~8~

Eroica had scarcely closed the door of his hotel suite behind him when an iron hand fisted in the front of his tastefully ruffled turquoise silk shirt, wrinkling it terribly. Before he had time to so much as draw a breath, he was shoved against the wall, and none too gently, either, and a pair of narrow green eyes were boring into him.

"Give it back," the Major snarled.

Eroica forced himself to smile as if quite composed. Too many people cowered before the Major; Dorian had to stand out if his suit was to get anywhere. "Good evening, darling. I love your tie. It matches both your eyes."

"Stop that nonsense, you faggot! Where is it?"

Dorian gave his best look of wide-eyed innocence. Men had melted into puddles under that look. But apparently it worked only on flesh, not on iron. "Did my work interfere with yours again, Major? So sorry. What is it this time -- did that lovely statue I just picked up have some microfilm concealed in a naughty place or something?"

"Don't pretend you don't know!"

"But I don't, darling. Whatever it is, if it's so important to you I'll be happy to return it, though you'll have to help me break the news to James. But you have to tell me--"

"The portrait, you idiot! The Man In Purple!"

Eroica's look of shock was not faked. "Someone stole it? When?"

Klaus glared. "You expect me to believe you didn't do it?"

"The only thing I plan to steal from you is your heart, Major." Dorian gave Klaus a look which could have ignited a match at twenty paces. Klaus replied with a disgusted snort. "It's true, darling. I wouldn't steal from you."

"Hah! What about my Leopard tank?"

"I only did that to impress you, darling. I even stole the Pope to get you to notice me, and where did it get me?" Dorian shook his golden head in picturesque despair.

"I noticed that all right," Klaus growled. "Damn near had heart failure."

"That wasn't quite the effect on your heart I was aiming for, Major. And now, if you're done ruining the press of my clothes, I'll make a few calls and learn which of my colleagues stole your painting."

Klaus examined him for a moment. "You really didn't take it, did you?"

"I told you."

Klaus released him. "Then forget about it. I'll get it back."

"Nonsense. I'll get it back for you." Eroica dimpled as he tried, unsuccessfully, to smooth the fresh wrinkles out of his shirt. "One day you'll be strolling through Schloss Eberbach like always, and there it'll be, as if it had never left."

"Don't bet on it. Even if I didn't get it back myself first, which I will, you'd never get in and out of my castle without being caught. And handed over to Interpol, Eroica."

"Why not bet on it, then?" Dorian asked teasingly. Klaus, who had been turning away, turned back sharply. "What do you want to bet I can get your painting back before you can, and put it in place without getting caught?" As thunderclouds began to form on Klaus' face, Dorian added sweetly, "Oh, I wasn't going to suggest that, darling. I couldn't possibly steal your painting back if I were in traction. No, I was thinking more along the lines of... oh... say, two hours in a jacuzzi together."

"PERVERT!"

Dorian gave a most fetching little pout. "With swim trunks, if you insist." Skewered by those thrilling emerald eyes, he added, "We can spend the two hours discussing our favorite wines, if you like. All your end of the bargain will require is that you stay in the water, darling. You will retain all rights to self-defense."

"No doubt I'll need them," the Major observed grimly.

Eroica made his most elegant one-shouldered shrug. "We will simply get in and let events take their natural course," he said with an angelic air that inspired Klaus, not only to take a step back farther out of arm's reach, but also to check his pockets to see if anything was missing.

Having ascertained that his gun and wallet were still in place, the Major balled his fists half-heartedly, more for form's sake than anything else. "You might not be pleased at that natural course. How long can you hold your breath underwater?"

"See, darling, a chance to drown me. How can you resist?"

Klaus glared for a minute, giving himself time to think. "Very well. This will be a good opportunity to get my Leopard tank back. And it had better be in good condition, pervert."

Dorian smiled winningly. "It is, darling. I'll let you visit it on my estate sometime and you'll see."

"Idiot," Klaus tossed over his shoulder as he stalked out. It was rather late. He would go home to exercise and sleep. Morning would be soon enough to start the wheels rolling on an investigation of the theft. There was, after all, no need to hurry on a wager you didn't want to win.

As soon as that thought had the temerity to cross his mind, he turned his Benz around and headed for his office at top speed. Within half an hour he was haranguing Interpol over the phone while a dozen alphabets hovered round, roused from their beds by the Major's call, wondering why tracking down an ancestral portrait couldn't wait till morning but knowing better than to ask.

As for the Major himself, he did not sleep at all that night, or during the following day. All of the considerable forces at his disposal were poured into locating a painting he'd never much liked, with which he could have bought a tank.

Major Eberbach never had known how to give in gracefully.

 

 

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