A Thousand Kisses ... and Sea Monsters
Author's disclaimer and notes: I don't own them, I just dream of doing so. Feedback is better than a Hagen Dasz Salted Caramel Icecream. Corrections to my language are welcome as are comments! Ask if you want me to archive it anywhere. You may link to this story if you want or to my main page. 20.602 words. Written in November 2012.
Betaed by Heather Sparrows, Telwoman and Kadorienne. I thank you all! HOWEVER, I went against beta advice to switch from Earl to Lord in the story, keeping the dialogue from the manga. Sorry!
Caesar Gabriel, instructor of London University. 18 years old.
Sugar Plum. Art Student. 16 years old.
Leopard Solid. Stuntman. 19 years old.
All three blessed with extraordinary perception. Oh, and Leopard has gills.
A Thousand Kisses ... and Sea Monsters
When trying to render Aoike Yasuko’s brilliant first volume of her timeless classic, From Eroica With Love, into written prose, your humble writer was faced with numerous difficulties. How can mere words ever capture the magnificent poses of Dorian Red, Earl of Gloria? A picture says a thousand words – how true! How true! The incredible richness of details that over and over again captures a reader: the outstanding contrasts in hues of grey; each expertly rendered widening of eyes or stroke of blush; each scale glittering as if the monster would at any moment leap out from the pages and devour the reader – yes, I dare say that no reader has ever looked at the seemingly tranquil ocean in quite the same way again, after having seen the horrific things lurking just beneath the surface. Still, I will now make the attempt, purely as a writing exercise, and I hope that my amateurish work will capture at least a fragment of Aoike’s brilliance. You be the judge.
Located at a reassuring distance from the doomed canal of the cursed Thames, the London National Gallery lacks some of the basic protections against the gilled enemy, but to this day no fanged, slithering monster has ever reached as far as the white columns of the Gallery portico. In this day and time, the dome stands in proud defiance against nature, even on a dark, rainy winter day such as this.
That was one of the reasons why Sugar liked the gallery – though, of course, merely a minor reason, compared to the very reason for the building's existence.
There are so many world famous works of art on display here, Sugar thought as she entered the galleries. Michaelangelo. Botticelli. Rembrandt. Raphael. Van Dyke. And so many more.
Sugar Plum, at 16, was a young woman of the type that often found themselves labelled ”petite” – 1.55 in height, large brown eyes and her reddish blond hair in a neat hearcut. She studied art at the London University and had brought along a sketch block, thinking that maybe she'd continue to the Atlantic Ocean part of the gallery and do her own rendering of da Vinci's Kraken's Smile, that classic work unrivalled in capturing the sea lord's horrific countenance.
”I see you’re back, lass,” said the security guard as Sugar passed him. Despite the relative safety of the gallery, the man did still carry the standard armament in case of an enemy attack – net, tripod and even a miniature harpoon. A middle-aged man with slightly rotund physique, he carried his gear with easy confidence – standard procedure was to rotate security personnel between the safer locations and the uncertainty of the malicious sea front.
”Oh yes!” Sugar answered with an admiring smile as she walked past him.
My favorite is a work by Bronzini, she thought, a 16th century Italian painter, an allegory with Venus and Cupid. She usually thought in full sentences, a long time habit of hers.
After having rounded the corner and stepped forward, she saw the painting. "Venus, Cupid, Folly and Sea Hags" by Agnolo Bronzino, oil on wood from 1545, of Cupid kissing Venus with a hand on her breast. In the background a sea hag clutched her gnarled hands to her head, screaming.
Maybe a decent girl of 16 shouldn’t be saying this, but I really think this painting is so erotic. Of course, she could also shield some of her thoughts if she was careful so that no one else could hear them. Some thoughts she definitely did not want overheard. It’s all so beautiful ... Venus and Cupid kissing.
To be honest, Sugar loved watching Cupid the most. She just adored the soft, golden tresses falling down his noble forehead and the chic semi-circles of his gills, not to mention the faint sheen of scales over his lower back and thighs. That naughty look in his eyes. The very sight made Sugar blush and giggle so hard she had to cover her mouth as not to attract undue attention. It’s all so dreamy. You can really lose yourself.
Just then she heard a faint noise. A jangle, like crocodile claws on concrete.
Oh? What is that? ”Huh?” she said and turned to see what made the strange sound. Even if a crocodile seemed unlikely it could be some other type of clawed monstrosity. What she saw shocked her; she couldn’t believe her eyes. ”Wow!”
Then she had to revise her original impression. No! Cupid in the form of a gorgeous 20-year-old!
And he was magnificent. Standing opposite to the painting, hands on narrow hips, studying it, he was every bit as much a work of art.
Sugar revised her opinion again. This was not a boy.
No! Not Cupid! Apollo with his magnificent locks of gold. Looking at the same painting as me but with a pensive, almost sorry look.
He wore a gorgeous outfit, with skin-tight sea serpent trousers; knee-high shark leather boots; a soft-looking, dark green jacket, lined with fluffy fur over something slick and red. A long band of pearls hung slung almost carelessly around his neck; and on the tight belt around his narrow waist the buckle glimmered unmistakably of diamonds. He was a tall figure with long legs, slender fingers and shoulders just wide enough to be decidedly masculine – as if anyone would doubt the Adam’s apple and the not-so-faint bulge not far below the belt buckle.
And like a fairytale prince he’s surrounded by all these gorgeous guys. The jangling was the gold chain on his wrist, I knew it wasn't a crocodile.
Five men stood behind him, watching either him or the works of art. All in strict pin striped suits - though in one case also patched. All five were beautiful, though far from as beautiful as Apollo himself. Three blonds, one brunet and one, the smallest and cutest, with black hair. The blond with the shinest, curliest hair had a tell-tale, greenish hue to his face, enhanced by glossy, green lips.
”Brilliant,” said Apollo, his voice a teasing, hot caress to the ear. ”The only scene in which a kiss is perfectly captured in all its splendor.” Sugar hung onto every word, enchanted. ”It’s almost pornographic, I’d say.”
At the p-word, Sugar had to cover her mouth again, so as not to blurt out something inappropriate. She felt herself blushing – her cheeks burned as if touched by a fire scyphozoa. P-p-pornographic? As in naughty pictures people under 18 aren’t supposed to see? How can anyone so posh say that?
"Is something the matter, miss? You're, shall we say, red like a herring."
It took Sugar a few seconds to realise that the incredible, rich voice was now directed at her. Waugh! He's talking to me! Never had anyone like that ever spoken to her before!
The nobleman - he simply must be a nobleman, no one could look that fashionable and collected and handsome and not be of noble birth - had crossed his arms and was looking at Sugar with a faint smile. "Perhaps this painting is a tad too ... captivating for a young lady," he said, though not unkindly.
Sugar's tongue felt so thick in her mouth she couldn't make a sound.
He turned his gaze back towards the painting, tilting his head slightly. "I myself like this painting. And this Cupid does resemble me."
Finally, this gave Sugar enough of a topic to break her paralysis. "I-I-I thought so, too," she forced herself to say, cursing the way she stumbled over the first word. He must think her a complete bumpkin. "You share the same sexy--" Oh no! "No! I-I-I mean..."
He turned back to her and smiled. The light in the hallway caught unexpectedly in a perfect band of scales that ran across his cheekbones, highlighting his features better than any lady's rouge. His lips glittered too, but in pink. His gorgeous flow of curls framed his face and the centre of his forelock had been fashioned to a heart-shape. "No, you're quite right. Your sharp art sense does you credit."
The praise rendered Sugar completely mute, as if paralysed by a sea snake bite, she couldn't think of a single thing to say. Luckily, just then their brief conversation was interrupted by the black-haired man, the one with the patched suit. "Earl, it's almost time," he said.
"Yes, we must be going," said the green-skinned one, his voice ever so faintly hissing.
An Earl? No wonder he looks so noble.
Once more the man turned towards her. He made the most elegant gesture with his hand to his chest - if she lived to be a hundred, Sugar was sure she would never be as elegant - and said: "Take your time and enjoy it. Today is the last time you shall see it."
Then he turned and walked off, flanked by his men. Sugar noticed other visitors to the gallery also turned to watch him leave, possibly also spellbound by his astonishing presence, as if he had been a siren.
Come to think of it, the museum closes for the Christmas holidays, Sugar thought absently as she watched him. I wonder if he came to say goodbye to his other self, the Cupid?
[Oh, Sugar ...]
A bit narcissistic, though, she had to admit, though she - of course - would never dream of saying anything so rude to his face.
[Hello, Sugar ...]
But then, aren't most of the handsome ones? And he really had been one of the most handsome ones, hadn't he? With that body and those perfect scales and the elegant flow of his hair ...
The shout broke into her mind. Huh? and at first she didn't understand what it meant, not until the next message came.
[How many times do I have to call you before you answer?]
Oh, of course ...
[Sorry, I was just ...] she began to explain, feeling sheepish.
[... was just floored by that ultrahot blond dude, right?] the other voice in her head finished her explanation.
Now she felt like a dummy. [Oh? You saw him, then?]
[Yeah, he passed by a while ago. For just looks, he'd give ol' Caesar a good run for the money.] Which was high praise indeed.
Sugar decided that she didn't want to stay in the gallery, she had had enough of the Cupid and handsome strangers for the moment and, besides, it'd be dark before long. Looking too intently at da Vinci's Kraken's Smile gave her nightmares, anyway. So she began walking towards the exit. She realised that to hear a voice in one's head likely would have disconcerted most people. Of course, it had only been Leopard, who was waiting for her outside the museum.
Before stepping down from the portico she first of all looked around to make sure no immediate threat loomed. Finding no scaly, slithering monster about to attack - again, the sea beasts rarely made it as far up as to the museum - she let her eyes search out the familiar shape further away, where Leopard leaned his lanky figure against a tree. He looked relaxed and happy, as if he didn't have a care in the world, but his eyes constantly swept the area, keeping a lookout for possible threats.
"Sorry to have kept you waiting," Sugar said as soon as she got within hearing distance. Of course, Leopard could simply have joined her inside the museum, but he didn't any longer - he avoided the painting she so adored, since it embarrassed him so. Another reason why he preferred to stay outdoors was that there was always the chance that a stray land crab or airbreathing eel would attack, for him to match his strength and wit with.
As she stepped closer, as always feeling safe in Leopard's presence, Sugar suddenly noticed a band-aid on his cheekbone, which hadn't been there in the morning. "Hey, what happened to your face?"
"We were shootin' a scene, I was supposed to jump off a killer dolphin going 100 miles an hour, well, it didn't work out as planned."
His boyishly handsome face glowed at the memory and he added with a somewhat sharkish smile: "Any normal schuck would've been hospitalized for at least a month. If the dolphin hadn't just eaten him. But, hey, I ain't normal."
They walked together back towards the tripod-tipped gates of the university. Privately, Sugar thought it was very sweet of Leopard to always escort her. She could handle a filet knife as well as anyone and her special talent did give her an advantage of being forearmed to immediate attacks, but Leopard was one of her best friends and the fact that he cared for her always brightened her spirit.
They entered the university ground unmolested, though at one point they had to cross the street to avoid a slippery trail from what could only be a poisonous sea snail. That was when Sugar suddenly noted a phenomenon occurring by some trees not far away. "Now what is it with all those hearts, huh?" she asked. A swarm of multicoloured hearts fluttered about.
"It means Caesar is around," Leopard surprised her by answering. "It's always like that with him."
Sugar had never realised this before, but then, she mostly met Caesar in the apartment the three shared. Her mother hadn't been happy with her sharing an apartment with two men - as if Leopard or Caesar would ever do anything Sugar didn't approve of? But Sugar had explained what an outstanding fisherman Leopard was - nothing scaled would ever get into the apartment without alerting him, and Caesar, well, no one really took Caesar for a serious threat now, did they?
There he was, Caesar himself. Head in a book, as always, The 66 Lesser Types Of Snapping Sea Turtles, if Sugar recognized the size and the repugnant, green folder. He had his lovely orange and blue scarf wrapped snugly around his neck and his long, blond hair whipped about in the salty breeze. In his other hand The Sons Of Eve, a book on primates, and another book Sugar couldn't make out rested against his hip trident. After him trailed a number of women - even from the distance Sugar's sharp ears could hear them.
"Professor Caesar, look over here!" one of them, a young woman in a high turtle neck called out.
"He's so handsome!" exclaimed another. She had a hint of green in her dark, glossy hair. Maybe she was affected or maybe she was just following the reigning fashion of pretending to be so. “The ABBA fashion”, as some called the look. Ever since the group had their mega-hit Trafalgar – “I promise, with pleasure, to love the sea …” – with half the Swedes in scales and fins, the in crowd had eagerly embraced the provocative new style. Sugar didn’t quite understand the whole “Wet is the new black” thing, but then she had never been much for boys and make-up and all that.
"I'd die for him!" promised a third, a curly blond with glasses.
"He looks like a character from a girl's romance comic!" a fourth commented, her hands held together as if in prayer and Sugar even thought she saw a hint of tears on her cheeks - or maybe she was one of the afflicted with humidity problems.
"Caesar is so cute," said a person Sugar honestly wasn't sure whether it was a man or a woman, not that it mattered.
"Definitely a tasty morsel." That person was definitely a she, but one who looked so hungrily at Caesar that if she took one step closer, Sugar would sic Leopard on her. One never knew when someone affected actually meant such a statement literally. FISH-induced cannibalism was extremely rare, but it could not be denied that it had increased steadily in the last decade. Of course, most blamed the raise on television violence. Especially that timeless, tragic romance between fisherman and shark, Jaws, had a lot to answer for in that regard.
"He's one for us older gals," said the seventh. As she appeared to have no teeth left, at least cannibalism would be slightly more difficult in her case.
And all through, Caesar just kept walking, his eyes either intent on the book or at even intervals scanning the surroundings. Alertness came naturally to mankind after the long war with the Ocean enemy. Inattentiveness quickly removed you from the gene pool. Or not so quickly, in the case of mermaids, seahags and waterspiders.
Sugar took a long moment to thoroughly study her other best friend's face. Okay. So Caesar is as hot as the Earl. He really was. Huge eyes, the cutest little turned-up-nose, full lips and hair that always managed to look as if he had just stepped out from the barber's shop. But he still hasn't clued in to how devastating he is. He is so naive, which I suppose isn't rare for those brainy types. He's what you call 'a late bloomer'.
Finally, Caesar's next eye-sweep took in her and Leopard. He sent them both a truly devastating smile, the one he reserved only for them.
"Ah, Sugar. Leopard. Did I keep you waiting?"
The smile was so bright that Sugar felt herself warm up. In fact, he's so late blooming that it's a miracle. He's never had a crush on anyone in his 18 years of life!
[Yeah! And I'm hungry!] Dear Leopard, of course ...
[Leopard, you're such a glutton!] Sometimes Sugar felt just a hint embarrassed by him, even if they'd been friends since they were children.
[Now, don't be so hard on him,] Caesar broke in, his mental voice affectionate, [his body is special. You know that if Leopard doesn't eat enough he will go shark on us.]
And they all shared a secret. The three of them could talk telephatically.
While they had known each other forever and ever, their story had really started five years earlier, when their parents had taken them to Peru, home of the Inca Empire. Rumours had surfaced that a similar wave of infestation of the world's oceans - turning what once had been fairly friendly creatures into vicious killing machines, bent on destroying all mankind - had happened before, many thousands of years ago. Normally such a wave lasted for a few hundred years, but the humans of that unlucky time had, found some way of returning things to their natural shape within a decade. How or what, nobody knew. Their parents had hoped that maybe some trace of such a cure could be found there, in the Nasca Highlands, well away from any traitorous waves.
Also, since they were so far away from the ever-dangerous, monster-infested sea, the land was deemed very safe. The children had been allowed to roam freely about - and thus, as children are wont to do, they had gotten lost.
For three days and nights the three had wandered, forging in fire a friendship that could sustain any blow. They thought they were goners for sure, that they would die of some poisonous spider bite or be eaten alive by ravenous panthers or merely die of slow starvation, maybe the last of them resorting to cannibalism before finally succumbing – probably Leopard, considering his increased metabolism. And then, out from nowhere, came an old man with long, white hair, and saved them.
Not only that, he gave them strange powers. Superhuman? Maybe. But what was most important: nobody else knew about this. They told nobody, not even their parents. Since then, it had been the three of them against the world. Not always together, but never apart.
Sugar Plum found that her five senses were significantly better. She also discovered a sixth sense, the ability to see into the future. With these senses, no creepy crawly water dweller could ever get close to her, nor to those she guarded, without her knowing.
Caesar Gabriel was intelligent enough to begin with, but soon after he developed into a genius. He learned 20 languages and became a virtuoso on practically every musical instrument. He earned 15 doctorates and became the university's youngest instructor. Both Sugar and Leopard were thoroughly convinced that Caesar Gabriel would be the man who found the solution to the problem of the wet enemy and who finally would bring peace back to the dry world.
Leopard Solid developed into a "superman" of sorts. With his inherited shark-infection he was already fast and sturdy, but after Peru his strength and athleticism became such that he could enter every Olympic sport and set superhuman world records in each one. It went without saying that he became a superior fisherman and with him guarding their backs the other two never had to fear an attack.
They never did find out who the old man was. Perhaps there are a lot of things out there that just can't be explained.
The three of us have different abilities, so there is a really good balance when we get together, Sugar reflected.
They had withdrawn to the university cafeteria, where they had laid claim to their usual table. They ate there almost every day, sharing their day freely and soaking in each others' presence.
"By the way," said Caesar, "what are you doing for Christmas Eve tomorrow?"
"I'm free," Leopard responded and drank some more tea. He easily got dehydrated and took any opportunity to fill up with liquid.
"I have nothing planned," Sugar added, though she knew that Caesar already knew that. They all knew each other's schedules and always filled each other in on any changes. Of course, it was always safest to let at least someone know where one planned to be at any given time. Most enemies killed swiftly, but some liked to linger, so if a rescue squad could be put together quickly enough, there might still be hope. Likely Caesar had just asked to get the conversation started.
Maybe that old man wanted this, Sugar thought, but the three of us will always be the best of friends and help each other, through wet and dry.
"Good!" Caesar said and smiled happily. "Because I've been invited to a party thrown by Lady Devlin, that famous art collector. She apparently wants to show off Vermeer's "Christ", which she just bought. Why not come along?"
That sounded like a marvellous idea to Sugar - and she knew that Caesar knew she would feel exactly so. "Sounds wonderful!" she said. "I'll be able to see a classic worth £300.000."
"If there's good food, and lots of it ..." Leopard was also smiling, showing off his sharp teeth, because he no doubt knew that Caesar wouldn't have asked if there hadn't been something in it for all three of them. "... count me in!"
Thus the curtain rose on the tragedy.
Evening, the next day.
They took a cab together to Lady Devlin's house, as it was getting darker and they didn't want to chance public transport. Many times poisonous algae had taken root in the subway system and the recent floodings had left lethal colonies of all kinds of wet beings. Over and over again the Royal Rescue Squad would go in to cleanse the system, but they never seemed to do a thorough enough job. Not six days ago The Times had reported the death of a young rescue squad officer who had been captured by a flock of miniature sea serpents and last been seen tugged into the inner parts of the Victoria line.
The cab was well defended, sturdily built and the driver armed not only with blowtorch and trident, but also with a high caliber rifle, sure to take out even a merman.
By the time they reached Devlin House darkness had fallen, but the path up to the building was very well lit (some of the gilled enemy avoided light, so brightness was encouraged by the goverment) and from the many huge windows light shone in defiance of the damp darkness outside. Despite the fashionable distance from the sea shore, the must-have sword-shaped bars covered all windows: gold-colored, but no doubt with a cold core of true iron. That sea creatures feared iron was sadly just a myth, but the solid weight had still saved many a life.
"Wow!" Sugar whispered to her companions as they waited to be greeted by the lady of the house, who the butler had just gone to fetch. "This is so posh!" Leopard and Caesar both responded by a feeling of agreement in her mind.
Then Lady Devlin appeared. She was about forty and, well, round. Round face; round locks curling inwards; white, smooth, round arms; a long, dark blue dress with round flower patterns that fell in waves over her round body. At the bottom of her bosom hung a huge, red rose: round and red as the crest of a Malaysian Sea Serpent. Around her round wrists hung round armlets, a necklace circled her round neck and fat rings adorned almost all of her short, round fingers.
"Welcome, Professor Gabriel. I've heard so much about you!"
Even her voice sounded round. Not rich, but round. While not an ugly sound - in fact it sounded quite pleasant - it made Sugar want to giggle.
[Wow!] Sugar commented. [But I don't think she needs to show off her money.]
[Shh, Sugar,] came Caesar's response, mingling with the amusement from Leopard, who obviously agreed. [If the woman is telepathic she'll boot us out right quick.]
Not that they had met another telepath since leaving the old man in Peru. And unless she was a very good actor, neither was Lady Devlin telepathically inclined, as she merely continued talking. "I'd be most delighted if you would be so kind as to look at my Vermeer."
Aimed at Caesar, of course, she more or less ignored Sugar and Leopard after having given the latter an intense once-over. Caesar promised that not even an octopus attack would keep him from viewing the painting. They were led further into the house. The main ballroom was huge, probably five meters to the ceiling with enormous crystal chandeliers, grandiose paintings everywhere, a small army of waiters circling with drinks, hors d'oeuvres, deviled eggs and deviled ham, masses of fancily dressed men and women talking so that the air fairly bubbled with chatter. Sugar felt distinctly underdressed, even though she had worn her best dress, the sea-green one with the little silvery sparkles, and the silver grey blouse which peeked out from underneath. She didn't mind, though. "Look at all these works. It's almost like a museum."
She loved museums in general, but it was the art and the beauty that most of all enchanted her and this house was chock full of all types of gaudiness and luxury, purloined from centuries past.
"See ya. Food first. Talk later," was Leopard's farewell as he walked unerringly towards the part of the room where food was being served. Sugar could smell the marine delights from where she stood, but with all the art so near she couldn't possibly think of eating.
"Mind your manners, Leopard," Caesar cautioned him, but Sugar doubted that their single-minded third even heard the gentle admonition.
Sugar walked around as if in a dream, gazing at the treasures, but she still kept track of Caesar. Caesar needed someone to look out for him, like a puppy playing on the beach, unaware that razor oysters could at any moment swallow the poor animal whole. He was quickly surrounded by a crowd of admirers, this time more evenly mixed in gender, though all of them very noble-looking.
"Ah, so that's Caesar Gabriel," said a short man with a black bow tie.
"He's handsome!" said a woman while holding a hand to her mouth, possibly to cover fangs.
A humid-looking man on the slightly portly side grumbled to his staring wife that "He's blessed with both looks and brains."
Wherever he goes, Caesar is always the center of attention, Sugar thought fondly, keeping the thought to herself. She wasn't jealous, well, almost not anyway.
Then she saw Caesar give a start and she was flooded with worry from his direction. He turned, finding her instantly and rushing up to her. "Sugar! Someone is staring at me," he hissed.
Now she got ever so slightly annoyed. "Stop being coy. Everyone stares at you." They did. Everyone. Always. You'd think he was a siren.
"No no! This is different!" He looked genuinely upset. "I feel a sharp stare from over there." He indicated with a finger.
Sugar turned. "Where?" she said, but then she saw Him and no further explanation was needed.
She couldn't believe she hadn't seen him before. He must have been there when they arrived - if he had made a grand entrance there was no way she could have missed him.
The incredibly gorgeous man from the museum. Cupid - Apollo - the Earl with the golden mane and the magnetic blue eyes. He sat on a soft-looking sofa in the corner with arms spread over the backrest and a brandy glass dangling elegantly from one hand and with his long, long legs stretched out to the side. Three of the men who had been with him before - the dark-haired one, the green-skinned one and one of the blonds, stood to the side in the background, waiting like servants to do their master's bidding. He looked far more like a prince than an Earl: royal and imperious.
"It's Earl Goldilocks!" Sugar squeaked.
Then he saw her and rose from his seat. He was moving closer!
In total panic Sugar turned away, took up her powder puff and powdered herself, pathetically grateful for the flowers in her hair - she knew they had been a good idea, they did look good on her, but, really, she needed to--Make-up! Lip-stick!
"So we meet again, my lady," came that incredible, golden honey melting in the sun voice. "Had enough of that painting?"
She turned back towards him, like a sea star turning to the sun.
"Quite beautiful, I must say," he all but purred.
He was so close that the faint scales over his cheekbones glittered in the light - and his shirt was open so far down his chest she couldn't help but see a hint of green there as well. His eyes shone faintly as he stared with obvious approval.
Oh, but he had called her beautiful! Sugar felt herself go scarlet again and giggled like the 16 year old she was. "Oh, Earl, you're such a..."
But even as she said the words she realised that the strong, almost tangible look wasn't directed at her! It was in her direction, for sure, but it-- Wait! He's not looking at me, but at ...
Unmistakably, right in the absolute path of the Earl's forceful, magnetic, penetrating gaze - stood Caesar.
What? Sugar couldn't believe her eyes - and what was worse: I have a really bad feeling about this!
The very day they had returned to England from Peru a flying stonefish had nearly severed Caesar's head. Since then they had quickly learned to rely on Sugar's bad feelings.
As she looked on, the Earl stepped even closer and made one of those oh-so-elegant hand gestures. "I am Dorian Red Gloria, the Earl of Gloria." He was obviously addressing Caesar, Sugar now off to their side, watching the meeting she had been excluded from. "I myself am a bit of a collector. I couldn't resist seeing the Vermeer."
"I'm Caesar Gabriel," Caesar answered, sounding a bit stunned.
"Let's go," Sugar whispered to him, suddenly as worried as if she'd gone to get some water and seen a tentacle peek out from the tap. "Like fast!"
Caesar had never seen a man so handsome and beautiful as this Earl, apparently the same man that Sugar had spoken so glowingly about to him and Leopard earlier. She had seemed captivated by him and Caesar could certainly see why.
"I've heard much about you," the Earl said and elegantly held out a hand.
Caesar automatically accepted the handshake. Like always there was a semi-second of insecurity if the offered palm would be warm to the touch - or cold and clammy. The faint scales on the man's face had made Caesar prepare for the latter, but - just like dear Leopard's, this man's hand was warm and dry.
"I fact, I was quite looking forward to meeting this beautiful young genius."
The man's voice flowed like a caress and he held Caesar's hand as if their fingers fitted together. Suddenly Caesar felt warm all over - he was sure he was blushing, perhaps even sweating. He wanted to shiver and hastily checked that his clothes lay as they should. Why am I so nervous?
The face of an angel. A lithe body. An amazing mind.
Dorian liked what he saw.
You are a natural work of art.
And art was what Dorian liked most of all in the entire world.
Someone grabbed his shoulders and pulled him back. Small hands without much power, but since she had taken him by surprise he moved anyway. [Caesar, let's get outta here!]
[Waugh!] was his - not very intelligent - response, but answering out loud had to wait until they were out of earshot of the Earl of Gloria. Not that Caesar knew what he wanted to say.
"You scared me! What was that about?" he demanded, still feeling rattled by the Earl's greeting and the way he had been stared at, the way a killer seal stares at a shipwrecked sailor.
"I'm not sure, but I sensed something dreadful would happen to you." Sugar looked shaken as well. And Caesar trusted her senses.
"Really? Come to think of it, I did feel something." But he wasn't sure what.
Dorian leaned against a deep green, gold-glittering curtain, arms crossed before him as he watched the beautiful young man and the art-interested female huddle in conversation.
He turned towards James and saw a lone tear slowly slide down the man's pale cheek.
"A tad sensitive, are we not, James?" he said. Hadn't he told James repeatedly that he didn't like to see tears? Not unless they were tears of rapture, of course. "Just stick to the accounting, please."
So as not to have to see the pleading look in James' eyes, he then turned in the other direction. "What's the time?"
"11:45," Jones answered promptly. His new haircut suited him, even if it completely hid his gills.
"In 15 minutes, it will be Christmas day," Dorian said, very pleased with this. He twirled a lock of his beautifully coiffed hair with his fingers. "And then we'll have ourselves a very merry Christmas."
Snow drifted slowly over the National Gallery, caught occasionally by playful winds and swept towards the corners and walls. Midnight approached and the city drew to a still - or as still as London ever became. Simon and Paul had brewed themselves tea. Since it was Christmas Eve and all, they had even splurged for a fancy Christmas brew smelling of orange, bergamot, cinnamon and ginger.
"Just our luck, pulling guard duty on Christmas Eve," said Simon. In truth, he wasn't all that unhappy. At home he only had the telly and beer. Paul was a nice enough bloke and they had shared a lot together, including being the two sole survivors of a baby leviathan-attack.
"Everyone in town is having fun," said Paul. He was feeling a bit morose. Simon was his best buddy and all, but he had never dared to tell Simon that he loved him and sometimes, especially at times like this, the truth was a bit heavy to carry.
"Merry Christmas!" a voice suddenly yelled from outside the door. They both hastily put down their cups and hurried over. Outside were three, no, five gorgeous women. All with a faintly greenish hue to their skin.
"Wanna party?" one of them, an especially handsome brunette, asked.
"Wow! Look at that lot of beautiful lasses!" Simon said, wondering what all the lovelies were doing there. The number of them - at least seven now, that he could see - didn't surprise him. London was situated close to the dangerous waters and not completely safe to move in, especially not at night. If one was forced to move around it was always best to do so in numbers.
He got his keys out.
"Hey!" Paul shouted. "You can't let 'em in!" That was definitely against procedure.
"Come on!" Simon answered, eager for some female companionship. "It's Christmas! And they might have been hunted here. They might need our protection!"
And so he opened the door.
"Here's your present," one of the lasses, a blond with clear scales on the tip of her nose, said. Then she brought up a steel can and sprayed a greenish mist towards them. "Sweet dreams."
At once, Paul felt his head grow heavier and heavier and he had to lie down. "I-- I told you ..." Not to trust women, especially not green ones. Hopefully this would teach Simon a lesson.
The last he heard before falling asleep was Simon whispering, "Too late ..." and then snore.
"Kill the alarm!" Jones shouted as he quickly divested himself of the concealing coats they had worn. "Flood the ventilation system with knockout gas!"
His orders were at once obeyed and he ran further into the building. "We only want the third room on the left!" he instructed. "Leave everything else!"
All seven of them were gilled. Their beloved leader had chosen them especially with that in mind for the job. There was little prejudice in society these days for the Gilled part of the population. True, at first they had been linked with the Enemy lurking beneath the surface. Many had even been killed, but as more and more were born or affected, most countries bowed to the inevitable. Some nations still persecuted and even killed gilled humans on sight, but certainly not good old Britannia. One area where prejudice remained, though, was that the gilled seldom worked in law enforcement. Oh, there were a few exceptions, but not many. And most old guardsmen were former cops or cop-wannabees. Very few gilled there either. Whereas the Eroica Gang Sleeping Gas (tm) worked only on air breathers.
"Everything in that room goes," Jones reminded everyone as they effortlessly ran through the smoke, passing all the unconscious night guards in the corridors. "Stay sharp! And stay on schedule!"
In the third room he personally oversaw the handling of one of the paintings. "We've got orders to handle that one with special care," he told them.
"Got it!" Stephan confirmed.
The entire sting took less than ten minutes.
"Everything went according to plan!" he praised his men as they loaded everything into the trucks and took off. He turned to Stephan. "Tell 'em the heist went off without a hitch! And that we're on our way back!"
The same scene was replayed in Paris at the Louvre and in New York at the Metropolitan.
"The Louvre heist was a success!"
|Many Thanks, Eroica.|
"Same for the Met!"
Back at Lady Devlin's house.
The esteemed lady herself had just called for attention, gathering the throng of guests around her.
"Now come. I've kept you waiting long enough. It's time to unveil Vermeer's ‘Christ’.”
"Ah, it's about time," said an older gentleman.
Dorian seconded the sentiment as he stood a bit away from the crowd. He felt a bit morose; a little tense as always when he wasn't sure if things were going his way. Of course, they almost always were, but still. As the saying goes - it's when you're soundest asleep that the Leviathan you camped on, thinking it an island, will dive.
"Earl?" came a quiet voice from behind him. James again. Dorian half-turned.
"Merry Christmas," James said and held up an ok-sign. "Gloria In Excelsis Deo."
Dorian lifted his brandy glass in a quiet salute. "Gloria indeed."
Sugar fairly vibrated with excitement at the prospect of being allowed to see the Vermeer. She, however, knew well someone who didn't overly care. Since she knew he wouldn't bother otherwise she hastily located Leopard. He was still - no surprise - in the food corner. "Leopard, are you still eating?" Stating the obvious, considering he was clutching a cut shark rib. He was extremely fond of shark meat and Sugar carefully never wondered if this constituted some sort of cannibalism, considering that his ancestor had suffered the FISH infection due to a shark bite. "Let's go look at the Vermeer."
He hastily shoved the shark rib into his mouth, though she could still hear his muddled reply. "Vermeer? What's that?"
Sometimes she despaired, she really did. "He's a 17th century Dutch painter, as famous as Rembrandt."
"Rembrandt?" Leopard had now swallowed the last of the shark meat and put the naked rib on an empty plate. "Wasn't he that geezer in the 'Godfather'?"
"Idiot!" Really, sometimes she felt ashamed even to know him, for all that she loved him. "That was Marlon Brando."
But Leopard did follow her towards the corner where Lady Devlin with great ceremony pulled a rope to get a curtain to slide away and reveal her new masterpiece.
"Here it is," Lady Devlin announced. "A portrait of Young Christ."
An excited murmur went through the gathered crowd. "Oh! It's magnificent!" "£300.000?" "What a handsome devil!" "Some people have all the money."
Sugar leaned back against Caesar, taken by the exquisite beauty before them. Christ. Proud and handsome, with long, straight, blond hair. Stern, yet full of grace. She blurted out the first thing that came to mind, "Isn't his use of the blue and yellow so beautiful?" She could look at the painting all day!
"Mouthwatering, isn't it, Earl?" Jonah whispered.
Dorian didn't acknowledge the words, too busy looking. Mouth-watering indeed, yes, but ... I wonder ...
He took a long, gliding step forwards, towards that most interesting young professor he had just met. "Caesar, what do you think?"
The darling boy looked a hint startled at having been asked. So charming. "Hmm ..." Then he walked up to the portrait, really close, mumbling a courteous "Excuse me," as he rounded Lady Devlin. Dorian followed him.
Lady Devlin shrieked out, "Don't get too close to it! It cost £300.000!"
As if art could truly be valued by mere coins? Except by James, of course. Dorian took a close look at the Christ, then stepped back, content with admiring Caesar. Christ was a bit too strict and forbidding in his mind - pretty, yes, but the living art of Caesar was even more beautiful.
"Don't touch it! Don't even breathe on it! It cost £300.000!" Lady Devlin wailed. Dorian was getting really tired of her voice.
"As I thought ... " Caesar mumbled, rubbing his face thoughtfully in a rather adorable gesture. "Yes ... Very good."
"Even Caesar is green with envy. Tee hee hee," some woman whispered, her voice much too high. Perhaps she had hearing problems. A balding man - Very unattractive, baldness, Dorian thought. - answered her in haughty tones, "The young professor certainly knows its value."
Caesar turned back, excitement burning in his eyes. He lifted a hand to get their attention and held out the other. "You've got me wrong. I was admiring von Muehlen's skill. He's a bloody genius to be able to perfectly imitate Vermeer's touch."
As Dorian had thought, yes.
Nothing was rounded about Lady Devlin's voice now, as it screeched: "Wh-wh-wh-what are you saying, young man? Are you saying it's a fake? But it cost £300.000!"
So it is a von Muehlen, Dorian thought. He decided to share his knowledge with the room, wanting more specifically to impress Caesar. "In the 1940s, von Muehlen recreated six masterpieces. They were done so well, even the German Air Marshall, Goering, was utterly taken in."
He walked up to the painting again, standing so close to Caesar that he could smell him.
"So you know his work, Earl?" said the youngster.
"Well, Vermeer is one painter I fancy," Dorian said, perfectly truthfully - one of many painters. He wanted to own works from them all. "Lady Devlin, may I?"
Not that he waited for permission, he just leaned in and studied more closely the brush strokes and exact color hues. "Alas, it is a Muehlen."
Behind him he heard a terrible crash and a broken voice muttering, "Th-three-hu-hundred th-thousand pounds ..." and frantic calls for "Lady Devlin!" Dorian paid no mind.
A completely bald man in a terribly unflattering suit - possibly Lord Devlin, but Dorian couldn't care less - faced them both. "Are you saying that this work of art is absolutely worthless?"
Before Dorian had time to repudiate, Caesar beat him to it, "Oh, no!" He went on to, with animation to the subject gleaming in his beautiful eyes, say: "I believe that von Muehlen was a brilliant artist. I don't think of this as a fake. Rather, it's a completely new work of art done in the style of Vermeer."
Dorian nodded regally. "I'd have to agree with Caesar. A forgery perhaps, but it doesn't detract from the beauty of Christ in the least." And beauty was, of course, the most important thing of all. He lifted his gaze to the darling painting again. "This Christ is quite attractive. Beautiful, really."
"I like it, too," said Caesar.
Their gazes met and suddenly Dorian felt a connection, a bond between them, a sense of rightness. "Caesar, we seem to share similar tastes."
He stepped closer and it were as if there was only the two of them now, alone together in the universe, without even any monsters. How beautiful the young man was, in the full bloom of his youth, slender yet strong, with a face ... "And you bear a striking resemblance to this Christ," he said. It was true, but Caesar's face was less forbidding, less strict, more inviting, more ... attainable.
Such a sweet, innocent boy. Prime for whatever Dorian could teach him. "Just my type."
And then the solitude was rudely broken by twin nuisances.
That art-studying gal who had hauled Caesar away from him earlier. God forbid, not a girlfriend, was she? That was always so tedious. And then, of course, dear Jamesie.
"James, go count some money!" Dorian ordered sharply, very annoyed with the interruption.
"But I've finished."
"Then go write some invoices." Really, James would have to learn not to interrupt when Dorian was on the brink of making a conquest.
Sugar was still tingling slightly with something she couldn't identify as she led a confused-looking Caesar into the food corner where she had parked Leopard. Leopard was, of course, still eating, if a bit more slowly than before. "The party has gone completely dead," she finally concluded, in lieu of anything more profound to say.
"I'm stuffed ... sort of." Dear Leopard, always eating. He held a huge bag in one hand - no doubt he had chatted up some poor waiter to give him a doggy bag, not an easy feat at this type of party. But there was no shame in Leopard when it came to food. When he got too hungry his eyes glazed over and he ate absolutely anything, an unfortunate side-effect of his inheritance.
"True enough," Caesar said - in answer to Sugar, obviously, not to Leopard.
Suddenly Sugar found herself blurting out what had been on her mind ever since she rushed to Caesar's rescue. "Caesar, be careful around the Earl, okay?" When he looked sceptical, she added, "There's something not right about him. I can sense it."
They, like most of the others, began to make ready to leave, trudging towards the cloak room to get their coats. As they walked, she heard comments from the other guests.
"Pity, Lady Devlin being hoodwinked with an imitation."
"'Twas £300.000,'" someone said.
"The daft sea cow deserved it."
Dorian waited as most of the people left, not about to rush through a throng and get pinched or worse, as often happened when people got overwhelmed by his presence. So he remained in the hall with his gang as a protective wall around him to prevent others from getting grabby.
"A change of plan, then, Earl?" Jonah asked in a hushed tone of voice.
"It'd be a waste of money and manpower to steal a worthless fake," James quickly stated. There was nothing James hated more than wasting money.
Which Dorian knew perfectly well, but ... "I will be the judge of that. What I deem its worth to be, is what it will be worth."
He could never get enough of their admiring gazes and their little comments about how incredible he was. They didn't let him down this time either.
"Narcissistic." Perhaps not the nicest thing, but true enough. Who was he not to love an incredible creature such as himself?
"That's why we adore him."
Even James looked pleased.
"--get another Kraken-sighting this year? We'll see, won't we?" said the news anchor and then was interrupted by a paper hastily shoved at him from someone off-screen. His eyes visibly widened. "This just in! At 12 midnight Christmas Day, a group of professional art thieves calling themselves Eroica broke into museums in London, Paris and New York. Several major works have been stolen!" Sweat began to drip down the side of his face. "Here in London, all items in the number three room at the National Gallery were stolen, including the Florentine paintings."
The three of them were eating breakfast - well, Sugar and Caesar had finished theirs some time earlier and were now waiting idly for Leopard to finally fill up. As they usually did when not in a hurry they watched telly to keep updated on the latest sea tragedies. Now they instead listened to the description of one of the most spectacular crimes in art history.
Sugar abruptly realised what the number three room at the National Gallery equalled. "Hey! That means the Bronzini I like is gone, too."
The poor news anchor was thrown more and more notes and obviously had a problem deciding which to read first. "And we have more reports coming in," he finally summed up. Then he took a deep breath and grabbed the largest page yet. "The museums have received invoices detailing what has been stolen. They say: 'From Eroica with love, we offer the paintings in exchange for the following ransom." He broke off again; eyes now wide as saucers. "The total figure is ... is ... Oh bloody hell! There are too many zeros!"
"'From Eroica with Love"?" Sugar quoted. "How tawdry!"
"Sounds like a makeup advert," Leopard offered, still chewing.
On the screen, the news anchor had elected to hold up one of the invoices and the camera zoomed in. Numbers - numbers with very many zeros after - were written, suffixing names like Botticelli, Michelangelo, Montaigne and van Dyke.
"Eroica?" said Caesar. "Isn't that Beethoven's third?"
Sugar was about to answer, when she realised something far more important. "It's not there! The Venus and Cupid isn't listed in the invoice."
"Maybe the blokes that stole it aren't going to give it back," Caesar suggested, sounding a bit morose. "It's probably already hanging in someone's living room."
"Other stolen items are included in the total," continued the news anchor.
The camera switched to a new paper, which listed some rather surprising details - Fire extinguisher, 5 chairs, 5 ashtrays, 5 floor mats, lunch boxes, even a port-a-potty!
"Thorough, if miserly," said the news anchor. By now, his face glistened with sweat. "Such audacity! So Machiavellian! We can only assume that it was the work of professional art thieves, the likes of which history seldom sees!"
He paused, one of those "pregnant pauses" sometimes spoken of.
"Who is this 'Eroica' and what can we expect from them next?"
Dorian lit himself a victory cigarette. "James," he then purred, "you are indeed a brilliant accountant." Those invoices had been a stroke of pure genius.
"Anything for you, Earl."
As it should be. And Dorian was very pleased. "When we get back to the castle ..." he said, settling back in his seat.
James blushed slightly and tittered, hand to his mouth.
"Write up the next set of invoices," Dorian finished and took the first pull of his cigarette. Ignoring James' thunderstruck look, he turned to Jones instead. "Lady Devlin ought to be up in arms right now," he commented.
"But Earl, why steal a worthless fake?"
He nearly sighed. So few understood him. "What I really fancy is 'art'. The ransom money is just an added bonus. Now, applause for me, everyone!"
In a huge mansion in London, at that very moment, Lady Devlin stared at the empty walls of her house.
"My entire collection! Gone! Gone! Gone!" She took a deep breath and then screamed at the top of her lungs. "Police!"
Sugar looked up in time to see Caesar answer the phone. With interest she saw his eyes widen. "You're ... who? Scotland Yard?" A pause. "Lady Devlin's entire collection was stolen?"
Shortly after that, he hung up and hurried over to her and Leopard. He looked rattled, severely so, with beads of sweat on his cheeks. "Apparently after we left, the 'Eroica' gang broke in! But-- We're the main suspects!"
"What?" Sugar and Leopard's replies echoed one another.
A police cruiser picked them up, one of those huge amphibian cars, with glass reinforced to withstand a shark attack - Sugar had seen them been tested on telly. This time the car, luckily, stayed on terra firma, driving them over to House Devlin, where they could see for themselves that, yes, the walls there were now depressingly bare.
"Gone! Gone! Gone!" Sugar thought that Lady Devlin sounded like some sort of exotic bird with a strange mating call. The woman stood to one side, head covered by an enormous, no doubt hideously expensive handkerchief. A very loud bird she was. The bobby closest to her had put a finger in his ear to avoid being deafened. In front of her and the bobby stood what Sugar could only guess was Lady Devlin's gardener: a kimono-wearing Chinese. The man had a large nose and his face was set in an exaggerated frown.
"Gone! Gone! Gone!" the bird continued to sing.
"Why are we the suspects?" Caesar demanded of the bobby.
"Because you three are the most suspicious," the latter answered, not very diplomatically, but possibly honestly.
"Of all the nonsense!" Sugar began, but Leopard's darker voice drowned her scream: "And what idiot decided that?"
The bobby put a finger in his other ear as well.
"Stop pretending!" said the Chinese, his voice stern.
"And who are you?" Caesar demanded.
The Chinese put a hand to his forehead, as if the question pained him. "At times," he said," a strange Chinese man. But I'm not always so."
Then ... something happened. It was the strangest thing Sugar had ever seen. Her vision kind of ... blurred. And then the old Chinaman was gone. Or, at least, his clothes were. But luckily he wasn't naked, that would have been too awful to bear. Instead he wore a chequered costume.
"For I am Tarao Bannai of INTERPOL."
Sugar could only stare.
"I've been sent to catch the Eroica gang!"
Sugar could still only stare - up until Bannai unexpectedly grabbed hold of Caesar's shirt. "So who are you kidding?" he shouted. "Spill it all, you two-bit punk, you no-good thief!"
With joined effort Sugar and Leopard - all right, so Leopard provided most of the strength, but still - they managed to pull Caesar free. "How ... How can you say that?" Caesar shouted at the strange policeman. "You don't have a shred of evidence!"
Sugar hardly dared to watch what was happening.
"A painting by Ver-something-or-other was among the stolen articles," Bannai said. "Now why would anyone steal a worthless painting?"
A good question, Sugar was forced to admit.
"It's because the suspect likes the painting. That's why!"
"You're so perceptive," Caesar answered and Sugar wished he hadn’t done. She could - sort of - see where this was heading and Caesar wasn't helping.
"Now you told Lady Devlin that you liked that painting!" Bannai said, pointing at Caesar's face. "What's-his-name beside you heard that!"
And Caesar was sweating too, which didn't look good either. "Well, yes, I did say that but ..."
"So you're confessing?!" Bannai shouted and suddenly the madman brandished not just one, but two pistols - and where he got them from Sugar would never know, but it looked to her as if he pulled them out of his stomach! "Caesar something-or-other, you're under arrest!"
"I ... I don't know what to say," Caesar said - and he really did look thunderstruck. Sugar didn't know what to say either - even Leopard was gasping for breath, though that could have been his gills that needed some moisture.
Just then a sharp sound cut through the room. ~Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!~
Bannai grabbed the phone - rather rude, Sugar thought, as they were in Lady Devlin's house. "Hello?" he answered. "... what? ... and?"
Sugar could only hear bits of the conversation on the other side, but she did hear the caller identify himself.
[It's "Eroica"!] she told Leopard. His gills flapped in surprise.
[They want two million pounds.] What an enormous sum!
[Man or woman?] Caesar. Always so quick to get to the important parts.
[I can't tell. There's a filter on the voice.] The rumbling twist of sound was giving Sugar a bit of a headache.
[Pretty slick,] Leopard commented, sounding a little impressed.
[We're dealing with a highly intelligent person.] Caesar.
Sugar blinked. [Now what's this?] She thought the thought out loud, which hadn't been her intention, but they were all used to such mishaps.
[What's up, Sugar?] Leopard asked.
[That sound ... I hear something at the other end.]
[Something that I've heard before, but I can't quite place it.] Sometimes it was like that with things at a distance. [It's ... It's ... It's ...] Click! [Hey!]
And then Bannai's strange voice - strange like the rest of him - almost overwhelmed her straining senses. "Operator, were you able to trace that call?"
"You're wasting your time," Leopard told him. "The thief was brief."
Which, of course, made Bannai twirl towards them. "How'd you know that was the perpetrator? Something here smells a bit fishy! I'm taking you in!"
Leopard clapped his hand over his mouth and another over his left gill.
"Now, now," Sugar broke in. "You just confirmed it was the thief."
"That's right!" Leopard backed her up.
"Don't you remember?" Caesar filled in.
Bannai turned away from them. "I did? All this excitement is going to my head."
"Well, you don't have much of a head to ... " Sugar started, then felt Leopard's hand over her mouth and realised that this time it had been she who had been about to say something stupid. She also realised that Leopard's hand did smell faintly fishy.
"Shut up," Leopard hissed, "or else he will arrest us."
Bannai turned back and made a strange gesture with his cigarette as if to ward off rabid herring. "I bid you farewell ... for now. But you're still my prime suspects."
With that, he left and so did they, hastily making their way back to their home. On the way there they encountered a pair of juvenile sea hags, but easily held off the screeching beasts. Finally they were once more ensconced in their favourite chairs. Caesar, looking a little forlorn, rested an elbow on a knee and his chin in his hand. "A strange turn of events, I'd say."
"Talk about dodgy police work!" Leopard contributed.
Sugar was just about to give her opinion on the matter, when she happened to glance through the window - and saw a sour-looking man in a vest and bandanna lean forward to look in. On his shoulder he carried a stack of bright yellow boxes - dolphin bait. "Gyah!" she cried out, before realising who it was. "He's still watching us."
"Right you are!" Bannai said - Sugar could hear him through the window. "I'm persistent." Suddenly her vision blurred again and when it cleared he wore a clown outfit. "I'm also a master of disguise."
Another disorienting switch, and from the top of the window hung a man in a black suit and a high, black hat. Bannai might be a master of disguise, but his face remained the same intense dourness, impossible not to recognise.
"Can't you do something?" Sugar cried to Caesar, who was the smartest person she knew.
Caesar was totally ignoring the Interpol agent and had instead lifted a book, quickly turning pages. "Bollocks to him," Caesar mumbled. "Think of him as rubbish."
"As rubbish?" At first this sounded like a very strange suggestion, but Sugar trusted her friend. "Alrighty then ... Rubbish ... Rubbish ..."
And suddenly, by the window, she no longer saw Bannai in one of his strange disguises - but a pile of rubbish. "Aha!" she cried out. "He really does look like rubbish!"
"Cool trick," Leopard said, also looking towards the window. Sometimes their visions could merge, if they mixed in the telepathy.
Humming with happiness at having gotten rid of Bannai, Sugar went up to Caesar, who had accumulated quite a pile of books around him. "What are you looking for?" she asked. "And how can you be so calm at a time like this?"
Caesar lowered the book he was reading and gave her a warm, friendly smile. "The Eroica gang is going to rob the Tate gallery next," he said.
Baffled, Sugar asked the first question that occurred to her. "Caesar, can you see into the future, too?" The notion made her feel strangely disoriented - what use would she be if Caesar could do her thing as well? I still have my heightened perception, she assured herself. And they will both always love me. Besides, Leopard would never be able to get Caesar to wash his gills for him the way Sugar sometimes did when he had a cold.
"No, no," Caesar reassured her. "The pieces were there, I just had to place them together." He grabbed a book and began turning pages again. "I looked at what was stolen from the museums in London, Paris and New York, and came up with a criminal profile." Finally he found what he was looking for and held it up for the two of them to look at the colorful painting in the catalogue. "Next, they fancy the Gabriel Rosetti in the Tate Gallery."
Looking very pleased with himself, Caesar sat back while Leopard and Sugar checked out the image. "Their tastes are clearly defined, so it was elementary. They're led by an intelligent young man, perhaps 22 or 23 years old. Using the name 'Eroica' indicates narcissism, so he's probably very handsome."
Sugar wasn't sure how Eroica - heroic - translated into narcissism, but that hardly mattered. "He sounds gorgeous," she said happily. "I want to meet him."
"You figured all that out?" Leopard said, with a teasing tone to his voice. "Not bad, Sherlock."
Caesar snorted. "Part instinct. Part research. And part wishful thinking. A man this unscrupulous might be interesting. Hell, I might want to meet him."
"And if we catch him, we'll be completely cleared," Leopard said, a surprisingly intelligent comment coming from him. His gills twitched.
"And that Mr. Rubbish will go away too," Sugar concluded, seeing more and more advantages.
"So are you out or in?" Caesar called and his eyes shimmered with eagerness.
"I'm in," said Leopard.
Sugar only laughed and nodded, finally adding, "This is so exciting."
Caesar rose to stand before them. "We know where, so all we have to do is figure out when. Even I can't do that."
"So it looks like I'm the only one who can see into the future after all," Sugar commented, mostly to herself and rather pleased about this.
However, Caesar heard her. "That's it!" he exclaimed, snapping his fingers and pointing towards her. "We'll work backwards. Sugar, can you foresee a day when we're in danger?"
Sugar concentrated, found that flickering sensation in her mind and concentrated some more ... "Ummmmm. Let's see ..." And then it came to her, with utter clarity, as if she had already lived through whatever would happen. She couldn't see any details, but she still had the knowledge. "I got it. Ten days from now. Late at night. Something is likely to happen to us. More specifically, to Caesar."
That seemed to set Caesar back a little. "To me? Why?" And that wasn't such an odd question, really - the three of them were usually always together.
Ten days later, in the evening. Tate gallery. With Lord Nelson on the roof, his trident at the ready, to protect the building against all things slithering in the water. However, danger lurked even closer, in a small car parked just around the corner.
"Earl, you needn't be here in person."
Which Dorian found very sweet. Granted, that James worried so was usually due to Dorian's life insurance policy or some such. Still. "Occasionally," he replied, "I like to feel the excitement." Life easily got so boring, otherwise.What beauty could a pond have, if not for the attack kois within?
"Earl," came from the main receiver in the front seat. "This is the scout."
Dorian smiled faintly. His men took their job with such seriousness. "What is it, Beck?"
From the other car, on the opposite side of the museum, Beck answered, sounding just a hint annoyed that Dorian didn't play along with the name game. "There are suspicious blokes here. They could be coppers, stakin' out the place."
"Just be cool," Leopard instructed his friends as he measured the height of the fence. Then, whistling, he skipped across, hands in his pockets. From behind him he heard Caesar mutter "He makes it looks so easy," and smiled. Just to show off he landed like a gymnastic. "A perfect 10.0, if I do say so myself." He loved showing off what his body could do for Caesar, even if Caesar never seemed to get the hint just why Leopard did so.
He stood still, waiting for another comment, when instead he heard a horrible crash and panting and turned to find his two friends, also on the inner side of the fence, disheveled from crawling under it. They both moaned with pain. "You two should've stayed outside," he scolded.
"We can help you, you know," Sugar answered rather sharply. Leopard nearly sighed. He loved Sugar like a sister, he really did, but sometimes she treated him like he was just brawn, no brain.
"I need to find out how accurate my profile was," Caesar broke in. He did look very eager and Leopard felt his resolve start to melt.
"But guys ..." he tried once more, but had no time to finish his entreaty, before Sugar's mind-call slapped into him.
So he threw himself on the high grass, obeying his friend without thought, as they always did when one of them used that particular tone, usually during a sea gull attack.
Looking around he spotted what had alarmed Sugar - a night guard, walking slowly around the premises, carrying net and trident, ever watchful.
[See? Good thing I was here.]
[Humph!] Leopard wouldn't have been caught by the guard. He might have gills, but he was no stupid little fishie monster.
[This is no time for bickering.] Caesar - as always when two of them argued the third broke in, soothing everyone's feelings until the trio was feeling better again.
Leopard decided that he could do little to stop the others - it was much too late for them to go back. So he just waited until the guard had rounded the corner and then he continued on his way - whistling softly and taking extra long steps to force the others to run to keep up. [Right. Come along, then.]
[Slow down! Slow down!] Sugar begged.
Even Caesar had trouble keeping pace. [Wait up!]
Leopard smiled. A bit childish perhaps, but oh well.
"Earl," Beck reported, "They weren't the police. And that young genius is among them."
Genius? That could only be ... "Caesar Gabriel?"
"Earl, do you think they're waiting for us?" James asked.
"Quite possibly. How very interesting." Dorian considered the matter for a moment, then posed for a moment with his neck stylishly bent and his eyes closed. "Call off the operation. But keep an eye on him."
"Roger," came Beck's reply.
Dorian let James light him a cigarette. How smashing. Caesar, here and now? After taking a long drag of the cigarette he leaned back in the seat and crossed his long legs. You came here to catch me? What a splendid chap you are. I think I like you all the more.
[It's already two,] Caesar complained.
Leopard looked at his watch and confirmed this.
[I wonder if I was wrong,] came morosely from Sugar. But then, just a second later, she cried out loud, "Caesar! Leopard! Get out of here!"
The warning, coupled with a sharp gasp from Caesar, had Leopard twirling around - and he saw before him a frightening sight: Bannai, in a horrible, florid costume, aiming one gun towards Leopard himself and another at Caesar. "Don't underestimate Interpol! See these two guns."
Moving as fast as he could - and that was rather fast - Leopard grabbed his friends and ran. "You couldn't have foreseen this danger earlier?" he shouted against the wind, breathing hard through his gills.
"Sorry, I was too busy thinking of him as rubbish!" Sugar screamed back.
Getting left behind, Bannai still ran after them, guns aiming every which way. "It's a good thing I followed you low-life fools! You're all under arrest."
Leopard kept running, with Sugar on his back and a tight grip on Caesar's coat.
"Leopard," Caesar shouted, " can't you do something?"
Oh, if only he could. "Even I'm not bullet-proof," he said, perhaps a bit more sharply than he had intended.
He was just going past a cab, when the cabbie rose half out the window - and he recognized that sour face! "At times, I'm a one-eyed taxi driver."
"Waugh!" Leopard cried out and darted in another direction. He'd rather have seen a giant octopus.
"It's all becoming rather strange," James said - which was a big deal coming from James, who was quite strange himself.
"That grotesque man makes me ill," Dorian said and hid his face in his hand.
[We've gotta lose him,] Caesar said and Leopard wanted to make another Sherlock-reference, this time starting with "No shit."
[You'd think he had ESP, too,] said Sugar, which Leopard thought was a bit egocentric given the circumstances.
He kept running. [I'm gonna duck into the first place I see.]
Which turned out to be EVE Disco, so he did. They stumbled into a crowd of young people who were shouting encouragement and love to the artists playing on stage, singing of the lonely life of mermaids after having eaten their suitors.
"Heath, you're so sexy!"
"Justin, you're so cute!"
Leopard glanced towards the stage and agreed - Heath was sexy - though not as sexy as Caesar - and Justin was cute - just not as cute as Caesar. Or Sugar, for that matter. In a desperate attempt to get to safety, the three of them leapt onto the stage. Strangely, the band members welcomed them without questions, giving over microphone and instruments. And, also strangely, Leopard felt some kind of kinship with the others, as if they were, somehow, related. When he looked closer he could even see some physical similarities between the two groups. It felt surreal, but not stranger than many other things that had happened to him, so he went with the flow, humming the lyrics that were vaguely familiar to him.
"Heath," he heard one of the band members whisper to the other. "I think we're in the wrong comic book. We're in 'Sons of Eve', not 'Eroica'."
Comic book? What an odd thing to say! And Eroica? Isn't that the guy who has stolen all those artsy things?
But before Leopard had time to confront the band member, he heard a hated voice. "At times, I'm the chubby bassist," and was shocked to see a bassist with them, right there on stage, one that had definitely not been there moments earlier. He had a wig that luckily hid most of his face, but he was still unmistakable. "Yeah, baby!" Bannai shouted and played - rather well, actually.
And off they ran.
"You're all under arrest!" the chubby bassist yelled before running after the other tree.
"And I thought our manga was hectic," Heath commented and scratched his scales.
"I can empathize, though. The beautiful ones are always chased around," said Justin, the voice of experience.
Caesar ran as fast as he could, when he realised to his utter terror that he was alone. "Oh no! Where are the others?"
He didn't even have time to contact his friends telepathically when his wrist was grabbed and for a horrible moment he was utterly certain that he felt slimy scales drag against his skin and knew for sure that a sea witch had slithered up the damp streets of London to capture him, drag him down into the dank sewers and devour his body.
"Caesar, this way!" a voice called and he realised that what touched him was not at all the cold, wet skin of a fish monster, but in fact the warm, strong hand of a man.
Bannai ran as fast as he could, swearing as he went. "Darn! Where'd they go!"
Just then, though, he rounded a corner and found himself looking at something more horrifying than a red-crested sea serpent or even a baby Leviathan. There, right in front of him, in broad daylight, bold as you please and he had to swallow hard just at the sight of them - two men embracing passionately. They stood so closely entwined that he saw only the mane of blond curls on one of them, obscuring both their faces - and the dark red velvet coat he wore, his long arms around the other like a mating octopus.
Bannai pulled down his hat over his eyes, so as not to have to see the disgusting sight. "If there's one thing I can't stand, it's those scenes. Maybe it's cause I'm so moral." He hurried away, hoping that a stray crocodile would devour them both.
Dorian gazed down at the delicious young male that had all but run straight into his arms, like a little guppy into the jaws of a Great White. What a delightful catch. "It's okay," he assured, anticipating the great joy he and his little fishy would have, once he got them off the dangerous streets of London - really, a stray crocodile could attack them at any moment.
"Um ... Um ... Can you let me go now?" the young man gasped, his eyes so large and naive that Dorian felt doubly charmed.
"Why are you in such a hurry?" he asked, caressing his fingers up and down the other's arms and admiring his pale, fresh skin.
"Um ... You're suffocating me."
Ah, that. Sometimes Dorian wished he had been born with gills himself, so that he could get a lover with gills, and they could kiss forever. Alas, while gill operations might have been a passing vogue a few years ago, he would never do something so permanent to his perfect body. Long kisses were all good and well, but there was a thing to be said for quantity as well.
"But, Caesar!" he purred, keeping his voice low and sexy. "We're finally alone. And it's been such a long time."
Well, not more than ten days, if he remembered correctly. But they lived in dangerous times. You never knew when you'd go out for a quiet afternoon stroll, only to have suction cupped limbs lash out from a brook and pull you down into a monster's maw.
"Er ... Er ... Earl Gloria! Wh-wh-what are you ...? Um ... um ..."
What he was? Well, just because he hadn't been born with gills and had to affect scales by skillful make-up didn't mean that Dorian's ancestry was entirely free of wet blood - through the generations the Reds had always nurtured their ties to the ocean. And to the sirens, born to lure men to their love - or, if wronged, to their doom.
Dorian elected not to explain any of this. Instead he leaned closer, letting his coat fall open some more and showing off his perfect pectorals.
Caesar stared at him as if he'd never seen a half-naked man before. "And ... and ... you're not wearing anything under that coat. How indecent!"
Dorian felt a faint breeze of ocean air blow through the alley and had an idea. "Why don't you join me under the coat where it's warm?"
"I would never!"
But with the call of the siren came its bottomless hunger. "While the fates allow, love and be loved and let us rejoice," he intoned, letting a fraction of his power into the words.
Caesar looked particularly delectable, with a blush that signalled to Dorian that his approach was working. "Th-- That's from the Roman poet Propertius's collection of ..."
"Don't break the spell, Caesar," Dorian admonished lightly and leaned even closer.
Sugar Plum suddenly felt like a killer whale had rammed her.
[Caesar?] she called out. [Caesar?] There was no reply. [Where are you, Caesar?]
There was some sort of reply then, but all garbled up, as if a killer whale really had rammed Caesar and was, at that very moment, gobbling him down, tearing his tender flesh into small strips and leaving only a pool of red blood. "Huh?" Sugar Plum quickly turned to Leopard. "Something terrible is about to happen to Caesar!"
"Did Detective Bannai nab him?"
Sugar shook her head, frustrated that she couldn't explain the feeling that had washed over her. "Caesar is having some sort of mental meltdown!" she settled on. "Something terrible has happened." She began to run in the direction the killer whale seemed to have swum from, and Leopard ran with her.
"Please stop this nonsense!" Dorian's prey cried out. "Stop coming so close to me."
He looked pale and sweating - and totally adorable. Denials always attracted Dorian's interest, much like the classic lure of blood in the water.
"I like beautiful things," Dorian purred with a smile, throwing his mane back and gesturing elegantly. "I'm always searching all over the world for works of beauty to make them mine."
"I'm not a work of beauty! I'm a wreck!"
The younger man did look a little dishevelled, Dorian agreed - but nevertheless gorgeous. "On the contrary. I think you're exquisite and brilliant." Then, in a more serious tone, Dorian explained the lay of the sea. "And whatever I want, I get. It's my personal policy." Caesar might as well learn that right away, that would save them much trouble in the future.
Just as he was about to lean down and help himself to a few kisses, a shrill cry of "Caesar!" interrupted him.
Annoyed, he looked up to see a young woman, who looked vaguely familiar, and a dark-haired young man with legs that were absurdly long even by Dorian's standards, come running towards them as if they had seen someone being attacked by flying fish. "Earl!" the dark-haired man screamed. "What did you do to him?"
And, indeed, when Dorian looked down, Caesar’s body was slowly folding and he fell to the ground.
"Nothing," he said calmly when they reached them. "In fact, I saved him from that grotesque man." He was fairly sure that Bannai must be related to blowfish. Wanting to get the ugly image out of his head he caressed his own stomach. That always put him in a good mood.
"Then why is he out cold?" the dark-haired young man - Leopard, Dorian remembered his name to be - said, his eyes large and following each movement of Dorian as if amazed at what a truly spectacular body Dorian had.
Getting a bit bored with the ongoings now that his gallant rescue scene was over, Dorian shrugged. "Perhaps he delights in it," he suggested idly.
"Caesar, wake up!" the pesky female cried, fawning over the unconscious genius.
Out of nowhere, James appeared, effectively putting an end to Dorian's little adventure. "Earl!" the accountant said with an accusing pout. "Your car awaits. And there's been sightings of crocodiles in the area, so we must go now."
Dorian took a deep breath, then bent down to pat Caesar's cheek lovingly. As he rose to leave, the jangling of his bracelet sounded like crocodile claws on asphalt.
A bracelet jangling like crocodile claws on asphalt ...
"What is it with that bloke?" Leopard asked as they stood looking after the red Lamborghini - a water convertable, Sugar noted. "He's so weird."
A bracelet jangling like crocodile claws on asphalt ... I know that sound ...
Sugar ignored her friends, though she was peripherally aware of Leopard shaking Caesar, demanding that he would snap out of his state of shock, assuring him that the Earl was gone, but that they must be alert as crocodiles had been seen in the area. Caesar wasn't responding well, stammering pathetically.
Suddenly Sugar got it. "That's it! That's it!" she cried out.
Leopard whirled to face her, dropping Caesar in the process. "What's what?"
"Excuse me, while I faint again," Caesar grumbled.
"This is no time to be fainting! The crocodiles could get here at any moment!" Sugar admonished. "Besides, I got it! The Earl is the leader of the Eroica gang! Remember about the sound I heard on the phone at Lady Devlin's place? Like crocodile claws on asphalt? Well, it was the sound of that gold chain on his left hand!"
Caesar looked surprised as if Kraken itself had risen before him from the asphalt.
"So it was him!" Leopard hissed darkly. "He fits Caesar's profile perfectly."
Sugar nodded. "Caesar's analysis was right!"
"Then I'm in big trouble!" Caesar moaned. "According to my calculations ..." he said and hugged himself, "I'm his next target!"
Then the crocodiles arrived and they had to fight their way back to safety.
"Earl," James said, still pouting. "It's very unbecoming to do that to a commoner."
True, Dorian would have preferred a prince just as handsome as Caesar, but there was a distinct lack of handsome princes in England, ever since Prince Francis had been lost at the battle of Dover, when the sharkmen had literally gnawed his boat to pieces and pulled him down to a cold, wet death in the ocean. He shrugged mildly, concentrating on driving the Lamborghini and keeping a lookout for anything that slithered. "Please. Something that mild? Hardly."
James gasped, as if Dorian had said something outrageous. "Earl, are you ... serious about Caesar?"
No, he wasn't, not really. Caesar was cute, but in the long run he would never be enough. Still, to toying with James a little was always amusing. "And if I were?"
And James cried.
No, Caesar wasn't the endgame. Still. Caesar is a beauty among beauties. No matter what delight I may find in the world, my collection would be incomplete without him.
Caesar lay abed, moaning and groaning with a hot-water bottle on his aching head as he tried to forget some of the horrible pictures he had seen in the book Leopard had insisted he read, "How to deal with unwanted gay advances and blowfish."
While he had nowhere near as good hearing as Sugar Plum, he still heard his friends, whispering.
"Caesar is down," he heard Leopard mumble. "That Earl comes on rather strong."
"Caesar hasn't even warmed up to girls," Sugar replied. "This was probably too shocking for him. Hey! I just thought of a good plan. Give me a hand."
They went further away for a while, so next he knew was when they entered his room again. "How are you feelin'?" Leopard asked kindly.
"Positively dreadful. And the crocodile bite still itches," he said. True, the crocodile had only nibbled a little bit on him before Leopard had brained it to death, but he really hoped he wasn't getting an infection.
"Can you take off your clothes?" Sugar asked.
Caesar screamed. "What? You're perverts, too?" He pulled the blanket close to his chest to defend his virtue. "No! Never! I'm losing faith in humanity!" Well, Leopard wasn't fully human, but they tended to just ignore that.
"Quit your yappin' and strip," Leopard told him and grabbed his arms.
"Et tu Brute? I mean ... Leopard!" Maybe Leopard wanted to nibble on him too, just like the crocodile!
"We just need you to model for a sculpture," Sugar said, sounding exasperated.
"Never!" Caesar shouted. "I could never do anything so indecent!" He tugged his arms away from Leopard. "Just leave me alone!"
"Then leave your clothes on and just stand, okay?" Sugar said. "Spread your arms and turn your hips slightly."
Not a nude? Well, that was different, then. Caesar posed.
It was not until Sugar tittered and went "That's so cute," that Caesar remembered and gasped. Quickly, he hid himself in his blanket again. "I forgot! Sugar can see through things!"
Sugar turned to Leopard, getting just a little tired of their upset third. "I was talking about the sea horses on his undergarment," she explained.
Leopard scratched his hair and shrugged. "Men can be a bit sensitive 'bout certain things, you know." Then he placed the huge marble block in front of her with ease.
"Let's get to work," she said, trying to sound determined. "With the two of us, it should only take a week."
Leopard sighed, leaning against the block of marble. "Do you really think this is going to work?"
"There's only one way to find out ..."
She turned away as not to let him see the doubt in her eyes. The Earl is very serious about Caesar. So I'm sure he'll try something.
Caesar had barricaded himself in bed again, with no less than three hot-water bottles this time. He hugged the blanket to his chest and was all in all fairly comfortable. And yet he couldn't help but to wonder ... What are those two doing, being so secretive? My manhood is under attack. A lecherous Earl desires me. What did I do to deserve this?
But a week went and Caesar continued to live unmolested and uneaten by giant piranhas. Then one night he woke up just after twelve, from hearing movements in the rooms next to him and felt around with his telepathic power until it connected with Leopard’s.
[Caesar, we're just stepping out for a bit.]
[Where? It's the middle of the night!]
[Just to Westminster Abbey. We're going to pray for your health.]
Minutes later he heard a car pull away and knew that his friends were gone. Now what are those two planning?
The Abbot was taking his usual morning walk, making sure the moats and fortifications would hold up against the pressure of the humidity and all things that slithered in the water, when suddenly Brother Herring came rushing through the garden, one hand holding up the hem of his robe so he could run faster. His sturdy wellington boots made a tremendous clatter against the bridge and in his hands swayed the trademark of the Westminster Abbey monks, the slender fishing rod typically wielded by the peaceful brothers.
"Gracious me!" Brother Herring shouted. "Abbot!"
"What's wrong, brother?" the Abbot asked, concerned and scanning the ground for possible tentacles that he could cleave with his mighty cutlass.
"The sharkmen kept hissing in the trench out back, so I put in the nets and ..."
"And got a mermaid?"
"No, but you must come and see!"
They all rushed down to the trenches to see what treasure had been caught in the nets.
"Goodness!" the Abbot cried out "This is ..."
"How could it be?" Brother Herring broke in, but the Abbot forged on.
"It's the Archangel Gabriel, with his trident and his net!"
And it was! The Archangel Gabriel, with his mighty wings pushed back, his trident in one hand and his net in the other, ready to take on all ungodly monsters of the seas. Done as a beautiful young man, with long hair. In exquisite marble, one of the nicest works the Abbot had ever seen.
"Sugar!" Caesar cried out, sensing very well who the mastermind of this conspiracy must be. "And Leopard!" The other traitor was not to be forgotten. "How could you do this to me? I can't believe that you made me model for that sculpture.”
He stared at the offending image in the daily newspaper, seeing his own features on the trident-brandishing archangel. "Product of the late renaissance? Bah! It was made last week!"
"But the Earl will want it because it looks like you," Sugar said, as if that was actually a good thing.
"We'll capture him when he comes to cop it," Leopard continued.
All Caesar could do not to scream was to focus on the fact that at least it hadn't been a nude.
Dorian lay sprawled on his wide divan, the comfortable one with seal paws and covered by the incredibly soft skin of killer seals. One of his hands absently stroked the luxurious fur, but his full attention was on the television, on which Caesar Gabriel’s features had just been shown - in flawless, white marble.
"The sculpture discovered at Westminster Abbey has been declared to be a product of the late Renaissance," the news anchor announced. "It will be displayed in the Abbey's chapel."
Then the news section went on to describe in gory details the deaths of a group of teenagers who had been attacked by flying fish on their way to school.
Dorian ignored that section. Parents and teachers really should teach children better than to go so close to water. No, his attention remained on the remarkable sculpture. "A Gabriel that looks exactly like Caesar." He caressed his chin. "Most interesting."
He sat up a little, fingering a sea shell. Without looking at Jonah, who stood at attention by the divan, ready to do anything his master required, he said: "Tell the Abbey that we shall be acquiring the Gabriel in three days' time at midnight."
"But this is ..." Jonah began to protest, his gills fluttering slightly.
"Yes, I know," Dorian said with a sigh, still playing with the shells. "It's a trap, plain and simple. Still, it might be fun to play this little game."
Jonah bowed and went to do Dorian's bidding, as Dorian had never doubted that he would.
Dorian lifted a handful of the pretty shells and let them fall back on the table, one by one. The more the prey resists, the more thrilling the hunt. Especially if it's beautiful.
The very last shell he lifted and used to caress his chin. Caesar, I will make you mine.
Slamming the door hard over the tentacle trying to get in, Sugar Plum skipped into their house and started to remove her kevlar vest even as she told the boys her news. "The Earl called them up."
"So he bought it?!" Leopard asked with a big smile.
"Good thing I stayed near the Abbey and eavesdropped on the monks," she said with a nod, "even if I got chased by a sharkman and then by an air-breathing dwarf octopus."
"So, when?" Caesar asked. He had been a bit short with them ever since he had seen the statue. Even if it hadn't been a nude.
"Three days from now. At midnight. The police are going to set a trap."
"We'll go too," Leopard declared, then turned to their third. "What about you, Caesar?"
Caesar looked a little stressed, but finally nodded. "I'll go with you. I'm not staying here alone."
Five to twelve, near Westminister Abbey, the various agents and police mingled, exchanging information and keeping a lookout for thieves and sea hags alike.
"Even the Eroica gang can't do anything with this much security."
Out of nowhere, Bannai showed up and admonished his men not to underestimate their target.
"Who's he?" one of the police asked, a bit confused.
"Detective Bannai, I think," one of the female officers, dressed civilian but brandishing a tazer trident that wasn't legal for civilians to own, replied.
"He's certainly hard at work," a pipe-smoking detective added.
[Five minutes to go,] Sugar commented.
[Do you think the Earl will show?] Leopard asked, but Sugar ignored him.
[Caesar, you're shaking all over,] she told their third.
Caesar really did look like he was shaking all over. Leopard sighed. [Buck it,] he told him. [We're with ya, mate.] He would have loved to give his friend a consoling hug, but carefully kept that feeling from reaching their bond. Both Sugar and Caesar sometimes slipped up and broadcast accidentally, but Leopard never did. Perhaps it was his wet nature that gave him the extra control.
The three hid in the kitchen located by the Westminster Abbey chapel.
[Still, I have a bad feeling about all this,] Sugar said, looking worried.
[What do you mean?] Caesar asked. Leopard felt like swearing. Sugar having a bad feeling was ... bad.
[And it's getting closer,] she continued.
At the same time, across town at the British Museum, an enormous truck with a siren motif drove straight up to the portico and moments later two savage sharkmen bore down on the hapless guards, each wearing a distinct emblem on their naked chest.
"Gaah!" one of the guards screamed. "It's Eroica!"
Which it was. The sharkmen were soon leashed by the human members of the Eroica gang, quick work made of the museum and then the guards were alone again. The gang had been sloppy with tying them up, so only minutes later one of them reached a phone and dialled. "Police? The Eroica gang has shown up at the British Museum! What they really wanted was here!"
The entire operation had taken less then ten minutes.
Sugar Plum clearly heard the call coming in - and saw how Bannai's frowning face turned bright red with rage. "Darn!" she heard him shout. "This was all a ruse! We've been tricked! I'll never live this down! On the double! Quick! Everyone, to the British Museum!"
And then all the police, detectives and other assorted parties rushed off. Sugar Plum wasn't sure why they were in such a hurry, really, as from what the call had said the thing over at the Museum was already long over with.
[The Earl knew that there was a trap and used that to his advantage,] she told her friends.
[Smart,] was Leopard's laconic response.
When by themselves the three spoke telepathically, but they knew that if outsiders realised what they could do people might think them mer-creatures and kill them. So most often they tried to vary speaking in their heads with speaking out loud. That was why, while Leopard and Sugar made a joint decision in their head, they each spoke out loud to Caesar as they rushed off. "We're gonna take a look outside," Leopard said almost in the same instant as Sugar Plum ordered him firmly to "Stay here."
Caesar was more than happy to let them go. He was still feeling insecure about things and preferred to stay indoors, where at least he wouldn't have to overly worry that some creature of the sea would catch him unaware and eat him alive. Still, something was seriously bothering him. "It all seemed too easy," he told the empty room. "According to my calculations the Earl would ..."
"According to your calculations, what?" purred a dark, sensual, sexy voice from right behind him.
Caesar whirled, only to find the Earl standing right there, lounging with one arm around the Archangel's shoulders - and the other hand fingering the marble trident suggestively. He was dressed from the neck down in form-fitting cloth, so tight that it clung to his muscles, showcasing them to perfection. The cloth was the darkest green, like the sea just before midnight, broken only by an elegant, low-slung belt with details in green jade and matching bracelets. For whatever reason, a sheer mantle of almost no substance spread out behind him in a non-existent wind. And he was leering at Caesar.
"Er ... Er ... B-b-but ... But ... Er ... Er ... Earl!"
The leer turned into a victorious smile. "Like I said. I get what I want." He turned away from Caesar, just for a moment, and patted the archangel appreciatively on the marble chest. "I must say, this is well made. We'll take this, too. Shame it isn't a nude."
Caesar screamed, overwhelmed with his emotion. "You're disgusting!" He rushed off the way Sugar and Leopard had gone, but to his terror, the door wouldn't budge. "Hey! The door won't open! You locked it!"
"Now be a good lad and come over here."
Caesar pressed hard against the door, as if he could push it open with his weight alone. "No!" he cried. "Don't come near me!"
"Then I won't," the Earl said, his voice strangely mild. "But this will."
Caesar heard a strange, hissing noise - for a second he thought it was a whistling eel! But then he felt a faint wisp of dampness in the air as he breathed in and a taste like silver in his mouth. His sharp brain immediately drew the right conclusion. "Gas ..." he gasped. And then the world disappeared.
Dorian grabbed the young genius just in time before he fell. "You can be such a handful sometimes," he chided.
"Earl?" Jones asked from the door.
"Take the sculpture," he ordered.
From the locked door came a thudding noise and then a shout. "Caesar, open the door!" He recognized the voice of the pesky female and snorted contemptuously. Had it been just the rather cute, dark-haired man, he might just have opened the door and had two for the prize of one. But no, there was a time to be greedy and he certainly didn't want to have anything to do with the female, for all that she had excellent taste.
"What's wrong?" Leopard asked, seeing Sugar's worried look as she tugged at the door. He absently wiped some snail slime off his right hand.
"The door's locked!" she said, sounding worried as well. "I had a bad feeling and came back, but I was too late." She tugged at the door again, to no avail.
"Just kick it in!" Leopard said. "Like this!" And then he kicked, effortlessly breaking the not so sturdy wood to splinters. Together they rushed in. "Caesar!"
"Where are you?" Sugar shouted.
Leopard looked around the room and while he didn't see Caesar, he didn't see something else as well. "The sculpture is gone!"
Sugar gasped and then cried out, "Look up there!"
Leopard whirled and instantly saw what she stared at. Up there, through the glass ceiling. A helicopter, leaving at high speed.
"He beat us!" Leopard cried out so hard his gills flapped.
"It's the Earl!" Sugar Plum shouted. "I can see him! Oh, that bastard! He just shouted down to us that me he'd take very good care of both Caesars! Someone with regular hearing would never have heard him. Stop! Bring him back!" The last shouted in the direction of the helicopter. "Caesar!" Leopard shouted.
But heedless of their cries, the helicopter sped onwards.
They stood in silence for a moment.
Then Sugar sighed. "At least the Earl also took the sculpture. It has a transmitter." She tilted her head in a way that Leopard would never tell her made her look like a mantis. "It's working," she said with sudden hope in her voice.
"Then what are we waiting for?" Leopard urged. "Let's go after him!" He started to run, heading for their car.
In the helicopter Dorian leaned over the still unconscious Caesar, who looked so sweet asleep. He enjoyed travelling by helicopter - one of the safest mode of travelling, overall, as not even the largest octopusses, not even his majesty the Kraken, could reach that far up in the sky. James was crying in one of the other seats.
"Those two are following us by car, Earl," Beck, who piloted the vehicle, informed him.
Dorian leaned sideways and did see a car on the road, following just below them.
"A valiant, but ultimately vain effort," he judged, patting Caesar's back. "You have very loyal friends." Something he approved of, in general. Then, however, he frowned. "Their persistence has become bit of a nuisance."
As the helicopter swung out over the black, horror-infested sea, he turned his attention back fully to his sleeping beauty. At last, you shall join my collection - a compilation of art from around the world in my castle.
Sugar Plum shoved the harpoon with full force into the wild sharkman's mouth, spearing him through the back of his neck. Then she pulled out the weapon in that even, firm movement she had been taught as a little girl, so that it wouldn't get caught and leave her unable to defend herself. Or, rather, them, as she rode Leopard through the murky waters separating the mainland from Gloria Island, where the helicopter had taken their friend.
[To the right!] Leopard shouted, this time by necessity in mental speech as he swum below the waterline for maximum speed, breathing through his gills.
Sugar Plum twisted to the right and smashed down with the harpoon again, narrowly missing Leopard's rapidly moving arm but spearing the snapping turtle's head with ease. She felt Leopard twist in the water and drew breath as he dove, as always trusting her friend to bring her up again once they were out of reach for whatever had made him dive. The cold, dark, wet journey lasted for longer than she had anticipated and she could have sworn a stingray would have caught them. Her lungs begun to burn, but then she finally breached the water again, her sharp eyes already tracking the face of the water for signs of movement.
[The sound is getting louder. We're getting closer to Eroica's hideout.]
[Then hang on. I think I tasted a leviathan in the water just seconds ago. I'm gonna be swimmin' even faster.] And, true to his word, Leopard did, his limbs now moving with such force that all Sugar Plum could do was hang on to her harpoon.
[Caesar,] she called, [can you hear me? We're coming to get you.]
There was nothing.
[Just hang on until then, okay? Answer me, if you can hear me.]
He heard something, no, someone, calling him, but from afar. Reluctantly, he opened his eyes.
"Ah, so you're finally awake."
The voice and the sight before him took him entirely by surprise. "Ahh! Earl Gloria!" He'd rather see a killer dolphin! Sobbing in terror he moaned, "You probably did disgusting things to me while I was sleeping! Now I'll never be pure again!"
But to his utter relief the Earl waved his hand dismissively. "Relax! I'd never do anything to someone who would be unresponsive. What's the fun in that?" He blew out a large cloud of cigarette smoke. But just as Caesar began to relax, he continued. "But now that you're awake, it is time to do something."
Caesar did do something. He screamed.
"Are you finally ready?" Dorian asked, his voice throaty.
"No! Don't come near me! Stay away!"
Mentally, he screamed for help.
[Help! Sugar! Leopard!]
The mental call almost knocked Sugar over as she frantically scrabbled after Leopard up the slimy rocks of the castle island, narrowly escaping the sweeping tentacle that tried to capture her foot.
[Leopard,] she cried out, [Caesar is in trouble!] Of course, Leopard would also have heard their friend, but still, better make sure.
[Sugar, we've made it,] Leopard answered from higher up the cliff. [It's a fortress.]
"Those two have made it into the castle."
"Impressive the way that Leopard guy just smashed that hoard of poisonous beach crabs," Jones commented with clear admiration in his voice - and possibly a bit of lust. "They just don't quit." He then turned to the man crying in the corner. "James, stop whimpering and go tell the Earl."
James turned to the door and the sounds coming from within. A tear ran down his cheek. "But they're making such a commotion in there!"
A somewhat dishevelled Dorian stepped back to catch his breath. "Bloody hell, you're hard to catch, worse than an eel! Am I that loathsome to you?" With his siren blood, he usually didn't have this trouble.
An equally dishevelled Caesar Gabriel cowered in a corner, showing his teeth as if he did have a bit of shark blood in him. "I've never even kissed a girl. No way my first kiss is going to be with a bloke!"
Oh, but Dorian did like the sound of that. "Your first kiss? Marvelous. Consider yourself the luckiest man in the world to receive it from me then."
Alas, the young professor kept acting as if Dorian really was a full-blooded siren, bent on eating him after they had mated if not properly impressed by the hunt beforehand. Instead of being suitably awed that Dorian would take his kissinity, he began sob. "Is that the sort of line that's fit for a girls' comic book?" he wailed.
Dorian decided not to dignify that with an answer.
"Um ..." came from the door. Dorian turned and saw part of James's head. "Excuse me for disturbing you, but ..."
Dorian sighed. "The other two are here, I suppose."
How annoying. Dorian had hoped that his watch-sharks would get them.
"Sugar and Leopard are here to save me!" the young genius gushed.
And that was the drop that filled the pool and let the piranhas jump out. Dorian would abide this nonsense no longer. "Kill them," he ordered.
"Earl! No!" Caesar screamed.
Dorian turned towards him with his sternest look. "I abhor the sight of blood, but I have no choice this time. Anyone so meddlesome, unfortunately must die. Besides, they've found out about this island." Which had been a siren lair for millenia before the more human side of the family had set up residence.
"No!" Caesar screamed again, red in the face. "I beg you, don't! Don't kill those two!"
He rushed up to Dorian and grabbed him, obviously terrified. "I'll do anything you want me to. You can have me stuffed and displayed in your collection." Dorian blinked at this rather unexpected - and, frankly, rather strange - offer. "Anything! Just spare those two."
Dorian's heart, always game for passion and romance, clenched at the selfless offer, moved as he was by the sentiment. "Caesar ..." he found himself saying, not quite sure how to react.
Before he'd had time to make up his mind either way, Caesar suddenly knelt before him, gazing at him beseechingly. "Earl! Do what you want to me, but not to them! I beg you."
The tableau held. Dorian looked into the pleading eyes and felt his world shift. "Can I have your word?" he asked sternly. "Can I?"
In a gesture of utter servitude/surrender, Caesar leaned his forehead against Dorian's hand, all but kissing his fingers.
And Dorian knew then, that he could not kill Caesar's friends.
"Alright," he said in a carefree tone. "Don't kill them," he instructed James. "Let them be."
"But, Earl ..."
"Those are my orders."
James hurried out from the room, muttering to himself.
"The nerve of Caesar crying to the Earl."
It was unfair!
"The Earl always ignores me when I cry."
In fact, Dorian seemed to revel in it!
"Well! I'm not going to listen to the Earl this time!"
That would teach him!
"Those two are positively dead!"
Caesar looked dejectedly at Earl Gloria who now, secure in his victory, had allowed Caesar a bit of space to compose himself in while the Earl smoked a cigarette. The Earl managed to make even that look elegant. But the moment was all he was allowed. After another breath of smoke had been taken, the Earl fixed Caesar with his blue stare, as powerful as any water witch's, and he said one word only. "Come."
Sweating profusely, Caesar inched closer, strangely unable to resist.
"Sit down," he was told. "There's no need to be frightened."
Caesar sat and Dorian joined him on the sofa, sitting much too close for Caesar's liking, but there was nothing he could do now. He had to follow through with this - had to do it for Leopard's sake. Oh, and for Sugar's too, of course, for Sugar too. "First, how to kiss ..."
Rather than just attack him head on like a barracuda, though, the Earl held his face, nearly tenderly. "Give me a thousand kisses," he proclaimed. "Then a hundred. Then give me another thousand kisses ..."
Caesar, feeling not a little dazed, recognized the poem.
"Then a second hundred."
"That's ... That's a poem by Catullus."
He felt more than dazed: he felt confused and swept away, by the dazzling depth of Dorian's eyes.
"Shush ..." he was shushed and he fell silent, drowning in those eyes - and in lips that touched him, pulling him into his first kiss, sweeter than wine and so powerful, so beautiful, so erotic and incredible, that he knew nothing else.
Give me thousand kisses, then a hundred. Then give me another thousand kisses, then a second hundred.
Then give me yet another thousand kisses, and yet another hundred.
And let us kiss thousands more, so we'll never know how many we've had ...
Sugar Plum was suddenly blinded by a whiteness she'd never experienced before, like a wave of frost searing away a third of her awareness. Caesar?
Leopard came to her, clutching her hard. "I've lost Caesar," she moaned - out loud, because there was something wrong with their telepathic powers. "There was a flash, and then he went blank."
Looking upset and scared, Leopard nodded so hard that his gills flapped. "This is the first time it's happened. Caesar has suffered a terrible shock!"
They had entered the castle and now they must just find their way through the maze of opulent rooms and art to rescue their friend.
"We have to find him immediately," Sugar cried out.
"Then let's go!"
Finally breaking off the highly enjoyable kiss, Dorian noticed that the current target of his affections seemed a little lacking in attention, as in being unconscious. "Caesar? Caesar?"
On seeing that Caesar really was unconscious, Dorian sighed, shaking his head. "Out already. But that was just the third kiss."
A bit puzzled as to the entire thing and wondering if his siren blood was too powerful for the young man, Dorian sighed again, caressed Caesar's long hair tenderly before he gently eased him down to a more comfortable position on the sofa. Caesar, perhaps you are too ...
He looked down at the pretty professor, sleeping now so innocently, and felt old and jaded. Maybe Caesar wasn't the treasure for him. Maybe he needed himself a man with a bit of shark blood in his veins, to balance out the passion of his siren. Someone who wouldn't yield easily to him, but would lead him to a merry chase before they finally consummated their joining. Sirens disdained men they could catch too easily, that is why they ate such men after mating.
Alas, where would he ever find such a man, locked in the cold embrace of mother England? And, besides, for the moment he had to take care of Caesar. So he bent forth and placed a tender kiss on the young genius's forehead. Go back, then. Go back to your friends.
As he walked away, fingering his hair absentmindedly, he chided himself. I'm letting him go after just three kisses? I'm too forgiving.
In the control room he ordered his men to set sail - figuratively speaking, of course. While perhaps the only choice back in the days, in modern time a sailing boat was only an invitation to the baby leviathans to pull them down into the depth with a single, brisk pull. "We're leaving."
"Yes, Earl," Jonah answered promptly.
But just then, a sharp, metallic BANG rang out, startling Dorian. "What was that gunshot?"
"James seemed most serious about catching those two," Jonah said, sounding hesitant.
Dorian instantly understood what had happened. "Blast! He's ignoring my orders!"
Leopard followed Sugar through the opulent castle. Now and then he had to nudge her on her way, as she was spellbound (though not literally) by the paintings and sculptures and various other treasures. Leopard wasn't all that impressed, though the painting of an especially red apple made his belly grumble. He might have gills, but he really liked fruit. And all other kinds of food too.
Suddenly Sugar pulled him behind a marble pedestal. A second later Leopard heard rapid steps approaching and someone cried out "They're hiding in this room!"
[Swell,] he grumbled. [They've got guns.] Tridents and harpoons he could handle with ease, but pistols were a different matter.
[It's okay,] Sugar answered him calmly. [I'll predict where the bullets will go.]
That was smart!
"Be careful!" a lithe man with black hair covering half his face shouted. "Don't shoot any of the art!"
That guy has some twisted priorities, Leopard thought, then he was too busy obeying Sugar's directions of [From the left!] to bother much with the strangeness of art lovers. [There's one hiding behind the sculpture there.]
He frog-leaped over the man's head, shouting: "Sorry!"
A well-aimed kick took out one of them as he pressed another to the floor.
"Grab that!" he heard from the side. "It's worth £100.000," followed by "Got it!" and a relieved gasp.
"Hold on, that's worth a quid!" A quid? Or a squid? he wondered, but his momentary confusion was at once cleared up "A pound? Stop being so cheap!"
"We're wasting perfectly good ammo chasing after him. Stop firing after him."
Which Leopard approved of, whole-heartedly.
[Hey Sugar, they've stopped shootin'.]
[Yes, but don't let your guard down.]
He wouldn't. Leopard was on high alert now, ready for anything. He breathed through both mouth and gills, for maximum oxygen intake.
Ready for anything, apart from Sugar's burst of fear - and seeing her across the room, with a gun to her temple.
[Sugar! Lookin' out for me, you forgot to guard yourself.] "Wait!" he shouted.
Holding the gun was the lithe man, who Leopard might have found rather cute in other circumstances. "If you value your friend's life, you'll give up."
He felt people coming up behind him, also bearing guns. He and Sugar were truly drowned now.
With a very shark-like grin, the small man proclaimed, for what reason Leopard was not sure, "I can do more than push buttons on a calculator. The Earl will think more of me now."
A dark, sensual voice from behind them all cut in, tones rolling like honey in the sun. "I would say 'impressive', but you've gone against my orders."
"Earl!" Leopard gasped, hearing the word echoed from Sugar. Sometimes when they used their gifts a lot, they tended to start to think in the same way and even say the same things.
Everyone turned, and, yes, before them stood Earl Gloria, arms crossed forbiddingly over that chest that, impossibly, was better than even Leopard's own. Two of his men flanked him. He gave Leopard a beautiful smile. "I'm very relieved to see you unharmed." While the 'you' might also encompass Sugar, Leopard felt sure that the smile was for him alone. "Please forgive the unauthorized actions of my men."
And he looked so sincere that Leopard found himself forgiving everything, up to and including kidnapping Caesar and threatening Sugar.
Then the Earl's attention moved to the black-haired man. "James," he said calmly. "You shall pay dearly for this. I want you to provide 600 pages of invoices by tomorrow morning."
Leopard blinked, unsure if he had heard right. Invoices? What kind of punishment was that? But Sugar didn't give him time to ask.
"Earl!" she cried out, her face pale and sweaty with worry. "Where's Caesar? Where is he?"
The Earl turned back to them, his beautiful face calm and serene. "Relax, my dear. He's safe. But it is with considerable regret that I return him to you."
Return him to them? The Earl would give up on Caesar, just like that? Not that Leopard was complaining! But still.
"Incidentally," the Earl continued, "I leave you with these works of art as a token of our little friendship. Do with them as you see fit."
Leopard felt completely confused. All the art? What friendship?
But, apparently, the Earl meant what he said, as he turned around completely. "Well, then, we're off," he said. He and his men began to file out.
"Earl, where are you going?" Sugar cried after him.
With a hand on the doorframe, the Earl looked back at them. "Who knows?" he asked with a toss of his beautiful curls. "This is probably the last time we'll see each other."
He turned even farther towards them, waved and flashed them a smile so bright and beautiful that it took all Leopard had not to go with him. "So, from Eroica with love, good luck!"
And then the door slammed shut behind him.
"Earl!" Sugar cried.
"He's gone!" Leopard complained. Then he sighed. "Talk about a classy exit."
"Uh ... Leopard?" Sugar said. Something about her tone was slightly off, though Leopard couldn't tell what. "There's something moving below us. Something big."
[And it's leaving this island.]
Far below the sea surface, Aqua Zep, Dorian's pet baby Kraken, slowly moved out of his hiding hole, swimming with the effortless power of the grandest monster of the sea. On its gigantic back, held in place by gold-coated iron chains, hung a sturdy observation platform, with plenty of space for Dorian and all his men, as well as a few hundred special treasures that Dorian simply couldn't bear to leave behind.
"Earl, where to?" asked Rudolpho, his pretty features covered by the aqua-helmet that bound him telepathically to Aqua Zep and conveyed Dorian's orders to the baby Kraken.
"Anywhere," Dorian replied. "We have countless hideouts."
He turned away, looking out into the black nothingness of the ocean. No monsters dared to approach a Kraken, not even a baby one. And I will continue my quest for beauty. It's what I live for.
"I can't believe you returned those works," James said accusingly, as if not the least bit concerned that Dorian was still vexed with him.
Dorian shrugged. The siren in his blood could, sometimes, make him very, very logical-minded. "If I want them, I can steal them again." It really was that easy. "But I'm quite happy so long as I have this one."
Before him stood the oh so beautiful Archangel Gabriel, with his net and his trident.
Caesar Gabriel. You're also what I live for now.
At least for the moment. Three kisses were nowhere near enough.
Farewell, until we meet again. And when we do, give me a thousand kisses. I'll be waiting. With love.
Leopard stopped at the gate of the museum, inside the protective wall, but apparently unwilling to go further. "I'll just wait here."
"Stop being so bashful," Sugar admonished him softly. She knew he didn't like art that much, but this was silly - and dangerous, even with the protective walls. The sea creatures had been agitated lately and there had been a Kraken sighting just outside Amsterdam. She pulled him with her towards the stairs leading up to the museum. She was, all in all, rather content. Everything in room three was returned. Even the Bronzini that I fancy so much.
They headed over there, so she could see the beloved painting with her own eyes. Come to think of it, I met the Earl for the first time in front of that very painting. And I heard the sound of his gold chain ...
*jangle, jangle* Like crocodile claws on concrete.
Sugar blinked and gasped.
And it really was their third. He had been absent from their life a lot lately, but here he was, in the heart of the National Gallery, standing before them, staring at the painting. He didn't react, though she had called his name in her head. Then, finally, he spoke out loud, without turning towards them.
"I've been come here every day since the painting was returned."
"He's acting strange," Leopard whispered.
Sugar agreed. "Oh, Caesar, you fell ..."
And Caesar knew it too. He had fallen. Tears like drops of sea water slipped down his pale cheeks - he was unable to stop them as he looked at the painting.
This Cupid looks so much like him ...
He could stay no longer, and started to walk away.
Sugar clasped her hands to her chest. While she felt Leopard like a strong, silent shadow at her back, her full attention was on the young man leaving them.
You fell in love, didn't you?
Where Earl Dorian Red Gloria has gone, nobody knows ...
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