One Morning In January


by Kadorienne

It wasn't the sort of place a von dem Eberbach was expected to frequent. The attendants did not wear livery; they wore faded jeans and tattered T-shirts advertising bands which had been credited with hastening the decline of western civilization. The adult beverages were not the sort whose bouquet you inhaled before holding them up to the light to appraise their color, but rather the sort you poured down your throat until they rendered you incapable of perceiving their bouquet, their color, and, if you were very lucky, their flavor. And no matter how much Colonel Eberbach wanted an heir, if his son had married any of the young women present, Lieutenant Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach would have found himself disinherited on the spot.

"He's late," Klaus remarked, lighting a fresh cigarette. They were sitting at a booth in the back, facing the door.

"They're always late," Major Alexander replied.

"The nuns always told us that unpunctuality is the first step on the road to perdition."

Alexander nodded. "'S how it starts. With the little things. One day you decide it's okay to be late for your barber. Next thing you know, you're trafficking in nuclear weapons."

"Guess you don't have to worry, then. You don't need a barber anymore," Klaus said, letting his eyes rest for a moment on Alexander's bald crown.

"Looks like you're a few years late for your barber, Lieutenant. I should probably have you investigated." He took a tiny sip of his drink, regretted it, and put the mug down. "Julius Caesar was bald, you know. Look where it got him."

"If you start wearing a laurel wreath, I'm applying for a transfer."

Alexander shrugged. "Undercover regulations don't allow rank insignia anyway."

"Think that's him," Klaus said, his already ramrod-like posture straightening further.

All they knew about their contact was that his first name was Frederik, that he was a middleman in various illegal weapons sales, and that he was ready, for whatever reason, to cut a deal. The man who had just entered wasn't as tall as Klaus or Alexander, and he was thin and wiry. His hair was very light blond, close-cut, and his skin extremely pale. They didn't know what "Frederik" looked like, but the man's demeanour spoke volumes. His glance jumped rapidly from patron to patron before settling on the two men in the back. With another apprehensive look around, he started towards them. Inspiring the other patrons to see who the jumpy man had been looking for.

"Idiot," Klaus said.

"Could be a good thing." Alexander picked up his mug automatically, thought better of it, and set it back down. "If he's that nervous."

"We'll lean on him."

The man reached their booth and slid in across from them. He craned his neck to survey the bar again.

"It's okay. Everybody knows you're looking for someone now," Klaus told him.

The blond man looked like he'd been slapped. He started another spastic survey of the room but stopped himself with visible effort. "He's gonna find out."

"Who's gonna find out what?" Klaus prompted, imitating the man's intonations.

The man paused, giving himself five more seconds of his previous normal life before plunging irrevocably into fresh and dangerous waters. "Christian Anderlik. That I turned him in." His eyes bounced nervously from Klaus to Alexander and back. "That is, if you can—"

A bartender showed up. Klaus automatically noted that he was approximately thirty-five years of age, between seventy and seventy-three kilograms in weight, five feet nine inches tall, had dingy brown hair and grey eyes, and probably lived on potato chips and beer. "Get you anything?" the bartender asked, examining them all with poorly concealed curiosity.

Frederik stuttered. "The house beer, it's excellent," Klaus suggested. Frederik nodded quickly. The bartender ambled away. They waited till he'd finally delivered the drink and made a reluctant retreat — and till Frederik had rashly swallowed a mouthful of the undrinkable beer, Klaus was pleased to observe — before speaking again.

"How do we know you can deliver Anderlik?" Klaus asked, sounding almost bored. He wasn't. He was electrified. Christian Anderlik was possibly the most notorious weapons dealer in Germany. NATO had been after him for years. A chance to get him ranked slightly below the Holy Grail. Beside Klaus, Alexander remained equally unperturbed, but Klaus knew his pulse had also quickened at the scent of big game.

"He's in Bonn," Frederik confided.

"For how long?"

"Even if he leaves, he'll come back."

"Where exactly is he?"

"I don't know where he's living," Frederik admitted, then continued, his words falling over each other. "But I know when he's meeting someone to make an exchange. And — I know where his girlfriend lives!"

Klaus and Alexander exchanged bored glances. Klaus remembered his cigarette and took a drag. He did not offer Frederik one.

"No, I'm telling you, he'll — he's really in love with her. I mean, I wouldn't have thought it either, not Anderlik, not at his age, but I guess he's met his Waterloo, you know? But seriously, he's been doing more business than ever the last two months, and selling off his assets — putting his affairs in order, you might say. It looks like he's planning to quit, take her and go to a tropical island or some bullshit. I'm not the only one who thinks so. I mean, you should see how much time he spends with this girl! And the stuff he buys her — he's not gonna invest that much without expecting a return, know what I mean?"

Klaus let him squirm in the silence for a time before speaking. "What exactly are you offering us?"

"I can tell you lots of stuff about him. I know some of the places where he stashes the goods, and a couple of his money launderers. And I can give you his rendezvous. You can snatch him there. Or at his girl's, 'cause he'll come back for her if—"

"Why?" Klaus snapped suddenly. Frederik jumped. "Why are you giving him up?"

Frederik's gaze wavered.

"You pissed him off?"

"So maybe I overcharged him a little."

"How much is a little? Four figures? Five?"

Frederik's Adam's apple bobbed. "Six," he rasped.

Klaus really wanted to laugh, but he knew better. "You're a fucking idiot. You didn't think he wouldn't notice, did you?"

"Well, he's been—" Frederik stopped. "Are you people going to help me out or what?"

Klaus got up and slammed his hands on the table, looming over the other man. "You're a two-bit crook just like he is! Why the hell should we do anything for you? You're just a slimy little—"

"Hey. Quiet down," Major Alexander said, speaking for the first time. They had found The Silent Partner Who Suddenly Speaks an effective tactic for putting interrogatees off balance. Alexander put a calming hand on Klaus's arm. "Let's hear him out. If he can really help us get Anderlik… maybe we could do something for him."

Experience had demonstrated that Klaus was not convincing in the Good Cop role.

Klaus and Alexander left an hour later, having agreed to give Frederik a Get Out Of Jail Free card if his information paid off.

"We really going to let him go?" Klaus asked as they drove away. Rather than turn the heat up, he shoved his hands into his pockets. Heat and cold were a matter of discipline.

"I said we would," Alexander replied.

"Well, as long as you're in charge, I won't get blamed if we screw up," Klaus conceded. "Sir." Alexander was the only superior with whom he had ever joked in this way.

His superior briefly cracked a smile. "I don't like it either, Eberbach. But this isn't the first time I've dealt with the devil, and it won't be the last. Our friend's lost his nerve. He won't be giving us any more trouble. Anderlik's the big fish."

"'Trade a brick for a piece of jade,'" Klaus quoted.

"The Thirty-Six Strategies. You've been doing your homework."

"You recommended that one." Klaus reached for his cigarettes, but stopped; Alexander didn't smoke, and they were in Alexander's car.

Alexander leaned over and turned the heat up. "I'm sure Interpol can find an excuse to put Frederik away once he's given us Anderlik."

"What shady dealings. I don't think I'll ever recover from the disillusionment." Klaus gave up on trying to hide his smile. "You believe Frederik? That we can get to Anderlik through his girlfriend?"

"He won't be the first or last man to make a mistake because he was infatuated." Alexander frowned into the night. "We'll have to play it carefully, though. If he has the slightest suspicion…."

"He'll fly," Klaus confirmed. "That's his own credo."

"Remember what he said on those surveillance tapes we got a couple of years ago?"

"Something like, 'If you want to survive in this business, you must never have anything in your life you can not walk out on at the drop of a hat.' He said it at least three times on those tapes."

Alexander nodded. "Sounds like he says it a lot, doesn't he? Lectures his associates about it all the time."

"Which means we'll only get one shot at him."

"Which means we'll have to get it right the first time. Unless…."

"Unless what?"

"Unless Frederik's right. That he's really met his Waterloo. That he can't walk away from this woman."

Klaus felt at home at Hamburg military headquarters in a way he never had in the castles or banquet halls he had grown up in and been raised to occupy. The concrete floors, high ceilings with bare pipes, and mathematically precise arrangement of drab-hued gear was solid and reassuring as the impractical elegance of his ancestral home was not. And aristocrats' deliberately meaningless conversation — or worse, their attempts at meaningful conversation — rang false and foolish in comparison to the ruthless realism of the talk of men about to put their lives on the line.

Like himself, Major Alexander, and seven more of Alexander's best operatives, gearing up to stake out Christian Anderlik's rendezvous with his buyers.

"This could be our big night," Lieutenant Michael Stengel commented as he strapped on his Kevlar.

"Or not," Alexander reminded him, loading his Mauser.

"Hey, think positive, Major!" Viktor Bremer admonished insincerely.

"Give us an example of a positive thought," Klaus prompted.

Bremer did not disappoint. "The earth probably won't crash into the sun. Not tonight."

"Glad to hear you looking on the bright side for a change, Bremer," Jürgen remarked.

Alexander did not bother to look up from his weapon. "Positive thinking is for people who work at a desk. You ready to ride a desk, Bremer?"

"And leave you guys to look after yourselves? I couldn't be so cruel." Bremer rotated his arms to make sure he could move freely in the bullet-proof vest.

Stengel took up a rifle and started caressing it. Alexander glanced at him. "Put the Beretta Sniper away, Lieutenant. Use a Mauser like the rest of us."

"Last two missions you let Helmut and Jürgen use Berettas—"

"Put it away."

"German guns not good enough for you?" Klaus asked mildly.

"German anythings are a thousand times better than the shoddy equivalents produced by everybody else," Bremer informed him firmly. "No one would ever tell Iron Klaus any differently."

"Someone did once," Klaus said in the same mild tone.

Bremer mimed taking off a hat and holding it over his heart. "God rest his soul."

"Nobody who can shoot needs a fucking Beretta," Klaus asserted, his eyes on his own Mauser.

Stengel had stowed the Beretta and pulled out his Mauser instead, but defended the Italian rifle just the same with a quick glare at Klaus. "The Beretta Sniper has a counterweight under the barrel that reduces the vibrations when you fire—"

"You want to get kicked out of Valhalla, Stengel?"

"Sir?"

"Depend on fancy weapons, on flashy toys, you're dead. Every one of you should be able to take out an enemy with a slingshot if need be." He looked at Stengel. "You can play with your Beretta when you don't need the bells and whistles anymore."

"Yes, sir."

They were quiet for a minute, busying themselves with their preparations, before Bremer spoke. "I've been to Valhalla. The girls are fat."

"What, you don't like zaftig Mädchen?" Helmut grinned at him. "What kind of German are you?"

Klaus had stepped slightly away from the others as he strapped on his vest. Alexander appeared at his side, and Klaus straightened, waiting.

"Eberbach. What's going on with you and Stengel?"

"Nothing, sir."

"Uh huh. What's going on with you and Stengel?"

"We had some words. Sir."

"Over?"

"Nothing important, sir."

"Eberbach, I expect not to hear another evasion out of you."

Klaus set his jaw. "It's very trivial, sir. Stengel was carrying on about that one-eared idiot again—"

"You mean Van Gogh?" Alexander inquired with an amused lift of his brows.

"Yes, sir. He wouldn't stop bothering me about that fucking fuzzy kind of painting, so I finally told him that Impressionism is even worse than other paintings, and we — had words." Under his superior's wordless scrutiny, Klaus admitted, "I suppose it got out of hand. Sir."

"I see. So we don't have a problem that might affect our work, do we, Eberbach?"

Klaus had to look slightly away from his superior, his head still held high, to control his expression. "Excuse me, sir, but I'm not a civilian who needs to be reminded of that."

"Watch that insubordinate tone, Lieutenant."

At that Klaus met his superior's gaze. "Major, I didn't intend to—"

"Shut up. Carry on." Alexander strolled away, and Klaus tried to unclamp his jaw. Alexander hadn't seemed actually annoyed. His rebuke had apparently been in jest. Even so….

Their preparations were nearing completion. Alexander ordered over his shoulder, "Eberbach. Check everyone's gear."

"Yes, sir." This was a rotating task. It was little more than a formality; operatives of their caliber did not make trivial mistakes. On the other hand, commanders of Alexander's caliber did not leave things to chance.

They took three vans to the rendezvous spot, a moderately trafficked harbor. Frederik had told them which dock Anderlik and his clients were meeting at. Klaus always liked being by the sea; something about the salt in the air, and the brisk activity of the docks, refreshed him, even in the icy winds of January.

The meeting was scheduled for one in the morning. Alexander and his men took up their vantage points before ten. Alexander, Klaus, and Helmut were in a building across from the dock. Georg and Jürgen were concealed in an apparently unoccupied houseboat on the dock to the left of the one where Anderlik was expected to show, Bremer and Stengel in another to the right of it. A little farther out, Wilhelm and Schwarz were in scuba gear, ready to dive and disable their quarry's vehicles.

Klaus hated catching people on docks. There were too many places where they could get away. Bodies could fall in the water and vanish, leaving it uncertain whether they were dead or not. People could leap onto another boat and flee. It was just too easy for them. No doubt why they chose this setting.

They settled in to wait.

And wait.

Waiting was the worst thing about this profession. But Klaus had learned, as they all had learned, to fall into a state of relaxed alertness until it was time to take action.

To conceal themselves in their assorted vantage points, they had to sit in silence and darkness. No card games or conversation on this particular night. Just as well; Bremer always beat everyone hollow at cards — it was fortunate Alexander had forbidden betting actual money on their games — and when they were able to talk, Helmut insisted upon telling horrible jokes.

Those jokes probably would have been amusing to eight-year-olds, but somehow Helmut's sense of humor had never grown up. His comrades almost never laughed at them, but that did not discourage him from telling them. At times Klaus was tempted to use physical force to shut him up. Once Stengel had actually emptied a can of soda over him after an especially bad joke. A very good fight had followed. They had all watched it, cheering for both opponents. Afterwards, Stengel and Helmut had bought each other beers, and Helmut had introduced them all to one of America's most objectionable contributions to world culture: the knock-knock joke. So Stengel hadn't helped matters any. Helmut would have been completely intolerable if he weren't such a good shot. For a steady hand like his, Klaus was willing to put up with any number of bad jokes.

Stengel was equally annoying. He occasionally played idiotic pranks, such as pouring beverages onto people or sneaking up on his comrades and yelling "BOO!" He became excited over even the most trivial events and could seldom be compelled to shut up. About anything. And his fascination with elaborate weapons had become tiresome long ago. But his expertise at defusing bombs — or creating them, if occasion warranted — had saved the lives of every one of them, and those of countless civilians as well.

Georg was the shortest of them, and like many short men, had a "little man's complex" that made him exceedingly easy to offend. Any remark risked interpretation as a slight on his prowess as a fighter, and frequently the others were forced to apologize for nonexistent insults or else step outside to discuss them fist-to-fist. And Georg had made sure that he was a skilled enough fighter to compensate for his height. Klaus had beaten him, but had had enough difficulty in doing so that he resolved to avoid scrapping with short soldiers in future; they were mean. Georg had beaten the stuffing out of Bremer once. When Bremer was able to stand up, he had declared, "I'm damn glad you're on my side, runt." It had taken Klaus, Stengel and Jürgen to stop Georg from beating Bremer up a second time. Fortunately, Major Alexander had shown up and told him to let it go. And at times when Georg was absent, all of the others had agreed: he was one runt they wanted on their side. It was a compliment none of them cared to make to his face, but a heartfelt one.

Bremer was the most sour man Klaus had ever met. No subject was immune from his sarcastic treatment. If Bremer said something stank, the others sought a second opinion, because according to Bremer, everything stank. If there was a parade, Bremer would rain on it. Once Klaus had been unconscious, wounded, in a confrontation with some Iranian terrorists. Bremer had carried him through fifty yards of enemy fire. Later, Klaus had tried, awkwardly, to thank Bremer for saving his life. It was unnecessary, really; Alexander's men rescued each other on a regular basis — Klaus had saved Bremer's hide more than once — it was simply part of the job. But in this case Klaus had felt the need to attempt it. He had managed an awkward sentence or two before Bremer had snapped, "You ruined my new uniform, Eberbach. Got blood all over it." Klaus had blinked, grinned and said, "That's why I got myself shot, you idiot. To muck up your uniform." A week later, Bremer had opened his locker to find a pristine new uniform in it. He had griped loudly about the lousy security that had made it possible for someone to break into his locker and leave things in it. Klaus had ingenuously offered to requisition new locks for everyone. Bremer had told him to go fuck himself. Klaus still grinned every time he remembered it.

Wilhelm was probably wasted in the field, with his flair for strategy. More than once his ingenuity had made an apparent disaster flower into triumph. Klaus would have admired him wholeheartedly if he did not apply that same ingenuity to his relations with the fair sex. Wilhelm was the most devout Catholic Klaus had ever met; he did not remove his crucifix even in the shower, and went to mass and confession without fail. Even so, he had managed to remain mostly oblivious to the Seventh commandment, except when Klaus reminded him of it. His ways with women were not so much a caution as a four-alarm warning with blaring sirens, red flags and flashing lights.

Klaus himself had never been a congenial man. He was too critical, too competitive, too brusque. He was a dismal failure in drawing rooms. But in a foxhole, he was always welcome. Among people who made an art of pleasant association, Klaus was a bull in a china shop. Surrounded by people who had no use for niceties… he got along.

Anderlik and his clients arrived at one o'clock almost on the nose. Whenever possible, Alexander's men staked out an area for several hours before showing themselves, to nip any attempted ambushes or betrayals in the bud. Criminals had the opposite concern: they couldn't risk being spotted or caught with cargo while they waited around.

Bremer stood beside the window, peering out through night-vision goggles, his Mauser already aimed. Klaus stood ready to run out the door, weapon in hand.

Men in heavy coats of dark color, including one man who matched the description of Anderlik, could be distinguished on the decks of the two boats. "Three visible on each deck," Bremer said softly. Which didn't mean there weren't more somewhere.

Anderlik's boat was by far the largest. One of the men from the smaller boat stepped aboard carrying a suitcase and spoke to Anderlik for a moment. Anderlik gestured for him to put the suitcase down, and then knelt and looked inside, while his companions kept an eye on the client.

Apparently the contents were satisfactory. Anderlik gestured to his companions, and they climbed onto the smaller boat. It wasn't unusual for vendors of unauthorized cargo to exchange vehicles as part of the deal; it saved dangerous time unloading.

"On my signal," Alexander muttered into his radio, though everyone was already poised.

One of the remaining clients stepped onto Anderlik's boat. Anderlik said something to him and turned, holding the suitcase.

Alexander leaned forward slightly. He opened his mouth to give the order.

And the night was torn open with a flare of gunfire. Anderlik dove for what cover he could find. An instant later, the criminals were all busily shooting at each other.

"Blast! Take them!" Alexander snapped into his radio even as Klaus was running out the door. Alexander was with him an instant later.

Anderlik's accomplices and clients had only taken a few shots at each other — one of Anderlik's men went down — when Bremer threw the switch that illuminated the dock almost like daylight. "NATO!" Alexander was shouting through his megaphone. "You are under arrest! Put down your—"

A shot from the larger boat shattered the floodlight, plunging them all back into darkness.

So, they were going to do this the hard way.

Klaus smiled. His comrades had told him that him smiling was one of the more unsettling sights of their lives. It was perhaps the most flattering thing he'd ever heard.

Alexander and the others opened fire. Klaus had taken cover, as prearranged, behind a large solid crate. He fired a few shots, heard one of the dealers cry out as he was hit, then ducked back down to safety for a moment. He was aiming to wound, not kill. Dead enemies meant paperwork. Captured enemies also meant paperwork, but captured enemies could be interrogated. That part was always fun.

Right now, their objective was to keep their prey busy until Wilhelm and Schwarz were able to disable the boats. Then they could collect the dealers easily. As easily as anything was done in this profession.

Klaus emerged long enough to take two well-placed shots. Neither was at Anderlik; Anderlik had managed to get one of the others in front of him, making it impossible for anyone to get a clear shot. Apparently the only bullet in him was the one his clients had put there. From the way he was holding his left arm, that's where it had caught him.

Klaus didn't know what Wilhelm and Schwarz were planning on doing to the larger boat, but a minute later it was clear that the smaller one was beginning to sink. Klaus caught a glimpse of Anderlik glancing down at the deck, right before jerking again, crying out, and falling into the water, still clutching his gun.

"Damn! Did you see where Anderlik went?" Klaus yelled.

"No!" Alexander shouted back.

Klaus swore and threw himself up for another shot and a quick look. If he could see Anderlik, he'd try to save him from drowning — he was a better catch alive — but there was no sign of him.

Then he heard another yell, this one from a different direction. The gunfire was too heavy for him to look, but Alexander managed a peek and snatched up the radio.

"That fucker climbed onto Bremer and Stengel's craft! They're both in the drink!"

Klaus dropped his rifle. If he needed a weapon, he still had his Magnum. And his hands. "Verdammt! Cover me!" Klaus shouted, and sprinted towards the water without waiting. The others promptly increased their volley of bullets until Klaus dove into the impure and frigid waters of the harbor.

Bremer had almost reached the dock on his own. Klaus seized his collar and shoved him under it. Bremer promptly grabbed one of the poles, leaving Klaus to kick his way swiftly over to Stengel. Stengel had been hit.

Klaus's left calf burned suddenly. He realized a bullet must have grazed it. He dove deeper, coming up almost beneath Stengel, bearing the man up.

When his head broke the water's surface, Anderlik was speeding away in the stolen houseboat. Georg and Jürgen were pursuing him, but Anderlik was putting distance between them fast.

The rest of the dealers were all either lying on the decks bleeding or else standing with their hands on top of their heads as Alexander's men disarmed them at gunpoint.

Klaus sucked in a lungful of air and grinned cheerfully as he moved to the dock. Bremer had pulled himself onto it by now, and he reached out to haul Stengel out of the water.

"How's Stengel?" Alexander demanded.

Bremer, dripping and shivering, leaned on Stengel's stomach and rolled him over so he could cough up some water. "Bullet in the gut, sir."

Klaus pulled himself onto the dock and briefly examined his leg. The bullet had torn the fabric of his pants and left an angry red mark on the skin, that was all. It throbbed a bit when he moved. He dismissed it and concentrated on not shivering.

"Jürgen," Alexander said. "Take him to get treated. Eberbach."

"Sir."

"Pull another stunt like that and I'll leave a wreath on your grave."

"Leave a cheap one and I'll come back and haunt you. Sir."

"Probably replace my good coffee with fucking Nescafé."

"For you, Nescafé Gold Blend."

Alexander's radio beeped. He pressed the button. It was Georg, explaining that Anderlik had eluded them. "Right," Alexander said. "Come on back."

Helmut was draping his own coat over Stengel, whose teeth were chattering. Klaus dropped on one knee beside Stengel. He seemed to be coming around a little. His eyes settled on Klaus, unfocused.

"Eberbach. You look like a Van Gogh," he mumbled.

"If the boss weren't watching, I'd throw you back in the drink for that," Klaus retorted. "Fine thing to say for someone who just saved your skin."

"Art moron," Stengel pronounced as he closed his eyes again.

"Cut off his ear before he comes to," Klaus suggested as Wilhelm and Bremer moved Stengel onto a stretcher. "He'll be thrilled when he wakes up."

He thought Stengel said some profanities, but his voice was too slurred now to be sure.

Ten minutes later, Stengel was on his way to a doctor and the dealers were locked in the vans. Alexander turned to Klaus. "Where do you think Anderlik is?"

"If he has any sense, he's flown, Major. His accomplices have turned against him and the law's onto him."

"We'll stake out his girlfriend's house. You, me, Bremer. The rest of you, take the prisoners in."

"Yes, sir," Klaus said. "But he won't come back for her."

"My Benz to yours he will."
"Done."

"What the hell happened tonight?" Bremer grumbled.

"My guess," Alexander said, "is that Anderlik's clients heard the rumors that he was going to retire. If he's not useful to them anymore, why keep him around, knowing what he knows about them?"

"Maybe he will come back for her," Klaus mused.

"It's too late to get out of your bet," Alexander informed him.

"A gentleman never tries to get out of bets. But I don't think he'll be there."

"Why not?"

"He has more sense. He's survived by never having anything he couldn't walk out on in one minute."

"You sound like you admire him."

Klaus shrugged. "It's a sound principle."

"So what's stopping you from walking out this minute?"

Klaus chuckled ruefully. "A lot."

"Do you think you'd be a better agent — or a better man — without any of it?"

Klaus thought. "No, sir."

"You two, get into some dry clothes. The rest of you, move out."

"Verdammt stakeout," Bremer remarked as he buttoned on a dry shirt, back in the locker room at headquarters. He and Klaus were changing for the next event of the night; the others were stowing their gear before going home. Frederik, in "protective custody", was sitting in a chair in the corner, glaring at all of them. Bremer continued, "We know damn well Anderlik's not coming back. Not for a woman."

"Of course he'll come back!" Wilhelm exclaimed.

Bremer arched an eyebrow, unimpressed. "And how do you figure that?"

"Because I would! I'd come back for my Helen any day!"

Klaus looked up from lacing his boots over fresh dry socks. "Would you really."

The other men started to move out of the way, grinning.

Wilhelm drew himself up. "Of course I would!"

"Like you went back for your Becky?" Klaus asked, supercilious.

"Wait, wait, lemme get my fieldglasses out of the way," Georg said, snatching them up and retreating.

Wilhelm's face was ominous.

Klaus finished lacing his boot and placed his foot on the floor. "Or your Jahna?"

"Watch it, Eberbach," Wilhelm growled.

"What about your Susanna?" Klaus inquired in an ingenuous tone. Then dropped it in exchange for a sneer. "Should I really believe you would stay and lose a shot at cold drinks in the Bahamas... and enough money for a Juana and a Eunice?"

Wilhelm began to sputter. "Becky left me! And shut up about Helen! She's my true love!"

"Then why are you spending so much time with Susanna lately?" Klaus went on, sitting comfortably on the bench, looking almost relaxed. "And come to think of it, didn't you say the same thing about Becky, and Jahna, and Cornelia?"

The others waited in blank-faced anticipation. No one moved, but the atmosphere was electric with tension.

Wilhelm's face was turning red. "Where do you get off getting on your high horse with me, Eberbach? We all know you're not keeping yourself chaste for the mother of your children," he finished, sarcastic. "All those tarts you shag, the lowest kind of women...."

"Do I claim to be madly in love with any of them? Or," he added meaningfully, "make promises I have no intention of keeping?"

Wilhelm could come up with no answer. The silence was deafening.

"Clearly only one true love will never be enough for you," Klaus said, standing up slowly as Wilhelm seethed. "Nothing short of a harem will do." He smiled coldly. "Perhaps you should become a Muslim. Only, what would you do if you couldn't get your soul washed weekly? What would it look like after a month?"

With a furious yell, Wilhelm launched himself at Klaus. Instantly they were grappling in earnest, punching, kicking, and tossing each other, as the others watching, cheering.

"You talk about souls with your scummy heartless mucky profane one?" Wilhelm snarled through clenched teeth, delivering a punch to Klaus's stomach. But Klaus was prepared, his abdominal muscles flexed to take the blow. He only grunted.

"Yes, I'm sure it is," he gasped back, seizing Wilhelm abruptly to tackle him. They went down together. The exertion was helping warmth seep back into Klaus's muscles after the freezing harbor. It was a good feeling. "But what would yours look like?"

"Bastard," Wilhelm spat out, trying to throw Klaus. Klaus applied his weight and raised his fist to settle the argument.

The gleeful shouts of his comrades abruptly ceased. Klaus looked up to see Alexander standing in the open doorway. His arms were folded across his chest, his eyebrows lifted slightly, his expression elaborately patient.

Klaus quickly released Wilhelm and stood at attention. Wilhelm scrambled to his feet and followed suit. Alexander regarded everyone in the room coolly for a couple of uncomfortably silent minutes.

"So which one of you is the suspected arms dealer?" Alexander inquired at last.

No one answered.

"So. Eberbach. If you are so very busy here, perhaps I should take Helmut with me for the next stakeout instead."

Helmut didn't look as if he considered this a particularly good idea.

Klaus inhaled. "I can always find time in my schedule for you, Major." Then waited. It all depended on whether Alexander was genuinely annoyed, or merely making noises like a superior officer.

Alexander let him stew for another minute before saying, "If you're certain it isn't too much of an inconvenience," and stalking out. At the door, he said, "Eberbach, Bremer, be in the van in five minutes." The door closed behind him heavily.

Wilhelm went to his locker and resumed stowing his gear. Klaus briskly checked his.

"Maybe I should've stopped you," Bremer said as he reloaded his gun. "Not let you get in hot water with the old man."

Klaus shrugged. "I'll live."

Bremer studied him for a second before resuming his preparations. "Don't worry about it, Iron Klaus," he said, clapping Klaus on the back, knowing full well how much Klaus disliked that. "He never does stay mad at you."

"I bet!" Frederik dared to speak up now that the testosterone in the room had ebbed and the Major was gone. "What are you, his shepherd dog? I wondered what he had that rolled-up newspaper for."

Bremer gave their informant a warning look. "Careful. He bites."

"If you want to answer the rat," Georg offered, "I don't think any of us will happen to notice you doing it."

Frederik swallowed.

But Klaus had no intention of letting Helmut go on the next stakeout in his place. He smiled coldly at Frederik, letting the man squirm for a minute before saying, "Be glad I am a shepherd dog and not a terrier. Shepherds don't kill rats." He turned away, then looked back. "Usually."

"Let's go," Bremer muttered, and followed Klaus out the door to the van.

Klaus, Alexander and Bremer took up positions for their second stakeout of the night. In spite of the late hour, their arrival had been unobtrusive, nor was it difficult to claim an unoccupied flat on the third floor that had a good view of the main entrance.

Anderlik's sweetheart lived in a small apartment house in a pleasant, middle-income neighborhood. The picture of her they had managed to acquire was of a moderately pretty woman in her early thirties. It made a certain amount of sense; a man in Anderlik's field had had his share of glamour. Someone quieter, more modest would appeal to him now, if he were tired.

They didn't have to wait long. A nondescript sedan pulled up and parked at the curb. The man they now knew was Christian Anderlik stepped out. A bandage was fastened around his left arm. He left the engine running. It ran quietly; it was in superb condition, Klaus noted with detached approval.

Anderlik surveyed the building with a practiced eye. Klaus's own eyes narrowed. But they had left no visible sign of their presence.

After studying the entrance for a long minute, Anderlik walked toward it.

"What color's your Benz again?" Alexander murmured.

"Black, of course. I'll buy it from you," Klaus replied.

"Nope. Won't sell." Alexander put his hand to his shoulder holster automatically. It was a habitual gesture all of them had developed; they found themselves doing it even when they weren't armed. "Tell you what. I'll lend it to you. For the next twenty years or so."

Anderlik lifted his hand to reach for the knob. And stopped.

He looked around.

He gave no indication that he had seen or heard anything to alarm him. His gaze found no resting place. But he turned, still glancing around warily, got back into his car, and drove away.

"Verdammt."

"What spooked him?" Bremer spat out, disgusted.

Klaus shrugged. "Don't know. Maybe nothing."

Alexander only considered for one minute. "Bremer. Go to Frederik's flat and leave a red herring pointing him toward that abandoned mill we used a couple of months ago. Then meet me and Eberbach there."

"You think he'll show?" Klaus said doubtfully. "He walked on his girlfriend."

"My Benz to yours."

"Yes, sir."

"Three stakeouts in one night. Whee," Bremer said as he stalked into the old windmill. It was extremely cold.

"Getting bored, Lieutenant?" Alexander asked mildly.

"Bored? I'm just getting warmed up, sir. How many more stakeouts can we work in before dawn?"

"Dawn's not far off," Klaus answered.

"If he shows and gets spooked again, we're not going to lose him this time," Alexander decreed. "Bremer, you take up a position outside. Those trees offer some good cover. Don't let him walk again."

As the door closed behind Bremer, Klaus and Alexander climbed the stairs to the windmill's second story. It was all bare wood thickly coated with dust. They chose a small room with a window visible from the road and propped up a couple of flashlights, turned on to serve as makeshift lamps. They dimly illuminated the room, casting large shadows on the walls and ceiling.

"We'll watch from the next room," Alexander said.

They oiled the hinges to that door till it moved silently as death. In the darkness, they took up positions by the window. Leaning against the wall with night vision goggles ready, Klaus wondered how much of life he had spent in a dark room peering through a window. And how much more of it he would spend that way.

Every time a car drove by, Klaus raised the goggles to examine it, squinting against the headlights as it rounded the curve. None stopped. None resembled Anderlik's sedan.

"He's not coming," Klaus said after a while, though he made no move to leave his post.

Alexander did not move either. "Maybe he'll contact her, later. We should tap her phones."

"Maybe. If he gets lonely on his tropical island." Klaus's tone was scornful.

A slight smile tugged at Alexander's thin lips. "After enough decades of German winters, retiring to the tropics doesn't sound too bad."

"That what you're going to do?"

"Sure. Spend my dotage in the Caribbean drinking piña coladas and impressing American women with stories of my adventures."

Klaus snorted. "Why American women?"

"They're the easiest laid. Don't you ever watch American movies?"

"An unimpeachable source if I ever heard of one. I thought you didn't like mixed drinks."

"True. Well, I guess I could perfect my golf swing."

"I didn't know you played golf."

"I don't."

Another car passed by. Klaus peered at it. Some idiot with a Japanese two-door.

"So really. What are you going to do? When you have to retire?"

"What are you going to do?"

"It's farther away for me."

"I suppose you'll be busy carrying on the Eberbach line and looking after the schloss."

"I suppose. So what about you?"

A small frown marred Alexander's composure, and Klaus wished he hadn't asked. If he had been fool enough to believe in forebodings, he would have had some at that moment.

Alexander shrugged abruptly. "I expect they'll have to carry me out. Like most men in dangerous professions. How many retired agents do you know? Or retired dealers in contraband?"

"Not many, sir. But don't you want to…." Klaus stopped.

"To what? Get fat on a beach? Collect stamps? Die in bed?" He shook his head. "In ten years, who knows, that might sound good. Now — I've never wanted to die in bed. You'll have useful things to do with your retirement. I won't."

"Major—" Klaus broke off as another pair of headlights came into view. He raised the goggles, scrutinized it, and then turned to Alexander, galvanized. "It's him, sir."

"You sure?"

"Positive. He's slowing down."

Alexander spoke into the radio, alerting Bremer, but raised his head when Klaus snarled, "Verdammt."

"What?"

"He's moving on…. Dammit. He's gone. He did it again. Didn't even park this time."

Alexander informed Bremer, then switched off the radio. "We'll pack up in a few minutes. I suppose you're going to paint my Benz black."

"Of course, sir. All Benzes should be black. But after I do, I'll loan it to you. Just till you retire, you understand."

Alexander shook his head slightly, looking out the window into the blackness. "Guess he is ready to retire."

"You really didn't think he was?"

"Like I said. Men in his business — or ours — don't retire. You'll see a lot of men go down right after they make the down payment on a rose-covered cottage."

"Maybe rose-covered cottages aren't all they're cracked up to be."

Alexander treated him to a lopsided smile. "Is anything?"

"Yes, sir," Klaus said, looking straight at his superior.

Alexander met his gaze and they studied each other in silence for a time.

Eventually, Alexander made himself more comfortable leaning against the wall. "So, for now the beauties of the Caribbean will have to find something other than my war stories to amuse them."

"I hate talking about this to civilians."

Alexander considered this. "Just as well. If you enjoyed it, you'd be a security risk."

Klaus scowled at the wall, remembering a few excruciating conversations. "They want to hear about it, but they don't have the slightest idea what we're talking about."

"No," the older man said quietly. "But you know they can't help that."

"No. But it's… irritating."
"It is."

"And they always want to compliment you."

"I don't know how you stand it."

Klaus was brought up short. "No, I mean… you know that tomorrow they're going to be admiring someone else, probably someone…."

"Less deserving," Alexander supplied. "That's what you were thinking, isn't it? You landed gentlemen are appallingly arrogant." As Klaus stiffened, his superior added mildly, "I'm teasing you, Eberbach."

Klaus forced himself to lean back against the wall. "I know that, Major."

The silence was slightly awkward now, till Alexander said, "Well, I'm certainly not the man to give advice about how to get along with civilians. If I were, I'd still be married."

Klaus had not known the Major had ever been married. He frowned, and tried for a gentle tone. "I'm sorry, sir."

Before Alexander could answer, his radio beeped. Klaus wondered if he only imagined that the Major answered more swiftly than usual. "Alexander here."

Bremer's voice was metallic via radio but easily recognizable. "Major, he's coming back."

Alexander smiled. Klaus smiled back. "Lend me that Benz for a decade or so, Major?"

"I'll take it under consideration, Lieutenant."

Klaus laid his rifle on the floor and unholstered his Magnum.

A moment later they heard the very soft hum of a well-functioning engine. It cut off, and the car's door opened and closed softly. Anderlik demonstrated no hesitation this time. They heard brisk steps to the mill. He was moving quietly; had they not been listening for him, they might have missed the sounds.

The door downstairs creaked very softly as Anderlik opened it. He left it ajar, and moved up the stairs, still quietly, still without hesitation.

Alexander nodded to Klaus.

Klaus waited till the door of the lit room swung open. Too swiftly to alert his quarry, Klaus stepped through and leveled his Magnum at the back of Anderlik's head. Anderlik froze.

"NATO," Klaus said coolly. "Drop it."

With a curse, Anderlik let his gun hit the bare boards of the floor.

Alexander stepped into the room, gun ready. "Bagged him," he said into the radio. "Watch the door."

Alexander covered Anderlik. "Disarm him, Lieutenant."

As Klaus complied, the two older men glared at each other.

"You had to come back for Frederik, didn't you?" Alexander asked mildly. "You knew he'd given you away. And you couldn't let go of your revenge."

"That little weasel ratted me out," Anderlik growled. "If he hadn't, right now I'd be…." His voice trailed off, and he looked grimly at Alexander.

"I doubt that," Alexander said softly. "'Never have anything in your life you can not walk out on at the drop of a hat.'"
 
 

Eroica