nonsense. The thief would be most definitely dead if the Major didn’t do something.

Uzoma and Dorian closed the distance between them again. The sharp clash of steel filled the air.

With a quick, decisive movement, Klaus pulled off four fast shots, aimed just above Uzoma and Dorian.

Uzoma’s head jerked up. Dorian’s sword came in, speed and direction in complete control. His weight hit Uzoma first, then the blade came in to rest against the throat.

The Islander was no fool. Once he’d been distracted, he knew the game was up. He shot backwards, pushing himself out of range. Dorian’s sword cut a shallow groove across his chest. But Uzoma somersaulted off the roof and was gone.

For a second, nothing happened. Then Klaus heard a distinct splash.

"The River," Dorian gasped. "He’s gone into the River. Smart move."

For another long moment, neither Klaus nor Dorian moved. Then Dorian Red Gloria turned to face the Major. He shook his hair back. Moonlight caught in his damp, pale curls and glistening skin until it seemed as if he were drenched in stars. The thief sighed deeply. The smile he turned on Klaus was dazzling and the Major could only stare back. When Dorian smiled like that it was hard, very hard, to remember that they were supposed to be enemies. Hard to remember that he was supposed to hate him. The minute hovered like a bird on the brink of eternity. The air crystallized. Time stopped. Once again, it seemed as if Klaus had been standing and staring at Dorian for a long time. That brilliant smile never changed; his hair remained whitewashed by moonlight. Forever reached out to caress them both. Terrified and fascinated, Klaus didn’t move. He couldn’t move. Surely, they had stood like this before… for lifetimes. Ages roiled beneath Klaus’ feet.

Dorian glided towards him. When he was close enough that Klaus could feel his breath on his face, Dorian lifted his hand to touch the wound on Klaus’ head. His skin was so cool, his fingers so smooth, so gentle.

"That’s quite a lurnp, Major," Dorian said softly. "You’re still bleeding a bit."

"It is nothing." Was that his voice? So faint it sounded and far away.

Dorian shook his head. "No. It was never ‘nothing,’ not to me." The thief sighed again and drew back. "But, darling, how could you? I was having such fun."

Time shuddered, shifted—and lunged forward again. Klaus scowled, trying to shake off a fleeting touch of fear. Why did this keep happening to him? What was wrong with this place?

"You are not here to have fun," he snapped, a familiar tune. "You are here on NATO’s behalf."

"Not so, Mr. Tank Commander," Dorian answered, blithely. "I am here because I’m crazy about you. And for no other reason. Period." He rolled his blue eyes heavenward and shook his head. "Why do you keep forgetting that?"

"Because it is a ridiculous reason!" Klaus snapped. "You are absurd! And, indecent, too. I keep hoping you will gain some sense but it is useless. Let’s go. The priests have vanished. We will never catch them now. But there are reports to be written."

"Oh, joy." Dorian’s voice was dry. Still, he followed Klaus down off the roof. "Reports. So that’s how you duty-bound types relax and get your jollies."

"We are not here to relax. We are not here to play games."

Dorian winced, trailing along in the Major’s wake. Still sputtering on about duty and responsibility and the egos of self-centered children, Klaus marched towards the equally noisy bluster of the main thoroughfare. He was on the prowl for headquarters, or so the thief supposed. The Major’s old song continued, rocketing on something like that manic pink rabbit from the American television commercials. Dorian’s grimace transformed into a chuckle.

The rear panorama of Klaus in motion, briskly marching along the cobblestones, provided a most appealing panorama, not your typical tourist attraction. Ever the optimist, Dorian lengthened his stride to keep him in view.

Someday you’ll change your tune, Major, Dorian thought. And how we shall dance together then.

"I know what you are doing back there," Klaus bellowed. He turned and captured the thief’s arm, jerking him along to walk beside him. "Don’t look at me with those eyes."

Dorian’s high spirits could not be dampened.

"Anything you say, darling," he agreed, trying, not quite successfully, to keep his visions to himself.

"I know what you are thinking. One day," Klaus stormed, threatening. "One day, you will go too far."

Dorian frankly bubbled with suppressed mischief. He made a valiant effort to wash the smile off lips. Still, he could not control his tongue.

"Really, Major? just how far would you like me to go?"

Dorian Red Gloria followed the screaming German up to the main road.

* * * * *

"The map was here. Not an exceptionally clever place—but it worked to an intents and purposes." The Coroner pointed to a picture of Lord Stephen’s head. Part of the hair had been shaved away and thin blue lines of tattooing snaked across his scalp. "I believe that Lieutenant St. Ambrose and his men have already recovered the Staff of Mithra."

"Where was it?" Dorian asked. He kept his eyes averted from the dozens of pictures of the corpse that were strewn all over the Coroner’s desk. It was a white, stark, sanitary-looking desk in a white, stark, sanitary room. Even the Coroner was white and germ-free, his hair and skin neatly matching the lab coat he wore.

"In St. Agnes’ Cemetery." The Divisionary Head of the F.B.I. spoke from the open doorway. His name was Louis Calgary and, if St. Ambrose looked like a walking fashion plate, his immediate superior looked like a barely-tamed jungle warrior. Galgary’s skin was nearly coal black; formidable muscles strained against the boundaries of his suit. His hair was wom short and natural; his eyes were bold and calculating. "It wasn’t hard to find at all once the correct mausoleum was located. The Staff is being held in trust for Lord Stephen’s heir to claim."

"NATO has been advised?" Klaus asked. He was still in costume as was Dorian. They’d had no time to change clothes and had come directly to the Coroner’s office after filling out a few dozen reports. Dorian was referred to in all of the paperwork as "Agent E." He’d given Klaus more than enough teasing about swimming—at least for a while—in the Major’s famous Alphabet Soup (a title Klaus had invented himself that had been instantly adopted nearly world-wide). Eberbach tolerated the jest with amazing good nature. Not for the first time Dorian wondered exactly what it was about New Orleans that shifted Klaus’ mood to such extremes and made him act so… differently. One minute the bellowing belligerent, the next quiet, even pleasant—thoughtful.

"Here," Calgary handed Klaus a fax. The Major scanned it and grunted, then wadded it up and tossed it in the Coroner’s scrubbed-clean trash can. "I am recalled to Bonn tomorrow." Klaus stood up and shook Louis Calgary’s hand. "I will be on my way."

"We appreciate your help, Major. If NATO needs anything, they know my number." He shook Dorian’s hand. "A pleasure, Eroica. Do me a big favor and leave the antique stores alone. We had another tax increase this last session and things are tight."

Dorian issued his most charming smile. "How terrible. I promise I haven’t stolen a thing—and I don’t intend to."

"I am curious," Klaus said, pausing in the doorway. "How did the F.B.I. know where the Cult was holding the ceremony?"

Calgary smiled. "A tip-off, Major. A man called in on my personal line and told me where it was. Very explicit about directions and time. You’ll find this interesting, too—we did a check on Brishon Uzoma. Seems the man is a Voodoun priest from St. Thomas. He’s studied and mastered over four kinds of martial disciplines."

"What was he doing with the Cult?" Dorian asked.

Calgary’s smile got wider. "We don’t know anything for sure—but island rumor says that Uzoma was sent—or went on his own—for the purpose of annihilating the head members of the organization. A Voodoun Paladin, you might say. Speculations are that he let the priests escape us so that he could deal with them himself"

"But that is just rumor," Klaus said.

"True. But so far, the bodies of two of the six priests you described have been found washed up on the river bend. Dead of sword wounds." Calgary shrugged. "We’ll see what happens. If rumor is accurate, the Cult may suffer a significant setback."

Louis Calgary walked Klaus and Dorian down the hall to the elevator. They shook hands again. "Thank you, gentlemen," he said. "Come back on holiday sometime."

* * * * *

Outside, Mardi Gras was still in full swing. The smell of wild, green perfume washed over them as they opened the door and descended the steps to the sidewalk. Dorian breathed in a deep sigh of satisfaction and cast an admiring glance at Klaus. The Major looked so good in red! Not that his marvelous German wouldn’t look good in (or out) of anything but red suited Klaus’ nature and made his hair as black as midnight. How glorious his long, muscular legs were. How strong and unintentionally inviting were his broad shoulders.

"What are you smiling at?" Klaus scowled.

"You. You look so good." Dorian arched his back, closed his eyes and breathed in the night. The distant sounds of Mardi Gras beckoned. "We triumphed once again, my beautiful enemy! The night is still young and the greatest party in North America awaits." Dorian opened his eyes and slanted Klaus the most seductive look he could muster—the look that had brought kings to his hand, that had tamed professional assassins, the look that had never failed him.

"Nein," the Major stated firmly.

As usual, the look had no impact on Klaus von Eberbach. "I must pack and catch the next flight to Germany. I have better things to do than run around in this." He shook his arm in disdain, making the fire-tatters dance.

Dorian dropped the seduction and resorted to his usual approach with Klaus—begging. "Please, love. Only one drink and then you can go back to Charles’ apartment. We have to go through the Quarter anyway."

Klaus started walking.

Dorian hurried to catch up. "After all," he pointed out, stubbornly, "you owe me that much after the way you hurt me."

"What are you talking about?"

Dorian rubbed his upper arm. "Where you grabbed me. You were rough and mean to me. You hurt my arm."

"You shouldn’t have been throwing yourself at that… that man!"

"It hurt," Dorian insisted, staunchly.

After a moment, Klaus said, curtly, "Sorry."

"It’s all right, darling. But you do owe me a drink."

They stopped at a corner to let traffic pass. Across the intersection, facing them, was a group of young men. They wore rock and roll rags, leather belts and faded jeans. Their boots were all worn and scuffed. Their torn shirts carefully sliced. Each one sported a king’s ransom in ruby, black jade and garnet earrings. One of them was a lithe, muscular, cat-like creature. His hair was as red as fire and his sullen looks were as cagey and wild as a young wolf. His green eyes met Dorian’s across the expanse of concrete and warmed pleasantly. Those green eyes were large and tilted at the corners and the smile he flashed at Dorian was inviting and biting. Hot stuff.

"Nein," Klaus had concluded. "You are impossible. You are an embarrassment. I will not go anywhere with you and I will never buy you a drink." The Major crossed his arms to underscore his resolution.

Dorian sighed, shrugged. A stubborn Major von Eberbach was less moveable than the Alps. Maybe it was just as well. This way, at least, they could part on relatively decent terms.

The red head across the street shook back his long, ragged hair. He perceptively separated himself from the rest of his crew. Regarded Dorian with a stark, American forthrightness.

"All right, darling," Dorian said and drew himself up to his full height. Defeated he might be but he was still the Ace of Hearts as well as the Prince of Thieves—and he had his pride. "Maybe somebody else will buy me a drink. Or two." He smiled back at the redhead. Maybe the night wouldn’t have to be an entire waste….

Klaus Von Eberbach caught the look and traced it across the intersection to a group of young men. They were American rock and roll kids wearing jewels in their ears, chains around their throats and rags everywhere else. One of them was grinning back at Dorian with a keen glint of pleasure and anticipation in his emerald eyes. He was a wild-looking youth, red-headed with a well-chiseled body designed for brawls and bedroom games. With a jolt, Klaus suddenly understood that the stranger was very pleased with and even encouraged Dorian’s smile and attention. He wanted Dorian!

Klaus looked back at his blond companion and stared as if seeing him for the first time. Dorian wore his blue-green lycra with all the unconcerned grace of a nymph. His dancer’s body held no trace of awkwardness or fear. Dorian’s curls tumbled free down his back to tease at the curve where his body formed shapely buttocks. His eyes were large and too blue for words. The blithe spirit that shined out from those blue pools fairly glowed beneath the invitation that young rocker was so-obviously sending. Mein Gott! Dorian was intending to go to him, too!

The packing could wait.

"All right," Klaus snapped and caught hold of Dorian’s arm just above the elbow. He took care to avoid the bruises and tried not to inflict new ones. "Just one drink! No more. We’ll go now."

The light changed and Klaus hustled Dorian across the street, keeping himself between the thief and the redhead who turned to watch them dash past.

Dorian was laughing. "Wonderful! I know just the place. And they serve delicious shrimp. Oh, listen to the music! I should love to dance…."

* * * * *

She woke to total darkness. With a gasp she threw up her hands, fully expecting to feel hard, unmovable wood. What she encountered was air and then warm hands captured her wrists.

"It’s all right, Silver." The voice was rich as honey wine, as warm as brandy in a smoky room. "It’s all over and done."

St. Ambrose. Charles. The warm hands traveled down her wrists, found and held her hands. He pulled them against his chest. She could feel his heart beating.

"Charles?" She could tell, now, that she was in a hospital. Through the gloom of the night-washed room, Silver could see the faint outline of a window.

"Yes." His voice was so beautiful….

"Sweet Mary," she muttered in relief. To her surprise, he gathered her close, pulling her fully onto his lap.

After an astonishing second, she relaxed and nestled close against him. His arms went around her. Nothing in the world felt so safe, so peaceful.

For a long, long time they stayed that way, content to be with each other. Silver pushed away the memories that tried to disturb her. Time enough for that later. Right now she wanted this to last for hours. But such wishes required sacrifices to come true. And she had only one thing to offer. Oddly enough, she didn’t mind giving it up to this man.

"My name is Melisanda," she said.

Charles St. Ambrose was quiet for a moment. "How pretty." He thought about it for a while. "it fits you. Melisanda." He rolled the name in his wonderful voice, treasuring the sound. After another minute, he offered up his own sacrifice. "I love you, Melisanda," he said.

She smiled against his shoulder. "Thank God. Let’s get out of here and find some place to make love."

St. Ambrose laughed and when he lowered his head, their lips met. Some sacrifices were well worth making.

* * * * *

The night lay quiet and potent over the black expanse of water. The little river was merely a finger of the great Mississippi but it carried in its depth all the power and magic of its dam. Frogs worshipped it from moss-covered banks and snakes hung above it from vine-draped branches of old, twisting trees.

Silently, the black water parted and birthed a man.

He arose, shedding water from dark, dark skin. His braids caught drops and reflected them back in black crystals. In one hand he carried a naked, gleaming sword. In the other, a human head. Brishon Uzoma placed feet upon the Earth and walked. He stopped and hurled the head deep, deep into the dark unmoving wall of trees.

"Feed well, my brothers of the Earth." The language he used stilled the sounds of the night. It made the snakes stir in their lofty nests. "Feed well. justice has been served—at least, for now."

Uzoma turned then and re-entered the womb that had spawned him.

The River accepted him back without a sound and the black water smoothed over his head like a mother’s caress.

The frogs resumed their songs. The snakes slithered down from their branches and set feet upon the Earth.

* * * * *

Airports were depressing places. They always signaled an end of an adventure. And a parting. Specifically, a parting from the only man the Earl Dorian Red Gloria loved. He put a smile on his lips and refused to let it dip. Klaus hated emotional displays.

They stood in the walkway between gates 15 and 16. One left for Germany in an hour. The other left for London in a bare ten minutes. Dorian had been late, of course, but luckily, St. Ambrose had arrived and hustled the luggage into place while the Earl cleaned up a last few details by phone. He had been pleased to see Klaus waiting for him, a pleasure only a little diminished by the discovery that the Major’s flight was leaving from almost the same gate. No matter. Fate was allowing him a last few moments of Klaus’ company.

"I had such fun last night, Major!" Dorian smiled in delight. What a marvelous time they’d had! They’d shared a drink and a bowl of shrimp. Then Klaus had run into a friend, of all things. The black saxophone player wasn’t at all the type of man Dorian expected the Major to know, but there had been a tie between them so deep and strong that Dorian could almost see it glowing between them like a golden thread. Klaus had started to introduce them but the old man merely laughed, laid a warm, gentle hand on Dorian’s shoulder and said, "Yor gonna be all right—you wait and see, sugar."

Then someone across the room had started hamming out a Temptations tune. The old man started in with an accompaniment. Dorian, at first, provided background. He couldn’t resist. And by the time the room had elected him lead singer, Klaus had gotten to the piano by the bar. The Major knew an amazing number of Supremes songs.

The rest of the night was magic. Dorian sang and Klaus played piano while the old man gave the music soul. The waiters had ended up as backups complete with hand gestures and coordinated dance steps.

"Baby Love, my Baby Love, I need ya—oh, how I need ya!

Pure, sweet, silly magic. Dorian had never felt so full of life and love.

Klaus, of course, was pretending as if the whole night had never happened.

The Major said, "I have heard that the Mithra Staff has already been claimed by the heir." He lit a cigarette. Klaus was back in his suit again, his fiery tatters of Mardi Gras back in the little shop where Dorian had found them, none the worse for a little magic and a few Motown tunes.

"Really?" Dorian said, distracted. "That’s nice. Oh, look—here comes Charles."

St. Ambrose joined them, wearing a pair of dark green safari trousers, an amber silk tank top and a pair of custom-made calf high moccasin boots. A gold necklace with a golden impala pendant hung from his neck. A gold watch chain dangled from one pocket.

"All clear, Eroica. Or should I say, ‘m’lord Dorian’? Are they boarding yet?"

"Any second. Thank you, Charles—I wouldn’t have managed so well on my own." Dorian fished out a cigarette and gazed at Klaus from beneath lowered lashes. "I only wish Mr. James would let me travel on a private jet. Please, kind sir, may I have a light?"

"Light yourself." Klaus tossed him the lighter.

"Oh, I’d much rather have you do it."

The Major’s brows furrowed. "Be silent, thief." Klaus turned to the Lieutenant. "The Staff went out under guard, ja?"

"Beats me, Major." St. Ambrose shrugged. "Apparently the heir didn’t want one."

The P.A. system buzzed to life. "Gate 16 to London, Gatwick, Boarding First Class and Special Assistant passengers. Please have your boarding passes ready."

Dorian turned again to Klaus. "I must rush, Major. When will I see you again?"

"Never," Klaus snapped. And then, to St. Ambrose. "No guard at all?"

"He said he didn’t need one. I wasn’t there, mind you, but I’d think with him going all the way to England, he’d sure want some official escort."

By that time Dorian had sensed impending doom and had moved his ass quickly into line. He was just passing the boarding tunnel when Klaus pieced it all together, that Lord Stephen Kimberly’s heir—of course—was the one, the only….

"EROICA!"

"Bye, darling," Dorian called back as Klaus tried his damnedest to get through the crowd and the guards. "Kiss-kiss!"

"EROICA…!"

The Earl of Red Gloria waved cheerfully. Sometimes, the Major was just too adorable for words.

"Love you!" Dorian called back. His only answer was an ominous crash and furious German curses. His Klaus. He did love him terribly.

 

END

 

Eroica