Future, Present, Past
Author's disclaimer and notes: I don't own them, I just dream of doing so. Feedback is better than biscuits with brie cheese. 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. 29.884 words. Written in April 2011. Was published in October 2012 in the Connotations 2012 con zine. Crossover From Eroica With love/Primeval, with a hint of El Halcon. I ignore the whole Connor/Abby relationship.
There will be more in this universe. A sequel is written, but not betaed yet. It follows freely from this one, though, no need to wait with reading this one.
To Avoidetc, apart from the entelodon, which is for BBK.
Betaed by Heather Sparrows, Avoidetc, Kadorienne and Telwoman. With some assistance from Sam and Lucy. Remaining errors are all mine.
Father had instilled in him both the importance of doing his duty and a thorough respect for superiors. However, he had also explained repeatedly that the latter, while necessary in their own way and no doubt exceedingly useful at mission coordination and pen pushing, had an annoying tendency of dropping good men in tricky situations without the benefit of pre-mission briefings. That some of them, in fact, seemed to enjoy such things, as if they were some kind of practical jokes.
Normally Hilary had little difficulty with that aspect of his chosen profession: he knew well how to take things in stride and go with the flow. However, once the full scope of his current mission had been made graphically clear to him, he couldn't help but wonder. Would it really have hurt if they had just told him beforehand about the dinosaurs?
Captain Hilary Becker eyed the entelodon with considerable caution. The pig-like creature was a mountain of a beast, almost two meters at the shoulders and probably 300 kilos or more, some of the bulk offset by its slender legs. No tusks, but the so-called Hell Pig was big enough simply not to need any. Its hide was medium brown, with a ridge of darker, longer hair down its spine. He was confident that his Mossberg packed enough punch to kill the animal, but only if he scored a kill zone. And ...
He glanced sideways. Abby gazed intently at the porcine.
... preferably he should take the shot without Abby knowing. He gave an internal sigh. The new management was less restrictive on killing the creatures, if need necessitated, but he strongly suspected that Abby's general opinion was that the need to return to the future didn't necessarily necessitate and if disappointed she packed a mean punch of her own.
He glanced further sideways, where Connor's attention was clearly divided between the entelodont and their animal handler.
Nor did he want to disappoint Connor. Not even if their tech geek's interest in the piggus gigantus's well-being was mostly to impress Abby, or so Hilary expected. Connor's ongoing crush on Abby was cute, in a puppy love kind of way, but had begun to border on pathetic. With a year together as the only Homo sapiens in existence and she still hadn't twigged on to him, Connor's chances appeared depressingly slim.
With another internal sigh Hilary signalled for Lieutenant Kilson to circle around so they could herd Terminator Pig away from the anomaly glitter. They were in the corner of a glade, surrounded by trees and thick vegetation. The former was slender and downy, with a wide range of green hues and clusters of bright yellow flowers. Below them the grass grew high, yet sparse.
"Kwaow!" he shouted, making his hunting call sharp and penetrating, intending to startle the pig into moving. The shout made him remember hunting trips with his grandfather when he was a teenager, herding animals towards the hunters ahead. Never predatory pigs, though, sadly - that would have made things a bit more interesting. "Kwaow! Kwaow!"
"Hoy!" Lieutenant Kilson shouted. "Hoy! Move it, porky!"
Their current problem was due to that they had gone into the past on a gathering mission. They hardly ever did that, but word had come from TPTB to retrieve a few minor vegetation samples. These samples would be treated with all possible care and, to hear Burton waxing lyrical about the possibilities, might prove a cure not just for cancer and world starvation, but for the common cold as well. In theory the mission had been simple, in the classic "How difficult could it be?"-sense subscribed to by superiors in every profession around the globe. The four of them - he, Connor, Abby and Kilson - would travel through, while Matthew and the rest would stay at the present side. Should the gateway show signs of collapsing Matthew would apply Connor's nifty locking device to seal the anomaly for 30 minutes, before unlocking it again. The window should give the four time to gather on the past side and leap through before the anomaly finally did collapse. Standard procedure.
So they dragged along Eppendorf tubes in insulating containers, chauffeured by Connor on a high-tech device known as a wheelbarrow. The tubes Abby had filled with leaves and various tissue samples: mostly pieces of stems and buds. On returning from their gathering mission they had, on the positive side, found the anomaly glowing steadily, with no signs of fluctuating. However, their path had been rather efficiently blocked by an entelodon. An animal which might, just to top things off, quite possibly consider them snacks.
"Kwaow!" Hilary shouted again. Stepping closer to the pig he waved his left arm. They approached the boar from the side, rather than head on towards the anomaly, seeing that Matthew would hardly appreciate having The Big Pig suddenly charge at him from 20 million BC. Connor was right beside him, while Abby and Kilson tried the same approach from the opposite direction.
The Hell Pig grunted and huffed, shifting its bulging head to keep them in sight. Then it finally began to move away from the glittering opening in time and space.
"Hoy! Hoy! Porky! Hoy!"
"Yeah, move it, Miss Piggy!" Connor yelled his contribution.
And perhaps the sudden stress from the new voice pushed the boar over some edge - it chose that moment to attack.
Seeing instantly where the creature was heading, Hilary tackled Connor, sending the boy flying. He managed to keep his own footing and, as he had the animal's rather fixed attention, ran into the bushes, glancing behind him to make sure that the third-of-a-ton predator stayed on his trail - possibly not a very smart thing to do, but still. Better him than some civilian.
Clutching his combat rifle to his chest, he ran as hard as he could, switched direction, ran, turned, ran and, finally, jumped up in a tree. There he clung hard to the downy branches and wished like hell he knew if there were any poisonous snakes hanging about, yet. He forced himself to stay utterly still, thankful for all those long hours of rigorous training. Maybe the air in this era had a higher oxygen content too, because he hadn't even begun to breathe heavier. His legs, however, smarted from having been whipped by the tall grass as he rushed through.
Below him the pig snuffled about, obviously confused that its prey had vanished. From his vantage point he could even smell the strong, nearly pungent odour of adult male pig. Maybe it thinks I'm some kind of skinny bear. He knew it was too early for humanoids yet, but he was less sure about ursines. Maybe he, dressed in black and on two legs, might have triggered some bear-hate-response. Boars did hate bears, that he knew: they were natural enemies. No matter. He pitied the bear who ran up against this pre-historical Babe.
Finally, the enormous beast gave a strange sound, similar to a bark, and continued through the undergrowth. Hilary hung on for a little longer, though by then he was acutely aware that he needed to get his arse back to the glade before the unthinkable happened and the anomaly closed on him. The ARC had already lost too many employees to time.
He jumped down and started on his way back. Even with the multiple turns and twists he was reasonably sure of the direction. Besides, the chase had only taken a few minutes, so it couldn't be far. Before he had taken but a few steps, however, he heard movement behind him. As he recognized the snuffling and then the steady drum of trotters, a chill tickled down his spine. He clutched his shotgun again and set off at top speed, giving himself a few seconds of forward motion before he started again with the twists and turns.
Once more he thought he had lost the entelodon, only to have it rush at him, tail straight up, like a warthog’s. Around then he began to seriously contemplate shooting the animal - nothing they had done so far had seemed to alter the future, had it? Except for that whole Claudia Brown business, of course, but he still wasn't convinced that Cutter hadn't just gone a tad bit banana tree. Then he spotted something in the corner of his right eye and twisted towards the distinct glow.
The anomaly! Pulsing in short, white bursts! About to close!
He drove his feet hard into the giving soil, propelling himself forward as fast as he could - breaking a personal best, no doubts, if not some world record for 50 meters armed and in military boots. To throw away the combat shotgun would cost precious seconds and he judged the distance too short for him to make those seconds up again by the gain and, besides - he was so used to running with the weapon that he hardly thought throwing it away would improve his speed.
As he couldn't see them, the others must already have passed through. That information flashed through his mind marked "strange," but with an anomaly threatening to trap him 20 million years in the past Hilary had no time to stop to think things through. All he knew was the white diamond flickering pulses that any second now would, simply, vanish - and leave him stranded.
Behind him came the brisk tromp of trotters - he all but felt their echo on the ground - , but he simply couldn't move any faster. And then he was at the anomaly. And then he leaped through. And then it closed.
When passing through an anomaly Hilary always noted a moment of gold. Others spoke of light or of nothingness or of amber or of whiteness. The physical manifestation seemed to differ for everyone, but to him it always felt like precious metal. Utter silence, enclosed in warm, living gold. Nothing else: no taste, no sound, no smell. Only for half a second, but timeless, as if he could have floated there for eons without ever considering the passing time.
Then he completed his dive with a roll - combat shotgun to his chest - and ended up on his feet, with only a small side-step to keep his balance. He almost expected to hear Connor give him 9 points from the Blackburn judge in that shaky voice that practically screamed: "I knew all along that you'd make it, but you scared me!" Hilary didn't exactly court that response, but undeniably he found Connor's concern both appealing and heart-warming.
Only ... Connor wasn't there. Nor was Abby. Or Kilson.
Which might have meant that they were - in Connor and Abby's case again - trapped in the past. That he was the only one who had made it back. Which, in turn, would have meant that he, as their protector, had failed in his mission to keep them safe. Again.
That would have been bad. He had been raised well and took his duty extremely seriously, especially when concerning non-military personnel.
So, in a way, to know that at least this probably was not the case felt good.
What made the situation far worse on a purely personal level, was that Matthew wasn't there either. Or any of the men Hilary had left behind on the forest road to keep Matthew safe on the present side of the anomaly.
Finally, the road itself wasn't there either.
"But I didn't even shoot the pig!"
Even the most professional military man can hopefully be forgiven a moment of total panic on having returned from a mission in the past to find things ... changed.
Hilary spent a full minute with his head at his knees - the combat shotgun across his chest made bending further impossible - hyperventilating until his lungs ached and utterly convinced that he had stepped on a small worm and thus eradicated everything between past and present. Even the shallow brook that crossed a corner of the glade looked distinctly different, coming in at a sharp angle and making a strange turn half-way through.
Then he slapped himself over the head, hard enough to hurt, and firmly instructed himself, "Never panic until you have tried all other options!" The memory of Father saying those words probably calmed him more than the expression itself. Besides, he found the advice somewhat ludicrous given the extraordinary circumstances, because this really did feel like a bloody marvellous time to panic. Not that he had ever seen Father panic.
"Well," Hilary grumbled to himself, "I'd like to see him in this situation."
He stood up again and looked around, this time not just reacting to the differences, but taking stock of the surroundings and those so-called options of his. The latter appeared somewhat limited - in fact he was down to one, simple choice. When they had been trapped, Abby and Connor had stayed close by the anomaly site. In the long run, their decision had paid off. In the very long run, that is. A year later, the anomaly had reopened and they returned to him.
A year. The anomaly might open again in a year's time. Or maybe not. It could take longer. It could take shorter. Or, simply, it might never happen.
So, should he stay a day? A week? A month? A year? A decade? A lifetime? Was there really any use to stay even for an hour?
Hilary lifted his face skywards, searching for an answer. Not because he was particularly religious. Perhaps he had heard something. Perhaps to find himself as possibly the only human ever on Earth felt like as good an opportunity as any to find religion. Perhaps he only wanted to feel the warm rays of the never-changing sun on his face.
Or perhaps God did exist, after all. And perhaps the Almighty smiled down on lost soldiers.
High, high above him, an aeroplane crossed the sky.
After his initial whoop of joy, however, Hilary remembered things. Movies. Books. Lester strongly discouraged frivolous research into time travel, such as reading works of fiction (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, The Time Machine and The Clock That Ran Backwards, to name a few of Hilary's favourites) or using the big computer screen at the ARC to view all three parts of Back To the Future in a marathon-session one late night shift. Though Hilary strongly suspected that even Lester found time for some light reading, as that was the only reason Hilary could think of for the unofficial name of the Columbian Mammoth, Hank Morgan, which Parker swore up and down had originated from Lester.
Nothing really said that the plane high above was man-made. Sure, it looked like a regular plane, pointy snout with cockpit windows, horizontal wing across to stabilise the aircraft's roll and vertical fin to the rear, leaving a regular white streak, but to his inexpert eyes its form appeared somewhat heavy. What was to say that humanoids piloted the vehicle rather than ... porcoids?
Maybe I was supposed to kill Porky. Maybe that's what went wrong. Maybe the pigs now rule the Earth!
Still, Hilary allowed himself to believe. More to the point, he allowed himself to believe that he hadn't entirely and single-handedly (or single-footedly, in case a worm really had been involved) fucked up evolution. Please? So, he decided that there would be humanoids, eh, humans, in the aeroplane and thus also on the ground and if that was true, he was back in the present, good to go and ready to rumble. Where the others were, however, he had not yet formulated a working theory on and the name Claudia Brown flashed at him quite prominently. But he was a soldier, not a scientist, and he knew well the value of when to stop asking questions, hunkering down and getting on with your mission. If he was that close to civilisation, damned if he would spend the rest of his life camped out in a forest waiting to return to the past, especially with no clue as to what he could possibly do if he ever got there.
With a deep breath he cleared his mind and began to jog through the forest in the direction of which he was fairly sure they had driven. And if I can blame this on Connor in any way, shape or form when I get back to the ARC, I'll accidentally spill gun oil on his keyboard.
At least the weather was pleasant and he was always up for some exercise.
Ten minutes later, he reached the road.
Of course, he couldn't be certain that the flat stretch of packed dirt really was the same road as they had come in on earlier. He followed it anyway, as doing so at least beat jogging through the undergrowth. During the customary high alert/panic departure from the ARC he hadn't bothered to find out exactly where the anomaly they chased was located, but, again, he had a good sense of direction and estimated that the site had been closer to Charlwood than to Newdigate, so he opted to follow the road in the western direction. About five minutes later, though, he spotted a cross-road and, on reaching it, stopped to consider this new option. The fork in the road looked distinctly and worryingly familiar, a 90 degree angle to the right and steeply upwards.
With an uneasy feeling in his belly he followed the lesser road up the hill. He managed to keep his head clear from all thoughts and speculations. That is, he managed to do so until he reached the end of the narrow road. There he overlooked a small clearing, made for camping, complete with a merry brook cutting through one corner in a perfectly straight stream, no funny-looking bend in sight. The trees he couldn't be sure of, but the stream was exactly as he remembered. With a hand on the Mossberg 500 Danny, Abby and Connor lost in the future, he'd swear it. This was the original anomaly site.
A moving anomaly? Connor will love this.
After a moment of intense relief, however, he took a closer look. Then he shuddered. Grass grew to cover much of the tiny roundabout at the road's end. Three ARC vehicles screeching to a halt couldn't possibly have left the vegetation so spotless. Not to mention that he couldn't spot a single trace of five men having spent any length of time in the glade less than two hours ago. Not unless a crack team of trace erasers had done their professional best and no one - not even Lester - was anywhere near that paranoid about letting The Big Secret of portals to Jurassic Park slip, even though Hilary privately thought they probably should worry about that. What if a portal opened to, say, 17th century Paris and some art thief went on a complete stealing spree? The whole knight incident was still fresh in his mind, as was the whole Spring-heeled Jack thing.
Shaking his head half in denial, Hilary did an aboutface and began to jog back down the dirt road. He'd go to London. Access the situation. Would the ARC still be there? Would anyone? Would he meet Lupines? Would the dog men think him an alien or maybe someone's escaped pet? Maybe they'd stuff him and put him in a museum. Or vivisect him. Would this be a good time to panic yet?
When Hilary emerged from the forest he looked out over Gatwick Airport. The LGW looked ... subtly wrong. He was willing to accept that perhaps he had just never seen it from this particular angle before, but the airfield still seemed ... different from how it should have been. He couldn't pinpoint the exact problem, but he knew, in his heart of hearts, that something was wrong or - more to the point - not exactly right.
Coming up close enough to the road that he could make out details of the cars he began to accept reality.
Meanwhile, another problem was becoming more acute. He was cradling a rather large, impressive and intimidating weapon. Normally he paid scant attention to that fact, spoiled by Lester's relentless protection and tidying up of all possible messes, courtesy of the Home Office. Besides, he had carried a Mossberg for so long that he hardly considered the shotgun a weapon per se, more like wearing a ring or a hat or a glove - apart from when he actually did use it as a weapon, of course.
Even stuffing the rifle in the leg holster wasn't an acceptable solution, as it remained highly visible. For a brief second he toyed with the idea of abandoning the weapon, but his mind rebelled and instead he found himself gripping the hard plastic and cold metal tighter. He was alone in an unknown reality and he might very well need the protection. Besides, it would be like abandoning a friend in hostile territory. Oh, and Lester had always been very firm that they must never leave modern technology behind, and it was his favourite gun, a gift from Father.
Finally he committed sacrilege. He unloaded, unbuttoned his trousers and pushed the pipe down a leg, while letting the stock rest against his side under his tight, black T-shirt. Far from an ideal solution - and if Connor ever heard of it, the boy would never stop with endless variations of "So, is that, like, a really incredibly fucking large gun in your trousers or are you just very happy to see me?" At least it beat getting arrested on sight.
As he reached the outskirts of Hookwood he began to see the population and he noted, with a growing sense of unease, that while he spotted no equinoids, a large quantity of the humanoids were smoking. And wearing ... well, he saw fairly many flared trousers, wide lapels and tube tops. He had, of course, begun to suspect the truth on seeing the many stub-nosed, two-door Minis on the road, and the near total lack of sports cars.
Finally he found a copy of The Guardian tossed in a bin. Already sure of what he would find, if not the exact detail, he looked at the date.
4th of September 1979.
Fuck, he thought and scratched his right eyebrow with a thumb. It's not just an anomaly that moves through space, distance and time, it is an anomaly that moves through space, distance and different times.
There could be any reasons why an old newspaper had been recently thrown away, of course, but the paper was crisp and in perfect condition, apart from a nasty stain in one corner that looked like sauce or as if someone had a really nasty cold. Careful not to touch the yellow-green substance, Hilary dropped the newspaper back in the bin. Right. He gained nothing by evading the truth. Only fools refuse to accept a bad situation, he heard his father say.
He had been stranded. Not 20 million years ago, but in 1979. He presumed that was better. A little. Maybe.
No, of course it's better, soldier boy! For a moment his inner voice sounded less like Father and more like Danny Quinn, fellow lost time traveller. Calm down! Stop patting the gun! He stopped patting the gun. Right. What's your next move?
He was getting hungry, too. At least 20 million years ago, he could have shot and roasted the entelodon, humanity be damned. South East England, 1979, and the bobbies would frown on that. Not that there would be any wild boars trotting about, at least not unless he really had messed things up, considering that they had gone extinct in the 13th century and wouldn't be re-established until the 1990s.
As he considered his new options, Hilary kept walking. He had reached a small park with an display of thirty different roses: some large, some small; red ones, pink ones, white and yellow ones; thorned ones and fragrant ones, and so on. In a corner he passed an impressive, white-stone fountain with six swans sprouting water from their beaks. He walked mostly because he was too restless to stand still - not to mention unable to sit due to a very large weapon stuffed down his trouser leg.
Plan first - belly later, he decided. Only he found difficulties in formulating a proper plan.
1979 and there was no ARC, no Anomaly Research Centre.
1979 and unflappable Lester would be, what, ten? Possibly already unflappable and might already have considerable connections, but probably more along the line of having organised his fellow juniors to a well-oiled machine designed to ensure the well-being of one James Lester.
1979 and Professor Cutter would be, what, fifteen? Had he met Helen yet? Cutter might be open to ideas, but, all in all, Lester at ten would be more practical.
1979 and even if he might have been able to get Connor to look twice at him if he tried, it would be considerably more difficult - and a little icky, truth be told - if he had to wait around until he was over 60 years old when they met for the first time.
1979 and what about Claudia Brown? He decided to leave that conundrum to the philosophers.
1979 and the woman who would give birth to him maybe hadn't even been knocked up yet. He remembered little of her as she had died when he was four. She was from Bristol and without relatives, at least none who would acknowledge him. As to the identity of his biological father there had been no trace.
And yet. Unbidden, a memory rose. The evening of his graduation, Sword of Honour, from his 44 week Commissioning course at the RMAS, the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, just before he had received his first commission. Father's long arms wrapped around him in a nearly unique show of affection. He could count - and had done so - on his fingers the times Father had embraced him - each hug memorable and precious. Good too. Perhaps because Father had never really been used to hugging, his hugs wound long arms into what felt like unconditional protection - and they lasted until something interrupted, as if Father never had been taught to let go, either. No, the scarcity of hugs wasn't because Father was a cold man: he was just prone to more practical proofs of his affection.
Such as Hilary's first favourite gun, his Mossberg 500 Cruiser, which he had received just prior to this hug. An earlier edition of his current one, also a gift from Father as Connor, Abby and Danny had lost the original fleeing a predator in the future. The new model had some technical improvements. Non-standard issue, even if only a true professional would spot the slight ... irregularities. Finest workmanship to be had, custom fitted, with an accuracy far superior to standard models, modified to hold seven shots, and with a few secrets hidden away for a rainy day.
Too bad it isn't raining ...
And with the hug came a solemn promise while he was still held so close that if they hadn't been family, Hilary would have felt just a tad bit uncomfortable. As it was he breathed in the faint scent of Father's Tabac aftershave and all but felt his skin relax against his father's body heat. "Always remember this, son. If you are all alone and if you have no one else to rely on--"
"--and if you can find them. Maybe you can hire--"
He was promptly bapped over the head, though nowhere near hard enough to hurt. "I am serious. If you ever need to. If you are in trouble. If something has happened. No matter what. If you've murdered someone. Not killed on a mission, just plain murdered someone, son. Whatever it is. Come home. You will always be welcome here."
And the absolute firmness in Father's voice: the unquestionable certainty that yes, Hilary could always come home. No matter what. Kill, murder, pillage, a spot of genocide. Home would always be a welcoming refuge where, if necessary, he would be defended by lethal force and legendary cunning.
For just one second Hilary allowed himself to bask in the certain, indisputable knowledge. Only ...
"Hello, Major von dem Eberbach. My name is Captain Hilary Becker and you're going to adopt me about ten years from now. Can I come home?"
The crows looked at him funny. So would Father. Then he would shoot him with his own gun.
No. Father was simply too paranoid and too much of a loner. The change he would undergo in the years to come would be too enormous to explain - even if he to the core remained much as he had always been, that Hilary's many "Uncas" had explained to him. "He always had a wall around his heart," Unca B had told Hilary when taking Hilary to shop for Father's Day presents (the Tabac aftershave had been one such present). "The wall's still there. I think he just dragged you inside and then he planted a nice little mine field around the place, because now he has even more to protect in there."
Which, yes, did sound just like Father.
But to try to explain that to Father before that stubborn boar of a man was ready to make that decision for himself would be like trying to persuade the Earth to start spinning around the moon for a change.
On the other hand ...
He made his decision.
Decision made, for good or for bad, but he didn't have many of those option thingies, unless he wanted to spend the next 30 year's playing catch up on his own past. Hilary lengthened his military strides, looking about in hope of finding something better to put his shotgun in, so he wouldn't get arrested on his way towards his goal.
No, Father was out of the question.
On the other hand ...
Papa just might believe him.
Second of August, Salvation Army Children's Home, Bristol, 1990.
The surface day-to-day activity carried on as usual - as a constant, semi-organised chaos. A trained observer might, however, have noted a certain strain in the air. The most tangible proof was the near-obsessive way some of the teachers and volunteers washed the boys behind the ears, made sure everyone wore clean clothes and glanced around to find any disarray they could hastily restore to squeaky-clean, picture-perfect order. Of course, any chance to get a child adopted was a blessing, since each youngster put considerable strain on the limited funding. Today, however, was special, in more ways than one, bordering on extraordinary.
Despite near-frantic attempts at keeping the wards in check, however, mischief was still afoot.
Four boys and a tomboy had snuck up on the roof of the main building, where they hid behind the high balustrade lining the flat surface, keeping a look-out and making eager predictions in hushed voices.
"A real Earl!" said Mary-Gold with awe. "Just wow!"
"It's not as if he'd be any interested in you!" Henry replied scornfully. "You heard Director Pitty, he wants a boy, he does!"
"Pedo!" Swamp uttered the word with some relish. "Director Pitty and Linden said so! Joey heard them"
"Oh shush!" said Mary-Gold. "They did not! Tina heard them too, they said he was, that he was--"
"Elegant," Hilary filled in. He had been hiding in the girls' bedroom at the time and overheard what Tina told Mary-Gold. "That means he's a faggot."
"And faggots are pedos, aren't they?" Swamp insisted. "Elegant, that's nothing elegant. I'm gonna rub dirt in my face so he ain't choosing me!"
"I think it's 'cause he's a lord," said Mary-Gold. "He'll be dressed in Armani and nice stuff, which costs fortunes, and he'll be all hoity toity and only ever eat biscuits. That's elegant for you!"
"Ain't changing that he's a pedo," said Swamp with mulish certainty. "He'll select a boy and do it to him on the way home, in the car even! Because he'll have a driver, all lords have drivers, and he can do that. You should be careful, Hilary, he might like you, you look like a girl sometimes."
Hilary was about to defend his masculinity when Adam, their fifth, who had been on the lookout, broke in. "A car! I see a car! A car's coming!"
Insult forgotten, Hilary shifted closer. Then he saw it too: a sleek, low-riding, really expensive-looking, red car.
"That's a pretty car," said Mary-Gold.
"An elegant car!" Swamp said with a hint of accusation.
Everyone agreed that the now swiftly approaching car was both very elegant and very pretty, even if the owner was a hoity toity blue-blooded Earl, dining habits unknown, who most likely was a paedophile, even if he was a faggot. They even had time for a small discussion on the subject of blue blood and if that meant that his skin would look blueish. Then the car rolled to a stop and they huddled closer to the balustrade. The car windows were tinted dark, preventing them from seeing whoever was inside, just like in spy movies on the telly!
The passenger seat door opened. A tall man emerged, with his long, black hair drawn back in a tight ponytail. He wore sunglasses and a trenchcoat.
Hilary and Adam instinctively reached identical conclusions. "Copper!"
Klaus suspected that this might just be Dorian's most stupid idea ever. Certainly more stupid than the "Teach Klaus to draw by using chocolate body paint"-idea from a few months ago, which had also been bloody remarkably stupid. Had the current winner of the top ten list, the "Let's steal the Pope, just for a lark"-one, really been more stupid? Klaus decided to withhold judgement until the end of the day before he gave the final score.
The mess had started well enough, about two months earlier, in the beginning of June. Actually, it had started excellently. Dorian had given him a blow job and then fucked him nice and slow, followed by rough and fast, just the way they both liked it, and then Dorian had wrapped things up with another blow job while finger fucking him energetically.
In other words, much like any lazy afternoon when Klaus had time off.
When Klaus had spent for the second time and felt nicely relaxed and a touch drowsy, Dorian, with an expression that reminded Klaus of the words "cat" and "cream" and he might have blushed if he had had the energy, crawled to lie pressed up against him and played lazily with his chest, running his fingers over the firm flesh and brushing over the nipple with his nails as if by accident. "You know, Klaus, I've been thinking of something ..."
"Hmm?" he acknowledged and enjoyed a little electric current when his left nipple was pinched. He moved his face to the side, to avoid Dorian's mass of hair.
"I do believe that I have decided on what I want for my birthday."
Gott sei Dank! This was excellent news, no - this was bloody fantastic news! Not even his latest mission, which had required him to babysit a Hollywood brat going to some movie gala, had given Klaus anywhere near as much headache as the inevitable approach of July the 28th. Klaus had still not forgotten the look on Dorian's face when he had proudly handed him that Picasso painting last year. He’d found it in the attic and he’d recognized the name and if he recognized the name, then it had to be something good, right? Even if he couldn’t really tell what it actually was supposed to portray). Even British reserve had failed and Dorian had looked at him with a mix of abject horror and desperately trying to appear grateful. "Hmm?"
"I think this would be a wonderful time for us to have a son."
Klaus knew that it was theoretically possible to kill yourself by swallowing your own tongue, but if he ever tried he would rather do it on purpose, all things considered.
"Wovon zum Teufel sprichst du?!" and his voice might have reached a somewhat higher pitch than intended. "I know your father was queer, but he did tell you the birds part of the birds and the bees, right?"
He was swatted gently on the pectoral beneath Dorian's hand. "I'm serious."
Klaus blinked. "You can't be."
"But I am," Dorian said firmly and swatted him again, as for emphasis. "Margaret's fat Ronald, who is first in line, I find revolting, and Sophie's little Eustace is simply horrible. Did you know he wants to be a politician when he grows up? I'm not turning the title over to either of them. We must have some standards in the family. Besides, I want a son with you, my love. By adoption, obviously. Birds might not interest me personally, but I do know their proper place in nature, thank you very much. And that would be - not in my bedroom."
Klaus heard the words, but suspected them to be part of some silly British attempt to joke. "We're not adopting."
"Why ever not? I have found this nice children's home, one of those Salvation Army places. They come highly recommended, a cousin of Goffers, you remember Goffers? You said he smelled like a Russian and then you pretended to only speak rudimentary English all evening. Anyway, his cousin, Lord Lim, had a similar problem. They're very ... cooperative, he said. That for a donation they will be most helpful. I'm sure they'll have a likely candidate for us in August."
Strange, Dorian actually sounded serious - as if he'd actually considered the matter!
Klaus shook his head once, firmly. "I don't want a kid. I can't have one either, not in my line of work. The kid could be used against me, which would be harmful for him too. It's too dangerous." There. That should do it. Sometimes one really has to explain the completely obvious to him.
Dorian frowned. "Others manage. Look at Major Naviers and those six adorable little ... whatever-they-ares of his. Like a litter of happy puppies, that day he brought them to the NATO picnic we had to force you to attend. And our son could live here. In fact, I think he should. That way he won't be connected too much with you. But I do want a son, Klaus. And--" After which followed five of what Klaus had come to recognize as the most dangerous words in the English language, at least out of Dorian's mouth. "--you know my personal policy."
With a snort Klaus shrugged out of the leisure and sat up. He fixed Dorian with his sternest "You're not stealing that"-look, the one that actually worked once in a while, and said, firmly: "No."
"What I want I always make mine."
Dorian also sat up and met his gaze head on. "Klaus," he said steadily, "I want a son."
And possibly Klaus should have remembered more about that personal policy of Dorian's. Instead, he made the colossal mistake of starting to argue and soon afterwards Bonham, in the nearest bedroom, hastily grabbed his jacket and headed out to escape the raised, heated voices.
Of course, sometimes hot, angry sex made for a nice change.
28th of July and Klaus watched hopefully as Dorian tore into the packet Klaus had presented him with. His lover's eager, happy smile was definitely contagious and while Klaus never made any fuss about his own birthday, some small part of him enjoyed the anticipation.
This year he had selected a really good gift. The seller had even assured him that it was the perfect gift for "the man who had everything". And it was glittery! The guy had probably thought that Klaus bought it for himself, but since he'd been French Klaus couldn't care less.
The last fold of the paper wrapped with military precision in elegant silver, fell away and Dorian looked in wonder at the object within. Then he lifted the box, staring at the image on top with large eyes. He shook the box once, turned it over and studied the instructions printed on the bottom.
"Klaus ... Is this ... Ah ... Is there really something else inside this box or ...?"
With a beginning prickle of dread, Klaus began to vaguely suspect that something possibly might not be quite perfect.
"It can plan your calendar two years in advance," he said swiftly, "and it glitters."
The latter was what had alerted him to the day planner on seeing it in the store window - how astonishingly glittery the outside was. His first thought had been: Only Dorian would like something that glittery. His second thought had been: Dorian would like something that glittery.
"I'm sure. Klaus - you bought me a ... day planner?"
"You can use it to plan your RG meetings. And your heists, just do it in code." And it really glittered!
Dorian dropped the box on the table. Just dropped it, with no respect for how long Klaus had searched for something foppish that his lover could actually use! But then Dorian turned sharp, blue eyes towards him. "Klaus. Thank you. But I have told you what I want for my birthday. Repeatedly. This isn't it. Klaus - we've discussed this for over a month!"
"And I said 'no' the entire time!" All right, some arguments might have ended with him shouting "Ja! Ja! Ja!" - but not in agreement as much as in general affirmation of his appreciation regarding Dorian's skill in quite different matters. "Our lives aren't cut out for children!"
Dorian took a step back. "Yes ..." he said in a low voice. "I'm beginning to see that. The thing is ... Klaus - I need this. I will adopt a child. I want a son. And I want you to be his other father. We might not be able to adopt the boy together officially, but that is what I want and ... that is what I intend to do. And Klaus ... It would mean the world to me if we could do this. Together."
Moving in together, which Dorian had brought up a time or two, if only in passing - maybe. If Dorian would consider moving to Germany, that was. A snotty little kid who would get his brains splattered all over the sidewalk the first time the Ruskies came calling - hell no!
"For fuck's sake - forget about it! I said no!" They had gone over this already, many times - why wouldn't Dorian just understand?
Instead of just understanding, however, Dorian shook his head. "I can't. My mind is made up. But I'm beginning to see that ... " He visibly swallowed. "That perhaps you are not quite suited for fatherhood, Klaus."
Dorian lowered his gaze for a moment, then looked up again, with that hint of cold determination in his eyes that always took Klaus by surprise. "So ... I find myself with no choice but to do it without you."
"Eroica will, of course, still assist you if you need help you can't obtain elsewhere, Major."
The earth was turning just a little too quickly. "Dorian?"
"You don't seem to understand that this is just that important to me. You are making me choose. I don't like being made to choose. And this is something I have to do. There is no choice for me. This is something I will do. So ... The choice has already been made."
Klaus couldn't believe his ears. "You're ... dumping me?"
And then he saw pain glitter beyond Dorian's icy resolve.
"I love you, Klaus. I love you so much I want to cry and it hurts. But I intend to follow through with this." He made a helpless little shrug. "Klaus, I don't expect you to get ... involved. But don't make me choose. I mean it."
Klaus had been sure Dorian was just bluffing. He still wasn't sure whether Dorian hadn't been just bluffing. But after three lonely nights on the sofa Klaus had been forced to accept facts. He had only seldom seen Dorian so ruthlessly determined about something. At least not without shortly afterwards losing interest and forgetting whatever it was. Apart from Klaus himself, that is. Still baffled by this atypical behaviour he finally lifted a hand to the master suite's bedroom door and knocked twice in quick succession.
"Yes?" came the answer through the door.
"'s me? Well, Mr Sme, if you have anything to say which you think I might be interested in hearing, you are most welcome. I do so miss you, Mr Sme."
Klaus opened the door and stepped through. A glance found Dorian reclining in bed. It was made with fire-engine-red sheets with sinfully high thread counts, both underneath him and pulled up to barely cover his groin. One of his hands was under the sheet, moving slowly.
"Hello Mr Sme." Dorian nearly purred the greeting. "I was just thinking about you." His unoccupied hand rose to brush over the sparse, pale golden hair on his chest which Klaus knew would be so soft to his touch. "Have you been thinking of me, Mr Sme?" His husky tone tickled down straight to Klaus's libido.
"Yes," Klaus admitted.
"Oooh," Dorian said and gave his left nipple a little twist. Under the sheet, his hand made a long, half-circular motion familiar to all men. Klaus's own groin started to feel decidedly hot and tight. "And did you touch yourself when you thought of me, Mr Sme?"
Klaus shook his head dismissively. "I was thinking about that kid you wanted."
The motion under the sheet stilled. "Bit of a mood-breaker there, love. But what were you thinking, then?"
"I suppose that if you want some snotty kid skulking around North Downs, it's really none of my business, as long as you don’t intend for me to wipe his nose." He was willing to do a lot to keep Dorian, but he fucking well had his limits.
"Oh, Klaus!" Dorian shone like the sun. "You make me so happy!" Happiness apparently made Dorian's hips wriggle. The red sheet dropped, showing the exact state of Dorian's happiness, mood-breaker or no. Klaus's trousers felt as if he was getting rather pleased about things as well. "Klaus ..." Dorian pulled the sheets down even further. "I'm very glad you changed your mind. Now get that gorgeous body of yours on over here. I really did miss you something awful."
Klaus knelt on the bed. Worst case scenario, he thought as he lay down, if all goes to hell Dorian'll just have to come to Germany if he wants anything more than phone-sex.
After that things settled very nicely. Until breakfast the next morning, nine hours later.
"Klaus, love light of my life, I was wondering?"
"I was wondering, possibly, if perhaps you would be kind enough to help me with this little something I would like to do, Liebling?"
"Don't call me that, it makes me shiver." Klaus folded down the Frankfurter Allgemeine and noted with faint alarm that Dorian was using The Seal Eyes. "With what? No blueprints, no emergency use of NATO resources, no lending you the Alphabet to help you move your stash."
"Of course not, dear, I promised never to ask again. Well ... It's just that I had this marvellous little idea. You still have five day's vacation. Oh, don't frown at me so, I just added a zero to your vacation request form and your Chief was more than happy to grant ten days, was he not? Klaus, it was for my birthday! Today I'd like to show you around a bit more in London, take you to visit an old friend of mine, the man who taught me how to crack safes. Then, I thought that tomorrow perhaps we could take a trip to Bristol? Make a full day of it, maybe, there's the National Army Museum in Chelsea we could visit too and Andy, you remember Andy? The one you're sure is a woman, but he really isn't. Oh, don't look at me that way, I don't know from personal experience. He had an affair with Jacob a few years back. Jacob, you know Jacob, he's--"
"The phony Scot. Get on with it! Bristol? Why?"
"Andy told me of this fabulous little find of his, a truly charming little restaurant in central London. We could visit on our way back. Maybe we could stay the night out somewhere, wouldn't that be romantic? I know this lovely spa in Redhill, just around the corner, really, used to be a priory, they have baths and saunas, you like saunas, and--"
"Dorian! Bristol? Why?"
"Oh, all right, then. I thought we could go to that children's home in Bristol, couldn't we? Have a look at the little dears?" The words were accompanied by a hopeful smile and a doe-eyed look.
"Forget it!" Fuck this, I gave in, didn't I? He had agreed to let Dorian adopt some kid and he wouldn't fuss about that. Now Dorian wanted him to work for it as well?
"Klaus, it would truly mean a lot to me to have you accompany me on this. You've said you don't intend to be a large part of the boy's life, which I respect, but it would still mean the very world to me. How about if you come along and pretend to be, I don't know, my bodyguard? I'll deep-throat you in the car before we get there?"
On the other hand, it wasn't as if he had anything better to do in bloody England. So, in the end he agreed to that as well.
Klaus exited the transport vehicle. He had given the area a preliminary once-over before the car even rolled to a stop, but the tinted security windows unfortunately gave a slightly skewed view of the surroundings. As soon as he set foot outside he swept the area, at first swiftly and then thoroughly searching for anything the least bit suspicious or out of place. His sharp eyes moved in an efficient grid-pattern over the perimeters, cataloguing all possible hideouts and potential dangers. He spotted a truly depressing number of both.
Whoever agreed to this crummy place to make the drop anyway?
He saw dozens of windows through which a sharpshooter could have a field day. The most noticeable threat was, however, a suspicious-looking individual: female; 1.48-1.50; short, brown hair; red-framed, thick glasses; B-cup, long, dark brown skirt; white blouse with a pale floral pattern; and black shoes with low heels of the kind often labelled "sensible".
At least she makes a change from the usual bomb shells they send as distractions, he thought.
The client, code name "The Peacock", had acted as driver of the transport vehicle. Now he also exited, against clear orders to remain in said vehicle until specifically instructed otherwise.
Civilians. Can't live with them; mustn't get them offed.
To make matters worse, the client was, as usual, dressed to match his code name, wearing everything noticeable short of a "Oh, yes, please shoot me now!"-target practice sign on his forehead. Klaus flung up his arm, to stop the man from flouncing off to do something idiotic, simultaneously opening his trenchcoat for a quick, easy draw.
"Klaus, seriously, I know I said--"
"Suspects at 11 o'clock, 45 degrees."
"What are you-- Oh, children on the roof! Hello there, children!" Excessive waving followed.
Klaus nudged hard at the client's lilac-clad shoulder to get him to proceed with due haste into the relative protection of the building ahead. At least being indoors would make things trickier for long-range elimination. Mr Red showed typical civilian stupidity by only reluctantly allowing himself to be pushed to security, still waving like a loon and all but jumping to get a better look at the possible hostiles hiding on the roof. Luckily, the latter had quickly withdrawn, no doubt to regroup and deploy their dastardly Plan B, as Klaus had now successfully foiled what must have been their Plan A.
He pushed at the client, making The Peacock stumble towards the female suspect blocking the front door. Klaus studied her dumpy form in hope of detecting any hidden weapons - of course, never focusing entirely on her in case she was meant as a distraction from the real attack team. Then he shoved the client firmly.
"Klaus!" Mr Red hissed. "Yes, yes, I'm walking! Really, Klaus! I know what I said, but I just meant it as a figure of speech. Stop pushing me. There really is no one out to get me!"
He grunted to confirm that he had heard some completely irrelevant noises. Instead he fixed the female suspect with his best, most professional "I'm not allowed to shoot you without provocation, but I'm on to you"-stare. She eyed him with faked confused innocence. Then she arranged her face into a welcoming smile clearly meant to lull the client into thinking himself safe.
"None other," the target replied with a witless grin. "How do you do?"
"How do you do? An honour to meet you, milord." Her beady eyes flickered with suspicion towards Klaus, but he swiftly discouraged any familiarity with a firm headshake. He certainly wasn't getting involved in any way. Again he nudged the client’s shoulder hard.
"Likewise, I'm sure. Rainy weather we've been having lately. Ah ... Perhaps we could step inside? My .... companion is agoraphobic."
Her eyes widened and she glanced Klaus's way again, no doubt already plotting how to best exploit this perceived weakness.
"The sky is falling," Klaus said blithely. "The sky is falling. Oh no. Help. Help. Now get inside."
She frowned in obviously faked concern, then hastily side-stepped to allow them entrance. "Oh, I'm, ah, sorry to hear that. Yes, yes, of course. Please do come on in, milord."
Klaus applied a firm shove to the client's back. Mr Red stumbled and hissed "Klaus, really!" but Klaus ignored him. Clients mostly never knew what was good for them anyway. The female suspect waited for Klaus to go in before her. As he certainly wasn't about to let her stab him in the back he just stared blankly at her until she finally caved and preceded him. Once they got moving they were lead at gratifying speed through a narrow hallway and then to the right down a corridor. Klaus mapped the route automatically and catalogued each suspicious-looking object: children's books - Yeah, right! -, lots of those stupid paintings that looked like seven-year-olds had drawn them, soccer balls, even dolls. Decent set-up, Klaus grudgingly allowed. Occasionally he glanced over his shoulder to make sure they weren't sneaked up on or followed.
At the corridor's end they entered a small sitting room with horrible, green sofas.
"This is Director Pitty's office," said the female suspect and gestured towards a white wood door. At chest level hung a small, brass rectangle with "Director Pitty " in black enamel.
Ah, the mastermind's lair, Klaus thought. Then it occurred to him that the horrible sofas looked just big enough to hide a not too fat Russian behind. He promptly checked. When doing so only netted him a heavy sigh from Mr Red he felt almost disappointed. By then he was perfectly well aware of that he was more than likely sleeping on the sofa tonight, but who cared? He was having fun. Chances were that "Mr Red" would join him on the sofa anyway. He usually did.
The female suspect didn't as much initiate an attack as knock delicately on the inner door. Then she, at some muffled reply from within, turned the handle and pulled. Klaus swiftly brushed her aside to step through first and survey what appeared to be a reasonable facsimile of a perfectly ordinary working office. He didn't allow Mr Red to enter until he had ascertained that the room only contained one male suspect, 40 to 45, curly dark blond hair, 5 kilos overweight, 185 centimetres, medium blue eyes and looking too dim-witted to be the mastermind leader of even a second-rate British gang of criminals. Could be a decoy. Mr Red - possibly accidentally - kicked Klaus's left boot on the way past him.
"Lord Gloria!" the rival gang boss gushed. The guy had obviously recognized The Peacock, but shot worried glances in Klaus's direction. "How delightful to finally meet you, ah, face to face, milord. I'm so very delighted--"
Klaus set his hearing to catch threats and specific keywords, then ignored their blabber. If necessary he could have replayed the entire conversation, but at this point he didn't need to suffer through their inanities. Instead he assumed the classic bodyguard stance and contented himself with staring. Even if he did say so himself, he was bloody good at staring. Still not listening to actual phrases he soon heard frequent stutters. The glances thrown in his direction - all met by a perfectly blank face - also became increasingly more frequent. When soon afterwards Mr Red stepped in front of him in some misguided attempt to stay in the centre of everyone's universe, Klaus neatly took a small step to the right so that he once more had everyone in proper sight.
"--see the ah, the, ah, the facilities before we, we introduce you to a, to a, to a few, ah, ah, main candidates?"
"Oh, say, that is a marvellous idea! I would love to have a look around! After all, I will be donating a little something to your organisation."
'Donating'. As they call it, Klaus thought with faint approval. On this type of missions they must always remember the possibility of bugs and to never reveal what was truly at stake.
The gang leader rounded them, giving Klaus a satisfactory berth, to open the door. Klaus took a few long-legged strides to be the first man through. With his right hand under his trench coat, touching the stock of his Magnum, he refused to let the client out before he had properly rescanned the waiting room. Meanwhile, the male suspect - now sweating copiously, obviously very suspicious behaviour - threw very nervous looks his way. "Ah ... Lord Gloria, maybe, maybe ... ah ... Maybe your, ah, your, your, ah ... companion? Would like to, would like to, ah, to, to stay? Here? And, ah, wait? Be-be-beca-cau-cause he, he, I ..."
"He might scare the children," Dorian said in a tight tone. "Yes. I think that is an excellent idea. Klaus, bleib!"
So I'm a dog now? Hmph. For that I'll bite your neck tonight.
But he happily obeyed the "order". He'd much rather take a 20 minute nap or whatever than be pulled all over the place and pretend to be even remotely interested in a bunch of snotty minors. The bodyguard stunt had been amusing for a few minutes, even a little good exercise, but it wasn't as if he didn't know he was just making up scenarios as he went along.
The secretary stared at him, her eyes wide with fright. He made his own eyes go cold and asked blandly: "Who do I have to kill to get a cup of coffee around here?"
She meeped very satisfactory and ran away. "Black!" he yelled after her. "Nescafe if you've got it!"
Might as well get some caffeine out of this miserable mess.
A few minutes earlier:
Hilary stared at the two men who had emerged from the elegant, yet pretty car. Since he and the other members of the Bristol Five Band were high up on the roof, he couldn't see them in detail, but he'd never seen a man with so much hair as the blond, who could be none but the awaited Earl, since the other man was a copper. Then Miss Beryl had led the two inside.
"I think it was a girl!" said Henry.
"A girl doesn't have legs like that!" Mary-Gold protested. "Or hips! Or shoulders! Or ... chest! He looked dreamy! Like a rock star!"
"And what would you know about it? You've never met a rock star! Hilary - what's the matter, you liked looking at him? Are you 'elegant' too, are you? Hilary is a girl's name anyway. Elegant Hilary!"
"I'm not elegant - you're elegant!"
And then the fight was on.
Dorian fixed his facial features to a benevolent smile and pretended to be interested while led through the building. After all, he had promised to make a very sizeable donation, six digits and the first would not be a simple number one. No matter James's firm opinion in the matter, he intended to follow through. Some things one simply did not play false with.
The place does seem reasonably clean, he noted with approval. He had feared considerable squalor. I have read too much Dickens, no doubt.
He twitched at the sight of the dreadful, dreary paintings on the walls. That can't be good for the little dears! Perhaps I shall donate some art as well. Yes! That quaint set of van Leyden prints, perhaps. Red (no relation) Rover Hensen stole them from Fingers in Ankara, he'll never report them stolen and if they hang here no one will ever believe that they are real. Perhaps a charming little Renoir, one of his later works?
However, mere minutes later he spotted a characteristic Hitler-moustache accompanied by whiskers eagerly drawn on a Stubbs-copy and rethought the matter with due haste. From there on he just very carefully did not look at the so called paintings.
House rules stated that when a fight broke out, the guilty parties must be brought to Director Pitty’s immediate attention. If the director was involved in very important business, though, the fighters were put in separate rooms and urged to contemplate the consequences of their destructive behaviour. Miss Gilligan had only caught the two of them, himself and Swamp. Well, and Henry, but he'd been sent off to see Miss Ann, the nurse. Then Miss Gilligan had left Swamp with Miss Beryl while leading Hilary onwards to Director Pitty’s office. Hilary knew the way, of course. Not that he had been there oodles of times, nothing like Swamp and Henry, but he did get into trouble as often as any other boy - and certainly as often as Mary-Gold - there just was no helping it.
He knew how this would go. Director Pitty would lecture him forever on how stupid Director Pitty thought it was to fight, even when someone called him "elegant" or made fun of his name. Then Director Pitty would take away two of his privileges, maybe four if Henry's index finger really was broken, but Hilary didn't think so at all, Henry was just being a sissy. Then he'd be sent off and no dessert for the evening meal. The latter didn't bother him. He didn't like the sweet stuff much anyway.
Miss Gilligan opened the door to Director Pitty’s waiting room and urged him through. Having no reason to give her trouble, Hilary went - and stopped, in total fascination, at the sight of The Gun.
Miss Gilligan meeped.
"Och, ich been so sorry," the man on the sofa said with a strange accent and continued to efficiently assemble bits of metal into The Gun. "I not a thing to do had, so cleaned my weapon I did. You tell other woman, secretary, more coffee, bitte? A killing urge for it I have, ja?"
Miss Gilligan meeped again.
Hilary - sensing that time was of the essence or he'd be dragged away from The Gun - slipped across the room and up on a sofa opposite the corner the man occupied. There he sat: back straight, hands flat on his thighs and smiling angelically up at Miss Gilligan.
Who stared at him, looked over at the stranger with The Gun and then back at him. Then she blinked, turned and ran. Hilary, not to waste a precious moment, skipped off the sofa and headed over towards The Gun.
"--right in here, Lord Gloria, is the dining room. As you can see, the room is a little on the small side, but the children eat in shifts. Everyone is here now, though. Children, gather around! No, no, come over here. We have a very important visitor today. Everyone, this gentleman is the Right Honourable Earl of Gloria. Lord Gloria has come to us especially to see you. I hope you will all join me in giving him a very warm welcome!"
Dorian didn't let his eagerness show, but looked around eagerly nevertheless, hoping to find just the right child.
Klaus rated his impression of "murderous, coffee-drinking, gun-toting German bodyguard" an 8 out of 10, with 2 points off for stereotyping. All in all he was fairly pleased, given the circumstances - the woman had looked about ready to pee herself. He wondered idly if she was running to fetch Dorian, coffee or just the police.
The snotty-nosed kid came clattering over the floor, staring at his gun with witless fascination. He had a scrape mark on his cheek and bruised knuckles. A little troublemaker, Klaus decided and continued the assembling ritual.
"Beat it, kid, it's not a peep show."
"Is that a .44 Auto Mag?"
Klaus swept the small figure suspiciously. No, definitely a child, 8 to 10 years, 120 centimetres, brown hair, hazel eyes, eagerly trying to get a better look at his gun.
"No. It's a .30, an experimental piece I'm testing. Different barrel, the rest's the same."
"Can I touch it?"
"No." He wasn't about to get in on that whole "may" versus "can" mess. Besides, as far as he was concerned, both applied.
"Just once? Not hold it or anything, I just ... I just want to know what the metal feels like. Please?"
And there was something in the kid's eyes: a hungry, almost starved look, which Klaus unexpectedly recognised.
"And these are all of the little dears?" Dorian asked Director Pitty, smiling blandly at the children even as some of them tried to hide behind each other.
"Yes, milord. May I offer you some more tea?"
"Why, yes, thank you, that would be lovely. But you are sure this is everyone?"
"Miss Beryl, tea for Lord Gloria. Yes, I ordered a full assembly for you, milord. Would you, ah, like to interview some of the boys in private?"
"That would be splendid."
"--oil. Simple as that. You understand now?"
"Oh yes! But the trigger, then? I never understood what actually happens, when you pull it. Inside, I mean."
"Generally speaking, pulling back the trigger actuates a striking device through the firing pin to ignite a primer. There are hammers and strikers. Hammers are--"
"And this, milord, is Timothy Blythe."
Timothy Blythe, while having charming, cornflower blue eyes, was about as wide across as he was tall. What Dorian really wanted to say was: "No. Next," but he had been taught proper manners and didn't want the boy to feel dismissed without consideration. Instead he aimed a regal smile at the youngster, who eyed him like a mouse might a hawk, and said: "Hello there, young Mr Blythe. Now, please, would you tell me of some of your primary interests?"
"What does a bodyguard do, then? Do you get shot at, like, all the time?"
"As the name implies, we guard a body, more precisely the body of our client. By all means possible and, if necessary, with our own bodies. But, no, I do not often get shot at. Not while protecting Lord Gloria." Which technically was perfectly true. He exceedingly seldom got shot at while playing Dorian's bodyguard, so the obfuscation didn't bother him in the least.
"And this, milord, is Percival Smith."
Dorian sipped his tea. Earl Grey. A classic, to be sure, but certainly not particularly exciting. He already knew that this boy wasn't the one either. Still. "Percival, is it? That is a nice name, I quite like it. Are you any fond of Arthurian mythology, then?"
"But mustn't bodyguards stay with the person they guard, then, like, even like on the loo? How do you know he's not in danger right now, getting shot at right here, in the house?"
"That is a very good point, boy. Truth be told, he doesn’t really need a bodyguard, he's just being silly. And bodyguarding isn't a suitable working career for you, young man. Think about joining the military."
"And this, milord, is-- Oh, I'm so sorry, milord, that was, should I say, John Nielsen. I'm terribly sorry, I'll go and fetch him back here right this minute. The cheek of--"
"Oh, no, no, don't bother! If the boy doesn’t want to talk to me, there's no need to force him. Just let the next one in."
"And they teach you to shoot all kinds of guns, there? Really? For free and everything?"
"Yes, they do! Isn't it great? Klasse, really. Well, at least in Germany they do. But I would assume that unless the British army is worse off than I even imagined, they should. Hm. On second thought, perhaps you should move to Germany."
Dorian felt utterly miserable - and tired and sweaty to boot. His hair had even started to feel frizzy! The latter was a dire sign.
"Are you certain none of the boys, ah, interests you, Lord Gloria? Maybe young Percival, sir? Such a, a ... polite young man? Ah, I'm sure--" The director sweated too. No doubt he worried that if there was no adoption, no donation would come forth either.
They were heading back towards Director Pitty's office to pick up Dorian's so-called bodyguard.
Klaus is being really childish about this. For a man with the finest ass I've ever had the pleasure of buggering, my love can be horribly mule-headed. This'll be good for both of us if only he'd realise that. But Klaus could never be forced, only coaxed. I'll stop at the same rest stop on our way back, that'll make him look forward to our next visit.
"No, I'm afraid that he just isn't the one. Alas, it is but early days yet. Maybe if I return later in the month? Any chance of new children having arrived?"
He was answered by an eager nod. "I couldn't say for sure, milord. But there's a good chance, certainly."
"Very well, then. I will return at a later date. I would be most grateful if you would do me the favour of keeping me posted for any new developments meanwhile. I will return on, well, let's make it the last day of August. Will that do?"
The director nodded vigorously, if with a slightly stiff smile. "That's a Sunday, sir, but certainly, that would pose no problem! I look forward to your next visit."
"Splendid. And don't worry about the money, my good man." He gestured benevolently. "I'm sure we will be able to reach some sort of arrangement, regardless."
"Oh? Well, that's, that-- Ah, that is to say, that is most generous of you, milord, though that is, of course, hardly the, ah, the, the important part. This way, milord, if you would, here we are. Can I give you anything before you leave? Some more tea? I do have this excellent Kenilworth in my office, if perhaps I could tempt you?"
That would have been delightful about half an hour ago, Dorian thought, maybe a hint uncharitably. "Most kind of you, but I fear that I must decline. Maybe next time. Right now I just want to go home." Or to that spa, maybe. A night in luxury away from home and James would be nice. The day hadn't been good. He could use a bit of a picker-upper. With a little stop on the way. Maybe I can persuade Klaus to deep-throat me instead this time. Klaus seldom volunteered, but as in so many things, he was quite skilled when he did apply himself. "We'll come back, as I said, on the last day--"
Director Pitty politely opened the door to the waiting room and Dorian swept in.
"--of the month and--"
He blinked at the twin stares of green and hazel and almost missed the hastily concealed gun. For a few seconds he just stood there, taking in the scene. Then he felt himself start to smile, wider and wider.
"Ah," he finally said. "There you are. My two dark-haired dears, waiting for me. How marvellous. Klaus, I see you've met our new son. And was that your Magnum I saw?"
While Dorian normally enjoyed handling strong, fast cars, he had asked Bonham to drive the Lamborghini Silhouette home, as he had a very important matter to consider without the distraction of driving. Might stealing a horse really potentially be what anyone might refer to as a "bad thing"?
Normally Dorian was all for stealing everything he wanted. Stealing was romantic and appropriate, especially when something of great beauty wasn't properly appreciated. The latter being a far worse crime than stealing could ever be, at least in Dorian's not very humble opinion. So when, at the suggestion that he stole the horse, his conscience had suddenly stood firm and loudly proclaimed that horse thieves ought to be hung, he had been utterly shocked. Obviously, he had watched too many cowboy movies in his youth - and some of those cowboys had been so dashingly handsome ...
On the other hand he wanted that horse. It was huge and white, but with little black spots all over: unique and handsome; of the heavy, baroque type with mane flying everywhere. A stallion, naturally, of a Danish breed seldom seen in the United Kingdom.
Mr Jacobsen doesn't really take proper care of it. John-Paul said so and he knows what he's talking about. Truly, it isn't stealing the horse as much as rescuing it. Hmm ... Well, he had never heard of anyone hanging a horse rescuer ...
Still deep in thought he exited the Lamborghini and began the short stroll to the castle entrance, when he saw movements in the corner of his eye and heard Bonham's warning: "There's someone in the garden, milord."
And there most certainly was. Out from the shadows stepped a very handsome young buck. He had dark brown hair, trimmed short and neat - a pity, as Dorian almost exclusively preferred his men with long hair: something for him to wind his fingers in at appropriate moments, tug at in other appropriate moments and when the moments weren't appropriate at all to simply admire the pleasing aesthetics of. All in all the man was a fairly monochrome sight: dressed in a pitch black T-shirt - showing off lovely biceps, Dorian noted - black trousers with strange straps down the sides; and solid-looking, black boots. In his left hand he held his only colour accessory - an outlandish, large red bag with a garish pattern of yellow tulips. Not very fashionable at all.
But his smile!
Dorian was used to men smiling at him. Most men did. Admiring smiles, lecherous smiles, "I find you irresistible"- smiles, even Klaus's artificial "I hate you, but I must pretend to be a Good Boy right now, so I'm smiling, look how I'm smiling"-smile, which Dorian actually found disturbingly cute. "I just fell in love with you"-smiles were always especially nice to receive and Dorian had a particularly soft spot for "You're so incredibly beautiful that I can't stop smiling when I look at you"-smiles.
This man, however, smiled with such open, unguarded, unconditional love that Dorian had to run through those of his lasting relationships (i.e. those few that had lasted longer than a one night stand) that had ended on a comparatively good note, because that smile was not a stranger's smile. That was the smile of someone who loved him dearly and who had done so for a considerable time, through thick and thin, even on his rare bad hair days. He saw that smile fairly often too, yes, but the only ones who ever smiled at him like that were the members of the Eroica gang, once they had gotten over their "Heels over head in love with you"-smiles. Bonham always smiled at him that way.
Yet he had never seen the man now standing in front of him before in his life, on that he could have bet a da Vinci.
And then the utterly unexpected, lovely smile vanished, or rather retracted into something that was still a nice enough, pleasant, boyishly handsome, polite smile, one which acutely reminded Dorian of the mask Major von dem Eberbach wore when he hid what Dorian hoped were his true feelings.
Meanwhile, Bonham had moved in front of Dorian and was doing that adorable thing of trying to look bigger than he was, as if he could hide Dorian behind himself. "Who are you?" he challenged the stranger, who still stared at Dorian as if star struck.
"Unca-- Ahem, ahem," the man said, clearing his throat noisily. "I'm no one. I'm harmless. My name is Danny Lester. I'm looking for a job. I heard you might be hiring. Ah, a relative of Gian-Maria Volovolonte sent me. I'm not much of a thief, but I'm really good at security."
Seeing Papa like that - so young! Well, actually, Papa always looked young for his age. People routinely mistook him for being in his thirties, which gave him no end of joy. But to Hilary, who knew every aspect of his Papa's aristocratic face well, saw the difference clearly. Not that his Papa back in the present was ... jaded, no, by no means, no, but there was a certain brightness, a youth, a ... clearness over this Papa's features that over the years had matured to something more captivating, something even more elegant and refined. In no way less beautiful, but with something like the finest trace of patina to prove the authenticity of a priceless treasure.
The first thing he had ever thought on seeing Papa had been: "He must be the most beautiful man in the world!" Which had been true, even if Hilary had been only ten at the time and hadn't seen much of the world to speak of. Now, over ten years earlier - or nearly twenty years later, depending on your point of view - with travelling experiences over half the globe and across time - he still believed this to be true.
Sometimes Hilary suspected that some small part of his heterosexuality was due to the fact that his Papa was so devastatingly beautiful that no other man could compare. The only man Hilary had ever felt the least bit attracted to - well, okay, rather a lot attracted to - was a clumsy, young puppy-geek whose own mother wouldn't have called him handsome (though he was kind of cute), and with a thing for perky, female blondes to boot. Just his luck.
He quickly schooled his face to blankness, as Father had taught him. Over the miles through Salfords to Redhill to Reigate and to the castle, he had considered his situation. He was reasonably sure he could persuade Papa of at least part of the truth. Papa had an open mind, a big heart and an adventurer's soul. But he wouldn't get there by diving right into matters. First he'd have to get Papa to trust him - then they could talk. A job in security would suit him to a T. Yes. Get him to trust me. Get into the gang. If he'll take me on a heist and it all goes well, then he will trust me. Then I'll tell him.
The mob connection was a perfect excuse when appearing out of nowhere, in search for a job with no questions asked. Besides, to say that a relative of Gian-Maria Volovolonte had sent him wasn’t a complete lie. He could have been said to have sent himself, couldn’t he? And Unca Gian-Maria had been the one who insisted - quite firmly and eagerly - on Unca status. In the beginning, Hilary suspected that the Italian's interest was merely another step in his campaign to get closer to Papa, but later Hilary had gotten to know Unca Gian-Maria quite well and knew Unca Gian-Maria genuinely liked him. They had had plenty of fun together. Also, Unca Gian-Maria had numerous relatives, both in his own family and in the family of Cosa Nostra, so he doubted that Papa would see through the obfuscation anytime soon.
"I'm really hungry," he finally added in a plaintive voice that usually worked well with Papa. "I haven't eaten since breakfast. May I have something to eat, please?"
Strangely, a surge of something ... Dorian couldn't put a name to the feeling, but the hazel eyes that looked so hopefully at him, combined with the plaintive request for food, went straight to the mostly carefully hidden side of him that would stay up all night when James was sick, trickling coins in a copper pan to let his accountant get some rest.
"Oh, of course! Yes, yes, do come on in."
He led the way up the stairs to the castle entrance, where Beck had already opened the heavy oak door to let them in. Beck eyed their unexpected visitor with considerable suspicion. Dorian ignored the natural distrust and kept his attention on the cute boy, Danny Lester. "We'll go to the kitchen. Yes, this way."
He held out the crook of his arm and was pleased to have it readily accepted. When he put his hand on the man's forearm the skin was delightfully smooth and warm over solid muscles.
"I'm feeling a bit peckish myself," he said. "A sandwich would be lovely, and James isn't here. You'll meet James later, but I'll explain it all." He patted the forearm and leaned in a little, lowering his voice to a confidential level as he did. "James not being here is a good thing when you're hungry."
Unca James! Unca James, who had taught him maths! Hilary could still remember some of the examples used, even if the answer: "No, no, no, you don't have six coins left, you still have 12 coins, because you tell that horrible, horrible boy that you're not giving him a single coin, he can find his own coins, you keep all of them or if you don't want them you give them to me!" hadn't exactly helped him in school. Unca James who, according to Eroica Gang Legend, used to be comparatively sane! Hilary looked forward to seeing the strange little man again - in the present Unca James lived a nearly reclusive, but very happy life in the Castle Gloria basement, in a room with a pool full of coins.
He gratefully followed Papa through the house, where he had to make a conscious effort not to head straight for their destination. Instead he took Papa's arm and let Papa lead the way.
They entered the kitchen. Hilary glanced around and noted that the room looked pretty much as he was used to, except that he only saw Papa's "Beauty of the World"-calendar on the refrigerator, 365 works of art to brighten an art lover's day (in the future Hilary had seen old copies of the calendar, worryingly enough with tick marks next to a considerable number of objects), with no hint of the Heavy Artillery Monthly that normally would accompany it.
He let Papa jimmy the padlock to the refrigerator - he could do it himself of course, but to have Papa do it for him gave him a sweet twinge of nostalgia. Then he helped clear butter, lemon, coriander, tomato, chicken and mint chutney from the refrigerator to make Papa's favourite sandwich. The lack of cold fried potatoes startled him, but only when Papa purred: "So, you like tomato and mint chutney on your sandwich? Me too. Danny Lester, we seem to share similar tastes," did he realise that he had displayed knowledge he shouldn't have.
"Ah ... Yes," he said hastily. With some dismay he began to assemble Papa's favourite deluxe "James isn't looking"-sandwich. In truth, he kind of loathed mint chutney, but he realised he'd just have to chew it and like it, just like in the military. At least he was hungry enough that the sandwich wouldn't be too difficult to stomach. When it came to food he favoured Father's side of the family. The lack of fried potatoes was a depressing state of what had been a staple all through Hilary's life in the von dem Eberbach-Red household.
With practiced ease he prepared another sandwich for Papa, who accepted it as his rightful due. They sat down and bit in, Papa with rather more enthusiasm. "Mmm-mmm, this is just perfect!"
Hilary smiled, as always happy to have pleased his Papa. "If you have no use for me in security you can always hire me as a chef," he offered playfully. In truth, the deluxe sandwich and fried potatoes were his masterpieces.
Papa smiled back at him. "Maybe so. Tell me more about yourself, Danny Lester."
He rattled off his made-up resume, making it solid without dropping any specifics that could be too easily checked.
"I ... kind of had to leave Italy in a hurry," he finished off and met Papa's wide, concerned eyes frankly. "Hitched a ride with a friend in a private jet to get here. Had to leave everything behind. I can get some of it back later, I hope, but right now I only have the clothes I’m wearing and the bag over there. I didn't even have time to bring my passport. Please, Lord Gloria, I really need someplace to stay, otherwise I must sleep outdoors tonight."
He looked up and used his very best puppy dog eyes, the "Father and I played Rescue Mission with your Giorgione in the Long Gallery and we got mud all over the Kashan carpet, don't hate us, you love us"-one.
How utterly strange. Dorian could actually feel his heart melt at Danny Lester's honest, frank, hopeless, humble look. In fact, he couldn't have performed more efficient puppy dog eyes himself! Impressive.
"Of course you may stay here!" he found himself assuring him and made a mental note to tell Bonham to lock up tight tonight and to also run a thorough background check on their new guest. And put him under discreet surveillance, he made another mental note. He might have a weak spot for rescuing pretty boys in distress, but he was certainly nobody's fool.
The promise earned him another warm, "I will never stop loving you, no matter what"-smile, which then, sadly and, much to his regret, retreated into a polite "Thank you, sir"-smile.
"So, what forced you to leave Italy in such a hurry?" he asked, hoping for more information to ease Bonham's research. "Love trouble, hmm?" He leaned forward and gently caressed a finger down the youngster's clean-shaven cheek. "Handsome man as yourself. The Italian brotherhood does have such a sad, old-fashioned view of homosexuality, don't you think? Was he your lover, that relative of Gian-Maria's? Oh, dear, I'm sorry, are you quite all right?"
A half-chewed mouthful of not very tasty mint chutney-topped chicken and bread had gone down the wrong way when Papa started talking about love trouble and leaning towards him, caressing him. Hilary suddenly remembered rumours he'd overheard about Papa's pre-Father years and the early days, before Father had put a stop to most of "that nonsense" by agreeing to fight back with less vigour. The memory, combined with Papa's smile, borderline inappropriate touch and leading questions--
"I'm straight," he managed to blurt out.
Blue eyes widened in wonder, but then Papa's smile changed and he got a distinctly - and frankly worrying - predatory look.
"No, no, no," Hilary hurried to assure, hastily putting down his half-eaten sandwich. "You're the most beautiful man I've ever seen, you truly are. I'm not blind. But I'm straight. I really am." And I'm your son! I just forgot you don't know that! Of course, he couldn't say that, not just yet and not with Unca Bonham giving him a suspicious, accusatory glare. "Demonically straight!"
"I get into terrible trouble with women," Hilary lied blithely. "They throw themselves at me. It's embarrassing. I mean, I like women and all, don't get me wrong, but it gets difficult when it's ... all of them. That relative of Volovolonte, I'd rather not say his name, but he told me to beat it after, well ... his mother, his wife, three daughters, a granddaughter--"
All lies through his teeth apart from the tiny detail that he actually did like women. He did. They were soft and warm and nice and he enjoyed having sex with them. He'd never seriously considered settling down for good with any particular one of them, but he had - to Father's approval and Papa's terror - had girlfriends. (This had been during his rebellious phase, when he had also started claiming a liking for post-impressionism.) He vividly remembered Papa hugging him - unlike Father, Papa's hugs were frequent, but no less loving and no less precious - and telling him that he would always love him and that he could always, no matter what, talk to Papa about absolutely anything. Apart from females, that is, about whom he should speak strictly with his Unca Bonham.
"No details!" Papa pulled back, looking horrified.
Girls had always been a fireproof subject to put Papa off the scent of something. And it seemed to work with Young!Papa as well. Good to know.
"Of course not, milord. But, you see, that's why I thought I'd try for an all-male team. And Mr. Volovolonte's relative thought you'd be nice about it, that you're gay but that you're not ..." He let himself trail off as if in hesitation. "Well, he was sure you wouldn't bother me."
"I never bother anyone!" Papa looked affronted by the very thought.
"Because I'm just not bent that way. You're the most beautiful man I've ever seen, I don't mind saying so, it's only true, but I'm 100% straight." Well, 95%, counting Connor, but this seemed like a very awkward moment to come out of the closet. "The thing is - you don't have breasts. So, just ... no? Um ..." He paused and made sad but hopeful eyes, the "Father and I played KGB versus CIA in the garden and ruined your Prince Claus roses, we're terribly sorry and Father said he'd make it up to you later?"-ones. "Does that mean I have to sleep under a tree tonight?"
What is it with military men and preferring women? Unhealthy, that is what it is! Dorian did feel a little disappointed, but not too terribly so. Wasn't there some saying that to divide your focus is to lose it altogether? Since Rome Dorian had his sights set on Major von dem Eberbach and even if this tasty little morsel had wandered into his lair all wide-eyed and innocent, Danny Lester seemed a bit too ... well, meek for Dorian's general taste. Much like Caesar, sweet thing though he was. And a bit too breast-fixated. At least Major von dem Eberbach spurned clingy women equally.
But those hazel eyes, so sad now, like a kicked dog's, as if the man actually believed that if he wouldn't put out, he'd been thrown out on the street. Ridiculous! "Of course you're still welcome here. Demonically straight, you said? What a tragedy."
"But I'm great in security!" Now the smile was all warmth and eagerness - maybe the man just had a naturally irresistible smile, much like Dorian's own. "Thank you, sir! You won't regret this!"
And, strangely, demonically straight or not, for some reason, Dorian believed him.
The adoption had met with considerable difficulties, but that determined team of well-connected spy master who always accomplished his mission and well-connected prince of thieves who always got what he wanted, not to mention that both were wealthy men of illustrious ancestry and noble blood - had - in the end, as always - been successful. Phone calls from high-up NATO officials eager to make Iron Klaus a family man also helped, as did the hand-written note from Her Majesty the Queen herself, after Dorian had assisted the royal family in locating a family heirloom stolen decades earlier. The latter had not been an easy task, Dorian had later informed Hilary. Did he know just how much junk had been collected up in the attic over the centuries?
Several Uncas had regaled Hilary with snippets of a tale fit for some adventure novel and in the end Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach, a.k.a. Major Iron Klaus, and Dorian Red, The Right Honourable Earl of Gloria, a.k.a. Eroica, had emerged victorious - and as fathers. Just in time for Christmas, 1990, Hilary had made the move from Bristol to North Downs, where he had subsequently grown up.
Officially he became Hilary Becker Red, with his former surname as a middle name. Both Hilary and Papa had been all for making it Hilary Becker Red-von dem Eberbach from the start, but Father had vetoed the notion. Father's firmest demand regarding the adoption had been that his involvement was kept strictly on a need-to-know basis - and that no one not given the honorary of Unca needed to know.
After the Adoption and Children Act 2002, giving same-sex couples in the United Kingdom the right to adopt, however, Hilary had insisted on readoption, naming Father co-parent on the papers. As he was over twenty at the time the case had been swiftly handled. By then Hilary had also changed his name and henceforth he could write his full name as Captain Hilary James Becker Red-von dem Eberbach, the Honourable Lord Red, which he never did. James, after his favourite Unca who, in a never before and never since seen fit of generosity gave Hilary his best lucky coin, which Hilary afterwards attached to a clasp and hung from his dog tag chain.
More than ten years prior to his adoption Hilary fell into the life in the Red household as if he'd always been there, even if he often felt dazzled by the gang's youthful air, the easy flirtation and carefree attitudes. Relationships he took for granted had yet to cement. Father had left few traces - and no one had died yet. The world lay before them, a pearl-packed oyster for their taking, and their supreme grand leader, Dorian, eager to have all the beauty in existence brought to his feet, one treasure at a time.
Seeing Unca J-P again tore at his heart. When he recognized the well-remembered shape Hilary wanted nothing more than run up to the man and hug the stuffings out of him, even if he knew that doing so would only lead to misunderstandings. He desperately wanted to warn his Unca, but he knew he couldn't - time paradoxes might very well be real and if he hadn't fucked up the past already, he simply couldn't do it on purpose. Unca J-P had been shot on a heist, a tragic result of the wrong man being in the wrong place at the wrong time carrying a hair-triggered gun. The aftermath had led to one of Father's rare hugs, when both Papa and Hilary had cornered Father on a sofa and clung to him, Papa crying while Hilary shivered, breathing hard. Father had merely held them in silence, lending them both of his strength.
The gang members, in turn, seemed fascinated by Hilary's self-proclaimed heterosexuality and met it with playful ribbing and good-natured flirting. The latter he actually kind of enjoyed, if not in a sexual way, and the former he thrived on. He knew each poke to be merely a sign of their budding acceptance. Everyone in a group has their little peculiarities and, in his case, his sexuality was his. They couldn't help but to tease him. Father had explained this to him.
In the end Hilary hadn't moved to Germany to join the military, no matter how vocally Father encouraged such a move. In truth he had been a little tempted. He had spent most of his holidays in Germany and spoke the language fluently, so he could have pulled it off, as by then he also had a dual citizenship. In the end, though, he went to Sandhurst. The officer training was rigorous and exacting, but Hilary had a natural advantage over most of the other students. The von dem Eberbach blood might not run in his veins, but he had eagerly sucked up every ounce of information and knowledge he could from Father, which was certainly nothing to snort at. Other children had their Father tell them what happened in the world based on the telly and the news sections of the papers. Hilary's Father had the inside scoop.
At school, Hilary opted to use his old surname, Becker, as not to ride on his father's coattails. He liked Sandhurst just fine - and the weapon instructors there quickly became very fond of him. They tried to get him into a sniper program, but he declined, knowing he didn't have the proper patience: he was really more of an action kind of guy. His classmates in the Waterloo Company were a good bunch. He got teased for his gun love, but no more than Harry Stim and Joe Weber and Dan Grover who were the eggheads of his thirty man strong platoon, since they, strangely enough, appeared to actually enjoy that whole studying thing.
When the news came, their teacher shone like a little sun. A guest speaker had agreed to speak to the school and everyone instantly recognized the name. The Cold War with Klaus "Iron Klaus" von dem Eberbach!
Hilary had felt like whooping himself. His heart swelled with pride on seeing Father climb the podium to face the class. Of course, Hilary neither waved nor did anything to pull attention to himself, even when he knew Father saw him: sharp, green eyes pausing on him for a split heartbeat. During the lecture he just sat there, letting Father's voice wash over him, hearing information he already knew by heart but still interesting. At one point, however, one of the Waterloo eggheads, Grover, put up his hand. "Sir, I'd like to ask you a social question, sir. Heinz Meyer, who served under you as Agent G--" Unca G was now a celebrated author of gay detective novels. Each new instalment in his most famous series, Stahl Johann, were eagerly read by the entire Red household, except by Father, who scoffed darkly at them. "--considering the homophobic attitude of the era, how did his cross-dressing affect the social interaction of the team?"
"If the others bullied him, you mean?"
Hilary smiled. He knew well that Father found it amusing to cut short such lengthy statements.
Father nodded firmly. "Of course they did. In a tightly-knit group, any discovered difference will be explored. That is human nature. A difference can be a weakness or - in rare cases - a strength. Agent G was picked on, but only for his habit of wearing women's clothing. In all other ways, G had everyone’s respect. What many outsiders never understand is that a difference might be a weakness, but it can also be a shield to hide something even more different beneath, something which can prove to be a strength. Most people underestimated G badly. Subject closed. Other questions?"
Hilary had heard that in the early days some of the teasing might have been less than good-natured, but he also knew that Father constantly picked on everyone, on the premise of that to strengthen the weakest link would strengthen the entire chain. G had been far from the weakest link, even if many leaped to that conclusion. On the contrary, Hilary had once heard Father name G as his most ruthless agent, in the right circumstances. And, of course, if Father had seriously disapproved, G would have never made the status of permanent Alphabet.
Soon followed the part of the seminar during which Father threw out rapid-fire questions. Hilary knew most answers by heart. He dutifully put up a hand now and then - and Father even let him answer a particularly difficult one, possibly suspecting that none of the others would get it right and not wanting to waste time with lengthy explanations. Normally Hilary tried not to put himself too much into the foreground, but everyone else was trying to catch the legendary Iron Klaus's attention, so he gamely played along.
A few hours after the seminar, Hilary took a little AWOL leave, to sneak out and meet up with Father down by a park fountain in Camberley. The day had been rainy, but the weather had just cleared up, showing a radiant sun peaking forth in a sky full of dark clouds. A faint tension simmered in the air; making Hilary wonder if not the rain would return soon, hauling along thunder. Bonn, where he often visited, was a thunder nest, with bad weather bouncing back and forth across the Rhine valley. He found Father standing by the duck pond, in his usual strict military stance, hands behind his back. He stared at the ducks as if contemplating shooting them like on a carnival fair (Father was a great chaperone at Carnival Fairs. Hilary’s class always returned to school with the best prizes).
When Hilary came close enough, he let his toes scrape the ground for two steps, just to identify himself. Papa and he, both of them naturally light-footed in the literal sense of the expression, always did. They knew better than to sneak up on Father.
Then he and Father stood, side by side, studying the birds. In Hilary's expert opinion the fowls were... distinctly white.
"I still think you should have gone to the ILRRPS in Pfullendorf," Father said, without looking his way.
The over a decade old argument always made Hilary smile. He didn't even bother to reply, as he knew no answer was really expected. "Good to see you, Father. I trust that all is well with Papa?"
Some might have read Father's snort as "Who cares?", especially since the noise was followed by: "He's mad or English. Talked about the Danish royal palace when I left, I expect he's in over his curls again."
Hilary read both as more along the line of: "He might be mad and/or he might just be English, it doesn't matter, I'm prepared to help him if necessary," and nodded, making a mental note to keep an ear out for any news from Denmark. "Thanks for coming. It really made everyone's week."
He got another snort, this one falling somewhere between "They are all idiots," and "Well, you asked," and leaned a little to the side, to bump Father's arm with his shoulder.
"I'll be home for Christmas. Ah ... You haven't thought of anything he might want, yet, have you?"
For the first time, Father turned towards him and they shared identical looks of hopelessness. Neither had ever been good at shopping for Papa. "I was at Düsseldorf Airport," Father said with what few would realise was a hint of hesitation in his voice. "They had some sort of handbag, but they were actually for men, by one of those companies he likes, Gasnucki-Paletti or whatever. Do you think?"
Hilary saw the potential. "Do they it come in glittery?"
"I didn't see any."
He took after Father and Unca Bonham in being ruthlessly practical, so he just shrugged. "We have sequins. We have glue. We can make it glitter."
Father nodded. "Since he hasn't spoken of adopting another kid this year, I guess we'll go with that." There had been years when their wry jokes about simply adopting another kid for Dorian's birthday or for Christmas had seemed like an almost viable solution to their dilemma.
Then Father smiled at him: the small, private smile reserved for family. "I should go."
Hilary nodded. Father relaxed his stance and turned to move away. As he did he boxed Hilary in the shoulder. Not hard enough to hurt, but with enough strength for the touch to linger for a moment, in lieu of the hugs Father almost never felt comfortable enough to give.
Unfortunately, a civilian friend of one of Hilary's classmates had apparently seen the brief meeting and for two weeks Hilary endured gentle ribbing about having a love affair with Iron Klaus. He was even warned that Eroica would kill him if he tried anything.
When Hilary got his latest assignment, with the ARC, he hadn't mentioned the anomalies to Father and Papa. Lester knew the full story of his background, so he knew whom to contact if something happened (he also teased Hilary about giving him a tank to hunt the creatures with. Cruel man - Hilary had actually liked that idea!), but that was quite enough. You didn't speak of that type of work, not even to family. Father understood such things perfectly and would never hold it against him and Papa, well, let's just say that Hilary didn't want to wake up in a world where one day there had been a legendary robbing of the Louvre back in 17th century Paris.
The only thing he had ever told Father was when Connor and Abby had disappeared. "Bad mission. Two team-members. Casualties or POWs. No chance of retrieval. One of them was ... special to me." That had been another hug, which lasted for exactly as long as he needed it. Father understood such things as well.
In many parts of the world Eroica was legend - and that included both sides of the law. Not only was the gang among the best and most successful art thieves in modern history, they were also openly homosexual. Gay criminals often gravitated towards them, hoping to find a safe haven and a place to fit in. Getting in touch with the gang took some effort, of course, but those gay thieves were often eagerly palmed off to someone more accepting of them. So the Eroica gang received many applications, the majority sadly insufficient. Normally the team dismissed an application long before the seeker ever laid eyes on Castle Gloria or the legendary leader of the art thieves himself. Well, if the applicant was very cute, Dorian would sometimes deliver the application result in person, with consolations. Proper consolation had been known to take the whole night.
Needless to say, Hilary showing up out of the blue and literally on their doorstep disrupted the regular routine. There should have been tests, background searches, team meetings and evaluations. Of course, in the end Dorian always made the final decision and in the case of their latest stray, Dorian had made his decision almost instantly, without hesitation. He always claimed that he made some of his best decisions that way. Not everyone agreed with him.
Hilary still had to go through some tests, as much for form's sake as for the other gang members' amusement. Since he had made clear from the get-go that he wasn't a thief, they geared his tests towards protection and reflexes. He demonstrated his skill with various weapons, amused by their impressed ooohing and aaahing to what to Hilary was a perfectly ordinary training session. He sat in impromptu exams with John-Paul, who was in charge of the Security Detail. The questions troubled him not at all - of course, when Father hadn't been home his Uncas had taken turns teaching him everything they knew - including his Unca J-P.
So when Dorian announced, one bright morning at the breakfast table, that he had this darling little job lined up and that Danny Lester would be joining them, Hilary felt both relieved that he soon would be able to tell Papa the truth, but also a little regret that this nearly enchanted time might soon be over. They would break into Count Jusek's summer house in Leicester, where Dorian had, on a social visit, seen the most delightful statue of David, reclining after the battle, fully on par with that of Michelangelo's, but by a master unknown. Oh, and to make the theft really worth their while, they'd also take Count Jusek's Renoirs. "He called them his 'pink investments'!" Dorian nearly cried at the memory. "Why, they'd be better off if I gave them to Major von dem Eberbach!"
So the heist was planned. Hilary's role was limited to look-out duty, pack mule and providing basic security. This since the team was still unsure about him, which he could fully understand. He actually anticipated the trip. He had accompanied Papa on a heist before (to the Royal Artillery Museum, to pick up a father's day gift), but only once and then Father had put his foot down (though he did keep the small model tank they had stolen for him).
"The boy doesn’t want to be a thief, Dorian! And for God's sake, stop giving him grief about growing out his hair! If the boy wants to have short hair, let him!"
He had been young, though. He had gone on that heist mostly to make Papa happy. Thieving had seemed horribly boring and useless compared to joining the military and going on important missions all around the globe. Now he was older and missed the experience of quality time spend with Papa. Also, a successful heist would get Papa to trust him even more.
Four days prior to the heist he accompanied Unca Beck and Unca J-P, scouting the place. The operation target was a two-storey villa on the far outskirts of Leicester, a small hill property with a lovely view over a shallow valley. The Stillwater Farm had been utterly remodelled to top modern standard, though the stable had been left more or less intact. The Count kept three pureblood Arabs of the finest Polish bloodlines. The normally rather strict Unca J-P had waxed considerably lyrical about the mares. Apparently they were all show champions and to be bred to one of the top stallions in the nation. The Count only lived at the farm during some holidays and weekends. During the rest of the time only the stableman lived there, a Mr. Robert Fogden. Mr Fogden was also an artist who used his plentiful spare time holed up in the attic of the stable building, sculpting. He was also Hilary's responsibility to keep a look-out for and, if necessary, gas to sleep should the man, against expectations, venture out after midnight.
As usual, Dorian had announced that they would make the heist at midnight. He almost always did, Hilary knew well. There had been times, especially when away on missions, when he'd realised that it was midnight back home in England and had wondered what Papa was doing and if he'd read all about it in the papers the next day. Sometimes his team mates had wondered what he would suddenly smile at when reading Le Monde or Jyllands-Posten or the Los Angeles Times, but he had never told them what had just made his day.
Papa's desire for the dramatic entrances led to them, having arrived a full hour early to settle in the elaborate hedge labyrinth opposite the house, where they waited for midnight. Luckily, they had brought along a luxurious picnic, so they weren't exactly lost at sea. With the high hedges surrounding the inner part of the labyrinth they didn't even have to worry about Mr Fogden, or anyone else, spotting them. So there they sat, eating and keeping their voices down. There might have been some giggling and horse play but Mr Fogden would have had to pass right by them in order to hear, and they had posted guards for just that eventuality.
With five minutes to midnight, Hilary left the labyrinth to take over from Unca J-P as look-out at the edge of the yard. Up in the stable attic he saw light in the window and a moving shape, so he felt reasonably sure everything was under control. From his vantage point he would have plenty of time to see Mr. Fogden if the stableman decided on a midnight stroll.
Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach preferred to initiate his late operations at midnight, as that was the traditional time for surprise attacks. Also, contradictory, because most people knew that most operations traditionally began at midnight, few actually expected a surprise attack to begin at midnight, since "everyone" knew that to be the time when most people would be alert for an attack. So they weren't. Double bluff and you might bluff yourself, but all in all the strategy had proven successful for him in the past. All right, that whole stupid Achilles statue business and the cruiser ship had been a bit embarrassing, but not solely due to his timing. It had been the British dimwit's fault anyway.
His current mission forced him back to England, to some godforsaken little outskirt of nowhere, called Leicester (pronounced Lester by the natives, talk about lazy! No, give him good, solid, understandable names like Imgenbroich any day!).
NATO had received intelligence that one of Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnost's top agents had fled Russia and now holed up in some British poofter nobleman's summer estate, pretending to be artsy. Klaus had just known that the Brit would be the Lord of Gloria, the bane of his existence. To his complete and utter surprise, however, the summer house had turned out to belong to some other British aristocratic faggot. The country is teeming with them. At least this one isn't home, so I won't have another one panting after me.
The guy they were pursuing was supposed to have absconded with sensitive documents containing information regarding one of the European royal houses and, as usual, Klaus's high up superiors fawned over royalty as if they lived back in the medieval times. The entire thing was beyond stupid, but Klaus had his orders and a couple of years ago he had once been forced - at gunpoint, actually - to listen to a poem that, surprisingly, described his lot in life fairly well, something about an English army brigade receiving faulty orders for an attack, but that "Theirs not to reason why; Theirs but to do and die" and most of them had died, of course, stupid Brits, which Klaus had no intention of doing.
For the last couple of days, strangers had been reported to be loitering near the farm, so Fatso had given Klaus the go-ahead. He would have preferred more preparation time, but the set-up seemed simple enough. What was of more concern was that he only had nine Alphabets in tow. He usually took at least 13 along. Two men were on scheduled vacations (if at all possible, Klaus tried to get them to synchronise those stupid vacations of theirs, so that as few of them as possible would be away at any given week). Ten he had left in Bonn: five to mop up the latest mission and five to prepare for their next. Klaus liked to keep a certain roundabout to his missions, so that just as he got home from one the next was starting to warm up. Then four were out sick - influenza Doctor Turmer had claimed - Klaus privately thought that meant "the lazies".
Finally, G drove the rented bus. He had dropped them near the ex-farm and driven away as not to arouse suspicion by having the vehicle linger, in case some nosy neighbour called the cops or even warned the man they were set to capture.
They made their way towards the farm on foot. Sneaking up was child's play, as the road was walled with hedges, in that idiotic British custom that Klaus knew in his heart of hearts must be intended as a way of culling the worst of the British drivers as yearly more people must die in traffic than from household accidents.
Thank God for the Autobahn.
Up in his room at Stillwater Farm, Robert Fogden, formerly of the KGB, was hard at work, sculpting with a passion. His latest masterpiece he had entitled "The Kremlin Letter", after a movie he had seen while lying low in a safehouse in Indonesia and which had forever changed his life. Considering the midnight hour he probably should be firmly asleep, but there were two things keeping him up. First, the night itself. It was lovely, one of the few in England neither too hot nor too cold to thoroughly enjoy being awake in, and as such a lovely opportunity get some creative juices flowing. And, second of all, he was expecting company.
It would have been amusing if he had known that Eroica intended to rob the farm of his employer, but truth be told he had only ever heard the name in passing, as part of the punch line of a rather crude joke that the Lime-Green Beaver had told him.
Almost equally amusing would have been if he had known that NATO intended to bash the place to find out his secrets, but while he, of course, knew of Iron Klaus, the last he had heard of Major von dem Eberbach had been as the other part of the Lime-Green Beaver's joke. It had been a funny joke, though.
Nor was he waiting for a lover, a casual acquaintance or even what most people would call a friend.
NATO does their best with the information given to them, but they are forced to rely on others to provide them with said information and sometimes the information was, not to put too fine a point on it, wrong. Robert Fogden, nee Sergey Devyatayev, was no former KGB agent. He was a KGB mole, setting up a long-time undercover identity. And he was meeting up with his contact man. At a time convenient for both of them. At midnight.
The narrow road leading up to the house was walled with thick, high hedges. A steep turn to the right led to the main-level building. The labyrinth was furthest to the left, with the horse yard to the right, followed by the stable and the garage. Klaus spread the Alphabet evenly from the house around the garage and the stable to the edge of the yard.
With A down with a rather nasty variation of the influenza, B found himself posted at the front of the row, at the house. He had just received C's signal that Major von dem Eberbach was in a position to enter, when he noticed movement within the building.
He took a neat step back until he saw C's shadow, then raised his arm. When C raised his arm in turn B signalled: ~Intruder. Alert Major. Gather!~
At once C turned away and raised his arm, waving at K, who was next in line. B knew that within seconds the message would have spread down the line, Alphabet to Alphabet.
Once C had passed on the brief hand gestures, he began sneaking up to B's position.
Hilary moved silently around the house to his position by the stable. There he let himself blend into the night. As usual he wore black, so joining the shadows took little effort. He stood there, keeping an eye out, but also enjoying the evening, the stars above and the moon. It nearly gave him a heart attack when a hand rose in the darkness. He wasn't all alone after all.
He dropped the stock of his Mossberg to his left hand to signal Unca J-P with his right. Then he recognized the code from the far left of the stranger hiding near him: ~Intruder. Alert Major. Gather.~ The surprise nearly made him drop his gun.
Not only did he recognize the code, but the silhouette of the stranger now rapidly moving away was unmistakable! Unca J! The implications and conclusions shot through Hilary like lightning. Unca J. The Alphabet. Father! Mission! The farm house! A heist! Papa! The gang!
With crystal clarity he remembered the final heist planning session. While he hadn't participated in more than one heist personally before this one, and a long time ago at that, he had often sat in on planning sessions and there had been something missing from the last session! He had known it, he just hadn't been able to put his finger on what hadn't been said or dealt with or not done properly.
It was so obvious now that he could have kicked himself! The ritual "And where is Major von dem Eberbach?"-query! No one had asked where Father was! And in the same instance he realised that exactly situations such as this were what had prompted the ritual question to begin with!
His entire thought process took less then a breath. Then he frantically signalled Unca J-P: ~Problem. Major.~
Unca J-P saw him, but held out his arms in question, followed by: ~Repeat.~
Again Unca J-P signalled his incomprehension. With a sinking feeling Hilary realised that the group hadn't even incorporated the sign for Major - a fist turned to a pistol by putting up index and long finger - into their common sign language, yet. Torn by indecision, he finally rushed headlong up the shadowed side of the yard, as Unca J-P came towards him, looking as pissed off as Hilary had ever seen him.
"Major von dem Eberbach," Hilary hissed as soon as they were within hearing distance. "I saw an Alphabet. They're circling in that direction. I think they spotted us."
Unca J-P said his favourite bad word, followed by "Stay! Don't worry if you hear shouting. The Major never kills his Lordship. We must keep Mr. Fogden out of this. I'll alert the others. Good sign you used, by the way."
Then Unca J-P rushed off. Hilary sneaked back to his look-out point. A small part of him worried that he'd created a miniature time loop with the sign, but for most part he felt nearly giddy with the knowledge that he would soon get to see the younger version of Father.
Klaus had left Agent J at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the stable attic. The stable had no less than five exits - two to the right, one to the left and then through the garage at the end. Madness - and something that had cost him too many Alphabets to keep proper track. On the other hand, he did prefer to go in by himself. That way he'd at least not have any Alphabets to trip over or accidentally shoot their target before they could get the poor SOB to spill his secrets.
He sneaked up the stairs, taking the careful, measured steps of a man who knew exactly how stairs could make noises, but also how to best avoid them. In fact, Count Jusek's sister, Anna-Bella, who often complained about the stairs, would have been shocked at the silence in which he ascended.
Hilary waited, nearly shivering with eagerness to see young!Father. He heard movement on the opposite side of the yard and flicked his eyes in that direction. An Alphabet or one of Papa's men? Perhaps even Father? But the movements were wrong somehow, sneaking among the shadows, too stilted to be one of Papa's men, yet too elegant to be an Alphabet. Except possibly Unca G, though too long for the latter. Strange.
Magnum in hand, Klaus leaned forward. He had reached high enough on the stairs to see part of the attic. There was a hallway to the right and a door, standing slightly ajar. From within he heard faint noises. Distributing his weight equally he smoothly shifted higher until he reached the top and across the small hall between the top of the stairs and the room. Then he went in.
The target promptly dropped something, which broke on the floor - Klaus didn't bother to check what it was. "Hands up! Now! On the floor! Belly down! Hands on your head!"
Hilary saw a trench-coated man cross the yard and enter the stable. He looked around, beginning to seriously worry.
Where is everyone? Surely not all Alphabets can have left? That would be really stupid. Um.
For a quarter of a second he debated with himself, then jumped into the horseyard and rushed through, vaulting over the fence to get to the other side.
On S's heels came J, the last in the chain. He came up close to B and whispered: "I couldn't stop the major from going up, he was already on his way."
B felt himself wishing A had been there, he really was rubbish as stand-in 2iC. "Idiot! You should have stayed with him! He needs backup! S, T, M, P - back to the stable! You others, spread out, we need to find out what's going on in the house."
Klaus seethed with rage. How the fuck had this colossal fuck-up happened? And it was all his own fucking fault. I'm such an incompetent idiot!
"As I live and breathe," the newcomer said in Moscow-accented Russian. He held Klaus at gunpoint with a rather impressive revolver. "Major von dem Eberbach. Sergey, you okay?"
Were all the Alphabets dead? They must be. Or taken out of the game by superior manpower. Scheisse!
"I am fine. Eberbach? Iron Klaus?"
And he’d been so sure that the Alphabets had control of the situation that he'd turned his back on the door, just for a second, just to pocket the Russian’s gun! Rattenkacke!
"Yes! Mischa is going to love this! Promotion, Sergey, for sure!"
He would never have made such a stupid, idiotic rookie mistake if he hadn't been 100 percent sure that he had left J downstairs just seconds ago and that his team had the farm surrounded. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
"Well, we must get him out of here. Should we just shoot him? Those Alphabets of his are all here, spread out over the farm. Half were rushing to join the other half by the house just before I snuck in."
Oh, wonderful. Not only had he been captured by Russians. He had been captured by Russians who couldn't even count! And he'd flay every one of the Alphabets, no matter what those hen-brains thought they'd been doing. Fuck Alaska. As stupid as he himself had been, perhaps they all deserved to go to Siberia!
He recognised the other man as Piotr Gervis, a.k.a. the Lime-Green Beaver (Klaus had long since been convinced that the Russians got their nickname from someone's six-year-old daughter, who thought up random colour - animal combinations, possibly based on her favourite toys). As the Ruskies continued to bicker, Klaus suddenly heard a noise. Oh so very faint, like a nail brushing over wood, not scratching, merely touching. So he was well prepared when a shadow moved just outside the room and a hand became barely visible to his excellent night vision.
Maybe they're not completely worthless after all, he decided, even if I still deserve Alaska for this.
~Distract,~ the hand signalled. ~I. Circle.~
"Da," Klaus answered, both to the hand and to the Ruskies. He continued in fluent Russian. "The old bear-cub would be pleased. Tell me, is Dostojevsky still out to make an honest man of him? I didn't think that Mother Russia allowed homosexuals to get married."
As distractions go, it worked fairly well, to make them splutter and concentrate fully on him, and not see the ... distinctly not-Alphabet-looking young man, in tight black and carrying a very nice rifle, who circled them without as much as a creak from the tricky wooden floor. Very nice, very effective, and by the time they did see him, well ... some people would argue about anything, but say what you wanted about a combat rifle, the probability of hitting a man-sized target with one was superior to all other weapons, a fact most people tended to remember. Klaus relied on his own skill to even out any odds, but yes, for sheer intimidation a big black Mossberg was a nice choice.
Since he had no clue to his saviour's identity Klaus quickly retrieved his Magnum and aimed it at the Russians as well. If the man indeed was a saviour and this was not a classic Russian bluff to insinuate the young man into Klaus's good graces, always a popular ruse. From outside he heard footsteps rushing towards the stable.
"Who're you with?" he asked the black-clad man. M16? ASIS? SUPO? Mossad? CESIS? CIA? The possibilities were nearly endless.
The answer he received, however, had never even made the list. "I'm with Eroica."
Hilary only barely controlled his urge to bump shoulders with Father and forced himself to keep his smile to a minimum.
Father looked good! Hair a little shorter than he had worn it lately and he had his old Auto Mag, which nowadays made less frequent appearances, as Father now preferred a Desert Eagle. His tie was obviously one Papa hadn't picked out for him. Father on a mission always seemed larger than life, as if he puffed himself up or perhaps there was something about his constant alertness and awareness of his surroundings that extended from him like some sort of mental force field, which was less obvious when he was at home. Oh, the near-magnetic presence never fully retreated, but it definitely withdrew just a little, like a big cat playing gently with its cubs.
Father looks good, even if he is aiming at me.
Not that this was the first time Father had aimed at him. There had been that time in Bolivia, before they had recognized one another. And Peru, four days later, also before they had recognized each other. And the next year, in Rome. Father had decided that Hilary had inherited Papa's ability of stumbling into Father's missions. And truth be told, Hilary never seemed to stumble into Papa's heists, so perhaps there was some truth in that. When going on a mission (at least prior to joining the ARC, which kept him mostly in England, or whatever the corresponding land mass of the time was called), Hilary had started texting Father from the air fields. "OR Tambo International?" he would text and Father would reply "22:30. Johannesburg Ritz, table in the name of Roth-Ruhm."
This was, however, the first time Father had aimed at him while not instantly recognising him.
"Eroica?" Father said, as if the word left a bad taste in his mouth. "Tell me that's some mad abbreviation they've come up with just to annoy me. European Reconnaissance Organised International Crime Agency or fucking whatever?"
Hilary gave Father an apologetic shrug. "'fraid not. No one checked where you'd be tonight and apparently Count Jusek has some paintings and a statue he wanted."
Father shook his head, dismissively, his sharp eyes narrow with distrust. "You're not one of the fop's men."
"I'm new. Hi-- Hi!" He had almost said his name, only managing to save the situation at the last second. Oh, that sounded stupid. "Danny Lester. I'm working security." He suddenly remembered Father's little scam at the orphanage and added with a smile: "You could say I'm his bodyguard."
One of the Russians took a small step sideways and Hilary growled at them: "Oy! Stay still! He might have a gun on me, but I still have one on you and this isn't some bloody Mexican standoff. He'll let me shoot you if you try anything!"
"Absolutely," Father agreed. "Feel free. But you're not one of his frippery-loving shirt lifters. You even know sign language and you can use a decent gun. Who're you with?"
"I used to be with an abbreviation agency, in a different life. But I left for greener pastures and then I left the green pastures and now I'm with Eroica." He heard steps rushing up the stairs. "He's by the house. Ask him."
Ask Klaus did, once the Russians had been bundled up and Eroica had fawned over him for five seconds. I.e.:
"Oh, my poor darling, I had no idea--"
"Who? Oh, that's Danny Lester."
"Where's he from?"
"Italy. Now, never mind dear Danny, do you need the kiss of life or some--"
"No! Where in Italy?"
"Oh, really? Klaus, how sweet! I do believe you're jealous!"
"I'm not bloody jealous! He looks familiar. I think he might be an undercover enemy spy. Answer my question!"
"To you, gorgeous, my answer is always 'yes'. But don't you worry, you're the only gun-toting machine maniac I've ever wanted! Now come here and let us kiss, like we both know that we want!"
Obviously, the conversation had gone rather south after that. Sometimes Klaus would be willing to swear that Eroica was bug nuts and hearing voices that just happened to vaguely coincide with whatever Klaus said. At least that would be a logical explanation.
But he needed to know. Not because he was jealous! Not a chance in hell! It was just that something about the stranger, calling himself Danny Lester, bugged him. There was something very familiar in his stance and his eyes, even the way he handled his weapon. Normally such small clues quickly added up in Klaus's well-organised, highly trained brain, swiftly spitting up a name or a circumstance where he had read or seen or heard something. For once, however, his brain refused to provide him with any clue to the mystery man's familiarity.
Then Eroica's hand was suddenly on his hip and he reacted instinctively, punching the fop hard. Then he turned and marched away.
Hilary almost cried out at the sight. He felt shocked to his bones. Yes, sure, he had heard the stories, of course, but to see Father actually hit Papa! It just seemed unthinkable, even if the hit hadn't been anywhere near hard enough to cause damage. Papa was already on his way up, mostly intent on brushing the hay and dust off his midnight black, silver-glittering outfit.
Hilary rushed after Father and caught up with him in the yard. "Take it up with someone your own size!" he yelled at the retreating back.
Father whirled, green eyes shimmering dangerously and for the first time ever, Hilary felt a little frisson of fright at his father. "Hitting those smaller than yourself is for bullies," he shouted, not backing down.
A couple of long steps brought the Major back to him. "And you think you're my size, twerp? He's taller than you are."
Hilary shook his head. "We have training. He doesn't. I don't want to fight you either. Hey, you don't owe me a thing, but so what if the guy loves you? What, wanna sew a pink triangle on his chest?" So, live twenty years with a guy, you learn how to push his buttons.
"That! Is not the same fucking thing!" Father's German accent bled through, like it only ever did when he wanted to emphasize something or when he was pissed enough to use it as a warning. Not that it ever worked on Hilary, who found the short, hard tones soothing - it had taken him forever to realise when watching the telly that a German accent was often used in spy movies as a clue that the man would be the bad guy at the end.
Hilary switched to fluent German. "You beat him up because he loves you, you might as well start to do shit like that!" Father was near enough that he knew he'd have to start backing off soon.
"Fucking hell it is!"
"If I was your so-- friend I'd be ashamed of you!" he growled back.
"Homosexuality is unnatural and shameful!"
"You only have to feel shame if you hide something!" Hilary retorted, then went back to English. "And everything a man does is manly!" In English because Father had told him that once, in English. "The man I respect most in the entire world told me that."
Actually, not long after he was adopted he had hinted heavily to his parents that he really would like to change his first name to something less likely to get him teased in school. Papa had been singularly not understanding in the matter. Father hadn't really been what you might call understanding either, at least not in so far that he agreed to an easy solution.
"Everything a man says or does is manly," Father had said firmly. "Including what he is called." Then he had hesitated, just for a second. "They used to call me Taterbach, until I convinced them to stop. I will teach you to fight better than any other boy in your school."
Which he had and Hilary's school mates had stopped teasing him rather quickly after that. And Hilary never forgot the words.
This time, though, Father just snorted contemptuously and scowled at him. Hilary recognized the latter as Father's "I really want to fight about this, but I have something more important I must talk about"-scowl. So he wasn't surprised when what Father said next was completely unrelated to their previous conversation. "That gun of yours. Nice. I haven't seen that type, what's it called?"
"It's a Mossberg," Hilary answered blithely and waited. Just a second before Father would yell that of course he could see that, he was not a total idiot and he wasn't blind either, he added: "It's an experimental piece, a new line they're testing out. And a custom job." Both facts actually true, even if the piece had since then gone into production, just not for some years yet.
Father still looked suspicious, but then he grunted, nodded and left. Hilary clutched his rifle to his chest as he watched the well-known silhouette move away.
"Thanks for defending my honour, my gallant warrior," Papa said from just behind him. The voice didn't startle Hilary, so on some level he must have been aware of the presence.
"No problem," he said. "Did you get that statue you wanted?"
"Hmm? Oh, yes, certainly. Charming. Say ... He thinks you might not be who you say you are."
Hilary smiled fondly. "It would surprise me if he trusts anyone to be who they say they are."
Papa laughed, then rounded him and looked down at him with a warm smile. "True. I suppose that's healthy for a spy master. But he'll have your background researched, to see if you are trying to infiltrate my gang for some nefarious purpose. He claims he doesn't care about me, but he can be oddly protective that way. And, you know, I do think he's just a bit jealous of you!" The notion made his blue eyes sparkle with mirth and Hilary found himself smiling even wider in response.
"Good. Might get him to consider what he might be missing. So ... You want to know if I have my background in order?" Which he hadn't. In the least. Not one little bit of it.
The warm, beautiful smile never wavered. "Not really, Danny Lester. I doubt he could find more on you than I could. Well, than Bonham could. Bonham has researched you as thoroughly as he was able. He found nothing. Quite a mystery. Furthermore, I called dear Gian-Maria and then Gian-Maria researched you too. You didn't leave us much to go on, I dare say, but what you did say fits no one we can find. And Gian-Maria really should be able to find out, shouldn't he? He doesn't have all that many relatives. Even if I assume that Danny Lester isn't your real name."
And then a safety was clicked back, just next to Hilary's ear.
"Don't get me wrong," Papa said and shrugged gracefully, faint light sparkling in the metal in his costume. "I do like you, you're a very ... likeable man. And I am most grateful that you saved my dear Klaus's life."
"He would have gotten out of it," Hilary replied, certain of that as he was of the calibre of his Mossberg.
"Yes," Papa acknowledged with a proud smile. "But still. Thank you. However ... I need to know who you are. Many of us have shady pasts and I don't mind if you want to keep secrets, Danny. However, you've lied to me." His smile slowly diminished. "That I don't like. That makes me suspicious. I took you out on this heist to see what would happen. It went well, all things considered. But I must know more now."
Hilary bent his neck for a moment and then took a deep breath, nodding his understanding. "You're right. I've been thinking about telling you the truth anyway. Um, any chance we can do this just the two of us?"
"I have no secrets from Bonham."
Ah, so that was who was behind him. Fair enough. He didn't have any secrets from his Unca Bonham either.
"Right. Well ... No, Danny Lester isn't my real name. Danny ... is a friend of mine, he's ... I don't know where he is right now." Or when. "And Lester is my boss, but seriously not because I'm spying on you or Fa-- on Major von dem Eberbach. Hand on my heart on that one. My real name is ..." He hesitated and decided not to go with the long version of his name, as Captain Hilary James Becker Red-von dem Eberbach, the Honourable Lord Red was quite a mouthful and he rather thought he still would kind of need to lead up to that part of the story a little. "Becker. Hilary Becker."
Papa's eyes widened dramatically. "Hilar ... y. Hilary. Hilary Becker?"
Hilary nodded, wondering what had suddenly made Papa react so. And there had been something about the way Papa said the first name, drawn out, as if not hearing it at first, more like ... tasting the word.
"You're sure?" Papa then asked, his voice slow. "Hilary Becker?"
Okay, that was a strange question. Or did Papa think he was still lying about his name? "Cross my heart and hope to make Mona-Lisa cry," he offered.
That made Papa smile again. Hilary rejoiced at the lovely sight. Then Papa slowly nodded. "Well, I-- Ah ... Bonham, that's fine, we don't need that. I ... Let's go home, now. We need to talk, but we need to talk at home. Da-- Hilary Becker, come with me. We'll take the 'ghini. Bonham, no, I'll be fine, don't worry. I know what I'm doing, I'll be safe. Trust me. Clean things up and I'll meet you back home. Give the good Major my love before he leaves, if you dare."
Intrigued, Hilary wasn't about to protest. Odd, though, he thought. Very odd.
Dorian made the drive from Leicester to North Downs in little over half the time most people would estimate for the distance. Some might say that he drove like a car thief. Hilary agreed. Of course, Hilary had never understood why most people seem to use that expression as something negative. Most car thieves he'd met - Unca Beck, foremost, who had driven him to school on any number of mornings - were among the best drivers in the world. Hilary just leaned back in the comfy seat and enjoyed the drive.
He would have enjoyed the trip even more if Papa hadn't stayed uncharacteristically silent. With Father, Hilary would have never thought of such a thing. He and Father could be silent together, just sharing a safe space and with no need to exchange spoken words. Papa, on the other hand, used words to be sure all was well. Luckily he didn't need more than a little encouragement occasionally to keep talking. Father and Hilary could keep him calm for hours by occasionally humming and making vaguely agreeing noises, especially when he was talking about art. After the infamous Disneyworld incident, though, both were careful to actually listen to what he said as not to find that they had agreed to something bizarre by complete accident.
But during this ride, Papa kept quiet, which was enough to make Hilary just a tiny bit nervous. He tried to ask, but was waved away and told just that they would talk back in the castle. In the end he contented himself with sitting there, letting the hum of the powerful engine lull him into a state of near-sleep.
Back at the North Downs castle, Papa led the way inside, waving away Beck, who had stayed there on account of having a cold.
"For a while I thought it was him, you know," Papa said and nodded towards Beck, who was walking away from them.
"Hm? What do you mean?"
By then Papa had started up the stairs. Hilary hurried to catch up with him, wondering where they were going.
"Beck. I thought it might be him. I only thought so briefly, though. It was always so vague, you understand."
"Ah ... No? I'm afraid I don't understand."
"Just a minute. You, ah ... are not afraid of heights, are you? You can climb?"
He had to laugh at that. "Of course I can."
Like most boys he had loved to climb all over the house and the trees at the orphanage - and on coming home with Father and Papa he had had an entire castle to climb over - and plenty of Uncas who loved to practice scaling and never said no to a quick game of "Over the Wall, NATO's Coming!" Even Father and he had played "Find The Best Vantage Point" and "Sniper Hideout" now and then. But best of all - to climb with Papa, who knew everything there ever was about shifting your weight over uneven, slippery surfaces; how to slip down a rope without ripping your hands; how to support your full weight when hanging in one hand only and just how to throw a grappling hook.
"Good. Come here, then."
They had reached the castle's third level in the South tower. In the future that was where Papa's treasure cabinet stood, with the really important things, like Father's awards and Hilary's Sword of Honour. As it was, it looked strangely bare. Papa had opened the window, the one with Hilary's favourite "Reclining knight"-mosaic, the one he thought looked a lot like Father, though Papa had made him swear never to mention that in company of the man in question.
Papa stepped up on the window ledge and then moved out of sight. Hilary quickly stretched his arms and fingers, then hopped up and leaned out. Papa had already reached the southwest corner and was climbing up. Hilary followed, not a little intrigued. He tried to remember if they had ever climbed that side of the tower together before and he thought they might not have. A fact interesting in itself, since they had been up and down the castle walls pretty much like white on rice.
Papa had stopped just under the roof and was doing something - the darkness didn't let Hilary see what. Then there was a click and a scraping sound and ... "Oh! A secret room!"
The castle had plenty of them. Father had used the word "teeming" and Hilary tended to agree. Had any child ever had a better playground?
Papa vanished through a newly opened square in the wall. Hilary eagerly climbed in after him, calculating how large a secret room he could expect to find. What he came up with didn't leave much space to speak of, so when he entered he was surprised to find a good-sized pocket within, large enough for a small table and the two of them.
Strange, I must measure later. This feels too big to be possible. I should have suspected something earlier.
Papa and he had played "Find The Secret Room" all over the castle and he had thought that he must have found or been introduced to most hidden rooms already.
Or was the castle altered since? The trophy case does go into the wall.
There was a click and instantly light flooded the room from a flashlight which must have lain somewhere in the room, maybe on the table. Left on the latter stood one object only: a skilfully built wooden mosaic box with a pattern formed from at least six different types of wood. Birch and walnut and ash and various others came together to form a sleek three-master, with the silhouette of a bird on the sails, wings spread. An eagle? No, the wings weren't quite so square as an eagle's, a bit sharper, more like a ....
"Is that El Halcon?"
"Yes. Though I understand the box was made several years later, after she ... Well ... You know the story?"
He nodded. "I do, yes. Tragic, really. A great shame. What's in the box?"
"Then you know Luminous Red Benedict as well, yes? Luminous had this box made. It's a family heirloom."
One you never told me about? Hilary felt oddly betrayed, but the rational, adult side of him knew that Papa must have had some reason. "Yes, I know of him. Very nice box. Worth a pretty penny, with that provenance. What's inside?"
Papa sighed delicately. "I don't know. It's locked. And I ... never opened it."
Which ... sounded just plain wrong, not to say nearly impossible. If Hilary knew anything about his Papa, it was this: any object left locked in his vicinity would rapidly transform to its unlocked state. Hilary had often suspected the condition to be partly psychological, some form of kleptomania, but he was no expert. All he knew was that locks made Papa's fingers itch.
"But why not?" he asked, shaking his head in disbelief. "The lock looks like child's play. I would have thought you could do it with your toes. Are there acid capsules inside or something? A triggered enigma, maybe?"
Papa smiled a little, but also shook his head. "No. Not as far as I know. I doubt it. Well, I'll explain. You know the story of Luminous and, I presume, the Red family and our tendency of leaning towards, ah, let's say ... situational ethics."
Such as in "But I want it best, so I will make it mine", yes. Hilary knew. He was also aware of that this might not be what everyone would call completely "right" either. However, he had been firmly raised on a mixed message. Laws were there for a good, solid reason and must be upheld at all costs. But do go right ahead and break them if you really feel you should. If you are prepared to pay the price agreed upon by society for doing so, yeah. Well, if you are terribly careless and get caught, of course - so, don't get caught. But if you do get caught, you do know who to call. Living with Father and Papa sometimes raised headache-inducing differences in opinions, which was why Hilary had early on learned to go with the flow and to incorporate two seemingly opposite statements and make both work flawlessly together without thinking too closely about things.
"Sure, I know."
"To put it bluntly, we are thieves. Some of the best in the world, if I do say so myself, but still thieves. I don't know if you've heard, but I've even broken into the very Vatican itself."
Hilary nodded. He'd heard the story a million times. "You kiss-bombed St. Peter's Square, stole the Pope and then you got arrested and declared your love for Fa-- Ah, for Major von dem Eberbach and then Un-- Um. Gian-Maria Volovolonte tried to rescue you, only you ran away and then you were kicked out of a plane by ..." He only barely caught himself from stumbling over another slip of the tongue. "Major von dem Eberbach."
Papa laughed gaily. "You do know the story. Excellent. It has nothing at all to do with this, of course, apart from proving a point I'm about to make. Breaking into any safe or stronghold in the world is one thing, but there is one thing no Red would ever steal and that is--"
"--trust when given by family or friend. Both are too precious to risk." Papa had taught him that. Not the family motto, perhaps, but close enough.
The right answer earned him a bright smile. "Exactly! Luminous gave this to his descendants to hold in trust, with instructions never to open the box. Do you know what's inside?"
Feeling a bit confused, Hilary shook his head. "Of course not. How could I, if you don't even know?"
Holding the flashlight with his left hand, Papa reached for the box with his right. Instead of lifting it, he retrieved something from beneath, something Hilary hadn't even noticed. He focused on the new object - a parchment, stained and yellowed with age. Blank, or so he thought until Papa held it up, aiming the flashlight to illuminate the short message.
Keep It Safe And Do Not Open.|
For Hilary Becker-Red, On His Return.
Luminous Red Benedict
Quod volumus capemus
At the sight of the stylish calligraphy, a chill tickled down Hilary's spine.
"I'm thinking," Papa said, his voice a bit hesitant, "that there can't be many Hilary Beckers out there. Can there? Hilary ... Becker ... Red?"
Hilary swallowed a fist-sized lump in his throat and gently brushed a fingertip over the dry parchment before him. "That's ... No, that's ... me."
"And there has never been a Hilary in our family tree. We actively chose never to name a son - or a daughter - that. We were waiting for the ... Well, we call it the family prophesy. Or the Luminous-pulling-our-leg-joke, but ... You're a ..." He hesitated until Hilary looked up and into Papa's beautiful, blue eyes, which shimmered incredibly, as if they caught every speck of illumination from the flashlight - or if perhaps he was close to crying. "A ... descendant ... of ... ours?" he asked, in a hopeful, eager tone. "Of ... mine?"
Breathing was suddenly difficult, as if something squeezed his lungs together. Hilary could barely nod.
Papa continued haltingly: "I was ... We were ... considering. Of course. The. Possibilities. Why Luminous would write that. Why he would instruct the family to keep the box, yet never open it. If it was a ... joke. Or ... But you're here!" Papa suddenly laughed, his incredible, beautiful, happy laughter: the one that was totally impossible to resist and Hilary found himself smiling so widely he must look silly. "You're here! You're really, finally here!"
He nodded again. "Yeah," he managed. "Yes. I ... God ..." He suddenly found himself laughing too and he remembered a quote of Connor's - at least he thought it was a quote ... "Let's do the time warp," he said, nearly giggling, "again."
Papa stopped laughing, but he still smiled widely and the corners of his lips shivered, as if the laughter lurked just behind them. "You're from ... the future, then?"
He nodded. "Yes. I can't tell you about it, though!" he hurried to add. "It's not ... safe. I think. Paradoxes ..." He shook his head in warning. "Things. I can't ..."
Papa looked a hint wistful, but nodded firmly. "I understand. That's fine. I ... thought as much too. If Hilary Becker-Red ever came back to claim the box, he would probably be from the future as, again, we never named our sons - or daughters - that. Yet. And if he was from the future, well, I've read of what could happen if the past were changed. Trampled-on butterflies and whatnot. But never mind that, now. Oooh, the box! Can you open it? Now?" He sounded just as eager as he always did on any birthday or Christmas and if Hilary had doubted Papa's ability to keep his itching fingers away from Luminous's box, he believed him now.
"I could," he said and nodded, his decision made easily, without the least hesitation. "But I really would like for you to do it for me."
The look he received was utterly priceless and he felt certain that - unless he had made too big of a mess of the past - he could, if he ever got back to the present, claim this as a very early exchange for Papa's next birthday. Even if the box didn't glitter.
"Go ahead," he encouraged, nodding invitingly. "I really have no clue what's in there and I really want to know too."
He didn't even see Papa reach for his pocket, but suddenly Papa held his lock picks. His favourite ones, Hilary noted, the ones Father had later stolen for their fifteenth anniversary and had had adorned by a line of boar trotters' prints in diamond shards. Papa fairly shivered from excitement, the tiny shifts making the faint light glitter in his hair. By the way he nearly glowed with joy, Hilary mentally ticked off that he could probably mess up both a birthday and a Christmas before he had to drag out the sequins and the glue again.
"Are you quite sure I may open it ?" Papa asked, his eyes wide. "I mean, I want to! Only ..."
"I'm sure," he assured. "Go ahead. I know you've been wanting to. I don't mind at all. Do it."
The lock really was child's play. Papa spent all of five seconds opening it before a faint click signalled the turn of a tumbler within. Hilary nearly laughed again as he could see Papa's long fingers shiver as he slowly lifted the lid. Not that Hilary didn't feel a bubbling excitement himself and he hadn't waited for this moment for years as Papa had.
And then he could see inside and it felt like a fist below the belt.
Papa made a disappointed mew. "I thought for sure it would be diamonds. Or maybe a diary with really raunchy material. Mind you, exactly why Luminous would give you those things I'm not sure, but I don't even know what that thing is. A gadget thingamajig?"
Hilary hardly heard the words. When he reached out, his hand shook just as much as Papa's had, as he took the object.
"Yes," he then said, as Papa's question caught up with him. "A gadget thingamajig that will take me back home again."
Papa immediately crowded him, staring at the black apparatus. "How?" he asked.
"I've never seen one this ... sophisticated before. It ... I can't explain in detail, but it will detect where there are these kind of holes in time through which I can go home." As he explained he lifted the other object from the box, a small, hand-written note, yellowed by time. He recognized the handwriting as Connor's chicken scratches.
The instructions were simple.
|All settings set. Thumb recognition, then GO. <3 - C|
He turned the detector over again and noticed that, yes, one difference from the device he had seen before, was a big button labelled, simply, "GO". There was also a field with the shadowed outlining of a fingerprint.
"And then what?" Papa asked. "Oh, and can you go to other times, to any time period you want? Any year you want? And what does that 3-thingy mean?"
Like to the 17th century Paris? Or Florence in the early 1500ths? Oh yes, Mona Lisa would look so much better with curly blond hair, wouldn't she? Hilary thought with affection and blithely lied: "No, I can't change times on it." Actually, he wasn't sure he could even if he had wanted to, he left that stuff to the tech experts. "See what it says? All settings set. They programmed it for me, to go home to, well ... my time." The "smaller than three"-thing - actually, when he had first seen that, he hadn't known what it meant either, it had taken weeks before he realised, and, when he did, he had felt acutely embarrassed that he hadn't figured out the meaning at once. Now he didn't feel the least bit embarrassed, only ... confused, yet very hopeful, nearly elated.
"Oh, drat. Oh well. So, ah ... Hilary Becker-Red ..." Papa suddenly sounded sad, plaintive even. "You will be leaving now, then, will you?"
Hilary looked at Papa and then something in his gut twisted, hard. "I ..." Oh this is silly! I'll go home and then I can call him within the hour - almost be home in that time too. He had his own apartment near the ARC, but on his days off he often went home to visit. Um ... If I come home, that is, and don't end up in the Middle Palaeolithic. Again. But be things as they might, he trusted Connor. If Connor said it was just to press "GO", then "GO" would do the trick. Hopefully. He'd be home. With Papa. Just not with ... this Papa ...
"May I hug you?" he blurted out, needing some physical connection between them.
And instantly arms unfurled, as if Papa had waited eagerly for just such an invitation. Then Papa's long, strong arms were around him. Second-best to Father's embrace, maybe, but only due to the rareness of Father's hugs, not due to any less affection or warmth or sense of belonging. Hilary answered in turn as best as he could, breathing in the familiar scent and storing it to memory.
"I say, hold on a minute!" Papa suddenly blurted and leaned back - not letting go, merely creating a little space between them in which to talk. "If you're a Red," he asked, his voice filled with outrage, "how can you be demonically straight?!"
Hilary found himself actually stifling a giggle. "I'm adopted," he explained. "That's where the Becker-part comes in. And ... well ... Maybe that straightness isn't quite, you know, 100 percent." Especially if Connor had just signed that note with a heart.
"Oh, thank the Lord! Ah ..." Papa stared him deep in the eyes. "I've been thinking, all since you came here, that there was, ah, something ... familiar about you. Klaus said so to me as well. He thought he had seen you somewhere. Of course, he thinks you're a Russian or an American or something like that: that he's seen you in one of his case files or something. Call me crazy, but I ... After I saw you together I thought, I thought you'd be too old to be a son of Klaus, but I thought maybe a cousin or a half-brother or something. But later, I ... was thinking about that too, in the car, when we drove here. If you really were, ah ... Luminous's Hilary Becker-Red, if you were a ... descendant of, well ... mine. If. You do remind me, ah, of me. Too. Some. But, ah ..." He shrugged a little helplessly and Hilary could hear the little frustrated noise that crept into his tone when he couldn't quite formulate what he wanted to say. "You remind me of, ah ... Klaus too. And you nearly called him something else at least twice that I heard. And ... The way you smiled at me. How ... How far into the future are you from? Actually?"
Hilary had always disliked lying to Papa. Oh, he could do it, he just didn't like doing so. Father could take being lied to, if it was for a good cause (in good causes Neo-Nazis and Russians were frequently involved, but also such things as avoiding Unca James and not being subjected to shopping), but while Papa lied fluently to anyone he wanted to deceive, he had a distressing tendency to take being lied to very personally, especially from his immediate family. Not to mention that he had lied enough to young!Papa since this mess started. He found he didn't want to lie any more.
So he pressed himself hard into Papa's embrace and whispered the truth into the curly, lavender-scented hair. "I'm yours," he said. "You'll adopt me about ten years from now. In August of 1990. In Bristol."
Papa made a sound that was almost a gasp and the embrace tightened further, one last time, in acknowledgement.
Then they withdrew. "Take care of ... everyone. Especially him," Hilary asked. "Well, I know you will, but ..."
"Yes, I will. And you ... Do give myself my best, would you?" Papa laughed at the notion, then hastily wiped away a sudden tear. "And give ... him ... all my love."
Hilary nodded. "Sure. Um ... You know, I really think you should try an old-fashioned wooing and …" He suddenly shuddered as a memory rose. "I maintain to my dying breath that I should never have known this and I still want to scrub my brain with bleach, but you told me once and I've been trying to forget it ever since, but you said that he's … very good with orders. Perhaps be a bit firm about things. Okay? Now I’ll forget that this conversation ever, ever happened. Ever."
Then he held up the anomaly detector, activated it with a press of his thumb and, with a final smile to Papa and before he lost his nerves, aimed it towards the window ledge and pressed "GO".
Luminous Red Benedict peered over the rail of his ship, down into the depth of the ocean. He was, of course, well aware that judging a fish by the size of its shadow was nearly impossible, as there was little way of knowing at what distance the fish swam.
However, he couldn't help but to think that a shadow the size of the Lady Red herself made for a rather enormous fishy, by anyone's standards and no matter at what depth said fishy moved.
"That's not a whale," Jacky, at his shoulder, opinioned.
Luminous nodded grimly. Whales could be enormous, true, but the shape was completely wrong for any whale he knew, with a long head, wide body, four pronounced flippers and a tiny tail.
"Shall we drop the anchor? Maybe that will scare it away?"
He shook his head. "No. I think ... With any luck it is not a hunter, but a peaceful grazer. Maybe it is merely ... malformed. But tell Andre to load the canons and stand at the ready."
Not that he actually believed his own reassurance. Malformed creatures didn't grow to that size. The roots of his long, curly hair tingled, the strands wanting to stand on end but were prevented by their own weight. That thing, down there, whatever it was, was dangerous, he would bet ... well, not his own life, maybe, but certainly the lives of plenty of people he didn't like.
"Tell everyone to be silent," he added. "We don't want to alert it."
"I think it's too late for that," Jacky replied, his voice nearly breaking. "God's balls!"
Heart fluttering, Luminous lowered his gaze to the water again and he knew Jacky to be right. The shadow was darkening, spreading - approaching.
It happened too quickly for him to react, yet the seconds which followed took forever.
The sea monster broke the surface.
Years later, he would remember how the enormous jaws glimmered when the setting sun reflected off its scale-covered hide, like a body of black diamonds, caught in a rainbow. Exactly what colour it was he couldn't quite tell. It was dark, yes, but at the same time it held all colours, like the "black" of a magpie's wing seen from just the right angle.
Burned into his memory were also the cartwheel-sized, yellow-mad eyes, staring at him with such evil he knew this must be the devil himself, rising from Hell to pull him down. The eyes - and the endless rows of jagged, swords-long teeth, made not for eating, but for tearing, in a head nearly half the size of his ship.
The moment the beast rose from the churning water froze in his mind, just a split second during which his heart skipped so many beats it simply must have stopped beating altogether. For that eternal moment there was only silence: those eyes, those teeth, a darkness beyond and the utter, complete knowledge that if time ever started again, the world would end.
And then the splash of water; the screams; the crash as the monster rammed the ship, knocking him over. He scrambled in the hopeless flight of the doomed, already knowing that everything was lost and that Satan himself beckoned at the Gates of Hell, yet body moving on pure, animalistic reflex to escape a predator, no matter how pointless and pathetic the attempt might be.
Wood breaking, the noise high enough to cut through the panicked voices. The ship moved sharply in a direction it was never meant to move, pushed by the beast's pummelling. Luminous screamed too, unable to breathe without screaming, the hunted's helpless distress call, even knowing there was no power under God that could save them now.
And then he was nearly deafened by a series of loud cracks just behind him, as he dug his nails into the now listing ship boards to try to get over to the other side.
~Bang! Bang, bang, bang! Bang, bang, bang!~
He hung by the opposite rail - the monster's massive body weighed the ship down so that the Lady Red almost tipped over and he swung from one hand, dangling above those horrific, nightmarish jaws - fully expecting to fall in any second now and be ground to paste like at a butcher's shop or inhaled into the leviathan's belly like Jonah - only there would be no spitting out for him, only the more realistic, horrifying destiny of being digested alive.
~Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!~
Bursts of fire erupted just to the right of the beast, coming from ... a black-clad man, balancing on the rail, almost in the water. He held what to Luminous's terror-numbed mind looked like a rifle, but with a ridiculously slender pipe and firing shot after shot after shot in an impossible, never-ending stream of bullets.
~Bang, bang, bang! Bang, bang, bang, bang!~
And those impossible rifle shots hit the monster! They slapped into its flesh and exploded on impact, burning until the beast, throwing its huge head back and forth as if in pain, looked to have acquired a flaming halo.
~Bang, bang! Bang, bang! Bang, bang!~
Luminous realised that he was still screaming and forced his lips to shut as he witnessed the otherworldly battle taking place below him. The stench of burnt fish reached his nostrils and then, suddenly, the sea monster rocked its head hard, slipping from the ship.
The Lady Red at once righted herself, slamming Luminous down on the deck, and knocking the last air out of his tortured lungs. Still terror-struck, he lay there, gasping - knowing he must move, but nearly paralysed with fear. Slowly the ship's violent thrashings beneath him calmed down, falling back to the calmer swell of the ocean.
"With hair like that you must be Luminous Red Benedict," said a warm, male voice he had never heard before. "Come, let me help you up."
Hands gently raised him to his feet. He found himself staring at the black-clad ... man? Could a mortal man really have fought the sea serpent with some sort of rifle, saving them? Magic must have been involved, that was for sure! The man must be a warlock at the very least! Still mute with confusion, he took in the warm smile; the short-cropped, dark hair; that strange rifle and those odd clothes, pitch black and tight in a way that, if Luminous hadn't just nearly pissed himself, he would have found terribly enticing. A very handsome man, even if Luminous almost exclusively preferred his men with long hair.
"A-are ..." Finally he found his voice. "Are you an, an angel?"
His heart was still pumping so hard he didn't even mind when his saviour laughed at him. Especially not since the laughter obviously wasn't meant to mock, more like he had said something really funny, which the other man appreciated. A nice, friendly, easy-going laughter.
"I'm afraid not. But I need you to listen to me now. My name is Hilary Becker. Actually I should say that it is Hilary Becker-Red. This will be difficult for you to believe, but I come from the future. I'm a descendant of yours and I need you to help me with something."
A few hours later, Hilary sauntered out of the anomaly into the present, smiling faintly as he adjusted a strap to the harness of his Mossberg, which had become undone during the fight with the beast. Great great great great great grand dad Luminous is a lech, he thought fondly. Still, it had been quite an adventure to see the old coot. I wish I could tell my brothers about this!
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