A Tiger by the Toe

by the Duchess

The concept of the celebratory ball had obviously been dreamed up for the express purpose of tormenting Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach.

However, what Klaus's husband wanted, Klaus's husband inevitably got. Thus, at an hour when all sensible NATO agents were tucked up in bed, dreaming of dead KGB spies all in a row, Klaus was squiring the Earl of Red Gloria to some Elsa Maxwellesque bash or other.

A Duchess was giving this one, to celebrate the birthday of her pet tiger. How a woman got a pet tiger in this day and age, Klaus did not know. Nor did he wish to. Alas, as Dorian dragged him to and fro, showing him off under the guise of working the room, he had a dismal premonition that he wouldn't be able to avoid finding out.

"Hello, darlings!"

The thing to do, Klaus felt, when confronted by an unexpected, ravishingly beautiful camorrista with whom one had a chequered history, was to not be poleaxed.

He managed to bite down the cornucopia of negative emotions her sudden appearance inspired in him, and make what would almost pass for polite conversation. "You had Varozzi all along. Why did you not hand him over?"

"You wish I had? But think of the fun we would have missed out on!" trilled Portia. She batted her eyelashes. He gnashed his teeth in reply.

Dorian made sure to clutch Klaus even more tightly than usual, unobtrusively insinuating himself between his husband and the woman who'd brought them together. He was a wee bit piqued that she'd given their game away in the card she'd left Klaus -- and if he was a wee bit piqued at her, who knew what might be boiling away beneath the starched shirt at his side?

It was safest for the most handsome Byronic artist since the original to stay between Klaus and Portia's vintage Dior. "Come as you were in a past life," the invitation had said. (In all his previous lives, the Major had stated firmly, he had been a correctly-attired German gentleman.)

"I say, I love that necklace," Dorian put in chattily, to defuse the situation. "Is it Bvlgari?" Then he realised what he'd said, met Portia's eyes, and they both howled with laughter while Klaus became progressively redder in the face with every second of their mirth.

"We will not keep you, Madame," he said, each word a projectile fired with the same deadly intent as a bullet from his Magnum. Which he rather wished he'd ignored Dorian's edict ("It doesn't go with your cufflinks, dearest!") and brought along with him.

"I wonder why he's afraid of me?" Portia asked Dorian, switching her empty glass of champagne for Klaus's almost-full one. Did she know how close to death that brought her? From the glint in her eye, the thief deduced that she did -- and loved it.

"I am not afraid of you, woman!"

"Now, Major, what have I told you about calling me 'woman'?"

If this were not a social occasion, and if she were not, despite her protests, a woman, he would--

A full-scale international incident was averted at the last moment by, of all things, a peculiarity of their hostess. She was an aficionada of more genres of music than there were, at present, bees in Klaus's bonnet. All of them were on the agenda for that evening -- nothing was too good for her baby's natal day! Voltas and saltarellos gave way to rock'n'roll classics and Portia was reminded of something that would be even better sport than baiting the Iron Major.

Now that she thought about it, in addition to all its other sterling qualities, this particular amusement might just inflict more damage upon the Major's nerves than all her well-considered remarks put together. The possibility would have to be investigated.

"Ooh! There's a four-times European rock'n'roll champion over there underneath the Correggios -- I'm going to go and grab her before someone else does! Isn't it a good thing I didn't come as a maiko after all? Even I can't dance in okobo! Ciao, sweethearts!" She and Dorian air-kissed and she sashayed off, Klaus's champagne in tow.

Fortunately, the two men were in a relatively unpopulated corner, where Klaus could revert to type without sparking off a stampede of his fellow guests to pastures greener. "Why did you bring me here, you idiot!?" he barked. "You ought to have known that infernal woman would be present! If I did not... care for you, I would be obliged to throttle you!"

The golden-tressed thief was silent. He was peering intently over Klaus's shoulder...

Klaus slowly turned, mentally preparing himself for whatever he might find.

But who among men could truly prepare for the sight of Portia Roccanera and Marie-Therese von Sachsen-Teschen doing the Peppermint Twist?

"It goes round and round, up and down, round and round, up and down
Round and round and a up and down
And a one two three kick, one two three jump!

"Well meet me baby, down at 45th Street
Where the Peppermint Twisters meet
And you'll learn to do this, the Peppermint Twist!"

Klaus knew that for as long as his NATO career lasted, whenever he met his august superior, General Prince Wilhelm Andreas von Sachsen-Teschen, in the forefront of his mind would be the memory of this moment. Not an official dinner would go by during which he would not break out in a cold sweat, envisioning this affront to the natural order of things.

Elegant, venerable German Princesses whose husbands were Klaus's superiors belonged at diplomatic cocktail parties and reputable charity events, where they might perform the duties that accompanied their station, with grace and dignity.

They were not, in Klaus's not-so-humble opinion, designed for throwing themselves recklessly about dancefloors in the arms of crooked Italian socialites, demonstrating all the lithe competence of women a fraction of their ages. Their petticoats were not meant to be exhibited in public, however briefly. And they should not be manhandled. Even by their Princes. Certainly not by notorious criminals... of the female persuasion.

By this time most of the other dancers had stopped and stood back, to allow Portia and the Princess plenty of room for their flamboyant display. They were very, very good at what they were doing. They'd clearly done it many times before.

Klaus could bear the spectacle no longer. There was nothing in Sun Tzu about what to do when faced with one's boss's wife letting herself go so completely -- obviously officers' wives had been better-regulated in those days. But Klaus felt certain the master strategist would have counselled retreat.

"We're going home," said the Major, with grim finality. For once Dorian didn't argue, but led his beloved gently from the premises.

Only later, when he'd punched a hole in a convenient wall and was forcibly preventing Dorian from placing a cold compress upon his brow, did Klaus realise he'd called Castle Red Gloria 'home'.

Well, some things couldn't be helped.