~24~

Klaus strolled along casually, pretending to be unaware of the many eyes fixed on him, until his opportunity came: for one fleeting second, he was unobserved. Moving swiftly into action with skill honed over decades of practice, he darted into a hallway, out of sight. The first door he tried was locked. He cast a sharp glance over his shoulders, but he wasn't being pursued, not yet. Perhaps his departure had not been detected. But his reprieve would not last long, and if he hadn't made good his escape before he was spotted, he would not have another chance.

The next door was open, and the room unoccupied. A storage room of some sort. Klaus closed the door quietly behind him, crossed to the window, opened it, and climbed out. His feet hit the pavement and he straightened, promptly resuming his earlier unhurried stride. No observer would have thought for a moment that this man had just made a narrow escape or that he feared pursuit.

A block away, he breathed more easily, allowing himself now to enjoy the bracing October evening. It was quiet at this hour of night. Now and then, passing a building, he caught a murmur of voices, people bringing their day to a close.

He considered where he would like to go now. Someplace he was unlikely to be bothered. A quiet corner in a bar was a possibility, but the cool night air was pleasant. He didn't want to go inside.

But there was a well-paved sidewalk that wound nestled beside Boar River, and very few people would be on it at this hour. And those few, mostly courting couples, would be more interested in their own conversations than in waylaying him.

So he headed for the river, and slowed to an even more leisurely pace. The gentle sounds of the flowing water drowned out most of the words of the small handful of other pedestrians. It was restful.

About time he had some rest, perhaps.

"'Lo, Major."

Klaus did not start. He had thought Eroica would probably be here tonight. He had not seen the thief in almost two years. He stopped and turned calmly. Eroica was standing perhaps ten feet away, wrapped in a black trenchcoat, studying him.

The Earl had aged quite well. How old was he now? In his fifties? He looked younger, and the planes of his face were more sharply chiseled now. His present quiet elegance was a far cry from, and in Klaus's opinion a marked improvement over, the flashy prettiness of his youth.

Now Eroica smiled disarmingly. "I knew that where your retirement party was, I would find you somewhere else. Did you stay for any of it?"

"About the first twenty minutes. And I'm not a Major anymore."

Eroica's face lit up. "Really?"

"They finally promoted me to Lieutenant Colonel last month. Sort of a last pat on the back." He shrugged, affecting indifference to it, giving himself a moment before speaking again. "Maybe they thought it would be easier to make me retire if they did."

"Regardless, it's criminally overdue. Congratulations, Lieutenant Colonel." Dorian's voice was warm. When Klaus did not immediately reply, Dorian ambled to a nearby bench and sat down. Instead of continuing to ogle Klaus, he gazed, relaxed, at the river, at the light of the moon and the streetlights reflected on its shimmering surface.

After a moment, Klaus slowly moved to the bench and sat down beside the Earl. They watched the flow of the river together.

"I never expected to see this day," Klaus said at last. "Thought I'd die in the line of duty."

"Is that how you wanted to go?"

"At one time."

"There were so many things you were willing to die for. Was there anything you were willing to live for?"

"Idiot."

The Earl's smile could be heard in his voice. "You haven't changed. I'm surprised they could get you to retire at all, promotion or not."

"They tried to make me four years ago. I wouldn't." He took out a cigarette and lit it. He studied the glowing tip for a few seconds, reflecting that it was probably this and not a bullet which would kill him, now. "Couldn't."

Dorian dug into the deep pockets of his trenchcoat. A bit of rummaging and he pulled out a bottle of dry gin. Wacholder, a German gin, strongly flavored. He proffered the bottle to Klaus. Klaus broke the seal and took a swig. It was, as they said, the good stuff.

"And now?" Dorian asked.

Klaus took another swallow and passed the bottle to Dorian. "Maybe I've done my part by now," Klaus said at last.

Dorian sniffed the bottle and took a cautious sip. Then swallowed, hard. "But still no heir."

"Last year I formally adopted my cousin Manfred's younger son Tobias."

"Can't quite picture you as an adopted father."

Klaus shrugged again. "He's still living with his parents, when he's not at gymnasium. One thing I insisted on, that he go to the same school I did. He'll need it. He's fifteen. Very bright. Very hard-working. He'll be a better heir than any I could have produced myself. And he's an Eberbach to the core."

"Really? Maybe I should look him up."

"Keep away from decent German boys." The words were spoken without inflection. "Haven't you had enough conquests?"

"I haven't had as many as you think."

"That's still a lot."

"And I never got the one I wanted most." Dorian did not look at him.

"Humph." Klaus reclaimed the bottle. Gin was wasted on fops anyway. "Couldn't have married or had children in any case. If it had ever been suspected I cared for anyone, they'd have spent half their lives being held hostage."

"And you'd have been put to the bother of rescuing them."

"It wasn't only that." Klaus leaned back on the bench. It was hard and not comfortable at all, but nicotine and good gin and the cold pure air of Germany more than compensated. "I couldn't afford distractions. My profession is a demanding one. Outside concerns could cost lives. Not only my own."

Dorian did not reply at once. Instead he scanned the stars, tilting his head back, hugging his coat around him in the cold. "I understood that, you know."

Klaus watched the silken grey thread of smoke unfurl from his cigarette in graceful twirls. "I do know."

"And I couldn't bear to be confined. I've floated about with every wind like a balloon, doing as I pleased. Had a ball." He extricated one hand from his pocket and snagged the gin back long enough for another careful sip. When he had recovered from that one, he went on, "My nephew Colin will be the next Earl of Gloria, I suppose. My sisters are furious over it — Colin's Dad all over again. Just like me."

"He is a thief?"

Dorian laughed. "That wasn't what I meant," he said coyly. "And no, he's not. Neither am I, anymore."

"I suppose the arthritis makes it hard to scale walls and crack safes," Klaus remarked.

"I happen to be seven years younger than you, Tattergreis!" Dorian had looked up the German word for "feeble old man" some years ago, just so that he could taunt Klaus with it one day. But his laughter faded quickly. "You're right, though. When I realized I just couldn't do the fancy athletic stuff anymore, I hung up my cape. I didn't want to keep on stealing if I couldn't keep on being the best."

"I know."

Dorian turned his head quickly to look at the other man. Klaus was still gazing meditatively at the gently roiling water.

"How do you keep busy now?" Klaus asked suddenly.

"Oh, I still look at art. I just don't bother to steal it." Dorian considered. "Sometimes I buy some of it." Klaus gave a snort which was probably meant for a laugh. "So what are you going to do with yourself now, Major?"

Klaus tossed his cigarette to the ground and stretched his leg out to step on it. A moment later, Dorian felt a large, warm hand close firmly over his.

"Idiot," Klaus said, and kissed him.

 

 

Snippets

Eroica