~14~

 Blend in, Klaus told himself grimly. He had been telling himself this since he had arrived an hour ago.

Why did so many missions force Klaus to attend parties? Why couldn’t he go into some nice seedy bar where he would have to beat somebody up before they would take his beer order, or some nice hellhole of a third world prison, or some nice clandestine meeting place for professionals of organized crime? Instead, he was stuck at a cocktail party where the greatest danger was from slipping on the narrow Oriental rug the host had seen fit to put over the slick floor of the entry hall, trying to make small talk with boring Yank strangers while keeping an eye out to watch his quarry. Eventually, someone was going to tell the man where the microfilm he was there to pick up was. And once he had it, Klaus was going to relieve him of the responsibility of delivering it.

He and his men had been chasing this double agent all over Europe, and he refused to give up the chase now just because the turncoat was in America. Trying to interfere with NASA now. And Klaus wanted NASA to thrive. If it did, eventually the Yanks might ship all of themselves into outer space.

"Have you had your cards read?" the idiot Yank Klaus was trying to talk to asked, gesturing vaguely towards the other end of the room.

"My what?"

"Your Tarot cards. Brian hired a fortuneteller for the evening. I just got mine read. Let me tell you, it was kind of scary. She was right on about everything."

"I see," Klaus said, barely masking his contempt.

But now the idiot wanted to tell him all about everything that the charlatan had been right about, so Klaus decided that this would be a good chance to escape. And a good way to blend in.

"Then I suppose I will ask her to tell my fortune. Which one is she?"

The idiot pointed. "The young lady with the black hair sitting at that table."

As Klaus looked in the proper direction, someone was just rising from the chair across from the fortuneteller. Excellent timing. Klaus cut across the room quickly, stepping in front of a woman who had been moving in the charlatan’s direction and claiming the seat. He could watch his quarry from here, and it would relieve him of the need to make conversation for a few minutes.

The young woman smiled at him. Though her features were purely Anglo-Saxon, she was apparently trying to affect an exotic look in keeping with her profession, with a black ruffled poet’s blouse, large gold hoop earrings, and a turquoise pendant of some sort of Egyptian-looking symbol around her neck. "Hey. What is your first question?"

Which of these minglers is the double agent’s contact? he thought sarcastically. Where is the microfilm?

"Love or career?" she asked with a knowing smile. When Klaus met her gaze, she explained, "Those are the two things everyone asks about. Which is it?"

Klaus paused, trying to manufacture a question. When he did not immediately reply, she smiled again. "Love it is." She extended the deck to him. "Thinking of your question, shuffle three times."

Briskly he took the cards and shuffled them the required three times. Love. Humph. Some people put entirely too much thought into that sort of thing. As he handed them back to her, he glanced at the double agent, who still was not doing anything noteworthy.

She began drawing cards from the top of the deck, placing them face down in a vaguely circular pattern. Then she put down the deck and turned over the first card. "The King of Swords," she said. The card depicted a man with a stern expression and shoulder-length black hair seated on a throne. In one hand he held a sword; on the other perched a falcon. Klaus approved of the artwork, at least.

"You are a very strong person. You exercise authority over those around you, and the falcon indicates that you see and know things that most people do not." Smiling to soften her words, she said, "You are often accused of being a control freak. You come across as rather… confrontational, and that’s what’s keeping relationships at bay."

Unimpressed, Klaus made a noncommittal grunt. He supposed that in her profession, the ability to make quick assessments of character was an asset. As it was in his own.

She turned over the second card. "The Page of Cups." She paused a moment before looking Klaus in the eye and asking slyly, "What’s his name?"

"Whose name?"

"The man you’re asking me about."

Klaus knew that he was turning purple.

"Hey, relax. I’m family myself, I’m not going to out anyone who doesn’t want to be outed."

It took all Klaus’ control not to shout. "What in God’s name makes you think–"

"Chill! It’s not showing, really. I never would have thought it to look at you. But here’s the Page of Cups, and at this place in the spread — there’s no mistaking it."

He fumed silently, glaring at her. But she apparently knew that he could not very well attack a five-foot-three woman in the middle of a cocktail party, and looked at him patiently. Even more maddeningly, she also looked compassionate.

"Hey, I know. It can be difficult to come to terms with. I’ve been there."

Bloody queers. Every time he turned around, there were more of the damned perverts around, and they all seemed to be on a mission to annoy the hell out of him.

"Listen," she said gently, "I’m like a priest or a lawyer. What you tell me is between you and me. It goes no further."

Klaus wanted to get up and stalk away, but he reminded himself: Blend in. He had been so outraged that he had forgotten, for a few seconds, to watch his quarry. Highly unprofessional. Gritting his teeth, he said, "Go on."

This seemed to please her. With a conspiratorial look, she said, "Well then. Let’s see what he’s like."

When the next card was turned over, Klaus thought he might almost put some stock in this nonsense.

"The Fool," she pronounced. The card even looked like Dorian — blond curls and his eyes fixed on a rainbow, oblivious to the cliff he was about to step off. "He’s kinda flighty. A dreamer. Head in the clouds. Not stupid by any means, but highly romantic, always willing to take a leap of faith, and excessively optimistic." She looked at Klaus to gauge his reaction. He could not keep back a very slight smile.

Satisfied that she was on the right track, she turned over the next card.

"The Nine of Swords. This is the ‘cutting-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face’ card. Notice the image. The man is marching away with his sword drawn, looking stubborn, turning his back on the beautiful woman he’s leaving behind, who is obviously heartbroken that he’s going."

"Woman."

"The gender of the people depicted on the cards isn’t really relevant," she said patiently. "It’s the dynamic of the relationship that they’re depicting. You haven’t come to terms with your orientation yet, have you? But listen, this guy is special. He really loves you. You’ll regret it all your life if you walk away from him."

Getting up in the middle of this and walking away would only draw attention to himself. Klaus stayed where he was.

She turned over another card. It was labelled "Strength" and depicted a pretty blonde woman riding a lion as if it were a horse.

"Persistent, isn’t he?" she asked.

"You have no idea," Klaus retorted before he thought.

"So, let’s see what’s keeping you two apart." She turned over a few more cards, naming them as she did so. "Two of Swords. Six of Swords. Three of Swords. All these Swords cards," she mused. "Quit taking your internalized homophobia out on him. It isn’t his fault you’re gay."

Klaus glared at her, but with her head bent over the cards, she didn’t notice. He glanced around the room as if idly. The turncoat was getting more punch.

The fortune-teller turned over two more cards. Both depicted knights on horseback carrying weapons. One’s hair was golden, the other’s black. She tapped the golden-haired one.

"The Knight of Cups, representing a mission of love. And the Knight of Swords, representing a mission of aggression. You two approach life in totally different ways. Your goals are totally different. It’s no wonder it hasn’t worked out — or that you’re so drawn to each other."

Humph.

"And the outcome card."

Klaus fumed when the Lovers card was turned over.

She grinned, unrepentant. "It doesn’t mean what you think," she remarked. "Notice that the couple is standing at a crossroads. This card is about choices. You two have the choice."

"That’s good to hear," he retorted sardonically.

She swept up the cards and held out the deck to him again. "Shuffle three times and I’ll read for your career."

He supposed that getting up in the middle of this flake’s routine would not be blending in. He shuffled. At least with a career question, she couldn’t say any more of that frigging nonsense.

"Do you have a particular career question?" she asked as she laid out the cards again.

"I’m on a… business trip just now. How will it turn out?" he asked, just to satisfy his own inner sarcasm. The double agent was having a convincingly casual conversation with the idiot who had directed Klaus to the fortune-teller in the first place.

She began turning up the cards again, this time turning several over before speaking. "What do you do?"

"I’m in pharmaceuticals," he said at random, just because the idiot Yank whose conversation he had just escaped from had been in that field.

"Really. I would have thought you were involved with law enforcement, or maybe professional sports — something macho, what with all these Swords and Rods and Knights. Especially since we have the Emperor here — I would have said you were career military if your hair weren’t longer than mine."

Klaus had to grant her this much: she was a good judge of character.

"But since you’re not, I suppose these cards are about how you approach your career. Aggressively, as if it were a war. You’re driven. And you’re good at what you do, no matter how you have to drive yourself. So. Your current endeavour."

She studied the cards in silence for a minute. Stalling for time until she could come up with something, no doubt.

"I believe that what’s important here is the Page of Rods." She indicated the card. It depicted a rather short young man with shaggy auburn hair, carrying a club. "Pages are messengers. You’ll be given a sign of sorts, a clear indication of what you need to do to succeed in your current project. So pay attention to what people tell you, which I suspect you have trouble doing. You don’t have to accept everything you’re told, but someone soon will give you just the piece of information you need, and if you aren’t willing to listen, it won’t do you any good."

She gazed at the cards meditatively for another minute. Klaus enjoyed the silent interlude; he was not required to fill it with empty chatter. This sort of thing had its advantages. Though not the ones advertised.

"You put all of your energy into your career, at the expense of everything else," she remarked. "Which is of course your prerogative, but you are cheating yourself of life’s other rewards."

He did not bother to answer this platitude. Idiots were always saying things like that to him.

"The outcome card: Justice." It depicted a regal golden-haired woman in white robes holding the traditionally symbolic scales aloft. "You’ll get what you deserve, and the good guys will win. Whether that’s good news or bad news for you depends on your karma," she said teasingly. "Anything else?"

"No. I suppose I am supposed to cross your palm with silver?"

She smiled and waved a hand dismissively. "Your charming host has paid me. Sure you don’t have any other questions?"

"No, thank you," he said formally, and rose. The woman he had intercepted earlier lost no time in swooping down on the charlatan. As Klaus moved away, he could hear the woman saying, "I’ve got a million questions for you…." He rolled his eyes.

Blend in, he reminded himself. He supposed he could fetch himself a new drink. As he made his way to the makeshift bar, he watched his quarry from the corner of his eye.

As Klaus took the first swallow of the beer — one thing about Yanks, they had the sense to prefer German beer — a newcomer to the party approached the double agent. Klaus was instantly sure that this man was the contact. Their casual act was worse than that of Eroica’s team. Poor damned thief had subordinates just as incompetent as Klaus’ own. It was a miracle they had both achieved so much success, with such idiots to work with.

It pleased Klaus’ sense of irony that the contact was rather short and rather young and had longish auburn hair. Though he was not carrying a club, nor did he otherwise resemble the picture on the charlatan’s card.

They spoke for a moment, and then the "Page of Rods" left the party. Klaus glanced out the window to note which car he was getting into. G and Z would have written down all the license plates; they could match it up later.

As the contact’s white Geo Prizm drove away, a commotion turned Klaus away from the window. He swore briefly in German when he saw what had happened. The double agent, damn him, had slipped on that blasted Oriental rug and split his head open!

The predictable hysterics were breaking out. Klaus had no trouble elbowing through the idiots crowding around the fallen man. His authoritative manner swept any objections away as he examined the injury. It was real, not any kind of ploy. The turncoat was unconscious and would need a doctor. Now there was no way to learn where the microfilm was.

An hour later the double agent had been carried off in an ambulance and the guests, rather flustered, were beginning to leave — the ones who were not recounting the event to each other. Klaus was seething. He wished the fortune-teller hadn’t left so that he could tell her that the good guys had not won. Not that an American was capable of believing that anyway.

The cards were, he supposed, artistic, he conceded as he went to wash his hands in the color-coordinated bathroom before leaving. He wondered what Eroica would have thought of them. The Justice card had been rather attractive, as such things went; the woman in the picture had been pristine and dignified as she held the scales.

As he had that thought, his eye fell on the bathroom scale. He looked at it for a minute.

Idiot, he thought at himself.

Just to satisfy himself that it was idiotic, just to confirm what he already knew, Klaus bent and picked up the bathroom scale.

The microfilm was beneath it.

It was a long time before he allowed any words whatsoever to enter his mind.

At last, very carefully, he thought, Coincidences are certainly misleading to idiots.

 

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